Thankful Tree

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With Thanksgiving around the corner, I’ve been reminiscing about a little tradition I tried with my children when they were younger. I’d find a leafless branch in my backyard, stick it in a small terra cotta pot filled with pebbles, and voila! We’d have a thankful tree.

I didn’t make up the idea of the thankful tree. I’d read about it and thought it would be a nice way to make the holiday a little more meaningful and encourage gratitude in my children. Before Thanksgiving, I fashioned colorful paper leaves out of construction paper, punched a small hole in each one, and tied a ribbon through the hole. Then on Thanksgiving, I encouraged family members to write something they were thankful for that year on a leaf and hang it on the tree.

The thankful tree made a cute centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table. Its starkness fit into the season when fall was giving way to winter. Its leaves gave it color and made it a conversation piece as family guests read about the things their loved ones were thankful for.

Thanksgiving can be an overwhelming holiday. There’s so much food and the endless preparation that goes with it. Family members who haven’t seen each other in a while are suddenly in close quarters. Forward-thinking types are plotting their Black Friday shopping for the next day.

The thankful tree gives people a chance to pause and take stock of their blessings and to realize how many things there are to be truly grateful for. I’d encourage families to give it a try and hopefully establish a tradition of gratitude and togetherness for their many Thanksgiving holidays in the future.

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Let Them Eat Candy!

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I’ve had a Come to Reese’s moment about Halloween. Since having kids, I’d become a bit of a Halloween Grinch. The whole holiday is exhausting for parents of young children. The costume dramas, the school parties, the candy wrappers all over the house, the kids hyped up on sugar. I couldn’t wait until November 1 each year when I could turn my mind from goblins to saints.

And I had a hard and fast rule about trick or treating. My kids were done after eighth grade. I found it obnoxious for hulking teenagers to show up at my door with their giant pillowcases, begging for treats. Many of them didn’t even dress up! Of course, I always gave them candy. I’d learned from Larry David’s experience on Curb Your Enthusiasm what happens to homeowners who refuse teenagers treats.

But this fall I’ve seen a plethora of articles and memes on Facebook imploring people to give teens a chance to go out with their pint-sized brethren and snag a few Snickers bars. After all, trick or treating is an innocent and harmless activity. More importantly, it brings out the child in our adolescents who are trying in so many other ways to be too cool for school.

Maybe I’m becoming soft in my old age. Now that my youngest is 17, maybe I’m just nostalgic for the days when my little princesses and pirates were dumping out their hauls of candy on my family room floor, excitedly chatting about their trick or treating adventures. Let’s face it. My adult children are more likely to be downing shots than M&Ms this Halloween.

So when my 17-year-old mentioned that some of her friends were going to trick or treat, I suggested she join them.

“Who are you?” she demanded. Like my other kids, she had internalized the “no trick or treating in high school” rule. (Who says I’m not an effective parent?)

“Sure,” I encouraged her. “I’ve had a change of heart about the whole thing. It’s a fun, wholesome activity. You should go.”

I even offered to make her and her friends our traditional Halloween snacks of wienie dogs and Bagel Bites. (Who says I’m not a provider of healthy food?)

Will she take me up on my offer to let her be a kid for the day? I hope so. And I hope to see fun-loving teenagers at my door tonight. With one caveat: I draw the line on trick or treaters who don’t wear a costume. So teens, put on some devil horns or cat ears and come on over!

Teach Your Children Well

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The other day I got behind the wheel of my husband’s car and panicked. The fuel tank was so low that the warning light had come on, and the needle was perilously close to empty.

“Relax,” my husband said. “You’ve got 28 miles before the gas runs out.”

I didn’t trust it. Ever since I started driving at age 16, I had been taught by my father never to let the gas gauge go under a quarter of a tank. It was wise advice that has kept me from being one of those roadside losers who run out of gas and have to call AAA or hoof it for miles to the nearest gas station. To this day, I make sure to fill the tank it gets close to the quarter mark.

The lessons our parents teach stick with us for the rest of our lives. I remember once shopping with my mom at a department store. She had been carrying a couple of pairs of pajamas in her arms, considering whether or not to buy them, and was no doubt distracted by having several children in tow. As she left the store and headed into the parking lot, she noticed she was still carrying the unpaid for merchandise. No sensors had gone off, and no security guard had hustled after her. But she turned right around and marched us all back into the store so that she could return the clothes. That simple action taught me never to take what wasn’t mine and to be honest and scrupulous in other areas of life.

