Skip to content

Strong side

May 13, 2011

Several Thursdays ago, I flew to Washington to see my sister Rachel. She and our Aunt Beth met me at the airport; we traded updates on friends, cousins and great-aunts, shared noodles over lunch at a Vietnamese place, then shopped in a cute, quirky gift shop that carries assemble-yourself paper robots and sandwich-shaped lunch tins (and those are just the things I bought!). It was a great kickoff to my four-day visit, which we went on to spend mostly on cherry blossoms, good food and late-night movies on demand.

But first, an afternoon appointment at Georgetown University Hospital.

For chemotherapy orientation.

It was March,  Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Or in my case this year, your 26-year-old sister has stage three colon cancer awareness month.

I spent most of it – and much of the time since – in a place near disbelief, asking myself over and over, Did that really just happen? It’s what I wondered when I called her on a Monday after work and she answered from the hospital; when my mother, on the phone with a doctor 1200 miles away, held her hand over the receiver and repeated his best guess; when the diagnosis confirmed it; when, on that Thursday two weeks later, we sat in a small waiting room and read along as a nurse led us through a booklet entitled “Chemotherapy and You.”

Yes, it really did.

I went into Rachel’s chemotherapy orientation intending to hold onto my sense of humor, which is what I use to medicate most difficult situations. We’d both been doing our best to apply sarcasm, buoyancy, fact, distraction and normalcy in just the right doses, but I think I ended up somewhere between acceptance, confidence, and the desperate, frenzied enthusiasm that engulfed our new student orientation in college, which culminated with a theatrical anti-drug interpretive dance to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” (That also really happened.)

At the hospital complex, we deposited the car in a cold maze of a parking garage and made our way to a very small waiting room, whose only other visitor was a very old, very drowsy person who may or may not have intended to be an orientation attendee. Before the oncology nurse got started, we heard from a woman who led a hospital arts program which, though well-meaning and probably wonderful, sounded depressingly like a community service project and was distinctly incongruent with my sister’s age and interests in a way that institutionalized her illness and distressed us. Being invited to imagine Rachel, sitting in the chemo chair and asking to work with a bead artist, brought us to tears. We were actually eager for the transition to infusions and side effects, to flip through our introduction to chemotherapy and her.

What also really happened: Family and friends rallied, lining up to visit her in the hospital and sending fabulous gifts. She recovered from a big surgery with remarkable speed, ready less than two weeks later to drive around the city and walk around the Tidal Basin in the wind and the cold. On my last day in D.C., I went with her to work on her first day back at the office. When we said our goodbyes in the lobby of her building, under the brusque supervision of stern security guards, my sister was the one assuring me she’d be fine. Heading on to the airport after  was easily the hardest part of the trip, which was otherwise just good and fun.

Sure, we spent some time with the booklet,, her pathology report and postponed wedding plans. But we spent more playing word games, drinking milkshakes, watching movies and the NCAA tournament, and buttoning up against the chill to admire the pink and white and green promise of early spring.

My memories of the visit are not full of worry and illness but of triumphant underdogs and pretty flowers, and they’ve buoyed me through a spring that would otherwise have felt weighed down by my powerlessness. As the world shook and swirled and swelled around us, and my toddler learned the word “tsunami” and the face of Qaddafi, we walked along with an ordinary, everyday sort of hope – not the brittle hopefulness of fear disguised, but the simple hope that exists in having expectations and making plans.


Kicking up the dust

March 4, 2011

I grew up in a dusty house. There was dust from dry summers and dirt roads. The smoke-and-ash dust of a house fueled by a potbellied stove. The plume of dust that rose, then fell when the fuzzy blades of ceiling and exhaust fans, up under a high roof, spun for the first time in two seasons. Books so dusty you wouldn’t want to fan them and lids so dusty you could tell how rarely we used honey or paprika.

There was really no beating the dust, which at least didn’t settle on the most popular furniture and playthings.

