My glasses steamed up this morning as I strolled out of Planet Fitness. All day the sun shone while the heavy, humid air drenched my skin. Later, I hunched in front of my PC seeking inspiration. I wonder about a lot of things, but today I was wondering what to write. So many ideas were swirling in my head, so I moseyed out to my porch.
Then the sky darkened, the thunder rumbled, and the scent of rain filled the air. Frankly, I’m weary of rain like the rest of you, but the breeze from the north dropped the temperature providing a brief reprieve from the heat.
I soaked it in, returned to my computer, and thought about our weekend family retreat. It was perfect. Last spring I put out feelers about a family get-away but stated that I wouldn’t plan it. Time for the next generation to step up to that plate.
They did. My son Joseph and his wife Tanya found a vacation home on the Colorado River near Kingsland, Texas, that slept an army. They booked it, planned meals, and we all contributed to the expense. Although not everyone could make it, we enjoyed those who did.
The younger cousins, ages nine to fifteen, relished the freedom of staying up late, lots of water activities, and consuming mountains of food – including my banana bread, a family favorite. Then those in their 20s either romped with the littles or lounged with the adults, who were definitely lounging – especially me.
This was the first family retreat that I did not plan, cook, or clean up. And nobody expected that of me. When I started to help the younger ones with their meals, my grandson Tristan stepped in, “I got this, Mimi.” He did. I continued my lounging.
Our first stay on the Colorado River was amazing. Our house, spacious with a river view, offered loads of water fun. A pad for relaxing in the water accommodated adults and kids – even the dog, who enjoyed a plethora of new sensory experiences. Several paddled down the river in kayaks. And the high dock. Oh boy! High as the highest diving board, it provided the most fun. When the little boys discovered the gate, they opened it and leaped into the water – repeatedly. Even the adults joined in. Not me. I remained in low gear.
Twenty-one-year-old Tristan, a former Boy Scout, delighted the children by building a fire, gathering the s’more ingredients, and passing out the marshmallows with the forks for the sticky treat. Later, the adults relaxed around the fire for good conversation while the kids leaped off the dock and rode the waves of passing boats in the twilight of the day.
For a reprieve from the outdoor activities, the kids bounded inside to challenge each other in games of pool and foosball. Of course, that included snacks - heaps of them. Once sated and challenged, they headed outside for more water adventures. A kids’ paradise. Adults, too.
Our family retreats allow us to unplug, slow down, and just be. The time is precious. Reconnecting, building memories, and sharing on many levels. Worth every penny. Because relationships are priceless.
At age nine, I received a beginner’s cookbook on my birthday. It became my prized possession. For tea parties, I even baked doll-sized cakes in miniature cake pans. I was all girl. That cookbook set me on a lifelong journey of home-cooked meals and baked-from-scratch desserts.
It was November 1972 in Lynchburg, Virginia. As a single woman 2,000 miles from home, I had no cookbook or family recipes with me – and, of course, no Internet to surf. So I pictured my mom in the kitchen making our family favorites and served a Thanksgiving meal to friends. Cornish hens filled with my grannie’s sausage stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy, and candied sweet potatoes adorned my makeshift table. While the recipes may not have been exact, no one complained. Not bad!
By the time I married, I was well on my way to becoming a skilled cook. However, in my zeal, I failed to ask my husband his preferences. Serving broccoli casserole to a man who survived on hamburgers and French fries prior to marrying me tested his palate – and his self-control. Lucky for me, he discovered that several food items he thought were disgusting, pleased him. Maybe not his favorites, but tolerable. Now he even asks for broccoli.
After watching my younger brother choke down vegetables long after everyone else was excused from the table, I determined that my kids would enjoy a wide variety. Enter quiche. What’s not to like? Eggs, cream, bacon, and assorted veggies all nestled in a flakey crust. Not according to my little angels. To hear them regale us with childhood memories, you would think I served it weekly - or even daily. But the joke is on them. They now all enjoy quiche as adults.
My younger brother actually ate seaweed as an adult while living in the wilds of the Alaskan islands. You see? There’s always hope.
Not long after we began our family, I determined to eat healthier. I cut out all refined foods, joined a food co-op, and purchased organic goods. Once our taste buds adjusted, I launched into a full-fledged journey of organic made-from-scratch goodies. Enter the Vitamix, a stainless steel powerhouse that could knead bread dough, whip up soft ice cream, and even serve hot soup. I was in my element.
That began my season of making a daily loaf of bread. Grind the wheat berries, then add the remaining ingredients for a nutty, nutritious loaf of goodness. Great toast, but not so great for sandwiches. Oh well.
My kids will never let me forget the time I forgot to fasten the lid when I turned on the Vitamix to grind the wheat berries. Guess what? Yup! Grain spewed out the top and littered the kitchen with tiny wheat berries. We laughed ‘til our bellies hurt!
