Mother’s Day Regret

If there was ever a holiday that was set up to make people feel badly, it is Mother’s Day. With the incessant commercials and advertisements running on tv, the internet and the papers, we are all being brain-washed to expect or feel obligated to celebrate a day created by retailers. When I was growing up, we disdainfully called this a “Hallmark holiday”.

I’ve tried repeatedly to remind myself of this fact. Instead, I remember the precious spontaneous moments when my child made a Freudian slip and said “love you”; or thanked me for staying home to care for him when he was sick. However, at this time every year, the lilac bush- which my children once gave me as a mother’s day gift simply because they knew how pleased I would be- bears the fragrant yet bittersweet reminders of a time when they were young enough to fall under the spell of motherly love.

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Now it seems they do everything possible to break the mold:  by either completely ignoring the day or blatantly offering favors or expressions of love to their dad, instead of me, on mother’s day. It is enough to break my composure and bring a few tears to my eye. Why should I feel so badly, I tell myself, because they choose to make a political statement (similar to the one my sisters and I launched on the company that shared our family name)? Why does it feel like a personal attack?

To  hide my feelings of disappointment I do the opposite. I go online and email a gift to my own mother- even though I know she agrees with me on the principle and we exchanged our own expressions of love and appreciation yesterday (and at least once a week throughout the year). I try to sit with my husband, who is taking a break from mowing the lawn to watch some golf. Unfortunately every break is loaded with sappy commercials and then, to make matters worse, a sob story about the mother of one of the golfers comes on. It is too much to take. I flee the house, hop on my bike and try to escape it all- even for a few minutes.

Now my husband has run out to the store to buy groceries for dinner. I almost wish he wouldn’t. At this point, I no longer think it is his responsibility to serve me on mother’s day. It should be between me and my children. If they have somehow managed to escape the song of the Sirens, I should be thankful for their strength to withstand the commercialization of an absurd idea- that there is only one mother’s day…

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The Magic of the Beach

  In four more days my kids will be done with school and we will be heading to the Jersey shore. No, not the raunchy version that we see on tv. We stay on a family friendly island where wild nightlife means riding the roller coasters or double shot. And there are no bars to visit in the evening, instead we hit the ice cream parlor for our favorite sundaes. If you want to gamble, you’d have to go to Atlantic City- or pull out the cards and chips for a family game of poker. The days are spent building sand castles or boogie boarding and the evenings are for lacrosse and sunset walks on the beach. Even though there are wi-fi and cable tv, the kids are more likely to pull out a board game or walk to get ice cream. Something about the salty air and the sound of the waves makes us all relax.

The scramble to get packed in a few short days and the long drive to get there, will be worth it once we cross the bridge with our windows rolled down so we can catch our first breath of the ocean. Something in our senses connects that smell with eating cotton candy or salt water taffy, relaxing on the warm sand or floating in the buoyant water.  The memories have compounded over the many years we have gone to the same beach. We have our traditions built in. We already know what activities we will do and where we will eat and sleep. The order or frequency does not matter, as long as they are all covered.

I have my pile of books at the ready. I plan to bring them down to our spot and relax under the umbrella. If the waves don’t put me to sleep, and I have time to read between swimming and walking on the beach,  I hope to finish at least one book by the time we leave.

My husband is preparing his fishing gear. He loves to get up early and throw his line in, hoping to catch dinner. Success is not his goal, though. It is the seduction of the waves, the unexpected tug on the line, the uncertainty of whether it will be a striper, a sand shark or a shoe. Any catch is a good one.

The kids have their lacrosse sticks and boogie boards for some fun beach activities. At some point they will probably decide they are not too old to build sandcastles and will take on the challenge of defending their fortress against the tide. Long ago I passed on the sand castle building techniques which my father had taught me. They know how to look for the biggest clam shell as a shovel and how to dig a trench so they can dribble muddy droplets through their fingers for a more gothic look on the facade.

We will bring our kayak along so we can paddle down to the pier or if a pod of dolphins happens by we can quickly jump in and follow along. In the past we have had the fortune to see them fishing within a few feet of us, diving underneath our kayak and popping up on the other side. It is a more memorable experience than visiting Sea World.

Shell collecting, especially in the ungroomed areas of the beach, almost always results in unusual finds. Horseshoe crabs, seagull feathers, sea glass, and lost trinkets will wash up along the high tide line. There are long strands of seaweed that have little  pockets of air.  They are every kid’s favorite ocean treasure because they are fun to pop!  On our beach walks, there have been two occasions where we came upon a crowd of people assisting a beached whale. Once, a family member helped carry it to the truck bed on which it could be driven to a rehab facility.

