I can barely open the door before it throws itself in my face, rattling against its frame. I rein in my voice like I’m working a pulley, and talk to the door.
“I said hurry and eat, brush, and go to bed. I’m leaving the house.” I can’t help flipping the pitch at the tail: “You happy?!” Sharon Olds can keep me company over fish tacos. I make a note to grab my beloved copy, as my head makes it into his room on the last try.
He releases his weight on the other side and flops on the bed. “You wanna leave? FINE!”
“I’ve done nothing wrong. I just pointed out that you need to be more responsible when I’m not here. You can’t not eat all evening and then stuff your head in the fridge just before bed. You don’t want indigestion again. But you need something to be able to sleep now.”
The words walk out of his mouth almost staccato, measured. The boy who still feeds and cuddles with his stuffed tiger cub suddenly sounds sixteen. “Mom, I didn’t have an appetite. I don’t need to eat now. It’s no big deal.”
“Do you know why I’m going?” The words are rocks, breaking apart. The tears burn. “I’m leaving because you hate me. I love you and you don’t want to be near me and I don’t want you to go to bed hungry.” Anger, love. One and the same passion. I storm down the stairs and he stands above me, hands on the banister.
“I don’t hate you!” he yells.
“Of course you do. Your actions say you do. You said I make you sick.”
Somebody come collect the boy’s jaw off the floor. His brows furrow, furious with indignation. “I never said that!”
“Yes, you did. And you blame me for everything.” For the backpack that throws up its contents on the floor, for the headphones you can’t find. For being your mother. “I’m going,” I turn, desperate for tissue, and he calls out, “Wait…I have to give you something.” He disappears into his room and as I blow my nose in the kitchen, I feel something hard closing into my free hand. A ruby out of his treasure box, plastic and pretty the way it gleams, his most prized keepsake. It looks like the rock candy I licked down to a mound at his age. Something to remember him by.
He thought I was leaving for the long haul.
He’s gone upstairs. And my stomach is arguing and turning. It won’t survive a wait for tacos, so I scout the fridge when I realize he’s back, pausing behind me a moment like a long comma. He drops a piece of paper to the floor and finally goes to bed.
My eyes are sore and tender as the tears swell. Isn’t this the home we seek of our journey? We roll the dice, kick it up on the boardwalk and go back three spaces – even go bankrupt. We hope we don’t perish in jail. We make our way along the edge of our wins and the losses, biding our autonomy. But at striving’s end, all we want is to lay it down, to say and hear I want you. I need you. Please stay.
His scream sucked me cold out of sleep. It had just turned midnight and as the dream evaporated, I did not know I would rest again only after dawn. My son had woken – yet again – to spit thick, cloudy coughs into the waiting mountain of Kleenex. Tennyson cried, holding the ice pack down on his head, wiping at watery eyes. How much can a kid take? How much could I? Unrelenting 16-hour shifts nursing him hand and foot and chasing down every possible remedy, days of aborted sleep. I was now battling the flu.
The Money Tree uk.pinterest.com
This thing that’s mowed him down unflinching in the face of the best practitioners and products turned out to be a seasonal pollen allergy. Which is why it stealthily flared all last month as the pollen count here rose, and let up the two days it fell. Spring comes early in Southern California. On the way home with the diagnosis the other day, I decided some plants would filter the air in Tennyson’s room. We picked out a big, tall palm and a cute little guy that made us smile, a Money Tree. Ten minutes later on our driveway, Tennyson was clutching his throat, hands wet with desperate tears. His throat tightened and hurt. The plants! How sad is that, being allergic to the Money Tree! And a virus came along to kick him while he was down, sending him flying off a cliff, making sure not to neglect his parents. I didn’t remember my boy being so sick. But reserves are not bottomless. It’s incredible what life asks of us sometimes.
Where’ve I been? I’ve been stressed, if that isn’t obvious. We’re behind in school. Testing for Memory Master lies around the corner. The TV network PBS is also doing a feature on our music school and Tennyson was to be at the drums filming next week. The best laid plans of mice and moms, see them wheel away like chaff in the wind. It will be hard to swallow those events passing us by. The little mister has missed every baseball practice and Saturday’s opening game. We’ve been so disappointed, but the email from the coach touched me deeply.
Hi Diana, No worries. I hope he is feeling better. His health comes before baseball. We are praying for him.
I wish this man knew the gift he gave me. I’m sure he inspires kids to love baseball and teamwork, but his humanity and ministry to me meant everything. He’s played professionally, but didn’t forget it was about people, not the game. It takes so little to help someone up. You persevere in hope but how long? And how, in the teeth of it going from bad to worse? Answers can come from the most unexpected places.
