Friday, December 20, 2013

Happy 23

Happy 23rd birthday to my firstborn…

My desktop computer clock set to Korean time reads 4:20 in the morning in Seoul, where my firstborn currently resides -- meaning it’s officially his 23rd birthday. But here on the prairie it’s 1:20 on this Friday afternoon. Martina McBride croons “The Christmas Song” on an old-school CD player downstairs in my office as I struggle to put into words a whole bag of mixed emotions.

Chestnuts roasting segues into “What Child Is This”…what child indeed?

Nearly nine years after my husband and I were married, we welcomed our first child into the world on a snowy December evening in northern Arizona two-plus decades ago. Every family has its own stories, retold countless times until a fine patina coats the precious lore. With Erik, it’s the tale of his winter birth where there was even snow on the cactuses in Phoenix that year.

Fast forward to last December.

Erik graduated from college with a degree in German and a minor in English. In less than a month, he got a year-long job advising international students at the university where he’d studied abroad in Seoul. Previously he’d been to Germany twice, once in high school and once in college. 

Today was his last day on the job in Seoul. He’ll be home in mid-January for just a while before heading to Europe for new opportunities.

When he called his dad on Skype this morning, we wondered if he was contacting us to say he was taking off for Thailand to meet up with his dad’s former grad assistant – and fellow child of the world --  who is traveling there – but no. He just wanted to let us know he’d finished his last day on the job.

He looked tired…and happy.

Earlier in the week, Erik’s younger brother finished his freshman year of college. He’s “officially” a sophomore now, due to all the college credits he accrued while in high school. This child is busy making plans of his own for his future.

Back track to the day after Thanksgiving and this younger son, Andrew, was putting up the Christmas tree for me and stringing the lights. Me, the mom queen of ‘holding on and letting go,’ was nearly brought to my knees realizing in a few short years this child would be out on his own too, and I’d have to depend on my color-blind husband to figure out the complicated color-coded branches system of our not-real tree….

I preach constantly, quietly and publicly, if we parents do our job right…our children leave us. That’s the whole point.

Earlier this week a dozen or so women, including me, met to eat dinner and laugh and talk and unwind – many of whom who teach at the university here. One, new to our fold – a new mom of a son – looked exhausted from being up since three a.m. the night before but happy to be out on a night out….

Many of us are in the same book club, and we joked about that elusive parents’ ‘manual’ none of us seemed to have gotten at the births of our first or subsequent children.

Our sons and daughters don’t come with instruction manuals.

They just come with a guarantee that if we do our jobs as parents well and right and heartfelt, they will leave us.

And we will rejoice.

And weep.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Guest Post: On Italian Translations

I started this blog more than four years ago to talk about the  'holding on and letting' go of children..this is a guest blog-excerpt from her new book by my friend Jennifer Lawler, a single parent of a special needs daughter. Both of them are truly special.

This excerpt is from a collection of essays by Jennifer Lawler, Travels with Jessica

On Italian Translations

“Jessica wants to go to Italy for vacation,” I tell my friend Mary.


“I know. Maybe I can talk her into Key West or something.” 

“You would love Italy. Italians are brusque but friendly.” 

“Um, okay,” I say. Then: “Oh. You mean like me.” 

“Exactly. You’ll fit right in.” 

“Except I don’t speak Italian.” 

She waves this off. “You’ll be doing touristy stuff, right? ’Cause you’ll be with Jess. All the tourism people speak English.” 

“Right. And Jess has her . . . challenges.” 

“It’s not a third-world country,” Mary points out. “They have hospitals. Get insurance that covers emergency transportation back to the States.” 

“Sure, and I know how to say ‘she has tuberous sclerosis and a ventriculoperitoneal shunt’ in Italian.” 

Mary waves her hand again. “You know people.” 

This is true. “Hmm,” I say. I call up Randy, who does translation work for multinationals. “Do you know someone who can translate the phrase ‘ventriculoperitoneal shunt’ into Italian?” 

“Yes. Damiano. Why?” 

“Because apparently I’m going to Italy. With Jessica.” 

“With Jessica.” 

“I know. Maybe not.” 

“No, no, it’ll be fine. Italians like kids.” 

