The family paper trail

Earlier this week, a student in my writing workshop read a wonderful essay about working as a newspaper carrier when he was a boy. It brought back a memory of a column I wrote for The Daily Tribune when my son was in high school. I promised I’d post this after our class discussion on nostalgia pieces. Here you go, Jim …

Newspaper careers seem to run in families. My great-great grandfather was a foreign correspondent based in Washington D.C., and while my work isnt nearly as glamorous, I must have inherited his passion for newsprint. And I shouldnt have been surprised this year when my son Nate decided to run for the editorship of his high school newspaper – and won.

DSCN6643Ive always been careful not to push Nate in the direction of my own journalism career, but I discovered early on that printers ink runs in his blood, too. As soon as he turned twelve, the kid begged for his own paper route. His dad and I were ambivalent at first — and secretly relieved to learn that no routes for the local daily were available. But following a major blizzard that winter, Nate got a call with the good news: A route had opened up in our neighborhood. He couldn’t wait to get started.

“I hope you know what you’re getting into,” another parent warned me. “Not only are you writing for the paper, Cindy, but you’ll be delivering it, too.”

Soon after, mile-high stacks of freshly printed newspapers and ad supplements arrived daily on our porch. Rubber bands, plastic bags, and other delivery doodads littered every surface in the house.

In retrospect, I think it was worth the hassle. The smart-alecky seventh-grader got a sharp taste of the business world. He learned that customers expected his product on time, regardless of whether he was late from school or had “tons of math homework.” He discovered that readers were paying for the convenience of home delivery, not for papers tossed in puddles on the sidewalk. He learned the diplomacy required of every bill collector, as well as how to balance accounts when money was due. This was real-life math.

He also found that the biggest challenge for any newspaper carrier is crawling out of bed before sunrise on Sunday mornings – hours before the local pastors have opened their Bibles. Though Nate covered his own route on weekdays, his dad and I helped deliver the bulkier Sunday papers at dawn. Other parents told us we were spoiling the kid by chauffeuring him block to block when we could have been sleeping in, but I never saw it that way.

There was magic in those Sunday mornings. Since Ive never been an early riser, it was a rare gift to watch the sun rise. In the summer, especially, the color show was spectacular – neon streaks of lavender, orange, and gold flashing above scarlet treetops on the suburban skyline. As each bundled newspaper hit its targeted porch, it also struck me that my relationship with this gangly boy had morphed overnight into a tug-of-war between my moody middle age and his stubborn adolescence. His boyhood was ending too quickly.  

“Please… slow… down!” Id holler as he frantically scaled porch steps, two by two, trying to finish the route before 9:00 a.m.

The cheerful camaraderie wed shared in the early grade-school years had recently given way to recurring battles over household messes and Internet use, but during the time we worked the neighborhood route we were back on common ground. If only for an hour or so a week, we were a team again.

To everyones surprise, Nate kept that job for nearly two years, quitting it only because homework and high school commitments had to take priority. It was a learning experience for the whole family. We never rushed home after the last paper was delivered, but made a special ritual of stopping for hot chocolate and hash browns. The rest of the day, and its deadlines, could wait. — Cindy La Ferle, June 21, 2003

A slightly different version of this column was first published in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak) on June 21, 2003, and later reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home.

Becoming a mother-in-law

WeddingFrom the moment she posed for those first high school prom photos on our front porch 10 years ago, I knew Andrea was perfect for my only son, Nate.

Yet I felt a subtle shift in our relationship when the two exchanged wedding vows last fall.

Even in the happiest circumstances, after all, the family dynamic changes when adult children marry. Whether were debating where to spend the holidays or how often to phone the newlyweds, everyone has to adjust or compromise.

In other words, my new supporting role as “mother-in-law” is making me a little nervous.

Googling the term “mother-in-law” last week, I found dozens of websites listing crude mother-in-law jokes and personal blogs describing toxic in-laws from hell. From Joan Rivers, for instance: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.”

Cast as the witch in American family mythology, the stereotypical mother-in-law is blamed for poisoning marriages and spoiling grandkids. No matter what she says or does, shes the proverbial scapegoat at the extended-family dinner table.

Of course, I want to avoid becoming this woman at all costs.

Comfort and counsel

Thankfully, I can revisit my own family tree for positive role models.

When I married 32 years ago, I felt awkward around my husbands mother, whose shy personality was so different from mine. At the time, my own wise mother was quick to remind me that a cozy relationship with ones in-laws rarely evolves overnight.

Early in her marriage, Mom was uncomfortable with my dads mother, Ruby, a dowdy Scottish immigrant and teetotaler. Ruby was the polar opposite of my mothers alcoholic parents, and her brogue was so thick that my mother wished she could hire a translator. Over time, however, Mom learned Rubys language of unconditional love and often turned to her in times of crisis. Serving comfort and counsel with bottomless pots of tea, Ruby provided the maternal stability my mother always lacked.

My new daughter-in-law, Andrea, hails from a happy family with solid Croatian roots, and isnt the sort wholl need Scottish-island wisdom or scone recipes.

