This Time, Last Year

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On Friday, I’m leaving town. It’s not the best time for me to be gone because we run a retail shop and it’s almost Christmas.

And yet, it’s the best time for me to be gone because it’s almost Christmas. Dad died one year ago today, so I’m going to Colorado. It was Dad’s favorite place in the world and I’m hoping I can hold myself together until we get there.

For several weeks leading up to this day, I’ve been a falling apart and recovering in equal measure. On certain days, I wake up with dread and sit in a chair reassessing my entire life, and other days I’m peaceful and resigned. I’ve labeled it burnout, but I think it’s grief in disguise. Mostly, I’ve just been working hard to put one foot in front of the other with the hope that when this year anniversary has passed, I will be well. It’s true, I’m a bit raw.

So on a morning when I was feeling more sane than usual, I realized my need to be in a place that feels as close to Dad as possible. He loved the Rocky Mountains. During my childhood, we were all over the place: Aspen, Estes Park, Ouray, Ponderosa, Purgatory, and finally, Pagosa Springs. We settled in this small southwestern town and never left. For two weeks of each year, it’s our summer escape and haven. At one point in his life, when Dad was far from retirement and the reality of how Mom’s diabetes would make her dependent on living near a dialysis unit, he and my Uncle Bill bought a piece of land in Pagosa. They were going to build a big house so our families could spend more time in the mountains. It was on Antelope Drive, near a lake with a straight-shot view of the mountains. That’s what he loved – the view. He was particular about what condo we stayed in each summer, and when he finally found one that allowed him to sit on the patio with that view of the mountain, that’s the one we booked every year. Peregrine 7877

Mom started dialysis when she was 60, and the dream of spending the entire summer in Pagosa slowly faded away. Her life was different now – she had to be strapped to the dialysis machine three days a week in order to live. And Pagosa didn’t have a unit. So they sold the piece of land on Antelope Drive and waved it away with the realization that the dreams we have early in life don’t always intertwine with the way our life unfolds in the latter years. They found a dialysis unit in Cortez, Colorado and were content to give up the dream of being in the Rocky Mountains all summer. Instead, they drove three days a week over the mountains during our two-week stay in Pagosa. My parents were steady people, and they bounced back from adversity together. For ten years, dialysis was a part of our Colorado vacation, and they never grumbled, complained, or quit going.

Dad would start talking about Colorado in January, wondering what it looked like under a blanket of snow, proclaiming the obvious, “If we think it’s cold here, imagine what it feels like in Pagose.” (He had taken to dropping the a, thus giving it a little nickname). Around April, when the weather started to turn warm, he would let us know that it would only be a few months and we’d be in Pagose. And then, about a month before our late July departure he would talk about it every time we saw him, literally counting down the days and inventorying the food and cookware he and Mom were gathering to take – pancake mix, cereals, pasta, soda, griddle, skillet. He hated the cheap cookware in the condo.

When Mom’s neuropathy took her legs from her in early March of 2007, he shopped for and purchased a van with a lift and all the necessary handicap features, then proclaimed, “This will be perfect for Colorado.” She died in April and he sold the van. And then we went to Colorado that summer without her.

For seven summers he came to Colorado with us – or maybe we went with him. It always seemed like Colorado belonged to Dad. He continued to carry all the food and his cookware until the last couple of years when he only brought Diet Coke and pancake mix. He meant to  bring the griddle, but he kept forgetting it. He spent more time alone, staring at those mountains and doing more reminiscing about past trips. And then, last December 7, before he even started talking about the next Colorado trip, he died. It’s hard for me to add anything to what I say about his death. He just died. Suddenly. After rolling the neighbor’s trash cans to the side of their house and bringing in his newspaper. He fell over in his chair and died.

Colorado belongs to us now. We took our annual trip to Pagosa last July without Dad. It was heartbreaking, but also wonderful because for the first time I understood what tied him to these mountains and this place. All those summer weeks, the memories, the people and the traditions. And that air. Our trip this past summer came in the middle of a busy, stressful time for us and I needed that fresh, crisp, mountain air. I needed to breathe. I needed to see the absolute majesty and mystery of mountains and be reminded that I should be humbled by creation, and calmed by my insignificance. I need that again now.

We will return to Tulsa on December 13, and one month from that day we will move from our comfortable house in Shadow Mountain to the Rosedale house in northwest Tulsa. After twenty years in my childhood neighborhood, eleven years in this house, and countless memories of living within a half mile from parents, aunt and uncle, and cousins, we’ll pick up and move to the other side of the city. We’ve made choices – lifestyle and financial – that necessitate us giving up our home. Many of those choices were solidified last summer in Colorado. So I’m going back to say goodbye to Dad one last time, and to prepare for another farewell. As Kyle reminds me, we’re not moving across the country, just to the other side of town.

When one thing ends something new is beginning. Although I know this, endings and goodbyes always knock me to the ground. So I’m going to Colorado to breathe in the air, look at the mountains, and be reminded that there is something bigger than my small world. I’m going to allow myself to grieve again, and then I‘m going to stand back up and come home and pack our life in boxes for another ending, and a new beginning.

Taking the Royal into 2016

I remember the sound of typewriter keys on Saturday mornings. Dad would finish his Sunday school lesson by typing his notes on the old Royal, circa 1940-something. It’s a gray, metal machine that weighs about as much as a full box of encyclopedias. Every week he was teaching – which was most weeks – he hauled it back and forth from the kitchen to the spare bedroom. By the time I was in high school, he had moved up to an electric typewriter and retired the Royal to a quiet existence in the linen closet.

Years ago, I laid claim to this old typewriter and promptly placed it on a shelf in an upstairs closet that held the things we couldn’t give away, but never touched. I couldn’t imagine myself typing on it. It was too slow, too heavy, and the font was one size only. Besides, it was outdated technology that held no promise of productivity. Worthless except for its antique value. For a decade I didn’t give the Royal another thought until Dad died last month. The day after his memorial service I went straight to the closet, lifted the heavy as heck typewriter and carried it downstairs to the den bar. We ordered a universal ribbon cartridge that fits most old typewriters and I loaded paper in and began to type quotes. It was clearly a grief project (I highly recommend these), and one that gave me a surprising amount of comfort and connection. Decades ago, my mother typed recipes on index cards on the Royal, and so there were times when the click of the keys were from her fingers. In elementary school I typed my first (very short) stories on it. I was hearing memories.

Because I am an only child, there has been no exercise of divvying up the items that belonged to my parents. Everything that was special to them now belongs to me, and I do not take this lightly. So the typewriter is being put to use to communicate messages of gratitude, encouragement and love, with a contrastingly jarring clack as I type. Any font my computer can spit out pales against the quirky lettering of the Royal, and when I place them side by side, the smudgy, uneven typewritten words prevail. But it comes at a cost. The keys must be pressed with about 10 times more force than my laptop keys, and if you hit the wrong key you don’t get to backspace with a handy delete key. You take the paper out and start over again, even if you were three words from finishing. The keyboard on the typewriter is a QWERTY, cleverly named because the letters at the top-left corner of the keyboard begin with QWERTY. Most computers have this layout, but with very different spacing between the keys. My third and pinky finger are weaklings and can’t push the typewriter keys down, so I type with only forefingers. It’s slow going, but far more precise.

So the old Royal and I are stepping into 2016 together. I am beginning to believe that there is nothing that doesn’t come back around in some form or another. There is an Adinkra symbol in Ghanaian culture called Sankofa. It’s in the shape of a swan that has turned its long neck to look backward. Sankofa symbolizes how much we can learn from the past, and that often looking back is one way we move forward. This is true whether we are learning from mistakes or rediscovering the value of what we thought was left behind. The typewriter is comforting, but also teaches me the beauty of the imperfect – smudged letters, uneven spacing, one font size. I’m typing those quotes and listening to the memories of weekly Sunday school lessons, handed-down recipes and a child’s short stories. I thought these things were gone forever, and maybe that meant they didn’t matter anymore. But now I know they are still with me – comforting and familiar like the typewriter that brought them all back.

