Enjoying the quiet while it lasts

The grandchildren will be here any time, and I am taking the opportunity to sit and relax for a bit before they arrive. It won’t be this quiet for a while.It has been a busy day for all of us. My son arrived last night from Georgia just before dark and then got up at daybreak to drive halfway across Kansas to pick up his kids, who have also been riding in the car all day, having left Colorado Springs early this morning with their mother. My husband left about 3:00 to go call a dance in Rolla, Missouri tonight (he claims he will be back eventually).

I have been trying to remember how to cook for children and have been to the farmers market and the grocery store to stock up on cereal and goldfish crackers and bananas. It’s been a long time since I had to cook for picky eaters, and the list of foods that the youngest grandchild will eat, according to his mother, seems rather limited. Fortunately, I found a website by a mom who has four children and who kindly publishes her kid-tested weekly menus and grocery lists. So I picked a set of menus for the next two weeks, and we’re just going to go with those. I don’t want to argue about food or spend all my time filling special orders, as though this were some sort of restaurant. I’d rather spend our time having fun together. I don’t mind changing my cooking habits while they are here (I’m not going to make them eat navy beans with chard, for example, or anything with tofu), but I can’t guarantee that what I cook will taste exactly like what they’re used to. When my children were young, my main rule at dinner time was, “If you don’t want to eat what’s on your plate, fine. Don’t talk about it. Don’t say Ew Yuck. Just ignore it. But this is what’s for dinner tonight.”

I have also been making a list of things we could do while the children are here, but the heatwave this past week (up to 107 on Thursday) has kind of thrown me for a loop. Of course, the heat makes water activities a lot more appealing, but it might dampen the enthusiasm for walking around the zoo or farm. We are fortunate to live in a college town, where there is a lot to do. Some of the activities going on in and around  town the next two weeks include:

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a brief adaptation by two professional actors from Hamstead Stage Company, put on at the public library.
  • Fun-Tastic Classics with the Missouri Symphony, also at the public library.
  • This Land is Your Land” Family Concert at the Missouri Symphony
  • Kids Series, “World of Art: Found Objects” at the Museum of Art and Archeology
  • Fourth of July “Fire in the Sky” and Children’s Activities
  • Family Summer Camp at Bass Pro
  • Outdoor movies and concerts
  • Numerous parks, including a couple with splash parks

Only a short drive away, there are many farms we could visit, including Warm Springs Ranch, where 16 baby Clydesdale horses were born this year.

In Hannibal, Missouri, they will be celebrating the 57th Annual Tom Sawyer Days, complete with fence-painting contests, frog-jumping contests, a “Mighty Miss” raft face, concerts, and more.

And there is always bowling, fishing, swimming, picnicking, going to movies, going to the river, camping out, biking, hiking, caving, and so on, depending on how adventurous we feel.

On days when we want to stay home, my grandaughter has asked if I would teach her to sew, and we can come up with lots of other games and crafts and stories to fill the time.

We are also only two hours from either St. Louis or Kansas City, so we could take any number of day trips while the children are here to visit the zoo, Lego Land, the Steamboat Arabia Museum, Six Flags, the Botanical Garden, the Science Center, Grant’s Farm, or take a ride on the light rail train.

With all these things to do, I bet the grandchildren will hardly notice we don’t have a television or video games. What do you think? (I’ll let you know how that theory works out. Did I mention the children are 14, 12, and 8 years old?)

Reinventing our living space

When we first moved into our house many years ago, my sons were 9 and 2 years old, and the downstairs made a perfect den for two growing boys–finished enough to look civilized but not so fussy that I worried about damage. We put down a heavy-duty industrial carpet that refused to show dirt. The holes in the wall behind the dart board could be patched easily enough. The furniture could be reupholstered. The downstairs was the kids’ zone. Over the years the den has been transformed many times to suit their changing needs. At one time the room featured a pingpong table and mini trampoline. There was plenty of room to set up race tracks or electric trains or make tents with sheets and light-weight blankets over the furniture. Later, the entertainment center took over, as the kids gathered their friends around to watch movies or play video games.

Likewise, the bedrooms in the house changed over the years to meet the changing needs of the family. At first my older son liked the room tucked away in the back downstairs, away from meddling little brother and parents. But before too long, he felt lonely and wanted to move upstairs with the rest of the family. We gave the boys the 11 x 22 foot master bedroom, with their bunk bed set down the middle to delineate Matt’s side from Isaac’s side of the room, and we parents took the smaller room next door, which at least had the advantage of windows facing the woods, so we woke to morning sun and birdsong.

