Woman@Heart

Musings on Life, Love and Lefovers

Archive for the category “parenting”

What I’ll Do On My Summer Vacation

Summer is the best time for vacation. Daylight lingers, delighting us with sun-soaked rays. My husband, Nick and I stick to this timetable, although it’s not every 12 months we can afford to pack up and caravan to a distant place. Big vacations are sprinkled in whenever we can swing them.

Even though we budget, often our travel plans put us in the red. Nick and I don’t mind. We know memories are worth more than hefty bank accounts. Past summers have been spent horseback riding in Kauai, boating on Lake Tahoe or rafting down the American River in Sacramento. My family has picnicked near the Golden Gate Bridge, taken a cruise to the Bahamas and trekked to Pittsburgh for a family reunion. We have photos of us in front of the Liberty Bell, the St. Louis Arch and the Statue of Liberty.

But more often than not, we staycation, devising our own (reasonably priced) entertainment. In spite of financial reality, I’m not quite ready to do away with family vacations all together. There are a few places I’d like to see  before the days get shorter – Washington, D.C. and the Grand Canyon to name two. But in between the major getaways, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy the lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer. So, before it’s time to turn the clocks back, I’m hoping to:

  • Lick toasted marshmallows and melted chocolate off my fingers after a barbecue.
  • Really listen to the words of “America the Beautiful” when it’s sung on the Fourth of July.
  • Watch Mary Poppins (for what might be the 63rd time).
  • Make do-it-yourself Chipwiches. Use vanilla fudge ripple ice cream.
  • Avoid full-length mirrors while wearing my one-piece “slimsuit.”
  • Score big time in a water balloon fight.
  • Hit an exacta at Del Mar.shutterstock_110964818
  • Recall the fun I had as a little girl after dark, catching lightning bugs in southwestern Pennsylvania.
  • Smile at the memory of my mom’s voice telling me to let them go.
  • Hug my family every chance I get.
  • Hit a wiffle ball over our backyard fence for a homerun.
  • Use a lot of SPF 30.
  • Mix up bowls of Candy Apple Salad (equal parts: Granny Smith apples, Snickers and Cool Whip).
  • Take in an afternoon Angels’ game. Sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
  • Buy some peanuts and Cracker Jack.
  • Keep quiet when someone ate the last Twix ice cream bar.
  • Buy a new sun hat.
  • Win a game of Monopoly – or get sleepy trying.
  • See the summer blockbuster movies. Crunch buttery theatre popcorn.
  • Tempt fate and try my luck on the Slip ‘n Slide.
  • Avoid travel brochures touting romantic getaways to Rome, Paris or Athens.
  • Eat cotton candy and grilled corn-on-the-cob at the fair.
  • Dust off our telescope and be amazed at the jewels found in the night sky.
  • Learn to swim. This may take several summers.
  • Fill my phone’s memory with lots of pictures.
  • Ignore that Y-shaped tan line my feet get after wearing sandals.
  • Taste the tomatoes, zucchini and green peppers, Nick grew in our backyard garden.
  • Shun the Halloween and Christmas displays already at the stores by early August.
  • Enjoy the extra hours of sunlight.
  • Curl up on my patio glider and read, read, read.
  • Sing along with Carly Simon: “. . . these are the good old days. These are the good old days. These are — the good old days.”

 

 

 

 

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1000 Things to Teach before They Graduate

It’s graduation season, and I’m whisked back to when Seth, the youngest of my trio of sons, graduated from college. Mixed in with the pride of his accomplishments came the reality that I’d been demoted, again. The title I’d coveted for so many years – through measles and bowl haircuts, Little League and Halloween carnivals — would permanently change.

For the third time in my mommyhood career, I’d been reclassified from Mom the Manager to Claire the Consultant. I’d been through this before. First with Shawn, and then four years later with Jake. I knew the routine. Being familiar with the drill, though, didn’t make accepting the bittersweet reassignment any easier.

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I know my three sons still need me, but not in the ways I’d grown accustomed to. Kids always need their mother (and father), but now I’m on a “need-to-know” basis. And there’s a lot I don’t need to know.

As each of my adult children tackles life’s adventures, I now wait in the background wondering if I’ve done all I could to prepare them. But instead of seeing grown men, my heart pictures a  five-year-old boy curled on our couch watching Homeward Bound for the umpteenth time and crying inconsolably as Shadow, a golden retriever, falls into an abandoned railyard shaft. Wasn’t it just last week one of them asked asked why chocolate chips are brown?

No parent can completely prepare their child for every eventuality – heartbreak, undercooked steak, mean bosses, flu-like symptoms, cold lattes, broken appliances, late paychecks, flat tires. But still we try. I look back on these years and hope my nurturing, guidance and love has equipped these fellas to meet future challenges.

