Big Birthday Report – Better than Great

Birthday card 1 birthday care 2Brithday card glitter

It’s pretty damn weird that after all the build up I haven’t written a thing about my 70th birthday itself! It was so lovely that I just didn’t want to let go of it even enough to tell its stories.  I just kind of hung onto it for a day.  So here it is:

We all went to Santa Cruz, to the beach: sons, daughters-in-law, grandsons and Rick and me. The boys found a great house with a big open plan, perfect for people whose ages run from 70 to 19 months with an almost-five-year-old Nate in the middle.

It was just what I wanted. Toddlers Jake and Eli eating blueberries and flirting with their grandparents, grown-ups talking about everything from politics to child rearing to just-executed beach walks (of which there were many.) Goofing around.  Reading stories.  Cuddling on the deck.  Coloring. Being gifted with three home-made birthday cards covered in crayon and glitter-glue.  And with an urgently required lemon zester.

Staying up late talking – and listening to the boys talk with each other.  Catching up while the kids slept.  Hanging around in the early morning with the mommies and the little guys.  Walking from our house to the far end of the promenade, a windy point, and then back past the house to the other end, where there’s a lighthouse. We did it in different combinations, a couple of times in the daylight and one gorgeous time in the dark, watching the lighthouse lazily send out its signal and wondering at the full moon and its bright path of light on the sea.

It was, in short, our family at its best.  They gave me what I wanted most: to wake up and wander out in my PJs and find the little ones sitting on the floor giggling; to watch the sunset bundled up on the deck with Nate in my lap, and to enjoy our sons and their wives.  To all be together in the same place for more than dinner.

From each of them came hugs, and humor and generosity of spirit – and lots of love. Times like these are why we celebrate being born at all.

Big Birthday Memory #18: Want a Feminist Son? Tips From a Veteran

NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. This one appeared on BlogHer on January 19, 2011

Running Boys

“So Dan,” says I, “What would you think if the woman you wanted to marry decided to keep her name?”

“Well mom,” says he, “I don’t think I’d want to marry a woman who didn’t want to keep her name.”

He was around ten then (he’s 30 now), in the car with us, listening to his dad tease me, as he has for years, that he “wouldn’t have let me” have his name if I did want it.  Not a serious discussion of male oppression exactly, but humor teaches lessons too.

Someone asked me how we raised feminist sons.  I don’t have a checklist.  And if I were to respond seriously, I’d start with something really corny: teach them to respect people – all people.  The elevator man.  The bus driver.  Their best friend’s mom.  The guy at the candy counter.  Their friends.  Their parents’ friends. Their baby sitter.  They were Manhattan kids, but they were raised to think of the feelings of every person they met.  Of course, that meant all women, too.  That was an advantage.

Oh, and we respected the two of them right back.

In the families they knew, most of the moms worked as hard as the dads.  Since moms at home were an exception, they were used to two-income families.  The daughters of these moms, the girls they went to school with, wouldn’t put up with much nonsense, either.  That also helped.

We preferred offering choices over fiats.  Most boys go through a Playboy phase.  Call it curiosity.  When the magazines began to stack up behind the old-fashioned radiator in our bathroom, we didn’t seize them.  We talked about what it must have been like for the women in the pictures and how their parents might feel.  I may have said (of course I said) that it offended me, but if they wanted to keep buying Playboy, they’d have to pay for it from their allowance and keep them all put away.   Eventually the fever broke and the magazines disappeared.

Boys Hug

I also changed the endings of a lot of stories I read to them when they were really little.   No princess was given by her father to the guy who solved the riddle or won the quest in our versions. (I also had to change stories like Mr. Poppers Penguins because of terrible racial stereotypes, by the way)  We read Harriet the Spy and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great as well as Encyclopedia Brown and Superfudge.

