Rows of lawn chairs held back the traffic and any thoughts of work or routine. Children waved glow sticks in fingers sticky with s’mores goo. The merits of homemade brats versus store bought were discussed and politics was not.
As the sun hid and the twilight dawned, a hush came over the crowd. It was go time. Time for the neighborhood fireworks display. Firecracker Ron and his partner in all things gunpowder related, Mortar Joe, lit the night sky.
“Born in the USA” flowed over the neighborhood tribe. Dad loved “Born in the USA”, almost as much as loved this country. We once spent a summer traveling from Pennsylvania, to Florida to Texas and back, carried by a maroon Dodge Dart filled with Bruce’s raspy poetry.
Tears came to my eyes, as Dad would have loved this scene. The Pappy in him would have ensured every child had a sweet treat, every adult had a beverage and that everyone had a good time. There would be family by blood and family by choice, neither more loved than the other by Pappy.
I almost went inside, the grief pressing on my chest. Then I heard him. “Can I sit wif you?” Mack said, crawling into my lap as soon as my arms opened. The beautiful, blonde haired five year old said he wanted the fireworks to go on ‘for-evuh’ and his ‘faborite’ were the ‘wed’ ones, but the green ones were good too.
Mack had lots to say, in his gentle, little boy voice, and I didn’t quite get it all. What I did get was connection and a smile as I listened to him tell me how much he liked to get to a…something…in a game and become Darth ‘Bader’. He melted into my shoulder, still chatting about glow sticks and how much he liked my house and inquiring if I would be at the pool tomorrow.
Too often I measure good times, like the wonder of fireworks with little boys, by the what is missing. In that calculation, I miss what is present. The joy of people singing the National Anthem. The sweet warmth of a little guy trusting me, as an auntie and not a stranger, to rock him back and forth in a lawn chair. The smell of burnt marshmallows and sweet wine. If Dad read this he would tell me to quit hiding in the office writing and crying and get outside. There are leftover s’mores to roast and more fireworks.
Thanks, Mack, for being my angel and hugging me when my Dad couldn’t. And thanks Dad, for the gift to love community, hospitality and connection.
The paper whispered as she flips through, reading at a machine’s pace.
“Why did you write this?” she asks, gesturing at the remaining pages on the scratched desk. “It’s raw, really raw.”
I take a deep breath and think of what I should say to this woman who could make the difference between the words seeing the light of day by reaching an audience or remaining in my laptop.
I saw myself, two years ago, journaling across paper pockmarked by tears. I remembered the linoleum was puke brown as I walked away from the gossipers, a brittle smile on my face, as I once again lied about how ‘great we were all doing’. Knowing they neither knew how to comfort me nor wanted to. My neck still ached from the weight of the entire family upon my shoulders. My arms stiff from holding my self together.
I breathe in again. “I wrote it to reach across an ocean of pain to the one woman who needs to hear that she isn’t alone and she hasn’t broken anything beyond what Grace and Love can repair,” I answer, looking the literary agent in the eye.
“I wrote the book I needed to read all those years ago,” I finished. At her blank stare, I stand and reach for the pile of papers. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through, alone, with no words of comfort and hope.” I stand, back stiff, arms full of the pages. “If it’s not for you, it’s for someone. Maybe it’s just for me. Thank you for your time.” I turn and walk out the door.
Before I can reach the elevator and make my escape to cry in my car, a hand grasps my arm. It’s her.
“It’s for me too,” she says, tears in her eyes, “Let’s go back and see if we can reach an agreement and get this into the hands of the other women who need it.”
If you ever wondered why I write…it’s for you. It’s for me. And dear one, there is nothing beyond Grace and Love’s grasp. Let’s reach together. -KR
The Power of a Mother
“Mom Strong” is my super power to find anything at anytime and to find a good parking space. I am also a skilled negotiator in the powerful world of middle school dude angst, most often relating to gaming.
The word Mom has power. It even strengthens the worst of the worst cuss words. An f-bomb isn’t nearly as powerful as a mother f-bomb.
