“And Honey I Miss You” (How To Really Appreciate Your Spouse In Two Weeks Or Less…)

Today was my first Valentine’s Day without you.

Since you were in the restaurant business, it was always a really busy day for you. So it’s not like we went out to dinner or anything romantic like that. You were always at work, right?

Still…I knew I was your Sweetheart. And that mattered so much to me – even if we weren’t physically together. So I told myself all day today that it’s actually still true.

Look how I’m saving us money by being my own Grief Therapist!

It did hit me hard though. I feel completely untethered without you. For 35 years my entire existence was wrapped up in US.  You and me. Who we were together. I was always one half of a whole. I know that’s a very un-chic way to look at one’s life and relationships these days. Some who read this might suggest therapy for me because I approached our life that way.  It’s very anti-culture, but at least it was that way for both of us.

Anyway, I’ve gotten a million texts and phone calls from people letting me know they are thinking about me on my first Valentine’s Day alone.

You’d be so proud of me. I got our dishwasher fixed today!  All by myself.  Well, not actually all by myself.  So this guy, Josh, was sort’ve my Valentine. You know how much I’ve always hated dealing with workmen, but I’ve been washing dishes by hand since the day after you died, so it was worth it. He charged me $347.39, so maybe he didn’t feel the same way about me that I felt about him.

But when the dishwasher cycled all the way through, I kind’ve loved him a little.

I also had James’ car towed to the shop and am texting back and forth with the mechanic about what exactly is wrong and how much it will cost to fix it.

I took our new “Therapy Puppy” (read: pain in my arse) to the backyard to potty and swept out the pool while I was outside with him. You would be rolling over in your grave if you saw all the orange dirt coating the bottom of your pool. I knew you’d be so proud of me for thinking to sweep it while the puppy is peeing and the pool guy is fixing the automatic pool sweeper.

I also turned on the hose and put some water on that new little tree you planted out back and were obsessing about. That old Bobby Goldsboro song from the 60s keeps running through my head, “And Honey I miss you, and I’m being good…and I long to be with you, if only I could…”

Remember that song? You used to like to sing it every time I wrecked one of our cars.   You really wore it out that one time I wrecked one of our cars into our other car!!!

“She wrecked the car and she was sad, and so afraid that I’d be mad, but what the heck!”

I’m so sorry I wrecked so many of our cars, and I know how frustrated you always were with my less-than-stellar driving skills, but at least I gave you a lot of opportunities to belt out that song. And you know you loved that song, especially when it made me cry and I begged you not to sing it because it made me sad to think about one spouse trying to live alone after the other one is gone.

On a positive note, I’ve become a bit of an expert on death and grieving and grief-support these past few weeks. I feel like I could author some kind of a How-To pamphlet on “Responding to a Friend or Neighbor Struck by Tragedy and Grief.”

One thing that has captured my attention is how many people have texted, emailed and sent me cards telling me I’m the “strongest woman they know!” What in the world are they basing that on? The false bravado I displayed at your funeral? Or all the years I was brazen and ballsy when you were alive? What woman wouldn’t be strong with a man like you standing behind her?

Now, I’m all alone. It’s just me. How in the world does anyone have any idea how strong I actually am? In the past 4 months I’ve lost my mother and the Love of my Life. I’m not at all sure that I’m strong.  But I am on to everyone.   I think our dear and well-meaning friends are employing the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” You know the drill – just tell people positive things you want them to believe about themselves and they will embrace it, believe it, live it out.

I don’t blame them. It’s a great approach. We raised 5 kids that way.

I’m having trouble getting hot water for my bath in the morning. And you know my morning (afternoon/evening) bath is my only comfort. At first I thought it was all the people camping out and showering here after you died that were usurping our hot water supply. But then after everyone cleared out, the problem persisted.

I know you always told me in the wintertime I need to draw the hot first and then add enough cold to cool it down so I can get in without burning my skin. I never listened.

I’m going to do that tomorrow morning. Now that you’re gone, I’m going to try to start doing a lot of the things you said.

It’s crazy to me that so much of our stuff broke the week after you died. Are you up in heaven trying to prove some kind of a point? If you are, can I just cry “uncle” now and wake up?

Is that what this is really all about? Is this actually some Dickensonian tale like “A Christmas Carol,” where the spoiled wife wakes up and realizes it was all just a bad dream? And then she turns over a new leaf and finally appreciates her wonderful husband for all that he was to her?

If you would just walk through the door and say, “Just Kidding!” I promise I would never take you for granted again.

But I’m a tiny bit mad at you that I’ve got that stinkin’ song stuck in my head. And I hope you’re getting a little kick out of that somewhere.

“Neither One of Us Wants To Be The First to Say Goodbye” (Fairwell My Love…Goodbye)

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You know how sometimes you’ll meet a person and think to yourself or even tell everyone around you, “Oh my gosh, he was the nicest man you could ever want to meet!” Well, That wasn’t my husband.

