When Aliens Move In

I was having a conversation with my neighbor recently, and midway through our discussion, she said, “Was your son home the other day? I said ‘hi’ to him, but then I wasn’t quite sure it was really him. I thought it was, but he’s changed so much….” Her voice trailed off.

I get it. We have lived in our neighborhood for the past 13+ years, and the kids were very, very little when we moved in. Now, they are hovering on adulthood, driving, working. They have grown from knee-high to taller than Mama. Their schedules are busy, and they don’t cross paths with the neighbors as much as they used to. So it doesn’t surprise me that recognizing them might be a challenge.

There is this subtle change that all kids experience on their journey from childhood to adulthood. But then there is the not-so-subtle change when they are suddenly much more adult than they were yesterday; one day—quite suddenly—they almost seem to be different people altogether.

It usually happens after a feeding-frenzy when they have somehow managed to consume every edible morsel in the house. They go to bed and the next day, or the next week, they wake up, come into the kitchen for breakfast, and you think, Is that really my child at the table? As you look at said child, you notice that the face is more angular; the shoulders are a bit broader; the voice is deeper and the vocabulary is more mature; moods and attitudes vary from moment to moment; and wait… my child would never have worn those clothes yesterday. Where did he even get that outfit? You rack your brain trying to remember if you purchased that shirt, or from whom he might have borrowed it.

As you begin to get used to this taller, louder, hungrier being that now inhabits your home, you simultaneously start to wonder what happened to your child. Where is the child who—just yesterday—was climbing trees and catching frogs? Where is the child who cuddled up next to you while you read bedtime stories? Where is the little one would get up from a Lego-building session and come into the kitchen for a hug?

In fact, I will admit that last summer, I dropped my son at camp, as I had every year for several years. A week later, when I went to pick him up, I could not find him in amongst the crowd of boys all dressed alike. I even spotted him at one point, only to continue scanning the crowd because that kid just didn’t look like my kid. Seriously. My own kid.

And then there was the day over the last year when I called home on my commute from work. A man answered the phone and my heartbeat quickened. WHO IS THIS?? I almost screamed, but then I heard a lilt that I recognized in the strange male voice. Oh, wait…. Perhaps this is the new voice of my kid…?

It’s been a process, but I’m beginning to get used to the new kids who share my house with me. Because with these new kids come some unexpected adventures and new idiosyncrasies. These new kids help each other, they work together, they brainstorm solutions to their own problems, they have goals and dreams, and through their daily experiences, they are developing the grit to reach the goals they set for themselves.

And every now and then, I know they are the same children who have always lived here. When I am really lucky, one of them will come into the kitchen and surprise me with a spontaneous hug.

Grocery Receipts

When I was a kid, and I mean a very little kid, I used to think a long grocery receipt was so amazing—in an awesome sort of way. I would watch the receipt poke its way out of the cash register and lengthen with each item the cashier keyed in during our weekly grocery trip. At first, the paper would loop around on itself. But soon, it would spill over and inch closer and closer to the floor, moving under its own weight. When the cashier pulled it out, she would wind it back and forth like an accordion until it was the same size as the bills, handing Mom a neat pile of dollars, receipt, and green stamps. How exciting it would be, I thought in my little girl mind, to get such a long strip of paper as a receipt. When that happened, it would mean I was truly an adult.

Back then, the receipt was a tally of every single item, unlike now when some things that are bought in a quantity of more than one might only count as one line on the receipt. And back then, each item was keyed in by the cashier. There were no scanners in my childhood, but we didn’t seem to mind the wait in the check out line. Of course, we didn’t have a choice.

Today, I am here to say that if a long grocery receipt is the sign of adulthood, I have (definitely) made it! Not only have I made it, but I will be back at the local grocery store in the middle of the week. Because no amount of food lasts long in my house. The reality… that 2.7 pound bag of cherries I bought at 2:30 this afternoon that I thought would last the week? That was a snack for a hungry teen.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how our perceptions change as we grow older. Nowadays, I am likely as not to cringe at the long grocery receipts. What did you used to think would be really cool, but now makes you cringe?

Painting Rainbows

It’s been almost six months without Dad. In those six months, the grief comes and goes in waves, but lately, the waves have been farther apart. I think this perhaps because I am not in the car as much during the summer, not alone as much, and therefore, I don’t have the opportunity to cry. As much. And some days, that creates an illusion that the grief is subsiding.

But on Sunday, I had one of those “sneak attacks” of grief I had been warned about. I was at my daughter’s dance recital, and I was enjoying the show. I had remembered years when Dad had been in this very auditorium watching his only granddaughter perform, but I was able to bury that thought. That is… until the kindergarten class took the stage. The little ones are always the cutest, but then their music came on, a rendition of “Baby Mine” performed by Alison Krauss. And suddenly, feelings I didn’t know I was having came bubbling to the surface in a figurative storm of emotion. It was a whole mixture of Dumbo and circuses and Dad. And sitting there in the dark, I cried.

