Archive for the ‘Dear Friends Letters’ Category

It’s Her Story

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Recently a friend was telling me about some “interesting” choices her grown daughter had made. Instead of a “WHAT was she thinking???!” judgment fest, our conversation took a 360-degree turn when this grace and wisdom came from my friend’s lips: “Oh, well; it’s her story!”

As a seasoned parent, this concept was not new to me, yet I felt a renewed sense of clarity when my friend worded it this way. I first experienced this revelation 18 years ago when my daughter Kathryn was born with profound disabilities. I wondered if I would ever get over the grief, but Kathryn’s father pointed out that I was not disabled. Without underestimating the role of parenthood, he reminded me that I still had my own life — separate from our daughter’s.

When our babies depend upon us for their very survival, the thought of them as separate entities is so difficult to grasp. We may even have visions of them growing up to be little extensions of ourselves. And who hasn’t at one time or another felt that ego-driven delight when our child appears to be a “chip off the old block”? The truth remains, however, that each child comes into the world the author of his or her own story, separate from us.

When my older daughter, Ann, who is now a mother herself, recently told me about one of her “interesting” choices, prefacing her announcement with, “Mom, tomorrow I’m doing something you’re not going to be happy with,” do you think I thought, “Oh well; it’s her story”? Ha! Within seconds, I was spewing out the “Mark my words, Ann . . .” spiel. Sigh.

I flash back to when I was a young mom, and we’d spend summer vacations with the girls’ great grandmother. This woman was a pediatric nurse in the 1920s, so you can imagine some of our conversations: “You’re going to SPOIL her if you’re always holding her!” “You’re only feeding her breast milk? Rice cereal is what she needs!”

Maybe George Orwell was right when he said, “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” But how does this benefit us really? As mothers, must we continue to pass on this torch of “My way or the highway”? Is being “right” worth the toll it takes on our relationships?

This summer, whether you’re a mother or a daughter, a father or a son (or combination thereof!), let’s not be so quick to point fingers of judgment at each other. The next time we feel ourselves bristling with those “How could she?!” feelings, let’s replace them with the realization that “It’s her story” as we do our best to live our own with grace, wisdom, and gratitude for family.

On Children
by Kahil Gibran

“They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls.”

Gifts From My Mother

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Recently, while cleaning someone else’s bathroom floor, I thought to myself, ”My mother would have had a fit.” Although the middle of the floor had been kept clean, the sides, corners, and behind the door hadn’t been cleaned in years. I was taken back to my teens, with my mother telling me how important it was to clean thoroughly, and me arguing back, ”Who cares; no one ever sees it anyway?” She was teaching me the right way to clean, and as a teen, I was arguing for the easy way. Now, years later, I was witnessing what happens when you don’t know how to clean properly. Not only had I never thanked my mother for teaching me this valuable skill, I had argued with her about it.

My mother passed away before I owned a house, was married, or had children. While she was alive, I was in frequent touch and told her how much I loved her, but while cleaning this bathroom floor, I realized she gave me so many gifts I had never really thought about — gifts I use or benefit from to this day. So, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my mother for all the gifts I didn’t know were gifts:

• Teaching us that a clean house is important, but family time was more important.

• Showing us that people were more important than things. No matter what broke, spilled or went wrong, you always asked ”Are you ok?” before you asked about the things.

• Having us work beside you until we could do the job right by ourselves.

• Making us clean the kitchen and stay there until everyone was finished. At the time, I thought you were just trying to make sure the whole job was done and no one said, ”That’s not my job.” Now I realize you were also creating bonds between us siblings.

• Making us go to our siblings’ activities. This increased our circle of support and helped keep us out of trouble.

• Teaching us to be polite to older or lonely people — sometimes that is the only chance they get to communicate all day.

• Being there to listen when we needed someone to listen (I doubt anyone realizes what a gift this is until their mother is gone), and listening to us with your full attention — not only to us but to our friends as well.

• Believing in me. To this day, I think of you when I am having challenges.

• Teaching me how to iron, stand up straight, and swim.

• Enjoying my company and biting your tongue when I came up with my grand philosophical ideas.