“Jess is not like other kids.” 

“She is better than other kids,” says Randy, which is why she is possibly the best friend ever. “You can reason with her.” 

“Sometimes. Sometimes you can’t reason with her.” 

“Well, sometimes we can’t reason with you. Human condition,” Randy points out. “And if you go to Italy, then you will have to fly to a big city to get there, and New York is a big city.”  New York is where Randy lives. We’ve been friends for years and have never actually met, and this would give us a chance.

“And who knows,” she adds. “Maybe you’ll meet a Paolo there. Wouldn’t you like to meet a Paolo?” 

“Yes,” I say immediately. “If Paolo is a gorgeous man who wants to have a fling with a middle-aged woman, I’m in.”


Jennifer Lawler is the author or coauthor of more than twenty-five nonfiction books, including the recently released second edition of Dojo Wisdom for Writers. She also writes romance under several pen names. Find out more at

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Penultimate Peril

One of our favorite words around here is ‘penultimate’ – why I’m not sure. I have no recollection if my two sons and I ever got to Lemony Snicket’s The Penultimate Peril, one of a series which we read individually and occasionally collectively when they were young.

Today is my very own ‘penultimate peril.’

Friday morning my youngest son moves into the dorms here at the University of Nebraska-Kearney.  I will be absent from this event, as I was from freshman orientation, due to a doctor’s appointment. I offered, actually begged, to be allowed to attend the afternoon session. But my pitiful parental pleas fell on disinterested teenage ears. This made me absurdly proud and morbidly disappointed at the same time.

I got over it.

All-day meetings will keep college department chair husband busy and not part of the moving in experience either. Future freshman did say if I wanted to help carry stuff up seven flights of stairs to his room, I could tag along.

No thanks. There are elevators, but I have claustrophobia.

His older brother has been in Seoul since early February at his first ‘big boy job’ out of college. He’s currently making plans for his future, none of which seem to involve returning to this continent for an extended period.

I miss him like crazy, but he’s been on the go practically since his forceps delivery twenty-three years ago this December.

Son number two is only going two minutes away, as previously chronicled, but it’s not the minutes – or the miles – but the milestone.

The eldest of four siblings, I only know how to be the first to venture out into the world, the first to get married, the first (barely) to produce a grandchild. 

So with my unconventional firstborn, who practically had his permanent travelin’ bags packed before he had a driver’s license, I adapted a certain stoic stance toward parenting a child infused with wanderlust.

Now it’s time for my youngest, fiercely independent in his own ways, to leave home – even though home will be less than five minutes away. My mom has lived with us since this son, who turned 18 last week, was three. She and I know we’re going to miss him.  A lot.

Recently I read two great pieces on sending children to college, one published in a women’s magazine and one by my friend Diane Tarantini.

I miss my sons because I like them as well as love them. Sure, this one will be close by, but he’s started that journey to adulthood that no parent could possibly wish a child wouldn’t make.

So come Friday and future Fridays, Grandma and I will rattle around in the suddenly empty house – steadfastly refusing my husband’s hints we could get a puppy.  I don’t need anything to take care of now just because both sons will be out of the house.

Besides if I got a dog, it’d probably just run away, not from home, but to something.

Just like my sons.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Empty Nest

In a few weeks my youngest son moves into a dorm at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which is two minutes away from our house. The way I’ve been carrying on you’d think he was headed for a college campus thousands of miles away.

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer pondering why I could have been so stoic when my older son left home at 16 to be a foreign exchange student in Germany – and never looked back. He now resides in Seoul, South Korea.

Thanks to my mom, some good friends (thank you Susan and Karin) and years of lecturing parents of incoming freshmen on ‘holding on and letting go’ in a previous life as a college adviser at a big university back east, I know the answer: It’s the end of an era.

The empty nest is truly upon me. No turning back  to the days of field trips to the pumpkin patch and parent-teacher conferences.

As I was writing the above several days ago, my husband passed on e-mail about the move-in schedule for my son’s newly refurbished dormitory.  With each stroke of the keyboard, I was wracked with guilt for feeling sad when other parents have to let go in much more permanent ways.

