Thursday, January 24, 2008

Zen and the Art of Mother-in-Law Maintenance

I've been away for a while. And by away, I don't mean on a sunny island. I mean away in the recesses of my mind, and in the depths of my apartment. I'm briefly coming up for air, but it may be some time before I'm around again on a regular basis.

RaggedyDad's mother is staying with us. For three weeks. She hasn't seen me or the kids in a year and a half. Last summer, I wasn't able to travel, so RaggedyDad went to visit his family alone for a week. She hadn't met baby Little Rag yet, and remembered big buster Andy as not much older than Little Rag is now.

What's been interesting is that people's reaction when I tell them about this visit are very much colored by where they are coming from. It ranges from "I can't believe that you are dealing with that!" to "Of course, where else would she stay? That's what families do."

I sense that my parents, in their own way, feel sorry for what they perceive as a significant imposition on us. While not tycoons themselves, they have the means not to have to stay in my brother's apartment in Jerusalem when visiting him, his wife, and their now 6 kids under 8 years old (Mazel tov!)

But all families differ. In MIL's case, we are the ones who undertake a great deal of help, though it doesn't really come easy to us. Admittedly, it was a bit of an adjustment for me, as I'm not accustomed this approach from growing up, and had the fortune of having parents who, if needed, could help their children. But I'd have been a fool to have let modest means stand in the way of marrying RaggedyDad.

The language and culture barrier are an issue with MIL, and without them, we'd likely get along even better than we already do. She's an intelligent, fun-loving, adventurous person. And helpful, and nice, and well-intentioned.

In that typical European way, though, she tends to be very direct and straightforward about a lot of things. Like asking me how many children I plan to have, and when exactly I plan on having the next one. Or letting me know that the sweater I'm wearing looks very nice, but would cease to, if I were to gain any weight. Or stating that people in the town where she lives are very adamant about order and cleanliness, and if they saw our place, it would not fit their standards.

Whew, I'm realizing that venting is GOOD!

The odd part is, those above statements sound a lot worse than they are intended. They are liberally sprinkled with self-deprecation and, though it doesn't always take the sting out, stated utterly non-judgmentally, but merely as facts. If you know any Europeans, that's just how they are. (Israelis do this too, though in somewhat of a different manner). They'll tell you that one of your kids is not as cute another one. They'll tell you that they don't care for the coffee you just served them. They tell it like it is, and then come back and say that we Americans are not known for our manners!

I'm coming to some understandings in the midst of all of this. No, this is not my favorite time, but it is very infrequent. Yes, sharing one small bathroom is a challenge, and someone will always be in it. Yes, I'm buying enough bread to feed the Russian army and then finding that amazingly, it is all gone 3 days later. I am talking loaves and loaves here. And meat. And cheese. And herring, which the kids have now learned to like to eat at breakfast time, but there are worse things.

Okay, venting is REALLY good.

The truth is that I have a whole lot to be extremely grateful to MIL for. Because not only did she raise the most kind, unassuming, helpful, and friendly husband I could have hoped for, she also made tremendous sacrifices for him and his sister.

She left the Soviet Union as a widow with two children under dangerous circumstances, and thereby left behind her extended family/entire support system, relative financial security, and the hopes of ever feeling comfortable anywhere else to a native-like degree. She endured tremendous hardship that could fill a book, and took it very much in stride. Although far-removed from religion, she was supportive and encouraging when my husband became interested in exploring his faith at age 15, and eventually moved to America, only to meet . . . me.

I'm taking things one day at a time, and having a few deep-breath moments. And all in all, I'm trying to see things from a perspective of appreciation, and inject a little bit of . . zen.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Fudge tried explaining where the bus depot was located. In typical Queens baffle-osity, there were two sets of numbers that were nowhere near each other in sequence.

"Does this sound right?" Fudge inquired. "It's in the 120's and the 20's in College Point."

I called upon my mental map skills "Hmmmm, yep. I used to teach in that school district, and the district office is around there. I'd probably exit the Van Wyck at Linden Place."

"Linden Place! That's right! That's what Google Maps (or was it YouTube?) told me to do! My grandmother said it's not such a great area."

"That depends on what you mean by 'not such a great area'. Is it dangerous? No. Is it industrial, deserted at times, and a little creepy? Maybe. Especially compared to the 170's. Let's DO IT!"

Poor Fudge was more mortified than anything at this point. No doubt she'd not been expecting this setback. The loss of her belongings. The perilous notion that her stuff may be gone forever. Hope that it was all out there, somewhere. Helplessness to retrieve her things independently.

Now back to me. Growing up, my mother didn't drive, and my father worked long hours six days a week. Going somewhere by car was almost always impossible unless it was a ride with a friend, or occasionally, a cab. Parent-teacher conferences didn't leave me panicked about what my mother would hear about my performance at school. They left me panicked about finding a classmate's parents to give my mother a ride. Synchronizing those time slots can be tricky!

In other words, I tend to be sensitive to the plight of the car-less, or temporarily car-less.

There are many things that can be done so simply and quickly with a car. Nowadays, my parents live a ten-minute car ride away from me. They live near shopping and major bus routes. Walking distance is simply not a convenience for my mother, it is a must. And yet, when I try to give her rides or pick her up, she often doesn't want to "inconvenience me" or "take me out of my way". She doesn't always realize that in a car, nothing is that big a deal.

