A tale of two trees.

Dear friends,

xmastree

If you’re like me, Christmas is the most sentimental time of year. By the time my birthday rolls around in early December, I am inevitably lulled into a month-long reverie of reminiscences that make January and its stoic resolutions seem like an especially cold slap in the face.

Decorating the tree has long been the focus of my nostalgia. I have collected dozens of ornaments over nearly 40 years. I’d like to claim they are each carefully wrapped in tissue and stored in tidy containers, but the truth is while some are, most aren’t, and my containers wear the heavy dust of a basement I rarely venture into.

Still, when I open my boxes and begin the ritual of adorning the tree, it’s as if the concentrated essence of Christmases past fills the room like the steamy aroma of mulled cider. My kids know the drill: I put on my favorite Christmas music (classics recorded by the likes of Tom Petty, the Eagles, and John Mellencamp); Parker manages the bird’s nest of wire hooks, pulling them free one by one; Kate attaches a hook to each ornament and passes it to me; and I select the perfect spot for each and every ornament. Along the way, I tell the same stories year after year after year.

“This doll is the from the set of six wooden ornaments I sold in high school to raise money for my cheerleading team. This is the dough ornament I made in middle school, the only one Grannie saved. This is the cross stitch ornament my sorority sister at TU gave me my junior year. This is the first ornament I purchased for Kate after she was born. This is the first ornament Parker made and brought home from Kiddie Kollege. This is the ornament I bought on the trip to Yellowstone – remember how sick Parker was with chicken pox on our trip?”

Besides my own enjoyment, the annual recitation is likely a thinly veiled stab at maternal immortality.  If I keep telling the stories, as my rationalization goes, my kids will remember them and pass them on. And some December day, four or five or six generations from now, my timeworn ornaments will hang on a tree and remind a great-great-great-somebody of Joan-Marie. Sometimes I think that’s all a mother really wants. To be remembered.

But this year, for the first time, we broke with tradition. I was at the dining room table sewing up a birthday quilt for a friend back home – too busy to pause I declared – so Kate decided to take charge. Parker fell in line with the hooks and Kate carefully curated my collection with a discerning eye.

“I’m done,” she declared, far too soon to have paid proper homage to each of my ornaments. “What?” I said. “You can’t possibly be!” “Come look,” she teased. “It’s beautiful. And not at all like your tree.”

And there, in our den, was a Christmas tree straight out of a magazine. “Look how balanced it is,” Kate said, beaming. “It’s a perfect mix of white, gold and red. Not cluttered. Not overdone.”

I was speechless. There were no popsicle-stick stars with plastic beads hot-glued on. No Hallmark/Disney frames with faded photos of every deceased but beloved pet in our family’s history. No tiny coffee mugs with each of our names painted on, purchased on family road trips from roadside souvenir joints. It was if our ornaments held a beauty contest and only the loveliest and most elegant made it on stage.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, surprised by an unexpected dose of equanimity. “Really, it is. I can’t believe I like it, but I do. You’ve done a lovely job.”

“I like it, too” Parker added quickly. “Since we’re finished, can I go hang with my friends now?”

And just like that, this old dog proved she could learn a new trick, even on the touchiest of topics, on the most sentimental of days. Instead of insisting my children watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with me (another of Joan-Marie’s treasured traditions), we turned down the music, turned up the college football game, and settled into a new holiday rhythm, one no less modulated by a mother’s heart, but newly attuned to the vicissitudes of family affections.

With gratitude {for holiday family time, whether by my own design or another’s},

Joan, who likes her Christmas trees like her baked potatoes — loaded

Tough love.

Dear friends,

I’ve got tennis fever. It’s that time of year so I can’t do anything but spread my disease to you. Forgive me, won’t you?

Here’s the first cool thing I want to share:

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My girls won their match 5-0 last weekend and now they’re headed to the Sweet Sixteen in Phoenix.

