A Mother’s Day Masterpiece

It started with an innocent manicure. I told my younger son, who’s 7, that he could paint my nails for Mother’s Day. He’d done it last year on that day – each finger a different shade – and he hadn’t forgotten about the special treat of playing with his mother’s polishes.

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So I sat at the kitchen table last Sunday afternoon while he lovingly globbed bright orange polish on my nails. It made both of us exceedingly happy. About 90 seconds after he finished, he asked if they were dry so he could add another color. I touched them gingerly and reported that no, they were still pretty wet. That’s when things started to go awry.

After rebuffing his offer to paint my toenails too, he retrieved a hairbrush and water bottle spritzer from the hall closet and began spraying and brushing my hair. Tiny droplets trickled down my forehead and I closed my eyes as the brush pulled my head back. I tried to relax, soaking in all this sweet pampering by my first-grader as my third-grader sat reading in the other room. This is a perfect Mother’s Day, I thought. And we had frozen yogurt sundaes to look forward to, as I’d promised to take them to Sweet Frog for a dinner treat that evening.

My eyes were still closed a few minutes later when I felt the cold water misting my bare feet. I jumped, eyes wide open, and he looked up at me and smiled. He had the kitchen towel in his hand. “I’m washing your feet,” he said, and continued his ice water assault on my toes. I grimaced and let him.

After Round 2 of nail polish – this time a shade of royal blue added to half of each orange nail – he disappeared again and returned with a shade of lipstick so bright I keep it in the bathroom for the sole purpose of writing messages to them on the medicine cabinet mirror.

He uncapped it and looked at me matter-of-factly. I think by then he had a whole plan in mind, but I was still oblivious. He told me to hold still. Then: “Oh man,” he smiled at his handiwork, shoving the cap back on before twisting the tube down. I stood up and checked myself out in the mirror: I looked like a middle-aged hussy who’d tried to “freshen up” after having a few too many vodka tonics. He waited for my reaction.

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“Wow,” I exclaimed, wondering silently how long I needed to wait before wiping it off. Then he asked for the rest of my makeup, and I thought Eh. We’ve come this far.

I have two makeup bags: A small one of stuff I use every day – concealer, pressed powder, mascara – and a bigger bag of odds and ends I’ve mostly gotten from Ipsy that I never wear but won’t throw out because you never know when I might need six shades of gray eye shadow, or dual-color blush crème, or something ridiculous called “eyebrow mascara.”

That is the bag I pulled out for him.

When he was finished painting my face, he asked me to put my hair up in a ponytail, then retrieved the five small flowers he and his brother had presented to me in little vases that morning and stuck them, one by one, in my hair. He took a step back from me and smiled, delighted with his work thus far. “Now, would you like something to wear?” he asked in a tone of voice that suggested he was now my personal stylist, not my son.

I looked down at my jeans and T-shirt. “Why, yes, I think I would. Do you have something special in mind?”

“Ohhhh yes,” he said. “I will return in a moment.” He disappeared into my bedroom, and I thought, This is so fun. Until he came back holding a pair of black and white tie-dyed running tights; an orange, black and white patterned bikini top; a multicolored sleeveless blouse; and a red, white and blue flannel shirt to go over the whole thing. “If your nails are dry, I can show you to your dressing room,” he said, all business.

I checked the blue polish; it was a bit tacky, but congealed enough. “Yes, thank you, sir,” I said, standing up. He led me to my own bedroom, placed the clothes on my bed and left.

When I emerged, my pint-sized stylist gasped. I don’t remember him ever looking so proud. He called his brother in to see his masterpiece, and one of them said, “We need to get dressed up, too!” That’s when I knew that this wasn’t some silly afternoon game; this was careful preparation for a special outing.

And I was going to be leaving the house looking like this.

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Evan wasn’t quite done with me, turning his focus to my jewelry. He asked me to remove my rings and found two other, fancier ones for me to wear. He selected the largest earrings I own, and chose a necklace for me too. Then he placed brown pumps and white sandals at my feet, and told me to choose.

When all was in place, he took a few steps back, stared hard at his creation from head to toe, and announced, “You’re done.”

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Kostyn took my phone and snapped a full-body photo. As he handed it back to me he whispered, “You look amazing.” I beamed.

