Saturday, September 20, 2003

September, 2003: The magic of Five

Today, I was unloading groceries from the car, and Liam, 5, was helping. He came into the kitchen as I was stuffing bags of frozen vegetables into the freezer. Two boxes of Cheerios were clasped tightly in his arms and his face was radiant.
            “Cheerios!” He was beside himself with his good fortune. Just this morning, he had been wishing we had Cheerios, and now, here they were. As he continued unpacking the groceries, he shouted out the name of each food item, followed by the name of the family member most likely to appreciate it.
            “Half and half! Mom! For your coffee! Wow! I’ll let you put that away. I know you love it. Jacob! Crackers! Here you go! And bananas! We all love bananas!”
            Living with five-year-old Liam is like living with a human shot of expresso. You wouldn’t think someone so small would have quite so many opinions and approach all of them with such passion.
            Five is a magical age. Anything is possible for a five-year-old and those of us  lucky enough to live with one should soak up the magic while we can.
            “I believe this might be the fossil of a button,” Liam announced earlier this afternoon, examining a small bit of plastic he found attached to the couch. Actually, it was a hardened dot of glue that had dripped from my hot glue gun, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him. A fossil of a button sounded mysterious and scientific, two attributes I had never before associated with our family room couch.
            Liam and his kindergarten classmates are newly hatched in the world of childhood. Four-year-olds are still shaking off the last vestiges of babyhood, but five-year-olds have been in the “big kid” camp for a full year, and the result is bold confidence. They’ve mastered eating with a fork, doorknobs, and printing their names. What else is there?
            Five-year-olds live in a place where God and the Tooth Fairy exist in harmony, and communication with either is easy and direct.
            “When we go to Florida, we will leave a map for the Easter Bunny,” Liam informed me shortly after I told him of our family’s plan for spring break.
            Liam’s kindergarten teacher has been teaching five-year-olds for 20 years and is unapologetic about her bias toward them.
            “I teach the best age,” she says every year at the open house. “Some days I can’t believe I get paid for this.”  Parents who stop by for an afternoon of volunteering don’t think she could possibly be paid enough.
            “It’s like herding cats,” an exhausted mom told me after an afternoon of helping.
            Tuesdays, Liam goes to my parents’ home in the morning while I work. My dad started teaching him to play poker a few months ago, and he’s caught on pretty quickly. When my sister visited recently, she and her husband sat down for a game of poker with pajama-clad Liam and Jacob before the boys went to bed. After Liam was down for the night, my sister told me there was something strange about hearing him say, “Duces are wild,” and noting the rustle of his Pull-up at the same time.     
            To me, that statement summarizes Liam — and five-year-olds in general. They can play poker, but they may wear a Pull-up to bed. They’re learning to read, but Teletubbies still has a hold on them. They can talk and reason, but they aren’t beyond slipping to the floor in a wailing mess of a non-verbal tantrum. 
            Five-year-olds straddle two worlds. Time and space are liquid. To a five-year-old, there isn’t too much difference between six days and six months. Both are impossibly far off. Chicago and Tokyo are equal as possible travel destinations.
Self-consciousness is still evolving. One day, Liam is horrified to be seen in his underwear by his little sister, but the next, I’ll find him on his bedroom floor, naked, pushing a hot wheels car down a ramp, having forgotten he was in the middle of getting dressed.
            I’m not sure I saw the magic of five as much with Jacob, our first child. Jacob, at five, seemed old to me. At the time, I could not foresee how different middle childhood is from early childhood. I didn’t anticipate the sudden jump in knowledge and understanding. I didn’t know that the magic begins to fade as early as first grade.
But I know it now. And while it’s always a pleasure talking to 9-year-old Jacob, firmly rooted in reality, I’m enjoying the fossils of buttons and the maps for the Easter Bunny while they still exist.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

