Roleplay

We’re at that point during the year between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day when I start looking for gifts that are appropriate for the women that I know that do double duty, serving as both mothers and fathers to their children. I’m reminded that, not so long ago, that was me. I was always both to my eldest. It wasn’t easy, but he grew up to be a wonderful human being.

And it got me to thinking: a mother has to play many roles during her lifetime.

There’s a biological definition for the word mother, of course. However, providing DNA and/or a womb for a fetus to grow in does not necessarily make a woman a mother.  I’ve been a mother for almost thirty years now, and I’ve often tried to sum up what I do in bite-sized pieces. Here’s my analysis: what makes a woman a mother is how she handles the many roles she plays in the course of a day, how she uses her mental and physical resources to keep her family whole. A mother may even have to switch roles, evolve from being a treasured daughter to being a parental figure for her own mother, from time to time. The love and devotion a woman holds in her heart for those she calls family are the keys to earning the title of mother.

I’m a mediator. The combatants I mediate are not siblings. I bore the younger combatant, my son, almost thirty years ago. The older combatant, however, bore me almost fifty years ago. When they vehemently disagree, I spring into action. It’s my job to translate the views of Generation Y to the Baby Boomer. I prohibit them from fighting on Facebook. I negotiate ways for them to share their electronic toys. Finally, when the generation gap starts to resemble the Grand Canyon, I remind them of how much they love each other.

I’m a therapist. I’m permanently on call. Near 10:30 PM, just as I’m getting sleepy from my own hectic day, my mother calls with tragic news: a childhood friend of hers has died. Now, she’s realizing her own mortality. I’m there for her as she talks about her pain at losing a piece of herself. Later, I’m jolted awake at 2:30 AM by a call from Generation Y. He broke his glasses in an altercation at a campus party. He’s upset because he didn’t win the argument. His first thought: call Mommy; she can soothe a bruised ego with her voice. Mommy can also give advice on how to repair the glasses. At 4:30 AM, the baby monitor alerts me that the youngest one is having a nightmare. She needs a trip to the bathroom and reassurance that the shadow on the wall will not come and get her.

I’m a duty nurse. With the premature death of another family member, I inherited my elderly aunt. Although I love her dearly, and I owe her everything because she took me in for the first four or five years of my life, becoming her primary caregiver was not on my original “to-do” list. She’s ninety, a two-time widow, childless, cantankerous, and bedridden. While I mastered the basics of feeding and changing my own newborns, doing the same for someone who talks back in fully formed profanity laced sentences is a new one. I do my best to remember that somewhere under her anger at being old and helpless is the same loving woman who baked some mean apple pies and rocked me to sleep when she was able bodied.

I’m a teacher. No, I don’t mean that I just teach others to do things. I mean I really am a licensed middle school teacher. As such, I am the legal guardian of about one hundred additional children every year, and I treat them almost exactly the way I treat the ones I birthed. I have to soothe bruised egos, give reassuring pep talks, answer tough questions, settle disputes, make meal suggestions, and provide a safe environment in addition to teach curriculum. By the middle of the year, a few mistakenly called me “Mommy,” others screw up their faces and accuse me of reminding them of their mothers. I just shrug, and remind them that I was a parent long before I became a teacher. I’m reluctant to turn off that instinct because it’s the reason former students try to hug me when I return to the building to visit. They felt honest concern from me in the classroom, and trusted me as much as they did their own parents.

My office hours never end.

I think it’s safe to say I’ve earned my title a few times over.

 

Balance

We tend to think of the warmer seasons as  times of renewal and ease. But when we stay in that safe head space, we forget that endings are also part of the process. I haven’t been able to write anything for months because I blissfully forgot about the way life tends to keep the scales balanced, how for every new beginning, something ends. When life decided to remind me about balance with the deaths of two that were close to me within the same month, I was left too numb to think past the moment, let alone think of something witty to write about.

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On a sad evening in early April, my daughter and I said goodbye to a beloved family friend, Trinity. Trinity entered my life eleven years ago as a plump kitten of about eight weeks. I selected her from a litter in my neighbor’s apartment. She was the quietest kitten, one who seemed content to observe, rather than participate. Her arrival brought my feline total to four.

