Thursday, August 27, 2009

What She Wound Up Taking

The day came two weeks ago for my 21-year-old daughter to move away to college. The school is only 45 minutes away, but that's far enough to qualify. Since she is sharing an apartment with her brother who remains in that college town, Rose said many times, "I'm not taking much."

However, the evening before the move found her combing through her possessions, filling bags and tubs with various necessities which, upon further thought, she realized needed to come along. So in the morning we filled up the Isuzu with clothes, toiletries, school supplies, and storage containers for the ride to Lawrence. Some of the things Rose took surprised me a bit. Some of what she left behind in her room surprised me as well, as I went up later to vacuum and check the windows and just stand and look around.

I imagine that time will tell what Rose really took with her. How many of my repeated admonishments and shreds of wisdom, all learned the hard way, made it into her bag to be taken out later, turned over and examined, and put into play? Was she listening, and did I say everything I needed to?

As someone once said, you may think nothing you say as a parent is penetrating your child's force field, but it is--because God did not give us a way to close our ears as we can your eyes.

This is an exciting and emotional season for so many mothers and fathers and children as college begins and they part company. I wish you all the best and fullness of heart and, some day, the reward of hearing what you told your teenager fall from her lips with the conviction of a new discovery.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Did you miss me

I am back after a busy month of family visits, both at home and away. In July I took ten days to visit my niece and her three little boys in Corning, New York, a town of steep hills, spectacular Victorian homes, and alleys. (These last I particularly appreciate since we do not have them where I live. During an evening's walk down one of them, I even came upon a house that fronted the alley, and I wondered if the children playing out front were uncomfortable when they had to give friends their address and point out how to get there.)

Of all the fine moments spent with my nephews, one rings in my mind with special clarity. As I labored up the sidewalk, returning to their house after a quick solo trip down to Market Street for a newspaper and coffee, I heard the 5-year-old from his perch on their front porch cry out "Aunt Ann is back!"

His happy cry, carried to me over the still, warm air of that lazy afternoon, told me that I had been missed. My return was cause from some brief excitement. I brought nothing back for them from the shops--no candy or stuffed animal or wind-up toy--just me in my old pink hat with a newspaper under my arm. Yet I was heralded as though I brought a sack of delights on my back.

Little Noah reminded me then and there of how our children (or nephews or grandchildren) look to us with a pure anticipation only found in little ones. It felt so good to realize that my return after barely an hour occasioned a small thrill; that I must be credited in his mind with something, even if it was as minor as the chance of playing another game of Beanie Baby toss.

Indeed, spending time with these children reminded me that we are huge in their minds, giants of knowledge and ability (even if they don't always obey these giants). Things I said but thought they paid no attention to I heard them repeat carefully to their parents, as though it were scripture, as they tucked them into bed that night.

What could work more wonders for a middle-aged woman's ego than that? Nothing comes to mind.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On Sunday morning

Do you take your little children to church? Every week? It's hard work to get them ready, fed, dressed up, hair brushed, shoes tied, and out the door. But what could be more important than teaching them that one day a week, at least, we honor the One who made us and all that surrounds us? They need to see that their parents take the time and go to the trouble.

Never again in their lives will you get the chance to teach your children what they learn in church, even if they squirm and don't seem to listen. They are nevertheless absorbing. If you think that you'll just sit them down later and tell them all about your faith, you may very well find that they have grown not only older but busier and strangely suspicious of all you have to say.

Some parents still quote the old error that goes, "I don't want to indoctrinate my children. When they're older, they'll make up their own minds." This means that you don't have to teach them anything. You can sleep in on Sunday. And you leave to them the towering task of finding out what's true as they stumble through life without a map.

I've learned this first-hand. You don't get a do-over on this one. Better go start the car.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What do we tell our daughters

As it is, man has sufficiently degraded woman for his lust, and [contraception], no matter how well meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her. --Mohandas Gandhi

The statement by Gandhi certainly will strike most people as dramatic, and many as just plain wrong. After all, in 2009 we have as a culture embraced contraception for both married and unmarried people for half a century. In fact, most people in developed nations take it for granted that we have the ability to control whether we have a child or not, for the most part.

