Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Spirit of Giving

I woke up this morning to the sounds of Naomi cooing sweetly and the tap tap tap of her little hands on my cheek.  I opened my eyes and stared into her smiling wide eyed face.  She thinks she’s hot stuff now that she is on all fours and can pull herself to the side of her co-sleeper and reach me.  “Morning Mama!” Jenna said softly, snuggled in my other arm-her Elmo quilt spread across us both.  I kissed my girls and relished in the gift of one precious extra hour of sleep given to me by my husband. 
No matter the struggles we have been going through I am blessed to have a roof over my head, food on the table, and my husband and girls by my side. How rich I am on this Christmas Eve! As I lay there warm and soft in my daughter’s twin bed I thought of how many out there are sacrificing and doing without this holiday season.  It made me think of a story I told to my students each year.  One that I’d like to share with you now… 
It was an unusually cold night that December 21st 1989.    Catechism had ended early and the children were frenzied with joyful anticipation of Christmas and too much sugar consumed at the class party.  A little girl sporting a blond pony tail and scraped knees raced through the church grounds daring over her shoulder for her friend to try to tag her, “Na-Na-girls rule, boys drool!”   The boy sprinted after her but soon bent over to catch his breath and nurse the cramp in his side.
“You’re too fast for me!” “Besides my dad’s here!” the boy called.  Disappointed, the little girl slowed down and watched her friend run to the parked car, “See you next week!”
“Bye, Patrick!” She yelled, “Merry Christmas!” Her wave became less and less enthusiastic as he drove away.  Bummer!  She was the only kid who wasn’t going home right away.  You see her parents both sang in the choir so she still had an hour to kill before their weekly practice was over.  “Everyone else is probably watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer right now or Frosty and I’m stuck here…”
The little girl looked around her, the empty parking lot, the dew filled grass, the frogs croaking in the tiny pond behind the parsonage.  Its windows were lined with battery operated candles and a soft glow shown from each one.  Just one light was on in the house.  “I wonder what Father Joe is doing right now?” the little girl wondered, shivering partly from the cold and excitement. She zipped up her jacket and made her way across the pathway, through the grass, all the while an impish smile of a child brainstorming spread across her face. Just as her secret agent mission was nearly formulated in her mind she was stopped cold in her sneaking Pink Panther like tracks. 
“Um, excuse me little Miss? But what do you think you are doing in the Father’s bushes so late at night?”  a voice asked above her. 
“Oh! Hello Mrs. Stein.”  “I’m just…” the little girl crawled out of the hibiscus plants, and stood up casually brushing a red flower bud and a snail from her hair, “just wondering if Father Joe is home.” “Is he?” 
“Don’t be bothering Father right now, you should be inside with your parents!” “Not gallivanting all over who knows where!” “I’ll stand here and watch until you go in.”
 “Oh, alright!” Reluctantly the little girl headed across the crosswalk and slowly walked toward the church hall, taking her time. 
“I don’t see what the big deal is!” “It’s not like there’s anything out here that can hurt me!”  The little girl grumbled under her breath. 
“March young lady!” Mrs. Stine ordered.
She picked up her steps a little faster, spun three spins around a flag pole and then skipped to the church entrance.  The little girl opened the door and music and warm light from inside illuminated the side entryway.  “Merry Christmas!” She heard Mrs. Stein call as she held the church door handle.  The little girl stopped and turned to reply with a "Merry Christmas" as well but something in the corner, just behind a large flower pot caught her eye.  She couldn’t quite make it out but it was silent and motionless. Just then Mrs. Stein’s car drove past and her headlights lit the large object for just a moment.  But in that split second the little girl’s eyes grew wide. 
Huddled in the corner was an old man.  A mess of gray curls and an unshaven beard upon his sun burnt and wrinkled face.  His pants and shirt were well worn and caked with stains of dirt and a small backpack lay at his side.  Just then the wind blew carrying with it the smell of urine and grime.  “I wonder when he last had a bubble bath.” The little girl wondered silently to herself, when all of a sudden the man opened his eyes. Talks of stranger danger instantly flooded the little girls mind-stories of children who didn’t listen to their mother’s warning to come straight inside after dark and now had gone “missing”.  Terror spread across the little girls face and without a breath she bolted inside the open door. 
The heavy wood door slammed behind her as she raced across the church to the pews by the choir.  There they were singing away.  The little girl’s mom motioned for her to come sit beside her but the little girl stayed put.  Typically the little girl would have busied herself in the church storage closet playing dress up with the variety show costumes, or sit in the confessional pretending she was a priest assigning 100 Hail Mary's to all her arch enemies at school. But tonight she was different. Tonight she just wanted to sit.  A million thoughts ran through her mind. “Who was that man anyway?” “What’s he doing out there?” “Why isn't he inside where it is warm?”
15 minutes later, the Christmas hymns were perfect and practice was over.  The little girl’s mother made her way over and sat beside her daughter.  “Where were you?” “Why didn’t you come right here when the party was over like I told you?” “I had to send Mrs. Stein to go after you,” her mother questioned. 
“There’s a man outside.” The little girl interrupted.  “He looks like he’s camping but I don't think he is mommy.” 
Her mother looked startled, “Where?” 
“Out the side door.” The little girl pointed. 
“Stay here.” her mother said firmly.  The little girl watched her mother walk over to her father packing up the microphone wires.  Their conversation was inaudible but she knew what it was about.  Her mom and dad made their way to the side door and opened it. The little girl sat silently in the pew, fearfully watching them from afar.  But the compassion on their faces as her mother knelt down and her parents spoke quietly with the man outside, melted away the possibility of danger.  Before she knew it the little girl was listening near the doorway.   
“I’m sorry I frightened your little girl.” She overheard the man say. He did not want the money they offered and insisted that the little girl’s parents not call anyone to find him a place to stay.
“I’m fine, really.” “I don’t want anyone to go to any trouble.” “I’m just resting here for a bit and then I’m heading on.” Perhaps it was because of the warmth of the music or the peace of being on the doorstep of God’s house that had drawn him there.  The little girl marveled at the idea and thought in her innocence that if she was allowed to bring her sleeping bag to church, that’s exactly where she’d want to sleep. 
“Are you sure, there isn’t anyone we can call for you, or anything we can get you?” the little girls’ father asked.  
“I’m fine.” “I just want to rest.” The man replied, “But thank you.” 
The little girl could tell the conversation was drawing to a close so she sprinted to the spot her mother had told her to stay and waited for them to return. 
“We can’t force him to go to a shelter.” She heard her mother say, “And he won’t take money or food.” “I just wish there was something we could do for him.” 
“Who is that man?” the little girl asked.  Her father looked at the little girl’s mother, gave a sad smile, and then returned to packing up the musical equipment. The girl’s mother lifted her onto her lap and explained in as gentle a way as possible some of the realities of the world. 
“That man has no family honey.” “He’s not lucky like us to have a place to take a shower and to sleep at night.” “He has no home.” “That’s what being homeless is and that is why he is sleeping outside.” 
The little girl did her best to wrap her mind around the idea of not having any place to call home.  Things were tight in their house but they always had food to eat and a roof over their head, yet this man had just the clothes he was wearing and a few items in a backpack.  
Walking to the car the little girl’s heart ached for the man.  “Outside, all alone in the dark, and on such a cold night too,” she thought to herself as she jumped in the car, buckled her seat belt, and pulled her quilt over her lap. It was a favorite of hers since she was small, one she took with her on each Brownie camp out, or beach trip.  Orange, red, and bright, fringed here and there from wear but still fantastically soft and warm.  
Santa had brought her a new one last Christmas but she hadn't been able to part with her old one. It was special.  She planned to keep that blanket till the day she died, but as she sat there wrapped in its comfort she thought of the huddled man in the corner.  That’s when the little girl noticed her mother staring at her from the front passenger seat.  
“You know, it’s an awfully cold night.” Her mom offered. 
“Yep.” The little girl answered trying not to make eye contact with her mother. 
“That poor man is out there with no jacket.” “I bet he is real cold.” Her mother continued. 
“Hmm.” The little girl looked at the beloved quilt in her hands. She thought of all the happy times she had making tents with it, how when she was wrapped in it had the magic to make monsters...
“Can’t we go home and get him a blanket?” she asked. 
“We could try, but he might not be here by the time we get back and he is really cold right now.” Her  mother smiled softly. 
The little girl knew what her heart was telling her but she was torn.  Mrs. Stein’s words from one of her Catechism class suddenly reared up their head in her mind, “Just ask yourself, what would God want me to do?”  
“God loves children and he would want me to be happy.” The little girl tried to reason in her mind, “If I keep my blanket that will make me happy.” “God will take care of the man outside.” But when she waited for the reassurance of peace, it never came.  She knew what God would want her to do and suddenly she started to sniffle.  
“Honey, it’s your blanket and your decision.” The little girl’s mother said trying to comfort her daughter.  
“I know.” The little girl sniffed.  She tried to force the overwhelming urge to give the man her blanket beneath her desire to keep it for herself, until finally she couldn’t fight it any longer. The little girl gathered up the quilt in her arms and with her mother and father made her way to the man in the corner.  She stretched out her small arm and handed the blanket to the man.  She tried to do it bravely, but wiped tears from her eyes as she said, “Here, you go.”
The man looked up and there was kindness and gratitude in his eyes.  His voice was hoarse and weak as he spoke, “Thank you.” He carefully wrapped the quilt around himself. She would have said “You’re welcome” but all she could muster was a silent nod. In that moment the freezing wind started to blow and the sadness in the little girl’s heart slowly began to lift.  She turned to walk away with her parents; “God bless you!!!” the man called after her.  The little girl smiled over her shoulder and waved back at the man now covered in orange and red.  
As the little family drove away in their blue station wagon the little girl knew she had made the right decision.  She may not have been completely happy about it at first but she had done it anyway. She thought of Jesus and how he had been frightened in the Garden before he was captured and died on the Cross for all of our sins.  He must have been scared too but he did it anyway. In that moment the eight year old girl had an epiphany.  Sometimes doing the right thing can be the hardest thing.   The cold air howled outside the car window and her father offered to turn on the heat.  “That’s Ok, Daddy.” “I’m good.” She said.  And it was true. She had never felt warmer.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Genetic Germaphobia

