When the ants go marching in

I was suspicious the first time I saw them. But I slapped on a happy face and agreed to give them a chance. Still, I wondered if they wouldn’t overextend their stay—or worse—go where they weren’t wanted. You never know about ants.

It was the second ant farm among the grandkiddos. The second one didn’t impress me any more than the first. I don’t care how educational they are; ants should never be in a house without being accompanied by a large bottle of bug spray.

I’ve never understood why anyone would deliberately bring a household pest into a house, encased in plastic or otherwise. They assured me it was impossible for the ants to escape.

Fine, but check your pantry anyway.

“First we got the farm and then they sent the ants,” one of the kids said.

“Lovely,” I said.

“And then we put them in the refrigerator.”

“Of course. And why was that?”

“So they’d want to get in the ant farm.”

Yes, I imagine you’d have to refrigerate most living things to make them want to crawl into an enclosed plastic container.

“They’re worker ants,” one of the kids proudly said.
“What kind of work do they do?” I asked.
“They move grains of sand up and down the tunnels and then they make new tunnels and carry grains of sand through them.”

And so they did. The ants scurried up the tunnel and back down the tunnel. They were working, but what were they accomplishing? It reminded us of when the girls went on a mission trip to Haiti as teenagers. They spent a week moving rocks from one end of a property to the other. The husband suspected that the next group of kids to arrive moved the rocks back to the other end of the property.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a dead one. When one ant dies the other ants just crawl over him.”

What are you teaching these precious children? These ants are sick!

“We fed them a tiny bit of a blueberry yesterday. There it is, right there.”

“No, that’s not the blueberry,” another said. “That’s where they go potty. They all go in the same place.”

Well, that was worth the cost of shipping.

Several weeks later it still did not appear the ants had created anything remarkable. They just kept traveling the same tunnels over and over, carrying grains of sand back and forth.

Then I happened on an article by scientists who studied five worker ant colonies for two weeks and concluded that worker ants are – and I wouldn’t tell this to the kids –well, worker ants are slackers. Just as I had suspected. Only 3 percent of worker ants always work, 25 percent of ants were never working and 72 percent of the worker ants were inactive at least half of the time.

The ants began dying off one by one.

“Eventually they will all die,” my daughter said. “You know, worker ants—they work themselves to death.”

That’s what she thinks.

Take-out from the first Thanksgiving

When the Pilgrims and Native Americans shared that first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, they not only gave us a great model of community and friendship (at least for a time), they also hosted the original potluck.

The blueprint they left for hosting large gatherings is relevant even today.

For starters, note that everybody who attended brought something—and it was something substantial – deer, a string of cod or a half-dozen pheasants. Nobody tried to slide by with a measly 2-liter or a bag of chips.

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Also, there was no prolonged and painful analysis over food origin. It was organic. All of it. Some of it was so organic that it was still warm, wearing feathers and had a faint heartbeat. We think we’re pretty original today, but the Native Americans and Pilgrims were the first farm-to-table fresh food people.

Their eggs were free-range, their chickens were free-range and so were their kids.

Dietary restrictions hadn’t been invented yet, so nobody dissected the carb count of the corn pudding, questioned whether the milk was whole or skim or announced they weren’t eating the pie if it had sugar in it.

What’s more, nobody put a damper on the meal by wearing a Fitbit to the table or checking calorie counts on a mobile device.

They came to the table and did what you’re supposed to do at the Thanksgiving table. They ate. And ate and ate and ate.

“More sweet potatoes, please.”

“We didn’t get any squirrel or rabbit down here.”

It probably also helped that they had a serious language barrier. Nobody was able to blow the day up by talking politics or rehashing the election. They didn’t talk much at all; between courses they went target shooting and had wrestling matches. If things get tense at your gathering this year, consider switching to a foreign language. Or challenging someone to a wrestling match.

“Where’s Uncle Joe?”

“There he is out back wrestling. Looks like he’s giving cousin Rob a run for his money. They’re both sure red in the face.”

“Aren’t they though? More pie?”

