I stepped on one of our cats the other day. I was carrying the laundry down the stairs, which blocked my view of her lounging at the bottom of the stairs like the princess she is. I didn’t realize I had stepped on her until I felt the fur under my feet and heard that ear-piercing squeal that only angry cats can make. Horrified at my clumsiness, I tried to make it up to her. I cajoled, I wheedled, I followed her from room to room expressing how sorry I was and offering petting and love to appease the guilt I felt. She would have none of it. She ran from me, hid under chairs and eyed me suspiciously as if to say “oh sure you want me to come to you? You STEPPED on me!” No matter what my approach, it was the wrong one.
Earlier that day I had been shopping with my teenage daughter, an activity that brings up a wide range of emotions. We grow them tall in my family and my daughter is no exception, which can lead to some unique challenges when shopping. When I shop with Liza I have to restrain myself from wanting to buy her everything in the store because I remember my own teenage years, so overweight, so tall, so without any sense of fashion, always buying the wrong thing and never ever able to shop at any of the cool stores. Some days when we shop we find everything and some days are full of frustration. Unfortunately this day was one of the latter, as we went from store to store, optimism turning into trudging along, glumly leaving another store with no purchases. I found myself grappling with the ‘triggers’ (as my new agey friends like to say) of my unhappy teenage years. As I stood outside yet another dressing room stall watching one size 00 girl ask another size 00 girl if the jeans she was trying on were “too tight in the thigh,” it took all my willpower not to exclaim ‘really? REALLY?” Suddenly it was my senior year in high school, shopping with my best friend who was maybe a size 4. I picked up a dress desperate to find something, anything that fit, and couldn’t tell if the size tag was a 10 or a 16 (in those days they were handwritten, people). I showed it to my friend saying that I hoped it said 16, what did she think? She looked at the tag then slowly looked up at me and I saw confusion mixed with pity on her face as she slowly told me that no the dress was a 10, with the dawning understanding that that size wouldn’t fit me. While that was thirty years ago, it haunts me every time I brave the crowded racks of Charlotte Russe or the pungent darkness of Hollister with my daughter. Today, teenage goddesses in inch-long shorts, crop tops or baggy sweaters that do nothing to mask their skeletal frames rule the racks of retail. And on this day when I would have bought out an entire store for my funny beautiful girl, I hated every one of them.
When we got home my mood remained dark. I raged silently at why girls like us were cursed with the height (and in my case the weight) that made it so hard to just walk in a store and buy anything we wanted. Our day wasn’t the joyous mother-daughter day I had hoped for and I was sullen and resentful to the point that Liza kept asking me if I was mad at her. Finally, at the brink of tears, I tried explaining that this shopping trip had brought up so many unhappy memories when all I wanted was to buy every single thing she wanted so she could have the teenage years I never did. She looked at me with that singularly unique way that teenage girls have of looking at adults who are certifiably crazy and sort of murmured “Ooookkkkkk. Well you need to get over that.”
I realized that just in the same way I had stepped on our hapless cat, I had also stepped on my daughter – because I didn’t see her. I hadn’t seen the cat because of the mound of laundry in my way and I hadn’t seen my daughter because of the mound of my own baggage in the way. And now I was going to have to coax her back out to me just as I was with the skittish and skeptical cat.
Parenting without tripping on our own baggage and stepping on our kids in the process is tricky. Sometimes I’m so desperate in my desire that Liza have the social life and high school life that I didn’t have that I push too hard, suggest too much and make too much of a mess of things. I want to buy her every beautiful dress in the world because I never had them but in the process don’t see the actual person in front of me with her own ideas, her own tastes and her own needs. Every now and then I am reminded that, just as I have to wait patiently for the cat to decide she loves me again and head- butt me for some petting, I have to back off when it comes to my daughter, be there for advice if she asks, but not push, and wait for her to come to me. And it’s hard. For someone so eager to fix things it can be torturous. But she deserves a mom who isn’t looking backwards at the long dead ghosts of high school past, but at her in all her wonderful fifteen-year old glory right in front of my eyes. After all, this is her life, and her high school reality, not mine. Maybe next time I carry the laundry down the stairs won’t step on the cat. And maybe the next time I go shopping I’ll won’t step on my daughter either.
I abhor Labor Day. The only other two words that can invoke such sadness and anxiety in my heart are “Dentist Appointment.” And right on schedule, I woke this morning with a sense of dread and a voice in my ear whispering “it’s over.” But as I gradually cleared the cobwebs from my brain and communed with my first cup of coffee I felt a sense of Labor Day peace I haven’t felt in a long time. The peace that comes with knowing that summer wasn’t squandered. The peace that comes with knowing we made the most of it.
