Song Sung Blue

Song Sung BlueThis is a hard time of year for a lot of people. Whatever struggles and challenges and sorrows you may have during the other eleven months get pushed through a sieve of forced cheerfulness in December, which can just make things worse. I’m a big believer in acknowledging Blue Christmas, taking some time to sit still with reality, and feel it, and maybe even have a good cry over it until you feel a bit better. Or until someone feeds you a Christmas cookie.

When it comes to triggering a good crying jag, I turn to music. I cry when Sarah McLachlan sings to shelter dogs, when Heart sings to Led Zeppelin during the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, and when old men sing tenor on church hymns. When I go to concerts, I pack tissues alongside my ID and beer money because you never know.

There are three sad songs that stand out for me because they function like the simple on/off circuits we all made in middle school science class. They start, I cry. No buildup necessary. I’m sharing them today in case you need to get things moving. Feel free to add your own songs sung blue in the comments.

Take care, and have a a cookie.

1. “Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ, on Two Thematic Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni,” Remo Giazatto

Gallipoli, made in the days before we knew that Mel Gibson was crazy, was my favorite movie in high school because it was full of horseback-riding Australian men, the perfect vehicle with which to bridge my tweenage horse love into something more grown up and worldly. I will give nothing of the World War One era movie away except to say that there is a scene of an evening before a battle that the movie audience and worse, all the characters on the screen, know is pointless. The tough C.O. with the heart of gold sits in his plain canvas tent and put this adagio on the Victrola, then sits down to write a goodbye letter to his beloved wife.

And every time I see this movie I think, oh my god, this guy has such a heart of gold that he actually brought his record player to the front? Now I love him, too, even if he’s neither cute nor on a horse, and I’m weeping, his offscreen wife and I both drowning in our tears over the threat of losing him. The violins, string, and sad, sad organ play on as the camera lingers lovingly on all the scared cute Australian soldiers, now horseless but not like that was going to help them much anyway given the odds, and also who wants to see a horse die in battle. It all adds to the exquisite pain inherent in this song.

2. Breathe Me, by Sia

Four words: Six Feet Under Finale. If you watched it, you know that the last five minutes of the HBO series, scored to this song, both telescoped and tied up the story lines for the characters we had grown to love during its five seasons.  Each quick vignette on the screen was timed to perfectly to leverage the quiet inhalations in the song, the plunk plunk plunk moments where tension builds, and finally the orchestral sweep that brings it all home and had fans thinking, now what will I do on Sunday nights?

My husband and I watched the show together religiously, but he was travelling for work during the finale and it was before we had installed the technology to capture and view important cultural moments on our own timetable. I watched the finale alone, on my couch, in the dark, sobbing and throwing used tissues on the ground until I had my own little paper snow pile of sorrow.

When it comes on the radio these days I listen, thinking: oh, Nate. Oh, David. And oh, Ruth, flawed matriarch who despite her shortcomings loved her children so hard. Sob sob sob.

3. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole

The moment: kindergarten graduation, 2003. The venue: our eldest daughter’s kindergarten classroom, where we parents were wedged uncomfortably into chairs that only came up to our kneecaps. Just looking at the assembled group of 22 children, with their jack-o-lantern smiles and bedhead and tiny shoes had me feeling sniffly, aware our kids were already on the downhill toboggan ride that is growing up. When the teacher instructed the kids to hold up folded paper on which they’d drawn Hungry Caterpillars, forty-four parents and guardians smiled. She then recited an original poem that echoed the Eric Carle children’s book, talking about all the knowledge the children had gobbled that first year of school.

Then she said, “And now you are all butterflies flying away to First Grade,” and the adorable kids unfolded their caterpillar drawings to reveal the colorful, loopy butterflies they’d drawn inside, and fourty-four parents and guardians, plus one teacher, fell into catatonic states of weeping. THAT was when the children started not just singing, but using American Sign Language, to sign Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the Bruddah Iz version. When my second daughter performed the same ritual three years later, the only thing that made it any easier was that I had packed my purse with tissues in advance.

By the time the first “oooooo-ooo” of this song hits my ear drums, all I can see is how fast my children have grown up, flying like butterflies into middle school and high school and beyond. It sends me into paroxysms of grief.

Although, let’s be honest. Once they leave the nest for good, it’ll be nice to be able to weep in peace without fear of them catching me and saying, “MOM! Are you seriously crying again?”

