The "P" word and my Wii (A Mother's Day Remembrance)

It was Christmas morning from a more innocent era.  I stood at the kitchen sink, chiseling off the last bits of caramelized sugar goo from our well-loved Bundt pan.  I exhaled into the quiet lull of post monkey bread munching and wrapping paper revelry.  My husband was upstairs, out of commission with the flu.  While he would be no help for the next forty-eight hours, I had him to thank for the quiet.  Before he began his hibernation, he graciously connected the coveted “big gift,” of the year.  “FINALLY!”  All three of our kids shouted in unison as they opened the package, “FINALLY WE HAVE THE WII!”

I had dug in my heels for two years and said “no,” to this hijacker of all meaningful family time. Raising disconnected digital zombie gamers was not my vision of good parenting.  We would be a creative home filled with music and books.  Our children would be engaged by hiking, venturing to children’s concerts and science museums, and watching fringy foreign independent children’s films.  Sure this whole video game thing might start with an innocent game of Wonder Pets, but it was a slippery slope to full out shouting and cursing at Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. 

But by the time our oldest was nine, I was an island of dissent.  My husband did not see the purchase of the Wii as an irreversible move to the dark side.  And so, I finally caved to the near daily whining mantra of “ALL of our friends have the Wii and NOBODY wants to come to our house for play dates.”  I agreed to allow this device into our home with the stipulation that there be no killing or being killed games attached to it.  Sports, Adventure, Puzzle games—all good.  So, I sold the soul of my higher self to Best Buy and gave in to family and societal pressure.

As I finished up the morning dishes, I had to admit our three were truly getting along.  They showed great maturity and set their own parameters for time limits and taking turns.  They all enthusiastically promised not to argue or fight with each other.  I sighed as I thought about the next few days as a solo parent.  I felt a tug in my heart as I realized that the Wii would be the gift that saved this Christmas. 

But no sooner had I forgiven myself for this lazy parenting decision, when I heard trouble brewing in the living room.  While I couldn’t quite make out the conversation over my dish scrubbing, the dispute seemed to center around the fact that our daughter, five, was not quite up to speed on how to operate the controller she held in her hand.  Our boys were clearly skilled veterans having been to many friends’ homes with multiple gaming systems.  She was a newbie and by her frustrated, worried tone was clearly feeling pressured.  I tried to let them work it out, but I could hear their voices rising and the intensity increasing.

From my daughter, “What? What!  It’s not working!”

Then from nine year old, “Oh come on, Pus-A! Pus-A!”

I nearly dropped my spatula.  What was THAT?  I must not have heard him right.  I turned off the water. 

But his assaultive tone continued, “Pus-APus-A!”

I knew it!  I should have trusted myself.  Video games.  This is what happens when little kids get hooked on screen endorphins.  They lose all sense of who and where they are.

If this were a soccer game I would have taken out a RED CARD.  He wasn’t just using foul language, he was denigrating our daughter and had somehow found a way to put his own cavalier spin on the word by putting an accent on the second syllable—Pus-A!  Where did he pick that up?  Probably from another kid playing a killing, cursing game on a play date.  

I dashed into the living room.  The little one stood staring at the screen, clicking and shaking the remote and the middle one sat watching, patiently waiting his turn on the couch.  By all accounts they didn’t hear any questionable word.  I pointed at the big one and told him to come into the kitchen right now.  I was stunned.  How could it be that our sweet, thoughtful, rule following, cannot tell a lie, oldest child was using this language? 

“What are you saying in there?” I whispered so as not to get the attention of the younger ones.  “That word is totally inappropriate.  Not just inappropriate, it is so disrespectful to women.  Did someone say this at school?  I hope you don’t have any friends who are talking this way!”

Our son was visibly shaken.  Clearly, I had called him out.  He looked at me with his earnest chocolate brown eyes, filling with tears, his bottom lip quivering.   He asked me, his front teeth missing and sounding like the innocent kid I thought he was, “what did I say Mommy?  I didn’t say anything inappropriate!”  

OK.  I think to myself.  He is nine.  Could he really grasp the significance of this word that riled me so?    I take a deep breath, gather up my courage, and whisper to our first born, “Pussy?  That is an inappropriate word for a girl’s private area.  And we don’t speak that way it in or out of our house."

