Thanksgiving Tables

Thanksgiving is my favorite.

Not every year has been Martha Stewart perfect, of course. I can barely remember that first Thanksgiving after Sam’s death, which is probably for the best.

I grew up in a close-knit family with my parents and one sister. We lived in Southern California with our nearest set of grandparents on the east coast; the farther set was in Europe. More years than not, our Thanksgiving table featured place settings for four, and even though I loved our intimate, yet abundant, gathering, I also set my heart on having a big family.

The configuration of our Thanksgiving table has varied widely over the years, because that’s how it goes with families. Somebody comes home for Thanksgiving, but somebody else doesn’t because there are exams and expenses and LAX. Some years, distant family members are in town, and most years include “orphans” whose biological family lives too far away to break bread with. Some years are elegant, displaying antique linens and heirloom silver, and some are casual, featuring jeans, paper plates, plastic forks. Some years we have had double days, feasting early at one house and later at another. I have served as host, guest and orphan, and there are aspects I love about each, but at the end of the day the togetherness is what I adore. And the gratitude. Even on our darkest days, we have something to be grateful for. Usually several somethings.

Eight years ago, Sam’s family and mine limped to an aunt’s house to be together in both our sadness and our celebration of Thanksgiving. With heavy hearts, Tim and the boys brought a plate from Thanksgiving dinner to Debbie in her hospital room.

This year, our family will gather, as we have done now for several years, at one grandparents’ house. And by “our family” I mean mine, Tim’s, Sam’s and Debbie’s. Everybody. Unbelievable. I never imagined that there would be so much joy in this next chapter of our lives. But here we are.

We will have all eight of the boys’ grandparents together at one proverbial table. Not only do they bring their signature dishes and quirky behaviors, but more significantly they bring all their best qualities – their faithfulness and humor, patience, perspective and insight. They bring their tenacity and strength. And their gentleness and understanding. They bring their love and acceptance in that arms-open-wide grandparental way. A veritable feast.

I have my big family: my doting husband Tim and our four sons, my parents plus three sets of in-laws, an abundance of aunts and uncles, plenty of sisters-and-brothers-in-law and a plethora of cousins, nieces, nephews and goddaughters. I love it even more than I thought. It’s chaotic and messy and inclusive. It’s crazy loud. There are way more loved ones in attendance than we have silverware or crystal. Needless to say, the logistics require more than simply adding a leaf to extend the table. It’s exhausting. I’m so grateful.

A family football game, friends and food. Full hearts. Full plates. Full house. Gratitude. Thanksgiving is my favorite.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a Happy Thanksgiving.

Brotherly Love

People often ask me, regarding our blended family, how our collective boys get along together. The short answer is that they get along like brothers.

The long answer is much the same. Like brothers, they quarrel and bicker and jockey for the shotgun seat in the car. They get jealous and snarky. They borrow each other’s jackets and earphones and telephone chargers and forget to return them. They throw jabs and hurl insults (and other blunt objects). They all duck when they sense I’m about to ask somebody to take out the trash.

They fight over who gets the keys to their car and who gets stuck driving the mommy-mobile. They hide the preferred xBox controller from each other. Even though three of them are six feet tall or even taller, they push over each other like puppies, dashing around the house searching for Easter eggs.

They almost always refer to each other as “my brother,” even when they are introducing the brothers with the same name, as in “Hello, I’m Michael, and this is my brother Michael.” None of them even bother to explain this apparent maternal glitch any more.

They protect each other. They all want to know the name of the kid who the youngest brother was playing basketball with when he suffered his concussion. But I won’t tell. Their hearts all sink when they learn of a group project in which one brother’s partner forgot to bring his model, and then they share their own stories of botched group projects, late nights, and strategies for recovery. They go see the Fast & Furious together, and they watch How I Met Your Mother and YouTubes of silly cat commercials.

One of the boys in particular will consistently throw himself in front of the oncoming train that is Crazy-Mom-With-Her-Head-Spinning in an attempt to save his brothers. Another shares his strategy for derailing She-Who-Might-Start-Yelling, “If you make her laugh, she forgets why she’s mad.” They drive each other around, and they all drive me crazy. I am crazy about all of them. I could not be happier.

They admire and emulate each other. They are embarrassed by each other. They tease each other. They amuse each other. They argue about who will be the tallest, or the most successful, or who would make the best priest. They share secrets. They all know where I hide my stash of dark chocolate. They worry about each other. They take pride in each other’s accomplishments. They race. They compete. They shove each other and then pick each other up. They bring out the best — and worst — in each other.

They are each so different. Even the ones who are biologically related. Even the two with the same name. Even the two who share the same birthday. My husband and I are amused by the fact that the two who – at first blush – look most alike are not biologically related. And we marvel at the fact that the boy who is uncannily like Tim is not his biological son. Then again, we cannot quite explain how very much like me the drama king is, when I am not the woman who gave birth to him.

I have modified the following segment of Sunday’s weekly liturgy to suit our daily purposes and taped it to the front of our refrigerator (the refrigerator being the most heavily trafficked location in the house of boys):

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should have blessed me with so many brothers under my roof, but only say the word and our relationship will be healed.” 

~ Revised Queen Charlotte Version

It is nearly six years now since the boys first met each other. Predictably, they were not sure about this whole Brady Bunch business. Nobody wanted to share his surviving parent with more brothers. Understandably, nobody wanted to compromise, or coordinate, or share a bedroom or the remote control. When I think about it, six years seems a relatively short time to reach this place where they love each other like brothers, even if on some days they don’t like each other much.

Brotherly love does not mean they never argue, it means they hear each other out, even when they disagree. Brotherly love does not mean they hold the same opinion, or goals or dreams, but it means understanding each other, or at least trying to. Brotherly love means showing up for graduations, and birthdays, and holidays. The boys do all these things. They share a special bond.

As a mother, I delight in that moment – no matter what has transpired the rest of the week – when the boys embrace each other and wish each other “Peace” at mass on Sundays, even if that looks like giving each other “peace noogies” in the process. It is the highlight of mass for me. That, and the silence.

On a really good day, it’s that moment when one of the boys makes another laugh and snort in church. Just like brothers will do.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And brotherly love.

Tears, Baptism & Teenage Brain Damage

Whose child is this anyway?

