The Pirates are in the playoffs. Let’s hope these newborns will experience the postseason before they, too, are old enough to buy a beer.
When I finally looked, I knew why.
The baby dancing in diapers reminded both of us of our son, a teenager who now towers over both of us.
When he was born, everyone told me the years would fly by, but I really didn’t believe them. Sleepless nights, diapers and endless worries about his development consumed my time and energy.
Now suddenly, he is a sophomore in high school with a life about which I know very little.
I know the boy who walks through my house in his boxer shorts and tousled hair. I know the boy who is obsessed with computers, video games and music. I know the boy who comes home from football games and plays the trumpet after he thinks everyone else is asleep. I even know the boy who gives me sarcastic answers in one breath and says “I love you too, Mom” in the next breath.
But what I don’t know is the teenager who goes to school every day and faces the realities of adolescence and peer pressure. I simply get glimpses of him every now and then.
The first glimpse came at the end of his eighth grade year when he won a dance contest during a school assembly. My son? Seriously? He was never the most coordinated kid nor particularly interested in anything that’s popular. I later found out he’d won the contest by performing the “Dead Bernie,” which is actually a shout out to a movie from the year I graduated from college.
I got another glimpse when I was at Girl Scout camp with my daughter this summer when one of the other mothers mentioned him.
“My son loves Shepherd,” she said. “He’s like Norm on Cheers. When he enters the classroom, everyone yells his name.”
I asked Shep about this, and he stoically said, “I’m a character, Mom.”
And then, at a recent football game, an English teacher was chatting with me. “I love Shepherd,” she said. “He is just so enthusiastic. He doesn’t care what people think about him.”
I got the not caring about what people think about him part, but I wasn’t sure about the enthusiasm. Around the house, he generally shows the enthusiasm of a slug.
But that same night after the game, he was particularly talkative.
“Mom,” he said. “One of the kids from the other band told me I was an awesome trumpet player.”
That’s about as talkative as Shep gets. At least, that’s about as talkative as he gets with me. But he highlighted his enthusiasm by wailing on his trumpet until the wee hours of the morning.
His love of music is why I am being the dutiful mother and taking on responsibilities with the school music boosters. That’s also why, on Monday night, I found myself playing games on my phone during a boosters meeting while I listened to other parents discuss basket bingo and costumes for show choir.
Then the band director said something that caught my attention. The group had been talking about the band’s performance at an away football game when the other school had given them unexpected respect and a standing ovation. In response, the band had signed a thank you letter. Only, according to the band director, he couldn’t send it yet because someone had decided to give himself an inappropriate title upon signing.
My heart sank. The band director never gave any indication about who the culprit was, but I knew. When I got home, I didn’t even ask. But I did tell my husband, who pursued the issue with Shepherd.
“I asked Shep about signing the letter,” Giles said. “He admitted he embellished his signature a bit by adding that he was the best trumpet player.”
My heart sank a bit that my son had once again gone a bit too far. But then, my heart also lifted.
Maybe I’ve been kidding myself. Maybe I do know my son better than I thought.
Maybe, just maybe, I am having a problem letting go of the toddler and embracing the man he will soon be.
But in the meantime, I’m drafting a speech about modesty and how to sign a letter.
I have absolutely no doubt about what Shep’s one word response will be.
And when he says, “whatever,” I’ll know he still needs a mom to guide him.
Since I didn’t become a parent until I was 31, I had plenty of time to make a mental list of what I would and wouldn’t do when I had children.
That list was really long by the time my son was born.
He’s now 15, and I’m pretty sure I’ve violated almost everything on that list with the exception of one thing.
I don’t censor what my children read. I never have and I never will.
There’s a reason why I’m so adamant about sticking to that one thing on my list.
In doing that, they let me know they believed in me.
They believed I needed to understand the perspective of others in order to develop my own opinions.
They believed I should know about life’s realities in order to make the best decisions about my own life.
And they believed that learning more about the world could only make me more prepared to take it on.
At a time when I observed my friends’ parents often being either over protective or too permissive, my parents chose to promote knowledge over dogma. For that, I will be forever grateful.