Eventually, though, little brother was 7 years old and big brother was 13 and very much needing his privacy, so we decided to put up walls in the den and build him a room of his own.  However, before we could finish building his room,  his 13-year-old cousin Melissa came to live with us. The boys still shared the big room upstairs, and technically, we had a spare bedroom downstairs that we could have put Melissa in, but we wanted her to feel welcome, so the adults moved bedrooms again–this time downstairs to the room in the basement that Matt had started out in. (We doubted very seriously that we would feel “lonely” down there but were certainly willing to take our chances.)

Years later, the kids have moved on and built lives for themselves. Matthew is 32 and a captain in the Army, with one son and two stepchildren. Isaac is 26, married, and finishing up his PhD in molecular biology. Melissa is 32, a registered nurse, with a 3-year-old and a new baby on the way. I have remarried, and it’s time to transform the house again to fit our new lives. Although it feels like moving backwards in some ways (and I feel somewhat bad about losing a space that was so important at the time), we have taken the walls back out to open up the space again. We took up the carpet and painted the floor, boxed in the duct work and the support poles, replaced the ceiling tiles, put in additional lights, and added a 3-way switch at the bottom of the stairs (and by “we,” I mean the contractors who actually know how to do these things, as opposed to the earlier remodeling project that we did ourselves and which took months, if not years, to finish).

We have in mind a place we can have people over to play music and dance, but we still have extra bedrooms for family to spend the night.

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Getting ready for Grandma camp!

The grandkids are coming! The grandkids are coming! I have three grandchildren, but unfortunately they live two states over (and one of those states is Kansas, so you know that’s a long ways away), so I don’t get to see them often enough. The oldest is 14, the middle one is almost 12, and the youngest is 8. Last summer we took the two oldest ones to Cumberland Dance Week, which was a whole lot of fun, but their mom didn’t think the youngest one would want to be so far away from her for that long. Personally, I think he would have had a great time, but we didn’t try to fight it. It was just too complicated trying to figure out how to get them from Colorado to Missouri and then on to Kentucky for the camp and back. The younger one has never flown before, so that wasn’t a good option, and it didn’t seem right to have them ride in a car all those miles on their vacation. So this year we settled on “Grandma Camp” at my house.

Now I just need to come up with a list of fun things to do. The good thing about dance camp was that someone else planned all the activities and prepared all the meals. And even then, after extremely full days of activities that went from 6:00 a.m. when we got up for breakfast to 11:00 p.m. when we returned to our room after the last dance, it took until Wednesday before the middle one admitted that he might be a little tired and didn’t fight going to bed. I don’t know that I can do as well keeping them entertained, but I’m going to give it a good try. The only requests they have made so far are bowling and movies, and the 14-year-old wants me to teach her to sew.

Fortunately, I’ll have help, because my son will also be here during these two weeks. He is driving up from Fort Benning, where he is now stationed, and will meet the kids’ mother in Kansas to bring them to my house. But I’m accepting suggestions of things to do with 8, 12, and 14-year-olds!

Stephan, Jearid, and Bethany at the zoo

Games We Used to Play

This journal entry from 1996 sure brought back memories. My older son is now a captain in the Army, and my younger son is a scientist on a research trip to Antarctica, and I am very glad I took the time to play games with my kids when they were young. If I had only known then how fast those years would go, I would have played even more!

From December 1996

This Christmas, my younger son, who is ten, asked for several board games, which we have been playing on our days off. When I take the time to sit with him at the table for a few minutes and play a game of Yahtzee or Mancala or Catch Phrase and stop worrying about the endless piles of clutter;

When I stop for a moment;

When I decide the dishes in the sink can wait;

When our older son, exasperrated, finally gives in to his insistent younger brother and sits at the table with the family to play guessing games;

When my husband and I give up trying for the time being to find some time for ourselves, to stop looking at the house and these children as just a phase to get through so we can finally be what we think we’d like to be: artists with no responsibility but to our muses;

When we can stop the endless chatter in our heads for a moment, the droning list of have-to’s, ought-to’s, and shoulds playing day and night like elevator music;

When I can choose to be there for my son and stop saying, “just a minute,” “after I do this one thing,” “I’m almost there”;

When I can shut my eyes to the piles of clutter on the counter;

When I can just stop and look at this child, who seems so small in many ways and yet will outgrow me over the next year;

And take the pair of dice in my hands;

Feel their cool sides, their solid weight, the way they knock together in my cupped hands;

When I can focus all my attention on wishing for a certain toss of the die, share my son’s excitement when he rolls to an inside straight, know how important it is to roll the right combination;

Important enough to call certain rolls fair or unfair.