Their worlds continue to change and so does mine. And it’s during transitions like this that we grown-ups try to make sense of things. We corral our own goals. Check off items from our Things to Do Before I’m 30 (40, 50, 60, 70) list. Jot down some new ones. My husband Nick and I bought a copy of 1000 Places To See Before You Die. Mostly, we’ve flipped through the destinations, but it won’t be long until we actually have time to visit some.

I’m excited to start whittling down my travel to do’s, but my blissful tourist thoughts are repeatedly interrupted by another list formulating in my mind: 1000 Things I Hope I Taught My Sons Before Graduation. This roster is a mishmash of sticky notes, random thoughts and verbal cautions that trail behind as my sons walk out the door. Important things like don’t wash your orange baseball shirt with your underwear; check the date on the milk carton before you make a bowl of cereal; don’t get into a car with an unsafe driver.

I’m sure there are more than a thousand things I’ve taught — either by example or lesson — to my sons, Shawn, Jake and Seth. But limited to about 800 words, I’ll share (in no particular order) the top few I hope sunk in. When you can spare a moment, feel free to add the other 990.

1) Trust your instincts. They will lead you on the right path.

2) Common courtesy counts. Please, Thank You, I’m Sorry, Pardon Me are not on the endangered word list, so use them freely. Open doors for women and your elders. Pull the chair out for your lady. Turn off your cell phone in public.

3) Stay grounded. You’ll always have a home and two people who never tire of hearing about your victories, defeats, goals and challenges.

4) You won’t know unless you try. (I borrowed this one from my mother, Florence — to which she’d add – try, try and try again.)

5) Choose quality time over quantity stuff.

6) Little things count. Let that car merge in front of you. Pick up someone else’s trash. Put the seat down. Recycle. Smile.

7) You love your family, but you choose your friends, so choose carefully.

8) Never compromise your health. It’s your most valuable asset.

9) Pray. Pray some more.

10) Call your mother.

Mostly, I hope my sons know how much their dad and I love, trust and admire them. Right before our eyes, in what feels like mere moments, they each transformed from a helpless infant to an inquisitive toddler to a typical teen. Now as men they are confident, responsible, capable adults. And if I do say so myself, their folks did quite a terrific job.

 

 

 

“Mother U R the GR8ST”

I will probably never be named Mother of the Year and that’s OK. My award is receiving praise, even for a moment, from any of my three sons. When they were young, I never unearthed a software solution to block spam, a plan to lower the price of gas or even an easy way to remove Orange Blast Gatorade stains from the front of baseball uniforms.

I am appreciated by my sons for less notable, but in their eyes, infinitely more important reasons. Over the years, I’ve heard: “Mom, you’re awesome.” (Shawn, when I found his missing soccer cleats.) “Claire, you’re clutch (Jake, after having his sweatshirt mended.) or “Mom, you rock!” (any of them upon discovering a full bag of peanut butter M&Ms in the pantry). The highlight, though was the day, Seth, 11 at the time, declared me the greatest.

The title of this essay comes from his reply to my e-mail. Now, you might ask why I was e-mailing my son whose bedroom was less than 100-feet away from my own. But in those techy days, long before texting, e-mail is the easiest way to supply him with information or get his attention.

I recall excitedly clicking open this email to learn what wonderful, motherly thing I had done to warrant such a declaration. Was it the fact that Seth’s PE clothes were clean and ready to go every Monday morning? Maybe it was the way I had shredded my Sunday paper into confetti searching for pictures of food items to match his Spanish word list. It could have been an acknowledgement of the miles and miles I had put on my old Villager minivan, not to mention my own chassis, hauling him from basketball, soccer or football practice. But alas, no. None of these routine yet important mom tasks garnered me Seth’s proclamation.

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It was just a little thing I had done during the course of my daily duties–finding locations of Dairy Queens in San Diego County and e-mailing them to him. An afterthought to me, but huge news to my youngest.

After returning from his summer vacation in Sacramento, Seth had told me that he loved to go to DQ, a place his Aunt Sadye took him for ice cream Blizzards, burgers and hot dogs. Wanting to maintain my spot as number one — and not wanting to be outdone by my sister — I invited Seth to lunch one winter afternoon. We ended up at what I thought was the nearest DQ, only to find that the ice cream and burger joint had transformed into a haven for fried chicken lovers. We settled for chicken fingers and fries. Disappointment had painted Seth’s face but he didn’t complain. With his eyes cast down, he slowly dipped his chicken into Ranch dressing and nibbled his fries. I said nothing, but I knew that my son’s happiness was just a Google search away. A few moments at my PC would mean hours of future fast food happiness for the Fadden family.

