banner1gif.gif

By Annabel Monaghan

I wander around my unusually clean kitchen, killing time before I get to pick up my son from the airport. He has just finished his freshman year in college, and something that feels like relief floods my nervous system. I haven’t seen him in two months, so I try to imagine what he’s going to look like standing on the curb outside American Airlines. He’ll probably need a haircut, and 50/50 he’ll be wearing pajamas. We have different ideas about what counts as appropriate attire for air travel.

I take two sticks of butter out of the refrigerator as I try to imagine how tired he is. Freshman year in college is an exhilarating exercise in problem solving. There are standard things like Calculus and term papers, and more complex things like wanting to sleep but having to get yourself up for class. You run out of time, food points, and clean socks. You figure it out. There is so much newness to absorb — new people, new germs, new geography; I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

I pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees before I realize that I’m making cookies. I grab sugar and flour, and then oatmeal. Regular chocolate chip cookies seem wrong for this day. They are icky, like a too-wet kiss. Oatmeal cookies feel like sustenance, a solid hug of support. There’s a chance I’m overthinking this whole thing.

When the cookies are in the oven, I find myself on my hands and knees searching the back of a cupboard for a small oval tray that I haven’t seen in years. It seems like the right size for the welcoming, small enough to feel like the cookies are just for him. When I find it, it’s tarnished, so I polish it with what look shockingly like my mother’s hands.

I remember coming home from my own freshman year in college. In fact, it was the same college my son is returning from. I felt different, and not just because my clothes were so tight. I felt like I’d accomplished something, even if that thing was just having gone away and survived it. The tension in my shoulders released when I got off the plane in Los Angeles. Here was a place where people knew me and where I knew what was around most corners. We got on the freeway, not the highway, and passed In-N-Out Burger. Everything seemed to be right where I left it.

When we got home, I wanted to collapse. I knew my bed would be soft and the right size. I knew that if I sat on my mom’s sofa, I’d sink into it. The whole place felt like it was enveloping me in a welcome. And on the coffee table was a small oval tray with just exactly the right number of oatmeal cookies.

This memory nearly knocks me over as I’m polishing my mother’s tray with what look like her hands. I hadn’t thought about those cookies in 30 years, but here they are filling my kitchen with the moment I was trying to recreate. I don’t remember if I ate one of those cookies or if I even said thank you. But the thought behind them must have registered with me. It’s nice to think that, in the dusty corners, we file all that good stuff away.

By Annabel Monaghan

 

Pullquote: The object invokes terror, like Chucky from that horror movie in his innocent, but bloodstained, overalls.

 

Fifteen years ago my mother-in-law gave me a mandoline for my birthday. When I try to talk to my friends about the mandoline, they think I’m referring to an instrument in the lute family, which actually might have been a better gift for me. This device is the culinary kind. The box says it’s supposed to quickly slice, shred, crinkle cut, waffle cut, and julienne my fruits and vegetables. To date, it has julienned nothing by my fingers. 

 

When I first opened it, I was pleased that my mother-in-law thought I was the sort of person who would insist on my carrots having ridges and my potatoes being waffly. <Today’s the day we take dinner up a notch,> I thought. A moment later, I’d sliced my finger, fashioned a tourniquet out of paper towels, and shut that box for what I hoped would be the last time. 

 

I placed it on a high shelf. It’s a universal truth that you should just give away whatever is on the high shelf — especially if you’re 5’3”. The moment you put it there, you’ve acknowledged the fact that you’re not going to use it again. Ever. It sits up there with the soup tureen and the Thigh Master. 

 

But every few years I take it down and try again. I decide I’m going to take an Idaho potato and turn it into waffle fries, even though you can buy waffle fries already waffled in the freezer section of the grocery store. My kids beg me not to. They suspect the problem with the mandoline is user-related. They’ve told me a million times that I’m reckless with the cheese grater. And a million times I’ve rolled my eyes at them on my way to find the band- aids.

 

Years ago, when the organizing lady came to my kitchen, we spent a lot of time talking about the mandoline. To be honest, I find it sort of cathartic to talk about. She said that if I don’t use it I should give it away to someone who would. Such an easy thing to say, but the issues run deep: the guilt over not having appreciated or even successfully used this gift once; the implied failure in serving my kids potatoes shaped like, well, baked potatoes. 

 

Finally, I tried the Japanese de-cluttering trick of holding it close to me to see if it brought me joy. Of course, I left it in the box while snuggling it to my neck. I don’t have a death wish. I found no joy in the mandoline. The object invokes terror, like Chucky from that horror movie in his innocent, but bloodstained, overalls. I looked up and saw the newly empty space on the top shelf and felt a wave of possibilities wash over me. I resigned to give it away. 