The athlete sits on the bench, chest heaving from a great play, they notice the t.v. camera, and what do they say? “Hi, Mom!”
Mom’s are pretty powerful.
This is my powerful Mom. She would leave my wedding reception to go to the funeral home to mourn her twin brother. Her smile never waivered that day, such was her strength and commitment to make my day special.
I don’t know that I could attend my son’s wedding and then bury my brother the same day.
I hope I never have to find out.
Mothers are expected to be professional martyrs. Staying up late gluing school projects and then baking dozens of cookies for Grandparents day at school. We celebrate and neglect our own mental and physical health because there just isn’t time. We’ve bought into the cultural stereotype that once we are legally and physically responsible for a child that we become second.
I once agreed. I felt like I missed a class somehow, somewhen. The one where they gave out the mom instincts, softness and strength to walk through the fire and still bake cookies. My instincts have been wrong, ask my teenager and our family therapist. My softness is more around my middle because I would rather pour coffee on the fire and eat the damn cookies.
Cue a pandemic. Mothers are now expected to do ALL THE THINGS. There are two camps: the Scheduled and the Free Range.
The Scheduled have children in bed at the same time as when school was in person. Elaborate charts with coordinating stickers adorn walls. Their social media pictures include the recycling art project their sweetums did. They have gym time, and prayer time and all kinds of time because they have it scheduled…see, isn’t the chart so pretty? They also post every-single-nice-thing-they-do-for-anyone with cute hashtags #AllInThisTogether. (They can also sometimes hashtag #TooBlessedToBeStressed).
The Free Range are those who can’t remember the last time they put on a bra. They are well versed in Fortnite, Minecraft, Car Soccer and any game that occupies the kids for longer than five minutes. There are charts, the ones school sends with the weekly breakdown of instruction, but they are largely ignored (or lost in the pile of things on the kitchen table). Free Range kids show up for Zoom class bleary-eyed and scarfing down a protein bar. Pics include the same-leggings-as-last-week and the pile of dishes from the 800 meals their children eat, largely made up of pizza rolls and bagels. Hashtag? #SendMoreWine or #IsItOverYet?
Whether you are Scheduled or Free Range, this time has called upon us all for strength we didn’t know we had. We are now proficient at explaining complicated ideas like ‘social distancing’ and ‘herd immunity’. Our achievements, once focused on kids getting some award, has become changing our yoga pants and putting on earrings. On the days where no schedule or no amount of t.v. can make the marathon go any faster, we all fall into bed. We get up and do it all over again.
To all the moms out there, whether you birthed them, got them, or found them-I salute you. I want to remind you that you are amazing. You no longer have to be a martyr. You only have to be you. You are enough. Your best is all they need. And your worst isn’t doing lasting harm. How do I know this? Because I know you. I am you. And we are strong mothers.
Addison came home from school leaping into Ian’s arms. I cried. A broken brain and a cracked heart have made the days long and the nights forever for my brave son. I hadn’t seen him smile from joy in too long to remember. Addison brought that out of him in her fierce, loving way.
3 days later there would be no smiles, as we would be loading Ian into an ambulance and sending him to an inpatient treatment facility for the fourth time.
The picture we have of parenting when they are little is equal parts bravado and bullshit. Bravado-as we must be wholly convinced of our own ability to keep this entirely dependent creature alive and thriving. Bullshit-when we realize that indeed children can vomit across a room as fast as they can climb stairs and break into a childproof container of muscle relaxers.
My parenting picture has expanded with soul-full sisters-in-law who bring beautiful babies into the world. I’ve become Auntie-the human chew toy and giver of many treats.
My mothering picture is blurred slightly as they grow past me at a pace no one prepared me for. In a blink a grown man is in my house, looking past me into the future.
I never pictured my mothering to include therapists, and lock boxes to keep the means for my boy to die out of his hands. As if I’m locking away hope. Hope a smear of watercolor my prayer-full tears wipe from the canvas.
The frame is mental illness, the lines adolescence and the picture, on most days, is Dali-like with melting clocks and sharp edges from broken glass.
