Helicoptering and Bubble Wrapping

There has been so much criticism for my generation’s parenting skills – for our hovering and our helicoptering and bubble wrapping our kids. Certainly I have done enough of that.  But somehow my four kids have managed to zigzag through the helicopter blades and pop the bubbles in the wrap with a loud smack.

I thought about my hovering while trying to sleep on my youngest daughter’s couch in Montreal, listening to the chaotic street sounds outside of the stifling hot apartment we’d rented for her first year of university.  When friends had asked how long I intended to stay with Lily to get her set up I squelched the numbers a bit –a little over a week, I’d say, rather then the truth – twelve days.

Lily’s brother, Hudson, had accompanied us to Montreal on our red eye flight from home. After trying to get back his lost sleep in the rental car in the Ikea parking lot, while I was studying other mother/daughter sets shopping together, and Lily was studying the Swedish twenty-nine dollar desks and twelve dollar lamps, he uncomplainingly helped load the goods up two flights of stairs to her tiny apartment and put the Aspvik and the Leirvik together with only two cold showers to stop his Alberta blood from boiling in the late August Quebec heat.   Having passed up the Ikea mattresses out in the suburbs, mattresses now eluded us in downtown Montreal, and while our search continued we slept on pumped up camping mattresses from Canadian Tire.

On the third day after we had arrived my husband, Will, flew in for the September long weekend, promising to whisk me away from my restless sleep near the floor in the stifling apartment to an air-conditioned hotel room.  Will and I wanted to explore the French-ness of Montreal, kick back and enjoy a tête-à-tête and some joie de vivre over aperitifs on the café patios of Rue Crescent, giving Lily an to opportunity to rendezvous on St. Dennis with its je ne sais quoi appeal, while she had her frère, Hudson, to watch out for her.

While Will and I sipped our icy drinks during what was supposed to be a pleasant, if slightly  melancholy soiree, in our carefully chosen Rue Crescent café, he said that he didn’t know if he could do it, he wasn’t sure he could actually leave Lily in Montreal. “I know she lived without us in Rome at sixteen,” he said, his cowboy boot drumming nervously against the patio floor, “but she still had that host family keeping track of her.”

That comment was the coup de grace to our joie de vivre.  We returned to the sanctuary of our cool hotel room away from the mounting noises of the crowded street.  Lily and Hudson phoned us as we entered the lobby, wandering if they could come up for a late movie and to raid the mini-bar.  Will, so relieved to have them there with us, especially his eighteen-year-old baby, who cuddled with him, and called him Daddy when she asked if he could order them up a pepperoni pizza, let them find a space on our crowded bed and choose the flick.

During those few days together we drove to Montreal’s Little Italy where Lily stocked up on olive oil and bought a basil plant. We ate more pepperoni pizza in the Latin quarter and toured most of Old Montreal by attempting to find parking there.

Lily proclaimed that she loved Montreal.  Word, Hudson said in agreement, using one of the kid’s expressions from an era before my time that I am fond of – word, I told them. While Lily’s huge adventure and lifestyle change was to start university in Montreal, Hudson’s upcoming adventure was an immediate plan to move from our home in Calgary to Vancouver, where he’d share a house with his band members.  He and I were leaning against the rental car in another no-parking zone, while Lily and Will went up to the apartment to take measurements for a piece of wood to hold the slide-up window locked on the inside from bad guys on the fire escape, when Hudson got the call he’d been waiting for. His crew had found a place.  It was far from the action of downtown Vancouver and was going to cost more then they hoped (and likely more than they would discover they could afford), but despite that he was elated.  That sounds great, I said.  Wow.

Wow, indeed.  Screw all that talk of hovering and helicopter-ing and bubble wrap.  My kids were leaving me.  Soon, for the first time since the summer of 1984 it would just be Will and I at home.  French women link arms when they walk in the streets of Montreal.  I wondered if Lily would mind if I carried her?

(Final few installments of Text Me, Love Mom coming soon.)

Grandma’s don’t use the f-bomb – searching for the illusive portable crib

Okay, first off – I’m all about the ‘family bed‘.  I loved, loved, loved waking up in the morning with a teeny baby stretching their soft bare feet into my stomach.  And for years we had kids in our bed in the wee hours – because they had wet theirs or got scared in the night.

Now our sweet grand-baby is coming for a weeks visit, and despite my comfort with family bed it has been me that has been encouraging my daughter to try – just try- to get our nine month old granddaughter  to  spend at least some part of the night sleeping in her own little crib.  I didn’t mind my babies in my bed, but at some point in the early evening I put them to sleep in their own cribs and had some hours to myself – well, not always to myself, but with two, then three, then four kids I had some time when I wasn’t taking care of the needs of the tiniest.  My daughter has decided she would like that, as well.  Her and the baby’s daddy have spent the better part of two weeks with that goal in mind – they’ve been frustrated, they’ve been exhausted, they’ve been pleased – as they struggle through this stage that I promise her almost daily will pass so quickly that they will forget what it was like to not have a few blessed hours in the evenings to themselves again.  Which brings me to the search for the illusive, mysterious, just out-of- reach portable crib.

