“Really, Mom? Is that really necessary, really?” Asked Jake.
Yes. Yes it is.
It was a long first semester at Chapel Hill. Jake had a lot of fun and did very, very well in his major, if his major had been Co-ed Dorm Living. Sadly, that is not his major.
The semester was peppered with quotes which might haunt Jake for years; things which one with a less-than-stellar GPA should probably not say to their mother.
“I can’t concentrate right now because two girls are rubbing my head. They say my new buzz feels really good.”
This, said by a boy who had called me to discuss the need for tutoring.
There have been many talks. Many, many, many talks. Talks about maturity, priorities, and expectations. Talks about hard work, and potential. Talks about appropriate times and places for having one’s head rubbed, and the wisdom of telling one’s mother of details which one might never live down.
In fact, just before this picture was taken there had been one last talk over lunch at Spanky’s, capped off by my mother leaning forward and whispering to the grandson she loves, “Get your ass in gear, kid.”
And Jake, being Jake, listened graciously.
On our after-lunch walk to Chapel Hill’s famous fountain, The Old Well, Jake’s brothers had teased him relentlessly: Did he need his head rubbed? Had he had a long enough drink from the fountain on the first day of classes? Because Chapel Hill legend says that drink was supposed to have ensured a 4.0 GPA, so what happened? Upon reaching the Old Well, the brothers showed Jake the proper way to drink from the fountain, because he obviously had done it wrong last semester.
Perhaps my suggestion that he drink more deeply than the others was a bit much?
When Jake hung his head and cheerfully bemoaned the abuse being heaped upon him, I worried: had the teasing gone too far? I hoped not, but I did want to assure him that he was very loved. And so, I did what a good mother should do: I rubbed his head and sang “Soft Kitty” to him while his brothers beat the snot out of each other behind us.
I think he’ll do better this semester, if only to make sure that he doesn’t have to switch to a local college and come live at home.
This weekend, you watched as my heart shattered. After weeks of worry– of ups and downs, of questioning myself, of waiting for things that were out of my control–I fell apart.
Children aren’t supposed to see that, are they? Parents are supposed to leave the room for their disintegrations. But you three watch me like hawks, as if I am the most interesting and important creature you’ve ever encountered, and I don’t think there is anything I’ve ever done or felt that went unnoticed. To assure you that I am OK when I’m not is to teach you that your instincts are wrong, and your instincts are rarely wrong. I learned a long time ago that attempting to slink off to lick my wounds privately only makes you three nervous, and it’s best to be honest when I am struggling. What you imagine is always worse than the reality.
And so you’ve been aware of my recent worries, and your patience and quiet concern have helped me stay calm and guardedly optimistic.
But suddenly it all became too much, and as I took one blow too many you watched at I crumbled. You gathered around me, encircling me with your skinny boy arms, shushing me as I sobbed, kissing me on my head as the first real hope I’ve felt in years drained away like the last light of the day; as old scar tissue was carelessly ripped apart, yet again.
You three didn’t even flinch. In one moment, you morphed from trash-talking, wrestling, nut-punching hooligans into pure goodness. Your compassion, your empathetic tears, your calm self-assurance as you shuffled me up to my bed and told me to lie down for an hour until I felt better, your protectiveness of me over the past few days …. it humbles me. How do an 11, a 14, a 19 year-old know how to care and love this way?
You are such kind people, and that kindness and those skinny arms have lifted a bit of the heaviness from my heart–just enough that I can take a deep breath and steady myself.
You are my heroes, and it is an honor to be your mother.
Ri is shaking his head from side to side, holding both hands up in a gesture of innocence and surrender. Clearly, someone is overreacting to having their chest stomped upon gently, and Ri is a bit disgusted.
I’m already annoyed with Matt and Ri, as they are supposed to be doing their homework while I work on dinner. They’ve wandered away to play Nerf basketball, and my repeated requests to return to their homework have been ignored. Now Riley pointedly returns to his homework; he has no time for divas fussing about a gentle chest-stomping when there is homework to be done.
“You stomped on his chest gently?,” I ask. ” Is that anything like the time you pushed him into the banister playfully? Maybe next time you can smack him upside the head with a two-by-four jokingly?”
“It wasn’t hard and he kept saying ‘BRICK,’ and–“
But I can’t hear the rest of Riley’s answer, because Matt has joined us in the kitchen, and has a lot to say about his chest injury. Their words are a jumble: “youLAUGHED yousaidBRICK YOUstompedonmyCHEST NOTHARD!”