Other things my parents taught me over the years were not to swear, not to fight (physically), to treat people with respect, write thank you notes, work hard, play fair, and take credit only for one’s own work. Most of these things they taught, not by words, but by example.

Our children are little sponges soaking up the atmosphere around them. They note what we do and say way more than we would like to think. For instance, when my oldest child was little, one of her first words started with “sh.” Clearly she heard me cursing under my breath frequently throughout the day and was simply mimicking me. Luckily, her baby voice wasn’t super clear, so no one but I knew what she was actually saying. This same child loved to hover around the edges of adult conversation as she grew up. I truly hope that what she heard from her dad and me was positive and life-affirming, not gossipy or negative. But I’m not kidding myself.

As kids get older, they tune out a lot of what their parents say. But they are still watching what we do. If our lives convey honesty, respect, compassion, and integrity, they will come to value those qualities in themselves. If we take care of our health, eat right, and exercise, so will they.

Of course, children are not clones. They will make mistakes and err in judgment just as we did when we were young. But if we are careful as parents to model lives of kindness and responsibility, the trajectory of our kids’ lives is likely to follow a similar path.

As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang, “Teach your children well.” When they become parents themselves, they will remember the lessons of their youth and carry them forward into the future.

Homecoming Dated

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Everyday Life of Students of Eastern Kentucky University in the 1960s (17)This past weekend was my daughter’s Homecoming dance. As always, I was on hand with the other parental paparazzi to take pre-dinner/dance photos.

I am always amazed at how mature our teenagers look when they are dressed up in snazzy dresses, heels, suits and ties. Still, they have their kid personalities, and it’s almost as if they’re playing at being grownups. The boys congregate to one side while the girls chat on the other, and it’s up to the loudest parent to corral them into groups for the requisite photos.

What struck me the other evening, though, was how the kids glittered and glowed while we parents looked a bit schlubby in our casual clothes and lack of makeup or hairstyling. Of course, there were some parents who’d made an effort and looked pretty put together in a casual yet chic way. But for the most part, we parents were on the sidelines, our own sense of youth dimmed by the dazzling display around us.

That’s one of the things that happens when you become a parent. I remember being a new mother and bemoaning the soft new “mom bod” I had developed. Late nights and breastfeeding and clothes covered with spit-up didn’t quite exude youthful sexiness.

But that feeling of being a young person in an old fogey’s body really heightens as the children near adulthood. It’s hard to remember the thoughts and feelings you had as a little kid. But it’s easy to remember your high school and college years, a time when you failed to appreciate your youthful vibrance and energy. With adolescent freshness all around you, it’s natural to feel a bit wistful about the days when you were the belle of the ball.

To our kids, we are hopelessly outdated, clueless about our smartphones, and generally relegated to coexistence with the dinosaurs. After Homecoming photos, my daughter dismissed me with a quick smile and a toss of her glossy black mane. I went home to takeout and TV with my equally ancient hubby. But on the car ride home, I couldn’t help smiling as I remembered the shiny, baby blue halter dress I wore while dancing with my date to “Precious and Few” at a Homecoming in the distant past.

The Millenials and iGen-ers may be taking over. But they can’t take away the memories of our own shining youth and the knowledge that back in the day, we were pretty cool ourselves.

First Day of School Fun

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Caroline-EvosNYToday marked the first day of class for our neighborhood elementary school. It made me smile to drive by the school and see mothers and fathers walking their backpack-ladened progeny to the red brick building around the corner from my home.

I’ve always loved the first day of school. The new school supplies, new lunchbox, new shoes. The chance to see friends I’d missed over the long summer months. The colorfully decorated classrooms and hallways. Teachers at their freshest, brimming with energy and good will for their new crop of students.

The first day of school is so full of promise. If you’d had a rough time or a tough teacher the year before, here was a chance to start anew. After a long summer that was starting to get boring, there were both old friends and new classmates to play with on the school playground.

For moms, the first day of school marks the first day of freedom. There’s time to get things done, even the chance to grab a cup of coffee with a friend or take a long walk in the still-warm weather. While sending a child off to kindergarten can be traumatic, most moms relish the first day of school as it restores a little quiet to their rough and tumble lives at home.

A short while ago, I once again drove past our neighborhood school. It was alive with kids at recess, running across the grass, bouncing balls on the blacktop, climbing the jungle gym, swinging on the swing set with happy abandon. I recalled all the times in the not too distant past when my own children played with their friends on those same school grounds. That red brick building housed their early years of education and formed the foundation for their future successes.

