On December 8, 2017, I lost my mom. She died of Alzheimer’s. I am 48 and a mother of 4 myself. In a sense, I don’t still need a mother. In another sense, and probably the only one that counts, I will always need my mother. I will always want to call her on the first day of school or when a kid gets his driver’s license or gets a part in a play with more than 3 words. I will always be grateful for the things she gave me.Read More
**Though written in present tense, NONE of this post was written while driving my car. I write in my head. And then I spend an inordinate amount of time in a car line typing out what was in my head.**
I am driving–following clouds that are gray and swollen with a threat they likely won’t deliver. I’m okay with that, because it has only rained for the last 7 days. The ground and my attitude have had enough for now. I am in the car again. I spend a lot of time in the car lately and haven’t handled it with as much grace as I would like. If your kids are having to talk you down from road rage, you might need to choose another path. Mom, please. Chill. Mom, what good does it do to talk to all these drivers? Mom, please don’t say anything to that person? Mom, no.
I may have a bit of a problem. The last time I remember feeling this uptight in the car, I was 34. To fight the urge to punch people, I memorized Romans 12 and recited it to myself when I was frustrated. I learned to bless people who cursed me. I liberally assigned pulling out in front of me or ripping past 42 cars (one of which was me) going 60 miles per hour so you can “merge” in front of them as a person “cursing me.” It’s a loose interpretation, but it helped me off the ledge. People turn into feral dogs when it comes to merging in a construction zone. Goodness.
So I’m playing a lot of Jim Brickman and rememorizing Romans 12. And with the time I sit in the car waiting for kids, I read, write, and conduct business.
I see a lot of people as I drive and I am always paying attention. I see the world in pictures. Behind every picture is a story as complicated as mine. From a stoplight, I can see a man hunched over on a bench. He waits for the bus, with his elbows against his knees. He holds up a world of trouble by just his thumbs, as he leans against them with his eyes closed. Did he not sleep last night? Is he praying? I turn right as I pass him and I drive away from his story, whatever it happens to be.
There are stories everywhere.
In the strange house that has been added to, piece by piece, until it looks like an apartment from 1963 and the Winchester house had a baby on the banks of the Hillsborough River.
In the rotted-out van parked out front of a house advertising computer sales and repair.
In the bus driver that is pacing the sidewalk in front of her bus as she waits for the kids to load.
In the man that jaywalks through traffic, wearing a loaded backpack, carrying a bag in one hand and an umbrella in the other. He has enough on his person to be homeless, but otherwise looks like an accountant.
In the eyes of the girl that scoops my daughter’s ice cream.
Everyone has a story. But sometimes I can’t see past my own to care about theirs. When I get mad at the inconsiderate mergers, I am mad because I think they put their story above mine. They merged their story in front of mine. When I bark orders in the middle school car line that no one but my exasperated daughters will hear, I am barking to make my story heard over theirs. But in that moment, as I grumble angrily inside my van, no one wants to hear my story over another’s. By griping and trying to get ahead, I’ve made my own story one that even I don’t want to read. And if I don’t want to read it, it’s a sure bet no one else will.
So on the 7th day of school, at the end of this day, I am forcing my own intervention. I am slowing down. I am breathing deeply, though I am not doing it when and how my smart-mouthed Apple watch suggests. I am looking for the stories in others and attempting to read them with more mercy and grace.
And I am acknowledging that we are all unfinished stories. But everyone’s story will end at some point. And I’d like mine to end not in a fiery wreck or a local headline accompanied by jail time, but on a balcony in New York City with a pudding cup in my lap and the sounds of someone else’s road rage chiming like bells in the streets down below.
I take dares.
I’m not terribly discriminating about the dares I take if there’s money involved. Some people think of it as gambling. I think of it as making $600 an hour if I could just get consistent dare-type work.
So far the work hasn’t been consistent.
Every May, I find myself gasping for air as I dry-heave my way through a maze of paperwork, final exams, piles of clothing in which there could be a lost library book, and graduation requirements.
And I’m not the one in school.
School was always my thing, though. I was good at it. I wasn’t the smartest kid in class by any stretch. But I was a kid who had a knack for figuring out the requirements and meeting them. Now I’m navigating that territory as a parent. I think it would be far easier to just take the classes for them.
After my desperate sprint to the end-of-school finish line last May, we flopped down in our favorite spots and celebrated the onset of a well-deserved period of relaxation. Summer.
