Sick Daze

A friend of mine who has two small children was telling me about taking care of them when they were sick.

“I admit it.  I used the T.V. as a babysitter.”  He hung his head in embarrassment.

“Good grief,” I replied, “All good parents use T.V. as a babysitter. That’s how we survive sick kids.”

I thought about this later.  Although our conversation was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the truth of the matter is, as parents, we feel obligated to respond to our children’s needs in text book perfection, and when we don’t, we feel guilty about it.  I should know- the Queen of Guilt is also a quasi-expert on sick kids.

My children were germ magnets.  No matter how healthful their foods, how consistent their bedtimes, how sanitary their dwellings, I could not keep them from getting sick.  Whatever caused pooping, puking or rashes, my children were sure to catch the bug and share it with the entire household.  Ear infections, strep throat, asthma, croup and G.I. bugs were frequent visitors, punctuated by the less-frequent-but-more-powerful Chicken Pox, Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, Influenza, pneumonia, Scarlet Fever, Rotavirus and Mononucleosis.

Finally, realizing that my defensive actions were having little effect, I decided it was time to abandon the defense and work on the offense.  I devised the Momma G method of dealing with sick kids.

Please note- these are not doctor recommended or pediatrician approved.  I lay no claim to making your children get sick less or get better faster.  This is merely a survival toolkit designed to help mommies and daddies get through those long lonely nights when the only sound is their two-year-old retching on yet another set of sheets.

  1. If your child complains of a tummy ache, do not take her into your bed.  I made this mistake when Abby was eighteen months old and the pumpernickel bread she ate didn’t agree with her.  Use your imagination.
  2. Popsicles are the perfect food.  Pedialyte is doctor recommended, but it doesn’t help if your kid won’t drink it.  Sucking on a popsicle raises his blood sugar and allows him to replenish fluids a little at a time.  Besides, the other kids in the family can have one, so they feel a little more special and a little less neglected, since all your time is spent on the sick sibling.
  3. Make a nest.  When my kids were small and sick, I wanted them close to me so I could keep an eye on them.  I would build nests out of blankets and pillows in the living room and there they would reside until they were up and about.  Nests were only made on sick days, which made it special, and they were content to stay there while I did my household chores.  It also helped when there were more sick kids than there was space on the living room couch.
  4. How your child acts is more important than what his temperature is.  When we adults run a fever of 100, we huddle under the blankets and beg someone to put us out of our misery.  When kids run a fever of 100, they use their blankets as capes and jump off the couch, pretending to be Superman.  Conversely, when Gabe was three, he had his first bout with pneumonia.  He was fussy and clingy at breakfast, but had no fever.  By ten he was hanging onto me and crying, but still had no fever. By noon, he was having trouble breathing and wouldn’t let me put him down, but still had no fever.  At his two o’clock appointment with his pediatrician, we found that he had a severe pneumonia, but still had no fever.  I learned then that if your child acts really sick, he probably is really sick, no matter what the thermometer says.
  5. When your kid is sick, keep her home.  Because Elizabeth had underlying health issues, a simple twenty-four hour stomach bug would put her in the hospital for a few days, and on the couch for several more.  I found it infuriating to be at the church nursery and hear that the child she was playing with had been up barfing all night.
  6. The “getting better” period can be worse than the really sick time.  When kids are really sick, they lie around and rest.  When they are getting better, they whine. They whine because they want to go outside and play. They whine because there’s nothing good on T.V.  They whine because they don’t feel well enough to play and they’re bored with lying around.  The best cure for the whining is wine (not for them, for you.)
  7. Never underestimate the power of sticker books.  When I was a kid and sick, my mother stopped at Thorin’s Hardware Store and bought sticker books, Wolly Willy, and paper dolls.  They made a week in bed with the measles a lot more tolerable.  Although my kids never got measles, when they got sick, I made similar purchases- stickers, round tipped scissors and colored paper were a refreshing change from television when the children were confined to bed.  Besides, paper chains are much more entertaining than daytime dramas.
  8. Understand that hospitalizations impact the whole family.  When Elizabeth was a little girl, she was frequently hospitalized.  During those days when she was confined to bed, I was desperate to keep her entertained, so I allowed her to do things she ordinarily would not do, like paint in bed and dust herself, her teddy bear and me with baby powder.  Her siblings visited her and found their little sister languishing in a no-rules environment and decided that life was grossly unfair that she got to be sick and they did not.  When we returned home, there was always an adjustment period. Elizabeth whined when she no longer ruled the castle. The other kids accused me of favoring her and holding her to a different behavior standard than they were used to.   Let’s face it-hospitalizations create chaos.  Sleep deprived parents are torn between the kid on the ward and the kids at home.  Nobody feels special.  Sibling rivalry and jealousy abound.  Everyone’s tired of eating Cheerios for dinner.  You might as well recognize the elephant in the room, talk about it, and reassure yourself and everyone else that things will return to normal.  Eventually.