I’ve got four kids and one granddaughter.  I’m a grandma (one of those young-ish, hip grandma’s as I’ve pointed out before).  Grandma’s house should have a crib in it.  My mom’s did for almost a two decades of grandchildren – my grandmother’s had one forever – until she went into a nursing home at age ninety-four.  We’ve recently renovated making bigger spare bedrooms and replaced all the kids’ (now adults living away) single beds with brand new queens – and have NO room for a full size crib.  What to do?  Buy a portable crib – a mini crib – a apartment size crib.  Simple item to find in a city of  a million people and how many grandma’s?  I started off at Ikea.  The Swedes wouldn’t let me down, would they?  You bet they would.

From there I rolled into several large baby needs supply stores.  “I’m looking for your apartment size cribs,” I said, adding that I was the grandma, in case they thought I was one of those fifty year old moms you read about in the papers.  I was met with a whole lot of blank stares and then usually the suggestion of a play pen.  I don’t want sweet baby in the bottom of a playpen all night with their rigid folding pads.  I’m trying to replicate what I’ve encouraged my daughter to do for ten exhausting nights – so she can have some fun with us in the evenings (we’re fun) and not go backwards with baby sleeping with mommy from bedtime to sunup.

I went on-line.  Wow – everyone sells them on-line – Costco and Wal-Mart and Sears, so the next day I rolled out to those stores to learn they don’t stock any such item in Canadian stores.  What’s with that?  Is it something about the great white north having more space – grandparents that spent a stupid amount of money renovating up here in the Colonies would have thought about the extra 70 cm. by 130 cm. (28 by 52 inches)  needed for a crib?  Do they think we have big hulking babies here in the North who need big cribs only?  Granddaughter is lean with delicate fine features.

Finally a saleswomen in a second hand baby store went above and beyond, and told me, given a few minutes on her computer, she would indeed find the illusive portable crib.  And to my dazed amazement she did – through, of course, a company that supplies to local daycares.  Perfect.  Grand-baby can sleep in the sweetest little crib, on wheels that slide through a bedroom door AND it folds up – if she is here in six to eight weeks.   Darn.  (Grandma’s don’t use language stronger than darn – never the f-bomb in absolute frustration over how difficult the search has become.)  Okay, stay calm.  Short term solution –  I would rent.  I quickly discovered three companies run by lovely women that rent out baby equipment only – mostly to grandma’s suppressing the f-bomb after trying to buy the darling little portable crib.

First company is fresh out of cribs – portable and full size.  Second and third company turn out to be one and the same (?).  On-line I learn that from this company I can pick up the perfect folding bright and shiny crib at the airport for $35 extra, or have it delivered to my house for $40 above the rental cost of $82 which is similar to that of buying a very inexpensive full size crib (that doesn’t fit.)  Or I can choose to save the $40 and pick it up from the home office of the company, which is what I opt for in my effort to not spend as much as I have already spent on ordering the crib from the on-line catalog that will arrive after baby goes home.   No where on-line does it tell me that the rental company is located forty minutes outside the opposite end of the city.  Ah well, if was a lovely country drive with a good friend.

My daughter and our grand-baby arrive this evening.  The clean, fresh portable crib will be all set up with just-laundered bedding and a little stuffed lamb tucked inside.  The lamb will likely sleep alone as my soft-hearted well intentioned daughter will decide baby’s routine has been interrupted too much already and she can sit up with us and then go to sleep wrapped up in mommy’s arms in the big queen bed.

Mr. Tambourine Man

Why was I always surprised by what it was like being the mother of this boy, Hudson – this almost man?  I was driving him home from his second year at university.  The term was finally over and I knew it had its up and downs, and that Hudson’s attention and focus had sometimes ebbed.  But I saw first hand when I arrived to help him pack, that amongst his clothes, CDs and school texts, there were stacks of philosophy books, not required course material but books he’d picked up second-hand for pleasure reading because despite all resistance otherwise, he will always be a philosophical and reflective thinker who enjoys titles like Our Inner Ape, The Essence of Sufism, or On Being Free.

I was there staying with the relatives he boarded with during those last days and saw that he studied hard for his final two exams between the pull to visit a pub to say goodbye to friends he described as good guys, guys that he would miss.  He was more mysterious about the girl he needed to see one more time.

Hudson had said he was looking forward to our road trip home.  He even joked about it being a time to bond.  Yet the mood was sober when we set out. He’d written his last exam that morning and I heard relieve and satisfaction in his voice immediately after, as he embraced the relatives he’d lived with, and together we left to meet one of his friends from high school and her young husband for a goodbye lunch. At age nineteen and twenty-three respectively, they were expecting a baby in a month, and were both excited and scared about the unplanned path their lives were about to take.  Hugging his high school friend goodbye, her belly and the baby inside pressed against his own stomach, might have put the final touch of melancholy onto the mood he was in as we headed for the ferry.

