School Pictures

I read on the internet about a Florida elementary school where a second grader’s class photo was altered.  The child, whose visage was replaced by a smiley face, had arrived at school without a signed permission slip, so the photographer covered his image with a cartoon smiley.

While I agree that this might have been a tasteless solution, it did remind me that all kids look a little goofy in their school pictures- especially second graders.  No matter how carefully they are dressed, how meticulously they are groomed, their pictures are bound to look as if they just rolled out of bed.

In my second year of school, Michelle Peck snuck scissors to the girls’ bathroom and chopped her bangs off, right before it was time for Miss Makepeace’s class to go to the auditorium for pictures.  I’m sure her parents were thrilled to see their little daughter with quarter-inch bangs sticking out straight from her forehead.

I was equally thrilled to see my children’s school pictures.  When Abby, my firstborn, started school, I had visions of her kindergarten photo to be a perfect study in pink and white.  The morning that the pictures were to be taken, I carefully braided her hair, making sure her part was straight and her ribbons matched her outfit.  She would be adorable! When the pictures arrived some weeks later, I hardly recognized my little cupcake.  Her braids were messy and her ribbons were missing.  Still, she did have that “I’m-so-excited-to-be-living” look in her eyes, and so I bought the pictures.

When Gabe was in second grade, half of his teeth were missing.  This is not unusual; the tooth fairy spends the majority of her life visiting seven-year-olds.  Either the photographer hated kids, or he hated teeth, because he certainly did nothing to minimize the jack-o-lantern effect.  But when I looked at the photograph, I heard the peal of my son’s laughter, and so I bought the pictures. 

By the time Elizabeth entered elementary school, I was on to this school photography thing.  I was also wise to my “messy girl.”  No matter what I did, Elizabeth was always…well… messy.  Five minutes after I finished getting her ready for school, I would find her soaring down the hill on her bike, tresses flying from her braids, shoes untied, purple popsicle dripping down one arm.   I knew it was hopeless to dress her up for school pictures, so I sent her to school in her usual garb- jeans and tee-shirt.  She was chronically ill- her little face pinched and pale- and I briefly considered brushing a little makeup on her cheeks to give her some color.  I decided that a second grader didn’t need makeup and sent her to school just as she was.  Several weeks later I found her pictures stuffed in the bottom of her back pack. There was my little wild child- toothless, ashen, and disheveled, and looking…well…exactly like my Elizabeth.  Needless to say, I bought the pictures.

At one point I thought I might replace the school photographs with ones I took by myself.   One Easter Sunday the children were neatly dressed and combed for church. I ordered them sit on the couch while I shot photo after photo, trying to capture all three looking vaguely serene and well-behaved at the same time.  Each time I snapped, someone would act up.  Gabe would push Elizabeth.  Abby would shove Gabe.  Elizabeth would mug to the camera, and Gabe and Abby would fall off the couch, chortling with glee.  I begged.  I pleaded.  I threatened.  Finally, I gave up, resigned to the fact that every photograph in the house would look like my children were raised by wolves.  Guess the school photographer wasn’t so bad after all.

But here’s the funny thing.  Now that my children are grown, my favorite photographs are not of serene, well-behaved cherubs.  They aren’t the ones from a photography studio, with perfect lighting and perfect clothing. They aren’t the ones where the children sit demurely with Mona Lisa smiles.  My favorite pictures are my kids as they really were- wide-mouthed grins, rumpled clothes, messy hair.  Those photographs burst with an exuberance for life that only a child knows.  They are unabashed, uncensored, unbridled.  They are a silver moment in time, when the children I cherished were exactly who they were- no apology needed.

The school in Florida is arranging to have another photo shoot.  That’s a good thing, since that little boy will only be seven for one short year.  I hope his parents sign the permission slip this time, so he can be included.  But more than that, I hope his parents cherish his image with all the others of his class, no matter how toothless and messy they are.  There will never be another moment exactly like this one. There will never be another child like theirs.

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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.

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.

Sending the Horsies

“I’m sending the horsies!”