In the end, I did survive all the childhood illnesses my kids experienced.  Now that they are grown, they take care of themselves if they are sick.  My days of feverish babies and puking toddlers are behind me.  I have earned my retirement from the bedpan brigade.  And now I can rest in the realization that when I’m really old and feeble, payback’s going to be a … Well, let’s just say that sticker books aren’t going to do the trick.

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Spring Is Sprung

“Spring is sprung, the grass is riz…”

New Hampshire has had a string of unseasonably warm days that reminds us that spring is only a few days away.  I love winter and am always happy to see the skies fill with grey cotton clouds that dust the bare pavement with downy flakes of white, but by the middle of March I look forward to the days when the ice melts and the earth turns warm and fragrant.  In this part of the country, spring is heralded by the lemon splash of forsythia against muted winter lawns and leafless trees, fat robins searching for worms, and warm breezes that tease my attention from my office and lure me to languish in the sun’s strengthening rays.

Spring- it is the season of promise; a season of buds and baby animals and tiny sprigs of new grass that pop up amid the winter hay.  Everything is fresh and new, and yet, there is a continuity from year to year- like the same song sung with a different beat.

When I was a girl one of the most exciting sign of spring was when I was allowed to play outside wearing shoes instead of boots.  My feet felt light without the bulk of heavy buckled boots and I relished the sound of gravel crackling beneath the leather soles of my saddle shoes. During the early spring when I was very young, I was made to wear rubbers- brown or red overshoes.  They were shorter and lighter than boots, but still added weight and bulk.  To be finally free of boots and rubbers meant I was free indeed.

With the advent of spring came the changes in wardrobe- sweaters instead of heavy coats, cotton dresses instead of wool skirts, anklets instead of knee socks.  With the lengthening days came lighter colors and jubilant patterns.  My sister Robin and I would sit together on the couch with the spring issue of the Sears catalogue and dream about the Easter dresses and white shoes that filled the pages.  The mothers and daughters in the catalogue all wore pastel dresses and light weight coats that coordinated with their hats.  I ached to wear those clothes- to look like the models in all their finery.  However, new Easter outfits were not usually on the agenda in my house.

“You go to church to honor God,” my practical Yankee mother would remind me.  “Not to show off new clothes.”

It was logic that was difficult to argue.

The signs of spring bring memories of playing with spring toys outside the house at 30 Green Street.  Sometime around the middle of March, my mother would visit Thorin’s Hardware Store and bring home a bag filled with paddle balls, jump ropes, and balsa wood gliders.  These were inexpensive toys that lasted only as long as the spring vacation, but they lured us away from the television and books that kept us sedentary during the weeks that were too dark and cold to play outside.  My brothers and sisters and I would hold competitions on the driveway- drawing hopscotch with chalk, or seeing who could skip “peppers” without tangling the jump rope between their feet.  We counted aloud as we bounced the pink rubber ball against a wooden paddle.  We ran to St. Patrick’s church and back, trailing kites behind us, trying in vain to get them to fly.  And at the end of the day when the shadows of the setting sun stole the golden warmth and left shuddering cold in its place, we snuck a daring barefooted run across the icy back yard before our mother caught us.
“Child!” she would yell from the kitchen, “You’ll catch your death of cold!”

But her lips would curl into a small smile, as if she remembered.

When my children were young, they celebrated spring’s arrival much the way my siblings and I did.  I packed away their winter clothing and searched the stores for new spring outfits, while I reminded them that we go to church to honor God, not to show off new clothes.  I bought them sidewalk chalk and kites, and taught them the same jump rope chants I learned as a child.  And although balsa wood gave way to Styrofoam, we still found gliders to swoop across the sky on a gentle March breeze.  They delighted in the lightness of their feet without boots, and every once in awhile, when they thought I wasn’t looking, they removed their shoes and stole a barefoot run across the cold sidewalk outside our front door.

Now that my children are grown, there is no one to celebrate the warming breezes and lengthening days.  I walk across the driveway to work and notice the gravel crunching under my heels, and when I close my eyes, I can imagine a glider doing loop-de-loops across the azure sky.  

I dream of the day when, I have grandchildren.  Although their parents will insist that they go to church to honor God and not show off new clothes, I will sew them new Easter clothing.  I will buy them kites and jump ropes and teach them to play hopscotch.    And when they think I’m not looking, I’ll watch them steal a barefoot run across the cold yard.

Joshua’s Gift

Joshua is my twenty-two year old nephew.  When he joined our family, he was only a few days old- a chubby little bundle with brown wavy hair and eyes like deep pools of melted chocolate.  When his birth parents discovered that Joshua had Down syndrome, they decided that they were unable to take care of him, and gave him up for adoption.   My sister Martha-Jean and her husband Robert eagerly grafted him into our family, where he took his place as their youngest son.

Joshua is closest in age to my daughter Elizabeth, and during their growing years, they spent hours and hours together.   They made up synchronized swimming routines in the pool.  They caught grasshoppers in the field.  They played games of hide and seek in my sister’s old farm-house, scrambling behind doors or inside closets so they wouldn’t be found.  If Elizabeth suggested a game, Joshua would respond with undying enthusiasm, and if Joshua suggested and adventure, Elizabeth rarely refused.