We boarded a vessel two hours after reaching the terminal and consciously or not, spend most of the voyage apart, reading and watching the ocean waves on opposite ends of the ship.  We spend that night in Vancouver with Hudson’s big sister, Zoë, and her boyfriend, in a house full of boxes and spilled belongings, because they were also packing up and switching residences as they were both starting Masters programs in the fall.   They were thrilled to be making changes, but on that night they were weary and conversation was soft and slow in the dim, cluttered house.  Hudson and I left Vancouver for Calgary the next morning, under a steady spring rain and a dull sky. Driving through the dampness along the long, straight highway to Hope, listening to my son’s choice of music, I actually wondered if his mood had changed so much so that he had given up the idea of enjoying the trip.  A song came on that I particularly liked, Bowl of Oranges, “I like your music more these days,” I ventured.  “I liked what you were playing yesterday at the ferry terminal, too.”

Sounding exasperated, and only slightly amused at my musical ignorance, he told me, “That was the same song, Mom. It’s by Bright Eyes.  You always say you like Bright Eyes.”  We gassed up the Durango and wound our way to a coffee shop in Hope.  He ordered a yogurt, spinach salad and a water, while I justified my sugar and caffeinated choices of a brownie and cappuccino, as necessary for the road.

It was exiting from Hope where I took the wrong highway.  I realized it in time to go back and still could have made better time by returning to the road leading to the Coquihalla Pass over the mountains.  The wide, four lane surface would have taken us over the mountains in far less time.  So what made me stay on the longer, winding two lane highway that curled through the towns of Spuzzum, Boston Bar, and Spences Bridge?  My tired son wasn’t aware of my mistake and I took my time before I told him what I’d accidentally done.  He didn’t react except to ask if I wanted to listen to a Bob Dylan documentary on the car’s DVD player.  Sure, I said.  Hudson had discovered Bob Dylan in his first semester of university. He had been away from home for the first time, experiencing residence life which he disliked, and his first west coast dark and rainy winter.

I must have discovered Bob Dylan spiritually for the first time in my youth, too. Via cell phone conversations our absent son had turned his sixteen-year-old sister Lily, who was of course, at home with us, onto Bob Dylan at the same time he made his discovery, and she had been downloading and buying all his works so that our house had recently filled up with – “ if I don’t get the girl I’m loving I won’t go down Highway fifty-one no more”.  Lily set her CD alarm clock to wake her to Spanish Harlem Incident.  After school it was House of the Risin’ Sun,  It Ain’t Me Babe, and Like A Rolling Stone, and after she fell asleep at night I crept into her room to turn his crooning off.

A dappled sunlight broke through the clouds and the car crested the mountain top.  I saw a small sign beside the road that said, ‘Jackass Mountain summit.’  Hudson was singing along with Dylan. My kids don’t mind telling me that I can’t sing, but this time there was no comment when I joined him, “Look out the saints are comin’ through  And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” The commentary continued, reviewers talking again about how Dylan resisted being pigeon holed, he didn’t like his songs to be considered protest songs.  Listening, I noticed as we sped down the road, how even that high up in the mountains the trees were in spring bud.

“Hey Hud, isn’t it something,” I said, thinking back to the night before listening to Zoë talk about applying for a teaching position while she did her Masters, “ Can you imagine walking into university class and having someone as young as Zoë for your teacher?”

“Yeah, I can.  I’ve always thought of Zoë as older.  She’s my big sister.”

It wasn’t the response I’d anticipated.  I’d hope to lead into a discussion about teaching being an option for Hudson.  He always saw through me, and blocked my thinly veiled suggestions as if he was still playing defense on his high school football team. “Look Mom, I can’t think about going back to school.  I know I’m not doing it this September.”  He was clearly a frustrated philosopher and I felt I ruined whatever easy mood the music had brought us toward.

We stopped to stretch, and buy chips, water, and a pack of gum at a gas station in Spences Bridge. As we were walking out Hudson nudged me,  “Weird, eh?  Listen.”  The gas station attendants were an old man and a teenage girl, and somewhere under the desk they had a radio on playing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall.  We stepped outside with an easiness between us again, talking about feeling goose bumps and what Dylan might think of the  synchronistic occurrence.

Leaving town one of my favourite songs was being sung now on the DVD, or maybe just the one most imbedded in my memory.  I sung out loud, though some of the words were guessed at or murmured.   The road ahead of us looked like it was heading off the globe, the pavement met the horizon, and it seemed the car could lift off there and glide into the blue sky.  “Isn’t it inspiring?” I asked over Dylan’s voice crooning, “I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade  Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it. Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
. I was worried about Hudson who wasn’t responding to my comment, unaware that he was  considering the surrounding steel, gray cliffs and deep valleys and a wide river way below us before he said, “Yeah Mom, it is beautiful, isn’t it?”

Oh Baby, I Can’t Get Enough

You know how people say, the best part of being a grandparent is that when they cry you can hand them back.  I poo-poo that.  (Well, I might hand her back when the poo-poo happens.)  But the best part of being my granddaughter’s grandma is I never want to hand her back.  I can’t get enough of little baby ‘Tessa’.*

I want to hold her little squirming body, and squeeze her plump cheeks, and pat her tiny back, and make squirty sounds against her belly, and stroke her silky hair, and have her teeny fingers squeeze mine, and smooch that hidden skin under her wobbly neck, and butterfly kiss her round face, and when she cries hold her whole little self firm and shush, shush, shush against her forehead, rocking her tired, or frustrated little being until I can be still with her, watching her breath  softly in my arms until she  sighs  and falls asleep…

Oh, baby  –  I don’t want to hand her back at all.

