A gift of self-sufficiency: I got mechanical advantage for Mother’s Day

For Mother’s Day, in addition to a new Lego set to add to my part of our family’s miniature neighborhood, my kids worked together with their dad to solve a problem that plagues me when my arthritis symptoms flare.

Implementing one of the simple machines so fundamental to all efficient mechanical work, they gave me a lever. That’s right, I got the gift of mechanical advantage for Mother’s Day.

Shower handle - 1

It’s hand-crafted and lovingly decorated, too. With Sharpie, which definitely won’t show up in the laundry after this. I had to blur out the part where they made personally identifying marks on my gift. Just in case I forgot who made it for me, or gave their less artistic father too much of the credit.

Is this the most elegant of DIY home improvement? Perhaps not, but a bathroom remodel is outside the budget and the stark reality is that residential plumbing fixtures aren’t always easy—or even possible—to operate with arthritic hands.

Lego Diner set - 1

I haven’t had the time plus hand dexterity to begin building the fun part of my Mother’s Day gift, yet. Much to my younger guy’s chagrin. My lever, on the other *ahem* hand, has been used every day.

That is a gift that is easy to appreciate.

I’m kind of worse than average at pretending childish efforts are masterpieces or displaying scrawls on the fridge in a place of honor. I had no problem going with clutter-busting digital posterity by photographing then trashing stacks of preschool efforts.

This useful lever, however, fills me with a glow of pride. My kids made something real to help someone else accomplish a task. That’s heady stuff.

I love the Maker mindset and hope cultivation of same is one of the gifts we manage to bestow on our sons.

Thank you, boys, for thinking of me. And thanks again for easing a daily problem with which I struggled. I love my lever at least as much as I enjoyed the chocolate chip pancakes.

Spring Break: a great time to tell kids, “I’m glad you’re here”

Spring Break is winding up in our neck of the woods, and it brings up a pet peeve I’ve written about before: messages in popular culture that suggest children are an annoyance, or a burden, more than integral parts of our families and society.

Of course, I understand that a week at home with kids one usually sends off to school can disrupt orderly routines. It requires scrambling for babysitters or fun activities to fill unaccustomed hours. That presents an element of inconvenience, especially for those who can’t take the same days off of work to spend time relaxing with the freed children.

Calendar spring break - 1The disconnect between today’s school calendars and the dual working parent/single parent households that make up most American families doesn’t make the children themselves the problem.

Try to find a moment to tell your kids so, even if you think they’ll roll their eyes or believe you’ve gone batty. It’s good for them to hear it said.

It’s good for us to say it, too.

It’s easy to get caught up in life’s buffeting winds of distractions and disappointments. Kids are beholden to us adults for everything: shelter, food, toys, and a sense of where they stand in the world. Don’t forget that last bit in the struggle to optimize the tangible needs.

Mom hugI tell my kids I love them, but I also say how much I like them for who they are, no matter how different from me, and even when* those differences cause us to disagree.

They’ve heard me get angry at “back to school” sale ads that suggest parents rejoice once the brats are out of their hair. I reject those offensive notions, and I tell my kids so. Kids deserve better than that, just because they’re human beings, and even when their vacation weeks disrupt our schedules.

Spring Break this year at our house did include my sending them out to dinner and a movie with Grandma so that a group of moms could join me for a ladies’ literature evening. I know I’m fortunate to have willing family members available to give me a few hours off; I’m grateful for that.

My mom did bring our young friend, The Scholar, along for the evening together with my boys. Since The Scholar’s mother wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise, this was a gracious favor on Mom’s part.

That brings up one other option for showing kids during school breaks that they are valued by caring adults: make the offer to help another parent fill some of those hours if you’ve got a bit more bandwidth free.

Children thrive when a variety of adults show them consideration and make time for them. Society thrives when all of our children are well cared for.

CrocusI’m not sure it’s the village that matters; I think it’s all about the tribe.

It’s amazing how tiny an effort can make the world a better place for someone else. I live in certainty that every child deserves at least that much.

*Not so much during a fight, say, do I remember to be so gracious, but I try to get the message across the rest of the time, so the good things overwhelm family squabbles. I’m no saint!

