Tag Archives: family

Everyone Deserves It

I wasted time at the train station after disembarking, slowly drinking coffee and eating a donut, while waiting for the demand for Ubers to subside.  When the price of the ride returned to the reasonable rate of a minute per mile, I got in one and let it take me to the hospital that once felt like it had a room with my name on it.  As a child, I had repeated bouts of severe bronchitis and thus spent a lot of time in a building now called the old wing.  But this 21st century plaza of glass and steel was not the healing place I remembered.  Very little in the town where I spent the first 14 years of my life looked familiar, for that matter.  That fact was a bittersweet distraction.

Once at the hospital, I still delayed.  Far too much time in the gift shop to come away with a mere card – and one that said something trite that felt insincere on my part: “May an angel always be beside you.”  Not a single bone in my body believed this man had lived his life in a way that should keep him in the company of angels – certainly not the part of it that pertained to me.  He’d inflicted physical and psychological abuse on my mother and me.  He told me numerous times that he hadn’t wanted to be a father and that my existence had made his more difficult.  My mother and I were made to pay.  And so I meandered around the spanking brand new wing of the hometown hospital, the one that used to have a room with my name on it, praying for the courage to face this man who forced me to play postman at his building just to get him to come into the lobby so I could see him.  Even then, I couldn’t get him to let his grandchildren in or to come out to the car to meet them.

“…Because everyone deserves it – no matter what,” I wrote inside the blank card with the trite spiritual wish on the outside.  That I believed.  Every child of God deserves the accompaniment of an angel, no matter how damaged or damaging he may be.  “I love you!”  I added.  Through every horrible memory, that too had always been true, sometimes in spite of myself.

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When I found the room with the beautiful view of Long Island Sound, the one with his name on it, he wasn’t in it.  He was back in the old wing of the hospital undergoing stress tests on his heart.  I would have missed him even if I’d gone straight to his room without buying the card, but not if I’d bypassed the coffee and donut.  It was now going to be at least two hours before I could see him, and I had only designated six for him.  The need to be the mother and the teacher that I love being called me harder than the obligation to be the daughter it hurt to be.  That, and the fact that my business as a baker still doesn’t run without me after two years, required I return home, as long as he was stable and could make his own medical decisions.

“What time did you leave?  I could hear you in my bedroom.  Did you kiss me goodbye?  What time are you coming home?”  Such were the text message questions from my teenaged daughter, who’s on the spectrum.  The last question was, in part, to know how long she’d have to play on the computer before I was home to turn her attentions back to Chemistry and Algebra II.  But I also know that my girl must feel the love from me each day for any day to be complete. She hated my business trips when I used to have them, which always made me hate them a bit, too.

God has an interesting sense of humor.  How else can one explain such an affinity for children in the child of a man who considers children a nuisance?

“Don’t cry when you say goodbye to him, Mom; it’ll probably freak him out,” my daughter said about a student whose family was moving to the other side of the country. She was right, I knew.  So I shed my tears at home, out of sight, before giving my parting blue sash a medallion I won years ago as a goodbye present.

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Somewhere in the haze of cold, selfish, liquor-wading isolationism, I know that my father feels a measure of fondness for me that’s at least commensurate with my affection for my students.  I’ve occasionally been able to hear it in his voice, after accomplishing something he could brag about to the neighbors he didn’t want to see or the golf buddies he’s now outlived.  But I’ve spent years wishing he’d feel a little more… and now, I’m told he does.  A stroke will do that.

“He gets emotional when I mention you,” his attending physician told me.  It’s guilt.  What else could it be?  I thought, as I slowly walked from his apartment to his bank, in no hurry to return to the man who had me out running errands without so much as a “good to see you” or “thanks for coming.”

“One of these days we’re going to have to have it out,” he’d said eons ago, back when his intentional verbal cruelty could still make me livid.  But I saw no need for that. It wouldn’t have taken the fear out of a childhood long gone or made him a man who wanted a family.  It would just have been more wasted time.

I thought again about the card from the gift shop as I climbed into the Uber back to the hospital.  “May an angel always be beside you.”  Indeed… for you never wanted anyone else to be.

