Poems & Essays

10 Nov

Keeping Time

Toddlers to Teens No Response

“Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-four.” My son whisper counts on the pillow next to me. His dad, squinting into the closet in the early-morning darkness, snags a shirt from its hanger and starts counting on. “Seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy-seven—”

“Papa is seventy-four,” my son interrupts.

“How old are you?” asks my husband.

“Four.”

“How old am I?” my husband presses.

“One hundred!”

“One hundred? How old is Mommy?”

“Twenty.”

“Yep,” I chime in, laughing. “You got it right!”

He divides age into those who are “kids” and those who are “people,” so twenty and one hundred have a single meaning: not a kid. Five minutes to my son means counting to five. Ten minutes is a million billion of too long to wait.

He savors his food, soaking blueberries in his water cup before eating them one by one and saving the last fruit-snack bunny because “he’s my best friend and I’ll keep him forever.” Last year was last week, and yesterday was a visit to grandma’s that happened three months ago.

Time matters in moments.

Dad is indeed seventy-four. A number of the elderly, but who am I to talk as I approach the ancientness of forty. To look at his face—he’s tired but hardly a wrinkled old man. Hair went missing long ago, but he can’t pop out his teeth like his dad used to do.

He says time goes faster when you get old.

Retirement lifted the pressure of “have to” and opened up a paradox of so much time to do as he likes with only so much time left. Perhaps the urgency to live fully has renewed vigor in him as he began to feel the fleeting of days. He started volunteering at a museum. He joined the community choir.

Time before my thirties was like the metronome set on adagio. Some moments hit presto, such as the milestones of school graduations, but the tempo always reset to slow and steady.

Perhaps the endless looping played into why I swore I never wanted children. I could pick and choose my own adventure. The symphony kept adding movements and I didn’t see the song ending. Besides, the dark and twisted world didn’t need more babies to hurt. I could fend for myself and maybe even make a difference, but what time did I have for sons or daughters, and how could I make their song turn out sweet?

The switch from no to yes, please, I want a baby, grew out of mere months of working with five and six-year-old students. The metronome couldn’t keep up with their daily spontaneous witticisms, and I found myself stunned to hear the music changing in me. I couldn’t wait for each day to start where I could mentally record every encounter with their silliness and wisdom. Sadly, I could only take home anecdotes not kids.

I honestly don’t remember how the baby conversation went with my husband, who was always on board. But, when I made my decision, I wanted to start trying right away because my father wasn’t getting any younger. I wanted the two generations to have time together for bedtime stories, model trains, and inside jokes.

Then presto, less than a year later we had a son. My dad was at the hospital to hold the baby in his first hours of life. We shared this beautiful new one and time stood still.

Though the baby days inched along in sleep deprivation and soothing lullabies, something happened, something that felt like a time warp, because my son grew to four. On a recent outing, I stood back smiling as we ambled along the river trail, and my son, sticks in hand, started to sneak up on his Papa. He darted from tree to tree, making his way like a playful kitten ready to pounce. My dad turned around to the sound of shrieks as my little boy froze in place. Then the sneaking progressed until he ran out of trees.

Papa and grandson share many interests, such as a love of music. My boy slams out his original piano “compositions” while sometimes letting Papa play him a song. On Thanksgiving Day they sat side-by-side on the piano bench, taking turns with their own tunes. Like a pair of crows they collect everything—hoarding scraps of paper, birthday-party trinkets, stair-stepped stacks of books, random LEGO pieces or electronic parts. Each treasure has a memory worth preserving.

For more than a decade, I followed the work of author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who spread the message: “Make the most of your time here.” Her journey of life created beauty from the ordinary. She died this past March, only fifty-one, in the month my father celebrated his seventy-fourth year. I return to her words as I wipe my eyes at her life cut short but spent with purpose.

I see my son and my dad pressing play on her words like a soundtrack to their lives. Making the most of his time, my son accepts every butterfly’s invitation to dance, and gives pause to celebrate every roly poly in the dirt. He blows bubbles and watches them fly high “to outer space” because he believes in possibility.

Dad may have regrets, but he’s constantly on the lookout for ways in which to fill his life. He’s not beer and golf and Saturday football; he’s 10,000 steps a day and Friday night art shows and the history of England. He’s radio antennas and how-does-this-work and serving food to students who could use a little more. Maybe he knows that making the most of your time here is just living each moment completely.

