Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thankful for the Little Things

1. a child who loves to wake up slowly after a long nap and the sweet puffs of baby breath as he snuggles into my arms.

2. blond whiskers on a teenage son's chin that catch the light and make me catch my breath because he was just a little boy a few seconds ago.

3. the way a youngest daughter's pony tail swings when she walks exactly like an oldest sister's always has.

4. the gleam in the eye of a child who has struggled and finally reached a goal.

5. the shrieks of joy as a toddler is chased around and around by a big brother.

6. the sound of the car door in the driveway when a college student is expected home for the weekend.

7. the lisp of an 8-year-old who is working hard to correct his lisp and slips back into it when he's tired or excited.

8. catching a kid in an act of kindness when he doesn't know I'm watching.

9. removing the book from a sleeping child's grasp and turning off the lamp.

10. realizing my children have inside jokes protected from the rest of the world, even me, and realizing this makes them friends.

11. hearing, "Thanks, Mom" in any one of six different voices.

12. that these children are blessed with a father who believes that the best way to love his children is to love their mother well.

My tree of thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Me in Real Life

At least once a year we sit down together and watch Dan in Real Life (Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, 2007). A well-written, sweet family comedy that anyone would enjoy, it's become our official family movie for several reasons. There are eerie similarities -- we own the same old twin beds, an almost-identical station wagon, and a copy of Everyone Poops (now I know you're going to rent the movie). Also the movie stars Steve Carell (one of our favorites) as Dan, a writer of an advice column who dreams of big syndication. How crazy is it that there is someone in this house who also dreams of big syndication? Okay, that person dreams first of being paid at all to give advice. I would totally kill at advice columning. But I digress...

Probably the biggest reason we love the movie is the setting -- an older couple welcomes home their four grown children and all their families for a long weekend. The interaction between the grown siblings (and the young cousins) is just what we would love to see one day when our own brood comes home with their families in tow. No idea where they will all sleep, but we really hope we are having as much fun as Dan's family. A big, happy family is such a beautiful thing.

Dan in Real Life (2007) Poster

Our family is definitely big and mostly happy. Because I write about them so much, I get asked now and then about our best advice for growing great kids. (I told you I am destined to be a popular advice-giver. I'm just waiting for the phone call from the people who are going to pay me big bucks to do it in a pithy, daily format. Oops, digressed again.)

Seriously, I don't have any formula for producing perfect children. We have been all over the map about sleep training, toilet training, sports training, spiritual training, academic training, etc., etc., etc. We often still find ourselves shrugging in disbelief, drowning in self-criticism, and cringing in embarrassment when something or someone doesn't turn out like we had planned.

A couple of blogs have gone viral lately (good for them...whatever) concerning the stupid pressure we put on ourselves and other parents to perform perfectly. They are worth reading here and here. All I have to add to them is a resounding, "Amen!"

But after a thoughtful discussion with my husband about this whole business, we realized that we do have a list of non-negotiable principles when it comes to the big picture of having a successful family.

1. Love Not only do our children need to know we love them (not hard to do), they need to know that we love God and love others above ourselves (hard to do). They need to see that love is our abiding focus. That's from Jesus, by the way.

2. Security Those little people need to know that home is the safest place they will ever be. I have plenty of friends who have to deal with a fractured family thanks to divorce or death (not to mention long term separations due to the military or other such jobs). Can those families produce great children? Absolutely. It's just way harder when you throw insecurity into the mix. If for no other reason, this should be why you nurture your marriage as much or more than you nurture your kids.

3. Confidence Not the "you can do anything because you are a superstar" kind. The "I have no doubt you can meet and even exceed the standard I have set for you" kind. We firmly believe most terrible twos and terrible teens are self-fulfilling prophecies. Kids are not incapable of doing the right thing as long as the goal is clear and they have you to help. Not kicking them when they're down is helpful here too.

4. Vision They won't be two or 10 or 16 forever. They need to realize that every thing they do is an investment in their adulthood. This doesn't mean loads of lessons and performances and competitive teams necessarily. It means loads of practicing the manners, skills, habits and character traits of successful adults.

5. Individualism We all need to know that we are created to be something special. It's rare that you can tell what your 2-year-old is destined to be. Or your 10-year-old or 16-year-old, for that matter. If they can nail the abilities listed above, they can go forth and be an academic, a plumber, an executive, a coach, an accountant, a whatever. Our kids know that we don't care what profession they choose, we just care what kind of character they take with them into that profession. (Although having at least one who is capable of and willing to take care of his/her old parents one day would be a comfort. You know, in case this rich-and-famous-syndicated-advice-giver business doesn't pan out.)

6. Joy, JoY, JOY! We fervently believe that this is key. Life is full of disappointments and frustrations and occasional tragedies and we remind our kids that happiness is not an inalienable right. The pursuit of it is inalienable, but for a multitude of reasons some of us are going to have less happiness than others. It's joy that goes down deep into the soul and gets us through. And joy is imbued best at home from the people who love you, have confidence in you, have a vision for you, and believe in the amazing individual with whom God has gifted them for a season.

Naturally there are lots of other practices we believe are non-negotiable (think church, limited screen time, reading of the great books, healthy eating and exercising, pitching in with housework, and all those other "duh" things). But the practices are where we regularly fall short and beat up ourselves and others. If our principles are in place as a solid foundation, it won't shake us quite as much when things don't go exactly as planned.

Like being a syndicated advice columnist. After first going viral. Right. Did I mention that already? 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

He’s a Keeper

I married a man who does not throw away anything. I suspect that may be part of the reason we recently celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. He can’t bear to get rid of anything so I feel pretty secure that he’s going to keep me around—along with his spiral-bound notes from high school, the hockey trophy he got when he was 6, and the mounted-on-shellacked-wood-in-the-shape-of-Missouri awards from Boys State in the late 1980s.