Some things don’t get easier, no matter how many times I’ve done them before. Teaching a teenage boy to drive, for example. Or saying goodbye to my son heading back to college. I cry every time. I even burst into tears when my sons’ friends go back to college. Pathetic. But that’s the kind of mom I am.

I am just so stinking proud of each one that my delight wells up in my eyes and runs down my face. It might be genetic. My own father used to tell me frequently, with tears in his eyes, “This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” He undoubtedly said that to my sister as well. And he meant it every time. Each child brings a unique light into this world. Lord knows, this world needs light in all the darkness.

Our youngest son suffered a concussion in the fall that kept him home from school for a month. Lest you think he enjoyed this forced hiatus, bear in mind that the healing process required minimal light, minimal sound, no reading, no screens of any kind, no iPad, no iPod, no computer or television, no video games or movies – just a month home with no entertainment other than his mother. Sounds like a prescription for a special form of torture to a 14-year old boy.

It’s not exactly a walk in the park for the mom either. But the worst part for me is the fear. Certain phrases, such as “head trauma,” “permanent memory loss” and “brain damage” send me into a tailspin. I drag the boy with me to church one morning in an attempt to get a grip. I promise him 10 minutes or less. I bribe him with lunch afterwards. I just need to breathe in a sacred space. I’m on my knees. I cannot think of anything eloquent to say. My prayer amounts to begging, “Please, God. Please, please, please.” I am just so afraid. Tears flow, of course. “Please, God, please. He is my son.” And somehow, in this sacred place, even with my self-imposed time limits, even gripped in the throes of fear, I hear an answer. It is part admonishment, part comfort, part sarcastic humor, because I believe that Truth speaks to me in a language that I can understand: “Charlotte, don’t you think I love him at least as much as you do?”

Oh. Right. I suppose that’s true.

Sometimes, I need to be reminded whose children they really are.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. And if parenting is a challenge, step-parenting is downright harrowing. As a mother, and as a wicked step-mother, I find Mary and Joseph’s example particularly helpful. When Mary said “Yes,” she had no idea what she was signing up for. Parenting is like that. My children didn’t exactly arrive the way I might have expected them to, formed in my own image and likeness. It’s not like they landed on my doorstep looking like they did in the catalog, complete with tracking information (and a return label) from the shipping company. Sometimes, I stare at my son (pick one, any one) and that whole stork business seems a plausible explanation. Where on earth did he come from?

Joseph, of course, said nothing at all. Often the only reasonable approach.

I think about Jesus’ own baptism and God’s declaration that “This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.” Were Mary and Joseph even there? I asked my friend in seminary where Jesus’ parents were, and she told me that Mary and Joseph were touring medical schools at the time. Which makes a lot of sense, because mom and dad are really good at making exceptional plans for their kids, and then the actual kid shows up with ideas of his own and all those parental plans are shot to shit. But then the kid makes his own way and becomes more amazing than even the people who cherish him most in the world could have predicted. Who knew?

I think about the baptisms of our sons. The older two were baptized when they were very young, long before I ever knew them. The younger two were baptized at the Easter Vigil mass when they were 11 and 13. This was a path that the younger boys chose themselves. Needless to say, my husband and I were delighted; the boys wanted their own connection with God. In the course of the service, it was my step-sons who poured the water into the baptismal font that their step-brothers would be baptized in. It was a beautiful, unifying moment for our nuclear family, and yet, each baptism also puts me in my place as a mother. It reminds me that all four of my boys are, in reality, God’s own children.

I was home alone the December evening in 2012, when I heard about the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. My husband had a late meeting, college boy was still at school packing to come home for the holidays; high school boy was in Pasadena with friends, junior high boy was in town on the boulevard with some buddies and elementary school boy was at a friend’s house for a Christmas party. I sat stunned, paralyzed with fear. I had this desperate urge to collect all my children and put them in bubble wrap on the sofa – I would even let them play xBox as long as they wanted. These are the moments when the baptismal reminders are critical for me. I do my part, but I’m not in charge. I lecture them. I impose deadlines and curfews. I teach table manners. I buckle up seatbelts, strap on helmets, sautee vegetables. But the most important thing I can do for them is to get on my knees and pray. They are God’s very own children, after all.

My son taps me on the shoulder. It’s been ten minutes. He’s hungry. The boy is starting to act like a normal teenager again.

I whisper thank you. I feel privileged that Life has entrusted this boy to my care. And then I take my son to lunch.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your parenting path. And healing.

Ho Ho Ho!

In one of the quirks that is our blended family, we have two sons with the same first name, “Michael.” Both boys go by the same nickname “Mikey.” We have tried over the years – without success – to assign a different nickname to one of the Mikeys, or to apply Michael to one and Mikey to the other, but they’re both Michael when they’re in trouble. Mikey 1 and Mikey 2 didn’t fly. Neither did Big Mikey and Little Mikey, which is probably just as well since now the “little” one is taller than the “big” one, and Little Big Mikey and Big Little Mikey is no help whatsoever. “His” and “hers” have become “ours,” and both boys remain resolutely Mikey.

After five years, the Michaels don’t even explain this oddity when introducing themselves: “Hello, I’m Mikey, and this is my brother Mikey.” In fact, they seem to delight in the confused looks that ensue.

Team Michael has discovered that there are certain advantages to this arrangement as well. When I call “Hey Mikey, could you please take out the trash?” they both ignore me. “Who me? I thought you meant my brother.”

You’d think a woman with four sons would never have to take out the garbage again, but you’d be wrong.

This morning, Mikey has an appointment with the optometrist, and I know it’s Mikey because when the assistant called to verify his appointment, she said it was for the younger one. I have barely enough time to get him to the doctor after my sacred Tuesday yoga class, provided that he is ready, so I wake him up before I leave. Twice, actually.

Predictably, he is sound asleep when I walk back in the door, yoga mat still tucked under my arm. Twenty minutes later, however, he is showered, dressed and hungry, but standing politely in the optometrist’s office, disheveled hair and glasses slightly askew. The receptionist looks bewildered.

It was bound to happen someday. I had brought the wrong Mikey to the doctor.

