An Unlikely Friendship

Courtesy of SellwoodBridge.org

We are driving in the pouring rain down a windy road lined on both sides by Dogwoods decorated with orange and red colored drupes. Ruby is leaning her head against the side of the car, her almond-shaped eyes watching the foliage pass in a blur of wet and green.

Why aren’t there side rails on the road? Can’t we fall off the side?

We have driven down this road every Saturday for the last two years, and every single time we head down the hill Ruby asks this same exact question. Always, her head is cocked, brown hair skimming a shoulder, eyes lit as if a small fire is catching the edges of her imagination. Ruby crafts worry like a fine artist.

When we reach the entry to the bridge that will carry us across the water, she tells me about the tiny islands she can see in the middle of the river, points out the small white fishing boats that bob up and down on the inky water like quarter notes in a nocturne. Sometimes from the bridge we can see the snowy peak of Mt. Hood seemingly painted behind the architecture of the city.

What will you do if the bridge falls down while we are driving over it, Mom? Will you save me first?

This child, who is so predictable in her routines, has completely blown apart my idea of what Autism is. When as a tiny overall and hat wearing toddler she was diagnosed, my biggest fear was that Ruby would never have friends. My assumption was that she would never be able to express love or empathy, that she would never be able to communicate with another child.

And it is true that at that young age Ruby existed only in her own world. Other children were just objects to push past to get to that shiny red toy on the table. The accidental touch of another child could spark a blaze of hot tears. The feeling of a smooth doorknob or the texture of a painting could hold her attention for much longer than the face of any person.

But after many months of speech therapy and occupational therapy, Ruby was ready for something more. She was regulated enough that she was starting to show less anxiety around her peers. She made fledgling attempts at connecting. One day at the park I saw her approach a group of children and, while looking down at her shoes, say in the softest voice I am Ruby. The children didn’t see or hear her so she walked away, staring up at the leaves rustling against the woven net of bark.

That summer we enrolled Ruby in a social skills therapy group run by an amazing therapist who really understands the challenges kids on the Autism spectrum face in social situations. Finding this group was one of the greatest gifts because not only did Ruby start to grow in leaps and bounds, but she met Eliza, her first true friend, her steady bridge to companionship.

Photo by David Friedman

I’m not sure how to adequately describe Eliza other than to say that I’m in love with her. Her mother writes beautifully about raising this girl who has more than her share of struggles in schools and with peers. Eliza is brilliant, kind, and befuddling. I have never known a child who is more unabashedly and purely herself. Picture a beautiful girl with long, wavy hair exploring the uneven terrain of a shallow riverbed. Mud, tadpoles, dirt, water and the lilt of a girl’s voice singing. I love Eliza’s observations about the world. But what I love best about Eliza is the fact that she understands Ruby better than anyone else.

I can’t tell you how these two girls fell in love with each other, or if it happened slowly or quickly, because it seems that there was never a time that they weren’t friends. Here are two children with Autism who can spend hours playing together, who can have normal conversations, who sneak off to have a smooch or a hug.

When my mother died last year, the person who gave Ruby the greatest solace was Eliza. One day Ruby ran upstairs with my phone after we had called Eliza. I was downstairs working on my computer when I got a message from Eliza’s mom telling me that Ruby was crying to Eliza about how much she missed her Mimi. Whenever Ruby is having a rough day the first person she wants to talk to is “Sissy.” She considers Eliza her sister.

My feelings about Eliza’s parents will have to be saved for another day, but I will say briefly that they are Catchers. I feel like I can talk to David and Sarah about anything. (And nothing grosses Sarah out. Ever.) I feel like they are part of the reason why Ruby is doing so well. They are the village that I have always wanted. Most of my family lives on the other side of the country. David and Sarah are like family. Having family and a village is so important when you have a child with Autism.

But the most important thing to a child (and his or her parents) is a friend. I thank my lucky stars for Eliza because she is a true friend.

Photos of Ruby & Eliza courtesy of David Friedman

Please Don’t Be A Mean Girl

Last night at bedtime I climbed into my daughter’s bed for our evening “chat.” I love this ritual. We lay on our sides facing each other under the pink and green flowered quilt that my mom gave Ruby when we bought her a “big girl bed.” Hanging above us is a gently swaying bejeweled purple butterfly and on the wall is a painting of four colorful fairies dancing in a meadow that was painted by my mom.

