Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Her side: She’s raised her boy to believe he is important and valuable, despite his learning disabilities and mental handicaps. Every day at school he battled teasing from classmates and name calling by bullies. He tried to believe his mama when she told him to believe in himself. Finally he was out of school and making his way in the real world. Simple things, like writing his name, still gave him trouble, but he knew there were more important things in life than having a high IQ.

My side: It was a normal busy Saturday afternoon at the library. As a woman brings her books up to the desk to be checked out she asks me if her son’s library card is still valid. She says it’s been years since he used it. I tell her I’d be happy to check for her and then make friendly small talk as I scan her books and hand them back to her. Her son stands quietly next to her, a bit rumpled in appearance but reminding me of many of the kids I see hanging around outside the high school when I go to pick up my own kids.

I scan his card. His name is no longer in the system. I ask him if he’s over sixteen and he politely answers, “Yes.” So I give him the standard drill about how he can bring in a picture ID with his current address on it and I can give him a new library card in just about five minutes. He seems happy with that answer.

As I hand his old card back to him I notice the signature on it. His name is written in bold block print, much like you’d expect from a five or six year old.

This happens a lot at our library. Children get new cards in elementary school, signing their names in little kid script, then their attendance falls off as they reach their teens. They come back as young adults and want to update their card, happy to have a new card with their grown up signature on it.

I foolishly made this assumption about the young man who faced me on Saturday.

As I handed his card back to him I said, “Yeah, and when you come back in I can give you a new card that you can sign as an adult now.” To me it was a simple statement. But it was also an offending assumption.

What Happened: They left the library, I went on to help many other patrons until the library closed on Saturday night.

Monday morning, when I was at home, a sobbing woman showed up at the library, wanting to talk to my boss. She relayed a story about how her son had been insulted and offended by a library employee over the weekend. She said he had been so upset that he didn’t want to return to the library ever again. Ever. Again. My boss was a bit confused, knowing there was no one on her circulation staff who would insult a mentally handicapped patron.

Finally the incident was traced back to me. I was the one who hurt her son’s feelings so deeply that he never again wanted to come to our library.

I had no idea.

I have a mentally handicapped foster sister. I was a special education major in college for a year and a half. I would never, not ever do anything to hurt the feelings of any patron, much less a mentally challenged one.

But somehow I did.

And in this case I cannot make it better. The damage’s been done. Totally unintentionally, but done, nonetheless.

I may never see this woman , or her son again, so I put this out there, into the universe. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Ironically the young man came across as a regular, run of the mill, teen age kid so I had no clues that he might have sensitivities. I never meant to pile more pain on his weary shoulders.

It was all a terrible misunderstanding.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Love

A few months ago I had a special treat arrive in my email box. It was an email from a children’s book author. Her name is Carol Carrick and I read her most famous book, ‘Patrick’s Dinosaurs’ when I was studying children’s literature in college.

As I was shelving picture books at work last fall I found a Carol Carrick book I had never seen before. It’s called “Mothers Are Like That” and it’s the precious story of how mothers of all kinds of animals love and care for their babies. It moved me, almost to tears, so when I got home I did some digging online and found an address for Carol Carrick. I quickly typed out a note and stuck it in the mail, telling her how much I loved this book of hers.

It’s a tradition I have started in recent years, knowing how valuable a few words of encouragement can be to most writers. When a book touches me, I do everything I can to send a note to that author. Sometimes I get responses back, sometimes I don’t. And sometimes I find a new friend.

I was thrilled to find Ms. Carrick’s email in my box. Over the next few weeks we had a few chatty exchanges about writing and publishing and life. She shared that she lives at Cape Cod and is still plugging away at manuscripts, hoping to publish another book. I was tickled to find out one of her friends at the Cape is Norman Bridwell, the creator of one of my favorite book characters, Clifford the Big Red Dog. It turns out that he’s as gracious and kind as the fictitious dog he created.

A few weeks after we’d ‘met’ online I had a serendipitous thing happen at work. An adorable little boy with scruffy hair skipped up to the desk as his mother asked if he could get a library card. It’s always fun to give a child his first library card and I eagerly said, “Of course!”

I did the necessary computer work, he signed the little white application card with big block letters. Then he was off to find the first books he would check out with his very own card.

Most kids, knowing there is no limit on the number of books you can check out, go for the big stack. Mom or dad carry the leaning pile to my desk and we start the long process of ‘beeping’ each one of them. But this little boy came back to my desk with one book.

Just one.

And it was a book I knew very well. My friend Carol Carrick’s book, “Patrick’s Dinosaurs.”

I am sure he found it because of my efforts. Whenever I have the chance I scurry over to the picture book section and put on display all the books written by authors I know personally, from my writers group to accidental friends like Ms. Carrick. As he cruised through the kid’s section I am sure my latest display caught his eye. It still humored me that of all the books he had to pick from, he chose only one. And this specific one.

As he slid it across the counter to me I scooped it up and with wide eyes, I said, "WOW! This is the book you are going to check out? You found one of the best books in our whole library! How did you know this was one of our best books?"

His eyes got big and he just stared back at me.

"This is a really great book and if you love this as much as I think you will, there is another one that tells more stories about Patrick and his dinosaurs."

At this point the kid was a bit overwhelmed with his own good fortune so his mom began speaking for him. I told her all about the sequel to Patrick’s Dinosaurs and the new book Ms. Carrick’s son had just published. Then I mentioned that the author of the book lives not far from us, at the Cape.