But some are still questioning the benefits of artificial contraception. Some others dare to condemn it. Why would they do that? Surely if we had less contraception we would have more unwanted babies, whose lives would no doubt be hardly worth living; and we would have more abortions, right?

Visionaries like Gandhi, Teddy Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot, and a succession of Popes saw where contraception would take society. Even early feminists of the 19th century condemned it as a way of further degrading women, allowing men to indulge their desires without responsibility toward their partner. It was predicted that marriage would be weakened, adultery would rise, pre-marital sex would be commonplace, and society would not only begin to crumble but would slowly commit suicide.

A look at our world today proves these thinkers were on to something. The birthrate in most European countries is far below the replacement rate. They are dying off. The U.S. is right behind. Divorce is ubiquitous. Fatherless children abound. Abortion, rather than becoming less common with the availability of contraception, trends upward right along with use of the pill and other preventives. Because it's all about our attitude toward sex and new life. Once we uncouple those things that God linked together, distressing trends emerge.

This is food for thought. It's worth pondering what we tell our daughters and our sons about how big a picture we are actually part of, and how what we do as an individual or a couple affects the whole tide of society.

The idea of eschewing artificial contraception may seem "way out there." But what the free thinker's bumper sticker used to say still holds: Question everything. What was conventional wisdom has become a radical proposition. Could it actually be true?
Many thanks to Christopher West and his book Good News About Sex & Marriage.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Small stores, big benefits

Increasingly, the trend moves back toward time-consuming foraging behavior, as each of us is forced to sift for ourselves through more and more options in almost every aspect of life.--Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice

I heard the story once of a Russian immigrant who came to the United States some twenty years ago and was taken by a friend to one of our typical suburban supermarkets. The Russian, in the very first aisle, became paralyzed as he stared at the overwhelming quantity of merchandise and the endless choices he must make.

I feel like that man. While many of my friends love mammoth retailers such as Sam's Club for the dizzying breadth of products they contain, I don't do well in those stores. When I enter their cavernous interiors, a feeling of intimidation overtakes me. Where do I begin? How will I choose? How will I exit without spending three times what I meant to?

Small stores are the thing for me. If my small neighborhood grocery store does not have it, I might not need it after all. I can make one trip every couple of months to the Big Store to stock up on any exotic items I must have. And small stores have many benefits:
--I know the clerks. We talk. They know my children and always ask about them.
--I usually run into people I know and we catch up on things.
--These stores are close to home. I can walk for small things. For a big load I bring the car but expend very little gasoline.
--If you frequent small stores, you know them by heart. It takes no time at all to seize what you need and get on your way.
--There's less to choose from. You spend less time standing in the aisle deciding.
--There's less to buy that you did not intend to buy. No big tantalizing displays of patio furniture or camera phones.
--It's harder to lose your children in a small store, and if you do, someone there probably knows who he belongs to and comes to find you.

Shopping in independent stores brings extra benefits. They are more invested in your neighborhood and city than the chains are. A project is afoot to promote keeping our smaller, brick-and-mortar merchants alive in these times; it's called the 3/50 project. It calls for picking three independent stores you'd miss if they were gone and spending about $50 per month among them, total. Check it out here:

And sure, small stores charge a little more than the huge ones. But you'll buy less and will probably find, as I do, that your weekly receipt is no larger (and is probably smaller) than if you drove over to Big Buy and spent your time with them. Why not give it a whirl?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I just came to watch

With our income fitting into a very small purse these days, you might think I would not have insisted on going down to the carnival in Shawnee last weekend. These events are notorious for sucking money out of people's pockets, and what's the point of going with a near-empty wallet?

But I've been going to Old Shawnee Days for so many years, back to when my children were young, that sitting home was out of the question. So Friday evening my husband and I drove down and walked among the booths of taco makers and sugared-nut sellers. We wandered over to the main stage to hear a raucous band of thin men singing songs we did not remember and could not understand, then took refuge in the nearby perennial garden where a master gardener handed us a packet of free hollyhock seeds and urged me to call her with any questions.

