One of the best parts of my week is driving my oldest son and his best friend to their karate practice. Not the driving part. Driving sucks, especially driving a minivan. The part I love is being in this small space with two teenage boys, no eye contact possible, and hearing what (if anything) they have to say.
Sometimes it’s just a random comment about school or the idiot driver in front of us. Sometimes there’s real news to share, like his sister was accepted into the college of her choice. Mazal Tov! and how does he feel about her being gone next year, he’ll be the oldest in the house… good, bad, indifferent? Sometimes there’s nothing to say at all, and I turn up the AltRock a little louder and notice them staring out the window, each lost in thoughts of the day that was and still to come.
Yesterday we briefly discussed the benefit of memorizing a poem for English class (“Jabberwocky”), the “Miracle of Life” video they watched last year in 7th grade which they wish they could unsee (I don’t know how this came up, but it sounds like a realistic portrayal of childbirth), and that the proudest moment in each of their lives to date is their bar mitzvah.
These two boys have been friends since the first day of preschool. At two years old they found each other and connected over Legos, which is one of only three things they have in common: Legos, karate, and soccer. Where one is adventurous and loves the outdoors, the other is happy at home with a book. One plays Minecraft, and the other the guitar. Defense versus attack on the soccer field. One likes to row, the other skis black diamond.
They don’t hang in the same crowd at school, and as they get older and the differences in their interests are more defined with each passing year, it would seem that they’d naturally drift away from each other. They don’t even attend the same summer camp.
And they are closer than ever.
I listen to the way they interact with each other on the way to karate every Tuesday and Thursday, and I marvel at their easy friendship. They agree and disagree, call each other out and laugh at the same jokes. There is a comfort, security and closeness between these two that transcends their daily lives of different social circles and activities.
“Both of your proudest moments are your bar mitzvahs?” I ask, with a smile. “Well yeah,” they reply, almost in unison. “We haven’t had such long lives yet,” one of them adds.
It’s true. Their lives are young.
“Thanks for the ride,” they both mumble as they grab their green belts and slam the car doors. Neither of them is wearing any shoes and they pick their way carefully along the tarred road. They are deep in conversation.
Their lives are young, yes, and full of the promise of more friends and girls and teams and schools. More opportunities to not do things together. But that doesn’t matter at all. They’re both working toward a black belt in karate.
These two are best friends. And I have a feeling they always will be.
It sucks to be the new kid. Lonely and intimidating. It feels like everyone is noticing you, snap-judging you and the dorky whiter-than-white shorts you chose to wear, but really nobody is… and you’re not sure which you’d prefer.
I was 13 when my family left South Africa. I departed the cozy womb of my small 8th grade class at the only Jewish high school in Pretoria, and entered the loud, frenetic, unfiltered school of new everything in Hod Hasharon, Israel. The faces I knew even better than my own, the voices I had heard every day since Kindergarten, the secrets and jump-rope games (24 Robbers Came Knocking at My Door!), netball practices and Liquifruit juice boxes, blue blazer with the school badge and sensible black shoes… all were replaced with unfamiliar, uncomfortable, daunting and overwhelming.
I stood in the doorway of my new class, in my ridiculous white shorts, my almost-grown-out perm caught up in a scrunchie (omg I know, but it was 1987) and tried to smile as every strange face turned toward me. Gulp. Then turned away. Double gulp. Would I ever feel familiar here? Would I ever learn all their names? Recognize these voices? Would anyone ever greet me, never mind tell me a secret? Who wears white shorts when she wants to blend in and be cool? We called the teachers Shmulik, Malka, Naomi… Mrs West, Mrs Burger and Mr Coetzee were unimaginably far away.
Within weeks, I had ditched the white shorts. Learnt how to play Five Stones and basketball. Fell in mini-love with a cute, shorter-than-me boy named Dani. And shared laughs, secrets, dance moves and sleepovers with my new friends. Lonely, scary and intimidating made way for happy and comfortable. Hebrew colored my dreams. Unfamiliar became home, and I never did miss wearing that blue school blazer.