If he just…then we could…You let him get away with…There is something missing from my discipline/emotional support/fill-in-the-blanks…He didn’t exactly hit the genetic lottery with my family history…Why do you treat me like crap…Please leave…Please come back…Stop…just stop….
Those are some of the words that obscure my vision for any clear picture of who this child is underneath the behavior, blank stares and punched walls. My frustrated, angry, reactive words color it whatever is darker than black.
Just when we say to each other, “I’m done,” and crawl into our respective corners to stew, bleed and weep, out of the corner of my eye-a small glimpse.
Today he rapped inappropriate lyrics as he urged me to drive faster to get him to school. Today he smiled. At me.
The picture of my parenting is being redrawn. With shaky hands I, again, pick up the camera to see, the pencil to outline and the brush to paint. I’ll settle for a ginger colored smile-like his impossible to control hair. A twinkle in his blue eyes, absent of red from tears. And green from tiny reeds of hope breaking their way from beneath the dust of crushed preconceptions of perfect parenting.
Picture this- bravado anchored in the complete confidence that it really is all bullshit. That what really matters at the end of the day is that he is still in my picture and that with breath there is hope.
Pap left a bag on my back door. Homemade, handcrafted chocolate candies were inside. Sweet treats he begins working on in October, using a special recipe and chocolate from ONLY that store in that neighborhood.
Technically he isn’t Pap. He’s Haylee’s Dad. However, from the moment he introduced me at the family reunion as his ‘adopted daughter’, the honorable mention has stuck. My husband’s name is Ron not Rod, however, ‘Pap’ privileges grant naming rights when chocolate is involved.
We’ve lost so much family. Two mothers, a dad, two grandmothers and an aunt-all in under 6 years. An ache that washes out the joy leaving us often in a pale approximation of life.
Pap’s candy, is sweet. It reminds me that while many who were technically family are gone, the spaces are slowly becoming filled with ‘heart’ family.
We spent last Christmas in a room full of Haylee’s people. Aunt Sandy gave me a purple peeler-she gives everyone the same, practical gift (and WHO doesn’t need a purple peeler?) It is so sharp both Haylee and I nearly needed stitches on first use.
This past weekend we celebrated Christmas/Steeler game day with Pap Mike. The ‘boys’ got together for the annual smoking of the cigars (all the sweeter as Tom Brady’s tears fell).
Aside from my son, doing his best ‘grown dude’ impression, and a brother-every other person in the picture isn’t ‘technically’ family. One is a father-in-law. One is a step-father-in-law. Then there is the step -father-in-law’s son. Finally, there is Rutter. Rutter, the gentle giant who grew up with my husband and now has been so thoroughly adopted that we ask “Where’s Rutter?” if he’s not at the table.
In two days we trek down south to stay with family in New Orleans. Nephews will be spoiled, from all sides. Sisters-in-law-AND-heart will be hugged while laughter and tears (as I FINALLY win the family poker tournament). On the way home we will stay with heart family deep in Tennessee or as I describe them, “my Tennessee people”.
I first met Tennessee LaDonna at a writing conference. Her sweet southern accent and addictive laughter was the reason I just KNEW she could help me find sweet tea in the farmer’s market. We quickly became heart-sisters, her Ruth to my often bitter Naomi. She introduced me to Dana and Annie, who-over gobs and bad poetry-adopted me. Her people have truly become my people.
My definition of ‘family’ has become less technical. The boundaries squishier, the connections fueled by food and inside jokes. My kids don’t have just one Pap, but several older men who can look my boys in the eyes and speak ‘manhood’. I’m surrounded by such a cloud of ovarian witnesses, who testify to love’s goodness and the greatness of a life given away. To a person they make me brave, secure and fill the spaces so recently vacated.
Technically speaking, this may be one of the best holidays in recent memory…because family.
250 elementary students filed out to their assigned ‘safe areas’ and stood in the cold. Chattering teeth, giggling as arms were stuck inside shirts to keep warm, the kids delightfully jumped in the mud. They didn’t mind the interrupted snack time for this little adventure.
