A Jewish Mom’s Guide to Christmas – Part 1

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Yes, I feel the need to write this in October. Halloween is still days away; it an entire month until Thanksgiving. And yet my mailbox has been filled with catalogues sparkling with Christmas cheer.

The cover of the latest (now coming weekly?) Pottery Barn catalogue welcomes me to the holidays. Good to know that “the most magical of seasons is here” – and that it includes 46 pages of blankets, dishes, pillows and trinkets all in shades of red and green. (Was blue somehow left off the pantone chart this year?).

And Ballard DesignBirchLaneBoden and GrandinRoad and all of your look-alike-catalogue-cousins that fill my mailbox each day – Hello?? – look at your calendars. It is October.

“Cashmere for Christmas” – that would be no.

“Believe” – I do, just not in what you do.

“Have a Fresh and Festive Holiday Season” – not exactly.

“Hope you have a White Christmas” – bet you didn’t know a Jewish man wrote the song “White Christmas”, did you?

So now I sound grumpy. But I’m not really. (nor am I the least bit grinchy.) Hey, I like Christmas. I like the cheerful spirit of the season, I like the sentiments of peace and joy and I even like Christmas songs.

(and I know the words to all of them. You could not help but learn them if you went to public school during the 1960’s. If you were standing next to me in the choir onstage at Fairfield Woods Junior High, yes, that was me who was silently mouthing some of the more religious-themed words during our rendition of “Come All Ye Faithful”.  I may know all the words but that doesn’t mean I have to sing all of them.)

Today in writing class I mentioned this early Xmas onslaught to my classmates. The ones who celebrate the holiday reassured me that they too are aggravated by the way-too-early barrage of the commercialization of Christmas. I tried to explain to them that it wasn’t just the Christmas music playing well before we get to celebrate Thanksgiving that bothered me, it was that feeling of otherness.

If you do not celebrate Christmas, whether you are Jewish or Muslim or Atheist or whatever your belief of choice, you feel at this time of year that everyone belongs to one big fat happy club to which you are not a member. And you will never be.

I accept that 100%. And it is fine to have that “I’m not part of the group” feeling for a few weeks before December 25th.

But when Christmas creeps into October (October!), I have to take a stand. I don’t look forward to a full eight weeks of that outsider thing.

When my kids were little we were an interfaith family. My husband was not raised Jewish and although we decided together before we were married that our family would be a Jewish one, Dad included; he did not formally convert to Judaism until our kids were eight and five. Our kids went to Sunday and Hebrew school at our synagogue, we celebrated all of the Jewish holidays, but they still got mixed messages.

Driving by a house one night in December lit up with beautiful holiday nights, my then four-year old commented on how pretty they were and his oh-so-wise seven-year old sister scolded him  – “You can’t like those. They are Christmas lights. We are Jewish.”

No”, I told my kids. “That’s not right. We can enjoy the holiday lights. It is fine to appreciate how other people celebrate Christmas even if it isn’t our holiday. I happen to like the lights, look how nice that house looks on the corner.”

But my kids were not easily convinced. Especially when my then sister-in-law on my husband’s side of the family “thoughtfully” gave my kids Christmas-themed gifts each year – even though she (sophisticated and well-educated) knew that our kids were Jewish. One year they received books titled  ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas with a handwritten note from their aunt hoping they’d have a happy Christmas morning (they didn’t). Another year she gave both of them matching red and green striped pajamas with little elves and santas on them, again with a note wishing them many gifts on Christmas morning (didn’t happen).

In fact, when my kids were little and caught up in the weeks before Christmas that permeated each school day, I realized that Christmas could be interpreted – one way to look at it, wait a minute hear me out – as a burden.

When I was volunteering at a holiday fair at one of my kid’s schools in early December one year, I shared a table sorting books with a few other moms who were complaining loudly to each other about how behind they were on their Christmas cards, how many decorations they had to arrange, how overwhelmed they were by all the holiday baking they had to do. I felt a bit smug, I must say. I had no card-sending, decorating or baking obligations.

Being Jewish frees up lots of time for you in December.  Many extra hours not spent decking the halls with boughs of holly can be spent doing anything you want!

But then the catalogues come, barraging my mail box, and I start to feel excluded and oh – did I mention that it is only October?