**She’s another home educated child whom I tutor in math because my talents differ from those of her mother.

Thanksgiving lessons learned: one mom’s (grateful) battle to enjoy labor-intensive holidays

I love that Thanksgiving reminds me to take stock and be thankful for the abundance of blessings in my life. I am blessed. I am thankful. I’m grateful for a holiday devoted to that awareness.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1But then there is the reality of celebrating Thanksgiving in America as a mom. It involves a lot of cooking, a lot of shopping, and a lot of stress.

Let’s all keep in mind that I’m not a great cook. I can produce reasonably healthy and palatable food for my family; I don’t enjoy cooking.

Shopping the gauntlet

I start shopping right after Halloween. I buy the wine as early as possible for obvious reasons. I pick up our family celiac’s favorite gluten free stuffing mix from Trader Joe’s as soon as it arrives for the season.

Pantry goods are easy to buy ahead of the rush, and doing so helps spread out over multiple weeks the costs of a sit down dinner for 20.

I’m grateful for Amazon Fresh delivering my last minute, fresh foods on the day before Thanksgiving. Grocery stores are hellish just before this holiday! Having the items I want dropped off right to my door is a Really Wonderful Thing.

We enjoy seasonal, local bounty direct from family-owned farms in New England via Farmers To You. This year ’round service is especially gratifying as the autumn harvest rolls in. I’ve posted before about my commitment to support our regional food shed with my grocery dollars.

A humanely raised turkey from Misty Knoll Farms as the centerpiece of our feast is something I’m proud to feed my family and friends.

Cleaning the house

As we catalogue my faults, let’s remember that I’m not much of a housekeeper, either. Hosting a large meal raises certain expectations for minimizing the usual daily clutter. Having out of town relatives to stay means prepping the guest room and the downstairs bathroom, too.

I have to confess: this year, I didn’t get as much done as I’d have liked to prepare for houseguests. I struggled to forgive myself for that, but I used up every iota of energy that I had prepping for Thanksgiving in other ways, choosing to prioritize the feeding of 20 people from seven households over the immediate comforts of close relatives.

I’m grateful that I’ve gotten better at acknowledging my limits; I’ll keep working on accepting those limitations with grace.

Planning on the level of a precision strike

The only way a less-than-stellar cook is going to get a meal for twenty on the table in something resembling good time is to create a plan that incorporates all the prep and cooking times for multiple recipes and integrate them temporally. Continue reading

Expressing appreciation while we can: exponential blessings

I think it is a wonder that our facile brains let us forget how lucky we are.

We should all cultivate gratitude, but it isn’t always easy. Modern media showers us with glimpses into lives so luxurious that even overfed Americans have room to feel hungry. We adapt so readily to both ease and discomfort that almost any conditions are bearable by the almost infinitely flexible human being.

I’m thinking along these lines because of a revelation from a friend. I won’t go into the details of someone else’s story, but suffice to say that a person whose company I enjoy has had a rather significant change in the fundamental status of her life.

I learned about this on Thanksgiving day.

Thanksgiving turkey cookie - 1Between the early morning “raw turkey wrangling” hours and the pre-dinner “just in time” food prep marathon, I spent a few minutes beginning a post about the amount of work that a traditional Thanksgiving meal entails. It is a great holiday, and I like it a lot, but it is easy to overlook the awesome scale of effort involved before you host your first dinner party for 20.

I was feeling a little pleased with myself; I liked the tone I’d struck in the piece. Mildly ironic, just how I like it, and a little funny and self-deprecating, but with a healthy dose of gratitude and awareness of my unreasonable bounty of blessings.

Seriously, no one person should get as much as I’ve got. That husband! Those sons! An embarrassment of riches!

And then came this short conversation, late in the day, with this friend of mine. It was a shock. In many ways, life will never be the same for the parties involved. It was nothing I was expecting on that Thursday afternoon. I thought my worries were oven once the meal had been served.

As a result, you get to read a rather enigmatic post that reveals nothing too personal about some stranger who can start her own blog if she wants to talk about her stuff… Yet I could not skip saying something about this.

I have to make this one point. I need to do it now.

