Sunday, September 24, 2006

Real Good

If you’ve ever experienced the death of someone you love, you know that, even years later, grief can pierce your heart, like an arrow shot by a marksman laying in wait. That’s how it happened to me two months ago when, without much advance planning, we decided to harvest our apple tree, sauce the apples, and can the sauce. Never mind the fact that we'd never canned before in our lives, we had none of the supplies necessary for successful canning, we only allotted one day to complete the task, and we have three children under five. We armed ourselves with an irrational dose of ambition, and hit in search of canning jars.

We found a listing: Wilber’s wife answered the phone with a wobbly voice, and said that she could get Wilber for me but it might take a while. A few minutes later, Wilber and I conversed about the canning jars—nothing out of the ordinary—just how many, the price, and when and where I could retrieve them. After we’d settled the details, Wilber unintentionally shot the arrow: “okay, real good,” he said. I hung up the phone, slumped down onto the couch, and cried hot, burning tears that left me with a dull ache in my head and a dark hole in my belly. Before then, I wasn’t even conscious that the phrase “real good” had been favored by my Granddaddy, who has been gone since 1999. Wilber sold me six cardboard boxes, containing countless canning jars, lids, and caps, neatly packed with newspaper and styrofoam peanuts in the fastidious way of a World War II veteran. But he left me with a longing that no amount of saucing and canning could satisfy.

If you lost a Granddaddy like mine, you’d still be missing him, too. From the perspective my childhood, he was one of those rare breeds of grown-ups who instinctively knew how to make me feel secure and competent. He let me do things as if I was really able to do them. He was a carpenter, and a farmer, and he let my sister and I participate in the best of both those professions. He’d say to us, “all right, time to go change the pipe.” Sis and I would strip down to our underwear, and pad after him, “helping” him lift the irrigation pipes and move them into the right ditches. Granddaddy gave us toolboxes for Christmas—not the kind of cheesy plastic toolsets you see at toy stores these days—but real tools made for real, albeit miniature, carpenters. We sometimes visited him for lunch at his jobsites, and he let us dangle our legs over the 2x4s, like pint-sized versions of the famous “Lunch on a Skyscraper” print ( He shared his canned cherries with us, piercing each one with a nail and handing it over for us to eat.

Sis and I got to spend each Friday night at my Grandparents’ home, and we’d often forget our pajamas so that we could wear one of Granddaddy’s old t-shirts. They were holey in the back from exposure to sun and rubbing against overalls, smelled faintly of Old Spice and detergent, and they epitomized coziness, safety, and warmth.

Granddaddy had a wonderful way of making me feel like a co-conspirator of an inside joke. He only had nine fingers because his brother had accidentally chopped off the pinky on his left hand when they were chopping wood as youngsters. My Grandmother would pray before each meal at their home, and while we held hands, Granddaddy would tickle my hand by wiggling his little stub of a pinky, just daring me to laugh out loud.

Granddaddy excelled at comedy, but not in a grand-standing, showboaty way. He had an understated, pithy way of delivering hilarious one-liners: I played cards with him and my Grandmother an average of once a week until I moved away to college, and Granddaddy rarely failed to mention that “it is a pretty poor scorekeeper who can’t win the game.”

I was watching a video of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s wedding when I got the call that my Granddaddy had died. I was comforted to think that we had just seen him in the film as a wedding celebrant-- his lips pursed and his face ruddy, blowing a bubble wand to create iridescent bubbles that floated upward at the outdoor reception. My heart imagined that his spirit had left his body and floated up, up, in the graceful, dancing motion of a bubble, at the exact moment that I’d seen him on the screen.

I’ve often thought that grief’s counterpart is gratitude, the benevolent, white-hat-wearing personage of death. Just as the sharp sting of grief sometimes ambushes, gratitude can quietly settle in like a child who sidles into your lap, ready for a story or snuggle.

That’s how it happened to me yesterday morning, when, in the cool, crisp morning of fall, we ventured outdoors to pick our plums. It is hard to capture in words the beauty that was our day. Tobin patiently supported Eleanor (age 4 and ¾), and then Sylvia (age 3), as they took turns climbing the ladder to reach the plums. The girls collected the plums in their Easter egg buckets, which they had decorated with glue, stickers, and all manner of happy shiny things last April. We annexed a white plastic toy box for our plum-washing station. The girls plopped the plums into the water, and stirred them up with wooden spoons. “We’re making plum soup!” Eleanor announced to Sylvia. I laid out a blanket on the front steps, where Sylvia helped me de-pit the plums, carefully copying my paring-knife technique with her own butter knife. “First I go like this,” Sylvia summarized, plunging the dull knife into the ripe plum and cutting it down its seam, “and then, oooopen it up, and there’s the pit!” “I’m running out of clean plums,” I’d hint, and Eleanor would run to deliver another batch from the cleaning station, her face scrunched and her eyes gleaming with the importance of her task.

