The Angel in the House


It’s the saddest day of my holiday season: the day we take down the tree. This year, however, before I put the ornaments and lights away, I took a long last look at the angel we put at the top of it each year.

And decided that she would be my inspiration this year.

There’s a backstory to this angel. I brought her home during the phase of my early motherhood shopping years I like to call the “Grab and Run (and keep the receipt)” years. The day we put up our tree that year, I realized that we had no tree topper. So I sprang to my sleigh, and out to Michael’s Crafts I went. As I dashed into the Tree Trimmings aisle at Michael’s Crafts, I scanned the shelf for something – anything – that I could plunk on top of my tree. And then I saw her in her plastic sleeve, her taffeta dress and wings folded and pressed against it. A 50% off sign sealed the deal.

I jumped into line, ten customers deep at the time, and as I drew closer to the cash register, I caught sight of a Christmas star with colored lights that would have matched the small colored bulbs that adorned our tree each year, instead of the angel’s dignified, tiny white lights. No matter: I had a topper for the tree, and I was good to go.

We got home, she and I, and we set about finishing the tree trimming. Bigs was pretty small then – about 3 ½, and of course, he wanted to help. I just wanted to be finished, in all honesty. I had cookies to make for a swap, after all, then all the Christmas photocards to address! My husband clipped the top branch so she could fit on top of it and we plugged her in, where she cast a soft light over her dominion of cardboard cutout pictures, noodle wreaths, and various PBS cartoon character ornaments that were so central to my children’s early Christmases. Nothing matched: she really belonged in a white, silver and gold montage. But good enough, I thought, turning to the next holiday obligation.

“Mommy, is that you?” I heard a small voice say in the living room. “No, sweetie. I’m in the kitchen,” I called out, rummaging through my spice rack for ginger.

“No, Mommy. Look!” Big’s voice became insistent.

I stepped away from the countertop and went into the living room. Big was pointing to the top of the tree at the angel.

“That’s YOU, Mommy,” he said, as sure as he could be.

I was wearing yoga pants; she was in a long, flowing white dress. She had wings; the hood of my sweatshirt covered my shoulders. Her hair was golden and flowed in perfect waves to her back: mine, while blond, was bundled up in an elastic and hadn’t been washed since the day before. Her face was an image of contented joy. Up until that moment, mine was a reflection of how overwhelmed and cranky I had felt all day. But my little boy thought that we had everything in common. He told me that night that I was his angel. I scooped up Big in my arms, overwhelmed by such plain, strong love and approval.

I have heard many kind remarks come my way; I am lucky to be good at what I do for a living, one that I might consider, even, a calling. I fit the description of what most would call attractive. I have a good singing voice, and an even better sense of humor, I’ve been told on more than one occasion. But I doubt, though I may live to a very ripe age, that I will ever hear a better compliment than the one Bigs gave me that night. It was exactly what I needed to hear, precisely the message that I craved, and, ironically, the one that I was walking and busying myself away from, when what I needed was right there in the room I had just walked out of.

There’s a famous Victorian poem, “The Angel in the House”, written by Coventry Patmore about his ideal of the perfect wife and mother. It’s completely unrealistic and describes a woman – his helpmeet- as wooden a character as my tree topper is plastic. The poem is an example of why I think people have angels all wrong. They think that angels represent a standard that we can’t possibly reach. We describe our children, usually when they are sleeping and not actively being themselves, as angels. We put them on pedestals, where we can’t reach them, or they us. They are God’s “wing-men”, and either with Him or relegated to the heavenly host, those who are already perfect – and we believe, too often, that we certainly can’t say that about ourselves. They speak wisely and calmly, are always put together, and never make mistakes.

Kind of like the mothers we think we should be, especially during the holidays.

But angels are, really, messengers. That is what the Greek word for angel, aggelos, really means. And people can be messengers. So as much as I will, even on my most together days, not look or even act totally angelic, I will be a messenger to my family and those I care about, and I will consider carefully what message I give them.

And when I looked into our angel’s eyes as I put her gently back in the tote where she lives for the other eleven months of the year, I thanked her for being the vehicle for the message that Big gave me.


