- “I didn’t hear a flush!”
- “Stop licking that!”
- “Why did you draw on your face with marker?!”
- “Are those dried boogers on your shirt?!”
- “What’s that smell?!”
- “Boogers aren’t food!”
- “Don’t throw that away, I’ll eat it!”
- “You have two devices going, turn one off!”
- “Who’s going to clean this up?!”
- “How much longer do I have to stay awake?!”
When my second son was in the first grade he sang God Bless America as the opening number in the elementary school talent show. He was adorable and when he finished singing he skipped off the stage to a standing ovation. It was one of my proudest moments of motherhood, made even more so by my additional delight from a confluence of ironies only I could appreciate — the Jewish son of progressive atheist parents sang God Bless America on stage at a public school and got a standing ovation.
I’ve written about how weird it is to be one of a few Jewish families in our community, but it’s even weirder being an atheist family at our Jewish temple. The temple we attend is the only one in the county. Not the only one in the neighborhood, or the only one in town — it’s the only one in the entire county. And still the congregation is pretty small.
My husband was raised Presbyterian and gave up religion as an adult. I was raised a secular Jew in a Jewish community where some weekends I had multiple Bar Mitzvahs to attend. I grew up thinking it was normal to see Temples and delis all over the place. Anyway flash-forward to now, we currently celebrate “Christmukkah,” a made-up holiday that falls on a date most convenient for us, and with a few traditional elements taken from each of our religious and cultural backgrounds, plus the Seinfeld holiday of Festivus. It’s a great dinner party (usually Chinese food or crab legs) where our Feats of Strength are only topped by our Airing of Grievances.
Feats of Strength means something different in our family. When my son came off the stage after his performance he practically floated. The little boy with a severe stutter sang every word perfectly in front of hundreds of people. He experienced a moment of triumph in his little life after having been through so much turmoil. He learned the words to God Bless America at a church preschool my sister directs. He lived with her during the months my husband and I lived at Children’s Hospital with our oldest son during his treatment for brain cancer. God Bless America was the only song that my little guy knew all the words to. His performance at the talent show was quite a feat of strength.
Airing of Grievances has more to do with our grievances with God rather than each other. How can an atheist have a grievance with God, you wonder? It’s because I have grievances with God that I’m an atheist. My second son is very comfortable telling the new Rabbi at Hebrew school that he’s an atheist and argues that the ancient biblical stories defy all reason. The new Rabbi loves these conversations and encourages my son the keep questioning everything and stay engaged. I, in turn, love the new Rabbi for not shaming my son for expressing his religious rebellion.
One day the new Rabbi asked me the obvious question — why did I send my son to Hebrew school? I felt I could be honest with him. I want my son to know the beautiful heritage and culture of Judaism. I want him to respect other people’s religion, and to do so he must first understand his own. I want him to appreciate that he was born into a minority religion and no matter where life takes him he shares a connection with other Jews. And I want to give him a solid foundation from which he could then reject religion when he’s older.
For a long time I felt like Winona Ryder in Realty Bites where she can’t define irony but knows it when she sees it. Irony, in my opinion, exists to remind me of the absurdities and contradictions in life. It tickles and confuses me. I know something is up, but I might not be able to put my finger on it exactly. Irony is defined as a state of affairs or events that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result (I looked it up). My whole life is contrary to what I expect, but unless I’m amused by it it’s not technically ironic.
Nonetheless, I like finding moments of irony because they remind me the universe has a sense of humor. And despite everything that’s happened so should I.
We all sat crosslegged on the floor in the playroom of the local library and held our drooly, wobbly babies on our laps. Miss Mary led us in animated baby songs. I looked at this group and was relieved to see several other mommies my age. When we got up to do the hokey-pokey I wasn’t the only one whose joints creaked. A few other mommies looked like they had just recently exited adolescence, which isn’t unusual in the town where we live now. However, it didn’t take long to figure out my contemporaries in this circle were actually grandparents carving out some special time with their grand babies.
