E.T. Phone Home

My teenage boy is an alien. And by alien I mean foreign. Far away from me. It’s not so much that I don’t understand him, or that he communicates as if he’s from another planet. There is some of that going on some of the time, but I’m learning to decode and even speak that language (Mmm mmm mmm means “I don’t know” in Teenglish). It’s more like he and I are in different countries, and we call each other only when necessary. To check in. Or remind him to wash his face. Or ask me to email the karate teacher.


He’s actually not quite a teenager – he’s 12 and a half. Exactly. And I know much is likely to change in the next six months before his barmitzvah. His voice might break. He could grow a whole foot. The glimpses of sullenness and defiance I’m seeing now will probably turn into full-scale epic movies of extreme emotion. I’m bracing myself for way more drama than when I took him to buy “nice” clothes and he grabbed the pants the sales lady held out to him, and actually threw them on the floor. At her feet. Apparently he doesn’t like dressy clothes – frayed cargo khakis and a polo shirt are as “dressed up” as this NorCal boy will go. Thankfully the lovely lady at Nordstrom has two grown sons of her own and remembers those days. But I cringed in horror as I watched my usually even-tempered, go-with-the-flow boy flail in frustration.

We don’t need much from each other, he and I. He usually just gets on with it. Walks to and from school. Even in the rain. Grabs a snack for himself. Does his homework. Gets consistently good grades with seemingly little stress and effort. Brushes his teeth without being told. Jokes with his brothers. Loves his Rubik’s cube. Reads sci-fi books. Watches Psych and Modern Family. I sign his math test or reading log when he asks, he doesn’t beg me to drive on field trips, casually mentions we’re out of frozen waffles (his breakfast of choice) but is happy to find something else to eat.

We spend a little time together in the car, just the two of us, when I take him to his barmitzvah lessons or to karate. But even then we don’t talk much. He answers my questions about school and friends with no more than three to four words. Not in a moody teenage way, just very matter-of-fact. Sometimes he’ll give me a fun fact, or relay a quick story. Ask me why humans are born with an appendix. As we drive passed the park he might yell out the window to someone. “Who’s that?” I ask. “My friend. Michael. He’s in my Spanish class.” Oh.

Remember when I knew all his friends, and their parents, and where they lived? When I could picture him at recess playing basketball or foursquare with those friends, knowing what he was eating for lunch because I packed it for him?

I’m not sad that he’s growing up, becoming independent. I’m not feeling nostalgic or wistfully remembering when he was so attached to me he cried solidly all day every day for the first three weeks of preschool. In my mother-heart I know that he is happy, and thriving, and enjoying his seventh grade life – even if he doesn’t share the details with me. He still loves to eat the cake batter out the bowl. And I leave the chocolate chips out of the banana bread – he hates chocolate.

Our long-distance relationship works for both of us. He’ll happily babysit the younger ones if I ask him to (meaning, if I pay him to). He helps me unload the trunk, fixes his sister breakfast, explains the math problem to his brother. All with no fuss. Unfazed. I can’t remember the last time he needed help from me or his dad, with anything. Schoolwork. A difficult social situation. A problem with a teacher. I don’t worry if he doesn’t come home straight after school, or wonder what he’s getting up to online. Girls are still just friends, if they exist at all in his world, and on the rare occasion I catch sight of him on campus or on the soccer field, he is engaged and social.

His baby brother wakes up wailing, and I bury myself further under the covers. I hear him crying and mumbling to himself, trying to get dressed, but I don’t move. And suddenly this little guy is at my bedside in the half-dark room, and before I even open my mouth to ask what’s wrong, the big almost-man-brother in dinosaur pajama pants is taking him by the hand and leading him out. “I’ll help you,” he says. As if he knows that I need just ten minutes more of quiet.

I am so thankful for this easy boy. Because son number two is not easy – needs so much from me all the time, and always has. Wants to talk and process and find out what I’m feeling and thinking, needs help with his homework, pounds his drums when frustrated or yells that he’s running away from home. And daughter and baby boy have requirements of their own, one being a second grade girl in a family of boys, and the other the youngest of four. Part of the fun and challenge of being a parent, navigating the different personalities and needs and moods of each child. And I wouldn’t have it any different (well, maybe a little different – like just one kid less). But my Big Easy Boy means a little less stress, a quarter of calmness in the frenzy, 25 percent more headspace for something or someone else.

