Friday, May 29, 2009

And what is that God-awful thing she’s wearing?

For the greater good of art, I present to you this unflattering photograph of my back to the camera, as an illustration of this morning’s ritual Making of the Challah.

Do you like my apron? It was my grandmother’s: my father’s mother, who, during my childhood, made the journey from the steppes of Russia her apartment in Winnipeg to our house in Toronto twice a year, at Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and cooked her heart out. Traditional stuff: gefilte fish, honey cake, Passover rolls, kugel. She and I had a little bit of a tortured relationship in my late teens, her being all about tradition and me being, well, not so much traditional. But I do like to think that she would be pleased to see me sporting the halushious apron each week as my sons and I make Friday-night challah. Even if we do use a bread maker.

Sometimes, when time and patience are in short supply, I wait until after the kids have left for the babysitter before I get going on the braided bread routine. But this morning (despite the fact that it started, as per the current usual, at 5 AM) everything was going so swimmingly that I decided what the hell. Rowan was so eager to help that he went as far as to get his own self dressed — right down to his Home Depot apron — in order to participate. Then Isaac got in on the action, and demanded his own apron, too: we improvised with a vintage yellow bib with a Mickey Mouse decal painstakingly handstitched onto it. With him perched on the counter and Rowan on the stool, we were ready to go.

Baking with Rowan used to completely unnerve me: all those jerky movements and flying flour and overzealous mixing and the hands in the batter and the way he’d tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap an egg on the counter for a full minute without so much as bruising the shell, only to crush the thing in his fist a moment later. These days, it’s either that I’m more relaxed or he’s more skilled, because he doesn’t faze me the way he used to. Even with Isaac sitting crosslegged on the counter, repeating, “I help!” and poking teaspoons into everything, it was an entirely enjoyable exercise.

And just look at this!

Every week, it’s a struggle not to tear into one of these babies, just warm from the oven, instead of waiting until we’re at the table and the candles are lit. But I don’t, because to do that would mess with tradition, which around here dictates that Friday night dinner consists of challah and roast chicken, yam frites and broccoli. We’ve fallen into the pattern, and now there is no deviating. Not even for, say, the organic wild salmon fillets purchased for last night’s dinner that never got cooked because we were too busy enjoying soccer in the park. At snack time before bed last night, I casually put the question to Rowan as to whether he’d mind if we skipped roast chicken in favour of salmon, and he burst into tears. Don’t fuck with tradition, man. Or the wrath of the bubbies and the four-year-olds will be upon you.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Oops, we did it again!

(No, nobody’s pregnant.)
It’s happening again. I realized this last night when I found myself setting out a blueberry-banana muffin on the kitchen counter and pouring a small glass of milk, which I then stored inside the refrigerator. For easy access. For Isaac’s 5 a.m. attack of the munchies.

Yeah, we’re doing it again: segueing out of one ridiculous sleep (or lack thereof) situation into a different, also ridiculous, one, which I am sure we will maintain until we can no longer delude ourselves that it’s “okay for now,” followed by a week or so of strategizing and the imposition of said strategy, for better or for worse. Whether it’s walking around the basement with Isaac in a sling, or coming up with reward charts for Rowan, or me and Rachel alternating nights in the basement, or playing musical beds, it’s always something. Something ridiculous.

Right now, it’s this: boys have bedtime together, cuddled up for stories in Rowan’s double bed. Then Rowan decamps for our bed, where he starts the night while Isaac “settles” in his single bed (with its safety rail) in the brother room. This practice started when Rachel and I decided that we could no longer lie next to Isaac for an hour and a half each night while he took his sweet time going to sleep and screamed if we left. Four days later, we had broken him of that habit, but in the process engrained a new one in Rowan, who is still starting the night off in our bed because, as he puts it, “I don’t like toddlers sleeping in my room with me.”
Which is fine. I mean, me neither, mostly. We just move Rowan to the bed in what used to be Isaac’s room before we go to sleep. Why not back to his own bed? Because Isaac, although he now goes to sleep beautifully, has taken to waking up at 4:30 or five in the morning and screaming, “Mufffffffffin! Miiilllllllllllllllllk!” I’ve discovered that if you take him downstairs, feed him said quick snack, and keep all the lights off, he will sometimes consent to being taken back up stairs and cuddled with you in Rowan’s bed for half an hour or so. Come over! Try it! If you’re really lucky, he will actually fall back asleep, and if you are astonishingly lucky, blessed by the stars and fortune, Rowan won’t wake up only moments after that.

