When Mama is Nana

This piece was published on the Parent.co Web site this week. It’s a piece I love: 

Last fall, my friend spent Tuesdays in a utilitarian meeting room, sitting on a folding chair. The bad part was that “experts” expounded on topics like bonding, sleep patterns, and infant milestones, information she didn’t need since she had already ushered her own children into adulthood. The good part was the other grandmothers in the class, who told each other their stories. Tuesdays also brought paperwork and state mandates and social work regulations. Her new normal—the one she never saw coming—had just landed in her lap.

When her grandchild was born and it was clear the birth-parents could not be the caregivers, my friend— quietly at first—began with texts to the baby’s temporary foster parents in another state. She relished the photos. She would comment on “the sweetest little hands,” which, the next month, turned into “the cutest smile ever.” She sent books and clothes and every age-appropriate toy she could find.

It made sense that she’d be invested in giving this baby the best start she could. After all, she was the baby’s grandmother. I figured her role would be filling in the gaps until “real parents” could be found as soon as the Court ruled the adoption could go forward. Then, I thought, the social worker would consult the list of couples yearning for a baby, and a whole new family—a young family—would be created, and those parents would take over.

I was fooled. Partly because my friend carefully skirted the issue of the baby’s future, and because she’d indulge me in phone conversations that began with my saying things like, “I know this is sad, but there’s a young couple somewhere, just aching to have a baby and soon they’ll have one!” Looking back, only now do I remember her soft silences in response to my enthusiasm. She was probably averting her eyes, too, but I couldn’t see that.

I believed that in her life—as in mine—it would be unthinkable to dive back into the grinding mechanics of caring for an infant 24 hours a day. Much less summoning the reflexes to prevent a 3-year-old from darting into traffic. Or sitting—albeit proudly—in the audience at your kid’s high school graduation when you’re in your 80s.

When she finally told me she was beginning adoption proceedings, I told her all the reasons she was making a terrible, immutable mistake. I warned her that once the baby arrived in her home, no matter how difficult the going got, she would never be able to turn back to her old life—her sane, comfortable, predictable life—with me as her sane, comfortable, predictable friend. “How fair is that?” I asked. Not to her and not to her grandchild. Not when there were prospective (young) parents, waiting so hopefully in the wings.

She approached my logic with statistics, about the numbers of babies who have been rescued by willing grandparents, 2.7 million nationwide. About her distrust of the system the baby would be thrown into, even for a short time, and the damage that could be done. Then she refuted my logic with emotion. The term “grandfamilies” has entered the lexicon. The baby was part of her extended family. The baby was her family.

Her mind was made up, and I was left to look at what my rational arguments said about me. I wanted our two lives to stay on the intended arc we envisioned together, the continuation of everything we’d shared. We always had each other as we parented our young children. Then came the teenagers and the college years. We hosted weddings, then baby showers. Now we were supposed to be free to go out to lunch, learn to play golf, discuss politics, or gossip idly without any interruptions. What about our bucket lists?

It turns out her baby loves eating in restaurants. Watching people go by. Sampling new foods. Playing peek-a-boo with the waiter. I look at my friend, enveloped in all of it. She’ll be called “Nana,” she tells me. The baby is beautiful.

There are all kinds of bucket lists.

 

What Writers Do, Even After a Bad Day

This was just published in The Sunlight Press, in its Artists on Craft Series. For anyone wondering what writers do…
Every year, on January 1st as my friends make their resolutions about losing weight or achieving world peace, I start to dig into my writing. Then February comes, and I feel the need to restart. If I’m honest, I seem to restart once a month or so.

This year is no exception, and my goal of getting at least two pieces out a day is my summer plan. I fashioned a spreadsheet to keep track of my submissions. It is color-coded. Green when I submit; gray if it gets rejected; a brilliant fuchsia when something sells. I get really detailed in the fuchsia spaces, sometimes pasting in the editor’s email, sometimes just letting exclamation marks fly to show myself how delighted I am in my talent. Of course luck and timing play equal parts in the equation, and my spreadsheet bears witness to this, too.

