Stop Virginia – This Christmas is What We Longed For

On these short, dark days before Christmas I never seem able to sleep and get frustrated with myself lying in bed doing a tally of gifts bought and gifts to buy, instead of counting sheep.  I feel that as a mom of four young adults, wife of the husband, daughter of the parents, sister of the siblings, too much shopping has fallen on my shoulders and the emphasis at this time of year, by my own doing, has gone terribly wrong.

This morning on the fourth shortest day, when I leave the Christmas lights on all night to brighten the weary dark, I was laying in my warm bed and decided, most consciously, to think hard about what it is I am anticipating for the next week  – a week that will come and go a hundred times faster than the slow build up since Halloween.

What are the moments I want to be in?  Not in a distracted, on to the next bit way, but in a truly aware and mindful – this is what we all waited for – way?

The first son home this year went with his dad and together they picked out a glorious tree.  A few years back their dad and I had decorated the tree for our kids arrival home – only to find they all wanted to be part of the ‘boys act like they don’t care’ while supervising from the couch watching something like, Saving Private Ryan, while the girls hung even the sloppiest kindergarten macaroni decoration because they “remembered making it”.  We have learned to save the tree decorating and I promise I will be in those moments.

In the past I probably helped too much with gift buying, the older they got the less money they had to spend with rent and groceries and parties to attend to.  I was resenting becoming the mother-of-all shoppers.  But in the last few years, maturing as they are supposed to, these young adults of ours have managed to think ahead and somehow put aside funds for gifts they have been excited about bestowing on each other and us – small, inexpensive, partially homemade sometimes – but all tokens of love and affection.  I will be in those moments of anticipation – watching the dance around the wrapping, the shouting out for tape, or for no one to come in whatever room, and then the sneaking the package under our sparkling tree.

It will take until Dec. 23 this year but finally we will all be under one roof again, something that hasn’t happened since Easter.  When I lay in bed that night I will toss aside thoughts of organizing, turkey stuffing, having to run out for whipping cream as always, and where did I put the stockings about 350 days ago?  Instead I will be completely, entirely immersed in the feeling of having them all so close, though they may be up into the wee hours listening to hip hop or watching DVD’s of The Office and laughing together –  eating the butter tarts a day early and sharing Christmas-y secrets.  I think I will wrap myself in a blanket and sneak down to be with them, saving sleep for another time, knowing in my heart that these are the moments of the season that I have truly longed for.

Lost Down Under

At times I think about those families that have nine or ten kids – or that television family with nineteen –and I wonder about the mothers.  Some people would surmise that they would worry less, because you just can’t worry that much, but worry, like love, multiplies, it doesn’t max out.  There are mornings when I wake up and take the tally of my four.  I’ll settle my mind on each of them and decide where they are on my crazy worry meter.

I think mothers of ten kids do a similar tally – it just keeps them in bed longer in the morning or awake further into the night.  Our second child, Cole, has been on my worry list often enough, but moved up to the numero uno spot when he decided to travel alone, circling half way around the globe to New Zealand.

When Cole first left home at age eighteen, to have his bohemian snowboarder experience working as a lift operator in Whistler, B.C., he told us that staff meetings were held during which the kids were, according to my son, reminded to eat fruit or take vitamin C.  It was a true comfort that his employers were being mommy substitutes and taking some responsibility for the hundreds of young people, like Cole, working for the hill.  The resort also had a web site that I discovered  that listed rules and regulations for the resort staff as well as upcoming staff meetings.  When Cole first proposed his six month trip to New Zealand I wanted just such a web site.  Not quite twenty-year-olds traveling alone in New Zealand, it would say, must abide by these safety rules, and while on the job (of being a young traveler) should remember to eat their kiwi. Of course, in this fantasy of mine staff housing would be provided and someone would be in charge of my son’s experience.

Late one rainy afternoon, just as dusk was settling, Cole called home all the way from Down Under amazed that he had cell service because, he said, he was in the middle of nowhere trying to hitch a ride.  I could hear the echo of his heavy footsteps along the road.  Feeling the great distance between us with a heavy heart,  I begged him to please stop hitching, telling him  I’d lend him money to cover the bus fare.  He told me again that EVERYONE hitch hikes there.  It wasn’t like at home, he said.  There just weren’t buses.  He was chatty, which was unusual because despite his talkative nature in person, like so many guys, he just isn’t a phone talker, so I felt he was lonely for me, or family, or just company the way I was that dreary day.  I could hear the wind in his cell phone as he told me about the ridiculous distance he was trying to cover in an attempt to get to a job interview at a resort miles and miles and miles away.  I don’t know if it was dark where he was, but I imagined a gray sky as he asked, in a voice rising above the wind, how everyone was?  He started to tell me about the group of travelers he’d lived with and how New Zealanders eat pie, every type of pie; meat pie, fruit pie, vegetable pie, and right then we lost the connection.  Cole, I called into the phone, Cole… and I imagined him doing the same, Mom?  Mom?