This is dumb.

I mean, it’s dumb because it’s just a dumb system, in the sense that in the larger scheme of things Isaac — and everyone else in the family — needs more sleep than a 4:30 wakeup call allows for. But it’s also dumb because we are repeating our own history, caught up in this seemingly endless treadmill of almost-solutions out of which spiral new problems. And new almost-solutions. Welcome to parenting, I suppose.

Do I sound bleak? I think it’s more that I’m weary: a summer cold plus seasonal allergies have added to my general fatigue. At least I’m not so far gone that I don’t take some pleasure in snuggling with the boy, who has now taken to singing “Twinkle twinkle” quietly in bed as the sun comes up. If you have to be awake at 5:30, I suppose there are worse ways to be awake.
Radical acceptance? Denial? You decide.

Friday, May 22, 2009

“How will I dance now?”

Rowan has been growing his hair. He wants to grow it long, and even though he’s currently suffering from a condition known as, in family parlance, “wide head,” and even though my fingers itch to just touch it up a little bit, to even things out, I haven’t. And I won’t.

In the realm of bodily functions and day-to-day hygiene, I make my kids do lots of things they don’t really want to do. I insist on diaper changes for Isaac, a certain amount of handwashing, toothbrushing, nose wiping, fingernail cutting and the like. I’m pretty clear about daytime clothes versus pajamas, although what Rowan actually wears tends to be what he picks out

But the hair? Now that he’s no longer a recalcitrant toddler, that’s his prerogative, a line I can’t cross.

There’s just something about the idea of forcibly cutting his hair that feels wrong to me. Whether it’s the fact that all I ever wanted as a child were Cindy Brady–pigtails, the Samson overtones, the risks inherent in wielding scissors in front of an unwilling child’s face, or — just maybe — the unnecessary insult to his sense of autonomy and self-identity, it feels viscerally unacceptable.

Which is perhaps why this report of a Thunder Bay elementary school teaching assistant forcibly cutting the hair of a seven-year-old First Nations boy is so upsetting. According to reports, the child wore his hair long because it was important to his traditional dancing practice. The boy told his mother that the teaching assistant lifted him onto a stool, put the scissors to his forehead, and told him not to move. Which he didn’t, because he was too scared. Too scared.

Too fucking scared.

And then she cut his hair in front of his classmates. And then she stood him in front of a mirror and said, “Look at you now.”

What the kid looks like now, according to his mother, are the pictures of his relatives after they were given forcible haircuts at residential school. The boy is upset and ashamed, and heartbroken at the thought of what his shorn hair means for his dancing. “How will I dance now?” he asked his mother. “How will I dance?”

The teacher has been suspended, but the police and the Crown are refusing to press charges of assault. Enough said. This is the city I live in, and its inability to deal with difference — cultural, racial, gendered, religious — has implications for us all. If this boy isn’t safe, then my kids aren’t safe. No one’s are.

I wonder what happened to this kid’s hair. Probably swept into the trash. Because isn’t that how we deal with so many First Nations issues around here? If I could restore it to his head, I would. But if I had a strand of it, I would twine it round my fingers, put it (with his permission) in a locket, wear it next to my heart. Dance, baby: dance your heart out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

He likes horses, does he?

Today was Rowan’s turn to present at “Bring and Brag,” or what in my day used to be known as “Show and Tell.” In my day, though, we were allowed to bring toys, which are now verboten. The official line is that kids will fight and get jealous over toys, but I think the real reason is to make parents’ lives more difficult. I mean, how many meaningful, non-toy objects can there be in a four-year-old’s life? The first time, we racked our brains and sent Rowan with his rock collection. The second time we came up with a papier-mâché cat he had made, accompanied by photos of our own felines. Today, we completely forgot about B&B until approximately five minutes before it was time to leave for school.

