Picture it -- Annie, May 10, 2019:
“Seriously, May, CTFO. I need a break from you. This childhood of manufactured moments and jam-packed calendars is killing me.”
"Hold my beer."
The following is a Tale of Two Mays….
May 10, 2019:
I’m pretty sure I broke three cardinal rules of parenting within 55 minutes last Friday morning.
Somehow May has become the busiest month of the year, busier than December, busier than February in New Orleans even. It is a month of full-on extravaganza. So far, we’ve had four field trips, three class performances, two school projects, and one Shakespeare Live competition. What’s left on the calendar is one dance recital, two awards ceremonies, three more field trips, oh and exam week.
Thursday night was two of the aforementioned performances, followed by a last minute invite to a “schmoozie” fundraiser. It was also the evening of a classic New Orleans springlike thunderstorm during which the streets flood in about five minutes and we white-knuckle it over hidden potholes. All things considered, the night went off without a hitch. My Middle Man, Michael, brought down the house with his impersonation of his history teacher in his performance and the hubs won us a trip to Antigua at the fundraiser. I mean, I was practically slaying the month of May.
The next morning, however, May showed me just what a salty wench she is.
We’re off to school, ahead of schedule, the end-of-year lazy temptations squashed under the gas pedal. The oldest, the Golden Boy, has been dropped off at his campus, where I am to meet him in three hours for yet another class party where I will be serving ice cream. In the back seat is The Girl, her gifts for the final day of Teacher Appreciation neatly squared away in her backpack, and Middle Man, still on a high from the previous night’s applause. We turn the corner and that’s when I see it.
“Oh, crap,” escapes my lips.
“What?” Middle Man asks.
I point to a girl crossing their school playground in a long white gown with a massive white wig. I don’t know who she is supposed to be dressed as, but I know what her costume means.
“Oh, crap,” escapes Middle Man’s lips.
“We forgot about Character Comes Alive Day.”
For those whose calendar isn’t filled with cleverly named theme days, Character Comes Alive Day is a day, typically in May (of course), when your child attends school dressed as their favorite literature character, that is unless you completely forget about it until you are directly in front of school and your kid is dressed in his sports uniform for that night’s local league playoffs -- also a May event.
My mind starts churning. Which character wears a football uniform? But I come up with nothing. So I make a split decision, probably something that breaks a cardinal Parenting 101 rule, branding me with a scarlet “S” for “Sucker” on my athleisure top.
As we pull up to the gate, I say, “You wanna go home and throw something together and I’ll bring you to school late?”
“Oh, thank you, Mom. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” he says.
I drop off The Girl and haul ass home.
“What about Greg Heffley?” I ask, skirting potholes. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is pretty easy to pull off.
“But I really wanted to go as Percy Jackson,” he says.
This is when I broke the next cardinal rule. A responsible mom would have pulled the “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” card. But I didn’t and you know why? Because I was going to give May the middle finger if it was the last thing I did before the end-of-year picnic.
So Percy Jackson it was.
Two years prior, when I was a younger and more organized mother, the Golden Boy had gone as Percy Jackson. I’d bought him a “Camp Half-Blood” t-shirt, a perfect replica of what the character wore in the book. I hadn’t seen the shirt since that day two years ago, but I hadn’t tossed it out either. It was probably smushed in the back of his shirt drawer.
But, of course, May wasn’t going to relent easily.
After ten minutes of fishing through shirts from the drawer and the forgotten Goodwill pile in the closet, I was empty-handed. Middle Man pulled an orange, space center t-shirt from his drawer.
“Mom, I could just wear this inside out and maybe you could draw a Pegasus on it with a Sharpie?”
He says this like it’s no big deal to draw a freaking Pegasus, like I’m Michelangelo or something. But I’m out of options. I break my third cardinal parenting rule. I should have pulled the “I’m not doing your work” line, but I didn’t because as much pleasure as it was to go behind May’s back, time wasn’t on our side and Middle Man can barely draw a stick figure. So we get to work. He finds a pair of jeans in the dirty clothes and I do my best Pegasus freehand. Middle Man was at school by 8:55 a.m. I was impressed with myself. The Pegasus looked pretty damn good and the front office didn’t flinch when I used “late start” as our excuse, even though The Girl had been at school for almost an hour.
Sure, I’d fallen victim to Mom guilt and probably should have made the kid suck it up with some lecture about being better organized and prepared, but the truth was, I was just as bad. May had gotten the best of me too.
I grew up in the “Go play” era, back in the 1980s when moms more or less ignored their kids -- in the most loving way. What I mean is, we had our lives and they had theirs, with little overlap. No one seemed to mind. But now, as a parenting culture, we’ve grown so sentimental. It’s not enough to graduate with a party following in the gym. There has to be an extravagant lead-up -- luncheons, countdowns, dances, trips, homeroom parties, lunch table parties, and on and on -- and all of it crammed into three weeks -- the longest goodbye possible. As parents, we pony up our time, money, and sanity and play along, posting it all on Instagram. “Look at my baby!”
And while I am a lover of all things schmaltz, I can’t help but ask if it’s too much. If our twelve-year-olds are spoiled to smithereens with end-of-year beach trips and bowling alley buyouts, what happens when they graduate from high school? A class trip to Paris? And what about at the end of college? We charter a rocket to Mars and celebrate their success in space suits?
