Sunday, November 30, 2008

Three decades, three kids

That's been my life.

Eldest Daughter was my seventies kid. I was young - just twenty, in college, still a bit of a hippie and joyfully idealistic. Young parents, driven partly by inexperience and partly by all the vagaries of youth, lean towards unrealistic expectations and insensitivity masquerading as cleverness. Poor ED was the victim of all that, as are most first children to varying degrees. Nevertheless, she was a sunny, cooperative, happy child, and I was confident her sweet disposition was due to me and my impressive mothering skills.

Middle Kid was a child of the eighties. I was almost thirty when he was born - a yuppie living in SoCal, working as a software engineer for a major aerospace company, and a bit smug. Having a second child would be easy, I figured. Look at my first - she was a great kid! I had this down cold.

I reckoned without an eight-month-long bout of colic followed by asthma set off by practically everything. Yikes. This wasn't as easy as I remembered. MK was nothing like ED.

Youngest Daughter was my nineties baby. She was as complete a surprise as a package can be, a change-of-life, medically complicated, other-worldly blast who exploded into my life just as I was turning forty-two. By that time I was sick of workplace politics, sick of the rat-race, sick of being tired, and definitely not up to another decade or so of arranging childcare. What's more, I finally knew that I didn't know what I was doing, motherhood-wise. I retired from my job and became a stay-at-home mom.

ED was a typical 'first,' eager to please, concerned with being correct, extroverted, a good student and a social butterfly. Her early years were sometimes chaotic: she had to deal with my divorce from her father, with having a single mother for a year and a half, and then with being a stepchild. She went to four different elementary schools in three states before we got settled in our new hometown.

MK was an introvert, uncommonly bright, and not nearly as anxious about pleasing me as he was about pleasing himself. His early childhood was spent in daycare and then in a private elementary school with after-school-care because both his parents worked. We moved once when he was an infant and again when he was a toddler, but otherwise his early years were remarkably stable compared to ED's.

YD is also an introvert, has a stay-at-home mom, displays amazing talent in both graphic arts and in creative writing, and is so far out of the box that her father says if we could just get her to see it off in the distance, he'd be satisfied. She still lives in the house we lived in when she was born, has never changed school districts, and has never attended a school where I wasn't a volunteer.

I didn't mother any two of these children in the same way. They were different, I was different, the circumstances were different for each of my kids. It was a gift to have had them spaced so far apart. They each had the luxury of being only children, at least for a while, and I had the luxury of getting to know them as individuals.

And you know what? It makes our family gatherings lively - nobody remembers anything the same way, because nobody had the same childhood.

It's Sunday, so let's have a passage from the Bible

Youngest Daughter discovered this passage via Uncle Tom's Cabin, which she read this weekend for her American history class:

"Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you." - John 14:1-2

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, it occurs in a shortened version: "Let not your heart be troubled. In my Father's house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you."

She preferred the second version to the first. True to the church-deficient nature of her upbringing, she's not comfortable with exhortations to belief; but the idea of preparing a place for a loved one in God's mansion appealed to her mightily.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


I have a contentious relationship with time. It's always leaving me behind, and I'm always playing catch-up with it. In that spirit, I'm finally ready to write my Thanksgiving post.

Yes, I know Thanksgiving was two days ago. It was noisy, crowded, complicated, emotional, hectic, and highly aromatic. It was also delicious. We brined the turkey using Alton Brown's recipe, with amazing results, though my husband and I have already decided on the ways in which we'll alter the recipe for next year. (To us, a recipe is more than a set of directions. It's the beginning of a journey.)

Because our extended family is in the Midwest, we've had to create our Thanksgiving crowd by supplementing our meager numbers with friends. After decades of doing this, we've come up with a multi-family, multi-racial, multi-ethnic feast which begins with every single feaster having the floor to give their own special thanks. This can take as long as fifteen minutes, but this year there was a short, sweet consensus view: we are thankful for Barack Obama! (There was a minor contingent which was also grateful for turkey, dressing, pie, and Australian white wines.)

So. Here's hoping everyone in America had a happy, or at least a hopeful, Thanksgiving. We did.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Family lexicons

All families have them. Ours is sprinkled with made-up words from when the kids were small, and phrases of mysterious origin. Here are a few of my favorites:

Creamo: whipped cream. This refers to real whipped cream and not Cool-Whip, which should always be called Cool-Whip, obviously. (Does anybody want creamo on their pie?)

Stander: any stool or other object called into service as a makeshift stool. If you stand on the kitchen table to remove a splatter of spaghetti sauce from the ceiling, the kitchen table is your stander. (I can't reach that without a stander.)

Fuzzy pigs: dogs and cats. Left over from a childhood spent on and about hog farms filled to capacity with pigs and fuzzy pigs. (Has anybody fed the fuzzy pigs?)

A suzy: the act of walking in front of someone repeatedly, the way our calico cat Suzy used to do. (If you keep that suzy up, I'm going to trip over you.)

Rebel scum: teenagers. (Quiet, rebel scum!)

Blank's on the roof: means someone or something is near death/ruin/failure. (At the moment, my washer's on the roof.)

Darth: the black refrigerator in the kitchen, as distinct from the white refrigerator in the family room. (Darth has no beer!)

Booze, rump, pie, bacon: terms of endearment. (Move over, bacon.)

The big room: a large bonus room my husband added to our house around the time Youngest Kid was born, and which now serves as a combination office, art room, television theater, and playroom. For a long time we called it The Woom, but we got over that.

Home Despot: Home Depot. It rules us.

YD reminds me in the comments to include caticated: the state of being trapped in a comfortable chair by the cat in your lap. (I can't get the phone. I'm caticated.)

DiL left me a phone message yesterday, reminding me of another biggie - minie: a favorite blanket. (Your minie's in the dryer.)

Family lexicons are funny, uniquely descriptive, and intimate in the way they keep memories alive long after they might otherwise have faded. They're like mini-family-histories. Here are a few of the families whose lexicons I'd really like to hear about: the Obamas, the (Ted) Kennedys, the Schwartzeneggers, the (Jon) Stewarts, the Cheneys, the Scalias, the Olbermans, the Moyers. Really, don't you just wonder if any of them ever say stuff like, "Booze, I think Darth's on the roof?"

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Enough of the warm and fuzzy

I need to talk politics today. But because it's the day before Thanksgiving, and I have a million things to do, and the election's over, and I have dear friends and family members who subscribe to the conservative view, I'll keep it to a minimum. Here's my question: why do so many conservatives obsess over imaginary dangers while ignoring the shit that's actually killing us?

Case in point: according to Juliet Eilperin writing in the Washington Post today, the White House has issued an email urging mayors across the country to oppose mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.

The e-mail notes in bold, underlined text that the comment period for the rulemaking "closes on November 28" and provides a link to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce blog post that warns that a federal cap on greenhouse gases "will operate as a de facto moratorium on major construction and infrastructure projects."

Ooooh, scary. Next thing you know, our recession will become a depression because we can't fund infrastructure projects, and then we'll all be standing in soup lines! And the soup will be cold, because of the federal greenhouse gas cap!

Compare and contrast with actual, verifiable global warming, which is killing people all over the world right now, as we speak. Global warming is characterized by dead trees, forest fires, melting glaciers, extreme weather phenomena, famine, and massive species extinctions.

We're a species, people. And if we aren't very, very careful, we could be an extinct species.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I came to dog ownership late in life - three years ago, to be exact, when we were adopted by a seven-month-old, escape-artist chocolate lab with a beguiling smile. The cats hated her on sight. My husband was both charmed and determined not to take her in. The kids adored her.

It all came about as my GrandDaughter and I were getting ready to go shopping. I had the car doors open (can't remember why they were all open, but they were...) and I was buckling GD into her booster seat when this gorgeous chocolate lab hopped into the car and sat down right next to her, tail thumping, tongue flapping, just pleased as punch to be going somewhere.

GD let out a scream I will never forget. She was terrified. Terrified.

The dog gave her a little tiny lick on the cheek.

This was not helpful. Also not helpful, I suppose, was the fact that I was whooping with laughter. My husband, who was working in the yard, got the dog out of the car. The rest of the family poured out of the house and surrounded the dog adoringly. Somebody said, "She's got a tag. We better call the owners." GD continued to wail.

GD and I left. The shopping calmed her down, but when we got back the dog was still there, still surrounded by worshipers, still thumping that tail. When the owners finally arrived they asked if we'd like to keep her; circumstances were making it very difficult for them to give her the attention she needed, and they wanted her to have a good home.

Here are some things I've learned:

Dogs will eat anything. And then they'll either throw it all back up or they'll crap it out in nasty puddles all over the yard.

Dogs are psychic. I don't mean they can read our minds (although they can). I mean they can make us read their minds. When Roxy wants something, she plants herself as close to me as she can get and gives me a meaningful stare. And I get up and let her out, or I fill her water bowl, or I get the leash off the hook and we go for a walk. My husband will see her staring at me while I'm trying to watch The News Hour, or Heroes, or some damn thing, and he'll say, "What does she want?" And I'll look at her for a minute and say, "She's thirsty." It's weird.

Dogs are really good at meeting people, and forcing their owners to meet people. I have a whole crew of friends who became my friends because of Roxy. My husband calls them the dog people. We have potlucks and go to football games and meet twice a week so our dogs can play.

You can't teach an old cat to like a young dog, but eventually the cat's sense of outrage will win out and the cat will reassert its property rights.

Dogs don't carry grudges. Lock them on the deck for hours while you're having the carpets cleaned, and they're thrilled when you let them back in the house. Same with leaving them at the vet's and the groomer's. Same with dropping them off at the kennel for a weekend. It's embarrassing. "Show some pride," I say to Roxy. "Hold me accountable." She wags her tail agreeably, which can be interpreted to mean, "Sure. Whatever you say."

Awkward introductions aside, grandchildren love dogs. Dogs love grandchildren. Dogs love to be trained by grandchildren because there are treats involved. Grandchildren love to train dogs because there are commands to be given. It's a match made in heaven.

Dogs know who will drop the most food at the dinner table, and they position themselves under that person's chair. That person's chair is never my husband's.

Dogs need to be walked every day, preferably twice, which results in improved behavior and health for the dogs and weight loss, lowered cholesterol, and lowered blood pressure for their owners. It's an all-around good deal.

Dogs can be taught to air kiss. Mwah, mwah. Good girl, aren't you clever?

Dogs can be shared. Eldest Daughter owns a house in the mountains near us, and Roxy lives there with her most weekends. She does not seem to find this confusing in the least. When she's on the mountain, she makes ED read her mind. When she's here, it's up to me.

A man can claim to be unhappy about owning a dog, but it won't keep him from playing with said dog at all hours of the day and night. The man might even be observed throwing balls for the dog in the house. Actions definitely speak louder than words when it comes to men and dogs.

There is no moral to this post, unless it's this: I was always a cat person. Now I'm a cat and dog person. It could happen to you, too, so don't be judgmental.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Memories can be tricky

My sisters tell me that I once fell off the plank bridge Grandpa laid across the creek. The creek was high with the spring melt, and I would have been swept away but my cousin Tom grabbed one of my hands as I fell and was able to drag me back out. I lost a shoe.

They love to tell this story. I have no memory of it at all. My mother didn't remember it, either, but Mom's memory of our early childhood was extremely spotty. She was overwhelmed by our sheer numbers and blocked most of it out.

My parents-in-law used to park their motor home in the street in front of our house, plug into our electrical service, and stay for months. This was a problem for us. It's exhausting to have guests week after week, whether they sleep in the guest room or at the curb. One year my husband took his mother aside and told her that we simply couldn't host them for such a long time. This provoked a painful argument between them which left my husband tight-lipped and pale.

Some years later, after both of my in-laws had passed away, I mentioned that argument to my husband. He had no memory of it. None. He was certain it had never happened.

My Younger Sister remembers my Older Sister and me going to extreme lengths to scare the bejesus out of her when we were all small and shared a bedroom. OS and I remember how frightened YS was of the dark but we don't think we ever intentionally provoked her. When she was scared she'd leap from her little bed (not wanting her feet to touch the floor, where a snake was likely waiting to bite her) into the big iron bed that OS and I shared, which made sleeping difficult for all of us.

When my second husband (then boyfriend) graduated from college he moved to SoCal to take a job he considered his dream-job. My whole family lived in the Midwest and I had no intention of ever leaving, so when I graduated six months later I took a job in Minnesota. Eventually my husband moved to Minnesota to be with me. Curiously, he never looked for a job while we lived there, but I was frantically busy with work and wedding plans and didn't have time to think about the implications of that. I nagged him a bit (a lot?) and let it go.

At some point, he admitted that he hadn't actually quit his job in SoCal. He was on a leave of absence and had to be back there a month after our wedding. This came as a terrific shock to me, one which rippled through the early years of our marriage and eventually forced us to seek marriage counseling. But here's the tricky part: for years I told that story as though he made his confession after the wedding. One day I got to thinking about it, and it occurred to me that he might have told me before the wedding. I asked him which way he remembered it and he doesn't. Remember it, I mean. He doesn't know when he told me.

You see how perfidious a thing memory is, don't you?

As I get older, I trust my memories less and less. The broad strokes are clear enough, but the details get fuzzy. If you had asked me a week ago how many lines I had in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" when we performed it at my high school, I'd have said five or six. Watching the play this weekend (as performed by The Shoestring Players at Youngest Daughter's high school), I was shocked to discover that I had four scenes with several lines apiece. Huh. How about that?

I always thought my grandmother lived with us for at least a year in the C Avenue house which we occupied from the summer of 1956 to the summer of 1958. Looking through old documents, I discover it couldn't have been more than a few months. A month is a long time to an eight-year-old, so a few months could easily translate to a whole year half-a-century down the road. And a small role in a high school drama could shrink to a tiny one. But what's up with that other stuff?

Was I so traumatized by falling in the creek that I buried the whole thing deep? Or maybe I just slipped a bit and lost a shoe, and in my sisters' memories a close thing became a near tragedy. Maybe my husband told me about his leave of absence much sooner than I remember, and the decision I had to make was whether or not to cancel the wedding and not whether or not I wanted to be twice-divorced.

I'm not as worried about what I've forgotten as I am about what I remember. Time, emotions, and other people's retellings of shared events have an effect on our memories. How do we reconcile our varied versions? Silly question. We settle things in our favor. We prefer our own lying eyes to anybody else's.

So, what's the upshot? Well, memory is unreliable. Perspective matters. And, damn it, reality turns out to be highly subjective.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

How Barack Obama is changing my life

I can write again. The news is no longer unbearable. I am working wholeheartedly to clean up my filthy mouth.

Most importantly, I can sleep again. And when something does wake me up, it's the problem of how to seat 18 people in my dining room made for 10, on Thanksgiving Day.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Oh, boy. I can't believe I've just titled a blog post 'Fall.' But I did. Must be a habit left over from twelve years of essays assigned by the Sisters of Mercy somewhere between the first day of school and Thanksgiving week.

I like fall. When I was a kid, fall meant school. I was one of those dorky types who actually liked school, or at least never questioned it as a necessary experience. Fall meant new classes, new possibilities, new pencils and books and the smell of chalk. (Maybe kids today would like school better if they still had chalk. It was so much a part of the ambiance - not just the smell, but the dust and the scritching noise and the occasional tooth-shattering squeal of it.)

I remember crunching through piles of flame-red maple leaves, my cat's-eye glasses sliding on my nose, lunch in a brown paper bag being squashed between my green-plaid-adorned chest and the books piled in my arms. I remember the little butterfly-wriggle of excitement when I entered my new classroom, took my seat, and began assessing the new teacher.

Other good stuff: burning the leaves after we raked them, Halloween and its accompanying stomach-ache, Thanksgiving dinner with the forty or so members of the family who would make the trek to my uncle's farm. Buying sweaters and eating Jonathan apples. Watching The Twilight Zone on Friday nights. Listening to my father's voice floating out the window on Saturday afternoons: Hell's bells, he'd holler when the Chicago Bears failed to score. And somewhere in there, before Christmas came and winter smacked us down, was the first snowfall of the season.

Fall is a different experience now. Partly this is due to my living in SoCal, where the seasons are less in-your-face than in the Midwest; partly it's because I don't go to school anymore, except to tutor children wearing clothes which would have sent the Sisters into cardiac arrest, who have to be reminded to turn their cell phones off during class, and who have never smelled chalk. No one burns leaves, and my uncle's farm was sold off a couple of decades ago. Even so, fall still has its moments. In SoCal, the avocados and lemons ripen, the liquid amber trees put on a show in time for Thanksgiving, and the temperatures can be described as moderate on most days.

McMama: Do you know why they call it fall?
Granddaughter: No.
McMama: Because everything falls.
GD, skeptically: Everything?
McMama: Well, everything that's supposed to fall. Leaves, nuts, pine cones, avocados.

(An acorn smacks onto the roof and bounces to the floor of the deck where we're sitting on the porch swing.)

GD: I think you're kind of nutty.
McMama: Takes one to know one.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Speaking of age...

Happy birthday, Middle Kid!

Eldest says you don't know any of the lore about that day. Here it is, in a nutshell: you were one of the first babies born in Huntington Hospital's new birthing center. This meant the room was equipped with a brass bed and nice wallpaper, and we never left to go to the delivery room. The brass bed, as it turned out, had a break-away bottom that turned it into something analygous to a delivery table, but softer.

You were born in the late afternoon - 5:30ish, I think, after a very short labor. I was deeply into natural stuff, so we were unmedicated. Dad, who is never squeamish about such things, cut the cord. Eldest was staying with friends, and they brought her over right after dinner to meet you. I believe we left the hospital the next morning, so we weren't there even twenty-four hours.

