• I wish I had a photograph — or, better yet, a video clip — of Sam in the family van, heading out of our driveway this morning. I thought of running inside to get my  camera/phone. It just didn’t seem the right moment to impose my Smotheriness on Sam and his friend, both strapped in for their last trip from Boston to Ohio. So, I will conjure the image through words.

    A pale, winter sun had risen, revealing a clear sky. Far above the garage, a songbird perched on a bare branch. It wiggled and warbled. Nary a car passed on the street ahead. The mini-van — nominally “Silver Gray” — dented and dinged in its 13+ years of service — stood at the ready. Sam had commented as he’d lifted the hatchback that even it made a rasping sound these days. Sam turned the key in the ignition, causing his steed to cough to life, emitting more of a Lauren Bacall three-pack-a-day burr than an emphysemal wheeze.

    And then…they sat, these two young men, going nowhere. I stood in the drive, warm enough in my long underwear, Polar Fleece pants, ratty wool sweater, and down vest. I scanned the bare branches, the song bird, the plume of exhaust puffing out the back of the van. Then, like steam from a sauna, wafted a beat to put a shimmy into the Old Grey Mare’s hum.  Sam’s single upgrade when he inherited the O.G.M.: a first-rate sound system, which neither Mark nor I can figure out how to silence when we are infrequently behind its wheel. A minute more, and the guys were off.

    As the van’s wheels began to roll, I began to wave. “Winkie, Winkie!” I said to no one. My wave continued until the boys had turned from the driveway into the street. And I could see, through the O.G.M.’s tinted windows, the span of Sam’s long, drummer’s arm waving back.

    A family tradition, this Winkie, Winkie business. My in-laws would stand in their driveway, side by side, waving to Mark and me — and then, later, Mark, the kids, and me — until we were out of sight. “Winkie, Winkie!” they’d shout. A German tradition, Mark explained early on, coming through his father, embraced by his mom. A kitschy farewell. A magical gesture to ensure safe travel, safe return. Sometimes, after my mother-in-law would gaily shout and even giggle, she’d lower one hand to brush away tears.

    No tears for me this morning, though it is not always so.  The beat coming from the van’s speakers reminded me to smile way down deep.  What will Sam remember from his last semester of college? A particularly good lecture? A well-written essay? Late-night carousing with friends and flame? Balancing the heft of a dining hall tray loaded with limitless sweet cereal and milk? Long after graduation, he’ll savor vivid memories of these drives between Boston and Ohio, fueled by Red Bull and tunes. The journey not the destination, the wise ones say. Expectations and a twinge of anxiety on the trip out. Exhaustion and a twinge of anxiety on the leg home at semester’s end.  And surely Winkie, Winkie, a sacred rite passed from generation to generation.

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  • Two Ends

    Two of the kids – Lily and Max – finished high school in early June.  I know, I know.  They call it “commencement.”  It’s supposed to be a beginning, the start of what’s coming next.  I like the idea of “graduation.”  You move (up?) from one step to another.  But, really, it felt so much like an ending.  The end of waving kids off in the morning from the breakfast table, the end of dropping kids at the train station and picking them up again in the afternoon, the end of having supper ready for everybody and hearing holy hell when everybody is sick of chicken, the end of having gangs of boys hanging out in the basement in front of the TV.  It was hard to think about beginnings, especially because nothing had begun yet.  It will.  I know it.  But it hadn’t then and hasn’t yet.

    We celebrated a lot of these ends, and it was joyful.  I threw parties.  Grandparents traveled to Boston from distant locales.  There were presents.  Everybody dressed up and looked spiffy.  Mark, the kids, and I traversed Alaska’s Inside Passage, from Juneau to Ketchikan, as a way to note these endings.  The five of us had – let it be publicly acknowledged – a lot of fun. Together.  As a family.  A dream come true.

    For Sam, of course, things haven’t exactly ended, because he is spending another year boarding and will have his commencement/graduation/end next June.  It’ll be different, in part because he’ll already have made the leap to “away.”  And it’ll be different because he won’t be graduating near home, so I can’t make all my neighbors gather and fuss.  But with luck we’ll all be together again – grandparents included – and it’ll be a big huge deal.  That’s the way it seems to be turning out in this family.  Reaching goals, coming to a place of achievement, marking rites of passage: we notice, and we eat cake.

