Sunday, April 24, 2011

What I did over Spring vacation

I spent most of this April vacation focused on things not going right, that I could do better, that were imperfect and disappointing. In each corner of my family someone I love is suffering with injury or serious illness. It must be frustrating for them to feel broken and sick, and it is frustrating for me to realize there's nothing I can do to heal the people I love.

Uncle Jason came to visit and together we traveled to see Kevin and Jason's mom for an early Passover celebration. Iris and I took a trip to Crown Market for prepared kosher sides and stood together in line, laughing about the mad rush to prepare for the holidays, and the deals the bakery was offering before closing for the holiday. Pareve black and white cookies were 10/$10 -- who could resist? We would take them home since Iris would not eat anything with hametz during the holiday.

Iris cooked a beautiful meal and we ate with silver utensils off of good china. We recited the names of the plagues and the children wore funny masks. We talked about freedom and justice, and considered the meaning of the elements arranged on the seder plate. Something about life and sacrifice, food, family, and staying together as a community. It was a lovely holiday, clouded by the sense of all I'm not doing to raise my children with a clear sense of their religious upbringing. The kids were confused but delighted -- Raimi insisting several times that he was a FIRST BORN and had a special connection to that particular plague.

We returned to Cambridge with Uncle Jason, but Raimi came down with something like the flu -- high fever and chills, coughing, exhausted and achy for days. Jason took Kinnell out to the park and museum while I stayed home with Raimi. It was a godsend that Jason was there to get Kinnell out of the house. We were sad when Kevin had to take him to the airport on Wednesday morning.

The plan had been to travel to Canada on Wednesday but we postponed our trip when Raimi's fever climbed to 103. With Kevin at work all week, I spent 3 more days inside with the kids, making soup and jello for one, entertaining the other. Raimi watched entire seasons of Mythbusters and Kinnell drew picture after picture of his mommy smiling. We decorated construction paper flowers and bunnies. We read books inside a blanket fort in the corner of the living room. When Raimi's fever broke I began to think we might be able to get on the road by morning... until Kinnell's temperature began to rise. I let him nap inside the blanket fort while I did dishes and laundry, coaxing a still pale-looking Raimi to read a book instead of watching tv. I'm such a bad mother, I thought, to let him have so much screen time, sick or not.

When I realized it was almost Easter I became overwhelmed remembering the holidays of my childhood. Yes, my kids were sick and plans had changed, but I thought surely there is something wrong with me that we don't belong to a faith community; that the kids had no new spring clothes; that we don't have friends in the neighborhood we can just drop in on; and I don't have the perfect recipe to pull off the shelf in keeping with tradition.

In my family Easter meant time with extended family, an indoor easter egg hunt, new dresses, a full sanctuary at our UU church, and a beautiful meal cooked by my mother. I was not raised to believe in the trinity or resurrection, but the holiday offered the chance to welcome the spring and consider the role of Jesus the social justice activist -- alongside other great men and women who have fought for the rights of the poor and oppressed. I was raised to believe that Jesus was just a man, not perfect or better -- as imperfect and human as the rest of us.

Kevin & I took stock on Friday night. One kid on the mend, the other's fever reaching a peak of 103, I raced to the store for more ibuprofen and tylenol, and candy and trinkets for Easter baskets. Saturday morning I left Kinnell with Kevin while Raimi and I ran errands to pull together a very human and imperfect Easter dinner. Kevin suggested dolmades, the kids wanted corn dogs -- Raimi wanted to decorate them like bunnies. We found allergy-friendly cake mix, organic icing and natural food-coloring at Whole Foods. Raimi's vision was to bake a cake and decorate it using the candy the Easter Bunny would bring. We debated what flowers to buy for the table, settling on a mix of fiery tulips and yellow snap dragons.

Today, Easter morning, Kinnell woke up at 5 unable to swallow, feverish, thirsty and sad. We gave him some advil and I snuggled him back to sleep, and when he woke up he felt well enough to appreciate the nests of candy and eggs tucked away in nooks throughout our tiny apartment living room. We ate breakfast and snuck bites of candy. I worked on a project on my computer and kevin read a book on his Kindle while the kids played with legos.

We baked and iced the cake, discovering just how awful the organic frosting and food coloring really was. But the kids excitedly created jellybean flowers and birds' nests, then floated marshmallow peeps on a purple "pond" and brownish "grass." Kinnell unwrapped a caramel egg, declared "this is gonna be funny" and poked it into the surface of the cake.

We got dressed and went for a walk around Mt. Auburn cemetery -- enjoying the view from the top of its mountaintop tower. I realized just how sedentary I'd been all week as my tired and shaking legs carried me back down the 95 steps inside the monument. As we walked around the grounds Kevin and I noticed the many older family plots containing children. We found a tombstone sculpted like a bassinet. Another monument depicted a boy cradling a baby in his arms, with the names and dates of an 8-year-old and 15-month-old.

We are lucky, I said to Kevin.

We saw tadpoles in Willow Lake and two turtles sunning themselves on a log. Dogwoods, forsythia and magnolia were blooming and the graves of the newer section were adorned with potted tulips, hyacinth, and easter lilies. We found the grave markers for Buckminster Fuller, Amy Lowell, and B. F. Skinner. We took Kinnell's picture cradled in the thick arms of a tree that looked as old as the cemetery itself. Its insides were beginning to hollow but its branches were dotted with the bright green leaves of early spring.

We came home and began dinner. Kevin and I rolled out the grape leaves and discussed how big to make them and how tightly to roll them -- our words part of the ritual for making dolmades. How many times have my mother, sister, Kevin, father, brother-in-law talked about the arrangement of ingredients within a perfect stuffed leaf.

We made salad and chicken strips (no corn dogs at Whole Foods). Kevin opened a bottle of wine and I chopped vegetables and apples for the kids. We shared what we were thankful for and talked about whether this had been a good April vacation -- what our favorite parts had been.

It was not a perfect dinner, a perfect week, a perfect holiday. We stumbled through the ancient rituals and I felt inadequate at nearly every turn -- doing my best to soothe my children and connect with family despite all plans going wrong. Holidays bring this out in me, this fear of inadequacy, awareness of my imperfections. I despair at the blooming pile of dishes and nearly miss the blooming branches outside the window of our apartment. I feel time passing us by as I fail to find the perfect OG-certified tutor or social skills group for Raimi, or give Kinnell enough attention as his vocabulary explodes and he needs me to talk with him. Still, I do my best for my children.

Religions speak of sacred time, and it is tempting to think of sacredness as an escape from the everyday instead of finding the sacred within the mundane details of our lives: Drawing pictures for one another with Kinnell inside a blanket fort. Listening to Raimi describe why he loves the mall and delighting him with a warm pretzel. The view of Boston from a mountain in Cambridge. The pots of flowers left by mourners, the thick trunk of a wisdom-old tree. Jellybeans on cake, my husband's hand taking mine while watching Netflix, the squeals of delight as he tickles two sick kids, shouting "laughter is the best medicine!"

It's an illusion that Spring brings new life. Spring comes every year of this same old life. May I be reminded of the beauty of my life as it already was, the beauty of my life as it continues humbly on.

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