Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Comfort Of A Christmas Tree

by Amy Ruhlin


In the late afternoons and into the early evenings as the sun lowers and the sky darkens, my children move towards our lighted Christmas tree. They sit as close to it as they possibly can, with their laptops and their iPods and their earphones; they are, after all, 17 and 20. They are constantly plugged into the world with its breathtaking beauty and unspeakable horror. My daughter looks up from her laptop and says that it is time for gun control after the Newtown tragedy. Then she tells me that our tree is really pretty. My son takes his earphones off and asks me if I have heard the news. I say yes and then he tells me that he does not want to watch it on TV and he puts his earphones back on and listens to the soaring of his music. He knows what he cannot bear to see. They are, both of them, on the cusp of adulthood, swimming upstream, doing their best to understand that both light and dark inhabit our world.

Our tree is full of angels. I have collected them over the years. There is one made out of newly picked cotton, another forged out of metal, one that is hand carved from oak. There are angels everywhere, in different shapes and sizes, all of them made from different materials. The tree is fully alive. It drinks so much water that we have to refill the stand each morning.

I argued against putting up a live tree this year. We've had one for many years and I didn't feel like dragging the ornaments out of the attic. Here at midlife, I become weary and I crave change. "The kids are older," I said. "Let's just go with a nice poinsettia perched in the corner." But my kids knew better. They encouraged me to buy a live tree.

Our children, all children who are moving into adulthood, are brave. They take in horrific news, and like us, they try to cope with grief and to seek solutions. They are aware of the world that awaits them as adults and yet they keep moving towards light. Here at midlife, they bring me comfort and give me hope.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Best Christmas Gifts I Have Received

by Amy Ruhlin                 

This will be my 51st Christmas.  When I look back on all of the gifts that I have received over the years there are a few that are my all-time favorites:

A 2 day TV rental -   My  husband and I were living in a second floor apartment. We were in our early twenties. I was in graduate school and he had just started his first job out of college making very little money. We had managed to furnish our apartment with a used sofa, a kitchen table, a queen size mattress and a small black and white TV.  One evening near Christmas I told him how much I was looking forward to the holiday television specials; how I had loved them as a child and how I felt a little sad that we would be watching them in black and white. A few days later around 5:30 in the evening I heard him walking up the stairs coming home from work, just as I always did.  But his steps sounded different, they were slow and labored. I opened the front door to take a look and all I could see was a large TV moving towards me up the stairs. My husband had it perched on his shoulders and it looked like it would break his back. “What are you doing?” I asked. I knew we couldn’t afford to buy a new television. "I rented you a color TV. We have enough money to keep it for two days,” he said.   I opened my mouth to speak but could not find the words.

A Christmas ornament made of Popsicle sticks -   My  daughter  was five years old and spending the day at a friend’s house. She was there for a long time, longer than she usually stayed for a visit and so I began to worry.  A young mother’s worries: Was she okay?  Maybe she is missing me. What are they doing? Should I telephone the friend’s mother?  Finally, in the late afternoon she came home, safely bundled up  in her puffy blue coat. “Look mommy,” she said. "I worked hard on this all day.” She placed a Christmas ornament in my hand. My first handmade ornament from a child. She had spent the entire day cutting, gluing and aligning little sticks together to create a miniature wooden sled. She had used her best handwriting to print “To mom” in red and to sign her name in green. The beauty of that little sled stunned me. The time and care that she had taken to create it nearly broke my heart.
 
A recycled Sprite bottle -  When my son was in preschool he made me an ornament out of  a plastic 2 liter Sprite bottle. The teacher had sliced off the bottom portion and my son added the glitter.  Because of  it's shape and transparency the ornament looked like an exqusite sea creature. When he brought it home we placed it on the tree directly in front of a light. At the sight of this my son's face lit up and he said, “It glows!”  My face lit up too.


A little girl's selfless devotion given with popsicle sticks; a small boy's sense of wonder at the sight of light filtered through green plastic; a young man’s extraordinary kindness offered up as a cheap rental. On my 51st Christmas, these are the gifts that I remember as the best presents I’ve ever received.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Our Own Thanksgiving

by Amy Ruhlin
 
It’s almost Thanksgiving so I climb the stairs to our attic in search of a silver shoebox. I find it stacked between the plastic bag full of Easter baskets and the cardboard box stuffed with Christmas lights.  Instead of shoes, my silver box now holds a small straw turkey and two matching pilgrims.  Each November I take them out and carefully place them on our mantle above the fireplace in honor of the traditional Thanksgiving story.