And in his not-neediness I keep him in mind. Fix him an after-school snack. It’s a one-off thing. I’m not even sure if he’s coming home from school. Pastrami on a challah roll with the baby gherkins that he loves – no mayo, no mustard. I leave it on the kitchen counter on a plate, next to a note scribbled on a piece of scrap paper I fished out of the recycling: Daniel. Love Mom. I use the faintest black gel pen. Minimal effort. Minimal fuss. It feels like the most maternal thing I’ve done since I stopped breastfeeding the youngest three years ago.

He calls as soon as he gets home from school.

“Mom? So yeah I got the sandwich… it’s nice.”

I love you, Mom. And I know you love me.


Reposted today as inspired by the Finish the Sentence Friday prompt: “I know my child would rather I not reveal this…” Hosts: Kristi from Finding Ninee and Stephanie from Mommy, for Real. Guest Hosts: Kelly from Just Typikel and Anna from Fitfunner.

I wish I knew what she was thinking

That blank stare.

I never knew if she was happy, angry, sad, pissed off at me, or maybe not understanding my fast, accented English. Was it not okay that I dumped the groceries in the kitchen and then dashed out again? Should I not have asked her to clean the pantry if she has time? I just never knew what she was thinking.

Hard to get an emotional read on an already sensitive situation: employer-employee, woman to woman, have versus have-not.

I am sensitive to it because of how I grew up, with housekeepers and gardeners. Somebody to make breakfast and wash the dishes, unpack the groceries, do the laundry, water the garden, feed the dog, keep the bathrooms clean and the house tidy. That was how most white South Africans grew up. Somebody to babysit us when my parents went out, or for my little brother to stay with when my mom watched me and my sister at ballet recitals and drama festivals. Somebody, or two somebodies, to help. They made our beds, played with us. Because our parents worked and also because they didn’t. I know many Americans and Mexicans and Brits and Israelis and Brazilians who grew up the same way. With hired help.

It’s the way of the world in certain countries and in specific socio-economic communities – those that can and have and need to and want to employ those that will and have not. Employer-employee. It works like that.

Except of course, it’s not so simple. It’s not just employer-employee. It’s a system laden with undercurrents of guilt, with feelings of superiority and inferiority, of not wanting to offend or insult but still wanting the job done right, of wanting to do the job right but feeling unsure or insecure.

I’m sensitive to it because now I’m a part of it. Now I am navigating this complex emotionally fraught system. Equal parts expectation, responsibility, guilt and gratitude.

She came to work for us seven years ago, when my daughter was four months old. With barely any English at first, she quickly became indispensible to me. I hadn’t had consistent help before, and it was a relief to be able to leave this child asleep in her bed, and not in her car seat, while I drove a carpool. To go to Target unaccompanied. To have all the laundry washed, dried, folded and put away before noon, and by someone else. To come home to a house smelling of Pine Sol and orange floor cleaner. To have an extra pair of hands on deck when one was blowing bubbles in the bathtub and one was about to hurl herself down the stairs, while yet another was making a beeline for the dog food.

But if I spoke too quickly, if I told her not to take the baby to the park, if I asked her to stay late or leave early or do it a different way, she would look at me, with no expression in her face. “Shit,” I thought. “Is she mad at me? Did I say something wrong? Something offensive?” I hated to think that she felt silent or silenced, that she couldn’t tell me what she really felt or thought. Or that G-d forbid she didn’t love me all the time. That she wasn’t happy.

I was uncomfortable in this role, as employer of this woman – not much younger than me – who was taking care of my children and cleaning my house, putting away my underwear, hearing my arguments with my husband, throwing birthday parties in the park for my babies at her own expense. Birthday parties with piñatas and carefree fun and Spanish songs and laughter. The birthday parties they remember in living color.


This woman, who had left her parents and her seven brothers and sisters and her home in Guatemala at the age of 22, and walked across Mexico for eight days and nights in harrowing conditions until she somehow made her way to Oakland and to me. Mercifully unscathed on the outside, but what about the inside?

I had left my country and my family too. But that was the only similarity between us. I was uncomfortable with what I had and what she didn’t. Citizenship. Financial resources. Language. Her parents would travel hours to her brother’s house just to Skype with her – mine flew across time zones to visit me in the flesh. And I could go to South Africa, or Guatemala, or anywhere in the world whenever I wanted.

