Just before Christmas, one of my sons  and I took my mother to dinner and the opera, the MET being one of the only places in which she is truly contented.

I, too, have grown to love everything about the MET, especially the bold and graceful design of the curvilinear hall, with its swooping hammered bronze rails and gilt ceilings and shimmering chandeliers. I always follow their slow ascent to the ceiling just as the curtain is about to go up, craning my neck in a most untoward way, not wanting to let them out of my sight, until finally the music draws me in.

Naturally the opera, Claude Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, was tragic and tumultuous, lovers were separated, friends were lost, babies were born into a cold world only to be abandoned by their mothers; death claimed everyone.

My son loved it, and my mother was blissful. Anyone who accompanies her to the opera can be assured of pleasing her, which feeling has its own fairy-tale quality. It is always nice to let oneself fall under a spell. Dragons are slain. All is well.

Until it isn't. I spent the rest of my holiday in an unexpected way, setting up a baby nursery for friends whose own Christmas plans were waylaid. I learned a while ago that there are times when you don't ask how you can help; you just jump in, look around, see what needs doing, and do it.

The ways in which we help each other has been much on my mind, having recently had an argument with one son--only because the other was not around, not because he is innocent--over lending a hand, or rather, not doing so. Around here, we haven't even evolved to the stage of doing without being asked; that requires an advanced degree of karma, involving awareness (gee, Mom is doing the dishes and I'm sitting around), compassion (maybe she doesn't really want to spend so much time cleaning up), and availability (hey, I'm home, and I happen to have free time right now...) I'm still waiting for an ETA on vacuuming the floor. This month--or next? Oh well. I have resolved to stop beating myself up about whether or not I've spoiled him. I have loved him, unconditionally. Of course. He will have to decide when he wants to stop spoiling himself. Perhaps I digress...

The nursery. Luckily, I hit the road before the terrible blizzard hit; such snow as I have not seen in quite a while--at least a year. As we were swaddled in the cozy comfort of central heating, we talked about the nursery. My friends wanted a quiet, soothing sort of atmosphere, in defiance of all the hype about how we have to stimulate the little ones, even in their infancy. I hadn't set foot in Nursery-land in many, many years. I was impressed--and dismayed. As in Maternity-ville, things have improved, if what you want is variety and choice. (Gone are the days when the best a pregnant mother could do if she wanted a degree of elegance was to wear a man's neatly-pressed shirt over black pants.) Now, you don't even have to swaddle your child with blankets--you can buy pre-swaddled thingies that wrap and velcro shut. Clever.

But what has happened to simplicity--at an affordable price? In limited quantities, it's still where it was twenty years ago--with Gerber's and Carter's, thank goodness. Otherwise, all around me were clothes in screaming colors, covered with cartoon characters and sports logos and TV spots. Weird. Who exactly are we calling hyperactive? Perhaps the children are taking their cues from the stuff with which we surround them--that we create for them! I picked up nice looking pajamas with green and brown stripes, only to discover when I was back at the house putting them away, that they had a skull and bones on the back! Goth??!! Who puts skeletons on baby clothes?! Babies don't need to be hip--nor do they need to be parodies.

It turned out that pulling together a simple, spare, serene space, and finding the same sort of layette, was quite a challenge. But soon enough, shelves that had held the files and documents and books of the home office were cleared for towels and powders and diapers--and the lifetime ahead of childhood toys. I found a blue CFL for a nightlight, and flameless LED candles as well.

As I wandered the aisles of Kids R Us and Pottery Barn Kids, I got lost in a reverie. It seems another lifetime that I was preparing a nest for my little ones, fingering the tiny sleeve of a pajama top, wondering how I would manage to thread an infant arm through without breaking it...They're so fragile, so needy, so helpless, when they are born. And we, too, in our anticipation of ferrying these tiny souls into the world, are fragile and vulnerable, both frightened and exhilarated. And then they become so tough, in their will to strike out on their own, to find themselves, to lose us. We remain vulnerable, frightened, and exhilarated, for the rest of our days.

But perhaps our children, too, remain needy, in some small corner of their hearts. Perhaps that's why it is hard for them to learn to offer help. That would mean a reversal of the order of things. It's tough to admit that that is the way life unspools. As we walked my mother home, after the opera, we had to move very slowly; she leaned into my son's arm, and I was struck by how tiny she has grown, and how vulnerable and fragile. My son later remarked that my mother had a childlike look of happiness on her face; he was surprised by how simple it was, in the end, to please her.

