Happy Birthday, Rachel!

The month of May is full of family birthdays. Today is the last one. Our beautiful daughter, Rachel Rebecca, today turns 30 on the 30th. Several people (the birthday girl included) have asked me how I feel about that. Well, I kind of feel like some of the gas station owners when gas hit $4 a gallon, and they didn’t have enough numeral 4’s in stock to change all their price signs. I’m not sure I’m quite prepared to have a kid (OK, young adult) with the number 3 at the beginning of her age. But prepared I must be, for the day is upon us.

The greatest fallacy when a new family member is born is to think you are getting a “baby,” when in fact, you are getting a baby and, if you’re lucky, a 10-year-old, 20-year-old, 30-year-old, and many decades beyond. Each year has been full of surprises. We were surprised to find out I had been carrying a girl on May 30, 1978, for that is when she came into the world, and we have been surprised ever since.

That’s one thing great about having children - you can’t predict where anything will go.

In looking back over her childhood photos, one can see she had a....well....an eclectic sense of style. Now as an adult, she has wonderful taste in dressing herself and her family (although no telling what she’s wearing this morning at home as she reads this blog!). In high school, she was enamored with football, football, and more football. She was the first female manager of her school’s football team. She helped take her school team to the state championship. She never missed a 49’ers game. She was confident she would grow up to marry Steve Young, their quarterback at the time. Now she hasn’t had a chance to see a football game in ages. She doesn’t even keep up with the standings. Her life has become filled with other things more important.

As she grew up, she was never interested in cooking or domestic chores. (It didn’t help that her Dad did all the cooking in the family. For years she thought that was the norm.) She was a true women’s advocate. She believed women could and should do anything, and she prepared herself for a preferred career as ESPN’s first female football anchor. After signing onto college as a communications major, though, she read a book which helped her figure out that her talents lay not in sports broadcasting but in teaching, and she switched to education and never looked back. And how is she in the kitchen? Well, that young adolescent Rachel would have been amazed to learn that young adult Rachel cooks like a pro, makes her own bread, and even made her own baby food when she became a mother!

The teenage Rachel spent money like crazy, if she had it. The adult Rachel has learned the value of a dollar, little though it be, and spends accordingly. The Rachel of a few years ago would have thought choosing a pink environment for her little girl would have been giving into stereotypes - but guess what color Caroline’s room is? The teenage Rachel who was brought kicking and screaming to Maine in 1996 is now married to a native Mainer and can appreciate the beauty of the state.

Now the little baby who - gasp! - came home from the hospital 30 years ago today IN MY LAP IN THE FRONT SEAT OF THE CAR is a certified car seat technician, spending many hours volunteering at a local hospital and other places to check car seat safety, instruct parents on choosing and using car seats, and doing her part to make child safety a priority in all vehicles.

So as you can see, there have been a lot of major changes in Rachel’s life, as there should be, and I’m sure there will be many more, as there should be. But all the while, some things have not changed, and I pray they never will. She is still full of love, laughter, and creativity (even if she denies her gifts in the latter). She has always been intelligent and a fantastic speller, grammarian, and book lover, and those talents she is passing on to her children. She has always been exceptionally tolerant to human differences, and that has only grown stronger. She has always been loyal and committed to her family, and as a family we are better for it.

Rachel has been known to worry, however, that she has disappointed me in some way, because she has never taken up quilting or sewing or music. What she fails to realize is that I did not want a daughter who is my clone. I just wanted a daughter who was intelligent, kind, wise, who could spell like an expert, learn a smattering of French, and know some basic facts about Abraham Lincoln - and I got that and so much more! We couldn't be prouder!

Oh yes - and she has always loved birthdays - anybody’s birthday, but her own is always special. She loves the recognition, reflection, and celebration that comes with birthdays. So Happy 30th Birthday, sweet Rachel! You have matured in wise ways, and have stayed the same in equally wise ways. We love you!

Happy Birthday, Mama!

I’ve been trying this year to honor the birthdays of family members by posting in this blog, but this is one of the hardest to create. My mother turns 85 year old today. If you know my mother, you know that words fail when talking about her. If you have never met my mother, you’ve missed something special.