So am I, by the way. My plane ticket is purchased, my rental car is reserved and my hotel room is booked. I’ve done everything but pack my bags, which will happen on Sunday. I leave on Tuesday, and the girls start play on Wednesday. They will play every day until they lose.  I will scream loudly every day until they lose, or until I fry in the Phoenix sun, which with recent highs of 100+ might come sooner than one thinks. Either way, I’ll be in heaven even if the temps feel like hell.

Did I mention MY GIRLS ARE GOING TO THE SWEET SIXTEEN?!!!!

Oh, sorry. I’m suffering from a kind of Tennis Tourette’s and I can’t stop blurting it out.

Here’s another cool thing: My boy’s doing pretty good too.

We’ve lost track, but he’s won something like 12 straight matches. Recently, he served 11 aces in a single match. At 6’7″ tall, his serve is formidable. His doubles partner is about the same height, but weighs a good 30 pounds more than Parker. To say they are an intimidating duo at the net is an understatement.  I’ve heard tell some of their opponents are skeered. Don’t blame ‘em a bit.

The other day, one of his less experienced teammates was so awed by Parker’s serving display he later asked “Has anyone ever returned one of your aces?” I don’t mean to poke fun, but we sure got a belly laugh out of that one. You see, by definition, an ace is an UNRETURNED serve.  (So the answer is no.) You gotta love the kiddos that are working hard to learn the game.

While I’m in Phoenix following Kate’s team in the National Championship, Mr. Mom will be home following Parker’s team in District and Regional competition. Both are rough assignments, but we’re the kind of parents that don’t shy away from the hard jobs.

I know they’ll thank us some day for our tough love.

With gratitude {for two kids who make me proud every day to be their mother, not because they happen to be terrific tennis players, but because they happen to be terrific souls who also play my favorite sport},

Joan, who resisted the headline “by the time I get to Phoenix” because quoting Glen Campbell ages her more than she cares to admit

A new window on the world.

Dear friends,

I am sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee and watching it rain (hallelujah for rain!). I have a whole new window on the world, both literally and figuratively.

A few months after Mr. Mom and I moved into our new home last year, we learned that some of our windows were rotting. After a thorough pre-sale inspection that uncovered termites but not window rot, this discovery was particularly disappointing. The previous owners were meticulous in their upkeep and I have often said (and meant it) that I would have eaten off their garage floor.  How window rot escaped their notice is beyond me (unless, of course, it didn’t; but I try to give folks the benefit of the doubt). Anyway, representatives from the window manufacturer came to our home a few days ago, at our expense, to replace the ruined ones and repair the sashes on those in danger of decay — so I’m breathing a sigh of relief that my window on the world is sound again.

(I tried to resist pointing out that our home in Oklahoma, which is still for sale, has 91-year-old windows made of solid oak without so much as a speck of rot — but I failed because nothing gets to me like irony. Century-old house, sound windows. Decade-old house, rotting windows. Sigh.)

In addition to new windows, I have a whole new view of the world. Both my children have flown the nest. Parker is spending a few days at the lake with the family of his girlfriend and Kate is at her college’s freshman orientation. My house is eerily quiet in a way that is becoming increasingly familiar to me.

Mr. Mom and I woke up to an empty house this morning. We drank coffee in bed and talked — of our day, our weekend, our future. Parker has two more years of high school, but he’s mobile and has a social life that any teenager would envy and so we find ourselves alone a lot. I’ve said jokingly that I’m glad we like each other, but I know it’s no laughing matter. That Mr. Mom and I enjoy each others’ company is one of the greatest blessings in my life.

I’m less and less restless about this lack of children to fuss over and (s)mother. Even though I’m not entirely certain what Mr. and I are going to do with this newfound time on our hands, the prospect no longer unnerves me.

What does give me pause is the unknown of my relationship with Kate. Will we talk on the phone? Skype? Text? Email? All of the above? (I hope!) Will we communicate frequently, or will she be in touch only when she needs me? What does the mother-daughter connection feel like when it’s no longer daily? I assume my relevancy will ebb and flow in her life, but how will those tides feel for me?

