Category Archives: family life

a heart-felt holiday

A repost from December 2009. It’s worth it.

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Having neither spectacular accomplishments nor grave misfortunes to report, and, to be honest, having exhausted the vein of humorous family anecdotes over the years, I will tell you instead that we are all well and fine, and hope that you are too.

Instead of Srajek family details, which are really much the same as any other family’s day-to-day lives, I offer this story about something that happened to us this time last year, at the start of a long Midwest winter.

In our local paper there used to be a kid’s feature called “Letters to the Editor,” where school kids responded to a question from the editor, and then some responses from each school got published.  One week last December, Jacob’s answer to the question “What is the top item on your Christmas list this year?” turned up in the paper.  He wrote that since he wanted to be a carpenter when he grew up, he had “always wanted” a carpenter’s plane.

If he didn’t get that, the number two thing on the list was “lots of nice building wood,” a response that makes him sound quainter and less electronically minded than he really is, but, well, he was probably writing what he knew had the best chance of getting published (they’re never too young to play to the crowd).

About a week after his response appeared in the paper, we received a letter in the mail from a woman we did not know. She apologized if we were not the parents of Jacob Srajek, said that she had looked us up in the phone book, and she hoped her writing was not an imposition to us.  A clipping of Jacob’s letter was neatly taped to the corner of her own letter, which was printed on paper with a decorative floral border.
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Some Useful Lies About Raising Boys

A professor I knew used to begin one of his classes by saying, “Everything I’m going to tell you is a lie.  But it’s a helpful lie.”  Today’s post contains a very short poem (just a quote, really), and two useful lies about raising boys: 1) you cannot raise boys without weaponry, and 2) you cannot raise boys without meat.

Maybe this counts as one lie with two parts; I’m not sure.  And just to be clear, the weaponry and the meat are for the boys, not you, though weapons would come in handy, particularly anything with a trapping device.  I feel strongly that even if these two things are not true, someone needs to stand up for them because they seem to cause a lot of pressure and anxiety for parents who frankly, have more than enough to go around.  My advice to people who are fighting the battles of guns vs. no guns, and/or meat vs. no meat is this: give up immediately.  There are so many more important things to worry about, such as why there is never any dirty underwear in your sons’ laundry.

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A Friend is a Friend

For Sir at 74. Simply the best.

When I was a teenager and first allowed to “date,” that meant a boy could enter the first floor of our home and sit on the couch in the family room. My father would sit on the couch in the adjacent living room, keeping us in his direct line of sight. If my “date” and I moved to another part of the family room, my dad would correspondingly move to another part of the living room. It was like a bad chess match.

In high school I had a steady boyfriend who lived a few blocks away. One Sunday, I told my parents I was going to church and drove over to his house instead, leaving the car parked in plain sight in his driveway. My dad, an avid runner, jogged by the house, unbeknownst to me. When I got home, he asked me how church was. “Great!” I said. “Who said the Mass?” “Father David.” “How was the homily?” “Great!” “What was the gospel reading?” “Something from Paul, I think.” And on and on, while my brother and sister sat on the stairs cringing with their hands over their mouths and thinking, “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

In my 20’s I often described my adolescence as “embattled.” I honestly don’t know if it was worse for me or my father.

Everything I know about work, I learned from my dad. I remember his graduation from law school, something he did at night while working at an insurance company during the day. My father’s work ethic (he’s a Super Lawyer, and yes, that’s a real thing) was one of the main things that helped me finish my own dissertation. My work life started with a paper route, which I hated because it required physical activity and waking up early, two things I prefer to avoid. I worked at the public library, the town deli, the local newspaper, a garden center, several restaurants, in many, many offices as a temp, and for several summers, in my dad’s law office, typing letters from a tiny Dictaphone that played his voice in my ear for hours a day. His secretary was 87, had purple hair, chain-smoked, and never treated me like the boss’s daughter. I loved it.

On my way to his office in Union, NJ one morning, my 1973 yellow VW Beetle was rear-ended on an off ramp on the Garden State Parkway. My dad happened to be about a mile behind me, and stopped to help me deal with the other driver, the police and the tow truck. Then he gave me a ride to work. And that’s pretty much how it’s been my whole life: him being there, watching, guiding, helping, and giving me a ride when I’ve been stuck on the side of the road.

At the end of my sophomore year at Villanova, my dad came down to get me. He must have followed my roommate Caryl and me back to New Jersey because she was driving an old VW Rabbit and he was probably afraid we wouldn’t make it the whole way. He paid for each of our tolls on the PA Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. She told me later, “I remember thinking that I wanted to marry someone just like that.”

