New York City
I'll be honest with you. This has not been a sun-kissed summer for me. It has been dark and full of challenges, conflict, and competing needs.
For one thing, I thought self doubt diminished to zero by age 50 and was replaced by wisdom, the right words at the right time, undying patience and self effacement. That was silly, unrealistic, and downright fantasy. For another, when I began this blog on New Year's Day, I had hopes of writing the sacredness of the day to day--sort of parables. How incredibly self important that was!
What I've found, is that the posts that have the most universality, that resonate for me, are the ones that are the hardest to write. The ones about my flaws, my stumbles, my fears. And they generally involve the people closest to me which can be tricky to write about. They are about the anguish of the day to day in my family--any family, I suppose.
I decided a long time ago that I would not go through this life without digging deep, wouldn't accept the superficial. I loved studying philosophy, theology, psychology--anything that dealt with the "why" questions of life. I wanted to be all I could be, take risks, move outside the box.
And then the two-by-four of life whacked me in the behind. My father, the love of my life, died when I was 19. I was left alone with my mother, a gracious, rather shy, and very structured Victorian woman. I was left with a mother who had to learn at 55 how to manage on her own, and I now imagine, felt ill prepared for the task, and not particularly challenged by it but rather put up with it. It took me years to forgive God for taking him away. I had wanted to learn how to be a CEO, and knew my father could teach me how. I don't think I ever thought another man could live up to his legacy. I'm still plagued with that unrealistic view of him. He and I never went through the inevitable pains of adulthood with grown children. I never was able to challenge him and hold my ground on my beliefs like I watched my brother do with him--fights at the dinner table over the politics of John F. Kennedy ( my father was a Republican's Republican ) or a liberal philosopher.
That was the first of my" growing up" whacks and it took years for me to feel safe. By the time I was 25,and lived in Iowa City, Iowa. I had two children and my marriage was young and tenuous. By 35, I was divorced making too little money for a family of 3 in Philadelphia, and teaching at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania where the viscousness of the politics rivaled any I've ever experienced in 30 plus years in the world of work.
Still, I wanted to know those close to me. I wanted to know my siblings, connect with their inner selves--find out what kind of adults the had become, what we had in common. I pursued them. I pursued my mother although she was always difficult for me since she seldom spoke from her deepest self. I never really thought she approved of my rather bohemian, open book lifestyle. But she was there for my children--flew out to Pennsylvania from Iowa three times a year to be with us--for plays, graduations, vacations at the shore. Still, I never felt as if I knew her; always felt as if she was hiding, letting only a little bit of that deep self peek out from time to time. I wonder now if I just didn't have the right words to ask the right questions.
I remember one time near the end of her life, I went to visit her in Iowa, She was depressed, and beginning to show signs of dementia. Lying in her French provincial, whitewashed twin bed she stared up at the ceiling. I sat gingerly on the other bed, careful even then not to muss up the hand- embroidered bedspread . She remarked something about wondering if my sister, brother and I really loved her. I remember my reply: "Well, of course we love you, mother. It's not sitting-at-your-feet 'I love you adoringly' stuff. We do it in our own way."
This summer, my sons and their lives and mine have intersected because of a series of life events--and not always pleasantly: Ben is about to celebrate his milestone 35th birthday; Chris became a father for a second time on July 31; I celebrated my 60th birthday. All of these events have required some conversation, some planning. It's always complicated because there are more players than when we were just three; Chris' family, Ben's girlfriend. Just the exigencies of busy lives. Questions aren't as welcome, tempers flair more easily. Sometimes, I think it would be easier just to not plan, not try to arrange events --not to initiate.
Last night, Chris, Ben and me had a very rare evening together. Chris and Ben were shooting a book reading for the documentary they're doing about Mr. Rogers. I was in the grocery store when Ben called me about 7pm and asked me to come by the reading at Barnes and Noble on 82nd St., said that there weren't many people there for the event. The writer had just done a book about Fred and had done an in depth interview with Ben earlier in the day.
"Mom, aren't you coming?" I was a little surprised, and pleased that he wanted me there. He had pursued this writer and convinced him to do the interview while he was on the New York leg of his book tour.
" Well, I didn't want to hover--this is your gig and I though you would want some distance", I explained.
"Well, come over. Just bring your groceries."
I did. Ben introduced me to author, Tim Madigan, with great flourish:" This is my mother, Mary Catherine Bolster."
Madigan looked up from his books neatly stacked on the desk in rows.
"Well, you must've done something right. I love your sons. Nice to meet you."
Tim and I talked for awhile although there was a line of about 10 people behind me waiting for his autograph and inscription. We talked about our separate memories of Fred, of our similar roots in the midwest, Irish heritage. At one point, I felt a shoe pressing down on my sandaled toes. I looked up at Ben who was frowning,then down at his foot on my bare toes.I gave him a look. He whispered:" Let other people talk to him." Tim gave me a hug, asked me to keep in touch, and I went on to talk to Tim's wife, Catherine as Ben got his books signed.
Dinner was chaotic. At one point I remember saying: "Why don't you two go on and we'll have dinner another time." ( That was shorthand for " I'm not sure this is a good night for a family gathering-- there's some unspoken tension here and I'm not confident that this is the time to have a go at resolving it.")
Ben seemed a bit cranky but to be fair, he's running MTV online and they are getting ready for the Video Music Awards on August 31st, so he is under pressure. Chris seemed distracted but to be fair, the guy has a two week old, had driven from the Jersey shore the night before, driven to Manhattan yesterday, picked up sound gear from some buddy's locker downtown for the shoot, brought a car load of furniture up the steps of his New York apartment ( 4th floor walkup ) and then assembled it so that it would be ready when his family returned from Jersey. Still, I was ducking some "smart bombs" off and on during the evening as we picked through mountains of sushi.
As I walked home ( with my remaining groceries ), I thought to myself that it went pretty well. No blowups. Annoyances, maybe, but no direct hits. I was glad I went.
This morning, the cell phone rang. It was Chris. "Are you finished assembling the bed? Everything ready for you to go get your family", I asked him.
"Yup, Mom. Hey, ya know, I just wanted to say... I just wanted you to know... that you maybe got a bum deal last night with Ben and me. I mean, it may not've been what you signed up for with dinner and all being chaotic and all. I'm glad you came, though. I just wanted you to know that."
Tears welled up in my eyes as I groped for the right words to express my gratitude for being, I suppose, acknowledged for trying to find the balance between being present and getting out of the way.
I can go for weeks without hearing from Chris. And he's not much of a talker, certainly not small talk. Feelings aren't always easy for us. And then this call. This ... initiative. I'll never forget it.
I guess I'd better listen to my own admonition to my mother about adult children and their ways of loving.