Then it was time to enter the carnival section, where we found the usual collection of games of skill and chance. The Ali Baba swung its screaming riders up and down, and the Ferris wheel--my favorite--loomed above us. We approached the ticket stand and got up close to read the small-print prices posted in the window. Tickets $1 each. Ferris wheel, 4 tickets. In fact, all the rides were $4 a head, so it was clear we'd be staying on the ground. I stationed myself below the great wheel, beside the Fish Til You Win game, and had as good a time as a fistful of tickets could have gotten me.

I watched a young man close people into their seats on the Scrambler. In a short time it was full and he set it in motion. Hair flew back, people slid into each other. Some laughed helplessly, and others rode as matter-of-factly as if they were on a city bus. Beside me, children stretched their fishing rods over a pile of wire-handled takeout boxes, hoping to get one with a coupon inside for a really big animal, not just the little blue hedgehogs everybody got. Babies squirmed and mothers argued; teenagers hung in packs, watching other packs; fathers walked by slowly with baskets of curly fries, followed by their sno-cone-eating descendants. We needed some food.

Happily, the funnel cake makers were there, and we split a hot one dusted in powdered sugar as we watched tattooed men and their girlfriends walk by, along with every other sort of person you might imagine. It was everything a local carnival should be that night, and we left with sticky fingers and a renewed conviction to return every year, no matter what.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Inspiration at the custard shop

And I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to rejoice in his work; for this is his lot. --Ecclesiastes 3:22

A friend and I stumbled upon a first-rate frozen custard shop in the small town of Clinton, Missouri, on our drive home from a writers conference. Just off the town square and a stone's throw from the courthouse, 1/2 Pints Frozen Custard served us the very biggest and best bowls of that cold confection (mine complete with rich caramel sauce and pecans) that we had ever smacked our lips over.

But even more inspiring than the custard was Mike, proprietor of 1/2 Pints. Being writers and keen observers of all things along our path (or so we like to think), my friend and I started asking Mike about his life and times in Clinton. It turned out that running the town's premier frozen custard store was his second job--he also drives a truck for a living. Between the two, he admitted, he was very busy. Mike was happy to tell us about how he bought the place and renovated it to the delightful state we found it in, how he named it after his diminutive wife, and how proud he was of all his employees. He hires mostly high school students and was quick to tell us the outstanding qualities of each one and what good workers they are and how misty-eyed one can get when they graduate and move on.

You could easily see how much these kids mean to Mike. And our short conversation with the student scooping custard that day made it clear that Mike is also an important figure in his employees' young lives.

It took me a long time to finish my custard and I didn't hurry. As we bid good-bye to Mike and his helper, promising to stop in whenever we came through their town again, two young athletic-looking students loped into the shop and sat down. I suspected they were more probably there to visit than to buy dessert, and what a wonderful thing that was. And so we found inspiration at the frozen custard shop--a kind man working hard with no complaints, creating jobs that teach some lucky local kids what he learned long ago, the value of honest labor.

Ain't that America something to see?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Where are they today?

So long as we are loved by others I should say that we are almost indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend. --Robert Louis Stevenson

This weekend, families all across the country drove to cemeteries to decorate the graves of loved ones with a spray of red silk roses, or maybe a handful of fragrant peonies from the bush in the backyard; some left notes with touching words like “I miss you, Papa” tied to a bright balloon or tucked under a ceramic angel.

We were among them. Kneeling beside the marble slab, I trimmed down the bunch of yellow button daisies, arranged them in the bronze vase, and emptied our water bottles into it. It had been a year since I had visited Mom and Dad’s grave, and the grass has grown in thick and green, and the new trees have gotten bigger.

