Blowing out the candles, but not the memories

After we married and began having babies, I determined I would write the children letters every year on their birthdays telling them about their physical, mental and spiritual growth. It was one of those ideas that sounded great in a moment of quiet, but shook out somewhat different in reality.

I came across the letters recently. It’s been awhile since I’d looked at them. They’re hardly the graceful prose I hoped I had written.

“You turned 3. This year will be the one we remember as the Year of the Tantrum. Normal for a lot of kids, but you took them to a royal degree. You can be showing great affection and then something small sets you off. Socks. Shoes. Heaven forbid there’s a wrinkle in your bedspread.”

The letters are filled with love, but they also contain the candor only a mother could provide.

“This is your first year at preschool. Your teacher says you are very serious and quiet in class. Hard to imagine.”

If any of our children conveniently forget what challenges they were, the letters provide ample reminders.

“A few weeks back, your brother lost his second tooth on top. You were wrestling and the report was that you kicked him and he swallowed it. No witnesses.”

Should I forget my own shortcomings, there are reminders of those as well: “On occasion, after I have apologized to you for losing my temper, you will say, ‘I forgive you.’ Then you bow your head, close your eyes and say, ‘God, you forgive her, too.’”

On the upside, it is nice to have proof that I wasn’t completely derelict in my responsibilities:

“Right now your army camouflage pants and hat are hot stuff. They make for great leverage when I catch you lying. I just put them up for a day and then you toe the mark.”

“Your bike was run over when you left it behind the minivan. You got a new one in February. Bought it with your own money. You’d been looking at it quite awhile and it went on clearance. You could finally afford it. It was quite an event.”

Some of the best parts are the small vignettes prone to fade from memory over time: “The best addition you made to the home this past year is your whistling. You love to whistle when you’re happy. I’ve heard you wake up and start to whistle, or whistle as you simply pass through the kitchen or are outside digging a hole by your tree house.”

“On Sunday nights, you dress up, move the furniture, watch Lawrence Welk reruns on PBS and dance with your sister or your dad.”

The letters reaffirm that many of the seeds were in place the moment they were born. Our job was to nurture those seeds, protect the tender shoots, and point them toward the sun.

I’m passing the letters on to the kids so that they can enjoy them and perhaps have a heads up as to why their own tender shoots grow the way they do.

Ribbing the family for their own good

We barbecued ribs over the weekend. Talk about an involved process. It was like taking two slabs of meat to a day spa.

The first step was to gently pat the ribs dry. The second step was to apply a rub. I halfway expected the third step to call for wrapping them in fluffy white towels.

Instead, the third step was to soak wood chips. Wood chips are the aromatherapy of the grilling world.

The step after that was to make a mop sauce to keep the ribs from drying out. Of course. Who doesn’t need moisturizer?

After the pat down, the rub, the aromatherapy and the moisturizer, the recipe got technical as to where things went in the grill. The charcoal was at point A which was parallel to a pan of water at point B which was perpendicular to the meat at point C which was at an angle from the wood chips at point D. Once I figured all that out, I went inside to make myself an engineering certificate to hang alongside my new fake masseuse license.

But that wasn’t the best part.

The aroma of smoked ribs? Great, but not the best part.

The tangy sweet mop sauce? Great, but not the best part.

Taunting neighbors and teasing family? Satisfying, but not the best part.

The best part was the very last line of the recipe: “After letting the ribs rest for 30 minutes, share them only with those who deserve them.” It was like the Little Red Hen had written a recipe for baby back ribs.

When you think about it, shouldn’t every recipe end like that?

I made a point of telling the family that the rib recipe gave explicit instructions that the ribs were to be shared only with those who deserved them.

A son-in-law jumped up and offered to help set the table, a daughter lunged from her chair and volunteered to make a salad and our son offered to build a sunroom onto the back of the house.