It was also genius that they hosted the meal outside. They not only captured that woodsy, rustic ambiance so popular today, but clean-up was a cinch. What the dogs didn’t eat, the bears and raccoons took care of at night. If it’s above 50 degrees where you live, think about it.

We could learn a thing or two about simplicity from that first feast as well. Not a single woman pondered whether to use the everyday dishes, break out the good china or go with paper plates. For the most part, they ate State-Fair style—food–on-a-stick. Nor did they spend half a day devising a clever theme for the get-together. In those days, every meal had the same theme – survival.

Nobody had to be called to the table twice, nobody picked at their food, nobody had to be told to clean up their plate and nobody worried about running out of ice.

Despite differences in food traditions, backgrounds, ethnicity and language, they shared a profound appreciation for the bounty provided by the divine Creator.

Thankfulness was like food—a shared bond and a universally spoken language.

 

 

 

 

Drive-by fruiting teaches perp not to mess with Grandma

I was the victim of a drive-by fruiting last weekend.

I was buzzing about in the kitchen vaguely aware of a small shadowy figure on the other side of the door leading to the garage. Frankly, there are a number of shadowy figures when 22 of us are together, so I didn’t think much about it.

Then I heard BAM! BAM! BAM!  I looked at the door to see cherry tomatoes exploding, sending juice and seeds sliding down the glass. Sliding, sliding, sliding. The tomatoes looked remarkably similar to the cherry tomatoes dropping from the half-dead vines in the raised bed in the backyard.

fruiting

 

And to think some grandmas hold grandchildren on their laps and read them stories.

My sister-in-law, married to my brother and the mother of two boys, clucked her tongue and quietly cleaned up the mess. She knew that at a different time, in a different place, it could have been any of hers doing the drive-by fruiting.

I was reasonably sure I knew who the offender was. OK, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. I raised the kid’s father. They have the same DNA.

We got lunch on the table and everyone was seated and eating when I calmly announced there had been a crime wave in our neighborhood recently. The perp briefly looked up from his PBJ with big eyes, then immediately looked back down.

“We ourselves were a victim of crime this very day,” I said. “I was working in the kitchen, preparing lunch for all of you, when I heard BAM! BAM! BAM! at the kitchen door.”

tomatoes-crop

 

The perp continued nibbling his sandwich, avoiding eye contact. All the other kids were wide-eyed and transfixed. Some nuts are harder to crack than others.

“I turned to see what it was and saw cherry tomatoes splattered on the door to the garage. Can you imagine how shocked I was? I was stunned!”

He’s not buying it. He’s knows it takes a lot more than a hit with three cherry tomatoes to shake this grandma.

“I thought about reporting the crime, calling the police. Then, just as I was ready to dial 911, I had second thoughts. What if the person who did this, did it on an impulse without thinking? What if the person who did this was sorry for what he did? (I was narrowing the field with the male pronoun; he still didn’t budge.)

“I’ve done some things I regret. And I’ve had some second chances along the way. Maybe the person who pelted my door with tomatoes needs a second chance. Maybe he’s sorry right now and wants to say so.”

No, he did not want to say anything.

“I believe in second chances,” I said. “Does anyone else around this table believe in second chances?”

His hand was the first to shoot into the air.

Later that afternoon he was outside and one of his uncles lifted him up to see in the kitchen window. A line of cherry tomatoes sat ripening on the window sill directly beneath the window.

You bet I did. Two of them. You should have seen him jump.

The knowing grin on his face said it all: “She’s smarter than she looks.”

 

 

 

 

The Fix-Its hustle when company is coming

My brother and his family are coming to visit, which explains why we are hustling to spruce up the place. Not that the place is a dump, but we never seem to pay attention to detail like we do when company is coming.

The rotting window box with the caved-in side beneath the kitchen window hasn’t bothered us since late summer, but all of a sudden we feel compelled to fix it. Or at least disguise it so you can’t tell we are comfortable with a certain level of neglect.

