Are You My Mother?

In the classic children’s picture book Are You My Mother? a newly hatched bird falls from its nest and wanders about asking that question of a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a few inanimate objects. He is clueless about his own identity and terribly lost.

You may have been nurtured by a mother possessing all the perfection of Caroline Ingalls or struggled through childhood with a parent who took lessons from Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude. For most people growing up in Mom’s kitchen fell in a more safe and boring middle ground with measured opportunities to learn about yourself and the world. A place where Mom, trusted adults, books, television and other kids helped answer questions whether insignificant or intense.

The maker of peanut butter sandwiches, enforcer of daily tooth brushing, comforter of physical or emotional injuries, was just a woman who happened to be older than you. She wasn’t gifted by the gods with amazing knowledge, a graduate of a secret parenting program, or anywhere near perfect. She didn’t know why 9/11 happened, how to stop social injustice, who to call about global warming. Her job was to make sure you felt loved and protected, often difficult work in an imperfect world.

Discovering that your mother has a masters in labor economics, hides a bag of bodice busters in the closet, holds strong feelings about mutual funds versus annuities, was married before she met your father suggests a richness in this woman’s life that has nothing to do with your existence. This is the school where she learned the mirepoix that flavored every scold, joke or counsel.

Even when the person who mothered you becomes too old or fragile to cook a really good dinner or read a favorite author without help, there will still be unknowns to explore in the woman who taught you to fake burp, to connect cables on a sound system, to ask your boss for more responsibility, to speak in many voices so your child giggles as you read Are You My Mother?.

 

Reprinted from cynthiakraack.com May 9, 2015

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Pomp, Circumstance, and the Power of Possibility

Hearing “Pomp and Circumstance” always makes my eyes water a little. The music cues a range of emotions—often a bittersweet sense of endings and fresh starts and occasionally, inspiration.

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High school graduations carry the most emotional freight.

Between 14 and 18, teenagers learn and change so much in the intense, sometimes toxic, sometimes wonderful environment of high school.

If asked how they feel about leaving high school, many seniors would speak of boredom and escape: Can’t. Wait. To. Get. Out. Of. Here.

Often sadness is also mixed in, especially for students who thrived in high school. Their friends are scattering. The jokes, heartaches, and triumphs they shared in the classroom, on stage, in sports, during study hall, and in the lunchroom will never happen again in quite the same way.

Whether or not they admit it, most graduating seniors are also uncertain about what’s next. They may talk the talk, “I’m going to the U in the fall,” or “I’m looking for work,” or “I’m enlisting,” but deep down they’re scared of the unknown even if they welcome the change.

These emotions are common and expected, but no less important because they are familiar.

Every year, there are people for whom high school graduation means even more.

I recently read about a student in Florida who graduated at the top of his class in 2014, despite being homeless much of his senior year. His mother died of leukemia when he was 6, and he, his father and older brother were frequently homeless. Despite that, he was determined to succeed

I am also reminded of a student at my youngest son’s high school graduation. The evening was stormy, so his class of nearly 900 and their families crammed into the school. My husband and I were exhausted after being up most of the night with my elderly parents, who’d fallen and injured themselves the prior evening.

The gym was hot and we were sweaty. “Pomp and Circumstance” played over and over and over as wave after wave of graduates crossed the stage. I was proud of our son but also preoccupied with my parents’ health. Getting to the “S’s” took a long while. I tried to keep my eyes open.

Shortly after our son got his diploma, a roar went up in the crowd. I focused my grainy eyes to find the source of the commotion. A dark-haired boy who had always used a wheelchair stood up and walked across the stage unassisted. I didn’t know him, but his determination and accomplishment brought tears to my eyes.

These stories have such sweetness and power to inspire. Whenever I hear the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance,” I’m reminded of the power of possibility.

Do-Overs

September 9th 477Picking up flowers for Crystel’s 13th birthday I realized how true it is for me that I live my past through my kids.

I don’t remember my 13th birthday.

I don’t remember my mother ever buying me flowers.

Of course, she had 12 children and buying flowers wasn’t on the top of her grocery list. Even remembering all of the birthdays was challenging for her.

That’s why Antonio and Crystel get a birthday week with a gift each day. It’s my do-over.

Two years ago, Crystel traded in her birthday week for an Amazing Race birthday party complete with clues, drivers, and unknown destinations.

All of us had so much fun that I didn’t even wait for her to ask this year.

I started planning an Amazing Race birthday weekend nine months ahead of time at Briggs Farm in Winona for both Antonio and Crystel. Their birthdays are only six weeks apart. The surprise Mankato Mud Run the next day was declared the highlight of the race by the participants.

Mankato Mud Run

Mankato Mud Run

This upping the ante started when their first tooth came out. It wasn’t a quarter under a pillow. It was a treasure hunt with clues written by the tooth fairy that led to a final gift. Some people warned Jody and I that once you start big you have to keep it going. That never bothered me. I didn’t want to stop. Perhaps I was doing a do-over for the tooth I lost on Christmas Eve one year. I figured that the stuff under my pillow was the same stuff that was in the other kids Christmas sock.

Not to say my mom didn’t try she did.

