Parental Elastic

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Fifth grade.  It’s impossible to watch my daughter grow and not remember myself at her age.  Fifth grade was a turning point.  Fourth grade was rotten.  Third grade was unremarkable.  Second grade was amazing, but little kid amazing.  I remember finally feeling like I was growing into myself in fifth grade.  Watching my daughter start to navigate this school year I am struck that there is something more than a new year and a new teacher going on.  For the first time, I can really see her starting to become the adult she will be someday – not in flashes, but in persistent displays of adult. Grown up.  Not little kid.

The first day of fifth grade, my husband and I walked her up to school, like we had every single day of daycare, preschool, and elementary school.  Then the ultimatum: we could walk her to the gate, but no farther.  Most of the other kids’ parents didn’t drop them off at school, even in third or fourth grade, she explained, so it was time for us to stop too.

Last year this announcement might have stung.  Two years ago, my feelings would have been hurt.  Three years ago, I would have talked her out of her decision.  Now?  It was okay.  I had been feeling the awkwardness myself.  Watched the dwindling parents. Noticed the kids didn’t come and say “Hi Coach Johanna” anymore.  Heck, I wasn’t even sure they remembered I was their second-grade soccer coach.  In some ways it was a relief.  Dropping her off a block from school gave me a chance to get to work on time and avoid the yoga-mom chit-chat after the bell rang.

Two weeks in, a new development.  Her friend approached her about biking to school together.  So, our routine shifted.  My husband or I ride her to her friend’s house, then ride home while Afthead Junior and her buddy head to school.  Now I’m out the door to work before school even starts, with a little bit of exercise under my belt, and the girls ride their bikes home alone every day.

I remember the freedom of walking home from school.  I remember the fear when a new route creeped me out for some reason, and the joy of taking my time during a nice day or when there was a friend to walk with.  I remember watching for mean dogs, like the one in the Ramona Quimby book.  When my daughter comes home five minutes later than normal with a big grin on her face I’m happy for her freedom, for her exploration, for her independence.  Sometimes she tells me why she’s late, and sometimes she doesn’t.  It’s a step toward a more grown up relationship where she shares what she wants, not just because I’m her mom and she’s supposed to.

Heading out for our annual Labor Day camping trip I grabbed my favorite “won’t wash my hair for three days” headband.  I pulled it on and heard the little elastic strings woven into the headband fabric snap.  The band fell down.  In the past year, while I wasn’t paying attention, the elastic had passed on into the land of non-stretchiness.

With my hair askew and my useless headband around my neck it hit me.  There are no apron strings between parent and child.  At least not in my situation.  There is an elastic band holding us together.  In the beginning it was tight tight tight.  It held her inside me as she grew into a baby.  It held her to me when she was an infant and couldn’t walk.  The first snappings happened as she toddled away screaming “I can do it.”  She needed more space.  The band got less and less restrictive as she went off to preschool, kindergarten, elementary school.  It was strong enough so that when her friends were mean, her coach yelled, or she failed at school the energy in the elastic always pulled her to me: back to safety and momma.

But now I can feel the elastic slipping.  There are less stretchy bits left than non-stretchy bits.  What will happen when all the elastic is gone?  Will we toss it like a cheap pair of underwear?  Like a swimsuit gone see-through and obscene?  Will I store it away in some box where it will sit next to baby teeth going to dust, pulling it out occasionally to caress the rotting fabric and reminisce of days when our relationship was simultaneously simpler and more complicated.  When I always stood between her and the dangers of the world.  Will I brandish it at her when she doesn’t call or doesn’t come home for the holidays demanding she remember what I did for her?  Or, will we keep it and use it when we need it?  When her boyfriend (or girlfriend) dumps her, will she pull it out and wrap it around us?  When her own baby is born will she stretch it around me and her own new elastic band providing an extra layer of support to a new precious life?  When I’m infirm and heading to the rat-infested nursing home will she give it to me, so I can clutch desperately to the fragile ties between us?  Whatever happens, these long-term connections are a choice, not a given as they were when she was tiny and wee.