As a kid I always knew my Grandpa Jim was….different.  He was a poet/song writer through and through, a traveler who never stayed in one place long enough to cultivate deep roots.  Grandpa Jim took a respite from his wanderings for a few years in my young adulthood, during which time I got to know him better. I can still hear his slow voice in between cigarette puffs, “Did you know that you are talking to the smartest man in the world?” “Take Grandpa’s advice….and you’ll do great, kid.”  His guidance was…interesting to say the least, “People are filled with germs I tell you… crawling all over them inside and out…that’s why I drink a swing of this each day (he pointed to a glass bottle that stunk like rubbing alcohol)….so I can kill the worms I breathe in the air…”

I remember one day when I stopped by his trailer to check on him and the overwhelming scent of disinfectant nearly knocked me over.  When I asked my grandpa what he was cleaning he said, “Some weirdo lady at the coffee shop was coughing all over the place….so I gave myself a good wash down with Lysol spray and a rag.” Of course I explained to Grandpa that was toxic but he wouldn’t listen.  How can you argue with “the smartest man in the world”?

A week later I had popped in to say hey and Grandpa noticed my runny eyes and stuffy nose.  “Are you sick?” he asked with hesitation in his voice, slowly closing the door so that only a crack remained. I explained that my allergies were acting up because the pine trees were pollinating but he must have thought I’d contaminated him somehow because later that day he put an open cup of bleach in front of a fan to “sterilize the air he was breathing.” It’s amazing he lived to be 79 and died from emphysema and not his many attempts at self preservation.    