 

Thoughts on Double-Timing It

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Two days before Christmas, I did this to my car. It was completely my fault, and adding insult to injury (actually, my injury was only a bruised leg and a stiff shoulder), I was ticketed for not yielding right of way. And we had to pay for the damage repair. And we lost our good driver “bonus” that came each January. I beat myself up for days.

And yet, it would have been far worse if I hadn’t seen the car coming and slammed on my brakes. But it was not enough and I can still hear the doomsday sound of screeching tires and the crunch of two automobiles colliding. Like an idiot, I tried to tell the officer that the car’s driver must have been speeding because the two lanes I was crossing during rush hour were completely clear. He begged to differ. It was my bad, and I made Christmas not so merry for a few people.

For the two weeks of Christmas holiday, I drove a loaner that made me feel like I was doing laps in a go-kart. I swear my back end had to be four inches from the ground, but it was actually a nice compact car that was easy to park and opened a wide swath of space in our garage. I was practicing gratefulness, but I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to the rental when the body repair shop called to tell me my Kia Sorento was ready.

“You’ll never know you had an accident,” they said with great confidence, which is exactly what I wanted to hear. Let’s wipe this from our memory, shall we? The car looked just as I had remembered, and I felt a little emotional as I climbed behind the wheel. At this point, I should tell you that I’m not a car person. I don’t get new car fever, and I don’t trade in my car on any regular basis. This was my first new car in almost a decade and I aim to keep this one until the wheels fall off. I’m actually envious of the people who call Car Talk and when asked how many miles are on the car answer well above the hundred thousand mark.

I drove my car out of the parking lot of the repair shop and onto the main street, where I eased into the left turn lane and clicked on my signal. And at that moment, I knew that my Sorento and I – however long we will be together – were probably never going to wipe the accident from our memory. The clicking of my turn signal was in double time, like a nervous woman incessantly tapping her long fingernails. I turned it off and then on again, and still, she tapped in fast motion. I checked the right turn signal, and the slow, rhythmic sound was a soothing contrast to the impatient clicking of the leftie.

I could have turned the car around and demanded they fix the hyperactive turn signal, but I didn’t. I realized the irony and the lesson immediately. Nope, the Sorento and I were going to endure her flaw because I need to be reminded of something every time I turn left: there exists in me a problem with speed. I thrive on going fast -everything from walking to talking. In Ghana, as I spoke to groups of our families in the Rising Village program, Isaac, our Ghana director, was constantly giving me a signal to slow down my rapid speech – palms down, pressing lower and lower. “Slow down, please Lisa,” he would say with that ever-present smile.

Yes, Lisa, please slow down. I avoid the grocery store during the mornings because that’s when all the slow people shop, and there is nothing that makes me lose my religion like getting behind someone who shuffles through the aisles as if they have never stepped foot inside that store. Here’s another sad fact: sometimes I count down how long it takes me to get dressed in the morning and I’m not making that up. If I can get dressed in 40 seconds I’m doing good. My goal is 30. It’s a game, really, because nothing in my life demands that level of speed. I can’t really explain it, and I should probably seek therapy for it, but the turn signal is cheaper. It’s double-time click has been a reminder that I shot out into the lane to make that left turn because, once again, I was in a big, fat hurry. Every time I turn left, it’s like a chant: Too fast, too fast, too fast, too fast. 

I drive like a granny now, and it’s not because I made some resolution to “slow down in 2015.” It’s because I want to keep that Sorento and call in a radio car show and boast that my Kia has 145,000 miles on it, and here’s this little noise it’s been making…” And also, because I can look back and list quite a few other mishaps that occurred because I was too impatient to slow down, or just wait patiently. I still find myself tempted to play “beat the clock” while getting dressed or doing a dozen other daily tasks, but now I’m paying attention to my need for speed and intentionally slowing things down. And if I need a poignant reminder, I can always slowly walk to my car, get in, drive the speed limit, and make a bunch of left turns.

 

Running Away to the Same Place

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I’m not much for ruts. I don’t like doing the same thing the same way over long periods of time, but I make an exception for this place.

Colorado.

I know, everyone in Oklahoma and Texas flocks to these mountains in the summer. It’s not like where we go is unique, but heck, we’re in a rut. And I’m so glad that we are. I haven’t always felt this way. There were quite a few years when I longed for something different. It felt like we were doing the same thing the same way and had been doing it for a long period of time. But this summer has been filled with changes and we’ve got new and different coming at us this fall, so I’m longing for the familiar. The same old thing sounds good to me. Despite all the dizzying newness that is about to come around the bend, there are some things still beneath my feet that haven’t changed. And I am learning to appreciate the large collection of stories that my family has accumulated around these trips. We circulate them every year while we are here and they make us laugh, cry, and miss those who are gone. And they continue to bind us tightly together, which we all need for mental and physical health.

My dad always loved this story (at my mother’s expense): We have always taken these vacations with family – grandparents, siblings, cousins. In 1970, we were all in a caravan and had made it to Colorado Springs when my mother realized she had left the suitcase with all my clothes on the bed in the guest room. My mother was an obsessive packer. She started at least a week early, shopping for the clothes, washing and ironing them, and then laying them on the bed and mandating that I not wear those “trip clothes.” And now, these carefully arranged outfits were still beautifully laid out in the suitcase back in Elk City, Oklahoma. And my mother cried. Then she apologized, hugged me, and took me to  J.C. Penney where she bought me exactly three outfits that were rotated for the two weeks while we were on vacation. The photo above proves that the clothing selection at the  Colorado Springs Penney’s was not geared for vacation mode, but rather for the start of a new school year. I looked sadly formal for our time in the mountains, but I was five years old and didn’t care. For decades, however, we got a lot of mileage out of this story. My mother laughed the hardest, especially when the story was accompanied by the photos. I was a sailor in the Rocky Mountains.

I’m glad we’re here. I’m thankful to share this vacation with the same people every year – the ones who know me best and love me anyway. I’m grateful to know that there are some things in Pagosa Springs that don’t change: the Liberty theater downtown still only plays the same single movie all week, with a matinee and evening showing. This week it’s Wolverine. Bummer. It rains most every evening, but it’s sunny most every morning. The County Fair is serious business and takes place the first week in August. The Malt Shoppe has been here for 30 years and the decor, furniture, and menu has remained exactly the same, which is good because it won’t do to come here and not have multiple caramel malts. You can still spot the hot weather exiles in the grocery store, stocking up on Oletha corn while the locals wind in between us, smiling kindly as they count down the days until the end of tourist season. And the mountains. They change colors with the sunrise and the sunset, but they are the same mountains that we have looked at for over 40 years. If everything else finally does change, the mountains will remain, which means I’ll keep coming back.

I love everything this vacation represents and every blessing it bestows on me at the end of each summer. It feels right to have run away to this same place. To do the same things. And I think I’ll stay here for a while.

On Mother’s Day: Two Women Remembered

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There is a quiet debate these days about the politically correct word for mothers who give birth and then place their child for adoption. It’s good to describe these adoption realities with sensitivity, but honestly, I lose track of what’s in and what’s out. As for my youngest daughter’s circumstances: instead of being abandoned, she was “left in a place where she would be found.” And instead of giving a child up for adoption, the birthmother “made an adoption plan.” And so in some circles, a birthmother is now referred to as a “first mother.” Which, in my mind, means that an adoptive mother – regardless of what you say – is a “second mother.” I’m passing on these terms, just so you know.

I have a birth mother. And I have an adoptive mother. And they are both gone, which always makes Mother’s Day a little bittersweet for me. It’s not the hardest day of the year, but it’s not one that I get gushy over either. And yes, I have children, but let’s face it: most of our kids need a little prodding in order to 1) remember Mother’s Day, and 2) do something about it. A friend of mine posted a photo of her Mother’s Day gift wrapped in toilet paper with a sticky note in kid writing that said, “Sorry.” This is so real and so perfect, and it was the only Mother’s Day post on Facebook that made me feel all warm and fuzzy. (As a side note, if Mother’s Day is a little rough for you, skip Facebook on this day.)