Also, back then when it was new, we listened to Free to Be, You and Me  until the tape wore out.  When we did come across unpleasant images of women on TV or at a movie, we talked about them.Those movie moments were also “teachable moments.”  As any parent knows, those scenes can enable a dialogue that might otherwise be impossible, whether it’s about smoking and drugs, bullies, sex, or the partnership between women and men. They’re always popping up; not just in entertainment but also on the street, with family and friends, and in easy conversations.  We made the most of those, too.

I’ve sort of written things down here as I thought of them and now as I reread this, I realize how much I’ve focused on image and media.  I guess that’s because those sorts of opportunities were overt and therefore highly productive tools.

The modeling that went on at home was also critical of course.  We were nowhere near as exemplary as couples are now in their parenting and household equity.  It was the 70’s and 80s.  Even so, we were very aware of the issues we needed to pass on and both worked to do it. (For a more contemporary look , try The Feminist Breeder, who, in a consciously egalitarian marriage, describes her own thoughts on raising feminist boys.  or Penguin Unearthed as she offers her own perspective.)

Our boys, from when they were little, learned to cook, iron (that was our babysitter, not us), do their laundry and clean the kitchen.  They made their beds (mostly) and helped out at our parties.   Each has always had close friends who were girls, and later, women.  They still do.

Boys on Boat

As I conclude though,  I return too to the concept of respect.  If you are steeped in a respect for all people – not as a political habit but a deep, personal value, it’s a lot tougher to use your maleness to seize control of a household, a family or a workplace.

Finally, beyond all the values and logistical and modeling issues lies a fundamental fact.  A child who is well-loved and respected is far more likely to accept the values we choose to pass on, and that underlies everything else.


A Gift from Grown Sons

On the Danube, 1985
On the Danube, 1985

My sons are gifted givers of love.  To their wives.  To their sons. To us.  The richness of this awareness is indescribable.

To watch a man, a son of yours, arrive home from work, lift his infant son and greet him with such easy confidence and comfort and tenderness, help his toddler handle his anger, joke with his wife, ask with deep concern “how is Dad feeling?” well – you can’t imagine.  If you’re lucky, maybe you can.

To watch his brother conduct serious conversations with his one year old, read to him, laugh with him, unabashedly speak of his love for his wife and child and offer small acts of kindness to us – and to so many others – well – you can’t imagine.  If you’re lucky, maybe you can.

I know many families share in these blessings.  But I’m writing it now because I woke up this morning thinking this, feeling so full of gratitude you can’t imagine.  If you’re lucky, maybe you can.

Happy Mother’s Day

Jeanne Emerson It being Friday afternoon and almost Shabbat, I'm leaving a brief Mother's Day greeting now.  First, to say thank you to my kids for letting me be their mom and being such wonderful sons.  Then to my husband for being my partner in crime.

But I also need to talk about my own mother, whose standards were high, whose generosity to others was boundless and who had a huge influence on so many.  She was an art teacher – elementary school – and not a kid in our community would have been inside a museum if my mom hadn't taken them.  Since she grew up in the Depression and World War II, she was very much part of the Greatest Generation – in every way.

She treated everyone like someone worth meeting, and listening to, and people knew it.  All my friends wrote to me when she died with some personal remembrance.  I lost her when both boys were in college, and I remember thinking so many times how much I would have loved to be able to ask her about having adult kids.  How was she able to stay out of the middle of our lives when she had such a strong opinion about how we should be living them?  Why did she let me hang around with the high school bad boys – even let them sleep in our basement when they were fighting with their parents, without worrying what influence they might have had over us?  How did she feel as we got married?  Was she as nervous as I am now?

I do know though that, whatever her answers would be, and despite some daughterly issues, her faith in us, her encouragement, her belief that we needed careers and missions of our own all empowered us to become the women we are.  She was very private and there are many things I wish I knew, and others I wish I could have told her, but they were not the center of things – just things.

She was a great mom.  I miss her.  And I'm so grateful that I do.


Citylights_night_2When I was in high school this was one of the places I dreamed of coming:  San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore.  Far from my home in Pittsburgh, arty, intellectual and free.  Ironic then that all these years later I’m here, usually, to visit sons ten years older than I was when I set my sights on Greenwich Village or Bloomsbury. . . or San Francisco. 

