So you broke the broom

She was sitting on a little wooden chair beside the piano, tapping her feet on the floor.

I finished my phone call and walked over to her, puzzled that her head was bent and she was looking down. It was an unusual posture for the kid who proclaims every single day of the year, no matter how dark the clouds, torrential the rain, searing the heat or bitter the cold, to be a “beautiful day!”

“What’s up?” I asked, kneeling to look into her eyes.

“Well, I was outside —” she drew a breath and appeared to stifle a sob.  “I was outside with the broom sweeping by the garden.”

Her chin trembled and her eyes began gushing tears as she wailed, “

I broke the broom!”

“Did you get hurt?”

“N-n-n-o-o-o,” she sobbed.

“We don’t care about a broom,” I said, hugging her tight. “We care about you. There’s not a single thing in this house we care about as much as we care about you.”

More sobbing.

“Look at this old piano. See these scratches on the side? This piano has been around a long time. It’s just wear and tear. Even if this entire piano somehow got broken, do you think we’d care about it more than we care about you kids?”

I realized it was ludicrous to use an example of a piano being destroyed. But then, reflecting on several of her male cousins, maybe it wasn’t ludicrous. Even if it was severely damaged during some bizarre boy antic gone awry, we’d still choose the kids over the stuff.

Her sobbing softened to whimpering, which was a step in the right direction.

“Come with me,” I said, leading her by the hand. “Sit down in the middle of the sofa.”

She sat down and a spring went BOING. She smiled a little half-smile.

“Now sit over there on the end. Hear that crack? That’s the wooden frame! A lot of kids have played on this sofa, crawled over the back, rolled off the cushions.” I didn’t mention that I often stand on the end of it to reach books on the bookshelf.

“What do you think we care about more? The sofa or kids?”

“Kids,” she whispered.

“And look at that screen door.”

Suddenly, I realized the house may be in worse shape than I thought. Oh well—such is the price of life and the joy of family.

“The only way the little kids can get that open is to push on the screen. We care about kids more than we care about the screen.”

Finally convinced, she scampered back outside. A little later, I saw the “broken” broom on the patio and called to her.

“That broom was made to come apart,” I said. “The handle and broom are separate pieces. You didn’t break it—it just came apart!”

My lecture on the value of stuff as opposed to the value of people was probably unnecessary. But sometimes it never hurts to be reminded of what truly matters. It makes for a beautiful day.


She doesn’t give parenting advice — but if she did

I always think long and hard when people ask me for parenting advice. I tell them it was all I could do to parent our own children; I’m not about to advise them on how to parent theirs.

The real danger is once you start dispensing advice, it automatically casts you as an expert and nothing invites disaster like billing yourself as an expert.

That said, when I do have a momentary lapse of discretion and dispense parenting advice, it is often the advice my mother gave me.

She once told me the best thing I could do was get my nose out of a book.


I closed the book I was reading on how to get your baby to sleep, setting it down on top of a book on getting your baby to eat solid foods, which was on top of a book on the importance of playtime with your baby, which was on top of a book about talking to your baby, which was on top of a book on cultivating your baby’s interests in physics, engineering and computer science.

I didn’t know why my mother would object to me reading books. All of the books were by credentialed experts—one or two of whom even had children of their own.

It was years before I fully understood what my mother meant.

She meant it was time to stop reading and start doing. It was time to go with my gut and my heart and become the expert on knowing my own children.

She was right, of course. Mothers always are. At least that’s what I tell our kids.

My heart told me that babies and children need the same things grown-ups need —to be known, loved, encouraged, given opportunities to learn and grow, fail and try again.

My instincts told me that children need boundaries, correction, forgiveness and second chances. A lot of what my heart and instincts told me was similar to what the experts were telling me, but without the cost of a hardcover book.

I knew my heart was a good guide amid squeals of laughter, sounds of play and overwhelming love for another human being.

I also knew that parenting would be one of the hardest jobs I’d ever had. Sleepless nights and spit up on my shoulder made me a fast learner.

