Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Telling the Story of Us

This month I returned to my hometown of Muncie, Indiana, with my sister Amy, so we could spend time with our dad and visit with cousins and our Aunt Shirley, our mother's only sister.
Mom holding me; my older sister, Gretchen, and brother Pete.

After Mom died the day before Thanksgiving 2013, and while looking through some of her keepsakes, I came to the stark realization that any questions I might still have for Mom could no
longer be answered. I read through her report cards and noticed weeks of absences during her kindergarten year and wondered why. The only person who could answer that would be Aunt Shirley.

The night before Amy and I left for Indiana, she hosted a get-together with some of her friends (so I could put faces and voices with names) in Dayton, Ohio. While chatting about our plans, one friend suggested we look at the StoryCorps app hosted by NPR, a "global platform for listening, connecting, and sharing stories of the human experience." I downloaded the app on my phone, and Amy and I discussed on the drive to Muncie which questions we wanted to ask Aunt Shirley.

The prompts included questions from categories such as Best Questions, Family Heritage, Grandparents, Growing Up and School, Love & Relationships, Military, Parents, Serious Illness, etc. You can make up your own questions, certainly, or set up a list of five or more to get you started. Amy recorded the interview on my phone and then we uploaded it to the StoryCorps site.

Our interview with Aunt Shirley is here. It wound up being 35 minutes long, but we talked a bit more 'off mic' after we'd stopped the recording. So simple. So cool to have this and to be able to share it with our family members.

If you decide to learn more about your heritage, don't be surprised if you're amazed by your ancestors' bravery and wonder how in the world they survived at all. My grandfather had been placed in an orphanage by his mother (who married seven times) and was hopping trains and sleeping in boxcars with hobos when he was 16, looking for work in New Orleans. My grandmother's family came from Holland on a ship in 1905, no small feat either. They lived in 32 houses before finding a place to call their own here in America. And to think I still make my grown sons text me when they reach their destinations!

So, as the holidays approach, I suggest downloading the free app and getting some questions lined up for your family and friends to ask. Learn more about StoryCorps here. Don't wait until it's too late to find out about your family heritage.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

ROOM: the novel, the movie

Years ago the novel ROOM by Emma Donoghue ended up on my bookshelf. I'm sure it was recommended to me by one of my WhatWomenWrite buddies, but for some reason I failed to dive in. Maybe the premise was a bit off-putting--young girl is abducted and held in a shed while repeatedly raped by her kidnapper. While held captive, she gives birth to a son. I even loaned the book to a friend who read it and loved it. Still, I passed.

What I imagined was a difficult-at-best story filled with horrible images that would haunt me forever, because it's nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction here. Twelve years ago, I was pregnant with my daughter when Elizabeth Smart was found. I remember painting my girl's nursery with a TV nearby, and then being stunned by the news of Elizabeth's miraculous recovery.

Of course, more recently we heard the news of Jaycee Dugard, who spent 18 years in captivity, giving birth twice while held against her will. And then the three women held in Cleveland, Ohio, and the daughter who survived that horrific nightmare. So while the premise of the book certainly felt real, I still put other novels before it.

And then last week, I watched the trailer of the movie ROOM and was immediately captivated by the little boy Jack who tells the story.

You see, Emma Donoghue pulled off the near-impossible feat of telling the entire story through a five-year-old's point of view. A mother of two, Emma drew from her own experiences as a mom as well as months of research on feral children, kids born to incarcerated mothers, prisoners in solitary confinement, and, of course, cases of children born to abducted women.

So ROOM turned out to be a story not of rape and solitary confinement, but rather love. The love between a mother and her son. And the ultimate sacrifice Ma's willing to make to save them both.
Emma answers my girl's question about the main character, Ma.

I read ROOM this past weekend and, as luck would have it, managed to snag my friend Elizabeth's passes to the screening of the movie in Dallas which included a Q&A with Emma, who also penned the screenplay. My daughter and I got to see the movie and then meet Emma afterward, who was gracious and lovely, as I expected she would be.

Do this. Read ROOM. Watch ROOM. And then see if both change you in ways you didn't expect.

As a sidenote, Brie Larson, who plays Ma, and Jacob Tremblay, who plays Jack, are brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

And the R rating I think is a bit ambitious. It's really PG-13 with a few extra swear words. Zero sex, zero nudity, some peril.

Emma Donoghue fields questions from the audience during the screening of ROOM in Dallas, October 19.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Letters to Camp

Writing a letter to your child at camp is much more challenging than it should be. There are a few reasons why this is true. You can't say how much you miss her because that might make her sad. You can't say what you're doing in her absence, because, again, that might make her sad. You can't admit how much quieter/clean/calm the house is because ... you see where this is going.

