Monday, December 27, 2010

Do The Right Thing




We really hadn’t intended to be a part of a high speed police chase but somehow that’s what transpired. Because hubby had been tired at the last Thruway rest stop, I was at the wheel. We were having a really lovely chat, the kind that can materialize when darkness falls on the highway and there are no ears buckled into the back seats. We’d just dropped our oldest two boys off at the airport in New York City. They were on their way to sunny Brazil, to spend their Christmas holidays with family friends. We had about an hour to go before we could collapse into our warm beds.

Then we saw him. A white full sized car in front of us was weaving around a bit. Then a lot. He started spending more time crossing over the lines than he did driving between them. I stayed back just enough to stay out of his way, but tried not to lose him, knowing he was tragically close to striking an innocent victim.

Suddenly our casual conversation had disappeared and we were frantically wondering what we should do about our fellow driver. Should we call 911? Who has jurisdiction on the open Thruway?

Then, before we could make a move, he put on a blinker and headed for the exit. Immediately we realized we’d be able to catch his license plate as he slowed down for the toll gate. I put on my blinker and we followed him. He approached the easy pass lane and barely slowed down enough for the sensors to register. In that brief moment, we caught his plate number and wrote it down. Then we zipped through the easy pass lane after him.

If I had been alone I probably would have let it go. I would have called in the plates and turned around to make my way home. But my husband is a man who takes responsibility. For years I’ve called him our ‘undercover super hero’ because he’s always the one who steps up and does the right thing, even when it puts himself in danger. By the time we entered the dark winding roads of rural Upstate New York, my man was committed to stopping this guy, hopefully before he killed someone with his reckless driving.

For almost 20 miles, as he continued to cross the center line (causing other cars to honk as they barely missed him) and weave around the corners, we followed him. For most of that time we had the 911 operator on the phone, describing to her the landmarks we were passing, so she could send the authorities to the correct location. Around hairpin curves, at speeds higher than I was usually comfortable with, we tracked him and kept the 911 operator up to date on his status.

Finally, as we passed through a small town, we saw the fruits of our effort. Two local police cars were standing by, ready to intercept this obviously intoxicated driver. Our part of the journey was over. We hung up the phone and turned around, winding our way back to the Thruway. But as the adrenaline continued to course through our veins, we had a different discussion. This one about the senselessness of a traffic accident caused by an impaired driver.

For much of our chase we were certain we’d eventually be assisting at a crash scene. The driver of that white car was so out of control, it’s a miracle no one died that night. All of those public service announcements, preaching the dangers of drinking and driving, suddenly became very personal. We talked about the reasons a person might be stupid enough to get in a car when they’re not able to drive safely.

The holidays bring more than the usual circumstances that would lead to a person driving while impaired. It starts at the office holiday party, or a friend’s Christmas party. Everyone’s relaxed, joking around, the alcohol is flowing freely.

Then someone decides it’s time to call it a night. Everyone knows he’s had a few too many to be getting into a car. But it’s an awkward situation. No one wants to spoil the fun. No one wants to be the one who stands up and says, “Maybe you should call a cab.” It’s easy to tell yourself, ‘I don’t know that guy very well. Someone who knows him better should say it.’

Because let’s face it, it’s a hassle to call a cab. It’s a pain to have someone drive you home. There’s the expense of the cab ride, or the favor owed to the chauffer friend. And there’s logistics of getting back to the scene to pick up your car the next day. It’s so much easier to look the other way. “He’s a really good driver, he’ll be fine.” “She doesn’t live that far from here. I’m sure she’ll make it without a problem.”

This weekend, as you celebrate the ringing in of a new year, think about the choices you’re making. If you’ve ever seen a drunk driver on the road, you’ll ignore the wimpy excuses. When it seems too hard to stand up and do the right thing, imagine the innocent car that may never see that drunk driver coming. The one with toddlers buckled into car seats in the back. The one traveling to grandma’s house for the holidays. Then step up. Do the right thing.

Consider it a gift to the universe.

Consider it a gift to yourself.

Tis the season to do the right thing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Santa Good Bye




Disclaimer: This column contains material that might be considered adult content. Please preview before sharing with any person under the age of ten.

It’s finally happened in our house. After almost two decades of welcoming the red suited guy into our home, the last of our offspring has stopped believing. It’s a milestone I never thought about until it suddenly popped up this past weekend. It's a big deal to me, because it says so much about how our household is changing, so quickly, from young kids to young adults.

I guess I’m lucky that we got to squeeze a few extra years out of the whole magical process. Our firstborn stopped believing about the time our last born was, well…born. So as one belief evaporated, a new little person began his path to embracing it. It was a good run in our family. As older ones stopped believing, they took great joy in helping little ones hold onto their faith.

It’s a magical thing, to believe in something as special as a grandfatherly man who spends his whole year thinking about your desires. Sometimes it’s hard to let go. When our number three child stretched his believing years out longer than we had ever thought possible, the only way we could comfort him, as reality became too much to ignore, was by letting him stay awake into the wee hours of Christmas morning, to be a part of the giving. Suddenly playing Santa seemed just about as fun as believing in him.

I should have known this would be the year that our Santa run would end. Our youngest is in the later elementary school years. Most of his friends have stopped believing. But he is the baby in our family, so we all did what we could to stretch out the tradition.

In the past few years he’s jumped on the assignment of writing the letter. I’ve had to be pretty sneaky to get my photocopy of said letter (for my heirloom files) before he rushed it out the door to the mailbox. But this year he’d lost his zeal.

I reminded him several times over the course of last week. He never got around to it. I assumed he was just thinking about other aspects of the holiday and distracted by studying spelling words and book report projects. But then it all came together. At one point, in the lazy part of Sunday afternoon I said, “Sam, you should go write your Santa letter now.”

He didn’t answer me. He quietly kept working on the Lego creation that was in his hand. I pulled him in close to me on the couch and whispered in his ear, “Is there a reason you don’t want to write your letter?”

He quietly mumbled back, “I just don’t feel like it.” I took his chin in my hand and turned it to face me. “Is there a reason you don’t want to write that letter?”

He grinned.

And instantly I knew.

I knew that he knew.

And I knew our Santa era was over.

Once it was out in the open we curled up on the couch and had a long conversation. The football game we’d been watching was paused as we soaked in this historic moment. His dad and I laughed and talked about how old he suddenly seemed to us. This ‘baby boy’ who would forever hold that title in our family, kept passing milestones that told us otherwise.

He had questions of his own. He ran upstairs to retrieve the ‘signature’ Santa left him last year. “So, who did this?” he asked, accusingly. Then he wanted to know logistics. Who drank the milk and ate the cookies? How did we sneak presents out in the middle of the night when he knows for a fact that we’re old and desperately need our sleep?

It was entertaining but surreal to share stories with him about trying to pull the whole thing off, right under his nose. It got especially tricky when we started visiting Grammy’s house for Christmas, after we moved to New York. That van trunk full of ‘presents’ covered by coats and blankets made more sense now.

I told him I knew his belief was slipping when he lost his excitement about the letter. I reminded him that last year he’d been diligent about getting his desires sent to the North Pole. He looked reflective for a minute, then said, “Yeah, and do you know how many hearts I put on that letter last year?!” I suspect he was in his last stages of believing when he wrote that letter, and every heart included on his wish list was a small plea for validity.

Once the questions were asked and answered, we snuggled on the couch and turned on a holiday episode of the TV show Glee. I had been protecting him from it since the story line included a teenage girl who still believed, as her friends rally up to help her hold on to the magic. It held special meaning for my boy, now that he was one of the big kids, the ones who knew the truth. Several times in the course of that show he turned to me and grinned, with that knowing grin only a non-believer can possess.

And then came the sweetest moment of the night. Just as he was headed up to bed, he gave the regular good night hugs. But before he pulled away he whispered one sentence in my ear. “Thanks for taking it so well, mom.”

I think my boy is definitely gaining maturity. Even he could see that his not believing anymore was as big a deal.

To him, but also to his sappy hearted mom.

So good-bye, jolly Santa. You will be missed. Don’t stray too far away though. Someday down the road, when grandchildren start ringing my doorbell, I’m going to be thrilled to call on your services again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Great Characters Make Great Kids



My youngest son, Sam, has spent his lifetime trying to keep up with the three older kids in our family. He skipped the Fisher Price people and moved up to Hot Wheels as soon as he could sit up. He strapped on roller blades and skis before he started kindergarten, he was so determined to do what the big kids did.