Even though the message was only five words long (two of which were the letters), Seth’s brief e-mail taught me a lot about being a mom. In a flash, it emanated what’s important to Seth. I knew he appreciated the everyday things I did — dinner on the table, allowance on Fridays and clean clothes. But his e-mail signaled another message. What was top priority to me (getting your homework done) was different than his number one (shooting some hoops).

Fortunately, there was room for both kinds of important – good study habits and jaunts out for caramel Frappuccinos; washing behind your ears and staying up too late; taking out the over-flowing trash and sock wars. With just a few keystrokes, (20 to be exact) Seth had showed me that somewhere amid the busyness of daily living, mother and son still connect – whether it’s via the Internet, or over milkshakes.

During those hectic years of raising kids, so much time is spent on cleaning and grocery shopping, packing lunches and signing permission slips. It’s hard to look beyond the day-to-day tasks for those award-winning Mom moments. These chances don’t come along every day, but they’re there if we look for them – rare opportunities to be nominated as your child’s Mom of the Year (or at least of the Day).

My sons are grown. Still, they wave the magic wand of appreciation. I’m overjoyed when I garner another glowing e-mail from Seth, or a compliment from Jake or a thank you from Shawn.

It may seem as though I take their praise in stride, but the truth is I’m SFE2E (smiling from ear-to-ear) because I’m OLM (one lucky momma).

photo credit: Pinkcandy/Shutterstock.com

It’s Why You Play the Game That Counts

I was sipping my second cup of creamer-laded coffee when I learned that classic board games were “getting a speed boost.” The article in the business section of the daily paper grabbed my attention. It touted marketers who are reinventing our best-loved pastimes to accommodate busier lives and shorter attention spans. These newly tailored versions of old time favorites will now only take 20 minutes to play. I guess it was just a matter of time before family game night took the express route.

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I used to live with a group of guys who needed 20 minutes just to decide which game to play. That made it hard to imagine this acceleration. These new versions suggest that I’d concede defeat to any one of my three sons or my husband in about the same amount of time it takes to microwave a meatloaf dinner. Up until now, the only game we played that fast was Perfection and that’s because there’s a 60-second timer built in.

It’s not new that families today are moving at the speed of life. I’m referring to jam-packed schedules, not the board game. Even so, when my sons were little (under 5 years old), my husband, Nick and I made time to sit crossed legged on the family room floor and try our luck at Candy Land (Chutes and Ladders, Memory, Hi-Ho Cherri-o! or whatever game caught their interest that week).

This usually meant that we’d end up on the losing side of these encounters, often on purpose. I learned early on that if I won, it automatically signaled that I’d be challenged to another game, where I was guaranteed to come in last. A single game could easily evolve into the best of seven series for Candy Land supremacy and household bragging rights.

A typical scenario went something like this: After a preschool-age Shawn (or Jake or Seth) “randomly” shuffled the cards and placed them on the board, Shawn (or Jake or Seth) would pull the Queen Frostine card and be transported mere spaces away from certain victory. This was a long-standing family mystery that could only be matched by my uncanny ability to pick the Plumpy card and be banished to the space marked with a plum at the start of Candy Land game board. Defeat was certain. Their eyes held a twinkle of glee at their imminent triumph as I hammed-up my disappointment at being sent back to the beginning.

The roles of teacher and student switched and I was hearing my words of comfort coming out of their mouths. “Don’t worry, Mom. You’ll win next time. Don’t give up. Just keep trying.”

These early years of playing games designed for the under-7-set passed quickly. During this wonderful opportunity, my boys learned how to count their moves correctly, not fight over the green gingerbread marker, play fair and be a good loser. Years later I realized that they had become competent adversaries, no longer needing a stacked deck to insure a victory. The tables had turned and I often found myself trying my best just to make a good showing. The roles of teacher and student switched and I was hearing my words of comfort coming out of their mouths. “Don’t worry, Mom. You’ll win next time. Don’t give up. Just keep trying.”

My next strategy was to engage the guys in games where I thought I had an edge. However, I didn’t have much success mustering up enthusiasm for a rousing game of hopscotch. Everyone claimed to be too busy or too tired to be lured into a heated round of jacks and I swear someone–probably Nick–hid my Mystery Date game. I guess they didn’t like those odds. But just mention Cranium, Scattergories or the sports version of Scene It? and all of a sudden holes in their schedules magically open up.