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…Right in the Jungle

“I gotta hurry back upstairs to the television!” I told my son as the screen door closed behind him.  “It’s the final fight scene in Kill Bill.”

“Omigod!  It’s so cool you have it on, too!” Aaron yelled, jogging behind me.  “That’s why I’m late.  I was watching it at Chris’s house!”

“Did you lock the front door?” I asked rounding the corner to the stairway.

“Shit!  No!” he answered, frozen in his tracks for a moment, weighing whether the lock could wait for the end of the movie.

I could launch into a diatribe about the themes of Kill Bill Vol. II and how much this martial arts mom relates to them.  I could present a laundry list of the traits my son and I have in common and how similar our tastes are in art and music.  In fact, I could fill pages with both subjects.

But as my first born and I sang the soundtrack tune “Goodnight Moon,” watching Beatrix Kiddo drive off into the sunset, my mind centered on a collection of facts that had strongly shaped the moment and that are more important than commonalities with my child or my love of a movie:

  • I had to become a mother to care about my character.
  • I had to quit living like a frat boy to learn what character really is.
  • When my son started living like a frat boy in my house, the character that motherhood made me care about compelled me to show him the door.
  • Showing him the door now brings him back through it with a level of respect and love that I’ve wanted us to have from the day he was born.

The rest of the afternoon’s visit consisted of chowing down on hard shell crabs that Aaron brought with him, chatting about his job, friends and flirtations, and waxing philosophical about the best first career choice for a talented young man who’s bound to have more than one.  It was an afternoon that made the week, if not the season.

“The lioness has rejoined her cub and all is right in the jungle.”  That’s the final statement in Kill Bill… and it’s the truth.


Teeth and Tattoos

I’ve spent four months away from writing, and with each day that I’ve been away, it’s been harder to make the time in my perpetually-sleep-deprived days to return.  But with two young Kung Fu Sihengs weighing heavily on my heart these last weeks, one of whom I just finished speaking with on the phone, the re-entry point is clear.

My son is boarding a plane to Texas tomorrow morning to visit his grandparents for a week.  When he returns, he’ll have one day to dot his “i”s and cross his “t”s before heading down the highway to Georgetown University, which is also my alma mater.  I was scared shitless, as they say, when I found out this child was on the way.  I don’t think the fear was evident to anyone but my therapist – a man who knew enough about me to gently suggest that motherhood might not be the best choice at that point in my life.  My marriage was the epitome of dysfunction, which, given the emotional and physical messes we both were, was all it could be.  But to my therapist’s amazement (and my own!), I consciously chose and gave my all to getting my act together for the sake of the boy who’ll be boarding a plane to Texas tomorrow morning.

He’s getting on that plane missing half of one of his front teeth.  That fact infuriates me for two reasons: first, because he injured himself doing something thoroughly irresponsible and thoughtless, which wasn’t particularly legal either.  ‘Nuff said on that.  Second, the fact that he’ll be taking off for college with this new look, despite having the means and opportunity to cap the tooth, tells me it’s a look (persona?) that he prefers, and it will likely be with him a long time.

So, the mom who stopped being self-destructive in order to enable her child to become exactly what he became – the sought-after valedictorian, scholarship student  – will, for the foreseeable future, be reminded every time she sees her boy that it’s now his turn to be self-destructive.  And he’s taking it.  Repeatedly.  If only someone had chipped his tooth in a sparring match!  I’d still want him to cap the damn thing, of course, but it wouldn’t actually hurt to see it missing.

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The visuals that half tooth gives me, both of my past and of my son’s possible future, are probably nothing compared to the imaginings in the minds of the parents of a young man with a brand new tattoo.  The adolescent who taught me how to make a long staff give me gold medals is entering his last year of college – and counting down the days to his commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Siheng Bad-Ass, as I affectionately refer to him, recently returned from an ROTC training mission in Fort Knox that cut him off from the rest of the world for a month.  He was excited and proud as he talked about repelling down walls, while taking practice shots with a machine gun, and I knew before I asked what assignment he’d be requesting ten months from now.

