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Friday, February 25, 2011

Where the family gathers

I’m thinking that if I marketed it correctly, I could get a pretty penny if I put my kitchen table up for sale on an online auction site. Not only is it a well-made and well-loved table, but also because on one side, near the edge, there is a distinct image of the Virgin Mary.

Because it is the Virgin Mary, or what’s left of an imprint of her in window cling form.

A few years ago when my children were younger and there were going through a particularly ferocious window cling phase, we were gifted a set of gel-like clings representing the manger scene at Christmas. There was a small stable, Joseph, Jesus, a few animals, and Mary. A red Mary, to be exact.

At some point, a child who will remain nameless removed the window cling from our back sliding door and placed it on our beloved table. There it sat, overnight, quite innocently until the next morning when I went to put Mary back in the stable. Lo and behold, she left a lovely image of herself right there, in bright red, on our kitchen table.

I should say that our table has always been a bit of a prized possession. When my husband and I first married, we were given a sum of money for a kitchen table. Instead of being economical, we went for quality and spent every last cent and then some on a solid oak, locally made table.

“It’ll last for generations!” we told ourselves, and imagined everything from toddlers to teenagers sitting on all sides of the shaker style furniture. We were convinced that our choice to purchase something super sturdy would be indestructible by even the wildest of kids.

Then, of course, enter Mary.

At first we were frantic. We tried every cleaner on the market and even called the cling company, all to no avail. Hands cracking from chemicals and elbow grease, I did the only thing I could think of. I put a placemat over it and called it an off-center centerpiece.

All these years later, we have learned that protecting that table is a complete waste of time. Since Mary “left her mark” we have added fork marks, pen marks, something permanent and unidentifiable on the underside of the table, and most recently a special sanded area where the coarse grit paper went more on the table and less on the Cub Scout race car.

My immediate reaction was the instinctive yell. “You ruined the table! It’s all scratched up and looks terrible!” Then I added some guilt, as mothers do best. “Do you know how many hundreds, no, thousands of dollars it will take to fix this? Hope you like the toys you have because you’re not getting anything new for a really long time.”

Thankfully my husband was there to put things in perspective. With total calmness he said, “it’ll just draw less attention to Mary,” a mark we have learned to ignore over all these years.

I’ve come to realize two things about kitchen tables in my time. For one, kids will inevitably destroy kitchen tables. From the unbelievable powers of Bic pens and Elmers glue, to the sheer force that is toddlerhood, there are bound to be growing pains etched in every table top. And secondly, there is nothing more precious than the memories contained within those grains of wood.

A kitchen table holds more memories than you’d guess. For our table, I can remember the first time Thanksgiving dinner I made as a married woman. I remember strapping a high chair to it and scraping Playdoh out of the cracks. I remember squeezing my whole family around it for every birthday. There are school projects born on that table, and thousands of cookies cut there, too. It’s a safe haven for family time that seems to sadly dwindle each year.

So it goes without saying that even if someone offered big bucks for a solid oak table with an image of the Virgin Mary, I’d have to turn them down.

Those sandpaper scratch marks are worth way too much.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Remembering rabbit ears (Back in my day...)

You know what they say: don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his loafers. Or maybe it was judging a woman by the color of her pocketbook? In any case, I say don't judge a person by how outdated they seem.

Take for instance the way I used to roll my eyes every time my grandparents would sit on their davenport wearing a housecoat before going to get some oleo from the icebox.

"Grandma, you're on a COUCH wearing a ROBE and it's MARGARINE in the REFRIGERATOR!"

But my parents were only so much better, because while growing up in a world of cassette tapes, they still called them "records" and said things like "pedal pushers" and helped classify my friends as "jocks, nerds, or burnouts." (This was way cool...NOT!) I swear at one point they even tried to put letters in our phone number.

And so it goes that I now find myself having aged well beyond my time, purely based upon the things that my children ask me about. Today's youthful generation has something different than the rest of us had, which is the possibility of time travel through something as simple as television.

With just a push of a button they are whisked back to the obscure years where life was practically alien, such as the 1980s. It so happens that we recently watched a number of episodes of a British show that took place in the late 80's and I spent half of the time explaining the foreign objects. And by foreign, I don't mean British. I mean antique.

Nothing has ever made me feel so old, not even the gray hairs that sprout overnight after conferring with the wrinkles around my eyes.

Among the things that I had to explain are:

TV Antennas. Said one child, "what is that?" to which the other answered, "that's the thing to change the channels." I wish I was making that up, but instead I listened and then attempted to clarify the lack of cable and was glad I didn't call them rabbit ears because that would have definitely led to a long and frustrating conversation.

Even worse was that I had to correct her assumption by explaining that people actually had to get up off the couch to change the channel, which was probably a hidden agenda of some people: having children willing to dart up to the UHF dial.