September, 2003: Our Jubilee Marriage Year

On the 21st of each month, my dad brings my mom flowers to mark their “monthly” anniversary. On the paper around the flowers he writes the number of months they’ve been married. They were wed on October 21, 1967, and as far as I know, my dad has never missed a month. “Happy 435” will be what he’ll write this September.
            Anniversaries were a big deal for my parents, and as a child, I remember having trouble understanding the jokes I heard occasionally about the husband who forgot the anniversary. At first, I thought it meant forgetting the “monthly” anniversary, which I could almost understand. I was horrified to learn that it meant forgetting the actual yearly anniversary.  In my family, that would have been unthinkable. For each anniversary, my mother would write my dad a rhyming poem detailing the events of the year. My dad would buy or make my mom something out of the official material for that year of marriage. They would always go someplace special for dinner — I knew it was fancy because my mom took her small black purse, and came home with sesame breadsticks and mints for my sister and me.
            In a couple of weeks, Bill and I will celebrate our 10th year of marriage. I have decided to declare a jubilee year for our family, starting on our anniversary date. I thought the Church had an excellent idea with its Jubilee 2000 celebration, which included Masses and events throughout the year. Like the Pope, I see no reason to contain our celebrating to one day. (And like the Pope, what I declare in our family tends to come to pass, though not always without dissention.)
Why a jubilee year for a tenth anniversary? Anniversaries, much as I love them, are like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve in terms of unrealistically high expectations for levels of fun and romance. After 10 years of marriage, romantic nights are not as easy to come by as they used to be. Especially with that crib in our room. A yearlong jubilee celebration gives Bill and me a fighting chance.
A jubilee year will be an opportunity to consciously decide to do more of those things that brought us together in the first place. At our stage of life, marriage can easily spin into rounds of the endless chores it takes to keep a family of five relatively clean, healthy and well fed. But I didn’t marry my husband because I loved the way he could scrape paint off an old window. And I know he didn’t fall in love with me because of my outstanding ability to wipe jelly off the face of a squirming toddler. 
I fell in love with Bill as we ran together along the banks of the Milwaukee River. It was during these runs that we’d talk about our hopes and dreams for the future. Now, because of schedules, we mostly run one at a time. During our jubilee year, I am declaring that we run together at least once or twice a week. Jacob and Liam are old enough to ride their bikes for our three-mile run and Teenasia loves her running stroller. I’m hoping for some good conversation as the boys race ahead and Teenasia munches on a graham cracker.
Our jubilee year will be the chance to say “yes” more often to the best parts of marriage and family life. We love going to Lake Michigan and looking at the water as the kids try to skip rocks. We love family bike rides and morning picnics with bagels and hot coffee. We all love playing ball and Frisbee. Why don’t we do these things more often? Well, there are socks to sort and the papers from the kids’ school seem to breed at night and multiply if left untouched. There are big globs of blue toothpaste stuck to the side of the sink basin in the upstairs bathroom. The porch needs repainting and Liam said he saw a mouse in the garage.
It sometimes feels like if we don’t keep on top of our jobs around the house, our home might actually collapse around us. I can’t help but believe, however, that the same must be true of our relationship as a couple. A marriage, like a house and a yard, must be given care and time or it will start to become dilapidated. Without time together to talk, relax and have fun, Bill and I will drift apart and our family will suffer because of it.
        The exchange of vows is the first hint a couple receives that marriage is not always easy. And during difficult times in our marriage, Bill and I lean on those vows. We hold onto the sacrament we received one sunny day in September ten years ago. We hold on, believing we are not together by chance, but because there are things we are called to do together that we cannot do separately. 
This year, we’ll try to lean on the vows less and celebrate them more. And if you stop by our house and notice that the windows seem more smudged than usual and the lawn needs weeding, don’t be alarmed. We’ll get to lawn and home maintenance eventually. But during our jubilee year, we’ll do the marriage maintenance first.

September, 2003: 10 Year Anniversary

This year, my husband Bill and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary, as did four of my roommates from my senior year at Marquette University. The five of us and our husbands, along with two other Marquette couples and a total of 14 children, gathered in the middle of the Marquette campus at the St. Joan of Arc Chapel for a Mass and renewal of vows.
            As Marquette students, we had often attended 10 p.m. daily Mass together at the chapel. A small stone building, the chapel was built in France in the 1400s and brought to Marquette stone by stone. St. Joan of Arc has a capacity of 50 or 60, depending on how close together you sit on the wooden benches. If you’re a student rushing to Mass a few minutes late from a long night studying at the library, you’ll sit on the stone floor.
Now, thirteen years out of college, we were back in the tiny chapel. And the theme seemed to be sippy cups.
            As we prayed together, sang and broke bread, there was the constant underlying noise of small children. A book being dropped. A pacifier being thrown. A question being asked in a loud stage whisper. And occasionally, a wriggling, crying toddler who was quickly scooped up and taken outside the chapel for a few minutes. 
            We listened and prayed as we could, and the children participated in the liturgy as they were able. Jacob and Jeremiah, both 8, proclaimed the second reading together, and a few of the preschoolers brought up the gifts. It was not the quiet, reflective Joan of Arc Mass of our college days, nor was it nearly as formal or well-organized as our weddings. Instead, the liturgy bore witness to our mode of worship and of living right now — noisy and messy and full of interruptions, with the vows and the Eucharist in the middle of it all.
And I couldn’t help but think, as I stood with my friends and made those promises to my husband once again, that we all understood so much more of what we were promising this time around. We knew about arguments and tears; about loss of jobs and late nights with sick children; we even understood more about the true duration of a lifelong promise. There were no flowing white dresses to give us the illusion that we were beginning a fairy tale. And because of these things, I believe that our 10-year anniversary vows held more weight than our original ones could have hoped for. Having experienced both the joy and the sorrow of marriage, we were coming back for more. 
As our children watched, the older ones from their chairs, the younger ones in our arms, we vowed once again to be true to each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health; we vowed to love and honor each other all the days of our lives.