In the last three years, I’ve been both literally and figuratively run over, plowed into, broken down in traffic, and stuck on the side of the road on a regular basis. Every traumatic, depressing, ridiculous, stupid, hard thing that will have happened in my life so far seems to have happened consecutively in the past three years. Much of it has been my fault. Mile after mile, my dad has been there, reminding me over and over that there is always an end in sight, that legal obstacles can be overcome, family heartbreak endured, basements unflooded, houses sold, depression lifted, persistence rewarded, prayers answered, and that I can, in fact, keep going. And he’s given me more than my fair share of rides.

Recently, I thanked my dad for something he’d done for me and he said, “That’s what friends are for.” My siblings and I were given more than most–family vacations, college educations, weddings, magical Christmases–but we also knew that we worked for what we wanted, and that when we turned 18, my dad was done. We didn’t grow up like little princesses or princes, and I have never once had the feeling that “Mommy and Daddy” would take care of me if something went wrong. That has made my father’s stalwart presence during these past few years of turmoil so unutterably valuable. I don’t even want to imagine where I’d be without him.

My most precious possession is the Roget’s Thesaurus that belonged to my father when he was in college. It’s dusty and some of the pages are falling out. Perhaps someday it will help me find the words to convey all that he means to me.

In lieu of a poem (because he doesn’t read those anyway), here are two of my favorite songs about friendship: Pete Townshend’s “A Friend is a Friend,” and the Beatles, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” In Pete’s famous words, “A friend is a friend, nothing can change that/Arguments, squabbles can’t break the contract/That each of you makes to the death, to the end/Deliver your future into the hands of your friend.”

Happy Birthday, Sir. I hope it’s a good one. You sure deserve it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The People We’ve Been Given to Love

For Senior, 73 and just getting better

A close friend often uses the phrase, “the people we’ve been given to love” when he talks about the relationships in his life. He’s mostly talking about his family; his wife of many years, his adult daughters, and he’s often talking about how hard he has to work to be present with whatever is happening in these sometimes difficult relationships. It’s sort of a real-life twist on the lame-ass sentiment that you choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family.

The more mystical among us may believe that we do choose our parents. Regardless, we can’t deny how much we are shaped by our parents, and by the legacies that they themselves carry.

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. It is no exaggeration to say that as hard as these past two years have been for me, they have been just as hard on her. It is also no exaggeration to say that without her, I might not have survived.

After my nightmarish DUI, when I could barely scrape enough of myself off the floor to pick up the phone, she was the first one who said, “Do you want me to come?” And although she hates to travel alone, and despite the imposition on her life in general, she came. She’d planned to stay for a few days, and she did, driving me to doctors, lawyers, treatment clinics, sitting in waiting rooms, reading on her Nook or knitting. Trying to get me to eat. Trying to tell me how to get the shambles of my life in order.

handsWhen it became clear that this was not going to be the work of a few days, she said, “Do you want me to stay?” And even though we were driving each other insane, even though I knew she wanted to go home, I said, “yes.” So she stayed.

We sat on my couch together one evening watching “Bridesmaids” on my crappy laptop which she couldn’t hear, and she kept asking me to repeat each line of the movie. I could hardly bear to be sitting up straight, could hardly tolerate being in my own skin, and I wanted to suffocate her with a couch pillow. When the movie was over, she sat on me, the way Melissa McCarthy sits on Kristen Wiig when she is lying, greasy and depressed, on her mother’s couch, and slaps her around to force her to “fight for her crappy life.” My mother sat on me, in her nightgown, and told me that I had to fight for my life, for the life that was in pieces around me. Crying and laughing and crying, I promised her that I would.

When I was enduring (or more accurately, when my parents and I were enduring) what felt to me like a rather embattled adolescence and early adulthood, there were stretches when we could barely tolerate each other. My father adopted the role of peacemaker, telling me over and over and over that “she only says these things because she loves you. She only does this because she cares.” I wanted to reach through the phone and hit him.

guadianangelToday, 25 years later, we still have conversations like that every now and then, but I am deeply–down in my bones deeply–aware that she doesn’t only do and say what she does because she loves me. She does it because she is the kind of person who, no matter what, will always come down on the side of the angels. She can’t do it any other way.

After my accident, I asked her not to tell my brother or sister because I was so humiliated. I knew I couldn’t tell them, and I knew I didn’t want them to know. The next day, in the car on the way to yet another appointment she said, “I did something you’re going to be angry about and I’m sorry. But I told your brother and sister about the accident because they are your family and families need to stick together. They want to do anything they can to support you.”

I looked out of my window, still barely able to focus my eyes on anything, and I felt the tears on my cheeks. “Thank you,” I said.

On the side of the angels.