As they got older, my sons’ interest in playing games with our family stayed constant. Those lazy afternoons filled with Monopoly, Double Trouble or Clue transformed into Catch Phrase, Balderdash or Spoons. The game selection has changed and there might not be an actual board involved anymore, but we still play. Our game nights expanded to include spouses and  a larger circle of friends. We love sharing the laughter, the joys of competition and just being together. No one is concerned about how long it takes.

This is why I’m not convinced that faster is better. There’s still a place for the luxury of the steady, slow pace of playing games. These new twists on the classics that rev up the time it takes to finish may be fixing something that isn’t really broken. There’s always tomorrow. If bedtime shows up before our game of Monopoly is done, we just move it — board and all — to the top of our seldom-used dining room table.

Tonight, if I’m lucky, the TV, the computer and the video game system will get turned off. My family will stop by and debate who wants to be the racecar, the dog, the iron, the top hat, the boot or the wheelbarrow. Me, I’m always the thimble. Choosing our playing pieces for Monopoly; now that’s something we can finish in 20 minutes or less.

Writing on Eggshells

This week, I’m planning to dye my fingers a new shade of purple, a color not found in any box of crayons. It falls somewhere between eggplant and magenta, and pretty much clashes with my Easter outfit. Hopefully the stain will fade before I go to a concert with my neighbors next week. Guess I can always wear gloves. All of this in the name of coloring Easter eggs with my family .

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These days, though, it’s tough gathering the egg-colorers. There was a time when I would be surrounded by a quartet of boys happily decorating oval orbs in a rainbow of hues. Once the decorators left, I’d stand alone near a plastic bowl holding four dozen hard-boiled eggs, surveying the damage once known as the surface of my kitchen table. I had thought I’d learned my lesson from last year’s Easter egg coloring fiasco. That’s why I had painstakingly blanketed the table with layers of yesterday’s newspaper, but somehow a pinkish-green dye managed to find the one triangle that went unprotected. The oak grain now possessing a colorful, confetti-like stain. This botched job was not a commentary on my table-covering abilities; it’s directly related to the five people vying for space around six coloring cups.

Mess or not, the Coloring of the Easter Eggs has been a key element in our family’s springtime traditions that include new clothes, egg hunts and baskets full of chocolate bunnies.

Mess or not, the Coloring of the Easter Eggs has been a key element in our family’s springtime traditions that include new clothes, egg hunts and baskets full of chocolate bunnies. It’s these customs that I count on year after year to replenish my little-girl-at-heart spirit and keep me on track as mother, and now a grandmother. As a child, Easter meant a frilly bonnet, new patent leather shoes and the promise of a basket to be filled and hidden by the Bunny. My family has their own ideas about how to welcome Spring.

Years ago, I would watch my sons, Shawn, Jake and Seth, balance hard-boiled eggs on the rim of a flimsy wire holder only to plop them with great care into the pools of color. Each allocated 12, while my husband, Nick, and I share a dozen. Often this process yielded a cracked egg or two.

What a sight to behold: the five of us huddled around the kitchen table without a pepperoni pizza in the middle. For this group to sit in the same place at the same time, the enticement had to be huge. Normally my team of three sons/one husband was off doing their own thing: soccer practice, mowing the lawn, playing video games, away at college. But for theoe few minutes, we gathered as a family with a common goal – to create the best, most bizarre-colored Easter egg.

With my crew, best isn’t defined like it might be by the judges who award Nobel Prizes or Oscars. You won’t find these guys producing a Faberge egg look-a-like. Best usually ended up being the funniest, stupidest or oddest egg. I always wondered that if I had daughters instead of sons, the winning egg might have a more artistic tilt. Maybe in a few years, when my granddaughter Windley is old enough to participate, I’ll find out for sure.

Alas, as a boys-only mother, I’ve learned to look at things from a different viewpoint. I stayed competitive by marking my eggs with corny sayings or kooky nicknames, but I never won. This contest was fixed. The brothers voted for each other’s entries and I ended up looking for a recipe that calls for 48 hardboiled eggs, give or take a cracked few.

Teasing, pestering and bestowing nicknames on their loved ones is one way the male species shows they care. Nick was renamed Scoop, after the boys found out he worked scooping ice cream as a teenager. I was pegged Pebbles a la the Flintstones’ daughter, because of the ponytail I pull to the top of my head when I do my morning workout. During the two years he wore braces, Seth was called Sid (after the mean brace-faced kid in Toy Story). All these names and more would float to the top during this creative free-for-all, only to find themselves written on eggshell surfaces with a wax pencil the size of a golf tee.