*  grand-baby’s name has been changed to protect the very, completely, oh so innocent.

So On the Level

“Can you believe I’m doing this and I’m only sixteen?, my daughter, Lily, asked as she helped haul her two giant suitcases out of the trunk at the airport.  She didn’t realize how seriously I was trying to understand why the hell I did go along with this proposal from its inception.  Lily was organized, motivated, and I think, fairly sensible.  She was a kid who, simply put – got things done.  But whole books have been written about that other side of her personality.  By definition she is what you call, a sensitive person.  Sensitive to other people’s moods, to the clothes she wears, the food she eats, and especially to the shades of light in a room.  How could I agree to such an undertaking for her, as five months in the home of stranger’s in a foreign culture –  as part of a language immersion program, and why, oh why would she seek that out?  The most reassuring theory is one that I read years ago when I first began to worry about her adaptability.  The theory was that these kids (sensitive kids) are, in fact, the ones that grow up and seek out adventure and unheard of challenges, because they feel they have been challenged and forced to adapt all their lives.   If you didn’t know someone like Lily (and you probably do), you might say she was just fussy.  It is different than that.  It seems to me that while so many people are willing to just go along, people like Lily strive to seek out the best circumstances for themselves, though it can be distressing when she feels her disappointment in failing to do that so deeply.

Lily has learned that ordering chicken quesadillas in a restaurant almost always works out for her – of course, she checks to make sure the onions are green, not white and has explained to me that that the biggest issue is the chicken – “it has to be the kind of chicken that rips in strips, not that weird white chicken that can be cut into neat little cubes.  Anyone would agree that stuff is gross.”   (Really, she had a point with the square chicken bits.)  If the onions are white and the chicken is square she switches to a pepperoni pizza, though she prefers the pepperoni on top of the cheese, please.

This daughter, who went out of her way to seek out well-lit interiors and spoke some French, but very little Italian, and worried too much about who liked her, this daughter had decided to immerse herself in a far away land on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, surrounded by strangers who would speak a foreign tongue and who may or may not like her, and who would likely abide in shadowy, ancient homes.    Still, she spent a season  walking home from school, hugging the last rays of sun on short winter afternoons listening to Italian CD’s.  She had experimented with different pastas, and had agreed to try inner crying, rather than sobbing aloud when circumstances defeated her, and had said she couldn’t wait to see what everyday life in Rome had in store for her.

And hey, it’s true, she has cried in public places, but joy overcomes her too, and she’s been known to merrily skip in public, or burst into song, or make candid observations to others – complementary, but surprising all the same.  “Try not to be a weirdo,” I said as we headed for the airport check-in counter.  “Don’t worry, Mom”, she replied, understanding perfectly what I meant.  “I will be so on the level.”  She made a broad gesture with her hand, slicing straight and even through the air and raised her voice so that other traveler’s eyes were on us.  “So on the level.”

What the Little Brat Was Talking About

The sweet young women handling the interview for the Cultural Immersion organization asked our not-quite sixteen-year-old daughter, Lily, what sort of rules we have in our household.  This woman sitting in our living room with my husband, Lily and I, was here as part of the in-depth study of the prospective applicant, trying to determine if Lily had what it took to live with a host family abroad, immersed in a new language and culture for five months.

Back during the crazy hey-day of Lily’s older sister’s high school musical theatre involvement, when our home first became the place to congregate on a Friday or Saturday night (maybe Thursday and Sunday, too) there had been a time close to the opening night of Joseph and the Amazing Techno-Colored Dream Coat when I had felt the other kids were taking advantage of the largess of my willing to host them.  Better put, our place was turning into party central. One morning I woke up to evidence of underage drinking, along with the sight of two kids, one a girl with an extremely strict mother and the other a guy, who had crashed for the night in the same bed, albeit fully clothed.  Rules for our house were immediately posted on the basement door for the duration of the play.  Of all the rules that currently governed our home ie. inform me before you borrow my car, phone when you’re out super late,  we eat pizza on Friday ….Lily decided to reach back a few years, to one I’d posted on that basement door during the musical and tell the nice lady, “I can’t think of any. ..  Oh, I know a rule we have.  Boys and girls that aren’t related aren’t allowed to sleep together.”

After the crimson left our faces and we stuttered out some explanation for what the little brat was talking about, the interviewer indicated that it was a wrap.  The interview process was a safe guard against families that were really wacked out, she said, and ours was,  of course, fine.

“Hang on,” I wanted to shout, “this kid is too young, fussy, protected, small…” whatever they wanted to hear to stop the whole ridiculous plot.

