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mother and her baby silhouette, isolated vector symbol

mother and her baby silhouette, isolated vector symbol

We brought Peaches and her parents home from the hospital a week ago last Friday — a kind of difficult undertaking, actually, since waiting in a car in front of a big-city medical center is a dicey proposition, and it took forever to get Nutmeg the “escort” she apparently neded. And then iDaddy and I stayed for a while, holding Peaches, sitting around the apartment, talking a bit, running out to the local grocery store to buy stuff for lunch and help lay in some supplies for the next couple of days.

When Nutmeg mentioned that my brother Avuncular and his wife were going to come over for a viewing on Sunday afternoon, which was Father’s Day, I promptly invited us over, too. “Sure,” said Nutmeg, with no apparent hesitation. But I spent the next day worrying that I had overstepped, inviting myself over to hang around with this new little family at just the moment when they really would rather not be receiving a lot of company. A bagel brunch for four had become, through my unfiltered “Can we come, too?” a bigger deal, brunch for six. If nothing else, I had moved the venue, with my outburst, from the coffee table to the dining table, with all the extra work that entailed.

As I fussed over how to check in with Nutmeg on Saturday to make sure I hadn’t overstepped, and to give her a chance to un-invite us if she felt that I had, an email pinged into my inbox. “Co-working with Peaches” was the subject line, and the email was addressed to both Meta and me. It read:

If you guys want to come some day this week, either together or separately, to work from here and hang out with Peaches,, you are welcome to! (You might be asked to run an errand or hold her while we run an errand or something. But in exchange you can hang out with her on your chest while she sleeps, which is the best!)

The generosity of that invitation, the willingness it reflected to have me actually be there and be a part of their lives, made me weep. I couldn’t even read it aloud to iDaddy without breaking down.  Naturally, I said yes.

So in addition to a quick Father’s Day visit with iDaddy along with Avuncular and his wife (Nutmeg assured me it was fine; she said she expected we’d bring more food than we ate and clean up more than we dirtied, which is how it unfolded), I got to go back on Wednesday for my “co-working with Peaches” experience. I didn’t get much actual work done that day, but who cares. I helped a little with a couple of chores — grocery run again, mostly — and I did get to hold Peaches on my chest while she slept. Nutmeg is right: it IS “the best.”

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techmeme-tagsWhen Nutmeg and Southpaw announced that they were having a baby — something I was surprised by, since I hadn’t allowed myself even to hope that they’d start trying to get pregnant so soon — just about the first thing they asked was what iDaddy and I wanted to be called. Not having thought much about imminent grandparenting, neither of us had much to say.

On the subway ride home, though, iDaddy came up with a name he liked: Grumpy. It’s funny mostly because he’s such a thoroughly un-grumpy man, even-tempered and kind-hearted and so glass-half-full in his perspective that I often make fun of him and call him Polllyanna. (You might not believe it, but it can be very annoying to be a pessimist living with a perennially sunny guy.) If anyone in our pair should be Grumpy, I told him, it should be me.

But Nutmeg and Southpaw loved it, and Grumpy it will be.

I had some thoughts of my own for what I’d like to be called. If it were to be a name true to something in my nature or my interests, yet also a kind of “grandma” name, how about Grammar? I’m a writer, I love grammar; I can go kind of nuts over a misplaced apostrophe. Or how about Gamma, the kids countered, since the thing I write about is science.

Both of those names sound okay, I guess. But what I really want is a variation of a Grandma word that the baby herself invents, when the time comes. If I managed to avoid getting ahead of things when it came to wondering when Nutmeg and Southpaw might start trying to have a baby, I should be able to avoid getting ahead of things now, when I try to aniticipate what I’m going to be called when that baby finally arrives.

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ImageIt’s a delicate dance, this parenting of grownups. From the point of view of the adult daughter, I’ve always strived for some distance; I moved out of the house at 16 to go to college, moved out state at 19 to start a new life with my new husband, moved a comfortable 250 miles from home when we decided to start a family. iDaddy and I raised our girls with only an occasional visit from my parents, either at our house (my preference, because then they were less likely to treat me like a child) or theirs.

