Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy New Year

During the past year, I’ve had more time to think, mull, ponder, obsess…well, you get the idea…than I have in probably a decade. Truly, I am sick of ‘introspective’ me. And I’m sure my friends, while way too kind and compassionate to say so, are too (thank you especially Susan, Holly and Jean).

I was fearful blogging would make me self-absorbed. Or maybe I already was. Ouch. Simply, my goal was to write about family, faith and that ‘F’ word, which I promised not to mention again. I also wanted to commit to paper, or rather computer screen, stories about my children that have been rattling around in my head for years.

The notion of ‘holding on and letting go' runs strong in my psyche. In another life I was on the journalism faculty at a large university and the director of advising for that program. During the summer, I’d face hordes of eager freshmen and their parents. Part of my job was to soothingly explain to parents they wouldn’t be joining their sons and daughters during the scheduling process. Rather they would attend a special session called ‘Holding On and Letting Go.’

I must confess I may have been a bit testy the year Erik left home at sixteen to spend a year abroad as a foreign exchange student and a parent would ask me ‘what classes are we taking.’

My flaws are legion in my book, but I also know my strengths. Putting myself in the place of the other is one of them. My husband is both amused and bemused that I argue both sides of a dispute between us, his and mine. Just because I am adept at ‘letting go’ does not mean I don’t understand how difficult it is. Just measure my waistline.

The mall bookstore is going out of business, like so many of its ilk. Today I was standing in line to buy 40-percent-off books that I can get at the library for free, including a mid-life mom memoir. Behind me two women were having a conversation. One said she couldn’t believe her daughter would be 18 months soon. Turning around, I saw that the woman agreeing with her about how fast time went had an infant strapped to her chest.

Instead of ‘sagely’ weighing in, I kept my mouth shut. Suddenly it does seem like a very long time ago that I had a three-month-old infant strapped to my chest at the Phoenix airport awaiting his first flight to grandma and grandpa’s.

Many flights and many years later, that child is spending New Year’s Eve in London with his girlfriend.

As my wise mother once said, “You don’t get to keep your babies very long.”

And that’s just fine.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Best Birthday Ever

My wonderful friend Leigh Rosenecker, mom extraordinaire, ace cake decorator and one-day Jeopardy champ, set up a Facebook group to secretly gather 50th birthday greetings for me. She printed the messages out, cut them into strips, punched holes and stuck multicolored birthday candles into them before mailing them off to my husband.

Now that’s a true-blue friend.

I had the best birthday ever. Thank you Leigh, my husband, my mom, my sons, the friends who joined us tonight and the friends and family near and far who gave me the best birthday wishes ever.

Fifty is the new fifty.

20th Birthday

30th Birthday

40th Birthday

50th Birthday!!!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Fifty is an Even Bigger Number

One can take a multitude of approaches toward aging.

There is the poetic and profound:

The Young Man’s Song by W. B. Yeats
I whispered, "I am too young,"
And then, "I am old enough";
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
"Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair,"
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

Oh, love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away,
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There is the concise:

As we grow old…the beauty steals inward. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is the tongue-in-cheek approach, such as this one for soon-to-be-empty nesters:

The best way to keep kids at home is to make the home a pleasant atmosphere...and let the air out of their tires. -- Dorothy Parker

I’m rather fond of this folksy truism:

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. -- Mark Twain

Finally, I derive comfort from the following:

I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming... suddenly you find - at the age of 50, say - that a whole new life has opened before you. -- Agatha Christie


Anyone who’s been within close proximity, literally or cyber-ly, to me this fall knows I’ve been moaning and groaning my way toward fifty. Dear Husband and I went the other day to order the cake for Saturday’s birthday pasta party (if the ground blizzards and fitting 50-mph winds don’t keep even in-towners away!). The bakery manager, a cancer survivor and recipient of a two heart stents, told me she’ll hit that number in July and embraces every birthday. She reminded me to do the same. When I wasn’t begging my husband to tell me I looked much younger than her, despite the gray in my hair, he gently pointed out cancer will age a person.

Personally I think the stress eating I’ve done this month has plumped me out so much a wrinkle won’t show until the spring thaw.

But enough about me.

Or at least about this blasted birthday. So I didn’t lose the ten pounds I wanted to, instead managing to find a few. I will, I always do. Beginning now, I’m a full-time free-lance writer, my childhood goal. And for the record, I’m glad I’m not Mrs. Donny Osmond or Mrs. David Cassidy (like there ever was a chance).

And the best piece of advice about this birthday came today from my Great-Aunt Lou, who turns 90 in February.

“It’s just a number, don’t sweat it.”

Thank you poets and scribes and Aunt Lou.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Little Christmas Eve

Earlier today, I wrote the following:

Tonight my husband’s parents, siblings, spouses and families are gathered in Minnesota celebrating Lille Juleaften or Little Christmas Eve. In Denmark, ‘the old country,’ the main celebration of Christmas falls on the night before, December 24th. In Minneapolis the Hanson/Knutson clan is eating oyster stew. The nasty liver paste I can’t spell, let alone pronounce, is probably on the menu too. Over the next few days the exquisite risalamande will be made and served. It’s a dish of rice pudding, whipped cream and almonds served with raspberry sauce. A whole almond is hidden in the dessert and served to the youngest member present who receives a gift of candy, sometimes even the traditional marzipan pig.

There’s more, but believe me it just gets worse.

I can’t find the words to say what I want to say, to tie the examples and the theme and wrap it up all nice and neatly like a Christmas package. One not wrapped by me.

Maybe it’s all the sugar fumes I’ve inhaled during my baking binge today.

Hard to believe reading this, but I do get paid for writing. But not this. This is about things that have been on my mind for years or minutes.

