Monday, February 23, 2009

A Winter Stomp

“The night was ... moist.”

Well, actually it was more of a moonless, snow-covered, bitter, and frosty wet. But school was called here in the Midwest for the fifth time this season and we had a date with a new family tradition. So, I whipped up a fabulously easy pot of white chicken chili, set it on the back stove for our return, and headed out the door to three kids and a husband who were, practically, running in place with their excitement.

I love it when we, the parents, are given the rare opportunity to holler through the house, “Kids, get dressed! We’re goin’ out!” On a wintry night like this one, when the snow is already a foot deep outside our windows, they all come running, snatching up socks by the handfuls and rummaging through the hat and mitten basket, which sits by our front door. Moments like these always remind me of warm childhood memories when my brother and I were granted the surprise of a late-night outdoor adventure.

Of course, our dad was more of the, “Let’s see how long we can sit here with our butts in the snow on the edge of this cliff, in stealth mode, and wait for any sign of life to scurry by.” I can never quite describe this kind of “adventure” to my kids without evoking scrunched eyebrows and comments like, “What? How is that fun?” Tracking rabbits into a snowy bank, in the hopes that you will find that little cottony tail sticking out of the bushes, running through sleepy woods with nothing to see by but the reflection of the sparkling snow on the ground, just waiting for your dad to jump out at you, growling like a bear. These are, indeed, warm memories.

This is our third Winter Stomp. It’s now officially a family tradition. At least, that’s what the kids tell us. Our first stop is always down at the barn to give clicks and pats to the horse and ponies, Mindy, Loretta, and H.I. They no doubt wondered, “What the heck are the humans doing down here at this hour!” With the kids tugging on our coat sleeves in the direction of our woods, we set out, led through “secret” paths, across the creek bed and up the bank.

This was where Rick, my husband, the manly man of the bunch, refused a helping hand from, as he put it, “a little girl,” our daughter, Colleen. At which time, he was promptly punched once in the arm for this chauvinistic, demoralizing, not to mention ill-advised comment and a second time for flinching! (I know he is VERY sorry for this moment of indiscretion, and will keep his caveman commentary to himself in the future.) I, by the way, was now perturbed to say the least, that this now meant that I could absolutely not request any aide myself for the rest of this jaunt through the cold woods. But, by the time we’d trudged across the open pasture and made our way over to the lane that runs alongside our house, I had forgiven him his failings and shamelessly begged for a hand, a coat tail, anything to pull me up this long and slippery hill.

We made our way out to the road and waved hello again to our warm and cozy house “all lit up like a cruise ship,” as Rick always describes it. I have to say, it was really difficult, standing there in the snow up to our ankles, out of breath, and contemplating the actual wording I would use to suggest to our kids, that we be done with our winter stomp and go home now. Eyeing my hesitation, Rick foiled my selfish plan with his humorous interpretation of an ice skater’s routine in the moonlight. I respectably swallowed my whimpers, sipped the last of my French vanilla coffee in my American Expedition Travel Thermos, took another deep breath, and followed in his footsteps. My youngest, Freddy, grabbed my gloved hand with his thick little gloved fingers and smiled at me as if he knew and understood my second thoughts, and then we pressed onward, hand in hand.

We talked about last year’s winter stomp down this road when all the houses were lit up with Christmas lights and about how neat it feels to walk down the center of the road in the middle of the night. As we crested another small hill, we saw an old farmhouse and barn still lit up with red and blue and green lights, fuzzy through the falling snow. Our oldest, Will, graced us with his teen-angst, melodramatic refusal to sing Christmas carols in January, in front of the only house on the road still in the spirit, by falling back and out of arms reach with his shadowed form and walking stick. By the time we’d started the second verse of Jingle Bells, he was closing in on us. Lucky him, we ran out of breath for the third.

Colleen persuaded her younger brother, Freddy, to stop and make snow angels in their usual spot under the barn lights, shining through a long line of cedars. Freddy offered a hand to her so that she wouldn’t mess it up trying to crawl out of it (isn’t that sweet?), at which time Colleen rudely refused his help and reached for my hand, insisting that he wasn’t strong enough to lift her up (sins of the Father, I’m thinking about now!). It’s times like these when I really shine as a mother. The girl was left with the boy’s help or none at all, as I gave her my most disappointed mama-look and turned up the road. (Isn’t this just the picture I’d had of a warm family outing?)