“Here,” I said, pulling a book off the shelf and a solution out of my ass. “You can tell the kids all about earthquakes.”

Recently, we were gifted a shelf full of hand-me-down books that includes a series on natural disasters: Rowan is now fascinated by all manner of plagues, including earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes and the like. We went through the book quickly, marking a couple of pages of great interest, going over a few talking points, doing up a quick PowerPoint presentation, and rushing out the door.

Turns out, it was a banner day. Not only was Rowan on for B&B, but he was also Special Person for the day, which is a big deal: the special person gets to sit in the Special rocking chair, be first in all lineups, in charge of the weather chart, and all kinds of other great stuff. There’s a Special Person poem, where the kid fills in details about his or her favourite food, thing, book, etc., and then all the kids recite it out loud.

I asked the teacher how the earthquakes presentation went. “Fine,” she said. “Except that he couldn’t really answer the question, ‘What is an earthquake?’”


Then I looked at the Special Person poem. Apparently, Rowan’s favourite food is crackers. No real surprise there, although I would've put money on roast chicken. His favorite book is about earthquakes, which makes total sense. And his favorite thing?


“Horses?” I said.

“Something there surprise you?” said his teacher.

Um, no, not really, unless you count the fact that I can recall no instance in which Rowan has ever even mentioned horses. He doesn’t play with horses, unless you count a rocking horse in the basement. Last time we were at a hobby farm, he refused — by which I mean screamed in terror — to go on a pony ride. Or a horse-drawn sleigh ride. If you had asked me, I might have said trains or hide-and-seek or the camera or making slides out of Isaac’s toddler-bed railings, but never horses.

Which begs the question(s): Am I clueless about my son? Does Rowan really love horses? Or was he merely pulling the answer out of his ass? I suspect we’ll never know.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The sound of Cheerios dying

Blurry teeth marks on placemat.


Beach towel over chair.

Baby Alice — clothed.

Mother’s Day present.

Fishie hands.

Things up high I.

Things up high II.

Cheerios at risk.

Trains on coffee table.

Back yard.

Things up high III.

You are here. You are here. You are here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

To sleep, perchance to dream

So, we finally told Isaac to go suck it. Seriously, I looked it up in the sleep training books and those are the exact words they use. Right there on page 37, Dr. Richard Ferber and Dr. Marc Weissbluth and even Mrs. Elizabeth Pantley of No Cry Sleep Solution fame all told us to tell Isaac to go suck it. At least, that’s what I’m fairly sure they said when I racked my brains for how we handled tumultuous nighttimes in the past. Suck it, baby.

Okay, so we didn’t quite use those exact words. More a lot of “Night night” and “Back to bed, Isaac” and “No, cuddles all gone” and “Time for bed.” Forty-five minutes’ worth of that on the first night, 30 minutes on the second, 15 on the third night, two on the fourth, and then — none. Maybe half a protest squawk and off to sleep. Textbook.

And, you know, not perfect sleep. Not necessarily all through the night, every night. Still some ridiculously early mornings. But, all things considered, much improved sleep. Even better, we have our evenings back. Instead of lying next to a squirming toddler until 9 PM each night, the resentment creeping in through the holes worn through my good attitude, I am free by about 7:30, often earlier. There’s a new regime in the house: dinner at 5:30, bath at six, reading stories in bed by seven, lights out shortly after. And then: grown-up time! (Excuse me while I go French kiss Dr. Marc W. on my way to watching Mad Men with Rachel.)

All this extra sleep, plus a weekend away, plus the reacquisition of my evenings, has made me downright giddy. The kids, too. I mean, there’s nothing like two extra hours of sleep a night for the toddler mood. The four-year-old — who now starts off the night in our bed, and is then moved to the “spare” room — also seems to be benefiting. Good moods abound around here, aided in no small part by sunshine and warmer weather.

