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I am a writer, a mom, and a friend. In this blog, I explore all of that. Please join me in this conversation by leaving a comment on anything you've read. Or follow me on Facebook @ Beth von Behren (author).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Remembering Mr. Adams

A discussion with my daughter the other day about how bad public schools are, as evidenced by how poorly most of the population writes, led to a discussion of sentence diagramming. My daughter and I are in that peculiar, geeky segment of the population that not only enjoyed diagramming in school but still likes to talk about it. I admitted to geeky already, ok?

We then proceeded to compare our experiences, and she humored me as I launched into a description of my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Adams. Charles Adams was a cool, middle-aged, black man who didn't hide his cultural blackness to fit into what for him must have been an overwhelmingly white world. It was 1971-72, and our school district was pretty well integrated. Even so, he was the only black teacher I have ever had, from grade school through college.

I learned a few years ago that he had died of a massive heart attack, and it made me very sad. Mr. Adams taught me how to write a decent sentence. I was an okay writer when I entered his class, but his emphasis on the fundamentals of grammar and sentence structure, which he illustrated by forcing us to diagram our sentences, dramatically improved my command of language. It is because of him that I was tracked into accelerated English in high school.

He clicked his heels as he moved around the chalk board and spoke in quick, punctuated sentences, with a rhythm to his speech that I can only describe as jazzy. I have a vague memory that he liked jazz music and couldn't stomach the pop sounds of the day. He wore a short afro and a mustache, with just a hint of a beard, which I like to think he grew out during the summers.

I suspect if I hadn't been at such an awkward, self-obsessed stage in my own development, I might have appreciated him more at the time. I wish I had more pronounced memories from that year, but I know I enjoyed his class a lot, and today, almost 40 years later, I still hold him in the highest regard, and I still love to diagram sentences. What a nice legacy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

One Year

525,600 minutes, goes the song. "525,000 moments so dear."

I love that song, and clearly I'm not alone. People walk around singing it. It's catchy and rhythmic, and the title isn't bad either: "Seasons of Love."

I've been singing it a lot lately because I find myself with a one-year deadline. It's a deadline I've known intellectually was coming for 17 years but emotionally have assumed would never arrive. In one year, give or take a few weeks, I will send my second (and final) child off to college.

Just three years ago, I sent his sister off to college, and that was excruciatingly hard, but next year, 525,600 minutes from now, she will be living somewhere on her own (Europe or Los Angeles, she tells me), and he will be away at college. They will both be gone, and I will be here.

Just this past week, I found myself filling out paper work for school and commenting out loud that this was the last time I would ever do this. The paper work started the year the older one started preschool, which means I have been completing these ridiculous forms for 18 years now. The last contact information sheet, the last school photo order form, the last health form. I don't think I will miss any of that.

In fact, I won't miss the chaos and stress of school at all. I won't miss dealing with awful teachers or the cruelty of other children. I won't miss arguing with public school bureaucracy. I won't miss the fundraisers or the committee meetings or the peevishness of other parents who think their own children are saints.

I will miss him.

But I still have this last year. "How do you measure, measure a year: In daylights. In sunsets. In midnights. In cups of coffee." I will measure it in the morning when I make his breakfast and take it in to him. I will savor that sleepy look on his face, under the covers, up on his bunk, when he asks for two more minutes. I will measure it in the annoyance in his voice when I tell him nope, he cannot have that friend over who I know drinks and smokes. I will measure it in the stress we both experience as we journey through the college application process together and try desperately not to miss any deadlines.

I will measure it in the look of joy on his face when he wins a video game, or talks to his girlfriend on Skype, or realizes I've made his favorite pasta meal after a long, hard afternoon swim practice when he is clearly exhausted. I will measure it when I watch him bake cakes with his friends, or hold his cat, or pry the contacts from his swollen eyes after sleeping in them too many nights.

I will measure it when I come home to find he has fallen asleep on the sofa, and I will sit in my rocking chair and watch him sleep, as I have done his whole life.

The irony of the next year is not lost on me. I would slow it down to a snail's pace, while both of my children would like it just to be over. They are ready for the next big thing. They were ready yesterday.

So how will we spend our last 525,600 minutes together? I will probably make him have dinner with me more often than he would like, and I will no doubt force him to build one final snowman with me, chop down one last Christmas tree together. I will sit anxiously with him as we await acceptance letters, and I will help him pick out a suit for his senior picture and a tux for prom. I may let him get his other ear pierced. I will certainly want the privilege of driving him to register to vote next June. We have four seasons left to us, and I intend to savor and measure as many of those minutes as I can.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Please Don't Ask Me to Hold Your Baby

I hate babies. Okay, don't get me wrong. I don't actually hate babies. I just don't always love them. I love them in theory. I think they are adorable. Mostly. You gotta admit there are a few ugly ones. But mostly they are cute and cuddly and we ooh and ahh over them, and everybody wants one or two. Except me. I never wanted any and could be heard saying, for years and years, I am NEVER having children.