I’m not saying he wasn’t nice, of course he was, he was nice and got nicer with age, as men tend to do. I’m just saying that “niceness” wasn’t the most overriding quality he left you with when you met him for the first time. He wasn’t out there trying to bowl you over with his charm.

Jim Blanchard was so much more than that.

He was good.

In fact, In all my life I never met a man who was, quite simply, more good.

Because he wasn’t licking you up one side and down the other, blinding you with his sparkle, it would be so easy for an obtuse or distracted person to overlook or even miss altogether the substantive qualities that made him the finest man many of us will ever have had the privilege of knowing.

And I… I had the privilege to be his wife and the mother of his children, I worked for him (although I’m sure if he’s reading this right now, he’s saying my work claim “is debatable!”)

I kept his home, I kept his kids, I kept his bank accounts and I kept his heart. What all of that provided me with was a close -up, behind-the-scenes hidden camera view. A front row seat like no other, into the way this man truly conducted himself in every facet of his life. I never once in all those years saw that man’s character, his integrity or his commitment waver.

And trust me I watched hard.

When I started dating Jimmy, (we were both 18)  to use an antiquated phrase, I “set my cap for him” and I’ll just admit right here and now, he was entirely out of my league. He was extremely handsome, remarkably intelligent and possessed a confident James Dean swagger that was both indefinable and irresistible. We had a large group of friends who witnessed this romance unfolding and forecasted “uh-oh this ends badly for this girl”. “She’s bound to get hurt”. “She’s way out of her depth”.

The piece they hadn’t reckoned on was that, oddly enough,  Jimmy had a penchant for curly red headed girls. On our first date, we parked out in front of the lakes on the campus of LSU and stared shoulder to shoulder straight ahead at the water talking about life. He had such a reputation as a renegade with a tough guy exterior that I decided to dig deep, “Do you love ANYBODY?” I asked.

He seemed taken aback – surprised and said, “I love my grandmother and my mom.” Some little part of this 18 year old girl was enchanted and enthralled by the raw glimpse of vulnerability and thought, “Ooooh I think I can work with this!” There’s nothing that a teenage girl loves more than a tough outer shell with a soft, sweet center.

Ask any M&M you know…

A few years later, when we were married, there was a bit of a snafu on our wedding day and the cousin who was supposed to transport Jimmy’s beloved aforementioned grandmother to our wedding dropped the ball somehow. After the event was over and we were driving away from the reception, Jimmy got to the end of the pull-through, laid his head on the steering wheel and started to cry. I was of course alarmed as any new bride covered in hopes and rice and future dreams would be. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I just never thought I wouldn’t be with my grandmother on my wedding day. Can we go to her?”

But of course we could.

So, he in a white tux, me in a long dress and veil, looking like little bride and groom figurines snatched right off the top of a wedding cake, drove over 2 hours across a dark Louisiana swamp called The Atchafalaya Basin to a small Cajun nursing home where the residents lined the halls cackling and fussing in their native French language – so excited were they to see a bride and groom in full wedding regalia, certainly not your everyday sight in a nursing home.

We turned the corner into his grandmother’s room. She was sitting there in her wheelchair, clutching her rosary beads, head bent in prayer, when she looked up and burst into tears of shock and surprise at the site of her adored grandson as a groom. He knelt on the floor and laid his head in her lap while she made the sign of the cross over him and said again and again, “My Jimmy, my Jimmy you make marry dat girl? You make marry dat girl?”

That scene is burned indelibly in both my heart and my mind. He knew that she sat in that wheelchair all day thinking that she had been forgotten.

And the “peace that surpasses all understanding” enveloped me fully and I knew right then and there that I had chosen well.

So I stood there in that doorway and I thanked our God for the gift of this Great Man, who to the naked eye still looked so much like a boy. And I thanked Our Heavenly Father for whatever rare sliver of wisdom or insight on my part gave me such a bold confidence to pursue him. And then we turned around and drove the 2 hours back to Baton Rouge, packed our car with our wedding gifts and left for Little Rock that night – because Jimmy was in the restaurant business and had to work the next day.

There are hundreds more stories like that. Anecdotes that exemplify the character of this man, his unique leadership style, hilarious stories about his unorthodox approach to developing people, both employees and his own offspring.

I imagine those of us who know the stories and those of you who just want to hear them may sit around for hours laughing and remembering and recounting them. But Fr. Ray said I should probably limit my remarks this morning to 15 minutes or so…

But that’s okay, because I’m pretty sure that on the Seventh Day God said, “Let there be Charlestons and Let there be Mahogany” so that My People can relocate their party.

Early on in our marriage, I took a bible study where I was introduced to the concept of tithing. Apparently, unbeknownst to me and Jimmy, God had issued a mandate, expecting us to give away 10% of our income! All the young wives were encouraged to discuss this with their husbands that very evening. Well I wasn’t worried one bit. I knew we were “off the hook,” as my husband was a very frugal man who would never agree to such an outlandish request, even if it did come straight from The Lord.

