Inked

By DaMongMan/ Flickr

By DaMongMan/ Flickr

I could sort of make out the outlines of the tattoo on my husband’s arm on the small photo on my phone. He took it in front of our bathroom mirror, holding up his right forearm in front of his face. I had to turn my head to the side to see that there were sun rays and a sword and a heart—some Masonic symbols that I don’t understand and perhaps I am not even allowed to understand. The tattoo stretched from wrist to elbow and wrapped all the way around his arm.

When we got married thirteen years ago, Drew did not have a single tattoo. I don’t think we ever talked about his desire to have one. Now he has four, with a fifth one in the plans. The first ones were modest, easily covered up by shirts and forgotten. I was away on a business trip this time and I knew that it was “tattoo day,” but the size and scope of this latest ink caught me off guard. I scanned myself for a reaction: how am I supposed to feel when my spouse turns from a baby-faced, soft-haired man into a bald, tattooed dude? I know how his mother feels about his tattoos and, when I think about my own sweet, soft-skinned baby boy getting inked when he is older, I completely sympathize with her. But Drew is not my child—he is my husband. So I should be supportive, right? I want to be—and I am—but I can’t help but stop for a moment to acknowledge the unease in the pit of my stomach. Is it the tattoo itself that makes me pause? Or the change that the tattoo signifies? Does it signify a change? How do I know?

The rest of the story is on Full Grown People.

What Are We Allowed to Talk About Anymore?

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We gathered in the center of our cubicle farm—the four women I share the space with stood around my desk. I am new in the office and they were asking me about my son. They wanted to see pictures and asked me about his age, his height, and told me that he has my eyes and my nose.

Then came the inevitable question: “When are you having another one? You are having another one, right?”

This happened just the day after I read an article about what not to say to first-time mothers. That article came on the heels of several others with a similar angle: What not to ask pregnant women. The 10 worst things to say to parents of twins. What no mother of boys ever wants to hear. Even something about what not to say to people who are going through dietary changes around the holidays. I am pretty sure that the question my co-workers asked me would have qualified for one of these no-no lists.

I know that these articles are usually meant to poke fun at wildly inappropriate people, but the articles’ prevalence always make me wonder: At what point—and especially why—did we come to assume that the questions and comments about pregnant bellies, dietary preferences, or child-rearing choices are malicious? Yes, the questions are sometimes silly, or too personal, or too ick-inducing. But can’t we just talk?

The full story is on Role Reboot…

How I Learned to Cherish My Son’s Wild Imagination

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Jackie the Jackalope came to live with us a couple of months ago. My son picked her out of a big bin of similar stuffed animals and immediately identified her as a jackalope.

Jackie has soft, gray fur; a white belly; and velvety, floppy ears. I am not sure where Sam heard of jackalopes, or why he thought Jackie was one–she does not have the small antlers that usually sit on top of the head of these mythical animals. But I guess having a jackalope is a lot more exciting and fun than playing with a plain old bunny.

Sam has a very vivid imagination, a very detailed view of what world he is in at any given moment. Of course we, adults on the outside, can’t always follow along with what is happening when he is playing. Are we pharaohs in ancient Egypt? Are we soldiers from the Union Army, or are we fighters from the Ottoman Empire trying to capture a castle in Hungary? At times–like in the morning when I just want Sam to finish breakfast and put his shoes on so that we can get going–it’s hard to appreciate his imaginary life. While I am talking about how it’s already 8 o’clock and we should really get going, Sam is babbling on and on about grave robbers, and dragons, and witches. When I am trying to get him to tell me about his day, I hear about robots, and magic horses, and spaceships–I am fairly certain those are not standard preschool toys.

Read the full story on Kveller.

Snow day

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By early afternoon both boys are restless. Sam refuses to nap or snuggle on the couch with me. Drew has finished working and is pacing up and down. He has already cleaned off his car and shoveled our steps. I am drifting off as the two of them bicker about going outside to play in the snow. Drew wants to go. Sam wants to stay. He complains that it’s too cold for playing outside. We’ve been in this house together for three days now—the weekend and now this stormy Monday. We left briefly for swim class and a birthday party and then kept busy with Legos and movies. Getting some fresh air is now a must.

The oven beeps. I promised apple crumble this afternoon.

I help Drew wrestle Sam into his snow gear: we start with the scarf—a Hungarian soccer club’s green and white colors—and snow pants. Then it’s a fleece vest, winter coat, boots, gloves. His coat was too big for him last year, but now as I zip him up I realize that I will probably have to buy him a new one before winter is over. I pull his hood over his hat and make sure his ears are covered. I kiss his warm little nose before they head outside into the cutting wind and cold.

