I Know Thee

It was just beginning to snow by the time I browbeat thirteen-year-old Thing1 into a clean T-shirt and into the car last Thursday. We were headed to Hubbard Hall for a pay-what-you-will dress rehearsal of 'King Lear', and, for the first time all year, Thing1 had decided he really wanted to do homework.

“Who are you and what have you done with my son?” I asked as we got into the car. He rolled his eyes at me. Any other night, such devotion to homework would have prompted me to call a mental health professional, but we had to get to dinner before the show, and I decided not to spike the ball.

Thirteen has made Thing1 unrecognizable somedays. A winter ago on the same road, anticipating another winter Shakespeare tragedy, this same young man regaled me with the intricacies of modifying his favorite computer game. Thursday night, he kept his own council.

I asked about his day at school and got mostly monosyllabic answers to my questions. Finally, I asked the right question.

“How are you liking The Crucible?” The two of us had seen that play a year earlier at another local theatre, and I hoped the experience was enhancing his classwork.

“I'm just bored with it,” he finally answered.

“With the play?” I asked. “Or the class in general?” I thought I knew his answer. Thing1 loves math and science and considers English classes state-sanctioned torture. But I didnt know him as well as I thought.

“I'm bored with school,” he said, and my head nearly exploded with the questions that were forming. For the next fifteen minutes and then the next hour at dinner and in the theatre as we waited for King Lear to disown a loving daughter and a loyal servant only to realize he didn't understand their motives all that well, I uncovered a wealth of curiosity and dreams that my son had been quietly nurturing these last few months.

Instead of a knave bent on defying his parents' entreaties to take homework seriously, I was seeing a boy hungry for inspiration at school but determined to find it on his own if necessary. I was seeing a spark and, with it, the boy I thought I knew.


The Woodpile


We don’t have a furnace, but we do have an amish-made wood cookstove that burns about five cords of wood every winter.  Over the last few years, thirteen-year-old Jack has increasingly enjoyed the triple-warming feature of our chosen heat source.  

As Jack’s body has grown, so has his part in the stacking, hauling, and burning.  Some years he even takes on the lion’s share of the stacking in hopes of earning some cash.  Even the small income, however, has not taught him to appreciate the woodpile.

Monday we each had a day off.  I decided to lend him a hand.  After lunch, we each donned work gloves and earbud and started ferrying logs to the woodshed.  

It was quiet work.  Each of us was listening to music, but, as Jack has grown taller, he has also become more introspective. Spontaneous utterances are rare.   He meets most of my queries these days with monosyllabic answers.

As the first cord formed in the shed, however, Jack volunteered the remark on the increase in speed when there were two stacking.  I concurred, adding that it was almost pleasant when you got moving.  Jack retreated to silence again.  I asked what music he was listening to, extracting an answer after repeating the questions several ways.

I entertain no illusions about my hipness as a mother (only my fitness as one), and I was glad just to know a little about Jack’s evolving music tastes.  In the next hour we would chat about his English grade, the computer he’s been working toward over the last year, and his favorite video game.  In the end, the wood stacking warmed each of us, but in completely different ways.  For Jack, it was still just a chore.  For me, it was one more thing in my life that reminding me to feel thankful.

Wedge Issues

Wedge issues

Thirteen-year-old Jack and I have always been able to bond, not just over the mother-child kissing of boo-boo’s or doling out of hugs after a meltdown, but because we have a lot of the same interests.  Lately, Jack’s primary interest has been focused on all things computer.  I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this interest.  I love that he has a hobby that lets me bond with my son while we discuss digital life.  I hate that his passion has also become a wedge.

At the end of the school year, Jack brought home a less-that-stellar grade on a final exam, and the Big Guy and I lowered the boom.  He had already enrolled in computer camp (his first sleep away camp), so we let him indulge his obsession over the summer.  When he got home, however, we made it clear that until a satisfactory first progress report came home from school, he was grounded from the computer.  We live in the middle of the woods and any social event requires us to act as chauffeur, so traditional grounding is redundant.  Jack’s obsession revived the punishment as a useful stick.  

We’re not shy about removing privileges or assigning extra chores when the occasion arises, and, in the past, Jack has seen the error of his ways and usually accepted our punishments as just.  Something about being thirteen, however, has made the enforcement of this sentence much less pleasant.  

The punishment has inspired tortured looks of betrayal from my first born.  It’s prompted legal arguments about the wisdom of ending the punishment earlier and, as homework requires more time on the computer, it’s also inspired him to attempt head-on defiance of the punishment.  No longer are we the people he trusts without question.  No longer is our judgement sound.  In his eyes there is now the constant question that, if we are so wrong about this punishment, what other things have his parents been wrong about?  I don’t think he questions our love for him, but, for the first time in our relationship, he’s actively questioning if we know what we’re doing.   I have that question all the time (and I can write it because I know he doesn’t read this blog).  

