Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reflections on a Year from Hell, Part I

This has been one hell of a year. It began in October when we had to chop down the two maple trees that predated our 125-year-old house. To my mind, the men who came that day and carted off the pieces carted off more then wood.

That we gave the trees away so blithely troubles me now. If we had husbanded the wood, fed it to the house in some way, or at least burned it and did a tribal dance around the roots it might have been an easier year.

Yenny, our Columbian au pair, who we all loved, had left at the end of August, and our new au pair, Angely, was no match for our family. She meant well, but after she let Alec play with wires coming out of a house that had been uninhabited for months, and stared into space as the boys played lance with a rusty pipe we decided to let her go. The decision to chop down the trees was around the same time. They were hollowed out with rot and any good storm might have taken them down along with our house. So, treeless and childcareless life went on for seven weeks.

We were a family in crisis. Alec, our middle child had been having a hard time at home since Dahlia was born (more about this later) and we had sought help from a psychologist. However, the man we worked with was, to put it mildly, not the right man for the job. He had spent most of his career working with violent men. And so he believed that when Alec acted up, all we needed to do was physically restrain him and he would feel secure and become docile as a lamb.

During that time I had a contract at John Hancock that I couldn't pass up. I stayed up late every night and put Dahlia in front of too much TV; I stashed the kids around town like stolen goods; Hadley worked from home so I could get my work done. In an attempt to keep my sanity, I practiced karate, but even this backfired—before Hadley went away for 4 days on business, I passed my purple belt test, but sprained my right thumb in the process. I was a working mother with no childcare, a child in need of serious help, a husband in Texas, a crazy shrink, and a sprained thumb. I ODed on chocolate, but still managed to lose a pound from stress. :)

Our crazy shrink offered to come to the house while Hadley was away on business and restrain Alec. Later that night when I thought about his offer I imagined a maniacal gleam in his eye, and was afraid that he was a psycho. Our clinical relationship went down hill from there very quickly and in short order we were relieved of him, but hopelessly confused about what to do next, and burned from the experience.

The day before Halloween we met our new au pair, an Estonian girl of 19 who had seemed so friendly and sweet via email. All her pictures showed her posed in coy positions that featured only her right side. When she arrived I saw that a full third of her face, the one not shown in photographs, looked as though it had been terribly burned and incompetently grafted.

She did not leave her room the whole time she was with us. She did not get out to explore the town, she did not meet friends, she did not go to au pair meetings. She sat at her computer at her desk in our basement and Skyped with her parents, all day! Oh, and we later found out, she chatted with a boy named Andrew, who she'd met in an online chat room. Outside of cyberspace, she had a hard time making eye contact with people, and never smiled. Though her English was very good, we found communicating with her impossible. And then there was her driving. She had to use the GPS to go two blocks, literally, and crossed the yellow line two times while I was in the car. Still, we tried to make the most of it, perhaps because we were numb.

November saw the light darkening, winter descending and where the kids had played under the trees a few months back, nothing but an unquiet light and a pair of sorry stumps. We traveled to Charleston for a happy event: my youngest sister got married to a man we all adore. Miles and Alec were ring bearers. The boys behaved as beautifully as they were dressed. The wedding was one of those moments when I felt very connected. Connected to my parents and my sisters and in harmony with the kids and my husband. After all, 12 years before, my husband and I had been wed in the exact same spot. There were storm clouds past and future—we had found out that my father would need heart surgery, and we were worried about the Estonian girl in our midst, but none of that mattered. The wedding was wonderful.

Three weeks later we were up in Mt. Tremblant with my in-laws and the Estonian girl for winter break. The boys were in ski camp. Miles who is now quite an experienced skier went off without fear. We worried about Alec. Alec barely knew how to ski. Sometimes he is to flexibility what a shellacked oak board is to a willow twig. Still, he surprised us all. He went off everyday without complaint. What's more, he loved it, AND learned to ski. He ended up skiing more then any of us that week.

Though the boys were having a great time, and it was a nice place for a holiday, the Estonian woman was like an open pustule: she was a sour, taciturn, and unwilling little brat who oozed negativity. But don't get me started. We also found out that my father was not a candidate for the micro-surgery that he had been hoping for. His heart was in very bad shape due to years of atrial fibrillation. And it was covered in plaque so he would need open heart surgery in January. The situation stressed me out and for most of the week I was ill with a stomach bug. The Estonian woman took the baby away from me during the day, so at least I could puke my brains out without the added misery of having to nurse a baby while doing so. But of course that week Dahlia had an ear infection and didn't sleep. So I spent most of my nights on the toilet with terrible abdominal cramps, nursing Dahlia, and fighting severe dehydration to no avail. Good times. Good times!

