Saturday, February 18, 2012

Willing Helpers

I was pulling out of the driveway, on my way to take our poodle to Sam’s class for a pet share time. He’d been collecting extra points at school all year, to earn this right to share his fluffy companion with his entire class. We’d spent way too much time the night before, deciding which bandana she should wear around her neck, when she made her big debut.

The time was set and I organized my whole day around being home and ready to load the dog into the van at the correct time.

She hasn’t gone on errands with us in a long time. She’s what I call a ‘Nervous Nelly’. She doesn’t like to be left in the car alone, and the stopping and starting at traffic lights always throws her around a bit too much, making her flash us those pitiful sad eyes. But, for some reason, she still likes the idea of riding in the car, and will often wait by the door if someone in the house seems to be preparing to leave.

She easily crawled in, when I offered her a trip in the middle of the afternoon.

Isaac was just getting off the school bus, at the end of the driveway, so I waited an extra second, to see if my animal loving high schooler might like to join me on the adventure. As usual, he was game, with a quick, “Sure!” and an eager smile.

We made it down to the main stoplight in our tiny town without incident. One of the bucket seats was still in the moving truck, so there was a wide open place right behind the front passenger’s seat. It worked well for Kylie, except for the occasional problem with getting her feet stuck in the deep tracks on the floor, where the seats click into the floor of the van.

The light turned green and I accelerated, in hindsight, maybe a bit too quickly.

Kylie went rolling to the back of the van, coming up to rest against the edge of the back seat. Isaac and I threw apologies at her, with our best, reassuring voices. She tried to come toward us, and once again got her feet briefly stuck in the seat tracks. I looked back to see her in a full squat, relieving herself in a big way.

“Oh Isaac,” I said calmly, “She’s now peeing…”

The tone of my voice threw him off. He casually looked behind his seat, then promptly panicked. “MOM! She’s peeing!”

There was nothing we could do, no place to pull over on our little town road, with rocky cliffs where a shoulder might be. So we just let her finish.

Fortunately, some irresponsible child had left a bath towel in the van a few days earlier, and we threw it over the large wet spot on the carpet, to keep our fluffy poodle from sitting in it, and soaking it up, right before she went to snuggle with 23 fifth graders.

Somewhat seriously, but mostly joking, Isaac turned to me and said, “I am never helping you with one of these projects again..”

We arrived at school and quickly pulled Kylie out of the van. We still had to tie the bandana around her neck, and time was slipping by - we were almost late. I knew Sam would be counting down every second after 3:10 that we were not there.

We made our way across the ice covered parking lot, our old dog working hard to keep up. We made it halfway up the sidewalk in front of the elementary school when she stopped and proceeded to squat. That’s her new geriatric trick - relieving her bowels when she’s scared or nervous. But we just didn’t have time.

“Isaac! Don’t let her squat, and she won’t poop!” I figured that since it wasn’t her normal bathroom time (right after meals), she didn’t really need to go. Maybe we could get her to just walk it off.

It didn’t help the situation at all that there was a large class of second graders coming out one of the side doors, scurrying right toward us, as they made their way to the playground. People generally stop for our dog. She’s old and slow and those fluffy curls that pile up on top of her head tend to grab attention. Almost every one of the seven year olds decided to stop and point. Isaac and I, and our squatting dog, instantly became the center ring circus act.

More and more I was feeling our tardiness and could just imagine a heart broken Sam, staring longingly at the classroom door, wondering if his mom had forgotten his big day with his special show and tell.

I’m ashamed to admit that these words came out of my mouth, “Isaac, just pull her toward you. Maybe it will make her walk..”

But I am apparently not qualified to tell any dog when they do, and do not have to empty their bowels. She was not giving up. His tugging only placed us within 20 feet of the school’s front door, but did not change our situation in the slightest way. She was still determined to squat.

“You stay here, and see if she can just finish, and I’ll go sign us in and see if I can find a plastic bag.”

Again, this time with more seriousness than joking, Isaac repeated, “I am never helping you with one of these projects again…”

I rushed inside, turned the corner, and entered the school’s main office. Of course what I found there was the entire office staff, and assorted parents and their children, crowded around the front window, pointing and asking, “Who’s dog is that, pooping on the sidewalk in front of the school?”

