When Words Don’t Work


We drove down on Saturday to spend the night with Jack’s aunt and uncle who live in the same town where the summer camp is being held.  Their proximity to the camp was a small source of comfort to me – I knew any real emergency would not involve Jack waiting three hours for a loved one to get to him.   My stomach still ached when I woke up Sunday morning, however.  It wasn’t the 80 degree heat at 6:00 AM that was bothering my system.  It was the knowledge that I was about to leave my first born, Jack, on his own for the first time.

Twelve-year-old Jack, excited about the week ahead at a college just the night before, was quiet when he came down to breakfast.  He ate his usual mountain of food, speaking only in answer to a direct question from me or his aunt.  Feigned stoicism has been a hallmark of his tween years, but when his little brother failed to goad him into a squabble over a Lego ship in his cereal, I asked Jack if everything was okay.

“I’m just a little nervous,” he answered, pouring a third bowl of cereal.

“You’ll do great.  You’ll do fine,” His aunt and I responded in unison, but my own worry was growing.  Was he ready for this?  I was about the same age when I spent my first summer away, but for some reason, my child seemed much younger.

The morning passed quickly, filled with a last minute haircut and shopping for toiletries.  The distraction seemed to relax him, and by the time we drove him to registration, he felt confident enough to enjoy a little eighth grade humor.

The summer camp is being held at a small college where Jack will get to indulge his computing addiction for a week.  When we got to the camp the first order of business was filing out forms and giving a deposit for his dorm key.  Paper work done, we followed paper signs with big blue arrows down the hall of the college science building toward the computer lab.

The arrows lead us around a corner and into a large room with a wall of windows.  Rows of tables weighted with the latest in computing technology filled most of the room.  As Jack noticed the games on a few of the screens and the very low-tech chess boards setup at the front of the room, he began to smile.

In less than an hour we had installed him in a dorm room and met his roommate (a one-year veteran of the camp).  We brought him back to the computer lab to say goodbyes.  Now, I was the only one feeling nervous, but it was for myself.  How was I going to spend a week without seeing his face?

All nervousness had left Jack’s face as a counselor invited him to play a computer game while he waited for the rest of the group.  I knew, for the first time, he was with other science-oriented kids, and he would be fine.  The Big Guy and I were smiling as we drove out of the college campus.

But the day’s story had just begun.

The Big Guy and I made the three hour trip home with our six-year-old.  We stopped for dinner and ice cream and settled down on the couch to try and find a new, temporary routine.  Exhaustion was helping us put the day behind us when my cell phone began beeping.  I clicked the home button, saw a Skype alert and clicked it.

“Are you there?”  It was Jack.

“Are you ok?”  I texted back.

“I think I want to come home,” he wrote.

“Are you hurt?”  I asked.  “Is anyone teasing you?  Do you feel scared?”  He answered no to my questions, and I knew he was going through what all kids experience on their first night away from home.  Making sure that he felt safe, even if he was already homesick, the Big Guy and I talked and texted him to let him know we were supporting him.

“Words just don’t help right now,” he wrote after a time.   I knew they didn’t.  I knew the only thing that would help was for him to get through the first night and see things from the fresh perspective of a seasoned camper.

Technology was a blessing and a curse in the unfolding of this story.  Once, when summer camps controlled all communications, allowing only mail and care packages in and emergency phone calls out, the parents may have been aware of the first night fears.  The ability to connect from anywhere at anytime, however, ensured that we felt his angst as keenly as he did.  As we texted good night, I also wondered if the ease of connection was less a safety net and more a crutch.

I spent most of the night with my phone on, waiting for a midnight text and worrying how he was doing.  Most likely, he’s eating breakfast right now and getting into his day, his parents once again an afterthought – as we should be this week.  I’m still watching the text screen, hoping for a positive update, but knowing that at this moment that ‘No news is good news’, is a lot more than a tired cliche.

The Light Switch


It’s like turning on a light switch that had been weighed down by despair and self-loathing.  Like a compact fluorescent that gets brighter and brighter, however, I’m feeling my own power over my life.

I’ve lost about fifteen pounds (with a hundred still needing to go), but things began changing well before this morning’s penance at the scale.  The outward signs of the change are still small.  When you’re seriously overweight, it takes more than a few pounds for the loss to show outside, but I am feeling in the change inside.

The Big Guy gets credit for a lot of things, but he especially gets credit for telling me I’m beautiful when I’m significantly overweight.  I don’t believe it, but he makes me believe he believes it, and that’s everything.

Being overweight in this country has become almost a moral failing, but when I start to lose, I don’t suddenly feel more moral or even more beautiful.  I breathe better.  My body begins to function better.  Mostly, even though my jeans are starting to need a belt, I can’t squeeze the loathing in as easily.

The trick now is not to turn on the switch, but how to keep it on this time.

Magic Pills, Ills, and Long Forgotten Cures


As I’m lying down with my little one for his bedtime snuggle, I’m realizing that I haven’t retreated to the fantasy world that gets me through depressions lately.  At first I though it was the magic pill I’ve been taking, but I think something better is happening.

When I first started taking the pills, I tried to get in and I couldn’t.  Something was blocking the door.  It wasn’t me, it was the pill.  But in the last few weeks I’ve begun taking care of my physical health, and while that switch took a herculean effort to move to the on position, it’s like watching a compact fluorescent’s power grow as it absorbs powers.  At first it’s only little successes, but then a sense of physical well being takes over, charging the mercury until all the rooms in my head are bright, and my vision is clear.

Now running about a mile or mile 1/2 a day, hoping to get up to three so I can run with my sister in August, I’m starting to feel the effect of a natural magic pill.  As I was lying next to my beautiful sleeping boy, I noticed I still couldn’t get into the room, but for the first time in a long time, I didn’t need or want to.  Some of that need may have been quashed by pharma, but it’s nice to know that at least some of that lack of desire may be my own doing.