15 teachers stood in front of their lined up charges, holding their ‘Crisis Event Folders’ with processes, procedures, and lists of what to do for every conceivable crisis. No smiles here, just silence.
We were silent as the images of the recent school shooting in Parkland, FL filled our thoughts. We were silent as we thought of ways to barricade our 6-year-old charges behind the metal desk, or in the coat closet or under the craft table. Silently we were imagining if the ‘Story Corner’ would hold all 18 of us as it wasn’t within eyesight of a door or window. We were teaching in this new and very violent world.
Teachers gave their lives so kids could live. The football coach shielded them with his body. Upon graduating from college, ready for the classroom, it never occurred I would be a soldier on ‘the front lines’. I didn’t join the Army. I joined a classroom.
I’ve wondered what to write. Words seem so inadequate, so cheap, too easy in the wake of the largest mass murder in a school. I tried in a tweet, the forced economy of the words in no way diminishing my grief.
Another. Another school shooting. Another means one too many.
Brokenness at every turn. Brokenness in the lack of mental health care for struggling adolescents who turn into murderous adults. Brokenness in a society where guns are easier to get than certain cold meds. Brokenness in Community where malignant separateness is commonplace. Brokenness in choosing politics over pragmatic solutions. Brokenness in a school system that hasn’t changed in over 100 years. Broken kids navigating a culture of death and violence instead of life and love.
Tonight we are all a little more broken. I pray for no more ‘another’.
Elementary My Dear Mrs. R
I am a recovering high school English teacher. I was once the den mother of an evil horde of adolescents-whom I loved. They called me “Mama Ro” and to this day I count that as one of the bests in my professional and personal life.
Fast forward 15 years, I am still between opportunities and have reentered the classroom as a substitute teacher in the elementary school.
Smelling like a mix between cookie dough, moldy lunch boxes and paste, it’s far more colorful than any classroom of mine. It also is louder…think speeding locomotive and baseball game.
At first I deluded myself into thinking it would be easy. How hard can 2nd grade math be? Kindergarten is a breeze if I follow the directions. Oh, poor soul, how wrong I was.
I was working it. I mean really working it with a lesson on the tens place. I had them using hand signals, chanting answers and smiling…until I checked for understanding. They had none. Zip, zero, nada, as all my ‘brilliant’ teaching added up to nothing.
“Mrs. R? That’s a nice wist you wote on da board,” the angelic, italian kindergartener said.
“Thank you!” (pat self on back for listing the afternoon activities).
“But we can’t wead yet,” he smiles and goes back to eating his chocolate Twinkie snack.
I’m still working on it. Along the way I have learned a few lessons in these hallowed, seasonally decorated halls.
Nicknames are serious business.
I like nicknames, especially the super emotional, secret joke, just-between-you-and-me kind. I’ve been: Ber, Kymber, KimRo, Ro, Mama Ro and Mama Robertson. In elementary I’m Mrs. R. Simple sometimes is better. P looked at my name on the board with a creased brow, took a breath then poked me in the sternum. “I’m gonna call you R,” then she sauntered away. Yes, P, you get to call me R because moxie!
Sometimes you just gotta climb the truck…
…and not think about how to get down. I came to sub and it was ‘Merica Day (a PTO event celebrating the military and ‘Merica). I trooped 20+ kindergarteners to the gauntlet of ‘stations’ and saw this 6 ton beauty.
Ginormous truck + unattended ladder + Mrs. R = a good time!
It didn’t occur to me until we stood atop the truck, overlooking the rest of the elementary school, that we would have to get down-all 20+ of us…including me. Thankfully a longsuffering Sgt. was there to assist as children slid/jumped/shook/shrieked/giggled their way down the ladder. Aside from the twin humiliations of me climbing down butt first and being covered in grease, IT WAS THE BEST EVER! Sometimes you just gotta climb!
