Thank You, Mrs. Ainslie

From Mary Dell:

Airplane trips offer few comforts – no food, uncomfortable seats, dreary in-flight entertainment. Last week, however, on a flight with my family, American Airlines provided a movie that I watched with interest.  One of the main characters was a disagreeable woman who nagged her husband, complained about everything, and feared leaving the hotel to which they had traveled.

Thank you, Mrs.  Jean Ainslie, of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, for being the type of woman I never want to be.

Perhaps you have already seen the movie? Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Maggie Smith headline the outstanding cast of vintage English actors. Mrs. Ainslie is played by Penelope Wilton, familiar to fans of Downton Abbey as Isobel Crawley, the somewhat pushy but kindly mother of heir-in-the-making, Matthew. While she is a sympathetic character in that miniseries, in this film she is a royal pain in the arse.

My reason for thanking her now?  We are on a family vacation and my husband is a terrible sitter.  I am an excellent sitter and that creates a tiny conflict as he picks adventure and I am content with a stack of magazines and books.  However, in watching the less than rosy outcome for Mr. and Mrs. Ainslie at the Marigold Hotel, I have been inspired me to get off my own arse and join in the family adventures.

Yesterday the three of us headed to the beach.  The relaxing chairs on the sand called to me, but I resisted as the explicit goal was to try paddle boarding. Perhaps you have seen pictures of bikini clad women standing upright regally gliding through water with a paddle gently dipping into the surf.  This was not me. But, with Mrs. Ainslie’s shrewish barks in my ear, I pushed myself to try it and, to my great surprise, I stayed upright and actually did passably well for a non-athletic person with mediocre balance.

The moral of the movie’s story for me was this – don’t self declare that you are past peak, unable to learn, explore and evolve.  Your spouse, partner or friends want your companionship. Your children most definitely prefer to see you active and Lord only knows that any future grandchildren will simply want you to get on the floor and play.

Mrs. Ainslie is my guide.

Posted in Empty Nest, family, Middle Age, travel | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Girl Group

Stitch and Twitch, 1990

When the noun in a sentence is “clique,”  we expect the verb to be misbehaving.  But why does the word have such a bad reputation?  The truth is that we are fortunate, not damned, to be included in a girl group. As I watched a clique gather recently, the evidence in favor of membership was overwhelming.They arrived in pairs, giggling, thrilled to be at a surprise birthday party.  I ceded room to the friends enjoying the moment when the secret kept became the secret revealed.A party for my high school daughter? Not this time.The day belonged to Mom on her eighty-fifth birthday. The invited guests were her oldest, dearest friends, members of a group they call “Stitch and Twitch.”Though none of the women can quite remember when the coterie first met, fifty years of shared history is a conservative estimate. With ladylike precision, the eight S&Ters gathered at a different member’s home, monthly, in alphabetical order. Following a homemade luncheon, they commenced sewing buttons on husbands’ shirts, raising or lowering hems on their daughters’ cotton school dresses, and, most crucially, catching up.

Much happens during fifty years.  Children grow, graduate, get married, grandchildren arrive, some offspring move away, a few divorce. Golden anniversaries are celebrated. Husbands get sick, aged parents pass on. Homes are downsized. Eventually, the widows outnumber the others and the annual Christmas dinner party, with spouses, is regretfully discontinued. First one, then a second Stitch and Twitcher dies.  Another moves into a nursing home. All others still drive but for how long?

To quote my long gone grandmother from Tennessee “When the ox is in the ditch, just call Stitch and Twitch to get it out.” That is what they do and have done for each other for all these years.

Watching my mother and her crew laugh and joke with each other, telling stories of their younger years, I began to make a mental list in defense of cliques:

1. Life membership is strongly encouraged.  We belong to plenty of transitory confederations but nothing will endure like our girl group.

2. A protection against loneliness. Just knowing we have these friends feels like a psychic group hug.

3. They are your most reliable source for advice and counsel.

After the party, I looked up the definition of clique and found this:  “a circle or group of persons; especially one held together by common interests, views, or purposes.” So, with dictionary in hand, here are more virtues:

4. A circle or group – With clearly defined membership, no one is tripped up by questions of who to call, who to include. Having an unambiguous group is comforting.

5. Common interests – for some, studying books defines the group.  For my mother, in the 1960’s, it was sewing.  For me, it has been lifelong friendship.

My clique – the one we started in middle school – includes seven of us.  We became a group by celebrating each others’ birthdays with slumber parties or surprise kidnap breakfasts. Now, nearly forty years after we graduated, we make sincere efforts to keep it intact.

It hasn’t always been easy since only four of us moved back to our hometown. In the meantime, we married and were bridesmaids. We turned fifty! A few divorced. Parents died. Except for one high schooler, our children are in college or just out. A few of our kids have married but no grandchildren (yet.) Knock on wood, our husbands are living and still working.

