She is hanging on to the end of a frayed rope, she tells me, recounting a recent battle with her daughter. How the seventh grader begged and pleaded for five straight hours (five!) to get a confiscated cell phone back. How the little twerp first wailed, then bargained, and finally, stomped outside without a coat on, flatly refusing to come back inside.

As I listen, I try to remember what it was like to share living space with a thirteen year old girl. I picture my own daughter at the same age, whose teen years were strawberries and whipped cream by comparison. I dig even deeper into the recesses of my blurry, menopausal, mind to remember what I was like at that age, too.

Here’s what I recall.  Thirteen wasn’t pretty. Not by a long shot.

My friend is tired and a whole lot older than I was when I was raising teens. This doesn’t help. You have to to have a lot of energy to deal with Thirteen. You can’t be off your game, even for a minute, I remind her. Thirteen is sneaky, I say. She doesn’t really hate you, I say. She doesn’t really want to live with her best friend’s family, I say.

I hear silence and then sniffling on the other end of the line.  She tells me she doesn’t have time for thirteen. I tell her that “not having time” isn’t one of her options, knowing that, as we speak, Thirteen is upstairs in the pink bedroom with the One Direction posters on the wall planning her next air strike.

Thirteen is bubblegum scented lip gloss and black nail polish. It is much too short and much too tight and much too much of everything but a lick of compassion for other people. It is bedroom doors slamming and tears. Thirteen is going to bed a child and waking up a woman, ready or not. It is “you can’t make me!” and “Emily hates me!” and “you’ve ruined my life!” Thirteen is the lead actress standing at center stage with an imaginary audience hanging on every word.

These days, my battle weary friend wonders if she’ll make it out of the theater alive.

If we’re very lucky, we get to raise a daughter. There’s no other relationship like it.  But we want so darn much for girls, don’t we? We want them to know how amazing they are, how lovely, how smart. At thirteen, all they want from us is their cell phone back.

She tells me she thinks her daughter might be acting out because she’s adopted and I smile at my end of the line. She worries that the behaviors are a result of some deep seated psychological issue that therapy will uncover and then, in time, address. That her girl will ultimately return to being the child she was a year ago. Sweet and compliant and not utterly insane.

I listen.  Perhaps, I tell her.  Perhaps.

Or maybe, I tell her, she is just Thirteen.

Old Men

Just a year ago, he rolled his wife’s wheelchair up and down the hallways. And each time he passed a woman, he’d stop dead in his tracks and say, “Oh, my! I’m the luckiest man in the WORLD to be surrounded by so much BEAUTY! It’s too much, I tell you! What’s a guy to do? All these beauties in one place! Wow!” If skilled nursing facilities had “Hall of Fame” nominations the same way high schools do, he would be awarded the title of “Class Flirt” every year.

Now, I don’t know him personally, but I have to say that each time I saw him coming, he made me smile. He never said it in the cheesy, mildly creepy way that some older guys do, either. He actually appeared to be awe struck.  Like somehow, he had won the Pretty Girl lottery just by moving to that particular facility with his frail, quiet, soul of wife who day after day, sat placidly while he scooped compliments sweet as ice cream onto every other female within scooping distance.

A few months ago, his wife moved on without him. Turns out, she didn’t need the wheelchair where she was going.  And now, it is just him and the chair.

In nursing homes, time is measured in the space between heartbeats. Last week, I saw my friend resting in a recliner in the lounge. He was watching, of all things, the final scenes of the film “The Shawshank Redemption” on the large flat screen T.V.  It was lunchtime, and pretty, young, nursing assistants ambled past in the hallway carrying trays of meat loaf and mashed potatoes or pushing the wheelchairs of residents to the dining room. Every so often, one of them would glance into the lounge where he sat engrossed in the movie, a white blanket pulled up under his chin.  In the film, Brooks, the oldest prisoner, gets parole after fifty years of incarceration. After the character’s release, he finds that he misses the other inmates and the life he had in prison. The old man and I sit at opposite ends of the lounge, watching the credits for the film flash on the screen, each of us considering the ending in our own way.

There is a brutality to a man growing old all alone. It pulls hard at one’s heart.

Back in something resembling real life, a long legged blonde in pastel scrubs helps the man who reminds her of her grandfather to his feet, pivots, and settles him ever-so-gently into his wheelchair. She kneels closely and asks him if he is ready for lunch. He looks deeply into her eyes. And then he beams. What’s not to love about a pretty young thing taking an old man to lunch, after all?