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I just shot some WD-40 into the hinges of the folding doors to the washer and dryer. They’ve been squeaking with the piercing cry of a banshee for weeks, but for weeks I lived with it, flinching every time I opened the doors to throw in a load of laundry. I no longer flinch. I like it.

I first realized that nothing makes the husband fly into gear like having company come when we hosted a party for our Lamaze Group after our son was born. Couples and babies were arriving and the husband was nowhere to be found. He was fixing a lock on the back door that I’d been after him to tend to for weeks. Prior to that, he had trimmed a rosebush on a trellis that had never been touched by shears in the previous three years we lived there.

This is why I jump at the chance to host baby and bridal showers. Sure, it’s fun to fete someone celebrating a milestone, but it’s also a reason to vacuum behind the sofa, clean bugs out of the entryway light fixtures and sweep the cobwebs off the porch.

I’m not sure if this rush to action is a desire to look better than we are or simply that we are more motivated by outside forces than we are self-motivated.

It’s the Fixing-Up-Your House-to-Move syndrome. A house never looks better and functions better than when a homeowner is ready to sell. As a matter of fact, when we patched dead spots in the front lawn and painted the trim on the house this past spring a neighbor stopped to ask if we were moving.

“No, just had a burst of energy.” She nodded with an understanding look.

For the past 10 days I’ve been letting my gas stove get dirty. Crumbs and grease now cover the surface beneath the iron grates like pebbles lining a creek bottom. I’ll clean it once I know my brother and his family are in the car and on their way.

I’m not sure what we’ll do about the garage. My brother is one of those guys who can fix, build and repair anything and has a large Morton building filled with all kinds of tools keenly organized by shape, size and purpose. We’ll probably just bolt every entryway to our garage. That one is beyond motivation, from ourselves, friends, family or even royalty coming to visit.

Unless, of course, one day we move.

 

LED me tell you watt I know about lightbulbs

Because the husband is nearing retirement age, we get a number of invitations to free steak dinners where financial advisers explain the complexities of investing and persuade you to secure their services.

We’ve never gone to a free steak dinner hosted by a financial adviser, but I’d go to a free steak dinner in a heartbeat if an expert was explaining lightbulbs. The complexities of navigating retirement and lightbulbs are now on the same plane.

It doesn’t even have to be a steak dinner. Make it a free hot dog in the parking lot of a big box store and I’ll be there.

The last time I went to buy lightbulbs, I read up on them beforehand. That’s something in itself when we now have to “read up” on lightbulbs.  I even read “How to Read a Lightbulb Package.” Talk about feeling like a dim bulb.

Lightbulbs now come with extensive narratives.

Meet the CFL: curly, medium base, affordable and cost-efficient, with just a touch of mercury for a hint of danger. Has a delicate side and may not hold up to power surges. Not advised for workshops. Your 20-watt CFL is comparable to a 75-watt incandescent (or is it a 60-watt?), a 53-watt halogen and a 14-watt LED, give or take a handful of lumens. Or is it lemons?

Once you calculate the cost of the bulb in relation to the estimated yearly energy costs, divide by the lifespan of the bulb in relation to the lifespan of you, and multiply by all the negative reviews you read about the bulb online, your head explodes.

Then there is the matter of light color. Why must being energy-efficient cause me to look dead? A lightbulb should not make a room and the people in it look as though they are in a funeral home. Manufacturers are working on the problem, and they’ve made considerable progress in that many energy-efficient bulbs now simply make people look critically ill as opposed to deceased.

Offerings as to the color of light range from soft to softer soft, and softer softer soft, to cool, cool and crisp, and bacon crisp. In many cases you simply don’t know how it’s going to look until you get it home and try it on. Like a sweater.

My second request is that a lightbulb not cause eye strain.  I dropped hefty change on an LED bulb, stuck it in a lamp and turned it on to read. I had to take the shade off the lamp to see the words on the page.

Hotels are the worst. Flick on the lights and you spend the evening waiting for them to power up. If you planned on reading, you’d be better off in the hotel bar.

