Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year - or not

I want to love Christmas. I want it to be like the commercials where everything is decorated beautifully, the gifts are wrapped perfectly and everyone, down to the lowliest mouse, gets along. But the reality is that's not the way the world is.

In fact, even when Jesus was born, conditions were rough. Mary was tired and, as Imogene Herdman from the book "The Great Christmas Pageant Ever" would say, pregnant. No, not great with child, but pregnant. They were dirty and had no place to sleep, and even after their child, our child, was born, things were not perfect. Apart from their smelly, dirty surroundings, there was an even worse threat facing the newborn baby -- Herod.

Today, I think we face our own threats during this time of year, and one is (no surprise here) commercialism. I spent two hours at the local big box store earlier this week and came out with $500 worth of items and disgust for the human race. I often feel guilty for not being happier this time of year, but when I witness the worst of mankind while shopping for Christmas gifts, it makes me think, "This is not what Jesus had in mind."

Christmas is filled with pressure, pressure to find the perfect gift, pressure to buy, buy, buy, and, worst of all, the pressure to be happy. In the meantime, the world doesn't change or adjust itself for the season; it keeps turning. Loved ones still die, friends still get sick, money still runs short and our jobs are just as demanding. It's enough to make one run away to Bermuda, or, at least, dream of it.

We've had many ups and downs through the years at Christmas. Ironically, it's the less-than-perfect ones that stand out. I can remember as a child my dad cutting down a tree in the middle of my grandmother's pasture, while a nearby bull pawed the ground and eyed the back of his Levis. My sister and I warned him just as the bull charged, and the tree fell. Daddy managed to sling it into the back of the truck in the nick of time. That's a good memory, though Dad may tell you differently.

This year has been a tough one. My mother-in-law passed away suddenly after a brief illness. When I recently told someone that she died, he whispered, "Did you get along with your mother-in-law?" I couldn't help but laugh. I know they have a bad reputation, but that wasn't the case with mine. She was my staunch supporter, and I can honestly say I was her favorite daughter-in-law. I'm sure my two sister-in-laws will agree.

My mother-in-law was ahead of her time in a lot of ways. One was she had a knack for predicting what would be the hot new Christmas item and buying them in June, from Beanie babies to Nano pets. We always laughed and teased her until December rolled around and then we thanked her for her foresight.

This year, she's gone. She's now in heaven with my father-in-law, my husband's great aunt and some good friends of theirs. I imagine they are enjoying themselves, and she is getting the last laugh as I run around trying to find the latest hot item for the kids. It sure would have been a lot easier if she were here. She was always a fan of solar lights, and I heard today there is such a thing as solar-lighted Christmas wreaths. I think I will buy one in her honor and, instead of getting sucked into the rush, sit back and remember the reason for the season.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Surviving the drive-thru

What do two very active kids plus two very busy working parents equal? The answer: Drive-thrus.

Despite the $200 worth of meat that I purchased recently at the wholesale food store, I inevitably find myself waiting in the drive-thru line. Why I think that's easier than cooking a pot roast, I do not know. The truth is, drive-thrus are a pain and have been since the beginning.

Yes, I remember some of our area's first drive-thru restaurants. One was a Wendy's, which later transformed into an Italian restaurant and is now a Mexican restaurant. But, back in the "Where's the Beef?" hey day, we spent a lot of time in that drive-thru. My mother never had any trouble placing our order into the loud speaker, but, for some reason, doing so made my dad break out into a cold sweat.

"I can't do it. You'll have to do it," he'd say to my mom if he were in the driver's seat. She'd lean over and yell our order, which the clerk would repeat back to her -- incorrectly. Times haven't really changed much. I can remember the one and only time my dad placed his own order. Perhaps mom was sick. I don't know. I just recall her giving him a list, and my sister and I riding to the restaurant with him.

He leaned out the window, pulled out his list and cleared his throat.

"Dog food," he said loudly. My sister and I began to giggle. "Milk, bread ..."

"Daddy, I think that's Mama's grocery list. Turn it over," my sister offered.

The other problem with drive-thrus is you feel so rushed, especially when my husband is ordering. He prefers it if we all order a number, so I try to comply.

"We'll take two number threes with Cokes to drink," he said hurriedly.

"Do you want honey mustard or barbeque sauce with that?" asked the voice through the loud speaker.

"What kind of sauce? What kind of sauce?" my husband said frantically, snapping his fingers.

"I don't want any sauce," I said.

"Just pick a sauce!" he yelled.

"What kind of sauce did you say, sir?" said the voice.

"But I don't want sauce!"

"Pick a sauce; don't confuse her!"

By this time I could have made that pot roast.

Of course, I don't blame him. Even though I know there's a real person back there, the voice seems so impersonal -- and inflexible when it comes to special orders. I pulled through a drive-thru over the weekend. It was the type in which there are two lanes to expedite ordering. The problem was the two lanes had to merge. Anyone who's ever driven on a highway knows that even on the best day, the human race stinks at merging. So, expecting hungry tired people with screaming children in the back seat to politely merge is a ridiculous idea.

At this particular restaurant, I ordered a medium milkshake and was told that they only had small or large.

"OK, we'll take the large."

"The large comes in a medium cup. Do you still want a large?"

"Why not?" I said, and then my children and I had a good laugh.

Though they say families who eat at the dinner table together, stay together, I say the families who survive drive-thrus together stay together. As long as you order the sauce.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Not your mama's art class

My husband and son had gone off on a great Boy Scout adventure, and we girls had been left behind.

At first, I was very sad. Though I'm not exactly rugged, I've always enjoyed the family camp experiences that Cub Scouts offered. In large part because I figured out, it's a lot easier than being at home. Basically, you set up your tent, start a fire, plop down in your chair and watch the boys run around. Bingo, you're camping.

But, this was different. He was merging to Boy Scouts, and Mamas reminding them to brush their teeth before bed was no longer required or, rather, wanted. My daughter and I were on our own. I pouted for about 30 seconds before I realized, "Hey, wait a minute, we are on our own!"

Visions of pedicures, shopping, eating out and watching chick flicks danced through my head.

"What time do you leave?" I asked my husband.

I broke the news to my daughter and told her our itinerary.

She remained expressionless.

I, of course, took it personally. Having been 13 myself at one point, I assumed she didn't want to spend that much time with her mother.

"You can bring a friend," I said.

No change of expression.

I decided I needed to add something to the mix.

"And, we'll take an art class. Not just any old art class, an encaustic art class," I said.

When her expression didn't change, I said, "Encaustic means painting with hot wax!"

She raised an eyebrow. I had broken through!

Later, on our way to the class, she said, "I wish I could have gone camping with them."

Slightly bummed, we soon arrived. Greeting us was our art instructor, Valerie, and best of all, her daughter, Olivia, who is my daughter's age. Immediately, a smile crossed her face.

Now, I should clarify that I am no artist. I know because I've played a few humiliating games of Pictionary in my day. My daughter, on the other hand, is a natural, though she'd probably take offense at this. The truth is she practices all the time. She'll take a subject matter and draw it over and over until she perfects it, and then she moves on to another subject. I guess it's a lot like writing a first draft but more interesting to watch.

Valerie warned us that the hot plates were plugged in and, well, hot. I met Valerie a mere five months ago, and we became instant friends. She's creative, has a good sense of humor and, best of all, puts up with me. What more could I ask for in a friend?

She also has an adventurous spirit that I admire. She loves horror movies and even goes to see them by herself. I couldn't make it through the trailer of Paranormal Activity 3 at home surrounded by loved ones, yet she sits in a theater calmly munching on popcorn while watching a little girl get possessed.

"It wasn't as scary as part one and two," she said.

So, it was only fitting that the tools for our art class included not only hot wax but also razor blades and blow torches. In short, it wasn't your mama's art class. My equally adventurous and creative daughter loved it, as did I, once I figured out which side of the razor blade to use and to listen for the hiss before I clicked on the blow torch.

The end result? We have two masterpieces hanging on the wall in our kitchen. I caught my daughter running her finger over the colored wax, tracing the outline of the poppy flowers we had carved into them. The moment was soon interrupted by the return of the boys - dirty, tired and hungry. My daughter was no longer the only child, and our girls' weekend was over, yet the memory of our adventure remains etched in wax on the wall.

And, for that, I am very thankful.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

AARP - not me!

There are benefits to being 10 years younger than your spouse. One is his eyesight is failing, so fine lines go unnoticed. Two, despite the fact that it’s been over 20 years since you’ve graduated, his friends still say he robbed the cradle. Three, he thinks your hip pain is sexy. OK, I made this one up, but at least he isn’t repulsed by it. In fact, odds are he’ll even think it’s cute when you say, “I’m going to need my hip replaced soon.”

But, the very best part of being younger than your spouse is the discounts. Yes, I’m the proud holder of an AARP (spouse) card.

Recently, I went out to dinner with a girlfriend of mine. I must say we were a little flattered when the young waiter seemed to flirt with us. We blushed and felt quite good about ourselves; though I’m sure he was only after a big tip. Little did he know that the one leaving it would be a bit of cheapskate, and I’m not talking about my friend.