Apron strings can be knotted, ripped open, re-typed, or left dangling at will.  Our bond has more of an air of inevitability about it.  Someday it will not be needed, but I hope it will be wanted.  I hope there will always be days when she chooses to ask my advice, spend time with me, or just snuggle up next to me because she finds me a comfort.  And I hope I’m brave enough and wise enough to give her the space she needs, letting the elastic continue to stretch to fit our ever-changing relationship.

Last week an early morning rush to band left her frazzled.  The week of soccer, running, homework, early mornings, and late nights caught up with her.  We’d barely seen each other between our non-coincident commitments.  She gathered her trumpet and her backpack and then asked, just outside of school in view of any other early arrival, “Mom, can I have a hug?”  I got out and held her while she cried.  Then I opened the car door and told her, “Get in.  You can practice trumpet at home.”  We sat together in the basement, annoying her sleeping dad, while she played for me and pretended to be her band teacher: giving herself corrections and praise.  An hour later I dropped her off at school and she ran in with her normal quick hug and “Love you mom.”  I watched her turn the corner then drove off to start my own day.

Earth Day in my Gardens

It’s Earth Day!  What better way to celebrate than to show you my gardens?  This post was written last year when Amanda Soule of Soulemama asked her readers to submit a piece about their garden.  Each month she selected one to share with her readers.  Well, my gardens never made her blog, but they can sure make mine!  Shall we go for a stroll?


Gardener: Johanna Levene

Garden Location and Zone: Denver, Colorado – Zone 5

Vegetable Garden Size: Home (300 sq feet) School (500 sq feet)

Image 1 - windows into the gardenSpring in the Garden 

How long have you been gardening?

I don’t ever remember not gardening.  My spring and summer childhood memories revolve around Mother’s Day flower shopping, mixing bright blue Miracle Grow water for tomato planting, and sitting very quietly with my mom listening for tomato hornworms as they chewed their way through our plants. When we found one we’d fling it into the street, except the one time we put it in a terrarium and watched it grow into a spectacularly terrifying moth.

Image 2 - Johanna in the gardenMe and Raggedy Ann in my grandma’s garden 40 years ago

I taught my husband to garden when we bought our house and he has taken over most of the maintenance while I still focus on the new plantings and the vegetable garden.  We’ve moved away from the chemical fertilizer of my childhood to organic gardening, but he brings a new kind of technology to our efforts.  As a mechanical engineer he can be found weekend mornings walking around our yard with his AutoCAD drawings of our garden recording the growth, blooms and colors of the plants.  He maintains both an electronic and hard copy of these maps:  he is a modern garden dork.

 Why do you garden?

Gardening is one pastime that brings our family of diverse interests together.  In our life we have two working parents and an only child and it’s easy to get swept away in all the things we “should” be doing.  Gardening makes us slow down and spend time together because we all enjoy being outside together playing in the dirt.

Where do you go for gardening inspiration?

My garden inspiration is largely found in walks through the neighborhood, visits to my parent’s house, and trips to my local nursery.  I have been known to steal seeds from a neighbor’s unique flower or bring a trowel when visiting a friend who has a particularly pretty iris.  

What’s your biggest gardening challenge?

In Denver late freezes, summer hail, and early freezes are the destroyers of gardens.  Last year we planted two Sundays before Memorial Day and our garden was demolished by hail two days later.  The year before we had Japanese Beetles for the first time.  We tried to control their population by borrowing a friend’s chickens for a weekend.  We believed in that solution so much that we got our own chickens last year in order to avoid loading chickens into the back of my Subaru.  Also chickens turn bugs into eggs, which is awesome.

Image 3 - Hail DamageLate May hail damage and our white picket fence.  Poor plants.

 What’s your biggest garden accomplishment?

