Two Years This Family

Two years ago, I wrote about our Thanksgiving with family in northern Michigan. As has been the case for more years than I can remember, last month we again made our biennial pilgrimage up the mitten-shaped state, our van loaded with children, a dog, a fresh-killed organic turkey, presents and everything else needed for the long weekend. Usually, it hardly seems as if two years have gone by since we all sat down to our favorite meal ever: Grandma Liane’s holiday spread. But not this year.

Much has changed in these past two years, particularly because of Lyra. Two Thanksgivings ago, she was still a freshly made person on this planet. Born in August of 2012, we were all still readjusting to the new family order. And really, more than Lyra being our only daughter, and perhaps even more than her diagnosis of Down syndrome, having five children radically changed life as Max and I knew it. In the past two years, several of my essays have described our struggle to find balance and calm, but only recently have we had the perspective to realize why our equilibrium feels constantly challenged: Parenting five children, unlike four, kicks our butts. If our home were a dollhouse with the back wall removed, those who peered inside would find a house as full of frantic activity as any Keystone Cops film, with a commensurate amount of efficiency. But just as the slapstick cops of the silent film era eventually managed to get where they needed to be, so too have we continued to find our children (if not always ourselves) fairly functional, one even fledging.

Besides little Lyra, the person who has changed the most in the past two years is the eldest child. In the fall of 2012, Claude was a freshman at the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. That October, he eagerly returned home for autumn break. Orange bled pink in the late afternoon sky that silhouetted Claude’s profile as he sat in the passenger seat on the drive back to Ohio, questioning out loud his choices. Months later, Claude determined he was just in the wrong major, but those first few months of college, he felt vaulted into an existential crisis. That he felt pressured was not unreasonable, the university was receiving nearly $50,000 a year, largely paid by scholarships, grants and loans, for Claude to be there and he was not sure it was worth it.

IMG_1565The experience echoed his kindergarten year when my bright little boy hated school because, as we later learned, he was severely dyslexic. But just as remediating his learning disability cured his academic low self-esteem in grade school, after switching to the College of Literature, Arts and Sciences at the University of Michigan, Claude eventually felt he was were he belonged. Initially resistant to becoming an English major because, as he told me, he didn’t want to do what his parents did, he’s no longer much interested in anything else. Unlike me, however, his focus is poetry (I have an M.F.A. in creative writing, but then again, Max has his Ph.D. in English Renaissance poetry). While what he does with his life is still an unfolding story, Claude came to Thanksgiving this year looking more like a person comfortable in his own skin than I have ever known him to be. He also came in his girlfriend’s car. And, yes, she came too. He tells me that he and his girl might not go home for the summer this year, they may stay at the co-op where they both live, and work on things that are harder to do during the regular school year. My boy, a man now, who was so unsure of his life two years ago, isn’t launching. He’s launched.

Next to launch, hopefully, will be Hugo. Every year, either Hugo’s birthday or mine falls on Thanksgiving weekend. Our birthdays are exactly one week apart and at the end of November. Two years ago, Hugo turned 16 the Friday after Thanksgiving and we spent the day driving home because the Saturday after Thanksgiving Hugo was scheduled at his then-job, grooming dogs at a canine salon (read: washing scared, furry creatures who frequently bit and defecated on said “groomer”). Even though nobody wanted to leave Grandma’s that soon and the only reason we did so was to get him to his job, Hugo was disappointed at how his sixteenth birthday turned out and he sulked about it. For several months. So last year, in order to acknowledge Hugo’s feelings, however misplaced, we took the entire family to Kalahari, a ginormous indoor water park, the night before and the night of Thanksgiving. For three months, all the big boys talked about how excited they were with this plan. We had over two days of aquatic fun (though, honestly, I would rather have been in the toilet bowl ride with the biggins’ than in the kiddie pool with the babies) and a Thanksgiving meal that, while not as good as Grandma Liane’s, was pretty spectacular with all the traditional dishes plus a prime rib carving station and tables of desserts that would make Willy Wonka drool. Then, on the morning we were packing to leave, Hugo told us, “You know, I realize I’ve pretty much outgrown water parks.” Oh, that kid.

