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Monday, September 28, 2015

The First Good Boyfriend

My daughter’s first high school boyfriend smiled wide and showered me with prep-school manners. “Hello, Mrs. Wolff,” he’d say, using my husband’s surname and smiling as if he were about to carry my clubs to the first tee. When he wasn’t working his Eddie Haskell act, he was practicing his best user-boyfriend techniques on my kid, which I learned only after the breakup. I felt dumb for having fallen for the Aqua Velva charm. 

So I thought I was prepared when Katy brought the next one home. They were sophomores at the time. Matt (yeah – a pseudonym) stood in my kitchen wearing dark curls and a casual grin. I girded myself for the Hello-Mrs.-Cleaver routine. But when Katy introduced us, Matt offered only a cool “Hi.” I might’ve been a bothersome store clerk. Suffice it to say he didn’t bestir himself to make a whopper of a first impression. For this, I briefly hated him. Maybe I’d wanted Eddie Haskell after all.

Yet there he was, and he returned over the next weeks and months, squashing the memory of his predecessor. A private school kid from a two-doctor home, Matt spoke his mind and cracked smart jokes. He reserved no special language for adults. At dinner one night, with my brother and his girlfriend at our table, Matt plucked a black strand from his meatloaf and cheerfully announced, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a meal here that didn’t involve dog hair.”

Direct hit to my Achilles heel. I always worry just enough about housekeeping to feel self-conscious with guests, and not enough to make things spotless. But if Matt’s comment was impertinent, it was also guileless. He never saw the daggers I shot across the table.

Katy loved him. Matt put a racket in her hand and taught her to play tennis. She flew south with his family for spring vacation. She bonded with his mother, befriended his sister, doted on his sweet baby brother and shadowed his handsome father in surgery on career day.

During an especially difficult school year, Matt illuminated my kid’s dark moods. And in one moment I’ll never forget, he called me, enraged, to tattle on Katy’s pediatrician. During a sports physical, the doc noted with disapproval that Katy had gained weight since her previous visit. He failed to recall, however, that the previous visit had been because she had begun purposely starving herself and had become frighteningly thin. The weight gain was hard-won and good; the child was healthier. As angry as I was at the doctor, I remember this as one Matt’s finest moments. I loved him for his outrage, and for determination to make sure I knew what had happened.

For a long time, Matt and Katy spent most of their waking hours with each other, much of it at our house. That was fine by me. I’d grown up with three older brothers. Matt’s American boy qualities, his kindheartedness and sarcasm, felt familiar and comforting.

Matt also won over Lylah, Katy’s wise little sister, simply by befriending her. She tagged along sometimes with the two of them, but she and Matt had their own conversations. He advised her about photography, and how, when she got older, she was to demand to be respected by guys.

         At a family gathering in Michigan one weekend, Lylah was feeling fully 13 – awkward, unsure of herself and alone in the crowd She started to notice that she was the only one in the room who didn’t have a partner. Matt watched her face darken and walked her out to the porch. Lighten up, he said. You’re cool. Everyone here loves you. Then he purloined some spiked cider and they sipped conspiratorially, the oblivious adults a few yards away. 

KATY AND MATT HAD BEEN DATING for more than a year when one night she staggered in the door, red-eyed and ragged. At a concert, Matt told Katy he’d grown unsure of his feelings for her. They had been arguing a lot recently. He thought they should take a break.

            It probably sounds strange that this news seemed unthinkable to all of us. They were, after all, only 17. Teen love isn’t supposed to last. Still, what a shock. As my kid went fetal in my bed, the smartest thing I could think to say to her was, “He’s a teenage boy, Katy. They’re barely human at that age. They can’t help themselves. It’s not personal. ”

            This stopped her crying cold. She glared at me with wet eyes. “It’s Matt, Mom,” she said in a clear, anguished voice. Then she resumed weeping.

            When it comes to parenting, you never quite get ahead of the lesson plan.  Just as soon as you learn to handle toddler ear infections like a champ, here comes the issue of how to hold the line on TV time. Talking my kid through a morass of middle-school drama left me in no way prepared for stitching up the first real tear in her heart.  Nor had it taught me to guard against the unexpected threat of other people’s children clawing their way into mine.

I fed Katy lines about girls and boys, what each is emotionally ready for at what age, hoping to give her the 30,000-foot view. I believed everything I said. It was true. It also was lame. She’d see the wisdom of these words if she had her own kids some day. For now, she wasn’t just some statistically average high schooler having an average bad experience. She was herself, feeling the only broken heart that counted.

I mustered anger at Matt on her behalf, even sending him a sarcastic email. “At a concert? Really?” To which he responded, reasonably, “Would there have been a good time?”

For a long while I kept so busy nursing my daughter’s lovesickness that I didn’t even notice the ache in my own gut.  Then, slowly, it started to make itself known. Out of the blue, I’d suddenly hear Katy in my head, saying, “It’s Matt, Mom.” And then would come the jab of loss.