I went to mommy-and-me for only one reason, and it wasn’t to enrich my baby’s social and emotional development. I didn’t need to learn another silly song or have my daughter make another sloppy gluey art project with things she’d rather put in her mouth. I came to mommy-and-me for me — I came to find friends.
I had great luck before when I had my first son and joined a mommy-and-me group at a local temple. I clicked with some smart, funny and wonderful women who are still in my heart as I am in theirs, after years and miles apart, and the loss of my son who was the reason I found them in the first place. Those mommies became very close to me. We shared birthdays, playdates, holidays, food, clothes, swimming pools, babysitters, laughs, secrets, advice, tears, you name it. They anchored me in a sprawling city of millions and became my village.
I found that again on a smaller scale with my second son, and I hoped to find it with my daughter in my new, tiny town. Making friends at any age is hard, but making friends after moving across the country and experiencing the loss of a child is extremely difficult. Other mommies who know my story hang back politely, or once they learn my story they don’t know what to say and they hang back politely. I get it — I am the walking embodiment of their worst nightmare. Before I became a bereaved mother I wondered how someone like me even survived.
I don’t know what made me decide I needed new mommy friends. Maybe nostalgia. Maybe self-preservation. All I know is it’s a slow and shaky process to rejoin the world after a tremendous loss and this seemed like a good baby step. I made an effort. I wore actual pants instead of sweats. I even showered before the weekly class. I had high hopes but after a couple of ring-around-the-rosies I realized I wasn’t going to find my tribe in a sunny playroom at the library.
It’s difficult to relate to me. Not many people have a baby in their late forties. I personally don’t know anyone, maybe a few celebrities, but nobody in real life except me. Despite the odds and risks and the tests and the constant doctors appointments (they called it a geriatric pregnancy of all things), I had a baby when other people have grand babies. I don’t know what I have in common with the millennial moms at circle time, I figure they look at me while we sing twinkle twinkle for the millionth time and think that old showered and dressed lady seems pretty cool but I’m not sure we can hang out and eat goldfish crackers together.
I want to clarify — I have met some terrific mommies since moving here. My second son is great at making friends and I hang out with their parents who are only about one decade younger than me instead of two. These moms are awesome — an artist and a therapist — whom I adore and we love to drink canned wine from Trader Joe’s together, even if we have to drive forty-five minutes to get it.
But middle-aged ladies getting drunk on long-distance canned wine is a story for another day.
I live in what is arguably the most quaint, picture-perfect town in America. We are so adorable that when Hollywood needed to shoot a movie that took place in a camera-ready small town, they chose our town. In the middle of everything we have a square dating back about a hundred and fifty years that is now lined with specialty restaurants, boutiques and well-stocked gift shops.
I like it here a lot more than I thought I would, and everyone who knows me is surprised. I previously lived in two major cities where I ordered take-out, walked to go shopping and spent a lot of time stuck in traffic. Now I live near pastures, I cook, and the closest Target is twenty-five minutes away. It turns out I like having a lot of distance between me and everything else, and country living provides that.
My husband grew up here, which is why we wound up living in this one-Panera town. It’s the kind of place where people spend their whole lives. Everyone knows everyone — or they know someone who knows everyone — and that one person who knows everyone is my mother-in-law. Forty years of living here has made her and my father-in-law into unofficial ambassadors and local treasures.
My husband and I can never argue in the parking lot of the grocery store or it will travel back to my mother-in-law like some country knock-off of TMZ where she’s a seventy-five year-old chipper blonde version of Harvey Levin. It’s enough to make me paranoid when I go out in public. I once yelled at my son at the Piggly Wiggly then looked up to see three people who knew me. I said to my husband that his family is so well-known and visible in these parts it’s like marrying into the local Kennedys, to which he replied, “Yes, if the Kennedys were poor and dumb.”