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Here’s another song that makes me cry this time of year, but not for the reasons you may think. I’m over at NickMom this week, talking about the results of overexposure to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”

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Life Lessons from the Nutcracker

  Nutcracker snow

For civilians, the first strains of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet started leaking out of store Muzak and into your consciousness the day after Thanksgiving. For ballet parents like me, it’s been in constant rotation since September, when the two underage dancers in my house started rehearsing for the big performances, coming up December 14 and 15. You think YOU’RE sick of hearing Waltz of the Flowers by December 10th? You have no idea.

Still, I love this ballet, and I love the entire time-consuming, repetitive, dramatic project that is staging a student performance of the Nutcracker every year. Because it’s taught our entire family a thing or two about a thing or two.

1. Reaching your full potential takes bold vision. During the “House” scene in Act 1, Herr Drosselmeyer opens three big boxes to reveal a dancing bear, a dancing dog, and a dancing cat who proceed to act out a sweet if vaguely disturbing interspecies love triangle. I liked that scene fine, until a dad who had clearly been volunteering backstage for a few hours too many confessed to me, “Just once, I’d like to see the bear come out of the box, look around, and then just freakin’ maul Marie and her entire family.” Now that I have a vision of what could be, I just can’t be satisfied with what is.

3. Be polite to everyone. In that same first house scene, three children are given Nutcrackers. Only one, Marie, really gives a sincere thanks to the admittedly creepy guy who wears a cape and character shoes. Ninety minutes later, that same child has taken a psychedelic journey to Candyland and is being feted by Bon Bons, Spanish dancers, Arabian dancers, and a slew of men in tights, while the less effusive siblings are stuck home in bed snoring away. Good manners always pay off.

2. Sometimes it’s not you. It’s the ass costume. My eldest daughter is playing Mother Ginger this year, the lady in the big skirt under which tiny dancers flow like sand fleas. The costume is a big architectural challenge to put on and dance in, and one of the teachers cryptically explained to my daughter, as she struggled into it, that it’s an “ass costume.” The meaning was left unexplained. But I interpret it as follows, on behalf of my daughter and her lovely, strong dancer’s figure: sometimes you will try something on and no matter how lovely and strong you are, it’s just not going to fit comfortably. Don’t take it personally: it’s not you, it’s the ass costume.

4. Everyone’s got a story. For a few years, my friend Glynis and I worked at the ticket booth. She sold new tickets, I handled distribution of Will Call tickets. We looked forward to this because, in theory, it gave us four or five hours over a single weekend to sit together and chat. The problem is that no one ever said, “May I have my tickets? Thanks!” Instead, every single person who bought or picked up a ticket felt compelled to explain to us why they bought it, where they had driven from, how their friend they were picking up the ticket for might be a little late, what they’d just eaten for lunch. They must have mistaken the ticket table for the StoryCorps booth. Still, they always seemed pleased to be heard.

5. You can’t pick your kids’ passions. I took ballet for a year, when I was six, in the basement of a bowling alley in Rochester, so it never really occurred to me that my kids would be dancers. When they were little, we cycled them through various sports and activities, as you do, waiting to see what stuck. Then one summer day, Glynis’ twins’ invited my kids to try a free class at the dance studio where they were both so involved. Five years later, Glynis’ daughters are long gone onto other pursuits, and our kids are there five days a week (seven days a week in the month before the Nutcracker.) It’s amazing to see what they’ve accomplished, considering how clueless their parents are about the entire artistic dance form.

6. It takes hard work to make something look easy. Right now, my kids are dancing through pointe shoes at a rate of a pair every two weeks. Point shoes could be used to hammer nails in walls when they’re fresh, so dancing them into softness and then actually wearing holes into them takes hours and hours of work. All the kids are working their butts off, well past the point of it being fun anymore and far into the Magical Fairyland of overtired goofiness and bunions. These girls may look like delicate snowflakes onstage, but they’re tough as torn toenails underneath.

In fact, I think they’d give a rampaging bear a run for the money.

Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned ballet in the produce section? Here are a few dancers from the Oakland Ballet (the company, not the school) dancing a selection from the Nutcracker at Whole Foods.

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Premature Obsolescence

Spiral Wishing Well

A weird thing happened during the summer between having 6th/9th graders and having 7th/10th graders. I became prematurely obsolete.