I look up at my son, and he looks at me. I smile, “You’re not Mikey!” and we burst into laughter. Sometimes life is just laugh-out-loud-ridiculous funny. Then I call Mikey to let him know that he is five minutes late to his optometrist appointment, and Mikey and I go to the grocery store for a few last minute Christmas items. Which, believe me, at this time of year is significantly less funny than the doctor’s office. And which is why I’m actually grateful for the morning’s Mikey mishap. It gives me something to chuckle about as we navigate the scene.

Life is too short not to laugh at my own silliness. If that’s the biggest mistake I make today, then I’m in good shape.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a reason to laugh out loud.

December Warning

I am relatively unprepared for the holiday frenzy, but keeping my calendar on November (my favorite month) is not stalling the hands of time. Reluctantly, I turn my calendar to December and discover that I had written this note to myself: “WARNING: December will be harder than it looks!” Beneath that I had listed, “birthday, deathaversary and diagnosis day.” Maybe I should have stayed on the Thanksgiving date. Or turned straight to January 1st.

I will explain. My husband Tim and I were both widowed in 2007. His first wife (Debbie) died from cancer; my first husband (Sam) committed suicide. Tim and I were married in 2010, and together we have four sons.

I’m not sure whether that makes my life sounds simple and tidy, or complicated and messy. In truth, it is all of the above.

Tim and I have found love, we delight in building our life together, we share our faith and an appreciation for gallows humor and pinot noir. The walls, mantel and piano hold family pictures of all of us from over the years — two families of four, two families of three, one family of six — because our history brought us to this place, and we are grateful.

Sometimes, however, that history elicits peculiar conversations. One of the boys once said he felt like he had four parents: Tim and me, plus Sam plus Debbie. Is that too bizarre to say out loud? Of course, I reminded him that the great thing about the dead parents is that they can always see what he’s doing. Kind of like Santa Claus. She knows if you are sleeping; she knows if you’re awake. She knows if you’ve been bad or good, so do your homework for Christ’s sake!

I’m afraid Tim and I may be passing our dark sense of humor along to our kids.

Debbie’s birthday was in December, and apparently she celebrated her birthday all month long. She absolutely loved Christmas, and she boasted a large and festive collection of decorations, ornaments and china, which we continue to display. Every year it looks she detonated a Christmas bomb in our house, an explosion of red, green and gold, with all kinds of Santas, snowmen and a couple of misfits covering every surface and shelf. Shortly before Christmas 2006, just two weeks after she turned 40, Debbie was diagnosed with Stage Four colon cancer. She died a year later, also in December, a week after her 41st birthday. December is an emotional roller coaster around here. It’s all Debbie all the time. Hence the warning.

More than once I have felt the urge to put on Christmas music (which I adore, but strictly after Thanksgiving and before New Year’s Day), plant the earbuds firmly in my ears and run until New Year’s. The downside to this approach, unfortunately, is that I risk missing out on the Christmas magic.

On December 13, 2007, just a few weeks after Sam’s death, our doorbell rang in the early evening. We frequently had unexpected visitors those days, sometimes bearing dinner, more often than not with tears brimming over. Mostly, our friends and family wanted to see us with their own eyes and hold us in their arms. My boys were little, 6 and 8. The nights were dark and very long. Our world had been shattered, and we were slowly finding the pieces and putting them back together. But when we opened the door, nobody was there. Sitting on the doormat was a triangular box, a Trader Joe’s kit to make a gingerbread house, trimmed simply with a wide silver ribbon and a note that said “On the First Day of Christmas…”

A mystery.

The next night, the doorbell rang again. Also after sunset. Another package on the front porch. Two snowman mugs, a packet for hot chocolate tucked inside each one, tied with the same silver ribbon and the same simple white square of paper, “On the Second Day of Christmas…”

The third night, we were ready. We turned on the porch light and turned off the living room lights, so we would be able to spy our secret Santa. We sat together on the sofa and waited. It grew darker. We were bored. The boys got hungry, and we went to the kitchen to put dinner together. When the doorbell rang, the boys ran to the front of the house. But all they found when they flung the door open were three large candy canes. Same silver ribbon. Same notepaper. Same message, “On the Third Day of Christmas…”

The industrious elf delivered the fourth day’s offering while we were out, probably at therapy. We arrived home to find four little tree ornaments, bundled in the silver ribbon. Same square of notepaper. Different color sharpie pen. Was the handwriting different? It was hard to tell, but it appeared to be in a child’s hand.

Intriguing.

I casually mentioned the secret Santa to my friend Susan one day, because I was certain that she was the mastermind behind it. But she seemed genuinely surprised. To this day, she insists that she hadn’t orchestrated this particular Christmas effort but wishes she had.

Then who?

The boys and I started to look forward to our mysterious deliverer. The boys tried harder to catch the bearer of gifts, but I found I liked not knowing. Sometimes, I would corral the boys into the kitchen at the back of the house, so that the elf would have time to escape their notice. Somebody was creating a little light in our darkness. A little hope. With a simple and powerful message: “Somebody cares. You are not alone.” Over the course of the next week, we received nightly offerings. Always simple — apples, clementines, packets of gum — each time adorned with the signature silver ribbon, the white square note and the childlike handwriting.

But still. Christmas was coming. And I wasn’t looking forward to it.

My family traditionally celebrates on Christmas Eve, but we could not face that first one after Sam’s death with our same rituals. The gaping hole his death left in our hearts was too raw and too painful. We instead spent the evening with one of my girlfriends and her family, including her parents and my parents. I remember experiencing light and laughter, along with the numbness. I’m sure dinner was lovely, but I can’t remember eating. I didn’t have much of an appetite in those first few months, not even for my favorite comfort foods. As the evening drew to a close, and with some trepidation, we headed back home.

It is a strange feeling, to be wrenched so hard by grief and darkness on the one hand and drawn so firmly toward light and hope on the other. To feel bereft and abandoned and at the same time held, grounded and supported. Tis the season, I guess. We need the light and hope and the infant in a manger precisely because the darkness is overwhelming and terrifying and completely unfair. We need to know that the hope is on its way, even if in infancy, and that —with both tenderness and strength — we can nurture that baby hope into something powerful, wonderful and tangible. I do, anyway.

After eleven days of Christmas offerings, we weren’t sure quite what to expect when we approached home on that twelfth night, but we were expecting something. We were hoping, yes, even trusting again that there would be light. The boys wondered aloud what might await us at home — chocolates? a dozen cookies?