“You know what?” I say, cutting them both off, “No! I don’t want to even hear it. You were supposed to be doing homework, you weren’t listening, and you two work this out. “
I tell them to each get a piece of paper, sit down and write out what happened, and then hear each other out.
Riley’s hands go back up, “I’m just trying to do my homework–“
Jake is home on break, and he advises Riley, “Dude, you should listen before she beats the crap out of you, nicely.”
“And then maybe we should bury him in the backyard, gently?” I add.
Jake and I agree that this is a good plan, and we discuss all my options while the two younger boys scribble out their conflict.
Today, days later, I find Matt’s paper. We’re going to need to work on grammar, among so many, many other things.
Eight hours into the drive, and we’d played 20 Questions for the last hundred miles. Things were deteriorating.
“Alright, I got one!” Announced Jake, and Riley and I groaned.
Jake’s had some pretty obscure picks on his turns, the Lost Library of Alexandria being my favorite. Jake also tends to overthink his yes and no answers: he won’t give a definitive” yes” to a person being dead if their body was never found. Amelia Earhart could, after all, still be alive. This leads us to ask questions like, “Does a recognized and respected governmental body consider them dead?” Or, “Other than conspiracy theorists, do normal people believe this to be true?”
“Dude,” I ask him now, ” is it something we all know? Do we even have a chance, here?”
“Yes,” he says. “This time I promise you all know it.”
“Riley knows it?” I clarify, “Matt knows it?”
“Wait, wait.” Says Riley, “I know it, or you think I should know it?”
“You know it,” insists Jake, ” I know you know it because we’ve discussed it recently, and you care about this.”
“Yes, you care a lot about this.”
It’s a person. A man.
A man who is dead. Definitively dead? Confirmed dead? Yes.
Not an American. A European. He’s lived in the last hundred years.
A famous, dead, male European, who is neither an artist, an athlete, an inventor, nor a scientist, an academic, a royal.
Was he a political leader? Yes.
“Is it Hilter?” I ask.
“No.” Jake says.
I think for a minute.
“So,” I ask, ” you’re telling me this is a dead, European political leader of the last hundred years who Riley not only knows, but cares about?”
“Yes,” repeats Jake, “Riley really cares.”
“Riley really cares. Was he a leader during World War II?”
“Is it STALIN?”
‘Yes!” Exclaims Jake, “It’s Stalin!”
Riley turns in his seat and stares at Jake. ” I really care about Stalin?”
“Oh my gosh, Ri, yes!” I say. “You LOVE STALIN! It’s always Stalin, Stalin, Stalin. All the time with Stalin. I need to remember to get you that Stalin poster you wanted for your room.”
Riley and I are laughing now, and Jake is trying not to laugh as he defends himself.
“We just talked about it yesterday! You asked about Mel Gibson, and we ended up talking about the Holocaust.”
“Wait, ” I say. I was part of this conversation, and I don’t remember Riley caring deeply. “Riley asked about Mel Gibson, and we all ended up discussing World War II? Or you and I expounded while Riley’s eyes glazed over?” Jake is passionately interested in history, and I don’t think he can imagine that anyone else wouldn’t be just as interested. It’s STALIN, for heaven’s sake! Stalin is a rock star in the world of history!
“Yeah, that,” laughs Jake.
“But now that we know Ri caaaares about this stuff, there are no limits on what we can use! Riley, do you care deeply about Nicholas Sarkozy’s Economic policy?”
“Yes, but I really care about Nicholas Sarkozy’s pinky toe.”
“Oh, you do love the politically offbeat details! How about Vladimir Putin’s pet kitty?” I say. “Or, Margaret Thatcher’s….”
“Left hairy nostril?” Suggests Riley.
“Yes, Margaret Thatcher’s left hairy nostril. Because you care about your international politicians.”
“I do care. What about Castro’s favorite nephew?” Ask Riley.
“Ohhhh,” I say. “Who wouldn’t know Alberto?”
Jake has given up at this point, and is laughing so hard that no noise is coming out. He manages to squeak, “King Tut’s missing penis?”
And then we’re off on a discussion of poor King Tut’s penis, recently in the news. It’s been lost, it’s been found, it’s been deemed a genetic mutant-penis which never would have worked properly anyway. Poor Tut.
