I’m Watching You

Dear young man who lives down the hall from me,

I don’t know your name, but I want you to know I’m watching you.  I watch you as we leave for work at the same time every day.  You smoke your cigarette while your car warms up and nod to me as I get into mine.  We exchange “good mornings” as we shiver in the morning cold.  We smile as we scrape the ice from our windshields, and wave as we leave the parking lot.

15I watched you this morning when the plow left sixteen inches of snow between the apartment house door and the parking lot.  I watched as you kicked out a path before me, so I could walk through without sinking in deeper than the tops of my boots.  I watched as I discovered that my car was plowed in- the third time this week- and you offered to shovel it out, even though you were busy cleaning off your car and your wife’s.

I watched as you sat in your idling car to make sure I was able to pull out of the space where my car was snowed in on all sides.  You didn’t leave for work until you knew that I was able to get to mine.

When I was growing up on Green Street, my parents taught my siblings and me to care about others.  They insisted that we shovel out our elderly neighbors.  They offered our services to run errands.  They called upon us to carry heavy items, care for babies, mow lawns and move furniture.  And they never allowed us to take a penny in return for our efforts.  In doing so, helping out became part of our nature.

But sometimes it seems that helping out is a lost art.  Many would have us believe that the only way to make it through life is to ramrod one’s way, eyes on the prize, never knowing that like Mr. Magoo we leave a trail of chaos in our wake.

Every man for himself.

Just do it.

Failure is not an option.

Life is all about trying to get somewhere first.

Pedal to the metal.

But you, young man who lives down the hall, are different.  Your parents must have been like mine, pathteaching you to help out.  Now that you are grown, it is part of your nature.  Your eyes have strayed from your goal and focused on those around you.   And although you may never have a penthouse apartment or the corner office, you have something far more valuable.  You have heart.

I’m watching you.  I say a little prayer for your success.  And I say thank you.

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Whimsical Wednesday- A Time for Wishing

Make_a_Wish_by_VefobitseqI have a fairly active imagination and sometimes catch myself engaging in a long diatribe of wishful thinking.  Today, on “Whimsical Wednesday” I decided to indulge and invite you to do the same.  You may be surprised when you give voice to some of your deepest desires.  What do you wish?

I wish that…

Fat cells came off as fast as they accumulate.  I can scoff down an ice cream sundae with extra whipped cream in minutes.  However, it takes hours to burn the calories accumulated by such an indulgence. This is grossly unfair.

I wish that…

Money did grow on trees.  I would own a nursery, although with my current gardening skills such a venture might result in bankruptcy.   Still, it would be fun to harvest dollar bills every fall and give away bundles of them for Christmas gifts.

I wish that…

I had bought a little cottage on the beach back when it was affordable.  It wouldn’t have mattered if it beach 29were small and
simple, because most of my time during the summer would be outside.  Besides, when it comes to cottages, the kitschier, the better.   How nice it would be to drink my morning coffee while watching the sun rise over the Atlantic.

I wish that…

Time travel was possible, because there are some people I would really like to dine with- Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelangelo, Elizabeth Blackwell, George Gershwin, and Corrie Ten Boom, to name only a few.  I’d love to meet the little girl who my grandmother once was, and my great, great, great-grandchildren who aren’t even yet a glimmer in a young man’s eye.

I wish that…

The days didn’t pass so quickly.  For all its trappings, I love this life and wish it didn’t speed by at such a breakneck pace.  There is never enough time to spend with loved ones, or watch old movies on TV, or sew, or write or splash in puddles during an August rain.

I wish that…

Every child had at least eighteen years of unconditional love.  I suspect that the world would have a lot fewer problems if we didn’t have to spend so much time making up for being unloved, uncared for and feeling unworthy.

I wish that…

Our culture would stop sending subliminal messages to children that hold them to impossible standards of beauty and body shape.  If we put as much energy into shaping our insides as we do to our outsides, there would be no more eating disorders and many more random acts of kindness.

I wish that…

Time1Life gave us equal time for play as it does for work.  Can you imagine how much fun it would be to have an eight day week- four for work and four for play?  Who says we have to be on a seven day cycle anyway? After all, this is wishing…

I wish that…

We could, as Cher put it, turn back time.  I would do a few things differently.  I would have been more patient with my children.  I would have been more understanding of my father and spent more time with him and my mother.  I would have laughed more and loved better, and taken a vacation more than once every thirty years.

A Grand Dilemma

You know that you have entered a new phase of life when you realize that you want to become a grandmother.

Five years ago, if you brought up the topic, I would have said that I wasn’t yet ready for grandchildren.  I thought of grandparents as being old, with wrinkled skin and gray hair.  Like my grandmother.  And my mother. 

But then my siblings-even the younger ones- began to have grandchildren.  My friends began to have grandchildren.  None of them look old with wrinkled skin. Okay, some of them have gray hair, but then so do I.  It’s just well-hidden by my hair colorist.  I saw them with their grandchildren and recognized the special bond they shared.

