Having a kid later in life stirs stuff up for This Old Mom. Smells, sensations and long-buried memories, designed to be forgotten once outgrown, bubble to the surface—like our very first loves. Grace’s first love is her lovey. It’s just a blue chenille square cloth with ribbon tabs and lots of stinky stains, but it’s Grace’s Rosebud. It’s her twitch, her compass, her happy place. When she’s done in or put out, all that will soothe her is basically an ornate smelly washcloth.
I loved drawing. I drew on EVERYTHING, library books included, which got us blacklisted from more than one Long Island library. My lovey was a metal coffee can, filled with colored pencils and crayons. I carried it everywhere and insisted on sleeping with it. My mom says a shrink told her the pencils were a penile fixation because my dad was in the Marines and didn’t meet me till I was ten months old. Thankfully my mother had a friend who said, “She likes pencils and crayons because she likes them. She’s 13 months old.”
I forgot about loving something so much that you HAD to sleep with it until Grace HAD to sleep with her lovey, then her lovey and her new soccer shoes. I forgot about passion for something so precious that I couldn’t bear to fall asleep without staring at it. It’s good practice for sharing your bed with people. First it’s shoes, then it’s dudes. Or women. Or cats. Or dogs. Or all of the above.
The sad thing about memories is that when we grow up, we forget what we loved to the degree that our verisimilitude depended on that object before we could even articulate why. Maybe that’s why this time of Grace’s life is so tender. She won’t remember any of it and I’m taking Gingko Biloba by the pallet in the hopes that I do.
Now that we are sliding into the unrelenting one-two punch of Halloween and Thanksgiving, mercilessly followed by the flying clothesline of Christmas– Grace has miraculously revived my long-forgotten love of holiday decorating.
Truth is, I might have loved decorating for Christmas more than actual Christmas. My sisters and I were worse than Costco– we would have easily chopped down a Christmas tree during Labor Day weekend if our mother let us. But as soon as Thanksgiving was over, we tore down those allegedly festive popcorn plastic turkeys in Pilgrim hats, which looked like chewed up crayons melted together.
Then, we’d decorate the holy hell out of our house, using every single decoration that had amassed over decades, since our mom never, ever breaks up with anything Christmas-related, because there’s a memory baked in each follicle of tinsel). Then as we grew up and acquired our lives, we forgot our past.
But Grace provides me with a childhood do-over. Last week we gleefully gutted the 99 Cent Store Halloween aisle. Then, while we hung silvery skulls and spider webs, I tossed out the AARP mail as fast as it darkened my doorstep.
This Old Mom has friends from college (and before)–some have been married for thirty years. We are so old we remember taking out money from an actual bank teller on a Friday and carefully meting out actual dollars all weekend until the bank reopened on Monday. While most of us are fighting the good fight on the front lines of anti-aging, some are letting their glittering gray hair grow in after years of dying the evidence. And they truly look incredible, as if illuminated from within.
I also have new friends who are in their thirties and forties– some who’ve dyed their hair gray because gray’s the groovy new hair color trend.
Logistically, my NEW gray-haired friends are my friends because our kids are friends. But emotionally, we are fast becoming deep friends because we are all raising our feral toddlers together (see Is Toddler Code for A$*hole?, Are You An Old Yeller?).
My old gray friends were my loveys as we navigated NYU, NYC and the dubious achievement of garnering expensive degrees in Undergraduate Drama. My new gray friends are my new loveys: we’ve held each other’s children as they sobbed or bled or slept; we’ve brought blankets and books to NICU and ERs; we’ve wiped butts & noses: we’ve run over with medicine or pull-ups at midnight, we’ve grabbed each others’ kids from running into traffic.
I didn’t plan on my new gray friends becoming so dear, so necessary, so fast. After all, I didn’t go into the business of motherhood in order to make friends. I already had friends. I knew I’d meet parents, but I didn’t expect to LOVE these women to the degree that I can’t imagine being a parent without them in my life. What’s better than having someone absolutely cool, funny, smart, and interesting–not exactly to talk with, but someone to be repeatedly interrupted with, while your kids play?
Not that there aren’t obvious age gap moments. A new mom friend recently said to me while we watched our kids tackle each other, ‘As you would say, they’re “thick as thieves”’. I sat there, feeling Mark Twain old. After that I crawled back to my old gray friends- only to find they had new young friends too.
My old friend Mara changed her life at the midpoint, too. I became a mom; she became a therapist. Her new dear friends are fellow therapists she bonded with during the grueling process of attaining Master’s Degrees and building careers. Mara and I tease each other about our new crop of friends. We both get it- Mara can discuss conferences and clients with her fellow therapists, just as I get to gripe about making lunch and no sleep with my new dear friends. Mara’s husband, Daniel, has also been my friend since NYU in ’82. They married one day, in between classes, at City Hall. They also had the first baby of our friends- a daughter, who is loping towards 30.
