I remember Grey’s preschool graduation – my first ever graduation as a parent. The little kids sang this song with a refrain that “Now I’m Moving On” and I got a little weepy.
This week marks a lot of moving on in the life of my family. There are three people who stand in the heart of my life who are marking major transitions this week.
First and foremost, my eldest son. On Thursday, we attended a graduation ceremony for the 4th graders, which as unexpectedly excellent and poignant. I think his teacher this year is the best artist we’ve had so far, and the artifacts she helped the kids create are very poignant. The music was good too, with the kids having mastered many more numbers than the usual concert pieces. I was struck at how capable and competent they all looked – these kids whose faces and names have been part of our life since Kindergarten or before.
Next year is Middle School. I think we all have questions and trepidation about that. Should the little kids continue to walk to school? (I’ve been super impressed at the walking they’ve all done – the kids walked pretty much 100% of the days this year, and have run out the door to not be late to walk with their friends.) What will Middle School be like? What’s the schedule look like? How do afterschool clubs work? Where are there crossing guards? The only way we’ll really figure out how it all works is to do it. It’s a big change.
So Monday, the kids head off to Camp Melstone for a summer of trying to remember their swimming trunks and towels, and sunscreen and bug spray and… and it will be great.
But Monday is a change in routine for someone else. On Monday, my husband starts a new job! He spent 8 years with his prior employer, with people he loved and respected deeply. Eight years is a very long time in today’s tech economy, and moving to a new role feels like a very big deal. Just the logistics of figuring out how you get to a knew job can feel daunting – never mind learning the new job! I’m excited for him, he’s excited for him… but it’s going to be a big change all around.
And then the biggest of the changes. My mother is “graduating” after 29 years of teaching school. I still remember her first day, teaching pre-K. She’s spent almost all her life teaching those early years of middle school. (She used to say, before, that if she were noble she’d teach middle school. She taught me never to admit what I’d do if I were really noble.) I was in 5th grade when she started teaching 6th grade at Columbia Crest. She’s had generations of kids come through her class and learn about geography, French, history, technology and how to be a good human. Many have come back with their 4 year degrees in hand to come sit on Mr. Stool.
Mom definitely has her face pointed to the wind of freedom, though. In fact, in what I consider to be an insane move (but one that is entirely in keeping with my family!) she’s crawling on an airplane on her last day of school to fly to London! I hope Mom and Dad have the amazing, international adventures that they both long for.
So good luck to all my loved ones trying new things. To my sons, heading to summer camp and middle school. To my husband, headed to a new day’s work. To my mother, headed to a new phase of her life! I love you all!
One of the great joys – and hardest parts – of becoming a new family by having children is figuring out who they really are. Do they love to read, like you do? Do they love hiking and camping? Are they morning people or night owls? Do they tend to see things as funny or offensive? Is their first reaction one of compassion? Do they work hard for their goals? There are so many things you discover over time about your children. Many of these things you can influence. It’s hard to get a kid who loves to read if they never have any books around, whereas a constant supply of books and time set aside for reading increases the odds dramatically … but not guaranteed.
Some of these identities extend from the individual to the family. We learn who “we” are. “We” go camping together. “We” play board games. “We” play soccer. For this period of twenty some odd years, we’re a team who does a lot of things together, or not at all.
This weekend, Adam and I asked our family a big question.
Do “we” like roller coasters?
There’s a lot riding on this question. If the answer is absolutely not, then I probably never ride the big coasters again. It’s not worth it to go with reluctant kids, and it’s probably not something I’d do after I have no kid responsibilities. I mean, maybe my life would hold one or two more big coasters… but not many more. With Thane at the 52″ mark, this was the first time we’d be able to investigate and really thoroughly address the question. I confess to being a bit nervous – I really like roller coasters and would be sad not to share that with my kids.
I’m happy to report, the kids loved the coasters.
We tried a bunch: the one built in 1941, the one where you bounce up and down from a great height. We went on the Mind Eraser three times, when a gentle rain dissuaded everyone else from riding it. Then the skies opened and there was thunder, which means nothing was going on. We had lunch (totally breaking from the Pantry Challenge for a day), bought ponchos that were apparently spun from the most precious plastic-sheep ever raised and waited for the rain to stop.