If we had fewer kids, and therefore more spare room, we could dedicate our whole basement as a museum of his childhood. There is a poster-sized, framed print of his wrestling match at the 1986 state championship. He has his letter jacket, horse show costumes, old hockey skates and sticks, report cards, and embroidered jackets. That’s just high school.

From college he has fraternity jerseys, innumerable party pics, more spiral-bound notes, a wool blanket he picked up in Mexico, and the softball from an intramural championship. It was at about this point in his lifetime of collecting stuff that I met him. Fell in love with him. Married him. Moved across the country with him. Looked around and said, “My gosh, you have a lot of stuff!”

It’s been a battle all of these years, I have to tell you. Not necessarily because I begrudge him his memories. But because few things in life make me happier than tossing out stuff. My stuff. His stuff. Your stuff. It doesn’t really matter. If it will fit in a Hefty bag and clears a spot on my counter/floor/shelf/drawer, I get a rush. I positively love trash day. My husband grumbles if we put out more than one can of weekly garbage. We are a family of eight people and four pets, I remind him. He looks at me as if I’ve suggested stuffing one of the kids or our spare parakeet into the trash. I just shake my head at him and go inside, where I may or may not fill another bag and stash it on the curb in between the time he leaves for work and the garbage truck arrives.

If there’s one thing a long marriage teaches you it’s that what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

Because we moved 10 times in 21 years we remained intimately aware of all the stuff we owned. If you have to touch it on one end of a move and unpack it on the other end, it’s hard to deny that so much of it exists. Over the years the man mellowed a little bit and let me whittle away at his memorabilia and weird attachments. He has inched his way ever-so-slightly to my dark side. Yet we still found it necessary to rent a storage unit when we moved back from overseas in 2006. Here it is, seven years later, and those folks love us since we pay faithfully every month to store our stuff. In their space. At our expense. I absolutely do not understand why we do this, but, because I love my husband, I put up with it and write the check.

And, because he loves me, he finally got around to building a storage shed in our own backyard. It was intended to be a pretty little shed to store the, you know, stuff. It has become a custom-built kind of carriage house with window boxes, an old door, and a pitched roof. It’s not even quite finished but it makes me happy every single time I look out my back window. Before long the final trim will be nailed and we will begin moving our stuff from its sad and lonely storage unit to the beautiful place this keeper of mine has created for it.

After all these years it seems to be a win-win. He keeps his stuff, I have a beautiful view. However, if you should spy me sneaking out an extra bag early on a Monday morning, just keep it to yourself. Like I said, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

Labor of love.
Whether it's love of his wife or his stuff doesn't really matter in the end, right?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

But Do You Remember September 12?

Naturally I remember where I was when my bathrobed neighbor stepped out and exclaimed, "A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!"  I was busy buckling my toddler into his car seat, having just seen my two daughters off to elementary school, and I thought -- like so many others -- it was just a terrible accident. And, like so many others, as the reality continued to reveal itself, my day unfolded in stress and panic and fear. It was horrific in every way to watch the footage. It was scary to be living on a military installation that immediately locked its gates tight. The fear that the sky was truly falling felt almost tangible.

Late that night... After I had gathered our children and tucked them safely into bed. After my Soldier dragged home long after dark with heavy eyes and a heavy heart. After we had sought news of those we knew working at the Pentagon and in New York. After we had watched over and over the collapse of the towers where we'd stood atop the observation deck less than a year prior. After we finally turned off the light and tried to sleep. After it all, I wondered what tomorrow would bring.

I would not have guessed that it would bring humor. And life. And joy.

It began with a 5:00 a.m. phone call from the new sergeant with the pregnant wife. We'd met them just weeks earlier and, as military people do, we offered to watch their five older children when the time came for the baby to be born. That sweet infant, oblivious to the tragedy, decided to make his debut in the early hours of September 12.

"Of course," I said. "I'll be right over to get the kids. Do not worry."

School was cancelled on military installations. If memory serves me correctly, most offices and services were also closed as the Army fought to react quickly to an emergency with unknown parameters. "Thank goodness I stocked up on groceries two days ago," I thought as I loaded five extra kids into my van in the early morning light.

Only 12 years ago. Our JAG family at Fort Leonard Wood.
All Soldiers were on high alert so my husband was gone at dawn to his office. As I was settling the extra kids into our little set of quarters and wondering what to do all day, the doorbell rang. Our neighbor stood in his uniform with his two small sons.

"No one can get through the gate so I've been called in to work the pharmacy," he explained. He was supposed to be on leave as his wife was in the hospital with a kidney infection.

"Of course I'll watch the boys," I said. "Neither of you need to worry. Go do what you need to do."

So while the world was glued to the news stations trying to work out what had happened and what it meant, I pulled out VHS tapes of Nick Jr. and found juice cups for ten children. I have strong feelings about exposing children to adult horrors so there was no way we were going to watch any of the coverage. We were, instead, going to get on with the business of being kids.

We used an entire loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter to make a picnic lunch. We walked in a single-file line like ducklings to the neighborhood park and played. Hard. The higher the swings went, the harder they laughed. The sillier I made the Follow-the-Leader game, the more hilarious they thought it was. We guessed when the baby might be born and thought of funny names for him. When we were exhausted, we strolled home, spread out bean bags and blankets, and passed the popcorn while we watched "Mary Poppins".

Though the sun shone bright and the children were good company, I fought tears all day long. None of us adults knew then what September 11 was going to mean, but those of us in the Army knew it would mean a swift and harsh change for us. My phone rang. We traded information about Soldiers we knew who worked at the Pentagon. We worried together about going to war. We knew it was coming. We were overcome with the emotion of patriotism just like everyone else as we watched the flags unfurl all over this country. We all felt the intense togetherness. And we all felt the fear.