Phones with cords and payphones. Because the show took place in England, the payphones looked a little different. But it took time to explain that if a person wanted to make a phone call, they would actually have to go in search of these booths, potentially wait in line, and hope that he or she had correct change right there on the spot. "What would you do, mom? You never have money."

Besides the payphones, telephones back in my day were laborious and constraining. Five (click click click click click) two (click click) etc. and then 10 minutes later you had the mobility of a three-foot radius circle and whatever you needed was exactly four feet away.

Finally, cameras that used film. The instant gratification of being able to see the photograph you just snapped never ceases to amaze me. Show me a kid who is in the vicinity of a digital camera, and I'll show you a kid who will stare at you jaw-dropped and bug-eyed when you explain that when you were a kid, it sometimes took an entire week to see the picture.

And there was this stuff inside called "film" that was a fickle thing -- sometimes you'd forget to put it in and have giant memory gaps from the hundreds of pictures you never really took or else exposed shots of a bright light because someone opened the camera.

Oh, it was rough back then, when I was a kid, when I had to while away the days as I waited for my film to develop. Next to the phone I sat, only to get up and change the channel and adjust the antenna. I'm just lucky we had a comfy davenport.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Long-time habits wind up in the bathroom

Like most children, I watched my parents and grandparents drink coffee and I swore it was the most disgusting substance on Earth. “I’ll never drink it!” I said, and somewhere a young coffee farmer in South America chuckled.
There were a million things wrong with the most popular beverage in the western world. For one, it stained your teeth and made your breath reek, as I learned every day of school in first period when I sat in the front row. Surely my teachers knew what kind of rancid air they were breathing on us as they strutted around with their giant mugs of joe. Surely they must be aware of how terrible it was.
But then I hit high school and the homework piled up and my life as a working girl started. Juggling the two and extracurricular activities soon left me pinching myself between the covers of my government textbook and using saxophone reeds to prop my eyes open as I drove home from my work shift. There must be an answer, I thought to myself.
It was, sadly enough, instant vanilla coffee.
Suddenly, the world was awake! I was awake! I would shake and shimmy from one task to the next and life was absolutely fantastic for awhile until it got even better and I actually got a real paying job in a coffee house. Oh, the sweet smell of freshly ground beans, the sound of frothing milk, the quickly acquired taste for espresso. My teen years were a-buzz with joy and happiness and then climaxed when I purchased my very own coffee maker to take off to college. I think I may have cried a little.
With college came a huge jump from quality to quantity as I found myself swimming in papers and lab work and books. I began measuring coffee consumption not by the cup, but rather by the pot and it got so bad that I found it necessary to purchase a travel coffee maker that I could take with me from class to class because one mug wasn’t enough to get me through. In the beginning of my senior thesis, I even gave tribute to the 24 hour gas station that served 20oz. coffees at all hours of the night; they are practically responsible for my entire collegiate degree.
But the love of java transcends the single person, and there is not only strength, but true bonds, in drinking coffee with others. So when I met my husband and found out he was a fellow guzzler of the grounds, it was instant love. I had found my soul mate, not my Coffee-Mate, because coincidentally we both drink it black.
Through the years we have watched our caffeine habits change with the times. Early marriage found relaxing mugs as we walked silently after a peaceful meal. Later on we found ourselves cutting out or cutting back while carrying each child, only to ramp up consumption to a maximum to get through mornings after all-night rocking sessions.
But it wasn’t until recently that our habits landed us in a brewed bliss as we nearly proved that great minds think alike for each other’s Christmas presents. Individually we have both remarked over the years how pleasant it is to stay in a hotel with that cute coffee maker right there in the bath, so convenient to smell it dripping away while you shower and dress. And now with these handy single-cup coffee makers, what better gift to bring home?
I bought one for him and entrusted my oldest with the secret because she’s a steel door when it comes to that stuff, not to mention a fabulous actress. So when they all went shopping for mommy and my husband put a coffee maker in the cart, she slyly replied, “Oh daddy, that’s a silly gift. Mommy won’t like it at all.”
I ended up with some other great gifts.
He got his coffee maker for the bathroom.
It’s a win-win, instant-brew, single-cup, situation made in heaven and probably grown in Columbia.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Snowed in, hair out (and the world's best playdoh)

In these woods, we've got winter. Lots of winter. With snow and ice and frigid temperatures, it's tempting to send the kids out but that only means that you, the mother will have to: properly dress them, go out with them, make everyone hot chocolate, and deal with a mudroom full of drippy snow clothes all stained from road cinders and the gunk that colors our world gray from November through April.
So we stay in, couped up in our home, climbing the walls and inevitably I will have pulled out every last hair on my head before the sun shines again. We're in such a vitamin D deficiency that even the kids are dragging and pasty white.
Speaking of pasty white, if you've got cabin fever and want to try a few good crafts, here's the ticket to your happiness. (Also, have a glass of wine if it suits.)