    A Middle

    So, now, it’s high summer – August – and I feel like a yo-yo.  I keep pinging around.  I helped Lily get set up on the Cape so she could work her usual summer job at the fruit’n’veg stand.  I helped Sam get started at Berklee, where he’s been percussing away. I’ve helped Max and four others find an apartment in New York, where they’ll be volunteering with City Year for 11 months in public schools. Max hasn’t started yet, but he’s fully engaged in planning and will soon head with Mark in a U-Haul filled with furniture donated from generous friends.

    And I’m in the middle of too many projects.  I’m working on the syllabus for the course I’ll be teaching in the fall.  I’ve done another round of research for a long piece, but I haven’t written it yet.  I’ve emptied my office of books, but I still have a dozen, deep file cabinet drawers to sort through and vast stacks of papers to sort.  Good news: underneath the horrible, mouldy carpet lies a hard wood floor.  Such potential.  Kind of a metaphor for everything else.  Who knows what’s underneath?  Maybe something that with a bit of polish will shine?

    I feel stuck in the middle, meanwhile. After all the fanfare, not much has changed.  I’m still buying groceries and emptying the dishwasher.  The kids are keenly aware that new sorts of independence are just around the corner, but they haven’t quite reached the corner yet.  A bit of push-me-pull-you has ensued.  Normal, I know, in the Separation Derby, but not always comfortable.

    A Beginning

    You give everything you’ve got to these growing, shifting children, and if you are actually able to give what they need – not necessarily what they want or you expect – you get … to be left alone.  This somehow seems a bad bargain at the moment, although older friends tell me it’s actually great.  Right now, I think, “Who’d be crazy enough to sign on?  Three times?”  But that’s what the Bowl o’ Cherries is all about.  You’ve got to savor the delicious fruit of raising a family, recognizing that you’re going to be left with a messy napkin filled with pits.  The tasty fruit is gone.  The seeds are to scatter.  They’re going to mature into the loveliest trees. Probably in someone else’s yard.  You’ve been so busy getting to this point that other parts of the garden have lain fallow or even gone to seed. What to do?  Begin again.

    Mired in the middle after so many endings, I am engaging in a tiny beginning. I’ve had my first two cello lessons and can now play both the “Dreidel” song and “Jingle Bells.”  Pizzicato only.  I told this to a neighbor’s son, a young man I have loved since he and my kids were all 5.  He’s a wonderful musician with a wry sense of humor.  Next, he assured me: Bach’s cello suites – preferably Number Two.  I told him to check back with me in 2014.

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  • I slowed my pace Saturday afternoon. I fell back to savor the view. Six long, suntanned legs in step, striding along a wide, dirt path. I wasn’t straining to hear the conversation, but I couldn’t help hearing the laughter. I just wanted to look.

    In my arms: Sam’s black trousers, rumpled white button down shirt, black belt, black tie, black socks, and dust-covered black shoes. It’d taken him a few trips into his cabin at camp to find everything he’d need to wear for the concert that night. I cradled the outfit, remembering trips to Macy’s and Target to secure each item, several of which have been pressed into service for years.

    A summer of firsts. This isn’t Sam’s first time at music camp.  It’s actually his fifth. But it’s the first time his sibs have been able to visit. Instead of going away on their own adventures, they’ve spent the summer close to home. Lily’s been working in a produce market. Max has been punching in at Economy Hardware and training for soccer. They’ve both been getting ready to apply to colleges (emphasis on the getting). Sam will take an extra year before he’s at this stage. He’s going to boarding school in September for another go at junior year before rushing headlong into college madness. While he finishes off music camp this week, Lily, Max, and I will visit colleges.

    Sam will leave home first. It’s a year earlier than I’d anticipated. I thought I was done with my grieving, having had my fill of middle-of-the night waking this past spring. I was wrong. It’s all right at the surface again, and I am mourning the loss of time with gifted, goofy Sam. But I’m not the only one grieving.  Lily and Max are having to figure out the letting-go themselves. “It’s like missing a piece of a puzzle,” Lily tells me.  “When we’re together, it’s like, ‘Ahh. Yeah.  There’s that missing piece.'” As with everything else in our family, things are complicated.  The celebrations.  The milestones. The losses. There are inevitable feelings of comparison and competition that are known to all families with children, but these are magnified exponentially with multiples. Who talked first?  Walked? Rode a bike? Started dating? And now: the first to leave home?

    The competition evaporated — at least for a little while Saturday — as the three fell in together.  I wanted to stand right next to Sam and hear the full report. But instead, I hung back. I marveled at the three sets of long legs with the same intensity that I counted toes after their birth. I thought about the almost 18 years of work Mark and I have done to create a family where these three can delight in such close connection and also claim what each needs and knows.  I loved.

