Jun 9 2009

My Mother’s House

porch_railingI enjoy a luxury that many of my peers do not: my mother lives in the same house that I inhabited for the first 18 years of my life. Her home is our family’s homestead; going there is not only a visit to see her, it’s also a return to my own history.

It helps that my mother has been in no rush to throw away the artifacts of my childhood. The toys that I played with as a little girl are still here, stowed in boxes in a dusty backroom, pulled out whenever a visiting friend brings a grandchild along, or when her own come to stay. The subject folders from all of my high school classes, with homework in the left pocket, tests in the right and notes in the hole-punched center section, are stacked in chronological order on the top shelf of the closet of the room that was once my bedroom. The room has been renovated to receive overnight guests, with the exception of the interior of the closet, which looks as it did when I left it so many years ago, like a hidden shrine to my youth.
I asked my mother to walk through the rooms of her house and tell me their stories. In each room, she’d settle herself in a comfortable chair and then she’d look up, as if she was looking into the recesses of her memory to find an anecdote. Something about the makeshift dining table my father constructed when they first moved in. Or how the long bedroom upstairs was filled with glass cases, like a museum, when the previous owners lived here. Or about how she won the dispute with my father during a renovation, about making a unused door into an elegant window. In the living room she recalled setting up extra tables and making seating arrangements for dinner parties and the laughter that these events produced. Upstairs she remembered when and where they bought the bedroom furniture, and named her uncles and aunts in all the miniature black and white photographs hanging together on the wall.
This morning I lay in bed, staring out the window as the sun stretched its arms across the fields beside our house. Thirty years ago, on any June morning, I might have lay in just the same way, looking out at the leaves on the branches outside the window, motionless in the fresh new day. The sounds of morning in this room are as they always have been; the chirping birds, an occasional car racing down the road in front of our house, a water pump clicking on and then off down in the basement, muted but audible on the second floor of this old Victorian farmhouse.

I tiptoed across the hall and peeked in at my mother, soundly asleep on what has always been her side of the bed, even though she’s slept alone in it for the last twenty years. I slipped under the covers beside her, just like Short-pants or Buddy-roo cuddle up to me on any given morning. I remembered how once, years ago, when I was about 10-years old, I’d curled up on the couch with my mother and she said to me, “Are you ever going to be too big to cuddle with me?” And I told her, “Never.”

May 2 2009


I assume some responsibility for Buddy-roo‘s addiction.

When she was about 10-months old, she started spending her mornings with the television. This is because she’s always been much too early a riser. We compensated by feeding her a breast-in-bed (and later a bottle) and then removing her from the room designated for sleeping adults, and exiling her to the living room.

Far from punishment, she delighted in the placement, upright and secured in the exersaucer, smack in front of the television. First it was Baby Einstein (et al) that entertained her. I choose the word entertain carefully, as I never bought into the intelligence-enhancing promise of these DVDs and I would prefer not to be confused with that sort of obsessive mothering. Let’s call it like it is: survival parenting. Ya gotta sleep.

De-facto and I would take turns. One of us would fetch her from the crib, and then after the feeding, the other would carry her out to the living room and sleepily plant her in the large plastic circular device. Having set up the video the night before, it’d be just a matter of hitting two remote buttons and she’d be glued to the tube while we could stick to our pillows.

As Buddy-roo outgrew the marbles dropping (and other hallucinogenic images) in sync with Mozart, her morning fare evolved to longer movies, mesmerizing her for sometimes up to an hour and a half, permitting us the equal prolongation of that oh-so-needed shut-eye.

A gold-medalist, Buddy-roo broke all the exersaucer records. Not only could she sit in that thing twice as long as Short-pants ever did, she continued to use it until she was more than 3-years old. Her legs would be bent into a full squat, even with the saucer raised to its highest setting. Pulling her out required pressing my own foot on the saucer tray to hold it down and get enough purchase to wriggle her legs and feet through the holes of the cloth seat/harness. It was like pulling Winnie-the-Pooh through Rabbit’s window. (Another favorite, by the way.)
We created a habit. Like a drug, Buddy-roo consumes movies. She thinks about watching one first thing in the morning. She asks for it the moment she’s home from school. This is her most favorite pastime.

