Cracking the cracker caper

If this was an episode of “CSI,” the title would read: “Peanut Butter Crackers.”

Eight empty cellophane wrappers for peanut butter crackers are piled on the floor of the playhouse the husband built for the kids years ago.

The grandbabies haven’t played out there since early September. Plus, they don’t eat peanut butter crackers in the playhouse. They have chocolate milk and graham crackers in the playhouse. So who could it have been?

My first thought was teenage boys. I was immediately ashamed of myself. Why is it we always point the finger at teenage boys? Why aren’t our first thoughts ever 6-year-old girls? Why yes, that’s who painted the graffiti, that’s who knocked over the mailbox — 6-year-old girls. Why don’t we ever suspect elderly women? Yes, the old ladies have been at it again, scuttling from playhouse to playhouse eating peanut butter crackers. Probably that red hat group.

OK, so maybe there’s a reason we automatically think teenage boys.

And yet, it’s a playhouse. It’s a wood frame playhouse so small that an average teenage boy can barely stand upright in it. So who was it?

There was one paltry clue. Of the eight wrappers, not a one had been opened from the top or the bottom. They had been torn down the middle, like something razor sharp had slashed them. Plus, whoever had eaten the peanut butter crackers either had been very neat or very hungry. There wasn’t a single crumb in sight.

A profile began taking shape. I recalled a case a few years back that involved a bird feeder. When night fell, the large bird feeder was completely full. By morning it was completely empty.

We refilled the feeder and wired the door shut. The next morning it was empty again. Yes, little old ladies and six-year-old girls were scavenging the neighborhood eating massive amounts of birdseed. No, that wasn’t it.

We filled the bird feeder and put a thumb latch on the door. The next morning the bird feeder was empty again and we caught the culprit in the act. The bandit even wore the mask of a bandit. He lumbered when he walked. Who wouldn’t lumber after eating so many big meals night after night? Maybe the varmint that cleaned out the birdseed was the same one that had been eating crackers.

I checked for prints. Sure enough, the intruder had left dirty little hand prints on the door and footprints on the floor. There was even a scratch mark where he’d clawed open the clasp on the door.

Yes, we were closing in on a perp and about to solve the case. Let this be a lesson to you furry woodland creatures. There is no such thing as a perfect crime.

Yet one nagging question about the cracker caper lingers. Where does a raccoon get change for a vending machine?

When the baby ties the knot

The baby is getting married.

The husband has been copying photographs putting together a video for the reception. He made a wonderful pairing of two photographs. In the picture on the left, she is 10-years-old wearing my mother’s old wedding gown playing dress-up and I am adjusting her veil. In the picture on the right, she is standing in her real wedding gown and I am kneeling on the floor pinning where fasteners will go for the bustle.

A quarter inch of space is all that separates 16 years. The time went exactly that fast.

She’s about to take the plunge. Every marriage has an element of jumping off a cliff. You know the other person as well as you can, that he loathes tomatoes and you like them. You do the pre-marital counseling, read the communication books, then close your eyes and leap. The act of marriage takes grit and courage.

Marrying someone is not the same as living with someone. Living together is test driving the car. Marriage is having the guts to buy the car knowing it is still yours even after the 5-year/ 50,000 mile warranty has expired.

Marriage is a public commitment, a legal contract and covenant of faith, in which a bride and groom vow before God and witnesses to uphold a life-long exclusive faithfulness.

It is mildly nerve wracking knowing that the model of marriage your offspring knows best is your very own.

Did she see that marriage is the most important relationship she will ever nurture?

Did she see that the cornerstone of marriage is courtesy? Tone of voice, dear. Ask, don’t tell. Suggest, don’t demand. The world outside is rough, so be tender.

I hope she heard me say at least once that women do not have to be first responders. Often it’s better not to say the first thing that comes into your mind. Or even the second.

I hope she knows I married her father because he’s a good man. She’s marrying a good man, too. Respect him by speaking well of him, both to him and to others.

