Friday, September 28, 2012

She Is From...

Today would have been Anna's 18th birthday.

This is a tough day for my brother and sister-in-law and for our whole family. A majorly tough day in a long line of tough days.

To ease this and other difficult days, I think about wonderful times with Anna. The happiest of times I recall are the ones she spent with my boys. The three of them had such fun together. Even with the age differences, Anna always played with them and made sure to squeeze out every ounce of fun she could have with them. I want to preserve all those fun times in my mind and in my boys' minds.

I recently wrote about where I Am From. That exercise gave me the idea of writing down the boys' memories of Anna. Could I look through their eyes, gather up all those moments in time and capture a snapshot of who she was in my boys' minds and lives? Remembering where she was from for their perspective may be one way to preserve the essence of Cousin Anna and all that we miss.

She Is From...

She is from belly laughs and banister kisses.
From Georgia pine straw clutched in baby fat hands.
She is from big brown eyes that see family first.

She is from the far-flung worlds of Coral Springs, Marietta, Naperville, Roswell, Stamford, Moscow, Bristol, St. Charles, Heaven.
She is from countless Hard Rock t-shirts, each one a visit to a new city with a passport stamp to match.

She is from Crazy Frog and back seat giggle sessions.
She is from a little snack o' brownie and creeper face.
She is from iPhotos captured with her outstretched arm.
She is from lean in and smile!

She is from Sticky Lizard and Sticky Chicken, tucked secretly in a suitcase for a sneaky surprise when you get back home.
She is from joint letters to Santa on Christmas Eve and
shared surprises Christmas morning.

She is from River Rat and yellow tubes rule!
She is from The Back Porch, Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts.

She is from Evergreen.
From the hot tub, the upstairs bedroom and Playstation battles.
She is from rides through the Cove, picnics, deer counts and bear sightings.
She is my partner in Forced Family Fun.

She is from every trip to Townsend, every curve in the road, every peak of the hills, every misty wisp on the mountains.
She is tethered to me, running in the rain, saving me from the big storm.

She is from hugs that are real
and hopes that are pure
and love for me that never ends.
She is my Anna.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Am From...

Most of my sentences start with "I". Don't yours?

I is your seat in the house for viewing your own life:

front row, center.

Today my front row, center is jumping on a band wagon.

Someone I know in real life and in the blogging world made me aware of this band wagon when she posted her self-penned, autobiographical poem called I Am From...

I Am a worldwide writing prompt set in motion by George Ella Lyon. The idea is to consider the people, places, things that helped shape you and put them in poetic form. I couldn't resist the invitation to jump on this wagon, especially with the license to start so many sentences with "I". This particular I Am From... is about a young me and the story stops short of the start of my adult life. There could be volumes of my I Am From... that remain to be written. But for now,

I Am From...

I am from a living room drawer overflowing with loose snapshots and Polaroids covered with grandchildren’s fingerprints. From pink shag carpet and a gingham canopy bed to match. I am from Holly Hobbie, Donny Osmond, Pooh Bear and Stretch Armstrong.

I am from the baby of the family, three big brothers, Boy Scout Camp, summer swim team and never being old enough to ride my bike to Colonel’s Market. I am from honeysuckle and tire swings. From fear of the basement, the pump house and the upstairs alone.

I am from red hair, glasses and late blooming. I am from carpenter’s dreams.

I am from vacation bible school at the big church in town. I am from memorized verses and all the Books and a prize trip to Opryland. I am from organized religion, dismantled for me to see what’s underneath the pulpit and the dogma. I am from God is, underneath it all.

I am from the woodwinds, a reed softening in my mouth, right thumb calloused by a pad worn thin.

I am from three grandparents I never really knew and one who was all a grandmother ought to be. I am from wagon wheel, canasta, and hearts, find the thimble, and Apples of Gold. I am from homemade vegetable soup where potatoes might be turnips. I am from no aunts, no uncles, no first cousins, from the extended family that stopped short.