But I went ahead and told him about it that night and surprisingly and enthusiastically he said, “you know what – I’m in! Absolutely! Set up an entirely separate bank account and we’ll call it the tithe account. Slice 10% off the top of everything I make from here on out and deposit it in there and we will give it all away!”

But it was the way Jimmy gave it away that was noteworthy. Of course the Catholic Church received from us, but Jimmy very quietly behind the scenes paid his employee’s doctor bills, he paid his cooks’ children’s hospital bills, he paid their immigration fees to reunite them with their families. He gave people cars so they could get to work, made various orphans’ tuition payments and helped other people get back on their feet after a personal life disaster. But it was always very low-key. And, were I to ever utter a word of praise for him in public, he would’ve given me that withering “Jim Blanchard look.” For him, Christian charity was quiet, low key and personal, which is why you never saw us at fancy charity galas.  But I must allow for the fact that he also just didn’t like to wear a tux…

Recently, I caught wind of the fact that a few of Tommy’s friends were teasing him about how many kids we had in our family – saying surely Tommy, being number 5, must have been an “accident.” It was all in good fun. I think they just rationally found it hard to believe in this day and age people would purposely have 5 kids. I’m leading with this to try in some way, if at all possible, to illustrate Jimmy as a father…

One day when we lived in Phoenix, Jimmy came to me and said, “I  need TO TALK TO YOU. We are missing someone!”

I looked across the playroom at a sea of children’s heads. Our tweenage daughter’s 13 and 10 and our 5 year old daughter and 2 year old son and said, “1-2-3-4! No HONEY, everyone is present and accounted for!”

 He said, “That’s not what I mean! I’m talking about when I look over my shoulder as I’m backing our van out of the driveway for mass and I see all those little faces looking back, a very strong feeling comes over me that there’s someone else who’s supposed to be back there, someone who isn’t here yet. I think God has a little soul he’s wanting to give us ….I’m trying to say our family is not yet complete”

I don’t know how another woman walks away from a conversation like that, but suffice it to say, I was pregnant pretty soon after. I didn’t find it necessary to take a pregnancy test right away – I kept putting Jimmy off despite his badgering me. But on Thanksgiving day I guess he couldn’t wait another minute. He busted into the bedroom that morning with a brown bag from Walgreens, handed me the stick – pointed to the bathroom and said, “Go!” I came back and handed him the positive result. He was beside himself with joy, because I guess He wanted to give Thanks on Thanksgiving day.

Some of you may see this as an example of how much we adore our Tommy. And we do. He is undoubtedly cherished. But remember at this point we didn’t even know the kid. This story is really a testimony of the unfathomable joy the other 4 children brought their Dad every single minute of every single day. The man didn’t golf, play tennis, hunt, fish or go to Vegas. If he wasn’t working, he was daddying. The word Daddy was a verb in our house.

I think I would like to conclude all of this by describing to you the last few days of Jimmy’s life.

Three days before he was killed, last Thursday, I was at our daughter’s home babysitting our grandson when Jimmy swung by on his way to work. I let him in, he gingerly took the infant from my arms and sat down in their rocking chair cooing and stroking and loving on him. I sat on the couch beside them smiling and tearing up and thinking ironically that the greatest tragedy of my life was that my mother (who worshipped the very ground Jim Blanchard trod upon) died the day after Luke was born and would never be privy to the beautiful scene I was witnessing. The Great big man in a motorcycle jacket rocking the tiniest little replica of himself.  (And Yes- for those that appreciate irony, I was actually sitting there thinking one week ago that was the greatest tragedy of my life.)

At that moment Jimmy snuggled closer to Luke, deeply inhaled his baby scent, looked over at me, I’m not going to say he exactly cried, but his eyes glazed over a bit and he hoarsely whispered, “We got to do this 5 times! 5 times. Man – We were blessed!”

A lot of you know my precious mother died just a few months ago. I think Jimmy and I both thought I would be doing better by now and a little further along in the grief process, but the very day after that, last Friday, my grief was so palpable to him that it seemed to be affecting my health. He sat on the edge of our bed, wiping the tears off my cheeks from a sad dream and said,

I’m going to take the day off and we are going to stay in our jammie-lammies all day long. I know we have the baby  today, so I’ll cart his swing and a stack of bottles and diapers up to the media room and we can binge-watch our Netflix series until Emilie picks him up!”