 

If you’ll follow me a bit deeper into my madness, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure that I could actually give it away. This thing is so dangerous that I’m worried about where it’s going to end up. I worry that some young newlywed is going to see it at the Salvation Army, entertain fantasies about impressing her mother-in-law with julienned vegetables, and with one swift motion of the “safety guard,” lose all of her fingers. Not on my watch. 

 

Which is how I found myself at The Salvation Army, very carefully placing my boxed mandoline on the counter and taking a step back as if it would detonate at any moment. I explained to the man working there that this was a very dangerous object. I regaled him with a decade of tales about my own flesh wounds. I told him about how my plumber Bob had just seen the device on my counter and remarked that his sister had lost the tips of all of the fingers on her left hand using that thing. The man said, “Then why in the world would we want this?”

 

“Exactly,” I replied.  

 

I grabbed the offending box and put it back in the trunk of my car. Which is where it still is, eerily just over my shoulder at all times.

 

  

 

By Annabel Monaghan

Pullquote:

We seem to have bought into the idea that if we fall into bed at night completely exhausted and smelling like baked goods and mud, our kids will be okay.

Remember when that new, zealous guy started work at your office? The one who thought it would be more productive to come in a few minutes earlier and stay a few minutes later? Next thing you knew, your nine-to-five job was eight-to-six, for the same pay. I wonder if this is what’s happened to motherhood. Maybe it was just one mom who had an extra cup of coffee and decided to take it up a notch, and here we all are, a generation later — tired, busy, and tired of being busy.

It probably started with the first woman who decided it might be fun to bring a treat to the classroom to celebrate her child’s birthday. It was a nice thought, harmless even, but then it forced the twenty other moms to bake birthday treats for the duration of elementary school. Obviously, your kid can’t be the only one who isn’t celebrated.

I bet it was just weeks later that another mom decided that this treat should be cupcakes. Cupcakes: an exercise in baking not one but 24 cakes, each of which needs to be wrestled out of the tin and frosted individually. Cupcakes: the hardest possible treat to transport without calamity, so hard in fact that they’ve designed a device that is more carefully engineered than a child’s car seat to get them safely to the classroom.

The cupcake itself was enough to wipe me out, but then came the inevitable moment that a third mom decided to monogram the cupcakes with each classmate’s initials. Again, I blame coffee.

Every one of the eighteen years that I’ve been a mother, things have been taken up a notch. If mothers used to feed and dress their children to put them on the train to adulthood, we are now doing those things while the train is moving. As soon as we think we are about to catch up and toss them into the cargo car, the train speeds up. Is it any wonder we’re a little tired?

As my kids have gotten older, I’ve wondered who was the first person that decided kids needed SAT tutoring for the SAT. What if they all just went in cold? Isn’t having all the kids show up unprepared as level a playing field as having all the kids prepared?

And who was the first to decide that we need to shuttle our kids all over the country looking at colleges they haven’t been admitted to yet? If there’s another way to make the total cost of the college experience even higher, we’ll find it.

When we were growing up, there wasn’t this urgency around parenting, a fear that our kids were going to be left behind. We seem to have bought into this idea that if we fall into bed at night completely exhausted and smelling like baked goods and mud, our kids will be okay. But we were raised on nothing but food, love, and negligence, and we seem to have turned out okay.

Our mothers want to know why we’re so tired. <Why do your kids need to do so many activities? Can’t they just play in the neighborhood? Can’t they just walk to soccer? What do you mean you’re making two dinners? Just make him eat the meatloaf.>

We shrug. Things are just different now. Activities are organized. No, they can’t walk to soccer; it’s in Tarrytown. And after soccer they need to get to the Chinese tutor because kids today need to speak Chinese, or else. Also they need to be leaders at something, it doesn’t matter what. Extra-curriculars are no longer extra – they’re the bare minimum.

And I’ve recently been told that now we need to help our kids “find their passion.” How can you find someone else’s passion? Can’t we just let them do that one thing on their own?

I bring this all up because today I saw an ad on the Internet for a nine-foot wide custom-made banner that you can order to announce your child’s college choice on your front lawn. It has the child’s face and the college logo on it. Did I mention it’s nine feet wide? I don’t even know what to say. When mothers unionize, this is going to be the first topic I bring up. Let’s slow this train down.

Notes for Next Christmas

By Annabel Monaghan

 

I have a friend who has a very thoughtful way of living her life, and I try to pick up her habits when I can. She recently told me that every year after Christmas she takes a few minutes to jot down what worked and what didn’t, so that she doesn’t make the same mistakes over and over again. I suspect that I should probably do this every Sunday night, but starting with Christmas seems like a solid idea.

