Our mishmash Christmas tree is full of memories

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What mom could resist?

As we were decorating our tree this year, my son held up two of his handmade ornaments — jaggedly cut pieces of construction paper with black marker scrawled on them.

“Do we have to put these up this year?” he groaned.

The date on the back shows he was nearly 3 when he wrote “Mom” and “Dad” and drew stick figures on them. Of course those are going on the tree, I told him .And so are the wooden ornaments you colored over the years with babysitter, even the one with the crooked googly eyes you made when you were 4.

And the Popsicle stick Gods eye your sister made, and all the other ornaments we’ve accumulated over the years.
I have friends whose Christmas trees are works of art, with impeccable arrangements of elegant ornaments, worthy of the oohs and aahs. One couple we know buys chic new ornaments every year to create a different theme for every season. Some of my friends don’t allow anyone else to help decorate tree, lest they interfere with perfection.

Not me. I’m all about the color, all about the memories.

Christmas deepens my already sentimental, nostalgic side. I love the annual tradition of choosing the tree, hauling out the boxes, then carefully unwrapping our ornaments and decorations. I remember where just about every one of them came from. There are “baby’s first Christmas” ornaments, faux wine bottles given to me by friends, and decorations we have picked out as a family on vacations. There are trinkets I bought the first year I lived alone and put up a tree by myself in my tiny apartment. They remind me how far I’ve come.

I have lots ornaments with my daughter’s name on them. She has a daughter of our own now. I suppose I should pass them on to her, but I love having her name hang in our house on soccer balls and sleds and candy canes. And besides the Shrinky Dinks my sister, brother, and I made still hang on my dad’s tree, along with the other prized possessions he and my late mom collected over the years. I like seeing them there when we visit at Christmas.

Our decorating doesn’t end with the tree. On the mantle over the fireplace, we arrange the beautiful Nativity scene three of my oldest friends gave us for a wedding gift, and in the hall, we hang the Christmas prints my mom gave me years ago.

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The peanut savior
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The rocker angel

And on the piano, we place the tiny manger that holds baby Jesus in the form of a peanut with a smiley face and the pine cone angel with haphazardly placed glitter and a shock of curly blonde hair that gives her a decidedly less than angelic look. My son brought them home from his church preschool. I can’t find the tape of the gift tags, but I’ve manged to hold onto that peanut for the last six years. I thought it was ridiculous when I first saw it, but I adore it.

And our centerpiece, our tree, will be covered in hundreds of colored lights and that glorious array of old and new. The are crystal stars next to Seahawks Santa hats, and a sock monkey ornament near a glittery glass heart. There will be no rhyme nor reason to the placement, except for the antique angel always that goes on top.

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Grandma’s angel watches over us all.

My beloved grandma passed her down to me years ago, and I cherish it. She has a painted porcelain face and dainty ceramic hands and feet peeking out from her delicate lace dress, her satin wings outstretched behind her. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I have no idea why I was the lucky grandchild to inherit this beauty.

My kids have asked over the years to instead put up a star, or something with more bling or shine, but I hold fast to this tradition. She’s the last thing we take out, and the last thing we pack away, encased in bubble wrap and cardboard to preserve her for next year.

Our tree is not color-coordinated nor stylish. It’s far from flawless. It’s not picture-perfect. It’s just perfect.

I hope however you celebrate the holidays, they are full of memories you will cherish.

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Why I won’t have “The Talk” with my preteen son

During a family Scattergories game a few years ago, the category was parts of the body. The letter was F. You know the drill – you have to come up with an answer no one else writes down in order to get a point. Finger, foot, femur. They were all repeated.

My son – who was about 6 and insisted on playing by himself, without a partner, for the first time – proudly announced that he had a word no one else had thought of.

“Fagina!” he exclaimed, sending his parents, sister, cousins, and grandpa into gales of laughter.

“It’s a word!” he said.

“Yes, but it starts with a V,” I told him, stifling my giggles at his innocent spelling mistake. “The word is vagina.”

Which sort of embarrassed some people at the table, but I figure you have to take those moments when they come. We’ve been doing that for the past few years, answering questions, sometimes honestly, sometimes with those kid-friendly explanations that don’t tell the whole story.

My son kind of knew what sex was. Sort of knew where babies come from. I didn’t really think he needed to know, you know, everything. But now that he’s approaching 10, topics related to sex and puberty are coming up more often, so I thought we’d better prepare for “The Talk.” It seems a little trickier with my son than my older daughter, so I signed up for a “Moms of Boys” workshop with some friends. And I bought him a book, of course. I figured my husband and/or I would read it with him, then we’d sit down and answer all his questions and that would be it.