Oh, my two daughters still need me to drive, and pay for things, and sign permission slips. There are still things that only I can do for them – I’m still the one who sees the lip quiver of distress that no one else notices, because I’ve monitored that face since it was one second old, and the one who knows when, in the middle of someone’s crabby tirade, to say, “You seem hungry. Are you maybe hungry?”

But as this school year gains momentum it’s clear to me that my kids’ need for hands-on mothering from me has plummeted since June. They both went to sleepaway camp, which always acts like a rocket booster to human development. A week or two (or three) without your parents does wonders at teaching you to be self-sufficient.

They’re both busy with school and ballet, and now they both babysit in the ‘hood so they’re basically moving between school-homework-ballet-work-sleep on their own timetables, needing me only when distances between one and the next are too long to walk. I’ll say it until One Direction are wrinkled and playing hotel lounges: my husband and I lucked out with these kids. We do not take their self-sufficiency for granted.

I remember dreaming of this time, back when I was nursing a baby and trying to build a Thomas the Train track for a toddler while simultaneously folding a load of laundry. When even four hours of uninterrupted sleep seemed like a gift. When little hands tugged at me and high-pitched voices begged for attention all day, every day. I pictured a time when my kids would be self-sufficient, when I would actually have enough time to myself that there was even a little extra for reading, or writing a letter, or watching a television show.

When your kids are small it feels like they will be with you forever, always greedy for more of you. Time just stretches out to the horizon like a long, long line littered with Polly Pocket shoes and stray Legos.

But now I think that the time with your kids is really more like a penny dropped into one of those big spiral wishing wells you find at science museums that demonstrate centrifugal force (and collect donations for the museum in the process.) Do you know the ones I mean? The penny starts off traveling lazily around the wide lip of the funnel-shape, but it picks up momentum as it rolls, and soon it’s circling, tight and fast, and before you know it the penny has dropped through the whole. Time’s up. Your kid is eighteen, dropped through the hole and gone.

We’re two thirds of the way down the vortex with our youngest kid. I can’t even think about how close we are to the end with our eldest. She came home the other day and asked if we could meet with a college counselor, just to make sure she’s got all her ducks in line for the rest of high school. She talks about the merits of big universities over small colleges, about something she read on the Northwestern University web site, about having me buy her a SAT prep book. She’s pretty much picking out her dorm room bedspread and she still has three years of high school left.

When your kids are small, you can’t imagine the viscous nature of time will thin to a point where it just flows like liquid through your hands.

But it does. And as I sit on a couch with my book, my kids elsewhere in the house doing whatever they do without me, I wish I could gather it all up in a giant wishing well so I could parcel it out, drop by precious drop.

Band of Horses found a little patch of heaven in Jackson Hole, WY, plopped themselves down, and played a concert. I love these guys.

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Are you doing your part to reduce the Pumpkin Biomass we talked about on Tuesday? Click through here for “Top 9 Surprising Other Uses for Pumpkin Puree” at NickMom.com.
And if you don’t think you have a Halloween costume yet, Moms, never fear. You’re already wearing one. “Top 9 Inadvertent Halloween Costumes for Mom.

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Five Things I Learned at Family Camp

Five Things I Learned At Family Camp 2013

Just back in town from the annual family sojourn I take in the Adirondacks every August. You would think that after 45 years of staying in the same rustic cabin on the same cold blue lake with the same thirty families, there’d be nothing new to report. You’d be wrong.

1. Meals with boys are different. My clan now takes up two full round ten-person tables at meals in the big Mess Hall, and where and with whom you sit at those ten-tops is entirely up to chance. One day at lunch I noticed that despite the general din around us, my seat mates had been entirely silent for the whole meal. I looked around and realized I’d drawn a table full of all the young men in my family, my nephews, cousin’s kids, and other various male relatives aged 18-27.

“Why isn’t anyone talking?” I asked, genuinely mystified. The boys looked up, stunned. “We’re eating,” one of them said. “Why would you talk when there is food?” Then they all tucked back into their giant plates of grub.

I swiveled to see my daughters at the next table. One was telling my brother a story, so excited that she had risen up out of her seat to lean on her uncle’s shoulder for emphasis. The other was gesturing with both hands as she talked to my mom. No food on either of their plates looked disturbed.

So meals are for eating, not for nonstop talking. Duly noted.