When our children were little, years passed when seven schedules were impossible to sync.  Now, our empty (or nearly empty) nest phase frees us to see each other and even travel together.  No one in my life, besides my immediate family, stood with me with the same loyalty in mourning or celebration.

Now I watch my daughter as a member of her own clique, texting frequently in a defined group “thread.” With other friends and teammates, the social lives of these teenagers are hardly defined by their clique. But still, her closest pals, like my friends and those of my mother’s, cheer and support her. Seeing them at her sweet sixteen birthday party reminded me of my high school friendships and I wonder if her circle will endure, as mine did and my mother’s has.

My daughter and I talk about my friends and she has heard unending bedtime stories of Stitch and Twitch from her grandmother.  She has said more than once “I can hardly wait to graduate from high school and college and see what we are all doing and where we all live. I hope we get together like you and Granny do.”

Clique – bad girl or best friend? The answer is clear to me.

Posted in Empty Nest, family, Motherhood | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

The Unexpected Pleasures of Parenting

Empty NestOne of life’s great pleasures is having our expectations exceeded. And of all the unexpected pleasures life gives us, perhaps none is greater than becoming a parent. For no matter how much we know we will love our children, the actual experience of loving them is almost beyond words. With a heady cocktail of inexperience and overconfidence I thought I knew what parenthood beheld. I thought I had my mind wrapped around motherhood and had realistic expectations of what was to come. Of course, I had no idea.

The surprises:

Being a parent is having a front row seat in the theatre of someone else’s life. It is a chance to witness the entire arc of a life from the first breath, to that first awkward day of middle school, to the moment we hit the replay button and our children have children. For me it has been an unmatched and unprecedented opportunity to reflect deeply and in living color on my own life.

Being a parent has allowed me to be a child again. My childhood was simple and middle class, the stuff the 1960s and 70s were made of. My husband’s was much more austere in a country and family with far less. Yet I will be eternally grateful to our sons for allowing us to experience childhood all over again with them. From the first time they laughed at Pat the Bunny to the day they stood in front of It’s a Small World jumping up and down and begging to go on the ride for a third time, to the afternoon they drove away with their brand new drivers licenses, I have felt immersed in every step of their childhood. We identify with our children, critics say we over identify, but for me this has meant reliving childhood, but better.

By having a child I learned what kind of stuff I was made of. I thought I had faced challenges with a tough school, a tough job, life overseas…child’s play, so to speak. The toughest job, bar none, is parenthood. Children push us to the emotional edge, in good ways and bad and sometimes to the physical edge as well. The closest I came was at 4:00 am one morning when I had been up for twenty-one hours and was holding my infant who would not sleep. I screamed at him at the top of my lungs, “You know what? Yes. You! You are going to be an only child. You behave like this and you are getting no brothers or sisters. An only child, do you hear me!” It was the worst threat my deranged mind could think of and my husband, who had long since made his way to the couch, had the good sense to switch places with me. My next son was born ten months later.

I knew that my husband and I would love being parents. We are both eldest children and had long shifts of caring for younger siblings, but I could never have fathomed how much we would love sharing this experience. We had the same career, we could talk for hours about our friends and our work and our aspirations. We could talk about books and our upbringing, about things we hoped to learn and things we hoped to forget, but nothing has or ever will come close to the shared passion for our children. He is the one person on the planet that I cannot bore with constant talk of how wonderful I think my kids are, there is no level of minutiae (well, he got a B+ on the essay part, it would have been an A- but the teacher…) that I can sink to in discussing our offspring that will lose his interest.

Parenthood begins with showing our children the world, but it is not long before they return the favor. I knew I would be a teacher. I never imagined how quickly I would become a student. I have learned about glass, pre-World War II aircraft and Tim Tebow. I am up on current music and the standings in the English Premier Soccer League. But I am a visitor to these worlds, and inhabit them because my children are there and when their interests and lives move on, so will mine, all the wiser for it. Later still our children literally take us places, as we move them into summer camp cabins or college dorm rooms, their first apartments or back into our homes. We take them places for a few years, they take us places for the rest of our lives and at every step we learn something.

Some of this learning will not be good. When they get sick we will study everything about their ailment. When they have trouble learning we master everything about their difficulty and when they get caught speeding, drinking or lying we must search for the fine line that runs between how much to help and how much to punish. We will be wiser, but sometimes painfully wiser.

There is a feeling of exhilaration as they accomplish something that we know for all the world is not within our grasp. It is the thrill of seeing them swim faster than we know we ever could, shoot a basket we never would have made or face an unfamiliar social setting with poise and confidence that we can only dream about. It is the moment when they appear in their prom dress or tux and we can feel ourselves so young and beautiful again, if just for a moment. They are not us, but we will never enjoy another’s triumph and feel it so keenly.