Child Proof


I am just home from a tennis clinic, and I shudder to admit this, but I’ve left my children in the care of highly volatile caretakers. People who would not hesitate, if there were combustible materials, to light them on fire. People who believe in the rough justice of the backhand, pinching the offender until his skin turns purple, or hitting him in the groin. Sound a little like Gitmo? Gulag? Grand Theft Auto?

This morning, I left my two sons home alone. With each other. Which is the same thing, if I am lucky.

I am a little new at this. Hopefully, they left each other alone, although they were in the same house. Hopefully, there was not a war on the large soft pretzels in a box the size of a window air conditioning unit that I got snookered into buying at the Cost Club.

Hopefully, I will arrive home to a quiet house: not too quiet, though, because when they are quiet, they are plotting together, usually against one of my rules. It’s one of the only times, lately, that they get along.

Now that they are 13 and almost 11, they don’t need me to, say, hover over them and make sure that they make it down the stairs without breaking their necks. There are still little divots from the safety gate hardware at the top of the staircase, my own version of “childproof” which means, now, that I need proof that they were once little children. Now, safety is on a whole new level, and the stakes are higher for the hazards that my children face.

Today, “childproofing” around here means that I clamp down on the devices (which I squirrel away in my little hiding places, places where the boys won’t look – the linen closet, the top shelf of a hutch, the veggie drawer of the fridge) – and sometimes where I forget I’ve put them. They earn them back for an hour at a time after they do their summer math packets or read – an hour for an hour.

Along with these devices, I also hide lighters and sweets, especially the crap my husband buys. If a meteorite hits and life as we know it suddenly ends, future anthropologists will sift through the ashes of my homesite and conjecture that Xbox controllers and colored butane vessels were placed in a Coptic jar as an offering to the goddesses Sara Lee and Little Debbie.

I am seriously considering investing in a footlocker. I’d have the combination (because I don’t need one more key on my keychain – I’m beginning to look like the building superintendent of a small apartment complex). Along with these items, I’d put the moderate amount of liquor that my husband and I keep in the house. A contraband container, if you will.

Perhaps, gentle reader, you may question why my spoken house rules are not enough. Shouldn’t my children obey me when I tell them not to do or use something? Don’t I supervise them, aren’t I around enough?

Yes, yes, and yes. In an ideal scenario, all of these things would happen. But life is seldom ideal. I need my energy and can’t afford to waste it by sweeping the house for contraband items. And I am addressing the needs of the two most important people in my life, keeping their bodies and minds safe and functioning…no matter how long it takes their frontal lobes to catch up with their arms, legs and other parts.

And when I am getting an hour and a half of exercise (and I’ll admit it, girl time) in the morning, when my children should be sleeping or reading a book, but might have different ideas of what is good for them, I don’t want them frittering their summer vacations away on electronic impulses which evaporate, leaving them with little more than good motor coordination.

And the fact that Bigs is now 13 and my husband and I like a pre-dinner cocktail on the weekends makes me think that my vigilance and responsibility shouldn’t end with “kid stuff”. I don’t fool myself – I don’t have the luxury of that sort of blindness. I just found out that parents that I trust – good parents – keep guns in a cabinet that can be easily unlocked by their 13 year old with a coat hanger. He showed my 13 year old just how to do it, the last time Bigs went to the house. And as a high school English teacher, I’ve lost more than one student tragically to substance abuse. I know that saying, “Not my kid”, is just calling fate down on my head. We all know what happened in the ancient myths to the mere mortals who demonstrated hubris, that unique combination of arrogance, denial and pride. Usually, their children went along for that nasty ride, too.

I also know that the word “proof” doesn’t only mean “evidence”. If we look back at the word as it was used centuries ago, it was used synonymously with words like “test” and “armor” which was tested in order to be deemed worthy for actual battle. Even with my footlocker, I won’t be able to assure my sons’ security. My children go out into the world without me, and I may heartily disagree with other parents’ decisions about electronics, combustibles, junk food, and firearms, and ultimately, my children will have to negotiate those decisions themselves. But while they are in my house, I need to send them a message: No means No. There is accountability. I care enough about you to make you (temporarily) unhappy.

