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The Science of Life

The winter of 2008 was a bleak one. In late October my brother died suddenly and a couple of weeks later, my grandmother told us that her cancer was back. We were all looking forward to spring of one kind or another. My grandmother, Poochie, started treatment and started making plans for spring. We both loved cooking and I remember that her spring inspiration was a big pressure canning pot and cookbook. She was going to teach me how to can, but first we had to have a garden.

I will always remember the sound of her voice chattering and giving me instructions about what she called our “little kitchen garden”. She had a beautiful garden plot with split-rail fencing, statuaries, established herbs, and a picturesque flood of yellow Iris, but although it could clearly be viewed from the kitchen, as a novice gardener I could see nothing little about it.

Honestly, I have to admit that I was a reluctant gardener; I was busy with work and a toddler and then in March I found out I was pregnant. One morning soon after, in the garden with Poochie, both of us suffering from nausea, I absent-mindedly complained about my new aversion to coffee. She looked at me with wide eyes and a sly smile and said, “Well, Becky, do you think you might be pregnant?” But Poochie didn’t relent on the gardening plan, even as she became weaker and I became more pregnant, so I tried my best to pick up the slack. We never made it to pickles and jelly and canned tomatoes but we did have a beautiful crop of zinnias by mid-summer that I cut and made into arrangements for her bedroom.

I love gardening now and most days when I am working in my garden I think about my grandmother. I’ve even figured out some basic canning. There is so much to appreciate about gardening: eating fresh foods, the easing of your grocery store bill, the aesthetic of gardening, the wealth of knowledge to learn about the science of gardening, and the endless care and chores of gardening that translate into plenty of hard-labor for my kids. And just recently, gardening has opened the door for me to approach an important topic with my kids: sex.

Having THE TALK with my kids has been at the absolute furthest nether-regions of my mind. I grew up hearing about the sexual revolution, a conquest of earlier generations, and the freedom that we, especially women, gained at that time. These days, I’m terrified by how free and casual sex has become and for the way in which every aspect of modern life has become sexualized. I recently read that sex has become too cheap and too common for even Playboy Magazine to sell anymore; this spring they are remodeling their magazine, replacing nude photographs of women with photos of women who are half-clad. Now there will be one more magazine objectifying women that our children can pick up and legally purchase. It may be more sophisticated to glorify Hugh Hefner and call Playboy Magazine “groundbreaking”, but I am wholeheartedly hoping that Playboy falls right off the precipice they created when they broke that ground.

Last week the NY Times published an article about a sexting scandal in Colorado and someone with authority was quoted as saying that kids need to be taught how to practice “safer sexting with trusted partners”. You can rationalize all day that teaching abstinence to teenagers is impractical but go ahead and try to choose from your child’s adolescent peers a “safe” partner with whom you would entrust nude photos of your child. We are so accustomed to that word, safe being used in tandem with the concept of sex that we forget that we wouldn’t need to use it so much if sex weren’t such a casual phenomenon. I want my kids to understand that preventing or eluding the physical consequences of having casual sex does not prove that sex is, can be, or should be casual. In other words, I don’t want anyone else teaching them about sex!

And this is the crux of why I have struggled to overcome my squeamishness about the talk; once I hand over the keys to sex, my kids take that knowledge out into the world and find that there’s a faster, shinier, more dangerous model. Entrusting my kids to this Brave New World, and trusting my kids to live faithfully and deliberately of their own accord is not going to be easy; I may need to be pushed or dragged into some faithful, deliberate living in it myself. Enter several small, yet serendipitous events that individually have been something to laugh about, put aside to think about later, but as a whole gave me new impetus to begin conceiving of the talk.

About a year and a half ago the girls and I were in a crowded hospital waiting room looking forward to the birth of my nephew. It had been a long day and the girls had been promised a baby; they didn’t understand the delay. In the midst of several sets of anxious families and grandparents, my eldest blurted out, “Geez, when are they going to cut him out?”. There was the obvious callousness about filleting her beloved aunt but something else didn’t quite register right about this gross misunderstanding coming from my 7 yr old. Several months later another mother shared with me that her two daughters had been present for the birth of her third child and although I couldn’t put my finger on the extent of my feelings, one thing I did feel was a tinge of envy that this mother had one less thing to explain to a bug-eyed 8 yr old.

And then there was the visit from our friends from Cayman this summer. I was waiting to tell them in person about the new person I was “bearing” and Jody came bearing a surprise of her own: a book that explains sex to young kids. She knows me well and understood that, not only was this topic not on my mind but that I would need encouragement to address it.

