Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Social Caterpillar

Monday, July 21, 2014
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Emma Watson (via Pinterest).

Emma Watson (via Pinterest).

Rachel “Bunny” Lowe Lambert Lloyd Mellon, the horticulturalist and art collector turned second wife of philanthropist and horse breeder, Paul Mellon, became famous for her best friendship with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Lord, what a mouthful.)

In the time she spent with Jackie redesigning the White House Rose Garden, she shared her secrets for staying out of the public eye while maintaining an influential role in society.  In her old-fashioned correctness, she told friends that “a woman’s name should appear in print exactly three times: when she makes her debut, when she marries, and when she dies.”

The rest, darling, isn’t to be shared.

I read about “Bunny” in an article in the July issue of Town & Country magazine, which questioned whether people can maintain any sort of solitude in the glare of social media.  If you can Google your own name and not find any information, then you have achieved the nearly impossible dream.

In this day, most (if not all) girls make their “debuts” via Facebook. And once they’re out, there’s no going back.

I talked about this with Ava, who is 11 years old and doesn’t have a social media presence (other than what I publish). Most of the girls she knows already have Instagram sites, and a few have Facebook pages or Twitter accounts.  She’s never asked for anything other than access to Pinterest so she can surf pictures of her favorite musicians. We agreed in order to save our bedroom walls from hideous posters of British boy bands.

Ava sees how much I’m online, posting comments and uploading pictures, and fiddling with different filters to make shots look their best.  She also knows that I landed assignments from USA TODAY simply by maintaining a LinkedIn profile, and she’s aware that I blog about our family every week in the Daily Mail’s online edition. It doesn’t bother Ava — in fact, she’s proud of her old mom — but she doesn’t want to call attention to herself. Like her father, she just doesn’t care to share.

And there’s something to be said for the girl who says nothing at all.

“I think those sites can cause trouble,” she said to me one night when we were up late talking.

“How so?” I asked.

“It just seems like girls get into a lot of fights over things that are posted.”

True, I admitted.  Girls and boys have to be very careful about what they put out there.

“I just like being quiet.”

I wish I had that skill.  Some people have described my writing as “brave” and “gutsy” and “always honest”, but it’s also risky to reveal so much. It’s a call for reaction — and criticism.

We talked about the concept of privacy for a long time, and I realized that she’s entering a stage of life that is full of sensitive matters.  As a writer who observes everyday life and analyzes its oddities, it’s very hard not to turn motherhood into material. As playwright Nora Ephron said so expertly, “Everything in life is copy.”  And she’s absolutely correct.

But maybe it shouldn’t be.

After a few sleepless nights, I’ve decided to end my run writing for The Mommyhood.  It has been a difficult decision that makes me sad, but I feel like I need to let our rising sixth grader have some breathing room. She and her younger sister have belonged to the world for nearly four years, and while I have enjoyed every second of sharing this cherished life with you, I think it’s time to bring it back home.

Giving up this blog is a lot like giving a baby up for adoption.  For a journalist, an essayist or a diarist, a column in any form is a coveted space.  I am very grateful that a friend pitched one of my pieces to Brad McElhinny and encouraged him to give my work a closer look, and I am so appreciative of the Daily Mail staffers who made me feel like one of them.

Of course, I have to give thanks to my girls, who provided more than a half-million words under my fingers. In return, I plan to print every post and have two copies bound, which will be saved for when they become mothers. This blog has chronicled a large part of their childhood, but also the phases of motherhood that I hope they’ll refer to one day.

Finally, I thank you, dear readers, who have clicked my links every Monday, “liked” them, favorited them, forwarded them, and provided tremendous support through comments and replies. Parenting is a lonely job at times, but I rarely felt that way. Each time I signed on, there was always someone there to give me a much-needed thumbs up.

Bright and early this morning, I was waiting for the “pop” of sealed jars containing homemade strawberry jam.  I sat at the computer and scrolled through shots on Pinterest  – everything from Kate Middleton and baby George to sweet George Harrison. Then, I stumbled upon a quote attributed to Emma Watson, most famously known as Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series. It’s hard to tell if she actually mouthed the following words, but I sent the pin to Ava anyway.  It said:


And as my girls enter the reality show of adolescence, I pray they’ll choose to remain a bit of a mystery.

Note:  Katy Brown may be leaving her regular spot in The Mommyhood, but you can continue to follow her lifestyle blog, House Kat.  It’s a peach!


The Great Indoors

Monday, July 7, 2014
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Maybe next year she can go someplace that lets her catch things.

Maybe next year she can go someplace that lets her catch things.

When I think back to my childhood, I realize that I didn’t do a lot in the summer.  I rode my bike through the Kanawha City streets (but never across MacCorkle Avenue), bought Slush Puppies at a  7-11 convenient store, ran through a sprinkler hooked to the garden hose in the front yard, and I watched HBO after my parents went to bed. One day rolled into the next, set to the labored hum of a large window-unit air conditioner that was bought from Sears and Roebuck (yes, both of them).

Some years, we took a vacation to Wrightsville Beach, N.C. or Williamsburg, Va.  Some years we couldn’t.

But never, ever did I go to camp.