I watch for a second as Drew pulls him away from the house on a sleigh, off to find a large enough snow pile for digging and sliding. I shiver just looking at them; the blowing snow obscures their figures just a few feet from our building. I try to remember what the tree in front of our kitchen looked like in the summer, the color of its blooms, the shape of its leaves. But nothing comes back and the piles of snow, the icicles hanging in front of our window, the mix of salt and slush in the driveway seem permanent, fixed. “Damn groundhog,” I mumble. Six more weeks of…this.

I never had snow days when I was a child. My elementary school was around the corner from our apartment and on snowy days my mom would pull me and my brother to school on a sleigh. School never closed, life never stopped.

Now I have these unexpected days at home when it seems that life does come to a standstill. Right around this time of the year, after many, many snow days, I stop trying to fill them with purpose. I stop reading articles about “easy crafts for snow days.” The TV is on. We don’t have to read all day or play with puzzles, or practice letters. We eat. We talk. We nap. We pretend to be firefighters. I poke around on my laptop and catch up with friends.

We bake apple crumble.

More than having a job, or a child, or a car, baking and cooking make me feel like I am a real adult. There is something about the ownership of a functioning kitchen, kitchen utensils, baking pans, and a pantry stocked with flour and sugar and spices, that makes me feel my age and my status in life. Thirty eight. Married. One child. On most days and in most situations I am baffled by how I’ve gotten here and why the world expects me to know what to do, how to behave. I am bad at negotiating teachers and other parents at Sam’s preschool. I still feel like I am fresh out of college at my job. Friendship, love, marriage—I keep expecting that I will get better at them, but the opposite seems to be happening.

But this, this I can do. I can feed two hungry men in my house. With stews and soups and roasts and veggies and salads. I can bake and cook and bring comfort: hot chocolate with whipped cream after a hard or cold day. Honey lemonade for a bad cough. Chicken soup for the flu. And apple crumble for a long day indoors.

I have to move quickly—I don’t think the boys can stay outside for too long in this cold and I will have to help with taking off the snow gear and then make hot chocolate for Sam.

I start with the apples. Drew brought some fresh ones and he also set out a few old ones from the bottom of our fruit basket. They have a couple of soft, brown spots—I cut those out and slice the rest of the fruit thin. I am surprised that Drew hasn’t thrown them away—he is very intolerant of imperfect fruit.

I grew up with imperfect fruit. Nothing ever went to waste: if there was a bit of mold on top of a homemade jam, it was just simply spooned off. Before picking apples from our trees, we picked up the fallen ones from the ground and my grandmother made jam from most of those. But the ones that were not too badly bruised, we ate fresh. At the end of the evening, after dinner, my dad would bring a bowl of apples, some cheese, and a knife to the living room and he’d peel apples for us as we watched TV or talked. It’s sort of like how other people’s sandwiches always look better, or the way a meal cooked by someone else tastes better than the one you had to make: the apple slices peeled and cut up by my father were the sweetest, juiciest apples I can remember. The small knife he used with the wooden handle, the creamy tang of the cheese he put on top of each slice, the way he reached out his hand with the delicious bites in his palm—I try to recreate these for Sam. When Drew is away on a business trip we eat apples in bed some nights, like some special, secret treat.

These apples I am peeling—apart from the older ones—are perfect, blemish-free, shiny. They don’t have the same taste as the free-range apples of my childhood, but they will hold up well in this recipe under all the butter and sugar and cinnamon.

I use a blue glass baking dish—a wedding gift missing the rest of its set. The apples go in first, then a generous sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon mix. I get out my favorite mixing bowl, a happy, yellow ceramic number, that’s just the right size. Flour, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, baking powder, salt.

Always salt.

That’s one of my favorite things about baking—adding salt to everything sweet. It makes me feel like a bit of a rebel, doing something that shouldn’t make sense. But it does: the salt, bringing out the sweetness of the sweet, doing something unexpected and almost forgettable. And the cakes and cookies and pies would turn out all right without salt, but not quite. You could always taste that something was missing, even if you couldn’t put a finger on it. Then someone would mention “salt” and it would all make sense.

So in goes the salt.

I am a messy, inexact baker. So I throw in about three-four shakes. I never level off the flour in the measuring cup, or pay attention to the order of wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Or is it the other way around? I don’t really care. If a recipe hinges on these minor details, I am in trouble anyway.