Tonight Denmark is on my mind. Erik, is just a hop, skip and a ferry ride away from the ‘old country.’ I want to write about Vikings, and wanderlust and the unaccompanied bus ride my husband took in Aarhus, Denmark when he was seven. I want to wax eloquent about how I'm the poster child mom for ‘letting go,’ but this holiday season I’m in a ‘holding on’ mood. I want to articulate how I’ll be happy when my son’s gorgeous, generous girlfriend lands in Heathrow at the end of the weekend. And I want to thank her parents for letting her go. Instead, I’m waning.

So I’m going to go dip the second batch of buckeyes in chocolate and direct you to my son’s latest blog post…on homesickness. It’s eloquent and expressive, and I’m a proud mom.

Happy Holidays all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Birthday First-Born

A blizzard plunged the mid-Atlantic region and the East Coast into chaos over the weekend, dumping snow, snarling travel and sending Weather Channel reporters scrambling for shelter. A couple weeks ago a large storm hit here in the Midwest, but since fewer people and less major airports were involved it didn’t merit around-the-clock television coverage.

Nineteen years ago a similar spell of weather affected this part of the country, stretching into the Southwest. It was so cold there was even snow on the ‘cactuses.’

Snow dusting the prickly pears down in Phoenix became part of the ‘mythos’ surrounding the December 21st, 1990 birth of our first son, Erik, in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was so cold in ‘Flag,’ as the locals called the town nestled at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks, that the pipes in our townhouse froze. My doctor finagled another night’s stay for baby and me so we didn't go home to no water.

My parents braved the bad weather and flight delays to come out to see their first grandchild. At six pounds, Erik was so tiny we called him our little monkey baby. Every year on his birthday, I pull out the scrapbooks (old-fashioned notions in this digital age) and marvel at the small, serious infant cradled in his grandmother and grandfather’s arms that first Christmas. His father looks tired but happy, and I look exhausted.

You start to collect the stories of your baby’s life through photos and memories. The endless sleepless nights that give way to finally sleeping through the night…or not as the case may be with Erik. Thanks to Facebook, even though he’s a world away, tucked behind the old ‘Iron Curtain’ on study abroad on his second sojourn to Germany…I can see he still stays up all night.

Parents of newborns don’t have time to ponder deep truths, such as the goal is to someday have them leave you and go out on their own. Constant diaper changes, 2 a.m. (and 3:00 a.m. and 4 a.m.) feedings, teething, and ear infections all keep a weary mom and dad occupied. Before you know it, your baby walks and talks and turns that milestone of one.

Sooner or later, that toddler gets toilet trained and the momentous first day of kindergarten comes.

Then one day you’re sitting with your spouse at a departmental beginning-of-the-year picnic, and your high school sophomore wanders up and tells you, out of the blue, that he’d like to go to Germany. Glibly, parents say in unison “Find a way to pay for it.”

So your child does and off he goes, at 16, to a foreign country for a year as an exchange student. He writes a new story of his life. The Cliff Notes version: he gets accepted to college a year early, comes home, drops out of high school, gets his GED, goes to college a year early. Then goes back to Germany on a university exchange program.

I was afraid for a moment when we left the hospital 19 years ago that the nurse wasn’t going to give me my swaddled-in-yellow-bunting baby. Somehow I though she was going to tell me I hadn’t studied the mythical ‘parenting manual’ enough and was going to flunk motherhood.

The manual doesn’t exist, and motherhood is a fluid occupation. You love them, and squeeze them and roll with the punches.

And collect all the stories you can.

Happy Birthday, Erik.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Hair-Raising Tale

In a week, I’ll be fifty.

Recently my mother and younger son helpfully pointed out that technically I already am since I’m closing out my 50th year. It’s a polite way of telling me to quit moanin’ and groanin’ and move on.

My three-months-younger-than-me husband is looking forward to the next decade because his forties tried to, if not kill, at least severely maim him.

A diabetes diagnosis, a big chunk of melanoma and an oddball case of cholesterol-drug-induced hepatitis that exacerbated the diabetes and tromped on his liver all paid calls.

The only casualty of my forties?

My hair.

In addition to being the smart one, my husband is also not the shallow one. That title belongs to moi.

In pulling out pictures for my ‘special’ birthday blog, I noticed something disconcerting: I have basically the same haircut on my 20th, 30th, and 40th (except for the addition of bangs and even chubbier cheeks) birthdays. This year will be no different, except for the amount of silver.

Now, mind you, over the years I have had perms (good and bad), bobs and even shoulder-length hair.

There was even the unfortunate incident of January 1997 when my foray into Lady Clairol’s ‘Hibiscus’ resulted in purple tips in my short coal black hair instead of the all-over auburn I was hoping for.

Is it any wonder I’ve chosen to go gray?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Reason for the Season

Sometimes life needs a narrator. As this week winds down, I can hear Garrison Keillor intoning “It was a long week in Lake Wobegon.”

I’m not going into details, but suffice it to say I’ve been whiney and weepy and self-absorbed.

But for a few hours tonight I was transported when I expected to be traumatized.

Dedicated church youth group leader, Perry Wayne Hanson, another mom and I took 25+ sixth graders to Target to shop for Secret Santa gifts for each other. Nothing got broken, and they bought thoughtful gifts for each other.

As the mom of a 14-year-old and an almost 19-year-old, I’m a veteran field trip chaperone. I’ve been everywhere from a pumpkin patch with kindergartners to New York City with a busload of seventh graders. My finest hour was not a class trip to a Pittsburgh museum when my older son was in fifth grade. I watched helplessly as one of my charges leaned on a glass shelf full of snow globes in the museum gift shop. It snowed all right...

