Sheryl and Sons

Sheryl and Sons
I told you they were big.

Monday, July 30, 2012

My Three Sons

     I have a photo of Jesse and his two best friends sitting on the swing on my front porch.  I think they are four years old. All three fit together on one seat.  They are happy, adorable little boys.  Their perfect baby teeth, like little white Chicklets, smile at me.
     This morning they are in my car, on my very last day of driving carpool to high school. They are an aromatic group--they smell of Axe body spray, peanut butter toast and gym shoes.  Graduation is this weekend.
     I love these  boys, and they know I love them, so I decide to say what's on my mind.  My voice will crack but it doesn't matter, because although they would never think of it, I think they love me too.
     "Today is my last day of driving carpool," I begin.  "My last day ever."
     My voice cracks a little on the "ever," and my son Jesse, sitting in the passenger seat beside me, looks right at me.
     "Are you going to cry?  Jesus, Mom."
     But it's just S and J in the car, boys I've known since they were toddlers.  They live on our block, and I think I've seen them most of the days of their lives.
     It's too late to be embarrassed in front of them.  These boys have seen me in my sweaty gym clothes at 7:00 in the morning, and in my red fluffy bathrobe at midnight.  I've picked them up at school when they were sick, and I've put many bandages on their knees and elbows. They know exactly what I have in my refrigerator, and probably these days what I have in my liquor cabinet.  If I'm going to cry, it's going to be okay.
     S, always a sweetheart, says, "We should have done something special!"
     The boys laugh.
     "It is special," I venture, my voice cracking now.  "It's special to be driving the three of you.  I've known you since. . ." I trail off.  I realize I can't say anymore.
     My son can see how emotional I am, and he speaks quietly to me.
     "Oh Mom," says Jesse.
     And then, without a pause, "Oh Mom," says S.
     And then, "Oh Mom!" says J.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Soufflé

     My son has graduated college and started his first real job.  Watching him adjust to adulthood reminds me of my own start.  Forgive me for the indulgence--I'll be back to boys next week.

