Commencement: A Mother’s Guide to the Extra Stuff

Commencement: A Mother’s Guide to the Extra Stuff

I can never remember if the word “commencement” means beginning or ending. My knee jerk reaction is to think that it means ending, though my writer’s mind quickly corrects it. 

That’s probably because graduation ceremonies are called Commencement, and I think of graduation day as an ending—leaving the known behind:  a good reputation, dear friends at a stone’s throw, families whose refrigerators and bikes and kitchen tables are yours for the sharing… the dismantling of decorated walls soon to betray you for guests, or someone else with new photo collages, new tapestries, new blue ribbons. I have never been good at leaving the familiar, and I usually mark it with a little hidden graffiti—Laura Munson lived here, and the dates.

But it’s not my turn this upcoming Commencement. It’s my daughter’s. Now it’s she who is dismantling her room, coming down to the end of her check list, five more days of school to go, graduation invitations in the mail, college deposit in, orientation dates in stone. There is a new timber in her voice; something dire. “Mom, can you do something with my Breyer horse collection?” 

“Can’t you just leave them on your shelf?” I ask, vignettes reeling by of mock horse races on the lawn and barnyard feedings with tiny plastic apples, and that one coveted palomino paint that became real one Christmas. 

“I need room for my stuff.” 

“What stuff?” 

And then I realize that the stuff that has been strewn all over her room for the last four years of high school actually could have had a home in her bookshelves if we’d been more able (or willing) to pack up her plastic horse collection. I’m not sure whose job this is. Please Lord, not mine.

I look into her eyes. And I see…it’s my job. Some things are just too hard.

Suddenly, I feel a desperate need to give advice in fast forward. “Have I taught you how to make hospital corners?  And to never leave a wet towel on a bed?  Or leave a glass directly on wood?”

“I know. Respect the wood. You’ve told me.” She’s tolerating my Mom-ness much more than usual lately. She’s in the bittersweet of Commencement while I am bursting into tears in pathetic public places, like at the bank drive thru, catching myself in the video screen looking miserable. Will her roommate know that when she needs a hug but is too shy to ask, she makes tea? Will she know that she likes to sing in harmony and that all those eye-ball rolls don’t really mean anything? Will she know that she acts street-tough sometimes, but is deeply sensitive and if she’s playing the ukulele along with Jack Johnson, something pretty rough probably happened at school that day? 

“Mom, why are you crying?” she says, bringing me back to the grim task of packing up her happy childhood. 

“I’m sorry. I’m just going to miss you.”

Last week was when it really hit. I was doing laundry and I heard from her room in that new dire timber, “How do stamps work?”

“Stamps? Like postage stamps?”

“Yeah.” This from a 4.0 student.

I went into her room. She was sitting on her bed addressing graduation party invitations. “Really? You can program a computer, but you don’t know how stamps work???”

“My generation doesn’t really use them.” 

I was sure she was playing a joke on me. Stamps? But she wasn’t. She really had no clue that you use the same stamp for a local letter that you do for one that goes all the way to New York City.

Geez—what other glaring omissions have there been in my mothering? I’ve tried so hard to fill in every blank, taking every single second possible as a teaching moment. “Maybe I should write you a survival handbook for college. Would that be helpful?”

“I know all the basic stuff. But yeah…maybe the extra stuff.”

I wracked my brain, taking inventory. The extra stuff. If stamps are “extra” this could get ugly! I decided to do it room by room, compartmentalizing life in cross-section, like the dollhouse we spent hours decorating and playing in. 

Kitchen: 

I start with How to boil water, tell if pasta is ready, smell a gas leak, turn off the water main…but suddenly it turns into a different kind of “extra.”

  • If you’re having a bad day, leave the dishes. But do soak them, or you’ll really be in a bad mood when you get around to cleaning them.
  • If you’re having a really bad day, don’t adhere to the utensil slots. Just chuck ‘em all in and let them fall where they may. Actually, if it’s a really bad day, just leave the dishes alone. They can wait.
  • No matter what kind of mood you’re in, make yourself a nice meal, especially if you’re lonely.
  • Always eat some fruit in the morning and some veggies at some point in the day. Keep bananas, carrots, apples, and potatoes around. They do the trick when you’re not feeling inspired.
  • Keep a granola bar in your purse. (Tip:  Use only small purses—lest you end up with a Mary Poppins carpet bag, coat rack and all. Read Nora Ephron’s essay on women’s purses.)
  • Splurge on really good jam and really good bread.
  • Always have a flower or a piece of greenery in a vase on your kitchen windowsill. It really helps.
  • If you see evidence of mice, set traps immediately. This probably will not apply to 99% of the places you’ll live, (we live in Montana), so take it metaphorically: See  s*** for what it is and get rid of the source before it gets out of control.
  • Always smell fish before you buy it. If it smells like fish, it’s no good. Also, look into its eyes.  They should be clear. This also applies to boyfriends.
  • To cut goat cheese, use dental floss. (Unflavored! Duh. Don’t roll your eyes.)
  • Learn how to make homemade chicken broth. (Ask your mother)

