Getting Nostalgic for Inertia

Brookline TAB, December 18, 2008

All my years as a parent, I have never looked forward to Christmas vacation. To me, the holiday time has been one long stretch of not a lot to do.

I am not proud of feeling that way. I always wished that I were the kind of mom who loved going places with her kids. I used to have all kinds of fantasies of doing the kinds of things I think other families do, like skiing, traveling to Europe, or camping in the Virgin Islands — and I don’t even like camping. But for all the time that my three boys were young, I found it a chore to bundle everyone off to sled at the Lincoln School, let alone to visit the Museum of Science.

I suppose some of my reluctance is because my oldest boy has such a severe form of autism. But it wouldn’t be fair to lay all of that at his big, teenage feet. Yes, it was hard at times to go out with Nat, not knowing if there would be some kind of outburst. But in his later teenage years, he calmed down a lot and became easier to be with. The truth is, even before Nat, inertia had often plagued me, especially in the depths of winter. So I did a lot of indoor stuff with the boys, like Legos, reading or baking.

In the winter, we’d bake a gingerbread house, built from scratch, using a collage of recipes. All five of us got into it. I would make the dough with Nat and Ben, my youngest, because making dough had built-in rewards for hard work: eating the ingredients. My husband, Ned, and my middle son, Max, both of whom are the engineers in the family, would work on the architecture.

One year, Ned made a small template of our house, down to the Palladian window in the front, and he bought miniature lights so that the lollipop-glass windows would be lit from within. It was gorgeous, and just as saggy and leaky as our real house. Then we would wreck it and eat it before the mice could, and it would be a sickening feast of stale brown cookie covered with white glacier-hard icing.

Of course, children grow out of things, even if their parents don’t. Things change. We didn’t make a gingerbread house last year. And during the summer, Nat moved into a new house altogether: a group home about 30 minutes from here, run by his school. We did this so that he could learn more independent living skills. But we also moved him so that the rest of us could be freer from the stress and anxiety that we struggled to live with as gracefully as we could for 18 years.

The move has been startlingly smooth for Nat, who now calls me daily and actually talks to me on the phone. He is successfully working two jobs, as well as continuing with school. On our end, with Nat gone for most of the time, I have witnessed some pretty big changes. There has been a kind of blossoming in Benji, a new serenity and also a bubbly happiness I never knew he possessed. I also have noticed how Max is acting more like a teenager, with moods and new independence and a separate life. My husband and I go out a lot, and can be as spontaneous as we want. Much of my inertia has worn off.

All is well? Not really. I miss Nat terribly, even with the abrupt, staccato phone conversations and weekend visits, even with his progress and my other two sons’ lightness. I cried for a lot of August, and started a new teaching job in September to fill the hole Nat left. I see his empty bedroom or chair at the dinner table, and I want to just go to my own bed and sleep all day.

People say it’s like any kid leaving home at 18. But it’s not. Nat was not a typical 18. And I get blue because I’m not with him. Our way of relating has always been nonverbal — or doing things side-by-side, like baking.

I find that this time, I am looking forward to — no, craving — the Christmas break, because we will all be together, the five of us, as it used to be. We’ll get on each other’s nerves, become housebound, snowbound, cabin-feverish. Maybe we’ll manage to get to the movies. Or not; it might be too hard.

But one thing I will insist on: that we make the best, ugliest gingerbread house ever.