I began to notice that it’s been more than twenty-five years since I’ve had a baby to snuggle.  I began to miss the scent of baby breath and tufts of silky baby hair tickling me under my chin.  I missed the weight of an infant’s head resting on my shoulder and the way a newborn’s droll little face contorts when she pulls up her knees and stretches out her arms upon waking.  In short, I miss having a baby in the house.

I’ve heard some people say that they were happy when their children outgrew the infant stage so they mompainting_G could do things with them.  While I loved having older children, I also cherished the years my kids were babies.  Crazy as it sounds, I especially loved getting up with a hungry baby during the night.  I would quietly pad to the living room so we wouldn’t wake the rest of the household, wrap a blanket around the two of us, and settle in a rocking easy chair to nurse.  It was peaceful and quiet- time for my baby and me to stare into each other’s eyes, stroke each other’s cheeks, and feel the warmth of each other’s bodies sway back and forth with the rocker.  More often than not, the baby would stop feeding long before I could bring myself to put him down and go back to bed. 

Too quickly those days faded into the past and I moved on to basketball games, band concerts, and waving goodbye at airports, and one day my little ones were all grown.   I adjusted to life without children- eating at odd hours, leaving scissors on low tables, sleeping through the night without opening my eyes to find a three-year-old staring me awake.  Indeed, it is easier.  No running out late at night to buy Pedialyte and popsicles for sick tummies.  No wrestling to assemble toys at 2AM on Christmas morning.  No snowsuits and mittens and boots and “now-I-have-to-go-to-the-bathroom!”  I can come and go as I please.  I do not need to plan meals, or trips to the store, or shuttles to practice.

But then there is the empty arms thing and my friends and siblings with their toothless grandchildren bouncing on their knees.  And I know it’s time to once again have a baby in the house.  So when my daughter Abby and her husband Johnny not-so-casually announced that in June the two of them will become three, my heart leapt with joy.  We refer to the unborn child as “the little cub” and I can’t stop hoping he or she has red hair. john and abby pregnant

There is one dilemma, however.  What shall I be called by this precious little bundle?  It is complicated.  Johnny’s father’s name is Gary.  You cannot have a grandmother named Garrie and a grandfather on the other side called Gary.  The poor little cub will be too confused.  “Nana?”  No- it doesn’t suit me.  “Grammie?”  That’s reserved for Johnny’s mother.  “Granny?”  Not while I have breath in my body.  I thought of a long, trilled “Grrrrrrrrrrrandmama” but that’s just plain ridiculous.

And so, I extend an invitation to my readers to weigh in.  What shall the little cub call his or her grandmother-on-her-mother’s-side?  I await your suggestions.

Lessons from Adam

Every morning as I sip my coffee, I peruse the headlines on the internet and scan a few of the articles that interest me. Last week I came upon an article that made me wish I had slept an extra twenty minutes and skipped the internet.  Screen-Shot-2013-08-20-at-1_33_52-PM

On the splash page of AOL there was a headline, “Woman writes outrageously cruel letter to mom of autistic boy.”  The article showed the anonymous letter written about Max, a thirteen year old boy with autism.  I’ll spare you the details, but “outrageously cruel” doesn’t begin to describe how reprehensible this letter was.

As I read the letter, I thought of my nephew Adam.  Adam has Down syndrome and is autistic.  He entered our lives twenty-five years ago, a frail little bundle with huge blueberry eyes that searched mine as I held him for the first time.  His heart was so weak that drinking from his bottle exhausted him, requiring open heart surgery before he was a year old.  Undoubtedly, his special needs were overwhelming to his birth parents, and they released him for adoption shortly after his birth.  It took no time at all for him to claim his spot in the family…and in our hearts.

adam and mjIt’s Saturday, and I visit my sister at her farmhouse.  Adam greets me with a grunt and a hug.  He can only say a few words, but despite severe hearing loss in both ears, he understands almost everything that is spoken.  When he sees me approaching the front door, he usually flings it open and runs away, but today he stays long enough to give me a quick hug and an air kiss.  He hovers in the kitchen, grinding his teeth and shifting his weight from one foot to the other until my brother-in-law tells him it’s time to take the trash to the dump.  He separates the bottles and cans from the paper goods and carries them to the work shop.  And on Saturday, he helps his dad take the family’s refuse to the dump.  It may easily be the only chore he does, but he does it without fail.

After returning from their errand, my brother-in-law resumes working on the outbuilding he is constructing for his tractor.  Adam sits in a chair at the edge of the construction site, swaying to Toby Keith on the CD player and watching the cars and trucks pass by the house. 

You may read this and wonder why God would put such an unfortunate human being on this earth.  While it is true that Adam will not ever support himself, or drive a car, or cook his own meals, he adds to his family in ways that cannot be measured. 