I remember my parents using similar carrots and sticks and how they became wedges as well.  It didn’t take becoming a parent to see around the wedge, but I think it did take walking this mile in their moccasins to see that the wedge really brought us closer because at that point they weren’t trying to be my friends.  They were being my parents.  And that’s ultimately what any kid needs.

Un-Tunnel Vision

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I hadn’t been on a bike in 20 years and was more than a little nervous about the prospect of spending 3 hours riding on mountain trails – however flat they were.  The last time I was on a bike a motorist had literally run me off the road into a ditch, and, after limping my bike home, I stuck to walking.  But this has been a summer of redemption for me, and it would continue to be from the first 10 minutes of our journey.

Fortunately, you really don’t forget how to ride a bike, and my summer fitness plan – intended to make sitting in a standard-size train seat more comfortable – paid off once again.  The mechanics were in place, and we would be riding in a converted railroad bed, ensuring there would be no maniacal motorists.  Faking the absence of fear was getting easier as we got closer to the starting gate, and then the trail guide began giving us the rundown of the road we were about to travel.  

We were to start with a 1 1/2 mile ride through a tunnel with no light save for our headlights.  There would be several tunnels throughout the ride, and several of them had trenches running alongside them.  I listened and smiled, taking courage from the relaxed faces of my family, but my stomach was already beginning to churn.  

The safety warnings noted, we mounted our bikes and headed for the first tunnel.  Thirteen-year-old Jack and his eighteen-year-old cousin, already thick as thieves despite having only met a few days earlier, charged ahead.  Fearless but not reckless, Jack sped towards the tunnel.  I was still getting my bike lets and was happy to pedal more slowly.  The Big Guy was trailing our youngest son, and went between us.

The darkness closed in around us quickly.  Behind me I heard one of my nieces struggling with her own fears, and the mom in me slowed to try and comfort her.  Her father, however, was just behind us and, falling back on his twenty years of military-instilled discipline, barked at her to get moving.  It worked for both of us.  I began peddling and calling back encouragement to my niece. 

Jack and his cousin got to the end of the tunnel first and were waiting for the adults.  One by one, we emerged, blinking at the summer sun.  I was shaking a bit, but when I looked at my oldest son, there was only excitement and happiness with the day and the mountains around him.  There was no fear, and I could see there hadn’t been any.  Part of me pondered how he got so brave with a mother who constantly lets fear govern her life – and his sometimes.  The other part of me was absorbing his excitement.  

We snapped a few shots of cousins and then pedaled further.  Every mile featured breathtaking views and, often, equally breathtaking drops that seemed incredibly close to the road.  The further we traveled, however, the less I even felt the fears that would normally have me thinking about the size of the drops and what it would be like to fall from them.

The sun in the cloudless sky that framed the majestic peaks that surrounded us drenched the day’s palette in intense blues and greens.  It also brought everything into sharp focus.

Jack and his cousin remained in the lead the rest of the ride.  And, while he was busy growing the part of me that had absorbed his excitement and joy realized that I was busy being reborn. 

To Sir, with Thanks

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To Sir Paul,

This is a Thank You note from a long-time fan and a grateful parent.  About three weeks ago, our entire family traveled from Vermont to Boston to see you perform at Fenway Park.  We were a little nervous – it was our first visit to Boston in over a year, and we had high hopes.  Thanks to you, they were met in ways we hadn’t begun to imagine.

We got to our seats in Fenway just about quarter to seven and not before shelling out a sinful amount of money for T-shirts.  I rationalized this was the only time we may get to see you perform.  And, even though a friend who had been to your sound check earlier in the afternoon had warned us that you were late, we decided it was more fun to wait inside a ballpark that had so many memories for the Big Guy and I than to stand around Yawkey Way.

About forty minutes after we sat down, an introductory slideshow began scrolling up the two massive screens on either side of the stage.  I’ve been listening to your songs since I was in the womb, and my husband has been a fan since seeing you perform on Ed Sullivan, and loved seeing the photos of you and the Beatles and your more recent years.  We’ve done our best to move the tradition forward to our kids, and even they loved seeing the photos of you growing up and growing your own family.

Our six-year-old, lovingly known as Thing2 around our house, waited as patiently as I have ever seen him wait for anything.  When the first song began, about an hour and a half after the scheduled time, he was just starting to want to go back to the hotel, but when the first notes began to echo through the ball park, you brought him back.  You also brought me and the Big Guy to our feet.  The three of us were singing and dancing and clapping as you belted out, “‘Eight Days a We-e-ek.. ‘Eight Days a We-e–eek””.

