Tender Mario moves

I woke up the other morning to a horrible cough. This happens to me more often as I get older. I can’t catch my breath and as I try to take a deep inhale, I cough worse. Anyway, my coughing woke Mario up from his sleep (he had had a nightmare earlier in the evening and we allowed him to sleep in our bed). It was a good thing it did because it was 7 AM and a school day. Mario jumped out of bed to head into our bathroom to take a shower. I heard him turn on the water faucet, and opened one eye when I felt him standing next to me a second later. He whispered “here mom, take a drink.” It was such a tender gesture from him. I grabbed the cup and watched him head back into the bathroom.

I came home from work a few days ago and Mario popped up from the downstairs. He gave me a big hug and told me he did the dishes. I looked in the sink and sure enough, they were all washed and placed haphazardly in the plastic drainer on the left side of the sink. After Mario washes bowls, he places them right side up so the water remains in them. It drives me crazy but I won’t complain since he took the initiative to do the dishes in the first place.

We finally got to Dick’s Sporting Goods this weekend to get Mario a new pair of gym shoes. He is definitely his mother’s child when it comes to his love for gym shoes. His Adidas were completely worn down with a hole in the toe and huge rip in the heel lining. He eyed quite a few basketball shoes before he chose his black and gold LeBrons (he knew I could not say no to anything LeBron-related). After he got his shoes from the salesman, he led me over to the women’s running shoe area. He was set on getting me a pair as well. I told him that I was good to go and we were just there to get him shoes. But, he was adamant that he wanted me to be able to experience the joy of getting a new pair of shoes as well.

On Saturday morning, I was lifting weights at the gym when I saw Mario’s number pop up. I answered the phone and he asked where I was. I told him I was at the gym, and he told me that he would walk to Stauf’s with me when I got home. The offer to walk to Stauf’s with me is equivalent to an offer to give me $25K. I would take the walk and time at Stauf’s over cash any day.

Mario and I walked to school together last week. I dropped him off to the basketball game. We talked about his favorite songs and about his plan to watch a movie a week this Summer with his buddies. As we talked and walked, he reached for my hand and held as we continued our stroll down the street. No big gesture on his part – just a gentle embrace of his left hand with my right as he continued his conversation with me.

We were eating dinner the other night – Jon and Mario and I (Maria was at dance club) – and out of nowhere Mario blurted out “I have the best mom – she plays basketball with me and always has fun.” Then he continued to eat his pasta and talk about roller skating in gym class.

Dancing and basketball

Maria had her eighth-grade dance on Friday night. We hit the jackpot with the first online dress we bought. She loved it, it looked spectacular on her, and I did not need to go into a shopping mall. Win all around! Being on student council, she had the task of coming up with the theme of the dance and decorating for it. They decided on a Hollywood awards theme and she ended up winning “most likely to become a millionaire” (and take care of her parents). The boy who also won it is the boy she has had a crush on for quite a while. Hilarious. I heard from her friends that some of the girls danced but the boys basically sat against the wall. Nothing has changed from the 1980s.

Jon and I realized that we had tickets to see John Cusack on Friday night. We realized this on Wednesday evening while talking with Jon’s brother and sister-in-law at the house. They stopped by late in the evening as they were heading to Colorado. The conversation turned to Christmas gifts and Jon’s brother asked him what he got. We both looked at each other in concern. Had we forgotten to go to our John Cusack event? I had bought Jon the tickets for his Christmas gift and we had forgotten all about it. Luckily, we had not missed it; however, it was two days away. We found someone for Mario to hang with because he gets scared being at the house by himself.

Maria wanted a bunch of her girlfriends to come back for a sleepover after the dance, which we allowed. What were we thinking? We came back to the looks of a sorority house at 4 AM. The kitchen was trashed with empty chip bags, cake mix and batter all over the counters and floor, and random freezer pop plastic tubes with remaining Popsicle juice everywhere. The girls were pumped up on sugar and laughing hysterically in the basement. Jon and I hit the sack at midnight and could hear them loud and clear for some time. We keep saying that this is just our insurance for when we get older and the kids need to watch over us. They better come to our side after we allowed all this!