So when my fourth grader came home from school one day and announced he wanted to read a book called Hatchet, which is a book most kids read ‘for school’ in the fifth grade, I was not surprised.

He plowed through the first chapter and realized it might be an easier read if mom helped him out. So for the next few weeks Sam and I went on an adventure together. Every night at 8:30 we snuggled in my bed and found out ‘what happened next’. The book is about a young boy who gets stranded in the woods by himself, in a remote area of Canada. He has no supplies (except a hatchet) and has to figure out how to survive. The draw was obvious for my adventure loving/woods loving boy.

As the character discovered new ways to find food and provide shelter for himself, Sam and I went along for the ride. As he had set backs and frustrations, Sam and I sympathized, and soon felt like he was a friend of ours, stuck in a bad situation. Sam saw him as a kid he might definitely be friends with and my protective mommy heart craved a chance to save him.

Soon it was time to do the monthly book report project and Sam was determined to use this book. It was imperative that we finish it up so he could dive into his project. We met on the couch on a Sunday evening, knowing we had to read until the end.

The story picks up a lot in the last chapters. The tension builds as the boy tries, almost in vain, to retrieve an emergency supplies kit from the crashed plane that put him in the situation in the first place.

Finally, finally he gets his hands on it. After two months of figuring out life in the wild, and setting up a pretty logical and productive system for survival, the boy is suddenly surrounded by simple supplies that can mean the world to a person, if your only possession is a hatchet.

Pots and pans.

Fishing line.

A small gun that could replace his crudely built bow and arrow.

And dozens of packets of real food.

Sam and I had become so involved with this boy’s plight, that as we read the list of supplies he’d found, we were giddy for him, like it was Christmas morning.

These items that are so accessible to us in our daily life, were so priceless to this boy who was lost in the woods.

I paused my reading and we sat for a minute, just looking at each other, in awe.

Sam had been literally bouncing up and down on the couch next to me as I’d read the list of supplies, he was so excited. As we got to the part where the boy is setting up his first real meal, a bowl of hot beef stew, boiled in his precious new pot, and realizing his long term survival seems even more likely, we were both struck with gratitude.

You can imagine how excited we got then, when just a few pages later, a plane touches down to rescue this long forgotten boy. Talk about cheering and high fiving; we were ecstatic.

We did finish the book that night. Then we ran off to tell Daddy about how it all had ended. It somehow felt like this boy was our friend and we were ready to call the papers to announce his rescue, but telling Daddy had to do.

As I laid in bed that night, trying to go to sleep, I realized something. Through the gift of that well written book I learned a few things. I became more educated on wilderness survival for sure.

But I was also reminded of the value of character dense books. That kind of story that makes you feel like you are a part of the character’s life, and have a vested interest in the resolution to his problem. The kind of book you don’t want to end because it means saying good bye to a new friend.

And I realized that with child number four I’d become lazy. It was too easy to set him up with books that were easy reads. The kind of books I’d call fluff books. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Captain Underpants. Goosebumps. He can read through those quickly and feel good that he’s finished another book. Those books are fine every once in a while. But it’s important I give him a steady diet of meatier books too.

They might take longer to read, and sometimes he might need me to encourage him to tackle those harder books, but they have such value. He gains so much by seeing how more literary books are written and naturally falling in love with their characters.

He sees how other people live and react to life, outside of his own experiences. It makes him a better writer, having read deeper books, but I think it also makes him a better citizen of the planet.

I know the books I’m going to encourage him to read. I made his siblings read them when they were his age. I’d just forgotten how important it was to make sure my last little guy had good literature in his hands too.

It took a very special evening on the couch, cheering together for a good solid character, to remind me to pay attention.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Big City Holiday







One of the reasons we were drawn to the Albany area a handful of years ago was its proximity to some pretty fun places. Boston’s just a couple of hours away. Scenic drives in Vermont are even closer than that. Montreal is a nice weekend trip. And New York City is a very doable day trip. The big city is especially fun this time of the year.

My husband and I both had some business down in the City this past weekend so we rounded up a few of our kids and headed down the great Thruway. I’d highly recommend the places we were able to hit, all in a single day, so I’ll share them with you. Disclaimer: There are ten kazillion other fun things to do in NYC this time of year, but this little list contains the handful of things we picked to explore this time around. Next year I'll probably give you a whole different list.

We parked in a parking garage near the lower southeast side of Central Park (great coupons online for the Icon Parking Garages). As we walked out of the garage we could see the giant Menorah at the edge of the park. Just around the corner we passed by the Apple store. If you’ve never seen a picture of it, look it up online. It’s a massive glass box, sitting in the middle of a huge sidewalk. A spiral staircase inside takes you to the actual store, which is full of electronic holiday treasures.

Just behind the Apple store is the world famous FAO Schwartz. It’s as amazing as you would imagine, which is why it is featured in so many famous movies, but to get in the door (past the fully believable live nutcracker people) there’s a waiting line that circles the block. Either come early to this one, or wait until February, when the toys inside are just as fun and there’s not usually a line just to enter.

Then across the street from FAO Schwartz you’ll find Bergdorf Goodman’s. Unless you’re in the market for five thousand dollar suits you may not choose to shop there, but do check out their windows. People around the world know about the inspiring holiday window displays that many major department stores in New York City host every year. Bergdorf’s windows are usually on the short list of ‘the best’. This year we were not disappointed.

Just a few blocks from there you’ll find the department store called Barney’s. Their theme this year was food and famous chefs. The windows were full of whimsical scenes, putting some favorite celebrity food masters in silly scenes with amazingly realistic looking food. Even my boys enjoyed these windows.

Head a few blocks east and you’ll find Dylan’s Candy Bar. In our family it’s known as the “Willy Wonka store”. There are three levels of everything related to candy. The wallpaper is dotted with scattered candies, the lighted steps to each level have candy imbedded in them. Some of your old favorites will make you say, “I remember those!” and the assortment of novelty candy products will make you start to think you need one of each. This year there was a huge chocolate fountain set up, and for a small fee you could buy a chunk of rice crispy treat, or a marshmallow, and take a dip.

Don’t leave that sugared wonderland without going to the top floor and trying out one of their delicious candy packed ice cream sundaes, while you’re perched on a candy swirl stool. The four of us shared one sundae and regrettably had to leave some behind, it was just too big for us.

If the weather is good and you don’t mind passing by handfuls of other tempting shopping opportunities, you can head south a few blocks and see all the sites at Rockefeller Center. The tree is the main highlight but the skating rink is also a lot of fun. Be forewarned that if you want to skate, you’ll stand in line for a bit, since they only allow 150 people on the rink at a time, for quality control. And if you want a picture of your kid in front of the giant tree, just know he’ll be surrounded by four to five hundred other tourists because that area of the plaza is very popular.

I accidentally discovered that one of the best places to take a picture of the rink, the tree, the gold statue and the plaza itself is the second floor of the new Lego store. Of course we had to go check it out and while hubby and the boys wandered through the inspiring displays I tucked myself in near a window, trying not to be run over by package stuffed strollers. The second I turned around I knew I’d found a great hidden secret to getting some pretty good shots for the scrapbook, at this crazy time of year.

The last spot to round out our list this year was Grand Central Station. Head a couple of blocks southeast from Rockefeller Center and you’ll find this gorgeous historic building. In years past they’ve had light shows that rivaled any I’ve seen at planetariums, the moving lights and scenes circling the great domed central hall. We were saddened to hear there wasn’t funding this year for a light show (but maybe next year?) so we settled for wandering through an amazing holiday fair that was set up just off the main hall. Live holiday music set the scene and unique gifts in row after row of booths definitely made it feel like Christmas.

So think about making time to head to NYC this December, or maybe in a year or two. It's a treasure that’s worth a look, every month of the year, but especially during the holiday season.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Love in a Box




When I was a child I had many ideas about what it would be like to be a mom. I loved babies and actually enjoyed babysitting the neighbor’s children, even if there weren’t any good snacks in their cupboards. I assumed being a mom would be a lot like those long summer afternoons of being in charge of other people’s children. Needless to say, I was wrong.

Any mom would be able to tell you all the ways being the one in charge all the time is very different from being in charge for minor snippets of a child’s life. The day in and day out responsibility can wear you down. Keeping them in clean clothes and shoes. Making sure they have the right enrichment opportunities, even if that means a yearly trip to the local zoo. And then there’s the issue of food.