I suppose the apple never falls too far from the tree because my father is a 2nd generation germaphobic.  As a teenager I remember being quite annoyed by my father because he wouldn’t order an ice cream cone from MacDonald’s.   “You just don’t understand Jamie.” “That kid in there handles the money-the same money that has circulated through thousands of hands.” “Then he grabs a cone, fills it with ice cream, and does he hold it by the paper protector like he is supposed to?” “NO!”
Dad was terrified that his cone would be contaminated and he’d be so preoccupied worrying about the diseases he was contracting that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his treat.  Instead he forever ordered his ice cream in a cup and then did his best to restrain himself as I attempted to enjoy my ice cream cone in peace.

I remember hearing the retelling of one MacDonald’s in particular that had a mess of ketchup all over the counter and no soap or paper towels in the bathroom.  When my father brought it to the attention of the teenaged employee wearing a t-shirt stained with French fry grease, the kid just shrugged, preceded to hand my dad his Big Mac order, and said “Oh I know, we’ve been out of soap all day.” My dad nearly gagged and bee lined it for the exit, leaving his meal behind him.  It was funny how relieved he was when that same restaurant burned down six months later. Yet his germ phobia didn’t die with it.

Dad hated to touch the menus at any restaurant and would often use napkins to read them or lift BBQ bottles to squirt sauce on his sandwich.  He would never play checkers with me or that little peg game at Cracker Barrel because “You never know who handled them.” If he ordered ice tea and someone’s hand at the table touched the rim he’d use an alcohol wipe or ask for a new glass.  As a kid, watching him squirm was a fun way to entertain myself.  I’d take a sip of his drink and tell him so when his glass was nearly empty or I’d touch him with an “infected” finger with my checker playing hand after he had already washed his hands in the bathroom.

As an adult, living in my own home with my own family, I sometimes forget how germ phobic he is.  But the other day I got a reminder.  After I first posted the blog, Gobbles Gone By, I got a phone call from my dad requesting a word change:  

 “Well, I’m not comfortable with the statement- But there was no room left in the drive way so we had to park in an empty lot next to my parent’s house.” “I don’t want people to think we live so close to a lot full of dog poop.”    “I don’t even want to think about the fact that I live next to a lot full of dog poop.”
I had started to laugh, “Alright so what would you like me to say so you’re not so freaked out?”
“I’d like it to read-we had to park in an empty lot down the street from my parents’ house…”“Jamie, don’t laugh!” “I’m serious!!!”
“I know Daddy!” “It’s just the way that you are.” “That’s what’s so funny!”

Looking back at memories from my Grandpa Jim and my father I knew there was no way I was going to let myself become like them…Until today….

My family and I were at this awesome light’s display at Tara Plantation, a lawyers firm in a gorgeous two story house on a beautiful piece of property.  Naomi was tucked in her hip hammock happily taking in the scene of thousands of Christmas lights and moving figurines.  Upon entering I noticed this very nice gentleman shaking the hands of each person walking in. I can only imagine how many hands he shook in the last three hours but for a moment I was grateful that my one hand was supporting Naomi and the other was holding on to Jenna’s Elmo harness so I would be socially exempt from touching him. 
The first room we toured offered cookies and punch.  While waiting in line Naomi gave some especially adorable grins to the other guests and of course she kicked gleefully when they fussed back at her.

“Oh! What a dolly!” one lady said. “She looks like the Gerber baby on the baby food jars.”

Thank you I smiled back and unconsciously I found myself taking a couple steps backwards as they moved in closer.  Before I could escape I was surrounded by two elderly ladies and a gentleman that could have been anyone’s Grandma and Pop-Pop.  Now I know that many of our snowbirds in our area are desperate for child contact.  I’m sure many of their children, grandchild, and great grand kids are all still in Connecticut or someplace but I just don’t understand how people think it is acceptable to touch a stranger’s baby.  Naomi gives the slightest coo and people are trying to tickle under her chin, hold her hand, “steal” her nose, and then to my extreme HORROR the gentleman attempted to kiss my little girl on her hand.  HELLLO!!! Do they not KNOW the illness that is out there?

In an attempt not to kill the Christmas spirit that was echoing throughout the Martha Stuart like plantation I opted for “Thank you for your complements, please excuse me.” I fled across the room and found my mom feeding Jenna a frosting covered sugar cookie and a cup of red # 5 masquerading as fruit punch. I tried to look extra busy adjusting Jenna’s Elmo leash/harness.  Just as I stood up my mom was pinching Naomi’s cheek and “beeping” her on the nose.  Normally I wouldn’t have cared. She’s my mom after all, but she had shaken the hand of the man at the door…...

My mouth shot it out before my brain could stop me but thank God it was in a half whisper, “Please stop touching Naomi and putting that door greeter guy’s handshake germs all over her head.”  My mom blinked at me.  My brain raced over what I had just said and I was shocked at myself.  DID I REALLY JUST SAY THAT OUT-LOUD?

“Wow, I’m so sorry mom…I didn’t mean for that to come out like that!” “It’s just that guy touched how many…”

My mom just smiled at me.  “It’s alright Jamie.” “I know how you are.” “You’re just like your father.”

“What?” “No, I’m not!” I started to protest, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed the same trio from earlier starting to make their way over again.  Before I knew it I was down the hall and casually concealed behind a giant Santa statue.

“Just like my father?” “I’m not as bad as dad!” I reassured myself as I discretely washed Naomi’s hands, cheek, and nose off with a baby wipe. But images kept flashing through my mind of myself using hand sanitizer after touching the gas pump or cash, pushing restroom doors open with my shoe, strategically using the first bathroom stall because statistically it is the least one used, mastering aerial #1 to avoid touching the toilet seat. When had I crossed over and became my father?  

The truth is that each of us has a bit of our parents in us.  No matter how hard we may swear when we grow up we will never do THAT, we often find ourselves surprised one day to step back and see our dad or mom staring us back in the mirror. Today was my day.  I may not be as bad as Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, or that guy on Munch, but I am defiantly effected by the idea of cross contamination in public places.  If I give it a few years it may develop into a full clinical case of third generation Germaphobia, but right now I’m just trying to be safer than sorry. :)  

FYI: Top 12 Places You Risk Getting Infected 

(Courtesy of Dr. Mercola ) 

1. Your kitchen sink: With more dirt than a typical bathroom, and over 500,000 bacteria per square inch in the drain, your kitchen sink basin and faucet are teeming with germs.

