Saturday, December 19, 2009

Part of Something Bigger

When I was a child I knew I had cousins, I just didn’t know what they looked like. That’s not entirely true, I had seen pictures that were tucked in Christmas cards every December. They were children who lived three states away, and looked like they’d be a lot of fun, but we never spent any time with them, so it was hard to tell if photo impressions were accurate. And those were just the two cousins we had from my dad’s side of the family. In my teens I found out I had two on my mom’s side who were a mystery to us because of a family rift. The whole cousin thing frustrated me.

Being a voracious reader, I knew some kids thought of their cousins like siblings. The idea that you could actually hang out with these kids who were related to you fascinated me. I had way more than my share of siblings and foster siblings, but the cousin connection seemed exotic. Kids, my own age, who were related to me, but didn’t live in my house. I never grew tired of craving that relationship.

So when my siblings and I became adults, we all agreed that our kids would know their cousins. Our own kids would mix with our siblings kids and have close connections.

It worked for the first five or six years. We all lived in the same state, the most distance between us was a two hour drive and every holiday we came together, as well as many casual weekends. There are lots of pictures of our toddler children draped over cousins while they watch Barney videos and sharing triangles of grilled cheese sandwiches, perched side by side on booster chairs.

Then my mom died and the hub of our wheel was gone. My dad remarried and moved away from our childhood home, where we’d all so easily congregated. Jobs took some of us out of state. Then jobs took more of us out of state. Suddenly we were spread across the country and the mixing didn’t come as easily. As the kids grew, their cousins became photos posted on the fridge. More of my siblings, and more of Jeff’s siblings, started having children. They all seemed so far away and so out of touch with our world. They all seemed like strangers to our children.

This is a good chunk of the reason we left a life we pretty much loved in Utah to move across the country to New York. Most of my kids’ cousins on Jeff’s side live in NH. Living this close to them gives my kids plenty of opportunity to know those cousins on a personal level, while there is still time to make childhood memories. One of my favorite moments, just months after we made the long move East, happened as we piled out of our van during a weekend visit to NH. My nephew, Jacob, who was six at the time, turned to me and asked, “So, where’s Meredith?” My eldest had stayed home to attend a school dance but I was deeply moved that this young nephew not only remembered this ‘new’ cousin’s name, but realized she was missing. It was a start.

My own siblings still live all over the country. It is not possible to just move closer to them. We do our best with emails, birthday cards, and facebook pages, but sometimes it makes me sad that my kids don’t have more memories with them. We have visited them in their homes and several of my brothers and sisters have visited us. But the desire to be one big group led us to make this crazy promise. No matter what, we’d all show up, with all our kids, in our hometown, the week of Thanksgiving in 2009. And it happened.

As our kids piled out of the van and rushed into the hotel, which was already heavily inhabited by ‘Johnson cousins’, my heart swelled. Finally, finally, my kids could make some quality memories with these other children they were so closely related to. For four days they mixed and mingled. They built Lego forts and Lincoln Log cabins. We played endless hands of Apples to Apples and even had an energetic running version of musical chairs in the hotel lounge. Every morning we met around the breakfast table and made plans for the day. For me, the actual activities didn’t matter. As long as my kids were hanging out with my nephews and nieces, and finding out who they were individually, I was happy.

So now we are home, with almost a thousand pictures to document our travels. For now at least, I don’t have to explain who I’m talking about when I refer to “Garrett”, or “Megan”, or “Alexander”. My kids have their own memories of these people and their nine other Johnson cousins. They know who is shy and who loves to swim. They know who goes with which aunt and uncle and why their mom has so many funny stories about Uncle Keith in his childhood.

When the Christmas cards start pouring in, from Dallas, and Atlanta, and Missouri, I won’t have to name off the people in the pictures. My kids will know. They will tell me stories about their cousins, not the other way around. It was a long drive. It wasn’t a cheap trip. But it was worth it. So worth it. Because I’ve provided for my kids the one thing I wanted when I was a kid. To know my cousins and feel like we were connected.

Even five states away.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Fun's Not Fake

When I was a kid, having a Christmas tree felt a lot like work. We didn’t pull one out of a box from the basement. My siblings and I piled into our bright yellow maxi van, along with whatever foster siblings we had at the time, and headed down the road to the local tree farm. We tromped through row after row of perfectly planted specimens and with much fuss and fanfare we all eventually decided on a winner.