It’s hard to admit this, but sometimes I feel like the only mom who doesn’t like to cook. On every TV commercial and sit-com the mom is the one who creates amazing meals, day after day, with a smile on her face. That mom is not me. I’ve always said that if my kids didn’t need food to survive, we wouldn’t even need a kitchen in our house.

A couple of times a year I can get into making a nice meal. But that’s the problem. When you’re the mom, kids assume you are going to feed them on a daily basis. Sometimes even a few times a day. That takes a lot of planning, a lot of grocery list making, a lot of hauling bags from the store to the kitchen cabinets, a lot of forethought to thaw and brown and mince things. It’s a lot of work and it’s required just about every single day.

One of the perks of moving to New York was being close enough to my mother-in-law (an amazing cook) to never worry about making another holiday meal. She loves the planning and cooking and baking and is really good at it. I’m happy to offer extra hugs and do my part to deposit a van full of grandkids on her doorstep every time a holiday rolls around. But this year we were on our own.

Because of work obligations we couldn’t get to New Hampshire to sit at her table. And because of their local obligations, they couldn’t come join us. So it looked like that big turkey spread, always packed full of everyone’s personal favorites, was going to fall on my shoulders. Then the phone call came, with a unique proposal.

Instead of a gift card or a wrapped box for my birthday this year, my mother-in-law offered to buy us a premade meal, from the grocery store down the street. Now some women would be offended by such an offer. It would cramp their Martha Stewart style and insult their abilities. I was more than thrilled to accept it, and bowed down in gratitude to this woman who knew me so well she knew I’d love it.

So on the weekend before Thanksgiving I was not hunched over a store freezer, trying to figure out which sized bird I should buy. And for the days before the holiday I didn’t have to re-arrange my fridge to accommodate a thawing turkey. And the morning of the big day I wasn’t tearing the plastic off the beast and wondering if it were indeed thawed enough to be able to cook in time for the perfectly timed meal.

It happened to be our wedding anniversary on Thanksgiving day this year, so my hubby and I slept in a bit, then made it a date, to head down the street to pick up our box full of food. We wandered the aisles and got a few extras - drinks for the kids, pretty paper plates for the rest of the weekend, some fresh whipped cream for the pumpkin pie that was included in our meal. There was no rush. The work was already done. All we had to do was take our magic box home and heat up the food. By transferring it into my own serving dishes, our feast looked exactly like the ones from years past, the ones that had been a whole lot more work.

We hung out on the couch with our kids, watching the parade, then football. We stuck candy onto graham crackers and made gingerbread houses. And when it was time to eat, the mood in the house was relaxed and peaceful, just as it should be on a holiday that’s all about giving thanks. The food was tasty. The variety was perfect. All in all, I think it might have been one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever received, the gift of enjoying my kids instead of being isolated from them in the kitchen all morning.

We were amazed at the price of our box of food. I know that if I went to the grocery store to buy ingredients for a big holiday meal, the total would be over a hundred bucks. Our magic box of food was half that price. Considering the price of ingredients, the value of my time not spent in the kitchen, and the lack of hassle all week, I think this may be a tradition we follow in years to come.

Any time trusty Grammy is not available to pull it all together, I’m more than thankful to let the wizards at our local grocery store do the honors for me.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crying Over Ovens




The day started in one of my favorite ways. Half asleep, curled up in a warm bed with the man I love, watching one of our favorite home improvement shows. It’s something we bond over, watching other people tear down and build up their own homes. But this day it bothered me.

The husband in the show was working hard to build the couple’s dream home, doing most of the labor himself, while the wife’s job was to hang out with a decorator, picking out furniture and appliances. Maybe it’s because I enjoy the activities the husband had on his list much more than the wife, but it didn’t take long before I was totally fed up with the wife and her decorator friend.

I know it was probably creative editing on the part of producers, but the wife came off as a whiny crybaby. She wanted the best of everything and thought nothing of ordering items that continued to blow their budget. The scene that made me physically get up and walk away from the show involved tears. After ordering restaurant quality appliances for their kitchen, her husband had finally stood up to her and changed the order to regular, good enough appliances. And his wife turned on the water works.

“Really?”, I said to my purely innocent husband, who only wanted to watch some entertaining TV before he got out of bed on a weekend morning. “She’s going to cry over appliances? After ordering high end sofas and twelve dollar a foot wood floors, she’s going to cry about a stove?”

As I stormed out of the room I was mumbling to myself, “Heaven forbid she gets a call next week saying her kid has cancer. Let’s see how important having the perfect stove is then…”

It’s something I fight a lot. This constant dialogue that runs through my brain, reminding me that there is always someone worse off than I am. I know, it sounds bleak and fatalist. Some might call it pessimism. But it’s something other than that. Generally I’m a pretty happy, content person. I would definitely fall into the glass-half-full crowd. But somewhere, deep in my psyche, ungrateful people annoy me.

Maybe it’s because I was raised in a large foster family and just having my own bike was a big deal. Maybe it’s because I saw the terrible family situations I could have been born into, but was instead blessed with parents who had such big hearts they took in other people’s kids. Or maybe it’s because I saw firsthand, when I was a teen, the poverty in Haiti, and how the basics of clean water and daily food should never be taken for granted. Somewhere deep in my brain there is a default setting that is constantly set on ‘at least you don’t have to deal with…”

Later the same day I was puttering around the house, cleaning up a bit before the weekend was over, and I couldn’t stop wondering why the woman on TV bothered me on such a deep level. It was just a show. Just a woman I’ll never meet. Possibly a perfectly lovely woman who was severely misrepresented. I think maybe it’s because I know some people like her and I know those attitudes and values exist in our country.

In this place where many families are losing jobs, losing homes, losing careers early when companies choose to force retirements, there are still people who will complain that the parking lot has no close parking spots left. This year, as food banks can’t keep up with the new crowds of hungry families who stream through their doors, there will be people complaining about the fifteen minutes extra they have to stand in line at an understaffed grocery store. Having the money to pay for their cart full of groceries should be enough to draw up some patience.

We have friends who have lost children to cancer, had diagnosis of autism, and been crushed by the anguish of infertility. Today, as I write this, a friend sits in a recovery unit with her teenage son, assisting him as he slowly recovers from a brain injury. It doesn’t seem right to complain that I have too many things on my to do list, especially when the list mostly includes caring for the happy, healthy people in my life.

I have to remind myself that it’s okay to be annoyed sometimes, when my quality of life dips a bit. That silly clock above the TV refuses to keep accurate time and I end up racing around so I’m not late to work. No one, and I mean no one else, in this house understands that picking up the bathmat and hanging it over the tub after a shower will extend its life and mom’s sanity. The dog’s nails bleed (again!) when I try to trim them and I spend more time than I’d like trying to get the stains out of the living room carpet. These are the things that can drive this mom crazy.

Even in our cushy life as Americans things aren’t perfect. And I’m the first to admit I’ll grumble a bit when the little things in my day backfire. But down deep I’m always aware of how good I’ve got it. When I realize I’m having that nothing-seems-to-go-right day I take a deep breath and give myself a pep talk, reminding myself of the things that aren’t going wrong. I don’t think it’s fatalistic. I think it’s realistic.

Most of us have more blessings than we can count, if we take the time to do the math.

This is the holiday when thankfulness is celebrated. Maybe we can capture a bit of it and stretch it out for the months to come.

Maybe it’s time to turn this holiday into a lifestyle.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ryan's Lesson



I see it coming. That nutty season that’s packed full of holidays. It’s flipping calendar pages like crazy and will be here in the blink of an eye. I think every person feels it at a different time. Some start the holiday shopping in August. I could never dig up enough holiday spirit to do that. Plus I’m not organized enough to find the gifts, six months later, when it’s time to put them under a tree.

Some feel it in mid October, when the red and green merchandise starts nudging at the Halloween decorations. I do my best to ignore the retail push and pretend I don’t see the inflatable snowmen and Santas dancing on the sidewalk outside our local Kmart. Let me buy my discount candy first, then we can move on to those winter time celebrations.

So once November hits, I feel like it’s time. Time to get my act together and start making some plans. Or at least time to move into pre-panic mode. I send out the postcards to family members, letting everyone know who drew whose name in our long distance gift giving ritual. I start cruising through and bookmarking pages of gift ideas online so when I finally get around to ordering the gifts I’ll have all my ideas in one place.

