Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A PIllar of Motherhood

Chinese Police Officer Jiang Xiaojuan would be embarssed to read this post, because in her words she says, "I think what I did was normal," she said. "In a quake zone, many people do things for others. This was a small thing, not worth mentioning," according to her interview with CNN. So, I'll try not to make such a big fuss.

Still, there's something about this photo
that shows the power of Motherhood.

She has fed nine babies so far; five were orphans, four had Mother's who were too injured to nurse. Xiaojuan has a six-month baby of her own that she cannot nurse, as the child is staying with her relatives while she works in this disaster zone of the earthquake that has killed more than 51,000, with more than 29,000 people missing, according to government figures.

The media has fallen in love with Xiaojuan for her efforts. The pictures and video of her caring for these infants brings an image of peace and assurance that lies in direct contrast to much of the suffering that is the reality for so many people. I won't even touch the whole "Facebook banning breastfeeding photos," here or airline carriers who order people off planes because they nurse. This photo is simply beautiful, and a glowing testament to the power of love.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Remembering Nancy

Memorial Day. It was started to memorialize those killed in the American Civil War, and expanded after WWI to include all casualties of war or military action. In its current incarnation, it is a day when many Americans visit the buiral sites of loves ones, war victims or not. Also, it is a prime day for picnics. And opening pools.

I won't get into how we as a culture rarely respect our war dead, much less our war living. Whole 'nother post.

I want to talk about my mother in law, Nancy. She was the glue of her family. She was funny, incredibly smart, and quick-tongued. She was kind to everyone she met, unless she wasn't. She was not perfect, but she was incredibly loved. She was survived by her father, her siblings, her husband, her son, and her daughter. She was 53 when she died. I had only been dating her son for about six months when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By the time our one year anniversary rolled around, she was gone. She spent much of the five months between her diagnosis and death trying to cajole Hubs and I into marrying in the hospital chapel.

Memorial Day sometimes means standing over a grave, and asking yourself for the millionth time, "is this real?!? I still cannot believe it. How can it be that she is gone?" You leave flowers, and you cry tears anew. And it's not much to say that you've taken this day to remember, because God knows that you never, ever forget. The absence of that person is too large, a black hole that looms ever-present. You learn not to walk too close to its pull, because going into that dark again is too much. You cannot live that way. But you want to make sure that no one else forgets, either. Even people who have nothing to remember.

How do you memorialize your missing family members to the ones they never met? How do you teach your kids about Grandma, gone long before they even entered the world?

I try to memorialize her each day in the way that I parent. I often wish that she were here, although god knows if she were this would be another my-MIL-is-so... post. I try to think about her values, how she raised her son, and I eke out all the stories of her that I can. I want my kids to know about their Grandma in heaven. She was a phenomenal lady. Which of course leads to the next logical worry-- how do I teach them about Grandma in heaven and stave off the staggering realization that someday Mommy will be there, too? (And every day I pray that my kids will someday know this pain, the alternative is that they will have gone first and that is too much to bear.)

It is a heady responsibility, carrying this torch. I know that she would be so proud of her son, and of her grandchildren. And she would be proud of me.

Because the way that I try to memorialize my mother in law is by trying to become the new glue of our family. It is me that urges each visit back home, even though the family she left behind has changed forever for her absence. It is me that encourages family activities, and me that tries to make sure my kids have meaningful relationships with my husband's family even when that is diffficult for me personally. It is what she would have wanted. It is how she would have wanted to be memorialized. With a strong family, replenished by the addition of my two beautiful children. Each day that I invest in that family is Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fire Safety and Young Children

I’ll be honest, any time I hear about a house fire, especially if there are fatalities, I worry about what we’d do if a fire started in our home. I always think that I know all the fire safety recommendations, but don’t know exactly how to apply the “rules” to my family and my home.

I’ve heard conflicting advice from other parents. I’ve heard the general home escape plans. Some of the advice simply doesn’t work if you have young children and infants.

So, as I’m awaiting the birth of my third child, I thought I’d go to someone who could actually give me practical advice about fire safety. He’s a firefighter and a dad, and he happens to be someone I went to high school with so he was obligated to help. Just kidding. He’d help anyone.

