Friday, January 31, 2014

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Anyone who has ever taken an acting class knows what I’m talking about.  At some point, you do this Meisner exercise that involves two people repeating the same line over and over (and over and over) with a kind of evolving meaning.  You might open with, “You’ve never been there for me.” To which I’d respond, “You’ve never been there for me.” And of course, that would make you angry, you’d stand up and tell me, “You’ve never been there for me!”  And so on, until your teacher applauds you both, calls you geniuses and stops the scene. (A riff on this is this scene from Good Will Hunting, a scene that my husband and I use as one of our favorite jokes, sometimes to the utter confusion of the people around us.)

If you took an acting class in your foolish youth and now find yourself a foolish parent, you will most certainly reprise the repetition exercise, only this time, the exchange is something like:

Child: “There’s poop on the floor.” [to inform]
Parent: “There’s poop on the floor?” [to clarify]
Child:  “There’s poooooooooop on the floor!” [to taunt]
Parent: “There’s POOP on the FLOOR?” [to alert spouse]

In this example, I put in the actors’ objectives.  They’re not terribly active, but they will certainly become more so as the scene continues. 

I drew this parallel this morning while trying to coax a practice session out of my 3-year-old, who is “studying” cello.  He performed a variation on the repetition exercise, responding to my repetition with total non sequiturs.  Like so:

Meg: “Charlie, on the D string, play 3, 3, 1, 1. Your second finger doesn’t play its own note, so just pull it off with your third finger.”
Charlie: (Plays 3, 3, 2, 2, 1, 1.) “Why does your hair stick out like that?”
Meg: “Charlie, play 3, 3, 1, 1.  Remember? The second finger does not play its own note.  Just pull it off with its best friend, your third finger.”
Charlie: (Plays 2, 2, 1, 1.) “If I was a mosasaurus, I could bite something with my big, sharp teeth.”
Meg: “Charles.  Listen.  Put down all three fingers.  Good.  Now play 3, 3.  Good.  Now 1, 1.  NO.  The second finger does not play its own note!”
Charlie: “Sometimes a snowman could come to life, right?  If he had a magical hat?”

I haven’t auditioned for anything in years, but I might have to look for something.  You know…to have a reason to get out of the house and let my husband police the cello practice. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

This One's for Lisa

Nana and Charlie, falling in love. 
I loved my mother-in-law.  Not "appreciated," not "admired," not "got along with"-- though all those things were true, too.  But fundamentally, I just really, really loved her.  She was hilarious and sarcastic and smart and goofy and thoughtful and generous and humble and honest.  What was not to love?

And I know for a fact that Elizabeth "Lisa" Maxwell, Greatest Mother-in-Law in the World, loved me, too.  It goes without saying that she loved my husband, Tim.  But the truest thing I ever witnessed was her love for our kids, Charlie and Libby.  Even at her most frail, she'd demand to hold the baby for hours.  She'd order me to send her more videos and more photos, even though we only lived 20 minutes away.  She didn't feign interest in potty training discussions; she really was interested! Her love for our rug-rats was huge and powerful and blind, and exactly the kind of love a mother hopes to swath her children in.  A helmet against the bumps and bruises of life.  Dumbo's magic feather, always keeping them aloft.

So when Lisa died last September after a long, gritty fight with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the blood that attacks your red blood cells and gradually saps the strength from your bones), I felt grief-stricken.  I felt angry.  And most of all, I felt gypped. When I thought about the years my kids should have had playing with Lisa, all the recitals and concerts and ball games she was supposed to come to, all the hugs and jokes and stories she'd have given them...well, I wanted to cry foul and have an on-field fight with the ref.  It didn't help that Charlie's second birthday was just a couple days after Lisa left us.  He was surrounded by doting aunts and uncles, adorable cousins, and his beloved Pop-pop, Gangy and Pops, but without Nana we all felt a little bit lonely.

The two Elizabeth Maxwells. 
It's a funny thing, loss.  You chug on, and gradually you cry less and laugh more.  You institute new habits, like telling the kids Nana Stories as often as you can.  You start the "God Bless" section of the kids' bedtime prayers with, "Let Nana watch over us, night and day." Maybe you get back into running after the birth of your second baby (named Elizabeth, like her Nana), and you start talking to your mother-in-law while you're out there, sweating by yourself.  It's possible that the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other exercise becomes a meditation on life and motherhood and health, and you start to feel that your getting stronger is a tribute to Lisa, who fought so hard to keep her bones and muscles from giving out.  Heck, maybe you register for a marathon and dedicate it to her memory.  But I'm only speaking in hypotheticals, here.