I was pretending to be an adult until the moment my eldest was born and I knew it was time to stop pretending. My husband and I may have had careers, a car and an apartment but as we were beholden to no one, at times our early marriage felt like an extension of a long luxurious adolescence that no one was in a hurry to push us out of. One of the truly unexpected joys was realizing that, as the nurses at the hospital waved goodbye and I carried my newborn out to the car, I was an adult, a mother and that we would be alright. I have my children to thank for making me grow up.

Posted in Babies, Empty Nest, family, Parenting | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

I Will Be There for You Again

I get that you think that you never want to have kids.  I get that they look like a lot of hard work, and you don’t really like small children.  I know that you cannot even imagine being a father. I was nineteen once, I understand. But one day, years from now, I am hoping you will change your mind.  So here is the deal.  If you change your mind and decide to make me a grandmother, here are the things I promise:

1. I promise to love and respect your partner, to respect the sanctity of your home and your relationship and I promise to keep my mouth shut about both.  You may not do things the way I would, but even now, kids grown and life half gone, I am not sure I did it right.

2. I may hate the loads of laundry that you and your brothers leave all over the house when you are visiting now, but when invited to visit the home of my grandchild, I will joyfully do laundry, clean kitchens and tidy up toys.  I know each of these things are small potatoes. I also know that when a young mom who has been up all night with a baby walks into a pristine kitchen, with the clean laundry piled neatly in a basket, she feels loved and cared for.

3. I will walk, talk and rock that baby until she lies sleeping in my arms and I will do it as many hours as needed, letting her mother catch up on much-needed sleep, work or just reconnect with her friends.  I know my grandchild won’t remember that I did this, but I will.  I can barely remember you being a baby.  You were tightly sandwiched between two brothers and, frankly, there are years of long blackouts in my memory.  The doctor handed you to me and then, five minutes later, I sent you to nursery school.  Holding your child will be a cosmic do over for me and I won’t forget a thing.

4. I will listen.  I know you feel that I have been doing a lot of the talking during the last nineteen years…there may be some truth to that.  Having a child will shake the foundations of your being and nothing in life will ever look the same again.  You and your partner may talk about this endlessly, but if you ever want another ear, from your biggest admirer, it is my turn to listen.

5. I will speak, give advice, show you how things are done, but only if you ask me.  Babies can be scary, parenthood is a leap into the unknown and words of comfort from someone who has traveled this road can often be all that is needed, or conversely, just about the most irritating thing on the planet. You and your brothers turned out alright and I learned a thing or two along the way. I am available to download that information, upon request.

6. As a new parent you will be tired and miserable, grumpy and sometimes short.  You will think you know everything even when you know nothing.  You will be nervous and anxious and not always great company. Sometimes you will be euphoric and think you are the first person on Earth to experience such feelings.  Don’t worry, I lived through your teenage years, I have seen you like this before, and I will be there for you again.

Posted in Babies, Empty Nest, family, Grandparents, Motherhood | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments

Cats Eye View of the Empty Nest

Photo by TBK

By Julie, a Grown and Flown writer:

The cat has no one to wake up today.  We have no alarm clocks in our house to rouse us for work unless you count the one with a tail and whiskers, and she starts duty promptly at five a.m..  First she works me over; my husband is next in line.  Finally, at seven, she quietly approaches the shut door of my younger daughter and sets to work. Continue reading

Posted in College, Empty Nest, High School, Parenting | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Sally Koslow, author of Slouching Toward Adulthood, Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest, speaks to Grown and Flown

Sally Koslow, our friend and author
This weekend, Viking published an amazing book by our good friend, the first-rate writer Sally Koslow.  The subject is our kids, all of ours, and the title is Slouching Toward Adulthood, Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest.  Sally looks at the epidemic of boomerang kids with the tough eye of a journalist and the warm heart of a mother.We love Sally’s book and hope you will read it. Her story is as important for parents with two-year olds or twenty-two year olds, as she examines the arc of parenting. Continue reading
Posted in College children return home, Empty Nest, Parenting, Young adults | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest: Interview with Sally Koslow and Book Giveaway

This weekend, Viking published an amazing book by our good friend, the first-rate writer Sally Koslow.  The subject is our kids, all of ours, and the title is Slouching Toward Adulthood, Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest.  Sally looks at the epidemic of boomerang kids with the tough eye of a journalist and the warm heart of a mother. With a combination of zinging humor and good old fashion research Sally explains why many kids never seem to leave, or if they do, why they come right back. Continue reading

Posted in College children return home, Empty Nest, Parenting, Young adults | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments