The Little Girl

Scene: the local market today- it’s a small grocer, not a mega-market. There was an old man pushing a cart. He looked to be a grandfather- wearing a bowling shirt, pants belted high above his natural waist, velcro shoes, Mark Twain-ish white hair. He had a little girl with him, dressed in red and white party dress and maryjane shoes, with puffy pigtails tied with bright red ribbon. The man was white, the child was black.

We entered the sliding doors at the same time- he with the girl, and me alone. The girl was full of exuberance, and danced around the cart, requesting items and expending energy, and kids do in the grocery store. I assumed he might be her grandfather, until I heard her address him as “daddy”. Despite her cheerfulness and general childlike happiness, there was a running diatribe the most toxic criticism I have ever heard directed at anyone- let alone a child. And it never stopped. It was shocking enough that I turned around and asked him if there was anything I could do to help him- I was careful in how I spoke, but his words to the girl left me stinging and stunned. He brushed me off and told me he was fine, and immediately returned to verbally abusing the child.

I didn’t know what to do.

Making my way hesitantly down the aisle, I could still hear him- telling her to shut up, to leave him alone, to stop every last thing, from moving to chatting, to looking what he clearly perceived as the wrong way. I met the eyes of other patrons in the store, and I could see scowls and glances that mirrored my own- by the time I went to pay, the store was very quiet. The people in line were all listening to the same thing I was, and eyes slid over one another in confusion.

He seemed oblivious, and continued his unceasing verbal cruelty.

Had I seen someone physically abusing a child, I wouldn’t hesitate to step in. Instead, I stood in the checkout line, my back burning with indignation and growing horror at the old man, and shifted uncomfortably. I worried about what she might face at home if I approached him again. I wondered if I was over-reacting. I told myself it was none of my business, that a passing observation in a market is not enough to extrapolate a life situation. She remained cheerful and chatty throughout.

I can’t stop thinking about the little girl.

Memorial Day

IMG_1501When I was little, Memorial Day meant a three-day long picnic with my extended family and family-friends. It meant swimming in the creek, catching frogs, playing volleyball, riding dirt bikes and horses in the dusty red clay of the California canyons and swinging on an old wooden swing over the ravine from my favorite oak tree. There were bonfires, pickup baseball games, and a whole pig, every year, cooked in the ground. Memorial Day comprises many of the happiest memories of my childhood. (Also, clearly shirts were optional in 1978)

I sometimes kick around the idea starting a tradition like my family had- but the truth is, Memorial Day means something different to me— despite being forever linked to these people. Most of the dads and uncles in my family are veterans. My own dad served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and for them, with it so fresh in their recent past, the way to remember, I suspect, was to forget. Living their lives freely in the manner they chose was a testament to their own sacrifices— and to those they lost. But as a child of this generation, I can only imagine. My dad (nor any of my uncles) has never chosen to speak of it or share their feelings. And that’s okay.

DSCF1033For us, their children, we are left to figure out for ourselves what Memorial Day means. I’ve opted for a more traditional route; I want my children to know, at least as well as they can, the sacrifices their family and grandfathers made. My own generation has largely escaped the societal-defining wars of our forefathers, and I wonder sometimes at our ability to take things for granted. We’ve reaped so much benefit from those who gave us this life, and at the very least, I hope and pray to foster appreciation and gratitude in my children.

It’s not always easy to do that, and sometimes it feels like I’m talking to the air. It’s my hope that in taking them to Arlington, to the World War II Memorial to see the thousands of bronze stars, can in some small way convey what it means to sacrifice and appreciate and serve others.

IMG_1817
Bean and Abby walking down the reflecting pool, towards the Lincoln Memorial. It’s Bean’s favorite walk.
IMG_1818

Catching Up: Part II

So I guess a whole lot actually happened while I was sleeping/hibernating. First, after umpteen years and just one too many falls from the bed, or Bean stepping on her for the third time, the Old Girl just couldn’t take it anymore. In our modern lives, our computers are kind of like horses were to the old west- personal, and you wouldn’t ride someone else’s horse. Long live the Old Girl. She’s still kicking, but more as a museum piece, now…

IMG_1417

We continued our General Conference tradition of breakfast for breakfast, lunch and dinner, much to the collective delight.