And I sort of wish I had.

Last summer, as I lounged by the pool half-watching my girls cannonball off the diving board, I became engrossed in an article in Town & Country magazine.  The writer reflected on his summers at camp — an exclusive, preppy, hard-to-get-into-and-even-harder-to-pay-for place tucked away in the forests of “old” New England.  This sleep-away camp was the place where mosquitoes bit but fish didn’t, canoes capsized but nobody drowned, and hearts ached for home.  For a little while, that is.

The writer still believes that camp is a rite of passage in childhood; a necessary “roughing it” that removes some of the shelter in kids’ lives — physically and emotionally. Back then, going off to camp (for at least three weeks) was a way to connect with the world.  Today, it’s a way of making kids unplug from it.

The article romanticized camp in a way that made me actually look into places for my daughters, ages 11 and 8.  I follow a few camps for girls on Facebook and through images posted on Instagram and Pinterest — all of which make the experience look downright enchanting.

Ava doesn’t see it that way.

“WHAT? No walls?!” she exclaimed, as she leaned over my shoulder to study a large tent with its flaps peeled back to reveal giggly girls sitting on cots.

“What if it rains?!” she exclaimed.

You pull the flaps down, I guess.

“And bugs! Bears! No, Mama. NO,” Ava declared, stepping back from the computer as if it had malaria.  Her idea of camping is a cottage overlooking The Old White golf course at The Greenbrier.

Maryn, our youngest, took her sister’s spot over my shoulder.

“Cool!” she said.  “You get to sleep outside?”

Yes. For a month.

“Hmmm…” she pondered.  “How far away is it?”

You’d go to camp? I asked, shocked.  Maryn is our explorer, but she’s also the one who will sit and hold my hand when I’m bedridden in a nursing home.

It’s about two hours from here. You’d like to do that? 

“Maybe….” she said.

Well, let’s throw this little fish back in the water, I thought to myself.

Tomorrow (which will be “this morning” once the blog is published), Maryn will attend Fun With Words: A Young Writers Camp sponsored by the Central West Virginia Writing Project, a program overseen by Marshall University.  No, she won’t sleep in a tent (or a dorm), and no, she won’t be in the next state.  But, she will be gone during the day and she won’t have her sister sitting right next to her. She’s going off by herself, and I have to admit, I’m a little nervous.

Before I get ahead of myself, Maryn asked to attend camp. I didn’t sign her up for the sake of doing so.  She loves the arts, so this seemed like a good fit for her.  But, I’d be wrong if I hid an underlying motive for paying the rather steep tuition fee.

I wanted Ava, who will be starting middle school in about a month, to watch her little sister walk into a new environment without any familiar faces for comfort. It also takes some motivation to try new things, especially when they aren’t necessary or required.

My girl isn’t going to be sitting at the edge of Walden Pond penning the next great American novel.  Or, maybe she will — just not beside a bubbling brook.  And, she won’t be writing letters home detailing songs sung in unison around a fire, or merit badges won during archery contests or at the conclusion of wilderness survival tests (thank God).  But, she might write a story about meeting new friends and having new types of fun.  It may not be Lake Ossippe backdropped by the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but it will be an adventure … for all of us.


Independence Day

Wednesday, July 2, 2014
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I had a flashback to the Summer of 1976 while riding my bike the other day. The rubber on my back tire had split, and the damaged tire was slowing me down.1976

Instead of recognizing the problem, I blamed myself. I thought I wasn’t pedaling hard enough, which is the same accusation I made of myself during the Bicentennial Parade on the Fourth of July in 1976.  That parade  provided some of the hardest, but most meaningful, lessons of my childhood.

I grew up in a small town in Central Oregon where summer meant two things: being outside and celebrating the Fourth of July.

Being outside involved building forts in Juniper trees, capturing tadpoles in irrigation ditches, swimming lessons at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and riding our bikes everywhere. Bike helmets weren’t even a consideration back in those days. We only worried about skinned knees, and, when the temperatures were cooler, getting our bell bottom pants caught in the chains of our bikes. But during the warm days of summer, we were wearing shorts, and our greatest concern was how to decorate our bikes for the Fourth of July parade.

Everyone in Madras Oregon participated in the parade. Adults and children planned and prepared for months, and the anticipation of  the annual event increased dramatically for America’s Bicentennial. As soon as the calendar turned to January 1976, the planning was on. Every activity and event highlighted America’s 200th birthday.

During  Girl Scout events, all the girls wore Betsy Ross inspired outfits.

During school programs, we sang patriotic songs.

And almost all the clothes in stores that year were red, white and blue.

But, in the eyes of the kids, nothing was more important than how we decorated our bikes for the Fourth of July Parade. As I recall, there was a prize for the best decorated bike, which only partly explains why we took the task so seriously. Prize or not, kids on bikes led the parade and finished in time to catch a ride on the fire engines that wrapped it up.

With all that at stake, we took decorating our bikes in theme very seriously. We had always woven streamers through the spokes and threaded them through our handle bars, but the Bicentennial parade was something special and required extra effort.