Lily & Hoover, 2012
Lily & Hoover, 2012

This year, we left him at home. No, not to punish him. His vocal instructor strongly encouraged him to apply to a specific music school, which had a December 1 deadline. While we were working our way into food comas in Michigan, Hugo was videotaping three songs for his pre-screening, filing out the application and writing the essays. We left our younger dog, Lily, with Hugo to keep him company. Our older dog, Hoover, however, went with us. Of all the dogs I have had in my adult life, it is only Hoover who has indiscriminately loved everyone he meets. “Boy, your dog sure does like me,” is a refrain we have heard countless times from innumerable mouths. Not pesky, Hoover walks slowly up to each guest, wagging his tail in greeting. If a guest is seated in our house, Hoover will lie by his or her feet, not requiring anything, but always grateful for a scratch of the head or belly. Last month we thought our sweetheart Sheltie was dying of kidney failure. Then, after nearly 72 hours of IV fluids and penicillin, Hoover made a marked recovery from what is now believed to have been pancreatitis. Still, the day we left for Grandma’s house, Hoover had yet another full week of antibiotics to take and, let’s face it, my confidence that Hugo would consistently remember to give the dog his pills was non-existent. Besides, from now until the day he takes his last breath, which at over 13 years old could be any day, Hoover is on the deluxe pampering plan. I frequently imagine, unfairly, I’m sure, that Hoover is milking his recent medical crisis: You know, I’m a sweet, but old, old dog. I could go at any time. Those scraps on your plate might be the last I taste. Rub my belly today, for tomorrow I may die. Well, even if he is milking it, nobody minds spoiling the old boy, who was loved up by many hands all the holiday weekend long.

Two years ago, my essay on Thanksgiving considered the constituent ingredients of family, blood not necessarily being one of them. Cooking in two kitchens in side-by-side houses, which really is one of the best ways to have all the dishes of a good Thanksgiving spread come together at once, Leif and Jules traipsed back and forth collecting and delivering whatever ingredients were needed at the other kitchen. Other than these errands and the big dinner itself, I hardly saw Leif. Unlike his older brothers, all of whom clung to me like marsupial offspring until they were in grade school, Leif’s independence is at once surprising and refreshing. Perhaps it is because he was only five weeks old when we first packed him off to daycare three days a week so I could finish my master’s thesis. Or maybe having so many older brothers, who all seem like adults from Leif’s perspective, along with a father who parents all the children as much as I do, his needs are always tended whether or not I am available. Or it may just be the way he came into the world. Whatever it is, Leif abandoned us in the guesthouse and remained his Grandma’s constant companion, both day and night, for the entire weekend. I am not sure who this pleased more: Max and me for a lessened load of child duty, Leif for the indulgent treatment his grandma gave him (we, who have no cable TV, found her serving him hot breakfast on a TV tray while he sat in Grandpa’s recliner, watching cartoons), or Grandma who loves nothing more than to take care of someone, especially if they are little and a little difficult, both categories to which Leif qualifies.

In ways I had not yet considered two years ago, I see the transitory beauty of family. More people will be welcomed into our eccentric complexity, which may be unique in substance, but no less eccentric or complex than most families. From time to time, one or another of us will ask or be asked, and may choose, to formalize our relationships to one another, as recently was asked of me. No, not what you might be thinking. Max and I are content with our arrangement.

“I want to ask you to consider doing something before I die that I have wanted to do for over forty-five years,” said my stepmom.

“Wow, now there’s a way to set up a question!” I said, laughing. Although she giggled at my comment, when she next spoke I thought my stepmother, who came into my life shortly after my third birthday, sounded a little nervous.

“Would you consider letting me legally adopt you as my daughter?” she asked.

Of course.


(Over the River and through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go) x 2.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

We blew the first rule of green living. We try to live simply, but with seven people in this family,  it’s not so simple. Our new Toyota Sienna, purchased when the cost of fixing the old Sienna was greater than its value by a couple thousand dollars, can theoretically transport eight passengers, all seat-belted.

Figure two adults in the front seats. As my two oldest sons are now 6’2” and 6’ tall, four of us fit the physical description of “adult.”

The two captain’s seats in the second row are each dedicated to a car seat—one for two-year-old Leif and the other for this year’s newest member, Lyra. The middle seat in the second row, which is almost as narrow as a coach seat on a commercial airlines, had to be removed in order to access the back row of seats.