I hope she saw the power of the mundane – that the shared laughs, small surprises, kitchen disasters and everyday routine and monotony are what cement you as a couple. Even the crises and catastrophes become part of the memories that build your history.

Our daughter and her fiancé will be glowing on their wedding day. I pray they enjoy every moment of the day. I also pray that they will weather all the seasons of marriage, and that one day in the distant future they find themselves with a few extra pounds, salt and pepper hair, a thousand inside jokes and still enjoying one another.

Robert Browning said it well: “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be – the last of life for which the first was made.”

Snow accumulation grows with age

The snows of your childhood are always better than the snows of your adulthood. For one thing, the snows of your childhood were much deeper. This is because you were lower to the ground as a child, but why let facts leech drama from a good story.

The only things nobody remembers fondly from the snows of their childhood are the snowballs. There were always a few wise acres with their eyes set on the major league pitchers’ mounds. These boys kept their arms in shape over the winter by hurling snowballs. Five, ten, hundreds, sometimes thousands at a time were launched from snow igloos they had crafted with their bare hands.

These boys were so skilled they could pick off a fellow 12-year-old at 100 yards. They sent other kids diving for cover and more than a few running home bawling with tears frozen to their frostbitten cheeks.

The snowfall of your youth may always have been soft, but the snowballs were always hard.

I have always loved snow. Adults like me are shunned by grocery store clerks, strangers making weather chit chat and every snowbird over 40 with a condo in Florida or Arizona.

Why wouldn’t I love the snow? I spent the first part of my childhood growing up in Nebraska. Every other picture of me in the family album is against a snow bank twice my height. I was short as a child. Family, friends, random passersby liked to take my picture against towering mounds of snow.

Somewhere right now there are people looking at old photographs of me in a red snowsuit against some snow bank asking, “Who is that?”

“I don’t know,” someone answers. “But look how deep that snow was. Clear over that kid’s head. Sure doesn’t snow like it used to.”

My first newspaper job out of college was in Fargo, North Dakota. They do not have snow emergencies in North Dakota. They do not have snow days. They look forward to relentless snow and frigid cold by anticipating a mention on the Weather Channel.

I like snow even more as an adult than I did as a kid. Today, I have insulated snow pants guaranteed to protect me from frostbite at 5 below zero. My coat is made of some high-tech material that actually makes me hot. My boots aren’t so great, but at least they have zippers and not some elastic loop you have to stretch over a button with frozen fingers.

This year, nearly a foot of snow blanketed the Midwest the day after Christmas. And then another four inches came a week after that. One of our 2-year-old granddaughters and I were outside in the snow yesterday. The kid loved it — head first, on her back or pulling a sled with nobody in it.

She is on the short side, so naturally I had her pose for a picture in front of a huge drift. When she is grown and tells her own children that snowfalls were deeper when she was a child, she’ll have the picture to prove it.

‘Seen but not heard’ bested by ‘Heard by not seen’

There was once an adage that children were to be seen and not heard. Hearing them without seeing them is highly entertaining.

With five grandbabies under the age of three all in the house recently, snippets of conversation drift from one room to another seconds before laughter erupts, damage occurs or action breaks loose in another part of the house.

From the kitchen: Klink, klink, klink “Those are Grandma’s fancy dishes. Can you be very careful?” Klink, klink, klink. Pause. Crash.

From upstairs: “I went poo!”

“Yes you did, but not on the potty chair.”

From every room there seem to be a lot of don’ts:

“Don’t put that in your mouth.”

“Don’t lick the window.”

“Don’t pull the dog’s tail.” “Don’t color on the table.”

“Get out of Grandma’s cupboard now and don’t put tea lights in the toaster one more time!”

One of the most amusing snippets: “Why is John Henry wearing high heels?”

The best exchange between two adults at a meal with 14 crowded around the table:

“What’s on my foot? Is that a dog or a kid?”

“I’m not sure, but in either case, don’t make any sudden moves.”

