A Different Kind of Church

Dear God,
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As you know, when I became a parent, I had hopes and dreams for my kids. Some of those were the usual growing-up wishes (be healthy, learn to tie their shoes, not get suspended, win a Nobel prize). Others were more specifically related to my desire for them to dig the stuff that I dig.
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I hoped they would love snow instead of curse it. I crossed my fingers they’d like games and puzzles, envisioning late night hands of Hearts or all-family Scattergories battles. Enjoying chocolate fell somewhere between a want and a necessity; I could probably have let it slide if they agreed that bacon makes everything better.
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Ella and Annie have fulfilled those hopes, and then some. They have their own interests, of course. And they certainly don’t like everything that I do. (I had to go through some actual mourning when I finally came to terms with the fact that they are probably not summer camp kids and will likely never sleep away at my childhood haunt.)
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This makes it all the sweeter when they genuinely fall in love with something that makes my world go ’round. I mean, their enjoyment of most things Disney has totally made their teething days worthwhile. But it was what happened last Sunday – and my realization that they share one of my passions as deeply as I do – that made me decide to write to you.
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My girls are musicals maniacs.
Just like their mama (and their grandmama before).
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School of Rock, 2015
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Growing up an hour outside of Manhattan, my family and I were fortunate enough to make it to the Big Apple several times a year to see the musicals on the Great White Way.
My mom was a theater major in college – which, in my eyes, made her all-knowledgeable. Whenever possible, we would sit in the front row of the balcony or mezzanine so that she could point out the stage markings. I was fascinated to learn that miniature Xs indicated STAND HERE, thrilled every time I could see someone waiting in the wings.
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It wasn’t just the performances, however. Before that curtain ever went up, this feeling would begin to build. (Not loathing; trust me.) It began with seeing the show’s name glittering on the marquee, increasing as the ushers greeted us at the door and continuing to grow as we stopped at the concession stand (you think we missed an opportunity to grab Junior Mints, Milk Duds, or Peanut M&Ms? Think again).
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My first Broadway musical, 1980
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Every theater in my memory is adorned in velvet, with plush carpeting wall-to-wall, curving staircases, chandeliers, gilded portraits. Although we scarcely dressed up for other more formal locations (*cough* church), we always wore “something nice” to see a Broadway musical. Which, come to think of it, was kind of like church to me.
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When I close my eyes even now and imagine settling into my seat (always too small and uncomfortable), then hearing the opening strains of the overture prior to the curtain rising… that same feeling, that rush of adrenaline, fills me. Something was starting – something organic, something unique to that moment; an exchange between the performers and the audience, where we could be lead into a world that, minutes ago, didn’t exist. It was redeeming and transcendental. I came alive and was made new, whole, believing.

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Yes, musicals were definitely my church. Sorry, God.
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Meeting the cast of the incredible Lion King touring production, 2011
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Over the years, there were hits and misses. We walked out of at least one production but saw others twice out of sheer adoration. I was in high school when Les Mis and Phantom rose to popularity, which meant I was at that perfect, angsty, drama-prone age where it actually sounded romantic to be seduced/kidnapped by a mystical, abusive, masked madman or ponder being forever on my own (pretending he’s beside me). For hours, I listened to those shows’ soundtracks in my bedroom, poring over every heart-tugging word, every climactic chord change, every piercing harmony.
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I prayed over musicals.
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As luck/fate/You would have it, Nick is not a Broadway fan. He tolerates most musicals and, at least once a year, somewhat grudgingly accompanies me to a show – but they’re really not his thing. (He says this is because he acted in so many musicals growing up, he got them out of system. I say this is because he’s a poop.)
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Despite Nick’s lack of interest, I knew I was going to do everything possible to try and indoctrinate my girls to the wonderful world of Broadway. The soundtracks to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Annie, and The Sound of Music were in regular rotation when they were little. Instead of watching cat videos, we’d huddle around YouTube and watch clips from the Tonys. (And, okay, also cat videos.)
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When Ella was four, my mom, stepdad, and I took her to her first Broadway musical (The Little Mermaid). I think she liked it, but really, what I remember most is how I forgot that traffic would be an absolute bear after a matinee, meaning it would take three times longer than usual to drive home and perhaps packing a snack or taking a bathroom break before loading up for the gridlock drive would have been a good idea.
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My ears still hurt from the screaming.
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BUT LOOK AT HER OMG
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That was the beginning. At least once a year when we visit my mom, we are fortunate enough to take the girls to a musical on “actual” Broadway. The girls’ first joint show was the same as mine – Peter Pan, seen up close from the orchestra with Peter (her)self flying overhead. I’m not sure they were hooked, but it definitely made an impression. Rochester is also a super theater-appreciative city, with excellent touring productions coming through. The girls usually look forward to going, but until recently, I wouldn’t have said they loved it like their mama.
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Dolled up for Peter Pan, 2011
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Within the last couple of months, though, something seems to have changed. Maybe it’s general Hamilton mania… maybe it’s just that they’re older… but their musicals radar has suddenly tuned in. They notice which shows are playing and at which theater. They talk about how they’d like to see a particular production, but they’d “really like front row balcony seats because they’re the best, right mom?”
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(Sorry, God. I’m working on humility.)
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I had taken them to see Wicked when it was here in 2012. At 6 and 8 years old, they liked it well enough, but they didn’t truly get its complexity and humor. When I learned that the touring production would be returning, I knew we needed to see it again.
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In advance of last weekend’s show, we prepped (as we always do) – reviewing the characters and plot, listening to the soundtrack, researching the actors’ biographies. As the Big Day drew closer, Annie’s anticipation intensified. Out of nowhere, she’d be standing in front of me, fists clenched in jubilation. “Mama! I Can’t believe it’s only two days till Wicked! I AM SO EXCITED!!!.”
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Aladdin, 2014
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At last, Sunday arrived (none too soon for Annie). Worried that the production’s intensity might be too much for her, I offered to sit between her and Ella – but they wanted me on the aisle, with Annie farthest in. From the flying monkeys’ appearance to Elphaba and Fiyero’s departure, I couldn’t pry her eyes from the stage. She was entranced, for good.
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Ella, on the other hand, routinely interacted with me, pointing out costume changes, unexpected staging, and raising her eyebrows with approval whenever someone nailed a difficult part. She also seemed to be looking somewhere other than the stage, although I couldn’t tell where until intermission when she breathlessly asked me what “the man was doing with all those buttons.” After learning that he was the gentleman in charge of the sound/mixing board, she was enthralled. “He’s making that happen?? THAT IS SO COOL.”
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When the final bows had been taken, Ella slipped her hand in mine as we exited the theater. “Mama. That was so good.”
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“It really was, kiddo, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. I mean… it was really good.”
“I think so, too!”
“Can we see it again?” 
“Sure! Next time it comes to Rochester, we’ll get tickets.”
“No… I mean, like, tomorrow…”
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Ohhhhh. I get it now.
My girls have found in Wicked what I found in Les Mis and Phantom. They’ve been bitten by the musicals bug. SWEET FANCY MOSES.
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In the week since the production, “Popular” and “Defying Gravity” and “What Is This Feeling” have been sung nonstop. They’re researching which show they’d like to attend when we visit London next summer. They and some friends are also working on a full-scale backyard production of Hamilton, complete with choreography, props, lighting, and costume changes.
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Yes, they taped the lyrics to the shower. Multitasking at its finest.
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In short, they’ve come to church.
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Thanks, God, for this glorious turn of events. They may never go to sleep-away camp, but if I can share musicals with them, it’s more than a fair trade.
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A Wicked selfie

Ready to Know

Santa is a big deal in our house. Letters are written and given to Hermey, our Elf on the Shelf, for safe passage. Santa’s personality and lifestyle choices are hotly debated (“Where do you think he vacations? Does he brush his teeth?”). Notes for Santa are left at bedsides.

Over the years, I have done nothing to diminish Ella and Annie’s belief in Santa; on the contrary, I’ve encouraged it. Stocking gifts are wrapped just so every Christmas and placed outside the girls’ bedrooms. Hermey has brought back letters from St. Nick bearing the North Pole postal cancellation. If a gift wasn’t able to be procured, Santa has provided a written explanation. He might even get “caught” in our living room Christmas photos every year.
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See, I love Christmas. I also love magic and wonder and hope, all of which continue to bloom and surround the girls every Christmas season. For that, I am thrilled. There is so damned much in the world today that is all too sad, practical, and heavy. Despite how hard we try to protect our kids from losing loved ones, financial difficulties, work-related stress, divorce, etc., we cannot. Beyond our own homes, our 24/7 media make it all but impossible for even children to avoid at least some exposure to natural disasters, refugee crises, racial tensions, gun violence, diseases, deaths of celebrities, politics.

Allowing our girls to put aside the all-too-real world, allowing them to experience awe and joy and delighted anticipation through Santa, allowing them to believe in something magical – to just be kids for a little while longer (while simultaneously celebrating the happiness that is Christmas) – has been one of my most important and fulfilling decisions as a parent. That they have so adored Santa and all he represents to them – love, mischief, kindness, generosity – and that they have felt so loved in return has made that decision even more wonderful.