I lost Mom five years ago in April. I lost my birthmother hours after I was born. And I think about both of them on Mother’s Day. In fact, on most days, each of them crosses my mind at some point, either during waking hours or in my dreams. My house is filled with things Mom gave me and so I am surrounded by her with gifts and possessions passed down to me. And every time I look in the mirror or wonder why I have that little physical imperfection or notice my short stature (when I’m hanging with tall people), I think about my birthmother who passed these things to me, and then without realizing it, passed some of them on to my biological children. And yes, I miss both of my mothers and feel the empty space their passing has left in my heart.

I celebrated this day with my own children, but it feels odd to be unable to turn around and honor the woman who gave birth to me and the woman who raised me with absolute selflessness. It seems as though I should be saying Happy Mother’s Day to someone. Perhaps this is enough for me. Writing usually quells the restlessness.

To my birthmother: I know it was difficult to hand over your baby and walk away. Thank you for physical life – for taking care of yourself during pregnancy, for not being reckless with your health, and for whatever good thoughts you chose to focus on during those nine months. I have a sense that you were tenacious but calm as you waited to deliver and then give away your child. I’m confident you were strong. And I am proud to be your daughter.

To Mom: I know you wanted to live to see so many things, but you made the most of every moment that we had together. Every day, you chose a life that focused on others. You tormented me with little quotes like “It is better to give than to receive,” but you were speaking absolute truth. It just took me a long time to get it, and an even longer time to begin to learn how to live it. But I have more than adequate footsteps to follow in.

So I honor you both today, in my own way. Happy Mother’s Day my two mothers. You are deeply loved…forever.

Another Amazing Woman Whose Genes I Don’t Share

This is my Granny Flonnie – the grandmother with the most sing-song name a kid could ask for.

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Her maiden name was Cromwell, but do not mistake her for a Victorian-era shrinking violet. I suppose her given name was Florence, but no one ever, ever called her that. She was Flonnie, a woman who was over 40 years old when she had twin babies – a boy and a girl. The baby girl was my mother.

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The year was 1936, which still holds the record for the hottest summer in the U.S., and Flonnie had those two babies on the front porch while someone poured buckets of water on the wood to cool it down. My mother once told me that she and her brother weighed over seven pounds each when they were born and that sent a shiver across my spine. Thirteen months later Flonnie’s husband was killed by a drunk driver and she was left to raise six children alone. My mother and Uncle Bob were surprise babies, born 13 years after my Aunt Margaret, who was the youngest until the twins came along. So my grandmother, now a widowed mother, took a job at the school cafeteria and brought home the leftovers for dinner on many evenings. She raised her children and then when grandchildren began to come along, she helped take care of them too.

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She had developed diabetes by the time I was born and the circulation in her legs wasn’t good. She had a hard time getting around. When I was a baby, she came to visit once and spent an evening with me while my parents went out. They had put me to bed upstairs, assuring her that they wouldn’t be gone long and there would be no need for her to climb the stairs. But sometime during that evening I began to cry. She couldn’t make it up the stairs, and when they came home they found her sitting on the bottom step sobbing while I screamed in the room upstairs. She had tried to climb the stairs, but couldn’t make it. Not long after that she was confined to a wheelchair. Then, she went to a nursing home. This was the late 1960s when nursing homes were like…nursing homes, and that place is the setting for most of the memories of my Granny Flonnie. She aged quickly in that place, and most of what I remember is a metal bed in a small cinderblock room with a bell on the nightstand and another twin bed on the other side. No single room option in that nursing home.

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I’m not sure my grandmother had one easy moment in her life, but she didn’t seem to believe that she was entitled to easy moments. This is a big deal for me – people who have every right to throw themselves a pity party and don’t do it. My mother was this kind of person. I, however, have quite the comfortable life so I can’t compare myself to these women. But I want to. I want their courage and fortitude and the character to face challenges without pouting or stomping my feet. I don’t want to raise my voice to a whining pitch every time something doesn’t go my way. I want to stop obsessing over how good I look in the eyes of others and start looking into the eyes of others so that I can serve them. Sometimes I tell myself that if these women’s blood ran through my veins, then I could say that I quite naturally inherited all these attributes. They weren’t perfect women at all, but they did possess some character traits I’d like to claim as my own. But these women and I are not genetically linked. And yet, I know that doesn’t matter and so I’ve tried to walk in the footsteps of both of my grandmothers and my mother. And, more importantly, I’ve shared all these stories with my girls so that they will want to walk in those footsteps also. This is another big deal for me. May I say this: I don’t want my girls to be princesses. And I didn’t buy the t-shirt.

I was raised by women who did not quiver over hard times. They weren’t afraid to bring the leftovers home from the school cafeteria or wear homemade clothes. They got their hands dirty (my mother and father cleaned every single used brick for a house they built in the 1970s) and wore out their oven mitts taking meals to people who were sick. These are the women I long to emulate. In my book, these were real women who taught everyone around them how to be both gentle and tough at the same time. You can’t do much better than that.

The ring my grandmother is wearing in her nursing home bed is her wedding ring, given to her by the husband she lost. That ring is now in my jewelry box and I take it out every now and then and try it on (it’s too big for me) and imagine myself to have the amount of fortitude that was in the ring finger of my grandmother. I’d be lucky to have that much. Gentle and tough. I’m working on it.

Dear Erin: A Birthday Letter on the Occasion of Turning 21

Dear Erin,

This is your birthday, and I’m writing you an open letter. Yes, I could have done this privately – printed it out and tucked it in your birthday card – but you are a little bit like me and you lose things easily. So this way, we both know where the letter is: parked on my blog for all the world to see. But I promise not to embarrass you. If fact, this will be pretty short and sweet (insert smiling emoticon here).

You were born 21 years ago today. You came out screaming like a mad woman and kept it up for four straight months. Your face was purple with rage and you didn’t sleep longer than 90 minutes at a time. (See I told you that I wasn’t going to embarrass you.) I thought we were going to have to send you to live at your grandparent’s house, or just pass you around to stay with different families who had not yet endured your wrath. The problem was, I had given birth to a little boy nineteen months earlier who rarely cried and slept through the night at eight days old. We thought you might do this also. We looked forward to your birth with anticipation, and then it dawned on us as the weeks passed that perhaps you were going to be, well, different. You weren’t going to be a carbon copy of your brother. You wanted us to know that just because your birth followed his in short order, this did not mean that we would produce two identical babies. We finally got this message loud and clear by month four of your life. And then, you were satisfied. You had delivered your message and a silent truce was arranged between you and us. You stopped screaming and we stopped expecting you to be the baby we had planned for you to be.

And the story has played out pretty much like that for 21 years. You made sure, from the very beginning, that we knew you were going to be your own person. You’ve reminded us of that in much sweeter ways after the first four months. In fact, after you delivered your message, you’ve been quite delightful. The few times that we’ve butted heads, it’s because I kept expecting you to walk a path that I had laid out in my head. But you’ve always had your own path in mind and you’ve walked it. And now, you are 21 years old and I’m amazed at the person you have become without me hovering over you to make sure you ended up doing things our way. My way. You know I like to help people, fix things, control moments, and gently lead toward the decision I think is best. You must have been aware of this on November 24, 1991, when you came into this world to deliver the clear message: I am here to be Erin. And I’m going to go ahead and be Erin because I don’t know how, nor do I care to be anyone else.  

As it turns out, I love who you have become. God knew best. He gave you tenacity, stubbornness, and a mile-wide streak of individuality. Sometimes I wanted you to blend in so you wouldn’t get hurt, but you weren’t worried about that. And so neither am I. You are still walking your own path. And you’re still delivering the message that Erin will most definitely be Erin.

Thank God.

Happy Birthday daughter.

Another Year, Another Sigh.

Well, here we are again. Another birthday for the third and youngest of our children – the now 12-year-old. The clock ticks and she insists on growing a year older every time we turn around. Honestly, weren’t we just here? Didn’t I just do a post about the 11th birthday party and how she was growing up so fast and how time flies? Didn’t Kyle and I just sing the birthday song and then privately lament about how we were hurtling toward being empty-nesters. “No!” we then shouted. “Would someone please stop this train!” So it’s been 12 months? Are we sure about that?

But the train rolls on down the tracks. And she is almost taller than me, which is not saying much but it’s a milestone I will not like.