It didn’t quite go as planned.

He wanted to read the book. Alone. And then he didn’t say a word about it. I asked later what he thought and tried to start a conversation.

“That book is NOT just about puberty,” he said. “And I do NOT want to talk about it.”

I know a lot of parents struggle with how to have these uncomfortable conversations. My friends and I have talked – and laughed – about our boys’ questions and the approaches to them. Some of them laid it all out there for their sons early on. Others insist their sons still don’t know the difference between boys and girls. (Love you, ladies, but give me a break.)

So when I was asked to write an article about how to talk to your kids about sex, I jumped at the chance. Here are some of the main points all the experts told me:

  • Talk about it early and often. One sex ed expert recommends children know the usual way babies are made by the time they’re 5. You decide if your kids are ready for that.
  • Use anatomical terms for body parts. Penis and vagina are just words, like eyelash and belly button.
  • Reinforce respect: for your own body, and for others. Teach them that our bodies are our own, and no one should touch them without permission.
  • You, parents and guardians, are the primary sex health educator of your children. Not the school health teacher, not a book or a class you attend. There are lots of great resources out there you can rely on, but it’s our responsibility to make sure our kids are educated.
  • Don’t take this so seriously. Use humor if it helps (always does for me). I mean fagina, that’s funny. And we tell that story a lot.
  • Don’t assume you kids are clueless. You don’t know what they know unless you tell them. (And trust me, they know more than you think.—some of it completely wrong.)
  • Don’t wait for questions to arise, but answer them – succinctly — when they do. You don’t have to spend hours on the question “What is French kissing?” Just answer the question, and move on.
  • Number one? Don’t save it all up for a huge sit-down. Have lots of small conversations when life presents opportunities for them. Keep that conversation going over time.

All this expert advice in hand, I casually brought up the book again. I told my son we didn’t need to have some big talk, but I needed to make sure he understood what he had read and see if he had any questions. I told him he could always ask us anything – even if it seems embarrassing. He assured me he’d let me know. (I also told my husband he’ll talk about wet dreams and spontaneous erections, because I seriously don’t get how those things have a mind of their own.)

So when my son found an in-case-of-emergency tampon in middle console of the car and asked what exactly women use those things for anyway, I didn’t put him off. I gave him a straightforward answer about periods and how all girls and women have them.

“Ewwww,” he said, his hands flying up to cover his reddened face. “I was afraid it had something to do with blood.”

“Well, now you know for sure,” I said matter-of-factly. “Just let me know if you have any other questions.”

And we moved on.

There are so many chances to introduce such brief but educational conversations, like when you hear suggestive lyrics on pop radio, or see grownups kissing on TV, or someone becomes pregnant or gives birth. Or when you’re playing a game.

Like our latest round of Scattergories the other day.  (Yeah, we like that game.) The category was toiletries or cosmetics. The letter was C.

Again, my son came up with an answer unlike anyone else’s: Condom. My husband I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, then asked if he knew what those were for.

“Yep, it’s in that book you gave me,” he said with a shrug.

Perfect opportunity for another quick conversation.

We don’t need The Talk. Because we’re talking all the time.

This post originally appeared on Ravishly. Check them out.

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Remembering my pantsuit-wearing mom on this historic Election Day

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Look at these powerful pantsuit-wearing women of the’70s. My mom is second from right.

I chose my first presidential candidate when I was in 4th grade. My dad told me if I watched the news and read the newspaper he would vote for whoever I told him to. He called me from his office and told me he was on his way to the polls and asked for my recommendation.

“Jimmy Carter!!” I screamed.

I might not have imagined then I would have the chance to vote for a woman running for the highest office, but my mom probably did. Were she alive today, my mom would be a couple of years older than Hillary Clinton, and she would have no doubt have campaigned for her – and voiced her opinions about what she should have done differently.

Growing up in Alaska in the ’70s and ‘80s, we talked about politics and current events a lot in our house. My mom was committed to making sure women were involved in the process – and on the ballot. When my sister and I were young, she lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment and was an officer in the League of Women Voters. She and other strong women had raucous conversations in our home and worked hard on the issues and for candidates they believed in.

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My  mom made the news when she was elected president of the Anchorage League of Women Voters.

My mom ran campaigns and enlisted our help going through rolodexes and making phone calls. She helped elect school board members and state lawmakers, and she also campaigned for candidates who would have brought about real change but didn’t win. She volunteered at polling places, let us go behind the red, white, and blue curtain with her, and even took us to some election night parties.