Adam teaches us perseverance. He hates wrinkled socks and whines and fusses if they are not perfectly smooth.  Over and over, he pulls them off his feet and pulls them to his knees again in an attempt to calm his overloaded sensory system. Finally, when they are adjusted to his satisfaction, he can move on.  How often do we slop together a job just to get it done, or give up when a task cannot be completed in a few moments?

Adam teaches us to be non-judgmental.  Adam doesn’t size up people’s appearance.  He doesn’t care how well-educated they are, or if what job they have, or how much money they have.  He teaches us to let go of expectations and take people at face value, with no bias or prejudice.  He doesn’t realize what a powerful lesson that is.  But I do.

Adam teaches us to take time and laugh.  He has a little game which nobody quite understands.  Sitting next to me, he pinches his fingers together, touches his forehead between his eyebrows and then reaches out to touch mine in the same place.  Back and forth, he goes, chuckling as if it is the funniest thing in the world.  His laughter is contagious.  I laugh with him, and my day is immediately better.

Adam teaches us unconditional love.  During most of Adam’s life, my mother lived in the farmhouse with my sister and her husband. She was an integral part of Adam’s life and he adored her.  When I visited my mother in her room, Adam would burst through the door and plop himself on her bed or on the floor in front of her television set.  He did not interrupt.  He did not ask for anything.  He just wanted to be near her. 

My mother loved Adam as much as he loved her.  Night after night, Adam brought his pajamas to her room so she could help him get ready for bed.  Helping him dress, she would evoke from him the only sentence I have ever heard him say.  Signing at the same time, she would start him off, “Adam, I…”

Adam would sign back and yell to complete the sentence, “Love..you!”

During Mom’s last days at the Hospice House, my nephew Jason brought Adam by for a visit.  He ran into the room, and plopped himself down in the recliner next to Mom’s bed.  He was clearly confused by the surroundings, but he knew his Grammie was there.  After a short visit, Jason said it was time to leave.  Mom kissed Adam and started the routine, “Adam, I…”

“Love… you!” belted Adam.  It was the last time he spoke to her.

For days after Mom passed away, Adam would stand at the door of her empty room, pajamas in hand, waiting for his beloved Grammie to help him get ready for bed.  His silence spoke the emptiness that we all felt.

To the person who wrote that nasty letter on the internet, I am sorry.  I am sorry you areadam and horse so biased with your own prejudice that you miss out on the value of those different from you.  I am sorry you are so filled with hate that you miss out on love.  And I am sorry you will never know the wonderful lessons that Adam and those like him can teach.  It is you who suffers most.

Beware Children Who Behave Perfectly in Church

I don’t follow many blogs, but I began followingThe Adventures of Miss Fanny P, several3 cherubs weeks ago, and it rarely fails to make me chuckle.  The writer is a mother of two little boys whose stories remind me that no matter where on the globe we live, mothers are all pretty much the same.  We love our children beyond words.  We cannot restrain ourselves when announcing their latest accomplishments.  And when necessary, we chastise them so others might see them as perfect little angels.

In one of her posts, Miss Fanny P refers to relatives who have perfect children who sit calmly and quietly at church.  I almost choked on my coffee and laughed out loud, for there was once a time when my three perfect angels sat quietly in church.  Or so I thought.

Our children were raised in a Born-again-Bible-thumping-sing-it-till-you’re-hoarse church.  Their father and I had made young adult commitments to a living God and although we didn’t always agree with every teaching from any one church, we decided it was important to be active members of a local congregation.  He is a talented musician, and although my skills were not as well-honed as his, our voices blended in perfect harmony.  For many years he led our church worship team in weekly services, pounding the melody on the piano, while directing a rock and roll drummer, guitarists and several vocalists.   He had them, as they say, dancing in the aisles.

The children spent a great deal of time in our church building. During Saturday morningabby angelic 2jpg worship team practice, Elizabeth napped by my side, while Abigail and Gabriel played hide-and-seek under the pews, crawling around like little GI Joes, trying to see who could travel from the back of the sanctuary to the front without being tagged.  The kids went to Sunday school before services and Vacation Bible School during the summer.  They accompanied me to mothers’ meetings and missions meetings, teachers’ meetings and meetings to plan other meetings.  They were nearly as comfortable at church as they were in their own living room, and therein is the rub.

gabe angelic0001In those days, we rose early on Sunday morning, ate breakfast, and with three freshly  scrubbed cherubs in tow, made our way to church before the first service began.  We seated our angels on the front pew, where we could see them, and they could see us.  I stood to the right of the altar with the other back-up singers, and their dad sat at the piano, at the opposite side.  Usually, a couple from the congregation would “adopt” the children during the song service, feeding them breath mints and whispering answers to their questions until the songs ended and we joined them on a pew.  But every once in a while, the three children would sit by themselves in the front pew, without an adult nearby. I never worried. They were freshly combed and their clothes were carefully ironed. They were polite and respectful.  They did not talk back. They did not whine.  I worked very hard to present three perfect angels to our congregation every Sunday morning.