I was briefly thankful that Isaac couldn’t see his audience.

Hoping it was better just to be up front, I raised my hand and announced, “That’s my dog, who is supposed to be in a fifth grade classroom right now. Does anyone have a plastic bag, by chance?”

Colorado is a very dog friendly state (there is one in just about every car you pass on the road), so I was met with mostly sympathetic faces, when the crowd turned around. The secretary came up with a Walmart bag, I signed us in, and then rushed back out to see what progress Isaac (and Kylie) had made.

As it turns out, not much. She had half pooped, meaning the sad little effort that had emerged was just hanging out, causing her to waddle, with her butt almost touching the ground, in even more nervous circles on the sidewalk.

“Just take her in the grass...” I suggested. This was a good plan, if we didn’t still have a foot of snow left on the ground. The only clear place was a tiny spot under a decorative tree in the center of the snow field. Isaac encouraged her verbally, then was forced to (once again) half drag his dog, who was stuck in a permanent squat (this time through snow).

Even from thirty feet away, trying to block our show with my body, from the growing audience in the main office, I swear I could hear Isaac muttering, “I’m never, EVER, going to help her with her projects, ever again…”

Finally, finally, after ten thousand more circles, the entire effort hit the tiny patch of grass. Isaac bravely scooped it up with the plastic bag, and we were on our way.

To get to the main classroom hallway, you have to walk through the office. We bravely burst through the door, said our quick thank yous for the plastic bag donation, and made our way to the fifth grade rooms.

We made it in time. Fortunately, Language Arts time ran long, and Sam never even knew we’d been delayed. Isaac, still somewhat smiling, bless his 15 year old, dog lovin’ heart, got Kylie decked out in a perfectly tied bandana scarf, and we handed her leash over to Sam, who proudly paraded her in front of his class.

In a sign of the times, about 15 cell phones came out of desks, and soon our nervous puppy was basking in a twisted version of fifth grade paparazzi. Sam’s friends asked questions and couldn’t get enough of his curly headed dog. She performed like a trooper (as nervous as she is, she loves attention), and soon the final school bell rang.

At some point, in the middle of Kylie’s big debut, Isaac informed me that he’d dropped the bag of dog poo in the office trash can, as we’d hurried through. I was horrified. It was bad enough we defaced the front of the school, but to leave them our treasure just didn’t seem right.

So on the way back to the car we detoured through the office once again. I stuck my hand into that large metal can, and came up with a heavy plastic bag. One of the secretaries was passing by and, to explain why I was digging in her trash barrel, I told her we were retrieving our treasure, and taking it home with us.

She laughed and said, “Ohh….that explains it! We all started looking around at each other, wondering who’d ‘done it’, a few minutes ago…” Leave it to us to be the catalyst for an office wide secretary finger pointing fest.

We made it to the car, with only a dozen kids stopping us to ask if they could pet our dog. Then we were home, and Isaac got to relive his horrors as he told every family member he could find. He was hoping for any extra points he could get, and instead he got a lot of laughs from his siblings, and yes, even his dad.

Something about the way he glowed that night, as he told his story over and over, convinced me that maybe I still have hope. Someday soon, when I need a helper once again, for one of my crazy projects, Isaac will still say yes.

To my kid who loves to be the family clown, all the extra laughs he got after telling his tale just might be worth something. Hopefully worth more than the humiliation he felt, holding the leash of a squatting dog, in the middle of an elementary school sidewalk, right in front of his brother’s school.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fragile Hearts

Of course I got the email on Valentine’s Day. I’m sure the person who sent it didn’t mean to stir up a kettle full of emotions. She was just sharing her heart. And it touched mine in one of its deepest places, on this day that revolves around hearts.

Her name is Mrs. Knowles. She pleads with me to call her ‘Marie’, but when I was a child, she was one of the moms in our church. No matter how old I get, it’s hard to address her in such an informal way. I’ve just recently found her, through connections on Facebook, of course. After we became online friends, she offered to read my book manuscript. I’m always open to new eyes, so I promptly sent it to her.

In the course of our conversations about the manuscript, she’s become very special to me. Her encouraging words give me a lift that only a mom’s words can. A long time ago, when I was a very young child, she was one of my mom’s good friends. We all lived on the same street and my mom did normal friends things with her - shared a cup of coffee, talked about their kids.