Jon was a saint and took all of the girls to the eighth grade boys basketball game in Whitehall at 9:30 AM the next morning. They got to see their opposite sex classmates win the championship, and then Jon took them out to lunch afterwards. He is a sucker. Maria got home and headed right back out the door for a Girl Scout campout from Saturday night until Sunday. She loves these types of weekends – filled with friends.

Mario was charged up that Jon and I had something to do on Friday because he got to spend the night with his buddy. His buddy’s mom took them to Target to and they ended up riding bikes around the store. I guess the teenagers who were managing the area didn’t care. Gotta love them. He also managed to buy a whole pack of Oreos that he chowed down through the night. I took him to his basketball lesson on Saturday morning, and he felt good about his shooting for the tournament game that evening. He wanted to come home and show me all of the moves he learned. After he did that, I told him he had to help me fold laundry. He agreed but on one condition – that we watch the most famous dunks on Netflix while we folded laundry.

Peepaw came in on Saturday evening to watch him in Marysville. He got treated to a blowout with Mario making over 10 points. Grandma Ionno came in on Sunday morning for the 9 AM game and got treated to another blowout with Mario making quite a few points as well. But then the noon game came – and the team could not make shots to save their life. I could see Mario’s frustration from a mile away. The team he was put with for this tournament are good kids but a few of them lack the passion and drive that Mario has for the sport. That, in addition to Mario not getting his shots in, caused him to look very flustered on the court. I kept trying to yell for him to get out of his head but he was tuning us all out. Jon finally took him out in the last minute because he was complaining so much. He has got to learn to be a team player and to not blame others or the refs (even if they may be at fault). He’s gotta recognize his own flaws as well. But, a lecture right after the loss was not going to go anywhere. He had calmed down within 15 minutes and even managed to say “love you” when we left him to watch his buddies play another game.

Time together

Christmas was on a Tuesday this year, which meant I got to torture the kids with my presence for four days straight. It made me feel totally loved when we woke up on Friday morning (the kids first day off), and Maria’s first question to me as I headed downstairs was “don’t you have to work today?” The inflection in her voice made it clear she was not asking, she was hoping. The kiddos know when I’m home there will be some walking involved with the day. And some reading. And maybe even a household task. There will also be game playing and frivolity but they focus on the former activities much more.

Maria got what she wanted – I did head to work – but not before I got a walk in with her beforehand:) She and I and Rocco took a walk to the woods. She shot some good pictures of the bare trees and little white mushrooms growing on dead branches. As much as she complains about the walk, I think she secretly likes to get out. Not for long, for sure, but 15 minutes does her well. And, 15 minutes for me with her or Mario makes my day. It’s grounds me and puts me in an upbeat mood as I head off to make the bacon.

Over the four day’s before Christmas, the kids humored me with my requests for walks to the woods. They even talked with me during our walks. I make it hard not to talk to me by coming up with new games to play or asking questions that I know will interest them (Maria – what’s new with Blake Shelton; Mario – how are the Rockets doing). I think if I had one last wish before I passed on, it would be to take a walk with my kids. I love having them near me and listening to their banter even if it’s about the Kardashians or Fortnite, My spirit is full after time with them.

We also got our fill of boardgames. I crushed the kids at Family Feud. To be fair, they don’t have years of experience like I do of watching the show from the ages of 9 to 14. I innately know what “the survey says.” I amazed my kids with my knowledge of “name six items a man thinks he can fix but usually can’t” (I think I got that answer correct due to being with Jon all these years versus my years of playing). We also got a brand new deck of “beat the parents” cards. Jon and I agreed to go against Ri and Mario, and got on a correct answer streak to win the game. Jon stood up and pointed his fingers at them and yelled “in your face”! (I wonder where they get their competitive nature)?! Of course, I was standing right behind him cheering him on.