On one such Sunday, as we began the first song, I looked down at the children.  The pews were full, and although the ceiling fans and air conditioners were running at full tilt, it promised to be a long, hot service.  Elizabeth, who was not yet in school, playfully lifted her dress over her head, and letting it fill with air, billowed it down to the pew like a parachute.  I silently willed her to look at me so she might see my disapproving expression and stop, but it was to no avail. Over and over, she flapped her dress up and down, exposing her little belly and My Little Pony underwear.

Not to be outdone, Gabe grabbed a Bible and began fanning it in Abby’s face.  It hit her nose and she retaliated by pushing him off the pew.  Gabe fell onto Elizabeth, who tumbled to the floor next to him.  And with one fell swoop, war was declared.

The song was reaching its crescendo.  Men and women clapped their hands and sang, stomping their feet in rhythm.  The drummer, sweat running down his face, kept perfect time, as the guitars followed the piano’s lead.  I tried to hold my vocal harmonies while alternating between scowls and head shakes at my three feuding offspring, but it was no good. They knew better than to look my way.

Suddenly, mid-verse, the piano and my husband’s strong tenor voice stopped.  The guitars trailed off, as did the vocalists, and the drummer, in the middle of a roll, crashed once on the high hat and looked around to see why the music had ceased.  The congregation and I watched as my children’s father silently got up from the piano, strode to the front pew, and whispered to his three wide-eyed and now very quiet children.  Then, as if nothing happened, he returned to the piano, and picked up the song exactly where he had left it.

The kids never acted out at church again.  I thought that whatever was said to them putelizabeth angelic0001 the fear of God Himself into them and they, realizing their sin, put away their wicked ways forever. But last week, I found their children’s Bible and leafing through the pages, found crayoned drawings and notes jotted during church- not at all innocent and exemplary of “good” Christian children.  They were sarcastic, and disrespectful and deliciously sinful.

You might think I am disappointed, but you are wrong.  I am delighted, because my three very normal children have grown up to be three exceptional adults.  They love God, but they do not always follow the church’s rules. They often challenge the way things have always been done.  They question.  They disrupt.  They turn my world upside down, just as they did when they were three little misbehaving monkeys in the front pew.  And I, who wanted my children to appear to be little angels, learned that no child is perfect, as no adult is perfect.  Which is why Jesus was born in the first place.  Which is why I chose my faith as a young adult.  I only wish I understood it so well twenty years ago.

So, Miss Fanny P, beware perfect children who behave at church.  Things are not always as they appear.  Thank God!

Breaking Bread

Usually I pack my lunch before going to work, but today I bought a cup of soup at the soupcafé on the first floor of the building where I work. I burned my tongue on the thin broth while answering my email and searched the bottom of the styrofoam cup for bits of chicken and summer vegetables.  After the soup I ate a handful of cherries, and an hour later, I was hungry again.

Listening to my stomach growl, I wished I had brought something from home that might fill the empty gap.  From the depths of my past came the memory of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on my mother’s homemade bread.

We rarely bought bread from a store when I was growing up. Instead, my mother made it from scratch, six loaves at a time, every few days.   She mixed it in a large aluminum pail fitted with a hand-held churn.  It took two people to start the mixing process- one to hold the bucket and one to work the churn, but in no time, the flour, milk, butter and yeast came together to form a giant ball, which she would turn out on the counter and knead until it was smooth.  Once in a while, she used the side of her hand to form crease in the middle of the rounded loaf and spanked the “baby’s bottom.”  We children would explode in peals of laughter and beg to give the bottom a spank too.

From this basic white bread recipe, my mother made countless treats.  She filled muffin cups with balls of dough to produce steaming dinner rolls that dripped with melted butter and sopped up gravy from Sunday’s roast.  At Christmas she decorated stollen with a sugary glaze and candied fruit, and gave them as holiday gifts to our neighbors and friends.  During the summer she fried dough and sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar, creating a treat for hungry children who entered the house from the front door and exited from the back.  She toasted bread for breakfast, sharing the crust with Greta, our collie shepherd, who preferred hers with a bit of peanut butter.

On most days, however, Mom formed six even loaves, carefully kneaded and risen, and baked them three to a rack in an old gas oven.  Half way through the baking, she moved the loaves on the top rack to the bottom, and vice versa, to ensure that they were evenly baked. She taught me to remove the golden loaves from the oven, dump them out of their pans and tap on the bottom with a finger.  The ring of a hollow thump meant the loaf was fully baked.  A dull thump indicated that the loaf needed a few more minutes in the oven, least it be gummy in the center.  Placed on racks to cool, each loaf was coated with a thin layer of butter, so a soft crust would form.  An hour later, the cooled loaves were sealed in plastic bags, ready for the next hungry batch of children.