• Letting me learn and accepting that Chemistry was as hard for me as Spanish was for you.

• Showing me that even after failures or problems, we can pick ourselves up and go on with life.

As we approach this Mother’s Day, I hope we can all take the time to think about the intangibles gifts from our mothers and the other important women in our lives.

Enjoy the Ride

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

My younger son is now of driving age, and I hesitantly let this inexperienced, newly permitted driver take the wheel on a recent weekend get-away. We left at rush hour, because why wouldn’t you want your 15-year-old kid to have his first freeway experience at the busiest time of the day with the sun setting directly behind him so he can’t really see if the brake lights ahead of him are on or not!

After nearly putting my foot through the floor a few times, I forced my shoulders back down to a normal position and settled in for the ride. I did my best to give directions with plenty of notice so there were no last-minute lane changes, and gently suggest slowing down ahead of time rather than waiting until there were only inches to spare between us and the next car. As the busy city freeway gave way to the less traveled rural roads, I was struck by how the changing landscape mirrored the changing stages of life with my children.

As a new parent, I often felt frazzled, with never enough time to get everything done and never feeling sure I was doing things ‘right.’ Then, without my realizing it, the ‘rush hour’ days eased into a little slower pace. The elementary school years were filled with wonderful discoveries and hours spent together. As we passed through the countryside with its softly rolling hills, we started to climb to higher elevations much like the challenges of middle school. Projects became more difficult, friends came and went, and like our ride, first there was a gentle slope, a dip into a small valley, another slope, and then the tumultuous teen years, full of steep inclines, sharply twisting roads, and the uncertainty of what might be waiting around the next corner.

Finally, we reached the summit and began to descend through the now rocky landscape, just as my boys have turned into young men with deep voices trying to find their own place in the world. Now, as I sit up late at night waiting for them to come home, or have a ‘discussion’ on why it is so important to do their very best in whatever they attempt, whether it seems completely irrelevant to them or not, I think about that trip. The rough, unforgiving landscape gave way to the vast, open desert, the infinite vistas filled with the same promise of adventure and discovery my boys have waiting for them in the future. And just as my baby boy did fine on that drive (we arrived with all our parts intact), I am reminded that my boys, too, will do fine no matter where life takes them. I can’t control it all; I can only offer my voice of experience when needed or wanted and sit back and enjoy the ride.

Enter the Land of Dirt and Bugs

Friday, February 5th, 2010

I don’t think there is a worm left in our yard that hasn’t been turned. My son has discovered the joys of digging in the soil, and every rock, block, and grain of sand has been flipped in his search for underground creatures. At any given time I am sure to find a container of dirt in the yard, a new ”home” for his bugs until he releases them back to the earth. I think his fingernails will always have dirt embedded underneath them, despite my attempts with a nailbrush and a firm scrubbing every night.

I used to enjoy digging and getting dirty too, back when I was called a ”tomboy,” rode an oversized bicycle around the neighborhood, and didn’t come home until the streetlights came on. I spent spring days after school outside with my mom’s trowel, digging big holes in the yard (which I know my mom appreciated!). I’d happily scrape my trowel deep enough to reach past the sandy top layer, through the moist dark layer, down to the red clay treasure until it was too hard to dig anymore.

This spring, may we all have time to dig a little deeper and get our hands messy alongside our kids. By gardening, bug hunting, and exploring in the dirt together, we not only connect with our children and to the earth, we are also reminded of the outdoor memories of our own childhood. Remember the delight of holding a leaf that was bigger than your head or the fascination of watching an earthworm or caterpillar wriggle in front of you? And of course you could just take a trowel and dig as deep a hole as possible, not with any purpose, but just because you can!

Less Cleaning, More Meaning

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Once again, I am rushing around trying to spruce things up before guests come over. Don’t get me wrong, things are picked up and relatively organized, but why does it always seem that stuff just appears right before visitors are due to arrive? I know for a fact those dust bunnies I can see under the chair as I walk up the stairs were NOT there last night. Neither were the fingerprints on all the light switches, nor the smear across the front of the refrigerator. Where does it all come from? Maybe from the two teenage boys, the dog, the cat, and the perpetual remodeling projects in progress both inside and outside the house?