So I am already bracing myself for a l-o-n-g season of wishing others well, hoping they have a wonderful holiday that we will not be part of.  And so long as you know it is not my holiday, that is o.k. I am happy to wish you a Merry Christmas and never cringe if you wish me one right back.

But can we please wait until at least after Thanksgiving to start with the festive season thing?

And by the way, if you are reading this in October, Happy Halloween!

 

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Filed under Family, Holidays, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Women, Writing

“A” is for Application, “B” is for Biome, “C” is for College…

taiga_NLW

 

“Really, you’ve never heard of the ‘Taiga Biome’? It’s a subartic forest, the largest one on the earth.” Jasmine told me.

“Sorry, news to me. Maybe the word Biome didn’t exist when I was in high school?” I replied hopefully.

Jasmine laughed, then whipped the laptop into google mode in under 10 seconds and told me that the term “Biome” was first used in 1916.

Since I did graduate from high school well after 1916, I laughed in return, but tried to defend myself.

“O.K., let me explain. They didn’t even have environmental science back when I was in high school. The first Earth Day was when I was a senior.”

Jasmine looked at me with understandable bemusement.

Here we were:

Me:  a 62-year-old Caucasian woman, clearly out of touch, at least when it came to biological habitats, who has lived for over 30 years in a close-in, upscale DC suburb.

She: a 17-year-old African-American woman, a senior in high school, who lived in a part of lower-income Washington DC beyond my typical paths.

I sat down next to Jasmine last night in a conference room in a DC office building to start a conversation with her about her college applications. At first she claimed she was too busy to talk, she was doing research for her senior project, the “Taiga Biome”.

Like college bound 17 year olds everywhere, she preferred doing just about anything other than focusing on her college applications.

This fall I started volunteering with a non-profit group in DC that helps 1st generation and/or low-income teens get into and stay in college. The group, let’s call it “CAP” – College Access Program – starts with kids nominated by their DC public schools and pairs them up with academic mentors through high school to make sure they stay on the college track. In junior year, CAP ramps it up, adds in college visits, seminars, test prep, scholarship info – and here is where I came in – and brings in college advisors.

I was honored when CAP asked me to be a college advisor, but anxious.  How could I connect with these kids?

The high school kids I had college counseled in the past had parents a lot like me – highly educated, well read, totally versed in the college planning culture. Their kids had the ins and outs of the college process embedded in their DNA,  from AP to IB, from test prep to individual tutoring, from early decision to early application to single choice early application and back again. They knew the lingo, they knew what was expected of them. I was one of these parents not so long ago. And my kids were those kids.

Jasmine and most of her CAPs classmates didn’t grow up with the for-sure vision of college in their future. This was newer terrain for them, they were feeling their way. They knew I was there to help them. But as uncertain as I was of what I could do for them, they were wary of me, too. Why should they confide in me? I had to find some common ground.

So I tried to make a connection with Jasmine by talking to her about her school work. The Taiga Biome. Well, that was a flop.

Better to try, I thought, to just dive into a subject I did know well. How to write a college application essay that would capture her heart and mind in under 650 words.

The best part of the college planning process for me had always been helping 17 year olds with their essays. Let me clarify, I did not and do not “write” these essays. The kids write every word. Before the writing starts, we brainstorm. Call it weird but I find it fun to help a high school senior come up with five or six paragraphs, a story, a vignette that will show (show, not tell) a very busy college admission staffer who she is and what she will contribute to the campus. It is a story about you, I tell these kids.

I tried again.

“Jasmine, can we talk for a few minutes about your college applications. I know you have a list of schools, but where are you on your college essays, on your personal statement?”

Jasmine looked down, hoping perhaps that the answer to my question might spring from the photo of the trees of the Taiga Biome on the laptop screen.

“No”, she said very quietly.

“That’s fine, no problem. I can help you with that. Do you have any ideas of what you want to write about?”

“No”, even quieter this time.

“Tell me about what you did last summer, tell me what you like to do when you are not in school, tell me what makes you happy – or sad.”

We chatted for a bit, Jasmine still looking down at the laptop, looking anywhere but at me. But at least we were talking. She told me she was on her high school’s track team.

“That’s good. I have a nephew who’s on the cross-country team at his high school. Similar sports?”