Setting my goal at two pieces a day can seem daunting, even on a morning when I’m raring to go. But I also consider a revision (after a rejection) to count as “a piece.” I write personal essays—stories about my own life—that often merge into the areas of motherhood, education, or family. Rereading one of my essays that has been rejected, I often see where I went wrong. What did I mean to say? Is the reader likely to misunderstand my humor? Is this a piece that just doesn’t go anywhere? It’s amazing how much better writing can get after I’ve gotten a polite “No thanks” from an editor.
I get up insanely early and write for four hours straight. Then during the day, I check my email constantly, hoping to see a first line that says more than: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

For me, writing is as much part of my daily routine as talking to my kids, taking a walk, watching the news in the evening. Still, I seldom write on weekends, and that leads to more energy for Monday morning. For me, early in the morning is my most productive time for getting the words right. To make writing a real and lasting part of your life it makes sense to figure out your own personal rhythm and adjust your creativity to it, not the other way around.

And, of course, you have to be ready for the inevitable bumps that will come your way. Late into the afternoon recently, in the span of five minutes, this is what landed in my inbox:

A terrific website that was considering serializing my memoir got back to me. The editor began with: “I love the stories — I think they’re soulful and honest and funny, beautifully written,” but I’d already scanned down to the last line, which stood alone like a sad little kid left out of a birthday party. “My apologies.”

Two minutes later, another email rejection, full of my least favorite editor-speak: “Thank you for your submission. We’re going to respectfully decline to run it.” Here’s how I translate this one: There will never be a time we will consider your writing, which is just awful, by the way. As you can tell by my tone, which is meant to put as much distance between us as I can humanly muster, do not darken our inbox again.

I had a half-hour reprieve while I reminded myself about that third-place win in the short story contest in 6th grade. Then *bing* an email from my best friend, who helps me edit and shape my words and does it very well. She sent back a draft I had asked her to look over. Her first words: “Hmmm . . . I don’t know about this one.” She went on to give her reasons. They were abundant.

It was a trifecta fail of a writing day. I ate dinner and turned on the news, which, I figured couldn’t be more depressing than my last 12 hours. I slept well. Early this morning when my cat started walking on top of me to remind me it was time for him to eat, I was ready to dive back in and see if there were any emails from nocturnal editors about recent submissions.

 

About The Author

Linda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based freelancer who writes about family, education, and motherhood. She has been published in Newsweek, The Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Parenting Magazine and others. She has recently completed a Memoir, “I Haven’t Got all Day,” and is represented by The Rudy Agency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Are You Looking Up Here?

It took a few years for Uncle Tom to remodel his kitchen. Maybe it was only months (life moved more slowly when I was a kid), but every time we’d visit, there was a tarp hanging somewhere or an open bucket of paint on the floor. Toward the end of the project, the only part that remained in flux was a 3 ft. by 8 ft. space between the top of the Formica cabinets and the ceiling.

My uncle and aunt were unsure what color to paint it, so that space remained naked for months. After a while, in some late night creativity he was known for, Uncle Tom took a thick black marker and wrote on the plaster: “WHY ARE YOU LOOKING UP HERE?”

In my house, that space would have been painted green or yellow an hour after the plaster dried. My parents were more, shall we say, sticklers for the details. I decided I wanted to grow up to be jaunty—like my uncle—to worry less about the way things looked. His house might be a mess (it was always a mess), but who cared when I had so much fun, sitting around the table playing board games with my cousin or helping my aunt make cookies.

By the time I married, had kids, and settled into our first home, I’d succeeded in only half of Uncle Tom’s legacy: I turned out to be a terrible housekeeper. But instead of adopting a C’est la vie attitude like his, I spent precious time wallowing in guilt. The disorganization, the dust balls that emerged from under furniture when the kids ran by, the constant sad state of the bathroom. I could pull plastic containers from the back of the refrigerator and even if there had been a cash prize waiting, could not have identified the contents. Uncle Tom would have giggled at this, maybe made it his opening salvo as company arrived. He might have created a contest for who could name what it used to be. Not me.

Worse than that, I became a first-class phony as soon as I knew company was coming. I’d begin to scrub everything in a days-long attack that bordered on a Silkwood shower for a house. Once this onslaught started, my kids would always chime in: “Who’s coming over?” I’d pretend it was mere coincidence that we were having a dinner party for eight and that I was arranging the cleaning supplies under the sink in alphabetical order.

They didn’t buy it, of course, but I just wasn’t able to let guests see the “real” us. I would think of my uncle often while vacuuming behind furniture or mopping the kitchen floor on my hands and knees hours before that doorbell rang. And as I wiped down every spice in my cabinet or went on a search for the last crumb in the living room, I’d ask myself Why? Would my company think less of me? Refuse to eat? Leave?