 I love this time of year and the simplicity of the holiday: food, family, gratitude.  We’ve even served a few traditional Thanksgiving dinners at our house:  mashed potatoes in a glass casserole dish with butter swirled on top, turkey that has been brined and carved, pumpkin pie topped with a dollop of whipped cream.  But during those dinners, my husband and I realized that we were celebrating in this way because that’s what has always been done; because it is what one is supposed to do on Thanksgiving. And we realized that we really didn’t want to spend the holiday in the kitchen.   I get cranky when I cook. Just ask my family. I even get moody when my husband cooks; there is the anticipation of all that pot washing after the meal. So we decided to start our own family tradition, to have our own Thanksgiving story.

For  years we spent the Thanksgiving holidays in amusement parks.  We road log flumes and roller coasters. We ate turkey legs on the run. We stood in line waiting for park shows in cold November rains. It was our version of a feast.  And now those Thanksgiving days spent in the parks are some of our most cherished family memories.

My daughter is now 20 and away at college but she is coming home for the holiday.  My son is a senior in high school and this will be his last Thanksgiving while living at home.   I tell my husband that maybe it is time we had a proper Thanksgiving.  So for a few days we discuss turkeys and table settings.  But then I see that Cirque Du Soleil is in town for the holiday. We buy tickets. My son sees that there is a Thanksgiving Day Marathon downtown. He registers for the race.

This Thanksgiving we will sit together under the Big Top. We will stand together on city streets in the November cold to cheer on our son. We might even find some turkey legs to eat on the run.  We will honor our own Thanksgiving story and I am deeply grateful.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What I Learned On A Weekend Getaway

by Amy Ruhlin                

Sea Oats
My husband and I are crossing a bridge to a resort island for a fall weekend getaway.  It’s just the two of us in the car and we take in the sight of salt marshes stretched out beneath us and sailboats on the horizon.  It is a familiar beauty, this road to the beach; we have taken it before. There were summer family vacations here. There were getaways like this one; weekends without the kids. But this is the first time that we cross this bridge in our fifth decade. It is the first time that we cross it as parents of children who are grown and are no longer at home awaiting our return.  It is an unfamiliar road.

As the bridge ends and connects to the main road that runs through the center of the island, I wonder how the weekend will go. I am surprised at the lump in my throat as we pass the mini golf course  where we spent evenings as a family happily whacking a small ball through plastic windmills and artificial waterfalls. It was only a game, but small pleasures loomed large then; our children made it easy to stay in the moment where the real treasures lie.  The reality that those days are gone hits me hard here in the car on our way to the hotel.

We check in at the front desk and take our luggage to the room.  We buy a newspaper and two coffees and head out to the pool. There are mostly adults here, absorbed in books and distracted by cell phones.  To the left of the pool I see a small grassy area with striped hammocks surrounded by sea oats.

 I sit in a lounge chair and beside me, my husband sits in one too.   We read the newspaper and sip our java.   And then, off in the distance, I see a small boy. He is on the beach with most of his body immersed in sand and he is giggling with delight.
“Let’s go sit in a hammock,” I say to my husband.

“Together?” he asks.
“Well, yeah,” I answer. “We can both fit.  Come on.”

We leave the newspaper on our chairs and walk through the grass.  I am careful to sit  on the hammock first and then my husband joins me; we are afraid it might tip over.  We stretch out on our backs and stare up at the autumn sky.
“Look!” my husband says. “That cloud is a face.”  I can see a silhouette:  crooked nose; sharp chin; white, wispy hair. 