Twenty three years and a drastic hairstyle change later, I was once again the intimidated, lonely new kid. This time with a baby in my arms, a clingy child wrapped around one shin, and a flailing, angry seven-year-old. Who inappropriately and very loudly declared to all those gathered on the blacktop in excited anticipation of the first day of school: “I’m not going to school with these freaks!” He didn’t declare it loudly, I correct myself. He yelled it. And by all those on the blacktop, I mean the entire student, teacher and parent population. He too was a new kid.
Heads turned. The baby cried. My little girl tightened her koala-grip on my leg, and I tried to dash after my indignant, scared boy who didn’t know what to do with these new feelings of bewildered and uncomfortable loneliness. I felt them too, and I wished for any length of badly-permed hair to hide behind, instead of the short spikes that were surely standing every which attention-grabbing way on top of my head.
New year. New school. New teacher. New friends. I hoped. For both of us.
It had been decades since I had been the new kid. Since I had felt out of my element. Lonely and alone. And there I was, wishing I were anyone, anywhere else, the 36-year-new kid, feeling 500 hundred shades of glaring invisible on the blacktop.
My newly minted first-grader was mad. He hadn’t wanted to leave his old school. The friends he had known, played with, shared meals, toys, germs with since he was two-years-old. That was my decision. And his dad’s. And as my heart shattered on the blacktop into so many sad and lonely pieces that first day of new school, when he floundered and raged against a decision that wasn’t his, I wondered if we had done the right thing. For him or for me.
“It’ll be okay. Here, give me the baby,” a kind, firm voice said in my ear. She had a baby and a clingy kid of her own to deal with, but she whisked mine away so that I could help my distressed son. And myself. Her blue eyes looked straight into mine, “First days are hard. It’ll be okay.” I passed the baby into her waiting arms. And I believed her.
Four years later, there is not a new kid my son doesn’t notice. Befriend. Invite over. He shows them the pass-through in the fence between our house and the neighbors’, and all the kids fill water balloons and throw them at each other. They leave flip flops, hair ties and other bits of themselves in their wake.
“It’ll be okay,” the blue-eyed-stranger-now-friend said, when she drew me out of my lonely, bewildered new-kid moment on the blacktop. It’s not okay. It’s wonderful. Because of her. And all the moms and dads and kids and teachers and grandparents and people like her. It’s a small-ish town, with a big, big heart. Where everyone is a neighbor, a friend, someone to help, to care about. And hopefully the new kids don’t feel new for very long. Especially if they do not wear white shorts!
This post was inspired by the Finish the Sentence Friday prompt, “When it comes to my neighbors…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee and guest host Allison from Go Dansker Mom.
My littlest one is graduating preschool tomorrow. Big day! He is the baby of our family but definitely not a baby anymore. He is monkey bar strong, too cheeky for my own good, kind and not so kind, teases his friends and begs for sleepovers, busy all the time with his Legos, water balloons, and “fairy dust” (ground up chalk that finds its way into everything). He is five-year-old little and five-year-old big all at once – squirms his small body into our bed most nights and can’t understand why he’s not allowed to stay home by himself like his brothers when he uses words like “hideous” and “actually”, eats teenage bowls of cereal all afternoon, shoots baskets better than they do.
He loves his preschool, the sandbox and slide, his teachers and friends – but he is bursting out of himself, like an uncontainable jack-in-the-box just waiting to spring into kindergarten with his arms up high: I’m here!
Yep. Big Graduation Day tomorrow. For him. And for me.
I’ve been dropping off at, picking up from, volunteering and shopping for, complaining about and loving this preschool for 11 years. In a row. No breaks. Sometimes I had one kid there, sometimes two. Sometimes as one was graduating, another was starting. It’s the only school all four of my children will attend from start to finish. And the divine Morah (Hebrew for teacher) K with the squeeziest hugs and most patient heart is probably the only teacher in their academic history that will teach them all. How lucky they are!
