Saturday, January 6, 2018

New Year, New Mantra

My girl doesn’t often surprise me, but something she said the other day has stayed with me. We were in the kitchen when she dropped a bombshell: “I wish I had your childhood,” she said.

Me at the lakes

Without getting defensive, I simply asked her why. She rattled off a laundry list of things I’d done as a kid of which she was envious. Riding horses with my best friend Carla. Spending weeks at a time at my grandparents’ lake house with my cousin Kristin, fishing with my grandpa, and zip-lining from tree to tree. Riding motorcycles across fields in warm weather and snowmobiling in winter. The list was rather concise because it didn’t take long for me to agree with her; my childhood was pretty perfect.

But, comparatively, I grew up with much less than she. Riding horses for me meant sometimes bareback on a Shetland pony or double when there was only one horse for us to ride. My girl rides English at a barn where we pay someone to instruct her. Instead of cutoff shorts and tennis shoes, she sports riding pants and a pair of pricey leather boots. And a helmet!

Since sixth grade, my girl has attended private schools, where she’s challenged, inspired, and surrounded by like-minded top-tier students. I went to rural public schools where I did the bare minimum expected of me and graduated in the top ten of my class. But I had incredible friends, amazing teachers, and a social life that kept me busy every weekend. Yes, I was one of those nerds who loved high school.

My family’s idea of a summer vacation meant going wherever our current mode of transportation could take us. Many times it was a two-hour trek to Kings’ Island amusement park where we packed a picnic to save money on food. Sometimes we got adventurous, drove to Florida, and camped in our pickup camper—but way before Pinterest made it cool to rough it. I didn’t stay in a hotel until I was 13 (with Carla’s family) and never flew on an airplane until I was 19 or 20. My girl flew at least four round trips before she turned two.
Mia and Ruby June

So, she has enjoyed a more privileged lifestyle and yet she envies mine. While I don’t feel guilty for exposing her and her brothers to more opportunities and I don’t believe they act spoiled, her observation did cause me to reevaluate our lifestyle—just in time for Christmas.

This year, instead of buying her more things to stash in her room, we focused on providing experiences. She scored tickets to a few Broadway shows that are touring to our town theater, and we enrolled her in a sign language class she wanted to take. And a few days before Christmas, we adopted a second dog, Ruby June, from the shelter that has kept us—and Kermit—busy.

Doodle stitching a design by Mia
Even before the holidays, we talked about spending more time doing than observing. I deleted all but one word game app on my phone (that I play for five minutes each morning while having my tea), and we’ve already spent time learning some new embroidery stitches. We spent a lot of time baking (and eating!) together this holiday, and she’s eager to write letters to her friends and seal them with her new wax/stamp set.

Making gingerbread houses with Audrey
While it is easy to say we will be better versions of ourselves in the New Year, I believe even small steps can make a big difference. I interviewed a smart woman several weeks ago who has four daughters. She said the mantra she plans to put into practice this year is Time Well Spent. I plan to piggyback on that and change it up a little to Time (and Money) Well Spent. In fact, that will get inscribed onto my new planner—and maybe in calligraphy, since that’s a new skill I plan to learn this year.

As I dive headfirst into 2018, in the back of my mind I’m repeating less Instagramming and more crafting. Fewer emails and more snail mail. Less screen time and more free time. Fewer shows on Netflix and more books from my to-be-read stack. Time (and Money) Well Spent.

What’s your New Year’s mantra?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Gardening with Friends

Whenever I move to a new house, unpacking boxes takes a backseat to getting my yard in order. With this most recent move, the yard took a bit more work (and funding) than anticipated. Isn't that the way it always goes? Instead of pulling weeds, clearing out plants and supplementing the soil, we hired Greenstreet, a landscape company, to build a wall to shore up the back yard--to level the playing field, so to speak--so plantings wouldn't slide into the neighbor's yard during spring rainfalls.

Getting into the dirt required a waiting game, and I tried to remain patient as we experienced, to-date, in excess of four inches of rain vs. normal. But who can complain? When we moved here, to a sleepy town outside of Chattanooga, a drought had plagued the area and, along with it, devastating wildfires.

So last week, when I finally got to plant my new beds, and during the weeks prior, when shopping for flowers, I was reminded of the many people who helped foster my love of gardening and taught me valuable lessons along the way.