As they rushed around their bedroom, donning collared shirts and khakis and looking for accessories to dress themselves up even further, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror and noticed I couldn’t stop smiling. I thought about all those times I’d scoffed at the notion that women “give up” once they become mothers, that “mom jeans” become the norm and fitness takes a back seat, that we moms no longer care much what we look like. I’ve always known that to be a load of crap.

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The truth is we still care very much, I thought, smooshing my lips together to even out my horrendous lipstick. But we also care about other things, things that mean more than perfect manicures and flat stomachs. And sometimes, those things make us feel the most beautiful.

On that day, at that moment, I felt ridiculously beautiful.

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When they presented themselves, dapper and ready, we took a few selfies to document the day.

“Mommy, do you think everyone at the Sweet Frogs will think we were just at a wedding?” Evan asked with such sincerity I had to keep myself from squeezing the daylights out of him.

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Kostyn answered for me. “Oh yes,” he said. “Every head will turn our way!” I glanced down at my running tights and grabbed my keys and purse. “You betcha,” I said, and we were off.

The place, of course, was packed.

I am not a bold person; I prefer to blend into a crowd, not do or say or wear anything that will turn the spotlight in my direction. There was no hope of blending that day. But it didn’t matter. You know how some people make you feel beautiful just by the way they look at you? Every time my boys glanced my way, I felt beautiful. I was beautiful. I walked in with my head held high and we waltzed straight back to the frozen yogurt stations to start making our gigantic sundaes.

Once our bowls were piled high with sauces and candies and sprinkles, we claimed the only free table in the joint and I went back to the counter for water. I could feel other eyes on me, and for a moment I shrunk inside, momentarily embarrassed. But then as I walked back toward my sweet sons I saw them high five each other. When I sat down, Evan held up his hand and said, “Good Mother’s Day, Mommy,” and we high-fived; Kostyn did the same. And once again, I was beautiful.

“This is a perfect Mother’s Day,” I told them, and they nodded matter-of-factly. They knew it.

“Fist bump,” Evan commanded, and we both obliged. The neon orange nail polish created the perfect fireworks.

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Dandelions Are Nature’s Reminder That Survivors Will Always Rise

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I watched a man attemping to murder dandelions yesterday with calculated precision, holding a canister of weed killer and soaking each yellow flower on his otherwise perfectly manicured lawn.

I know people like lush lawns, and dandelions are considered weeds. I know some look down upon front yards like mine, with clumpy grass mixed with patches of moss and clover and plenty of puffy, sunny blossoms. I know dandelions grow taller and faster than grass, which exasperates those who like the outdoors to be tidy and trimmed, fastidious homeowners who spend time worrying about whether or not their neighbors think it’s time for them to mow.

I know in many yards dandelions are routinely yanked out, cut down or drenched in chemicals until they succumb to the bullying – for a time. But only for a time.

Because dandelions are nature’s survivors. And resilience is a superpower.

Last Saturday I stood in a room full of survivors – dozens and dozens of people who’d suffered unspeakable crimes against them, crimes that were often perpetrated when they were too young to understand or even identify such acts as crimes.

All grown up now, some were still as tentative as children; many were sorrowful, or angry, or awash in the remnants of shame and guilt and confusion that stain the psyche. But they were there. They were there to seek comfort, to find a voice that is no longer muted by fear or insecurities. They were there to begin, or continue, the long task of rising from the wreckage somebody else caused.

But they weren’t just surviving despite all those toxic memories and years of cutting themselves down, decades of trying to blend with the unblemished blades of grass around them. No, they weren’t doing that. They were thriving. They were hopeful and empathetic and could not have been more beautiful. Their courage was majestic, their compassion inspirational. Their resilience was – and is – food for the world’s soul.

Many had come from families where silence is heralded, and from circumstances where justice was never served. They still came. They came despite feeling, sometimes for their whole lives, that they are bad. Wrong. Worthless. Weeds.

But they – we – are none of those things.

Dandelions are magic. Their leaves are among the most nutritious of all greens. Their blossoms are a toddler’s favorite gift to give. Their heads can be made into wine. Their seeds can grant wishes on the wind.

I believe that lawns without a pop of yellow in the springtime are not only soulless and sad, but distortions of the truth. They are carefully constructed cubic yards of overachievement and under-imagination. And as with so much in this life, the illusion of perfection almost always masks something toxic.

