Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Where We Got the Bowls

                Way back when Sam was still a diaper wearing person who toddled more than walked, he was a quiet kid. Then he stopped toddling and picked up a big boy gait, and we realized he was still quiet. Too quiet. One intense evaluation by a speech therapist later and we had our confirmation.  Sam had serious speech delays.

                I should have seen it coming. We were very familiar with speech therapists already. His older brother has a metabolic disorder that left in its wake a pretty nasty case of low muscle tone.  Having weak muscles in your jaw, lips and tongue make it difficult  to form words correctly. We spent years hanging out in the speech therapist's office, working on strengthening the muscles around his mouth.

                By the time Sam was born his big brother was speaking well and on the fast track to normal speech.

                I assumed I knew what to look for in Sam's speech development, since his brother's  speech therapist had become one of my best friends in Missouri. (We did spend a lot of time together, more than I spent with any 'regular' friends and we were both passionate about my sweet boy. There's nothing more bonding than someone loving your kid almost as much as you do)

                So when we made the big move to D.C. and Sam continued to be an easy going toddler, I was not concerned. I was watching for 'mushy speech' and I was not hearing it. I was watching for mispronounced words and I was not hearing any.

                That was the problem. I wasn't hearing anything. My baby was mute. Not exactly mute. He made sounds. But nothing close to language.

                It was when he had passed his second birthday and I realized he had never said the word 'NO!" that I became alarmed. What two year old (or eighteen month old, for that matter?) has not pounded his fist on the highchair tray and yelled NO! in the middle of dinner?

                I should have noticed it earlier. But I was watching for zebras, and antelopes showed up. Plus we had just packed up our four young children, all born in Missouri, and moved them from the only city they had ever lived in, plunking them down in the middle of the metropolis of Washington D.C. (just months after 9/11, mind you.)

                There was a lot of unpacking and signing up for schools, and figuring out the metro lines stuff going on. The fact that Sam was quiet was not noticed because he was...well...quiet. The squeaky wheel thing and all that.

                So suddenly I noticed and found the box with the address book in it so I could call best friend speech therapist back in Missouri. She confirmed my concerns and advised I get on the case immediately.

                Thus began Sam's journey with speech therapists. But this time we were not working on blowing bubbles and cotton balls to get stronger lips. We were working on finding sounds to make into words.

                We had been doing baby signs with him and they became his life saver. He could express, through basic signs, what he wanted. I was introduced to the amazing Signing Time videos. They helped our whole family, including grandparents, understand how to communicate with our youngest child.

                But part of the problem with having no speech as a one, then two, then three year old, is not being able to express how you feel. He didn't bombard me with constant questions through the grocery store, like his siblings had done. There was no discussing his favorite desires for Christmas that year. He didn't have the opportunity to question how the sky was made or why fruit loops don’t grow on trees. The basic needs were communicated but I missed knowing what my boy was thinking.

                Then one day, after months and months of speech therapy, the language started to come. Slowly, slowly we built up words into sentences and Sam started to realize he could talk. He could ask questions and state his feelings. And it was fun to see what he had been carrying around inside that head all those quiet months.

                One of my favorite moments came when he had become a  tall, confident three-year-old. He sidled up to the counter and asked for a bowl of breakfast cereal. "Me want cee-yal, mama".

                And as I poured out the frosted flakes and slopped on the milk my sweet boy looked up to me and said, oh so seriously, "Where we get dees bowls, mama?"

                All those months of silence and my boy had been wondering where I'd gotten the bowls.

                It makes me wonder what else he had been wondering, that he never got to ask.

                I met with his school speech therapist today and he is right on track. He will still receive services through the summer and then into second grade, but most people who meet him would never know he ever struggled with finding language. We feel blessed to have been able to shower him with the best specialists in every city we've lived in.

                Sometimes I think back to Sam's preschool days and wonder what treasures we missed. Sam is a very creative kid and I wonder what questions he had about the world around him that he could never ask because language was foreign to him. What magical profound thoughts circled through his preschooler brain and had no way of getting out? I will never know the answers to these questions but I am thankful anyway. So thankful that he finally did master our language and is able to fit right in to his second-grade class today. Thankful that he had great teachers along the way who brought out the best in him.