This was the best possible thing to have happen, since most folks left at that point. We bought too much fudge and waited. Miraculously, the weather cleared and we had fast run of almost all the rides. It was phenomenal.
Then we hit the big rides, with very very few lines. Our favorite coaster was the Cyclone. It was a perfect coaster – great drops, twists, upside curves… but not so shaky or vertiginous that we felt like barfing. The kids loved it. We loved it. I think we ran it three or four times.
At the end of the day, Adam wanted to do one of the really big coasters. Thane is 52″, not 56″, so there was a category of coaster out reach for him. So Adam and Grey went to do the big one, while Thane and I tested our courage against 300 feet of elevation. Thane loved it. He was phenomenal. After every roller coaster he’d say “That wasn’t even scary! Let’s go again…”
So. This weekend I discovered, we’re a roller coaster family.
I just said farewell to my extended family, after several days of extreme togetherness for my grandmother’s funeral. We’re a farflung lot. We came from Boston, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington and California for the celebration of her life. I think that since my uncle enlisted in the Navy out of high school, the four siblings have never all lived in the same state. (Maybe briefly in the ’80s?) The far-flungness gets worse with my generation. (At one point, my family of birth lived in four households across all four continental US timezones.)
You might take from that an idea we don’t like each other. Nothing can be further from the truth. These people are awesome. They’re hilarious. Entire conversations were conducted entirely in pun. The jokes flew thick and fast. But, generally, they were kind jokes based on wordplay instead of insult. We spent a ton of time catching each other up on our lives – the full parts of them, including the complicated challenges and feelings. I’m related to some kind, intelligent people who are interesting to be around. They listen. I sometimes feel like I won the family lottery.
There are many ways the celebrate the life of a person who has died. With three pastors in the family, we did the funeral in grand style. (Although none of the three actually conducted the funeral. There was just a wealth of liturgical knowledge and some extremely moving speeches.) My aunt and I had a bit of a reunion tour – I rented a trumpet. She was often my accompanist in high school, and we played several pieces together which was awesome. Grandma had arranged much of her funeral (including picking her lavendar casket and the funeral home) but the only part of the service she’d specified was that my aunt sing “The Silver Cord” – a hymn I’d never heard before but which was a beautiful expression of faith. (I can’t believe there are Fanny Crosby hymns I don’t know! Few chances to learn them either – they’re no longer much sung.)
But in addition to the traditional services of the funeral, we remembered my grandmother – and each other – in other ways as well. We ate meals prepared with the loving hands of her daughters and daughters-in-law that were her favorites. We looked through pictures together. We told and heard stories of her, and the family. We read through some of her letters. We made jokes about a notebook that said “Ruth’s Notes” and was totally blank. (I used it to record the funeral planning.)
My favorite remembrance was heading up to a place that was very dear to her. A bunch of us went up to Yosemite to spend the day. Grandma had loved Yosemite, and a lot of the warmest stories came from camping trips (when she’d taken the FOUR kids up by herself, sometimes!) I am a mountain girl myself, and it was great to see the places of story in legend in real life. (The superb weather didn’t hurt either.) We even found the “Indian Caves” which have an oversized place in family mythology. It made my heart glad.
It was hard to take our leave of each other (despite the fact I am pretty sure we were all completely exhausted – it was as action-packed a funeral week as I could imagine). It was just that we enjoyed each other so much, and it’s hard to see how or when we might be together again. May we all be so lucky as to have families who we can spend a week in close quarters with and leave with only warm feelings and a wish to be together again soon.
In the years of the roaring 20s, Chester Finley and his sharp-eyed, capable wife Frances Finley were married. They had two young, bright sons – close in age – followed by a daughter Ruth. As young boys her brothers Russell and Richard started acting strangely. At the ages of about five and three (I think?), they stopped walking, stopped talking. They died not long after. I remember Grandma Finley showing me the pictures of them, dressed in their Sunday best, lying still in their coffins. She wept, sixty years later, for their lost beauty. What peace there might have been in that midwestern home was shattered. Frances – so strong and capable – could not bear the death of her sons and left her husband and quiet young daughter while she stayed with her parents. When I think about my grandmother, I think about this formative time. She rarely – never – talked about it. But I imagine that little girl with her patient, grieving father, and her lost brothers, and her missing mother.
