Moving On Up

I knew this day was coming: the day that my elementary-school kiddo would – just like that! – become a middle schooler.  It’s been on the calendar for over a year: Last Day Of School. Circled, anticipated, imagined. And yet, until now, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel.

Truth is? I still don’t really know.

For weeks, people have been stopping us in the hallways at school, in our cul-de-sac, even at the grocery store, and uttering some version of, “Hey there, are you ready for 6th grade??” Each time, I would jokingly shush them. “STOP IT. Not yet! She still has more time!”

(To be clear: they were saying this to Ella, not me. I answered anyway.)

It wasn’t that I was dreading this moment; not at all. But I hadn’t been looking forward to it, either. It’s just… different.

For one thing, it’s the end of an era. Six years is a long time when you’re eleven; a lot has happened and changed since 2010. Plus, our elementary school is just so very lovely – a wonderfully close-knit community, delightful and involved teachers, a truly welcoming and warm and inviting space where everybody knows everyone.

It’s like Cheers, really. Except without the alcohol.
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Obligatory Last Day photo. 
When I got to school to help with the moving up ceremony, I noticed a whole bunch of her classmates wearing much fancier duds – while Ella had opted for, um, this. I hadn’t thought anything of it until I saw everyone else… and by then, it was too late. I didn’t care; I just hoped she’d be comfortable.
And then, after gym, she rounded the corner wearing a floor-length sundress, courtesy of her Grama — which she must have tucked in her backpack without me even knowing. 
This girl is ready, y’all.

Middle school is… bigger. Farther away; no more walking, no more talking with the crossing guard, no picking dandelions on the way home. (Much) earlier mornings and later nights. New people.

That last one is a doozy. I’m a bad New People person. I understand that it’s Ella, not me, who will be meeting said New People – and I also know that I met the majority of my closest childhood friends in middle school, so this is really a wonderful thing – but still. New People anxiety is real, you guys. Even when I’m not the one doing the meeting.
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Obligatory photo with us in the courtyard after the ceremony.

It’s also occurred to me that part of what makes this so different (from the other school transitions) is that Eleanor is reaching the age I remember. I have a few scattered memories from elementary school – playing with Smurfs on the playground, getting pooped on by a bird while waiting to go inside from recess, pretending to get a drink at the water fountain after I’d been sent out of class for answering other classmates’ questions out of turn… But my real, solid MEMORIES begin in middle school – and they are strong.

I can recall precisely the way the lunchroom calzones tasted, the feel of the auditorium seats, the way the hallway curved to the right to go to Home Ec, and the weight of the library doors. If I really ponder it, I bet I could remember the way to my locker. And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the memories of what took place in those spaces – the way my French teacher laughed, the look on my classmates’ faces as I divided the them into East and West for a Berlin Wall presentation, the sound of my math teacher’s voice, the projects we created in Social Studies.

Because these memories are so vivid, they don’t seem far away… and certainly not 30 years old. When I dropped Ella off at an evening birthday party a few weeks ago, the DJ already playing, she disappeared into a sea of eleven year-olds who were awaiting pizza and hula hoops… and I was immediately immersed in my own middle school party memories. It felt as though I, myself, should be handing over the gift cards and joining my friends out back. I could easily distance myself from her grade school experiences, as though I were watching a movie from the back row. Middle school, on the other hand, feels 3-D, as though I can reach out and touch it, as though it’s mine – which makes everything blur and blend in a strange way that I can’t quite distinguish. I just know it’s a unique path in this parenting journey, one that I hadn’t even known existed. Surprise!

I don’t really like surprises.
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GrandMeg and Papa flew in for the occasion. Pretty awesome stuff.

Which brings me to the final reason I think this is all so foreign and bizarre: I don’t know what will happen next. Up until now, things were reasonably predictable. School ends; summer; school begins again – same basic schedule, same basic outline, same basic everything. Now, not only does the daily routine become new… I know that Ella, herself, is – in some ways – starting over.

She’ll be the one in charge of her classes and her assignments; we may hardly even know her teachers. She’ll choose electives and clubs. She’ll get herself to and from class – which, by definition, brings about its own form of independence… which is largely achieved by breaking away from us to become her own, independent person.