Last week a 12-year-old boy from this closely knit community died in an accident a few towns away while visiting relatives. He and his parents attended/attend the same large church my family does, and his older brother was in my cohort of confirmation kids, although not in my small group.

The morning of his funeral, despite the good advice of my mom and my wonderful friend Karin, I went to the standing-room only service. I sought Karin’s advice because this  extraordinary mom of a teenage daughter eloquently and tenderly chronicled in her newspaper column the death of her other daughter several years ago--as a baby to a rare disease.

Through the plate glass windows behind where I sat, in the overflow seating in the narthex, I watched the sky cloud over and raindrops spatter the glass. I listened intently as our insightful minister told those assembled that “twelve-year-olds are not supposed to die” and exhorted the congregation to celebrate the deceased boy’s life. Pastor Gary read letters from the late boy’s teachers extolling his heart and kindness. He said not to seek answers where none are available, instead to celebrate this boy’s life – a kid who chose to be an organ donor in his young years.

In the overflow section, I sat by a display board extolling the boy’s elementary and middle school accomplishments. I couldn’t stop looking at the smiling pictures and the certificates honoring his exemplary achievements. Just a couple months ago, my own graduating high schooler and his friends had similar boards on display at their graduation parties. I likened the round of celebrations to cotillion season in the long-ago south. It was such a joyous time.

That rainy morning was saturated with sadness.

As the video montage of pictures of the deceased boy and his family played, I wept as did everyone else. Again, recently I’d sat in that same church with my youngest son and husband and other families at a luncheon honoring high school seniors.

I had trouble sleeping the rest of the week.

This weekend at Sunday brunch conversation at our house turned to college move-in day and activities for incoming freshmen, as well as packing and shopping. My youngest son’s enthusiasm was contagious.

I’m done mourning the end of one era and am ready to embrace the knowledge my youngest child is moving on to a new phase of his life.

Because somewhere another mother’s child is not.

I have to let go--but in a way that makes me want to fall on my knees and be grateful for the opportunity.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

4th of July

It was five years ago tomorrow my husband and I walked through our new neighborhood here on the ‘prairie,’ incredulous at the firecracker carnage littering the streets. Equally amazing, by the following day the streets were pristine.
So goes life in Nebraska.

Sitting now on the deck, that same husband and I with matching laptops, I’m listening to the crackly sounds of fireworks – actually eager for darkness when we’ll quietly shoot off a few before retiring.

Previous years we’ve blown things up with friends. Tonight with a jetlagged husband recently returned from a trip to China, we’re just hanging out. I’m hopeful he’ll be alert enough to join friends and me at a showing of Jaws at the vintage theater downtown tomorrow night.

In the summer of 1975, I saw Jaws in a theater in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan on my first-ever movie date. An old dear high school friend asked me recently on Facebook how I can remember that. 

Honestly, I can’t remember anymore what day of the week it is. Chances are, though, if you ask me where I was a month ago or 40 years ago – I can tell you.

Keenly interwoven in the memories that unreel in my mind like home movies is a sense of place.

This morning while Skyping with our older son – employed in his ‘first ‘big boy’ job in Seoul, Korea, said son mentioned wanting to climb mountains there before moving on to his next adventure. Already I can’t remember the exact reference but he mentioned something about being a child of Arizona. He was born in Flagstaff, which rises 6900 feet above sea level. We moved to West Virgina when he was only two-and-a-half, but before leaving the southwest we went on one memorable hike where he climbed up and down nearly 200 steps at a national monument minutes from our home.

I was born in Michigan and lived there 20 years, spent eight-and-a-half years in Iowa, five-and-a-half in Arizona, 15 in West Virginia (where our second son was born), and now tomorrow marks five years smack dab in the middle of the country – Nebraska. The math adds up I think.

Missing every place I’ve been and embracing every place I am is what I do.

In addition to remembering – always remembering.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Mom Math

For a girl who couldn’t pass basic math modules in college, I excel at stats, memorable and minutiae-ish:
  • Birth weight of first son:  6 lbs.
  • My weight at first doctor’s apt for first pregnancy: 165 lbs.
  • Exact weight of aforementioned son’s “George Bailey” suitcase on the scale at Omaha’s Eppley Airport in the wee hours of the morning on first leg of his trip back to Seoul, South Korea to take a one-year job at the university he attended on a study abroad program: 49.5 lbs. (Over 50 lbs. $100 charge)
  • Weight of the world on my shoulders: Pressing but lightening.