And also thankful that he made peace finally, with where we got the bowls.

Changing in the Years

In two weeks I will fill my Jeep with a few of my young adult children and we will drive to Texas for a wedding and a reunion. The bride is my niece, and the reunion was an obvious extension of her well-planned nuptials. Of course there have been the usual preparations for this trip. The haircuts, the shopping for appropriate clothes, the formalities of getting off work. But I've been doing unexpected mental preparations too.

As the weeks have flown by I've found myself thinking a lot about who I am. Who I am in relation to these people, these 4 siblings I will go spend time with and make new memories with. 

We all live in different states now. We are all in our late 40s and early 50s. We've become the adults we are going to be. We've made life choices and landed in the place life has designed for us. We are no longer 'young', with a landscape of years ahead of us to navigate. The people we were when we last shared a house together, and bedrooms in common, is on a far off horizon.

We grew up in a foster home. As in, our parents were foster parents. I mention this because, as is true with many decisions your parents make, this fact changed us as we navigated those waters. It changed us as a family, and it changed us as individuals. Sharing our home, and our parents, made us see life a bit differently than our peers who went home to regular families. I can't speak for my siblings, but after years of pondering, I know how that heritage affected me.

Another fact of our childhood is that we grew up in the Baptist church. As in, we were always in church - Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. Then youth group activities as they appeared throughout the week. Some of us (raising my hand) clung tightly to those teachings and some of us strayed a bit in our teen and college years, before circling back. But it shaped us, nonetheless.

College years hit and we scattered. The foster siblings were long gone. Mom and Dad were figuring out how to do the empty nest thing on a large scale, and how to save their strained marriage. Each of us picked a path that fit who we were, whether that be college close to home, college far away, or a short stint in the military.

In the early 1990s, we gathered when we could. We felt a common bond, having survived growing up in an unusual household dynamic. We liked beginning to know each other as grown-ups, with all the childhood baggage left behind. We still tended to follow birth order rules but it was generally comforting to see each other making our way in the world of adulthood.

We lost our mom in the middle of that decade. Way too early. It changed the balance. The hub of the wheel was gone. We scrambled to figure out who we were as a family without her. Dad worked hard to keep us connected, but the equilibrium of our unit was off kilter for a while. He remarried, with blessings from all of us, and things settled into a new normal. A less connected normal.

Decades passed too quickly. Those toddlers in the home movies graduated from elementary school and then suddenly were of driving age. We had all found paths in different directions and lives in different states. Phone calls were made from land lines until texting arrived to help us stay connected. But with the chaos of life with older kids and the complication of some major health issues in my own family, I was suddenly only seeing my siblings every few years, calling occasionally in between.

We all knew we loved and respected each other. Even if reality said we really didn't know each other that well anymore. I like to think my nieces and nephews know Aunt Judy loves them and thinks of them often, but there are no backyard barbecues to prove that anymore. I had to come to peace with the fact that I don't know how many times they've had a broken arm, or who they consider their best friend. Facebook helps, but it's not a substitute for really knowing a young person.

The past ten years I've changed a lot. Who I am, who I have become, what I believe in, have all been refined. 

I hit my early forties and realized I needed to start being true to myself. I re-thought some of the beliefs I'd held for much of my life. I mixed in the memories of the suffering I saw and heard about from foster siblings. I weighed the life stories of many people I've met in adulthood, who struggled in their own ways. Many of my childhood beliefs didn't line up anymore.

I purged some, and re-established others. I really took the time to ponder every belief I held and weigh it carefully before I added it back into the pile. My beliefs were no longer sprouted from ideals, but from real life experiences with real life citizens of the earth.

I stopped being the quiet one who just agreed so I wouldn't be forced to disagree. After feeling very pigeon-holed in high school I deliberately went to college three hours away and found my voice. I started to become the more outgoing person I had always wanted to be. I married my best friend and, with his encouragement, I have, year after year, found my stride. I've taken chances and pursued opportunities. I've chipped away at that old me, the one who silently grew up behind two older sisters with strong personalities and perfect Farrah Fawcett hair.

