Camping Adventures

I am bedraggled, and more than just a touch stinky. I passed merely perspiring and began sweating around 1:30 this afternoon. From camping, you ask? No. I have never camped. Ever. I find myself wrinkled and wilted wearing the noticeable aroma of Eau du Nature, underpinned by the fragrant bouquet of Eau du Roadside, both from taking my children to camp.

The plan was simple enough. We were to take our three plus our neighbors’ son to camp this afternoon. In exchange, they will pick all of them up on Friday. Due to the distance to camp –about 2.5 hours from here –the neighbor spent the night with us, went to church with us, and we changed into comfy clothes at church, went through a drive through and started out on our easy peasy drive down the interstate. The kids put a movie in while they ate. Tummies were full and hearts were happy with anticipation –both theirs and ours. It was a close call as to who wanted to get rid of whom more for the week as both parents and children eagerly imagined their soon to be freedom. No parents! No children!

Our reverie blew up only ten miles down the interstate. Boom! I was driving and Joel asked me what I ran over, or what hit us. “Nothing”, I said. The fast lane was clear behind and ahead of us. The boys spoke up from the far rear in the Suburban to say, “Mom, we hear a noise like a tire losing air. It sounds like ssssssss.” Right then the instrument panel lit up to show “loss of tire pressure”. We merged quickly into the slow lane and then onto the interstate shoulder, straddling the grass shoulder with the right sided wheels.

Joel and I kicked into crisis mode. He called AAA. I called 911 to ask for a Trooper to sit behind our car with flashing lights. We told the kids to stay buckled in, which to their credit they were all very mindful and calm. I called the camp and left a message because no one answered. Joel, through church contacts, succeeded in reaching exactly the right person at camp on his cell phone. We said a quick family prayer for safety and asked God to put His angels around us as 18 wheelers roared by at 70 m.p.h. only feet from our swaying Suburban.

The trooper arrived and it turned out we knew his relatives. He was extremely friendly and helpful. We sweltered as we stood on the black asphalt in the mid-day sun. Sarah Grace, in tears from fear, smiled at the teddy bear he gave her. The serviceman changed our tire without even needing the children to exit the car. With that, and thank yous exchanged, we were rolling again not quite an hour and a half from the time the tire blew.

We followed our Google maps through lush green cornfields past scenic hills and through valleys at the base of the Smoky Mountains. We rejoiced at the turn into the camp, knowing we were finally safely delivering our precious cargo, and our journey was over. We exhaled with relief as our adrenaline dropped.

It wasn’t quite over. We checked in (we were the last ones for whom they were patiently waiting), ready to drive our sport utility vehicle to the rustic cabins to unload luggage and children onto the cabins’ front porch steps. Not so fast. In the midst of the summer humidity, a counselor held out a long bony finger and pointed up–UP the mountain—which we had to walk to deliver our children and their belongings to their cabins. Not graded, smooth pathways. Mountainous, root lined, poison ivy laden, buggy insect infested trails. Someone mistakenly thought that I wanted experience the outdoors. No, I wanted to open the tailgate, off load, and say with a cheery hug, “Bye! Don’t let the tailgate hit your behind on the way out!” But, up, up, up we went. With backpacks, pillows, and sleeping bags. Sweating. A lot. And, then once they were safely ensconced in a cabin with a counselor, Joel and I walked down, down, down the trails, then down the dusty road (which was for what vehicles, I ask? Not ours apparently.) to the gravel parking pull off, and finally, blissfully into the car where I blasted the air conditioning.

I hate camping.

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A Christmas Story

As Christmas nears, we begin planning our traditional Christmas Eve family activity, viewing “A Christmas Story”. We all wear our jammies, climb into our master king-size bed, and snack on popcorn and hot chocolate while our children eagerly anticipate what gifts they will find under the tree on Christmas morning.

The kids also love to hear of our Christmas traditions and family lore from our growing-up years. Noah, for the past two or three days has been mildly ill with fever, headache, and achy muscles. He has mostly languished in bed since Sunday afternoon, but has been very un-demanding to care for–no throwing up and no other distasteful symptoms to deal with.