I’m transitioning….too old to have more babies, too young (given the age of my babies) to have grandchildren. Age is creeping up on us, and in some cases galloping. My husband’s 82-year-old mother had her appendix out this week, which was fortunate because a slow-growing spot of cancer was spotted and removed.

That and other concerns made for a long week on the prairie. But it hit a balmy 30 degrees today, and no snow globes crashed to the floor.

Sometimes that’s enough. And sometimes you get caring middle schoolers who remind you of the real reason for the season.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The End of an Era

This week marks the end of an era for me. After not quite twenty years of working with college students, I’m ‘retiring.’ Teaching was something I literally fell into, first as an adjunct then working my way up to teaching and directing advising for a journalism school at a large university.

As chronicled previously, my husband and I were ready for a less hectic lifestyle and eager to be closer to family so we made a big move. I spent last year tutoring students three days a week in the writing center of the much smaller university where he accepted a new position. This was my ‘rehab’ job to ease me into fulfilling my goal of staying home fulltime to write. Despite the dismal job prospects for me in our new location, I simply couldn’t go from what felt like working outside the home 24/7 to zip.

By this fall I whittled my tutoring schedule down to one day a week and by Thanksgiving had made the decision not to return in the spring.

It’s a good decision, and certainly a well-timed one emotionally. My writing partner/mother and I sold our first book together when my older son was a toddler. Nearly 30 books later, he’s toddled off to Germany for the second time as a college sophomore doing a study abroad. His younger brother is a freshman in high school and already talking colleges and career choices. I want to spend more time with my mother, who was always there on snow days, sick days, and goin’ to one-more-work-event days (usually nights) for my children. And the timing is just right to pursue my long-time dream of making ‘free-lance writer’ my full-time occupation.

I loved college. I loved everything about it. Well, not the math or science classes but those were irrelevant to the rest. So much freedom, so many choices, but still that cocoon of not yet being tossed out into the ‘real world.’ Of course by the last semester of my senior year, I was ready to hurtle into that real world. But that’s the natural order of things.

Perhaps because of my affinity for those years, I adored teaching college students. I love my sons desperately, and it’s a good thing I never had girls because I can’t do hair and hate to shop, but have had many honorary daughters over the years. Honorary sons, too.

A fellow tutor and ‘honorary’ daughter is graduating from the University of Nebraska at Kearney at the end of the week. She’s heading across the world to fulfill one of her dreams. I’m going to miss her something fierce, the way I miss other students whose lives have touched mine over the years.

It was a good run.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Sense of Place

For more than a decade I taught beat reporting to journalism students at West Virginia University. This was always their first assignment:

Interview one classmate on what/where his or her favorite place was as a child.

Consider the following:

  • location
  • sights, sounds, smells it evokes
  • memories involved
  • ever revisited?
  • Still derive comfort, enjoyment, etc. from it?

After the interview: Making as much use of description as possible, write a short story (minimum 1/2 page).

Every semester ‘grandma’s house’ was the winner, followed closely by the beach or a backyard filled with swing sets and childhood innocence.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about place, especially this week when a ‘storm of the century’ blizzard whipped across the prairie, dumping snow, bringing fierce temperatures and high winds.

I grew up in Michigan, and even though I haven’t lived there in nearly 30 years, that still defines me. When I was 14, my best friend was Heidi Flower. Her German-born mom, artist Helga Flower, made the best ever peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate. To this day I can close my eyes and taste that perfect sweetness and feel the dry chill of that particular Sault Ste. Marie December.

Perhaps because the following month, a boy kissed me for the first time.

I married an Iowa boy, and years later gave birth to my first son, Erik, in Flagstaff, Arizona during one of the coldest Decembers on record in the Southwest.

We moved to West Virginia, had another son, Andrew, and spent 15 years in that rugged, beautiful state before moving to Nebraska.

After this blustery week, even a Michigan girl who has lived in Iowa and hauled a bundled baby to the pediatrician during the winter of 1991 when 80 inches of snow fell in one month in Flagstaff, Arizona…gets defeated.

Now in addition to missing the Great Lakes and the San Francisco Peaks, I miss the Appalachian falls and springs.

I ask my son in Germany what the weather is like, remembering the beautiful snowfall we encountered on our visit two years ago. His answer is always the same: rainy, cold, dreary.

The prairie is growing on me…slowly. I’m learning to appreciate the year-round blue skies, something I missed intensely when we moved from Arizona to West Virginia. I remind myself it rained non-stop that first fall in Morgantown, West Virginia when Erik was a toddler, and we were both used to being able to go to the park every day. Instead of noticing the lack of trees, I’m starting to find the trees.

A friend of mine, poet and essayist Rob Merritt, teaches English at a college in Virginia. He was born in North Carolina, which seems like a foreign country to a northern girl. He writes about place in The Nantahala Review.

I’m thinking place can be fluid, carried around inside of us then coaxed out when we need the memory of that first kiss to take away the chill of mid-life.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snow Day

As a child the words filled me with glee: Snow Day!

As the mother of two school-age children, for many years the words filled me with incredulity. Not another snow day!

Today’s snow day found my husband and me crunching along the back way to the YMCA to get some exercise. The place, slated to close mid-morning, was fairly empty.

As I walked around the track, the strains of Andrea Zonn’s Galilee Road wafting through my ears, I glanced down at the gymnasium floor. Childcare providers were riding herd on a passel of pre-schoolers. One girl had a tow headed little boy perched on her hip. Her stance was so achingly familiar to the way I held my boys, to the way all mothers seem to stand when their children are that age.

Only the fact I had one ratty Kleenex prevented me from bursting into tears.

I don’t miss my children being little. Really, I don’t. I relish their independence and self-reliance. This week I’ve had several conversations via Skype with my older son, Erik, about his potential plans for next summer.

