Over the Hill

Our first day at Copper Mountain, before I tried to ski. At least I look like I might know what I'm doing.

Our first day at Copper Mountain, before I tried to ski. At least I look like I might know what I’m doing.

As I make my way through my forties, I find myself facing a painful fact: I am afraid. I’m not just referring to my lifelong fear of spiders and aversion to clowns. Now I am afraid of lots of things. Things like amusement park rides, fast-moving vehicles, small planes, narrow bridges, coastal highways and mountain roads. Things that never bothered me in my twenties, when I stubbornly embraced my own invincibility, terrify me in middle age, and all I can wonder is: What happened?

It’s not as if I never confronted mortality, made life-changing decisions or experienced pain or loss in my twenties or thirties. The difference at age 46 is that fear, especially of physically dangerous situations, can be paralyzing.

I discovered this last weekend during a ski trip to Colorado with friends. My family had skied once before, several years ago in Wisconsin, but we figured we needed a refresher course to tackle the long, winding runs of Copper Mountain. After a two-hour group lesson, my husband and kids were ready to move on to more difficult green (beginner) runs. I, however, couldn’t get down Roundabout, the easiest green at Copper, without falling. My family took off for the Lumberjack lift, but the instructor sensed my fear and lack of confidence and suggested I stick to Roundabout for a few more runs.

The thought of skiing alone terrified me. What if I fell again? What if I crashed into someone? What if I broke a leg or hit my head? What if I wound up paralyzed and couldn’t take care of my family? A twentysomething would never entertain such crazy thoughts, but for a middle-aged mother they all seemed to be possible, if not likely, outcomes. After standing by the lift for an hour, watching preschoolers zip by and imagining myself rolling down the mountain in a giant snowball like a cartoon character, I gave up and went back to the condo.

The next day, my husband encouraged me to try again. He said he would ski Roundabout with me once or twice before joining our kids and friends. I agreed, knowing that at least I wouldn’t be on my own if something went wrong. I managed to get halfway down the gradually declining slope, but when it steepened slightly toward the end, I veered out of control and fell. I sat there, shaken and crying, unable to get up. I finally took off my skis and made the walk of shame to the bottom of the hill, where my ever-supportive husband waited for me. He gave me a reassuring hug, but I felt like a failure.

As I rode the shuttle bus back to the condo, I wondered what happened to fearless me, the girl who rode in fast cars with bad boys, smoked cigarettes, drank Jägermeister shots and danced all night at punk clubs in inner-city Detroit. Apparently, she had turned into a fearful middle-aged mess.

Frustrated and ashamed of myself, I thought about what our friends who ski would say, especially the ones who were with us on the trip. Would they consider me a coward or a loser? At 26, the peer pressure of the situation would have been enough to force me back on the lift. But at 46, I didn’t care and let myself give in to the fear. Was that really so bad? Wasn’t it worse to do something that scares you because you are afraid of what others will think than not to do it because you know yourself well enough to realize you aren’t ready?

When I got back to the condo, I booked a beginner group lesson for our next ski day. While my husband and children moved on to the blue (intermediate) runs and our friends skied the black (advanced) slopes, I would be on the bunny hill with a group of adults who didn’t know how to put on their skis. And that was exactly where I wanted, and needed, to be.

During my lesson at Green Acres, Copper’s beginner area, I realized that although my fearfulness might slow me down, I didn’t have to let it stop me. I skied at my own pace and found a buddy, Kim. We rode the lift and navigated the bunny hill together, laughing at our missteps (when I fell off the ski lift, for example) and cheering for each other when we made it down the hill without falling. At the end of the half-day lesson, our instructor, an oddball retiree ski bum named Lyle who teased us for sticking out our butts while skiing, said we were both ready to take the Kokomo lift to Roundabout. And he was right.


The view from the top of the bunny hill at Green Acres, Copper Mountain’s beginner area

After lunch, my husband and daughter agreed to forgo the blue runs for a while and head over to Kokomo. I felt nervous about trying to ski Roundabout again, but I knew I could do it. The first part of the run went smoothly. I maintained control, relaxed a little and enjoyed it. When the slope steepened slightly, my confidence waivered as it had the previous time. But instead of deliberately falling and giving up, I kept going. I ended up on my butt again, but I got up and finished the run, which felt like a victory to middle-aged me.