Sitting on the steps, settling into the rhythm of the paring, watching my family in its cooperative, peaceful state, gratitude descended on me, and the warmth of it spread through my being like a drop of water on a coffee filter. I remembered making apple cider with my Granddaddy and Grandmother: how I threw the apples into the hopper, feverishly turned the crank of the press, and watched as cider magically emerged from the grinder, all amid the affirming sense of my Granddaddy’s approval. Yesterday, I saw in my children the same feeling of competence as I gazed upon them with admiration. And I thought, thank you, Granddaddy. Real good.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Patron Saint

Today on the way to the doctor's office, I heard an interesting bit on NPR. Evidently stores specializing in religious icons are experiencing a run on St. Joseph statues. This is said to be a bad omen for our economy, since St. Joseph is the Patron Saint of Real Estate. People bury him by their "For Sale" sign and hope and pray for a buyer. See also

Patron Saint of Real Estate? I didn't know there was any such thing. But it got me thinking. I could use a few Patrons around here, the kind that don't mind being assigned to mundane or distasteful Sainthoods.

I'm talking Patron Saint of Potty-training.

Here's the general scene in our house: Sylvia, age 3, is mostly potty-trained. That is to say, she has a perfect record of potty performance at school. And a, shall we say, spotty record at home. Yesterday she just plain forgot that she's potty-trained, like the way you might forget, just for a moment, that it's your spouse's birthday. "Ohhhh, it's pee," she says, her eyes wide with surprise, as a dark, upside-down U takes shape on her pants. Or later, "here's the pee, Mama," taking my hand and leading me, quite proudly, to a large, green plastic container that is supposed to house legos. "I used it for my potty!" Sylvia looks at me like I should break into her reward: a super silly potty dance that we do together after successful pottying. "Um, Sylvia, that is not a potty. It is a lego container. This (taking her by the hand) is the potty." Sylvia regards the potty. The potty regards Sylvia. The introduction is complete, and Sylvia surveys the potty as if to acknowledge that they've already met, but with a certain shyness which expresses the fact that they haven't formed any sort of relationship. "We haven't bonded yet, Mama," she seems to think to herself; "we're just not ready for that next step, Mama."

Evidently Sylvia prefers square shaped potties. Or so we have inferred from the fact that Monday and Tuesday she peed while sitting at the dining room table in her booster chair. "Oops, there's pee in my chair," she says, without a hint of remorse.

The Patron Saint of Potty-Training should have a few features. First, and most importantly-- lest you accuse me of sacrilege-- is that it would remind the parents to pray. Second, it would be equipped with a timer and a reminder. At certain intervals, it would raise its head, and proclaim in a kind yet authoritative voice, "all children report to the toilet," or better yet, "Blessed are those who pee and poop in the toilet." Finally, the Saint would dispense treats to those who successfully completed the task. Here, I'm imagining a head that leans back so that the tongue can spit forth a nice goody a-la-Pez.

Next, I need a Patron Saint of Backaches. The web touts many saints, (, but the backache saint was conspicuously missing.

This week, for the first time in my life, I've been laid up with a backache. It started on Sunday, and worstened on Monday, September 18, which just happened to be our 13th wedding anniversary. Poor Hubby seemed to be destined to live out the "for worse" part of the vow he'd given me 13 years ago. He woke up late that morning, having not heard the alarm. He rushed upstairs, skipped shower, shave, and breakfast, brushed his teeth, and flew out the door to catch his vanpool. Then he got my call on his cellphone, which I made after discovering that I could not lift Eli out of his crib without causing tear-provoking pain to myself. Dutiful Hubby got to work, and promptly turned around and caught a bus "home," which didn't really take him home, but rather took him to a station, where he walked to another bus that really did take him home. When he got here he said, with far less drama that I would have mustered had I been in his shoes: "I need to eat some breakfast." So he's been home this week (Mon-Wed), taking care of the children and our house with little to no help from me. And with the potty-user-in-training living here, it has been quite lively around here. If it weren't my life, I'd have called it hilariously entertaining. I'm not even going to add the part about how Sylvia climbed out of her crib during naptime, tried to poop on the toilet, had trouble wiping, and enlisted Eleanor to "help" her clean up the bathroom. Let's just say that a whole lot of bathroom things ended up going right into the trash, despite my fervent recycling beliefs.

The Patron Saint for Backaches could be loaded with helpful features. First, a hot/cold option, so that the actual statue could be used as a heating or cooling device. Second, perhaps the Saint could be ergonomically shaped so that it could be rolled up into a towel to faciliate lumbar support. Finally-- and I know this is asking too much-- the Saint could have a treat dispenser just like his Potty-Training colleague, only this one would dispense Vicodin and Valium in times of need. No prescription would be needed; the Saint would truly know your need.