I found myself repeating over and over, “I don’t care what you do,” then adding “You know what I mean.”

He reassures me each time that he does know what I mean.

Maybe that’s what nearly had me scrounging for tissues this morning. My flaxen-haired serious toddler has grown into a world traveler, is in love with a wonderful girl, and likes talking potential graduate schools and urban planning issues with his father.

When I say I don’t care, my son knows it really means “I trust you.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different

…or random musings that have nothing to do with anything.

  • Georgia O’Keefe or Curious George?
  • Maine or Miami?
  • Mayflower or Santa Maria?
  • Hibiscus or hyacinth?
  • Subtext or subterfuge?
  • Centrifuge or centimeter?
  • Arbor Day or May Day?
  • Lions or tigers?
  • Zoos or amusement parks?
  • Pink or blue?
  • Gum or mints?
  • Football or Food Network?
  • Long or short?
  • E-mail or texting?
  • Yesterday, today or tomorrow?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Happy Birthday to me ….almost

In three weeks plus change, I will be 50. There I said it, out loud, well kind of. As I finish up on the treadmill, I mull (over a Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris duet), how I can still be whiney about this birthday?

Two dear friends never saw their 40th or 50th ones respectively. I so need to embrace the next decade, not continue to gripe about it. Nevertheless, why does fifty feel like a popcorn kernel that gets lodged between a tooth and the gum, causing the tongue to worry it out after days of flossing and brushing fail to?

Beats me.

I can clearly remember details about each birthday that ended in zero, going all the way back to the first one, including how I wore my hair and what I weighed. But you knew that was coming.

Ten ushered in the 1970s and the death of my beloved grandfather, 20 was all about hope and optimism and a very small jeans size, 30 brought the birth of my first son (by just a few days), and 40, well, started rocky but heralded an amazing decade filled with highs and lows.

Fifty feels like being perched on the edge of a precipice, knowing full well you’re not going to fall but wondering if it’s time to take a leap of faith anyway.

My sons are turning into the men they’re destined to be. Time for their mother to quit complaining and take joy in a new decade.

If you’re traveling along I80 in the middle of the country on the day after Christmas, stop in and have some pasta. Don’t worry, I’m not cooking. There will be cake and no whining.

I promise.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Marriage 101

The other night I dashed off what I thought was a clever little blog entry. Following are the first few paragraphs:

Talkin’ Tabloids

I’m interrupting the regularly scheduled content of this blog to express shock and dismay about an oh-so-trivial matter. My media savvy college professor husband does not know what Jon Gosselin looks like.

This was revealed to me when I commented to him how the husband of someone we know resembles the TLC-traumatized male half of Jon and Kate Plus Eight. In my defense, I have never watched the show. Ever.

However…I have been known to peruse the glossy tabloids in the supermarket checkout and even to plunk down some hard-earned dollars if the cover promises a story on a contestant on the Biggest Loser or Kirstie Alley’s weight battles.

Jon and Kate’s marital woes had been plastered on magazine covers for so many months that one magazine promised a ‘Gosselin-free edition’ on its cover.

I then segued into talking about my favorite TLC show, ‘What Not to Wear,’ and how I love makeover shows. How the power to transform oneself never ceases to fascinate me.

Somehow I wrapped it all up by proclaiming that unlike Kate Gosselin, I love that man of mine, even if he wouldn’t know a picture of Jon Gosselin from a picture of Celebrity X.

And that’s when I got into trouble.

I like my husband to read my blog posts before I put them up. Husband said he certainly would know the difference between Kate’s mate…and Gilligan. Yes, I used Bob Denver as my example. There’s a slight resemblance, after all. Okay, very slight.

It is important to note that in our marriage I am the mercurial, clever (or so I thought) one. He is the highly intelligent calm one. His feathers are never ruffled, and if they are, woe unto the ruffler. My dh took umbrage with my not-so-clever wordplay, and I took umbrage with him.

We joke about it nearly twenty years later, but we once had a horrid argument about the grammatical correctness of a sentence in The New York Times. Husband said to me coldly: “I could diagram it for you.”

When two journalism majors marry, life can be weird.

Our second year of marriage we rented an old farmhouse in rural Iowa. We were both working at the local newspaper, he in the newsroom, me in circulation then composing. A ‘nepotism’ policy prevented spouses from working in the same department. I was miserable.

That house was so cold we literally had ice in the bathtub and needed to thaw the tub before using it. As the wind howled around us at night, huddled as we were in our long underwear in bed, we wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into regarding marriage. It would have been easy to go our separate ways at that point. But when I thought about what kind of future I wanted, it always came back to wanting babies with the man I’d married. The man I loved. He felt the same way. One night I sprang up in bed and told him I thought he should apply to grad school. He really wanted to be a college professor.

The rest is marital and parental history.

Now it doesn’t even take ice in the bathtub to set me off sometimes. I’m happy to pout over petty annoyances if I’m feeling cranky. But when I think about the imminent empty nest years (and I suspect the blog ‘incident’ was triggered by my realization that my youngest goes to college in just three and a half years…my youngest!), I can’t imagine not spending them with my husband of two and a half decades plus.

Even if he doesn’t know what Jon Gosselin looks like.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bake Someone Happy

It’s not yet December 1, but my holiday baking is done. Granted, the Buckeyes still need to be dipped in melted chocolate (yes, a Michigander-born girl doesn’t let the Ohio-ness of those tasty treats dissuade), but that’s it.

Why the frenzy? The reasons range from wanting to mail a tin of cookies to son Erik in Germany to having a nice variety for a tray for my department chair husband to take in to the last faculty meeting of the semester and…

…wanting to get it over with. There I said it. The days of joyfully dumping out all my Grandma Rock’s old metal cookie cutters and pulling out her sugar cookie recipe are long gone. Sometimes I wonder why?