Flowers don’t like me. I can’t seem to coax them to life. I’m sure they sense the Tiger Mom, accordingly suffer performance anxiety. Or maybe they become passive aggressive and decide to just wilt on me. It also doesn’t help that I forget to care for them. And so looking up from the dishes, I was stunned at the sight of the bold blossom on my windowsill. I had given up on the orchid that had dropped all its petals some six months ago, even though it was said to be only going dormant. How foregone it’d looked, stripped of promise. But here was a triumphant awakening, the white silk so fragile, so strong. My eyes smarted. How…under my watch? In the midst of this despair? The tenacity not only of life, but of beauty. The insistence of hope.
Goodness, is it only March? I can do this. Nine more months and I get to reset and wish myself another happy, hard year.
How many songs do you still know from high school? The old band – cooler than ice cream in its day – revs up the radio and you’re right back, lyrics sure after all these years. Which is why Holistic Boy learns a lot of things through music. He had the optional challenge of memorizing the first 17 verses of Exodus 20 in the King James the past school year and so I went to work. After writing the melody, I found the perfect male baritone (for the voice of God), and recorded countless takes on the piano with Husband and Son on drums. The families in our homeschool community were given the best version to run at home. T and many of his homeschool friends learned it easily as we sang it a verse at a time in our weekly gatherings. The final stage presentation was open to anyone who wanted to perform it this spring, whether they had mastered it or not. Some who made Bible Master were too shy but I was so proud of the kids that night. We had five-year-olds up there. The 17th century diction and syntax were not easy but they got it.
1 And God spake all these words saying, 2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 13 Thou shalt not kill. 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery. 15 Thou shalt not steal. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job,” intones Fletcher, the monomaniacal music instructor in the film Whiplash. Isn’t good, after all, the enemy of the best? Fletcher’s psychopathic devices sucked me right into the vortex of the questions I ask as my son’s teacher. How much do I push? And how? With the promise of Pokémon cards? There’s the drum student Andrew in the movie. His single eye upon Whiplash, the jazz piece he determines to conquer, he denies himself even the distraction of girlfriends. Would I have my boy bleed in the pursuit of excellence? Of course not. Except, if he were Korean, the first time Andrew plows through practice as the blood on his finger oozes from useless band aids would’ve been cinematic cliché. Because falling short would’ve hurt more. So logic and genes say I should at least allow my son to bruise a little.
Last year when he was not yet eight, we went for the optional Memory Master challenge in our Classical homeschool program. Tennyson had to recite the hundreds of facts he had learned in seven subjects (English Grammar, Latin, History, Science, Math, Geography, Timeline of 161 events in human history) through four rounds of testing. Beyond the one mistake allowed per subject in the second round, he had to come through with 100% accuracy in the last two proofs. He was so close but made more than the one error in the second sitting. He had rocked the memory review games in class and the teacher told the director he knew his stuff. The director was willing to give him a chance at the next round of testing. I bowed out.
I could see he’d felt the pressure – from me. After some yoga out back under a full moon, his hippy dippy California mother had suddenly shapeshifted into Tiger Mom from New York. She kept putting raw meat in front of him. Testing season came, and once again her Old Self, the one who unblinkingly had bled for grades at his age, she found herself oh, ambitious for her son. On the cusp of the third test, I realized I simply should have started reviewing the material with him sooner. We were running short on time and though the potholes were few, we were cramming. I was drilling Tennyson in the little time remaining and overwhelmed, he got headaches and spilled tears of frustration. Sigh. He had bruised enough. I chewed the last of my raw lamb liver, the mineral taste and feel of flesh a sad memory in the swallowing. And in the privacy of my backyard morphed back into the California homeschooler who wanted to honor the sacred whole child and spare him the pain of that great modern evil, stress. What I really didn’t want was to get in – make the hallowed halls of Memory Masters – by the skin of our teeth. I could’ve kept pushing him and been able to applaud as his name was called in the awards ceremony. But I didn’t want to barely make it. I wanted him to own it. Mastery means mastery, not hope crossing fingers that he doesn’t slip in the testing. I loved how high we set the bar in the program, the tall demands we aspired to. I would submit to them. And when my son reached for them again, they would be his without question.
So he went for it again this year. And he did it. He went up on stage recently, where one-eighth of the students in Kindergarten-Grade 6 received their Memory Master certificate.