As a rule, we watch very little television in our home and we try to avoid watching it when the kids are around (our HBO box-sets come out after bedtime). The exceptions to this include only the CNBC’s Squawk Box (De-facto loves his business news fix) and Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central relay on CNN. But despite our abstinence, Ruby-doo loves the idiot-box. At least we avoid commercial TV; she’s limited to a world of DVD movies.

We have many-dozen. Half of them are Disney. I know there’s a whole storm of anti-princess sentiment. I don’t particularly love those caricature films, but Buddy-roo does. Sure, we’re promulgating a false rescue by non-existent Prince Charming, but I’ve tried to compensate by coaching the girls a bit about the gender roles depicted in these films. While watching Sleeping Beauty, I asked Short-pants and Buddy-roo, “What if the prince pricked his finger and fell into an eternal slumber? Would you fight the goblins, forge through the thorny forest and slay the dragon in order to deliver the awakening kiss? Would you do it for him?” After a moment of reflection, Short-pants responded, “If I felt like it.” Good enough.
I’ll admit that I use the electronic babysitter when I have work to do. This becomes problematic when the kids choose to watch something more educational, like Sesame Street or The Electric Company episodes. De-facto and I can’t help ourselves; we end up gravitating to the couch, too. What’s not to love about award-winning actors Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby teaching your kids how to read? I’d argue that the 1970s produced the best children’s programming on television.

Perhaps I should be ashamed or discouraged about my tube-headed daughter. But I’m not. For her, watching a movie is a physical activity. This becomes especially evident when she’s watching a musical. She’s up in front of the TV screen acting it out. She’s marching up the mountain and sitting with the Von Trapp children as they do-re-mi through their first picnic. She’s kicking up on the rooftop with all the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins. She dances every move with Miss Turnstile in On the Town. She hides behind the couch during the fight scene in West Side Story. (I know, that’s a kind of a tough movie at the end, but I figure I’m introducing her to Shakespeare.) For Ruby-doo, television is not a passive activity. It’s her greatest pleasure.

So we mete it out. A little each day. Her reward is our salvation.

The other day, while watching Mary Poppins, Buddy-roo asked, “Why do people put their money in the bank?” I gave her a simplified explanation about savings and interest and borrowing, finishing my tutorial just at the start of that scene near the end of the film where there’s a run on the bank. She watched the panic as the bank tellers slammed their window screens shut. “But why do people put their money in the bank?” she asked again.

Maybe she is ready to watch Squawk Box.

Apr 3 2009

O Sole Mio

There are no little shoes everywhere.

No toys strewn about. No little bodies crawling into bed with me. No crying in the hallway. It’s nobody’s fault about the sunrise.

All I hear is the rain outside my window. And drumming and hooting and hollering from a distant meeting room.

In Sestri-Levante, Italy, I am attending the CREA (the European Creativity Association) annual conference. The first time I was here – for the first CREA conference – was in 2003. Short-pants came too, still drinking from a bottle. Buddy-roo was just a small cantaloupe-sized creature. But she was in my belly, so she was here.

On Sunday, before I left, Short-pants asked me why I was going to Italy. When I told her I was going to CREA, she said, “but you’re going without me?” I explained that this year was different: I was going to the conference alone. Her tears were angry ones. “But I want to go. I always go.”

It’s true. This is the first year I have come to this conference – one I helped to originate and for a few years was a member of the core organizing team – without De-facto and without the girls. We’ve always come en famille.

Not that I am totally alone. I have a roommate: his mother.

I met her before I met the De-facto himself. In a rare case of really smart thinking, I chose the mother-in-love first. I met her almost twenty years ago at the parent conference to this one, the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI). So you could say that for us, creativity is a family affair.