Poor us. At ten-thirty and after a day spent driving, I’ve just missed the turn for my hometown because I was distracted by our conversation about King Tut’s missing bits. The exit is miles behind us, and I only realize what I’ve done when we are almost to Philadelphia International Airport. Tired and punchy and not making the best decisions, I exit I-95 off an exit-only ramp, and we spend the next half-hour winding our way through some rough parts of Philadelphia as we hit detour after detour. All because of King Tut’s missing penis, which we all care about, deeply.
As I go through life and meet new people, I sometimes meet another mother of three or more boys. In a check-out line, at a sporting event, a school function– those moments when we knock up against strangers long enough to engage in small talk. Upon realizing this commonality, there always follows a small, silent exchange; a moment of recognition and appreciation. We meet each other’s eyes, break into a grin, shake our heads and roll our eyes: boys.
My mother’s sister, Joni, and her husband, Tom, have five boys. There is a very special place in Heaven for Joni and my Uncle Tom. They will have a full staff who jump to do whatever they say, the first time they say it, complementing them on their wisdom. No one will require emergency medical care after five o’clock.
Growing up, I used to be baffled by the things I heard my Aunt and Uncle say.
“Don’t give them that key!” Joni would say, “They’ll just go put it in the outlets.”
Why, I’d think, would nine, ten, eleven- year-olds put a key in an outlet? They’re old enough to understand the danger at the age.
“Don’t tell them the light goes out when you close the refrigerator door,” Tom would say, “they’ll put each other in there.”
THAT is ridiculous. They wouldn’t get into the refrigerator.
Joni and Tom were part of a club I had not yet joined, and now I understand what I did not then: with boys, you must constantly suspend all common sense and consider the most unreasonable thing to do at any given time. Then, you must assume your sons will think of something worse to do.
They might not have put that key into the outlet when they were younger, but now that they know they can be electrocuted, they will spend hours attempting to electrocute themselves and each other.
And yes, they would get into the refrigerator. I know this because I am constantly telling my boys to let each other out of the dryer.
Three seems to be the magic number. Two boys can think of some really stupid things to do, but throw in the third and now you have an audience. Add an audience, and that last trace of common sense disappears.
I thought of my Aunt and Uncle tonight, as I said goodnight to Matt.
Matt fell asleep on the couch, and as Jake carried him up to bed, he woke. As he neared the bed, he twisted and torqued like a hooked pickerel, flinging himself out of Jake’s arms and face-first into the wall over his bed. BAM…thunk. And because that is all shades of AWESOME, he burst out laughing.
Laughter is the rallying cry for boys, and so Riley came running. Seeing Jake in Matt’s room, he headed straight for him, ramming him with his head to cause as much pain as he possibly could.
“My NUTS!” Yelled Jake.
Jake, in turn, beat the snot out of Riley, causing him as much pain as he could.
“My NUUUUTS!” Yelled Riley, as Jake picked him up by his testicles, it seems, and threw him onto the bed.
I had followed Jake as he carried his brother upstairs, and now, as I sat on the bed with Matt, his two brothers put on the Sunday Night Show.
“THIS is why I’ve always had the rule of no brothers in each other’s room at bedtime!” I say.
“I’ll take care of it, Mom!” Says my oldest son. And he grabs Riley by the ankles, and drags him from the room. THUNK, face-down, off the bed and onto the floor. AHHHH, as the rug rubs the skin off his face. THUNK, against the door frame.
Riley, at the last minute, grabs my leg and attempts to pull me with him. My leg doesn’t bend at a 90° angle sideways, and in the midst of the craziness the most natural reaction is to laugh and hang onto the boy beside me. Matt and I are dragged halfway off the bed before Riley releases his grip.
I spend the next half hour beside my laughing son, my gaze swiveling between him to my left, and his brothers to my right. Matt, the youngest, big-eyed and freckled, head thrown back as he laughs deep belly laughs at his brothers’ antics. Jake, standing bouncer-like in the doorway, hands held together to protect his crotch as Riley gleefully attempts to batter his way into the room, again and again.
“My nuuuuuuuts!” Yells Riley, as Jake drags him away from the doorway once again, “He’s dragging me by my nuuuuuuuuts!”
For a half an hour I find myself crying out warnings and orders; setting limits which are not so much ignored at not heard through the laughter.
“Be careful of his head and his spine! WATCH HIS NECK! His HEAD, HIS HEAD!” I plead.
“DO NOT get that gun out at this hour. NO WEAPONS AT ELEVEN O’CLOCK AT NIGHT!” I order.
“Put the cap back on that deodorant! Put the cap on that deodorant!” I command, and then, ” Oh yuuuuck! Now I have deodorant all over my arm. Ew.”