I was told this story because there was a chance that the sudden lost of those two boys was a genetic flaw (four trouble free generations later, we suspect it was some sort of environmental poison they got into). Indeed, my great-grandparents never bore another child. They adopted Walter to help with the farm. Walter was mischief personified (from what I could tell) – a happy go lucky child in a serious family and it was my grandmother’s job to keep him out of trouble. Some jobs are impossible.
When the second world war put lie to the hope that the first had been the “war to end all wars”, Ruth was a young woman in a small midwestern town. The story here is shrouded, but my grandfather Virgil left for the war (he was a baker on the European front – but even the bakers saw some things that marred memories) with an understanding with one young woman. During the war, he and my grandmother (from the same small town) exchanged letters. After the war was over, the two of them got married. We have a beautiful hand-colored photo of them beneath a grape arbor, him in a dark suit and her wearing a simple white dress.
I have a story from her in a letter I cannot find (I probably put it somewhere “safe” – curse my bones!), where she talks of the post-WWII housing shortage. They lived those first year in a house that had been custom built for what she called a “midget couple” who had made their living in the circus. Grandma said she could cook dinner while sitting on the bed. I really wish I could find that letter.
In her own words… “Grandpa and I were not Christians when we were married. In our hearts we knew we would always feel unfulfilled as we were living. Then in January of 1948 our Wesleyan Church had a revival and we recommitted our lives to Jesus. Larry was born two months later – into a Godly home! We never looked back.” (April 11, 2006)
Larry Marcus was followed by Kathy Frances, who was followed by Renee. Each child was given the middle name of a grandparent, until they got to Renee. My grandmother could not stomach “Blanche” as a young girl’s name, even in the middle! (The result being that I don’t know Renee’s middle name! Edited: My mom says it is Evelyn, which was Blanche’s middle name!)
In 1954, the whole extended family moved to California in “Grapes of Wrath” type moment. (Well, everyone but Walter as far as I can tell.) They lived in a little house in Turlock California, with a big family and big garden. Brian Chester – the last of the children – joined them. My grandfather worked at an asphalt/construction company in accounting, and in 1963 my grandmother went to work, first at Farmer’s Insurance and then in the Merced Schools library.
My grandmother described the home in Turlock, “Your Grandpa and I loved fixing the house on Locust Lane in Turlock (My mom says the house in Turlock was actually on Mitchell St, but we may need a family conference to get this all right). Grandpa hired a carpenter to put in metal liners in two deep drawers. One drawer held 25 lbs of flour, the smaller one, 10 lbs of sugar. He put lazy susans in the corner. Grandpa bought a big electric stove – the oven held 6 loaves of bread. Oh, did I bake in those days. We had an acre of land with lovely walnut trees and two apricot trees. My folks, the Finleys, lived in a trailer next door. Grandpa Finley irrigated the whole acre as it was needed. What a wonderful place for the children.”
The young family years are filled with tales of camping trips to Yosemite, grape arbors, camping cookies and gardens. My grandparents were, from that revival in 1948 until their dying breaths, extremely faithful and devoted Christians, following a Nazarene theology. They supported the building of a new church, and my grandfather was the church treasurer. (He actually had an office in the church, which I remember being very impressed by.) It was a very strict practice (no movies, no rock music, no face cards, no dancing – certainly no alcohol or smoking or indecency). This made for quite a culture clash with the ’60s, when the older children were teenagers. If there was a saving grace in that conflict, from what I can understand, it is that my grandparents were willing to live by the strictures they preached. There’s an old joke that you should always invite two Nazarenes fishing with you. If you invite only one, he’ll drink all your beer. Your beer would have been more than safe with my grandparents, I think.
Around the time I was born, they moved as a family to a trailer park just off the freeway in Merced – my grandparents and their parents in trailers in the same park. My grandmother describes meeting me, “For some reason, I often think of you the very first time I saw you – at 6 months of age – at the airport. I as holding you while your mother and Grandpa collected luggage. Several people came up to us and commented on how pretty you were. You had such a dear perky way about you!”