I knew the connection wasn’t strong enough for Ur-Momma. I knew that, from her point of view, the visits weren’t frequent enough. I knew she didn’t like talking to us only once a week, seeing us only once every few months. But it was pretty much exactly right for me.

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the not-frequent-enough visits and chats, I see how much it must have pained her when I kept her at arms length — at arms length from my life and, especially, from my daughters. Now we see our girls once a month, maybe twice, even though they live nearby. It’s not enough for me, and there’s nothing I can do about it but ratchet down my expectations.

For a while when Nutmeg was single, we saw her often, maybe every week and a half. Sometimes iDaddy and I would take her to a play or out for dinner; sometimes I’d meet her after work for a drink; sometimes iDaddy and she would go together to a football game. During this time, when Nutmeg was about 24 to 28, Meta was married to Wilcoand living a four-hour train ride away. So I didn’t see Meta often, but I was in constant g-chat contact with her — electronic chats that were sometimes even better than chats in real life, in much the same that hard conversations with her during her childhood were often better when we were in the car and she was in the back seat, confessing to the back of my head.

But now Nutmeg has a boyfriend, and she’d understandably rather spend time with him than with us, or even than with him plus us. And Meta has left Wilco and moved to an apartment not far from Nutmeg, where she’s busily — you might almost say frantically — building an incredibly active social life. So even though they’re now both living about an hour away from us by subway, they’re usually too busy to see us when we suggest it.

In fact, the last time I suggested a family get-together Nutmeg let me know, gently, that I had kind of pissed off Meta with the invitation. “Did she ask to get together this much when I didn’t live here?” she asked Nutmeg, clearly feeling hemmed in by our proximity. It’s the kind of question I would have asked Avuncular about our parents (he always lived in the same metro area, so he never knew the luxury of distance that I knew). That’s why it stung. When I used to think, “Why does Ur-Momma need to see me AGAIN?” it was because I felt no need to see her; our connection was fraught, and our contact was, from my end, mostly merely dutiful. So knowing now that Meta bristles at my contact in exactly the same way is terribly painful.

It’s a balancing act, though. Do I not invite her, and make her feel left out? Is that better or worse than inviting her too much, and making her feel burdened? And how much should I really communicate with and visit Nutmeg? We’re both journalists working for the same publication, which makes the balancing act especially hard. I try not to dump my career concerns on her too much — yet a few weeks ago, when I had a couple of assignments I had failed to mention that she had to hear about from an acquaintance, she felt miffed that there was something about my professional life that she didn’t know. Yet obviously there’s plenty about her life that I don’t know — not the professional stuff, which she eventually tells me all about, but the intimate questions I can’t ask, about marriage, babies, houses, plans . . .

As I said, a delicate dance.

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I don’t know much about poetry, but the poems that strike me most deeply are the ones about parents and children — in particular, the ones about mothers and daughters.  I kept one on the refrigerator for years, until Meta, at the time an English grad-student with heightened sensibilities, told me it was banal and tacky.  But I like banal and tacky!  That’s the stuff that makes me weep!  And besides, I had created such a nice little tableau with that poem.  I had posted it on the fridge with an ironically childish refrigerator magnet from Nutmeg, which she made as a camp counselor the summer after she graduated from high school, when we had already abandoned her for our new life in NYC.  I have the magnet still: it’s an apple (Big Apple, get it?) on which she pasted a yellow taxicab, a blue C (for Columbia, where iDaddy had his new job), and a steaming cup of cappuccino to represent all the cafes in which I would soon be doing my writing.  As for the poem, it’s gone, I fear, taken down because both girls wanted it gone.  I recently searched the web site of The New Yorker, where it was published, to see if I could find it, but I can’t remember enough of the poem for that.

But another poem came my way just this morning from its author, whom I met at a literary dinner the other night.  I was lucky enough to be seated next to Becky, and we talked all the way through our meal, from the cold cucumber soup to the blueberry cobbler, about our writing and our kids.  Today Becky sent me this poem about her daughter, who’s 27, and she said it would be okay to post it on my blog.  So in honor of that generous spirit, and in honor of National Poetry Month, here it is.