When we pulled into the driveway, it looked like Santa himself had delivered the contents of his sleigh to our front porch. I could practically hear Rudolph’s footsteps on the roof. There were twelve beautifully wrapped packages, four gifts for each of the boys and four for me. All different kinds of paper, every possible color of ribbon. Toys, games, goodies and a Bruin baseball cap in my favorite shade of blue. One message: Merry Christmas!

I believe in Christmas magic. Seven years later, I still don’t know who gifted us with those 12 days of hope in the darkness. I don’t want to know. The not-knowing has become my favorite part of the magic. I do hope those Christmas Elves of 2007 know that I am grateful, and that their light blesses us still.

One of Debbie’s very favorite Christmas decorations is a Lladro nativity collection, which occupies an entire shelf. In fact, the porcelain figurines are affixed to the shelf permanently, so Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, hang out in our living room all year round, along with a few wise men and a couple barn animals. Debbie loved December and Christmas, with all its ensuing festivities, but she also appreciated that the true meaning of Christmas — the spirit of hope and faith and light — is not limited to a few weeks of the year. She is missed, and we feel this loss keenly during December, but the evidence of her faith is very much present.

So yes, December will be harder than it looks. But there will also be light. And warmth. And magic. And Christmas cookies.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And extra cookies for Santa.

Kitchen Woes & Wonders

IMG_1737 - Version 2

As a mother to sons, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Fortunately, I enjoy cooking, and often turn to baking for comfort and relaxation, or open up a cookbook to inspire creativity. Feeding kids and watching them grow is one of my life’s greatest gifts, and I am right in the middle of it these days. All four boys have healthy appetites, and over the last 5 years, at any given time, at least one of them has been in that stage where I feel like I can watch him growing in front of my eyes. I swear he is taller when he stands up after dinner than he was when he sat down. And it only takes him 7 minutes to eat.

Their table manners, however, are a different story. I know they are capable of nice manners, as long as they have a suitable incentive, which apparently I’m not. We use what we call the “hot chick test” to determine appropriate standards relating to personal hygiene and table manners. For instance, “hot chicks” like it when you shower and wash your hair, and “hot chicks” like it when you eat with a fork and wipe your mouth on a napkin. Which predictably begs the question, “Hey Mom, hahahah… how would you know what hot chicks like?”

As a former hot chick, I’m just saying… Slurping is not sexy.

A few years ago one of our sons had a darling girlfriend, and all of us were smitten with her. Whenever she came over to the house, all four boys would brush their teeth, chew with their mouths closed and say “Please” and “Thank you.” I really miss that girl.

One of the challenges Tim and I faced in blending our families was deciding where to live — his house, her house or a different house altogether? This issue was fraught with emotion. Not one of us wanted to move. The little boys had never lived in any other home. The big boys had, but they were too young to remember. Ultimately, we decided that the “little” boys and I would move into Tim and the “big” boys’ house.

Etiquette in general was a prominent source of family tension when Tim and I first got married. After three years of living like bachelors, the young men were reluctant to compromise their freedom by, for example, wearing pants while playing on the xBox, resulting in the lament, “She’s ruining everything!” Apparently, belching and scratching while half-naked is the preferred mode of existence for single men worldwide, or at least this is the fantasy that impressionable young men develop based on television sit-coms. Personally, I don’t understand the appeal of the fraternity house mentality, using sleeves and pant legs to wipe noses and hands. But then again, I’m the She ruining everything.

Also a subject creating considerable anxiety was the matter of the actual dining room table. Tim had a beautiful, antique table, about two feet wide and six feet long. The “anorexic table” would have been more fitting as a side table to display family photographs. As a dining room table, however, it barely accommodates a family of four. For a family of six, it is simply untenable. The first major change I made (other than, you know, moving in with two kids) was to replace it with a round table. This maneuver also fell squarely into the category of “She’s Ruining Everything!”

And yet, the She had made sacrifices of her own. “But,” several of my friends asked, “What about your kitchen?”

I had spent eight years planning and saving for the kitchen remodel in my first home, and when it was finally completed, Ina Garten could have filmed her Barefoot Contessa show in my new kitchen. We had two ovens (one gas, one electric), top of the line appliances, ample cabinets and an island that was so large we called it the “continent.” The kitchen I cook in now has beautiful light and is well-suited to setting out the catering. It is not, however, ideal for cooking for a family of six; it has exactly four square feet of quality working counter space and no pantry.

Giving up my dream kitchen is a testament to how much I love my husband. It wasn’t an easy transition, but now when I am missing my former kitchen and feeling sorry for myself, I look out the window and order takeout. And you know what? It’s not that bad. We have added a make-shift pantry in the garage, and it is good enough.

With both college boys home over the holiday weekend, I’ve been working overtime in my relatively small but beautifully-lit kitchen. I suffer a short-lived pang of pantry envy, but even so manage to turn out a fair quantity of comfort food in the course of two days: the obligatory batch of welcome home chocolate chip cookies, meatloaf with rosemary roasted potatoes, pulled pork sandwiches, lentil soup, and scrambled eggs with everything. Thank goodness Grandma did the lion’s share of the cooking for the actual Thanksgiving dinner. I was charged simply with bringing my puppy pack of boys, along with a couple apple pies, which I make from scratch, including the crust. After a morning of football at the park, the boys showered and napped, while I baked. I left the hot apple pies on a cooling rack and went to get dressed for dinner at Grandma’s. Within ten minutes, my defective hunting dog had wrestled one of those pies off the counter.

Stupid dog. I can only hope he burnt his tongue.

And stupid me. I had forgotten that the scoundrel had done the same exact thing last year. He seems to have a weakness for cinnamon. In my defense, this is only his second Thanksgiving. As I think about it, the homemade option might be overrated. Note to self: Next year, take a nap after the family football game, and tell everybody the dog ate the apple pies.

