Roadtrip Surprise

You may wonder how it is that one ends up installing a luggage cargo rack….in the middle of a Dick’s Sporting Goods parking lot…in the middle of Indiana…on the 3rd of July.  The steps for such an occurrence are really quite easy to follow and listed below:

1.  Back in January, you make a grand statement that you can simply no longer stand driving a mini-van and when faced with hefty repair costs, you trade in the 7-year-old, 130,000 mile van for a smaller, more fun-to-drive crossover (so what?  Nine years in I went a wee bit diva on this whole motherhood thing and wanted a smaller car!)
2.  It’s winter.  It’s Chicago.  The AWD is great and so is driving the car around town.   You can actually fit into parking spaces, enjoy your turning radius and never give those side-sliding-doors a second thought.   Hasta la vista, mini-van!
3.  Spring brings roadtrips and just a few in, your family is desperately missing the cargo space of a mini-van.  You declare that you’ll get one of those luggage racks that go on top of the car….someday.
4.  Summer holidays are here, you still haven’t gotten around to getting that luggage rack.  You look back at your family packed in like sardines for a week at the beach, process the safety concerns and miserable faces and once again declare that you need to get one of those racks…someday.  But in the meantime, “come on…it’s fun to travel 5+ hours with a bike helmet and a berry cobbler on your lap!   Think of it as an adventure!”
5.  An hour into beach bound drive, your son declares that he is going to throw up.  You furiously toss around bags, snacks and a bunch of other stuff to uncover a plastic bag for him and pull over on a rainy turnpike to re-pack car.  Thinking how dangerous this is you vow to get that luggage rack soon.
6.  The boy pukes and when you pull into a rest stop to clean, you coincidentally park behind someone traveling in the same car model as you, with the same number of kids and a roof luggage rack!  “Excuse me!”, you question them on the model number and solicit a review out of them.
7.  You find the nearest luggage rack dealer and call to learn that they carry the very rack that the strangers just recommended.  Bingo!  Just a few miles off the highway, you pull in and its waiting for you at the counter.
8.  You spend 45 minutes in a hot parking lot sweating and installing the brand spank’in new luggage rack with kids chirping in with excitement, questions, commentary, taps on the leg and offers to “help”.  While you pretend not to notice the stares and whispers of bystanders, you hope that your children will pretend not to notice the curse words you’re muttering under your breath.
9.  Back on the road, luggage rack on top, you say, “you know, when its time to replace the other car, maybe we should look into a mini-van.”

First Trip

I attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa this past weekend.  My assignment was to use a specific joke (“the string joke”) in a universally recognizable voice (valley girl, Elmo, Evangelical minister, etc).  I chose a combination of Chicago/Boston sports guy and what follows is my first piece of fiction writing.  Thanks for reading.
First Trip
In Beantown for work, Mike learned in his first thirty minutes to not call it Beantown.  Back home in the Windy City no one cared if you called it the Windy City, the Second City or the city of broad shoulders.
But as he’d been told, rather scolded by the cabbie, not Boston.  “Baawston” the cabbie pronounced as he smacked his gum and darted in and out of lanes of traffic, “‘ain’t no Beantown.  Where you from anyway?”  the cabbie asked.

“Chicago” Mike answered.

The cabbie kept smacking, “yep, I can tell.  The way you drag that A…Chicaaaago”.  He shook his head back and forth exasperated.
Annoyed, Mike rolled his eyes yet feigned appreciation and looked out the window.  
As a new recruit, this was Mike’s first solo business trip.  He could fake casual with everyone else, but his senses knew he’d never been east of Indiana and were on high alert, soaking in new things at every turn.
His eyes were not used to the sight of threatening sea water buddying up to the Logan runway.  How did the pilot know to stop before plunging the plane into the sea?  
His ears were adjusting to the echo of horns of boats and barges wafting over the waves as they requested permission from each other to pass.
His nose picked up a distinct and unique combination that smelled something like salt water mixed with the must of old cobblestones.
Even his sense of direction and rational thought were challenged as the cab went deep into the dark, subway-tiled tunnel and emerged just 6 minutes later having crossed the harbor (or, as his cabbie said “hahbah”) and in the middle of the bustling neighborhood his cabbie called Back Bay.
Hoping to make the most of his inaugural trip to Boston, Mike flew out a day early.  When the trip was booked he’d have no way of knowing he was scheduled to arrive smack dab in the middle of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup.
Much to his surprise, and everyone else’s, his beloved Blackhawks were playing for the cup, and of all opponents, against the Boston Bruins!  He and his dad used to watch the Hawks together when he was a kid.  His dad worked the night shift and wasn’t home a lot. But he always made time for the Hawks.  Knowing it would grant him access to his father, Mike learned everything he could about hockey just so he could position himself next to the big guy on the sofa during a game.  He’d settle in just close enough to catch the contagious and impassioned fever his dad had for the Hawks, but far enough away that’d be out of arm’s reach when the old man would grab for something in frustration and yell at the TV behind clenched teeth.  When Mike was lucky, his pop would grab him around the shoulders, pull him into his big chest and bury his knuckles into his hair saying, ” how ’bout that one, Mickey?  Ay?  How ’bout our Hawks?”
Lost in a wave of nostalgia Mike thought to himself, If my old man could see me now.  Me, a big time corporate guy…here in Boston on the company’s dime.
He pulled his worn hat down on his forehead, subconsciously rubbed the logo of a feathered chief and looked up straight thru the roof of the car into the heavens.  I’ll make you proud, Pops.  Me and our Hawks, we’ll make you proud.
Shit!  What time was it?  He checked his watch still set to Central time then frantically reached in his pocket to confirm with his phone.  Crap!  He’d forgotten about the time change…the game!  The game!  It had to be the 2nd period already.
“Sir,” he pleaded, “can you get me to the nearest sports pub?  I need to catch the hockey game.”
“No, I can not”, the taxi cab driver answered matter-of-factly.
“What?” Mike was confused.
The driver continued, “I ain’t taking you to watch no hockey game with that cap on”, and nodded in the rear view mirror at Mike’s Blackhawks ball cap.
“Oh geez!” said Mike, “I’ll take it off, now just take me to a place where I can see the game.”  He grabbed the hat from his head and frustratingly stuffed it in his pocket.
“No way, man” the cabbie continued.  “Let me tell you a joke.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mike questioned.
The cabbie answered chomping his gum…there was that smack again, “so a string walks into a bar and asks for a drink and the bartender says we don’t serve strings.  So he went outside, twisted himself up and walked back in.  The bartender said, ‘I said we don’t serve strings’,” the cabbie was pleased with his joke.  While Mike, who was growing more and more impatient, only heard the way the words bar and bartender had been robbed of their Rs.
Mike waited, then turned his hands to the ceiling in a helpless gesture and raised his eyebrows, “yeah, I know that joke, but you forgot the ending.  The string tells the barrrtender I’m not a string, I’m a frayed knot.” Mike added emphasis to the AR sound to make his point.
The cabbie shrugged his shoulders then focused his eyes straight ahead to the road and mocked, “don’t matter, with or without that hat you’re a Hawks fan from Chicaaago and I ain’t taking you to no pub to watch the game.”
Mike rolled his own eyes, and pulled the score up on his Smartphone.  Phew! The Hawks were leading 2-0.  He smirked in the rear view mirror, settled into his seat and put his cap back on.  Satisfied, he looked up through the cab roof, again to the heavens and muttered, “well hey, aren’t the Bruins from Boston the same Bruins from Beantown that are getting their asses handed to them by our Chicago Blackhawks right now, Pops?”