We start talking about travel plans. Will we go to New Hampshire again this year, or will grandma and grandpa come here? What about that December holiday just three weeks later? If we don’t go there, we don’t see the handfuls of cousins, but if we don’t stay here, we miss seeing high school friends who graduated last year and disappeared off to college in August. In a house full of six people, there are a lot of needs and opinions to weigh in the decisions.

I start to wonder how in the world I’m going to find time to dig the holiday decorations out of the storage area in the basement, much less put them up, in the midst of keeping the regular household chaos afloat. This year we’re sending two of our teens to Brazil to visit family friends. At some point I need to dig out their summer clothes (Brazil spends their Christmas holiday in the middle of summer, a hard concept for me to process). Then possibly find a place to buy the items that are missing (swim trunks? flip flops?), in my local store that is stocked with snow suits and scarves.

It’s only the second week of November and I already feel a bit behind. It can be enough to keep me up at nights, scrolling through lists in my head…until I come back to reality and remind myself about what’s important.

One week ago one of our favorite families in Utah got that dreaded call. Their seventeen year old son had been in a bike accident and was in critical condition with a severe brain injury. His older brother posted on his facebook page, “waiting for Ryan to wake up.” Now if that’s not enough to make your frantic holiday list seem insignificant, nothing will.

Just writing those words brings tears to my eyes. I race around each day, trying to keep all the balls juggled - the dirty dishes loaded, the clean dishes unloaded, the dirty clothes washed, the clean clothes folded, the chicken thawed, the hamburger browned….all while a precious family in Utah, good people who have raised really good kids, waits for Ryan to wake up. It’s so much more than humbling.

That’s not to say my daily tasks don’t matter. It’s important for my family to have a routine of activity, a few healthy meals in a day, a scolding or two along the way. But I am reminded where it all fits and why it all counts. I begin to see the interruption of my son as I’m trying to get writing deadlines done as a blessing, not an annoyance. He’s a healthy, strong boy who actually cares what his mom thinks about his latest Lego creation. I choose to be honored by the disruption to my busy day.

We end up on the couch one night, surrounded by three of our four children, who all happened to ‘be in’ that night, and instead of rushing off to make a list or fold a basket of clothes, I stay put. I snuggle in, under a blanket that envelopes three of our bodies, and willingly watch the movie we’ve all miraculously agreed on. And I think of Ryan, who has finally woken up, and am thankful that we are now crowded on a couch instead of in a hospital room.

So my prayers and wishes for this holiday season have been readjusted by my friend Ryan and his family. On the top of my list is the wish for a full recovery and the return of that mischievous boy with the bright smile. If I get nothing else on my wish list, I pray I get that one.

Next up is a peaceful season, that my children will remember in a good way. No frantic mom with a pointless agenda. Instead, a mom who finds joy in the process - the hanging of stockings that will, by golly, be unearthed in the basement, the buying of meaningful gifts for people who will appreciate them, the chance to catch up with a neighbor as I stand in line at the post office. That’s the mom I pray I can be in the six weeks that are racing my way.

There’s still time. Time to get done all that really and truly needs to be done. I just need to make sure my list is relevant and truly reflects what I want to see out of another upcoming holiday season. And take the time to treasure the steps along the way.

Update:
It is with great joy that I post an update to this essay. Ryan indeed woke up. He slowly healed and miraculously, he graduated with his high school class that next May. Last weekend I got to hug Ryan for the first time since his injury. His silly, bright smile was so familiar and I fought back tears as I stood in the shadow of that tall, healthy boy. Here is a picture of him, with two of my boys and my hubby:
Don't you love the spirit that boy has? In the past few months he's jumped through all the grown up hoops to open his own shaved ice stand, called The Shack. Each of us gratefully slurped down a sample of his product. Blue Raspberry never tasted so good. I'll wrap this post up with my favorite picture of the weekend. This is Ryan, healthy, healed Ryan, in the window of his shaved ice shack.

Monday, November 8, 2010

An Honest Look Back



I am beginning to think the scariest parts of parenting are not the sleepless nights when there’s a newborn in the house and you can easily be convinced they will randomly stop breathing. And it’s not the morning you put that vulnerable little five year old on the bus for his first day of kindergarten and you’re pretty sure he’ll be eaten alive by the fierce fifth graders before he reaches the front steps of the school. We made it through those scary times and lived to see another day. And now I’m starting to think the truly scariest time to be a parent is when you’re on the cusp of sending your eighteen year project out into the real world.

The stakes are so much bigger. Making good choices, and stumbling into bad ones, don’t just hurt in the short term. They can have lifelong implications. The big ones, unplanned pregnancies and surprise visits to the county jail, are out there. But even the smaller mistakes can lead to big life changes.

It was not that long ago that I was the 20 year old, filtering the advice that fell on my ears. Parents and grandparents had life lessons to share and they hoped I could avoid my own life mistakes by learning from theirs. I listened to some and ignored others, just like the generation before me.

And now I’m the one giving the advice, and not just to random young adults, but to these tall people who I’ve been busy raising for the past 19 years. I have to hope they picked up some lessons by the example their dad and I set. Go to college and figure out who you are before you get tied down with marriage and kids. Take your time picking out your profession. Not many 20 year olds know what they want to be doing when they are forty, so keep your eyes and heart open to opportunities around you.

If I’m being completely honest I have to remember back to the days when we were causing our own parents to seriously doubt some of our decisions. By we, I mean me and this man I chose to spend my life with. We met halfway through college and when our close friendship moved to a dating relationship I was highly suspicious he might be the one. I knew I wanted to get my degree before I signed a marriage license so we didn’t officially tie the knot until the last college credits were locked in. It was a relief that my family loved him and I was feeling similar sentiments from his side of the family. But we didn’t necessarily have full support when it came to some choices for our future.

There had been some rumblings from a few of the adults in our life when my better half decided to get a double degree, in two fields not known for their ability to support a family - history and antiquities. There was much skepticism that we had any future to look forward to, when these were the degrees engraved on the diploma. But I had faith in my man. I knew he was serious about providing for us and encouraged him to pursue what he loved.

My teaching degree was practical, but not really useful, when we decided to start our family after just a few years of marriage, and I was determined to stay home with our babies. It was up to the daddy of these babies to bring home the bacon that would sustain us for the better part of twenty years.

We have never had a ton of money. But we did okay. We were both dedicated to setting up a life that we both loved so as hubby worked hard to build his career in archaeology, I worked hard to balance our budget with very few numbers to work with. We lived in tiny places, ate boring foods and rarely spent money on anything beyond the basics of food and shelter. And slowly he made a name for himself.

After a few job changes, all in the field he loves, he is now doing very well for himself. We are not rich, by any means, but we pay our bills and still seem to support this household full of kids with constant needs. We spent this past weekend in Washington D.C., where my hard working spouse was honored with an award for his incredible work ethic.

As I sat in the audience, watching him shake the hand of some of the top guys in Washington, my heart just about burst with pride for this man I’ve loved for two decades. It became very clear to me that we’d done it. We had carved out a life from a degree that had some of the wisest adults in our life scratching their heads in skepticism.

And it made me realize I need to keep my eyes and heart open as much as I am telling my young adult children to do the same. Some of their choices might not make sense to their father and me. Some of their choices might have us scratching our heads, wondering if they will ever find a life that will make them happy. But we’ve done the bulk of our parenting now. It’s time to sit back and be their cheering section. It’s time to be here when they ask for advice and bite our tongues when they don’t.

We all get one shot at life. The late teen years are when it all really starts to come together. It’s a scary time to be a kid and I’d argue almost just as scary to be the parent. But with a little faith, and maybe more than a few prayers, they’ll find their way. And I can only hope they can look back, twenty years from now, and be happy with the path they’ve taken.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Down for the Week



Most of the time, when it comes to the big time illnesses, involving fevers and throw up, my kids have taken turns being sick. It’s difficult to clean up after a sick person, even your own kid, without feeling a bit nauseous yourself. And it doesn’t help when the well kids of the household keep circling the kitchen, whining that there is nothing good for dinner. The only thing worse that this scenario is the one where all the kids are sick at the same time and the washing machine can’t keep up with the soiled bed sheets and bath towels.

The clock on the wall stops, the family calendar disintegrates and time stands still. Keeping the well ones fed and on schedule while you keep the sick ones hydrated, in clean sheets, and well medicated is a time consuming balancing act that every mom has to work out for herself. You don’t truly know how you’ll survive the heat until you’ve spent a week in the fire.