From daily bread to cinnamon rolls, our family feasted on these delights. But that one cinnamon roll episode. On that never-forgotten day, I flattened the dough, sprinkled it with brown sugar and cinnamon, and then topped it with butter. Roll it up, slice it, and bake it. Such an inviting aroma.
Time for Sunday breakfast. Warm cinnamon rolls were the featured guests with eggs and bacon. I slathered it with butter, ready to savor my sampling. What? Why does this roll taste spicy? A little nagging answer inched its way into my thoughts. I searched my spice cabinet, and there lay the culprit – chili powder. In a bottle so similar to my cinnamon bottle, I had grabbed it instead of cinnamon. Surprisingly, the rolls were edible. And memorable!
Planting a garden became a family affair. From that experience, my kids welcomed a fresh salad from veggies they had grown and picked with their own hands. When we harvested a wheel barrel full of cucumbers, I tried my hand at canning pickles. Huge fail. I stuck with my mom’s never-fail refrigerator pickle recipe instead.
Every May we picked blackberries on a local farm. Arriving by 6:00 a.m. to escape the heat, we each carried a stick for lifting up the thorny branches and a gallon coffee can. If a berry fell apart in our hands, the farmer encouraged us to pop it into our mouths. With five gallons of berries and berry-stained hands, we zipped home to make fruit leather. My trusty Vitamix blended the berries, bananas and a touch of honey. Another well used purchase, a dehydrator, dried the mixture into sticky goodness. This chewy treat satisfied the sweet tooth every time.
Learning that Grannie Smith apples worked best for baked goods, I refined my French apple pie recipe to fine art. Soon it became a much-loved family favorite. So every year for his birthday, I gave my father-in-law his very own pie.
In October when the weather cooled, we opened the windows to air out the house, inviting in the holiday baking spree. Once our annual case of Grannie Smith apples arrived, the kids and I peeled, chopped, and bagged them to freeze for future baked delights. Ever competitive, my boys launched into the who-can-peel-the-apple-without-breaking-the-peel game. All in good fun, they munched on those peelings during the whole process. Soon my prize-winning banana bread, carrot cake and apple cake competed with my French apple pie. No matter. No one lacked for wholesome goodies in our home.
Peanut butter! Spread it on apple slices, pancakes, bread, or savor a spoonful of protein-rich goodness. But wait! Store brands add sugar. What to do? Easy! I bought organic peanuts, dumped them into my Vitamix wonder, added salt and - voila! Homemade peanut butter hit the spot. What’s not to like? Unless you are my husband who dislikes peanuts.
My kids, always up for pranking their dad, decided to bake peanut butter cookies one day. While the cookies baked, they couldn’t wait until Dad arrived home to a plate of goodies. Who could resist? Enter Dad. Eyes feasting on cookies. After choosing one, he promptly popped it into his mouth. Kids guffawing. Dad, well, I can’t repeat it here.
Let’s not forget the peanut soup caper. During my friend Nancy’s peanut spree, she invited our family for supper. The savory soup’s aroma wafted from the kitchen. Lovely. However, my husband’s nose alerted him of foul play. One sip and he was done. Alas, no more peanut pranks have ever been posted in the White family annals.
My husband, never to be mistaken for an adventurer, decided to raise honey bees. Complete with official bee-garb, he would march out for his bee keeping chores – whatever they were. During harvest, that chore was to smoke out the bees so that he could remove the honeycomb trays without bees attacking him. Normally, they flew off without a hitch, but sometimes one ornery devil would chase him back to the house. That was enough adventure for him!
Harvesting honey is sticky business. First you slice the tops off the combs with a heated knife. Then you place the trays in a honey-slinger that’s shaped like a large drum. Just crank it and the honey drops to the bottom. Lastly, you open the spigot and drain the honey into jars. As I said, it’s sticky business: the counters, the floors, the table, and the people. What’s for supper? Chips and salsa!
“Terri, what’s the name of your dish?” Kathy asked me at a covered dish event. “Mexican hotdish,” I innocently replied. “I just wanted to hear you say hotdish!” she hooted. Ah, yes. The meal-in-a-dish, fondly called hotdish up north is equally fondly called casserole in the south.
Over time, we loosened up on our organic eating habits to feed three hungry teenagers. A monthly trip to Fort Worth’s Town Talk for bulk groceries helped to stretch our dollars. Those were the days of making handy meals ahead and freezing them. Want a breakfast burrito? Grab a couple from the chest freezer. No one went hungry at our house.