Then I feel a deep satisfaction and a quiet joy, and I am grateful for my son, who does not need to be reminded to play.

While we play, I think about a lot of things. I realize with some surprise that I think real families are supposed to play games together, although I don’t have any memories of that ever happening in my childhood, so I’m not sure where that thought comes from. Certainly, my husband and I have not done much in the way of playing games with our own children, although we try from time to time, like this Christmas.

Games I remember from childhood include Chinese checkers, checkers, parcheesi, dominos, a box of 64 games like Fox and Hens, but I associate those with my brother, not with my parents. I remember playing card games when I got older, including a complicated game called something like Shanghai Rummy, which you played with two decks and a sequence of hands you had to play. (Was that a game someone made up during some war? Where did that name come from?) My mom and dad used to play chess from time to time. Then after my brother learned to play chess, he would challenge dad, and it became a kind of show-down for them. I vaguely remember Monopoly and Life. I can’t imagine my grandparents playing any kind of board or card games, but grandaddy played basketball and football growing up. My older son enjoys live-action role play and computer games but has never cared much for board or card games, except for Magic the Gathering, which he played for several years.

What is it about different kinds of games that makes one kind fun and another not so fun? What purpose do games play? Why do they seem so important?

Games I Used to Play

  • jacks
  • jump rope
  • Strut Miss Lucy
  • Drop the Handkerchief
  • Red Rover
  • Red Light Green Light
  • Chinese jump rope
  • double dutch
  • tiddly winks
  • bingo
  • checkers
  • Chinese checkers
  • parcheesi
  • tic tac toe
  • scrabble
  • Monopoly
  • Old Maid
  • Go Fish
  • Memory
  • Pay Day
  • Life
  • Mouse Trap
  • caroms
  • dominos
  • poker
  • Crazy 8s
  • Uno
  • Wink
  • mancala
  • Yahtzee
  • freeze tag
  • The Price is Right
  • Hi Ho Cherry Oh
  • hide and seek
  • 20 questions
  • alphabet game
  • kick ball
  • duck duck goose
  • marbles

My Three “Only” Children

I can’t believe I haven’t written about my children yet. They are without a doubt my favorite topic of conversation and my main claim to fame. I have never been particularly ambitious and still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I always knew I wanted to have children. And I definitely got some good ones. They are extremely intelligent, funny, compassionate individuals. They are also hard-working, independent, moral beings, who hold high standards and care about the common good. Even if they weren’t related to me, I would like and admire these people. Together they have taught me many of the important things I know.

My older son, Matthew, is a captain in the Army and the most serious of the three, but he has a wicked sense of humor and a way of looking at the world that shines a bright light on absurdity and hypocrisy. He enjoys collecting photos of signs that are just “wrong” and sharing them on Facebook. Recently, he asked me, “Am I the only one that sees these things?” The fact that he has maintained any sense of humor at all is rather miraculous, after three deployments to war zones in the past ten years (twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan). He was in college in New York when the Trade Center towers came down, and he enlisted immediately under a deferred enlistment plan, determined to do something in response. He reported for duty the day after he graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology. Over the years he has taught me much about perseverance and indomitable spirit.

Melissa is a nurse and the mother of a three-year-old son Ian. Technically, Melissa is not my child, but she lived with us for several months when she and Matthew were both thirteen, so I claim her anyway. For years she has called me Aunt Mom (and now her son calls me Aunt Grandma). Her husband thinks that makes us all sound like a bunch of hicks, but I love it. These days, she is doing an amazing job balancing her work as a nurse with raising an energetic three-year-old and maintaining a house. This week she posted on Facebook that the plumber was coming “to save her basement from the poop fountain.” Melissa has taught me that even when life really sucks, you can still maintain your positive outlook and sense of humor. She is one of the most open, generous, and kindhearted people I know.

Isaac, the youngest, is a PhD student in molecular biology, currently spending his second season in Antarctica doing research, but he has never let hard work get in the way of a good time. He makes friends everywhere he goes and has never run short of ideas for fun things to do. Many of the photos I have seen from McMurdo Station in blogs and on Facebook show him playing guitar or dressed up in a fish costume at the Halloween party or standing out in the snow for an Occupy Antarctica photo shoot. Isaac enjoys life and has always just assumed things would go his way. More often than not, they do. When he was in middle school, he once asked if he could have money for a field trip. When I asked how much money and where they were going, he said nonchalantly, “$1000. France.” His wife is meeting him in Sydney, Australia, in December, when he comes off the Ice. From him I have learned that friends are important, and it “never hurts to ask for what you want.”