That afternoon, after a literal storm, there was a rainbow. It was the second that weekend and was followed by two more the next day. These rainbows were gifts that lifted my spirits and filled my heart.

When Dad passed away back in January, I found—tucked in a drawer with some other papers for safe-keeping—an old card that he had sent me when I was living some distance away on the other side of the country. On the front of the card was a picture of two painters on ladders, each painting opposite ends of a rainbow. The card, and the message inside, became the basis for my words at Dad’s service. I talked of the notes and silly poems that he wrote, and I ended with the following:

When we were in college, Mom and Dad would send care packages at exam time, and Dad would write poems to encourage us to study hard, to do our best, but also to let us know he believed in us. Before I returned home this time, I searched through a few old letters I had hanging around. The best of the notes are in storage boxes, but I did find one he sent to me when I was in California. This one was “just because.” After a brief newsy letter, he ended with a poem. It started out, Wish I could… and went on:

Paint you some rainbows

Write you some prose

Find you some fellows

(Even more of those!)

Bake you a cake

Offer you some laughter

Give you a break

Help you get what you’re after

Not many dads take the time to write poetry for their daughters. But my dad—he was the best. So Dad, we send you off with all the love we can muster and a promise to miss you forever. And if you’re listening, paint us some rainbows.

This year, I have seen more rainbows than usual. And for me, every rainbow is a gift—a very special gift—that lets me know Dad is still with us in some way, and he is letting us know he is thinking about us.

 

Baking Oddities

I had a bunch of bananas that were [well] past their prime, so when the very brief heat wave passed, I decided to use them in a banana bread. Typically, I make banana muffins, but bread seemed more pleasing today, so I turned to the Internet in search of a new recipe. Just for something different.

When I googled “best banana bread recipe,” the first thing that came up was a recipe from Food.com—the directions began, “Remove odd pots and pans from the oven.” Wait… what?

Even though I have never seen a recipe begin like this before, it doesn’t seem like an odd way to start a recipe. When I was growing up, we had a gas stove. Back then, gas stoves had a pilot light that was on all the time, which meant that the oven remained warmish. All the time.

After we washed the dishes or unloaded the dishwasher, anything that was still damp would end up in the oven where it would dry with the help of the heat from the pilot light. Before we baked, we always had to check the oven for “odd pots and pans.” If we forgot… well, things that shouldn’t have been in the oven would melt or burn.

So when I came across this recipe today, I had an unintended a trip down memory lane. But then it occurred to me… we must not have been the only home in which “odd pots and pans” were stored in the oven when it was not in use.

Annoying Little Sister

I had a moment yesterday. It was a moment when—even in all my supposed adulthood—I was feeling just a bit like the annoying little sister I once was and, clearly, sometimes still am.

I was in Boston with PiE, my sister, and her partner, and we were navigating the streets between the bus station and SoWa open market. It was a gorgeous day—finally—and I was enjoying the walk… and the sun… and the company.

We had gotten drinks for the journey—water, coffee, and the disaster that was my sister’s iced coffee—before we left the bus station, so I was good to go. My bag slung over my shoulder, I held PiE’s hand in my left hand and my water bottle in my right.

Before long, we were walking beside a chain link fence that bordered a construction site. The proximity of the fence was just too perfect, and suddenly, my mind was hatching an idea of annoying little sister proportions. I looked at my sister, walking directly in front of me, and back to the fence. For a split second, I angled the water bottle in my hand just slightly so that it rubbed on the fence as I walked. The hollow clattering noise it produced was just what I wanted.

I smiled to myself, and this time, I angled the water bottle full on into the fence. I continued to walk nonchalantly, pretending I was doing nothing, as little sisters are wont to do. My eyes never left my sister’s back. This noise, I knew, would grate on her just like every annoying noise I had ever made throughout our childhood.

When she turned around, I burst out laughing, and so did she. “What are you doing?” she asked, and I moved the bottle away from the fence. I knew she would turn around, and I told her so.

In an incredibly immature but still very fulfilling way, I felt this moment to be a triumph. Not a surprise, but a triumph—one that only a little sister could understand.

{Image credit: FreeImages.com / bren1}

Lessons from the Tollbooth

Every experience, good or bad, can be considered an adventure. And every adventure, positive or negative, has its lessons. Let me set the scene….

It is 6:00 in the morning. It is still dark, and there is an unmistakable crispness in the air, despite the calendar’s July date. My daughter and I are traveling an unfamiliar highway in a Midwestern state to get to the airport for an early flight home from a nearly week-long adventure.

I have my electronic toll pass in the car with me, and even though it is from our home state, in theory, it should work here. The toll experience on the way in was spotty, but we made it through. Our home state removed the gates on their tollbooths many years ago in favor of speed and efficiency. Such is not the case here in this Midwestern state.

