Friday Funnies at Down Side Ups
The kids are sick again. Coughing enough to stay home from school, but not sick enough that we can’t have fun.
What is fun, you ask? Well, with most of my kids it would be reading and painting, music and theater…fun stuff.
But with Mr. Alex P. Keaton, who is home today, we are playing Monopoly. I have avoided playing this game, ever, in 48 years. Can’t even stand the concept. Too orderly, too industrial, too rigid.
But somebody received the game as a birthday gift, years ago, and young Mr. Keaton has found it. He is genuinely interested. He set it up, rounded up his sisters, and he is the banker, coach, and enforcer of his own complete autocracy. He is enjoying handling money and properties, organizing and allocating.
Who is this kid, and what planet did he come from? Both his parents are artists!
I haven’t experienced anything like this kind of play since I was eight years old myself, trying to hide from my older sister’s authoritarian rule.
But we parents do strange things for our kids. I would probably do anything to make this guy smile. I buy his little “math squares” that he sells for a quarter apiece. He does arithmetic problems, and lines them all up in a geometric shape so that all the columns add up properly, and all the rows add up properly too. He does this for the sheer joy he finds in math. If I can buy his math puzzles, I can certainly play Monopoly, right?
So, we spend the morning buying and selling, and landing on each other’s real estate. At one point, three of them were Monopoly jail at the same time. I got to visit. By then, everyone was ready for a change of pace.
“Hey, can we do Microsoft Excel now?” he asks me, packing up his game. “It’s a spreadsheet.”
“I have a better idea, kiddo. Let’s go organize your sock drawer.”
A beautiful day.
There's a baptism at downsidesups.com ...
During vacation, some Chain Mail appeared at my house.
When I was little, Chain Mail meant a real letter in the mailbox out at the end of the driveway. Exciting! Rip open the envelope, eagerly expecting a birthday party invitation or a Publisher’s Clearinghouse win.
Chain Mail. Chain letters. Send seven of your friends copies of this letter, include two sheets of stickers in each envelope, add your name and address to the bottom of the list, and mail within seven days. At the end of the seventh week, you should receive seven million sticker sheets in the mail! Riches beyond compare! Letters to open from all over the world! You can even start a used stamp collection! Everyone will love you! The neighbors will all wonder who that famous person is on the street that gets all that fan mail…
But if you don’t, you are doomed. Terrible things will happen. You will be struck by lightening. Your hair will fall out. You will regret it the rest of your days. No one will ever ask you to your senior prom. Just remember to photocopy this letter, and send it to seven of your dearest friends.
Pyramid schemes for kids.
I loved it and loathed it as a kid.
But our Chain Mail is different.
A sweet neighbor saves box tops and pop tops for one of my kids, who dreams of winning an ipad for turning in the most box tops at school. He has a seven year plan for Box Top Domination in junior high. Not kidding.
Well, Genius Child found his pop top hoard. That’s when the Chain Mail started to appear. Pop top Chain Mail. Little Guy dreams of adding sleeves, and being impervious in his boyish battles.
“Can swords really not get through it? Even Sting from the Hobbit? Will it have sleeves by today?”
This kind of Chain Mail is a definite win.
I Choose Joy
I Choose Joy.
This is a deliberate choice on my part. It does not come easily.
The week before Christmas, my relatives came down with the flu. This was the same flu virus that, a few days earlier, had five of my family members sleeping in the living room, flopping over all the couches and chairs and cushions so I could check on fevers in the night. I am hoping we are not the reason they got ill, but chances are, we shared our germs. So sorry!
The week before Christmas, there was also a car accident. No one died! But one car was totaled, and several ribs were broken. Thank God my loved one will be all right. The car can be replaced. The ribs will mend…
The week of Christmas, in a separate incident, the brakes went out in our big truck. Not just a mild squeaking, but an all-out, light flashing, shrill beeping, call-a-tow-truck-your-brakes-are-out kind of thing. The thing went sliding backwards down a driveway. In true super-hero style, Doug let out a loud “Whoa!” and galloped into the open door and saved the day. He doesn’t even own a cowboy hat, but he wrangled that twelve year old, nine-passenger Suburban into submission, singlehandedly. I was impressed. I saw the whole thing happen, and I stood there slack-jawed, looking at the looming fence about to be squashed. I didn’t move until after it was all over.
Did I mention I have a large family? When one gets the flu, many more soon follow. Poor One with cracked up ribs had to go into seclusion to avoid the flu, as the cousins fell with fevers, one by one. Most of us missed Mass on Sunday. Missed confession. Missed band concerts, missed parties, missed school. Were we prepared for Christmas? Well, some of us even missed that.
But you know what? Christmas still came.
There was no snow to be seen, so for supper, Superman grilled deliciously marinated steaks outside. My job was to fill the oven with 23 large potatoes, and turn it on to bake while we went to Mass on Christmas Eve. It is not my forte to cook for a crowd. I’ll clean and smile, but please don’t put me in charge of a Christmas dinner for 20! My only job was potatoes.
Halfway through Mass, the panic button in my head rang out. I had forgotten to turn on the oven. My one, stupid, lowly job! Twenty three mammoth baking potatoes, and they would be raw. I knew my phone was in my pocket. A couple of quick clicks, and I could have texted someone to help me out. But what was I thinking??? This was Christmas Mass. If the Christ Child himself came to Earth that night, would I be present? Would I have been like the shepherds, leaving all worries, running to greet the Savior? I was so ashamed. I took my hand out of my coat pocket. I would not have been a shepherd, I would have been hanging out in the back fields, texting about potato emergencies. Caught up in a web of worry. Didn’t I think that the Savior of the World would watch over us, and help us in our troubles? It didn’t matter if those troubles were car accidents, broken bones, eleven cases of the flu, or even something as small as 23 raw potatoes… It would all be okay.
When the last “Joy to the World” had rung out, we left church to go dashing through the snow, over the river and through the woods.
And guess what? The ones who stayed home had seen the negligent error of my ways, and rescued the potatoes by turning on the oven. Christmas dinner was saved. The children improvised a (slightly sarcastic) song about all our troubles and our own Christmas Miracle of the Potatoes, which ended in peals of echoing laughter.
We ate our deliciously marinated steaks with spuds, enjoyed each other’s company, gave each other gifts, and had a lovely time.
Late at night, we left with presents piled high in the car, along with all the kids and the leftovers from supper.
A discovery was made the next morning. Somehow, in the pile of presents and leftovers, that stock pot of meat marinade had spilled in the back of the car.
Our car has literally been soaked in meat marinade. Used meat marinade. A salty concoction of fragrant garlic, soy, and ginger, made to tenderize and break down the meat, infusing it with unforgettable flavor and smells. Oh, we won’t be forgetting this smell. It billows out in an overpowering, smelly cloud when the car doors are opened. Thank God everything is frozen outside, or we would be driving an Evil, Raw-Meat Stenchmobile.
As I think back to the ruckus of this Christmas season, I have a choice to make. Choices like this one define our lives. What will I choose to remember? Will I cherish the bad times, becoming resentful and even envious of the picture-perfect Christmas photos I’ve been sent by others, the ones where all the kids are smiling together on a beach in the sunshine? Will I dwell on the negative, remembering the only difficulties? Or will I choose joy? Tough call.
But the choice is mine.
A: I can choose eleven cases of flu. Four broken ribs. Illness and pain. One totaled car. Twenty three forgotten potatoes. The failed brakes. And the spilled meat marinade still brewing, rancid in my car.
B: I can choose the moments of Joy.
They were there, you know.
Moments of Love, Joy and Peace.
Did I forget to mention those? Sometimes they are easy to overlook. Troubles are loud and demanding, but moments of Love, Joy and Peace are soft and sweet. They are the quiet candles, flickering in this dark world. These are the moments for which I am thankful. The gifts I want to cherish…
No alarm clock.
The dog wasn’t sick.
After Mass, in the hustle and bustle of evening darkness, some kids ran to the outdoor creche. The golden light shone around their silhouettes, gleaming warmth and radiating hope. They were the modern day shepherds, seeking the Child in the stable. They found him.