But even with all of these subtle and not so subtle signs, it was gardening that helped me to come to terms with having the talk. Several weeks ago our fall garden was lushly beautiful: climbing beans, cucumbers, bright beet leaves, oversized chard, huge, trailing pumpkin leaves and flowers, radishes, and furry little carrot leaves. We’ve been studying life science this fall, learning about how living things are classified, cell theory, needs of living things and vascular plants. A couple of weeks ago we began learning about fertilization and the male and female parts of plants so our garden became our classroom on more than one occasion. As I watched my daughters pollinating pumpkins and cucumbers by hand, I suddenly realized how I wanted to frame this socially-distorted and complicated topic of sex.

If I can convey that the science of life is like the science of gardening, then my little gardeners will wholly understand the mystery and the sanctity of sex. They are already amazed by the processes that they never realized were going on around them: different parts of flowers, pollination, fertilization, the fact that their favorite veggies are ripened ovaries. And they already have a sense of awe for the majesty that created all of these processes to work in unison. The awe that comes with the understanding of sex as the key to the gift of life, and not as a casual pastime, is what I want my kids’ first impression to be.

I realize that there’s nothing novel about this concept or about using it to discuss reproduction but it certainly isn’t what Poochie and I were about as we gardened through that last spring of her life. If I could tell her about the great epiphany I had while teaching my kids to work in the garden and offered her the credit for planting the very first seed, her eyes would twinkle mischievously and she would give me that naughty cackle of hers. But then she would become serious, as she did when imparting sacred secrets and must do’s, “Don’t forget to tell them to always plant a row or two of zinnias.”


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Scott, Party of 6

In February we will be adding one more to our ranks. I know that we are getting closer to a team of something but we have awhile to decide on our family sport of choice. ‘Excited’ doesn’t do the feeling justice; from the beginning we hoped that we would have a large family, but we’ve always taken it one child at a time, i.e. let us see how we handle number 1 before we start talking about number 2, 3, or 4. 

Well, a year and a half ago we thought we were ready for number 4. It was April and Clif had just passed Step 1 and was looking forward to clinical rotations and I…Well, I was still figuring out the balancing act that homeschooling had inflicted on my once-tidy domecile. And then there was our master plan to move our family of five, plus Toots the pug, into 350 square feet of trailer at the end of the summer, but no matter. 

Last summer came and went, the move and adjustment to living in a “tin can”, as my dad calls it, happened without too much fuss…except for a few unmentionable acts, committed by Toots, in a few too many unmentionable places. We finally recognized that this was the only way in which she could voice her protest to life on wheels and Mom and Dad were kind enough to offer her sanctuary for the remainder of the year. But nobody else bailed, which for me was proof positive that we could handle more big change.

Finally, by winter, it occurred to me that growing our family wasn’t going to happen according to my plan. That wasn’t easy to face. And even though I tried to accept it calmly and gracefully, I started telling myself scary things like, “I’m running out of time.” Clif was too busy worrying about his rotations, future tests, future rotations, and 12-month-away residency match to draw fatalistic, doomsday fertility conclusions with me. Plus he’s the kind of patient that I only pretend to be.

Over a year after my being ready, it finally happened; a year of tumultuous changes, of Magic Fridays, of learning how to learn at home, of making every moment a “teachable” one, of adjusting to seasonal weather and Orlando winters, a year of feeling solidarity in making sacrifices to be together but also the isolation and loneliness that goes hand-in-hand with freedom and independence, a year of forging fast friendships but also saying speedy goodbyes.

Every other time that I’ve had a positive pregnancy test, Clif’s been right outside the bathroom door and I can remember his face each time. This time was different. I kept it to myself for almost a week, thinking about the timing and growing more joyful and thankful every day. On a gorgeous Saturday morning at Pensacola Beach, with the kids sitting in our beached kayak threatening to knock each other overboard with the oars and whining for us to put the kayak in the ocean, I told Clif. And there it was, the fourth look, half-astonishment, half-what-have-we-done, that I will never forget. 

Flowers, kittens, swords and guns (Thomas), mud, s’mores, horses, water slides, goats, story time, horseplay, Disney World, grandparents, cousins, Pilgrimage, picking their own food (from the vine, bush, or ground), the ocean, these are all things that my kids love…but babies top the list. We were so excited to tell them about the baby and we couldn’t wait to witness their reactions.

After 14 weeks and two visits to my OB, we sat them all down in the kitchen one morning to break the big news. We recorded their reaction for posterity, but I’ll try to do it justice with words, here. The girls were ecstatic and NR, in true NR fashion was jumping from question to question- is it a boy or a girl? What are we going to name it? Alliene went straight to baby talking, practicing her coos and gitchy-goos. Both girls had jumped out of their seats and were dancing on and around our feet, so for about 20 seconds of excitement I lost track of Thomas. 