Now the tears are streaming down his face.  He runs into the living room and returns, red faced with a Wii controller. “No Mommy, NO! I wasn’t saying that word.  I was saying Pus-A!”  And he holds the controller, his little finger pointing to the button clearly marked with the capital letter, “A.”

My heart collapses.  “Press A.  Oh my goodness. I’m sorry honey.  I’m so sorry.  I didn’t understand you.   With your missing teeth, I just mis-heard what you said.  I’m not mad at you.  Never mind.  Forget what I said.  Go have fun with your new game.”

“It’s OK, Mommy.”  And I even got a hug.   He happily returned to the Wii and all of its detestable influences. 

Like a wounded LEGO Mini-Figure Mommy, I retreated to the kitchen, drooping spatula in hand, bewildered but not beaten. While I may have rushed into that living room skirmish a bit too soon, I held my head high and prepared an assortment of holiday lunchtime treats.  Young, innocent and impressionable Wii gamers work up quite an appetite.

Obama, Words, and Atticus Finch

Last night, I insisted our two tween and teen boys sit down with their parents and watch the final speech of President Obama.  They are at a media savvy age and followed the 2016 election closely.  We had countless discussions over many issues that came up over the last year. 

For most of their young lives, Obama has been their president.   While one was intrigued with the notion of staying up a bit late on a school night, the other was indifferent.  "I don't see why this is so important."  Smug.  I don't care for cynicism, especially in such a young person.  But I've learned that middle schoolers need to be heard.  And they also need to learn to listen.

So, while I bristled at our older one's disrespectful remark, I opted for a direct and calm approach.  "This is an historical moment," I stated.  "An African American man has held the highest office in our country for eight years.  He is leaving soon.  We should all hear what he has to say."

To be fair, the smug one, is an open minded, deep and analytical thinker.  We live in an ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse town.  In school, our children sit side by side with fellow students of varied backgrounds.  Each of their circle of friends is reflective of this diversity.  While his comment was dismissive, I knew his words were about frustration with wanting to text with his friends, and not colored with any racial overtones.  Not in our house.

I put my hand out for his cell phone.  He relinquished the device and sat in another room--out of sight, but not out of ear shot.  He could have gone up to his room.  My husband turned up the volume on the television.

We all watched and/or listened attentively.  After about an hour and as Obama stepped away from the podium, our always earnest and straightforward younger one commented, "Well, I'm not sure I understood everything he was talking about, but that was a good speech."  I know there will be more to come from him, he digests these big moments slowly.  Our older one was silent, but he had come back into the living room before the end of Obama's speech.

I make it a practice to ask my kids to tell me what they think about an event before I offer my comments.  Adults need to listen too.  I've told my kids I don't ever expect them to agree with my political opinions or my husband's--and we differ sometimes on political matters.  But one was clearly tired and the other was sulking in an arm chair.  There was much to chat about, but I steered away from a late night discussion on To Kill A Mockingbird.  I took a breath and chose a couple of points I hoped would resonate with their current states of being. I offered the following for their consumption or rejection...

"What I saw was a man who spoke with dignity, intelligence, humility, and respect.  While he disagrees with most of what the President-elect stands for, Obama spoke of the peaceful transfer of power.  Did you see how he hushed the audience when they started to 'boo' the notion that Trump was taking over the presidency next week?  Obama has been insulted and disrespected time after time by Trump.  But he took the moral high ground and urged others to take action in their own way to fight for the changes they want.  He asked that each of us find a way to participate in our democracy."

"And while you may not feel like you have everything you want on a day to day basis.  The fact that you are growing up in this country where you are free to disagree with your leaders (and parents), live in a place that is not torn apart by war, go to school, have food to eat, and friends to hang out with---you are lucky."  They've heard that before, but I remind them whenever I feel the moment is ripe.

"Oh yeah.  And Obama is a tremendous example of what it means to be a husband, father and friend.  I hope you noticed how he spoke to his wife, and daughters and Vice-President."

I left it at that.  Our kids know I am deeply concerned about the next fours years.  And I know too that our older one was paying attention on this night.   He is too curious.  I'm sure we will continue to have many thoughtful conversations on school, local and global politics.   

As it directly relates to tweens and teens--I don't like one bit that we have a President-elect who reacts without thinking, OVER reacts, insults, disrespects, and lacks all accountability for his actions.  I've told my boys, "Never put anything in a text, tweet, or on social media that you would not say if Nana or Gaga were sitting right next to you and reading your words.  And always re-read and count to 10 before you push send.  Because you are always accountable for your words."  Hopefully, our boys will listen to their mom on this one.