I guess what happened to me over the past 20 years or so is that I learned to be cautious. My safety, my health, my continued existence matter to three important people: my husband and children. I may be more fearful in my forties, but it’s only because I have so much more to lose. Being over the hill doesn’t mean you can’t make it down the hill. It just might take you a little longer to get there.

After I finally skied a green run without freaking out. This one deserves an awkward family photo award, doesn't it?

After I finally skied a green run without freaking out. This one deserves an awkward family photo award, doesn’t it?

Back Off, Mama Bear

This morning I dropped off my son for his first day of finals as a high school freshman. I know he cares about his grades, and he says he studied. But how he does is entirely up to him. I can’t take the tests for him. Heck, I would probably bring down his GPA if I attempted the honor’s geometry exam. I can’t talk to the English teacher who he feels is being unfair. Well, I could. But I’m not going to. Sometimes mama bear has to back off. Today is one of those times.

I will admit to having been an overbearing, overprotective, borderline obsessive-compulsive parent when my son was small. He was my first child, I had no idea what I was doing, and my biggest fear was of doing the wrong thing or, worse yet, not doing enough. I anally retentively organized his Lego blocks, dinosaurs and Matchbox cars into labeled bins. Each night, as we cleaned up the playroom, I followed closely behind him, sorting through the toys he carelessly tossed into the wrong bins. I made sure the Spider-Man puzzle wasn’t missing any pieces and all the Imaginext figures were on board their pirate ship. I maintained the order in our little universe because I could and thought I should.

But what if I hadn’t picked up all the pieces and erased every mistake? Would it really have mattered if a Lincoln Log turned up in the Thomas the Tank Engine bin?

I look back and cringe at my perfectionist self in those early years. I micromanaged every aspect of my son’s day based on all the parenting books I read. I knew what to expect when I was expecting, during my son’s first year and when he was a toddler. I kept careful track of his progress, visiting the pediatrician more times than I care to admit when he didn’t fall within the range of what the books described as “normal.” I knew that healthy sleep habits make a happy child — thanks to the similarly titled book by Dr. Marc Weissbluth, which I read multiple times — and I rigidly enforced nap and bed times to the point of turning down playdates and leaving parties early. My parenting bibles gave me a sense of control amid the chaos of the early years of being a first-time mother.

When my son started kindergarten, I redirected my need for control to my own life and went back to work part time. Having a focus outside the house, even though I worked from home, helped me regain my sanity, and I think it also benefited my second child. I enrolled her in preschool five days a week at age 3. In the afternoons, when she was home, I sometimes had to conduct an interview or finish an article. She colored in my office, watched a video or played by herself in her room. My work deadlines kept me from obsessing over missing puzzle pieces or misplaced toys. My daughter was, and is, confident, assertive and independent, and I think that has something to do with me being forced to back off with my mama bear ways.

It’s still there, though, that urge to step in and fix things, especially with my son because I did it for so many years. After I dropped him off this morning, I thought about calling the English teacher with whom he is struggling. Would it be so bad for me to interfere — just a little? Yes, it would. I have to let him try to work out this problem on his own first because soon enough he will be heading off to college, and mama bear isn’t allowed there — or at least shouldn’t be.

Mama bear is backing off today, but that doesn’t mean I’m not worried about my son. It doesn’t mean I don’t love him. It means that I know if I keep cleaning up his messes and erasing his mistakes, he will never learn to do it for himself. Sometimes doing nothing is harder than doing something. Today is one of those times.

Kindergarten: a simpler time, when mama bear could, and did, fix everything.

Kindergarten: a simpler time, when mama bear could, and did, fix everything.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

April 1971 at the Melrose house

That’s me on the front porch of the Melrose house in 1971. It must have been Easter or something. I wasn’t normally so fancy.