The combination of holiday memories and Christmas illness takes me back to a particular childhood Christmas in Knoxville. We always went to Grandma and Grandaddy Sweet’s house on Christmas Eve to open presents. Our aunts, Dad’s sisters, were there with their husbands. The tree, a live cedar, stood in the living room against the wall at the end of the piano just outside the doorway to the dining room. The tree was strung with large pointed bulb lights in primary colors, and adorned with fragile glass ornaments (including ones of silver mercury glass that had tarnished over the years), and a heavy handed application of draped silver tinsel icicles. Mounds of packages were heaped under the tree, and if a family member opened a gift of clothing, the family chorus called out, “Model it! Model it!”, even if it was underwear or socks–and especially if it was lingerie.

The dining room table, and sometimes the kitchen table too, was covered with homemade sweets: chocolate and butterscotch haystacks, divinity, peanut butter fudge, chocolate fudge, rum balls, chex-mix, sugar cookies in pastel colors dotted with silver beads, and fruit cake. Essentially, the family meal consisted of butter and sugar in all its best forms: frosted, powdered, and iced.

My sister, Cyndi, loved to eat the sweets. On this particular night my mother, the family oracle, warned her, “Cyndi, stop eating all that sugar. You will make yourself sick.” Cyndi did not heed that advice. With complete abandon she ate handful after mouthful of the treats. It was Christmas after all, and there were no vegetables in sight.

We headed home on this particularly cold and bitter night. We were sent off to bed where visions of Sugarplums danced in our heads. Except, that the dancing wasn’t in Cyndi’s head….it was in her tummy, where the butter and sugar and chocolate swirled round and round like a spin cycle in a washing machine, until suddenly at 3 a.m., she erupted violently all over her sheets and electric blanket.

We all awoke to the sound of Cyndi’s retching. “Jo! Cyndi’s throwing up! I told her not to eat all that sugar! I told her she would make herself sick!”, screeched my Mother. I don’t remember much sound from Dad other than a mild “Hmmm” and a small sigh of exasperation. His reaction was much milder than say, the father in “A Christmas Story” who “wove a tapestry of obscenity from curse words”. Perhaps Dad thought such things, but he did not say them. Mom was agitated and verbal-she was right, after all –while Dad silently trudged to the back yard with the defiled electric blanket to wash it off with the garden hose. There he stood, in the Christmas darkness illuminated only by the greenish tint of a utility pole light, in thirty degree weather, arm outstretched with the blanket in hand, and the water hose in the other hand, shivering, dutifully cleaning up the projectile consequences of too much junk food. Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!

Tonight, on this Christmas Eve, we wish you a Merry Christmas. Oh, and you would be well served to listen to my Mother and stop eating that left-over office party cake, cookies, and fudge now before the Sugarplum Fairy turns into a demon.

The Godfather

My sister, Cyndi, recently accepted the Director of Admissions position for a private college and is simultaneously completing her Master’s degree in Communications. Her current professional and academic accomplishments stand in stark contrast to her early academic years. If not for her basketball career requiring a certain grade point average and both of my parents hounding her, her academic outcome was otherwise dubiously uncertain. This situation led to my father becoming the homework enforcer with Cyndi. Dad was well suited to the task being both exceptionally patient and exceedingly obsessive.

When Cyndi began learning multiplication tables, we lived in a late 1970’s one-level ranch. The family room fireplace was built from roughly chiseled stone, complete with the chic brass fireplace insert with darkly tinted panes and accordion folding doors, and a seating bench made from identical bumpy rough stone. Cyndi stumbled in the 8 and 9’s tables. Our parents became exasperated as their frustration multiplied while Cyndi clearly couldn’t multiply. Dad took to the task like a duck on a june bug. After assigning Cyndi to memorize the 8s and 9s –“or else” –and the “or else” was left ominously vague and undefined (perhaps a sign that even Dad’s patience had its limits)…Dad called her into the family room for a quiz.

Cyndi sat on the parquet wood floor and leaned her back against the front face of the stone hearth bench, directly across the room from Dad on the sectional sofa. She placed her feet flat on the floor and drew her knees up toward her chin. When Dad posed a mathematical problem, say “what is 8 times 9?”, she dropped her head ponderously, massaged her forehead with her thumb and forefinger, bit her lip, and slowly struggled to hesitantly answer “72.” Good! “Now what is 9 times 6?” Again, she looked down in deep concentration.