I didn’t ponder the absurdity of it all, because if I did, I’d be tempted to trade the bags of jellybeans in for green bean seeds and spend the time planting in my garden. Why dye dozens of eggs, put cellophane grass in the bottom of a long- handled basket or buy yellow marshmallow-shaped peeps? Because those things, along with a new dress to wear to church, singing Here Comes Peter Cottontail and tulips decorating the center of my dinner table make my Easter.

This year, blessedly, our family has grown. After inventorying the selection of pastel eggs nestled in our refrigerator, the Bunny will place one in each of the eight baskets ready to be hidden. On Easter Sunday morning, it will be easy for me to find mine. I’ll look for an egg that says “Pebbles Rocks” scrawled unevenly across a purplish tint. That’s when I know, ridiculous or not, these are the moments that mean the most. Maybe not to my kids, but definitely to a bonnet-wearing little girl who years later became a mother and a Sitie.

 

What A Bargain

It’s January 2. My husband, Nick, is standing in our driveway, taking down the last string of lights woven through our bushes. He’s carefully wrapping them around a cardboard holder, one strand at a time. His goal is to prevent the lights from being tangled when he gets them out next winter. Fat chance.

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Me, I’m inside the garage, packing up the last of the stockings, ornaments and candles and squeezing them into one of the eight boxes of Christmas decorations we’ve accumulated over the years. Nick’s secretly hoping that I haven’t added any boxes to the tally this year. Of course I have and I’m hoping he won’t notice. I’m also hoping that come December 2016, I will remember where I put the Christmas cards I just bought. My bargain cards, purchased at a 75 percent discount, will save me a ton — if only I remember that they’re in box six of eight. I make a mental note to write that down somewhere. I never do.

That’s part of my problem with saving money. I need to be more organized. I fare about as well as most in keeping track of things. I make lists, buy in bulk, read the sale ads. I come from a long line of super savers. I’m used to counting pennies. My mother, Florence, instilled her thrift gene in me, along with her favorite mantra: Save, save, save. So I recycle bubble wrap, wash out plastic zipper bags and I buy next year’s cards at Target’s after-of-the-holiday sale. It’s a good thing, as long as I remember where I put them when the next Christmas season rolls around.

Even though I no longer have to scrimp for extra dollars to add to three college funds (blessedly our sons Shawn, Jake and Seth are graduated), I still shop smart. Heck, a gallon of gas tops what I made per hour as a 17-year-old part-time shoe clerk, and recently I saw a grocery store sign offering easy financing for a dozen eggs.

That’s why I relish the start of a new year. January gives me a clean slate, a fresh beginning, a chance to improve on a few things like: spending more time with my family, losing weight, reading more, praying more and saving money.

Over the years, I’ve had mixed results with two of the five: losing weight and increasing quality family time. I’ve done better with deepening my faith and my reading output has increased. But it’s that being thrifty resolution that eludes my efforts every year, because it’s hard to tell whether I’m really saving or not.

For example, at a recent potluck brunch with four of my girlfriends, I bought a 12-pack of giant muffins at a warehouse store. At less than 50 cents each, I thought I’d found a deal. But did I? After the brunch, there were seven muffins left over. None of my friends (also struggling with weight-loss resolutions) wanted to take them home. My sons — more the donut-eating type – weren’t interested either, so my bargain muffins sat untouched in the refrigerator, until I finally tossed them out.

I don’t think we can afford

for you to save that much.

Shopping at the local 99-cent store is another great way to save a couple bucks. There are deals galore, but when I’ve spent $47 on 47 knick knacks, novelties and party supplies, I’m hard pressed to explain to Nick exactly what I’ve saved. “The price is great, but are you buying stuff we really need?” he says shaking his head, while flipping through the channels in search of a John Wayne movie. “I don’t think we can afford for you to save that much.

Still I soldier on, proudly toting my coupon caddy along with my grocery list, seeking low prices, bargains and discounts. As the family budget-balancer, I can’t give up. Clipping coupons, mailing rebates and pursuing two-for-one sales are just part of my strategy to be frugal. That’s how I keep potato chips in the pantry, ice cream in the freezer and toothpaste in the medicine cabinet.

Saving money is more than just dollars and cents written in my checkbook. To me it’s a quest, a challenge, a mission to complete. Organized or not, I can’t concede defeat. Because I know that in just 11 months’ time, Nick and I will once again be preparing our home and hearth for the Christmas. He’ll be standing in the driveway, strings of red, green, blue and yellow lights forming a spaghetti-like pile at his feet. As he works to free the bulbs loose from each other, he’ll be muttering about the flaws in his new tangle-free storage method

Me, I’ll be back inside the garage surrounded by eight or ten brown cartons, having a conversation with myself. Now what box did I put those cards in?  Did I even buy Christmas cards last year?

