Monday, October 26, 2009

Impressive Vocabulary

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

He answered yes.

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

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

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

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

Then I got to the movie they had been discussing.

The name of the movie was "The General".

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Birthday Effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even for old, worn out parents.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Jesse's Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s exactly what she did.

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Finding Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 9, 2009

War Movie Mama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pumpkin Reality

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Potato Chips

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

Baby Blessings

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

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

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

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

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

I just didn’t get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On someone else’s baby.

Life Through a Movie Lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is the lens you look through.