Early this summer, my friend Margaret, by far one of the sunniest and most optimistic people I’ve ever met, posted a fairly standard Facebook status, probably about weather, walking, her front porch, a beer and a good book (her favorite things). She ended the update with the promise to “make the most of it.” Something about this resonated with me and I thought “well that’s catchy, that sounds like the perfect summer motto, let’s run with it.” I picked it up and hash-tagged it. I know, I know, “people who hash tag are irritating”, #sosueme (see what I did there?). Soon I was seeing friends from all areas of my life and all parts of the country using #makethemostofit when describing summer fun. Inwardly (and outwardly) I was tickled for Margaret to have unknowingly inspired this movement to seize the summer. But I was also struck by how much we all seemed to need some summertime joy this year. This has hardly been the most shining year for mankind. The news is depressing at best, and more often horrifying, leaving us wondering how man can continue to be so cruel to man. Politicians pontificated, their words running together into one endless stream of “I’m better than the other guy.” Talking heads on “news” shows on either end of the political spectrum fanned the flames of extremism, each jockeying to assure its viewership they (and only they) were the ‘real Americans,’ not “the other guys.” Riots, war, automatic weapons in the hands of children in distant African nations and on an arid Nevada shooting range. Mothers sending children hundreds of treacherous miles for a better life, or being arrested for letting them walk to a playground unattended. Well-intentioned people fighting a devastating disease through light-hearted means only to be demonized as water-wasters, and narcissists. A beloved entertainer ending his own life, leaving us wondering if and when we could ever laugh again. For months on end I saw one word over and over again on the status updates of more than one friend… “rage.” Rage at a country turned upside down. Rage at a world erupting in flames. Rage at promises broken. And often, just rage that life is so hard, so disappointing, so unfair, so lonely. Rage that we don’t seem to be in this life together anymore, but rather on paths of “I’ve got mine so to hell with you.” Yet in the midst of this hopelessness and unhappiness there was, as always summer. And for this first time in what seemed like years the gods of summer weather kept the weeks-long heat waves at bay, the rain at a minimum, and the breezes cool and temperate. It was as if summer was on our side, calling out to us, “you need a break, here I am. Make the most of me.”
And so we did. There were quiet lakes and rowdy beaches. There were acres of sand in the back of Kelly’s car from each deposit of the beach chairs after a day in the sun and water. There were mad dashes through rainstorms, and late night movies. There was theater in the park, and an old fashioned drive-in. There was a magical night of Neverland, celebrity sightings, and autographed programs. There was ice cream in Vermont, ice cream in Maine, ice cream in Massachusetts and ice cream in New Hampshire. There was wine on the deck and mojitos on a crowded street in Provincetown. There were diner breakfasts and fried food dinners. There were old-fashioned road trips with nothing but a handwritten series of route numbers to guide us. There were naps in the sun and a stack of magazines and books, their pages damp from resting on wet swimsuit-ed stomachs. There were endless crumbs of sour cream and onion potato chips and half finished bottles of diet Snapple iced tea. There was the sound of dozens of teenagers lifting their voices in song and tapping their feet in unison, and there was the accompanying aroma of what all those dancing teenagers smelled like at the end of the day. There was water – of pools, lakes and oceans- lifting us up , cooling us off, and rinsing away what burdens us. There was a teenager chomping at the bit for freedom, taking off with her friends, beginning to visualize a college life, and a mom trying not to hold on too tightly to the last remnants of a little girl. There was family time, couple time, best-friend time. There were new baseball hats, new sweatshirts, new tank tops, each bearing the names of favorite summer places, as if to remind ourselves on a frigid winter’s day that we were there, that summer was real, and that it will come again. And, right on cue, there were the choruses of voices chiding us, asking when we ever get our housework done, exasperatingly wondering when we were ever going back to work. And as usual, they just made us laugh.
As summer drew to a close, however there were glimmers of hope on the horizon. That silly fundraiser created hundreds of thousands of new donors and raised over $100 million dollars for a criminally underfunded cause. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of regular people who took a stand, a beloved supermarket chain is once more in the hands of the CEO more concerned with employees and customer satisfaction than profit. A few more states, inched closer to marriage equality. Some hope. Some togetherness. Some actual progress to balance out the despair and the rage. So today, the unofficial end of summer, doesn’t seem to bring the sadness it has in the past. Today, it’s O.K. We’ll go on one last back to school shopping spree. We’ll have one last too-big-to-be-believed ice cream cone at Cremeland or Lang’s. We’ll grumble about setting alarms and wearing real shoes, about homework and schedules, and nights that get dark far too early. But we will secretly eye our new sweaters and look forward to apple picking and cider donuts, to replacing the wilted flowers on the front steps with vibrant hearty mums, to savoring a warm red Shiraz on a cool night, to feeling the quickening pace that accompanies the “real” New Year. We will go to sleep tonight assured that summer isn’t gone, just on hiatus for a few months. And that’s O.K. Because we truly #MadeTheMostofIt. Thank you Margaret.