When the video pans back out to the chairs where the kids were lined up before the announcement, Thomas is still there looking….thoughtful? Curious? Apprehensive? Disgusted? At the moment the camera turns to him and we ask what he thinks, he responds by lying down across the three chairs and writhing a bit like someone whose mental anguish has permeated the physical. When he did rise, it was more to join the celebratory romp that was talking place around the kitchen island than it was to celebrate. On the matters of a new baby and becoming a “BIG” brother, he persisted in his silence and lapsed occasionally into silliness to avoid any true dicussion. 

I am happy to report that, a few weeks later, he has almost decided that the baby is a good idea. I can tell because, although he is still silent- in comparison to his sisters, anyway- on the matter, from time to time he pets my tummy and asks where the baby is. While the girls have been sharing the news with anyone and everyone at anytime, Thomas finally broke his silence and shared for the first time last week at church with Ms. Lisa in the nursery. 

While Nora Ruth and Alliene have been both excited to the point of goofy over the news, each has displayed their own particular shade of giddiness. Nora Ruth repetitively tells me how she “can’t wait!” for the baby to get here and as she hugs me around the waist and stares blissfully at my tummy a la Kathy Bates from Misery, I fluctuate from feeling amused to feeling a little creeped out. Alliene enjoys labeling me “pregnant” and throwing it around for flair and for gravity; sometimes it sounds like an affliction and others like a badge of honor. “Mama, I carried that bowl of watermelon outside for you, you know, since you’re pregnant.” “Hey! Bring this pregnant lady some water!” Either way, the aspiring boss of the house obviously views my ‘condition’ as a reason to take care of me. 

And I’m trying to keep up the pace for as long as I can. Clif has three more weeks of work left in Pensacola and then he will be much closer to us in Tuscaloosa until the end of the year. It’s surreal to think that in 2016 we’ll have a new doctor and a new baby in the family. And, who knows, maybe a few new farm animals, too…just to keep me moving. 


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Summer, More Light to Read by

I don’t know how most people come across the best reading materials, but I rely on my trinity of book experts to help me choose the right reads. Aunt Jerry provides the wisdom of experience, Mom steers me towards good choices with detailed synopsis or even by reading the most compelling parts out loud, and Julie’s recommendations are always the most selective, taking into consideration what is worth my time.

One of Julie’s splendid rec’s was Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, a very somber, yet stoic memoir of an unconventional family and upbringing. If you’re worried that your kids will be scarred for life by your parenting blunders, go ahead and read it right now; you’ll save yourself future guilt and anguish. The story is not just about stoicism and surviving crazy parents, but its more about a child’s loyalty and love and how those two things, left untarnished by bitterness or regret, have built some memories that were happy, or at least, humorous.

I loved when Walls said, “One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by…” because it was a reminder to me of what summer is for. It is hard to fathom how much that extra daylight meant to people who really needed it to survive; are we fortunate to lead lives unfettered from nature’s many beasts or unfortunate that our disconnect has lead us too far from living and being the way we were meant to?

I spend a great deal of time thinking about ways to balance living in a modern world full of information, conveniences, and distraction and finding more time-worn ways of growing our hearts and minds. As we started the summer, leaving Orlando for Pensacola, I knew that my days on the road would soon be at an end and I would have to “make hay” with the time we had left.

Clif’s schedule was to be in Pensacola for 8 weeks but with a little luck, he was able to schedule another 4 weeks at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola so we could enjoy our summer near the gorgeous gulf coast. Our first few weeks:

Obviously, we spent tons of time at the beach! We parked our beloved “Salem” about 40 minutes northeast of Pensacola, but that drive didn’t stop us from having plenty of beach days. We especially loved Pensacola Beach and Johnson Beach, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore just east of Perdido Key. We spent lots of time shelling and we added a myriad of new, beautiful shells to our collection. We saw baby sharks (swimming in knee-deep water!), sea turtles, dolphins, fish, and we even found a starfish one morning. The kids loved the waves and we all educated ourselves about the danger of rip currents! We shopped Craig’s List for a large kayak which we enjoyed in the gulf and in the bay. Another gulf luxury that we took advantage of was the fresh seafood! Within a couple of weeks we had discovered Joe Patti’s in Pensacola. We ate lots of rock and ruby red shrimp, we had tons of fresh snapper, gulf grouper, and red fish, and I even tried my hand at soft-shell crab!

The town we actually “parked” in for the summer is called Milton, FL, and it is a quiet, little town. By luck, and on our first weekend in town, we happened upon the Blackwater Trail, which became our daily biking and running trail. Nearby, on the Blackwater River, was a park with a beautiful little stream where the kids caught crawfish and tadpoles. In late May/Early June, the blueberries at the local farm, Beulah Berries, were amazing! We also spent an afternoon in Pensacola with Clif’s parents touring the Elcano, a 3-masted sailboat used by the Spanish navy to train sailors, and another afternoon at the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum.