“Cross country is longer; they have hills.  I run shorter distances on a track, it’s flat.”

I was impressed, since I think that going down stairs to our basement to do the laundry should count as a valid form of exercise.  I asked Jasmine, “What do you like about running?”

Jasmine, for the first time since we started to talk, looked up and turned her face towards mine.

“I find it soothing.”

I paused. “Jasmine, I’m not your therapist. You don’t have to tell me why you find it soothing – but I think a college admission person would be interested to know why you find running to be soothing for you. What is going on in your life that makes you want to run, to be soothed, do you think you could write about that?”

” I like music, I find that soothing too.” she said in a more confident voice.

And that was that. Well, maybe not so fast. Jasmine hasn’t written her essay yet.  But she had her topic, her way into herself.

Yes, I thought, all 17 year olds are alike. The CAPs kids are just like every other teen, no matter their parents’ income level. While they may be comfortable texting every single thought they have to their friends, to sharing their opinions with the world on social media, they are inherently private. Few 17 year olds want to dig deep, to self-reflect, to figure out what makes them “tick” – and then write about in a personal essay. And even fewer want to share that with a complete stranger called a “college advisor.”  I knew that going in but didn’t really appreciate that until Jasmine and I started to talk.

I learned what the Taiga Biome is. And Jasmine is learning how to write about herself. I call that a connection.

 

 

 

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Press 1 for a Quick Call, Press 2 to Vent, Press 3 to… Advice v.s. Listening

Mobile-phone-keypad

 

Inventors, are you listening? Here is my idea for what I know will be a wildly successful new product for women of all ages.

A “press the button” system for phone calls from friends.

Model it after the automated services you reach when you call any business number these days. Perhaps my friends will find it annoying at first when they call me and have to push a button before I answer  – but it would be very  helpful for me (for you, too?) to be able to categorize in advance what a call is about.

Here’s how I suggest setting up a “press the button” system for conversations with friends:

  • Press 1 – if this will be a quick call where you just want to know the Name of the Restaurant we went to last weekend.
  • Press 2 – if this will be a longer call where you want to Vent to me about a Problem with your (select one: husband, child, mother-in-law, colleague at work, other)
  • Press 3 – if this will be a longer call where you want to Vent – but also Want Actual Advice from me for the problem with your (select one: husband, child, mother-in-law, colleague at work, other).
  • Press 4 – for a Health problem that may require my Immediate Assistance (acknowledging my superb self-taught medical diagnostic skills).
  • Press 5 – or simply stay on the line if your Beloved Dog has died. That is a problem that will always require my Immediate Assistance.

Some of my friends seem to be experiencing various life changes this fall – an illness, a troubled child, a demanding boss, a difficult spouse. But when friends call, I somehow respond to Press 2 calls with my Press 3 approach and to Press 3 calls with a Press 2 approach.  This has not worked well.

Perhaps the world of friends is divided between two types – the advisors and the advisees?

I was pretty much born to give advice  (just ask my younger sister)  – which must be maddening to those who don’t want to hear my advice.

All those years when I was a practicing lawyer – real life people (we called them “clients”) actually paid me for my advice! So it is a hard button to switch off. Even while in the law biz, my listening skills were on the weak end of the scale. A client would call and start to explain his problem – it wasn’t that I was so psychic but after 30 plus years, you have a pretty good grasp of what is likely to come next. Often I would start with the advice part of the client call before the client had finished actually asking for the advice. It may not have won me awards for listening but it was an efficient way to do business.

So now that I am in the land of the semi-retired when a friend calls me to talk about a problem, I am still automatically primed to give advice. I’m tapping my fingers, struggling to keep silent while my friend describes the latest issue with her husband, the jerk (“he said what?”) – or her daughter, the “challenge child” (“she did what?”) – or her demeaning and difficult boss (“she asked you what?”).

The words are still coming out of my friend’s mouth but my head is already spinning into advice cycle. I like to think I offer insightful, direct, to the point advice.  Why don’t you suggest a compromise to your husband? Why don’t you set more limits (or fewer limits) for your daughter? Why don’t you quit that job already?

You called me, remember, if you didn’t want to get advice, then why did you call?

Gently, ever so gently, the other day my sister (she counts as a friend even though we are related) pointed out to me that not everyone wants my advice.

Shocking News.