I have to dig a bit for my hand mixer because it’s been a while since I used it. But I find it, along with its blades, on the lowest shelf, behind the slow cooker. I bought this hand mixer when Drew and I started dating, about 15 years ago now. I wanted to bake a cake for his birthday that required a lengthy beating of eggs that I just couldn’t manage by hand. The cake turned out flat and rather tasteless in the end, only saved by the chocolate icing I cooked myself.  But the mixer is still here and working—and so are we.

As I mix the ingredients for the crumble together it hits me that this is how you end up with ancient small kitchen appliances. My mother’s hand mixer belonged to her mother and it was maybe 20-30 years old when I was a child helping my mother bake. It seemed like an antique then—square and impossibly heavy—but now my little “modern” mixer is halfway there in age.  Its once bright white color is starting to fade; the handle is sticky from years of goo on my hands. Will it hold up for another 15 years? Or was it made to be disposable? We’ll see.

The crumble goes on top of the apples already soaking in the sugar and cinnamon. I drizzle the whole thing with melted butter, after cleaning up a minor butter explosion in the microwave.

The heat from the oven hits my face and fogs up my glasses when I slide in the pan. I set the timer—45 minutes.

The dishwasher is still running so I do the dishes by hand. The boys are still at the end of our lane and I can see that Drew’s shoulders and head are covered in snow. The water is warm on my hands and I finish the dishes quickly. By the time I hear their voices on the front stoop the counter is clear and the kitchen starts to fill with the scent of cinnamon.

They shake off the snow before coming in and I quickly strip Sam’s snow-covered, wet, cold clothes. He keeps his scarf on—I am wearing one today too just to feel cozy—and runs into the living room to flop on the couch. I warm milk for hot chocolate and check on the apple crumble. The butter is bubbling on the edges of the pan. “That is going to be so good,” Drew says and I feel him right behind me, his body radiating cold. I tuck his hands under my armpits to warm them and he laughs at the gesture.

Later in the afternoon the snow picks up, heavy bands of it moving across the parking lot. Drew’s car is covered again. The apple crumble is cooling on top of the stove. We are all snuggled on the couch, warm, content.

Waiting for spring.

The Married Couple’s 36 Questions for Staying in Love

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Photo by Dennis Skley, flickr

I am sure that by now you have probably read the recent Modern Love column in The New York Times by Mandy Len Catron. In “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” Mandy unpacks the 36 questions that can help two people fall in love. The exercise suggests that both parties answer the questions and then, as a bonus, stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes.

The questions, based on the work of psychologist Arthur Aron, become more and more probing as they go: “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?” “What roles do love and affection play in your life?” “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?”

Reading the questions I can see how it would be such a heady, intoxicating feeling to get into deep, important topics on a first date — some of these issues, like relationships with family, embarrassing moments, thoughts about illness and death — might not normally come up until much later dates. I can definitely still remember that feeling when you are just getting to know someone and how exhilarating it is when you feel like you are getting at something important, something at the very core of the other person.

And then you look into each other’s eyes. Instant love.

My husband and I went through some of the 36 questions, but we already know so much about each other — there weren’t any big surprises. What struck me the most is that I realized that the questions that are important at the beginning of the relationship are very different from the questions — and answers — necessary to keep that love going once you are in the trenches. Once you don’t have time to ponder the big questions of love, death, illness, childhood or life goals over a glass of wine, what questions become essential for survival? When you don’t have four minutes to stare into each other’s eyes, how do you stay in love?

Here is my stab at the questions that I think are important — or at least helpful — to think and talk about after the first big rush of love has faded.

The list is over at The Huffington Post…

How do you make 13?

This has been a frequent question in our house lately, now that Sam is suddenly interested in letters and numbers: “How do you spell mama?” “What is 5 and 5?” “How do you make 13?”

Easy answers.

But today is our 13th anniversary and suddenly, I am not sure how one makes 13. It’s not just a matter of simply writing one number after the other — is it?

I spent the morning sending my husband calendar appointments for various trips and plans that I have so that he can take all of that into consideration when he makes his travel plans for work. It all seems very official and clinical, like we are running a business together.

Before you get married, or even when you are first married, you do not think of your relationship in cold business terms. And I still don’t — but somehow it’s all necessary. The listening, the scheduling, the planning, the changing plans to accommodate the other. It is not sexy at all. It is the opposite of sexy.

But maybe our idea of what sexy is changes over time. I used to yearn for flowers and cute cards and jewelry for our first couple of anniversaries. Now I just want us all to be at home at a reasonable time in the evening so that we can eat burgers and drink champagne — a tradition left over from our first anniversary. I want our calendars to synch up, so that we don’t miss anything. I want the easy shorthand of our relationship. I want simple, I want boring, I want predictable.