I’ll hang in there to reduce our energy consumption until we get it right. In the meantime, the kitchen is the best lit room in our house. We have recessed lights (halogen, not too pricey, more energy efficient than incandescent and fairly long lasting as long as you don’t touch them with greasy fingers). We camp in the kitchen a lot.

The lighting is good, but the weight gain has been terrible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vacation dream home best left to your dreams

I can remember every essay I’ve ever read about someone closing up a summer home in the woods, by the shore or on a lake. There’s a beautiful melancholy about closing windows, draining pipes, putting slip covers on furniture and saying goodbye to the memories until next year.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have a retreat in the woods, a sanctuary in the wild. We don’t have one; but we rented one for a long weekend. Eleven of us packed everything but our kitchen sinks and traveled hours of interstate, state roads, busy local roads, not-so-busy local roads, switchbacks with steep drops and vertical climbs passing old barns collapsed under the weight of time.

There it was on the crest of the ridge—a cabin more beautiful than the pictures on the website. The views were majestic, postcard panoramas of the Great Smoky Mountains.

blue-ridge

Who couldn’t make memories here? Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?

“Maybe a few of us could go in on one” someone said, half joking.

“People make money owning vacation homes.”

“An investment like this would probably pay for itself in a few years. Someone is sitting on a gold mine.”

Kids raced through the cabin exploring bedrooms and bathrooms, reporting on a soaking tub with jets, a steam shower and – joy of joys – a hot tub.

We gathered on one of the decks and watched the sun slowly disappear, painting the rippled mountain ridges a soft steel blue. Leaving the city and jobs and routine behind, there was a collective exhale.

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Night fell and bats fluttered near the deck, darting in and out of the tree tops. The next morning, bat droppings covered the railing to the deck and the front porch. I swept them away, but there were more bat dropping throughout the day on the front porch.

“Bats must be nesting in the eaves. The owners should probably call a professional,” someone said.

By afternoon, large bees were buzzing by. Carpenter bees were drilling perfectly round holes into the wood beams of this lovely retreat.

“The owners should probably call a professional.”

“Wonder what the taxes are on a place like this?”

“And what about cleaning and property management fees?”

We took a long, meandering scenic drive, the sort you take when backroads are not well marked, hiked a winding trail and hit a tourist spot in town. We also just lingered at the cabin sharing meals, playing board games, chase, hide and seek. We enjoyed every inch of that lovely home, the very one with the steam shower that didn’t work, two broken chairs and a loose footboard on a bed.

We left that house in the hills with the same sweet melancholy others have described, taking one last look and closing the door to a wonderful time. We took our memories with us but left the bedding, wet towels and maintenance expenses behind. It may be the best way of all to enjoy a cabin in the woods.

Keeping secrets is a gift

It’s no secret that there are people who can keep secrets and people who can’t. There are people who can keep things in the vault until the day they die and people whose vault door constantly swings open.

When our oldest daughter and her husband were expecting their third, he wanted to know the gender and she didn’t. Despite all our attempts to get him to crack, he never did. You could trust the man with your social, your PINs, computer password and true weight.

We have one in the family whose vault door might as well be double-hinged. Try as she might, she can’t keep a secret.

countdown

“I know it’s going to be your birthday, Grandma,” she says with an impish grin. “How old are you going to be?”

“How old do you think I’m going to be?”

“Twenty-two. That’s pretty old.”

“You’re close. I’m actually going to be 23.”

“Whoa,” she says, drawing the word out for maximum impact.

The funny thing is, I look in the mirror a lot of mornings and say the same thing myself.

“Mom said she would take me shopping because I wanted to buy you a present myself and I did.”

And with that, the countdown begins. It is just a matter of time before she spills the beans. Ten, nine, eight . . .  every fiber of her being is about to explode.

“Mom took me to Stein Mart. We had a coupon!” Seven, six, five . . . she squeals and jumps out of her chair with excitement. The kid may not be able to keep a secret, but at least she is learning you never pay full retail.

“I don’t want to know what you bought,” I say.

“Oh, yes you do!” The kid is a mind reader, but I can’t tell her that.