Bedtime is the sweet part of the day when Ruby and I finally get to be alone, and the moment when I get the real scoop on what’s happening in her life at school. When Ruby is sleepy and her brothers aren’t competing for my attention, she drops her guard and offers me brief glimpses into her rich imaginary world, her friendships, and her feelings about our family.

Last night, as Ruby told me about what she did at recess that day, my heart hurt a little. She described hanging out with her best buddy at school and went on to tell me about a joke they played on another girl. I asked her why they did this and she said, Well, that girl follows us around and is really annoying. We, like, need our space.

This, coming from a girl who struggles in fit in, who often feels like a dork and wants so desperately to be friends with the girl she deems most popular. I asked her how it would make her feel if two girls played a joke on her, if they excluded her and told secrets behind her back. I wouldn’t like that at all, she said. People are jerks to me all the time. They think I’m a baby and like to carry me around because I’m so short. I hate being so short! And I hate my hair. I wish I had blonde hair! And I need pierced ears! I am a geek. No one ever wants to be my friend.”

Before I knew it, Ruby’s big brown eyes were filled with tears. She angrily wiped at her wet cheeks and buried her face deep in her pink pillow. Sweet girl, I said, I know it’s hard, but you have to try to give to people what you want to experience in return. The kinder you are to people, the kinder they will be to you. I believed what I was saying, but at the same time I realized that it was not the whole truth. The truth is that there will always be mean girls, mean boys, mean people. It is the unfortunate nature of things.

So I told her that there will always be jerks, and even the most popular kids feel terrible about themselves sometimes. And I reminded her about the little girl she is most connected to, another child who has social challenges, whom she loves so ardently it often brings me to tears. (If only they were in school together!) I reminded her that no matter what, that very special girl will always, always be her biggest ally and dearest friend.

Sometimes it still comes as a shock that my kids have this other complex life happening outside the safety of our home, and that they are engaging with the world as unique, independent people who have gifts, strengths and frailties. It is at these moments that I pray all of the encouragement we give them to be polite, to be thoughtful and kind, to be smart, empathetic and fun comes to fruition.

It is at these times that, honestly, I feel the fear and anxiety that can come with the enormity of raising children. How do I teach this girl of mine, who is so sensitive, who doesn’t really understand the social language of children, who just wants to fit in, to be strong of heart and self? How do I teach my children to not only be good people, but to be their best selves?

As I stood outside in the cold this morning waiting at the bus stop with my kids, I realized that I don’t have the answers to these questions. I may never have the answer. The only thing I have is love. So I will love this girl, and I will love her brothers, and hope that for now that is enough.

Creative Distraction Techniques For Public Meltdowns

The other day I was at Target again when my daughter started freaking out again in that special, high-pitched way that kids on the spectrum tend to do when thrown off their routine. As soon as she got upset the toddler joined in which made the Middle Guy see this as his opportunity to whine loudly for candy.

I looked away from our scene for a moment and saw several people staring at us, which made me start fantasizing about distraction techniques. I thought these ideas might come in helpful to other parents:

Fall on the floor and begin speaking in tongues, slap closest person on the forehead and say, “You’ve been healed!”

Take handful of Goldfish Crackers and throw them in the air while singing “I’m Singin’ In the Rain!”

Carry boom box. Play Celtic Pride, The Music That Inspired a Dance Phenomenon. Start River Dancing.  

Yell, “Free puppies on aisle four!”

Carry a Polaroid camera and take pictures of people who are staring at you. Yell loudly, “This picture is for my wall of assholes! Say CHEESE!”

Carry a tub of guacamole and chips. Offer to onlookers while saying, “Dip? Dip? Dip?”

Start throwing on random items of clothing while yelling, “Do I look cute?!”

Wear black sunglasses and carry a Neuralyzer. Tell strangers  you are just going to give them a quick eye exam.