Words matter.  So, thank you President Obama for speaking with such strength and hope and eloquence.  Our kids heard you.  Even the grumpy one.

Well, our President elect's first press conference is coming up.  Our kids are in school, so I'm going to tape it for them.  They should listen to Trump's words too. 

As for me, I still have hope and will continue to do my best to make a difference in my own tiny corner of this troubled world.  However, I won't be anticipating any more quotes from Atticus Finch any time soon. 

Pizza Night

It was spring in our New Jersey elementary schools. So, if you had a fourth or fifth grade child, then it was time for, The Puberty Movie, tenderly titled, Always Changing.  My husband and I have three children, two boys, in the respective grades. Our daughter, a first grader, would have to wait for this transformative cinematic experience.

On a balmy May evening, I along with many curious parents, ventured to the school auditorium, for a preview. Our children would see the movie in their classrooms the following week

In Always Changing, a variety of head nodding, nurturing authority figures console and educate young adolescents on how bodily changes prepare one for REPRODUCTION. SEX? THAT word is not mentioned. While the film urges deodorant for all, in the boys’ only part, we examine hair growth, size adaptations of various body parts, spontaneous erections, and “nocturnal emissions.”

At the film’s end, I ask myself—are we really there?   Our boys as sexual beings? I still give them a “tickle back” before going to sleep. How would we broach the subject of the banana peeking out of the hammock?

On a rainy afternoon following the premiere, I pick up the boys from school. From the third row of the mini van, the fourth grader reports, “How about the kid who got caught doing that humping dance in morning line up?”

Fifth Grader grunts, “yeah, pretty stupid.”

This is the opening I’ve been waiting for and I go for it. “Humping, huh?   What’s that? The move Miley Cyrus made famous with the foamy finger?”  

They chastise me, “that was ‘twerking’ Mom, not humping.”

For a moment, I consider sequestration and activation of the child safety locks. Instead, I opt for a less threatening approach: “Well, you know my rule. If you’re going to say it…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Fifth Grader interrupts, “use it in a sentence that demonstrates the meaning. And no, I’m not going to do that.”

“Me neither mom,” parrots Fourth Grader.

Short on time before the first grader’s bus arrives, I persist, “So, what is humping then? Nobody wants to use it in a sentence? How about you show me then?”

  “That’s it,” declares Fifth Grader, “I’m done.” Unhindered by the rain, he lunges forward, opens the sliding door, and hops out of the van. Fourth grader, on the other hand, hasn’t unbuckled his seat belt.

  “Humping,” I blurt out, “is making sexual movements with your body.” Fifth Grader halts. “So, The Puberty Movie’s coming up at school, kids will throw lots of words around, and you should know what they mean.”

  “Well, Mom,” from Fifth Grader, “I’ve heard about the Puberty Movie and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t talk about humping. It’s just about wearing deodorant, and you know, the other stuff.”

Fourth Grader questions nervously, “what other stuff?”

Fifth grader puts his hand down near his crotch and arches his fingers upward as if something is poking from his shorts and giggles, “you know, BOI-OI-OING and SPRISHHHHHHH,” making a spraying noise.

  “What is that?!” questions Fourth Grader, with an unsteady laugh. “ Peeing in your pants?”

 Time for some clarity. “Alright guys, the BOI-OI-OING is your penis when it randomly gets bigger and sticks out in front of you. It’s called an erection. And the SPRISHHHHHHH is fluid coming out of your penis. It’s called ejaculation or a ‘wet dream’ when you’re sleeping. It’s all normal puberty stuff and nothing to worry about.”

“OK. I’m outta here,” announces Fifth Grader, “this is just…so...” shaking his head, trying to unhear his Mom’s words.

 I glance in the rear view mirror at the startled Fourth Grader and casually invite, “Did you have another question?”

He dives for the door.

We move swiftly inside, where Fourth Grader purges himself of pent up anxt and somersaults forward, remaining stomach down on the carpet, flopping like a trout on the side of a creek.  Fifth Grader perches at the base of the stairs, clutching the banister that will launch him skyward and out of this conversation. But before he bolts, I forge ahead: “Look, all this puberty stuff, is about preparing you for reproduction. When a man’s penis goes inside a woman’s opening in her private area, her vagina, its’ called sexual intercourse.  The penis ejects sperm into the woman who supplies the eggs. Sperm and egg meet, reproduction begins.”