“You like turquoise. I know you do.” She is hopping from foot to foot, twirling in circles, her squeaky little voice rising higher. Four, three, two . . .

“You don’t want to know if I got you a necklace?”

“No!”

“OK, I won’t tell you.”necklace2

She sits down and begins to draw. She draws a semicircle with turquoise shapes bordering it on one side and then, beaming from ear to ear, holds the drawing up to her chest.

“I think I’m going to like it,” I say.

When her mom picked her up, she immediately admitted to telling the secret. She said she had spilled the beans—that her stomach had hurt because the beans needed to come out. Isn’t that how it always happens? It’s not your fault, it’s the beans’ fault.

On my birthday I unwrapped tissue paper in a gift bag and pulled out a lovely turquoise necklace strikingly similar to a drawing I’d seen the day before.

The kid may never have a career in espionage, but she definitely has a future in art.

 

 

 

How do you raise kids in a world like this?

Used to be we often muted the news when the kids were in the room, but these days we don’t even turn it on. And our kids are in their 30s.

Oh, the kids can take it alright, it’s the grands and the little ones we worry about.

The world has become a 24/7 news cycle of screaming sirens, flashing lights, shootings, robberies and racial strife with police in the crosshairs, all of which is punctuated by the occasional Wal-Mart brawl.

In my hometown, we’ve had three amber alerts in two weeks, an 82-year-old man shot in his driveway and a mother who confessed to smothering her two children with her own hands.

We’ve grown numb.

We barely turn our heads when another teacher or coach is charged with molestation.

Fifteen years out from 9/11 and terrorism is not behind us; it is all around us.

And then there’s the political corruption—seemingly without end.

The cherry on top of this sundae is a growing narcissism screaming for attention, constantly beating the drum on the many ways we are all offended. College students, increasingly delicate, now require speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings.

The mob rule of Twitter or Facebook is the new court of justice. The standards of right and wrong that held us together for centuries seem to be crumbling.

So how do you raise kids in a world like this? In a world that some days feels like it is in a free fall?

You do it the same way generations before have done it. The same way others have leaned in to the winds of the unknown and the uncertain, upheaval, unrest, strife, tragedy and even war.

You start with the premise that (trigger warning) life isn’t easy.

Then you create a home that is a shelter in the storm, a place where family and friends can be comfortable, where conversation, creativity, thoughts and ideas are free to flourish.

You use that home as your children’s first school and understand that you are their first teacher. You teach the things you want them to know by modeling them yourself. If you don’t want your kids cowering in fear and lacking confidence, then you can’t cower in fear and lack confidence.

Introduce your children to heroes, both past and present, real-people heroes who have stood strong in the face of challenge and adversity. Then show your children how to stand—for things that are good and true and honorable.

And if you claim to hold the Christian faith, don’t just hold it, live it. Live those words about loving the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. A scholar friend says the word neighbor means nearest. Demonstrate how to love those nearest, in your families, schools, neighborhoods, work places, houses of worship and the businesses where you shop.

If you do even a few of these things, the clouds won’t seem so ominous. Nothing dispels the darkness like a few shafts of light.

Going to the wall for cake

The incident would not have happened were it not for our deep love of wedding cake.

Four of us served at a wedding reception: our oldest daughter who made her own wedding cake and tends to be a perfectionist; our youngest daughter who also made her own wedding cake and resents being bossed by her older sister; an artistic family friend who hovers over every food ­­­detail like a mother hen, and me, whose strength is being able to panic in a crisis.

The reception was in a beautiful old building with high ceilings, very tall windows, very tall doors and in the process of being restored to its former glory.

The food and the cake were in a room at the back of the building accessible by an exterior entrance. Being that the building hadn’t quite made it all the way back to glory, the exterior door did not yet have a handle. But it was functional as long as you remembered not to close the door all the way.

Someone (who is not important, at least not when I tell the story) let the door close all the way. The four of us stood there dazed. You can’t have a wedding reception without food, let alone a wedding cake—a beautiful cake made by the bride herself. The marriage probably wouldn’t even be legal without cake.

