Saturday, December 19, 2009

Part of Something Bigger

When I was a child I knew I had cousins, I just didn’t know what they looked like. That’s not entirely true, I had seen pictures that were tucked in Christmas cards every December. They were children who lived three states away, and looked like they’d be a lot of fun, but we never spent any time with them, so it was hard to tell if photo impressions were accurate. And those were just the two cousins we had from my dad’s side of the family. In my teens I found out I had two on my mom’s side who were a mystery to us because of a family rift. The whole cousin thing frustrated me.

Being a voracious reader, I knew some kids thought of their cousins like siblings. The idea that you could actually hang out with these kids who were related to you fascinated me. I had way more than my share of siblings and foster siblings, but the cousin connection seemed exotic. Kids, my own age, who were related to me, but didn’t live in my house. I never grew tired of craving that relationship.

So when my siblings and I became adults, we all agreed that our kids would know their cousins. Our own kids would mix with our siblings kids and have close connections.

It worked for the first five or six years. We all lived in the same state, the most distance between us was a two hour drive and every holiday we came together, as well as many casual weekends. There are lots of pictures of our toddler children draped over cousins while they watch Barney videos and sharing triangles of grilled cheese sandwiches, perched side by side on booster chairs.

Then my mom died and the hub of our wheel was gone. My dad remarried and moved away from our childhood home, where we’d all so easily congregated. Jobs took some of us out of state. Then jobs took more of us out of state. Suddenly we were spread across the country and the mixing didn’t come as easily. As the kids grew, their cousins became photos posted on the fridge. More of my siblings, and more of Jeff’s siblings, started having children. They all seemed so far away and so out of touch with our world. They all seemed like strangers to our children.

This is a good chunk of the reason we left a life we pretty much loved in Utah to move across the country to New York. Most of my kids’ cousins on Jeff’s side live in NH. Living this close to them gives my kids plenty of opportunity to know those cousins on a personal level, while there is still time to make childhood memories. One of my favorite moments, just months after we made the long move East, happened as we piled out of our van during a weekend visit to NH. My nephew, Jacob, who was six at the time, turned to me and asked, “So, where’s Meredith?” My eldest had stayed home to attend a school dance but I was deeply moved that this young nephew not only remembered this ‘new’ cousin’s name, but realized she was missing. It was a start.

My own siblings still live all over the country. It is not possible to just move closer to them. We do our best with emails, birthday cards, and facebook pages, but sometimes it makes me sad that my kids don’t have more memories with them. We have visited them in their homes and several of my brothers and sisters have visited us. But the desire to be one big group led us to make this crazy promise. No matter what, we’d all show up, with all our kids, in our hometown, the week of Thanksgiving in 2009. And it happened.

As our kids piled out of the van and rushed into the hotel, which was already heavily inhabited by ‘Johnson cousins’, my heart swelled. Finally, finally, my kids could make some quality memories with these other children they were so closely related to. For four days they mixed and mingled. They built Lego forts and Lincoln Log cabins. We played endless hands of Apples to Apples and even had an energetic running version of musical chairs in the hotel lounge. Every morning we met around the breakfast table and made plans for the day. For me, the actual activities didn’t matter. As long as my kids were hanging out with my nephews and nieces, and finding out who they were individually, I was happy.

So now we are home, with almost a thousand pictures to document our travels. For now at least, I don’t have to explain who I’m talking about when I refer to “Garrett”, or “Megan”, or “Alexander”. My kids have their own memories of these people and their nine other Johnson cousins. They know who is shy and who loves to swim. They know who goes with which aunt and uncle and why their mom has so many funny stories about Uncle Keith in his childhood.

When the Christmas cards start pouring in, from Dallas, and Atlanta, and Missouri, I won’t have to name off the people in the pictures. My kids will know. They will tell me stories about their cousins, not the other way around. It was a long drive. It wasn’t a cheap trip. But it was worth it. So worth it. Because I’ve provided for my kids the one thing I wanted when I was a kid. To know my cousins and feel like we were connected.

Even five states away.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Fun's Not Fake

When I was a kid, having a Christmas tree felt a lot like work. We didn’t pull one out of a box from the basement. My siblings and I piled into our bright yellow maxi van, along with whatever foster siblings we had at the time, and headed down the road to the local tree farm. We tromped through row after row of perfectly planted specimens and with much fuss and fanfare we all eventually decided on a winner.

Taking turns with the hand saw, slowly, oh so slowly, the chosen treasure was detached from its perch. Then came more work, as we took turns dragging it to the car. I don’t remember the logistics at that point. Looking back with a parent’s eyes now, I can’t imagine how we got that tree home. Surely there was no room left inside the overflowing maxi van and I know we didn’t have a luggage rack to tie it to the roof.

If it felt like that much work to me as a kid, I can’t imagine what an ordeal it was for my parents. Just finding hats and mittens for our oversized family must have been a challenge, not to mention corralling the group as we hiked across acres of land to find the perfect tree. But for all the work it was, the end result was always worth it.

Later that night, after lights had been strung and years worth of handmade ornaments had been draped over each and every branch, we turned out the living room lights and admired our work. There is something truly magical about a dark living room on a cold winter night, lit only by the warm twinkling of a million little white lights. It was enough to make you forget about the sap on your fingers and the arguments about who had to carry the saw.

It wasn’t long before it was my turn to decide how the Christmas tree ritual should be carried out. Jeff came from traditions much like my own so it was inevitable that a real tree would be part of our future. In the early days of parenthood we lived in tiny houses and didn’t have room to do anything elaborate. As the kids got bigger so did our living quarters and we began the tromp through the woods to cut down our own tree. For several years we lived in a house shaped like a barn, and a fresh tree seemed to be a requirement. It just fit the environment so well we couldn’t imagine having anything else.

The month before we moved to Washington D.C. we accidentally acquired a beautiful artificial tree. It joined our other household possessions in the large moving truck and because we lived in a rental in D.C., we pulled it out and used it our first year there. The results surprised us.

As loyal as we were to ‘the real thing’ we suddenly understood the draw of a not so natural tree. It was automatically the right size. There was no sap on our fingers or our carpet. The branches were bendy (who knew?) and could be modified to hold even the heaviest ornament. After the holidays were over, there were no pine needles lingering in my carpet, poking barefoot children as they wrestled with daddy on the living room floor. My vacuum survived unscathed. And the best part, the part I had never taken into account, we never - not once - worried about the thing catching fire.

I had severely underestimated how much we worried about holiday fires each year. No matter how hard I tried I could never keep that little dish under our real tree full of water. Day after day I kneeled on the floor and endured scratches to the face and arms as I tried to pour liquid into that tiny receptacle, only to discover by the next day it was dry again. So of course the tree dried out. It got brittle. It dropped needles. And it kept us awake at night, worrying that we had forgotten to turn off the lights and surely this would be the night it all went up in flames.

With our new fabulous fake tree we no longer worried about fires. We traded the romance and aroma of a magical real tree for a few weeks of uninterrupted sleep. It was hard to admit, but we were suddenly sold on the whole idea of artificial trees.

In the next few years we moved several times and our plastic tree held up nicely. It fit in every living room we had and its consistency and familiarity was comforting as we struggled to find where the decorations looked best in each new environment. We started new traditions that centered around not having a real tree. While we lived in Utah, Michael and Isaac became a team and figured out their own way of stringing up lights. Isaac laid under the tree, spinning it slowly in its stand, while Michael slowly wove the cords through the branches. Even Sam had a part, making sure the strands were unraveled as they came off the cardboard. I laughed at them the first year they did it, but it is such an efficient system, we do it every year now.

I do miss the real tree some years. A few days ago Sam asked me if we’d ever had a real one. It made me sad that he has no memory of those days. Maybe some year, maybe even next year, we will do a real tree, just for the fun of it. But for now, while we have our traditions that work, we will sit back and enjoy the one we have decorated in the corner of our living room. It might not smell real or feel real, and it sure as heck doesn’t look that real. But the fun we had decorating it was real.

And that’s enough for me.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Shocking Suits

My brother works for a mortgage company. He used to wear suits to work until the dress code went casual. So he had lots of extra suits that ended up in the back of our van when we met up with him in MO recently. They were intended for Jeff, to help fill out his professional wardrobe.

Jeff tried them on tonight. Some fit. Some were a smidge too small. Then Michael walked through the room. Our almost 17 year old seems to have grown a foot in the past month. This kid who used to be asked "are you twins?" when he stood by his brother, who is four years his junior. The growth hormones kicked in about a year ago and he seems to be making up for lost time.