Some were at the table, some were on the table and some were under the table. In large group situations with small children, you take what you get.

Most often repeated phrase with a variation:

“You put chap stick on your lips; you don’t eat it.”

“That’s not a chap stick, that’s a glue stick. Now look what you’ve done. Your face is all glue-y.”

“She’s either a mime or she’s got diaper paste on her face!”

She is the 2-year-old that will have high cholesterol by age 3 based on all the pastes, lotions and lip gloss she attempts to eat. Some kids crave dirt, this one craves petroleum by-products.

A recurring snippet frequently overheard:

“Somebody do a head count!”

Yes, please. The call for a head count was preceded by one adult child casually saying to a sibling, “Just saw one of yours outside. Barefoot.”

Most pathetic snippets overheard:

“Looks like her head is stuck between the sink and the wall.” “The baby has gas. Really. No, really.”

And no doubt, one of the most heartless things an adult can ever say to a small crying child that has just lost a tug of war: “Isn’t it fun to share?”

On reflection, with five little ones underfoot, it is probably best to see the children and hear the children both at the same time. If you have the strength.

It’s about time

The symbols for the New Year are bewildering. On one end of the spectrum is the New Year’s baby wearing only a diaper while on the other end is Father Time moping about in what looks like a long hospital gown. It’s a shame we can’t have a symbol without bladder control issues.

Our clichés about time are bewildering as well. Some are funny, some strange, some true, some part true and some patently false.

“I’ll be with you in just a second,” may be the most commonly told lie of our time – second only to “just a minute.” That said it is far better to be told “just a second” or “just a minute” than “just a cotton pickin’ minute.” You’re on dangerous ground once you enter cotton pickin’ minute territory.

As for “the 11th hour,” if you are ever looking for my husband, this is where you will find him. Well, he’ll either be in the 11th hour, pushing some task right up to the line, or in a used bookstore. Living in the realm of the 11th hour is a malaise common to journalists. Conditioned by endless deadlines, it becomes difficult to accomplish much in advance. If you’re still vague on the 11th hour, think tax returns and shopping for an anniversary card.

“Better late than never,” is a close-but-no-cigar cliché in my book. There are times when you only make things worse by being late; never would be preferable. One must be able to determine when the train has done left the station.

One of the best ditties about time that I know of came from members of a high school football team. Their coach taught them that “to be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is to be forgotten.”

I tried impressing that on the husband, but he says it does not apply in the 11th hour.

I was always cautious about using the phrase, “marking time” around the kids. It conjured up images of them drawing clocks on the walls.

When John Adams was grieving the death of his beloved wife Abigail, Thomas Jefferson wrote to him in a letter: “. . . for ills so immeasurable time and silence are the only medicine.”

As for what makes the best time, that is a highly subjective call. But I can tell you when the best time is. The best time is half an hour before sunset and half an hour before sunrise. The best time is when a blanket of snow has fallen and encroaching darkness turns the world a beautiful blue.

The best time is in the country at night with a clear sky and the stars blazing.

The best time is when the door opens and someone says, “I’m home.”

The best time is when you have a full house and you manage to beat them all out of bed and have a few minutes of quiet before the day begins.

Time is a constantly changing companion. It creeps, crawls, stands still, shrinks disappears, multiplies and flies.

What can we look forward to in the way of time in the coming New Year?

Another 365 days.

Christmas ornament dangles truth

Our Christmas tree decorations have taken a hit this year. Small pudgy hands have popped a manger out of a stable and briefly separated a little white church from its steeple.

Another creative soul, with one of my old purses slung over her shoulder and tottering in her aunt’s red high heels, was caught trying to remove a strand of gold beads from the tree. Why, of course, jewelry. We grown-ups can be so shortsighted sometimes.

The more valuable decorations (and who are we kidding, they’re all expendable), have been hung above the three-foot mark. An ornament I received as a gift last year has been moved to a higher branch as part of our Christmas protection program. The ornament is made of salt dough that was rolled out, cut with a gingerbread-man mold, baked in the oven and then painted neon pink.