2. Airplane bathrooms: Never mind the fecal bacteria that’s commonly found on door handles and faucets, the worst part is the tornado of germy particles that’s spewed into the air when you flush the toilet.

3. Wet laundry (even after it’s been washed): A dirty pair of underwear contains about a gram of fecal matter, and this gets spread around the entire load of laundry very quickly. It’s not until you dry the clothes that the germs are destroyed.

4. Drinking fountains: All public drinking fountains are loaded with germs, but those in schools -- which contained anywhere from 62,000 to 2.7 million bacteria per square inch of the spigot -- were the worst.

5. Shopping cart handles: While you’re innocently shopping for groceries, your hands are grasping a handle covered in saliva, bacteria and fecal matter from dozens of people.

6. ATM buttons: Think about how often these buttons are touched everyday. Now think about how often they’re cleaned. This explains why one study found an average of over 1,200 bacteria on the average ATM key.

7. Your handbag: Women, your purse is likely overrun with thousands, and even millions, of bugs like salmonella, E. coli, staph bacteria and more. Makes you think twice about putting your handbag on the floor, and then plopping it down onto your kitchen counter, doesn’t it?

8. Playgrounds: Your typical children’s playground is covered in bodily fluids like blood, mucus, saliva and urine.

9. Mats and machines at health clubs: Yoga mat? Elliptical machine? Think bacteria factory. Such mats and cardio machines have been found to contain antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria and more.

10. Your bathtub: Bathtubs contain more than 100,000 bacteria per square inch, some of which you have just washed off your own body.

11. Your office phone: Phones get coated with germs from your mouth and hands, to the tune of over 25,000 germs per square inch.

12. Hotel-room remote control: This little remote has been used by hundreds of other people, and likely wasn’t thoroughly disinfected in between.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holly Jolly Christmas

As Christmas approaches I have to admit that I’m feeling pretty jolly and well prepared for the first time in…I can’t remember.  Our Christmas tree was up and our Christmas cards were in the mail by December 2nd.  Since the first showing on Thanksgiving Day, Jenna has become a mad fan of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and has been watching it over and over again. She’s memorized the script and nearly all of the words to each song. She loves it so much that my mom gave her a Christmas sing along soundtrack to the movie which we have been listening to during each car ride-short or long. Most days I accept Jenna’s invite and sing along to favorites like Clarice’s There’s Always Tomorrow or Sam the Snowman’s Holly Jolly Christmas.  Naomi seems to enjoy the tunes as well but most days she is very preoccupied with trying to cut her first tooth by gumming everything in sight (including my chin).  “Nom!” Nom!” “NOM!” There is the tiniest tip of a grain of rice just peaking on her bottom gum line, so I just know her hard work and drool will pay off in the near future.

By some foresight and divine intervention I got most of the girl’s Christmas shopping done the day after Christmas last year.  December 26th is like a second black Friday-only less crowded.  Stores are extra motivated to get rid of surplus toy merchandise and I am only happy to help them out with deals of 50% off or better. Because of my fabulous finds last year, the only purchases I had to make was the unforeseen Jenna request for a blue guitar.   We thought it was a fluke at first.  But her wish from Santa hasn’t changed in the last three months so I found one online for $16.95.  Her only other request was a dance game similar to the Wii Dance Revolution game.  I found a DVD kid version on Ebay for $9 and a bonus find of a Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer figurine play set in BJ’s for $4.97.   Naomi’s still too small to make requests so Santa will be bringing a Jumperoo play center and a puppet frog that croaks songs. Overall we’ve spent around $100 but if I had to guess our items would have totaled over $400 if it weren’t for the good deals. 

Some people would find our reduced financial circumstances depressing during the holidays but I can’t express enough in words how wonderful it is to take the financial stress out of Christmas.  We gave family a heads up a long while ago that things would be simple this year.  My side of the family agreed that gifts would only be given to kids under the age of 18.  If I had it my way I’d join my dad’s thinking and spend Christmas like the pioneers did.  I never forgot reading a Little House on the Prairie book about Christmas when Santa brought a rag doll, a gingerbread cookie, an orange, and a stick of peppermint. That was when the focus of Christmas was on the birth of Christ instead of materialism.  Who knew that me being home and our family operating under such a tight budget would become such a liberating experience. 

To celebrate our new found focus Mike and I have been making a huge effort to get in all the fun holiday activities that we had always been too busy to fit in before.  We went to the town Christmas parade and have been driving around looking at neighborhood Christmas lights.  Jenna and I have been baking and doing Christmas crafts each day to make little gifts from her to family.  We’ve got two upcoming dates with Cowboy Christmas at Laporte Farms and Tara Plantation’s light spectacular (which Mike has talked about for years and now we are finally getting to go).

We also started two new Christmas traditions in our household.  On Thanksgiving we read the book Elf On the Shelf to Jenna and Naomi.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it the book is the story of an Elf who acts as a scout for Santa Claus.  Each day he watches for children’s behavior and then he flies to the North Pole at night to report to Santa whether each little girl or boy has been naughty or nice.  When he returns the next morning he finds a new hiding place. 

Jenna named our house Elf, Elfie, and it has become a fun game each morning for Jenna to find Elfie and give him good reports like, “I just peeped on the potty again Elfie.” Or “Elfie, look, I gave Nomie (Naomi) her doll back.” (Of course she leaves out the minor detail that the reason Naomi is crying is because Jenna had just ripped the doll from Naomi’s hands two minutes before she “gave it back”).  Still the extra set of eyes “watching” Jenna each day has been very much welcomed.  Elfie has become a comrade in arms so to speak and I find myself mentioning him frequently throughout my day, “Elfie isn’t going to like that you put Mindy-dog’s food in daddy’s slippers.” Or “Are you going to clean those up or do I have to tell Elfie you put Dora the Explorer Stickers all over your sister?” Is it low for a mom to turn snitch to a stuffed Christmas Elf? If it brings peace and good will to the world, I think not!