Actually, that moment came a few minutes later when Colleen lay down in our path, in her cute little snow coat and boots to make another snow angel, and Freddy, still holding my hand, not missing a beat, kicked snow up onto her still little body as we side-stepped her in the road. (Now, THAT’S the stuff that makes for good family memories!) By the time we’d turned for home, we were all tired, hungry, and facing a long walk with the wind and snow in our faces. I took Will’s hand and Freddy’s, and Freddy took Colleen’s hand and she took her dad’s, and for what seemed like a good long minute ... or two, we all walked together hand in hand down a quiet country road looking for our cruise ship.

When I reached our well, across from the old oak tree, I seriously considered dropping to my knees and giving thanks for the feeling still left in my toes, and would have if I had thought I could get back up without assistance. I have to maintain some dignity in front of my children, after all.

We closed the doors behind us, shed our wet clothes and boots wherever we dropped, passed out warm bowls of sustenance, and headed downstairs to the family room. There we would snuggle our cold toes together in front of a welcoming fire. On his way down to his chair, I smiled with affection as Rick switched off light after light. I paused by the front door, alone in the glow coming in through the window, looking out on the snow still coming down. I thought to myself, what if someone is out on their winter stomp tonight looking for some small sign that they’re not alone.

I joined my family beside the fire, filling our bellies with warmth, coveting new memories for years to come, while our front porch light lit up the snow on our front lawn ... and the tree limbs outlined in white ... and the dead flower stems in our front garden poking out of the cold ... and a sled left in the driveway for Rick to swear over in the morning ... and a cat or two’s footprints leading toward a heated little bed in the garage. Well, it is certainly the cruise ship I would ride, again and again.

Love and Warmth From Your Cruise Director, Scarlett

Ahhh...Feel The Love

I was lumbering through our nightly ritual of kissing the kids goodnight recently. This, unfortunately, translates into: It was a good day with the kids, no worries, and nothing on the boob tube to hurry to that warm, quiet spot on the couch for that evening. I do have my priorities. They’re not always in a straight, unfaltering line, but they pinch me when I deviate too far from what's really important, so I try not to be too hard on myself. The routine usually plays out a little like this ...

Lights out in the boys’ room, the evening’s music playlist agreed on, picked out, and switched on, Tom Petty wins out ... again. I dip and sway from bunk to bunk with tucks and kisses, avoiding too many licks from all of the animals who seem to gravitate toward our oldest’s bed, same place, different night; all the while trying to determine whether or not he’s ready to go to sleep ... OR ... he’s lying in wait to steal a tickle underneath my armpit. After proving to him, once again, that, yes, his mother is still bigger, stronger, and wiser tonight, I look him in the eye, kiss him full on the lips, and tell him how much I love him, how incredibly smart he is, and how lucky we all are to have him in our family. He is still young enough to smile with pride and reassurance, even as he gets one last giggle, on the fringe of madness, out of me. Satisfied, he turns his head and is instantly asleep. That’s our Will.

Stumbling over that same blessed toy robot thing that was lying on the floor the night before, which I distinctly remember hurling through their open closet doors twice this week, (I think it’s possessed), I then limp to our youngest’s bed, where he is usually lying sideways with his feet up against the wall, his Blankie and Butter Bear curled up around his neck and his head hanging over the side. Every night it’s the same.

“Did you go potty, Freddy? Freddy? Freddy, did you go potty yet?”

“Mom, I’m not sweepy. Mom, why do I have to go to bed without any cookies?”

“Freddy? Did you hear what I asked you? Are you listenin’ to me?”

“My belly hurts. Pleeeaaassseee, can I have just two cookies in bed? Pretty please, Greatest Mommy in the whole world?” His daddy taught him that trick. (He’s holding up three fingers, mentally notes the difference, and asks for three instead of two.)

“Freddy, I’m losing patience with you kid. Now, did you go potty or not?”