The week ended with the Estonian pustule telling us that she wanted to try to find a family in Florida. The reason she gave us was that we weren't neat enough for her, and she wanted to move to Florida. We didn't argue with her. We knew she wanted to be close to the man she had met on the internet. And we wanted her away from us too. Especially when we discovered that she had been sending nefarious messages about our sons to this boy in Florida.

One of them read something like this:

Pustule: They don't listen to me anyway.

Pustule's internet boyfrielnd or PIB for short: Why don't you just ignore them.

Pustule: I do ignore them. They're such spoiled brats.

PIB: You should do something to them.

Pustule: What like tie them up?

You get the idea. So, the day before we left the ski resort Dahlia saw the doctor and got on antibiotics for her ears and I got a strong dose of something that made me feel almost human for the first time in a week. H. and I were fuming at the pustule and wanted her out NOW, but we had to wait another week and a half until she was on a plane to Florida.

Incidently, 3 weeks later Cultural Care—the agency who had sent us the pustule and her wire-enabling sister—sent the Pustule back to Estonia. We couldn't give her a reference and neither could anyone from Cultural Care. So she could not be placed with another family. Good effing riddance.

I was hopeful that 2009 was ending. 2010 shimmered beautifully in the near distance, like the road mirages we saw driving back to Boston from Canada with three kids and the pustule. I did not yet know what fun lay in store in the spring.

Work-wise, things were really slow, which was just as well because I had no childcare for January and February. I began to research my novel in earnest and this gave me a sense of purpose other than motherhood. It helped me through the dark winter days. My father pulled through his surgery just fine, though there were minor complications at the time.

After debating whether we should get a new au pair or just quit while we were behind, we chose a 19-year old male au pair from Sweden who plays the trumpet and likes to build miniatures. We eagerly awaited his arrival on February 26th. After 6 months of childcare instability it was my most fervent hope that this tall Swede would really "get" the boys, and that we would be able to relax in the belief that our kids were being well cared for. We also prayed that he would be able to help Alec in ways that we had not been able to yet. Moreover, my husband had gotten a better then anticipated bonus so I was looking forward to being able to write everyday—something that my husband and I had a agreed on, as long as I minded our computer blog at the same time. I was very excited to be able to write. The prospect of regular writing time and decent childcare made me rosy with optimism.

The week before our new au pair came, we had a really wonderful vacation in San Diego, just the 5 of us. We flew in and out of LA and drove to San Diego where Hadley was the key note speaker at a conference of financial planners. Because of his speaker fees we got to stay in a lovely hotel with an ocean view in La Jolla. The weather was mostly wonderful. Hadley had to work a couple of days, but the kids and I had a really great time swimming outdoors, going to Sea World and the Children's Museum. Hadley and I also took them to Legoland, and the zoo. It was so relaxing to have no homework to nag about, no coats to pile on, or housework to do.

During the Believe show at Sea World, we saw a killer whale jump up into the air and grab a pelican in its jaws. The bird lay suddenly limp on the surface of the water. An announcer said, "Ladies and Gentleman, I assure you the whales are very well fed at Sea World. When they engage in this type of activity we pay them no heed. We do not encourage this behavior, but sometimes the whales do this kind of thing for sport."

A week later, we read about a trainer at another Sea World who had been killed by an orca. We loved San Diego, but Sea World was my least favorite for two reasons—I was alone with 3 kids all day in a very crowded park, and the whale show bothered me on many levels. Who do we think we are that we can treat whales like disobedient children? Whales are not children. Whales are whales and I for one can hardly deal with my own children's disobedience let alone enforce some weird code of conduct on another species! Hence, that preventable death at the Florida Sea World. But I digress...

In anycase, despite a couple of mini-melt downs by Alec, the kids were great. We had some nice family time together that week. It was the first time in many many years that we had taken a week away with the kids without a babysitter or set of parents. And based on the experience we will do it again. Towards the end of the vacation we saw my cousin Ethan. Even if Alec didn't look him in the eye or make any sort of conversation, at least he was not disruptive. Dahlia and Miles were very taken by Ethan, and apparently it was mutual, because he later remarked to his mother, my aunt Lise, that they "are such well-behaved children." I love that guy!

Then we drove to LA in our rented SUV. On our way to my sister's house in West LA Alec puked all over himself and the car for the second time during the week, but no one's perfect. Dara and Ofir met us at the curb with a big Glad trash bag and roll of paper towels and we loaded up their washing machines. It was great to see them, but the fact that we didn't scare them off becoming parents is a testament to biological hard wiring.

During our brief stay with them, Dahlia terrorized their little dog with her toddler love; Alec hacked the shrubs in their garden; and Miles spent the night at their house and in all probability wet the couch.