This job would require a selflessness with which I was unaccustomed. It would require a strange tension of holding them close and simultaneously letting them go. I also knew it would be seasonal work and that this season would never pass my way again.

My mother’s heart told me that my children would learn many marvelous things from books, but the most important things—like how to live life, how to treat others and how to find their way and make sense of this world—they would most likely learn from watching their father and me. Warts and all.

Books and experts can be wonderful resources, but nobody will ever know your child like you do. Nobody will ever love your child like you do.

You get one chance at this parenting gig. Give it your all.

How window air conditioners ushered in the Ice Age

I’m of the last generation that grew up without air conditioning as a standard feature in most homes. We got air conditioning eventually, but only after Mom and Dad were sure we’d endured enough blistering summers to remember what suffering was like. Parents back then were concerned their children might turn out spoiled, so they let kids do things like sweat in the heat.

We had a fan. It was a three-speed oscillating number with no safety guard, the kind that could cut your fingers off if you stuck your hand it. We were reminded of the danger every 15 minutes. The fan followed us from room to room. When we had dinner, the fan had dinner. When we sat in the living room, the fan sat in the living room.

Everybody we knew had fans. Come to think of it, I’m not sure air conditioning had been invented when I was a kid. The wheel had been invented, but not air conditioners.

Of course, we found other ways to stay cool. If you sprawled out face down on the basement floor, it could bring your body temperature down to 117.

We also kept the drapes in front of the big picture window that faced west drawn during the summer. Exxon could have started drilling for oil in our backyard and we wouldn’t have known until late September.

I was mesmerized by an aunt and uncle who lived on a farm and had a big window fan. It would pull in the cool night air and, sometimes, the smell of cattle as well. When it was really hot, my aunt would put a tray of ice cubes in front of the fan, so the fan would (theoretically) blow cold air. My aunt later became the president of Frigidaire. Not really, but I thought she was a genius.

Then the day finally came when Mom and Dad apparently thought we had suffered enough and they bought a window air conditioner. Dad hauled the monster home in the trunk of the car and had to get a neighbor to help heave it into the kitchen window.

Could that baby cool. The bedrooms were at the back of the house, so they had to blast it on high at night to cool everyone while we slept. It was great. The only downside was that the first ones in the kitchen for breakfast suffered frostbite. Every morning, when we’d be at the kitchen table chopping through the milk frozen around our cereal, Dad would say, “Boy, this air conditioning is a lifesaver.” It really was. We were officially spoiled.

Temperatures are soaring again today, as they promise to do for the next few weeks. I’ve grown spoiled just as my parents feared; I routinely grouse about the heat and humidity with all the rest. But there’s not a day I don’t look at the thermostat on our central air conditioning and hear my father’s voice say, “Boy, this air conditioning is a lifesaver.”

Summer takes the cake

I’m cutting back on calories because summer is here.

And, no, I’m not watching what I eat because I’m getting ready for swimsuit season. I avoid swimming pools. The reason I avoid swimming pools is because I also avoided chemistry.

In my mind, pools have always been large public bathtubs – with small children—and yet intelligent people actually put their heads underwater in large swimming pools. Other people, not me. I know there are chemicals that take care of germs and bacteria, but I just don’t understand chemistry well enough to trust it. Well, that and I’ve seen the massive amounts of chemicals dumped in pools and wonder why I’d want to swim in chemicals.

All of which takes me to the beach. (Oh, please, yes, take me to the beach! Preferably, a rocky coastline with cool temperatures.) There are no chemicals in the water at the coast and what small children do there is washed out to sea. I’m good with everything at the coast—the tides, the surf, the waves—everything except sharks, jellyfish and riptides.

But I’m not watching what I eat to get ready for the beach either.

I’m getting ready for cake.

Summer brings a crush of family birthdays—two in June, six in July and four in August.