Choosing motherhood changed time for me. Gone are the feelings of endless days of youth, yet not quite here is the rush of life almost over. The metronome ticks, but I don’t count the beats. I’m trying to find a balance on the timeline between kid and old. The wisdom of my son and father urges me to vacuum less and save more worms from the sidewalk. Remembering Amy, I know that it’s never too late to keep making music with the notes I have.

 

 

 

Annie Hindman writes from the wilds of Idaho, where she stays home with her four-year-old son. When she can’t answer all of his questions she writes about them, sometimes on her blog at touchingoninfinity.com.

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03 Nov

What My Dog’s Kennel Report Card Reminded Me about Parenting

Toddlers to Teens No Response

When my family traveled out of town recently, we boarded our dog at a favorite kennel that identifies itself as a “pet resort.” In spite of passing on the deluxe lodging option that included access to a big screen television, we still believe our dog received excellent care. As I reviewed the bill and waited to reunite with my cuddly pet, I was handed a “report card” assessing her personality and behavior during social playtime with other dogs. I laughed when I realized that the evaluation could have described my own children: “a little shy,” “very active,” “responsive to both handlers and other dogs,” and most notably, a “selective eater.” Yep, those sweeping generalizations apply both to my dog and my kids. Of course, pets are not human beings, and an animal’s genetic legacy may account for much of its disposition. The doggie report card, however, reminded me that no matter how nature and nurture coalesce in determining a person or animal’s actions, nurture remains a potent force when it comes to influencing behavior.

In 2017, we realize that our genes carry traits for our behavior as well as physical characteristics. Tendencies toward addiction, introversion, and even religious fervor might be braided into the strands of our DNA. Sometimes, as a parent, it’s so easy to write off undesirable behavior from our children as a result of their physical inheritance. A fiery temper or a tendency towards procrastination can often be traced through generations. Even when confronting our own undesirable habits, it’s easy to surrender to the forces of heredity and claim that we are powerless against our own hard wiring. My dog’s report card reminded me that the way we are treated and nurtured affects us profoundly. I can’t take credit for my dog’s ability to leap and run or even for her impish sense of humor, but I do believe that our family has tried to raise her to become as gentle and loving as possible.

In the first six months of our dog’s life, we were counseled to introduce her to as many different people as possible. Puppies are happier and better adjusted when they socialize with a multitude of individuals: children, people in wheelchairs, babies in strollers, and individuals of all different colors and races. If a puppy remembers that a bearded man or a person holding an umbrella was kind to her, she may not develop an aversion to hirsute humans in the rain.

As parents, there’s so much that we cannot control. Certain traits are as strongly embedded in our kids as their brown or green eyes. And there’s no shortage of ways we can exacerbate problems (I’ve managed to contribute to the creation of both finicky human and canine eaters). But, it’s encouraging to be reminded that we can influence much of our own and our children’s behavior. They watch us when we talk to the clerks at the grocery store, and they see how we behave when we drive. They notice our patience with our own parents and friends. They notice the way we value ideas and physical objects in our home. They know whether or not we laugh and find joy and gratitude. They emulate how we treat others and how we approach challenges. An old Yiddish proverb suggests: “Eyn mame dergreykht mer vi a hundert lerers– one mother achieves more than a hundred teachers.”

Moms, dads, and guardians have the force of more than a hundred teachers because we serve as teachers in every area of life. We can’t and probably should not attempt to shape every facet of our children’s personalities or turn them into little perfect robots. But we can love them with all of our hearts and share our deepest values with them.

As I made a reservation for one more stay at the kennel, the receptionist once asked again if the dog would be requiring a room with a television. “No thanks,” I answered. “She prefers to read- like her mom.”

 

 

Sharon Forman is a reform rabbi, mother, wife, and caregiver of an energetic goldendoodle. When she is not teaching bar and bat mitzvah students, she may be found driving her son to little league baseball games. She is the author of The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings and numerous essays in Literary Mama, Mamalode, Mothers Always Write, Kveller, The Bitter Southerner, ReformJudaism.org, and Parent.co. She is still trying to figure out how to turn on the downstairs television.

 

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30 Oct

Grief and Motherhood

General/Column No Response

My sister calls to tell me our dad is ill. I book a flight to India the next morning.

Now, my sister and I are in a renowned hospital at Dehradun, India where our eighty-year-old father lies in the ICU post his abdominal surgery. The doctors don’t give us much hope and ask us to pray. We hold on to hope and pray in our hearts, every moment.

We hang around in the ICU lounge all day waiting for the visiting hours when we might catch a glimpse of our father, his rising and falling chest, or hear his name called over the PA system for consents, X-rays, or other scans, or for any bills to be paid. We engage in conversation with other patient’s family members who are also waiting for their sick loved one to get better. All of us strangers are bound by a twine of anticipation, pain, and anxiety.

One pretty woman, exuding the kind of natural beauty that holds your gaze, arrives every morning with her long, wet and washed hair touching her waist, a cotton dupatta pulled over her head. She lays down a durrie on the floor and sits quietly with her back against the wall, acknowledging no one, staring at nothing. Either she is a quiet person or pain has her tongue-tied.

My sister and I decide to approach her. We kneel down beside her on the freshly mopped floor, tell her about our ailing father, and she starts talking. Her skin, the color of freshly-harvested wheat, suffuses with red as she speaks. Her lip quivers. Her six-year-old son is suffering from Japanese fever and has been in coma in the ICU for three weeks. She is from a peasant family, native of a nearby village. She can’t answer our questions related to the disease, so we stop asking and just listen.

She dabs her eyes with her dupatta once but quickly regains her composure. I place my right arm around her shoulder. “My child is beautiful but naughty,” she says. He lies still now, that restless boy who would run all day and night if sleep never gathered him. So many tubes and wires run to and from his body. Last night, they performed surgery on his throat to ease breathing, she tells us.

Tracheostomy, I think to myself.

Her husband can’t be there with her. He has to work on the farms so they can eat and possibly pay the hospital bills.

Later, I google Japanese fever on my phone and find out that his illness is, in fact, Japanese Encephalitis, a disease borne by mosquitoes. The disease causes swelling in the brain and has a high mortality rate, especially in children.

Next morning, she is not there in her usual corner, and we worry whether doom had befallen overnight.

The morning after, she appears again, clean and placid and pretty in a lime-colored dupatta. We rush to her; she smiles and offers us sweet laddoos from a round steel box. It was her four-year old son’s birthday yesterday, she tells us. The child wouldn’t let her go, so she stayed home at the village and sent another relative to the hospital in her place. I point to the bandage on her hand. She says she burnt it while making the birthday boy’s favorite laddoos. “My mind was elsewhere,” she says with faraway eyes. She did not feel the heat until her skin was already burnt.

I am amazed at her fortitude, her divided mother’s heart—cooking for one child while another one struggles for life. The heartrending roles she has to play in the line of duty as a mother make me, an outsider, shudder. The calm sits unfazed on his face.

Later that day we hear a curdling wail from another woman whose face is so crumpled that her features become indiscernible. She beats at her chest inconsolably. There are men with her, maybe her husband or perhaps her neighbors, but no women. She needs to be held. We sisters and some other women rush to her aid,

“My daughter,” she says, “only fourteen years old. Only last week she was so beautiful, dressed in pink with bangles adorning her arms. Henna tattoos decorated her palms for her uncle’s wedding.” Then her daughter came down with a fever that refused to budge. The local doctors said she needed more platelets. Another mosquitoe-born illness. They brought her to the hospital at dawn, and now she’s gone. Her wails succumb to sobs. She speaks to let the world know of the injustice.

I have started to hate mosquitoes.

My sister and I walk to the cafeteria while other women console her. We bring back a bottle of water and a cup of tea. She sips the water but refuses the tea.

“What will everyone say?” she explains. My daughter just died and I’m drinking tea?

Her world is collapsing; she wants the petty comfort a cup of tea can bring but can’t take it because of what people might say. Because that could set some tongues wagging and malign her motherhood?

We do not press her further, but the unreasonable demands on her motherhood stay with me. Why are there rules that a mother must to adhere to at all times—even in times of grief? My own mother would nod her head and say that’s how things are. That it’s the price of being a woman.

My sister and I are mothers too. We show a brave face in front of other sad mothers, but we weep in private, thinking of our father, our mother, our children and these breaking women.

We women who play such the central role in giving life to our children are asked to wait at the sidelines when those lives are leaving us. Why we are not allowed a bigger role here? Why can’t we transfer our breaths to our dying children? We can’t live anyway after seeing them pass on.

After two weeks in the hospital, we accompanied father in the ambulance on his last journey home to our mother. Our shoulders slumped under our grief and the grief of others that we witnessed so closely—especially the mothers.

 

 

 

Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American. She was born in a middle-class family in India and will forever be indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She is an Informational Technology professional, wife, and mother of a teenager. Her thoughts find clarity on her usual Fitbit-powered solitary, which she pens down on her blog Puny Fingers. Her work has been published in The Haiku Journal, MsMagazine, The Brown Girl Magazine, MsLexia, The Same, The Aerogram and some other poetry sites. She can be reached at Twitter @PunyFingers

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27 Oct

The Secret Garden

General/Column One Response

Weeds circle the rim of the large pot. Inside, protected by their circle, rests a bed of leaves, pine needles and tufts of moss. A single stem pokes through this forgotten fortress. At the opposite end of the pool deck, a matching pot stands stoic. Small, cracked pots gather in one corner of the deck like abandoned ships pushed to harbor by unforgiving currents. What had once bloomed yellow, pink and purple now spills green and brown—even the pool water.

We’ve been gone for four years.

The year we moved in, I set modest gardening goals. While I envisioned expansive flower beds, I had no clue how to achieve the picture in my head. I took my cues from the previous owner, tending to the pots she had left, replacing a few of the ornate concrete vessels with ceramic and wooden ones. I spent an entire Saturday in May stocking up on supplies—gloves, soil, tools and browsing flowers. On Sunday, I dove in, paying little attention to details like annuals vs. perennials; sun vs. shade; wet vs. dry soil. I picked flowers I thought were pretty. To my surprise, I found gardening satisfying. There seemed to be some greater, intangible purpose in nurturing petals, leaves and soil. Equally surprising was the luck I had that first year.

In the years that followed, I fussed over impatiens that stuck out of dirt like straws in a desert, pansies that petered out, daisies that fell ill, geraniums that drowned. These less successful gardening years coincided with the births of babies and needy toddler years. My plants wilted; my children bloomed.

Then we moved abroad. Our house in Connecticut lay fallow while we adventured in Asia.

When we first moved to Shanghai, my oldest boy was two, his brother, five months. I was convinced the two year old needed some kind of socialization. He spent all his time with me and his brother, and I worried the cycle of feeding, burping and sleeping so vital to his brother, was stunting his growth. So, I found a toddler art class. We taxied through rush hour traffic across town. He sat, sullen and quiet, hands crossed. The teacher brought over paper, a cup of water and paint.. She tried coaxing in Mandarin, a string of sounds that lulled his brother to sleep in my arms. I tried coaxing in English.

“No! I do not want to paint.” It wasn’t going well. But onward I pushed.

“Just try it.”

“No.”

“It will be fun.”

“No.”

“Look, that boy is making a sun.”

“No.” The teacher asked him to wear a smock. He threw a tantrum like none I’d ever seen my mild-mannered boy do. The baby woke up. I panicked. We didn’t have any friends. We needed this class. The teacher politely suggested we go home and try again the following week.

The next week, despite his protests at home, I pushed him in the taxi. Pushed him into the art room. Pushed him into the smock and pushed him into what was quickly becoming a routine tantrum. I pushed until he wilted.

Five years later, those watercolor weeks are so clear to me now. With distance I can see the subtle distinctions that shaded our unique needs. I needed socialization. My son needed time to adjust to a move abroad and a relatively new baby.

Now, surveying the battlefield, I start by throwing away the pots that are damaged beyond repair. Some are chipped; some are cracked; some are caked in muck. I hose them off and find ways to hide those with smaller cracks or chips. I tell my kids we’ll fill just a few pots to start.

Browsing Home Depot, I ask my seven year old to look for plants labeled “easy to grow.”

We dump all the old soil into our wheelbarrow and combine it with new “moisture control” soil. We refill our sturdy pots with refreshed soil. My five year old digs holes, while his brother places the new flowers in them. I fill in with more dirt.

Then we wait. We wait for the sun to warm and the rain to quench and the worms to nourish and the roots to take root. We wait for the school year to finish, teeth to fall out, and the evenings to lengthen. We wait for summer to start and the flowers to bloom.

In the four years we’ve been away, our trees have grown, our shrubs have expanded and weeds have exploded. They grew in the years we lived in the house, of course, but I hadn’t bothered to notice. Now, I watch my kids run around the deck where they used to crawl. I’ve watched them grow too, but there is a four year space between the pencil markings that measure their heights on their bedroom walls. They are delighted by the magic of their own bodies but I see the absence as a poignant reminder of the impossible feat of holding on to time that was never mine to keep. Here, in the bright sunshine, there are only larger fleeting shadows to mark the movement of time.

