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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Broke is the New Black

New this fall is an ABC comedy series about an affluent African American family living in the 'burbs and trying to retain their cultural identity.

Which got me to thinking, I need to pitch my own series:

Here are a few episode ideas as we follow the Smith family, trying to keep up with the Jones family next door. 

Episode 1: Mary Smith buys her daughter a like-new Vera Bradley backpack on eBay (just like Katie Jones' daughter's) and then realizes the girls are dumping their Bradley bags this year in favor of bohemian satchels. She sells it on a local Facebook trading site and gets $35 for the $85 bag she paid $60 for and vows to eat PB&J for a week to make up for her poor purchase. Meanwhile, Bob Smith takes a second job delivering pizzas in a nearby town (Mary can't take a chance on his delivering to anyone they might know) in order to pay the rent on his boat slip at the marina.

Episode 2: Mary realizes the tuition is due for Sally's private art lessons and her credit card is maxed out so she can't pay it. So, she rifles through Bob Jr.'s closet to borrow $50 from the $76.83 he keeps in a Mason jar. Meanwhile, Bob Sr. puts his childhood baseball card collection on Craig's List to get enough money to pay for Bob Jr.'s hockey uniform.

Episode 3: Mary gets Sally and Bob Jr. to help her "clean the freezer" in hopes of finding something she can thaw for dinner because she doesn't have money in the checking account for groceries. Meanwhile, Bob Sr. stealthily goes through Mary's closet in search of clothes with the tags still on that he can return for cash so he can pay the entry fee for his office's Fantasy Football League. 

Episode 4: Mary tells Katie Jones she's allergic to silver to keep from admitting she doesn't have enough money to buy anything at her Stella & Dot party. Meanwhile, Bob Sr. rifles through Sally's closet to borrow $10 from the $17.25 she keeps in her Princess Anna and Elsa bank, so he can put it under her pillow after she loses her first tooth. 

Episode 5: Mary sends Sally and Bob Jr. out on their bikes to look for a lost Jack Russell after seeing posters in the neighborhood offering a $150 reward. Meanwhile, Bob declares a family 'get in touch with nature' week and turns off the air conditioning in order to lower their utility bill, and everyone is forced to sleep in the backyard playhouse when the house gets too hot.

Episode 6: Mary gets her hair cut for $15 at a beauty school and cries when she ends up with an asymmetrical cut that Bob says makes her look like a transgender indie pop star. Meanwhile, Bob gets a cavity filled at the nearby dental school for free and tries to become a paid sperm donor but is told there's not a market for men with male patterned baldness and excessive congenital moles.

Episode 7: Mary Googles possible ways one can sell a paired organ in order to get the $5,500 she needs for a tummy tuck, and then wonders if she can just have the transplant surgeon remove excess back fat when he takes out a kidney. Meanwhile, Bob Googles the possibility of reversing a dog's neutering, so he can lease out their golden retriever Sooner as a stud to a standard poodle after he hears the Jones family paid $1100 for their goldendoodle puppy.

Episode 8: Mary crashes their Porsche Cayenne into the light pole in the Target parking lot because the lease payment is due and they don't have enough money to pay it. She then sues Target for $50,000 for placing the light pole too close to the cart corral, claiming she didn't see it because she was distracted by the kid using the motorized cart collector. Meanwhile, Bob loses his job delivering pizzas so he sinks his boat in order to collect the insurance money.

Before I pitch Episode 9, the network decides to scrap 'broke•ish because viewers complained that it was "depressing" and "hitting too close to home" and that "anyone knows you can't sell a paired organ for more than $1200." I guess it's back to the drawing board ...

Money Jar image by Darren Barefoot; Lost Dog image by Casey Bisson; Dental image by brillenschlange; Target image by Mike Mozart--all on Flickr.

Monday, August 18, 2014

DIY Organizers

Lo and behold, I pinned something to Pinterest and remembered to go back and attempt it. In fact, I found two different bloggers who claimed this idea--organizers made from pot holders. This one and this other one have detailed instructions about how you take a square pot holder, stitch some snack size storage bags down the center and attach a closure to make a purse-sized organizer.