He’s a Good Dad.

He’s a good dad.
He helps them plant a garden, plays catch and chases behind them as they learn to ride a bike.
He’s a good dad.
He memorizes the names of their teachers, Star Wars ships and Shel Silverstein poems.
He’s a good dad.
He has a standing bet with them when their rival baseball teams play one another.  The stakes are high since the winner gets to choose the milkshake flavor as the victory treat.
He’s a good dad.
He abides by the unspoken line that’s been drawn in our parenting team strategy.  I plan, he executes.  He assesses, I jump.
He takes them fishing and camping, I do trips to the museum and theatre.  I schedule the appointments and he checks the wiggly teeth.  While I swoop in with a kiss for a boo-boo, he swoops in with a band-aid.  He studies the wound up close and declares that the injury isn’t in need of stitches.  Without taking one look at the cut, I’m already starting the car and phoning the ER.
He’s a good dad.
Together we are one part keepers of the magic, and one part disciplinarians.  We hide elves during the holidays and distribute time-outs all year long.
He’s a good dad.
He is just as interested in their report card and test scores as I am.
While there are times when I wish he’d be more selective with the battles he picks, he cares enough to have an opinion.  Better to choose too many battles, than none at all.
He’s a good dad.
He plays along when they tell him he looks like Daddy Warbucks and smiles when princesses Belle and Ariel serve him imaginary tea.
He’s a good dad.
He coaches their teams and times their swim meets.
He hasn’t been able to watch a news story about a tragedy involving children since ours were born.  While I, on the other hand, am drawn to such stories as if subjecting myself to suffering can somehow relieve others of theirs.  Even knowing this I can’t help but tell him details, he simply shakes his head no to quiet me.
He’s a good dad.
When our son was in the NICU as a newborn, he’d wake every two hours to phone the nurses for an update and then stay up to sterilize bottles and tubes, so I could pump and keep my milk supply going.
He’s a good dad.
Without clergy available and knowing such a thing is possible in our faith, he baptized our son as he was rushed into emergency surgery at the ripe old age of three days.
When we later learned that our son had food allergies, he educated himself enough to learn small details like the difference between potassium lactate and sodium lactate.  He has attended every allergy appointment in the years that have followed.  He holds our son while he gets his blood drawn.  I steady myself in the hallway and conceal my own tears.
He’s a good dad.
He is the only other person who really understands what it was like to unexpectedly lose our second child just days before she was to be born.
Just as I labored and delivered our child, so did he.  His grief caused him to fall and stumble to the ground just as hard as I fell, and he worked just as ferociously to climb his way back up.  He continues to miss her everyday, just as much as I do.
He’s a good dad.
When deciding if we had the strength to continue to try to grow our family, he kept files on international adoptions and attended uncomfortable fertility-based medical appointments.
He gently explained that while he hoped for a big family, he respected that I would be agreeing to put my body through more pregnancies.
He’s a good dad.
During those subsequent pregnancies, he made countless middle-of-the-night drives to the hospital when we needed reassurance, worried about every lack of fetal movement.  Never once telling me I was overreacting, he sat in dark parking lots, idling a mini-van and tending to our young children while, in the hospital windows above, I sat hooked up to a fetal heart monitor at 2:00, 3:00….4:00 am.
He’s a good dad.
When our subsequent daughters were born he laughed and wept to the point that the doctors had to reassure him that the sound of a baby’s cry was a good sound.  Having known the anguish of hearing silence when a baby emerges from her mother, he choked out his response, “I know….I know.”  He understands just what a miracle it is when a baby’s birth is accompanied by the sound of her cry.
He’s a good dad.
He indulges in crazy road trips and travel ideas.  He has the patience for Disney World and Niagara Falls, as well as the interest for London and New York.
He’s a good dad.
He works hard so they can play hard.  And he works hard so we can play hard with them.
He’s a good dad.
He views parenthood with enough realism to to survive it, with enough humor to enjoy it, and with enough perspective to be grateful for it.
He’s a good dad.
He calls them nicknames like “Dog Breath” and after I urge him to do so, he softens it to “Stinky Toes”, though maintaining the harsher version is toughening them up.
When discussing social dynamics, I tell them to walk away, he agrees.  Then whispers “but hey, don’t be the one to start it, but be the one to end it”
He’s a good dad.
He is the keeper of the only other set of eyes that welcomed our children to the world with as much anticipation as my own.  He is also the keeper of the only other heart that will both swell and break with their every accomplishment and defeat.
He is the only other person who is as deeply amused and equally frustrated with these little maniacs as I am.
He’s a good dad.
He makes pancakes for them on Saturday mornings and popcorn for them on movie nights.  He teaches them how to play Euchre and Trouble and talks during Career Day at their schools.
He’s a good dad.
He is the co-parent of my three favorite people.  He is exactly one half of both their nature and their nurture and one of the biggest forces in shaping their legacy.
He’s a good dad.
He’ll go bananas when he realizes I wrote and published this.  But just like everything else, once he settles into the idea, he’ll smile.
He’s a good dad.
He treats them well.  He treats me well.  He treats his friends and parents well.  He treats the earth well and treats people well.
He’s a good person.
And he’s a good dad.