I was well into adulthood but had not yet entered parenthood when I finally recognized their influence. Ironically, that lesson came in a discussion about television, which is something my parents actually limited (primarily because they wanted to promote reading.)
I was in a continuing education workshop when I overheard two colleagues discussing their children. One woman was complaining that she had prohibited her daughter from watching Beverly Hills 90210 only to discover that she was watching it anyway. Her daughter had a friend who was recording episodes and letting her watch them at her house after school.
I wasn’t a participant in the discussion. I simply overheard it, but it obviously stuck with me. That’s because I was screaming inside, ”Unless your child’s life or health are in danger, don’t prohibit him/her from doing something. Adolescents will always push limits. It’s what they are supposed to do as they learn how to become adults. Instead of prohibiting something, join them.”
My children will be the first to tell you that I never censor what they read. They will also tell you that I am always the first one to join them.
Some of our best discussions and revelations often come from talking about what characters in books are doing.
It’s not personal. It’s simply fiction. And when it’s simply fiction, you can talk about anything.
When the book documents actual historic events, the discussion is even richer.
I am writing this during Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read. Hundreds of libraries and bookstores along with thousands of individuals are drawing attention to the problem of censorship
I’ve been trying to do my part in my personal blog, and now, I’m sharing the message here: please go read a banned or challenged book.
If you are afraid to do that, at least check out a list of books that have been banned or challenged. You might be surprised at the ones you’ve already read and the ones that you haven’t.
I know the ones I haven’t yet read are going at the top of a new mental list: Books I Need to Read.
That list is really long, but I hope it’s much shorter next year at this time. I hope yours is too.
A few weekends ago, Mike, the girls and I drove to Morgantown to watch the Mountaineers defeat Georgia State. We bought single tickets, so that planted us in the “family zone”. By any other name, it’s the visitor’s section. Though the area is dry — no alcohol allowed — people properly hydrated themselves before filling this sliver of the stands. Sitting in the end zone has it’s privileges — you get to see plenty of touchdown action if your favorite team scores in a corner of the field. It’s also where you can see State Troopers escort unruly fans out of the family zone when the score becomes too close for comfort.
It really is a great place to get insulted.
We found our four seats with no trouble, but I had forgotten how cozy you have to get to the stranger next bottom over. We literally sat in each other’s laps for most of the game, or until halftime, when beverage-less fans ran to re-quench their thirst.
A woman in her late 40s scooted a few inches down to stretch her legs. I leaned to the right to give her more room.
“Your girls are so sweet,” she said.
I pretended not to hear her at first. Small talk irritates me when the band is on the field.
“Oh…thank you,” I replied. ”This is our youngest daughter’s first game.”
“Well now!” she said. “And how old are they?”
THE BAND IS ON THE FIELD, LADY.
“Ten and seven,” I remarked.
“That’s nice. Such a fun age,” she replied.
“And what do you do?” she asked.
I WATCH FOOTBALL IN SILENCE.
“I’m a writer,” I offered without explanation.
“Ahh…a writer! And what do you write?”
COLUMNS ABOUT CHATTY PEOPLE THAT RUIN HALFTIME SHOWS.
“A bit of everything. Advertising copy, articles for magazines, content for management pieces.”
“Oh,” she sang. “How fun.”
The Pride of West Virginia was in the middle of a tribute to military heroes. Men and women who give selflessly in the name of American freedom.
Freedom of speech. Freedom of choice.
“I don’t know that it’s fun all the time, but I enjoy it,” I said, leaning to the left.
“It’s nice that you can do fun things like that.”
Suddenly, I felt the need to make my work harder. Meaner. Uglier.
“I also write a blog for the Daily Mail in Charleston,” I continued. ”And I have a children’s book launching, which follows a book of essays published in 2012.”
The band marched off the field.
“How cute! What a fun little job you have.”
FUN LITTLE JOB?
For a brief second, I thought about lying about my profession. I’m a scientist. I cured polio.
“I also teach communication classes at a local college,” I continued. ”When I have time.”
What was this? What had become of me? I let this busy body get under my summer tan-faded skin? The competition should have been on the 50-yard line, not in section 98.