I paced the material in such a way as to prepare him months in advance and by the time testing rolled around, the countries and their capitals, the math multiples and linking verbs, each continent’s highest mountain and the history of Western Africa were in his bones. I found myself at peace in the third proof – fingers uncrossed – where he could’ve lost it all. After an hour-and-a-half, he came out of the room smiling. I had told him to enjoy himself and the teacher said yes, he had himself a grand old time. Two days later, he did the Hokey Pokey as we got ready to leave for the final test. So I’m not Fletcher. I didn’t throw chairs at my son for him to get it right. But Fletcher had zero tolerance for mediocrity (well yes, if you despise it) and that’s something to appreciate. I’m still trying to figure out just what it is Tennyson needs to give up while we uphold those standards but I can’t sit with the majority and tell my child he’s doing a good job when he can – and should – be doing an outstanding job. It wasn’t recognition I was after. At the most practical level, the journey was about nailing down a solid foundation of knowledge he can retrieve at will and use in the older years. But the process was really about self-respect. That whatever his resources and abilities, he discovers he can use them to turn possibility into reality. I love the scene where Andrew’s got it. He’s mastered the impossible Whiplash and, when he finds himself in the band competition, it’s a part of him. He sails through the piece, sticks dancing on the snare still stained with blood. His new reality.
Here’s a glimpse of what Tennyson learned this school year. I threw random questions at him from the year’s work for you. I am proud of him for keeping the joy and must say, of myself for not ruining it.
Math: Counting by 12s
What are the major groups of invertebrates?
Sponges, stinging cell animals, flatworms, roundworms, segmented worms, mollusks, sea stars, arthropods
What are the major groups of vertebrates?
Fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds
Latin Noun Cases
Nominative – Subject
Genitive – Possessive
Dative – Indirect Object
Accusative – Direct Object
Ablative – Object of the Preposition
First and Second Declension Noun Endings, Singular and Plural
English Grammar A preposition relates a noun or a pronoun to another word.
About Above Across After Against Along Amid Among Around At Atop Before Behind Below Beneath Beside Between Beyond But By Concerning Down During Except For From In Inside Into
Like Near Of Off On Onto Out Outside Over Past Regarding Since Through Throughout To Toward Under Underneath Until Up Upon With Within Without
History Tell me about the Age of Imperialism.
During the Age of Imperialism, the British established rule over India in 1858, and Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India in 1877. Before his assassination in 1948, Mohandas Gandhi led the passive resistance movement, which helped win India’s independence.
Tell me about the Heian empire.
As the Heian government weakened in Japan, Shoguns began to rule and expelled all foreigners during the period of isolation. Circa 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. restored trade, allowing the Meiji to modernize Japan.
Some kinds of leaves and leaf parts?
Spines, needles, tendrils, bracts, bud scales, palmate
What are the four kinds of volcanoes?
Active, intermittent, dormant, extinct
What are the five major circles of latitude?
Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, Antarctic Circle
I caught crickets with the boy you would marry. “I’ll give you a quarter for the Queen,” I offered, and he dispensed the prize insects in glass Coke bottles. My cousins got to keep theirs on the fire escape but aghast at the sight of black crawlies in her home, Mom threw mine down the incinerator chute. I was so mad. The Cricket Catcher breathed restlessly and contrived guns from wooden clothes pins and soda can tabs. Who knew he would find and love my dear friend someday?
You were in a different class in elementary school but somehow I liked you. We still get a kick out of the way that I, Bathroom Monitor at lunch in fourth grade, had the girls wait for a stall in size order…because you were short.
Even if I’d journaled the way we clutched bellies aching in laughter, how does one record the telepathy that provoked it? I could’ve noted all the times you found me waiting on the stoop of your building after school but the smell of your home, of worn leather couches that invited me to stay? I showed you how to make Jello and bake out of Betty Crocker. You taught me generosity. Whether from sugar or hormones or real profundity, we cried harder than we laughed. The peals of hilarity, tears and confidences – a million signatures of friendship. You saw the dumbest, boldest, smartest things I did and the words that spilled from my pen; were moved by the poem I published in the eighth grade yearbook but asked in high school what the point was to the vignette. We wore honesty like skin and tread a hundred thousand steps between our homes, passing apartment buildings that boxed in the sky when we looked up. And you told me to make something of myself. The encouragement, acceptance, breakfast and TV dinner rituals: the muscle and fiber of a childhood.
If I erased you from those early pages, I’ll end up with more emptiness than story. We didn’t expect to follow our hopes, heartaches, regrets to two lives on opposite coasts full of joys of family and the tiredness that is our inheritance as Korean mothers. I could not have guessed your boy would one day walk the shiny halls of my old high school. He would think, eyes on the girl by the window, that his parents never felt what he has with such density. We are startled by time because we feel younger than we did when we knew everything at fourteen.