Safety is Serious Business
We learned all about fire safety then had a word hunt in the classroom. On a whim I told the children it was a secret mission to find the words and they had to sneak up on them, just like firefighters sneak up on fires to put them out. Picture a room full of tiptoeing, silent little humans. While the business of safety was serious, we had fun learning about it. Fun + Serious is an equation I need to experience more.
And finally, snacks do taste (and smell) better in the bag…
…and with a friend. I got to work with J on writing the numbers 1 and 2. We double high-fived when he did something right. Later, I got to sit with him during snack. For families who can’t afford it, the school provides milk and a snack. J is in one of those families. The Aide shared a bag of Cheez-Its out of her lunch box, asking him, “J, how does it smell?” J likes to smell everything. During math he smelled his pencil box three times.
As we sat together, J munching happily and telling me he was going to share his library book with Grandma, I noticed the other Aide looking sad. J doesn’t get to see his Grandma very much. The look on her face told me J didn’t have it easy outside of school.
J started to carefully pick up the crackers and place them back in the bag, then smelled them again. “They taste bettor in da bag,” he told me, blue eyes sparkling behind his wire rimmed glasses. J asked for a hug before he left…I gave him two.
Less Can Be More
I’ve been ‘between opportunities’ (euphemism for still looking for the job) for more than seven months. Some days are harder than others. Some days, to be honest, are worse than when I was caring for my sick Dad. Other days, however, are more.
With less employment taking up my time, I have more to spend with those I love. I have inside jokes with my 14 year old. He, sometimes, actually smiles at me.
My 10 year old asks to watch movies with me. This means curling both of our bodies in the corner of the couch under a blanket to munch homemade popcorn with butter.
My puppies spend much of the day at my feet or on my lap. When I’m too busy to be still, they actually follow me around.
I’ve also reconnected with friends from college. We have children who are taller than us. There was a moment of terror when we realized we were outnumbered by progeny.
There is less money and even less certainty. Yet, in the midst of less there is more.
I’m more in the moment as tomorrow is full of unknowns, I’m getting better at simply being present. Being with my kids. Being with a good book. Being okay when nothing is okay.
I can’t say I have more faith, as faith is too grand a notion to be measured like peanut butter. Instead I have a more authentic faith.“Now faith is the assurance (title deed, confirmation) of things hoped for (divinely guaranteed), and the evidence of things not seen [the conviction of their reality—faith comprehends as fact what cannot be experienced by the physical senses].” (Heb. 11:1 AMP).
Daily I fight to have a real assurance the unseen things are coming to pass in my life. An inner settling that an unseen God is working in and through me.
I, literally, can do nothing else. I have applied, networked and reached out for employment. I’ve budgeted and cut all the fun. In short, I can’t fill the space that is empty-only God can.
Less of me and more of Him. Less worry and more faith. Less stress and more laughter. Less is becoming more.
The Tao of the Panned Cake
I’ve been on a lifelong quest to make the perfect pancake. I crave fluffy, light, toasty edges with blueberries or chocolate chips, dripping with real maple syrup. I tried mixes, different recipes and even the kind you add water and shake. Still, mine were hockey pucks landing in your gut with a thud. My tribe would consume them, game faces on, then lay on the couch to let the boulders pass.
Recently I’ve become reacquainted with the Me that liked to cook and make things from scratch. Seeking to discover the holy grail of panned cakes, I looked for the perfect recipe. I enlisted the tribe to taste and critique, rather than suffer and hide. Finally, with a few tweaks I landed on the PERFECT pancake recipe. (Recipe at the end of this post if you are ready for pancake greatness.)
I have a teenager (!), an athlete and a husband who has rediscovered his love of the gym, therefore, when I make these I do a triple batch. It means I’m flipping for almost an hour and there may (or may not) be some leftover to toast another day. I have plenty of time to engage in a little griddle side meditation. So I offer you: The Tao of the Panned Cake.
- When the heat is too high, the cook is too quick leaving burns and goopy centers.
- Too much mixing and fussing makes tough dough. Leave it be and it will be.
- Sometimes you have to hide the add-ins (chocolate chips or berries) so they flavor the whole pancake. If not, they burn and become bitter.