I know all of this. I know it’s exactly what needs to happen. Ultimately, I want it to happen, because I want Eleanor to become a capable, confident, competent human being who can give back to this crazy world of ours. But right now, the force of the pull for her to become her own independent self is so strong, it’s giving me whiplash.
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Humoring me by flashing a smile my way during the ceremony.

This isn’t a bad thing; I’m so enjoying watching her grow and mature and use sarcasm and hold conversations on politics and music and grammar. To put it mildly, she’s a fantastic, kind, funny, intelligent, good-hearted person – someone I would consider tremendously fortunate to have as a friend – so I feel tremendously fortunate to be her mother. But when she met me outside of school today and told me that she’d been invited to a friend’s house, along with several other buddies… and that she’d prefer to do that than partake in our annual summer tradition of new library books and balloons and snacks… and I let her, because she was so excited and I could almost see her desire to just hang out with her pals — that magnetic, soul-filling balm that is true friendship and which becomes essential right around this time…

Well. It was bittersweet.

Fifth grade, I understand. Fifth grade is wanting to sleep in but not being able to stay up. It’s refusing to acknowledge my presence but then reaching for my hand. It’s being offended that I want to look over her texts but coming to me when she finds a scary passage in a book. Fifth grade is deciding to be a vegetarian for two weeks but also being thrilled when I send a note in her lunchbox. Fifth grade is holding on and letting go and pushing off. It is the natural, logical extension of fourth grade, which basically followed kindergarten, right?

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First day of kindergarten – nearly six years ago.
Blue leopard skirt (she chose it herself)… Princess lunchbox and backpack… Bandaid on her shin… Still had all her teeth… FOR THE LOVE.

Sixth grade… and seventh and eighth… Are not the same. We all know and remember this; something changed in middle school. That doesn’t have to be negative – I had a wonderful middle school experience – but it is its own, new thing.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m anxious. I love my girl, and I love my relationship with her – and the relationships she has with Nick and her sister – and I don’t want that to change once she gets to middle school (and beyond). Change is hard (for me).

At last, however, I’m out of excuses and “Not yet!”s. There’s no more time. She’s really done it – elementary school is over. She’s headed on next year whether I like it or not, so if I want to continue enjoying this journey – as surprising as it can be – I’d better come along for the ride.
And, man. I want don’t want to miss this.

Congratulations, my dearest E-Bean. I’m so proud of your six elementary school years – of the person you’re becoming, and the person you already are. As you yourself said, “I did it, mama! OH EM GEE!”

You didn’t just do it. You rocked it.
Omg, indeed.
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First and last day, fifth grade.

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Un-Weird: They’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

It’s been a heckuva couple of weeks.

Okay, so that’s putting it mildly.
Shit has really hit the fan, hasn’t it?

Last Sunday, after learning about the Orlando massacre, I wanted nothing more than to hole up with my phone and consume as much information as possible; it was almost all-consuming, this desire to know more, to reach out, to stay connected.

Simultaneously, though, was this desire to stay as far from the news as possible. There’s so much going on this time of year – family birthdays, end of school, beginning of summer, my girl “graduating” elementary school (I can’t even) – that I viscerally recoiled from the external forces that seemed intent on taking the little time and energy I had away from what mattered most… Meaning I also wanted nothing more than to hole up with my girls and Nick and the dogs and weed the garden and listen to Ella and Annie read to me and hug everyone as much as humanly possible.

In the end, we wound up telling the girls about the attack – in part because we would be watching the Tony Awards that night (duh) and I knew they were dedicating the show to Orlando, and in part because we thought they might hear about it in school and we wanted them to hear it from us, first.

(During their school’s annual Flag Day celebration on Tuesday, the flag was taken down before the ceremony – as it always is – so that it could be re-raised for everyone to see, followed by The Pledge of Allegiance. This year, the flag crested the top of the pole… and then was lowered down again until it reached half-mast. The jarring juxtaposition of the mourning flag, the kids in their patriotic regalia, and the words of The Pledge – “with liberty and justice for all” – was not lost on the parents in attendance.)

