Sunday, December 30, 2012

Look Up

The stockings had been hung by the fire with care; the presents were opened; the carols sung. It was a lovely Christmas, despite – or perhaps because of – our attempts to limit presents to five per person this year. My mother had flown out from Wisconsin, a first, to spend the holidays with our family. There was much to celebrate and be thankful for. The house still smelled of balsam, and a fire burned in the stone fireplace near the dinner table. We’d played multiple games of Bananagrams, Bingo, and Candyland. You might say it resembled a Norman Rockwell holiday.

And yet, to be honest, I was feeling cranky, a post-holiday out-of-sorts, whose source I couldn’t put a finger on. It wasn’t that my jeans had grown uncomfortably snug over the past week or the usual sibling squabbling that comes with the vacation infusion of togetherness. It hadn’t snowed, and so I couldn’t blame my crankiness on cabin fever either.  But my husband put his finger on it one night at the dinner table:  “She’s not happy until it snows.” And, bingo: he was right. We’d been missing a snow-covered holiday, heavy flakes drifting down, the sound of shovels scraping and wind howling – what I’d grown up with in Wisconsin.

When I was little, I used to imagine myself as Laura Ingalls Wilder, snug in her house made of dirt and sticks, snuggled under blankets, the bed warmer and wood fire the only sources of warmth in her makeshift home on the prairie. Perhaps I had a flair for melodrama, but it didn’t seem too far a stretch as I lay in my bed in our small Midwestern house that backed up against a small woods. I imagined wolves howling, lurking outside, and enjoyed the safety of our home even more.

Boston had been snow-free, and now it was December 28. The weathermen were forecasting a storm for the next day, but I remained skeptical. Too often the prognosticators got it wrong, the snow never arriving, or even worse, switching over to rain. My four-year-old, like any child, shares my love for the white stuff, and had been asking when he’d be able to stomp around in it.  “Maybe tomorrow,” I tried to reassure him, but when towns west of us lit up on the weather map with storms and still we saw nothing, we sighed in disappointment. Then, suddenly, a few flakes drifted down, and my son was dancing what we dubbed “the snowdance.” Imagine the disappointment when the flakes turned to rain later that night.

So, when I rolled over the next morning and heard him yelling and singing, “Hallelujah,” his four-year-old expression of pure joy, I knew that Christmas had finally arrived.  And, indeed, a thick blanket of white shrouded our front yard. Soon enough, we were bundled up, shoveling, sweeping, running and tossing snowballs around. This was the good kind of snow – wet, heavy, perfect for snowball packing.  I followed him into the back yard on the fresh expanse of white and we plopped down to make snow angels side by side. We flapped our arms and legs, and he told me to “Look up!” When I did, I saw the tree branches above us, the long limbs coated with snow, crystalline icicles hanging from above. Beautiful. How often, I thought, do we forget to “look up”? How often am I busy looking at the computer, checking my cell phone?

“Look Up.” It seems a good resolution to go into the New Year with. I will try to remember to enjoy the refreshing chill of a brisk wind, the rescue of soft snow. And when our minister ended service this morning, reminding us to “Go where there is no path and leave a trail,” I couldn’t help but smile. My son and I had done just that this morning, in our backyard, in the embrace of that wonderful thing called snow.






Monday, December 10, 2012

A Sunday of Advents

1. Hope.
Sunday began with a wake-up call from our son at 7:17 a.m. This was typical. As soon as he rolls over in bed, one eye open to the world, he likes to get the day started. He is only four, and for him every day promises to be as good as or better than the day before. He is hope personified. “What will we do after that?” has become a common refrain in our house. To his ambitious mind, we never have a long-enough list to fill the day. My husband mercifully got out of bed to cook breakfast while I slept in. When I came down to the smell of coffee brewing, they had already played three rounds of “Zingo!” and were now into “Pop Fly,” another great invention for the under-five set, where a beanbag thrown at a lever launches miniature balls into the air at surprisingly soaring heights. I sipped my coffee and watched, thinking and planning for the day ahead.