My friend Shannon and I had a plan for how to make a statement. Instead of riding bicycles, we decided to ride tricycles with signs that said “Ready for the Tricentennial.” I don’t remember where we got the trikes. Perhaps they were from her brother Kip or perhaps they were sitting around my parents’ garage.

All I know is that my nine-year old knees and legs were much too long to ride a small tricycle with any efficiency. On the day of the parade, I gathered with all of my peers at the start of the parade. When everyone else sped off, I didn’t. I could barely pedal the well-decorated but much-too-small trike. Before long, I was trying to keep up with the antique cars. And by the time I realized I’d be faster if I simply pushed the trike, I was with the floats. When the fire truck with all my peers on board passed by, I felt completely defeated. Despite that, I didn’t quit. But I was extremely embarrassed by my poor showing.

Thirty-eight years later I’m not embarrassed at all. Instead, I proud of that little girl and her perseverance.

Life has a way of encouraging us to re-think our memories and identify how they can help in the future. As a mom, I appreciate the  benefit of of  perspective and a life time of experience. I’ve learned a great deal from both.

I’ve learned being embarrassed does not equate to failure. In fact, being embarrassed simply means you went outside your comfort zone, which is something winners always do.

I’ve learned that finishing what you start means more than a first place ribbon.

I’ve learned that blaming ourselves when something doesn’t go as planned is pointless. Sometimes, the circumstances are beyond our control: the tire is flat or the distance to the pedals too short. Sometimes, we don’t have the resources we need, like a bigger or faster bike. And sometimes we are simply out of our element.

I’ve also learned that  life can’t be truly enjoyed if we try to measure it in terms of success or failure. Life requires that we cheer on those who are ahead on the parade route and encourage those who never have a chance to ride the fire engines.

Most of all, I’ve learned to appreciate having the freedom to make mistakes, the luxury of having the independence to talk about those mistakes, the opportunity to fix the flat tires that life sometimes delivers and the importance of recognizing that we can’t control every aspect of our lives.

This Fourth of July, neither of my children will be participating in or attending a parade as I did when I was young. Despite that, I have no doubt they will be turning to me for ideas about how to celebrate. And I’m almost positive, I’ll suggest we take a family bike ride.

Womb with a view

Monday, June 30, 2014
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A step up from bunnies.

I am blessed beyond words to have two daughters who don’t ask for anything. I mean nothing. They don’t ask for clothes, shoes, toys, gadgets…anything.  I have to beg them to go shopping with me, and I have to beg them to tell me what they like when we’re in stores.  I know, this too shall pass.

A typical conversation with our tweenager goes a little something like this:

“Ava, you need some new jeans.  Yours are too short.”


“What kind do you like?”

“I don’t care.”

“You have to care. Gap? Target?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Oh, but it will.

Our eight-year-old is as easy going, if not more.

“Maryn, your shoes are filthy.  You need a new pair.”

“Hmmm….they’re fine. They still fit.”

“Yes, but they’re awful.”

“It’s okay.”

And I suppose it is okay, but I can’t have my children wearing high waters and tennies the color of red mulch.

Then, there’s the issue of their bedroom, which they still share.  We live in a traditional Cape Cod home with closets built into the eaves. This means we have storage fit for a toddler.  You have to stoop down to enter the “walk-in closets”, and there’s no place to hang anything unless dresses and pants are to dust the floor.  Items have to be folded if they’re to remain clean (but not wrinkle-free).

Before long, the tweenager will demand a better closet and better clothes to put in it.

She’ll also notice that pink and blue polka dots are too young for middle schoolers, despite the rising third grader who occupies that space with her. Pastels and shapes are still acceptable.  The pictures of Peter Rabbit are still charming.  Or, they’ve been on the walls so long they’ve become ignored.

Yes. Beatrix Potter.

I know…I know…it’s time to free the rabbits Watership Down-style. It’s time to upgrade the bedroom into a big girl’s haven (that a little sister can tolerate).  A recent conversation went a little something like this:

“Girls, your dad and I want to give your room a facelift.  Redecorate. Turn the playroom into a real closet.  What do you think?”

They looked up from YouTube (Crafty Friday) long enough to force smiles.

“Okay…” they said in unison.

“What look do you want? Purples? Pinks? Flowers?”

“Sure,” Ava said.

“All of it or none of it?” I asked.

“That’s fine,” Maryn shrugged.

I felt anger building up.  “NO! You have to take an interest. Something has to appeal to you two. This is your space. You own it.  NOW WHAT KIND OF BEDROOM DO YOU WANT?!”

Maryn sat frozen-faced.  Ava began to bob her extra-long foot against the couch, a sign that she was thinking.  Plotting.  After a minute, she spoke.

“Lilly Pulitzer.”


“Lilly. I love it.”

I looked at Maryn, who was still too afraid to move or speak.

“Do you know how much that stuff costs?!”

Ava smiled.  Of course she did.

Fine. I accept the challenge. Lilly it is.

I went online and typed in the name of the famous fashion designer from Palm Springs, Florida. The Queen of Prep died in 2012, but her style lives on through Garnet Hill catalogs and in coastal community boutiques and outdoor malls in Southern cities.  The cost of one twin comforter? $238.

Nervously, I searched Ebay.  The prices were higher.  And I needed TWO of everything.