During the busiest week, my twelve year old made supper for me. He didn’t only cook “for me”, he did my cooking chores for me. That means supper for nine hungry people. It was delicious.
The children were all loving and kind to one another. No fights, no squabbles, only joy in being all together, out of school. Pure bliss.
One of the kids helped me wrap presents. Even her own. I enjoyed her company so much. She is infinitely better at details and decorating, being careful with corners and matching patterns. She made us all laugh by her choice of Disney Princess wrapping paper for the most obviously masculine gifts.
The school aged kids each gave us a beautifully glittered and glued Christmas card. One said “Merry Crhistmas. Thanks for being such a good Mom and Dad.” They will decorate my Christmas tree as long as the construction paper shall survive.
Stella perched on the couch next to me, and read me The Twelve Days of Christmas. All by herself. It is impossible to know which one of us was more pleased and proud.
On a quiet walk through the woods, the giant snowflakes fell slowly, melting fast. I came upon a grove of small trees, covered in glittering jewels of melted snowdrops. A thousand sparkling branches stretched out, adorned as royalty, hidden away off the path. A gift just for me and the raccoons.
Small One gave me a hug for a Christmas present. She wrapped her soft little arms around my neck, then gently touched my cheek.
“You’re the best Mommy I ever had. I love you.”
These are just some of the moments I choose.
They are everywhere, you know. Those seemingly elusive moments of Love, Joy and Peace. They are all around you, waiting to be noticed, treasures like the glittering jewels I found in the woods. Like the soft touch of a child’s hand in your own.
Despite the loud circus of troubles we encounter, Christmas has come. It has come, bringing gifts of Love, Joy and Peace. They quietly wait to be noticed, to be chosen, to be remembered.
And I search for them, very deliberately.
I choose Love and Peace.
I choose Joy.
I thought gingerbread was simply an offshoot of the story of Hansel and Gretel via the Brothers Grimm.
I was wrong.
A Wilton baking website, boasting that they made 2,000,000 gingerbread houses in one year alone, credits an Armenian monk with bringing Gingerbread to Europe in the 10th century. Gingerbread became a staple of Swedish nuns, and then of European monasteries in general. Later, gingerbread came to be sold in markets and pharmacies.
Only then did it make its way to Jolly Old England, to be displayed in shop windows as gingerbread houses. So the origin of the gingerbread house is actually England, via the Brothers Grimm, European monasteries, Swedish nuns, and one Armenian monk. Whew!
Thank you, One and All. We have had much fun with gingerbread!
Many people create amazing gingerbread houses. People set up a dreamscape of sugary goodness, organized like a painter’s palette, ready to be assembled into beautiful structures. I have seen pictures of tidy red cinnamon dots in orderly rows on rooftops…pretzel and licorice fences, flat suckers designed into stained glass windows. In my imagination, they look just like scenes from the Nutcracker, dripping with sweetness and happiness.
This is not what my children imagine. Not quite.
We used to bake our own gingerbread, and cut it into our desired architectural shapes before baking. This is a day-long process. We even do it gluten free. But now, there are just too many of us. It would take all my free time for a week to bake enough gingerbread. So this year, we bought many boxes of gluten free crackers in different shapes, and those were our foundation. It didn’t sound enticing at all to some of the kids,
“After all, Mom, a gluten free cracker is still a gluten free cracker even if you cover it in chocolate! Ew!”
But the rest of us were thrilled. Here are a few gems from our annual Gingerbread House Decorating Day. Not for the faint of heart…
Though the hobbit house was made of brownies and buttercream, the sweetness ended there.
Check out the lovely, Lord of the Rings chocolate-coated Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. Just what you’d like decorating your Christmas table, right? Anything can happen when you pull out the gluten free crackers, chocolate chips and gummy bears! The gummy bear army is assembled, ready for an Orc battle.
The funny part is that the Eye of Sauron disappeared before it could be attached. We blamed the dog. But how could anyone resist the gummy bear covered, frosted cookie the kids had made? So a second Eye was prepared. We made it from the only transparent goo left in the house: Fiber Gummies. Five of ‘em, melted into a round bottle cap, peeled out after it was chilled.
Everyone was warned not to eat it. Really. Who would want to eat something as evil as they Eye of Sauron anyway? If they did, they were warned of the consequences. What does five times the normal dose of fiber do to someone? How much of a laxative could it be?
Anyway, it’s gone. Someone ate the evil Eye of Sauron.
Merry Christmas, One and All!
Painting with Small One
I recently had a most enlightening conversation with Small One. I was painting, she was painting. She likes to do what I do.
We were enjoying working side by side, watercoloring the cloudy sky and some cartoons.
“Small One, please pass the Kosher salt. Want to watch as I sprinkle it on my wet paint?”
“I know, Mom. I do that too. It makes snowflakes in the paint. See?” She proceeds to take a pinch of salt with her dainty little fingers, and gently drop the grains into her wet paint.
That’s my girl. Her ‘snowflakes’ are exquisite.
We continue painting. I paint a cartoon character pregnant, looking like a globe. She paints her character round like a piece of candy.
“Hey Mom, do you want a tootsie roll?”
“We don’t have any, Dear.”
She smiles a knowing, secret smile of delight, and puts down her paintbrush. “Yes, we do! Hiding way up in the cupboard.”
I stop working. “Oh really? How do you know that?”
“Oh, me and Sis found it. Don’t tell! It’s Halloween candy. No one else knows, so they can’t eat any.”
Ah. A secret stash of candy, hidden away from many siblings... Do tell. If you want to eat something in a house with many siblings, you have to learn to either A., eat really fast, or B., hide stuff.
At this point, she climbs up a chair, onto the cupboard, and reaches up above the toaster. She returns victorious, with a half-empty bag of Tootsie Rolls, leftover and forgotten from Halloween. She is so happy to share this secret with me.
“But please don’t write about it on your blog, Mom, because then everyone will find out and it will be gone tomorrow!”
Good thinking, Small One.
Olden Day Christmas
Some of my kids are obsessed with “Olden Day Stuff”.
I’m a history major, I get that. Old Stuff is intriguing. I spent my childhood absolutely longing to search my grandparents’ attic. That secret half-door leading to mysteries under the rooftop was a forbidden zone. Filled, I was certain, with dolls and Christmas ornaments and treasures and photographs of my Great Aunt Marie, the flapper girl who cut her hair short and played the piano at the silent movies downtown. Mysteries and Secrets and Christmas! They were hidden away, just like Narnia in the old wardrobe.
As it turns out, I saw the attic and its contents when I grew up. The angled roof underbelly had exposed fiberglass insulation, and the floor had empty spots where a kid could fall through the plaster and into the living room below. I’m glad it was off limits, even though they stored the Christmas stuff there.
We decorated our Christmas tree this week, and it has lots of Olden Day Stuff on it. Some people have stylish trees, pretty trees, even decorator-themed trees.
We are not those people.
Our tree is a veritable cornucopia of memories. At the top, there are ancient breakable blown glass ornaments from my grandmother’s tree. They are out of reach of little ones. They are accompanied by all the candy canes that the older kids want to keep away from the little ones. Below the candy cane contraband are the sentimental wonders that only a mother would keep and cherish.
One of the ornaments was given to me by my oldest daughter, the very first Christmas that she could talk. “Look, Mama. A ‘ormament’ for you!” She had crumpled up a napkin from coffee and donuts time after church. Masking tape held on a coffee stirrer that she said were antlers, and she drew two magic marker spots for eyes. “It’s a reindeer!” My very first Mommy gift. It’s been on my Christmas tree for twenty years. Really. A crumpled brown napkin with a coffee stirrer taped to it. I can still see the sparkle in her eyes, all pleasure because she had made it for me.
The rest of the tree is covered with memories. Finger painted things and jingle bells strung with beads on yarn, and many tin-foil-covered-cardboard Stars of David. There is a pipe-cleaner assembly that used to say “Merry Christmas”. Now it is just tendrils, but I remember the nimble little hands that made it for me. Olden Day Stuff.
Probably inspired by all the old stuff on our tree, all this week my daughter has been asking me to make her an “Olden Day Lunch”.