There was nothing like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from my mother’s sunbeamkitchen.  A huge slab of bread was spread with Sultana peanut butter, which was sold in a huge yellow tub that was later used to collect sea shells and starfish at the beach.  A second slab of bread was spread with strawberry preserves that Mom canned on hot June evenings.  The slabs were gently pressed together and cut on the bias.  Paired with a cold glass of milk, it was a filling repast fit for any king, or at least any kid.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my mother made bread instead of buying it at the grocery store.  My friends ate Wonder Bread, or Batter-whipped Sunbeam bread.  Their sandwiches fit neatly into little bags, while mine were bigger, sloppier and had to be wrapped in flat sheets of waxed paper.  It seemed to me that Mom could have been doing things that were much more fun than kneading and baking.

I was right. Mom could have been doing other things.  But to her, feeding her family was an extension of who she was.  Her hands- the same gentle hands that wiped tears from little cheeks and pushed back bangs from sweaty foreheads firmly kneaded the loaves that would nourish her growing children.  Every cup of flour was measured with care.  Every slice of bread was a gift.  A metaphorical kiss.  A work of art laced with love.

Wish as I might, there will be no peanut butter and jelly on my mother’s homemade bread for me, today, or any other day.  But the memory is as sweet as Mom’s strawberry preserves, and the memory alone got me through to the next meal.  And it made me think of the meals I cook for my family.  Do I put as much love into the dishes I serve them?  Hmmm…food for thought.

Five Things I Learned from My Dad

June 19 marked the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s passing.  I was amazed that fifteen years had passed since I stood by his bed and watched the last spark of life drain from his ocean blue eyes.  And strangely, I missed him more this June than I have in several years.

dadMy dad was a flawed man.  He was a late-in-life only child, and never really mastered money management and the responsibilities that came with having a wife and eight children.  He had a temper- we kids drew straws to see who would get stuck waking him from a nap- but his outbursts were only verbal, and by the time I was a teen I realized he was pretty much all bark and no bite.

Some men’s sins are hidden from view, but Dad’s hung on his sleeve for all to see, and often my siblings and I lost patience with the man who was supposed to be our role model.  But as I age I see more clearly that nobody is all good or all bad, and that instead of fixating on the tragic flaws of our heroes, we do better when we focus on their qualities.  Here are a few of the lessons that Dad taught me.  I hope you will learn from them too.

1.  Listen to the music

When I was in elementary school, it was not unusual for me to miss the bus.  Unhurried, my dad would take the last sip of his coffee, saunter to the car, and drive me to Hillside Elementary.  We always listened to the radio on the way, and Dad, a fan of pop music and jazz, would slow to a crawl as we approached the building, so we could listen to the last part of the song.

My teachers, hands on hips at my late arrival, never understood the excuse, “Buddy Rich was playing a drum solo,” or “Bobby Darin was singing “Mack the Knife,” and I finally just quit trying to explain.  What they didn’t understand is that music is the soundtrack over which our life is played.  Start the morning with a great song, and I guarantee the rest of the day will be a little better.  Even now, when there is a song playing on the radio that I particularly like, I find it hard to turn off the ignition before it ends- even if I’m late for work.

2. Talk to your kids as if they are adults.

I’ll never know if it was a conscious decision or because my dad craved company, but he treated his children as if their opinions had value that equaled his.  From the time I remembered, he would welcome us at the kitchen table, pour a cup of coffee (half milk for those under seven) and engage in conversation about current events, sports, television or our plans for the future.  Conversations were heavily dosed with stories about his youth- some of them factual, and some embellished- but as much as he talked, he also listened.  There were no lines drawn by age or maturity.  Nobody ever said, “This conversation is for adults only,” and because of this, I grew up believing my ideas had merit, and consequently, I believed I had value.

3. Laugh loudly and heartily.

My father was not a silly man.  He did not like slapstick or stupid situation comedies on TV.  dad 60sHe rarely told jokes, and he very much disliked humor that was humiliating or embarrassing to anyone.  However, whenever something struck his funny bone, he laughed long and hard.  He was a huge fan of Johnny Carson and loved Carson’s one-liners and the camera mugs that made his audience explode in peals of belly shaking laughter.  One of my favorite childhood memories is when I would lie in bed way after dark,  and hear my parents roar with laughter at the late night antics of Johnny and Ed McMahon.

4. Find your voice. 

When I was four years old, I began racing quarter midgets.  I wasn’t very good, but one night I finished second in a race, earning myself a ribbon.  When presentations of trophies were made at the end of the races, my name was not called.  Tears streaming down my cheeks, I went to my father, who picked me up in his arms and carried me to the officials’ table.  Drying my eyes with his handkerchief, he explained that I had to speak up and collect my winnings.  Rather than doing the talking for me, he prompted me to explain to the officials that I had taken second place in my race,  and had been missed in the presentations.  His presence gave me courage, and a moment later I was running to my older sister to show her my purple ribbon.  Although it was a small lesson, I have never forgotten it, for that evening I learned to bravely speak up when I believe myself to be right.