My older son, twelve-year-old Thing1 who is about to be thirteen and, while not your oldest fan could possibly be your most devoted one, was sitting in his sit trying to cover his face with his hands so that he wouldn’t be recognizable if pictures of his parents dancing like idiots made it onto a concert tour DVD.  But we kept dancing, and despite himself, Thing1 began to silently mouth the words to the song.

Everytime I peeked at him, he rewarded our dancing a look of mortification.  But somewhere between ‘Eight Days a Week’ and ‘We Can Work it Out’ and your soul-lifting introduction to and rendition of Blackbird (I can scarcely remember a more uplifting moment than sitting in the dark with 30,000 people singing along with your guitar), Thing1 had an epiphany that could only have happened here.

As the Big Guy, Thing2 and I were dancing and clapping, Thing1 and I glanced across the aisle and noticed another set of parents with a pair of young sons around 10 and 12.  The mother of the family was also dancing, but the dad – about the same age as the Big Guy – was lost in the music and the moment.  Clapping his hands, waving his arms, and stomping his feet as he sang along, word for word.  He looked younger than his two horrified boys sitting beside him.

For me it was confirmation that we had all found the fountain of youth for a night.  For Thing1, it was something different.  Watching the other two boys trying to obscure their own faces as they tugged at their dad’s sleeve, begging him to dance less effusively, it dawned on my twelve-year-old that all kids have the same problem.  They have parents.  And they can’t get rid of us until they get out of the house.

Any other night that knowledge might have been depressing.  He might have thought about his future independence, but that night, Sir Paul, that knowledge became freedom.  And for the first time ever, I saw my son begin to sing along – out loud – in public.  For the first time in a long time, I saw him shed the inhibitions he had begun to take on with his adolescence, and, as he did, he began to find his way back to himself.

So, not only for the unrestrained joy I got to see on the face of my six-year-old, but the serenity Thing1 got from accepting the parents he can’t change, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.



Ma Barlow


When Words Don’t Work


We drove down on Saturday to spend the night with Jack’s aunt and uncle who live in the same town where the summer camp is being held.  Their proximity to the camp was a small source of comfort to me – I knew any real emergency would not involve Jack waiting three hours for a loved one to get to him.   My stomach still ached when I woke up Sunday morning, however.  It wasn’t the 80 degree heat at 6:00 AM that was bothering my system.  It was the knowledge that I was about to leave my first born, Jack, on his own for the first time.

Twelve-year-old Jack, excited about the week ahead at a college just the night before, was quiet when he came down to breakfast.  He ate his usual mountain of food, speaking only in answer to a direct question from me or his aunt.  Feigned stoicism has been a hallmark of his tween years, but when his little brother failed to goad him into a squabble over a Lego ship in his cereal, I asked Jack if everything was okay.

“I’m just a little nervous,” he answered, pouring a third bowl of cereal.

“You’ll do great.  You’ll do fine,” His aunt and I responded in unison, but my own worry was growing.  Was he ready for this?  I was about the same age when I spent my first summer away, but for some reason, my child seemed much younger.

The morning passed quickly, filled with a last minute haircut and shopping for toiletries.  The distraction seemed to relax him, and by the time we drove him to registration, he felt confident enough to enjoy a little eighth grade humor.

The summer camp is being held at a small college where Jack will get to indulge his computing addiction for a week.  When we got to the camp the first order of business was filing out forms and giving a deposit for his dorm key.  Paper work done, we followed paper signs with big blue arrows down the hall of the college science building toward the computer lab.

The arrows lead us around a corner and into a large room with a wall of windows.  Rows of tables weighted with the latest in computing technology filled most of the room.  As Jack noticed the games on a few of the screens and the very low-tech chess boards setup at the front of the room, he began to smile.

In less than an hour we had installed him in a dorm room and met his roommate (a one-year veteran of the camp).  We brought him back to the computer lab to say goodbyes.  Now, I was the only one feeling nervous, but it was for myself.  How was I going to spend a week without seeing his face?

All nervousness had left Jack’s face as a counselor invited him to play a computer game while he waited for the rest of the group.  I knew, for the first time, he was with other science-oriented kids, and he would be fine.  The Big Guy and I were smiling as we drove out of the college campus.

But the day’s story had just begun.

The Big Guy and I made the three hour trip home with our six-year-old.  We stopped for dinner and ice cream and settled down on the couch to try and find a new, temporary routine.  Exhaustion was helping us put the day behind us when my cell phone began beeping.  I clicked the home button, saw a Skype alert and clicked it.

“Are you there?”  It was Jack.

“Are you ok?”  I texted back.

“I think I want to come home,” he wrote.