Then we moved out to the country, about the time I started school, and started taking in foster children. My mom no longer saw her friends beyond waving to them across the aisle at church. There were always weeds to pull in the garden, endless loads of laundry to do for as many as 14 kids at a time. She lost her social circle.

But it turns out they never forgot her. Mrs. Knowles was at the hospital the night my mom was brought in after suffering a stroke. The new pastor of the church had called her for support, since he was still getting to know all of the church’s members. Mrs. Knowles recalls wanting so desperately to try to get across to him how special my mom was.

Because she remembers my mom as a friend first. Not as the woman with the van full of kids.

On Valentine’s Day she sent me an email about the manuscript, and added a paragraph in the middle about my mom. Personal stories and reflections about what a good friend she was, and how heartbroken she was when my mom died.

It touched me deeply. My mom died 17 years ago. It was devastating to me to lose her when I was still in my mid 20s. I wallowed through the grief and life went on, as it tends to do. Now that so many years have passed, I sometimes feel like all I have left are my own scattered memories, which tend to get more fuzzy, the older I get.

Occasionally an old friend who is my own age (usually one I’ve found through Facebook) shares a memory with me. Something my mom did that they remember, or snapshots of her warm, loving character.

But for some reason Mrs. Knowles’s walk down memory lane touched me deeply. I so rarely hear about her from people who knew her as ‘Jane’, not just ‘Mrs. Johnson’. This is someone who knew my mom’s heart at one time. This is someone who had a grown up relationship with her; the kind that I so craved to have once I was a mom myself. But then she was gone.

Mrs. Knowles provide me with something more valuable than gold. She gave me an intimate look back at this woman I longed to know better. The details of her stories are so tender and loving that they force me to go back to that place, the place where I let myself think about the fact she’s gone, and all that I’ve missed in the past 17 years.

One of the memories Mrs. Knowles shares is of how my mom was so creative and crafty. I’d forgotten that side of her. In the years of my growing up she was distracted and busy. But even then she always made a point of having a latch hook rug set up on a card table, for any of us to stop and work on if the mood inspired. She sewed many of our clothes, and year after year taught the kids in our 4-H club about basic sewing techniques. Then, in the few years she had after all of the foster children were gone, and her own had left the nest, she made western style bolos and key chains out of colorful beads.

I have a couple of them, tucked in a box of special memories I have of her. I cradle them in my hands, taking comfort in the fact her hands also touched them, and crafted them, once upon a time.

I read the email from Mrs. Knowles, then a minutes later found myself in my kitchen, gearing up to make dinner. A long chain of construction paper valentines dangled in front of the sliding glass door. Special decorations I made to help my children know how much I love them on this, and every Valentine’s Day. As the sun reflected off the twirling pink paper, tears fell down my cheeks.

She was crafty. I am crafty. It’s yet another way I still carry on her legacy.

My siblings and I each miss her in our own ways, according to our own relationships with her. I sometimes feel like I was the most like her. I have an endlessly deep heart for anyone who is suffering. I would adopt every orphan child on the planet if I had the resources. I love nothing more than being home, taking care of my family. I am so like her that it makes me miss her, in a way that I feel I’m still a part of her - and she of me.

I look for any way I can these days, to feel close to her. It gets harder and harder as the years put so much time between today and the last time I shared her company. But treasures like the single paragraph in a simple email do a world of good. They bring tears, but not unnecessary tears. Large wet droplets of gratitude and love…longing and grief.

Thank you, Mrs. Knowles. Your gift to me on this special Valentine’s Day will be remembered for a very long time. I’ll re-read your words, a hundred more times, and every single time they will bring me relief.

Tears, yes.

But also much, much relief. So much more than you’ll ever know.


Friday, February 3, 2012

New Beginnings...Again

It was chaotic. It was crazy. There was one moment, in a Taco Bell bathroom, where I said things into a cell phone that I’d love to take back. But in the end, it all came together and we’re in. We’re finally in a house, a home, a place where we’ll make some wonderful new memories in the years to come.

After almost a year of house selling details and drama, we no longer carry a mortgage. For the first time in a very long time, we don’t own a home. But after all we’ve been through this past year, we’re pretty okay with that.