The hard part has been how many of those beliefs no longer line up with the beliefs I had as a 20 something.  Or with the beliefs of some of my family members. We all came from the same pot. But we all grew into individual beings. 

Formed from our adult life experiences, that were continually mixed with our childhood teachings, and sprinkled with our adult interactions.

I'm perfectly okay that all five of us might now have distinctly different beliefs. In fact, I cherish it. 

I can only hope that my siblings have also examined their lives and become the people they truly want to be. It will make them the most at peace with their future and the most content in their everyday lives. As we are all considering what an empty nest looks and feels like, knowing who we are inside is the first step in understanding where we should wander next.

I look forward to being in the same room as my Dad, stepmom, and 4 siblings. The joking and camaraderie come easily. We were purposefully raised to be kind and respectful. We practice those skills on each other. I think we all appreciate the fact that being together is so rare that it's not useful to spend our time disagreeing about things. Having lost our mother so early we are very in tune with how fragile and unpredictable life can be. It's important to make every memory count.

But I go to this reunion, and this well anticipated gathering feeling a bit fragile. I fear that I will be pigeon holed right back into that shy, quiet fifteen-year-old my siblings knew so long ago. Or that not yet refined 25 year old I see in the old home movies. 

As siblings we had our balance, and it's easy to go back there. Oldest one in charge. Youngest one still thought of as the baby, even if he'll soon be leaving his forties. But I'm ready to be seen as me. The almost 50 year old me. The one I've worked hard to become.

Until then, every sad song will bring tears, touching a nostalgic place deep inside me, as I anticipate finally spending time with my core family. My mom's presence will be felt and maybe acknowledged a few times, bringing mist to our eyes. We will all be thinking of how she would have loved seeing how well we've all turned out. She had some amazing grandchildren she never got to see.

But we'll all walk into the room with happy hearts in two weeks. My oldest sister might be a bit more exhausted than the rest of us, as she's spent a very long time getting ready for this magical wedding that will take place for her oldest daughter. But we'll all be happy to be there.

We'll spend an afternoon making an old traditional Polish dish our Grandma Johnson raised our dad on, and we'll rejoice when it turns out pretty close to the way she used to make it. Cousins will mingle and play games, being reminded that they are related to some pretty cool people. And my Dad will take it all in with a full heart.

Vows will be traded, toasts will be given, and a new member will be added to our large family. Then we'll all make our way back home. Back home to be the people we've been working so many decades to become.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

At the End of a Stack of Home Movies

I've been leading a double life lately. Most of the time I go about the regular business that makes up my world these days. On Mondays, I watch a friend's baby for a few hours. On Tuesdays, I write. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, you'll find me at the Rec Center, greeting people who come through the doors. On Fridays, I get the house and pantry in order so we can spend the weekend playing. 

But ever since a couple of small brown boxes showed up on my doorstep about two weeks ago, there have been stretches of time that I've been transported back a couple of decades. 

About six months ago I caught a great Groupon offer for transferring old media to DVD. I have moved tubs of Super 8 movie cassettes from house to house through the years and it's been on my perpetual list to get them changed over to a format I could actually look at. Most of the home movies we filmed between 1992 and 2004 have never been looked at. In 2004 we bought our first digital camera and started taking home movies on that. So the Super8 cassettes (and movie camera) just sat in tubs. 

The coupon was just the kick I needed to get that project moving. I separated my 80 movie cassettes into two boxes, so if by chance the company lost or ruined a batch, it would only be half of my collection. A few months later they showed back up at my house, along with 40 DVDs, full of their contents. 

I went through all of the footage for several reasons. One was because I really didn't remember what we had taped as the kids grew up. I didn't know what would be on those tapes, beyond the vague labels like 'Christmas 2000'. 