But nature knows, and so do I, that survivors can appear to be drowning in the invisible poison of our circumstances, but we will rise, and we will bloom. Again and again. And the world is better for it.

Have you ever seen a field of golden dandelions on a sunny spring day? I saw one last Saturday, and it was breathtaking.

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Birthday woes? Forget about it.

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I think the glow stick border makes my mangled birthday brownie sundae look a little extra special.

It’s 10:38 p.m. Friday, and I’m sitting on my bed listening to my kids outside my bedroom door. They are decorating the house for my birthday tomorrow, and they are not exactly doing it stealthily. There is a lot of muttering and “shhhhhh!”-ing and scraping of dining room chairs against hardwood floors.

It is making me cry the good kind of tears, even as I listen to them argue about where things should go and how much tape the little one is wasting.

It is the second time I’ve cried tonight. Just a few hours ago we were sitting at dinner reminiscing about the time I ate a chocolate-covered ant at a Bug Show we went to in town. When that turned into them dreaming up disgusting chocolate-covered things and asking me if I’d eat them, I finally said, “The only way I’d eat that stuff is if your lives depended on it.” That shocked them, and Kostyn said, “But what if you died eating it?”

That was a bit more morbid than I’d anticipated for pre-birthday dinner conversation, so I breezily said, “Well as long as you guys were alive that would be OK. I’d do anything to save you.” Then I smiled, eager to lighten the moment. “I hope you’d miss me.” That’s when my sweet 6-year-old, in all innocent seriousness, said half-apologetically, “Actually, Mommy, if you died I probably would forget you. Because I’d be with Daddy all the time.” I stared at him. I tried to keep my smile frozen as I envisioned my heart splintering jaggedly down the middle like a cartoon character’s might.

“But I would try to remember you,” he said while popping another raspberry into his mouth, not having any idea what he’d just done to me. I mumbled a few sentences to turn the conversation in a different direction, then excused myself to the bathroom before my heart splattered all over the table.

A half-hour later, eager to shake off the heartbreak and enjoy the only night they’d be with me this weekend, I suggested a special pre-birthday dance party, which typically involves lots of glow sticks and very loud music. In the middle of the second song, Evan jumped up and smacked my face with his head. Blood gushed from my nose, and we reluctantly had to cut the dancing short.

But I still had brownie sundaes coming! I’d looked forward to them all day, and after filling their special sundae bowls with exactly the kinds of toppings each one wanted (“Two cherries for me!” “Only the green sprinkles, Mommy!”), I made my masterpiece – a warmed homemade brownie topped with ice cream, hot caramel sauce, Hershey’s syrup and a candle. I picked it up and promptly dropped it, upside down, all over the stove and kitchen floor.

It will not surprise anyone to know that after I made a second sundae, joined the boys and lit the candle, I inadvertently blew it out right before they started singing to me.

It was, by all accounts, not the night I had envisioned. And then, as I tucked them in, Evan asked out of nowhere, “Where do you keep the streamers?” I smiled in the dark.

“Honey, you don’t have to decorate for me, you can just come into my room in the morning and snuggle with me and wish me happy birthday, that would make me so happy.”

“But you do that for us,” Kostyn said from under his covers. “On our birthdays you stay up in the middle of the night and decorate so when we wake up there are banners and streamers and balloons everywhere.”

I tried to explain how that’s different, that I’m their parent, that I want their birthdays to be special in big ways like that and that mine is special just because they’re here. They were not having it. After a few minutes of arguing about whether I would agree to wake them up when I was going to sleep, I finally let them get out of bed and decorate tonight.

My laptop clock now says 11:17 p.m. It is way, way past their bedtime. I can tell they are trying mightily to hang streamers from the top of my bedroom door frame, so that I might walk through them tomorrow morning, on the 43rd anniversary of the day I entered the world.

“My tip-toes are hurting like crazy,” Kostyn says quietly, and I feel the urge to go out there and hoist him up so he can easily reach it. But I know they want to do this on their own. And I want them to.

“That’s what Mommy always does on our door, so we need to do it to her door,” I hear Evan whisper encouragingly, and I sigh and breathe in the best birthday message the universe could send: There is no forgetting a mother’s love.

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When the Hug Is More Than the Goodbye

Hugs are great any way, anytime, anywhere.
Hugs are great any way, anytime, anywhere.

