Mother’s Day “Ideals”

unnamed-1Ideals magazine was launched in 1944 with a Christmas issue compiled by Van B. Hooper, a public relations manager for a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, manufacturer. Over the years it has featured the writings of well-known authors such as Edgar Guest, Sue Monk Kidd, Chris Bohjalian, Susan Allen Toth, Garrison Keillor, and many others.

Now produced by Guideposts and edited by Melinda Rumbaugh, the magazine continues its nostalgic celebration of American holidays with timeless stories, quotations, poetry, recipes, and fine art illustrations.

Since 2008, several of my own essays (including a few from my book, Writing Home) have been published in several issues of Ideals and its hardcover gift anthologies.

This spring, my essay describing my son’s first year away from home (“Field Notes on an Empty Nest”) is included in Ideals‘ Mother’s Day 2014 issue — complete with a beautiful painting by Lee Kromschroeder. The magazine is available where books are sold, including Barnes and Noble, Costco, Target, Family Christian, Books-a-Million, and Mardel.  To purchase the magazine directly from Ideals, click here.

The not-so-empty nest

It’s not only children who grow.  Parents do too.  As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours.  I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun.  All I can do is reach for it, myself.”  ~Joyce Maynard

birdbellDid you hear all the school bells ringing last week? Though autumn isn’t officially here yet, the start of the new school year never fails to begin the season for me. Change is in the air — and I’m ready for it!

For many who’ve launched their kids to college for the first time, it’s also the beginning of the empty nest transition.

If you’re having a tough time letting go of your student, you might find some comfort in my new column for Michigan Prime. The September issue — which also features great back-to-school tips for middle-aged and “senior” students — will be delivered this Sunday with The Detroit News and Free Press, or you can click here to read it online.

One more year …

Someday man will travel at the speed of light, of small interest to those of us still trying to catch up to the speed of time.” ~Robert Brault

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Lately it seems as if I’ve swallowed summer in one big gulp, like the last swig of Long Island iced tea on a scorching afternoon. I wish I had more in my glass.

I turned forty-nine this month, and already I’m wondering how to make forty-nine last as long as I can possibly stretch it. I plan to age gracefully — no dragging my heels into my fifties. I’d like to become one of those plucky old women who wear purple and “learn to spit,” as the Jenny Joseph poem goes.

But not so fast.

Recently, my son Nate and I were having a mock philosophical discussion about the velocity of time. He was anxious for the arrival of the new family car we’d ordered, which had been delayed in production. To him, the days weren’t accelerating fast enough; time was stalling like a faulty engine. Later he complained that summer break was ending too quickly.

His senior year of high school started last week, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that idea, too. We’ve been shopping for colleges since May, and applications will be mailed soon.

Just one more year.

Another mom, whose only child is my son’s age, also tastes the bittersweet tang in this last swig of summer. Our lives will change too, she reminds me, when high school ends.

This will be the last year we rush to nuke meals in time for play rehearsals and tennis games.

This will be the last year we quit work early to snag front-row seats at concerts and award banquets.

This will be the last year we snap photos of our kids in tuxedos and prom dresses. And the last year for school uniforms, bagged lunches, bake sales, teachers’ luncheons, fund-raisers, permission slips, and field trips.

Of course, there’s the sweet ring of freedom in all of this, too. Don’t think it hasn’t occurred to every middle-aged parent who stands teary-eyed on the same threshold.

I chose to work at home when Nate was younger, combining freelance writing with Tiger Cubs and carpooling. Later on, I tried to stay involved in high school activities. Meanwhile, I’ve put a few dreams on hold, not to mention the career goals I’ve filed away. I’ve looked forward to the time when I can start my day without checking the school calendar. But I’ll miss other aspects of having a kid in school. I’ll miss the sense of community I’ve felt while comparing notes with other parents; I’ll miss all the Mother’s Club meetings and school conferences. And I’ll miss the incomparable satisfaction I get every time I work on projects involving young people.