My memories of Uncle Tom’s house are the memories I want my guests to come away with. His home had a rosy glow, dust balls and all. No one ever looked for stains on the family room carpet. Or checked the bathroom for grime behind the toilet. I remember games of Spoons and laughing until I couldn’t catch my breath. I remember moments that defined a family. That’s the home I want.

Company is coming tomorrow. There’s something in the refrigerator I can’t identify. I’m not moving it.

Even for homeschoolers, there is no happily ever after

My job was to answer call-in questions that homeschooling parents had. Our company wrote the curriculum, so we were supposed to have all the answers. Math questions outnumbered all others, and I did my best with the Pythagorean Theorem, which was a knot in everyone’s stomach. After a few years on the job, there was nothing I hadn’t heard.

Then I got the call.

“Hello,” the homeschooling mother said in a sweet voice. “I have an 8th grade student using your curriculum, and we have a big problem.”

Even though I feared she was going in the direction of linear functions, which made me sweat a little, I assured her I could help.

“Well,” she began, “The Diary of Anne Frank is part of her literature course.”

“Right,” I said, relieved at a literature question, which I knew I could answer easily, even before my second cup of coffee. “How can I help?”

“Well,” she said—now letting some exasperation rise in her voice—I refuse to let my daughter read this book.’ She paused for a few beats, during which I had no idea what her reason was going to be. Then this: “I only let her read stories with happy endings.”

I knew enough about homeschooling to understand that some parents (not all) homeschool their children precisely to keep them inside their own comfort zones. After all, the world can be scary and unpredictable. All parents crave safety for their kids, and keeping highly edited lessons confined to the kitchen table gives some of them control over what their children are exposed to.

It’s one way to go.

It wasn’t the way I chose with my own public-schooled kids, but there were days I wanted to adopt that course of action and just keep my kids from ever finding out how cruel and rotten the world can be. The first time I took my sons and daughter to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I spent the entire afternoon rethinking my decision. Was it too much? Why did I think they needed to see—much less understand—the blackness that can descend on people’s souls?

I grappled with those questions and often felt envious of the homeschool crowd for not having to make the decisions I was making about my kids’ exposure to this imperfect and hopelessly flawed world of ours. In the end, I chose to tell them. Because it’s the truth, and the truth happened. It happened when my parents tried to explain to me why I was watching people in Birmingham getting hosed down and attacked by police dogs during Civil Rights protests. It did at the World Trade Center. It did at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As parents, it’s our right to shield our children from anything we choose. I didn’t want my kids to be blindsided by the truth—that sometimes there is no happily ever after—that would arrive someday no matter what I tried to shield them from. And I didn’t want that realization to rear its head when I was no longer there to catch them.

For me, my thinking found its permanent home when my daughter, the youngest of my three, was about four and we were watching a TV show fictionalizing colonial America. In one scene, a slave mother was being sold away from her child, a little girl about my daughter’s age. I considered turning it off, as much for me as for her. It was wrenching—the mother pleading, the slave owner ambivalent, the child terrified.

My daughter turned to me and asked, “Did that happen in real life?”

“Yes,” I said.

She thought for a second or two and came up with her own answer, completely logical to her four-year-old sensibilities. “Well, I don’t think it really did.”

I understood her self-made reasoning. She yearned for that same protective shelter that lures lots of us parents, too. That quest for happily ever after. And I didn’t want to tell her the truth that night. But I did.

A Letter to my Neighbor’s Hit-and-Run Driver

Here’s the good news: He lived.

Here’s the bad news: You kept going and got away with it.

Here’s what happened after you sped away: A woman on the way to her post office job saw Tom’s bike on the side of the road. Alarmed, she got out of her car and found him. She called 911. He was airlifted to Christiana Medical Center.

 

Maybe by the next day your hands had stopped shaking. Maybe you confided in someone who has been able to keep your secret.

I’ve always wondered what happened to you after you did this. Did you turn on the news as soon as you got home? Look through the newspaper for days to see if you’d killed the cyclist? Maybe you found the police report and saw that his name was Tom and that he was 38; undoubtedly, you were relieved when it listed the operator and the vehicle as “unknown.”

There are many bad things that have tested Tom and his family since that morning on the side of the road. They are all because of you and what you chose to do. But good has also sprung from what you did, and those things happened in spite of you. You should know all of it.