2. It’s OK to be a follower sometimes. On Monday morning my brother, our friend Greg, and I set out for a two hour bushwhack hike around the lake. Both my brother and Greg are well over six feet tall, and sturdy as they come. By feigning an utter inability to find the bright pink plastic trail markers that ostensibly marked our path, I was relegated to the caboose of our hiking train. (It wasn’t entirely feigned. Here’s what a tree fungus did over the past twelve months to one of the markers – formed around it and began digesting it.)

Tree Fungus Eats Trail Marker

This meant that wherever I walked, it was freshly trampled by two big guys who also cleared my way of spider webs. When I did take the lead, I managed to clear out the spider webs only to chest height for my companions, leaving the face wrapping webs perfectly intact for them to find.

3. There’s No R Rated Movie As Inappropriate as the One To Which You Take Other People’s Children. Family Camp’s nonstop activity schedule is facilitated by volunteers from among the campers, so everyone signs up to lead something. I drew Teen Night, during which four adults and I took the twenty-two kids aged 13-19 into town to see a movie, ride the Go-Karts, and get an ice cream. The theater was showing three movies: The Conjuring (too scary,) Planes (too baby,) and We’re the Millers (too inappropriate.) But at least I knew the Millers was funny, having seen it with my mom a week earlier. I wrote “R RATED” in big letters on the signup sheet, figuring that parents could make their own decisions about sending their 13 year old kids along.

Every one of them came with us. The three 13 year old boys who sat open mouthed in the front row during the Jennifer Aniston strip scene, the 13-year-plus-one-day old girl who got to see three flashes of full frontal male nudity, the twenty-two of them who got to hear words that would get them kicked out of camp if they ran around spouting them. Super.

On the other hand, all the parents of teens in camp got four hours off. No wonder they thanked me the next day.

4. I Still Got It, Even If “It” Looks Creakier Each Year. By now there are certain things I do at Family Camp just to prove I still can. Scale the rock climbing wall. Swim across the lake and back (sadly, New York state regulations now forbid it, so I just do a million laps in the designated swim area.) Get up on two waterskiis and circle the end of the lake twice. I managed them all this year, again, but the recovery takes longer and longer. Apologies to everyone at the base of the rock climbing wall who had to witness me hurling my carcass across the top, that’s not a sight you’ll recover from anytime soon.

5. Never group-text people who are in their twenties. Every year we get t-shirt made for the kids, for a big family picture. This year we decided to do a Wordle, and I texted all my nieces and nephews at once with a plea: send me five words you think of, when you think of Family Camp. I imagined getting back words like “family,” “campfire,” “loons,” “lake.”

But because they could all see each other’s responses, it quickly became a game of My Vocabulary Is Bigger Than My Cousin’s. So I instead got words like “mystifying,” “stupendous,” and “medicinal,” not to mention “soy milk,” “gas,” and “expensive.”

The shirt turned out fine, though. I’m not an editor for nothing.

Family Camp Wordle

I don’t want to scare you, but this Klezmer song, “Solomon Levi,” is my favorite dance tune at Family Camp. My family and I make it rain on the square dance floor when this comes on.

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MotherWriters

BlogHer '13

With the big annual ladyblogger lovefest that is BlogHer starting  this weekend, I’ve been thinking about how writers are portrayed on the Big Screen. Seems to me that writers in movies are often—almost always—men, with just the right amount of bearded scruff and tortured psyche. They often smoke, sit in coffee houses or garret apartments, and dress all hot-shabby. (See Johnny Depp, Bradley Cooper, and Ewan McGregor.) About the only woman writer I can think of in the movies lately is Virginia Woolf played by Nicole Kidman, and that movie somehow became about Nicole’s fake nose, or the Diane Keaton character in Something’s Gotta Give, and the minute you saw the all-white interiors of her house in the Nancy Meyers movie, you knew it was all just a fantasy anyway.

Which is weird, because when I think of working writers I know, a lot of them look exactly like the thousands of women descending on Chicago for BlogHer: moms who write. In fact, motherhood may be the possible best training ground for writing, and here’s why:

The monotony is deadly, but unavoidable. Yes, there are moments when your child makes you a beautiful painting or discovers that he is good at soccer or cleans up the kitchen without being asked – those are the starburst moments of motherhood. Similarly, writers are sometimes blessed with a turn of phrase that perfectly captures what they are trying to say, or imagery that lends a psychic punch to the point being made, or a fantastic kernel of an idea for the main characters’ motivation.