A year ago, he saw the beauty in every woman he met.

His smile tells me that he still does.

Today, that is enough for me.


Tidying up

Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing up is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing. -Phyllis Diller

This is why I should never buy self-help books in January.

I resisted the urge to pick up the small aqua hardcover entitled The life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by Marie Kondo three times during the holidays. Three times.

Then, a week ago, I was in Target and the darn book called to me.  Seriously.  I’m pretty sure that I had an out of body experience where I was teleported to the back of the store to buy this decluttering bible written by a woman who makes her living organizing the stuff other people. I picked it up and leafed through it.  It was 30 percent off. Wait, what? The chance to change my life was on sale?

Okay, so I’m a little vulnerable this January. I’ll admit it. The kids have flown the coop, but about 30 percent of their accumulated stuff is still in limbo in the bedroom purgatories of their own making. So yes, I would say that parts of my house are desperately in need of a little decluttering, for sure.

I read Kondo’s book from cover to cover in one evening. She is a hoot even when she isn’t trying to be. She might also be a tad bit OCD, if you ask me. In the Introduction, she talks about how, as a child, she spent a lot of time sneaking around and throwing away her siblings’ possessions because she just couldn’t help herself. Kondo believes that it is important to keep only those objects that bring joy. She spends a great deal of one chapter walking her reader through the process of determining which articles of clothing are joyful and which ones are clearly not. She almost lost me here. It seems like a lot of pressure to put on a sock, if you ask me. Her advice was a little too flaky and woo woo! for a practical Scandinavian who considers anything that isn’t grossly uncomfortable or scratchy to fit that bill.

Despite my doubts, I decided to take Kondo’s advice and change my life.  I’ve been working at it for three days now, and I’m exhausted.  The upside? My closet has never looked better. Neither has my office, which has been liberated from an entire laundry basket full of books I’ll never miss. Next on my list are the kitchen cupboards and food pantry, but those will have to wait since I’m recovering from asking every  book I own whether or not owning it brought me joy.  I can’t bear the thought of having that conversation with my dishtowels yet. I just can’t.

Until I can, I’ve decided to spend some time decluttering my mind instead. For starters, I will think only of the people I love and the places that bring me joy. Next, I’ll toss out negativity and needless worrying. I’ll probably scrap cable news and bellicose politicians, too, while I’m at it.  Yup. That’s my next project in January. A good, old-fashioned, spiritual housecleaning. Then, I’ll put on a pair of warm, joyful, socks and sit by the fire while I refresh my soul with sweet music and good books on cold, winter evenings.

Sorry, Marie. The kitchen cupboards can wait. That’s what doors are for.

I have more important things to do.

Fresh starts

I spent New Year’s Eve alone, but don’t feel sorry for me. Not one bit. I spent the evening putting together an IKEA chest in my son’s new condo while he was at a party in Uptown celebrating being young and employed. His sister was out celebrating somewhere, too.  I’m happier if I don’t know exactly where my grown kids are on New Year’s Eve. We all reach this point, don’t we? We realize we’ve done all we can in terms of trying to keep them alive, say our prayers, and just go to bed.

After all these years, I am a Jedi Master when it comes to putting together IKEA furniture. The pictures and directional arrows that pass for instructions actually make sense to me. This is probably only because I am part Swede. I tightened the last screw as the ball dropped in New York City, toasted my mad IKEA skills with a glass of orange juice, and was in bed by 12:30. Their father, who always has the good sense to go to bed at a reasonable hour, was fast asleep three hours away, no doubt dreaming of ski trails since we finally have snow.

It is January. The Boy is moved. It is a fresh start for us all.

The Christmas tree came down yesterday.  There are a few pieces of dried up fudge in a container on the kitchen counter waiting to be pitched and a ham bone to make into some bean soup.  This week, a new semester begins. I’m looking forward to teaching a Novels course for the first time.

Our house is too quiet and too clean again. For the first time in years,  there are more empty bins than full ones in the garage. Our kids each have their own nests and lives they’ve chosen and earned. And this is good. So good.

Who knows? It’s a new year.  Maybe their dad and I will get a dog to fill the empty space in this nest of ours. After all, nests should never be too quiet or too clean or too empty, right?  At any stage of life?

Today, as I ponder fresh starts, that is all I know for sure.