What other Patron Saints do we need? Hubby would like a Patron Saint of Table Manners, and a Patron Saint of Peaceful Naptimes.

And our last Saint speaks for itself: The Patron Saint of Not Squeezing Your Little Brother's Head Such That it Resembles a Ripe Tomato. Our family definitely needs that one.

However, all of this Saint-consuming runs afoul of the eco-friendly policies now in place at my house. So, maybe what we really need is a Patron Saint for All Seasons. This saint would come looking very plain, but you could decorate him/her depending on what Saint you wanted him/her to be, like a virtuous version of Mr. Potato-Head or Build a Bug. Maybe if the kids had more ownership in dressing up the Saint, they would respond better to its presence.

Or maybe, just maybe, we could offer up prayers on our own behalf, and leave the Patron Saints for those who really need them.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I am a Marvel

You might not know this, but I am hilarious. I've always been funny, though not everyone appreciated my humor. My husband and I dated in high school, and he would often come over in the evenings to help me with my math homework (I know, I know, we're a living stereotype of the mathematical gender gap). During these tutoring sessions, I would crack jokes left and right-- probably to stave off the suicidal tendencies that math always evokes in me-- but my sister and I were the only ones who laughed. My future husband seemed to be clothed in a joke-proof vest that deflected my punch-lines like hail on a golf cart. He wasn't rude about it—there was no eye-rolling or sighing or saying "is that the best you’ve got?” He just didn’t laugh. It’s a good thing my self-confidence didn’t depend on his approval.

These days, just being near me, you might laugh yourself into a belly-ache. I am like the Jay (or let’s say Jane) Leno of Motherhood. If you don't believe me, just ask my 9-month old son, Eli. Between giggles and snorts, he'll tell you about the high, turban-like thing wiggling on top of my head when I got out of the shower this morning: it was a blue towel! If this doesn’t crack you up, he'll describe how he bangs his feet on the changing table like a tiny patriot tolling the Liberty Bell, proclaiming his Freedom from the Tyranny of Diapers, and the high-pitched "boop" sound that I make as his human soundtrack to accompany each bang. If you're still looking unamused, Eli might ask you to put him into the stroller so that he can demonstrate the hilarious game of peek-a-boo we play with the rain-cover.

Not into comedy acts? Then perhaps you’ll be impressed by my beauty. I have never stopped traffic just by virtue of my proximity, but I am very beautiful. If you don’t believe me, just ask my 4-year-and-10-month-old daughter, Eleanor. When she was three, I received an ego-boosting report from her teacher at preschool. During outside playtime, the teacher had off-handedly remarked to Eleanor, “you sure are starting to look a lot like your Mama.” For Eleanor, it was as if the clouds parted and a beam of light came down from the heavens to surround her being. She was still warm and glowing when I picked her up, as she told me-- growing an inch or two just by speaking the words-- “Mama, did you know that I’m starting to look a lot like you?”

You might be tempted to rationalize that, being little, Eleanor only sees the good in me. But, having endured the scrutiny of her pinching, sticky little fingers and the intensity of her eyes that probe her world like the blazing, all-seeing Eye of Sauron, I know this isn’t true. One day she yanked up my shirt, surveyed my love-handles and modest spare tire—the vestiges of pregnancy and nursing that I’ve been ignoring quite happily, knowing that I’ll work on them after Eli is weaned—grabbed a handful, and said with all sincerity: “How will these come off when Eli is done nursing? Will they just fall off in chunks?” Then there’s the time she lovingly offered to put a bandaid onto my cheek, her nose scrunched up empathetically, pronouncing her diagnosis: “it looks like an owie but I think it might be a zit that never goes away.” Finally, there’s the many times she’s commented—without judgment, just in a matter-of-fact way like you might talk about the grass being green or the sky being blue—on the size of my bottom: “Whoa, Mama, let me scoot over, your bottom is way-hey-hey too big for that spot!”

Well, perhaps I’m not what pops into your head when you see the word gorgeous. But surely, surely you will be impressed with my strength. I can carry any combination of two-out-of-three of my children at any given time; one on each side of my body, even up or down the steep stairs of our 1915 Craftsman home. Alternatively, I can push two of my children in a double-stroller, heavy-laden with a week’s worth of groceries attached to the handle with enough caribeeners to secure ten mountain-climbers, while carrying Eli in the backpack. In an effort to cultivate strong, independent women in my girls, I often brag out loud about my prowess: “look how strong I am, girls! I can lift this ladder all by myself!” I mean this in honest humility: I really am amazed at all of the things I am inspired to do when I know my children are watching.

In June, all three of my children were baptized in one joyous, heart-felt ceremony. As is part of the tradition at my church, the pastor read the Birthright Blessing, adapted from a poem by Ernesto Cardenal, to each child:

Do you know what you are?