Did she begrudge me? Did I act spoilt? Ungrateful? Was that the blank stare?

After seven years of taking care of me, of loving my babies, chopping my vegetables, making my bed, speaking my language, spending time with my parents, her longing to go home was burning so strongly in her heart, I could feel it across the kitchen counter.

So she did.

Her return journey to me was one of unknown peril and fear and angst. Eight months of collect calls. Of tears and worry. She said she was fine. Treated well. They would let her in, she was sure of it. But I could hear the doubt in her voice. I could feel the regret in her heart. I wasn’t sure we would ever see her again.

Yesterday was her birthday. She turned 32. Her first day back at work. In my house.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, her eyes blank.

“Really?” I pressed.

She continued folding one of the boys’ t-shirts. And with no expression in her face, or her voice, her dark eyes looked honestly into my green ones:

“I’m happy. This, your house, is my second house. My home.”

Don’t say the F-word

There are very few words in the whole of the English language that I don’t love. I love the shape of words, how they sound in my head and out loud, how they feel in my mouth. I love speaking words and reading words and writing words. Long words, short words, nonsense words, new words (did you know the word “selfie” was invented in Australia?), words that rhyme, fancy words, slang words – and now I am sounding like a Dr Seuss book, so I’ll stop. You get the picture. Words are awesome.

But there’s always one that ruins it.

A tiny four-letter word. A word so apparently meaningless, but so laden with meaning it almost collapses on itself when spoken out loud.

F. I. N. E – Fine.

Awful word. Deceptive. Sly and sneaky.

Right away, it has too many functions: it’s an adjective, a verb, a noun and an adverb. Already having an identity crisis and it hasn’t even been used in a sentence yet! Put yourself somewhere, man, and stick to it.

Then it complicates itself further by having multiple meanings within all those categories: delicate, nice, healthy, bright, clear, polished, good-looking, sharp, pure, elegant, okay, excellent, exceptional, pleasant… for G-ds sake, find yourself! Say it and move on.

But the biggest problem I have with the word fine is the way I use it, to answer that easy breezy question:

“Hey Nicki, how are you?”

“Oh… fine…”


That’s what I say when I am anything but! I am not excellent, I am not bright, not even just okay. When I say I’m fine, I am usually the total opposite of all those things. But I say it. And there it floats, that silly little four-letter word, on a cloud of its own empty white puffiness, drifting benignly for all the world to see.

actual tweet from @OMGFunniest 12/9/2013
actual tweet from @OMGFunniest 12/9/2013

So then why did I say it? Why say I’m fine, if I’m not?

Usually I say it because I really do want to be “fine.” I want to feel polished and exceptional and bright and shiny – but I don’t, in that moment. So fake it till you make it! If I say it out loud enough, I’ll start to believe it and if I believe it then I’ll be it. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Or I say it because there’s just not enough time as we pass each other in the parking lot for me to tell you how I’m really feeling – your grocery list is too long, and I’m off to my appointment and it feels wonderful that we ran into each other like this, but I’ll just tell you I’m fine because I’m not, and you’ll tell me you’re fine, and maybe next week or next month we’ll grab lunch or a drink and we can tell each other how fine we really are. Because I know you are not asking just to be polite, and that you really do care.

Or maybe you’re asking just to be polite – because it’s the way we greet each other in the western world. And if you didn’t ask me how I am, it would be rude. But I know you don’t want to hear that I’m anything but… fine, so I say I’m fine. I don’t say I’m great (because I’m not feeling great), I don’t say I’m sad or tired or angry (because I’m sure you don’t really want to know that I’m any of those things, and then you might feel you’ll have to ask me why I’m tired or angry and offer to help or something and you have your own not fine-ness to deal with). So I’m fine.

Feelings Inside Not Expressed (acronymfinder.com). Shrug. Smile. Meaningless, but so full of meaning.

The lying and posturing and pretending that all is in order when it’s not… That’s the direct translation of the word “fine” in Hebrew: beseder – in order. Life is seldom “in order,” for any of us. It’s messy and complicated, and we rage and we love and we’re exhausted and happy and hungry and frustrated – and we’re even fabulous or excellent or exceptional. Let’s express!

Full disclosure right here: I’m not going to say it anymore. I really hate the f-word – even more than I hate the m-word!

And that is saying a lot.

*m-word = moist