     In the summer of 1981, I left home in pursuit of adulthood.  My father and I drove from our suburban Chicago sub-division to a third floor walk up studio in a not yet gentrified neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  When we pulled up, some Hari-Krishnas were singing outside the building next door.  My father, who for nearly 800 miles had seemed quite supportive, glanced at them and said, "Let's not tell your mother."
     I had found a job with a philanthropist who was renowned for his generosity but paid me nearly nothing.  My job was to review grant proposals from liberal organizations seeking support, and throw big fundraisers for candidates my boss supported.  Most nights I made dinner out of the brie and chablis we served.
     I was quite determined to be happy, which felt within my reach.  I spent most of my free time cultivating new friends.  I wrote little notes in advance of calling them, so I always sounded clever delivering the latest news, or inviting them to something wonderful.  Sometimes these potential friends were busy--going to visit their parents in Philadelphia--or sometimes I left a message, which went unreturned.  Some weekends I did not speak to another human being from the time I left work on Friday until I returned Monday morning.
     None of this information was recounted in my weekly phone calls home.  I did not want my loved ones to worry, as they surely would have, but more than that, I wanted them to think my life was wonderful, because they would have been insulted to find out I'd left them for anything less.
     I made sure to tell them I'd recently attended a performance at the Kennedy Center and sat in the President's box.  They were particularly impressed that the box had a private bathroom, and noted that I'd likely sat on the same toilet as Nancy Reagan.  I told them about Ted Kennedy's birthday party, and about the staff meeting I attended at my boss' home in Bermuda, and about the housekeeper who had once baked pies for President Roosevelt.  These stories were repeated at my father's water cooler and my mother's beauty shop to acquaintances who thought my parents had been crazy to let me go.
     I worked with a woman named Mary Beth who implied through her every word and deed that I knew nothing about fashion.  She accompanied me on business trips and pointed out the stylish women who wore spectator pumps that matched their periwinkle Nipon suits.  She referred me to someone to wax my legs.  She tried to gently help me through a variety of bad decisions regarding pants that made my butt look big and men who thought my butt looked just right.
    I thought that I might increase my circle of friends if I threw a party.  Not a keg of beer on the porch party, but a Washington young singles party--a brunch.  I would invite a variety of international friends who would be ever so interested in one another, and I would make my mother's famous blintz soufflé, which was quite simply love on a plate.  I would serve orange juice with champagne, and pots and pots of coffee, and my new acquaintances would pull my favorite Saul Bellow books off my shelves and we would discover how very much we had in common after all.
    These new acquaintances were working in congressional offices, or writing articles for left wing magazines, or were the sons of someone we had never heard of back in Chicago but who were quite important "inside the beltway."  They had gone to Harvard and Yale and Georgetown, and couldn't fathom why on earth I'd gone to the University of Illinois.  I was concerned that they were not easy to impress, so the night before the brunch I made sure I had everything ready.  This involved cleaning my tiny apartment and borrowing enough plates and forks.
     My mother was not a great cook, so the fact that she had mastered the blintz soufflé gave me courage.  The secret was that the blintzes (crepe pancakes wrapped around ricotta cheese) were store bought.  All I needed to do was arrange them in a Pyrex dish and cover them with an egg and sour cream mixture that when baked came out all puffy and lovely.
     I unfortunately woke up late the next morning, and just as I was getting started in the kitchen, the first guest arrived.  I quickly put the blintzes in the Pyrex and poured the mixture on top, briefly noting that the recipe called for the blintzes to be defrosted first, which I had neglected to do.  I didn't get too alarmed, but figured it would take a few extra minutes in the oven.
     The doorbell kept ringing and I buzzed up my friends who thought my apartment "had the most wonderful light," or "was in such an interesting neighborhood."  I introduced them all to each other noting that this one was a genius at direct mail, and that one was writing a fascinating article about world peace.  I was the perfect Washington hostess.
     Everyone was drinking quite a bit of champagne on empty stomachs.  After fifty minutes I went to retrieve my soufflé from the oven, anticipating the oohs and aahs of my friends.  I opened the oven, looking for the gorgeous casserole my mother regularly served, and was aghast to find pathetic lumpy blintzes in a sour cream soup.  The frozen blintzes had behaved like solid ice cubes and had rebuffed the overtures of the egg mixture, refusing to gel.
     I put the mess back in the oven and start to panic.  The only other food I had in my apartment was a box of macaroni and cheese and a couple of frozen dinners.  Guests began drifting into the kitchen asking if they could help.  I shooed everyone out and put my face in an oven mitt so that no one would see me cry.
     There would be no blintz soufflé.  But the lukewarm blintzes still had possibilities.  No one was expecting them to be all puffy and perfectly browned.  I removed the Pyrex from the oven, fished out the blintzes and rinsed them in the sink.  I arranged them on a plate and warmed them in the microwave. After covering them with strawberries, I presented them to a roomful of tipsy young adults who had never prepared anything more complicated than a Pop Tart.  They all exclaimed that they had no idea I could cook.
     I moved out of Washington soon after, in the hottest part of the summer.  My neighborhood liquor store, which had flourished under the business I had provided to them thanks to my party-throwing boss, delivered a magnum of champagne.
     I uncorked the champagne back home for the ones who loved me best, and we drank a toast to my return.  They expressed appropriate concern that a liquor store would miss me so.  I had never been so happy to be me.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Oh Say Can I Sing?