Why four cats in a tiny New York apartment, you might wonder? Well, when Neo came on board, he was a four-month old bundle of manic energy, too much for my older cats, Firsa and Annie. When I asked a local pet store how to redirect his energy, they suggested that I get another kitten for him to play with. Hence, Neo ended up with his own pet cat, Trinity.

Trinity could usually be found sitting in a basket that I kept on top of my refrigerator. She quickly earned the nick name Sweet Potato because I kept said vegetable in that basket, and she loved lounging on top of them. Later, she discovered the joy of flight, sort of. She had a tendency to climb up onto my bedroom curtain rod and jump off of it, only to land on my head every morning.

By the time my daughter was born, Trinity was a regular member of my household, no longer the newbie. She welcomed my daughter with gentle sniffs and curious meows. By the time my daughter reached her current age, Trinity was firmly established as my daughter’s cat. On that April evening, knowing in my heart that Trinity probably  would not make it, I gave my daughter the opportunity to come with me to the animal hospital. I felt my daughter deserved a chance to see Trinity through her final moments. My daughter showed more compassion than I’d known she was capable of, gently patting the carrier and speaking to Trinity in soft, soothing tones. After a brief exam, the vet gave us the terrible news. Trinity was too ill for them to do anything for her. Although the decision was mine, I felt it was important for my daughter to have a say in what happened next. I explained to her how sick her pet was, and how we could help Trinity find peace. My daughter agreed. After many tears and gentle, but desperate, hugs, we said goodbye to Trinity. My daughter had never showed an understanding of illness and death before, but that night, it was clear she understood that goodbye meant forever.

That was fortunate, in its own bleak way, because we lost my aunt to cancer about a week later.

The news of my aunt’s illness had come a mere 6 weeks before. We struggled with trying to accept both the fact that she had cancer, and that we would lose her it. There were no trips to specialists, or moments where we waited for news of whether the latest treatment had worked. She went to the clinic for a routine appointment, was diagnosed and admitted the same day, and was transferred to an end of life care facility about two or three weeks later. It was agony riding in the ambulance with her from the hospital to the facility. We rode in complete silence. There was nothing left to say, really. I helped her get settled in, then rode home alone, trying to figure out how I would live without her.

With Easter coming, my mother and I decided to revive an old tradition we had shared with my aunt back when we all lived together when I was a kid. We sat with my aunt at the facility and watched The Ten Commandments together on television.  The only sounds in the room were the television and my aunt’s ragged breathing. My aunt transitioned a few days after that last evening we spent together.

So where does that leave me?

Five months later, I find myself still feeling sad when I find pictures of my cat or my aunt around the house. There are just so many things that remind me of the two of them: cans of Trinity’s favorite cat food, things my aunt would have found funny on television, clothes I saved from my aunt’s apartment when I was cleaning it for the last time, Trinity’s fur on a blanket she used to sleep on all the time.

And yet, life moves on. My daughter asked for, and was given, permission to choose a new cat for the family. Bella now runs up and down my hallway and into my living room, occasionally jumping over my head in the process. She’s a year old and full of the same kind of energy Neo once had. Neo is an old man now, but he has a soul mate in Bella, as she likes the same kind of rough play he is still infamous for. People cannot be replaced, but time does lessen the pain. And wonder of wonders, relatives that I’ve been estranged from all my life are now reaching out to me. I’ve been invited to a family reunion with my father’s family. A new door is opening, and I have absolutely no idea what’s on the other side. But I’d be a fool not to, at least, try to get to know them.

Balance. Doors close, and new ones open. Life continues, and I find the peace of mind to write a little bit more every day.

The Lesson of the Seeds

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New year: 2015. Must admit, I never thought this far in advance to now have thoughts about whether I was right or wrong about what I would be doing by now. Strange feeling. And a little sad, too, because that means that I was so caught up in the here and now that I never thought much about the future. Even after having children, I thought about their futures, but never thought much about my own.

So, what do I do now?

Dream. Plan. Try. Fail. Analyze. Learn. Try again. Succeed. Dream new dreams.

I think this is the lesson that I’ve learned from seeds.

When I joined the community garden, I wasn’t a complete novice. I had tried before at another location. But, since that attempt, I hadn’t tried anything remotely green, except fail miserably at growing houseplants in an apartment that was best at growing fungi (due to a leak in the bathroom, I actually had mushrooms growing out of my wall one year in one of my old places. HPD [Dept. of Housing, Preservation, & Development] loved that one when they came to check for violations.) Once I joined the community garden, though, I was ready to try again. And did I try.