Clif and I were so excited that Nora Ruth was old enough to take advantage of a local surf company’s summer surf camp. She spent two weeks “hanging ten” on some very docile waves, but she quickly learned to get up and the easy surf conditions were also perfect for her most beloved hobby, rubber-necking.

Alliene attended a Pensacola State University camp called Ocean Explorers Camp. She had a lot of fun learning about sea creatures and making new friends of her own.

Nora Ruth also spent two weeks at Camp Skyline in Mentone, AL, which was a week longer than last year. Both girls spent a week riding in a local Pony Camp in Pensacola and, to my dismay, their favorite part of the week was getting to “paint” the horses. My favorite part was always the riding!!

In late July, we drove a few hours East to a lovely little seaside town called Port St. Joe, where we spent several nights at my Uncle Reau and Aunt Kelli’s beautiful beach house. Sadly, we just missed Kelli as she headed back up to Columbus the day we arrived, but she was there in spirit; every inch of their gorgeous home echoes her warmth, beauty, and hospitality. My cousins, Russell and Meg, and my cousin Caitlyn were there with four more little Berry cousins.

The word “cousins”, to my children, is less of a noun and more of an action verb. For example, “Hey Mom, what are we going to do today?”; my reply: “Cousins.” The company-slash-activity known as “cousins” is not for the faint-hearted; it was a marathon of late nights, early mornings, swimming, ghost crab-hunting, tree/fence/house-climbing, body-surfing, hermit crab-cleaning, and of course, picture-taking. We love our Berry cousins and we all loved having this chance to be together.

A week later, the kids and I were on the road again, this time with my Mom, headed to South Arkansas to visit family and friends in her hometown of Eldorado. We stayed with our very good friends, Bill and Susan, and the menagerie of animals they house and feed is enough to make this mother of 3 feel like every day is Easy Street! Two precious Yorkies, a new Golden Doodle puppy, a new kitten, two parakeets, 2 milking goats, and a henhouse full of chickens meant that my kids woke up with the sun and in a frenzy every morning!

Besides helping Susan milk the goats, other mentionable highlights were visiting the Crater of the Diamonds to dig for our very own diamonds (none found this summer but we’ll be back again!), having lunch with Aunt Joyce, seeing cousin Lizzie and meeting her sweet family, picking fresh peaches at a nearby orchard, eating Spudnuts (twice!), and seeing The Wizard of Oz at Eldorado’s community theatre.

When we arrived back in Columbus, we were here for good. Clif still has several months of work left to complete but he will be nearby- in Pensacola, Tuscaloosa, and Atlanta. I immediately started cleaning the farm house and unpacking because we had one more big surprise for the kids…our friends from Cayman, the Danter’s, were coming for a visit. The kids spent most of the three days in the mud while the adults kept mum about the mess because time in the yard meant good grown-up conversation and plenty of opportunities to pick on the mammoth strawberry cake that haunted the fridge.

We’re in the midst of a slow start back into our school routine this weekend, but next week the rubber meets the road. The last two days have felt a lot like fall; we’ve left windows and doors open and savored crisp, clear mornings and warm, breezy afternoons. The last two nights the sunset even beat me to bedtime! I’m not fretting about the darker days to come; we put all of our extra sunlight to good use this summer.


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So long, Orlando!

The last thirty days have been about the hustle. We moved RV parks, migrating back to Kissimme, the land of the big box stores and WDW. We finished Classical Conversations in Apopka, FL and said our final goodbye to our friends there.  We spent a quiet Easter by ourselves in Orlando. All of the kids, but especially our eldest, cynical child were pleasantly surprised to find out that the Easter Bunny can enter a locked trailer to deliver Easter goodies. (I guess it’s further off the ground than a regular house? Or maybe it was just about the bunny, in particular. Santa Clause coming down the chimney was much more logical.) During the week following Easter, we buckled down for one last, uninterrupted stretch of school. And on April the 8th, the interruption began!

The kids and I drove home to Mississippi because two days later, on April the 10th, Nora Ruth and YiaYia left on a month-long trip to Italy! Nora Ruth had been looking forward to the trip for months; it has been an amazing opportunity for her to learn another language (one that Mom speaks fluently, so that they can continue to practice when they get home) and to see many of the places that we’ve studied throughout this past year’s scope: ancient history. I’ll write more about her trip once she gets home (next week, aggghh!!! We are so excited), and I have had a chance to pick her brain about what she saw, what she learned, and what she loved most.

When Nora Ruth left for Italy, most of us were feeling pretty sorry that we couldn’t go, as well, but probably none more so than Alliene. Thank goodness my sister was willing to loan us our cousin, Johnston, for a few days to keep us from slowing down too hard, too fast. NR, Allie, and Thomas all adore him and nobody is jaded yet about letting him have anything he wants, anytime he wants it…we shall see how long that lasts! He was a fantastic distraction for all of us and not 10 minutes after leaving NR and YiaYia at the airport, Alliene surveyed the backseat of the car, Thomas on one side, Johnston on the other, and announced, “Hey, I’m the oldest now!”