I decided there had to be a better way of creating a space with bright colors and whimsical designs (of rabbits, I bet) without losing the whole house. I turned to Etsy, my new obsession, for help.  I found it. Lord love, I found it!

It turns out that you can do just about anything with a bolt of fabric.  Pillows, curtains, lamp shades and artwork can be made out of a few yards of the loudest designs you can imagine. Instead of buying actual Lilly pictures (worth thousands), I could frame a 12×12 square of fabric for wallhangings.  Instead of a $75 neckroll pillow sold in stores, I could have one made for $25.  Rather than going broke on two comforters, I could buy two solid white bed-in-a-bag sets and add a splash of Pulitzer by covering the headboard in a clashing (I mean, contrasting) print for $30 each.

AND — for that added touch — a sassy girl from the University of South Carolina could cut out the shape of West Virginia in a Lilly print and frame it for me…for a bargain price of $6.

Gotta pay those Delta Zeta dues, I guess.

I’m still in the process of transforming the girls’ room from Peter Rabbit to Lilly Pulitzer, but the process has been a lot of fun — for me, that is.  Ava and Maryn have enjoyed watching me squeal when a package arrives, a box containing a print of jellyfish, sea turtles and gigantic peonies the color of pink elephants.  But once the room is finished, I have to be prepared never to see the girls again.  If it turns out to be as festive as Pinterest entices and Etsy delivers, they’ll come out only for food and water.

And that’ll have to be “okay.”



Unforgettable Fun

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
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I made a huge mistake last Friday. I asked my daughter if she wanted to do something fun with me on Saturday.

I had forgotten that, in Kendall’s almost 13-year-old mind, there is only one situation that involves both mom and fun: shopping.

But she didn’t just want to go to the nearby mall where we usually shop. She requested we go to a much larger mall in the D.C. suburbs, and she only wanted to shop in stores that have clothes fashionable enough for nearly 13-year old girls. For the record, these are the exact same stores where she shops at the nearby mall and, from what I could tell, the clothes were exactly the same too.

The day was hard on pocketbook, hard on my feet and hard on my patience.

But I tolerated the shopping trip knowing that the next day we would be having real fun.

We were going hiking.hiking - Copy

But in Kendall’s almost 13-year-old mind, there is absolutely no situation that involves fun and hiking.

At first, I think she forgot that. As we were getting ready to go, she asked what she should wear. (For some reason, she asks me this every day. When I make a suggestion, she rolls her eyes and tells me what she thinks of my suggestion. Then, she wears what she wants and we repeat the routine the next day.)

I advised her to wear a t-shirt and sturdy shoes.  Per usual, she ignored my advice and wore  a newly purchased floral top, matching shoes and new prescription glasses she wears to see long distances. She asked if I liked the look.

This time, I rolled my eyes.

By the time we actually arrived in Harper’s Ferry, she was already complaining that she didn’t want to waste her whole day on a trail.

While my son forged ahead, she was demanding an explanation about the purpose of the hike. When my husband told her that someday she would appreciate it, she scoffed at the idea. IMG_3502When we joined up with a large pack of Boy Scouts at the overlook, she stopped complaining and seemed to enjoy the view and the company.

Then I made the mistake of suggesting we complete the hike along the ridge, which added additional hours to our time  in the woods and on the mountain. While I enjoyed the challenge, nobody else in the family did, especially my daughter. The only solace I could provide was the promise of a hot dog and ice cream at the end of the trail.

The hike, and subsequent meal out, were hard on my pocketbook, hard on my feet and hard on my patience.

But despite my daughter’s complaints, I thoroughly enjoyed the day and the memories we made. Something tells me my daughter will also remember the hike long after she forgets the trip to the mall. I’m also fairly confident that those memories will be good ones.

That’s how life works.

Despite our disagreements and dislikes, stepping outside our comfort zones and testing our endurance always builds our confidence. When we do it with people we love, it’s even more meaningful.

And when we do it together with family, it’s unforgettable.

Oh, Deer/Me.

Monday, June 23, 2014
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I have a soft spot for animals that gets the best of me.  This soft spot clouds my judgment, drains my bank account and sometimes threatens my health. I guess it’s a desire to help things that can’t express themselves — creatures that want to be loved and need to be cared for — as if I don’t have children at home requiring the same.

But I’m wrong about something: Animals can express themselves. Sure they bark, meow, hiss, chirp and whistle. Sure they’re depressed when we’re on vacation and they’re glad to see us when we come home. It’s more than that.  They worry.

This past Thursday, I let our Golden Retriever and Beagle out for a run and other morning rituals.  Within five minutes, both of them starting carrying on as if someone had invaded their territory.  I ran to the window to look over our backyard, and that’s when I saw a mother deer cleaning her new fawn.  She stopped what she was doing to study the dogs, which were making so much noise I was afraid they’d wake the entire neighborhood.  It was a chaotic scene as I chased, tackled and wrestled them to hook leashes on their collars to pull them inside.  I kept reassuring “Mama” that everything was OK, as if she could interpret the words I called out in panic.