 My husband puts his foot on the ground and gives us a push. The hammock tilts steep to the left and then with a swoosh we bank hard to the right. We are swinging; back and forth we go between the sea oats.  We look for more drawings in the sky. 
The afternoon is hot. I step  out of the hammock and  slip  into the deep end of the pool. Soon, my husband jumps in too. “Race you to the bottom,” he says.
Sunday comes and we are back on the main road heading towards the bridge.  We are driving back to our house where we raised our family; back to a familiar beauty.  And though our children will not be there, we will. And we are able still, my husband and I, to experience real treasures in the moment and  small pleasures that loom large. The reality that those days are not gone gives me comfort  here in the car on our way home. And this road is not so unfamiliar after all.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Did You Get A Text Today?

by Amy Ruhlin                                 

Today I decided to watch college football with my husband. I actually don’t much like football. I don’t even fully understand football. But my daughter is in college and my son soon will be too so watching it seems like the appropriate thing to do. My husband has a competitive spirit but I don’t. While he screams things like, “You idiot, you missed the pass!,” I select my favorite team based on who has the best color uniforms. 


We sit on the sofa in front of our flat screen TV with our cell phones and laptops nearby. I tell my husband that I have selected the team that I want to win and he tells me that he is pulling for the other team. This will at least make it interesting.
I find the game entertaining for about ten minutes so I decide to ask my husband a question that I have been asking him daily for the last two years since our daughter went away to college. It is a question that I never imagined I would be asking so frequently. In fact, when my daughter was in high school, she told me about a college friend who always made sure that if she texted one parent she would also text the other because if she did not, one parent would feel left out. I remember telling my daughter that I thought this was ridiculous. I would never indulge in such silly behavior.
“Did you get a text today?” I ask my husband.
He smiles and says, “I got two.”
“Two?" I haven’t gotten any in days!,” I tell him. I pick up my phone and check my messages just to make sure.

“And I’m Skyping at 4pm,” he says with a grin.
 
I look at the TV and I see that his team just scored a touchdown.

Skyping ?”   “Who set that up?,” I ask.
“I did,” he says.

“Why’d you do that?” I ask.
“Well, it’s been a while since we’ve seen her,” he says.

“Hmpf”, I think. He could have consulted me first. Am I not included in their little Skype party? I am feeling left out.
“Well, I got a facebook message from her yesterday. And she sent me the opening paragraph of that big paper that she’s been working on,” I tell him.

“She did? I’ve been wanting to read that paper!” he says.
 
I glance at the football game and notice that my team just intercepted the ball.

"Well, I think she sends me the things that , you know, are  important to her personally, and she contacts you for the financial and technical stuff," I say.

I see that a football player is limping off the field with a hurt foot.
My husband says, “Nah, she texts me personal stuff too.”

“Well," I tell him, "I’m going to Skype with you.” I actually don’t like to Skype. I hate seeing myself on screen.
 
“That’d be great,” my husband says.

The games end at 4pm. I look at the TV and I see all of the players running onto the field, both teams, together. I look at my husband’s laptop and I see our daughter’s beautiful face filling the screen. And in the bottom corner of the screen I see myself, nestled into the crook of my husband’s arm, a middle aged mom and a middle aged dad , happily talking to their 20 year old daughter, together.

Friday, September 28, 2012

I Am Learning To Be A Parent Of Grown Children

by Amy Ruhlin                           
 

Today my 17-year-old son offered to drive my husband and me to visit our daughter at college. It's only a 90 minute drive from our home. I suggested the trip this morning over breakfast, and our son told us that yes, he would like to go, and that we can take his car.

"It will be fun," he says. "We can listen to my music on the way!"

We are delighted by his enthusiasm and thankful that he still wants to spend a weekend afternoon with his parents.

Before we leave, I make some coffee for the drive.

"You're bringing that in a travel mug with a lid, right mom?," my son says. "Remember, I have cloth seats."

I can suddenly see our old minivan that I drove when our kids were young. I see myself in the driver's seat calling all the shots. I see my children in the backseat, safely strapped in and enjoying the ride. I see their crayons and coloring books spread out on the seat. I see their juice boxes in the sticky cup holders, their gummy bears on the floor and their goldfish-shaped crackers stuffed between the cushions. I want to remind my son of this, but I don't.

"Of course I'll use a travel mug," I say. "Don't worry. I promise I won't spill coffee in your car."

My son makes sure that the lid is secure on my mug, and then we all head out the door, and down the driveway to his car. My husband calls shotgun and I say fine, I'll sit in the back. I want to be a good passenger.

I am slowly learning that the skills required for being a parent of grown children are quite different from those required to parent younger children. The early days seem easy now: change a diaper, adjust a car seat, hang out at the playground. These days require more: listen closely, instruct less, let go, practice restraint... not my strong suits.