Nora Ruth hasn’t had all the fun. There was another special event happening in April that Alliene and I attended: Camp Skyline Ranch’s “Mother-Daughter Weekend” in Mentone, Alabama. This may be overly-ambitious, but I also plan to write more about the weekend in a separate post as it was really special for Allie and I to have that time all to ourselves and I observed some things about my fiery little tender-heart that I want to mull over for posterity.

Mother-Daughter Weekend was the last thing on my “to-do” list before we could head back to Orlando to rescue my poor, lonely husband from quiet, unhurried mornings and relaxing, autonomous evenings. With one of our five notably absent, we were all ready to see each other. And after chasing my youngest two around Mom & Dad’s house, turning lights off, closing doors, flushing toilets, and picking up toys after them, I have to say that it was a relief to be the Queen, once again, of my minute domain.

With one week left in Orlando, we are trying to do all of our “lasts”. I’d like to think that I have worn out our WDW annual passes; this morning we made our final pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom and had our last Mickey Mouse ear ice cream, even if it was for breakfast. We’ve not had enough time to appreciate the eats in Orlando, so we only had a few final goodbyes to say- a trip to Singh’s Roti Shop and to our favorite bahn mi sandwich shop at Mill’s Avenue. I’m holding out hope that we can find a 4Rivers Barbecue on our way out of town tomorrow morning.

Speaking of goodbyes, I am going to have to say a final farewell to the old hay-bale garden; I’ve been carting it around, salvaging what I could of rotted hay bales, wrapping them in plastic bags, and storing them in the kids’ bunk room for the short trips the trailer made around Orlando. I don’t think I can give the ants, roaches, worms, lizards etc…,that undoubtedly live in those bales, a free ride to Pensacola. I plan to get a late, but solid, start on my garden at Hogeye in June!

Tomorrow we are cranking up the jacks, sliding in the slides, rolling up the rugs, pulling up the plumbing, battening down the hatches, hooking up the hitch, and towing our home-sweet-home to Pensacola. Clif’s final core rotation, OBGYN, is 6 weeks long so I am going to enjoy every minute of my brief return to coastal living. Its not the Caribbean, but it is the Emerald Coast.

So long, Orlando…and goodbye to so many new friends we’ve made here: our friends at CC Apopka, Ms. Willie & Mr. Ray, Fr. Tom and the wonderful members of the Church of the Messiah in Wintergarden, Ms. Angela and all of our friends at SHINE, Karla, Brian, Miles & Roxy, Aunt Becky & Uncle John, Ms. Marie & Mr. Matthew, Ms. Gertrude and Mr. Rudd, Ms. Brandi, and Mickey Mouse and crew.


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Confessions of a Bookworm

When you finally escape the house on a Mississippi-hot summer day, the best possible way to reclaim your sanity is to enjoy a good book next to a cold pool. However, if you’re the kind of reader that I am, i.e. you might accidentally let a small child drown before you can remember to look up from your book, an excellent alternative is to invite an old friend, and several young playmates, to accompany you. Sometime last summer I was waiting at the pool with the kids for my childhood friend, Leah, and her children to join us and the girls wanted me to get in the water to play mermaids. I don’t mind racing them around the pool with our feet clasped together into “fins”, and I really don’t mind beating them. But in this particular game, I was also required to answer to “Celestia” and reenact scenes inspired by animated B movies that poor, cable-deprived children hungrily devour as fast as Netflix and grandparents will allow. 

Of all my flaws, or at least the ones that are glaring and daring to be acknowledged, I have always considered this to be the biggest, rustiest chink in my parenting armor: pretending. Not all pretending, though, because I can pretend that there is no ice cream in the freezer and I can pretend that a fall from the monkey bars didn’t just make me nauseous but when we start changing our voices and speaking with accents and calling ourselves 5 syllable names…I’m out. 

To save myself from the painful process of “pretending”, I created a diversion. With a whisper of mystery I offered up the most irresistible bait: a story from my way-way-back-when-I-was-a-little-girl past. “Did I ever tell you about my friend, Leah, and the games we used to play?” It wasn’t very creative, but they were hooked, and so I began telling them about how much I used to love playing at Leah’s house when we were girls because she always had the best toys. Well, I had officially bitten off more than I could chew because they wanted details and the extent of my recollection was the shadow of a memory of a Barbie mansion. I did my best to fill the time with a story about how Leah and I played Barbies together until the girls, as far from satiated as they are apt to be, wanted to know what other amazing toys we played with at Leah’s house. “You’ll just have to ask Ms. Leah when she gets here,” I suggested smugly, imagining how she’d be peppered with questions before she had both feet out of the car.