I’d never seen such excitement, such enthusiasm, such interest in meal preparation. When the fervor appeared to wane, I simply dashed to the grill, lifted the lid and fanned the hickory smoke in the direction of the crowd.

Did I need anything chopped?

Why, yes, and jewelry would be nice, too.

Did I want ice in the glasses?

Lovely – and don’t forget, I do accept gift cards.

For a moment there, it looked like I would never again be alone in the kitchen. For any woman who has ever found herself isolated in the kitchen while the festivities bubble without her, it was a dream come true.

Then we brought the pampered ribs inside and consumed them with appropriate quantities of adulation, licking the platter clean. As quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared. Yes, the ribs and the family were gone.

It was nice while it lasted. I can tell you right now what we’re having for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The beauty of a PC sharing TLC

Technology does wonderful things. On Sunday it brought a friend to church.

She had a cough for awhile, went to the doctor one day and started chemo the next. Stage four lung cancer. Life changes on a dime.

Someone brought an iPad and connected with her on Skype so she could be part of worship time at church. As she could see the service, a few of us within eyeshot of the iPad, could see her.

Sweet smile, bright eyes, a pretty scarf, she looks around, taking it all in. The singing begins and her lips move with the words.

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder; Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

She’s sick, really sick from the chemo and can’t risk being around germs. She’s watching the service, and I really should be, too, but still I steal glances. She’s seated in a chair at a desk in her living room.

A pretty young face leans in from the left side of the screen and kisses my friend on the cheek. It’s her daughter. I heard she and her brother were flying in from the Pacific Northwest. They must be here. A morning kiss. How lovely.

Our church, not one to be bound by seasons, moves to a hymn most consider a Christmas carol.

When I am a seeker, I seek both night and day; I seek the Lord to help me, And He shows me the way; Go, Tell It On The Mountain, Over the hills and everywhere.

I steal another glance and she’s singing along. Clearly she is enjoying Sunday morning at home with 600 of her closest friends

The pretty head again leans in from the left, hair falling over her young face. Another kiss.

Oh, I see.

That first kiss hadn’t been a good morning kiss, and neither was this one. It was an I Love You kiss, an I’m Glad I’m Here kiss, an I’m Glad You’re My Mom kiss.

We’re singing the old standbys today. There is great comfort in the songbook of generations.

Where doubt and darkness once had been, They saw Him and their hearts believed. But blessed are those who have not seen, Yet, sing hallelujah.

Our friend is fighting hard against the darkness of cancer. She’s determined to win and has an unflappable quality about her. She will tell you it is the peace of Christ, the peace that passes understanding.

It’s greeting time when people lean over pews, dart down aisles, shake hands, exchange hugs and say hello. People race to the iPad to lean in before the lens and say hello. She’s grinning from ear to ear amid a flurry of virtual hugs and kisses.

How marvelous and beautiful and wonderful that microchips, wireless connections and tiny cameras let someone who could feel alone and isolated experience the fullness of community.

Maybe if I scratch my nose, I can wipe away the tears at the same time.

Grandkids? He’s glad you asked

The husband refuses to listen when I tell him that he shouldn’t carry on so about our grandkids to other people who have Artworkgrandkids as well. “They think their grandkids are just as special as ours,” I say.

His jaw drops and the color drains from his face. He is momentarily stunned. Clearly, the thought has never crossed his mind that there might be grandchildren equally spectacular, or even more spectacular (as if that’s possible!) than ours.

The husband’s problem, and this has always been his problem since the day I met him, is that he is sincere and kind. Being a sincere and kind individual, when someone asks about the family, he truly thinks they mean it. He thinks they want details. Oh, he’ll give you details all right, details on all six of the little critters. Age, gender, height and weight percentiles, who is potty trained, who is walking, who knows their ABCs and which ones prefer the sandbox over the kiddie pool.

If you’re still standing and your eyes are still open, he will mistake this as genuine interest. He will then continue, telling you which ones appear to have an aptitude for engineering, which ones seem drawn to the arts and which ones he thinks may one day win Pulitzers.