And I am willing to prove it.

The Vagina Monologue (7th grade version)


My sons really like girls.  They have since they were very little.  They see them as perfectly acceptable cohorts, play-date mates, and partners in crime.  Girls, especially older girls, sometimes think they are cute.

Little, at the age of 5, articulated his adulation for those who run the matriarchal society: “They smell nice and are soft and sometimes give me candy and are good at manhunt.”  Little knows what’s good.

My older son, Big, is no different.  He likes girls, and they like him.  He is in 7th grade this year, and it’s a bit of an understatement to say that boys and girls are starting to understand some pretty critical differences between them. Big, who is the oldest in our household, (hence his nickname) sometimes hangs out with children who have older siblings, and he learns some things, let me tell you. So when he came home with some gender-specific smack talk, I paused to let him know that I was listening.  Yes, the Girl in the house was listening and didn’t like what she was hearing.

“That wasn’t very friendly,” I said, after he tried out “Bros Before Hoes” and taught it to his younger brother, who, by the way, was happy to share what he had learned in 5th grade with his older brother, most of it involving “boobies”.  This was becoming a conference quickly.  I wanted to nip it, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the bud before it became a rally. I gave my youngest a Look then warned my older son to stop.

“What do you mean by that – bros before hoes?” I quizzed him. “You know, some girls can be psychos,” he said. “They want to date you, then they  get mad and you have to buy them stuff to get them not to be mad at you and then you can’t hang out with your friends.” I held my tongue and decided not to tell him about my 12th grade boyfriend, who was so controlling and jealous that I had to hide when I was just hanging out with my own girlfriends in high school.  Another story, but one in a long line of examples that not only girls can be “psycho”.

Instead, I just told him this: “Hopefully, Big, the girl who is lucky enough to be your girlfriend someday (emphasis added) will be your best friend and you will want to be with her.  She’ll probably be pretty and cool – but she will not be a princess, right?”  (I’m just checking.  We have the No Princesses talk periodically).

Eye roll from Big.  “Yeah, mom.  But girls can be psychos.” “Hah!  So can boys!” I one upped him in typical “I know you are but what am I?” fashion.  Then I remembered that I am the adult.   (It’s really no fun sometimes.)

“Seriously, Big.  Cut the girl bashing.  A lot of your good friends are girls and you could hurt their feelings.”

Another eye roll.  If you asked him, I was making a mountain out of a hoe-hill. A few days later, Big came in from school and in a casual discussion with Little, busted out the C word.

Yes, that one.

The C – yoU – Next – Tuesday word. Cue glass breaking.  Lightning bolts striking.  Eclipse. Direful screams.

Everything stopped. In slow motion, I felt, my head turned and it was all Godzilla and Rodin. Screeeeeeeee!

Needless to say, there was turmoil at the kitchen table.: wha wha wha wha wha (cue Peanuts adult sound effects).

And then, a smirk from Big. And I had had it.

And once I was over being angry, I started to worry.  Worry that my son was changing, that boy-dom was changing him, from the sweet little puppy that followed me around adoringly to a werewolf that couldn’t contain the moonlight madness and sprouted beastliness like stiff hair from pores all over. I worried, most of all, that Big would believe the hype about women from boys – and men -who didn’t understand or validate them and vilified them instead, and, as horrid as that would be for the girls, that he would ultimately be all the poorer for it.

That night, we drove to our guitar lesson.  It was quiet on the road.  Nothing but green lights all the way down the main street and more winding side roads before our 15 minutes in the car together would be up.  My opportunity.  I have started to realize that car seats are great places to have conversations with boys  – no challenging eye contact, a captive audience, no judgy neighbors or family members to hear you, and if need be, distraction per the radio or passing scenery.

“Big, I need to talk to you today about the way you have been talking about girls and their parts.  Particularly their brains and their vaginas.”

Vagina.  The word hit Big like a bolt.  He leaned into the car door, willing the side airbag to swallow him up.