We lived with my grandparents for a year, after we came back from Zaire. I turned four in their home, and remember it well. It gave me a familiarity with my grandparents I was lucky to have. I remember sitting for lunch at the long dining table, with the cold cuts and breads beautifully presented. Dessert was often sliced nectarines, or cottage cheese and jam mixed together.
My grandmother was very interested in people, and in their stories. Her letters to me are full of updates about the family, her neighbors, and friends of friends. (I always tried to write really newsy letters back so her letters to OTHER people could be about me.) She was very a very good cook, and preserved food. I remember an abandoned apple tree in a neighbor’s yard. She spent hours and hours laboring over a hot stove turning bushels of apples into applesauce.
She lived a life tending to others. I remember her as a caretaker to her mother, her mother-in-law, her great-aunt, her husband. When they left, she tended to the only-slightly-older folks around her.
When your grandmother dies, even at age 93, people often express their sympathy. I have often replied that in her death, my grandmother realizes one of her fondest hopes. One of her last letters to me, written in a hand turned shaky and short by neuropathy, ended with this joyful anticipation “I often think of heaven. It seems so close, so real. I often think of the loved ones who are already there. So if I don’t see you all again, let’s make a promise to meet in Heaven. Eternal joy! No more separation or pain! Bliss! I like that word. Much love, Grandma Jones”
I have created a shared album of pictures of grandma here. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some details that are missing – I’d love to hear the family stories!
Ten years ago, my mom decided to help her 6th grade class understand just how big a “million” is. We throw the word out lightly. “My mom told me like a million times to clean my room.” “There are a million legos in my son’s room which he hasn’t cleaned”.
It was a memorable moment in Austin Powers when a million dollars went from a lot of money to a trivial amount over the course of a few decades:
Anyway, she’s at just about the halfway mark of the million bread tabs. She does not plan on teaching for another ten years, though, so it’s time to hit the gas on the project!
Now that I’ve set off a frenzy of speculation among my friends and family about the vast secret to be revealed at 3 pm (instead of 11 am) I’m really feeling the pressure. This post needs to be funny, insightful, tender, touching, well-written and actually completed on time. Breathe, Brenda, breathe.
(Oh, and Adam, if you’re reading before you’ve gotten home … stop.)
So, several years ago my mother-in-law came to visit. This isn’t all that unusual, although I’ve noticed that visits tend to be clustered in times where the temperature is higher than 50 and lower than 80. (Something about “attic” and “no air-conditioning” and “lived most of her life in Saudi Arabia”.) My mother-in-law loves me dearly, and often brings me what can best be described as LOOT. This often takes the form of clothing, jewelry, furnishings and other lovely objects that she thinks we’ll enjoy. My husband, not being a girl or a child, gets the smallest amount of loot. It’s ok – he had his turn until I came along.
Well, on this particular trip, Laureen left behind a pair of boxer shorts. They were in a box of other things she left. I looked at them and figured decorative boxers had to be for Adam since I do not wear boxers.
I put them on his dresser and moved on with my life.
A few days later, I found them on my bedside chair. Hmmm. I replaced them on the dresser. They returned to my chair.
“Your mom left you these boxers, honey. You want to put them away?”
“They aren’t mine! Look at that fabric. That’s not manly fabric. Plus, they have no fly. She clearly meant them for you.”
“I don’t wear boxers. They’re obviously yours!”
Now at this point, a sensible person would call my mother-in-law, ask for whom the boxers had been intended and settle the issue. I waited until my husband’s back was turned and snuck the boxers into his underwear drawer. The next day they were in MY underwear drawer.
It, um, kind of escalated from there.
I put them in his work bag. He once got through several months by stuffing them into the arm of coat at the beginning of spring. I stuffed his pillow with them. He put them in my music bag. I think I found them in my cereal box once.