2. Peace.
A brief sojourn to the small church up the hill afforded one hour of uninterrupted time. Evergreen wreaths dotted the high walls and a single Christmas tree bowed its branches in the sanctuary. A place for gifts for the needy greeted us. When the minister asked for names of those in need of prayers, it became clear that more than a few of us were fighting our own battles during the holiday season: caring for sick parents, sick children, a wayward teen. As we shook hands during the Peace greeting, we bucked each other up, whispered comforting words. And when our minister lit the second candle of Advent, he spoke of the importance of peace not only in our world but in our own homes, in our families. He reminded us that the very definition of serenity is none other than peace.

3. Joy.
A few hours later, grandparents, parents, cousins, and brothers all sat in a row watching their granddaughter/ daughter/cousin/sister perform in a holiday concert in a magnificent hall. Our anticipation was kept in check by the reminder that this was a high school performance after all. We shouldn’t expect too much. But we were still hoping (that first candle) for some holiday cheer, an invigorating song or two. What filled our hearts when we listened to our girl and her classmates sing a gorgeous, intricate holiday madrigal -- right after a bell choir performance and before another girl’s stunning rendition of O Holy Night? Joy.

4. Love.
Often the holidays seem to mean more stress, more bickering between siblings, more plain-out exhaustion. And surely those moments have appeared and will reappear as we near the 25th. But on the drive back home, all the children nestled into their seats, the melodies of the Christmas concert still dancing in our heads, what my husband and I felt was one of those rare moments that you can actually take and cup in your hands, like water. How lucky we are, how blessed to all be together, to have an afternoon that was filled with music – and that fourth candle of Advent, love.

It was a good reminder for me: from the Events of the season come the Advents, the arrival of hope, peace, joy, and love. May yours be filled with all the advents you desire.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Weighing In Before Thanksgiving Dinner

It used to be that my brother would step on the scale before and after Thanksgiving dinner to see how many pounds he’d gained in one sitting. While I’d never dream of doing the same, we all got a good laugh. One year he tipped the scale to an excess of seven newly packed-on pounds – a record. We chalked it up to a particularly tasty Thanksgiving, one where my mom had cooked not only the turkey but also her traditional side of sweet potatoes and cranberries, homemade stuffing, gravy, buttered carrots, any number of sweetbreads, and of course, her signature pumpkin pie.
When we were young, we’d try to circle around the table, everyone saying what they were thankful for, before someone snuck a piece of turkey. There were homemade place cards, placemats, and some years lopsided construction paper turkeys. Eventually childhood enthusiasms gave way to a new tradition of the Turkey Trot run; my dad and brother would brave the frigid Wisconsin temperatures to pound out three and a half miles before dinner. Later, when my brother and I left for college and I stayed out East, our family Thanksgivings spent around the table together became less and less frequent. More often than not, the phone was our welcome connector across the miles.

The past few years, I’ve tried to emulate some of our traditions within my own family. I make my mom’s sweet potato/cranberry recipe; our family watches the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade; one year my son and I cut out construction paper turkeys, the imprints of our hands decorated with colorful feathers. The fact that he pronounced to his dad that he’d just finished making his “chicken” did little to dull my spirits.
But this year, like last, there will be someone missing around our proverbial table: my dad. And while I know the passing of a year should make a difference, know that the actual Thanksgivings I spent with him had grown few and far between, it doesn’t make his absence any less felt. It’s something that I know more than a few friends have had to struggle with in recent years, this realizing that we’ve come of an age where no one, not even our parents, is invincible. A reluctant recognition that the shape of family changes, even if those for whom we’re grateful does not.

