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Archive for March, 2010

I made the bed in Nutmeg’s old room today with a quilt I created for her with my own two hands.  It wasn’t supposed to be here in my apartment, dressing up Nutmeg’s old twin bed.  It was supposed to be with Nutmeg, in her grownup home.  But things took a different turn than I’d anticipated.

I’d had such a great time making that quilt — well, not a great time, really, since I’m a total domestic klutz.  But as I pricked my fingers and strained my eyes piecing the thing together all through the winter of 2006, I kept picturing how excited Nutmeg would be about it when I gave it to her for her college graduation in May.  I had made a quilt — my first, and till then my only — for Meta’s high school graduation in 1997, but Nutmeg’s high school graduation in 2002 had come and gone, swamped by the frenzy of that time, as iDaddy and I sold the girls’ childhood home and, just a month after the school year ended, moved hundreds of miles north.  I had always felt bad that the quilt I’d promised for Nutmeg to take with her to college, just as her sister had taken hers, had never materialized.  Now, four years late, I was about to present her with her handmade quilt at last.

“Don’t get ahead of her,” iDaddy told me whenever I mentioned how psyched Nutmeg was going to be when she opened her gift.  It was something he’d often said to me — a piece of advice that has always irritated me greatly, but that is, of course, very wise, because iDaddy is a wise and temperate man.  Making the bed with Nutmeg’s quilt this morning, I realized that this phrase is especially wise when it comes to parenting grown-ups.

“Don’t get ahead of her.”  Don’t get more excited about the quilt than she will (reader, I did that — details below).  Don’t like her boyfriend more than she does (I’ve done that, too).  Don’t urge her to take a class she isn’t sure about, go to a college she doesn’t want, consider a job that isn’t right for her.  Don’t live her life for her.  Don’t live your life through her.

Now, Nutmeg is a thoughtful, sensitive, delightful person, and when I gave her the quilt, gift-wrapped awkwardly in a huge shopping bag, she smiled and expressed much gratitude.  She even took it with her to Boston when she moved in with the boyfriend I liked so much (with whom she’s since broken up; as I said, I’d gotten ahead of her).  But she never really loved it — not the way I had pictured her loving it, not the way I had loved picturing her loving it.  When she moved from Boston to Brooklyn, Nutmeg gently gave the quilt back to me.  “It works better with your color scheme at home,” she said, even though I had deliberately picked colors — with the help of my best friend Judy, who creates spectacular art quilts in her spare time — that I thought were Nutmeg’s colors, not mine.  Wasn’t that apple green the exact color she’d painted the walls in her college apartment, the color she told me she wanted to have in every apartment she lived in for the rest of her life?

It wasn’t about the color scheme, though.  Nutmeg returned the quilt because she could sense, I think, that it was loaded with more freight than she wanted to bear.  I’d gotten ahead of her after all.  The quilt, in a weird way, contained my own vision of how her life should shape up, and she was trying to tell me that ownership of that vision was hers.

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Just as I got used to thinking of myself as the mother of twenty-somethings, my older daughter goes ahead and turns thirty.  Thirty!!  When we called Meta this afternoon to wish her happy birthday and iDaddy asked “So how does it feel to be so old?” (something iDaddy can get away with, but I’m not sure I could), Meta answered, “I’m really looking forward to it!”  An answer that delights me, and surprises me, too.  When I turned thirty I was bummed out about it, feeling like I was already too old to be “young for” anything.

Of course, if Meta is thirty and moving in to a more serious, more adult stage of her life, what exactly does that make me?  I shudder to think.  Fifty-six feels pretty damned old to me — at least when I catch one of those proverbial glances of myself in a store window and wonder who that old broad walking alongside me could be.  I think that having two daughters in journalism, my own field, helps accentuate this sense of being on the downward slide, not only in my career but in many parts of life.  I just have to get used to the idea of moving aside for the young ‘uns.  Writers who are faster, edgier, cleverer than I are going to be the writers who get published the most in this changing profession, and women who are healthier, prettier, and more energetic are going to be the ones making and raising babies, having conversations with strangers at cocktail parties, learning to ski or scuba dive, traveling to exotic places.  I’m not really ready to be invisible and past-it just yet, but sometimes I think that the world expects me to be.

That’s how it feels from my New York City living room on a Sunday evening, anyway, thinking about my darling little girl and my life with her these past thirty years — thirty!!  It’s been an amazing ride, this mothering thing, the most important piece of my life, and something in which I have to shift roles to accommodate the chameleon natures of my daughters — the chameleon natures of all young adults, as they evolve into the grown-ups they’re trying to become.  Meta is pretty much almost there, I’d say.  The thirty-year-old woman on the other end of the phone today, chatting about the delicious bear-shaped birthday muffin that Wilco had made for her breakfast, is an amazing person, and I’m thrilled to be part of her life — but she is emphatically not “mine,” and never has been.  Even thirty years ago, when I gave birth to her at 1 o’clock in the morning on the first day of spring in 1980, she was completely and remarkably her own indelible self.

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At first I wasn’t so wild about “Momma’s Man,” the indie film from 2008 that aired this past weekend on my local public television station, Channel Thirteen.  (Loved the title, though.)  It was so slow, the setting so weird, the dialogue so sparse — and then what WAS said by the main character, a young man named Mikey, was all a lie, and we viewers knew it.  But the story grew on me.  Mikey had come to New York on a business trip and to visit his bohemian parents in Tribeca, and he can’t bring himself to leave.  Gradually it becomes clear that whenever he tells someone —  his wife back home in California (left alone with their baby), his boss, his parents — that he’ll be heading home tomorrow, or maybe the day after tomorrow, he’s lying.  He seems to have no intention of going home.  He already IS home, with Mom and Dad.