“Oh my God, your poor parents!” I said aloud before I could catch the words.  I was imagining him ducking bullets in Iraq or Syria.   “You’re going in as an officer with a great record.  You can pick anything you want.  You don’t have to choose the infantry,” I said as if I were his mother, telling him what he knew better than I did.

“It’s my calling,” he answered with a big smile.

A week later, he walked into Wushu class with a tattoo on his forearm that reads: “For those I love, I sacrifice.”  I’m not sure I’d be able to read that on my infantry-bound son’s arm without crying each time I saw it.

I worry almost as much about the future of the boy-Siheng who was my teacher as I do about the future of the boy that’s mine.  I haven’t seen the future soldier’s father in months, because my schedule at the store has kept me out of his Saturday class.  But I wish I could give him a hug of commiseration.

We get them ready to walk into the world on their own two feet, then, we have absolutely no control over the size, sound and rhythm of their steps when that walk begins.  At the end of a job well done, what remains is watching and waiting.  Please, God, please…give us a good and happy show.


Long Lines and Loss

I come from a long line of women who won’t take no for an answer – even from God.  When people told my grandmother she didn’t have the constitution to eat whatever she wanted and continue breathing, she ignored them for thirty years, until thirty feet of her intestines had to be removed.  When my father told my mother he would never marry her, she simply changed her last name to his and waited years – for nothing.  When the doctors told my aunt that an epileptic with sickle cell could not carry a child to term, she miscarried five times before menopause permanently decided the issue.

So begins a compilation of autobiographical short stories I wrote a while back.  That opening paragraph has been popping into my head for almost two weeks now, when the last of the three women mentioned in it died less than seventeen days after her ninety-sixth birthday.  That long female line of mine is down to me and my daughter.  I knew that was coming, of course, but I still wasn’t ready.

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I thought my grandmother would make it to triple digits.  Her older sister made it to 101.  But perhaps becoming the last living member of her birth family made her more ready to join her husband and half of her kids.  The longevity of the generation once removed from my own was a source of hope when the early deaths of my mother and three of her siblings made me anxious about my own mortality.  That sporadic anxiety is back.

It is now Good Friday, about a week after I first started this post.  I would love to claim that phenomenal success of the shop has occupied too much of my time to finish writing.  But mama drama is the better explanation.

My son has regressed to his 14-year-old self.  That was the year he acquired new friends and the first real girlfriend and became so out of control that I was ready to ship him to his grandparents in Texas.  Now, a lack of consideration and respect, on multiple levels about multiple big-ticket items, need not lead to a plane ticket purchase.  After all, he is legally – and financially – able to sign a lease.  While my love for him is unconditional, his ability to live in my house is not.  But that fact doesn’t keep the mama bear in me from wanting to keep him safe – especially from himself.

Loss is a natural part of life, occurring in unexpected ways, like sudden illness and teenager confusion, and expected ones, like old age or the end of childhood.  I state the obvious simply so that I can better accept a fact that sucks so profoundly.

Easter weekend was the most important three days of any year to my very religious late grandmother, the woman whose apartment was my second home when my mother was at her second job, the woman who taught me the most about baking and let her daughter provide the finishing touches.  As I receive a host of orders for end-of-Lent goodies, the absence of my baking teacher, who dealt with more loss (four children alone was enough!) with as much grace as possible, leaves me with pain both piercing and acute.

Nellie Mae made chocolate pie once a year for her youngest daughter, my aunt who couldn’t have children.   She taught me to make the ninety-something year old recipe she’d acquired as a child herself on a summer visit my family made to her house, not long after the death of my aunt.  That recipe is my most popular pie and a component of my most popular cupcake.  As long as my shop is here, my grandmother will be with me every day, even more than my mother, whether I like it or not – as will her example of how to handle child-related wounds with grace.

 


No Longer Fine

I could hear it in her voice.  It was more than fatigue.  So I asked again if anything happened during her school day that was out of the ordinary.

“I messed up my math and got upset with Mr. White.”  I asked what she meant by “got upset.”  There was a time in her life when an emotional outburst at school was an almost daily occurrence that prompted phone call and email notification.  There was a time when everyone in the neighborhood knew when she was upset because they could hear it through the stone-covered walls of our house or the bricks of the school.