Frosted cut-outs and golden cookies studded with M&M’s were just two of my maternal grandma’s specialties. Both my grandmothers excelled in the kitchen. My dad’s mom, widowed when my dad was just 12, supported him and her four older daughters by being the head cook at Mercy Hospital in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Even though she was on her feet cooking all day, Grandma Andrews spent all her time in the kitchen when all her children and grandchildren gathered for holidays. From her sister Carrie, my great aunt, I learned how to make shortcake dotted with butter and Sugar Cakes, melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies made fluffy with buttermilk.

My mother didn’t like to bake so she taught me when I was very young. Soon I was adept at family favorites from both sides, including chocolate applesauce cake, date nut bars, tomato soup cake, best two egg cake….and inept at things like fudge and one concoction involving powdered sugar, cocoa, milk and Cocoa Krispies. I think it was supposed to be frosting.

In 7th grade I nearly flunked the sewing part of Home Ec (In middle school, my sons took BASE, which was…home ec with careers added. Sensible addition.). I did much better in the kitchen. I can still remember the day we learned the ‘water displacement’ method to accurately measure peanut butter. It’s slimy, but it works.

So what happened over the years?

Well, writing became a much better (and lower calorie) outlet for my creativity. Then there was my husband’s diabetes diagnosis…and the fact the disease runs on both sides of my family. The oldest of Grandma Andrews’ four daughters was Dorothea, a nurse, who had a foot amputated due to complications from the disease. Also, while both my children enjoy an occasional cookie, and Erik is very partial to the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies (recipe listed below), neither seems to have inherited my raging sweet tooth. Finally, the whole working mom balancing act ultimately left no time for laboriously rolling out cookies and decorating with colored sugar, not when there were papers to grade and copyedits due.

Now there are no more papers to grade, not for me. After 15 years at a large university, my husband and I were ready for a lifestyle change. This will be our second holiday season here on the prairie, in the town my husband wanted to live in for nearly 20 years. Long before we had children, we’d drive ‘home’ for the holidays from Flagstaff, Arizona to our folks in Iowa. This Nebraska town on Interstate 80 enchanted him, though at the time I thought he was nuts. And not the kind that go in cookies. Instead we went east. But when a job opened at this university of 6,500 students in his ‘dream town’ at the exact time we were ready for a move, it seemed like fate and faith were aligned.

It’s been a challenging yet wonderful change. Soon I will be realizing my life-long goal of staying home to write fulltime. It’s scary, exhilarating and, apparently, baking inducing.

Maybe next year I will pull out Grandma Rock’s cookie cutters.

What’s your favorite holiday cookie recipe?

Basic Cake Box Cookie/Bar recipe

  • 1 box any flavor cake mix (Pillsbury Classic Yellow particularly good)
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 2 Tablespoons water
  • 1 egg

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients. Add one 12 oz. package chocolate chips or any flavor. Spread in a greased 9 x 13 glass pan. Bake at 350 for ten – twelve minutes til golden brown. Let cool and cut into bars.

You can also use this dough to make cookies. Bake the cookies at 375 degrees.

Roll the yellow cake mix cookie dough into balls and flatten with a sugared glass slightly. Bake at 375 7-8 minutes or until golden.

Frost or sprinkle with colored sugar.

You can also use a chocolate cake mix, but it’s drier so use ½ cup oil. Or just make brownies!

Lemon is also a good flavor. Just form into balls and let flatten as they bake. Make a thin glaze out of lemon juice, powdered sugar and a little milk or water.

Or bake in a greased 9 x 13 pan again til done and frost with canned lemon frosting.

Try cherry cake mix, and add cherry chips and almond flavoring and a vanilla frosting glaze or spice and melt caramel and drizzle on top.

Iowa State Fair Cookbook Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup shortening or margarine (I use margarine sticks)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 12 oz. Package semisweet chocolate chips

In a bowl, combine sugars, shortening, and eggs; beat until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, soda, powder and salt. Add to shortening mixture. Add oats. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop by teaspoonful onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in 375 degree oven 8-10 minutes or until done.

The dough works better after it’s been chilled a bit in the refrigerator. And the best thing about these cookies is you can freeze them as drop cookies or roll up as logs in wax paper. Either way you can bake right from the freezer when you want some.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Merry Thanksgiving

St. Nick candles sit sandwiched on one bookcase shelf. Directly above is the still-fresh Halloween/Thanksgiving pumpkin nestled in the spray of bittersweet. This is the earliest we’ve ever decorated for Christmas, unless you count the year Erik, our older son, was about three. The apartment-sized tree never went down that year, just kept being redecorated for Valentine’s Day, Easter, etc.

Over time, the mantle of being in charge of the tree has passed from older brother to younger. It was a tradition for years that the minute the pumpkin pie was eaten, out came the Christmas boxes. Our long-time friend, Jean, who joined us every year for Thanksgiving dinner was more than happy to assist…instead of looking askance at the breakneck speed with which the next holiday was ushered in.

Times change. Since we moved from West Virginia to the prairie, Jean is more than 1,100 miles away. Erik is a continent away. My husband, younger son and I had planned to spend Christmas in London to meet up with Erik, who would travel from Rostock, Germany.  However, Erik decided earlier this fall to do study abroad for a semester not a year, so we’re staying home. Works out well. Husband will be in the throes of page proofs for his writing deadline; Mom and I have a January deadline, so it’s nice to have the extra editing time.

On the shortest day of the year, Erik turns 19. This will actually be the third time he’s been away from home for Christmas. When he went to Germany the first time as a high school foreign exchange student his junior year, some people were shocked he wouldn’t be home for Christmas.

