Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lives like snowflakes

It’s fun to be immersed in other people’s long lives once again.

My new company, Concord River Publishing, recently signed on to write a community memoir at a nursing home in Newburyport. Last week I did the interviews – twenty in all – and this week I’m drafting the stories.

It’s my second full-scale community memoir, and I wondered as I approached the project if the stories might start to sound familiar. Last year I wrote about 47 people in their eighties and nineties at a continuing care community in Bedford; now I’m talking with twenty people at a very similar facility on the North Shore. Demographically, the two groups have much in common: their age, their educational and professional backgrounds, their predominantly East Coast roots.

But as I dove into the interviews, I was reminded once again of how no two stories end up being alike. This set of seniors includes military veterans and scientists, professors and doctors, homemakers and gardeners and boaters, people widowed young and couples celebrating sixty or more years of marriage. Some had children and some didn’t; some lost children.

So yes, of course there are commonalities. But just as each participant has a different name and face and history, each story manifests differently, because people recall different details from their lives, impute importance to different aspects of their experiences, and react to twists of fate with different attitudes.

It’s only our second project, but I don’t anticipate this work ever growing dull. “Everyone has a story to tell,” my colleagues and I say when we approach potential clients. And perhaps this task on which I’ve set out is a little like collecting snowflakes. Many are similar….and yet each is ultimately unique. My mission is to catch each story like a snowflake and examine it until I can extract the essence of how it is different from every single other story out there.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Friendships that flourish, thanks to our kids

Sunday was Tim's birthday. On his first birthday, I think I received as many congratulatory notes as he did, but now that he's fifteen, less of a deal is made even among other moms about the "mom-birthday." This year I heard from just one mom wishing me a happy Tim's-birthday. It was the mother who shared a hospital room with me during the two-day stay after Tim was born.

Later that day, I visited with a friend I hadn't seen in a while. Well, really only a few weeks, but it was that critical first-few-weeks-of-school, and we had a lot to catch up on: how high school was going so far for her son and for mine; a landscaping project she had tackled Labor Day weekend; what was new at her workplace. We became friends after our sons bonded in a fourth grade reading circle.

Last week I worked on a feature story about apple picking. Fishing around for a clever lead, I put the word out to a circle of contacts that I needed an apple-picking anecdote. The first person I heard back from was a mom I met in the mother-baby group that Tim and I started attending when he was three weeks old.

It all reminded me of how many friends of my own have come to me through my children: from the woman I shared a hospital room with through those mother-infant groups and into preschool and elementary school, from friendships forged while watching our kids play baseball to friendships forged over school volunteer projects.

When our children are born, it's fun to imagine them having friends of their own someday, but I don't think I realized how much of an effect Tim would eventually have on my own social life. His friends' parents are our friends. So are the parents of his teammates and classmates. We've met people we never would have crossed paths with if our kids hadn't enjoyed hanging out together.

This wasn't something I expected as a perk of parenthood. I thought I had enough friends earlier in adulthood, before kids were part of the picture. But I'm so grateful for all the new faces the kids have indirectly brought to our circle. It's a benefit of parenthood I didn't anticipate.

Later in the evening, during Tim's birthday party, I took a picture of him and his three guests. Then I emailed it to each of the kids' mothers. They all wrote back within the hour to thank me.

It was a picture of kids celebrating Tim's birthday. But to me, there was a subtext to the photo as well. It was a celebration of my own friendships: some of the ones I'm most grateful to have, and friendships I wouldn't have without Tim.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A new school means a clean slate -- for me!

I expected that my predominant emotion when I drove up to Concord-Carlisle Regional High School to drop Tim off the first time would be apprehension.

Instead, to my surprise, it was liberation.

I didn’t know this place, true, and that was unnerving. But the up side to being a stranger suddenly became obvious: I didn’t have any pre-existing commitments here. I wouldn’t be likely to recognize people if I were to walk into one of the buildings on campus. I didn’t have any projects under way that needed attention.

All of this may sound more like I’m the one going off to high school rather than Tim, but I’m afraid after nine years as a parent volunteer at my kids’ school, this is how I think. At our local K-8 school, from which Tim graduated last June and Holly just started sixth grade, the campus is full of reminders of tasks I’ve undertaken. Seeing the school library reminds me that I’m in charge of scheduling volunteers once again this year. The lunchroom reminds me that I need to make a vegetarian entrĂ©e for next week’s teacher appreciation luncheon. The playground reminds me that it’s time to sign up for recess duty. The familiar faces of staff and other parents remind me of dozens of pre-existing relationships that I try hard to maintain.

