Friday, May 30, 2014

Is It the Things, or the Memories?

A week ago, my mom's little house burned.

She called and I could hear the desolation in her voice. I was sure someone had died. It was my mother who called the police and found my son dead and then called to notify me. Eight years earlier, she had called to tell me my beloved Ma had died. I hate these calls from my mom, yet she's the only one of my nearby Virginia family branch that ever calls, so who else would do it?

When I was a child, a big farmhouse stood where her little house had been. She was born in the farmhouse, which was built early in the 1900s by my great-grandfather and his father and at times housed four generations of her family. During a period in the late 80s, I lived in the drafty old house and loved it. Except for when the breaker to the well pump would kick off during the middle of a shower. But after I moved out, the combination of a leaky tin roof and determined termites meant the house soon became unlivable and was torn down.

In its place, she and my dad had constructed a small vinyl sided house where she stored her plethora of books (she's a retired English teacher), antiques from auctions and our family estates, vintage clothing and hats, and more recently old photo albums that she had taken to the house to try to organize and divide among various family members.

The house had a bathroom, living area, kitchen and a small eating area. There was no bedroom. That area was storage for her items. There were glass doors looking out over the field and pond and a rebuilt fireplace where the old chimney once stood. The closet was paneled in cedar boards and the bulk of the house in wormy chestnut taken from an old barn that had stood on the property. There was a beam between the kitchen and living area that had come from the barn and was hand hewn from a chestnut log. A bar in the kitchen was one huge chestnut board.

I had spent a little time in the house wallpapering the kitchen years ago, and had been there when we held family get-togethers on what used to be the front porch of the old farmhouse, but survived as a stand-alone picnic shelter of sorts. Trees and flowers I had planted when I lived there had been joined by many additions over the years, although early this year she was lamenting the hack job that had been done on the weeping cherry I planted 20 some years ago.

I could not have described what the house was like inside, or what was lost when the fire swept through it. But to my mother, it was another terrible loss piled on top of her only grandson's untimely death. It was irreplaceable treasures, gone forever; faces she would never be able to recall as though the flames had taken not only the photos, but her memories.

I wept with her on the phone for her pain, but felt nothing myself.

Anything short of losing a life fails to touch me these days, although even a pet's life still rates, as I cried when reading a Facebook post about a dog I had groomed only the day before wandering into the road and being killed. Having lost both, I can honestly say that losing a pet I cared deeply for has been the closest thing in the immediate pain to losing a child. Our four-legged family members often become surrogate children, and while the loss doesn't hurt as long, when they die an untimely death it may be initially as deep.

On the other hand, things don't mean a lot to me any more, which I guess is easy to say when I've not lost things. Still, I've said that if my dogs were with me, if I came home to find my house burned, it would mean less to worry about. I would hate to lose everything, but I've often imagined how it would be to just start fresh without the history and burden of stuff that our homes often have.

Of course, my mom didn't lose her home, but instead many of the items she would have chosen to save had her home been burning. Later she was able to recover several photo albums that were in an unburned section of the house, but many of her memory keys were lost and whatever memory they might have contained was swept away with them.

I visited her this week and walked through the remains of the house as a crew worked at pulling down the metal roofing so the remainder of the debris could be cleared. There were singed photographs scattered on the floor, burned wooden toys, shelves full of books with their spines burned away, and beneath our feet a layer of still soggy ash. Looking at the burned beam and the remains of Ma's stove, I felt more of her pain -- the connection more tenuous because I didn't see the items as often. There were still things there that could be recovered, but she said she was tired and had lost her enthusiasm for trying. We picked up a little metal bench and walked away.

After we finished our visit, I took her home and she said there was one thing she thought I'd want. She handed me a singed envelope with Pa's familiar handwriting describing its contents. Without opening it, inside I could see the soft looping curls cut from Ethan's head when he was a preschooler.

At that moment I understood her grief for those things a bit more.

Because then I cried.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Family Vacation Is a Joyful Occasion

A vacation is supposed to be a guaranteed dose of joy and it generally is.

My getaway with my family last week was at times bittersweet, but at the same time it was a joyful escape from everyday life and the shuffle of children and dogs that occurs on a near daily basis at my house. It was a chance to get on one another's nerves even more than we usually do as well, but we all managed to survive (insert laugh) as the seven of us shared a two-bedroom apartment and realized after the first night that putting the people who needed to go to bed first in the living room to sleep probably wasn't the best idea.

Still, in four days of fun, there were bits that stand out.

1. Watching the sun come up over the ocean. I think I would do that every day if I lived at the beach. There's something so special and blessed about the sky and the water and play of light. I would sit on the steps from the motel and there was no sun, then a bright band of light over the water, and then in just what seemed like seconds a ball of fire in the sky.

2. Touching a swimming stingray at the aquarium and finding that it was cool and somehow velvety. Then seeing the look on E1's face when she made the same discovery.