Taking turns with the hand saw, slowly, oh so slowly, the chosen treasure was detached from its perch. Then came more work, as we took turns dragging it to the car. I don’t remember the logistics at that point. Looking back with a parent’s eyes now, I can’t imagine how we got that tree home. Surely there was no room left inside the overflowing maxi van and I know we didn’t have a luggage rack to tie it to the roof.

If it felt like that much work to me as a kid, I can’t imagine what an ordeal it was for my parents. Just finding hats and mittens for our oversized family must have been a challenge, not to mention corralling the group as we hiked across acres of land to find the perfect tree. But for all the work it was, the end result was always worth it.

Later that night, after lights had been strung and years worth of handmade ornaments had been draped over each and every branch, we turned out the living room lights and admired our work. There is something truly magical about a dark living room on a cold winter night, lit only by the warm twinkling of a million little white lights. It was enough to make you forget about the sap on your fingers and the arguments about who had to carry the saw.

It wasn’t long before it was my turn to decide how the Christmas tree ritual should be carried out. Jeff came from traditions much like my own so it was inevitable that a real tree would be part of our future. In the early days of parenthood we lived in tiny houses and didn’t have room to do anything elaborate. As the kids got bigger so did our living quarters and we began the tromp through the woods to cut down our own tree. For several years we lived in a house shaped like a barn, and a fresh tree seemed to be a requirement. It just fit the environment so well we couldn’t imagine having anything else.

The month before we moved to Washington D.C. we accidentally acquired a beautiful artificial tree. It joined our other household possessions in the large moving truck and because we lived in a rental in D.C., we pulled it out and used it our first year there. The results surprised us.

As loyal as we were to ‘the real thing’ we suddenly understood the draw of a not so natural tree. It was automatically the right size. There was no sap on our fingers or our carpet. The branches were bendy (who knew?) and could be modified to hold even the heaviest ornament. After the holidays were over, there were no pine needles lingering in my carpet, poking barefoot children as they wrestled with daddy on the living room floor. My vacuum survived unscathed. And the best part, the part I had never taken into account, we never - not once - worried about the thing catching fire.

I had severely underestimated how much we worried about holiday fires each year. No matter how hard I tried I could never keep that little dish under our real tree full of water. Day after day I kneeled on the floor and endured scratches to the face and arms as I tried to pour liquid into that tiny receptacle, only to discover by the next day it was dry again. So of course the tree dried out. It got brittle. It dropped needles. And it kept us awake at night, worrying that we had forgotten to turn off the lights and surely this would be the night it all went up in flames.

With our new fabulous fake tree we no longer worried about fires. We traded the romance and aroma of a magical real tree for a few weeks of uninterrupted sleep. It was hard to admit, but we were suddenly sold on the whole idea of artificial trees.

In the next few years we moved several times and our plastic tree held up nicely. It fit in every living room we had and its consistency and familiarity was comforting as we struggled to find where the decorations looked best in each new environment. We started new traditions that centered around not having a real tree. While we lived in Utah, Michael and Isaac became a team and figured out their own way of stringing up lights. Isaac laid under the tree, spinning it slowly in its stand, while Michael slowly wove the cords through the branches. Even Sam had a part, making sure the strands were unraveled as they came off the cardboard. I laughed at them the first year they did it, but it is such an efficient system, we do it every year now.

I do miss the real tree some years. A few days ago Sam asked me if we’d ever had a real one. It made me sad that he has no memory of those days. Maybe some year, maybe even next year, we will do a real tree, just for the fun of it. But for now, while we have our traditions that work, we will sit back and enjoy the one we have decorated in the corner of our living room. It might not smell real or feel real, and it sure as heck doesn’t look that real. But the fun we had decorating it was real.

And that’s enough for me.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Shocking Suits

My brother works for a mortgage company. He used to wear suits to work until the dress code went casual. So he had lots of extra suits that ended up in the back of our van when we met up with him in MO recently. They were intended for Jeff, to help fill out his professional wardrobe.