Michael tried on the smaller suits, and whaddya know? One of them fit him. These men's suits that my brother used to wear. Of course we had to tease him about setting up his job interview at the bank tomorrow, but that was all to distract me from the fact my son, my baby faced boy, is now able to wear mens suits.

Lucky for me....the suits don't even come close to fitting my littlest guy. Stay away, crazy growth hormones. Let me have one little guy for just a bit longer.

Santa Surprise

We were sitting at the table, doing homework, and Isaac (13)said something that strongly implied he did not believe that Santa was real. Sam stopped his homework and looked up with wide eyes. I held my breath, knowing my little one still believes.

Sam looked at his brother, then looked at me and said, "Mom, please gasp with me..."

So we put our heads together, clutched our chests and gasped together, at the thought that Santa did not, in fact, exist.

Don't worry, big, round, generous guy. We still believe.

Life Motivation

Sometimes it's hard to be the littlest person in the family. Especially if you're a boy and two of the three siblings older than you are brothers. The 'protecting you' mode ended when you learned to stand upright and throw your own punch.

Lucky for Sam, who sits in this place in our family, he has an older sister. A sister who rocked him as a baby, held his hands as he learned to walk, and curled up on the couch with him when it was time to read bedtime stories.

At times he rebels against all of her fussing and nurturing, especially when big brothers are around and he feels a need to demonstrate his independence and toughness. But there were many times on our cross country trip, that he fell back, so easily, into big sister's charms.

For much of the trip she folded up her long legs and sat in the back seat with him, coloring pictures together, sharing headphones on her ipod. And talking. The things they discussed I will never know, but I am confident they will both carry the memory of those chats for years to come.

At one point in the trip Meredith shared with me just a snippet of their latest dialog. Sam was frustrated about something...brothers, or cousins, or just his place in the family. She gave him the pep talk that comes so easily when her youngest brother is hurting.

He thought about her words and then was quiet for a minute or two. Then, looking out the window, as the landscapes rolled by, he said, "Yeah, I guess you're right. Ya know what? You ought to be a motivator when you grow up!"

So my senior daughter, on the cusp of making life plans once she graduates, now has a new suggestion to add to her list of potential careers.

First class, grade A, little brother motivator.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Making Food Memories

In case anyone is keeping track, we made it back. It turned out to be a 3500 mile trip, through thirteen states, but when we landed back in our driveway on Monday night everyone was still fever free, scar free and for the most part still talking to each other. Within the hour we had the rental van cleared out and returned to its rightful owners and we were back to real life. I’m counting on the memories to linger for many weeks , months, and hopefully years to come.

Of course we had a great time at the family reunion part in Missouri. It was the perfect kind of reunion for me…just my four siblings, their spouses and kids, and my dad/stepmom. No elderly relatives who you’ve never met and will never see again. No crazy long lost uncles who got out of prison just in time for the festivities. Not even a lot of planning. We all just drove from our far away states and met up in our hometown. My dad had reserved a block of rooms in a great hotel that had wonderful lounges and meeting areas. No muss, no fuss. Just check in and sit back in a lounge chair.

Our kids spent three days mixing and mingling with cousins they see one at a time in person and mostly know through refrigerator pictures. They played board games, built with Legos and Lincoln Logs, and swam until their fingers puckered. Through it all they made their own, individual memories of these people we call family. The smiling faces on our fridge now have personalities attached to them.

The reunion was a blast, and didn’t last nearly long enough. But there was no denying the reality of the six days we spent in the car so we could be a part of the party. Three long days out, three longer days back, as we swung through North Carolina to check out colleges. You would think we would have been ready to kill each other by the time we pulled into our driveway. But a few simple things kept negative feelings at bay and bonded us together in a surprising way. One of those things, in a word, was food.

Because our kids have lived in several different states, from the west to the east, they have formed deep loyalties to certain restaurants and fast food places. It became a fun game to hunt them out along the way and take in as many as we could before the road led back to New York. There were several spots that we are haunted by since we see their commercials on TV but can find no local branches. Sonic and CiCis pizza were on the top of that list. There is a CiCis in my hometown and one afternoon we had lunch there, trying a slice of every kind of pizza at least once. Then we caught up with Sonic somewhere in the Smoky Mountains on the way home. Our waiter was even wearing roller skates. It was too perfect.

Some places were special to my kids because they were places we visited often when we used to live in Missouri. Central Dairy and Mugs Up were on that list. As one of the major milk producers for mid Missouri, the Central Dairy company is mostly about supplying the region with milk and milk products. But years ago they also opened an old fashioned store front and began serving huge scoops of the freshest ice cream you can imagine, for prices you wouldn’t believe. There was no doubt we had to visit that special place with the red and white striped awning. And in the next town over you can find an old fashioned root beer stand. The kind where you pull up under the metal overhang and when the waitress brings out your root beer in a frosty mug, she clips the tray to your rolled down car window. Unfortunately our visit to Mugs Up was nixed. My brother informed me that it’s a seasonal place. I guess some people had trouble enjoying a cold mug of root beer with their car window rolled down, in the middle of winter. Maybe next time…

Two more important spots we hit were Fazolis (fast food Italian with melt in your mouth breadsticks that are delivered to your table for as long as you can continue to eat them) and White Castle. We found Fazolis in Indianapolis, then appropriately ate at the White Castle that sits in the shadow of the St. Louis Arch. We ordered the case of mini burgers and quickly discovered they were not as ‘mini’ as we’d remembered and our stomachs were not as strong as we had assumed. Even with extra burgers that were thrown away, we had some laughs, took some fun pictures and made a white castle of our own with empty boxes and cups before we hit the road again.

There is no need to point out the stops at every Krispy Kreme we saw, whether the ‘hot donuts now’ light was on or not. Some things are just assumed. Don’t worry, we did plenty of running around, swimming, caving, and exploring.

It wasn’t all about food.

But a family’s gotta eat. And what better way than seeking out places that hold old memories and help create new ones?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Graduation Plans

This is a hard column to write. I find myself holding back, re-thinking whether I want to admit on paper, for the whole world to see, what I really feel about the huge process of sending kids off to college. I fear I will be seen as a bad parent, an irresponsible parent. But the thought that keeps returning to my head is that I may not be the only one who feels this way and maybe, just maybe, some other parent out there will read these words and nod their heads in agreement.

Here’s my big confession: My kids know they are not required to go to college. There, I’ve said it. Sure, I understand that college is a great option. My husband and I both have college degrees. I found him in college, as a matter of fact, and I consider him to be even more valuable to me than the official degree that lives in my file cabinet. And of course it is great to encourage your children to be the best they can be, to aim high when they think about the future.

But my kids know that there are other options beyond college. The trade school catalogs are filled with interesting classes that can lead to some satisfying and lucrative careers. I would not complain at all if one of my children became a plumber or an electrician. There is a good chance they would make as much money, if not more, than their friends who had college degrees.

I am fully aware that the years right after high school are the best years to get an education, before marriage and kids tie you down and limit your options. It is also the perfect time to discover who you are. I often preach to my children that I found myself in college. Sure I earned a degree, but even better, I found out who I was, outside my family structures. I went away to a new city and became the person I had wanted to be for a long time. It was the most valuable part of my college career.

But I think you can achieve the same result by several paths. Just moving away from home ,and being in charge of yourself for a while, can prompt a world of self discovery. And sure, making plans for what career you’d like to embrace should be done during these critical years, but who says college is the only way to get there?

There is so much pressure once a teen hits the last years of high school. Pressure on them and pressure on their parents. It is assumed that every child who lives in middle class America will apply to twelve different colleges and ultimately dream of going to Harvard. But that’s not reality. There are some kids who go that path. They have top grades, get great SAT scores and have their top college choices ranked on a computer spread sheet at home. But there are also a whole lot of kids who are just average. Great grades in a few classes, good grades in others, struggling grades every now and then. They will have average SAT scores and be happy with an acceptance letter to the local community college.

The question I have is why should they be seen as any less ‘successful’ than the kid who goes to Harvard?

Helping our children be successful in life involves helping them find the path that fits them best. Don’t we want the end result to be a young adult in their mid twenties who is a good person, content in their career? Sure, having a job that makes good money is a lofty goal. But who says it can only be found in a path that leads through an ivy league school? If my child loves animals, why is it assumed he should be a veterinarian? Maybe he could be just as happy rescuing abused animals, working for the SPCA. If your child loves the field of medicine, why is she instantly pegged to be a doctor? Sure, it’s a noble profession, but so is phlebotomy and nursing assistant.