“OK, let’s not move the furniture right now, LET’S NOT MOVE THE FURNITURE!”
As I sit beside my laughing son, I’m aware of how fleeting this time is, and I think of my Aunt and Uncle. What do Tom and Joni feel as their boys get older and head off into the world? My youngest cousin is eighteen, and only two boys are still at home. Are Tom and Joni ready for a bit of quiet, or will they miss the ridiculous out-of-control of so many boys? Is it heart-breaking, or a relief? Both?
I think of my Aunt and Uncle in my first defined memories of them: the weekend of their wedding, almost forty years ago. Joni: a red-haired, round-faced teenager, and Tom: youth-slim and dark-haired, dashing, and a bit cocky.
They’ve had quite a ride, and I’m sure it’s not what they imagined it would be. Is it ever?
More than time and all else in life combined, Tom and Joni’s boys have made them what they are today; that half-wild, rough-sweet mass of constantly moving boy has been their life. Their sons are the Sun around which their world has revolved, and at this moment I feel so lucky to be a member of the same club.
To be the mother in a house full of boys is joy, pure joy.
When I’m asked to describe my mom, I usually can’t come up with anything more precise than, “she’s a whole lot of person.”
She’s a firecracker. She’s dynamic. While she’d like to be a broad, she’s not laid-back enough to be one, and instead falls firmly into the good-time girl category. She has a lot of fun. She’s generous, ethical and honest, and she’s lived in a dozen cities around the world, and is asleep before her international flight takes off. She’s a well-dressed, new millenium product of the 1960’s, her hippie views a bit more pragmatic than they were forty years ago. Her sense of humor and complete lack of gravitas belie her fierce intelligence; she’s had a hand in writing much of the software currently used to keep corporate lending institutions rolling. She likes to curse but is very bad at it, “Holy f**k, honey,” being my all-time favorite. She can’t cook anything without setting off her smoke alarm, and I think this is because she is opposed to using the “low” setting on anything in her life. She is rarely still. I have never heard my mother be rude, leading me to believe that ungraciousness is only for those who lack strength of spirit and character.
*I’ve put up this post and taken it back down several times in the past day. During the short time it was up it seems to have struck a chord, and so it’s back and it stays. Thank you so much to those who so kindly emailed.
Like many, I’ve had bouts of depression in the past. Like all who have ever suffered from depression, I’d like to avoid it in the future.
The difference between struggling and depression, for me, is that when I’m struggling I can still help myself. I can still move to do the things I know will strengthen me.
I’ve been struggling for weeks now, straining too much under the weight of responsibilities that come with single motherhood, the stress of a challenging year. This single mom thing? I wouldn’t recommend it. I adore those boys. I love them through and through with every tiny bit of me, but Lord, is it hard. I’m It. Everything comes back to me every minute of every day, and there is no time when I can lay my basket of responsibilities down. I’m the cushion, the net, the armor, the levity, the balance and the Mom and the Dad, and I’m so worn out.
I’ve been trying to do what needs to be done to get me strong again: exercise, rest, eating well, asking for help and support, evaluation of the stress I’m under–stress there isn’t much I can do anything about. My brain can’t take this much struggle, this much stress, this much draining out and nothing coming back in to strengthen me, and this past week there’s been a tipping point. I’ve come to the end of my resources, and I just don’t have anything left in me. I’m cooked, and the huge, menacing beast of black depression is here -it’s this close, so close I can feel its breath- and I’m terrified by its proximity. I’ve been trapped and lost in that horrible darkness before, and I’d do almost anything to avoid returning to that place.
My Mom will be coming home from the Netherlands for a week. I ‘ve found that at this point, the point where my dreams are becoming troubling, when I can’t straighten my thoughts out, when the swirling in my head won’t stop and I can’t seem to help myself, the only thing to do is to hand things over to someone else before it gets worse. I need to let someone else be in charge, to let someone else pick up the basket of responsibilities I’m too worn out from holding to hold right now. Thank God, thank God, my Mom will do this for me, and I feel lighter just knowing she’s arriving tonight. The tiniest little light of hope has appeared, and I can’t tell you how welcome and surprising it is in the darkness.
The last time I called upon her this way was over three years ago. She came home for two weeks, put me to bed, and handled my life for me. She loved my kids, fed me, and served as Drill Sergeant of Rehabilitation. Eat! Sleep! Sit in the sun! Sleep again! This seems to do the trick: a break. Preemptive, prophylactic bed rest. A complete immobilization of my head seems to be what is necessary to keep if from slipping into scary darkness. I’m a big fan of doing what needs to be done to keep that from happening.
