Although my mother acquiesced to text and Facebook, she was very much of the rotary phone and pen and paper generation. Long after she finished with the hands-on raising and nurturing phase of parenthood, she showed us she understood, supported, thought about, and loved us by snail-mailing missives to myself and my sister, and then to our children.
She’d send me carefully cut out clippings about Shakespeare or yoga, along with coupons for coffee yogurt. She might send Suzanne articles on preschool art projects and dog food discounts. Always with a note, in her distinctive hand: Thought you’d like this, my honey. Love ya, Me Mom.
Sometimes she’d stuff so many into an envelope that they’d flurry out onto the floor like confetti. Usually, these messages in a paper bottle made me feel hugged from afar. At least I knew someone in Florida was thinking about me. Every now and then, if I were overwhelmed with kids and life, I’d roll my eyes and think: Who has time for this? How I rue those moments and miss the mailings now that she’s gone. Always, though, I thought, this is so her!
Now, I clip and deliver. Articles on architecture for Suzanne. Birding bulletins for Julie. Education ephemera for Jessica. Dylan details for Dustin. Film and photography facts for Devon. And shiny red apples of The New Yorker cartoons on authorship for my writing instructor.
“That’s so like mom!” my sister says, and smiles.
“That’s so like grandma!” the boys say, sometimes rolling their eyes.
“My mother did that all the time,” says my teacher. Everyone in the workshop chimes in with remembrances of things sent by their own mothers.
“Yes, my mom did this all the time, too.” I say. “It’s so like her.”
I feel proud to have, unwittingly, taken on this mantle of clipper and sender of ephemera to those I love. I smile to think that in this little way, I’m so like her.
Roberta Peters died a few weeks ago. The New York Times featured a moving and enlightening tribute to this opera pioneer the day after she passed. I read it with interest and sadness, but for perhaps a slightly different reason than her fans might have.
She was my brother-in-law’s mother; we have known her since he and my sister were courting and married, over 25 years ago. My boys and I knew her as “Grandma Roberta.”
It was an honor and a gift to see a more personal side of this world-renowned diva. One of the most significant and delightful memories that I have of her is of the day she took us for a private tour of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. My boys and I joined my sister, her husband, their girls, and our mother at the Met. THE MET: where Roberta met us and ushered us into the stage entrance. The staff greeted her with awe and deference, which she politely acknowledged, but continued to treat us – especially the kids – with warmth and affection.
A Met representative guided us through the bowels of the massive and impressive facility, revealing that there is far more behind the curtain and above and below the stage than the audience can even imagine.
We had passed a case in the lobby containing her costume from The Barber of Seville—with a waistband so impossibly small that I wondered how she could manage to sing in it, but sing she did, for an illustrious career that spanned decades.
We respectfully touched the myriad textures of museum-quality costumes in the vast storage area. We marveled at wigs. We watched sections of stage swivel and slide back and forth, up and down, and side to side with the ease of a child’s toy. We went up into the fly loft and gazed way down at the stage and crawled into the prompter’s box under the stage where the prompters face the performers to give them cues. We got to walk out with her on to the stage itself and take in that vast, breathtaking view of the Met from a perspective that few civilians will ever see, but that she saw for countless performances.
It happened to be a Sunday, and Mother’s Day, so we extended the incredible treat by heading over to the Four Seasons for a memorable, elegant tea. It seemed only fitting given the experience we’d just had.
I will certainly remember Roberta for her talent, having had the privilege and pleasure of seeing her perform several times, most notably for an anniversary performance at Carnegie Hall. But I will remember her most for being a very sweet, interested Grandmother-once-removed to my two boys and a loving, generous, caring grandmother to my two nieces. I extend my condolences to them as well as to my brother-in-law, sister, and her whole extended family. And I will be eternally grateful for the special day that she shared with us at “her house.”