One of the things I want my kids to learn from me is to find peace with yourself. Find the career that suits you best, brings you fulfillment, and then set up a life, a content life, on that income. Being happy with a modest home and modest income is nothing to be ashamed of. My children will leave our home with many happy memories, of a peaceful house where they laughed a lot and were loved a lot. Yet we never had a lot of money. No big screen TV hangs on our wall. They watch our regular old TV on a couch my parents bought before I was born. They could have had so much more, in material things, if we had lived up to our full earning potential (meaning me teaching full time while they were young) but I don’t think they will look back and remember our family as being poor.

I guess what it all boils down to is being confident in my kid being ordinary. Feeling pride in the fact he is a good, kind hearted person, whether he chooses to go to med school or plumbing school. Being happy that he is happy, doing what he loves to do and making a difference on his tiny little piece of the planet. It’s up to me to show him the options, be there to discuss their pros and cons, but in the end step back and let him decide.

It’s his future. Maybe more of it should be in his hands.

The First and the Last

It started innocently enough. I rumpled Sam’s hair as he walked by me at dinner and I realized it was time for a trim. Sam has thick hair that wants to be curly. I am always afraid that if I let it grow out too long he will soon be sporting a full afro. I keep it trimmed close to his head and assume that some day in the future, around the time he is celebrating a birthday with the word ‘teen’ in it, I won’t have a choice anymore and he will insist on growing it out. Don’t be surprised if we don’t take a Christmas card picture that year.

So I got out the trimmers and scissors, as I have for so many years, and I bribed my little guy onto the hair cutting stool (also known as the drummer’s stool when they are playing Rock Band). He offered up his usual protest and I offered back my usual answer, which goes along the lines of, ‘Yes, we are cutting your hair. No, you don’t have a choice.”

By the time I made it halfway around his head, my oldest son decided he could use a trim too. After all, his hair had grown out to a full half inch in length. The drag of all that extra hair was slowing down his running times. I finished up with the fidgety little one then started in on the taller one. We discussed just how short ‘shorter’ was and in the end I still cut it shorter than he had wanted. Who knew there could be such a drastic difference between three eighths of an inch and a half an inch?

My newest teen, Isaac, is going for the shaggy look so I was banned from touching his locks, but before I packed up the clippers I took a little off the top of hubby’s hair too. A pretty successful night of hair trimming that started as a need to just clean up one kid’s threatening afro.

As I tucked the hair kit back onto the bathroom shelf I started to wonder just how many times I had performed this ritual. My boys have never been to a barber. I first cut Jeff’s hair when we were in college and he was two thousand miles away from the only person who had ever cut his hair (his mom). He made a great guinea pig as I tackled a new skill. I’ve been cutting his hair ever since.

Which leads to a whole heck of a lot of scissor snips. Between the three boys and Jeff, I have seen my fair share of time behind the Rock Band stool. It has been a common ritual for my boys since their wispy baby hair grew long enough to get in their eyes. It is not something I enjoyed, but not something I hated. It is just another way I’ve taken care of them, not unlike cooking their dinners and washing their smelly socks.

And for some reason it now makes me think of the future day when I will not be their barber. In a very short time my oldest son will not live under my roof anymore. When his hair reaches that unruly length of an inch or more he might have to seek out someone else’s scissors. And my job as his full time hair dresser will come to an end. Quickly, yet naturally, I will be relieved of my services.

It makes me wonder how many of these rituals have fallen by the wayside, unnoticed. As parents we are all about firsts. The first time they smile. The first time they sit up. The first time they walk. Even their first hair cut. We mark it in the baby book and live in awe of their blossoming maturity. But we rarely notice the lasts.

I couldn’t tell you the last time Michael sat in my lap as we watched TV. I never wrote that in the baby book. I have no idea the last time I helped Isaac with his bath or carefully dried him off afterward. Suddenly he was just an independently showering child. For years I brushed and braided and pig tailed Meredith’s hair. But when was the last time I did? When did she totally take that job back from me? Her baby book holds no clues.

They grew up way too fast, just as the grandmas in the grocery stores told me they would when we walked the aisles picking out canned beans and tuna so many years ago. In those days their lives were all about what was ahead. New ways they would change and grow. And now suddenly I sense we have racked up as many lasts as we have firsts.

It somehow makes me sad and happy, all at the same time.

The Right Kind of List

It seems ironic to me that right smack in the most stressful time of year we have this holiday designed to make us stop and be thankful. Maybe ironic is not the word I’m looking for. Maybe it’s strategic.

Somehow it’s rolled around again. Just as we start to feel the hints of another bitter, icy winter coming any day now. Just as we re-stock our medicine cabinets and gear up for the cold and flu season. Right about the time the stores start playing Christmas music and making their employees wear Santa hats. While mental lists are being made and scrap paper lists are being misplaced, our brains full, then blank, with who wanted what for Christmas, this other holiday sneaks in the back door.

So before I get lost in department store lines and stressed by yet another report on the news about how today is the last, and we mean last, day you can mail that holiday package and still have it arrive on time, I am going to spend a few minutes in a more productive way. I am going to move past the token one line of ‘what I’m thankful for’ that’s uttered around the table before the roasted bird is cut and pumpkin pie is topped with whipped cream and I’m going to dig a little deeper.

I’m thankful for things. The washing machine that chugs away, day after day, accepting my awful, smelly, stained donations and turning them into things we can actually use again. I’m thankful for my trustworthy dishwasher, that does basically the same thing, but in the kitchen instead of the laundry room. I’m even thankful for my pesky cell phone. Although I can’t seem to remember to turn it on, put it in my pocket, or check its messages on a regular basis, it still allows me to keep in touch with my children, who are flung to all corners of our town on any given day.

I’m thankful for moments. Every time I paused to hug my mom and share a smile with her, even in my crazy busy college years, not knowing they would be limited opportunities. The moment I took my left hand out of my pocket and presented it to my best college friends, hoping they would notice the sparkling gem that rested on that significant finger (they did, we squealed, and I will never forget that feeling) Each and every time I held that plastic stick with the blue ‘yes’ line in my hands, the one that can make you want to shout, cry and maybe throw up all at the same time. The short but productive drive home after I’ve picked up my sons from track practice and the memories of their days are still fresh in their minds, ready to spill out to an open eared mom. (I get my best information on these priceless ten minute drives).

Although there are many bad ones I could dwell on, I am thankful for good choices we’ve made along the way. Buying the stripped down cherry red minivan we could barely afford when our third baby arrived. That vehicle escorted us to many great states and great adventures. It was worth every scraped together penny. I’m glad we also found the money for me to fly across the country with our first born child when she was barely three weeks old, to surprise her grandmother, who had raised five hearty boys. And ten years later, when we finally decided that we needed just one more member to be complete, I am thrilled that we had that ‘one more baby’.

Although it was just about the death of us, I am now thrilled that we bought this big old house, that needed so much help when we signed that stack of mortgage papers three years ago. Through much tearing down and building up, our house and our family have come out on the other side better and stronger for the process. If I ever get distracted by the endless list of small things that still need to be finished up, trimmed off, or repainted I sit back and think of where we started and I am thankful. Thankful for the big stuff that’s already been done and hopeful that the little stuff will find its own time.

And of course I could not call this a Thankful List unless I included the people. My husband and life partner who knows me better than anyone else on the planet (including me) yet loves me anyway. It seems appropriate to me that our 20th wedding anniversary will fall on the day before Thanksgiving this year. That leads to these suddenly tall children who live in my house. I dreamed of them and wished for them from the time I was a child, and they came to be, right on time. It’s not always been easy but it’s always been a gift to be their mother. My parents, siblings, and in-laws, brothers and sisters in law included, nieces and nephews. My life is filled with people to be thankful for. Throw in neighbors, bus drivers, hair dressers, co-workers, and this list could go on forever.

So I feel better now. Dwelling on the good stuff keeps that other stuff in perspective. Thanks for listening to my list. Now it’s time to sit down and make your own. Happy Holidays and happy list making.

The good kind of list.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Song For Mom

I’ve written about my mom’s song before. But it is something I never expected to last through the years. Just a few months after her death I was driving down the highway, well after dark, and a song came on. It was a popular song at the time, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, from the soundtrack of the movie The Bodyguard. I had heard it many times before. But this time it meant so much more to me.