The Friday evening after Thanksgiving, I didn’t cook at all. Instead, we feasted almost entirely on leftovers, courtesy of Grandma. If I’m not careful, I might get used to not cooking. I did whip up some sautéed spinach, because I can’t help myself from inflicting my vegetable idiosyncrasy on the family. But just as I have relaxed about certain matters of etiquette, the young men likewise seem to tolerate me (and greens) with a bit more patience. Any time I can coax all six of us around our dining room table, I mentally congratulate myself. Even if their elbows are resting on the table, or they are feeding their carrots to the dog. After dinner, a couple of us linger at the table to play a few rounds of Bananagrams. These are exactly the moments and memories I had hoped to create, as I draw the kids to the kitchen, sautéing onions or measuring out flour and sugar, adding a teaspoon of cinnamon and a dash of faith.

Earlier that afternoon I had subjected my lively brood to the annual family photo shoot, and this is the first year that not a single one of them complained. (With the exception of my husband.) Over the course of the last five years, we have accumulated more than a few beautiful photos of our blended family, which we now keep along one wall in the dining room. The anorexic table, in fact, provides the perfect place to display our family pictures.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And family time in the kitchen.

Only Four Reasons

IMG_2099bwA few weeks ago, I participated in a survey conducted by young psychologist who asked me, “While you and your husband were still dating, what was the biggest impediment to your relationship?” I laughed, thinking about that time, because Tim and I had a standard caveat for when we made plans. “There are only four reasons why I might not make it.”

At the time, our impediments were 7, 9, 12 and 15 years old. Dating is a whole different game for a single, widowed woman in her 40’s with two young kids seeing a single, widowed man in his 40’s with two kids. Needless to say, the logistics were complicated. Between homework, school fairs, parent teacher conferences, sports, scouts, music lessons, social engagements and doctor appointments, the boys’ schedules were packed. It was a challenge even to find a date and time for dinner that didn’t conflict with any of the four boys’ activities.

For the first few months, we did not tell the boys about each other. The children were all grieving the death of a parent, and while Tim and I were taking the risk that our own hearts might break again, neither one of us was willing to subject our sons to this potential. For a while it looked like mom had unusually frequent book group dinners and dad attended a surprising number of booster club meetings.

Once we did let the boys know we were dating, only one of the children was actually in favor of this idea. And even he changed his mind from time to time. At any given moment, our relationship had somewhere between a 0%—25% approval rating from the kids.

At one point, one of the older boys told his father, “Dad, it just looks wrong.” I appreciated his comment, because it was kind and accurate. It wasn’t personal. It’s just that I’m not his mom. Because I’m not. It must have looked wrong: I’m tall, blonde and blue-eyed; his mother was a petite brunette with brown eyes. Furthermore, it is wrong for moms to die when their kids are in elementary school, or high school. Moms are not supposed to die even when the kids are in college or graduate school for that matter. There’s really no good time.

One of my favorite wedding photographs is me whispering into one of my step-son’s ears. In the picture, he is leaning toward me, and I remember promising him that I would never try to take the place of his mother. But I also said that I did hope that someday he and I would have our own thing.

Tim and I celebrated our fourth anniversary last week, which makes us sound a little like newlyweds and I suppose we are. Kind of. But in the same way that dating is a whole different game with four children to consider, the honeymoon with four teenagers and pre-teens isn’t typical newlywed fare. And while we certainly considered the children’s feelings as we were approaching the marriage decision, we did not let the children’s opinions dictate our marital status. Several people assumed that we decided to get married after all four children agreed that it was a good idea. Let’s just say, we’d still be waiting to choose a caterer if we had granted the children the power of the veto.

Actually, the caterer is probably the one thing that all the boys were happy about.

Once Tim and I got engaged, all four boys relaxed just a little. We had six good reasons, really, to get married, but only two of us were permitted to vote. They might not have approved of the situation, but they knew what “till death do us part” looks like, and they trusted it. We told the boys that we loved each other and we loved each of them and we thought that we were stronger together for all four of them.

Our approval rating still hovered around 25%.

We started planning our wedding. In the category of “Things I Never Expected my Life to Include,” planning a second wedding turned out to be one of the items that was loads of fun. My perspective was different planning a wedding at 43 than at 23, and yes, we went over budget, and yes, the coordinator made a huge gaffe, and yes, there were guests who I was really hoping to see that didn’t show, but at the end of the day — whether it rained, or the caterer goofed, or the band was late, or even if a family member said something small and mean — at the end of the day I would be married to this wonderful man. That’s a good day. On the actual day, it did not rain (not during the reception, at any rate), and we had a rocking band, and the bartender was fantastic, and the flowers were beautiful and the kids loved the caterer, even though we didn’t have a cake.

But the matter of the guest list was tricky. Family alone adds up to about 80 people. We essentially had two choices: elope with a friend or two or three (including Elvis), or plan a huge party (including children). We were blessed with so many stalwart friends who picked us up and dusted us off when life was hard, who brought us casseroles and took us to coffee, who walked with us in every possible way that it just didn’t feel good to exclude them from our celebration when life was happy. Ultimately, the decision was easy, but the logistics were complicated. Now we were talking about 500 adults and kids, and that’s a lot of rubber chicken.

Expensive rubber chicken.

Expensive rubber chicken that kids won’t eat.

As for the ceremony itself, we wanted to include our own children, but we didn’t want to put pressure on them. We anticipated that they would each experience a range of feelings, and we wanted them to feel safe to do so. We knew that they would be under the spotlight enough as it was without adding the role of best man to the groom or walking the bride down the aisle. The standard we set was that the boys were required to wear tuxedos and attend the wedding, but they could sit with whomever they wanted. They were not, however, required to smile. As children will do, they pressed the envelope. One of the boys insisted — even on the morning of the wedding — that he would wear the tuxedo but he would not go to the church.

I reminded him what we were serving at the reception.

He decided to sit with his best friend.

While the church seats 500 comfortably (well, our four sons were uncomfortable, but that had nothing to do with church capacity), the matter of a reception venue was a challenge. Of the guests, nearly 200 were 18 or younger. One of the gifts of being a family with lots of children is that many of our friends are families with children. And while children are often excluded from wedding ceremonies (with good reason), our particular circumstances allowed us to blend the traditional with the unexpected. What we most wanted was a celebration of love — our love for each other, but also an acknowledgement of the love that brought us to this place, and our children are an expression of that love.