The big kids are out of the house and for this we give much thanks. They have moved on to college with the understanding that we do not want them back. We love them more than our own lives, but we want them to start their own lives…under another roof. If you have not yet sent your child off to college or out in the world yet, you won’t understand this and I will come off sounding cold and heartless. If you have sent your child off to college or out into the world, you will understand this and nod along in agreement and with amens.

But the youngest is different. Perhaps we will do a little dance when she moves out, but it will represent the end of an era that will make us a bit morose. We see that now with everything that she gives up. No more trick-or-treating next year? Well, that’s the end of the dressing-up-for-candy era. No more Santa Claus? (happened several years ago) That’s the last of the sneaking-the-gifts-out-after-midnight-and-eating-the-cookies-off-the hearth-era. And we’ve lost the toy aisle and most Pixar movies and little-kid clothes from L.L. Bean.

And yet, we celebrate.

But not without a blog post (you can count on it every year) that includes a little nostalgia. I love my life, but I sometimes feel wistful about the days when it was noisy and cluttered and chaotic.

And yet, we celebrate.

We celebrate because those kids who were once under our roof have turned out to be people we would choose to make friends with and immediately invite over for dinner. They are all creative and funny and complete originals. Every birthday represents their stepping forward into becoming more of who God created each of them to be.

So we’ll present a cake to the youngest, push the numbered candles down into the icing, and sing our hearts out again. And we’ll sigh a little bit when it’s all over because we know that when we turn back around, another year will have rushed by and she’ll be 13. And I’ll write this blog post all over again.

But for now, Happy Birthday Alison.

Exactly Two Months After 9/11: New Life

While the world was still reeling and the dust still settling in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, we boarded a plane to fly across the world. Many people we knew who had booked overseas flights canceled after the terrorist strike, but we didn’t. We couldn’t. The clothes – size 12 months – had been laid out on top of the suitcase for weeks. We had bibs, shoes, toys, and an endless amount of paperwork ready to pack. For those six weeks between the falling of the twin towers and the day we stepped on the plane, I listened to the grieving families and survivors in television interviews and endured the angry tirades of people around us who believed that we should go “kick some butt” (can’t count how many times I heard this). It was a confusing, angry, frightening time. We all wondered what the world was coming to, while at the same time mourning the reality that it would never be the same.

And in the middle of all of it, we packed our bags and left our grieving country for two weeks. Our world would never be the same either.

Not once did we think about sending only one person from our family to pick up our daughter. The four of us were going, and we would fly across the ocean with that one beautiful face in our mind’s eye. It’s still amazing to me how love has the power to cast out fear, even when fear is completely justified. September 11, 2001 will always be inextricably linked to that joyous time when we met our daughter and sister. It swirls together and reminds me that life continues, even in the pitch black hours. Exactly two months after 9/11, on 11/11, we celebrated her first year of life – a day early. This little girl had been born in a world where the odds were most certainly stacked against her, in a country where it would require resilience for a female baby to survive. And survive she did. She fought her way to that first year and so we strapped a little party hat on her and celebrated. She loved the cake and clapped her hands to the birthday song. I was so proud of her and so certain that whatever ugliness the world might throw at her – at all of us – that there would always be the promise of new life.

And I still believe it.

Making My Own Father’s Day Card

I’m a cynic about the card holidays: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. I blame it on the fact that I am cheap, but the truth is that I always forget the card until the last minute and then have to pick through the leftover dregs. And in the midst of that, I grumble about the fact that these particular holidays seem to benefit Hallmark and American Greetings more than my father, mother, and husband. We’re not a creative family, so we celebrate these holidays by eating a meal. Which is something most of us do three times a day. The card, then, becomes super important, and this leaves me panicked and crabby as I pick through the dregs.

So I took the girls card shopping yesterday afternoon, which was a full 60 hours before panic mode would have set in. I felt proud, organized, and on top of things, but unfortunately we came out empty-handed.

“These are making me sick,” Erin proclaimed after pulling out and opening dozens of cards. “This is stuff I would never say, at least not like this.”

I read the selection of cards, and she was right. They were separated by relational circumstances: Stepfather, Close Relationship, Across the Miles, Daughter, Son, From Both of Us, Daughter-in-law, Son-in-law, From All of Us, Wife (excuse me Hallmark, but why should I buy my husband a Father’s Day card?), and of course, From the Dog. Please. The cards were a mixture of mushy sentimentality – which rarely plays well in our family – and crude humor. Crude humor, I’m ashamed to say, sometimes plays well in our family since our nuclear and extended tribe includes lots of boys that think gas is hilarious. Oh, and one girl. She’s totally corrupted and while we were in the store she brought me a box of fart jokes that she insisted would be a perfect Father’s Day gift. Ixnay. A few cards were simple, short, and sweet, but my thought was that I could whip up a card on the computer and save the $3.49

Now, lest you think that this post reflects nothing more than a ruptured relationship with my father, I should state that Dad and I get along just fine. He has shaped my life in more ways than I can count. He’s been faithful, committed, godly, and a source of laughter and humor in our home. He can also tell a story better than anyone I know, so he gets partial credit for my desire to write.

See? We’re good, Dad and I. And yes, I bought him a card, but it doesn’t say what I would really like for it to say. I rarely find a card that says what’s in my heart so I’m posting my own Father’s Day card, without the gag factor, but with a wee bit of mushy sentimentality. Here goes:

Cover:

Inside:

Dad,

I’m grateful for the social worker who matched my brown eyes to yours, but we were destined to be together long before that. Because God sets the lonely in families, He placed me with you and Mom before there was ever a concept of time. We go way back, you and me. Back to long before you borrowed the car with the air-conditioning so you and Mom could pick me up from Deaconness Hospital in the heat of Summer, 1965.

Before you put together the swing set for my fifth birthday and the bicycle for my sixth birthday.

Before you introduced me to the mountains of Colorado.

Before you pushed me hard to study, and then gave me grace when I didn’t.

Before I wrecked or damaged or every single one of the cars you allowed me to drive.

Before you beamed with pride when I graduated college and then proudly announced I got a (low-paying) job as a newspaper reporter.

Before you stood in the sanctuary, let go of my hand, and placed it in Kyle’s.

Before, with tears streaming down your face, you held my son, your grandson, then my daughter, your granddaughter.  And before you held the baby from China, my daughter, your granddaughter.

Before you faithfully and gently cared for my mother until her death.

Before you were alone and I grieved for you, and then you told me that you would be “fine.”

And you are. You are the finest father I could ask for. And God knew you would be. Long before we both got wrinkles around those matching brown eyes.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

I love you.

The Waves Break: My Deal With the Beach

For no good reason that I can think of, I’ve never been a beach person. There is no beach trauma in my childhood. I’m not afraid of water. I like catching rays. There is no explanation for my ambivalence, and I end up sounding snooty when I try to be honest and say, “There just isn’t that much to do.”

I realize this is a problem.

The other night, we were talking with a couple friend and the husband agreed with me, but he couldn’t really explain it either.

“It’s nice for a while-”

“-and then you have to go find something to do.” I finished his sentence for him and our spouses looked as us with pity as we nodded at one another.

do know how to relax. I’m just particular about where I do it.

But for the next couple of days, we’re at the beach. Alison has never been to the beach (she’s been to Galveston but she isn’t sure that counts) and she’s giddy and goofy with excitement. We ate dinner at a beachfront restaurant last night, and she was very patient until the meal was over. Then, finally, for the first time in her life, she was able to run on the beach with the sand between her toes and the waves breaking a few feet from her while she dashed in and out of the water. She’s been begging to visit the beach since she was six (she’s 11 now, poor kid) and I’m certain this is the fantasy picture she’s conjured up in her head. Last night, she was living the fantasy. And I was trying to plan how I was going to spend my time today when we were at the beach. I began to think about taking a journal and a pen, a paperback book (had to go buy one since I only packed my IPad), my phone for emailing. All of that  would probably only last me about an hour. And then it hit me: what about playing in the ocean?

How exactly, does one go about playing in the ocean? The first that comes to mind is that the water is really cold. I’m not into that. Also, those waves can be brutal. While we were eating our seafood dinner last night, I watched two men working their surfboards and they were having a rough time of it. I wasn’t eager to enter those waters.