So, I take a deep breath, rip a drooping, yellow leaf off a plant as I pass by to answer the door, and have a sudden flashback of a weekend my family spent camping out in a friend’s backyard. There was nothing fancy about it; in fact, the yard was filled with 19 old cars, all in various states of disrepair, a few stacks of tires, some rusted yard implements, and several little buildings (shacks?) in need of a fresh coat of paint, among other things. There were three different enclosures filled with chickens, doves, parakeets, cockatiels, and finches. Not to mention three or four domestic turkeys, as well as two wild turkeys that hopped the fence one day, hoping to make new friends, and decided to stay. That yard was a little boy’s dream, bursting with endless possibilities of exploration and discovery. Resort-like, it was not.

The thing that sticks in my mind the most, though, is how much fun we had. Those turkeys were a riot. Every time someone laughed, those silly birds would gobble. Laugh, gobble, snicker, gobble, giggle, gobble, gobble. We spent time with precious old friends, cemented friendships with couples we don’t get to see too often, and started new relationships with folks we had never met before. That ramshackle yard, with the mismatched stools set around some old doors for tables, the tub from an old washing machine commandeered as a fire-pit, and the goofy gobbles of the turkeys, became a haven. It wasn’t the place (although it did provide a lot of atmosphere!), but the people that made the weekend so special—the laughter, love, and open hearts of good people just spending time together. I can’t wait to go back.

As you rush around this holiday season, trying to fit in all the activities and functions that are a natural part of this time of year, I hope you find yourself not worrying about the dust and fingerprints, the stray sock on the floor, or the wad of dog hair in the corner. I hope you laugh with the turkeys and delight in the people you are with. I plan to. And my friend waiting at the door? I just kick the cat toys out of the way and greet her with open arms and a smile that comes straight from my heart.

Finding Gratitude Every Day

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

When I was a child, my father made a ritual of coming into my sister’s and my bedroom for our goodnight prayers. These weren’t the prayers recited by rote in school or church, but rather his own words to convey what he wanted to say at the end of the day. Even now, I can still remember at least part of this same-every-night prayer. As we lay there in a darkened room, he always started by saying ‘Thank you’ for a myriad of things: our health, shelter over our heads, food on our table, a good school…’ Then he’d segue into various appeals for continued good health, happiness for all of our friends and neighbors, peace in the world, etc. To my child-like sensibilities, it seemed that good health, shelter, and a good school were things that everyone had, and priority should be placed on the ‘request’ part of his spiel. But there came a night when my big sister piped in with her thanks for something, and before long, I was adding my own thanks to the line-up: for my rabbit, the fact that it was summer, or the fun hide-and-seek game with the neighborhood kids my parents had let us stay out past dusk to finish.

It seems that no matter our religious or spiritual inclination, it is part of the human condition to ask or say a prayer for something. Even if we don’t make a big, elaborate deal of it, we ask for you-name-it: good weather for the company picnic, a victory for our team, an improvement in the economic climate, the end of the drought in Africa, etc. But I think that giving thanks just doesn’t happen as often as making a request—at least it sure doesn’t with me. I find myself whispering a plea much more often than I acknowledge something for which I’m grateful. Yet I’ve committed myself to finding gratitude every single day, and that’s probably because my father made it part of our lives as kids. Having learned early on that I have countless things to be grateful for, I can almost always find a bright side to even the lousiest day. My bet is that we all have a myriad of things to appreciate. Whether it’s the roof over our heads, the rain on our thirsty garden, the luxury of being able to fill up the gas tank, or the fact that we still have our eyesight, the list is nearly endless.

And that’s why I think that Thanksgiving is one of our most meaningful and sweetest holidays. Hopefully, we take the opportunity to reflect on the good things in our lives. It gives us the chance to build a celebration around one single quality: gratitude. It gives us the chance to move beyond the ingrained sense of self-entitlement so many of us in our country have and look at life from a position of a grateful ‘I have’ rather than ‘I want’—a position that will not only enhance our own lives as well as our children’s, but will truly make the world a gentler and more caring place.