Jeff tried them on tonight. Some fit. Some were a smidge too small. Then Michael walked through the room. Our almost 17 year old seems to have grown a foot in the past month. This kid who used to be asked "are you twins?" when he stood by his brother, who is four years his junior. The growth hormones kicked in about a year ago and he seems to be making up for lost time.

Michael tried on the smaller suits, and whaddya know? One of them fit him. These men's suits that my brother used to wear. Of course we had to tease him about setting up his job interview at the bank tomorrow, but that was all to distract me from the fact my son, my baby faced boy, is now able to wear mens suits.

Lucky for me....the suits don't even come close to fitting my littlest guy. Stay away, crazy growth hormones. Let me have one little guy for just a bit longer.

Santa Surprise

We were sitting at the table, doing homework, and Isaac (13)said something that strongly implied he did not believe that Santa was real. Sam stopped his homework and looked up with wide eyes. I held my breath, knowing my little one still believes.

Sam looked at his brother, then looked at me and said, "Mom, please gasp with me..."

So we put our heads together, clutched our chests and gasped together, at the thought that Santa did not, in fact, exist.

Don't worry, big, round, generous guy. We still believe.

Life Motivation

Sometimes it's hard to be the littlest person in the family. Especially if you're a boy and two of the three siblings older than you are brothers. The 'protecting you' mode ended when you learned to stand upright and throw your own punch.

Lucky for Sam, who sits in this place in our family, he has an older sister. A sister who rocked him as a baby, held his hands as he learned to walk, and curled up on the couch with him when it was time to read bedtime stories.

At times he rebels against all of her fussing and nurturing, especially when big brothers are around and he feels a need to demonstrate his independence and toughness. But there were many times on our cross country trip, that he fell back, so easily, into big sister's charms.

For much of the trip she folded up her long legs and sat in the back seat with him, coloring pictures together, sharing headphones on her ipod. And talking. The things they discussed I will never know, but I am confident they will both carry the memory of those chats for years to come.

At one point in the trip Meredith shared with me just a snippet of their latest dialog. Sam was frustrated about something...brothers, or cousins, or just his place in the family. She gave him the pep talk that comes so easily when her youngest brother is hurting.

He thought about her words and then was quiet for a minute or two. Then, looking out the window, as the landscapes rolled by, he said, "Yeah, I guess you're right. Ya know what? You ought to be a motivator when you grow up!"

So my senior daughter, on the cusp of making life plans once she graduates, now has a new suggestion to add to her list of potential careers.

First class, grade A, little brother motivator.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Making Food Memories

In case anyone is keeping track, we made it back. It turned out to be a 3500 mile trip, through thirteen states, but when we landed back in our driveway on Monday night everyone was still fever free, scar free and for the most part still talking to each other. Within the hour we had the rental van cleared out and returned to its rightful owners and we were back to real life. I’m counting on the memories to linger for many weeks , months, and hopefully years to come.

Of course we had a great time at the family reunion part in Missouri. It was the perfect kind of reunion for me…just my four siblings, their spouses and kids, and my dad/stepmom. No elderly relatives who you’ve never met and will never see again. No crazy long lost uncles who got out of prison just in time for the festivities. Not even a lot of planning. We all just drove from our far away states and met up in our hometown. My dad had reserved a block of rooms in a great hotel that had wonderful lounges and meeting areas. No muss, no fuss. Just check in and sit back in a lounge chair.

Our kids spent three days mixing and mingling with cousins they see one at a time in person and mostly know through refrigerator pictures. They played board games, built with Legos and Lincoln Logs, and swam until their fingers puckered. Through it all they made their own, individual memories of these people we call family. The smiling faces on our fridge now have personalities attached to them.

The reunion was a blast, and didn’t last nearly long enough. But there was no denying the reality of the six days we spent in the car so we could be a part of the party. Three long days out, three longer days back, as we swung through North Carolina to check out colleges. You would think we would have been ready to kill each other by the time we pulled into our driveway. But a few simple things kept negative feelings at bay and bonded us together in a surprising way. One of those things, in a word, was food.

Because our kids have lived in several different states, from the west to the east, they have formed deep loyalties to certain restaurants and fast food places. It became a fun game to hunt them out along the way and take in as many as we could before the road led back to New York. There were several spots that we are haunted by since we see their commercials on TV but can find no local branches. Sonic and CiCis pizza were on the top of that list. There is a CiCis in my hometown and one afternoon we had lunch there, trying a slice of every kind of pizza at least once. Then we caught up with Sonic somewhere in the Smoky Mountains on the way home. Our waiter was even wearing roller skates. It was too perfect.