For the past couple of years we have included our daughter’s friends in the planting and harvesting of our garden, and we’ve loved introducing new kids to our garden.  Last year our family expanded our influence to include seventy-five third graders at our public elementary school.  The parent who had been in charge of our school garden was graduating her oldest child, so when the school asked for volunteers we jumped at the chance.  We plant with the kiddos in late May and harvest in September.  We love every minute of it.  My favorite moment last year was at the plant sale when this tough eighth grade boy came loping down the stairs and said, “Do I smell tomato plants?  I love that smell.” Even the big kids get excited about the garden.  The school garden gives kids a focal point that they look forward to in the younger grades, own in third and fourth grade, and then remember in the later grades.

What do you most love to grow?

We grow flowers and vegetables.  In the veggie garden tomatoes and Anaheim peppers are our standby favorites, but the past few years we’ve grown potatoes, and they are magical.  The plant grows, the plant dies and you don’t know what the harvest looks like until you dig around.  We never fail to miss a spud or two so the potatoes just keep perpetuating.  Oh, and don’t get me started on pumpkins.  One day you have no pumpkins and the next day one has grown so big you can’t get it out of the tomato cage.

Image 6 - pumpkin in a cagePumpkin in a cage

In the flower beds we have tons of spring bulbs: tulips, miniature iris, hyacinths, crocus, and daffodils.  My heart thaws every February when the first crocus appears.  We’ve got color all year, but the flower gardens reach their peak in spring and early summer.  In Colorado, July and August are a bit hot and dry for many blooms.

If you have children, what role do they play in your gardening?

We include our daughter as much as she wants to be included.  From year to year her interest and commitment change, but we try not to force her into gardening because we think nothing ruins a kid’s love of “yard work” like being told they must participate.  Last year my husband and I did most of the planting – both times, stupid hail – by ourselves.  The spring vegetables are her favorite and she’ll head out to the garden before school to snack on lettuce and snap peas.  In the fall she’ll help us harvest the veggies and process them for storage.  Our daughter is also enjoying our new role as garden parents at school and is looking forward to her turn planting the school garden this year.

Image 7 - baby in the gardenGardening before she could walk eight years ago

 Can you share one or two of your favorite gardening tips?

We’ve lucked into a couple of natural pest solutions that make gardening easier:  plant cilantro right next to your tomatoes to keep the hornworms away, and a huge lemon verbena plant in the middle of everything keeps a variety of pests away and smells great when you *accidentally* crush it when weeding.

 Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your garden?

We have an urban garden at our house, and it supplements our meals, but does not come close to providing all the food our family eats.  Our school garden provides an opportunity for kids to learn where food comes from and harvest a feast for the fourth graders in the fall.  Our gardens are as much about growing our family and community as they are about growing food.

 Can you tell us about yourself?

By day, Johanna Levene is a manager of a team of ten web developers, database administrators, analysts and projects managers that build web tools about renewable energy and alternative fuels.  In the evenings she transitions to a mom of a third grader which can include the roles of a soccer coach, gardener, meal maker, and pet caretaker of two cats, one hamster, three chickens, and a few snails.  Once the kiddo goes to bed, Johanna’s evening persona morphs into a crafter with a primary focus on knitting, and an aspiring novelist.  When she’s not busy with the rest of that stuff she manages to be a wife too.

The Third Day of Third Grade

I watch you.  I watch you watch them.  The pair labeled your “best friends”and the other one.  They laugh and touch and a little girl gravitational force pulls them together as it repels you.

I watch you.  I watch the jealousy and anger coil up inside you and I hope that it finds release before you snap inappropriately.  You stare unblinkingly with your ice blue eyes and the look is pure hurt because you are left out.

I watch you.  I watch as your new friend, “Well maybe friend,” you’ve said, “but not yet” walks up to you and you don’t even acknowledge her presence.  I talk to her and compliment her sweatshirt and make pleasantries, which you should be doing, but you don’t because you can’t stop staring across the blacktop as your best friends and the other laugh at something.  They are too far away, so we cannot hear what they laugh at, but we can see they are having fun without you.

