Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mothering your Mother

This is about the first time you realize that your Mother can’t Mother you any longer. She will never say that of course. The words go unspoken, but the reality is there.

It is the inevitable moment in the parent-child relationship when frailty enters and the natural order is reversed. If you are lucky, you are much older when this happens. But no matter when, it is a big sadness and nothing is ever quite the same.

The kindest thing to do…is just to carry on. But the problem comes in recognizing the moment.

It happened for me when I came home for Christmas one year with my young children. I arrived, exhausted, with the kids, after 12 hours of flying and stress. As I had in previous years, I wanted to walk into a welcoming winter wonderland, with fire blazing, dinner on the table, house decorated and wine at the ready.

Absolutely nothing was done. There was no dinner waiting, not even Chinese take out. There was no milk or juice in the fridge. No wine, boxes of cereal or bagels for breakfast. The house was not decorated. Not even a Christmas tree bought.

Instead of realizing what had really happened on a significant level, I was just furious with my Mother. I was frustrated and annoyed because I thought my Mother was just being lazy and inconsiderate.

I knew she was old…but couldn’t she have made one trip to the supermarket? Couldn’t she have brought a tree home and put it in a bucket out by the garage? Couldn’t she have made one bed a day?

It was a grim moment. I called the Chinese restaurant for a delivery. I got in the car and dashed to the grocery to pick up breakfast supplies. I made the beds and we fell into them. The next day I decorated, shopped, cooked and cleaned. And it was that way for ever more.

If you have been Mothered well, you rise to the challenge naturally and easily. It was up to me to make Christmas magic for my Mother. This is the sandwich role for a woman that comes at a certain age. You Mother your children and you Mother your Mother. And the whole time you are amazed at the energy you have to pull it off.

It is actually a gift for you, although you don’t recognize it at the time. You are paving the way for the great sadness that is yet to come.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Personal touchstones of taste. On Tania, our own little nutritionist.

I’m drinking hot water with a splash of milk and thinking of my grandmother, who used to drink this every evening, after dinner. When I would offer coffee and tea, she would insist on just boiled water with a splash of milk. I’d think, how silly, how could that possibly taste good?

I now understand that she drank this because there was no decaffeinated tea back then. It was something hot, digestive and comforting after the evening meal. Even though I have decaf teabags in the house, I’m still sipping boiled water with a splash of milk. I feel a connection to her when I sip this drink.

And it is only now I realize that my grandmother Tatiana was our little nutritionist. Only back then, we thought she was quaint. She was ahead of her time, before people had chic nutritionists or the food pages of the New York Times to dictate the latest health trends.

Now that I’m battling my weight in middle age, I have a new appreciation of her discipline and her nutritional habits. She always ate lightly at night and kept her gorgeous figure her entire life.
I used to giggle that she would eat prunes for breakfast, followed by toast spread with cottage cheese and a drizzle of honey. But now, because I’ve read that prunes are one of nature’s perfect foods, high in antioxidants, iron and fiber, I make sure to eat a few each day too. One of my favorite breakfasts is cottage cheese on toast, drizzled with honey.

My father was an aficionado of oatmeal. My Mother loved the classic grilled cheese sandwich. Nette’s Merema taught me about the cool hot bite of crystallized ginger on the tongue and gingersnaps with tea. Now, I eat oatmeal, grilled cheese sandwiches and ginger whenever I can find it.

This is about the comfort of family tastes. You never know what your personal touchstones will be until later in life. And it is a grace and gift when one day they reappear. Tastes are a palpable way of feeling close to these departed people who at one time, loved you with all their heart, and whose love warms you still.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How to talk on the telephone

I’m kidding, right? You have to learn how to talk on the telephone?
Well, yes apparently. We talk on the phone all the time, but I’ve noticed people just flow all over the place.

There is a telephone etiquette: Don’t be rude, don’t be abrupt or too fast, don’t give away too much information, don’t ramble.

Answering the phone. In office life, and in countries like Germany and Switzerland, you answer the phone announcing your name, so the caller can immediately identify whether s/he reached the right number. As in, "Dunkel" or "Dunkel residence."