Her son snapped to attention and his eyes grew wide.

"I just got back from the Cape!" he said.

"Well you might have had an ice cream cone in the same exact place where this author gets her ice cream cones!"

He as unquestionably amazed.

I had the warmest feeling in my heart as I watched him skip out of the library with his first library book. A book written by my friend. Hopefully the first of many thousands of books he will read in his lifetime.

And it made me see, once again, just how important this writing thing is. There will always be little boys coming into libraries, looking for books to read with their moms and dads.

It’s so important to make sure there are excellent books to pick from each and every time he comes back.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Love Like a Lion

It all went off without a hitch. When Sam brought home the paper for the annual lip sync show and said he wanted to sign up, I was skeptical. But the past three weeks have shown his fortitude and he, along with two of his best buddies, pulled it off tonight.

As one of thirty four acts, they had their two minutes in the spotlight and remembered every move we’d choreographed. I was so proud of them. What surprised me was the fact I didn’t get teary eyed when it was finally their turn up on that big stage. Yes, I couldn’t keep the big goofy grin off my face, but the whole thing didn’t make me all gummy eyed with nostalgia, like I’d expected.

That moment had already hit me. In the fourth act of the night.

I didn’t even know the kids doing the song that ended up reducing me to tears. They looked to be about third or fourth graders and they did a great job matching their dance to their song. The part that got to me was their song selection. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, from the Lion King soundtrack.

As I found myself singing along I immediately became emotional. I knew every word. Every single word. Because that song was a part of our family at a very fragile time for me. It holds so much more meaning to me than I had ever realized until this night, at an innocent elementary school talent show.

A decade and a half ago, just a short time after my mom had died, I found myself in a dark theater with my toddlers. It was their first big kid theater experience. Michael was barely two but we figured we’d see how long he could last. Meredith, being a year older, was plenty big enough to have been primed by endless Disney promotional commercials. She could barely sit still as we waited for the show to begin.

The lights dimmed and it was time for the movie. It began with a beautiful, moving, emotional song that was all about the Circle of Life. It was a topic I had thought about way too often in the weeks prior, as I contemplated how I could be so motherless so early in life.

In the midst of taking turns introducing new little lives into our extended family, my siblings and I had to slow down and accept the reality of losing one as well. A pretty important one. The hub of our family. The contrast was sharp and cut as deeply as any knife.

For the sake of my babies I did my best to hold back the tears as the movie played on. They burned my throat and stung my eyes. The music was stirring, setting the scene so beautifully. The animation was amazing, as each animal in the kingdom gathered to celebrate the King’s new son.

The circle of life. In theory it’s a beautiful thing. Especially when the part you’re singing about is welcoming a new little lion cub to the tribe. I just knew too well the other side of that circle.

Of course I fell in love with the movie, as did my children and most of America. For weeks afterward we sang the songs as we played in the yard and drove in the car. Hakuna Matata became a regular tune around our house. So did I Just Can’t Wait To Be King.

Eventually the movie came out on VHS (in the days before DVD) and we played our copy over and over until we almost wore out the poor VCR. Before long I had memorized the songs. And they became a part of the fabric of our lives.

Those magical days when we had all the time in the world to raise these impressionable little people. Those days and nights when the world revolved around figuring out how life was going to be without a mom to call when things got hairy, how this sudden hole in my heart would ever be filled again. Through the giggles of my children and the lonely tears that came in the dark hours of night, I heard the Lion King soundtrack in my ears.

Now I am in this new stage of teenagers and am so aware of every minute that passes and how it brings them closer to leaving this home we’ve created together. We rarely watch Disney movies anymore and I don’t think we even own The Lion King anymore. It was sacrificed when we purged the house of all VHS material.

But somewhere, in some storage bin, is a small plastic figurine that I just can’t bear to throw away. It’s a plastic toy we probably got in a Happy Meal back in those toddler days. It’s a model of the lion cub, snuggled on his daddy lion’s belly, both of them smiling broadly. It was a scene that took place early in the movie, before the lion cub loses his parent and then loses his way.

At one point Michael brought this toy to me and asked me to write some words on it so he could give it to his daddy. I happily found a black sharpie and asked him what I should write.

“Just like my dad.”

That’s what my boy wanted to write on his new favorite toy, so he could present it to his own lion king daddy. I happily obliged, maybe with a few tears in my eyes.

So tonight as I sat in another dark theater, this time the mother of a bunch of older kids, and heard those familiar, poignant words fill my ears I couldn’t stop the tears from coming. Our family is so far past the days of Disney movies. I shouldn’t know this song so well. But the words come as easily as the tears. Both so familiar.

And this is my defense, my explanation. No, I didn’t cry when my baby boy nailed his act, chopping away like an expert to “Kung Fu Fighting”.

The tears had already come and gone. Along with a sappy little song about a little lost lion who was forced to find his own way.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why I Can't Watch

I have to admit, sometimes the international news runs together in my mind. It’s hard to keep track of terrorist attacks and small natural disasters in countries I can barely find on a map and sometimes can’t even pronounce. I feel so helpless and disconnected to their pain and upheaval.

But when the news headlines recently included the word “Haiti”, I took notice.

I’ve been to Haiti.

So many years ago, when I was an impressionable fifteen year old I spent a summer with a group called Teen Missions. We built a small cinder block dormitory for an orphanage outside of Cap-Haitian. We dug long trenches by hand for the foundation. We stood in large circles and mixed cement with shovels to slap between the large, heavy blocks, as sturdy walls rose out of the mud.