I look back with affectionate appreciation on those ten kids who kept me company on September 12, 2001. They forced me away from the television and into the sunshine, ensured that I would laugh when I wanted to cry, and showed me that love and life and joy could not be hidden, even by the cloud of ashes that was blowing.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen

As a blogger, I find it fascinating to see what goes viral and how people react. I read the FYI (if you're a teenage girl) blog that exploded all over Facebook this week and had two immediate thoughts:

1. Right on! (I even shared it.)
2. What about the boys? (Which prompted this post.)

When I scrolled down to read the comments on the original blog post, I found that I was far from alone.

One of the comments questioned why we are preaching to our girls to cover up when we should be preaching to our boys, "Son, don't be a creeper." Bingo. On both messages.

Other comments questioned the wisdom (hypocrisy?) of illustrating the blog with photos of the author's shirtless-with-muscles-glistening teenage sons. I get it. Boys are free to go topless. Girls are not. Boys are known to be more visually stimulated than girls. (But have you talked to a group of teenage girls lately?) Nevertheless, bathing suit pictures are not exactly the most modest way to illustrate a point about modesty.

I suspect the author was trying to say more about honor and virtue than about defining modesty.

I feel a little bit sorry for our children who are growing up in a time when their entire lives are liable to be broadcast and archived for the entire world to see. Would you want to meet your teenage self again today via the internet? I enjoy Throw Back Thursday as much as anyone, but I'm awfully glad most of my teenage self is packed away with the yearbooks and letter jackets in my garage.

A college date. Years later this boy (whom I married)
told me he was shocked I was wearing a strapless dress
since "nice girls in the Midwest never went strapless."
True story!

When we were kids, we said and did some stupid things (can I get an "Amen", Class of '86?). But our biggest worry was only that someone might see the handwritten note, find the burn book, overhear the comment, or tattle if we were caught somewhere we weren't supposed to be. Even if horrifically not-thought-through, in the end what was done was done and we could apologize if necessary and move on.

Our children's really bad judgment calls could possibly be on display forever. And ever. Gulp.

It's hard to parent that. Things change so quickly that we are trying to lead a child down a path while essentially feeling our way along in the dark. How the heck are we supposed to know how high our social media standard should be? And don't we all realize that our parenting is judged by what pops up on the screens of our children at any given moment?

You don't get off free if you ban your kid from Facebook et al. I can think of several instances in the last year when kids I know without accounts were tagged in photos. Photos of places and things they might not want the world to see. Another kid I know (and liked a lot) tumbled from my high estimation when I came across his Twitter feed and was dumbfounded by what he thought was funny enough to RT. It made me...sad.

As with every other aspect of parenting, I wish I could protect my kids from all harm. But as I am stumbling blindly just like so many others, here's all I've got for both my daughters and my sons:

1. Never ever post a photo that you would be ashamed to show your grandmother.
2. Don't be a creeper.
3. When in doubt, delete.
4. No one is joking when they tell you that potential colleges, employers and mothers-in-law will search for you online to determine what kind of person you really are. Make sure what they find is the truth.
5. Whether you are online or in real life, our standard is simple: behave like ladies and gentlemen.

Do you need a good definition of a gentleman/lady? The best I've ever heard is that which my husband has memorized and loves to quote from John Walter Wayland in 1899. It ends with this:

"...a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe."

Is it too much to ask?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Extreme Parenting

Cradle to college? This is what it looks like.

Saturdays go something like this: The 8-year-old can have a play date with a long as it's on the way to dropping off the 10-year-old at long as it doesn't conflict with the 2-year-old's long as everyone is home in time for dinner unless letting me know otherwise... as long as I have met that girl the 16-year-old asked to the movies... as long as the 19-year-old can pick up the 16-year-old since I am not getting out after 11... as long as everyone is back home and tucked in bed and asleep by midnight. Wait a minute, where is the 10-year-old?! Oh right, she's at a sleepover. Go to bed!

A lesson with the current student driver begins with buckling the toddler into his safety seat.

The shopping list for the kids includes both tampons and diapers.

The half-hour following dinner includes begging the 2-year-old to please keep eating his potatoes and begging the 15-year-old to please quit eating out of the fridge mere minutes after consuming two big plates full of food.

A Saturday date night means tracking down the teenagers' schedules to see who is free to babysit the younger siblings. It also includes reminding that teen twice a day so he or she does not make plans and forget. Cheaper, yes. Easier, no.

After a day of negotiating play date politics and birthday party invites from kids my little ones don't necessarily like, it's time for an evening of negotiating the teenagers' plans with kids whom I don't necessarily like.

Guess what? Teenagers grow out of shoes just about as fast as toddlers do. Sizing, shopping, storing and sorting is a full-time job. The shoe issue is just one of the reasons the Brady Bunch had an Alice.

Having a yard full of teenagers playing basketball is totally awesome. Spending two hours distracting the toddler who so wants to be in the middle of all that action that he is clawing his way through the back door is not totally awesome.

Preschool = tuition, nap mats, book bags, new shoes and nervous parents. College = tuition, dorm bedding, luggage, new shoes and nervous parents. Having both simultaneously = broke and exhausted parents who are never quite sure what to worry about next. (Interestingly, I think that may help us worry less.)

What we could use more of is sleep. It's just a matter of squeezing it in between the midnight text ("I'll be a little late. Don't wait up!") and the 5:30 a.m. call from the crib ("Mommy! Where are you? I want my cup!").

All in a 20-hour-day's work.

This is also what it looks like:

The toddler entertains the chicks at a slumber party.
Few things more adorable than
big siblings caring for the tiniest.
Baby bros are always good for a laugh
as long as they are not crabby or poopy.

The most popular toy in the house
is the baby.
What I found one day when biggest sis had
been gone more than three months abroad.