I am from having it all, moved through where did it all go and arrived at we didn’t really need it anyway.

I am from silly songs, family jokes, spoons magically hanging from noses and everybody talking at once. And from laughter too.

I am from parents volunteering, chaperoning, speaking out at meetings, calling teachers and superintendents, chairing committees and running PTAs.

I am from the curves and dips of the old road to Townsend. I am from the rope swing and Body on Tap rinsed clean in Great Smoky mountain river water. I am from Marlboro smoke twirling out the window of my best friend’s Triumph rolling home back down the old road.

I am from parents who held on to the rails and each other during the inevitable rocky parts of married family life. I am from work it out until it can’t be worked out. I am from commitment, loyalty, forgiveness. I am from a love so deep and insistent that it is too overwhelming to explain.

I am from these things I wouldn't change.

So where are you from?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Forced Family Fun

For those who want to know more...see the whole list of 45 Things I Know Right Now

#6 Quality family time together, known in our house as Forced Family Fun, is mandatory and will continue to be so, especially through the teen years.

I talk a lot about my kids and the fun we have. I always think we have lots of fun together, but I am not foolish enough to believe that my boys always think time spent with their parents is the best fun they could be having. As they are growing older, they are naturally looking to spend more time with friends and time doing things that mom and dad don't do. It's natural and needed progression for them to define their own lives outside the reach of our umbrella. And it is important for them to experience time away from us and their home, to be exposed to other families and the ways they do things.

My middle schooler and world-wise tween are making every effort to set their own social calendars. Between playdates or "hanging out" as it now know in our house and PVP (player vs. player) computer games, they would fill their own calendars completely if we allowed it. There would be little family time if these two keyboard wielding socialites were in charge. Not that they don't love us of course. We are just not as fun to them as their friends are. I get it. And it's only going to get worse.

During my own middle school through middle twenties, I really preferred to spend time with anyone other than my parents. I'm kidding; it wasn't quite that long. But there was a period when I tried to avoid my parents as much as respectfully possible. Maybe it was the confusion of hormones. Or the fear of possible social embarrassment and resulting ostracism from their mere presence. Regardless of the reason, I thought I was being sly.  But I am sure now that I am a parent, they knew exactly what I was doing. My brothers probably did the same thing. My parents are good people and they didn't deserve poor treatment from their spawn but I'm starting to think that's what you get to some degree as a parent of teens.

My parents fought back against us ingrates and they fought dirty. If we kids didn't want to spend time with them, they made sure we got exactly what we didn't want. They created the concept of Forced Family Fun. They didn't name it such or know it at the time.  But through their orchestration of activities that held us captive with our other family members, the tradition FFF was born. FFF usually included long car rides to remote places where there were no televisions or phones. The main attribute of an FFF activity was the impossibility of escape. Once you embarked on an FFF activity, there was no return, no way off the ride, no way to the end but to go all the way through it.

It sounds horrible and, for me as a teenager, sometimes it was. The only reasons it was horrible were my age, post in life and accompanying teen attitude. But it was not as bad as all that. Now I look back fondly on those FFF times with Mom, Dad, some mix of siblings, and my grandmother thrown in from time to time. We spent many a Sunday afternoon driving the loop road in Cades Cove, picnicking under one of my mother's favorite trees, counting deer in the Cove. We skipped rocks at the Y and ate dinner at The Pioneer House. Back then, I would have much rather been hanging out with my friends or watching TV, but today those times are priceless to me. Most of those times are not even crystal clear memories for me but the cumulative effect of all those FFF times created a backdrop of my challenging teen years. My family was always there, forced or not.

The benefits of FFF are varied. For the parents, it is time spent with your kids that you may not always enjoy in the present but will remember lovingly years later, magically forgetting the groans of disdain and surly looks hurled your way. At least that's what my parents say.