The reason I was in the car, driving late at night had everything to do with my mom’s death and how it turned my world upside down. With his wife of thirty years suddenly gone, my dad had to figure out a new life. Jeff and I lived just thirty miles away so I spent many nights and evenings in my parents’ house, helping dad sort it all out. Sometimes I took our two babies with me and some nights Jeff kept them at home so I could have some time alone to sort things out.

On this specific night I had stayed pretty late. It was hard to tear myself away from that house, the place where most of my childhood memories lived and the place where I found refuge from the ups and downs of finding my way in the bigger world after high school. It was hard to go through that big front door and not have a loving voice call out, “My Ju - deeee!” from some distant room. But it was twice as hard to exit out that front door, never having received that warm enveloping hug and bright gracious smile.

On the drive home I couldn’t help but think about her. How I never got to say goodbye. How I never knew if she realized we were there, after she collapsed on the country dancing floor from a stroke and was rushed to the local hospital. We held her hand and said encouraging words as our tears dripped onto her hospital bed sheets, but we never knew if she was aware of our presence or heard our desperate pleas.

At first I didn’t think much about Whitney’s song. Then the second verse came on. My ears caught her every word. “I hope life treats you kind. And I hope you have all you've dreamed of. And I wish to you, joy and happiness. But above all this, I wish you love…..I will always love you.”

The lyrics pierced my heart. It was exactly what my mom would have said, had she been given the chance. Her last goodbyes would have been most of those words, if not all of them. I cried the rest of the way home. Sobbing, choking, ugly sobs that make you thankful you are alone in a dark car. I knew this song was a message from my mom. Her way of telling me she would never really be gone.

The song was popular for a while then it faded from the radio waves. I rarely heard it. But when I did, it was at the perfect moment. Years later, looking through pictures of my growing children with my mother-in-law and wishing I could share them with my own mom, and suddenly that song would come on the radio. My only daughter’s thirteenth birthday, driving home from a movie she and I shared without all the boys in our family, thinking of how my mom would have adored this child who shared her name, and that song came on the radio. In the seven minute drive home from the movie theater, that song came on. I couldn’t help but believe it was my mom, reassuring me that she was there, seeing how great my life was turning out.

This week I am packing for a rare trip back to my home state. My four siblings and I have only all been together once, with all our spouses and kids, since my mom died fifteen years ago. We decided it was now or never, so we are driving 1300 miles in two days to get there. This weekend was the first time I let the thoughts of possible sadness creep into my trip planning. So far it has all been about gathering appropriate clothes and books and electronics to keep everyone busy on the long ride. But over the weekend I started to realize I may have some tears when we get to Missouri. We will visit the cemetery where the reality of her absence always hits me hard. We will be in so many places around town that are ripe with memories of her and the things she loved. By last night I was just a bit melancholy.

In a quiet moment after dinner, when all the kids had scattered to other parts of the house, I walked into the kitchen to see if there were any chocolate chip cookies left. The radio in the corner of the kitchen was on, but very faint. I could barely hear it, but it was loud enough to know what song was playing.

Her song. That song that lets me know she still loves me, always will love me. I let myself stand in the kitchen alone, leaning against the counter, soaking in that song and all its words mean to me. I thought about how much life had changed since she left the planet. How differently it had turned out than if she had stayed. How I have four really great kids, who she would have loved and adored, and how much they missed out by not knowing her. I let the tears flow and made no apologies.

Then it was over and I was ready to move on. On to packing DVDs and board games and favorite pillows. I know it will be sad, at moments, when we get to Missouri, this place that is saturated with memories of my mom. But I also know she would have loved the whole idea of this trip. She would love that we are all making such an effort, to come from far away states, to gather together and enjoy each other’s company. It was exactly what she would have wanted. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I hear that song, her song, at some point along the way.

On a radio station in Illinois, or Ohio, or Indiana, it will come on and I will know. I will know that she will always love me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Van Full of Teens

In just one week my family of six will be pulling out of the driveway in a rented minivan and heading west. For two and a half full days we will drive across the country, hoping to land at my family reunion in Missouri. We have taken cross country trips before. Most of them didn’t end at vacation spots. Most of them ended with finding a new life in a new state. When we moved from Washington D.C. to Utah we took the roundabout way to get there, circling down through the gulf coast states. So we are not unfamiliar with long car trips.

There is one small fact, however, that is worth pointing out. On exactly none of those trips were there any children whose ages had the word ‘teen’ in it. I feel that we might be treading on new ground here. We have not had a big family trip in several years and this time around three out of the four non-adults in the car will be teenagers. I may be delusional or way too optimistic, but no, so far I am not scared.

Don’t laugh, but just the other day I realized I am actually excited about our upcoming trip. I started a small pile in the corner of the dining room, of supplies we might be needing next week, and I got that old familiar countdown feeling. A big change is on the horizon. Everyday life as we know it will be turned upside down for just about ten days. And I think I am not scared, even with the detail of a car full of teens, because down deep I think this is something our family is good at.

With all of the moves from one state to another, and all the trips to out of the way places, we have logged a lot of travel hours together. We’ve never been to Disney or taken a cruise. But we’ve spent days in the middle of the Navaho Nation as Jeff attended work related meetings there. The next day we stood on the Four Corners marker and crawled through cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. We always found adventure along the way and it taught us a lot about who we are as a family.

There is something magical about packing a vehicle full of only the essentials, slamming the doors shut, and driving away to a new place. A place where friends and peer pressure lose their power. A place where new sights, sounds, smells and flavors are around every corner. A place where most of the daily life rules no longer apply. No chores to fulfill, no beds to make, no rooms to clean. Just free living, dependent on only what fits in that duffle bag with your name printed on the side.

On every cross country trip we’ve taken it’s been a joy to leave behind the distractions that pull us apart. Suddenly our familiar world is confined to a metal shell on four wheels. It’s us against the world. In each of our moves we consistently settled into a unique pattern, where the kids could be friends with each other and it was okay. Despite age differences they learned to find a way to enjoy their siblings. There wasn’t much choice, it was a matter of self preservation. Either make friends with your little brother or die of boredom. It seemed to be a no brainer.

And I suspect our children will fall back into that mode a week from now. Even though they are growing up, and their interests are growing apart, I have a good feeling they will find that old place, where we are all in it for fun and the sibling rivalry and teasing can be laid aside for a while. I am packing several fresh decks of cards and plan to teach them the classics while they are my captive audience. Beyond Go Fish, we will play Spades, Spoons and any other game I can find in the card game library book I checked out today.

Since my oldest two learned the most about reading a map and navigation by being in the front passenger seat as we moved from Utah to New York, maybe it’s time now for the younger two to get their turn. There is nothing more thrilling for a child than having dad hand you the map and saying, “You are in charge of telling me which road to take and which exit to look for.”

This time around we own a few ipods. I have purchased headphone splitters and am looking forward to my children sharing their music. In our regular chaotic life everyone has their own style of music and their own specialized playlists. As the hours drag on and card games are not enough to relieve the boredom any longer, I plan to hand out the brand new splitters and have a music exchange. They might actually discover their playlists have overlapping songs.

So now I’m off to make more lists, create more piles of supplies and harbor more happy thoughts. I suppose a part of me is hoping if I dream it, it will come true. Maybe you should ask me, two weeks from now, how it all went, if the kids rose to my expectations and enjoyed each other, for the most part, on our long haul across the country. I hope I can answer with a rousing, “YES!”

But just in case it doesn’t all go as planned, if I’m sporting a scowl or any physical scars, you’re welcome to keep your questions to yourself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Full Time Life

We had a big transformation in our household last week. I’m not sure the kids noticed it, but I felt it intensely. After over a year of being a full time employee I let go of the job I truly loved to be dropped down to the part time roster. I was fortunate that it was my choice. I am aware that unemployment rates are rising and a full time job in a great environment is a gold mine. Several friends immediately asked, ‘your choice?’ when I shared the news of my drop in hours. I understand their confusion. The decision was not made in haste.

I gave up the gold mine for something much more valuable.

Since the day I gave birth to my oldest child I have been at home. Several times through the years I held part time jobs, working a few hours at nights and on weekends, to help make ends meet. It gave me some great social time outside the house and gave my husband a chance to be a full charge dad when I was gone. But I have never worked full time, never been away from our house when kids were still in it.