And that’s just what we did. When Our daughter arrived to pick up her baby, Jimmy ran up to Panda Express and got us some dinner. We were standing in the kitchen making our plates and he asked me if I was feeling better.  I answered honestly,

A little bit. I just feel so lost, orphaned, abandoned without my mother here. She was my everything until the day I met you. In fact, I shudder to think how terrible life would be for me if I ever were to lose you…”

Jimmy paused dramatically to give it all some thought and these are the poignant words of wisdom and comfort that he laid upon my heart:

He said:

Hey I hear that! You know I was reading recently that in those Viking cultures, oftentimes when a Viking warrior died, they just buried his wife alive in the cave with him. I don’t know what those chics did in there all that time, but I would imagine they starved to death eventually!”

I was quiet and pensive for a moment.  Sensing my hesitation he added,

We would definitely get you some Swedish fish and Milk Duds and Coca Cola in there to tie you over for awhile…”

He had a quirky sense of humor, but honestly I don’t think he ever wanted to face life OR death without me.

In the early days of our marriage when Jimmy worked 90 hours a week, I took care of every aspect of his life that didn’t involve the actual running of a restaurant. I selected his outfit for the day, coordinated his necktie, laid out his underwear, brought him his coffee and ran a bead of toothpaste in a straight line down the bristles of his toothbrush while he was in the shower. But somewhere along the line, I dunno, maybe after the 5 kids or after he mellowed a bit, all the tables turned.

Somewhere along the line, Jimmy became solely responsible for:

-Turning on our tv …. I have no understanding how our remote control works
-Keeping track of all of our prescriptions, what I’m allergic to, how many migraine pills I had taken and when I could take another.
-He kept gas in my car, air in my tires and something that has to do with oil.
-Almost every night he brought me home a key lime pie, or a slice of mahogany chocolate cake, unless I was on a strict diet in which case he only brought a container of sour balls.
-He drew my bath in the morning after he made my coffee, but before he woke me up.
-And kept me supplied in those cheater-reader glasses. He was so proud he never paid for them. He got them from from the lost and found at the restaurants.

Saturday night, the night before he was killed I said, “Im congested, I can’t breathe through my nose,” he said, “if I leave right now I can get to Walgreens before they close.”

When he got home he unpackaged the bottle of Afrin , but the main thing is that he stood there handing me the spray and worrying aloud that maybe he should throw out the child proof cap because he didn’t think I’d ever be able to get it open the following week when he was in Kansas City. I told him it was fine – don’t worry about it. As usual, He was right. The very next night after they told me what had happened to my Hero, I sobbed and cried until I couldn’t breathe. Of course I got congested.  And when I reached for my bottle of Afrin from the night before I couldn’t get the lid off.

I guess the good news is that so many have offered to help me, I may start a sign up sheet for people who want to volunteer to do some of these things.

I recognize a lot of you younger people out there that I know looked up to Jimmy as a kind’ve pseudo-father figure. You may not think I know about each and every one of you because of his reserved public persona, but believe me, he would come home and tell me and tell me and tell me about you. I know he was your role model and your mentor. Believe me when I tell you how much joy it brought him as he witnessed you moving along your upward trajectories through our company or even on to other successes. So many of you were constantly checking back in with him later on your progress. Each one of you mattered to him more than you’ll ever know. Being a part of your lives meant the world to him.

To Jimmy’s mother, Mimi, I want you to know that sometimes he would look over at something I said or did or just the way that I handled a situation and say, “I married my mother!” But it was always and only when I had done something or behaved in a way that he found beautiful. He always told me you were a “Saint” and the sweetest woman on the face of the earth. I am so so sorry for your pain in losing him. I hope it gives you some measure of comfort to know he loved and cherished all you did for him his entire life.

Likewise to his siblings, Jimmy was so proud of y’all and your relationships. Every time one of y’all did something wonderful, he would say, “but of course – we are the best!”

To our own 5 children, I would say this: if Daddy had any faults it might have been that he took care of us too well… But what a legacy he left behind in y’all. Each of you is beautiful and smart and nice. But like your daddy, you’re so much more than nice. You are good. Partly because you inherited it and partly because you grew up basking in his shadow as he demonstrated everything he considered to be a teachable moment.

And didn’t he just consider everything to be a teachable moment?

So we will link arms and marshall this army forward without our General. But He left us with one heck of a blueprint. And, Who cares if we don’t know how to put air in the tires, you know what? if we can’t figure out how to get the air in, we can just buy new tires, I think they sell new ones that come with air. And if we don’t know how to replicate Dad’s extravagant Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, we can just order pizzas.

Because I believe what Daddy did leave us is so much more important. Buried deep in your DNA and life experience is a mixture of strength, resiliency and a strong stubborn Cajun survival streak that can never be denied.

One last final thought- Jimmy and I loved to sing to one another. We sang constantly and sent each other you tube videos of performances or lyrics or songs we wanted the other to appreciate. The very last link he sent me was Styx singing “Don’t Let It End.” Underneath the link he had typed the words, “Man these guys had it going on!” If you have time later and you want your own private moment with Jimmy, pull it up on your phone and listen to it with him.