Really, so why did they call me?

Again, in a soft kind voice that implies I am a very slow learner, and that she is telling me the most obvious of facts, my sister explains that maybe friends call just because they want to vent. Only to vent.

To tell me that their husband, the jerk, made a nasty remark – again. Or their “challenge child” may drop out of school – again. Or that her boss told her to work on a project that was cancelled but forgot to tell her about the cancellation part, so she spent 20 hours on it –  again.

Having to press 2 for a call that will simply be a vent would help me prepare to hold my tongue, to be a better listener, to not take it personally if my friends simply want to vent and not get advice.

Some people are actually good at listening. You may know them as “therapists”. They get paid to listen. The idea is that they listen so well that you will actually come to your own conclusions, sort of a self-advice system. For instance, a good therapist will listen to you talk for 10 minutes about the fight you had with your husband (who may or may not be a jerk) and then say something really insightful like – “And how did that make you feel? or “what do you think you should say when that happens the next time?”

Of course if you understood how that made you feel or if you knew what to say the next time, you wouldn’t be seeing a therapist, now would you?

(note: I have been seeing the same therapist for a few years, going in for monthly tune-ups and she is both a good listener and advice giver so I hereby exempt her from this over-generalization.)

But our friends don’t call us because we are therapists. Friends call because they want us to listen, it is expected of us, the part of the relationship like the old kids’ toy – the paddle ball where the paddle and the ball take turns – one stretches out while the other coils in. The push and pull of friendships.

Since it looks like I am, as always, ahead of my time as to my brilliant idea of a “press the button” friendship phone call system, I plan to take my sister’s advice. Learn to listen better, Nancy! You can do this. My friends will no doubt appreciate having fewer interruptions and not hearing my always very well intended and sometimes (I think rather helpful) advice.

So next time you call me, no need to press any buttons. Of course if you tell me upfront, “Hi, I just need to vent…”, the old-fashioned pre-button system, I will get prepared to fully listen to you, I promise.

 

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Filed under Communications, Female Friends, Lawyers, Relationships, Women

Of Coffee, Ice Cream and Soccer Shoes

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My friend Liz and I are in that sweet spot between Menopause (been there, done that) and Medicare (not there, not needing that).

She called me the other day and said, “I have two things to ask you.”

“O.K., what’s up?”

Did I want to see a new movie she thought we would both like?  That led to a discussion about possible restaurants to go to after the movie (if we could stay awake that long.) Which led us to talking about why she eats so much healthier than I do.  (I like kale, I do, but really, 3x a week?). After several more stray conversational tangents, I asked her,

“What was the second thing you wanted to ask me?”

She replied, “I forgot.”

“Fine, no problem. Call me back if you remember.” I said.

Maybe she will remember, maybe she won’t.  This happens to me often too. I like to think that we have all the time in the world to try to recall what that second question was, to get together with friends, to make plans. But will we have the time?

Getting older worries me. Specifically, it is the “aging” part of getting older that worries me. My Dad is 91 and Liz’s mom is 90. They are elderly. We see what aging looks like for them. It has its good moments and some not so good. My Dad, who goes into his office every day, is still quite sharp, especially when he remembers to wear his hearing aids. Liz’s Mom’s vision is failing but she enjoys getting a regular manicure. They both appreciate every birthday that they have.

What will aging look like by the time we get there? I’m not ready to be considered “old”, I told Liz recently, although more often I feel that younger people see us that way.

A few Saturday mornings ago my husband and I went to a small coffee shop known for its fabulous brew.  It was packed with 20 and 30 somethings, as it is in a trendy neighborhood near new condos, pilates studios, wine bars and hot restaurants. We stood in line, I ordered my skim latte, my husband his espresso, one scone to share and then with the newspapers (the actual print kind) under our arms, we hunted for a place to sit.

Was it my imagination or did all of the millennials hunch even more closely over their laptops as we walked by silently telling us – hey look, Mr. and Ms. Oldster, every seat in here is taken, shouldn’t you be having a nice bland cup of coffee at the nearest generic place? When no seats opened up at the cool coffee shop, we had to leave, with our coffee in to-go cups, my husband grumbling that espresso is not to be served in to-go cups.