Below is one of my favorite birthday poems, even though it’s not a straight up birthday poem (and even though my mother hates birds). It’s by the 19th-century British poet Christina Rossetti, and I’m sharing it with this post for this reason:  my mother’s presence during one of the worst periods of my life made it possible for me to have what this poem describes.  A new life, a singing heart, and love. She gave all of this to me once, 48 years ago, and then she gave it all back to me again.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

With all love,

Junior


A Birthday

by Christina Rossetti
My heart is like a singing bird
                  Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.
birdsinging

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Filed under family life, gratitude, motherhood, recovery

More on Alligators and Unwilling Self-Exposure

One thing most women of a certain age know is that the search for a bathing suit requires extensive online research (going to an actual shopping establishment is torturous and laughable), along with a potential bank loan to finance the cost of the suit. You have to pay for coverage, slimming and enhancement, and no price is too high.

alligator1A year or two ago, when I knew I had to deal head-on with the burdensome weight problems caused by my anti-nervous-breakdown pills, I suffered through the purchase of two bathing suits. Or bathing costumes, really. They cost approximately $8,000 each. When I went down to visit my parents in FL last month, I knew I’d need them because my son would want to go in the water and I would, against all my desperate longings, have to accompany him.

I forgot the suits at home. Mostly because I packed at 4:00AM on the day of the flight, and my head wasn’t quite right. But I arrived in Naples with a dilemma. I needed a suit, but was highly unwilling to pay the exorbitant fee one involves, nor could I face the trying-on process.  So my mother, who accused me of forgetting my bathing suits at home on purpose, which was ridiculous because they are worth more to me than gold, frog-marched me into Wal-Mart to acquire a bathing garment, along with, I desperately hoped, a large cover-up.

The first cover-up met with maternal disapproval: “That looks like a shroud!” “Perfect,” I thought, and tossed it into the cart. As far as the bathing garments…suffice to say that when you are looking for something well-cut and flattering, Wal-Mart is the last place you should even consider going. Unless you are a 16-year-old size 2, it’s best to interpret the old person’s greeting at the door as, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

When it was time to go to the water park, I lathered Gabe up and then retired to the bathroom to squeeze, yank and shove myself into the horrible Wal-Mart bathing garment. On went the shroudish cover-up. And then, in the car, the final humiliation came.

I was wearing sunblock, but as I had not been exposed to sunlight for six Midwestern winter months, I was looking forward to “getting some sun.” “You need a hat, ” my parents said. “The sun is very strong, you need something to keep the sun off your head and face.”

“Absolutely not,” was my first thought, as I have a number of gorgeous and exotic beach hats at home, and could see nothing like them within reach. But no sooner could I turn around when a white GOLF visor was being shoved on my head. A golf visor. A white one. Not even black. I felt like a land manatee in a bad disguise.

When we got to the water park, I slunk into the water with Gabe, and it was actually quite fun, the playfulness, the pleasure he was experiencing. However, out of the corner of my eye I was stealthily watching my father, who seemed to want to capture these moments on film, and I knew without question that if I saw him even reach for his iPhone, I would slap it out of his hand in a heartbeat, right into the 4-foot deep kiddie pool.

alligator2There were no alligators at the water park, but their repulsive, fearless presence from the day before haunted me. People In Florida say, “They are more afraid of you then you are of them. No. No, they are not. (click to watch).

Now, the thing about alligators is that they give occasion to experience a deep, primal fear. Alligators can and will come after you. The bad thoughts in your head about the size of your stomach or thighs will come after you too. But they don’t have to kill you. The time that I spent in the water with Gabe made me feel light and free and playful. My body felt like my body again.

Alligators are a constant reminder of the predatory nature of depression and desperate, panic-ridden thinking. It’s said in research literature about self-development, fear, and growth, that the worst decisions we can make come from the “reptilian” part of our brains. That is our basest level, the one most preoccupied with self-preservation. The poet John Donne said that “When a man is wrapped up in himself he makes a pretty small package.”

My parents, who are tremendously great sports, got in the water also, especially my Dad who took Gabe down the waterslide tons of times. We all went on the lazy river, which was very relaxing, except for the weird 20 year olds with multiple tattoos whose tubes kept bumping into mine. (At public pools you are practically naked at very close proximity to total strangers and this is not okay with me.)

Dad1I had been feeling quite down earlier in the day. Having to “be on,” i.e. go to a water park dressed as an entirely unfamiliar version of myself seemed beyond my comprehension and psychological capacities. But it turned out fine. Seeing Gabe smile and play, and feeling the love and effort of my parents was a type of buoyancy. As I said, my dad went down the water slide over and over with Gabe while I stood on and watched with pleasure and gratitude (and fear of the trips to the chiropractor if I myself went down.)