We're on the freeway. My son turns on his stereo and slides in one of his CDs. It's rap or hip-hop; I still can't tell the difference, even though he has explained it to me many times. Either way, I don't like it.

"Will you turn that down?" I ask him. He turns the music off.

"It's okay mom. We don't have to listen to music," he says.

We travel along in silence for a while, and from the backseat I can hear my husband giving well-intended, but unsolicited driving advice. I can see that our son has become a good driver: he is cautious and attentive to the rules of the road. I can see the tension in his shoulders, and that he is trying to appease his parents.

I see that he has come on this road trip with us in good faith, hoping that we will recognize that he is fully capable of driving the distance, and that we will, all of us together, enjoy his music, the ride, the day. I see that my husband and I are blowing it.

"Let's listen to the radio," I say.

"You'd like the radio on?," my son asks.

"Sure I would," I say. "Or we can listen to one of your CDs," I add.

He puts in a CD. Thankfully, it's different from the one that he first played. Actually, this CD sounds beautiful.

I think about all of the CDs we listened to over the years in the minivan: narrated children's storybooks, favorite songs from favorite movies, my old rock- n- roll tunes. Sometimes when I played the music too loud the kids would scream, "Mommy turn it down!" I want to remind my son of this, but I don't.

"This CD is great." I say. "Who is it?"

My son proudly tells me the name of the band, and then he and his dad begin a lively conversation about music. I see his shoulders relax, and I notice that my husband stops giving driving tips.

I lay my head against the backseat, and I look out the window. I see round bales of hay on rolling hills. I see a big half-moon in the late afternoon sky. I have my warm coffee in a clean cup holder, and my papers and pens are spread out on the seat. I like it back here.

My son glances over his shoulder at me, and with warmth and affection he asks,

"You doing okay back there mom?"

I can see him as a toddler in his car seat. I look in the rear-view mirror of our minivan and I ask,

"You okay back there buddy?"

"Yeah mommy," he says, "I'm good."

I answer my son: "Yeah, I'm great."

Later that evening, we arrive back home and my son pulls his car to a stop in the driveway.

"Hey mom, don't forget to get your coffee cup and all of your papers out of the car," he tells me.

I can see our old minivan again, with the gummy bears and goldfish crakcers stuck to the seats. I want to remind him, but instead, I say,

"I've got everything," and I climb out of the backseat.

"Fun day," he tells me.

"It sure was," I say. "And thanks for driving. I enjoyed the ride."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Will We Be Happy In Our Empty Nest?

by Amy Ruhlin
                            


It’s a cool morning with the first hint of fall in the air so I drink my coffee outside on our back patio. I look at our overgrown rose bushes and thinning mulch beds but what I see is my children when they were young. I see them helping us plant shrubs in our new lawn and spread pine straw around our flower beds. I see them hiding Easter eggs behind the maple tree. I see them holding my husband’s toolbox as we hammered nails into the towering pines to build their tree house; it is still there but the wood is beginning to rot. I see the empty space along the row of cedars where the swing set once stood, then the trampoline.
I walk around the corner of the house, along our stone path made of hand painted rocks and I see the step that my daughter made , the stone with the words “Love Blooms Here” spelled out in glass beads. The 16 years that we have spent living in this house are palpable here in our backyard; there was magic here. I cherish the memories but I also feel my grief. As I walk back into the house I notice that a few leaves on the Dogwood tree have turned from faded green to bright orange.

 I notice a stack of envelopes on the kitchen table; they are addressed to my son and they are full of letters and fliers from colleges. I see the envelope that is stamped with the word “Accepted.” In eight short months our son will graduate from high school and the empty nest will become a reality for my husband and me. We are planning to sell the house, to leave the suburbs, to create a new life for ourselves. We talk it up but I secretly wonder if we can really do it, if we will be happy, if our lives will have the same zest, the same magic as we’ve known  all of these years raising our children in this house.

I walk upstairs and I notice the worn carpet. It is matted down from where my daughter sat on the floor of her bedroom for years playing with her dolls, giving them their own voices, making them come to life. It is worn from where she and her brother sat for many summers in the hallway building rock houses, giving each rock a name, their young voices making stone come alive.