Yes, I love a good bargain. And, while I didn’t chinch on the tip (no need to get Sound Off going), I relished the opportunity to give my new card a try at the movies after dinner.

“Can you believe how that waiter flirted with us?” we laughed, basking in thoughts of how young we must look.

It was then that I ruined it.

“Do you take this?” I asked the lady behind the counter. My friend recoiled in horror when she saw what “this” was – a red and white AARP card with my name printed across the top.

“Are you trying to get a senior discount?” my friend whispered in disbelief.

She slowly slunk away while I pocketed the $5 I saved on the price of an adult admission. I felt kind of funny but proud of my sensibility. So much so I tried the card again over the weekend when I took my children. This time it was broad daylight, however – and crowded. I slipped the card to the cashier, glanced left and right, and said, “I have this.”

“You want to use the AARP card?” she said loudly over the speaker.

I looked around and quickly nodded.

“That’s only good at the concession stand.”

That was better than nothing, so I stood in line, chatting with several other moms I knew.

“Are you really using that card?” my son asked. “Doesn’t that make you old?”

“No, it makes me frugal,” I protested, but the seed had been planted.

“What can I get you?” the cashier asked. I slid the card back in my pocket and began to order.

“Mom, look at how much a Coke costs!” my son said.

This was no time to be vain. I whipped out the AARP card and asked, “Do you have any discounts with, um, this?”

“Yes, you can save on Coke and popcorn,” she said.

“I’ll take it!” I said feeling smug that I had not only saved money but also saved face as no one noticed what I had in my hand.

“Mom, look at the computer screen.”

“AARP combo” was flashing in big, bright letters.

Sheepishly, I took my refreshments and slunk off. Later that day, I bragged to my husband about the fact that I had used the card – something he’s yet to do – and saved $6.

“A small Coke and popcorn only cost $16 today, thanks to this discount card,” I bragged.

“What? You paid $16 for a small Coke and popcorn?” he said.

That’s when it hit me. That wasn’t really a deal. In fact, I had been ripped off. I had traded 10 years of my life for an $8 Coke and $8 popcorn. Apparently, being older doesn’t automatically make one wiser. Next time, I’m ordering the kids’ pack!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Lessons learned

Like many moms, I try to look for teaching moments. You know, those relaxed times when you are with your children, and, amidst the fun, an opportunity to teach them a lesson presents itself. Unfortunately, as my son once said, "Mom, your lectures don't work out so well."

One of the most memorable occurred during our trip to Boone, N.C., to visit our favorite uncle, Sonny. Along the way, we spotted a woman hitchhiking, and I decided to seize the moment. I mean, really seize the moment.

"Kids," I said dramatically, "don't ever, ever hitchhike like that woman's doing."

"What's hitchhiking?" my son asked.

"It's where you stick out your thumb and try to get strangers to stop their cars to give you a ride."

"How do you stick out your thumb?"

To which, I demonstrated while warning them, "Don't you ever, ever do that!"

"Yes, ma'am," they said.

Not satisfied, I went into greater detail about how dangerous it was, further driving my point home. It wasn't long after, we arrived at Sonny's house.

"We saw a hitchhiker!" my son said first thing, terrified, yet exhilarated.

"Oh, yeah, we have those all the time up here. In fact ...," he said, pulling out a clear Mason jar, "I picked up a couple a few months back, and they gave me some moonshine!"

"What's moonshine?" my son asked, excitedly.

"Something you should never, ever drink!" I said. "I just gave them a lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking, and now you introduce them to moonshine!"

"I can't wait to tell my teacher about this!" my son exclaimed.

Another time, after my husband swerved to miss a squirrel, I gave a long lecture about how we sometimes have to hit animals when they run across the road. I told them the story about how when I was 16 and riding in the backseat of my friend's car (without my seat belt -- another lesson), she swerved to miss a dog, and we ended up in a ditch. My kids once said all my stories end up in a ditch, by the way, and this was no exception.

"So, sometimes you have to hit the animal," I repeated, when, lo and behold, a beautiful white cat ran out in front of our car.

What did I do? If you guessed yelled, "Don't hit it; don't hit it! Swerve!" at the top of my lungs, you'd be correct.

"Mom! I thought you said not to swerve for animals!"

"Well, that was a pretty cat!" I said, ruining my driver's safety lesson.

My most recent example of a good lesson gone bad happened just this past weekend while the kids and I were out for a walk. My daughter spotted something in the grass.

"Look! Are those mushrooms? They are huge!" she said. "Let's go look at them."

"No," I said, seizing the moment to teach. "They might be poisonous. You know you should never eat or touch wild mushrooms. But, you can go look at it."

"No, that's OK," said my daughter, sufficiently frightened.

I should have let it go then, but curiosity seized me, and I said, "Ah, come on. Let's have a look. It won't hurt us to look."

The closer we got, the stranger it looked, until finally I gave it a kick.

Poof! Black ashes flew into the air, and I being the sensible mom, screamed and ran and bemoaned the fact that I would now have to wash my tennis shoes.

"Mom, mom, mom," my son said, tears of laughter rolling down his face.

"I told you not to ever mess with mushrooms!" I said.

They, of course, laughed. And it was then that it occurred to me, my lessons may be unorthodox, but they can't say they didn't remember them, or that I didn't try.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

First impressions

First impressions "Some kids at school had the paper with your column in it, Mom," my son said.

I beamed with pride and tried to act modest and unassuming.

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, it was art class, and they were using it, so they wouldn't get paint on the tables."

Well, OK, I thought, I'm sure they read it while they painted their masterpieces.

Speaking of reading, he must have read my mind because it was then that he said, "Thank goodness nobody read it!"

At this point, my ego was deflated, but I couldn't help but be amused at how sincere he was.

"Did you read it?" asked his dad.

"No," he looked at him and then a little under his breath said, "I was afraid to."

Poor kid, I don't blame him. It was bad enough when my mother used to tell strangers in the grocery store things about me, I can't imagine what it would be like if she had put it in the paper!

Fortunately, he's a much better sport than I was. I can't help but hope he is, perhaps, secretly proud. And he may very well be, but I've been a mother long enough to know it's not about what I do for a living.

Kids are the great equalizers, I don't care who you are (as Larry the Cable Guy would say). Unless you drive an ice cream truck and allow unlimited free samples, it's unlikely they are impressed with your occupation. Mainly, what they want to know is "Will you be home today?" "Can we go to the movies?" "Will you play ball with me?" OK, so my son hasn't asked me that since I swung the bat at one of his pitches and the ball struck him in the eye and knocked him flat. But you get the idea. Kids really just want your time, not for you to have a bigger 401K.

Of course, we all know we have to have a healthy balance or we won't be able to afford things like the movies, baseball or a home. So, in order to give my children a better idea and greater appreciation of what I do, I drove them to the corporate office of a company I do freelance work for.

We rode the elevator all the way up to the 22nd floor, and I showed them the cubicles and the break room. They responded by yawning and asking if they could go to The Varsity.

"Look at this view," I said, taking them to the window.

"Can you see The Varsity from here?" they asked.

Suspecting that, perhaps, hunger was the issue, I took them downstairs to the cafeteria and bought them a cookie. As we exited, my son got excited for the first time that day. I eagerly turned to see what had captured his interest.

"Look, Mom! You put your trash on that conveyor belt, and it takes it away! This place is so cool!"

I explained to him how I once wrote an article about how the cafeteria recycles. I started to go into great detail about how it worked, then I saw his eyes start to glaze over.

"I tell you what, why don't we go to The Varsity and get an Orange Julius to wash down this cookie?"

A few minutes later, we were inside Atlanta's landmark restaurant. The kids couldn't wait to try on a paper hat. They marveled at the old photos on the wall and were thrilled when the man behind the counter asked, "What d'ya have? What d'ya have?"

I could tell by their faces they were much more impressed here than in the shiny corporate office building.

"Thanks, Mom, for taking us," they said, and, suddenly, that was all that mattered.

It's a happy memory -- one of many I've had since they've been born -- and I'm so fortunate to have an outlet where I can share it, even if the kids at school end up dripping paint all over it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The snack factor

As I watched my daughter make a great shot on the volleyball court, one thought ran through my mind, "Oh, no! I think it's my turn to bring snack!"

Who among us has not experienced that fear? And how is it that forgetting to bring cheese-its and juice boxes can cause such panic?

A friend of mine said her daughter called her from school recently. She became very concerned because her daughter's normally booming voice was barely decipherable.

"Mom, today wasn't our turn to provide the meal before the game, was it?" she whispered into the phone. It wasn't, but, apparently, some poor mom had forgotten, and 20 hungry girls were about to revolt.

I'm not sure how this trend of providing snacks for not only games but practices came to be. When I grew up, we didn't even have snacks at home, except perhaps the occasional popsicle. And those were made with Kool-Aid, toothpicks and an ice cube tray.

There were no prepackaged, individual cookies or crackers. No bottles of water or Gatorade. We had Tang and later Hawaiian Punch, and we didn't share with our playmates, much less the whole ball team.

