The First Snow

This morning I woke to find the season’s first blanket of snow on the ground outside my window.  I had anticipated the storm and even prepared for it.  Indeed, just yesterday I climbed the stairs to the attic in search of my snow brush and a shovel, and smiled at the irony of finding them next to my beach chairs and umbrella. 

As I pushed the wet heavy snow from my car windshield, I realized that my heart still quickens when the first  snow of winter falls from the night sky, glistening in the street lights and covering the black pavement like baby powder.  I still think that the first snow has some magical qualities.  And as I do every year, I remembered the day I snuck snow into Elizabeth’s hospital room.

She was eight years old, painfully thin, with sunken cheeks and huge eyes.  For years, her symptoms had baffled her doctors. We knew something was wrong.  We just did not know its name, and without a name, nobody knew how to treat her.  Finally, her symptoms became so invasive that her doctor admitted her to the medical center for a week of testing.

I knew the testing would be difficult. She would have an IV and an A line inserted. She would have blood tests every hour or so.  We would recount her story to multiple medical students, doctors and nurses.  She would be allowed not food or drink for thirty-six hours, or until her blood sugar made a drastic drop.  She would be exhausted and hungry and nauseated.  And she would not understand.

The first several hours after her admission went quickly.  The staff at the medical center gave great pediatric care, and made my daughter as comfortable as possible. But as the hours passed and she was moved into the PICU-Pediatric Intensive Care Unit- she grew hungry and irritable.  Not wanting to leave her, I waited until early evening when she drifted into an uneasy sleep before sneaking off to the hospital cafeteria for a quick bowl of soup.  On the way back to the PICU I heard someone mention that it was supposed to snow.

When I reached Elizabeth, she was awake.  “Where were you?” she asked.  “Why did you leave me?  I’m hungry.  Can’t you get me something to eat?”  Her big eyes filled with tears that rolled down her pale cheeks and splashed on her bed sheets. I gathered her in my arms, wrapped her in her favorite blanket and walked through the PICU, softly singing to her until she fell asleep. I sat by her bed until dawn broke.  As the sky turned from black to gray to white, I realized the snow had fallen, just as predicted.

When Elizabeth woke, she was listless and quiet.  She lay in her bed and stared at the wall, too nauseated to watch television or play.  She didn’t want me to read to her.  She didn’t want to play with “Diarrhea Doggie”- the stuffed puppy named by an intern to make her giggle in naughty glee.  She didn’t want her back rubbed.  And when I told her I was going to leave the PICU for a short time, she didn’t protest.  She just lay in silent resignation. 

I hurried to the cafeteria for breakfast, but found I was only able to swallow half a cup of coffee.  I felt alone, and bewildered and ineffective at making things right for my precious little girl.  Tears burned at my eyes, and I knew it was only a matter of moments before they would spill down my face betraying my silent worry.  Needing a place to collect myself, I made a beeline for the parking lot and sat shivering and sobbing in my freezing car.  I cried and prayed and then cried some more.  Finally, I dried my eyes, and looked at myself in the rear view mirror.  I looked almost as bad as Elizabeth.  My eyes were sunken and red rimmed from tears and lack of sleep.  My hair was messy and my clothes were wrinkled.  I clearly needed something to lift my spirits and more importantly, lift Elizabeth’s.

Getting out of the car, I absently dragged my hand across the window and realized how sticky the snow was.   “Great for snowmen,” I thought, and wondered if Abby and Gabe were playing in the white stuff on their way to the bus.  Snow brings out the fun in all of us- especially the first snow of winter.

And then I had a thought.  I hurriedly packed together a large snowball and placed it in my jacket pocket.  Then I went straight to the PICU.  Elizabeth was still awake, her eyes staring ahead, looking at everything, looking at nothing. 

“I have a present for you!” I exclaimed, and she turned my way.  I carefully drew the snowball from my pocket, not sure how the nearby nurses would react if they noticed. 

Elizabeth’s eyes widened and a smile came to her lips.  “A snowball?  Here?” 

“All for you.   It’s the first snow of winter- magic snow!” 

She took the snowball and held it in her hand for a few moments.  It began to drip on her covers and she placed it in the plastic water cup by her bed.  She grinned at me and laid back, her now sparkling eyes still on the melting snowball. She watched it until it was nothing more than a small puddle in the bottom of the cup.  And although the  following hours were difficult and long, the spark in my daughter’s eye remained.  She managed to endure the rest of the testing, and subsequently received a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  And a few days later, I took her home, where she grew from a spirited skinny little girl to a spirited willowy young woman. 

