My husband is a big, burly, former D-line player and a big, burly, current D-line coach.
We have twin boys. Twin boys my husband waited thirty-six years to have. Twin boys whose genetics could prove the perfect combo to make him daddy to a couple of D-line players’ one day, too.
And I know my D-line coaching husband would love for his boys to follow in his shoulder pads and put their hand on the ground — along with a quarterback or two-hundred.
And it might happen. But then again, it might not. And we’re both okay with that. We encourage our boys to explore what they love and to follow their bliss.
And one of our son’s bliss involves football and trucks. He says he wants to drive a truck like daddy’s when he grows up and be “a coach” like daddy because he “loves to tackle.” (He might be a wee bit confused.)
And the other one of our son’s bliss involves feathers and unicorns and everything Disney. He says he wants to be “Elsa” when he grows up because he “loves princesses.” (And some would say he is a wee bit confused.)
But I would never say that. And neither would his daddy.
So when Daddy takes our boys to Target after a particularly hectic week of football to spend their allowance and some time with them, one usually comes back with trucks and one usually comes back with princesses.
And I love my big, burly D-line husband so incredibly much for this — for his ability to foster the joy and individuality of our two totally opposite twin boys.
And when Daddy takes the boys with him to Home Depot to pick up supplies for little projects around the house, one is usually wearing his favorite blue boa and both are always wearing great, big smiles.
And I love my big, burly, D-line coaching husband so incredibly much for this — for his ability to walk proudly and without hesitation through the world’s most testosterone-laden chain store with our two totally opposite twin boys.
And when the boys pick out their Halloween costumes and one wants to be a police officer like his grandpa was in the military, and the other wants to be a unicorn like his imagination was in his wildest dreams, their daddy encourages them both with compliments and high fives.
And I love my big, burly D-line coaching husband so incredibly much for this — for his unconditional love and affection for our two totally opposite twin boys.
Our boys are undeniably loved and undeniably fortunate. Both their parents encourage and support them and their choices, encourage and support them and their passions, encourage and support them and their personalities. Both of their parents encourage and support THEM — whether they fit our expectations — or society’s — or not.
Our hopes and dreams and prayers for our boys are that they be happy, secure, productive members of society, doing whatever it is they want to do and being whomever it is they want to be.
And my hopes and dreams and prayers for every child in every house in every neighborhood in every land is that they have a family — with or without a big, burly D-line coach — who wishes the same for them.
Today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted in roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it reminded me of my grandmother.
Not because she used to bake blackberry jam cake. (She didn’t.) Nor because she loved to bake at all. (She didn’t.) There was only one cake she ever made, and she made it every fall for Thanksgiving — a German Chocolate Layer Cake, triple-stacked to heaven and beyond. It defied natural laws.
Baking my own triple layer cake this morning somehow conjured up my grandmother’s spirit. Out of nowhere, a warm fragrant memory slipped in — a peppery whiff of Scotch snuff amid baking layers — and I was instantly transported back. Back into the warm half-circle spotlight of her bifocals, where she peered up at me with love and adoration… and then demanded I write down a select few of her stories.
Yup. Demanded. And Grandma always gets her way — even from beyond the grave. (Compromise was never her middle name.)
And she really was quite the storyteller — I like to think that’s where I get my passion for words — and her tales were always tall. As impossibly tall as her German Chocolate Layer Cake. She told some doozies, but there was always truth in the pudding, er, batter… batter thick and sweet and loaded with flavor.
Her stories infused every room in her small house. They found you in every corner. You couldn’t escape them. Through the darkness of night, she was sitting on your mattress while you slept, telling you a story. Through the closed bathroom door, you were sitting on the toilet while you shat, she was telling you a story. No exaggeration.
Her stories were a never-ending narrative. I’d heard them a thousand times. I thought I could recite them backwards. They were a constant. Like a beating heart. Always there. Always.
Until they weren’t.
I took them for granted. I tuned them out. I never wrote them down. I really wish I’d recorded them, old cassette ribbon winding like stretched caramel from one receptacle to another to help me transcribe her words from one era into another, today. Alas, I did not.
But this past summer, my family celebrated her oldest son — my Uncle Pal’s — 80th birthday. My two aunts and my father were there, too, rounding out her initial genetic contribution to this world.
The four sat atop a green, overstuffed sofa and held court, flipping through old pictures and regaling the second and third generations with Grandma’s tales of our Appalachian roots.
Most of the stories I recalled immediately… their familiar cadence returning to me like skip rope chants learned in my childhood:
My grandma the buxom beauty — her breasts swelling so large when she contracted mumps at twelve that they never returned to what she considered a respectable size. She and her sister Margaret would mash them tightly in scarves, trying to achieve the ideal body image of her age — flat-chested flapper girl — to no avail.