In much of the rest of the world, the phone is answered, Pronto, Bueno, Allo, Hello – which basically indicates: we have a connection, proceed.

Identify yourself. Don’t just start talking, assuming the other person recognizes your voice. You’re not that special. And often, a hello doesn’t register.

If it is a business call you would say, “Hello, this is Elizabeth Dunkel. I’m calling to speak to… about …..”

If it is a personal call, identify yourself as well. I don’t care how well you think the other person knows your voice. There's nothing more annoying than answering the phone and someone says, "Hi," and I'm left wondering, okay, who is this? So I finally say, “Who is this?” and the other person is offended because I don’t recognize them.

Be polite. Don’t just say, “Is Joe there?” Too abrupt. Get out of my way buster.
Chat for a minute. “Hi, this is Elizabeth. How are you?” Chat a bit and then ask for Joe.

Don’t just say, “wrong number” and hang up. The phone will ring five seconds later with the same wrong call and you’ll be bothered again. Ask the person, “What number are you trying to reach?” And when they tell you, you reply, “No, you have reached xxx-xxxx,” and they will understand what they marked incorrectly, or that they simply don’t have the proper number.

Don’t ever start a phone call with, “Who is this?” That is rude and abrupt.
Imagine. Your phone rings. You answer it, only to hear, “Who is this?”
When someone does that to me, I turn the question around. They need to identify themselves first, they’re the ones who called me. So, I say, “The question is, to whom would you like to speak?”

People have lives. Feel free to ask, “Is this a good time to call?” And if not, “When is a good time for me to call?” Feel free to say, “I’d really like to talk to you but this is not a good time for me to talk, can I return your call?

Be concise. Don’t ramble. Say, “I’m on my cell, I’m lost, can you look up a phone number for me?”

Always end your phone call with the words, “Thank you so much for your call.” Or, “Nice talking to you.”

See, that wasn't so painful, was it?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Mother as "Personal Assistant"

Lately, I’m not feeling like a Mother anymore…but mostly, my daughter’s personal assistant.

Nina is 16 and a half and a junior in high school. Remember how grown up you felt when you were that age? Well, I’m respecting that.

I wake her up in the morning for school. I make her a cup of tea. I drive her to school. I ask her, “What would you like for lunch today?” The reason I ask, is because it is just the two of us, and if I make what I want, and she doesn’t want it, she just won’t eat it. So since I’m easy, it’s easier for me to prepare something she will eat.

I see that her clothes are washed and ironed. I drive her to her sports, academic events and social life. I give her cash when she needs it. Not exhorbitant amounts, but enough for the occasional burger or movie.

This all feels more like personal assisting, not mothering. But I guess that’s a play on words. Because it really is Mothering. With a grown up and very modern twist.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I cringe now...

…when I think of how my children overhead me, occasionally, complaining about my Mother.

There were times I would get off the phone with her, exasperated about something she had said. Or hadn’t said. I would be annoyed if she didn’t offer to pay my air tickets home. I was annoyed when she didn’t give me a gift, or even a card or a flower, on my 50th birthday. I was annoyed she wouldn’t move down to where I lived so I could care for her.

These episodes were just the sturm and drang of daily living on this earth. But my complaints didn’t touch the deep love I felt for my Mother. I worried so much about her. I hated living so far away. I hated not being able to accompany her in the care of my Father, to give her the love and support she needed and deserved, and the companionship that only mothers and daughters can share.

My Mother was lonely as she cared for my Father, and even lonelier when she survived him and lived alone for the first time in over 60 years. And on top of that, she was plagued with cancer, only we didn’t know it yet.

So what am I saying to you Mothers who still have Mothers of your own?

That my kids did hear my complaints. That words can hide what is truly deep in our hearts.

I do believe they understood my great love and reverence for my Mother. It’s the deep love that’s in every child's gut, a part of your very soul and breath.

That’s what Mother love is, it's just a part of you.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Maligning the Mother

Mothers are the grist for the lifetime mill. Everything begins with Mother. Mother is the source of your life, then the source of your joy. Just look at any baby cooing at her Mother, or any toddler’s face lighting up when Mother comes into the room.