I know many moms who work full time. I have a much deeper appreciation for what they are pulling off, now that I have spent a year juggling those balls. I can’t even comprehend how the single moms do it. It’s a feat that should have some reward, some recognition, some trophy that is presented after a big banquet.

The catalyst for my decision was a health struggle. For a few weeks in October I had issues with my leg. We were at the end of a long process to recast my leg, to make one that fit me better, and along the way I had several days where the only remedy was sitting on the couch, with my leg off. I worried about using up sick days, knowing the flu season was just around the corner. I worried about not pulling my weight at work, making co-workers cover for me time after time.

During a conference with my bosses, where we discussed how I could make up lost work time once my leg was better, it was suggested I think about taking a part time position that had just come open. I resisted. I loved my job. The people I worked with, the interaction with great patrons, and the helpful paycheck that landed in my account each month. But then more time on the couch opened my eyes.

For those few days that I was stranded on the couch I saw all four of my kids. A lot. As they passed back and forth, going about their busy daily lives, they stopped and chatted with me. We laughed together. Sam and I read more picture books together than we’d read all month. Isaac helped me as I hobbled around the kitchen on crutches and we turned out some pretty decent dinners. Dinners that found six people gathered around a table, sharing the events of their days and lingering long after plates were cleaned.

On one of my days of confinement I reviewed our family finances. The desperate financial situation that drove me to work full time had eased some. Some juggling of the bills and some changes in hubby’s income made it just about possible to live on just his paycheck. It dawned on me that we technically could live on a paycheck and a half. The idea began to grow.

It is now five weeks later and the process is complete. Someone else now holds my old job and I am finally home more than I am at work. I walked around last week, my first week back home, with a gratitude so deep it made me emotional. All of the things that were so ordinary in my old stay at home days have become downright magical.

I hum as I switch the laundry in the middle of the day, because I am so deeply aware that I am not switching laundry late at night or on a sacred weekend. I dig through cookbooks and find new things to make for dinner, aware that my children are no longer living on canned ravioli. Spending an hour in the kitchen, cleaning up, chopping vegetables, popping a batch of brownies in the oven, and creating yet another dinner is now a joy, not a chore.

Each day, each moment of each day, is now sacred. No matter what I’m doing I make a conscious effort to stop, turn, and face my children, as they trickle home from school and are ripe to tell me about their days. Each hug from my little guy, each high five from my biggest boy, fills me with joy and gratitude.

Because I am here to see it, here to do it, here to experience it. No longer feeling pulled in too many directions. No longer losing sleep at night, tight with worry about limited sick days and how to dole them out. The imminent future, the one where my oldest two children are off on their own, out making their own lives, is so close. My desire is to be here, memorizing every ordinary, common, challenging moment that presents itself while I still have them close.

I picked up my new leg last week. A pretty fitting event to occur, a new leg on the first week of my new life. I gave up the bigger paycheck. I gave up the gold mine. But I bought back time. A new leg, a new chance to know my kids better, an opportunity to be the mom and wife I want to be.

I feel rich indeed.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Digging for Money

As we were finishing up running errands it had grown dark. We were headed to a grocery store where you need a quarter to 'buy' a cart and I wasn't sure I had any change.

I handed my purse back to Sam and asked him to rummage through it, in the dark, and see if he could find a quarter for me.

After a few minutes of quiet, suddenly from the back seat I heard an announcement.

"Houston, we HAVE a quarter!"

It's always fun to run errands with Sam.

Amazing Sunsets

Sam and I were riding home from my leg appointment the other day and the sun was setting on the horizon. We drove up a large hill and at its peak we had a fabulous view of the sun setting over the mountain.

"Sam, look at that amazing sunset!" I said, "What a beautiful time of day!"

There was no comment for about thirty seconds, then the voice from the back seat piped up and said, "I see it, mom."

Another minute passed before he added, "Just so ya know, mom, I didn't answer you right away because I was taking a drink of my chocolate milk....I didn't want you to think I was speechless. 'Cause I wasn't speechless. I was just drinkin' my milk."

I am now living with a nine year old who is too cool to think any sunset could make him speechless.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Video Game Judgement

It’s easy to be judgmental when you’ve cranked out a couple of kids and feel like you really have the parenting thing figured out. It’s easy to be smug, confident enough to believe your sweet little toddlers will never be like the unpredictable tweens and teens you see who belong to your older friends. I know. I used to be that mom. When my oldest was starting school I was confident about the things we would allow and the things we’d never see happen in our home.

Then my kids grew older.

One such theme was video games. We did the Barney computer games, but by golly I was pretty sure my kids would never, and I mean never, play those video games that hooked up to the TV. I was okay with my boys playing with guns. Someone once told me that even if you ban toy guns from your house a child of the male variety will still chew his toast into the shape of a weapon and shoot his brother at the breakfast table. That insight turned out to be very true. And although my boys owned toy guns, because we didn’t make a huge deal of it, they really didn’t play with them that much. But I was pretty sure I would draw the line when it came to video games.

As life unfolded, and my boys’ toy guns fell to the bottom of the toy chest, something unexpected happened. My brother, who lived in the next town over, upgraded his video gaming system and offered his old one to us. My husband happily accepted the gift and hauled it home with a big smile

That night, after children were in bed, we discussed the implications of this new item that sat ominously on the kitchen table. I expressed my concerns, he expressed his. Because I’ve never been a boy at any point in my life, when it comes to decisions for our sons, I find I often need to listen closely to the expert in our house, the person who was a boy and has been male for more than a couple of decades. And this male that I married (and tend to trust) said he was not concerned about this new step. He assured me he would supervise the games thoroughly and we would never become the family that let the boys play for hours on a video game when there was a perfectly good day outside that could be explored. So we hooked it up and suddenly we were the people I used to judge. Lesson learned.

And I have to say, now that we are a decade past that momentous decision, I think my kids have done okay. Even with the video game influence. They started with race car games and sports games. One of my sons devoured the flight simulator game and mastered it with great pride. We have upgraded systems a few times and we’ve tried out a variety of games. Sometimes they play against each other but most of the time they play on teams, which means they are united in shooting the aliens, not each other. Brotherly love and bonding and all that.

As they have gotten older, their skills have improved and now they enjoy taking on dad. It’s just one of the many ways they hang out with their male parent. Sometimes they race down ski slopes, sometimes they toss the football to each other, sometimes they hike in the woods together. And sometimes they pull out a video game and face new challenges together. It hasn’t turned them into aggressive or violent kids. It’s just added another skill to the many others we’ve fostered.

And I have to say I’m really enjoying the way we are currently using our video gaming system. Some call it Guitar Hero, some call it Rock Band, but either way it involves each boy drumming, singing, or playing guitar. And it’s not just the hand eye coordination I enjoy about the game. It’s the songs.

Because suddenly all four of my children are walking around the house singing songs that are very familiar to me. “ I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden, in the shade”. “Lucy in the sky with diamonds”. These are tunes I’ve sung along to for years on the oldies stations and suddenly they are back in style. And my kids know the actual words, not just the ones we made up when we sang along with the cassette player so many years ago.

So it seems like my judgments and ideals from a dozen years ago maybe needed some tweaking. I know many families who choose not to allow video games in their homes. It’s a choice we all get to make for ourselves. But in our house it became much like the toy gun issue. When offered in moderation it was just another step on the ladder rung of childhood.

Speaking of guns, suddenly I find we are back to that phase. With the arrival of sophisticated Nerf guns, my bigger boys are now once again interested in playing hunt and seek. Neon orange foam darts litter my house and end up in my dustpan on a regular basis. It surprises me that even the girls enjoy a good game of chase when you get to shoot your opponent with soft darts. Who knew?

Certainly not me, the mom who still doesn’t have it all figured out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Impressive Vocabulary

I was at work a few days ago and was temporarily very impressed by a young patron who walked up to check out books and movies with her family. She and her father were chatting as they walked up together and laid their picks down on the counter. The little girl pointed to her father's movie choice and said,'is that a movie for grown ups?'

He answered yes.

Then she asked, 'is it a movie for kids?'

He said yes, it could be a movie kids could watch.

Just then the mom walked up and this little girl, who was no more than six, turned to her mom and said, "Dad's checking out a general movie."

I was pretty impressed. A child who was, at the most, in first grade, knew how to use a word like general in such an appropriate way. I didn't say anything, just kept scanning their items and stacking them up.

Then I got to the movie they had been discussing.

The name of the movie was "The General".