I stood there long enough to say a couple of prayers for them. It makes sense to do that now that I am returning to Catholicism. Catholics believe, as did the Jews and the early Christians, that those who die in friendship with God go to a place for purification before entering heaven. While there, the prayers sent up by those they left behind can shorten their time in that place called purgatory, if God wishes to grant them.

It feels good to be able to do something for my mother now that I can no longer read to her or bring her a piece of Thanksgiving pie or hug her. Of course, the doctrine of purgatory is not there to just make us feel better but is both scriptural and deeply traditional. A good explanation can be found at Catholic Answers:

But wherever the visitors to the cemetery that day believed their loved one’s soul had gone, each in her way took a little time to honor a memory and dust off a plaque and reaffirm that life. Some spent longer, like the white-haired man we passed sitting very still in a lawn chair beside a grave, looking like, in all the world, this was where he most wanted to sit, as close as he could get for now to one who had left early.

May God bless all those who grieve. And may Memorial Day remind us to each do what good we can, while we can, for as William Penn said, “I will not pass this way again.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Meet me on the midway

Last night I watched a musical I’d never seen, State Fair from 1945. The Frake family sang the opening song as they got ready to ride off to the fair. Mother was putting her finishing touches on the huge crock of mincemeat she was entering in the pickle-and-mincemeat category. I started wondering: what’s in mincemeat? I had neither made it nor tasted it.

So I pulled out my tried-and-true 1973 Crisco Favorite Foods cook book, a slim volume that has served me since my first days of cooking for the family. The mincemeat pie recipe called for a jar of mincemeat. What? So I pulled out the big book: Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, which the salesman had generously thrown in when I bought the 1990 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Like those esteemed volumes, that cook book had everything in it—until now. Again, I was told to add a jar of mincemeat.

Naturally, I went to the web. I found out that mincemeat goes way, way back, starting as a good way to preserve meat by cooking it into a concoction of fruit, sugar, and spices to preserve it. Basically, mincemeat involves meat, suet, apples, currents, raisins, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cider and brandy, all chopped and boiled up and then baked (usually) between pie crusts. I might start with a jar of the stuff and see what I think.

But one genuine thing I do want to try is a state fair. The musical left me longing to see exceptionally large hogs beside their proud owners, pie contests, blue-ribbon tomatoes, ring-toss games with cheesy prizes, and Ferris wheels against the night sky. It occurred to me that in the chaos of my earlier life I never took my children to a state fair, although I believe we made it to a county fair. We never entered our special apple pie in the cook-off and had no domesticated animals to groom and show. We only grew produce once, a small patch of green beans next to the garage, which we happily picked and ate up quickly. Despite that success, though, we never grew another crop.

As of 11 o'clock last night, we’re planning on driving three hours southwest this September to the Kansas fair to catch up a little. Maybe we’ll bring a pie.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Everything just perfect

My Mother’s Day treat was to tour the Alexander Majors historic house in Kansas City, just 11 feet inside the Missouri state line. The front yard is in Kansas. But no matter. I love touring old houses to be reminded of how people—usually wealthy people—lived. But even in a monied home, certain rooms were kept strictly functional, such as the kitchen and the bathroom, when those were added. Let’s take for example the kitchen in the Majors mansion. First of all, the walls were plain white. The windows that had curtains had plain white ones. The walls were decorated with drying herbs and cooking utensils that they actually used. Shelves displayed mason jars and plates and baking pans. And it was beautiful.

Now, I like my living areas to look just so—warm and welcoming and attractive. But these days a great fuss is made over kitchens and bathrooms as well, with perfectly coordinated towels and tile, with decorative (not-to-be-used) plates and pitchers on kitchen shelves, with gleaming granite countertops that cost as much as a driveway. Retailers and home magazines encourage us to keep several sets of dishes on hand, one for each season—as the quote shows, House Beautiful can point us to something in blue and yellow for summer.

All I know is that’s a lot to keep up with, a lot to buy, and a lot to think about. One writer I read recently encouraged us to get back to a focus on being rather than having. Good advice. Let our houses be tidy and bright. Display things that matter to you. Throw in some colors that make you feel good. These things make a house beautiful.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Are you working?