“I wrote your name on it,” beamed the 4-year-old boy who made it.

Sure enough, in silver paint, he had painted “Lori” although with a few minor changes. The o, r and i had been scrambled, and the back of the o was so flat it looked like an a. Picture a bright pink gingerbread man that says L-i-a-r hanging from our tree and you have my new favorite decoration.

The ornament is a keepsake because of the sweet child who made it, but also because, whether by coincidence or providence, it is a fresh reminder of the real meaning of Christmas.

Each year it is a challenge to paw through all the wrapping, glitz and glitter and hold the real meaning of Christmas. The dangling sign that says, “Peace Love and Accessories,” hanging at a popular clothing store hits two out of three. The banner at the hair salon that says, “Christmas is giving the gift of beauty” grasps an element of truth and then turns sharply to promoting gift certificates for manicures and pedicures. Then there is the sign at the mall asking, “Is it better to give or to get?”

The sights and sounds of the commercial Christmas are entertaining, mesmerizing and enjoyable, but they are cheap impostors and fleeting shadows of the real thing.

The amazing, jaw-dropping, eye-popping wonder of Christmas is that the Son of God took on the form of man and came to Earth.

I’m reminded of the little boy scared of a thunderstorm. His mother told him not to be afraid because God was always with him, to which the boy replied, “I know God is here, but I wish he had skin on.”

The true heart of Christmas is that God put on skin. Deity became flesh. In a mysterious convergence of time and space, and an intersection of the natural and supernatural, God once again extended his kind hands and strong arms to mankind. He came for the broken, hurting, can’t-seem-to-get-it-right, self-centered, proud, sad, violent, treacherous, devious and arrogant.

He came for us all, even Liars and Loris. A gingerbread man in neon pink and silver is a perfect reminder.

Roll over Rudolph, you’e been upstaged

We recently carted three of the grandchildren to a library Christmas program billed as one of Santa’s elves bringing animals from the North Pole, including a live reindeer.

A skeptic in our group voiced concern it might not be a real reindeer. Her exact harsh words were, “I didn’t buckle an infant and two toddlers in car seats to see a dog wearing antlers.” Such cynicism. At Christmas no less. And only age 29.

It was a real reindeer, a reindeer so real that it made a deposit of chocolate chips shortly after the animal handler, dressed like an elf, led it into the room. The kids were thrilled and the room was fragrant.

The reindeer was a fine creature, but it was too late. The reindeer had been upstaged. What everyone will remember was the parlor roller pigeon.

Pay attention here because, if you haven’t had the (pick one) joy, fright, or shock of witnessing a parlor roller pigeon in motion, your holidays have been incomplete. Unable to fly and bred to roll, a parlor roller pigeon transports itself by curling up like a large softball with wings and propelling forward.

As demonstrated by the elf, you take a parlor roller pigeon in hand, assume a horseshoe toss position, draw back slightly, then let ‘er roll.

The story goes that years ago, before people bonded at large family holiday gatherings by texting, tweeting, checking e-mail, gluing themselves to their cell phones and posting on Facebook, they played parlor games rolling pigeons across the floor.

So the meal is over, the dishes have been done, and Grandma and Grandpa shuffle to the parlor to push large furniture up against the walls. The roller pigeons are about to commence. The winner of the game is the parlor roller pigeon that rolls the longest distance. And to think this family pastime would one day be replaced by video games.

The elf rolled a parlor roller pigeon down the center aisle as kids and adults shrieked and screamed. Kids screamed in delight while others like myself shrieked at the thought that the agents who shut down Michael Vick would be busting through the doors of the library. I pondered the possibility of having to use booking mug shots on our family Christmas card. On the upside, it’s never been done before.

Having a rolling bird with flapping wings hurtle into your path is a different sort of holiday exhilaration that takes you beyond “Fa-la-la-la-la” and into the realm of “AIYEEEEEEEE!”