My mother, always the suspicious one, walked toward Cyndi whereupon Cyndi slightly shifted and seemed to shuffle her hands. “Jo!”, my mother shrieked, “she’s cheating! She has a cheat sheet in her hands!” Busted. The dutiful learning was a ruse, a clumsy act. Cyndi had scribbled a tiny chart on an itty bitty scrap of paper which she concealed between her cupped palms in between her raised knees. Swiftly, Cyndi received the promised “or else”.

Fast forward decades later to my own boys’ third grade year. Samuel demonstrated a strong resistance to spelling homework. His first graded spelling test that lurked in the dark depths of his backpack was so abysmal that I experienced heart palpitations when I found it. He was lucky that he was not home, and that Joel ran interference knowing how I would take that.

After another week or two of poor spelling tests, we called in The Enforcer. The Godfather of Homework: Grandaddy. Grandaddy became Samuel’s worst nightmare. Grandaddy took personal pride in either calling Samuel every night to review spelling words, or just popping in for a chat at the kitchen table where homework is completed. If Grandaddy and Samuel went fishing, they reviewed that week’s words. Samuel, begrudgingly amused at first, figured out this wasn’t a game. Grandaddy really did call or see him every single Monday through Thursday until the Friday tests became routinely excellent. Sarah Grace watched this process quietly as she sat at the opposite end of the table. She absorbed Grandaddy’s dedicated compulsion.

But, once the homework mafia is in your life, it isn’t that easy to ask it to leave. Sarah Grace, unfortunately, started her third grade spelling career in a similar manner. During a family picnic, we told Grandaddy, in Sarah Grace’s presence, that we might need his help again. Sarah Grace’s cornflower blue eyes widened. We later learned that she attempted to convince her teacher not to send home a pre-test with an equally poor showing as Samuel’s, and she told her teacher “she had seen what had happened to Samuel last year and she did not want that to happen to her”.

We joked privately with Grandaddy, “Yes, Sarah Grace, this is your last chance to improve. Or else, you might find a severed stuffed animal horse head in your bed.”

The Hell With Hallmark

My 45th birthday is today.  Yes, I just announced my age to the whole world.  Why?  Well, two of my three children and Joel’s cards were age themed–as in, old aged.  I am not bothered by the number. 

For me, the best present is reading the birthday cards my children and husband select. It is fair to say that they have me pegged….no sappy cards, please.  Humor, teasing, and a touch of sarcasm, perhaps a tiny dose of irreverence are all acceptable, preferable even.  Please, please, please no Hallmark moments!  No subliminal Muzak in the background.  No softly focused commercial scenes where the mother breaks out in tears after being declared wonderful and perfect.  If I’m crying, it better be from laughter.  Additionally, I become tickled watching my children anticipate my reaction because they all seem to share my sense of humor.  Joel enjoys taking them to the store and turning them loose to independently read and select their individually signed cards. As demonstrated by one card this year, he allows them some latitude, mildly uncensored, in the ideas expressed.

On top of the cards, due to a prank dare by Sarah Grace to Samuel to wear one of her ballet tutus and become the birthday card fairy, my cards were hand-delivered by Samuel in a white sparky ballet tutu and leotard combination, with his brother and sister trailing into my bedroom behind him.  However, I promised not to post a picture of the birthday fairy because Noah was mor-ti-fied, and he said, “Mom, teachers read your posts!  They tell me they do!  Don’t let them see Samuel like this!”  (Samuel, for his part, related the prank to being Gru in the latest Despicable Me II movie. Or to Joel’s Halloween costume as discussed in a recent blog post, pictures included.)

First, Sarah Grace’s card:  A tastefully drawn young woman with a hand outstretched palm up says, “You can breathe easier this birthday….”, then inside, “The high priestess only picks the younger maidens for human sacrifice.”

Next, Samuel’s card:  Another tastefully drawn young lady stands in front of a birthday cake with many candles.  “Hey, Birthday Girl- don’t throw away those candles!”….then inside, “You’ve got enough wax there to keep your legs hair-free for years!”

