Over the Garden Wall

One of the great joys, and small sorrows, of parenting is revealing your favorite things to your children to be embraced or reviled. There’s the magic of having them fall in love with something you fell in love with too. There’s nothing like snuggling with them on the couch watching your favorite movie for the first time, or catching your youngest staying up too late reading a book you also stayed up too late reading. Of course, they don’t always love what you loved. There you just hope that maybe someday they’ll have better taste.

But every once in a while, they introduce you to something that means a lot to THEM and the process works in reverse.

Grey bought a Google Home Mini with the Christmas money his uncle gave him. I’d been reluctant to add that technology to our household mix, but then he put together a six slide presentation on why he should be allowed to keep it. So it stayed. Grey and I have, uh, different taste in music. He really likes rap. So I was very surprised, listening to one of his playlists, to hear him singing joyfully along to a simple piano and vocal piece with the refrain “Potatoes and Molasses“. Very weird.

I asked him what it was from, and he was horrified to discover that I hadn’t seen his possibly favorite ever show, Over the Garden Wall. So over the course of the next few evenings, we watched it together as a family.

You know what? It was really fantastic. The kids kept warning me every episode that it was “dark”. It was serious, with real emotions and important themes and the opportunity for real loss. But it was also silly, surreal, sweet and unexpected. It had beautiful pieces of music interspersed. I think my favorite moment was the Beast’s Song, which I recognized from Engelbird Humperdink’s opera Hansel und Gretel. Do you have any idea how few subtle references there are in popular culture to obscure Germanic operas? And that one was so spot on, thematically, that it pointed to an incredible attention and care that the makers of the show lavished on it. I so deeply appreciate discovering my children love something that has depth, meaning and craft to it. This is literature in cartoon form – nodding backwards as it walks new ground forward.

I also really liked how the show modeled being brothers. (Mild spoilers.) The two key characters are step brothers. The little brother is annoying, for sure. The older brother is supercilious. But the love the two of them have for each other is plain in every scene and interaction. They’re never cruel to each other, and are very patient even when the sunny, goofy character of the youngest puts them in true peril. It’s a lovely model for my two, as they think about how they want to deal with each other.

It was a lovely thing – to have my kids pleased and proud to show me something that they loved. We got to be together. We got to point out to each other things we’d missed – those small details that can tie together a complicated story.

What’s something the next generation has introduced you to that you’ve discovered you really like afterwards? What are some of those moments of reversal for you?

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Grind their bones

This is been an interesting winter for skiing in New England. On Christmas Day, a hearty foot plus of snow fell on the region, and skiiers rejoiced. Right after they finished their figgy pudding, to the slopes! But mere hours after the snow came the cold. Bitter cold.

Last year this time, we planned a weekend trip to the White Mountains. The original weekend has ended up being the installation weekend for our new pastor – so that was out. I moved it to the weekend right after New Years. But as the forecast unfolded, the very day the boys would’ve been hitting the slopes was also the day of record-breaking cold. If these were the temperatures in Boston, next to the water, what would they look like in the mountains of New Hampshire? Not skiing weather, for sure.

Past bitter to dangerous

I figured there were some big upsides from pushing it back to the long weekend. On the downside, it was a bit more expensive to get the rooms, and they weren’t as nice. But an extra day! That’s definitely worth something. And the record cold was supposed to clear out.

What I didn’t figure was the record warm we got to end the week last week. It was 60. Then, over a thirty hour period, it dropped a degree and a half every hour. In the morning we had the windows open. By bedtime it was hovering near single digits. And raining – hard. I’d been afraid of the flash-freeze impact on the roads when I planned our drive up for Friday after work. But the temperatures held. What I didn’t anticipate, because I’d never seen it before, was what the warm rains on the so-frozen snows did to the drive. We went through nearly 100 miles of the densest fog I’ve ever seen in New England. This was San Francisco fog; Central Valley fog. There were times when I had to slow to 10 miles an hour to not overdrive the few feet of visibility I had, clinging to the reflective center line of the road like a lifeline. The fog moved fast, skittering across the road as though chased by some unseen horror. The periodic rips in the fog-cloth only served to show us just how dense it really was. There were a few times where I held my breath as we left some brief intermission of the clouds only to slam again into a near solid-wall of mist. I’ve never seen anything even close to that before. New England fog clings to low-lying spots and is elusive. This was anything but.