I thought these would be great to share with my book club friends at the retirement home. Many of them use those push walkers that have a storage compartment under the seat, and these would fit perfectly there. My girl and I were in a crafty mood, too, so we set out to find some pot holders. I figured I could score some at the dollar store, Target or World Market. I was right, wrong and right. But, those at the dollar store were beige and very skimpy looking. Target didn't have any square ones. World Market had gorgeous pot holders but, at $5 each, they were a little out of my budget since I planned to make at least a dozen as well as purchase items to place inside.

Since ours didn't have to be heat-resistant, I went to JoAnn Fabrics and bought quilted fabric and extra wide double fold bias tape. I purchased 1/2 yard pieces in four different designs; each cost $7 and I could get ten 8-inch squares out of each. (Since the fabric was reversible, with a coordinating print on the other side, it was like purchasing eight different fabrics.) One package of bias tape would bind three squares. In total, each cost less than $1.70; including sandwich baggies, not including the items we filled them with.

After zigzag stitching the tape around the edges (and including a loop at one corner), I thought it might be nice to add a place for a pen on the outside. So we took scraps of bias tape, about 6 inches long, ironed out the center fold, tucked under the top and bottom edges and stitched it down one side, across the bottom and up the other side, leaving the top open. 

With this stage, I let my girl help out. 
The most difficult stage was stitching the bags into place. Those suckers are slippery and have to be taped down. (For a step-by-step tutorial, click here.) After that, we hand-stitched buttons on the front as well as added a loop of ribbon on the opposite side for a closure. 

A couple friends happened by that day and helped my girl get them stuffed. We included:
  • wet wipes
  • emery boards
  • floss picks
  • Band-Aids
  • Tylenol packets
  • Carmex
  • rubber bands
  • paper clips
  • bobby pins 
  • breath mints
  • candy
  • Halls cough suppressants 
  • tissues 
  • ink pen
The women at the retirement home LOVED them and seemed so pleased we'd made something just for them. (Of course, I forgot my camera and didn't think to grab my phone and take a photo.) We handed out about a dozen of the sixteen we made, so my girl kept one for herself and gave the rest to friends. I was surprised to see how excited the kids were to get one, too. I'll definitely be making more and possibly including them in my Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes this year (without the Tylenol or Halls). They'd be great to keep in the car, in your beach bag or diaper bag, or in your desk at work. Teachers' gifts maybe? I can think of a lot of uses!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dreaming of Mom

I dreamed about my mother early this morning. The kind of dream that wakes you and forbids you to go back to sleep. Mom was on vacation with us and yet not with us, so I was walking down a long, wide carpeted hallway toward her hotel room to check on her. As I got closer, she appeared, wearing a faded blue nightgown, walking purposefully toward me, tiny, frail. I stepped into pace beside her and asked, "Where are you going?" She answered, "I think I have pneumonia. I'm going to the hospital." I pulled her to my side, hugged her close, turned my head and kissed her on her left temple. Once, twice, again and again until I woke up.

The last time I saw her was October 14. In two months it will be a year and a lifetime ago that I was with her. And yet she's always with me. When I fold laundry, I can hear her chiding me that we have too many clothes. Of course, she's right; I do a ridiculous amount of laundry. When I sew or cook or bake, she's looking over my shoulder, remarking about how I do things just like she did and how I do things so differently than she did. When I'm with my children, I can feel her watching me with the same amount of maternal pride I exude. She often said her greatest joy was her children, and we knew that even when she didn't say it.

Kermit and me, October 14
I will never get over losing her. I will forever miss her so deeply I find it hard to breathe at times. So this morning, it took me a minute to get out of bed. In time, the dog bounded in, jumped up on the bed and put his head on my chest, his paw on my shoulder. He's good that waythe way good dogs know when we need them the most. The way he was when I got home last October, exhausted from spending four nights beside my mom in the hospital, not wanting to leave her side. I had stumbled into bed to nap and, after an hour, my husband opened the bedroom door so the dog could join me. Kermit had been ramming the door with his head so much, my husband was afraid he'd hurt himself if he didn't let him in.