Again, I realize this is a problem.

For those of you who are really into the beach, there’s no judging here. In fact, I’m a little envious. So how did it end up today? I took my purchased book, my phone, journal and pen and found an empty chaise lounge. The waves crashed noisily and then quieted to a whisper over and over again. It was beautiful. I never cracked the book and left the journal and pen in the bag. I did flip around on my phone for a while, but mostly, I watched this:

I discovered the secret to the beach – at least for me: a husband who loves it. This may be a wimpy way out of it, but it worked well for the three of us. Kyle taught Alison how to dive into the breaking waves, and I found something wonderful to do on the beach all afternoon. Am I beach person yet? Probably not, but I’m leaving the book, the journal, and pen back in the hotel tomorrow. I’ll take the phone though. You never know when I great photo opportunity might come along.

Let’s Grow Old Together

I almost fainted during my wedding portraits. Not because I was nervous, but because I bought a wedding dress that had not one inch to spare and I hadn’t eaten for almost 24 hours. Which begs the question: if you aren’t any smarter than that, are you really ready to take lifetime commitment wedding vows? Probably not, but we did anyway. It was June 3, 1989, which, if you’re counting, was 23 years ago today. And yes, we’re counting.

Earlier in our marriage, I used to make Kyle watch the wedding video every anniversary. But eventually, the quality of the video made everything look a little orange, and besides, we had lost enough people we cherished that it was tough to get through. We haven’t seen it for years, and this year was no exception. Tonight, instead, we talked about what makes a marriage last, but honestly, we have no idea. If someone asked us to give marriage advice, we would only tell them that we now know that God has a sense of humor and He is infinitely filled with grace. And if we were smarter, we would have put those two things – humor and grace –  in the center of our marriage long before now. God’s sense of humor? We had to get a babysitter for our first anniversary (surprise!). God’s infinite grace? He’s brought us to a place in our marriage that is better now than we could ever have imagined, despite our selfishness, stupidity, and the really ugly hoop skirt dresses that I made my bridesmaids wear. We don’t deserve the blessings, no doubt about it.

So, here is what I would like to say to Kyle in these last few hours of our anniversary day: I want to grow really, really old with you. I want to be one of those wrinkled couples who take their walk early in the morning. I want to have so many memories that we sit up late in the evening (say, 9:30?) and relive the crazy, scary, beautiful moments of our lives together. I want us to babysit our great-grandchildren and go through about four more dogs. I don’t care where we live, or what we wear (unless you decide to do the tube socks with white tennis shoes bit), or what we drive (no Buick, though).

And maybe, on one of those anniversaries when we’ve gone completely gray and have lots of hitches in our steps, we’ll pull out the wedding video and watch those two young kids take the vows again. We’ll laugh, knowing that they had no idea what they were getting into, and then we’ll say thanks to God, because He brought them through it all.

Road Trips, Starbursts, and Ram: A Technology Crisis

At the risk of redundancy, I’m writing again about technology. My last post (too many days ago) was about my father’s typewriter, which he believed was great technology. This post is about my own devices, the greatness of which I’m beginning to doubt.

Five days ago, my laptop had an accident that resulted in a busted screen. This produced an interesting right angle starburst effect that made me want to weep. The laptop is awaiting repair but unusable until the part comes in, which the Apple guy said would be “Friday-ish.” It’s Sunday, so he knew what he was talking about. The day before this tragedy I lost my cell phone for a day, then found it. It was rough. Now, the good folks at Apple tell me that I can’t upgrade the operating system on my desktop computer (which is my backup computer) because it doesn’t have enough mojo. I can’t afford more ram, however, because I have to pay for the busted screen on the laptop. Woe is me. I’m writing this on my IPad, which has so far escaped the week of technology disasters. But the Pad is jittery, sensing that perhaps its number is coming up.

Only last week, I confessed to a group of friends that perhaps my dependency on my devices was becoming a bit obsessive. This is a tired, familiar story. Everyone seems to be lamenting their phones, and pads, and laptop love. And we’re remembering (fondly?) the days when we communicated by letters and phones with cords. But our laments are insincere. No one wants to go back to those days, including me.

But I do want some balance. Some moderation. Perspective, perhaps?

Last night, as I was telling my oldest daughter to be sure and text me from her camping trip,  I was mentally reminding myself to charge my son with the same task. I want him to text me from the road trip he is going on, and then from the beach once he gets there. Really? Is that necessary? I think so. And they won’t mind because it’s easy. Just a quick text to say, “We’re all awake in the van,” or “We made it here safely.”

In 1987, I drove to Virginia to begin graduate school. I was on my own in a strange city for the first time, which was both exhilarating and frightening. The latter emotion won out when someone tried to enter my apartment four days after I moved in. I was home, listening to the doorknob jiggle and hearing the would-be intruder call me by name. He made a few threats as he continued his attempt to open my apartment door. I put a dining room chair under the doorknob and began to pack. A series of unfortunate events had culminated in this, and so I heard the clear message that I had chosen the wrong school. In a panic, I loaded up my car and headed to Athens, Georgia to enroll in school choice #2, only to find that they had no space until the spring semester. Crushed, I decided to take the long way home.

It took me two full days to drive from Athens to Tulsa. I took backroads, not because I was especially adventurous, but because I was lost. I passed through small town Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and then north to Arkansas. Yes, there were shorter routes, but I didn’t care. I was meandering in a state of sorrow. I stayed in a cheap motel one night – racing into my room in a thunderstorm and then listening to the crackle and explosions all night with a chair under the doorknob – again. I called my parents from a pay phone the next morning because it was the only way I knew to make a collect call. (Remember those?)

Last night, as I was thinking about my college kids on the camping and beach trips, I forced myself to imagine what my parents must have been going through during those two days I was making my way through the southern states. Only one phone call before I left, and then one after the thunderstorm. I admitted to them I was lost. I dismissed my father’s directives on how to get back to the interstate. I told them I didn’t know how long it would take me to get home. When I finally pulled into the driveway, my mother had every justification for unrolling herself from the fetal position she should have been in so she could grab both my shoulders and shake me silly. But instead, she hugged me and cried sloppily, which I now realize is because she had spent about 16 hours since the last phone call wondering if I was dead or alive.

When our older children travel, we can call them at any moment to ask, “Are you alive?” It’s a wonderful feeling of control in a world that gives us little. My cell phone provides me with this illusive feeling, and so do my computers and my IPad. The world is at my fingertips. I can learn, communicate, make plans, create, set alarms, plan meetings, organize my life in photos, make new friends and keep the old. Whatever would I do without all this? Now I know: I would fidget. Which is what I have done for exactly six days. I’m not sure what my mother would say about this. She never touched a computer and at the end of her life she did use a cell phone, but she was one of those people who didn’t understand that you need not yell into it. I am certain, however, that her faith was strengthened every time I walked out her door. She put me in God’s hands, knowing that there was no real line of communication. If I wanted to contact her, it was up to me. There was no pesky texts or annoying phone calls from her asking, “Where are you?”

I wouldn’t trade her life for mine. But I do wish I could release the control button a bit and stop thinking that the chair under the doorknob is going to protect me and mine from all the chaos in the world. My efforts to keep my children within my reach won’t keep them from harm. The technology that I think keeps me sane is probably rewiring my brain cells in frightening ways. So I’ve decided that when my laptop is finally returned to me, my software is upgraded, and all is well with my devices, I shall put them down for a spell here and there. Perhaps I’ll read a novel, take a walk in the sunshine, stand in line at the check-out while resisting the urge to check my email…just to see if I can do it. And then, of course, I will blog about these things, post them on Facebook, and send a tweet to let everyone know I’m resisting technology.

A Valentines Day Tribute: Failures, Detours, and the Myth of the Perfect Marriage

I fell in love with my husband on our college campus when I was 19 and he was 20. He had shaggy blond hair and a smile that made me feel kind of tipsy. My friend introduced us as we passed him behind Raley Chapel and here’s how the conversation went: (of course he has no recollection of this; I remember every second of every detail)

“I have to go write a paper,” he told my friend after she introduced us and invited him to join us at a local ice cream shop.