I think about the phone call I got early this morning from the carpet store. Our order is in: 159 square yards of new carpet to be installed in the entire upstairs; the old carpet will be ripped out and carried away, the new carpet will help to sell the house.
I sit down at my computer and I see a quote that someone has just sent me. I notice that it is by Roald Dahl, our favorite children’s author; we often read his books together as a family. I read the quote:


“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”


It is a quote that I know my 20-year-old daughter likes so I copy and paste and send it to her. A few minutes later she sends me a response: a single small black heart created by typing two different keys; to me, this is magic.


I look at the heart that she made and my own heart lifts. I believe our magic is not over. It is not something that ends when my children are grown, but rather, something that they help me to see. I believe that it will be there in my next act, in our empty nest. I believe that at the age of 50 and beyond, we can still see with glittering eyes.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are We Being Those Parents?

by Amy Ruhlin                         

It is a quiet Saturday morning. My husband and I sit in our family room and read the newspaper and drink coffee. We are both-bone tired but we have this whole day to ourselves; to read, to relax, to do whatever we want. Our 17-year-old son is at work until evening.  Our 20-year-old daughter is back at college. We spent the previous week helping her move into her first apartment that she now shares with four of her girlfriends. It is a move that we know is inching her closer to full adulthood, closer to true independence.
The dog is mercifully asleep in the corner and the room is warm with morning light. We’re on our second cup of joe when my husband receives a text from our daughter.

“My shower head just broke off,” she writes.

“Well, can you fix it? You’ll need a wrench,” my husband texts back.

“Nice response,” I tell him.  "She has to learn how to handle things on her own. This will be good for her."
“I agree,” he says.  “And if they don’t have the tools, she can call the landlord.”  The issue settled, we go back to reading the newspaper.

A  few minutes later our daughter sends another text. I watch my husband read it silently to himself. Then he tells me, “She's distraught.  She’s asking me what additional tools she needs to buy for the repair. The landlord is booked  with other students since it is the first week of school. I guess I can walk her through it on the phone."
We do not want to be  those parents. You know the ones:  they  hover, they rescue, they can't let go, they  enable. They help to create their "boomerang kids," so the experts tell us.

The dog begins to stir, the light shifts and shadows fill the room.
My husband peers at me over the newspaper and says,

“It’s 10:30. If we leave now we can get there by 12:00 and have lunch some place nice.”
“I’ll drive,” I say.

At noon, we arrive at our daughter’s apartment and she greets us at the front door.
“Thanks for coming,” she says.  "Come see my room!”

Her room is simple and bright. She has painted the walls yellow.

She has rearranged the furniture. She has added some curtains. She has organized her closet.
We walk into the bathroom to examine the broken fixture. The sink shines and the tub is clean. She says she scrubbed it that morning.

The three of us drive to the hardware store and together, we find a $9.00 repalcement part. “I can afford that!," our daughter says.  "And it’s white. It will match perfectly,” she tells us.
She is thrilled that she is able to buy her own shower head. She is pleased that it is just the right color. She is comforted to have her parents help her with her first foray into the hardware store for home maintenance. We buy her a wrench on the way out.

We stop at a restaurant for lunch. The portions are large and our daughter carefully wraps up her leftovers to take home--something she never did before. “I can eat this for dinner tomorrow night," she says.  "My food budget is running low.”
We go back to her apartment and my husband fixes the shower. We visit with our daughter for a short while and then we decide it's time to leave. She walks us to the door.

“Thanks again for coming,” she says. "It meant so much.”
As my husband drives us back home, I sit in the car and  wonder if today was a rescue. I wonder if  we were being "helicopter parents."  Then I wonder if we were simply offering  an act of kindness  that was met with heartfelt  gratitude.  I wonder if  today, as parents,  maybe we got something right.

We arrive home in the evening and it is dark. The dog meets us at the door and wants to be fed.   My son sits in the family room and watches TV. 
"I'm beat," my husband says to me. "But what a great Saturday."


Sunday, August 19, 2012

I Want My Cool Back

by Amy Ruhlin

                             

My daughter and I sit in a coffee shop near her college campus. She has just turned twenty and I watch her drink a mocha latte topped with whipped cream while I sip herbal tea infused with antioxidants. She wears skinny jeans and a lace tank top, her blond hair swept back into a smooth ponytail. I have on Bermuda shorts, but I am sporting my new denim jacket ,and I have remembered to flat iron my hair so it is only medium frizzy.
I am surrounded by 20-somethings. They order complicated coffee drinks with ease and carry heavy backpacks with confidence. Some of them wear knit caps made of wool, and eyeglasses with black frames.