My dad would have been the first to remind us how lucky we are, how much we have to be thankful for. He was an easy mark for any charity, always willing to lend a few extra dollars. I can’t count how many times an old-fashioned letter would arrive in the mail from him, penned on a piece of complimentary stationery he’d received for his donation to the Salvation Army, Unicef, a local food bank. He could find many problems with the world, but really, his heart was made of gold.
I suspect this year, when it came to his turn at the table, he would have said he was grateful for our family, small and large, for the blessings of the food before us, the roof over our heads, the kindness of friends. It was the little things. He would have made a comment about how glad he was to have Obama in the White House but would have asked God to help our President help those who need it most.

And when I look around the dinner table this Thanksgiving, hosted by my in-laws in the historic town of Plymouth, I’ll surely think of my whole family and all that I’m grateful for. But most especially, I’ll think of my dad and how the holiday this year is both heavier and lighter because of him. I won't need the scale to tell me.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How a Five-Year-Old Put Me in My Place

Yesterday afternoon, one election and one hurricane later, my son and I enjoyed an unexpected blast of summer at the park. Like so many other families, we kicked around the soccer ball, played hide-and-seek, tag, anything that allowed us to linger a bit longer in the sunshine. You could tell that there was a collective sigh of gratitude among the parents: for our kids’ safety, for the balm of a New England fall day, for having weathered the storms of the past weeks.

Nicholas and I gulped in the warm air, wiped our sweaty brows, and stopped for heavy swigs from our water bottles after a marathon soccer game. Eventually, a few of his friends joined in and I retreated to the sidelines to chat with other parents, comparing notes on the recent high winds and flooding. When the kids tired of the game and gathered around the monkey bars, they, too, began to trade stories of what had mattered most to them in the wake of our collective storms: Halloween candy. I listened as one boy boasted he got one hundred pieces, another seventy-five. Nicholas himself had scored forty-five pieces, which he’d proudly lined up on our window seat. As the Halloween tales made their way around the circle, one cagey five-year-old stopped and looked at me. “Hey, we came to your house for trick-or-treat,” he said.
I was secretly pleased to be remembered. I must be one of the “cool” moms, I thought with a warm smile. I felt a surge of love for this little boy. Already I was mentally arranging a play date for him at our house.

“Yeah,” he continued. “You gave us licorice.” His voice carried a slightly accusatory tone.
“Oh?” I said. “That could be. We gave out lots of stuff. Kit Kats, Butterfingers, M&Ms, licorice.”

He shook his head, as if about to call me out as a liar right in front of his now curious pals. “No, I’m pretty sure it was licorice.” Big, wondering eyes looked up at me.
“Could be.” I tried for diplomacy; I really did. “Lots of times I like to throw in licorice with another treat.”

He stared at me. “Just licorice.” His disappointment was palpable. I felt the need to defend myself, if not for my sake, for my son’s.  Surely we gave out plenty of good stuff. Maybe not whole candy bars like some of our neighbors, but we didn’t shirk when it came to Halloween.
“And isn’t licorice delicious?” I tried again. “I love the red kind. But some people really like black licorice.” The kids eyed me skeptically.

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved red licorice, all kinds. The tried-and-true Twizzlers that you can peel off with a satisfactory tug, the longer whips that you can curl and twist onto your tongue, even licorice pipes held a place in my heart. They seemed so grown-up and whimsical at the same time. So maybe I harbored my own little addiction to the red stuff. Perhaps it played a role in my decision-making in the candy aisle, but what parent doesn’t let his or her own preferences influence the final pick?
Still, it never occurred to me that we might get a black mark on our house for handing out this particular treat on Halloween. I assumed such scorn was reserved for folks who gave out home-made popcorn or a single lollipop or, even worse, toothbrushes! Dispensing licorice with an assortment of other choices didn’t seem like such a travesty. But then again, I hadn’t been five in a long time. What did I know?