We had our traditional church wedding, featuring several priests, a best man, a best woman, a flower girl, a long silk dress, a tuxedo, and a unity candle, followed by a celebration at the local park, surrounded by several hundred friends and family, and including a seven-piece band, kids in collared shirts and party dresses, a boy straight from a football game still wearing his grass-stained uniform, a bounce house, an ice cream truck and the In ’n Out Burger truck. Another of my favorite photos from the wedding is one of the boys, tuxedo shirt untucked and stained by chocolate ice cream and a spontaneous nose bleed, holding a cheeseburger in his hand and sporting a huge grin.

I would never have imagined selecting cheeseburgers for my wedding menu. In fact, my initial reaction to the idea was, well… an emphatic NO. But I changed my mind. And I’m glad. Everybody loved it. Especially the dads. Our approval ratings from the kids have steadily climbed (mostly) since that day.

And speaking of changing minds, I recently had a conversation with one of the impediments about that wedding day and he recalled the cheeseburgers in the park with a smile. Then he added, “You know, Charlotte, I am really glad you married my father.”

I am, too.

On the day of our anniversary, Tim and I were sitting down to a romantic lunch. Even with two sons away at college, we still struggle to find time for just the two of us. We both have busy schedules for the afternoon, and we briefly debate whether we should order a celebratory glass of wine with lunch. Just after we select a sauvignon blanc, I get a text message that sewage is backing up into the boys’ shower. We decide to ignore this particular issue until after our lunch. Clogged pipes are not one of our four reasons.

The wine arrives, and we relax. Within a few moments the phone lights up again. This time it is our 13-year-old, the one who suffered a concussion earlier this week. His head is aching, and he is ready to come home. Tim smiles at me, “Go get our son. I’ll meet you at home.”

Half an hour later, the three of us are sitting outside in the shade eating our take-out lunch, waiting for the rooter guy to clear out the main pipe. Not exactly the lunch we had planned, but not bad either, with both dogs wagging hopefully at our sides. I know what a bad day looks like, and it’s certainly not this. At the end of the day, for better or for plumbing backups, with headaches and in health, I face whatever comes my way with this kind, funny, lovable man at my side. Together.

And that’s a good day.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And reasons to celebrate.

The Best Worst Thing

A few months ago, one of our pastors noted that 90% of his ministry is interruption. Ministry and motherhood have a lot in common.

I adore my vibrant boisterous puppy pack of boys. They consistently populate the top 5 on my list of things I’m grateful for. But I do cherish those still, quiet moments right after the boys all exit the house to go to school, leaving me home with the dogs. Part of the dogs’ charm is the fact that they are always happy to see me. Plus they don’t speak. Not to mention that the dogs will never leave me and go off to kindergarten.

Or to college.

As much as I enjoy the unstructured, flexible times of summer, I really appreciate the consistency and progress of the school year. It is also true that I have a penchant for freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. And an enormous gratitude for the teachers who share some quantity time with my children.

I want my boys – all four of them – to know and believe that they are the answers to my prayer. They might not have realized that this was what I meant when I was counting the days for school to start, and upon reaching the anticipated day began to dance and sing (cue the Christmas carol tune), “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Maybe I should work on my delivery.

For many of us, the path to motherhood takes longer than nine months, and there are more expressions of motherhood between a woman and a child than those defined by a biological bond. I suffered my first miscarriage within six months of my wedding. And even though my husband and I were not anticipating starting a family quite so early in our marriage and even though I would not be feted on Mother’s Day for years to come and didn’t yet sport a baby seat in my sedan, I was brokenhearted. And the experience began the process of molding the mother I would become. Looking back, I can finally smile, seeing that the ache of loss — while never replaced — would be eased by the knowledge that my inner mother’s heart was beating, being opened and softened and prepared.

I cannot remember where I read this idea, but according to one spiritual tradition, the soul is on a journey through multiple levels, and each lifetime’s purpose is to reach the next level. Certain souls simply need to be loved — even for a very short time — to reach the next level. Sometimes that need is met in just a few months, not even long enough for the soul to emerge in a tiny squalling form, but long enough for her mother to open her heart. I found this mystical explanation of miscarriage very comforting, because I already loved that little soul even though I never held her squirming body in my arms. I still hold her in my heart.

And my path of motherhood began.

The motherhood journey is rarely linear or tidy. It is not exactly a walk in the park. There are many firsts, and each stage brings its own challenges and joys. It requires lots of snacks. It is easy to see the children change and mature in the annual family Christmas photo, and even if the parents look pretty much the same from the outside, their inner growth is just as significant as the visible growth of the kids.

The step-motherhood journey features harrowing precipices, treacherous weather and foul language. But the views are spectacular. I note with some bemusement that my oldest step-son was born the same month as that first miscarriage. I did not give birth to this child, but I love him as my own.

The transitions are washing over our family in waves as the summer wanes. For the first time, our oldest stayed at college all summer, coming home for just one week. His arrival was so dearly anticipated and celebrated that we call him the Prince. I felt so full and happy to have all four boys home and under my roof. Sunday morning all six of us filled a pew — those boys’ shoulders are pretty broad these days — and I could not be more pleased with my brood.

Just as I have adjusted the quantities of bread and of brisket in my grocery cart, our week with all six of us together ended. Junior high started last Tuesday, which is wrong for so many reasons. But I don’t have time to ramble about that because high school started two days later, and then our college boys flew the coop. The senior left Sunday, and my husband and I took the freshman on Monday. In the course of a week, my nest has expanded and contracted, and I’m left breathless.

The college drop-off is the best worst thing. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier the second time. It’s everything our son has prepared for and all that his father and I have hoped for him. We even had a private conversation with the President and Chancellor of the University, which made me feel that much better about our son’s decision. And while it was painful to say goodbye to our fledgling college student, I was not at all unhappy to leave the Central Texas sweat fest.

Now I’m back home in a remarkably quiet house, and I am feeling a little bereft. As if it’s possible to feel just a little bereft. It’s like being “slightly” pregnant.

In fact, this feeling has several parallels to being a little bit pregnant. I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, happy and excited, and more than a little nauseated. There’s also the nameless dread. Am I afraid for my child’s safety? For my own? Will we survive this ordeal with our relationship intact? When will I open the door to the “big” boys’ room at home without the tension in my throat and welling in my eyes? For once I cannot tolerate the sight of their tidy beds and clean floor. It makes them seem so much farther away. When I see the boys’ car parked in the drive, my heart lifts, in the habit of thinking that they’re home and then sinks, realizing they’re not.