I was so glad to be able to help set the stage for the new lives that will be entering my friends' home. I'm hopeful that a serene nursery will mean a little less Sturm und Drang--if design has any impact on us at all, and of course I think it does. But most of all, as I shuttled between cribs and changing tables, I felt pleased to be settling into my place in that great chain of life, just another link between the generations. And I felt honored to be needed. Someday, I hope, my sons will be changing their infants' diapers. They'll remember how nice it was to have a mom who did their laundry. They'll think how nice it would be to have some help. Knowing that, they'll offer to lend me a hand next time they visit. I can wait.

And in the meantime, I wish you all the happiest of new years, and thank you for linking up with me in this tiny but heart-filled chain of being.


Ashling said...

As always, your post is delicious food for thought, poetically written and inspiring. Your blog has been one of the treasures of this past year; thank you. May 2011 bring you boundless joy and wonder.

Jen said...

I love this post. I have "babies" at home (4yo and 2yo, all-too-soon to be 5 and 3). And I have started to transition to the helping without being asked. I find myself wanting and offering help often and feeling delighted when I CAN help. It's good to have that experience validated here.

Anonymous said...

Lovely evening and honest writing. Happy New Year.

Streams Full of Stars said...

Thank you for sharing, connecting and inspiring us with your thoughts, stories and photographs - the ripple effect is surely one of the best aspects of the www. Wishing you old pleasures, new roads, adventures and laughter in this new decade!

Thea said...

Happy New Year! sometimes i think sons are just enough unhelpful so that when they take off, we sigh with relief when the chores ease up. paves the bittersweet path of leaving the nest a bit easier for us moms, i think! lol

Beckie Fox said...

Your observations are always graceful, witty, kind, quirky and thoughtful. And no one writes about what it's like to be the mother of adult children like you do. I still have an ed. note you wrote for House & Garden when your (first?) son left for university. Happy New Year.

Bruce Barone said...

May Peace and Love and Beauty be with you this new year and always; and thank you for sharing wonder.

Mrs. Blandings said...

This is so lovely. I will tell you, my husband, who is incredibly helpful/engaged at home is helpless at his mother's. We regress.

quintessence said...

Such lovely thoughts to start the new year. I'm always amazed how seamlessly you manage to weave disparate events into a unified whole! I also am awaiting help from my boys but as Thea said, perhaps it's this way so we won't mind their departures. It's rather like pregnancy - nature has made the end so uncomfortable that you actually look forward to the delivery! Wishing you all the best for a wonderful new year!

Karena said...

Dominique, as always your writing just draws me into another world of thought.

I can relate to so much as I am now a grandmother!It is nice to be needed, however also as one who does not want to ask for help, I feel a little sad about this side.

Then my self sufficient side says, put one foot in front of the other, repeat!

So elated to have you as a blog friend!

Happy New Years!

Art by Karena

mary said...

I am intimately touched by this post and the comments. As a mother with adult sons and a wonderful daughter so much of what was expressed rings true. But there is more to the story: my young adult children now have children of their own and their journeys through marriage and parenthood have created compassion, helpfulness, overwhelmedness (don't think that it's a word) and a desire to be more present to the needs of others. It is definitely not the easy path that they have chosen--but they are definitely the paths that each needed to follow to become who they are: great parents and sons and daughter. (One son is still more of a work in progress) Sending blessings for the New Year.

sharon santoni at my french country home said...

Hello Dominique
I have visited your blog and website several times this year, and each time paused for thought and enjoyed your writing and the topics.
Thank you for writing so eloquently about things that touch so many of us. Some things we knew were there but they needed putting into words, even if those words are found by someone else.
I wish you a happy and peaceful year ahead
My French Country Home

Lisa Stockwell said...

A wonderfully calming piece for all of us who've had teenagers and young adult children home for the holidays and experienced the same sentiments. Thank you and happy new year.


julie j said...