FFF unites siblings. They may be united against the parents in their dislike of the FFF use of their time, but at least they are in agreement on something. For some sibs, this may only happen during FFF.

For the individual kid, FFF keeps the family thread winding out from the spool as they are making their own fabric of life. And you get to share the same view. Maybe it's slanted by your own perspective, but every one holds the same vistas in their mind.

Now that I have my own family, I am happily applying Forced Family Fun to this second generation. Just this weekend, we had a classic FFF activity: drove what seemed to the kids a very long distance away from their home (read far away from TV, video games, phones), entered a natural area replete with trees and mountains, drove a bit further, and forced them to walk WITH US in nature.

And we talked. It was a truly unforced, fun time. 

That's because my boys are still too young to be fully averse to spending time with their parents. Right now all they think is that they merely prefer to spend time with friends and handheld devices. It's nothing personal toward us. It's not that they don't want to spend time with us; it's just a preference, you see. But my husband and I know that day is coming when they actually won't want to spend time with us. So we are instituting FFF activities early (we actually have been since the boys were born) so as to establish a pattern. We'll be ready when that day comes that one of them says they don't want to go hiking (or some other code-named FFF activity), we will simply say that there is no opting out of FFF.

They already know this and we all laugh when we refer to FFF. It's all funny at these ages, but there may not be four voices laughing a few years and hormonal changes from now. My husband and I will have to keep our humor about us when hormones and, I shudder at the thought, girlfriends take precedence in our boys' lives. Until then and hopefully long after, Forced Family Fun will remain a tradition. And may it become one that my boys inflict on their own children someday.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Figs Worth Fighting For

Fall is just around the corner. I know this to be so because all the fruit has been picked from my fabulous fig tree. And no more await to ripen. This was a wonderful fig season, the best we've ever had. Actually, the only real one we've ever had since this is the first year the tree produced more than a handful of figs. I lost count but believe there were well over 120 figs from our one tree this year.

Now that my fig tree actually produces enough figs to notice, I have been reading up on figs, fig tree care, and fig tree propagation. I now know what a breba crop is and how it is differentiated from the main crop. I now know when to prune my colossal fig tree. Now that the harvest is done, I must wait for my tree to go dormant so I can snip of select branches and prepare them to go forth and multiply. I have visions of a fig orchard taking over the flat grassy expanse of my children's backyard haven. They don't really need all that room to run.

Through all my internet research, I have found that there is quite a fig cult out there and am thinking of joining.

So while I wait for the dormant season to arrive and my cult membership to be approved, I'll remember fondly another recipe I tried with my oh so yummy figs. You'll remember my first culinary fig foray was the sweet baked treat, the Real Newton. My second endeavor was sweet, savory and salty - the prosciutto wrapped fig. Here's how it is done.

While waiting for the oven to preheat to 400º,  slice about ten small figs in half.

Stuff a small amount of feta into each half and wrap them in a thin strip of prosciutto. (Many similar recipes call for goat cheese, but I only had feta on hand. Feta is saltier than goat cheese but even paired with the prosciutto, the saltiness was nicely balanced by the sweet figs.)

Once all the stuffing and wrapping is done, whip up a small bowl of 3 TBS honey and 1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice. You can buy pumpkin pie spice but this particular version is a creation all my own. I cannot find the recipe and honestly cannot recall the balance of ingredients. And my packaging could use a little work.

On a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, drizzle the honey concoction over the wrapped figs.

Roast at 400º on top oven rack for about 8-10 minutes.