 

  1. Obviously, drill a hole in the bottom of my tree and make sure it’s stable before decorating.

 

  1. Do not buy the square Christmas card. Again. For the second year in a row, I was lured into ordering the square card, which has to be hand processed at the post office and requires a 70-cent stamp. I guarantee there is not one person on my Christmas card list who will think more of me for having a square card. Not one of them will think, “Wow, things are really going well for the Monaghans. This thing cost 21 extra cents to send! Impressive.” And if they do, I should probably take them off my list.

 

  1. Do not be lured into the “40% off holiday cards” offer that you get just before Thanksgiving. It will be 50% off the following Monday. (Again, second year in a row I’ve flubbed this.) Contrary to everything I’ve ever held to be true, during the holidays all the spoils go to the procrastinator.

 

By Annabel Monaghan

The tag says $5,000, which is exactly how much it would cost my family of five to see “Hamilton.”

I went to the outlet mall on President’s Day. I’m sure this isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind – our loading up on merchandise we don’t need at low, low prices. But Tom wanted to go, and I like going places with Tom, so I went along. On the drive there I vowed to come home empty handed.

You see, I’ve been to the outlet mall before. The last time I went I got really overwhelmed. There’s just so much stuff at such low prices that it’s hard to know where to put your eyes. When the fluorescent light hit the sleeve of a lavender cashmere sweater in just the right size, I knew I had to have it. I don’t wear lavender, it makes me look like a corpse, but when have you ever seen a cashmere sweater marked down to $21? It was originally $160, so I left the store with the sweater and the satisfaction of having saved $139.

I know for sure it cost $21 because it’s still in my closet with the price tag on it, a pastel reminder of why I can’t be trusted at the outlet mall.

Outlet malls are made for people like Tom. He’s a person with a plan and no ambiguous feelings about the plan. This is the major difference between the two of us and sometimes the only way our kids can tell us apart. He arrives knowing exactly what he needs, along with sizes and quantities. He transacts and then finds the most efficient way back to the car. Tom’s highly successful at the outlet mall.

I wander. I walk into a clothing store where everything is 60% off, and the salesperson hands me a scratch-off card. All of a sudden I’m on a game show. She asks me to go ahead and scratch it to see how much additional savings I’d won. 15%! The salesperson cheers. I can’t believe it. Everything in that store is going to be 66% off, just for me!

Thirty minutes and a full dressing room later, I feel like I’ve let fate down. There’s nothing I want, not one cropped top or pair of faux leather pants. A sweater is too big in one size and too small in another. I can’t make anything work, no matter how great of a deal it is. I leave the store feeling like I’ve lost the Showcase Showdown on “The Price is Right.” I was so close.

Meanwhile, Tom has his two bags full of exactly what he’d intended to buy, and he seems to be feeling anxious for me to buy something too. I wonder if shopping’s not fun unless everyone participates. Or maybe shopping’s not fun, period.

We walk by a handbag store, and I spot a brown one in the window. It’s pretty. It’s about the right size to hold a spiral notebook, but not so big that you feel like you’re hauling a high schooler’s backpack. It has some fringy stuff hanging off of the bottom that I could probably cut off. And it’s brown, making it already a better decision than my lavender sweater.

I go in to have a closer look. Bonanza! Everything in the store is 80% off. And because it’s President’s Day we get an extra 10% off. How is that even possible, I wonder. How much are normal retail items marked up in the first place if this discount still makes sense? I reach for the price tag to see just how cheap the bag is.

The tag says $5,000, which is exactly how much it would cost my family of five to see “Hamilton.” Or have our deck repaired. With my insurance, it’s the cost of three colonoscopies. And I don’t even really like the bag that much. I can’t see what’s so $5,000 about this leather rectangle. But it doesn’t matter, because I am about to get sucked into outlet mall economics.

The salesman must have registered the look on my face as I tromboned the price tag forward and back to make sure I was seeing it correctly. “It’s 80% off,” he tells me. “So it’s only $1,000. And today you get an extra 10% off so it’s $900.” Suddenly this bag is so cheap. Suddenly I’m the luckiest girl in the world. They’ve dropped this bag a whole place value. Suddenly I can’t afford not to buy it. I’d be leaving $4,100 on the table if I left the store without that bag. That’s almost enough money to take my family to see “Hamilton.”

I hate to admit that I was perilously close to spending $900 on a handbag I didn’t really like. Luckily, a woman walked in to the store wearing a pair of lime green jeans and brought me back to my senses. No one at the outlet mall was making good decisions. Well, no one but Tom.