Monday, March 17, 2014

Back-to-School Blues

“My stomach hurts,” Sophie whines, picking at her bowl of oatmeal.  Then, she bends in half, clutching her stomach and starts screaming, “OW! OW!” at the top of her lungs.

One would think her appendix was exploding. 

I stand there, waffling: 

On the one hand, we have just had another long weekend, due to the 900th snow day this winter.  Both Kevin and I stayed home, each taking a turn playing with Sophie so that the other could work.  We baked cookies.  We played board games.  We snuggled in front of the fire and read books.  Sophie was in heaven. 

On the other hand, Kevin just had a stomach bug a few days ago.  I was sick the week before that.  Sophie doesn’t usually complain of illness.  And she isn’t eating…

Is she sick or is it the back to school blues? 

Kevin walks in, grabbing a banana before heading out the door.  “She’s fine.  Send her to school.”  He says, kissing me on the forehead.  And he’s gone. 

Sophie gives me a pained expression, “Mo-om!  Please can I stay home?”  I have a client scheduled at 9:00.  It’s 8:20 right now.  I have exactly 10 minutes to get her out the door, so that I can drop her off at school and beat my client to the office. 

It’s likely the back to school blues.  But what if it isn’t?  What if she’s really sick and I bring her to school and she starts barfing.  And what is her teacher going to think of me, dumping Sophie off in her classroom, while she’s carrying on like this.  I’ve been a teacher.  I know what they are going to whisper behind my back:

Worst mommy ever. 

It doesn’t help that I’ve got a really messed up relationship to illness.  In the 8th grade alone I missed a whopping sixty days of school—one third of the school year. (I still have the certificate of commendation that my best friend made for me, congratulating me on this feat.)  Most years, before and after, I was absent from school for weeks at a time.  Bronchitis.  Sinusitis.  Long, lingering, upper respiratory infections that seemed to take on a life of their own.  To this day, I am uncertain whether I was truly sick, a skilled malingerer, or just deeply anxious and depressed. 

I can remember the anxiety that grew with each passing day.  It would start out fairly innocently.  I’d be out for a couple of days, with congestion and a terrible cough.  My mother would take me to the doctor, who’d give me a pill and a written excuse, validating the illness.  My mother would coddle me, making Lipton tea and playing gin rummy with me in the afternoon.  And I wouldn’t get any better.  One week would turn into two, two into three.  Meanwhile, the make-up work would mount—piles of textbooks would sit untouched on my desk.  Due dates would come and go.  Entire units would be reviewed.  Tests would be given.   The longer I stayed away, the more impossible it seemed to return.  Despite my loneliness.  Despite my boredom.  I was never quite sure where the illness ended and my anxiety began. 

My husband, on the other hand, rarely missed a day of school.  He graduated from high school with perfect attendance.  A couple years ago, he actually did go to work with appendicitis.  A colleague made him go to the hospital just before his appendix burst. 

Back in the kitchen, I tell Sophie, “Honey, I’m sorry your stomach hurts.  Maybe you’re just nervous about going back to school.” 

“Mommy, please?  I want to stay home with yooooooouuu.” 

I want to take her seriously, but I don’t want to feed into malingering.  Hoping that Kevin is right, I usher her out the door and into the car.  Once at her school, I share my dilemma with her teacher, who promises to keep me apprised of Sophie’s condition.  She sheds a few real tears as I head for the door. 

Oh, the guilt. 

Later I get a call.  She’s been listless all morning.  Didn’t eat her snack.  Has been asking for me.  I wrap things up and rush over to the school.  When I get there, she’s running around with her friends, smiling. 

“Mom?” she begs, “can’t I stay a little bit longer?”