I played alone for hours outside the house where I grew up in Southfield, Michigan, daydreaming on the swing set or exploring the pastures and back woods, acting out books and creating my own worlds. A barn on the property housed several horses, and one of its three pastures doubled as a vegetable garden, which I helped my Uncle Lincoln plant and tend each summer. The modest ranch house with a screened-in carport anchored two acres of land, but it sat close to the gravel road, its doors always open to the stoppers-by who regularly bellied up to my Aunt Thelma’s table. Her kitchen smelled of coffee, cigarettes and bacon grease, a combination of odors that thirty-some years later still reminds me of home.

I left the house on Melrose at age 11 to move in with my father and his new wife, but I can still picture the kitchen table, where my aunt sat in her white quilted bathrobe, smoking cigarettes and writing letters, while Patsy Cline sang softly on the transistor radio. I can see my bedroom window at night, a bright light beckoning from an apartment building on Lahser Road, and hear the soothing hum of a train passing in the distance. I recall the gilded mirror with a photograph of a boy playing cowboys and Indians that hung on the wall of the rec room, or “rumpus room,” as my aunt and uncle called it. I remember the cobalt blue candy dish in the living room filled with butterscotches, which my uncle let me eat before dinner when my aunt wasn’t looking.

Whenever I dream of going home, even now, it is to that house.

With the holidays approaching, the Melrose house and my childhood there are on my mind more than ever. It was in that house that I knew safety, comfort and stability after losing my mother as a toddler. It was there that I discovered the importance of tradition and the meaning of family. It was there that I felt the unconditional love of two people who were my aunt and uncle but also my parents. And it was there that I unwittingly learned how to be a mother and make a house a home.

I miss my aunt and uncle, and the Melrose house, the most this time of year. An industrial park now stretches across their property, their house long since razed. Uncle Lincoln, my second father and best buddy, passed away when I was pregnant with my son, who is now 14. Aunt Thelma, the only mother I ever knew, died two years ago, four days before Christmas. As anyone who has lost one or both parent knows, there is something hollow and unsettling about spending the holidays without them, even if you have a family of your own and no matter how much time passes.

Although there is nothing left of my childhood home, I like to think it lives on through the life my time there helped me find. After the tumultuous teenage years I spent with my father and stepmother, I wandered lost and miserable through my early twenties. I was looking for something, I guess, but I had no idea what. When I met my husband, a quiet, thoughtful man much like my Uncle Lincoln, I realized all I ever wanted was what I had in that ranch house on the gravel road in Southfield: to feel safe and loved.

I’ll be home for Christmas. I am already there.

Embracing the Status Quo

The other night at dinner, my husband used the term “status quo,” and our 12-year-old daughter asked what it means. I explained that it is the current state of things and that people who embrace the status quo do not like and are often afraid of change. She shrugged and probably forgot what I said immediately, being the fearless girl she is. But the definition of the word resonated with me because I realized I was describing myself.

I thought of our conversation the next day during my daughter’s parent-teacher conference. Her seventh-grade teachers told my husband and me that she is a pleasure to teach and a leader in class, and she works well in groups. Her grades are excellent, and she is well-liked. I know these things. I’ve heard them countless times from previous teachers, but it is a relief every time to know nothing has changed. While my daughter may be a typical sassy-borderline-surly preteen at home, she isn’t experiencing any learning issues or social problems at school. Another year has passed without consequence. We have maintained the status quo.

On the car ride home, I thought about my son’s conference the previous month. Like our daughter, he is an honor student and a leader in class. However, when he is bored or doesn’t like a class he can be, well, disruptive. He’s in ninth grade now, but I’ve known this about him, the boy who is quiet and well-behaved at home, since kindergarten. It’s not a major issue, the teachers say, just something he should work on. Even hearing the same negative comment is comforting because it means nothing has changed. The order of my family’s little universe remains intact.

And that is why I go to my kids’ conferences every year: I need the reassuring ritual of sitting around that table listening to their teachers tell me what I already know. It’s an in-person reminder of how lucky I am to have two healthy, intelligent, well-adjusted children, and I need it. Like everyone, I sometimes get caught up in the trivial details of regular life and take its gifts for granted, especially when things are going well. At times when we have the most, we often appreciate the least. We forget how quickly things can change. On this Thanksgiving eve, I am embracing the status quo, my current state of affairs, because I am blessed to have it. I wouldn’t change a thing.