When they finally arrived, guess who had two, cute, new, short people to play with but bigger fish to fry. Leah probably hadn’t even put her sunscreen on before Nora Ruth asked, “Ms. Leah, Mommy says you had a Barbie mansion and lots of cool toys and she used to love going to your house to play. What kinds of toys did you have?”

Leah snorted, “Ha! None that your mommy ever wanted to play with. She’d come over and stick her nose in a book and I’d get so mad because she wouldn’t play with me!”

I hadn’t skipped that part of the story, I had just utterly forgotten it! But my eldest, who was now having a turn at looking smug, didn’t seem too surprised. What an opportune time to be reminded of my past “play” failures.

Putting a good book down is still a trial for me and there are more than a few friends out there who felt ignored (or pissed off) when I couldn’t manage an upward glance to answer a question or accept an invitation or take my turn in whatever game required my minimal participation. Sometimes it was possible to be prodded, or more likely shamed, into pulling my nose out of my book but, just as often, it was not. I have several patient friends out there rolling their eyes at the fact that I am just now figuring out what you endured to be my friend.

I have a horribly hazy memory of most things. I vaguely remember playing “pretend”, mostly with my siblings, but I had no recollection of being a bore of a friend until Leah reminded me that day. Thank you, Leah! I am not awful at pretending and playing because I am old and tired and lazy. I’ve never been good at those things!

Thanks to this epiphany, I no longer feel like a washed-up adult because I groan inwardly at being cast as “Celestia” and I don’t feel overridden with guilt for scoffing and refusing to “put on makeup for the dance”. As a middle ground, I build things, play wiffle ball, color in their coloring books, put together puzzles, play hangman, play “spider” in the pool, and enjoy rainbow looming more than any busy, sane adult should. I assume that these games are more engaging for me because my practical interest is in watching them learn, complete, practice, succeed, or fail and try again. But there is another middle ground that is slowly, but surely, developing: both of my girls are becoming readers, themselves.

With Nora Ruth, it started around the end of Kindergarten when she finally learned enough sight words and spelling patterns to become a fully-independent reader. It was like watching a space shuttle take-off, so much gas and fire and noise at the beginning and then a rapid, arcadian, limitless soaring. As she soared through those books and past other milestones I celebrated when she gleefully discovered what “reading in her head” (silent reading) felt like, I noticed when she seemed to gravitate towards a particular genre, historical fiction or realistic fiction as opposed to my most-guilty pleasure, fantasy, and I smiled with complete understanding when she groaned over putting her book down for supper or asked to carry it along in the car to wherever we were going. I’ve even seen her, on more than one occasion, sit down at a friend’s house with an unfamiliar book, pouring through the pages, while her neglected playmate makes various unsuccessful plays for her attention.

Now it is Alliene’s turn to unlock the magic of the written word and to soar away to wherever the story takes her. I can’t go along with her, but I watch as she still struggles in this in-between zone, unable to deal completely with every text she chooses. And she hasn’t figured out yet how to “read in her head”, a fact which confounds and disturbs her elder sister immensely, as she has long forgotten the time that she asked me, “Mommy, how are you reading that when I don’t hear any words coming out of your mouth?”. But Alliene recently reached an unofficial milestone, acquiring a reading behavior that, in our house carries significant gravity and makes me giggle with joy. Unable to pause the story when necessity dictates, she carries her book around with her. First, and still most frequently, it goes to the toilet with her. (Come on, readers, you know you do it!) But every now and then, it migrates further, on a car ride, to the playground, outside on the patio.

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I couldn’t help myself; I took a photo the very first time it happened, my inspiration for this written snapshot of this particular part of their childhood and development. As odd as it may seem, hopefully this post clarifies why I felt so ecstatic in that moment. And its not just because I see less requests for “Celestia” impressions on the horizon. While there was lots of “play” that I struggled with, the “play” that I did accomplish is coming to fruition and I know, personally, how much joy there is to be gained in the fruits of those labors as they become readers and writers.

(Click HERE to see a video that I made of Nora Ruth, age 3, reading her book in the room that my family refers to as “The Library”. )

There’s a substantial debate about which methods are developmentally appropriate and should be taught, especially in kindergarten classrooms. Most people agree that “play” is developmentally appropriate and is not getting its due in today’s early-childhood classrooms. Some are pretty angry and go so far as to characterize kindergarten classrooms as modern-day sweatshops where things like rigor, phonics instruction, and math drill and memorization are demanded from brow-beaten youngsters. The voice that gets drowned out is the one explaining that language and cognitive development occur first and foremost at home, from the moment of birth, before birth even, as we know that babies hear and recognize their mother’s voice from inside the womb. From the moment a child is born, language and learning must be fostered by parents and caregivers daily, while we sing, talk, discuss, read, teach, and yes, I suppose, play. 