You can’t pick your parents (although my son Matt swore when he was younger that God took him on a world tour before he was conceived to have him choose his mother, and he chose me), but being born to this incredible lady was an extraordinary blessing to me and my sister. We tease her about her eccentricities and she laughs with us. She is the most patient person I have ever met, the most accepting of life’s events, the most generous and most encouraging woman. She is prepared to believe the best about anyone, almost to the point of naiveté. She has been robbed many times - from someone breaking in her house to someone stealing her license plate - twice - and someone digging up her azalea bushes in the front yard at night, which is kind of ironic, because if someone just asked her for something within her power to give, she would give it without hesitation. She will purposefully go without in order to have money to give to others. She finds equal pleasure in a photograph of her great-grandchildren sent through the mail and my sister’s homegrown lettuce. She celebrates with us in big things, yet delights in the very small things. It is so easy to bring a broad smile to her face, or, if you’re lucky, a hearty cackling laugh.

Our dad died in 1980, and for 28 years, she has lived alone, a hard adjustment, but one she has managed to do successfully. She will drive anyone anywhere, she will do a good deed for anybody, and she is always surprised when someone does something for her - as if she never expected it. Her life has been always lived for others - her family, friends, neighbors, and church. She knows no other way.

My sister and I play the piano today because she always wanted to play, but never got the chance to learn. She plays vicariously through us (and my two nieces, who have carried on the tradition).

And I live vicariously through her. I desperately try to emulate her generosity and patience and positive attitude, although I’m afraid I’ll never come close.

I’m flying down to Memphis in August to surprise her for a visit. Every minute with her is precious and bittersweet, as I am always conscious of another impending separation. What did I do to deserve such a wonderful mother? Nothing. What can I do to honor her? Live a life worthy of her daughter. I only hope I am up to the task.

Happy birthday, dearest Mother! I wish you many more years of being a blessing to those around you!

The Poor People Project

I had the pleasure of baby-sitting granddaughters Caroline (5) and Charlotte (2-1/2) today. I am a firm believer in teaching moments - and those are not one-way, either. The girls have as much to teach me as I have to teach them.

While Charlotte was napping, I asked Caroline what she wanted to do. She said she wanted both of us to draw pictures of Abraham Lincoln. But these weren’t going to be ordinary pictures - oh no. She continued: “Then after we draw pictures of Lincoln, we will fold them up and stick in a bunch of money and give it all to Poor People.” One never quite knows what Caroline is going to do or say, but it never fails to amaze.

She brought out two sheets of paper and her box of markers, and we set out to create our masterpieces. She apparently had messed up on her drawing, so she obliterated her false start with black marker and began to draw underneath it. Always feeling the need to give an explanation for everything, she said she had decided that that was a rain cloud, and she was starting over to draw Lincoln underneath the rain cloud. I told her that was quite appropriate, since in real life, Lincoln probably felt as if he were under a rain cloud frequently.

We finished our pictures. "Sign your picture, Grammy," she told me, as she carefully printed CAROLINE on the right side of her drawing, having run out of room after the N and having put the E on the next line by itself.

“Now for the money,” she said. We went into her room and she grabbed her piggy-bank off a shelf. Her piggy-bank looks like a jungle scene, and it plays Talk to the Animals. She struggled to control the heavy object as she lowered it to the floor. “I want to put in bills,” she said, “because Lincoln was a President and there are Presidents on dollars! Do you get it?” Yes, I got it. Then she said, “Except I don’t have any bills. But I have coins, and there are Presidents on coins, too!”

She turned the piggy-bank over and started reaching in a small hole, pulling out whatever coins she could retrieve. As she did so, she began to relate to me how much she wanted to help Poor People. I capitalize that because she used the phrase almost as if she were using someone’s name.

“Poor People need my help,” she told me. “We certainly don’t want them shivering outside, standing in the rain, in the mud!” She pulled out a couple of quarters, then looked up at me again. “This money will help them buy the things they need, like...houses, and cars, and couches.” She grabbed a nickel and pulled it through. “And if they can’t afford a car, they can use this money to buy a wagon and some horses.”