But more than the exhausting labor or the hot sweaty nights sleeping in pup tents, I remember the children. The gorgeous chocolate colored children with huge eyes and happy voices. Despite language barriers we spent a lot of time playing with the young ones who would eventually benefit from our building project. Their old dormitory shared the same small plot of land as our project, fenced in by large leafy trees. Most days it felt like there was no one else in the world but us, our messy project, and three dozen of the most adorable children I’d ever seen.

We eventually flew home. I finished high school. Went off to college. Rushed off to life. Occasionally I thought of my little friends in that country that once again felt so far away. I prayed that the structure we built for them kept them cool on the hottest days and dry when it rained.

When hurricanes hit their country a few years ago, I saw the news. I felt an extra sadness for the people of Haiti because I felt like they were somehow still in my heart. So far away, geographically, but so vivid in my memories.

Then this earthquake hit. This horrendous shaking of a country that couldn’t really afford much more of a shake up. Houses knocked from their foundations. Babies rocked out of their mama’s arms.

Day after day the news stories come. Stories of people found and people still missing. Stories of bodies who will never know personal graves and basic broken limbs that will result in infection and death. There are pictures of little ones walking the streets. Some without mothers or fathers. Orphans. Little lost children who might as well be the same little faces I fell in love with in 1982.

So I have stopped watching. I wrestle with the guilt of that decision, but I don’t know if I have any other option.

Because now I am not just an idealistic teenager who loves to babysit and gets a kick out of the sound of giggling toddlers. Now I am a mom. Children are universal. They cross cultural barriers. Every orphan I see is a child I could mother. Every toddler wandering aimlessly down a street full of rubble is a rip in my heart. Every tiny body bag I see in the background of a news story is a priceless little life that was snuffed out unfairly.

I have no illusions that the mothers in Haiti love their children any less than I love mine. Which means some mama, a whole bunch of mamas, are grieving for their babies tonight. And it breaks my heart.

I can give money and I can say prayers, but beyond that I feel helpless. Like most of the mothers in this country, I feel helpless. On the day I met my first child I became a universal mother. Every child in the world might as well have been mine. And knowing there is a country full of my children, who are homeless, hurting, hungry, thirsty, and crying, is more than I can bear.

So I give the money. I say the prayers. And I turn off the TV. I know where to find the coverage, should I feel a need to check back in.

But for now this is all I can do. Hug my own well fed, contented babies. Then whisper an extra prayer for those I cannot reach.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Locking Lessons

I've finally figured out my problem. Michael, my almost seventeen year old made the proclamation the other night as we left the Y.

Someone(hubby?)had taken the key unlocker thing off my car key chain. I didn't notice it until we had gotten out of the car and were headed into the Y for a work out. I had to stop and think through things to figure out how to lock the car.

With just a key.

Hmmmm. Has it been that long?

Fortunately I regained my brain quickly and confidently went into the facility in full confidence that I could get back into my car with just a key.

Fast forward one hour. Michael and I are headed back across the dark parking lot, both sweaty and feeling energized after great work outs. I stick my hand in my pocket and suddenly remember my key situation. The one that almost stressed me out an hour before.

But no worries, I remind myself. I have a key. A piece of metal that can do the job of that clicky thing that I must find once I get home.

I stick said piece of metal into appropriate hole. Click. My door is open. Hooray for technology of the sixties!

Then I slide my sweaty, chubby behind into the drivers seat and realize Michael is still standing outside, on the passenger side, waiting for me to unlock his door.

I physically groan as I lean all the way over to his door, barely able to reach his interior lock.

He rolls his eyes as he glides into his seat. "Mom," he sighs,"You still have the automatic unlock button on the door. You didn't have to reach over to manually unlock my door."

Oh yeah. Right.

Then he gives it to me. In his nicest, most patient teen age son voice he says, "Hate to say it mom, but you are so stuck in old school."

That's me. Stuck in Old School. And most of the time, proud of it.

Easy Livin'

Quote of the day from Sam, my nine year old.

"Mom, if I were a grown up I could live on just a hundred bucks!"

"Really?" I respond."How is that?"

"Well, let's assume I have two good sets of clothes I could rotate. Then I could use my whole hundred bucks for food. I'd just get tons and tons of those cans of spagetti-os."

"Hmmmm....wouldn't you get tired of spagetti-os?"

"No way, mom! There are lots of kinds of spagetti-os! I've seen 'em in the store. I could live FOREVER on a hundred bucks worth!"

If only my grocery shopping were that easy each week.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Small Morsels

I went into this 'parenting teens' thing knowing that I would not have control over their everyday lives anymore. I also knew that they would have experiences I may not approve of, that I would never know happened. My main goal and wish for these years was that they survive, physically and emotionally.

I was a teen once. But for clarification, I have to admit I was a pretty prude teen. Very involved in a church youth group. Went on a summer long mission trip to Haiti. Attended very few parties.

But this is why I was nervous about parenting a teen. Even *I* did a few things in my teens that my parents would not have approved of. So I am not naive enough to think, to a certain extent, my older kids have private lives I dont know about.

So I watch their behavoir when they are home, watching for clues that all is not right. I check out their status when they return home from parties, discreetly smelling their clothes and breath for any giveaway signs. I have called them when they are at parties and checked on their status. (not often, just enough to let them know it's possible) So far I have had no real evidence that they are up to anything fishy.