But what excites me even more than my new found Elf power is the second tradition Mike and I started. On Thanksgiving Day we sat down and made a list of all the answered prayers that we have received in the past year.  At first it seems hard to remember but once we got going we found more and more things that we were grateful for, things we had been praying for and had received, things that had brought joy to our lives.  It was  a list  sort of like the Glad Game that Pollyanna played in the movie Pollyanna. After a couple days the list started to get longer and longer.  So we cut strips of green and red construction paper and wrote one item from our list on each strip of paper and made it into a Christmas chain.  Jenna had a blast trying out tape for the first time and Mike and I were amazed how our answered prayers and joys from the year quickly encircled the entire length of our tree from top to bottom.  Accompanying our angel Christmas balls, ribbon, and ice sickles, I’d say this is our most beautiful tree we’ve ever had.

So with the advent wreath that Jenna made in Sunday school placed beside our Nativity scene, we happily anticipate the coming of Christmas (and the finding of baby Jesus which Jenna was playing with and has since lost).  The magical array of warm cookies and Christmas hams will be welcomed treats and I can’t wait to see Jenna’s face when she opens her guitar on Christmas morning so that she can be just like “Murray from the Wiggles only blue not red.” But as I look at our Christmas garland chain on our tree there is one link that I am most grateful for: I am so grateful that I get to be home with my girls so I can enjoy every moment of this season with them. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gobbles Gone By

I can’t believe Thanksgiving was already a week ago. The days leading up to it were anything but joyful as a disagreement with my mother in law had escalated into an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond. Still, Thanksgiving Day, Mike and I made a point to enjoy it together.  We agreed to a technology break, and didn't turn the computer on for the entire day.  We went for a drive, took the girls to the park, baked turkey & leaf shaped cookies, and then Mike played with the girls as I started the day long preparations for the meal that evening. Gluten, soy, and dairy free sweet potatoes, white potatoes, pumpkin pie, corn, peas, and finally turkey.  I forgot about the turkey until my dad showed up to borrow my baster one hour before we were supposed to be at my mom’s house.  I panicked, yanked the defrosted three pound breast roast from the fridge and then desperately searched the cooking directions for the time.  1 and ¾ hours-NNNOOOOO!!!

“How on Earth am I supposed to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner without having any turkey-my favorite part of this holiday meal experience?”  Then my eyes fell upon the words- microwave oven- and my heart skipped a beat. Microwave at 30% power for…..50 minutes!!! Hallelujah, I was saved.  I chucked the bird into a glass dish, and 5 beeps latter was pouring the potatoes into serving’s platters.  Mike was looking super handsome and Jenna and Naomi adorable.   I had just 20 minutes to get myself presentable so I put on a Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer DVD to distract Jenna, gave Mike a playful swat on the butt, and made my way to the bathroom.

I showered, then glanced at the clock and called in between toothbrush strokes, “Jenna!” “We are leaving in 10 minutes!” “Mike, does she have her shoes on yet?” I rushed out of the bedroom to find that not only was Jenna barefoot but she had ripped off the matching velvet headband and undid the beautiful braid from her hair that I had so painstakingly styled before.  Naomi was making faces foreshadowing a massive dirty diaper and the microwave was screaming that my turkey was finished.  “What did you say, honey?” Mike blinked up at me from the couch. 

In three trips to the car, Mike and I loaded the girls, 6 dishes of food, and with my wet hair dripping, pulled out of the drive way and headed down the road.  Thankfully my parents live only a mile away or our fashionably late 10 minutes would have been much worse.  But there was no room left in the drive way so we had to park in an empty lot down the street from my parent’s house, a favorite with neighbors walking their dogs, making it the last place I would want to be.   

“Watch where you step!” I said as I went to take Jenna from her car seat. That's when I noticed she was barefoot. “Jenna where are your shoes?” I said aloud but directed my gaze to Mike who just shrugged exasperatedly and said, “I couldn’t find them and then she threw a tantrum.” “Besides we were already late.”   I flung Jenna over one hip, balancing the pie in the other hand, tip toed my way through the field of land mines, up the street to the drive way, and then to the front door.  

“I WANNA WALLLKK! I WAANNNNAA WALK!” Jenna screamed the entire way. 
The door opened as Jenna continued her display of protest, “WAAAAHHHHH!”
“Hi Andrea.” I said to my cousin and when I saw her surprised face, I said, “Yeah, happy Thanksgiving to you too.”
“Ummm?” She raised her eyes questionably as she stared at Jenna rolling around on the doormat.
“Don’t ask!” I said.  I handed the pie to my cousin; left Jenna collapsed in a crying heap on the tile floor, and then headed back to the car to continue to unload.  

Grass, poop, grass poop, I managed to reload both hands with food items and began to head back when I realized no one was behind me.  “Mike?” I yelled out loud but he wasn’t there.  “If he left me out here to get all this stuff alone I am going to be so mad.” I grumbled under my breathe. I took a couple more steps and then for some reason I stopped cold dead in my tracks. 

Was it the thickness of the grass or the heaviness of my new Ann Klein heals slowing me down….That’s when I noticed it.  The huge pile of sundried German Sheppard sized poop speared like a shish kabob on my right high heal. “No, I softly whimpered.” My first new pair of shoes in a year and a half and the only reason I even got them was because my mother in law gave me that awesome gift card for my birthday.  “My mother in law,” I thought to myself, “who thinks I’m a control freak wife who forces Mike to do whatever I want.”  I wanted to cry but just when the first tear was about to fall, my wonderful brother came around the corner. “Hey Jame, do you need any help?”

“Yes! Please!!!” I sniffed, “Thank you so much Jesse!” “Where is Mike anyway?”
“He’s inside talking.” 

I felt my nostrils flare and self pity over my ruined birthday shoes morphed into a stressed out mama/misunderstood daughter in law/forgotten wife- fury.  I plodded forcibly through the grass toward the house, chunks of brownish-gray flying from my right shoe.  Kicking off my shoes by the front porch, I turned the knob with my finger like toes (a skill perfected in my youth) and pushed the door open.  There was Mike, laughing away at something my Uncle Wayne had just said.  I tried to keep cool but as I opened my mouth I was shocked by the high decimal at which my words came, “Miiikkke?” “I’ve got like 16 other things to bring IN!” Actually it was more like 4 but temporary insanity caused my brain to malfunction.