My grandma the axe murderer — her one and only victim, a Harley Hog my dad bought knowing she hated them. Her brother had almost died on one; her son would not have the same opportunity. The Hog died instead, a quick, violent death from hatchet-strike to the fuel tank. Dad wept as his full-fendered baby girl bled out in front of him… the original chopped Harley.
My grandma, the exile — sent in her early twenties to country music legend Mama Maybelle Carter’s house, her childhood friend and neighbor. My great grandfather sent her away to keep the clambering boys away from the self-proclaimed prettiest girl in five Virginia counties. (Humility was also not her middle name.) Grandma spent an entire summer dancing the Charleston, little June Carter running between her flashing legs while Mama Maybelle scratched her guitar.
Keeping Grandma away from the boys worked for a while, but she finally managed to run off and marry the love of her life at the ripe old age of 25 — an old maid by Appalachian standards. Grandpa was years younger than she was, also unheard of in that time period. (I guess I get that from her, too.)
My aunts and uncle also told us a few tales I’d maybe heard, but had long since forgotten.
Like the seven-foot tall distant relative named Pleasant who was so small when he was born they could fit his head in a tea cup, and who slept in a Singer sewing machine drawer next to his parents’ bed. Pleasant grew up to be large and in charge, and was famous for once throwing a man out a second-story speak easy.
I also heard about an ancestor who, at 98-years young, could stand and do a somersault in the air. Backwards. That’s a back tuck, by the way. Cheerleaders drool for that kind of skill. He could do it at 98. Unfortunately, no one remembered his name.
But a whole lot of other names were remembered in my uncle’s living room this past July — names summoned from my grandmother’s looping cursive, scrawled in her black-papered memory book. Names like Viney and Velma, Tom and Tate, Willie and Chapman, and Emmy and Spencer, and Pleasant, of course. (I kind of wish I could have another kid, simply so I could name him or her Pleasant. No, scratch that. I’ll leave that up to my girls…)
Those names, written in Grandma’s looping penmanship, lassoed us all and pulled us back — back to our childhoods and beyond. Back to the crags and coal of the Virginia mountains. Back to the looping, sprawling deep-settled roots of our family tree.
The tree itself juts high and strong these days, with limbs spread far and wide. From London to Phoenix, her descendants are scattered like leaves in haphazard drifts of color and contrast in a beautiful, autumnal haze. We, indeed, have a glorious family tree. And her stories — our stories — deserve to be told.
* * *
Yes, today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted with roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it conjured my grandma, who channelled my fingers and hijacked my blog — to write about an Appalachian beauty with a penchant for layer cake and a story or two thousand to tell.
I’m not one of those people who loves a road trip – especially not a twelve-hour (without stops) one with four-year-olds. Twins. Twin sons. With more energy than all the suns in all the galaxies in all the universes.
Give me a plane and a peanut snack. That’s my preference… but we can’t afford four airline tickets. So drive, we must.
And this past week, my three fellas and I packed up the minivan and headed west. West to Dallas. To the Big D. And we did it up big. As in #DallasBIG (Is that still a thing? It was three years ago, when the boys were 8 months. They are much bigger now…)
We’ve made the trek a lot. The first time out, we flew — because they could fly free then.) But the first time we DROVE it, they were 18-months — and it took us just over 23 hours to get home. That was most definitely not a good time.
Our guys don’t sleep on the road – not then, and not now. Ok, maybe I lied just a bit. They have been known, on occasion, to take a thirty minute power nap…
So why in the world do we do it, you ask? Because their big sister lives and operates there. Literally. She’s a surgeon. So drive, we do. Every year.
This trip, however, was the first time it actually felt like a vacation. Because the boys are finally old enough to handle disruptions to naps and nightly schedules without major repercussions to every last one of us.
We pulled into the asphalt and glass metropolis on July 3rd, our minivan registering 109 degrees outside. That’s hot, y’all — even for Dallas standards.
We unloaded and headed out to explore, our first stop being quirky Deep Ellum — a district of warehouses converted to jazz clubs, dive bars, and tattoo parlors. We specifically went there to eat at a burger joint called Angry Dog and to find the giant American Flag mural nestled between side streets. (Which we did.)
… along with a myriad of additional murals and a very eclectic crowd. Deep Ellum is fun and feisty and definitely not G-rated after sundown. Get there early and then leave. We did.
The Fourth of July dawned bright and hot. Big Hot. #DallasBIG. So we spent a large part of it in Caitlin’s pool, pretending to be mermaids and sharks — before reenactingThe Napping House children’s book by Audrey Wood.
Tha Napping House
Afterwards, we headed to Plano for fireworks. (We had missed the Dallas ones on the third, opting to go to bed at 9:30 instead. It had been a long road trip, despite breaking it into two days.)
Turns out, Plano was the perfect place to watch fireworks. We sat atop a sweeping hill – a natural amphitheater – amid amber waves of prairie grass and multicultural waves of people. It was refreshing to see so many ethnicities atop quilts and soccer chairs under our star-spangled sky. It was as it should be.