From Betty I learned to divide and conquer

When we lived in Decatur, Alabama, Betty became my friend, my mentor and Mimi to my boys. A graceful, generous soul, she shared her knack for southern hospitality and love of gardening. She taught me that hardy perennials like monkey grass and mint could be divided and shared with a swift whack of a shovel imbedded in their spidery roots. Betty also gifted me with a tuber of Jackson Vine, culled from her own, that after transplanted in my yard, grew along my fence and provided waxy green boughs that graced my table and mantle during the holidays. I can still hear her southern drawl telling me "you cain't kill it" whenever I hesitated to thin out my plants.

From Kim I learned to thin from within

When we moved from Alabama to College Station, Texas, I met an amazing woman and her two sons at Chick-fil-A. I was there with my two young boys and we struck up a conversation on the patio. In a move I can't believe I did and yet do not regret, I handed my boys off to Kim for a playdate at her house. She gave me her address and I promised to return a few hours to gather them. I will justify this decision by saying she is the wife of our then-pediatrician, so I knew I could trust her.

Upon picking up my boys later that afternoon, she gave me a tour of her back yard. Kim impressed me with the brick path she was laying by hand, and she gave me a quick lesson on pruning. She reached into a shrub and clipped the branches growing inward to allow sunlight to reach the plant and to give the bush a more lacy appearance. The result was immediate. To this day,  I can be found with my pruning sheers, trimming branches from within my plants to make them appear less dense and more natural looking.

From Dale I learned to deadhead

To this day, it's a tedious task I rather dread, but my neighbor in Illinois was diligent in deadheading her flowers. This weekend, I scavenged my hanging basket of petunias and clipped off the star-shaped green stems so new blooms will take their places. Today they look a little worse for wear, but I know, had I left them to their own devices, before long my petunias would look like spindly weeds with a single flower at each end.

As kids, my cousin and I would deadhead black-eyed Susans and zinnias in my grandparents' flowerbeds, but we typically would wait until the blooms had dried and the seed-heads crumbled between our fingers; seeds would rain down into the soil, guaranteeing more flowers next season. Now I rarely wait for my blooms to dry, instead clipping the flowers to bring indoors where I can enjoy them all day long.

From Martha I learned to move it

I met Martha on a trip we took with my husband's coworkers and, as luck would have it, we are now neighbors. An avid gardner, Martha recently gave me a tour of her fabulous gardens. I reminded her of advice she gave me years ago: If something you planted isn't growing, move it to a different spot in your yard. I had a Texas mountain laurel that seemed to squat in the first bed I planted it in. So the next spring, I dug it up and placed in on the opposite side of the lawn, in a sloped bed where it thrived. Perhaps it was the well-drained soil or the filtered light it preferred, but whatever the condition, my mountain laurel loved its new home and flourished.

From my grandmother I learned to gather

When my cousin and I were about nine or ten, we went on a fishing trip with our grandparents to
Wisconsin. On the drive home, we noticed wild ferns growing in the ditch by the road. I'm not sure how much urging it took, but Grandpa pulled over and we gathered a couple clumps of ferns, wrapped the roots in a bag and placed it along the floorboard of the backseat. For the rest of the journey, my cousin and I tried our best to keep from squashing the ferns at our feet. When we got home, Mom planted the ferns in the backyard beds near the house and, to this day, they still grow there. I pulled some up and planted them at my house in Alabama, where I hope they're still alive and well. Since then, I've gathered seed pods from my travels and even plucked roadside wildflowers--roots and all--to place in my garden. Along the way, I've learned a few lessons about what will survive and what's best left behind (a certain strand of Queen Anne's Lace nearly took over the lawn). I still keep one eye trained on the roadside when I drive, in search of a hardy wildflower or plant that might work in my garden.

From my mom I learned to weed

I hated weeding the garden as a kid, especially our vegetable patch that seemed overrun with grass, but any good gardener knows you have to tackle the weeds to save the flowers and herbs. I still don't enjoy weeding, but in between plantings and harvests, time spent weeding the beds gets me outdoors and my hands dirty.

My hope is my kids will share my passion for plantings and that the lessons so freely given to me will be passed down to them from their own mom, who always loved playing in the dirt.

My newest flower bed with the dog claiming his place.

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.