My mother had an old ostrich feather duster, which seemed to me a highly glamorous housekeeping accessory. But it was retired from use; she said it would shed feathers and stir up the dust. I think she kept it only because it had belonged to her Aunt Cynthia and was a relic of her childhood in a quiet Victorian house, where the dust didn’t get the same chance to settle.

Oh, but I loved stirred-up dust. When sunbeams from the highest windows in the house cut through the afternoon shadows downstairs, they were like spotlights on the dust hanging and swirling in the air. To see that now I would cringe, but then I sat and marveled at it, thinking about fairy dust and glitter.

Much later I would worry that, having grown up in such an unabashedly dusty place that dirt just meant we had been there a long time, my housekeeping standards – in my dorm room, apartment or eventual house – would be dustier than everyone else’s and I wouldn’t realize it. (A fear likely related to my very late realization that for 17 years, I walked around smelling like a smoked hindquarter on account of the wood stove that centered the house. I learned this only after I moved out, and my clothes filled an entire room with the smell of barbecue.)

There was no need to worry; the magic of dust wore off. I’ve dusted baseboards and fan blades and those hairy corners behind bathroom doors and what have felt like miles of mini-blinds. (Side note: I intend never to have mini-blinds again. Reason no. 3,002 that I like living in the country.) I notice dust as easily as anyone else – and of course by now I know I’m in good company even if I don’t do anything much about it.

But at home, dust isn’t just a problem of fan blades and hidden corners. We’re building a house, and there’s a new layer with every do-it-ourselves project – again, dust is just life. In the beginning, it stayed outside. But the framing and roofing went fast, and before long the work was happening indoors. A table saw sat on our kitchen island for months, and as we got new window sills and door frames, we watched the sawdust pile up inside the cabinets and settle into waves on the walls and window screens. We sanded new and old floorboards for days. We blew denim fluff into the attic for insulation, the biggest mess I’ve ever seen. My husband (rocking the head lamp, as usual) and his brother had dusty eyelashes and stubble, and despite sheet plastic and closed doors, the aftermath required days of vacuuming.

And still there are harbingers on the to-do list: baseboards, tile, a new stovepipe for the chimney. It makes me long for the day that the dust doesn’t settle on the seats of chairs and resigns itself again to hard-to-reach places.

Until then, I’ll imagine that my son is getting his chance to love it (for him, it’s more Bob the Builder and Dirt Devil than fairies and glitter).

Are you haunted by housekeeping?

my little princess

March 2, 2011

On Sunday afternoon, having finally kicked the flu and coughs, we went outside to celebrate daffodils and light jackets.

While Don did a little yard work, Jack asked me to help him take over a small make-believe kingdom in the woods.

“You be the king,” he said. “I’ll be the princess.”

And I took up my pinecone sceptre, happy to be playing in Jack’s world, where boys and girls and titles are all different things, and a king or a princess is just another important job, “like a nurse or a teacher or an astronaut or Judy at Home Depot.”

Visit Amber at Making the Moments Count to read about proud moments in non-judgmental parenting.

P.S. Speaking of non-judgmental parenting – after a rinse-and-dry, I’m rocking the pee shoes today. Word, Jana!

Calling in

February 24, 2011

We are all kinds of sick around here, where a sick day never stays singular – this time, it’s approaching a sick week. When it rains, it pours and all that.

Today’s lineup.

Jack is sick, too, and because he’s only two, he gets a treatment of fluids, PBS Kids, and – his own remedy – couch time with Sharkie, a stuffed toy we bought him at the Tulsa Aquarium last weekend. When he’s awake and not coughing, he says green olives and Girl Scout cookies work miracles, too.

He has taken to saying, “I’m sorry I’m sick.” What the ? What have I done to make my kid feel the need to apologize for not feeling well? Nothing on purpose, that’s for sure, and perhaps nothing at all. When I was little, my parents never gave me a hard time about cleaning my plate, but that didn’t stop me from hiding uneaten chicken legs or bits of grilled cheese under the wood stove that sat next to the dinner table.