For the last seven years, I have been interviewing applicants for my Alma Mater as part of their alumni admissions program. It’s a busy time for college seniors, and therefore for us. The library, Barnes & Noble café, and the local Starbucks are crammed with pairs of vaguely middle-aged men and women peppering 17- and 18-year olds with questions about their interests, hopes, and plans for the future. And their ideas for how to achieve world peace. Not really. But absolutely why they want, above everything else, to attend fill-in-the-blank College/University. The last time I was in B&N, at least five interviews were in progress, and I overheard mention of Tufts, Harvard, and Cornell.
I don’t kid myself that my input will make or break a student’s application. Their records, which the admissions office has and I don’t, clearly reflect all they’ve worked so doggedly to amass for the Common Application: Transcripts, GPAs, SATs, ACTs, APs, essays, and more. What I do hope is that I can add another dimension to their application, to show them as human beings and not simply collections of pages and numbers.
What I want to let them know is how unique and interesting they all are and that they will find a college that suits them, where they will fit in, even if it’s not the one on which their heart is currently set.
I want to tell them that they don’t have to do everything and do it better than everyone else all the time. I want to tell them to relax and pursue what makes them smile. Yet I know all too well (having gone through this with my own two boys) that the soundproof bubble that surrounds much of Fairfield County and many other affluent communities across the country would deflect my pleas.
I am in between interviews now – the 13th of 15 this season – sitting and sipping on decaf and unintentionally eavesdropping (I can’t help it; the tables are close and conversations loud to compete with all the kids studying in groups for midterms) on another interview in progress. The young man reports on how rewarding he finds his work with underprivileged kids in Bridgeport, how amazing it was to help construct a school in Guatemala with BBB, and how much he loved the Willa Cather novel he just read in his free time. The interviewer asks him to define “happiness,” where he sees himself in 10 years, and what photography has taught him about life. I’m not sure I could answer those questions eloquently, let alone coherently.
So I redouble my efforts to put my applicants at ease. To just have a comfortable conversation that doesn’t probe or push too deeply, but gives them an opportunity to relax and let their guards down a bit so I can see the teenagers they are and the young adults they are embarking on a journey to become.
And I don’t mean the temperature. Al Roker tells me that by the time you read this it will be 55 degrees outside. I’ve heard him report that approximately 17 times since I planted myself on the couch surrounded by pillows, blankets, tissues, tea, lip balm, and Ricola. I added reading materials and knitting to the piles close by, but have the energy for neither. I’ve emailed to find a sub to teach my evening yoga class.
I have a cold. The second one since Christmas. My eldest brought me the first when he came home for the holidays; this one – in the interest of absolute equity amongst siblings – is courtesy of my youngest. It seems as if everyone I know is ailing or recovering from URIs or the flu. Tis the season.
Lest I sound like a whiny baby, I am fully cognizant that this is an extremely minor first world problem. I appreciate my overall good health and hard-working immune system immensely. But there is something just annoying about this common yet unconquerable cold virus. For me, there’s the added delight that since age 16 a cold automatically and without fail triggers my Achilles’ heel and favorite ailment, bronchitis. That takes me down very quickly, making breathing and moving all but impossible. I then require heavy pharmaceutical artillery, which, as a rule, I’d rather stay away from.
I throw every homeopathic and natural remedy at the first sign of the telltale throat tickle: garlic tea with lemon, cayenne, raw honey, and apple cider vinegar (I’m not kissing anyone anyway), EmergenC, elderberry, zinc, oregano oil, bee pollen, saline nasal spray, propolis, probiotics, Vitamin D… you name it, I’m ingesting it. And the cold does often wither in the face of this daunting onslaught. Yet despite the Dulera, the bronchitis inevitably rears its ugly head.
So here I sit, in the third hour of the Today Show, awaiting a call back from my doctor while I nod off and remind myself how much worse things could be despite how crappy I feel. So this is my Get Well card to everyone who, like I, wishes their mommy would bring them some chicken soup and TLC: Feel Better Soon.
On Thursday mornings, I teach knitting as a volunteer at a psychiatric hospital. The facility’s bucolic setting and warmly decorated interior belie the struggles that these 13-17 year olds face: anxiety and depression, substance abuse, self-harming, eating disorders. The vigilant, caring staff does its best to provide a supportive home-like place for them to heal, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this is decidedly not home. This is a psychiatric hospital.