So, maybe I'm registered for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 17, 2013.  And maybe I've been trying to figure out how to work it into my fundraising efforts for The Dude Hates Cancer (TDHC), the super-fun charity campaign and bowling tournament that my husband and sister-in-law chair here in Buffalo, benefitting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  "Sell" each of the 26.2 miles for a certain price?  Promise to wear a crazy outfit (a tutu? a weird hat? temporary tattoos?) if I hit my fundraising goal?  Do my training runs through Buffalo wearing "sponsored" slogans on my shirt (ex., TIM IS MY HERO)?  I'm still mulling it over, and will happily accept suggestions.

This year's TDHC tourney is firmly dedicated to Lisa's memory.  Tim posted a banner across the top of the site with a photo of his mom and the slogan, "This one's for Lisa."  No matter how or if I incorporate my marathon training into my fundraising, that's become my running motto, too.  It's amazing how motivational it is when you get to the eighth mile of an 11-mile run and you just want to go home and eat waffles.  I just say to myself, "Hey, Quitter.  This one's for Lisa, remember?" and I find that I can push through the pain a little bit longer.  Because you know what?  She sure did.  And that's why I loved her.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Return of the Matron

Dr. Jekyll had Mr. Hyde.  I have The Prison Matron.  She’s about 57, has steel grey hair, drinks vodka, wears a polyester uniform, carries a night stick.  She doesn’t have a kind word for anyone, especially the inmates, and she doesn’t suffer fools.  To The Matron, everyone is a fool. 

The Matron first appeared while I was in high school.  She was forged in the fiery furnace of bedroom-sharing (“GET OFF MY SIDE OF THE ROOM!”) and she gained strength in her daily battle against three younger siblings (“QUIT IT!  YOU’RE SO ANNOYING!”).  She is most likely to bellow commands in an unbecoming, guttural tone but she has also been known to sneer insults.  No one invites The Matron to parties, which is just as well because she wouldn’t waste her time at your stupid idiot festival, anyhow. 

It was my mother who named The Matron.  Whenever I roared at one of my siblings, in quintessential Mary Devine fashion, she made light of my torrent of negative emotions.  “Oh, Prison Matron!” she would coo.  “Matron, are you upset?” If you think that approach pacified The Matron, you’re dead wrong.  “Unnnh!” she would grunt.  “Don’t (grumble, grumble)…not fair (grumble).”  She would stomp away in her steel-toed boots to punch a speed bag.  

The Matron didn’t come with me to college, thank God.  She also never showed up in Manhattan after my graduation, or during my stints in Rochester, Worcester, or Philadelphia.  I’m fairly sure that none of my friends know her, and even my husband Tim has only met The Matron’s sister, Lady Naggy Von Whinerstein.  So imagine my surprise – shock, even – when she burst into my kitchen last week! 

How could The Matron yell at these two?
I was attempting to get my beautiful, cherubic 2-year-old son Charlie into his coat and boots so that we could get to an appointment on time.  His sister Libby was already coated, hatted, and buckled into her car seat.  I was outfitted head-to-toe in down and wool and was in no mood or wardrobe to chase a wily toddler around the kitchen table.  But Charlie … well, Charlie had other ideas.  I’d get one arm into his jacket and realize that he had kicked off both boots.  When the boots were back on, he tossed his hat into the cats’ litter box.  When the hat had been recovered and a suitable replacement found, one mitten was missing.  When I turned around to pick up the diaper bag, Charlie made a beeline for the living room for his “cello” (a toy guitar that he turns vertical and plays with an unsharpened pencil “bow”).  And without warning, out came The Matron.

“CHARLIE MAXWELL, YOU GET OVER HERE RIGHT NOW! I WILL NOT TELL YOU AGAIN!”  You’d think her voice would be rusty after all that time in hibernation, but it was as fresh and horrible as it was in 1995.  Upon hearing The Matron, at first I was startled—like running into your high school nemesis in the grocery store, it was an encounter I just hadn’t prepared for.  Then I was dismayed—did this mean that The Matron would, against my will, become my signature “Mom’s Mad Voice”?  Next, I was embarrassed—had my friendly downstairs neighbors heard me, and would this change how they say hello to me in the foyer?  And finally I just started laughing.  When he heard me laughing, Charlie started laughing, too, and we laughed for a good, solid five minutes.  Tears rolled down my cheeks and Charlie laughed at the tears. 

The Matron was stunned.  No one but my mom had ever disrespected her like this. She was accustomed to fear.  This … this was ridicule!  And from a 2-year-old!  If her methods didn’t work on a child, who could they be expected to work on?  She huffed and puffed and grabbed her ill-fitting hat and ring of 200 keys.  “I’m leaving,” she said, but her eyes were begging me to stop her.  “I’ll go,” she warned, “and I won’t ever come back.  I’m serious!” 

Still laughing, Charlie, Libby and I gathered our things and walked out the door, locking it behind us.  I think I saw The Matron’s lip quiver.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Never Second-Best

Mary Claire and me, sharing first place.