So give me this much as I share the following two stories - I know this is not proof that my kids will never, ever get in some serious trouble. It's not proof that anything could not go seriously wrong even before I finish this posting. (hey, the day is young) But as a mom, these two stories make me feel just a smidgen better about these two kids I love so much.

Story #1 - Happened a few months ago. Sixteen year old son called in the middle of a big teen party to work out a ride home from dad. After they made their arrangements I took the phone for just a few minutes. I could hear evidence of 'partying' in the background. I said, "Just be careful, Michael. Make good life choices..."

He laughed and instantly responded, "I know mom. It's hard sometimes. There is this huge bowl of cotton candy here and I'm making myself stay away from it!"

Cotton Candy. He thought I meant eating too many sweets. God bless him.

Story #2 = Newly 18 year old daughter just started a job at a Hollywood Video store. Making conversation, I asked her if she ever has to card anyone when they rent movies. She looked confused. I said, " know, people who rent things that are over an R rating.."

Again, confusion. Her answer, "Mom...there is no such thing as a movie that is rated more than an R! That's the worst rating there is!"

Again, God bless her. I felt obligated to briefly tell her that there are indeed movies rated worse than R, so she would at least be educated. Her puckered face and "Ewwww!" reaction made me feel even better.

I will breathe easy for now. But don't think I've let my guard down. I'm still on patrol. Sniffing jackets and checking cell phones until the last teen leaves my jurisdiction.

God, give me strength.

Strategic Parenting

For the first three years I took advantage of my husband’s generous nature. The paper came home from the elementary school, announcing a lip sync contest. I really had no interest in going. Tons of hyper kids running all over the place while their friends took turns dancing to the latest Hannah Montana song. Plus the auditorium seats are really uncomfortable to me, trying to squeeze my artificial leg into a place that doesn’t offer a lot of leg room. So Jeff was the brave one who stepped up and said, “I’ll go”, when Sam’s pleading kindergartener eyes begged for chance to see what it was all about.

They returned that night, one excited and one telling me with his grown up eyes that I owed him a huge favor. Then the next year rolled around and somehow Jeff got sucked in again. Pleading first grader eyes this time. And from there it became a father-son tradition. The paper comes home and Sam runs to dad, knowing it’s ‘their thing’. I couldn’t be happier.

Even though I have loved staying home on that specific Friday night I couldn’t help but catch their enthusiasm as their tradition grew. Every year they bound in the door (at least one of them does) and spill out stories about which song was the favorite that year, meaning they heard more versions of it than should be legal. They began to have their own inside jokes and often turned to give each other a knowing grin when specific songs came on the radio, having shared memories of that song in an elementary school auditorium.

So when the paper came home this year, my only excuse is that I was weak. Thinking of the fun my boy has had attending these yearly events with his dad, when he turned to me and said, “Can I be in the show this year?” I didn’t hesitate to say, “Sure, sweetie!”

Then came the more loaded question, which I should have pondered on before answering.

“Mom, will you be our sponsor?”

In that first split second it sounded fun. Plus I was really excited that my boy, who is the silliest one of the bunch in the privacy of our own home, but incredibly shy when an outsider is around, really wanted to get up on a stage and participate in a show. Another “Sure, sweetie!” came out of my mouth.

You can surely see where this is going. The next thing I know the date is approaching and we have to practice. We, meaning Sam and two of his full-of-energy third grader friends. They picked the song “Kung Fu Fighting” (of course), thinking they could just run around kicking each other and it would count for an act.

Unfortunately the papers coming from school put an end to that plan. Since most years it was turning into a dance show, not a lip sync show, the leaders were requesting that the kids actually learn the words, imagine that, and in turn, actually mouth them while they did their act. This meant forcing little boys to sit still long enough to pay attention to the fact that songs had WORDS.

Then there came the detail of costumes. Of course they needed to look the part. Two of the three have never been in martial arts classes so we had to find robes somewhere.

My childhood years in 4-H and grown up years making Halloween costumes finally paid off. For two bucks a yard I found some adequate white fabric and in a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon we had three matching, almost karate looking, white robes. Now, on to choreography.

I have no, I mean no dance experience. Never a cheerleader. Never had even a sister who was a cheerleader. Never taken a dance class. Not even a martial arts class. The closest I’ve come is one Tai Chi class at my gym in Utah. I survived but have blocked out the details for reasons to be explained another day.

The friends came over during our long weekend off school and spent about four hours playing video games and legos and six minutes practicing for this looming event.

Jeff and Isaac jumped in and offered suggestions. (helpful, even!) Meredith and Michael walked through the rehearsal and kindly held their comments, choosing instead to just roll their eyes. But with a bit of insistence we finally got a few moves lined up. Very simple moves, but something more than just jumping around karate chopping everything in sight.

So now our dress rehearsal is on Wednesday. I have no idea what to expect. They might surprise me and remember every move we practiced. Or they might just run around chopping on each other. Or maybe they will all freeze up and refuse to go on stage at all. I have no idea what to expect.

But no matter what happens, it will be fine. Three normally shy boys will have attempted to step out of their shells for a brief time and take part in a school tradition. The show will go on - if they do great, if they don’t, and if they refuse to even go on stage.

And I have learned another important parenting lesson. Sometimes stepping up isn’t so bad. Sometimes being involved can be rewarding. Sometimes winging it for your kid works out.

