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chicken soup for the empty-nest soul

13 Mar

Once upon a time there was a young and beautiful debutante-etudiante who led a charmed life with a future filled with such promise.  She skated right through law school and married.  Through sheer magic she bore three charming, bright, inquisitive, active, precocious, intelligent, gorgeous, conscientious, kind, active, chatty, talented, brilliant, funny, thoughtful, clever, active, busy children.  Two princes and a beautiful dancing princess whose feet and mouth were just never still.

Her days were filled with seeking justice for the citizens of her kingdom, the Great State of Texas.  The remaining and even intervening hours found her scheduling appointments, driving, planning, observing practices, paying bills, finding lost items, reimbursing the children money they had lent her so she could take them out to pizza places with arcades, supervising baths and teeth-brushing, refereeing bedtimes, preparing meals, trying to instill some values, remembering appointments, running late, and collapsing from fatigue at the end of nearly every day.

One day, the Queen of the palace found herself alone in a quiet castle.  Only the non-verbal subjects remained in attendance.  Multiple dogs, several cats, and a particularly resilient goldfish.   

After nearly ten years of placing everybody else’s needs, wants, desires, and plans in front of her own, the Queen took to her bed.  She read over an entire year’s journals and writings and questions and thoughts and observations and notes about hard times and big questions and nostalgia and so many entries that began “Today was a really good day” because sometimes you just need to be reminded.  She read over notes she had taken on all her readings and realized how her thinking had evolved.  She drank multiple cups of coffee, forgot to eat, overslept, skipped the one plan she had made for herself all weekend, and then, finally, she dragged herself from her cozy nest and walked some dogs for a long, long time.

Her thoughts vacillated between thinking that ten days alone was not going to be nearly long enough and that she would never make it without them.  Somehow, in spite of wide swaths of inconsistent thinking, she still managed to live happily ever after.

the end.


post-holiday report

30 Dec

I have so much to say, and good sense would dictate that I not publish it all.  I think that I will try to be vague, even though I hate not being able to say what I want to. 

I have a friend who was seemingly healthy one month ago and now she is in the painful grips of pancreatic cancer.  This is bad.

Another close friend is also sick and in the hospital.  He can’t afford an infection as he does not have a strong immune system.  I am very worried about him.  He deserves his own page in my blog under the category of gentlemen I have known.  He is absolutely exquisite and accomplished and he means the world to me.  He has given me some of the best dating advice I have received so far, specifically: “don’t.”  I will draw him out about that when he is released from the hospital.  Or maybe he’d like an inquisitive, soul-searching visitor, asking all the hard questions to distract him from his illness?

The children are home!!   (I am sorry, but this does call for 2 exclamation points)

I have the nicest children ever.  No disrespect is intended for any of you who also have children – I am sure that I love yours, too, and sometimes, late at night when they are finally asleep as mine are, you think they are the best kids ever.  That’s all this is.  Appreciation from across the house while they sleep and don’t talk back.  Wade received roller blades from Santa Claus and has been wearing them non-stop around the house.  Janet Jackson played Tootie on the 80’s TV show, The Facts of Life (which we only watched when my parents were away).  Tootie was always on roller skates, and Wade reminds me of her.  This evening, we walked Hattori, Jack and Curry.  Wade was on skates and Henry and I were just in regular shoes.  In just a week away from me, though, Henry has grown up.  He is so vocal and bossy and busy and no-nonsense.  He fussed at Wade and me the whole way.  But the dogs like him.

Then I took them all out to supper and made them share entrees, as I often do.  Nobody complained.  I love them when they don’t complain.  Then we toured the Christmas lights one last time before they take them down, while listening to 1990’s country music – my personal comfort food.  I built them a playhouse-garage (from Pottery Barn, but it had to be assembled) so that Wade can have his own space, but I don’t think Henry will allow it.  He said “Yade, you’re my best friend, aren’t you?” and Wade said “of course I am, Hen.”

Anna has been dancing every step of every part in the Nutcracker.  Even the big girl dances, like Kissy doll.  I never knew how much that wild thing was absorbing – I always assumed she was too distracted, but she has really got this ballet thing down.  I don’t know whether I will be able to avoid Nutcracker 2011.  As much as I want to.