This particular summer flew away faster than any in recent memory. It was perforated with so many camps, trips, weekend events, etc, that the little blocks of time between seemed to vaporize before we could react.
Today, summer officially ended.
I mourned for about 15 minutes. And then I thought about the things I love that follow a new school year.
- High school football on Friday nights with a kid on quads in the marching band.
- College football on Saturdays.
- Pro football on Sundays. (I really love football.)
- Sub-88° temperatures.
- Long shadows falling across the back yard as the days get shorter.
- Being shoved ridiculously and aggressively into every holiday by retailers.
- The holidays.
This year, I have kids in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12. It is only a transition year for the youngest. It is always a transition year for someone. When I found myself expecting my fourth child, my hairdresser spoke about my future with doom and disdain. Just wait, he told me. The boys will play baseball and the girls will be in cheerleading and you’ll have to divide and conquer. You and your husband will never be at the same event again. Ever.
I fired that guy. I couldn’t afford him anyway.
I got around the baseball thing by convincing the boys that our family wasn’t athletically gifted. I got around the cheerleading thing, because I hate cheerleading. The girls didn’t know it was a thing until it was far too late.
I haven’t figured out how to get around the back-to-school stress.
It’s easier with no one in elementary school. The supply lists are less of a problem. Instead of a list being the length of 3 CVS receipts, they are more like 6 or 8 items long. But the problem with the lists now is that I don’t get them until 2 days before school starts. That’s what led me to Walmart at 2 p.m. yesterday. The day before school started.
There were a lot of people at Walmart. Most of them were shopping for school supplies. I had already decided that I was not going to stress about anything I couldn’t find. I was not going to fight for a parking place. And I was not going to get mad. At anyone or about anything.
It actually went pretty well. At one point, I made eye contact with a boy who looked to be about Jenna’s age. He was on a cell phone and pushing a cart one-handed. There were a few spiral notebooks and a binder in his cart. I had a fleeting thought that he should hang up the phone and put two hands on his cart, but I forced the thought away and kept moving. As I was checking out an hour later, I saw that boy again. He was standing one cash register over, counting some money for the cashier to pay for the things I had seen in his cart. He had bought his own school supplies. I have no idea where his guardians were. Maybe it was someone sitting out in a car. Maybe a handicap person. Maybe a person who is rightfully terrified of Walmart the day before school starts back. All I know is that he stood there alone doing a job that could unravel the best of adults. And I wish him the best first day of school ever.
Toward the end of yesterday, I was on the phone with a friend checking in to see how her kids were handling the night-before stress. I had not finished my sentence that mine were handling it fine when a text came in from a child requesting permission to shave their arms. Since I was sitting in the driveway in my car, I texted back NO and ran inside to head off the beginnings of the first and only crisis.
“My arms are so bad,” she said. “They are so hairy.” She was crying. It might have been funny if it hadn’t been so pitiful.
“Your arms are perfectly normal,” I said. “And let me assure you of something: arm stubble is a heap worse than arm hair. Even if you looked like a yeti, which you don’t. You want a 5-o’clock shadow on your arms?”
We got through the crisis by pointing out that I survived middle school and my problems were far greater than a little arm hair. I had enough hair on my head to stuff a household of straw mattresses. It was like the nest of an osprey. My eyebrows were a burly affair and were competing for attention just north of my very large duck lips and a mouth full of braces. Honestly, I don’t know how I got through that. My mother sent Christmas card photos during those years.
“So, see?” I said to Jenna as she smiled and wiped her nose. “It could be so much worse. Compared to me, you got it going on.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “You were pretty bad.”
For every parent and every kid out there starting school this week or soon, I hope it’s fantastic. It won’t be perfect. If your arms are a little hairier than you would like, be thankful you have arms. If your supplies are a little bulky in your backpack, be grateful you didn’t have to one-arm a cart through a maze of shoppers and pay for them yourself.
And if you look in the mirror on your way out the door one of these mornings and you don’t like what you see, I still got you beat.
And you’ll survive.
But I think we can all do a good deal better than that.
There are plenty of mundane things in an otherwise exciting and fulfilling life like I consider mine to be. And these things may be mundane, but you still have to do them. I’d rather sustain a goose egg to the forehead than go back-to-school shopping. But the kids are going back to school. And they can’t go naked. So we shopped.