I love this quintessential college town. It oozes cool with its locally owned restaurants, funky art galleries and live music venues. It reminds me of how my husband and I lived when we were in our twenties, before we moved to the suburbs to raise our children. It reminds me that I am tired of chain restaurants, manicured lawns and cul-de-sac streets. I want my cool back.
“So what’s the deal with the kids wearing caps and glasses?,“ I ask my daughter.

“Hipsters,” she says.
I decide hipster must mean cool. I assume it is a cross between hippies and the beat generation; it must mean good music and social causes and great literature.

“You know, “ I blurt out, “Dad and I used to be cool. We were original hipsters.”
I want her to know that I was not always a middle aged mom with over- processed hair and fluctuating hormones. I want her to know that her Dad did not always have an achy back and goofy dance moves. I want her to know that we were totally cool.

“Uh, it’s really just about what they wear Mom, but I’m sure you and dad were cool. We should probably leave now," she suggests. 
Clearly, she is not getting it.
She goes to her classes, and I drive back home. My 16-year-old son comes home from school, and I meet him at the front door.

“Hey, I just found this old tape in the back of my closet! Will you listen to it?” I ask.
It's a cassette tape of course; we were way too cool for eight tracks.

“It’s your Dad’s radio show when we were in college,” I tell him. He was a DJ!” (weren’t we cool?)
My son politely listens to the tape while I point out that the music his dad played was very avant-garde.

The tape ends and my son says,
“Aw, Dad sounded so young! That was weird.” He forgets to mention cool; clearly, he is not getting it either.

The next weekend we all decide to explore a nearby city. We find a vintage record store with rows of vinyl, and it even has a display case housing turntables from the 1970's. It's a beautiful sight.
“A record store! Cool!,” my son says.

Then, he makes a beeline for a separate section in the back; the section that has the newly- released CDs. This is disappointing. Now, he won’t be able to see how cool his Dad and I look perusing the rock n’ roll album section.
“I feel right at home,” I say to my husband.

“Yeah, me too,” he says. “I remember spending hours in record stores when we were in college.”
He picks up an album and flips it over to read the back, just as he always did when we were young.

“I can’t read this,” he says. “Was the writing always this small? I’m going to the car to get my glasses.”
While he is gone, I walk through the store. I am wearing a new scarf, tied just right, and I think that it is billowing nicely as I stroll down the aisles.

I find an old favorite album. I rush over to my daughter, who has just wandered into the vinyl section.
“I listened to this  album all the time when I was around your age!,” I tell her.

“Aw, do you want me to take a picture of you holding it Mom? Here, let me fix your scarf first.”
She makes major adjustments. “There”, she says, “much better.”

She snaps the picture and shows it to me.
“Aw, that’s sweet. You look nice,” she assures me.

She goes back to the CD section to join her brother and I find my husband. He is reading the back of an album cover. He can see the writing now that he has on his 3x reading glasses.
He has just turned 51, and I watch him standing there in his Bermuda shorts and checkered shirt, as cute as ever.  I think about the years we have spent raising our two children, who clearly have kind hearts. I think about how, against the odds, we have been happily married for 28 years.

 And then, I think that we are totally cool.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Childhood Friends Make Midlife Easier

                     

by: Amy Ruhlin

I am in the midst of motherhood when the phone rings and I see the name of a childhood friend on caller ID: a woman whom I have known since I was five years old but have seen only a few times since we were 18.   I hear her voice and it sounds like home.

I still think of us as girls. I can see us on picture day in kindergarten and I remember her smile outlined in dimples.  I see us years later walking home from junior high school together (no, it was not called middle school in the 70s). We had matching Dr Scholl's sandals and ate grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with pickles for our after school snack.

I wore a green dress in her wedding in the early 1980s.  In those days we dyed satin shoes to match the bridesmaid dresses, and as we talk on the phone I realize that I've still got those green shoes; my daughter played dress up in them for years. I wonder if I've held onto them for a reason.

She tells me that she is now divorced, that she is finding a new life and that she is in transition. She says that she is "getting herself back" and though I am delighted to hear from her, I do not yet fully understand what she means or why she has chosen this particular time to reconnect.