Mothers all over the country will be celebrated this Sunday, May 10, and what a fine thing that is. For the world's hardest job pays no salary, knows no schedule, issues no commendations, and lasts your entire life; so, well it should be honored once a year.

Still, while millions of people will be taking Mom to dinner or hurriedly buying her the last bouquet at the Stop 'n Go, so many still do not acknowledge the demands of being a mother--that it is every bit as much a calling and a job as any other profession that might earn a woman a paycheck and get her recognized as "working." Indeed, an acquaintance--a perfectly bright gentleman--just last night asked me if I was working. How does a mother answer that question without sounding peevish but remaining honest? Yes, I work. All the time. Am I getting a paycheck, you mean? No, nothing like that.

It would have been very nice if the women's liberation movement had, instead of pushing ladies into employment as the only way to fulfill one's abilities, raised the nation's understanding of the invaluable work that women do in the home and in society as mothers, wives, and volunteers. Wouldn't that have been something?

As it is, let's enjoy our day and politely spread the word that yes, we are working.

P.S. As an interesting aside, the woman who championed Mother's Day into being recognized as a national holiday, Anna M. Jarvis, became very distraught over the commercialization of the day. She actually fought to halt the selling of greeting cards and flowers and even came to regret what she had put in motion. Nevertheless, she did a good thing, and hopefully she knows that now. She died in 1948 without ever becoming a mother herself.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Time to feed the hummingbirds

Strands of spider’s web are employed to attach the [ruby-throated hummingbird’s] nest to the upper side of a horizontal limb, generally in hickory, oak, pine, or tulip-poplar trees.

--Marcus Schneck, Creating a Hummingbird Garden

First of all, this column is late--about two weeks late. The note I had stuffed away with my hummingbird feeder in a box in the basement tells me that I was supposed to put elixir out for these thirsty migrant birds back in mid-April. But, since these tiny travelers will be flying north until early June, you still have a good month of feeding available.

I use a simple glass feeder with four red, blossom-like openings that does a good job of attracting the little fellows. I boil one cup of water and add 1/4 cup of regular, granulated sugar, then stir it well until all the sugar is dissolved. Once it's cool I pour it into the feeder and hang it up on a shepherd's hook in the garden. Keep in mind that where there is sugar water, there shall the ants be. So I don't hang the feeder from the house because our kitchen attracts enough ants already. Change the solution a couple of times a week.

By mid-June the hummers disappear from our area (the Midwest), and I take the feeder down. But they'll be back in mid- to late July, flying south this time, and will visit the feeder until September.

Of course, you can also plant flowers that attract these intriguing birds. The lists of these are very long and include some for each season. Common ones are petunias, begonias, lantana, Japanese honeysuckle, fuschia, and trumpet vine. However you lure hummers, children and adults love to watch the hovering birds feed, and this provides a good way to teach about bird migration and the never-ending wonders of creation.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Keep Up Speed

“A woman must walk into winter gracefully,” her mother had often said, “or she’ll look the fool, wearing her summer hat to an ice-skating party.” From Agnes Somerset

I admit it--sometimes I watch Dr. Phil. The other day his energetic wife co-hosted the show to tell us about her new book, which is seemingly all about staying young through the proper use of hormones. There is no reason, she said (in her short, sleeveless black dress) to not look great and feel sexy once you enter menopause. I felt immediately like I had to explain myself.

Men are under the gun also. Both daytime and prime-time television air ads for products to "enhance" (every marketer's favorite word these days) a man's sexual performance. The reassuring script is read over shots of healthy, slightly aging couples smiling at each other as they dance slowly around the kitchen with sunlight softly streaming in (cut to product).

This is all certainly good news for people who have struggled with true physical or biochemical problems and can now enjoy a normal level of energy and ability. But what is normal now supposed to be? I am hearing messages all around me that a normal 55 should feel like 35--maybe even 25. It sounds like slowing down a little is not only out of fashion but really out of the question.