We also made cookies and the kids decorated. gingerbread house (we got two but the first crumbled after Ri tried to glue it together rather than use icing). As I sat on the kitchen floor wrapping presents, I looked up at them consumed in decorating their gingerbread house – Ri with her tongue out pasting a Starburst on the house and Mario with lips sealed tight working on a row of Dot candies along the roof. Those moments are a sort of prayer for me. I am consumed with love and comfort.

We played mini-hoop basketball in Mario’s room. Mario loves to play mini hoop when it gets cold outside. We have about three steps to move before we hit the hoop but he doesn’t care. He likes to ram past me and make slamdunks. Maria begged to take him on, and he finally acquiesced. She simply pushed him with one hand until she reached the hoop and then gently placed the ball into it. She finally agreed to try some new moves, which led to a few pounces and bruises, but they ended the match shaking hands.

Christmas arrived on Tuesday and the kids were scattered around their cousins and other family members. There was no morning walk or mad game of Family Feud. But there was those few moments – when Ri came from behind to give me a bear hug, and Mario beamed when he talked about going to the UC Bearcat game with me, and both kids stared with those bold blue eyes into my camera as I flashed a holiday picture – when I felt at complete peace and as though nothing at all could be better.

Ri does basketball

Maria decided to go out for basketball. Her eighth grade team needed a couple more players so she volunteered to join. She has become good friends with a girl on the team, Maggie, who I think acted as a big influence in her decision.

Maria loves to hang with a large group of girls. She seems to have most fun around a group of gals versus one on one. She likes a big party! I think this is a big reason why she loves to play sports. It is not necessarily the love of the game but rather, a love of friendships and camaraderie. She roots her teammates on fiercely. My personality is so different than hers; I am the one who wants to be on the field and be the star. People should root me on. I am not looking to cheer on other’s accomplishments without having some of my own. But not this girl of mine. She is happy to play a bit and then sit on the bench and cheer on her friends. And damn she does that well. She claps and cheers when a friend makes a play. She gives hugs and high fives when her friends come out of the game. She’s a mama hen. If someone gets hurt, she is the first one to get ice and help out. If someone is sad about how they played, she wraps them in a hug and makes them laugh.

I am amazed at her because it is so foreign to me. I think it’s a wonderful trait to have – this lack of concern about being a star and this joy in just being a part of the team. It’s this plain and simple – she’s a happy, happy kid. She enjoys life. She feels comfortable around all sorts of people. She enjoys conversations with others.

If you would have told me a year ago that Ri would be playing basketball and hanging out with the handful of gals that she is hanging with, I would have been skeptical. She’s really blossomed this year; it’s been a strong year for her. She is planting her roots and coming into her own, and man, it is exciting to watch.

Mario turns 11!

How is my youngest baby turning 11 years old? It is just not right. I still have vivid memories of lying on the hospital bed and feeling the most intense pain of my lifetime. Whereas Maria entered the world after a rather melodic string of breathing and pushing, Mario entered the world with one Big Bang. I think I may have had one good grunt before the final push where I bared down and he jetted out of me like a bullet. It hurt like holy hell but the pain was well worth it. Seconds later I held his perfect self next to me and loved everything before me.

The kids and I were taking a bike ride yesterday and Maria recalled how sad she was that she couldn’t go to the hospital to see her baby brother be born. However, she was excited to get Timbits and bring them to the hospital room. We were laughing and surmising that if Mario had the ability, he would have grabbed one of those Timbits with his tiny one-day old hand and gobbled it up. He has always loved his donuts.

I strolled him up to Giant Eagle nearly every weekend from the age of one to seven, and he would use that little hand to grab a chocolate long john donut from the case (and sometimes a second if he begged and begged me). I conditioned the donut on me reading to him while we strolled home. We would also play the “can you spot the animal” game where we would see how many birds or squirrels or rabbits we could spot before we made it to the store. He always won.

He has always loved to wrestle. Even when he was younger, he was as strong as a bull and would knock me over when he charged at me. Now, it is comical. I try to wrestle him while I am on my knees but he can take me down if he gets the right angle. I think this is the year that that he will win against me more than he loses.

He continues to be the comedian of the family. He tries out all sorts of new lines on us. I typically laugh because I like to see him feel good. He calls me out on it chiding me that I am fake laughing. But, I must say, the majority of the time, I truly find him funny. I can totally see him doing stand-up comedy when he gets older.