There were multiple surgeries, and hospital and rehab stays, physical therapy and extensive pain management for Tom well into that fall. There were medical setbacks and more surgeries. He could have died from a resulting staph infection. In the early weeks, I watched the worried faces of his family as they took turns sitting with him and helping him endure months of pain. I listened to his youngest child — who was only three — try to process it all, when she couldn’t begin to understand what had thrown her family into such chaos.

Maybe it’s even more important that you know the good things that have happened. I found that I live in a neighborhood of caring souls who also possess substantial organizational skills. People took turns bringing dinner over and setting up playdates for the two younger kids. The lawn got mowed regularly, and the other life chores that had become burdensome simply got done by others, sometimes anonymously. Along with the struggles, the resilience of a family and the pure goodness of a community got to be in the spotlight. And I will always drive country roads more cautiously, on the lookout for cyclists who may be right around the corner.

Last month, Tom developed an infection at the site of the metal apparatus that was installed to keep his spine straight. He endured more surgery and will need more recuperation time. More worry for his family and a reminder that they may never truly get past that moment your car came up behind him and then drove away.

Maybe by now you’re sure no one will ever find out what you did. Maybe you only think about July 16, 2013, once in a while. When those memories surface, maybe you’re able to wipe them away, only to have them appear in your dreams.

Hit-and-run drivers like you leave so many questions. But there are answers, too. Here they are: After all he’s been through, Tom will heal. And as long as you keep your terrible secret, you never will.

 

Hi, Kid. This is Miss.

My daughter’s favorite story was one she called “Daniel’s Rock.” A far cry from Frosty the Snowman, I could count on being asked to recite it as Christmas approached. I’d begin when she’d picked up the small rock that sat on the southeast corner of my desk and had nestled herself in my lap.

The opening words never changed. “The last time I ever saw Daniel, he gave me this rock and told me about his boxes. It was a long time ago, before you were born.”

Daniel entered my life when I was a teacher. Before entering the room, he leaned against the doorjamb of Room 202, where I taught 5th grade. For a moment, he just eyed all of us. Blond bangs obscured half his face. His sneakers and checkered shirt were too big for him. His jeans had rips in the knees.

He had made his entrance in the school of a quaint lakeside village. Slate walkways, brass mailboxes, Williamsburg-colored shutters.

Daniel told me his last school had been in a neighboring county. “We were doin’ peaches there.” Before that it had been an hour south, he told me matter-of-factly, as if he’d given this little speech plenty of times. “We were doin’ onions then.”

And then, maybe because of all his practice at this, he simply smiled and became — because he had no time to waste — a part of the class. If he saw anyone snicker at his unfortunate wardrobe choices, he did not show it. Until the afternoon kickball game, the boys eyed him suspiciously.

Daniel led off the first inning with a strong kick that earned him an effortless home-run jog around the bases. With that came a modicum of respect.

Next it was Charles’s turn. He listlessly approached the plate. Charles was the least athletic, most overweight child in 5th grade that year. After his second strike and accompanying eye rolls and muffled groans of the class, Daniel edged up and spoke quietly to Charles’s dejected back.

“Forget them, Kid, you can do it.”

Charles warmed, smiled, pulled in his chest and then struck out anyway. But it was that precise moment — oblivious to the social order of this jungle he had just entered — that Daniel gently began to change things. He taught by example only. By November, we would all be gravitating toward him. He taught us how to call a wild turkey. How to tell if fruit was ripe before you bite into it. How to treat each other, even Charles. Especially Charles.

He still didn’t know any of our names. He referred to me as “Miss,” when he needed to. He called every other person in the room “Kid.”

The day before Christmas vacation arrived that year with the class bearing gifts for their teacher. My style never varied much from year to year. I’d open the department store box and spout some effusive appreciation, always worrying that there would be a few kids whose parents couldn’t engage in this ritual.

Daniel stood off to the side, attempting a casual pose. He seemed slightly confused. Neither of us understood why I needed another silk scarf, but I pretended to.

That afternoon, he walked to my desk and bent low, close to my ear so only I would hear him.

“Our boxes came out last night,” he said without emotion. “We’ll be leavin’ soon.”

As I caught on, my eyes filled. He countered the awkward silence by telling me about the collection of boxes his family had accumulated over their years of transience.

“We got them good, sturdy ones,” he told me. “That way you don’t have to go to the liquor store for new ones. That way you’re set.”