Really, writing a creative note to camp is doubly challenging because, if she's gone only a week, you have to compose and mail the letter pretty much on the drive home from dropping her off. Even better, you send the letter prior to sending the child.

This year, I mailed one card before she left and then another the following day. Plus, since she was going to be gone during her birthday, I emailed close friends and family and asked them to mail her cards to get at camp--a sweet gesture that many followed through on. As a result, she ended up getting quite the postal haul. The Camp Mail Queen title was hers!

One of my favorite letters to send to camp is one either written by the dog or some other lovey left behind. This year, I ghost-wrote one from her huge stuffed rabbit, Hopscotch, including photos of the giant bunny trying her best to kill time until her girl returned from church camp. With my daughter's permission, here is the letter:

Dear Mia,

I sure hope you’re having fun at camp because it is sooooo boring here. I mean Boring. BORING. BORRRINGGGG! This morning, I tried playing hide-n-seek, and no one came looking for me. NO ONE! 

So, I decided I’d go outside and skateboard and then I remembered I don’t stand up too well, so I lay down on it and waited for someone to come push me. And waited. And waited some more. And then nothing. (Other than Kermit barked at me through the window.) So! Scary!

But then I noticed the cool swing in the front yard, so I ditched the helmet (since swinging isn’t that dangerous) and hopped right on up there. Turns out, swinging isn’t fun either if no one will push you. So, I didn’t swing. I just sorta sat. And got hot. And then I got hotter. (Trust me—having a fur coat on all the time is not fun, especially when you live in Texas.)

I finally made it back inside and wound up on the bench in the kitchen. (I heard there were carrots in the fridge.) Somehow I got set here beside Kermit. He didn’t even bark this time. OR try to eat me! I know! It’s like a Christmas miracle and it’s not even December!! (I really wish it was December. Did I mention how hot I always am?) 

After a little nap (OK, confession time—we slept a good two hours!), I heard Mom say to Ben something about going to see a movie, so I jumped in the car, yelling “Shotgun!” and waited for them to come. Turns out, rabbits aren’t allowed in the theater, and so once again, my dreams were dashed. 

So, I hope you’re having the time of your life at camp. It’s pretty lonely here. Next time, I’m hiding in your suitcase and coming with you. Do they allow rabbits at camp? 

Love and miss you oodles and oodles,


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Surviving Mother's Day

Last year my siblings and I celebrated our first motherless Mother's Day. Mom died the day before Thanksgiving the year before--after telling us she didn't want to die on a holiday. I wonder at times what that might feel like, knowing death is imminent and having no say-so as to when it happens, other than willing yourself to not let go on a holiday. Perhaps making one final motherly act of love: Saving your children from having to dread a holiday associated with their own mother's passing.

But here's Mother's Day again. A day that will forever be a reminder that she's not here. And so we will celebrate as best we can.

My amazing mom at the age of 25! Can you imagine? Three children at 25?
A few years ago I let my own kids off the hook when my February birthday rolled around without much fanfare. I said they didn't have to make a big deal out of my birthday because I had already passed milestones worth commemorating--16, 21, 30, 40 ... (I'll reconsider if I make it to 100.) But I did expect some attention on Mother's Day. My thinking is, every day I do something that contributes to my role as their mother. My birthday? I pretty much just inhale/exhale to get there.

This week, my girl asked me what event might have prevented her from being born. It was a fairly weighty question given we were en route from school to home, but I gave it a bit of thought before telling her that any number of situations could have circumvented her conception. We talked about the sheer science behind her chosen egg/sperm combo, and that had Dad been out of town or we hadn't been 'affectionate' toward each other that day, she wouldn't have been conceived.

I went back in time even farther to tell her that my dad, as a kid, had helped his cousin peer into an automobile's gas tank--by lighting a match! Luckily for the pair, the tank was empty although he did remember a whoosh! as the flame and fumes collided. My mother once recalled a rainy walk home from school when she stepped into an open drain she couldn't see and caught her skinny self by her elbows. Had she fallen through, she likely would have drowned.

If we stop and consider any 'sliding door' event along the path from our birth to conceiving our own children, we realize the incredible miracle it is that we mothers have our children here at all. And to me, the only thing worse than spending Mother's Day without a mother is one spent after losing a child--an unfathomable scenario three very close friends of mine will be living through this Mother's Day.

So, mothers, tell your children they're the greatest gift God has given you and, if you happen to be so lucky to still have your mother in your life, tell her she's also the greatest gift God gave you. Both are true. So, so true.

Happy Mother's Day, my friends!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Ungrateful Child

This morning began like most. I wrangled my preteen from her precious slumber about four hours earlier than she would have liked and began my usual morning dialog that she listened to with her eyes still closed. She was probably still asleep. "Here's your uniform, your shoes are downstairs, get dressed, it's already 7:20, we need to leave, so hurry up." Ten minutes later, I would shout from midway up the stairs: "You'd better be up!" and she'd return a muffled, "I'm coming" that I knew meant she was still in bed, face down, where I left her.