But still. There is that little bubbly feeling, like the very first time I felt the baby move about four months into my pregnancy. Even as my stomach sinks, my heart lifts with hope. I am excited about the possibilities, both for him and for myself. The Prince will graduate this year and spread his wings even further, and Thing #2 is embarking on his college path.

My greatest joy as a mother comes from my sons’ moments of independence. First steps. Their own words. Words to express their own ideas. Little things than turn into big things. Washing a dish. Doing his own laundry. Driving himself. Calling for help. Or not. Knowing when he needs to. Making his own plans.

They’re out of sight but not out of mind, and certainly not out of heart’s reach. I’ve already mailed several packages. When I sent his health insurance card, along with the responsibility for monitoring his own health care, I experience a momentary panic. Who is going to sneak baby kale into his morning smoothie? Nevermind. I don’t think I want to know.

I receive mail too. A personalized card, referencing our conversation on move-in day, signed by the President of the University. I am not so naive to think that he personally takes notice of every single student on campus, but he knows a lot of them. I watched them high-fiving and calling him “Kenny.” He creates a culture of caring, and I relax just a little, knowing that my son is in such a place.

As I think about my sons’ accomplishments, my heart swells, and I am grateful. Of course, my pride leaks out my eyes. It is hard to imagine feeling so empty and so full simultaneously. If my heart wasn’t so full it wouldn’t hurt so much when they leave. If — before I had any children — I had known how painful if would be to let them go, I would have readily agreed to pay this price. Leaving is exactly what I’ve groomed them for. The opportunity to grow up and create a life of my own is, after all, the gift my own parents granted me.

Of course, I couldn’t have known quite how difficult this process would be. But if I do my job right, the kids will become independent, and there are other silver linings as well. Some things are simpler. I spend less time at the grocery store, although not much since we still have two teenage boys at home. And I am starting to look forward to some honeymoon time with my Tim. We’ve sort of walked this path backwards: when we first got married, we jumped right into a life with a mortgage, four kids, two cats and a dog, and after the children are “grown and flown,” we will have time just the two of us.

For now, I will sit outside and enjoy the full range of this moment, tissue in one hand, a celebratory glass of wine in the other. Even as my nest is emptying, my heart is as full as ever. I have held these boys in my arms, I have held their hands literally and figuratively, I have waved as they drove off — or as I did — and through it all, I hold them in my heart.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a full heart.

Belonging

Blending a family does not happen overnight. There are many aspects to consider, and much patience is required. A sense of humor helps. Along with a glass or two of something red.

Or maybe something white. Because it’s been awfully hot at family camp this week.

Sam and I started going to UCLA family camp when our boys were 3 and 5. We are big Bruin fans — between the two of us, we had three degrees from UCLA. The camp is popular, and it can be difficult to secure a spot. It took us three years applying to the lottery to “win” our spot, but the way it works is this: Once you get a week, you keep priority for “your” week (there are 10), for as long as you continue to attend. Which means that we end up vacationing with many of the same families every summer. Our kids grew up together in their groups, from the little “pooh bears” to the surly teenage “grizzly bears,” all led by talented, energetic young counselors currently attending the university. Meanwhile, we parents connect, attending faculty lectures on timely topics, or hiking, or biking or lounging poolside, all while somebody else does the cooking, cleaning, marketing and making of the beds. It is truly a vacation for everyone in the family.

When the boys were very young, they were in tears coming down the mountain after our week at family camp, newly separated from their favorite Bruin counselors and already counting the 51 weeks until we go back. One of the first questions the boys asked me after Sam died was whether we would be allowed to return to Bruin Woods, our reservation having been made under his name. When I am tempted to regret having attended law school, I remind myself that those three years were my ticket to family camp (not to mention my actual family since Sam and I met at UCLA) and worth the price of admission. And even the collateral brain damage.

Over the last 10 years, our camp families have become some of our most cherished friends. We hiked together, and my nurse friend determined whether I should get stitches when I hit my head on a climb. They took pictures of my kids when I forgot my camera. They gave me orthodontic advice and shared recipes. They cocooned me the summer after Sam’s death. They cried with me and laughed with me and cheered for my boys when they performed in the family talent show. They delighted in my engagement to Tim, and they looked at every single wedding photo the following summer. They welcomed additional sons to my brood. Together we celebrated and commiserated over our collective step-parenting steps and miscalculations.

Some of our favorite family memories come from camp. The main lodge opens to an expansive front lawn, where the kids play tag, catch, soccer, extreme dodgeball, often while parents linger over dinner. Late one summer afternoon, three charter buses pull up the driveway, and onto this lawn spills the entire Bruin football team. The team is en route back to Los Angeles after training in the San Bernardino mountains, and they stop at a place where a little bit of Trojan-bashing and a good deal of Bruin brain-washing and Eight-Clapping are daily fare. What could be better? These football players are bigger than life, and the fans are elated. Especially the dads.

My youngest son finds me after an hour or so, and he has stars in his eyes. He has been playing with two of the guys. They jumped into the lake together, they taught him to skip rocks, they played basketball. They may be elite athletes, playing Division 1 football in the Pac 12 conference, but they are also just big kids. The boys each signed my son’s shirt. On the left sleeve is Deitrich Riley’s signature. Deitrich is special to our family because he went to the same high school as my sons, and we watched him play ball under the Friday night lights. On my son’s right sleeve is the signature of Anthony Barr (a linebacker who was selected in the first round of this year’s NFL draft).

My boy was so excited that he didn’t even think to take his cell phone out of his pocket before jumping into the lake. I couldn’t have cared less. (My kid does not have a smart phone, or I might have cared a smidge more.) It is an experience he will remember fondly for a very long time, and I suspect he will keep that shirt for many years, and not because of the value of any signatures but because it carries the memory of a magical afternoon, when heroes he’d only heard about landed on the lawn, lifted him on their shoulders and taught him to skip rocks on a lake at sunset.