And sometimes, when the paper comes home from school, you should pretend not to see it, hoping the gullible dad will get first dibs.

Monday, January 18, 2010

No Snapshot on This Post

I have moved into a new era of parenting. I can see it now, only after finally recognizing that I don’t really have any more ‘little people’ in my house. For so many years that is all we had in our house. Lots and lots of little people, in all stages of development. Our first two were barely a year apart in age but the last two were over four years apart. This guaranteed that we always had a toddler in the mix and most of the time a baby too. You can understand why it didn’t occur to me for quite some time that we had outgrown the little person stage.

I should have noticed when we moved to New York and there was no high chair in the moving van. No diaper bags were packed when the minivan was stuffed to the gills for the cross country trip. When we signed in at the Residence Inn I didn’t ask for a porta crib. You think I would have gotten the hint. But letting go of the babies comes hard to me.

I got my education degree but my bigger dream was to be a mommy. And boy did my dream come true. For years and years I soaked up their smiles and cleaned up their potty messes. It seemed like I would always be wiping noses and tripping over Fisher Price people.

But then suddenly I look around and two of my children are looking me in the eye as they pass through the kitchen, inquiring about dinner. Their brother has moved up three notches on the doorway where we mark their height. That’s just in the past year. And my baby turned nine last fall. That puts him about a half a year away from also having two digits in his age. It’s enough to make a mommy feel old.

Then I read a book I found on the new book shelf at the library called “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” and it touched my soul. Its author, Katrina Kenison, writes so poignantly about raising up children only to let them go. She is living the mommy thing a few years ahead of me and showing me what’s just over my horizon. It’s exciting (for my children) and somewhat terrifying (for me). I feel like I cherish these moments with my children but her book makes me stop and take inventory.

It’s easy to think I am still the mommy of younger children. I have a nine year old in the house. I still attend events at an elementary school. We still put out stockings for Santa. He wants nothing more than to snuggle with mama when he’s not feeling well or stress at school is getting him down. But it’s all so deceiving.

Because if I’m not careful, while I’m busy pampering and babying my littlest guy, the big ones will be taking off on their own trajectories and aiming their sights on things beyond this cozy nest I’ve made for them. It’s right and it’s good. It’s just happening too fast.

So then I find myself at a diner, on a quiet Sunday night, just as a winter sleet storm is hitting our area. The threatening weather outside is of no concern to me because all I can see are the amazing faces that share a table with me. The man who so generously donated half the genetics of my beautiful children, and these four people who have sprouted like dandelions in a perfect Spring.

The occasion (as if it matters) is daughter’s birthday. The actual date was weeks ago but this is the first chance we’ve had to all be together so we swooped in on the opportunity, bravely ignoring the weather man’s warnings.

I feel the need, now more than ever, to capture these people on film, or in this new age of photography, on my memory stick. I want to freeze every expression. Every smile and yes, even every pout. I know, by looking through the boxes and boxes of photos I have of their childhood, that the faces you think you will remember forever get replaced with these new, older versions. If you don’t make the effort to snatch them up, they will evaporate into the wind.

But now that they’re older I can’t freely snap all the shots I want. As I take in the laughing and teasing that circles around our formica table at the diner, I want so badly to pull out a camera and snap away. Freeze that smile. That look of concentration as he studies the menu. The way her face melts when her baby brother says something adorable. And even the sneer he shoots his brother when teasing words go too far.

But it’s not the time or the place. My camera would be disruptive and intrusive. And not fair to the moment, which needs to play out in its own time. I will have to trust my tired old brain to remember these snapshots in a different way. I will remember them as snippets of moments instead of frozen facial expressions.

Maybe it’s better that way. When the camera is put away they don’t know I am pondering their expressions and memorizing their gestures. They don’t know that I dread the day they will leave home as much as they look forward to it. They don’t know my deepest desire is to lock them in their rooms so they can never, ever leave me.

They tell their stories and share their jokes. They tease each other and swipe French fries off their siblings plate.

And they think I’m doing what moms do the best and do the most - silently checking fingernails for dirt as hands gesture wildly in the telling of a story and making sure everyone has a napkin in their lap.

What they don’t know won’t hurt them. And I am sure, positive even, that it will definitely help me.

Just Two Words

It happened at a random moment, in a sunny stairwell, on a generic week day, the spring of my sophomore year in college. Morning classes were over, the turkey sandwich had been scarfed down quickly in the cafeteria, and I was hustling my way up to my friend’s dorm room to work on an almost over due group project.

I had a tight grip on the stair rail, my silent way of compensating for a left foot that was a bit deformed (although hidden well in a trendy high top tennis shoe) and generally uncooperative in most situations involving stairs.

I had paused for a second, scanning the courtyard below through the wide windows that bordered the stair well, looking for one of our other friends, who was supposed to be on her way back from lunch also.

A person of the male variety scooted by me. He easily cruised up each level, almost as if floating his way to the top. But as he passed me he caught my eye and said two words I will never forget. Two words that pierced through me and left me speechless.

“Nice legs.”

I cannot explain his boldness and was baffled by his comment until way past the point of having a cute or clever answer. I never saw him again and sometimes wonder if he ever really even existed.

But the memory is so clear. I know he was real.

Maybe he was feeling especially generous that day and made sassy comments to every girl he passed. Maybe he had been challenged by roommates in some dorm initiation ritual. But whatever his story, he said the words. To me.