“And since you keep bringing those parts up – in a really disrespectful way – I am going to tell you the truth about them, and you are going to listen,” I continued, mentally checking my speed and taking an inventory of the car doors. “First, it’s a vagina – not a synonym for a cat or anything that starts with C.  When you talk about one, use the correct term.  Vaginas are amazing creative forces…”

“OH MY GOD, Mom…” He was positively slumping, becoming one with the floor mat.

“Hey, YOU keep bringing it up, Big…so as the owner and operator of one, I am going to tell you to stop speaking disrespectfully of them.  Everyone gets here on earth because of the vagina.  It’s the way in, and most of the time, it’s the way out of a woman’s body.  For everyone. “

“MOM!  YOU ARE SO EMBARRASSING! I can’t believe you are saying these things!!” he moaned.  But I had let the vagina out of the barn door, and there was no stopping it.

“Oh no, son.  You brought it up and I asked you not to, several times.  You ignored my request.  You were disrespectful.  So we are going to talk about the VAGINA now.  People you love – who love you- have them.  I have one, Grammy has one, my mother had one…and someday, you might want to get very close to the owner and operator of one.  And no self respecting, cool, smart woman is going to let you get close to hers if she hears you talking about vaginas the way you have been recently.”

He was silent.  He was thinking.  He was desperately hoping I was done.

“So, Big, are we clear on this?  Have I made my point?” Big nodded.

It’s been a few months and the girl part bashing has stopped.  I am satisfied that I’ve struck a win for girls everywhere, no doubt, but the biggest win for me is that my son will grow up to understand that girls are people with some different parts but similar feelings, that they can be valid allies, perfectly acceptable friends and even mothers – women who want their sons to go out into the world and create rich, meaningful relationships with people, regardless of what makes them different from him.

Welcome to Our Home!


Isn’t it beautiful?  Notice the symmetry, the order, the color palette.  This, clearly, is the foyer of a home where live orderly, civilized people.  And welcome to it!  Would you like some herbal tea?

Actually, I can’t really offer you any, because of…



…this slice of art: “Still Life With Athletic Cup”.  Yes, that white thing on the floor is the focal point of my (real) foyer.  This is my life, life in the frat house.  I am the only female in this house, and if my children and husband get their way and we get a dog, they plan on it being a male.  Which would put me even deeper in the testosterone tank.

The foyer of my reality is a still life of, well, my life.  By Friday afternoon, it’s messy!  I work full time with other people’s children, so I scoot in and out of my own house all week on a wing and a prayer, and it shows. If you arrived at my door, I’d pretend to not be home out of pure embarrassment, but since this is a “virtual” visit and we’re not naming names, let’s take a look around, shall we?

Dress socks, ripped off as soon as the older one gets into the house, not to be worn for One. Second. Longer. than need be.  A book bag, probably with a smooshed sandwich and leaky drink inside of the matching camo lunchbox.  What fond dreams of coordination and monogramming I had in September! A trumpet –  practice makes perfect…veeery eventually around here – in a case that could hold a dead body.  Jackets and sweatshirts in a wrestling match of their own making. Size 10 men’s cleats; my 12 year old son’s. And my husband’s running shoes.

It’s not as if I haven’t tried to claim the foyer and convey a more orderly sensibility.  Note my garden trug, star player in my bucolic dreams of gathering organic, heirloom tomatoes, gleaned by the sweat of my brow, Rhode Island sunshine and seacoast trade winds.  My delicate (ladies’ size 9) pink Sperrys, a farmhouse table I’d love to describe as “careworn” but more likely distressed in the past 5 years by car keys, 16 ounce hammers left on it after minor home improvement projects, and leaky Gatorade bottles.

A brass ginko leaf, which I thought might hold seaglass, but, instead, a massacre of Lego men with various missing parts.  And a stack of books from our albeit smallish but excellent town library, ranging from a biography of a Supreme Court justice to Old Yeller, which is what my younger son’s class is currently reading.

But look closely, under the scatter of my life as I live it right now.  And I do have to pause and look closely on most days.  I spy an angel table runner, a reminder to be grateful for this sweet, hot mess.

A reminder that this messy, noisy life – full of boys – is the answer to my prayers.

A fine site