I borrowed a pair of my mom's shoes and spoke just above a whisper as Mike, my Uncle, and I walked back to the van, “Did you forget how much food we have to bring in?” “Don't you realize I need your help?” “Were you honestly going to leave me to bring it in by myself?” Poor Mike didn’t have a chance to answer in between my rapid fire questions.  Then my frustrations strayed to another subject,“You want to be there don’t you?” I questioned him. “You wish you had done what your mom suggested and gone by yourself to her house for Thanksgiving and left me alone with the kids.”

“No, Jamie," Mike said, "I told you that is not what I wanted.” “I want to spend the day with you and the girls.” “You said you’d try to put this whole mess with my mom out of your mind for the day.”

“I know, but…” 

Mike interrupted, “Listen, I’m sorry I forgot to help bring these dishes in.” “Your Uncle and I started talking about cars, and…well you know me.”  I took a deep breath then sighed. (There isn’t another non-human thing on this Earth that Mike loves more than cars.)

As we trotted across the lawn for the last time with the bowls and plates in our hands it occurred to me just how stupid the whole thing was.  Mike and I basically brought an entire mini Thanksgiving feast to Thanksgiving dinner.  It would have been easier on me and less stress for Mike and the girls if we had just stayed home.  But once I got inside, gave my greetings, and saw all the family’s smiles, my heart started to calm. It was an inconvenience, but it was our last Thanksgiving with Jesse before he headed off to the military and who knows how many more we will have with Grandma.

After grace everyone dug in.  I was delighted to find that my mom made me my own special gluten free stuffing which was just delicious. My first time ever microwave turkey tasted just like the real thing, only crispier on the outside, so I still got to enjoy my favorite meal of the year after all.  I had a lot to be thankful for: my family’s health, a roof over our heads, two beautiful girls, an amazing husband (who sometimes forgets to help unload the car but dearly loves his wife and kids), a God who is faithful no matter what life throws at us, and a family who loves me.  It was a good day and a great Thanksgiving.

The next morning I decided to forgo the chaos of Black Friday shopping for the first time in 11 years.  Instead of massive deals I got a different blessing, resolution with my mother-in-law.  I am happy to report that we received an email from Mama-V late Friday night asking that we put this incident behind us and that, when we are ready, they’d love to see us. How wonderful that she and Mike’s dad are Christians who believe in the importance of reconciliation. Saturday morning we had a wonderful visit and it was as if nothing had ever happened between us.  So, I’m another year older, another year wiser, and another Thanksgiving is behind us.  I’m not sure all that the future holds for our little family but I can say that we are stronger than we used to be in more ways than even I can imagine.  

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving Traditions

My Best Friend Meri and I at our school's Thanksgiving Feast.
Around 1988

Growing up, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday.  Traditions on my mom’s side of the family go way back.  My grandmother cooked pies for days and then woke up early to begin roasting the turkey and preparing the sides that cars full of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents would joyfully devour that evening.  My mother and her four siblings, and her parents would get dressed up in full head to toe costume as Plymouth Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians.  

When I came along, the tradition of dressing up transferred to the feast days we had at school.  I adorned the blue dress/apron left over from my Alice in Wonderland costume and a white paper plate bonnet tied with yarn around my chin.  We’d spend the day writing poems about what we were grateful for that year and make handprint and pine cone turkeys. Gleefully I awaited the rarity of both my mom and dad as guests for the school’s Thanksgiving lunch. The cafeteria would serve thinly sliced turkey loaf drenched in “gravy”,  rehydrated mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, cranberry jelly, and a square of crust-less pumpkin pie topped with a cloud of Cool Whip. It was hands down the best meal of the cafeteria year. To have so many wonderful favorites all on the same plate was a dream come true. And it only got better the next day.

Thursday morning I’d wake up early, twirling around the living room in my Sunday best. I anticipated the moment Thanksgiving mass would be over and we'd return, so I could plant myself in front of the television to watch the live showing of the Macy’s day parade.  The commercials were awesome and Publix did their best to top themselves every year.  Last Train Home aired when I was I was about six and to this day still makes my eyes misty. While mom cooked, I’d marvel at the floats, giant balloons, and dance teams, wishing I could be there wrapped in a warm coat, ice skating at Rockefeller center, the snow gently forming a soft veil over my blond ponytail. “Wow! Mommy, you’ve got to see this!!!”

“Just a minute,” Mom would be making her assigned dishes of corn, massed potatoes and rolls. The smells of butter would have me salivating in anticipation for the afternoon meal at my grandmother’s house.  I’d have just enough time to irritate my parents with three rounds of “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go…” before we arrived just three miles away. My cousins and I would rush off to play as car after car arrived with family bringing their assigned dish.  Grandma always made the turkey, Brussels sprouts & cauliflower with cheese sauce, Aunt Carol made the turnips and sweet potatoes, Aunt Linda baked the best apple and pumpkin pies with enough for each family to take a pumpkin pie home. 

Thanksgiving was one of the few holidays in my family that people didn’t seem stressed out from all the shopping and light hanging.  It was a time to rejoice over the blessings that year had brought, to embrace the family and friends around us, and be grateful to God for all he had given us.  I was probably the only kid I knew that valued Thanksgiving as much as Christmas. Sure Christmas was great, but the older I got the more precious Thanksgiving became. It was a glorious day and the most important day of the year for me.

When my husband and I married we suddenly had two households to visit and only one Thanksgiving to do so.  I guess that is just one of the challenges that comes with the blessing of having both families close by-how do we divide our time for the Holidays?  Christmas was always easier because Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would usually depend on when my sister-in-law, Tasha, drove in from up North with her family.  In the beginning we did Christmas Day at both houses, but the last couple years we’d do either Christmas Eve with Mike’s family or mine, and then Christmas Day with the other. 