But most of the time? Drudgery. Loading dishes in the dishwasher day after day after day is the same as typing 500 words of crap that will later have to be edited down to six good ones. It’s monotonous, but unavoidable. Who better than a mom to know how to power through the Resistance?

The rejection is constant, but necessary. Ok, not for you mothers of boys between the ages of four and seven – we all know those are the most loving creatures in the world. But once you have tweens and teens, it is simply part of your job description to be rejected as they pull away and form their own beings, growing up and independent.

It’s perfect training for when you take the leap to submit your work to editors who may reject it with the inscrutable “not a fit” or a silence more ominous than a teen behind a closed bedroom door. The rejections hurt, but if you’re not getting them, then you’re really not doing your job. You can repeat that mantra to yourself for both parenting and writing, if you like.

Your back will kill you. Carrying a 20 pound toddler on your hip while cooking dinner can give your spine a curve worse than Deenie’s. Guess what else will? Sitting at your keyboard for 6-9-12 hours per day. If you’re lucky, your toddler spine pain and your writer spine pain will cancel each other out.

You need to be comfortable with a Long Term Vision. A book that takes five years to write, from initial idea to publication–if you’re lucky? That’s nothing compared to the eighteen (ok, twenty-five. Ok, forty) years that it takes to nurture your baby to adulthood. Keeping your eyes on the prize is part of both job descriptions.

The money is awful, but the rewards are priceless. My niece spent a summer as a counselor at a sleepaway camp once and calculated that if she’d been paid by the hour, she would have been earning something like $0.11 every sixty minutes. I don’t dare do the math on either mothering or writing, since I don’t want find out that I was out-earned by a twenty-two year old.

And yet I happily re-up both contracts every single morning when I wake up. Motherhood, and writing, both have a knack of making you redefine success in a way that just can’t be captured on a balance sheet.

Hey! Angry Pearl Jam is back. I miss the ukeleles, but this brand new single from their upcoming album “Lightning Bolt” is pretty tight, like ’80s punk rock. And who among us MotherWriters hasn’t stage whispered the title of this song before?

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Video from Listen To Your Mother 2013

Well, it’s time. For those of you who, from the sound of my writing, thought I was a tall slender blonde with a British accent, maybe like Cat Deeley on So You Think You Can Dance, I’m afraid I have to burst your bubble today. Because this is the video of my performance at the Listen To Your Mother show in San Francisco last May. It’s just me, my big ol’ Rochester accent and frantically swinging earrings, preaching a message of gratitude to all those “Other Mothers” in your lives.

Many thanks to the national video sponsor  The Partnership at Drugfree.org. LTYM is proud to promote their message of preventing prescription drug misuse and abuse!  Join the growing number of parents pledging to end this epidemic – more info here. You can view more vids from the LTYM shows coast to coast here, so worth your time…

Keep in mind that about 23 hours earlier I was engaged in overage slam dancing at my college reunion in Philly, so I came by those bags under my eyes honestly. And thanks again to everyone who came out to the show in person!

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The Dark Side of Family Vacation Memories

Roadside on the Eastern Seaboard

Recently my sister, who works in the travel and tourism industry, posted an infographic on her Facebook page highlighting the positive benefits of travel for families. According to the chart, 93% of children say that family vacations allow them to spend quality time with their parents, 53% say that vacations bring the family closer together, and 64% see and do new things they’ll remember for a long time.

But one stat stood out, and I presume because the source was a sister with whom I shared all my childhood vacations: Forty-seven percent of kids agreed with the statement that “Memorable things happen on family vacations that their family talks about even after.”

Because if my childhood memories are anything like yours, we remember and talk about stuff, alright. Just not the stuff my parents intended.

Exhibit A: our first family trip to Florida when I was in third grade. My first time on a plane! My first trip to Disneyland! A waterskiing show at Busch Gardens! Christmas in a hotel room, how novel!

What We Remembered and Talked About: Me being terrified to swim in the pool because it was the year that Jaws was in theaters, and my older brother and sister convinced me there was such a thing as freshwater sharks that came through pool drains.

Exhibit B: Family road trips from New York to our grandparent’s home in North Carolina. Family bonding! Fishing with Grandpa! Riding in golf carts around the retirement community where my grandparents lived!