My favorite birthday was when I was 4 and I got a gun. It wasn’t a real gun but still my four older brothers wanted it and took turns shooting at the target across the room. Finally when they went to school I got to use it. Probably good it wasn’t real because when I did get my hands on a BB gun I shot one of my brothers just above the eye. Later when I was 12 and received a 20 gauge shotgun, I shot the pickup two brothers were sitting in. Accidentally, of course.

As I carry the flower bouquet to the car I think of how some things don’t require a do-over. Guns, for example. I’ll take them to a shooting range for that.

The Makings of an Extraordinary Pie

Photo by Miika Silfverberg - originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

Photo by Miika Silfverberg – originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

It was the sure sign of spring—those first green tufts of rhubarb pushing their way through a patch of the garden that may just a month earlier still have been covered with snow. After seeing the rhubarb, we knew the growing season would soon follow and the garden would once again be full of green and growing things. With their agrarian roots, my parents both tended the garden, but it was my mother who found a use for the rhubarb.

She showed my siblings and me how to tame its tartness by dipping the stalks into a cup of sugar. I imagine that her mother may have shown her this on the Iowa farm where she started her life. Picking the pinkest stalk available, I would dip one end into a cup of sugar so it was completely covered with the miniscule crystals of sweetness, the juice from the cut end of the stalk leaving just enough moisture for the sugar to stick to; I’d bite off the coated end and immediately taste a tart and sweet mixture of flavors that made my mouth pucker in delight.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.53.59 AMOf course, rhubarb is the perfect conduit for sugar, as proven by one bite of my mom’s rhubarb pie, a particular favorite. My mother and I would pick a variety of stalks—the ruby red ones, the ones that were both pink and green, and then a few that were perhaps a little too green. But mixed with flour, sugar, and butter, the mixture would meld together into a tangy, sweet concoction that tasted perfect between the layers of a flaky pie crust.

Admittedly, rhubarb is not the most popular of vegetables. I believe the reason we may have had it was because it was a food that the earth could provide, and in my parents’ upbringing, no food went unused. Even a vegetable that needed a great deal of sugar to make it palatable. Now as I see rhubarb come back in my garden, spring after spring, I am reminded of that some things will always be.

But in truth, I let this harbinger of summer go to waste. I get excited about its growth, but don’t pick the stalks when I should, always thinking that I don’t have enough time for pie or muffins or even a simple rhubarb sauce. Soon their leaves start to turn yellow and their stalks shrivel, as if shaming me. I think of my parents and their disdain for waste. I look at the waning crop and admonish myself to be a better steward of this steadfast plant. Perhaps I should be gentler with myself, remembering that my mother baked pie when she was off from teaching school in the summer and had more time to show me all the steps to baking a pie—from mixing the filling, to rolling out the pie crust, and knowing when the filling was bubbling up just enough to tell us it was done.

***

After my mother had moved out of my childhood home with its massive garden, we went for one last look before the closing sale. Surveying the garden, which was overrun with weeds, I asked my mom, “Do you want anything from the garden?”

“Will you see if there is any rhubarb?” she asks. Sure. And there is, among the stinging nettle, wild daisies, and bindweed. Of course there is rhubarb. There always has been. I gingerly make my way through the weeds and begin breaking stalks off. “How much do you want?” I call up to my mom, who’s watching from the deck. “Oh, I don’t know, a few stalks,” she answers.

I pick a fistful of stalks, and not eager to stop, I get a few more, knowing that this rhubarb, the last that we will pick from this garden, will make an extraordinary pie.

“You can choose to shave. But you have to brush your teeth.”

IMG_3147The day came, two weeks ago, when I had his and her electric and regular razors, cream hair remover, his and her shaving cream – foamy and creamy, post shave balm, and aftershave on the bathroom counter.

His on one side. Hers on the other.

I let the essentials rest there for a few days, wanting to normalize the fact that, yes, 12-year-olds do grow hair and yes, some 12-year-olds would like it to disappear.

I had brought up shaving to Antonio a couple of years ago. I am very cognizant that Antonio is the only male in our house so he often is inundated with information before its time. With Crystel, I wait for a cue.

Our neighbor, Lynda, works at Bella Salon and Spa. It was natural to call and make an appointment for a lip and brow wax for Crystel, brow wax for me, and a lip wax for Jody.

I mean, if it’s a cue, it’s a cue, right?

With Antonio away on a school trip, we made it a girls’ night out.

Antonio had already let me know about how he felt about his mustache. His Uncle Marty was over for a visit, and even though I reminded Antonio a number of times, of what a great opportunity this was (Crystel was away on a school trip), what great timing, how serendipitous, he just couldn’t get a scissors and open the packaging that held his electric shaver and all those cool attachments.

He just dropped his voice as low as he could. “Nope.”

We three girls tried our electric shaver first. Crystel found out very quickly that she didn’t enjoy having her hair pulled and cut by a million tweezers. Soon we were on to the razors, each of us with a leg in the bathtub.

Hmmm. Now, there. There is possibility.

Her choice.

But the brushing of teeth? Nope. That’s not a choice. (Said in a Mom’s voice).