“Well, you’re no fun,” I quipped, in a pitiful attempt at flirting (I was dismal at it).

“How about when we get married I let you write all my papers?” he replied.

This one little meant-absolutely-nothing statement carried me for months. I still have no idea where it came from. Probably just his attempt to return my comment with something equally pitiful. He didn’t flirt well either. But at several points in our relationship I actually believed he had some sort of romantic premonition of our future. We were meant to be together, I would tell myself. Soul mates. Destined. Created for him. He for me. Completion. It was all very beautiful, and it lasted until exactly four weeks after we got married. Since he graduated college the year ahead of me and headed back east to law school, most of our dating and engagement was spent in different states. We got married six days after he moved back to town. I was giddy at the thought that we would never be separated again, and that we could finally begin this most-perfect union of two soul mates who were always destined to be together. The illusion and the honeymoon ended with a heated and ugly argument about something I cannot recall. That afternoon I had not one thought about us being soul mates, destined for one another, created for one another, completed by one another. In fact, I actually threw something at him. It was something soft, like a pillow maybe, but he still ducked. I also drove to my parent’s house and told them I was sleeping on their couch that night.

“You get in that car and go home,” my mother said as she gathered up my belongings and opened the front door to usher me back out of her house. “What did you think this was, easy?”

Yes, as a matter of fact I did. I thought he was cute, and smart, and I knew that he was completely in love with me. And I was completely in love with him. And from “this day forward” meant that these two destined lovers would make this relationship more perfect as time went by. Before the heated argument, I could have written a love song. I was so enraptured. So full of romantic notions. And so very wrong about marriage.

I thought that a successful marriage meant that we would look back over the decades and be filled with pride at our accomplishments. We would be able to put on display all the promises we kept, the vows we fulfilled, the honor we brought to the institute of marriage.

Well, not so much.

We have stumbled and fallen hard. We have taken detours and shortcuts. We have failed epically at times, and then blamed one another. And yes, we have gone to bed angry and without apologies. I could write a book about breaking the marriage rules. Not all of the rules, but enough of them.

I’m a controlling perfectionist, so I’ve spent lots of time trying to figure out how to do this marriage thing better – how to make it stronger. But here’s what I’m slowly and painfully learning: the failures are what make us better and stronger. Each time we hurt one another with words or actions, we dig our heels in and go deeper into the truths of humility, forgiveness, and grace. You don’t learn forgiveness unless you are faced with forgiving. You don’t learn humility unless you get knocked off your pride perch. And you don’t learn grace until someone loves you even when you absolutely, positively do not deserve it.

So on this most contrived of holidays – St. Valentine’s Day – I’m thinking about love and realizing that I would not go back and change one moment of my marriage. I bought a Valentine’s Day card for Kyle with a photo on the front of two little kids crashing their bikes into each other. On the inside it says: “So glad we ran into each other.” Sometimes love is simply a deep down gratefulness that God brought us together as kids in one silly moment behind the chapel, and that he continues to show Himself in a million ways through the joys and pain of what He has knit together. My mother was right. It isn’t easy. But I don’t want easy. I want something so real and authentic that even the scars are beautiful.

Happy Valentine’s Day, husband. Your smile still does it for me, every time.

Voices, Memories, Recipe Cards


Here is what I really wanted needed today: to go over to Mom and Dad’s house, sit down at the dining table, and have Mom set a steaming casserole of chicken and rice in front of me. Not because I’m hungry. I just miss my mother. She died almost four years ago and Dad sold the house, which is a good thing because sometimes memories shout too loudly in familiar places. We still have Dad, and he still has the dining table, but it’s not the same. It’s all good. Just not the same. And that’s the way life is. We absorb the losses, cherish the memories, move forward. But sometimes, I want nothing more than to step back in time and smell my mother’s cooking. I want to be enveloped in the safety of home and feel like a little girl who is being taken care of again. I have very few days like that, but today was one of them.

So, I pulled out the recipe cards.

They reside in four old index card boxes, each stuffed full and completely unorganized. Mom loved the idea of being organized; she just never quite figured out how to do it. Her efforts were hampered by the fact that she hated to throw anything away, so the recipe boxes are a jumble of hand-written cards, typed sheets of paper, recipes cut from newspapers, passed along from friends, or torn from the pages of magazines. She has the boxes labeled by alphabet letters (A-F, G-L, etc.), but darned if I can see that the recipes are categorized in any form, much less alphabetized. She memorized the recipes for the dishes she made often, a feat I have yet to accomplish. I never even knew she had a recipe card for chicken and rice casserole and I certainly never saw her use it. But when I went rifling through the recipe card box today, there it was. I read the ingredients and I could picture her taking it out of the oven with her old yellow and white oven mitts and placing it on the table. As steam drifted up from the dish, I could hear her mutter: “I hope that rice isn’t crunchy, but I don’t know…” It never was. I could see her dipping a much-too-generous serving on my plate and then waiting until I had served myself the jell-o, the carrots, and the rolls. “What’s the matter?” she would ask. And then I would tell her my troubles. It didn’t always go that way, but this is what I needed today, so that’s the way the memory went. I spilled my frustrations and fears, my analyzations of the issue at hand, more spilling, and a little chiding of myself for being overly dramatic. Then I looked at her and said, “So what do you think?”

“I think,” she said as I took my first bite of chicken and rice casserole (perfect rice, delicious chicken), “you worry too much.”

My mother had much to worry about herself. As a diabetic, her health was always in danger. Now that I’m approaching middle age (am I there yet?), I realize that her body’s betrayal was a way of life for Mom. She accepted that some things just don’t get better with time.

“This, too, shall pass,” She would often say over a meal of something delicious, the ingredients and directions scribbled on those recipe cards.

The thing itself might not pass – her diabetes certainly didn’t – but she forced the fears, frustrations, worries, and dark feelings of loss to pass because she refused to wallow in them.

So there she was today, filling up my mind and heart as I read through the recipes: Snickerdoodles, Posh Squash, Baked Grits, Fruit Salad Dressing, Gum Drop Cookies. I could hear her voice reminding me, “Count blessings, not worries.” And I felt at home, enveloped, safe…and hungry.

Mom’s Chicken and Rice Casserole

1 fryer, cut up

1 cup regular rice, uncooked, or 1 pkg. Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice

1 Can Cream of Chicken OR Cream of Mushroom soup

2/3 cup water

6 strips bacon

In 9×11 pan, place strips of bacon on bottom and sides. Spread rice (uncooked) evenly over bottom. Place chicken on top of rice then season with the following: salt, pepper, garlic salt, oregano, paprika, dry parsley (if you use wild rice, use herb contents in package). Mix soup and water and pour over chicken. Cover tightly with lid or foil and bake in 300 degree oven for 2 hours.

An Only Child’s Siblings: Cousins

I love this picture for so many reasons. It was December 29 when it was taken and the girls are in short sleeves and barefoot (gasp!). How many Oklahoma Decembers can our kids frolic in the backyard for hours in warm, sunny weather? Not many, and the key word in that last sentence is: in the backyard. No need for the moms to have a slate of indoor crafts, movies, and board games on the agenda because kids can always come up with their own brand of fun in the backyard. Do we know exactly what they are doing? No. Do we really care? No. So when I look out and see them on the trampoline and they are all wearing beach towels on their heads, I’m thinking it’s all good.

I also love this picture because the Inkwell setting on my IPhone’s Instagram app makes me look like a hipster photographer, which I am not. I just like free, highly-rated apps and this one takes the prize…which it actually did. Best App of the Year.