My mother-in-law did not appreciate his self deprecating joke. Mostly because the Kennedys are Democrats and she’s not, but she was also annoyed by the poor and dumb part. Let me be clear: she is neither. “It’s only compared to the Kennedys,” my husband explained. “Everyone is poor and dumb next to them.”
I’m not saying we’re hot stuff around here. Maybe tepid stuff. But since our little family arrived a few years ago we’ve contributed to the local flair. For instance, we practically doubled the Jewish population thanks to me and the kids. Every year on Hanukkah my son brings his classmates handfuls of chocolate coins and they love them. However, our other notoriety comes from being one of two families who lost a child to a rare form of brain cancer. When someone makes eye contact and smiles at me at the store it’s sometimes difficult to figure out the context of the greeting. I don’t know if they nod because they feel sorry for me or because they like me. I hate thinking they know me as the mom who lost her son. I like being known as the Jewish mom of the kid with the chocolates.
But I absolutely love being a poor dumb Kennedy.
The other day while we waited to be called for brunch, the overly cheerful hostess said, “I have a granddaughter that age, too!” There’s only one problem. My baby isn’t my granddaughter. She’s my daughter.
I’m old. And I have a baby. I’m an old new mom. But this isn’t my first rodeo. I had my first son at 33, and my second son at 39. I thought I was an old new mom then, but the universe said, “Ha! You think you’re tired now?” I was 47 when I had my daughter. Tired doesn’t even begin to describe what those first few months were like. There was a brief window of time when I was post-natal, perimenopausal, lactating and menstruating all at once.
That deserves repeating. Post-natal (hormone frenzy), perimenopausal (hormone frenzy), lactating (hormone frenzy) and menstruating (hormone frenzy) all at the same time. People think I deserve some kind of medal for living through this without killing my husband, and maybe I do. But let’s consider my husband for a minute. He was living with a woman who was post-natal, perimenopausal, lactating and menstruating all at the same time. I’m pretty sure he deserves the medal.
I’m a much different mom now than when I became one at 33. I’m much more laissez-faire about the whole thing. Chicken nuggets for breakfast? Sure, why not. No bath tonight? Fine, more time to catch up on This is Us. Fell asleep in your clothes again? Great, that will save us time in the morning. At this point I’ve learned what the important things are and what’s not worth sweating. That, and I’m inherently lazy.
Back when I was a first-time mom I needed to be a good mom, whatever that meant. (I let go of that now.) With my oldest son, I was always present. I never checked out mentally when he talked or pretended to be working while actually playing Bubble Mania on my phone. I looked at every ingredient on everything I bought at the grocery store. I read to him. We co-slept. I took him to the park, museums, story time, art time, library time, mommy-and-me, Gymboree, My Gym, bouncy castles, carnivals, play lands, etc. I read parenting books. When he was diagnosed on the spectrum I advocated at his IEPs for the maximum amount of intervention.
He flourished and I thought it was because I did everything right. Then just before he turned ten he was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor and only had a few months to live. I bring this up not for sympathy or shock value, but to show that nothing sculpts motherhood into something unrecognizable like losing the baby that made you a mommy. I changed drastically after losing my oldest son, and not for the better. I no longer care if I do everything right. These days I feel accomplished if I can do anything right.
My middle son describes me as badass, mysterious and loving. But if I’m so mysterious then how come he can figure me out so easily? I used to think I was relaxed and sincere. An old friend once described me as down-to-earth, which I immediately confused with back-to-nature and argued that I did in fact wear deodorant.
This blog will be a lot of things because, well, I’m a lot of things. We all are. We are normal and boring and unusual and interesting all at once. I’ve experienced great heartbreak and tremendous joy. I can see the forest and the trees and both have their own beauty.
So join me — or not. It’s up to you. My blog may have a cute sit-commy title but life isn’t all set up and punch line. Whose life comes with a laughtrack anyway? Nobody I know.