Under Summer’s Spell

It’s Day 1 of summer for 2/3 of my little sidekicks.  These are my favorite people to explore with so its on this day that I awake bright and chipper vowing to keep summer carefree yet productive.

Visions of flashcards and tire swings both claim contradicting space in my head as I quietly make plans to clean out the laundry room and visit the aquarium and the planetarium….again and again! Oh wait, did my membership expire?

We’ll play and run barefoot in the grass, and swim and read….read so many books.  Maybe I should make one of those reading reward charts, or join the library’s junior book club?  
Yes!  Because this summer I’m going teach one to read, potty train another and work on algebra with the oldest. 
But the memories.  Oh, are we going to make memories.  We’ll camp out in the backyard and build a treehouse.  Yes, let’s get the plans and really study them together.  I wonder if there’s an engineering camp I could sign them up for?
Hold on.  Unstructured, no schedules!  We’ll hike as long as discoveries keep presenting themselves.  We’ll throw stones into a creek and invent stories of where those stones go on their float.  We can document their stories in homemade journals.   
If we miss naps or stay up late, it’s no big deal.  Ah-ha…we’ll go to a drive-in movie and watch a meteor shower!
But we won’t be so tired that we eat junk food.  Nope.  It’s all fresh, homemade and fruits and vegetables from a farmers market this summer.  I need to get one of those market baskets, they’re so cute.  Add it to the list, right below water bottles.  We’re drinking lots and lots of water this summer.  Healthy, hydrated skin.  Add a visor and sunscreen to the list too.  Scratch that, there’s no list in summer.

And we’ll picnic!  In fact, I’ll carry a blanket with me so we can stop to picnic anytime we want.  We’ll lay on the ground and make pictures out of the clouds in the sky.  I’ll be due for a rest because I’m going to rise early every morning and jog as the sun comes up.

Or I could take them to the gym childcare center while I exercise.  But we’ll swim together after!  And they’ll jump off the diving board and play Marco Polo in the water.
We’ll invite those friends over for a play date and these friends over for a BBQ.  I’ve been meaning to do so.  But not too much socializing.  We’ll be so connected as a family that their bond as siblings will strengthen and the seeds of family lore will be planted.

We’ll take bike rides.  All of us, as a family!  We’ll shoot basketball hoops and play H-O-R-S-E.  Maybe they should join that basketball league at the park?

We’ll catch up on dentist appointments and ride roller coasters.  Maybe fly a kite, plant a garden, go to a  children’s theatre or learn to play tennis.  Catch lightening bugs and have a lemonade stand.
Poison ivy, humidity, video games and mosquito bites do not exist in my summer visions.  Just glorious, long lazy days!  But then why am I already feeling panicky about how fast its going?  Its only Day 1, and I worry, will we fit it all in?  Will they fall behind their classmates and teammates when the reality of September hits?

But for now, we have June, July and August.  And for the next few months they are mine again.  Together we’ll do it all!  And we’ll do nothing.  I feel both the privilege and responsibility of making these times rich with significance, knowledge and history.  Summer is special…..I must make it so.

But the truth is that summer is special just by being summer.  Special can’t be orchestrated or planned.  Special just is.  I can take the pressure off myself and enjoy it…whatever shape and form summer takes.  Camps, no camps, teams, trips or hikes.  As the thoughts and plans for summer swirl in my head and bump into each other causing indecision and confusion, I make myself another promise: focus on today.  And for today, Day 1, we went to a Children’s Museum, created a fairy garden and cleaned out the car….and tomorrow might be the grocery store and a nap.  Either way, summer is already off to a pretty special start.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the words associated with this one come together to form the following story for me:

This is my mountain.  Sure the nickname is presumptuous.  Its a little inside joke I share with myself.  I love Seattle and I love Mt Rainier.  I love how it changes color and reveals different parts of itself on different days based on the cloud cover.  For as long as I’ve known my husband I’ve described to him this very vantage point as my favorite, Mt Rainier from an airplane window.  It’s like someone took a giant fist and punched it up through the clouds.  Experiencing it while suspended in the sky can shift my mind to a spiritual place and make me feel connected to lost loved ones, the heavens, nature and all of its beauty.
So its fitting, and ironic, that 15 years later, my husband flies into SeaTac at least once a month for work.  In a thoughtful gesture he snaps a photo for me whenever the view of my mountain presents itself.  At home in the flat lands of the Midwest with three young children navigating school schedules and carpools, I’m both envious and not envious of his trips.
But mostly I am glad that he takes this photo on his trips because it makes me feel connected to a place I love and to a person I love.  It provides an important reminder that while I am bogged down with it all, there is more.  Sure, these errands and schedules are the biggest things in my world, but the world is much bigger than this.

My husband was gone this week and it was a long week.   A really long week. The kids were sick and sleepless nights ensued filled with non-stop laundry cycles.  During the days, spring activities were in full swing with sports and end-of-the-school-year events.  Busy, sick, tired. That was our week.
We were all very happy when he got back from his trip.  Within ten minutes of his arrival, I grabbed his phone and flipped through the camera roll desperate to find this shot of my mountain.  As I looked at it, I smiled and my shoulders loosened as I started to not just see it but experience it.  And the reverse, I know my husband was just as eager to be home with us as I was to see my mountain and momentarily escape.  He hugged our two-year-old.  She coughed and vomited all over the front of his shirt. I put the phone down, sighed a goodbye to my mountain, and grabbed some paper towels.