The rewards (minus that kid studying overseas).
It is really tough to get them all in the same photo these days.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Last First Day

People sometimes assume that if you have more than one child nothing is ever quite as hard as the first time around. Sleep deprivation, potty training, taking off the training wheels, the birds and bees talk, etc. Right? Wrong.  Some things are hard no matter how much practice we get.

One of the hardest is the first day of school. And I don’t mean for those precious kindergarteners. I only thought it was hard to send my baby off for a whole day with new friends and unknown teachers. After a tearful good-bye (sometimes by both of us, often just by me) I usually spent that whole first day worried about what new problems they were facing, how they would handle finding buddies, and whether or not they could get their backpacks unzipped all by themselves.

Then, before I knew it, they were home with stories and songs and smiles. And another first day of school was in the books.

What I discovered a few years ago is that really the hardest first day of school is when the baby walks out the door for the very last one. The Senior Year. At least I know enough this time to have my tissues ready. The first last first day took me by surprise.

In August of 2010, as our oldest child rushed to get into her car and drive away, I grabbed her in a bear hug to wish her a wonderful first day of school. As I spoke those words I realized I would never say that to her again. Wasn’t she just leaving for elementary school recently? How did this almost-grown person sneak in here? Wasn’t there something more important for me to say? Then…tears.

Coincidentally we also had kindergartener in 2010. I don’t remember as much about his first day. I do know it wasn’t he who rolled his eyes and told me to get a grip that morning. And I know my anxiety between 8 and 3 had little to do with his buddies or backpack.

Last first day
First first day
This year marks the last first day for our second born. It’s not any easier. It might, in fact, be harder since I know what’s in store.

So I will spend a little more time with her discussing what she should wear. I will pack her lunch with a little more thought and care. I will hug her a little longer that Thursday morning as I wish her a wonderful first day of school. I will try not to cry. Or to take it personally when she rolls her eyes and tells me to get a grip.

I will worry all day long about her classes and her friends and her future.

Then, before I know it, they will all be home with stories and songs and smiles. And another first day of school will be in the books.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Sports Mom Meets Stage Mom

This summer's The Wizard of Oz marked the ninth time one of our kids has been a cast member of a local high school or community theatre performance. Being a stage mom is so much fun. It reminds me a lot of being a sports mom. In fact, there are more similarities than the two camps sometimes realize.

Sports Mom makes multiple trips to the store throughout the season to purchase the correct shoes, mouth/shin/eye guards, special undershirts, snazzy socks, and anything else the superstar needs to play safely and play well. Stage Mom also makes multiple trips to the store. Most of the costuming is up to the actors (and their parents) and we have searched high and low for comfortable, yet pointy, black boots; era-appropriate suspenders and dress slacks; a flapper dress that stays on through a fight scene; an authentic, size XS Charlie Brown T-shirt; and enough undergarments (for quick backstage costume changes) to supply the lingerie section of Target.

Sports Mom buys squeeze yogurts by the case, oranges by the dozen, juice boxes or Gatorade or water bottles as needed and stands ready to supply her player and all the others when it is her turn. Stage Mom bakes brownies, picks up the deli trays, buys mini bagels or Oreos or Cheez-Its by the case, and delivers it all backstage just in time for the rehearsal break on her appointed day.

Sports Mom clears the family schedule for scheduled practices, re-scheduled practices, regular season games and tournaments. Stage Mom clears it for rehearsals, re-scheduled rehearsals, get the idea.

We have encouraged our kids to be involved in both athletics and the arts. We like the idea of them being well-rounded even as we face the probability of no one being an all-star in either field since sometimes one requires a temporary sacrifice of the other. One of the things we love about our school is that our students do not have to specialize in one particular sport or discipline. Arts or athletics, take your pick at any time. We have found over the years that both teach identical skills.

If you choose not to show up or give your best at practice (rehearsal), you are letting down your team (cast). When you have the ball (spotlight), it is all in your hands and you’ll be glad you practiced (rehearsed) over and over. There is a reason the coach (director) chose you for that position (role). It could be inherent skill, a work ethic second to none, or just dumb luck on your part. It doesn’t matter how you got there, but it certainly matters how you carry the ball (scene).

Sometimes rehearsals (practices) are inconvenient, seem pointless, or drive you to the point of exhaustion. Just do your job. Sometimes the decisions of the director (coach) puzzle, disappoint, or anger you. Just do what you’re told. Sometimes you feel ill, exhausted, irritated or misunderstood. Just show up when you are expected.

You want to be the star (starter)? Work harder, smile brighter, show up earlier and stay later than everyone else. Leave it all on the stage (field or court) and then see what happens. You might get put at the head of the lineup or the playbill. You might have that shining and glorious moment that you’ll recognize from every Disney Channel movie ever produced.

You might also remain part of the chorus (backup). But that’s where the greatest lessons are learned. And that, my dear athletes and actors, is why I keep buying shoes, brownies, fundraiser trinkets, and all the other stuff you need to carry on. Every moment we spend being part of something bigger than ourselves is a moment well spent. Bravo to all of you!

On another note, to all the little Bartees, it would be great if next Halloween you would choose to dress up as a football player, a soldier, a flapper, or a witch. Sports/Stage Mom has you covered!

Monday, July 29, 2013

House Keeping

According to our kids, the use of cloth napkins for ordinary meals is somewhat pretentious and weird.

"My friend thinks we're all rich and fancy," reports one of them.

"As if," I reply in my head.

We are neither rich (at least by first world standards) nor fancy (by anyone's standard). But, yes, we do have a large collection of cloth napkins which we use every day.

I don't remember why we started it, but I think it had something to do with a ski trip to Italy when we were young and childless and stationed overseas. The hotel served breakfast and dinner each day in the big dining room. Naturally we had crisp cloth napkins. Unnaturally we were asked to keep the same napkin throughout our stay. Just fold it up and place it on the table to await your next meal. I think a few had to be replaced after spaghetti night, but mostly everyone kept his or her personal napkin and used it over and over all week.