I’m the second-oldest child in our family, so my sister Mary Claire had 20 months of only child status.  On my mom’s side, Mary Claire was even the only grandchild and quickly became the focal point of McGrath family gatherings.  When my parents would plan a trip home for the holidays, my mom’s siblings would ask, “When are the Mary Claires getting here?” 

When my mom and dad discovered that I was on the way, they were thrilled.  My mom’s one of six kids and my dad’s one of nine, so they had definitely been planning on a large-ish family of their own.  But there’s a story my mom tells about being pregnant with me.  Mary Claire was just so wonderful, so perfect, so incredible, so special, and my mother loved her so entirely – how could she ever hope to love the second baby as much?  After months of worry and sleepless nights, my mother simply decided that she would never let on.  No matter what her true feelings were, she would never let the second baby suspect that Mary Claire was the favorite.  She buckled down and prepared to like the second-best kid.

When she tells this story, my mom always laughs here.  Apparently, after I made my way into the family officially, she discovered that her fears were moot.  Her love for Baby 2 was different, sure, but just as powerful and just as complete.  (And how could it not be.  Have you met me??) 

Now, Tim and I have our own Baby 2 issue to contemplate.  As we anticipate our second baby (in production for release on or around May 11), I feel lucky to already have my mom’s Baby 2 story firmly in place in my awareness.  Because Charlie is absolutely our be-all and end-all.  If you’ll indulge me for a moment:  The kid is a paragon of childish beauty, with a love of reading that demonstrates an unparalleled intellect, a gentleness of spirit that rivals the saints, and the comic timing of a person at least twice his age.  I can’t count the number of times in the past 16 months that I’ve turned to Tim and asked, “Look at him.  Isn’t he perfect?” Tim nods soberly and says, “I feel sad for other parents who think their babies are perfect, because they’ll never know how this really feels.”   

It would be so easy to worry that my heart might not be big enough to accommodate another little Maxwell.  But I know better.  I know from first-hand experience that my mom and dad, so anxious about loving a second baby equally, not only accomplished that but went on to pull three more babies into their love lasso.  There’s never been any question in our family that my parents love us all with the same degree of devotion, despite – or maybe thanks to – our differences in personality, talents, and accomplishments. 

So any time I look at Charlie and think, “How could anyone ever be as marvelous as you are?”, I think of the tiny little kicker in my uterus and I know that somehow, he or she is going to do it.  Then I get overwhelmed by hormones and emotion and I tear up a little bit (in fact, I’m crying right now) before becoming really impatient and wishing that Baby 2 would just get here already, and let us start in on our new Q&A:

Meg: “Look at them.  Aren’t they incredible?”
Tim: “It’s an everlasting tragedy that other parents will only ever feel a shadow of the pride we have in our children, who are equally, if individually, peerless.”

Friday, September 30, 2011

So Cool it Burns

Recently, my husband Tim and I were talking about our stroller, and strollers in general, and he had a brainstorm. 

“Why don’t they have really cool strollers?  Like, for tough guys.  I’m thinking leather with studs.”

“Well, that’s probably not practical,” I answered.  “You wouldn’t want to take your nice leather stroller out in the rain.”

But my response fell on the deaf ears of a man whose imagination had been ignited. 

“Come to think of it,” Tim said, “why not invent a stroller that shoots fire?”

I raised my eyebrows.  “Tell me more,” I said.

“Like, if you could push a button on the handle console and have it shoot fire.  I bet there’s a market for that.”

“Where would it shoot fire from?” I asked.

Tim thought about that one for a couple seconds.  “Probably the sides.  That would be safest.”

Indeed.  Safety first, I always say, when it comes to fire-shooting, leather strollers with metal studs.  Expect our prototype in Spring 2012.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Oh, sure. I'm the crazy one.

 Spotting a dachshund.
It’s 90 degrees out today and so humid that you could bottle the air. On the phone this afternoon, I told my mom that I had taken Charlie for a run in the jogging stroller, and before I even finished my sentence, she said, “You’re nuts.” I made sure she knew that I’d coated the baby in three tubes of zinc-based, non-toxic sunscreen, and that I’d run down the shadiest streets I could find, into the breeze when possible so that Charlie could feel the wind in his curls. “Oh, good,” she responded. “You’re nuts.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that message today, either. In the middle of our jog, my friend Erin slowed to a stop in her air-conditioned car and rolled down the window. We trotted up to the driver’s side and I said, “Hey, Erin!” She smiled and said, “You’re nuts.” About three blocks later, a guy at a stop sign shook his head at me and made the “crazy” sign (i.e., point at head, trace a small circle in the air). Very slowly, he mouthed the words, “Yoooou’re nuuuts.”