Because Santa is so special to Ella and Annie, I have gone to great lengths to protect him. Questions were answered with deliberate and measured responses that were never misleading but never laid everything on the table, either.

The girls are normal human children, however, so as they’ve grown older, doubts have understandably crept in. The details that were easily glossed over as kindergarteners (How can Santa possibly reach everyone’s house in one night? If these gifts came form the North Pole, why does it say they were made in China?) were harder to ignore in 3rd or 4th grade. With each passing year, though, even as they posited and became dubious, it became clear that they did not want Santa to be something else; they still wanted him to be real. Despite their curiosity and occasional downright skepticism, they told us – literally and figuratively – that they did not want us to answer the question they’d been throwing at us: “Are you and Daddy really Santa?”

They didn’t really want to know. So we didn’t tell them.

It was complicated too, though, because keeping up the myth of Santa in the age of live streaming and Google searching and school bus taunting is, quite frankly, exhausting. Still, we’d made it through this holiday season with the girls writing letters to Santa and placing them beside Hermey, leaving food for the reindeer on Christmas Eve, and genuinely being thrilled that “he remembered” everything they asked for on Christmas morning. They believed for another year. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought no more of it.

Which was why it caught me by such surprise when – last week, a full 11 days after Christmas – Ella interrupted our otherwise non-Christmas dinner conversation with an extremely direct, “So. Tell me the truth. Are you guys the ones who buy the gifts we ask for from Santa and put them in the living room each year?”

Her well-crafted question left little wiggle room to spin the response in such a way that it didn’t tell her what she didn’t want to know: the truth. Spinning my wheels, I gave her one of my standard Santa deflections. “Hm. How come you’re asking?”

She sat up a little straighter and enunciated clearly, as though maybe she’d practiced beforehand, “Because when I was on your computer today on Amazon, right there under Stuff You’d Bought were the exact gifts I’d asked Santa for. So I’m thinking that, yeah, you guys are the ones who buy the Santa gifts and give them to us.”

Welp.
Shit.
THANKS A LOT, AMAZON.

Apparently, despite maybe not wanting to know the truth, Ella was ready to hear it after all. There was only one (big) problem: Annie, who was sitting three feet away. At two years Ella’s junior, Annie still very much believes – and, despite her curiosity and bravado, it was quickly obvious that Annie really, really, really did not want to hear the answer to Ella’s question.
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Christmas morning breakfast-making

After volleying back and forth for a bit, Ella agreed to table the discussion for a later time. I was relieved – not only for Annie’s sake, but also because it meant I’d have the opportunity to prepare for how I’d planned, for years, to break the Santa News… via a letter I’d seen on the internet.

The gist was this: explain that we are not, in fact, Santa – but we act as Santa and fill her stocking, buy her “Santa” gifts, etc; let her know that we think believing in Santa and acting as Santa are tremendously important and are about sharing love, kindness, wonder, and hope; and that, now that she was “in” on it, we would like her to preserve the magic of Santa for those who still believe (see: Annie).

I was not at all sure how this would go over. I’ve heard stories of kids who were furious with their parents for, as they saw it, lying to them. I’ve heard of others who were so upset and heartbroken, they fell apart. Nick and I crossed our fingers that Ella would see it as we did: that believing in Santa felt so amazing and brought her such happiness, and “real life” is so pressing and heavy, we wanted to preserve this bit of childhood for as long as we could.

At bedtime, we checked to see if Ella wanted to hear a more detailed answer to her earlier question. She hesitated for a moment, but ultimately decided that yes, she did.

She was finally, truly ready.

Rather than read the letter herself, Ella asked me to do it. When my voice hitched at the part about how we hoped she would continue these traditions for her own children someday, I discovered the other reason I’ve gone to such lengths to keep Santa all these years: because I loved it so much.

I loved how earnestly the girls debated which reindeer was Santa’s favorite. I loved how carefully they looked over the cookies each Christmas Eve, selecting the ones that were just right. I loved the twinkle in their eyes as they flew down the stairs on Christmas morning, eager to see if he’d actually come. Simply, I adored the deep-seated joy that Santa brought them; playing a part in cultivating that joy was one of my favorite parts of Christmas, of being a parent.

After I’d finished reading and we asked if she had any questions, the first words out of Ella’s mouth were directed at Nick: “Wait. So you drink the whiskey every year?? Is THAT why we leave whiskey for Santa?”

(Nick told her this was one of his more brilliant parenting decisions. Why we didn’t decide 13 Christmases ago that Santa needed chocolate and a Starbucks for the journey home is a solid failure on my part.)
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Cookies… milk… and whiskey

Ella had a few other queries, most of which we answered. I did, however, flat-out refuse to explain how Santa’s image appears in our photos each year or how I create Hermey’s handwriting; some things are meant to be kept secret.

To our delight and relief, after some time to process and assimilate, Ella seemed to feel exactly the way we did about Santa. Although I’m sure she was disappointed that a plump, omniscient, bearded elf does not, in fact, deliver her presents each year, she took in our explanation and made it her own.

As we were finishing the conversation, I told her that, despite this new information, I planned to continue all of our traditions every year – from putting stockings the hallway to moving Hermey to scattering reindeer food. Before I could complete my sentence, Ella chimed in with, “Well, of course! It wouldn’t be Christmas without those!”

She also informed me that she will still be leaving a letter with Hermey to deliver to Santa… because that’s just what we do, and that’s the truth.
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‘Hamilton’ style: Hermey will be back…

Nini is Nine

Our Annie is nine.
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Her sister came down in the morning and made her this fabulous sign. Yay for sisters!

How this came to be, I am not quite certain… I really could have sworn that she and I were just playing games every morning before afternoon kindergarten, that she was just learning to ride a bike, that she was just dancing around like a lunatic before bed.

Scratch that last one. She still dances around like a lunatic.

But now she is nine and dancing around – nearly double digits, that in-between age before Big Kid but not quite Little Kid, either. Not that Annie has ever fit neatly into any single category… She sings Tom Petty and Elton John songs in the shower but recites schoolyard rhymes as she wanders the house. She adores Harry Potter and Junie B. Jones in equal measure. She will help make dinner and fold her own laundry but still carries her silkies everywhere.

As I’ve chronicled before, for the past many years, we have celebrated the girls’ birthdays in the summer (because I’m bad with The Math and somehow wound up with not one but two December babies, which makes for a freakin’ insane busy month). I’d always said that the summer celebrations undoubtedly lessened the stress of December, but it was really a theory; I hadn’t put it to the test.

This year, the girls elected not to celebrate early – they just weren’t feeling it. Ella did have a small (but awesome; more on that sometime soon, I swear) party, but Annie has decided that, as of now, she is content without a big celebration. Although a (not-so-small) part of me is grateful for this (because my theory? The theory that two birthday celebrations AND Christmas within a two week span would be freakin’ insane busy? ABSOLUTELY CORRECT), the other part is a little bit crushed.

How is it possible that she is perfectly happy just enjoying being sung to at school and then having a birthday day at home? When did she become so old?

Because of the lack of festivities, we offered to do anything that Annie wanted on her birthday: go to a museum, go bowling, go to an indoor trampoline park, take a hike (this “winter” weather has been SO VERY WARM and SO VERY WEIRD), see a movie, eat out, invite a friend to play, host a board or card game marathon (our Nini [pronounced knee-knee; my cousin’s son couldn’t say “Annie” and thus called her “Nini” and we’ve stuck with it because HOW CUTE IS THAT] loves games)… ANYTHING SHE WANTED…

Turns out, what Annie wanted was to stay home all day, open her presents, play with them, eat three home-cooked meals, design some Christmas wrapping paper, read some books, and chill.

Okay, then.
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As I set out the night before the big day to wrap her gifts, I was stricken to discover that I really didn’t have any birthday-appropriate paper. (See again: we usually celebrate in the summer so I was unprepared.) What I did have, however, was a roll of the frog-covered wallpaper that hung in my grandma’s bathroom. (It was super easy to find, too, because of how wondrously organized everything still is – a miracle, really. Holla!)
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Lemme ‘splain. Several years back, one of us had received a gift from Phoofsy… wrapped in what appeared to be the wallpaper from her bathroom. When we commented on the remarkable similarity, she informed us that it was, indeed, the very same — she had some leftover from when the room had been decorated and it was perfectly good paper so why not put it to use?

Thus, it all came full circle. As I’d written a couple of years back, when I discovered I was pregnant with Annie, I wasn’t exactly thrilled – especially not to be having another December baby. Still, we believe that everything happens for a reason, so surely her being due in December was no coincidence…

By the fall, the reason had become crystal clear.
Having Annie caused us to have to move – and, obviously, we moved to Rochester, where my grandparents lived.

To quote from my aforementioned post:

“If we hadn’t moved when we did, we wouldn’t have had that summer with my grandfather. We wouldn’t have been here when he died… We wouldn’t have been here with my grandmother after his death, dragging her gamely along to the children’s museum and the apple orchard, and accompanying her to mother/daughter celebrations at her social club. If we hadn’t moved when we did, she certainly wouldn’t have had Annie and Ella nearby to cheer her up, to make her smile, to give her hope.