Maybe there should be an addition to my 2016 New Year’s resolutions – improve memory. Hope I remember to write that down somewhere.

Piecing Things Together

Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates. I’m a chocolate lover (especially when it’s covering nougat), but I disagree. I think life is more like a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces—1,000 lopsided segments, odd-shaped bits and unfamiliar parts. Some pieces are smooth and easy to recognize; others are downright jagged and unwieldy. You know it’s going to take awhile to figure out which side is up. Like many moments in life, puzzles start out a jumbled mess, but with consistent effort, piece-by-piece, it all comes together. Fun, frustration and unexpected surprises intertwine as the fuzzy picture comes into focus.

I’ve been a jigsaw puzzle aficionado since I was a teen. You’ll find one–in various stages of completion–atop my dining room table. I keep it corralled on a sheet of foam core board for easy relocation to a coffee table when it’s time to eat. Visitors–family and friends—are familiar with my loosely enforced 10-piece minimum. Before kicking up their feet, getting a snack out of the fridge or changing the TV channel, they’re invited to make a puzzle contribution. After all, we’re in this together.

My three sons grew up with jigsaw puzzles in their midst, but only two share my puzzle passion. The oldest, Shawn, displays remarkable patience as he methodically matches pieces to the correct opening. He likes to work in quadrants. Youngest brother Seth declares his preference to work in silence, not appreciative of the ongoing banter between Shawn and me during the puzzle-resolving process. Middle son, Jake, doesn’t work at all. He’s a puzzle-giver, opting to gift them rather than complete them. Thanks to Jake, hours have been spent reconstructing movie posters, scenes from TV sitcoms, carousel horses and, my favorite, the impossible sea of dice. All were challenging, but not as dangerous as the puzzle my friend, Robin loaned me—a plate of Oreos. Ten days, three empty cookie bags and two pound later, it was complete. When I returned it, traces of black cookie crumbs that had fallen from the corners of my mouth were mixed in with the pieces.

puzzle stretch 4Our family comes from a strong line of mystery solvers and puzzle-doers. When my sons were little, their grandfather, Tom helped them complete their 100-piece pre-school puzzles, insisting they put the frame together first. An engineer by trade, Pop never consulted a dictionary as he solved newspaper crosswords in ink–a feat I’ve never attempted. We still follow Pop’s frame-first jigsaw puzzle tradition. I think he’d forgive us the occasional slip when eager hands finish a section before all the edge pieces have been ferreted out.

Not only are jigsaw puzzles a spontaneous, ongoing way to spend snippets of quality time together, they can aid in untangling some of life’s quandaries: Why does the Internet disconnect when the house phone rings? How can I camouflage the leftover meatloaf? What’s that weird hissing sound in my bathroom? Often, answers don’t come easily. Instead of racking my brain, I work puzzles. In the quiet early morning, under the bright illumination from my skylight, my brain clears while I make sense out of a jumble of pieces. Previously unrelated colors and shapes slowly form a cohesive picture. Remarkably, other life concerns find their solutions as I search for edge pieces or one that resembles a shamrock.

Sprinkled among this season’s holiday cookie baking, present wrapping and tree trimmings, will be Christmas-themed jigsaw puzzle-solving. I can’t wait to open the classics we work each year like the Norman Rockwell holiday montage or Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. With holiday busyness surrounding me, puzzles are a delightful break from the frenzied action. They’re my pause in the midst of competing deadlines.

I’ve learned my lesson, though. This December, when I’m shopping for a new puzzle to add to the collection, I’ll bypass the lids picturing gingerbread men, candy canes and chocolates. I’m sticking with peaceful, joyous, festive images–snowmen, carolers and angels–whose charms won’t compromise my waistline.

 

 

 

Tilting the Tree (and other slanted celebrations)

Christmas season starts at my house when the tip of our just-cut pine tree points to the corner of our living room ceiling. Every year, my three sons and I would stand in amazement as their father once again put up our Christmas tree at an angle. We’re not sure how Nick manages this feat, because the tree always stands perfectly straight when they drill it at the Christmas tree lot. Somehow, during the 10-minute drive to our house, the tree transforms into a diagonal demon.

We fought this laid-back appearance. None of us went along willingly, wanting to accept a leaning tree. Year after year, we denied reality, until finally Seth stated the obvious: “no matter what tree we picked, it leans, a lot like that tower in Italy.”

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In Decembers past we’d meet the tilted-tree challenge with renewed vigor, each of us committed to making the tree stand straight. We wanted it pointing skyward, gracefully framed by our picture window — reminiscent of that tower in Paris. The five of us circled the tree, each with our own viewpoint. And not until we each declared that the tree was standing erect would Nick give the go-ahead to the tree lot attendant to drill. Each year this collection of pine needles, branches and sap outsmarted us.