Of course, Christmas brings its own treasures and traditions. The children have always helped with the baking. Our favorite Christmas treat is the gingerbread cookie: mixing, chilling, rolling out, cutting out in holiday shapes, and baking them. For our annual gingerbread cookie decorating day, our family still gathers. Over the years, we’ve created some impressively decorated cookies. With a few artists in our family, that’s an easy win.
“Mimi is famous for her mac ‘n cheese, corndogs, and pancakes,” two of our grandsons announced to their mother.
“That’s a lot of carbs,” she cringed, knowing full well that Mimi herself rarely eats carbs. But I’m Mimi, not the buck-stopping Mom. With four grandsons, ages eleven and under, going full speed ahead on weekend visits, I make sure they like what I serve. Carbs or no carbs! I’m just trying to keep up with the bundles of energy that whiz to and fro from dawn ‘til dusk!
Not to be dissuaded, the six-year old will only eat mac ‘n cheese at my house. It must be stamped on my forehead. Go figure. Maybe one day he’ll eat seaweed like my brother.
No more monthly trips to Town Talk. No more baking desserts each week. No more daily bread making. Our kids are parents. The grandkids are growing like weeds. Hubby’s retired while I still teach and oversee T.E.A.C.H. Cooking? Not as much. Nonetheless, I still occasionally roll up my sleeves to whip up savory, homemade Alfredo or bake my mouth watering banana bread - or any other of our favorites.
Parting words of my husband when the grandkids visit, “I love it when the grandkids visit. I get to eat mac ‘n cheese, pancakes, and other forbidden goodies.” Lucky him.
In The Captured, a True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier, Scott Zesch explores why child captives not only easily adapted to the Indian lifestyle, but also defended it when they returned to their families - many never fully readapting.
Further, it reveals a tragic insight into frontier parenting. In this post-Civil War era, pioneers eked out a living in the Texas hill country. The entire family worked sun-up to sun-down. Even though parents, recent immigrants from Europe, were literate, the children were not. No time for that. Wild West movies and TV programs glamorize that stretch of history, but, frankly, it was a miserable existence. Merely an existence.
"Frontier parents in central Texas, preoccupied with the necessities of life and their own daily toil, typically had little spare time to instruct their young. Although . . . parents in those days shared a close bond with their children and loved them dearly, few mothers and fathers gave their sons and daughters any formal education or even taught them practical skills such as swimming, hunting. . ."
However, the "Indians warmly received the child captives into their homes without prejudice and spent much time training them, making them feel significant in tribal society."
Thus, the Indian's intimate investment into the captives' lives starkly contrasted the life of hard labor back home. Indeed, the Indian way of life was no picnic, but the tribal culture lent itself to intimacy, family time, and instruction, all necessary to preserve their way of life.
Dozens of heartbreaking accounts fill Zesch’s book. Cynthia Parker, the most famous of the child captives, never readapted once the Texas Rangers restored her to her parents. After only living six months with the Indians, one boy committed suicide upon returning to his parents. As adults, many of these former child captives lived on the fringes of their communities – outcasts due to their failure to assimilate into society. Their grief was palpable, enduring a lifetime.
Fast forward to 2021. How are we relating to our own children? Have we fallen into the trap of being too preoccupied with making a living? Are we teaching our children life skills needed to function as adults? Are we fostering intimate family time that creates a foundation for forming healthy relationships? Will our children grow up to be healthy, productive members of our communities? I hope so.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates A Book Review by Terri White
BACKGROUND OF SLAVERY: From my research years ago, I discovered that historically, slavery was a booty of war. It had nothing to do with one’s skin color. However, after the Industrial Revolution, wealthy businessmen created slavery based on one’s skin color and began calling themselves “white”, and Africans “colored”, denigrating them to the shackles of slavery to be bought, sold, raped, and beaten. All this to advance themselves economically, politically, and socially – on the backs of Africans.
This new view of personhood remains today as we still identify ourselves by these false labels. Government, school, and business forms continue to include racial identification. Affirmative action is solely based on one’s skin color.
BOOK REVIEW I forced myself to finish this book because I want to understand how people think. Coates, raised in the 80s and 90s, highlights his mental processing of the plight of black people in the U.S.A. He’s angry. However, to his credit, his anger fueled his journey to understand, and eventually, his search softened him - somewhat.
To grow up in the horrors of an inner city black ghetto is perhaps the worst of the worst – the prevailing fear that seeps in all the cracks and soaks into one’s very psyche. Perhaps it’s even genetic. The home provides no sanctuary either, for fear rules there as well. There is no safe place.
No safe place even if you were raised in a gated community, traveled to Europe, and attended private schools. You could be stopped and brutally murdered for no reason. No justice. An innocent, young black man named Prince Jones, raised in a wealthy family, experienced just this in the 90s, and that injustice continues to dog Coates to this day. So this underlying fear is the profound theme in his book.