A Moment Of Contentment

This morning I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to love your kids too much? The Littlest was sitting on my lap head butting me when for first time ever he grabbed my neck with his little paws and said, “I luff you” and then banged his head against my cheek. I just wanted to bite him and pinch those chubby cheeks and eat him all up.

I live in this tiny disheveled house packed with little people (well, the husband is regular husband size) and little animals and big dust bunnies and while I often feel like I’m going to go crazy, there are times that I feel like my heart is going to burst. Did the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe have similar moments of neurotic love madness?

Being sick all winter break and having sick kids to boot has made for a very interesting “staycation” or “mucuscation” as I like to think of it. My normally prickly 8-year old daughter has been snuggly and sweet to her brothers in between her bursts of Aspergerish world observations. If you have a kid on the spectrum, you know the incredible value of such moments of peace and togetherness.

My regularly reluctant to lift his nose out of a book 7-year old has been incredibly helpful. And my 2-year old, oh, my heart, has been at the pinnacle of cuteness with a dash of Mussolini and Messiah complex mixed in for good measure.

It is true that I am one babushka shy of being that old lady in the shoe. The house is a disaster with post-holiday new toy messes throughout various corners of the house. There are remnants of our slime making project still stuck to the kitchen table, and sticky, sticky lip gloss fingerprints all over the bathroom. But for this moment, I don’t care, because my heart is full.

Being stuck on the sofa has given me the opportunity to watch the Littlest do little dances every time he hears a song. (Sure, sometimes he’s dancing to a Lexus commercial, but whatever. The kid has moves.)

It’s also given me the opportunity to see how amazing the Middle Guy is with our pets. He walks the dog. He lets the kitten wrap herself around his neck and fall asleep. It is so wonderful to see this gentle and patient part of him blossoming. (This is a kid who regularly throws things across the room when frustrated.)

Watching all of this, I feel, well, content. And I’m not one who feels content on a regular basis. My brain is usually in the oppressive thought loop. It could be the codeine in the cough medicine, or the fevers that come and go, or the fifth cup of coffee, but I suspect it has to do with slowing down and doing nothing but observing these little people in my life. There are no carpools to drive, no school lunches to make, no homework to struggle over. Just time to be.

So for today, I am at one with this paper strewn desk, at one with the cheerios crushed in the carpet, at one with the tufts of dog hair on the floor, at one with the hooker hair and unshaved legs. And it feels pretty damn good.

Uncovering Mob Activity & Other Goals for 2012

I really hate New Year’s Resolutions. Nothing squelches my ability to change than committing to doing something within a year. So I thought I’d shoot for some truly important things in 2012.

1. Lobby for valet parking at Target
2. Lobby for childcare at nail salons
3. Get PhD and write dissertation revealing scientific proof that bacon is derived from unicorns
3. Create yogurt lids that don’t splurt yogurt upon opening
4. Bring back rainbow suspenders
5. Orchestrate a flash mob at the DMV
6. Create a drive-through that offers healthful Quarter Pounders with Cheese
7. Moving sidewalks, or bike bells!, for slow walkers

8. Mute option for annoying people
9. Create the virtual marital sex experience
10. Encourage more world glitter use
11. Convince gay neighbor to be my friend
12.  Continue to pluck and catalog gray hairs in special Mama’s Getting Old album
13. Ask the cashier at Walgreens if she’ll take baby teeth instead of change
14. Send World’s Longest Pubic Hair to Guiness Book of World Records
15. Lobby for candidate who will promote National Kegel Day with explanatory ad campaign
16. Encourage kids to call me Maw
17. Learn banjo
18. Learn various Asian dialects so I can confirm malfeasance at Nail Salon
19. Use knowledge of mob activity at Nail Salon to get free pedicures
20.  Borrow a seal from the zoo
21. Convince daughter that pet seal will poop on her bed
22. Get nomination for What Not To Wear
23. Bring back R2D2, unicorn rainbow and What’s Happening!! t-shirts.
24. Cure pathological need to keep dead mother’s big white underwear
25. Experiment eating Oreos in places other than closet, laundry room and in the dark

You Have Hooker Hair And Other Consequences of Pneumonia

So, I’ve been sick for about three weeks. It has been a Very Mucusy Winter Break.