I asked Chad Rathbun, who is a firefighter in Minneapolis at Fire Station number one, a series of questions that I had about keeping my kids safe regarding fires.

Most people probably know that they should have a working smoke detector in their homes, but how many smoke detectors do we really need? In my home, we have one in each of our children’s bedrooms and one in the kitchen. Chad recommends that we place one in every bedroom (not just our kids’!), in the kitchen (where most fires start), one on each level of the home, and one in the hallway outside your bedrooms. Keep in mind that if anyone is sleeping in your basement you need to have egress windows for safety.

Similarly, we should all have at least one fire extinguisher in our home. Since most fires start in the kitchen, that might be the best place to keep it if you have only one. But it isn’t enough to just buy the fire extinguisher and leave it sitting in your kitchen for years (hopefully) unused. You need to perform some maintenance even on the small home fire extinguishers. If fire extinguishers sit unused in one position for years, the chemicals inside can lump together and become useless. To prevent this, we should actually spin our fire extinguishers. Hey, we could even have our kids do it for us. Just turn the extinguisher on its side and spin it or roll it around a little. Once a month, even once every six months (perhaps when we’re changing the batteries in our smoke detectors) should keep our extinguishers clump-free.

When we were in grade school we were taught to have a fire escape plan. These plans, while a great idea for families with older children, are not practical for those with young children. I asked Chad what I could have taught my kids to do when they were too little to open doors and get themselves out of the house.

Here’s what Chad said: Tell them to stay low to the ground and stay where they are. Do NOT hide…don’t go under the bed, or into their closet or anywhere else they might think to go. Introduce them to firefighters and let them see them dressed in their full gear. Let them know that the firefighters are there to help. Take them to a fire station. See if they can try out the stuff. If it’s familiar, they’ll be less scared when they need to rely on a firefighter to save them.

“Just telling them not to hide, that’s a big thing. When there’s smoke in the house you can’t see your hand in front of your face and if the kids are hiding it’s near impossible to find them. It can be pretty chaotic.”

“It’s pretty scary with all of our stuff on, but if they’ve seen it before they might be less scared. We have had kids run away from us before because they’re scared of these people coming in looking like monsters and carrying axes and stuff,” Chad explains.

You can still construct an escape plan and talk with your child about it, and practice it. But know that your child will be at least as scared as you are in a fire, so the best thing to tell them might be Chad’s advice: “If you’re scared, just stay where you are and we’ll come and get you.”

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sail Away With Me

Today, I am wistful, and perhaps even a bit envious.  I can’t stop thinking about Lorrie and Gregg Granger, who live near my town and were featured in yesterday’s Grand Rapids Press.  Like me, they have three kids, although two of theirs are girls, while at our house, I am the only one concerned about estrogen.

The Grangers were featured not because their kids won a trophy or scholarship to a prestigious university, and not because they built a fancy house or started a million-dollar company (although they could have done all of these, I have no idea.)  Instead, they were featured because they took a plunge that most of us (okay, I mean me) will only ever dream about:  rather than leaving their kids with stock portfolios or real estate, they decided to leave them with an incredibly unique experience and extraordinary memories.  Four and a half years ago, with little seafaring experience, the Grangers liquidated their funds, packed up the troops, bought a 54-foot sailboat, and went out to see the world.  At the time, their kids were about 6, 12, and 16.  Tom Rademacher, who wrote about their adventures in his column, says that “they cavorted with Polynesian dancers, hiked the Marquesas, feasted on grubs and crickets in Thailand, surfed the coast of Australia and rode elephants in Sri Lanka.”  I can’t say I miss trying the grubs and crickets, but the rest of it is magic to me.  Wonder. Excitement.  Life.

Exploring other cultures—even within our own country—has drawn me for as long as I can remember.  Understanding the similarities and differences between people fascinates me, attracts me, pulls me like few other experiences do.  I absolutely love the idea of taking everyone away from the daily drill.  For some, just the thought of pulling their kids out of sports and schools and clubs is intolerable.  But for me, it’s inspiring and I love the thought of being together, seeing new places, and teaching the kids that this is how people live and interact.  As kids get older, so much of what influences them is peer-driven, and so much of what they think about themselves is a mirror of what their peers think.  How much more the Grangers gave their kids, when they took them to see that life isn’t about who has what, or wears what, or is best at everything, but about how we all relate to one another.