Having watched her grow up with Nate through high school and college, Im proud of the capable young woman shes become.

Given such a blessing, who wouldnt strive to be the worlds best mother-in-law?

New family values

Nate reminds me that Im “over-thinking” this phase of parenthood — a habit I can blame on my former career as a family columnist. Even so, if hes lucky enough to be a father someday, hell find that letting go of ones children is the trickiest step to learn in the circle-dance of life.

All said and done, most of us have watched enough Dr. Phil to know we shouldnt meddle in the lives of our married children, and we know that our new extended family is likely to bring different customs to the table.

But I believe the rest is up to each of us: We decide how much love and effort to invest in our key relationships.

Meanwhile, I want my new daughter-in-law to know that Ill never compete for my sons attention; Ill do my best to respect her boundaries.  Yet I want to be at the top of her list of women she can count on. And as our familys future unfolds, I hope shell turn to me whether she needs a book recommendation or a babysitter — or someone who will listen with an open heart.

This column was first published last year in Michigan Prime.

Home is here, now

So I’ll try to see into your eyes right now, and stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days.” — Carly Simon, “Anticipation”

Thanksgiving2My grown son, who’s married and lives in Chicago, is back in town with his wife for a friend’s wedding. It’s a short weekend visit, but I plan to enjoy every minute of it.

This morning I recalled an earlier autumn homecoming, nine years ago, when Nate first left the state for college. As a brand-new empty nester, Id been anticipating his fall break and return home. I looked forward to being Mom again, if only for a few days.

Two weeks earlier, I channeled my inner June Cleaver and planned a week’s worth of family meals and favorite snacks. I reorganized my work deadlines, freeing extra time to take him out for lunch at his former haunts. My husband repaired the plaster damage from a roof leak in Nates bedroom, and then repainted it.

As soon as our son walked in the side door, the truth hit home: What the kid really needed was a low-key week. Stressed-out from exams, Nate wasnt expecting a fanfare or fancy dinners. Hed been looking forward to sleeping in and simply hanging out with family and friends. In my efforts to turn his visit into a special event, Id forgotten that my son didnt want to feel like a guest in his own home.

Realizing my error, I released my grip and let the week unfurl without a plan.

In retrospect, the high points of that first break were the times we ran a few mundane errands together. Driving around town, between trips to the dry cleaner and the drugstore, we chatted about Nates classes, his new friends in the dorm, and the music he was listening to then. College was turning my snarky adolescent boy into a thoughtful young man — and I found myself enjoying his company.

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More than wrinkles and gray hair, our kids never fail to remind us of our own aging.  Overnight, they morph from preschoolers in OshKosh overalls to college students in size 12 running shoes. Letting go also requires that we accept the fact that time isnt standing still for any of us.

Its a sobering thought — and ever more poignant when autumn leaves start to scatter across our doorstep.

Earlier this fall, for instance, I watched from a distance while the neighborhood teens posed for homecoming photographs in their formalwear. Giddy with anticipation, the girls could barely stand still while a group of proud parents focused their cameras. The boys struggled to look comfortable in freshly pressed suits and ties. Their youthful beauty took my breath away, and my heart ached a little.

It occurred to me then that my days of snapping photos of prom gowns and homecoming suits were over. And I wondered: Had I fully experienced those moments, or simply captured them on film to savor later? How often had I dashed mindlessly from one “special” event to the next?

Recalling the lyrics to Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” I’m struck by the fact that our “good old days” are unfolding right here and right now. But we have to slow down long enough to appreciate them.

Its a worthy thought to ponder before the onset of the winter holidays – before all of us get tangled up in holiday lights and lists, decorating marathons, and long lines at the malls.

In anticipation of Thanksgiving, Im adding all things beautifully mundane and uneventful to my gratitude list.  Im counting my commonplace blessings — the bowl of red apples on the kitchen counter; the mischievous cat chasing the pens on my desk; a pot of vegetable soup simmering in my slow cooker; a weekend visit with my son and his wife.

This season Ill practice coming home to the present moment, to the grace of ordinary days on my calendar.

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 Ive 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 Im 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. Id 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 wed ordered, which had been delayed in production. To him, the days werent 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 Im still trying to wrap my mind around that idea, too. Weve been shopping for colleges since May, and applications will be mailed soon.

Just one more year.

Another mom, whose only child is my sons 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, theres the sweet ring of freedom in all of this, too. Dont think it hasnt 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, Ive put a few dreams on hold, not to mention the career goals Ive filed away. Ive looked forward to the time when I can start my day without checking the school calendar. But Ill miss other aspects of having a kid in school. Ill miss the sense of community Ive felt while comparing notes with other parents; Ill miss all the Mothers Club meetings and school conferences. And Ill 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 Ive known these kids since they were small, it had been a while since wed 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 Ive enjoyed the easy laughter and awesome energy of these kids. And Im excited about this next phase of their lives.

But whether they head for Notre Dame or Michigan State next fall, Im 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 Id 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 didnt 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.