Jelly fish and crabs are the only creatures to avoid in the water; but I humourously remember the days of shark sightings when I was a kid, the year that Jaws was released. Most of the evacuations were caused by paranoid adults who were totally spooked by Steven Spielberg. Anything floating in the water or touching their leg was considered to be a shark. After that summer, I decided to never see the movie, lest it spoil my enjoyment of swimming carefree in the surf.

When my kids were young, I spent a lot of time playing on the beach or in the waves with them. Now they are old enough to wander the beach without me. They can come and go between the house, the beach, the roaming ice cream truck and the hoagie shop. No one has to be on a schedule and everyone can relax or have fun in their own way. The beach casts a different spell over everyone; but it provides a type of magical therapy for all.

Appearance Matters

It seems to have become an annual tradition that the week before Memorial Day, we spruce up our outdoor spaces. The threat of frost has passed, the gardens are in bloom and we are ready to kick off some barbecues. Before we do though, our chores include weeding and mulching the gardens; as well as power washing the decks and siding and repainting the cedar furniture and deck.

Instead of seeing a dried out, tangled patch of assorted plants running amok, we now have  a weedfree garden, freshly covered in dark wood chips and bursting with purple orange and pink flowers. The difference in appearance is stunning!

   

Likewise, washing the cumulative dirt, leaves and cobwebs off the front porch and slapping a fresh coat of cheery almond stain on the rocking chairs and tables makes the space much more appealing- especially when I add the new throw pillows and a hanging geranium.

The work is time-consuming and sometimes messy, but the results are well worth it. Because I know what is involved, I dig out my sneakers with the rubber treads wearing off , a baggy pair of shorts which I don’t normally wear but saved for chores like this, and an old t-shirt already decorated with paints of blue, yellow and gray from earlier projects.

By the time I am finished with the front porch furniture, I have smears and speckles of color on my arms and legs. There is even a section of my hair that is clumped together by dried paint. I don’t mind, though. I have been working hard and these marks are proof of that. Besides, I am so happy with the results of my efforts that I decide to keep going and tackle the even bigger project on the deck.

Unfortunately, we are out of stain and I will need to go out for more. I look at my spotted arms and legs, the stains on my shirt and the stiff clump of miscolored hair. I would never consider going to the grocery store like this. With my baggy, unflattering shorts, my sweat-soaked shirt and messy hair I cringe to imagine what people would think if they saw me.

I know it would be a waste of time to shower and change, only to come back and resume painting, so I decide to wear this outfit with pride. Recognizing my smears, stains and unfashionable clothing as the attire of a DIY painter in the middle of a project helped me see my appearance in a different light. After all, I was going to Lowes. Wouldn’t half the people there look like me?

As you can guess, no one gave me a second look or raised an eyebrow. It was obvious I was just coming in for more supplies for my deck project. Going out dressed like this should never have been an issue in the first place. Why should appearance matter so much?

Anyway, I returned home and resumed painting my deck furniture. The new coat of stain hid all the chips, cracks and layers of color the pieces had acquired over a dozen years.

       

They are well-made  adirondack style chairs and now they look as good as new. Once the deck gets its touch-up, I’ll be able to arrange the potted flowers and tiki torches and make it look very inviting. Soon I will be ready to entertain guests and kick off the barbecue season.

I guess that means I better freshen up my pedicure. It is one thing to go to Lowes looking disheveled, but I could never look like that when I have guests. Besides, after all that hard work, don’t my nails deserve equal treatment of a fresh coat of paint? Then it will really feel like summer!

Chess Returns

Over the last few years, I have collected quite many family heirlooms. As the older generation downsizes and begins to whittle away its belongings, I have accepted the precious things that hold sentimental value.  (see post  https://themiddlegeneration.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/saving-family-heirlooms/ ). One such piece is a marble chess board and a well-worn  set of wooden pieces. Both have seen many years of use over several generations of my husband’s family.

When I redecorated my living room last fall to accomodate some newly-acquired heirlooms, including a grandfather clock, I decided to incorporate a dedicated chess table into the room. (see post https://themiddlegeneration.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/a-room-of-my-own-lessons-on-interior-design/ ). My handy husband built the base for the marble board and I added two antique caned chairs from my side of the family.

For months the table sat, collecting dust, and I feared it would become a catch-all for loose papers before long.