Teaching Children Through Our Actions

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

As I was on my morning walk, I strolled right by a bank’s drive-up instant teller. A woman was using it, standing outside her SUV because it was too far to reach from inside her car. The sun was bright, and she was struggling to shade the screen with her hand because of the glare. Behind her SUV, a city maintenance truck and a third car were waiting, their engines idling.

What bothered me about this scene is that right around the corner of the building there are two instant tellers in the lobby. Using them would only have required parking (free!) and walking about 30 steps. Instead, the woman chose to get out of her car and fight the sun’s glare, and the other two people decided to sit in their cars, wasting time and gas. All this on a 70-degree day!

As I continued my walk, the sight of another woman made my day. When I saw that she had a plastic bag on each hand, I jokingly said, “I see the bags, but I don’t see the dog!” She laughed and told me the bags were for picking up trash. (She was using them as gloves.) While there are many popular “awareness” movements right now, from breast cancer to autism, is there any greater way to provide awareness than through real action and purposeful living like this? As great as pins and bumper stickers can be for getting the word out, this woman’s generous act speaks more than 100 anti-litter stickers.

If we want the next generation to be loving and reverent caretakers of the earth and each other, we parents have to step up to the plate with our actions. It’s not enough to use peace signs, bumper stickers, and tattoos to proclaim our love and values. We’ve got to demonstrate the very core beliefs we value. Do we buy our children a giant inflatable bouncer house for Christmas while proudly wearing a “Save the Earth!” t-shirt? Do we drive our Hummer 30 miles to pick up our organic, free-range Thanksgiving turkey?

Just as the two women I watched this morning told two very different stories, we tell our children stories every day through our actions. This holiday season, we’ll be singing songs with our children about peace and goodwill and sending cards about spreading joy, but my hope is that each one of us in our own unique ways will be living peace, goodwill, and joy through our actions-be it in volunteering in soup kitchens or in buying gifts that support artisans and sustainable living. Our children truly are watching.

A Spoonful of Sugar

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Mary Jo, our Accounting Manager and mother of two adolescent boys, is sidetracked right now with a bad knee injury. The fact that she’s under doctor’s orders to lay really low, knee in a brace, isn’t helping her feel as organized or in control as she’d like to be. She was already behind with some housework when the accident happened. Additionally, her very elderly and relatively incapacitated grandmother is 2 months into a 4-month stay and guests are in town this weekend-enough to make nearly any mother’s head spin.

We’ve probably all been in this spot to some degree or another. Whether it’s because of doctor’s orders to lay low, because we’ve got such a bad bug that we can’t even think of getting out of bed, or because we’ve been called out of town to be with an ailing loved one, there are times when we just can’t do all that we expect of ourselves or that our families have come to depend on. We can go crazy with stress about it or do our best to surrender to the situation (which, I grant you, is no easy task). And there is a lot to be said for knowing that somewhere in the situation there may be an unforeseen gift.

In Mary Jo’s case, she’s using her incapacitation as an opportunity to show her boys how much she does as their mother and as the person who manages the household. (A priceless lesson, I’d say.) The first night, her younger son cooked his first dinner for the family: hot dogs, sliced oranges, potato chips, pineapple, and carrots. He also had to set the table and make tea for his great grandmother. And he had to time everything so that they ate at some semblance of the dinner hour! The next night, her other son concocted a dinner around sloppy joes. Acknowledging and wisely surrendering to her limitations, she called in a day care provider to help with her grandmother. Her husband has kicked it up a notch, too, despite a busy time at work, and her brother is driving the boys to school for the duration.

She told me that she watched “Mary Poppins” one night and was intent on looking for all the spoonfuls of sugar that she can find in this whole kerfuffle. When I last heard from her, she said that there really are quite a few spoonfuls. “The crutches should motivate me to do more pushups. My upper arms needed this workout,” was her last report. I had to chuckle-and marvel-at her willingness to find what makes this whole knee thing more than just an inconvenience. While she’s finding the silver linings, perhaps the most valuable gift in all of this is the fact that her kids get to step up to the plate and help with daily chores that they assumed (as most kids do) just miraculously happen. A gift for the boys in that they are learning how much their mom does and they now get to contribute to her, and a gift for Mary Jo in that her family now appreciates her on a whole new level. Silver linings, indeed!