Backseat Questions

Over the farm fields of Indiana, a sun set and colored the sky with shades of pinks and yellows before they were eclipsed with darker hues of purple and navy.  Just a tease of summer’s sky as warm days still gave way to cool nights on this Sunday evening in early May.  The fields awakening after their dormant winter.  Soil newly tilled, seeds freshly planted, crops not yet crisp with growth.  In the air and on the ground I could feel the change of season…it was knocking, beckoning, but still forthcoming.

After a long weekend spent outside readying yards and gardens for summer, my tired little family traveled quietly through the middle of America.   With our wind chapped cheeks and sore muscles, a hum of a Disney DVD sounded from the back of the car, as a hushed conversation between my husband and I filled the front of the car.  Ohio to Illinois, four hours over the familiar route that unites my life as a parent with my life as a child.  Lake to city, it is on this route, and in these lands, that my family roots have been laid and grow deeper and wider with each generation.

As the sky darkened and the road stretched out, an important statement presented itself, made by my 9-year-old son, “Mom, I don’t really know what I was born to do.”

Fueled by having spent Mother’s Day with two women I admire, my mother and mother-in-law, and by being celebrated myself that day, I conjured up the energy to engage.  “What do you mean, Jack?”

I knew it was important to keep the conversation going.  It was as if he had tossed a tiny pebble at my feet, and now it was up to me to pick it up and throw it back.  He wanted to play, to talk more.  In the intimacy of the dark car on a long drive after a tiring day, this was his way of slowly inviting me in.  Relaxation fell upon us and self-consciousness slipped away.

“You know, what I was put me here to do in life.  I don’t know what that is.”

I took a deep breath and my husband turned down the radio, but yielded to my response.  As my son gets older, I know he will turn to his father more often with questions and for advice.  It makes me happy for them both that he has this resource at the ready.  But it makes me very proud that, for now, this is still my territory with my son.  Mother-to-son, rather mother-to-child.  He and I share a bond of curiosity, pensiveness and deep thoughts that can be both productive and distracting.  So for right now, these kind of bigger, more thought-provoking conversations are still my stronghold.

Our best conversations usually come in the car during a drive.  A captive audience for him with me behind the wheel, and a captive audience for me with him strapped in his car seat.  When he was a preschooler he asked me how dinosaurs went to Heaven if their bones were in the ground. When he was very young Jack encountered a child in a wheel-chair and while I drove we talked about what he would say to the child and he replied, “I would tell him that I love him.”

It is in this medium that we have discussed race, adoption and marriage for all people who love one another.  In lighter moments it is from the backseat that he has planned out who will feed his pet goldfish when he goes to college, and more recently asked about where he and his sisters will sleep when they return to our house as adults with their own children during the holidays.

Its no surprise that as he has gotten older, Jack’s questions haven’t been as frequent.  He has grown and our family has grown.  With this growth has come chaos and a middle row of fussing baby sisters to  separate any sort of third row conversation from the front seat.

So on this night in the cornfields of Indiana, as the sun set on Mother’s Day, I was more than happy to address this statement that made its way to the front of the car and questioned what my son was born to do with his life.

I explained to Jack that he didn’t need to know what he was born to do just yet.  That many of us are still trying to figure it out.  We talked about how important it is to try many things so you know what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy. I told him that he can look for some clues.  He asked what I meant and I explained that some things come easier and some things may challenge him and that’s a clue.    I told him that another clue is to think about how he feels when he is doing certain things.

We talked about how he may think he was made to do something at one stage of his life, and something else during another stage of his life.  Interests change and passions change as responsibilities change.

In closing I said that one thing I knew for sure was that throughout every stage, I believe we are made to make the world a better place.  I added emphasis to my tone and said that we should always make a room happier just by entering it.  We should treat others in a way that will make them smile and better their day.  And that we should treat the earth in a way that will make it a better place for animals and humans to live.

As an example, I told him that whenever a new baby is born I always say the same thing in the card or congratulatory message that our family sends.  He asked what that message is and I told him:

“Welcome.  May the World be good to you, and you to It.”

He seemed to ponder this message and silence settled back into the car as my family made its way from the home state of my childhood to the home state of my children’s childhood.  On this mid-spring evening when the blossoms and crops of summer sat ready to bud, I felt another shift in seasons because I know that my son’s boyhood will someday give way to manhood.

When this time comes, I hope that I always let him know that I am open and available for his conversations and questions.  Although I know that as he grows he will work through these thoughts with friends, colleagues, lovers and with his own children.  But for now, he’s a boy and I’m his mother and this is our thing:  back seat questions and front seat responses, working together to formulate our shared answer.  On this Mother’s Day drive, I sat back and felt deeply satisfied with the mothering I had just offered to my oldest child, the boy who made me a mother.

A moment later, another statement made its way from the back of the car to the front of the car as this same 9-year-old boy laughed and said, “I think there are crumbs in my underwear.”  I smiled and turned to my husband, who was already starting to address it.

May’s Mighty Moments

May is my sentimental season.  Turning the page on winter, blooms and color abound. Green and sunshine return to these longer days.  Flowers burst open with hope and renewal.  This is fitting since May is Mary’s month and traditionally considered to represent the beginning of new life.

But with newness, comes nostalgia for me and the beauty of the season engulfs my emotions.  I can get teary-eyed at any moment:  the end-of-the-school-year celebrations, appreciation activities for teachers…even a special day to recognize our neighborhood crossing guard might make me weepy and overwhelmed with both gratitude and the passage of time.

As Mother’s Day approaches I not only indulge in having myself celebrated, but enjoy taking the time to reflect on all of the wonderful women in my life.  Some mothering children, some mothering parents, some mothering each other.  All of us women.  All of us deserving of celebration this month.

My grandma is one of my favorite women.  She turns 91 in May and was given a middle name to match the month that claims the birthdays of both she and her daughter, my mother.  In honor of these special women, one of my daughters has the same middle name as my grandmother, May, while the other shares a middle name with my mother.  These ladies bookend my lifetime and share not only names, but also something else: spirit.  Its this spirit that both of my daughters share with each other, and with my mother, my grandmother, my aunts and me.  This mighty spirit is a wild mixture of kindness and pragmatic optimism.  Its a little bit crazy, very compassionate, relatively funny, a whole lot stubborn and quite determined.  As a mother, witnessing it in my daughters can fill me with both beaming pride and teeth-clenching frustration.  Yet as a daughter and granddaughter, observing it in my mother and grandmother, I am surrounded with a warm familiarity and admiration.  And when I identify it in myself…well, lets just say it can make me blush with recognition and amusement.