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Birthday Effort

The day turned out to be clear and cool. Scattered showers that had been forecast knew better than to rain on our parade. The bright balloon announcing “Happy Birthday” fluttered in the breeze, as it’s string clung to our mailbox post. The treasure hunt clues were all printed out and stacked on the table. The Star Wars plates and matching cups lined up like soldiers on the plastic tablecloth. One little boy, who was turning into a bigger boy, had been up since dawn, whispering in his weary parents’ ears, “So, today’s the day! You wanna talk about my birthday party?!”

When you have four children, with a decade worth of spacing between them, it can be hard to get geared up for yet another birthday party. Heck, with six people in the house it seems like we have a birthday looming just about every other week. By the time Sam was born we’d done our fair share of the hoopla celebrations, full of balloons and party games and frosting in the carpet and fruit punch all over the kitchen floor. So we had to gear up and remind ourselves that this was a new one. A new person who had never had his own parties and whose birthday was just as important to him as it was to our firstborn when she was our only born.

In the first years of his life we got off easy. Three different years we had just moved to a new state and a little family recognition after dinner was enough to count as a party. On his fourth party we branched out and invited the family across the street to come eat cake with us. That seemed important enough, and because they had a little boy Sam’s age, it felt like he had ‘friends’ at his party. Our tradition of faking his party was quickly drawing to a close as he got old enough to remember the parties we threw when it was time for big brothers or sisters’ birthdays.

But we have found some other coping mechanisms when it comes to kids and birthday parties. One year I was groaning to my sister over the long distance phone line about how my two January kids were soon going to start planning their next parties and it was just wearing me out. She told me about a common practice in her Dallas neighborhood that really appealed to me. Their kids get two options. They can have a big cake, ice cream, and party games ordeal, for a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon. Or they can choose to have just one friend come over and enjoy a whole day/night of pampering and fun - a fancy dinner, maybe a movie out, a sleepover and big breakfast in the morning. Much less work for the parents and sometimes a lot more special for the kid.

The idea started because kids were stressing too much about how to pare down the list of potential party guests. Between school friends, sports friends, girl scout/boy scout friends, church friends, and neighbor friends, it was too hard to ‘just pick eight’. So the one friend party helped solve the problem. We stole my sister’s idea and watched our kids, especially the older ones, really enjoy their special night of pampering.

Then we came up with a third option. At the time, we lived in a city that had Amtrak tracks running right through it, headed to St. Louis in one direction, Kansas City in the other. Fares were cheap for weekend getaways to the big cities. We began to offer our kids the option of skipping the big party, skipping the one friend party, and instead going on an overnight trip, all alone with the parent of their choice.

Our kids loved the idea. An exciting ride on the train. A night exploring the big city. A hotel room bed to jump on. And NO siblings around! Just mom or dad all to themselves. Cost wise maybe it was a bit more expensive. But by using Jeff’s saved hotel points from work travel, it pretty much ended up being not that bad, financially. As we moved to other states, the options for overnight trips expanded. Isaac and Jeff had an amazing time on a jet ski, exploring a beautiful lake in southern Idaho, when we lived in Utah. The experiences from those trips are still discussed when birthday memories is our topic of conversation.

Sometimes I still feel like Sam gets short changed. The big kids just don’t get that pure adrenaline excitement that comes with an approaching birthday anymore. But Sam’s still very eligible. On his sixth birthday we had just moved to New York, just bought a house, and just torn it up to renovate it. Only the basics were unpacked. The parts of the house that were not taped off with construction sheeting were full of dust covered boxes. But it was his birthday and he was old enough to know it.

We invited a handful of kids from his new kindergarten class and hoped for the best. The moving boxes made nice seats for parents who stayed to watch and the treasure hunt was a breeze with so many nooks and crannies to hide clues and prizes. One of Sam’s best friends recently told me he remembers Sam’s first New York party. “Yeah, that’s the one where we had that great treasure hunt!” No memories of moving boxes or power tools laying around. I guess for little people, birthdays are sacred. And their celebration is completely necessary.

Even for old, worn out parents.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Jesse's Story

She came to live with my family just after her third birthday. Huge brown eyes peeking out under long dark bangs. As a result of crummy life circumstances Jesse was placed into foster care, her own mother unable to care for her mentally handicapped daughter. My siblings and I welcomed her into the fold and scooped her up like a stray puppy in need a home.

Slowly she learned basic life skills, like how to sit still at the dinner table and how to transition from diapers to big girl panties. It was fun having a little sister. She enjoyed being dressed up in fairy princess outfits much more than my little brothers ever did. Her mental abilities caused us to see her as much younger ‘little sister’ than her age suggested. A new coloring book or a baby doll that giggled when you shook it delighted Jesse until the middle of her elementary school years. It was like having a permanent four year old in the house. A four year old with captivating puppy dog eyes she could blink so strategically.

As the years went by, she stayed. When other foster siblings came and went, Jesse became a permanent fixture. Her family was never quite ready to take her back. Months passed. Years passed. And Jesse grew into something much deeper than a temporary sibling.

Then something happened that changed everything. Jesse got older. My parents got older. And soon it could not be ignored that this was turning into a very long term deal. Jesse was a handful. She was as cute as a bug but a whole lot of work. My mom spent more and more hours at school, discussing behavior issues with Jesse’s teachers. At home, Jesse pushed my mom’s patience again and again. Everyday things were a battle. Something as simple as brushing the tangles out of her beautiful thick hair was a nightly conflict. Getting her in the bathtub bordered on war. When added to the stress of raising many other foster children, and their own five offspring, it began to burn my parents out.

My first year of junior high I began to hear the discussions. A decision was being forced upon my parents. Adopt Jesse or let her go. She needed some type of longer term stable plan and if my parents were not going to adopt her, the social worker wanted to find a long term home placement. It was an agonizing decision.

I couldn’t imagine a life without Jesse as my sister. I scraped together all my spare change and offered it up to my parents, thinking the financial factor must have been part of the issue. My mother so gently tried to express to me that this decision was about so much more than money. It was more than my tender hearted twelve year old heart could bear.

Eventually Jesse went to live in a group home with other mentally handicapped children. She found new friends and new caregivers. But in her simple mind and her gentle heart, we were her family. Her only family.

My mom ached for her lost daughter. She was sure she had made the right choice, that her own stamina and patience had just worn too thin to give Jesse the life she deserved in the long run. But it did not make her heart hurt any less. Foster care rules prohibited us from knowing where our girl had been sent. A clean break, that’s what the social workers called it. But clean breaks of a bone hurt just as much as jagged ones.

Ten years later, on the first anniversary of my mom’s death, Jesse called, out of the blue. My dad answered the phone, thinking it was me or one of my siblings, calling to comfort him. Instead he heard that familiar little girl voice, saying, “Hi dad! It’s Jesse!”

Through her teen years, as she had lived in the group homes, Jesse held tight to ‘her family’s’ phone number. She chanted it to herself as she went to sleep, knowing that someday, when she got custody of herself, she would call her family, and find them once again.

And that’s exactly what she did.

She’s once again back in the fold. She mingles with the younger grandchildren at family gatherings and still enjoys a brand new coloring book. I know my mom would have been so pleased to see how well her girl turned out. Seeing that bright smile, and those same big brown eyes peeking out from under long dark bangs, my mom would have been so content.

Today would have been my mom’s 66th birthday, had she not left the planet 15 years ago. There are so many things I wish I could have said to her. So many mothering truths I have learned in my 17 years on the job.

But one of the top things on my list has always been to give my mom one last hug. One tight squeeze where I lean in and whisper in her ear, “Thank you. For showing me what a mother’s love is all about. Trudging through the yucky parts and having to make really hard choices. I will never forget how strong you were and how brave you were, when there weren’t any good answers. It makes me a better mother, having been in the presence of the best.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Finding Home

When my youngest child was born, we lived in a cute little barn shaped house on a small plot of land in rural Missouri. Three months before he turned two we drove across the country, lived in a hotel for eight weeks, then settled into a little blue house on a wooded street in Washington D.C. The house was so small that we never even set up his crib. His three older siblings had dibs on the two tiny bedrooms so Sam slept between us, in our queen sized bed, surrounded by stacks of unpacked boxes.

One year later we packed up the van and camped across the county for three weeks, as we moved our household to Utah. After another eight weeks in an extended stay hotel we settled into our new house, nestled in a lovely valley between two mountain ranges. This time Sam got a bedroom. Or at least he got to share a bedroom with big brother and finally have a place to lay out all of his own treasures.