But Besides rock, we loved the Motown Sound and one of our favorite artists through the years was Gladys Knight. Besides the song that we played in the video last night, (My Life Story) she sings another song we both adored. The only problem is every time Jimmy would serenade me with this particular song, I would burst into tears. Cue the floodworks of sobs and tears. Every. single. time.

So much so that I had no choice but to issue a Song Ban forbidding him from singing it. Which honestly he thought was a little hilarious. He would get all high and mighty and tell me “Tiny Red – you can’t just Willy-Nilly BAN a song!” But because it upset me so much he finally promised me he would never sing it again.

And I’ll never sing it either. Because Neither One Of Us Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye…

Fair well my love – good-bye…

“I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” (Time Never Flies Faster Than When You’re Watching A Child Grow)

 

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That’s just your FOMO kicking in!” explained my daughter’s chic urbane friend, taking another sip of his equally chic cocktail in the equally chic rooftop bar where were seated, enjoying a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline.

It was my annual trip to New York City, where I get a crash course in everything youthful and au courant.

My what?”

Your FOMOfear of missing out!” I was enormously grateful to Bobby for enlightening me on the trendy diagnosis for a condition I’ve suffered from my entire life.  I’m always more than eager to slap a label on my neuroses.

Not to mention how affirming it is to know that there are enough people exhibiting my particular malady that it warranted it’s own acronym.

For as long as I can remember, no matter how busy I’ve been or how tired I was, I’ve participated in things I had zero interest in, on the off-chance something exciting or interesting might happen that I wouldn’t want to miss or be left out of.

Ever since I learned FOMO is a “thing,” I’ve noticed it runs in my entire family. It might be a learned behavior, but it’s more than likely in our DNA.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that FOMO is why our 4 month old grandson doesn’t sleep. He simply can’t bear to miss any action.

Yesterday, he went to his second day of daycare and they wrote it in his official daily report:

Baby.
Does.
Not.
Sleep.

Thanks so much, but we already knew that.

I did tell my daughter it was validating, nonetheless, to have Real Life Baby Professionals confirming our “layman-esque” observations.

Basically, this child has been awake since September. As have we all now.

Oh sure, I guess he’s dozed off a few times. But not for long. And he comes across a little apologetic when he does fall asleep, like “Oh my goodness, I think I might have nodded off for a sec – what’d I miss?”

We are always very reassuring. “Nothing much! Your Grandmother loaded the dishwasher or threw in a quick load of laundry!” (If I have him) or “Your mom shaved her legs or wrote a brief” (if his mother has him). Anything to encourage him that sleeping = okay and you didn’t miss anything exciting.

We are a family that generally believes in the overall concept of sleep. We just don’t actually do it ourselves.

We own all the latest gear though. We have beds, sheets, pillows, blankets, pajamas and sound machines. The only sleep-inducing prop we don’t own is a pasture full of sheep for counting.

For the little people in our lives we have books, lullabies, rocking chairs and bedtime stories.

For the adults we have novels, television, melatonin, soothing-sounds-of-the-sea and the occasional shot of vodka.

We are just notoriously terrible sleepers.

And now I know why. It’s the FOMO. We are just afraid something’s going to happen that we don’t want to miss.

The good news for us these days is, if this baby is going to grow and develop at Mach Speed, changing every minute of every day, faster than we can keep up, we may as well stay awake and watch the transformation unfold.

When our first child was born, my husband’s grandmother, who was in her seventies at the time, gave us a piece of framed needlework to hang on the wall.  It read:

Cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow…for babies grow up we’ve learned to our sorrow…so quiet down cobwebs…dust go to sleep…I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep!

We hung the piece.  We memorized the words.   We made it our mantra.  We believed what it said.   But there’s really no knowing like the knowing that comes from experiencing it the first time around as parents.

That’s why grandparents don’t really care that much if grandbabies sleep.  We’ve all got the legit case of FOMO.

But still, we can collectively agree, it would be okay and none of us would mind too much if they nodded off for a few hours here or there.  You know, just so our kids can get a few things done around the house.

And we can just sit and stare at them in wonderment.

We don’t want to miss a thing.

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“I’ve Never Been To Spain, But I’ve Been To Oklahoma” (Parents On Both Sides Of The Pond Can’t Seem To Make The World A Fair Place…)

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Let’s face it – there is almost nothing worse than being accused by our children of being unfair.

Even perceived partiality of one child over another is one of the most dire parenting faux pas we can commit and must be avoided at all costs.

Good luck with that.

It took most of us becoming parents ourselves to realize the utter futility of this effort. The very offenses we bitterly railed at our own parents for when we were growing up, are offenses committed on the daily by most of us.

I remember when my sister, brother and I were kids, every time our beleaguered mother would so much as pour us a glass of milk, we would ram our glasses together making sure she had poured us all the exact same amount.  It’s a wonder we didn’t break more glassware.

I’m not sure why I cared, I didn’t even like milk.