Of course, for a long time marketers--and sometimes husbands--have tried to convince women that there's no good reason to look old. One woman I knew in her late sixties was candid enough to tell me that she dyed her hair because her husband insisted on it; he didn't want her to look old. He, of course, had long been reduced to half a head of gray hair and was anything but the picture of youth. Anti-wrinkle creams are getting more sophisticated all the time, and surgery to correct the relaxed look of age has blossomed into a huge business.

Now that our pharmaceutical and herbal supplement companies have devised their clever concoctions, we are not allowed to feel older either. I am uncomfortable with this demand. To every season, as the Good Book says, there is a purpose. My appearance, my stamina, my knowledge, my relationships, my priorities, my timeline--they all work together. I may have to just pull off on the shoulder, spread a blanket, and let the chemically enhanced traffic pass me by.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Stumbling toward peace

"The sign of spiritual progress is not so much never falling as it is being able to lift oneself up quickly after one falls." --Father Jacques Philippe

I told my religion teacher that what I wanted most to learn was how to achieve peacefulness. How to not be riled and churning, even when things are going very wrong and nothing seems right. He dove into his book bag and brought out a small paperback whose binding was falling apart and whose worn cover was nearly detached. This must be a very good book, thought I, one he has frequent recourse to. I was right.

Father Jacques Philippe, in his slim and modest volume Searching for and Maintaining Peace, patiently explains why personal peace is so important and some simple advice on getting to it. I myself was looking for peace because I knew it must feel better than turmoil, and it will surely make me a nicer person to be around. But Father Jacques said that the real point is that God does not work in the middle of chaos. Smooth the water and then you will discern the current (my analogy). In a churning whirlpool you can't find direction--you can't be effective in whatever way God wants you to be.

I'm still not sure how to get to that state of stillness. But I am studying the maps and in time may arrive. In the meantime, Father Jacques pointed out a couple of detours that keep us from crossing the border into the land o' peace. Do you fall for these? I sure do.

(1) The well-meaning person is often disturbed by the thought that he is not doing enough good things, or that they are not big enough. This actually is Satan's way of keeping us turned in on ourselves and not just happily doing the small things we are able to.

(2) When we fail God, why are we so upset? Is it just because we let Him down, or does our pride have something to do with it? Maybe the biggest part of our chagrin is that our stumbling has chipped the image we had of ourselves. I should have been smart enough to avoid that, or stronger, or braver, or kinder . . . Instead we can accept that we will fail now and then in all sorts of ways because we are not, after all, God. Take his hand, scramble to your feet, and keep going.

This last thought I find especially helpful as a parent, and a flawed one at that. Although we do our level best, every parent makes plenty of mistakes with her children. But to brood over them robs us of the peace and energy needed for today. I hope I can remember that by this afternoon.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Beware the new religion

Through sex, mankind may attain the great spiritual illumination which will transform the world, which will light up the only path to an earthly paradise.--Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood

At long last the day comes when a parent faces that most dreaded of all decisions: If my child is going to college, which one will it be? This question might get simpler if your budget, or your child's unusual major, constrains your choices sharply. Or does that only make it harder? For us, it comes down to the state school. But our day spent at New Student Orientation for that university last week opened my eyes to what that institution has in store for my daughter. And this has led to a whole new round of hand-wringing.

Yep, they've got the Asian language courses she's after, as well as countless programs to ensure her success in the world. Rest assured, a vice provost told us, that academics are our emphasis, first and foremost. After several hours of hearing all the glories of this school detailed, I was feeling fairly good that this might turn out OK for our girl. But as I checked out from the event in the 4th-floor lobby of the beautiful, new student services building, I stopped in my tracks. How had I missed it earlier? There in a lighted display case were a multitude of full-color posters advertising an upcoming presentation. A snappy black T-shirt, imprinted boldly with the name of the event, was also on display. What enriching lecture was this that I should jot down place and time to let my daughter know? Nothing less than "I Love Female Orgasm." The posters, featuring a sassy-looking young woman in a head wrap, said this special event was presented by "sex educators."