They are grown now, and if you stole a casual glance at them, you would think they are polar opposites.  Elizabeth is tall and willowy, with huge eyes fringed by dark full lashes.  Joshua is short and stout, his hair clipped short and his eyes hidden behind thick glasses.  Elizabeth studied at Oxford.  Joshua reads at an elementary school level.  Elizabeth likes to be in motion- running, boarding, swimming.  Joshua likes to listen to music, watch television, and play video games.

Last November, our families got together at Thanksgiving, and Elizabeth was home for the first time in several years.  She wanted to go for a walk in the snow, to visit her grandparents’ graves that sit in a small family plot on my sister’s property.  To everyone’s surprise, Elizabeth cajoled Joshua into going with her.  He doesn’t usually like to go out in the cold,  but he pulled on a pair of boots and a hat, and together they walked across the field.  They took snap shots of each other, played on the rope swing and returned to the house.  While walking through the field, Joshua made Elizabeth promise that she would visit again on Christmas.

A couple of weeks later, Joshua became ill with a cough, and within a few days developed pneumonia.  His condition worsened, and he was moved into ICU at the hospital.  I went to visit him, and sat by his side, watching him struggle to breathe through the oxygen mask.  He took my hand in his stubby fingers, and eyes wide, gasped, “Am I going to die like Gramma?”

“No, Josh, not now.  You’re not going to die.  You just rest and you’ll get better.”  I fought back tears and smiled, hoping that I could convince him…and myself…that this was true.

A few hours later, Joshua went into respiratory arrest, and was intubated.  For more than two weeks a ventilator breathed for him as he hovered between life and death.  Our family huddled together in prayer until a few days after Christmas, Joshua began to get well.

Elizabeth and I visited him several days after he returned home from the hospital.  His voice was hoarse and gravely from the ventilator, and he shook as he leaned on a walker to travel from his bed to a nearby chair.  He weakly smiled when Elizabeth playfully teased him, and she promised that as soon as he was stronger, she’d visit again. A few weeks later, she gleefully accepted a temporary assignment to work as Joshua’s aid. Four days a week, she and Joshua spend the day together.  They walk on a treadmill and lift weights. They go bowling. They swim.  And each day, Joshua gets a little stronger.

You might think that the person who benefits most from this relationship is Joshua, but that is not necessarily the case.  For as much as Joshua has a loving companion who encourages him to move and strengthen his body, Elizabeth has a companion who unconditionally accepts and loves her.  She comes home at the end of the day and flops down on the couch beside me.  She looks happier than I’ve seen her in months.  Her muscles ache from working out, but her eyes shine as she tells me about her day.

“Josh swims to me from the opposite side of the pool and then climbs on my back.  I drag him back to the other side and then we do it over and over again.  It’s exhausting, but I love it,” she grins.  “You know, Joshua doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” she muses.  “He talks to everyone we encounter.  And he loves to get silly, just like any of my other friends.”

I picture Josh’s smiling eyes squinting behind his glasses.

“And,” she continues, “he’s very perceptive.  He listens and remembers. And when we’re out, he tells everyone who I am, like he’s proud of me.”

“Of course,” she giggles, “If I get too bossy, he reminds me that I’m his cousin, not his mother.”

I look at my daughter and imagine her in the pool with Joshua.  I’m reminded of the water ballets they used to perform- his short round body swimming in sync with her long lean one.  It makes me smile. They make me smile.

And I realize something.  When Joshua and Elizabeth are together, it is not about their strengths, or weaknesses, or abilities, or disabilities.  It is about two cousins who love each other.

Joshua’s birth parents had no idea who they were giving up for adoption.  I don’t know who they are, or where they live.  I don’t know if they tearfully tucked him into a soft flannel blanket and kissed him goodbye, or if they even held him after he was born. I don’t know if they were young and poor or old and wealthy or why they didn’t  feel that they could keep their newborn.  But I do know If I could speak to them I would say thank you.  Thank you for giving us your gift.  Thank you for Joshua.

Because We Are Siblings

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” ~Robert Frost

Over the course of the last week I have had several conversations with friends and family about the importance of sibling relationships.   One of these conversations was with a coworker, who sent me this picture and expressed how pleased he was that his two young children are beginning to bond with each other.  Another was with an only child who expressed how she wishes she had siblings.  The third was my youngest sister Missy, who has a blended family of six children.

In each conversation, I talked about how glad I am that my children have such close relationships with their siblings.  Nothing warms my heart more than watching my kids laughing together, supporting each other, defending each other.  The fact that they have close sibling relationships should not surprise me.  It is the way I was brought up.

I am the second of eight children.  Because our family was so large, our parents were always financially challenged, and there was little money left after the bare essentials were bought.  Our yard was small, our furniture worn, and our house in disrepair. We shared beds and toys and hand-me-down clothing.