Prego. They found Lily to be a well-rounded candidate and decided she could go to a little Italian village (little sounding safe).  Lily begged them to let her go to a city, urban girl that she was, and they complied, congratulating her on her being accepted to spend five months in Rome in an Italian language and cultural immersion program.   For five whole months she was to live in one of the loveliest areas, of the loveliest cities in the world – Trastevere –one of the last pockets of medieval Rome, in the home of a family who we had only exchanged a few brief emails with, people referred to by the organization involved as her host mom and dad.  Will and I had been replaced.

The Last Ungainly Swing Dance

When , Lily, the baby of our family, asked if she might take part in a foreign immersion program in grade eleven, my heart stopped beating.  If the youngest of our four kids left at only 16 years old – her Dad and I would be sitting smack in the middle of a shockingly empty nest.  Our friends and family couldn’t shut up about the EMPTY NEST prospect, constantly reminding us that it loomed around the corner.  What was with that?  Were they all watching to see how we would replace the noise, and chaos, comings and goings, organizing and meal planning, and endless discussing that goes on when you have kids at home?  Were they waiting to see how we would manage when too many of our evenings and weekends became unfathomably quiet.  Their curiosity was well founded.  I pondered that uncertain future along with them.

After two decades of kids, kids, kids swarming around us – what the hec would we do?  I might have suggested we take up ballroom dancing – seeing as we are so often hanging out in ballrooms, but I had already played that card.  Apparently, around ten years into a marriage it was what wives got husbands to do.  It felt like such a coup when Will agreed.  His not wanting to do it previously, didn’t translate into him not being able to do it. Will fox trotted and two stepped, and cha cha cha –ed across the gym floor with the rhythm and musical ease he was born with, sometimes with the wiry male instructor, after he’d given up on clumsy, impossible to teach, tone deaf me.  I sympathized with our kids who always had to beg me to let them quit any activity –  music lessons, karate, choir, baseball – whatever.  Will made me stick out that ballroom gig right up to the last ungainly swing dance.

One of Will’s younger work colleagues suggested we get a puppy.  Her parents had fostered puppies when she and her siblings all left home.  She couldn’t know that Will and I are considered by some of our nearest and dearest to be anti-pet.  These friends have been known to get all misty-eyed and accusatory and say, well, I know you hate my dog.  Hate is a strong word, and hey, if I lived in the country I might even acquire a dog to protect me from all the things in the country that make a doggie bark at night.  Most of my reluctance to the city dog, has to do with the poo (and maybe the hair on the couch, slobber on my leg, and kibbles everywhere.)  So no ballroom dancing or puppies to fill the emptiness we might feel sans kids at home.

The year I turned forty-eight, I took lessons in both knitting and outdoor in-line skating.  In-line skating was okay, but I’ve yet to find an in-line skating partner. Knitting passes the time on planes and long drives.  That same year Will bought his dream machine – a midnight blue sports car.  Will confessed that while he was aware that young people did knit, watching me knit made him feel old.  He failed to understand that driving in the low slung car made me feel old, too.  I had to concentrate to gracefully get in and out of it, but also, I tried to explain to my oh-so proud husband, that when we drive down the street, radar detector on, seventies music blasting, I am on to the meaning of that visual double-take pedestrians give us.  It says – was that an old guy, who can finally afford a cool sports car, playing old guy Led Zeplin tunes, and if  it was, I don’t have to be envious because I’m not old yet (glance again) yes, it was, old indeed, oh and look, his wife is knitting. So I suppose we will be diverted from our emptynest-ness by planning two-seater driving trips to places old people go – Waterton Park, Yellowstone Park, and Mount Rushmore, while I knit loose lope-sided teeny sweaters for Zoë’s friend’s new babies.

My approach to Lily’s request to do the immersion program had been completely hands off, not wanting the blame in any way should she call from a far away place to say she was so, so sad and lonely.  Maybe the whole foreign immersion idea would fade away, as teenage ideas often do, before being replaced with the next half-baked scheme.  But Lily was a take charge kinda girl and had the whole application process rolling neatly along on her own, right up to the day we received a phone call to say that the Cultural Immersion people needed to send a staff person to our home to interview Lily, Will, and I as part of the in-depth study of the prospective applicant.   My brain whirled – could this be our out?  Could the wrong answers spare Will and I the possibility of more badly chosen classes or fostered pets and keep little Lily home with us?   Tune in to Thursday’s post to find out….

Assignment Mom


The flight of our eldest three children from the nest left Lily, the baby of our family,  holding together the mother lode of mother.  She’s was a good kid – quite mature for only almost sixteen.  But then she had the luxury of being witness to half a decade of adolescent angst, first loves, soul crushing rejections, minor criminal activity and mood swings in our lively home.  As a result, at sixteen she was a fairly responsible girl.  Her siblings recognized that, and in their absence they handed her a hefty assignment:  take time out from hang’n with your friends, and allow mommy to mommy-you.  It might keep a check on her email-stalking.  (I hadn’t discovered texting yet.)