In one drop of water are found all the secrets of the oceans. ~Khalil Gibran
When Liza was a baby and a toddler, heck even a ‘kid’, I knew that best way to fix any situation where emotions were running higher than normal and all seemed bleak was to dunk her in some water. Oh not literally DUNK her but on more times than I can count I wrestled her into a tub or a shower or sat in the shallow end of our condo pool while she splashed. Her mood was always instantly better after the addition of water to the mix and we would emerge from whatever crisis had enveloped us with renewed spirits and clearer eyes. Water fixed everything. Water has always fixed everything.
When I was little I lived surrounded by water on our island home. The sound of waves sang me to sleep and the smell of salt water was everywhere even on the coldest winter mornings. My father and I would walk the beach barefoot because to be near the water was not enough, we had to be in it in some small way even if it was only up to the ankles. And in the depths of our local country club pool the fat kid in the stars and stripes racing suit found summer solace away from the playground taunts about “Elephant Youngs.” In the water everyone was equal. In the water I was weightless, I could dive to the depths of the pool and pretend to be a mermaid. I could float lazily. I could swim lap after endless lap and lose myself in the rhythm of stroke, stroke, stroke, turn. In the water I felt strong. In the water I could do all the things my size and anxiety prevented me from doing on land – somersaults, handstands, flips. In the deep end I would dive down as far as possible and flip onto my back watching the clouds through the water. Under the water sounds went away, so if anyone was making fun of the fat kid I sure couldn’t hear them. Underwater was my private escape within the world of the pool, or the waves of the beach, or the darkness of a lake. My parents grew to choosing every hotel on every family road trip based solely on whether or not there was a pool or if it was on or near the ocean. A three-week beach rental when I was 8 gave me twenty-one straight days in the ocean and to this day they remain some of the happiest three weeks of my life. My cash-strapped parents sacrificed so much for my love of water. They knew by the time I was six that if Katie could swim, Katie was happy.
If Katie could swim, Katie was happy. Ten years ago the deciding factor on purchasing my condo was the presence of a pool. And that first terrified summer of single parenting I spent more time at the pool sitting bundled in a sweatshirt at the side of the pool while Liza splashed with floaties on her arms, I’d contemplate this new life, alternating between euphoria and flat-out utter panic and terror. Then inevitably my five year old’s pleas would win out and I would join her in the water for endless games of Little Mermaid or water ballet. During the four long years my mother battled her breast cancer, I would promise Liza on the rides to Maine, “After we visit grandma we can go swimming.” We’d slip into the cold water of the Portland Embassy Suites pool (which was supposed to be heated but rarely was) and I’d wash off another day of the pressing in my chest that accompanied my mom’s slow decline. The year after my mom’s death, when Liza was 9 and I was floundering as a parent in every way possible, feeling untethered by the loss of my mom and my sister before her, we returned to the same beach where I had spent that three-week vacation in my youth. In the waves of Higgins beach our family began to rebuild itself as a family of three now with Kelly in our midst, and we found our smiles again. Water. Water fixed everything.
I turned 48 years old this year and nothing has changed as far as my lifelong love affair with water. I still choose hotels based on their pools. (Seriously, the glee with which I am anticipating our February vacation to a resort with TWO “lazy rivers” is epic indeed). And any kind of get away without the prospect of swimming leaves me baffled. This past weekend after a wonderful, but “water-free,” two-day trip to Vermont I insisted on a family day trip to a nearby lake that had been recommended by a friend. Liza, in all her 15-year old glory, is that that blessed stage in life when friends always trump the dreaded “family time” and she was less than thrilled with the prospect. But off we went. At one point late in the day, after the millionth sigh from the beach chair next to me, I was ready to throw in the towel literally and metaphorically and send her off to her friends until she turned 18. But something in me said “water,” and I grabbed her hand and said ‘swim with me one more time.” The water at this lake was crystal clear and shallow for yards and yards, but eventually we were floating and it was as if ten years had been stripped away as we splashed, tried to see if she could stand on my knees, as I carried her and threatened her with dunking. Finally, clinging to each other in a sort of human raft, we had the kind of mother/daughter talk I never seem to be able to manage on dry land. Kelly soon joined us and our silliness increased exponentially and by the time we returned to our chairs all was right with the world.
The promise of water and the memory of floating weightless in its depths stay with me on even the driest of land-locked days. Water fixes everything, occasionally for good, but more often, only for a moment. But sometimes, that moment is all that is needed.