One lives here; the other’s girlfriend lives here so he pretty much commutes here from Seattle.  It’s a perfect place to meet and spend the holidays.  We came out for Thanksgiving and are here again, this time since Christmas day.

It’s been lovely, if a bit stressful: a new girlfriend for our younger one – we had dinner with her – and the pressure that comes from wanting infrequent visits to go well.  At best we see one another every couple of months; both boys wish we lived closer which makes me feel good but it’s tough that we don’t — and have not much prospect of ever moving this direction. 

Now it’s our last day and the usual burgeoning lump in the throat has appeared.  Both boys have been genuinely happy to be with us and have ditched their calendars to spend the week with us.  I’m very grateful for their attention – they think I’m nuts and say of course they want to be with us.  For some reason this astonishes me.  We do have fun – jabbering about everything from Benazir Bhutto to series television.  Lots of laughter and the additional delight of seeing the boys and Josh’s friend Amy laughing and enjoying one another’s company.  But as the time comes to leave, board the plane and fly back to our DC lives, a determined sadness permeates even the happiest of moments.  I once interviewed Naomi Foner, mother to Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal and the woman who wrote Running on Empty, a film about children leaving home in a particularly profound and complete way.  "Parenthood is the only job" she told me, "where you measure success by how well you say goodbye." 

Manifestly, we’ve done that well.  Our boys are strong, self-sufficient, productive men who are friends to one another and love their parents.  They know we’re here but know too that they can take care of themselves.  In that way, we’d be defined as successful.  But.  But.  No matter how proud I am, how grateful for their strength and wisdom, humor and goodness, I miss them. 

They are the treasures of my days and will always be, and the physical distance that prevents an easy Sunday afternoon movie or Chinese dinner and makes every visit an event is always a painful reality. 

I’ll deal with it and so will they.  It’s the way things are – and it’s certainly better to want them more than we see them than to have them sigh with relief when we leave for the airport.  And whether we’re there or not, their lives are rich and often joyful.  And so, I tell myself, at least when I’m missing them, I know they’ve become the men I would have wished them to be – for their sakes, not ours.  And that’s a lot.  It doesn’t put them here next to me — but it does send with me a quiet peace amid the sadness.  That’s really all I can – or should – travel with.  The rest — working toward and achieving what they want from their lives and moving forward in the world — belongs, as it should, to them.

Happy New Year.



Cllifford_2When our kids were little we used to take them, in the freezing Manhattan November, to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For the twenty years we lived in New York, from Josh in a carrier on Rick’s back, to Josh on his shoulders and Dan in a Snugli, to the two boys worming their way past the grown-ups to stand in the front of the crowd at 75th and Broadway, to the years we went to our friends’ house overlooking Central Park West on Thanksgiving eve and watched them blow up the balloons — all the years of Columbus Avenue cocoa and popcorn, we were there. When they got older, the boys went together without us; the two of them joining the crowds (the TODAY SHOW just told me that this year there are 3.5 million people along the parade route) with the finesse of New York kids. I cherish those memories; I know they liked it but I don’t think as much as I loved watching them respond to the balloons and the music and the colors and the crowds.

If I weren’t in San Francisco without all our albums I’d scan a photo of the kids waving from the top of a newspaper vending machine, or on their dad’s shoulders, or looking up at the balloons with such magical wonder that I can’t describe it. But we’re here and no such photos inhabit my laptop, so I leave it to your imagination.

We left Manhattan for LA in 1992 and I haven’t been to a Thanksgiving parade since. I don’t even recognize all the balloons. Central Park West belongs to other parents and kids now; nobody who’s only seen it on TV can imagine the excitement, the smells, the noise, the freeeeezing cold and thrill of watching their kids wave to Big Bird and Bob IN PERSON!!!! I’ll always have a deep affection for Macy’s and the gift of that annual celebration of family, joy and, yes, thanks. Nobody can give a gift better than the gift of memories and they certainly have done that. Every single year.