When the bird stopped rolling, it stood, then took a few staggering steps. If the pigeon had exited a car like that it would have been subjected to a breathalyzer test.

You can certainly see how parlor roller pigeons would take the edge off of the holidays. Can’t listen to Uncle Irv’s stories one more time? Why don’t we race the parlor rollers?

Those kids yelling, running and slamming doors have you wound tight? Hand them a parlor roller pigeon and send them outside.

This year, if anyone asks, “Where did Lori disappear to?” someone should listen for the sound of furniture moving in the family room.

Five home to roost

Life changes on a dime. Take this weekend, for example. We will go from being two empty nesters to a party of seven.

By my calculations our nest was empty for roughly three years, four months, two days and ten seconds. But who’s counting?

I come from a long line of women who do not suffer empty nest syndrome. My mother said if either my brother or I tried to cling to the nest, she would step on our hands. It was an amicable parting. We spread our wings and she cheered to see us fly.

As for me, I grew teary eyed each time I set one less placemat on the table, but I was no fool. I knew they still had house keys.

One day we were down to two placemats on the table and I realized I enjoyed lengthening the leash that had tethered me to the kitchen.

The only women who laugh and act like they’re having a party when they cook are the women on television. I don’t fault them. If someone cleaned up my mess and did all the dirty dishes, I’d be laughing and partying, too.

Now the woman who often has a bowl of cereal for dinner when the husband is working nights, will be cooking again. Five birds are coming home to roost. The situation is temporary and it is coincidental that they are returning at the same time.

The daughter with two-year-old twins and an infant is coming for several weeks while her husband starts a new job out east and they secure housing.

Another daughter will be married in several months and has relinquished the lease on her apartment. Potty training, baby drool and bride-to-be jitters all under one roof.

It will be a cacophony. Loud, but good. It is the unpredictability of life, with all the unexpected detours and bends in the road that make it rich.

We will have to keep the television down after 8 and schedule use of our own washer and dryer. We won’t have to check the expiration date on the milk anymore and bananas won’t turn brown as they will be eaten as fast as we can buy them.

I’ve cleaned out dresser drawers that gradually have been filled with odds and ends and jammed things in closets. Fortunately, I’ve learned from the daughter who is a teacher that you can always pack more in a fixed space by stacking things higher. If push comes to shove we may have to stack the kids.

I’ve also learned that you don’t ask a lot of questions of adult children. The inquisition years have passed. You don’t need to know what route they plan on taking, who was on the phone or precisely what time they’ll be home.

I imagine I’ll be sending myself to my room a lot, and not just for punishment for slipping and asking too many questions. I work from home and am one of those odd ducks who need quiet. Equipped with cell phone, internet and laptop, my office is portable. If it’s still too loud to work in our bedroom, maybe I can clear more space on a closet shelf.

Bring on the chaos.

You have a problem with Santa?

In case you haven’t heard, Santa is now a non-smoker. He did it without even using a patch. Actually, he didn’t do it; anti-smoking crusader Pamela McColl did it for him. She took it upon herself to edit the beloved 200-year-old poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” removing the line (and accompanying illustration) about Santa drawing on a pipe and smoke encircling his face like a wreath.

McColl, a former smoker, is concerned that children will be encouraged to smoke by visualizing Santa with a pipe.

Who hasn’t read the “Night Before Christmas” to small children, only to watch in horror as they race from the room, grab crayons and begin adding cigarettes, pipes and cigars to their Christmas lists?

The first question about the decision to remove Santa’s pipe is this: Do we know for a fact that he actually inhaled? Secondly, if someone is going to modernize Santa, why stop with the tobacco?

Consider that Santa wraps himself in fur from head to foot. Why not dress Santa in a polyester red leisure suit? Of course, that’s if you can find one to fit. Santa is a man with a broad face and a “round little belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly.” The man is heavy. Rotund. Dare we say obese?