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I am so thankful to each and every one of you for taking the time to read my words, comment and sometimes even share them. Wishing you a wonderful holiday weekend with the people in your life who matter the most.

Just a regular night out at Buffalo Wild Wings with the kiddos.

Just a regular, old night out at Buffalo Wild Wings with the kiddos. How come I sometimes forget how lucky I am to have this perfectly ordinary life?

There’s a Place for Us


My favorite quote from Ally Sheedy’s character in “The Breakfast Club”: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

Remember the basket case in “The Breakfast Club”? That was me in high school. I may not have been decorating my artwork with my dandruff, but I walked through the halls feeling lonely and disconnected. The academic part was easy. I took AP classes and earned mostly A’s with minimal effort, whipping out papers the night before they were due and barely studying. The social part was what killed me. I had a small group of close friends, and I don’t think I would have survived without them. I was adrift in high school, a nobody in a sea of kids who all seemed to belong somewhere.

Looking back, I recognize that I never found a niche in high school because I didn’t look for one. I didn’t join clubs or participate in sports. I didn’t audition for plays or musicals or learn to play an instrument. No one encouraged me to do any of those things. I’m not blaming my parents. My father worked the afternoon shift, and my stepmother was on days. Neither of them was around after school to drive me to auditions or practice even if I had thought to ask. I was a kid who preferred sitting alone in her room writing in her journal or reading a book, and it was the ’80s, an era of hands-off parenting not tiger mom hovering.

I’ve talked to a lot of moms who, like me, grew up in middle-class homes where music lessons and other activities were a luxury not an entitlement. And, like me, they have gone out of their way to ensure their own kids have the chance to participate in activities, hoping they will find something they love to do. Are we overcompensating for what we view as our parents’ slights against us? I don’t think so. We just happen to be lucky enough to be able to give our kids the opportunities we didn’t have.

Some of us, like me, do go a little overboard. My children (now 12 and 14) have begged to join — and eventually abandoned — a laundry list of sports and activities over the years, and I have almost always said yes. I do have one stipulation, however: They have to honor the commitments they make by finishing the class or season. I may have more disposable income than my parents did, but I’m not willing to shell out hundreds of dollars only to have them quit on a whim after one disappointing class or a particularly hard practice.

In my son’s case, music has been the only thing to stick. He found his true love, the piano, in fourth grade when we bought a used baby grand, and he started playing saxophone in the school band the following year. Music is something I hope will always be part of his life, but when he talked about joining the high school marching band, I had concerns. I worried about the grueling practice schedule, but not because I thought it would affect his scholastic performance. Like me, he is a kid for whom school comes easy. My fear was that he wouldn’t have time to make friends and have fun or, worse yet, that he would be labeled a “band kid” or “nerd” and ostracized.

What I could not have realized, because I knew nothing about marching band or the culture that surrounds it, is that he would find much more than his niche. All those practices, football games, parades, competitions and band camps (insert tired “American Pie” joke here) form unique, unbreakable bonds. My son doesn’t feel adrift when he walks through the halls of his high school because he knows he belongs somewhere. And that makes the countless hours my husband and I spent watching him participate in long forgotten sports and activities worth every second.

As an adult misfit who still feels like Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club” much of the time socially, I wonder if things would have been different if I had tried a sport or learned to play an instrument, if I had made the effort to get involved in high school. But the feeling of not belonging is what pushed me to start a journal all those years ago. Writing helped me stay afloat during my high school years, and it’s been a beacon throughout my life. My love for it led me to major in English in college and become a magazine editor in Detroit. A potential newspaper job brought me to Chicago, which is where my life as a wife and mother began. And here I am, all these years later, writing this little blog, my online journal.

In the end, the goal is to be part of something bigger than yourself — whether it’s a marching band, a sports team or a family — and to find your place. It just takes some of us a little longer to get there.

Me circa 1985: "...each one of us is a brain... ...and an athlete... ...and a basket case... ...a princess... ...and a criminal."