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  • I was feeling exceptionally sorry for myself this morning.  Sad and dreary.  Low and teary.   I cancelled our Passover seder because Max has been sick.

    Max came home Monday afternoon saying he “felt like shit.”  Pale face.  Glassy eyes.  Wickedly sore throat, he reported.  A quick date with the thermometer revealed a fever of 101.6.   Sixteen year olds don’t generally run those kinds of fevers.  And Max hasn’t had more than an occasional cold all year.  He tucked himself into bed and slept, on and off, until morning.  

    When I woke Max yesterday, he still had the high fever and sore throat.  He’d had his tonsils out when he was 7, but I knew he could still have strep throat.  And given that we were preparing to host a modestly sized seder at which we’d have two guests at opposite ends of the life spectrum, I figured I ought to have him tested.  The receptionist at our pediatrician’s office took pity on me and squeezed in Max so that I could still get to work, albeit a little late.  The pediatrician confirmed the fever, ogled the scarlet throat, and did a quick strep test. It was negative, so she sent out for a long test.  For now, the verdict is that the bug is viral.

    With a heavy heart, I called all of my seder guests and warned them off.  Could not in good faith expose a 3 1/2-week-old baby or an 88-year-old woman to a high fever.  I knew other guests would be visiting elderly relatives over the weekend, and so I alerted them, as well.  

    I look forward to seder with absolutely no ambivalence.  The message of Passover, of freedom, always resonates.  We celebrate spring.  The haggadah offers a chance to retell one of the great stories of the Western world.   We eat the soul of soul food.  And we gather with friends whom I adore.   Since Mark isn’t Jewish, it’s mattered to me to celebrate with others of the tribe who have deep connections to the rituals that make up the chord of my own life.    

    So, to cancel seder brought me a sense of loneliness and loss that I can’t quantify.  I woke early this morning and felt disconnected, dejected.  Mark had tried cheering me last night.  “We’ll have seder just the five of us.  It’s still a seder.”  I couldn’t get there.  The work of getting ready seemed unsatisfying, even insurmountable.

    I sat down to work for a few hours this morning but couldn’t settle. My  mind wandered to mundane tasks.  I sent a text message to Max’s cell phone to remind him to register for orchestra auditions.  At about 10 my cell phone buzzed.  Max had texted back: “ok.  are you at home.”  

    I replied: “Yes.  Are you awake?”  

    “no im asleep but still texting you.”  

    “That’s what I thought.”

    “do you want to go to zaftigs.  i dont have a fever.”

    “Come down and make eye contact, please.”

    Down he came, still pale, but not looking like death.  If he wanted to go out to eat,  would he agree to change over the kitchen for pesach?  Nope.  We sparred for a bit.  Max said he’d help bag all the forbidden foods if I’d do it with him.  We agreed that we would work in tandem after our meal, but that Max would have to come along on a few errands, as well.

    Max has mostly been snarling at me of late.  He and I, we haven’t been able to make it to our regularly scheduled Tuesday morning breakfasts at Zaftig’s, a favorite local deli, for almost a month.  So we started our late breakfast in the restaurant this morning not sure what to say to each other.  Where was the thread of our conversation?  After a few false steps, we settled in. Sports, video games, my teaching, stories of one of the guys in a documentary I worked on last fall, politics and military actions in Africa, and so on.  What a gift to exchange information without emotional charge.  Just to be sitting at the same table, breathing the same air, and not fighting….

    Max came with me as I returned library books.  He strode along, he more than half a foot taller than I, as we stopped by the liquor store for a bottle of Manischewitz.  And when we came home, he pulled out plastic bags and the vacuum cleaner so that we could make quick work of the cupboards.  Without complaint, he walked garbage bags filled with pasta and flour into the basement and brought up grocery bags filled with matzoh, potato chips, toasty coconut marshmallows, and fruit slices.  We finished the job together with nary a cross word.

    I hate to type this, but the glands in my neck are tender, and I’m trying to decide if I have a scratchy throat.  This virus — a plague not on the list afflicting the Egyptians — may be a blessing in disguise.  I can’t say what it will feel like tonight as we sit down with haggadahs.  I’m grateful to have had a few hours with Max today, who, had he been healthy, would have spent his day at school.  

    And I have an idea for the Afikomen tonight.  I’m going to make the kids hide it this year for Mark and me to find.  And everybody — all five of us — will get a prize.

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