Most nights I don't dream about my mother, but I know she's with me. She's always with me.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Summer To-Do List

I don't know if your kids are cut from the same over-achieving cloth as mine, but we had barely scraped the gunk from her lunchbox and shaken the Goldfish build-up from the bottom of her backpack when my girl announced her summer goals:

1. Read War & Peace
2. Learn a second language
3. Gather food and clothes for the homeless
4. Get the true homeless experience by:
a. building a tent in the backyard
b. cooking eggs on a hot sidewalk
c. burning leaves with a magnifying glass (in case you can't find heat this winter)
So, I put aside her Mensa application and set off to purchase a magnifying glass while she pulled the chip clips off every opened bag in the pantry and culled sheets and towels from the linen closet.

Anyone with functioning opposable thumbs can rig a tent as long as one can find two tallish somethings to attach twine or a clothesline to. Lucky for us, we have two trees in the yard that worked. After stringing the twine, we chip-clipped the sheets into place and she laid a patchwork floor fashioned from old curtains and beach towels. A few accessories later--including a strategically placed mosquito-deterring plant, her iPod, a Beats Pill, folding table, a fan/spritzer bottle, plus a best-bud--and she was good for an hour or so. Until she got hungry. And then too hot. And then saw a spider.

Once the tent had to be taken down so Dad could run the sprinklers, she decided to attack her next challenge and enlisted the help of her best boy bud. (The fact that he was wearing a T-shirt with an appropriate saying was a bonus.) We picked the first day the temps soared over 100 degrees and once the sidewalk seemed sufficiently preheated, let 'em drop!  

Ew, touch it! 

Maybe this will cook it faster. 
Turns out they don't cook but rather congeal. 

No one was daring enough to see if they were edible. Except the dog, later. And probably that weird cat that hangs out around here at night. 

Then she had bigger fish to fry things to try and set fire to. Turns out magnolia leaves are pretty crunchy after they fall off the tree and dried palm fronds worked too. All we needed was to get the sun's rays coming in at a good angle and pretty soon the leaf started smoking. 

It wasn't long before the driveway started smelling like a outdoor music festival. But before I could say 'Bonnaroo', she was off again--looking for things to set fire to.

Then she heard me mention this cultural phenomenon known as 'the summer slide' so, of course, she was determined to tackle that as well, my precious gifted one. 
Now, we've started the countdown to school and will try our best to not break something or set the house on fire. We like to keep our goals manageable around here.

Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Survive a Water Park this Summer

In case you happen to visit a waterpark this summer with your family unit (I'm assuming you'd not visit one alone, you weirdo), I want you to be prepared. We just returned from Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels--a wet and wonderful attraction I'd managed to dodge for the past nine years we've lived in Texas. According to their press, an average 9000 people each day visit the park, so you can imagine how jazzed I was to be able to communal bathe with 8995 strangers.

Here are some tips if you happen to visit Schlitterbahn or another park in the near future.

1. Plan to visit about mid-season--somewhere between 'new, ambitious lifeguard' and 'jaded, seasoned lifeguard.' If you go early, the lifeguards are like hawks and, quite frankly, whistle-happy. They've never had so much authority and are eager to assert their new-found power. If you hit the parks in late August, the lifeguards have become bored with standing in knee-deep water for hours on end and have perfected the art of harassing the guests--as much as they can get away with. So that gentle push at the top of the slide becomes a bit more of a whiplash-inducing shove; that courtesy splash to cool you off takes a more menacing tone.
Our kids at Schlitterbahn

2. Leave any inhibitions about how you look in a swimsuit back in the minivan. Trust me, there will always be someone who looks worse in theirs. But there will also be someone who looks better--and she's probably 15. You, too, can stare at her smooth thighs and imagine them dimpled with cellulite in about 10 years, if it will make you feel better.

3. If you decide to travel to the park in your clothes and change in the locker room, make sure your children have their swimsuits. Otherwise you'll have no other choice but to purchase a suit in the gift shop--one that looks like a Kmart clearance cast-off at a Nordstrom price. And, trust me, when your daughter develops a serious case of inner-thigh chub-rub, you'll have to buy a second, less modest suit for her which will eat up your entire souvenir T-shirt budget. Dagnabit!

4. Come to terms with staring at back hair, tacky tattoos and suspicious moles for most of the day. The majority of your time at the park will be spent standing in line, looking at strangers in a way you'd rather not. The person behind you in line is returning the favor.