This was in a text from my daughter Elizabeth. She is in Florida where it is hot and sunny. I am in New Hampshire where it is not. We cherish the time we have when we are together, but it is never enough. In the evening, when I am home from work, I send her a text, knowing that she will be busy with school and friends. It is just a nudge. A touch, to say I love you.

The horsies began when Elizabeth was in first grade. She painfully thin and ill with an endocrine disorder that would take years to diagnose. I wanted so badly to keep her near to me. I wanted to home school her- to keep her safe from classmates who sneezed and coughed and spread their germs over her books and pencils. I wanted to protect my sickly little girl with the huge eyes from the older boys in the bus line who laughed at her skinny arms and legs and called her a “bug eyed creep.” I wanted to let her snuggle under the covers until it was late in the morning, and spend golden afternoons in the sun where the fresh air and warmth would help her to grow strong and healthy.

But what we want as parents is not always what is best for our children. Children become strong by doing, by overcoming, by daring. I knew that I needed to go to work and Elizabeth needed to go to school. I knew she needed to take courage in hand, leave my protective arms and enter the battle ground with the brick walls and hopscotch playground. She needed to prove to herself that she did not need her mother with her every moment. But she needed a reminder that her mother was not far away.

When Abby entered kindergarten, I made her a friendship bracelet out of cotton embroidery floss. I told her that if she became lonely, she need only touch her bracelet to remember that her mother is her best friend. The bracelet was all she needed.

When Gabriel started school, he charged forward with the bravado that only a five-year old boy possesses. He announced he was too old for a kiss goodbye, but devised a secret handshake. When I dropped him off, he would lightly punch my fist with his, meaning, “I love you. I’ll see you in a few hours.” It served him well.

I stumbled upon a solution for Elizabeth in the children’s jewelry section at a local department store- a tiny pair of gold earrings in the shape of horses. As I put the earrings into her ears that night, I told her that these were magic horsies that would gently nibble her ear lobes when I was thinking about her. I told her if she became lonely for me, she should send the horsies to let me know. I would send them back right away, and when she felt a nibble, she would know that I was not far.

Elizabeth is grown now. She wears large silver hoops in her ears. She is tall and willowy, and exotically beautiful. Her eyes are still huge but instead of teasing her about them, boys get lost in them. She has traveled to places I only read about in books and she is not afraid. She is brilliant and beautiful and has a heart that spreads golden warmth to everyone she touches.

But every now and then, as all of us do, she needs to be reminded that her mother loves her. She needs a text, an email, a phone call, a letter. So excuse me. It’s time to send the horsies.

Shoes and Arrows

On Children  ~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

“Your children are not your children.”  This was a lot easier to subscribe to when I was a theoretical parent.  When I was a young woman, I believed that I would raise my children to be independent.  To have minds of their own.  To be free spirits who lunged toward life with unfailing bravery, never looking to the side, never looking back.  Then parenthood happened, and I realized that kids don’t always make good decisions. 

I should have known this by personal experience.  When I was in fifth grade, my parents brought me and my siblings to a local shoe store to buy new school shoes. With eight children who grew faster than mold on bread, I can only imagine what a financial drain and monumental task this must have been.  I always wondered why Pete, the store owner with the raspy voice seemed harried when the whole lot of us filed into the store, sat in the red leather chairs and removed our shoes.   He patiently measured each foot, laced each shoe, and placed it on our feet, making sure there was a thumb width from the top of our toe to the end of the shoe.  Then he had us walk up and down the rug to make sure they didn’t slip in the back or pinch our toes.  One by one, he and his wife Doris would wait on each child until we were all laced and buckled into shiny new shoes, begging my mother to wear them home.

My practical mother always selected shoes made to last longer than they would fit, with rugged soles and sturdy stitching, but on this particular trip a pair of shiny black oxfords caught my eye.  They were much more delicate than the shoes I usually wore, and the soles were glued on, creating a smaller, more feminine silhouette. I immediately fell in love with them and pointed them out to my mother.  To my dismay, she shook her head and explained that the shoes I had chosen were not made to last and I would need to pick a pair from the selection that Doris held up for me to admire. 