At school I often felt like a misfit, but inside the door of 30 Green Street, love reigned.  My parents insisted that our home be a safe haven, a place of acceptance and of support.  They instilled a sense of stewardship toward each other that ruled how we carried out our lives.  We were taught to stand with our siblings as a mighty force against the wars that waged outside the safety of our home.  “You can fight all you want with each other at home,” my mother instructed, “But don’t you let anyone hurt your brothers and sisters outside these walls.”

When I was in second grade, I had two cotton dresses. One was red plaid and the other was grey with a white collar.  My mother washed and ironed every night so I had a fresh dress to wear to school the next day.  Small towns can be great places in which to grow up, but the limited number of children in a school can make for a difficult social circle.  The popular girls in my class wore pastel dresses with crinoline petticoats and patent leather Mary Janes.  They had pretty, feminine names like Debbie, Susan and Linda.  My cotton dresses and masculine first name branded me, and I rarely felt as if I fit in.

One spring day the playground discussion turned to the latest Chatty Cathy doll.  Chatty Cathy had plastic discs that were inserted into her back and when her string was pulled, she talked.  One of the girls told the group that she was getting one for her birthday.  At the time my youngest three siblings were all under the age of three, and I fed and diapered real babies more often than I did dolls.  Besides, Chatty Cathy was too expensive a doll to even wish for.

“My new baby brother is a lot more fun than a stupid doll with a whiney adult voice,” I piped up, hoping to sound sophisticated. The inner circle fell silent. The other girls exchanged eye rolls and then walked away, leaving me staring at my scuffed saddle shoes and squeezing my eyes shut to keep the burning tears from escaping.

The day was worsened when we were given tetanus booster shots by the school nurse.  That afternoon I despondently trudged home from the bus stop, arm and head aching.  I tearfully told my mother about my day and she hugged me close, kissed my forehead and then asked if my arm ached too much to give my baby brother his bottle.  I sat on the couch, my tender arm propped on a pillow and held Ricky in my arms, his hazel eyes staring at me while he hungrily replaced the formula in his glass bottle with air bubbles.  His wispy blond hair gently curled around his ears and he occasionally stopped sucking long enough to grin at me.  I understood then that all the crinoline petticoats in the world couldn’t hold a candle to that smile.  He was my baby brother, and our sibling bond would last much longer than any playground acceptance.

Sometimes I ache to go back to the house at 30 Green Street.  I long for the echo of my childhood, of sharing bedrooms and secrets and squishing together on the couch to watch television.  I long for the safety that I felt inside the walls of our house, where I didn’t have to prove anything- where I was loved just because I was.   It saddens me that we so rarely are able to get everyone together at once, and that our parents are no longer here to share the laughter when we do.

But like it or not, I am an adult.  A mother.  On the flip side of fifty.  I am responsible and self reliant. And strong…most of the time.  Still, when the storms of life threaten my footing, when my confidence is shaken, when my sleepless nights are filled with fear, I have my siblings. We don’t always agree.  Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves.  Sometimes we even argue.  But in the end, there is love. Because we are siblings.

Piece of Cake

Last Monday evening when I got home from work, Elizabeth was sitting on the couch.  “I messed up your cake,” she said with a frown. 

I glanced at the stove and saw a chocolate cake sitting in a quiche pan.  It looked fine, except it had a rather large divot in the middle.

“Looks fine to me,” I lied.  “Just needs some frosting.”

Elizabeth grinned, walked to the kitchen and slapped a spoonful of frosting into the divot.  A few minutes later we were laughing together as we stuffed gobs of German chocolate into our mouths.

I wasn’t always so cavalier about cooking mistakes. Most of my friends let their children cook and bake with them, but I cringed to let my kids measure, stir and pour.  This is still an enigma to me.  When I was growing up, my mother encouraged us to experiment with gastronomy.  If we asked for cookies, she would hand us a stained copy of Betty Crocker, point us to the kitchen and remind us to clean up after ourselves.  As a result, I could cook dinner for ten people by the time I was in fifth grade. I thought nothing of whipping up a white sauce, or baking a three-egg cake, or turning out popovers for the family’s supper.

Unlike the stainless steel and granite kitchens of HGTV, the kitchen I grew up with had no counters.  A free standing double sink and the top of the clothes washer were the only work areas besides the kitchen table.  There was a gas stove whose pilot lights didn’t work.  I would timidly turn the dial and toss a lit match in the direction of the pilot, while simultaneously jumping to the other side of the kitchen in fear of my hair catching fire with the “Whoosh!” of the flame.  It is a miracle I didn’t blow up the entire house.

My favorite thing to make was cake.  Betty Crocker had pages and pages of delightfully named cake recipes, and I tried them all, from “Silver White Cake” to “Brown Betty Butter Cake.”  One day, despite my mother’s admonishment, I used a coin silver serving spoon to mix the batter instead of a wooden one.  Scraping the side of the glass mixing bowl, I lost my grip and the spoon got sucked in with the creamy batter, twisting and bending around the moving beaters.  Cheeks burning, I had to tell my mother I had disobeyed her and watch as she disentangled the mangled silver spoon.