By the end of summer, nearly all the grands will have rolled over to “new numbers.” It’s a very big deal, like when a car’s odometer rolls over to 100,000 or 200,000. Once they all change up to new numbers the new line-up will be: 9, 8, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, four-and-a-half months and four months. Our two new additions this spring threw our number run off a bit, but we’re keeping them anyway.

The only problem is that you don’t roll over to that many new numbers without working your way through a lot of birthday celebrations and a lot of cake. If I hit every family birthday from early June through the end of August, I could be eating cake every three days. That’s so much cake that, even on the off-cake days, I’d be too full to walk to the ‘fridge and make a salad.

Of course, nobody is forcing me to eat cake and ice cream at every birthday celebration, but children tend to notice if you’re not participating in the party. We are a family whose primary love language is food. To love is to eat, to eat is to be family.

We’ve tried streamlining all these celebrations by grouping two here and three there, or meeting up for a birthday donut somewhere. Even so, we often wind up in a party streamer, birthday hat, blowing out the candles, white sugar, carbohydrate sort of daze some weeks. You count the days you have to recover until the next celebration.

There’s no getting around it: summer means a lot of cake – no matter how you slice it.

Walking in the shadows of wild ideas

The parking lot for tourists is nearly empty when we arrive. We are alone on the pathway cutting through the Virginia woods this morning. We descend stairs and more stairs that drop sharply. This path and these stairs were not here 250 years ago when others wove their way through this forest. They were carved into the hillside by men and machines that followed many years later.

About a hundred steps down rests a giant gnarled tree trunk. The trunk is a marvel, pained and arthritic looking with exposed roots resembling claws. The aged and weathered bark ripples like thick strands of coarse hair.

The fallen tree is time’s reminder that there was life long before us. It is nature’s way of whispering, “It’s not all about you.”

I learned of this place reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington. Chernow says the story of Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac is merely a legend. However, Washington did throw a rock over the top of the Natural Bridge, a 215-foot limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek.

Washington had amazing arm strength. He also had powerful thighs, which made him an excellent horseman. Strange, the things you learn in a well-written book. Washington was never overly emotional, had unwavering determination and exercised granite self-control, particularly in public. His courage in battle was at times reckless.

Cedar Creek is moving swiftly this morning, spilling over rocks and gurgling as it passes on the other side of a stone wall. Nearly every surge forward in Washington’s life was linked to deep loss, usually the death of a loved one, his father, his older brother, his beloved step-daughter Patsy who died in her teens of an epileptic seizure.

Washington was not the flat cutout textbooks convey; he was complicated and occasionally deeply conflicted. He led the charge for freedom, but owned slaves. He was a walking contradiction, a man of considerable virtue willingly turning a blind eye to unconscionable coercion.

Saint and sinner all in the same package. The everlasting curse of humanity.

Along with others of his time, Washington committed to a crazy idea that had been tried only briefly in history. It was a vision for a nation not ruled by a single leader, a monarchy, a dynasty, or a chosen tribe, but by the people themselves. It would be a government of self-rule conceived in liberty.

The path takes a gentle turn. Around the bend, benches are lined in neat rows facing the Natural Bridge. You can sit and contemplate this magnificent wonder that soars gracefully framing a patch of sky.

Wild notions of freedom, liberty and self-governance would have had plenty of room to grow here. Boundless skies, the rush of water, the strength of the rocks and forests without end.

You can imagine the silhouette of a man of considerable height and strength launching a rock over the arch. It’s entirely believable.

What’s hard to believe is that fledging bands of poorly equipped farmers, craftsmen and merchants, freed African Americans and even some still enslaved, waged battle for self-government, freedom and liberty against the world’s greatest military and somehow won.

The vision is ours to keep and preserve now. Long live wild ideas of freedom and liberty.

Bless your hearts and bless our fast feet

We have returned home from a short trip to Savannah, Georgia, and would like to confess.

Our crime?

Walking fast.

I blame Southern Living magazine.

We booked a vacation apartment in a building more than 100 years old in the historic district. It had 12-foot ceilings, 9-foot deep windows with louvered shutters, and a balcony with a ceiling fan, and was bordered by huge magnolias. It was like stepping into my cache of Southern Living magazines stashed behind a chair in our front room.