Finally she had about 20 coins. She folded her Lincoln drawing and poured the coins inside, then tried to tape the paper shut, but the coins kept falling out. I could see that unless I did something, she would be using a whole roll of tape to try to control the spillage. So I took apart her first attempt, and showed her how to line up the coins and get one piece of long tape and tape across the line to hold every coin in place. She made and taped two lines of coins, one on the top and one on the bottom of the picture. Satisfied with the result, she went to her desk and came back with an ivory envelope, and we carefully folded the drawing, coins intact, placed it in the envelope, and she ran her tongue across the flap and sealed it. She handed the envelope to me.

“I’ll write Poor and then you write People,” she instructed, handing me a pen.
“Do you know how to spell Poor?” I asked her. She spelled it aloud correctly, then wrote it in capital letters on the front of the envelope.
“Now you write People,” she said. So I did.
She then said, “Grammy, I want you to put a stamp on this envelope, and when you leave today, I want you to mail it.”

We, of course, weren’t through yet. We went back into the living room, got my drawing of Lincoln, and proceeded to do the very same steps - except this time, the coins were coming from my wallet. Again, we taped, and again, she wrote POOR and I wrote PEOPLE on the envelope, and again she gave me the same mailing instructions.

When Rachel got home, I brought out the envelopes and explained the situation. She said, “Caroline, I don’t think this is enough money for poor people to buy a car or house. But do you remember how the grocery store always has cans at the cash registers where they collect change for kids who have cancer or people who are hungry? Would you like to take these to the grocery and give the money to those people?” Caroline thought that was a good idea.

I went to Caroline’s house today thinking I would be a teacher, and I left a student. I was worried about how the ever-increasing gas prices would affect me as I filled up on the way home, and Caroline was thinking about Poor People, and not only thinking about them, but actually putting her thoughts into action.

“And a little child shall lead them.”

Trips of a lifetime

My sister sent me a great book last year called “Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.” It’s a very entertaining book, and my favorite part is the author describing his attempt to get his family interested in Lincoln history by bundling them in the car and going on a car trip, following the old Lincoln Heritage trail. He states that the Heritage Trail (which includes, oddly, some non-Lincoln sites in the states involved) was an invention of the Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky tourist industries, in an era when gas was cheap and families took vacations together.

Alas, today gas prices prohibit even the most determined families from driving hundreds of miles in the car to see the country. Such a shame! My sister and I can’t imagine childhood without the annual vacation. Our trips were on a tight budget - our father didn’t make much money - but he made sure he saved enough to pay for an annual 2-week trip and enough film to record it for posterity.

For Joy and me, our trip started months in advance, when we spent our free time writing lists of everything we wanted to pack, from clothes to accessories to books to games to the old salon-style hood hairdryer, which we to this day can’t figure out how Daddy got in the trunk. Soon we’d see envelopes in the mail from AAA, and it wouldn’t be long before Daddy would be sitting down at the table at night, studying their recommendations and trying to find out which motels would give us discounts for what. As the trip grew nearer, the anticipation became almost unbearable. Finally, the night before the trip, Mama would stay up practically all night frying chicken and making the ingredients for our picnic lunch, a tradition on the first day. She also had to wash clothes and pack for Daddy, and then worry for the next couple of days if we had unplugged the iron and locked the house. We never could understand how vacations just made her tired, when they energized us!

When my husband Ed was young, his family took fewer trips, but their trips were a lot different. They traveled to one destination and stayed there for a week, for instance, in a nice hotel. In contrast, we tried to see as many things as we could in the time allowed, and the motel was not for luxury, but for a clean place to sleep, so we could rise early and try to cram in another full, glorious day. We ate one meal out a day, and the rest of the time we went to a local grocery store and filled our cooler with the staples - Vienna sausage, bologna, cheese, bread, crackers, pork and beans, cereal, maybe some fruit, RC cola (or whatever was on sale), and a little container of milk (enough for cereal), tuna fish. We had a “goodie bag” of candy and snacks, a transistor radio, Travel Bingo, and songs and word games to keep us occupied. Most nights we had a pool and TV at the motel. What more could a kid in the '60s and early '70s want?