Sometimes it’s only after they’ve rushed out the door and climbed into their father’s car that I realize I didn’t hug them goodbye, not for any real reason except that Evan was complaining about his shoes again and Kostyn was chasing after a squirrel, and there were jackets to remember and backpacks to exchange and reminders about Picture Day tomorrow at school. And then the car doors were closing and I was yelling “I love you guys!” and they were yelling back “Bye, Mommy!” and “Love you too!”

Every time they leave, I stand just inside the front door and watch them back out of the driveway and speed off. I wave every day, even on the days when I know they’re distracted, telling Daddy about their day or marveling at a new toy he’s left on their seats for them. I see their little hands fly up at the last moment and I know he has just said, “Wave to Mommy,” because he knows I’m standing there, and he knows what it feels like.

It’s not hard like it used to be, like it was last year. The goodbye hugs used to be dreaded embraces carefully orchestrated inside my heart. They had to be not too clingy and never sad. They had to express love and assurance without a hint of “please don’t leave me,” lest their little minds linger on the fact that one parent might be lonely without them. So the last-second squeezes with my wiggly boys would be motherly but quick, as I’d breathe them in and feel them nuzzle their faces into my neck just for a second. Many times I had to fight back tears, knowing that when I saw them the next day they’d be just a tiny bit bigger.

It is easier now. Some days I look forward to the silence, the sweet end to the bickering for a bit, and the ability to make dinner that nobody will complain about. It has become routine, this back and forth life we lead. It is not ideal, but we tell ourselves that they have adjusted beautifully, that they never missed a beat in school, never acted out at home. They know and feel great love from both parents, and they believe that we are still a family, just different. We’re grateful that they’ve had each other, that in a sea of changing lives and new homes and dinners for three, each boy could count on one constant – his brother.

When their silver car is out of sight I turn back inside and close the heavy front door, walking toward the kitchen to start the transition. There are always remnants of our day left to pick up, capes and Nerf gun darts and stray Trio blocks and always, always one more marble. On this day their snack plates and cups and crumbs are still on the table. Kostyn’s homework is in his dad’s car, finished and neatly tucked into his backpack, but his pencil is right here on my kitchen table where we were working on rounding up and rounding down. I smile thinking about how in the middle of adding and estimating my third-grader suddenly dropped that pencil, stood on his dining room chair and turned toward me, his brown eyes wide and his smile spreading.

“Mommy, stop what you’re doing and open your arms!” he commanded like some sort of pint-sized game show host, and I had two seconds to drop the backpacks and lunch boxes and take-home folders I was just gathering up at the table before he was flying at me, his bony legs grabbing for me, his arms around my neck. He clung to me like a koala cub, like those little stuffed animal figures whose legs and arms pinch open and closed and can snap onto just about anything.

For a second I had the usual knee-jerk parental reaction, huffing to myself that I was just in the middle of something and can’t he see how busy I am doing all these things for them and I know this is just his way of avoiding his homework and I am not some tree to climb whenever one of them feels like jumping on me. Huff. Sigh.

But I didn’t say any of that, I swallowed that first instinct and went with the second one, which was to hold on tight. Because he’s mine. And because he’s still young enough to want to jump into my arms, and he’s still small enough for me to catch him, and he’s still smart enough to know I always will. And math homework can wait.

Forty minutes from that moment I will realize that the flying leap of a koala bear hug, the one right here in the kitchen with his brother jumping up and saying “Mommy, my turn!” and Kostyn giggling into my ear and threatening to stay like that forever, that was our hug goodbye today. And I am grateful that it doesn’t have a hint of “goodbye” in it.

(This essay was published on The Washington Post’s On Parenting site.)

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Summer Bugs: Who Lives, Who Dies

Too pretty to kill.
Too pretty to kill.

Summer is that time of year when I open my home unwittingly to all kinds of unwelcome guests. No, I’m not talking about my kids’ friends; I’m talking about bugs. Lots of bugs. Squishy bugs, flying bugs, crunchy bugs, angry bugs, bugs with agendas. And while I pride myself on teaching my sons the value of all life and creation, the fact is that belief system collapses pretty quickly when you start finding creepy crawlies in your bathroom, doesn’t it? Here’s how we handle things in my house:

Fruit flies: Fruit flies are obnoxious and annoying and can kiss my frantically clapping hands. I hate fruit flies so much that I have literally thought Well, maybe I can go without bananas for three months. BUT I CAN’T, because I have a daily smoothie habit, and because I shouldn’t have to. VERDICT: Kill, as soon as possible, and maybe celebrate by killing another one, because they seem to magically multiply when you squish one.