After 30+ years of parenting 5 kids of my own, as well as observing everyone around me raise theirs, I’ve learned a few hard and fast rules to the fairness game:

1. The more children you have, the harder it is to be fair. If you want to keep things truly “even-steven” among your kids, you’d be wise to stop at one child.

2. If you do go for more than one child, it’s easier to at least appear fair if your children are different genders: they’re slightly less likely to covet one another’s goods and/or privileges.

3. It’s harder to be fair when your offspring are spread out over many years. Because your resolve weakens considerably as you start to weary. You begin to employ phrases like, “We are choosing our battles!” – which your older children will accurately and loosely translate to mean, “We are too tired to care!”

So, in summary, if you don’t stop production at one child, at least try to have one boy and one girl close together in age.

Otherwise, you’re pretty much screwed.

When our oldest child was born, we had very high standards for the way she would be brought up. We also were very young with very little money, so we mandated a “no-spoiling” parenting policy which dovetailed conveniently with our total lack of discretionary income.

She and I both vividly recall a time, while we were living in Arizona, that she asked for permission to attend a trip her high school Spanish class was taking to Spain. When she told me about the steep price tag that accompanied the trip, I knew it was an absolute no-go for a plethora of reasons. But mainly, with 5 kids, I didn’t think I could afford to establish a precedent for my brood to assume they’d be dashing off to Europe any time some teacher fancied.

We moved to Oklahoma shortly afterward and she became the living embodiment of the Three Dog Night song, “I’ve never been to Spain, but I’ve been to Oklahoma!”

A few years later, when she was in college, we were able to see the value in her university’s Study Abroad program, and assisted in bringing that dream to fruition.

She still mentions the other trip from time to time.

Fast forward a little more than a decade. We have everyone almost raised. Two have graduated college and law school. Our 3rd is just a few credits away from her undergraduate degree and more-or-less “off our books,” which leaves just two in the nest.

Much more manageable from our perspective.  We can almost see the finish line.

As such, and without even realizing it, we have eased up a bit. For example – our son is in California this week watching his college football team play in the Rose Bowl. Granted, the trip was his Christmas present, but it was still exorbitant enough to raise some beautifully arched eyebrows among his older sisters.

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We are sheepishly trying to pass the trip off as “Study Abroad.” Isn’t California like an entirely different country? Or how about an educational trip for a Liberal Arts intercession class? Where better to learn the “Art of being Liberal” than California?

One day recently, my youngest daughter sighed heavily and said, “I really want to go to Europe…”

“God help me,” I thought.   Sure I’m tres and muy sympathetic that all those Europeans are over there living her dreams, but seriously?

Ever the creative mother, I distracted her with a compromise.  We binge-watched The Crown on Netflix instead.

I must say, it was comforting to note that this problem isn’t unique to us commoners. Even the gentrified offspring  on that show didn’t think their parents were fair.  And their parents were Sovereigns for crying out loud.

God Save The Queen (and all the rest of us…)

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A souvenir on my Christmas tree from someone else’s trip to Europe. That’s fair, right?

“Telling My Whole Life With Her Words” (How Writing A Christmas Letter Can Help You Raise Better Kids…)

 

My mother wrote an annual Christmas letter.

As a military wife, I suppose it was her way of staying connected to the friends and relatives we left dotted across the globe as we shuttled from army base to army base.

To her children, whose antics and accomplishments she dutifully chronicled year after year, the letter was a grounding force that helped us make sense out of an ever-changing world. A yearly reminder of who we were, where we belonged and how much we mattered to the people we mattered to.

Its true. One short paragraph about each one of us flanked on either end by a generically warm “Season’s Greetings!” accomplished all that and then some…

I can’t vouch for the enthusiasm of her targeted readership, but I certainly clamored for my copy every December. As soon as she finished composing it, correcting any typos with a bottle of White-Out, she’d Xerox off 100 or so copies on festive holiday paper and I’d snatch the first one I could get my hands on.

Back in those days, editorial privileges were seldom granted to mere children, so I had to steel my nerves with a deep breath and a big slug of hot cocoa before I could work up the gumption for my first skim-through. (In general, reading about your life through the lens of your mother’s perspective could prove cringe-worthy.)

I’d suffer through my sibling’s paragraphs with the indulgent understanding that my mother was obligated to include a blurb or two about her other kids. Most years I’d note she “laid it on a bit thick” bragging about my sister’s Girl Scout badges or my brother’s track meet medals.

But mostly I couldn’t wait to get to the good part. The real entertainment.

The part about me.

How had mother’s flowery prose best showcased my accomplishments, milestones and achievements this past year? I couldn’t wait to read in Mama’s very own words how terribly proud she was of her most cherished offspring.

Yes, the Christmas letter can be a delightfully insightful summary of a child’s progress, a frank assessment of how they’re “coming along” as they slog their way down the path towards their reluctant adulthood.