I am so thankful that these wonderful young people are part of my life. The world is a better place because they are in it.

Time to Make Plans for the Holidays

I’m thinking about the holidays again and wondering what we should do for Christmas this year (where to go and what to buy for my family). It might be simpler if we had at least some well-established traditions, but it seems that every year we do something different. Some years we stay home and just take off work Christmas day and New Year’s day, saving our vacation days for later. Some years we travel to visit family out of state. Some years we go to Christmas dinner at a friend’s house in town. Some years we dance all week at Christmas Country Dance School in Berea, Kentucky. Depending on what we decide to do each year, we might put up a tree and lights, or we might not.

My family is so spread out that we have a difficult time getting everyone together—me in Missouri, mom in Kentucky, dad in South Carolina, brother in Florida, niece in Pennsylvania, grandchildren in Colorado, one son in Georgia, and another son in Antarctica (until he returns home to Oregon). The last time we all managed to coordinate our schedules and meet at my mother’s house for Christmas was 2008. Even then, two of the grandchildren couldn’t make it because they were with their father. We have never all made it to my father’s place at the same time.

Time to put our heads together and come up with some plans for Christmas.

We also lack solid traditions concerning gift giving. Our family enjoys exchanging gifts, but we don’t like to shop, and we worry about the commercialism and waste that are rampant this time of year. We tend to be fiscally conservative, and we don’t need a lot of stuff to make us happy. Consequently, the gift exchange can be rather random. You never know what you might get (or what you might end up giving). But you can make some reasonable guesses. Books are a favorite, as are calendars, and hand-made journals. Consumable items (fancy teas or fair-trade coffees or other food items) are common. Anything recyclable or environmentally friendly. Often we give donations to favorite charities in each other’s names. We sometimes make things for each other or re-gift family heirlooms or valued objects. We buy from local authors and get them to sign personalized copies for each other. We purchase hand-crafted jewelry or pottery or fiber from local artisans.

You will almost certainly never get trendy new appliances or electronics from any of us. Our family’s gifts will never make the “top ten” list of hot new items. If you want a Kindle or a Wii or an iGrill or an iPad or an Angry Bird, you’ll have to buy it yourself, not necessarily because we disapprove of such gifts but because we prefer to give surprises. Of course, not everyone enjoys receiving surprises. They prefer to know exactly what they are getting. I’m thinking of my older son, who once asked why we spend money on things that others might not even like. Why not skip the whole gift-giving thing, or just give everyone permission to buy ourselves what we really want? Interesting point. We do occasionally give gift cards, especially to grandchildren, or in years when we are completely overwhelmed and incapable of coming up with a more thoughtful gift.

My ideal presents are based on memories of Christmas as a child. We did not have a lot of money, but we had more than some people, and my parents did what they could to make Christmas special. The best gifts were both beautiful and useful. I don’t remember getting a lot of toys, although I probably did. I do remember getting a new doll every year and some kind of game or toy that I had never seen before, that was a surprise to me, one I hadn’t asked for but was delighted to have. I also remember getting gifts such as pajamas or house shoes or a new outfit that, despite their practical nature, were special in some way, if only because they were not hand-me-downs or home-made, like many of our everyday clothes. Then after the excitement of opening presents and stockings had passed, the gifts that I returned to, the ones that lasted, were the books or the paint-by-number sets or the craft items.

The year I got a Chatty Cathy doll and my brother got a Caspar doll for Christmas

In 2008, the year we all decided to meet at mom’s (the first Christmas after her stroke), we did actually skip the traditional gift-giving portion of the Christmas celebration. Since most of us had to spend quite a lot on travel, and since it had been a stressful year in other ways, we decided to “cancel Christmas,” as mom put it, and just focus on being together as a family. Although it felt strange at first, it did take a lot of pressure off, during a hectic time of year. However, since we couldn’t completely let go of the idea of buying presents for each other, we compromised by drawing names and setting a limit of $20 on each gift. (Of course, some people are more fun to buy for than others.)

We also did a white elephant gift exchange, which confused some people but turned out to be a lot of fun. The hot item was a roll of aluminum foil, which my younger son’s girlfriend (now wife) quickly and miraculously formed into a crown, a sceptor, and a sword, impressing us all with her creativity and spirit of fun. My mom said, “Good thing Sandra got the aluminum foil and not me. I would have just cooked with it.”

All I want for Christmas is a roll of aluminum foil.