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My Mother’s birthday was last week.  I forgot it this year.  I think this is first year since she died that I’ve forgotten it. Of course, I always seemed to forget it when she was alive, and she was (so she said) okay with that.  She wasn’t the sort to make much of a fuss about that kind of thing. So she probably wasn’t surprised that I forgot it this year. In fact, I expect she’s kind of pleased. I know she thinks my grieving has gone on waaaay too long.  And really, I’m not grieving anymore.  It’s just that the loss and the absence of both her and my Father is still tender.  A deep bruise on my soul that I can only touch lightly lest it hurt too much.  I doubt it will ever heal much more than it is now.

A few weeks ago, we cleaned out the garage, and I brought a few remaining boxes of things from my Mother inside to unpack. There they sat in the solarium, untouched save for Thunder Cat sharpening her claws on the cardboard, until my niece/roommate said, “Do you think you could do something about those boxes?” Which is her nice way of saying “Your clutter is driving me nuts, you insane surface-dwelling packrat.” A perfectly reasonable request; after all, one can’t just have a room filled with cardboard boxes just sitting there forever, can one?  Well, actually one can, if one is my Dad, but that’s another story.  In a shared home, it’s just not okay.

We tentatively agreed to resolve this issue on Saturday night, with a couple of bottles of wine and a box cutter. Rereading that, it sounds like we’re getting drunk and fighting to the death, but we’re not – we just agreed to tackle this chore together.  What with chile festivals and flea markets and bicycle rides, we ended up arriving home at different times, me with MKL, and her an hour or so later. So I settled down to open Box #1.

Oh my.

The day my Mother died, after making the requisite phone calls, E-Bro and I started to pack her things up. He tackled the little office, living room, kitchen. I packed up the bedroom and bathrooms. So many things, and I was not in a place to make decisions then.  I was raw and suicidal and heartbroken.

When I opened this first box, all those feelings came flooding back at me like I had jumped into hyperspace.  I had packed in a way that showed how I couldn’t bear to discard anything that was my Mother’s.  The box had two little packets of tissue, and three boxes of Irish Spring. It had photo albums of my pictures that I had given to my Dad as Christmas gifts in the years before he died. It had the fleece blanket she had kept over her in her deathbed.

It still carried her scent. Almost six years later.

I started to cry.

MKL came over and put his arm around me, asked if there was anything he could do. He was just there – which is exactly what I needed. He took the blanket and wrapped it up in a separate bag, so it might retain some of its scent, and shared with me a similar experience from his grandfather’s passing.

Then I cleaned myself up and we made shrimp.

I can only manage one box at a time, I told Niece when she got home.  She was cool with that, as long as I was making the effort.

Last night, after I got home, I tided up a bit and opened box Number Two.  Again, it showed a certain amount of randomness and attachment to the moment. There were her art books and portfolio from the mail-order painting class she had taken when I was very small, perhaps about three. I can still remember her, sitting at her easel in the sunny study. A little white T-shirt that she used to wear. Two nightgowns. A caftan – I have pictures of her wearing that at our last trip to Topsail, three months before she died. It was her favorite. I put the T-shirt and nightgowns in the wash. I put the caftan on the foot of my bed.

There were some more fleece blankets – ones that DIDN’T smell like her. And a comforter that I made for my Father.

And then a satchel, a newer version of the kind my Father carried to work every day, filled with yarn. I put my hand in to see what it was.

It was a soft green afghan that she was knitting, the needles still in place in the yarn, at the point when she stopped, a few days before she died. She was knitting it for me. It was a pattern I had always wanted her to make for me, ever since I was a very little girl – moss green, with beautiful pink roses on it.

It will never be finished now.

I took a deep breath. And put my head on my arms on the kitchen table and sobbed my heart out.

I still have more boxes to unpack.

I’ve been putting off writing this post — just kidding.

How many of us are lifelong procrastinators?  It starts with delaying brushing your teeth when you’re five, progresses to waiting until the hour before it’s due to type your term paper, matures to waiting until the last possible day to pay your bills, and concludes with the ultimate procrastinatory act — hanging onto a last thread of life when you should have died weeks ago.

I am guilty.  Yes, I am.  Have I passed this gene onto my daughter, or is it just something that comes naturally to her?  Or just something that comes naturally to teenagers, as a way of expressing their independence?

She has become a “just a sec” person.  You ask her to do something and it’s “hold on”, “just a sec” or “in a minute”.  What to do with this behavior?  Yelling seems pointless.  Punishment doesn’t work.  I am on the fence about it because I KNOW it’s one of the few ways she has to express that she guides her own life at this age.  And because I spent so many years not saying “how high?” when my ex said “jump.”