This hit me on the long ride home from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, which I toured earlier this month with Nate and three of his closest friends – Andrea, Lauren, and Ryan. Though I’ve known these kids since they were small, it had been a while since we’d spent so much quality time in my compact station wagon. Between long stretches of road construction, periodic rain showers, and the Bare Naked Ladies blaring on the CD player, I remembered how much I’ve enjoyed the easy laughter and awesome energy of these kids. And I’m excited about this next phase of their lives.

But whether they head for Notre Dame or Michigan State next fall, I’m going to miss them. A lot.

As we drove closer to suburban Detroit, my backseat crew quieted down. The sky cleared, and one of the richest sunsets I’d ever seen suddenly appeared in my rearview mirror. My right foot instinctively moved toward the brake pedal – as if that would make it last a while longer. I didn’t notice the cars tailing me on the expressway until Nate pointed out that I was driving like an old woman, way below the speed limit.

Just one more year. Pour it slowly, please. –Cindy La Ferle

This column was originally published in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak and is included in my column collection, Writing Home, now available in print and Kindle editions. 

Mothering myself

Mother is a verb, not a noun.”  ~ English Proverb

It’s going to take several days to recover from last week’s domestic flurry – a self-inflicted storm of floor washing, napkin ironing, furniture polishing, and grocery shopping. As most women would, I blamed it initially on the Thanksgiving holiday and the fact that I would be hosting out-of-town guests.

But the truth is, my out-of-town guests were my son and his wife – dear ones who’ve seen our home in its most chaotic state and are not particularly fussy.

As it happened, I wasn’t even scheduled to cook the big Thanksgiving meal this year. I knew we’d be taking my mother (whose vascular dementia is monitored at a nearby assisted-living residence) to dinner at a local restaurant. A culinary no-brainer.

And as for kitchen duty, my only obligation was to provide breakfast, lunch, or light snacks for our small family of four throughout the weekend.

So why all the fuss? Was it simply my old holiday anxiety rearing its annual, festive head? Or was I trying to impress my new daughter-in-law, who was spending the nights with our son in the guest room?

None of the above.

It wasn’t until my son pointed out that I was getting a tad neurotic about freshening the bathroom towels every half hour that I realized my housekeeping-on-steroids was another symptom of grief and mother loss.

Before I explain, bear with me while I spin through a Dickensian-style flashback of winter holidays past … Back when my mother was a busy commercial artist and homemaker who loved to entertain guests … Back before heart disease and dementia rendered her helpless and confused.

Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.

Back then, my mother would put me to work alongside her at the kitchen counter. Under her artistic direction, I baked cookies, rolled appetizers, and speared tiny cornichons with cellophane-ruffled toothpicks.  Together we dusted and rearranged all the living room furniture. Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.

It didn’t matter if the visiting folks were my grandparents or my father’s coworkers; Mom and I channeled Betty Crocker, Julia Child or Martha Stewart.  If the holiday guests were also spending the night (or more), Mom would throw the schedule into overdrive and put me on laundry duty. Cranking up the washing machine, she’d order me to gather every towel and washrag in the linen closet that “needed freshening up.” Yes, even the clean ones.

I’ll admit there were moments when I felt like Cinderella in her scullery maid phase. Even so, those domestic chores trumpeted the arrival of the holiday season. And now, they’re an inextricable part of the memories and traditions my mother crafted for our family — even when the world was crumbling around us.

In December of 1992, five months after my father’s sudden death from a heart attack, I didn’t want to think about Christmas. The very idea of hanging mistletoe, or clearing the dining room table for a “festive” meal, seemed like a violation of our family’s raw grief.  It was my mother who convinced me otherwise, reminding me that Dad loved Christmas — and that he would have wanted us to celebrate for the sake of my little boy, who was barely seven at the time.

I believe, in retrospect, that sprucing things up for the holidays that year kept my mother from feeling totally engulfed by her loss. Cleaning, decorating, and cooking helped fill the unspeakable void while she made Christmas for the rest of us. Over the past five years, dementia has devoured that resourceful mother of mine, but only in recent months have I found the courage, and the words, to admit how much I miss the nurturing that only a mother can give.

