Swiftly Fly The Years

It’s no secret that I’m not exactly young anymore.  I’m sixty years old, and could easily pass for a few years older than that (sagging chins and wrinkly skin runs in my family.)  I know I don’t have the strength and stamina I used to have; I never go anywhere without a pair of reading glasses, and I avoid mirrors whenever possible.  So you can see that I really do understand that I’ve become, shall we say, “a woman of a certain age.”

Which is why I can’t quite explain how shocked I was when I realized that my son, (the youngest of my two “children,”) had the audacity to turn thirty this past weekend.  I don’t remember being quite this surprised a couple of years ago, when my daughter turned thirty, although maybe that was because at that time I could take comfort in the thought that at least one of my offspring was still in his twenties.  But my son is my youngest, and now he’s thirty.  How in the world did that happen?  When did my baby boy become a thirty-year old man?

fullsizeoutput_4ee1I know it’s sounds beyond cliche, but it really does seem like just yesterday when he was just a little guy, full of energy, fun and endless curiosity.  I remember how he struggled to pronounce the letter “r” which always made him sound as if he was speaking with a southern drawl.  He could be stubborn when it suited him, but that wasn’t always a bad thing.  If he was interested in something, he threw himself into it with his whole heart.  Once when I was picking him up from preschool, the teacher handed me a large paper bag to take home, filled with that day’s art project.   Apparently, the children had been asked to paint a picture on a coffee can lid.  All the other children painted one.  My son painted nineteen of them.

But now my son and daughter are all grown up and their childhoods are mere memories.  Now we’re all adults.  Sometimes I struggle with just how much advice I’m allowed to give at this stage of our lives, and exactly where the line is between being helpful and being intrusive.  As a mother, I think I’ll always worry and want them to take good care of themselves and make wise decisions.  But our role as a parent changes and evolves as our children grow up and become independent adults.  All I can say is that I try my best to say and do the right thing.  And I’m beyond grateful that I raised two forgiving souls who are willing to overlook the times I get it just a little bit wrong.

So yes, now I am definitely an “older” woman,  but the more I think about it, the more I realize that is perfectly okay.  This stage of life allows me to focus more on myself and to follow my own interests.   And when I look at the fine young man my son has become, I find that I really don’t mind so much that he just happens to be thirty years old…..

Christmas Present

There’s something about Christmas that can put me in a very nostalgic mood.  It might be the family Christmas traditions, or how I decorate my house with so many old ornaments and nick-knacks from my childhood.  It could even be that most of my favorite Christmas songs are the old ones and that I listen to them a lot as I’m driving around town.  All I know is that this is the time of year when my memories of past Christmases are strongest, and I sometimes feel a real sense of loss.  It’s as if an important and precious part of the holiday is gone, and I know I’ll never get it back again.

Thankfully, I don’t feel that way all of the time.  In between my bouts of Christmas nostalgia, I have moments when I’m downright thankful for the changes that the passing years have wrought.

Last Sunday afternoon, I headed to the mall to get in a little Christmas shopping.  When I got there, I saw a line of families waiting to have their children’s photos taken with Santa that stretched almost from one end of the mall to the other.  And as far as I could tell, it wasn’t moving.  I can’t tell you how good it felt to breeze right by all those people, duck into the little boutique jewelry store, buy a gift for my daughter-in-law and waltz back out again.  At that moment in time, it felt great to know that my kids are too old to want to see Santa.

img_0621

And speaking of Santa Claus, I like being at the stage where his only role in Christmas at my house is as (an occasionally tacky) decoration.  I remember the Christmas when my son was four all too well.  I had finished my shopping early that year, or so I thought until the afternoon of December 23, when my son casually mentioned that what he wanted most from Santa this year was a toy Bat-mobile.  This was news to me, so I asked why he hadn’t mentioned this before.  Apparently, he saw a commercial for it just that morning. (Yet another reason children shouldn’t be allowed to watch TV.)  I told him it was awfully late to be changing his mind, and he said he understood.  But he was still “really, really, hoping that Santa brings me a Bat-mobile.”  So guess who got to go fight the crowds for the last remaining Bat-mobile at Target?