After a long phone call to the above-mentioned vice provost and two emails to his colleague, during which I tried to explain why such an advertisement was both offensive and unwise and not a subject most parents were paying many thousands of dollars for their children to be educated in, I got only the usual defenses. They talked about free speech, opening students' minds, and no topic being off limits; and I was assured that most students would leave college with the same values, after all, that they entered with. (Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.)

Why, a parent asks herself, do these seemingly intelligent professionals so vigorously defend the area of sexuality? Why is nothing considered too provocative or too private to be plastered across a main lobby of the university? Why, given the epidemic of STDs and other damaging results of lively sexual activity among our students, would these administrators allow such an event (although I'm told it's wonderful and all about "healthy" sexual choices) and its titillating promotion?

Only one answer is possible, and I am not the first to stumble onto it: Sex is the new religion. The free practice of it, and the required instruction in it, have redefined our culture. If you are raising your children to believe in something else, something higher, something harder, beware of the message in our public schools and secular universities. The current, as you have surely noticed, is against you.

I hope my discussion with the university is not over. I'd like to believe that I am not the only parent calling after noticing the orgasm display--but I doubt it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

To dye or not

Hey, that's my egg! Yours is the broken one. --All children dying Easter eggs

My mother hated hard-boiled eggs. She was also frugal and could not allow two dozen of them to be thrown away. That explains why my sister, brother, and I never dyed Easter eggs. I did not know what I was missing until I became a mother myself and plunged into the endeavor one Easter. Despite the dripping dye and stained mugs and accusations of egg tampering that accompanied the project, my children looked forward to it every year. I considered skipping it some years when, as a paycheck mother and very pressed for time, I groaned inwardly at the additional work and the fussing. But I never could let it go, and Holy Saturday always found me boiling up a pile of eggs in the big stainless steel pot and spreading newspaper over the table.

Children value traditions more than they let on. It may not be until they are far too busy to dye eggs that they will start telling stories around that same table on a holiday visit about how their brother always tried to corner more than his share of boiled eggs or about the striped one they made that no one could duplicate. Whether it's bedtime stories or Easter eggs or birthday candles, remember that children remember.

And here's an easy way to make homemade egg dye. I use disposable plastic cups and set them inside coffee mugs to keep them from tipping and to protect the mugs (and I keep the plastic cups after rinsing them for next year). In each cup, put 4 ounces of water, 2 tablespoons of vinegar, and 3 or more drops of food coloring. Have fun.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Test of wills

The heritage of values which has been received and handed down is always challenged by the young. --Pope John Paul II

It's a lot easier to find advice about dealing with small children than with teenagers. That's because no one has found what actually works with teenagers. They are big, loud, and strong. Many appear to have made it their mission to disagree with every single thing their parent tells them. And if they cannot intimidate Mom into giving in to their demands, they will try to confuse her into it with stunning feats of illogic. Let's admit it: they can be downright scary.

My advice: On bedrock issues, hold your ground. Sure, a teenager or adolescent needs to be able to decide some things for himself. But stick to your guns on the big stuff. They'll survive the disappointment, and you won't lose respect for yourself. Here's an example. My middle-school son was desperate to attend a co-ed party held at a motel. It included--you guessed it--a sleepover. I told him he could attend to swim and play pool, but at eleven o'clock I'd be there to bring him home. He was outraged and mortified. "But everyone else is sleeping there!" I showed up at eleven and brought him home.

The next day, to his credit, he told me how relieved he was to leave the motel. Up in the bedrooms boys and girls were engaging in activity that made him supremely uncomfortable. He was glad to have an out.

So don't be afraid of the conflict when you say "sorry, but no." Be sure to let them know that you sympathize but need to do your job.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The essential thank-you note

Children love to get gifts from Grandma and Uncle Henry, but few volunteer to sit down and dash off a thank-you note. Indeed, many adults drag their feet on this task. But these simple notes are so cherished by the gift-giver, and they teach a child that generosity must be acknowledged.