Southern Living and I became one, if only for three days.

There was so much to take in—magnificent architecture, beautiful landscaping, live oaks, Spanish moss, historic monuments and grand mansions. I may have been overly excited, which causes me to move faster than normal, which is already fast. The husband runs nearly every day, which means fast is his default mode as well.

On Day One we took a two-hour self-guided walking tour and finished it in 45 minutes.

We bought a three-day parking pass that enabled us to park at any meter or in any parking garage, but never moved the car. Why drive when you walk fast?

On Day Two I sped read four plaques surrounding a historic mansion and began chit-chatting with other tourists about the history of the construction. Two blocks later we discovered they were trotting along behind us under the mistaken notion that I was a tour guide.

On Day Three we suddenly became aware that we were walking at quite a clip as we routinely outpaced horse-drawn trolleys and kept up with pedicabs.

We made a conscious effort to slow down as we started through another historic square. We even attempted to mosey. One does not walk in a straight line when moseying. One traces an elongated S, slowly weaving from side to side.

We failed at moseying, just like we failed at ambling and sauntering.

Northerners were not built for slow, easy strides, but for quick and jerky movements. We have been conditioned for speed by frigid cold, biting winds, large cities filled with heavy traffic, high-speed trains, and buses so long they have accordion middles so they can round corners. We move fast to survive.

If we couldn’t walk slow, maybe we could sit. We took a bench. For two minutes.

We decided if we were going to slow our pace, we should split up so we didn’t miss anything. The husband bolted for pictures of the house where “Forrest Gump” was filmed and I began photographing tables with white linens and centerpieces being set up for a special event near the famous cast-iron fountain at Forsyth Park.

It was a splendid trip. We are at home now, craving Leopold’s ice cream, cheese straws from The Olde Pink House and green beans cooked with bacon. Had we stayed one day longer we both may have converted to sweet tea.

It was nothing but excitement and the desire to take it all in that caused us to move with such impolite speed.

We do hope y’all understand.

Bless your hearts.

When life hands you lemons, call Legal-Ade

The sour incidents commenced full-bore about seven years ago. Prior to that time, they had been resolved quietly for the most part. No attorneys, no fines, nobody telling somebody to go suck a lemon. But then, they began drawing the ire of city officials. Police were dispatched.

The incidents occurred on warm summer days with cloudless skies—the sort of days that deliver a pressing heat that leaves you dry and parched, the same kind of blue-sky days that make you glad to be alive, thankful to be an American and breathe free.

Oh sure, the incidents could have been avoided. The offenders could have stayed inside, sat on sofas, watched television, binged on salty snacks and turned their fingers orange.

But they didn’t.


They set up lemonade stands.

In Midway, Georgia, three little girls opened a lemonade stand to earn money to go to a water park. Police said they needed a business license, a peddler’s permit and a food permit. So long, girls. Bye-bye water park.

Four-year-old Abigail Krstinger of Coralville, Iowa had her lemonade stand squeezed 30 minutes after it had opened. Busted.

Similar scenes played out in Overton, Texas; Batavia, New York; Dunedin, Florida; Troy, Illinois; Queens, New York; Reno, Nevada; Philadelphia; Miami Beach; St. Louis, Las Cruces, New Mexico and are still playing out today.

Some kids have been told they need permits ranging from $75 to $1500. Others have been told they need proof the lemonade was made in a commercial kitchen inspected by the health department.

Even the rich and famous have gotten into sticky situations. Jerry Seinfeld’s son’s lemonade stand was shut down in the Hamptons. He was raising money for charity.

There are marvelous lessons learned at a lemonade stand—how to organize and plan an event, how to hustle, how to greet customers, how to pitch a product, how to count change, how to figure profits against costs and how to keep ice from melting.

Lemonade stands aren’t usually big money makers, even when mom throws in the lemonade, plastic cups, ice and sign supplies at no cost. But they give kids their first taste of the American Dream. It’s their first experience linking work with financial reward.