After we shared the basics, the girls asked – as they always do when they hear about hate-filled crimes – why anyone would do such a thing; do they not know that gay people/black people/women/transgendered people/Americans are okay? How do they not get it? We answered honestly that we don’t know; it makes no sense to us. There’s fear that fuels hatred… but beyond that, we don’t know why – not really.

Nick ended our discussion by saying, with resignation, that he didn’t know what the take-away message was — but he was so sorry these sorts of things are reality. At first, I agreed; but upon further reflection, I realized there was a message I wanted to impart:

Be kind.
See other human beings as just that – human beings – rather than “others” simply because they’re different. 
Don’t fight hatred with hate; fight it with love and knowledge and understanding.
And never forget that one individual – who claims to be part of a community – doing evil things does not mean that that entire community is evil, not by a long shot.

The girls looked at me like I had two heads; my “advice” was so basic as to be assumed. “Thanks so much, Captain Obvious. THIS IS ALL YOU’VE GOT?”

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Unrelated annual Memorial Day photo…

The background to all of this fear and hatred and judgment – from nutty “bathroom bills” to the absurd six-month Stanford rape case sentence to ISIS to Orlando to Britain to the lambasting of the parents whose two year-old was tragically killed by an alligator – has been Hamilton. I mean this literally and figuratively: the soundtrack has been on an almost-constant loop in our house, and the storyline is fresh in my mind.

Immigrants coming to America. Native-born residents taunting said immigrants and grousing about how they take away from those who were here first. Disagreements on the size and role of government. Pride causing people to do really stupid things. Women being treated as objects. Gun violence. People attacking one another simply because they see things differently.

The parallels between this 200+ year-old story and the craziness of today have made recent events almost entirely surreal.

The musical ends with Alexander Hamilton’s killer/rival/one-time friend Aaron Burr lamenting that he should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and him. (No, we haven’t seen the show and won’t before Lin-Manuel leaves… but we did snag tickets to a February performance. Only eight months to wait, yo!)

That’s the crux of it, I think – the crux of everything. Somehow, we allow ourselves to fall into the belief that there simply isn’t enough… space, time, energy, money, resources, love, etc. for all of us. It becomes us versus them. We fuel our narratives with fear. If you’re not like us – a different race, another sex, transgendered, gay, a different religion, from another part of the world – we let those fear-fueled stories take over until…

… well, until there are half-mast flags during Flag Day and dancing nightclubbers gunned down by an extremist and people screaming (literally) for a ban on Muslims and folks being harassed just for trying to use the loo.

The thing is, though? Our kids don’t get it. No, I mean it: they don’t understand any of this, because they cannot fathom this us versus them mentality. As Rodgers and Hammerstein so aptly said, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear… Before you are six or seven or eight – to hate all the people your relatives hate.” So we’re trying a different approach.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook about the push by some for Elsa to be shown as gay in Disney’s Frozen 2 – and how I thought that was unnecessary, but how I also thought it was nonsensical for people to oppose the idea on the grounds that they’d need to explain it to their children, or it would be too confusing for kids.

My awesome friend, N. – who happens to be a lesbian – backed me up with these fantastic sentiments:

Exposing children to things at a young age is soooooo important. Just like ‘love is an action…not just a word’…so is parenting.

It’s pretty simple. Things are only ‘weird’ to kids because parents make them that way.

YES, this.

Our girls live charmed, privileged lives. They want for little and go to a (wonderful) school that is not racially diverse. Largely because of that – because we know that their personal experience is what will shape their view of the world and of the people sharing this planet with them – we have deliberately made efforts to introduce them to things that are different from their experiences, to make those things un-weird.

It’s much harder to talk disparagingly about “them” when you’ve met them face-to-face.

Also – although their worldview is narrow, we make a point to discuss as much as we can, to give them language and context. Just prior to Ella’s kindergarten year, a friend of mine told me she and her partner informed their son that they were gay. He’d never heard the term before – their life was all he knew – but they wanted him to be familiar with it before he started school, in case the other kids mentioned it. Nick and I thought this was a good idea, so we – casually, matter-of-factly – told the girls that they were half-Asian, lest they hear the word at school and debate it (“I am not Asian!”). They’d never heard that term and were fascinated (Annie wanted to know “which parts” of her were the Asian parts).
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This isn’t good or bad or anything in between; it just is, we told them.