“Well, I had to take a moment to go to the bathroom and calm down,” she answered, sounding chagrined.  It was a strange sound that brought me up short.  I paused for a moment and asked if she and Mr. White were okay with each other.  It was my way of trying to find out if she’d been disrespectful in her outburst.

As a child on the spectrum, she’s been through all sorts of techniques and suggestions, from parents and professionals alike, to control her emotions better, and she’s made continued progress over the years.  Though I’ve been notified multiple times this school year about mandatory study hall assignments because her homework wasn’t as done as she said it was, the last in-school outburst I heard about was a year ago.  Did I now need to expect an email from Mr. White about my daughter being rude?  I wondered.

“Yeah.  We were fine after I calmed down,” she answered.  There it was again – the sound of something totally new in my thirteen-year-old, emotionally and socially-challenged girl.  It sounded like embarrassment, perhaps even shame.  I had a sudden confusing twinge of completely contradictory emotions.  I hurt for her and was elated at the same time.

Through a lifetime of being told and taught to better control her reactions to situations and information she dislikes, Ava’s always acted as if the people upon whom she inflicted her outbursts were the ones with the problem.  As she saw it, we just needed to let her flip out and happily live with the completely inappropriate behavior.  But as she told me about this incident during her daily afterschool phone call, it was clear  that she was the one who was bothered by her own lack of control.  She’d gotten used to reacting well, and she was disappointed in herself for going backwards.

I was so proud of her I had to keep from crying, as I sat in the cubicle I’ll be leaving in less than a month.  I told her not to feel bad, that it sounded like she got it together pretty quickly and was still on good terms with Mr. White, so there was nothing to worry about it.  I told her I love her and gave her what my family calls a psychic hug.

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Ava started testing for her black belt a couple of weeks ago.  She’ll be getting her braces off a couple of weeks from now.  The application process for public high school selection (a unique ritual in Baltimore, as far as I know) begins next month.  In short, my girl’s going through a lot of changes this season, but none more significant than being disappointed in herself for behavior she once thought was fine.


Old Times and New

It felt like old times.  Sifu was cracking jokes.  The audience was standing room only and so was the head table.  A dozen black sashes were on hand to evaluate those testing.  Half of the promotion candidates must have been nervous enough to wet their pants when looking at a table full of teachers, all sizes, shapes, ages and ethnicities, decked out in red from neck to ankles, waiting to rate their performances.  The other half was composed of three red sashes anxious to wear black themselves.  Two of those were my family.

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Ava had the best sparring match of her life, fearlessly battling a faster, more strategic opponent, but one much shorter and lighter than she is.  She knocked him down twice with her roundhouse kicks, and she wasn’t even trying.

Then, it was Merle’s turn.  Her opponent was almost a foot taller and almost 40 years younger, but neither of those facts seemed to matter.  The “old lady” put the kid to shame.

The black sash demonstration – the real main event of a day geared toward trying to attract more students – was one of the most entertaining in months.  Aaron gave a near flawless exhibition of 12 Kicks, and I performed White Eyebrow in public for the very first time.  Nerves slowed my pace, but I made no errors.  Both Aaron and I received words of approval from Sifu.

October testing day was the first time ever that all four members of the family performed at the guan on the same day.  We all had a reason to be proud and happy.  It felt like old times… only better.


Fever and Frenzy

It’s baseball fever in Baltimore, but for me, it’s bakery fever.  And as the temperature rises , so does the level of craziness in my days.  The last forty-eight hours have looked something like this:

-Emails with publicists, authors, journalists and politicos (the day job) interspersed with emails and calls with the staff of the property manager who hasn’t spoken to me directly since calling to tell me the lease is mine; requesting and receiving an emailed confirmation of being approved for the lease.

-Learning from the city’s chief health inspector the brands of ovens that eliminate the need to change the ventilation system in the building; learning more about plumbing building codes than I ever wanted to know; finding out that even my frequently generous plumber has limits to his generosity when tearing out a floor is likely (the three compartment sink might cost more than the specialized oven).

-Sending out the promotional announcements for the next live show, sorting by copyright my guest author’s books and cracking the cover on the first.

