Trying for thankful

Being thankful is not really in my genes.

Growing up in Budapest we did not celebrate Thanksgiving — obviously — and even after living the U.S. for years and years I never really got into it. It seems like a random holiday for an outsider and more than that: it is such an American thing to be thankful. It is such an optimistic, almost child-like feeling to us, gloomy Eastern Europeans — to be thankful and to celebrate,  to list all the things that went so well, to hold hands at the dinner table with loved ones.

The closest I get to feeling thankful is feeling immense gratitude for things not having gone worse than they could have this year. Is that the true spirit of thanksgiving? I am not sure. Feeling thankful is still very foreign to me. And really, I don’t mean to make fun of it, because there is something endearing about it, something child-like, happy.

I really want to be able to feel that way and so I am giving it a try. It’s an excellent challenge, because this year has brought more death and doubt than I have ever experienced in my life.

There have been eight deaths — should I be thankful that the count isn’t nine or ten? Those who died — with the exception of my grandmother — were distant relatives and friends. Should I be thankful that they weren’t close family? I felt doubt about my career, my parenting, my marriage, my life — should I be thankful that none of these actually fell apart?

I suppose the answer is yes to all of this, but this attitude still seems cynical. Thinking of the things that went right is much harder and much more important. It requires slowing down, observation, appreciation of the small things. It requires turning my head and my heart away from all the bad stuff that could have been worse and raising my eyes to what is really, truly amazing on its own. Those things are so much smaller, so much harder to see than the big things in life — death, disappointment, tragedy.

This evening on my couch with my laptop and my words. My husband watching cooking shows next to me. My son wrestling around in his bed as he is trying to fall asleep. The glass of red wine next to me. My mom in the kitchen making my favorite meal. My dad as he crouches down to let my son play with his mustache. The sound of my computer when my brother calls from his travels and we talk for an hour without noticing time or the distance. The few minutes I have by myself every morning in my car with loud music and the open road. A cup of tea and my quiet office at the beginning of the day. A stack of books next to my bed. A new pen. Fresh jeans. The sound of the furnace kicking on during a snowy night. High beams. Peppermints. A finished story.

These are things that are perfect on their own — they could not be worse or better, they are just there, ready to be enjoyed and noticed. I have to teach myself to notice these every day and to not be sidelined by all that goes wrong in life.

Maybe that is what I am thankful for this year — this lesson in the significance of the small, and the fleetingness of what is so huge.

Mama needs to be alone now

Mama needs to be alone now. Not for too long, just a couple of days. Really, you won’t even notice that she is gone. Ok, maybe you will. But really, it’s for the best. You see, there are things mama likes to do that she just doesn’t get to do anymore now that you are around, like, all the time.

Like what? Oh, just silly things. It’s really nothing. But if you really must know…

First, when mama gets to the hotel, she is going to take a long, long, shower. Alone. Oh, actually, she will first pee. Again, alone. Then the shower. Very long. Very hot. She will shampoo, condition, shave, lather, maybe even use a leave-in hair treatment. Fancy, good smelling stuff, not the stuff with Spiderman on it.

Then she is going to stand in front of the mirror for a long time, examining every freckle and dimple and pimple. This will happen without anyone pulling off her towel, or jiggling her butt and laughing. She will tweeze, moisturize, massage. Then she is going to dry her hair. No ponytail, not today. She will use a nice, light styling foam, maybe a little smoothing gel for those errant, frizzy curls. A light spritz of hair spray. Ah, much better!

While all of this is going on, she is going to think. She is not going to think about next week’s pickup and drop-off schedule, or dinner, or laundry, or doctor’s appointments, or fine motor skills, or preschool, or play dates. No. I mean, it’s hard to predict what one will think about while tweezing eye brows and drying hair, but she will do her best to think big, grown-up thoughts – the meaning of life, career paths, love, the state of marriage, writing – all of the good stuff.