Something more worth apologizing for: peeing in my shoe, which Jack just did. Given that by last October he could make it to Texas and back in the car without accidents, I was a little surprised. Jack was, too, but he did the best he could: He wasn’t going to make it to the bathroom, so he leaned against the trash can and aimed into the nearest vessel – a plastic ruffled flat from Target – so carefully that hardly any landed on the floor. Then a slightly panicked expression, and: “Uh, sorry, Mom. I peed in your shoe.” I told him it happens to the best of us and was glad no one was around to hear it, because that was an even more ridiculous response than when the waiter says “enjoy your dinner” or the ticket agent says “enjoy your flight” and the best you can do is “You, too.” But then I laughed, and he relaxed, and it might have been the best either of us has felt in two days.

Not that I want to empty any more pee-filled shoes, you know, ever.

Anyway, it’s been a foggy, damp chilly mess of a week in every way. Outside it’s pouring, and it looks about how I feel.

On Monday, maybe my worst day, I couldn’t just be sick. I had to drive to Little Rock to teach for a day in an inner-city high school. Ordinarily I love this school, and my experiences there always beat the heck out of its reputation, but Monday was terrible. It didn’t help that for starts, I felt like the whole school was sitting on my forehead. Beyond that, the teacher whose classroom I was visiting was out for the day, and in her place was a soft-spoken substitute who tiptoed around and needed my help even to take roll. I had to bang on the table, stop kids from throwing things, and excuse a young lady asking to clean her tattoo. The next period, a student from another class pulled the fire alarm (to be honest I was happy for the break, which was long enough for a cough drop).

After that, it felt as though only an actual fire could make things worse – so at least I’ve stayed lucky in one regard.

Really, after seeing the first daffodils come up last week and eating lunch on a patio last Saturday, this feels like a cruel reminder that it’s still winter. Still cold season.

So. I haven’t read anything since I got lost in Lawrence Wright’s 25,000-word New Yorker piece on Scientology last week, but I’ve found my way back and am headed your way to catch up. In the meantime, any advice on how to help a toddler get rid of a nasty cold and cough?

I got mine.

February 15, 2011

Valentine’s Day takes me back. To second grade: decorated shoeboxes full of Ninja Turtles and New Kids on the Block cards, with their silly stock greetings and fuzzy perforated edges. Tiffany’s mom bringing cupcakes for everyone. Candy hearts and Fun Dip.

Within a few years, there were secret admirers and pink carnations. “Be mine” took on more meaning. Valentine’s Day became a day to give chase. I didn’t get chased, but it was fun to watch. In my memories my sister, in whose tiny class there were four or five boys for every girl, was chased plenty. I think she came home with jewelry. (It’s cool. I loved Fun Dip.)

Valentine’s Day does not take me back to junior high, when the trauma of love, confrontation and FHA’s carnation sale must have been overshadowed by gym class.

Finally, in high school, I had boyfriends. Well, mostly one, who went to a different high school. For Valentine’s days I got cards, flowers, a letter jacket (Aren’t the gifts you have to return awkwardly years later just the worst?) – but always on weekends, away from the classmates I’d secretly have loved to impress. I decided I hated carnations anyway.

One February in college, I had a new boyfriend. More true love than bad romance. Valentine’s Day seemed silly and sweet and for love of all kinds. My friend Liz and I stayed up late making pink and red cards and her now signature sugar cookies and leaving them just outside friends’ doors. My boyfriend (and husband-to-be) made me a card decorated with camels and hearts (told you it was true love!) that I’ll keep forever.

I don’t think I’ve gotten a paper Valentine from Don since then. The chase turned into a happy decision we make over and over again, and on February 14 the best reminders are little things – kind words, a vat of salsa from my favorite Mexican restaurant, a bag of his favorite coffee, play time with Jack, maybe some Netflix.