Me circa 1985: “You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain… …and an athlete… …and a basket case… …a princess… …and a criminal.” –“The Breakfast Club”

When Mom Is the Problem

Dear Daughter,

The other day I realized something I guess I had been trying to ignore. As we drove to school, you were more withdrawn and serious than usual. We had argued about you not wearing a coat that morning, but I thought you were quiet because you were tired and dreading another long day at school. When you stepped out of the car, however, your entire demeanor changed. You smiled, you chatted with your best friend, you were happy. It was then that I knew exactly what the problem was: me.

It’s OK and normal for you to feel that way. When you are 12 years old, everything your mother does is a) annoying, b) embarrassing or c) both. I felt the same way at your age. Whatever my stepmother said or did made me cringe, and I did my best to keep my distance from her. I spent my free time alone in my room or with my friends, and always as far away from her as possible.

Intellectually, as a woman, I understand and empathize with you. Emotionally, as your mother, it breaks my heart. I hated my stepmother at your age, and my girlfriends all had issues with their moms. Somehow, though, I was under the impression things would be different with my own daughter. It turns out I was wrong. The little girl who clung to my leg for dear life as a toddler now can’t seem to wait to get away from me. It kills me to admit this, but I know it’s true.

We’ve been arguing more and more lately, and I know some of it is my fault. Your attitude toward me makes me angry and tense. I’m on edge whenever I ask you to do something because I’m not sure what your reaction will be. I know that sometimes I lash out too quickly and respond more severely than I should. For that I am sorry. But I am not sorry about calling you out when you treat me with disrespect. I want to be your friend, but I am your mother first. As I have told you many times before, you can think whatever you want about me. How you treat me, however, is not negotiable.

These next few years are going to be challenging for us. I am feeling the full weight of that after watching you walk into school with your friend the other day. I know you are growing up and that part of the process is to separate from your parents and form your own identity. But please don’t think I’m going to let you pull away completely. I’m not ready to give up my position in your world even though I do accept that I am no longer the center of it. I’m still going to ask about your day. I’m still going to coax you out of your room to watch TV or go for a run with me. I’m still going to take you to lunch or the mall once in a while, even though I know you’d prefer to go with your friends. When we’re out I’m going to put down my phone and talk to you and tell you to do the same. I’m going to ask questions, I’m going to embarrass you, I’m going to annoy you.

I’m going to do all those things because I am your mother, and you will always be the center of my world. Get used to it, kiddo. I’m not going anywhere. And someday, I hope, you’ll be happy about that.



photo (94)

Say Hello, Good-Bye Girl


He sat at the counter with our daughter, telling tales from his trip to China, as I scurried around the kitchen. He described the fish skin dumpling soup he ate for breakfast in Shenzhen and the Jetsons-esque skyscrapers he saw in Shanghai; she chattered about cross country and honors math. I tried to focus on their conversation, to relax and enjoy having him home, but the perfect meal I wanted to serve wasn’t turning out as planned. The mashed potatoes were lumpy. The gravy was too thick. The beef brisket wasn’t big enough. It was my husband’s first dinner with us in 10 days, and I had ruined everything.

A few minutes later, we were seated at the table, and I watched the two of them devour the food on their plates. I apologized for the lumpy potatoes and inadequate brisket (there was actually plenty since our teenage son wasn’t home), and they dismissed my culinary self-consciousness and served themselves second helpings. The food was obviously at least edible, so why was I being so hard on myself?

It wasn’t about the dinner. It was about my husband leaving again in two days. He would barely have a chance to recover from his jet lag only to board another flight, and we would be saying good-bye all over again. I hate good-byes. I hate being left behind. I know these things about myself, but I can’t seem to control my fight-and-flight emotional response when people I love go away. My modus operandi is to pick a fight before the person leaves and then withdraw emotionally. It hurts a lot less when someone says good-bye if you were mad at him or her anyway. This time the fight was different, though, because I was having it with myself. Before I knew it, my husband would be walking out the door again. I wanted to appreciate our time together. I didn’t want to screw it up.

The next evening, I was alone in the kitchen as I made dinner. I poured a glass of wine and turned on some music. I thought about the fact that I had made it through 10 days without him. The next trip was only two days, the one after that seven. And in 11 days, it would all be over. I could manage. I would survive.