The napkin drawer. So not fancy.
It made sense to us--less trash, less laundry, less fuss all around.

Another thing our children report makes us "fancy" is our use of Polish pottery 24/7/365. I don't believe in buying things just to be put away and saved for something special. I believe in using it all. If it gets used up (the good body lotion) or stained (the pale linen blouse) or broken (yeah, the pottery), that's fine with me. I might sigh a little over something I know I can't replace easily, but the only way I can fully appreciate beauty is by living with it--not just looking at it when I open a cabinet or drawer.

Take care of the beautiful things, but enjoy them thoroughly. I guess that's my motto when it comes to stuff.
Part of the pottery we use for every meal..

That's our motto as well when it comes to the environment.

Some people think we are tree-hugging wackos. Others think we are use-it-up-who-cares-about-the-future types. I suppose it is because we send mixed signals.

We recycle extensively (six years of living in recycle-mandatory Europe rubs off on a person). We use cloth shopping bags (I'll admit it's as much because I hate the avalanche of plastic bags as it is concern for the dolphins). We garden without pesticides (and grow champion weeds while our tomatoes and cucumbers fight to survive). [Footnote: this year we caved and sprayed. The mighty harvest of veggies has us thinking we may stick with that until we can afford a full-time gardener to pull weeds and pluck bugs.]

What makes us seem insensitive to the planet's woes? We willingly and happily grew our family to eight (clearly not buying the overpopulation argument). We drive an SUV (see above why we legitimately require that much seating). We're a little suspicious of electric cars (since making electricity burns a lot of fuel). And we think natural gas is a really good alternative.

How to explain our seemingly oxymoronic take on this lovely planet Earth we call home? Consider this analogy.

We have a house. It  makes us very happy. We take good care of it. We fix leaks, repair walls, tend the yard, scrub the floors and fixtures, wash the windows and fight the dust war as best we can. We do not appreciate anyone who trashes it.

And yet....

We live in the house. We use it for shelter and pleasure. We are not afraid to knock down walls or tear up flooring or replace something if it will make it a better place for our family. The house exists to serve us. It does that well. In return, we take care of it, ensuring that it will be a functional and beautiful shelter for our family now and any family in the future.

If the Earth is the shelter God provided for us all then trashing it is wrong, selfish, and a horrible thing to pass along to those who come after us. But it's here for us to use and enjoy, not worship or glorify as something worth more than those who walk her surface each day.

Taking care of the Earth is a lot like taking care of our house. There is a constant battle with people dropping trash and crumbs and dirty socks all over the place. Everywhere you look things are stained, chipped, and in need of scrubbing. The list of hoped-for improvements is long and expensive. Yet it is a thing of beauty, comfort and happiness. And it is well worth maintaining, even at the expense of our time, effort and money.

As for going green, my suggestion would do more for the Earth, I believe, than banning plastic bags forever. If we want less visual clutter and fewer toxic fumes, let's ban socks for all teenage boys. In my little corner of the planet, at least, that would go a long way.

The smelly socks and shoes. Always and forever piled by my front door. Argh!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Grandmother's Hands

The day began early. I dressed quickly and hurried to the back bedroom to check on my Grandmother, asleep in the hospital bed which had arrived two days before. At 95, her heart was giving out quickly and a severe spell meant her life was about to end as she had always planned—in her own home, surrounded by those who love her. God bless a hospice system that allows such endings to occur peacefully.

I reached out and held a hand that had been holding mine for more than 42 years. Her hand was always warm. It was always soft and sweet-smelling, like her favorite pink baby lotion. Her hand was always smooth and strong, doubtless from the hard work she made look so easy. From my earliest memories, those hands lifted me onto the kitchen counter, helped tie dozens of pairs of ballet shoes, applauded for moments both great and small, and were folded in prayer many times a day.

Each of us believes we were her favorite.
Grandmother’s hands produced from her purse sticks of Juicy Fruit for fidgety grandchildren, endless quarters for video games, and a baggie with a freshly moistened paper towel every single time we needed it. Those hands traced photos of whichever children were not nearby and patted the knees of those who were. They wrote checks for frivolous treats and serious investments on behalf of us all. No arguing, she would say as she handed over her money. No doubting, she would say as she folded her hands in daily prayer for every single one of those she called her own.

She fed two children, five grandchildren and 13 greats.
They were hands that rolled out hundreds of perfect pie crusts, stirred together countless bowls of chocolate chip cookie dough, battered the best fried chicken in the world practically every Sunday for lunch, and were used to measure out seasonings for all of her recipes in such a way that she could never pass them on with specific amounts. Those same hands were folded again and again in prayer to bless the food she had prepared for her beloved family, ever thankful for the bounty we enjoyed and the source of it all.

The day I said good-bye her hands were still warm, though frail and spotted with age. She could squeeze my hands and smile and say good-bye and don’t cry as she held on. “Please don’t stop praying for us,” I asked her. She didn’t have to answer.

A true matriarch, she was teaching us until her very last day.
And so I kissed and hugged her for the very last time and walked away to drive to my home nine hours north.  I had to gather my family and sort out the jobs and the meetings and the packing that a last-minute trip back for her funeral would require. We both knew I wanted to stay, but we both knew I needed to go so that we could all be back for a final good-bye.

The day ended late. I was finally home and rocking my littlest before bed. He grabbed my hand and I could not help but notice the pink skin and dimpled wrists and a lifetime ahead in his grip. Who will hold his hand on his last day and remember all it had given? One who had been a lifetime recipient of his love, I hoped. And I prayed. Just like Grandmother taught me.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Driven to Grief

It was supposed to be the closest thing to a vacation I will get this year. I drove four children, four bikes, six suitcases, two parakeets and a variety of playthings to Texas for a two-week visit with my extended family. We loaded up our trusty old (as in 195,000 miles) Suburban and headed south, thankful that the horrible tornado had already come and gone in Oklahoma.