When I made it upstairs, I looked out and noticed the fawn, heaped on the ground behind our fence, appeared stillborn.  Its eyes were open and its head rested out from its body instead of coiled up in a fetal position.  Mama kept working on her baby, unruffled by what had happened on my side of the fence.

I woke the girls and told them to peek out their bedroom window to see the baby deer. Our youngest daughter is as addicted to animals as I am, and she becomes easily attached to anything with paws or claws.  We watched Mama and Baby for an hour, but the fawn never responded.  Soon, the mother ran off and I tiptoed around the side of the house to snap a few pictures from a safe distance.  Baby lifted its head finally, but then put it back down.

Perhaps it’s shocked; disoriented.  After all, it’s less than two hours old.

I waited for Mama and noticed that she was standing over the hillside looking up at the mound of tan fur and white dots.  Only her ears twitched.  The baby’s did not.

Perhaps it’s just scared.  I hope Mama comes back…

After a dental appointment and a visit to Capitol Market for ingredients to make BLT sandwiches for lunch, we checked on Baby from the kitchen. This time, it was huddled in the ivy behind a tree that had fallen some time ago.  It never moved.  Mama remained over the hill, looking up at her little one but never getting as close again.

By noon it was clear that the fawn had died.

I had to tell Maryn that Baby didn’t survive. Instinctively, she sensed something was wrong. The fawn never moved in a rain shower and it didn’t move when the hot sun broke through the clouds.  It didn’t move when our dogs barked at the UPS truck, and it didn’t move when trash collectors tossed bins back into the driveway.

My little one cried off and on for the remainder of the afternoon.  Down below, Mama began to pace.  She hiked the hill slowly and carefully, looking around each bush and tree limb to check her surroundings.  When she spotted our dogs in the yard, she charged the side of the garden shed and kicked over pots and containers.  She rammed her head into the fence panel and stood up to try to jump over into the area that held the two beasts she held responsible.

I ran outside with a broom in case I needed protection while pulling my dogs back to the porch.  She looked at me and snorted. She huffed and puffed and had the ability to kick our house down.  I kept reassuring her that she was all right — but she was not.

And she wasn’t all right that evening when she circled the area behind our neighbor’s yard, and she wasn’t that night when she charged the fence again.

The fawn had to be moved because of 90-degree heat, rain and the threat of pests that roam the woods at night.  A neighbor disposed of Baby in a humane manner according to DNR recommendations.  Mama was waiting on all of us when we opened the shutters this morning.  There she stood, over the hill, still looking up at the patch of ivy that remained empty.

She was in agony and she was angry.  Heartbroken.

I watched her hunt and stoop and search and smell and stop and stare. There was something very human about her pain, and it made me realize that a mama-baby bond is an awesome thing.  And I don’t use that word very often because it’s been ruined in a modern vocabulary.  But this was one of the most fascinating things I had ever watched — or experienced since I was one of her targets.

A few minutes ago, I looked out during another cloudburst to see how the trees were holding up with saturated roots. Off to the side stood Mama in pounding white rain, staring at me without any reaction to the storm.  As I finished typing this last paragraph, I checked on her again.  She wouldn’t move an inch and neither would I…as if to prove to a fellow mama that I understood.





First Word

Monday, June 16, 2014
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“Say Mama.  You can do it.  Ma-ma.  Mama.”


Over and over again.  “Da-da.”

Eventually, both of our girls blended the sounds that formed a name that would be called at least 100 times a day, every single day.  But when they were younger, “Da-da” — promoted to “Da-dee” when they were about three — was the only name that mattered. The most heinous household crime could be forgiven with the artful delivery of two sweet syllables.


And he’d melt into a puddle on the floor (which I’d have to clean up).

Last night, we returned from an 8-day vacation on the Brunswick Islands of North Carolina. Aside from the freshly-hatched sea turtles fighting their way into the great Atlantic, Daddy was the star of the trip. He always is the most important person in our girls’ eyes, and with good reason.  Whereas I’m mostly work and conversation, he’s mostly play and protection. When the girls are sick, they usually stagger toward me.  But when they’re hurt or they’re in need of unconditional support, Daddy is the one they seek.

Apparently, they’re not alone.  If you missed the Dove for Men commercial leading up to Father’s Day, you were left out of one impressive sob fest. As creative mastermind Don Draper explained to young copywriter Peggy Olson in the drama, Mad Men, advertising has one rule:  Make it simple…but significant.

What could be more simple or significant than a three letter word that’s made up of so much strength? As parents, we hear “Mom?!” and “Dad!?” so often that it becomes more of a false alarm than a loaded question.  But in that introductory phrase is a paragraph of wants and needs that only a certain person can decipher and resolve.  And for that, this Ma-ma thanks them.

Dove for Men Commercial

Ugly Betty

Monday, June 9, 2014
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glamour-guide-for-teensOn the day my mother gave birth to her one and only child, she weighed 118 pounds.  On the day I gave birth to my first of two daughters, I weighed 181.

My mother also held me in her arms as she rode in the front seat of a sedan from Charleston Memorial Hospital to our Kanawha City home. A seat belt would’ve wrinkled her pre-pregnancy clothes, and she needed the freedom to move her arm to and from the ashtray so she could enjoy a familiar cigarette.