“Please make me an Olden Day lunch, Mom?”
What she wants is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cut in half, with a tangerine, in a brown paper bag. Sound exciting?
Olden Day Lunch.
It got me thinking…
“Did you know, Small One, that when I was your age, there were no cell phones in my house?”
“Where were they?”
“They hadn’t been invented yet.”
Her eyes widen.
“Did you know, Small One, that Netflix hadn’t been invented, either? No Amazon, no Netflix, and no DVDs.”
She looks at me in wonderment. “Oh, you watched movies on the VCR thing?”
“No. Actually, when we got to watch a movie, we got into our footie pajamas, My mom and Dad made about 5 batches of buttery popcorn, packed it in a brown paper grocery bag (Ooooh, real Olden Day Stuff!) and we piled into the car to go to the drive in movie theater. We watched a screen the size of a house.”
Very impressed. I could see the wheels turning in her little mind.
“What else didn’t you have, Mom?”
Let me think…No microwave. No dishwasher. Wait, no. We were the dishwashers. We sang songs and harassed each other while we did the dishes. No remote control gas fireplace. No remote control at all. No carseats, no seatbelts in the back seat. No answering machine, no cell phones, no cordless phone, no pager. No computer…No credit cards…no carpool, no playdates, no daycare, and my goodness: no disposable diapers.
“Did you have food?”
“Yes, but we had to grow much of it in the backyard, Small One.”
“Did you have clothes?”
“Yes, Dear. Mostly hand-me-downs from my sister and the neighbors. One was a pretty pink dress, but I only got to wear it to church on Sundays.”
“What else did you have, Mom?”
“A sled dog. And a sled. And a big hill. And dirt. We played in the dirt a lot.”
Actually, this is not a lie. The neighbors on the next street over had loads of black dirt hauled in for some landscaping plan that was never implemented. They had a literal mountain of black dirt in their backyard. It grew wild with magnificent weeds that were taller than me, and we made trails and forts and wove great rooftops of blooming clover that swayed over our heads, populated by butterflies and bees. We lived on that hobbit-hill, summer after summer. Games of tag, scavenger hunts for pupae and caterpillars and ladybugs and beautiful garter snakes, basking in the sun. We were so filthy at the end of each summer day. Trudging home through the weeds, we’d pull the dandelion fluffs and prickers out of our tangled hair and compare scrapes on our knees. After a bath, we’d take a wet washcloth to bed, to keep ourselves cool while we listened to the crickets chirp through the screens. Because we didn’t have air conditioning.
But we did have a Christmas tree.
“And guess what, Small One. Our Christmas tree was covered in Olden Day Stuff, too. Your aunt once squirted out a blobby blue patch of glue, and stuck a bunch of sparkly beads in it and tied it with a golden ribbon. If you look closely, you’ll see it is on your grandmother’s tree again this year. Because that was my sister’s Christmas gift to my mom. And moms are sentimental about stuff like that. We can’t quite keep it, can’t quite throw it away…but we can decorate our Christmas trees with the Olden Day Stuff for forty years or more…
After I tucked everyone in bed tonight, I took another look at our frumpy old tree. I had to smile. Maybe it’s something about the lights twinkling in the darkness, winking at me, reminding me of the magic of Christmas and childhood. I see my grandmother’s ornaments, and my great aunt’s ornaments, and the decorations my own children have made through the years.
Some good years, some not so good years.
But you know what? We always had each other. Someone was always hiding the candy canes at the top of the tree, where the little ones couldn’t reach.
And even now, with all our modern conveniences and electronics, we are still harassing each other while we do the dishes. And we’re still singing the same “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, captivated by the same flickering Advent candles, lighting up the darkness. Waiting for Mysteries and Christmas and Secrets.
These are the Olden Days they’ll remember tomorrow.
And they are magical.
Friday Funnies at Down Side Ups
I blog at downsideups.com on Fridays... Click on the picture to see today's 'toons!_
This was one of my first blog posts.... Happy Getting Ready for Christmas!
Snowflakes swirled softly, descending on a peaceful scene of Mary, Joseph, and newborn Jesus, cradled in a manger. Peace and serenity reigned there in the snow globe, on the shelf. But that was just a snow globe. I turned away. Lights flashed, blinking Christmasy red, green, blue, yellow. These lights emanated not from a Christmas tree, but from a heart monitor, I.V. drip, bili blanket, feeding tube, oxygen tent. My newborn baby laid in the neonatal intensive care unit of a downtown hospital, cradled in an incubator. Rather than peppermint and gingerbread, I smelled only my own fear.
We named her Stella Lucille. Born just a few days earlier, her name meant “Star Light,” for the star of Bethlehem that showed the wise men the way to Jesus. But our little star couldn’t breathe or eat on her own. I held her flaccid, tiny body in my arms, after her birth. Though she was swaddled in a warm blanket, her head flopped back like a rag doll. She was cold, so cold. Her fingers and mouth slowly turned purple, then blue. Within minutes, a small army of specialists and nurses had whisked her away from me. We now knew that she had three holes in her heart, and Down Syndrome.
Merry Christmas, right? My other small children waited for me at home. We’d planned it all out, this baby was the biggest, most exciting Christmas present for our family. Everyone waited for her. There was a dolly cradle under the Christmas tree, where we’d planned to lay our newborn for a Christmas family photo. We would light the candles in our Advent wreath, sing carols by the warm glow of candlelight and Christmas tree lights, and celebrate the births of baby Jesus and baby Stella. Then, off to Christmas Eve Mass with my extended family. After Mass, we had planned to crowd into Grandma’s house with all the relatives, eat Christmas dinner, and enjoy the celebration with cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings until late into the night. Even an old family friend would make his annual Santa Claus appearance, after supper. He’d come in his stuffed red velvet suit, bells jingling, handing out gifts to all the children, laughing his Ho Ho Ho’s, calling each child by name and surprising them with the tidbits and details he knew about their antics. This was how we wanted Christmas to be.
But, Stella wasn’t coming home. I had been discharged from the hospital that morning, but I couldn’t bear to go home without her. Like Santa, I wore my own whale-sized, post partum velvety green Christmas outfit. My other children waited for me. But I didn’t go home for the family photo. The cradle under the tree remained empty, and my heart remained filled with fear. My husband arrived, the nurses assured me my baby would be safe and cared for. But I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t leave my helpless, weak daughter alone without someone watching over her.
“The other kids need you,” coaxed my husband, Doug. “We have just a little more time here, then you have to leave, for their sake.”
My heart felt torn in pieces. I caressed Stella’s soft exposed arm with my finger.
“God,” I prayed silently. “help me to trust you with her.”
Doug gently loosened my fingers on my baby’s arm. “It’s time.”
My tears welled up inside, as Doug escorted me out of the NICU. The fear of the unknown, the fear of abandoning her when she needed me, the fear of being abandoned by God surged in my heart, threatening to burst through as we approached the hospital’s security exit door. I forced my legs forward. “God! Send an angel to help me through that door!” I pleaded.
Doug’s hand rose to push the locked handle, when suddenly, a familiar, smiling face loomed close on the other side, peering through the window into the unit. Startled, we opened the door to find our very own Santa Claus, standing sheepishly in the hall with his wife. “I don’t want to intrude on your privacy,” he began, “But I came to see Stella so I could tell your other kids that Stella got the first present on Christmas Eve.”
How quickly God can turn our sorrows to joy. “Come and see her! You’ll be her first visitor ever.” My smile was genuine, and we ushered Santa back to the NICU.
“Family only.” The nurse at the desk arched her eyebrow at us.
“That’s all right, I’m his brother!” Santa replied, patting my husband on the back.
“Oh, I’m so glad!” the nurse smiled. “Welcome, Santa!”
“Ho, Ho Ho!” Santa chuckled, as we magically walked back through the doors.
Once inside the NICU, he sat in the rocker, next to her incubator, whispering hushed Christmas secrets that only Stella and Santa could share. Catching a glimpse of the snow globe behind them, I beamed. In sharing the joy of her birth with Santa and his wife, a bond was forming. A bond of trust between God, who answered my prayer, and Stella, a child who never would be alone.