(Speaking of play, Allie’s Game, is a blog post you must read to see that I am not the only parent with “play” limitations.)


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My Pacers

It happens like a whisper, like a sunrise, like that instant between the moment your head was resting on your pillow, thinking about the rigors of the next day and the moment the thought went from practical plan to dreamy catharsis.  That is how slowly, yet suddenly, I go from leading my children through some adventure or task, to following behind them as they gallop off to something that is theirs alone to experience.

Lately I’ve asked myself whether or not this is truly the end, as it would often seem to be, of the most essential, and banal, tasks of parenting. If I were raising polar bear cubs, for instance, we would have parted ways long ago, but thankfully, they need much more from me and I have much more to give. And yet the shift, or the idea of the shift, is difficult in that I am left mystified by the subtlety of time and the amazing changes that it produces with unnoticeable effort.

Not all that long ago, Nora Ruth was attending school and Alliene and Thomas were small enough to fit in my tandem stroller, and I could go for my morning run without giving much thought to how any of them were going to participate. Of all the things I expected to change once I started homeschooling Nora Ruth, my exercise regiment was something that I totally overlooked. I fretted and complained that I had lost this time for myself until my husband sat me down and asked why I thought I no longer had time for exercise. Very reasonably, I explained that it took too much time away from “school time” and that I felt guilty about dragging the kids through my thirty-minute exercise routine.

I have a knack for allowing my determination to wrap itself entirely around my head, becoming effective blinders for dealing with anything that appears contrary to my goal, and that is exactly what I had done. Clif explained to me, quite patiently, that exercise was good for our kids and part and parcel of both a balanced life and education. And so began a new exercise regiment which probably had its greatest effect on my patience and ability to cope with the non-stop, all-day, Scott children.

I ran, they rode, three laps around the rv park making a 3 mile trek amongst pretty forgiving traffic. It has also been nice to be back in north Orlando these past several weeks where we can exercise on the North Orange Trail.  We’ve had our ups and downs- Alliene was working with a bike that was really too small to keep up the pace so we had to upgrade her and Thomas has recently become adverse to being pushed along on his scooter and would rather take a more horizontal position in the stroller- but our exercise is something we all generally enjoy.

In November, I challenged Nora Ruth to run a 5k with me for the prize of getting her ears pierced. If she was tough enough to work towards and meet that goal, her daddy and I would allow her to partake in this especially feminine rite of passage. Her good days were great but her bad days were horrible. Imagine one of those days when you really don’t feel excited about it,  but as you slog through your run anyway you’re constantly thinking about how you can’t make it or don’t feel  up to it. Now imagine how a seven-year old handles that head game. I often joked with friends and family members who asked about our progress that I used to feel sorry for myself for having to put up with the whining and the fighting and the excuses on what should have been a pleasant, peaceful run. Now, running with my teammate, Nora Ruth, I had to put up with all of the above at a 15min-mile pace. 

In spite of all the slow-mo tantrums, I really did enjoy running more than I ever have before, running with my eldest child, pushing my youngest on his scooter, and chasing my middle child on her bike. Nora Ruth and I ran our 5K in February, both of us finishing before we even realized that the race was over. Her enthusiasm for running has waned since then and she prefers to ride her bike when we exercise but she’s maintained her strength and her endurance, both a trophy of her hard-won goal and a blessing of youth. I hope we will be running partners again, one day.

Until then, I’m content to be in the way, way back, watching her pedal furiously to blast ahead, stand up on both pedals or let go of a handle bar to test her balance, or even stop far ahead on the side of the trail to examine some creature. For several months, I had Alliene to encourage or chat with as her little legs weren’t capable of outdistancing me, even on two wheels. When Nora Ruth started running with me, Alliene assumed the lead and we began calling her “our pacer”. Only a few months ago she had lagged behind (especially on her smaller bike) or managed to stay just a hair’s breadth from the front toe of my sneakers as I urged her to “keep it up!”. Suddenly she was charged with counting laps and keeping up our momentum. As we came down the home stretch one day, a neighbor remarked that “one of them” was getting away from me. I laughed and replied that she was our “pacer”. He shrugged and said, “Well, it looks like she has outpaced you and she’s just winning.” And just like that, she wasn’t riding to keep up with me anymore.


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The Blind Man

My children have always been drawn to neighbors- all strangers, really, but they feel a stronger claim on people who live close enough to fall into the category of “neighbor”. Unfortunately, in an rv park, neighbors are not very static. They move on to the next job, the next seasonal hot spot, or the next adventure. Luckily, my kids are always up for a rebound with the new neighbors who are pulling in, hopeful that the new trailer will be jam-packed with kids, like ours. That is not usually the case, though. Their next preference is for a cute pet, which is much more likely. But if they can’t have short and loud or cute and fuzzy, they find something interesting about anyone who pulls in next door.