All told, truly a good vacation. Even the flight back to Boston got us back to Boston in better shape than we'd been when we left.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Broken Things

No hot water and no heat again.
The radiators are solidly useless, dead.
No water to bath the children
Or shower off the mud and stress.
Mold threatens the basement walls
As the flood recedes
Leaving broken things in its wake.
Cold, rain, chaos.

But the mice come back in their kayaks,
Or however they survive,
Better than we.

I take a loaf out of the freezer to thaw
(And go to sleep under blankets, four to a bed.)

In the night, mice savage the loaf,
Gnaw right through the bag.
No bread for the children’s lunches.
No heat and hot water again.

The sky is slate, rain-chalked, wet,
Cold, gauzed in gray.

I lay things out
On the sodden earth and hope they dry
But they do not,
And I pitch them.
One day, is all it takes
to fill a dumpster big as a whale.
No heat and hot water again.
Cold, rain, chaos.

Then the sun comes out
And dries us out.
It warms us up
And the heat comes back.
Not as needed on a warm spring day,
But isn’t that always how things come?

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Language is tough. Especially when you're almost two and you want your Elmo doll, but your mother mistakenly tries to put you in an Elmo diaper, brush your teeth with an Elmo toothbrush, or put Elmo panties on you. Because, let's face it, "I want Elmo!" could mean all those things.

"No" is another one of those tricky little phrases. It can mean No way jose! Over my dead body! Or it can be a verbal tic common to toddlers the world over. Knowing which one can only be discerned by risking a tantrum.

Other endearing little vocabulary lapses include the classing of all bodily fluids under the past particilple pooped. For example, instead of saying, "Mommy I have to piss like a race horse!" My daughter will say, much more charmingly, "I pooped," which means she has to pee and or poop, or she just wants to sit on the toilet and look at an Elmo book. When she is noticeably upset and she says, "I pooped," it generally means she has gone in her pants. The latter definition is becoming archaic thank God!

Dahlia also, quite logically, classifies all substances placed into her mouth as "eat.' "I want to eat" may mean that she is ravenously hungry or that she is dry as Texas in August. So I offer her something to eat or drink each time. And sometimes, the wrong answer gets thrown clear across the room. So watch out for that sippy cup!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Kitchen Counter As Potty

Dahlia has some new favorite hangouts in our house. Number one among these is probably the kitchen counter. How I got into this habit, I'm not sure. Like most parental mistakes, they happen inadvertently.

She puts on her cutest face and says, "Hug?" To which it is nearly impossible to resist picking her up. But I can't stay in the hug position forever, and because I am a very busy woman, I placate her by placing her right next to me while I make lunches, cook dinner, etc.

Dahlia, who is eerily intelligent for an 18-month-old has made the logical connection that if she's perched upon the kitchen counter, while I'm in the kitchen, that I won't leave her side. She knows that if I take her down it's usually because I have business elsewhere, and she may not be included in said business.

There are interesting things to do up there. She can play with the coffee maker, grab bananas and persimmons, play with the cyclamen or the toaster, and most importantly It keeps me close. But it presents problems when I have to use sharp objects or turn the stove on, or do anything that isn't 3 feet from the counter.

It also is problematic when she takes her diaper off as she has begun to do. On Tuesday, for example, she disrobed with a little help from Miles, and asked for a hug. I hugged her and placed her, happy as can be, buck naked on the kitchen counter. She promptly rewarded me by saying, "Poopy" and leaving a turd the size of a persimmon. I whisked her and the majority of the turd (wrapped in paper towel) right off to the bathroom, leaving the rest of the mess for later. In the bathroom I said, "Bye bye poopy!" and flushed it down, and within seconds, Dahlia was sitting on her potty, which I'd dragged to the kitchen, looking adorable and confused, while I scooped the rest of the poop and disinfected the counter with two kinds of kitchen spray.

Seeing that I might make a run for it, and leave the room for a moment, Dahlia said, "up" meaning that she wanted me to put her and her potty on the counter. I obliged, and she went pee-pee and poo-poopy inside the potty. And I was very happy and proud of Dahlia. All those readings of Once Upon a Potty are paying off!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Where Has the Time Gone?

August, September, October, November. Well, it really has been a very busy period, one day just swept away the next. In that time we've been through 3 au pairs from Yenny to Angely to Triin. My work has been in major flux, Miles and Alec finished summer camp at a ritzy pre-prep school near our house; Miles started third grade; Alec started kindergarden. Dahlia has been picking up a very sophisticated lexicon and a serious sweet tooth. We've had construction in the house, Hadley traveled for business; the seasons switched, we had to chop down our two big maples, well actually we paid two men and a crane to do that; My parents and Hadley's parents have visited and gone, visited and gone; there have been ER visits, minor injuries for each of us, and all in all there has been no time to breath or write or read or sleep.