5. Develop a family code word for 'you have a weird booger in your nostril.' Ours was 'tornado.'

6. Understand that real men pierce BOTH nipples, fo sho.

My idea of a water park!
7. Try to pack a cooler of your own food, if the park allows it. Maybe you don't because you hate the hassle. Maybe you feel weird about looking like the Clampetts on vacay. Do it anyway or embrace paying $11 for a hot dog meal (granted, it was a HUGE hot dog) that has been taste-tested for you by a gagillion flies from the kitchen to the counter.

8. View your time at the park as a spa day--one where hydrotherapy was the only thing on the menu. You will be so waterlogged by the time you leave, you don't dare eat a piece of bread for at least 48 hours. I made that mistake and couldn't button my shorts.

After about four hours of water fun, we called it a day. My girl asked when we could come back. I told her we'd come again as soon as her other brother (a college student) could find time to go. I didn't tell her that he'd be taking my place as her tubing partner.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Letter to My Sister on Mother's Day

Dear Amy,

First of all, happy birthday! As this marks the first time you celebrate your birthday without our mother, it's doubly hard since it's also the first Mother's Day for us without her. Years ago, when you arrived on Mother's Day, you gave Mom the ultimate bragging right and she always said you were the best Mother's Day gift she could ask for. And who would argue that? You were adorable and brilliant and the perfect toy for us three older kids.

I remember waking up the morning of May 11, 1969, and finding Grandma Stephens at our house and wondering why she was there. Later when you came home--probably a week or so since in those days, birthing a baby led to days of recovering in the hospital--we jockeyed into position for the privilege to hold you. I remember standing by as others cuddled you and squeezing my arms around my six-year-old self, so eager to get my hands on you.

I imagine my dolls became neglected after then. Who could possibly compete with you? As you grew, I don't ever remember feeling as though I'd been removed from power as the baby in the family nor do I recall competing for attention or affection. Mom was good that way. She was tiny but overflowing with love and patience, time and talent.

Today's parenting books might say she did many things wrong, but we know better. She didn't breastfeed or put us to bed to cry it out. She read to us and rocked us to sleep, and if we woke in the night she would lie with us until we drifted off again. She let us consume raw cookie dough, lick the beaters, and use power tools--like a lawnmower and electric hedge trimmers. She expected us to say please and thank you, not run in the house, chew with our mouths closed, sit up straight and be kind to each other. We weren't allowed to say 'shut up' or 'stupid' or slam doors, even though the Brady Bunch six did without repercussion.

She wasn't afraid of hard work and believed we shouldn't be either. While she doted on us--you in particular, curling your hair before school while you sat perched on a barstool with a Pop Tart or bowl of ice cream (hey, it's milk!)--she demanded we work alongside her as she helped others. So, off we'd go to Aunt Anna's or Aunt Grace's to mow and pull weeds and wash windows or hand off curling rods while she gave them their perms. I'm sure it's no wonder we both have a heart for old people.

One of her greatest gifts was hospitality, and we enjoyed the generosity of her spirit. Ours was the house where friends were welcome and she always made room at the table for one more. She took us to church more often than we felt necessary, and ushered us off to church camp even though she hated going herself. I am most grateful for being grounded in a faith that made losing her a little less horrible. Knowing she's in heaven is the only way I can cope with the loss of not getting to talk to her every day.

Even now, five and a half months later, I still look at the answering machine and marvel that the light no longer blinks. There is a saved message from her on there and I've listened to it twice. While it's her voice, it's not her. In my mind her voice doesn't falter or sound out of breath. I prefer to remember her as healthy and laughing--surrounded by children and grandchildren who loved her well.

Some of the Tooley women: Gretchen, Amy, Amelia, Pamela and Mom.
To many people she was Aunt Mari, but to us she was and always will be Mom. We are the very best part of her and she would agree. Her greatest role in life was being a mother; it's what she felt called to do. She said quite often that she felt she let Grandma down when she didn't finish college and become a nurse like her, but she nursed many sick children in her care and ministered to friends and family with her cooking. We learned many lessons at her knee, but the most invaluable one was to love our children without conditions or demands. So, in her honor and memory and as an impassioned request for you, I wish you a wonderful Mother's Day, the happiest of birthdays and a year of living as Mom taught us to live--for others so that we, too, might be blessed.