Sometimes I still feel a little pressure to do something more. Yesterday a sweet friend and neighbor who works in my building came down to bring me a Valentine. Somehow I revealed that we didn’t have big plans. At first she looked at me with surprise/pity, but her expression turned grateful when I offered to walk the dogs so that their romantic evening could get a head start. It was a quick stop on the way home for me, and it was a 62 degree day in February. Even solo, that’s romantic.

Also romantic: I really love that guy that I married (wearing a carnation in my hair, too.). And boy, do I like him.

He’s really nice to have around, and not only because of all the plumbing and wiring and baking and woodcutting he does on the weekends.

He’s handsome and good, and in always assuming the best about other people, he makes me want to complain less. Sometimes that’s because I look at him and our son and our life and I know that I don’t have anything to complain about. And other times it’s because he kind of tells me to complain less, like when I start to lose it because the guy in the drive-through forgot to put napkins in the bag and he stops me around “I mean, how HARD is it… .” Because really, you just never know.
He is funny and serious and cautious and brave in that way that someone who is everything to you can be.
He was pretty instrumental in bringing our son into the world. (Speaking of Jack: I ask him, “Who loves you more than anything in the world?” And he says “My Daddy and you. And I love you so much!” Happy Valentine’s Day to me for a lifetime.)
And he bakes in coveralls.


The week in numbers

February 13, 2011

10 inches of snow

(a few towns north, 30!)

in 8 hours.

It was the biggest 24-hour snowfall this state has seen in 93 years.

18 degrees below 0 the next morning. An all-time record low.

3 snow days punctuated by a weekend helped make up for my

1 cancelled flight.

20 – the number of minutes in four days that Jack wanted to spend outside.

“It’s too cold out there,” he said, “and remember when I fell on my face in the snow? I didn’t like that. I don’t want to do it again.”
But there were a few good minutes first.

I don’t even know how many minutes of Diego and Dora, the Backyardigans, Wonderpets and Angelina Ballerina he watched instead. (Snow days are snow days, right?)

5 days of one home fire, burning.

Then the weekend: 50-something degrees. So much melting it’s practically raining.

20-something more cabinet doors and drawers, caulked and painted. One playdate for Jack, one for us and one for me. Countless games and conversations.

No naps.

But, most important, 30 extra hours at home, enjoying the perfect opposite of spring break with no cabin fever.

Catching up – where I’ve been, and where I’m not going.

February 10, 2011

This time last week we were packing in a hurry, trying to get down from our mountain a few hours ahead of a windy storm of ice and snow – and a day ahead of our flight to Washington, D.C., where my sister lives.

Two days earlier, at home on the last weekend in January, I let the back door stand open all day and followed the thermometer needle all the way to the 70-degree mark. In town, people were lunching on restaurant patios. One day, the early green of the first snowdrops appeared; they froze and folded over the next. Then came the local run on groceries, the power outage warnings, the snow days announced by dinnertime.

So last Tuesday, with the trees and power lines heavy with ice but the roads not yet frozen, we drove south to find a hotel. Waiting all day for the room to be ready, we camped out in highway-side chain restaurants and a public library, all empty but for us, and watched the stuff on the roads evolve from deep slush to thick, bumpy glass.

But we got out. We were in the airport at 5:something the next morning, when miraculously, our route through Memphis was about the only way to get around the 2,000-mile swath of snow and ice. We made it to D.C. for a fun, fast three-and-a-half day visit (mostly work for Don, whose trip we hijacked) with family, friends, and the Smithsonian. I spent most of it with my sister and her fiance, museum-hopping to Jack’s specifications (space shuttles, airplanes, robots, fire trucks, Julia Child’s kitchen.) He even got to watch an SUV get towed in front of the Department of Labor, eat spectacular steak and learn about Chuck Norris from my sister’s friends. Bonus.