He fell In love with basketball this year. He adores James Harden. We were at each other’s throats for the NBA playoffs between LeBron and Harden. My LeBron won out, which made me happy but I felt for Mario who was devastated for his Rockets. For a while there, we did not know whether we could get him to play any other sports. He wanted to focus solely on basketball. He would beg me to go outside and shoot hoops with him every night. I would oblige him but then tell him he needed to work on shooting by himself 20 minutes a day. He did it every once in a while but didn’t yet quite have the drive to make himself get out there on his own and practice. He must just love being with his mom too much:)

I agreed to coach his baseball team this year. At first I agreed to it just so that he would play another sport besides basketball but I ended up really enjoying it. We had a blast together. Of course, there were times that I was ready to strangle him for slacking off or he was ready to strangle me for saying something embarrassing to him. But for the most part we had fun together driving to practices and games and hanging with one another. And we won the championship! Now I have my work cut out for me when I coach him again next year….

He got his first musical instrument this year for fifth grade. He ended up with the trombone. Surprisingly, he could belt out some notes right from the beginning. He loved on that damn trombone for about two days but now I have to fight with him to bring it home once a week to practice.

He fell in love this year. With an on-line game. Fortnight. It became a phenom this year; all the parents joke about how ridiculous it is to get their kids off the tv (“joke” equates to “whine and complain”). They would literally sit playing this game for 24 hours straight if allowed. I keep justifying the amount of time that I allow him to play by the fact that he is talking and playing with friends. Yes, pretty lame justification since they are all talking and playing but in their separate homes. Nevertheless, during moments when I am slammed at work and need to get some emails out, I appreciate Fortnight.

He spent quite a few weekends this year with Jon at big Mario’s house. They would target shoot and fish, and get fed amazing Italian meals. He loves that time with his dad and his Italian family (recall, since he was little, he maintained he was “full Italian” and not “any German”). He and I had a few fun trips together out to the farm. One of our favorite places we hit on our way to the farm was Salt Fork State Park. We jumped off a large boulder into the lake. We also had quite a few trips to the running shoe store. We both have a gym shoe fetish. We cannot get enough of them. So, one of our favorite activities is going to the running store and trying on all of the new hot shoes.

He got to head to DC, Pittsburgh, and Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan this year. He is a great companion to have on trips. You can always count on him to bring out a one-liner that cracks you up. There were a few elbow jabs I would have to give him to make him take hikes in Michigan with me but overall he is typically game for new adventures.

He also got to spend quite a bit of time in Marietta with his grandma. He loves hanging out with her and his cousin. They go to the mall, play video games, and hit the skate park. I think back to my times with my grandmas and the fun I had at their houses that were the quintessential “homes away from home.” I know Mario will look back at these visits and cherish his times with Patty.

As this pumpkin seed boy turns 11, I hope he sees what an amazing human he is and loves himself. He used to berate himself when he was younger if he made a mistake. He’d call himself “stupid” or “idiot.” Jon and I would scold him to not call himself those names and to just see the episode for what it was – a mistake to learn from. He has not berated himself for a long time (so maybe we had a parenting win:)). God knows he knows how to talk himself up and love on himself (“tell me one sport I’m bad at mom… I know, you can’t…”). I’d rather him over-believe in himself than the opposite. I have never been an 11 year old boy but I imagine he goes through times of poor self-esteem or self-doubt or confusion about friends and relationships. I put a heck of a lot of effort into Maria at this age knowing what I knew about being an 11-year-old girl. I am set on doing the same for this boy, and I know he will turn out just fine. Actually, just excellent.

He’s coming into his own more and more. I can’t wait to see what 11 brings this year. All I know a few days into his 11th year is that he remains a sweetheart. He is gentle and playful with little kids, he pets every pup he sees on our walks, he gives outrageously strong hugs, he spots bunny rabbits for his mama, he helps his dad with dishes, and he even kisses his sister’s cheek when she pleads for it after a rough day.