But it could be a slippery slope as well.  Our mother was a true southerner with a penchant for storytelling and extreme exaggeration. Just as she added additional syllables to every word she spoke, she added a little extra fluff to every story she told. She could take even the most minor mishap in our young lives and “color it up” until it hardly resembled reality.

Sometimes this worked in our favor. Sometimes not.

Oftentimes her recollections caused us to regret more than a few childish foibles and resolve to spend the next 12 months attempting to redeem ourselves.

All in glorious pursuit of more impressive future paragraphs guaranteed to overshadow our siblings, drop-kicking them into literary obscurity by the very next holiday season.

Is that so very wrong?

I’m not sure if this was our mother’s intended child-rearing side effect, but she kept pecking away at that letter long after we were all married with children of our own and we continued jumping through hoops to impress her as long as we could.

Needless to say, I purposely initiated this tradition in my own family, because a gratifying level of accountability laced with an amusing degree of paranoia accompanies it. It’s inestimably effective for my children to know when they pull a crappy stunt in, say, July, that it will likely be touted in the family Christmas letter later on that same year.

A few years ago, one of my sons rolled his truck. As we stood there on the side of the road, bathed in the red flashing lights of emergency vehicles, rather than inquiring if our automobiles were adequately insured, how long he was to be grounded or if we had “accident forgiveness,” he asked if there was any chance I was planning to humiliate him by weaving the tale of the incident into the family Christmas letter.

So if you ever find yourself deliberating over whether or not to draft one of these tedious missives yourself; updating everyone from the Amatos to the Zimmers on your family’s highs and lows, milestones and developments, or whether to keep it simple with a photo card, do at least consider the potential upsides:

The threat of a Christmas letter can pay huge dividends all year long, keeping even the most rogue offspring on their behavioral toes. So what if it has the added benefit of stirring up some petty unhealthy sibling rivalry? It may also spur your spawn to run a little faster, study a little harder, eschew texting while driving and honor that perfectly reasonable curfew you set for them.

Because around here, the Christmas letter is the gift that keeps on giving, as the pen (keyboard/tablet/smartphone) is, and always will be, mightier than the sword.

 

 

 

“Victim of Love” (It’s Not Easy Being The Last Child Left In The Nest…)

 

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“No Child Left Behind!”

I’ve had to eat a lot of words as a mother.  In fact, it’s been quite a smorgasbord.

Not another bite for me, thanks. I’m stuffed.

I set myself up for this ironic predicament with a cache of lofty ideas in my youthful days about how children should be raised.  I was quite the expert on child-rearing before I became an actual Child-Rearer.

I did most of my “Field Research” in the early 80s observing my parents raise my brother.

I was married and out of the house at an early age, but ventured home as often as possible for vacations, birthdays and holidays. It was during these occasions that I witnessed appalling child-rearing atrocities that required immediate intervention.

My parents were recklessly and wantonly spoiling my younger brother.

It was anarchy at a level that simply did not exist a few years earlier when my sister and I still lived at home. It was as though my parents had just given up. Absconded. They were hardly recognizable as the same people, much less the same parents…

They weren’t enforcing curfew, he was playing his stereo at a volume that could eventually rupture his eardrums and rather than forcing him to the dinner table to dine with the family like a civilized human being, they simply allowed him to “order a pizza later when he’s hungry!”

And I can’t emphasize enough how much they fawned over him. They gushed all over him the minute he strolled in the door with all their,

How was your day?” and “How did your test go?”

So much undiluted attention you never saw in all your life. They lavished affection on him like he was the Second Coming.  Almost overnight, my brother had become an ONLY CHILD.

It was enough to gag any older sibling and I was quite certain it would ruin the boy.*

Naturally, I attempted in earnest to discuss this with my mother, who laughed it off and remained besotted with my brother until the day she died.

30 some-odd years later my husband and I were sitting in the kitchen having dinner, when our very own beloved Youngest-of-5-Only-Child walked into the room. We perked right up as though The Pope Himself had sauntered in.  We started firing questions at him immediately.

How was your night last night?”
“Did you have fun?”
“Do you have any homework?”

It was our “No Child Left Behind” parenting policy at its finest.  We left no stone unturned. Every aspect of his existence piqued our curiousity.

He reached into the freezer and pulled out a frozen dinner, heated it up and slammed the microwave door off its hinges.

Which dinner did you pick?” asked his dad. “I’m just curious because I picked them out for you myself from the Comfort Foods Section!”

We thought our son deserves a little comfort!” I threw in for good measure (really upping the love-ante.)

The Salisbury Steak,” our son grumbled in response, clearly unimpressed with how much time was invested in the selection of his frozen entrees.

Why are you so burdened by our love for you?” I queried innocently.

(Okay… my query wasn’t all that innocent. I was kind’ve screwing with him. But it was amusing how victimized he seemed by our interest in the minutiae of his life.)