My husband comes from Russian ancestry, so Easter is an extremely important holiday in his family and especially for my mother-in-law, Mama-V. Easter was like Mike’s Thanksgiving is to me -his most favorite holiday.  So for the last consecutive four years of our marriage, we made it a priority to spend Easter day with my husband’s family.

Managing Thanksgiving after marriage, however, was always a bit trickier. The first year Mike and I got married we did two Thanksgiving events on that day, one with my mom’s family, one with his. The second year Jenna was still small so we were only able to pop in at my Aunt Linda’s house for a hello and then ate dinner at his parent’s house. The third year Mike’s parents were in Missouri with his sister on Thanksgiving Day so we ate at my Aunt Carol’s House and then shared a Thanksgiving meal with Mike’s parents on another day at their house. 

This year, well….this year things changed.  Originally Mike and I had wanted to host the Thanksgiving meal at our house.  With Naomi’s dietary needs, I would have to make our own gluten/dairy/soy free turkey, gravy, dressing, potatoes, and pumpkin pie anyway. But when we brought up the idea, people thought our 1,200 square foot house was too small to accommodate everyone. Instead we reluctantly resolved ourselves to do two meals again (one with each family) in one day. 

A few days later the time change had caused nap chaos for the girls and Jenna took on a new personality of total crankiness. Loss mitigation wasn’t going well with the mortgage company, the Toyota Camry still hadn’t sold, the bills were overflowing, and Mike got a new student at the last second resulting in more paperwork. Conferences, home visits, parent night, faculty meetings- Mike’s work got more and more stressful.  One night when Jenna was still wide awake at 9 p.m. for the third night in a row, Mike leaned over and grimaced at me, “I’m really hating the idea of running everywhere for Thanksgiving. And I’m really starting to hate the holidays all together.”  We knew we had to change things or we’d both go insane. 

Then I got an email from Focus on the Family with an article talking about this very same thing titled: The Holidays Times Two. 
These points really hit home for Mike and I:
1)       “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time" is never more true than when it comes to where you are going to spend the holidays.
2)       Both spouses' families can sometimes place unrealistic expectations on couples and put them in awkward situations……You're caught in the middle, feeling guilty that you can't be in two places at the same time.
3)      A good place to begin is to discuss which holidays are important to each of you and why. Perhaps one of your families makes a big deal of Thanksgiving but Christmas is low-key. You may want to celebrate Thanksgiving with them and visit the other family for Christmas.
4)      You can't please everyone, so together decide what's best for the two of you.
5)      Review your options annually, and be willing to adjust your holiday plans to match your new circumstances. Making a change can be good, especially when it brings your life into balance; now may be a good time to introduce one.

It was exactly 12 days before Thanksgiving.  We talked about it, laid out the pros and cons, and then worked out a compromise.  Because we had spent Easter this year with his family, Mike and I would do Thanksgiving dinner with my family.  We’d go to church with his family Thanksgiving morning and then have his family over for a nice dinner the weekend following so we could see them too.  Mike called his parents the next day and tried to explain, but….unfortunately things didn’t go as well as hoped. 

I’m learning in my married life that no matter how good our intentions are people will still get hurt.  All we can do is our try our best to be fair and attempt to express that we meant no harm. Like the Focus on the Family article said, we can’t make everyone happy. As husband and wife, Mike and I are a team (no matter what other people may think) and ultimately it is our joint decision what is best for our family of four.
As the article also pointed out, circumstances can change from year to year. So we will review our Thanksgiving commitments next year and not make any concrete plans until then. With the mortgage company being the evil breed they are, our circumstances will most likely be very different by then. 

Mike told me that he’d be perfectly happy staying home, just the four of us for all the holidays ever after. “After all this drama, I’d be happy to live in the middle of nowhere someplace in North Carolina and just do Thanksgiving with you and the girls.” I laughed and agreed that didn’t sound too terrible to me. After all we had wanted to stay home in the first place. Perhaps next year we will have Thanksgiving at our house, and then anyone who wants to come can join us.

Until next year, we focus instead on the coming days ahead.  I look forward to making handprint turkeys with Jenna, paper plate pilgrim bonnets, and the smell of my own little gluten free turkey cooking in the oven.   Mike, Jenna, Naomi and I certainly have been blessed in so many ways and have a great deal to be Thankful for this year. But most especially, I look forward to starting new Thanksgiving traditions with Mike and my girls. Now if only I could track down my mom’s old Wampanoag Indian head dress. J

Friday, November 4, 2011

Potty Wars

When Jenna was 17 months old it was summer time, I was off from school and had very casually introduced the Elmo Potty Time movie. She was a mad fan and watched the DVD over and over again and when she asked for a potty we got her one.  The Elmo sticker reward chart was a HUGE incentive and within days I was ecstatic that Jenna was successful so quickly.  We were using cloth diapers at the time but still doing paper at night for extra absorbency. She did great for weeks and even stayed dry through nap time.  “Our child is a genius,” I told Mike one day when she pooped in the potty for the first time at 18 months.  “Why do moms seem to have such a hard time with toilet training?” I wondered. This is a piece of cake!

Then I herniated two disks in my back, ended up in the hospital and then on bed rest for approximately 3 weeks.  Toilet training became inconsistent and our dry days started to fade even more when I went back to work a month later.  She was barely two years old.  So I figured we still had time. The summer would provide the perfect uninterrupted opportunity to make Jenna officially diaper free.

But what I hadn’t anticipated was a full out halt when our second daughter, Naomi, was born.  We spent the first 6 weeks of her life enduring 14 hours of crying which we later found out was milk/soy protein intolerance. I was in survival mode and Jenna was in full blown- for the first time I have to share my mommy-rebellion. Once we got Naomi under control and I restarted toilet training with Jenna, I found it nearly impossible!

The sticker chart was seriously laughable, “I don’t like sickers (stickers) anymore, they yucky!”

Skittles worked for a while but I couldn’t handle their effect on her behavior, “Jenna, stop squeaking like a monkey and GET DOWN FROM THOSE CURTAINS!”

A promised visit to Sea World helped a little but was too far off a goal for a two and ½ year old.