While away, our yard has also become home to a veritable animal kingdom. During the day, we spy bunnies, chipmunks and a family of well fed groundhogs. I Google “spices and herbs that deter rodents.” I move pots from the ground to an old table, from the sun to the shade, hoping I’ll find the place they will flourish. I dote over my fledgling plants, pulling weeds and deterring slugs.

My kids’ interest in the plants is peaking. They like sprinkling cayenne pepper and watering, but as I get more concerned for my garden’s wellbeing, I am becoming more particular about when and how they should be watered.

There’s a delicate simplicity to gardening.

As a toddler, my son’s signature look was long, wispy hair. It hung uneven over his eyes, ears and neck. By the time he was 18 months, I could no longer deny it was time for a haircut.

We sat in a small, mirrored barber shop and waited for a man caped in black to finish. My son clung to my neck. He ignored the woman who tried to engage him. When the barber called us over, I carried my boy who had buried his head under mine and told the barber to keep it long but get it out of his face. I tried to sit my son in the chair, but he wouldn’t uncurl from my body. The barber said he could sit on my lap. “Okay,” I cheered, “we’re going to sit together! This will be fun!”

Fun it was not. My son screamed as if the barber were jamming the shears directly into his skull. I could have asked the barber to stop. We could have left, but we didn’t. I was frustrated but determined. My son wailed; my body clenched; the barber hurried. We never went back.

The three Japanese maples that stand outside our pool fence hunch over, shading the far pool deck. I peek into the large pots that sit under the sagging branches. The forgotten fortress. The stem I noticed a couple of weeks ago has grown bright with teardrop leaves. I start to pull a few weeds. My sons call, “can we go swimming now?” Their interest in gardening has been eclipsed by aquatics

“Just let me move this over to the sun.” I push the hair from my face with my gloved hand.

While they swim, I tend to my purple Calibrachoa that is struggling. I try pruning the browning leaves. I pull the weeds I can see, I loosen the topsoil as Google has instructed. I feel like a groomer with an impossible task.

My boys splash and squeal the kinds of squeals that only a summer afternoon can cultivate.

“Your son has been identified as needing some extra support with reading. He’ll be pulled out of class to have time with our reading specialist.” The note from school went on to explain this “early intervention” would continue until he meets grade level expectations.

I’m a teacher. I know about the success rates of early interventions. I know kids learn at all different rates. I purposely chose a kindergarten that did not teach reading. Yet, reading the note made my stomach tense. I knew what the research said about other children, but it felt irrelevant to my own child.

Still, I worried. My inner dialogue settled in the valley between calm and panic. He can barely sound out simple three letter words. He has all the basics, it will come together. He still doesn’t hold a pen right. The writing will come. Exhausted from a full day of school, I pulled out the sight words, he pushed away tears. I pushed him to write; he pulled into himself.

Then, I stopped. I stopped talking about reading and writing and phonics. I tried not to pay attention when he was using his reading app but couldn’t help silently cheering when he seemed to be doing well. I moved the sight words out of sight, and he began reading signs at the store. As we snuggled in bed, I didn’t ask if he wanted to read, I simply opened the books and started the story. One night he told me I missed a word.

Within a few months, he was no longer getting pulled out of class. I felt a little steadier.

There is a delicate simplicity to mothering.

I survey my garden. It looks like it’s been crying. I’m unable to hose off the stains of neglect. I cannot tame what will be wild.

I study the weeds that mingle among the struggling flowers—uninvited guests who’ve proven to be affable. With little help from Google, I’ve narrowed my problems down to all, none, or some of the following: overwatering, underwatering, not enough sun, too much sun, not enough drainage, root rot or disease. I’m frustrated but determined.

As I make my way around my garden, I spot the big pots in back. There, in the forgotten fortress, it sticks out like a spotlight illuminating the secret I already know. The stem that had grown from a sprout to a leafy stalk is now topped by a gift tucked inside a shell of pink petals, waiting to unfold.

 

 

Kathleen Siddell is a teacher, writer and struggling gardener. She, her husband and two boys are back in Connecticut after spending time in Asia. You can find her drowning in the Twitterverse @kathleensiddell.

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