Saturday, September 28, 2013

If Only

"The tighter you try to squeeze your fists, the more it all oozes through your fingers."--Vincent Cortese, close family friend and father of three .

My most recent post, "Control", brought me back to a poem I wrote months ago and re-discovered while looking through my notebooks. I decided to include it here because it seems to fit thematically with ideas I wrote about in that essay. Originally, this was an exercise suggested by one of my writing group friends but I've forgotten the intention. It ended up being a tongue-in-cheek prose poem about weeds and, well, I don't need to tell you. Anyway, lately I'm observing more and more often how my children, my sisters' and brothers' children and a few of my friends' children, are making their own choices at still-tender ages without any input from their parents. It's a bit of a shock when it first happens, when a son or daughter says, "I'm getting a tattoo" or "I'm quitting school" or "I've signed up to join the Army."
There are days we wonder if we could have done anything differently so that the outcome might be more in line with our values and our dreams for their futures. Recently, Louie CK, a popular comedian, was quoted as saying, "I'm not raising children; I'm raising the grown-ups they're going to be someday." It's an idea worthy of remembering while our kids are still pliable. 
Ultimately, all we can do is our best in that endeavor. All we can do is what we are capable of doing. At some point, it's simply time to get out of the way, let them make their mistakes and recognize that once they are under the illusion they have reached adulthood, our instructions fly out the window, at least until that joyful day when they miraculously come back home to say, "You taught me well." While we're hanging around waiting for that to happen, it's all we can do to stay sane. There is the sudden recall from 1973 of the policeman shining his flashlight into the back seat as we scrambled to put on our clothes; of sitting in the back of the ninth grade science teacher's classroom smoking pot; of barely making it home after a night of bar hopping after college. We're on the other side of it now, wondering why they won't listen to us, especially once we've bared our souls, telling the stories in which we are the main characters just so we can prove we were young and stupid once too.
The bottom line is this: Control is mostly an illusion. The sooner you admit it, the better off you'll be. Just ask the weeds in your garden.

                                                             If Only

Far be it from me to criticize, but I must say,

If only the flowers in the garden had the same tenacity of weeds,

the unflagging determination of the chervil,

for example, with its maddening insistence

on poking through six layers of mulch,

or the haughty giant foxtail, brazen in its forced juxtaposition

with my brilliant- green lawn.


If only the flowers I planted would fight for their rightful places

in the curves of my beds, not politely stand aside,

as if to say “Welcome!” as the bull thistle lives up to its name.

Perhaps the purple dead nettle has not understood

the animosity of my spade when I punched

the soil with vehement objection

and flung its brother onto the pile, which I started just last week.


Even the thick black fabric tightly woven

and placed carefully around the mailbox post fails me,

inviting nature’s junk, incongruous as an old tire

sitting among the gladiolas.

I am considering waving the white flag of defeat,

retiring the garden tools having fought the good fight.

I am tired.


Besides, what beauty there is in wildness,

in the adorable chickweed bowing and scraping under
the yellow sweet clover.

And let us not forget the butter-yellow dandelion,

gathered in chubby little hands, presented

in loving gesture for placement in the Mason jar

in the middle of the kitchen table.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


The first recollection I have of falling in love with Control was the day I successfully played hooky from the sixth grade. I wish I could recall the specific circumstances under which I endeavored to do something so risky and, I might add, quite out of character. I was a rule follower for one thing, and for another, the nuns were capable of doling out severe punishments for much lesser transgressions. I can say with certainty I was attempting to avoid some dreaded unpleasantry.  

Most kids got into trouble for talking. Not me. I got into trouble for not talking. There’s a name for it now—selective mutism—but in the 60’s and early 70’s the term used to describe me was “shy”. It’s considered a legitimate disability these days, and teachers actually have to HELP you if you have it. Back then teachers only knew how to make it worse. My sister, Lisa, had it too, and we both recall the nuns getting so angry because they couldn’t Control us, couldn’t make us talk no matter what they threatened or how they badgered.