Some places were special to my kids because they were places we visited often when we used to live in Missouri. Central Dairy and Mugs Up were on that list. As one of the major milk producers for mid Missouri, the Central Dairy company is mostly about supplying the region with milk and milk products. But years ago they also opened an old fashioned store front and began serving huge scoops of the freshest ice cream you can imagine, for prices you wouldn’t believe. There was no doubt we had to visit that special place with the red and white striped awning. And in the next town over you can find an old fashioned root beer stand. The kind where you pull up under the metal overhang and when the waitress brings out your root beer in a frosty mug, she clips the tray to your rolled down car window. Unfortunately our visit to Mugs Up was nixed. My brother informed me that it’s a seasonal place. I guess some people had trouble enjoying a cold mug of root beer with their car window rolled down, in the middle of winter. Maybe next time…

Two more important spots we hit were Fazolis (fast food Italian with melt in your mouth breadsticks that are delivered to your table for as long as you can continue to eat them) and White Castle. We found Fazolis in Indianapolis, then appropriately ate at the White Castle that sits in the shadow of the St. Louis Arch. We ordered the case of mini burgers and quickly discovered they were not as ‘mini’ as we’d remembered and our stomachs were not as strong as we had assumed. Even with extra burgers that were thrown away, we had some laughs, took some fun pictures and made a white castle of our own with empty boxes and cups before we hit the road again.

There is no need to point out the stops at every Krispy Kreme we saw, whether the ‘hot donuts now’ light was on or not. Some things are just assumed. Don’t worry, we did plenty of running around, swimming, caving, and exploring.

It wasn’t all about food.

But a family’s gotta eat. And what better way than seeking out places that hold old memories and help create new ones?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Graduation Plans

This is a hard column to write. I find myself holding back, re-thinking whether I want to admit on paper, for the whole world to see, what I really feel about the huge process of sending kids off to college. I fear I will be seen as a bad parent, an irresponsible parent. But the thought that keeps returning to my head is that I may not be the only one who feels this way and maybe, just maybe, some other parent out there will read these words and nod their heads in agreement.

Here’s my big confession: My kids know they are not required to go to college. There, I’ve said it. Sure, I understand that college is a great option. My husband and I both have college degrees. I found him in college, as a matter of fact, and I consider him to be even more valuable to me than the official degree that lives in my file cabinet. And of course it is great to encourage your children to be the best they can be, to aim high when they think about the future.

But my kids know that there are other options beyond college. The trade school catalogs are filled with interesting classes that can lead to some satisfying and lucrative careers. I would not complain at all if one of my children became a plumber or an electrician. There is a good chance they would make as much money, if not more, than their friends who had college degrees.

I am fully aware that the years right after high school are the best years to get an education, before marriage and kids tie you down and limit your options. It is also the perfect time to discover who you are. I often preach to my children that I found myself in college. Sure I earned a degree, but even better, I found out who I was, outside my family structures. I went away to a new city and became the person I had wanted to be for a long time. It was the most valuable part of my college career.

But I think you can achieve the same result by several paths. Just moving away from home ,and being in charge of yourself for a while, can prompt a world of self discovery. And sure, making plans for what career you’d like to embrace should be done during these critical years, but who says college is the only way to get there?

There is so much pressure once a teen hits the last years of high school. Pressure on them and pressure on their parents. It is assumed that every child who lives in middle class America will apply to twelve different colleges and ultimately dream of going to Harvard. But that’s not reality. There are some kids who go that path. They have top grades, get great SAT scores and have their top college choices ranked on a computer spread sheet at home. But there are also a whole lot of kids who are just average. Great grades in a few classes, good grades in others, struggling grades every now and then. They will have average SAT scores and be happy with an acceptance letter to the local community college.

The question I have is why should they be seen as any less ‘successful’ than the kid who goes to Harvard?