Months pass and  I hear the voice of a different childhood friend on my answering machine. I remember us as teenagers:  we sit cross-legged on the floor of her basement agonizing over boys and listening to albums. I can see the cover of the great first Boston album: guitars as spaceships hovering in a black sky.   She also married in the early 80s and I stood by her side in purple taffeta.

She says that she has been thinking about me since her daughter is now a teenager and is burning CD’s for her boyfriend. It has reminded her of our days in her basement. She tells me that her kids are growing and for the first time in a long while, she has some time to herself; she is in transition. She says she remembers our special  friendship and that she has never really found anything like it since.

Years pass and I stay busy in the throes of motherhood. I am wrapped in the cocoon of the comfort of daily routines, the laughter of young children and my role as a mother.

Then I begin a transition of my own.  My kids are nearly grown, I start to let go and I try to figure out who I am now and what is next. I think about the phone calls from my childhood friends and I begin to understand what they were looking for.

I buy the Boston album (wow, it’s on CD now). I turn up the volume and alone in my car, I try to remember the girl I once was. I dig out high school yearbooks from the attic and open the1978 edition.  I see a photo of another friend from our gang. She is laughing.  I can almost hear the lilt in her voice and the sight of her face makes me smile. I wonder if she is still funny; I have not seen her in over 30 years.

I read what she wrote on her photo: "I'll always remember you even in years to come.  Please keep in touch from time to time."

 I copy her words and send them to her in a facebook message.

"This is what you wrote in my yearbook.  I think I am going to cry," I write.

She writes back: "I'm going to cry too! We all MUST get together."

All of us are still here, most of us are now 50, and we discover that we all live within driving distance of each other. We make plans to meet.

Weeks pass and then I am in my car, driving four hours north and singing along to my Boston CD. I cannot wait to see them.

They surprise me by bringing another classmate.  She looks just the same with her signature short hairstyle. She says she uses a flat iron now and we howl; we remember when she used scotch tape to flatten her hair overnight so that it would be straight by morning. 

The five of us spend the weekend sprawled out on the sofa eating chili and flipping through yearbook pages.  My friends are still funny and still listening to rock 'n roll. They still have dimples and still straighten their hair. It is so good to see them.

I hear them speak my name and I am just Amy,  as I always was to them, before my role as a mother. It is so good to be just me again; it feels like home.

Only one of us is not yet 50 but she will be this September. Last week, she sent us all a message:

 "My brother is having a blowout for my 50th. Please make plans to attend."

Her message reminds me of her words in my yearbook; words that took me more than 30 years to notice and then nearly made us cry.  I plan to be there for her birthday.





Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why Am I Still Driving A Mom Bus?

by Amy Ruhlin   


                                                           

It's a hot Monday morning in June and there is no breeze; the air is still and I can feel July approaching.  I've awoken late and I lie in bed thinking about metal and rubber, about machines that take us from point A to point B, about cars. My daughter has her own car and my son will soon have his own; why I am still driving a mom bus?

I think about my daughter's upcoming move into her first apartment. We need my car to carry a kitchen table and 4 chairs, a large mattress and a long desk. I think about other things I've carried in my car: car seats holding my babies, little giggly girls and small rowdy boys, sports equipment for hockey games, teenagers laughing and playing loud word games, and colorful beach chairs and packed coolers for family vacations. I stare at the ceiling and realize that I've become attached to driving inside of a large open space; a container for holding all of the things that I most dearly love but that is now most often empty.

I finally get up and go downstairs and walk into the kitchen. My kids sit at the table and stare at their laptops. I say good morning but they do not hear me; headphones cover their ears. I move closer to them but they do not see me; pixelated images fill their eyes. I stand there in my pajamas and I feel invisible. My role as a mother is shifting beneath my feet and I struggle with my balance. My kids are moving themselves from point A to point B and I need to figure out how to do the same.

I need some air so I get dressed and step out into the heat and take the dog for a walk. The day is hot and there is no movement; I find no relief and no solutions. The dog and I circle the neighborhood and we come back home. I check my phone and my husband has sent me a lifeline in the form of a text:

"Wanna go look at cars tonight?"