Fourth Grader flips onto his back and whisper screams, “WHAT? NO! That is NOT how that happens.”

Fifth Grader stands wide eyed, hands still gripping the railing. Evidently, it is one thing to see the act on Animal Planet, but it’s another to hear your mom describe it in such explicit detail.

For a moment, we three remain still and silent.

“Any more questions?”

“Yeah,” from Fourth Grader, still prone, and staring blankly at the ceiling, “can we get pepperoni on our pizza tonight?”

It was Friday. It was pizza night.   And in our new Always Changing world I was more than happy to keep at least one thing constant.

“Yes,” I finally exhale. “Pepperoni would be perfect.”

The Birthday Gift

Dapperly dressed in a blazer and bowtie, our seventh grader patiently stood waiting for me by the front door.  His sophisticated dress and demeanor belied the fact that a few weeks shy of his thirteenth birthday, he was smaller and slighter than most of his peers, his voice still young and boyish.

 My husband, staying home with our two younger children, lingered in the hallway, and offered reassurance, “I’m sorry you have to do this at such a young age.  I’m sorry for your buddy too.”

 “It’s OK, Dad,” he replied in his practical, no nonsense tone.  “It’s not my first time going to one of these.”  Another friend had lost his mother suddenly and we would be attending a second memorial service in two years.

Our son became quick comrades with his buddy in fourth grade.  They formed a tight circle of friends, each with a unique nickname—our son was dubbed “Mazda Boogie Wonderland – ‘Mazda’” for short, and his buddy, “Little Duck.”  Their bond remains strong today, even after separating to various middle schools.   I got to know Little Duck’s mom as fellow class parents.  She was a bright and thoughtful writer, teacher, and mother.  Her passing deeply affected many in our small community.

A year or so back, I popped in at her home to pick up Mazda.  A cumbersome vacuum cleaner mostly blocked the entrance inside her front door.

 “Just ignore that,” she waved her hand dismissively at the annoying appliance.  “It’s for my high school hot shot.  He’s fifteen.  We’ve been having a little issue with appropriate language.  So, every time he drops an ‘F’ bomb he owes me a vacuuming of one room.  He racked up the whole house this weekend.  I want to make sure he knows I was counting.”  Clever parenting advice I put in my pocket.

  My husband smiled at us both and gently nodded at our oldest, “well, you look handsome.  The bowtie is a nice touch.”

  “Thanks, Dad,” Mazda smiled sheepishly, “I thought Little Duck would like it.  He likes Dr. Who.  And Dr. Who always wears bowties.”

 I breathed in his innocence.  What a simple, sweet gesture, I thought.  My eyes filled with tears.

  “Mom, are you going to start crying already?”  Mazda knew me well, and I appreciated that this time, there was no accompanying eye roll. 

 We arrived early for a seat at what would be a standing room only event. While the service was designated a celebration, a mother’s life had been cut short and a husband and three children were left to carry on.  The overwhelming sadness and sense of loss was palpable.  

 From the congregation came many stories, a few laughs, and many sniffles. From next to me, came intent listening, some sighs, and lots of fidgeting.  We sat closely, just barely touching throughout the service.   I wanted to put my arm around Mazda’s still narrow shoulders.   But I resisted.   A long while ago, my public displays of affection were sternly admonished.  I checked in with a glance or two from time to time.  At one point we caught each other’s eye.  He pointed to the program.  My son and his buddy’s mom shared the same birthdate.  In less than a month, Mazda would be thirteen, Little Duck’s mom would have been forty-eight.  We locked eyes again.  Mazda exhaled and rested his head on my shoulder.

My mind flashed back to one of the countless, sleepless nights I spent with baby Mazda.  We sat in an overstuffed armchair.  I held him closely, his penetrating brown eyes searching mine.  Complete silence swirled around us and time stopped momentarily.  This, I acknowledged to myself, this is love.  As I held this fresh new life, I understood, more completely than ever before, indeed I would not live forever. 

A reception immediately followed the service.  Mazda left my side, as circles of friends quickly surrounded Little Duck, his brother, and sister.  Other moms and I watched from the periphery and witnessed awkward hugs, forced smiles, small chuckles, and not a single “F” bomb.  After more than a year, this small band of friends was reunited--a bittersweet rite of passage to learn that memorial services are sometimes the most memorable reunions.