And if you want to raise the bar a bit let’s talk about those rare occasions when the mom is sick. It’s amazing that households don’t self destruct when the mom gets the flu. Even with supportive, helpful husbands, mom tends to be the one who holds it all together. With a fever raging she will be thrashing around in bed, only half conscious, wondering if anyone is keeping up with the dishes and if the dog has been fed.

I’m rarely sick but I’ve had many spells on crutches in the years that my kids were growing up. Until I traded in my old leg for this new titanium one, at least once a year I spent a good six weeks with my leg in a cast, hobbling through life on my one good foot. The kids had to step up the chores calendar. They learned to boil noodles while I sat on a stool next to them in the kitchen. They mastered the controls of the washing machine after I gave them verbal lessons on sorting whites and colors.

I felt terrible about those spells of immobility, feeling like I was cheating my kids out of the mothering they deserved, until a good friend pointed something out to me. “Don’t forget how much they get out of being able to minister to you. They get great self esteem by being able to help you out, in such a tangible way. The giving shouldn’t always go just one way.”

Her words slowly sunk in. They got me through several more months of living on crutches and learning to rely on my children to keep the family running smoothly. I learned to chase away feelings of incompetence and replaced them with reminders of how it was building character in my offspring.

Then I got this new leg and my time on crutches came to a screeching halt. Once I was outfitted with new hardware I not only kept up again, but I left behind the need for crutches. They still sit by my bedside, gathering dust, just in case I need them in the night. But my days of relying on the kids for constant help are over.

That is, until I get sick. Every now and then I catch something that’s going around and find myself laid up in bed for a day or two. It’s a pain for my whole family, when I’m not around to keep things juggled. But a couple of days of being checked out isn’t usually enough to shut us down for good. My kids are big enough to boil their own noodles now, without my supervision. And they know how to heat up the oven for fish sticks or tator tots. One of my big boys has even come up with his own variation of chicken parm, which he is proud of and keeps him fed when I’m not around.

But last week we had a real test of family solidarity. I went to the doctor on Monday morning with a painful infection in my eye and was immediately sent to the Emergency Room. From there I was admitted to an isolation ward and did not go home until Friday afternoon. I left home on Monday morning and didn’t walk back in the door again until Friday afternoon. I had no hints that this is how the week would play out. No chance to set up a special chores chart. No chance to put meals in the freezer. No chance to let teachers know that homework supervision might be patchy.

And yet we survived. I survived and the kids survived. It was a huge week for my husband at work so he popped by the hospital when he was able and juggled the gang at home in the evenings. And my daughter gets huge points for stepping into the mom role. She shopped for the gang and even took two little brothers along with her to help pick out food. She kept up with her work and school schedule and still found time to come by the hospital to visit her bored, stir crazy mom.

Her brothers stepped up and did their own homework, with limited supervision. They gave their dad the normal amount of grief (they are still teenagers, after all) but overall they did what had to be done to keep the family afloat. They ate hodge podge meals and didn’t complain. They got off to school in mostly clean clothes.

It is a week I would not want to repeat. It was a painful week of medical procedures and a maddening week of worrying that everyone was surviving at home without me. But they did. They took care of each other. Just like they were trained to do back before I had my new metal leg. My friend was right. Teaching them how to nurture is never a lost lesson. Especially once mom learns to let go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Decade Later



Ten years ago today I walked through the front door of our house in Missouri, cradling my last newborn. Sam and I were greeted by three very excited older siblings, ranging in age from almost 9 to four and a half. We knew from the get go that he would be our last. We’d always talked about having five, then settled on four when we realized we might do better, on all levels, with one less. His birth was celebrated by a whole house full of people would couldn’t wait to watch him grow.

He came to mean different things to each of us. To his big sister, the only girl in our family, he was a real life baby doll. She’d always been nurturing to her other two brothers but this one came along when she was old enough to really participate in his care. The first twelve months of his life I would have never showered, if she hadn’t been willing to rock him through his fussiness for that brief fifteen minutes of every day. The majority of pictures from his first year show him perched on her hip. She settled into the role of his second mommy very comfortably and liked having a brother who hung on her every word and smile.

To Michael, our oldest son, this new baby was another member of his fan club, another little brother to join the pack. Michael knew his way around this role of big brother. He and Isaac had already begun bonding over boy things, like the joys of wrestling and throwing sticks. In the years to come Sam would skip over the baby toys, preferring to play with big boy Hot Wheels over the Fisher Price toys that mom offered.

Isaac was the reluctant big brother at first. We all assumed this last baby would be a girl. Families with four children had two boys and two girls, right? But in a crowded exam room, the ultrasound revealed a surprise. After the technician said the fateful words, “It’s a boy!”, my youngest child got angry. He flashed her a hateful look and said, defiantly, “No! It’s NOT!” He was happily perched in his spot as the baby brother in the family and was not ready to give it up.

But after a few months of rubbing my growing belly and hearing about how fun it would be to be the big brother, he finally came around. The idea of more boy toys flowing into the house with every holiday and birthday didn’t hurt the argument. From the day Sam came home from the hospital, Isaac took to his new role like a champ. Moving from baby status to being the kid who knows the ropes turned out to be kind of fun. Many afternoons when the two big kids were in school, Isaac and Sam had their own time to grow together, playing trucks and building tents with the cushions from the couch.

Sam’s arrival also changed me and Jeff. We geared up to go through the little kid stuff one more time. The high chair came out of storage. Jeff practiced his excellent skills of bouncing, rocking, walking, and swaying, to give me a nightly break from our fussiest baby to date. Then as Sam grew into a toddler and a sunny personality appeared, Jeff had one more little duck following him as he took our kids on hikes through the woods.

And ten years ago this last baby changed me. I learned to be patient when our attempts to get pregnant dragged on for months and I began to wonder if we weren’t meant to have a fourth child after all. And patience when he fussed through his first year of life. I am convinced that God knew I needed confirmation that we were done with procreating and giving me a year of nonstop fussing did the trick.

It was fun to revisit the baby milestones. Having five people clap and cheer when baby smiles for the first time, or takes his first wobbly steps, makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable. From potty training to learning to try new foods, it was nice to have helpers on board. Their encouragement kept him motivated and their excitement at his successes was unbelievably inspiring.

On a deeper level, Sam’s place in our family, as the tail end baby, was a gift to me. I was baby crazy as a kid. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to babysit. My mom often teased that I was ready to sign up to work in the church nursery the year after I graduated from it. I knew that once I’d finished college the mommy years would not be far behind. And each baby was a gift in their own way. Each joined our family at a unique time and had their own special experiences. But having a last baby, to wrap up the family, gave me one last chance to nurture a little person.

For many years Sam was my day time buddy. As big kids crawled onto school buses every morning, Sam and I got ready for our day together. He made going to the grocery store fun as we examined all the new shapes of animal crackers and joyfully received a tiny free cookie from the bakery clerk. Trips to the discount store were more exciting with a little guy, as we ooh and ahhed over the newest holiday decorations. During a time that we were dealing with a lot of big kid issues, Sam’s early years gave me one last taste of that magical time when life is still innocent and sweet. And for that I’ll always be thankful.

He’s now officially a big kid. Ten years is a milestone. But I guess I’m ready to let him grow up. He’s still my baby boy. He always will be. He’s growing taller every day. Losing his little kid look.

So clearly reminding me that time marches on and little kids grow into big kids in the blink of an eye.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wanderlust




I fear that I was born with a disorder that’s never been officially diagnosed. It’s not life threatening but sure can be life changing. I first heard about it when we lived in a small town in Missouri and found out we were moving to Washington D.C. Because I had grown up in Missouri, gone to college in Missouri, then met, married and settled down with Jeff for nine years in Missouri, this move seemed to come out of nowhere to our friends. After the announcement, a woman from church said to me, “I envy you. Before we had kids I had such a strong case of wanderlust. I wish I still did.”

It left me thinking for days. Wanderlust. What a fun word. It so accurately described how I’d felt since I was a child. Craving the chance to travel. Curious about what was ‘out there’. Anxious to take a trip, any trip, to any location.

When I was growing up, my huge family rarely traveled. The few trips we took, mainly to Colorado to see grandparents, were played over in my brain for years to come. I jumped at the chance to go on church mission trips every year. As a fifteen year old I traveled to Haiti with a church group and got my first nibble at life in another culture. I was officially hooked.