I assured him that when his 4 older siblings were still in-residence they would’ve killed for this level of concierge parenting.

More exasperation – another grunt – and one more eye roll.

“I’ve got two pairs of eyes on me at all times!” He complained wearily.

I guess he does have a point. At one time around here, it was two pair of eyes divided by 5 and now both sets are trained exclusively on him.

Just him.

But he is the recipient of every ounce of our undiluted love and attention as well, so it should be an excellent trade off. Right?

In hindsight, I wish I’d kept my mouth shut years ago about all the things I knew nothing about.  Like being a parent. And all the varying stages of child-rearing.

But that’s okay.  I’ll gladly eat my own words these days – It’s merely comfort food of a different sort…

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My brother “John David” on left with my hubs. (My mom loved him so much she gave him two names.)

*To my knowledge my brother still has his ear drums, abides by curfew and eats dinner every night with his family.  He does, I’m told, still order pizza on a whim.

 

 

“She Loves Me Like A Rock” (Finding Surprising Signs of Strength As You Dismantle Your Childhood)

 

 

 

It’s one of the paramount fears of childhood that we will lose our parents one day.

If you don’t believe me, just watch Bambi again. Heck, watch any of the Disney movies. It’s not just wide-eyed forest creatures wandering aimlessly about the meadow motherless… all of those Disney Princesses’ mothers are conspicuously absent.

Thanks Walt. It’s small wonder we were petrified as children that our mothers would pass away, leaving us to face the world alone.

But it wasn’t limited to The Wonderful World of Disney. What about all those Shirley Temple movies we were weaned on? Or Little Orphan Annie? Or Oliver? They made it clear that the world is a harsh place for the motherless. It’s an actual wonder that “orphans” get out of bed in the morning.

But we do. Mostly because we have kids of our own. Some of us even have grandkids. Besides, we knew all of our lives that our parents would more than likely pre-decease us. So we were prepared for this eventuality and all that it entailed, right?

Wrong.

Yesterday was the day we converged upon our mother’s home to perform the final clean-out, as we close with the new buyers in a week or so.

I was extremely worried over how my sister would handle this entire undertaking. I didn’t think she would deal with the process very well. After all, she was the “in town” kid that practically lived with Mom – caring for her these last few years.

Here are a few supplies we found essential:

Tissues
U-haul trailer
Ibuprofen
Hefty bags
Boxes, tape, styrofoam  peanuts
Big Girl Panties

We pulled into town a few hours before the moving company. We’d done some preliminary work a few weeks earlier, but I knew we still had a very long day ahead. My sister was waiting out in the front yard for us when we pulled into town. As I unbuckled my seatbelt, I sternly admonished my husband,

“Remember, SENSITIVITY IS KEY TODAY! This is going to be extremely hard for her. No matter how frustrated you get, I want you to be sweet!”

When am I ever not sensitive and sweet?” he queried in utter sincerity.  I didn’t have time for this marital conversation, besides I needed his full cooperation and strength for the mission at hand (in more ways than one.)

We got straight to work. All business. Brisk and efficient. We emptied cupboards and packed boxes.

Meanwhile, the moving men were hard at work moving the big stuff.  As the house emptied out, the walls started to produce an echo.  I thought I could hear the long-ago sounds of my children and my nieces and nephews chasing one another down the hallways when they were toddlers.

Eventually, the men started making progress toward my mother’s bedroom. I blocked their way. They seemed like lovely gentlmen, but I didn’t want them in my mother’s closet. Mom was a fashion icon who adored her clothes. My sister and I  needed to go through her closet ourselves.

Before I knew it, I had dissolved into a puddle on the closet floor. My sister cradled me for awhile. Then she slid Mom’s jade ring on my finger. She pinned a silk rose on her own shirt. She gave me some gloves and took a leopard hat. We each helped ourselves to a shiny sequined evening bag and then buried our faces in our mom’s monogrammed robe.

We boxed up the rest and beckoned the movers in.

A few hours later, I opened a kitchen drawer my mom called her “miscellaneous drawer.” Inside I found a pair of sunglasses, some paper clips, a picture of Mother Theresa, a refrigerator magnet that warned people not to “Mess With Texas” and a rock I had painted in the 7th grade.

You could tell what a creative spirit I’ve obviously been throughout my entire life- because on it I had colorfully painted the words, “Leslie’s Rock.” Purely Inspired. Artistic Genius. Still…I couldn’t believe my mom saved a rock for over 40 years. Had it been in this drawer all this time I wondered.

A friend recently told me to look for the signs that my mom is all around us. So was this my mom telling me to “Be a Rock” or to “Rock On?” Maybe.  But knowing my sassy mom, she was saying... “Can you believe how much I loved you that I kept this hideous rock all these years?”

Or… maybe in the words of Paul Simon, she just loved me like a rock and that’s good enough for me.