From the moment he jetted out of me, I knew he was a perfect addition to our family. He’s proved it over and over again with each new year.

Love you Mario!

Heading to basketball camp (overnight, yikes)!

It was a piece of cake to drop him off.

But then the evening hit and he called.

I tossed and turned all night long.

Is this how it will be every night when he is in college? Will I not be able to sleep worried that somebody is getting into his dorm room and strangling him? How can Jon be so calm and collected and not worry at all? How can he not think of the 10 million random, unlikely events that may occur to him while he’s away? I mean seriously, he didn’t worry at all that Mario may fall into the crack between his bed and the wall and suffocate?!

Mario was ready to go at 11 AM even though registration for basketball camp did not start until noon and lasted until 2 PM. I kept telling him if we get there at noon he would be starving and they did not have dinner until 5 PM. He did not care a bit. He wanted to get there and see his dorm. We ended up arriving around 12:15. We registered him and then walked over to his dorm a block away. How strange to walk in the doors and take a right down a hallway into a common area filled with unadorned chairs and coffee tables. It reminded me of heading into my first dorm at UC. His room was tinier than I imagined after hearing about the lush sleeping quarters of college dorms. It had two twin mattresses on wood slats and two simple writing desks. However, Mario thought it was the bomb.com!

We tried to help him unpack his garbage bag of things (Jon kept asking him to use a duffel bag but he thought a garbage bag was easier) but he wanted to do it all himself. He shoved socks and underwear and shorts and shirts all in one drawer when he had six that he could use. Typical. I helped put the sheet on his bed and then he situated his blanket on top. He was stoked to have his room all to himself. The thought had been that he could take one of the mattresses and put them in his buddy’s room who had already agreed to bunk with his cousin. But when we saw the small size of the room, I doubted it would be possible. Then again, they are boys and could care less about space.

I got a call at 10 PM from him. When I saw his name light up on my phone screen, I, of course went to the awful. Something was wrong. He was hurt. He was sad. He missed us. When I answered, I heard boys laughing in the background. Mario answered with a jubilant “hi mom! “Then he proceeded to ask if me or Jon could bring potato chips and candy down to the dorm.

Are you kidding?

I was so happy to hear him happy that I was half tempted to deliver some food at 10 pm. However, I was in PJs and needed to get up early in the morning so I told him we would bring food down the next day. He hung up the phone while laughing with his friends. All was well. I went to bed. I was woken up by Jon at 11 PM. He was talking to Mario. As he had just rattled me from sleep, I again immediately went to the thought that something was wrong. Jon calmed me down and informed me that Mario just wanted to say good night. I took the phone from him and saw Mario laying in his bed FaceTiming me.

“Hi mom. I just wanted to say goodnight to you.”

I asked him if he was going to stay in the dorm room all by himself. He answered yes. I wanted to question him more about whether he was OK with that or whether he thought he might get scared. But then I thought I did not want to put those suggestions in his head if he was OK with it. So I let it go and just told him to call us in the morning when he woke up.

Then I fretted all night long. Did he have a nightlight that he could use and see around his room if he needed to get up? Did he lock his door so nobody could get in at night and hurt him? What if he had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night – did he know where it was? Holy shit, how your brain can work in the late hours of the night. It felt like I had just gotten to sleep when the phone rang at 6:50 AM.

“Hi mom!”

He survived the evening. He put me on hold as he got dressed. Then he jumped back on the FaceTime and told me he’d talk to me later. He had to get to breakfast. He called me two more times during the day to remind me to bring food that evening. Jon and I watched him shoot around when we arrived at 9 pm. He was joking with some boys and trying to make threes. We enjoyed watching him in his element. We met him at his dorm at 9:45 and delivered two bags of party chips and sour patch kids. He whisked the stash away and headed in to the dorm knowing he’d be loved by his camper friends.

At 11 pm, he Facetimed me. He just wanted to tell me goodnight. This time I felt a little more secure because when we dropped off the party chips to him, I made sure I asked some of the chaperone college kids if they slept in the same wing as the boys. They assured me that they had plenty of college basketball players sleeping in rooms near them if anything went wrong. I couldn’t help myself; Mario would have died if he heard me ask it.