We are about to enter January, the month preceding Annie Get your Gun!  It is going to be wild, but the Civic Theatre is just down the street and not in the hinterlands of North San Angelo, so I think we will be all right. 

Anna brought up her one line, and said, “mom, I am afraid this is setting a bad example, but my only line is ‘yeah.’”  I told her that theatre is art, and we make allowances for art.  As long as she knows to say “yes ma’am” in real life, she can say “yeah!” from the stage and I won’t hold it against her.

I’ve had some disappointments that I won’t discuss here no matter how much you beg me to.  You’ll just have to call me if you want the personal stuff.  I hate being disappointed.  Especially about something important to me.  But I have been so low before that the only thing holding me together was gratitude for how much I really do have – materially and in my friends.  And while it feels pitiful and painful, it’s not a terrible state.  It can give birth to a unique way of approaching the world and a determination not to let the small things pass you by unnoticed.  I now try to notice everything and see whether there is anything good about it.  Or at least whether it means anything.  Or maybe it’s funny?  The absurd can be redeeming, too.  It is such a rich life.

good tidings of great joy

15 Dec

The first requirement (or would it be a goal?) of successful parenting is the survival of the parent.

I really dislike whining.  Just ask my children.  And my friends.  And so I have lost patience with me and my sorry emotional state.  I tell myself to buck up.  You wanted them to be in Nutcracker.  You love Ambleside and its drop-dead gorgeous Christmas worship service.  You love three year-olds wearing reindeer antlers and snowman overalls.  You are thrilled that St. Luke’s sanctuary is standing room only when a few years ago enrollment was precipitously low.  Preschoolers singing “Up on the Housetop” with hand motions makes you weep tears of sentimental joy.  It’s that sehnsucht again.  Beauty has smiled again, but not necessarily at you.  Just in your presence, and now she’s gone.

The Lakeview auditorium is just beautiful and state of the art acoustically and for viewing.  Every seat is a front-row seat.  You love watching Helen Clare Kinney, home from Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, dancing Sugarplum Fairy.  You loved watching her as a little girl as Clara.  It’s sheer poetic and artistic justice.  And, of course, years of dedication and training.  Whatever. It’s just lovelyto see.  You love that you have set boundaries and just said no to supervising the dressing rooms.  (even though you feel selfish doing so).  You love that you live in San Angelo, and that the furthest distance to the most remote hinterlands in Lakeview is still only about 10 miles away, if that.  You love that your boss has children in Nutcracker, too, and hasn’t fired you yet for poor job performance due to maternal exhaustion.  You are even secretly thrilled that the children’s father is away on a hunting trip and can’t exercise his visitation this week or attend any Nutcracker performances, because the children will be all yours during this very difficult and very rewarding week.

You have ALL THIS AND MORE to be happy about.  But sometimes, you still feel like crying.  In the dark at Nutcracker practice.  Is it the beauty of the dancers?  The dedication of even the littlest angels?  The sheer love of Miss Meghann for her etudiantes?  Is it that she is just as likely to correct their grammar as she is their arabesque? (“You had eaten, Molly, not you had ate”).  “Have any of you had supper?  No?  I can tell.  Please, eat something, and then let’s do finale again.  I know it’s late.  I’m sorry.” 

Is it Christmas itself?  the errands undone and gifts unbought or even thought about?  Is it gratitude for your own mother who will drive twelve hours to leap from the frying pan of her own Christmas into the fire of your chaotic single-parent home?  Is it the sinus infection or sheer fatigue?  Is it knowing that soon enough the chaos will give way to silence?  Just you and the dogs as the children accompany their dad and his family to the beach for a pre-Christmas vacation?  What in the world will you do then?  Probably cry.