I suspect I’ll have different perspectives on these questions as time marches on. In the mean time, I’m “swimming  upstream” and mindful of all that is new and glistening in my world.

The unflinching light of mindful awareness reveals the extent to which we are tossed along in the stream of past conditioning and habit. The moment we decide to stop and look at what is going on (like a swimmer suddenly changing course to swim upstream instead of downstream), we find ourselves battered by powerful currents we had never even suspected—precisely because until that moment we were largely living at their command.

– Stephen Batchelor, “Foundations of Mindfulness”

With gratitude {for new views},

Joan, who believes washing windows is a most satisfying chore

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

Dear friends,

Now that both my children are older, both driving, both moving about the world in ways I no longer see and supervise, I find myself confronting a new kind of parental anxiety.

Hold on? Let go?

Of course, it’s not that easy. It’s never that easy. It’s always the degrees in life that get you.

A young child in our community died recently, of a sudden illness. Our school sent parents a note about contagious diseases and proper precautions, although we all know there’s never proper anything that makes us feel better in these situations. Our entire community grieved over this unimaginable loss, and all parents who hear this kind of story feel a sharp pang of fear in knowing it could have been their child. Could have been their loss.

Sunday afternoon I tripped across this mother’s story. She lost her 12-year-old son last year in an accident in a creek on a rainy day. Not long after I finished reading the story, Parker came home after spending the night at a friend’s house. He popped in long enough to say he was going to grab his swimsuit and return to the friend’s house to swim in the creek behind his house.

“Okay,” Mr. Mom said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said.

Obviously, reading a story about a 12-year-old boy dying in a creek on a rainy day right before my 16-year-old announces his attention to go swimming in one after a day of heavy rain makes me worry. But even if I hadn’t read the story, I probably would have asked the same questions: Who will you be with? How deep and wide is the creek? Don’t you think it’s too cold and too early in the year to be swimming?

And the hardest questions of all: To what degree do I assert my concern, both with Mr. Mom and Parker, and do I allow their judgment to override my fear?

In the end, Parker went swimming. And he came home safe two hours later. Upon questioning, he said the water was not running fast. It was deep (perhaps 10 feet he estimated, which doesn’t make it a “creek” in my book) and cold. It was also fun, he said, in the same voice Mr. Mom had privately described to me what he considered reasonable boyhood adventures after Parker left with his swimsuit.

Mr. Mom lived through what I would describe as a largely unsafe adolescence. I lived through a very tame one. How I reconcile our varying degrees of parental comfort based on very different experiences is another one of those questions I struggle with.

My comfort level is further eroded because my brother died in his early 20s due to complications from a motorcycle accident. I was 11 when I watched my mother lose her only son, so I’ve spent a lifetime fearing that kind of grief more than anything.

If you are a person of great faith, I suppose you look to the Lord for comfort and answers. If you are a person of little or no faith, I suppose both are hard to come by. If you are a person in the middle, like so many are, I imagine you swing between divine purpose and pointless longing for what can’t be undone depending on the tenor of your grief on that day and hour.

To his credit, Mr. Mom has always been respectful of my concerns, even if he thinks I’m being overprotective. He usually starts on one end of the spectrum and I start on the other, and so far we’ve managed to grope our way to the middle. Or what feels like middle ground to the two of us.

At some point, I guess, all parents have to learn to reasonably judge their child’s strengths, frailties, attraction to risk, and ability to self-manage among peers in uncertain circumstances. I always judge more conservatively than Mr. Mom. I guess I’ve gotten comfortable with him tugging me his direction a little.

Some days, though, when you read of the tragic loss of others, you never get comfortable.

Until the child, who will always be your child no matter his age, walks in the door.

With gratitude {for two kids who have so far escaped serious injury and their mother’s worrying},

Joan, who comes from a long line of worrywarts but has managed to release some of her irrational fears, arachnophobia and batophobia nothwithstanding

Cheers to nineteen.