On Thursday, we headed downtown in search of a shady playground so the boys could romp in relative safety from the heat. A friendly city employee took a break from his sweaty work of cleaning up the flotsam and jetsam of Fourth celebrations to direct us to Klyde Warren Park.
Talk about perfect and free and fun! There was a giant geometric jungle gym, a merry-go-round, and a tree house! But the biggest hit was the children’s water garden, complete with dancing fountains, wade pool, and winding river. The boys climbed and splashed for an hour-and-a-half (in shorts, not suits — we weren’t prepared) before heading to lunch.
And speaking of lunch, not a hundred feet from the children’s park is a food truck line up — an end-to-end smorgasbord of fusion and classic fare – if you’re into that sort of thing. Which we are.
On Friday, another hot one (“like seven inches from the midday sun”), we took the boys to the Dallas Zoo. Luckily there were misting stations and shade trees everywhere. The zoo knows how to keep its visitors semi-comfortable. And how squeeze every last dime from its patrons.
For example… there’s a carousel smack in the center of the entranceway. Your kids are gonna see it. And they’re gonna wanna ride it. At two bucks a head. And you get motion sickness just turning yours. And they’re too young to ride on their own. Awesome.
Still, it’s a good zoo, with several animals Zoo Atlanta doesn’t have, including penguins and cheetahs and bald eagles and hippos. (Alas, we never saw the hippos because the Dallas Zoo is HUGE. And did I mention HOT? But we did get a nice view of the cheetah.)
We also got up close and personal with some lions, thanks again to brilliant zoo marketing. The lions take their morning siesta in the shade of a giant picture window only accessible through the air-conditioned rapture and deep-fried bait of a restaurant called the Serengeti Grill. (Did I mention, Dallas is really good at marketing?) We escaped the certain fate of an $82 lunch tab by promising ice cream from the stand just outside.
Friday night, we met up with a friend of Caitlin’s at a place called Chicken Scratch. It. Was. Awesome. With plenty of sheet-metal siding, picket fences, and weedy raised gardens to make a small-town, southern girl feel right at home.
But when you order the Coconut Waffles and Chicken you realize you’re not in Kingston anymore. Holy died and gone to heaven, Batman! The syrup had some kick (Dallas is nothing if not HOT), and the chicken had some bliss, and by golly, I was in love.
And so were our boys. What kid doesn’t love chicken tenders? But then, Chicken Scratch is so kid-friendly in other ways, too. All the tables are moored in gravel and our boys loved bulldozing their palms through it. (One family I saw brought beach pails and sand shovels. Genius!) And tucked into a back corner, there was even an old-fashioned playground with monkey bars, chicken crates, and half-buried tires.
Our boys were filthy when we left, but they were also incredibly happy.
Our final stop before heading home was The Perot Museum, an architectural marvel with dinosaur and space exhibits, among others (eleven total). It was a great way to beat the heat.
The Perot Museum
They had a great time with the interactive displays. In one, they made dinosaurs dance by moving their own bodies (sort of like Nintendo’s Just Dance, but with a T-Rex), and in another, they flew like eagles (same sort of technology.).
But our youngest twin’s favorite activity was riding the elevators (he’s obsessed — truly), and playing in the sand box in the downstairs children’s exhibit. Our oldest liked working the conveyor belt pulley and “driving” the stationary truck in the same children’s exhibit. (If you visit and have young kids, make sure you do the children’s exhibit last. One mother was openly lamenting her decision to enter the museum at that location. Her kid didn’t want to see anything else.
The tickets to the Perot Museum weren’t cheap, and it was very crowded (on a Saturday the week of the Fourth, what did we expect?), but it was loads of fun. Heading out, the boys begged to stay and keep playing in the outdoor music station.
We had a great time in Dallas. We did a whole lot in our five days – way more than we’ve ever done in the past — plus, I got to see my girl. That always makes the drive worth it, whether the boys nap or not. Or the drive takes takes twenty-three-and-a-half hours or sixteen with stops.
I’m actually kind of looking forward to what we can find and do on our next trip out. (Shh. Don’t tell Mike.)
I’ve been trying to figure out what to write for this week’s blog. Since it IS New Year’s Day, I feel like it should hold some sort of tremendous import or be full of proclamations and profound resolutions.
Problem is, I just don’t know what those might be. I’m totally fresh out of profound proclamations. To tell the truth, I’ve never really owned any.
I am a simple person with simple needs. And my resolutions are equally simple. Family comes first and foremost. Always.
Therefore, I vow to give more love and hugs and phone calls and prayers. Every day. Every single one. I’ve tried to do that this year. But sometimes I’ve failed.