The short story is that the car broke down as we sat in the traffic of rubberneckers slowing in Moore, OK, to see all the damage caused by that tornado. I managed to restart it and limp it off the interstate to three different shops before someone had the time to assess our problem. Getting it fixed meant leaving it in Oklahoma City and cramming all of us and our stuff into my parents’ SUV for the two-hour drive to their house just across the Red River. You are never really too old to have your daddy come and rescue you, by the way.

Thinking the worst was behind me, I was able to enjoy time with family and borrowed various vehicles that week to get around. My plan to go back and get the repaired Suburban was cut short by a phone call that left me speechless. “I am so sorry, Mrs. Bartee,” she said. “Immediately after the second round of tornadoes yesterday our shop’s electricity was knocked out, we had our first break-in in 25 years, and the thieves stole your car.” Speechless, I tell you. They stole a car with almost 200K, torn leather seats, impenetrable stains, and sticky cup holders.

I am usually very unsentimental about things. But I took the loss of our family car kind of hard. There are five stages of grief, you know, and I have been through them all.

1. Denial. As in, “No, no, no, no, no. There is no way any sane crook would choose such an old car to steal. Really. That car was on its last tire and the dashboard vinyl was peeling and the heated seats haven’t worked in years. They don’t want MY car. They want something newer and better and more fun. And I definitely do NOT have time for this. No, no, no, no, no.”

2. Anger. As in, “Are you kidding me?! Suburbans are popular to steal because of their parts? You mean to tell me they used that car, the very one we drove home from the hospital with our youngest and the setting of many happy family road trips, to crash through a metal security fence? And we STILL have to pay for the fuel pump? And I had just filled up the tank to the tune of $85? And if they happen to find it we have to take it back and forego any settlement? What?!?!?”

Happy family, happy car!

Right there in the background of an all-American Cub Scout parade moment.

 3. Bargaining. As in, “Okay, insurance company, I know what the stated value is. I realize it’s not your problem that the tank was full, and I had never made a copy of the college-era photo of my husband and me that was in there, and that my kid’s favorite pillow is one of the things we left behind, and that my hard-earned marathon sticker was on the back window. But let’s discuss why that car was worth so much more than what Kelly’s Blue Book wants to tell you. I mean, if you think an old Suburban with so many miles is worth only THAT…well, I’m just not sure that’s acceptable. No really. I insist. Let’s negotiate a little more.”
So many many memories.

4. Depression. As in, “The reasonable thing to do is take the (measly) settlement from the insurance company and invest in a used minivan instead of a new SUV as we are about to have two kids in college for the next four years. But here’s the thing—I’m a mom who spends most of my time hauling kids around. Driving a black Suburban let me pretend I was in the Secret Service or guest-starring on an episode of 24. I have already owned three different vans. Have to be honest—there is no pretending I am a crime fighter in a van. Sigh.”

One of the four vans we have owned over the years.

5. Acceptance. As in, “Fine. This is incredibly frustrating and a huge inconvenience, but a car is just a car. The fact that the saga began against the backdrop of a neighborhood devastated by a natural disaster makes it pretty easy to keep everything in the right perspective. In a very abrupt and unkind way we lost something. But it was just some thing.”

I do believe that, but it’s possible I am still working through the depression stage when it comes to the minivan. I’m more than a little bummed that my imaginary career as a spy is over.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dream Right

I went shopping for graduation cards today. All around me they shouted Dream Big! and Shoot for the Stars! because You Can Do It! since You're #1!

We've been convincing this generation since their earliest days that they are super special. One of a kind. "If you believe it, you can achieve it." There's nothing you can't do, kiddo.
Their theme song might best be summed up by their old friend Steve over at Blue's Clues
Notwithstanding his overkill, we've
always been Steve fans around here.
You can be anything that you want to be. 
Do anything that you want to do. 
If you don't give up, you know it's true. 
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Isn't that just a little bit much? I mean, anything? Really?

Can a child who is grown at 5'2" believe his way into the NBA because he is absolutely certain he's #1? A kid who is color blind become a fighter pilot or astronaut in spite of military restrictions because his mama told him he's super special and the exception to the rules? Can a child without a generous helping of natural talent earn a living by singing on stage simply because she believed hard enough?

Self-esteem is absolutely important and we all know that kids get their biggest dose of self-esteem from home. But I think we might have overdone it in some instances. And I even wonder if we might be contributing to lower self-esteem by accidentally sending the message that less than the absolute best is just...meh.

Take, for instance, the kid who worked hard, studied consistently, read and tutored and planned, and yet doesn't get to give that graduation speech. What about the kid who auditioned well but did not get the part? How about the one who works far harder than anyone else on the team but still loses the starting position to someone else?

Society answers, "Work harder. Dream bigger."

How about this instead? "Keep working. Dream better."

It is really fun to watch our toddlers dance along to the song of easy-peasy-all-you-need-is-a-dream-success while we are full of pride and ambition that we may have created the next great leader, entrepreneur, discoverer, superstar, ruler of the world as we know it. With that first soccer goal or wrestling pin, we cheer and start planning for the Olympics (or at least a college scholarship). When they earn straight As in 3rd grade or have the starring role in the school play, we just know they are destined to be Magna Cum Laude or blow onto Broadway and be the talk of the town.

We can't help it. We're in love with our children. We, Moms and  Dads, are supposed to be their biggest support and cheering section and entourage. It's instinctual and exciting. Ask yourself how heartily you cheered and danced when your little protégé first pooped on the potty. Yes, me too. As if no one else on earth had ever learned to do it quite so well.