-Searching for a place to get passport photos taken for my food manager’s license and having it take much too long, when I needed to keep my lunch hour to 30 minutes.  Having a little birdie whisper in my ear “don’t mail that” right before I walked into a training session for the company’s new edit software and later being glad that it did; calling during training break to find out that the new procedure, just days old, is to deliver the application in person and have the pictures taken onsite.

-After two hours of software training, making a mad dash to the train to get picked up by my family for kung fu class.

-Two hours of sparring and long staff work later, taking the whole family with me on a brief, unimpressive tour of a commercial kitchen I can rent, if sink issues delay opening the store.

-After shower and food, shopping online for the best equipment prices and comparison shopping on business insurance policies; being forced by my better half to shut it down and grab some sleep as the clock sped past 1:30.

-Waking 20 minutes later than normal, needing more sleep and anxious to get into the future store again.  Meeting up with property manager’s assistant to get measurements in the shop and make notes; taking my food manager’s application downtown on the way to the morning train, only to be told it needed to be accompanied by another larger application – and a larger check.

Another dash to another train.  Another day of emails and calls on the current life and the future one.  Another afternoon of training on software I won’t be using for long.  Another day of acting like it was just another day… and loving that it wasn’t.


The Safe Subject

At about 10:30 on Thursday night, I dialed my father’s phone number for the first time in a couple of months.   Why I don’t talk to him more often is a long, complicated, sad story – some of which I mentioned here.  Tonight, our negative history was irrelevant.

Sounding simultaneously happy and sad, the first thing he said to me was: “I knew it was you.”  Of course he did.  Only I could be calling him when Derek Jeter had just knocked in the winning run in the last game he’d ever play in Yankee Stadium.

It was 1977, and I was in the third grade.  It wasn’t my first trip over the western state line, but it was the first I could remember alone with my dad.  My parents were thankfully separated.  Life was much quieter.  But I saw almost nothing of the former man of the house – until suddenly he was taking me to Yankee Stadium.

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We sat with his friends from work in seats right above the Yankee dugout.  I yelled out to Reggie Jackson and got a smile and a wave.  My father smiled a lot, too, in between answering my questions about the rules of the game.  I couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked to me so much.  I’ve been a Yankee fan ever since.

The safe subject for most people is the weather.  For my father and me, it’s the Yankees.  Bad trades and costly contracts, win or lose, I’ll always love them for that.


Before Pizza

It was one of those days.  My boss was in a foul mood from the moment he walked in the door.  That’s not compatible with hosting three hours of live TV.  My director couldn’t see or hear clearly for the first ten minutes of the show, which resulted in several on-air errors.  Those are uncorrectable when you’re live.

I was sitting in the control room on the opening Sunday of football season – a fact that’s been frustrating for the last six years of my life.  But to make matters worse, both teams that matter most to me didn’t just lose, they embarrassed themselves.

I took a cab ride home from the train station with a driver who kept swearing he knew where my street was but still asked me at every red light if he was going the right way.  By the time I started chopping an onion for dinner prep, I was glad the powers of the universe had saved the worst day of the working weekend for last.

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My working weekend actually began right after leaving the office on Friday.  The first of my long-scheduled demo classes was waiting for me at the gym.  In it were two children with moms along for the ride.  By the end of the hour, everyone was sweating, rubbing their legs… and smiling.

“This was fun,” the seven-year-old girl whispered to her mother.  Her mom looked like she didn’t agree with the word choice.

“This is a real workout,” the other parent said rubbing her legs.  “I didn’t expect that.”

“Yes, it is.” Playdate with punches this ain’t!  I thought.  The mother-and-six-year-old son duo said they’d be signing up; the mom and daughter left without sharing a decision.

Fast-forward to Saturday.  An hour after inhaling a plate of pancakes to quell the hunger caused by intensive classes at the guan, I was back at the gym for the second of the demo classes.  This one introduced me to a five-year-old who approaches martial arts the same way my daughter did when she started tae kwon do at four: with a non-stop smile.  (I’m not sure if there’s anything cuter than a kindergartener doing double-straight-punch-snap-kick combinations to the chin with an ear-to-ear grin on his face!)

