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.

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.

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.

Snowboard Boy’s First Suit

Considering what we’d paid to turn his sister, Zoë, into a dazzling Mary-Kate Olsen look-a-like for her coronation, when it came time for our eldest son’s high school graduation his dad and I graciously decided, aware that he had spent his entire life in jeans and the obligatory hoodie – we would offer to buy Cole a suit, instead of going the rented tux route.   One of Cole’s crew informed me the rental shop he’d gone with had offered him insurance in case he threw up on his tux, i.e. a barf policy. I questioned whether my son shouldn’t just pick up a cheap rental, after all.  The absolutely most dressed up Cole had been in his seventeen years was cords, new runners, and perhaps a tucked-in shirt for half an hour.  “Even if you don’t wear the jacket often, it’ll be nice to have dress pants,” I reasoned.

“Sure,” Cole said, slipping into a herringbone jacket while the salesperson, who was a teenager himself, calculated his size.  Cole tripped me up by asking, “Dress pants for what though?”

“Well, you know, you don’t know what you’re plans are for next year.  You might get a job where you need something special.”  The three guys – Cole, his prepared to be barfed on friend, and the sales guy considered Cole’s image in the mirror – the classic jacket over his Bili-bong t-shirt and baggy jeans, with his baseball cap tipped backwards.  “For instance you might sell suits,” I had to add.

Cole had applied to a few universities but was leaning heavily towards taking the gap year.  His most recent employment aspiration was to work as a snowboard instructor in any range of mountains, the further from home the better – no suit need there.  Shopping, and any other slow paced activity, had never been his forte.  As a baby, even being held was too sedentary for him.  He grew into a kid who, when he wasn’t playing sports, was calling friends up to do some rails.  His greatest achievement in the eyes of his father and I, was that he sat still for six hours a day in a classroom for twelve long years.

The sales guy suggested Cole try on both pieces with a dress shirt.  “I’ll probably just wear one of my dad’s,” Cole said and I pictured him in kindergarten with a shirt of his father’s buttoned on backwards to keep the finger paint off it.   The sight I was treated to a few minutes later was stunning – my seventeen-year-old kid all put together in a gray herringbone suit.  We three stared at Cole, who stared at his own image in the mirror.  “Dude, it makes you look older,” his friend said.

“Yeah, you’re not kidding.” Cole agreed.

I swallowed.  The sales boy had seen blubbering mothers before.  He turned away to give us our moment of awe.  The suit didn’t make Cole look older to me.  It made him look handsome, but not older.  In fact, I couldn’t get the image of my little kindergarten boy out of my mind, which led to a mild panic attack.  There I was coming undone, trying to determine how we got from then to now.

We paid up, ordering minor alterations and I bought the boys chicken wraps in the food court.  They choked them down while checking out teenage girls, oblivious to me getting out a pen and paper and trying to gather my thoughts.  I’d dealt with Zoë leaving home to attend art school in Vancouver.  She was back for summer break and we were working on getting used to living together again.

But what about this one?  The son who I had to remind that we, his parents, were in fact, in charge.  Was he at all equipped to survive away from moi?   Once again I had to tally up what my teenaged kid didn’t know?

My kids had all mastered food foraging.  Judging from the theme he’d chosen for his bedroom, which was monk-like austerity, I didn’t have to worry that he would lose himself in his own mish-mash of belongings the way two of his siblings could.  This son would even gather up those clothes from time to time and do laundry, which was one of his most admirable characteristics.

Cole asked if I’d mind if they separated from me for just a few minutes to get the phone number of a girl.  “And you think she’ll give it to you?” I asked incredulously.

“Sure.  Why wouldn’t she?”

Optimism would get him places.  “Stalk her politely then,” I said, before ducking out of sight to make some anxious notations. Had I told him you can’t turn right on a red in every city?  To disinfect all his cuts? How to recognize a rabid animal?  To leave a window open in a tornado?

What about girls?  Did I tell him they just wanted him to listen?  In a more practical arena  – could he politely wind spaghetti onto his fork?

“Are you okay, mom?” he asked, catching up with me.  “You have your worried look on.”

“I just have a lot to do. And I’m running out of time to get it done.”

Slow, Simmering Panic

(note to readers: on Monday, I was compelled to post about, “How DOES a Grandma Dress”  – and I know I’ll stray again, but I am back to the book project – memoirs from this empty nest.)

It’s not like I’m a cry baby or anything.  I’d say on a scale with females of a certain age, I’m an average crier – not the final scene in the park in You’ve Got Mail, but when Tom Hanks gives Meg Ryan that daisy in her bedroom – oh boy.  Or in Juno, when Juno and her dorky boyfriend make-up with a kiss in the school field, I could hold back the tears, but oh my God – when those two kids are in the maternity ward bed together after the baby is born, who wouldn’t be overcome?

So normal crying, right?  Yet, for months prior to my eldest leaving home I would try to imagine her moving about in her own place and just thinking about it could bring me to tears.    I don’t know what it was that upset me – the vision of her alone in a quiet apartment, or our noisy house without my oldest daughter’s quiet presence in it?  Once she was living in Vancouver without me I seldom sniveled about it, instead the emotion I experienced from time to time when I got to pondering what Zoë might be up to on any given day was a slow, simmering panic.

The supper table had always been the best place to get – at least the feigned attention – of my teenagers as they gulped down their food.  The year Zoë left home I’d discovered a book called 365 Manners Kids Should Know.*  The book followed a calendar.  On January first – teach this manner, January second this one, all the way through 365 manners.  The author had never studied the attention span of my children.  We needed to fly through ten or twenty manners in a sitting.  I summarized for them. “Okay, it says here you can actually eat asparagus with your fingers.”  Unfortunately three of my four children wouldn’t swallow a piece of asparagus no matter what appendage they could handle it with.  “And it says it’s rude to blow on your food.”   The author had never been late for piano lessons.

My youngest son, Hudson, always looking for an angle, grabbed the book.  “Are you sure you want her to be our manner guru Mom?  She says right here that it’s rude to be late for anything.”  I gave up, which was why Zoë left home with only enough manners to get her into late March.  She was in effect missing nine months of manners.

Zoë went off to study art at Emily Carr university before SKYPE-ing was possible, but when two friends, both seasoned mothers, heard that Zoë was off to her own apartment they recommended a video cam – one on my computer and one on Zoë’s.  Why in the world would I want to spy into the privacy of my daughter’s place, I thought?

Why not indeed? …

I didn’t care to see if she was eating her asparagus with her fingers or not.  But there was a whole lot of other information I wanted to gather.  Did she eat a green vegetable ever?  A pea or chunk of broccoli, a bit of lettuce squished into her sandwich.  Or was salsa her veggie of choice?

Would I see her emptying her pockets of seashells from stress relieving beach combing, or would she pull out one of those art school roll your own cigarettes.  At what late hour would the camera see her come in?   Would she look tired and weary?  Zoë has always needed her sleep.  Would the video cam have let me in on any of this mysterious information?    And in fact, was this what I really longed to know?  If we had invested in the video cam could I have told her, “Put your face up close to the camera.  Closer Zoë. I want to see if you’re happy or sad or homesick.  Come on, Zoe. I want to see if you need me.”

 

[1]365 Manners Kids Should Know – Games, Activities and Other Fun Ways to Help Children Learn Etiquette. Sheryl Eberly, (New York, Three Rivers Press, 2001).