It wasn’t the first time.

When he was a freshman in high school a friend’s family took their sons, Erik and another boy to Disney World over the holidays. It was a lovely gift. Sure we missed Erik, but it wasn’t about us.

His younger brother jokes that next year will be an ‘on’ year for Erik being home for the holidays if the pattern continues.

Just because I am good at letting go doesn’t mean it’s not bittersweet. Understanding fully that children growing up is the ultimate wonderful goal doesn’t mean I’m immune to missing them intensely when they’re not around.

So if I had a child who wanted to put up the Christmas tree on the Fourth of July, I’d be draggin’ out the boxes myself. The joy of the season is with us year-round, and the time we get to keep our babies is short indeed.

Embrace it all, and if you’re the first house on the block with tinsel…so be it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I am thankful for…

Earlier this month, a friend from church offered a challenge on Facebook: Every day this month until Thanksgiving post in your status update one thing you are thankful for.

Lately, I’ve been caught up in life’s little issues and have not taken time to reflect on things I’m thankful for. I admit I’ve been dwelling on negatives rather than positives. A couple of good friends have got to be tired of my constant refrain: “Why can’t I be happy being happy?”

I’m sick of my own whining. It’s time to ante up and be thankful for all the blessings in my life, too numerous to list.

So here’s a start, in no particular order, of things I am thankful for:

1. A husband who cooks. I have NEVER cooked a Thanksgiving dinner nor do I ever intend to. I hate to cook. I love to eat. I do like to bake but that’s a post of a different color.

2. My children

3. My mommy. She’s my best friend and my writing partner. I know how truly fortunate I am to have the mother/daughter relationship we share. When I was five, I did throw a little brass vase down the stairs at her. She gave it back when I was 18, though.

4. A job doing what I love: writing. And all the writers who’ve give me so much reading pleasure over the years.

5. All the students I’ve taught writing to.

6. My friends, from my very first best friend in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, whom I bopped with a metal truck when we were toddlers (my mom said she was trying to play with me when I was trying to get her brother’s attention) to the ones I cherish to this day. And no, I haven’t hit anybody with a Tonka truck since.

7. A wonderful church

8., 9., 10., and so on….My extended family, my older son’s girlfriend, my favorite professors, M&M’s….

What are you thankful for?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pity Party

My older son is working on his blog about differences he’s observing between eastern and western Germany, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Meanwhile, my professor husband is updating his blog about sweeping changes taking place in the media industry.

Me? I’m indulging in a public pity party.

Recently I had a conversation with my friend Elizabeth, a much younger mom, who is juggling a toddler, a new baby and a full-time job, albeit one with a modicum of flexibility. She’s handling it all with grace and aplomb (and no those aren’t her kids’ names).

Talking to her made me think of Gail Sheehy’s road map to adult life “Passages,” which I haven’t read and Nora Ephron’s paen to sags and bags “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which I have read.

As the date of my 25x2 birthday approaches, I find myself reflecting (wallowing is more like it) in self-introspection.

I loathe self-introspection. Ask my dear friend Susan.

But I’m not going gently into that next stage or phase or whatever term you prefer.

I spent my thirties having babies and my forties losing (and gaining some back) the baby weight. In addition to working fulltime, writing and doing the whole route of church and school volunteerism (sometimes only a sentence fragment will do!).

As a new decade roars toward me, I stand on the precipice of change.

I love big sweeping change. Ask my husband. Get-used-to-small-things change like new glasses or even new shoes, not so much.

This passage has snuck up on me. I’m no longer the young mom juggling a dozen sticky-fingered balls in the air. Instead I’m an older mom who’s watching her children grow into these amazing near-adult-like creatures.

Maybe I’ll skip the pity party after all and start shopping for a whole lot of birthday candles.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

All Systems Go

 Recently a friend and I were talking about ‘systems’ to manage kids’ paperwork, shoes, toys, etc. My friend, A,  is seven younger than I am, and her children are in the early elementary school years – otherwise known as the ‘plethora of paper’ years. Artwork, homework (yes, even in kindergarten), and forms stuffed into backpacks arrive each day with alarming regularity. 

 Sadly, I have never met a piece of paper I didn’t want to have a long-term relationship with.

 A and I swapped stories. Her dining room hutch is the repository for her children’s artwork. I offered how I have always favored a ‘shoe basket’ to keep footwear ‘confined.’

 Our conversation reminded me of another friend from more than 20 years ago.  H was the first to have children among our group and the first to  have ‘systems.’  She juggled kids, teaching parttime and a particularly stressful adoption process. Her lists of what household chores needed to be done what day and her typed grocery list enthralled me.

 I love organization and loathe clutter, but the former does not come naturally in my surroundings and the latter does. In addition, I married a man who is extraordinarily organized in his thinking BUT…  Let’s just leave it at that.

 My husband, however, does all the cooking and parenting has always been equally divided and when not, he’s the one who does more than me. I stopped being able to help both our sons with math homework about second grade.

 My mother raised four children with considerably less household help from my father, and I once accused her of making it look too easy. It wasn’t easy at all. She just was and is incredibly organized. Even when we were little, she  was always writing to earn a few extra dollars to supplement my father’s school administrator salary. 

So a few years ago my husband and I began talking about his seeking a job at a smaller university – maybe moving back ‘west’ to be closer to family and big sky country.  A job opened at a school of 6,500 students in his ‘dream town’ of Kearney, Nebraska. The university we both worked at was pushing 30,000 students. My husband applied, interviewed and accepted the new position.

 To sell our house, we called the realtor who had sold it to us nearly a decade before. She and I had taught Sunday School together, two of her children had babysat our younger son and she’s a good friend.