I was not a pretty girl but not an ugly one either. I had been extremely successful at hiding my twisted foot from everyone at college, even my own roommates. My left leg was pretty skinny, worn out from numerous surgeries I’d had in elementary school and junior high. But my right leg was in decent shape. Having to pull the weight for a weak partner had made my right thigh long and lean and my right calf round and strong.

After years of occasionally analyzing that comment, I have come to believe this is what happened. The way I was standing blocked his view of my left leg and what he saw was just half of the picture - my stronger right half. But no matter what the reason, what the motivation, what the intention, the outcome was the same. Those words stuck in my brain.

To a girl who spent most of her childhood hiding an ugly foot and looking for reasons to avoid running because it never worked right, this boy’s comment was a miracle. To a youngest sister, growing up behind two older, gorgeous sisters with amazing abilities to pull off the latest styles, feeling mostly lost behind their brilliance, a comment like that pierced my being.

I walked taller for weeks after that moment. I thought of those two words when I was riding my bike, trying to keep both of my legs strong enough to keep up with college life. It changed how I saw my own body. Being away from home, out from under the umbrella of being ‘one of the Johnson girls”, had been liberating in many ways. But there were still pockets of insecurity and physical fitness was one of them.

Suddenly I realized that I could be seen as attractive too. Not just a leftover, the extra sister, but someone with my own positive points to offer.

Two words. Just two words. And I remember them clearly, over twenty years later. I remember the stairwell, I remember the moment. I remember his blonde hair and the surprise that was like an aftershock of an earthquake, rendering me paralyzed for at least a full minute. Nice legs. My legs. (or at least as far as he knew, seeing one and assuming the other would match)

It makes me think about the power of words. They can so easily hurt and tear down. Senseless comments that are not well thought out.

“Too bad you couldn’t get an A in that class.”

“Wow, your friend is so thin and beautiful.”

“Aunt Jesse’s always been the loony one.”

But in the same way, the simplicity of simple words can move mountains. Change self perceptions. Be bundled up and carried in someone’s heart for years and years afterward, taken out and revisited when the need arose.

To a shy child, “I love to hear your laugh, it makes me smile.”

To a friend with the four week old baby, “Wow! You look amazing!”

To the tired girl in the checkout line at the grocery store, “You have the nicest smile.”

It doesn’t take that much. Just slowing down long enough to see outside the bubble of your own busy life. Challenging yourself to pick two people a day and imagining what they are feeling and which handful of words might do them the most good.

Because you never know. Those eight words, or five words, or even two words, could change a person’s day. Heck, it might even make their week. Or maybe, just maybe, those words will travel with them for decades to come.

Helpful Teen

I was at the computer, checking email and blogs and other interesting stuff. I heard Michael (16) in the kitchen.

"Hey Michael!," I called to him, "Could you get me just a half a cup of juice?"

He did. And here's a picture of what showed up in front of me a few minutes later.

Gotta love the humor of a teenage boy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Six Quick Years

What you see here is a foot cake. Like a cupcake but different. This is how my family celebrated on Tuesday, as the sixth anniversary of my leg surgery rolled around. We celebrate every year, because that one day, that one surgery, changed not just my life, but the lives of every one of the members of my immediate family. It's the day mommy started over, so we eat cake and celebrate.

As we were making the feet, my son Isaac picked up a scrap cookie and said, "This one should be the before foot...this is what your foot looked like before you got the cool one!" So what you see in this picture is my before foot and my after foot.

And here is the full platter of feet cakes we enjoyed, followed by the picture of our lovely waiter, Isaac, who was waiting for the perfect excuse to break out the leftover fake New Years wine. It was quite the celebration indeed.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Googly Eyes

Just because this picture makes me laugh every time I see it, I am going to share it with you. We were making New Years hats on the 31st of December and Isaac had just a few too many ideas about what you can do with googly eyes.

Big, big birthday

It was just a regular Tuesday. The first Tuesday of the new decade, but otherwise it should’ve just been another page to turn on my calendar. But in my house, and in my heart, it was so much more. My oldest child, my only daughter, became a legal adult on Tuesday. I’m down to having just three ‘children’ in my house.

My husband comes from a family of five boys, so when we first started chatting about starting our family I had just one request, “give me a girl up front then you can have all the boys you want.” I was pretty sure fate would be on my side and the Berna family would be turned upside down with all the granddaughters we would bring to the mix.

I have nothing against boys. For the most part I got along well with my own brothers. But the idea of having daughters, who I would dress in sun dresses and Mary Janes, carefully tying big bows in their neatly gathered pig tales, seemed very appealing. Plus, I am a girl. I understand how they tick. It seemed like a no brainer that I would raise a few of them.

Just after my daughter’s first birthday, we introduced her to her new brother. Our doctor held up our newborn son in the delivery room and announced, “you now have the million dollar family - a girl and a boy!”

When you put it that way, I was just fine with it. It would be fun to see what one boy was like. We planned to have four children so I was sure my other daughters would arrive eventually. But then four years later Isaac arrived. Four years after that I was pregnant again and knew for a fact we would end on the female variety.

Jeff and I dragged our daughter and two sons to the six month ultrasound to see the first pictures of their new little sister. The technician rolled her wand back and forth across my belly until she was completely sure, then announced, “It’s a BOY!” We were all startled. Isaac went home angry at the technician, confident she had changed his sister to a brother. He liked being the youngest boy and didn’t want to give up his place in the family. It took some mental adjustments but from that day on I knew what my answer would be. For the rest of my life, when someone asked me, “how many kids do you have?” I would answer, “A daughter and three sons.”