What We Remembered and Talked About: Somewhere in the bleak, wintry roadway that was US-15 heading south through Pennsylvania, my brother cajoled and whined until my mom gave her the sheer headscarf that she wore tied at the chin to keep her hair just so (this was in ’71 or so, still the bouffant era.) My brother opened a window, leaned out to wave the scarf, and let it fly. Wheels screeched, Dad pulled over to the shoulder, and a scarf-hunt ensued. No luck.

Not once in the years since have we driven US-15 without someone saying, “Keep an eye out for Mom’s scarf.”

Exhibit C: When I was a bit older, we took the Autotrain to Florida for another Disney trip. The chance to move around freely in a nice train while our powder blue station wagon rode along in the back of the train, to be used for the drive home! More Disney! Beautiful weather! We were old enough that our parents let us go into the theme park alone!

What We Remembered and Talked About: Our car battery died as the train wended its way South, so we waited in the deadening Florida heat and humidity for hours while the other passengers hopped in their cars and made their merry way. Ours was the very last car taken off the damn Autotrain and had to have a jumpstart.

Exhibit D: My parents took me, the lone child still in the nest, for a lovely winter weekend vacation in Quebec City, where we stayed at the beautiful Le Chateau Frontenac. We even had a room in a turret.

What We Remembered and Talked About: I’d recently had dental work and all I could eat was French onion soup because my mouth hurt so much.

It seems clear that, even if I remembered and enjoyed all aspects of a family vacation, what really stuck with me were the unplanned and not particularly enjoyable parts of the trip.  And here’s my theory why.

Any fool can have fun at Disneyland. But there are only five people in the world who reach a certain spot on the Pennsylvania Highway and get a laugh out of the phrase, “Anyone see Mom’s scarf?”

On this trip, I’d probably remember getting cuffed again and watching a good man die.  Dada with Dizz Knee Land.

Have a memorable Memorial Day Weekend!

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In Praise of the Other Mother

This is the piece I read for last night’s Listen To Your Mother show in San Francisco, which was a wonderful experience all around.  I was so thrilled to have some of my kids’ Other Mothers in the audience, not to mention Mrs. Moretti’s daughter. Hope all you Other Mothers out there had a wonderful day yesterday!

LTYM Other Mother
photo credit: ZemyaPhotography.com

People say “Other Woman” like it’s a bad thing. But I yearn to be the Other Woman. Because by Other Woman, I mean Other Mother.

Other Mothers are those people in a child’s life to whom the kid can go for a fresh perspective, a hot snack, a reminder that things aren’t always better on the other side of the cul de sac. Other Mothers don’t have to be women, and they don’t have to be mothers. They must only possess a sympathetic ear, a stocked pantry, and objectivity that can be hard to come by in the emotional fog that sometimes clouds interaction between actual mother and child.

I’ve always been close to my mom. I was her third child, the kid who rode around on her hip for years and had a permanent berth in the back seat while we drove around in the station wagon to drop off my older siblings to baseball practice and bowling. We didn’t clash much, even when I was a teenager.

Yet as much as I love my mom, my Other Mothers were instrumental in helping me make it to adulthood intact. My aunt Noonie, for one. My mom’s oldest sister, Noonie was the aunt with whom we got to stay on the rare weekends when Mom and Dad went out of town together. Her main areas of expertise? Astrology, Star Trek, and pie baking. She owned my mom in all those categories, and even now if I am back east for a visit, I pray that Noonie has made me a pie and will give me some insight into how the year ahead is going to unfold for us Tauruses. She also made it possible for my parents to have a little romance in their busy lives, which made the lives of their children all the sweeter.

There was the indomitable Mrs. Fitzsimmons next door, whose daughter Bethie was my very best childhood friend. If you added up all the time I spent at the Fitz’ house versus my own during the first ten years of my life, I’d guess it would be a 50/50 split. We had cable first, but they had Beatles albums and a top-of-the-line dress-up bin. The merry chaos of their large Irish Catholic family was always entertaining, but sent me back home with a new appreciation for the relative calm of my own house.

In high school my primary Other Mother was Mrs. Moretti, mom of my best friend Lisa. My mom was put-together and stylish, but didn’t give a fig for capital “F” Fashion. Mrs. Moretti, on the other hand, had three teenage fashion plate daughters, shopped the fancy stores in town, and read Vogue magazine, all of which conferred her authority with which I refused to credit my own mother.

So when I came home one day at seventeen with a Flock of Seagulls-style haircut, and my mother’s reaction was, “Please don’t go to that butcher again,” I naturally vowed to wear it like that forever.