Just before he started kindergarten we moved one more time. Again, all the way across the country, back to the East Coast. The Residence Inn became our home, this time for over 12 weeks, until we finally found and bought the house we live in today.

You’d think all that moving around would be upsetting to a little guy. So many different beds and bedrooms. Never having time to bond with his crib before it was yanked out from under him. Never really being sure where he would lay his head next.

But the surprising thing is, Sam turned out to be a pretty well adjusted kid. Some might even call him easy going and flexible. He rolls with the punches and moves forward. Part of that is personality, I’m sure, but I can’t help but think part of that is the result of the way he lived the first five years of his life.

Sam figured out pretty quickly what some people can take a lifetime to discover. That home is not things. Home isn’t even necessarily a place. Home is a feeling. A feeling that can be found in many ways. For Sam, I believe, the feeling of home was his family.

Every time we packed up his teddy bear and crossed state lines, one thing remained a constant in his life. Dad, Mom, Sister and Two Brothers. We were his balancing force. No matter where the car took us, or what hotel we landed in next, he could always count on his posse to surround him with familiarity. We were the same, day in and day out. Same five faces smiling at him and sharing new adventures with him.

He may never realize that he is lucky enough to have figured this out early in life. When he takes trips as an adult and feels comfortable in a wide variety of situations, he may not tie that back to his preschool years. But I am thankful he was given such a unique babyhood. I think it will serve him well in the years to come.

It is a question I wrestled with extensively after my mom died when I was 25 - what exactly is ‘home’? I was married and had two very small children when I lost my mom, but ultimately I still considered mom and dad’s house my ‘home’. It was where the holidays felt most comfortable and where I would run to tell good news or fill up on nurturing hugs. But then suddenly it was gone.

My mom, as many moms are, was the hub of our wheel, and even dad was a bit lost once she was gone. He changed residences and went on to re-marry, which were all appropriate things to do. But in the process, my home base evaporated. If tragedy were to hit out of the blue, my back up plan (to head home) was gone. My safety net had been severed. I have to admit I wandered a bit, inside, for quite a long time.

Then I slowly came to discover what my eight year old already knows. That home can be lots of things. It can be an encouraging, affectionate mom who is there for you, way past the years you think you need a mother anymore. But home can also be as simple as things that surround you that bring you simple joy. It can be a cozy doily filled den with that one special cat curled up on the sofa for one person. It can be a favorite pillow and ragged old stuffed animal that is thrown across a dorm room bed for another. It can be a smell or a sight or a tactile feeling. For each person it will be different.

But fifteen years after my first home base left the planet I think I have finally found my new place, my new home. For me it slowly moved over to this man I said vows to almost twenty years ago. Day in and day out he is there, making me laugh one minute and making me crazy the next. But always making me thankful we chose each other and we’ve stuck it out through the road bumps. And then there are those four shining faces who make me smile every day. My world is in balance when they are happy and moving forward with their unfolding lives. So now I have figured out at least one of the mysteries of life. Where is home?

For me, wherever I live, wherever I travel, when I am around these sacred five people, I am home.

Friday, October 9, 2009

War Movie Mama

Because of leg issues, I have watched more than my usual share of movies in the past few weeks. I'm a girl. I enjoy the run of the mill romantic comedy. I can't see Sleepless in Seattle too many times. But sometimes I humor the hubby and watch a typical guy movie. Lots of action, killing, shooting, redeeming the innocents kind of thing. The one we watched last week was "Troy".

Now I have to say, I don't really mind watching Brad Pitt for three hours straight. Not a lot of torture there. And I understand it is a war movie. War, meaning a lot of guys run in and get killed by other guys. There were no guns in this movie. Just a lot of hand to hand combat and some well placed arrows.

But I have to tell you what goes through my mind when I see those fight scenes. The blood doesn't bother me. Even the gross special effects I can accept for what they contribute to the story. But it makes me think of all the wars, though the ages, and all the guys who went off to war.

From Iraq today, which is the most personal to us, to the times of Troy, men have gone off to war and not come home. But as a mom I cannot see them as just soldiers, trained and killed for a greater cause.

I see them as little boys. Each and every one of them. Some mama's little boy. A child she gave birth to, maybe on the dirt floor of her small hut. A child she had hopes and dreams for.

She caught him as he took first steps, not thinking that those same legs might run into a life ending battle in a few short years. She wiped his nose when he was sick, doing all she could to preserve his health and his life, not knowing all her efforts would be snuffed out with one swift swing of a sword.

She made him meal after meal, three times a day, to give his body fuel to survive. She watched him grow from a skinny teen into a muscular young man. And maybe she let herself dream about the grandbabies he might carry home to her some day, on those strapping grown up man shoulders.

I'm not making any statements about wars, in this decade or any other. I'm just saying I can't watch a war movie where dozens of men, dozens of faceless figures, are so quickly and effortlessly obliterated, without thinking of their mothers. Dozens of women who would later get the news that their mothering duties were no longer needed.

Each soldier couldn't be Achilles. There were many guys who were just soldiers. Just one of a thousand, wrapped in armor, standing in tight, neat lines. But each one mattered to his mama. And it's all I can think about when I watch war movies.

Pumpkin Reality

To celebrate the Autumn season we have placed a few baby pumpkins around the circulation desk at the library. I prefer to call them flu ships since every child that comes through feels a need to touch them, fondle them, and yes, even suck on them. They are very popular, but I am sure very germ blanketed.

Yesterday a little girl came up to the desk, and right on cue, she picked up one of the little orange treasures.

"Is this a pumpkin?", she asked my co-worker.

Feeling a need to be accurate, my wise colleague said, "Well, no. Actually it is a gourd, which is in the pumpkin family."

The little girl turned it over in her hands a few times, then looked up and very seriously, said, "Wow, and it looks so real!"

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Potato Chips

We all have our vices. Mine is potato chips. I could go the rest of my life without eating another bite of cake or licking another ice cream cone. But man, if I'm ever on my death bed, bring on the chips.

I try to keep them out of the house. Or I buy the few flavors I'm not that crazy about. Then when the craving hits (hourly) I don't have any options that are easily accessible. Fortunately I'm too lazy to get in the car and drive the two miles to my nearest quick mart.

But I have to confess, I have the same exact thought every single time I open a bag of chips, big or small. As I grab that crinkly paper and pull open the treasure I can't help but lean down and smell the salty goodness that bursts out. And every single time I can't help but think I'm breathing in foreign air.

Michigan or Iowa or Nebraska air. Wherever those chips are made, in some factory in the midwest (I imagine) those magical bags are filled with a sprinkling of potato chips then sealed tight, locking in not only the snack, but the air from the factory.

So every time I open a bag and breathe in that salty air, I am borrowing air from another state. Air that traveled miles by semi truck to find me.

I dare you to open a bag of chips, from now on, without wondering where the air inside came from.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Baby Blessings

I love babies. As far back as I can remember I was fascinated by them. The best time of my childhood was when my family took in foster babies. It was a revolving door of little people, you never knew who would show up in the crib next. I could balance a chubby toddler on my hip with the best of them.

This may be why I was comfortable and content, not overwhelmed, when we welcomed our first baby home from the hospital. I graduated from high school and got a degree in teaching, like a good girl. But then finally, finally it was time for me to be a mom and I couldn’t wait.

That was almost eighteen years ago. Through three more pregnancies and newborn/infant spells in our household, I have (mostly) enjoyed being a mom to little people. Fortunately by the last pregnancy I knew it would be the last. I enjoyed it knowing I wouldn’t do this thing again. I treasured every kick and every extra trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Or at least I collected them in my memory, just in case I had any delusions of wanting to do it all again when baby number four hit the school age years.

It was a relief when no such pangs hit. Sam went off to preschool, then elementary school, and I felt very complete in our family of six. By the time he entered kindergarten our first one was headed into high school. Our family dynamic had changed drastically and babies just didn’t fit anymore.

Which is why something that confused me when I was young makes perfect sense now. Being the baby fan that I was, I could never understand how people could be so upset by the late in life baby. I heard the stories. Friends of my parents talking about Mr. and Mrs. So and So who found out they were accidentally pregnant, just as their oldest went to college. I saw the TV shows and Hollywood movies, where a family was turned upside down and a forty something mom was crouched in the bathroom, sobbing as she wondered how this new life will change everything.

I just didn’t get it.

How could a family ever be sad about a baby? Babies were special gifts. They were adorable and sweet and everyone melted as they passed the bundle around the room. How could you ever be upset that a new baby was on the way, especially in an established household with a mom, dad, and loving older siblings?