I was not the only child in our family to have kitchen disasters.  One afternoon my sister Robin made frosting and deciding to experiment with food coloring, added several drops of each color to the sugar and butter.  The result was akin to something we would find in our baby brother’s diaper.  My father took one look at it, gagged and threw it in the trash.  Another time, my youngest sister Missy made pumpkin pie for the family.  It looked delightful- caramel in color, shiny on the top. When the last person was served we dug in together, anticipating the smooth sweet flavor of pumpkin and spice that would tickle our taste buds.  I looked across the table at Scott, whose bugging eyes and coughing confirmed my suspicion.  Soon everyone was sputtering and laughing, except Missy, whose face slowly turned a deep shade of crimson.  She had forgotten the sugar.

Despite these mishaps, my mother continued to encourage us.  Although none of us is exactly a gourmet, family pot lucks prove that we each have a robust gastronomic repertoire.

If I had it to do over again I would forget about the spills, turn a blind eye to the mess and let my kids measure and chop until they found their own inner chef.  They might have understood fractions sooner.  They might have learned not to open the oven door while a cake is rising. They might have learned to skillfully wield a knife like the folks on Food Network, or truss a turkey like Julia Child. They did not.  Instead they learned to “get-out-of-the-kitchen-while-Mom-makes-dinner.”

In spite of my hang ups, they are learning on their own, as adults.  They may make a few mistakes along the way, but they’re figuring it out.  Abby makes the best butter cream I’ve ever tasted. Gabe made me chicken korma after I had hand surgery.  And Elizabeth baked a delicious German chocolate cake for my birthday.  It might not have looked perfect, but it was made with love.  Besides, that little divot made the perfect pool for some extra frosting.

Why Momma G Loves the TV

“I’ve been craving old shows of Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet.”  This was in an email from my daughter Abby.  She is in Nashville now, navigating life in a new city with a new husband, looking for a new job.

The mention of Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet brought me back to a simpler time of watching television with my kids- the days when we all crowded on the couch in front of the lone 19 inch portable that sat behind closed cupboard doors in our living room.

When we were theoretical parents, we were not going to let our children watch TV.  We felt their time would be better spent reading books and engaging in intelligent conversation.  But then life happened.  I was a stay-at-home mother with a one-year-old.  Stuck in a rural home without a car, I felt isolated and alone.  We could not afford cable, so our TV only got one channel.  I had a strong disdain for daytime television dramas, but at eleven o’clock each morning I turned on “The Price Is Right” and watched it with my daughter.   Abby stood transfixed in front of the screen.  When the contestants jumped up and down, she bobbed up and down, clapped her chubby hands and yelled “Come on down!”  We were hooked.

Shortly after that, we moved to a new apartment, which was “cable ready,” and although we still could not afford the cable services, by plugging into the outlet we could get the major networks and PBS.  Public television opened a whole new world of entertainment for the kids- and for me.  We became friends with the gang from Sesame Street.  We listened to stories on Reading Rainbow.  We visited the Neighborhood with Mr. Rogers and we learned to cook with Julia Child, The Frugal Gourmet and Jacques Pepin.

For my kids, watching television was a participatory sport.  When Gabe was three, he was given a cardigan sweater that opened and closed with a zipper.  He took a hanger from his closet and every time Mr. Rogers changed sweaters, Gabriel did the same, zipping and unzipping, taking off the sweater and carefully hanging it on the doorknob to the hall closet.

One winter PBS aired “Sleeping Beauty on Ice,” and Abby decided she should become a professional ice skater.  She didn’t have skates, but she announced that the large frozen puddle outside our apartment would work perfectly as a rink.  She convinced her little brother to be her skating partner, and the two of them spent the afternoon sliding their boots across its surface in a complicated dance choreographed by my five-year-old daughter.  They fell so often that the next morning Abby’s knees were black and blue, and Gabe’s right ankle collapsed every time he tried to run.

As the children grew their television horizons expanded, but only under careful scrutiny by their father and me.  I thought we were doing fairly well at keeping to innocent and educational programs, until one day I watched as Elizabeth and a boy from the neighborhood played outside with a Perfection game.  They would carefully place the pieces into the frame, set the timer, wait several seconds, and run away. When the clock ran out of time and spewed the game pieces onto the sidewalk, my six-year-old and her friend would throw themselves to the ground, rolling over and over.  Puzzled at their antics, I finally asked what they were doing.

My little girl looked up from the grass, pulled a leaf from her unraveling braid, looked at me with that “Mom-don’t-you-know-anything?” expression and said, “We’re playing MacGyver.  It’s a bomb.”  So much for violence-free TV.

When the children were in elementary school we spent the better part of a year with no TV at all.  Gabe and Abby were squabbling over what show to watch and their father, who was not raised with a TV in the house and rarely chose to watch it, got fed up.  He silently walked to the shelf where the “boob tube” rested, picked it up and yanked the plug out of the wall.  It sat in a storage shed until the end of the summer when a hurricane threatened the east coast and I convinced him that for our safety we needed to reconnect it.