The men in our family jokingly pay tribute to my grandmother’s maiden name and call it the “Linn woman spirit”.  More recently, we’ve enjoyed the popularity of Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks and borrowed his nickname to reference the chaos our daughters can leave in their wake.  When our girls are causing trouble or getting into mischief, my husband will look at me and say, “Linsanity! I tell you, Linsanity!”.  We even hung a #17 Linsanity towel in their closet and once in a while my husband drops the reference on me when we’re in a disagreement and my stubbornness is unrelenting.

Like many two and five year-olds, our girls can be pretty unrelenting themselves.  As we sweetly tuck these little she-devils in at night, our oldest will ask what’s for breakfast the following day.  She wakes up swinging.  She’s ready to go.  In fact, she’s ready to go, all of the time!  She came out of the womb screaming and that piss and vinegar has stuck with her ever since.

While I feel the strong challenges of parenting these fiery personalities, I know it will serve them well.  I want to manage it, but I never want to prohibit it or push it down.  My grandma showed me by example, just how important this spirit is.  

The youngest of six children, my grandma was born just eighteen months after women were given the right to vote and on the heels of the first wave of the feminist movement.   I don’t know if she knew what a feminist was back then, or if she would describe herself as leaning in or leaning back.  But I do know that anything she did, she did with a combination of spunky heartiness, and good hearted humor.   She raised four children on a farm.  She gave birth to twins…in late August!  She worked in a factory at night and invented fun games for grand kids out of garage sale finds during the day.  One such garage sale find was the Marlo Thomas album “Free to Be You and Me” and she held my hands as we danced to it around the dining room.  She never wore skirts, carried a pocket book filled with cough drops, was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and worked alongside my grandpa as a church custodian.  Bossy, frugal yet thoughtful, she sent out birthday cards, but never signed them in case the recipient wanted to reuse them.  She collected extra rolls of paper towels and deodorant when they were on sale and kept them neatly organized for future use.  A worrier, a reminder.  To this day I can’t leave the house without double checking that the coffee pot is unplugged.  Calloused hands and a soft heart, she scrubbed basement floors and made babies giggle by blowing raspberries on their tummies.  

These days its hard to get a glimpse of my grandma’s spirit.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen her, the real her, for quite a long time.  She has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years and spends most of her time in a bed in a nursing home, medicated and sedated.  In a somewhat humorous twist, she actually graduated from Hospice Care.  Yes, that’s true.  She was moved to a pain-management Hospice-based approach a few years ago, but gained enough weight to return to her previous form of care.  We laugh that only someone with her spirit would accomplish such a feat. 

Living several hundred miles away I don’t see my grandma all that often.  Sadly, when I do visit, she doesn’t appear to know who I am or be aware if I am there or not.  But I go when I can, and I take my children, because I believe that even if she can no longer string together days or even hours, she is able to feel a small bit of happiness and a sliver of familiarity and love for maybe only a moment at a time.   

A few weeks ago we visited and my grandma was groggy from a nap.  She couldn’t respond as we eagerly made small talk about things like the weather and the wallpaper.  She didn’t seem sad, but she didn’t seem happy either.  She was there, but really not there.  As we spoke in extra loud voices and attempted to reintroduce ourselves, I noted that her eyes always landed in one place:  on my five-year-old daughter.  The heir of my grandmother’s Linn spirit, and my little “Linsanity”, she skips, she doesn’t walk.  With her blond hair and big blue eyes, she’s contagious.  She’s radiant light.  She’s childhood in a stubbornly sweet, perfect little package. 

Making this realization, I felt that the air suddenly seemed to have an almost palpable current flowing through it.  As if sending a subtle charge to my senses and whispering in my ear, “This….this is important.  Right now.  Right here.  This is sacred.”

Instead of scolding their behavior (which really wasn’t behavior at all just children being children), I actually encouraged my daughters to continue skipping down the nursing home hallway.   I bent down and asked my grandma if she wanted to follow the girls.  To my surprise she muttered something that I couldn’t understand and her lips began to move a bit.  My daughters galloped and ran and propelled by instinct, I wheeled my grandma after them.

The girls giggled and the glorious sound of delighted children echoed through the hallway.  My grandma lifted her chin and showed a small smile.  “Lucy,” I called out to my daughter “Lucy, do that again.”  

“Mommy, do what?”  happily immersed in childhood, laughter surrounds her so much so that she isn’t even aware of its magical power. 

“Laugh, Lucy. Laugh”.

She laughed just at the suggestion of making herself laugh.  And she laughed and laughed and laughed.

Slumped in a wheelchair, my grandma began laughing in response.  The universal language of love and laughter rolled across four generations of women.  One would giggle and the other would answer as happiness spread and filled the stale air with warmth.

Unprompted Lucy ran over and leaped into us, giving us a big hug.  I swallowed down my tears.  “We love you, Grandma,” I stated with clarity and emphasis, as I silently willed those words to permeate their way through the medication, disease and age and find a spot to land and claim as home on my grandmother’s heart.  

To my amazement, my grandma looked at Lucy and said in a shaky voice, “Grandma loves you too”.  Astonished, I looked at her as my heart begged her to say it again.  Had I possibly heard that?  This message of love was delivered to her in this current moment.  But where was her mind and was this response of love from the past or the present?  Was she saying it to me?  Did she think Lucy was me as a child?  Did I imagine it?  Oh just please, let me hear it again.

But of course, I did not.  My grandma returned to her directionless stare, my daughters returned to their directionless gallop and with that, the moment had passed.  

So this is May, my sentimental month.  Its the birth month of both my mother and grandmother.  A time when we celebrate the beauty of the world and the beauty of the women of the world.  Its a month that can trouble me when ending school years and growing children seem to make time fly.  Its a season when the cycle of life is ever present and all around us with renewal and growth.

