Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

When your male children grow old enough, it becomes apparent that they do not understand you. The fact of their gender finally trumps the connection - intense, near reverent - forged in utero. Oh, but they are fond of you, and take care with you, as if you might break. (You might.) They show affection even as they cock their heads to one side, uncomprehending. What they do when they are alone, you imagine, is shrug and allow thin plumes of exasperation to rise up - but never in front of you. You are honored, and will continue to be so honored, simply by having substantiated them. They will not forget that you conveyed them here, even if they forget everything else.

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At Christmas I carry my ghosts, my mother on one side, my grandmothers on the other. From my ordinary family life I am removed, preoccupied with the comfort and care of these people who are not able to be there. I do all that is expected of me, but if you were to take my photograph during the holidays you'd find me pale and blurry, not quite present. I do not think that my sons or husband notice my half-absence. That is for the best.

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I seek out video footage of the city I lived in for the length of my childhood as if I might find myself in it. As if in a crowd of people walking up Madison Avenue I might spy my mother, Audrey Hepburn lookalike, walking with a little blonde slip of a thing fighting to keep the pace. (Children had to accommodate their parents then. Parents did not accommodate their children.) Perhaps my grandmother would have joined us, her red lipstick vivid, her hair done up in a chignon. Elegantly dressed but never dismayed by a child's grubby fingers tugging at her sleeve.

Sometimes I wonder how we go on. I mean this not in a trivial way - of course we go on, one foot in front of the other, all that. More how we lose these people so important that they might well be appendages and then still manage to be fine, better than fine, even, for more years than the years we spent with them.

I do it by imagining that I have lived not one but two lives. There was a life then, there is a life now, and there is only the faintest overlap between the two. The overlap is greatest at Christmas. 

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With ferocity I love my children, even if they don't know half of me or the people who made me. Love is elastic and manages to cover over the gaps and crevices pretty well, I think. When my children look at me across the Christmas table this year, they will find neither my mother nor my grandmothers. But somehow I am certain that those three women will peek around me to see these grown/almost grown boys, and love not the descendants they imagined they'd have but the descendants slouching in their chairs, refusing most of this food -- love them and me as we are, all these years later.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

On Tangible and Intangible Rewards

There is a first grader in our classroom who is struggling a bit with learning how to read. The other day I noticed that when we played a board game during indoor recess, this child seemed motivated by collecting the chips that accompanied the game - red, yellow, blue, and green plastic counters. I wondered whether using those same chips would encourage more perseverance in sounding out words during reading times. And lo, it worked!

I came home from work happy at a small but real success, and relayed to my teen how chips had worked to encourage reading stamina.

"Wait," he said. "Potato chips? THAT IS AWESOME."

We all have our reinforcers.

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I myself am struggling to lose weight. I've noticed that when I finish my work day my first instinct has been to go to Starbucks to treat myself. But because I am trying to move beyond food and drink as reward, I have been making a list of other, less tangible rewards I can offer myself - a phone conversation with an old friend, a walk, getting a few chores done. I don't have to tell you that this kind of reframing is not easy, but I think it may be especially challenging for a person who as a child was offered treat after treat after treat.

When your parent has an eating disorder, as mine did, she is likely thinking about food obsessively. She may deny herself the food but bestow it (often in excess) on her children. My favorite foods were always in the refrigerator. One might have found three or four varieties of cookies - all gourmet - and as many kinds of ice cream in my childhood home. Of course my friends loved it. I took it for granted and did not eat at all healthfully, which did not impact my health even slightly as I was tiny, a gymnast who practiced a good twelve hours per week.

No longer am I a gymnast. No longer am I skinny.

Old habits are the hardest to break, aren't they? Especially ones formed in childhood, I think. My mother did not offer love easily or often, but she did offer food, and food is a form of love, yes? Even if it is not homemade food, and even if the providing has more to do with mental illness than with mental health.

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I remember particularly these Valentine's Day cookies that came from a Manhattan gourmet food shop called Word of Mouth. They were heart-shaped Linzer Tortes with raspberry filling and lemon curd icing, and yes, they were divine. Every February my mother ordered my brother and me our own boxes of twenty-four of these cookies. Twenty-four huge cookies for each of us!

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I am not a child and have not been one for longer than the entirety of my childhood. Colorful counters are not rewarding to me, if they ever were. Word of Mouth closed many years ago. The reward I must seek, I think, is the anticipation of a long life in which I remain healthy and mentally sharp. Yet how hard is it to work toward something that is a good twenty to thirty years in my future, should all go well before then?

Starbucks and I, we've had to break up. Still, other people have worked through far greater struggles than mine. I believe that I can do this, and surely belief is an important prerequisite of success.

Onward. Food may be love, but love, it does not have to be food.

The learning, it never stops.