Yet, today, almost every event calls for a snack. I recently watched little church league cheerleaders stand up, do one cheer, and then sit down and have a snack. Sometimes I think it defeats the exercise factor.

It seems to be an evolving phenomenon. When my oldest was young, orange slices were all that was required. She never ate them at home but was served them during halftime at the soccer game and she loved them. As time progressed, however, so did her and her teammates' taste in snacks. Soon, only Chick-fil-a sandwiches or Dominos pizza would do.

There's no denying that the sudden realization that you've forgotten snacks is one of the worst feelings in the world. It's also expensive. There've been many a time that I've had to run to the nearest convenience store or concession stand to buy 20 pieces of candy and bottles of Gatorade. Not providing it is like not providing a goody bag after a birthday party. (Who started that trend anyway?)

During my most recent bout of snack amnesia, my daughter texted my husband, who came to the rescue, showing up in the nick of time with crackers, cookies and a cooler full of ice cold Coca-Colas.

After the game, the girls turned up their cans of Coke like Mean Joe Green in the classic commercial, except this time I was the one who smiled. We weren't parental failures, after all. We hadn't let our daughter or her team down, and, best of all, we could enjoy the rest of the season and not break into cold sweats the next time we overheard one of the girls say, "I'm hungry. Who brought snacks?"

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mom's football practice

“I don’t know if this blood is mine or somebody else’s,” my son said rather casually as he trotted off the football field. His coach apparently has a “No bleeding on the field policy;” otherwise, he’d still be out there.

Then I said something I don’t believe I’ve said in the ten years since he was born: “Well, I sure hope it’s your blood!”

I’ve always been amazed at the things I’ve found myself saying since I became a mother, and I can certainly add this to my list. I think I’ll put it between, “No, babies are not born by crawling out of their mothers’ mouths,” and “No, the tooth fairy does not give raises.”

Back to football. Realizing that it was, in fact, his blood, I jumped up and sprang into action. Since my husband was at our daughter’s sporting event across town, I had to balance the right amount of motherly concern versus fatherly “Get back out there and get you some!” It’s a fine line.

Somehow, despite the fact that I gave my husband three first aid kits for Father’s Day – don’t ask – I discovered I didn’t have a Band-Aid to save my life or, in this case, to bandage a superficial scratch. I went from mom to mom and waited while they dug into their purses, watching my son patiently inspect the blood that continued to drip down his arm. Finally, one sweet and prepared mom offered to run to her car to get one. She quickly reappeared with wipes, Band-Aids, and even a trash bag to throw the biohazard away. I’ve always said it takes a village.

I got his cut cleaned up, and he was soon back on the field. The coach called a water break not long afterwards, and my son came trotting over again, “My Band-aid fell off already.”

Fortunately, the wound had sealed, and he could go back to head-banging, I mean, football. I have to admit, I’m not the best football mom, but I’m learning. One thing I’ve learned is I need to sit as far away from the action as possible. This prevents me from hearing his grunts and moans and the clanking of his head getting banged, and it also prevents him from having the urge to look pitifully at me. Not that we are making him play, mind you. He loves it and wants to do it. Except perhaps when he practicing nose guard over and over and over again.

On nights like that, I try to maintain a healthy distance, though it takes just as much strength for me not to march out on the field, shake my finger at the bigger kids for hitting my boy and then give him a big hug. But, I don’t. I may not know much about football, but I was raised in the South, and I know how much it means to boys - of all ages.

So, instead, when he comes off the field tired, sore and looking a little dejected and asks me if his head is bruised and shows me his battle wounds, I say, “Football is a tough sport – and you’re a tough kid. Now, do you want to get a milkshake?”

I’m not sure if this is the best way to handle it or not. He may be my third child, but most of the time, I feel like I’m just practicing. I do know one thing, however, and that is there’s not much a good milkshake can’t cure. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Allene and me

I will always remember Allene's laugh. It was a laugh that came from down deep inside of her, not quite a chuckle, not quite a chortle, but definitely infectious. Though it's been over 18 years since I worked with her at the public library, I can recall it like it was yesterday. In part because it was usually something naïve I did or said to cause it.

Like the time I got promoted to desk clerk. After spending my teen years shelving books, I was finally allowed behind the coveted front desk. Allene was working with me and, like she always did, showing me the ropes. It was late on a Thursday night, and the phone rang.

"OK, now you answer it," she said after giving me a few quick lessons.

I picked it up and answered as I was taught while she nodded approval.

"Public library," I said, and Allene winked at me. So far, so good.

"My son is coming after me! I don't know what to do!" said the quivering voice of a woman on the other end of the line. I glanced around to ask for guidance and noticed Allene had gone to the back to retrieve a book for a customer. I was on my own and felt sure I knew the best way to handle it.

"Ma'am, this is the library!" I said and slammed the phone down.

About that time, Allene came from the back, "How did it go?"

"Well ..." I began, red-faced and outraged, "the lady wanted to know what to do about her son who was coming after her, and I told her."

"What did you tell her?" Allene said, growing concerned.

"I told her, 'Ma'am, this is the library!'"

At that point, Allene's eyes widened, she clasped her hand to her mouth, and I knew I was in big trouble. Then she bowed her head, and the next thing I know her body was shaking.

Boy, had I messed up.

"Leigh, what if she were in danger, and this was the only number she had to call?" she said.

"Well, it's still the library!" I said.

At which point, Allene bowed her head and shook it left and right. Her body shook harder, and I saw tears flow down her face. I was about to be fired, and, on top of that, I had probably killed somebody. I knew I was going to be relegated to re-shelving books after laptime from here to eternity.

And then I heard it -- Allene's laugh, and, though I was embarrassed, it was music to my ears.

"Ma'am, this is the library?" Allene repeated and then got so tickled, she put her hand on my shoulder, shook silently with laughter and then walked down the hall and back, trying to gain her composure but laughing at me every time she glanced my way.

I'd like to say this was the only faux pas I made, but it wasn't. Allene was there for many of them -- at the front desk and in life. Throughout both, she managed to offer advice and laugh with me as if I were her equal, though we were 28 years apart.

One day as I worked the front desk, a lady came in to apply for a library card. I tried to take down her name, but I could not spell it. She called the letters out to me, but I couldn't form them on paper. I looked up at her face and could only see half of it. I was young and expecting my first child in a month, and something was wrong. I went to Allene for help. By this time, my left arm and fingers had gone completely numb.

Allene rushed me out back, put me in her car and drove me -- terrified, but calmed by her presence -- to the hospital. She stayed with me while I was admitted. A week and dozens of tests later, it turned out to be nothing more than a complicated migraine.

Allene would later joke that she "practically delivered my first-born."

Had my older daughter been born that day, Allene would have never said, "Ma'am, this is the library!" though she probably would have joked about it. No, Allene would have done what needed to be done, and I would have been in great hands.

Today, Allene is in God's hands. She passed away last week in her sleep after working all day at the front desk. It was a very sad day for me, and I can't imagine what her family is going through. I just know that I lost a great ally that day -- one that can't be replaced.

Allene looked after me during those years -- from giving rides to and from work to advise to company. She kept up with me even as I moved on to other things. In fact, she called the day my first column was published and left a sweet message. I'm sad that I never called her back. I hope she forgave me. But then again, perhaps, knowing all about my phone skills, she just shook her head and laughed. At least, that's how I'd like to remember her.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Man vs. Wild

Usually when my family and I have an adventure, I go straight home and write about it. I hesitated on this one, however, largely because it took me a few months to find the humor in it.

You see, my husband surprised me by saying he'd like to go kayaking down the Flint River for Father's Day weekend. It had been a good 14 years since the last time we went. Back then, we used to go almost every weekend, and I remember it as being an easy, relaxing trip. I guess you could say those times have changed like the weather.

Speaking of weather, did you know that this past June the Flint River was near or below an all-time historic low level, according to a monitoring station that's been active since 1901? Neither did we. Until we tried to kayak down it with five kids and two other adults, one of whom gave up a day in his recliner, thanks to us.

"Come on, it will be fun," we told him. "All you have to do is sit in your boat and float. We'll take the half-day trip, and you can be in your recliner by noon."

Little did any of us know that nine hours later we'd be dragging our wet, grumpy, sunburned, thirsty and hungry selves out of the water, minus one kayak. The trip was a little like the movie "Deliverance," except this time the rednecks were the heroes. And, no, I don't mean us. Here's what happened:

We started out before the crack of dawn and drove to Thomaston to be ferried upstream so we could float the kayaks we brought back to our vehicle. The van driver was eerily quiet as we joked and laughed and excitedly began our journey. He dumped us and the boats out and hightailed it out before we could ask, "Where's the water?"
"Perhaps it gets deeper downstream," we said, as we hit our first rock located about a foot from where we pushed off.

No one warned us that the river's stream flow was normally five times greater than it was on this faithful day. Somehow, despite our best steering efforts, we managed to get stuck on rock after rock after rock. And, there's only one thing to do when you are -- try not to cuss, get out and drag the kayak off it. That's when we discovered that the Flint River is full of jagged rocks and deep drop-offs. We also discovered that Crocs make great dock shoes and very poor river shoes, and flip flops are equally hopeless.