Dear friends,

We had a party last night. Best I can tell, it was a hit.

As was the cake.

I got a little nervous about running out of cake when kids kept showing up, but my four-layer beauty fed the hungry teenagers with one piece to spare. Whew!

The whole evening made my heart full. I couldn’t have been happier that so many friends showed up to help Kate celebrate. It’s been a tough year for her as she noted on a recent Facebook post: Eighteen was one heck of a year for me, but I made it through it. Cheers to nineteen and all that it brings me!

Our new little town has welcomed us at every turn over the past several months, and the kids have been especially kind and friendly. My debt of gratitude grows every day with each new gesture of friendship.

With gratitude {for strength of family, resilient kids, and the gift of new friends, which is one of the best reasons of all to celebrate},

Joan, who impressed a kitchen full of teenagers while making Pioneer Woman’s Baked French Toast (for Sunday breakfast) with her one-handed egg cracking technique

The Couch Potato has landed.

Dear friends,

I’m a little late posting today. It was a big night ’round our place yesterday. First, Mr. Mom drove all day to pick up a new toy. I wish I could say it was a boy toy because I think Kate and I might enjoy having one around. But it was a boy’s toy, otherwise known as a trials bike, and it looks like this:

That’s Parker on the bike. Doing what boys do. I promise if Mr. Mom attempts such a thing, I’ll show you a photograph. But first I’ll remind him — as I often do — that if he ends up in a sip-and-puff, he’s on his own. (For women not married to stuntmen, a sip-and-puff is a breath-operated wheelchair for quadriplegics. And, yes, I’m callous enough to bail on any man with a self-inflicted spinal injury.)

After the bike arrived, Mr. Mom and Parker made a furniture delivery for me. I am now officially a couch potato.

I am also now officially happy.

It’s a banner weekend, folks. Kate’s rounding it all off with a birthday party/bonfire/cookout tonight. Don’t worry, no teenager reeking of smoke will be allowed near my new sofa. I’ll be hogging the whole thing anyway.

With gratitude {for children old enough to peacefully co-exist with white upholstery},

Joan, who thinks the sip-and-puff rule is the only rational response to extreme sports

Sweethearts and waffles.

Dear friends,

Here’s where I spent Saturday evening:

I didn’t go there to eat. I went to see the young man in the white shirt sitting at the counter.

And this group of girls.

It was Sweetheart Ball night in our little town. Remember the girl who sent this clever invitation to Parker? She’s the one in the silver dress on the far right.

They look pretty spiffy, don’t you think?

Parker and his date accompanied the other four girls to dinner at the Waffle House, then to the dance. (Apparently, it’s a popular thing here for girls and boys to go in groups, as well as in couples. I arrived late at the Waffle House and made the mistake of asking the other girls where their dates were. I’m not allowed to talk anymore.)

I was really disappointed I didn’t arrive in time for a waffle. Waffles make great Saturday night dinners. But I was busy snapping photos across town where Kate and her date and six other couples had gathered for a spaghetti dinner, hosted by the parents of Kate’s date.

Kate and her date look pretty fab, too.

You know what else I like about our new town? It’s apparently no big deal for girls to borrow dresses from each other. Kate’s wearing a borrowed dress, as were a few other girls in her group.  You gotta love a group of pragmatic teenage girls. (Of course, there are three big dances a year in this town. We’d all go broke buying a new dress for every dance.)

Kate’s friends are also very pragmatic about their feet.

She and her friend wore Toms (also borrowed).

I’d like to propose that if Toms are suitable footwear for sweetheart dances, they should be suitable for ladies wearing suits in offices. Would you make that a rule, please? My feet would bless you.

With gratitude {for Saturday night dances where waffles and exceptionally level-headed kids prevail},

Joan, who as she wrote this late Saturday night was still craving waffles but, sadly, had to settle for cinnamon toast because her waffle iron broke and she has yet to replace it

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