As long as I’m being honest, and a bit Grinch-like, I’ll admit that I’m also glad I no longer have to be responsible for games and craft projects my kids’ holiday class parties.  Or spend two hours sitting on a cold metal folding chair during the school’s winter concert.  The concerts were only about an hour long, but if you didn’t come an hour early, you didn’t even get the privilege of an uncomfortable chair.  Instead, you ended up standing in a crowd around the perimeter of the gym, trying to peek over the shoulder of the tall guy in front of you, hoping to catch a glimpse of your kid on stage.  Good times, indeed.

I think nostalgia is remembering only the good times, and of course there were plenty of those.  I’ll always miss the excitement of the Christmas mornings of my own childhood, and the fun we had at Christmas when my own children were young.  But these days I’m getting better at recognizing that those long-ago Christmases were far from perfect, and that the present Christmas has a lot going for it, too.

Pass It On

Recently, I spent a Saturday afternoon at my daughter’s house, helping her paint one of her bedrooms.  I’m one of those rare people who actually likes to paint, so I didn’t mind spending a beautiful weekend afternoon up on a ladder, doing the edging.  Even better, my mother stopped by and offered to pitch in as well by painting some of the trim.  So there we were, three generations of family working together to give a room in my daughter’s house a much-needed sprucing up.  For me, it felt like one of those family bonding moments when the older members of the family get to pass along some of their knowledge and experience to the younger members.  (Which is an increasingly rare thing in theses days of ever-changing technology where the young are usually the ones who teach the old.)

Milentz houseI remember when my husband and I bought our first house and how hard we struggled to turn a very run down “fixer-upper” into a livable home.  We couldn’t have done it without the help of friends and family who loaned us tools (and showed us how to use them), and helped clean up years worth of dirt and grime.  We had a good friend who showed my husband how to build walls, while others helped him assemble our own kitchen cabinets.  I remember clearly how my mother helped me in our overgrown yard, pointing out that the “weeds” I was about to pull were actually just flowers that needed some pruning.  My aunt gave us money to buy kitchen curtains, and my brother-in-law even offered to install a wood-burning stove for us to help with heating costs.  All that support made the process seem so much less overwhelming.

And now that my own son and daughter have bought houses of their own, both of which were fixer-uppers (we never buy anything else in our family), it’s our turn to help.  I paint, do yard work and clean, my husband brings over his tools and shows them how to use them while he’s working on a project, and in the process, we help teach our kids what they need to know to fix up and properly maintain their houses.  Frankly, it feels good to pass along some of the skills, support and knowledge that was given to us.

It’s not that our kids (and their husband and fiancé) couldn’t do it themselves, they most certainly could.  They’re young, hard-working and smart, and what they don’t already know, they’ll figure out.  But I know our help means that they are learning much more quickly, and I believe that they appreciate the support of their family with this important milestone in their lives.  These are the acts that solidify our family bonds, that remind us that we don’t actually have to face every challenge on our own, and that demonstrate the importance of working together to help the people we love.

Sometimes fixing up houses is about so much more than just creating a nice place to live.  Sometimes its also about building memories, strengthening family connections and passing on the best of who we are to the next generation.  It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a paintbrush and a power drill.

Christmas Presence

One of my earliest Christmas memories is of sitting at the kitchen table with my father, working together to make “shadow box” nativity scene.  Shadow boxes were popular at the time, and as far as I can remember, they consisted of a box that housed knick-knacks or scenes in a decorative wooden box covered with glass to protect the contents.  Since I was about five years old at the time, we were making our shadow box out of a cardboard shoe box.

We had gone out into the back yard to cut some dormant, yellowed zoysia grass, which we glued on the bottom of the box to represent straw.  We glued strips of brown construction paper to the walls for the stable beams, and added a blue square window complete with gold star stickers on the back wall. Then we glued down the ceramic figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in the manger, with a little plastic angel standing guard.  Finally, we taped on clear plastic wrap to cover the whole front of the box.  I thought it was absolutely beautiful.