And the things we saw! National parks, state parks, local parks. Museums, historical homes, old mills. Washington, DC (with a fit, sunburned Ted Kennedy graciously stopping to chat and appear in our home movies). Philadelphia. Toronto. Colorado. Niagara Falls. Florida beaches. Mountains, rivers, lakes, streams. Everything to do with Lincoln - birthplace, childhood home, lawyer's office, the house in which he married, the church he attended, Lincoln Memorial, Ford's Theatre, the room in which he died, his tomb, and his chair on the fatal night (that's in Dearborn, Michigan!). Along the way, Stuckey's travel stops and wonderful tacky gift shops at each location. Our destination didn't have to be famous to make memories, either. We interacted with a talking myna bird at one motel. Watched Mama eat brains at a restaurant for breakfast. All of us got sunburned once, and Mama put wet tea bags on us as her home remedy. (What did we expect? We used baby oil for suntan lotion!) The trips became so wonderful and memorable that I started to keep journals.

We knew the trip was coming to a close when Mama took her house keys out of her purse to hold them for the last 200 or so miles. It was always good to come home, drop the home movies film off to get developed, see the cats again, and enjoy the rest of the summer. It wasn't long, though, before Daddy was already planning the next incredible trip.

The days of $12 motels for a family of four and 35-cent-a-gallon gas are gone. So are the opportunities for so many families to recreate what we took for granted. But every spring about this time, I start remembering those old family vacations, and I smile. I can almost smell the chicken frying in the kitchen.

Happy Birthday, Caroline!

Five years ago today we were all sitting in a hospital room while our daughter Rachel labored to give birth. The decision was made to go for C-section after all other options (and Rachel!) were exhausted, so Ed and I were full of anxiety over the surgery as well as excited over the birth of our first grandchild - and up to the actual birth, none of us knew the baby’s gender.

We alternated our time between the nurses’ station and the patient room, waiting for word. Finally we heard a loud, lusty cry, and in just a few minutes, the midwife, who had stayed to assist in the surgery, brought a precious bundle to the room. I learned we had a girl - Caroline Alice - and I fell in love with her the moment I saw her. I cried when the midwife gave her to me. I was so overcome, I’m surprised I didn’t drop Caroline right on the floor. The whole experience was unbelievable. It seemed like just yesterday that I was having my own C-section, giving birth to my firstborn, Rachel (whose gender we also were unaware of until the moment of arrival; we like surprises in this family, I guess!)

Well, it wasn’t long before Caroline discovered her first book, and the rest is history. I have 9430 photographs on my computer with Caroline in them, the majority of them, I think, showing her with a book in her hands. She’s graduated to chapter books, of course, and has been reading for a long time, in spite of the fact she’s only just 5 years old today and will start kindergarten in the fall.

We’ve watched Caroline grow into a lovely little lady, going from shy and introverted to outgoing and energetic. Just as on May 6, 2003, I was venturing into the unknown about what being a grandmother entailed, today we still are heading into the unknown. What will Caroline be like as she grows up? What new activities will interest her? What things can I teach her? What will she look like at 10? 16? 25? This year we are finally seeing just a tiny preview of an older version of Caroline, but if the preview is accurate, life with her will be a marvelous adventure - one surprise after another!

As Caroline learned what it's like to be a baby, toddler, little girl, and preschooler, she has taught me what it is to be a grandmother. What a wonderful gift! We’re both learning together. And, I might add, she is a perfect teacher for me.

Happy 5th birthday, Caroline! Papa and I are so proud of you - your intelligence, your manners, your wild imagination, your sense of humor, your smile, the sparkle in your eyes when you are excited about something, your creative blog, and your willingness to help your little sister learn how to maneuver through this world. I am so happy to be your Grammy! We love you very much, our Fairy Princess!


I had the pleasure of bringing home a bunch of cassette tapes from our trip to Memphis last August. My sister had asked me to transfer them to CD, as I was trying to transfer other old ones into digital format. One of those cassettes featured a celebration of my Uncle Tommy’s 25th birthday in 1952, two years before I was born. It was such fun to sit there and listen in on my uncle, aunt, parents, all who were young adults at the time, fool around with the tape recorder, cracking jokes, and doing generally silly things. My maternal grandfather even joined in, as he was an old hand at “broadcasting,” since he used to have a radio show earlier in life.