A boy of few words, he went on at length until I swallowed hard and regained my composure. Then deliberately, and with great style, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gray rock. He pushed it gently across my desk until it sat directly under my eyes.

Still blinking away tears, I was unsure what exactly I was looking at, although judging from the ceremony involved, I sensed it was something remarkable.

Without moving his eyes from mine, he said, “It’s for you. I found it this morning. I polished it up special.”

And the end of the story was always the same, too. “He’s a grownup now,” I would tell my daughter. Together we wondered aloud where Daniel was, what he looked like, and what kind of a person he became.

It would be years before she realized the story of Daniel’s rock was as much about me as anyone else — the lessons learned by the teacher. From the boy who lived month-to-month out of boxes, who never even knew her name.

“Do the end,” my daughter would say. And she would place the stone in my hand. I touched it gently, just the way it was given to me.

“Hi, Kid.” The same words every year. “This is Miss. Merry Christmas. I hope your boxes are finally gone.”

“Linda, It’s for you.”

On a Sunday afternoon last month, when the world had much bigger thoughts on its mind, I did something long overdue. It dawned on me that there were probably about seven people in America who still didn’t own a smart phone. I was one. The others were Mennonite farmers in rural Kansas.

I’ll admit it. Just the thought of the Verizon store was daunting.

My son-in-law, who — because he was born after 1975 and automatically knows this stuff — kindly offered to go with me and run interference. At first I thought this was the only logical way to go, for two reasons. The older I get and the quicker technology advances, the more I want to put a blanket over my head and hum a Beatles tune when the topic turns to WIFI passwords. Second, my whole life has prepared me to know this about myself: I am defenseless against a deft salesperson. There is a reason that no one who loves me has ever allowed me to sit through a time-share sales pitch where they wine and dine you and pay for your hotel room. It’s because I’d return owning half of Aruba, and we all know it.

As much as my son-in-law’s offer was tempting, I decided to go it alone. Maybe it was a healthy resistance to giving up any of my independence. Maybe it was pure hubris. Anyway, I gave myself a little pep talk in the parking lot and hoped my lips weren’t moving.

The windows of the Verizon store were darkened, but the store was definitely open. I imagined the clerks, probably called Associates or Social Media Specialists. Inside, they’re sizing us up as we approach: “Oh, boy, here comes one who remembers Thin Elvis. Jason, this one is yours. You’re good with the old ladies.” Or something like that.

I was immediately at ease when a middle-aged woman greeted me and took my information. She was even a little chubby in her mom jeans, which I appreciated. Then I took a seat and waited until “my associate” came to help me. He arrived soon, calling out my name in a chirpy, “This will be fun!” voice.

He was 13.

I’m clear on my phone needs, and I want Jason to hear me before puberty sets in and distracts him: I only need a phone with a good camera so I can send pictures of my grandchildren to Facebook, Instagram, and friends, who will sigh kindly when they see the message is from me. I do not actually talk on this phone. I don’t need to play music, or watch Game of Thrones, or get the latest updates on Kylie Jenner, or any of the other stuff phones do these days. I’m aware my voice is too loud and a full octave higher than usual, but I forge ahead.

Jason is a nice boy. As he talks and I have little idea what he’s saying, I keep thinking that his parents did a good job raising him. He only pisses me off once, when he casually tells me to get “the young people” in my family to help me figure out my new purchase, which of course is exactly what I’ll do later that afternoon. He also keeps telling me that mine is a basic model with no bells and whistles. I hear a lot about the bells and whistles of other models during our time together, and I know he is hoping he can sell me the iPhone that most kids in 6th grade now have. No dice, Jason.

In the end, I left the store with a phone that didn’t break the bank, one which I’m hoping to fully understand before 2020.

I try not to do this much, but driving home I kept thinking of how exciting phone calls were once. How the phone would ring downstairs and I’d hear my dad answer and say, “Just a minute please,” and he’d come to the bottom of the stairs and in his deep voice, say: “Linda, it’s for you. It’s a boy.”

I feel good about my new phone. When I get a call or a text now, it makes an adorable little *bing*. It will never take the place of that ring you could hear from every room in the house, or my dad’s soothing voice calling to me, or the excitement of racing down the stairs, not knowing who was on the other end but that it was someone who’d gone to all the trouble of looking up my number and dialing.

*Bing *

Moving on. Growing up. As it should be. I keep telling myself that.