At the first tollbooth, we pull up to the gate, but the booth does not pick up the signal from our transponder. I wave it around in the car. Nothing. I push the “help” button on the tollbooth, and a male voice wishes me a good morning. I explain my situation. He asks me to read my transponder number. Um… it’s fairly dark in the car and I don’t have my reading glasses, but I don’t tell him this. I pass the transponder to my daughter. She reads the number, and I repeat it to the voice in the void. Once he confirms that I do, in fact, have an account, the gate rises, and I drive through.

After an hour or more on the road, the second tollbooth comes into view. We pull up, fully expecting (well… hoping for) our toll pass to work. Of course, it doesn’t. I roll down the window and lean way out, holding it under the barcode scanner that I discovered at the last tollbooth. The bright red laser line crosses the code. I watch the gate, but it doesn’t move from its persistent placement directly in front of the car. I push the “help” button and wait for a friendly voice. Nothing. In my rear view mirror, I see a semi truck approaching, but I figure he will go into a different toll lane. He doesn’t. In seconds, the massive rig is directly behind my car. We are trapped, and my daughter is trying desperately to hold herself together as she begins to panic in the seat beside me.

I step out of the car into the chilly dawn air, transponder in hand. I frantically wave it in front of the scanner while simultaneously pushing the “help” button. This tollbooth is completely unresponsive—nothing functional here, it seems. I breathe deeply, forcing air into and out of my lungs. I turn to the truck driver behind me. I muster my most helpless and apologetic expression and I shrug, still holding my transponder in my hand.

He pauses for two seconds. Then motions for me to get back in my car, and he begins to slowly back up so I can switch to a lane with a real, live attendant. But not only does he back up, he angles his truck in such a way as to block any traffic that might be approaching. Oh, bless you! I think to myself. I roll down my window as I move over several lanes, and I wave my thanks.

“How many more tollbooths do we have to go through?” my daughter asks quietly.

I sigh, reluctant to tell her. “I think only one,” I say, keeping my tone low and tender.

It’s finally light out when the third—and final—tollbooth comes onto the horizon. The tension I feel from the passenger seat is pulling on my heart. I take a deep breath. “It will be fine,” I say by way of calming us both down. And it is. We sail right through. What? How is that possible? I glance in my rearview mirror, looking for answers that are not there. I take a deep breath and finally relax.

We survived and have had substantial time to decompress, and I am happy to share the lessons I gleaned from my not-so-good-morning at the tollbooth:

Don’t believe everything you hear or read on the Internet. We heard our toll transponder would work, but I checked the website to confirm. Even so, our transponder didn’t work exactly as we’d hoped.

Trust that people will work with you and rely on the kindness of strangers. For the most part, if people see you are in a tough situation, they generally offer their assistance. That could come as a helping hand, but it could also come as a truck driver backing up and blocking oncoming traffic so you can do what you need to do.

Always have an escape plan, or just a plan, in general Even if you don’t need it, it is good to have a plan in the back of your head. Just think, for a moment, about what you will do if you get stuck. What is it they say…? Anticipate the worst but hope for the best.

Be a calming force for those around you. Now in reality, I had no idea how we were going to get out of our predicament. But experience tells me that these things have a way of working themselves out. And after only a brief panic, they did work out. After all, when was the last time you heard of someone being permanently stuck in a tollbooth?

{Image: FreeImages.com / Travis Cripps}

Messages

I’ve written about my blocks before—my “grown up” alphabet letter blocks. It was the end of December when I wrote a post about how my children often …um, alter the messages I create, changing the words to nonsense or silliness.

But the current message on our blocks has remained unchanged for a while now—almost since that December post. In fact, I think this is the longest running message we’ve had without some sort of interference at the hands of the teenagers in the house. But that’s because this message is special; it was created in a deeply emotional moment—one that we all survived—and no one has the heart to disturb it.

It was the night my dad passed away; the children had gone to bed, and I couldn’t sleep. I was gathering all of the items we would need for an indefinite amount of time away from home, but I was directionless. I sat down on the floor of the living room, and in a mess of tears, I composed the message—Love to Heaven—tracing the letters with my finger.

My children didn’t see the new message until we returned from our time away. “Look what Mrs. L did with our blocks!” they summoned me into the room. Mrs. L is the neighbor who had been feeding our cats and taking in our mail while we were away. I went into the living room and looked to the top of the shelf.

I half smiled to myself. “No,” I told the kids. “I did that. I wrote that message the night before we left, while you were all sleeping.” I turned away and went back to the kitchen, hiding the tears that now flow freely and often.

Those moments, nearly five months ago now, they were a time of deep and pervasive sorrow. And while grief remains with me, it has found pockets in my life where it can emerge safely—when I am alone in the car, in the morning when I get ready for my day, in the evening when I prepare dinner. And there are also the sneak attacks that take me by surprise, and probably always will.

But the message has served its purpose of comfort to all who read it. And now, perhaps maybe we could use these blocks—as we have in the past—to summon the resistant summer weather. With reluctance, I will change this long-standing message. It will take courage to sit on the floor, dismantle the words, and scramble the blocks. I will remember the last time I turned these blocks in my hands to find just the right letters—the moment when creating the perfect message was so very important.