This morning, I walked into work and heard people muttering about the mess they had to drive in, the slop on their sidewalks, the coating on their cars.  They complain.  They gripe.  And while they grumble, I smile, because I will always welcome the first magical snow of winter.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

One Good Thing

“Nobody gets to go through life unscathed.”

This is a declaration I frequently use, mostly because it is true.  We tend to look at other people and think they live idyllic lives, absent of turmoil and storms, but in truth, we all have times when our skies turn inky and the seas we navigate roil with turmoil.

My daughter Elizabeth has been experiencing one of those seasons, when finances forced her to abandon school and return to New Hampshire.  The move was heartbreaking. She had to leave everything she loved behind- her apartment, her friends, the kitten she rescued from a dumpster.  She sold some of her furniture, and gave away the rest.  Then she packed what was left in the back of her car, and quietly wept as the two of us drove from Florida to New England.

Despair is dark place with deep muddy waters that drag our feet and keep us from moving forward.  Like the hooves of Artax from “The Neverending Story” Elizabeth’s feet shuffled through our apartment as she aimlessly tried to unpack clothes and books.  Mostly, things just moved from one pile to another, and nothing was really put away.  She attempted to smile, but her swimming eyes betrayed her soul. The task of rebuilding her life was overwhelming, an insurmountable precipice looming before her.  “Cheer up!” didn’t seem appropriate, but I wanted to help her to remember that all difficult assignments are accomplished one step at a time.

I looked at the white board hanging on the refrigerator.  We use it to leave messages for each other- “Doctor Appointment- Tues. at 10:30,” or “Remember Library Books,” or “Gabe called- call him back after 9.”  I wiped it clean and wrote at the top, “One Good Thing.”

“Okay, you guys,” I announced to Abby and Elizabeth, “Every day we are going to find one good thing to write on this white board.”

 I detected a slight eye roll from my daughters, but the humored me.  I found a black marker and carefully wrote, “Elizabeth is home.”

Abby followed with “I bought my wedding dress.”

Elizabeth obediently picked up the marker, and after a moment of thought, wrote, “I found my cup.”

I looked on the kitchen shelf where we store our mismatched cups.  We all have our favorites for morning coffee, and among the familiar mugs was a new one- a white ceramic mug monogrammed with a big black E.

“Small steps,” I reminded myself, and grinned at her.  She smiled back, and she looked a little less bewildered.  I looked at the mug, nestled between Abby’s and mine in its new home. 

In the days that followed, we continued to write on the white board.  Elizabeth unpacked and arranged her belongings on her dresser.  She set up her keyboard so she could work on her music, and a few days later, she interviewed and landed a job.

Now, almost two months later, the white board again is used for quick messages.  Elizabeth still misses her friends and her cat, but her list of good things is becoming longer than that of her losses.  She has become proficient at her job, is making new friends, and has taught herself to long board in the driveway outside our apartment.  She has slogged out of the valley of apathy and she is once again starting to resemble the Elizabeth of her childhood on the move, full of courage and determination.  It started with a simple step.  A simple declaration.  It started with one good thing.

Think About This

When my son Gabe was a little boy, his heroes were those characters who were protectors.  As a five-year-old, his favorite book was “St. George and the Dragon.” He loved Superheroes- Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers.   He had a keen sense of justice, a deeply kind heart, and an intensity of thought that often left him unable to fall asleep once tucked into bed.

To help my son fall asleep at night, I developed Think-abouts.  Each night after a story, a prayer and a song, I would snuggle next to him, and set the stage for something to think about as he drifted off to sleep.  They usually began in a similar way:

“Gabriel, MacGyver and Pooh Bear are on a mission to save a baby seal who is stuck on an ice floe in the cold Arctic waters.”

Okay, I know what you are thinking. “Seriously?  Gabriel, MacGyver and Pooh Bear?”

Well, the Think-about had to be adventurous enough to capture his attention, but not so scary it would frighten him.  It had to contain characters that he loved and admired. And it needed to give him the opportunity to make himself the character he imagined himself to be- altruistic, protective, heroic.  He would lie in bed, playing out the adventure in his head until he fell into slumber.  By concentrating on the Think-about, he’d forget the things of the real world that threatened to bar him from the Land of Nod.  His tense muscles would relax, his breaths fall into a slow, even rhythm, and his dreams would be kick started by his twilight imaginings.