“Are you hurt?”  I asked.  “Is anyone teasing you?  Do you feel scared?”  He answered no to my questions, and I knew he was going through what all kids experience on their first night away from home.  Making sure that he felt safe, even if he was already homesick, the Big Guy and I talked and texted him to let him know we were supporting him.

“Words just don’t help right now,” he wrote after a time.   I knew they didn’t.  I knew the only thing that would help was for him to get through the first night and see things from the fresh perspective of a seasoned camper.

Technology was a blessing and a curse in the unfolding of this story.  Once, when summer camps controlled all communications, allowing only mail and care packages in and emergency phone calls out, the parents may have been aware of the first night fears.  The ability to connect from anywhere at anytime, however, ensured that we felt his angst as keenly as he did.  As we texted good night, I also wondered if the ease of connection was less a safety net and more a crutch.

I spent most of the night with my phone on, waiting for a midnight text and worrying how he was doing.  Most likely, he’s eating breakfast right now and getting into his day, his parents once again an afterthought – as we should be this week.  I’m still watching the text screen, hoping for a positive update, but knowing that at this moment that ‘No news is good news’, is a lot more than a tired cliche.

The Path Twice Taken


It’s been almost seven years since the Big Guy wheeled me to the door of the hospital and went to get the car.  With a carefully swaddled bundle in my arms, I waited, but we weren’t alone.  The hospital staff was watching over us, but I had another more trustworthy companion waiting on me and the newest member of the family.  

Only three days earlier, when I’d looked at Jack, my then tow-headed boy, I has still seen the baby I had nursed and cuddled.  As he stood beside me, however, hovering over his new brother and checking to make sure I wasn’t getting too much draft, I realized he was firmly into the next phase.  Only then, as I sat near the hospital entrance, glancing at my new baby and then at my very protective and increasingly capable first born did it hit me that we were about to start the journey of taking a completely dependent life form from diapers to door-holding all over again.

It was a journey full of phases.  Some were longer and more arduous than others, but we loved every one of them.  I loved the nursing (once we got the hang of it) and the toothless smile.  I loved the tiny arms that wrapped around my neck, and I was already loving watching him discover the world outside our yard.

This would be the last time I traveled this path.  I was still fairly busy negotiating the next steps with Jack.  At the back of my brain, however, I made a promise to myself to not let the confidence gained over the last six years of parenting translate into indifference to the joy that the upcoming phases with Thing2 would bring.  

Trying to keep that promise has been challenging when we’re busy or swamped with bills.  For the most part both, though, the Big Guy and I have been lucky enough to see and mark the special moments.  We’ve seen the first smile and step, and we’ve been treated to the antics and theatrics.  And we’ve both repeatedly commented that it’s all going too fast.

A few weeks ago I went to a family reunion.  Cousins and cousins-once-removed all brought children to the event.  The ages ran the gamut from nine months to 19 years old.  Some of the cousins met for the first time that weekend, but any shyness was trampled under the feet of toddlers chasing teenagers around the yard.  

The nine-month-old belonged to the daughter of one of my cousins and was the perfect age for the grown ups to play with.  The child’s aunts and grandparents and cousins were only too happy to hold and cuddle her so that the young mother could take a break.   

On the last night of the reunion, the youngest cousin was hungry and fussy after a day of sight-seeing, and, when her mother went to fetch a bottle, I offered to help.

“Will she come to me?” I asked hopefully.  The ten-year-old holding her was looking less enchanted as her whimpers threatened to escalate, and he nodded at me.  I scooped the baby out of his arms, settling her into mine and began to rock on my feet, mentally traveling that time when I was able to solve all my boys’ problems with milk and a snuggle.  

She settled somewhat.  Her mom handed me the bottle.  She sucked the nipple into her mouth and began to drink.  Her eyes became slits, occasionally widening to make sure I was still holding the bottle, until, sated, she gave into sleep.  For a brief minute, I thought, I would love to do this all over again.

As if on cue, Thing2 emerged from the basement where the older children were watching movies.  He watched me with the baby for a minute before wrapping his arms around my waist.  At first I thought he might be jealous or having memories of that era when he rarely left my arms.  Then he looked up at me.

“Mom, can I help with the baby?” he asked.  I looked down at him.  In that moment, I took another time trip, but this time it was to that moment in the hospital lobby.  Thing2, a superhero who always rescues me from my darker thoughts, now helped me mark a new special moment where I noticed he has slipped out of the baby/little kid phase and become part of a wider world, and I smiled at him.

“No, thanks, Buddy,” I answered and asked him if he could announce to the downstairs that it was time for the big kids to eat.  He smiled, instantly forgetting the sleeping baby two feet away as he ran to the basement door and shouted to the other kids to wash hands.  I handed the somehow still-sleeping baby back to her mother and went to get a plate together for my fussier eater and continue our journey.