Friday, June 11, 2010


There was a time, now many years ago, when life as a parent was particularly difficult. My four children arrived in a span of less than five years and in this sequence: girl, boy, boy, boy. I, who had been raised in a quiet, complacent two-daughter family, was an up-to-her-eyeballs mother of one daughter and three sons. The girl I related to easily. The boys behaved with wildness and lack of inhibition for which I was—to understate the situation—completely unprepared.

Tears were more commonplace than any other activity, or at least it seemed so on many days. I felt lucky if we had five minutes between tearful outbursts. Sometimes my children cried, and sometimes I cried. The women in my mother’s generation, inquiring about my family, would nod as I provided colorful details, then say with great solemnity, “Ah, these are your best years. Enjoy them.”

Best years? I challenged that, especially during the most difficult times, like the time one child—then the other three close behind—caught chicken pox. I kept a vigil with those little bodies who hurt too much to sleep. In fact, I knitted four pairs of mittens (one pair a night in each of four favorite colors) and read two volumes of Winnie the Pooh’s adventures, plus The Little Cowboy and The Red Pony. My mother’s friends continued to pronounce their mantra, “These are your best years. It doesn’t get any better than this.” whenever they inquired.

Except Helen. Helen said, “Don’t worry. Things will get better.”

Helen, like many of my mother’s dearest friends, became a self-proclaimed honorary grandmother to my children when Mother died. My children were one-, three-, four-, and almost six-years-old. Those kind and generous older women were wonderful ambassadors of grandmotherly concern, contacting us regularly over the next several years. They arrived with cookies and hugs, sent greeting cards in the mail, invited us to holiday parties, and telephoned me so faithfully they could qualify for sainthood. I was endowed with a loving and ample legacy of elders.

But only Helen had raised three boys just three years apart, like mine. Everyone else had daughters, or just one son. Only Helen asked, “Do your boys ever dance in the bathtub? Do they get out-of-control giggles whenever one of them burps? Have you ever found worms—or worse—in their pockets? Do your boys have spitting contests at bedtime? Oh, let me tell you the best way to remove the chewing gum stuck in their hair.”

I can remember winters when all the children wanted to go outside just because one did. Each of them was capable of leading the pack. Four snow suits. Four pairs of galoshes. Eight mittens. One magnifying glass for snowflake viewing. The inevitable argument; the inevitable tears. There was only one magnifying glass and forty fingers vying for it. No sooner would they depart to the backyard but they would need to come in again. One of them would be cold—the rest would follow. Eight chapped cheeks, four wet snowsuits puddling on the floor, forty chubby fingers dipping into a fresh batch of homemade cookies. “His cookie is bigger than mine!” and a squabble followed.

Summers were the same, only the props were different: squirt guns and wading-pool-wet feet traipsing over the rug, and arguments about whose popsicle was bigger. My mother’s friends said things like, “Your children will always remember your loving presence—what a wonderful time this is.” Oh, it was—for them, anyway. I made them puppets, invented art projects, set up tether ball, encouraged insect collections, told dinosaur lore, made up cowboy games, taught them how to tie-dye shirts, organized tricycle races, made wagon repairs, taught them how to knit—every one of them, girl and boys. I was always there, every minute of every day. They wiggled and laughed and pushed and shoved and tattled and ran and tickled and yelled and sassed and screamed and goofed off and refused to listen and cried their way through what seems now like endless time. Four sets of feet muddying the just washed kitchen floor. Four sets of fingerprints on every door jamb. Butterfly chases, bee stings, roller skate instruction, and sand between forty toes. Overwhelming sometimes. Lovely sometimes. The complete gambit of activity and emotion—and exhausting. Yet still my mother’s generation remarked, “How lovely to have them so close together.”

Only Helen said, ‘Things will get better.”

I didn’t spend a lot of time with her and I really didn’t know her intimately. How can I detail the unique difference she made in my life? Her presence served to witness that one can indeed survive raising three little boys. Her boys were my age or older. They were successful, handsome men with families of their own. Helen had escorted three wild little boys into adulthood and had survived. In later years she asked me other questions that let me know she continued to understand.

“Does your dinner table conversation sound like a boys’ locker room? Do you know more about football and cars than you can almost stand knowing? Did you ever guess there was so much to learn about weight lifting? Do you ever want to sometimes scream, ‘Stop! Let’s talk about perfume and lingerie?’ Not to worry . . . it will get better.” She always smiled when she asked those questions. I knew I had a comrade, and although I’m sure she did not actually wink when she asked, I always felt as though she and I shared a secret.

After she died, I wrote to her grownup, middle-aged sons in an effort to tell them how much their mother had meant to me. But I wished I’d told her this myself:

Helen, you were so right. It did get better. Your understanding of my situation made all the difference. You helped me get through those early years of parenting when I had a bevy of wild little boys. Seeing how you had managed to raise such wonderful grownup men assured me of my own ability to accomplish the same transformation for mine. You gave me the gift of hope. What a wonderful gift. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

P.S. My three sons (and my daughter, of course) turned out to be fabulous people.


Marg said...

Hi Sallie, that was a great post about Helan. Glad you had her when you were trying to raise those wild boys. She sounds like a life saver.
Hope all is well with you. Have you moved??

Anonymous said...

What a great tribute to Helen. Was she your very nice neighbor next to your parents house? You have given me just a glimpse of what it is like to raise boys. You deserve a big fancy medak for surviving it all and to have raised such great three men and an accomplished daughter.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see you are following in Helen's footsteps and providing kind words of encouragement at just the right time.