It’s unthinkable that the red tape of bureaucracy can choke out young entrepreneurs’ first foray into business. The standard line is that shutting the stands down is for the public good.


Many of the lemonade stands are phoned in by cranky neighbors and sourpusses. In other cases, commercial vendors who feel threatened by kids selling lemonade for 25 cents a cup lodge complaints.

I guess they simply forgot what it’s like to be a kid, what it’s like to dream.

Now, Country Time Lemonade, in a genius marketing move, is offering Legal-Ade, support and financial reimbursement up to $300 to any child whose lemonade stand is threatened.

Today’s children and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs learn yet another lesson in business: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When your lemonade stand gets busted, make a call to Legal-Ade.

It’s the new American way.


The pocket dial, the purse dial and the toddler dial

The top two inadvertent cell phone calls are the pocket dial and the purse dial. I’d like to add a third – the I’m carrying-in-groceries-and-my-phone-is-under-my-chin dial. I’ve called a neighbor so many times while carrying in groceries it’s a wonder she doesn’t ask me to take her out of my phone—or stop going to the store so often.

Recently, we have been recipients of the toddler dial. In some ways, the toddler dial is a throwback to the old heavy-breathing land line calls.

I answer the phone and there’s nothing but heavy breathing on the other end, the sort of heavy breathing that happens when you’re a toddler with a cold and no ability or interest in blowing your own nose.

“Hello, Sweetie. Did you mean to call Grandma? Grandma loves when you call!”

Sweetie doesn’t have much to say. He’s just breathing.

“Hello? Sweetie? Say something.”

Sweetie giggles then burst into maniacal laughing.

Why not? The kid has got ‘em now—he’s in possession of his dad’s cell phone, pushing people on speed dial, listening to adults shout, “Hello? Hello? Hello?” Meanwhile, the grown-ups who birthed him, parent him and tell him when he has to go to bed, when he can get up, what he can eat and when he needs to go potty, don’t have a clue what he’s up to. Score one for the toddler.

Then comes a clunk, thud and muffled clatter as the phone hits the floor, most likely disappearing into a mound of plastic dinosaurs. Maybe they’ll find the phone when someone needs a T. rex.

Sweetie calls back and breathes some more.

“I like talking to you, Sweetie, but Grandma is busy,” I say. “Why don’t you take the phone to Daddy?”

Cute kid. I hang up.

Sweetie calls again.

One toddler dial is cute, two toddler dials are fine, but three toddler dials border on telemarketing.

“Take the phone to your daddy. NOW!”

The toddler dial is on a par with the mother of a toddler calling you about something and abruptly screaming, “Noooooo! I have to go!” and hanging up.

You hope it’s not a broken bone or involves a lot of bleeding. You don’t exactly go on about business as usual because you’re wondering if a little one is on the way to the ER. You’d call back but maybe the momma is still on the phone with 911. Maybe she’s driving the kid to the hospital herself.

She finally calls back and says it was “nothing.” Someone dumped one of those half-ton size bags of Veggie Straws on the floor. “Nothing” just took six months off my life.

I decide to call Sweetie back, hoping to speak to someone in charge. No answer. Clearly, Sweetie is still in charge and now screening calls from irritable Grandma.

Later that evening my daughter-in-law calls and says, “I see we missed a couple of calls from you earlier. Everything OK?”

“Great,” I say. “Just wanted to make sure all of you were still alive and breathing.”


Seriously, they think laundry is fun

Why is it that when work has an element of joy it isn’t work at all, but when you remove the joy, the same work that was once a delight becomes a chore?

Take laundry. Please.

There are three grands in the playhouse in the backyard when one of them announces they have spilled on the tablecloth.

She had a vested interest in the tablecloth; she helped sew it. They can all sew a straight line, which means they are now on a skill level with their grandma.

“Can I wash this?”

“You want to do laundry?”

The concept is foreign to me.

“Yes, the old way.”