I know that there are throngs of people who will disagree with me, who will say, "Buck up and get back in the real world, lady."  They might discover that I have always loved the idea of being Nim, on  her island, and mock me for it.  They will remind me that Nim and her island are fictitious, as are the life lessons she learned—complete figments of Wendy Orr’s imagination.  But the Granger's are not.  And now I know their story.  I can share it, and counter that the Grangers are very real, a figment of no one’s imagination, and the lessons they learned from their trip are equally authentic.  When asked what she took from the trip, the Grangers’ oldest daughter, Emily, remarked, “Never judge people by their race, religion, color.  We’re all in this together.”

And that’s a lesson that’s hard to argue with.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

summer crafts

Summer is almost here & that means the kids are home from school. Do you know what you are going to do with your kids this summer? What about on the rainy days when you are stuck inside?

I have found a few cute ideas and thought I would share them with you all. Most of these are geared toward younger children, but I have an 8 year old and know that I can adjust these in ways that he can enjoy them too.

First up is summer vacation stationary, which I think is a very cute idea! Because we are not much for writing to family (e-mail makes me lazy) I was thinking about having the kids make these for a keepsake. You could spend a rainy day stamping them all. Then, maybe after a vacation, trip to the zoo, or a fun day have them write (or tell you) what was the best part about it.

I saw this one & knew instantly that my boys would love it. These balls are fun to squish, and look how easy (and inexpensive)they are to make!!

My kids also LOVE to have fun in the kitchen, in fact a lot of the things we make come from my oldest reading the cereal boxes, or other packages. This ice cream in a bag idea is not one we've tried at home, but one that Ellie's girl scout troop made, and it was very GOOD!

And one more for the girls...I say this only because my boys would most likely not want to make "girly" flowers, but I always think the watercolors on the coffee filters is pretty cool myself :)

So, there are just of a few of the fun things I have bookmarked and saved for a rainy day this summer. Crafting is such a great way to bring the whole family together, and kids of all ages can bring their own ideas and adapt the directions as necessary. The options are really endless. Once you find a website you like (I have always loved family fun) you can search the site for what you & your family would enjoy, and get busy!

Hope you all have a fun (& crafty) summer break :)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hidden Talent in the Family Tree

Sit down with your relatives and ask them, "What kind of talent runs in our family?" They'll look up and around the top of your head, as if they're trying to spot a mosquito that's flying around, and say, "Well, I don't know... Now, let me think about that," and rub their chin. You'll probably learn nothing about the real gems in your family this way.

However, this reaction changes dramatically when you pull out your child's report card and start bragging about how well he does in Art. "Oh, well, you know, Aunt Betty, she had a lot of talent in art too -- probably where he got his talent. Betty had a scholarship to study art in Michigan, but she decided to teach school instead." Then, they'll pull out some of her paintings from the attic. I'm not sure what's more astonishing; the fact that your relatives do have loads of talent after all, or the fact that you had thought all along that that talent came from your Aunt Mrytle, on your side of the family.

These mysterious memory-boosting experiences begin the first time relatives visit your newborn baby, freshly donning his new red hair, or his unusually blue eyes. "Well, he takes after Uncle Alfred. He had hair just like that." And again, you thought it was from your Great Uncle Wyatt. And soon, a tale or too will drop about Uncle Alfred's red hair, and his funny temper that always got him into trouble.

Frustrated genealogy diggers pour over tomes in libraries, and walk through small-town cemeteries. But perhaps the most overlooked solution lies in the power of bragging. It's funny how the simple act of showcasing your kids strengths to your relatives brings out rich stories from past heroes and heroines, in great detail. Some stories will be about generations of relatives so far back, no one alive even remembers them. These are the precious stories they couldn't tell you if you asked them straight- out because, without your story, they would have been impossible to remember.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Big May

May is a big month for me now that I’m a mom. Well, it always has been an important month to me since I was born in May.

This year, however, May brings some firsts, and lasts.

This Sunday will be my last Mother’s Day as a mom to only 2 children. This month will also be the first time I will be a mother to three children.