While still thinking about all of these important things, she will put on big-girl clothes. No jeans. No yoga pants. No sweatshirts. Everything she’ll wear will be totally impractical: shoes with buckles and laces and high heels – because guess what? She doesn’t have to kick them off at preschool drop-off. Delicate fabrics. Patterns that would, indeed, show off snot and spit-up marks if there were any nearby. Ha! Not today! She might even make the effort and wear Spanx. But probably not. Definitely jewelry – preferably all of her pointy, sharp rings and long earrings. Make-up that’s not Chapstick. Perfume. The whole shebang.

Then comes the most exciting part: Mama is going to eat dinner. And by eat I mean luxuriously linger over cocktails, appetizer, main course, cheese plate, dessert, a nice dessert wine, possibly a cappuccino. And by dinner I mean food that isn’t fried, wasn’t prepared in under 30 minutes, isn’t bite-sized, and doesn’t come from a child-size plate.

And during dinner she is going to have a nice chat with other adults. I mean, she loves the little talks about super heroes, the playground, and she really, truly enjoys explaining why most fire trucks are red or why the leaves fall from the trees, or why the squirrels ate your pumpkin. She really does. But she is going to talk about politics. And books. And movies. And I bet the people around her will tell great stories and jokes that don’t involve the word “fart” or “butt” or “poopyhead.” And most amazing of all, she is going to talk in full sentences. She will not be interrupted, or lose her train of thought. She will be eloquent and funny and the life of the party.

She is not sure if the evening could get any better, but I am certain that it will. Because after dinner mama will retreat to her dark, empty hotel room and flop herself on a huge, fluffy bed. She will have complete control of the remote and the TV and she will stay up probably too late watching shows that don’t involve the letter “S” brought to her by monsters, or dragons, or dinosaurs, or anyone named Thomas or Bob or Diego. In the morning she will sleep as long as she wants – although who are we kidding? You have trained her to be awake and ready at the crack of dawn. But it’s OK, because this time she can stay in bed, linger, doze, drink coffee. Whatever. She is in no rush.

This glorious schedule will go on for a few days. She will milk it for all its worth. She will store away in her memory all of the lovely details of what it’s like to be alone. To have complete control of her thoughts and body and time. It’s been so, so very long.

What she hates about this absolute freedom is that by the second or third day she will feel like something’s amiss. She will feel a strong tug, an urge to be near you again. She will detect a twinge of guilt. She will miss your sticky hands on her face, your morning breath on her pillow, your giggles and screams in the middle of a phone call. She will miss hearing “excuse me, mama!” in the middle of her sentences.

I know you miss her when she is gone. So she will enjoy these last few hours of freedom and promise to return to you refreshed and recharged, with very shiny hair and soft skin and clear, blank mind that’s ready to discuss whatever matters to you the most at any moment: why rocks are smooth, how Santa makes toys, or how cows make milk. She will come home with new stories about the magical animals that live in your yard. She will sit on the floor and help you line up all of your Matchboxes and build a garage for them out of Legos. She will let you play with her hair as you long you’d like. She will let you help her cook lunch and then she will cuddle you in the big bed and stroke your hair until you fall asleep.

She will be so ready.

One and only

I am snuggled in bed with Sam – he is drinking milk and playing with my hair before his nap. Downstairs I hear the slow thump-thump-thump of Drew’s steps coming up from the basement – like a slow march towards something inevitable. He is on the main floor now, out the front door, making a right to his car – trunk door opening then slamming. Thump-thump-thump back down to the basement for another load, then marching back upstairs again. I try to ignore how many trips he makes between basement and car and try to focus on the warm little body on my lap, the deep, brown eyes searching my face.

I guess we are not having another baby.

It’s hard for me to put a finger on why this upsets me so much. I never had my life planned out – I never imagined that I would be married, or that I would have even one child. So when marriage came along I was excited, but not ecstatic – it was just a logical next step, not the fulfillment of a life’s dream.