It was all so ridiculously clear: If Annie had not been born when she was, we never would have moved when we did, and life as we know it would not exist.

… I don’t know what it was, but from the moment they laid eyes on each other, Annie and Phoofsy were smitten. Phoofsy had always loved Ella – there was no worry of that – but there was something special about her relationship with Annie. They lit up when they saw one another; where everyone else would be captivated by Ella’s stories and songs and dramatic reenactments, Phoofsy would go up to Annie and coo at her, instead. Annie’s biggest fan, we called her. It was pretty damn neat.”

We had (nearly) eight amazing years in Rochester with Phoofsy – none of which would have happened as they did if Annie hadn’t come into our lives exactly when she did. She and my grandma would not have had each other; and oh, how they were crazy about each other! Perfect timing, indeed.
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Phoofsy and Annie sharing iPad stories during a layover from our trip to Charleston last year.

So it seemed particularly wonderful that I could wrap some of Annie’s birthday presents in Phoofsy’s ridiculous wallpaper – bringing her into our little celebration.

Despite the lack of hoopla, I couldn’t resist attempting to make Annie more than just a cake from a mix (it was still from a mix, don’t you worry; I just tried to jazz it up a little and turn it into a stack of books). It wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned, but Nini seemed to love it – and that’s what matters (at least, that’s what I’m telling myself).
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I’m still not used to the fact that she is no longer eight; I misspoke the other day and gave someone her incorrect age, much to her chagrin. I am, however, more smitten with her every single damned day. She is a pistol for sure, but she is also joy and wonder and pure awesome personified.
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Happiest ninth* birthday, our Annabelle Grace. You complete us and we adore you – even when you dance like a lunatic.

(* no joke – when I wrote this, I originally typed “eighth birthday.” MAYBE BY THE TIME SHE IS TEN I WILL GET THIS RIGHT.)

One Day

It’s officially day two of summer vacation and I’ve already taken a break from the kids.

This was a scheduled trip, though, not a desperate attempt to flee – a trip out west with friends to visit another friend who we just need to see. It’s been far too long; I’m so looking forward to being with them, to sharing hugs in person, to laughing and crying and just being together.
And also the eating. I love me some eating.

With just one day between school getting out and my leaving, I wanted to make the most of it with Ella and Annie. I wanted summer to start off right, not with me running around like a maniac or everyone scattered in different directions or me losing my temper only three hours in and yelling at them for disagreeing over Legos (not that that’s ever happened, but I’ve heard it’s a possibility).

So, by gosh, we made the most of it.

The first thing the girls wanted to do was a craft off of this year’s Summer Fun List – using bleeding tissue paper to dye a canvas and then adhering additional tissue paper to the colorful canvases with Mod Podge.
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This was totally not my idea; Annie completed the very same project at a friend’s party a few weeks ago and her family was kind enough to share the instructions – and tissue paper – with us.
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Photo by Ella of her final creation.
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Photo by Annie of her final masterpiece.

While the canvases dried, we got to do the rarest of things: shop for something silly with no timeframe or schedule, just for the hell of it, because we wanted to. To be more precise, we searched high and low for specific names on Coke bottles as part of the Share a Coke With marketing scam genius promotion that has drawn in suckers sentimental consumers like me. We’ve been on the lookout for certain names for weeks, but we’re always frantically rummaging through bins and coolers while grocery shopping or picking up prescriptions at Target, so there’s never any time to just browse in a leisurely fashion. Annie and Ella were in heaven.
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This may look like chaos, but we have got a system, you guys.

We might have pushed it a little by going to eight different establishments in search of our elusive bottles, but it was a lovely, frivolous diversion — a delightful way to pass part of a summer afternoon. And we found three more names we were looking for; holla!
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Fenwick was remarkably patient, but by the fourth or fifth store, he was starting to get more than a little tired of hopping in and out of the car.

After a brief swim next door, the girls asked if they could borrow my good camera to take photos of their projects (see their first attempts, above). While I prepped dinner, they then decided – for the first time ever – to try to take “real” photos of one another posing with their canvases on the lawn, in the tree in our front yard, on the back of Nick’s scooter… and, inexplicably, Ella’s bike (artistic vision. Respect).11403411_10153334445540295_4803402200932975868_n

The results were simultaneously awesome, cringeworthy, and hilarious; once I return and have their full permission, I can’t wait to share them.
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I love the intensity of their examination.

Following dinner, we participated in the most classic of all summer rituals: the procuring of ice cream.
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And the making of butter in a jar.
What? That’s not one of your summer rituals? Lame!
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In all seriousness, butter in a jar is both easy and fabulous. 
YOU’RE WELCOME.

I didn’t take pictures of me running or weeding the garden, the girls’ Lego and cardboard creations, the fort that they set up in the playroom, or the dog peeing on the rug… but it all happened, my friends. It was a jam-packed, relaxing day (yep, totally possible to be both) and just the way I’d hoped our summer would begin.

As I’ve talked about several times before, summer is hard for me. The lack of routine, the absence of structure, how nothing gets accomplished, my inability to relax; it’s just complicated. I guess milestones are complicated for me, period, even small ones like the end of school. Every year, I find myself wrestling with such intense and conflicting emotions, I feel like I’m being consulted for Inside Out (which is fabulous, BTW; do see it).

I’m elated that the girls loved their teachers and are sad to leave them and I’m bummed for them that they feel so heart-worn. I’m rejoicing not having to pack lunches for ten weeks and lamenting that now I’ll have to drag the girls with me when I buy groceries. I’m thrilled that the kids are older and we’re able to enjoy so much more together and I’m shocked and dismayed, as always, that the years are flying by so freakin’ fast. I’m delighted at the thought of all the fun we’ll have between now and Labor Day and I’m anxious because I’m already afraid that we won’t get to everything and I’ll be disappointed.

Thankfully, by now, I know what to expect. I know that summer will not be this perfectly idyllic experience, nor will it be a total disaster. It will be somewhere in between – dirty and messy and yummy and tear-filled and joyful and laid-back and exhausting and crazy and good – which, when you think about it, is just as it should be.

At least I can confidently say that Ella and Annie and I got one day of summer wonderfully, deliciously right.

Save for the mosquitoes. They’re like hummingbirds this year, y’all. Evil, buzzing, bloodthirsty hummingbirds.

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Tucking into bed last night. 
These girls, y’all. These girls.IMG_1099

Pretty Little Liars

Dear Ella and Annie,

You really put on a good show today. If I judged your relationship solely on the performance you put on as you walked in the door from school, hissing at one another that “You started it!” “No, YOU started it!” “You shouldn’t have said anything!” “You shouldn’t have hit me!”, I might have assumed that you cannot stand one another, that you are enemies. Come to think of it, when anyone asks you if you think of your sister as your friend, your immediate response is to wrinkle your noses in disgust, raise your eyebrows as if to question their sanity, and quickly respond with a “No way!” or “She’s awful!” or “Well. sometimes…” or, if they catch you on a particularly good day, “I guess so.”

I’ve got to give you an A for effort; you certainly do try to verbally convince everyone that you don’t think the other is worth the ground she stands on. As a parent and an educator, I realize that it’s important to listen to what kids say and all that, but… well… how do I phrase this?

You’re full of crap.

I know, you hate that word – and rightly so – but in this case, it’s true. You’re absolutely full of beans. Liars, really.

Don’t believe me? That’s okay. I’ve got proof.

Sure, you refuse to share the bathroom sink because merely standing beside one another while brushing your teeth results in such pushing and hip-checking, the NHL might consider allowing women to join their ranks. But then, when you’re getting ready separately, one of you will take extra time – and time away from bedtime reading, a treasured evening activity – to dutifully prepare the other’s toothbrush, face toner, and water, complete with labeled note.

note for ella from annie
The water isn’t filthy – it was just a wee bit bubbly after being freshly filled.

When you’re left to your own devices, you’re all buddy-buddy (when you’re not threatening to strangle one another). You create together, you seek each other out to make new games, you giggle and spirit yourselves away, just the two of you, refusing to let me – or anyone – into your private sister-world. When we went on the Disney Cruise, you spent ages in the kids’ club using one of their computer typing programs, sometimes apart and sometimes together – like this.

sisterlove
It’s long, but if you’re actually curious, it’s larger if you click on it…

You started out like gangbusters, clearly working together and sharing happily. But then you must have realized what you were doing – admitting that we like one another? The horror! – and took steps to clarify.

sisterlove1


“(Ella) I think she is really annoying sometimes but it’s one of those things that if something happened to her, I would be very very sad.
(Annie) I think Ella is an annoying stink bomb but also the same thing she said about if something happened or whatever.”

How very diplomatic and charming of you.