Sometimes the days spin wildly out of control – much like twin toddler tantrums – doubling and flipping and following so closely one upon the other that I suddenly find myself on the other side of nightfall and realize I’ve failed. Failed to call my girls, to check on my grandson, to pray for my babies (all four) and the lives they are owning and embellishing. Failed to say “I love you” to my husband. Failed to lavish an ample number of hugs on my rapidly-growing little boys – and they need lots and lots of hugs. As many as I can give. Because hugs grow good humans. I’m convinced of it.
I need to do better.
And to do that, I need to take better care of myself – primarily my mental health, which takes a beating from full-time teaching and all-the-time mothering.
So, to maintain my sanity, I resolve to take more naps and wear more blue jeans. I believe fully and absolutely in the restorative power of both. Blue jeans and naps do a world of good! And in a world full of bad, I believe they could lead to a gentler, kinder (more comfortable and well-rested) universe.
I know how cranky I get in buttoned-down, up-tight clothing. My fuse is short when my fabric is inflexible. And when I’m sleep-deprived, heaven help! I become a ticking time-mom. 😜
Unfortunately, my work place believes in neither (naps or jeans) so I’ll just have to get as much of both in as I possibly can on my days off. But why does the school administration object so unreasonably to such reasonable stress relievers?
I think a nap class in the place of study hall could shoot our test scores through the moon. After all, it is scientifically proven that naps boost productivity and mental alertness. They also lower stress levels and improve overall mood. I’m here to say that high schoolers – and their teachers – could greatly benefit from post-lunch siestas. Although I guess I understand the objection to naps. Sort of.
But blue jeans? Why, pray tell, are blue jeans so frowned upon in our establishment? Do the powers-that-be really believe that students respond more favorably and focus more intently when the instructor is dressed professionally? How, pray tell, do tailored trousers and silk blouses translate into higher SATs and college admissions? I’d like to see a study on that hogwash.
Still… I don’t have an issue with Monday-through-Thursday compliance. But I do believe that casual Friday should be reinstated. (We used to have dress-down days at the end of each week, but then this year, that simple workplace perk went the way of the dinosaurs. Why, you ask? I have no idea, I reply. I do, however, have lots and lots of anger and resentment…)
Oops… I seem to be digressing – and stressing –over a set of New Year’s resolutions that are meant to help alleviate my stress levels: more naps and blue jeans (at least on the weekends). Simple. Cheap. Effective.
So there you have them. My far-from-profound, hardly earth-shattering resolutions. Love more. Hug often. Call daily. Pray constantly. And nap and wear blue jeans every weekend and calendar break of 2018.
That old holiday standby – “I’ll be Home for Christmas” — there’s a reason it’s a favorite. Nearly all of us yearn for those Christmas card kinda holidays — those Currier & Ives, picture perfect Christmases from our childhoods. The ones with lights twinkling, presents waiting, family hugging, baking, laughing, snuggling. Those are the ones we remember with fondness.
And as we get older, those kinds get harder and harder to recreate. In part, it’s because families get scattered to the four winds and coming home for the holidays takes a major Christmas miracle.
Take my family, for instance. I have a sibling in Phoenix, a daughter in Dallas, another in Knoxville, aunts and uncles scattered across the Southeast, in-laws in Detroit, and grandparents in Heaven. Only one of the afore-mentioned family members is home – and it’s the first time for her in five years. So yes, distance makes family reunions impossible.
But I also think it’s because those past Christmases probably weren’t as consummately classic as our memories tend to make them. Pretty sure my grandmother’s house was more Clark Griswold than Norman Rockwell. Regardless, it is what I miss the most at Christmas.
There were uncles and cousins times twenty. There was turkey and stuffing and more. You want jingle and nog? We had plenty, but who cares? No big deal, we had more….
I wanna be back where my people are…
I wanna see, wanna see them dancing – my uncle the hambone, my Grandma the Charleston — while cousin Teresa pounds out carols on the old, rattletrap pump organ and the rest of us cousins twirl endlessly on the mid century modern swivel chair with winged backrest and threadbare upholstery.
This chair was an arm-less dame with a generous lap and endless patience, and we stacked ourselves up and spun round and round till our stomachs – or a cousin — flipped. And then we started all over again.
And while we tripped the chair fantastic, an ancient miniature schnauzer with rotting teeth nibbled hard boiled eggs at the fireplace hearth, and our aunts and mothers baked up a holiday feast worthy of Rockwell legend.
And when we finally all sat down to eat – all those Southeast-scattered aunts and uncles, and the entire eight cousins, along with the dog, and the grandest dame of them all, our Charleston-dancing, snuff-sniffing, Melungeon-made matriarch — the table absolutely did NOT look like that iconic Saturday Evening Post holiday spread. There was no silver service, no matching white china, no apron-wearing, gray-haired grandparents delivering the glistening turkey to the masses. (My grandfather died when I was scarcely two, and my grandma never basted a butterball in her life – not to mention her hair was a deeply dyed, bitumen-black bob.)