Mrs. Moretti, on the other hand, was effusive with praise when she first saw my troubling hairstyle. But a few days later, as Lisa and I sat drinking Tab and eating pretzels in the kitchen, Mrs. M slid a page from a fashion magazine across the table to me. It pictured a wholesome, pretty girl with a shoulder-grazing bob, the same shade of blonde as mine. Mrs. Moretti said, “That might look nice on you,” then turned away to wash some dishes.

And that was the day I started growing out the Shorty Longsides Haircut, circumventing a lifetime of public embarrassment.

My mother didn’t resent these Other Mothers. If anything, she actively encouraged my relationships with them. As a mother of daughters who are twelve and fifteen year old now, I can see exactly why. Some days lay waste to the focus and emotional energy you can muster for a child. Now divide that energy by the number of siblings, and again by the times we have no idea what we are doing. If it weren’t for Other Mothers, we Actual Moms couldn’t catch a break.

With the Flying Chalupa

Other Mothers are genius at ferretting out information that might go unmentioned to the actual parent, like the arrival of a new boyfriend on the scene, or how a kid really feels about playing a sport. If you agree ahead of time to exchange key morsels judiciously, like spies from allied nations, this backchannel information gathering can prove extremely useful.

They can also do the heavy lifting in areas where the actual mom has her limits. In a bit of history repeating itself, I found my look and stopped subscribing to fashion magazines in 1995. So when there’s a clothing question to be refereed, I tell the girls to ask their überstylish Other Mother, Andrea. “She’ll know,” I say, trusting that Andrea is as anti-booty-short and jeggings as I am.

And it is often the Other Mother who gives us solid proof that our kids are maturing into the people we hope they will be. I remind my children to use good manners when they are out in the world without me. But it’s not until I get positive confirmation of a good manners sighting from their Other Mother Maria, when they’re all at dinner without me, that I can truly believe the lessons have sunk in.

I shamelessly court Other Mother status for the kids in my children’s lives. All through middle school my older daughter’s best friend would come over to do homework on Mondays because I served her pistachios, a favorite snack that is off limits at home due to nut allergies in the household. I’ll whip up hot cocoa and popcorn at the drop of a hat, and when the kids in my daughter’s 9th grade math class needed a place to work on a class project, I bought all the supplies and heated up a pizza.

In part it’s because I genuinely like my daughters’ friends. But all those conversations I’m hearing from the next room as I slowly, slowly slice the pizza and stack the dishwasher give me insight into the world in which my children live and the people who surround them there.

And it’s the least I can do to pay back the Noonies, the Mrs. Fitz’s, and the Mrs. Moretti’s in my life.

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Hear, Hear for Listen To Your Mother

LTYM SF cast

Listening is probably the most important diagnostic tool I have for my job as a mom.

From the very earliest days of motherhood, when I’d bend low over the side of the bassinet to check to my newborn’s bird-rapid breathing, or when I amazed myself by quickly learning the difference between a cry for hunger and a cry for tiredness, I’ve done a lot of concentrated listening.

That quiet that suddenly becomes ominous when you realize your toddler should be making more noise than she is, and that the last time you saw her she was carrying a bottle of paint. The sound of a pan clattering to the floor and then the hyper alertness as you anxiously wait to hear whether the next sound is going to be a scream of pain or a “Don’t worry, mom, just dropped the lid!” The coughing from behind the bedroom door as you sit in the next room and time intervals, deciding whether to call the doctor. The catch in a daughter’s voice that tells you she is trying very hard not to cry.

Moms listen all the time. We barely know we’re doing it. If we were cartoon characters, our ears would be twice the size of our heads.

Of course, my kids might beg to differ. When they come sit on my bed at 9:30 pm, finally ready to talk about their day at exactly the time my brain is in shut down mode, they get annoyed because they think I’m not listening. Did you even hear what I just said? I am the first to admit that at a certain point, the recounting of the ballet class drama or the exasperating discussion with the teacher starts to go a little white-noise on me, and I get fuzzy on the details. I can only imagine what my mother had to put up with from me, the kid who never once won the quarter her older brother and sister promised her if she could just shut up for five minutes.

But even when I’m zoning out, the discordant note comes through and snaps me to attention. WHAT did you just say happened after class? WHO did you say got in trouble? WHERE did your friends go without you? All those years of listening have made me efficient. I may not get every detail, and I’m sure that annoys my daughters. But I know the difference between listening and hearing. My goal is to pay attention to what they need me to hear.