In an unexpected way your blog gave me support before I even knew I needed it. I just lost my mother a month ago--suddenly after surgery. I had already been following your blog because I was having a tough time at work (publishing)--even though I kept reminding myself to feel blessed that I have a job. But subconsciously I think it helped in all areas--spending more time in my garden and taking time to have fun. But most important, no matter the frustration with my life I always greeted my mother's phone calls with gladness to hear her voice and happy to chat even if I only had a minute... She too often had a child-like smile in the few last months. I think that she knew that she was sicker than we thought and wanted nothing but joy in our conversations and time together. We shared delightful conversation over a cup of coffee and lemon pound cake from Starbucks just days before her surgery and she gave me an extra long hug when I dropped her at home. A woman who offered nothing but unconditional love & taught me to do the same. Thank you, Dominique. Have a Happy and Joyous New Year!

West Point Mom said...

Thank you for your insight on the relationship between mothers and sons. As I read your blog, I am awaiting the return of my son from Afghanistan. As you can imagine, I am reminiscent of his childhood years. I can recall the day he deployed with his unit last winter, as I felt the "grown up man-hand" of the little boy slip from mine as he ran off to board the bus and head to the aircraft that would take him a world away and drop him in harms way. But for the fact that he dutifully and confidently took his place in defense of freedom, it is still very hard on Mom! Thank you for reminding me of the wonderfully mundane details of life with sons! God bless you, and God bless all the military moms who are waiting, like me.

Cheryl said...

Your post is timely~ sons.. You have spoken so many truths. I thank you for your thoughtful words.

Doreen said...

Perhaps it's the way you write which evokes personal responses, or that you make yourself somewhat bared and accessible. When reading today's post I smiled about the MET - a visual and auditory treasure indeed. How could anyone spend time in the MET and not feel contended. Awhile aftr reading your post a certain calm came over me. My mother died recently after four years of disease and decline. Her advanced dementia, which blossomed after five Tia strokes was the hardest to witness. I've often said that without the veil of dementia she would have come undone. Especially in her last months she had an ever present childlike quality in her expressions. I never once considered it contended. In hindsight that seems to be just what she was. Thank you Dominique for helping take a weightl off my shoulders. PS .Metamorphosis of Ovid was a go to before bed after yoga to calm and enrich while I cared for mom in her last years.
Was a frequent stop for me as my mother became less and less well and coherent. Warmest wishes to you for a year of growth,solace, love and joy

Doreen said...

I meant to type the word contented not contended. May you have many more operas to enjoy with your mom.

for the love of a house said...

Dear Dominique,
Happy New Year!
I wish to thank you for another new year's article that I have kept for 11 years now. The end paragraph started.. "Let go of the people who cause constant pain... ." Your gift of words has given me a constant reminder to be true to myself and focus on simplicity in my house and heart. Just today I sent these words to a friend who needed to hear them.
Thank you then, and thank you now.


Warren said...

It's great to find an author who can live with her demons staring back in the mirror. Please don't forget to laugh at yourself sometime. Ask for an extra red-dye #40 cherry on that ice-cream sundae you shouldn't order, even though one is a no-no. Always have at least one cigarette in Paris. And get out that hose this summer and ambush your sons, preferably when they are leaving on a date. Besides showing them how to be kind, it is always good to let them know where they got their demons! Happy 2011!

Mary Parlange said...

Thanks for another wonderful post. I have teenage sons and often agonize whether I'm spoiling them or just loving them. Usually I end up angry that no one seems to care or notice that I am tired of the endless chore of holding our home and family together. I finally decided they're just not thinking about much except themselves, and that's normal for an adolescent. I think that we all have empathy, deep down somewhere, but some of us need more help than others in bringing it to life. Perhaps one of our jobs as a parent is to help them find that spark and nurture it into compassionate flame.

Susan Sanders said...

Your thoughts help me bring to mind many things that I am feeling, too, and help me face them with greater kindness. I have 3 grown children ages mid-30s and late 20s. On my holiday vacation I spent much time in their service. I hope they learn from my impression to love with passion that surpasses duty, but hold out for nothing in return. Have a splendid New Year!

Dominique said...

West Point Mom: My heart goes out to you, and to all Moms and Dads who have no idea what their sons and daughters are doing, what danger they face, what might happen. I don't know how you do it. But I'm grateful to you--and to your children. The whole country should be. Thank you.

Warren, you have no idea! I laugh at myself all the time, and have had many a cigarette in Paris. But of course. Next time I come up with my equivalent of a red-dyed Sundae I will share. But even funnier than my daily goofiness is your idea of turning the hose on the boys. Great. Will do.They won't know what hit them....