And so it has gone with everything else. They know we’re Christian – but not everyone is. They have classmates who are Jewish and Hindu and Muslim and atheist; none of them is good or bad or anything in between; they just are. We’re straight; their uncles are gay. It’s not weird, because it just is what it is. They have strong opinions about Donald Trump (yes, really); they also know that people they love may be voting for him, and that doesn’t make them bad people; it just is.

None of these differences makes people weird (well, maybe the Trump voters…), and it certainly doesn’t make them worth hating.

The more Annie and Ella learn about people who are unlike them, the more normal – and human – those people become. So, when they hear stories of racism or sexism or homophobia or religious persecution, they are genuinely confused. “But they’re not weird. Why would anyone hate them so much?”

As I said, there’s so much else going on in life right now, I haven’t even begun to process recent current events – and I definitely don’t have any big answers. But I think all of our kids may be the place to begin. If they can be distraught that Burr didn’t realize the world was wide enough for him and Hamilton… they can be distraught that anyone thinks the same today.

We need to teach them that “different” doesn’t mean “bad” or “weird” or “wrong” – it just is. We need to do it before they are six or seven or eight… So they don’t have the hate.

It’s a place to start, anyway.

 

 

 

When I Grow Up

Although I’ve been going to the lake since I was an infant – with Nick joining me for the past 20+ years and the girls spending virtually half of their summers there – last Sunday we did something for the very first time: we spent the day and night there, all by ourselves. No extended family. No friends. No Phoofsy.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been… anticipating? dreading?… the anniversary of her unexpected passing a year ago this past weekend until I found myself reliving each day last year. Today was when we gave Gram the last-ever lake book… A year ago today, we played The Lake Game and she challenged Ella so she wouldn’t lose a chip… This was the day we spent the night in the hospital… And so on, right up to the phone call from the nurse telling me that, shockingly, Phoofsy was gone.
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Phoofsy giving Ella the business while playing The Lake Game last Memorial Day.

I’ve gotten in the habit of checking the On This Day function on Facebook as part of my daily morning media roundup. I love the memories (especially posts where the girls said something particularly amusing), but that week leading up to the day we lost Phoofsy was really hard. My status updates were so… normal… giving no hint that my world was about come crashing down. How was it possible? How did we not know?

Then, finally, came the post where I shared that Phoofsy was gone – a memory that probably should have been miserable and unsettling. Instead, reading through friends’ comments (most had never even met my grandma), I was consoled and made whole. Comment upon comment expressed sadness not only for our family’s loss, but their own personal sadness that Phoofsy was gone – because she had such an influence on them, simply through my photos and stories.

“I’m heartbroken.”
“I loved it every time you posted a story about her!”
“She seemed like the most incredible lady!”
“The time you posted the picture of her on the scooter made my horrible day so much better.”
“I feel like I knew her.”
“Thank you for sharing her with us.”
“I was in love with Phoofsy from here.”

A good half dozen people said: “I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up.”

Who could blame them? A strong, smart, independent lady who was always game for anything, was an amazingly good sport, had a fierce sense of humor, and kept an active Facebook account at the age of almost-95? Yes, please! I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, too.

She wasn’t perfect, of course. I mean, no one is, and Phoofsy definitely had her flaws… But she was crazy about me and Nick and Ella and Annie and told us so whenever she got the chance. That’s a pretty awesome thing, to be loved and to know it.

Often, when we told the girls we were headed over to Phoofsy’s apartment, they would groan and drag their feet (usually literally). “Do we HAVE to?” And every time I would tell them that yes, we have to. Not out of obligation, but because that’s what you do when you love someone: you show up. You’re there for dinner and to take them to the store when they can’t drive themselves. You check on them when they’re sick, bringing soup and crackers. You accompany them to events you’d never otherwise attend, simply because they asked. You call to say “hi” when you’re out of town. You show up.