I don’t really miss having a young child in grammar school, one who walks home for lunch in the middle of the day and brings home glittery art projects. But it’s nice to see and hear a new crop of kids enlivening the place that has been quiet and closed up for a few months.

The first day of school is fun for everyone, even those of us miles away from our own salad days. It’s a reminder that our youth are growing and learning and stretching themselves. And, if their efforts on the swing set are any indication, the sky’s the limit!

The Little Things

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healthy-family-dinner-keeps-the-weight-offThe little things in life are the big things. That’s what age and wisdom have taught me as I meander into my sixties.

The other night, I lingered with my husband and two of my children over the remnants of a steak dinner, a homecoming dinner of sorts for my college-age son, who had just returned from a summer internship across the country. Our conversation would never make it as scintillating movie scene dialogue. But just being there with my family sharing a meal at the kitchen table constitutes one of the great joys of my life.

So too with my morning cup of coffee, enjoyed on my front porch in the morning while the summer air is still comfortable and not muggy. I’m able to sit out there in my pajamas, concealed from the street by bushes and trees. Today I read the paper and completed the Tuesday crossword (another little thing that gives me outsized pleasure) outside before going in to start my day of errands and chores.

A walk through the neighborhood, a good book, a glass of wine. A kiss, a hug, the warmth of my husband’s hand in mine. Sharing a laugh with my sister or a good friend. Watching a great movie or television series. Listening to a Chopin nocturne. Even the peaceful and methodical act of folding clean laundry. All these little things add up in a life.

My daughter and I have taken to playing card games lately. As summer wanes and the schedules of school and sports loom ahead, we are having fun whiling away the time with such games as gin rummy and crazy eights. To my daughter’s dismay, I am seriously kicking her ass at gin rummy. Sometimes the old lady seasoned veteran holds all the cards (pun intended).

It’s wonderful occasionally to plan a huge celebration or take a once-in-a-lifetime trip. An evening of live music or theater, a trip downtown to see the fireworks, dinner at that gourmet restaurant you’ve read about: these are all fine diversions to spice up our everyday lives. But for me, the accumulation of small pleasures day by day is what makes me truly content. I hope to amass memories of thousands more little things in the course of my life.

They really are the big things.

 

Father-Daughter Bond

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My husband and I saw a new film the other day entitled Leave No Trace. Although the title suggests some sort of crime thriller, the movie is really a lovely and elegiac contemplation of the relationship between a father and young teenage daughter living in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.

Throughout the film, the bond that has formed between this father and daughter is depicted as respectful, nurturing, and loving. The father has taught his daughter not only the kinds of things one learns in school, but also survival skills and the virtue of living without possessions. Refreshingly in this age of modern parental coddling, he expects her to carry her weight and contribute to their survival. Yet their deep closeness is what moved me most about the story.

It reminded me of the odyssey my own husband and daughter have been on this summer. They have traveled near and far to nurture her soccer talent and visit potential colleges where she might both play and learn – and grow into adulthood. Along the way, they have had to coexist in hotel rooms. He has had to cajole her out of bed and off to early morning sessions. He has helped her keep in touch with coaches and given her pointers on her soccer development. They have attended numerous college tours and info sessions. And while they haven’t quite been roughing it in the manner of the father and daughter in Leave No Trace, they have experienced the merits and detractions of dorms and cafeteria food.

My husband told me that the favorite part of his summer has been the dinners he’s shared with our daughter after her day on the soccer field. In those quiet moments and with full and contented bellies, they have shared their thoughts and hopes and dreams for her and her future. They have experienced the quiet joy of just being together.

As a mother, I have spent countless hours with my children. All the nitty gritty of parenting has been part of my lot, and I have appreciated it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have grown close to my kids in the process, in the ordinary moments shared at the kitchen counter, bent over a homework problem, driving to school and practices and doctors’ appointments.

As the primary breadwinner in our family, my husband has missed out on a lot of that. He has had to make an effort to get to know his children and provide them with the expertise and guidance of his perspective as a businessman and father. Early in their lives, he would take the kids on trips, sometimes together and sometimes individually, in order to nurture that bond. Because our soccer star is our youngest child, she has had the benefit (or at times the curse, she’d say) of her dad’s undivided attention.

Mothers and fathers tend to relate to their children in different ways. I’m grateful for the bond that my husband has developed with each of our children as they have grown. And while she may find her dad’s hovering presence a bit annoying right now, I know that in a couple of years his love and wisdom will go with her to college and beyond.