     Each year on Senior Night, the proud parents of the graduating high school seniors are introduced with their sons before the final home volleyball game of the season.  It's a special night for the parents who have been filling the bleachers for four years, and for the senior boys whose only reason for attending school all spring has been so that they could play.
     My son Jesse is a team captain.  He is kind of a big deal.  In addition to being a volleyball player, he is also a singer, and will be studying jazz vocals in college.  He has often been asked to perform the national anthem before the varsity volleyball games.  It's a double header for me; first a singing performance followed by three games of volleyball.
     While I am not nearly as talented as my son, I also was a singer in high school.  Sometimes when we are in the car or home together, Jesse and I sing.  He has a beautiful deep bass voice, and he finds rich harmonies to my melody.  I love to sing with him, and before he leaves for college, I thought we could perform the national anthem together on Senior Night in front of all his teammates and their parents.
     I was pretty sure the coach would love this idea.  This is my second child to play varsity volleyball, so the coach and I have known each other for many years.  Being the captain's mother comes with its own three-ring-binder, and although it's not a lot of work, even if I were a terrible singer (which I'm not!) she knows that the parents would still give me a hearty and generous round of applause.
     The problem was not the coach.  It was my son.
     "Are you insane?" he asked me when I first mentioned the idea.  "Do you have any idea how much trash talking the other team would do if I sang the national anthem with my MOM?"
     I thought he was overreacting, and so I asked my older son Rob his opinion.  He is a very laid back guy, and takes everything in stride.  Rob thinks just about everything is a good idea.
     "Are you insane?" he asked me.  "That is the worst idea you have ever had."
     For weeks afterward, I hovered outside the bathroom while Jesse sang in the shower, and I sang with him.  Usually he just ignored me, but finally he yelled, "Stop auditioning!"
     If this were a Lifetime movie (the part of the lovable and quirky mother played by Julia Roberts and the part of the cool, handsome singing son played by a young John Mayer) then Jesse would see that it doesn't matter what the other kids say, and on Senior Night he would give a heartfelt speech about the people that really matter, and call me down to the microphone to sing a sweet, teary national anthem in perfect harmony.
     But this was not a movie--it was my real life.  So instead, the high school Swing Choir led the national anthem and they were pretty good.  I stood along with all the other fans.  Jesse would not make eye contact with me.
     But when it was time to be introduced, he took my hand and led me out onto the floor.  The announcer said our names, and that Jesse was captain, and then he announced the college Jesse would be attending in the fall.  My son bent down so I could kiss him, and handed me a single white carnation, and suddenly I was crying as if they'd announced our names at the Grammys.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fireworks and Waterworks

There are two kinds of mothers, and they are most easily identified on the first day of school.  One kind of mother can't stop crying.  The other kind of mother is dancing the jig.  
I have always been a dancing gal, a bye-bye, don't let the door hit you on the way out, write when you get work kind of Mom.  I love the summer, LOVE IT, but when it's over, I am glad to see my boys take those important steps towards independence.  (And, let's face it, I'm glad to have the house to myself once more.)
        But this summer is different.  My oldest has graduated from high school, and as we round the corner and take the last lap before he leaves for college, I’ve become the weepy one.
Lately, everything makes me cry.  It was fine to cry at the volleyball banquet when the coach spoke about my son’s leadership and character.  It was sentimental to cry watching my son and his best friends embrace in their tuxedos, going to the Prom.  And the entire Welch-Ryan Arena was teary at graduation, as they called the names of boys and girls I’ve known since kindergarten.
I cried appropriately all spring.  But then I cried at the Fourth of July fireworks.  
My husband, who is still startled by this change, asked what the hell was wrong with me, and I asked him, “When did Robby stop holding my hand?”
I saw hundreds of mothers down at the beach for the fireworks, and they were all holding children’s hands.  It’s an easy place to get lost, with so many people, and it’s a scary place for a mother, being so close to the lake.
          My son is eighteen years old now.  He’s 6’3, over 200 pounds.  And although I do remember that he held my hand for an awfully long time, so long in fact that my husband was worried that the other boys would make fun of him, he does not hold my hand anymore. 
I remember those chubby brown fingers fitting perfectly into my palm, I remember their stickiness, and the bitten nails.  I can’t remember the last time Robby held my hand, and of course there was no way to know it was the last, and it’s probably just as well or I would have cried then too. 
These days our refrigerator is plastered with his likeness. It is a shrine to him—the celebration of these last precious months that we will be together before he goes away to college.  My younger son came into the kitchen the other day and asked, “Do I even live here?” and I knew what he meant.  His brother has been the headliner for the past few months, garnering all the accolades of a successful high school career.  He has grown up to be a magnificent young man, and it’s a great irony that now that the hard work is done, he is leaving.
Separation anxiety, a term commonly used when talking about pre-schoolers, is now the diagnosis of pre-college parents. 
I talk to other mothers who have survived it.  They speak of those first weeks, crying in the empty bedroom, touching the trophies, smelling the pillows.  We line up the stuffed animals on the shelves.  We read the spines of the books. We stick close to these remnants of an old life. Like us, these well-loved treasures are left behind. 
This fall as I leave my sweet boy in front of his dormitory, I will have the Kleenex tucked into my sleeve as I say goodbye. As our car pulls away, my tears will begin.
            And this time, my son will be dancing the jig.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Wimbledon Shwimbledon