We are PROUD of these little people. And rightfully so.

Each one really is super special. And one of a kind. And destined for greatness. I have decided that I need to be careful, however, about defining greatness.

With apologies to Steve and all of his TV friends, I want to give my kids a better theme song:

You can't be anything you want to be, 
but you can be everything you were meant to be.

A dream is good. A big dream is fine. But the right dream is what will guide you to a beautiful life. And that, my sweeties, is how you will change the world.

St. Catherine of Siena said, "If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!"

And I will be there, proud as only a mother can be, believing that no one has ever set it on fire quite so well.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bye-Bye, Baby

Moroccan Mint Tea...yum!

Our oldest turns 20 in just a few days. This would be an important birthday no matter what, but after spending eight days with her in northern Africa, where she is living as a college student, there is no way to deny our baby is grown and gone and a young adult has taken her place. If not for her level head and language skills, I am pretty certain that I would still be wandering around a souk in Meknés right now. For sure I would have overpaid every single taxi driver and souvenir seller.

So many times that week she grabbed my arm and said, “Mom!” (as in, “pay attention and follow me!”). I was reminded of how I would grab her arm as a child to gently turn her in the right direction. I felt that familiar parental combination of pride and fear upon realizing that this person who breathed her first breath on my chest and depended upon me for absolutely everything is now smarter than I am. 

Baby's first camel ride!

Lest I seem too overly sentimental, it is the very same feeling I have when my 8-year-old quickly fixes the computer problem I cannot seem to repair. And when my 10-year-old effortlessly remembers the old neighbor’s name that I have tried to recall for days. But at least those two will still snuggle with me at bedtime and need help with homework now and then. They still need me in a way that I now know will not last all that long. 

Hat matter the country.
 One of the best things about being a mom, I have found, is getting to watch a child’s inner spirit develop and emerge. It is easy to type-cast the kids, especially in a large family. “You’re the athletic one.” “You’re the music lover.” “You’re the scholar.” We have made an earnest effort to help our kids explore and grow and stretch into roles that might not come naturally. Some of our best moments as parents have happened when we’ve whispered to each other in an audience or cheering crowd, “I can’t believe s/he is doing this!” 

That’s how we felt when our oldest stepped onto a plane in January and took off for a foreign continent not knowing a single soul yet on the other side. She could easily be typecast as “the shy one” who hesitates to talk to someone new. That sentence is truth. But so is this one: Something in her fabric pulls her out into the world to learn and explore and experience and grow. As I let her lead me around Morocco and show me all she’s found there, I knew that letting that baby go was the best thing we could do for her today and always. 
Every minute together a gift.

All too soon I said good-bye and headed home to the rest of our kids who are still in the process of trying on goals and personas. I watched our toddler hurtle down the steepest slide by himself yesterday. He wanted no help in spite of landing in a muddy heap at the bottom every time until he learned to get his feet under him. “I’ll hold your hand,” I offered. “No! Mine!” he answered. 

Later, by email I let our oldest know her return ticket was purchased for the end of May. “I can’t wait to get back,” she answered. “I’m so glad I got to come here, but I can’t wait to be home with all of you soon.” 

Well done, birthday girl, getting your feet under you. Thanks for sometimes holding your mom’s hand just because you can tell I need it even when you do not.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Teenage Lullaby

There's a clock on your wall that used to stand still
While I rocked you through midnights of crying.
I willed it to move a little faster each time
As I kissed you and left the room sighing.

So tired, I thought, this must be the worst.
Mothering will ease as they age.
And that clock on the wall did seem to start up
As your story filled page after page.

Soon you were quiet in darkest of night,
Your needs less with each growing day.
Though I paid no attention to that ticking clock,
And drooly kisses just faded away.
From left to right these babies are now studying in Africa,
almost six feet tall, and visiting potential colleges.
But I still see the same sillies when I look in their eyes.

Soon you were quiet as evening fell,
Nose buried in book or a game.
A quick good night snuggle was all to be done.
And the clock ticked as always the same.

Soon it was silent in afternoons too.
Practices, meetings and school...
And I asked it to slow,
time was going too fast.
But the clock ticked on, quiet but cruel.

Soon now your story will take you away.
There are places to go and be gone.
And though the clock still ticks faster,
faster each day,
One thing keeps my heart strong.

No matter the time,
No matter the place,
When I look in your eyes,
I'll see my baby's sweet face.

No, mothering does not ease as they age, I know now.
But it's sweet pain when love is so deep.
Strange comfort it is now to stop late at your door,
The clock and I watching you sleep.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Con List

*originally published in the Weston Chronicle on January 23, 2013.

I have written this column for the Weston Chronicle for almost a year now in order to share what I love about this place. There are many reasons why we chose to make Weston our hometown, but it was not an easy decision for a military family with 10 moves on the books to consider any one city right enough to settle forever. It’s coming up on two years that we’ve been back and there are no regrets (though we’d sure love a little more snow—but that’s a different column).

As with any big decision, part of the discussion process involved a pro and con list. Top of our con list for Weston: the lack of diversity. This generated at the top of our list not due to political correctness, but as a result of 21 years of the military lifestyle. The United States Army was the first public institution to fully integrate and so, by the time we got there in 1990, diversity was no longer a topic for committees and special educational programs. It was simply a no-brainer. Diversity was everywhere. Our oldest three children spent their formative years daily surrounded by teachers and students and neighbors from all over the world with different colors of skin, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, and national heritages.

No one gave it a second thought when a female African-American co-worker came over for dinner or that dad’s boss had a different color of skin. Child #5’s godmother is a darling woman of Korean descent with broken English, a killer kimchi recipe, and the sweetest hugs around. While looking through old pictures of Child #2’s 10th birthday sleepover party, we discovered that hers is the only white face in the crowd of five little girls. Is it strange that we never noticed that at the time? Child #1 departed last week for a semester abroad in Africa. We’d like to think that part of her motivation for studying other languages and experiencing other cultures is that she knows how small the world really is and how much we have to learn from each other. But mostly we’d like to think she learned from the beginning how very much alike we all are.