I couldn’t help noticing, however, that despite your acknowledgments that you each think the other is a pain in the ass but you’d be bummed if she, like, got maimed or whatever, you still deliberately mentioned your relationship in your sign-off.

sisterlove1a
If “By: Ella and Annie” didn’t suffice, you could have added another disclaimer. “By Ella and Annie, two kickass rockstars.” “By Ella and Annie, two wicked smart gals.” “By Ella and Annie, the world’s most awesome daughters.” But no! You chose to highlight your sisterhood. Curious, no?

Publicly, you sneer at each other when there are struggles, mocking your sister’s difficulties or pooh-poohing her accomplishments. And yet, when one of you reaches a personal goal three nights in a row, you are the first to offer up homemade signs of congratulations, immediately and genuinely with nary a condescending word.

turkey
I was unfamiliar with a “turkey” meaning three in a row, but your father swears it’s true.

Similarly, you will swear up and down that the other’s passions and interests are bogus; that you don’t give two hoots about the things she likes, that she goes on and on about the same old nonsense, that you couldn’t care less if she succeeds or fails at her most hard-fought endeavors. How, then, do you explain the signs of encouragement that you draw up, cheering on her current attempts by reminding her of the other things in her life that mean the most to her? WHAT SAY YE, LITTLE FIBBERS?

cheering on
Those are glasses and lightning bolts surrounding Harry’s name, obviously. To the left… a quidditch broom, maybe? Artistic license, yo.

One moment, you’re offering your sister an olive branch – let’s play! You worked so hard on that drawing! That dress looks awesome on you! You’ve really improved on that piano piece! Want to make a fort in the backyard? You’re sweet and adoring and kind.

sisterlove2

The next, you’re spewing vitriol, talking about how your sister is THE WORST, how you can’t even be in the car next to her, how all you want is TIME ALONE for God’s sake, how you’ve NEVER liked each other. Your barbs are sharp and quick and aimed to hit right where it counts, even when you’re just being silly.

And yet… right beneath it all (in this case, literally)… is the unmistakable love.

sisterlove3
At least you’re using your manners. 

‘Cause here’s the thing: deep down, deepest down, you are crazy about one another. You think your sister hung the moon. You think about her when she’s not around, bringing her the extra goody bag from the birthday party, saving her the last piece of cake instead of eating it yourself simply because you knew she’d like it. You know one another so well, better than I know you, that you practically breathe together. You are, unquestionably, each other’s best friend.

You’ll deny this with every fiber of your beings, stiffening your bodies and huffing – actually huffing, pushing air out your nose in indignation – that I am wrong, wrong, wrong. But then, like last week, Ella will volunteer to be the first (secret) Mystery Reader for Annie’s class. Her teacher might be contacted to ask permission for Ella to miss class in order to read to her sister’s class, and such permission might be granted. There might then be some hemming and hawing, with Ella perhaps insisting that she didn’t really want to volunteer at all (“People change their minds, you know!”), and some choice words being said (by me, *ahem*) about commitments and following through and not going back on one’s word – but all the while, I will know the truth: that, in her deepest down, Ella so very much wants to surprise Annie as the Mystery Reader, but she is terrified of reading aloud in front of all those kiddos, and so she is faced with an awful choice: her sister or herself.

In the end, she will choose her sister (agreeing at the very last minute, of course), and will walk down the hallway on wobbly legs, the book held in shaking hands. She will take deep breaths and steady herself before entering the classroom on Annie’s teacher’s count, awaiting her sister’s response when she realizes who the surprise reader is…

… and, upon recognizing her, Annie will respond from her deepest down with joy that radiates from below and up through her absolutely delighted face, smiling so broadly she can barely contain herself.

sisterlove5
I’d videoed the grand reveal but, because I was several paces behind, had missed recording all of Annie’s reaction (plus also she was hidden by the desk partition), but I did manage to take a screen shot (during those first moments of recognition) and enlarge it. 
It may be blurry, but that smile doesn’t lie.

And then, as Ella takes the seat that has been placed at the front of the room and prepares to read to the class, Annie will come and sit beside her and… will realize that she has been displaying an unacceptable show of affection – for her sister, of all people – and will adjust her visage accordingly.

IMG_8615-1
Oh. It’s you – how special. Not.

That’s your story and you’re sticking to it; anyone who asks you will get the same answer. And really, so long as you’re not rude about it, that’s okay with me because I know the truth. Hell, the whole world knows the truth because the two of you are lousy liars. Although I don’t think it’s always the case, in this instance, your actions drown out your words a million times over.

In the meantime, feel free to keep on insisting differently, and I’ll keep on saving these moments to show you later. (I’d love to pretend otherwise, but when that day comes I will totally say, “I told you so!” because I am nothing if not mature.)

With that said, if you could please save your arguments until at least a few minutes after you come home from school, that would be fantastic; I go from really excited to see you to awfully damn grumpy when you slam the door shut behind you and continue the sparring you’d apparently started on the four-minute walk home.

I do appreciate the work you put into attempting to convince me of your dislike for one another, though. At this rate, you could have stunning careers as actresses, and I’ll be second in line for tickets. After your sister, of course.

xoxo
Mom

IMG_8618

 

The sounds of summer

This past week was our first entire “free” week of the summer – no camps, no visiting family, no visits from family. It marked the first opportunity for girls (and me) to be as lazy as they wanted to in the mornings, play to their hearts’ content, pull out long-forgotten toys and games that they’d been hoping to get to, and just relax and be. Before summer began and I saw that we’d have a whole week with absolutely no plans, my initial thought had been to fill the empty space. In the end, other thoughts prevailed. One day we went to a local amusement/water park, so that was kind of “scheduled.” But otherwise? Whatever struck the girls’ fancy.

seabreeze

Which meant that our week sounded a lot like this:

If you’d just strip your sheets for me, I’ll make the rest of the bed.
“Why do you have to make us work so hard?”

—————————————–

“There are no towels here!”
You’re in luck – I brought some down and you may use them.
“I GET THE STRIPED ONE!”
“No, *I* get the striped one!”
“You can have the polka dot one!”
“No, YOU can have the polka dot one.”
“I said it first!”
“But I SAW it first.”
IF EITHER OF YOU ARGUES ANY FURTHER ABOUT A TOWEL THAT YOU DID NOT EVEN BRING DOWN HERE, YOU WILL FORFEIT DRYING PRIVILEGES FOR THE REST OF THE AFTERNOON.

—————————————–

Since you can’t listen to music right now, why don’t you come up with a song to sing?
“Okay! I like this one: We will BURN DOWN the enemy! We will burrrrn dowwwwn the enemy! WE WILL BURN DOWN THE ENEMY!!”
What does that even mean?
“I don’t know. I only sing it to annoy you.”

—————————————–

I’d be happy to get you a snack. In addition to fruit, what else would you like?
“Doritos.”
*blank stare*
“Come on! Just a few Doritos??”
*blank stare*
“I’ll take pretzel Goldfish, please.”
That’s fine.

I decided to surprise you! You both have pretzel Goldfish and a few Doritos, too!
“But I didn’t say I wanted Doritos.”
*death glare*
“OKAY, okay… I’ll eat them… It’s fine, really… It’s fine… You don’t have to look at me like that…”

—————————————–

cad

On your way up, please put the yellow floatie back in the shed. Since you both used it, you can both put it back.
*begins dragging floatie down the dock* “I’ve got it this far! You can bring it the rest of the way!”
“But *I* wanted to bring it to the end of the dock!”
“But *I* grabbed it first!”
“But I WANTED it first. You’re the WORST sister EVER.”
“No, YOU’RE the WORST sister EVER.”

—————————————–

“I’m still a little bit hungry.”
You can have more cherries, then.
“Never mind. I’m not hungry anymore.”

—————————————–

It’s time to eat lunch! Please come to the kitchen!
“We’re busy! We’ll be there later!”

You left a big mess in the dining room! Come pick it up!
*crickets*

Which outfit do you think you should wear on our trip?
“Sorry, mom – gotta go. No time now.”
I feel like Harry Chapin. Since when did this become “Cat’s In The Cradle”? 

(**At long last, I pull up a stool and, for the first time all day, take a few minutes to answer emails or write a blog post while the girls are playing happily and do not need my assistance in any way, shape, or form…**)
“Mom? Can you help me with this?”
“Mom? I need to ask you a question.”
“Mommy? I think I hurt myself.”
“Mama? Mommy? Mom??”
WELL, LOOK AT THAT. HERE YOU ARE. FUNNY HOW THAT WORKS.

—————————————–

“Can I melt all of your chocolate on the stove and then freeze it just to see what would happen?”
The Godiva chocolate?
“Yes.”
I’d rather you not.
“You never let me do ANYTHING.”

—————————————–

“There’s nothing to do.”
You have an entire summer fun list you could check out.
“I don’t wanna do any of those.”
You could play outside.
“It’s too hot.”
You could read a book.
“I’m tired of reading.”
You could stop standing here and pestering me.
“Everything here is so BORING!”

—————————————–

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. In addition to the above, there have also been lovely moments, like when they created this incredibly detailed Harry Potter experience that utilized the entire upstairs of the house, or when we dropped the car off for new tires and then walked into town for breakfast at a wonderful dairy farm, or the terrific evening we spent picking beans and tomatoes at our farm share, or the marvelous new Pinot I discovered from one of our local wineries… Yes, there have been happy, giddy, quiet-Mommy-has-wine sounds, too.