I hate numbers but yet seem to excel at keeping important stats close to my heart.


I wrote the above the day eldest Erik left for Seoul. And then couldn’t think of what else to say. Those who know me well will be guffawing in their seats, unable to imagine me at a loss for words.

Lots of ‘em.

Eloquent articulation eluded me, however. Especially the eloquent part. And I’m dealing with story problems galore, never my strong suit.

“If son A is a gazillion miles away on another continent in many other time zones, and son B is in this time zone and graduates from high school in approximately nine weeks, do we serve a nacho bar or pulled pork and turkey sliders for the graduation party?”

See what I mean?

What’s going through my mom head – and heart – makes as much sense as those old word problems “If one train is traveling west at 100 MPH from Boston, and another train is traveling 150 MPH east from Chicago, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Yep, you do see what I mean.

Five years ago this month, my husband, younger son (Andrew, he of the upcoming high school graduation), and I traveled to Germany on spring break to visit Erik. He was spending his junior year of high school as a foreign exchange student. It was the ultimate ‘holding on and letting go’ experience for me as a parent. Others followed.

Next fall, fall his younger brother heads to college and dorm life five minutes away but it’s not the miles but the milestones that are meaningful (although the miles are a BIG deal too).

In another lifetime, I used to spin my spiel about ‘holding on and letting go’ to parents of incoming freshman at a large university back east during incoming student orientations.

I still firmly stand by my resolute belief if we do our job right as parents, our children are successfully launched into the world – able to make their own decisions (right and wrong) and deal with the successes and consequences.

But I still don’t know if nachos or pulled pork sliders are the answer to my story problem.

And I’m excited and nervous to see what the next chapter is.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

End of an Era

Part One: Party Planning

I flip the kitchen cow calendar to February – gracing and grazing my walls since 2002 – and interrupt my mother/writing partner at work.

“Andrew’s graduation party is three months from tomorrow!’ I say.

She looks up.

“Do you want to start baking cookies today?” she asks. And goes back to typing.

Part Two: End of an Era

For years I taught college students and directed freshmen orientation programs for a school of journalism at a university back east. Every June I’d gaze at those parents sitting with their son or daughter  and launch into a ‘holding on and letting go” spiel.

I was particularly zealous the year my older son, now 22,  was a foreign exchange student overseas his junior year of high school. As gently as possible I explained to the hover parents who were freaking out about said son or daughter leaving home, that I understood. 

Empathy fairly oozed out of my pores – along with bewilderment. How could these mothers and fathers not understand if we do our job as parents right, our children leave us. That’s the whole goal of parenthood – to launch sons and daughters into adulthood. I had it all figured out, or so I thought at the time.

Until turning into a hover mother myself lately.

My youngest graduates from high school in just a few months. It truly seems like only yesterday (but it was five years ago this month) my husband and I were flying out to this small city on the prairie for his job interview at a smaller university. I went along mostly because I needed to get on a plane again after many years flight-free, thanks to my forties inflicting claustrophobia on me.

I needed to get on a plane because we were going to fly to Germany the following month for a spring break trip to see aforementioned eldest.  Freaking out about flying was not an option. And whereas my husband spent a year living and traveling in Europe as a child when his dad was on sabbatical (and my parents and in-laws had traveled extensively) I’d never been overseas.

And how could I let a phobia prevent me from seeing my older son?

So spouse and I flew to Nebraska in February, then to Germany with our younger son.  And later moved that little 8th grader to the prairie.

Time flies too, without any pharmaceutical assistance.

And the closer it gets to younger son’s leaving home – he’s going to attend the university his dad teaches at and live in the dorms five minutes away – the more I realize this holding on and letting go thing is a lot more complicated than I thought.

I’m still an ardent proponent of the ‘letting go’ part, but I’m struck by how much I’m going to miss having any children – young adults – in the house.

It’s not about them, it’s about me.

It doesn’t matter if they go one mile or a million geographically, it’s the distance we measure in our hearts that matters.