Dinner was perfect that night, or at least as perfect as salad and chicken parmesan with store-bought marinara can be. My husband and I took our dog for a walk afterward, holding hands and laughing as our crazy little Yorkie ran from one side of the street to the other. When we picked up our son from marching band practice, we cranked up Led Zeppelin and sang along in the high school parking lot.

Later, as I watched him pack his suitcase yet again, I realized that instead of worrying about the good-bye, I should relish the hello. And that night I did.

May I Have This Dance?

Homecoming 2013 (corsage by Bella Fiora)

Homecoming 2013 (last-minute corsage by the talented and helpful folks at Bella Fiora in New Lenox, IL)

My son is going to homecoming tonight. He’s a high school freshman, and it’s his first dance. The corsage is in the fridge. The clothes are ironed. The post-dance party plans have been made. Everything is in order, and I’m thrilled for him. But I have to admit, there’s a little melancholy mixed in there too.

For one thing, my husband is in China on business. It’s our son’s first dance, a milestone in a teenager’s social life. I am upset for my husband because I know how much he wants to be here and how bad he feels that he will miss it. I am also sad because I won’t have my rock here beside me to squeeze my hand so I don’t cry and embarrass our son in front of his date and friends.

For another thing, my little boy is taking one more step away from me. I know this is normal, healthy. I am happy he found a girl he wanted to ask to the dance. I loved taking him shopping for a new shirt and a tie to match her dress. I bugged him for days to let me help him choose a corsage. I want him to enjoy high school, to be involved, to have friends and girlfriends, to do all the things teenagers should do.

I just don’t want to become irrelevant in the process.

Is that so wrong for a mother to admit? We spend every waking — and sleeping — hour with our children when they are infants, nurturing and soothing them. When they are toddlers and preschoolers, we help them learn to talk, to walk, to ride a bike, to spell their names. When they are school-age, we pitch in with their homework, attend their soccer games, host their playdates. And through it all, we’re there to cheer them on and kiss away the bumps and bruises. Until one day, when they don’t want us there anymore, or at least won’t admit that they do.

No one tells us when our children are young and want our constant attention how much it will hurt someday when they don’t.

This morning, as my son sat silently in the car on the way home from ordering his date’s corsage (yes, he waited until the day of the dance despite my prodding), I made an important realization. I can either let him push me away, or I can push back. I decided that whether he likes it or not, I am going to do my damnedest to remain firmly rooted in his life. As he distances himself from me emotionally, I am going to force myself to keep trying, to ask questions, to be understanding and offer help. He may shut me down, act surly or even withdraw completely. But I was a teenager once. I know he doesn’t want me to stop asking, to stop trying to understand even when he thinks I don’t.

Tonight when he sighs after I ask to take yet another picture of him and his date, when he mocks the music I play on the radio as we drive to the dance, I’m going to do my best not to take it personally. I know my little boy, the guy who used to worship and adore me, is still in there somewhere.

I hope he has the time of his life tonight.

The Key to the Lock

I had been seeing her for a few weeks, and today’s session was no different from any of the others. I sat in her Chicago office nervously spewing my life’s stories, some from the present but most from the past, all the while hoping desperately for answers to the questions I was too afraid to ask. Why couldn’t I feel happiness? Why couldn’t I maintain a relationship? What was wrong with me?

As usual, she nodded occasionally, took random notes and said nothing. There were no comforting words. No supportive smiles. Does she think I’m crazy? Should I keep talking? How is this helping me?

Fifteen minutes into the session, I knew I couldn’t tolerate her stoic expression anymore. I couldn’t bear to regurgitate another story from my string of failed romances or my troubled relationship with my father and stepmother. If she wasn’t going to offer a diagnosis, I would have to ask for one. I wanted a label, something to which I could attach the pain, the fear, the emptiness. If I gave it a name, perhaps it would finally go away.

So I did it. I asked her the question I was most afraid to ask. I asked her what was wrong with me.

And she gave me the label I thought I wanted to hear: post-traumatic stress disorder.

But how could that be? I was a 26-year-old magazine editor. I had never served in the military or held a dangerous job. I had never been the victim or witness of a violent crime. How could I have PTSD?

She explained that children who lose a parent at a young age often experience PTSD symptoms, even into adulthood. My mother had died when I was a toddler. I had no memory of her death or any effect it might have had on me. But there it was: the reason I couldn’t visualize my own future, the reason I felt perpetually detached from others, the reason happiness seemed constantly out of reach, the reason change terrified me.