Be sure to have your child write it himself. Most can manage something by second grade, some much earlier. Don't fuss too much if misspellings creep in as long as the message will be understood. Just a few lines will do the job. If you have a special-needs child who cannot write, she might tell you what to say and she can decorate the card. (I have found packages of blank notes with matching envelopes at Hobby Lobby that are perfect for this.)

Some card companies are now offering preprinted thank-you notes for children. These brightly colored cards say things like "Dear ____, Thank you for the _____. Love, _____" While I applaud the good intention of the companies, this is a bad idea. A child should learn to write a note from scratch. Show them also how to complete the envelope. It's surprising otherwise how old a child can get without knowing how to address an envelope, where the stamp goes, or why she should put her return address on it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The most valuable lesson

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man's training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly. --Thomas Huxley

As Thomas Huxley said more than a hundred years ago, the most important thing our children can learn (aside from their catechism) is how to do what they need to when it is needed. You can help plant this understanding by assigning your children household tasks from a very young age. Little ones can set the table, empty small wastebaskets, make their beds, feed the cat, wipe off coffee tables and kitchen tables, and so on. Insisting on everyone's pitching in also conveys the idea that family members pull together--Mom and Dad aren't supposed to do it all.

When it comes to table-setting, I came up with a shortcut many years ago. This also cut way down on the number of times we opened and closed the flatware drawer in our kitchen each day! Get an attractive plastic flower pot and stand your spoons, forks, and table knives in it. Keep it on the counter or the table. A plastic container is better than ceramics because those will chip with the wear and tear.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tea parties for today

Things taste better in small houses. -Queen Victoria

Did you know that in Victorian times, women often brought their own tea cups and spoons to a friend's house for tea? These were expensive items, and the hostess was spared having to provide good china cups for the whole gathering. Ladies escaped their domestic responsibilities for an hour and caught up on one another's news.

For women today, especially the stay-at-home mother, isolation is the enemy. With so many women off to paycheck jobs during the day, you can feel alone unless you make a real effort to get together with other women. This is also a special problem for the single working mother who does not seem to fit in with the couples scene or the singles scene.

A tea party provides a great way to connect with other ladies. It does not have to be fancy. And if you don't like tea (although that's hard to imagine!), you can serve coffee. Choose a time when the children are off to school or can be amused with a video or when Grandpa can take them to the park. The important thing is for you ladies to relax and share stories without being overheard by children or husbands.

You might dress up your table with an old-time tablecloth from a thrift store or antique mall. You can often find ceramic tea pots there as well left by all the ladies who meant to throw tea parties but found they never did. Consider letting your friends bring along their favorite cups, or just use what you have. Accompany hot tea with simple cookies like shortbreads or lemon crisps.

Don't fuss about cleaning the entire house before letting a few people into it. Wipe down the bathroom and provide a clean table and let your party roll.

Remember to invite friends or relatives of all ages--a good mix provides the best conversation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

About this site

Welcome to mothers everywhere! A special hug to those who are struggling to be saints while cleaning up again from someone's muddy shoes. This task characterizes the challenge we face if we strive for holiness--great or small--while raising a family rather than living a focused life of prayer in a remote cloister.

I have had two marriages and four children. My present husband brings another daughter to our family, happily. All our children are now young adults, and we find it's true that being a parent lasts a lifetime. Most of my adult life I have worked at one job or another in addition to being a mother and homemaker, and I spent many of my middle years as a single parent. And from my early twenties, when I would sit in Dupont Circle in sunny D.C., eating my homemade sandwich on a hurried lunchhour while my tiny son spent his day in the church basement, I have pondered how can a woman go off to work and still be an effective mother. Who raises the children? I never found a good answer. Today I advise against mixing working-for-a-living with being household manager if you can possibly help it.

The work of the homemaker is critically important to her family and to society at large. And it requires all kinds of skills and knowledge. I will be posting bits of experience and insight gained through the years that I hope will be helpful in your demanding position as Lady of the House.

Thank you for visiting, and God bless.