God had sent me his angel for whom I prayed, dressed up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. I began to realize that even though the circumstances were grim, even when nothing goes as we planned it, and we feel abandoned and alone, God is still with us. He watches over us, and He has a plan.
A little later, we left the hospital. Real-life snowflakes swirled, softly descending on Doug and me as we made our way through the starlit parking lot. The hush of a Silent Night surrounded us, enclosing our family in a circle of trust, just like that snow globe. Peace and serenity grew in my heart, like the newborn faith I felt. I was ready to celebrate Christmas Mass with my family.
Stella Lucille, our little star of Bethlehem, began to lead us on a journey toward trusting God. She truly was our family’s best Christmas gift, though perhaps not in the way we, ourselves, had planned.
And that Christmas Eve night, when I felt so afraid and alone, God sent Santa Claus to help us find our way.
Whew. It’s over, that’s all I have to say. But it will happen again, it always does. I’m talking about the fallout after a holiday. Thanksgiving was wonderful, and it has taken us more than a week to recover. Now we’ve had our fun, we’ve had some germs, and we have overcome. Just in time to prepare for Christmas.
So, let me tell you a little bit about my week.
A virus came home, a stowaway in one child’s backpack along with his leftover lunch. He shared the virus with his sister. She shared it with me. No big deal… it was just a cold with a cough. It came, it went. But then it got the Three Musketeers, my littlest ones.
Bing, Bang, Boom.
Two stayed home from school all week, coughing like barking sea lions.
By the time Small One started coughing, I was pretty worn out. Poor thing. She sat on the couch on a makeshift throne, not wanting jello or tea or soup. Without a voice. And sad. She only wanted to be “On Mama”. I don’t get much done when a child is “On Mama”. Eventually, we pushed the couch and the love seat together, and all of us just flopped there with a pile of Christmas books and Kleenex. They looked at books, I snored and drooled. The rest of the house fell apart.
Sick kids seldom sleep at night. Neither do parents of sick kids. My house is a mess and we are tired. By the end of the week, everyone got cookies for breakfast.
Did I mention that the dog just had surgery? He had a lump on his eyelid that had grown to the size of a marble, and we didn’t want him to lose his eye. Right before Thanksgiving, he trotted into the vet’s office with his beloved tennis ball in his mouth, and had his surgery. When I picked him up that afternoon, he came home without his precious ball. We didn’t give him a new ball until we were sure his eye was healing. So he was without beloved ball until Friday.
Old dog + antibiotics = you better let Dog out when he wants out.
Dog went out a lot this week.
Late, late Friday night, all kids finally slept. Dog began to whimper in his sleep. He twitched and he moaned a bit. But he still was sleeping. What to do? Let him sleep… he must be having a dream. Twenty minutes later, Doug was wide awake, staring at the ceiling, and Dog was still whimpering and fussing in his sleep.
Doug began to worry about the whole Dog + Antibiotics = you better let dog out when he wants out equation.
So, in the wee hours of the morning, Doug stood at the door, waiting for Dog to come back. Waiting. Waiting. Dog had disappeared into the woods. Doug waited quietly for fifteen minutes, not wanting to wake anyone up by yelling at Dog to come back.
Then, he came. Start the Chariots of Fire soundtrack… Picture Dog running, slow motion, jubilant, and victorious, out of the woods. Back towards the house.
Ball in mouth.
He had found it in the woods, where he had inadvertently left it that afternoon. He was joyful.
He hadn’t needed his woodsy bathroom at all. Not a bit.
He had just been worried about his ball. Worried enough to have an anxious dream.
But now, Dog was filled with glee. With his happy, click-y toenails on the floor dance at 4 a.m., Small One woke up. Here we go again…
When I got up Saturday morning, there was a note on my kitchen table. It said this:
“NO WON WOTS T BE WES O SEK PRSEN”
Translation: “No one wants to be with a sick person”.
Poor Small One. She had gotten up and written that note in the night, when I was sleeping. Oh how that little girl can twist my heart up. She can spend all week “On Mama” if she wants to. We’ll bake more cookies, batches and batches of cookies, and she can have them every day for breakfast. Poor Sick Small One on the couch.
Some day soon, she won’t have this virus anymore. She will get her little voice back, and there will be no sibling chorus of barking sea lions on the living room couch. The dog will be well. The Kleenexes will be cleaned up.
Maybe just in time for Christmas.
Finding a Tree
It’s December. The wind has been howling for a month already. The lake is frozen over… it was minus 4 degrees outside this morning. It must be time to get a tree.
Because that’s what we do around here, for fun and merriment in the Winterlands. We chop down a tree, and bring it in the house. Things aren’t claustrophobic enough, being cooped up in our homes all winter. We have to bring a tree in, too. And then we decorate it. Sparkly things, odd ornaments and do-dads from generations past. Gifts, mostly, from one friend to another. They are made with beads and noodles, paint and glue, sequins stuck on by preschool fingers. Every gap in the branches is then filled with plastic, glittering icicles, and we plug it all in to the electrical socket. Bling! We are happy. We have a tree.
I love Christmas trees. I do. But I love them before they come into my living room.
I love Christmas trees when they still grow, soft and silent, in the woods.
I can’t resist a walk through a forest after snowfall. I always find something beautiful there, in the halls of the Snow Queen. Ice crystals on spruce needles…a forgotten, now glittering robin’s nest tucked into a branch…pink circles of peppermint candy cane melted and refrozen on my child’s cheeks… As I trudge, making a path where no one else has been, snow creeps into the gap in my boot where it doesn’t quite cover my ankle. I don’t mind. A red cardinal sings to its mate in the treetops. A thermos of hot chocolate is waiting in the truck.
You can tell that I am no help in cutting a tree down. None. I am entirely captivated by the forest’s beauty. The trees are majestic and whispering, hiding rabbits and owls in secret spots. I like to be with them.
Cutting the tree is Doug’s job. He is reasonable and practical, and can definitely tell if the tree is three feet too tall to fit in the living room. Also he can work a saw. Just another of those mechanical things that I don’t do. One of my favorite family photos is of Doug, showing off with a tree for me.
“I don’t need the car brought down here,” he boasted. “I’ll just carry the tree. It’ll be faster that way.” And off he went up the snowy path to find our car. He’s a strong guy.
But one year, he wasn’t there much before Christmas. A work deadline loomed over his head, and he just didn’t have time for tromping in the woods.
“I can do this.” I thought out loud. “How hard can it be to cut down a little old Christmas tree?”
I bundled up four kids in their warmest outdoor gear, and piled them into the minivan. Off we went, to a tree farm. The pre-cut trees lined up in the driveway in neat rows, tightly tied in twine. The beautiful ones. The best of the crop. For sale.
I didn’t want them.
I wanted a different tree, a scrubby, not-quite-a-Charlie-Brown-tree. I wanted the kids to tromp through the woods with me and choose their own, unique Christmas tree. They would remember this their whole lives. Of this I was sure. This was one of those moments.
The tree farm man waved at me as I slowly pulled off the main drive. “Can I help you choose a tree?” he asked. “No, thanks. I’d like to choose my own.” I began to roll up my window and drive, when I heard him say “Ma’am, do you need a saw?”
Well I guess I did.
“Thanks,” I said. He pointed the way to the shed where I could choose a saw and a cup of cider. “We have a few saws to choose from.”
I knew he smiled. I could feel his grinning amusement as I heaved myself from the van.
“Ma’am, are you sure you want to go out and cut your own tree? Cause I could do that for you.”
“No, thanks.” I pulled myself up to power posture stance, my enormous belly protruding from my tightly stretched coat. I was nine months pregnant. “I got this.”
I was determined to make a memory for my kids this day. Not the kind of memory where mom gives birth in a forest. That couldn’t happen. I delivered long overdue with every one of my kids. Even though my due date was technically here, I knew I would still be pregnant for weeks. And sawing a tree down just might be the hard physical labor that it might take to get me into actual labor. Or not.