My Mom will graciously step in, and I will happily relinquish control.
Why am I telling you this when I don’t have to? I’ve thought long and hard about that. A lot of people read this blog. A lot of people struggle with this condition, and yet there is a certain shame to it; you must be weak or selfish if your head goes haywire, to have symptoms you can’t control. You must be lacking in faith, you must be meant to learn from this. Bullshit. No one would say that about diabetes or heart disease, and it’s the same exact thing: human bodies do this. But, unlike other illnesses, the workings and mechanisms of the brain are still largely unknown. The brain is the last frontier of the human body, and we just don’t have this physical malfunction figured out yet.
The only reason not to tell you this is shame, and yet none of us should be any more ashamed of depression than we would be of a broken arm. I want my children to see me handle this pragmatically, effectively, and without the subterfuge which would imply this is something shameful.
This is how I handle this condition: I know this is a weak spot in my health, and so I try to live in a way that makes me strong, I try to practice good coping skills. If the illness breaks through, I try to act quickly to stop it. That’s what you do with illnesses, right?
If I had any other illness, I’d be open about it, and so I will be with this one too.
But people? Seriously? Don’t forget the monsters or I’ll kick all your hienies.
Valerie and I were discussing a note I received from my Uncle Jack, telling me he was enjoying the blog and liking my recent designs.
First, let me clarify that Uncle Jack is different from Uncle Jackie. See? Very different. One is a forester, one a retired teacher. One is an O’ This, and the other is a Mc That. Uncle Jack is my mother’s brother, and Uncle Jackie is my grandmother’s brother. This is confusing, I know, but Irish Catholics are legally required to name everyone with a y-chromosome John. If we don’t, then someone will go to Hell. But we don’t call them John, because if we did then we’d be Protestants and British and maybe still go to Hell. We call them Jack or Jackie. My grandfather was Paul John, and I guess they called him Paul because someone liked to live dangerously. But Paul is an apostle’s name and he had the John tucked in there, too, so he was safe.
And the women of the O’ This and Mc That clan? They will see your John and raise you one Mary. The women in my family need to have Mary stuck into their names somewhere. My grandmother is Maryclaire, my mother is Mary Mildred (Molly), and my sister is Mary. I didn’t get a Mary because….well, I guess my parents just didn’t love me as much. Unlike my grandfather with his John tucked into his name, I have no Mary at all, and this is why I am not a virgin and my son is a Buddhist.
When Valerie lectures me, though, she always calls me Mary Katherine because, being Italian Catholic, she knows this is how one needs to begin when reprimanding another Catholic. “Mary Katherine, you need to blah, blah,” she says, and I know that whatever she is about to say, she is right. Because she started with Mary, and that’s serious even if my Catholicism is only genetic and not spiritual.
I’ve always understood the Mary, but why the John? Mary, as the mother of Jesus, is the female bigwig in the Catholic Church. The Grande Dame. Many people in the South misunderstand the Catholic Church’s focus on Mary, and it can best be explained like this: not revering Mary is like telling “Your Mama” jokes to Jesus, and that wouldn’t be nice, now would it? So I understand sticking Mary in front of every little Irish Catholic girl’s name, but John? I’ve never understood why it was a standout.
Now that we’ve clarified, Uncle Jack sent an email, which Valerie and I were discussing. And I think that discussion might need to be a whole separate post.
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Jaaaaakkke, happy birthday to you!
Valerie is still here visiting (hence the lack of posting), and we are debating whether Jake needs to take his little tail end down to the post office to register for the draft. Val says no. I say yes. The workmen who are in my house installing a new air conditioner say yes, and they have Y chromosomes so I think they are more reliable on this subject than Val. We’re going with their judgement unless Valerie sprouts testicles and their accompanying authority on all subjects masculine.
Additionally, I’m going to divvy up all the house bills, divide them by four, and give Jake his fourth to pay. Maybe I’ll write the total on a pretty piece of paper and put it in a box with a bow to make it a more festive birthday present. I’ve consulted the workmen on this, also, and they think it’s quite fair.
If anyone else would like any guidance from the air conditioning guys, they’re here all day. They’re great. They’re like a Magic Eight Ball: you just ask them a question and shake them a bit, and voila (vwah-lah, y’all!) ! Cold air and guidance.
So there you go. Bills and patriotic responsibility. Happy birthday, Jakers!