Finally we conceded defeat. “So what if the tree is a bit off center,” Shawn said. “It’s not the tree’s fault. Maybe the living room floor is uneven,” Jake added, handing me a pile of holiday books. “Let’s just prop it up.” The good news is the tree stands straighter, but bad news is that can’t read Polar Express or Olive the Other Reindeer until after January 1.

Tree-tilting isn’t the only Fadden-specific tradition that manages to amaze, confound and delight our holidays. My top five include:

  1. sending Christmas cards to people who don’t send ones to us;
  2. receiving cards from everyone I didn’t send a greeting to;
  3. being one egg short for that last batch of sugar cookies;
  4. a size 10 shoe stepping on my most treasured and breakable ornament
  5. and the never-untangling string of lights.I dread the thought that Nick might put the tree up straight one year. Then I’d be forced to search for a new family favorite — perhaps burning the sugar cookies or hanging advent calendars that don’t have chocolate in them.But it’s the traditions my family embraces without realizing it that mean the most ­– the ones that burrow their way in without any masterminding. Tree-tilting is an annual event we hadn’t planned on, but now it’s as much a part of our holidays as leaving cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer.           

This holiday season as you gather your family to celebrate your traditions, be on the lookout for those hidden moments — the ones that aren’t planned or arranged. Those are the ones supplying the most giggles, hugs and happiness, the stuff of happy childhoods.  

When you hang mistletoe, pour another cup of egg-nog or put the star on the treetop, remember that somewhere in southern California, the annual “tilting of the Christmas tree” is taking place. Maybe this year I’ll use a few back issues of Writer’s Digest to help straighten things out.

 

 

 

Sitting at the Big Table

As November 26th gets closer, lots of us are spending time in preparation and anticipation. We’re busy comparing prices for frozen turkeys, finding grandma’s recipe for cranberry sauce and ordering chiffon pumpkin pies. We’ve assigned a favorite aunt the task of bringing the green bean casserole and asked our neighbor if he has folding chairs we can borrow. All of this organization is necessary to carry out our vision of the perfect holiday dinner; one that merits a symphony of satisfied after-dinner sighs that continue long after the wishbone has been pulled. But to me, these details are secondary. While many of you are dusting off your crystal and sharpening the carving knife, my energies are spent on how to fit 19 and a highchair at a table that comfortably accommodates 10.

Everyone who’s coming to Thanksgiving dinner at my house sits at one table, no matter how long, awkward and cumbersome that table turns out to be. Some therapists might consider this fixation of mine a character flaw — one that traces its beginnings back to my childhood. An unnecessary expenditure of energy that I should have resolved over the years. “Just set up an extra table for the kids,” they would advise “and don’t worry about it.” But I do worry and I worry a lot.

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I’m the youngest of four children. The baby of the family. Over the years, I’ve been placed at the children’s table a time or two, or twenty. And to this day, I’m still a bit sensitive about where I sit during holiday meals. So much so, that when Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner is held at my house, I make every effort to link as many tables as it takes for everyone to sit together. The banquet often spans the length of my dining room and encroaches well into our kitchen/TV room.

Why such a campaign against a kids’ table? It has a lot to do with the age span between my older siblings and me. Some say I was a surprise addition, born about a dozen years after the then youngest, Paul. My brothers and sister are more than a decade older than I am. It’s no wonder that they’ve treated me like a child instead of a peer. So when the seating at the dining room table became snug, it was easy for mom to demote me to the kids’ table to feast with my nieces and nephews.

Sitting at a card table or a coffee table located closer to the garage than the formal dining room magnified the fact that I wasn’t on the A (adult) list. The “kids” were out of earshot of the grown-ups. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about but I knew it had to be better than discussing Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons or Romper Room’s magic mirror.

My complaints fell on deaf ears. “You’re going to eat the same things we are,” came the calming retort. It didn’t matter. I was still ticked. This was an unfair division of family. I wasn’t one of the kids even though I was 11 (technically eligible for the child’s discount at the movies). I was Aunt Claire. So what if I was barely five years older than my oldest nephew. I was still an aunt, not a child. I demanded the status that was rightfully mine.

I wanted to sit at the table with the stemware, not the Tupperware. To be closer to the turkey platter and gravy boat than the chocolate milk and bibs. I envisioned myself eating off the nice plates and drinking my apple cider out of a goblet instead of a jelly jar. At least that’s what I claimed.