And speaking of goose eggs, about the time I got stupid and bought Vans, which are clearly designed for flat-footed 15-year-olds, my feet got old. Like Plantar Fasciitis old. Like compression sock/brace-wearing old. Ordering special insoles is mundane. But this week, I had to do it. Because I’m not going to stop running around Busch Gardens with my kids, even if it hurts to do it.
And speaking of Busch Gardens, we were on our way out the door on Monday night. Not to Busch Gardens, but to Skate Night. Skate Night is a thing where a whole bunch of nice nerds get together every Monday night from 7-10 and skate. Kids from 2 years to 20 years are out on the same rink. Some parents join in. I did on occasion until a 5 year old took me out (years ago) from behind. My behind was 4 weeks recovering from that. Now I just watch.
On Monday night we were leaving for Skate Night particularly early to meet some friends for dinner. I was having a little trouble with my right foot and had to think through my footwear a little more than usual. Because I’ve been purging every corner of the house, I don’t own very many shoes these days. I had two pair of Vans that were cute as buttons, but I gave those to my daughter. Because pain. So I’m down some shoes. And something made me throw on my old Crocs on my way out the door, because Crocs are back in. And I like to be in. Except for Vans. I was crossing the garage in my Crocs to get in the car when my 15-year-old who is too cool for school and many other places stopped in his tracks. And he gestured so that I would stop in my tracks also.
“Uh, you can’t wear those out,” he said, very politely and matter-of-factly.
“Why not?” I asked genuinely. “They’re back in.”
“Not those,” he answered. “Not for you.”
My self-esteem has taken quite a hit lately. I manage it okay. I embrace the nerd part of my personality that still relishes in the long-deceased authors of my youth. I know my kids’ friends like me enough to come around. I don’t care too much what they think about my outfit choices. But I’m not dead. I do care a little.
It’s the middle kids giving me trouble. They live together in the Middle. The conspire together in the Middle. They fight with each other in the Middle. And they come at me from the Middle. The Middle is a whole thing. I think it’s probably a hard thing in some ways. And I’d be tempted to feel sorry for them except that I don’t have time for that. I’m too busy dodging what they hurl at me from the Middle.
As I stood there in the garage, reluctantly accepting that the Crocs were a mistake for Skate Night, I had to come up with an alternative.
“Listen,” I responded. “It’s this or my Keens.” Clearly that wasn’t the right answer, because the female Middle said,
“What about your black flip flops?”
I have been trying to avoid flip flops this week.
“Those are up in my room and I don’t want to go back for them,” I answered. We were in a hurry. Tampa traffic was a nightmare on Monday.
“I’ll grab ’em for you,” my son said and dashed back in the house like he was being chased. I’ve never had a child run an errand for me with more speed or enthusiasm. He returned 40 seconds later with my flip flops. They aren’t the coolest things around, but apparently they are far and away better than my Crocs or my Keens.
“You know what? We gotta go shopping,” he said on the way to dinner. “For shoes.”
“What? You have so many shoes!”
“Not for me,” he clarified. “For you. I want to go with you.” I glanced at him in the passenger seat. This was not a favor to me, but because I think he believed it was, I went along with the conversation. “What are you looking for?”
“Cool and cute but super supportive. Maybe we could go to Rack Room this weekend.”
“No, no, no. You aren’t going to find cool and supportive at Rack Room.” At this point he began to search for shoes to show me. He found a subset of what he thought I might like as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot. “How ’bout these?” He asked. They were ok.
“How much?” I asked.
“A hundred and sixty-five dollars?!” I guffawed. “That’s a hard no. Those shoes would need to be made of precious metals or have a method of generating their own source of income for me to spend that.”
“What’s your limit then? $100?” he asked, refining his search.
“Probably. Even that makes me uncomfortable.”
At that point, we had to drop the conversation for the evening activities. Since then, I have run all over Busch Gardens in my Keens, worn my dirty light blue Nikes to church, and ordered a brace and some insoles. I still don’t have new sneakers and I’m still not traditionally cool. But on Tuesday night, a mere 24 hours past the unfortunate Crocs incident, when it came time to take a 200-foot nose dive from the front row of Sheikra, I was good enough and cool enough for that. And nobody cared what was on my feet when they were dangling from the track of an inverted roller coaster.
And speaking of inverted roller coasters, I’d rather be wearing red Crocs as the baby of the family than wearing Sperrys in the Middle.
And that’s about as mundane as it gets.