Regular flies: Eh. Don’t get me wrong, flies are annoying and buzzy and supposedly they throw up on everything they land on (thanks a lot, disturbingly graphic middle school science film), but they’re also hard to catch and their life span is, like, three days, so whatever. I chase and swat, chase and swat, chase and swat until I’m out of breath or my brain gets diverted to something else, which doesn’t take long. Parenthood is a real-life “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and my train of thought is more erratic than a fly’s flight pattern. VERDICT: Sometimes I squash them, and sometimes they live to puke on my Pop-Tart another day.

Ladybugs and fireflies: Pretty creatures lead a charmed life, and bugs are no different. (Stop looking at me like that; I didn’t make the rules.) Frankly, ladybugs and fireflies barely even qualify as Registered Bugs in our house. Ladybugs get a trip up my son’s arm, a pic or two of their playfully dotted backsides and then a sweet, safe ushering into the yard. A stray firefly in the living room gets an awed stare, a gentle catch in cupped hands and an escort outside, with whispered wishes for finding his family and lighting up others’ lives. VERDICT: Fly away, my lovelies, be free!

Bees: Bees aren’t a big deal to me, but WOW do my children believe otherwise. To them, a happy honeybee trying to pollinate my sliding glass door is basically the same as a dead-eyed zombie dressed as a clown carrying a giant mason jar of scorpions. So if I can’t quickly shoo it outside, I give it the ol’ swat-squish, as promptly as possible. VERDICT: Sorry, honey.

Spiders (Smaller Than a Dime): While I do have a prized photo of me holding a very hairy, very living tarantula, I’m generally not a big fan of live spiders of any size or hairiness level. However, my father used to say that spiders are good to keep around because they trap and kill other unwelcome guests, and so I always pause when I notice one setting up shop in the corner of my windowsill. I can almost see it winking at me: “You keep enjoying that summer breeze, darlin’. Nothin’s gettin’ in here tonight, ’cept supper.” VERDICT: OK, Charlotte, you can stay.

Spiders (Larger Than a Dime): Spiders of this magnitude are too big to be trusted. They have brains and fangs and sinister agendas. We cannot peacefully coexist, no matter how many pests I imagine they’d kill on my behalf. VERDICT: They gots to go, and I don’t mean out the door. This house ain’t no Little Critter book.

Mosquitoes: HELL NO. There is nothing worse than the unmistakable high-pitched buzzing of a mosquito hovering over your bed in the middle of the night, taunting you as it searches for the fleshiest part of you on which to feast. Any glimpse of a mosquito and my entire house is put on lockdown until that sucker is brought to justice. VERDICT: By “brought to justice” I mean “dead.”

House centipedes: Have you seen these things? House centipedes are thin and light-colored and have a zillion lanky, thread-like legs that move at the speed of light across the floor when you’re trying to switch the laundry. I don’t like how many legs they have, or how fast they move, or how many babies they’ve probably left in my house. The problem is I’m often not fast enough to catch them before they skitter into some unreachable crevice. It’s so unfair that I only have two legs. VERDICT: Squishity squish, if I’m fast enough.

Stink bugs: Stink bugs have singlewingedly ruined cilantro for me. Because that’s exactly what they smell like when you squash them, which I’m told you’re never supposed to do because that actually attracts more stink bugs to your house. You’re supposed to flush them down the toilet or light them on fire or something. VERDICT: No stink bug survives on my watch. I usually flush, but only because playing with fire sets a bad example.

Moths: These things are like my kids: Everything they touch gets dirty. Also, size matters with moths. The tiny ones who flitter around my desk lamp will most likely be belly up by sunrise, so I don’t pay them much mind. But the giant ones with beady eyes and heads big enough to include little moth brains and the ability to team up with Spiders (Larger Than A Dime) are marked for death immediately. Or whenever there’s a commercial break. VERDICT: That’s right, guys: Fly toward the light – the eternal one.

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