Truth be told, mostly, I just wanted to be near my big brothers and sister. They were grown and out of the house. Their lives were busy, raising families of their own. On these special days, they were back home and I wanted their attention. I wanted to fit in with the adults. I was too young to know that time passes quickly and once you’ve grown up, you’re an adult for a long, long time. Sitting at the kids’ table might not have been such bad thing.

Fortunately, the emotional scars I’ve endured from the years of sitting at the little table were fleeting. At holiday meals, I now focus on happy moments like “Who ate the marshmallows off the sweet potato casserole?” On occasion, I’ve even fought back the urge to seat my siblings at a rickety folding table near the refrigerator.

We youngsters from the kids’ table now have children and grandchildren of our own. The dilemma of making room for everyone continues to challenge my creativity. I hold fast to my desire for us all to be at one long, connecting surface, even if that means bringing the redwood picnic table in from outside. But there are no complaints. Any day that finds me surrounded by more family than I have chairs to accommodate, is a day that I happily give thanks for.

 

The Best of Buddies

Max

My family is standing near the avocado trees in a corner of our back yard. There’s whispered conversation, muffled sniffles. Lots of eyes stare at the ground. Occasionally, a finger moves to wipe away tears trailing down a cheek. My husband Nick stands off to the side holding a shovel.

It’s not the first time this solemn-faced group has gathered like this. The seven of us stood in this same spot two years earlier to say good-bye to Max, our soccer-ball chasing terrier-spaniel mix. He’d joined our family after my oldest son, Shawn and then toddler Seth, picked him out as a surprise for their brother Jake’s 7th birthday. My sons fell in love with the dog-who-thought-he-was-a-mid-fielder after watching a four-legged black fur ball toss a soccer ball in the air with his nose, then chase after it.

This day it’s Seth’s turn to say good-bye to Baylor, his childhood pet of nine years. Seth loved Max. Still, when he was ten, Seth mounted a campaign for a dog of his own. He argued a strong case, too, relying heavily on Max’s obsession to escape the confines of our home. Next to eating snails, plotting backyard breakouts was Max’s favorite pastime. “He’s here all day by himself,” Seth had said, playing the loneliness angle. “Max wouldn’t try to get out of the backyard if he had a buddy.” To seal the deal, Seth pledged to feed, scoop and walk his future pet.

So seven years after adopting Max, we returned from the animal shelter with another boy–a five-year-old beagle mix. There were many pets to choose from, but one stood out from the pack. As Seth approached, Baylor introduced himself by standing on his back legs and using his front ones, he hugged this potential owner-to-be around the waist. When Seth hugged back, I knew he was hooked. In truth, so was I.

Baylor being used as a bed by Bandit.

Our caramel-colored dog came equipped with chocolate brown eyes, a tire tread-marked broken tail (that we had docked) and bit of emotional baggage. He was skittish, submissive and in the beginning, sat with his back against a wall so nothing–or no one–could sneak up from behind. Instead of chasing a kicked soccer ball, Baylor would run to get out of the way. He was a lover, not a sportsman. On lazy afternoons, he’d lay his head on your lap, waiting for a rub down. If you stopped too soon, Baylor nuzzled your hand as if to say, “Continue, please.” Max stopped burrowing for an exit and the pair became best friends. At 15 years old (that’s 105 for you and me), it was time for Baylor to join Max in doggie heaven.

In the coolness of a Saturday morning, we waited for Seth who’s standing in the middle of the semi-circle, head tilted down, clutching a paving stone. Fighting to keep his composure, he reads the words he chose: Baylor. A big buddy with an even bigger heart. Seth uses his fingers to wipe the plaque clean then kneels down to lay the stone on the freshly turned soil. Inches away another marker reads: Max. A wise friend and the best buddy.

With the short ceremony over, the group turns around to see a duo of curious onlookers—Bandit and Jersey Girl, our newest pet members. A few years ago, we discovered Bandit, a rat terrier, at the same animal shelter as her two predecessors. Jersey Girl, a comical mixture of Yorkie and Chinese crested powderpuff, was adopted from a local rescue group a few months later.

Not to be outdone by the memory of the senior boy dogs, these young girls swagger as they survey the grounds once ruled by Max and Baylor. I wonder how their personalities and peculiarities will unfold. So far, neither has demonstrated an aptitude for soccer or eating snails, but they are fans of snack time, a good belly rub and snarling at the mail carrier.

Dog tags jingle as Bandit and Jersey Girl romp around the yard, chasing after a bee or a butterfly. I close my eyes and imagine that it’s Max or Baylor barking at the sound of the neighbor’s lawnmower. In between keeping the water bowls full and the leashes ready for a walk, I learned a lot about commitment, trust and love from a pair of pooches. Max and Baylor would be pleased that all those years of education won’t go to waste.

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