3. Helping E1 overcome her initial reaction to the ocean -- an OMG that's a lot of water and what if that big thing (pier) falls? We went from a "Come on, I'll hold you" to a sandpiper to a "Come away from the water!" over the course of our stay.

4. Building a sandcastle with the girls -- our first joint effort -- and then lying on the beach while they napped and watching strangers stop to make a picture of the castle multiple times.

5. Being middle aged in a two-piece at the beach. Seriously, who cares? It's liberating. I wore what I wanted it to and didn't worry about "looking good" and afterwards, although there was an unflattering picture or two (where did that belly come from in those jeans?) I was just glad to be in the picture.

6. Eating breakfast in a restaurant on the pier with my husband where we could watch the waves and the fishermen, the beach walkers and the early surfers, and escape the chaos of sharing an apartment/room with my daughter and her family and be just a couple for part of each day.

7. Waiting on the pier one night for my husband and having another woman with windblown curly hair ask what I used to make mine look so good and spending time talking to her about natural alternatives to all the chemicals people think they need. (Oh, and BTW the homemade sunscreen kept little people who didn't spend too much time in the water unburned. E1 did wind up with a few pink places as it isn't waterproof and needs to be reapplied.)

8. Chasing ghost crabs with a flashlight on the beach with hubby, the big Es and their dad. The girls squealed and ran and I imagine the crabs did much the same.

9. Dolphins in the surf on our last morning at the beach. Sure, it was just a fin and back here and there, but while watching the pelicans fish after sunrise I realized they weren't alone. We watched dolphins off and on all morning.

10. Realizing that despite what felt like a haphazard way to get everything done at home while I was away, everything survived (although the little rose I got for Mother's Day was a near thing). The dogs were so happy to go back in the house from the kennel, the chickens were still half-heartedly laying eggs, the yard dogs were glad someone was back, the house was cool and the pool was warm.

So this week I'm looking for joy without the ocean, as the old routines try to feel familiar again. It's still here, still waiting to be recognized and pull me from dark places, just like it is for everyone.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Don't Let Life Get in the Way of Living

The last time I went to Nags Head, N.C., I had just ended a disastrous marriage and was in the process of changing from a short-term clerical job with regular hours back to my chosen career of journalism.

I loaded my two children and two dogs into the five-speed Nissan 240 SX that the children's father had bought for our soon-to-be-15-year-old and, without the aid of GPS or Mapquest, drove about six hours to the Outer Banks of North Carolina because I remembered liking the beach there when I went once at about 15.

Ethan was 9 at the time, a little, blond-haired slip of a boy with no hint of the big baby he had been at birth or the hulking young man he would grow into. He and his sister slept most of trip there just to spend a couple of days at the beach.

We stayed in a beachfront motel by the Nags Head Fishing Pier. My Jack Russell, Lucy, was terrified of the beach. My daughter's cocker spaniel, Eddie, loved it. Even in August, the water was chilly, but the children and Eddie frolicked. Lucy, who was always well mannered, sat with me on my towel and watched the waves.

We ate pizza from a place up the street, watched kites on the sand dunes, bought souvenir jewelry and clothing, including a too large Hawaiian shirt Ethan fell in love with.

The next morning I was up before dawn, slipping out the door of our room to cross the dunes with Lucy who chased ghost crabs on the beach and overcame her fear of the ocean before we watched the sun come up. We played in the waves all day before heading home, chased by a storm that blew in off the ocean and heavy rain that pelted us through much of the drive.

It was a magical time carved out of lives that were never as easy as I would have liked them to be, never as peaceful as they may have looked from the outside. For years, through other beach trips and life changes, those two sun-drenched days in an old motel with two kids and two dogs have stood out in my mind as a time when our lives were in balance and as close to perfect as they ever managed to be.

After Ethan died in December, his sister broached the subject of a return trip sometime in the spring. The trip was a glistening memory in her mind as well. We both tried to reach the old motel where we had stayed with no success and she found other older beachfront accommodations. It turned to be just north of the smaller Nags Head pier, on the same street as our earlier stay.

Sunday morning, after we all managed to get our respective ducks in a row, we made a return visit to Nags Head, this time in two vehicles, with husbands, no dogs, but instead two preschoolers who didn't really remember seeing the ocean before we crossed over the dunes when we arrived, and a toddler who had never been.

We stayed three nights and four glorious days, taking in as much sun, sand and seafood as we could stomach. We visited the aquarium and the Bodie Island lighthouse. We bought souvenirs, collect seashells, touched stingrays, built sandcastles, and I personally walked barefoot until I removed a layer from the bottom of my feet. We slept together in a two-bedroom apartment with a foldout sofa bed, no AC in the bedrooms and trash trucks passing in the middle of the night.