The people who attend this conference year after year – I am among about thirty volunteer leaders – have embraced my children as their own family. We have even adopted grandfathers for the girls, two exceptional Italian men who bring to them the wisest kind of experienced playful creativity. While people here do understand why I have not brought the girls this year, they are not happy about it. You can count on a group of creativity practitioners to appreciate the expert mind of a child. Our girls are a bit like gurus here.
It’s been necessary to focus entirely on the design and delivery of the program I am facilitating, which is fairly intense. And then to go out for a beer afterward without having to check in with anyone. I am happy to have quiet catch-ups with my mother-in-love while the early light fills our room. I’m happy to be fully present for the kind of in-depth conversations that erupt so spontaneously here without that back-of-the-brain chatter: what time do I have to relieve the babysitter? What do I still have to do this and that before I get the kids? Does De-facto have them or do I need to get them…?

But this morning, as you’d expect, the mixed emotions of motherhood wash over me. It was just a tiny bit too quiet. I was actually wishing that someone would crawl into my bed wrap a small, soft arm around me and complain about the sun coming up.

Mar 28 2009

More Blame

“Once again. Not happy.” Buddy-roo‘s defiant proclamation, this morning, from the foot of the bed. Her (initial) complaint is still a mystery, some inadvertent slight by her sister. It’s very early. I’m too weary to care.

I lift my head off the pillow. Her arms are crossed. Her bottom lip protrudes. It’s a very mad face. I start to snicker. (Can you blame me?)

“It’s cuz of you, mama.”

Of course, I knew that.

Mar 27 2009

Who’s to Blame?

She hadn’t even finished making her way down the stairs and into our room to fold herself between us for the morning cuddle when she started issuing complaints. Buddy-roo‘s disposition at this hour of the day (7:00 am) has never been cheerful, nor quiet, but it seems now – at the age of five – to be growing in petulance. We’ve tried to discourage her by ignoring it, forbidding it, making fun of it, and then ignoring it again. We haven’t (yet) found the cure for what ails her every morning. Given that her bed is built into the wall, we can’t even say she got up on the wrong side of it.

No precaution or response on our part seems to change this daily outburst from its current crankiness to something more subtle and cheerful, like her sister, Short-pants, who we hardly hear descending the stairs from her room before the door creaks open and she slides soundlessly under the sheets and into my embrace. Sleep then quickly takes her back into its possession, inviting us to return as well.
Not so Buddy-roo. Something is always wrong. Even though she may have slept well all night in her warm nested cubbyhole. Even though a cup of apple juice is waiting for her on my bed table to quench her morning thirst. Even if her big sister takes the place on my side of the bed – even when she’s the first to wake up and crawl in with us – leaving Buddy-roo the coveted center spot between her parents. Even if there’s no school. Even if pancakes have been promised. It’s a miserable moment, this first one of her day.

For the record, she does cheer up as the day goes on. But the first fifteen minutes are brutal.

This morning her complaint: “I didn’t want the light to come so early.” She preached to a sleeping choir. Her grievance mounted into a full-on whine and then the ultimate attribution:

“It’s cuz of Papa.”

I, too, am quite practiced at faulting him for things that don’t go my way. But this is over the top. It’s not like he left the shade on her skylight open, or he made a boisterous noise that woke us all from deep slumber. Or like he willed the sun to rise. There’s no way to assign the blame to him, as enjoyable as that would be.
But with her, there’s always some other force or person to blame for all her terrible times. Without a moment’s reflection, everything is because of someone else. She lives, remarkably, without responsibility. And without guilt. About this I am actually a little envious.

But is she different than any one of us? Only in her honesty. I think deep down we all like to blame someone else for our misfortunes. We blame Wall Street, the banks, the Fed. We blame the sub-prime lenders and also the people who signed up for their unrealistic loans. We blame Edward Liddy and Timothy Geithner. We blame Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh; they blame the New York Times and Jon Stewart, who in turn blames Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer. For a while, Saddam Hussein was a convenient guy to blame. Then we blamed Bush and Cheney (still do). Now we’ve got Obama, who’s actually said he’ll take responsibility for the economic mess, but not without first refusing the blame for it. (Can you blame him?) But how quickly we’ll forget and lose our capacity to forgive him for not fixing it fast enough or well enough. He won’t escape the blame, either.

I’m not exempt. It’s always the rotten fault of my clients. Or it’s the French. And of course my kids, they’re to blame for the train wreck they’ve made of my life. And then there’s De-facto. It’s his fault, after all, that I got pregnant in the first place.

See? It is cuz of Papa.