But my favorite thing about this photo is the reminder – again – that Alison is growing up with little girl cousins left and right. She has these two girls on Kyle’s side of the family, and two other little girls on my side of the family, and so this almost-only-child of mine is surrounded by other little girl cousins. Why is this so important to me? You guessed it. Because I was surrounded by boy cousins. On both sides of my family. Now, don’t misunderstand. I loved it. My boy cousins were funny, creative, great sports, and we never got into cat-fights, pouting, three’s a crowd, whispering, and all the other complicated games that little girls bring into their relationships. I learned to collect hot wheels, watched endless episodes of Star Trek and played it out with correct use of a phaser (yeah, there is a right and wrong way to use this weapon), learned how to watch football and dress the part (I was enamored with helmets and shoulder pads), knew how to accessorize a G.I. Joe (ammo), and, most importantly, learned that when a boy gets frustrated and angry with you, he tells you immediately…in your face…loudly. And then, five seconds later, it’s all okay. I did love my boy cousins. But I was snubbed the few times I brought my Barbies to hang out with G.I. Joe, and the boys definitely did NOT put up with tears. If I got my feelings hurt and worked up some weepiness, they shrugged their shoulders and moved on. They knew I’d get over it. And I did. It was either that or play with my Barbies alone, which for an only child in a house full of cousins would have been sheer torture. I was willing to leave my little-girl self at the door and fully embrace the boy world. Some images from this time are a little disturbing:

Yes, this is me wearing a football helmet and holding what appears to be the most oversized football in the world. I was tiny, but determined to be tough. I doubt the boys next to me are buying it.

I’m hugging my Christmas baby doll. However, this was not the gift I asked for. I asked for the doll sitting between my cousin and I – the Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll. He was my favorite and I spent a LOT of hours with him trying to be his Edgar Bergen. My best guess is that someone insisted I hold the baby doll because clutching Charlie MCarthy with the love and warmth I felt for him would have looked downright weird. But oh, how I loved him, eyepiece and all. Notice the expression on my cousin’s face. He looks weary. He was an only child also, and he got stuck with me for a cousin. I followed him around like a puppy dog, probably begging him to watch my ventriloquist schtick with Charlie.


Boys do NOT like to smile in photos. They like to look tough. I learned how to roll with it.

I did have a little girl cousin eventually, but I was old enough to be jaded by the boys and wasn’t nearly as nice to her as I should have been. She was pretty, petite, and very much a girl, but I had been mostly ruined by G.I. Joe and my obsession with hot wheels, ventriloquism, and football helmets.

So now my almost-an-only child girl (her siblings are 9 and ten years older) has been blessed with four little girl cousins, and they are in heaven together. But it’s not exactly what I would have envisioned. These little girls don’t play dolls and rarely play dress-up with one another. No Barbies and only some occasional nail-painting. They prefer to engage in small businesses start-ups with low overhead. Last month they set up a coffee shop and we had to pay with monopoly money to get tea, lattes, and homemade muffins. This month they sold salt dough crafts for pesos, complete with free string for hanging the ornaments. In addition to their entrepreneurial endeavors, they’ve painted on canvas, had picnics in the playhouse, walked the dogs, had a limbo contest that resulted in a nasty knot on the middle child’s head, and the towel-wearing on the trampoline? They were superheroes. On most days, they came in from outside smelling like rusty tin cans, their hair wild and knotted and their cheeks a combination of rosy red skin and paint smears. I would like to think that times have changed, and that girls are unafraid to take advantage of a wider repertoire of available play options beyond Barbies and baby dolls. Maybe. But I did leave out one detail. Alison’s little girl cousins came along a little later in her life. For most of her young years, here is the cousin who taught her the ropes:

Ahhh…balance. Best of both worlds. She’s in touch with her feminine side, but isn’t afraid to leave it behind when it seems more fun to wear a towel on her head and be the superhero. Here’s to the cousins. Girls AND boys.

Receiving

I got everything I wanted for Christmas and a few things that weren’t on my list. Life is like that. We receive it all and realize that the things we didn’t anticipate can also be a gift. Unfortunately it takes some years under the belt and some tumbles and detours along the path to learn this. When we’re young, we think everything is divided into good and bad and can’t imagine that the good stuff might not actually be so good, and the bad stuff can really be blessings we don’t recognize. I’m learning this, but I also know I have a long way to go.

So here is what I received this Christmas:

1) Three children tucked safely at home (for a while) and happy to be here. I don’t take this for granted.

2) Traditions continued, which makes us feel as though the world and life is a little bit predictable. That’s an illusion, but on some level, Christmas is about suspending reality and relishing the thought that we have been inserted into one of those homey Christmas songs. My favorite is Amy Grant’s song “Christmas Can’t Be Very Far Away.” You can bet any song that begins with a line like “Little bits of heaven floating gently by the window…” is going to drown you in sap. And it does. But I love it. I also love our family traditions: at least three batches of chex mix, “the best sugar cookies ever”, and puppy chow (we do love our Christmas calories); a mandatory watching of Elf, A Christmas Story, and Christmas Vacation; an extended family Christmas party that is LOUD and LONG (love it!); lazy days between Christmas and New Year’s that include a visit from my in-laws (You know what? I love this too and always have).

3) A crazy, ridiculous schedule the two weeks before Christmas that should have driven me insane. Instead, God gave me perspective through the eyes of a friend whose husband had to have emergency brain surgery (he came through and is recovering…praise!), a Christmas party at the Realation DHS Group Home, and Kyle’s trip to Colombia to visit orphanages in three of its cities.

As I ran from place to place and skyped with Kyle every evening, I began to realize why we wait in anticipation for the Savior during Advent. Life down here “under the sun” is broken, but Christ came to put it all back together. Every Christmas, we light Advent candles and read Scripture about his coming, but do we really know why we’re supposed to be impatient about this? I caught a glimpse this Christmas and it made some sense. In the middle of the hectic pace, that was most definitely a gift.

3) And, I received some tangible gifts. Here are a couple: One hummel, which I receive every year. This year, Kyle chose one that fits perfectly with the past twelve months.

Our eyes have been opened to how many fatherless (and motherless) children there are around the world. I love this image and hesitate to place it in the display with all the others. For now, I’m keeping it where I can see it every day.

And…fish!

I did not grow up with aquariums and have never wanted one (do we need one more creature to feed or clean?), but I’m liking it. There is a reason why places like doctor’s offices have fish tanks. Calm. Soothing. Distracting. Nice. Kyle has taken this on as his – so he shall clean, maintain, troubleshoot, flush dead fish down the toilet. What a guy. He’s a gift I am thankful for every day of my life.

Some of what I received this year was expected. Some things came from nowhere. But I extend my hands and receive it all, knowing that it has passed through hands big enough to hold the world.

Advent Week One: The Manger Scene

When Alison was in her first Christmas pageant she was chosen to portray the mute and blessed Mary. I was so proud my daughter had landed such a plum role. Mary!  I helped her practice her serene gaze of love and told her to smile at Joseph every now and then. “Walk in slowly,” I instructed her. “And don’t worry about the audience…you know, all the mommies and daddies out there. Just pretend you’re Mary.”

I went to the pageant with a loaded camera, ready to document the beauty of it all so that we could look back on it in years to come and remember what a plum role Alison had landed. Mary! The nativity actors walked in wearing miniature Bible-era costumes and a few bathrobes. Alison was wearing a pink bathrobe, which bothered me a little. I don’t think Mary wore anything that resembled a pink bathrobe, but I shrugged it off and poised my camera. The children were waving at the mommies and the daddies, but Alison was following my instruction not to worry about the audience. Her eyes were fixed on the manger. I wanted to get a good picture of her with Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men all kneeling before baby Jesus. What a great image for a homemade Christmas card! Friends and family could see what a plum role Alison had landed.

The children shuffled around to the back of the manger and looked down at the plastic doll wrapped in a white baby blanket – all except Alison and Joseph. They weren’t budging. They stood with their back to the audience – and my camera – the entire pageant. The preschool teachers kept making subtle arm gestures for them to circle around to the other side of the manger, but it did no good. Finally, when they were taking a bow, Joseph turned around and gave Alison an elbow in the ribs to join him, but the moment had passed.

I was going to say something to Alison after the pageant because I thought if she ever wanted to land a plum role like this again, she better get straight what it is that Mary is supposed to do. But I decided against it. Alison had played the part exactly as it should be: Mary staring at the Son of God – her baby boy – and ignoring the audience.

The Nativity that we set on top of our piano during the Christmas season has become such a part of the holiday décor that no one seems to notice it anymore. This year  I’m considering turning Mary around to face the baby in the manger, and if anyone says anything I will tell them that I am trying to remind myself what I am supposed to be doing during Advent.