So in May, the month of mothers, I pause to give thanks for the moment.  Because while she has given me many memories and lessons over a lifetime, my grandma has most recently taught me the value of the moment.  Someday a time may come when you are only able to live in the moment.  But that brief and fleeting moment can be filled with laughter, as long as you don’t let it pass you by.


Our Default Setting – How Getting Egged Helped After The Boston Attack

Confused.  Dismayed.  Stressed.  Distracted.  Sad.  So very sad.

That’s how I’m feeling right now.  I’m sure we’re all feeling some or all of these things right now.

Lingering above my head, there’s this new overarching cloud of grief for the victims of the attack in Boston.  And still swelling below my feet is an older, yet freshly planted lower level of despair for the victims of the massacre in Newtown.

And in between there’s my mind, and my heart.  On a daily basis my heart is breaking and mending as it feels the impact of terrible news stories both in my city and around the world, followed by moments of happiness that I witness in my own home.  On an hourly basis my mind is confused feeling both sadness on a global level and at the same time joy on a very local, personal level.  Its hard to reconcile my own emotions as I process devastating images of a family who has just lost so much, then turn around to see my own child’s beaming smile and bright, alive eyes.  Grief and guilt pulling one way, gratitude and grace pulling another.

To say its been a rough go lately doesn’t do it justice….doesn’t begin to do it justice.  But lately it has been a rough go.

Having lived in Washington DC during 9/11, the anthrax mailings and the sniper case the following year, I’ve been through these times of it being a rough go before.  We all have.  I’ve felt nationwide tragedies and personal tragedies so the ebbs and flows of these emotions are familiar.

Sadly I know that the surge of these current emotions will, with time, recede to a dulled version of those same emotions.  And while they will always be there, never being replaced or going away, eventually they will co-exist with the emotions we like to describe as “normal” emotions.  These emotions feel something like happy, nonchalant, care-free and relaxed.

Isn’t it a wonderful privilege that here in this country, we consider the emotion of carefree happiness to be our normal emotion?  Like its the default setting, the way it should be.  Everything else is an interruption of how we are supposed to feel.

As an adult having gone through some life experiences I now know reality.  And I know that this carefree happiness default setting will unfortunately be interrupted at times by personal and world tragedies.  I know that during those times I will stumble and fall to the ground in despair and somehow, at some point, bravely work my way back up.  But even with that knowledge, it doesn’t make these events any easier, does it?

My children have not yet learned this difficult lesson.  They’ve been told about loss and felt it to a smaller degree when a pet goldfish died or a favorite toy train has been lost.  They know what a sad event it was when their baby sister died and how we’ve made her a part of our family love story.  But I don’t believe at this point they have yet felt the paralyzing fear and anguish that comes in events like the one in Boston this week that make us stumble and fall to the ground both as a society and as individuals.

My husband and I have talked to our kids about horrific events with the appropriate tone.  We’ve explained a bit about 9/11 to our oldest son and after educating ourselves about how to do so, we discussed the school shootings in Newtown.

But this time our children have seemed more concerned and have more questions about the Boston attack.  Perhaps because they’ve been to road races, either participating themselves or standing on the sidelines cheering on their parents as we run by.  Perhaps because the idea of a school shooting is just too much for them to grasp….or (gasp!) perhaps its too easy for them to grasp since they practice lockdown drills and its a common conversation for them like fire drills and tornado drills.  Perhaps because this time it was a bomb and the word bomb is something they only associate with war zones, not the streets of the city they visited last summer to see their mom’s old apartment and office.  Perhaps because the images from Boston on Monday were gruesome.   And while I made conscious efforts to limit their exposure to these images, those images were there from a sunny spring day on a street in Boston.  And thankfully, those images were not there from a dark winter’s day inside a school in Connecticut.

Perhaps or perhaps not.  But I know in my heart that part of what is contributing to their concern is the timing of the Boston attack. In the last week or so its been a rough go for us in our small community.  Two weeks ago I explained to the kids that despite what we’ve learned about litter, they shouldn’t pick up water bottles on the ground at our local park.  At a place where they feel as comfortable as an extension of their own backyard, a report surfaced that water bottles were being filled with Drano causing chemical burns to young children or anyone who opened them.  A few days later, last week we reviewed the stranger danger talk when reports circulated of two adults attempting to lure children to a van by offering candy and the chance to create a phone video.

Our kids seemed genuinely confused and almost angry!  Asking questions like “why are so many bad things happening right now?” and “why would someone want to hurt other people?” followed with a quieted statement that my son muttered to himself (which I knew meant it was really bothering him), “they don’t even know the people they are hurting.  Why would they do that?”

I realized that until now I’ve been prepared to talk with with my children about sad things happening, but not bad things happening.  I’ve considered myself to be pretty open with communication and equipped to provide thoughtful responses about grief and loss.  But it wasn’t until this last week that I knew I was not equipped to talk about evil.

Its not only that I don’t want them to fear evil.  Its that I don’t want them to know evil.  I don’t want them to ever feel the forces of evil either aimed at them, or against someone else.  I don’t want the energy of evil to permeate its way into my household and my children’s happy, carefree default setting.  Bright eyes, contagious giggles, uninhibited glee.  This is how they were made and as parents none of us want any outside force to stain that or take that from our children.

So when the Boston attack came on the heels of the local events described above, I grieved something else.  I grieved the end of my children’s innocence.  I morosely thought to myself, This is it.  This is the week my kids stop being kids.

This morning my son called me to a window at the front of our house.  Trying to gage whether or not this was an emergency and if I did indeed have time to leave the lunches I was packing and the dishwasher I was unloading, I hollered out, “Why?  Is it good or bad?”.

“Well both” he answered.  I braced myself and headed upstairs to the window where I found an egg shattered on it.  We had been egged!  Not full fledged egged…just one egg likely tossed by a neighborhood teenager on a night of mischief.  While I few nagging thoughts made me slightly worried, I really didn’t feel that we were personally targeted or threatened.  Even so, a weight started to fall all around me.

Great.  Not this week!  How will explain this one to the kids?  Someone decided to throw an egg at our window, knowing it would do damage.  What is the right way to talk though pranks and how they can hurt feelings?