I arrive at the hotel as white-knuckled as I’d been LAST year when we drove up through a snow storm. Life lesson – you should never plan a vacation at the same time and place I do.

Saturday was a complete loss for outdoor activities. It was just too wet. The ski resorts lost TWO FEET of snow in just two days. I’m sure they’re tearing their hair out. It was un-ski-able, and several of them closed. We read books, played role-playing games, hung out in the hot tub, watched Jurassic Park on cable (OMG the commercials!), I got a massage and enjoyed the Patriot’s game. But I didn’t step off the hotel grounds all day.

Today was at least cold. A little too cold – teens. But the resorts were open and making snow and by gum, we’re New Englanders now.

That last part is actually a good bit of why I work so hard to make the snow sports happen. I never skied growing up, despite living in striking distance of two of Washington’s greatest ski areas. My father is legally disabled with a knee injury. My mother is a California girl. There was no one who would’ve brought us, and we never went. So the very first time I ever strapped on skis in college, on the very first slope I ever went down, I didn’t do it well. In fact, within the first few turns I snapped my ACL, and have been struggling with the consequences ever since. But instead of concluding that “skiing is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs” I’ve instead decided “if you don’t pick up skiing when you’re young and you bounce then you better never try it”. And since I’m raising New Englanders, I’m bound and determined to do a proper job of it.

Plus, I’ve had this fantasy for years now of having choreless hours to myself with this as my muse:

Dining room view
White Horse Ledge view

I’d finally finish my book. I’d write brilliant blog posts that would go viral. I’d read a book. I’d pray. I’d read poetry and feel it. I’d read history and live it. I’d rest: body, soul and mind. Such daydreams we have! To digress on my active fantasy life, in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series most inns have a library. In my daydreams (alas, not in reality) this incredibly beautiful hotel has one too, on the third floor, with a killer view, where I could sit and read quietly or write or think. It doesn’t, and the public areas are more, uh, golfy than bookish. But still I dream.

My daydreams got off to a great start this morning! We had the famous brunch. I drove the boys to Attitash and pushed them out of the car. “Bye guys!” Then I hightailed it back to the hotel to brew coffee, stare out the window, and write the next major scene in my long-neglected novel. Heck, it’s the penultimate scene. I’m almost there. After about 2000 words, I decided to exercise both mind and body and put on my work out gear. This is the first time in the history of me I’ve actually followed through one of my resolutions to run while on vacation. I’d really like to do a serious hike this summer, so I have motivation to get fit.

I’d been on for about 3 minutes when I got a call from Adam. “Thane fell and hurt his wrist. We’re going to talk to the medical folk and see what they think.” I only had time to just start regretting my 6 mph pace when I got another call, “He needs to go for xrays at the hospital.” It is, perhaps, a blessing to be in the right place to take your child to the hospital yourself. Last time I got a call that my son had hurt himself on the slopes… you remember, a week before Christmas? (It was Grey. He fell on his head. He’s fine.) I’d been 3.5 hours away and had to trust my friend who’d taken him, and then my husband to pick him up. I high-tailed it to retrieve my child, and a sorry state he looked. He had this massive sling encompassing his right arm.

The local hospital deal with so many skiing patients they return the splits to the ski resort listed on a regular basis. They have codes for which mountain you hurt yourself on.

The hospital was close and *very* well set up to deal with out-of-staters with skiing injuries. In a hilarious turn of events, while waiting with my son I got a LinkedIn message from a former coworker who had worked with me years ago. His daughter had a rather more serious leg injury in the room across the hall. It was a weird place to catch up, but we did so anyway!