Ode to a Pair of Pants

by Rebecca Okrent

For my daughter

Like moulted skin they tell

you’ve become other than you were,

no help from me since my misguided offerings

are piled like insults at the back of a drawer.

Well-worn when you found them

beside junked Tee’s and

catechism frocks at the thrift shop, the pants,

unwashable, must carry your DNA,

might have foretold

the rheumatoid arthritis that translated

your body into another language,

spooling your hopes.

The threads are Christmas tinsel,

interwoven with psychedelic blues.

The elastic band sagged at your waist –

I watched: daughter as saltlick

for Beelzebub bar mitvah boys.

Where they’ve been: college,

Appalachian Trail, dance studios,

Vancouver, Seattle, etc., Greece,

Istanbul, on your body,

into my lap, pants frayed to transparency as

you never will be, dear enigma.  It’s insulting,

you say when I wonder what I might have done

differently, not from disappointment,

but to spare you the bloom-bruising

hail and a garrisoned heart.

I never get it right.  If I found these pants again

I’d be too late.  Presuming your desire, confusing it

with mine, I have failed.  I wear my love,

tattered as these pants are,

its weft not tinsel, but mail.

Lovely, isn’t it?  Two ideas here are the ones that resonate the most with me, the ones that seem best to capture the quandaries of parenting grown-ups: “Presuming your desire, confusing it/with mine” is one of them.  And the urge “to spare you the bloom-bruising hail” is another.  Both things to watch out for, and I thank Becky for expressing these universal sentiments so specifically, and so poetically.

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Nutmeg has been looking into the possibility of a new job at a publication I’ve yearned my whole life to write for, a publication I grew up revering.  I’ve written for a few prestigious magazines, but never for this one.  Nutmeg is working for one of those prestigious magazines already, but this new one is even better.  It is, as she put it, “the Harvard of magazines.”

She used the phrase in an email she sent to iDaddy and me after coming back from a one-hour interview with two people who would be her supervisors, including the head of the whole web site.  (The job is not for the print version of this “Harvard of magazines”; hey, this is 2010, and Nutmeg is a young journalist — of course the job is for the web site, just like Nutmeg’s current job is.)  She addressed the email to “Team Job,” a.k.a. her parents, the ever-present boosters in her never-ending career dramas, the people whose advice she still turns to because she knows we’re smart and thoughtful and informed and, unlike some of her friends and colleagues, have only her best interests at heart.  I read the Team Job email while I was out doing chores this afternoon, the first really nice day of spring, ever square inch of sidewalk and every patch of grass on the Columbia campus crammed with happy people. “for god’s sake,” Nutmeg wrote, at the top of her pros and cons list of whether this job would be better than the one she has (she doesn’t capitalize much in her emails), this job would be

“every granddaughter-of-a-bensonhurst-jew, daughter-of-a-queens intellectual’s dream.  so the idea that I could possibly work there is both incredibly flattering and incredibly exciting.”

Flattering and exciting — it sure as hell is.  Reading that sentence, standing there on Broadway as pedestrians scurried past, made my heart flutter and swell.  How far she’s come, the granddaughter of a Bensonhurst Jew, daughter of a Queens intellectual.   I got a little weepy thinking about this.  Ah, Nutmeg, you’ve made it, I thought.  I was so pleased.

But then, I have to admit, in not too long my thoughts started to drift over toward myself.  Ah, Momma, you’re so over — that’s kind of where my thoughts drifted.  I’ve always been braced for Nutmeg and Meta both to transcend me, but so soon?  And in an arena that I so desperately wanted for myself, and haven’t yet given up on, and could never quite conquer?

Give me a moment, please.  I’ll go back to being Nutmeg’s indefatigable booster in just a moment.  But first, I think I need to grieve just a little bit for my own fading career.  Then I’ll go back — soon, I promise — to giving my full attention to my amazing daughter.

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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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