“Wow….!” she said, bouncing her foot and sipping on something most certainly spiked with an alcohol that she couldn’t handle. Probably Old Crow.
The crowd started to fill back in the stands packed like sardines. The older woman who had been seated next to me brought back a platter of nachos with cheese sauce, a combo that I desperately wanted to knock out of her hands and into the lap of her daughter, I assumed.
Why did I feel the need to defend what I do? Because I enjoy my job and can do it from a place that I call home, shouldn’t mean that it’s any less of a profession. It pays some bills and buys two (but not four) One Direction tickets. It allows me to clear my head and heart in a way that speaks to others (on occasion). It’s what I’ve been determined to do for a living — to sustain financial and personal fulfillment. I love what I’ve been able to do with this life. I really love that my daughters are starting to take an interest in it, too.
Right before the second half kick-off, I decided to engage in a little chit-chat of my own. The woman looked totally engaged in the activity on the field. It was show time.
I reached across Nacho Nanny and tapped her daughter on the knee. She looked surprised and mildly irritated.
“I’m so rude,” I shouted over the crowd’s roar. ”I’ve been talking about myself the whole time. I never asked what you do…”
The woman’s smile returned.
“I work for my husband,” she yelled back. I looked around her at the man wearing an oversized set of headphones to muffle sound. Most likely hers.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. ”How fun!”
By now, you’d think I would know better than to ask my children questions that make me appear old and clueless.
But either I haven’t learned or I just don’t care. I am, after all, a perpetually curious person.
And curiosity got the best of me after working in the concession stand at high school football games.
My son goes to a new school, and even though the facilities are state-of-the art, the school still has some catching up to do. For example, we have yet to receive health department approval to actually prepare anything. And when I say anything, I mean anything. Never mind the hot dogs and fries that people keep asking for, we can’t even fix coffee or hot chocolate.
When the temperature drops, everyone wants coffee and hot chocolate. When the adults are denied, they grumble and walk away. When the teenagers are denied, they smile and say “oh snap.” But then, when I’d tell them we sell King’s Pizza and Chick-fil-A sandwiches, they also smile and say, ‘oh snap.”
I remember Tracy Morgan saying “oh snap” on Saturday Night Live, but the teens aren’t using the words to emphasize an insult. I just don’t understand the meaning.
I made the mistake of asking my 12-year-old daughter, who looked at me as though I were from a different planet. I should have expected that look. It’s the same one she gave her dad when she used the term “shipping,” and he said, “Isn’t that when you send packages?” It’s also the same look her brother gave me when I asked what he means by “swag” and “merch.” And it’s the same look I gave my parents 30 years ago when they expressed confusion about the word “bad” describing something really cool. Or, in their words, something “really hip.”
A friend with two teenage sons pointed out that asking our kids for definitions isn’t always safe. She once asked about a word that made both her sons turn red and demand to know where and how she’d heard it used. That’s when she started using the online Urban Dictionary.
“It’s just safer,” she said.
But no matter how I keep up on the ever-changing language of young people, I do want to keep up. It might not tax my brain quite as much as learning a foreign language, but it comes close. Plus, I really do want to know what my children are saying. I just don’t plan on ever attempting to use my newly acquired vocabulary in actual conversation.
That would be “cray cray” according to my daughter and make me a “derp” according to my son.
Good friends of ours recently moved into a new home. Mike, the girls and I took a housewarming gift to them last weekend, in exchange for a much anticipated tour of the place. It’s situated on a quiet cul-de-sac lined with oak trees and manicured lawns. There are sweeping views of acres of green grasses that glisten in morning light. It’s perfect for them, and for a while, I had house envy.
Perhaps it’s because my kitchen is nowhere close to being finished. But my patience is.
I love my house. I do. Our daughters love it and use every square inch for dance and play. So do our two destructive, demonic dogs. It’s where we’re supposed to be, with or without countertops and food disposals. Yet the work never ends. Fences have to be repaired or rebuilt, air conditioners need new relay switches. Furnace filters are no longer available for the temperamental unit that warms our house with the smell of burnt dust in the winter. The list goes on and on. Well, make that Mike’s List goes on and on…
Then, there’s my aunt’s house, which is now our house since she passed away. Six months ago, Mike and I vowed that we would enjoy this little fixer-upper-summer-project. We decided over artisan beer and pizza that we’d rip up carpets to expose hardwood floors, scrape wallpaper and paint the surfaces a nice beige-gray color from Pottery Barn. We’d landscape the sidewalks with English boxwoods and cut back wild bushes to reveal pretty stonework on the foundation.