Joel’s card, but selected for Joel by Noah:  A cartoonish dinosaur playing hopscotch says, “It’s your birthday! Enjoy Yourself! Play the same games you did when you were young…..”, then inside, “Ring Around the Stagecoach, Name All Three Presidents, and Hideth and Seeketh…”

And, finally, the best one, perhaps closest to my funny-bone (shhhh…don’t let on to the kids that I have a favorite card, please!), Noah’s card:  A group of cartoon drawn porcupines, reminiscent of the Far Side animals, all wearing conical party hats stand among floating balloons, while surrounded by even more deflated balloons and the caption “POP!” scattered throughout the picture.  Two porcupines, standing front and center, face each other while one says, “BALLOONS? WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?”  After laughing, and then watching Noah giggle, I asked, “Did Daddy allow you to pick this out?”  He nodded, hand over mouth, so tickled at the slightly impermissible language in the card, and that he got away with giving it to me!  As a friend of mine recently commented, Joel is a very understanding man.

How could I fault Noah?  The apple does not fall far from the tree.  For Father’s Day, a year or so ago, when I handed my card to Dad while in church, I warned him not to open it in church.  Only open it at home.  I suspected the card would not be appreciated by some as being chosen by “the pastor’s wife”.  Why?  The card said: “Happy Damn Father’s Day!”, then inside, “That’s right I said Damn.  I am a grown up now and you can’t do anything about it.  Damn, Damn, Damn.”  Did Dad laugh?  Oh yes.  And smirked with his infamous Cheshire Cat toothy grin.  Bingo!  A card home-run.

The Cycle of Life

I have been on a bit of a blog hiatus. I recently joked with a friend that my blog mantra is that any posting will be sporadic and erratic, squeezed in where there is a spare minute and a left over brain cell or two. Over the past several months, I have had fleeting thoughts of post ideas which are quickly consumed by even more fleeting moments of time among the various mother, spouse, and work tasks which must be accomplished first.  Besides, if I had any real talent at writing, I wouldn’t be practicing law, now would I?

Joel’s grandmother, Mary Graham Cook, died this week on the night before the first day of school. Mamaw was 101 years old, about five weeks shy of being 102. Our children, three of her many great-grandchildren, were privileged to know her and spend time with her on a fairly regular basis because she lived nearby with Joel’s parents. Mamaw was quite the talker. And, if you ever wanted to know what was going on with the extended family, she was the source to ask. We lovingly joked that in recent weeks, when she stopped talking, we knew that something was seriously wrong.

Recently, her health declined and we had been gently preparing them that we didn’t know when, but she was, after all, 101 and very few people live into their 100s. So, when “the” call came, we were seated at the supper table. Noah and Sarah Grace burst into immediate tears. Noah asked what did she die of? We told him, she died of oldness. Her body just wore out like a battery that has died. Samuel, in his matter-of-fact and dry way, attempted to comfort them by saying, “I am not going to cry. It’s the cycle of life.” His siblings did not consider that to be comforting.

The kids’ sorrow, including Samuel’s as the impact of the news sank in, was excruciatingly painful to watch. This was the first person close to them who died and for whom death is no longer a distant concept, but a reality including the understanding of their own sorrow plus that of Joel’s, and Papaw’s at losing his mother. I cried with the children, not so much because I missed Mamaw (although I certainly do, but it was a blessed relief for her to go without prolonged suffering), but because I could not put a band-aid on this boo-boo and make it all better.

Against this melancholy backdrop, and the disruption of our best go-to-bed-on-time-to-start-off-the-schoolyear-right- plans, the alarm clock buzzed shockingly early this morning. We managed to get out the door early despite the mandatory first day of school pictures on the front porch with backpacks in tow, all the while with me threatening them to smile or else; don’t all Moms do this to capture the “happy” first day memories in spite of the growing independence of their offspring?? I could see in their sighs the figurative rolling of their eyes, but they are smart enough not to actually roll their eyes in front of me. (Side note here: One day when I was grumbling about some trait or another of my mother’s, Sarah Grace said I shouldn’t speak meanly about my mother. This caused me to explain to her that one day when she grows up she will find me to be irritating or annoying in some aspect and that she would probably express exasperation about me to her children or husband. I think picture day is probably on her future list. Oh, and if you are my mother reading this, you are perfect and wonderful in every way, and I am completely wrong, ungrateful even.)