Fortunately, I was in the kayak with my son, who is still young enough that he likes to prove how strong he is. God forbid the day when he outgrows that. It wasn't long before the kids grew hot and bored and tired and began asking, "Are we there yet?"
We soon pulled our boats up to the nearest flat rock, stretch out and had a great picnic.

"Surely, we are half-way," we said. Yeah, half-way to "H-E-double hockey sticks!"
"Why don't you take my kayak? You seemed to be making better headway than I am," my husband said.

So, I took my son and his friend all the food, a dry bag full of cell phones and sunscreen and pushed off. Immediately, we hit rapids, and, in the midst of it all, a bee stung me on the back. Soon thereafter our kayak flipped, emptying its contents and dragging us across sharp rocks as we clung desperately to the boat until I yelled to the boys to let it go. I managed to lose my shorts in the process, leaving me in my bathing suit and with very little dignity. For the record, my husband's version differs. He swears the water was only knee-deep. He doesn't factor in the fact he is a foot taller.

Once I passed the rapids, I got out and stumbled on the rocks, breaking my flip-flop and spirit in the process.

"I can't do this without shoes!" I screamed and threw the broken flip-flop down as hard as I could.

"Do you want my shoes, Ms. Leigh," asked my daughter's sweet friend.

"Yes, thank you," I said and snatched them before she could change her mind. I still owe her a pair of shoes.

It wasn't long before we learned that the kayak I was in had a hole in the bottom and was quickly filling up with water. My husband and daughter worked with it as the rest of us dragged our kayaks downstream. Soon, they were out of sight. My friend caught up to us and reported, "They said to go ahead without them. They are going to float back."

I felt uneasy but agreed. In the meantime, our friend with recliner dreams in his head left me and my son behind. As soon as he was out of sight, I remembered he had rescued all of our necessities that had gotten away.

For the next four hours, we made our way slowly -- without sunscreen, food or water -- until we could see the bridge and the boat ramp --our final destination --beyond it. It soon became like a mirage, taking us a good hour to reach it.

At one point I uttered these profound words of wisdom to my son: "You just can't beat Mother Nature. You can try as hard as you want, but, in the end, she's the winner."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, as he patiently dragged our kayak out of the weeds. "Can we do this again when the water's up?"

We made it to the boat ramp, and, as I tried to exit, lost my footing and flipped backwards.

We waited about 45 minutes until I saw a beautiful sight -- two canoes navigated by the most redneck-looking people I've ever seen. They were dragging an upside down kayak behind them. Inside their canoes sat my husband and daughter.

"We saw them a way back and knew they'd never make it. We ain't gonna leave nobody on the river," said the redneck boy, causing tears to fill my eyes.

I guess my son and I both learned lessons that day. He learned to appreciate Mother Nature, and I learned that one should never, ever judge a book by its cover. I could probably add that my husband and his friend learned a lesson as well -- when in doubt, opt for the recliner, especially on Father's Day.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The look

I recently woke up with John Wayne and a host of questions. And, no, they weren't answered with, "Well, I tell you, partner ..."

It was Saturday morning, and my son had been up for hours watching cowboys on AMC. Thanks to Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, Saturday morning cartoons are a thing of the past. These days at my house, it's westerns -- and questions.

"Is that what dynamite really looks like?"

"Why do they wear big hats?"

"What are corndodgers?"

And those are just a few of the ones I asked.

My son, of course, had it all figured out. He's 10 years old now, so that means he and his dad and cowboys are all starting to bond in a special way. It's the "women -- can't live with them, can't live without them" way. They think I haven't noticed, but it's all in the look.

In fact, when the Duke in "Rooster Cogburn" (and the Lady) -- the 1975 sequel to the 1969 western film "True Grit" -- expressed exasperation at Katharine Hepburn's character by saying something to the effect of, "And wait until they give them the right to vote," I saw my son give his dad that face. It's the "I-want-to-laugh-but-Mom-might-get-mad-so-I'm-just-going-to-glance-at-Dad-and-let-him-know-that-we-men-think-that-is-funny" face.

His dad recognized the look and immediately and wisely, I might add, gave him a quick shake of his head and the "No!-Don't-laugh!-I-know-it's-funny-but-don't-dare-laugh-out-loud" look.
"I saw that!" I said, which made him, yes, laugh out loud. Once he made sure I wasn't mad, that is.

"John Wayne may be able to get away with it, but you sure can't!" I told him.

Though it's a rough life, cowboy relationships probably do seem easier to a little boy.

"They either die or they get married," observed my son.

"I don't know which one is worse," said my husband, a glutton from punishment.

Then the two shot each other the "We-are-in-trouble-now-but-it's-too-funny-to-worry-about" look, to which I responded by giving them a look of my own. I'll leave the interpretation of that one to them.

Luckily for them, I have a soft spot for John Wayne and a certain 10-year-old boy. I soon found myself watching the movie and actually caring about where and when the nitroglycerin would explode. The "if" was never in question to anyone, but my son. He anxiously awaited the moment, and his enthusiasm and observations, such as "Man, cowboys get offended easily," made me happy I have a boy to watch westerns with.

When the big kaboom finally happened, I turned and gave my daughter, snuggled up next to me, a look, and then I granted her permission to change the channel to the new episode of "Cupcake Wars," followed by "Say yes to the dress."

It was then that she returned my look, and I knew just what it meant. It said, "I'm glad I'm not the only girl in the house, too."

Friday, July 29, 2011

Happy campers

Sending one's little boy off to camp for a week is not for the faint of heart. But, perhaps, worse than that is unpacking his bag of clothes afterwards.

My friends and I recently sent our sons to fend for themselves in the woods. In our case, it meant they'd have to apply their own sunscreen and bug spray and change clothes without being told while they slept in air-conditioned cabins, got fed three wonderful meals a day (not to mention snacks) and were well-tended by some of the most caring counselors I've ever met.

But for 10-year-old boys and mothers who dote on them, it was roughing it.

One might think that our biggest fear would be a snake bite or perhaps them getting lost, or concern over them canoeing across the lake, but no, by and large, it was two things – identifying their toothbrush and using it and keeping their dry and wet clothes separate. If they managed to take a shower, well, that would just be a bonus.

We were fortunate enough with this camp to see daily pictures of the wildlife, I mean the kids at camp, without them realizing it. It's not spying; it's simply reassuring – or not. One thing we moms of boys noticed was that they wore the same clothes pretty much every day. In the midst of their fun, we couldn't help but see that the snacks they bought at the canteen weren't exactly what mom chooses. In one picture, my friend pointed out that the leader was clearly talking, and her son was clearly talking to mine. While I proudly observed in another photo that mine had his hand raised, I'm assuming to answer a question and not to ask if he could go to the bathroom.
Being moms, it didn't take us long to realize that we missed kissing their sweaty happy faces, so we all decided to go down for dinner mid-week. The boys greeted us with great pride and an enormous appetite. Watching mine dig into camp food made me second-guess the saying "Nobody makes it like mama does."

"What have you done this afternoon since it's been raining?" I asked.

"We've cleaned the cabin," my mom ears heard. I beamed with pride and thought, "Well, we've worried for nothing. How sweet of him to clean up for his mama."

As I walked into the cabin, tiptoeing over plastic bags that held God-knows-what, and carefully made my way to the back where his bunk was located, I said, "I thought you said you cleaned the cabin."

"No, Mom, I said we PLAYED in the cabin."

As I watched him proudly show me the tent he made on his bunk, I asked, "Where is your stuff?"

He pulled back the cover and pointed to the damp pile on the floor underneath. I could see crumpled-up letters I wrote, along with all his other earthly belongings.

"Ah, I see."

He was too proud for me to fuss at him. It wasn't long before the locker room smell made me start to cough, so I said my good-byes, got my sweaty hug and promised him Dairy Queen when he got home. I looked back as I left and saw that he and his friends were happily turning the clothes line outside into a sling shot. I couldn't help but smile.

We moms soon congregated in the parking lot to share our horror stories. It went something like this, "Did you smell that cabin?"

"Did you see that bathroom?" the other replied.

"No," I said. "I wouldn't go near the bathroom."

"Well, I did," said one mom, "and I couldn't find the special toothbrush I gave him with the suction cup, so it wouldn't fall over and get germs on it. I asked my son where it was, and he said, 'It's still in my bag. Mom, I'm at camp. I don't need to brush my teeth!'"

"Did you see the scratches and bruises on them? I'm sorry your son fell and hit his head," I said to another mother.

"Yes," she said. "He was so proud!"

"I told my son to change every day before he left. He said he did change every day – into the same thing."

"My son was so proud that he'd only worn one out of six pairs of socks that he packed," said another.

"I had to make a quick getaway," said one mom. "As I was saying good-bye, I saw giant tears wheal up in his eyes. I said, 'Son, are you crying.' He said, 'No, mom, just got something in my eye.'"