It may be the three year-old who asks you to read the Bible to him.  So you read him the Christmas story from Luke and he wants to hear it again.  We have some special time together every night around 9:30 p.m. when he has to be removed from his bed so that poor, exhausted, sick Wade can go to sleep without being harassed and assaulted by Henry.  Once Wade  has succumbed, I can put Henry back in bed.  If Wade isn’t awake to protest Henry’s onslaught, Henry gives up quickly.  We have a mandatory, Christmas story-reading time out every night.  Just another step in the routine.

I am sick.  I am tired.  And sometimes it feels like I may be depressed, but I don’t really think so.  I think I am just exhausted and overwhelmed with what it means to be this fortunate.  It is a rich, rich life.

People say I’m thought-provoking

9 Dec

Anna Banana was in rare form yesterday.  She was positively brimming with queries.  She addresses Henry as “sweetie” or “sweets” and I can see her treating him with the same affection and kindness with which her beloved second grade teacher, Mrs. Stevenson, approaches her.  I think “sweets” is Mrs. Stevenson’s special form of endearment.  She is dancing at least 4 days a week preparing for Nutcracker next weekend.  It is a BIG production, starring close to 100 children, but somehow, 8 years old and barely out of pre-ballet, Anna is dancing three different parts.  She is cast as a Christmas angel, a mouse, and a gingerbread girl.  She is positively exhausted every night and puts herself to bed with a book of poems and a CD of Julie Andrews reading them.  Seriously, every night.  I didn’t expect this from her, but how do you know what to expect from a child, who at four, looks right into her grandmother’s eyes and announces:

“People say I’m beautiful.” 

I worried then that she was a Norma Desmond in the making, but now with the flair for poetry and dancing and drawing, well, look out world,  here she comes.

Yesterday I picked her and Wade up from school and she asked me this zinger:

“Mom, when you run into somebody you sent to jail, what do you and he talk about?”

I think I managed to say something like “oh, that never happens” or some other platitude.  I should have told her that I discuss how I kennel police dogs and pit bulls at my house; or how my husband is a green beret; or that I have recently taken an advanced handgun-marksmanship class.  None of which are true, by the way.  I have run into former defendants – usually at the grocery store.  It’s the great equalizer.  Everybody runs out of bread, milk, and garbage bags, even criminals.  They always say “hello, Mrs. Noelke,” and are generally very polite, but I don’t exactly stand around and make idle conversation with them. 

Later on, she told me of her plans to open a facility called “Anna’s Orphanage.”  She explained that it’s really not fair that some children are orphans and don’t have parents.  She wants to give them each a Christmas present to make up for their not having a mom and dad.  And here was the best part – the logistics:

“Mom, where do you get orphans?”

As I was putting some polishing touches on our Christmas tree, she admired its glitter and flair and asked me again if I had any of the family jewels.  She is just dying to get her hands on them. 

the very last question she asked was a good one – a complex, tricky issue: “What about a tattoo that says ‘I love God?’ ”  I said “Well, Anna, I don’t think God likes tattoos (apologies to any and all tattooed readers.  I am merely trying to keep her un-inked until she graduates from high school.  After that, I will give up my attempts to control her style.)

“I know, Mom,” she said, “but this is a tattoo that says something good about GOD.”  as though I didn’t get the dilemma.  I settled for “God would prefer you announce your love for Him in ways besides permanent ink on your skin.”  Like a tee-shirt.  Or good deeds.

She wasn’t quite as entertaining today, or maybe I just didn’t see her as much as she had evening visitation with her dad, but yesterday, she was classic Anna.  Always edgy, always generous, always glittering.  Hopefully not yet tattooed.

culture snob part deux

5 Dec

I probably alienated you all with my anti-television post.  But now that I am in my forties, I am trying to state my opinions unapologetically.  They aren’t facts necessarily, but they are facts about me, and while they could change, it’s been forty years, and well, who am I kidding?  I am not exactly becoming more tolerant as I age.  If you are my real friend, I hope that you love me (or tolerate me) anyway, and if you were just referred by someone, I am so sorry you missed me in my younger years.  I was a lot easier to get along with then.  From what I can remember through the rose-colored haze of time.