While in college, as my options expanded, I took a trip to Germany and Switzerland and soaked in their culture. Then I met my man from New Hampshire and together we took weekend trips, sometimes to destinations like Nashville, and sometimes just long drives down unknown roads. The goal was to see what was around the next corner.

One summer we tag teamed with two friends and camped across the country, arriving in Washington state just in time for a mutual friends wedding. Every gorgeous state we passed through, from Wyoming to Idaho, we’d announce to the group, “This state is gorgeous! Some day we should live here!”

So I guess it seemed like the natural progression of things, that once we married and had a few kids fill up the back seat of the car, we’d continue to explore in any way we could. There are many fun places to roam in the middle of Missouri. Kansas City and St. Louis are just two hours away. The Ozarks are just about three. We took the kids on many small trips and tried to instill in them this magical disease called wanderlust.

Every October I’d drive our preschoolers across the country, to New Hampshire, to see Jeff’s large family who only knew our children by pictures posted on their fridges. For a month we’d play with these uncles who were barely out of high school. Picking apples and having impromptu parades through the house to the soundtrack of The Jungle Book left all of us with memories that lasted the next 11 months, until we’d meet up again. Sometimes Jeff flew out to join us for a week and then he’d fly home to work and the preschoolers and I would pack up the car to drive back home. Every step of the journey was a joy; nothing but time to explore new roads and find new places.

Then came the big job change and the move to the East coast. Our friends were skeptical but we were thrilled. Who cared that it was less than a year after September 11th and the terror threat was set at red most of the time? An opportunity to explore the nation’s capital by living there was too much to pass up.

As we finished up the first of what was supposed to be two years in D.C., a drastic change of plans came from Jeff’s boss. We were being moved to Utah. We’d never considered Utah. Colorado was familiar, but who’d ever been to Utah? In the days of very early internet options, Jeff instead brought home pamphlets and books that showed our kids what this new state would look like. If it was half as amazing as the pictures implied, we were game.

Since we had the summer to get there, the kids and I took the three week path across the country, sweeping down the southeast and taking in a part of the country we were not familiar with. We finally sat on a beach in Florida and took our picture by a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Baghdad’ in Louisiana. The path led us straight to my sister’s house in Dallas, where we played for a few days before driving the no man’s land of west Texas and heading up the middle of Colorado.

Within days we were passing through Wyoming, once again spell bound by its beauty. Then we finally got to our new home state, entering from the north, and blown away by the continuing splendor as we drove through Park City. For the next three years we explored every corner of that magical state, from frequent trips back up to Park City, to hiking trips through the red rock arches in the south. We drove through Native American reservations and crawled into dwellings that are carved in the cliffs at the Four Corners. It’s one of the main symptoms of wanderlust. An inability to sit at home when the car has a full tank of gas and there’s nothing on the family schedule.

Eventually we moved back East and continue to explore this area every chance we get. My children are showing signs of inheriting this wandering way of life. I’ve discovered that the only real drawback to infecting them with wanderlust is the fact that there’s a good chance that none of them will live close to us as they make their own way in life. Each has their own dreams about where they’ll live and explore when they get the chance, and it looks like they’ll be scattered by the wind. I’m okay with it though.

It just means more places for me and Jeff to travel once our nest is empty.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Value of a Picture Book



I was quickly cruising through my email inbox on Friday morning, making sure there wasn’t something urgent needing my attention, when I came across a link to a New York Times article about how picture books are losing popularity. The subject matter stopped me in my tracks. I skimmed through the article, tagging it for a more in depth read once I got my nine year old on the bus for school.

But the whole time we were going through our school morning routines the idea gnawed at me. How could it be that picture books were losing their popularity? They’re my favorite kind of book. The subject matter has such a broad range and the different types of illustrations set each one apart. How in the world could they be going out of style?

Once the bus had come and gone I got back to the computer and looked up the link. The main point of the article is that parents are anxious to get their kids into chapter books. There’s pressure to get your kid moving along the academic track as quickly as possible. Picture books are seen as something for little kids, a minor step on to bigger and better things. I understand the pressure parents are under to keep their children moving forward academically. But letting go of picture books too early is not the answer.

Because I work in a library I have access to all the newest picture books and I bring them home by the bag full. The youngest child in my house is almost ten, and I’m proud to say he and I often curl up with a stack of big rectangular books. There are many reasons he still enjoys these weekly sessions on our living room couch.

For one thing, a lot of the subject matter in picture books is relatable to children of many ages. Some concepts that the younger group may not pick up on will be the launching off point for an in depth discussion with an older child. Many picture books deal with relationships, from friendships at school to confusing life situations like a grandparent with Alzheimer’s disease. My son and I have had some valuable heart to hearts after reading through a picture book.

Then we could move on to illustrations. I’m a member of a SCBWI, a national organization for writers and illustrators, and through our meetings I’ve met so many amazing illustrators who work in a wide range of mediums. The art work in a lot of picture books is stunning. Almost once a week I come across a book at the library that has pictures I’d frame and hang on a child’s bedroom wall. By reading picture books to my son I’m exposing him to all types of art and artists. He gets the value of an illustration on a much higher level than a preschooler ever could.

Then I’m reminded of a lesson I learned in my elementary education classes in college. The topic was reading to children, and all of the positives that can come from it. Someone questioned our professor, about how reading to an infant or toddler could do any good. I’ll never forget his answer.

“A child who’s read to, even before he has any concept of a book, learns to associate the warm cozy feeling of being nestled in a parent’s arms with reading. For the rest of his life he’ll have positive feelings about learning and reading.”

I think the same carries over into the topic of reading picture books to an older child. Sure, my son bounds up the stairs and reads chapter books before he goes to sleep every night. And the nights we aren’t reading picture books, we’re snuggled up together as I read aloud a chapter book that’s just a smidge above his own reading level. But it’s nothing like the positive feelings he gets from our time poring over picture books, discussing the pictures and themes long after the story is over.

Chapter books are great. They have their place and there are many great ones to choose from. But I truly believe we do our kids a great disservice to abandon the world of picture books too early, seeing them as a childish step that has no place in an older child’s reading world.

On a side note, one of the other issues discussed in the New York Times article was the matter of price. Picture books generally retail around twenty bucks. That seems like a lot of money for a book that takes less than ten minutes to read. I would imagine this explains why we still see large stacks of picture books being checked out at the library. It’s a good way to be able to read them without actually buying them.

But there are still good reasons to buy picture books. When a child connects with a great book, he wants it read to him over and over, for years to come. There’s something very special about having your favorite books lined up on your very own bookshelf, with no library markings on their spines. Picture books make great holiday and birthday presents. I have a personal list of favorites I go to when I need to buy a gift for a young niece or nephew. I like contributing to their book collections with books I know they will enjoy while snuggled up on their parent’s lap.

I can only hope that the newspaper article predicting the demise of the picture book ends up being just a blip on the publishing radar. My dream would be for parents to understand the value of a great picture book and how it can enrich their elementary age child’s life just as much as it did their preschooler’s.

Books are many kinds of wonderful. I hope we don’t forget the value of each step.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How 4 is More Than 3



Recently someone asked me how different having three kids was from having four. Going from two to three seemed like such a big jump to their family. Adding one more to that was too much for her to imagine. It made me stop and think about the question. What is it like to have four kids? How is it different than three? Or even two?

Let me first point out that we did not have our four children all in a row. I have no idea how those moms survive from day to day. Our second baby was born three weeks after his big sister’s first birthday but from that moment on, our family growth came to a screeching halt. Jeff was still working on graduate school and starting his career so we happily raised our two as Irish twins and knew any future siblings would come later.

When our first two were independent preschoolers we added another boy to our family. Almost four years after that, our last baby. That put our oldest and our youngest almost a decade apart in age. But no matter how you decide to space them out, having four children is very different from having two or even three.

First let’s visit the topic of clothes. Cute little Osh Kosh hand me downs only last for so long. Once a kid hits elementary school, the friend and family donations dry up. Then it’s time to hit the department store. Buying shirts, pants, socks and underwear for two can add up quickly. With four it’s enough to max out a credit card. Add on to that the fact that everyone needs a winter coat, possibly winter boots, dress shoes and athletic shoes.

Even if money’s not tight, the time it takes to physically take four different kids shopping is almost a full time job. Once we passed the years where I could buy clothes for them without their consent, we had to start scheduling clothes shopping trips like we do dentist appointments. Last week I found myself at Old Navy, with all three boys. We just needed ‘a few pair of pants and a few shirts’.