5. Figure it out.

Although I would never call my dad lazy, he was often unmotivated to do chores when his children could do them for him.  It was Dad’s expectation that his kids figure out how to take care of him and their younger siblings with little or no instruction.  Those who could read could certainly follow directions.  He and my mother let us have free reign in the kitchen, the cellar work bench and the back yard.  I changed cloth diapers and fed babies before I entered school, and could cook a meal for ten people before I was in sixth grade.  I weeded the garden, hung wallpaper and taped sheet rock, and my brothers learned to wire for electricity and rebuild motorcycles- with little guidance and absolutely no hovering.  Trial and error may not be the most efficient way to learn, but it leaves lasting impressions.  Just ask my brother Scott, who discovered the strength of electricity by inserting a bobby pin into a wall socket.

I’m not sure if Dad knew the value of self-directed learning, but I do know that his children grew up to be independent, motivated adults who take pride in figuring out how to complete a project by themselves.dad 70s

So today I salute my flawed, imperfect Dad.  Every time I ride a wave, or pour a cup of coffee, or watch television with my feet tucked up under me, I remember that a part of him still lives in me.  I remember his blue eyes, the way he jingled his pocket change and coughed when he came home from work, and how he drove through snowstorms to bring me home from college for a long weekend.  I remember, and with a lump in my throat, I give thanks.

Tinkerbell, NSYNC and other Magical Moments

A friend of mine returned to the office today after spending a week at Disney with her family.  Jodi has two beautiful daughters who are the perfect ages for a wonderland full of magical creatures.  She told me how they waited in line for an hour to see Tinkerbell and Periwinkle, the two fairies that appear in Disney’s latest movie.  I imagined standing in line with two antsy, excited little girls, surrounded by other antsy, excited children.  Somehow, the mental picture was rather unappealing. Indeed, just yesterday I was at the mall, doing some preliminary scouting for Christmas gifts.   There was a long line of families waiting to see Santa and I heard child after cranky child whining and crying because they were too tired, too impatient, too hungry or too indulged.  Standing in line for an hour for kid’s stuff does not in any way appeal to me.

Jodi broke my train of thought.  “The girls were really well behaved, and besides, seeing the looks on their faces when they finally caught a glimpse of Tinkerbell and Periwinkle made it all worth it,” she explained.

And then I remembered.

It was the late 90’s, and Abby was fifteen. She and her friends were huge fans of the boy band, NSYNC.  She  listened to NSYNC mix tapes.  She watched NSYNC videos.  She was glued to the TV set for NSYNC interviews and had NSYNC posters. There were times when I thought if I had to listen to “Tearin’ Up My Heart” one more time I would tear out my own heart.  But as every teen’s parent knows, if you share your kids’ music, they let you into their lives, so I listened to Justin, Chris, Lance, Joey and JC croon in perfectly choreographed harmony until they sang “Bye, Bye, Bye” and Abby moved on to more mature music.

In the midst of this musical obsession, Abby and her friend Elizabeth saved enough money to go to an NSYNC concert.  Abby asked her father to buy them tickets and after spending an hour on the phone and finding nothing available in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, he purchased two seats in Albany, New York- a three hour drive from our home.

The morning of the concert, snow fell so hard that school was canceled.  I considered canceling the trip to New York, but after taking one look at Abby’s crushed face, her dad insisted that we go.  We navigated the icy highway and arrived in Albany a couple of hours before the concert and found a parking spot directly across the street from the arena, in front of an Italian restaurant.  We ate a quick dinner and after instructions to stay together, with breathless goodbyes the girls sprinted across the street, while we sat in the car.

Our finances were limited and the night was cold, so we ran the car for short periods of time- just long enough to warm our fingers and toes.  Every hour we fed the parking meter a few quarters and once we took a short trip to the Italian restaurant for coffee and a bathroom break. We were cold.  We were tired.  We were bored.

But at eleven o’clock, the arena doors opened and the streets filled with teenage girls searching for their rides.  Amid the crowd were Abby and Elizabeth-faces flushed, feet barely skipping on the pavement, bubbling with excitement.  I had never seen my daughter so happy, and the look on her face warmed my soul and radiated to my frozen toes.

The three hour drive home passed quickly as Abby and Elizabeth chattered about the concert, and when we finally got home, I tucked my sleepy teenager into bed, knowing that sweet choruses of “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You” would drift through her head and fill her dreams. I climbed into bed, cuddling my icy feet against my already sleeping husband, a feeling of utter satisfaction lulling me to sleep.

That was more than ten years ago, but as I listened to Jodi speak about her little girls and the thrill of meeting Tinkerbell and Periwinkle, it became yesterday.  This is the stuff of perfect memories- the frustrations of standing in line, waiting on hold, or sitting in a frigid car melt with the sparkle of your child’s eye.  They are worth the effort.  Because acts of love are truly magic. 