Since 2003, every week day, for ten months of every year, I have driven the route from my house to the preschool and back, at least twice a day if not more. I think that’s about 15,000 miles. We have no less than 12 homemade menorahs to choose from at Chanukah – who knew that bolts stuck on wood made the best Chanukah candle holders? – and almost the same number of Passover seder plates. I have devoured about 400 kid-made challahs (the yummiest challah in the world), and have helped raise thousands of dollars for the scholarship fund, facilitated the construction and dedication of a new classroom, and cooked countless meals for families and teachers with new babies and new homes.
I have watched my children’s two-year-old tears of separation and toddler anxiety transform into confidence, laughter, knowledge, friendship and pure delight in being at their home away from home. I have felt their teachers’ love, warmth and nurturing spirit – not only for each of mine, but also for me, my husband, even for Pretzel the dachshund.
Tomorrow we say goodbye to this haven of creativity and expression that has quietly brought constant calm to the chaos and confusion of daily life. For all of us. For 11 years.
I thought I would be sadder. I thought I would be sad. That it’s over. To say goodbye.
But I’m not.
I’m excited for my bursting jack-in-the-box to be in kindergarten in the fall, at the same school as his siblings. He can count, and form squiggly letters, and say the blessings on Shabbat. He knows about bridges and butterflies and how the world was created and he’s been in a fire truck. He knows how to share and have compassion and to empty the sand from his shoes before he comes into the house.
I’m not sad. My children – all four of them – are the still-growing people I am so proud of today because of that preschool. Those teachers. I am joyful.
And also nostalgic.
Longing – a little bit painfully – for those days when we would collect our three-year-olds and head to the park after school. An intense, necessary, sympathetic, close group of mamas, we would gather at the park with snacks and babies and picnic blankets and a gaggle of kids, and spend every afternoon chatting, gossiping, comforting, helping, friending. There was nowhere else to be but right where we were, with each other.
I miss that.
We are all still friends, but some have moved away, and all have moved on. Those three-year-olds are in middle school. The babies now have younger siblings. There are too many places we have to be after school, and it’s rare to run into each other anywhere.
That’s what I’m sad about.
I know life carries on, we move forward, sometimes slowly and reluctantly and sometimes with all the enthusiasm of an uncontainable jack-in-the-box. But as the sun sets on my years as a preschool mom, I am longing for those simple days of little kids, and bags of Pirates Booty (never thought I’d ever say that!), and long afternoons of more-than-friendship in the park.
Tomorrow he will walk through the rainbow, like all the graduates at our preschool do, and like his brothers and sister did before him. My eyes will well with tears of pride and joy – and a little bit of pain and longing.
Want to go to the park after school? I’ll bring snacks.
There is no better place in the world to enjoy a cup of real English tea than in England.
The thing about tea is that when it’s good, it’s very very good – heavenly actually – and when it’s bad, it’s horrid. And we don’t get very good tea in America. We get Lipton. And Lipton is horrid.
I’m not talking about herbal tea. The U.S. has fabulous herbal teas, many even locally produced like Oakland’s very own Numi Tea, and I love me a cup of organic mint or chamomile tea after a meal as much as the next guy.
But that’s not the tea I adore. My tea is real English breakfast tea, milk two sugars (although now I’m trying to eliminate sugar because I live in California where everyone is eliminating something from her diet and I had FOMO). So real English breakfast tea for me, with milk. And by real I mean not a U.S. brand. This is the Starbucks nation after all. I mean a brand from England. Or anywhere in the U.K. Or South Africa. Australia. I guess a brand from anywhere they play cricket. Because tea and cricket go together like Laverne and Shirley, Danny and Sandy, E.T. and Elliott (all of whom are American and would probably never drink tea, but rather double espressos. Sandy is Australian though – she definitely drinks tea).