My announcement to Jeff, about having one daughter then having all the sons he could ever want, had come to pass. The ironic thing was, he didn’t have a preference. In every pregnancy he was just thrilled to be adding to our family and never expressed a need to have a house full of boys. I suppose it had something to do with those strong male Berna genes. Only one of his brothers’ wives has given birth to a girl. And she had two sons before that daughter arrived. My daughter is one of two sacred Berna girls.

And she is sacred to me because she helps balance out the hormones in this house full of males. She gives me an excuse to go down the hair accessories aisle at Target. She allows me to shop in the feminine sections of department stores. She rolls her eyes with me when her dad and brothers do silly boy things, like wrestle on the king size bed and throw endless Nerf darts at each other.

But now she’s eighteen. She grew up way too fast. She’s making big plans about moving out of our house once the graduation parties are over. She’s turned into this amazing young woman who is confident and independent. She’s everything I ever wanted in a daughter and I know it’s a good thing that I can send her out in the world knowing she will hold her own just fine.

So why does it hurt my heart so much? I want her to grab life by the tail and swing it around a few times. I want for her all the fun I found in my first year at college, away from home and on my own for the first time. All of that has to happen with her not in my house anymore, not under my wing, not under my care.

Our household will feel very different next year. We will have just three boys around the table when dinnertime comes. There will still be dirty socks laying all over the house and nerf darts in every dust pan. The laundry will not let up. I will forever be sorting sweat pants and hoodies into piles on my bed. Jeff will have company as he hikes through the woods and skis down the mountain trails. But my girl will be missing.

I have to start now, getting ready for life to change. She’s eighteen now. She’s an adult, on the brink of finding her adult life. She can vote in every election and buy her own lottery tickets. She will eventually get a car loan in her own name and sign a lease for her own apartment. And as she’s off finding her own way I will be home, ready to back her up when the phone call comes. Ready to be her encourager when life beats her up a bit.

Because she’s my girl. My only girl.

The one I asked for so many years ago.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sorting Memories

So quickly it’s over. For weeks, even months, I have thought about the holidays, made plans for the holidays, hoped I would get it all done for the holidays. Then suddenly the holidays are gone. Halloween hit. Thanksgiving crept up. Then Christmas charged in. After a few too many chips with dip, the New Year also slid right by. And now it’s time to turn the page of the calendar, and welcome this new year. The Y2K scare is way behind us and this fresh decade stands at attention, waiting for its own glory.

I’ve been around the block enough to know how it all goes. I make optimistic resolutions. I anticipate all the great stuff that will be coming our way in the next twelve months, and then I sit back and hope for the best. And many good things will come. My oldest child will graduate from high school and begin her college career. Her younger brother will begin his senior year and be in his own countdown. Their two younger brothers will experience fun life events, through sports, friends, school, and family activities.

But the realist in me is reminded that every year also brings bad things, even sad things. I have a friend who has already lost a parent this year. Another is fighting off a new round of cancer. It will be a year of phone calls that don’t bring good news. Maybe it will be car wrecks and scary medical diagnosis. There’s a chance the car will break down (more than once, even) and at least one major appliance will decide to quit working. We live in an unstable world. Any of that stuff can happen.

But we’ll do like we have in the past year, and the year before that. We will answer the phone and face the adversity. We will rally behind those that need an extra boost and be humble enough to ask for help when the needy one is looking back at us in the bathroom mirror. Because I truly believe that’s what life’s about. Being here for each other, making the best possible life we can out of what comes our way. And living each day with purpose.

So if I truly believe all that warm fuzzy talk I have to do the practical things to live it out. I have to make plans for how it’s going to be. Whether I call them resolutions or promises to myself, whether I write them down or just dwell on them in my head, it’s time to start fresh. It’s time to grab this new decade by the tail and swing it around a few times.

I’ve already jumped into one project. There will be time for fitness goals, cooking goals (meaning I plan to actually do some cooking this year) and writing goals. For the first two days of 2010 I was sorting and making stacks. Spring cleaning has begun. There were two plastic bins that had been haunting me for years. I have moved them from house to house, and with every move I kept telling myself I would deal with them later. I finally decided that later is NOW.

The reason these tubs haunt me is sentimental. They are mostly full of paperwork that I don’t know what to do with. Not old bill statements or tax receipts. Those would be easy to file away and throw away. These are important papers, things that mean something to me but have no logical home.

As I dug through these tubs I was sent lumbering down memory lane. The newsletter I sent out to my friends and family my first Christmas in college. Such a great reminder of what I was doing in those years and what was important to me. My mom’s personal notebook, her hopes and dreams written out in her beautiful handwriting that I miss so much. It’s an insight into her world when I was just a child and I can’t bear to throw it away.

And in the middle of the tub, between college mementos from decades ago and special letters I’ve received in just the past few years, are years and years worth of other treasures. Wedding invitations, baby announcements, cards from grandparents now long gone - a virtual time capsule of my life.

I had promised myself I’d be brutal. There was no sense keeping all this extra stuff. It is healthy to clean out and throw away. But as I sorted, touched and read each treasure I thought about this new year coming. How many new memories will be made. Life will keep hurling forward and with it will come the good and the bad.

I kind of like this stroll down memory lane. Being reminded of how little our first house cost and what my son’s preschool handprint looked like dipped in messy red paint. What’s the harm in having at least a little stash of happy reminders? Reminders of the good stuff and the sweet stuff. The stuff that makes it all worthwhile.