But to my surprise, the kids started jumping around delighted, concluding that surely the Easter Bunny must have been the one to put this egg outside our window!  In a swift second our household was literally springing with silliness and joy and giggling and dancing and excited chatter.  My children’s first instinct was that a smashed egg on our window was the act of goodness, not the act of evil.

I took a step back, witnessing this gleeful chaos and thought to myself how I want to freeze it.  I want to preserve it…this innocence, this pure happiness.  I never want it to be spoiled for them or to change for them.

But of course, and heartbreakingly so, it will change as they grow and both personal and world events occur.  My only source of peace in that reality comes with knowing that this week my children experienced their own small level of sadness and trauma.  And while it was interrupted, they returned to their default setting.  They returned to their happiness, and it returned to them.

The Power of I Don’t Know

“What’s for dinner tonight?”
What does your nose smell? Chicken or salmon?
“Who invented radiation?”
Lets look it up on the Internet.
“If a shark and a colossal squid were in a battle, who would win?”
What did that book at the library tell you? The squid, right?
“Where is California?”
Look right here on the map, see?…over there on the west side of the United States of America.
“Do I have swim lessons tonight?”
Remember, you have swim lessons on Monday. Take a look at the calendar…what day is it?
“What’s 4 x 4?”
I bet you can figure that one by taking these pennies and making four piles of four. How many are there?
“Did the Blackhawks win last night?”
The score should be on ESPN any minute now.
“How did the baby get inside of her tummy?”
It starts with love….well sometimes there’s love, and then there’s some other stuff you should know about male and female bodies….let me show you this book.
“Why are there only dinosaur bones left and not their skin?”
The bodies decompose. Remember when we took that trip to the Field Museum and learned about archaeological digs?
“Where are my sunglasses?”
Where did you last have them…in the car, or in the garage?
“When people first came to the United States from other countries, how did they find each other?”
What was that story we heard during your field trip to the Swedish American Museum last year?
“When do sea turtles lay their eggs?”
When we were on vacation in South Carolina we saw a sign about this on the beach. Do you remember what it said?
“Is this Daddy’s favorite song?”
Yes, its Bruce Springsteen so it probably is. But we should ask Daddy, lets go ask him.
“How will I see my best friend in Heaven if he’s Muslim and I’m Christian?”
I don’t know.  I believe you will see him.  But I don’t know.
I don’t know. I really don’t know.
All day long, day after day, our children are turning to us with questions seeking information, wisdom or guidance…and sometimes just pestering, or stalling before bedtime. Its a natural role for us and a natural role for them. It begins with pointing out their belly buttons or toes while we change their diapers. Later it progresses to identifying the color of the shirt we’re slipping over their squirmy toddler head and then to teaching them to count out the coins in our wallets, and to know what the big and little hands on the clock tell us. Its a running dialogue of instruction that stretches over years.
For as long as our children have been alive, we’ve been their guide, their camp director. We point things out to them along the way, and foster their sense of curiosity. Gently guiding, never pushing. We provide clues, offer resources, show support and encouragement to try one way, then try another. We know not to to give the answer, rather we give the gift of learning how to find the answer.
It feels good to be put on to this pedestal of knowledge. Understanding that it won’t always be this way, I’m glad that at this relatively young age my children still think that I have the answers to all of their questions. There’s control in this position.
But the truth is I don’t have all of the answers. And even with amazing resources in my community and at my finger tips, there are some questions that don’t have easy answers. Google can’t tell us everything and neither can Siri.
There are questions that I can only answer with one very honest phrase, “I don’t know.” And that’s ok. Because sometimes I really don’t know. I can help my children form a hypothesis and talk through various possibilities with them. But if I am completely forthcoming, I don’t know.
Some may say that I don’t know is the easy way out, apathetic or giving up. While that may be true sometimes, we need to appreciate that there’s power in I don’t know. There’s a lesson in I don’t know.
I don’t know is brave. I don’t know is confident. I don’t know means I can admit that I don’t know it all.
I don’t know means that I’m willing to work collaboratively to come up with an answer together. I don’t know means I can turn to others to enlighten me, to teach me, and share a lack of certainty with me.
I don’t know means that sometimes I can learn more from the process than from the solution.
I don’t know means that I still have work to do. I don’t know means that I am yearning, seeking and hungry to find the answer. I am still growing when I don’t know.
I don’t know means there are some things that are bigger than me. That some things are bigger than all of the experts and books and wiki entries. I don’t know means that some things are bigger than all of us, bigger than humanity.
So yes, I don’t know is a surrender. Its a surrender to a trust that comes with knowing that there are some things we don’t need to know. Some questions we can’t and won’t ever answer. I don’t know is acceptance and understanding that some things can’t be known by the mind, and only partially known by the soul.
While there is reason to celebrate in our wish to know and our strong desire to get it right. There is both peace and power in being able to appreciate the I don’t know.
So I will help my children to know how to fiercely search to find the answers to their questions….and I will also help my children to know when they don’t know.

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team

Baseball.  America’s favorite past time.  Both in and out of the ballpark, baseball is special.  The sights, sounds and smells of spring, followed by summer….and for a few fans, fall.  The bat making contact with the ball and the roar of the crowd, either in person or over a crackly radio station, can evoke feelings of nostalgia, innocence and youth.

All over we hear stories of how love for a team can cross generations.  Bond father to son, grandfather to grandson, brother to brother.  While I enjoy baseball and so do my daughters, I believe that for my husband, brother, son and father it’s something else.

Just the nature of the game forces an ease among these men that they don’t often indulge in.  With nine long innings they are lulled into the rhythm of a sport which gently unfolds play by play.  Still nursing their busted brackets, at this early point in the season, April baseball is a welcome change of pace from the frenetic nature of March Madness basketball.  Seasons aren’t yet spoiled, injuries haven’t yet happened, trades not yet made.  Bright and shiny uniforms.  For baseball fans, April means beginnings, April means possibility and April means hope.