I know that we are supposed to keep our marriage fresh and spice things up with date nights and lingerie and new adventures together. Am I the only one who is too exhausted to do that? I am busy putting one number in front of the other. I want a comfy bra and my yoga pants. And wine.

Spice, to me, comes from security. From knowing where my next kiss will come from. That I will be making dinner and a pair of strong arms will hug be from behind and just stay there for a few seconds. That I can take up the entire couch with my laptop and notebooks and that around 10:30 I will get a gentle nudge to go to bed.

Or that I can put 1 and 3 together and somehow make 13.

Five

I had to do a quick calculation in my head to figure out how old you are in months. We have long ago stopped talking about you in terms of months—it’s been a long time since those were the big milestones: three months, six months, twelve months, eighteen… It’s also been a long time since we stopped referring to you in terms of vegetable sizes. When you were in my belly I got those e-mails every week reminding me that this week you were the size of a pea. A kumquat. A tomato. A pear. An eggplant. I loved those e-mails.

Maybe that is why it’s been hard not to refer to you as “my baby” lately. You correct me, and you are right, but still. You are my baby. It’s a cliche that you will always be mama’s baby, but there it is. Our lives are cliches, one after the other, things that millions of other people have experienced and described before us, but to us, who are going through it now, it is all virgin territory.

Like you turning five. You are a boy. Your little body is so long and strong, yet still has a bit of that baby softness. You never lost your sweet little baby thighs and I am grateful for that. Everything else is bony boy, but that little part of you reminds me of the little bundle that you used to be. You used to fit on my lap. I used to be able to carry you up the stairs.

But this is just blubbering now… The real important stuff. Here it goes.

I think you had a really rough year. I don’t think—I know. We all have. We moved to a new city and while I only had to figure out where the grocery store is, you had to navigate a new school, new playground, new gym class, new friends. Of course, I was navigating with you, but let’s be honest, you did the hard work. I left you every morning and you were on your own.

And you totally rocked it. Yes, you bit one of the little girls during the first turbulent weeks. I think there might have been a shoving incident as well. But those were all expected and frankly, I would have done worse in your shoes. You were—are—fearless and smart and kind. You handled everything like a pro and kept us in line and sane. That’s a lot for a little guy.

I comforted myself with the thought that it’s good for you, in a way, to go through some hard times, to experience adversity. You learn and grow from them. I know this as an adult, but it’s against my every instinct as a  mother. I want to protect you and see you happy and content all the time. Life will be hard later on — there is no need for me to make it hard. But how else will you learn to sail through difficult times? I doubted — and still doubt — whether I am a good enough parent to teach you the hard lessons. To let you suffer, fail, experience pain. I know I have to. Just not yet.

This year I was also painfully aware that this is the last year that I have you all to myself. We have nine months until you start kindergarten and I am so excited for you and also sad to be giving up our freedom of stay-home days, long weekend trips, early pick-ups on a whim. I’ll miss that. I’ll miss you. But you are so ready and I can’t wait to see how you’ll do in school. I know you will soak up everything. That is one of my favorite things—watching you sit on the couch, with a book, obviously thinking hard and making up stories. It’s the best thing in the world and I hope that nothing and nobody will ever ruin that for you.

Another thing that stood out for me this year is something that I’ve known about you, or rather felt about you maybe even since you were born. I am writing this on Christmas Eve, six days before your birthday, and just today I experienced this with you. It might be hard to put into words… We went to a klezmer concert at our synagogue—this was your first experience with this kind of music. And the entire evening I just knew—or felt—that you were feeling this music in some deep place in yourself, that you are taking it all in in a way that is unusual for a five-year-old. I feel this way when you talk about going to Hungary or being Hungarian—that you just feel these things in your soul, that you have that sixth sense, that depth, that intuition that makes you so serious and thoughtful. And that also maybe makes your life right now a bit difficult, because it is hard to articulate all of these feelings. But I love that you are so sensitive and that you are so in tune with yourself—as much as your five-year-old impulses allow you.

I feel like I could go on and on about how this past year has been difficult and amazing and fun and challenging. I feel like every year has been and will be like that with you. Maybe there will be shifts in the ratio of difficult vs. fun, but they will both be there every year. We are growing together and yet I know and remind myself regularly that we are also growing apart. That you will not always think that I am beautiful or smart, that you won’t always allow me to kiss your sweet lips and cheeks and tickle your belly, that you won’t always tell me so openly when you are sad or confused. So I treasure every year and start the new one ahead of us praying and hoping that we’ll end it like we are now: together, in peace, in love, in magic.