The next Saturday morning we reluctantly did go to the nearest generic Starbucks. At around 11 a.m., it was filling up with young families, the kids in their soccer uniforms, moms texting, dads checking email, chatting about their next activity on a busily over-scheduled Saturday. Looking at them, it seemed like it was only a few years ago that my husband and I were the ones digging through the front hall closet to find shin guards, soccer shoes that still fit and preparing the orange quarters for halftime snacks.

I thought – very briefly – about going up to one of the young soccer families in the Starbucks, and saying, hey, enjoy it while you can, it seems like this stage of life, this being parents of young kids, that it will last forever. You think that the new soccer seasons will keep coming around each fall, but they won’t. In a snap of an eye your kids will be teens, then gone, then grown. Oh sure, the parents would say to me, you are such an oldster. Go back to your coffees, you have all day to hang out, we are a very busy young family, this is a Saturday;  you’ve had your prime time, leave us to our fun.

Has our time for fun passed?

I hope not. I heard an interview with Dr. Atul Gawande (surgeon, public health researcher, author of a new book called “Being Mortal”) on the radio the other day about how we should change the way we approach aging. We have “medicalized” aging, he says, putting far too much emphasis on keeping elderly people safe, rather than happy, by minimizing their risks in restrictive nursing homes to the extent that they have nothing to live for in lives with few pleasures. He suggested instead that we create places where the elderly can live with their own pets, their own kitchens, their own art, being able to eat and sleep when they want. Hey, I wanted to tell him through the radio waves, I am all for that. (and yes, I will send in my pledge donation to my nearest NPR station very soon.)

Last Friday night my husband and I went out to dinner to a neighborhood restaurant that serves “contemporary American food”, you know the kind with menu choices designed to please the old and the young.  The dining room was filled with people of all ages, including young soccer families, maybe not the exact ones we had seen in Starbucks but close enough to be their cousins. Mom and Dad in their 30’s or 40’s, looking harried and hassled, squabbling with each other after a long work week, two or three bored looking kids in elementary and middle school, staring at their individual tablet screens, pushing their siblings just for something to do, everyone ready for dinner out to be over.

Then I saw (and I swear I am not making this up, this was not a hopeful mirage) in the middle of the restaurant a table of maybe five or six women. Just women, all old enough to classify as elderly, in full throttle aging mode, out for Friday night dinner together. Unlike the young soccer family, they were laughing, talking to each other with smiles on their faces, really enjoying being out and – dare I say it?  – having fun.

Dessert arrived at the all-women, all-elderly table and I was close enough to see what they ordered. A giant white bowl with multiple colorful scoops of different flavors of ice cream. Each woman had her own spoon and they all reached in to the center of the table and eagerly dug in. More laughter, more talking.

I called Liz from the car as my husband and I were driving home.

“Hey, Liz, I’ve seen the future of aging. And it looks pretty good. We are all going to be sitting around a table together and eating ice cream.”

She, of course, had no idea what I was talking about it. She also has yet to remember that second thing that she was going to ask me. The future, assuming we get there, will have its fun times, I’m now sure. And I always thought soccer was pretty boring to watch anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Female Friends, Moms, Women

The Nice Jewish Girl and the Macedonian Mother-in-Law

tina bake

Today is Day Six of a Nine Day visit from my mother-in-law –  and you know what? I am fine, really, I am. I am actually enjoying her visit.

This was not always the case.

When I first met my husband-to-be’s parents when he and I were in grad school, they were pretty sure I had just dropped in from outer space. They were welcoming and friendly but I still felt like an alien in their world. Let’s count some of the ways in which we differed:

  •  I grew up in a green-lawned suburb in Connecticut. His parents lived in a working-class town outside of Detroit.
  •  I am a college graduate (then grad and law school too.). His parents ended their schooling in 6th grade.
  • My parents were born in the U.S. His parents were in their early 20’s when they immigrated, with a toddler in tow and my husband in utero, to the U.S. from a small village in the Macedonian region of northern Greece. (look it up, it exists, I had to look it up too.)
  • I was (still am?) a nice Jewish girl. His parents belonged to their Macedonian Orthodox church.

The only thing in common, I thought back then, was that we both were deeply in love with the same person. My husband-to-be. Her son.

It took me some time to get used to their ways of doing things.

And it took them some time to get used to my ways, too.