"Are you a baby? Huh? Do you wanna go down to the kindergarten where the babies are?"
"Do you know the answer to this question? Yes? Then stop nodding and answer, please. Well, you're not answering so you must not know it. Who can tell Celia what the answer is?"
I can’t ever remember wanting to go to school. The nuns could be bullies and I suspect, probably got together around the dinner table each night, thinking up ways to humiliate children. They delighted in catching students committing acts that would surely send them to hell. In fact, the following year, Sister Michaeline called me up in front of the class along with Donna Repaci, because we were guilty of hiking up our skirts in an effort to be more attractive to the boys.  Donna and I were told we would land ourselves in Hell and the fires would burn us up to our skirt length. Sister measured our bare legs with the yardstick so everyone could attach a horrifying visual to their imaginations. I got off relatively easy; I had only to unroll the band at the top of the skirt. Sister forgot about me because poor Donna, in a cruel twist, was accused of wearing lipstick and was sent crying to the bathroom to wash it off. I, at least, was able to skulk back to my seat. I remember Donna Repaci’s lips and I know for a fact she did not wear lipstick; her lips were dry and tended towards a white sort of dryness. In those days, white lipstick was the style, hence the nun’s assumption. The bottom line is this—most of the nuns at Corpus Christi School during my tenure there did not especially like children; what they did like was being in control of children.  

Miraculously, no one called home to find out why I hadn’t come to school. That day, despite the dark, damp, spider-webbed stairs of our bulkhead, I was safe from embarrassment and condemnation to hell. For six hours I was in control of what I did and thought about, what time I ate my bologna sandwich and Ring Dings. I had taken with me the flashlight from the junk drawer in the kitchen, and the Wuthering Heights book I had stashed in my bookbag to keep me company along with my imagination. I liked being in control of my own life. I hold those few hours of silent protest as the genesis of various transgressions to follow in high school, college and young adulthood, sins both venial and mortal. 

When I became a mother, Control became an extension of my anxious self, and the quiet mousiness with which I had lived my life BK (Before Kids) was considerably reduced. In my defense, Control meant my kids wouldn’t get hurt or die. There were times I followed Max’s school bus on its route to Maple Hill Elementary School, because I had heard the bus driver tended to floor it when she drove down the country road past the Buffalo farm. Olivia protested vehemently each time I walked her to friends’ doors so I could lock eyeballs with an actual adult before ninth and tenth grade sleepovers. Cliff bore the brunt of most of my obsession with Control; he was my only child for six years and needed protection every moment. Having Down syndrome meant a particularly specific kind of vulnerability. I must have appeared terribly pathetic to the preschool principal watching me peer through the rectangle of glass in the door, unable to return to my car to drive home unless I knew for absolute sure that my baby was not crying, scared and feeling abandoned by his mother; after a week of failing to reassure me, she offered me a classroom aide job in the room across the hall.

My kids have grown into adults, at least in the chronological sense, and I have had to let go of my companion more and more so as not to alienate them.  They sigh and shake their heads when I do things they wish I wouldn’t do. I bought a safety device with built-in GPS for Olivia to bring on her walks from her apartment to the UMass Boston campus. I felt less worried because all she has to do is press a button and the police/fire/ambulance will find her within minutes and save her from the unsavory figure in dark clothes following her home. In her own bid for control, I noticed it was still in its box when I stopped by her apartment recently. Max, who is deathly allergic to tree nuts, has had an almost cavalier attitude about wearing MedicAlert jewelry. He won’t do it. Luckily MedicAlert makes small silver bars for stringing to sneaker laces, and I’ve attached the bracelet he won’t wear to the strings of the nylon sling pack he carries around. Every six months, the expired EpiPen inside is switched out for a new one when he isn't looking.

I’m not completely over the control that Control has over me; I may never be, but it’s getting better. My goal is to land my helicopter for good by the year 2023. Thank goodness Cliff is still reasonably okay with my sneaky machinations. It’s easy to pull the wool over his eyes, though. I’m proud to say I recently left him overnight with Max when Ken and I attended a wedding several hours away. Naturally, I left a 15-point set of instructions, followed by several texts that started, “Just in case…”

It’s a step forward.

To my knowledge, none of my kids played hooky in our bulkhead, but they’ve gotten into other types of trouble through the years in spite of my vigilance. I’m glad for it, in retrospect. I have learned, albeit a bit late, that Control is only useful to a certain extent. I’m slowly coming to accept that all I am truly capable of is Influence, Guidance and Opinion; the rest is up to God and Fate.