Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

New Year's Eve. I never know what to do with this night. It is always vaguely unsatisfying, as if the rest of the world is in on some secret celebration, and I'm not invited to the party. Even when there's a party to go to, I find myself reluctant, because my expectations are too high; I know I will be disappointed.

This night, when I was a child growing up in Jamaica, was sublime. We all drove up to my Uncle Donald's house at the top of a precarious hill. In the hours leading up to midnight, we children would play hide-and-seek in the dark, scurrying behind rocks, outcroppings of my uncle's sprawling, split-level house, twisted trees. Then, as the hour approached, the grown ups would call us in, and we'd hold hands in a giant circle in the living room, spilling onto the grill-enclosed porch, and we'd count down the seconds, bursting into a lusty rendition of Auld Lang Syne as the new year rolled in. We'd hug and sing and kiss and laugh and hug some more. Endorphins (or maybe it was joy) flooded every cell of our bodies as we sank happily into the embrace of our large family with its overabundance of dominant, colorful characters.

I miss that time. I think nothing can match it, and so I don't try. Come this night, I carefully manage my expectations. It doesn't help that our family now goes different ways on this night. My husband and I are going upstairs to a neighbor's gathering, grateful to be invited, and that getting there and home on this zero-degree night won't be too complicated. Our children want to be with their friends. So I'll count down to midnight holding hands with my husband, thanking God for him, but still aching at the memory of those so-long-ago New Year's Eve parties, and missing my children, too.

Auld Lang Syne, written by Scottish poet Robert Burns in the 1700s, translates as "Times Gone By." That we had those times is the kindness.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Flower Dance

My aunt, 90, comes home from the hospital in two days. She has been there almost two months, mostly waiting for her 24-hour home care arrangements to be approved. My mother, 86, says,"Wouldn't it be nice if she had fresh flowers to come home to?" My aunt really could not care less about fresh flowers, and I know they will sit in her living room until they are withered to ash unless I or someone else comes by and throws them away. But it will make my mother happy to know there are flowers in her big sister's home on the day she comes home from the hospital, so it is up to me to fulfill my mother's not-so-idly-stated wish. I'm thinking tulips, artfully arranged. "Go to the corner," my husband says. "Just grab a bunch there." "Do they have tulips?" I ask, to which he just shrugs. Simplify.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Small Victories

Yesterday morning, while my 86-almost 87-year-old mother was bathing, I went into the bathroom to help. Really, I went in there because company was ringing our doorbell, and even though it was one in the afternoon on a Saturday, I was still in my nightgown. My husband, already dressed for the day, went to answer the door and I escaped into the bathroom with my mother, thinking I'd help her dress and then shower myself.

The morning before, Mom had hit her forehead on the far wall of the bathtub, the result of her iffy depth perception due to her being blind in one eye. Even though I was mostly escaping my social obligations, I thought that I could still make things easier for my mom. I reached to help her out of the bath. "No," she said. "I have to do this. You won't always be around so I have to keep doing for myself, or I'll lose the ability." So I sat, ready to spring to her assistance should she need it. She edged to the end of the bath bench and maneuvered herself out of the tub, steadying herself by holding on to the basin. She dried, powdered, deodorized, began to dress. She got to her bra. With her slow arthritic fingers, she turned it inside out and upside down so that she could close the hook-and-eye clasps from the front, then move it to the back and pull everything up, slipping her arms through the straps.

As I sat watching her, she reminded me of no one so much as my now 19-year-old neice when she was two years old, lips pressed together in dogged determination to button her own overalls. My mom struggled to connect the clasps, one, then another, then another. When she managed the whole thing after a few tries, she raised her arms and exulted, "Thank you, thank you, Father." I think she even shifted her hips back and forth gingerly in a tiny jig.

"That's a big deal?" I asked her.

"Oh, you have no idea," she said, eyeballing the waist of her slacks as if calculating how she would get her legs inside. "Sometimes I stand here for twenty minutes trying to make the hooks meet, then when I get one, another comes undone. It doesn't always go this well."

We laughed a little, but inside, I was imagining all the unsung heroic actions she quietly undertakes each day, determined to keep doing for herself. My heart just swelled with love and admiration for her. And some sadness, too.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Confused Parent of Strange Children

"Confused Parent of Strange Children"--the words on the button my son gave me for Christmas, along with The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, which I had hinted broadly for, and even had my daughter buy and then tell her brother that he could give it to me since she'd already gotten me a present.

So much has happened since I was last here in June. My daughter started high school. So far, she's made a spectacular transition. She ended the first quarter on the honor roll, and played goalie for the varsity soccer team. She seems to have lots of friends, and to mostly be very happy. Sometimes, I think my girl is here on this earth to! Or to spread it around. Even when she gets cranky, she doesn't stay in that dark country very long. She delights me. My son is more like me. Impatient. High strung. Reactive. We often rub each other raw over insignificant things, and have to bite our tongues with each other a lot, so as not to do lasting damage. I irritate him. I know this. I am glad that my husband is in our lives. He steps between us and makes things light. My daughter is more like my husband.

There was the night right after Thanksgiving when my son and I ended up screaming at each other in the living room, my son yelling that I needed to butt out of his college search and let him handle it, me screaming that he wasn't handling it and all the deadlines were passing, and his early action schools were writing for his senior grades and science teacher recommendation, him screaming that he had it under control, that he'd talked to his counselor about it, me screaming that he should have just told me that, because then I wouldn't have called his counselor myself, us screaming sceaming screaming.

My husband, who had been in the bedroom peacefully turning film negatives into digital photo files with his new birthday gizmo, finally stalked into the living room and commanded, "Both of you, quiet!" At which point, our daughter skips in and says, "Look at this!" and shows us a photo of us in the park, my son carefully picking a leaf out of my hair. A beautiful caring mother and son shot. My son and I looked at each other and quit the screaming, no apologies, but all the animus gone.

As it turns out, my son got into his three early action colleges. Thank God he applied to some places early action, and got in, or I might have obsessively been pushing for him to apply to more schools, more schools, maybe even into April, or whenever the first acceptance rolled in. I think he should have applied to more "reach" schools, though, that he is a better candidate than he (or I) gave him credit for. He thinks at this moment that he wants to go to a school in the D.C. area, and what better time for him to be there than when Barack Obama is in The White House. He's not so interested in engineering anymore, doesn't want to be quite so intimate with math. He's thinking kinesiology, the science of human performance. I'm managing to keep silent on this. I'm managing not to say this is a pre-med path, or a bioengineering path, or a physical therapy path. He'll probably shift in many new directions before his future, never immutable, claims him.

I have to stop writing now. My family has sniffed out the fact that I am writing (trying to write) about them, and they keep bursting into the room, noisily trying to read over my shoulder, which is robbing me of all deep thoughts.

I wanted to write about Christmas day. My brother, his wife, their two kids, 8 and 5, are here from Jamaica, as is my mom, who turns 87 in a month. My 90-year-old aunt came out of the hospital to spend the day with us. My cousin stayed sober. Lots of stories there. Can't manage to mine them right now. Here comes my willowy neice, singing.