Fortunately, in the last month, my son has expressed a renewed interest in the game of chess.

Many years ago, his Papa had patiently sat with him, giving him wise advice on game strategies once he moved beyond the basics. Son has memories of playing chess with Papa, or with his Uncle- both of whom who have since passed away. They were so gentle at guiding him, suggesting he rethink a move or making light of a mistake. They didn’t intentionally let him win. Often Son judged how he was improving by how few pieces the winner had left on the board.

This was contrary to the highly competitive matches I have witnessed between Papa and Uncle or between my husband and either of them. Each player took the game seriously and would ponder the possibilities for each move for what seemed an eternity. A rematch was certainly in order every time we visited and it was a matter of pride to win.

I don’t know what has suddenly drawn my son back to chess. Either he remembers how much he once enjoyed it, or he thinks enough time has passed since he last played his Papa that the memories are no longer painful. Either way, I enjoy eavesdropping on my husband and son during their evening matches.

Husband prefers slow, deliberate moves whereas Son has little patience for considering every alternative. I know he disrupts Husband’s thought process by bursting into song while waiting for his turn. It makes me laugh to hear him singing the melody of “Oh Fortuna” when I know Husband is trying to concentrate.

Other than a few pleas for one minute longer, Husband has adapted to the twenty minute chess match. I think the pleasure of playing on his family chess set, passed down to him from his own grandfather, and being able to play his son (something his father enjoyed immensely) makes him feel like he his fulfilling a legacy and passing on a family tradition.

It is wonderful to see the two of them playing a match nearly every evening. It is a chance for them to be competitive in a healthy, productive way. All boys look up to their dads on the road to manhood, and being able to outsmart your dad in a game of chess is a notch on the totem pole.

Someday when Son is settled into his own house and is ready to continue the tradition, this family heirloom will become his. In the meantime, I am thankful that I had the vision to give this table the honor and attention it deserves and that is no longer merely an heirloom collecting dust.

Saving Family Heirlooms

 
Tranby House silver tea service, original set ...

Image via Wikipedia

This weekend my family visited my mother-in-law at her new apartment. She had moved in last summer and is still getting settled. Downsizing from a townhouse to a small apartment forced a lot of choices about what to hold on to and what to give away. Much of her furniture,  linens, clothing, tools and various other items had been sold or donated. She kept much more than could comfortably fit into the apartment, so a few months later there was another phase of paring down. We had already taken objects from several rounds of cleaning out: irreplaceable family photos,  a much-used marble chess board and a full set of Limoge china. The latter has been put into safe-keeping for my daughter when she is grown.

When we arrived at the apartment this weekend, we were happy to see how much progress Ma had made in rearranging her furniture and finding a new place for old things. She had her kitchen all set up and had prepared a delicious dinner for us when we arrived. The savory aromas of her turkey ball soup had my son clamoring for a taste. We helped her hang paintings on the walls , which really made her apartment feel like home.

The next day, Ma called me into a closet where she had stored things for which she had no place. By this point of her downsizing they had been whittled down to the most precious family heirlooms with which she couldn’t bear to part. As she pulled out the items, I could see what they meant to her. A silver tea service, an antique planter, a beautiful china cheese plate. I asked her to tell me what she knew about each collection. Some had come from her husband’s side of the family of which she had less information. Most had been passed down through the family for several generations.

How does one decide what to hold onto and what to let go? I could hear the angst in her voice as she pleaded with me to take things home. I wanted to help, so sometimes I created reasons to take things home.

"I don't keep cheese out on the counter, but this will compliment my china set."

I asked my husband whether he knew about a set of silver kiddush cups, which had been bought by his grandfather in Palestine during the 1930s.         He looked them over and agreed we should keep them. Having recently redecorated my living room, I now have a special place where I can display these treasures.

When she unwrapped my late brother-in-law’s silver cup, with the date of his bar mitzvah engraved inside, she became overwhelmed with sorrow. My children both loved him so much that having his special cup will be a silent tribute to him. We can place it on the table in his name at our seder. 

Unfortunately, she could not convince me to take the silver tea set from her parents’ house. Even though it is meaningful to her, at this time I have no place to display it nor would I tend to use it. Maybe someday one of my children would like it, but for now Ma will have to hang on to it. Perhaps as the kids get used to seeing it at her apartment, or experience being served tea with it, this forlorn family heirloom will get a second chance.