This was not a message I wanted to hear.  I loved those shoes.  I hated the others that smiling Doris nudged closer to my face.  And so the battle began.  I whined.  I sulked.  I protested that the other shoes hurt my feet.  I dug my knee socked heels in so hard that my mother did something she rarely did. She caved.   However, the concession came with a warning.  If the shoes fell apart, a replacement would not be provided.  I cared not one bit, but danced home in victory, my shiny black oxfords on my feet.  I was thrilled, but only for a few weeks.

As my mother predicted, the shoes did not last long.   Within a month, my white socks could be seen peeking out from the hole between the soles and the upper.  And true to the warning, I had to wear torn shoes for the remainder of the season, because there was no money to replace them.  The embarrassment of wearing torn shoes to school far outweighed the disappointment of having to choose a more practical option.

I didn’t realize it then, but now I know how wise my mother was to know that sometimes kids have to make their own decisions- good or bad.  She knew that the best lessons are learned by living them and that experiencing a few bumps along the way is all part of the Master’s plan.

I, on the other hand, struggle with this concept.   I have to fight the urge to protect my loved ones from the consequences of their actions.  I want them to always make the right choices- to opt for what will be good for them in the long run.  I don’t want them to make costly mistakes.  I don’t want their cheeks to burn from embarrassment.  I don’t want them to feel the sting of their errors. 

But it’s not about what I want.  It is about what they need.  They need to live their lives and make their own decisions, right or wrong.  They need the freedom to choose and they need to be allowed to make mistakes. 

Like Gibran said, we are not the arrows.  We are the bows.  So, reluctantly, sadly, I draw back the bow and let the arrows fly.   And although tears roll down my cheeks and splash on my feet, I know it is right.  Because it is not my life and they are not my children.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!

Friends of mine just gave birth to their first baby.  Like generations before them, this couple has carefully planned and prepared for this child.  The nursery was painted, tiny clothes were lovingly folded and hung, and a meaningful name was selected.  They attended childbirth classes, read all the books, consulted all the experts.  No couple has ever been better prepared. 

Their beautiful boy decided to surprise them by joining the world six weeks earlier than his anticipated arrival.  In celebration of this event, this Momma-G post is kind of an open letter:

Dear B & N,

As you well know, you have been catapulted down the road of parenthood.  Not for the weak of heart, this path is full of bumps, hills, and unexpected adventures.  It is sometimes hard to navigate, will leave you uncertain of your parental capabilities, and will bring excitement at every turn.  One thing is for sure- this life with your child will be full of surprises.

Your child will surprise you by eating more food than any toddler could possibly pack away, and less than a bird could survive on, depending upon the day of the week.

Your child will surprise you when he mimics the “F” word that you thought he didn’t hear when you stubbed your toe on his crib.

Your child will surprise you by eating a huge lunch after complaining of a belly ache and staying home from school.

Your child will surprise you by throwing up on his school desk after you send him to school with a belly ache, convinced that he was faking.

Your child will surprise you when he climbs out of his crib, creeps into your room unnoticed and decides that watching his parents in bed is a spectator sport.

Your child will surprise you when he swears his homework is done every night for a month and then brings home a warning of failure note from his teacher.

Your child will surprise you by bringing home a macaroni necklace and expecting you to wear it to church on Easter Sunday and Mother’s Day.

Your child will surprise you by his creativity when he draws on the walls with indelible marker, and scratches his initials into the top of the antique dresser in his room.

Your child will surprise you when he remembers your birthday with flowers he hand picked from the neighbor’s garden.

Your child will surprise you when you realize he is stronger, faster,  smarter and more articulate than you are.

Your child will surprise you when he returns from borrowing your car and he’s left it clean, with a full tank of gas.

Your child will surprise you when you realize he is a man who puts the needs of others before his own, takes responsibility for his own destiny and cooks dinner not only for himself, but for you, too.

Your child will surprise you when he walks down the aisle of a church, or a college graduation, or stands at attention for a promotion, and you wonder when he grew to be so tall and handsome, and where the years went.

Congratulations, B & N.

…Thank you, Gabe

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