I am sure we talked about having children when we were dating, but I think we both felt sort of “meh” about the issue. It might happen, it might not. Either way, it would be fine. A few years into our marriage I was the one to feel that either way would NOT be fine. Having a child seemed like the logical next step. Drew would have been happy with the status quo, but I definitely felt that something – or rather someone – was missing. It was more of an uneasiness, like everyone around me was in on this joke that I missed completely. So I slowly talked him into it – it was really more of a nudge in the right direction, not really an argument I had to win.

Now here we are with a four-year-old and the basement full of his baby stuff is driving Drew crazy. We are trying to sell our house, so it makes sense to downsize, to get rid of clutter, to take inventory. I get it. But as he slowly carries car seats, strollers, toys, and books up the basement steps, I know that this is more than just cleaning out the basement. Well, for me anyway.

The discussions about another baby started about two years ago. I was ready. I mean, I wasn’t crazy about being pregnant, giving birth, not sleeping for the first year. It was all OK, but I didn’t love it the first time around – I feel like probably nobody LOVES it. But by now we were cruising – easy baby, good nights, good eater, easy potty training. We could totally do it with another one.

I have one brother and we are very, very close – always have been. I am not sure what my parents did to make it so, but it was probably a combination of their parenting, luck, and our personalities. There is an unwritten/unspoken rule between us that everything goes and everything is forgiven. He is my partner in crime, my confidante, my best friend. It’s always been easy to maintain that and always will be. It is one of the few certain points in my life – my brother is always there. Always

My husband has two siblings and he rarely talks to them. He has his reasons – and they are pretty good ones – going back to their childhood. His sister is much older so maybe they’ve never been that close because of their age. His brother beat him up as a child, with quietly complicit parents standing by. They patched up their relationship as adults, but it’s not an intimate, close brotherhood.

So who is to say that my experience with my brother is more valid than Drew’s experience with his family? I don’t know a lot of siblings who are as tight as I am with my brother, so I know that we are not the norm. But isn’t it better to have a somewhat cooler relationship with a sibling than to have no sibling at all?

I think about this a lot, especially when Sam gets into trouble for something. Here he is, just a little boy, with the “wrath” of two parents coming down on him, and no place to go, nobody to complain to about how unfair it all is and how mom and dad got it so, so wrong. I think about what being an only child will feel like as he gets older, all alone in carrying the joys and dreams of his hopeful parents. What will it be like to take care of us on his own as we age? What will it be like when there will be nobody left to recall his childhood, to reminisce, to laugh, to bear witness?

With more and more of Sam’s classmates having siblings, he too asks if he could have one. “I want a little sister,” he told me the other day as he sat in the bathtub. A few days before that, it was a little brother. When I told him that he would have to share his toys and my hair – along with my time and attention – with a little brother or sister, he thought about it for a long time. “Nah, mama, I can’t share your hair!”

Of course, he doesn’t really know what he is asking for. I mean, he does, but not REALLY. I know that growing up without a sibling will seem natural to him, because that’s what he will be used to – just like I am used to having a brother and can’t imagine what it would be like to not have one. I know that as a family we’ll be close, comfortable, and able to afford him things and opportunities that we might not be with multiple children. There are so many things we want to do with him that I don’t think we’d do with more than one child: travel, move to Europe, take vacations, be the jet-setting, cool family I always wanted. How do you place value on opportunities and experiences vs. having a sibling? They each have their advantages

Is it wrong to admit that a tiny little part of me is relieved to not have any more children? It’s a VERY tiny part, but still, it’s there. I am pushing 38 and I do feel too old for a newborn. I am excited about a possible new career just a few months from now, about traveling, about having some time to do things I want to do and still feel like I can be a good mom to Sam with maybe just a tad less guilt. Just a tad.  So there is that. And after trying to convince Drew and not succeeding, I realized that I can’t live my life fighting about this. Where will that get us? Definitely not closer to a second child.