“You mean a top-load machine?”


“You mean a wringer washer?”

A blank stare.

“The old way. Like on the prairie.”

I returned from the house with an old washboard that hangs over the washer and dryer.

She is delighted. Thrilled. Ecstatic. Who doesn’t jump up and down at the prospect of scrubbing something out by hand with a tub of cold sudsy water and an old washboard?

So, there she is going to town with the tablecloth and the washboard, having a wonderful time, and I am having a wonderful time sitting in the shade watching her work. That’s probably one of my favorite elements of work – watching someone else on task.

My very favorite element of work is listening to someone else vacuum. Music to my soul.

There’s a pattern here, isn’t there?

She finishes the tablecloth and announces her dress needs washing. She dashes to the house to put on some old clothes from the “emergency” drawer and begins washing her dress.

Her sister announces that her dress needs washing, too.

The desire to work has now grown contagious. If only we could package and market this fervor.

Another sister announces she wants to wash something the old way, but must be in costume. She dashes inside and returns wearing a long dress, a straw hat and an apron that belongs to Raggedy Ann.

They have all had turns at the washboard and announce they need to dry their wet things.

“Just throw them over the chairs on the patio,” I say.

“Don’t you have rope and those pincher things?”

Isn’t that how it goes? You sanction cutting corners and someone wants to go for authenticity.

We string the rope from one end of the hammock frame to another and voila, a portable clothesline.

Their dripping wet articles flap in the breeze and they push the hammock around the yard to follow the sun.

Later that night I retrieve their things from the clothesline. The small tablecloth and little dresses are stiff, as are most things that dry in the wind.

At 10 p.m., I push a few buttons on the washing machine and toss their tiny things in with a load of towels.

It’s not a chore; it’s a delight.

Living pale in the Age of Bronze

We are approaching the most dreaded season of the year—Summer. Many people will be walking about showing off golden brown tans that scream, “I swim, I golf, I go boating, I play tennis!”

I will be walking about, my usual pasty white self, a skin tone that screams, “I stay inside and read books all summer!”

I don’t stay inside and read books all summer, it’s just that I’m one of those people who don’t tan. I’m naturally pale. Very pale. I’m so pale I nearly glow in the dark.

On the upside, no one in the family ever needs to hunt for a flashlight. Someone will just say, “Hey, Mom, show a little leg; I dropped my car keys.”

Can’t find something in the back of your closet? Call me. I can wave my arms around and you’ll find things you forgot you owned.

Naturally, every year I think this might be the year I spend a few hours outside and inexplicably develop a lovely golden brown tan. Of course, I don’t. So then I think maybe this is the year there’s a product that will give me a natural-looking golden brown tan.

I’m a marketer’s dream when it comes to self-tanning products. I first tried one when I was a girl of about 15. The advertisement promised it would turn my anemic-looking skin into a beautiful bronze and make me vastly more popular at the ocean’s shore. That was impressive, especially considering that the nearest ocean shore was 1,000 miles away.

I figured if one coat would make me bronze, two coats would make me very bronze. I slathered on three for good measure.

The next morning, I awoke and found that the lotion had indeed delivered results. I looked like a human carrot.

My mother screamed at the sight of me and rushed for her medical book.

I gave up on self-tanning lotions until about a decade ago. There was a new product, a paper towel of sorts, saturated with a lotion that would turn your skin a beautiful golden brown. The instructions said to apply it with circular motions. I woke the next day with circles on my face and arms that made me look like a leopard.

The next year, I tried a foam that said to apply it in vertical motions. For six days I walked around with stripes on my legs and arms that looked like a zebra.

Someone gave me a gift certificate for a spray tan a few years ago. It left me golden brown with a just a hint of orange, but had an unpleasant odor to it. Everywhere I went people asked, “What smells?”

I’m finished trying to be someone I’m not. I have finally made peace with being pale in the Age of Bronze.

As a matter of fact, our local symphony does outdoor concerts every summer. I’m thinking of volunteering as an usher.