Somehow, I grew up without too many illnesses and injuries as a result of roiling around in the backseat of a station wagon and inhaling second hand Viceroys.  But my mother’s 1950s influence crept back into my life when I became a teenager, from the size of my waist to the condition of my skin.  There was no excuse for letting myself go.  A “foundation” was to cover the face and a “foundation” was to flatten the midriff. Imperfections required immediate attention.

There were many of them.  I didn’t inherit my mother’s (or my aunt’s) size 4 “figure”, and I didn’t inherit their alabaster skin.  Luckily, most of the girls in my junior high were “built” like I was, so I didn’t notice the mess I was becoming due to erratic hormones.  But those chemicals didn’t exist back in the day.  No, ma’am.  If you were fat and your skin was dry (or oily), it was because you ate the wrong foods and you had poor hygiene habits.  Yes, ma’am.  It was ALL YOUR FAULT.

Why am I reverting to such a painful time? Because those days are making a comeback. You can thank a woman named Betty Cornell for this return to old-fashioned adolescence. Or, you can hate her.  But an ugly attitude won’t make you the most popular girl in your set, she says.

In Cornell’s updated Teen-Age Popularity Guide, the former model shares her secrets for knowing what to do and how to act in any situation at any time.  “When you’re on parade all day, you learn pretty fast,” she writes. “You smooth off your rough edges in a hurry.”

Cornell believed in 1953 (and still preaches in 2014) that a teenage girl’s social success is all about poise. You don’t have to be the prettiest girl in school, but to be the most popular, you do have to be the most polished.

Polished? You may ask. Like your mother’s silver.  Here are a few tips:

Weight: “If you are sensible, you won’t have any figure problems. You’ll watch yourself and catch any bulges or depressions before they have a chance to multiply.”

Skin problems:  “Acne, of course, must be treated by a doctor since it involves more knowledge than any layman has. No teen-ager should take it upon herself to fool around with acne.”

Hair: “Beautiful hair is the most important thing a girl has. It can always overcome the handicap of a not-so-pretty face. Your hair can make or break you.”

Makeup: “Work under a strong light so you can see what you’re doing. That way, you can make sure you powder well up into the hairline and down into the area of the neck and ears.  Don’t leave any high-water marks.”

Modeling tricks: “Above all, do not change your style before your photography appointment — such experiments may turn out too disastrously, and you don’t want to go down in history looking like a freak.”

Good grooming: “I am firmly of the opinion that almost every teen needs a girdle – not a whaleboned ironclad trap, but some sort of lightweight affair to the control the curves.”

Clothes: “You are wiser to buy clothes that fit the biggest part of you (probably your hips) than to fit your smallest part (probably your waist). Never buy clothes that fit like sausage skins with the intention of losing weight.”

What to wear where: “For Heaven’s sake: Have a little pity on others and a lot of pride in yourself. Put on a skirt when you’re shopping.”

Look pretty, be pretty: “Don’t think that you need to turn into a teacher’s pet. Nothing is farther from the truth. Polishing the apple never turned anybody into a better person.”

It’s a date: “Always remember that public display of affection (even to a fiancé) is never, never done.”

Personality: “If you want to be a popular human being, then you have to stop being an oyster and come out of your shell.”

So what do all of these rules and regulations have to do with becoming a popular girl? Cornell writes that it all comes down to a teen’s ability to get along with people, and that requires having her own life well in hand. And if nothing else, when the bread basket is passed, look the other way.

For most middle and high school girls, carbs are the least of their problems. In a day and age of an “I’ll try anything” insecurity,  some teens actually believe model-turned-writer Betty Cornell is their last hope.  At least, that’s how 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen felt when she tried every one of Cornell’s tips in an attempt to reverse her status at school. Now a published author (and much better known, if not envied by the movers and shakers), Van Wagenen described herself as among “the lowest level of people at school who aren’t paid to be here.”

Citing Cornell’s book as “vintage wisdom”, the teen commented that she wrote the book Popular to change her own life and to save her little sister from a middle school world of hurt.

After all, no one said pin curls were easy.



The Understudy

Monday, June 2, 2014
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What’s more challenging than playing the snare drum in an honors music recital before a packed audience, having a part in a musical before the entire school, traveling without a parent on a patrol trip, earning a certificate for faithful attendance, making the Principal’s List for straight A’s, receiving an acknowledgement from the President of the United States for academic achievement, getting promoted to the sixth grade, and turning 11 following that elementary school graduation?

Being the eight-year-old sister who has to watch it.

It’s a tough time to be a second grader (correction: rising third grader). It’s a quiet time in childhood when nothing spectacular goes on. With the exception of being toothlessly cute, it’s a boring phase worsened by the fireworks that accompany every move a fifth grader (correction: rising sixth grader) makes.

It really has been All Ava All the Time.  Maryn has been a respectful spectator to the celebrations and coming-of-age occasions that shine a special light on her older sister.  Well, until last night when Maryn hauled off and smacked her.

Mike and I were downstairs engrossed in the final episode of Mad Men when we heard grumblings in the upstairs bedroom.  One voice got higher.  A second voice got louder.  Something crashed.  Someone cried.