There will soon be one more little body to love in our home. One more little personality to watch develop and grow into a little person who will alternately make me so proud that I cry and so mad that I cry.

It’s heady stuff, this being a mom.

I remember playing that I was a mom as a little girl. I remember thinking as a young adult that I might someday want to be a mom. Even when I got married, the concept of being a mom was rather abstract to me.

There is nothing that prepares you for what motherhood will be. It’s wonderful and scary and tiring and maddening and the greatest job in the world. I heard all about what others said it would be. But like many things, you can’t really know until you experience it.

I thought that I was a mother when I was pregnant with my first child. Technically, I was. But really? No. I wasn’t a mother until my child was born and in my arms depending on me to teach her how to exist in this world.

There is something in my heart that hurts just a little bit when my children seem to be actively defying my husband or me and then I realize that they just didn’t understand what we were telling them. If you’re a parent and your child is more than 2 years old, you’ve probably been there. Your child starts to cry because they’re scared about something that you just didn’t explain because you thought they understood.

That’s when you realize how important being a mom is. How much we have to teach our kids. How much they really just don’t know, and how scary that can make the world seem. How careful we need to be with little feelings.

A mom is a very powerful being to those who call her mom.

And soon, I’ll have the power to shape another life.
I only hope that I’m up for the task.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Pass the Mayo

My mother has been going through "the change" for the last six years or so. Whenever she visits, we crank up the air conditioner and don our sweatshirts. We call her "The Flash." So it's no real surprise that once things get even a little warm outside, she's eager to open up the above-ground pool she lives in for five months out of the year. Rather than opening her pool on Memorial Day, or any random day, she looks to the skies to tell her when it is time for the season's first dip.

Because there's no point in taking off that pool cover until the last helicopter has fallen from the maples that surround her home. And when the time comes, it is truly a celebration. They labor to get the PH just right, spruce up the yard, and throw some meat on the grill. Family comes over and even though the water’s just a little too chilly for everyone who’s not suffering from hot flashes, it is an excellent day.

It is my mother’s own tradition. Her very own holiday. It commemorates the onset of summer, a happy time in my family full of weekend barbecues, splashing in the pool, warm skin, and lots of hugs. It is a celebration for our family, and has nothing to do with the pool and everything to do with us being together.

Today is Cinco de Mayo, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not a day celebrating Sister Margarita, the patron saint of sombreros. It is not Mexico’s Independence Day. (That’s in September.) In fact, the holiday celebrates a significant victory of Mexico against the French—and apparently most people in Mexico do not celebrate it. In the US, of course, some folks celebrate Mexican culture on this day, in the same way that we “celebrate the Irish” on St. Patrick’s day. In fact, in much the same way.

We get drunk. And we don’t actually learn anything about the culture of the people involved.

I’m not saying that everyone treats these holidays in this way. Of course not. And I’m not even necessarily telling you it’s “wrong.” But what can most people tell you about Cinco de Mayo? About St. Patrick? Not very much. What is significant about these days is that it is a time to celebrate. But why do we need these seemingly random days to do so? And why does it occur at such a superficial level?

What I am saying is, it’s easy to feel as though we lack cultural heritage. In those times, people tend to glom on to other traditions. Sometimes this is to educate ourselves about others. But most of the time, if you’re being truly honest, it’s not. You’re not going to learn about the people of Mexico slamming back store-mix margaritas at Chevy’s tonight. You’re just not.

I myself am the most plain white bread human being you might meet. There’s some interesting Russian Jews back there, but the genetic line is fairly…meh. But that doesn’t negate the fact that I have a culture—my family has a culture. We have funny traditions and sayings all our own. We break out the Yiddish even though no one in my family has spoken the language for 120 years. We have a distinct set of values and beliefs, mores and norms. And we have our own celebrations. Of our world, our family, and our culture.

Sure, we want to learn about the cultures and heritage of others in our world. Heck yeah! This makes our world richer, and our understanding of others around us greater.

But I also want to make sure that we have our own traditions, our own heritage, our own stories, and our own rich cultural fabric in our household. I want to celebrate the wonder that is our family, our community. We don’t have a day on the national calendar for this, but that’s probably just as well. Our culture happens every day anyway, regardless of the date on the wall. I just have to remember to celebrate it more.