I quickly called two friends to go for a therapeutic walk, but neither was home.  I called my husband and our daughter, Lily, but got both of their voicemail.  I tried hard to think of all the amazing things Cole had told me about New Zealand, how beautiful it was, how the people are as friendly as everyone has always said they were, how the place was full of Canadians like him traveling and boarding and eating pie.  I tried to imagine one of those pie eating, stupendously friendly people picking him up and fulfilling his need to chat.  But all I could think of, of course, was Cole standing on the highway having lost the connection to home.

That made me think of the time we lost him when he was just a little boy.  It had been a spring night, and not dreary at all, but rather clear and full of the promise of summer.  When I told six-year-old Cole that he could go meet his friends a few houses up the street on his bike, I was under the impression that it was far earlier then it actually was.

Suddenly the light coming into the house shifted from a reflection of dusk to nightfall, and I was alarmed to realize it was past eight and Cole hadn’t come in.  After shouting his name from the stoop and calling our neighbor’s homes, I became frantic screaming at my other three to help me, and then racing to the car and circling the nearest blocks, before phoning my sister and asking her if she thought I should call the police.

I dialed 911.  The operator wanted me to describe his clothing.  Panic was changing to hysteria and the 911 operator began to treat me like a woman on the edge.  She told me to stay in the house until the police arrived and in a strained voice I refused.  “I have to find my kid,” I said.  “I have to go find him.”   Rushing outside to meet the patrol cars I was shocked to see the street filled with people and cars and bicycles.  Without being asked the neighbors had organized a search.  People were knocking on doors, motorists and bicyclists were being sent to further points.  The description of a six-year-old blond boy in a jean jacket was being given to all who passed by.

The officers turned on their flashlights and sent me back into the house, “Look everywhere, places you’d think he’d never go, in every nook and cranny.”  The streets were ringing with Cole’s name.  I never stopped yelling it inside the house.

I don’t know what world he was in.  Why he was oblivious to all this? Obeying directions I took one more look in his room and found him, curled up tight, hidden under a pillow and a blanket, in a far, dark corner beneath his bed.  My insides stopped rattling, tears flowed down my cheeks, I reached for his sleeping body and tried to imagine how many people were now outside hunting for him.

Aside from deep gratitude I felt incredibly  embarrassed for several days, sticking close to home and assuming that despite people’s assurances otherwise, they really were all talking about that woman with four kids, and her husband always gone, and how she couldn’t even keep track of them.  Cole and I had a few important talks and more rules were laid down.

I vowed to keep better track of them, to pay more attention to what was going on around me.  I believe I  decided that for my own mental health what I needed to do was take them all into bed with me, eight-year old Zoë could bring her books and Hudson, just four then, could amuse us with his belly laugh giggles.  At two-years-old Lily’s favourite place was our bed anyway. The important idea was to keep my kids close for as long as I possibly could.  Their dad could bring us food and drink, like a protective bird bringing food to the nest.  So how did it happen, not so much later that I was in Calgary, same house, newer bed, and my second kid, the one who had caused me to want to keep them within hands reach, had left the bed, room, house, city, country and gone all the way down under to call me and lose our connection from a stretch of highway in New Zealand?  Where, oh where, did that put him on my worry meter?

Parenting via Email or Swear Not By the Moon

When my sixteen year-old-daughter, Lily, was away for five months in Rome, living with a host madre, padre,and sorella (sister), I – her real mom, was forced to learn parenting via email.  Not an easy task.  It was an exercise in long distance mothering without smothering.  In the beginning our emails went something like this:

Feb. 1st: Rules

Come on, Lily. I know you’ll have no problems going along with their rules – remember Rome is a big city, with way more foreigners in it than Calgary.  (You can’t trust those pesky foreigners).

I loved hearing your impressions of Italy when you called – the shutters, the vespas, the big ancient door key.  Have you had real Italian gelato yet?

My friends are taking me out for lunch and I think the reason is ‘since I must miss you’.  Which of course, I do, but I will be just fine about it.  You are on a great adventure.  Catch up on your sleep.

Love, Mom

And in turn there were days when Lily wrote me emails like this:

Feb. 5  subject: wanted to hide away

Mom, I can feel myself getting terribly sad just thinking of how to write this email.  I’ll try not to elaborate too much – this morning my host mom took me to my school to give them some documents and I had to try to speak Italian with a couple of my new teachers. By the time we got back to this home I was feeling so homesick for my real home because it’s so scary having to pretty much start my life all over like this.

By this afternoon I was wishing that I could just hide away until this starts being fun, but obviously it doesn’t work like that.

Love, Lily

As time passed the tone of the almost daily emails were hard to predict and responses challenged my  creativity:

March 1st subject: so uncomfortable

Mama – tonight my host mother asked me how things are going with Julia, my host sister. Talk about a touchy subject. Though she doesn’t talk too much, I don’t think there’s a huge problem between Julia and I. But she really doesn’t want to go out with me and discover Rome.  We are sweet to each other in passing (how was your day – fine. Good night – sweet dreams. Could you grab me an umbrella – sure.) But honestly she just wants to stay home or hang at her friends.  What am I supposed to do about that?

Your bambina, Lily


March 1st subject: mothers hey?

