Sunday, August 28, 2011

At times, one, more than the rest.

Our seats on Mummy Mountain
Occasionally, like we did last Tuesday night, my mother and I gather at the summit of Mummy Mountain for a glass of wine and a discussion about all things life, work, happiness, and grown children.

“How are you, Mummy?” I asked when we were settled.
“I’m fine, thank you,” she said. “And how are you?”
“My children are abandoning me,” I said.
She sipped her wine and made a cracker, and encouraged me to go on in that mummy-therapist way we mothers of grown children acquire.
Lovely Courtney
as seen from the
summit of Mummy
Last week I went to Cleveland to visit the lovely Courtney. Like always, I spent the first half hour of our visit staring at her and thinking about how lucky I am to have this smart, beautiful, competent, wise, funny girl for a daughter. If she were a cat, this would be when I’d give her a little scratch behind the ears and say, “Yesh. Who’sha a good girl? Who’sha a good, good girl.” But she’s a grown woman with bills and a landlord so I just stare at her and let her update me on all things life, work, happiness, and John.

“John will be here at Christmas because he has a singing commitment," she said twenty minutes from the airport. "He basically always will on Christmas. And we know we really want to be together on Christmas, so I probably won’t be home. But then I would definitely be home for Thanksgiving.”

It gave me pause, as any declaration does if it means I will be forced to spend time with moody Transition and its sad-sack cohort, Coping.  But we had only two days, with things to talk about, and places to go back to and new places to visit, and so I said to Transition, “Get lost, I’m busy,” and I said to Courtney, “You should do what you want to.” Because there are times, when one person needs one other, more than the rest, to understand them.

We had dinner at an outside bistro where a young couple sat with their seven or eight-month-old baby. Next to them was an animated, boorish man, 25 or so, who wore oversized dark glasses, and who, with his entire body, carried on  a shrill, melodramatic cell phone conversation with someone I only hoped would have to hang up soon. The infant watched him, hunched and still with fascination. When the call ended, the man turned, and seeing how he’d captivated her, lifted his giant black glasses quickly and gasped in a peek-a-boo fashion. The baby reared back in surprise, and wailed. The man laughed. Frightened, arms outstretched, the baby reached for her mother who smiled a reassuring “It’s okay,” at the man and lifted her sobbing daughter to her, cooing little things until she settled. The father, though aware, hadn’t stopped eating. The baby never looked at him. There are times, when one person needs one other, more than the rest, to make them feel safe.

We had been talking about what I want to be called when I’m a grandmother. After the scared-baby moment we talked about what I might have done had my future grandinfant been scared by a man like that. I said that not only would I not have smiled reassuringly at him, I might, in fact, have told him he and his giant glasses were both (bad word

Later when I was alone, I thought about the “when I grow up,” conversations we have with small children in which they imagine what they might do with their lives. You know their minds will change a thousand times but still, you help them. You talk very seriously about where they might locate their mansions when they become famous performing artists, what kind of clothes they’ll wear, what kind of dog they’ll keep in their purse. There are times, when one person needs one other, more than the rest, to make them feel the best things are possible.

Hello Transition, where do you want me?

Like always, the visit ended too soon and before I knew it, I was dropping my shoes and purse in the bins at security, distracted and blue, so that when the woman snapped at me for walking through the security arch too quickly, I wanted to sit down on the little feet imprints to weep.

At my gate, I saw, sitting by herself with a Kindle and a Vitamin Water, someone who looked exactly like my own mother who I promptly texted.

“Wine,” I said.
She penciled me in for Tuesday.

“First, it’s Christmas,” I said looking out over the land of grown children which, on a clear day, is visible from the summit of Mummy Mountain. “One doesn’t come home,” I said, “and the next thing you know, nobody comes home. It’s just like when someone leaves the party and then everybody does.”

“That’s not going to happen," said my mother.

“Yes it will and then they’ll be too busy to call at Christmas time and I'll be by myself staring out the window and listening to the Rat Pack and there will be nobody to call because all my friends will be with their grown children who still come home and Tom and Christine will be family-ing somewhere with Ross and Collin and so it will just be me and the tree which I will have started talking to (Yesh! Who'sha good tree? Who'sha good, good tree?) and on the floor there will be a box of ornaments that nobody came to hang which will still be there on January 3 because I will have become too depressed to move it and it will stay there for eleven more months along with the tree which I will be too depressed to disassemble and put back in the basement. So that's it. It’s ending,” I said.

I didn't believe it of course, this Eeyore version of "When I grow up." But one should not let worry skitter away like an ant. If worry is to be addressed, it must be increased by several zoom levels first, so that all flaws may be examined before resizing is attempted. This applies to just about everything in life.  You're welcome.

“This is not ending,” she said. “This is changing. This is how it begins. They change first, and you change with them. If they have to stop coming to you, because they have jobs, or small children, or unforgiving in-laws or whatever it is they have, you’ll pack your bag and go to them. That’s what we do. I did it. You'll do it.” 

I knew that, of course. I’ve always known it. But there are times, when I need my own mother, more than the rest, to remind me that the worst things aren't probable, and that what I hope is true, probably is.

And so, Courtney, if you're reading this, you know by now that you'll need many people and things and experiences in life to remain independent and strong and beautiful and competent and wise and funny. Two of those things are seats on Mummy Mountain.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Welcome to America. Would you like trains for dinner?

It occurred to me the other day that Sam is possibly, God willing, going to make it through high school without asking if we can host an exchange student. It’s not that I don’t love the idea. I love the idea very much if other people have it.

Courtney asked if we could host an exchange student somewhere in the first half of her high school career. She framed her argument well, and had I been a person who cared what everybody else did, or craved a vicarious cultural experience, I would have been sold right away. But it was her suggestion that it would really help her early French skills to be communicating with our student non-stop for two weeks that made me say “Okay, let’s do it."