Pleasant play dough

Note: I was never a believer in homemade play dough, but this stuff feels so good in your hands, it's well worth it. Kids tend to just mix the colors all together anyway, so having one single color is really the easy way to go. Experiment with changes and go crazy!

1 cup white flour
1/3 cup of salt
2 tsps cream of tartar
1 cup water
1 tbsp oil

Mix flour, salt, and cream of tartar in a medium deep skillet. Add water and oil. Cook and stir over medium heat. When mixture forms a ball in the pan, turn out and knead. Store in airtight container or plastic bag.

*Totally awesome play dough I: Add food coloring
*Totally awesome play dough II: Add kool-aid for scent/color
*Totally awesome play dough III: Add a bit of vanilla for a sweet scent
*Totally, totally awesome play dough IV: Add cheap pumpkin pie spice. Turns it a pleasant brown, makes it smell super fabulous!

And for something more permanent...

Salt Dough

Don't eat these cookies! We had a blast making pretend cookies. When these bake up they look so real, my husband even thought about eating one. Also a great project for making little canvasses for painting.

4 cups flour
1 cup salt
1.5 cups water (or enough to achieve workable dough)

Mix it together using a paddle or dough hook, adding only as much water as needed. Let your kids go crazy making shapes or cookie cutouts. Just make sure everything is nearly the same thickness.
Bake at 300 until hard. (Depending on thickness, you just have to pay attention.)
Once cool, paint with acrylics. We did a lovely music project making treble and bass clef signs as well. I suppose when finished you could make it shiny with a glossy acrylic spray.

And OK, if you haven't had that glass of wine, go ahead and get one now. Or at the least, a cup of tea. Mom or Dad, you deserve it!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tiger Mother, meet Dog Mama

There has been more hoopla about poor Amy Chua’s book entitled “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother” than anyone could have imagined. In an article she wrote about her book in the Wall Street Journal, she stated that her teenage daughters have been raised in a “tiger mother” style home with exceptionally strict rules. Her rules include no sleepovers, no TV, no computer games, no school plays, nothing less than an A, and copious amount of instrument practice each day. The instruments must be either piano or violin.
No exceptions.
No whining.
Her daughters have appeared on many media clips saying they find nothing wrong with their upbringing, especially since they know no other way of life.
The Tiger Mom herself has appeared over and over, defending her book and proclaiming that it was never meant to be a how-to book, just the way she does things.
But that doesn’t mean that a zillion mommy blogs out there aren’t doing their best to trash this poor woman who has put her own life out there for all to see, tear up, rip apart, and spit back out, while the Chua daughters spend hours on the violin and reading classic novels.
So it would be remiss of me to not throw in my own two cents, because if you asked my own kids, they would tell you that I can be pretty mean sometimes myself.
I do let my kids watch TV, but not channels with commercials. Sometimes I force them to play computer games just so they stop fighting (although four out of five times they then fight over the computer.) I allow them to play video games only if I’m allowed to play and get dibs on the guitar or race car of my choice. But I also force them to do other things, like the dreaded daily piano practice that sends my average child into a dramatic whorl of sloth-dom, careening into sluggish sobs on the floor because he or she would do anything rather than practice.
They are also forced to get good grades, or the best grades I believe they can get. They are expected to try new foods, clean their plates, have spectacular manners, and go to bed when we tell them.
If they don’t, there are consequences. If they do follow the rules set forth, there are rewards. It’s the reward part that sets me apart from the Tiger Mother and makes me realize I’m nothing more than a big, fuzzy Dog Mama.
I like to watch my “puppies” grow. I force them to do things that will better themselves and make them better, stronger, and smarter. There are no exceptions, and if there is whining, it will rightfully be ignored, as mothers of all types have been doing for thousands of years regardless of what part of the Earth they come from.
If you’ve ever seen the way an animal raises its young, there’s plenty of tough love to go around. (Consider the little birdie being pushed out of the nest, forced to fly.) But there’s also plenty of the not-tough love, too, which is what I think makes me less of a tiger and more of a dog.
I like to snuggle my kids. I like their warm skin, their stinky breath, the way they get all sweaty when they fall asleep when they cuddle under my arm as I read them books.
I also like to watch them succeed and see their smiles when they are rewarded for going beyond the normal call of kid duty. They get showered with as many gifts as I can give because I know they work hard when they do their very best, and I can only wish that trips to the toy store or their favorite meals out were as inexpensive as dog biscuits.
For as many different parenting styles as there are out there, one bottom line remains: we do what we do because we want the best for our children. And if this Dog Mama ever had a chance to meet up with a Tiger Mother, I can guarantee no fight from my side. If anything, I’d shake her hand, roll over, and see if she wanted to go fetch a cup of tea.
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