Another reason - I've thought about my mom a lot lately, as my nest is emptying, and I am nearing the age she was when she died. I wondered how much footage I had, or didn't have, of her. I have pictures I show my children, of a grandma they really missed out on knowing. But having them see her moving around, hearing her voice cooing at my older two when they were babies (the only time she got with my children) would help them know her in a new way. I've walked around all these years hoping, but not really knowing, that I actually had caught some of her on video. 

And of course, there is the nostalgia that comes with having kids who are almost grown. The thinking back to when they were little, and the house was chaotic in a different way. The wondering where the years went. The wanting to see a glimpse into that world, and be reminded that the days indeed were long, even if the years were short.

What I actually found on those 40 DVDs (most of them 30 min long, to put things in perspective) was not what I had imagined. 

The overwhelming feeling I had, as I chipped away at them, an hour here and an hour there, was that I really loved being their mom. I loved being home with them. As much as we scrimped and saved so that I didn't have to go back to work when they were little, it was all worth it. Our world was calm and mostly full of fun.

We spent a lot of time dancing to music, whether it be the Jungle Book soundtrack, or the Elephant Show on television. Barney was a big part of our life, as I'd remembered, but there was so little time spent in front of a television. Computers were new and fairly crude, so having 'kids electronics' meant having a play keyboard or a junior version of a CD player. 

There was a lot of time spent outside, just hanging around the swingset. Chasing bees in the grass. Pouring water through a pool toy that made wheels spin around, over and over and over. Balancing thin sticks between the rings on the swingset so they could karate chop them down. 

As much as Daddy traveled in his job as an archaeologist, he spent a lot of time with them. I have great language samples from them, at several ages, as they shared with him their latest thoughts, connected to him through a land line that connected our phone to another land line in a hotel near his latest dig. There was no face time or texts. It was just a line of little people, waiting for their turn to talk to daddy before it was time for baths and bed. 

The times he was home there was wrestling on the living room floor (three of our four are boys). Pitching baseballs and kickballs toward them as they lined up behind a cardboard home plate with a handful of neighbor kids, using our perfectly spaced trees as bases. There were chores like mowing the grass and shoveling the driveway, made more fun (and less productive) by a few little helpers with plastic replicas of his tools. 

I loved it all. I loved seeing them wearing clothes I sewed for them, my hobby for several years, as they napped and I did something just for me. I loved the simple things we celebrated, like baby brother's six-month birthday, mainly because Daddy had brought home chocolate cupcakes he'd found on sale and it coincided with someone's half birthday. I loved the secrets they thought they were whispering to me 'behind the camera' as I taped their siblings. 

"Mama, when will it be my turn?"

I loved how they loved each other.Sure,  I remember the fights they had, and the times they didn't get along, but what I see a lot in that footage is four kids who genuinely liked being together. A big sister who couldn't walk past her baby brother without touching his head and usually leaning down to kiss it. A big brother who didn't have to be asked, and rushed to a little brother's aid just because he noticed him struggling. They way they danced together, played together, shared plastic tools while Daddy fixed something. I loved every second of it.
And I can't forget the way it made me feel about my spouse, watching those memories from so long ago. To remember how much I loved being home with our kids reminded me how hard he worked to make that happen. Before we even married, we agreed that we'd both be committed to the same life priorities when it came to our kids. Even when it was hard, he never flinched. He worked hard all day, all week, then came home and consciously gave me a break, fully understanding how tiresome the 24/7-ness of being a stay at home mom can be.
Seeing how expertly he did his part in being involved in our kids' lives reminds me how lucky I am, and always have been. It's easy to be annoyed at a spouse who you've been attached to for over a quarter century. Some of the old annoying habits can creep up on you. But after watching this footage, I can't ignore all of his great qualities. It makes me want to call each of my kids and remind them how important picking the right spouse can be. 

I love the variety of houses and experiences we captured on those tapes. They begin in the early 1990s, when our oldest two were babies and we lived in a tiny one bedroom duplex while Daddy was in grad school. There are long stretches of a six-month propped in a walker and his 18-month-old big sister pushing her plastic baby stroller around the cracked driveway. We were just hanging out together, with nothing but time, waiting for Daddy to come home so we could all squeal our welcome. 