And then, our children, who somehow managed to make living those vows both more wonderful and more difficult than I could have imagined as a young bride, clapped for us as we kissed.

Friday, September 5, 2003

September, 2003: I had not planned to have boys

I had not planned to have boys.
When I was a little girl, I spent a fair amount of time playing with dolls, and acquired a new one each birthday and Christmas from ages four to about 10. Two dolls a year for six years is 12 dolls. They were all girls. Most had blond hair, blue eyes, wore pink and were very subdued. (Except Baby Thataway, who, powered by two D batteries in her bottom, could crawl indefinitely until she ran into a wall or refrigerator.)
I have one sister, Maureen, and no brothers. After school in the winter, Maureen and I would speak with distaste of boys who would take off their boots and run around the classroom in their tube socks. The boys’ socks were always too big, and a couple inches of sock would hang off the end of the their feet, soaking up the dirty melting snow from the classroom floor as they slid around. Some people can’t stand fingernails on a chalkboard. For my sister and me, it was gray, soggy, flapping tube socks.
When I babysat, I preferred the families that had all girls or mostly girls. I found little boys to be messy, loud and generally more trouble than the two dollars an hour I was being paid to take care of them.
So when I imagined myself someday as a mother, the children in my mind’s eye were always girls.
And now I have two boys.
At five and eight, my boys are in their prime in terms of little boyishness. Today, during church, Liam matter-of-factly pulled a piece of rope, a glow-in-the-dark frog and a dead cicada from his front pocket. When my boys run on grass, dirt or any soft surface, they feel compelled to slide, fall, tackle or dive. Keeping as much of their bodies in contact with as much of the earth as possible while simultaneously moving forward seems to be the goal. This leads to showers and baths involving heavy scrubbing of all bendable parts on each boy. Whenever they engage in pretend play, it’s never about going to the store or taking care of the house. Someone is always in crisis and needs to be immediately and loudly rescued by someone else who has special equipment, special powers or a combination of the two.
And I love it.
There is something about living with two little boys that is akin to living with lion cubs. You’re never exactly sure what’s going to happen next, and your furniture might get chewed along the way, but you never doubt that you’re living where the action is.
My friends who have girls about the same age as my boys say that already, they have dealt with cliques and long, involved stories of recess-time drama.
Jacob’s idea of a heart-to-heart talk, on the other hand, is to curl up in bed with me on a Saturday morning and give me a play-by-play of yesterday’s lunchtime football game. As someone who remembers her own share of recess-time drama and cliques, Jacob and Liam’s world of constant movement and fewer words is refreshing.
My sons’ unceasing drive to run, jump, throw and catch has awakened the latent athlete within me. If I want to spend time with my boys, it’s not going to be quietly stringing beads together for a craft project. I have developed a pretty good spiral by playing pass with Jacob, and Liam’s daring relationship with water has forced me off my towel and into lakes and pools before I even get to my magazine’s table of contents.
And now, eight solid years into my adventure with my little XY chromosomes, I have a girl. Teenasia, our foster daughter, will be two next month. She’s been with us since she was 15 months old, and while she has obviously been a girl that whole time, babies seem rather androgynous to me. Teenasia’s upcoming birthday makes me wonder about the girl aspect of her. Other than the obvious dresses and bows, so far, toddler Teenasia does not seem so different from toddler Liam.
But, if Bill and I should have the privilege of seeing Teenasia grow into a little girl, I wonder what differences we will see between her and our boys?
Strange as it sounds, I believe raising two boys will make me a better mother of a little girl. I already knew about doll buggies, four-square and friendship bracelets. But Jacob and Liam have brought me to the boys’ side of the playground. It’s rougher and sweatier, but just as fun. And I want to make sure I introduce any daughter of mine to this muddy, wild side of childhood.
A girl in our household — either Teenasia or another foster daughter — will have the advantage of a mom who has been a girl, but has spent the last decade with boys. And while I might play dolls with my daughter, because that is what I know from childhood, I will also teach her to punt a football, because that is what I know from parenthood.
I have to believe that the cliques and recess-time dramas that are part of being a girl will be easier to deal with if you can come home, run around with your brothers, and punt a football. And maybe, the mother-daughter relationship, so tumultuous during the pre-teen and teen years, would be a little easier after a game of one-on-one.

But there’s only so far I’ll go. We’ll keep the tube socks out of it.