She had a project due today.  She’d had it for a month – read a book, do something creative to show the content, and answer eight questions.  She started one book, and switched to a different one midstream – I can understand that – it happens.  Especially when the first book is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  But I told her last week that I did not want her finishing this at midnight on Tuesday night.  She’s had plenty of time.  So what did she do?  She finished it at 11:00 last night.  Perhaps I was not specific enough?

I told her yesterday that for the next project, things were going to be different.  I don’ t know HOW things are going to be different, just that I need to do something to try to drill some conscientious homework discipline into her.

And then I ask myself why I feel the need to be drill-sargeant in this area.  Do I have any right to, since I was the one who stayed up all night typing term papers until the ten-minute mark to class?  Am I trying to keep her from the discomfort of my own experience?  Am I trying to help her succeed?  She’s had straight A’s for years.  And some people do their best work under pressure – I’m one of them (at times) – perhaps she is as well.

I’m not a control freak Mom – in fact, I’m about the farthest thing from it.  I’ve got more of the hippie approach – live and let live, make your own mistakes, etc.  And I don’ t really feel that putting me off with “just a sec” is disrespectful (although her dad does.)  Maybe it’s that I want her to understand that some things, like your work, deserve a certain level of importance and attention.  She’ll find other things in life that do too, things that should not be treated with the same cavalier attitude, the attitude which implies that something else matters more than the task that duty requires.  Being a bit verbose, aren’t I?  I guess I’m trying to work this out in my own head. 

It may tie to my pet peeve of taking responsibility for your own actions, your own things.  It may be one of those lessons she’ll have to learn on her own when it backfires on her and she DOESN’T get the grades she so prides herself on.  Either way, I suppose I need to let her own the problem (as my buddy says), but that’s not what Moms do – though maybe it’s what they need to do. 

I was going to say that I trust that she’ll figure out what’s most important, and I was thinking that means work and duty and conforming to the requirements of society and adulthood.  Huh.  To that, I say “Bah!” and perhaps “Pah!”.  She’s already got her priorities straight.  Do your best, love the people around you, make time for nature and friends and follow your own star.  Isn’t that exactly what I’m fighting to do now that I am breaking out of the corporate coffin?  And isn’t that what we want our kids to do?  I don’t want her to be CEO of Nestle (though that would imply all the chocolate I want).  I just want her to be happy and independent and comfortable in every sense of the word.  I want her to be able to toss her hat up in the air, having made it on her own.

Just the things I have been procrastinating about for the last fifteen years.  Go figure.

Eldorado

I’ve watched Kelsea’s education with an interested, inquisitive and critical eye for almost ten years now.  It continues to be a journey, one that has brought up many memories of my own education.  As  a parent, you find yourself having to help with homework, and trying to remember things that you learned 35 years ago, and have now forgotten.  Thank the Gods for Google – it’s a great mind-refresher.

The questions that Kelsea keeps justifiably raising are, “Why do I need to learn this?  When am I ever going to use this?”  Well, I provide the standard maternal responses – “We all have to pay our dues.” “You never know what you’re going to wind up doing with your life.”  But inside, I’m saying, “She’s right!  When is she EVER going to have to know about Elodea leaves and what happens to their cells when you put them in salt water??  And when is she ever going to have to use negative numbers?  This person wants to be a paramedic.  She wants to work in a bookstore in Hay-on-Wye in Wales.”

Our academic system – the whole “no child left behind” and C-SAP testing – may (and I say MAY) support children who are at a disadvantage in one way or another, but for the majority of children, it doesn’t seem to teach them anything useful, anything that will actually help them develop their identity and the skills they will need for whatever profession they choose, unless that profession is academics.  A friend told me that all of the things they are teaching her really boil down to teaching her different ways to think.  I support THAT, if that is so.

But even if that is indeed the case, why is it not possible to make the entire academic experience more engaging?  It feels as if we are training our children that they must get up at a certain time and go do something that bores them until they are “freed”.  Sounds like a lot of our jobs, doesn’t it?  Are we just conditioning them into the same monotonous, choice-free way of life that the majority of us now experience?  Why is it not possible to foster a culture of free-thinking entrepreneurs among our youth?

I understand and appreciate that there are academic standards that need to be met — that all students need to be measured by some bar that indicates their level of competency.  What I don’ t understand is why it has to be so dry.  There are teachers out there who have very creative and engaging ways of educating, but who are stifled by the regimentation of the system.  Typically, those teachers are beloved and remembered by students, not because their classes were slack, but because their classes were inspiring and fun, and subsequently, their subject matter is remembered.  But these are the same teachers who are challenged and reprimanded by principals and school boards (and by parents who fear non-conformity.)