A Hanukkah Meal

Last night we celebrated Hanukkah over a special meal. My husband came home with a small chicken , 2 parsnips and a bag of potatoes. He threw the chicken in the stock pot along with some onions, celery and carrots and we savored the salty aroma for the next couple of hours. Earlier in the day I had prepared applesauce out of the last of our hand-picked apples from the orchard. I boiled them, ran them through the food mill and added cinnamon, the smell of which still lingered in the kitchen. The combination of chicken, herbs and spices made our mouths water in anticipation of our favorite Hanukkah meal.

While the soup was cooking, my husband grated the potatoes and parsnips, which he would fry in oil and serve as latkes. When the broth was ready, he added matzah balls and served us each a hearty bowl of chicken soup.      It would not feel like Hanukkah without this traditional first course. Before we dug in, we lit the menorah- this time choosing the one my daughter had painted when she was little. Ahh, the memories… 

After the soup was finished, we threw some dreidels and gelt (chocolate candy) on the table for a few rounds while the latkes were frying in the pan. At first we happily sang the dreidel song each time someone spun it, but it quickly became too repetetive and drove my daughter crazy so we focused on competing to win all the gelt (Gimel).

Finally the latkes were ready. Their salty, crisp coating smelled so good we could hardly wait. We served them with a large scoop of sweet applesauce.     MMmmmm…it doesn’t get much better than this. Happy Hanukkah!

Balancing Traditions in an Interfaith Family

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah. It was a busy day, so we didn’t have time for a full-blown celebration; but we did gather in the kitchen to light the first candles of the 8 night holiday tradition. The kids laughed at the hand-painted menorah one of them had made at a very young age and were happy to sing while we lit the lights.

Ever since they were little, my husband and I have tried to find the right balance between his Jewish rituals and my Christian traditions. We bought a combination of holiday story books,  including Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Magic Dreidels. We even had one that was about an interfaith family celebration, Light the Lights.  I found an unbreakable Nativity set which the kids could play with alongside the toy dreidels.

I took them to a paint your own pottery studio so they could each paint a personal menorah. The year my son painted his, my daughter made a Santa candy dish.  We also have a special Christmas tree ritual  (described in an earlier post The Perfect Christmas Tree) I described our Christmas ritual.

Our first ornaments as a couple trying to balance traditions

We often light our menorah in the same room as our tree, so we have all kinds of holiday lights burning. We hang our stockings by the fireplace and decorate our table with a menorah as well as a wreath.

All of these rituals seem to stand on their own without diminishing the importance of any other. The one major difference though, is the lack of Hanukkah music. Singing Christmas carols was (and still is) my favorite part of the holiday. I know I complained about hearing Christmas music after Halloween, but lately I have been listening to it regularly, even singing along when the kids aren’t in earshot. There are so many great Christmas songs and I wanted to balance them with some comparable Hanukkah music. I did find a few cds, but there were only a few catchy songs that you could sing along with.

How can you compare kids songs to Handel's masterpiece?

The rest were either in Hebrew or were spoofs of Christmas songs. You could tell the songs were created just to appease Jewish parents; so I don’t even try matching them anymore. We just commit ourselves to Christmas carols.

The biggest challenge to finding balance, though has been gift-giving. At first, we tried to follow the childhood traditions of each of us. My husband had gotten one present a night, with one of them being a major gift; neither he nor his brothers received their big gift on the same night, so it was always a surprise.  I, of course, had gotten all my presents at once on Christmas morning, still in my pajamas while my parents sipped coffee to wake up at that hour. By the time we went through this painstaking routine twice , we realized that this was overkill and we had to change things.

Unless you are Jewish, you probably don’t realize that Hanukkah is not a very important holiday and that it has only gained recognition because it falls at the same time of year as Christmas. Gifts were really only added to make Hanukkah more child-friendly; it is actually a celebration of a Jewish victory in a war against the Greeks and a reconsecration of a holy temple with a miraculous supply of oil. Taking this historical information into account led us to drop the gift giving, except for some little tokens- candy, an iTunes card, dreidels. While the kids still receive Hanukkah gifts from their grandparents and aunt, we focus on lighting the menorah, playing a rousing dreidel competition and enjoying the traditional meal of latkes (more on this tomorrow).

Tonight we will have a big meal while we light our menorah and in a few days we will head to my sister’s house for our Christmas celebration. It is all a matter of balance, complex but meaningful; loaded with traditions that have been pared down to the most meaningful ones. The good news is that even though the kids really look forward to the Christmas gifts, they seem to appreciate the significance of all the rituals we have chosen to follow. I guess that means we have found a good mix. 

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