Today is precious. The people around you are treasures to be recognized and enjoyed* while you have them. It can all change on a dime, and much of it is well beyond our mortal control.

Thank your wife. Love your children. Tell someone how much you appreciate them, or what they’ve done for you, or how they’ve impacted your life and made it better.

Life is too short; our memories can be, too. Try never to make the mistake of leaving gratitude, and good tidings, and loving gestures until they are too late.

Reach out today, and share your emotional wealth.

No one has ever said, “Gee, what a waste of time it was that I told so&so I loved her.” Regrets, however, abound.

*Though it is true: some treasures are better left where you found them. They will be discovered, and cherished, by someone else. But I will stand by this statement: every person is a treasure beyond measure.

Gifts from the past

My mother visited a friend’s garage sale, and she sent me some little gifts plucked from the past.

There were several brand new linen handkerchiefs, including original department store gift packaging from the 1950’s. Her other find for me was an envelope with four Esterbrook pen nibs from a shop in North Platte, Nebraska, where our friend grew up.

Last year, Mom gifted me with a collection of hand-embroidered towels her mother had made and used in their home. Mom prefers non-iron terry cloth towels that match her bathrooms, and she knows that I love antique linens. During this minor downsizing, I also received the bulk of her linen and cotton hankies. They had been gathering dust in the bottom drawer of her vanity since I was young.

My father carries a neatly ironed and folded white cotton handkerchief every day, and I see it as one mark of a gentleman. Mom switched to the arguably more hygienic and decidedly less labor intensive option of a pocket pack of Kleenex before I was self-aware enough to notice. Her hankies and small collection of silk scarves only saw use in my dress-up play.

Because I’m a ridiculous packrat who also thrills to the textures of the past, I carry a packet of Kleenex for the yucky stuff and also an Irish linen handkerchief, generally poorly ironed, if at all, but trimmed with handmade lace. The latter gets pressed into service when ladylike tears threaten on schedule (weddings and theatrical productions) or eyeglasses want polishing.

The hankies from Mom’s friend included birthday cards she and her brother wrote to their grandmother as children. Don’t worry, the cards had been opened and no doubt appreciated, but their grandmother probably used sensible cotton handkerchiefs every day and saved these colorful linen confections for “a special occasion.”

Well, I, myself, have already laundered them. I plan to use them any day on which they appeal to me.

I spent my childhood wondering why my mother didn’t use the elaborately embroidered works of art her own mother had saved from her own wedding. I won’t make what I see as the same mistake.

Every day is a special occasion in my house. We can wear our finest garments, use our best china, and dry our hands on embroidered linen as we wish. Life’s pleasures are greater when we attend to our work using things that were lovingly crafted by human hands! I try to take every opportunity to do so.

In this way, mundane acts can become prayers of gratitude. At least, they do for me.

As for the nibs, some of you may wonder what they even are. The nib is the part of a pen that actually touches the paper. These are replaceable parts from old-fashioned, refillable pens, which were the norm before the advent of cheap, disposable ball points.

I collect writing implements, including fountain pens. My mother saw these and thought they might relate, somehow, to my hobby.

Esterbrook Pens, makers of the nibs unearthed in our friends’ old desk, has a website. I may just write to them and see if they can tell me when these nibs were made and sold. A quick browse unearthed a few digitized charts of Esterbrook’s nib offerings from my best guess as to their era, but no immediate answers to my mystery have presented themselves.

Contrary to my mother’s high opinion of my general knowledge, I don’t really know much about fountain pens. I own about a dozen. A few were moderately expensive. Most just delighted me with their aesthetics.

I have learned, by writing with many, that I prefer a fine nib and a fairly lightweight and narrow bodied pen. I get annoyed when a pen is too short.

My ink has to flow smoothly, but, if it does, I’m more concerned about its color after drying than any other behavioral quirk.*

Odds are, I won’t find a practical use for the nibs, but it’s easy to appreciate the gift. My mother was thinking of me. She sent me something that resonates with my favorite part of myself—the writer who cherishes carefully made objects that endure.

I’ll endeavor to make my gratitude so persistent.

*Drying time and permanence might be other considerations.