On an early visit to my husband’s house, we went with his parents to visit relatives. When we arrived at their house, I saw that the dining room table was all set up with platters of food, a few uncles were already sitting around the table. I took a chair. My husband whispered in my ear, “Uh, no, you don’t sit down at the table. That is for the men. You are expected to go into the kitchen and help the women with the food.”

I bristled (Ms. magazine, I was an early subscriber) but dutifully followed my mother-in-law into the kitchen.

A few years later I went with my father-in-law to the supermarket where he was a regular to stock up on kid-friendly snacks for our week long visit (my kids were too little then to appreciate feta cheese and pickled cabbage.) When I put my bottles of Perrier water down on the conveyor belt, the supermarket check-out lady raised her eyebrows at my father-in-law, and he nodded sagely at her, “That’s my daughter-in-law, she’s from Washington.”

Yes, that pretty much explained everything. I can see now how they must have seen me – I thought bottled water was sophisticated, they must have thought I was a being a snob.

We are a Jewish family (my husband converted) so we didn’t feel right joining his family for their Christmas day family celebration.  Instead we would make the 11 hour drive to Detroit on December 25th, telling his parents to please go ahead and have Christmas dinner without us. But if we arrived at 9 p.m., Christmas dinner would still be waiting as were the presents under the tree. The next year we arrived at 10 p.m., still the waiting dinner and the presents. I didn’t want his parents to give my kids Christmas gifts. I insisted my husband convey that message.

Looking back I wish I had been a little less strident on the subject. A few packages wrapped in green and red from their grandparents would not have harmed my kids’ Jewish identities.

It was also obvious from the start that my household standards were more casual than those of my mother-in-law. At her house, the phrase “it’s so clean you could eat off the floor” had real meaning. During our family visits wastebaskets seemed to be emptied hourly and laundry was done daily, with sheets folded just so.

When she visited our house, she would venture into my husband’s sock drawer to see if any socks needed darning.  She would rearrange my linen closet. And looked disappointed when she learned we don’t own a mop. (Does an old Swiffer count?). After she left, I would grumble a bit when I found stray objects put away in odd places, her trying to help but it made extra work for me.

My mother-in-law has also always outshone me in the baking department (easy to do.) Her chocolate chip cookies (so much butter!) are legendary. My friends and their kids come to our house during her visits to sit and talk with her and enjoy the warm cookies.

And best of all, she makes Macedonian cheese and spinach filled phyllo pastries, “pitas” she calls them – with the phyllo dough made from scratch. That would be by combining flour and yeast for those of us who don’t get the baking thing.

During this week’s visit she made a batch of cheese pitas to bring to a family party on the weekend.  72 of them disappeared within an hour.  The weekend over, my husband went back to work downtown and my mother-in-law and I have spent the weekdays together at home.  We watch and talk about the news (CNN should give her a merit badge for her daily loyalty). She is fascinated by world events and asks great questions. (“Why can’t Ebola be cured?” and “How could the Secret Service miss that guy?”). We look at old photo albums and play with the dogs. She makes dinners that my husband likes to eat. While she says she is fine being at home with me, I see how her heart brightens when my husband arrives home from work each night.

At night they sit on the couch in our family room and chat mostly in Macedonian, with some English thrown in for my benefit, about how relatives are doing, who is ill and who isn’t, how could so-and-so get divorced and what her two other sons, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren are doing. My husband loves to talk with his Mom about her memories of the old days, life in the village -“and then I took the rooster by the neck, stepped on its feet and killed it. ” and she remembers that her own mother-in-law, when she met her at age 18,  “thought I was too skinny; she told me that my fingers were too thin for cooking.”

We are now at ease with each other. It no longer bothers me that she can’t eat off my floor as I could off of hers. I am more patient with her questions and she is more satisfied with my answers. We have learned much over 36 years from each other.  How much we really do have in common.

She makes the phyllo dough, I eat the pitas, we both her love her son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging Parents, Family, Holidays, Midlife, Moms, Relationships, Women

What Apples, Honey, September and Writing Share in Common

rosh-hashanah-food-apples-and-honey6

It seems odd to me that September, a month which turns the corner towards fall, is also a time of many new beginnings.