As the children grew, I found that watching television with them was more important than arbitrarily deciding what shows were acceptable and what were not.  Cuddling together on the couch in front of their favorite program gave us the opportunity to talk about the values and decisions of the characters.  I suffered through hours of teenage angst while watching Dawson’s Creek with Abby, but it opened the door to talk about many of the topics she had been reluctant to discuss- teenage sex, drinking, drugs.  By talking about the characters’ choices, we could share opinions and values.  Once she knew I would not condemn Dawson and Joey, she could trust that I would not condemn her or her friends.

By watching TV with my kids, I learned what sports heroes my children admired and why.  I found out what kind of music they listened to, what clothing they liked, what politicians they believed in and what kind of adults they aspired to be.  But most importantly, it gave us the opportunity to have fun together. Together we laughed at Seinfeld.  Together we cried during “E.R.”  Together we sang with the cast of “Les Miserables” and together we waited for next week’s episode of “X-Files.”

Now that my kids are grown, I usually watch television alone.  Once in a while, we watch something together, but mostly they are too busy with work or friends to sit on the couch with their mother.  But someday, I’ll have grandchildren. We will cuddle together in front of Grammie’s TV and turn on PBS.  I can’t wait to see what Bert and Ernie have been up to.

Labor of Love

This weekend while I was reorganizing I came across a box full of fabric that had belonged to my mother.  In the box were several yards of green flannel. I suspect my mother intended it for a flannel shirt, perhaps for one of my brothers.

For as long as I remembered, my mother sewed.  I thought perhaps it was because she was very tall and found it hard to find ready-to-wear clothing, or maybe it was the generation in which she was born, or even because she hated shopping.  Whatever the reason, her old White sewing machine was usually left open and our dining room was often strewn with patterns and fabric.

One of my favorites of Mom’s sewing projects was the snowsuit she made for my older sister, Martha-Jean.  Like many young couples, my parents’ income was limited, and heavy wool was a luxury she could not afford.  She cut up my father’s Navy topcoat for the outside and lined it in soft plaid flannel.  After Martha-Jean outgrew it, it became mine and when I outgrew it, I passed it to Robin.  I’m not sure how many Madison children the snowsuit survived, but whenever I see pictures of it, I smile at my mother’s ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Over the years, many outfits were fashioned in our dining room.  My mother, ever pregnant with yet another of her eight children sewed maternity jumpers to cover her swelling belly.  She made skirts and dresses for the girls, wool shirts for my father and brothers.

I never really appreciated what it took to clothe eight children.  In fifth grade I was to play the clarinet in the Memorial Day parade.  We were instructed to wear navy blue serge skirts, and I didn’t own one.  Mom went to her sewing machine and made a skirt out of gray wool that was left over from another project.  The morning of the parade the other girls pointed out how different my skirt looked from everyone else’s.  My cheeks burned as I looked at my gray in a sea of blue and realized that they were right.  I only thought of how embarrassing it was to stand out from the group.  I never considered that my mother had stayed up most of the night making do with what she could afford.  And although I never mentioned it to her, I never thanked her for it either.

When I was in junior high school I came home to announce that a boy had asked me to a dance that was to take place the next evening. My mother hid her dismay, smiled and worked most of the night to produce a beautiful blue dress.  She finished the hem minutes before my date arrived.  Far too late I appreciated the fact that she had taught school all day, cooked dinner for ten people and tucked her children into bed before she even started to cut the pattern.

As she did for many of my sisters, Mom made my wedding gown.  When I called her from Idaho to announce my engagement, she took my measurements over the phone, and went to the fabric store to select yards of sparkle organza and two dozen pearl buttons.  She carefully cut and sewed three underskirts, painstakingly created fabric loops for each button and meticulously measured and sewed tiny tucks in the bodice.  The dress was magnificent- a frothy confection of sheer layers with a long train and billowing sleeves.  I returned to Massachusetts only a few days before the wedding and again she stayed up late to hem the skirts and take in the waist so it would fit.  She never complained and although I thanked her for it, I didn’t fully realize how difficult and time-consuming a project it was.

Now that my children are grown, I know that my mother sewed partly out of necessity and partly because she loved to make something from nothing for the people she loved.  I know this because I did the same thing.  I sewed Bermuda shorts and matching tops for Elizabeth.  I made MC Hammer pants for Gabe.  When winter came and the children needed pajamas, I cut and stitched thick flannel to keep them warm while they slept.  And when Abby’s huge eyes grew large with envy at a classmate’s floral dress with a black velvet bodice, I sewed late into the night on Christmas Eve to finish one for her.

What I know now is that creating something from scratch for someone you love is an expression that speaks louder than words.  Every slice of the scissor, every stitch of the needle, every pressing of a seam sings the phrase “I love you.” 

So now that the holidays are over and I’m settled in for a long stretch of cold weather, I’m thinking that it’s time to pull out my sewing machine and work on a new labor of love.  I wonder who would like a shirt made out of that green flannel?

House Plants and Friendship

House plants are needy little things.  You can water them and fertilize them, and pick off the dead leaves and they’ll flourish.  However, if you leave them untended for too long, the leaves go dry, the stems wilt, and pretty soon, all you have is a dish full of dirt.  I should know.  I have the black thumb of all time.