Yeah, right. I haven’t lifted one finger, other than to wipe tears off my face because I can’t stand to be in my aunt’s house. It’s as if I’ve had some type of delayed reaction to her death that makes it nearly impossible to be around her things. I walk into the living room, spot one of her many watercolors soaking up dirt on the walls, and I walk right back out. There’s something about parting with her belongings that makes me feel like I’m getting rid of her memory. But I don’t need another china cabinet. I don’t need two more bedroom suites or another chest of drawers from the 1950s. I don’t want to haggle over them in an estate sale, either.
I’m just unsettled.
Houses are a funny thing. They’re a burden of bricks and mortar, but a solid presence that stands for something much more than an address. Whenever I look over at my aunt’s house, I feel like she’s close by. She’s still here, even though I know she’s gone there.
So now this house has become a monument that makes me feel both safe and sad. It also makes me feel sick when the home owners insurance and tax bills are stuffed in the mailbox on the same day. It makes me feel greedy to hold on to a piece of property that would make a wonderful starter home for a young family, or a retirement home for an elderly couple (or single). It feels wasteful to continue paying utility companies to keep the life on in the house. It also feels like I’m spoiled for having a second home to rely on when my kitchen is in shambles or the cooling system freezes. It feels immature to have a garage full of toys and hobbies, a space Mike has come to call his frat house.
Yet this cottage isn’t full of fond memories. This is the place associated with her illness. It’s the place that served as a type of assisted living with two caregivers located directly next door. When I do peek into the TV room, I see a new, leather lift chair that carried her from a sitting to a standing position three or four times. I see the indentations on the carpet where the wheels of a hospice bed were stationed. I hear the clicking, ticking sound of an anniversary clock, an eerie reminder that she bought the house two years ago this week.
And because of these things, I’ve decided to sell.
No, dear readers and neighbors, I’m not ready to show the house. But I’m ready to part with it. I’m ready to let go of the weight that’s holding me back. I need to remember that my aunt was a real estate agent and she bought houses as investments and sold them for profits. These structures were places to hang her hat, not her heart. During the brief moments that I’m feeling more confident, I imagine her saying, “Sell it, honey. Get what you can and get out from under all this trouble!” I can also hear her chanting, “Never fear! Auntie’s near!” She would sing this line into the telephone whenever I called to complain of losing my way.
But now, I need to find my way back across the sidewalk into my home, where my family lives and loves. I need to see her place for exactly what it is: a ranch-style house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, situated on a large lot with access to leading schools and city conveniences.
It’s said that we can’t take any of this stuff with us when it’s our time to go, but I’m grateful that my artist auntie left more than a few paintings for me to hang on the walls of my TV room. And when I glance at “The Old Homeplace,” I’ll have no fear. Auntie’s near.
Like many Americans, I can’t help but reflect on the events that shook our nation twelve years ago today, and like most adults, I remember exactly where I was and what I was thinking on September 11, 2001.
My memories of the days that followed aren’t nearly as vivid, but I remember one thing very clearly: there were American flags everywhere.
They were flying on private homes. They adorned t-shirts and other articles of clothing. And they were fluttering on moving vehicles.
I found this fascinating. Not just because I’d never before seen American flags flying on automobiles as though they were paraphernalia for a sports team, but because the flags were so easily damaged, which seemed to defeat the purpose of flying them.
As a Girl Scout, I was taught all the rules about how to handle and treat a flag. As a young adult, I followed the national debate over the issue of defacing and even burning flags as a sign of protest.
And yet, in the days and months immediately following September 11, 2001, people were damaging their flags in the name of patriotism.
At the time, I wasn’t particularly upset by this phenomena; I simply found it interesting.