Why? Because Coates grew up in one of the most brutal inner city ghettos in the country – Baltimore. In the 80s and 90s. It shaped his whole outlook, causing him to frame all those who “think themselves white” into one clump. No one escapes his anger. To him, we are all guilty. Even if my ancestors arrived post-Civil War and settled in rural Minnesota, I am guilty. To the end of his book, I am still guilty.
Although he raised his son in a gentler time and in ethnically diverse NYC, Coates fears for him. He fears for all blacks in our nation. In fact, he concludes that “those who think themselves white” are self-destructing because their whole American Dream is based on a lie – slavery. That their entire lifestyle is founded on the backs of black slaves.
I find his conclusion too sweeping, too general. Nevertheless, he is conditioned by his upbringing in the Baltimore ghettos during a brutal era. He still looks behind his back, still believes that every white person has it in for him, and still believes all of our society is set against him. Is it a victim mentality or just a base fear from his upbringing? Either way, it’s conditioning.
How can I fault Coates even if I can’t relate? I was raised in a safe, loving environment. I’ve never looked behind my back. I’ve never worried if someone was out to get me because of my color. We are all conditioned.
What launches us beyond our upbringing, though, is whether we ask the right questions. Whether we venture beyond our family upbringing. Only then can we find the real answers to our societal dilemma – whether it’s those “who think themselves white” or those who do not. Will we let our safe or fearful childhoods influence our quest to find answers? Will we sequester ourselves in our little pockets of society and never venture out?
Surely Coates can only speak for himself. Millions of blacks have experienced a myriad of experiences in the U.S.A. If you ask any black person on the street regarding their views about living in our nation and in their communities, you will receive as many different experiences. Not all angry. Not all hopeful. Not all fearful. Not all satisfied. Not all unhappy. It all depends on one’s upbringing and the community in which one is raised. No one black person can speak for all. That is obvious by the many opinions in every sector of life.
In the end, Coates offers no solutions and certainly no hope to his son, which I find tragic. Because without hope, we have no future. But Coates, still in his 40s, is young yet. There are many more thought-miles to travel, many more conversations to share, many more books to read. Hopefully, before he reaches my age (72), he will be carrying a torch of hope. So here’s to hope, that transformative beacon available to all humans.
A few years ago, a friend visited an African orphanage. After touring the rooms where rambunctious children greeted her, she entered the nursery. Dead silence assaulted her. Shocked, she turned to her guide and asked, “Why is it so quiet?”
The guide responded sadly, “Before we rescued them, they cried and cried, but nobody came to tend them. They learned that no one is coming.” No one is coming. No. One. Is. Coming.
In modern America, did our mothers leave us in a dark room to cry because the Dr. Spocks of the world told them that picking up a crying infant would spoil them? No. One. Is. Coming. Are neglectful parents not providing regular meals or leaving small children alone to fend for themselves? No. One. Is. Coming.
A four-year-old boy pulls out a puzzle, dumps out the pieces, and proceeds to fit the pieces back in. Inexperienced, he doesn’t attempt to match the shapes or colors. As mom observes him, she becomes increasingly frustrated with his lack of success, so she intervenes by guiding a piece into place. What is mom teaching her son? That when he struggles, he should find someone to do the task for him.
Do teachers or parents encourage discussion or do they suppress alternative views on controversial topics? Because the teenage years spawn the ability to reason, they will question everything. What will young people learn if they cannot ask questions? To whom will they take those questions if the adults in their lives fail to allow them to question without condemnation and judgement?
If parents, filled with bitterness and hate, openly spew racial slurs around the children, those seeds of bitterness are planted and watered during their entire upbringing. They, in turn, will repeat the pattern as adults.
What happens to a child’s development when he has been conditioned from infancy that no one is coming to care for his needs? What kind of adults will children become when they are not permitted to struggle as they are learning new skills? Will a teen find a positive outlet for the questions churning in his mind or just rebel instead? Will children, fed on a diet of hate and bitterness, be able to break the pattern? Are we a curse or a blessing to our children?
Conversely, did your mother bond skin-to-skin with you as an infant, thus nurturing a secure and emotionally healthy human being? Someone. Is. There.
Did your parents provide a life of reading, discussing, laughter, and play? A life where you felt safe to be inquisitive, safe to be yourself? Someone. Is. There.
Have you modeled love and respect for all people to your children? Then you have planted and nurtured those seeds into the next generation where kindness, not hate, and respect, not bitterness, will flourish in society.
Everyone has been conditioned from birth. Our conditioning determines who we become as adults. It determines what kind of society we build and maintain. It determines the future of humanity. It’s that serious.
Nevertheless, we adults cannot shake our fingers at our parents and condemn them for their faults. We need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “What am I going to do about it?”