Alaska is a small state, and Anchorage was a tight-knit community in those days, so many of these people were our friends. I babysat for the former mayor and governor’s kids, went to sleepovers with the daughters of legislators, and greeted many past and present lawmakers at my mom’s memorial service.

My mom was always trying to show us what women could accomplish. When I had to write a report on a historical figure in 6th grade, she suggested I research Golda Meir, who was Israel’s first (and only) woman prime minister. I did.

I remember my mom and her friends cheering when Geraldine Ferraro was chosen to be Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate in 1984. They were crushed in the election, of course, but the progressive women who surrounded and influenced me over the years considered it progress that a woman would be nominated for such a high office. Even though she would have disagreed with her politics, my mom might have even felt the same about fellow Alaskan Sarah Palin.

We talk some politics around our house too. My 9-year-old son helped me fill out my ballot (mail-in state that we are – it’s just not the same. I want my sticker!) He formed his own strong opinions throughout these prolonged campaigns about who he wanted to see in the White House.

“It seem strange that a woman has never been president,” he told me recently. “I always thought they were the most intelligent.”

The grandma you never met, my dear, would be proud.It looks tonight as though my son’s statement remains true and we won’t have a woman president. Still, though disappointed and shocked at the results I saw unfold tonight, I raise a glass to my mom and the many women of her generation who fought so hard to make a difference that led to Clinton’s historic run.

I completely lost my freaking mind in front of my kid and his friends

My son loves to have his friends over, and I usually plan some kind of outing when I can. But sometimes when we do this, he goes a little cray-cray.

Like the day just before school started when I was driving with three hyper boys and our excitable dog in the car. We were listening to pop radio on way home from the park. I spent 40 bucks on lunch they didn’t eat and let them run wild while I played with the dog. I was taking them home to change so we could head to the pool. Awesome mom, right? So fun, so chill.

Suddenly, the car door my son was sitting by flew open. I panicked, slammed on the brakes, and turned around to see him sheepishly trying to pull the door closed. Then I noticed he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.

“What the hell is wrong with you?”  I screamed, as his friends looked at me with mouths agape. “You opened the door of a moving car and you don’t even have your damn seatbelt on?”

And then I saw his smirk, and my rage reached a new level. When my quite bright son told me with a straight face that door “accidentally” came open, I completely lost it.

“Do not try to tell me you did not do that on purpose! You do not have to act like an IDIOT when you are with your friends. You are not impressing anyone! If this is how you’re going to behave you can play BY YOURSELF the rest of your life! I can’t believe you would do something SO STUPID!”

I mean, this kid is 9 1/2. I thought I was past the point of cheerfully saying, “Buckle up!”  when we get in the car. Apparently not. And maybe we’re not even over those child locks. Seriously?

Yelling, swearing, name calling, idle threats. Not my proudest mom moment, but I know a lot of you have been there too. When I told this story to my friends later that night – over wine of course – they laughed out loud, told me to give myself a break for losing my cool, and toasted to the fact that I got through the whole episode with dropping any f bombs. They got it.

And they understood too that behind my total freak out was fear: Fear that this son of mine, this confident, smart, funny, talented kid, could be hurt, not by accident, but by his own foolishness. Instantly my mind filled with thoughts of his brains splattered on the pavement, his legs mangled, he and the dog tangled in the leash, run over by my own car. I was literally shaking. Tears filled my eyes as I tried to calm down.

There are enough things to worry about when raising kids – especially daredevil boys like mine who start swordfights with sharp objects, wrestle like they’re part of WWE, and walk across the top of the monkey bars and jump down, ignoring warnings of “That’s too high!”

There are a million ways for these boys to hurt themselves, and only so much we can prevent. I mean, kids get shot in elementary schools and movie theaters these days, and babies get sick for no reason. That random violence and heartache we have no control over, but don’t we all try to avert needless danger where we can?

My son wants to play tackle football and I’m like hell no, you could get hurt. I make him wear his helmet over his protests when he’s riding his bike and his electric scooter. I teach him not to open the door to strangers or touch a hot stove and look three ways before crossing the street. But he opens the freaking door of a moving car?

I want him to push himself, to be brave, to be fearless. I don’t want to be overprotective or overreact. I want him to be independent. I want him to be bold. But I also want him to be smart, to avoid intentionally putting himself in harm’s way.

I was able to explain this to him later that night when he was getting ready for bed. He said he’d never seen me so mad before.

“Sorry for losing my temper, especially in front of your friends,” I told him. “But you really scared me.”

I told him he’s the most important thing to me, and keeping him safe is my job. There will be a lot of things you will confront as you get older that can be bad for you, I said, so you might as well start now with making the right choices.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he murmured.