Unfortunately, the shifting school calendar has been threatening the viability of our week at family camp. Do not get me started on this — just because some people have kids taking Advanced Placement courses and want extra study time doesn’t mean that the rest of us should have to suffer. Last summer, for example, I drove two of the boys back home mid-week in order to start high school, and the youngest and I stayed for the rest of the week just the two of us. That’s how reluctant we all have been to leave our friends from camp. Honestly, I’d rather change my ob/gyn. In fact, I did, and it was less traumatic than switching our week of family camp.

This summer, none of the boys’ school schedules would accommodate our regular week at family camp, so we had to decide whether to change our week of Bruin camp or not to go at all. We changed weeks.

With excitement and trepidation and a few tears (mine this time), we head up the hill for camp. I miss my friends from our former week with an intensity that surprises me. I cannot bear to let them go. I flirt with the idea of sneaking up for a day during their week at camp while my kids are in school. Because that’s the kind of mother I am.

After a few days in our “new” week, we are acclimated (mostly) to the altitude and the change. All of us have made friends, settled into some of our favorite activities and tried a few new trails. But there’s one big upside to our having switched weeks. It is the first time that Tim and I have attended with our boys together as a blended family. Our “new” friends have met us as a family of six, and they only know us as Charlotte & Tim. It’s lovely.

Some have learned the story of the widow and the widower. It’s hard to avoid that explanation for long because two of our sons share the same first name. Upon hearing our history, several have commented: “You two seem like you’ve been together forever.” Also: “You suit each other so well.” And my personal favorite: “You belong together.”

Indeed, we feel the same.

We have met some truly lovely people this week — several who I expect will remain friends for a long time — and I already cannot imagine my life without them. We have even made dinner plans for the fall.

I have also made plans to run up to family camp for a day next week — the day before the boys start school — so we can all hug a few cherished friends in person. Because that’s the kind of friends they are.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends — both new and old — who you belong with.

Tuesday Rules

I figured out early as a newly-widow that if I was going to drive this train, I would need some time exclusively for myself. It happened that my favorite yoga class was on Tuesday, and my therapist had time for me the same day, so Tuesdays became my “Charlotte Shabbat.” My initial Tuesday rule was this: “Unless you are, in fact, on fire AND I gave birth to you, it can wait until Wednesday.”

This standard worked well for me in the initial stages of my grieving process. I used Tuesdays for my own restoration. I did not pay bills or talk to lawyers or do laundry. Tuesdays came to represent my own indulgent, selfish and healing tendencies: yoga, therapy (sometimes retail therapy), and a table for one. I didn’t make lunch plans with anybody else. I would take myself wherever I felt like going at whatever time I was hungry. I was the only one in my family who liked sushi, so that often became my lunch of choice. Hence, Sushi Tuesdays.

I happen to enjoy the table for one. As much as I delight in the chaos and clutter that accompany kids and cats and dogs, I am also remarkably content with quiet time, meditation, yoga, going to the movies alone or eating out by myself. I usually bring a book. Sometimes I read it. I thoroughly enjoy lunch with girlfriends, but I don’t necessarily feel sorry for the person eating at a table by herself because, personally, I cherish that time too.

When Tim and I got married, I revised my Tuesday rule, because at that point I would, in fact, put aside whatever I was doing when my stepsons called. The rule at the boys’ high school, like most schools attempting to nurture responsible young adults, is that mom is not supposed to “save” the kid by delivering forgotten homework assignments or calculators or projects. But between you and me, when my freshman step-son called me for any reason at all, I dropped everything. Even if I missed yoga. Even if it meant that I would violate the school standard. Even if he was calling me a name that rhymes with stitch. Which, by the way, did not refer to my sense of humor. At least he was calling me something, which is better than not calling me at all. It was a place for our relationship to start.

He also happens to like sushi.

When he and I first began our own relationship, we found success in doing things that he hadn’t done with his mother, like baking, skiing and eating sushi. The first year Tim and I were married, we had four kids in two different schools, but ever since the boys have been in at least three schools. This year it’s four. I fear we will never have spring break together again. There are not a lot of advantages to this structure, but one perk has been those “early release” days when I get to take just one of my boys out to lunch. On whichever day of the week that happens to fall.

The kids are amused by the unintended “shit” in the middle of my SushiTuesdays. I think they like the excuse to swear in front of me. Last week my boy called to see if I wanted to go out to lunch for “Su-shit-Friday.” Even if I’ve already eaten lunch, I say yes, because honestly when your 18-year-old son (step or otherwise) asks you to lunch, what else is a girl to do? Even if he’s just hoping that you’ll pick up the tab.

Sushi for two has become our specialty.

Things have changed. Four years ago I was constantly near tears because I was afraid this child would never go away to college and that he would torture me with his teenage ‘tude in perpetuity. This year — his last in high school — I have spent in tears because he is good and ready to go. He has also, in recent months, started calling me “Ma.”

Meanwhile, some things stay the same. When this boy was a freshman and I picked him up from high school, he threw his backpack in to the trunk every afternoon, plopped into the car and exclaimed, “OMG, Charlotte, the teacher is CRAZY!” Which began our refrain, Did you do your homework? What exactly were the instructions? Can I buy you another purple pen? She might be crazy, but she’s still in charge.

As a senior, following his very last final exam (and before our sushi lunch), he bursts into the house, drops his backpack in the kitchen, and exclaims, “OMG, Charlotte, the teacher is CRAZY!” These are the times when my husband and I marvel at the fact that I didn’t, in fact, give birth to this boy. I’m the drama queen, and he’s the drama king.

My son heads off to the great state of Texas for college in less than a month. I am really going to miss the daily-ness of him, his exclamations and our conversations. I am not going to miss his crap lying all over the floor. (Okay, I might. But just a little.) And I am really looking forward to his phone calls, “Hey Ma — Texans are CRAZY!”

So now all my children are teenagers or in college (or both), and my relationship with each one is a priority as well as a challenge. As a result, my Tuesday rule looks more like this: Unless you are in fact on fire and either 1) I gave birth to you, 2) I married you, or 3) I married your father, then it can wait until Wednesday, or at least until after yoga, and possibly after therapy; provided, however, that if you are not quite on fire but you are one of the aforementioned individuals and you have the opportunity and inclination to spend time with me or to talk with me (long distance or in person), then I will drop everything to be with you and answer your call.

Which is altogether too complicated.

Instead, I will say simply that some rules are meant to be broken. Thank goodness.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a reason to share your Tuesday time.