Will we do the hard work of rooting out the bitterness, the fear, the insecurities, the anxieties? Or will we play the victim and blame Mom and Dad for their lack? Although no one parents perfectly, there is always hope. To root out whatever is keeping us from living in harmony with others, we must start by being honest with ourselves.
As a nation and as individuals, we need a strong dose of honesty about who we are and who we want to be. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
“Mimi,” asked Tristan, “did you go to Woodstock?” “No, but I attended a similar rock fest in Wisconsin.” Without skipping a beat, Tristan responded, “Did they call it Cheesestock?” It was 1970 during my dad’s gubernatorial race. After a campaign event, I escaped with my friends to the Wisconsin boonies. They held it in a rural pasture with all the trappings of Woodstock – except no rain. Unseasonably warm that weekend, the temperature rose to 70 degrees. An April heatwave for us Wisconsinites.
Ahhh, the carefree years of young adults. Still in college and supported by parents, we worked part-time jobs for spending money. The late ‘60s and ‘70s music told the tale of the times. “The Times Are a Changing” rasped Bob Dylan. Indeed.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. The Vietnam Conflict raged while college students demonstrated against it. The Civil Rights Movement exploded. Black Panthers. Weatherman. SDS. Molotov cocktails flew. Heads bashed. Students and police clashed - tear gas hanging in the air the next morning. Jail sentences. Violence met with violence.
Many, though, worked peacefully to bring about change. Quiet, candlelit marches expressed our opposition to our involvement in Vietnam. My dad and others promoted “dove” political candidates running for various offices. Busses of northern college students drove south to participate in sit-ins for black civil rights.
To further racial understanding, the University of Wisconsin joined an exchange student program with Louisiana’s Grambling College, the famed all-black college in which Eddie Brown churned out NFL pros. Universities from Ohio and North Dakota joined the program as well.
After a thorough vetting, I hopped aboard a Greyhound bus bound for Louisiana. The closest I had ever come to the South was driving through it on the way to Florida for spring break. I was in for a surprise.
What did I, a while middle class girl from the North Central Midwest, know of racial relationships? Only what my parents taught me: to respect all people no matter their race, religion, or financial status. But understanding the nuances of cultural differences? Nothing. Zero. No one talked about that.
So, totally unprepared, I dove in. Three other students from my campus and eight others from the other two campuses attempted to navigate the cultural cues. Meanwhile, the twelve Grambling students sent to the three northern campuses struggled likewise.
The Grambling students and staff were the black folks who stayed behind under Jim Crow laws instead of joining the 1910-1970 Great Migration to the North and West. These were the folks who endured. The ones whose relationships with whites were always more conspicuously on thin ice. Not the subtlety of northern bigotry. It never occurred to me.
Black migration? Jim Crow? To me, people were just people. But they’re not. Sure, we are all human with the same needs and similar desires. However, a culture’s history seeps into the DNA. The suffering. The triumphs. The abuse. The joys. The deprivation. The teachings. The struggles. The parenting, or lack of it. They are passed down subtly and explicitly.
Regardless of one’s ancestors, those experiences, handed down over the centuries, determine the culture of a people.
Enter this naïve 21-year-old, who takes people at face value – not picking up the nuances, expecting others to think like me. Why wouldn’t I? I had only experienced white, middleclass Midwesterners with rare exceptions.
There were kindnesses. Once at the student union, a fellow asked if anyone would play chess with him. I volunteered. Soon other students surrounded us. Within three moves, I realized I was in way over my head. Clueless about strategy, I only knew how to move the players. The game dragged on. Finally, defeated, I bowed out gracefully – totally embarrassed.
I’ve often thought about that day. Not long ago, I realized that my opponent knew immediately that I was out of my depth. So to not embarrass me, he took his time beating me when he could likely have won in three or four moves. A kindness.
When my girlfriend from UW visited me on spring break, we piled into a car with my Grambling friends to party elsewhere. As we chatted, Jo turned to me, “I can’t understand what they’re saying.” I had to “translate” the southern, black dialect for her. Interestingly, I don’t remember struggling with that.
My roommate, gone most of the time student teaching, was cordial, but we never developed a relationship. However, one of the other UW exchange students visits her Grambling roommate to this day. That remarkable friendship remains the touchstone of the program.
Our dorm provided the usual common area with comfy chairs and a TV. In those days, Saturday night featured iconic family programs, one of which was “All in the Family” with the infamous Archie Bunker. On my own one evening, I strolled into the room. Since it was packed, I sat in the only empty chair at the back. Oh, how I wanted to laugh! Because that program, if you understood the sarcasm, was hilarious. However, not wanting to offend the others, I remained quiet. Eventually, I eased out of the room, too uncomfortable to stay.
Cultural nuances. What were they? How to respond?