The husband once chased a man out of a party yelling, “Wait! I only got to tell you about the Chicago contingency! I didn’t even get to the three in New Jersey! What’s your email? Want me to text you? Don’t worry; I’ll find you on LinkedIn! What was your name again?”

I’ve never seen a set of taillights speed away into the night so fast in my life.

Not that the man brags, but the man brags—without shame and without apology.

To be perfectly candid, he thinks there may be something wrong with grandparents who do not brag about their grandchildren. Come to think of it, he could be right.

What kind of person wouldn’t want to tell stories about listening to his grandbaby giggle into the phone? What kind of person wouldn’t show 100 of his closest friends the silly dances his grandbabies created?

Still, the husband may be in a league of his own. For him, grandkids are the best thing since sliced bread. Make that better than a Beatles reunion, ESPN, ESPN2 and the Cincinnati Reds winning the pennant. Yep, grandchildren top all of those things and that’s why he loves to talk about them.

That said, if you run into us, don’t ask about the family.

If you do ask about the family, try not to give verbal encouragement.

If you do give verbal encouragement, and the husband offers to show you pictures and goes for his cell phone, I have one word of advice: Run!

Where have all the wrinkles gone?

A woman who had returned from a lengthy stay in Europe marched up to me and demanded to know why Americans Wrinkled Pugdon’t have any commercials with women who have wrinkles.

“Wrinkles are illegal,” I said, “punishable by a brown paper bag over your head in all 50 states.”

I wondered why she asked me the question. Maybe she thought I might be interested in doing commercials in Europe soon.

When I did an interview with a cable news program they asked if it would be OK if they sent a makeup artist to the studio. “Sure,” I said. “A plastic surgeon would be even better, but a makeup artist will do.”

Why are we like this? Because we are not Europe.

Wrinkles are anathema to American women and, increasingly, to American men. Well, at least to Bruce Jenner.

Women of all ages try some very strange things to slow the hands of time.

Take the scrub cleanser. Scrub cleansers have little particles like sand in them that are supposed to smooth your skin. Think coarse sandpaper on old wood. The scrubs with granules are hard to rinse. I’ve found sand-like particles under my contact lens, clinging to the bottom of my chin and even one stuck between my teeth. You shouldn’t need a toothpick after you wash your face.

Still other washes promise to open up your pores and deflake your skin. I checked the instructions on that one to see if you had to vacuum afterward.

Then there is the retinol eye mask. It is two crescent-shaped pads soaked with a solution that will puff up deep creases around the eyes. I put the pads under my eyes and caught sight of myself in a mirror. I looked like the missing link between raccoons and upright humans.

The cucumber gel for eyelids was a free sample. It had to be kept in the refrigerator. It was a beautiful avocado green and looked very appetizing. Don’t store it next to your salad dressings. Just trust me on this one.

A high-end spa in New York City will give you a bird doo-doo facial for $180. You read that right. The Geisha Facial mixes dried Asian nightingale droppings with rice bran, which is then painted on your face. Don’t get any ideas about trying this at home with whatever you can scrape off the bird feeder. It can’t be any old bird doo-doo, it has to be Asian nightingale doo-doo because they live on seeds that produce a natural enzyme that softens the skin.

Who in the world is the person who discovered bird poo on your face will make your skin softer? It was probably a relative of the person who discovered the mud mask.

A fellow writer was reflecting on an upcoming milestone birthday and the wrinkles on her face. She was feeling low, so she bought herself an azalea. She is 39 turning 40.

I have a milestone birthday coming up in a few years. If it takes an azalea to appease 40, I‘ll need to buy an entire hedge row.

No such thing as a simple project

There is no such thing as a simple project. Every project you start leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to your eventual collapse.

I’m on the couch now.

It started when the husband, who in 35 years of marriage has never once acknowledged the existence of dirt, asked if I couldn’t do something about the dirty carpet in the family room.