I’ve finished sorting those two tubs. One item checked off the to-do list. But I have to admit the trash bag only got to claim a few of those papers. I’ve pared it down to one tub. A tub of paper treasures I have no problem keeping.

If only to take me back to all those memories on another day, when I once again need to be reminded of all the good things that each new year can bring.

Time to Sort the Legos

When you have three boys, who have been collecting Legos for over ten years, you tend to have quite a collection of the tiny building blocks. Besides the two extra large rectangular tubs of assorted pieces, we have dozens of sacred 'creations'. They are played with, taken apart, and eventually rebuilt into something else. But at any given time there are quite a few of them laying around the toy room. The big boys still play with them sometimes but Sam's the lucky one who inherited most of the collection and plays with them on an almost daily basis.

Sam, being the youngest, has an area of the play room as his bedroom. He can't wait for big sister to head off to college next year so he can have a door with a lock. But for now he is in the space that everyone sees as the spillover room. It had gotten out of hand in recent weeks so he and I spent one day of the Christmas vacation sorting it all out.

This is the before picture. After standing and staring at it for a long while, we dove in.

First we cleared off his shelves and consolidated a large portion of the creations to that area. The biggest planes and vehicles still sit on top of the built in cabinets but the medium to smaller creations ended up here.

Then, with wire cubes and flat boards, we built a long row of display space, turning the corner, to make a sort of half wall to mark off Sam's room. His current 'base' in progress fills the corner.

So here's his after picture. Finally a place for all the creations and in the process, an area that feels a little bit more like a real room. The other half of the room is still used for video games but Sam's loving his side, his area, his kingdom of Legos. It was worth eight hours of work and two large trash bags to add to the bin out back.

A Happy Mailbox

I know some people hate them. Some people think they’re just a brag fest or a waste of time and paper. Some people make fun of them and ridicule anyone who sends one. As for me, personally I love them. It’s one of my favorite parts of the holiday season - the Christmas newsletter.

When I was a kid, the mailbox was full of letters and pictures of people I didn’t know. With every opened envelope my mom would tell a story, who these people were and why they were important to our family. The stories became familiar as I heard them repeated year after year. Mrs. Obolander, who was our elderly neighbor when I was an infant. Her standard story went something like, “and every year she would invite your big sisters over to her house to decorate Easter eggs!” Then there were Great Aunt Joyce and Great Uncle George, who sent amazing pictures from their cabin in Colorado. Although we met them only once in my childhood, they meant the world to my mother and their card was displayed front and center each year.

When Jeff and I were newlyweds our Christmas card list was minimal. A large box of brightly colored cards from Hallmark could do the trick. We never tucked a letter in the envelope and a photo was completely out of the question. There just wasn’t that much going on to tell about. Then along came the babies.

With Jeff’s move from grad school to employment, we changed addresses often. There was a lot to tell when December rolled around and the question wasn’t whether we should include a picture or not, but which one was the absolute best. Every year I considered taking a break from the full fledged letter, and just sending a card with a picture. But the writer in me couldn’t resist. It was fun to share what we’d been up to all year and the letters themselves kept a yearly record of our life as a young family.

We collected friends with each move and with each state we lived in our list expanded. There are a handful of college friends we plan to never let go of. A few neighbors from each of our past homes are still important to us. Our kids are blessed with more than two sets of grandparents, with the addition of honorary grandparents we have found in each place we’ve lived. The list can seem overwhelming until I think about paring it down.

Each address I write on an envelope makes me think of someone I love. Most send us cards and pictures of their families and I can’t imagine losing touch with them. For most of us life is on fast forward. I don’t get to call them or even email them as much as I’d like, and the holiday letters are my one big indulgence, to feel in touch with the people I love. To stop sending our letter means risking their cards not arriving in my box each year.

I do have friends who decided to only do online ‘cards’ this year. One friend only sent holiday greetings to friends who were signed up on facebook. I don’t think I could ever get to that point. Some of the most important people on my list don’t even own computers. Plus, I love opening my mailbox each day in December, thinking there might be a new card, letter, or if I’m really lucky, picture of someone I love and care about. And because I love getting them in the mail, I keep sending them that way.

Once, when we were cleaning out my dad’s house, we found a file of our family’s old Christmas letters. They fascinated me as I read them with a parent’s eyes for the first time. Each paragraph reminded me of what stage of life my family was in and what activities my siblings and I were involved in. To have a year in my childhood recapped was fun. It just further instilled in me the need to continue our traditional letter.

Someday, when I wake up to a quiet house and miss my precious offspring, who are all grown up and moved out, I will spend my time collecting the letters I have written every year and put them in a book for my children. If I’m really organized maybe I can even find the pictures we sent every year. I will bind them all together and present them to my children. They will be in the process of building their own lives but I think they might enjoy reading a yearly update of their growing up years. By then they will realize that life changes quickly.

Maybe, just maybe, remembering the years and years of love and adventure they had for the short time they shared their lives with me and their dad will give them a feeling of stability to build on for the rest of their lives.

So hats off to all of you out there who still believe in a good Christmas card letter and enjoy a yearly picture of your friend’s families. I suspect I am not the only one in this club. When others scoff and make jokes, we quietly sit back and smile.

Because sometimes just finding a brightly colored envelope in the mailbox that didn’t come from a credit card company is all it takes to make it feel like Christmas.