This first attempt at saying goodnight to Freddy always ends the same. No, he did not go potty when I asked him to, and yes, he’s going to go now, and yes, he’s going to start listening better, and yes, he can have A cookie in bed, but if he dares to ask for more than ONE SINGLE COOKIE and not be happy about that, then he’ll have nothing!
(When Harry Met Sally reference to follow: “Not even the pie?” “No. I’ll take the pie, but not heated.”)

Two down and one in the hole in this touchy-feely routine, “Who’s running this show?” I ask myself, as I move to the next room, knowing the answer lies in my heart. The evidence is overwhelming and undeniable.

Colleen! Strikingly beautiful, smart as a tack, Colleen! The little fox has been working on her plan for the last fifteen minutes or so, to keep me sitting on the edge of her little pink bed for as long as is motherly possible.

“Tell me a story about when you were little, Mom. A long one!”

She listens intently to my monologue, taking notes, I am sure, twirling the end of her purring kitten’s tail around her closed eyes and underneath her chin. All the while, the little fingers on her free hand clutch the hem of my shirt. This child’s desperation is heartbreaking ... IF, you’re never the wiser! I eventually leave her to her own resources for the night with no less than three lights streaming into her room for her to draw, read, or work on her next masterpiece, knowing it will not be the last I see of her before morning.

Somewhere in the middle of night, I will be stretching out in our bed, only to realize that something alive is hugging onto my leg! It giggles and it has a bed of it’s own, but alas, it will only be young for a short time ... and so, I am more than happy to move it to her father’s side of the bed.

So, back to Freddy. The cookie is eaten. He did not choke on the crumbles. He is finally settled in his bed with his head on his pillow, and is now lying there in nothing but his tight little Spongebob underwear. Most, if not all of the last fifteen minutes that he’s been flitting about outside of Colleen’s bedroom door is forgiven and I am now in the homestretch!

I will finally shed my bra and lie on my bed staring at the ceiling. Life is good.When I sit down to give one last kiss to this adorable boy, it’s amazingly difficult letting go of his little face. His sweaty blonde hair fans back through my fingers and he smiles adoringly at me like the model child he so often can be. I can’t keep from kissing him over and over on his cheeks, and his eyes, and on the underside of his pudgy chin and on his little fingers playing with my hair that keeps falling into his face.

And then, he said in his most sweetest little four-year-old voice,

“Mom? Are you done yet?”

“Ahhhhhhhh ... Feel the love!”
Little twirp.

Ophelia's In The Bathwater

'Ophelia' in a party dress!

It isn’t so unusual in this life of parenting, for a soul to search, looking for answers or recognition. Perhaps it is why mine seeks out and feels most at home in a Shakespearean tragedy. Well, more of a melodrama really.

When I have the time to reflect, I find this life more often resembles a comedy of errors. Just so, my eyes are open to this simple truth. It is certainly mundane in its moments. “Aye, there’s the rub!” This must be why I’ve seen Ophelia floating in my bathtub!

Entrenched in my early evening hustle, I stole a peek in on my little girl in the bathtub, convinced I would find her, either slyly coaxing the kitten into the water with her, or more likely, still running about the upstairs hall unclothed and searching for bath-time companions. Neither of which would involve actually washing her body, as she was sent there to do.

Act I: Scene I The curtain lay closed.

I first spied the Fisher-Price wind-up record player on the bath’s edge. Weary tines played out “Jack and Jill went up the hill,” on the child’s music box. “To fetch a pail of water.” Soft tin tones, composed of a melodious tinkle and plunk on the tines, lured me into a calmer state of mind. All remained still on the other side of the curtain, as I pulled it to the side, practiced in the stealthy art of spying on my children.

Lo, and behold! Nay, thine eyes do not deceive me! There she lies, her young fair-skinned little body, floating weightless in the water, effortless. “To fetch a pail of water.” Fine eyelashes lay feathered against her cheeks. Yellow-haired wisps rippled beneath waves of warm water, in deliberate movement, beckoning me into the silent depths of her reverie, as shadow and light played on the exposed surface of her skin.