(Okay, usually I just said, “Yes, we have to. Because she’s my grandma and your great-grandma and nothing gives her greater joy than seeing you. She probably won’t be around much longer, so we need to spend time with her while we can.”)

I’m so freakin’ glad I dragged them over.
And you know what? They’re glad now, too. Funny how that works.

Three days before Phoofsy died, I got a call at midnight saying she’d been taken to the hospital. As I hung up the phone, I groused to Nick. “Damn it. Grandma’s in the hospital again. But the doctors just told her they think this is nothing; I don’t even know why she’s bothering to go in.”

Nick asked if I wanted to go.
My first reply? “No. I don’t want to go. It’s midnight, for God’s sake, and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do anyway and I’m sure she’ll be released soon but if she’s not I can check in on her in the morning.”

Nick was quiet. We let my words just hang there for a moment.

“Shit. I need to go, don’t I?”
“Yeah. I think you do. Or I can… but one of us needs to go.”

Thirty seconds later, I was reaching for my shoes.

I spent the rest of the night with my grandma, navigating several areas of the ER and finally settling her into a private room on another floor. In between being seen by medical professionals and being taken away for tests, we talked; we used her iPad; we browsed magazines and looked at old photos. The entire time, she kept insisting that I should go home – “But it’s so late! You’ll be so tired! This is silly!” – and I kept insisting that I would stay until I was sure she was settled.

At last, around breakfast time, I was convinced that it was okay to leave. Before I did, she reached over and squeezed my arm. “Thank you so much for staying. I love you a lot, you know.” I told her that I knew.

After Phoofsy died, the attending physician called me at home. Among other things, she told me that my grandma thought I was fantastic, and that it was the girls and me who helped keep her going all these years. I’d never met this doctor; her comments were based solely on whatever my grandma had told her about me.

So yes, Gram. I knew.

I am so grateful for the time we had here in Rochester with Phoofsy – for every stuffy dinner, every comment about how our house was too small, every grumble about how apples cost too much. Yeah, sometimes it wasn’t exactly convenient… but we – Nick, the girls, and I – got to be a part of such a tremendous story. We got to witness, firsthand, what it meant to grab life with both hands and hang on for the ride, to always be up for something new, to be a true friend. People would tell my grandma that it was lucky (for her) that we lived nearby; truly, we were the lucky ones.

I don’t think I understood how integral she was to our lake experience, though, until we found ourselves there without her last summer. Even when our extended family was in town, the house just felt… off. Incomplete. To quote my aunt, being there alone made Phoofsy’s absence all the more pronounced. No one yelling down to the kids to wear their lifejackets properly… No sound effects coming from her iPad as she played online bridge well into the night… No one sitting in her favorite blue chair. Just empty.

It hurt. A lot.
So we made a point of never staying at the house alone.
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Crazy sky, Memorial Day weekend 2016.

I missed it, though. A well-loved home should be… well, loved. It’s practically illegal to not have someone enjoying it – empty chair and all. And so, this spring, I made up my mind that we would try. We would go down more often; we would stay overnight. It might be lonely and strange, but we love it there, so we would try.

My cousin, Andrew, and his girlfriend had been visiting the lake in the week leading up to Memorial Day. I’d thought they were staying through until Monday, but they left at lunchtime on Sunday instead. At first, Nick and I considered inviting friends to join us; staying there alone seemed too sad, especially over Memorial Day, a holiday we always spent with Phoofsy.

But then I decided – out loud – that we would do it. Just the four of us. The house is here and we are here and it’s not the same, but we need to try to find a new normal. The moment I said it, I had this instant realization that this might be how my grandma felt about the lake after my grandfather died almost nine years ago.
But she kept going. She made new memories. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I’m sure she dreaded going to the lake without him. But she did it. She hung on for the ride.
I decided to hold on, too.
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Going for a ride… with Jitter.

~~~~~~~~

We had a delightful Memorial Day weekend. We grilled. We went in the boat. We played The Lake Game for hours – literally – and laughed until our sides hurt. No, it wasn’t the same without her… but it felt good. Right. True. I even sat in Phoofsy’s beloved blue chair – and instead of feeling lonely, I felt comforted.

If I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, now’s as good a time to start as any.