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the start of the New Year according to the Jewish calendar, began on Wednesday night, September 24, so happy 5775 to those of you who celebrate it as I do.  (and aren’t we lucky that we don’t have to start writing 5775 on our checks? I have enough trouble getting 2014 right each time. And yes, I still write paper checks. I haven’t switched to an all e-commerce world – yet.)

Another new beginning in September is the start of the school year. One of my kids returned to college this fall, to finish what he started some years ago; hurrah!  Cautious optimism, lots of support and encouragement. It isn’t easy being the oldest kid in the class.

Also in the department of new beginnings: several friends of ours have kids who are starting their first real life jobs this September; as policy types, research assistants, lawyers, marketers, all venturing into careers where you don’t get three months of summer vacation anymore. Welcome to my prior world!

And two friends of ours just retired from long-held jobs this month; retirement being both an ending and a new beginning. (there’s a blog post in that, I know.)

What is new for me this September is that (a) I am healthy and (b) I am writing.

September in years past has been a month where either I or family members have found ourselves in hospitals, and not wearing badges that say “visitor.”  A rabbi friend of mine, noticing that ill health tends to strike my family closely coinciding with the timing of Rosh Hashanah each year, suggested that we move to the planet Mars each September where she is confident the Jewish New Year is not likely to be celebrated so we can avert the chance of illness.  But so far my family has made it through September without having a close up view of the sign that blazes the words “EMERGENCY ROOM”.

Another new beginning is that I started to take a writing class earlier in September. I began writing this blog in May of 2014 so thought taking a writing class would help me find my narrative voice. Perhaps just a coincidence (or is my writing teacher that good??), but shortly after the class began, two of my blog posts were published by the Washington Post.  And the editor who liked my posts let me know that many others did too. I was “trending”!  Hah, trending at my age.

When the New York Times, the newspaper I’ve read daily since childhood, featured a post on my blog in its “What We’re Reading Now” column last Tuesday night, I was stunned into silence. (rare). When you write a blog, you put a post out there into the social media ether, and you think it is pretty good and hope others might too.  But you have no idea, really, and what you can not anticipate, I am finding out, is what words of yours will truly resonate with others, which ones might hit a nerve, and I am profoundly grateful to have found this out.

After an unexpected cardiologically-required departure from my law firm in 2013,  getting the chance to return to writing in 2014 is a new beginning. Finding readers who follow my blog has been wonderful (and I thank all of you – and appreciate all of your comments.)

But I also worry. (The word “worry” appears in the title of this blog for a reason. I do a great deal of it; one of my best skills.)  Does a single successful post begat others? Not necessarily. Think of the many one-hit wonder songs, and the authors who wrote one best seller followed by a series of duds.

But I, having grown up in New England with many vacations in Vermont, may try to model myself after Grandma Moses. She picked up a paint brush for the first time when she was 77 years old. Heck, I am a mere child by that standard; still in that sweet spot post-menopause but pre-Medicare. With the cooperation of whoever is in charge of these things, I hope to have many productive and creative years ahead.

So cheers to new beginnings for all of us!

Wishing you a sweet and healthy year.

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Filed under Adult Kids, Aging, Careers, College, Family, Holidays, Midlife, New Grad, Raising Kids, Retirement, Semi-Retired, Women, Writing

In Defense of the Empty Nest by a Defensive Mom

bigstock-Empty-nest-on-green-grass-44741620

It was at a college night meeting of  high school parents when I realized that how I felt about having an Empty Nest was not the majority view.

September of our son’s senior year in his small high school, the college counseling office held a meeting for parents. Noting that for some of us, it would be our last kid off to college, the counselor asked us how we felt about becoming empty nesters the next fall.

I was the first to respond; not a good idea in retrospect.

“Frankly I can’t wait, I’m looking forward to having time alone with my husband again.”

The other parents looked at me aghast, you would have thought I had just vividly detailed the various new sexual positions we planned to try on the first night after our son left for college. A ripple of dismay filled the room.

One by one each of the other Moms chimed in, “Really? I don’t feel that way at all. Oh, I will miss my daughters so much.” and “I am just dreading having an Empty Nest.” and “It will be so awful not having them come home from school every day.”

And the Dads spoke up, too.  “Who will I watch baseball with? I’m really going to miss my son.” and “Our family has lots of fun together on weekends. I don’t want that to change.”