Some successes, some failures.

Each time, a plant died, I heard a voice asking me what I could have done better. For the first time in a very long time, I seriously thought about how to answer that kind of question. Back to the drawing board. But a drawing board means a plan, and a plan means a dream, an idea, a hope, a wish… And wishes mean thoughts of a future where things go right.

I didn’t make new year’s resolutions for this year, I made plans for my garden plots. Two official plots, and two more tiny spots to turn into something special. Plans for paving the dirt around my plots so they don’t get waterlogged and weedy. Plans for giving my perennial plants a permanent home. Plans for how to use the fences close to my plots. When I go to bed at night, I dream about what everything will look like when I’m done.

I see my berry canes filled with plump berries, and ripe tomatoes on the vines. I see the first asparagus shoots of spring. I see something I’ve dreamed about becoming real.

The most important word seeds have taught me the meaning of: hope. If you don’t have hope, there’s no point in planting seeds. If you don’t have hope, you can’t think of your own future.

For 2015, I have hopes and dreams. I have ideas and plans. My drawing board is overflowing. And I keep pens and scraps of paper at hand to jot down all the things I’m thinking of. Some will take root in my garden, which I now see as my creative space. But others will take root out there.

Maybe you’ll read something I wrote this year.

Potential

Ever have that moment when you look out on a space and start dreaming of all the things you could do with it?

That’s kind of where my head has been at these last few months. Instead of seeing life in terms of what was, I’ve been thinking in terms of what could be. Forget about the things I lost, or didn’t achieve. What can I work towards? What might I find over that hill?

That, of course, brings me to the garden. 2014 was a great year for tomatoes in my spot.

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First, they were green and lost somewhere in all those leaves. Then, they were lovely and red and oh so tasty.

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These were the last ones from the garden this year. perfect tomato crop after a disappointing one last year. What was different? How I went about planting. How I thought about what was possible. Now I know what I can achieve there. Now I’m ready to try even more. So, for 2015, I’m trying multiple varieties; I’ve got cherry and grape tomato seeds, as well as some heirloom types. I’m going to start them early indoors again, so I have strong plants to put outside. Can’t wait.

 

Sunflowers grew well again.

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I started these outdoors again, and they grew nice and big. But they still seem to need support, so I’m thinking and studying ways to give them everything they need to make them even better. And I have a couple of varieties of these, too. Plan to try them next year.

 

Tried carrots.20140921_085150  Tried green peppers. 20140921_085254

Both showed me it was possible. I just have to do my research and try harder. Incidentally, I got tons of hot, spicy peppers, just no bell peppers.

Even managed to get potatoes. 20140621_175858  Next year, spuds. Next year.

So what did I learn? I learned that everything I do has the possibility of being great and/or teaching me how to be great in the future. Now, I’m hoping to use what I’ve learned to start a garden at my school. I already have a few kids interested and ready to get dirty digging in the soil, city boys, no less. I’m hoping to use what I’ve learned about permaculture to revamp my own garden space. I’ve got a few perennial plants that need permanent homes and companions.

I am just so ready for 2015. So much potential out there, just waiting to be tapped.

[All of the photos are mine, by the way, taken with my cell phone camera.]

Home

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It isn’t much, but its mine for as long I can get along with the landlord.

These days, that’s saying a lot.

You see, when I first decided I was tired of going solo, my mate and I thought we’d just go out there and find a nest we could call our own. One that was free from memories of relationships past. Not so easy. As our wedding date neared, we scoured Craig’s List, trying to find the perfect place. We searched everywhere, but to no avail.

So we set up house in my tiny apartment, with the idea that it would just be for a few more months. But before we knew it, 1+1=3. The birth of our child meant that our place was now even smaller. Tiny babies take up HUGE amounts of space.

But we made the best of it. For three years.

Then, totally by chance, we found a place on the same block we were already living on. The neighbors were amused by our moving via shopping cart and whatever other wheeled contraptions we could find to move our things down the block. But it was ours. Finally, two bedrooms large enough to actually move around in. Our child actually had her own room instead of sharing ours. And for us, the opportunity to explore having pockets of space that we could each call our own. This paradise was ours for about four years.