This post was inspired by the novel The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Young lawyer Sophie unwillingly takes her first divorce case with an entertaining and volatile client in this novel told mostly through letters and legal missives. Join From Left to Write on March 18 we discuss The Divorce Papers. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spill It

My mother likes to remind me of the somewhat exaggerated fact that every time she poured me a glass of Tropicana orange juice, I spilled it.  The fact that the juice was Tropicana is key here, because, according to her, I only spilled the expensive stuff.  If she gave me orange juice from concentrate or some off-label brand, I managed to keep it in the cup. 

I also probably didn’t drink it, orange juice snob that I was.   I’m sure the frequency with which I spilled was directly proportional to how frequently I raised my glass to my lips.

I have the clumsy gene, passed on to me from my mother.  Our legs are dappled with black and blue marks, and have been as long as I can remember.  Growing up, the piano bench was my mortal enemy.  I couldn’t come down the stairs, round the corner at the base and walk the dining room without making contact with it.  I can picture it there, waiting to strike, snickering as it heard my footfalls nearing.  Thus, I had a perpetual violet slash just above my knee.  Today, I can rarely trace the ugly elliptical bruises to a particular insult.  Which is to say, I walk into far too many objects to lay the blame with any one in particular.

I do not need to wait to have our genomes sequenced to know that this is carried on the x-gene, a dominant trait, that has been now been passed on to my daughter.  Sophie is also a klutz.  Maybe I’m not being fair.  Our maladroitism is probably better attributed to a dreamy, head-in-the-clouds state of being than to an inherent lack of grace. 

Sophie is always whirling, twirling, jumping, bumping, crashing, crying and suddenly flying again—just as fast as I can call out, “Be careful!  Look out!“  By now, I would think she’d be made of tougher stuff, but she takes her bruises hard—every minor scratch is worthy of gooey maternal attention. 

But when it comes to beverages, I got smart.  I wasn’t going to bemoan the loss of $2000 worth of organic milk due to spillage.  I was going to prevent the spillage from happening in the first place.  Thus, well into her sixth year, against my mother queries of, “don’t you think she’s old enough to drink from a regular cup?” she imbibed from a cup, capped with a straw. 

And every time it came crashing to the ground with nary a leak, I commended myself on my utter brilliance.  Independence be damned. 

But there comes a point in motherhood, where you start to grow uneasy with your intrusiveness.  You start to question the degree to which you might be enabling instead of empowering.  It’s an invisible tipping point.  A gentle nagging as you look at all the other children around her drinking from regular, grown-up glasses…isn’t it time.

But I wasn’t ready to turn over our glasses to Sophie.  Bestowed to us wedding gifts, uniquely square and now irreplaceable, they have thinned in number due to my ongoing drinking problem.   

Fact of the matter:  I should still have a cap and straw. 

There had to be a happy medium.  A training glass.  Something she could wrap her slippery paws around made of such strong stuff, they would bounce instead of shatter as they hit our hardwood kitchen floor.   So I googled it.

Low and behold, there is such a glass, the Picardie by Duralex, which has been the primary drinking glass in French school cafeterias for decades.  Durlex introduced tempering in 1939, which renders glass 4 to 5 times stronger than standard glass. 

I realize I sound like a commercial.  I swear, Duralex did not sponsor this article and I am not in the business of promoting particular products, but I was excited to find something to replace the plastic Take n’ Toss cups we have likely been using for far too long.  Particularly as we discover that almost all plastics—even those that are BPA-free and thought to be safe—have some level of estrogenic activity. 

I showed the image of glasses to Kevin who noted that they looked very similar to the cups he drank from as a child.  In fact, we still had two in the cabinet.  He retrieved the two small 6-ouncers that were stashed away on the top shelf, next to our shot glasses.  Sure enough, they bore the Duralex made-in-France stamp at the bottom.

Kevin’s mother had purchased these somewhere in the vicinity of 35 years ago.  At once, I felt a quiet kinship with her and saddened by the fact that she was no longer alive to have given me this bit of advice.  I might have made the transition sooner. 