Today due to them being in 4th and 3rd grade, our drop-off routine was new. In the past four years–kindergarten through 2nd grade —we dropped off at the front door where every morning rain or shine several teachers, the principal, and school safety officer opened car doors, warmly greeted the students and the parents in the cars, ushered the kids safely out, and closed the car doors with a cheery have a good day. But now, we dropped off at the gymnasium side door. The lonely, quiet, do-it-yourself door. Yet, the kids were thrilled with this development! They have been waiting years to climb the drop-off hierarchy and they hopped out proud of their new independence and status as the older kids in school. The slamming car door rang in my ears with a faint “See ya!” tossed over their shoulders in my direction.

And, suddenly behind my sunglasses, the tears welled up. What on earth is wrong with me, I thought? This is 4th grade and 3rd grade, not the first day of kindergarten or the first day of senior year, for heaven’s sake. But, I missed the front drop off and all it signified. I was unprepared for this new stark symbol of their maturity. They don’t need chaperones in the car line, but I still needed it for my heart. As parents, we are happy for them and proud of their increasing maturity. But, mothering is multitudes of joys with a thousand unexpected small cuts to our heart as they mature and leave us. So, as Samuel put it, “I am not going to cry. Its the cycle of life.”

Dying in the Deep End

We spent Memorial Day at Splash Country with the kids. And, that caused me to think back thirty years to the day I almost died. Of embarrassment.

My mother never learned to swim as a child. So, once Mom became a mom, she had to learn to swim, which was entirely different than learning to actually like swimming. Swimming for my mother was an exercise in getting minimally wet while supervising us in what she saw as a death defying activity. I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever seen my mother’s hair wet from “swimming” maybe five times in my lifetime. Maybe.

The need to learn to swim led to me and my younger sister standing with noses pressed up against the second floor YMCA observatory window while the adult swim class clung frightfully to the pool edge below. Mom was decked out in the finest 1970’s rubber swim-cap with rubber flower clusters dotting the scalp, much like a powder blue hydrangea hugging the wall. I imagine the swimming instructor saying to Mom “Yes, Mrs. Sweet, in the water. Your face must go in the water.”

Fast forward to when I was about thirteen and my sister was about eleven. Ogle’s Water Park in Pigeon Forge was our favorite place and a real treat. They had a giant wave pool and inflatable inner tubes. The horn blew at regular intervals to signal the waves were starting and the inevitable screams of swimmers followed shortly after. The other swimmers’ screams were of eager anticipation. But, on this day it was Mom’s death rattling screams that prevailed.

We’ll never know what possessed Mom to decide that this was the day to go all out and bob around in the wave pool. Now, the waves –as posted on the sign on the wall—were large and strong. This was no sissy wave pool. Experienced swimmers only. We were strangely delighted and horrified that our mother, the tadpole worrywart, was all in for the wave pool.

So, we tried our best to warn her. Now, Mom, whatever you do, do NOT go to the wall to exit the wave pool!! Only exit it by swimming or bobbing back on an inner tube back to the shallow area!! The wall in the deep end did not have a ladder to climb, rather the steps were inset crevices with metal bars parallel at the top of each crevice so that you essentially climbed the straight face of Mt. Everest with no safety harness all while timing your climb in between the pounding waves which were much more forceful at the wall.

Mom did not heed our advice. She ditched her inner tube, headed for the wall, and quickly began drowning. Not figuratively, literally. The waves overpowered her. And, with regular rhythm, she would gain a toehold, gasp a breath, then scream and swallow more water before being submerged again. Mom, who trained in opera earlier in her life could sing and scream a High C. Aaagh! Strange gurgling silence. Aaaaghh! Strange silence. And so on.

My sister and I watched horrified. But not because Mom might die. No, because we were dying of embarrassment. Mom? Um, no we don’t know that woman. Wow, she can really scream. Wonder who that is?