And I know, now, that all the ridiculous furniture polishing and towel washing — my flurry of domestic fuss last week — was a way of mothering myself. Following Mom’s old example, I was cleaning for comfort and trying to recreate a lost sense of order. A memory of holidays long past.  – Cindy La Ferle  

–Original collage detail above: “Gathering In,” by Cindy La Ferle–

 

Our lady of letting go

A crisis is a holy summons to cross a threshold. It involves both a leaving behind and a stepping toward, a separation and an opportunity.” – Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits

As every frequent flyer knows, airline passengers are required to perform a series of rituals before the aircraft takes off. Your seat must be in its upright position; the seat belt fastened securely. The tray in front of you must be locked firmly in place.

Likewise, freshman orientation weekend prepares students for college – and is a major rite of passage for their parents.

The University of Notre Dame is just a three-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in suburban Detroit. But when Doug and I left Nate there to begin his freshman year in 2004, it seemed as if we were launching our only child to Jupiter.

As the orientation program kicked off on that hot August weekend, flocks of Notre Dame freshmen were herded off to other parts of campus for their introduction to university life. Parents were corralled inside the Joyce Center Fieldhouse for a series of pep talks on the importance of giving children “roots and wings.”

The Joyce Center is cavernous, and I suddenly felt like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Fighting tears, I bolted to the nearest restroom and locked myself in a toilet stall to indulge in a private meltdown — a meltdown that must have been waiting to erupt from the moment we’d packed the car that morning. Remembering that Doug was waiting for me, I managed to leave the restroom in time to catch most of the introductory speech.

As we took our seats, one of the deans was already reminding parents not to panic if our kids called home sounding lonely or homesick.  Or if days stretched into a week and we didn’t hear from them at all. Our children were standing “at the threshold of opportunity,” and they would adjust and thrive, he promised. In other words, helicopter parenting was not encouraged.

Our role in this tender rite of passage was to let go of our children.”

Next, a woman in a crisp linen business suit stepped up to the lectern and reminded all parents to exit the campus at the conclusion of the orientation program. At that point, she said, the Notre Dame marching band would give us a rousing sendoff as we headed back to the parking lot.  We were advised to say our good-byes quickly and cheerfully. No tears, no drama, no clinging. Our role in this tender rite of passage was to let go of our children.

Easy for her to say.

Like many mothers, I’d often sought advice in the pages of childcare guides and parenting magazines. But as Karen Coburn and Madge Treeger remind us in Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years (Perennial), once our kids head off to college, “there are no Dr. Spocks to reassure us.”  We’re on our own.

Watching Nate survey the campus — his new home for the next four years — I recalled an early memory of a wiry little guy who often begged to escape the boundaries of our suburban Detroit back yard. And it occurred to me that I’d always fostered his keen sense of adventure, his drive to be independent. Now a six-foot-tall young man with a five o’clock shadow, he was ready to move on.

So, the real question was: What would my days be like without him? While Nate worked on his degree at college, I’d have some homework of my own to do. Now that my starring role as Mom was fading to a cameo, it was time to redesign my life.

Touring several buildings before we left the campus, I drew comfort from the dignified beauty of Notre Dame’s architecture and manicured gardens. And even though I’m not Catholic, I was buoyed by the stunning view of the Sacred Heart Basilica, not far from Nate’s dormitory. I was reminded, too, that “Notre Dame” translates to “Our Lady” — the most celebrated mother in world history. My boy would be in good hands.

And how could anyone feel sad in the midst of so much excitement and pageantry? The whole campus throbbed with youthful energy.  The school fight song blared from every window, and rallying cries of “Go Irish!” echoed across campus.

That afternoon, the sky was postcard blue, and the university’s famous Golden Dome shimmered reassuringly in the late summer sun.  Heading back to our car in the parking lot, I squeezed Doug’s hand and congratulated him for making it through the long weekend. Doug eyed me cautiously, knowing full well that I’d been the one struggling to compose myself. Smiling and dry eyed, I assured him that I knew our son was going to be just fine — and, yes, I’d be just fine, too.

Cindy La Ferle

Photographs of the University of Notre Dame campus and Sacred Heart Basilica by Cindy La Ferle