And then I laid down beside my growing-up-way-too-fast-but-still-little boy, kissed him and hugged him.

And he let me.

This post originally appeared on Ravishly. Check out their site.

 

 

 

My dad is my hero

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I don’t remember this photo being taken, but I know my dad has been holding me up all my life.

It’s hard for me to put into words how I feel about my dad.

He is kind, wise, generous, honest, funny, hard-working and compassionate. He was a provider, a supporter, a caretaker, and my biggest fan. He always told me, “Go for it!” and made me believe in myself.

How do I adequately say “thank you” to the man who who helped me become who I am?  I am fortunate to have had the parents I did. I hope my kids feel the same about me.

I tried my best to show how much I love, admire, and respect him long before I started blogging, when I submitted an essay, “Priceless Treasures” (starts on page 53) for the anthology, “My Dad is My Hero.” I was honored it was included, and I share it now in honor of Father’s Day, and this man who really is my hero.

Happy Father’s Day. I love you, Dad.

 

8 playground rules amended for the dog park

 scoop.jpgAgainst my better judgment, I wore flip flops to the dog park on a 90-degree day. Big mistake. Traipsing after the tennis ball, I stepped right in a pile of fresh poop.

Oh, I beg of you. You, yes you, with the cute, cuddly Chow Chow, and you with the pair of poodles, and everyone else who comes here, I plead with you to watch where your dog does his business. Because as well as leaving a mess, this park smells pretty freaking horrible on a hot day. I’m still pretty new to this dog thing, but I’m the stay-at-home-dog-mom, so I’m a regular at the dog park now. I find most pet parents to be responsible, lovely people. I look forward to friendly conversations as I try to wear out our boisterous Bella throwing the same ball approximately 872 times. But nearly every day I see something that irks me about this canine community.

We all know parents have some pretty strong feelings surrounding playground etiquette (share, take turns, stop texting and watch your own kid, you know the drill). Some of these guidelines should also be adopted when we take our dogs to the park to play.

So I propose eight commonsense rules of the dog park.

1. Clean up after yourself.
I know you want to gossip with the your human friends or maybe just sit down and relax with your cell phone while your puppy plays with the other pooches, but please, keep an eye out for the tell-tale stance. You know when you go to the park, your dog is going to go. When he’s been out of sight for a while, chances are he’s done it. Don’t leave it behind for us to pick up – or step in.  There are even bags available if you forgot yours. This seems like Dog Owner 101, but I can’t believe how many piles I dodge. Trust me, this is a lot worse than stepping in your kid’s Gogurt or finding an abandoned juice box that didn’t make it to the garbage can.

2. Bring your own toys.
Listen, I’m all about sharing. I’ll throw the ball for your dog too. But if Fido chases my dog’s ball then runs away with it, just bring it back. “That’s not yours,” you can say, just like we do when our children claim another kid’s truck or doll. “They’ll let you play with it, but we have to return it.”  And if you know your dog loves playing fetch – which you must, because he does it with me every single day – maybe invest in a Chuckit of your own? You can get one online for like 8 bucks.

3. Don’t let your baby be a bully.
Dogs love to play, we know. Some are more rambunctious and louder than others. I get that. But if your dog is overly aggressive with other animals or people, making too much noise, or just getting in someone’s way, step in. The other day I was surrounded by three yapping Chihuahuas I’ve never seen before. They relentlessly circled me for at least 10 minutes, jumping, yipping, jumping, yapping. There’s no way the owner didn’t hear them. When I finally tried to escape to a different part of the park, they followed me. Their owner saw them with me and said, “Were they harassing you? They’re kind of out of control, so they just harass everyone.” Not cool.

One day my excitable dog took a liking to girl with long hair and wouldn’t leave her alone. I called her off, pulled her off, to no avail. So you know what we did? We left. No one else should have to deal with my dog’s misbehavior – or yours.

4. Don’t be a helicopter parent.
If you are worried your little princess might get hurt or dirty, put her in the separate, fenced small dog area. I’ve seen giant greyhounds and tiny terriers get along just fine, but if you think every big dog is out to devour yours, don’t let her roam. Don’t expect all the dogs in the park not to check each other out, and say, “Do you want to be my friend?” Unlike our kids, their feelings won’t be hurt when one says no, but you can’t police their introductions. Also, if you’re a mom who insists on going down the playground slide with your toddler on your lap, you probably shouldn’t bring her to the dog park either.

5. Safety first.
There are two gates at each entrance. Please make sure you close at least one (preferably both) when coming or going. There are way too many distractions beyond the fence – other dogs, joggers, oh and loud cars and trucks – to chance someone else’s dog darting off.