This place we’ve found is laid out perfectly for our needs. It’s located perfectly for our daily activities. It’s right in the middle of the town we want to call home for the next few decades. And if the water heater breaks at 2 am on a Saturday morning, it’s not our problem.

Everyone has a bedroom. After sharing two tiny bedrooms, in that microscopic 800 sq foot condo for the past seven months, there is finally a chance to be by yourself. It’s something we’ve all craved for a long time. And yet, Jeff and I saw this coming; we will always kind of miss the togetherness that the tiny condo imposed upon us.

Yes, there were more snips and unnecessary comments made to siblings, just because there was too much shared space. But there were also many nights of what I like to call ‘summer camp fun’. Our accommodations felt so much like bunking at summer camp, that the usual antics that arise in such a setting were common.

There were several nights that our patient cat was wrapped in a ‘kitty burrito’, sometimes with a blanket, sometimes with a towel. These swaddling lessons went on for an hour or two, with much giggling and picture taking, and usually ended with the cat being carried around like a baby, in his bundle, the rest of the night.

This kind of thing didn’t happen that often, when we were all spread out in our 2600 sq foot New York house.

There was also a night of coloring. We printed pictures off sites we found online (who knew there were Halo Reach coloring pages out there?). Meredith did a lot of hair braiding…and not just mine. There was even a night (with incriminating pictures) that the dog ended up in a pair of leopard skin print bikini panties (you really don’t want to know details).

Most of it transpired in the Master Bedroom, which had just enough floor space for a double and a single mattress to be laid out on the floor, and a couple of cardboard boxes we used for dressers (our household goods are still in moving storage). There was barely room to walk around the edges of the mattresses, yet many of the pictures of the summer camp antics were taken in that room. All six of us somehow crammed in, or were continuously coming and going from that room, just looking for some boredom busting activity to keep us sane.

And then finally…oh finally…the day came to move into a real house.

If you had told me, a year ago, when we lived comfortably in our big home in NY, the one we owned, that I would be thrilled to move into a rental house, that was 800 less square feet than we’d enjoyed for over five years in New York, I’d have called you nutty.

But life circumstances are funny that way. It’s all perspective. It’s all relative.

Every day, even in the tiny condo, I’m aware that I live in a safe, clean, comfortable home. Especially when compared to a good percentage of the world’s population. I have clean water coming from my pipes and hot water when I need a good cleansing shower. I have appliances that wash my clothes and dishes, and a persnickety one that even sucks the cat hair out of our carpets. I don’t truly want for much.

It’s these thoughts that helped me fall in love with our new rental house. These thoughts, and the reality of six people living under one roof, two of them being legal adults and one of them in the thick of teenager-hood.

The morning of the switch over, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. We had our old landlord coming at 9:30, for the last inspection. All of our belongings had to be moved out. The small glitch was that there was no place to move them to. We couldn’t get into the new rental until later in the day. So there was a bit of juggling, of the fifty or so boxes, four mattresses, a futon and a kitchen table with six chairs. But minimally, they had to be out, and the place had to be spotless, if we wanted our large deposit back.

We’d been doing deep cleaning for a week, in preparation for this day. But final wipe downs and clean ups take time and energy. It was a crazy busy morning. Sam headed off to school, but Isaac stayed home, just to have one more big strong person to help move things out and in.

It’s been a very long time since we’ve had to answer to a landlord. In our early married days I had a few bad apples and the ‘inspection’ process had not gone smoothly, even though the houses had been spotless. I truly believe some landlords see the deposit as a bonus, and not something you actually give back to tenants when the lease is up.

So until that part of the day was over, I could not relax. By the appointed hour, all of our stuff was out, and moved to the long driveway of the new house, waiting for us to pick up keys so we could take it inside.

And of course there were glitches with the landlord. Of course. He’s a nice guy, but there were moments that I was so very glad Jeff had been left as the one in charge of the inspection process. He’s much more diplomatic and professional in those situations. When the landlord wanted to question the broken stick on the mini blind in the bedroom, which was that way when we moved in, and kept me from opening those blinds the whole time we lived there, I would have flown off the handle. It was so tempting to say, “So you wanted me to call you up here, from where you are, down in the valley, to fix the stick on a mini blind, on the day we moved in and discovered it?...” The same situation happened with a missing outlet cover, and a few other minor issues that we never ‘bothered’ to tell him about.