Before dawn each day I slipped from my bed, past sleeping children and out the door to wander the beach and watch the sun rise, missing the company of my Lucy (who died suddenly a year after our earlier trip) and the presence of my son. Many times I stood and looked out over the waves and cried, mostly when I was alone, at the hole in my heart and the fate that took that little boy from me. Even surrounded by my family, sometimes I imagined how it might have been to have made a return trip with two sets of grandchildren. I pictured the little people scattered all over the beach building sandcastles and darting in and out of the waves like sandpipers, calling me Ma and demanding my help in their adventures. I would feel the tears well up and know that for a while my face was out of focus until I pushed the what might have beens away and pulled my thoughts back to what was.

Today, even though the sun is hot and the pool is warmer than the ocean ever thought of being, I'm inside, returning to reality with a new vacation jewel added to my memories.

It saddens me to know that if we hadn't lost Ethan, none of us would have taken the time to extricate ourselves from our lives for the trip. We'd have let jobs and dogs and homes and everyday responsibilities, the fact that we practically live in one another's pocket sometimes with the shared care of the children, keep us from taking time off together. Sitting on the beach one afternoon I realized that the trip was a gift from Ethan, who in dying and leaving us reminded us that we cannot take the people in our lives for granted because no day comes with a guarantee of tomorrow.

Today as I've uploaded 200 photos for processing, converting my memories from what is in my mind to what I can share, accepting that I'm not perfect, but at least I'm in the picture (which I never was 15 years ago), as I've celebrated the journey and adventures we shared, I've also let myself mourn for what wasn't and what will never be. I've pulled out the memories and photos of that long ago beach trip, and that blue Hawaiian shirt, which now hangs in my closet, and I've once again felt my heart break for the little boy I lost and my total inability to understand why.

Simultaneously, I've accepted that the tragedy of losing my son made this trip (and perhaps many more as we are already debating changes in sleeping arrangements and whether or not it would be worth the difference to have two rooms) happen. I'm not yet thankful for what it took, to change me, but I'm thankful for the change and hope that God can accept that as meeting Him halfway in accepting His plan.

I challenge you to do it, make the hard trip to make new memories and honor what you've lost. Carry their memory with you on a journey and recognize that it may be because of loss that you're taking it and that every smile and laugh along the way honors them. If you've not lost someone, take a minute and recognize that no matter how hard it is, no matter if it's only for a day or even a few hours, take the time to escape everyday life with the people you love. Find moments to treasure if it's in a hike up a nearby mountain, a road trip to a restaurant you've wanted to try, or a six-hour car ride to the beach. Do it now before it's too late to make that memory.

If you already do that, if your life has been blessed with those getaways and big memories without having a loss to drive them, then I envy you. Never stop.

Never let life get in the way, because one day death surely will.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Flashback Crunchies: How Are the Natural Options?

So in preparing for a short break from regular life, I didn't really want to take on a new project this week. Sue me for lazy (although flashback crunchies sounds like some combination of pot and LSD -- flashback munchies -- that could cause you to get fat when you stop using).

Instead, I decided to do an update on how my previous projects are working out, or not.

1. When I determined to become crunchy, I started sharing my journey with my hair, which was my first effort at going natural long before I heard the term. More than a year ago I went no-poo with baking soda, vinegar and water as my main hair washing ingredients (although not all at the same time.) I'm still doing that, although I've discovered the diluted honey I sometimes use as an alternative is called a honey-poo. In addition, I've added a semi-weekly deep conditioning with either coconut oil or olive oil. Those have to be followed with a low-poo as no-poo won't cut it. I made low poo with half liquid castille soup, one quarter distilled water, one quarter aloe vera gel and essential oil for fragrance. You can also add honey, vitamin E, or vitamin C (a ton of recipes on Pinterest). I have to use low poo a time or two after deep conditioning, but otherwise only wash once a week. Still loving it, hair is growing fast and shiney and it feels the best ever. My hair is naturally dry, thick and curly, and does best with little interference.

2. In April I quit using detergent for most of my laundry and went with soap berries or nuts. For the most part I'm still happy with the choice. My water is so hard that I can't wear anything white, yet I've had a couple of white t-shirts that have been laundered multiple times without turning orange. I have also had a few very heavily soiled items (shorts and a sweatshirt from working with dogs/yard) that did not come clean. I may look into developing a stronger natural detergent for the dirtier items, but love the natural berries and the fact that I don't need fabric softener either for everything else. I may just double wash the really dirty things or try to avoid getting so grubby.

3. Ditching my chemical facial routine (read anti-aging) was easier than expected. I'm now cleansing my face with olive oil, (cold pressed, virgin) with a bit of castor oil added. I haven't quite found the right combination, but it's easy to adjust on the fly. Castor oil is supposed to help if your skin is oily, but instead leaves my skin feeling oilier than the olive oil alone. After washing I use the homemade vitamin C serum. That's it. No lotion of any kind. I still use a mineral powder in the morning when I have time, both to even skin tone and for a little sunscreen effect on my face.