A paroxysm of coughing, coughing, coughing followed by chills, malaise, grumpiness, piles of dirty laundry, children and dishes finally led me to the doc which led me to a chest x-ray. Bingo! Pneumonia.

The fun thing about having pneumonia is that it essentially saps any energy you might have that would ordinarily be devoted to personal hygiene. My armpit hairs are at the longest I’ve seen them since I decided to try to be a hippie one summer in the eighties. (I guess at the time I thought braided armpit hair would look good with an arm stacked with black Madonna bracelets?) And my hair, well, my hair looks like hooker hair.

“Hooker hair” is not a term I coined. It was bestowed upon me one day when I went to see my hair guy. I must not have washed my hair prior to that visit because he took one look at the back of my head and started laughing. Then he did a pantomime of a hooker laying on a bed, on her back, getting shtupped. I love my hair guy. I mean, who pantomimes a hooker for their client?

Anyhow, I explained to my hair guy that I had hooker hair  because the night before my toddler wasn’t feeling well and slept in bed with us. He is still nursing and he is like a heat seeking missile programmed for tits. So, I slept on my back and he slept on my chest and alternating between Shoon and Shoonahhhhh all night long.

The result, to be kind, is a hybrid Donald Trump camel hair hooker look. The sides look pretty normal, but there is definitely a nasty party in the back and on top.

Add to this the fact that two of the three kids are sick and disgusting themselves and our pug and kitten are working out their new relationship (which has resulted in the pug angrily marking the house) so the whole place smells like the armpit of a petting zoo.

And yes, I do make bad videos of my pets and give them stupid accents when I’m not feeling well. One must entertain oneself!

Aside from all of the kvetchy unpleasantries, a happy consequence of being sick has been all of the help from the husband and friends. Our dear friends David & Sarah have taken the Eldest into their family for sleepovers and playdates, and even delivered my favorite ice cream (Salted Caramel) which I begrudgingly shared with the husband from the amazing Salt & Straw. Never mind that the Eldest would like to be adopted by Dave & Sarah because their daughter is her best friend and David makes much better pancakes and pretty much everything else than I do, and Sarah is just way cooler than me. Which is true.

Our friend Liz has been my mamala and delivered matzoh ball soup, offered meals and sent sweet texts. And my dad has pitched in and taken the kids to the movies and even watched the littlest (!) when I needed to go to the doc.

So, even though I look like a tranny, I feel loved, and that goes a long way toward getting well.

The Great Hanukkah Melt-Down

A friend and fellow blogger had the brilliant idea of bringing together the Jewish blogging community by creating #hanukkahhoopla - an opportunity for those of us of the Jewish faith to blog about Hanukkah this holiday season. I’m jumping in with a little kvetch about Hanukkah melt-downs. There is also a nifty give-away tied in to this post (please see below & don’t forget to comment!)

Holy shit my kids are so freaking crazy. So. Freaking. Crazy.

I mean they are really, really bat shit crazy sometimes.

Tonight was the second night of Hanukkah. My kids are like aggressive animals about Hanukkah presents. It’s not like they are in need of more toys or books or anything whatsoever. And it’s not like they are brats on a regular basis. It’s the wrapping, the surprise, the suspense. It just gets under their skin. And the waiting until sundown is just too much.

(Aside: Last night, after the Eldest made a small complainy noise about wanting to open more presents after she had already opened a bunch from my brother & sister-in-law, my husband got The Concerned Psychotherapist look. I saw him take the Eldest aside and talk to her. I got his Marital Look of Disappointment thrown my way. It read: Reign these brats in. I know, I know. I break the one gift per night rule every year. It irks the husband.)

Anyhow, tonight was a whole new level of crazy. My father, Papa, took the kids to see the godawful new Chipmunk movie and brought them back home to give them his Hanukkah presents. (My husband was working late and thus didn’t get to see that they each got one and only one present) This is what ensued:

The Eldest got a really cool, but very goopey and smelly, Make Your Own Slutty Lip Gloss set. She was stoked.