We’ve had many interesting neighbors already. There was a nice couple who shared their fifth-wheel with two bulldogs, one of them a new puppy, who quickly became an object of my kids’ affection. There was also Ms. Willie, who was sweet but not the biggest attraction on the block-or the row…until the day she pulled out her 4 or 5 storage bins of seashells she had collected on dozens of different Florida beaches. Shortly after we had to leave our neighbors with the Bulldogs, all became right in the world again when our new neighbors led their pet pig out the door of their motor coach.

One evening, not long after a move to a new park, the kids were riding their bikes while I chatted with a neighbor who was eagerly sharing all of the gossip about our “row”. He pointed out a green park model, one of only a handful in a sea of motor coaches, travel trailers, and fifth wheels. “That guy who lives there is blind,” he said, “but I’ve never seen him outside.” As he waved his hand across the darkening sky he added, “He never turns any lights on, so don’t get worried if the house is dark and you hear noises. Sometimes he even runs a skill saw.”

The blind man, the blind man, the blind man, was all Nora Ruth could talk about! She wondered what he looked like. She wondered what his eyes looked like. She wondered if he was all alone. She wondered if he could talk. She wondered if he had a family. She wondered what he did all day. She wondered why we had never seen him. She wondered if he ever came outside. And finally, she wondered if we should go knock on his door. I wondered about his skill saw.

I am a determinedly-independent person; some times it is a strength and others it is my Achilles heel. I love people and I enjoy being around other people but I feel like knocking on someone’s door, let alone asking for a favor, is an imposition. And maybe I’ll have to concede that I am a bit shy, as well, because all of this “neighborliness” makes me uncomfortable, definitely more so than it seems to affect any of my kids! Nora Ruth couldn’t be more different. I jokingly call her “nosy” and laugh at her fascination with other people and their business. But there is more than nosiness at work there; she is bighearted, compassionate, interested, and she loves a story.

Well, I knew that we had no reason, other than Nora Ruth’s curiosity, to knock on the blind man’s door, so it was with assuredness that I told her “No way”. But one night after Sunday School she came running to tell me that her class had made Christmas gifts containing a cookie and a Christmas message to be given to a friend, another member of the congregation, or a neighbor, “and I really want to give mine to the blind man, Mom.” I don’t want to squelch all of those good qualities I mentioned earlier, but I do want to temper them with, I don’t know, maybe a little of “mind your own business”. As she looked at me pleadingly, the best I could do was a, “Let me think about it,” and I was definitely not going to think about it very hard. After the third time she sought me out to ask whether or not I had “thought about it yet,” I actually began putting a little brain power to it in order to devise a reason not to go. When there were no excuses that left me feeling like a respectable adult, I thought about enlisting my mom for this hand-holding, door-knocking job. She is, in fact, the family member that I hold responsible for NR’s “curiosity” and conviviality. Finally, I had to concede that there was no way out; we were going to see the blind man.

The next morning, bright and early, she’s asking when, when, when and of course the other two are thrilled about our field trip and they are paying close attention to the marching orders that are coming hard and fast from the eldest. She is going to carry the cookies, she might knock on the door…no, maybe Mama will. Allie should only say “hey” but she could also say, “Merry Christmas”, when we leave. No one need utter the word, “blind”. I had to laugh at her competence, but I was truly nervous about how this encounter would compare to my children’s expectations. I had agreed, so it was time to banish my fear that we were about to barge in on a cranky recluse who would come to the door brandishing his saw.

At 11:00 a.m. we knocked on the blind man’s door, and we all took a few steps back. When he didn’t answer within the three seconds that is the extent of my children’s patience, they began a very florid conversation about….him. Anxiously I “shushed” them, explaining that when a person is lacking one of their senses, the other senses often compensate but this new abstraction was too intriguing and revealing it had the opposite effect. It was like watching the starting gates at the racetrack spring open and the dogs, intent on the lure, dash off into oblivion.

When he finally opened the door, interrupting their conversation about whether or not he could hear their every word,  they were all three too dumbfounded to even say “hello”, so of course I had to do most of the talking. I suppose I was the one who needed the lesson in civility and neighborliness, anyway. He accepted the cookies gratefully, then tried to pay us (I think my benevolent, “neighborly” offspring would have accepted the cash if I hadn’t been standing there), and asked where we lived. We talked, just briefly, about the kids, their names, their ages, and each them finally piped up to say, “hello”. He spoke with an accent that was not easy to understand so, as we were walking home, NR asked, “Mama, what did he say?“, and I realized that the kids had barely understood a word of our brief conversation! “He said you’re a bunch of nosy kids. And he can’t see you, but he can hear every word you say,” I told her. “Oh, and he said it was sweet of me to think of bringing him those cookies.”