Back to the Infiltration. The distances in question were quite small. Fudge is great company. I was curious to see how this would all play out. City agencies can be mindnumbingly inefficient and annoying. Plus, it was time for a minor diaper restocking, which would be practically around the corner from the bus depot. In short, it couldn't have been simpler or more logical for us to help set this thing in motion.

RaggedyDad was driving, which meant I would have to ride shotgun in order to quickly translate all of the street signs from Russian to English. We loaded up the kids in the RaggedyMobile, and hit the road. I started singing "On the Road Again" as I am wont to do when we set out somewhere.

Fudge was waiting on the micro-porch (I love the houses in Queens!) with a handicapped red suitcase. We loaded it into the trunk, and Fugde hopped into the back of the van. Regrettably, Everyone's Favorite Grandma was unavailable for comment at this point. Embarassingly, I came thisclose to trying to buckle Fudge in. Car seat-fastening habits die hard.

RaggedyDad had a quick detour in mind. "This is not far from Dunkin Donuts."

RaggedyMom: "Nyet!"

RaggedyDad: "Da!"

RaggedyMom: "Nyet!"

RaggedyDad: "Da!"

RaggedyMom: "Chorosho . . . Hey Fudge, do you want caw-fee?"

Fudge: "What?"

RaggedyMom: "Sorry, let me translate. Do you want cah-fee?"

Fudge: "Oh! No, thanks."

We made a brief stop for RaggedyDad to infiltrate the drive-through Dunkin' Donuts and get himself some coffee, and turned that car around. We were ready. I clapped a few times to help charge the atmosphere . . . also just because I like to clap.

Before you could say "Great Gatsby Skyline of Manhattan view from the Long Island Expressway" we were there! Straight through the Valley of Ashes itself. There were even signs pointing out where the depot was located!

After a brief interrogation by a rookie security officer, Fudge and I were given hi-tech paper clip-on identification badges. (If only we hadn't had to return those at the end!)Spelling our odd names for the security officer was almost comical. But I had no intention of Fudge dealing with what could be simple or Not, so we spelled away. I've been to these kinds of offices before, and I wanted Fudge to have a combination of New Yorker, Israeli, and redhead by her side. Let's just say that if someone tells me "No" all I hear is "Try harder!" In the spirit of my grandfather, of blessed memory, I was ready to turn over some tables if necessary, to be, well, understood.

We made it into the building and a kindly bus-driver type directed us to the lost and found: "Yeah, yous guys go straight up there, I ain't sure if anyone's at the desk, but somebody oughtta know."

After leaving the elevator, were treated to a view of no less than 500 million New York City buses lined up in a vast parking lot. Within a couple of "what now" moments, a sweet woman walked towards us, and Fudge and I looked at one another. We were both thinking the same thing: Is something jangling in that woman's hand?

And then, "My phone! My keys! My ID! Thank you!" (You've got to love those out-of-town manners!) For my part, I wanted to hug the cheery, plump bus depot lady. In that moment, Fudge's New York years were stamped with a permanent silver lining.

In the brief blur of exuberance that followed, we got back in the van, and Fudge was no doubt buoyant, relieved.

Afterward, we made a quick run into a Van Wyck Service Road Toys R Us for diapers, which Fudge realized she had been to way back when. Her distract-the-kids-from-toys-we're-not-buying skills proved invaluable, clearly sharpened by years of this kind of guerrila training.

Too quickly, it was time to laugh, reminisce, and shed a few happy tears. Fudge was ready for the subway. We had made it into the core of the New York City Waco Bus Compound, and had made it out alive! The last adventure of 2007 was a glorious success!

Fudge can wrap this up, and maybe we'll get some input from the midwestern contingent . . .

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The War at Home

See Part One

And Part Two

Most of the time, the daily routines of young motherhood are fairly repetitive. There are sippy cups to fill, diapers to change, meals to cook and clean up after, squabbles to dissolve. Now and again, things happen to shake it up. The family's Papa has finals at night school. The Mommy takes a side job tutoring. Something major breaks, or gets lost. Things are worried over, and after deliberation and action, things get back to normal.

I tend to get excited by things related to Queens. When RaggedyDad refers to The Midtown Tunnel, I automatically jump in, "That's the QUEENS-Midtown Tunnel!" When you grow up in one of the outer boroughs, so much of the action is in Manhattan, and so much time and effort expended to get to "where it's at". Rarely is Queens "where it's at" unless what you're interested in is the Mets, the Unisphere, or confusing sequencing of avenues and roads.

So when I heard that there was a local situation (finally, Facebook is useful for more than finding out what my old camp friends do for a living, or having virtual pancakes thrown at my head), I felt energized, hyped even. A friend. A lost phone and set of keys. A beaurocratic situation. Isolation. Transportation issues. Espionage. Treason. And it was all IN QUEENS!


Never mind that if I lost my cell phone (I actually did recently, and it was kind of liberating) my first instinct would be to feel relieved that nobody could bother me for a little while, and to go take a nap. Not everyone shares my misanthropic bent. Young Fudge was distraught. She was marooned. She was staying about 10 minutes from here. Plus, in some convoluted way, we are marginally possibly related.

Fudge was concerned that potential helpers would be deterred by their desire to for a "New Year's sleep-in" but, in fact, the young Raggedy children pay no mind to things like weekends and vacation days, and, like most small children, are very much awake at a very early hour. Particularly Little Rag, who doesn't really bother to do that much sleeping during the night altogether.

Phone calls were made, plans were discussed, and all parties went to bed with a tentative hope for a quick resolution.