6. Dress appropriately.
I will do everything I can to keep my dog from rubbing her muddy face up against you, but chances are, she or another is going get your white pants dirty. I apologize (most people shrug it off with, “Well she’s a dog.”) But if your wardrobe is important to you, leave the designer duds at home and wearing your oldest jeans or yoga pants. And boots.

7. They won’t always listen to you.
Like our kids, I think dogs have selective hearing. I hear you calling your dog. I’ve heard it 100 times. He hears you too, but he’s having way too much fun to do what you say. When it’s time to leave, or if you need to get your dog out of some trouble, you might just have to walk over and get him.

8. Leave it how you found it.
Simple: If your dog poops, you scoop. I know, I’m repeating Rule No. 1. But apparently it needs to be done. The sign doesn’t say, “Watch your step.” My shoes and I thank you.

 

 

I missed my son’s playoff game to make music

Hey kiddo. I’m sorry I missed your big baseball playoff game the other day. It was your best game yet, and your huge hit helped send your team to the championship. I wasn’t there because I was at my high school — a place I hadn’t been for 30 years — singing with other former choir students in preparation for a reunion concert to honor the director who inspired and influenced countless students over her career.

During a break from our rehearsals, I checked my text messages, and Dad had been keeping me up to date on the game. I let out a “Whohoo!” and told everyone around me about your great success. We all cheered for you and your team.

Then we headed back on stage to keep singing, which was where I really needed to be that night. It was a big decision to go on this trip during this incredibly busy end-of-the-school year rush. I felt guilty about leaving Dad and you, about buying a plane ticket, asking my friends to help shuttle you to your activities (thanks to my mom tribe, who totally got why I wanted to be there).  I told you there would be a lot of games in your life, but this reunion concert was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I really wanted to be part of it.

Once I was standing on the risers under the lights, sharing harmonies with singers who I had known for decades, I knew I had made the right decision.

I haven’t gone to my class reunions because our family had other things going on. But being at this reunion was important for me, and it turned out it was even more meaningful than I expected. I stayed at Grandpa’s house with two of my best friends from high school. When we all piled into the car, parked at our high school and walked into the auditorium for rehearsal, it felt like no time had passed. We had made that same trip hundreds of times during high school.

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The Hee Haw Honeys, from our yearbook. Two of these silly girls were at the reunion with me.

I spent endless hours in that auditorium over four years, rehearsing for concerts, learning songs from “The Messiah,” and practicing for musicals like “Hello Dolly” and “The Music Man.” One year, my friends and I went on stage for a special number, dressed in robes with  bandanas and curlers in our hair and sang a song called, “We’re Not Ones to Go Round Spreading Rumors” that was made famous by an old TV show you’ve never heard of. We made up our own lyrics about classmates and teachers and we brought down the house. I hadn’t thought of that for a long time.

There’s a lot of stuff about high school I’d rather forget. But being in choir was the best part. Music does bring people together, and it was magical to reconnect with classmates and others who were just as moved as I was to sing together again under the direction of a woman who was a big part of our lives at a time when we were learning who we were. This time around, people were older, some grayer or balding, some heavier, some gorgeous as ever. But the voices were the same, and I felt sheer joy sharing the stage with them all. Our conversations picked up like we had been there yesterday, like we were all still the teenagers we once were trying to get our songs pitch-perfect.

When we weren’t rehearsing or reminiscing, our conversations revolved around what had happened since then, our families, our careers, and our real lives that started after we left high school and our parents. We have all lived through a lot, survived blows more crushing than not being asked to prom, and had moments much bigger than high school graduation. No one can tell us that things that seem like the end of the world at 16 won’t matter one bit when we’re holding our grandchildren.

See, this is who I was long before your dad or sister or you came along. Just a teenage girl who loved singing, worked on the school newspaper, hand-wrote papers for class, went to parties, and worried about whether any boy would ever like me. We giggled with our friends on phones mounted on the wall and met up at McDonald’s to see what was going on that night. We laughed, we cried, we sang. So many memories flooded me as we went through seven poignant songs in that auditorium that was so strangely familiar.

My family will always be my priority. You guys are my heart, my present (my gift) and my future. But my past, experiences like those I relived last week, shaped who I am and made me the person I became that led me to you all. It’s important to maintain those relationships, to nurture the parts of me that are all mine, so I can help you become the person you want to be.

I’ll probably be humming, “How Can I Stop from Singing,” and “Thank You for the Music,” for a while, as I recall this special time with longtime friends. But I’ll be in the stands for that championship game this week, uplifted from my time away.