Tea makes my day. It starts my day. Often ends my day. Calms the chaos (all that caffeine) and enhances the calm (more caffeine). It has moved me through moments of terrible sadness and despair, and held me happier in the happy. Weekend afternoons are always about tea, whether rain or shine, soccer or swimming (no cricket in my very American family) because that’s how our parents do it in South Africa, and that’s how their parents did it too. One of my favorite memories is slurping tea from my grandmother’s saucer, like a cat.
And last week I did get to enjoy tea in England. And it was delicious. It wasn’t even a special brand – just regular PG Tips, but the English kind. And it tasted so much better. I didn’t pay attention to it while I was drinking copious cuppas in England. Rather, I noticed it when I came home. Because when I made a cup of tea on Saturday morning – real English tea – in my own kitchen, it tasted different.
It could have been because of all those, or none of those or some of those. But it was definitely because of who I was drinking those cups of tea with in London.
A friend so dear and special. A friend who has known me 35 of my 40 years. Who wanted to clear the slate on a little dispute we had in high school. Who loves “Mad Men” as much as I do and for all the same reasons, Don Draper being only one of them. Who remembers things I have forgotten and who can’t believe the things I have remembered. Who took me to see the fantastical cut-outs of Henri Matisse and then schlepped the banks of the Thames with me in search of tea and scones. We came up empty-handed – can you imagine? No traditional tea and scones on the south banks of the Thames?!
We made tea for each other every single day, many times a day, during my week-long stay in London. We sat together at the beautifully distressed wooden table in her kitchen, while her slightly unruly English garden steps away on the other side of the glass door soaked up the gentle rain. She thought I made the best cup of tea, and I thought she did.
Because a lot of love and decades of friendship, book reviews, gossip and chitchat, fashion do’s and don’ts and movie synopses, big decisions, hard conversations, silly stories, and so many tears and hysterical laughter and comfortable silences were poured into every cup of tea, made each one stronger, taste better, last longer.
I missed her on Saturday morning when I drank my suddenly strange-tasting tea without her. And it may well be there is no better place than England to drink real English tea – or it may just be that I miss my forever friend.
Because the thing about finally being together after a long time apart, about spending wonderful time with that special someone I haven’t seen for a while, is that I miss them more than ever after.
And the tea tastes a little less satisfying… but only until next time.
“Hot, fried, and awesome. You know you’re in the right place when there’s live country music… at the airport!”
I’d been in Nashville all of four hours when I sent this text back west to California. Four hours. Hardly enough time to fall properly in love with a place. I’d glimpsed the muddy Cumberland River, deduced that the tall AT&T building was the Nashville skyline, looked down a hot, still 4th Street and wondered where the hell everybody was on a Thursday afternoon. Downtown Nashville. Not a soul in sight.
But I was. In love.
There’d been that live country band serenading me as I walked my red boots through the Southwest terminal. The best devilled eggs I’d ever tasted at lunch. The only item not fried at the friendly Southern where the hot chicken burns, and the cocktails go down way too easy. There was that southern accent flirting with me in the hot, steamy air, the twang that melts every bone in my body, and enough y’alls to send me to heaven and back again. And there was Johnny Cash. Just there. On the street. In an abandoned parking lot.
We have murals in Oakland. They’re beautiful. They brighten the darkest underpasses, and bring colorful life to bare street corners. They’re of typical Oakland-ish scenes: Lake Merritt and the geese, Fairyland and the famous Grand Lake Theater, and the most iconic are the giraffes on the structural pillars holding up the 580 freeway. I don’t know what they symbolize, but in Oakland we have giraffes. In Nashville they have Johnny Cash. And Willie Nelson.
Tennessee calls itself “the state that made country music famous.” This was my dream trip: Music City.
I’m not usually the trip-planner – I leave that to my husband. I don’t have a list of places I’d like to visit, or sights I must see. We’re a large, beach-lovin’ family so most vacations we pile into the minivan and motor down the California coast. If we have an opportunity to go somewhere adventurous, he and the kids have the strongest opinions. I let them decide. We always have fun.