Last fall Daniel was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. He’s 54, so he’s still handsome, tall, well dressed, soft-spoken, with an aging hipster gaze projecting just the right amount of progressive skepticism and impeccable taste in music. But the inner Daniel is slipping away faster than I dared to fathom. Mara’s been blown sideways by grief, trauma and exhaustion at what every new day brings.
After much planning, Mara and Daniel had us over for dinner. I warned that Grace turns into GraceNSTEIN the monster after 8pm so a 6pm start was wise. DInner for us is the Early Bird special, designed for oldsters and kids. Vegetables were roasting in the oven, hummus and chips were proffered, wine was opened and Peruvian Jazz was playing. Mara asked Daniel to mind the roasting vegetables.
While Daniel and Andrew nerd-bonded over Pliny the Elder and other small batch beers brewed in someone’s bathroom in Sacramento, Mara, Grace and I set the table and laughed about how our new dear friends were astonished by our stories of rampant sexism at the hands of bosses, teachers, boyfriends, and boyfriends’ fathers. We snorted over how politically incorrect our millennial girlfriends found us regarding race, homosexuality, politics, abortion, sex and gender politics as the forgotten vegetables turned into woodchips.
Daniel felt badly that the veggies were incinerated. When it came time to roast the chicken, he pulled a chair up to the oven and watched the raw chicken through the thick oven window. After 7 minutes, Daniel took the chicken out and jammed a meat thermometer in the not even pink wingpit. “160 degrees! It’s done. Let’s eat!” Mara gently urged him to put the chicken back in the oven. After three minutes he did it again, so we coaxed him out of the kitchen in hopes that the chicken might be done by 10pm.
We danced, chatted and I tried not to worry as it grew perilously late. Sure enough Grace began losing the plot. When she’s had it with everything, she imitates me when I’ve had it with her. She barks each word as it’s own sentence.
Grace: I. WANT. TO. WATCH. UMI. ZOOMI. AND. EAT. RICE PUDDING.
By the time food was on the table, Grace refused to eat with us. As I scrambled to locate Youtube on Michelle’s un-kid-friendly iPad, I fed her food I’d be ashamed to show my new dear friends. We grimly ate dinner as Mara gently kept Daniel from eating the burnt Brussels Sprouts or from absently refilling his wine glass over and over– while I tried to whisper bribe Grace into behaving less feral in front of my friends.
I was scared every time Mara gently took something away from Daniel or reminded him to be careful. The old Daniel would never have stood for being coddled or corrected, and the old Mara never mothered or browbeat him. They were a deeply individual yet connected couple—perhaps this was the secret of their success. But now, instead of telling Mara to back off, Daniel would just mutter a quiet ‘oh’ and look down at his plate, while Grace laid on the living room rug rocking and moaning, ‘I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home.’. And as I worried Daniel’s feelings were hurt, his tape loop erased what had just occured- almost mercifully, all remorse vanished from his face. The present moment is all he has. Just like Grace.
We exchanged worn out chatter as we said our goodbyes, our minds squirrely with worry about mustering the energy to continue on our separate challenging paths. After decades of having our lives move in very separate worlds—Mara was in Mommy and Me while I was divebombing in and out of stupid relationships. At this juncture our trajectories are aligned– some days we just don’t make it into hair and make up as we endeavor to care for and steer our beloveds away from dangerous narrows they don’t know enough to fear. The present requires too much of the both of us to scare ourselves imagining what the future brings.
But our new dear friends are our tender mercies. They mollify and love and respect who we are and cheerlead us as we struggle to achieve our best possible selves as parents and caregivers. We need our new blood to defend us to ourselves if we are too hard on ourselves, just as much as we need our old blood to not judge us when the broccoli is in ashes and the conversation a little repetitive and easily misplaced.
Mara and I called each other the next morning– both apologizing for the disasters of the night before. But, when you’ve been friends as long and as diligently as we have, there really is no need to apologize for a tired child, an ill partner, a messy living room or a late dinner.
There is no black and white when friends become family. Life is millions of infinitesimal shades of gray– different and nuanced and lovely and miserable and funny and strange. Then Mara and I laughed because we realized, yet again, as we have done, on and off, for 30 years. We hadn’t seen each other in months, but somehow we both had exactly the same haircut. Hers is now a brilliant, light-catching gray– mine is a ‘still hanging in there’ sandy reddish brown with wisps of silver at the temples.
But I’m catching up to her.
In honor of Halloween, let someone (or something) put a spell on you…
Screaming Jay Hawkins performing his signature song in 1956.