But still, the thump-thump-thump coming from our basement is sobering. There is something final about removing all evidence of Sam’s babyhood. I know it’s just stuff; I know that the most important part of Sam is sitting on my lap right now and that holding on to his stroller is not going to make him stay a baby. But I have a strong attachment to his stuff – really, to all stuff. These particular items were acquired after so much thought and research, with so much anticipation and joy – imagining my little boy in his playpen, his high chair, playing with his first toys – even before he was born. It feels like all of those firsts, all of those hopes and dreams are marching right out my front door.

I try to remind myself that nothing is ever final. Drew might change his mind – I still have a few years left when I could have a baby. All of the stuff is replaceable. All of the important memories are tucked away in my heart and in my mind. And there are a lot more memories to come for the three of us.

Drew is done loading his car. I peek out the window to watch him close the trunk – the car is bursting at the seams. It’s a good thing Sam’s crib wouldn’t fit in.

The crib — that’s one item I am not ready to give away.

Young Love

This essay first appeared on Full Grown People.

My phone buzzes just as I drain hot pasta over the sink with Sam hanging on my leg and my husband talking about the mortgage or some electrical issues in our basement or something else house-related. I try to nudge Sam away from the boiling water and towards the dining room table—with a quick stop to wash his sticky little hands. I hear my phone again, impatiently beeping and buzzing, and I recognize that someone is trying to send me a message over Skype. It could be my mom or my brother, so I settle Sam, serve dinner, and quickly glance at the screen.

It’s not my mom. It’s not my brother. It’s Him. It’s a short message and it’s written in German and despite not having spoken one word of German in oh, about fifteen years, I know and understand every single word immediately. “I was at a charity event tonight and I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

That’s it.

That’s it and I am nineteen again.

That’s it and I am back in his small, dark college dorm room, lightheaded from one too many fuzzy navels and giddy with excitement. I am sitting on the floor across from him, cross-legged, but all I can think about is how much I want to wrap my legs around him and pull him even closer. We are both wearing flannel, and Whitney Houston is playing in the background. A friend of ours stops by for a few minutes, but quickly realizes that he is interrupting whatever it is that’s about to happen. He laughs and rustles my hair as he gets up to leave, like he is happy for me.

I feel happy and confident when he finally kisses me—I’ve done this before, I know what comes next, but I am amazed that it is actually happening to me. I mean, he is so cool. So blond. So blue-eyed. So dreamy and smart and worldly and, oh my God, that accent. I am a chubby Jewish girl from Hungary—I don’t get swept off my feet by sparkly-eyed blonds. Ah, but I am now, and we quickly make our way to my room—my roommate is away for the weekend.

There is some confusion about whether I am a virgin or not, but after I reassure him that he is not about to deflower me, he is tender and hungry and talks to me in German the whole time. I wake up in the middle of the night, squished between him and the cold cement wall and spend the rest of the night in the lounge of my dorm building, watching bad TV and thinking that what I have just done was so cool and so grown-up and so sophisticated. And so very unlike me. I don’t see him leave in the morning, but he leaves a note on my bed. “You are a wonderful woman. See you soon.” And his initials: PD. I realize in a panic that I have no idea what the “D” stands for.

It’s March now, and he is graduating in two months. It quickly becomes clear that our night of passion does not guarantee me any privileges when it comes to seeing him, or talking to him, or eating together in the cafeteria. It does not gain me invitations to the cool parties he attends or to the spring dance. I think we go on one date maybe—a movie and an uncomfortable dinner.

It doesn’t matter. I am in love.

It’s easy to think back and say that I was young and stupid and confused sex with love. It was probably true. He was doing what handsome German students do during their study-abroad year. I was doing what bookish lonely girls do when said handsome German students pay attention to them. It is all so dull and obvious now, but it was so tragic back then and it would have stayed like that in my memory if our story had ended there.

But it didn’t. In fact, our story is still not over and that’s an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time his name shows up in my inbox.

After our (well, mostly my) tearful goodbye on a cool May morning before I headed back home to Budapest for the summer, I was convinced that I would never see him again. But for once, I was pleasantly surprised. He came to visit me that summer and the next, flew to the U.S. to see me at college several times. We talked on the phone and e-mailed all the time, and we met up at international airports for quick, furtive rendezvous in business lounges. Most memorably, he showed up at my office, unannounced, a month before my wedding.