Dissolved, were my feelings of injustice sprinting through my veins only moments before, at the thought of having to enforce discipline, rather than getting on with the business of running a household. The child was in the place where she was supposed to be, after all. In that moment, I was jarred into a child’s daydream, alone in my thoughts, lighter than water. Changing over the laundry, answering the phone, stirring the pot on the stove with the wooden spoon I still held in my hand, seemingly not as urgent. I was given a glimpse into my own childhood; a less complicated existence overflowing with perfection. Safe. Warm. Happy.

“… and Jill went tumbling after …” I left her there, unaware of my barging in on her big scene in my small play. Someday I’ll write it down, I promise myself, and she’ll know. Until then, I’ll exercise more patience, keep my eyes open, and try never to throw my Ophelia out with the bathwater.

The end … of the beginning.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

You're Not From Around Here, Are You?

I am often asked, “You’re not from around here, are you?” inviting conversation every time I open my mouth to speak. It is with pride that I strut my southern roots, calling attention to my place of origin with drawn out syllables served up with a side of hospitality. This unmistakable calling card, established early in my childhood, afforded me a place from which to stand on my own two feet. It gave me a name of my own and a home in my heart, no matter where the wind blew me.

To this question, my answer is always the same, “Kentucky is my home, born and raised.” It’s here my mid-western friends politely remind me that my identity crisis is showing. Despite their friendly teasing, they step to the side making room for the soap box I carry in my back pocket on the enthusiastic, if not enlightening, subject of my southern upbringing.

Home was my beginning. Here I seek constancy in times of confusion, significance in times of isolation. It is familiar ground beneath my feet, and it is the steady, insistent heartbeat of family. A willful spirit stumbled out of me in this place, brilliantly ordinary. It was here that I discovered me and yet, it is the one place I know better than I know myself.

Kentucky is my home. Home where the grass is so green it’s blue and the scrappy little redbuds shoot up like weeds. It is where I first learned to whistle, carry a tune, and tie my shoes. It was the land my ancestors left Ireland and England for; to raise their families on rich soil, worship in their faith, and to play their old-timey music every spare moment between.

This is where I heard as a child, stumbling into the kitchen on the slam of the screen door, that I was a “sight for sore eyes.” Here “everything’s fine and the goose is hangin‘ high”, if you ask Grandma. It’s where I developed a taste for the sugary tartness of handpicked gooseberries made into a pie, and to fancy southern sweet tea in a tall glass. This place is Home. It’s fried chicken in the skillet and fresh sliced tomatoes from the garden, green beans cooked down with bacon, mashed potatoes with lots of cream and butter, and jam cake with caramel icing sitting on the sideboard.

This small slice of the world is where a wave and a nod are the customary thing to do when you pass your neighbor, his tractor, or his dog on the road. It’s where the old folks miss the old ways and the young ones fight for change, and both still sit down together to supper. This place I call Home is “the dearest land outside of heaven to me,” though I have lived more than six hundred miles west of it for most of my thirty-nine years.

I am often reminded that, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” It just “happened” to drag me kicking and screaming all the way to Missouri, where unexpectedly, the gateway to the west opened a window to my heart. It is here I met and married the love of my life, and where we’ve chosen to raise our three gloriously rowdy children. In this place where blue skies blanket a sea of wheat and corn, and the serpentine banks of the Missouri River twist an weave through lush countryside, I put down roots; even as I dreamt of returning home. Here we are building new memories with every fence post set, every friendship fostered and with every waning season renewed by the next. It is here we live and laugh and cry and dream.

My native tongue is as much a part of me today as those misty blue hills mirrored in the color of my eyes. I don’t catch the moonrise above the treetops over those Kentucky hills as often as I’d like, and I’m much too late to listen for Grandpa’s “Faded Love” on the fiddle, though I can still hear the bounce of his bow on the strings. And yet, there is no distance so great between me and Home that I would fear the emptiness of a star-filled sky.

Here in this place out west, far from my beginnings, I have made a home; and yet, when I am asked the inevitable, “You’re not from around here, are you?”, as the sound of my southern roots give me away, a rise of excitement and belonging fills me up, ’cause I’m a homegrown Kentucky girl at heart and I always will be.