But this week has been long, people. Turns out my kids actually do crave structure. I can’t imagine where they get that.

I do believe we’ve officially reached that point of the summer when thinking about the start of school elicits cheers instead of groans. Don’t worry – we’ve got plenty more to do and enjoy, and I plan to make the very most out of our remaining 3.5 weeks of summer.

But September is looking awfully damn inviting over that horizon.
That is, if everyone makes it out of August in one piece.

Ahhhhhh, summer!

soccer!
Taken at our first-ever professional soccer game; it’s one of my all-time favorite pictures, because it so perfectly sums up both girls’ personalities.

Some questions are best left unanswered

A couple of days ago, one of the girls had a friend over. (I won’t name names so as to offer said daughter some kind of anonymity, but there are only so many guesses to be had here, people.) They played in the playroom for quite a while, with what I wasn’t sure – Barbies? Dress up? Legos? – making very little noise or fuss, perfectly content. I didn’t even stop to check on them because they seemed to be having such a good, quiet time… Why mess with a good thing?

That evening, I had a load of laundry to do – which takes me right through the downstairs and into the basement – and, as I navigated the toy explosion/obstacle course that is our playroom, I glanced briefly over to notice that there were a bunch of dolls set up in some kind of purposeful formation. It dawned on me that this was what our daughter and our neighbor must have been doing while they played, but I didn’t really think anything of it.

IMG_7223
Camper? Check. Corvette? Check. Beach cruiser? Check
Semi-circle of perfectly, creepily posed dolls? WEIRD. Check.

A little while later, Nick, too, ventured down into the basement (we do laundry separately here; I highly recommend it) and asked me if I’d gotten a look at the “set-up” in the playroom.

Oh, yeah. You mean they’ve been doing the Jonestown thing again?
(It is not at all uncommon for the girls to set up dolls in freakish-looking ritualistic poses all in a row on the floor.)

“No. It’s more like a peep show Cirque du Soleil.”

What are you talking about? They’re just dolls in formation on the floor!

“Uh, I think you need to take a much closer look.”

And so I did, fully expecting to see that Nick had over-exaggerated… and discovered that what I’d thought was a cutesy – if bizarre – doll collection was actually…

Um. Wow.
IMG_7204You’ll definitely want to click on this to make it larger.
That is, if your filter at work will allow you to do so.

WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON HERE???

As I wrote on Facebook:
(parenthetical observations were added by me after the fact)

I don’t even know where to start with this…
The semicircle of onlookers…?
(Because, seriously, why is everyone watching?)
Bringing the children…??
(This event is family-friendly?)
Only two males in attendance…?
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)
Downward facing dog (doll?) OVER the other doll’s face…?
(There are names for these kind of moves; or, um, so I’ve heard…)
The starfish Aurora in the middle…?
(Sleeping Beauty 
is FLEXIBLE, y’all.)
The doll on the purple door on the piano bench…?
(Some kind of pre-show seance?)
I just… Um… I didn’t realize that’s how it was in our family.
.
Since the girls were already in bed, it didn’t make sense to awaken them to find out what the hell was actually going on in the playroom, but I made a mental note to ask them about it later. Mental notes are the reason I have a to-do book, however, so naturally, I forgot all about it.
.
Last night, Nick and I split up reading with the girls before bed. As he headed upstairs to change out of his work clothes, he called over his shoulder (to our offspring, not me), “Come on into the bedroom! You can read to me while I take off my clothes!”
.
I chuckled at his choice of words and called back, “So that IS how it is in our family!”
Which prompted me to remember the burlesque show in the playroom. I immediately began my interrogation.
.
Sweetie, you know those dolls in the playroom?
.
“Yes, Mommy. I’ll clean them up tomorrow!”
.
No, it’s not that. It’s just… What’s up with the set-up?
.
“Oh, THAT.”
.
Yes. THAT.
.
“Well, the lady was becoming president. Or maybe the principal. It was a big party.”
(OMG, presidential inaugurations make so much more sense now)
(Also: DOLL BURLESQUE MYSTERY SOLVED)
.
Which lady?
.
“The one in the black and red fancy dress.”
IMG_7222
Resembling a scene from Disney’s “The Princess and the Strip Club”, a movie which – apparently – was scrapped before it hit the theaters. Which is a shame, because New Orleans definitely has a brothel-y side.
From this angle, the “performers” are so… symmetrical…
.
That’s Tiana, but it’s not her dress.
.
Um, okay, sharing is good. But what were… the rest of the people… doing around her?
.
“That was a dance. It was part of the party.”
.
Fair enough. But how come they weren’t really clothed?
.
“Well, they had their underwear on.”
.
Semantics, but that still doesn’t really explain why they weren’t dressed.
.
“They’re going to be wearing clothes later. Really fancy ones. Like, all matching and stuff. Skirts and things.”
.
Just skirts?
.
“We’ll see what’s available. This was just the dress rehearsal.”
.
That’s a misleading choice of words.
.
“They were practicing. They’ll get dressed up later.”
.
Why was everyone watching?
.
“Because it was a show!”
.
Of course. They were watching the mostly naked performers doing their dress rehearsal for the president-principal lady?
.
“YES, Mom.”
(duh)
.
And they even brought their kids?
.
“Yes. It was a show for families.”
.
Maybe in Vegas.
.
“What?”
.
That Aurora sure is… flexible. She was like a starfish.
.
“I know! She’s the fanciest performer!”
.
That’s one way to put it.
.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got it all planned out. Their final performance is going to be great.”
.
Does this little number have a name?
.
“Yes. It’s called the Naked Ballet.”
(pronounced it like ballette, rhyming with palate, not ball-ay, rhyming with… ballet)
.
Ballette?
.
“Yes. That’s the French word for ballet.”
.
Tres nice.
.
Naked Ballette.
.
I heard you the first time. But thank you for sharing.
—————-
So. To sum up, our child – and a friend – created pretty much exactly what Nick had described: a peep show Cirque du Soleil. In our playroom. With Barbies.
.
Awesome.
.
Our girls love playdates! Do be sure to send your daughter over any time.
.
On the bright side: their president/principal was a black female. We may be raising risqué nudists, but at least they preach equality. Holla!

 

Small changes

It’s already started. But that’s too babyish. I don’t like how I look in this. She said we can’t be friends if I won’t let her use my pencil. Stop it – someone might be watching! They’re just seven and nine, but their awareness of how they’re perceived, and of judging their own worthiness by others’ perceptions, is steadily growing.

Part of this is a good thing. As preschoolers, they didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about how they dressed, what the ate, how they carried themselves. At times, this was adorable (wearing a full-on princess get-up to the grocery store); at others, it made me proud (girlfriend doesn’t care one bit if anyone else thinks it’s stupid to still be into Mickey Mouse Clubhouse – rock on!). Other times, it was not only embarrassing (“So sorry that she started singing right in the middle of the eulogy, sir”) but just plain frustrating (knocking over the entire display at the checkout because of obliviously executed dance moves). Having some awareness of others, of the fact that you are not actually the center of the universe, of how to be respectful – even if it means that you need to stifle the urge to wear your jangliest bracelets to Easter brunch – is super.

11.5 evening dressup

But a lot of it really just plain sucks. Being aware of others and their feelings is fantastic (three cheers for empathy!), but being so aware of others’ feelings that you begin to deny your own is just not cool. Having been a young girl myself once, having survived elementary and middle school and adolescence (mostly), I can certainly remember what it was like to obsess and worry about what your friends – and not friends – would think about virtually everything that you did. I can vividly recall the physical feeling in the pit of my stomach wondering what everyone would think of my Keds, of my carefully-styled bangs, of the fact that I still enjoyed Sweet Valley High well past eighth grade.

So I get it, I really do – that near compulsion to find out what others think of you, and then to base your own opinion of yourself upon it. Getting it and being okay with it happening to my own children are two very different things, however, and I’ll be damned if I just sit idly by. And so we talk a lot, about what it means to be a good friend, about whose opinions really matter, about being confident in just who you are and not worrying about what other people think.

The problem is, you’ve kind of got to walk the walk, and I know I’m not always setting the best example… especially when it comes to compliments. Like so many women (and some men, although – in my own very unscientific case studies – they seem to do this far less than women), I find it nearly impossible to accept a compliment graciously.

“That’s a really cute outfit!”
Oh, well, I just threw it on at the last minute.

“I love your hair today!”
I haven’t even washed it!

“You were really sweet to think of me.”
It was the least I could do.

“Your students must love having you as a teacher!”
Ha, I wish!

As women (or, at least, as this woman), we’re constantly told not to be too pushy. Not to seem too boastful. Not to seem too confident. Not to make it appear that we think we’re better than anybody else. And so we – I – deflect. I demure. I’m afraid that if I accept the compliment, it will maybe somehow mean that I’m trying to brag, that I’m cocky, that I’m conceited.