I noticed some time this winter they’d been gone for quite some time. Now, it’s entirely possible to play this game too well. For example, we had a similar, uh, exchange of goods with a friend and a video game CDROM (the best hiding place in that exchange involved a false top on a hat) and that CDROM hasn’t been seen in over 5 years. Either it’s hiding in our house somewhere in a completely epic plot twist or… it’s actually been lost. I casually mentioned to Adam that I hadn’t seen the boxers in a while. He looked both concerned and suspicious. (Do you really think I’d lie about that in order to throw off suspicion? Little innocent Sunday School teacher moi?)
On Christmas Adam pulled out a particular present with extra pride. “Brenda, I don’t think I’ll be able to return these. I just really hope you’ll like it. I mean, promise me you won’t ever get rid of this gift, that you’ll keep it forever. It means so much to me for you to have it.” I, not being a churl, promised.
Now, I thought the box was a little large for the diamonds and opals it clearly contained, but my suspicions were not yet roused. I tore open the paper. And the next set of paper. There were, if I recall, six separate wrapping jobs. And at the heart of this package was, of course, the boxers. And I had promised to treasure them forever! Argh! Social engineering! Upping the ante!
I laid them out in plain sight since then, to make him nervous. Then, on Sunday, he left for a week long business trip. Before he went, I made a trip to Michael’s for two thingies of stuffing stuff, some needles and some heavy duty brown thread. While Grey and I watched the departure of Frank Burns and the arrival of Charles Emerson Winchester the Third on M*A*S*H, I reached deep back into my home ec lessons and converted the boxers to a beautiful throw pillow. To make my victory complete, I am adding Adam’s name as a possessive. In gold glitter.
I’m so proud of myself.
I discovered, in the course of preparing the pillow, that each set of shorts has one pocket, on the right hand side. (Seriously, what were these actually intended to be?!) Having used all my batting to stuff only one of the boxers (I thought it might expand out of the package? I was wrong.) I decided it was only sporting of me to stuff the other boxer into the pocket of the pillow, unchanged. I’m curious to see if he finds it before he reads my blog.
Which of course brings me full circle. He boards an airplane tomorrow at 3, and I suspect that unlike his wife, he will relax on the flight instead of getting wifi to do work. So ideally my surprise will be intact when he walks, unsuspecting, through that front door. MUAHAHAHAHAH! MUAHAHAHAHAHHAH! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!
Your move, love.
I also have, in the course of preparing this post, gotten my pictures from March and Piemas posted.
On Monday, there was a package on my doorstep. It was a box and it was (astonishingly) NOT from Amazon. (The Fedex driver must have been mightily confused by that!) It was from my beloved sister. I knew it was coming. I had an inkling of what was in it, and opened the box with the expectation of seeing an old friend.
This quilt is just about fifteen years old. It was my sister’s first quilt, and is made with my favorite colors. The white around the edge is done with the silhouette of Mt. Rainier. In the corner, the dates and our initials are embroidered – the last time my initials would be BJJ instead of BJF. (Which, side note… changing your initials might be harder than changing your name!) The reason it was sent back to me is because quilt backs are not as durable as quilt fronts and sometimes when it spends a decade on your bed it can get torn. Maybe. (Maybe this is kind of a regular thing with all our quilts. Maybe.)
There was also Thane’s baby blanket. He was old enough to vote on his colors. (Grey’s was ready for his arrival, and was themed with dragonflies. He was also lucky enough to get dragonfly curtains which still hang sparkling in his room.) He opted for the Pigeon theme. PIGEON! He was – is – absolutely entranced by it. In this cold winter, where bundling up in blankets against drafts and chills is a necessary comfort, he has been delighted to wrap himself up in Pigeon. (I have dreams, you know!)
Grey dug out his quilt from his room and demanded we all cuddle up on the couch in our Aunt Heidi quilts. Well, if you insist Grey! (I’m not cuddled up because I was photographing the situation, obviously.)
I had this idea, when I was young, that it was impossible to do anything my sister was good at. This was for the obvious reason that I might not be as good at it as she was, and this was completely unacceptable. Things this ruled out for me as a youth included: photography, poetry, cooking, fabric arts and Georgette Heyer novels. Some of these we’ve clearly swapped places on. My niece asked – looking at our senior pictures – why her mother was holding the camera instead of me. I became a half-decent cook. Poetry I love to read but never wrote. And I’m the only one of my family who hasn’t read Georgette Heyer. (I KNOW!) But fabric arts were, and have remained hers. (Well, other than a very unfortunate encounter with a bright neon-striped apron in the year of Home Ec I was forced to endure before I absconded over to shop with the boys.)