I drove carefully down the bumpy hill toward the first grove of trees. Every bump hurt. I began to realize that tromping through the snowy forest was perhaps not going to be possible. I bet this first grove of trees was the one I really wanted, anyway. No need to go further.
“All right, kids. Everybody out! Let’s go find our Christmas tree!”
Tears. Someone was sobbing. No, two Someones were crying. Remember that hot chocolate I mentioned? Well while driving over bumps, the whole thermos had spilled on one of the kids. It had been big enough for five, and now it was emptied in her lap, and dripping into her boots. Her sister said she felt like she had to throw up. And the Little Guy was sound asleep.
“Change of plans.” I moaned. “You all stay here. No one is going outside in the woods in December soaking wet or sick. You’ll get pneumonia before Christmas.” The oldest child offered to stay in the van and make sure there was no mischief. Wise choice.
“Okay then. I’ll take my saw, and I’ll choose a tree. Rub the frost off the window; can you see any tree you like? Which one?”
They pointed to a large blue spruce, about twenty five feet off the trail. Through virgin white, unmarred snow. I’d have to tromp, chop, and drag that thing all the way back to the van myself. No.
“How about this beauty right here?” I pointed to a giant spruce right next to the trail It was huge. Glorious.
I tried. I really tried. The branches were thick and large, and growing low down into the snow. Spruce tree needles are sharp and they hurt when they scratched my face. Never mind the needles. I couldn’t fit my large body under the low branches to get near the trunk. I rolled and pushed with my boots to get leverage, but I couldn’t stuff myself under that tree. Too pregnant.
Now I was covered in snow and my belly was cold. My hands were cold. Someone in the van was crying again. I went to the next tree over, one with obvious bare spots. I didn’t even look to see if I liked it or not. It was a tree, and it was going to be my Christmas tree. I thumped down in the snow and crawled under that tree. I sawed. I sawed and sawed and sawed some more. I was tired. I laid down on my side like a bloated hippopotamus wearing wool, and sawed at that tree with frozen fingers.
He had followed me.
“Ma’am? Can I help you now?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, you may.” Suddenly quite self conscious, I tried to sit up in the snow, under the tree, and crawl out with a scrap of dignity. I found none.
He helped me up from the snow, and I sat in the driver’s seat, huffing and puffing and cold.
“Ma’am? Is this the tree you were trying to cut? Because I don’t see any saw marks at all.”
“Anywhere. Doesn’t matter. Just cut it down and throw it on the van roof, please.” I was defeated. And sick Child wanted a bucket. Wet Child was cold. Toddler was waking up. Tween was embarrassed. Perhaps mortally, as in forever. This was definitely a memory making day, yessir.
The man cut down the tree like slicing butter, bundled the tree with twine and tied it to my roof.
Twenty bucks and a memory to cringe about for years to come.
As I drove home, we sang Jingle Bells at the top of our lungs, laughing all the way.
I Am Thankful.
I am thankful.
We ate. We drank. We laughed and talked and played games and solved world problems with our ideas. We all scrunched up on the old couch and chatted and watched old movies, we ate each other's leftover sandwiches without caring about cooties. Just for one weekend, no one cried, no one was sick or hungry or too tired to be kind. We spent the holiday with each other, in peace, love and joy.
I am thankful.
Today, my house is a bona fide wreck, I have two sick kids, another going back off to college, no food in the house except one dried out, thrice-cooked turkey leg, a veritable mountain of laundry, and no coffee. Though I vowed I would not shop this weekend, I will shop for coffee. Today, the world is back to normal. Someone even yelled "cooties" when I drank tea from the wrong cup. So, the holiday is over.
I am thankful.
Happy Thanksgiving, Part 3
If you have read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story, then you’ll know what happens next.
Happy Gluten Free Thanksgiving!
“NO!” My brain wanted to shout.
It was, indeed. A Thanksgiving Traditionalist nightmare.
“Well, people all over the globe eat this way.” I told myself.
“Actually, yes. Africa, Asia, South America, Antarctica…”
Look, if you have to hold Antarctica up as an example to defend your menu and food choices, then something is seriously wrong with your life. And besides, those continents don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.
But truth is truth, and facts are facts. We couldn’t go anywhere to eat anymore. Not with Stella and her Celiac Disease. Even if we packed her a dinner from home and went to Grandma’s, we would have to follow her like hawks to make sure she didn’t toddle over to the buffet or the cookie trays and eat something that would cause her hours of screaming and pain.
We would have to stay home and make our little family a Gluten Free Thanksgiving.
“Well,” said my mom. “If you’re not coming to our Thanksgiving dinner, then we are coming to yours.”
“Really?” I was surprised. “You guys would do that for us?”
I have a big family. Some of them are normal. They’re the in-laws.
The rest of us are like the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota… our lives are messy, tangled up together, bumbling around, having fun and in each other’s business all the time. Oh, the year this story takes place, we have, collectively, seventeen kids under the age of twelve.
One of those kids was my newly-born son, so I was busy with diapers and nursing and ‘new mom narcolepsy’. All that meant is that I was so fatigued every minute that I could, and often did, fall asleep mid conversation. Pardon my drooling. I have six kids, my thyroid just quit and my dog chewed another hole through the drywall. Would you like to come to my house for your Thanksgiving celebration? This would have been a great sacrifice for anyone, even without the gluten free part.
My poor sisters in law. They are both from families with much more decorum and manners. The rest of the bumblers I didn’t worry about. They were used to adapting. And besides, most of them are kids. They won’t even care if there is no stuffing or bread or pumpkin pie.
They have each other.
And that, after all, is the whole point of it. Thanksgiving or any holiday… the idea is to be thankful for each other. It’s not about the turkey, or the particular recipes you cherish, or the traditions and china plates passed down through the generations. It’s about being thankful for each other. And that’s what my extended family did that year. We let go of our expectations and our traditions, and we were glad that we had each other.
Doug made a feast of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, corn bread stuffing, all gluten free and delicious. One brother and his wife brought cinnamon ice cream. Another brother and his wife brought paper plates, cups, and plastic silverware, which meant no one had to do the dishes. My sister made a mountain of veggies, freshly steamed and drizzled in butter and almonds. Sixteen little kids had the time of their life, playing hide and seek in every nook and cranny of my house. The dog ate scraps, cleaning the floor with great joy. I sat on the couch with the baby, a fatigued but grateful beached whale, sleeping.
Thanksgiving, Part 2
Thanksgiving, Part 2
Fast forward to 2004….
Months after Stella was born, things got pretty chaotic. My once-private little life was invaded by a veritable army of home health nurses, doctors, cardiologists, birth-to-3 teachers (who knew that was even a job?) a speech therapist, occupational therapist, et cetera.
But all that is just background, another story for another day.
Right now I am remembering a newspaper article my mom brought over to me, shortly after Stella was born. She, like her mother before her, is a Clipper. She sees articles in papers and magazines, and clips them out to share. Real newspaper. Real scissors. The pre-internet sharing of stories.
Anyway, she clipped an article about a family whose child was diagnosed with severe food allergies.
“This might make you feel better.” She said. “Other people have troubles, too. I’m so glad you don’t have to deal with this!”
I read the article with sadness and a bit of trepidation. The poor family had to separate the kitchen into two parts: allergens and non-allergens. Separate toasters, separate knives, separate jars of jam. How could a parent keep all that going perfectly? I knew that there was no way in the world I could handle that kind of intensity in the kitchen!
In September, Stella turned nine months old. My smiley little elf was growing.
“She needs Cheerios,” the occupational therapist said. “Great finger practice. Picking up those little bits of cereal will really help her eye-hand coordination.” So we started the baby food routine. A little bit of this, then add a little bit of another, then soon we had worked her way up the food chain to Cheerios. We celebrated when she sat at her high chair, gingerly picking at the little pieces. We cheered when they made it into her mouth. Even the dog rejoiced, because now magical delicious bits of kibble rained down from Heaven every time Stella was put into her high chair.