And, suddenly, so did we.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


"Stop it!"

"I said stop it!"


"What's going on?" I turned my head around to see what was going on in the back seat behind me as we waited in line for my daily fix of Chick-fil-A sweet tea (split with extra ice).

"He's pointing at my finger and saying, 'Finger!'" my 13-year-old daughter said, looking angrily at her 10-year-old brother.

"Oh, my gosh!" I exclaimed in mock horror. "Son, I thought I raised you better than that! How dare you?"

Of course, they both laughed at the absurdity of it all. And though finger pointing (so to speak) wasn't really a big deal, I did acknowledge that it was the little things that can sometimes drive a person mad -- especially when it comes to siblings.

I grew up with a sister four and a half years younger than I. I have to admit, I wasn't always very nice to her. I didn't want her to touch my stuff, especially a tape recorder I got one year. I remember this because, as an adult, I found a long-lost tape, and on it is my sister's voice, whispering, "This is Leigh's tape-a-ma-corder. I'm not supposed to be on it!"

I guess it was just too much for her to resist.

I also didn't want her to follow me and my friends around -- until we got bored. Then I'd call on my sister for entertainment. You see, she was a great gymnast and could do 12 back handsprings in a row, dozens of round-off back handsprings and pull-ups. She was also the fastest runner on the block. I'd have her line up against all of the neighborhood boys. She'd take off her shoes, and as soon as I said "Go!" she'd run like the wind, leaving them confused and demanding a rematch.

My sister was also very strong for her age. She'd ride me around on the back of her bike, pull me around in whatever toy I was in, and even swim underwater like a dolphin while I rode on her back. I'm sure I never thanked her for it.

And though I can recall many times complaining to my parents "she's looking at me," I was always glad to have her there. We spent many hours listening to records and singing at the top of our lungs. My sister could (and still can) do spot-on imitations of anyone -- mannerisms and all. Never did I appreciate it more than when my mom had a stroke four years ago. My sister's imitation of the little prissy nurse who was rude to us had us laughing until our sides hurt, despite how dire the situation with my mom was at the time.

She's also one of the most caring people I've ever met. Let's just say she has a lot of Mom in her (no offense, Dad). Not only does she care about people, she adores animals -- big and small. I can remember her befriending strange horses and other creatures we'd encounter as children.

Today, she's a grown woman with a family of her own. She is living a good 4,000 miles or more away in Alaska. We called each other recently just to say hello and ended up talking for two hours. My parents were concerned about the bears when she moved, but knowing my sister like I do, they have nothing to worry about. She'll have them eating out of her hands in no time.

So, I hope she'll forgive me for getting exasperated with her as a kid, 'cause the truth is I could not have asked for a better friend -- then and now. I hope my children will grow up and feel the same way about each other. Until then, I'll referee and remind them that one day, when I'm old, they'll be happy to have each other. Who better to complain about their crazy mom to?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What not to say ...

I heard on the radio recently a list of things not to say to women. While some of them were appropriate, such as "Where did you get that idea, your mother?" the majority, I thought, were, well, more than likely written by men. Therefore, my first reaction was, I can do better than that. So in light of that, here's my list ...

When your wife asks you "How'd you like the new dish I made for dinner?" don't reply, "It was different." She'll take that to mean "horrible" and you'll be eating peanut butter and jelly from here to eternity.

When your wife asks, "How do I look?" don't reply with a "fine." Trust me, she'll interpret that as (A) you didn't look or (B) she looks bad, but you're afraid to tell her. Either way, she'll go change.

When it's Mother's Day --even if you don't have kids --never, ever tell your wife, "You're not my mother."

Speaking of mothers, never tell your wife, "That's not how Mama did it, made it, fixed it, etc." Just don't.

If your wife is sick, never tiptoe into the bedroom and tell her you have a problem, all of the forks are dirty. Just ask my mama.

Never ask your wife why she's not as (fill in the blank) as so-and-so's wife. No matter what the fill in the blank is.

Never ask your stay-at-home wife and mother of a toddler and infant what she's done all day. Trust me, she'll take it wrong, and you wouldn't believe her if she told you.

Never try to tell your wife that traveling for work is work. Believe me, no matter what section of town you have to stay in, it will sound like heaven to her.

Never criticize your wife's ironing.

Never ask, "What's the deal with all the clothes on the floor?" Chances are they are yours.

Never tell your wife she is being too sensitive, or you'll make her, yes, you guessed it, sensitive.

Never ask your wife if her purse is new. She'll immediately be defensive because we all know that question does not lead to a compliment.

Never ask your wife why she hasn't taken out the garbage.

Never ask your wife if she's bought a present for your mom yet.

When your wife comes home from having her hair done, never (A) say nothing or (B) ask what happened or (C) tell her it looks the same. "It looks good," is the only safe answer here, even if her hair is purple.

Never tell your wife she doesn't know what she is talking about, even if she doesn't know what she is talking about.

Never tell your wife she shouldn't feel a certain way. Just say you understand.

Never suggest going to Hooters for your anniversary, especially if she's just had a baby and the only clothes she can fit into are overalls. Trust me on this.

If she says she's going on a Girl's Night Out, never ask, "Again?" Tell her to have fun. You can thank me for it later.

And most of all, never accuse her of being interested in someone else. She loves you, even if you don't follow all of the above.

Speaking of which, if you do follow all of the above, she's going to wonder what you're up to. And when she does, don't tell her she's being unreasonable! Instead, just say, "I love you, too."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Les toilettes

There's a universal part of women and road trips, and you can probably guess what it is. Yes, it's, as the French say, les toilettes. I used to think they called it "Les salle des bains," until I asked for that a few times on my recent trip to France and learned that it meant, literally, "A place to take a bath." Big difference. Well, in most cases, that is ...

But back to the toilet issue. Women need them, and we need them often, and we need them to smell like roses. I don't know why God made us this way; he just did. As a child, I remember my dad hating to stop, as he put it, "every 15 minutes," though I'm sure it was more like 30 in reality.

My husband is pretty good about stopping, though inevitably he does it at some of the worst-looking places on the planet. I think it's a passive-aggressive way of discouraging me from asking, though I must admit I'm picky, and there have been times when we've pulled up and I've blatantly refused. After all, a girl has to have her standards.

This leads to some driving around, and, after a few tries, I'll find an acceptable place. When I return, he'll ask, "Well, how was it?" Though I realize he's joking, I always end up giving him a rating and some critique of the place. You know, areas they could improve upon and so forth.

After traveling to France, I realized that, as Dorothy says, "There's no place like home," especially when it comes to bathrooms. One thing we take for granted is -- clean or not -- in the U.S., they are bountiful. Trust me, there are more bathrooms in the stretch of road between here and Statesboro than there are in most of Paris.

Don't get me wrong, our tour of the country was incredible. We saw Notre Dame, Arc d' triomphe, the Louvre, the Mediterranean coast, Avignon, Arles, Monaco, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower, but the tricky part of our whirlwind trip, which included 12-16 hour days, was locating a decent powder room. I traveled with a group of women, and we soon bonded over this common issue. Believe me, when we asked each other "Well, how was it?" we meant it!

Soon, if we discovered a place, we'd quickly tell the others, and give them a few tips, as foreign toilettes are not like ours.

"You have to pay for this one," we'd say, or "Just FYI, this one has a male attendant inside the restroom," or "OK, they are in the back of the restaurant, but don't look to your right while you're waiting because the men's urinal has saloon-type doors," or "Save your receipt and use the code to get into this one, but there's no toilet seat (common in most of Paris, I learned)."

But perhaps the most bizarre bit of advice came in Les Baux, a wonderful, quaint place in the Provence area of France. My friend, Staci, and I went to use the bathrooms, which were unusually easy to locate. Fortunately, the rest of our group was there and were coming down the stairs when we arrived.

"There's a trick to this one," they said.

By this time, I'd been in the country four days and felt that I had seen everything, so I wasn't too worried.

"OK, what's that?"

"Well, you have to push the button to get in, and then once you get in, push the button, and the door will lock, the light will come on and the lid will lower."

"OK, I think I can handle that."

"But that's not the tricky part. The tricky part is that when you get out, once you close the door, it automatically locks and showers the place down."

Well, that was different, very different, but seemed relatively easy enough.

"OK, got it!" my friend and I said.

Off went our companions, and I ran up to push the red button. First of all, a red button never stands for anything good. Red equals panic and that was soon the case. I entered the first small silver stall and gave it a push. Immediately, the light went out, and I found myself standing in pitch-black darkness.

"Staci!" I cried and hurriedly opened it back up.

"Why don't I watch the kids, and you go first?" I asked like the good, considerate friend I am.

Staci, whom I learned remains calm through any situation, had no problem doing so.

She emerged with a smile on her face, and, as she exited, I grabbed the door, and quickly went in. It was seconds away from closing when she yelled, "Wait, Leigh! Don't let it close! If it shuts, it will shower on you!"