Uncle Tommy at that time was apparently fascinated with a commercial for Ajax cleanser. Here’s how their jingle went, and a little paragraph about the ad campaign:

Use Ajax (ba bum)
The foaming cleanser (ba ba buma bum bum)
Cleans pots and pans just like a whiz (buba buba buba buba bum)
You'll stop paying the elbow tax
When you start cleaning with Ajax
So use Ajax (ba bum)
The foaming cleanser (ba ba buma bum bum)
Floats the dirt right down the drain (buba buba buba bum)
So use Ajax!
Ajax Pixies - Three energetic pixies who cavorted about kitchens and bathrooms cleaning dirty surfaces with Ajax Cleanser. Created by the Sherman & Marguette Advertising Agency for the Colgate-Palmolive Company, these three pointy-eared personalities were TV's first animated commercial mascots. Their Ajax Cleanser commercial also introduced TVs first jingle "You'll stop paying the elbow tax, when you start cleaning with Ajax." The pixies (a fat, a thin and a tall pixie all under three-inches in height) interacted with live-action shots and piped such scripted lines as "Foams as it cleans," "Cuts grease fast" and "Floats the dirt right down the drain." The commercials were accompanied by a bouncy "Bum, Bum, Bum, Bum Bum" musical score written by Joe Rines. Ajax "the foaming Cleanser" debuted on television with its three animated pixie mascots in 1948 and continued through the 1950s.

So on the tape, Uncle Tommy took the microphone around and had everyone present sing a shortened version of the Ajax jingle, changing the word “drain” to “dwain.” I know, it doesn’t sound like much entertainment these days, but the participants were obviously having a blast. Every time I think of drains, I think of this jolly family party in 1952.

And when do I think of drains? When I consider how I use my time and with whom I spend my time, and what impact this is on my life. Ever since we started to simplify, how to spend my time has been a major concern. It’s bad enough to waste money (and we have certainly done our share), but to waste time is worse. Time is so limited, and on top of that, we have no idea how much we have allotted to us. The older I become, the more acutely aware I am of the fact that I’m on the top of the hourglass and most of the sand is at the bottom now.

My desire is for energy, because I still have so much I want to accomplish in the coming years. In reality, though, it’s easy to watch all that potential energy float down the drain like the dirt in the jingle. So I am constantly examining my life, trying to identify the people, things, activities, and thoughts that drain me. That is where I need to make changes.

I told one of my friends the other day, who was thinking she needed to spend less time on the computer and more time in uplifting and productive activities, that on her deathbed she will not sigh and say, “I wish I’d spent more time in chat rooms on the Internet” or “I wish I’d spent more time on the computer” or “I wish I’d spent more time watching TV and living life vicariously.” What will I say? If I died today and had time enough to reflect before the event, I would say: “I wish I had spent more time with family. I wish I had spent more time in God’s beautiful, amazing, natural world. I wish I had had more patience, been more considerate, been more loving and forgiving. I wish I had not allowed so many negative people and thoughts, worries and anxieties in my life that drained me so much that I had little energy to devote to things I love, like my quilts, my music, and my books. I wish I had used my time more effectively to make the world a better place.” I’m not saying that we have to make decisions about what is good versus what is bad; I’m only saying we have to make decisions about what may be good versus what is better - what may be an adequate, occasionally enjoyable way to spend our time versus what is the best and most uplifting way to spend our time. And that, my friends, may be different for each of us. We are each answerable to our own idea of how to live our own life.

We are going through many changes at work, many of them quite challenging. I have a co-worker who is unfortunately looking at everything negatively. She is a sweet person, but easily discouraged, and life is weighing her down. Now, I’m not a pollyanna by any means, but I have learned in life that a positive attitude is energizing, and a negative one is draining. There is certainly enough negativity in the news these days, and I am not trying to make light of the fact that the economy is in serious trouble, energy prices and grocery prices and the war and everything else can be enough to make one want to hide away from it all. There are surely times I want to complain and whine and wring my hands in frustration. I have found that the more negativity I surround myself with, the more worried and anxious and drained I become. Having a “positive attitude” is so cliche, I know, but I believe it contributes to energy, contentment, and productivity.

We can’t avoid completely the drains in our lives. But we can minimize their effects by staying aware of who they are, where they are, and how they subtly infiltrate our activities and slowly suck the life out of us. If anything goes down the drain, let it be negativity, complaining, anxiety, confusion, and regret. Then the drain becomes a friend instead of a saboteur. You just have to know exactly what you want to see float out of your life.