As Gabe grew up, Think-abouts were replaced by earphones and music, his naivety giving way to snarky sarcasm.  However, he never lost his desire to champion for those who needed a defender.  As a teenager, he was loyal to a fault, sometimes putting himself in peril in misguided attempts to defend friends before making sure he had his facts straight, but as he matured, he learned to harness his reactions and tame them into responses.

Over the years, Gabe’s idealism has been tempered by realism, but he is much the same as that little boy who dreamed gabe oct 2013about saving baby seals from the perils of the world.  He champions for those who are weak.  He stands up for what he thinks is right.  He rolls up his sleeves and works hard to make the world just a little better than what it was before he was born.

Now, I’m not saying that in the days of think-abouts, I anticipated how my son’s life would unfold.  But I do know that we help influence our children by the heroes and role models we introduce to their imaginations.  We can help them align themselves with those who wear white hats, the caped crusaders, the protectors of the weak, the defenders of the small.

My son’s stuffed bear sits in a trunk in our attic, where it will stay until another little boy needs him. And Gabe will most likely never create a rocket out of chewing gum and paper clips, or save the world from a nuclear explosion.  But he is living a life that would make MacGyver and Winnie-the-Pooh…and his mother… proud.  He is becoming his own kind of super hero.

Think about that.

Saying Yes to the Dress- A Mother’s Perspective on Wedding Gowns

I have an old video of my daughter Abby dancing in our living room.  She was in kindergarten at the time, and her one dream was to be a ballerina.  We were unable to afford dance lessons, but I was able to save enough money to buy her a pair of delicate pink ballet slippers, and one afternoon while Gabriel and Elizabeth napped, she donned a pink circle skirt and her ballet slippers and performed a solo dance performance in front of a borrowed video recorder.

I taped in silent wonder as she twirled and leapt, limited only by her own imagination.  Her waist-length hair lilted behind her like a blond chiffon scarf and she grinned in unbridled delight.  It was a song of life, choreographed for one- a magical moment that I will cherish long after the video crumbles from old age.

I thought of that day last week while she tried on wedding gowns.  The two of us went to a bridal salon with plush carpets and thick drapery, excited for a day of trying frothy white dresses for her upcoming nuptials.  This was new ground for us. When I married thirty-three years ago, I was a VISTA in Idaho.  We phoned my measurements to my mother who was in Massachusetts, and she bought fabric and a pattern, and sewed my gown while I was away.  I returned home four days before my wedding and she did the final fitting and finished the dress the day before the ceremony.  I fashioned my own veil and splurged on a pair of white shoes that still rest with the gown in the bottom of my cedar trunk.

Although I sew, I have neither the talent or inclination to attempt a wedding gown, so on a Saturday morning, we found ourselves in a small private room while a beaming young sales associate brought gown after gown for Abby to try.  I had expected there to be several that we didn’t like, but each garment looked amazing on her.  There was one in particular that stood out from the rest, and the sales woman suggested that she wear it to a larger room in the salon where large mirrors reflect the future bride from every angle.

Abby made her way to the three-way mirror and stepped up on the pedestal.  Her long hair was held back by a jeweled headband and after I straightened the gown’s train, I stepped back to survey my daughter.  There she was, tall and slender, elegant in ivory lace.  She turned to me, clapped her hands, and joyfully exclaimed, “I’m getting married!”

She had the same expression as that little girl who danced for me.  Her huge green eyes were full of excitement and anticipation.  Her smile was brilliant, and her cheeks were flushed the same delicate pink as her ballet slippers.  She was beautiful then.  She is more beautiful now.

And I did what every good mother does.  I cried.  Then I wiped my tears and laughed.

In the end, she didn’t end up buying that particular dress.  She found another that made her feel even more like the exquisite young bride she will be on Christmas Eve.  But she would look stunning in a paper bag, and although I know that television and bridal magazines would tell us that it is all about the dress, I know it is not.  It is about the heart.  It is about two hearts- Abby’s and Johnny’s, who will face life with free, unbridled delight, full of excitement and anticipation.  I will watch in silent wonder as they twirl and leap, limited only by their imaginations, as they interpret a new song.  It is the song of life, choreographed for two.

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