When children are in the lower grades, creativity and fun are emphasized in the learning process.  Make the child love school.  Why do we abandon that at the higher grade levels, when children are once again changing, and need to be helped to love school again?  Kelsea used to cry when she was unable to go to school because she was sick.  Now, it’s like pulling teeth to get her enthused – and she’s smart, social and has good grades.  Imagine if she were none of those things.  The challenge for both her and us would be magnified to the nth degree.  (To her credit, when Pat and I both wanted her to take a mental health day not so long ago, she employed her own ethics and decided it wasn’t the right thing for her to do – even though she had begged us to not make her go to school on previous days.  I was proud of her.)

Yes, it might take a little more work to come up with interactive and interesting ways of getting core information across.  But wouldn’t it be more interesting, rewarding and challenging for the teachers and the students?

While I have been evolving this opinion over a number of years now, what really heightened my awareness was my introduction to the grammar texts of Karen Elizabeth Gordon:  The Deluxe Transitive Vampire and The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed.  Both books teach all the core concepts of grammar and punctuation, as well as some valuable nuances, using examples that are entertaining and memorable.    Since the English language can be a toy, of course it’s easier to make English textbooks fun than to make an Algebra textbook fun, but by gum, I’m certain it can be done, and there are no doubt geeks or academics who would be more than willing to take on the challenge.

And about school start times….physiologically, kids in the teen years don’t have their melatonin levels raise until late in the evening.  They’re not ready to go to bed early and they’re not ready to get up early.  Everyone’s lives would be more pleasant and productive if school didn’t start until 9:30 or 10:00, and get out at 4:00 or 5:00.  What’s the rationale?  An 8:40 start time does not allow parents to get to work at 8:00, and a 3:30 release time does not allow them to work until 5:00.  (Not that I am in agreement with an 8:00 to 5:00 workday either.)

Who among us adults, even now in our 40’s, does not have those dreams of going to a class and realizing you’ve missed the entire semester and are now here for the final?   Or of not being able to find the classroom for the entire year?  Why do we still have nightmares about school when we are well-established professionals?  I think it speaks to the angst and trauma that the current academic system instills in us on a level of which we are unaware — unaware because we are following a formula that is incompatible with our core.

Make classes have a more global focus.  Make them more interactive.  Make them fun.  Make school a comfortable and welcoming place to go.  Respect our children’s native intelligence.  And our children will learn and be hungry to learn more.  It’s that simple.  Then perhaps our children will not be subject to our nightmares later on.

education1

This is National Blueberry Popsicle Month….and today is Happy Goose Day.   Interpret “Goose” any way you want.

Fall started last week, and I remarked about summer’s last kiss in a post.  Today, it feels more evident.  We turned the heat on this morning, and Kelsea got dressed under the covers.  I remember doing that when I was young.  My parents always kept the house at 62 degrees, regardless of how cold it was outside, which meant that it was always cold inside during the winter. 

You come up with ways of coping with a cold house in the morning – for me, it was indeed getting dressed under the covers, then going to crouch on the hearth like Cinderella, scraping through the ashes from the previous night’s fire, looking for live coals.  I wonder if keeping the house so cool was another carryover from my parents’ Depression-era upbringing.  There’s something to be said for that frugal lifestyle; any child raised to think that this is the norm seems to grow up with an ingrained thriftiness.  Or they go to the opposite extreme and indulge in overspending.  I followed the thriftiness path and it has served me well.

Fall was my father’s favorite season.  Being raised in a mining town in the Appalachian mountains in West Virgina, he appreciated the colors of the turning trees, perhaps all the more because of his poor vision and photographer’s eye.  His internal temperature was always warm (I have never met anyone else who always had warm hands – he spent hours warming my little ones in his.)  He liked school, and fall meant the start of another school year.  He loved the crispness in the air and the crunch of leaves beneath his feet. 

He and I used to take walks on Sunday afternoons in the fall, just the two of us, from the time I was small until my teens.  I can remember the crunch of leaves under our feet as we walked through East Campus.  We’d usually go to the Summerhouse and the Fish Pond, then head back home.  As always, we talked about anything and everything – and sometimes nothing, just walking along holding hands.  I recall scents:  of dry dust from the shattered leaves, of wood smoke from houses along the street going home, of whatever my mother was cooking for dinner when we opened the front door.

One of the last times I saw him, we sat in the living room, he in the Daddy Chair as usual, and I asked him what his best memory was.  It was simple, personal, set in my grandmother’s house when he was a teenager.  He had never told anyone about it before.  No one had ever asked him that question.  And while it was nothing intimate, it was so intimate to his heart that I treat it as a tender trust, and one I will not share here.  A lovely last gift he gave to me.

So the grass outside the cottage is scattered with yellow leaves that the big tree, the one that smell so amazing in the spring, is now shedding.  The morning birds are much fewer.  There’s only a single cricket holding concert in the evening.  Fall is barely here, but already I find my heart turning towards spring, bypassing the thought of winter completely.

Perhaps I will take a walk with my father one of these dusks.

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