When we were walking back from the park, I asked Nicholas if he liked licorice. “Yeah,” he said, then ran off ahead of me. Once home, I pulled out the tub of week-old candy, determined to prove my theory once and for all: kids still liked licorice. I unwrapped a miniature three-pronged Twizzlers and handed it to him. He took a bite, then gave the rest to me. “I think I’ll have the M&Ms instead,” he said.
And there, writ large in his chocolate-smudged face, was the truth: I’d become the mom who hands out old-fashioned trick-or-treat candy, the kind that no kid really likes.

Next fall, with the election and the hurricane a distant memory, I’ll remember this tall truth as I cruise the aisles in October. I’ll stuff my cart with treats of the chocolate variety. But don’t be surprised if a bag of Twizzlers gets tucked in underneath.
This time, though, it will be just for me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

~ Loose Tooth ~


The whole thing happened in a matter of seconds. When I heard my four-year-old slip and come up crying in the other room, my husband told me to stay put: “I’ve got it.” Recently, Nicholas had been playing his drama card like a cardsharp, and his dad and I were trying to cut back on jumping at his every whine or cry. I sat on my hands, wanting to comfort him, but also trying hard to be a rock. He was going to be fine. Then my husband announced, “Okay, there’s some blood.” “What?” I yelled, pushing up from my seat.  “And he lost a tooth.” This was all reported in a matter-of-fact tone while I yelped and ran into the kitchen, where our son was now screaming with bright red blood pouring out of his mouth.

“Oh baby, I’m so sorry!” I ran to him and instantly burst into tears. When he saw my distress, Nicholas’s cries rocketed up another notch. There was blood – lots of it – and a big gap where his precious little white tooth had been. “His tooth! His front tooth!” I kept shouting the words like an imbecile till my husband told me, “You need to calm down and go in the other room now.” I’ve never been good with blood, and like any mother, my heart stops with each thunk, thud, or cry until playing resumes or my son, who has learned his mom is a worrywart, pronounces, “I’m okay, mama!” Still, we’d been lucky in the arena of accidents up until now. Despite Nicholas’s love for street hockey, football, and pretty much every other sport, he’d managed to stay remarkably injury free.

So how was it that an innocent twirl on the hardwood floor turned into a tooth-stealing injury? My husband, who saw it from afar, says that our son, in mid-twirl, slipped and landed face first on the wooden step that divides our sunroom from the kitchen. Out popped his baby tooth, as if from a perfect excision, its long slender root still attached when we recovered it from beneath the stair. We put it on ice (though later were told that teeth fare better in cold milk). While I rocked our boy back and forth, paper towels stuffed in his mouth, my husband called the dentist. Apparently, his was also a voice of reason: make sure the bleeding stops; these things happen; apply ice; forget about the tooth, he was going to lose it in a year or two anyway; give him Tylenol or Motrin as needed.

 Eventually the bleeding abated, Nicholas’s cries calmed, and a few popsicles and episodes of The Berenstain Bears later, he was feeling better. His mom, however, was still sick to her stomach; my attempts to keep him safe had been thrown out the window in a few seconds. My husband tried to make me feel better. “Honey, he’s fine. He was going to lose that tooth anyway.”

 “But how will he talk without a lisp?” I cried. And then it occurred to me, “And his school pictures!” I let out a moan. “He’ll be gap-toothed.” There it would be: evidence forever of how I’d let my son down, left him in harm's way.

 My husband cocked his head and looked at me as if I’d slightly lost my mind. No doubt he wondered if I needed a sedative more than our boy. Like many a mom, I’m great at guilt. If I had been watching Nicholas that second, would he have stumbled? Probably. I doubt I could have broken his fall. I might have cautioned him to be careful, to slow down; but more likely I would have been taking delight in his whimsical twirl. He’s an active, imaginative boy and I love nothing more than to witness all that imagination in play.