Our family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but we always got a nice pile of presents for Christmas, and almost always got the gift we wanted the most of all (not counting the Shetland pony I was always secretly hoping for).  But as much as I looked forward to unwrapping my presents on Christmas morning, as happy as I was with the presents I received, I have forgotten almost all of them by now.  Sometimes my memory is helped by looking at an old photo and thinking, “Oh, that was the year I got the Chatty Cathy doll,” but I can’t remember that on my own, or even a few days after I look at the photo.

What I do remember, easily and clearly, is sitting at the kitchen table with my father, working together to make that cardboard shadow box.  I remember how special it made me feel that he was taking the time to teach me how to make something beautiful out of some dried-out grass, construction paper, ceramic figures and a cardboard shoe box.

IMG_0938I have no idea how long that cardboard shadow box actually lasted…our household had lots of rambunctious kids, so the chances are, it didn’t last very long…but I still have the figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the angel.  And even though they are old and chipped, I still put them out every year, to remind me that the best Christmas gifts aren’t the ones we put under the tree.

Forever Family

familyMy daughter got engaged last summer, and her wedding is coming up fast.  Even though we’ve spent the past few months booking a venue, reserving a church, selecting her wedding dress and making all the hundreds of other decisions that seem to be required for a wedding these days, it has only recently begun to sink in that she’s actually getting married.  And soon.

I still remember the first day I brought her home from the hospital, and how everything single thing in my world suddenly felt so different.  The house my husband and I had lived in happily for a couple of years had to be completely reconfigured to accommodate a baby, a good night’s sleep became nothing more than a distant memory, and even the shortest outing required careful planning as we either had to find and hire a reliable baby sitter or pack a diaper bag with more provisions than I normally packed for a week’s vacation back in my childless days.  My husband and I had shifted from being a couple to being a family, and life was never the same again.

Later, as we were raising both my daughter and her younger brother, I couldn’t even imagine what life would be like when they grew up and moved out to start their own lives.  The four of us were a complete and happy family unit, and the thought of us not living together anymore was almost frightening.  At the time, I had a friend whose youngest daughter had recently moved out and I asked her how she could possibly cope with that loss.  She told me that in her opinion, the teenage years were God’s little way of making it a bit less painful to see them go.  And as the years went by, I understood that she was right.

When our turn came to have an empty nest, it wasn’t the horrible adjustment I thought it would be, because I realized that I hadn’t really lost my kids at all.  They had grown up, but we were still a family and our relationship was simply different than it was when they were children.  Now I could see the young woman and the young man they had become, and I liked what I saw.  And the little bonuses of having an empty nest, such as the extra closet space, much smaller grocery bills and not having to listen to either country or rap music in my house helped, too.

MarthaIn a few short weeks, our family is going to change again, and in a big way.  My daughter will be married, which means her first priority will be her new husband, and not us.  She’ll even have a new last name.  But, once again, this is just a change that means our family will be different, and that’s not a bad thing.  We’re gaining a terrific son-in-law who already feels like a member of our family.  It’s reassuring to see my daughter in love with someone who makes her happy and to know that they are choosing to spend their lives together.  And I know she is marrying into a wonderful family whose love and support will only enrich her life.

I have come to believe that family is something that is both constant and constantly changing.  And that change isn’t always a bad thing.  In the case of this particular change that is coming to our family, I believe it’s a very good thing indeed.

What Did You Say?

DSC00076Right after we bought our house, my husband and I discussed the remodeling that needed to be done first:  paint the magenta bedroom a nicer color, replace the leaky windows, install new kitchen counters and a deeper sink, etc.  And I distinctly remember hearing him say that he planned to take down the doorway and wall that enclosed the stairs to the second story. We didn’t want to have to open a door to go upstairs, and thought that an open staircase would look very nice.  The next day, my parents and I were trying to carry our mattresses upstairs, and we couldn’t fit the box springs through the doorway.  I said, “No problem, we’re going to take this wall out anyway,” and got a crowbar and knocked a big hole above the doorway so that the box springs fit through.  Honestly, I was proud of myself for fixing the problem on my own, without my husband’s help.