When I was in college, a friend gave me a miniature cactus.  I put it under my desk light and every once in a while threw a glass of water on it.  It seemed to be fine, but one night as I was writing a paper on “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the cactus suddenly gave a pitiful sigh and plopped to its side, falling out of its bowl and onto the desk, roots exposed, and dead as dead could be.

Since that day, I have noticed that most people have several houseplants, and can keep them alive.  My sister Martha-Jean has so many, it takes her an afternoon to water all of them.  They sit on windowsills and bookcases, filling her home with curling vines of emerald and chartreuse filigree.  Not so for me.  Houseplants that enter my home begin as verdant leaves and yellow buds sprouting from a bed of moss.  Within a week, shiny jade leaves acquire an ashen death pallor, and soon turn brown.   Stems bend and crack, and blossoms litter the tablecloth until at last the plant meets its demise.

Friendships are a lot like houseplants.  They require nurturing in order to stay alive.  Some need a great deal of maintenance and others only a kiss and a promise every now and then.  But all need some degree of attention.

I thought about this when my friend Sue called a couple of weeks ago.  She and I met when I was pregnant with my son Gabriel, and after he was born, we’d chat in the church nursery while her Ben and my Abby played at our feet.   During her next pregnancy, she was put on bed rest, and I, a stay-at-home mom, made daily phone calls to check up on her and keep her company.   This was a fairly easy accomplishment, as we lived in a three room apartment that was so small, my phone cord reached from one end to the other.  While Abby and Gabe played in their bedroom, I would dust, do dishes and tidy the rest of the apartment while Sue and I chatted.  We talked about everything- children, marriage, sewing projects and recipes.  We shared a love for God and family, and our conversations were peppered with laughter and encouragement.  By the time her baby Joshua was born, we had cemented a life long friendship.

Sue and I spent the next several years as frequent companions.  Together we re-upolstered my kitchen chairs, canned applesauce, and sewed clothing for our kids.  We babysat each other’s children, team taught Sunday School classes and on hot summer days piled all of our kids into one car to spend a day at the beach.  Our children were almost like siblings, and we were as close as any sisters could be.

The two of us weathered life’s trials-her complicated pregnancies, my complicated marriage.  Her transition to a new part of the country, my transition to a single woman.  Bound by prayer and phone lines, we battled cancer, heart attacks, economic strife, birth and death.  We celebrated graduations and promotions.  We laughed over our kids’ antics and cried over their heartbreaks.  She has taught me much- acceptance, hospitality, forgiveness, patience- all with gentle nudges and encouraging smiles.

When Sue and her husband moved to North Carolina, I thought my heart would break.  But true friendships weather the storm of distance, and every now and then we will share a cup of coffee over a long phone call, catching up on each other’s lives, celebrating successes, praying together over concerns.  Our friendship is like a low maintenance houseplant.

But even low maintenance needs some maintenance, and this week, while Sue was in New Hampshire for the holidays, we were able to steal a couple of hours for face-to-face catch up.  We drove to a small cafe for breakfast and chatter.  The quiche was dry.  The coffee tasted burned.  But the time with my forever friend was absolutely delicious.

How easy, I thought, it is to let friendships fade, like houseplants tucked away in a forgotten corner.  This is a friendship that deserves more than a splash of water and a promise of a new pot for it’s stretching roots.  This friendship needs to be nurtured- dust wiped from its leaves, fresh soil to encourage new growth, sunlight to turn brown to beryl.   This is a friendship to be treasured, for Sue, a woman whose grace and beauty has touched more lives than she’ll ever know, deserves to be treasured.

So plans have been sketched out for a long weekend at the beach this spring where there is time to catch up, time to rehash and time to plan ahead.  We will tend to the garden we have planted together.  A garden of friendship.  And who knows what will come next?  Perhaps I’ll even learn to keep an African violet alive.

How Momma G Let Go at the Perfect Wedding

In all my fantasies, I had always envisioned my daughter Abby to have the perfect wedding.  She, who lives by her check lists, didn’t miss a detail; a small intimate setting, muted colors of grey, mocha and ivory, hundreds of mason jars filled with candles.  She and her betrothed painstakingly chose music, lighting, and food for the brunch reception.  Everything was precisely planned. No component was overlooked.

And then the bride got sick.  The day before the wedding Abby became violently ill.  Too ill to attend the rehearsal.  Too ill to get out of bed.  She lay pale and shivering under her blankets, and I brought her medicine and ginger ale.  I tucked her in to keep her warm and several hours later, when she felt well enough to shower but was too weak to dry her hair, I did that for her too.

As Abby sat on her bed, I ruffled her long tresses and held the dryer, just as I had done a hundred times when she was a little girl.  Her hair is brown now, but when she was little, it was golden blond and hung to her waist.  It feels the same as it did then- soft and fine like a baby’s.  I closed my eyes and remembered the little girl with huge green eyes whose hair I washed and dried and braided to keep out of her face.  It seems as if I had shut my eyes for only a second and the little girl became a woman.  How I cherished the child she was and how I cherish the woman she has become.  I drank in the moment, glad to have one more opportunity to care for my firstborn.