I’m also not a milestone-marker kinda gal. Birthdays are birthdays – whether you’re 10 or 25 or 37 or 60. Yes, celebrate, feel special: party, balloons and cake, happy birthday, the end. (Except if it’s your bar or bat mitzvah – then it’s a really big deal, spiritually, religiously. Or if you’re 70 plus. That seems like more of a reason to go all out to me, having loved and endured and lived, really, for decades).
But suddenly never-turning-40 me was almost turning 40, and it felt like some kind of milestone. And my country-music-loving heart was starting to long for a visit to just one dream destination: Nashville.
Screw not marking a milestone – I wanted to go to Nashville. For my 40th. With my husband. And my friends. And absolutely no kids.
“It’s going to be like a dream come true,” I emailed a friend a few months ago. And it was.
I had imagined watching country music greats perform live. Dreamed about seeing those large, bearded guys with sunglasses and enormous cowboy hats pulled down so low you could see only their mouths move, tapping their weathered boots and playing the fiddle faster than a train hurtling down a track at midnight. I had wondered about this seemingly mythical southern city, where a guitar was practically the state emblem and whiskey flowed like water. Fantasized walking in my red cowboy boots past a honky-tonk bar, catching a tune and tapping my own heels to the country beat.
But I could never have imagined it would be so perfect.
The Charlie Daniels Band at the Grand Ole Opry May 9, 2014
I never dreamed it would be The Charlie Daniels Band singing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that I saw live at the Grand Ole Opry. A speeding midnight train had nothing on that fiddle. Could never have imagined that the honky-tonk bar from my fantasy was every few doors on Broadway, with a live band downstairs and a different one upstairs and where guys and gals of all ages turn out in their country finest – classic to hipster – and dance the night away: two-stepping, hip-swaying, clapping, spinning and twirling to more country music I could ever have hoped to hear.
And I could never, ever have imagined how it would feel to be in the City of my Dreams, with people who love country music, Nashville, fried food and classic cocktails like I do, who wanted to buy boots and go to the Johnny Cash Museum. With people who had arranged kids’ schedules, and sitters, and skipped work on Friday, given up Mother’s Day with beloved kids and moms on Sunday, schlepped from New Jersey and Oakland (and damn it’s a schlep), and who wanted nothing more than to celebrate just like I wanted to celebrate, who wanted to celebrate me with me. People who know me, who love me (or maybe know me yet still love me!), and whom I love.
I could never have imagined how that would feel. Like the first lick of caramel ice cream, water-skiing on the lake, tight hugs, love letters, warm pajamas, bonfires and marshmallows on the beach, winning a trophy, sweet juicy peaches, kisses and a breathtaking purple sunset all at once.
Josh and Lisa sang to me in the hotel lobby, a song they created specially for me, to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” – they were nothing short of foot-tapping, finger-snapping a-ma-zing. Deb and Larry crooned the beautiful tune “A Life That’s Good” from my favorite show (Nashville, obviously!). Amy stopped Jared, The Matte Gray Band’s lead singer, on his way to the bathroom so that Bill could take a photo of all of us with him. When a country band can play Garth Brooks, White Snake and everything in between, that’s fantastic to the max. It was perfect. All of it.
I hate when trips, any trips, come to an end. I get moody and sad when it’s time to pack. I sigh heavily. Mooch a little. Ryan usually shoots me a warning look, one that says: “Don’t go down that wishing road.” He knows how much I hate to go back to “real life.” How I “wish I could stay here – wherever here – forever.” He reminds me that even the any “here” of my wishes would eventually become “there” – the place I have to go back to.
But I sat on the plane heading back to California so full of happiness I probably could’ve floated the whole schleppy way back home. I wasn’t sad it was over. I wasn’t wishing I could stay “here forever.” Because it was a dream come true… in ways I could never have dreamed.