Back to television and my snobbery.  I have had a grand, extended cable package and so, my choice of options was wide.  But nothing ever really held my attention.  The real problem may be the Attention Deficit Disorder that I am convinced I suffer from (probably like all mothers).   It is not in my nature to sit down and tune in.  There are bills that are late; there are clothes in the dryer from last week; dogs want to be walked and fed; children who want to be read to or at least listened to, maybe even bathed;  school pictures to be ordered, the kitchen should be swept; my bed isn’t visible anymore under the pile of books that I am reading; light bulbs need to be changed; coats hung up; closets cleaned; floors vacuumed!  I am becoming stressed out just writing about all this.  When I become stressed, I can hardly concentrate on some show about housewives more desperate than I.  They may all be having affairs and high drama in their neighborhoods, but their houses are so clean!  Where do they find the time?

I am just not suited for television.  Whether it’s a vestige of  my television-impoverished childhood or a product of my temperament, I just can’t do it.  Someone once gave me a book called 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  I wonder if he imagined the pressure that caused?  I have that book on my shelf, but I haven’t opened it because I know that I will be a failure.  I don’t even know how long I will live, but what if it less than 1001 days?  Even if I read a classic a day, I would fail.  And who has time to read a classic a day anyway?  War and Peace?  That has, like, a million pages.  There’s just no way to get it all done!

And for every hour that I spend watching television, it’s an hour that I am not even doing the things I want to do – like write my grandmother or re-read Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre.  Not to mention the Faulkner that feels required by virtue of my Mississippianism and love of literature.  I have read a lot of Faulkner, and let me tell you – those novels require some concentration!  But I still want to re-visit them and appreciate what makes them great.

You see, it’s not television, it’s me.  I have had a relationship with TV.  It just didn’t work out.  I have a fear of commitment that is perhaps pathological.  I’m just afraid of the opportunity costs.  What am I trading in for that hour of “relaxation”, which you see by now, isn’t the least bit relaxing to me?

If I do decide to commit to something, I want it to be something critically acclaimed; enriching; deep; that leaves me enthralled and impressed.  The Ken Burns National Parks series on PBS did that, and I was glad to have seen it, but my mother forced me to watch it.  She was right – it was great.  I don’t mind having a television for occasions like that, but I know myself by now – it’s been forty years, after all, and without someone actively saying “sit down – watch this,” I just am not going to do it.

So, please, be patient with my lack of knowledge of current events or Black Friday sales or this season’s American Idol.  And I don’t know how Snookie wears her hair or why Celebrity matchmaker kicked that girl out of her office.  I trust that y’all will tell me if it’s imperative that I know.  Thank you.

Ode to Mary Rose

17 Nov

Today is my mother’s birthday.  On this occasion, I would like to thank her for being the perfect mother for me and for being unflinchingly and stalwartly supportive of my (nearly) every endeavour.  Her career as my number one supporter began in February, 1970, at a hospital in New Orleans.  My dad wasn’t even there to hold her hand when I was born.  He was out somewhere having a sandwich, and apparently he didn’t even bring us home from the hospital — a friend of hers drove us.  From the photographs, he appears quite fond of me as a baby, but I have to give all credit for keeping me alive and healthy and happy to my mother.  I have seen her with my own babies and I have seen my dad with my babies, and there is no question that I would not be around today were it not for the tireless efforts of my mother.

She is a unique individual.  She was not like the other mothers.  Classmates would say “I saw your mother on Grand Boulevard taking signs off the trees this morning.”  She didn’t appreciate people nailing their garage sale signs into the hundred year-old water oaks.  She was like the Lorax – she spoke for the trees.  I wanted to die of embarrassment.

She wasn’t a cupcake-baking mother or a PTA mother or room mother.  She was the mother who would come into your class with slideshows of her trip to Africa or exotic birds or water lilies.  She was the mother who flew airplanes.  She was the mother who picked up stray dogs and found their owners.  She also might come in on career day and talk about being a newspaper photographer/journalist.  She always made it clear that she was a photographer first and a writer second.  She probably made them put that in her contract.

She was the mother who warned me when I was leaving for camp in Maine “Don’t let them think you are stupid just because you come from Mississippi,” and when I went to boarding school: “There will be some girls there who fly to the Caribbean for Easter.  Remember, we are not that kind of people.” 

