Friday, August 24, 2012

Acting Up

Julie, Pre-Tantrum
Julie is working this summer at an upscale kids' boutique in downtown Rehoboth Beach. When she comes home at night she regales us with tales of Kids Gone Wild, tiny darlings who break the toys and throw the clothes around and generally behave abysmally. Relaxed vacation rules aside, there are some corkers out there on the boardwalk and in town. It's tough to hold onto the reins in these circumstances. I know. I've been in the mommy trenches, and sometimes it wasn't pretty.

Sheridan was an angel, eating what was put before him, sleeping on a more-or-less reasonable schedule, laughing and cooing on cue. I'd watch the poor parents wrestling their recalcitrant toddlers into their strollers and tsk-tsk to myself. Poor them! Why can't they be more like--well, more like me? I've read Spock and Leach and I could TEACH an effective parenting course, for Lord's sakes!

Then along came Evan. Evan was an explorer, always yearning to know: if I climb out the kitchen window, will it hurt? If I stick my head between the bannisters, will I be able to extricate myself without calling in reinforcements? Evan gave me a run for my money, and for the first time I sympathized with moms and dads who'd lost control.

Rosie introduced a different set of challenges. She was not a daredevil, but rather wreaked her havoc with her stubborn temperament. She was treated with nothing but great love and affection, but when she was in a mood none of that mattered. One day at the bank, I gently pulled her back into line next to me as she started to wander off. "Stop HITTING ME!" she shrieked. Smiling broadly as if to say, "Ha ha. What a trickster is this daughter of mine!" I was inwardly dying.

PJ at 2 decided to be afraid of my mother, his Nana. When she came for a visit, he wouldn't kiss her, he wouldn't let her read to him. He acted as if this benign and adorable older woman was the Antichrist. Mom, understandably, was a tad miffed. It took a couple of years for fences to be mended (they ended up the closest of buds), but it was a trial while it lasted.

Julie went tantrumless for 4 years. Then, one memorable night in a Lewes candy store (when we had company, I might add), she was refused a bag of peppermint bark and all Hell broke loose. As I literally carried a bundle of screaming, squirming indignation out to the car under my arm, I said at last, "OK OK so I DON'T have all the answers! My kids are no better than anyone else's! Sorry God--oh, and can you give me a hand getting Miss Meltdown into the carseat?"

 Pride definitely goeth before a fall. Never again did I prejudge a fraught parent/child combo. We are all doing the best we can. And sometimes, the small people we love most in the whole world, are little stinkers.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rainy Days and Mondays

The weather can't make up its mind today. Ominous clouds give way to weak and watery sunshine for a while--and then the clouds roll back in. The temperature is blessedly cooler than it has been all month, but it is still a gloomy day--and it's Monday, and in five days we leave the beach for another year.  Julie and I were going to go for a walk, but she's on the computer in her room and soon she has to bake cookies to sell at the show tonight. Steve leaves right after the performance for Oreland (a quick trip; he'll be back tomorrow) with a carload of our belongings that we no longer need during the brief time we have left. We had friends over for dinner on Saturday, and I did a book reading at Epworth Methodist Church last night. On both occasions, we said goodbye to shore buddies we likely won't see until Summer 2013.

Crape Myrtle in Bloom
So I'm down in the dumps.

It's not that I don't notice and appreciate the beauties of Lewes the rest of our stay, but these last precious hours everything comes into sharp focus. Bees abuzz in the glorious crape myrtle I can see from the screened porch. Lewes Beach, boats bobbing in the bay, sand gritty beneath my toes. King's Ice Cream enjoyed in Canalfront Park. Even the local NPR station, WSCL, with programming just different enough (Performance Today, anyone?) from Philly's WHYY to trigger nostalgia after we leave.

We've been so, so lucky to be here, to have had this idyll while raising the children. I never look out at a sandbar without thinking of the kids making "hermit crab zoos," ferrying the little crabs on boogie boards to their sand castles and moats. Walking past Funland on the Rehoboth boardwalk, I vividly recall the joy of my two-and-four year olds on the fire engine ride (Sher and Evan only occasionally fighting over who would ring the bell).

During the hectic summer days long past, I alternated intense childcare days with equally intense nights acting in the Rehoboth Summer Children's Theatre plays (at our craziest, I had two babysitters employed at once, one watching the baby at the theatre right after I fed him/her, one at the cottage with the rest of the brood). Every August, Steve treated me to a morning by myself. I would bring my chair to the water's edge, sip my coffee and write in my journal (always about the kids, that's how consumed my life was, even on my "day off").