Voices in my house can be loud lately. Or hushed. Both scare me. I like a happy medium.
When my sister sits in the bathtub in the dark, she tells me she is reading. I am small, not stupid. No reading happens in the dark. And I sense pain coming off of her. At age six, I can smell pain like a bloodhound.
But today is one of those enchanted days. Magic will happen. We are not in the house with loud and hushed voices today. Instead, my parents and I go exploring.
The car smells of Amish country. Cherry pie and coffee. Cows. Cider, apples and cheese.
My parents sing in the front seat. I am still young enough not to cringe, to sing along to “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”
My father drives over the hills, past the horses and buggies, so my stomach will drop and I will giggle on each descent. My mother plays the alphabet game with me. My name is Mary. I’m from Missouri and I went to the store to buy muffins.
When we finally arrive at the festival, my friend and I eat cotton candy and roll down the grassy hill. We listen to the music and brave the Tilt-a-Whirl. My world, at home, feels like a Tilt-a-Whirl. I don’t know why all the big people in my house seem to be spinning, hurly-burly. I don’t like it. But today, the Tilt-a-Whirl brings me a gift. I laugh instead of scream. It’s the same feeling but I know now it’s all how I let it in. My six-year-old self is learning, if only by gut instinct.
Tired from sunshine, running, eating, chasing horses, I fall sound asleep. I do not hear my friend leave the car for her front door.
I wake, softly and lightly, from the most delicious sleep. It is dark and the strongest arms I know lift me in the gentlest way possible. As I start to protest, my father whispers, “I’ve got you, Peanut. It’s ok.” That is all I need to know.
I smell no pain today. And I know neither voices nor Tilt-a-Whirls can hurt me—not now.
I wish the moment would last forever, as he lays me gently on my pillow and sleep comes again.
Boy: Mom, if I marry a girl and then don’t like her anymore can I switch?
Mom: *shake head* No, that’s why you must choose very carefully.
Boy: Oh. *looking disappointed*
Boy: Mom, when do people get married?
Mom: You can marry in your teens but most people do it in their 20s and 30s. You have to work hard and be able to provide for your wife and kids. House, food… Boy: *Nodding* I have to make money.
I would like to babysit.
Mom: Yes, everything, all of creation started decaying when Adam and Eve ate the fruit.
Boy: Even the Tree of Life?
Mom: *stumped* Good question.
Daddy, Mommy said I can get the Pokemon cards for Christmas.
Dad: Why don’t you get it with your allowance?
Boy: Mommy, should we get it with my allowance or yours?
Mom: *laughing* I don’t have a lot of money.
Dad: *hooting* Mommy has a BIG allowance! It’s called a credit card.
Mommy, I realized it’s not good to be rich. People will get jealous and kill you.
You should be medium rich.
Daddy, are barbarians still around?
Dad: What do you mean? Of course not.
Mom: Honey, it’s an honest question. The Western Roman empire fell to Barbarians. He’s wondering what happened to them.
Dad: Well no, Tennyson. They became civilized. BY THEIR WIVES. They were tamed by their wives.
*family laughing* There was the male barbarian. And the even FIERCER female barbarian.
Go on. Pinch me. You are so kidding me. The house is still but for the clicking of the keyboard. The men are on their first father-and-son overnighter in the mountains.
I am home alone tonight.
In case you don’t quite see it: over three years as a human milk bottle, I’ve also served up 11,984 meals for the Little Person. Eight years of service and I’ve earned 24 hours of heartbreakingly gratifying, suspiciously sweet time to myself. I think I’ll cry. Make that 16 hours, as I need my sleep. (Dang it. I will cry.) My men have freed me up in the past but this will be the first time T’s bed will be empty. Even as I sign my declaration of independence, relishing in my SELFHOOD, my WOMANHOOD, my WRITERHOOD…I miss my boy. No matter how deep in the mountains he goes or how long he stays away, I am a mother. His mother, the one he’ll come home to as long as she’s breathing. I blink back tears.
So. In the meantime, what shall I do with myself??
– Hit the salon & spa. (Nah. I’ll tense on the table over how long it’s keeping me from the blog.)
– Do the dishes. (LAUGH. Laaauuggh.)
– Clean and mop. (And watch Dirt Vader come undo it tomorrow.)
– Organize all these papers. (Tempting.)
– Write my next post.
I can’t type fast enough. (Don’t bother commenting. Let me write.)