Through all those years of not seeing each other much, we somehow became friends and moved on from our beginning as a tipsy one-night-stand. I think we both found it easier to open up when we were so far apart from each other, yet just a phone call away. The heart and the mind are so easy to reveal in a quick e-mail, a brief message, a silly card. There was always something easy between us, something natural and light-hearted. He was six years older than me, already weighed down by starting a career and figuring out what grown-up life is about, and I think for a long time—and maybe even now—I represented a carefree and happy time in his life. It was a comfort to both of us to recall our haphazard romance and to share a laugh about our youth and naïveté.

We never really talked about it, but obviously we both dated other people and I got married first. When he showed up at my office on a cold November morning, my heart stopped because again, this was not something that happened outside of movies—a scandal before my wedding? Did he come to take me away? To confess—finally!—that he is truly and madly in love with me? Did I even want that anymore?

He made no confessions. He came to say goodbye—I suspect that by then he was in a serious relationship with his future wife and had to put an end to whatever was going on between us. We held each other for a long time. He kissed me on the forehead and brushed his knuckles playfully across my chin before he left my apartment. I watched him walk down the long stairway leading to the street from my front door and for a moment I almost—almost—called him back. But I knew that would have been a mistake and that neither one of us were the kind of people who would do thatbefore our weddings.

We stayed in touch for the next decade, exchanging a few phone calls, a few e-mails about birth, death, jobs—the big stuff of life. There was always so much tenderness and so much history in our exchanges, assuring us that we weren’t alone in navigating all of this uncharted grown-up territory. It felt like we were finally on equal footing—I didn’t feel like the chubby Jewish girl anymore, and he didn’t seem like that shiny, untouchable person I remembered him to be. We were just two people who knew each other from way back when, who built a friendship out of an ill-fated college romance.

So here we are now, almost thirteen years later. Here is this message on my phone, beeping and wanting attention. I want to give it attention, because it’s …well, because it’s Him. I am a practical person: I believe that love is a choice every single day; that marriage is a choice every single day. No matter how hot the passion is in the beginning, to sustain a life together the passion must cool and every morning must begin with a choice—to be present, to be kind, to be understanding, to iron shirts, to cook a favorite meal, to listen.

But whatever this other thing is, it is not my choice—and it never has been. Whatever pulled me to him on that March night when I was nineteen is still in me—irrational, unexplainable, unstoppable, and I assume never-ending. I have felt this stupid love-like-thing for this man for the past eighteen years of my life and I have no reason to think it will change.

The next morning he e-mails me to say that he is thinking about what the rest of his life holds for him, how to handle the responsibilities thrust upon him and still find happiness. “Right now, but also for the past few years I wish I had you by my side,” he writes. “For many reasons.”

I know that, years ago, a message like that would have had me in tears of joy. And I am in tears now too as I look at my iPad screen in the early morning darkness. But it’s not joy I feel. I want to scold him. I want to be angry. Has he not learned how easy it is to believe that life would be different—better, more exciting, sexier, easier—with someone else? Does he not know that if he did have me by his side, he would not write me lovelorn notes in the middle of the night? I would be the nagging wife who only has time for the kids and I would not be the young love that got away.

I turn off the iPad and try to go back to sleep. As I drift off, I think about how I don’t want our story to be a sad one. I don’t want it to be about regret, or the road not taken, or opportunity not seized. I don’t want it to be about making the wrong choice or picking the wrong person. I am not sure what our story is about, but I can’t let it be about those things. I want it to be about possibility, about love that endures in whatever shape it appears in life. I want it to be about making a choice and sticking with it.

I want it to be about that little corner of the heart where I tuck away what I treasure most: an old friend with sparkly blue eyes, the smile of my baby, the reassuring weight of my husband in bed next to me.