Pictures of Us


My sister-in-law’s been going through her attic and stumbling on ancient family photos along the way.  She’s scanned them and emailed them to us in groups.  Most of the photos are of individuals or groups posed carefully and solemnly for a camera that required the subject to stay still for several minutes.

The clothes and the hair are different, but the stories they tell are very familiar.   There’s a great-grandmother who once wrote and published short stories.  There’s a great-grandfather who owned a music store.  I’m hoping to see a photo of a great-grandmother who was a Mohawk and the story of whose union with the family I hope to discern someday.

I’ve always been a history buff, and especially a family history buff.

It started one summer when my aunt and uncle were visiting and my uncle was relating the story of how they had met and married despite strong objections from my aunt’s mother (my grandmother).  He was German, and she was American, and my grandmother was very unhappy at the idea of my aunt moving so far away in an era when long-distance phone calls were still extremely rare.  My uncle was not so easily deterred and, after having received a reluctant refusal, had flown from Germany to Chicago and then driven 6 hours to find my aunt and make his case.  As he told the story, remembering how their 50+ year marriage had almost not happened, a tear ran down his face.  I, like all the other females at the table, decided this was the most romantic story that had ever been told in our family.

The next day, I began to wonder if there were other stories that had simply not been told.  Subsequent trips to our annual family vacation spot became research opportunities, and when a knowledgable aunt was visiting, I began tape recording them as they related the family stories.

In that time I’ve learned about another pair of star-crossed lovers whose parents, a generation ago, had objected to their marriage on the grounds that they were different races and from different countries.  That couple is still married.   I learned how my grandparents, despite Grandmother’s summers spent near Grandfather’s home town never met until they were adults because they lived in completely different worlds.  And I’ve learned that I love the stories of how people come together.

We live in a world where the stories that make the headlines are about people being driven apart.  They’re about lives being blown apart.  Often, the even the storytelling becomes a wedge, breathing distrust into every disagreement until the participants hardly recognize each other as members of the same species.  Over the past year, I’ve made more of an effort to look for the other stories – the ones that bring people together.  I used to be embarrassed about my love of romantic stories of people overcoming odds to be together, but now I think they’re an expression of faith that people can actually do that.

I’m looking through the photos and stories of my husband’s family, one photo stands out.  It is a picture of a husband and wife, the husband staring at the camera while the wife leans her head on his shoulder.  They both have wistful smiles on their faces.  It’s from the late 1800s, and their clothes date the picture more than the aged sepia.  I know their world was a million miles away from mine.  When I look at the serenely happy and casual pose, however, I realize that they look a lot like us.  It’s a story worth pursuing.

Less and More

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There are few events in a life that engrave themselves on a memory as getting married or becoming a parent. That was true for me, and, while getting married was memorable, it was wasn’t as life-altering as the second part. For us, getting married was like continuing a really, long fun date. Becoming a parent, while just as fun, was fun too, but it was a lot more work. For me, becoming the parent of one and then two was memorable for another reason, and I did something yesterday that brought it all back. I cleaned.

Right before each of my boys was born, I was seized with an overwhelming urge to clean. Despite being on ordered bed rest, I could not contain the need to clean tubs and toilets, sweep and make beds. Fortunately, giving birth helped moderate – suffocate, actually – that desire. I do clean, but it’s usually prompted by impending company or the inability to reach the kids’ bunk without first checking for my health insurance card.

Yesterday, however, the cleaning bug bit. It’s been stalking me for the last few weeks.

We’re planning a train trip out west later this summer, and, after learning we couldn’t check luggage, I decided to take another look at carry-on strategies. I googled a few packing list ideas and found tons of people who have learned to leave the tonnage at home.

Most of our trips in the last decade have been by car, and the last train trip we took was when Jack, our twelve-year-old, was small enough to ride on my back. While our cargo rarely includes a separate case for makeup or shoes (we’re not that stylish), anyone who’s road-tripped with kids knows the packing list needed to accommodate the extra towels and toys and clothes required for even a small trip expands to fit the exact cubic footage in any vehicle you buy. Jack now dwarfs me, and his six-year-old brother, Superdude is catching up. Fortunately, the increase in height is indirectly proportionate to the number of toys needed to occupy them on a journey, and packing light seemed not only sensible but possible.

My pursuit of a smaller, more-flexible packing list coincided with my annual rotation of hand-me-downs. The hand-me-down rotation spawned a bigger-than-usual mountain of laundry as I got old clothes ready for the donation bin. We live off the grid, so every scrap of clothing dries on a clothes line, and most of it’s put there by yours truly. I was in the middle of a midnight folding marathon when it hit me – we need to start living lighter.

I spent most of the rest of the night folding and sorting and excavating my and the kids’ clothes, ruthlessly tossing in the bin items that had were too small or too worn or simply too unused. The sorting went on with other loads for a few days until yesterday when the building momentum turned into a housewide cleaning frenzy.

I started at the west end of the house and am now working my way east, adopting a scorched earth policy with baggage of all types. By the end of the day, I had four bags for the donation bin and three for the dump. In one room I could see more floor than stuff, and I could see the back wall of my closet.

I’ve lost a dress size in the last few weeks, and I know other clothes will fill some of the void if the weight loss continues. Jack will also need knew clothes by the end of the summer. When I go to buy again, however, I’m hoping I’ll remember the mountain I sorted down to a mole hill. It was not just an outgrowth of an epiphany prompted by a desire to clean less (that would be practically impossible). It was a desire to get more out of the little cleaning I do.