By October, she was getting much better with her fingers. But somehow, in those months, she had developed colic. Every evening, the sweet little cherub would tighten up, screaming like a fire engine. There was no consoling her. Tears rolled down her cheeks and mine, too. I held her and rocked her, singing every song I knew. Around 2:00 a.m. she would fall asleep from exhaustion. Night after night, the same crying. A nurse taught me how to hold her cradled on my forearm, which applied pressure to her belly and seemed to help her calm down. None of the doctors in our life had any answers. Some of my relatives’ kids had spent their infancy crying, too. Colic consumed my every evening, and I began feeling stretched and helpless. How could she be so happy in the day and so in agony every night? Though she couldn’t speak to me in words, it was obvious she was in pain. How long could this last? November was horrible. Thanksgiving was just juggling kids, trying to cook and keep Stella from her now inevitable nightly screaming.
In December, we scheduled a visit to a Special Needs clinician in the city. There had to be something someone could do about this. At his initial exam in January, the doctor asked many questions. “I am going to test her for Celiac Sprue,” he said.
I had never heard of it.
By February, Stella and I were following up in the office of a pediatric gastroenterologist. “She does have Celiac,” he explained. “As far as diseases go, this is the best one to have. There are no medications. That means no side effects. All you have to do is feed her a gluten free diet. I’m sorry that I can’t tell you what kind of food you can buy. (This was 2005; food ingredients labeling laws had not yet been passed. There was no other way to learn what was in the food you purchased.) You’ll have to call the food companies to find out if there is any wheat, barley, rye or oats in each product. And you’ll have to make most things homemade. You’re about to become a great cook of plain meat, rice, and vegetables, because your daughter needs you to do this.”
Good grief. I’d spent the previous ten years learning how to cook and bake. I could even make French eclairs with Bavarian creme from scratch. I could easily whip out a batch of my grandma’s cinnamon rolls and homemade bread without using a recipe, I’d made them so many times. What was this Celiac?
“Oh, and don’t worry,” the gastroenterologist added. “No one else in your family will have this. Stella probably just has it because she has Down Syndrome.”
Famous last words.
That was the day I began reading labels and separating foods. By that evening, my kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off in it. But I had one tidy little cabinet dedicated only to Stella’s food. Our first Gluten Free Cupboard. I taped a sign on the front of the doors that said “Stella’s Food.”
Our Separated Kitchen Nightmare had begun.
Did I mention that at that time, I had five children, age 10 and under?
Feeding time at the Mahnke Farm became unbearably difficult. Two peanut butter jars. Two butter dishes. Two kinds of bread: one homemade and deliciously whole wheat, the other was some crusty, cardboard like expensive brick of Gluten Free mystery bread. I was frantic to keep things separate so that Stella wouldn’t get bread crumbs or gluten in her diet. If she did get wheat or gluten, it always gave her about three hours of agonizing tears. I felt so guilty, like a complete failure of a mother every time she got cross-contamination. I tried many different methods. But Stella’s cupboard and our cupboards didn’t stay separate for long. The two little ones loved to crawl inside and throw things out. Then the next kid would come along and dutifully put it all away, but in the wrong cupboards. I bought colorful stickers and stuck them all over Stella’s food so the kids would know. But they liked the stickers, and the toddlers put them all over every food item. I bought Mr. Yuk stickers next. Remember those? Big, green circle stickers of a yucky face? Try making a kid eat a can of wheat noodle soup that has a Mr. Yuck sticker on it. Uh uh. The next effort was Sharpie markers. Anything that came into the house that was wheat got a large, black “X” drawn on it. Cereal? X. Macaroni and cheese? X. Everything prepackaged and convenient? You got it, an X. Soon Stella’s little cabinet was full of little else but raw potatoes. She thought it was great fun to open the door, grab a potato, and crawl away as fast as she could. She learned how to throw from tossing hundreds of potatoes around the kitchen. They were her favorite food and probably one of her favorite playthings.
She started to heal. Slowly, over the next two months, Stella stopped the nighttime screaming and calmed down once again. She had peaceful evenings, hugging and smiling again. She was better! The gluten free diet was working! We were so pleased.
But it seemed at least once or twice a week, she was getting cross-contamination from somewhere. Play-doh: made of wheat. Finger paints: wheat based. Even foods like yogurt and soy sauce and canned peaches often contain trace amounts of gluten that would cause Stella pain. Worse yet, she was crawling all over the house now, and if one of the other kids dropped crumbs anywhere, Stella would find them first. If we went on an outing, people like to give little kids a sucker or a cookie. I couldn’t take it anymore, I felt as sorry for myself as I had for the family in the newspaper clipping my mom had given me. I was super pregnant again, maniacally scrubbing the kitchen floor with Clorox wipes every time someone pulled food out to eat. I could barely fit under the kitchen table. And guilt consumed me every time Stella got sick. Something had to change.
So we did what we had to do: No gluten in our kitchen. Period. It was tough, but it worked! Stella no longer got sick from random crumbs. And my stress level and guilt went way down, because Stella was a peaceful, happy baby again.
We did find a compromise for the other kids, who still liked a doughnut or a sandwich now and then.
Our tub had a spray hose on the shower head, which made it very easy to spray the tub clean. So every time the older kids wanted to eat wheat, they got to eat, sitting perched on the side of the tub. In five minutes, I could spray it all clean, with no crumbs to make Stella sick. And with the bathroom door shut, Stella didn’t see them and know she was missing out on a treat. Many a caramel pecan roll was eaten in that bathtub!
The solution to all our problems was so simple. The “best disease to have,” the pediatric gastroenterologist had said. He was right. Give up everything you like to bake and eat, and your daughter will be happy and healthy. Simple. After half a year of Gluten Free life, we had GF cooking down to a science and an art. Stella was growing and happy. The other kids were happy with their contraband snack location. And I was happy to not be scrubbing the floor every half an hour. We were gluten free pros.
And we were just about ready for our turn to host the big Thanksgiving feast for all our extended family…
Thanksgiving, Part 1
Well, here it is, Thanksgiving week, and instead of shopping and cleaning and baking and cooking, I keep on thinking about messed up expectations.
About times that I have been derailed from well-laid plans.
And about one particular really crazy Thanksgiving that no one would choose to have, and yet it all worked out okay in the end. This may take a few days to tell…
Here is Part 1:
Often my holiday plans have been messed up.
Not small glitches, here and there, soon fixed with scotch tape. I mean big, unfixable mess ups.
Bigger than the first time I ever hosted Thanksgiving dinner.
I was a pretty new at the domestic stuff, and still learning how be a mother. This was the first Thanksgiving my little family would have in our house, and I wanted everything to go perfectly. In the frantic flurry of all the shopping, planning, baking, and especially cleaning, I had forgotten to check on the thawing turkey. The night before Thanksgiving, all the crystal was freshly washed and gleaming, the china dishes in their places, but I had been so distracted that I completely neglected the bird. Now where was that thing? It wasn’t in the fridge. Not in the freezer. I began to panic when our guest of honor, my mother in law, entered the kitchen. She was a great cook. I was not. Especially when I couldn’t remember where the turkey was.
“With what will you season the poultry?” She asked.
I smoothed out the tablecloth, adjusting the edge. I was about to tell her all about the exciting salt and pepper seasonings with which I was familiar, when suddenly it hit me. I remembered where my turkey was.
In the car.
It was in the car, in the garage. Of course.
We had just a smallish refrigerator, and it was stuffed completely with side dishes and trimmings. So, for the last few days, the turkey had been kept cold in the garage. This was Minnesota, after all. The garage is just a big walk-in cooler.
It was actually much colder in the garage. Like probably 300 degrees below zero. Yes, the turkey was found. But it was frozen solid as a rock. So, the night before that Thanksgiving, in the dark of frosty cold Minnesota, I trekked to the only open store to find a thawed turkey.
Then my mother in law stepped in to cook the meal. She rustled up more than just the salt and pepper I had planned, and even glazed the carrots in a caramel blend of butter and brown sugar. Delicious things came out of my oven that day, and as my mother in law stirred the gravy and garnished the potatoes, I saw her happiness emerge. Even though she was visiting from far away, she got to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her son. And it was just like he’d remembered from his childhood. His grandmother’s china plates were on his table, his mother was at the stove, doing her best. Everyone was happy.