Helping our children be successful in life involves helping them find the path that fits them best. Don’t we want the end result to be a young adult in their mid twenties who is a good person, content in their career? Sure, having a job that makes good money is a lofty goal. But who says it can only be found in a path that leads through an ivy league school? If my child loves animals, why is it assumed he should be a veterinarian? Maybe he could be just as happy rescuing abused animals, working for the SPCA. If your child loves the field of medicine, why is she instantly pegged to be a doctor? Sure, it’s a noble profession, but so is phlebotomy and nursing assistant.

One of the things I want my kids to learn from me is to find peace with yourself. Find the career that suits you best, brings you fulfillment, and then set up a life, a content life, on that income. Being happy with a modest home and modest income is nothing to be ashamed of. My children will leave our home with many happy memories, of a peaceful house where they laughed a lot and were loved a lot. Yet we never had a lot of money. No big screen TV hangs on our wall. They watch our regular old TV on a couch my parents bought before I was born. They could have had so much more, in material things, if we had lived up to our full earning potential (meaning me teaching full time while they were young) but I don’t think they will look back and remember our family as being poor.

I guess what it all boils down to is being confident in my kid being ordinary. Feeling pride in the fact he is a good, kind hearted person, whether he chooses to go to med school or plumbing school. Being happy that he is happy, doing what he loves to do and making a difference on his tiny little piece of the planet. It’s up to me to show him the options, be there to discuss their pros and cons, but in the end step back and let him decide.

It’s his future. Maybe more of it should be in his hands.

The First and the Last

It started innocently enough. I rumpled Sam’s hair as he walked by me at dinner and I realized it was time for a trim. Sam has thick hair that wants to be curly. I am always afraid that if I let it grow out too long he will soon be sporting a full afro. I keep it trimmed close to his head and assume that some day in the future, around the time he is celebrating a birthday with the word ‘teen’ in it, I won’t have a choice anymore and he will insist on growing it out. Don’t be surprised if we don’t take a Christmas card picture that year.

So I got out the trimmers and scissors, as I have for so many years, and I bribed my little guy onto the hair cutting stool (also known as the drummer’s stool when they are playing Rock Band). He offered up his usual protest and I offered back my usual answer, which goes along the lines of, ‘Yes, we are cutting your hair. No, you don’t have a choice.”

By the time I made it halfway around his head, my oldest son decided he could use a trim too. After all, his hair had grown out to a full half inch in length. The drag of all that extra hair was slowing down his running times. I finished up with the fidgety little one then started in on the taller one. We discussed just how short ‘shorter’ was and in the end I still cut it shorter than he had wanted. Who knew there could be such a drastic difference between three eighths of an inch and a half an inch?

My newest teen, Isaac, is going for the shaggy look so I was banned from touching his locks, but before I packed up the clippers I took a little off the top of hubby’s hair too. A pretty successful night of hair trimming that started as a need to just clean up one kid’s threatening afro.

As I tucked the hair kit back onto the bathroom shelf I started to wonder just how many times I had performed this ritual. My boys have never been to a barber. I first cut Jeff’s hair when we were in college and he was two thousand miles away from the only person who had ever cut his hair (his mom). He made a great guinea pig as I tackled a new skill. I’ve been cutting his hair ever since.

Which leads to a whole heck of a lot of scissor snips. Between the three boys and Jeff, I have seen my fair share of time behind the Rock Band stool. It has been a common ritual for my boys since their wispy baby hair grew long enough to get in their eyes. It is not something I enjoyed, but not something I hated. It is just another way I’ve taken care of them, not unlike cooking their dinners and washing their smelly socks.

And for some reason it now makes me think of the future day when I will not be their barber. In a very short time my oldest son will not live under my roof anymore. When his hair reaches that unruly length of an inch or more he might have to seek out someone else’s scissors. And my job as his full time hair dresser will come to an end. Quickly, yet naturally, I will be relieved of my services.

It makes me wonder how many of these rituals have fallen by the wayside, unnoticed. As parents we are all about firsts. The first time they smile. The first time they sit up. The first time they walk. Even their first hair cut. We mark it in the baby book and live in awe of their blossoming maturity. But we rarely notice the lasts.

I couldn’t tell you the last time Michael sat in my lap as we watched TV. I never wrote that in the baby book. I have no idea the last time I helped Isaac with his bath or carefully dried him off afterward. Suddenly he was just an independently showering child. For years I brushed and braided and pig tailed Meredith’s hair. But when was the last time I did? When did she totally take that job back from me? Her baby book holds no clues.