This is the before-roasting picture and sadly there is no after-roasting picture. I missed that shot because I was too busy stuffing these delicious little morsels of sweet, savory, salty joy right into my face. Further, I had to literally fight my husband, my sons and our guests away from the appetizer plate as I placed it on the table. I barely got seven before they were all gone. There was no way I was getting the after picture. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Happily Compartmentalizing Fragmented Feminist Mother

This week has been a fragmented jumble of activities. The beginning of the school year brings with it the kickoff of school fundraisers, the restart of Cub Scout commitments, the continuation of Boy Scout activities, the oddly meditative stuffing of the Thursday Folders at the elementary school.  All of these activities seemed to hit a fever pitch this third week of school. I spent many hours this week juggling my volunteer time between school and scouts. Add to that all the kids' activities and school responsibilities to manage. Coming off the comparative leisure of summer, I found myself not ready for the school year pace. I felt at one point during the week, as I jumped from one activity to another, so unfocused and addled that I think I might be developing adult onset ADD.

Our school system is already scheduling fall conferences for the end of next week, the fourth week of school. This is about a month earlier than in prior years for conferences. In these four short weeks of school, it may be a bit early to gauge the kids' performance. I only hope that each teacher I meet with will, at a minimum, be able to positively identify my child and not for reasons of his poor behavior.

I just finished reading two books: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman. The books were recommended/loaned to me by two separate friends. Such friendly recommendations might make one wonder if my friends were giving me not so subtle hints about my disposition and parenting abilities. They weren't. They know I like to read about others' mothering experiences. Even though The Happiness Project wasn't specifically about mothering, Rubin is a mother and her happiness project encircled her family life as well as her personal happiness. As a mother, those two things become inextricably entwined.

The books left me with these thoughts:

1.  Like Rubin after her project, I too find that I have happiness. Even floating in the wake of the greatest sorrow my family has known, I can find some happiness. I feel guilty saying that. But I can compartmentalize with the best of them. In one compartment, the one where happiness can be found, I appreciate all the wonders my life and this world offer. I am not happy because life is so easy that I have no worries. I have lots of worries and deep hurts but I am happy because I feel able to handle those worries. For now. There but for the grace of God go I. In the other compartment, you will find the things that give rise to my appreciation.

2. Unlike Waldman, I apparently am not a full-fledged feminist. I support equal rights but there is a whole level of feminism that I do not even come close to upholding. This doesn't mean that I believe women should be treated differently or lesser than men. It doesn't mean that I think women should not be able to do the same things as men. It means I don't think women need to to do everything that men do. And I don't think men need to do exactly what women do either. I guess that makes me a fragmented feminist.

3. Like Rubin and Waldman, I, at times, believe myself to be a bad mother. But more frequently, I think I am a good mother. Research supports the notion that it takes anywhere from 3-5 positive comments to counteract one negative. I try to keep my bad mother to good mother inner monologue ratio to 1:4 just to keep it balanced.

I love these Friday Fragment posts because they allow me to jump from subject to subject and I can blame it on my ADD.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

29. Own It

For those who want to know more...see the whole list of 45 Things I Know Right Now

#29 Own your mistakes.
They lose their power when you embrace them.

Maybe some people are born taking responsibility for all their deeds but I had to learn to own all my actions. I could easily take credit for the good things I did, but it was the not so good and even lesser ones that I used in my own little game of hot potato.

In my younger days, all I wanted was to please. I quickly figured out that you couldn't please everyone. It was not because "they" could not be satisfied but rather because I was human and I made mistakes. I screwed up from time to time. But making mistakes is not pleasing, so I found a way I thought I could please without being perfect: I would cover up the mistake, blame someone else, reframe the situation to downplay my role or just flatly deny any involvement. I'd give the illusion of my perfection. If called on a misstep, I would ramp up a new round of hot potato. It's not mine! Here, somebody else take it. It's too hot to handle!

Luckily for those who play this game, the potatoes will cool down after some time and others will lose interest in the game. There is no cold potato game. And that's what I banked on...people losing interest in my particular hot potato soup de jour. Those more enlightened (or just more honest, if I'm going to honest here) than me would not play this game but rather admit the mistake, offer an apology and try to learn for the whole experience.  Sounds simple and really it is. Hot potato is much harder.