Give Your Kids the Gift of Boredom this Summer

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I don’t recall my parents ever going into a panic because school was out and they had to entertain me. Come to think of it, did any parents in that generation ”entertain” their kids?! Nonetheless, I don’t seem to recall many bouts of boredom. Somehow, I managed to find things to do without a pony, an inflatable bounce house, or anything requiring a microchip.

So why do we parents so often feel the need to be entertainment directors? And since when is ”boredom” a bad thing? Now I’m not condoning letting our kids fend for themselves all day long, but this summer, I’m hoping we parents and grandparents can all just chill a little and not fret so much about the details of what our children are going to do with their free time. It’s summer vacation — not a NASA mission! Let’s take some of the pressure off ourselves and give our children some credit for using their imaginations. Better yet, let’s help them to cultivate it by letting them figure out some of the details themselves!

Something recently happened at our summer photo shoot that serves as a perfect example of this. We had three children for models, and their parents were a little nervous because the children had never met and were supposed to play together and look like they were having the time of their lives with some fairy wands — items the adults had no clue what to ”do” with. Even the photographer asked, ”What will the kids do with these?” I told him I wanted to leave that up to the children. When they arrived, each child chose a wand, and with all of us adults hovering in eager anticipation, they stood in a row like brave little soldiers in front of the photographer. With forced smiles and stiffly held wands, the line-up looked like something from Fort Bragg, as in ”Yes, SIR! Reporting for duty, SIR!” Now I was nervous. One wise mom suggested we walk away and start talking amongst ourselves. Within minutes after the children were left to their own devices, they forgot about us and the photographer, and soon, irresistible peals of laughter began filling the studio. Out of the corner of our eyes, we saw more joyous movement than a passel of puppies with chew toys (see photo above). The photographer laughingly said it was like photographing chaos. Two of the children actually began to cry when it was over. One of them (my grandson!) still asks his mom if he can play with the girls at the photography studio again.

That is the magic that can be found in stepping out of the way and allowing children spontaneous play with open-ended toys. Yes, we adults were close by and available, but we weren’t hovering and orchestrating their every move. Perhaps the ingredients for a really good summer might be to provide our children with playmates from time to time and let them figure out the rest. Give them a few well-chosen toys (cardboard boxes count!), plenty of outdoor time, lots of love, and knock off all the worrying about getting it ”right” as parents. Let’s give ourselves permission this summer to forget the bounce houses, microchips, and ponies and r-e-l-a-x — because isn’t that what summertime is really about?

Who’s the Kid and Who’s the Parent?

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Recently three of us were walking through a convention hall. A 5- or 6-year-old boy carrying a red sports drink was ahead of us, with his parents several yards in front of him. At one point, the boy stumbled and caught himself, but as he was recovering, half his drink sloshed onto the floor. Seeing the slippery mess he had made, he ran to catch up to his parents. We watched as he stopped his parents, they turned, and he pointed to the spill. We also watched in disbelief as his parents shrugged, turned around, and kept walking, leaving the spill for someone else to either slip in or clean up–not their problem, I guess.

I could tell that this bothered the child because he kept looking back to check on that spill all the way out of the building. His parents? Not once did they turn and look back. Not once.

What message did those parents convey to their child? He obviously knew on some level that he had made the mess and needed to clean it up. They taught him that if you just walk away, someone else will clean up your messes for you. Wow.

I know it was the end of a long day and everyone was super tired. But as parents, we need to always be careful of what lessons we are teaching our children. Maybe on a different day, when the parents weren’t burned out from having walked miles at a convention, they might have stopped to clean up the mess. But on this day, they shrugged it off, and that boy will never forget the lesson they taught him. Let’s all try to be aware that children are watching us, whether it is convenient or not, and they are looking to us as adults to show them how to be good citizens of the world.

Have a peaceful and restful summer and enjoy every spectacular day that you get to spend with your children.