It's teacher appreciation week at our school and since I dropped the ball yesterday and forgot to send in flowers (as outlined by the woman in charge of how we should show our appreciation), I mixed up some cookie dough last night, baked a double batch, found an idea for a card on Pinterest (from my friend Tracy), and put together some bags of oatmeal/chocolate chunk cookies to make up for the flower-less Monday.

After the cookies cooled and I had them bagged and tagged, I placed them into a small basket for my girl to take to school this morning. She took a look at the tags before she went to bed and mentioned that she doesn't like being called Amelia. That Mia would have been better. I tried not flipping her the bird as she sauntered upstairs.

This morning, we also had to remember the bag of coins to donate to the American Cancer Society fundraiser, the envelope of gift cards for the Teacher Appreciation drawing, and the $5 for pizza lunch on Thursday. As we were driving to school, she huffed and growled at having to deal with so much stuff in addition to her backpack and lunch box and, under her breath, she made a snarky comment again about the tags. This time I think it was in reference to the 'being so sweet' line, and it took all my willpower not to reach over, unbuckle her seat belt, and give the brakes a robust tap. Actually, if it weren't for the dog perched on the console between us, I might have done it.

I responded by launching into a speech about how she had no idea what it must be like for some children whose mothers do nothing for them, who don't even show them they're loved. I stopped short of telling her that if I felt she'd survive without physical harm, I'd gladly drop her in the deepest slum of Dallas or Ft. Worth for a few days to see how other kids survive with so very little. It's a scenario I've plotted many times in my brain.

And then part of me thinks that maybe this is more about me. She didn't ask for me to bake cookies for her teachers. I don't have to wash her laundry, make her lunch, fix her breakfast, lay out her clothes, or even remind her to bathe and brush her teeth. Eventually she will get hungry and stinky enough that she'll do it herself. She doesn't have to have a cell phone, a Kindle, five pairs of shoes, contacts and glasses, and horse riding lessons. She can survive and thrive on much less. She needs food, love, shelter, medical care, an education, church and books. And a dog.

My mission going forward is to help her grow independent from me. And if she can somehow view me as someone who is loving and giving toward others, then that's an added bonus. Maybe the next time I bake cookies for her teachers, the tag will read: Thank you for tolerating my daughter! ♥ Pamela 

Maybe next time she'll think to bake them herself. Even better.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dimes from Heaven

My mother died suddenly the day before Thanksgiving. A respiratory condition had ravaged her lungs, tethering her to an oxygen tank for two years, and a recent outpatient procedure proved to be anything but routine, so there’d been some time to prepare. But we always assumed there would be more. More visits. More conversations. More holidays. More time.

In early November, I’d begun making plans to move her from Indiana to my home in Texas where I could care for her. At the doctor’s visit I had hoped would give her permission to make the long flight here, he instead admitted her to the hospital where she died hours later. The call early that morning from a caring nurse took me and my family by surprise. Instead of preparing her room, I started planning her funeral. As her executrix, I also had the responsibility of closing her accounts and paying final bills, so I had her mail forwarded to my house.

The day after her memorial service in Indiana, my cousin Kelli and I sat on the floor of my mom’s sewing room and sorted fabric and patterns, lingering over half-finished smocking projects Mom would never complete. “Have I told you about the dimes?” Kelli asked. I shook my head. “Ever since Grandpa died, I keep finding dimes in random places. Once at a church retreat, I returned to my bed after showering and there was a dime—right on top of my sheets!” The other dimes she’d found were just as unexpected and never among other coins. Just a dime. “Yesterday after your mom’s service, my friend sitting next to me stood up, and a dime fell out of her purse and landed on the church pew between us. She knew about my finding dimes and said, ‘There’s one for you from Aunt Mari.’”

Kelli’s story brought a measure of comfort in a difficult week of settling my mom’s estate before returning to Texas, and my grief subsided a bit as I fell into a familiar cadence back at home—work, kids, chores. Then one day in late December, I pulled out a load of wash and heard a ping against the metal drum. I reached in and found a dime. One dime. Shiny and clean. I sank down on my laundry room tile floor and clutched it to my chest like a long-lost treasure. Surely Mom was watching over me.

Dime I found in Lowes' parking lot.
As the weeks passed, I found a few more dimes—in a parking lot, on a desk at my daughter’s tutoring center (which I kept after trading it for an ordinary one from my wallet), and in the middle of the floor in the den. My sister found dimes, too. Once three at a time in her washing machine! The weeks following also brought many firsts—my first birthday without Mom. Her first birthday in heaven. Her first Easter apart from us. Every new first no easier to bear without her here.