But here’s the thing: I actually do think I’m a pretty fabulous person. A person with a helluva lot of flaws, a person who takes forever to make dinner because I get so easily distracted, a person who makes mistakes constantly, a person with a lot to work on… But, overall? Yeah. I’m all that and a bag of chips. Or at least a caramel macchiato.

I don’t even know that I realized just how frequently I was deflecting compliments until I heard Ella and Annie begin to do it.

“That’s a beautiful dress you’re wearing!”
Uh, thanks, but it’s old.

“You sang that so nicely!”
I really messed up at the ending.

“Your math has improved so much!”
I still can’t do flash cards that fast, though.

At first, I was naively flummoxed. We’ve taught them to be polite! They know to thank people! WTF?! But it didn’t take long for me to realize that, although society certainly works hard to teach them that accepting praise is not okay, I wasn’t exactly being such a stellar role model myself.

You can’t spend five minutes online, watching the news, or reading a newspaper without seeing some awful something that’s happened to women. Hundreds of Nigerian school girls kidnapped. A young, pregnant Pakistani woman stoned to death in front of a crowd of onlookers while police did nothing to intervene. Women in California hunted down by a misogynistic gunman intent on enacting “revenge” for their lack of interest in him. And that’s just in the past month alone.

I’ve pored over the #YesAllWomen tweets and articles and posts that have sprung up in the wake of the Santa Barbara murders. I was so tremendously moved by the stories and examples of how omnipresent sexual harassment, objectification, and intimidation are for so many women… But I was pleased, almost sheepishly, that I couldn’t quite relate. I mean, I’ve only been sexually harassed one time (back in college when I was working and living in the projects; after the incident, Nick would drop me off and then phone my – male – roommates to let them know I was coming into the building. They then stood watch for me until I was safely inside my apartment). I didn’t think that I really experienced all that much objectification or intimidation.

Well. Except for that time in the Bahamas when I was seventeen, visiting with my high school jazz band (music geek alert), and the guy who was manning the parasail boat strapped me into the harness, leaned over and chuckled, “This is the second-best ride in the Bahamas, baby – ’cause I’m the first!” and then actually smacked me on my ass as he sent me up into the air. Or all of the years before Nick and I were married when I carried a whistle on my keychain in case I needed to call for help. Or the number of times my girlfriends and I have been wolf-whistled at. Or how I still, to this day, announce to any strange male who comes into the house (plumber, cable guy, etc.) that my husband will be home soon.

As the stories flooded my consciousness, the embarrassment quickly followed; not at the incidents themselves, but at how they’d become such a commonplace occurrence, I didn’t even recognize them. It has somehow become perfectly acceptable for me to make sure that my clothing isn’t too revealing, even if all it “reveals” is my shoulders, lest I attract unwanted attention. Checking a parking lot at night to be sure it’s safe? Duh. Worrying that the guy who screamed at me in a fit of road rage because I didn’t get out of the left lane “fast enough” might actually get out of his car at the next light and accost me? Just par for the course.

As the mother of two young children, I worry about a lot of things – if they’ll remain healthy. What school will be like. Whether or not they’ll find good, supportive friends. If they’ll root for the Yankees or the Twins (or, God help me, the Red Sox). As the mother of two young girls, I worry for their safety – not so much as children (my Free Range thinking has helped me not freak out too much), but as they grow up. The statistics are so alarming; I can’t seem to find an agreed-upon percentage, but, in their lifetimes, between one in three and one in six women will be the victims of sexual harassment. That’s not just worrisome, it’s terrifying.

And also hard to ignore; after all, I’m already a part of those statistics.

There can hardly be any doubt that we need a full cultural change around women, men, and how we’re perceived and treated. That change needs to come from all of us – every single one – and it’s going to take time. But, by God, it has to happen, otherwise the stories that have been permeating the news recently will become so commonplace, we will cease to even recognize them as unacceptable. And that?
Unacceptable.

Changing the entire world is a bit beyond the scope of my abilities (despite my aforementioned fabulousness), but changing the world for my daughters is not. They may grow up in a society that devalues them, but they can learn to value themselves. They may be told by others that they are not worthy, that they are too loud, that they shouldn’t dress like that, that they should act like this instead… But they can learn not to listen, and to listen, instead, to their own voices telling them how incredible they are.

silly girls

First, though, Annie and Ella have to believe it. They have to believe that they are smart, strong, capable, funny, delightful, kind, and beautiful, and everything else that makes them such remarkable human beings.
And, quite frankly, I have to believe it for myself, too.

There are plenty of awful things that are said about and toward women. When something wonderful is said – when kind, supportive words are offered instead, it is oh so important that they’re not brushed aside.  Part of believing that we’re worthy and special and awesome means that when we’re complimented, we feel confident enough in ourselves to accept the compliment, and to not worry about how such acceptance may be interpreted by anyone else. In theory, it’s really simple…

“Your presentation was great!”
Thank you!

“I love your necklace.”
Thank you.

“This jello surprise is absolutely divine!”
Thank you!

In practice, it’s quite difficult. I’ve found that it comes off as just a bit disingenuous if you say “THANK YOU” through gritted teeth. It takes almost physical will to force a sincere “Thank you” out of my mouth without offering some side comment, making a sarcastic remark, or immediately changing the subject. But I’m trying, hard.

It’s a small change, but I hope it’s the start of something oh so much more.

For all women.
For myself.
And especially for my daughters.

5.30.14 my girls

 

 

Some things were meant to be

This life stuff doesn’t always go as planned. I suppose that’s what makes it, you know, life, but still, when things don’t work out the way you’d thought they would, it can really be a shock to the system.

New Coke: I’m looking at you.

Nick and I had always talked of having two children, but we’d wanted them three years apart. We’d carefully reasoned it out: Ella would be out of diapers and we wouldn’t be dealing with a toddler and a baby at the same time, but she and her younger sibling would still be close enough in age to share some of the same toys, go to the same school, etc. It was going to be great.

Then, when Ella was a mere fifteen months old, I unexpectedly got pregnant. I realize that some people find it difficult to believe that a pregnancy can be “unexpected,” especially after having already birthed a child (so we clearly understood the whole birds and the bees thing, if you know what I mean), but it was. I’d carefully done the math, but – sparing you the details (you’re welcome) – The Math and I have never been real tight, and I’d gotten something wrong, and suddenly, there we were, pregnant.

For those of you who also struggle with The Math, 15 months (Ella’s age) + 9 months (gestation) = our kids would be two years apart rather than three.

Not only that, but this baby was also due in December – Ella’s birth month – which was really not cool with me. Like many teachers, I’d hoped to give birth in the spring, take my 6-8 weeks of maternity leave, and then back up the end of the leave right into summer break, giving me the maximum amount of (paid) time home with my newborn. Again, sparing you the details (and again, you’re welcome), we became pregnant with Ella sooner than we’d thought we might, and our “spring” baby arrived right before Christmas.

I had no childcare lined up, and didn’t plan to get any, because the following school year, I’d be job-sharing with Sarah, a wonderful friend of mine who’d also recently had a baby.  For half of the week, each of us would teach, and for the other half, we’d watch both babies. It was a fabulous win-win, so I didn’t want to search for temporary childcare for Ella knowing I’d just give it up in a few months. Instead, Nick and I managed to cobble together a network of family members and friends, with each of us also using personal days, to watch Ella when I returned to school. We made it happen, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.

Giving birth in December also meant that I was essentially homebound for three months, because our pediatrician had warned that we shouldn’t take the baby into any “crowded spaces” — malls, restaurants, libraries, stores, basically anything with walls and a roof — because of germs! And RSV! And you never know who’s carrying a deadly disease! Given that it was, you know, winter, it was too cold to be outside with the baby (and even if I’d dared to brave the elements, there was no place to go outside with a newborn in the winter; it’s not like she’d enjoy checking out the local playground). So that kind of sucked.

And then there was the whole birthday-a-week-before-Christmas thing that was a big ol’ pain in the neck. Christmas is already its own unique kind of crazy; adding a birthday to that each year seemed ridiculously daunting, and I wasn’t really excited to take on the challenge. Plus, I worried for Ella’s sake. She’d get birthday presents wrapped in Christmas paper! Her special day would be outshone by Christmas’s glare! Not fun.

We would make it work, of course, but back then if I’d had to choose, Ella wouldn’t have been born in December. So I vowed: absolutely no more December babies.

And then The Math and I had a tussle, and suddenly the little plus sign was taunting me from its perch on the bathroom sink.

I’m not going to lie: I was not excited. Nick and I have always felt that everything happens for a reason, and we never considered terminating the pregnancy, but I did wish fervently that I wasn’t pregnant right then. In fact, more than once, I peed on yet another pregnancy stick and hoped that it would come up negative. I didn’t want to lose the baby, not at all… I simply didn’t want to be pregnant at that time, if that makes any sense. Happy just wasn’t happening.