But hopefully now that we have a new au pair who I pray will be with us at least a year, I can get back to blogging here at least once a week.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ta Ta Thomas the Tank Engine

A man came to our house this morning to look at the trains that the boys have cast off. He stood on our porch and stood and stood, waiting for me to reduce the price...

For years my boys played with little else. Gordon, Thomas, James, Henry and all their locomotive consorts were on their tongues, the way children of missionaries must know the characters in the bible.

Shortly before Miles, our eldest, turned 2 my parents bought him a train set and my father and husband assembled the table, after which I lovingly set up the tracks and we waited for Miles to play. We waited with the hushed silence of parents anticipating some great developmental leap on the part of their child. But at two, Miles didn't yet know what to do with them.

The train table stood in his room, a beacon of things to come. As he got closer to 3 he spent more and more time at his trains, but still they derailed too easily and he needed constant supervision to play with them or he'd be reduced to tears and shrieks of frustration within seconds.

Enter Thomas the Tank Engine.

About the time he started nursery school we let him watch Thomas on TV, and the stories captivated Miles, as they do so many boys and girls. Once he had those stories and their characters in his little mind his play with the trains literally took off. Over the next two and a half years Miles played with them constantly and collected them train by train. He'd sit at the kitchen table pouring over the Thomas catalog with longing.

Seeing Miles's fascination, Alec loved them well before his second birthday. He would yank the tracks out from under trains like a little earthquake, the tracks that Miles or I had artfully set up. If frustration were a commodity that we could have sold, we'd be rich as Croesus. The boys would bicker over who got to play with James, or Diesel 10. To remedy this situation we or my parents would buy another James, but it was never enough. Even then, the boys would fight over the one thing that they didn't both possess--whatever that was.

Time passed. The train table lost a leg from all the rough and tumble. Miles started first grade. There were other more exciting toys. Though Alec was still in his prime Thomas playing years, Miles minced no words in telling Alec that Thomas was for babies. And of course Alec believed him. The trains sat and sat--sad extras from the movie Toy Story.

I got pregnant with Dahlia and serious nesting set in. We finished the basement to have extra playspace, but the trains just seemed to be in the way. So I dumped them unceremoniously in a mass grave of a Rubbermaid container and put them in a closet under the basement stairs. It was my hope that I could bring them out in a blizzard for a great day of play. And I did, but the boys were bored with them. They chose to make snow angels and play Wii instead. Then I knew that Thomas's day had come and gone in our house.

When I placed an ad on Craig's list, I was not expecting the overwhelming response I received. I got over 20 emails from people expressing interest--new members of the Thomas cult, wanting all the religious paraphernalia I possessed. Or just parents hoping to make their little darlings happy without paying full price. the man stood and stood on our porch. But I didn't come down in price. I didn't have to. There were others lined up to buy them if he didn't. The man knew this. He pulled a wad of clean bills from his chinos and counted them off. "This will be a christmas present for my little boy," he said. A christmas present in July.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mea Culpa: Or Confessions of a Guilt-Ridden Mama

The boys are up in Canada with their grandparents. And I am in a confessional mood this morning.

Here are my confessions:

1. It is partially my fault that the boys' trip to Ottawa with their grandmother took 12 hours instead of 2, because I didn't know that I could print the boarding passes instead of just the itineraries. Thus their seats were given to others while we waited for Natalie to arrive on her weather-delayed flight.

2. Alec didn't have a bag of things to do on the plane because he didn't pack one, and I didn't feel like packing one for him either because I assumed that Natalie would tell him stories on the short hour flight.

3. Last week I was on the toilet and Dahlia wandered out of the bathroom. The door to the basement had been shut when I went to do my business, but one of her brothers subsequently left it open and she decided to visit her brothers, but she can't fly or go down the stairs without help, and when I found her she was a crying heap at the bottom. And I was sure she'd broken her neck.

4. I picked her up despite a warning in my head that she may have a spinal injury. I picked her up and ran upstairs to call the pediatrician. She stopped crying in a minute or so. The pediatrician's aid said,
"Are the basement stairs carpeted?" Check.
"Can she move her arms and legs?" Check.
"Does she have any noticeable bumps or bruises on her head" No. Check.
"Did she lose consciousness?" No. Check.
"Ok, then just watch her. If she acts any different or throws up bring her in."

5. Then I went to work. I had to. I told Yenny to call me if Dahlia did anything different. I told her to check on her during her nap and not to let her sleep more than an hour. I told her to watch her like a hawk. And then I got in my Camry and drove away.

Epilogue: Thank goodness Dahlia was okay. No harm no foul. And the boys and their grandmother made it to Ottawa in one piece. But I like to think I've learned my lesson, then again, I'm not sure what lesson that is. Perhaps the moral of the story is to get off my keister even if my butt is in a sling.