 When she and  her fellow realtors did their ‘walk through’ our house,  the consensus was my husband and I needed to ‘tidy’ up our home office more.  Actually, we needed a bulldozer to remove the papers, etc from the space.

 I blew up…but just to my husband. If we’d had time to clean out that room we wouldn’t be moving. It was a dubious monument to how busy and cluttered, and  not just physically, our lives had become over the years.

 We were ready for a lifestyle change, and, while not without challenges that come from uprooting after 15 years in one spot, change has been good.

 How do you deal with clutter?


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Switching Gears

When I was young, I wanted to be:

  1. A writer
  2. Mom to 10 children
  3. A musical comedy star
  4. The First Lady (girls couldn't even wear pants til 6th grade in the small Michigan town I lived in, yes, Michigan...freezing cold...we had to wear 'stretch pants' to school then take them off until recess time)
  5. Mrs. Donny Osmond
  6. Mrs. David Cassidy
  7. Mrs...well you get the idea....
  8. An environmentalist (I  had no idea that's what it was called...I just wrote letters protesting the use of colored dyes in toilet paper and tissues and lettered on wooden medallions 'Save the Seals')
  9. Thin
  10. Happy

Are you what you want to be?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

June Cleaver I ain’t

Once I asked my older son, Erik, if he wished he had a conventional mom. Nope, he said, he liked me.

In many ways I adapted a traditional parenting style, from trotting off to the pumpkin patch years ago with his kindergarten class to chaperoning a 7th grade field trip to NYC.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t exactly conventional, but I’d already done the aforementioned autumn trip, the ‘farm’ (famous for baby animals and torrential downpours) and the international festival at the university student union.

So the week before Thanksgiving six years ago, I boarded a bus along with several other hale and hearty (or foolhardy) parents and a few grandparents -- Big Apple bound.

Let’s just say some people embrace the role of chaperone more ‘heartily’ than others. This is how my group ended up with Max, who became one of Erik’s best friends.

Erik’s friends are an adventurous lot (their parents a courageous, supportive cadre). Currently two are doing ‘gap’ years in Slovakia and Chile. The spring of Erik’s sophomore year in high school, he and several of his friends participated in a trip to Guatemala. That summer we drove then 16-year-old Erik to DC, the first leg of his first trip to Germany.

Life is divided into different kinds of people. Some have curly hair, some have straight hair. Some are wanderers, like Erik and his dad. I swear the ancestral blood of Erik the Red flows like lava through the veins of my husband (technically he has strong Danish roots, but a viking is a viking). When we lived in West Virginia, dh once rode his motorcycle to Ohio…via Buffalo, NY.

Erik is no different. When he was little, we lived in Flagstaff, Arizona. I belonged to a faculty wives’ playgroup. We’d get together, and the children would play and the moms would drink tea…and my toddler would be tryin’ to head for the Mexican border.

Others, like my mom and me, are ‘castle builders.’ She’s traveled extensively over the years but is firmly rooted to the notion of home. I loathe the act of travel (unlike the gleeful men in this family, younger son included) but do enjoy seeing things. I just am awfully fond of home, wherever that may be.

Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In spring of 2008, my husband, younger son and I flew to Germany to visit Erik for spring break (tad chillier than Ft. Lauderdale). We walked those streets, visited the cluttered testament that is the Checkpoint Charlie museum and stood next to the Brandenburg Gate.

Easter Sunday we took the train to Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank house. Erik had gotten us tickets on the Internet so we could bypass the long lines waiting in the falling snow.

A videotaped interview with Otto Frank played as the queue filed through the last of the cramped twisty quarters. His words still resonate. He spoke of his daughter being a ‘typical’ teenager. I marveled that I never knew the 'house' where the Franks and others hid was actually quarters above a jam warehouse. It wasn’t important to Anne so she didn’t feel the need to mention it. I tried to imagine what life must have been like, especially for the children, never being able to go outside or make noise during the day for fear of exposure. Otto Frank spoke of what an ordinary teenager she was, and that’s what made her so extraordinary.

Anne Frank was somebody’s daughter. She could be cantankerous and fight with her mother and sister and dream of kissing a boy. She didn’t get to grow up. She didn’t get to see the world.

I am thankful every day my children can and do.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Holding on

I was going to blog about the ‘birthday season,’ which starts today in our families. Then came the news about Fort Hood.

Could I keep my media savvy younger teen son in the dark about this? Why was I even thinking that way? Protecting our children from knowledge about the evils in the world doesn’t protect them. And yet, even I, the mother so adept at letting go, sometimes want to cling so fiercely the physical ache is palpable.

On September 11th, 2001, my older son and his fifth grade classmates sat and watched as the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in southwest Pennsylvania. Some parents questioned whether their children should have been allowed to watch these events unfold. My husband and I, who met as journalism students in our very early 20s, agreed with the teacher’s decision. But that night we asked our son Erik, who is currently studying abroad in what used to be East Germany, his thoughts.

He told us, “We begged the teacher to keep the TV on. We had to know.”

Not knowing doesn’t prevent horrible things from happening. We cannot protect our children from all the evils in the world, no matter how badly we want to. Sometimes we’re immune even to protecting them in our own houses if something treacherous, like cancer or debilitating disease, strikes.

But we can inform, enlighten and educate them and love them…to pieces.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mother’s Occupation: Freelance Writer

In about twelve hours from now, I will be standing in my college professor husband’s feature writing classroom to discuss freelance writing. In another lifetime, I taught reporting with a decided features emphasis. Along with my writing partner/mother, I have co-authored 28 novels aimed at women with number 29 due at the first of the year.

Despite my ‘resume’ and doing tons of research and talking to my mother, who sold her first story to Highlights for Children in 1965, I have no clear idea of what wisdom I’m going to impart to these bright shiny faces.