It was such a mental shift, for me, the one who usually cleans out houses for walk throughs before the closing papers are signed. In those situations, our level of spotless cleanliness is appreciated by the new home owner, not picked apart.

But finally, in the middle of a sunny, gorgeous day in Colorado, we had keys in our hand. We’d left the two boys in charge of watching the stuff in the driveway, as we went to the banks and moved money around, and by the time we got back , they had not only moved everything inside, they had unpacked a good chunk of it. Plates were in the kitchen cabinets. The furniture (the little we have) was set up and ready to go. The bathroom had toiletries, the coat closet had coats hanging in it. It was like a dream - walking into a much bigger house, that already had my stuff put away.

There is still unpacking to do, of course. For many boxes, they didn’t know where I’d want the contents. I still need to figure out which toiletries go in which bathroom (we have TWO now!) and where the bed sheets and blankets will be stored. I have to set up our new system, as moms do. Where the tape goes. Where to find scissors. Where the nail clippers will start out, before they get ‘borrowed’ then strewn about the house.

But being able to walk in and start life right away, was as exciting as the fact we all had space to breathe again.

Once Meredith came home from her new job, we all piled up in the downstairs living room, the one we are now calling The Cave. It’s the boys’ dream. A place for our big TV, once it arrives back to us, and a place to hang out with friends, that doesn’t disturb the parents. We ordered pizza, which Michael picked up when he drove to get Sam from school (Sam walked to school for his last time that day, as we no longer live right across the street).

Jeff had rented a Red Box movie earlier in the day, and we all hunkered down, spread out on TWO couches finally, munched our pizza and laughed for two hours at the silliness on the screen. Several times I looked around and tried to mentally soak in those moments, when all four of my kids were there, between me and Jeff, loving life and riding high on the excitement of new beginnings.

After so many months of being crammed in a small living space, we celebrated our new spacious accommodations, by cramming ourselves together again.

A few hours later, as bedtime was approaching for the school kids in our mix, Sam said something funny to Meredith and me, as he was getting ready for bed. I don’t even remember what it was, but it caused us all to share another laugh, which brought Michael sprinting up the stairs.

“What? What did I miss?....that’s not fair! There’s fun stuff going on up here and I’m missing it, way down there in the Cave!”

It reminded me of the first night we spent in our Utah home. We’d been living in a Residence Inn, for almost three months, as we hunted for a new house in our new state. Again, tight living quarters, claustrophobic days for the six of us. But after the closing papers were signed, we happily drove across town, to our big 2500 sq. foot house, and everyone claimed bedrooms. And again, before the sand man had a chance to visit, all four of the kids were sprawled out on the floor around the bed in the master bedroom, needing to be near each other for just one more night, before this new life spread us out again.

We are no perfect family. My kids get angry at each other, swear they hate each other when emotions run high. But watching life unfold, and how they respond to it, still brings me comfort. I know down deep they really do love each other. They really do like to be together. They really do know how to have fun together.

Our family’s sense of humor might not seem funny to outsiders. But we make each other laugh.

After I lost my mom in my mid 20s, I was so thankful that I had four siblings (and some extra foster siblings). It gave me some sort of peace, to know they’d come from that same family, loved that same mom, and would miss her for the rest of their days too. It also gave me people to turn to, when different stages of grief came along.

It was during those months that Jeff and I decided to have four children, not just the two or three that many would stop after. We didn’t think we were up for five, but four seemed like just enough. Just enough to be there for each other as the years passed by. Just enough to have siblings to pick from, if you had a joke to share or a frustration to vent.

When money is tight, I sometimes question our decision to have a larger family. But then nights like our first night in this house, remind me of our reasons. And I’m 100% sure we made the right choice.

Our family will be splintering apart again, very soon. As spring rolls around, Meredith will move down to Denver to start college again. Michael will head off to start his career in the military. And it will be down to just four of us. This new house will suddenly seem very, very big.

But I’m pretty sure of one thing. No matter how much space we have, or don’t have, there will still be many nights where we all end up in the same room. Harassing the pets, watching a movie, or playing another round of Settlers of Catan.

As much as we all crave our own space, there’s been something about this continuous moving process that our children have grown up with, that still draws us all together.