We were marveling at the outline of a missing throw rug, the soiled expanse where people stand in front of the television, and a large dark area that bore a striking resemblance to South America, when our son-in-law and youngest daughter said, “Hey! Why don’t we help you rip up the carpeting?”

“Why not?” I foolishly said. “There are lovely hardwoods beneath this ugly rug.”

So while the husband was working over the weekend, the son-in-law and daughter and I ripped up carpeting. We pulled up tack boards, pried nails without heads out of hardwood, moved four 8-foot bookcases, assorted furniture, a solid oak rolltop desk and tangled balls of computer cords that could stretch from here to Jupiter. We applied two Kermit the Frog Band-Aids and wrestled with large carpet strips and padding, rolling them for disposal.

It was good to have the dirty carpet gone. But when your son-in-law says, “Do you want to paint before we move the furniture back?” you know the walls are bad.

Why is it that I am suddenly surrounded by men with an eye for dirt?

This was to be a redo project with a zero-dollar budget. Fortunately, I found an old gallon of neutral paint in the garage. I bought a small sampler of paint in a dark color, determined to tint my own paint, thereby repainting an entire room for only $3.19. Yes! I was about to make renovation history. Somebody Pinterest this!

Ten minutes after applying my cost-saving paint concoction, I was on the way to the hardware store for a gallon of new paint.

After a day of up and down the ladder and crouching in corners, the walls looked good. But the trim needed paint.

More paint. Then, the trim looked good, the walls looked good, the floor looked good, but the space between the trim and the floor didn’t look good. It needed quarter round to bridge the gap.

I could wait for the husband to do it over the weekend, or I could do it myself. DIY is my middle name.

Back to the hardware store for quarter round. And stain.

I got the hang of the compound miter saw and how to miter corners, just as I was doing the last quarter round cut.

So there you have it. One off-hand comment about dirt, a unsolicited offer of kindness, and three days later my fingers are permanently curled, pains are shooting down my neck and my legs are on fire, but the floor looks good. The walls look good. The trim and quarter round look good. The bookshelves look good. The room looks good. The Tylenol looks good—but I’ll be if this couch isn’t looking pretty worn and tattered.

Every parent is a teacher

The oldest of our brood of six grandchildren, oldest being the wise, ripe age of four, sat in church during the first part of a Crayonsservice with her parents recently and observed a baptism.

Later that afternoon she was found standing on a chair in the living room holding a bowl of water. Asked what she was doing, she told her mom and dad that she was going to baptize them.

Our son relayed the story, as it reminded him of his youngest sister. On several occasions she was found with a silver pitcher we had received as a wedding gift, a pitcher identical to the ones our church uses, along with a pack of saltines in hand, about to serve communion.

Sweet in both cases, but not entirely appropriate and so the girls in both scenarios were gently redirected. What the children were attempting to do was laudable: they were imitating the beauty and sacred moments that they had seen.

Every family, with its habits, practices and routines, is every child’s first classroom. Mothers and fathers are every child’s first teachers. In most cases, for better or for worse, parents are often a child’s most important and most influential teachers.

As one-time Secretary of Education Bill Bennett used to say, “Not every teacher is a parent, but every parent is a teacher.”

When people grouse, “What’s with kids today?” I often want to answer, “Look at some of the parents behind them.”

The school buses have been roaring through the neighborhood. I watch them round the corner and wonder what kind of school year they’ll have, not just the students, but the teachers. Some teachers will experience rewarding years and others will have week after week of headaches and misery.

It’s not a great mystery when young children use filthy language and rampage in the classroom. They most likely saw it at home, heard it at home and learned it at home. Nor is it a great mystery when children have an appetite for learning, a measure of self-control and a penchant for kindness. They, too, probably saw it at home, heard it at home and learned it at home.

When a parent abdicates the role of teacher and good things are no longer taught and reinforced in the home, peers without boundaries and a coarse culture with a ravenous appetite eagerly fill the vacuum.