No, our table looked more like the Grinch-down-in-Whoville’s final dinner scene. Our spread was scattered across a hodge podge of card tables and end tables linked together in a rickety centipede’s spine. No turned-mahogany matched seating for us. Instead we all bellied up to the banquet in random ladder-back and fold up and no-backed seating and heaped up our plates with turkey and pork tenderloin and cranberries and asparagus casserole and stuffing and dressing for miles.
Elbows rode tables, laughter rode faces, and our family spun straw into gold.
I miss those days and those sounds and those people so, so much.
We have a new matriarch now. And the eight cousins have doubled and quadrupled and scattered to horizons far, far away. And not a one of us is getting any younger. And some of us are nearly as old as our bitumen-bobbed matriarch was way back in those Christmases past.
Which means not many of us are able to gather round rickety card table banquets to rehash the hilarity. But I can still hold out hope. Hope that some time, very, very soon, we can get all the extended Peters back together once again to recapture the merry, mid- century modern, swivel-chaired holidays of our youth.
That is tops – absolute tops — on my grown-up Christmas list.
(Perhaps a Christmas in July this year, Santa? Whaddaya say?)
This time of year, three of my favorite things — football, teaching, and family – all make my world spin at dizzying speeds. And while I try valiantly to juggle all three, there are just some days – and weeks – where things get out of balance, and I must regroup. This was one of those weeks.
To calm the chaos, I find comfort and joy in a couple of shaggy-haired boys with sheepish grins, a movie night with the hubs, and hay bales.
I’ll start with the hay bales. Yes, hay bales. They make me happy. They’re so simple. They’re so round. They’re so simply and perfectly round. And they smell so good — like sunshine and fresh air. And they send tiny little flecks of their sunshine-smell up into the actual air, where they dance around in the sunlight like flying little flickering fairies of dusty hope.
I love them. They make me sneeze, but oh, how I love them — big, round, sneezy blessings of promise and hope.
This time of year, the landscape is trimmed with their texture– giant swells of them collect in the fields of my hometown like nub on sweaters, or they nudge up to the fence lines in scalloped hedgerows.
I get this calm in my soul when I see them. I can be totally caught up in the chaos of my day – the football frenzy and the toddler tornadoes and the Halloween costumes still not found – but when I pass by these laid-back haystacks I feel… better. It’s hard to explain.
In a world full of jagged edges and complexity, sometimes it’s just nice to see roundness and simplicity. They are gentle reminders that the storms of today will mellow into the golden grains of tomorrow. All shall be well.
But they are also gentle reminders that time marches on and seasons change, and we should embrace the present, no matter the chaos that swirls around it.
I passed hay bale after serene hay bale on the way to the home to curl up on a Wednesday night with a glass of wine and some Murder on the Orient Express on cable. I am an absolute sucker for some Dame Agatha and her mustachioed-marvel, Hercule Poirot (second only to Sherlock Holmes in my whodunit hero worship).
The movie is breathtakingly beautiful, with sweeping vistas of Balkan mountain ranges and Edwardian opulence. And Poirot and his little grey cells never disappoint. Nor does a nice glass of red with a big bucket of popcorn.
If I love hay bales for their simplicity, I love detective movies for their ability to deconstruct complexity — to unravel chaos and lay it out in a seamless, satisfying denouement. And I know the world isn’t so easily solved. I know that chaos and sickness and sorrow exist, and there’s not much that can be done to dismantle the darkness and wipe it all clean. But mystery movies curled up with my husband help sideline the reality for a bit.
And then there’s my shaggy-haired rapscallions with sheepish grins — their hair a mixture of hay straw and loam, their faces a mixture of shimmer and shenanigans. They leave riptides of Legos and crushed Cheetos in their wake. But even through all the bruised heels and stained carpets, they bring me such joy — such breathtaking, heart-splitting joy. Today they’ve both cuddled me and clobbered me on more than one occasion. But oh, how I love them so! From the minute they were conceived — tiny little round he-bales of embryonic perfection – they’ve complicated everything. And they’ve simplified everything.
They add chaos to my world, and calm to my soul.
Yes, this week, the world has spun in super-duper, frenetically-fast fashion. There’ve been faculty meetings and football practices and parents-in-law visits to juggle. And I love it all. I really, really do. But I also feel jittery and disjointed at times. But that‘s where my husband and mysteries and hay bales come in. My recipe for soothing a weary soul.
To introduce the concept of allegory to high school students, I use Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” It is the first book I ever remember receiving as a gift. I still have that original copy. It’s inscribed with a birthday wish and a life blessing. Its edges are tattered and curl softly from use, and its insides are tatted up from Crayola abuse.
I loved “The Giving Tree” from the beginning, although I didn’t understand its complexity back then. Instead, I loved it for its simplicity and purity — the modest black and white sketches, and the story of the tree who loved a boy – loved a boy from every depth and breadth and height her soul could reach.
A boy and his tree. I loved it. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t.
And then I became a mom.