It was such a good trip that I barely remember the not-so-good bits, like Jack’s first accident in a freezing Metro station, and the temporary loss of feeling in my arms (a symptom of thinking it’s a good idea to travel to a major city in the winter with a toddler and without a stroller).

*               *               *

Today I’m supposed to be flying to Savannah, where I had big plans to meet my BFF for her birthday.

Bitter much? Tonight was supposed to look like this.

She lives in Chicago, and we thought we’d outsmart mid-February by convening in the mild South. It was a highly anticipated reunion – we haven’t seen each other in two years – so naturally, it snowed on our parade. (Did I say “I love snow days” one too many times? Is there weather karma?) Our part of Arkansas got an unheard of amount of snow, from a foot to 30 inches. The airport closed, and tomorrow doesn’t look much better, so instead of shrieks and hugs in a Georgia airport, tonight we’re exchanging pity parties and hoping to try again in May, when snow is like a flying pig.

A blanket of snow, a coat of paint

January 23, 2011

I love snow days.

Around here they tend to come around only once a year, so we treat them like surprise holidays, with glee, cookies, snapshots and top stories on the local news. (Sometimes we head into town, where some of the power lines are buried and we’re less likely to lose heat.)

It’s best when it snows all night, and we wake up to see through the window a different world, all bright and white and sparkling. The way it happens in The Little Island, a lovely little book Margaret Wise Brown wrote as Golden MacDonald (does anyone know why?):

Winter came
and the snow fell softly
like a great quiet secret in the night
cold and still.

Even our pieces of scaffolding look better in the snow, am I right?


We rarely have to shovel the snow or watch as it gets all gray and dingy along the roadside; we all stay home on the first day, and after that it quickly melts.

My dad grew up with deeper winters in New Jersey. When he moved to Arkansas, an ancient runner sled came with him – I think my siblings and I were the fourth generation it carried down snowy hills. I don’t know what happened to the sleds, but this time next year I plan to have something more than plastic storage bin lids. I need to channel a more childlike attitude, too; when Jack asked about snow angels yesterday, I was all, “You know you have to lie down in the snow for that, right?” (Note to self: Better add snowsuits to the list, too.)

So we celebrated with a couple of short snowy walks. Jack discovered his coat pockets and the powdery footprints of deer, dogs, squirrels and birds.

And we spent the rest of our snow day inside, admiring winter through the windows, getting inspired to open another few cans of white paint, and feeling thankful that Jack still thinks that a coat of white paint is just as fun as the snow outside – no bribes or Tom Sawyering necessary.

We’ve been painting this place white since we bought it (five years ago this month). First old paneling, trim and cabinetry, and eventually a house full of bare drywall and new kitchen cabinets. Everything white. (Well, except for in the living areas, where I went wild with a blue-white and a green-white.)

I love color. Someday I might have a navy wall or a yellow door. I dream of wallpaper, an orange sofette, one of my flea market chairs recovered in a loud botanical print. But we aren’t there yet; we’re starting from scratch, and I like having a blank white canvas of a house.

I’ll always love the house I grew up in, with its concrete walls and floors, and wood beams under a tin roof. I love my mother’s house, native stone inside and out. And I love this house – my first one, and what I hope may be my only one – with its plain, bright white walls that seem proud to be standing and eager for something to happen.

When I’m overwhelmed by the sawdust in the corners, the tubs and boxes piled high, plastic-covered windows and doors and the unfinished bathrooms, seeing those walls is satisfying. Satisfying like waking up on a weekday morning to see a yard full of snow that hasn’t yet been walked through.

On the best-laid plans – and moving on without them

January 15, 2011

So Christmas passed 20 days ago, and we still have a decorated pine in the hallway.

The tree isn’t dropping needles yet, and Jack is partial to playing guitar next to it in his underwear.

We say things about fire hazards, the new year, bird sanctuaries and bonfires. He says “It has to stay!”