It was a beautiful Thanksgiving day.
It wasn’t the one I planned.
But it was a beautiful day.
Maybe a Frozen theme song with adapted words is just what you need to get on with the shoveling today. Stay warm! I'm on hot chocolate patrol.
I have a question: How many minutes does it take for peaceful, quiet snow angels to turn into a rumble-tumble snow circus? Don't blink or you'll miss the transformation.
Secrets and Applesauce
Yesterday, I attended a funeral for a woman who died, unexpectedly, in her sleep. Just like that. She didn’t know that it was her last day here. She did the things she always did. When the coroner came to the house, I was told, she said that in all her years as a coroner, she had never seen a home so orderly, clean, and tended to. The woman had her clothes for the next day lying out, pressed and ready. Holiday cards were written, addressed, and stacked up for the mail. The woman loved her family, and was on good terms with all of them. She was prepared.
She was ready.
This got me to thinking: What will they find when I’m gone?
When I was a child, my grandmother stayed with us frequently. I can still hear her precautionary warnings as we left for school.
“Did you remember to change your socks and underwear, Schnookie? If you get in an accident, you don’t want someone to find you in dirty underwear.”
I stressed about that as a kid. I worried about the what-ifs of someone finding me, unconscious, in mismatched socks or less-than-clean knickers. My gosh. What would happen? What if I hadn’t scrubbed behind my ears, either? Would they also see what I wrote in my diary when I was mad at my sister? There was a lock on my diary, at least.
I didn’t realize until much later the lesson she was trying to teach. She wanted us to stay clean, whether people could see it or not. She was warning us that all of our secrets would come to light, one day.
I have a good example of that. Can I tell you a story about my grandfather?
Gramps picked apples and made homemade applesauce every autumn. Usually he picked “seconds” off the grass at the apple orchard, checking carefully for the freshest fruit that had fallen from the trees. Bushel baskets full of crisp red apples lined the kitchen countertops and table, as he began full-scale applesauce cooking production. Wash apples, peel apples, slice and chop apples, pinch of this, pinch of that…cook it all down, sweet and simmering, so that even the neighbors all the way down at the end of the block wondered where that delicious apple pie smell came from.
All of his visitors received gifts of his homemade sweet applesauce. He packed it in recycled butter tubs and plastic boxes and re-used cottage cheese cartons, filling three large freezers in his basement. Walking carefully down the steep steps of the home he’d built for his family after the war, we grandkids had to walk past an ancient gas oven, complete with mint green steel trim. It looked as if a gingerbread boy might come popping out of it at any moment. Then pass by Grandma’s washing machine. I can still see her there, standing in the cellar in her floral housedress, feeding fresh-washed laundry through the wringer. We waited by with the laundry basket and wooden clothespins. It was our job to hang the laundry out on the line in the back yard.
“Watch out for your fingers, Dear! I don’t want you to get hurt!” She’d say loudly, as the black rollers pulled each article of clothing through, squeezing the water out in rivulets that flowed back into the tub.
Gramps had a much more gruff tone of voice.
“Keep your diamonds. Gimme a heart. Every pig’s got a heart!” he’d say, as he trumped all the tricks and won all the card games. Monkey Bridge, Bridge, Sheep’s Head, it didn’t matter. He said it would make us good at math, but that didn’t work out so well for me.
After the games, we’d follow him downstairs, and he would open the antique green paneled door to his “cold room”. I think “cold room” was the original root cellar of the house, cool and dry. But now it was packed full, floor to ceiling, with coupon items that Gramps had purchased for almost nothing. “Take some cereal,” he’d say. Or “load your car up with toilet paper before you leave. The store paid me to buy that.” In his retirement years, he commandeered the kitchen and collected coupons, dispersing the goods throughout the families of his children and grandchildren. The “take home pile” of toilet paper and cereal was usually topped off by plastic tubs filled with applesauce, fruits, home grown vegetables, coolers and insulated boxes and newspaper-wrapped bins… He loved to give us the food that he made.
We all loved it.
Then came the day that he died. He was working in his organic garden, when suddenly, that was it. Card game over.
When he was buried, all my family gathered together. We tried to comfort Grandma, but after 50+ years of marriage, there was no comfort for her without him. We prayed, and ate together, we even played his card game of Sheep’s Head around the dining room table. We neatly folded back the tablecloth, and I lost, as usual. Evening fell, the relatives began to disperse, and the funeral mood began to lift.
“We need to clean out the freezers,” my aunties said. “Since you have a truck here, you take a freezer home. We’ll even let you have all Gramps’ applesauce.” they promised.
So, with mixed emotions, we trudged downstairs. “Think of it as your inheritance!” chuckled one of my aunts. “You can take home all the applesauce that Gramps made for himself.” What a sweet gift.
We opened up the freezer and began to unpack it. We chuckled about how many applesauce cartons I would be taking home. But upon opening the freezer, it became clear that something was wrong. Gramps had spent months making applesauce and handing it out as free gifts to those he loved.
But his freezer at home was filled only with apple peelings. That’s what he had saved for himself. All the good and sweet fruit, he had packed and given away to others.
He kept just the peelings for himself.
All these years later, I still don’t quite have the words to say just how that made me feel…
I always recognized that he worked hard for us. Despite any faults he had, and his gruff voice and his card-playing compulsion, I knew he loved us.
But I didn’t know about his secret sacrifices.
It made me feel small and humble…
That was a good secret to discover.
Check out the latest Down Side Ups cartoon...
We Have a Serious Sock Problem
Socks are a Problem
Socks are a very big problem.
Every day that I write or paint, I do not wash socks. How many days in a row can I go?
This morning, the bus was nearly to our house, and Little Guy still had bare feet.
“Mom! I can’t find any socks!”
“Did you look in your drawer?”
“Naw. They’re usually not there.”
What kind of sad commentary is that?
“Look in my studio, Dear.”
Of course that’s where we keep the socks.
And the rest of the Laundry Tidal Wave. The doors close, so I can live in denial that we are about to be overrun by laundry.
“Hey, Mom!” He comes out yelling. “Wow! Thanks, Mom! A matched set! That almost never happens!”
So, due to the snow this week, instead of the usual 56 socks randomly thrown in the laundry room of doom, we have “Bonus Socks.”
Bonus Socks are what you get when Little Guy plays really hard out in the mud, like this:
Bonus Socks are also earned when you have a wonderful blizzard like the one that hit the midwest this week. Bonus Socks are hanging everywhere. They are drying on the rack in the entryway (they are supposed to be there). They are hanging, quite damp, by the fireplace in great anticipation. I mean, if you were a kid and you were told to hang up your socks to dry, wouldn’t it occur to you that, um, snow…socks….fireplace….they go together. Maybe Santa will come four or five weeks early, it’s worth a shot. There are bonus socks under the couches, in their beds, and everywhere else. When a kid’s socks are wet with melting snow, they just have to come off right then. Or that’s what they tell me. What do I know? I just wash ‘em.
On the subject of snow, the kids enjoyed it enough for all of us. I watched as they flung themselves from the top of the hill, bellyflopping without a sled, trying to swoosh to the bottom. They used no sleds because sadly, I wouldn’t let them. What a dumb call to have to make. I hate refereeing. But twice last year, kids on sleds crashed into a post thingy about half way down the hill. It didn’t look very important, but both times our septic system alarm went screaming off, and no one could flush any toilets or take any showers till the septic superman came to fix it. And based on that picture of socks, we clearly need the shower. But I know that now the snow is here, I will cave in a few days. They will be sailing down the hill on sleds, building jumps and flying.
Small One likes to build, too. She built a snowman. I stand corrected: A snow girl. She ran to the house, excitement so high she was bounding.
“Guess what, Mom! Guess what, Mom! My snow girl likes snowball fights! She doesn’t even care if I toss a snowball at her face! See?!?!”
With vigor, she chucked a powdery white snowball at the snow girl. She was right. Snow Girl didn’t even flinch. Later, at supper, I commented to the family how sweetly she played.
“You’re kidding, right Mom?” said a wiser child. “Do you know what happened to that Snow Girl?”