Then in April, when my niece Ashleigh announced her first baby was due in the fall, we were faced with another milestone: The first grandbaby my mother wouldn’t rock to sleep or read a book to. No precious handmade outfit or smocked dress made by Mom would be given to this new baby. Weeks later, when Ashleigh said she was feeling a bit overwhelmed with work, buying a home and trying to sew some special items for the baby, I offered to help. “How about I make your bunny quilt?” I asked. She had shared a photo of a stroller quilt she wanted to make with a bunny appliqu├ęd in the center. “You wouldn’t mind?” she asked. “That would be great! Just no pink and don’t make it look like a boy’s either. Whatever colors you choose, I know I’ll love.” She and her husband were keeping the baby’s gender a surprise to everyone—even themselves.

So I printed out a picture of the quilt, determined how much fabric I’d need, and went shopping. After the third fabric store, I’d finally collected the right combination of colors and patterns I needed to make the bunny quilt. The only piece missing was Mom. She would have helped me choose the best weight of batting for the middle, the perfect thread and binding. Plus I missed having her with me. As a small consolation, I picked up a tin of candies near the checkout, the kind she always kept in her purse.

On the drive home, I cried. I missed not only my mom but what she was missing—holidays, birthdays and a new baby to love. Plus it had been over a month since I’d found a dime and couldn’t help feeling envious when my sister would send me a text with her most recent discovery: “A dime! Under the dresser I just moved!”

When I got home, I stopped at the mailbox and gathered the mail. In with a stack of bills and ads, one envelope stood out. It was addressed to Mom—a donation request from one of the many charities she supported—The March of Dimes. And right in a circle cutout on the front of the envelope was affixed a shiny new dime. From Mom to me.

Photos of my mother with my children:
Mom with Jacob
Mom with Benjamin

Mom with Amelia

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Trash Picking

It's trash day tomorrow. So, that makes tonight trash-eve. Or, as I like to think of it: Your trash is my treasure. Honestly, you won't believe the stuff people throw away. Sure most of it is truly garbage, but you can score some pretty good stuff if your timing is right and your standards are low attitude is optimistic.

A few weeks ago, on trash-eve, I was walking the mutt around 10 o'clock at night (once it was finally cool enough to be outdoors), when he slowed his pace and started this low, menacing growl. I assumed my best ninja stance and strained my eyes to see whatever he had locked his night vision on. A figure. In the dark. Tall. Not moving. Big. Really big. We crept a little closer, keeping a protective brick mailbox between us and the scary, hulking ... angel.

A neighbor had placed an 8-foot tall Christmas angel beside their trashcans. We got close and I inspected her. Hmm. I'm not a huge fan of yard art, but she looked pretty sturdy, lots of lights on her, maybe.... Before I could make a yes or no call, I looked down to see that the mutt had lifted his leg and was peeing on the angel. I took that as a 'no' and we kept walking. (It was gone by the morning, so my apologies to whomever took it. I hope you didn't take it indoors.)

Last year, my friend Tracy texted me a photo of two chairs her neighbor had out on the curb. She didn't need them and wondered what I thought. I hopped in the minivan and drove a few streets over.
Club chairs before 
Baby blue and certainly cat-clawed, but with some new fabric...I could definitely see potential. First I followed the advice of my BFF-I've-never-met, Lara Spencer, and checked the label on the chairs. She wrote the book on thrifting: I Brake for Yard Sales, and her sage advice includes salvaging name brand, well-made quality furniture. "Look for good bones, people," she preaches and I listen.

Lifting the cushion, I found a tag that indicated the chairs had been custom-made by a tony Dallas furniture shop. I did the sit-test for comfort (another tip from BFF-INM Lara) and a quick sniff test (for 'cat'), and gave Tracy a high-five. We asked the homeowner if we could haul them away, and he not only said yes, but offered us first dibs on his matching cat-scratched sofa. I passed but thanked him, and under my breath suggested he de-claw the cat. Or at least call me when the feline destroyed something else pretty nice.

I found a nearby upholsterer to recover the chairs and purchased fabric online. A few weeks later, I had two pretty sweet custom club chairs for a fraction of what I'd have paid to have them made for me.
One chair stays in the den after being covered in an over-sized floral by Richloom, legs painted gray.

The second chair I had covered in gray linen, legs painted black and placed in the living room. 

Someday I may recover them again in a matching fabric if I live someplace where I need a pair, but for now they work well apart. And while most of my rescues are DIY, I know when a project needs a professional to complete it.

I've never climbed inside a Dumpster, but I'm not afraid to see someone's castoff as a potential score. I just hope I never toss something into my van that a dog has lifted his leg to and watered. Again, my apologies to the Christmas angel and her new owner.