The Middle Guy, whom you may remember from this post, got a Put It Together Yourself Solar System Mobile. Now let me tell you, this kid is completely obsessed with all things planetary. He also has extremely bad fine motor skills and the patience of a jittery heroine addict who needs a fix.

Here is an example of his dedication to the solar system:

Anyhow, the Middle Guy, who was still coming down off all the sugar that Papa gave him at the movies, had quite the reaction when he opened the gift. He tore half the paper off, saw a picture of the solar system, started screaming at the top of his lungs, ran to me and burst into tears of joy. Then he ran to Papa crying, Thank you, Papa, thank you!!” It was weird. Very, very weird.

The Eldest, who has Asperger’s, was completely freaked out by this display of Middle Guy emotion. She didn’t like the Middle Guy’s loud excitement, so she covered her ears and put her head down smack in the middle of her stinky, gooey lip gloss making stuff. Then, when she saw his tears of joy she launched into a 15 minute discussion about tear ducts, and the varying reasons that one might cry, and asked me ten to twenty times if she’s ever cried tears of joy.

The Littlest, seeing that the Middle Guy had gotten something with planets (a.k.a. colorful balls), abandoned his cool new recycling truck, and began to beg loudly, Gimme Sun! Gimme Juperterter! Gimme Saturn!

All the while I was trying to make dinner. I really wanted to get some chicken nuggets into the Middle Guy before his blood sugar plummeted even lower and there would be no return from the pool of tears/Solar System induced hysteria.

So Dear Old Papa tried to put the Put It Together Yourself Solar System Mobile together with the hysterical Middle Guy (whom I’d given two Calm Yourself Down Time Outs already). But Dear Old Papa is an engineer. And engineers are never in a rush. They analyze. They inspect. Not quite the speed of a hysterical glucose deprived freakish Middle Guy.

Here’s what it sounded like:

Middle Guy: (wailing) It’s never going to work. We’ll never figure it out!
Me: It’s okay. (Trying to shove a chicken nugget in his mouth) Just calm down.
Littlest: Gimme Sun! (Launching his body across the table) Gimme Jupiterter! Sun! Sun!
Eldest: Have I ever cried tears of joy? I think maybe in 2009! Maybe when you got me that Pillow Pet. I was really happy. I might have cried tears of joy. Remember?
Middle Guy: (whimpering) Papa, you’re doing it wrong! That’s not where Saturn goes!
Littlest: Gimme Shaturn! Gimme Sun!
Eldest: Can you help me with the lip gloss?
Papa: (Working quietly, trying his best)
Middle Guy: (Crying) The labels won’t stick! OH NO WHERE IS VENUS?!
Littlest: (Running out of the room with tiny, sized for choking model Venus)

And so it went until the solar system was put together, albeit crooked and with labels falling off. Exhausted, the Middle Guy retired to the sofa with a book about the solar system as the Littlest tried his darndest to sneakily pull the tiny planets off the newly constructed solar system. Dear Old Papa, lips shiny with slutty pink hand-made lip gloss, took his leave of the hysteria, and I wrapped up the second night of Hanukkah with thoughts of a gin & tonic.

Thank God I will be at work for the third night of Hanukkah. Good luck, honey!

By the way, #HanukkahHoopla would not be possible with out the generosity of our sponsors.  I would like to thank Streit’s and Doni Zasloff Thomas a.k.a. Mama Doni, the lead singer/songwriter of The Mama Doni Band for providing each of the 16 bloggers involved in #HanukkahHoopla with a little cyber-swag. Their cross-promotional alliance is designed to celebrate Jewish culture with the young generation, a mission of both Mama Doni and Streit’s.

How can you win?  Leave me an awesome comment on.  On January 5, 2012, I will select one winner at random.  Be sure to subscribe to my blog or subscribe to the comments on this page so that you can find out if you are the winner!  If I don’t hear from you with 48 hours after announcing, I will select another winner.  Please don’t make me work hard to find you.

Prefer to be contacted via Twitter?  Leaver your Twitter handle in your comment and I will tweet you if you win.

Not interested in winning?  You can still leave a comment!  I love to read your words.  Just write: “No prize necessary” in your comment.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments.

Happy Hanukkah!