My husband said he simply wants me to talk about how to find a niche and market articles, using the same principles I have always applied to writing and selling novels.

I still got zip.

When I was in elementary school, students had to fill out index cards at the start of each new year stating the occupation of each parent. I can vividly recall sitting in a second grade classroom in Three Rivers, Michigan and printing in block letters FREELANCE WRITER instead of ‘housewife’ following Mother’s Occupation:

My mother, Barbara Andrews, attended the University of Michigan in the 1950s. She realized journalism was not really her forte so she went home to Kalamazoo College. There she could ‘dabble’ in her interests such as writing and theater. She met my father in a play. They fell in love, got married and she decided not to attend law school in Indiana. Instead she taught junior high and eventually along came me, then Joan, Steve and Mark.

My father, a school personnel director, always wanted my mom to go back to teaching. However, daycare was non-existent in those days, she hated teaching and she’d have to drive to another district since nepotism policies prevented him from hiring her.

So she became a FREELANCE WRITER, turning out material for Sunday School magazines, crossword puzzles, true confessions, antiques publications.  Then one day my Aunt Marge, who owned a flea market near the shores of Lake Michigan, gave my mom a big bag of used Harlequin Romances. My mother studied those stories and went on to write numerous romances under her own name. When I was pregnant with my first son, he of the wandering nature, she suggested we team up. I’m plot, she’s character.

This month marks the 16th anniversary of the publication of our first co-written book. On the day we sold that partial manuscript, we got a rejection letter back on another proposal.

Kinda puts things in perspective.

In the morning, I’ll be able to pull stuff together and go in and tell my husband’s students that if they want to be FREELANCE WRITERS, more power to ‘em.

And then I’ll tell ‘em how.

Not that I have all the answers by any means… in fact I’ve been soliciting help from my writer friends…but it is the family business.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Plain and Simple

We had lots of trick or treaters on Halloween, our second here on the ‘prairie.’ Perhaps it was the gorgeous sunny weather that brought out all the firemen, fairy princesses and other costumed cherubs. Sitting and waiting for the doorbell to ring, I managed to read an entire book.

War and Peace it was not.

Instead it was a slim tome titled “Plain and Simple,” next month’s selection for the book club I belong to. It’s a lovely companion piece to the one the group is reading this month, “The Midwife's Tale.” If you haven’t read this Gretchen Moran Laskas book set against an Appalachian background at the beginning of the last century, run, don’t walk, to get it.

Though very different, both books share a common thread of women searching for their true purpose in life. Both are about women striving to find the true meaning of why they were put on this earth…where they’ve been and where they’re headed.

A person’s connection to God also finds a foothold in these stories.

After a lifetime spent steeped in the Anglican/Martin Luther-ism traditions, I’ve “officially” become a Methodist (along with my family). The senior pastor’s forte is preaching without ever scolding, reminding people to carry the Lord’s purpose for them beyond the Sunday services. Yesterday Pastor Gary asked us to silently reflect on where God was going to take us this week.

The woodshed is the first thing that popped into my mind.

My path to living a good Christian life sometimes traverses a slippery slope. Some areas I’d give myself passing grades, others not so much. I may disclose what I weigh, but I won’t divulge my spiritual shortcomings!

When I shared this with Pastor Rebecca, the vibrant associate pastor, she asked if I’d read “The Shack.” If you could bottle her excitement and enthusiasm, no one would ever feel weary. I told her no, but I plan to now after her recommendation.

This is the place where I should say I plan also to take some time to reflect where I’m going and what my purpose is along the way. That’s not me, though. I believe in action, not introspection.

So I’m going to read some more books, eat some leftover candy and try to stay out of the woodshed.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Today’s note is brought to you by the letter F

Write about another ‘F’ word my friend Susan suggests to me in a recent e-mail. I’d been whining to her about how I wish we could have lunch, the little matter of 1,100 miles separating us notwithstanding.

She was referring to ‘friends.’

The first time my older son went to Germany was as a foreign exchange student his junior year of high school. Susan’s daughter is now in her last year of law school, but as a high school student she also spent a year abroad. At that time, Susan and I were both adjuncts sharing a third-floor office in the oldest building on the West Virginia University campus. The idea of a child being that far from home, was, well (pun intended) a ‘foreign’ concept to me.

Little did I know…

So the year my son was gone, Susan was my rock. The one friend who could know firsthand what I was going through. I wanted to keep the whining (notice a trend here?) to my husband to a minimum because he too was missing our eldest. So Susan ate endless spinach salads at lunchtime with me and commiserated.

Susan is an introvert, which doesn’t stop her from being a top-notch public relations professional. I am an extrovert, like her sister Mary was. Mary and I also shared that same office for a time, her clutter and my anal retentiveness not getting in the way of our friendship. Susan and Mary were not only sisters, but best friends, and I envied them that. I have a sister, whom I love and who loves me, but ours is a prickly relationship.

Mary was born on November 1, and one Halloween she threw herself a costume party to celebrate. She hadn’t been feeling well (and you know any story that starts with that is going to end sadly and badly), but that night she laughed and twirled around the dance floor with her husband as did Susan and her husband and me and mine. My husband was dressed like a zombie biker (no makeup, just the expression) and I borrowed a witch’s costume from a much younger (and thinner) mom of one of my younger son’s friends.

In April the following year Mary died, six months shy of her 50th birthday.

I loved Mary, I love Susan and all my friends who are like sisters (and brothers) to me. And as I stare down fifty, whining and complaining the whole way about each new wrinkle (real or imagined) and each pound around my middle (real) and lament I really am too old to have any more babies (real or imagined), I gotta say what we say every Sunday in church when prayers for blessings are offered:

Thank you, God.

I really have had and continue to have wonderful friends in my life.