At the end of the semester, someone pushed me, shattering my right elbow. It never occurred to me to inform the college officials about it. Years later, I realized that even in 1971, Grambling could have experienced a backlash from the southern white community had I reported it. Fortunately, the incident was not racially motivated. Just a hothead who lost control of his emotions. The school provided transportation to the doctor. In a temporary cast, I flew home for surgery, ending my exchange experience.
I encountered the discomfort of being conspicuously the only white person in the room. Of not knowing the acceptable responses. Of not feeling safe in certain situations. All crucial to understanding the culture.
Then that summer, a friend from Grambling surprised me with a visit. Between letters and visits, he asked me to marry him two years later. By that time, I had graduated from college and was working as a school librarian in Virginia. He had secured a teaching job in Seattle. With all the best intentions, that ship had sailed. It was not to be. I returned to Wisconsin to reboot my life.
When a tall, green-eyed girl peeked into her kindergarten classroom, her teacher greeted her warmly. Terrified, she stalled before entering. Home sounded so much safer to Terri Lynn Peterson. It was September 1953, and she would not turn five until December. That girl was me, a shy, late-bloomer. The age cut-off date was January 1st in those days.
Mustering my courage, I tentatively stepped into the classroom. And so the adjustments began. In the 1950’s, every kindergarten classroom was furnished with a piano, and the teacher was expected to play. She accompanied us as we sang our ABC’s and other childhood tunes. Recess, naps, and indoor playtime filled the mornings. Then we returned home at noon.
Although, in those days, kindergarten was not designed to introduce academics, but instead set up to acclimate youngsters to a school setting, each morning brought trepidation. I was never at ease. At center time, I yearned to stack the big blocks. But, alas, one of the boys always reached them first. Even when I felt nauseous one day, the nurse sent me back to class. I vomited all the way home – all two blocks.
Finally, May signaled the end of the school year. Time for summer and a reprieve from my anxiety, hoping that I could forget about school forever. That, of course, was not in the cards. Even though I was immature and not ready for first grade, my teacher passed me on anyway. She was tall, and since I was tall, she did not want me to suffer like she had for my height. Suffer? I was already suffering.
First grade arrived all too soon. Still shy. Still a late-bloomer. Still not ready for academic rigors. But still there. Learning to read, penmanship, simple arithmetic plagued me. I would forget how to hold my pencil. Sometimes my mind became utterly blank, and I could not read or write. Thinking that I was being disobedient, my teacher sometimes stood me the corner at the front of the classroom – nose to the wall. Total humiliation.
Other days I asked to use the restroom, which was right inside our classroom, but the teacher denied my requests. The result? A puddle under my desk. On those days, I raced home during recess. My mother kindly called the school informing them that I was home – and would stay there for the remainder of the day.
Meanwhile, our family moved to a neighboring town. Instead of living two blocks from school, we now lived about a mile, walking distance in those days.
When second grade reared its head, I still struggled. I still ran home during recess. And nobody noticed a six-year old girl escaping the playground or trudging through town during school hours. Don’t get me wrong. I gave it my all, but academic readiness is just that: a child is either ready or not. And no amount of stuffing knowledge into an unready child’s brain will change his or her reception.
Until one day. A few months after I turned age seven, our class was working on our arithmetic assignment. Then our teacher called us to join her for reading time. I ignored her. Suddenly, I knew how to solve every problem! I experienced the proverbial “light-bulb” moment. One minute I puzzled over the problems; the next I understood. Needless to say, when I asked my teacher if I could continue working on my arithmetic, she wisely agreed.
That was the turning point in my academic career. Since that day, I experienced an ease in school that hitherto alluded me.
In my early years, educators knew nothing of academic readiness. No one knew what to do with me. My parents, I’m sure, worried about me. Fortunately, they never scolded me or became demanding, which likely saved me from further trauma. Yes, trauma. Those pre-readiness years traumatized me.
However, now we know about academic readiness. How much easier and enjoyable we could make our children’s learning experiences if we waited until they are ready – also avoiding a mountain of behavioral problems. After all, what’s the rush? Better late than early.
Over the past few years, I have noticed an increase in students – public, private, and homeschooled – who lack the fortitude to struggle when learning new skills. At first, I blamed it on the increased use of electronics. However, I’ve instead concluded that many parents and educators do not realize that struggling is a part of learning.
Let’s look at a four-year-old working on a puzzle while Mommy sits by. Junior fiddles with a piece, turning it several different ways. No success. Finally, Mommy grows impatient or feels sorry for Junior and guides the puzzle piece into place.
Then there’s fifteen-year-old Lisa working on an essay. Dad reads the rough draft. Instead of asking questions that guide Lisa to think for herself, Dad explains exactly how to edit the essay.