Anyway, while we waited I watched Thane use his hand. I figured it definitely wasn’t broken. It might not even be much of a sprain! He had good range of motion, was tolerating the pain well, and didn’t see THAT bothered. There was little bruising or swelling, and he can move his fingers, turn his hands and be touched. But then when he went in for xrays I saw a … wrinkle in a bone where it didn’t look like there should be one. I am no doctor, and I had trouble making out the ultrasounds that proved he was a male issue, so I didn’t put too much credit on it. But I began to doubt.

I’m struck by how big he looks here

In a remarkably short amount of time we were having a conversation with a nice (and very experienced in snowboarding injury) doctor. It’s a buckle fracture. Thane has a splint to prevent him from moving it too much. Ibuprofen for pain. And a followup prescribed with his PCP and probably orthopedist. But he may only have to wear the splint for a week or two. It’s about as unserious as a broken wrist can be. I took him out to his first ever Taco Bell, and then we picked up his brother and father.

He was very excited to win his bet with me about the nature of the injury

The slopes were apparently treacherous today – a sturdy remnant of ice limned by a bare modesty of created snow. Adam says it’s the worst he’s ever skied on. He feels guilty for bringing his son there to be injured. We both feel badly about basketball. Thane’s been doing SO WELL on the courts lately, and he has an amazing coach this year. I’d venture this is at least a two week outage on the courts. Given that it’s his dominant shooting/dribbling hand, maybe more. Thane was a trooper the whole way through. He’s so sturdy and reliable and tough.

I “treated his pain” by playing a bunch of Plants vs. Zombies mini games while he offered expert advice. But when the time came to turn out the lights and go to sleep, the whimpering began. The pain had broken through (I was probably late offering his next dose of Ibuprofen, but during the video games he wasn’t feeling any pain). And he was thinking through the implications. How would he be able to write in school? How long would he be forced to wear this uncomfortable brace? How could he sleep with it? He was, for the first time he could remember, broken and unmendable. He was away from home, and it was dark, and he had a broken wrist.

Thus, in the end, we all confront our brokenness and fears and not all the love in the world can wipe them away. May all your healing in times to come be as fast and complete as this one will be, my sweet son.

Broken, but healing

Moving On

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.

The Certificate
The Certificate

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.

The "I wishes" were interesting to read. One little girl's made me want to apologize for failing her. It was "I wish girls could play baseball for as long as they want."
The “I wishes” were interesting to read. One little girl’s made me want to apologize for failing her. It was “I wish girls could play baseball for as long as they want.”

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.

2016 Walkers
2016 Walkers

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.


Her accomplishment numbers the millions
Her accomplishment numbers the millions

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!

Roller coaster family

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?

Six Flags New England - I didn't take this one!
Six Flags New England – I didn’t take this picture!

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.

Legit downpour
Legit downpour

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.

Bumper cars were first to open
Bumper cars were first to open

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.

Grey in line for the Cyclone
Grey in line for the Cyclone
Thane in line for the 300 foot swingset
Thane in line for the 300 foot swingset

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.

Especially if the roller coasters come with non-stop sugary treats
Especially if the roller coasters come with non-stop sugary treats

The family that puns together

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.)

The four siblings - then and now
The four siblings – then and now

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.)

Rehearsing before the funeral
Rehearsing before the funeral

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.

Can you spot the uncle and brother in this picture?
Can you spot the uncle and brother in this picture?

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.

Ruth Evelyn Jones, 1923 – 2016

The last time I saw my grandmother
The last time I saw my grandmother

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.

We gathered together for her 90th birthday
We gathered together for her 90th birthday

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.

At my parent's home
At my parent’s home

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.

My grandparent's home
My grandparent’s home

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.

BLTs for lunch - I remember this from my childhood!
BLTs for lunch – I remember this from my childhood!

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”

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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!