It was Matt – not some generic boy putting us through predictable paces. He was gone. He’d broken up with all of us. How had I become so attached? How had he ceased to be simply another kid making my house noisy and become a whole person, someone I could grieve for, apart from what my daughter was enduring?

One day, shortly before Matt and Katy stopped dating, a member of his family found a fawn alone by the side of the road and brought it home out of concern that it had been abandoned.  Katy asked me to stop by and see it. It was the size of a healthy house cat, spotted and wobbly on stick legs. Wide-eyed and skittish, its fragility made my head hurt. It needed to be with its mother – who might well have been close at hand before the humans intervened. It was so sweet, but its survival seemed so tenuous.

            For a week or so, Matt’s family kept the deer in a makeshift pen in the yard and cared for it as best they could with Google-gleaned feeding instructions. Then a holiday weekend came, and Matt’s family went on a trip, leaving him at home with the fawn. No sooner had they gone than Matt discovered parasites infesting the baby’s coat.  The sight was a horror. The fawn weakened and cried, and there was no clear route to help. The infestation grew worse over the hours.

Wildlife agencies won’t intervene on behalf of whitetail deer; the law prohibits anyone from doing so. Maybe a kind-hearted vet would help, but it was a holiday. Veterinary offices were closed. The animal’s suffering was unendurable.

Matt strode miserably off into a wooded area with the fawn. With the blow of a shovel, he delivered it from further suffering. Afterward Katy and Matt showed up on our front porch. For several long, dismal moments, I hugged him closed. I yearned for whatever maternal magic might erase the trauma. He looked lost and sad and angry, and very young.

            Soon after came the breakup at the concert. Then a brief reconciliation. Then an especially painful final blow involving a cell phone butt-dial and a conversation that was never meant to be heard.

           Then life went on, as it does. Other boyfriends came and went. One of them was a good-natured gym rat who posts Instagram shots of his meals and his muscles.  Great kid. Katy and I agree he’ll make someone a fine partner some day. And now she’s with a grownup boyfriend. They have jobs and cars. They’re on their way to whatever happens next.

            A while ago, Lylah sat down at the dinner table and started to tell her dad and me a story. She had just run into Matt at a diner. They talked; it was nice. He was still Matt, six years older, still handsome, funny and smart. He suggested they all get coffee sometime soon – Lylah, Katy and Matt. They really should do that, Lylah agreed. And she meant it, even if she knew it wouldn’t happen.

Just for a moment, the missing-Matt was back. There he’d been, her ex-big-brother – close enough to touch, but a cipher just the same. “It’s so strange,” she said, “that your entire relationship with someone can depend on their relationship with someone else.”
            Matt taught us that our family could expand and contract on very short notice.  We made room for this boy to become another kind of man in our house, and he filled a hole we hadn’t even known was there.
Then he vanished. He’d been a heartbreaker and path-changer. He was Katy’s first good boyfriend.  He was Lylah’s one shot at a big brother. And I still can’t shake the feeling that he was the son who got away.

Sandstrom, a writer and illustrator, is the former Book Editor at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Thick Through the Middle Prologue Pages

A while back, I worked on the first three chapters of a graphic memoir called "Thick Through the Middle." I've decided to post pages here to keep it from going forgotten. Stop back in the coming days for more, if you like. Oh, and as always, THIS WILL BE MUCH EASIER TO READ IF YOU CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Luxury of a Bad Vacation

The Luxury of a Bad Vacation

I know there is such a thing as a bad vacation – the truly terrible kind that leave people fundamentally changed.  But as I sit in the little place we rent year after year at The Nice Part of the Jersey Shore (thanks, Snooki), I know I’ve never had one of those. 

The day we left Cleveland, Lylah took ill with abdominal unhappiness. Nothing dramatic, just discomfort that slows the constitution and makes food unappealing. Two days later, the gathering storm hit my shores with considerable force. I wanted my mommy. 

Like clockwork, 48 hours later, I could practically see Al Roker standing in the family room as Katy succumbed to hurricane-level misery. At the urgent care, halfway through our beach vacation, one of the very nice nurses kept saying to her, “You poor thing, you’re dry as a bone,” as she tapped around for a vein.  A couple bags of saline and a slew of drugs later, we stumbled back home and called it a day. 

The fact that Carlo seems to have been immune to this plague is only the start of what fills me with joy on this, the second last day of our odyssey. Here are a couple of others.

Every day this week, I’ve woken up with the Atlantic Ocean a block away. Most days I’ve been able to go there early and watch the shore birds fish in the tide pools as the sun wipes the horizon clean of mist. Everyone who wants to should be able to do it.

This is a place my parents introduced us to when we were still kids. They’ve both been gone a long time now, but coming here brings them a little closer again. Very little changes in the town. Mom and Dad would be glad of that. They would still like it here. 