IMG_1533

I started taking commissions again, and this one went out to the west coast a week or two ago. It feels good to be painting again.

IMG_1514

We had Easter, and made some Pysanky eggs. The kids, despite appearances, did not wear their fuzzy ears into church.

IMG_1606 IMG_1627

Friends visited from out of town and across the nation… I’m along for the ride on some of these dinners- but I sure do know some cool people.

IMG_1347

Bean got a heavy bag, and the energy and glee this boy takes in boxing is a kind of stunning. He’s received a lesson in proper punching technique, and I’ve learned how to wrap his hands (YouTube is very handy). He learned how to ride his bike, too- which for kids with sensory stuff, is a massive milestone. But he doesn’t stop moving long enough to get anything but a blur.

IMG_1549

All three kids made honor role, and we went out to celebrate with frozen yogurt. This picture makes me silly happy.

IMG_1543

We followed this car the other day, and now the kids are obsessed with coming up with a version for us…

IMG_1751

Abigail: Eight Turns Round the Sun

Perhaps it’s a uniquely modern thing, but this situation is by no means unique- Abigail’s entire life is documented here. The boys were two and four when I started blogging, but I wasn’t yet pregnant with Abby. It was a hot, late-summer day at my mom’s house in California when I took a pregnancy test back in 2005, and Abby’s story began. Nine months of the worst pregnancy ever, and this beautiful little 9-pound butterball was the worth-every-moment result:

100_0640.0

She was greeted and loved by more people than I ever imagined, and the circles of our lives broadened and expanded, via this media her mama had embraced. Telling our stories is such a powerful tool for connecting with other human beings. As Riversong says, “We’re all stories in the end. Make it a good one.” I hope in telling our stories, as honestly and as humanly as possible, I have given her a firm foundation to know who she is where she comes from.

IMG_1677

Dear Abby,
Happy Birthday, my darling daughter. Here on the cusp of moving from girlhood into being a young woman, you daily amaze me. Your mind is a thing to behold- when people compliment me on you, “I just give her the raw materials and get out of her way.” It’s all you, babe. Truly.

For your birthday this year, you wanted a chemistry set, a centrifuge and roller skates. Perfection. We got the centrifuge taken care of the other day (though I’m sorry, I cannot buy one for you) and one of those boxes behind you has a brand spankin’ new pair of roller skates with purple wheels. Lately, you’ve discovered reading fiction, which is new for you. Your preference for textbooks and scientific journals is strong, but Black Beauty has opened your eyes to the beauty of a story. You bed is overflowing with books and notepads with diagrams and notes, and some nights when I kiss you goodnight, you have to push the piles out of the way to make room for your pillows. It seems to give you comfort and you never mind the sharing, so I let it slide. It’s your room, your bed.

For your birthday, a lovely friend out west heard you had been complaining about the inadequacy of toys to do real scientific work in excavation, and she sent you a pickax. I think it might be your favorite present ever. Grandma wants you to know she was slightly miffed that I hadn’t cued her in on this, and would have gotten you an ax instead of a bicycle, had she known.

IMG_1729

The look of happiness on your face makes me ridiculously happy. I always want you to know that kind of happiness. Whether it comes from a pickax or from getting into Harvard for grad-school (yes, you’re already looking at grad schools. It cracks me up- at 8, I hadn’t even started thinking about college, and didn’t know what grad school meant) I want happiness and joy in your life. It won’t always be that easy, and there will be days of clouds and trial- you already know this more than most girls your age. But you have everything you need to forge the kind of life you want, and you have a family that will do everything possible to cheer you on, and then get out of your way. I love you, baby girl.
Forever and ever,
Love,
Mama
IMG_1704

DNA Sequencing: STEM Girls

So a few weeks ago, Abby wandered into my room one morning and said “Mom? I need a centrifuge.” It was so off the wall, and so unexpected from a 7 year-old (but really, not so much from this particular one) it made me laugh. I tossed the quote up on Facebook as a funny, and within moments, a friend of mine who is a professor at a University here in Virginia messages me. She happened to have three centrifuges, and offered to host Abby while she conducted some experiments. In a real lab. At a university. With grad students. At 7 years old.

So off we went.