We even gave in and purchased expensive princess pull up diapers with a cold sensor to let her know when she went pee.

But I just couldn’t get her to really commit 100%. Despite putting Jenna on the potty every 30 minutes as the potty training book instructed, I could only get her to pee not poop. 
I was BIG time eating my words about potty training being simple and instead started to feel like a massive failure at this huge milestone in my child’s development.  The multiple "helpful" comments from family and friends didn't make me feel any better:

 “She’s still in diapers? My youngest was potty trained at 9 months.”

“Well, obviously you aren’t consistent enough or she’d be in panties by now.”

“I’ve heard that’s what happens when you start too early, so now you’re just paying for it.”

“Potty training was really simple for us. I just let my kids run around naked for three days until they got the idea.”

REALLY???!!! In desperation I gave the last one a go and all I got was some disgusting messes to clean up and an empty box of Clorox disinfecting wipes.

So this evening, while sitting on the play mat with Naomi, I noticed Jenna was suddenly missing from her coloring desk.  That’s when I heard the muffled sound of toots coming from behind the window curtain on the side of the couch- Jenna’s ideal spot to do her deed. I cursed the fact that Mike let her eat the entire bowl of grapes at breakfast, placed Naomi in her pack and play, and removed the drape from the top of Jenna’s head.

Me: Hey Jenna, let’s go sit on the potty.

Jenna: NO! I don’t wanna use the potty! I have to poopy. 

Me: You want to be a big girl don’t you? Mommy is a big girl and I use the potty. Grandma and Nana are big girls too and they use the potty. GG (Great Grandma) does too!

Jenna: No-Me (Naomi) goes poop and peepee in her diaper?

Me: That’s right, because she is a baby, not a big girl like Mommy and Jenna. 

Jenna: It’s too heavy (hard) to poopy on the potty. No, I’ll be a baby like No-Me (Naomi). 

Me: You can’t get a gummy bear if you go in your diaper, only if you go on the potty. 

Jenna: That’s Ok! If No-Me (Naomi) can go in her diaper, I want to too. Now please go away Mommy so I can poopy.

To this Jenna grimaces and scrunches up her neck, making a face very much resembling Jabba the Hutt, and pulls the curtain back around herself. I could tell I wasn't just losing this battle but the entire potty war.  I could hear the Star Wars theme music playing and the opening crawl fanning across the screen…
“A long time ago in a bathroom not so far away an 18 month old girl enthusiastically did the potty dance for having once again found success doing “what the big girls do!” Her mother rejoiced for peace reigned in the household as the threat of costly diapers was fast becoming a thing of the past. But whoa be to the mother, for upon the birth of her second child a strange morphing of character took over her first born.  She was no longer eager to use the potty but instead shunned it, embracing the diapers of her former self…..”

As I changed Jenna’s diaper bomb for the millionth time, I glanced over at Naomi kicking happily in her pack n play along to the music from her Fischer Price monkey mobile. BRRRRUUURR-Squish!  UGH! Thank you Naomi, another poopy diaper.Sometimes I feel like I'm working a diaper mess assembly line-one right after the other. If only I could get Jenna trained, life would be so much easier.  Will I be changing diapers everyday for the rest of my sanity?  

Just then the phone rang and it was my mom.  I expressed my frustrations. “Jamie, cut yourself a break! It’s not like she’s going to be 8 years old and still in diapers!” I glance up as Jenna runs screaming past the bedroom door wearing a Rapunzel top and no bottoms. I sighed into the phone, “Wanna bet?”

When Mike got home I decided to try some further research beyond the book I purchased, POTTY TRAINING IN JUST ONE DAY (which in case you’re wondering, it obviously didn’t work for us). I found the following questions in an online mayo clinic article

Is your child ready for toilet training?
·         Does your child seem interested in the potty chair or toilet, or in wearing underwear? (NOT any more!)
·         Can your child understand and follow basic directions? (YES, if she feels like it)
·         Can your child ask simple questions? (YES)
·         Does your child stay dry for periods of two hours or longer during the day? Does he or she wake from naps dry? (YES)
·         Does your child have fairly predictable bowel movements? (NO, only when she eats too many grapes-Thanks a lot MIKE!!!)
·         Does your child tell you through words, facial expressions or posture when he or she needs to go? (YES)
·         Is your child uncomfortable in wet or dirty diapers? (NOPE, happy to stay in them all day if I let her)
·         Can your child pull down his or her pants and pull them up again? (Sometimes)
If you answered mostly yes, your child may be ready for potty training. If you answered mostly no, you may want to wait awhile — ESPECIALLY IF YOUR CHILD HAS RECENTLY OR IS ABOUT TO FACE A MAJOR CHANGE, SUCH AS A MOVE OR THE ARRIVAL OF A NEW SIBLING.
AH HA! The light bulb went on!!! That makes sense.  She totally lost all enthusiasm and gave up trying on her own when Naomi came along. I shouldn’t have pushed the potty training because that was a huge adjustment all by itself.  Perhaps there is hope! Maybe I’m not a total failure at potty training after all!
They also offered some very interesting advice: Know when to call it quits. If your child resists using the potty chair or toilet or isn't getting the hang of it, take a break. Chances are he or she isn't ready yet. Try it again in a few months.
My original goal was for Jenna to be completely trained by her 3rd birthday and I suppose that self made deadline was stressing me out a bit.  The mayo clinic’s article put my mind at ease and gave my subconscious permission to wait if it doesn’t happen as planned.
To help ease my stress (and to make up for Jenna's grape overdose) my wonderful husband, Mike, offered to get Jenna ready for bed. As I write this entry I can hear the sound of Jenna approaching in her two sizes too big hand-me-down tap shoes that a friend gave her.  Mike was supposed to be giving Jenna a bath but she click clacks her way into the bedroom, dripping wet and completely naked aside from her feet and Tinkerbelle sunglasses upside down on her nose.  Mike yells from the other room, “Jenna, come get this diaper on NOW!” Jenna may not be 100% trained by January but she will get there-someday! Until then, may the force be with us all.