That evening, I filled the glass –the one her own father drank from as a child, though I doubt he dropped it much, if at all—and set it in front of Sophie.  Her round grey eyes grew rounder with pleasure as absorbed it’s implications—this new level of trust. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Falsely Accused

Sophie had a friend over for a play date yesterday.  Lola is a sweet girl with whom she has a lot in common—and not just in terms of their interests—though they both enjoy playing pretend, coloring, and dancing.  It’s something more ineffable than that.  There is something secret, almost conspiratorial between them.  They’re always whispering.  Scheming.  Hiding in corners and tittering.  Their relationship reminds me of one of my first friendships.  Thirty-six years after meeting Emily, I can’t say what initially drew us to each other, but I imagine it is the same glue that has kept us together all these years. 

I picture Sophie and Lola being friends for a very long time. 

They had been playing together for several hours—Sophie as the mother, Lola as the baby, when Lola’s father showed up to take her home.  There are a couple of dads at Sophie’s school who I’ve become friendly with. Ones that I see each morning at pick up and drop off, who I’ve coordinated play dates with, and on a couple of occasions, have pulled our whole families together for a cross-generational play date. 

Dave and I got caught up talking, as we often do about this and that.  The unrelenting snow.  His recent trip to Florida.  The looming Broad Street Run, for which we’ve both registered to run.  The girls, realizing that we might be a while, snuck away and stationed themselves behind the large leather chair in the living room.  About 15 minutes into the conversation, we both noticed that it had gotten awfully quiet. 

“I’ll go upstairs to find them,” I told Dave.  As I did, the leather chair snorted. 

“I think I found them,” Dave said.  Peering down from the landing, I saw them too, crouched behind the chair, teetering on their balls of their feet as they giggled. 

“Come on out Lolalee,” Dave said, “it’s time to go.”  But there was no conviction in his voice.  Lola knew it.  And, sure enough, Dave and I drifted back into conversation.  The girls saw their opportunity and seized it.  Neither one of us noticed that they had slipped back upstairs. 

Fifteen minutes later, Dave remarked that he should probably get going.  This time I found the girls hidden behind Sophie’s door, their hands covering their mouths to stifle their glee. 

“Okay, come on you two.  Outta there,” and I waved my hand towards the stairs.  After many protests, dawdling, ardent goodbyes which involved lifting each other off the ground in great bear hugs, and making an appointment to see each other two days later that neither would be able to keep, Lola left.

That night, Sophie and I were eating dinner.  Kevin, who was ill, had his head on the table and was looking like he was trying not to barf. 


“Yeah?”  Why is it that she always needs confirmation that I am listening before she says anything to me? 

“Did you kiss Dave?”  I nearly spit my grapefruit essence Perrier out all over the table.

“What makes you think I was kissing Dave?”

“We thought we heard you ask him for a kiss.”

“Whose ‘we’?”

“Me and Lola.”

“No, Sophia.  Dave I and were talking.  There was no kissing involved.”  This, my friends, is how rumors begin. 

Kevin, in spite of his nausea, was snickering. 

“I think if I was going to be kissing anyone other that Daddy, I’d be a little more stealthy about it.”

“What does that mean?” Sophie asked.

“Mommy’s just being silly,” Kevin told her. 

“Oh you think?” I asked slyly. 

“Do you love Dave?” Sophie asked suddenly.  Must she do this every time I take a mouthful of something? 

“Well, honey, he’s a friend.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love him.  I love you and daddy.”

“So you didn’t tell him you love him?”


“I though I heard you say that you did.” 

“I think you need to get your ears checked.  Again.” 

Neither of us said anything more about the subject.  But I was left wondering:  Where was this imagined intimacy coming from?  A strange fantasy of hers that we could merge families, and that she would become Lola’s sister?  Concern that I was throwing over her father for another guy? Or just an unclear understanding of the constraints of monogamy?   A innocent inquiry born out of a more fluid conception of love.