But it turns out that while I thought he meant “We’re going to take that doorway out right away,” what he actually meant was, “Someday we’re going to take that doorway out.”  So he was more than a little surprised to come home from work that night and find a huge, gaping hole above the doorway.  Not happy, but definitely surprised.

I also remember when my son was in kindergarten and had to get to school especially early one morning.  In an effort to save time, I asked him to lay out his clothes the night before, so we wouldn’t have to go through the ritual of deciding what he was going to wear (he had strong opinions about that when he was young) in the morning.  When I went in his room that night, I saw that he did indeed have his clothes “laid out.”  His t-shirt was spread carefully on the floor, and his jeans were placed just below them, with the shirt overlapping about an inch or so.  Sticking out from the bottom of each jean leg was a single sock, and when I looked underneath the top of the jeans, sure enough, there was a pair of underwear.  I thought I had told him simply to select his outfit for the next morning, he thought I wanted him to arrange his clothes exactly as if he was wearing them.

The older I get, the more I realize that there is often a big difference between what one person means to say and what another person actually hears.  It might be because different people assign different meanings to words, or it might be because we all tend to filter what we hear through our own, unique perspective.  I really don’t know.  But I strongly suspect that a lot of the hurt feelings and conflict we experience in our life stems from simple misunderstandings about what exactly we mean when we communicate with each other.

For my part, I’m trying to remember to make more of an effort to make myself as clear as I possibly can when I speak to others, and to take the extra time to make sure I truly understand what others mean when they speak to me, even by asking silly-sounding questions when necessary.  It isn’t always easy, and I’m certainly not always successful, but I do think it’s worth the time and effort.  I know my husband wishes I had done that all those years ago, before I started swinging away with my trusty crowbar.  Because we didn’t open up that staircase for another ten years, and plaster walls are a real hassle to patch.

In It For The Long Haul

When I was a stay-at-home mom with young children, every day was a unique, though not necessarily exciting, adventure.  No matter how hard I tried to establish routines, my days never had anything close to the predictable routine I was used to when I worked in an office.  Sometimes before he left in the morning, my husband would ask me, “What’s on your agenda today?”  And I would promptly answer, “Laundry.”  At that time, it was the one constant in my life.  Whatever else the day brought me, I knew it would include laundry.

The sad thing was that I hated doing laundry.  I like jobs that can be neatly checked off of a to-do list, and not have to be faced on a continuing basis.  But no matter how many loads of wash I did, the laundry basket just filled right back up.  Often before sunset.  It was a job I could never actually complete.

Now that the kids are grown and out of the house, I have lots of laundry-free days, but I’m still dealing with a task that, no matter how hard I work at it, feels as if it is never-ending.  Now that I have more time on my hands, I spend three days a week walking dogs at our local Humane Society.  And although I enjoy walking dogs much more than I did washing clothes, there is still the sense that I am swimming upstream with no end in sight.  Because the one thing that an open admission shelter always has is a constant stream of new dogs who need to be walked, trained, socialized, etc., while they are waiting for their turn to be adopted.

IMG_4349There are many mornings when I happily head down to the shelter, looking forward to seeing the dogs and some of my friends. But there are other mornings when I just don’t want to go down there and face the dozens of homeless dogs who are waiting to be walked.  Sometimes I don’t feel physically strong enough to deal with the big rowdy dogs; other times I don’t feel emotionally strong enough to deal with the abused or neglected dogs who huddle, trembling, in the back of their runs; and other days I just don’t want to risk finding out that, once again, we don’t really have enough volunteers to properly take care of all the dogs who depend on us.

But just like the laundry basket all those years ago, the Humane Society is something I can’t ignore.  Now that I know of the need that exists down there, now that I have actually handled shelter dogs and seen how much a positive difference my time, and the time of the other volunteers, makes in their lives, I can’t turn my back on it.  So I keep going down there, even on the mornings I don’t want to, and walk the dogs.  I can’t say I always do it cheerfully, although on most days something happens…usually a moment of connection with a dog or another person…that makes me glad I showed up after all, but I do it.  Because I realize now that I’m in this for the long haul.