The narrative refers to Santa as “chubby and plump — a right jolly old elf.” Enough with the stereotypes about fat people being jolly. Let’s quit pretending. The man is depressed. That’s why he eats. He’s isolated and lonely, closes himself off from the rest of the world all but one day a year and stuffs himself with dairy and carbs. It also bears noting that Santa has a nose like a cherry. Can you say drinking problem? Probably throwing a few back before boarding the sleigh, which also means he is quite likely sleighing under the influence.

And let us consider Mrs. Claus. The woman is a virtual prisoner in her own home. How do we know he treats her well? Does she have cable? Cell phone? Reliable internet? Health care? Birth control? Paid vacation?

Furthermore, we cannot overlook the recurring animal abuse. Nine free-range reindeer strapped into harnesses. They work long hours and cross multiple time zones with no down time. Given the highly sensitive times in which we live, it is hard to believe Santa is someone we have encouraged children to invite into our homes.

Meet the new and improved Santa. Small children make him jumpy. He’s a little on the nervous side, but tobacco withdrawal does that to a body.

He’s considerably thinner. That 1200 calorie-a-day diet has paid off. He traded milk and cookies for carrot sticks and humus.

It didn’t hurt that he set the reindeer free in Yellowstone and walks his deliveries now. It takes longer, but if he starts when the store displays go up in September, he can be home by June.

Santa is a new man. A modern man.

Surprisingly, he still has a pipe. But not to worry; he only uses it for medical marijuana.

Thanksgiving is spelled c-h-a-r-a-c-t-e-r

They are among the first words we teach our children: Thank you.

When the lady behind the bakery counter at the grocery hands your little one a free cookie, you beam with pride when that small voice says, “T’ank you.”

We insist on children writing thank you notes, even if it means they are written under duress. That giant t, crooked h, sloping a, backward n, drooping k and s that runs off the page are a monumental achievement.

One small step for a 6-year-old, one giant leap for mankind.

No matter what your age, it is always nice, not to mention appropriate, to say thank you. Making eye contact when you say it doesn’t hurt either.

Saying thank you is a fundamental expression of humanity. It is the way we acknowledge our own indebtedness and another’s kindness. In that brief moment when we say thanks, we hit pause, slow the rapid-fire pace and enjoy the moment, the thoughtfulness, the consideration, the goodness.

And yet this delightful morsel called thankfulness, which imbues the spirit, brings satisfaction to the heart and contentment to the soul, seems to be an occasional occurrence rather than a perpetual frame of mind.

What holds us back from being continually thankful? So many things, really. Bad attitudes, lack of perspective, changing circumstances.

It is a far greater challenge to maintain thankfulness when circumstances press against us than when they align in our favor. Am I thankful only when things are going my way and the road is easy? Or do I have a perspective that allows me to count my blessings when uncertainty and hardship are my new best friends?

The Puritans, despite pummeling by untrue stereotypes, were a most remarkable group of people. The fortitude and resilience they displayed were heroic. They knew hardship both in the old world and in the new. The Pilgrim-Puritan legacy is not really that long wooden table loaded with wild game and playing field games with the Indians. Their true legacy is character. They sustained faithfulness and thankfulness under dire circumstances. Despite what should have been crushing deprivation, they persevered and remained clear-headed visionaries. Puritan John Geree wrote that the Puritan motto was “Vincit qui patitur.” That is Latin for “He who suffers conquers.”

The Puritans embraced all of life as a test of their faithfulness. (Many do the same today, but flip the equation and test God’s faithfulness, not man’s.) The Puritans were thankful for the material gifts of the harvest and shelter, but they also knew that what was in abundant supply one season could be gone the next. More importantly, they were thankful to, and for, the Giver of the gifts.

Thanksgiving is more than the fourth Thursday in November. It is more than the Macy’s Parade and a wonderful meal. Thanksgiving is a habit of the heart. It is an attitude, a benchmark of maturity and a measure of faithfulness.

The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His loving kindness is everlasting.” The Psalmist is right.

Hopefully, we can give thanks more than once a year.