The other day on the beach, a little girl and her mother came up behind me while I was sketching. The child was perhaps 5. I asked if she likes to draw. She nodded and looked at my pages. She has many sketchbooks herself, her mom told me. Then they showed me the tiny hermit crab they found in its tiny shell in the sand.

Yesterday on my beach walk, two women strolled toward me with a beautiful black Newfoundland. They let me say hello, and I caught a glimpse of our dear departed Pearl in the dog’s slow tail wag. Pearl is the great dog heartbreak of my life. I look for her in magical ways, and sometimes she shows up.

I could go on, but this is the internet age, and already some of your are all, like, “too long didn’t read.”  But let me just add one thing. The four of us together – talking, laughing, suffering -- is a gift never to be taken for granted.  So break out the Coppertone and the Lysol. I’m squeezing the last juicy hours out of this best bad vacation. Cowabunga, and thank you.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Count these days slowly

I grew up in pre-Amy Mihaljevic Bay Village, so the grownups let us wander hither and yon for hours under the delusion that we were safe. We mostly were. In summer we’d lose ourselves in the woods near the lake. We waded in streams and imagined adventures.

Something happened to time in the woods. I want to resist the cliché about it standing still, but some sort of warp was going on. Being surrounded by all that nature – trees way older than ourselves, smells you couldn’t find indoors — provided a connection to the infinite. We'd be explorers from the 19th century for a while, and credibly so.

Then we’d hop our bikes and go home for dinner, and clocks resumed their ticking.

Today I hiked around the woods and meadows at Holden Arboretum. The farther I got from other people (this took awhile), the more I found of the person I was in the woods back in Bay.
The weeds lick my shins. The sun and breeze take turns brushing my cheeks. A fly settles on my sketchbook. It could be 2015. It could be 1971.


But the wandering grownup knows to treasure these forays into nature on a perfect summer afternoon. Supplies are limited. This is part of what it means to grow up. I don’t take anything lovely for granted anymore.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Flannery O'Connor's wonderfulness

The great Flannery O'Connor grew up in Georgia, where her childhood passions included raising feathered creatures of all kinds. My brother Eric just sent me a collection of her works, and though I'd previously read a number of her short stories, today I read an essay -- "King of the Birds -- first published the year I was born. It's about peacocks. Gorgeous. Funny. (The birds and the writing.)

“Although I had a pen of pheasants and a pen of quail, a flock of turkeys, seventeen geese, a tribe of mallard ducks, three Japanese silk bantams, two Polish Crested ones, and several chickens of a cross between these last and the Rhode Island Red, I felt a lack."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jazz guitar gentleman

People who know jazz know guitar legend Pat Martino. I didn't hear of him till last week, when I was asked to share info about his weekend gig at Nighttown. Something struck me just in reading about him, however: I wanted to hear him play.

We lucked into front-and-center seats at his Saturday show, and I really did have the sense of being in the presence of someone extraordinary. It wasn't just the stylin' outfit (crisp jeans, necktie, hip shoes). It was watching the dazzling combination of intense concentration and muscle memory at work as he played. People who are passionately driven in the arts -- not to fame, but to mastering their medium -- exude special charisma.

Plus, he was with an ace drummer and B3 player, and they were doing very tuneful, sophisticated stuff.

All of this would be interesting enough on its own, but then you learn about Pat's 1980 brain surgery, from which he awoke with his memory shot through with holes. You can read about it here.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Bird in Captivity

The bathroom scale I grew up with was covered in gold carpet. Your tootsies stayed warm while your blood ran cold. The numerals were marked off every five pounds with little slash marks in between. If you stepped on the scale three times, you could get three different readings. And there were many times, in my fat-obsessed teenage years, that I stepped on the scale three times in succession. 

Had you asked me at 18 whether I’d still be a daily scale-checker at fiftysomething, I would’ve said, “God, I hope not.” But here I am – stepping on dutifully each morning, virtually every day.  This modern scale isn’t so modern as to report on my body mass index, thank heaven, though such models are available. No, it just reports on my character in half-pound increments. 
 But hey – if you step on it three times in succession, you’re likely to get the same three results. That’s progress, right?

I mentioned this daily scale-check to one of my daughters today, and she was stunned. I’ve been known to pack the scale in my suitcase when we go on vacation, but I suspect she thought I was just trying to keep myself honest during one of my flirtations with Weight Watchers.  If only.

Deep into this this lifelong dance with food and fat, I still pay homage to the numbers as a hedge against morbid obesity – or so goes the theory. I’m afraid to look away for too long; I might lose touch with the reality and float out to sea on a raft of bagels and peanut butter.
But it doesn’t really work anymore. Instead, I check in daily and readjust my idea of “normal” as the numbers climb.
This is something they don’t tell you about aging – that the coping mechanisms of youth can weaken along with muscle tone. The dumb workarounds, the crazy habits you depended on for years to keep you passing for sane (or thin), can go the way of the sagging jawline. I am forced to admit, though not for the first time, that “healthy” is less about keeping dates with the scale and more about keeping reasonable promises to myself.

Carry on.