You were, naturally, cute as a bug.

And, although this is your last twenty-something year, you're still very young. Rest assured. You won't be developing jowls for decades yet.


Getting old (as somebody once said) ain't for sissies. Reading this post made me sad. Because, you know, it's the way life is. One minute you're young and pretty, but oh so insecure about it. And the next minute you're not young anymore and pretty is in your past, and you're oh so insecure about it. So when, exactly, do you get to relax and enjoy?

There's way too much to be said - and quite a lot already has been said - about the exalted place appearance holds in our Western culture.

Even so, I don't know anyone my age who would go back and look the way we did at twenty, if it meant we had to give up what we've learned in the ensuing decades.

So there. It's not all bad.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

To my kids

in case you discover this blog. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. And some of the dialog will be fictionalized, because frankly I don't always remember exactly what you said. I'm reporting the gist of the thing, okay? Try to just roll with it. After all, you don't have to admit you know me.

Love, Mom

Monday, November 17, 2008

Learning Curve

It's big and it's endless. You're never finished learning how to parent. The job is impossibly complex, and constantly shifting. Your instincts regarding your two-year-old are quite different from the instincts brought out by your teen-ager. And they're different for each child. Some children prove to be sturdy and capable; others are fragile, or creative, or ethereal. Or brilliant. They're all unique. Lessons learned from one rarely apply to the next.

In light of all that, I don't intend to offer advice. What I mean to do is simply to show you which doors I picked, which boxes I opened, which paths I trod; and how it turned out. Sometimes I was right. Sometimes - well, mistakes were made.

I refer, of course, to the Jesus incident.

Eldest Kid (at about the age of 20): I have to ask you something.
McMama: Okay.
EK: Don't laugh.
McMama: I won't.
EK: Was Jesus a Jew?
McMama: Er.
McMama: Uh.
McMama: Are you saying I never told you anything about Jesus? Nothing at all?
EK: Pretty much.
McMama: Well, to answer your question. Yes, he was a Jew.

A couple of weeks later, in consideration of above conversation:

Middle Kid (about 10 years): This is stupid.
McMama: What's stupid?
MK, holding up copy of illustrated Bible stories for children: This book.
McMama: Why do you say that?
MK: It says Adam and Eve were the first people.
McMama: Mm-hm.
MK: And they had two kids...
McMama: Right.
MK: ...and Cain killed Abel.
McMama: Right.
MK: ...and then he ran away to a far land and married some lady. But where did the lady come from if there was only Adam and Eve and him?
McMama: Er...
(Difficult conversation follows regarding literal and figurative readings.)

Many years pass.

Youngest Kid (aged about 10): Do you think we should go to church?
McMama: I don't know. Do you want to?
YK: Maybe. But not Camilla's.
McMama: Why not Camilla's? I thought you liked it when she invited you to go along.
YK: Not really. It makes me feel bad.
McMama: ???
YK: They always tell us that if we want to be saved, we have to love the Lord. But I don't even know him.
McMama: Ah.
YK: Do you love the Lord?
McMama: Do you mean Jesus?
YK: Yeah.
McMama: I admire him very much. He brought a difficult and necessary message to the world, and it's a message that would heal all our troubles if we paid attention to it. He said we should love each other and not get all caught up in revenge when somebody does something bad to us.
YK: Like not suing people and stuff.
McMama: Um. Yeah. I guess not suing people might be a good place to start.

More years pass:

Granddaughter (aged about 5): Yaya, did you ever go to church?
McMama: I did. Many times, when I was small.
GD: Do you think I should go?
McMama (cravenly): That's a question you should ask your parents.

In which I introduce myself

I'm a mother-blogger, but the purpose of this blog is not to share kid-whimsy; it's to blaze a trail through the wilderness on the other side of the cute stories - the land of grown-up kids, kids-in-law, and grandkids.

In that spirit, let me introduce the cast of characters:

McMama - me, AKA Mom, Ma, Yaya, Mo-therrr!

Dad - my husband of 30+ years, also called Papa for the purposes of this blog.

Eldest Kid (EK) - a thirty-something single daughter, product of my first marriage.

Middle Kid (MK) - a twenty-something married son.

Youngest Kid (YK) - a teen-aged daughter. Single. Of course.

Daughter-in-Law(DiL) - wife of Middle Kid. European, specifically (and typically) Irish.

Granddaughter (GD) - child of DiL and MK. Typical second-grader, will provide cuteness when required.

All rightie, then. On with the show.