She was the mother who forced her children to attend the art movie series at the public library.  She ordered Picnic at Hanging Rock; Babette’s feast; Black Orpheus…I know there were more, but my indignant, horrified, teenaged brain repressed them. 

While other families went to Destin for vacation, she and my dad took us to Mexico and Belize and forced us to ride the train to Chicago.  I resented her for making us stand in line in the wind and snow and slush to see a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the National Gallery.  All my friends were probably at the beach.  We were forced to listen to opera and classical music.  Other mothers were cooler than mine.  Other moms drew their daughters out about the high school gossip and current teen romances.  My mom seemed to think all that was silly and ridiculous.  She only seemed to care that we were educated and exposed to more culture than just what Greenwood, Mississippi, offered.

We were only allowed to watch an hour of television per week.  I was always out of the loop on the latest in pop culture.  She forbade me to wear makeup until high school.  She said all that blue eyeshadow made me look like a streetwalker.  She advised my friends and me not to “make ourselves available” to boys.  Whatever that means.

When I wanted to leave college and come home because I was homesick, she seemed sympathetic, but she still said no.  I was merciless.  I called her daily to tell her how miserable I was and how much I hated it there.  I did the same thing to her when I was in law school. 

From this vantage, I can see that she was in the trenches with my brother and me every single day.  We saw her as impossible and only interested in herself and my dad having a good time, while we unlucky children were just dragged along on these cultural excursions and family outings.  “Everybody else” could watch TV and listen to popular music and lounge around the house eating sugary cereals in their pajamas all day, and we were expected to DO SOMETHING.  Read something, write something, make something, think about something, be something.  We were convinced that she just didn’t want us to have a good time.  Ever.

When my marriage ended last August, my mother gave me the best advice I have ever, ever received – before or since.  She said simply: “He has made his plans.  It is time for you to make yours.”

She has always made her own plans.  She obtained her master’s degree and her pilot’s license after having children.  She almost went to law school at age 40.  She had her name legally changed back to her maiden name even though she was still married to my dad and had taken his name 20 years before.  She is a great role model for never losing your own identity just because you are married and have children.  There is never a time when she isn’t working on a big project.  

I have never stopped being homesick and she has never stopped being encouraging and supportive.  When asked why I am a certain way: how I learned to love dogs more than people, how I have been so secure through a separation and divorce that rocked us, why I don’t watch television, why I have such an appetite for shoes, I realize that it’s all because of having Mary Rose as a mother.

I hereby offer a public apology for thinking you weren’t cool.  I knew you were the prettiest mom, but I couldn’t see the value of your uniqueness when I was a child.  Now that I am learning who I am and how I came to be this way, I think I am the luckiest child ever born to have you as a mother.  Happy Birthday.

Why I write and why I run

7 Nov

Oh look, Mary Carol!  All my concern about being too tranquil and blissed-out was for nothing.  Luckily for my interesting-ness, the absence of angst was but a temporary condition!  Now I shall have to see if I can find a way to channel it for the good.

So far the answer is a resounding YES.  I have been on at least two walks every day this week.  Several of those walks have been along the beautiful Gun Club road aka the KOA.  It’s a 2 mile loop that overlooks Lake Nasworthy and is a challenge with its constant hills and ridges.  It’s also very gratifying to walk the road and run up the hills.  It hurts your legs and your lungs and when you’re finished, you just feel so relieved and worn out.  And your legs will surely start to show the contours of seldom-used muscles from the uphill sprints.  I can’t think of a single negative about having pretty legs.

The other walk is the ordinary, daily cemetery walk with the dogs.  They enjoy it so much.  I look like a New York City dogwalker on the way over with such a motley assortment of unruly hounds, but it is the highlight of their day, and I am driven to fit it in.  I am tormented by guilt if they don’t get in a good romp.

So the walking and running are helping with the overactive nerves.  Writing about all the chaos and craziness of my life helps with the angst.  It makes me laugh at myself, and if it makes you laugh at all, then I feel in some small way valuable to the world.