Lunch to Go

Most work days, I carry my lunch to work.  It’s less expensive than eating out, and I am more apt to limit my meal to something more healthful and less calorie laden.  More often than not, I pack a salad and fruit into re-useable plastic containers and carry them to work in a fabric tote bag.  The bag was a gift from a coworker- a little calico sack that is just the right size, and can be washed when something leaks.

This morning while slicing cucumbers into my salad, I thought about how I used to pack lunches when my children were in school.  Much the same as when I was a child, my kids were not fond of the food from the school cafeteria, and it did not make sense to pay for lunches they would not eat.  Besides, one of the thrills of beginning each new school year was the rite of choosing a lunch box.

I recently read an article that lunchboxes are becoming a thing of the past.  This made me sad, since some of my fondest memories of school were examining my classmates’ lunchboxes. My best friend had one that was decorated to look like a barn. I coveted that lunchbox, with its matching thermos that looked like a silo and fit inside the domed lid.  Other children had boxes with Woody Woodpecker, Superman, and Mickey Mouse. One even had a box that looked (be still my heart) like a real T.V. set.  We who had “cold lunches” could begin eating immediately, instead of standing in line for our trays to be filled with the cafeteria fare that smelled the same every day, no matter what it was.

I carried a red plaid lunchbox made of aluminum that had been my older sister’s.  In those days, thermoses were made of glass, housed in aluminum.  The unlucky child who clumsily dropped his lunch box was sure when opening a thermos at lunch time, to find its contents riddled with shards of glass.  The matching thermos for my  lunchbox had broken long before it was handed down to me, but for less than a nickel, I would buy a glass bottle of milk, shake it to make sure the cream and milk were mixed and carefully pull the cardboard stopper.  Older boys in the cafeteria drank from the bottle, but I would insert a straw and sip, watching through the glass as the level of creamy white slowly declined.  I rarely finished before I was full.

My lunch usually consisted of a sandwich, cookie and fruit.  My mother made our bread and cookies from scratch and wrapped them in waxed paper.  I envied those kids who had sandwiches of Wonder Bread, that “built strong bodies 12 ways” and Hostess Twinkies with their lovely cream centers and came in packages of twos.  Now, when I think of how my mother baked every day to keep her growing brood in oatmeal raisin cookies, I wonder how I could have been so keen to trade for something from a store. 

My mother would make a grocery list on the back of a used envelope.  I would watch, hoping to see something like Drakes Cakes or Funny Bones on the list.  They never were.  “Couldn’t you at least buy those little wax paper bags instead of flat sheets of Cut-Rite?” I begged.  It would be years before I understood the economics of feeing a family of ten.  A generation later, my children begged me to buy sandwich size zip-lock bags instead of the less expensive bags that folded to close.  Some things never really change.

When my own children started school, I enthusiastically took them shopping for lunch boxes.  Aluminum had been replaced by plastic, but the decorations were still enticing.  They lingered before the display, carefully choosing what would carry their lunches- sandwiches on wheat bread, fruit, and homemade oatmeal cookies.  One year, her father naively let Abby choose a “90210” lunchbox- practically scandalous, since she was not allowed to watch the program on television.  I let her keep it, sure that she gained several popularity points in the fourth grade because of the coolness of that lunchbox.

At our house, old lunch boxes were used to house small toys, like crayons, doll shoes, and little green army men.  They lined the bottom shelf of the bookcase where we kept toys and the kids identified the contents by the character on the front; Barbie held crayons, Spider Man held Matchbox cars, and so on.  They made the perfect container-easy to identify and easy to carry. 

In my attic is a trunk filled with well-loved dolls, stuffed animals and small toys, and in it there are two old lunchboxes.  One contains a small brush, comb and assorted empty makeup containers, and the other, an empty travel sized shave cream, disposable razor (blade removed) and an empty bottle of after shave. I made these kits for the kids for Christmas gifts when they were little and our wallets were thin. They provided years of entertainment, and I saved them in hopes that someday I will have grandchildren who will enjoy them as well.

Look! They have red plaid!

By the time my kids reached junior high, they had transitioned from lunchboxes to  brown paper bags, and my days of shopping for lunchboxes ended.  If the article I read is correct, my yet-unheard-of grandchildren might never know the joy of walking store aisles the week before school starts in search of that perfect lunchbox.  Of  course, I could start a vintage collection…  

What was your favorite way to carry your lunch to school?

When You Say No Do You Mean Yes?

Have you ever met someone who cannot take no for an answer?  Recently this happened to me at work.  A gentleman made a request that I was unable to meet.  He had made this request a year ago and was given a polite “no.”  Last week, he called with the same request, and was again told no.  A day later, he called again, spoke to a different staff person, and was given the same answer.  Three days later, he spoke to yet another person, who inquired on his behalf.   My patience was wearing thin.  I wanted to ask him the proverbial, “What part of ‘no’ do you not understand?” 