They grew up way too fast, just as the grandmas in the grocery stores told me they would when we walked the aisles picking out canned beans and tuna so many years ago. In those days their lives were all about what was ahead. New ways they would change and grow. And now suddenly I sense we have racked up as many lasts as we have firsts.

It somehow makes me sad and happy, all at the same time.

The Right Kind of List

It seems ironic to me that right smack in the most stressful time of year we have this holiday designed to make us stop and be thankful. Maybe ironic is not the word I’m looking for. Maybe it’s strategic.

Somehow it’s rolled around again. Just as we start to feel the hints of another bitter, icy winter coming any day now. Just as we re-stock our medicine cabinets and gear up for the cold and flu season. Right about the time the stores start playing Christmas music and making their employees wear Santa hats. While mental lists are being made and scrap paper lists are being misplaced, our brains full, then blank, with who wanted what for Christmas, this other holiday sneaks in the back door.

So before I get lost in department store lines and stressed by yet another report on the news about how today is the last, and we mean last, day you can mail that holiday package and still have it arrive on time, I am going to spend a few minutes in a more productive way. I am going to move past the token one line of ‘what I’m thankful for’ that’s uttered around the table before the roasted bird is cut and pumpkin pie is topped with whipped cream and I’m going to dig a little deeper.

I’m thankful for things. The washing machine that chugs away, day after day, accepting my awful, smelly, stained donations and turning them into things we can actually use again. I’m thankful for my trustworthy dishwasher, that does basically the same thing, but in the kitchen instead of the laundry room. I’m even thankful for my pesky cell phone. Although I can’t seem to remember to turn it on, put it in my pocket, or check its messages on a regular basis, it still allows me to keep in touch with my children, who are flung to all corners of our town on any given day.

I’m thankful for moments. Every time I paused to hug my mom and share a smile with her, even in my crazy busy college years, not knowing they would be limited opportunities. The moment I took my left hand out of my pocket and presented it to my best college friends, hoping they would notice the sparkling gem that rested on that significant finger (they did, we squealed, and I will never forget that feeling) Each and every time I held that plastic stick with the blue ‘yes’ line in my hands, the one that can make you want to shout, cry and maybe throw up all at the same time. The short but productive drive home after I’ve picked up my sons from track practice and the memories of their days are still fresh in their minds, ready to spill out to an open eared mom. (I get my best information on these priceless ten minute drives).

Although there are many bad ones I could dwell on, I am thankful for good choices we’ve made along the way. Buying the stripped down cherry red minivan we could barely afford when our third baby arrived. That vehicle escorted us to many great states and great adventures. It was worth every scraped together penny. I’m glad we also found the money for me to fly across the country with our first born child when she was barely three weeks old, to surprise her grandmother, who had raised five hearty boys. And ten years later, when we finally decided that we needed just one more member to be complete, I am thrilled that we had that ‘one more baby’.

Although it was just about the death of us, I am now thrilled that we bought this big old house, that needed so much help when we signed that stack of mortgage papers three years ago. Through much tearing down and building up, our house and our family have come out on the other side better and stronger for the process. If I ever get distracted by the endless list of small things that still need to be finished up, trimmed off, or repainted I sit back and think of where we started and I am thankful. Thankful for the big stuff that’s already been done and hopeful that the little stuff will find its own time.

And of course I could not call this a Thankful List unless I included the people. My husband and life partner who knows me better than anyone else on the planet (including me) yet loves me anyway. It seems appropriate to me that our 20th wedding anniversary will fall on the day before Thanksgiving this year. That leads to these suddenly tall children who live in my house. I dreamed of them and wished for them from the time I was a child, and they came to be, right on time. It’s not always been easy but it’s always been a gift to be their mother. My parents, siblings, and in-laws, brothers and sisters in law included, nieces and nephews. My life is filled with people to be thankful for. Throw in neighbors, bus drivers, hair dressers, co-workers, and this list could go on forever.

So I feel better now. Dwelling on the good stuff keeps that other stuff in perspective. Thanks for listening to my list. Now it’s time to sit down and make your own. Happy Holidays and happy list making.

The good kind of list.