I slunk a bit lower in my seat. My husband, embarrassed by my typical over-sharing, patted my hand feebly.

It has been almost a decade since that college night meeting and you would think that by now I would have gotten less defensive about my stance on the Empty Nest – but I haven’t.

This fall there’s been the usual flurry of articles offering advice on how to adjust to life in the Empty Nest. Wisdom for parents whose kids were now off to college, you will miss them like crazy, you will be sad that they don’t need you as much, your role as a Mom or Dad has changed. You and your spouse may sit in silence at night wondering what to say to each other. The articles encourage you to develop new hobbies, new interests, take up running, learn to knit, join a book club, anything to take your mind off of the dreadfully quiet house, the empty rooms, the loss of your children.

Ummm, that wasn’t my experience.

After 18 years of 24/7 parenting, I was more than ready to for some well-deserved (IMHO) time off.  And I wanted to get back to the reason I married my husband in the first place. Because I loved him, he’s smart, funny and clever; I wanted to spend more time with him. Just with him. How we used to be, before kids, if I could recall what that felt like.

I love my kids very much, just as you love yours (there goes the defensiveness again!). I loved being a Mom, all of it, from that early exhaustion of toddlers and nap time, to school days, lunch packing, spelling tests, to high school with homework stress, talking about drinking and sex, and wondering if they were listening, and worrying over college applications.

But children do fill up all of your mind space, so much so that there is little room leftover for whatever interesting conversations you may have once had with your spouse on a non-child-related subject.  Who will take David to Tae Kwan Do? Do you have time this Saturday to get Dana new sneakers? Don’t forget that next Wednesday, or maybe it is Thursday, let me check, is Back to School night? I forgot to send in the permission slip for that field trip, aaargh. Did you bring home the posterboard for the science project? And David could use another hair cut…

At least that is how it was with us. My husband was a very involved Dad. He didn’t miss a school play, coached soccer and basketball and helped with algebra. (the latter most important since my math knowledge stopped at fractions.) We spent lots of time together as a family, going on outings to museums, concerts and fairs. My husband and son went camping, my daughter and I bonded at Nordstroms. While my husband and I did spend as much time as we could as a couple, we would often find that we spent our precious hours out of the house talking about, you guessed it, the kids. One night at dinner we tried to see how long we could go in a conversation without one of us mentioning one of our kids or something kid-related. I don’t recall who won that contest. But it was over in less than three minutes.

Back to senior year in high school when I looked forward to finding out if my husband and I could be alone as a couple again.  Sure, I was worried that we wouldn’t manage so well. We didn’t have, and still don’t have, a marriage that to the outside world appears harmonious. At our wedding reception 36 years ago, many of the guests, I was later told, took bets on how long our marriage would last. Lots of yin and yang in our relationship. We squabble, we bicker, we disagree.

Once our teen daughter spent a weekend with a friend at their family’s vacation house.  I asked her when she returned how the weekend went – “Oh, Mom”, she said, “It was fine, Jessica’s parents fight just as much as you and Dad do.”

So it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I approached the Empty Nest. Of course, I missed the kids after they left for college. I was always happy to hear from them, worried when they got sick, thrilled when they visited, even content doing their mountains of laundry and dealing with the messy rooms they inevitably left behind. But I knew that they would be fine. We had prepared them as well as we could. They were off to lead their lives, as it should be.

The Empty Nest meant that we were given a chance to lead our own lives again – as husband and wife. Yes, we’d be parents forever, but just being  a couple, no guarantee. I’d seen plenty of my friends’ marriages struggle once the kids, the glue between Mom and Dad, were no longer in the house.

Thankfully our marriage thrived. It didn’t take us long to adjust to the Empty Nest. At first it felt like we were playing hookey from school. We both worked downtown, and after work one night, it occurred to us that we didn’t have to rush home. We could go out to dinner.  Downtown. On a weeknight. Imagine that. Without checking in with anyone. Just us. So we went to a restaurant that neither of our kids particularly liked. And we talked about subjects that they didn’t particularly care about. And we didn’t discuss either of them, at least not for the first 10 minutes. The Empty Nest, it turned out, was as I had thought it would be at that college night meeting, well worth waiting for. And hardly empty either. The two of us have filled it up just fine.

 

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Filed under College, Family, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Relationships