Then the gentrification wagon rolled into our section of town.

Suddenly, we discovered that our little paradise was sitting on prime real estate. Our landlord decided it was time to get a market rate for our place, instead of the reasonable rent we’d been paying. We had to move. Not eventually, not maybe. We HAD to move ASAP.

Needless to say, looking for a place in NYC in the middle of summer was not fun. Too many changes were hitting us all at once. Longer commute, possible school changes, getting to know an area all over again. And fears of being rejected. When my mate and I tried to find an apartment after our child was born, we started to notice that not every rental agent was happy to see a mixed race couple with a very mixed looking child. There were places we called first and confirmed a showing, only to discover that the place was not available once we arrived and they got a look at our child in her carrier. We were a bit worried that the same thing might happen again, complicating an already complicated situation.

Not this time. This time the issue was advertising. A two bedroom apartment must, in our opinion, actually have two bedrooms. Not a space that could be used as a bedroom. An eat-in kitchen must actually have walls. Not a general space that could be a kitchen, or a living room, or a hallway, or anything else you could imagine. We searched and searched. Eventually we found a place that seemed to fit the bill: close to public transportation, a doable commute to school and work, stores and hospital nearby, and a decent landlord. Oh, and more space than we knew what to do with. All for less than what we would have to pay if we tried to hold on to paradise Manhattan.

So, we moved: by van, by shopping cart, by car, and by taxi.

It has been about four months. We celebrated our first Thanksgiving and Christmas in the new place, complete with a big home-cooked meal and guests, something I never had the chance to do in the older places. I even have special places in this new apartment where I can shut myself up and read or write, if I want to. Space to dream. The entire neighborhood is mixed with every nationality I can think of, so we no longer stand out. No one stares at us when we go out with our child. We are all happy not to be noticed; being exotic can be tiring, and my tolerance at being given disapproving looks for walking with a man that some think isn’t the right color isn’t what it used to be. But here, no one looks, no one judges.

Finally, we are home.

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The Return of Ghetto Squirrel

city-squirrel-6962795   Let me start by saying that I do not hate squirrels. They are God’s creatures, and as such, they have a right to exist, and have a purpose on this Earth. I’ll even go so far as to say that they are useful. They plant trees by leaving nuts in underground storage holes. When the nuts sprout in the spring, new trees are born.

Which brings me to today’s topic: underground storage holes do not belong in my garden plots, flower pots, or other planting containers.

I am in a non-stop war with certain segments of Mother Nature Incorporated. Public Enemy #1 this year is not Ray Raccoon or Kit Kat. Last year, both were regular visitors to my humble plot, as evidenced by the almost daily evidence of digging and droppings. I haven’t heard a single meow this year.

But I have had encounters with Ghetto Squirrel. Numerous encounters with Ghetto Squirrel, and the trees he has planted in my stuff.

The name Ghetto Squirrel, a generic name to mean any urban squirrel,  was coined by my son back when he was in high school. He came home one day with a fantastic tale about a squirrel that had absolutely no fear of him and his teenaged compatriots as they lounged on a park bench after school. The boys encountered this fearless animal on more than one occasion. He boldly strode over and snatched dropped cookies, approached and demanded popcorn, and chased them out of the area one day when he’d had enough of their adolescent nonsense. The boys chose the moniker and proceeded to make up tale after tale about Ghetto Squirrel, a hard-core New Yorker.

Native New Yorker or not, I do not need oak trees in my flowerpots.

When I started preparing my soil this season, I found enough acorns to feed the entire squirrel population of a small upstate city. I wasn’t happy about it. I knew the squirrel would be back later looking for his nutty stash. Sure enough, I saw holes in my plot every time I arrived in the garden. Carefully, I removed every single acorn I could find, thinking this would keep him out of my area.

But the squirrel had other ideas.

I discovered his real objective when the weather warmed a bit more and I started to see small sprouts in places I knew I hadn’t planted anything. Leaving a few to get a little larger, I soon had a dawning realization:they were baby oak trees. This started a rush to remove every sapling from every spot in my plot and potted plants, as I had nightmarish visions of my garden turning into a small forest. And on the end of every sapling was the evidence which linked Ghetto Squirrel to the invasion.