My friend Crystal has her Ph.D in biology, which is exactly what Abby wants to do, so she was positively giddy with excitement. While I kept expecting her to get nervous or be shy, she walked into that lab, put her safety glasses on, and started reading the mini-syllabus Crystal had written.

IMG_1579

Abby carefully read the directions, and got started swabbing each of our cheeks. The task for the day was to collect each of our DNA and sequence it, and see if we were all, in fact, related. Finally, proof that they’re all mine!

IMG_1580

Bean and Jeffrey were interested and cooperated, and we all learned about base pairs, A, G, T, C and how to grow those magical little chains of life in a lab. And to do so, we needed not only our cheeks and a carefully controlled environment, but we needed a CENTRIFUGE!

IMG_1578

Cells broken, separated, and DNA extracted, we moved onto making the gels and letting them cook in a bath of some sort (I really should have taken notes, and Abby is outside playing or she could tell me what I’m getting wrong.)EDIT: My other awesome scientist friend, Andrea, just  informed me- “That bath you cooked them in was a PCR machine that amplified the DNA to run in the gel.” Yep. She’s right.

IMG_1586 IMG_1595

While we waited for our results, we strolled around the lovely campus, and Bean chased Canadian Geese and ducks and refused to listen to me and stay away from the water, so all things were normal. It was a spectacular experience, and the fire of science-y goodness has been stoked and fed in my girl.

IMG_1589As I try and raise this child who, from what I can see thus far, has abilities far beyond my own, it’s become increasingly apparent how vital having mentors and gifted, generous friends is to provide the environment necessary. I know I simply cannot meet all of her needs, but the fact that we are in the place we are, surrounded by the people we are, is a truly great gift. The needs I can meet then become that much more enjoyable and personal to our relationship as mother and daughter. There are still days I am terrified at being her mother, honestly, but those days are fewer and further between when we can meet on our own ground, but when she knows there are no fences and she can go whatever direction she is called.

Thank you, Crystal, for making this foundational day possible for all of my kids, but most particularly for my girl, who wants to walk in those scientific footsteps. (The matching sweaters were pure coincidence. If you believe in coincidence.)

Catching Up for the Sake of Posterity

Just a quick recap to bridge a few of the holes in the narrative for my imagined grandkids someday- the only ones who will likely find this interesting or compelling.

January: Abby sneezed milk out of her nose, and her brothers had never been so impressed with her skills in her life. This was greatly disappointing to her, considering the amount of time she spends on honing her scientific skills and reading textbooks. Somehow, dimensional soil analysis and atmospheric stratification are just not as funny as milk spewing. At least to her brothers. We also enjoyed— ehem— a protracted Christmas break well into January, as Virginia schools closed with so much as a forecast of snow. Six days, yes six, was the extent of the January in-school calendar.

February: We rejoiced because we love us some Olympics. Jeffrey got all choked up during the opening ceremonies (me too, shhhhh!) and said “Mom, why don’t we do this instead of fight war?” Indeed, my child….indeed. Naive and silly or not, the Olympics always make me believe we can be just a little bit better. The hearts of the world unzipped themselves and poured out a waterfall of love on my boy, when Bean was forgotten in his classroom Valentine Party. It still chokes me up to think about the literal love that was sent.

IMG_1507March: The Valentines still poured in from all over the world. Truly unbelievable. We went bird-house building at the hardware store, and listened to the ice crack on our eves as the spring melt finally began. We went outdoor ice skating downtown, and all three kids were successful to varying degrees, but the big surprise was Bean. Jeff and Abby clung to the sides of the rink, while Bean let go and banzaai’d all flailing and crazy (but upright) down the center of the ice. The first crocuses poked their brave purple heads through the thawing ground, and we fell in love with the new Cosmos science show. Abby won a lottery and attended a NASA reception where she met astronaut Karen Nyberg. My girl was so brave, and even stood and asked some science-y questions and got mentioned on Twitter.