That being said, I slept all night that evening.

Temporary only child

Maria has now been gone for 10 straight days. She has reached out to Jon or I maybe two times over that period. She is loving life with her grandma and her cousin as they engage in a road tour of the South to visit their cousin in Savannah. I am grateful for Patty giving the girls this experience. I’ve seen Instagram photos of Tybee Island, the Savannah Riverwalk, homemade pizzas, and Gatlinburg. I cannot wait to hear the handfuls of stories when she comes home.

Meanwhile, Jon and I were left with a single child: Mario. It is initially strange to have only one child in the house but after a few days, it starts to become the norm. It’s as though she’s off at college – we miss her here and there but know she’s doing her thing. When Ri has been gone a few days, Mario visited me at work. We were riding the elevator down to my first floor lobby when he commented “yea, it’s kind of nice being the only child.” He gets all the attention. He doesn’t have Ri bossing him around. He can eat whatever he wants (Jon has little oversight).

He is a fun kid, and we enjoy hanging together. We played a lot of one on one basketball outside (and mini-hoop inside); hit the pool with Jon; went to my work and got Nutella sticks (his favorite); walked the pup; and played baseball.

He asked to travel to Cincinnati with me this past weekend to see Sarah read from her book at Joseph Beth bookstore. He didn’t even complain when I made him listen to a StoryCorps podcast with me for 30 minutes on Ghetto Life. At one point during the podcast, Jon called, so the podcast stopped. After I got off the phone with Jon, I looked at him and asked if he was ready to stop the podcast? He shook his head no and told me to keep playing it. I’m not sure whether he was truly into it or whether he just wanted to make me happy. He is super affectionate with me – even at age 10- and enjoys making me smile.

I took him on a tour of my old Clifton neighborhood. He got to see Calhoun Street and the house that I lived in for a few years on Fairview Avenue. He even indulged me and got out in the 90° heat to take the steps down to the park. Unfortunately, the steps were covered with tall weeds and grasses so we could not make it down. He also got to experience Findlay Market – a place I went to every once in a while with my mom but is a mecca for my sister. She often went there with my mom as a young girl. She and Jorge were sipping on coffee when we arrived. We walked around to the sellers’ stands and checked out what they had to offer. Mario noticed a guy selling fedoras. He was a large black man sitting on a stool with a sweet-looking tan fedora on his head. He looked at Mario and chuckled “you got a little head boy. I don’t think my fedoras will fit you!” Mario smiled and tried one on anyway. Sure enough, it fit pretty good. The man looked at Mario and started laughing. “Well, you proved me wrong, son. Your head is bigger than I thought!”

We bought that fedora up in no time as we chatted it up with the gregarious seller. We then headed over to the succulent plant stand and bought me a couple of succulents. Mario encouraged me to stop when I hesitated in the walkway telling him I really didn’t need one. “Come on mom, they are cheap and they make you happy.”

After the market, we headed to the Underground Railroad Museum. What a powerful place. Mario walked around with me reading about historical slavery, reading about the abolitionists, and reading about modern slavery. He had so many questions around the modern slavery exhibit as it relates to sweat shops in Third World countries and human trafficking. I was brutally honest with him and we had a good conversation outside on the balcony.

After the museum, we had about an hour before we had to head to the bookstore. Sarah invited us to go to their hotel pool. Mario begged me to do it. Of course, I would allow him, I just did not want to go in myself. But he suckered me into it and so we sat in the hot tub and swam in the pool together before the bookstore.

He was a gem at the bookstore, taking care of his cousins and talking with my family members. He enjoyed hanging out with his boy cousins who always roughhouse with him. He also got to see Rod’s new red Corvette. He found a couple of books that looked interesting, and asked if I would get them. My Aunt Julie, the teacher, had a gift card for the bookstore and gave it to me in order to buy his books. What a doll. On the way home, I made him read a few pages from his new book. Then, I allowed him to watch his YouTube videos while we ate Wendy’s burgers driving up I-71.