For those precious years, we Mothers are on the pedestal, in the great love affair between Mother and child, and then, floof, our child becomes an adult and we are off the pedestal and into the frying pan of life’s impossible people to deal with.

Is our love that suffocating or awful? Why is it that Mothers morph into the monster, and become the source of our formerly adoring, adult child’s ennui?

Why is it that a friend can give you advice and you can “hear” it, but if your Mother gives you the same advice, you discount it, or, it drives you crazy?

Think of the Mother in literature and the Mother in movies. The larger than life “Mommie Dearest.” The eye rolling, the children suffering their Mother, the Mother as the cause of all root problems. “The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood” was all about the daughter’s inability to live her own authentic life due to a misunderstood conflict in her mother-daughter relationship. In Sean Wilsey’s book, “Oh the Glory of It All” he writes, “When describing my Mother it is impossible to overstate her grandeur, her haughtiness, her generosity, her old Hollywood star power, her immaturity…”

We mothers are quite powerful, it seems. Perhaps it would be better to be… less powerful?

But you are powerful when you are raising your child. And therein lies the problem. You keep your children alive, clean, fed, rested, educated. I’m beginning to think the stamp of that powerful presence you had in their lives always has the power to wound in the most unsuspected ways.

No one wants to be the cause of eye rolling. I certainly don’t want to be the sturm and drang Mother. The demanding Mother. The guilt trip Mother. The needy Mother. The impossible Mother. The loud Mother. The exhausting Mother.

But I’m beginning to think it is part of the Mother “lode.” The power that you once had lingers in the raise of an eyebrow, in a tone of voice. Perhaps, sadly, it helps pave the way for the ultimate separation.

In the meantime, I vow to remain cheerful, light, receptive. That’s what an adult child wants, right? Now that my Mother is gone, I understand, it is certainly how she treated me.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How you heal determines the quality of the rest of your life.

This is not my advice. This advice was given to me by my dear friend Judy, and it has been engraved in my heart and mind forever. Even I have a hard time following it.

I may have touched on this theme in my entry “How to be Sick. Nicely.” But as I have just checked one of my students out of the hospital after a grave illness, it comes to mind ever more strongly. I told him, “How you heal now, can affect the rest of your life.”

We get sick. Our bodies suffer an assault. And then we want to get back to our lives immediately, as they were. When you are recovering from a serious illness, you need to give your body time to heal. You are bored, you are anxious to get back to your life as you knew it, but don’t. Take that extra week or month. If you ignore the healing process, you can compromise the functioning of your body for the rest of your life.

We ask so much of our bodies. We take them for granted. But if the doctor says, don’t drive for a month, or stay in bed for at least a week, or don’t drink milk or alcohol for a month: follow this advice. Don’t suffer the relapse, because then it will take you even longer to heal and you can suffer chronic problems for the rest of your life as a result.

Your health is the only thing that matters in this life. You hear that so often, it's become a cliche. And you only understand it when illness strikes. But it is true. Oh so true.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My little stranger

I have a stranger living under my roof. And she is my lovely 16-year-old daughter.

When she was born and handed to me in the hospital, I looked at her and said, "Who are you?" and spent the next 16 years finding out.

When you are the mother of a baby or later, a small child, you feel you know everything about them. You know what they eat, how they slept, what they did from morning to night. You are there to experience their discoveries and their moods. You are in constant conversation with them.

Then they become teenagers and you have no idea who they are.

They become contemplative. Secretive. They share confidences with their friends, not with you. They disappear for hours on end and don’t tell you a thing. My daughter comes home from her evening French class at the Alliance Francaise and shuts herself in her room to talk to her new boyfriend. She shares her feelings with him.

And so begins another new aspect of parenting. But no one ever told you about this one.

The success of a parent – adult child relationship rests on being able to treat your son or daughter with the exquisite politesse of a new friend about whom you find everything fascinating.