I stopped it in the nick of time. Flustered, I went out, closed it and heard the downpour of what sounded like Niagara Falls. Once it had finished its car wash-like cycle, I went back in and pushed the button. No problems there. When I tried to exit, however, I couldn't get the door open and soon found myself in an all-out panic: "STACI! STACI! STACI! I CAN'T GET OUT!"

"Push the red button!" she yelled.

I did and, of course, survived.

Now, nine days and approximately 40 bathrooms later, I'm home, and I'm grateful.

My husband should be, too, because something tells me when he stops at some roadside dump and asks, "Well, how was it?" my reply -- as long as my clothes are dry and my hair's not dripping wet -- will be, "Absolutely perfect."

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hey, kids, watch this!

Ever notice how the older your kids get, the harder they are to impress?

When my kids were younger, they thought I was magic. I'd simply walk up to the automatic door of the grocery store, wave my hand and say, "Abracadabra!" and it would open. If I wanted money, I drove to the ATM, punched in a few numbers, and -- presto -- money for McDonald's would magically appear. In the kitchen, they were in awe of me. I could take a cup of flour, add a dash of food coloring and a pinch of cream of tartar, and -- wham -- playdough. And if they were thirsty, I'd sprinkle a little fairy dust into a jug, add water and sugar, and -- oh, yeah -- it's Kool-Aid time.

Sigh ... those were the wonder years.

Nowadays, I'm lucky if they even go to the grocery store with me (though I'd never thought I'd hear myself say that) and $10 from the ATM doesn't dazzle them much. In fact, it no longer buys us lunch. They haven't touched playdough, homemade or store bought, in years, and after their first sip of Coke, Kool-Aid was no longer their drink of choice. Somehow, between the ages of 6 and 13, I had lost my magic.

Today, my jokes aren't quite as funny (well, they are, but they won't admit it). My daughter can almost beat me in tennis, and my son has realized that I throw like a girl. My job makes them roll their eyes, and my cooking ... well, let's just say I raised them to know better than complain about that.

All this to say, when I see an opportunity to show off for them, it's carpe diem. We spent Memorial Day on the lake and such an opportunity presented itself in the form of water skis. I grew up skiing, though unbeknownst to them, I'm not really the best. I never learned to slalom, much less do the tricks my older cousins could. Mainly, I would just hang on, hold my breath and cross the wake occasionally until my legs gave out.

As an adult, not much has changed, except for the fact that my kids were watching. Forget the long haul, I quickly realized I was good for a short burst, so I might as well give it all that I had. I waved and crossed the wake repeatedly, hanging on by one hand, bounding over the waves and ignoring the water in my contact lenses. In the boat, I could see my kids excitedly waving and pointing.

As I neatly let go of the rope and slide into the water near the dock, the kids cheered and bragged. I stayed in the water to swim a little longer, which delighted them and prolonged the inevitable for me -- getting out. My legs were so tired from exertion, I knew they would quiver the minute I hit dry land. Eventually, they went up to the cabin, and I unceremoniously crawled out, feeling happy and satisfied that I had managed to impress them once again. I fell asleep not long after reaching the cabin.

The next day, I woke up and realized I could not move my lower half without agony. My back was killing me, and the kids were hungry. Determined not to complain, I limped over to the stove, and after standing for a while, I couldn't help but mumble about it being sore.

"What's it sore from?" my daughter asked.

"Skiing," I said, surprised she had to ask.

"Oh, yeah, I forgot you skied," she said and then let out a short laugh. It could have been misinterpreted, but I knew what it meant. My back may have been killing me, but I had regained just a little bit of magic that day, and to the parent of a teen and tween, it was worth it.

Now, if I can just use my magic wand to find the muscle relaxers.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The big, comfy couch

When my husband and I were newlyweds, we lived across the street from a very nice family with four boys. The matriarch was a great mom, neighbor and friend, but there was one thing that bothered me about her — her couch.

It was the rattiest thing I’d ever seen. OK, not ever, but still pretty unsightly. We, on the other hand, had just purchased a beautiful white leather couch. Whenever I’d go visit, I would shake my head and mutter under my breath, “Why don’t they buy new furniture?”

Fifteen years later, as I sat on my faded, cracked, now off-white couch with children of my own, I realized she had four good reasons not to.

Looking back on it, my parents were the same way. We had an orange, brown, yellow and black plaid couch as long as I can remember. It’s a constant in all our family pictures. In fact, it wasn’t until my sister and I moved out that they got a new one.

Of course, there are other extremes, my grandmother kept plastic on hers for the longest time. I grew up living in fear of that couch and thought that eating on it was a mortal sin.

As for my family, we enjoyed our pretty white couch with built-in recliners on each end until the day the recliners would no longer go down, and pillows couldn’t hide the tears in the leather. The kids aren’t quite grown, but it was time for a new one. I just had to talk my husband into it.

I began by giving him a coupon for a recliner for Christmas. He opened it and looked a little disgusted.

“What?” I asked.

“You never bought me the recliner that you promised me last year or the year before.”

I had apparently given him a coupon for furniture for the past several years.

“You have to go sit in it,” I said.

He looked disgusted again.

So, to make things easier for me — I mean him — I scoped out some that had potential. My husband shops in the big and tall section and needed a couch that matched. My requests for extra-long recliners got some strange looks from sales people. It might have something to do with the fact that I’m 5 feet, 2 inches.

After stretching myself as far as I could go, I narrowed it down to a few choices and managed over a recent weekend to lure him into the store. He tried a few, but each lacked the key factor that he was looking for.

As we marched into our final store, he realized what it was and declared, “I want something with power!”

I snorted and asked, “How hard is it to pull a handle?”

But the salesman nodded in complete understanding. Perhaps it was a man thing, I thought.

That was before I sat in one.

Today, I’m proud and slightly ashamed to say we’re the owners of not one, but two couches with built-in power recliners. Despite my earlier prejudice, I do most of my work — thanks to my laptop — after pushing that magic button to just the right position. The downside of finding the right position, however, is inevitably someone will need something. I find myself saying, “Oh, come on! I just pushed the button.”

To which my daughter responded that an eject button might be in order.

As for our old couch, it was a bittersweet day when the truck came to take it away. My husband and I stood at the kitchen window and watched it break in half as the truck picked it up and dropped it with a bang into the back.

It may have been ratty and without power, but on that couch, I snuggled with babies, nursed sick little ones, helped my children with their elementary school homework, scolded them for stray ink marks and laughed at many an episode of “Seinfeld.”

I miss it already. Now, will someone please bring me a glass of water? I just pushed the button.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Boys will be boys

My boy has turned 10, and you’d think that by now I’d understand him a little better. But, the truth is, little boys continue to amaze me.

The older my son gets, the more I realize my husband really can’t help it. Men and boys are different animals. And, apart from the mess, it’s not that bad — particularly when it comes to planning birthday parties.

When my daughters were young, we spent hours planning unique and beautiful ways to celebrate their big day. Every item was coordinated, from the balloons to the cake to the party favors to the menu. For girl parties, all must be perfect, a trend that continues until the big wedding day. In addition, girls want to invite everyone because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I must say, when my 13-year-old daughter watched the royal wedding and announced she didn’t want that many people at hers, I breathed a big sigh of relief. That was right before I asked her, “Can I have that in writing?”

Back to the boy. No kid should turn 10 without a big celebration, and the girl in me was determined to make this one the best one yet. After much stress (on my part) over where to have it — gymnastic center, park, rock climbing facility, laser tag, bowling alley — we decided home parties were best, especially because all the aforementioned places were booked. (Perhaps, someone had called ahead and warned them.)

We agreed that as long as I had my valium, a spend-the-night party with a small group would work (I’m teasing about the valium, unfortunately).

“What do you want your theme to be?”

He thought for about half a second and replied, “War,” his theme for the past 5 out 10 birthdays.

Armed (pun intended) with my theme, I set off to buy decorations. As I perused aisle after aisle of cute party goods in search of camo plates and napkins, I couldn’t help but think, “Thank heaven I have my girls!”

Finally, I discovered a surprisingly good selection of items — banners, dog tags (a big hit), little parachute men and even party invitations featuring a big Army tank on it. I was so excited that when I ran into a friend, I said, “Look, what I found! Isn’t this great!”

She looked down at the invitations and feigned a smile, “Uh huh.”

It was then I remembered she had two adorable little girls and no boys. No wonder she looked so horrified. I was the same way before I had my son. Guns, even toy ones, scared me so badly. I even ran a boy out of the yard once for having one that was too realistic.

I’ve come a long way. Not only did my son have a full on Nerf war for his birthday, we allowed the boys to shoot paintballs (highly supervised) into a wheelbarrow. In fact, when my husband asked, “Leigh, do you want to shoot?” I replied, “I thought you’d never ask.”

The party ended up being a huge success. I’d like to think it had something to do with the little touches that I made — the camo banners I artfully hung, the strategically-placed green and black balloons, and the cookie cake topped with little green Army men, complete with a soldier holding a shovel next to the indention I had made with my thumb. But, ultimately, I think it had more to do with my ability to stay out of the way, and, on his special day, to let boys be boys.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Remember when?