But now, twelve years later, the tattered flags represent something much greater to me: while America initially came together after 9 11, we’ve since been tearing apart – kind of like those flags waving on the cars.
I think that’s because some people equate patriotism with pride, pride with winning and winning with defeating an enemy.
There have been and always will be plenty of enemies to our country, we don’t need to be creating them. But some people seem intent on doing so by pointing fingers at immigrants, people with different religious beliefs, people with different political ideas, people who are poor, etc.
The list goes on and on.
Each time fingers point, I hear the American flag rip a bit more.
That’s because our flag represents a country that was founded by immigrants. A country that welcomed people who didn’t have the same religious beliefs as the establishment. A country that encouraged diverse ways of thinking. A country that has a rich tradition of helping those who are down on their luck. Yet, we are attacking our own ideals and history.
On this twelfth anniversary of September 11, I hope that people focus not only on all the lives that were lost on that horrible day but on how our subsequent actions illuminated the possibility of creating a brighter future for our children.
We recognized the power of coming together as a country to help each other.
We recognized how much we can accomplish when united rather than divided.
We recognized how we can use our diverse strengths to support each other rather than to tear each other down.
And we recognized what happens when we live can live up to ideals represented by our flag: a flag that may be a bit torn and ripped but still stands for a compassionate, caring and idealistic country.
At least that’s what I’m teaching my children.
I’m certainly hoping they have reason to believe me.
I spent my childhood living thousands of miles from my grandparents.
In those days before the internet or cell phones, I wrote letters by hand, carefully addressed envelopes, licked stamps, stuck envelopes in a metal mailbox and knew that in four days, my grandparents might finally read my words.
Phone calls were rare and only occurred after 5:00 PM, on weekends and on holidays when the long-distance rates went down. Since answering machines and voicemail hadn’t been invented yet, we never even know if we missed a phone call.
In other words, I never had the opportunity to develop particularly close relationships with my parents’ parents. But that doesn’t mean I was deprived.
I had three women, all old enough to be my grandmother, who stepped into my life and shaped it.
In fact, they are still shaping it.
Carolyn: Even at a young age, I never completely understood my mother’s relationship with Carolyn, which can be summed up by Mom’s statement “I can’t believe she wore a bikini top and cut-off shorts in the airport on her way back from Hawaii. She’s the same age as my mother!”
But Carolyn, like my mother, was a journalist, and the two shared a love of meeting new people and pursuing the next story. She was one of Mom’s best friends, and I’m forever grateful.
Carolyn changed my life by having the guts to say things no one else did.
When I made the junior high basketball team, she said “I am so glad you are more than just smart. You can’t just be smart. You have to be more than that.”
I tried to tell her I’d only made the team because my mom was on the board of education, but she shut me down. “What you say is what you believe. And what you believe is what you become.”
When I came home from camp with a handmade autograph book, Carolyn was one of the first people to sign it. Even though she and my grandmother were both born in 1909, her handwriting looked nothing like my grandmother’s small, careful script. Instead, she wrote with a loopy flourish more typical of my peers. In my autograph book, she wrote, “The most important thing you’ll ever wear is your expression.”
From then on, that was my favorite quote.
Ivy’s passion was birds, and her backyard was like an oasis. She always expected my brother and me to treat the natural world with respect, and we learned to heed her advice.
When Ivy first came into my life, she was always a part of a team: Ivy and Joe. But after decades of marriage, Joe surprised all of us by leaving her. Ivy was probably devastated, but, from my perspective, she never let it show.
She held her head high, stayed involved and active and always had an open door, a welcoming smile and stories to tell.
Ivy didn’t teach through her words; she taught through her actions. And her actions said life isn’t defined by our circumstances but by how we react to them.
As a child, I thought love was a finite resource, and each person only had so much to give.
Ruby forever changed that.
Ruby had several daughters, including Carrie, who was my favorite babysitter. Yet, Ruby always treated me as though I were incredibly special and important to her. I couldn’t understand why she cared so much about me when she had so many other girls to love, but I also absolutely adored her for it.
Because of her, I learned that love may be a precious resource, but it actually grows the more you share it.