Sunfish on Delaware Bay, Lewes

What will our summer be like next year? 10 years hence? I haven't a clue. I dream about grandchildren, once again enjoying Funland and sandbars--but who knows? I can't count on that future. I can only sit here on the porch this gloomy summer afternoon and remember. And love the Lewes—and my life—that are here and now. And treasure the five days left as they slip like sand through my fingers.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Bahms" Away

My brood 

In true Elise fashion, my daily spin back down Memory Lane tends to accentuate my Mommy Disasters: the Lyme disease I totally missed (sorry, Evan!), the teen rules bent out of sheer exhaustion (it wasn’t easy to enforce an 11 PM curfew when both Steve and I were snoozing on the sofa by 10) and the list goes on. My stock response when people kindly remark on our fairly upstanding and decent grown children: “Thanks, but it was all God and luck. I had almost nothing to do with it.” And I still believe that is factual, but…

I think I may have done something right when I exposed the kids to classical music. Mind you, I was NO musician, but I adored Schumann and Copland and Barber and Ravel. Their sublime music was the soundtrack of my more serene moments: rapt in a concert hall, playing in the background as I read on the porch summer evenings. I never in my wildest dreams thought my offspring would have the interest or talent to pursue music, which was fine with me. I would have been content to have them just enjoy.

When Sheridan was a baby he heard classical music all the time. I had no clue if any of this was registering until an adult asked him, at age 3, his favorite music. “Bahms (Brahms)!” he caroled.  Cute, but true.

A bedtime ritual in our house was the playing (in the dark) of cassette story tapes (after reading MANY  sleepytime books, of course). There was a whole series by Jim Weiss based on Greek Myths and Arabian Nights and Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare that I recall fondly. The kids also loved Jay O’Callaghan’s “Herman and Marguerite.” A real favorite was “Beethoven Lives Upstairs,” a fun and fanciful look at the life of the great composer.  This tape was one of the inspirations for Sheridan to begin composing at a tender age, writing musical notes on everything (including church bulletins). And that great love has continued to this day: Sheridan and Rosie have careers in music, Evan moonlights as a jazz pianist in clubs when away from his Naval duties, PJ and Julie both play piano and thoroughly enjoy musical masterworks.

Could they have gone the sports route? Sure! Steve is a real sports nut and the children grew up watching sports on TV, playing intramural soccer, basketball and baseball, attending the occasional pro game. I know many families for whom sports is the touchstone, the rallying point, the family inspiration, and that’s great. We all of us need something transcendent to get us through the daily drudgery, something true and beautiful and beyond our regular existence.

If you haven’t already done it, I encourage you to find a family passion, be it travel or art or cooking or great books. Revel in it together, and in so doing ramp up the quality of your lives.

For us, the passion was “Bahms.” What will it be for you?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


When I remember my Dad, and I often do, my primary image is Dad and radios. He had a large, tan-colored radio that, on clear summer nights, picked up frequencies from all over the world. He would sit out on the porch at the beach, twiddling the dials, hunched over the amazing electronic device with his smoldering cigarette and cold beer. For hours on end, he would listen intently as voices of every language would travel across oceans and mountains to reach him…Russia. Germany. Japan. Italy. As far as I know, Dad never studied a foreign language in his life, so I can only imagine what this cascade of alien verbiage meant to him—but it clearly meant something, because he kept listening. Long into the night, Tom focused on the exotic and beautiful tones of strange speakers talking of unknown people and things. 

1936, New York City. 

It is evening in an apartment near Gramercy Park. Little Tommy is home, ready for dinner. He has tales to tell of his day at Epiphany School. But no one is there to listen. The Cunningham apartment is dark, except for the kitchen light. Veenie, the housekeeper, is fixing dinner for a solitary small boy. His parents are out on the town, as usual. Tommy eats his spaghetti and meatballs. He retreats to his room as Veenie does the dishes. On his desk is a large brown radio. He fiddles with the dials and listens. Big band music. News.  A vital, exciting world. A world where Tommy can sit, in silence, and let life wash over him.

Another radio memory. Tom always owned an array of police radios and scanners, though he was never a member of the force. At night, he would sit at his desk and listen as rapid-fire codes and static filled the air. One week when he was away on business, I sneaked into his office and found a glossary of police numbers and their meanings. Friday night, I sauntered into the room and casually commented, “10-30? Guess that’s a robbery in progress, huh?” His cold response: “No, you’re wrong. Why did you think that?” Mortified, I mumbled that I’d studied his crib sheet. “Well, that explains it. That list is years old. The codes aren’t accurate anymore.” I remember fleeing the room, red faced and in tears, vowing never to try with Tom Cunningham again.

Dad will be gone 19 years next Spring. The tan radio is also history, in some landfill somewhere. Ditto the big black police scanner with its flashing lights and incomprehensible vocabulary. 

But every time I listen to the radio, I remember him. The little boy in the lonely kitchen. The lonely adult in his office.  I can’t remember much that he ever said to me, which makes my heart ache sometimes. But, more often, my heart aches for Tommy, every Tommy, sitting on the sidelines of life. Listening, silently, to disembodied voices in the night. Wondering if they will ever, ever connect.