I arrive just after the group has finished school to provide a pre-lunch activity. They are not required to knit, but they must at least sit with us in the cozy living room.
I cherish my time with these lovely young people. They remind me that no matter what face we show to the world, each and every one of us is fragile and experiences pain. Their humor and perseverance in the shadow of some daunting issues centers and focuses me. I admire and respect every individual I’ve met, each with a unique personality and set of talents.
The hospital purchases supplies, and my Tuesday knitting group graciously donated yarn and needles when I told them about my new endeavor, so we have large storage bins overflowing with a rainbow of possibilities.
Often the young women and men show curiosity and interest, but reluctance, to try the new craft. “I don’t think I can do that. It looks so hard.” Knitting is decidedly awkward and frustrating at first. But as they sit and watch the more experienced residents, the novices come closer and start to ask questions, and I gently invite them to give it a try, and show them how to cast on and get the first row off the needle successfully.
For me, and it seems for them, too, knitting offers some very therapeutic benefits:
- Endless Potential: There are so many colors and textures of yarn. Each project is a new beginning with the promise of a beautiful outcome. Even the same yarn will produce varying results on different needles and stitches. An adventure always awaits.
- Reversible Errors: I always tell the group that that you just can’t mess up when it comes to knitting. There is no dropped stitch that we can’t pick up. No disastrous row that we can’t rip out. No uncorrectable mistakes. Even the most egregious blunders turn into disguised strokes of genius. One young lady knit a thick red scarf full of holes, dropped and added stitches, and knotted strands. She held it up, distraught. “It’s a hot mess!” But when we all scrutinized it, the mess morphed into a unique sculptural and architectural creation that none of us could have designed if we’d tried. It was truly stunning.
- Built-in Soothing: Once they get the motion – and admittedly that sometimes takes a while – the smooth, steady rhythm and gentle clicking of metal or bamboo needles calms as well as any meditation session. It quiets and clears the mind and cultivates a settling calm.
- Tangible Accomplishment: The group consistently comments on how satisfied they feel at seeing the results of their efforts so quickly. Even a few completed rows lend weight and substance to a piece. They can literally see it form before their eyes in a very short time. When so much of what they’re trying to achieve at this point in their lives may not come so easily, this is a lovely and immediate reward for their endeavors. They made scarves and hats as holiday gifts for family members, for themselves, and to donate to a local shelter for victims of domestic violence.
The opportunity to teach this craft to these vulnerable young people brings me joy. I watch them completely engrossed in the work and hope that it takes their mind off the larger issues they’re there to deal with. I hope they feel as much pride in themselves as I feel when they pick up a set of needles to give this new skill a try. One resident – also a very talented painter with a wicked sense of humor – took to it quickly and churned out six or seven projects in the few weeks we had together. She eagerly showed me each newly completed creation, including a delicate cream-colored hat for her mother. If she only knew that she’d given me a great gift, too.
The only downside of the experience for me is the double-edged sword of their discharge to go home or on to another therapeutic setting. I develop a rapport with each of them, even if they don’t ever knit. I keep a respectful and professional distance, careful not to invade their privacy. I have no idea what their individual issues are but see their vulnerabilities clearly and can easily sense when they’re more down or more up. It is with mixed emotions that I receive the good news of an upcoming discharge date, and I share honestly that I am happy for them, but will miss seeing them each week, and wish them luck. And then, mindful of their personal space and appropriate boundaries, I ask for permission to hug them. I’ve not been turned down yet, and these are some of the best, deepest, most genuine hugs I’ve ever had the honor to share in.
Some tell me where they’re going; many say that they’ve already asked for knitting supplies to continue the practice at home. They list the projects they want to work on. I love that knitting has had some small part in their healing process, and hope that the habit and its positive effects stays with them long after they leave.
Who knew that knitting could be so Zen, so encouraging a presence in the moment, so quieting for the mind? I did.
Photo courtesy of the author