I just found a photo of me from my 9th birthday. I had forgotten the bowl haircut my mama used to give me (because I detested brushing my hair), but I remember the party very well.

I have a selective memory, it seems. Don’t ask me to recall what I had for breakfast or where I put my keys or the name of the lady I just met five minutes ago, but I can tell you what I wore on just about any given day, details of conversations from childhood and every bit of juicy gossip I’ve ever heard.

I also have a knack for memorizing things and then immediately forgetting them. In fact, this is what got me through college. Memorize what I need to know, take the test and then hit the delete button. It may have gotten me an A in history, but it hasn’t helped me win many trivia contests.

Then there are things I guess one never forgets. And one is this birthday party. It rained. I know this because my birthday is near the end of February, and it has rained almost every year since the Sunday I was born.

All the neighborhood kids were over. The thing with neighborhood kids is you don’t always like them, but back in my day, we were sent outside and had no choice but to play with somebody. I’m sure my mom was trying desperately to keep us entertained on this rainy day. I distinctly remember her saying, “I know! We’ll have a contest. Whoever draws a picture that most closely resembles Leigh wins!”

The excitement was in the air, “Can I draw, Mama?”

“No, Leigh, it’s a picture of you. You can’t draw.”

I don’t need to check with Mom to know I probably crossed my arms, stuck out my lip and stomped my foot. I don’t need to check with her because, 31 years later, I’ve been known to do the very same thing.

My neighbors took the task seriously and began drawing, bearing down hard with their pencils and crayons.

“Turn sideways, so I can get your profile, Leigh,” said the boy next door.

I hesitated. Well, maybe being a model wasn’t so bad.

“Smile,” said the girl from across the street. I grinned and held it while they furiously scribbled, glancing up now and then at me to make sure they got it just right.

I began to eagerly anticipate the masterpieces they would produce.

One friend held hers at arm’s length comparing it to the real thing.

“Perfect!” she declared. “This looks exactly like you.”

I was about to burst with delight and curiosity.

“Can I see now?” I asked.

“Wait, Leigh, you go in the other room while I judge the winner,” Mom said.

I skipped away and waited and waited and waited.

“Mom! Are you done yet?” I shouted.

Little did I know, my mom was undergoing her own dilemma. Ultimately, she made her decision.

“OK, Leigh, you can come back in now. We have a winner!” she said with a hint of false cheerfulness in her tone.

I ran in and took one look at the pitiful green stick figure with distorted facial features and huge feet and hands and cried, “That’s not what I look like!”

I quickly grabbed the other pictures — Mom really had chosen the best one — making for a very bruised 9-year-old ego. My antics soon offended my poor guest artists, and it wasn’t long before several of them were in tears. About that time, I was taken into the other room and given a stern talking to about manners.

“This is the worst birthday ever!” I thought, knowing better than to say it out loud, and, perhaps it was, but the funny thing is, when I look at the photo I can’t help but remember it and smile.

So, as I sit and fret about my son’s upcoming birthday party, striving, as we mothers do, to make it the best one yet, I realize that sometimes the happiest days don’t lead to the fondest memories. And if it rains and we have to (God forbid) have his party indoors, I know just the contest we can have —it’s called “Draw Leigh.”

And this time I’ll be the judge!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Coach and Biscuit

“Hey, Biscuit!”

My son grins and heads to the door of his elementary school, pretending to ignore the greeting of the man in the funny hat opening the door for him. I’m not sure why he plays it cool because I happen to know he relishes it.

“I’m one of the few at school with a permanent nickname,” my son told me once. One thing I’ve learned about nicknames is you never forget the person who gave it to you; and my son, like so many other students and parents, for that matter, will never forget Coach.

Some folks may see him as simply an elementary school P.E. teacher, but those who know him, know better. Coach is an unsung hero. Each morning, my husband or I drag ourselves out of bed and sleepily drop off our son. No matter how grumpy or tired we feel, once we’ve seen Coach, we drive away smiling. And, trust me, it takes a rare gift to make me smile that early in the morning. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he’s often in full costume — just because it’s a Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday — you get the idea.

Coach is usually joined by his partner-in-crime, a fantastic male chorus teacher who somehow manages to be one of the kids yet maintains discipline in the classroom — when he and Coach aren’t riding up and down the halls on big wheels, that is.

Each morning, as Coach opens the car door, he always has something positive to say to everyone inside. And, for the poochies who ride to school, he carries a pocket full of doggie treats.

Inside the school, Coach is a lot like the Fonz. He enters the cafeteria, and the kids all yell “Coach!” and frantically wave, while the lunchroom monitors roll their eyes in mock exasperation because they have just gotten the kids quiet. Coach will then make his rounds, giving high-fives, calling kids by the special names he has given each one, asking them how their school work is going, and making sure they stay out of trouble — something the kids strive to do because, believe me, no one wants to disappoint him.

On special occasions, he’ll play music in the lunchroom and has been known to pull kids up to dance, including — to their embarrassment — certain visiting moms. Coach coaxes even the shyest kids to participate in karaoke, leading by example (he does a great Johnny Cash). The amazing thing to me is that he’s not like this just now and then. His enthusiasm remains the same day in, day out, and I’ve known him for almost 10 years.

There are several Coach-related events that the kids look forward to each year, and a big one is track.

Each day, my son ran a little farther and a little harder in hopes of getting picked for the team. We found out last Friday that he did. At least, he thinks he did. He said Coach also takes a big group of kids who don’t make it, just to watch. Either way, my son is happy to be a part of it because as he said, “Coach is not about the winning; he’s about the trying.”

I think that says it all.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I have a good day every now and then

“This is a good day,” declared my son.

I had spent the entire morning at the doctor’s office, being shuffled from one freezing cold exam room to another, forced to repeat one test because apparently the machine no longer worked. I was poked, prodded and walked in on while changing. Somehow that was the worst (even though it was only the nurse). It’s probably fortunate that human modesty is the last to go.

Don’t worry; I’m fine, and it’s a good thing. I’ve always feared something would happen to me, and I’d have to go the hospital, and my sweet church friends would come over to help out and say those dreaded words: “Wow, she’s a slob, bless her heart!”

I’m not the only woman who feels this way, by the way. I talked to a friend who said their smoke alarm went off, and as the fire department arrived, all she could think was, “Boy, I hope they don’t see how dirty my house is.”

I digress, but, in short, it had not been a good day.

But to my 9-year-old son, it was a great day. Instead of being at work, his mama picked him up from school, parking the truck and getting out to surprise him. Now, to be fair, there is a very good reason he prefers my picking him up over his daddy. It’s called Dairy Queen, which is exactly where I suggested we go the minute he climbed into the cab.

I let him talk me into a medium chocolate shake because “you know how little the smalls are, Mom.” When I saw the size of the medium, I knew I had been conned, but he proved to be worth it.

When we got home, he pulled out his folder and revealed, to both our delight, a week’s worth of A’s. Since he didn’t have much homework, he turned on Netflix and discovered an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that wasn’t rated R. I gotta tell you, the boy was practically in heaven at this point.

After that, we went to his baseball game. Having recently discovered his missing cup (don’t ask), he played catcher, and what a great job he did. And when he wasn’t catching, he was at bat and getting hits. At one point, I was so excited, I yelled, “Boy, oh, boy!” I have no idea where that came from. Too much “Leave it to Beaver” as a kid, perhaps.

But the piece de resistance was when my son took the pitcher’s mound for the very first time. He practiced turning sideways, kicking his leg up and bringing on the heat. After a bit of coaching from an awesome umpire, he was ready for his first pitch. Boom! It was low and right across the plate. The batter swung and, thanks to the magic of Little League, hit an infield ball that rolled past short stop, past the left fielder and to the fence.

I doubt I yelled out anything from “Leave it to Beaver” at that moment.

But, standing on the mound with a big wad of chewing gum in his cheek, my son seemed cool under pressure. He proceeded to strike out the next boy and then the next. The opposing team was bent on not swinging, hoping for a walk. They got one — only one. My son struck out the next boy at bat, and suddenly, it was our turn again. The score was 6-12, and my husband had hopes that they’d come back and win, but to me we already had. We lost, but it was the best Little League game I’ve ever seen.

Afterwards, the coach presented my son with the game ball. Nothing like receiving a reward for something you’ve earned. We wrote his stats on the ball, along with the date.

As I tucked in my sweaty son (it was too late for a needed bath), he grinned, gave me a hug, and said, “I knew this was going to be a good day.”

And, for that moment, I felt what it was like to be a 9-year-old boy who just played his best ballgame ever.

And then I realized, as the mother of one, the feeling I had was even better.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On being stubborn

I just finished reading a fascinating memoir called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua. In it, she's determined -- a positive spin on the word stubborn -- to be what she calls a "Chinese mother."

This means her children will enjoy no sleepovers, no play dates and no excuse for coming in second place. They are expected to become musical prodigies, practicing hours on end.

Though it may sound to our spoiled society ears like "Mommy Dearest," Chua's heart is in the right place, and she truly believes her way is best for her children. It seems to work until Chua quickly learns her younger daughter shares the same stubborn streak.