There’s debate across the country right now over the Common Core State Standards, federal education standards for achievement. Every family has standards for achievement or a core curriculum as well.

Maybe that’s the greatest challenge of parenting—having to think on your feet and teach your core curriculum while juggling laundry, dinner, oil changes and that strong-willed kid with arms crossed, sulking in a chair.

In some homes, parents implement a core curriculum of respect, kindness, apologies, appropriate language and helpfulness. In other homes, parents may have forgotten the bar is theirs to set.

A new school year is always a fresh start, a time to regroup and reorganize. It’s a good time to ask what’s in your family’s core curriculum.

Leaping tall buildings, listening through walls

The husband thinks he is married to Superwoman. The man doesn’t expect me to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he does think that I can hear through walls, closed doors, Superhero Logoaround corners and up a flight of stairs.

You might think my lack of superpowers would impede our communication, but it really doesn’t.

He will be working from home in the kitchen and I will be working from home in the family room and he will say, “Muum bruff, buddlah budda mm bruff.”

“Pardon?” I ask in a raised voice, still glued to my chair.

“Carton?” he answers back in a raised voice, still glued to his chair.

“That carton of ice cream is gone!” I shout through the wall and around the corner. (Sometimes I twist my mouth when trying to talk to him through walls, thinking it will somehow help the sound wind around the corner.)

Granted, it is only 8:40 a.m. and he probably isn’t looking for a carton of ice cream. It is entirely possible that I may have misunderstood him. It is even possible that I may not have had a clue as to what he said and just took a guess, but the walk from where he is to where I am is the same distance as the walk from where I am to where he is.

He knows he didn’t hear what I said, and that I didn’t hear what he said, but he’s not coming in to ask so I just stay put and add “carton of ice cream” to the grocery list.

A minute or so later he appears and says, “I didn’t say carton, I said ‘pardon.'”

“But I had just said ‘pardon’ to you,” I say.

“No, you said carton,” he says.

“No, I said ‘pardon,’” I say.

“This is going nowhere,” he says.

“And fast,” I say. “Would you like some ice cream?”

When we aren’t talking through walls, he likes to test my supernatural abilities by playing One Flight Up. He waits until I am past the bottom stretch of stairs, and on the next to last stair and starts a conversation from down in the kitchen.

If I am wearing shoes that click, I just keep clicking because I figure he has to hear me on the hardwood floor going upstairs. If I’m not wearing clickers, I usually just shout downstairs, “Oh, I didn’t know about that.”

It’s true. I didn’t know about that and I still don’t know about that. It’s usually a safe response, as the husband works for the media and is constantly relaying stories of crime, death and mayhem, much of which I don’t know about and don’t want to know about.

Medical people tell medical stories, mechanical people tell mechanical stories, news people tell news stories. Sometimes I wish one of us was an impressionistic painter. Our conversations would be more pleasant. And colorful.

Moments ago I heard my stomach rumble so I asked, through the wall, still glued to my chair, “Should I make us something for lunch?”

“No thanks, I don’t need anything to munch,” he shouts back. “I’ll just wait for lunch.”

Putting Sweetie down for a nap

Our oldest granddaughter is here, the one who recently turned four and has bruises up and down both legs because, as she says, “I play hard.” Play hard is an understatement. stuffed bearsWhat she should really say is, “I play professionally.” She plays like someone with a six-figure contract in the NFL. The girl has one speed and it is overdrive.

She came for a short summer stay along with two sets of lists. One is her list of things she’d like to do, a list with which we are entirely amenable: Go to Daddy’s old school and playground; eat ice cream or make it from scratch (a brilliant child!), bake cookies for Daddy (an easily influenced child), Skype with Mommy and Daddy, play in the sprinkler and eat chocolate.

We are particularly agreeable to the last one.