Which bring me to Listen To Your Mother, the show that “Gives Mother’s Day a Microphone” and in which I’ll be performing a week from Sunday, at Kanbar Auditorium in the San Francisco JCC. At the first read-through last month, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the roomful of fourteen fellow cast members, near strangers who I mostly knew from Twitter avatars—they’re much taller in person. (And of course my friend Tarja from the Flying Chalupa, everyone’s favorite Fleetwood Mac fan.)

When I stumbled out two hours later, my mascara in tear tracks down my cheeks, the thing I couldn’t get over was the diverse range of stories, some poignant, some wildly funny, that all portrayed a single emotion: love. Messy, imperfect, all-encompassing maternal love. We walked into the room strangers, and walked out sisters-in-arms. All of us trying—sometimes failing, but always trying—to hear what our kids and our moms and our friends need from us.

photo credit: Yulia Patsay
photo credit: Yulia Patsay

The instant camaraderie was evident in last week’s second run through, when our directors could barely get us to shut up to start the rehearsal. This time around, we got through with fewer tears, more polished beats, better eye contact. And on Mother’s Day, May 12th at 7 pm, we’re gathering one last time to tell our stories, clear and loud, quirky and proud. Besides the San Francisco show there are LTYM shows in 23 other cities this year; one of them is bound to be near you so check it out.

I hope you’ll come out to hear what we have to say.

LTYM Tickets

Here’s the founder of the Listen To Your Mother phenomenon, my wonderful friend Ann Imig, telling what it’s all about…

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Listen To Your Mother!

Hey, you know how you were staring at the ceiling the other night thinking, “WHAT am I going to do for the mother in my life who really needs to be celebrated on Mother’s Day 2013?”

I’ve got your answer. You’re going to take her to see one of the 24 (that’s TWENTY FOUR!) “Listen To Your Mother” shows happening in conjunction with Mother’s Day in cities across the country, in which local writers celebrate all—and I do mean all—aspects of motherhood in live readings of their work.

And if you happen to be in the City by the Bay, you may recognize one of the names in the program for the event, to be held Sunday, May 12 at 7 pm at Kanbar Hall in the San Francisco Jewish Community Center.

I made the cast of Listen To Your Mother San Francisco!

I’m so excited, in large part because many of my fellow cast mates are writers whose work I’ve admired from afar lo these many years. Can’t wait for the chance to meet and work with them in person. For you MM regulars, one of my fellow presenters is Tarja aka The Flying Chalupa aka the author of the Fleetwood Mac/Rumours guest post on Midlife Mixtape that’s still generating discussion.

Another wonderful aspect of the event is that each LTYM city chooses a non-profit to support from a portion of ticket sales. For San Francisco, we’ll be raising funds for Help A Mother Out:

Help a Mother Out is “a nationally-recognized grassroots organization raising diapers, awareness and advocating for long term change in the social safety net. [They] are dedicated to increasing access to diapers for families in need.” Help A Mother Out was formed in 2009 when co-founders Lisa Truong and Rachel Fudge learned that the number-one need for homeless children and families was “not baby blankets, clothing, or even food but diapers–which are not covered under social-safety net programs like WIC or food stamps.” Why diapers you may ask?? You can learn about why access to clean diapers is so very important here on the Help A Mother Out website.

In fact, the only thing I could think of that could make the event better would be to heavily lard the audience with friendly faces so I have someone to lock eyes with in a panic as the words swim on the page in front of me. Help a mother out?

Tickets go on sale this Friday, March 15, and I’ll post the link – I would be so grateful to see you there! And if you’re not in the Bay Area, check here for a full list of cities and dates. The readers and directors of the shows across the country are so good, it’s almost criminal.

Finally – I just want to give a shout out to my friend Ann Imig, the birth mother of Listen To Your Mother. Back in 2010 she had the idea of “Giving Mother’s Day a Microphone” and produced a show in Madison, WI that drew an audience of about 300. Three years later, her idea has given nearly 300 writers the chance to talk about motherhood, reaching an audience of thousands in person and many more online for the shows’ video archives, and raising money for good causes coast to coast. Sit back and enjoy Mother’s Day, Ann – you done good!

(Who besides me thought that Maybelle Carter’s cameo appearance at 1:56 [literally, in a cameo] looked like a clip from American Horror Story? Still, a beautiful song.)

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