And KA-POW! – deeper understanding hit me like a felled oak straight to the noggin. This wasn’t merely the story of a boy and his tree. I mean it was, but darn, it was so much more, too! It was a little allegory of a parent’s soul. And for the first time ever reading that story, I cried. And ever since, every single time I read that story… I cry. I can’t even read the last line, I get so choked up.
The truth and power of its message gets to me: the unhesitating willingness of a mama to hew off whole parts of herself to raise up her young with the necessities and tools to survive in this world.
Like I said, I introduce the concept of allegory to my high school juniors – and they can see it, the multiple meanings hidden in its seemingly simplistic lines. They see the sacrifices the tree makes to keep her boy happy. They see her wide-open love through the gifts of her leaves and her apples; they see the unflinching sacrifice of her limbs and her trunk; and they think they understand the final grand gesture in the giving of her shriveled, old stump. Yes, they can definitely see it. And they think they get it. They interpret the allegory in one of two ways…
Some of my students connect it to parental love – those blessed enough to have parents who have shown them true, unconditional love.
But sadly, some don’t get it at all because some of my students haven’t felt that sort of love from their moms and dads. The stories I hear — the stories I see – students whose parents have left them surfing couches in friends’ houses, students whose parents are locked away in jail or whose love is locked away in addiction, students who are parenting siblings — students mere saplings themselves — playing the role of the Giving Tree.
It’s an impossible task for them. They lack the depth and breadth and height of maturity: their leaves are too tender, their fruit is too green, their roots are too shallow to support and sustain another soul, much less themselves. Their stories are enough to crack open a planet-full of hearts and send them weeping.
And speaking of planets… some of my students see another allegorical interpretation: humanity’s blatant misuse of Mother Earth and her resources. In this version, the boy takes and takes and takes with no regard for the Giving Tree’s sacrifice – the more he needs, the more he takes until there’s nothing left but a shriveled-up stump – and even that gets used.
And yes, the depletion of our planet’s resources is a valid and compelling argument — easily seen and scientifically supported, regardless of those who might say otherwise. And in this political climate – when the Environmental Protection Agency is being run by a fossil fuel magnate and the current POTUS is playing a nuclear-annihilation game of chicken with his Asian doppelganger, it is an interpretation with grave importance.
But I prefer the little allegory of a parent’s soul. And I really do believe it was Silverstein’s intent. Because after each sacrifice, after each leaf and apple and branch and trunk that is taken, his prose simply reads: And the Tree was happy.
And the earth cannot be happy being plundered and pillaged. That just cannot prove true.
But as a parent, that happiness statement rings true every single time. When my girls need me. When my boys need me. When my small and humble breasts sustained them all as infants. When my wide and ample hips carried them all as toddlers. When my long and lanky arms surround them as both youngsters and adults. When my eager, willing heart beats for all four of them always and forever with joyful abandon… I am happy.
For them, I would give all. Willingly. And happily.
That’s how I know “The Giving Tree” is a little allegory of a parent’s soul.
This past week, I introduced my boys to Silverstein’s masterpiece – my original, 45-year-old birthday book, its edges all tattered and curled from use, its insides all tatted with Crayola abuse. My boys were mesmerized. They loved it: the simplicity and purity of its prose, the modest black and white of its sketches.
This story of a tree who loved a boy is timeless. This story of a tree that readily hands out huge chunks of herself never gets old. The tree herself may get old. She may lose apples and branches, and her tattoos — if she had any — may wrinkle like that ME + T heart scratched into the core of her being, but no matter what, if her kid finds happiness, that tree finds happiness. No matter the hardship, the struggle, the pain…
We just sent both boys off to daycare in big boy undies. Both of them! One sporting Captain America because we haven’t found Iron Man briefs yet, (so to him they’re the next best thing), and the other guy in day-old, slightly used Superman ones because he has OCD tendencies (and that makes them the only thing. Please don’t judge me.)
Now in case you haven’t figured it out, it’s been ALL ABOARD the potty express this weekend in the Candela household. It’s proved a cruel and rickety ride– and I’m still not positive we’ve reached our destination, but we’re getting close.
This morning, we tossed the engineer’s cap to the boys’ long-suffering and sweet-natured day care instructors, along with additional supplies: some stickers, a couple of magic bracelets, and plenty of extra underwear, which I pray they won’t need because no matter how many channel locks and sleeper holds they employ, they will NOT be getting additional briefs on our youngest boy. Truth. I apologize in advance. We clearly owe their teachers some Martin’s chicken biscuits (for those of you not from around here, they are our breakfast equivalent of an In N Out burger. Although these women actually deserve a bottle of private-select, high-quality bourbon — but I believe that’s frowned upon by the State Department.)
Now I feel I need to clarify just a bit before proceeding further. Parker has been out of diapers for the entire summer. He’s been chugging along like a champ, except for one thing (um.. actually two — number two — to be exact). So that was our goal for him: to go number two in the toilet. Tate, on the other hand, has refused to get on board all summer long — like adamantly — so we knew it was going to be a wild ride.