Getting three rotating boys to try on the necessary items, stay patient while I cruised through clearance racks, and not kill each other (just for fun), was enough to make me crave a nap as I shelled out over two hundred dollars at the register. And that whole escapade was just the tip of the iceberg. We still have to shop for their full winter wardrobes. In past years I’ve spent my Old Navy afternoons juggling the boys on top of trying to steal a few seconds away from them to explore the girlie side of the store with their sister. Fortunately she’s graduated on to picking out her how clothes.

The vehicle in our driveway is also something that reflects our larger family. I know a lot of people who have two kids drive minivans. But when your family totals six, you fill it up. We’ve become experts at packing lightly when we go to New Hampshire to visit grandma. Once the six tall bodies that make up our family climb into the van, there’s little room left over for suitcases.

Every extra child means another birthday on the calendar. Presents and parties and cake on another day you need to make special. Every child means another stack of presents under the tree in December. Every child will also have his own friends, who will multiply and take over your house if the snacks are good enough.

And the thing I feel the most on some days, every extra child means more stuff in your house. More shoes by the door, more buckets of ‘special things’ tucked under beds, more sweatshirts left draped on the back of the couch and a zillion more school papers left on the kitchen table. A jug of orange juice lasts less than a day. A box of cereal is lucky to make it through one breakfast. There never seems to be enough spoons in the drawer if we have soup for dinner, then ice cream for snacks two hours later.

By now you might be wondering why we did it. Why subject ourselves to such chaos and expense, when it just seems like a lot of work? Let me tell you why.

To begin with, we did it because Jeff and I both grew up in big families and loved having lots of siblings. Even as adults we love being surrounded by brothers and sisters, older and younger than us, and the way each of them enriches our lives. Every extra kid in a family brings a different personality. Each of our children have their place in our family and each one of them rounds us out in a good way. When we have family discussions around the dinner table, we have a nice variety of viewpoints and opinions. My children are learning from each other how to get along with many different kinds of people.

As they’ve grown up, and passed through different developmental stages, my children have grown close to whichever sibling meets their needs best at the time. When he was little, Isaac loved snuggling in his big sister’s lap as she read him books. Her praise meant ten times more to him than praise from mom or dad. As he got older, he started to be the big brother for Sam, reaching down to use the nurturing skills his sister taught him. Now that he’s a teenager, he most identifies with his older brother, the one who’s paving the way for him through the confusing halls of high school. He’s learned something different from each interaction.

It’s not a lifestyle for everyone. A lot of the time it’s loud and rowdy, especially if there are boys involved. And it’s not something you should jump into blindly. But for some of us it’s a pretty good life. Even with all the extra work, extra expense and extra guilt that you’re not possibly meeting everyone’s needs, there’s always a reminder somewhere along the way, of why it’s all worth it.

Sometimes it’s as simple as watching your handful of kids just enjoying each others company.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

One Year of Life



One year ago we heard the news. There was a new baby living next door and his name was Andrew. We couldn't wait to meet him.

His daddy brought him over a few days later, bundled up in a blanket. He was amazing. Huge blue eyes and just a wisp of hair.

Then somehow weeks turned into months and seasons came and went. His mama took him for walks and I saw him progress from being propped up in an infant seat to sitting up tall, reaching for things he saw along the way. He changed and grew right before our eyes.

And now he's turned one. This baby we barely knew 12 months ago is now his own person. He runs up and down our driveway as his parents try to have a conversation in our lawn chairs. He chases his cat and climbs over the baby gates. He's his own man.

In one short year he went from totally dependent to thinking he was ready for full independence.

This should not surprise me. We watched it happen with all four of our own kids. But we're up to big kid ages now and going from age 9 to age 10 is significant but not startling. That year between age zero and age one is flabbergasting.

It's been fun to be reminded, once again, how amazing the whole process truly is and how lucky we are to be a part of it.

Reach

Little Brother Rule #456:

No matter how high big brother throws that football, by golly, you sacrifice life and limb to catch it. Skinned knees and twisted ankles be damned.


Kitty Love



Could there be a cat more loved than this one? This kid is our resident Dr. Dolittle (yes, I'm convinced he and that cat have long conversations when the rest of us are not around).

The Mowing Show



One thing I don't want to forget about this autumn, when Sam was about to turn 10: That it was his first summer to help mow the yard and when he'd walk behind that loud push mower he didn't realize that he wasn't in a sound proof bubble.

He'd circle the front yard behind that big, red beast, belting out songs at the top of his lungs. He could barely hear himself, so he figured there was no way we could hear him.

Sometimes he even threw in one handed dance moves, being careful not to let go of the mower's handle. It cracked me up, every single time.

Enjoying the Moment

Another thing I want to remember about this specific time in our journey of raising kids: How Isaac never fails to bring out his theatrical side when he sees a camera in my hand. He was so diligently helping dad rake leaves, until he spied me zooming in on him.

This child's name means 'laughter'. It suits him perfectly.



Monday, October 4, 2010

He Brought Her Flowers



I’ve started to notice that a lot of my writing is centered around living with teenagers. Maybe it’s because keeping this thing balanced, in a house with three teens and a fourth grader, is what takes up most of my mental and physical effort.

So why is it that, as someone who’s had at least one teen in her household for almost six years now, I still find myself being surprised by how surreal it all feels?

Case in point, the events that transpired just twelve hours ago in this very house. Picture, if you will, one tall, adorable nineteen year old boy, sneaking in my back door as I am cleaning up dinner. I can barely see his face, peeking out at me from behind a huge bouquet of brightly colored flowers.

My daughter has just left to go meet said boy at a restaurant down the street. She casually informed me it was their three month anniversary as she breezed out the door. Her smile was so bright it made me stop with my counter wiping.

She’s known this boy for three years now, most of the time we’ve lived in New York. He is the cousin of one of her best friends. It took them going to her senior prom in June (just for fun) for the unexpected sparks to fly. It’s been nice to watch them enjoying time together; finding a good friend who can be a boyfriend too is a special kind of gift.

So now (I’ve learned) that they are marking anniversaries. He sent her off to the restaurant early then snuck back in to plant surprise flowers in her bedroom. His smile was as bright as hers had been.

This is very new for me, for hubby and me. We’ve seen her date before. She had a boyfriend or two in high school. But now she’s in college. This boy is working a full time job. This is when big life changes start to happen.

I don’t know where their relationship will go. They don’t realize it now, but they’re young. Love feels its deepest intensity when it’s new and young. It may fizzle out by next week. Or it may not. As my daughter’s young suitor said last night, “Just imagine, a vase full of flowers for our three month anniversary…for our one year anniversary I’ll have to fill your whole room with flowers!”

It’s all good and charming and special for them right now. I’ll keep my fears and predictions to myself. She deserves a time to just enjoy the sweetness of the moment. I feel confident she’s been well lectured about choices when it comes to her body and her future. So now my job is to sit back and let her be.

She’s entering a whole new world. And so are her mom and dad.

A Hairy Question




Have we gotten a little crazy with the politically correct language when my nine year old asks his big sister, in all honesty, if it’s still okay to use the term ‘black bear’, or if he should be calling them ‘African American bears’?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Finding My Way



I have a friend who is always about six steps ahead of me when it comes to the things that will change your life. Because of a desire for simplicity and a lack of finances I’m usually behind in the ‘next great thing’ game. But she’s on top of it all. She has some kind of psychic ability to know what’s coming up and jump on board at the exact right moment.

I see the stuff, on TV, in the magazines. Smart phones, Blue tooth, High Def, Twitter, Social Networking, on board navigational systems, WiFi…it’s all pretty confusing to me, so I avoid it when I can. For the most part I don’ t mind being out of the game. I appreciate technology but don’t feel a need to keep up with the latest and greatest of anything.

Sure, she’s slowly sucked me into a few things and I humbly admit I’m a better person for it. Six years ago I was sure I would hate having a digital camera. So much to figure out. I’d have to learn more confusing things on the computer to even find my pictures. I had a nice, comfortable relationship with my old 35mm film camera. There was no reason to stray. Then my friend came to stay with me and snapped four trillion pictures of our visit, posting them to the internet before she even got home. I was intrigued.

Long story short, I researched, anguished about it, researched some more, and finally dove in. I’m on my second digital camera now, after completely wearing out the first one. I had to buy an external hard drive just for picture storage. Having digital is like having free, unlimited film. Who knew? (she did…)

The same thing happened with facebook. I saw no need for it, until I tried it and found it was the perfect way to stay in touch with family and friends who are flung across the country. Now I check my facebook page as often as I do email. It has become my easy way of knowing what the people I love are up to on a regular basis.