When our first child was born, both my husband and I would have been thrilled for the gift of either a son or a daughter.  We had a son and I can’t imagine it any other way now.  As he grew from a newborn to infant during his first spring, I had huge, overwhelming moments of gratitude for his health and our newly defined family.   But I also had smaller, sweeter moments of gratitude over those first few months.  One such moment was watching my husband quietly transform to a father.  That’s the thing about parenthood…it happens with one big birth moment, but it also happens with all of those subtle moments of nurturing, caring and sharing yourself with another.

As a new dad, my husband would sing to our little guy and coo him.  Without a collection of traditional more mother-focused lullabies at the ready, my husband would offer “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to our son.

Take me out to the ballgame.
Take me out to the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks.
I don’t care if we never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team.
If they don’t win, its a shame.
For its one, two, three strikes and you’re out
at the ‘ol ball game.

My husband threw in a couple of little twists which always amused my son as he grew a bit older and as a young toddler knew which part of the song was coming next.  My son’s name is Jack, so of course there was always emphasis on the “cracker….JACK”.  Later when we learned that Jack is allergic to peanuts, my husband would add a “yuck” after the “buy me some peanuts” part.  And “root, root, root for the home team” was always replaced with “root, root, root for the Red Legs”.

My husband grew up in Ohio as a Cincinnati Reds fan.  His allegiance crossed generations and was one he shared with his maternal grandfather, his dad, uncles and brothers.  As child during the famous Big Red Machine era, he was just a year old when in a game 7 victory, the Reds won their first World Series in 35 years.  Family legend has it that my in-laws and possibly my husband went to those games.  We have a 1975 National League Cincinnati Reds pennant hanging in our basement, right next to the World Series pennant from the following year.  More than twenty-five years later my husband’s buddies gave him a Reds hat with the team’s autographs as a gift when we got married.

So we had a son and I knew my husband was excited to share his love of the Reds with him.  On top of singing to Jack, I’d hear my husband whispering stories of the Reds championship games to him, or telling him about the famous Reds announcers Marty and Joe.  He talked a lot about the Big Red Machine and Sparky Anderson and just parts about Pete Rose.  As a baby Jack had pajamas covered with the Reds logos and a “Baby Reds fan” bib.

When Jack was just fifteen months old we moved to Chicago and a little over a year later when he was two-and-a half my husband thought it’d be fun to take our toddler on an adventure. The Reds were playing the Cubs at Wrigley in an early September game and we could get reasonable tickets at the end of the season.  What a historic and incredible ballpark for Jack to experience his first game…..his first Reds game.

Caffeinated and energized we took on a task that now seems rather daunting.  Instead of driving we decided it’d be more fun and authentic to take public transportation.  Lets just say there’s nothing easy about doing this with a two-year-old, but again, my husband thought it was worth it for his son to see his first Reds game and this scenario was more realistic than a six hour drive to Cincinnati.

Commuter BNSF line to the El red line.  Two train rides and we had arrived.  The Friendly Confines gave us a hospitable welcome with warm fans, and a sunny day.  Jack ate two hot dogs and sat through seven innings.  In Chicago, we declared a parenting victory as my husband’s hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds, came up with an away game win.

Fall turned into winter and while “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” continued to be sung in our household, baseball wasn’t such a hot topic anymore until six months later, the following April on Opening Day.

Six months on the developmental milestone scale of a two-year-old is a quite a long time.  In this time, our son went from toddler to preschooler.  He had opinions and preferences of his own and was able to communicate those with us more and more as his vocabulary increased.  Jack grew his passion for all things trains, spaghetti and the color red.

My husband interpreted Jack’s choice of a favorite color as a sure sign that he was a Reds fan.  When a unique opportunity came up for us to be in Cincinnati with my brother for the Reds’ Opening Day, we hopped on it.  We parked the car, and to say we were walking up to Great American Ball Park doesn’t do it justice.  My husband was absolutely giddy with delight.  We skipped to Great American Ball Park.  My husband hoisted Jack up on his shoulders talking a mile a minute about the significance of this day, pointing out Cincinnati landmarks, and telling stories about how he listened to the Reds on the radio with his grandpa when he was a kid.

Like a scene from a baseball movie, it was a glorious sun soaked moment.  One of those big parenting moments…the day you take your son to Opening Day and root, root, root for the home team!   With a joking tone, my husband looked up at his son, perched on his shoulders and said, “hey Jack, what’s your favorite baseball team, Buddy?”

Without hesitation Jack answered, “the Cubs!  Go Cubs!”.  What!?  Jack was reminded that Reds had the same name as his favorite color and that Daddy’s favorite team is the Reds.  A three-year-old Jack persisted with “the Cubs”.

My husband laughed a bit nervously and asked, “Jack, remember your first baseball game…we saw the Reds play at Wrigley.  Why do you like the Cubs?”

Confidently Jack responded, “because the Cubs have trains”.

“Trains?  What trains, Jack?”

“At the baseball game, we took two trains.  The Cubs have trains.  The Reds have cars.  I love trains.  I love the Cubs.”

And that was it.  The big moment when my son gave himself a lifelong distinction as a Cubs fan.  It was also one of those small subtle parenting moment when you realize that this whole time while you’ve been singing “root, root, root for the home team” together, your child may have had an entirely different home team in mind.

It makes perfect sense.  My husband grew up in Ohio.  My son is growing up in Chicago.  Of course one might be a Reds fan and one is a Cubs fan.  Today, many parents are raising their children in a different part of the world than where they grew up.  While they might not share the love of a particular team, the love of baseball crosses generations.

Together my husband and son attend at least one Cubs/Reds game every summer.  Or one Reds/Cubs game….depending on who tells the story.  My husband teases Jack when the Cubs lose and vice versa.  Over the years, its become a fun-loving banter and friendly rivalry in our family.

So while I enjoyed seeing my husband make that transformation to fatherhood in those quiet moments so many springs ago as he’d sing a hushed “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” to our baby son, I realize now that the big transformation has happened quietly over the years.  We give our children our roots to take hold, but they grow in their own direction.  Because that’s what parenthood is all about….teaching your child how to feel strongly about something, love something, have passion about it and celebrate it.  The tricky part is to not tell them what that something is.  That’s the lesson for us parents:  to simply trust that our children will discover their own something, in their own way.

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