I will never believe that a cosmic scorecard exists to balance the fair and unfair elements of our lives, but I do believe that God puts certain people in our lives to help teach us what we need to know and how to reach our true potential.
Carolyn, Ivy and Ruby didn’t share my DNA, but they did share pieces of themselves with me. As a mom, I’m trying to pass those pieces on to my own children.
And that, more than blood lines or marriage, will always make them part of my family.
This afternoon, I was folding laundry on a piece of plywood that serves as a temporary countertop while our kitchen is being renovated. I have to be careful not to snag good shirts on splintered wood, which leaves stab marks in the palms of my hands whenever I try to wipe crumbs off the surface. But those wounds don’t hurt half as bad as watching a little girl grieve…for her sister.
Maryn walked into the room and wasn’t amused by my fight with a fitted bed sheet. She crashed into my waist, wrapping herself in the fabric still warm from the dryer.
She began to cry.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. This isn’t our dramatic child, so when she gets upset, we know it’s for a good reason.
“Ava won’t play with me.”
Where is she? I inquired. And then I heard her. She was on the iPad, FaceTiming a friend from school. There were squeals and giggles that symbolized a close friendship between two tweenage girls. A duo. But three’s a crowd.
Maryn’s heart was breaking. ”She doesn’t want to play anything with me anymore,” she cried.
I walked over to the couch and awkwardly pulled Maryn onto my lap. Her hot cheeks were soaked with tears.
“She played with you all summer. Every single day,” I began. ”You got attached to her, didn’t you?”
“Then she started school and became the teacher’s helper, which means she doesn’t even ride with you anymore because she has to be there so early.”
She nodded again.
“Now, when she comes home from school, she goes to her room,” I continued. ”After a while, someone calls for her on the phone or the iPad, and she talks to them instead. Am I right?” I asked.
She fell back into my shoulder and cried harder.
“And you miss her.”
I didn’t notice a gap between my girls once they were in school together. Ava, age 10, and Maryn, age 7, have been inseparable since the day they were introduced. Now, it’s the first of many breakups.
Ava is changing. I expected this. What I didn’t expect was Maryn’s grief. I never imagined her feeling so lost or so left out in our own home. I was an only child, so I never had a brother or sister to play with. I never had anyone to idolize. I never had that connection.
“What would you like to play?” I asked her.
“Anything,” she sobbed. ”Barbies. School. Anything.”
Maryn sniffed and wiped her nose on my shoulder. She breathed in hard and let out an exhausted sigh. A lump hardened in my throat. She’s slowly losing her best friend, for a while I assume, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I lifted Maryn aside and told her I’d be back in a second. Downstairs in my office, Ava was on the computer developing a PowerPoint presentation. (Hey — at least it’s school related FaceTime!).
Ava said goodbye to her friend when she saw my expression.
“What….?” she asked, sheepishly.
“Maryn is upstairs, crying, because she wants to play with you,” I told her. ”And she’s very sad because you haven’t been paying any attention to her lately.”
“Oh,” Ava said, her shoulders slumping.
“You’re getting older. You’re in fifth grade. You have your own friends and your own fun,” I continued. ”But she misses you, and all she wants is to have a little of your time.”
Ava sat there for a moment. ”Am I in trouble?” she asked.
No. You’re in a different stage of life, I explained. There’s no fault in that. It’s just part of it.
But Maryn doesn’t understand.
“A half-hour would mean so much,” I prodded.
Ava nodded again and walked upstairs. I heard her call Maryn’s name and then I heard two feet hit the hardwood floor and pound across the room.
That’s when I sat down in this chair, closed out of PowerPoint and opened up the blog site to write this post. I had to capture the moment that my oldest child took another step forward, rather invisibly to her mother, who doesn’t understand sibling rivalry or sibling bond. Yet, I envy those girls. Even on their worst days of bickering and tattling, I envy their love.
Next August (possibly July), Ava will attend a different school. She and Maryn won’t be together again until her senior year. Then, it will be Ava’s turn to take the gigantic step away from home. Away from all of us. When this happens, I’ll be stationed at the same kitchen counter (which better be made of quartz by then), crying over a much lighter load of laundry. But I feel certain that Maryn will be right there with me.