Today I’ll introduce a sure-to-work bargaining chip – the promise of marshmallows on a stick.

This is the longest we’ve ever left the holiday trimmings out. But it’s also the first time I’ve ever started the new year without that I wish I could have Christmas back slump. And so another point goes to team Do Whatever Works for You.

*               *               *

When I wrote about the heavenly peace we found on Christmas Eve, I was forgetting about how Jack punctuated Silent Night with piercing screams over having to put the decorative gold horn, which he played like a trombone through the service, back into storage for next year’s pageant.

He didn’t forget for a second, and has asked every day for a horn.

And his dad surprised Jack and me by producing an actual trombone, off of some dusty shelf in the nether regions of our house.

So we’ve been five years in this house, and I haven’t begun to unshroud the mysteries that live in the basement.

After a stop at our county’s hazardous waste dropoff center yesterday, though, I’m a little closer – I unloaded five printers, a VCR, a modem the size of a VCR, my Honda’s original cassette player (*tear*) and a laptop battery the size of said cassette player.

But – moving on, one day at a time. Some days it’s more like one room, one new obsession, ten old cardboard boxes, or  an ancient computer accessory at a time. Either way – moving on.

*               *               *

I swear, every single woman I know has a new Baby No. Two or Three or is about to. In October, Jack started asking for one, too, and over a recent family dinner, he announced that we are “waiting for a baby.”

Well, sure – that’s one way to put it. As long as “waiting for a baby” means waiting to decide when to consider even addressing the second baby timeline. Because that’s where I am.

As a would-have-been-a journalist and a grammar and writing teacher, I love to see clear, precise, determined verbs driving an active voice. But family planning is one place where I prefer to stay passive: I don’t want to decide; I want it to be decided. You know, by fate or God or nature or something.

Amidst construction at home and frequent job changes at work, the haphazard and fortuitous have become so familiar that they’re comfortable. And from T minus nine months, everything about Jack has been a delightful surprise. So much that now I’m not sure I know how to go about it all any other way. Of course I have huge, unanswerable questions about the size of my heart and where to divide my attention (and answerable but equally difficult ones about work and money and childcare), but really, I feel comfortable with the unknowns of how we’ll manage and what it will be like. Having a baby is such a big deal that I almost can’t believe it all starts with such simple decisions. Taking it in stride is more my style. But can you even do that if you get the ball rolling on purpose?

So I’m eager to plan our weekend, our next painting project, a spring break trip and dinner next week – but I wish the big decisions could reveal themselves as casually as a surprise trombone in the basement or the Christmas tree that stays up until February.


Those home fires

January 12, 2011

It’s cold. Really cold. Ice-blue skies and hazy peach clouds cold. Frozen fog cold. Thank goodness for wood stoves cold.

This morning the thermometer on the porch hovered near zero. My New Jersey family, Canadian and Chicagoan friends can scoff, but single-digit temps = Arkansas frozen over. (Though it could be worse.)

I drove home at half-speed yesterday, happy that Don and Jack, who’d had a snow day, were there building a fire – the first one our fireplace had seen since early 2009, when we started taking our house apart.

Then, the fireplace was the center of the house, in the biggest of its four rooms. We used the living room as a living room at first, then a bedroom, before it became part of the construction, too. We hung heavy wool blankets over the doorways and camped out in it for two days during an ice storm that left us with only the fireplace for heat.

Well, it isn’t that cold – at least not inside, thanks in part to the same fireplace. It kept our central heat off last night, and made my husband more happy and proud than I’ve seen him in a long time. Or at least since he opened his happy birthday miter saw.

It feels good to keep the home fires burning.

Because even if we still have sawdust in the corners, tubs and boxes piled high, plastic-covered windows and doors and not one complete bathroom,

and even if my husband spends most of his time at home wearing a head lamp,

things are coming along.

Outside it’s beyond freezing, but inside we’re getting warmer.

What’s saving you from hibernation this winter?