Lily would call at the end of a chilly school day and ask me for a lift home.  My deal always was that I would help them get to school – I was at home with a car in a household struck with early morning tardiness – but they had to find their way home from classes on their own.  When Lily called for a ride I’d perform the obligatory hemming and hawing, especially if she’d caught me half way across the city, and then I’d easily give in.  Or after she’d headed downtown with friends to hunt for the newest must-have alternative rock CD, or to peruse the vintage clothing shops, she would phone and ask if I was hungry.  Did I want her to grab us a table at that Latin place on Fourth Street we like, or maybe the coffee shop on Thirty-third with the nachos and good lattés, so that she could tell me how her day went?

There was a time back when three or four of them were still living at home, when I would have been too busy racing between after school activities to indulge one of them with a slow meal in a nice setting.  I suppose no one was inviting me to do that back then either, though.  No one was on Assignment Mom.

I’ve been known to direct the rest of the family to be cautious of how we treat the baby of our clan, “Don’t pamper her.  You’re not doing her any favours,” I’d say.  But the tables had turned on me.  One afternoon Lily overheard me joking with a good friend, none of whose kids had flown the coop yet.  “This is what I suspect happened,” I conjured, “when Lily’s siblings made their whirlwind visits home at Thanksgiving, they took their baby sister aside, and to keep the swarms of my emails to the away kids at bay, they’d whispered to her, “Do us a favour, Lily.  Indulge Mom once in a while.  Let her buy you lunch.  Tell her all your troubles.   Pamper her.  Really, it’s good for her – and us.”  In response to my friend’s laughter Lily stuck her head into the kitchen and categorically told me that our mid-week dates were always her idea, and that nobody had to make her hang out with her mom.

And in fact, those dates on Fourth St. or Thirty-third with my dramatic youngest detailing her day, while we sipped virgin Margaritas or steaming lattes, were occasions I wouldn’t have forsaken for all the world.  The truth was that Assignment Mom, voluntary or not, worked for both of us.

A Cacophony of Communication

At eighteen I embarked on a three month backpacking trip around Europe.  I made the brief echo-y phone call to my parents upon my arrival in France, to indicate that I had not disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean.  There were letters and postcard but no other spoken words for those ninety days. Perhaps those were the golden days of parent/child relationships and we’ve fallen back into a cacophony of communication.

Neither of my boys are overly communicative, still I like to think that they are within the normal range of same-age males when it comes to co-operating with their mother’s need for information and dialogue.  At age nineteen when Cole set off on his own trekking trip through parts of the United States, I would have lost less sleep and kept my blond hair blond, rather then tipping to gray, if we could have magically returned to those pre-cell days of my youth.

After a successful but uninspired term at university, Cole had taken another gap, that worrisome break in continuity. The afternoon he left for the U.S of A, his fourteen-year-old sister, Lily, and I were sitting outside in the warm autumn sun, commiserating on how great it seemed to be Cole just then.  He had just finished packing up his friend’s Chevy van.  His traveling companion, George, advised him to empty his suitcase’s contents into the drawers in his organized van, and leave the luggage behind.  The two boys posed while Lilly took photos of their departure, then they shooed her off and turned the van south towards the United States – the land they thought they knew through a thousand movies and every episode of The Simpsons.  They would take the number two south, entering the U.S at the Butes, Montana crossing and wind their way to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Cole wanted to purchase a real tight video camera.

Cole called on Halloween night, music blasting in the background.  He was getting sweet video footage on his new camera of a huge parade, though he confessed that earlier they had slipped down the wrong road in that unfamiliar city and things had looked sketchy.  I warned him to be careful about whose face he stuck that camera in.  And please do nothing sketchy, I didn’t want to hear about sketchy.

Hudson, only seventeen, but away at university, was even less inclined to ever call just to chat, but on that night he called to ask if we would be okay with him dropping two full term classes as he really didn’t like anything about them. Of course, we weren’t okay with it.  Also, he told us, his friend M from Calgary had moved out there unexpectedly, and the two of them were thinking of getting an apartment off campus.

On November first I received another call from Cole.  He told me that unfortunately things had got sketchy. George was not happy, wasn’t sleeping or feeling well, and just wanted to return home.  The boys, friends since forever, were trying to work out a solution. George agreed to drop Cole at whatever mountain destination he wanted to go to.

I was beginning to dread the phone calls.  Hudson called to ask me to send him his resume off our home computer as he was applying for a job, in case he dropped half his courses.  Replace the courses you don’t like with something you’re passionate about learning, I said.  I suspect my kids hate it when I start talking passion.

In the meantime George had dropped Cole off in Mammoth, California.   Cole loved it there – it reminded him of Whistler.  He’d met people from New Zealand and had gone skateboarding with some Americans.  And he said he met a nice Navajo guy who told him he got peyote for free because he was Navajo.  (These phone calls had me wondering just what kind of an out-of-body trip I might sink into with a little peyote myself.) And he met a woman on the street who said maybe he could live with her.  (What?)  He described her as old, and said he thought she was lonely.  I told him that seemed weird, and he should be suspicious.  He quoted me something about riding two horses at one time – you can’t ride Faith and Worry both – you have to ride Aware.  (Fine, I will ride Worry for him.)  He had been offered a job busing at a hotel restaurant and another job at a gym, as well as one at a skate shop, but all of them said he needed a visa.