I had lived with my mother’s death all my life, yet I had no idea, until that moment, how much it had haunted me.

* * *

Several friends back home had told me about the “Love Lock” bridge in Paris, where couples attach locks to symbolize their undying love, and I had hoped to visit it during our family’s trip there earlier this month. But when you cram London, Paris and Amsterdam into a seven-day visit, some things just don’t make the cut on your itinerary. When we stumbled upon the bridge during our walk to Notre Dame, I was thrilled at the chance to squeeze it into our adventure.

Our visit to the bridge was unplanned, so we had to buy a lock and borrow a marker from a street vendor. I wrote our last name and the year on it, while my husband and children searched for a vacant spot on the lock-laden bridge. Apparently there is a lot of undying love in the City of Light. When we finally settled on a location and affixed the lock, I was overwhelmed with emotion. This trip had been both an ending and a beginning for us. Summer was over and my oldest child was about to start high school. I had spent much of the past few months struggling with my own fears about the changes in his life and ours. I had been worrying so much about all the bad things that could happen that I hadn’t been able to see the good.

As we stood there on that bridge in Paris — my husband of almost 18 years, my 14-year-old son, my 12-year-old daughter and 45-year-old me — I imagined my kids returning to it as adults. I saw them married with children of their own. I pictured my husband and me coming back as silver-haired grandparents. I knew we would be holding hands, and I knew we would still be in love.

On that bridge with my family, I saw the future for the first time in my life. And it was happy.


Love Lock Bridge, Paris, 2013

The Swing Set

I remember my aunt and me sitting in lawn chairs next to the swing set, talking and watching my children play. I would jump up every so often to push my preschooler on a swing or guide my toddler up the ladder. My aunt, who raised me in the 1970s, teased me for hovering over my kids. Deep down I knew she was right, but even then I wasn’t good at letting go.

A few years later, on a sweltering summer afternoon, my older sister and I sat in the shade drinking margaritas as my children played in the swing set’s sandbox. They fought over the sieve, the bucket, the shovel. Anything one of them had, the other one wanted. My sister had no kids of her own, and I knew she envied my life. As an overwrought mother just wishing for a little peace, I questioned whether she would want it if she had any idea how hard it was.

Those are two of the memories of our swing set that stand out most in my mind. But there were also hundreds of ordinary days when it was just me there watching my young children, lost in my own thoughts. I wondered when they would stop bickering all the time. I wondered when they would stop needing me so much. I wondered if I was a bad mother for wanting them to. And all the while, I watched the hands of the watch on my wrist, willing them to move a little faster, for things to get a little easier.

Gradually they did. My son started kindergarten; my daughter went to preschool. They made friends at school, and our lives revolved around play dates. When their friends came to our house, my kids remembered the swing set. For an afternoon, it became their fort, hideout or pirate ship again. But once their friends left, it stood alone and neglected; they forgot it until the next visit, and eventually they disregarded it altogether.

When both kids reached middle school, my husband and I spoke casually about getting rid of the swing set. The only use it got was the occasional visit from a relative or friend with young children. We agreed we would look into selling it, but there it stood, both of us too busy to follow through, me not quite ready to let it go.

Last weekend, three days after our oldest child graduated from middle school, my husband arranged for a friend to take the swing set. He didn’t consider the timing, and neither did I — until I saw the vacant spot in our backyard. My son was about to start high school, and all that was left of this fixture of his childhood and my daughter’s was the sand from the sandbox and the memories.

I thought back to those early days spent at the swing set, the special visits with my aunt and sister, and the days on my own, when I felt all the typical frustrations of life as a stay-at-home mom. But as I stood in the yard 10 years later, staring at the empty space where the swing set used to be, all I could remember was my children’s laughter, their sweet faces, my limitless love for them.

Sometimes a swing set is more than a swing set.

My kids four years ago during a visit from my niece and nephew: Our poor, forgotten swing set was happy to welcome them back.

My kids four years ago during a visit from my niece and nephew: Our poor, forgotten swing set was happy to welcome them back.