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Your Kid Is “Special,” Deal With It

Sometimes I wonder if I’m cut out to be a mom. I thought that I’d be better at parenting than I am. I thought I’d be a super content mother. And I never thought I’d be thinking Are you fucking kidding me? so often.

Yesterday, when my two-year old managed to open a pencil sharpener and dump two years worth of pencil shavings all over himself and our kitten, I found myself (once again) questioning the sanity of having children.

The thought went through my head again this morning when that very same toddler dumped a Danimals sugar drink smoothie over his head and just sat there watching it drip down his face.

After I got that cleaned up, the little guy was still hungry, naturally, because none of the yogurt ever made it to his mouth.

So, I served him up some bacon and ketchup and asked my eight-year old daughter to watch him closely so I could go to the bathroom.

Clearly that didn’t work out so well. I ended up washing the ketchup out of his hair in the super dirty bathtub. Do you know how long it takes to get that vinegar smell out of hair? A long, long time.

To cap that off, in the time between drying the little guy off and finding clean clothes in the laundry room, he crapped on the living room floor. Again. As I said, he has no remorse. He is a repeat offender.

I keep telling myself: You signed up for this, so stop your whining. I mean, really, aside from being messy, my two-year old is an easy kid. He’s a sweet pea.

I think what shocks me at times is the fact that I skipped so optimistically into parenthood.

I had no inkling that I was rolling the dice in a genetic crap shoot. Never did I consider that my children could be anything other than “normal,” even though I am a total freak and I come from a long line of odd ducks.

(I was also blissfully ignorant of the fact that I would never sleep well again, poop by myself again, have unstained clothing again, take regular showers, have a day free of worry again…)

The fact that my daughter isn’t the typical kid took a while to really sink in. She was a super cute baby, but not cuddly. She didn’t make eye contact, she didn’t engage with the other toddlers. She bit my mother on the nose when my mother tried to go in for a hug.

I always wanted to have a daughter. My mom and I were tight, and I had fantasies of pedicures, lunches out, shopping, girl talk. I wanted a sweet mother-daughter relationship.

But my girl didn’t have the ability to relate in the way that I wanted her to. She was the child who toddled away from the other kids and sat examining the bark of a tree, a pile of leaves, or a wooden fence for as long as possible.

It seemed that my girl was in her own little world most the time. She wanted to taste everything with her tongue (walls, doorknobs, toys) and to feel everything with her chubby little fingers. She could stare at a leaf swaying in the breeze for an hour. But show interest in people? Not so much.

Now, eight years later, my daughter has come a long way. She has had lots of therapy. She has friends, and though they often confuse her, she really loves them.

Her little world often doesn’t include me unless she needs a snack or someone to yell at or needs to tell someone about a glitch in a computer game.

To her I am the über dork. I am embarrassing. I am a pain in the ass. The way I give her attention pisses her off.

Don’t ask me about my day! Why are you so interested in me?! The smallest comment can set her off on an hour-long screaming fit.

Every time my girl walks by me I want so badly to scoop her up and kiss her. When she sits beside me on the sofa I want to cuddle her up. But for the most part, affection is not her thing.

What I am finally learning is that I have to let my daughter define our relationship. I am looking for ways she shows affection, Ruby-style.

I am learning to redefine my idea of a mother-daughter relationship. It is hard some days. But I can see the amazing gifts my daughter brings to the world. And, I can see that I need to grow alongside her rather than just bitching and moaning as she continues to develop and change.

It might take many bottles of wine, and I will probably be thinking Are you fucking kidding me? every day, but I’m in for the long haul. Kvetching included.

A Jewish Case Of Christmaslust

I’m starting off this post with an email I sent to my brother regarding my kids’ behavior at a preschool event:

Subject: add one to the Ruby & Lucas files 
Today was the “All School Shabbat” program at Ruby & Lucas’ preschool. It’s really nice because parents, grandparents, friends, etc. are invited to come. All the kids gather in the auditorium & there’s special singing, candle lighting, snacks for Shabbat, and performances by the kids. Today was Ruby’s class! She got up on stage and sang her little heart out. It was really cute. Unfortunately she loved it so much that she wouldn’t get off the stage & after trying to negotiate with her calmly, I had to drag her off kicking & screaming (in front of about 100 people). And, God love him, Lucas saw Ruby get upset, ran onto the stage & started howling, too. So I had to get back on stage with screaming Ruby & drag them both off. OY VEY.