At the end of the class, he was still smiling but not as broadly.  So I asked, “Are your legs hurting?  Was that too much for you?”

“No,” he said without pause, sounding slightly insulted.  When he turned to his dad, I could tell it was decided.

“So what do you think?  Should we put kung fu before pizza on Friday nights now?” his dad asked.

“Yes!” he shouted, showing almost all of the pearly whites.

It looks like I’ll have a class of at least four people this session who know what they’re getting into.  That knowledge and the joy of future students’ smiles enabled me to handle a difficult time on the day job today with a healthy measure of grace.


Acceptable Labor

The bad news is that Merle and I both spent several hours of the holiday working.  The good news: Merle can still work.  She’ll get the results of the MRI tomorrow and fingers remain crossed until then that it’ll be a quick recovery back to black sash testing.  Now, she tells me, it’s a vendetta.

My son and I finished out the waning hours of the holiday walking down to a Polish restaurant he’d been wanting to try for a while.

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We settled on Perogies and Chicken Kiev…

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Then I returned to my own kitchen to experiment with new cake recipes and prep for a food safety certification course.

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At the office taking care of current obligations… in my kitchen looking forward to new, sweeter ones.  That’s a more than acceptable Labor Day.


Nothing But Crickets

The God of my understanding has a strange sense of humor.  I can’t say I’ve ever liked it much, and last night was no exception.

My better half has never had an affinity for martial arts.  It’s just exercise to stay in shape and provides quality time with the kids and me.  She’s also never been all that enamored with her career as a massage therapist.  She’s extremely gifted at it, as any client of hers will attest to, but it too is exercise.  It requires body mechanics that are probably more complex than those needed for good kung fu.  In short, her work can be as physically taxing as the family hobby.

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For the nine months that she’s been eligible to test for black sash, she’s vacillated on wanting to, while also dealing with minor injuries.  There are a number of red sashes perfectly content to stay where they are in rank.  They attend class mostly to become better fighters and nothing more.  But after watching both me and our boy go through the process, Merle decided to try her hand at acquiring a few of those positive changes the experience gave us.  Mostly, she didn’t want to regret not having tried.

Thursday night, at her second test for black sash, the first of six with sparring, she caught her foot against a loose rug in the basement training room while warming up.  The resulting injury to her knee left her unable to test… and possibly unable to work.

As she sat in the waiting room of the orthopedist’s office this morning, she was notified by gallery personnel that she sold a second piece of art in as many days, after months of hearing nothing but crickets by way of artistic reception.  Sculpting is the other work she does with her hands, the one that feeds the soul, if not the family.  It’s the job that brings her joy.

What are we to make of this debilitating injury sandwiched between music to an artist’s ears?  God has a strange sense of humor, all right – one that I’m rarely fond of.  And yet… I can’t say I’d want to gamble on living without it.


Seems Like Minutia

My son doesn’t believe in free will.  He’s a philosophy buff with strong analytical skills that serve him well most of the time, but he may be overthinking things on this one.  By contrast, my daughter acts as if she thinks free will is the end all and be all, and there should be nothing but personal choice.

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Sitting in front of the flower stand in Philadelphia’s South Street today, scarfing down a snack before an author interview, I was feeling pretty philosophical.  That’s what got me thinking about my children and choices.  I wondered if the very campus I was headed to for a work assignment would be Aaron’s home by this time next year.  He would then spend a fair amount of time in the very station I was sitting in, catching trains home for… kung fu.

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Will he be chosen by the school(s) of his choice?  What will he choose to do if not? I wondered.

What if my own first and second choices for colleges had been reversed and I’d gone to Boston instead of D.C.?  I wouldn’t have been in D.C. to choose to help a co-worker drive from Washington to Austin for graduate school.  Aaron and Ava wouldn’t be here, then.  I wouldn’t have met the Texan ex-husband without those choices.

Choices and the consequences thereof can be wild and crazy things.  Even the ones that seem like minutia can be game changers. I thought as I sipped from a soda.

As I gathered my equipment to head to the taxi stand, I could feel a headache coming on.  It was time to give philosophical musings a rest.  So I chose to do just that.