- Many kinds of leavening make a lighter cake.
I can understand the heat being too high. I have burnt out more than once in church, school, family and jobs. It left me with some crunchy edges that were a bit sharp. My center has been goopy with compromise or unwillingness to take a stand and stay.
I haven’t blogged because I’ve been fussing with it too much. I’ve been comparing my stuff with all those in blogosphere who have platforms, brands and other fancy ingredients. I need to just be and it will be.
Part of what makes our lives a little sweeter are the small lessons, gifts and experiences we tuck away. My boys may not know the sleepless nights when I prayed over them, but I will. Many have passed from our lives, yet the memories linger like Dad’s cologne on my cheek when he would kiss me goodbye. I just had a quick call with a cousin who is a sister who, for years, I was a little intimidated by. Now I celebrate her life and tribe as much as my own.
I come from a long line of cynics, skeptics and professional melancholies. We joked my mother could ruin a parade. Depression is a badge we wear to show, “We have to take care of ourselves because no one else will!” (said in the huffiest, clutch your pearls voice imaginable). I need to laugh, and play, and joke and make messes. I need to lighten the load which is heavy enough without me adding any more weight. I have kids who are wicked funny and a husband who is as clever as he is cute. I have puppies who are great conversationalists (no, really, I speak Doxie).
So, friend, do you have anything to add to my Tao of the Panned Cake? Or will you try the recipe and laugh if it doesn’t turn out? Will you let it be what it will be? Please share your add-ins.
The recipe is below.
Holy Grail Pancakes
- 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
- 3 tablespoons baking powder
- 2 tablespoons baking soda
- 3 tablespoons white sugar
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 cups milk, plus more if needed for thinning
- 4 teaspoons vanilla
- 2 teaspoons almond extract
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (or other add in)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for buttering the griddle (My tribe doesn’t like them to be cooked in butter on the griddle~crazy, I know~they like the spray so either will work)
- In a large mixing bowl, combine all wet ingredients with a whisk until bubbly.
- Melt butter and allow to cool slightly.
- In a separate bowl, mix all dry ingredients. Use whisk to aerate dry ingredients.
- Heat griddle to medium high. Grease with butter or non-stick spray.
- Slowly pour in wet to the dry and mix only until just combined. (Don’t worry it will be lumpy but that’s part of the magic.)
- Gently drizzle in butter and stir until butter is incorporated.
- Allow to sit for 5-10 minutes until you see some bubbles on top.
- Pour batter on griddle.
- Sprinkle 1/2 tsp (or so) mini-chips onto each. Dunk and swirl them with a knofe so they are covered in batter.
- Flip when edges are dry and bubbles are on top.
- Keep warm until serving with REAL maple syrup. (My tribe each has their own way to eat these-by hand, dipped in syrup, cut with butter and syrup…you decide.)
- Makes around 26-30 pancakes depending on size.
Fifteen years ago we met. You stood tall and proud above all the others. I couldn’t help but fall in love with you.
We napped well. I think it was your super power. I once called you furry valium, able to calm even the turbulent storms.
We traveled, sharing you with friends and family. You loved New York City with all it’s smells and huge park. We kept each other company that trip when I couldn’t walk. You didn’t mind, it meant another nap.
When people met you, they couldn’t help but hold you or scratch your ears. You reciprocated by making sure every crumb was tasted and accounted for.
The kids asked if you were their furry brother. We said, “What do you think?”. They decided yes.
When Dad got sick, you made it your mission to calm and comfort. The tenderest memory I have of that terrible time, was you, cuddling beside Dad. You knew when to walk softly and were always up for a post-chemo nap.
Anne LaMott has written that the love of a dog is a living reminder of the unconditional love God has for us. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. What I do know is the love you gave to us and ours wasn’t always motivated by treats. It often came just in time accompanied by a cuddle and a sloppy kiss.
Today was a terrible day. We had to let you nap forever-free from pain. When we came home, we napped though it was a little colder without you under the covers.
Farewell Frank. There will never be another like you.