I shared that email because it highlights the fact that:
1. When you have a kid with Autism you never know how it’s going to go at social events  2. I have always felt like a fish out of water when it comes to religion.

I was the Jewish kid who begged for a Christmas tree. And Christmas lights. And I really wanted one of those tacky Christmas sweaters.

Every December I would torture my mother with requests for a blow-up lawn Santa for our house. I wanted the Christmas carols, the stockings on the mantel.

I even wanted to wear a crucifix like Madonna (during her Like a Virgin days). My poor mother.

The things I liked best about Hebrew school were the carpool rides that included a stop at the 7-Eleven for Slurpees and Dip-n-Sticks, and the cute boys. I didn’t get much in the way of spirituality in Hebrew school.

I become a Bat Mitzvah (complete with after party where we all wore leis and danced the YMCA) and later swore that I would never torture my children the way my parents tortured me.

And yet, here I am carting the kids to Hebrew school, Sunday school, tot Shabbat and family night services at the synagogue.

This feeling of Christmaslust still plagues me at times. Last week, for example, as I was driving my kids to the synagoge my older son asked why Target has so many Christmas decorations and barely any Hanukkah decorations. It’s a difficult question to answer.

Being a Jewish kid can have its challenges. It’s an orgy of Christmas in November and December. Have you ever looked at the selection of books for Jewish kids? The characters often look like they are straight out of a shtetl. The men have big black beards and are wearing yarmulkes, the women look like bubbameisters. Let’s get real. Most Jews these days have iPads, Nike kicks, and shop at Nordstrom like the rest of the world. But I digress…

It’s not that I don’t respect Judaism. I do, very much. I love Jews. I am proud to be a Jew. To be a Jew is to be in geek paradise. And I mean that in the very best possible way. Jews are smart, intellectual people who love to debate and kibbitz and create community. They are big on education, humor, reading, doing for others. And at our synagogue, kids with special needs are embraced and celebrated.

My problem is that I don’t know where to find myself in Judaism. I’m not sure how to make it a part of my life in a meaningful way that works for my family. I’m trying to figure it out.

I sent my first two kids to a Jewish preschool because we had just moved to Portland and I knew no one who had kids in school. The first friend I made was sending her little girl to Jewish preschool. It seemed like a good idea. I met the teachers and they were so sweet, and well, warm in that motherly way. My kids would get the foundation of Judaism.

That was all good, but I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other moms. In my freakish imagination they were lighting the candles every Friday night, making big Shabbat dinners, frying up latkes, and doing interesting craft projects with their adorable little Jewish prodigies.

My two-year-old was different than her peers. She was licking walls, melting down at the slightest change in routine, not making eye contact. I was just trying to make it through every day with a kid who appeared to be going off the developmental rails. Going through the rituals of Shabbat and other Jewish holidays seemed impossible to me given the challenges I was having with my daughter.

When it came time to decide on sending the kids to Hebrew school, I didn’t know what to do. So one afternoon I took my kids to synagogue to check it out. They hadn’t been there in a long time. We ended up in the main sanctuary. It was dark and quiet. We walked up and down the aisles silently observing the stained glass windows, Ark, and eternal flame. I don’t know why, but I started to feel something. It wasn’t a Jesus Has Healed You! fall on your knees moment. But it was significant.

I felt my mother’s presence there in the synagogue. I remembered playing thumb war with my dad during Saturday services. I remembered how the rabbi knew all the kids and would call us up by name to participate in services. I remembered helping my mom set up for the Oneg Shabbat (social time after services) and sneaking sips of Manischewitz. I remembered lighting candles with my grandmother.

I left the synagogue that day wanting my children to have these memories. Do I still want a Christmas tree? Yes. Yes, I do. Do I feel like I know what I’m doing in terms of religion? No, not really.  But as I light the Hanukkah candles with my husband and children I feel connected to something powerful, something meaningful and bigger than me, and for now that is enough.