This is how I happened to stumble on the phenomenon known as the blogosphere. I’d heard the word ‘blog’ but had no use for it. My first impression was that they were for celebrity gossip and political ramblings. I have no use for either of those things. Then I happened to stumble upon one that was about parenting. It was about being a mom. That’s it. No platform, no gossip. Just down and dirty glimpses of life, written by another mom like me.

Again I was intrigued. I clicked around and found more, and more, and more of these other moms out there, sharing their lives on this thing called blogging.

For a few years I’ve had a file in my computer called “my encyclopedia”. I created this file the day I finished reading The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. It’s an ingenious book, in which the author has taken the ordinary things that happen in her life, things that make her ponder a bit about life, and organized them like an encyclopedia. It’s a much more entertaining read than I’m making it out to be, but the idea itself is what blew me away.

I was always walking around thinking strange things and remembering specific memories of my growing up years, and wanting to jot them down, but having no good way to organize them. So that day, the day I read the last page of Amy’s book, I sat down at the computer, opened up a blank page, titled it “My Encyclopedia” and began writing. Soon I had dozens of entries. Here’s a sample:

N- Narration
I go through spells of reading. I find a whole stack of great books from the public library and go hog wild, digging through them. I desperately carve out extra moments in the day that I can disappear and read even one more chapter of the current book of interest. Soon the whole stack is read, or returned un-read when I realize it is not the book I thought it was. But after reading so much, in such a short amount of time, I have realized it makes my brain work differently for several days after. I begin to narrate my life, as I walk through it.

“She noticed a stray Cheerio on the carpet as she walked down the hall to check on the current status of the kitchen counter. Tempted to pick it up she stepped over it at the last minute, as a kind of small test for the children, to see if any one of them would think to pick it up themselves, before it got crushed in the carpet. She doubted any of them would…you know children. Within 24 hours she would be vacuuming up the ten thousand crumbs that had magically exploded out of one tiny cereal bit as it met the sole of a child’s shoe.”

It is an odd thing, to be living your life on the outside while narrating it as you go on the inside. It makes me want to sit down and work on some writing project. Then when I find the time to sit down and write, the words seem to stop, paralyzed by the stark white computer screen. Time to go get some more library books.


Or an entry under “R”….

R- Radio
For most of my childhood I believed the music being played on the radio was actually being played at the station, by the musicians. Many times I wished I was old enough to drive so I could rush down to the KCMQ studio and accidentally run into Donny Osmond or Sonny and Cher as they were exiting the building. I was a ridiculously old child before it dawned on me that the station played recordings.


So when I found the world of mommy blogs I could already relate. These were just postings that resembled my own encyclopedia. And it was fun to read about what other people were thinking about. So finally I dove in.

In the beginning I wrote about little things. A short paragraph here. A few pictures there. Then I stumbled upon a great gig, writing a parenting column for the local paper. I began posting the essays from my column on my blog. And life got more and more busy as our two oldest became seniors, a year apart, and the college application process started. Life’s kicked up a notch and now I’m not just the mom to four busy kids, but on a weekly basis I have actual writing deadlines and a job at the library to show up to three days a week. Oh yeah, and a few loads of laundry to do and about four thousand meals to pull off. So now my blog is mostly my essays, things I ‘had’ to write for another venue. But some day I hope to go back to the original template. Just random thoughts, snippets of our life. Because that’s sometimes what I enjoy the most about clicking over to my favorite blogs. Just the everyday stuff that makes us say, “Yeah, I’ve felt/thought/seen that!”

In the meantime I am finding a surprising side effect from reading blogs. I’ve found friends all over the country who I may never meet in person, but understand me like few others do. Their incredible writing keeps me plugging away, making my stuff better and more inspired. I’ve made author friends who I dream of living next door to because they seem to be the perfect mix of professional and friend. And I imagine they’d make incredible over-the-fence editors.

Who knows what the next big thing might be. I’ll let my techy friend figure it out and try it out, and then I’ll decide if it fits into my life. For now I am perfectly content with the low tech version of the life I’ve managed to carve out for myself. I snap my digital pictures, load them up to my facebook page, click over to check a few of my favorite blogs, then send out an email to my sister, just to see how her day is going. It’s enough for now.

It’s more than enough for now.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Back to School...again







Suddenly the summer months are gone and autumn is coming down the track. There’s no time to think about all of the things I didn’t do with my children when I had them all to myself for those two short months. The back to school schedule does not allow for much sitting around and reflecting. There are emergency contact papers to sign, school sports schedules to keep track of, and of course the yearly back to school nights to attend.

Sam’s back to school night was last week. I had spent the whole morning working on his older brother’s college plans. My oldest son has very specific dreams about where he wants to go to school and it’s proven to practically be a part time job on my end, figuring out what we need to do to get him there. I was totally immersed in college talk, college prep, and college research for a good part of the day.

Soon the clock was reminding me that it was time to put the files away and make dinner. Then, after setting everyone up with homework to keep them busy, I headed off to Sam’s school to see where my youngest son spends his days. The teen issues of the morning were still lingering in my mind as I stepped through those elementary school doors and for just a few minutes I almost felt out of place.

I looked around at the faces of other parents I’ve come to know in the four years we’ve lived here. Meeting them and spending time with them has helped me to slowly feel at home in New York. It’s been nice to live in one state long enough to recognize faces when I walk through the door. And because I know their family situations, I’m aware that many of them are living in younger kid households.

They go home to dining rooms that have high chairs in the corner and living rooms inhabited by Fisher Price people. They don’t have six different guitars for the Rock Band video game leaning against their couch. They don’t have teenager cars filling up their driveways and teenager appetites sweeping their fridges bare. Most of them are figuring out which preschool might fit their other children best, not which college. It sometimes makes me feel like I live on a different planet.

I look around and wonder if there are others in the room who feel the same way. Maybe families I don’t know who also have teens in their house. Or maybe a grandparent who is raising a young grandchild. I wonder if they also have to do mental pep talks to themselves, about being just as important as younger parents to the child who counts on them every day, as we all try to slide into tiny desk chairs on back to school night.

Sam’s at the top end of the elementary school ladder. Two more years in those hallways and we’ll no longer have a child at Genet Elementary. No more back to school nights in those long, artfully tiled hallways. No more parent meetings in the beautifully restored auditorium. And as much as I sometimes have to work at it to feel like I still belong there, I will surely miss those corridors when our time is up.

One of the first places we visited when we moved to New York in the summer of 2006 was the front steps of Genet. Sam was starting kindergarten and we were told that the class lists were posted on the front doors of the school. I drove all four of our children over to check it out. We were inspired by the beauty of the building and just had to take a picture of Sam under the incredible relief sculptures that grace the sides of the front doors, especially the one that reads ‘Kindergarten’. How many schools have such a perfect photo opportunity for the newest in their flock?

Then school started and I found my way into his classroom to volunteer. It was a nice break from unpacking moving boxes and to say the adult interaction was appreciated would be an understatement. Every week I looked forward to my visits, enjoying every aspect, from walking down the long hallways lined with creative revolving art work to sitting one on one with a bunch of five year olds who turned into Sam’s best friends. Eventually I found one of my own best friends in those classrooms and treasure her friendship to this day.

I’ve been seeing a lot in the media about how schools in America are failing. To an outsider who only sees our national news, the picture is pretty bleak. We have many schools and even entire districts that are not providing even close to an adequate education for the youngsters who show up to their classrooms every day. The reality is humbling. As a person with an education degree, and four children in public schools, this topic is close to my heart.

The bleak news reports remind me to be thankful. I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t have to beg for a charter school placement to feel like my child is getting a quality education. I just have to get him to the end of the driveway every morning so the bus can take him up the road to a building full of fabulous teachers who love him and care about his education. I’m not na├»ve. I know no school is perfect and there is always room for new ideas and new programs. But for the past four years my son’s been encouraged, challenged, praised and loved by some pretty amazing teachers and staff.

Back to school night is humbling to me as I watch my littlest guy make his way up the ranks. But it’s also a humbling reminder that we have a lot to be thankful for. We’re blessed to live in a school district that’s getting a lot of things right. And with enough parent involvement, things can only get better. So I have to say, bring on the new school year.

I’m ready for nine more months of learning and growing.