Which brings me back to our con list. It certainly was not that we thought Weston was a town of fearful racists or religious bigots. Hardly! Some of the biggest hearts and brightest minds we’ve ever met were born and raised right here. It was more that we knew it would be much harder to teach our younger kids about their place in the world if they were always surrounded by people just like them.

Yet here we are living in this very intelligent, very warm, very ambitious, yet very homogeneous community. How will we impart the same empathy and worldliness to our younger three kids that our older three absorbed so easily and so early? We are still working that out.

One thing we will do is talk about the con list. No place will be perfect, we tell our kids, and you are no better or worse or smarter or more special than a child on the other side of the world. Or the other side of the tracks. Do we want our kids to succeed in the global economy? Absolutely. The better they learn that we have way more that links us than separates us, the better it will be for whatever career and community they choose to call home one day.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Family Game Time

We do not guarantee non-stop fun around here. Have you met those kids who come from non-stop fun-providing parents? They're kind of hard to like and we are committed to raising likable people. Which is why, logically, we strive to make sure our children are not always having fun. So far, so good, the kids would say.

Games, on the other hand, are being played all the live long day. I'm not sure what goes on at your house, but here's a list of a few that occur a lot at ours.

Hide and Seek
The rules of the game:

Hide the clean dishtowels in the drawer with the rolling pins and stuff all the dirty ones under the table. Use the 37 spoons just washed and put away last night and use them in such a way that the utensil drawer is now empty but there are only nine dirty spoons in the sink. If you are a 7-year-old boy, place an average of two mis-matched socks in the laundry basket each week and--this is important--no underwear at all. If you are a teenager, have your cell phones rather permanently attached to your hand and yet don't immediately answer calls or texts coming in from your parents. If you are a daughter approximately adult-size, stash all the white camis in your dresser drawer while insisting that you have no idea where those belonging to your mom could possibly be.

Before 8 a.m. start to lose it while seeking dishtowels, spoons, dirty underwear, teenagers and just one stinking white cami.

The rules of the game:

Argue as frequently and vehemently as possible about who was "it" yesterday or the day before or last month. Keep meticulous track of who made the biggest part of the mess, who traded turns with whom to clean the bathroom last week, or who "didn't hear" the phone while Mom was in the bathroom and all of you sat within three feet of it ringing incessantly.

Start to lose it while fighting the urge to just do it yourself in order to shut up the offspring. Launch into a detailed lecture about how many messes you have cleaned up since the birth of Child #1 and how little you care whose turn it is. Drone on and on about the little ingrates until they hang their heads and finally get the job done.

Musical Chairs
The rules of the game:

Race each other to the car/table/couch, knocking down the little ones if necessary, all while shouting, "I called it! I called it!" If you do not get the seat of your choice, whine. A lot.

Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and repeat the following. Again: "Think of it this way: we are all part-owners of everything in this house. Only Dad and I are really full owners. We just let you live here. 'Shotgun!' means nothing to me. No one has a reserved seat in the car, on the couch, or on the pew at church. You may, in fact, have to sleep in someone else's bed when we have company. Variety is the spice of life, people. What we promise is that everyone will have a seat on which to sit and bed in which to sleep, even if it is cheap and has to be aired up with the compressor. Which is not where I put it, by the way!" (see Hide and Seek)

Red Rover, Red Rover, Can (_____) Come Over?
The rules of the game:

Wait to tell your parents about your friends and the big party you have planned until after parents have changed into comfy clothes and started dinner prep for seven. Then casually drop the news that you and a dozen of your friends have planned to eat and watch movies. Here. Tonight.

Smile with as much fake sincerity as you can muster and explain, "We sincerely like your friends and the fact that you (and they) want to hang out here. A little warning is all we ask.The open door policy means anyone is welcome at any time. It also means I can never venture outside of my own bathroom without a bra, can never stock too many juice pouches, must keep ingredients for a giant-size breakfast coffee cake on hand at all times, and should install more hooks on the wall for all those backpacks. But, seriously, the more the merrier."

Counting shoes and backpacks is usually how I know how many kids are here at any given time.

Duck, Duck, Goose!
The rules of the game:

Instigate a game in which as many of your siblings as possible have to duck and duck again to avoid "aggressive affection" from you. The goose! part of the game is that fun little bit about pinching each other's backsides in the hopes of leaving a mark. Thank God you will finally outgrow the compulsion to do this. Too bad it is usually a week or so before you leave for college.

Just go to the other room, lock the door, and pretend you hear nothing.

Target Practice
The rules of the game:

Well, really, this applies only to boy kids. In spite of the fact that a toilet bowl is actually a pretty huge target, you miss time and time again. This results in a sticky, yellow wash of pee all over the outside of the bowl and on the floor. The truly ambitious manage to hit the shower curtain. Knowledge of geometry and trajectories must have something to do with it.

Beg, threaten, bribe or punish. But it's game over if you ever get so desperate as to purchase the floating targets. (Editor's note: Save your money. This too shall also pass right about the time they leave for college.)

The rules of the game:

Parents only.

It doesn't take long for your children to learn how to spell (even if you purposely refrain from actually teaching them yourself). Which means keeping a secret from all of them must  progress into your own private game of charades. Not to brag, but we are sort of experts at communicating with eye rolls, hand gestures, verbal shorthand and grunts. Our children have yet to fully crack our code. It's great fun and also one of our #1 tools in the fight for self-preservation.

Which is good, because although it's considered better for kids' self-esteem to ignore the score when you're playing a game, around here everyone knows the kids are definitely winning.