The back row, with the least amount of leg room possible as the middle seats have to be pushed all the way back to accommodate the toddler and infant car seats, might work if we had children under ten years of age, but note the heights mentioned above. Also, in this family, our height is all leg. Hugo and I have 32” inseams, Claude’s is 34”.

Lily & Hoover, ready to roll

In the very back, where the families in the Sienna ads store their luggage, we have a folded down stroller, which we very much will use, and two Shelties. Those are dogs that look like little collies and luckily like lying together in close quarters.

Where to put the turkey? The small suitcases of clothing? The diapers? The boys’ backpacks? My laptop? So much for simple living.

We departed  in two vehicles on two different days.

I left yesterday in the Sienna with Jules and the babies, the dogs, the turkey and all that these beings needed. Max is leaving shortly in his Camry with Hugo and will grab Claude in Ann Arbor on his way up north to Grandma’s house in Charlevoix. Until the kids drive on their own to Grandma’s, I don’t see how we will be able to do it any differently.

We are a modern family.

Grandma is my stepmom. Grandpa is her husband but not my dad. My dad and stepmom, who married when I was three, divorced in the early 90s after Dad had moved to Arizona in 1990. My stepmom never joined him in Arizona and he never returned to Michigan. Fulfilling the cliché that is life, Dad met another woman with children of her own and eventually seemed to forget about us. My stepmom never did and she has been the primary grandparent of my boys’ lives until I met Max through whom they have gained a second set of grandparents. Even before Max and I began producing blonde babies of our own, Max’s mom claimed my three boys as full members, with all privileges, of her grand-brood.

Every time I’ve had a baby, my stepmom was soon there to take care of us for as long as she could stay. As soon as they were old enough, my boys began spending many weeks each summer with Grandma and Grandpa in northern Michigan,  their house just a block from sandy Michigan Beach on Lake Michigan. And we come up every other Thanksgiving for Grandma’s holiday dinner. Her herbed rolls, made from scratch and cooked in loads of butter, are worth every gram of fat. I’ve never mastered her herb rolls and I’ve told Jules, who began baking breads this fall, to pay close attention tomorrow.

For years I have supplied the turkey, fresh-killed on the farm for which I host a co-op, which makes me sound like one of those über-mom-bloggers, but the way I host it is pretty lazy. All I do is reveal to the people in the co-op the code to my garage where I keep a refrigerator for the weekly deliveries. The members take turns (in alphabetical order) driving each Saturday to pick up the orders and bring them to the fridge in my garage. As a result, my food is delivered to my home every week.

This year’s turkey was executed and sealed in a plastic bag on Monday and delivered to my garage fridge that evening. I popped him in the Playmate cooler before we left yesterday and later today I will brine the bird in the same cooler. Playmates are the perfect size for brining a turkey and with a fresh-killed bird brining is, in my opinion, necessary.

When you buy your meat straight from the farmer who raised it, you inevitably learn a thing or two that you won’t pick up with your frozen Butterball. For example, meat must age in order to be edibly tender. We’ve all heard of aged beef, right? What that means is not some secret preparation, like the Kobe beef cattle who get massaged in life. Aging means a little decomposition. My fresh Tom hasn’t aged, but the brining will meet the requirements by helping break down his tougher connective tissues. Meanwhile, because he’s never been frozen, he’s not full of water. Nor chemicals or drugs because he’s also organic.

Grandma & Lyra

Which I guess gets to my point—know what is real and what really is. Your meat was an animal with a body who enjoyed being alive but I enjoy eating meat more than letting some animals continue to enjoy life. I don’t eat animals from factory farms when I can help it. Factory farm animals didn’t enjoy life as much as my organic turkey, though I’m sure they didn’t want to die for someone’s meal. I am thankful for our food, the people who grew it and the creatures who died so we could eat them. If it sounds ecumenical, it should.

That your blood relatives are genetically related is real. But real family are the people who show up, regardless of what you call them—mom, friend, brother, neighbor. Some of us are lucky to find family in our relatives. Some of us have to look beyond genetics to find our families. And my boys and I know the difference. We are all eager to get over the river and through the woods to my stepmom’s, and their very real grandma’s, house whenever we can.

When we arrived at 11:30 last night, there was a pot of split pea & ham soup waiting for us on the stove and bread baking in the oven.