Hot potato is harder because even when the game is done, you, who started the game, are actually still in it. You are left holding the paranoia of untruth that you set in motion. That paranoia soaks into your psyche as quickly as butter melts on ...well...a hot potato. Over time, the truth, the lies and the paranoia are as easily separated in your mind as unmashing potatoes into their original individual ingredients. It can't be done. Not without starting over.

Holding your foil wrapped paranoia leaves you waiting uneasily for the next hot potato to be lobbed your way. Talk about a loaded potato. What I didn't realize was that by denying my wrongs, I was giving them power over my life in the form of worry of exposure and the stress of keeping up the illusion.

This all sounds like a very deceitful and clandestine life I was leading. But on the scale of intrigue, it is not even anything that would make a bad, made-for-TV movie. If your idea of good entertainment is the story of a white girl with an average childhood, who goes to college, parties a bit too much, studies a bit too little, chooses a career that in hindsight wasn't her perfect match, marries her college sweetheart who in hindsight really is her perfect match and they have kids before she really knows who she really is, then someone should contact Hollywood about doing a screenplay. But rest assured, this is not the makings of the next Fifty Shades of garbage.

As I grew up older, I played hot potato less often but still wasn't fully honest. Most of my untruths centered around who I was, what I believed and what I wanted in my life. And many of them were silent falsehoods or failures to speak the truth rather than outright spoken lies. Because I couldn't be honest, I maintained friendships that weren't uplifting.  Through my lack of honesty, I wasn't fully open in my relationships with my family, my husband, my kids, or myself. Through my failure to face the truth, I made mistakes as a mother. Through my inability to embrace my mistakes, I made more of them. They grew underground like potatoes covered in stinky manure.

Rather than suffering with the stench, it really is easier to live in honesty like those honest souls further down the enlightenment path I mentioned. Embracing your wrongs and making amends allow you better living in the days ahead and take you a few steps further on you own path.

Initially, the scary part of living honestly is the idea of dealing with the consequences of your actions. Responsibility is easy when everything is rosy, but when you've screwed up, who wants credit for that? I have learned that taking credit for the bad will pay off in respect from others and, most significantly, for yourself.

My husband tells our boys a story of his high school chemistry days. He was a good student and chemistry came easily to him. So he used his class time to talk to his table mate, a girl who didn't possess his chemistry skills. To her upset, the teacher would continually reprimand the girl for excessive talking in class. After some time, my husband went to the teacher and admitted that he was the one instigating the conversations. The teacher's response was, "You will go far in this life, young man." From that day forward my husband held a level of respect from the teacher for his honesty and admission of guilt.

This is a mild example of taking responsibility that we share with the boys. We have other, more mature themed examples which we will hold for later should they become necessary. But this one, in its G-rated fashion, illustrates the perks of embracing your mistakes.

I see the natural inclination for taking responsibility or sometimes not within my own kids. One of my sons is so naturally honest; he can't lie. He is our go-to guy when we are seeking the truth about broken vases and empty cookie jars. My other son is less so. He has my old inborn inclination to sidestep responsibility. He likes a good game of hot potato. He is not a bad person at all but would much rather use smoke and mirrors to stay on your good side than to admit he did something wrong. His inclination for this was like looking in a mirror myself; I saw a young me in him and it scared me straight. I didn't like the reflected image of denial I saw and I certainly didn't want to raise my sons to play personal hot potato. So we work on the notion of owning your mistakes and embracing them so that you have power over them.

Once I realized that just admitting my mistakes diminishes the power of the hot potato, I felt better. I don't even have to have a fix for my error right away to begin to improve the situation, just laying it out on the table makes strides. Everyday, I make mistakes as a parent, as a wife, as a daughter, as a sister, as an in-law, as a friend. The difference these days is that I will own them when I see them. If I don't see them on my own, please feel free to lob it my way...I will catch it and not pass it back. I might even try to play keep away instead.