Then there were years in several houses in Jefferson City, when Daddy worked for the MO Highway Department. A couple of little houses within walking distance to his work (so we could have our one vehicle during the day to run errands). And a cute barn shaped house that was perfect for that stage of our life, where so many great memories were made. 

I have great footage of my Dad's house, before and after we lost my Mom. Running around his big backyard in the country and watching toddlers dancing to music in his living room, on the shag rug carpeting from my childhood. 

Then come the shots of the move to DC, when Daddy got his job with the Federal Highway Department. We spent a lot of time visiting the City on weekends, but all of our home movies in that year are of the time we spent in the little rental house we shouldn't have found, but lucked into. The games in the woods behind the house. The days and days of snow play when the area was hit with a record snowstorm that gave us 10 days in a row of snow days. 

Grandparents and friends who came to visit us show up on those tapes. Dancing around the living room with great friends from New Hampshire, and opening presents at Christmas with Daddy's parents. These are all such solid reminders of how loved we are. So perfectly and completely loved. No matter where we lived. 

I actually have footage of the kids and Daddy unloading one of our two minivans, as we moved into our great big Utah house, finally able to settle down for a few years. My seven year old asking where to put the boxes he's carrying in from the garage, and I say, "Mommy and Daddy's room", and he says, "Where's that?" 

A stark reminder that there was a day that the Utah house was new and the lifetime of experiences we collected there had not happened. 

Then, a few months later, some footage that surprised me. In the weeks after my amputation surgery, I spent a lot of time in bed, healing. Daddy, and grandparents, helped out with kids. Then I was up on crutches, hopping through the day's chores. But while I was spending those long weeks in bed, I had entertainment. 

I remember playing a lot of board games in those weeks. I remember finally putting together their baby books. And I remember reading lots of picture books to them. But what I did not remember were the impromptu shows that were put on at the end of my king sized bed. At one point you can even see the tip of my wrapped stump in the foreground, as I taped my newly 3-year-old dancing and playing his toy guitar. There are almost two DVDS full of the shenanigans that went on in our master bedroom, while I waited for a leg stump to heal. These shots alone made me glad I'd made the time to dive into the footage.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, there was ample footage of my mom. And it didn't make me sob, as I had assumed it would. 

The first clips I found surprised me because as much as I thought I'd never forget her voice, it was different than I remembered. In fact, she sounded exactly like me. My 15-year-old 'baby' walked through the room when her voice was on the audio of the footage I was watching. He didn't believe me, that it was my mom. He agreed I sound exactly like her. Which kind of makes up for the fact her voice was not how I had locked it into my memory. Instead, I carry it around with me. 

I have scenes where she's holding my two oldest, as newborns. She is cooing over them and fussing over them, exactly as I'd remembered. And there is a lot of audio of her voice,of her stories and comments. We didn't have a clue that she'd be gone soon, so no one made the effort to make sure we were taping her. Our goal was to tape the babies. But in the background, you can hear her. The way she talked and the way she thought is as important to me as the visual.

It's burned into my memory that she died at age 50. It seemed so young then, and seems even younger now that I'm almost there myself. I remembered celebrating her 50th birthday, and the way she didnt want that number to make her feel old. But until this week I didn't realize I had actual video footage of that party. 

I have her saying, to her children and grandchildren gathered around the table, that she is thankful to still be country dancing, and thankful to have healthy kids and grandkids. Even when she's handed the traditional black balloons, the smile shows on her face and in her voice. At one point my baby Michael sits on her lap. It's a shot I assumed we'd treasure in years to come because of how quickly Michael had grown. Not because it was one of the last videos taken of her before she was gone.

But instead of being overwhelmed with saddness, as I'd feared for so long, I was once again overcome with thankfulness. 

She was a huge influence in my life. She made her mark on so many lives. There is no doubt I miss her, every day. But life has gone on. And my goal now is that these kids she didnt get to see grow up know her a little bit better. The still pictures were not enough. Now I have video and audio to share with them. They know about this woman who made me who I am, as a mom to them. These home movies help save her memory, as only home movies can.