If love alone could cure any of life’s problems, I would be running marathons and writing novels. But swimming in the kiddie pool with my son was a triumph of love and fortitude that was made possible by the steadfast presence of my parents.

As hard as it can be to even, as Andrew Solomon, author of Depression: the Noonday Demon, says, to take the concept of other people’s suffering on board when one is in its depths, I truly believe that is the only way out. Being aware that there is pain in the world, and that our own suffering gives us something to offer back to others in the “same boat” (or the same inner tube) is what helps us pull each other out. It brings us back to life.Gabepool

 

 

 

The Green Alligator
By Sidi J. Mahtrow

There’s a green alligator.
Lying on the bank out of the water,
His (or her) hide, a bilious green
And as it dries has a certain sheen.

Some would say that’s most un-natural
But I reply that’s colors, factual.
Brought about by being in a water that’s
Filled with chlorophyll bearing plants
And as the gator swims along,
He can’t help but being tagged upon
By those single celled organisms that live there
In the primordial soup we all share.

‘Haps, this is his way
Of disguise from his prey,
But I prefer to believe
He’d much rather have a reprieve
From the pollution
In his watery bouillon
That coats everything large and small
From snout to tail and all.

But as he sleeps along the shore,
Covered by this slime and more,
I wonder if evolution will raise her head
And make all alligators green instead.
Then no one will notice this one apart
From others with the same colorant.

Regardless, it’s best to avoid the alligator, green
Lurking there, grey-black, or some shade in between.
He knows not why you’re there,
But for him, maybe you’ll become the daily fare.

One agator, Two agator, Three
Green alligators neath the tree,

Slipping, sliding, slopping,
Never stopping,
Green gators neath the tree.

Mouth open, teeth, a showing,
Just a grinnin
Green gators neath the tree.

Hides a glowing green
Doesn’t seem so mean,
Green gators neath the tree.

Into the water he’s a slippin
Just a dippin
One green gator’s not neath the tree.

Silent swimmin, easy going
Eyes and nose only showing
Green gator’s gettin close to me.

One agator, Two agator, Three
He’s after m….

Welcome to Florida!

Sidi J. Mahtrow

 

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Filed under depression, family life, happiness, humor

In Which I Write About Jacob’s Accident & Become Famous

As some folks know, Jacob was hit by a car last month while riding his bike to school. The driver didn’t stop (yes, you read that right. Someone hit a child on a bike, knocked him over and kept driving.)  Jacob wasn’t hurt.

It was a very powerful learning experience for all of us.  I wrote a short piece about it for the website ChambanaMoms.com, and it is my Very First Guest Post Ever.  Go here to read it (Mom, that means you have to click on the underlined words).

Happy May Day all!

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10 Things Not to Leave on the Counter for Your Babysitter to See

Hello everyone!  It’s been a while since we’ve visited here and I’ve missed you!  Has it been a busy spring for you so far?  Did you enjoying watching the world becoming green again?  It seemed to happen overnight here in east central Illinois and there was more lushness to take in every morning. 

I hope to have some exciting writing news to share with you soon, and a longer blog post is on the way as well.  In the meantime, below is a little list you may find useful.  (One of the blogging advice articles I read recently said that “readers love lists,” and this one occurred to me as I was rummaging through the area of our kitchen counter that we call “The Bermuda Triangle”). 

[Note:  Not all of these pertain to my kitchen counter; however, I have personally encountered each one of these items, so this is sort of a PSA.]  Feel free to write in with any additions!

10 Things Not to Leave on the Counter For Your Babysitter to See

1.  Bills for therapy. Of any kind.

2. Prescription medications except for antibiotics that have been prescribed for a child, and preferably only for common ailments such as ear infections.

3. OTC medication except Tylenol or ibuprofen, and particularly not anything related to digestion or skin rashes.

4. Naked pictures.  Of anyone.  Not even artistic ones, or ones of you when you were pregnant.

5. Bottles of alcohol, particularly not very large ones that are nearly empty.

6. Report cards with bad grades on them, or any other school communication pertaining to your child unless it has the words “award” or “honors” on it.

7. Bills stamped “Past Due,” and anything with the words “collection agency.”

8. Greeting cards with personal messages inside, especially not those with intimate details about how you plan to celebrate a particular holiday.

9. Laboratory/test results, or any other medical communications, especially not those related to your weight, white blood cell count, or any communicable disease.

10. Self-improvement and/or advice literature of any kind, particularly nothing related to: infidelity, sexuality, addiction, mental illness, divorce, or “raising difficult children.”

If you’d like to send in your ideas for things to add to this list, I’ll post them here!

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