Of course, I did have kids, and I love them beyond words. Beyond sanity even. I have done and would do anything for them, including throw myself in front of a moving train to protect them or pick up their moldy dishes and disgusting socks. And if early results are any indication (they are 17 and 21), I did a pretty good job at this whole mothering thing.

But other than my own adorable offspring, I have really never loved babies. I am quite unusual in that regard in my family. Nobody waited as long as I did to have kids. My second child was born when I was 35, and my cousin, who is just seven months older than me, became a grandmother a few months later. In my family, I am the black sheep of motherhood.

When I was a teenager and forced to go to those family events that I now force my kids to attend, and the babies were rolled out, I oohed and ahhed and gushed with the best of them. I believe there even exists a photo someplace of me, at 17, holding one of these babies. I remember it fondly because it was a really good photo of me, unusual in those days and, well, ever since, but I couldn't tell you who the baby was. That's because I did the gushing and holding out of a sense of duty and to save my mother embarrassment. Not because I liked babies.

From a very early age, I can remember my mom expressing great concern and worry that I would never propagate the species. She had good reason to worry. I never played with dolls, which frustrated my mother, who believed that all girls loved dolls. She LOVED to play with dolls, so every birthday and every Christmas, I got new dolls, black ones, white ones, Indian ones, big ones, little ones, soft ones, rubber ones - dozens and dozens of dolls over the years, in the hope, I assume, that they would look adorable and cuddly and I would throw aside all toys to play with them. I was a great disappointment to her.

Then, as a teenager,I did my best to devise clever excuses for not being available when asked to babysit. This was partly about the money. I understand the going rate today actually exceeds minimum wage in some areas, but in the 1970s, that was not the case. My first job, at 15, involved washing dishes in a nursing home, for ten cents over minimum wage. So it made no sense to me to agree to change some kid's disgusting diapers, listen to him scream at me when it was time for bed, or eat those really awful TV Dinners his parents left for me, for HALF the money I could make in a real job. Of course, it wasn't just the bad pay. It was also because I, well, I really just hated babies. I had absolutely no interest.

My niece will hate me for telling this story, but when she was about a year old, and my mother was babysitting her during one of my visits, my mother asked me to change my niece's poopy diaper. Now, I dearly love my niece, and she is the most beautiful young woman today, but at 12 months old, she could fill a diaper with the most foul-smelling excrement. Seriously foul. Reader, I tried. I really tried. And I gagged. I got about halfway through the diaper change before I ran from the room with my hand over my mouth, gagging, and screaming that I would never have kids. My mother finished up. And she told me something that I have never forgotten and that has turned out to be completely true: It's different when it's your own child. What she really meant was, when it's your own baby, well, their s@#t doesn't stink.

She was right. I don't know if it's because we share the same DNA, or if it's because I carried them inside my own body for nine months, but truly, my children's poop has never made me gag.

Not only did I change their diapers with joy and a certain degree of, um, eagerness, I did a couple of other things that surprised my entire family, and we are talking jaw-dropping surprise here. I breastfed both kids until they were ready to take their SATs (well, actually only 2.5 and 3 years, respectively), and I quit working to stay home with them. I was the quintessential SAHM (that's stay-at-home-mom for you neophytes). I baked bread with them, built houses out of blocks, and made valentines from scratch. We had a playgroup and I joined La Leche League. The whole nine yards. Devout feminist that I am, I could actually be heard, during those years, criticizing daycare kids and working moms (i.e., wage-earning moms). Sad but true. I guess my college professor was right: The reformed types are the worst.

I remember my brother, who has for years told anyone who would listen that I am the educated one but he is the smart one, saying to me one day that he always thought I would do more with myself, that I would do great things. I tried to explain that staying home to raise my kids was the greatest calling I could think of, but I could see that he didn't get it. This is the same brother who caught me in the kitchen at my mom's house when I was seven months pregnant, shoeless, and scrounging for food in the fridge, and said to me: I finally get to tell you that you are barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Yes, some things never change.

Including my inability to love babies. As my kids got older and I went back to work, I began to realize that once again, I had absolutely no interest in holding babies or taking care of them or being anywhere near them. I could and do admire them from a distance. Babies are beautiful. I love taking pictures of babies. I even love hearing their squeals of delight (you never get over loving that sound). But do I want to hold your precious baby? No I do not. Please don't take offense.

There likely is a very good reason for this. I am menopausal. This means I no longer have those mother-baby-feel-good-let's-nurture-everybody-in-sight hormones flowing freely through my blood stream. I am, in some ways, back to being pre-pubescent. The human body is an amazing thing.

My daughter, who loved to play with dolls as a child, much to her grandmother's delight, has picked up my mantra. I AM NEVER HAVING KIDS. She cites lots of reasons. "They stink. They scream. They are selfish and time-consuming and we don't have enough resources on the planet for more babies. It's the selfish thing to do. I may adopt. No, I won't adopt because babies are hard. And they stink."

And what do I say to her in response? You know what I say.

It's different when it's your own child.