Oh, but now I get it. We have a new life worked out here. A life that involves older kids who take care of themselves a lot of the time. We are talking about middle school class trips and filling out financial aid applications for colleges. There is no room in this house for bouncy seats or high chairs.

Sorry potential offspring, there is no room at this inn.

So when I told a friend recently that I had exciting news, and she instantly answered, “you’re pregnant?!” I was totally thrown for a loop. No. I am not pregnant. I didn’t think it could even be on the realm of options when I said the words, “I have good news.” I am so past that idea that I forget it could actually happen. After my mini stroke passed, I assured my friend that my good news was very unrelated to babies.

But babies seem to be filling my life these days. Every day at work I get to see two baby bellies growing full and round. It is a fun way to actually see the passing of time but also a reminder of how long each of my pregnancies felt when I was the one carrying the basketball around under the maternity smock. For the rest of us the time is flying by. For my pregnant friends, delivery cannot come soon enough.

Then I come home from work and am surrounded by pregnant bellies once again. Our neighbor on one side is due this week, the neighbor on the other side is due next week. Babies, babies, babies.

But I have to be honest, it has been very refreshing.

Knowing these babies will not be my responsibility gives me the freedom to enjoy them with no reservations. I can be the one who offers free babysitting and free rocking sessions if one of these blessings turns out to be colicky. I don’t have to worry about finding money in the budget for diapers or teething gel. I get to enjoy with full abandon.

And I suddenly understand more completely my friend Sandra in Missouri. Back when Sam was a baby she spoiled him rotten. She had four children too, the youngest was eight. She was a baby person like me, and a bit sad that her nest was feeling empty. She took in my Sam as her own. She became his godmother but also his back up for maternal adoration. My kids thought it was funny, how much Sam and Sandra adored each other. I thought it was endearing.

And now as I begin my path to becoming a Sandra myself, I get it. How a mom who has been through it all, and is really, really sure she is done with babies of her own, can fully throw herself into other people’s babies, enjoying their pregnancies vicariously and soaking up their babies like they were her own. Being a mom comes from deep in my soul and I can’t wait to re-visit those wonderful feelings.

On someone else’s baby.

Life Through a Movie Lens

This past weekend life came to a grinding halt. Medical issues forced me to live without my bionic leg for three and a half days. I have not been without my leg for that long since my original surgery recovery time. It was brutal.

Not pain wise. Fortunately there was no physical pain, only mental pain. For seventeen years I have been the mom. The one who tries to make life comfortable and clean and healthy for our family. Jeff has always been a full time parent with me but there are just some things I feel better doing myself. It makes me feel like I’m doing my job. It isn’t fun to sit back and watch the household tick along without me.

When the dust bunnies began to form colonies on the edges of our floorboards and threatened to jump out at passers-by, I looked the other way. When school papers began to pile up and take over the small bookcase in our home office, I tried not to feel claustrophobic. When a bag tie from the sandwich bread sat tucked in the corner of the kitchen floor for three, going on four days, I tried to block it out.

I hopped along on one leg, doing what I could. The crock pot saw good use. Sam got his exercise as I ran him around the house, taking clutter to its rightful home. I found a way to balance on the one good leg just long enough to fluff the comforter so the bed looked made.

The only thing I didn’t master was teaching the dog that when she saw crutches coming through, she should get out of the way, not hover over me, trying to take care of her master. There is no worse obstacle when you are on crutches than a large, randomly moving animal.

By the weekend I was just at the brink of stir crazy and Jeff came up with a plan. Our oldest son had a track meet just a bit north of Saratoga and it was a great day to drive around upstate New York. I hobbled out to the car and clicked into the front seat for a soul cleansing ride.

The trees are not fully turning but there is enough color to hint at the beauty that’s on its way. The sun was brilliant, the breezes refreshing. It was a perfect prescription for a case of cabin fever.

After the track meet we stopped at a quiet school soccer field for a picnic lunch. Jeff and the boys kicked a ball around and I soaked up the sun. It felt good to be normal, healthy and content, even without a second leg to support me.

On the way home we dropped by the downtown area and lucked into arriving just as a car chase scene was being filmed for the movie shoot that’s in town. I stayed in the car as Jeff and the boys raced down the block to get a closer view.

When they got back to the van, the whole conversation on the ride home was about Hollywood, and movie production and the empire that entertains us at movie theaters. It all seems so big and exciting and exotic.

It makes me wonder if moments like these are sparking things deep in my younger boys’ souls and if their life paths may take them in a film direction some day. I am very aware that every experience we give them builds onto the person they will become. It shows them options and choices for their future and helps them understand what makes them tick.

Soon we were back home and I was back on the couch. Sam had to bring me a glass of ice water, since carrying liquid in an open glass is not recommended when one is balanced on crutches. Back to everyday life. We left the fun and glamour of Hollywood downtown.

But I have to think that even the everyday stuff, like mom being on one leg for a bit of time, also forms who my kids are becoming. I used to feel bad that I asked more of my children when I had leg issues. Then a wise friend pointed out that children growing up in homes where compassion is taught become compassionate adults. And children who are taught to minister to others become the kind of people we need in this crazy world. I choose to believe she was right.

Soon I’ll be back to full time on two legs and will rush through my days, again trying to make a comfortable nest for my chickies. But this latest spell on the couch brought back some really healthy reminders. That life is not Hollywood or scripted scenes. It is taking every day as a gift and appreciating the heck out of any part of it you can.

On one leg or two, on an abandoned picnic field or a movie set.

Life is the lens you look through.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brush with Beauty

We have been hearing for weeks that a production company would be in town, filming a new Will Ferrell movie, and streets might be blocked off. Because hubby works for the highway department we knew dates and hours of filming but never found time to get down there to watch. As we were out last night, we stopped by downtown and noticed they were still filming.

Because I am still in 'leg off' mode, we parked and I sent Jeff and the two younger boys off to watch the action. I could see about a third of the street they were filming on, and saw several sequences of car chase scenes with lots of fake gunfire. Pretty fun.

Jeff and his posse wove through the police and barricades that were set up and found a good watching spot by the area where all the back up cars were being held. Each identical car was in a different state of damage.

At one point he noticed a woman sitting by a table, dressed in an outfit that seemed out of place.She was right next to him so he kept trying to glance at her, to figure out who she was and why she was there. She returned his stares several times. It really bugged him, and he told me about it when they got back to the van. She just seemed so 'familiar', yet out of place in downtown Albany.

Today as I was pulling up the shooting schedule for this afternoon I mentioned to him that Evan Mendes was also in this movie.

From the other room, my normally very low key hubby yelled, "That was HER!"

I had no idea what he was talking about.

"That was her! The girl from 'Hitch'....I knew she looked familiar!"

So now my husband and sons can say they have stood next to Eva Mendes while watching the filming of her latest movie. And hopefully she has not processed a restraining order against him.

You Know You've Had "The Talk"...

I have been on crutches for the past three days. It is probably the longest I have been on crutches since my surgery, almost six years ago, and it is maddening. There is a significant sore on my stump that will only heal with exposure to air so the only answer is no wearing of the bionic leg. It makes cooking, cleaning, and even getting dressed, a real pain. (although I am finally all caught up on TV shows taped)

So this morning we were headed out for an adventure. I needed to get out of the house and our sixteen year old had a cross country meet way up north. Perfect excuse to drive some gorgeous upstate roads at a gorgeous time of year.

But before we could go I had to dress in normal, leaving the house kind of clothes. Sam (my eight year old) was my helper, digging through my dresser drawers as I balanced nearby on crutches, analyzing what he was finding. We finally found some appropriate apparel and I sat down on the edge of the bed to put it on. Sam began to dash out of the room, which confused me at first.

"Where ya goin'?" I asked.

"Well, you're gettin' dressed, right? Taking off your clothes? I'm not like dad....I don't really enjoy that..."

Ahhhh...the joys of having all 'older' kids.....

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Them's Fightin' Words

So after we had hiked up a long trail, rappelled down a short slope, crossed two rushing streams next to small waterfalls, huffed it over jagged rocks and were almost to the spot where I would perch myself to watch my kids jump off cliffs into the cold waters below, adorable hubby and I look up to see some college kids coming through the woods from the other direction.

He turns to me and without missing a beat, says, "They must have used the stairs."

In the split second before I realized he was kidding, the word divorce suddenly flashed before my eyes....