He has encouraged me for months to follow through with my idea of downsizing my car. I question my audacity of considering the possibility of not having a car that meets everyone’s needs.

I smile and text back, "Sure let’s eat dinner out too."

We test drive three cars. The first two are only different versions of what I have been driving for the past 20 years: a practical family car with plenty of cargo space. They are at least smaller , but they are not really what I need; they are not really what I am looking for.

"So, how do you feel when you drive them?" my husband asks.

"Bored", I reply.

We circle the car lot one last time and I see a model that I had not seen before. It is a smaller car with a hatchback:  enough room for a family of four but with a simple style and a European flair; it is no mom bus.
                                 


We take it out for a drive.  It's roomy and smooth and hugs the road.  It's fun.

We decide to go home and think about it. On the way, we stop at a restaurant and eat ribs and drink martinis.

"You looked so happy driving that car, just like I remember you when we were young. You looked like Amy,” my husband says.

Before I had children, I drove small cars with stick shifts. I wasn't afraid to take risks and I swore I would never live in the suburbs or drive a minivan.  Motherhood  makes liars of us all.

I'm afraid my new car will scream “midlife crisis” so I text my son,

"Do you think this car looks too young for me?"

"No.  How could something look too young? Looks awesome to me," he texts back.

It seems so silly; scraps of metal and rubber wheels have made me smile and given me hope. But here at the age of fify, it somehow seems fitting and like a step in the right direction.  It is a declaration of my independence.  It is a way back to myself, to the girl I used to be before I took on the role of mother, to the girl who has no problem navigating her way from point A to point B.

It's Tuesday morning and I'm out of bed early. I step outside and feel a cool breeze. For the first time in weeks, I think about my writing and the second half of my life awaiting me. I've gained some balance and  the tilt has shifted towards me.

 My children walk into my office and sit down on the sofa.  They are interested in what I am writing and they are excited about my new car. As I've moved back towards my own self, I have become more visible;  there is more of me for them to hear; there is more of me for them to see. There is more of me to give.

 We talk and laugh easily together for a good while and finally my daughter asks,

"So, your new car won't have room to carry all of my stuff to my new apartment?"

"Nope" I say. "We'll have to rent a U-Haul."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My Son And Me


by Amy Ruhlin

As seen on: LivingBetterat50+




My son has a job as a lifeguard this summer and today, I drove him to work. Though he now has his driver’s license, he does not yet have his own car, so for the time being we must share mine and he is being a good sport about it. I drive slowly; neither of us has an agenda and there are no external distractions. We are simply mother and son, each fully present, as we so often were when he was young, before I became preoccupied with the passing of time and midlife reinvention, and before he became preoccupied with the demands of growing up and teenage activities.

He sits in the passenger seat beside me wearing his uniform: red, knee length swim trunks, a white T-shirt with the word "Lifeguard" spread across the back, a whistle around his neck. I take in the sight, knowing that it will soon be a cherished memory. I remember other uniforms: lime green pajamas with cartoon characters on the front, a black ninja outfit for Halloween, a baggy soccer uniform on his small four-year-old frame. He has a new haircut. I can see his delicate facial features: well defined eyebrows, long, black eyelashes an easy smile.  The features that I appreciated every day when he was young but have often failed to notice since he hit puberty and since I turned 45. He has been busy trying to break away, as he should. I have been busy trying to move on and to hide my heartache, as much as I can.

He talks to me about his job and I listen and I can tell that he still cares that I listen. He tells me about the beginning of his cross country running season and that he will be among the leaders of the team during his senior year. I am impressed and I can tell that it still matters to him that I am. We talk about colleges and I encourage him to follow his deep interest in the one that is half-way across the country, even though the distance is a concern. I see him surprised at my encouragement, but glad that he still has my support. Though he is almost 17 years old and nearly 6 feet tall, I see that he is still vulnerable, still lighthearted, still interested in what his mom thinks of his life. The same son as before, only in a different uniform.

Like so many mothers and sons, my son and I were inseparable when he was small.  He barely left my side; he was my little boy. But as he grew, I was no longer the center of his universe, no longer the only girl in his life, and I knew that I had to begin the process of letting go. I didn't want to do it and it was often scary. I was afraid of losing him.

But today, during a quiet few moments together in my car, I realize that I haven’t lost anything. My little boy has simply grown into a fine young man and we are still mother and son.