Is love enough?

My little guy is going through something.

He’s been sad and clingier than usual and each morning during drop-off at preschool I have to pry his tiny little fingers off my legs while tears stream down his face. I know I am not supposed to, but I usually end up crying too. His explanations of what’s making him sad range from “Ethan hits me,” referring to his best friend at school, and “I don’t like the toys in my room,” to “I don’t want to go to space because I will miss you.”

First, I wanted to rule out the serious stuff. I talked to his teachers and they reassured me that there is no hitting or other serious conflicts between him and Ethan, other than the usual playground stuff. And in the mornings when Sam is sad, Ethan is the first to come over to give him a hug. I feel confident that he is safe at school and that his teachers would tell me otherwise.

My husband’s been traveling a lot so I am sure that’s a huge factor in how Sam feels — it’s a huge factor in how I feel. Combine that with the emotional turmoil of being four and whatever group dynamics are playing out with his group of friends and school, and I think that’s enough to make adults sad, let alone a little boy.

But I guess this is the first time or the first crisis when I feel at a loss when it comes to helping him through it. Until now when he was going through a growth-spurt or teething, the solutions seemed obvious — more naps, more activity, a little Advil here and there. But this is serious business, the emotions raw and tangible and I am in constant fear that this is the exact moment that I mess him up for life.

Sam is a talker, so we talk about what is going on — when Dada is coming and going, how long he’ll be gone, what fun stuff we’ll do when he gets back. We talk about what it’s like to miss someone. We talk about work and why Dada has to travel for work. We talk about how I am definitely not going anywhere in the near future. We talk about his friends, his teachers, sharing, telling a friend when an action is upsetting. We talk, talk, talk.

Then we cuddle. I let him sleep with me in bed while by husband is away and during afternoon naps he falls asleep on me, his sweaty little head nestled on my breasts, his hands clinging to my hair. We read together. I make him his favorite lemonade with honey and let him eat gummy snacks after dinner. We play in the leaves and listen to cheesy pop music in the car while he plays air guitar. We visit his grandparents often. We make up stories about animals that live in our back yard.

And yet I feel like what I am doing is not enough. That I am not enough. Whatever I am doing to help seems to serve only to cover up the emotions deep within, not solve them. But can I even do that for him? I mean, whatever it is that we do at home in the evening, during the day Sam has to go out into the big world and deal with things on his own. I can’t be there for him all the time. He has to learn to stand up for himself on the playground. He has to learn what it’s like to be excluded and how to deal with it. He has to learn how to resolve conflicts, how to find new friends, how to ignore the unpleasant ones. He has to learn about work and responsibility, about missing someone you love, about adjusting to the coming and going of daily life. I know that all of these are important life lessons, but it breaks my heart that he has to learn them.

It seems too soon.

I’ve been trying to think about how I deal with stress and I realized that what he misses are experience and perspective — again, not something I can provide for him. Sure, I comfort myself with chocolate and wine when I am stressed (that’s grown-up for lemonade and gummy snacks), but I also know that eventually whatever is going on will pass. I know that getting up every morning, putting one foot in front of the other, does help time move along. But how do I teach that to him? When I tell him that the trips will end, that each day at preschool will fly by and we’ll get to spend a three-day weekend together, does he believe me? What proof can I give him that this really is how it works?

My husband thinks that I should be firmer, more strict — Sam is a smart boy and knows that his tears reduce me to tears. But it’s not like he gets whatever he wants when he cries — he still has to go to school, still has to brush his teeth, take a bath, and do whatever else he is supposed to do. And be firmer how? Tell him not to cry? Punish him for being sad? What will that do? None of this is his fault.

I know that this is just a rough patch, that just like with everything else when it comes to kids, this too shall pass. (See, I told you!) I decided that I don’t mind being labeled a “softie” and I don’t mind letting Sam’s tears influence my actions. If an extra cuddle or a night in my bed make him feel just a little bit better, if having those comforts help ground him even for just an hour, who am I to deny him?