The train rolled out at oh-eight-hundred Saturday morning, with a meticulously-plotted plan in place. We knew we needed strategies, tactical diversions, and lots and lots of patience. It commenced with the disposal of the one remaining unsoiled diaper. We made a great show of it, each boy grabbing a separate Velcro tag and marching it to the kitchen, where we threw away the last remaining vestige of their infancy. They laughed and laughed. And I may have shed a tiny – microscopic, really – tear. Diapers are a hassle and an expense. But they’re also the end of an era… But I digress.
The boys laughed and laughed. Until it wasn’t funny anymore. Until I pulled the wool from their eyes… ahem, diapers from their ass.
“Stand up, Bug. Let’s put on your new Spiderman underwear.”
“I want a diaper.”
“We don’t have anymore, remember? You’re a big boy.”
“I’m not a big boy. I’m a baby. I want my diaper.”
“No, let’s put these on. You love spiders.”
Tate may love spiders, but he does not love Spiderman underwear. What commenced was a tremendous thrashing about and flailing of limbs that left my extremities bruised and him bare assed in the floor howling at the inhumanity of it all.
The potty train had left the station. And then stalled immediately due to a tiny human lying prostrate on the track. For fifty-three minutes. Truth.
Parker, on the other hand, was all about it… until he had to poop.
“Mommy, get the diaper out of the garbage.”
“Not happening. It’s too messy. See?” I take him to the trashcan, where I had intentionally poured Mrs. Butterworth all over it, knowing full well that I would need the evidence to back me up later.
He tried a new tactic. “Let’s go to Target and get some more.”
“We can’t. Target is closed. It’s Saturday.” (Small white lie.) “Besides, we have this magic bracelet. (Big white lie) Let’s put it on instead and then go poo poo in the potty.”
Parker is the more easily manipulated of our two fellas, so his eyes instantly lit up. He proffered his arm and away he and daddy went.
At last! We were off and rolling! Until we weren’t. Another delay. Parker sat there, chugging away, but that sweet little engine just didn’t quite believe he could. Not even with his magic bracelet. So he didn’t.
Tate, meanwhile, finally got off the floor but refused to get into his tighty whities — which, truth be told, are a little loose for his small frame and actually multi-colored. For the remainder of the day, he rode the train naked and full steam ahead, pulling ferociously at his safety valve all the while. But he found success – and stickers on a chart each time.
But rather than using the cute, little, froggy urinal we purchased – complete with spinning tongue to inspire good aim – he used the bushes outside our front door.
As Saturday drew to a close the ride left all four of us completely pooped (although only two of us had actually done so), and with the soil in our front bed growing more acidic by the moment. The gardenias should love it.
Cue our Sunday morning departure. It was a good deal easier on all the passengers. Tate finally fed the frog and even managed to spin its tongue, although it might actually be a uvula… it looks kind of like a uvula. Regardless, he did it. (Although he still prefers the shrubbery.)
And Parker finally conquered number two atop the toilet – the magic bracelet managing to wield its powers — and got tatted up as a reward. And Mike and I actually began to relax a bit and enjoy the ride.
The frog and his ?uvula?
a tatted up Parkerbear
Yes, the potty express is finally proceeding full steam ahead. And I’m praying that having handed over the controls to our sons’ ever-faithful teachers, the forward motion will continue. I pray that the air brake isn’t somehow inadvertently tripped in the chaos of centers and snack time. I’m not worried about Parker. He’s pretty much got this. But Tate, he worries me a bit.
Earlier, when I mentioned his OCD, it wasn’t for dramatic effect. He has definite tendencies. Tate won’t do anything until he’s confident he can succeed. And once he’s mastered something, he does it, ad nauseam. We’ve recorded hours of him singing Elsa’s theme song. He’s completed his favorite ABC puzzle approximately two hundred thousand times. (I exaggerate. Let’s say one hundred. Thousand.) Last week I told you about the elevator that we rode over and over and over and over again on vacation. And when we weren’t riding it, he was talking about riding it. And begging to ride it. And screaming to ride it.
So I feel like it’s kind of the same with the potty express. He feels fairly confident right now. At least about the first part (we’re working toward no. 2). For a while over the weekend, he wanted to pee every three minutes – and his body wouldn’t necessarily comply — which caused him to stress a wee bit (yes, pun intended). But now, he’s relaxed into an every-thirty-minutes-or-so pattern. (We have a plethora of stickers to prove it.)
Our family boarded this train with the intent of promoting confidence and independence (and a new school level – age 3-4 class) for our little lads. And thus far, it is working. But if our youngest has a set back, his OCD tendencies may take over. He already worries nonstop about “pee peeing on the floor at school.” He gave me a running catalog of classmates who have done so in the past. And if he does, he’s sure to internalize it as failure and our entire train could derail.