At CCHS, I have none of those associations. Last summer, a woman in her eighties whom I was interviewing for a memoir project told me about what it was like when she moved from a suburban community where she’d raised her family to an apartment on Beacon Hill. “It was wonderful,” she said. “I didn’t owe anyone anything. I hadn’t served on their committees and they hadn’t served on mine.”

For some reason, her turn of phrase amused me. It doesn’t exactly have the poetic eloquence of an ancient Native American proverb, but those words were echoing in my mind as I dropped Tim off for school: “I haven’t served on their committees and they haven’t served on mine.” It’s impossible to go through nine years at our local school without taking on myriad tasks and responsibilities as a parent volunteer. Most of the time, they’re a lot of fun; it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to get involved in so many child-related events and projects.

But the high school gives me the irresistible sense of a clean slate. I don’t know the reputations of Tim’s teachers or the distance between his classrooms. I don’t have opinions about his schedule. I don’t know anything about any of it, and best of all, I’m not on any committees yet. I have yet to make a single misstep as a parent here.

The time will come, no doubt: for committee work and for missteps as well as for good memories of presentations, student productions, football games. There are new people to meet and there will eventually be new tasks to undertake; I don’t know of a single school, public or private, that doesn’t draw heavily on parental participation these days. But so far I haven’t taken on a thing. And so instead of the expected feeling of strangeness, I approach this new phase with a sense of relief.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Off to high school

I started worrying about this day almost exactly two years ago. Tim was starting seventh grade. He was entrenched in middle school: one year down, one under way, and one more to complete. There was no question by that time that high school lay dead ahead.

And the mere thought of that sparked dozens of questions in my mind: questions with which I peppered my many friends who have older children for the two years that followed. "How will I know if Tim is registered for high school?" "Who decides what classes he should take?" "What time does the bus come?" "How does he sign up for afterschool sports?" "What's the dress code?" "What will he need for school supplies?" And so on, and so on -- throughout the past 23 months and well into this past August.

The problem was that I found myself at an unexpected disadvantage when it came to sending Tim off to high school. Since my children are growing up in the same town in which I was raised, ever since kindergarten, Tim has attended the same school I attended. This year, ninth grade, will be the first time I've ever sent him off to a school where I don’t already know the smell of the hallways, the sound of the between-class shuffle, the feel of the humid food-tinged air in the lunchroom, the location of every lavatory. Since he's going to the public high school and I attended a private school, I know almost nothing about the institution he's about to enter. In fact, after two weeks of pre-season football training, he's already spent more time on the high school campus than I have in my entire lifetime thus far.

But ironically, looking back now to when he started kindergarten, I realize the sense of familiarity I had back then was actually somewhat falsely rooted. My belief that I knew the school inside and out turned out to be misguided. I would discover in the course of the weeks and months that followed that the kindergarten classrooms had moved. The cafeteria had been rebuilt. The schoolday schedule was different. Recess was held on a different part of the campus. Even the buses used a different entrance from when I was in school. So for all my complacency, believing I knew the place inside and out, it turned out there was plenty I didn't know about my old school by the time Tim arrived.

Somehow, even without my ersatz expertise, over the past year Tim has managed to get registered for high school classes, to gather the school supplies he thinks he'll need, even to navigate his way through two weeks of freshman football training already. And I know that tomorrow, he'll start learning his way around campus with no help or input from me. Because it turns out not to really matter whether I feel ready for this particular milestone or not. Freshman orientation starts tomorrow, and Tim feels ready. If I'm not so sure I'm ready, that's my problem, not his.

I like to think it's because of his nine happy years at our local K-8 school that he's able to make this transition so confidently. I'm the one who is filled with uncertainty. But no one is particularly concerned with how I feel. Unlike kindergarten walk-through, parents are not invited to freshman orientation at Concord-Carlisle High School. Tim will make his own way, and even if it's all unfamiliar to me, it will all be familiar to him within a matter of weeks. He'll do this transition without me. And hard as that may be for me to accept or envision, some part of me knows -- and celebrates -- that it's exactly as it should be.