We raced each other up the stairs and burst through the doorway of the girls’ bedroom.  The fingerpointing had begun.  Ava held her face.  Maryn held her stomach.

They had traded blows like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.

“WHAT HAS GOTTEN INTO YOU TWO?” bellowed Mike.  Not to be outdone, I chimed in with my own hysterics.


The girls stepped on top of each other’s stories in an attempt to make their injuries sound more fatal.

“I got slapped!” Ava cried.

“I….got….hit….in the….stom….ach!”  Maryn gasped.

Mike and I took our competitors to the corners of the ring.  Maryn climbed onto my bed and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand.  She sucked air and wailed some more.

After eight rounds of “And Then What Happened”, the fight was declared a draw.  It started over a pillow.  It ended with the loss of electronics.

“You cannot act like this,” I told Maryn as she sniffed away tears crawling down her cheeks.  “If you can’t solve the problem with words, then you come to your dad and me and let us decide.  But you have no right — no right — to physically hurt each other.”

She sat quietly, straining to hear the interrogation across the hall.

“You’re sick of her, aren’t you?” I began.  Maryn looked at me, surprised.  “She’s gotten all the attention for weeks, and you can’t stand it, can you?”

She shook her head no.  “You’re tired of hearing how great she is, how pretty she is, how well she’s done, how far she’ll go….am I right?”

She nodded her head yes.

“You’re mad.  You’re jealous.  Am I right about that, too?”

She nodded her head yes again.

“And your time will come.  I promise you that.  You’re going to have everything she has, and then some, because you’re the baby.  You’re our last child.  All of this will come to an end once you become a fifth grader.  Childhood wraps up with you.”

She wiped her nose again and bobbed her feet against the mattress.

“She’s good at a lot of things, but so are you,” I continued, opening the drawer of the nightside table.  “Sure, she can play the xylophone and she can do The Cup Song, but you…you’re good at art!”

I pulled out a self-portrait that Ava had drawn in the second grade.  “Look at this!” I tapped the picture colored with crayons and edged in smudged #2 pencil.  “This kid doesn’t have a neck!”

A chuckle escaped from Maryn’s throat.

“And here! Look! She drew Ringo,” I said, pulling out a sketch of our silver tabby cat.  “Have you ever seen an animal with eyes that far apart?”

She laughed harder.

So it’s unorthodox to poke fun at one kid to make the other one feel better.  But I had to lighten the moment.  Sure, our rising middler schooler is good at lots of things and she’s been decorated for it, but her life is about to change.  She’s not going to be such a big fish in a small pond.  She’s going to be a minnow in an ocean of sharks and killer whales.

“And when you’re in third grade — intermediate…no longer primary school — she’s going to wish for everything that you still have. She’ll no longer have extra playtime outside, Halloween parades, Valentine parties, COSI assemblies, or trips to the Clay Center.  Those days are over.”

Don’t be envious, I preached.  Every daughter has her day. A round of applause for one child may be a standing ovation for another.  And as hard as it is to play the role of little sister, the sidekick is often the one who steals the show.






The Longest Day

Monday, May 26, 2014
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“Welcome to Ki Salon.  Are you Katy?” the pretty receptionist asked.  She was in her early twenties with chocolate brown hair pulled into a sleek ponytail.  There wasn’t a trace of suntan on her skin.

I nodded.  “Yes, I’m here for the Tension Tamer massage.”

“Sixty minutes?” she asked.


I didn’t explain why I needed an hour and a half of migraine therapy.  I hadn’t planned on telling you.  In fact, Mike, the girls and I made a promise that we wouldn’t breathe a word of this story to anyone.  But after reading articles in local newspapers reporting similar experiences, I feel I have to share what happened to us last summer.  A life could be saved.

It was our second full day at Wrightsville Beach, a barrier island near Wilmington, NC.  I’ve been digging my toes in that sand since 1975, when there wasn’t much more to do than sleep and swim. Our family has been staying at this particular condominium complex for nearly a decade, which makes it feel like our second home.  We love it there.  It’s familiar and it’s safe.

On this Monday of beach week, we decided to keep the girls out of the midday sun to prevent sunburns that they always get despite hourly applications of lotions and potions.  Mike had been in the ocean with Ava and Maryn, helping them catch waves on $5 boards purchased at the local junk store.  I saw him motion for Ava to come in, as it was time to get ready for dinner.  Maryn floated toward the shore.  Mike started pulling in a kite that was tied to our cooler handle.  I shook sand out of towels and shoes.  And then we heard Maryn scream.

“Daddy!” she cried, pointing behind her.  “Ava!”

Ava had been sucked off the sand bar into a rip current.  She was screaming for her dad’s help.  Mike tore through the waves, screaming her name in return, as if calling for her would weaken the water’s grip.   My heart skipped beats as I watched my 10-year old daughter drift farther and farther away from us.

I ran into the water behind Mike, pulling Maryn to shore.  “Go to our towels!” I shouted. “Don’t get back in!”  And then I hurdled over waves in my clothes — a sundress that felt like it weighed 100 pounds.   Mike continued to scream for Ava.

“Hang on!” he shouted.  “I’m almost there!”