Then, off in the distance, I spotted a woman coming toward us with her stroller. At last! A compatriot! “This’ll be great!” I thought. “We’ll have a nice bonding moment. Maybe one of us will say, ‘Nice day for a run,’ and the other will laugh a little.” I trudged along, buoyed by the anticipation of a few steps of companionship.

And then, we were upon them and I made several realizations all at once. One: The lady wasn’t running. Two: In her cushy stroller, the lady was pushing a small, froufy dog. Three: Clipped onto the sunshade and directed at the dog were two small, battery-powered fans.

As Charlie kicked his legs and cooed, the dog stared at us and let out one quick yip. “Yeah, yeah,” I said under my breath. “I’m nuts.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Holy Pain

I woke up this morning with a terrible crick in my neck that no amount of stretching could touch.  As I poured my first cup of coffee and tried to shake it out, I had an instantaneous flashback to 1989, to the first time I recall feeling the equivalent of a hatchet wound in my cervical spine—a memory I haven’t considered in decades.  I saw myself at age 12, lying on the floor of my bedroom in a dress.  My parents were having some kind of open house or party or something – an opportunity for other grown-ups to walk through our house, peering into our rooms while eating delicious hors d’ouvres.  And there I was for several hours arranged on the floor, moving only enough to keep all my limbs from falling asleep, my head arced at a strange angle, conspicuously reading the Bible.

Why, you may ask, did I choose that particular pastime?  Was I working on an assignment for my religion teacher at our parochial elementary school?  Had I exhausted our family library except for the Good Book?  Was I looking up a clue for a crossword puzzle?  None of the above.  I’ll tell you what I was doing: The night before, I had woken up out of a deep sleep to the revelation that reading the Bible would be a very interesting, very unique, and probably very impressive thing for a young girl to be doing when a group of adults wandered by.       

I don’t recall why I decided to sprawl across the floor, but I am certain that it was a conscious decision.  Probably I didn’t want to risk people thinking I was reading a Sweet Valley High book, and the floor seemed most likely to showcase my King James edition.  I chose my outfit carefully with a mind to non-wrinkling comfort and settled on a cotton dress, as similar to the wardrobe of a character out of an L. M. Montgomery book as possible.    

I daydreamed as I dressed, imagining how things would go.

“Hello, Meg,” a grown-up would say, and I would turn my angelic smile upward. 

“What are you reading, dear?” the guest would ask, and I would say oh-so-serenely, “The Bible.”  Then I would turn my attention back to the passage at hand, likely a parable. 

The adult would raise his or her eyebrows and say one of the following: 1.) “A noble pursuit!” 2.) “She puts me to shame!” 3.) “What an interesting, unique, impressive young girl!” 

Word would spread quietly through the party that Mary and Terry’s daughter Meg was a serious, pious, near-perfect child who exhibited uncanny similarities to Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. 

“Someone should write a book about her,” someone would say.

“A book?  Someone should write a series about her!  And then someone else should turn the series into a Broadway musical, a movie, and a successful TV comedy/drama, airing immediately after Doogie Howser!”

I couldn’t wait.  I found a spot where the sun shone down on my open Bible and experimented with a accessories.  To underline with a pencil, highlight with a highlighter, or neither?  Maybe a pencil would be just the right touch, while a highlighter would be over the top.  Ultimately, I decided to have the pencil handy in case the spirit moved me or the audience seemed to demand it.

And finally the guests arrived!  I could hear them making small talk downstairs, so I made sure I was ready.  Dress spread artistically across the floor?  Check.  Legs crossed daintily at the ankle?  Check.  Holy look on face?  Check.  Bring on the adults!

I waited and waited and waited some more.  Oh, it’s not that people didn’t walk by—they did, and they did say hello to me.  It’s just that no one—not one curious person—inquired after my reading material.  An hour in, I had a terrible crick in my neck and I’d read the same passage 15 times.  Then the foot traffic dried up, and my ray of sun dissipated.  “Don’t give up,” I told myself and stuck it out for another hour. 

I don’t know exactly how long I stayed there, but it was long enough to write a poem in the margin of Mark’s Gospel about a girl who heard the call of God but succumbed tragically to consumption before she could attain martyrdom.

My Bible-In ended in the least picturesque of ways.  My older sister Mary Claire strode into the room, stepping over me on her way to toss her bag onto her bed.  Then she turned around and left with just as much authority, pausing only to glance at my torso.

“Get off my side of the room,” she said. 

By the time I had peeled myself off the floor, I knew that my elbows would retain the imprint of the rug for a week at least.  And my neck … oh, my neck!  It smarted like you wouldn’t believe.   So much for piety being my avenue to stardom.

This morning, sipping my coffee and tipping my head from side to side, I mourned a missed opportunity.  Then I packed my Bible in the diaper bag in case Charlie and I found ourselves with a moment to read in the park.  The kid’s got a future in novels, series, film, and TV.  All he needs is an interesting, unique, impressive hook …