As the dryer hummed, I remembered the days of Abby’s first summer.  How on a sweltering July afternoon when she and I both were irritable from the heat, I filled the tub with tepid water to cool us down.  She fussed and rooted and as we sat in the tub, I nursed her and marveled that our wet skin still smelled the same, even though her body was no longer connected to mine.  I swore that I would protect her forever and never let her go.

I remembered leaving my little girl in the arms of a kindergarten teacher, and how she cried when I left the classroom.  She never knew that I cried too- that I felt as if she was being yanked from my very heart by the passing years.  I remembered the day she moved into her college dorm, how her eyes filled with tears as I drove away, and the sobs that choked me as I drove back to New Hampshire.  And I remembered the mature young woman who left for India a few years ago, unafraid and determined to fight the trafficking of young children in a foreign land.  Since the moment she was born, the days were marked by separations, and yet we still were as one.

A couple of hours after her shower, still feverish,  my daughter declared herself well enough to go to the hotel where she and her sister would stay the night before the wedding.  And the next day, I rose early so I could go back to the hotel and help her  get ready for her morning nuptials. 

The hair dresser had already come and gone, her makeup was done and her veil in place.  She looked exquisite. An hour later she floated down the aisle on her brother’s arm to marry her beloved Johnny.  The music was perfect. The lighting was perfect.  Every detail was in place.  And once again, unable to hide the tears, I let her go.

The Perfect Christmas Snap Shot

Earlier this week I listened to friends say that they couldn’t wait for the Christmas season to end.  Their kids are over tired and over stimulated.  They are overwhelmed with baking and decorating and buying and wrapping.  I empathise with them, but I do not agree with them.  I love Christmas.  It is the season for making memories.

I thought about this later when my son and I returned from some last-minute shopping.  As we wrapped gifts and listened to music, he asked,

“Remember the year you and Dad bought us boom boxes?”

I do indeed.  We went shopping the week before Christmas, during a snow storm.  On a whim, we decided to buy each of the children a boom box, and finding that they took up the entire space in the car trunk, we returned home to unload and go out for a few more items.

The bushes in front of our townhouse were aglow with white lights that glittered in the falling snow.  Struggling to hold two of the large boxes, I stood on the stoop as Paul searched his pockets for the car keys.  Through the front door, we could hear peals of laughter coming from the living room.  Paul stopped looking for his keys and we stood there for a few moments, watching the snow and listening to the music of our children’s laughter.  It was a perfect Christmas snapshot.

Most of us have a favorite Christmas memory.  I have many.  The smell of a new doll brought by Santa.   Tearing wrapping paper to reveal the glitter of Sparkle Paints.  Lying in my bunk bed until midnight, listening to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” through the earphone on a new transistor radio.  The trip we took to see the lights at Constitution Plaza, where my brother Eric discovered that he could stand on a bridge and spit on the cars speeding along the highway below us.  “Frosty the Snowman” performed by the Ray Conniff singers.  Assembling toys at two o’clock in the morning, and hoping we would be finished before the kids woke up.  Singing “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” at midnight mass.

Some Christmases were a bit more challenging.  The year Gabe was a baby, all four of us got influenza.   Another year, we had only thirty dollars to buy the children’s Christmas gifts.  The year Abby was five, I made her a beautiful plaid dress to wear for her first Christmas cantata.  On the way to the performance, she turned a ghastly white, said “I can’t do this,”  and threw up all over the porch steps, and her new dress.

And there was last year, when I spent Christmas afternoon sitting in my mother’s empty room, wishing for just one more chance to hear her read aloud, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

For most of us, Christmas is a kaleidoscope of glitter, color and noise.  It is family, and laughter and foods too rich to eat more than once a year.  It is a riot of gifts, carols and crimson cheeked children watching for Santa’s arrival.  But mostly, it is about hope.  Hope that the special gift we found for that someone special will convey the love in our hearts.  Hope that our children will stay healthy and happy and not tell Aunt Polly that she has a whisker growing from her chin.  Hope that through the birth of a small child in Bethlehem, we are redeemed from our sins.

With that hope to guide us, the things we do will make the memories we so badly want for our loved ones.  When our children are grown, they will remember how they felt on Christmas morning.  They will remember the thrill of finding treasures left by Santa, the aroma of warm gingerbread cookies, and their favorite ornament on the tree.  They will remember opening gifts in their pajamas, and laughter from the children’s table, and hugging a new teddy bear as they drift off to sleep on Christmas night.

This year, my family is making a new holiday memory.  On December 24th, my firstborn will dress in a gown as white as fresh snow and pledge her love to the man who makes every day feel like Christmas morning.  There will be laughter. There will be tears. It will be forever etched in my heart as a perfect Christmas snapshot. 

I hope you and your family will share in the hope of love and light this Christmas, and that your holiday season will be full of new and wonderful memories.

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