Now I was making the phone calls.  Twenty-four hours later he had moved in with this older woman. Her house was pretty messy but they were cleaning it – he said it was his idea. (How messy, I asked?  Eccentric scary messy?) He said she had never discussed rent.  And she isn’t a cougar? Or pedophile? I asked.  No, he told me, I needed to chill out. She was just really, really nice.

The next day, jolted by early morning worries I called Cole to tell him he needed to tell me exactly where he was, what was this woman’s name?  He said her name was Annie and she lived near the Harry’s Donut Shop in Mammoth Lakes and drove a delivery truck.  Look Mom, I’m just trying to decide what to do here, he said. If he couldn’t get a job without a visa maybe he would go back to Whistler, in British Columbia, where he had heard there was already snow.

November seventh and Cole called to say he was in a car driven by a new buddy named Mosses (with Cole there is always a new buddy).  Cole had agreed to pay the gas to and from Whistler if Mosses would drive him there.  They were in a car which belonged to the sister of Cole’s Navajo friend.  He (the Navajo guy), not the sister, lent it to them.  They were close to Seattle.

An hour later – Cole called to say they had a problem – the police had stopped them – just to harass them he said, but they believed that when that happened Mosses put his wallet in his lap and then it fell out of the car six hundred miles back where they had stopped for gas.  Not having ID Mosses was now going to drop Cole at the border crossing closest to Vancouver.  Cole wanted his sister Zoë’s number to see if one of her friends in Vancouver could pick him up at the border (he had a lot of gear and his belongings in large plastic bags).

Another hour went by and Cole called to say they had reached the border but things weren’t good.  Mosses drove too far forward in his attempt to drop him off and had entered Canada accidentally.  Cole admitted to low balling the price of the video camera he bought in the States – just for a minute, he emphasized, before he saw they were going to be questioned thoroughly, but then both he and Mosses, the car and their bags, were being searched.  (Is this what I signed up for nineteen years ago?  To help my kid, looking like a bag person, lying (for only a minute, of course) get back into the country?)   Be polite and honest, I said.  Didn’t we tell you to be careful at the damn border?  They’re talking to me again, Mom.  Gotta go, Mom.  Gotta go.

An hour later Cole called again suggesting that maybe he better speak to dad.    They were trying to trip him up – they’d asked why he wasn’t with the person he drove into the States with (maybe George saw all of this coming). The horse shoe up Cole’s ass, as they say, and his people skills, were clearly not working for him.

I tried unsuccessfully to get Cole’s dad at work.  Cole informed me that his friend Brian’s dad, who lived in Vancouver, was driving to the border to pick him up. I was so, so grateful for Brian’s dad, whoever the hec he was, and glad Cole had the people skills he had, or this could have gotten far sketchier.

Another call from the other son – Hudson wanted to tell us he now had a job at a pizza place and that he wouldn’t be able to come home for reading break the following day as planned.  I assured him he could get another such job and told him that in case he decided he needed a break, I didn’t say – a break from  being seventeen-years-old and away for the first time, and overwhelmed by school work that should have been easy for you, and uncomfortable in residence –  in case he needed a break from all that, I wouldn’t cancel his plane ticket until the noon deadline the next day.

With all of the kids away but Lily, she got to be the target of my frustration.  In the time it took me to drive her to school while she ate her Cheerios and brushed her teeth in the car, (aiming I believe for yesterday’s spit spot out the window) I lectured her on how she would have no choice but to start university and finish it or not to bother going. As I let her out of the car, Hudson called to say the pizza place said he could start after reading break and yes, he would like to come home.  Cole called from Vancouver, where he had already been to the American Embassy to apply for a visa to work in Mammoth, California.  (Do they give visas to nineteen-year-olds when the job offer they want the visa for is in a skate shop?)

We picked Hudson up at 9:35 pm and talked about how he didn’t have to decide about what he would do in January just yet.  I cooked up a batch of sticky chicken wings for Lily and Hudson and he talked about his desire to maybe go to India or Tibet after he made some money in Calgary.  It had been a sketchy two weeks of connecting with the boys. Would it be easier if we weren’t linked by cell phones with updates on Californian cougars and borrowed cars entering the country illegally?  What sort of distressing phone call might I get from a kid in Tibet?

Frozen Toothpaste Spit

Mornings for our family of six were hugely chaotic when we were all younger.  I don’t miss the chaos, but rather all that energy.  My husband and I, and our daughter, Lily, developed a routine when the three older kids moved out.  Will left the house just before I had to haul Lily’s skinny butt out of bed, and Lily ate her cereal in the car while I drove her to school. After her Cheerio’s she brushed her teeth, and spat her toothpaste out the car window, ready (late) to do algebra with a fresh smile.

It was less organized when they were little kids, though there was a predictable rhythm to our chaos.  Will and I would lie in our warm bed, allowing the alarm to go into snooze mode.  “We’ve got to get up.  We’ve got to get up,” he always grumbled.   Motionless and on cue, there would be our little Hudson at the bedroom door.