I calmly scooped up another ladle of potato soup, and admitted I didn’t.
“Well…The older guys were down at the bottom of the hill, having a snowball fight. Small One pushed her Snow Girl all the way to the edge of the hill,”
“And heaved her off the side!” chimed in another kid. “The big Snow Girl rolled all the way down to where we were playing. Small One ran down the hill after her, yelling like Wallace the Bruce, and joined in our fight.”
After supper, I looked up Wallace the Bruce. Can’t look ignorant to the son on topics of history. Apparently, among other things his mother would never want to know, Wallace is remembered for opportunistic and surprise attacks, strategically using terrain to his advantage.
Hmmm… perhaps I can train her (and them!) to use the mountainous sock terrain in my home to lead attacks against the laundry pile. Now that would be a surprise.
Maybe I could reward them in clean and dry Bonus Socks.
Let Them Eat Cake!
This week, three of my kids celebrate their birthdays.
That yells out “Yikes” loud and clear for any writing or thinking that might have taken place.
Do you do anything special when someone you love celebrates a birthday?
This week, there will be three cakes. Three special suppers. Three ‘no chores’ days. And presents… in addition to my regular list of breakfasts, lunches, snacks, suppers, laundry, grocery shopping, driving, and cleaning.
Oh, and a blizzard happened. Which meant shoveling, and helping to clean out the garage to fit the car inside.
I may as well try to tightrope walk and hula hoop this week, too. What a great week for failure! : )
I tried to write a blog post around midnight last night, and all that came out was a jumbled, angst ridden poem about oncoming snowstorms. Not quite the “Love, Joy, Peace” theme. You will all thank me that it’s deleted. A poet I am not, even if I had a garrett in which to hide away and think.
Well, this is short and sweet because the laundry is awaiting. I think the next load is an entire basket of mismatched gloves and mittens that the kids collected, anticipating the blizzard. I hope some of them match.
Oh, and if anyone really wants breakfast this week,
I’ll just say “Let them eat cake!”
Dear Parents of a Little Boy...
I have a boy. He is growing bigger, but still kind of a little guy. He doesn’t like to comb his hair, it sticks up in the front and in the back where the cowlicks are. He licks his fingers after he eats something he really loves, like bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches. When he falls asleep at night, he hugs my hand to his chest, and underneath the baggy t-shirt that was a hand-me-down from his grandpa, I can feel his heart beating.
I love this boy with my whole soul. I know every freckle, every joke, and sometimes when he’s asleep, I step into the soft darkness of his room and listen for the steady rise and fall of his breathing, just to hear him and be at peace.
Once upon a time, exactly thirty years ago, you had a little boy, too. And you tried to get him to comb his hair, and watched as he enjoyed his favorite supper that you prepared. Was it pizza? When he fell asleep at night, did you sometimes stay by his bedside, re-telling his favorite story until his eyes gently closed and his breathing smoothed out and the soft snore of a boy who played really hard that day touched your heart and made you smile quietly in the dark?
Maybe I cherish my child so much because when I was a kid, my own mother was often too ill to sit at my bedside… When I had a nightmare, Dad came to save me and rub my head ’til the monsters slunk away, back under the bed. The doctors never gave her long to live, and one year, we opened our Christmas presents in the Intensive Care Unit because she couldn’t stop bleeding. People came to the hospital in the night, after they sang their Silent Nights at Christmas Mass. They came to donate blood to Mom because our small hospital was all out, and she needed more to make it through the night. She raced away from us by ambulance on Christmas morning. Because of them, she made it. Years later, at Parent Nights in high school, when all the players on the team line up to thank their parents and everyone claps, my friend’s parents always made sure that one of them stood by me so I wasn’t alone. One time, just once, Mom came to a game. Dad wheeled her up to the sidelines in a borrowed chair, and she beamed at me with love and pride and I don’t know how she did it, because her back was broken and probably her ribs and collarbone were broken, too. She was so weak, dying, really. But she smiled at me and loved me from her broken shell of a body.
That’s when everything changed. That day, November 6.
Something horrible happened in your life that day - I am so sorry that it did.
In one single heart-wrenching, terrible moment, an auto accident took your son away from you. As you sat in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, looking for your son, hoping to see the rise and fall of his little chest, praying to God for strength to bear the sunrise of a day without that boy, you made a choice. The light had gone from your son’s eyes, and you thought of others.
You made a choice that a part of your son would live on in the broken body of another human being. You gave a stranger a second chance at life.
And all the way across the country, that is exactly what happened. Thirty years ago, a team of doctors transplanted your son’s liver into my mother’s decrepit body. Thirty years ago! How does one say thank you for thirty years of life? It is through your anonymous gift of your son’s liver that my mom lived to see her children grow up and graduate from high school. It is your generosity in your sorrow that allowed my mom to be here for our graduations from college, our first real jobs, our engagements and our weddings. Mom was here for her twenty fifth wedding anniversary. And her fortieth. She was there when her granddaughter was born, named after her. She was there when her grandson was born, named after your son. She is present today, and dearly beloved in the lives of all nineteen of her grandchildren.
After getting a second chance to live, she decided to choose joy. No matter what the circumstance of each day, she finds the love in it. She has a special gift for making others feel that joy and love, too.
I wonder about you, Little Boy’s Mom and Dad. I pray for you. Have you found peace? In your great loss, in your great generosity, have you found the spark of joy that lives on even when happiness seems gone? I think you have. I think you have because you are the kind of people who give others hope even when you have little of your own. That makes for a life that even when it is colored by pain, it is filled with love.
I thank you for thirty years of life, given to us by you and your son. And I hope and pray that you, too, have somehow made it a life filled with love.
God bless you,
Another Boy’s Mom
The Little Guy woke up not feeling well today.
He curled up in the biggest chair, with the biggest stuffed animal, and looked very small indeed. I “set him up” as we call it, with a glass of water and an empty ice cream bucket, just in case. His face and lips were so pale that his freckles stood out like sentinels.
“Aww, poor kid,” I said, handing him a comic book. “Is there anything you want?"
Hmm. Not so sure that’s a good idea, but lest his brother and sisters get it all, I brought him a half piece.
With all the rush and bustle of bus-boarding, I didn’t pay much attention to him. The last crumbs of a bagel were disappearing off his plate as I finally turned back to see how he was doing.
I look at sick kids with just a little bit of a woozy feeling in the pit of my stomach. When they were all small, one cold virus entering the family could spell out weeks of no sleep for Doug and me. The two with the weak immune systems would catch everything, and not get over any of it without antibiotics. One of the babies had bronchitis so many times her first year, that the doctor refused to prescribe any more antibiotics for her. That was one long year. Doug moved a rocking chair into our small bathroom, propped me up with pillows, and that’s where I slept with the baby, for weeks at a time. Throughout the night, we’d turn on the hot shower to humidify the dry winter air, making it easier for her to breathe. She was sick most of her first year. And she’s not the one we had to hang a sign on the front door for, saying “No Visitors, Please, Sick Baby”
We all know that germs can run rampant through institutions like daycares and schools. Same goes for big families. I have a picture of six of us, lying on the living room floor, on couches, on chairs, each with our own bucket. I will not be posting that one online. If there was ever one single germ cell of the flu, or hand, foot and mouth disease in a public place like the science museum, one of my kids would find it and bring it home. I’ve had three kids at once, curled up in my lap, throwing up at intervals. Most viruses last only a few days or a week, but multiply that by nine. You get the idea. Those were (and are still?) glorious days…
But today it’s just a headache…
“Can I get you anything?” I ask again.
“Yes. Mom, can I have my paper airplanes and book that I got for my birthday?”
His little sister and I collect all the paper airplanes we can find in his room, a small stack of unused paper, and the book. Soon he looks happier, earnestly folding paper airplanes called “The Phantom Phoenix”, “First Fire”, and “Nighthawk”.
Then the air races begin.
When I next walk into the room, he and his sister are both standing on the arms of chairs, on opposite sides of the room, laughing and firing paper airplanes at each other. It’s going to be a good day.
And I’m guessing he won’t need a bucket.