It was at that moment that a wave crashed down on my head, pushing me to the ocean floor.  My dress floated up around my neck, covering my face. I was trapped under water and fabric and couldn’t push my way to the top. When I managed to get my face free to breathe,  I realized that I was caught in the same current.  This time, my dress was wrapped around my legs.  Another wave.  And another.  I was drowning.

I heard Mike’s voice change.  Instead of screaming for Ava, he had begun calling out for Maryn.  “MARYN!” he screamed.  “MARYN!”

I told her not to go back in the water.  I pulled her to shore, but I never looked back to see where she went.  I got one child out of danger, and then I had to help save the other.  Aware that we weren’t strong surf swimmers, I knew every ounce of strength was needed.

Mike’s calls continued.  And then, I heard nothing but sea water splashing over my face.  I remembered all the signs nailed to trash cans on the beach: swim parallel to the current; to float.  Don’t panic.  Don’t fight.  Don’t swim with the waves; swim left or right, but not to shore.  Eventually the current will spit simmers out on the other side.  I knew this, but I couldn’t do any of this.

Exhaustion was setting in.  I looked up at the sky and said to God, “If they’re not out of the water, then don’t get me out either.”

A few seconds later, a man and a woman grabbed me around the waist and by the legs.

“You’re all right,” shouted the woman who wore a bright yellow bathing cap and clear goggles.  “We’re going to get you out of this.  Just hang on!”

She and this gentlemen had been training a group of women for the last half-hour in what appeared to be a Crossfit program.  The beach lifeguard had gone off duty.

“I can’t do this,” I told her.  “My legs are bound.”

“Yes, you can!” she told me.  Her partner chimed in.  “Hold your breath!”

Another wave crashed.  Then another.  I felt the man throw me sideways to let the water propel all of us toward the shore.   I no longer heard Mike’s voice.   I began to ask for my family.

“My husband and daughters were in this, too,” I cried.  “Go get them!”

The woman, whose name I never learned, assured me that they were safe. They got out on their own.

Finally, we made it to the beach where a crowd had gathered.  Someone called 911, and the ocean rescue squad arrived, along with city paramedics.  A small helicopter-looking aircraft flew overhead.  The operator was waved off by one of the trainers.  “We’re good!” he called up.

The paramedics began checking the girls’ lungs, blood pressure and respiration rates.  They listened to my heart and asked how much water I had swallowed.   My mouth was dry from salt.  I was completely dehydrated.

“I have no idea,” I said.  “I can’t think.”

After the girls were examined, I pulled them into the tightest hug I could muster.  Ava began to cry.  I looked up at Mike, who stood with a look of horror on his face.  He couldn’t move.

The paramedic bent down to us.  “Ma’am, you need to watch for signs of dry drowning,” he began. “Do you know what that is?”

I was familiar with the term, but I was unfamiliar with the treatment.

“What should I look for?” I asked, feeling weak in the knees again.  My brown sundress was caked with beige sand.

“You’ll want to keep an eye on everyone tonight, including yourself,” he continued.  “Salt pulls water out of the lung’s cells. Watch for signs of respiratory distress.  You’ll have pain around the rib cage.  You’ll feel like you can’t get your breath.  You’ll cough. If this happens, call 911.  You’ll need emergency care as quickly as possible.”

A number of reports had to be filled out and signed.  The crowd thinned.  We thanked our rescuers repeatedly, to which they brushed off the gratitude with a casual, “No problem.  Glad everyone’s okay.”

We staggered back to our condo in a daze.  Ava continued to cry, begging us to close the drapes to the ocean when we got back to the room.

That night, Mike stood by the bathroom door while the girls and I took showers.  He kept asking if we were all right; if we felt okay.  Did we need anything?

I dried the girls hair and treated their ears to prevent infection.  We put them in the same bed and crawled in behind them, locking our arms to make sure they stayed protected.

Mike and I were awake for hours, watching their chests rise and fall by the glow of a TV turned on for light and distraction.  Every time one of the girls snored lightly or squirmed from heat, we jumped and shook them to make sure they weren’t in trouble.

We discussed driving home the next day but decided that we should stay close to the hospital in case the girls needed more medical attention.  I’m not sure we could have driven home safely anyway.

For the next few days, we toured the surrounding areas and visited attractions:  The North Carolina Aquarium, the Battleship North Carolina, and the streets of historic Wilmington.  We learned about albino alligators and hurricane force winds, of Civil War-era blockade runners and of original buildings that were once homes to prominent entrepreneurs.  We also learned first-hand why the area is known as Cape Fear. The graveyard of the Atlantic.

Since then, I’ve had nightmares.  I wake up in a “what if” frenzy, racing into the girls’ bedroom to make sure they’re still safe.  There is no greater agony than watching your child fall into the deepest danger imaginable. It is a guilt-ridden helplessness that will bury you long before your time.  I will second-guess my decisions for the rest of my life — for not changing into a swimsuit to play with them, for not looking back to see which strangers had taken Maryn to their chair for safety while we fought to get Ava; for not packing up our day when the lifeguard left the tower; the list goes on and on.  But what I won’t question is our love for one another. For nothing in Mother Nature’s power will ever be as strong.