I watch you.  I watch as the second maybe new friend walks up and you ignore her too.  Opportunities surround you but you can’t see them because you want to be over there with them in their class.  You want the comfort of last year.  You want familiar.  You want to be inside the threesome again and not stuck outside looking in.  The two maybe new friends stand silently ignored and you continue fester until you turn and say, “I told you I’m not popular anymore.”

I want to hurl idiotic phrases at you.  You catch more flies with honey.  Life isn’t fair.  Make new friends, but keep the old.  I want to stop your stare and refocus it on the sweet kids around you.  I want to plaster over your hurt and wounded heart and tell you it will be okay, but I don’t do any of that.  It might not be okay.  You might lash out at your old friends and miss the opportunity for new friends.  You might lose them all.  I wish for a tree to sprout between your class’s line and the other class’s line so that you don’t have to see them having fun without you.  I know it might be a long and lonely year.

I think of Rachel and Stacy 34 years ago on my playground.  I remember wishing for what they had: for the heads close together and the whispers and hand games and true friendship and wondering, “How do they do that?”  I remember longing for what they had, but never finding it.  I watch you and hope the hurt of my third grade isn’t repeated in the next generation with a different pain of loss instead of longing.

I watch you and feel the agony of a mother’s anguish.  I watch you and hope it will be okay.

The bell rings and the pain of everything makes reach for a hug and kiss, needing to be loved too much to remember I’m embarrassing.  I pour my heart into you, because you are loved and you are amazing and you can do this, and then we part.  I watch you.  I watch you walk away alone.

 

 

End of School – Pain or Pleasure AKA Introvert or Extrovert

In the Afthead house we are plowing through to the end of the school year.  Combined with Mother’s Day and little Afthead’s birthday, this time of year is non-stop parties, events and social obligations.  This past weekend’s schedule for my family was:

  • Friday – School, soccer game, family birthday party
  • Saturday – Soccer game, arts festival at school, performance of Frog and Toad at school, sleepover
  • Sunday – Soccer game, birthday party with 10 girls

Note that we only have one kid!  How is this schedule possible?  We made it, and Monday morning I dropped my exhausted daughter off at school and trudged back toward my car.  When I saw a mom who I knew had a soccer party for 15 boys Sunday night I was excited to commiserate.

I started the conversation, “I hear you had 15 boys on your trampoline last night.  You must be crazier than I am.  I only had 10 girls and a swing.”

She looked at me and said, “Oh, it was so amazing last night.  I looked at all those kids and all those families and just thought about how lucky I am.  The kids got along so well, and the families were so great.  I am just so grateful for this amazing school and these experiences we get to provide our kids.”

I think I may have managed a grunt in reply, which was way better than what I was screaming inside: “WHAT IN THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT LADY?!?  AREN’T YOU TIRED AND CRANKY AND OVERWHELMED FROM ALL THIS STUFF!?!”

On the drive to work I evaluated the situation and, before I felt too bad about my reaction, a light came on in my dazed attic.  I am an introvert.  When things get crazy I want to lock myself in with my family and hide from the world.  Sometimes it gets so bad that I don’t even want my family.  By Monday I did not want to make small talk with some almost friend about how lucky we are.  I wanted to hide, but her gushing made perfect sense.  She is an extrovert.  She was probably so energized by her weekend of soccer, festivals, performances and parties that she was ready to explode, but in a good way.  Not the way I was ready to explode.

I tested my theory at work.  Sure enough my mom friends who are extroverts thought my weekend sounded amazing and glorious.  My introvert friend said, “this time of year is just survival mode” and she is so right.  It makes me sad that I can’t revel in this situation.  I want to be able to find utter joy in the past weekend, but I can’t, and that’s okay.  I am so fortunate, but I am not lucky.  I could use a week between each one of the events so I could be present and recharged and delighted for every one of them.  This time of year the extroverts are lucky.  I am going to avoid them until school is over.