What most interested me about the movie was when I saw the credits and realized that Mikey’s parents were played by a couple named Jacobs — hey, they must be married in real life!  And then I saw that the filmmaker’s last name was Jacobs, too — hey, this guy had cast his parents in his own movie!  Azazel Jacobs is a young filmmaker, and his father Ken Jacobs (Mikey’s father in the movie) is an older experimental filmmaker.  His mother Flo Jacobs (Mikey’s mother) is an artist.  This explains why their acting is so stilted; they’re not actors.  But it also explains why the film is so heartfelt, and why it manages to capture tiny truths about the parent-adult child relationship that don’t usually convey very well to the screen.

In an interview with New York magazine when the film first showed at Sundance, Azazel Jacobs said that the idea for the movie came to him when he woke up in his old bedroom — the actual apartment where “Momma’s Man” takes place, a weird multi-level Rube Goldberg contraption of a loft — and his mother had made him coffee and cereal.  “Why did I leave this place?” he thought to himself.  And from that question, he created the character Mikey (played wonderfully by Matt Boren), a young man who would much rather crawl back under the covers, read comic books, play old guitar riffs that keep his father up at night, and pretend that he intends to grow up soon, really, I promise, any minute now.

What I liked about the film was how well it captured the quandary the parents were in.  When Mikey first comes back from the airport, claiming to have missed his flight back to the West Coast and planning to just stay one more night, his mother, half-asleep, mumbles that it will be lovely to have him stay with them a little longer.  How well I understand that feeling — you’ll take extra time with your kids however you can get it.  The next morning she leaves him a note addressed to her “angel” about how she left out the cereal and the cut-up fruit for his breakfast, and he should put the fruit on the cereal.  But as it dawns on her that Mikey’s not leaving, it turns out that while she might have been thrilled to have him at first, she wants her old life back — and she wants him to get on with his.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Mikey’s parents finally realize that, despite his airy insistence that everything is okay, everything is NOT okay.  They try to talk things through with him, and they do get him to admit that something’s wrong — though that’s a lie, too, when he starts blaming it on his blameless wife falling in love with someone else.  (“With a new baby?” his mother asks, no doubt wondering about the logistics.)  In the end, what works for Mikey, what makes him break down and somehow break through, aren’t words at all, but actions.  His mother forces him to sit on her lap, and after a moment of awkwardness (“Ma, I’ll crush you”), he gradually gives in, curling into her and letting her stroke his back as he weeps.  We watch her sense memory of having done this before — the kind of comforting, patting, stroking, loving with your whole body that we all do when our children are small.  (These moments are some of my favorite memories of cuddling and consoling Meta, who loved it when she was little, and Nutmeg, who only really let me hold her when she was sick.)  She is doing it again, one last time, for her big, unhappy child.

This time she holds and strokes him not because she longs to, but because she has to.  The son on her lap, with the chair audibly creaking (a lovely touch, Mr. Filmmaker), is a son in crisis.  I have no doubt that she hopes never to have to have this kind of intimacy with her child ever again.  And I have no doubt that when Ken and Flo Jacobs, in the role of Mikey’s parents, stand side by side watching Mikey go home at last, they are glad that the natural order of things has been restored.  And for me, there’s something about knowing that the Jacobs are Azazel Jacobs’ real-life parents that makes that last shot of them, sad and relieved as the door behind their son closes, especially poignant.

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The recent release of Roger Rosenblatt’s memoir Making Toast reminds me of the first time I encountered his essay of the same title in The New Yorker.  It was December 2008, and the article blew me away.  Roger and his wife Ginny had just encountered that ultimate worst nightmare, the phone call telling you your beloved child was suddenly, inexplicably dead.   And they moved into action, almost wordlessly, to try to plug the gaping hole their daughter’s death left behind — in this case, by closing the door behind them to their house on Long Island, taking a grief-fueled drive down I-95 to Maryland, and moving in with their son-in-law Harris to help him raise his three now-motherless children.  How long are you staying? the oldest of the children, seven-year-old Jessie, asked Rosenblatt the next morning.  And he gave her an answer that has, amazingly, turned out to be true: “Forever.”

Rosenblatt basically said it all in his essay, as far as I’m concerned, and there wasn’t much that I heard in his various interviews about the book that made me yearn to read the longer version.  But the book’s publication did drive me back to the original article.  As the mother of two grown daughters (though not yet anyone’s grandmother), I was struck by one image in particular:

Ginny tells me that when I am away, and she and Harris sit down to their late dinner in the kitchen, her heart breaks for him. “This should be his wife sitting across the table,” she says.

Her heart isn’t only breaking for her son-in-law, of course; it’s breaking for herself.  She yearns for her daughter Amy, dead suddenly at the age of 38 while walking on her treadmill at home, exercise having brought on the explosion of a congenital heart defect no one had known about until it killed her.  Ginny feels the guilt any mother would feel at being alive when her daughter is dead.  And she no doubt feels an extra layer of guilt, too, to be the woman who is now taking care of her daughter’s children, the one who gets to see them grow up.

How complicated it all is.  Ginny and Roger are in so many ways acting selflessly.  But of course it’s not selfless, really; it’s what they could do because they had no other choice.  If they had had the luxury, I suspect, they would instead have screamed, cursed God, crawled into bed and pulled up the covers and permanently withdrawn.  So often I’ve wondered how parents of dead children manage to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other.  Usually they do it for the sake of the other children; in this case, they’re doing it for the sake of the children of the dead child.  How perverse, though, for Roger and Ginny to be there when their beloved Amy is not.

When Amy’s three children and her husband celebrated the day that would have been Amy’s 39th birthday with a cake and candles, Roger asked five-year-old Sam what he thought his mother would have wished for as she blew the candles out.  “To be alive,” said Sam.

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