An acorn.

So I tried a new stance. I tried to make nice with GS. I started leaving him piles of succulent walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts. Since he didn’t have to dig for these, maybe he would leave my plot alone. Every time I came out, I saw piles of nutshells and not a single hole. Satisfied, I went along planting, weeding, and smiling as I thought of my squirrel-less garden.

Until I decided to reuse a pot that he’d ruined earlier by digging and disturbing the root system of my iris bulbs.

I started removing the dirt from the pot, having decided to reuse the soil in another area. But as I got to the bottom of the pot, I noticed an unusually large lump in the bottom. Cautiously, I removed it and studied it carefully. Then, I dropped it in defeat. You see, Ghetto Squirrel had buried one of the walnuts I’d given him as a peace-offering.

Now, I might start finding walnut, hazelnut, and pecan saplings.

Ghetto Squirrel: 1.

Ghetto Gardener: 0

 

 

Mutant Tomato Farm

Sunflower and Bee This is the place where I try to make magic happen.

 

On any given sunny day, I can be found tending my garden, all 4 feet by 8 feet of it. My garden box, also known as a raised bed, lies in a once vacant lot, nestled between two apartment buildings in New York City. In the valley between them, I plant tiny seeds and hope they turn into delicious vegetables. Today’s photo is one of the three sunflowers I managed to grow last year, complete with a rather curious bumble bee hanging on. It was great, seeing that bumble bee. It meant that the “city girl” must have done something right in order to get one of Nature’s wild creatures to stop and check out things.

As for the name, well that also came about because of last year. I didn’t understand the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. I planted 4 of them, and all 4 took to root rather nicely. I also didn’t know that I was supposed to prune them. By August, all 4 plants were well over 6 feet tall and still growing. They blocked the light from most of the other plants I tried to grow. Those tomato plants looked like small trees. I spent a few weeks trying to find out what I did wrong. Why were my tomatoes looking like something out of Day of the Triffids? Now, I know better. This year, they look nice and normal.

Motherland

As I was clearing and preparing “phase 2” of my garden (read raised garden bed #2, same size, that I was granted by the administrators of the community garden I’m always in), I started to think of my ancestors.  I found myself wondering if any of the original women of my line tended gardens in Africa. As I raked the weeds out of the soil, I wondered. If they had them, what did they plant? As I added manure and minerals to the soil, I wondered. Once they were slaves in a strange, cruel place, did their masters allow them to have vegetable gardens to supplement the meager supplies they must have received? As I carefully dropped seeds into  holes I made with my finger, I wondered. Did they forage for wild plants, mushrooms, nuts, berries, fruits, and herbs? All would have been plentiful in wooded areas near a plantation in South Carolina. As I covered my box with a plastic cover to keep Ghetto Squirrel, Kit Kat, and Ray Raccoon out until I could build a fence, I wondered. Did any of them create magic by planting seeds?

I know later generations of women in my family did. My great-great grandmother had a full-sized garden on her own land. They say Hibernia Rowe was a tiny brown-skinned woman, probably less than 5 feet tall. She was also known in her neighborhood as an herbal doctor of sorts, having been taught by one of her own parents. So, do I get my love of plants and need to put my hands into dirt from her? Perhaps. On more than one occasion, my grandmother has looked me sharply in the eye and looked deep as if she was looking for something, only to nod her head and call me Miss Bunya, what people would have called her grandmother in the 1930s.

Pigs!

As I was cleaning up after preparing the box, I took a look at the packages of supplements that I had sprinkled over the soil. Both the blood meal and the bone meal came from a porcine source. This little fact made me laugh, since pigs are inseparable from my family history. My more recent ancestors certainly owned and ate them. Today,  if you connect them with my folk, you might get accused of making an insensitive generalization about southern living. So, even though I’m a highly educated northern vegetarian, I still find myself connected to pigs. Definitely worth a laugh or two.

Freedom

I’ve heard that some people don’t want to be reminded of their southern roots. Not me. I applaud them. I also applaud the women who found a way to create a little magic so far from their African homes. And I’m thankful that I have the freedom to think about whether I should plant beans or lima beans. It is not about survival for me, just a hobby that will eventually make a nice dinner for my family. I think about those women, and I wonder. Were any of them like me?