The arrival of something – or someone –  wonderful makes our heart pound a little faster and our breath shorten a little. We feel exhilarated, fresh and filled with new hope. I have a difficult time getting to that place during the holiday season. My anticipation mostly revolves around taking the Christmas card picture, entertaining houseguests, shopping, buying, wrapping, and watching the kids on Christmas morning. Somewhere in the middle of the racket I forget that the One we are waiting for is the Savior who opened the door to heaven the moment he emerged from the earthly womb. It seems to be a large truth lost in the small reality of seasonal rituals. I keep looking at the audience and forgetting to turn around and focus on the manger.

“So hallowed and so gracious is the time,” says Shakespeare of the celebration of Christ’s birth. Turning around to face the manger seems the very least I could do during this Advent season as I wait and anticipate the arrival of God clothed in human skin.

Little Girl and Young Woman: The Land Between

Warning: I’m about to sound like an old woman.

When I was young, we called “flip-flops” something that is now unacceptable. We called them “thongs.” I learned that lesson the hard way after I asked my oldest daughter in public – in the middle of Old Navy –  if she needed new thongs. “Flip-flops,” she said under her breath and through clenched teeth.

When I was young, we called “sleepovers” something that now sounds retro. We called them “slumber parties.” When I asked my youngest daughter if she wanted to have a slumber party for her birthday, she looked at me for a few moments then said in a sweetly patronizing tone, “You mean a sleepover, don’t you?”

So Alison had a sleepover last weekend for her 11th birthday. It was a long time coming. She’s been to sleepovers and she’s asked to have them, but we’ve always put her off with a handy scheduling conflict. We’re a little old-fashioned and think sleepovers are best suited for older girls. Actually, we’re just lazy.

I remember the sleepover we had for our oldest daughter when she turned 10. We overdid it and allowed her to invite 10 girls. Five of them got mad at the other five and one little girl ended up spending half the night sitting in front of the laundry room door, pouting and eating Smarties that she had stashed in her pocket. The party was fun in a kind of punishing way. The girls left the next morning drowsy and ambivalent and I felt like a failure. And, truthfully, that may be most of the reason we waited until Alison was 11 to try this again. But honestly, I was dreading the sleepover gig.

Most girls between the ages of 10 and 12 are desperate to skip over these ages and get to the good stuff: cell phones, facebook, dangling earrings, a mani-pedi every now and then, and lip gloss with a tint. And some parents let them fast forward, but we’re achingly slow when it comes to letting our children grow up. It’s not because we’re such great parents. It’s because we have sharp memories of how grueling and awkward our own teenage years were. But against our best efforts to warn them that the approaching years are not all they are marketed to be, kids – especially girls – want to get on with it. So I prepared for a sleepover evening of nail art, dance party, boy talk, and makeovers. The birthday gifts affirmed my expectations.

Alison received earrings, jewelry, nail kit…the usual 11-year-old girl stuff. And yes, the evening did include a little dancing, a little nail salon action, and probably some boy talk, but that was most certainly done upstairs in the privacy of the sleepover room. It also included a very long time jumping with abandon on the trampoline, watching the movie Despicable Me, and a conclusion to “cupcake wars” that left the girls with icing smeared across their faces.

Alison and her friends are journeying in that very small space of land between little girl and young woman. It’s a short trip, but I’m going to do my best to enjoy it while it lasts. I only have to look at my oldest daughter to be reminded that those teenage years are soon gone, and then, standing before me is what looks like a woman. Erin leaves that teenage world on Thanksgiving when she turns 20. Alison will enter it in two years when she turns 13. I’ll do my best to be ready and I’m certain she will too. The time will be right for growing up, and together, we’ll navigate through the crazy world of slumber parties and thongs.

My Very Own Parenting Book

A few days ago I read a post from a friend that went like this: “10 years ago I was an arrogant mom who thought parenting was easy. The next day, God sent me Chloe.”

Amen, sister.

God didn’t send me Chloe, but He sent me Erin.

I’m convinced that every parent who struts around thinking that they’ve mastered the art of parenting gets it back in their face at some point. It might be that second infant, or that fifth teenager. For me, it was that second infant: the girl who screamed in anger from the moment she was born until she reached the age of five months. Colin, the infant who slept through the night at one-week old and rarely cried, was a set-up. Sometimes, God sends the proud people like me something (or someone) that catapults us to the top so that we can get a good crash to the bottom – just in time to save us from ourselves. My mother used to smirk when I left her detailed instructions on how to care for the newborn Colin.

“Did it ever cross your mind,” she said one evening with a smile and clenched teeth, “that I just might know how to do this?”

No. That didn’t occur to me. I had been the pregnant woman who saturated herself in parenting books. I studied up on the subject. I absorbed and put into practice everything in those books. I continued to to read them after the baby was born, and the result was – voila! – a successful outcome. Baby was happy, content, predictable, low-maintenance, and hitting all developmental milestones on target. I continued to write out detailed instructions for my mother when she kept him, despite the fact that she worked in a preschool program with infants and toddlers for over a decade.

We were flying so high with this task of parenting that we were absolutely eager to do it again. In fact, when Colin was 10 months old we were surprised, but yet delighted to be pregnant. Another angel was on the way. I brushed up on the parenting books and even bought some new ones. More information! More ways to succeed!

On November 24, 1991, I had a baby girl. Not just any baby girl, but the angriest baby girl within screaming distance. My first moments of gazing into her newborn face involved trying to discern what she actually looked like without the purple skin, wide open mouth and tightly closed eyes. I saw this face quite a bit for the first five months. And for five months I heard the screams. (Most notably every hour and a half throughout the night). And for five months I walked her around the house to quiet those screams. (She hated to be rocked…of course.) Her older brother delivered his opinion about the new baby by dropping a stack of his Tales of Peter Rabbit books on her head one morning. “Go, baby,” he proclaimed.

At the worst moments of our first months with our daughter, we felt the same way. Could someone else take her? Anyone? And why was this child so angry? Didn’t she know we were self-taught, highly-educated parenting experts? Apparently, she didn’t know this. And for five months she taught us that we had been completely and sadly mistaken about our brilliance. She made sure we understood that the first child was not a product of our parental achievements. He was just Colin. And she was Erin. And we better get that straight and start our descent down into the muck of real-world parenting.

So we toppled down off our high horse a bit.

And, thank you God, we’ve continued that descent with every stage of parenting.

Somewhere around 1998 I tossed all my parenting books. I had kept them in a box for many years, and had even purchased a few new ones along the way, but I never could get around to really digesting them. I scanned them, but honestly, I didn’t need the guilt that would begin to creep in long about Chapter Two. I began to realize that my children were individuals. God created them and he had given Kyle and I the privilege of raising them. Between all of us, we were working it out day by day. Instead of reaching for another parenting book, I began to fall on my knees and proclaim my inadequacy, then plead with God to fill in the holes, redeem the mistakes, cover for my ignorance, and forgive my subtle arrogance. My children have continued to teach us that we know very little, and along the way it seems that we write our own unique parenting books. There is no how-to book about raising Colin that would translate into a how-to book for raising just any kid. And I can assure the same goes for Erin. And now, we’re learning even more and experiencing fresh doses of humility daily as we raise Alison. My parenting book is simply a journal of mistakes made, lessons learned, and a prayer of thanks for the grace I’m given.

Like most good stories, this one has a surprising twist: the angry little baby grew up into the most amazingly content young woman. And the perfect infant has been determined to become a think-for-himself young man. We beam with pride when we look at all of our children, but we’re careful not to take the credit. We give the credit to God and thank Him for the continued tumble downward. It is only then that we can look upward and take His guiding hand.

A few years before my mother died, she pulled from a box an old instruction note I left her one evening when she was caring for the infant Colin. My handwriting was clear, block letters and the words were written in embarrassingly simplistic details – as if my mother were a young teenage babysitter.

“I kept this note to show to you one day,” she said without the clenched teeth and with a gentle smile. “Just so you could remember.”

My mother, so wise, knew that someday her daughter would grow up and grow out of knowing everything. She knew that God would humble me, because she had been humbled herself. It seems to be the way it goes. And so, we continue to write our own parenting books, crumpling pages, tossing sections, and starting brand new chapters as we stumble along.