Living room:

  • Splurge on nice candles. Light them for yourself daily. Light the not-nice ones for guests. Not the other way around.
  • Lie on the couch and do other things than watch TV. Like read a book or listen to classical music.
  • Watch old movies. You know…back when people used stamps, and women dressed for travel. There’s a lot to learn from the “olden days.”
  • Listen to NPR. Especially opera on NPR. Pretty much everything you need to know about life is in operas.
  • Make sure to have musical instruments and keep them within eye-range so you’ll actually play them. Guitars and pianos welcome group jam sessions.
  • Always have a drum somewhere for that person who claims they “aren’t musical.”
  • Have board games and cards in a drawer or on a shelf. Play them. Especially Scrabble, backgammon, gin rummy, Farkle, and Scattagories.
  • Have guide books and binoculars. It’s good to know your birds and flowers and other critters.  Even in the city, there are hawks.

Bathroom:

  • Have nice hand towels and nice soap in your powder room. Your guests should feel special.
  • Use your powder room. You should feel special too! 
  • Always have an extra roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. 
  • And a plunger. (Replace plungers every-so-often, unless you are the type to wash and disinfect toilet plungers. Dirty secret: I’m not. That’s what the second flush is for.)
  • Don’t forget to wash the toilet flusher handle when you wash your toilets. They are dearly overlooked. (Try not to think about that too much in hotel rooms.)
  • Put nice art in your bathrooms. And magazines. You can learn a lot about a person from their bathroom.
  • Supply room spray.

Bedroom:

  • Don’t be a slob. Pick up your clothes. If they’re not dirty, put them somewhere to wear again during the week, like in a hamper in your closet. NOT on a chair. And definitely NOT on your treadmill. Like your mother. Who then forgets she has a treadmill.
  • Wash your sheets at least once a month and splurge on nice sheets and feather pillows.
  • If the person/people with whom you are sharing your room snore, make sure you have earplugs by your bed.
  • Supply your nightstand with books that you want to read when you grow up: a book of poetry, a spiritual text of some sort, a classic novel, something on the bestseller list that is not written by a celebrity.
  • If you eat breakfast in bed, use a tray. Crumbs are worse than bedbugs in some cases, especially if you’ve listened to your mother and splurged on good bread.
  • Eat breakfast in bed, but not lunch or dinner. That means you’re depressed.
  • Sleep in every-so-often. Like till eleven. This will get harder and harder the older you get.

Office:

  • Virginia Woolf was right—you need a room of your own, even it’s in an eave, or a closet under a stairway, or (if you’re lucky enough) a whole studio over your garage, or an unoccupied bedroom, or a renovated garden shed. Claim space for yourself!
  • Don’t allow people to come and go without knocking.
  • If you have children, always have an available chair in it for them. It’s important to have your own space, but it’s also important that they know that your work does not take away your motherhood.
  • This one is really really important: Whatever it is that you do in that office, whether it’s a vocation or avocation, make sure it’s something you love. NOT something that you are necessarily good at. If you happen to be good at what you love, then that’s a bonus, but not a rule!   

Outside:

  • Have a communal outdoor space that feels like a room in your house, but isn’t exactly…like: A screened porch, fire escape, hammock, hot tub, front stoop, garden or terrace. It doesn’t have to be big. Just a place where you sit at least once every few days and dream a little.

A few extra extras:

  • Write handwritten notes on nice stationary to people you love. That’s where the stamp comes in…
  • Try not to kill bugs. If they’re inside, put a mason jar over them and take them outside. They do elegant things like lick the wax off the peony buds so that they can bloom  (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) (Mice are a different story. If you’ve had one die in the walls, you’ll know what I mean.)
  • Practice Yes and Possibility instead of No and Not Possible. Positive begets positive and negative begets negative. You don’t want the latter.
  • Have fun, for crying out loud! Life is beautiful and heartbreaking any way you slice it so you might as well enjoy the ride!
  • There is no such thing as cool.
  • Judge not.
  • Don’t mistake a full schedule for a full life. If you find yourself saying, “There’s never a dull moment,” you should probably make it a goal to have at least one “dull moment” every day.
  • Take walks. (especially in the rain)
  • Sing. Dance. Read poetry.
  • Have dogs. Grow a garden.
  • Travel.
  • Create the sacred wherever you are.
  • Be kind to old people and remember they know a lot more than you do. Ask them to tell you their stories.
  • Know that there are saints everywhere. Look for them. They’re often where you least expect it.
  • Call your mother. Texting is a challenge since she can never find her reading glasses.  Plus, she likes to hear your voice. It reminds her of lying in bed with you when you were little, reading books, singing, praying, watching the moon, dreaming. 

And she loves you no matter what, which is hard to find.

***

Categories: essays

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