More to the point, I was downright angry. Actually, I was terrified — of having another baby so soon, of having another being growing inside me, of the whole December-baby thing, of how having a sibling would disrupt the lovely life we’d built for ourselves and Ella, of the logistics of the whole thing. The details just seemed insurmountable: we lived in a small, three-bedroom house that was just barely big enough for Nick, Ella, and me. I couldn’t possibly ask Sarah to watch the baby AND Ella when I was only watching her son, so I’d have to scrap our arrangement and return to teaching full-time, putting Ella and the baby into daycare… But, thirty miles outside of New York City, the cost of living was so high, I’d actually take home LESS working full-time and paying for daycare than I was bringing in working half-time.

It was just impossible.

In our calmer moments, Nick and I reasoned that, somehow, we’d be okay. We’d always wanted another baby. This one was just coming a little sooner than we’d expected. We would figure out the job/childcare/housing thing. Everything happens for a reason. We’d make it work.

But the part I couldn’t wrap my head around was why I got pregnant when I did. (Okay, I know why I got pregnant, because… I’ll shut up now. You’re welcome.) Why another December baby? Why NOW? The universe and God work in mysterious ways, yes, but the reason behind the timing absolutely eluded us.

Spring turned into summer and still I wasn’t excited about being pregnant. I did all of the things I should – I ate right, I took my vitamins, I exercised, I cut out caffeine, I didn’t consume a drop of alcohol – and, as my stomach expanded, we did our best to prepare Eleanor to become a big sister… but I just wasn’t into it. Summer ended and I returned to teaching and, as the months crept toward my due date, despite my own personal scolding and pleading and chiding and stern talkings-to, I simply could not muster happiness about the arrival of this baby.

belly7

And then, right around Halloween, I was watching something on TV featuring a pregnant woman who lost her baby. It wasn’t A Baby Story or anything like that, and actually may have just been a dumb sitcom, but as I watched, I felt this terror take hold of me and I realized that I did not want to not be pregnant. I could not lose this baby.

It was quite the shock, that: realizing that I no longer wanted to not be pregnant. (Yes, it took me until I was SEVEN MONTHS along… Mom of the year before I’d even given birth, that’s me…) It wasn’t exactly the same as actively being excited to have another child, but it was a helluva lot better than outright dread.

As November progressed, my indifference slowly shifted to acceptance, until finally, by December, I was – at last – looking forward to meeting this wee one who’d been renting space with me for the past 8.5 months, THANK YOU SWEET BABY JESUS AMEN. Nick and I still had no idea why the timing worked out the way it did, but at least we were psyched to become a family of four.

Being psyched, however, could not guarantee a smooth delivery. Alas, the baby was sunny-side up and became trapped in the birth canal – and so, after laboring for seven hours, completely turning down the epidural so I could “feel” where to push, then pushing for nearly three hours, an emergency c-section was ordered. (Good thing, too; poor babe came out with a bloody mark on her forehead where she’d been smooshing up against the bones of my pelvis.)

Annabelle Grace arrived at 8:11 p.m. and was healthy as could be. Damn cute, too.

annie birth wink
Showing some ‘tude straight out of the womb.

Nick went home that night to be with Ella, and I phoned him around 2 a.m. asking if he could find any Allegra or Claritin to bring me — it seemed I’d forgotten mine and was developing hives. (Have I never mentioned that I have chronic, unexplained hives [technical term: chronic idiopathic urticaria] and, every night since I was thirteen, if I don’t take an antihistamine, I break out in full-body hives? No? Well, I do. They’re swell.) Even after taking the medication, however, the hives never abated, and it was finally determined that I was allergic to the Percocet they’d given me for pain. My other drug allergies ruled out Vicodin and the like, which meant that my only options were Advil and Tylenol.

Advil. And Tylenol. For pain from an emergency c-section, after which the doctor ordered that I remain in the hospital an extra day because, having pushed for so long and so hard, it was “as though (I’d) given birth twice.” Super fun.

The second night of my hospital stay, I received a call from Nick at 2 a.m… Ella had thrown up all over her crib. Yep, our almost two year-old had come down with her first-ever tummy bug, and there Nick was, in the middle of the night, trying to change crib sheets and clean up a pukey kid, while I was in the hospital, unable to even lift Annie from her bassinet without tearing my stitches (I’d taken to just holding her in bed with me so I could nurse her when I needed to and not bug anyone for help), all hopped up on TYLENOL AND ADVIL.

Extra super fun.

annie and ella
Taken in the hospital before Ella began her barf-a-thon.

The following morning, Nick’s mom – who’d flown in from Minnesota to help us out – became ill (unrelated to the stomach bug) and had to fly back home. Nick’s dad and GranMary were able to catch the next flight from Minnesota to offer their assistance, and none too soon, because the day after I returned from the hospital, Nick came down with the pukes… which meant, clearly, that he couldn’t be near Annie, because a five day-old really isn’t supposed to catch the stomach flu. And I couldn’t really help out with Ella, because I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than Annie…

So, yeah. Extra super duper fun.

Still, pretty much from the moment she arrived, Annie was magnificent. I wasn’t stuck inside with her like I’d been with Ella; when you have your first December baby, you stay home for three straight months because the thought of germs is paralyzing. When you have your second December baby, you understand that your two year-old is harboring more germs on her right forefinger than the entire children’s section at Barnes and Noble, and you give up and just get on with things already.

neb
Sometimes this works brilliantly, and sometimes your newborn develops RSV. Ah, well. Builds stamina!

It became clear almost immediately that our family, while perfectly happy, had been incomplete without her. She was a precocious baby, immediately engaging, and an obvious daredevil from the word go. Eventually, Annie would come to command the attention of everyone in the room everywhere she goes — she has the most magnetic, draw-you-in personality of anyone I’ve ever met (and she’s freakin’ hilarious, so that helps) — but in her early months, she definitely took a backseat to Ella.

It wasn’t that people weren’t interested in Annie, who was, by all accounts, an adorable and fun baby, but rather that Ella was so full of life, so talkative, so bold, people naturally gravitated toward her and didn’t pay Annie too much mind. That is, until she met my grandmother.

phoofsy plays2

I don’t know what it was, but from the moment they laid eyes on each other, Annie and Phoofsy were smitten. Phoofsy had always loved Ella – there was no worry of that – but there was something special about her relationship with Annie. They lit up when they saw one another; where everyone else would be captivated by Ella’s stories and songs and dramatic reenactments, Phoofsy would go up to Annie and coo at her, instead. Annie’s biggest fan, we called her. It was pretty damn neat.

After mulling over (and over… and over…) our options post-baby, Nick and I decided that his 90 minute commute into lower Manhattan was simply too much. My going back to work full-time was too much. Finding childcare that would cost more than my half-time salary was too much. We could not stay in Bronxville any longer. As luck would have it, Nick’s company had a branch in Rochester, and because we already knew the area (with my mother and her sisters having grown up here, and my grandparents still living here, with a house on the lake where we visited each summer), we decided it made the most sense for him to change jobs and for us to move here. And so, in July of 2007, when Annie was seven months old, we did.

great and annie
With “Great” in August, 2007

We split the time that summer almost evenly between moving into our new house and going to the lake. I’m pretty certain that I saw my grandparents more in those first few months than I had in the previous thirty-one years of my life. The girls had the incredible experience of spending unlimited time with their great-grandparents. Things were good.

At the very end of September, my grandfather went in for surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. Although that sounds scary, the location of the aneurysm and his overall good health caused his doctor(s) to predict an easy fix; they expected him home within a day or so. At 2:38 p.m. that Friday, he sent all of us the following email:

going to hospital at 4.   TTYL

Very sadly, there would be no “later.” The operation wound up being much more complicated than they’d anticipated, and although they successfully repaired the aneurysm, he never woke up; we lost him on Sunday morning.

The weeks following his death were a blur, with family coming and going, but eventually, everyone left and it was just my grandmother (and my brother and sister-in-law, who were living locally at the time) and us. We made sure to see her often, both because we didn’t want her to be alone and because we really enjoyed her company. Thanksgiving eventually rolled around and my extended family came back into town to celebrate together. While I was thrilled to have them visit, it struck me that it felt a little funny with them there; we and Phoofsy had fallen into a kind of (irregular) routine, and interrupting it was a bit uncomfortable. We were the ones who were supposed to be here.

Wait a minute: we were supposed to be here. HERE, in Rochester, right exactly then. If we hadn’t moved when we did, we wouldn’t have had that summer with my grandfather. We wouldn’t have been there when he died; my brother and I wouldn’t have been the ones to stay with him in his hospital room and say goodbye to him after they turned off all of the machines. We wouldn’t have been there with my grandmother after his death, dragging her gamely along to the children’s museum and the apple orchard, and accompanying her to mother/daughter celebrations at her social club. If we hadn’t moved when we did, she certainly wouldn’t have had Annie and Ella nearby to cheer her up, to make her smile, to give her hope.

It was all so ridiculously clear: If Annie had not been born when she was, we never would have moved when we did, and life as we know it would not exist.

Everything happens for a reason, indeed.

12months of annie
Click on it to see it bigger; it’s worth it.

It wasn’t just my grandma who benefited from Annie’s timely birth, of course. We’ve all – everyone who meets her – been so tremendously fortunate to have Annie in our lives. She defines the word character. She is vibrant and exceedingly full of energy. She never stops talking. No, I mean it… Never. Stops. Talking. Wait, I take that back; she stops talking when she’s singing. Does that count?