I can relate to that relationship. My dad was determined, too, when he was raising me. Oh, not to make me any kind of superstar -- just to get me to do things like say "please" and "thank you." Sounds simple enough, I know, but trust me, it was a lot harder than you think. I remember.

One particular time stands out. I was 4 years old and we were on our way to Jacksonville, Fla., to visit my dad's friend, Andy. I loved Andy and his wife and always looked forward to this trip, in part because each morning I'd wake up to see tiny little frogs sticking to the sliding glass door. Hey, I was 4!

It had been a long drive. I can remember the hot air blowing in the open windows of our green Pontiac, with its headliner flapping annoyingly in the wind. Daddy didn't believe in stopping, which meant we knew better than to drink more than a sip of water. So, by the time we arrived, I was hot, a little grumpy and very, very thirsty.

Andy was still at work at the sporting goods store he owned, so we stopped there first. Kindly and mild-mannered, he greeted us and gave us a quick tour of his store, and, to my delight, pulled out a quarter, dropped it into an old-fashioned Coca-Cola machine, and out plunked an 8 oz. ice-cold bottle of sheer heaven.

My mouth watered, and I reached out to grab it at the same time my dad said, "Tell Andy thank you, Leigh."

For some reason unbeknownst to me, instead of simply saying "thank you" and drinking a long refreshing gulp of Coke, like something you'd see in a commercial, I shook my head and said, "No."

"Leigh, he bought you a Coke. Tell him thank you."

Again, I shook my head.

"It's OK," Andy insisted. "She doesn't have to."

"Yes, she does," said my dad, and then he drew a line in the sand with his next words: "We are going to sit here all day until you say thank you."

My dad and I settled in for a head-to-head battle. He glared at me, and I glared at him. And we waited for what seemed like an eternity to all parties involved. I can't imagine what it was like for my dad, a 200 lb. world-champion weightlifter, to have to take on a 45 lb. sassy blonde, but here we were.

The clock on the wall ticked. Andy pulled at his collar uncomfortably. Sweat beaded off our foreheads. Ultimately, I caught a glimpse of the bottle out of the corner of my eye, and I broke.

"Thank you," I said. Everyone sighed with relief. It was probably the best tasting Coke I've ever had, though if it hadn't been for sheer thirst, we may still be there. Later, Andy told my dad that we were two of the most stubborn people he'd ever seen in his life.

I love this story because it's so true. As time passed, I learned stubbornness wasn't all bad. Stubborn is what gets a person from homelessness to success, as in the movie "Pursuit of Happyness." Stubbornness is what pushes a single mom to work during the day and stay up late into the night to study so she can get off welfare; stubbornness is what makes a person get out of bed and continue to live after an unspeakable tragedy has taken place. I marvel at it.

Of course, there's always a flip side. Stubborn people learn most things the hard way (of course, how can anyone tell them differently?). My dad used to tell me there was an easy way and a hard way, and I could choose. I had no idea what he meant. I saw my way. To me, that was it.

I'd like to think that now I'm a little more open and less stubborn. But I'm probably not. Recently, my family went hiking over some rather treacherous rocks, and as I followed my husband, he tried to helpfully show me where to place my feet.

I responded by saying, "Sometimes I want to make my own steps."

And, right or wrong, that's what humans have to do, though it may mean falling down and getting hurt. And when you do, hopefully, there's someone who loves you standing by with a cold Coke. Just don't forget to say thank you.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

We love Lucy

A girlfriend of mine recently complained about the high cost of taking her new puppy to the veterinarian.

"That's why we see a country doctor who charges us a flat rate for shots -- you know, ever since the Lucy incident," I said.

"The Lucy incident?" she asked.

Lucy was our beloved black Labrador Retriever. You see, at the time, we weren't as savvy as we are now. Today, we take advantage of the discounted rabies shots that are offered around the county. When we got a new lab for Christmas, we shopped around for an inexpensive vet, stopping short of buying the shots and administering them ourselves as a friend of mine said she did.

Does it mean our pooch is less pampered or we love him less? Not hardly. It just means that I will never again have to call my husband and whisper into the phone, "Honey, can you please bring me $350, so the vet will release Lucy?"

His reply? "Tell them to keep her!"

Taking Lucy to the vet was never something I relished. She had a way of wiggling her thick neck out of the tightest leash, and once she did, she bolted as if her life depended on it. No calling, begging, bribing or getting in the car and threatening to leave could coax her back. The kids used to think chasing her was the answer. Lucy enjoyed this game very much. She'd allow them to get almost within arm's reach, and then she'd run again.

The day of the incident, I decided to take her and our cat in one fell swoop, a feat hard enough by oneself, plain insane to try to do with three young children. By the time I unbuckled the kids' car seats, and took out the cat, who was hissing and rocking in her carrier, Lucy had slipped out of her collar and was on the run -- straight down the hill into the parking lot below toward some poor terrified man.

"Don't worry! She's sweet!" I screamed down to him.

Not taking my word for it, he decided to run. My kids gave chase, and I tossed the cat carrier aside to pursue them all.

Fortunately -- or unfortunately -- we caught her, put her leash on, dragged her up the hill and got her inside.

"What can we help you with today?" asked the veterinarian.

"Oh, we are just here to get the animals' rabies shots," I said.

"What about a check-up? It's very important that they have their regular check-up. You want to be able to detect any signs of illness early," she said.

"Illness? Lucy's sick?" all three children cried in unison.

"No, she's fine. It's just a check-up!" I said to the kids, beginning to feel a little concerned.

"Hmmm ..." said the vet as she examined our dog. "Have you had her thyroid checked?"

"Um, her thyroid?"

"Yes, it's very common for labs to have problems with their thyroid, especially labs who are overweight like Lucy."

"Oh, I'm sure it's fine."

"I need to tell you that it's a very serious problem, and, if it goes untreated, it could shorten her life span considerably," said the vet.

"Shorten her life span? You mean die? We don't want Lucy to die, Mom! Do the thyroid test, please!" the kids implored, looking at me with big, scared eyes.

"OK, do the test," I said.

"And, I think we need to get her on some diet dog food, too," the vet said. "That is, if you want to keep her around a little longer."

What could I say?

"Sure, we'll take the diet dog food."

The vet continued to make suggestions and the next thing I know I'm calling my husband asking him to take out a loan.

"Diet dog food? Why not just feed her less?" he said.

He had a point.

"You need to get an itemized bill," he said.

I requested one, and as I looked over it, I saw something that I couldn't help but laugh about. At the end of the long list of charges were the words:

Anal glands expressed --complimentary.

That pretty much summed up how I felt.

To add insult to injury, a few weeks later, when I returned home from work one day, my husband said, with more than a hint of sarcasm, "Well, you'll be happy to know that the vet called, and Lucy's thyroid is just fine."

The good news is Lucy lived a nice long life, reaching the age of 13. We fed her table scraps and found her pleasingly plump size made her much easier to catch when she playfully ran away. And she never had to return to the vet again.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Big, fat birthday

I have big, fat round birthday coming up. My friends love it. You see, there are those who have already past this milestone and feel my time is long overdue. I understand that feeling.

I have a sister who is 4 years younger. I remember once I thought she was turning 30, and she said, "Oh, God, no. I'm not THAT old." I made sure that, the following year, when she did turn 30 that I called her, and do you know what I said?

I said it's about (bleep) time!

That's just part of being a big sister. It's universal. When my good friend, Dee, turned 40, her older sister called her and said, "Welcome to my box!"

"What?" Dee said.

"My box! Now when you are filling out questionnaires, you have to check the 40-50 box!" said her sister giddily.

I imagine I will get an equally giddy welcome wagon call from Dee on my birthday as well.

Aging (man, I hate to use that word) is a funny thing. If it weren't for the fact that my children can almost look me directly in the eye, I don't think I would notice. Well, except for the pain in my hip ...

My dad once said that he feels just like he did when he was in his early 40s until he looks in the mirror and sees how white his hair is. Of course, I'm sure I contributed to many of those gray hairs.

The truth is, I really don't mind turning 40 as long as I don't have to run a half-marathon. While I admire the many, many, many women who do this at this age, I don't wanna. I didn't want to at 20, and I don't want to now.

In fact, I even asked Dee if she thought I had to in order to get into the 40 bracket.

"Nah, you'll still be 40 anyway," she said giggling with pleasure at the thought.

So, in lieu of running, she and I are going to try ziplinning. You can do this in Whitesburg, you know?

My other goals are a little less physical:

Reading more -- I joined a book club six months ago. That was the first step. Now if I would only start reading the books.

Use cruise control -- I don't really have a burning desire to do this, but since my husband can't believe I've never used it, I will give it a try. Plus it might cut down on speeding tickets.

Stay up-to-date on current events -- If they would quit changing everyday, I could do this one.

Above all, I vow to dwell less on age. A friend of mine said 39 really is worse than 40 because of the dread factor, and I believe her. After all, age is just a number. That is until you're filling out questionnaires and have to check the 40-50 box!