I remembered an incident when my kids were young.  Their elementary school held an annual book fair, where the children displayed books they had written and illustrated.  For weeks Abby, who was in third grade, toiled over her book.  Her storyline was clear, her characters, all teenagers, drawn in colored pencil with intricate details like earrings and hair bows.

Pages 2 and 3 of Abby’s book. Yes. I still have it.

Gabriel was a first grader.  He had painstakingly scrawled the words and haphazardly colored everything in red, his favorite color.  Gabe hated to color- he thought it a waste of precious time that could be spent reading or doing arithmetic, or running around the playground.   The fact that his book was colored at all represented the importance of his work.

The book fair was to begin at seven o’clock in the evening.  I rushed home from work, changed from scrubs to a pair of jeans, and prepared a quick stir fry for dinner.  Stuffing rice and vegetables into his mouth, Gabe excitedly jabbered about his book and the surprise I would find when I read it.  Abby was equally cheery, finishing the food on her plate at record speed.  But Elizabeth ate little, pushing her food around her plate. 

At four years old, Elizabeth was chronically ill with a yet undiagnosed endocrine disorder.  Her cheeks, which had once been chubby and pink, were pale and drawn, and her clothes flapped around her skinny arms and legs like a little scarecrow.  Every day she was plagued with what she referred to as “a yucky belly,” and today was no exception.

Living with chronic illness takes its toll on all family members.  Parents weary of waiting on edge for another hospital visit, for more tests, for more medicine.  Siblings get tired of cancelling plans for a sister or brother who never seems to be better.   And for the sick child- for Elizabeth- it was the worst.  She tired easily.  She felt sick day after endless day.  She, whose nature cried out to be in constant motion and daredevil acts, was listless and fearful.

But part of living with chronic illness is trying to push forward and live life as usual as much as possible, and so we did.  Deciding that Elizabeth had eaten as much as her yucky belly could hold, I shoved her plate into the dishwasher and herded the kids into the car. 

We arrived at the school a little after seven.  My plan was to quickly visit Gabe’s and Abby’s classrooms, read their books, say hello to their teachers and rush home so I could get Elizabeth into bed.  We began in Gabe’s classroom and I searched for his book among the others.  Gabe and Abby asked if they could wander the halls with their friends.  I looked at Elizabeth, who was sitting on the floor by my feet, and knew we may have to make a quick exit.

“Sorry, you guys.  You need to stay with me tonight.  Lizza’s not feeling well.”

Abby and Gabe looked at their little sister, and solemnly nodded.

“You can walk around the room and look at the other books,” I offered.  “Just stay in here and don’t go into the hall.”

The pair grinned at me and amiably wandered from desk to desk, but the room was quickly filling with parents and children.  I hurriedly fanned through Gabe’s book and took Elizabeth by the hand to search for her siblings.  I found them standing with a girl from Abby’s class.  Her red curls bounced as she said to them,“ C’mon!  Let’s go see the sixth graders!”

Abby and Gabe turned to me, their big eyes silently begging for my consent.

“No- I need you to stay with me now.  The school’s getting crowded and I’m not sure how much longer Lizza’s going to last.  Gabriel, your book is wonderful!”  I added.

The red-headed girl interjected, “Please!  Can’t they come with me?”

“Sorry.”  I shook my head and we made our way to the second floor to find Abby’s classroom.

I quickly found Abby’s desk and thumbed through her book, complimenting her on how exciting her story was, and how wonderfully she illustrated it.

“Ask your mother if you can come now!”  It was the red-headed girl, hissing in Abby’s ear.

“No.”  I said firmly.  “They have to stay with me.”

By now I was practically dragging Elizabeth, who was getting paler by the minute, and was slumped against a nearby desk.  Sweat had gathered on my upper lip and I wondered if the older children would notice if I didn’t stop to chat to their teachers.

“Why not?  Can’t they come, pull-eeze?”  The red-headed girl begged again.  There were children running up and down the stairs, through the halls, and through the classrooms.  Teachers were helplessly watching their classrooms become shambles, and parents chatted among themselves, oblivious to the antics of their wild offspring.

Abby sighed and rolled her eyes.  She knew this would not go well.  I was hot.  I was worried about Elizabeth.  I was annoyed and I was..well, ready to blow my top.

I opened my mouth to answer, when Gabriel calmly piped up, “What you don’t know about my mother, is no means no.” 

It was as simple as that.  I smiled at my son, and he grinned back.  Gathering Elizabeth in my arms, I kissed her cheek, winked at Abby and said, “You’re right Gabe.  Thank you. And now, it’s time to go.”

Later that evening.

I have often remembered that night, how when we teach our kids that “no” means “maybe-if-you-tease-and-whine-enough-then-I’ll-change-my-mind” we do them a disservice. They need to understand that the world does not always revolve around them. They need to accept that not everything in life is meant to go their way.  They need to understand, that many times, no means no.

Now, if there was some way to teach this to the man from work, I’d be a happy woman.

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