Like anyone, I like to believe that if I care enough, am determined enough, put my whole heart into something – aerobics, preparing fish, what have you – I will succeed. I’ve been proven wrong twice: I look like I am running from bees in an aerobics class. When I have finished preparing fish, it looks exactly like it did under the sickly lights at Hannaford. Much as I tried to retain more in college, my foreign language skills end with “Where is the library” in Italian and Spanish, and “How did you sleep last night?” in German. I worried about the language barrier but shrugged it off, and we wound up with Audrey, whose English was not nearly as good as my French.

We got the room ready. We got Audrey’s profile information. I bought a French-English dictionary. I contacted the circle of parents who did this all the time and asked for advice. We picked up Audrey and I gave her a big welcome-to-America hug.

On the way home, I apologized to Audrey for the very bumpy condition of the road.
“Ehhh?” she said.
“Tell her what I said, Courtney.”
“About what?”
“About the bumpy road.”
She said a few things I didn't understand, and gestured.
Audrey shook her head and said several things in Fren-glish.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“I’m not really sure,” Courtney said. She smiled encouragingly at Audrey who smiled back and probably wondered if it was too late to go back to France.

Later that night, Courtney was asked to work extra shifts at the GAP for the next several days. "Go," I said, "We'll do this." 

It's not like it was Aerobics.

I took Audrey food shopping the next day. French-English dictionary in hand I brought her to the meat department where I asked if she would like some of “these potatoes?” She pointed to the correct word in the dictionary and I said, with much gesturing, page turning, and many hopeful facial expressions, "Take whatever you want and put it in the cart,"  which she did.

Thankfully, exchange students have an agenda which I learned to understand, and Audrey was soon among other exchange students, touring the sights, eating the food, learning the language, and gossiping about the host-parents which is probably when Audrey said in French, “Yeah, but I’ll bet your host mother knows the word for steak.”

But this was not aerobics or fish-grilling. Dictionary at the ready, I asked and learned about Audrey’s family, her boyfriend, her upbringing, her hometown and what she wanted to do when she graduated. Courtney was eventually released from the GAP in time to have a conversation with Audrey before she went back to France. When she did leave, she was not relieved but sad. And, okay, we were too. A little.

I have new appreciation for people who bring in exchange students over and over again, and make it a worthwhile experience for the entire family each time. If I were asked, I’d probably allow myself to be talked into it the way I’ll probably give halibut-wrapped-in-foil another shot on the grill. But the senior year is already here and I haven’t heard a peep from Sam. I’m hoping it stays that way, as much as I hope Audrey finally became a veterinarian or vegetarian or valedictorian the way she wanted to.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The last SAT

I do not heart the SAT. It’s making me fight with myself and before it’s over, it will make Sam think bad words about me, even if those words are five years long.

It’s not because I’m tired of nagging Sam to do his SAT homework when he’d rather be at Frankie’s house. It’s not because it’s college application time in general, which is all about timelines and checklists. It’s not because we’re all getting nervous about what hinges on those three little categories: Math, Critical Reading and Writing.

I do not heart the SAT because for all its aim to gauge academic aptitude, it is a test of test-taking, with the power to rule out promising candidates even as it nets the highly qualified. 

Sam’s personal readiness to leave home has been his work in progress for seventeen years and his academic potential has been demonstrated. In five very short years, he'll be up there at the top of College Mountain with a little flag that says  "Thanks Mom and Dad" like his siblings were.  But on October 1, when he takes the last available SAT before the application deadline, he will be like every other bleary-eyed teenager sitting in a big room for four hours, tired, anxious, eventually hungry, pencil hovering over his choices, knowing what's at stake while he tries to recall if he loses or doesn’t lose points for blanks, and what to do if he runs out of time.  There's your test.

Most colleges – the ones who require high six or seven hundreds to begin with – claim to factor in, but not rely too heavily on SAT scores, though I imagine the pile of marginal candidates awaiting a “closer look” is pretty impressive. And many smart, qualified teenagers score well on the SAT, go to wonderful colleges, and become productive human beings. I raised three of them. But an ambitious quest has evolved among parents of college-bound teenagers to “crack the SAT code.” On coffee tables and kitchen counters throughout the land sits the three-inch Princeton Review which boasts from the cover: practice questions and explanations in every chapter!

I was never the parent who believed in prepping for the test, other than to make our kids take it a couple of times. Now I am the parent who has hired a tutor, is making her teenager use words like “Perspicacious” in a sentence, and is asking “have you signed up for word-of-the-day yet?” I am the parent I used to judge in not very understanding terms for their vicarious, or, that which is experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another, ambition. So, now, on top of everything else, my personal integrity will not take calls from my parental motives, even though they used to talk all the time and wear each other’s clothes.

Oh, if we could have type-appropriate versions of the SAT– aligned with the “person” category into which the test taker fits. Maybe name the SAT after famous humanitarians and billionaire philanthropists the way burgers are named after famous actors in diners: The Bill Gates SAT, the Warren Buffett ACT. For the ones who don’t have memories like vaults, but possess savvy and personality that are in the high seven hundreds, we could have the Ferris Bueller SAT.

Will he crack the code? Sure, he will. But I can’t shake the cognitive dissonance, or, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously when I realize how I view, yet have bought into, the process of SAT prep.

So I do not heart the SAT, and I will be happy to see October 1 come and go. I will no longer start every sentence with “did you get a chance to,” and I will sit my personal integrity down in the same room as my parental motives, tell them to use their “I” statements and remember, during conflict, how they felt about each other when they first met.