You cannot assume anything or trample on the currency of your former intimacy. You must respect their lives, their boundaries, their new likes and dislikes. As their parent, your new role is to simply support them with unconditional love.

That’s what keeps them coming home, happy to see you, happy to be with you.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A slice of heaven

In keeping with living a life of gratitude, and the fact that "life is in the details," I thought I'd start a new category called, "A Little Slice of Heaven."

Raising kids is not only exhausting -- it is often mind numbing. The repetition of driving, cooking, cleaning, shopping, bathing, cleaning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning...can put the soul to sleep. Of course, the honor of raising children has its enormous pleasures and rewards, which is why we do this in the first place.

However, there are little slices of heaven, which sometimes get overlooked in the daily routine.

Our children have no idea of the sheer pleasure of parenting that we experience. They think nothing of it. But we know better. So, occasionally, I'm going to "shout out" moments that I consider a little slice of heaven.

Today's: Sitting in a darkened movie theatre with my 16 year old daughter, watching a French film, en francais bien sur!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Am I an adult yet?

I remember asking myself that question after I graduated college. I got my first job and lived in my own apartment. By all accounts, I had assumed the life of a responsible adult. But I didn’t feel like an adult. I asked my friends, "Are we adults yet?" and "Is this what being an adult feels like?"

I am here to report, that the moment when I truly felt like an adult – was not when I turned 21, 30 or 35, 40 or 50, not when I got married, bought a house, not even when I had children. In the eyes of the world I was an adult, but those things felt rather more like life pulling me along the passages of... life.

I finally felt like an adult when I got a divorce.

That was two years ago. Now, at 57, I can honestly say, yes, I feel like an adult. It was the divorce. Making a serious decision invoking the law, taking responsibility for my life and my past. Something about paying lawyers and going before a judge to get my freedom back.

My divorce was a defining moment in my life in more ways than one. It was not only regaining my freedom, but it was the most adult and scary thing I had ever done.

What about you? When did you feel like an adult?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Book Proposal & Return to Elegance

I'm working on a book proposal for The Portable Mother, which is why I'm not posting as often.

Also, my original material for The Portable Mother is packed away in a box and I must find it! As many of you know, I'm currently living in a rental because I'm building a house. Half my life is in boxes, pending the second move into the new house. The Portable Mother is in a box! I'm definitely portable, and definitely not perfect.

Time to take a breath and begin again.

A Return to Elegance is the new theme for my life. Living smaller, living better, living with more clarity, more substance, more time. Let's face it, family life is...messy! It's fun messy. Its about laundry and cooking and tending the sick, and driving and making costumes, and all the hubbub.

Life is simpler at my house these days, with Pablo gone to college. Nina is in high school, a young lady very much involved in her own life. My daily mothering has simmered down substantially.
This past week, I was reminded of my pre marriage, pre child life. It was indeed a life of elegance.

Thoughtful elegance. The elegance of economy. Sensual elegance. Intellectual elegance. Artistic elegance. Personal elegance. I'm happy to reclaim this mode of being, after a whirlwind 20 years of full speed ahead, joyful, day to day Mothering. I did a great job, but now it's time for elegance.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Why you should drive the carpool.

Let’s say Friday night has arrived. You're exhausted after a week of driving to and from school, to piano, to soccer, to the study group, the play rehearsal, plus your own errands.

You're looking forward to a quiet night at home when your child asks, “Can you drive me and some friends to the movies?” And if you are like me, you try, “Can’t you stay home tonight?” or “Can you get another mother to do it?”

Mothers, I urge you: drive that carpool.

In carpool is when you see who your kids’ friends are and where they live. You get to see your child in a social situation, who she is among her friends and how she acts among them. You get to see your child in a way you never can at home.

When I first started driving carpools I thought I had to be a cool mom and chat with the kids. I thought my job was to put them at ease.

Wrong. A simple hello is enough. You don’t like it when your taxi driver talks your head off or peppers you with questions about your life.

Just be quiet and drive. And the best part: listen. A carpool Mom has the pleasure of listening to their conversation, their jokes, their gossip, their concerns.

Hey, you’re not spying; you’re just the driver.