IMG_1669April: Abby asked for a centrifuge. Thankfully, I happen to have some awesome scientist friends and within hours, I had a date set at James Madison University with a professor who volunteered her centrifuges. There will actually be a post on that adventure-  we all tested our own DNA, and there’s no doubt they’re mine. Abby turned 8, and we celebrated with cake, ice cream and science. She’s been making electronic circuit boards and reading about coding ever since, with a small foray into Black Beauty, which she says is the “best book ever, after Jeffrey spoiled Charlotte’s Web”. All three of the monkeys made honor role for the first time ever, and we celebrated at The Cheesecake Factory, where Bean was sorely disappointed that Penny wasn’t our waitress. Take Your Kids to Work Day is in April, but it kind of sucks when mom works from home. Enter- superhero friends! Abby got to go spend the day at the State Department, and the boys got to spend the day at Homeland. Everyone was happy! April was busy.

IMG_1780May: Practicing for the end of the year Band Concert is great fun, when your son plays the baritone tuba. Between the tuba, the bagpipes, and the bugle, our neighbors must really love us. I’m hiring out the job of teaching Abby to ride her bike, as we both end up in tears every time we try. It’s better for both of our mental health if someone else does it. Someone decidedly not me. We try kite-flying instead, and are much more successful, with the kite only snagging in two trees and losing one spool of line. That should tell you how awesome the bike riding went. Mother’s Day is lovely- I marvel at how much I genuinely enjoy and adore my kids, now that the baby-years are in the rearview. I like having kids who don’t need me to be a human napkin or need me to constantly keep them from killing themselves. Wait… where’s Bean??!

Shoot the Moon

My fingers are starting to twitch, and the sun is warming the doorway of my cave, softening the edges of my hibernation. It’s been a long rest by all outward appearances, but the turmoil and unseasonal quiet in my secret heart has honed a restless edge to my dreams, while I circle between the moon and New York City.

The other day I was talking with a friend, and I realized I’ve been not only writing for the better part of a decade, but I’ve also been living very close to the edge for almost as long. She kindly pointed out, in all gentleness, that perhaps hibernation might have been needed after all that time. But I think I’m ready again to open up and walk back in the sunshine.

My life is not extraordinary. My upbringing was normal, my parents are good people, my siblings are great, my rebellion as a teenager consisted of piercing my ear with a needle and ice cube at a girlfriends house, which yielded me stunned disapproval from my mother which was more effective a punishment then anything else ever. Ever.

I cruised along, working, going to school off and on through my young adulthood, got a pretty decent job doing work I loved, traveled a bit professionally and for fun, I bought a convertible and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway and I wondered what would happen to my life. I wondered if I would get married, if I would have the kids I really wanted. It all seems so sweet and innocent looking back.

Of course we know how that part of the story went. I did get married, and I was ridiculously happy for a while. I had a baby. I had another baby. Autism entered my life. I started writing. I peed on a stick at my mom’s house and found out another baby was coming. It still felt terribly ordinary. After the worst pregnancy known to any human woman, I had a lovely healthy baby #3, and shortly thereafter, the bottom dropped out of our world.

It’s all in the archives, if anyone wants to know. It’s still hard for me to go over some of it. While I simply adore that tableaus and stories of my children’s young lives are preserved, there is so much pain just beneath the surface. It was impossible to keep hidden, at least given how I write, and it burst forth in a hail of broken shards: what drugs can do to lives, hopes and dreams. Stay away, kids. It’s bad news.

It’s been almost nine years since I first let my thoughts spill out onto the softly flickering screen.

And where are we now? Nowhere I ever could have imagined. And isn’t that fantastic? It is, when its not utterly terrifying. Quite often they’re the same thing. My friend Kate shared a quote by Ann Lamott recently that really struck me:

“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.”

So far, I think I’ve done a decent job. Staring my 40’s in the face though, I’m fairly confident I can do a better job at really living. At this point, there is so little be afraid of. One of the benefits of living life on the edge, of losing so much, is that you know— soul deep know— that your losses aren’t you. That even when all seems lost, there is hope, and there is redemption, and there is love, and that life is beautiful. While I have no desire to repeat some of the things that taught me those lessons, I am profoundly grateful for a life that allowed me that grace and the challenges that forged me into who I am today.

I’m taking Ann Lamott’s words to heart. I will not have a life full of “I wish I had”, but will strive for a life overflowing with creativity and fearlessness, that speak with effervescent love of “I’m so glad I did…” Onward, jiggly thighs and all.