You are a marvel. You are
unique. In all the world, there is no other exactly like

In all the millions of years there has never been another
exactly like you.

You are a child of God. And you will be a
child of God forever.

No one can take this birthright from

May you continue to grow into the fullness of life that is
God’s intent for you.

And may you always know that you are loved.
At the time, I choked back happy tears as I reflected on the wonder of each of my precious children. Now, when I look at myself through their eyes, I begin to claim the Birthright Blessing for myself as well.

I am a marvel.

And I have a hunch that you are, too.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Power of a Bus

My kids are big fans of the bus. Eleanor (4 years, 10 months) knows exactly which buses I ride to work, and points them out to me excitedly whenever she spots one. "There's your bus 16 Mama! It's going downtown!" "There's your bus 44! It's going to the bread store!" As far as she is concerned, I not only ride those buses, I own them as well. (This makes sense, since, in her brain, I also own most of the buildings downtown by virtue of working in one of them. Whenever she sees them, she exclaims, "Mama! There's your tall buildings!") She knows the difference between a school bus, a city bus, and a long-distance city-to-city bus. And she is indignant when Sylvia (3 years) confuses the two. "Nooooo Sylvia, (big, disappointed sigh) that's not a CITY bus, it's just an ordinary SCHOOL bus!"

But hands-down the coolest, most exciting bus on the face of the planet is The Tumblebus. ( Imaginative Coach Tom took a regular school bus, removed all of the seats, padded everything, filled it with fun tumbling equipment, and painted the bus fire-engine red. Inside, there's a slide, a balance beam, a trampoline, and amazingly, a zip-line. Fitting all of this into one school bus seems like a circus trick until you remember that only miniature tumblers are invited to play on the bus. Coach Tom parks his bus in front of daycare centers, schools, and birthday party houses, and children instictively find it like spit-up finds a freshly bathed baby.

Eleanor has had many turns on the Tumblebus. She used to attend preschool half-days on Mondays, the lucky day when the Tumblebus visited her school. Sylvia and I would drop off Eleanor at school, and Sylvia would see the bus and pine after it. "I go on Tumblebus too," she would say, hoping to generate enough enthusiasm to convince me it was true. "That would be fun, wouldn't it, Sylvia," I'd say, and then, "maybe someday soon." Then after a few months I decided that whatever the cost, The Tumblebus would come to Sylvia's third birthday party. And this promise sustained Sylvia and I through many a morning when she was feeling small and excluded.

Saturday was the long-awaited Promised Day. Before the various 3-year-old friends arrived, my girls established a look-out post on the sofa, hoping to hasten the arrival of the bus. They manned the post with the nervous excitement of a groom waiting for his bride to walk down the aisle, and the intense vigilance of a mother watching for her son returning from war. Like a dream, The Tumblebus appeared suddenly from behind a low, foggy mist, amid the raucous cheers of my girls. Once the friends arrived, the bus magically accomodated 12 children and half a dozen parents. The bus appeared to grow in capacity each time a child boarded, like the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes combined with the marvel of a Narnian Wardrobe.

On the bus, I could tell you about all of the fun Sylvia had: how her eyes sparkled as she went down the slide, how she bravely conquered the balance beam-- her sweet, soft arms like airplane wings at her sides and her lips pursed in concentration-- and how, with wonderful Coach Tom holding on to her torso, and announcing "here comes Elmo," Sylvia zzzzzzzziipped across the ceiling of the bus, holding on to the handles of the zipline.

Or I could tell you about the hilarious, confused little boy, holding his mother's hand, walking to the Tilth Festival (taking place in a nearby park), who popped his head into The Tumblebus, asking with wide, dream-like eyes, "is THIS entertainment for the FESTIVAL?"

But what I want to share, and what I will remember about this birthday party, is something much more miraculous: the blooming of a boy. My friend, the mother of one of Sylvia's friends, is worried about her son's development. His difficulties are very subtle, the kind of thing you might not notice but you'd verify if you heard his mother's concerns. The beautiful and gentle brown-eyed boy misses some social cues, doesn't cope well with change, and doesn't like too much stimulous. Even though he's three, he has never gone down a slide by himself.

Tentative at first, the little guy soon fell under the spell of The Tumblebus. In one hour's time, he found the courage to do things that he hadn't done in three years. He ran around, exuding joy, despite the presence of 11 other children and the stimulating "celebrate good times C' MON" playing in the background. He interacted with other children. He went down the slide, by himself, without any coaxing from his mom. If you didn't know this little boy, you would have missed the miracle. But if you looked at his mom, you'd know that something amazing had happened. There, in her eyes, the spark of joy was reignited by the hope of what she observed in her son.

I never knew that a bus could be so powerful. But my girls did. I guess they've known it all along.