This morning, I woke up before Isaac woke up, woke up to sunlight, got up with him at the downright civilized hour of 6:15. By 7:15, both kids were up and fed and happy. By 7:30, the four of us were piled into our bed, Rachel and I bookending some thumb-sucking, blanket-toting, footed-pajama-wearing, squirming little chatty boys who competed to kiss our faces. As Rowan read a copy of Today’s Parent to Isaac (“Dat baby. Dat more baby.” “Isaac! Look! Another baby!”), Rachel looked at me across the tops of their heads and said, “This is what I thought it would be like.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What I got today

Can’t wait to see what they’re planning for Mother’s Day.

And, you know? I really was going to end there. Because, for those of us who have lost mothers, sometimes the less said about Mother’s Day, the better. Short and sweet.

And then, like an idiot, I realized that today is May 8. And that my mother died five years ago today. On Mother’s Day, in fact. What are the odds?

My mother had lots of opportunities to die. In 1982, when she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the cancer was given 95% odds, her 5%. When she totalled her car later on that year, her only injury the cut on her hand sustained as she crawled out the broken driver’s window of the upended vehicle. When she developed breast cancer at age 47. When the cancer returned, and returned again.

When she did die, at the age of 59, my mother still had lots more living to do. But certain things had been accomplished: namely, her children were grown. We were out of the house, developing careers, established in relationships with people she liked. My brother had two children; I was pregnant with my first. We were okay. And, even though there was so much left to live for, I think she knew that a fundamental job was done. We might have wanted a mother, desperately wanted her, but we no longer needed her to mother us.

There’s a fine, or maybe, rather, a fuzzy, line between want and need, though. While I may not need my mother to sign my permission forms or kiss my boo-boos any more, never in my adult life have I wanted her more than when I became a mother. The early days of parenting for me were a haze of grief and sleep deprivation, the coldest winter in years in a new city, where I barely knew a soul. I would have given anything to have her back, have her with me, even if she would have probably told me to calm down and relax and just put the baby in his bed and walk away. Maybe she would’ve made me crazy in ways I wasn’t already, but, you know? I don’t think so. And I don’t really care.

And now that those early days are behind me, now that I have more perspective on the whole thing, now that sleep has (more or less) returned and the grief isn’t all-encompassing, all the time, I still want her back the way I want nothing else. Just so that she could see those two small boys, clutching dandelions and bluebells in their fists. Just so she could drop to her knees and gather them all in her arms.

Separated at birth?

And by about 35 years. Though I’m guessing the laundry baskets are both circa the early 1970s.

That’s my father’s foot — or, at least, his shoe — in the foreground of the shot of me. Yeah, definitely the shoe, given the angle. He would have been about 30 years old when the photo was taken. He turned 65 just last week, and I snuck down to Toronto and surprised him at his birthday bash. It was one of those Hallmark moments: the look of utter surprise as I walked into the room, then delight, and then the tears. Way better than a girl popping out of a cake.

For me, it was also three full, childless, spring days in Toronto, cycling around the city, visiting friends (ironically, all of whom seem to be pregnant or the parents of newborns. Teeny, tiny newborns.), remembering what that life was like. Slow mornings, meandering afternoons, sitting down for entire meals, late nights unclouded by the worry of early rising or babysitters on the clock.

On my last evening, just before my flight home — and just before his first photography class — I met my father for a glass of wine and some mussels on a patio on Queen Street East. Another rare, stolen hour: our visits these days are always full of children, family, chaos. He handed over early, perfect, Mother’s Day present for me and Rachel: gift certificates to Home Depot. We chatted — about his upcoming travels, my work, his grandchildren, my mother — as the sun hovered in the western sky just before its descent and parents walked their children home from daycare and dogs fetched sticks in the park across the street. And I thought, “I’m so glad I came.”

And then, much later that night, I met Rachel at the front door and touched the sleeping bodies of tiny boys in their beds, and thought, “I’m so glad to be home.”