The lifeguard stood up in his chair with safety belt at the ready. Then, he did a swan dive into the pool and surfaced right under Mom’s behind. He pushed Mom up the wall from behind, or rather, with his hands on her behind. And, mercifully, the place went quiet. The waves subsided and so did the screaming. My sister and I slinked, as best as one can slink on an inner tube, to the shallow end and then to the lounge chairs where Mom sat—totally wet from swimming.

O HOLY NIGHT

My sister traveled to Washington, D.C. for business the latter part of this week. She is staying in a swanky hotel, the kind with fabulous views and sleek furnishings, and occupied by well-dressed people there on important business.

While talking to me on the cell phone in the elevator yesterday, repetitive robotic messages identifying the location of the elevator began sounding off and then I heard a third voice in the background, as if over a loudspeaker. “Oops. Hold on a sec.” Cyndi lowered her phone and I heard her say apologetically, “No, no, there’s no problem.” Followed by more muffled sounds over the elevator speaker- a woman‘s voice perhaps—and my sister sheepishly laughing while saying, “Yes, sorry about that. It was an accident. A total accident. I’m fine. Yes, thank you. ” My sister managed to stand too close to the button panel where her purse depressed the emergency button which in turn alerted the front desk to utilize the intercom for a wellness check.  (I hope she will be okay the rest of the trip without me to plan and look out for her.)

When Joel and I were married only nine months, we traveled to Israel for a two week study tour as part of Joel’s graduate degree, including several days in Jerusalem, the Holy City. We stayed in a nice hotel, the sort that offered room service. How convenient, because I am the sort that loves room service. Joel, to my surprise, did not love, nor even like, room service, and had not fully appreciated in the few short months of wedded bliss that a happy wife equals a happy life, especially when that wife is hot and tired. 

After a long, dusty, blazingly desert hot day among the ruins, we retired quite late to our room. Ah, a milkshake. Wouldn’t that taste good? Joel disagreed with the cost of a milkshake delivered by room service. I, in turn, disagreed with Joel. All was not harmonious in Jerusalem and the term holy might have been used by me as a adjective and not in religiously respectful manner. So, determined to at least obtain a milkshake by some other means, I struck out for the lobby.

Now 11 p.m., I found myself alone in a narrow elevator wide enough for only two people. The mirrors on the ceiling, walls, and doors failed to create the illusion of space. Suddenly, the elevator stopped in between the 7th and 8th floors. I rang and rang and rang the alarm button.  Enough alarm bells to wake the dead. Nothing happened. Inexplicably, after thirty minutes of ringing the alarm, the elevator magically descended to the lobby. The doors opened and the hotel manager, a well dressed man of Middle Eastern heritage wearing a suit and tie, apologized profusely. Okay, no problem. I am fine. With single-minded purpose, I asked, “Could I please have a milkshake?” “Oh (pause), no. It is the Sabbath and the kitchen is now closed.”

A second uniformed employee approached, Lurch’s Middle Eastern twin, wearing a belt of jangly keys on several round hoops about his hips. No, thank you. I do not want to ride with this stranger alone in the elevator, and more specifically, I do not want to ride that elevator. “Please, please, it is fine! He will make sure you get to your room“, the manager assured me. He ushered us back into the elevator against my better judgment.

As the hotel handyman and I became better acquainted standing shoulder to shoulder yet avoiding eye contact in the mirrors, you can guess what happened next.  Exactly. We came to a jerking halt, again, in between the 7th and 8th floors. The handyman slowly swiveled his head downward toward me and exhaled. I said only, “I told you so.” This time, he rang the bells. Fifteen minutes later the elevator descended again, where the doors slid open to reveal the extremely apologetic hotel manager wringing his hands. He ushered us through the closed kitchen —oh, the irony—- to the private service elevator and after an uneventful ride up, the perfectly gentlemanly employee escorted me all the way to our room door, the last one on the hallway and the furthest walk from the elevator bay.

Now Midnight in a foreign land and still milkshake deprived, I entered our room hopefully wondering if my newlywed husband missed me. Apparently not.  There he lay snoring loudly. Well, holy…..!