She wakes up happy nearly every single day, and greets me – whether it’s first thing in the morning or when I pick her up from school – with the broadest grin imaginable and an elated, “MOMMMMMYYYYYY!!!!” She’s one of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met, as evidenced here and here. She certainly has no shortage of self-confidence and purpose, as is shown in her frequent use of phrases such as, “I’m going to give them a gift… It’s called The Awesome of Annie.”

She can turn on a dime and be the crankiest kid you’ve ever come across; and then, just like that, she’s laughing again. For three parent-teacher conferences in a row, her teachers referred to her as a “pistol.” She’s so exuberant and funny and delightful and just plain crazy, we kind of didn’t realize that she’s also crazy smart; her kindergarten and first grade teachers let us know that we’d greatly underestimated her.

annie 5th bday collage
I looked, but apparently I didn’t turn my “six” photo from last year into a collage… Oops.

She’s utterly exasperating in the mornings before school, when I head downstairs to let the dogs out and she’s got her pants on and is putting on her shirt and tells and will be down shortly — and then, twenty minutes later when I realize she’s never appeared, I go upstairs to check on her and discover that she’s now undressed and is rolling around on the floor, teeth still needing to be brushed. She’s similarly exasperating in the evenings before bed when it takes fifteen minutes to put on her pajamas.

She is kind and generous and sweet and a truly fabulous dinner-making partner; she now makes all of our salads every time and has, more than once, been responsible for cooking virtually all aspects of the meal. There is nothing she cannot turn into an art project (no, really, nothing; I know this from experience). She idolizes Ella and would do anything for her – just today, she earned a prize at school for twelve consecutive days of good behavior and “spent” her points to buy a gift for her sister instead of herself – but also purposely needles her – gleefully – with all of her might.

Annie is unbridled joy and to-her-core happiness. When I say that our lives wouldn’t be the same without her in it, I mean that in every possible way; we’re literally here today because of her. She fills us all with her light; we didn’t even realize how bright things could be until she came along. We may have been thrown for a loop when I got confused with The Math and became pregnant with Annie, but I’m so very glad we’re along for the ride.

And it turns out that December birthdays aren’t so bad after all. Go figure.

Seven years, Banana. Seven years of awesome.
Lucky, lucky us.

Happy Birthday!
xoxo

annei 7th bday
7 tonight

A tale of two readers

Although they may be sisters, Ella and Annie have wildly different personalities. There are countless ways I could illustrate this (one of them being this post), but for now, I’m going with reading.

Ella is a good reader; she always has been. Words, spelling, and phonics come naturally to her, and she’s always been precocious (speaking in sentences by 15 months, writing her name at age 2) and a bit “bookish.” Naturally, we assumed that, because she could read well, she would enjoy it, too.

And here is, yet again, when parenthood slaps you across the face and reminds you of the whole when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me thing.

Reading for pleasure has just never been Ella’s bag. She can do it, of course, but she doesn’t particularly like to. While it’s not quite pulling teeth to get her to read, she’s never been one to just curl up with a book and get lost in another world. Individual books and some series have caught her attention, but it’s always been short-lived.

Annie, on the other hand, adores reading. She has had her nose in a book since she could hold one; long before she could even identify letters, she would sit for – truly – an hour and page through book after book, all by herself. So, we’ve long known that Annie liked books, but it wasn’t clear until recently that she, too, was a good reader.

See, Annie’s a brick. There’s really no other way to put it. That kid is solid, and man, does she (quite literally) pack a punch. She is also one of the funniest human beings any of us has even encountered; everyone – and I don’t say that flippantly or with exaggeration – enjoys being around Annie, because her zany and hilarious personality draws you in.

Being the stellar parents that we are, we just didn’t put it together that Annie was a proficient reader. Somehow, between Ella already being identified as A Reader, and Annie’s brute force and magnetic, larger-than-life self, we kind of missed her growing from a kid who liked looking at books into the kid who could actually read and understand everything she was looking at.

(Yep, we’re those parents who attended the kindergarten parent-teacher conference and, despite reading with Annie every night practically since she’s been in utero, were still like, “What? She’s met all of the reading benchmarks and is an independent reader? Well, isn’t that neat!” GOLD PARENTING STARS, PEOPLE. Gold stars.)

Two nights ago, I was making dinner while Ella was at swim practice. Annie had eagerly agreed to help me prepare the meal, but then, after presumably becoming bored when the pork needed to just sit unceremoniously in the marinade for half an hour, she suddenly disappeared. A few minutes later, she reappeared carrying a large stack of books, which she plopped on the counter. She then sat there for the next forty-five minutes and read every single word of every single book she’d brought with her… THIRTEEN books in all. I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but I was awed. Well played, kiddo.

9.23 annie's books
Fancy Nancy and Mo Willems are all the rage in first grade, y’all.

I was surprised, on the other hand, when, ten days ago, Ella asked to begin the Harry Potter series. Nick and I were hesitant… not because we’re against Harry Potter; in fact, quite the opposite.

I’ll just come out and say it: Nick and I are Harry Potter nerds. We have both read all seven books at least three times apiece, and we own at least two copies of each book, because there’s no way in hell we could actually share. If there’s ever a dull moment (which there never is, but I’m just saying), all it takes is a, “So… what do you think Dumbledore really saw in the Mirror of Erised?” or an, “Okay, if you couldn’t be in Gryffindor, which house would you choose?” and we’re off and running. I am absolutely not ashamed to admit that I think J.K. Rowling is one of the greatest authors ever (no, not children’s authors, just authors — you know, like Grisham and Kingsolver and Melville and Shakespeare; yes, I just compared Rowling to Shakespeare — aww, snap!), and certainly one of the most clever and thought-provoking story-tellers of all time.

Yeah. We looooooove us some Harry Potter in this here house.

So anyway, our concern was that the books are too awesome, too detailed, just too big to be read in the third grade. For one thing, we didn’t know if Ella was even capable of reading them on her own. Additionally, the stories are so very complex, we weren’t sure she’d actually get what was happening. And, perhaps most importantly (given how magnificently written the books are), we wanted Ella to wait until she could actually understand why it’s so cool that Sirius was given that name, or why it’s funny that Professor Sprout teaches Herbology.

Once she asked to read The Sorcerer’s Stone, however, the cracks in our foundation grew and eventually we crumbled. After all, who were we prevent anyone from the wonder that is Harry Potter??

Turns out, Ella was able to read – and understand – the book just fine. She laughed at Ron’s jokes, tsk-ed at Hermione’s know-it-all behaviors, and groaned – out loud – each time Snape wrecked Harry’s plans. In fact, when she came home yesterday, instead of getting a snack or even saying hello, she raced straight to the comfy chair in the living room to continue where she’d left off (we read the book together at night, but she’s also checked a copy out of her school library so she can read at school, too).

ella and harry
150 points deducted from Gryffindor! DANG IT!!

Nick and I were both with her last night to read the final chapter (a good compromise, since we’ve basically been fighting over whose turn it is; neither of us had read The Sorcerer’s Stone since finishing The Deathly Hallows, and omg, the foreshadowing going on is just unreal — how did J.K. Rowling do it???). Up until this point, Ella had found the magic stuff – and especially the Dark Arts stuff – a bit creepy, but not particularly scary. As we reached the great unveiling, however (do you like how I did that? No spoilers, but oh so clever…), the look on her face began to change from one of curiosity and outrage to one of concern and horror.

We tried our best to smooth things over, with Nick reading in his this is super fun! voice and both of us explaining over and over that Harry makes it to book two, but we just couldn’t quite comfort her. She was scared; actually, she was terrified.

And, really, who could blame her. These books, are, you know, not really children’s books after all. There’s a lot of scary stuff; the Dark Arts aren’t just dark, they’re well and truly evil. People get hurt, favorite characters die. It’s not a chipper little series. But that’s part of why we love it so much – for its complexity, for its depth of character, for its unbelievably imaginative storyline. For its characters, each of whom was given such richness and fullness. And, of course, for the message that, in the end, love wins.

Although we could not promise Ella that nothing bad would ever happen to Harry or his friends (at least, not without telling a bald-faced lie), we tried to remind her of this: love wins. We tried to remind her of her own words from earlier that day: “Mommy, part of why I like this book so much is because the words are so great, I actually feel like it’s happening. Reading this book feels like Christmas.”

Reading this book feels like Christmas.
Couldn’t have said it better, sweet girl.

In the end, it was too much for Ella. She was awake for an hour past her bedtime, spending much of that time crying and begging to know the answers to questions that didn’t have happy or tidy endings (each time I would demure, she would become even more upset, because my refusal to answer convinced her that something terrible had befallen her now-favorite characters). As of this morning, she said she’s not ready for the second book, and for as much as I love it, I’m inclined to agree with her.

Some day, I know she’ll return; once you’ve met Harry and the gang, there’s really no going back. In the meantime, there’s always Fancy Nancy and Mo Willems… unless Annie has hogged them all, of course.