None of this is to say that I think Characters Come Alive Days and other hokey, elementary theme days should be tossed out. I love any excuse to excite kids into reading. I’m also not a hater of awards, performances, art shows, and project fairs. I’m all for goal-oriented work and anything that gives the right side of the brain the spotlight for a change. But the rest of it is bringing out my inner curmudgeon. I can’t keep up. My laundry could circle the globe at this point, we’re eating a lot of frozen pizza for dinner, and I can’t remember the last time I was bored.
So seriously, May, CTFO. We get it. Our kids are precious and one day mine will be forty-year-old curmudgeons themselves and I’ll be a shriveled up old lady at a retirement home slinging back rosés, remembering when my children were little and we dressed them up for a tea party at the Ritz with their friends the last Sunday before school let out. But I need a break. I’m ready for summer. I’m ready to not match socks. I’m ready to write this blog in my bathing suit, and mostly, I’m ready to not work for my memories and just let them happen organically in that serendipitous summer magic way.
Then again, I know enough to know that all of this is a lie. I’m not just a sucker for my Middle Man, I’m a sucker for all of it. Perhaps I continue to turn myself over to May, in spite of how much I dislike her, because what I really hate is endings. With each May, I’m a year older and so are my kids. One day they’ll be gone and I’ll be too bored. I’ll long for the energy I thought I didn’t have to juggle it all. I’ll pull up a Facebook memory from thirty years prior and know that the frazzled, forty-year-old curmudgeon did all of it because in the end, all we’re left with is our memories — even the extravagant manufactured ones.
When I picked up Middle Man Friday afternoon, I asked how his costume went over.
“It was fine,” he said.
“Just fine?” That was a freaking masterpiece, kid!
“Well, one girl said it looked like a flying hippo,” he said.
“A hippo!” I exclaimed.
“Another kid said it looked like a cow with wings,” he laughed.
“Let me see,” I said.
I studied my masterpiece. If anything, it looked like a flying moose.
By now Middle Man was in hysterics, watching my pride dissolve into sheepishness. My child looked like a homemade hot mess, the product of May. I started laughing, too. I knew we’d always remember that time we stood on the corner laughing because Mom sent him to school with a flying moose on his chest.
May is a real bitch of a memory maker. But not all of her moments are as pristine as the calendar demands. Sometimes even she has a little serendipitous magic of her own, too.
Cut to May 13, 2020:
Middle Man’s fifth grade graduation will be conducted as a drive thru. Characters Come Alive Day was virtual and done through Google Meet. And that annual school performance in which Middle Man killed it last year? Cancelled. I’m pretty sure they sent a slideshow of past performances, but I never saw it. It’s likely buried in all the other emails of links and invitations to virtual everythings. This year’s May has been another kind of salty, a salt-in-the-wound kind of salty. It isn’t enough that championships, recitals, and graduations have been obliterated, so let’s tell our children that summer camp, summer jobs, and vacation has been cancelled too.
There is a sense of loss hanging so heavily above myself and my children that we often don’t know whether to cry or get comfortable. Is this the way it will always be? Or is there a new normal lurking in the wings, a socially distant childhood of, once again, manufactured memories but memories that feel even more forced -- memories making up for what we know our children are missing?
“Hey, instead of going to Disney this summer, we can do Disney at home,” I suggested. “I’ll get the recipes for Dole Whip and their cinnamon rolls. We can watch old Disney movies on Disney+, do the rides virtually on YouTube, and we can shoot bottle rockets in the backyard at nighttime?”
“Mom, I’m sorry, but that sucks.”
Middle Man said this like he was doing me a favor, like he was giving me permission to just let things suck instead of trying to pretend they don’t. Our kids aren’t idiots. They know this isn’t a proper alternative to the frenzy of past Mays. They know a crappy situation when they see it too.
Missed milestones, opportunities lost, and friendships at a distance do suck. There is no getting around the profound loss and nothing I can do will make it go away. I can only plan week to week. There are no answers for the future that I can give with authority, leaving me to ask, “Was May really a bitch last year or was she just an untamable shrew needing a stiff drink and a reality check?”
Well, folks, we’ve gotten that reality check. This is what life looks like without the extravaganza and fanfare. But a year and a pandemic later, I admit that my feelings about last year’s May remain the same. And today, I am equally adamant that a virtual childhood is damn near insane too! I griped about the muchness of modern-day childhood last year, and as I stand here this year, holding 2020’s beer, I know enough to know that the answer was never to pull the plug, but to balance the act. And if there is one non-sucky lesson to come out of this lockdown, it is that a pause in the calendar forced a way of living that rehearsals, practices, and parties nearly obliterated in years prior. My children are riding their bikes again. They are filthy and stinky in that skinned-knee, tree climbing, nostalgic 80’s childhood kind of way. Dinner isn’t rushed. Conversations with neighbors across the street linger. My husband and I have coffee together every morning and cocktails together every evening. I’d be a stubborn child if I tried to insist that everything during the shutdown has sucked.
But I also know enough to know that the sentimental Annie of last May hasn’t changed either. If anything, I’m bubbling over with even more sentiment because I long for a moment not measured by how well the internet is working. The truth is, I’m far too sentimental and social to live virtually. I want life back. I want to tackle a schedule and win the month just like before; only when that time comes, safely and certainly, I hope it comes with bike rides and moments allowed to linger.
It was never about being careful of what I wished for. It was always about making room on the calendar for all of it -- a life measured by dedicated moments of celebration in addition to memories born from what we could have never planned.
Oh, and as a point of fact: I haven’t matched anyone’s socks -- not even my fuzzy ones-- since mid-March. That hasn’t sucked either.
Part of this essay originally appeared in New Orleans Magazine online.
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