 Later that night, I tucked him in and hugged him till he told me to stop. The tooth was safely tucked under his pillow, awaiting a prize from the tooth fairy. I asked Nicholas, as I do most nights, what he was going to dream about. I braced myself, certain his answer would involve blood, gore, pain, an innocence stolen. “I think I’m going to dream about the brown rollercoaster,” he said after a moment. This was in reference to the ride he and his cousin had gone on six consecutive times, screaming with delight, earlier in the day at the local fairground.

 I smiled and remembered to breathe. Maybe we weren’t doing such a terrible job as parents. And when I dropped him at preschool a few days later, Nicholas gloating like a rock star while all his friends crowded around him to exclaim at his missing tooth, I felt a touch of pride for my son and this unexpected rite of passage. My heart will always break a little when I see his crooked grin. But when I heard him ask a friend as I was leaving, “Do you want to see my loose tooth?” and I stopped, about to correct him that it was no longer there, I thought better of it. He was on his way, ready to have another great day, no matter what life handed him.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Taking Flight

Taking Flight  ~  October 10, 2012

Wendy Francis

My mother’s call came on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, one year ago today, to be exact. My three-year-old son and I were enjoying a sun-drenched afternoon at Houghton’s Pond outside of Boston, and we’d packed a picnic of miniature sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies (a picnic added just the right dollop of adventure for a three-year-old). After tossing a ball around, we planted ourselves on a blanket, unwrapped our cellophane bundles, and indulged, letting the sweet raspberry jelly melt deliciously on our tongues. Later, we baked birthday cakes of sand topped by pebble candles and sang “Happy Birthday” to each other. I have a picture from that day, the sun lighting his small frame bent over the water (see below). A day to be grateful for.

When the sun started to slip away, we packed up our things and headed home. I hadn’t brought a cell phone, wanting to avoid any temptation to check e-mails. But waiting on the answering machine at home was a message from my mom, asking if I could please call her. It was easy to discern something was the matter, but what? When she told me that my sixty-nine-year-old father had died of a sudden heart attack, I collapsed in a puddle. My dad had been a lifelong runner, ate well. How was it that the coils of his heart had given up on him so easily, so abruptly? And on a day that had held such splendor, such peace, just a few moments earlier?

My mom and I looked for ways to make sense of his death in the weeks that followed, but it was hard to come by. There would be no funeral; my dad had donated his body to medical research. Instead, we worked with the minister to compose a memorial that would honor all that had made him so dear. We nixed including Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” one of his favorite songs, but chose quotes from Maya Angelou and Thoreau, other favorites, for his service. Meanwhile, I searched for signs that dad was up there, somewhere. If anyone could figure out how to get us a message he was all right, I figured it would be him. When a few days later Theo Epstein got traded to the Cubs, my dad’s beloved team, I felt a flutter. But I wanted something bigger, something more.

The next morning my mom and I sat at the kitchen table, our usual spot, watching the sun rise over a swath of trees off to the east. Coffee steamed up from our mugs. A big thunderstorm had rumbled through the night before, and rain still lay thick on the deck outside. As we sat and talked, we noticed a small flock of birds begin to take flight from the trees beyond. The sky was pink, just warming into the day. And suddenly, an entire army of birds emerged from the woods, heading our way. It was as if they’d detected a chill in the fall air and were on wing, if not quite South, to warmer pastures.

My mom and I watched spell-bound, as thousands upon thousands passed overhead. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she whispered. We marveled as they continued their flight pattern for a good fifteen minutes. It was breathtaking. And as crazy as it sounds, it felt as if my dad was sending his thumbs-up sign as only he could, in a place he was sure to find us.

You might say it had a lot to do with the night’s heavy rain, all the worms that crawled to the surface, a bird’s easy breakfast. Or with the migration afoot across the nation. But to us, for those precious, awe-inspiring moments, we couldn’t help but feel we were connected to some greater presence, my dad shooing the birds from the trees, saying, “Come on, I’ve got to give them a big show, something to let them know it’s from me.”

For me, it was my dad, taking flight.