The tradition of quilting, and of giving a baby a quilt, is one my sister comes by honestly. My mother can sew well – I have a cloak of her making in the closet. But she was of the age where women were taught to sew because it had previously been practical… but where it ceased to be a survival skill for a well equipped woman. I’m sure my grandmother can sew too. But it was my great grandmother whose sewing I remember.
I don’t remember when I got my quilt. It must have been after we got back from Africa – I doubt it crossed those oceans. Perhaps it was given to me when I lived in Merced. I can’t remember life without it. My great grandmother (Grandma Finley – my mother’s mother’s mother) made all three of us crazy quilts – my brother’s being made when she was north of 84 years old.
What is a crazy quilt? The most practical of all quilts. The depression quilt. Here’s mine:
My sister’s quilts are made with cotton fabric of a consistent weight. The fabrics are selected for color and pattern, and cut to create the design – then sewed back together. It’s an art form – a lovely one. But creating a quilt like that is certainly a cost. Fabric costs almost more in a fabric store than clothes do in a clothing store.
But the fabric on my crazy quilt was not purchased for its loveliness or pattern. What you see on my quilt are the dress shirts, worn out skirts, curtains, blouses, dresses, slacks and tablecloths all worn out past repair or reworking. My grandmother collected the fabric from worn out garments (and buttons – we had her button box for a long time and it was super fun to play with!) and then when a child was born she reached into that treasure trove and put together a quilt. I’m quite sure a few of those squares come from my mother’s childhood dresses. I have cuddled myself in the castoffs of my ancestors, put together to warm me by the thriftiest of them all.
You can see how each quilt square was put together by different pieces of fabric – whatever would fit. There are no squares on my quilt made of a whole piece of fabric, although the same fabric will show up in multiple squares.
Each of those tiny, tiny squares of fabric is sewn to its partners to create the block. What a labor of love. How long did she spend composing the squares – piecing them together like a puzzle? I can see the thoughtful look in her eyes – rimmed by old-fashioned golden spectacles – as she contemplated the pieces. (She had a tremendous sense of spatial reasoning. She was famous for being able to pick the perfect size tupperware for leftovers at a glance. She also cleaned our clocks regularly at Chinese Checkers. She died when I was in my late teens, so I knew her well.) And each of those seams is TINY. Not an 1/8th of an inch more fabric than was absolutely required for those seams was spent.
The differences in the kinds of fabric (there are thick cotton fabrics, thin gingham pieces worn almost to the woof, synthetic fabrics – all manner of clothes) mean that those unforgiving seams have pulled apart in many places – unrepairable because there isn’t enough material to bridge the gaps. The different squares were then sewed each to the other. The actual quilting portion of the quilt was incredibly simple. She sewed the filling and the back on at the edges, and then tied each quilt-square corner with a green yarn knot. I think this all meant that she could put together the entire quilt on her regular, workaday sewing machine – without any specialized machinery. Practical to the utmost.
There’s a lesson in that crazy quilt. My great grandmother was born in 1900. She was coming of age in World War I, and was a young mother when the Great Depression ravaged a generation. She watched all the young men of her daughter’s age go off to war when World War II hit. I can imagine her as a ruthlessly effective Rosie the Riveter. (She actually was a switchboard operator.) She learned – and she taught – that waste was not only morally unacceptable, but that the ability to make the best things with the least waste was a skill to be proud of. (Well, modestly proud of. She wasn’t a big fan of pride.)
My home and my life overflow with good things. I have bags of perfectly good clothes and toys I’ll summon some charity to haul away for me. I never know what to do with the spare buttons that come with my clothes – my memories of her keep me from just throwing them away, but I might as well since I never repair any clothing. But perhaps, in her memory, wrapped in two generations worth of love-wrought quilts, I could consider myself pleased with what I have that is durable, of great value, and be content.