On a separate sheet of paper is a list of instructions from her parents. This list we have some mild objections to, particularly the request for a daily quiet time. They might as well have asked us to stop a runaway train or a speeding bullet. The child moves fast, so fast that sometimes we can’t even see her. She’s a blast of wind blowing through the room and a blur of color speeding by.

A four-year-old does not like quiet time.

Whenever I see a mother at the store with a four-year-old squirming in the checkout lane and the mother snaps at the child, “What’s the matter with you?” I want to say to the mother, “Nothing is the matter with the child; the child is four.”

In any case, we are approaching the designated daily quiet time for this four-year-old child who goes 100 mph. The husband suggests that instead of just sending her off to lie down with a few books, it may be better if one of us would lie down and read with her.

Being that I have already read every children’s book in the house numerous times, he volunteers to be the reader. I agree cautiously, fully aware that this is one of those situations that could go either way. There could be tears, crying, vehement protests and begging to go home to Chicago because she knows she may be tricked into that dreadful state known as sleep—or she could go along peacefully, enjoy some story time, get a good rest and then resume activity at an increased speed of 200 mph.

Ten minutes after they disappear with an armload of books, a set of footsteps comes thundering down the stairs.

“Not so loud,” I say. “We don’t need a lot of racket during quiet time. So, how did it go?”

“Fine.”

“What books did you read?”

“Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

“Asleep or still awake?” I ask.

“Asleep. Very, very tired. Head on the pillow, asleep with the buffalo and the bear and the coyote.”

“Well, that went better than we expected, now didn’t it?” I say.

“I closed the door, but not all the way.”

“Wonderful,” I say. “And did you say anything as you slipped out?”

“Yes,” I said, ‘Good night, Grandpa.’”

Marriage takes a walk in the woods

Not long after all the kids had left home, there was an evening when the husband and I were coming home from dinner, he was unlocking the door and I was standing close and we kissed. We both chuckled because it was like being 17 and on a first date. But it wasn’t a first date, it was just a couple who hadn’t had an extended pause together in a very long time.

Jordan PondThe silence of an empty house takes you back to when you first met and all the things that have happened between then and now. You realized you never looked this far into the future. You never really imagined what it would be like when it was just the two of you again.

Who was he anyway? An even better question, who was I?

“We’ve turned into the Bickersons,” a friend lamented after her last one left home. Five years later they were divorced.

Much of a mother’s work vanishes with the kids. A big part of her is packed into cardboard boxes and tossed in the back of a car. And now it’s just you and Mr. Conversationalist over there who hasn’t spoken a word in 50 minutes. Had we ever thought this far ahead, as to what life would be like once it was the two of us again?

Did we know we’d be so all-consumed by jobs, work and everyday demands, that the tender bond that first united us could grow a brittle crust?

We were hiking around Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park on a short getaway as I was thinking precisely such grumpy thoughts. We had the trail and the pond to ourselves. The husband was alternately lagging behind and dashing ahead, framing photos, making pictures. It was Spring and small green shoots were pushing up through the remains of winter. Hibernation season was over and life was awakening.

The trail that circled Jordan Pond alternately broke into the sunshine and wound through the dark covering of the forest. It was a long, quiet, desolate hike.

A rutting sound bounced off the hillside. I grabbed a long stick. It was a pitiful excuse for a weapon, but at least I might be able to poke the beast’s eye with it, or at least tickle a funny bone. The husband caught up with me and heard the sound, too. Something large was on the hillside.

“Do you plan to fight a bear with that stick?” the husband asked, smirking.

“If I have to,” I said indignantly. “What do you propose? If something comes charging out of the woods, what is your plan?”

“You take off running.”

“Why would I take off running?” I ask.

“You’d run for help.”

“And what would you do?”

“I’d stay with the bear so you had time to get away.”

An accumulation of tiny resentments and petty grudges brought about by the busyness of family life suddenly melted away. Life is different now, but I am still loved by the one I chose to love all those years ago.