What about Robert? He’s reading his literature and required to answer the questions at the end of the story. However, he complains that he can’t find the answers. So the parent proceeds to find the answers for him.
Do you see a pattern? Do you see the problem?
Most of us have watched a one-year-old struggle to walk. He stands, tentatively takes a step or two, and then promptly pops down. It never occurs to him to stop trying. Almost immediately he’s at it again and again and yet again. Struggling all the way until he masters the art of walking.
Struggling forces the brain to work. Struggling creates new paths in the brain. Struggling creates stamina, fortitude, determination. Struggling creates problem solvers.
Does this mean that we don’t guide our children? Of course not! However, it does not mean that we think for them. But it does mean that we accept less than perfect results. The good news? Continued practice always improves skills.
Responsible. Diligent. Meticulous. Tidy. Organized. Math-whiz. Businessman. These are all apt adjectives describing our oldest son. At age 43, he is the epitome of integrity.
Raising him was easy. Say it once. He complied – even as a crawling baby. “Don’t touch the outlet.” He never touched it again. However, as a newborn, he cried a lot. Colicky we used to say, and as a new mother, I was clueless. But I tried my best, and eventually, he grew out of it.
Homeschooled, he easily lapped up information like a sponge. Math? A piece of cake. At age four, he taught himself to count to 100. Algebra? Trig? Calculus? A breeze. Lucky me. His other subjects? Just as easy. More lucky me.
Jonathan has always kept active. During family reading times, he would sit quietly for a while, but then get up and pace. Fine by me. He still listened. At church, he brought his matchbook cars to keep him occupied. Lying under the pew, he zoomed them along imaginary highways. While schooling, he took frequent breaks to let off steam in between lessons. It worked. He remained focused.
As an adult, he routinely works out at the gym and enjoys “old-man” basketball games. Not so old from my view, though. Ha! Let’s not forget the father-son ball games that keep him on his toes as well. However, he’s still young enough to beat the heck out of his boys. But they’re only eleven and nine. Just wait. In a few years, they’ll give him a run-for-his-money.
Married just two weeks shy of age 21, Jonathan and his wife Esther determined to pursue their dreams. Childless the first several years of marriage, they finished college, built businesses, and traveled. We quit asking about a grandchild after a few years to avoid the eye rolls. (Just kidding – or am I?)
But then. Then their first son arrived who, from birth, developed an unusually strong bond with his daddy. I’ve never witnessed such fatherly devotion. Nurturing exuded from Jonathan, and his son Lucas soaked it up. To this day, eleven-year-old Lucas will ease over to his dad, slipping his hand into Jonathan’s - anywhere.
And he’s the spittin’ image of dad, too. Not only does he look like him, but his personality and interests also mirror his dad’s.
For their second son, Jonathan and Esther opted to adopt a four-year-old. The complete opposite of mom, dad, and brother’s personalities, Jace breezed through the family. And oh brother! Has he ever added pizzazz to the mix! Life’s a party, you know. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. To raise this happy-go-lucky boy, Jonathan learned to adjust his parenting gears. But I’ll share those stories another time.
Over the years, Jonathan has built some successful businesses – and lost a few, too. All stretching experiences. Even though life’s curveballs have sometimes hit him hard, he always bounces back due to his determination and his impeccable reputation.
His current business is going gang-busters. Some of his employees have worked for him for years in his various businesses. Because he treats them well, they remain loyal to him. He even earned a patent on a device he invented. Not just patent-pending, but the honest-to-goodness-certified patent.
A devoted father, Jonathan coaches his boys’ basketball and football teams. He loves it, and his sons do, too. Patient, encouraging and brilliant, he’s a delight to see in action. Everyone appreciates him. Me, too.
Marrying early suited both Jonathan and Esther. Our families met at a homeschool function and became fast friends. Eventually, Steve and I secretly agreed that Esther would be the perfect partner for Jonathan. We were right.
Jonathan’s devotion to his children stems from his deep love for his wife. They perfectly complement each other. He’s thoughtful and committed. Romantic, too. Oooh, la la!
Despite all these accolades, he’s not all sweetness. When Esther drags him to The Nutcracker performance at Bass Hall, for example, the fun begins. His friends join them just to listen to Jonathan’s snide comments. This spices up life for all those around him. So here’s to my firstborn, a straight arrow, who set a high bar for my other two kids to follow. But, hey, the other two provided those tempting curves that jazz up life. Gotta have both. I’m a lucky mom.
It was one of those iconic births. As with all my babies, my labor began at 5:30 a.m. Then the day would drag on until I gave birth twelve hours later – literally – with all three.
Since I endured a grueling birth with our first baby, I hoped for an easier labor. We had prepared differently and learned that breathing through the contractions should be pain-free. Ha! You shout. Good luck with that!