For the last ten years, I have been playing tennis with a group of women who are only slightly less awful than I am.  There’s no doubt that I’m the lowest gal on the tennis totem pole, but they would each lobby for that distinction, and that is why I love them so.
Not long ago at our regular Wednesday tennis game, I hit a forehand shot in my usual herky-jerky way. It felt like my arm was going to come off.  Something had come unhinged.  I could not imagine it was anything serious, so I went to see my girlfriend’s brother Howie who is the sort of doctor you go to when you don’t think anything is wrong.  He’s a lovely man but probably not such a great doctor, which is why you can always get an appointment right away. Howie examined my arm and told me I had tennis elbow.
I laughed out loud. 
The idea that I could be injured playing tennis was ridiculous.  Our 9:30 court time starts with an update on what has happened since last week.  How did you survive the visit with your mother-in-law?  Has Annie been asked to Homecoming yet?  How is Matt’s job search going?  No tennis will be played until these pressing questions have been answered.  We have never opened a can of tennis balls before 10:00. 
Then we warm up.  For our doubles game, we usually pair up with the gal who can best help us with this week’s domestic dilemma. A good match generally ends with a recommendation for a movie to see this weekend, an idea for a Father’s Day gift, or the name of a great math tutor.   
Then we start.  We play about ten to fifteen minutes until someone has a hot flash and needs to take off her sweatshirt and get a drink. 
This is not the sort of game where anyone gets injured.
I tried explaining this to Howie.  He shook his head, perhaps understanding that I was as much of a tennis player as he was an expert in sports medicine. He pinpointed the motion that was irritating my arm. Sideways, it looked like a tennis forehand shot, but if I rotated my arm inward, my palm faced the ground.  Howie explained that lifting anything with my palm down was verboten.
This struck me as a very familiar motion.  Too familiar.  “Like this?” I pantomimed taking wet blue jeans out of the washing machine.
“Exactly,” said Howie.
“Or like this?” I demonstrated the motion of unloading my new stoneware dishes from the dishwasher.
Howie nodded.
“How about this?” I asked, as I pretended to lift four gallons of milk out of my trunk. 
Howie confirmed my suspicions: I didn’t have tennis elbow; I had hausfrau elbow.
Since I’d left my paying job several years ago to stay home with my children, I’d suffered many pokes at my self-esteem, but this was a grand slam. 
Howie said, “I’ll give you a shot of cortisone, and then you can’t play tennis or lift anything with your palm down for three months.”
No tennis for three months! I would really miss my girls every Wednesday morning, but I’d just have to arrange some lunch dates to keep in touch.  As far as my diagnosis, no one needed to know my true ailment.  I was sticking with tennis elbow—very Chrissie Evert.  But no laundry?  No unloading the dishwasher?  No bringing in the groceries?
I had just received doctor’s orders to cease and desist housework.  This was the greatest day of my life.