So I would appreciate any and all prayers for a successful third day aboard the Potty Express. We could use all the assistance we can get. And please, please… send prayers, not judgment. I know they’re almost three-and-a-half. I know they should’ve been potty trained a long time ago. But twins are a lot of work, David. Have mercy!
I just returned from the most amazing three-day getaway. No, I wasn’t sipping cocktails at a beach resort in Bali while toasting the love of my life at sunset. Nor was I ziplining through Costa Rica, wind whizzing off my helmet as I shot over a rainforest canopy. Ditto on shopping it up on Rodeo Drive or spinning a roulette wheel in Monte Carlo.
All of those sound amazing, mind you, but they just didn’t fit into my three-day time limit, and they most certainly did not fit into my nine-family-members-on-a-tiny-budget demands.
So we opted for toting chairs and coolers and cranky forty-pound toddlers over a hot, shelly beach on Tybee Island, Georgia. Instead of Bloody Mary’s we nursed bloody shins, and pop knots on foreheads, and giant welts of salt water contact dermatitis.
The weather was as challenging as our toddler’s demands, pummeling us with low-pressure systems and high humidity levels that delivered thunderstorms and kinky-banged selfies, afternoons in crowded hotel rooms, and the untimely death of a freshly-purchased beach canopy.
Luckily, the wildlife we encountered was more docile than the weather, the toddlers, or my hair. We saw pelicans skimming the ocean surface, dolphins flipping in the surf, and tiny alligators in penned-in ponds. And there were gnats. Lots and lots of gnats.
We stayed at the only beach-access hotel on Tybee, in a couple of spongy rooms with high-powered microwaves and low-functioning refrigerators. There was also a melt-as-you-ride elevator up to our third floor accommodations. Tate was obsessed with this magical box of sweat and steel and asked to ride it at least eighty-nine times in any given sixty seconds. Kid you not. He may grow up to be a world-renowned lift engineer for the planet’s seediest dives.
But back to the hotel appliances… they got quite the work out, thanks to our limited budget and kitchen space. I had meticulously planned our dine-in menu to include pop tarts, variety pack snack chips, bananas, and seedy blackberry jam and peanut butter masterpieces in smooshed-up and travel-twisted Sara Lee sandwich bread. There was even that one night when we got super fancy with a brick of Velveeta, a can of Rotel tomatoes, and some complimentary paper cups — turning highly processed food products into individual queso dips, served alongside Kroger Hint o’ Lime tortilla chips. We were so big time.
Now don’t let me steer you wrong — it wasn’t all bargain-fare bon apetit. We did splurge our final night there on snow crab and boil ‘n peel shrimp at a legendary local joint (where we fed the aforementioned gators from cane poles wielding weird little particle board pellets). While a monsoon raged outside, we dined in style amidst twinkly lights and ceiling-mounted fans, causing our hair to shine and billow like Beyonce (and me to grace random stranger’s plated shellfish with strands of frizzy, highighted DNA). Now the food was truly delicious (no hair in our dishes, and those corn cobs — Lawsy!), but I must tell you, our hotel room sandwiches came in a very close second. Nothing quite compares to a straight-from-the-beach-and-half-starved fistful of PB&J for customer satisfaction.
Much to this mama’s dismay, my family lives worlds apart these days, in both distance and dynamics. We reside in three different geographical states along with vast and varied mental states — from big and bodacious to quiet and contemplative, from tightly strung to perpetually unwound (yeah, that would be me) — but when our worlds collide, beautiful things happen. Love and laughter and renewed life to sustain us all (and especially this mama) until our next go round.
I came away with so many big memories from our little weekend, but some of my favorites include: Bentley and Tate riding the waves for hours like fledgling sea turtles; Boop and Parker waging water gun wars at poolside; Mike and Bradley marching on their futile but fabulous mission to rescue our tortured, cartwheeling beach canopy; and Caitlin’s, Bray’s and my giggles during our impromptu girls’ night, complete with rocking chairs and red wine in clear plastic cups (imminently classier than red solos), the youngest amongst us sipping Sprite through her head gear (upping our classy quotient by about a gazillion).
Our weather may have been temperamental – right along with our toddlers– but we still had the most glorious time (and one glorious sunset before all the rain, which Caitlin captured beautifully between sea oats and sand). I can’t tell you how good this trip was for my soul.
Now before I go, I want to leave you with some final foodie fodder: Huey’s beignets in Savannah our last morning there. It may have been drizzling rain, but it was also drizzling praline sauce atop powdered clouds of breakfast transcendence.
So if you’re feeling a bit distant from the people you love the most in the whole wide world and you live in our neck of the woods, take a little three-day vacay to Tybee Island, the tiny little beach with the big heart just outside the sweet southern city of Savannah.
Do it for the family, do it for the fun, do it for the food. Just do it. No matter what. (And do it for Huey’s. No matter what.)