“Is it a school day?” he would ask, wiping away the water rolling down his forehead from his saturated cow lick.  Back then Hudson was our morning child.   I would assure him that it was a school day, swinging on my bathrobe and plodding downstairs, without even splashing water over my squinched up face.  Cole would have hauled his quilt off the top bunk and hunkered down in front of the T.V.  I would go into automatic pilot – new day, same words.  “Cole TV off.  Clothes on, please.”  He’d roll off the couch and stagger into his room while I rushed off to  Zoë’s room.

“Come on, sweetie,” I’d urge, lifting the covers, and just as I would be about to give Zoë’s shoulders a gentle rocking, the veil of sleep would lift and she would get ready to join the din that was fast enveloping the house.  Cole, the son created in his father’s image, would be calling for me to find him socks, while his dad, who denies he’s ever made such a request, would be banging the dryer door and stomping about trying to locate the laundry basket.  My bladder would demand that I pay attention to it but there were not enough wheels rolling.  Everything had to be in motion before I could afford to pause.

Upstairs Hudson would already have a bowl of Cheerio’s.  My legs would circle like the Roadrunner’s as I located the socks for Will, who would be ready to make his exit, barefoot in his suit and tie.  (He’s not a breakfast eater or brown bagger.  Thank God.)  I’d lay Cole’s socks on the table and grab a cereal bowl just as Cole asked for a grapefruit.   My morning aerobic routine would move into full swing. Slice the grapefruit, spin and deliver.  Bend to the refrigerator for the ham and mustard. Long stretch to the top of the stairs, “Zoë, are you coming up?  You should be up here.”  Do the ham sandwich for Cole.  Count – one lunch down, two breakfasts, no kindergarten snack.  Zoë would come up, and I’d shove the Rice Krispees box in front of her.  With everyone in motion I’d race upstairs to use the bathroom, consider my disheveled state in the mirror for a split second, and run back down to the short order station to slap together a peanut butter and jam sandwich for Zoë’s lunch.

Ready before all of us, Hudson would suddenly be missing a school library book that he’d urgently tell me the teacher said he would have to pay for.  “What’s on the cover?” I’d ask and looking uncomfortably warm in his jacket, toque and mittens, waiting for the others at the door, he’d say, “A green pig maybe.”

“It’s under Lily’s bed,” Zoë would tell us.

“Don’t wake, Lily,” I’d warn Hudson, but of course he would and she would be down making some unreasonable demand on me, like a bit of food tossed her way for breakfast.

Hudson would request an apple for his kindergarten snack, instead of the orange I was about to pop into the pack he was already wearing on his back.  I’d take the stairs to the basement two at a time and find the apples were wrinkled, but would decide if I approached from the back I could get one into Hudson’s pack unseen, and throw in some cookies to compensate.

One of Cole’s friends often phoned to offer him a ride with his mother. Theirs was a two kid family – I’d attempt to hustle all of mine out together so they could stuff themselves into that neighbor’s compact car.  But then Cole would have lost a glove and someone else wouldn’t be able to locate her vinyl lunch bag, and on cue I’d say in an exasperated but determined voice, “I’ve had it.  This is crazy.  From now on you find all these things at night.”  Cole loved this particular pair of gloves so he would wear the one he had and put his other hand in his pocket.

“I hate taking paper.  It’s so wasteful.” Zoe would protest, long before paper became taboo.

“Bring it back and I promise to use it over and over and over again.”

By then Lily, would have joined our merry clan, asking for toast and jelly.  “Not now,” I’d tell her too abruptly, and she’d start to wail.

The neighbor would beep a friendly sort of ‘we’re here’ beep.  Zoë was usually last out, and always just about to pull her hat over a coiffure that looked like small animals had burrowed in it during the night, before I noticed and raced for the kitchen comb (once there were even kitchen toothpaste and toothbrushes in my endless attempts to do this better).  Keeping the door open with one foot and hoping I wasn’t exposing myself with my sloppy bathrobe, I’d tug the comb through her hair, one eye on the fully clothed and carefully groomed neighbor behind the wheel of the car she probably had time to heat up, before she loaded the dishes from her boy’s omelets into the dishwasher.

If the perfect neighbor weren’t picking them up they would all make it out to the steps and ask, “Can we walk?” – meaning do we have time? And I would say in a determined voice, “No, we have to change our ways,” and then urge them on with, “Now, run, run, run,” following up, in as calm a tone as I could muster, “Bye, have a good day,” because I felt strongly that something should be calm about their send off.   Still I’d have to direct them, “Go, go, you three,” like a shepherd, blocking off the stairways into the nether regions of the house, shooing them along.

I’d see that poor Lily had again been forced into self reliance and had made herself toast, dripping with blueberry jam, so I’d collapse on the couch, bundling her onto my lap for a bit of the one-on-one attention that we both craved, while I allowed her to feed me.

I did miss all that action years later – alone in the house, home from driving Lily to high school, lecturing her on being late and telling her that her toothpaste spit would still be frozen on the corner of Elbow Drive when she walked by on her way back home.  Weird – but I did miss it.