Lily, I guess I see your point.  But I also know you are mature enough to see that sometimes politeness will need to come before independence, so that you do not seem to snub them by setting off on your own continually.

It’s March! You’ve been a Canadian in Italy for more than a month.  You can figure out the right amount of time to ‘hang’ with Julia.  I know you can.

Xoxo Mom

My favorites were the ones that gave me a giggle and rolled along like this:

April 5:  Subject: Just Clumping Around

Mom, I’m so tired of seeing American girls walking around this city in these beautifully put together outfits when I’m just clumping my way around with my messy hair and dirty shoes and lumpy hoodie, looking for that clean creative look every girl but me has. Then sometimes I just stop dead in my tracks and wonder if it even matters, if I’d be happier just to go home and climb in bed and fill my already cluttered head with more teachings of Nietzsche.

Love, Lily

April 3 subject: what of Italian boys

Why don’t you get Julia to recommend a salon and let them trim your hair so that it is even and blunt – that was one of the best cuts you ever had – you know like in the photo with Santa I keep on my dresser.  Now that you aren’t nine – it would look dramatic on you.

Be brave.  Comb your hair.  Throw your shoulders back and go right up to that boy you like and ask him a question.  Try out your Italian.  See if he answers.

love you, Mom

And I tended to dread the ones near the end that made my palms sweat:

June 13th Subject : I need to vent

Mom, I miss you being my mom sooooooo much. It is so difficult with my host mom sometimes.  Okay, so there was this stupid immersion program get together in the basement of a community hall – the idea was for myself, and the other four girls who were placed in Rome, to talk about our impressions of the program in front of this big group of Roman kids who are about to do immersion programs all over the world.

So we all said something and then they called everyone’s host family’s up and asked the families if they had anything to say. My host mom told everyone- all these Italian kids, all their parents, all the other host families, and all the volunteers, about how it was so hard for her and Julia to get used to having me in the house because Julia had just got back from her immersion in Brazil.  She made it sound like I was homesick and distraught all the time, but with the help of the wonderful volunteers they managed to overcome all that inconvenience I caused. I was just standing there in awe rubbing my forehead as she went on and on and on, making everyone think I was some kind of disaster, using me as a precautionary tale to all the embarking young students. After all that, when we were leaving she told me she thinks I might have I gotten fatter in the time I’ve been here.

Well, I’ll be gone soon. Lily

June 13th subject: oh Lily baby

If ever there were a time to stay calm and try your hardest to get along – this would be it.

You’ll be back here so soon. I have to think that you are with good people there, but five months has been a long time for all of you, especially with the language barrier.  Just a few more weeks and hopefully you can leave with fond memories, and you’ll have succeeded at what so many kids your age would never attempt.

Love you Sweetie Pie, Mom

ps. Honey – who knows what was really going on?

Until finally we arrived at this:

June 24 Subject: stiff upper lip

Dear Lily,

It is one of those Junes where it rains every day – so it’s green and lush like spring, not hot summer.  I’m dusting and vacuuming your room and washing your sheets and there is an air here of anticipation of your return.  Love you so much my Lily.  Love you to the moon.  Mom

June 24 subject: not the moon

No, swear not by the moon!  The inconstant moon that monthly changes with it’s circular orb!

Hung out with friends last night, but tonight I need to be alone. I’m going to go watch the sunset by piazza venezia. I have enough things to do now because I’m doing my last times.

Tonight will be my last night in Rome.  I’m realizing a lot of truths about my time here. I want to be mad at Rome because being mad at it is emotionally easier than being heartbroken to leave it, which in all actuality, I am.

After dinner I’ll walk around Trastevere and go up to GIanicolo to look over the city. It’s better to say goodbye to all of it at once.

Ciao, Mama, Lily

A Place to Cry Outloud

Having our daughter Lily leave, at the age of sixteen, to live with an unknown family in Italy, as part of a foreign language immersion program was one of the biggest nest-departing challenges I’ve faced.  Lily had never minded checking in with me and sharing what was going on.  What I found hard to set boundries around was that when she told me details other kids would never divulge. I had a hard time not opening my mouth and attempting to guide her through her often impulsive, sovereign exploits.

Almost all of her contacts with home during her Italian Immersion program were through email.  What she discovered about her peers in Calgary at that age was that out of sight was almost out of mind.  As a result of that, I’d like to say I was treated to an almost daily email, but they were definitely not always a treat. At just barely sixteen, in such a unfamiliar situation, Lily needed guidance from me and her dad.  My headstrong daughter didn’t always agree.  Parenting loses a lot of its punch when you are a continent away from your child.  When you say, “hang out with your host instead of that stranger you met on the bridge,” and your honest daughter tells you she isn’t going to comply with your rules, it is hard to enforce consequences.

So we bickered via email, I was forced to make great strides in the art of the consoling email, and we gave each other a sense of the life we were separated from, zapping our words across countries and oceans.  Lily did tell me that she found a place to go to cry out loud – her preferred style of crying- and during those months she had reason to go there.  Her older sister, Zoë, and I had a friendly wager about whether or not our sensitive, finicky Lily would last the full five months without sobbing that we had to bring her home.  It was hard to determine the odds.