Mazda signaled he was ready to leave and we moved outside, into the bright afternoon sun.  Blazer now wrinkled and bowtie askew, he stated clearly,  “I know we were talking about a big party for my thirteenth birthday.  But I think I want a small party with just Little Duck and my old group.  And we should wait a few weeks.  Maybe Little Duck will feel like hanging out by then, and he will know everyone at the party.”

 I smiled and nodded in agreement.  We turned up the sidewalk and squinted into the remainder of the day.  Walking next to my son, I felt profoundly grateful to be going home, together.   And of course, we had a party to plan.

Anitza-excerpt from "Miss Texas in NYC"

I am currently working on a one woman show titled, Miss Texas in NYC about an actress who comes to the big city and the folks she meets.  This piece is taken from that show.

Anitza.  She and her young son lived across the hall from me where she shared an apartment with her brother’s family.   She worked the night shift at Newark airport as a cleaning lady.  So we always seemed to do our laundry at the same time—in the middle of the day on a Tuesday when no one else was using the machines. 

We developed one of those rare relationships where we instantly trusted each other and became quick friends.  After a few months, she asked me over for tea when we finished our laundry.  I was curious about her and where she was from—We sat down and she began her story.  Anitza told me she had been a grade school  teacher from “the former Yugoslavia.” 

 

ANITZA:  There is no more Yugoslavia as I know it.  There is only division among people of my country now.  I lost so much-my books, my class journals, photos, my cassette tapes-Tom Jones (sighs.)

When the partition began—dividing the city, we all thought it was a joke.  We were living side by side.  But then the barricades went up, everything stopped—shops closed.  I could not get to school to teach my class—all public transportation stopped.  Then we knew it was not  joke.

My husband, Joseph, and I—we had been up all the night before talking in the cellar.  We moved mattresses down there for Zozo and Rosa.  We were trying to decide what was the plan to take.  We were not part of the majority in my city and we could be in danger.  We knew also we did not have long to make a decision.

They found us. There were seven of them.  When they smashed through the door it was the morning.  We heard them upstairs.  They were armed. Young boys.   They were in my class a few years past.  The older one with a bit of mustached seemed the leader and said,  “The stores were closed and they needed wine!”

Joseph, he tried to…he could not fight against so much anger.  Such big anger. 

I had Zozo and Rosa, trying to keep them turned away.  The one who was the leader yelled for the others to stop.  He wanted my husband to stay alive to watch.  They took my daughter from me and…in front of me, her father and brother.  Her last image.  And my husband’s last breath—of his ten year old daughter.

The night is not so good.  I think I fall asleep and I see people in the dark.  I see Saint Christopher.  He asks me why I did not protect my children and leave when the barricades went up?  He points at me telling me that I am responsible for so many deaths.

That is funny.  The Saints come to me in my sleep—but not God.  I cannot talk to him, awake or asleep.  I cannot hear him anymore.

NARRATOR:  The next week, Anitza stopped me in the hall and said she had to show me something I would not believe. 

ANITZA:  Is OK I cannot talk to God.  I have guardian angel.  Just last weekI am cleaning at gates four to twenty is my station.  It is ‘red eye’ time, so no people around.  I pick up trash from under chairs.  You will not believe what I find.  A CD-Tom Jones Greatest Hits of Eighties.   Of course, I take to lost and found and leave for one week.  That is rule.  If nobody claim it is mine.  Nobody claim.  See, guardian angel!

Joseph, my husband is guardian angel.  This I know.  On a very significant birthday my husband have a big surprise party for me with secret special guest coming.  I do not see my husband for awhile and all of sudden, my favorite Tom Jones song comes on speakers very loud-“She’s a Lady.”  Out comes Joseph dressed up and dancing like Tom Jones with wig and tight pants on the hips and open ruffle shirt.  Now let me tell you, not too many men who can wear pants like Tom Jones--Aaaaah…Joseph. 

It is not so bad working at airport.  Is like I tell Zozo, when he asks what do I do at work?  I am collecting stories.  When I have more busy shift and more people it is easy to imagine stories.  Airport is mostly a happy place.  People, looking to see if their mother or father or daughter or husband is coming from the plane.  They smile.  Such big smiles.  At airport gates, we are all the same.  Everybody wants to hold onto what they have that is dear. 

You know, you are very easy to talk to.  You give me idea.  Maybe, one day I will put down the stories of people I see.  Maybe, I will write book some day….