Doreen, Julie J, and all who have lost a mother--that too is unimaginable, though I know it will come, and your words will give strength to anyone now going through such a parting. You remind me to focus on the pleasure of being with my own mother, ignore the annoyances, and let go of past memories. We all do the best we can, in the end.

SweetRetreat said...

Your writing makes me sit back and think every post. As the mother of two grown sons, I can say with confidence - just wait. Out of nowhere, one day they will surprise you. My advice is to just enjoy them as they are, keep 'help me' expectations low. Enjoy your dear mother. Mother/daughter relationships are complex and very special.

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

In regard to those two big&bad boys of yours (and having just gathered that you're familiar with Alain de Botton's work)?....

You'll probably appreciate the following, which is from Alain's very entertaining (he really is deeply funny), 2009 book "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work":

"For most of human history, the only instrument needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip......But the rules of employment had to be rewritten with the emergence of tasks whose adequate performance required their protagonists to be to a significant degree content, rather than simply terrified or resigned."

And THAT, Ms. Browning, would go a long way towards explaining the difference between getting 50-pounders to help their mother out around the house, and getting 190-pounders to even consider doing the same.

One very smart&funny friend of mine (she's raised three sons and was married for almost thirty years) phrased the matter most succinctly when she told me "Oh....once the boys were all in either high-school or college, I realized that I had FOUR lazy husbands on my hands. So, I did what I could and at least got rid of the one I could legally divorce."

I don't know if those quotations (one literary and one LIVED) will serve of any use/inspiration for you, but perhaps they will.


David "No Kids R US, by choice AND design" Terry

david terry said...

to "West Point Mom",

Thank you for that extremely moving response to Ms. Browning's essay.

I lead a life which is, on the whole, utterly devoid of the stresses and troubles that most folks face on a daily basis. For all it's worth, I try to bear that in mind just as daily.

Just yesterday, I flew back from 14 days in France, landed in Minneapolis (which sounds weird, but we'd made a point of making our connnecting-flight somewhere where they KNOW how to deal with snow), and waited around for the flight to Durham, NC (which, as you may know, is not far from Fort Bragg).

I realized very quickly (sorry, but I'm an inveterate eavesdropper) that I was surrounded by four young men, all in standard camouflage and high-boots) who were with their mothers and fathers...waiting to catch a plane after spending some time at home for Christmas.

I knew where these boys were headed (I should emphasize that I turned fifty this past summer, and I have silly, cosmetic dental work that's older than any of them). Two sets of the parents flew back with their sons, and they sat behind and in front of us on the ride back to North Carolina.

Nobody cried or made a fuss...the parents simply (and bravely, I thought) made small, encouraging talk.....about movies they'd seen over the visit...promises to give a message to some friend or relative their son hadn't been able to see over his brief visit, etcetera.

I sat and listened to those parents, and I considered that I don't think I could ever be that brave and self-controlled. "Un-selfish", in a word.

I gathered, both on the flight and later at the baggage-claim in Durham/Raleigh) that the parents, who obviously knew each other, would be spending last night in a hotel and then flying back to Minneapolis this morning.

They'd flown down with their sons just to see them off at the last posible stop.

Well, I can't do anything more than to thank both them and you (given your letter). Perhaps neither you nor those parents I rode with last night think of yourselves as brave....but I do.


David Terry

Proud Mamma said...

Thanks for this. A friend directed me here when I was annoyed with my teen twin boys.

Here's my post I wrote this summer on my sons:


TT said...

Beautiful photography. /Taru

grace said...

A very happy new year to you, Dominique. I look forward to reading more of your inspiring written thoughts. Through my blog reading during the holidays, I came across a tidbit about you, if I remember correctly, that you have a link to Morocco. (Please disregard this if I am completely out of the mark!) When I saw the first photo with this post, it immediately reminded me (in a parallel kind of way) of one of my favourite cities to visit - Marrakech. I posted a "similar" photo recently: http://www.clayandgrace.com/journal/christmas-weekend.html.

I wish you a new year filled with peace.

Anonymous said...

I think one of your advertisements caused my internet browser to resize, you might want to put that on your blacklist.

Home Design said...

The MET in itself is a work of art. It is not just a building but a masterpiece in itself.