Earlier in February, my mother-in-law announced, “Don’t you have that baby on leap year day!” Like I could choose. So, of course, on February 29, I began mild contractions early that morning. Steve stayed home, and we piddled around most of the day. I even cooked him lunch.
Figuring it would take hours like our first one, we never even bothered to call our midwife or my sister. We did, however, send our 22-month old son to spend the day with a friend.
Since the temperature rose to a balmy 70 degrees, we decided that a walk might speed up my contractions. Strolling hand-in-hand, we headed across the street to a steep hill, enjoying the day. Down we trekked. However, when we reached the bottom of the hill, the weather abruptly changed. One minute a glorious blue-sky 70 degree day, and the next, a blistering wind blasted through with menacing, stormy clouds. To compound our troubles, my contractions had speeded up to every two minutes. Great.
Inching uphill, we stopped every two minutes for me to breathe through the contractions. Not fun. Nevertheless, there were no other options. Finally arriving home, we called our midwife. Then in our haste to finish our preparations, we forgot to call my sister.
Soon our midwife arrived. After checking me, she announced that our baby should arrive in about two or three pushes! So far no pain. I repeat. With no pain, I pushed my nine pounder out into the world. Joseph Levi announced his arrival with hearty lungs.
From there, Joseph was the easiest infant. To this day, we remind ourselves that he smiled, ate, and pooped. Until. Until he turned two and became the most contentious toddler on the planet.
His mantra: “I can do it myself.” If I said left, he said right. If I said stop, he said go. That’s when I learned that “it’s time to give the rubber ducky a bath” proved a valuable approach.
Surprisingly, though, I don’t believe in the “terrible twos” label. I understand that once a child is potty trained, he no longer views himself as an appendage of mommy. So Joseph stumbled around to navigate this thing called independence. But oh boy, was it taxing.
While our oldest son was more cautious, Joseph threw caution to the wind. If Jonathan hollered “whoa,” Joseph countered with “giddy up!” What a pair. When he discovered cowboy-adventure books in the library’s early reading section, his reading soared.
All those adventure books, however, only fueled the flame. At age 41, he still devours books – and he’s still the biggest kid at the carnival!
As a boy, on our shopping trips to Wal-Mart, Joseph bee-lined for the sporting goods to drool over the display of knives. He loved the outdoors and gobbled up his dad’s scouting survival manuals.
When we lived on 40 acres in the country, he and his brother explored the creek and woods. I’m sure his knives proved useful in the woods. Those adventures are still being declassified today. On family gatherings, my sons often regale us with those heart-pounding tales.
Nowadays, his coveted knife collection fills a drawer. During the years his son Tristan participated in the Boy Scouts, they came in handy. I don’t know who enjoyed those scout campouts more – he or his son.
No surprise that his scout troop misses Joseph’s fun-loving antics on those campouts after Tristan graduated.
By the way, true to his nature, Joseph named Tristan after the mischievous Tristan in the James Harriot books. If you haven’t read them, grab a copy. You’ll enjoy some great reading. This from a picky reader, as you already know. But back to Joseph.
During his teens and early twenties, he gave us a run-for-our-money. However, he has turned out to be a fine man: a caring son, thoughtful husband, and loving father. He only lives two blocks away and still checks on me. He’s a man of depth and highly intelligent – all with a strong work ethic.
Although nowadays he thinks more carefully before he acts, he never shies from a debate. And believe me, he can paint you into a corner. He’s like a dog with a bone when he determines to make a point. He thoroughly enjoys it, too!
Five years ago, tragedy struck when Joseph suffered a freak accident at work, losing a third of his right arm. No mother ever expects to receive that phone. I had visions of his hand on ice to be sewed on. Nope. The machine shredded it. Four hours after entering Parkland Hospital, he called to reassure me, “Mom, it happened, and I’m moving forward.” He did. He has.
The whole community of Cleburne showered him with meals, gift cards, fund raisers, and prayers. For his family, the adjustment was radical. After a year of numerous doctor visits and dozens of appointments for his prosthetics, he returned to work. His courage to return to the scene of his accident proved a testament to his coworkers. Seeing his 6 feet 5 inch frame, his coworkers cheered, “Big Bird’s back!”
During his year off, his company installed additional safety measures. Now they send him to safety seminars around the country to share his story. A dramatic visual for safety precautions in every plant.
Even though our choices largely determine our futures, life always throws a few curve balls to test us. As our oldest son stated, “If anyone had to lose his hand, it had to be Joseph because he will always make lemonade out of lemons.” I concur.
After Joseph ripped his hand out of the machine, he glanced at his shredded arm, lifted up his arm, and – to acknowledge his fate – shouted, “I’m a one-handed man now.” With that, he raced down four flights of stairs to get help. He’s my hero.