The perfectionist noted that the very old and very tall door did not fit flush at t­­he top. Her younger sister offered to boost her up so she might reach the top of the door. We’ll never know if it was a sincere offer or an opportunity to settle old scores. In any case, that’s when the screaming began.

“Aiiiieeeee!” howled the one whose backside, now six feet above ground, wobbled in her sister’s hands.

“You’re not the lightest thing!” her sister yelled.

The mother hen and I darted back and forth positioning ourselves to catch the one teetering in the air.

“Higher!” the airborne one cried. “I can’t reach it.”

“This is as high as I can go!” moaned the base.

A car drove by slowly. The driver rolled down his window, raised a cell phone and drove away.

“My arms are giving way!” screamed the base.

“Careful!” clucked the mother hen.climbing-the-door

“Stretch!” I yelled. (It’s always easy to encourage those in the air when you’re the one on the ground.)

“I’m going for it,” cried the one in the air who had gained fame as a toddler for scaling door casings.

“NOOOOO! Don’t risk your life for food,” I screamed, my priorities clearly out of whack.

She kicked off her shoes, curled her toes and began inching her way up the brick.

“I can’t look” cried the mother hen, burying her head beneath her wing.

“Got it!” she shouted, pulling the door open, then doing an unsightly dismount nearly crushing her sister, the family friend and myself.

We got the food and the cake and it was the best lemon cake in the history of wedding cake.

Every wedding is special, but this was one we’ll never forget. I still have nightmares.

Getting burned and bummed on fall crafts

It’s PSL season. You know what that is, right? Pumpkin spice latte. It’s not just a drink, it is the official kickoff for fall—the ref’s whistle signaling that it’s time to break out the sweaters, boots, cider, pumpkins, candy corn and endless adorable crafts.

Not wanting to miss out, I tried a pumpkin spice latte. I drank what I could, dumped the rest of it down the sink and stood there wishing I had my money back.

PSL did not kick off fall for me. It only made me revert to my original thought on pumpkin—that it is a bland vegetable made tolerable only by being in a pie.

The same women sipping PSLs and savoring the arrival of fall are flocking to Pinterest in search of adorable crafts. Our youngest daughter has already made a wooden sign with arrows pointing different directions that say bonfire, apple cider, hay rides. She’s clever, crafty and decisive like a good crafter should be.

My last Pinterest project (make that Pinterest fail) involved thousands of small red beads, a hot glue gun and a wooden cutout. The end product was supposed to be a festive Christmas decoration to hang on your door. Mine turned out looking like a giant red N. Having been born in Nebraska, every time I walked by it I yelled, “Go Huskers!”

Besides, the husband asked if it was really necessary for me to craft. He claims his nerves can’t take the sudden outbursts and shrieking. I tend to be careless with the hot glue gun.

PSL and crafting may be out by a process of elimination, but there’s always outdoor decor. I see friends on Facebook talking about spending entire afternoons putting up fall décor.

I was thinking maybe décor was my call, when I heard about Mum Mania on my favorite Saturday morning home and garden show broadcast from a local hardware store—big mums at low prices. “Come on down,” they said. So I went on down.

I was feeling confident about my outdoor seasonal décor potential. Maybe Mum Mania was where I would excel.picture-mums-here

I purchased four incredibly big mums for an incredibly good price. After dropping three off for other people, I took the last one home and stuck it in a pot.

The wind blew it over in the night. The big clay pot cracked and broke into pieces and so did the mum. I kept pieces of the broken mum to remind myself that outdoor décor can burn you faster than a hot glue gun.

My last chance for savoring the arrival of clear days and crisp nights was fall fashion. Then I discovered women are wearing one-size-fits-all plaid wool ponchos. A large plaid poncho on a height-challenged person such as myself looks like I barreled through a horse blanket head first and took the blanket with me. Whenever I try to pull that look off, people stop and ask, “How’s the horse?”

Fall used to be my favorite season.