I saw a quote on Facebook once by Mary Ann Radmacher that said, “Courage does not always roar.  Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” That pretty much sums it up for me.

Motherhood: The Journey Continues

When I first married my husband, we only talked about “maybe” having children, and it was a couple of years before we started talking about “when” we have children, and a couple more years before we decided that it was actually time to start a family. Shortly afterwards, our daughter was born, and exactly two and a half years after that, we had our son.  So for me, motherhood was a gradual process from an abstract idea of maybe having kids, to a definite desire to be a mother, to actually becoming one.

And the process didn’t end there.  From their infancy and toddlerhoods, when my job as a mother meant accepting responsibility for their every need, to their childhood when I had to begin stepping back and letting them learn things for themselves, to their teenage years when I could no longer ignore the fact that they were well on their way to adulthood, my role as a mother has constantly evolved.  Those early years when my kids were so dependent on me were exhausting, but simple.  The delicate balancing act of trying to decide how much support to give and how often to give it began later, and it just got more complicated as they grew up.  These days, everyone makes fun of “helicopter parents,” but anyone who has been a parent knows how hard it is to decide when our kids need our help, and when they need us to step back and learn how to fail.

Now that my son and daughter are actual adults, our relationship is still changing, and my role as their mother continues to evolve. I’m still helping them, but they are also helping me.  The little boy I once pushed in the stroller (for the ten minutes or so he’d consent to ride in there) is now the young man I call when I need a heavy box carried out of the basement or someone to explain to me why my computer suddenly went on strike.  And these days I am almost as likely to ask my daughter for advice (particularly in fashion, an area where she is light years ahead of me) as I am to give advice to her.   Watching my son and daughter grow into well-rounded, competent and caring persons has been, without a doubt, the most rewarding part of motherhood.

Use thisI understand now that my role as a mother will always be changing, just like my relationship with my own mother continues to change and grow.  I loved watching my mom interact with my kids when they were little, and learned a few things about dealing with small children in the process.  If I’m lucky, I’ll have grandkids of my own some day, and that will add a whole new dimension to motherhood.  But whatever happens, wherever the process leads us, I’ll always be their mother.  Always.

Middle Age Karma

DSC00175When I was a young adult, I never suffered from seasonal allergies, and privately thought that all those people who complained about high pollen counts and their allergy symptoms were just being a bit whiney.  Now that I am the one with a runny nose, itchy eyes, endless sneezing and a sore throat each Spring and Fall, I really regret that attitude.

Before I had kids, I found mothers who used loud, sing-song voices (“Look at those red, shiny apples!!  Shall we buy the red, shiny apples for our lunch?”) when they spoke to their young children in public places annoying, and I had nothing but disdain for parents who couldn’t get their kids to behave properly at stores and restaurants.  I also refused to be in the same room with any child who had a snotty nose, at least until someone wiped it properly.  Then I had my own kids.  I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say I got over my tendency to judge other parents very, very quickly.  And I became way too familiar with tempter tantrums, snotty noses and other gross body fluids.

Years ago, I had my own dogs trained to go into the back yard to do their business before I took them for a walk, because I was never going to be one of those people I saw walking down the sidewalk with their dog’s leash in one hand a full bag of dog poop in the other.  I would never, ever do something that gross.  Now, of course, I walk a couple of dozen shelter dogs every week, and I almost always have to pick up their poop in a plastic bag and carry it until I find the nearest trash can.

It’s amazing how a few decades of living can change our perspective.  It’s so easy to judge people who are going through things we have never experienced and to smugly assume that, even if we ever do have to deal with their issues, we will handle them so much better.  And to blithely declare what we will never do, or what we will always do, while we’re still young enough to believe it.

If there is one thing that middle age has taught me, it is that karma can indeed be a bitch.  I’ve been proven wrong about how well I will handle a particular situation or where I will draw a personal line in the sand so many times that I can’t even keep count anymore.

Thankfully, I am much less willing to make those kinds of judgements these days.  I’m much humbler now, and I understand how little I can predict both what is in my future and how I will react to it.  Also, I am fully aware that karma is still out there, and I have finally learned not to tempt it.