4. With fleas beginning to show up I looked for natural solutions to that problem as well and that one took a lot of research due to conflicting information. There's just no way I could justify putting a spot-on pesticide on my dogs and exposing three little people to it on a daily basis, especially when most spot-on treatments were not working last summer. I purchased Bug-Off chewable garlic tablets from Springtime and have been happy for the most part. My house dogs will not eat the chewables, so I break them and administer them daily at half the recommended dosage. Four of my dogs eat them like treats and two require peanut butter. Except for the house dogs, I increased the dosage after finding fleas on one of the eight dogs, and ticks on two dogs, but stayed within the dosage range. I also made lavendar spray -- much better smelling than pesticides -- to use occasionally. As a side benefit, my 13-year-old Jack Russell terrier, who has been plagued with allergies leading her to gnaw herself raw every summer for years, has stopped chewing herself. I'll be sticking with these, even if we later find fleas.

5. The following Saturday, I had cooked up sunscreen. No, I cannot state what its SPF is, although the recipe said somewhere around 20, I doubt it is at all scientific. It is, however, free of parabens and the known carcinogens in so many chemicals, including those used in sunscreen and lotion. I remelted the bars last weekend and poured them into empty deodorant tubes bought for the occasion, and that is all that has been used this spring on the 4,3, and 1 year old. No one has had a sunburn. I made the bars with citronella essential oil, so we also hope they will fight mosquitoes. We'll be taking it to the beach and should be outdoors, even if the forecast is for cooler temperatures.

6. Homemade body butter has got to be one of favorites, even if I don't yet duplicate the texture of a commercial product, heck, even if I never do. Creating my own scent in a luxurious, skin softening product is so easy and fun. Yes, the cocoa butter with vanilla is still my favorite. Yes, it soaks in a bit slow and leaves a short-term, oily sheen to my skin, but I love it and have no intentions of ever going commercial again, even if I am a bit slow to toss all my unused lotions.

7. Of course, spring brings ants and last week I had them, and made a homemade ant killer to take them on. This week I don't have them. It works, it's cheap. What more can I say?

8. Although I hadn't committed to crunchy blogs, my first effort was actually deodorant and realizing that most of what I was using could just as well be stored in the kitchen as the bathroom closet. I'm still not using antiperspirant and using my homemade deodorant. I'll admit, if I always needed to smell cool and clean, it might not do the job, but it isn't bad and it is safe. I'm also still struggling to remember to not use it too soon after shaving and dealing with some sensitive skin issues, but no intentions of going back. If I needed to smell better, I'd make some body spray. Regular use of black soap and water pretty well takes care of that any way.

So, there's a recap of my crunchy, with links back to the original blog and the only specific product I used (nothing from the company for doing so, although I was committed enough to reorder and leave a comment on their page as well). I have some new experiments in the works, and I'm a long way from kicking the chemical habit, but I'm working on it and I encourage you to stop and think about the chemicals you expose yourself and your pets and family to as well.

Not so many generations ago, our ancestors didn't go to the store and buy these things. They grew their food, got a lot of exercise working the land, and made whatever cleaning or body care items they really needed. Better living through technology and chemicals has left us with a growing number of unhealthy habits and both chronic and fatal ailments. I'm not ditching my technology, but anything I can do to turn the tide in other area is worth a little effort.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Out of Control Kids, or Ma, the Cause is the Same

One day not long ago I had those kids.

You know the ones.

You always want to have those kids. The adorable little angels with curls and blue eyes that make people stop what they are doing to smile.

We went to Costco and I swear, people working behind the windows in the meat department stopped to watch us go past. E3 was a happy baby delight, riding in the seat. Her older sisters skipped and chattered around me like squirrels wanting peanuts in a park. Strangers would stop me to compliment me on how pretty "my" children were. They were polite to the people handing out samples and E2 never failed to say "Thank you."

We had a grand excursion, up until the point they began to get tired and hungry. That was the time we decided to check out and I discovered that somewhere in the store when I had pulled my cell phone out to see if the number needed to be answered, I had also flipped my membership card out. That turned checkout into a more drawn out process.

It also meant I had to stop at the service desk and get a new card before leaving.

At that point, I had "THOSE KIDS."

You know those children as well.

They're all crying and whining about how they don't want to be where they are and even if you open a box of fruit treats and give them one, or stop at the drink machines for bottled water, nothing makes them happy. The baby is lying on her back in the main area of the cart kicking and screaming because she cannot have another fruit treat. The older siblings are in the seats, squabbling with one another and proclaiming quite loudly how unhappy they are to be where they are, how hungry and hot and anything but tired (because children are never tired if there is the possibility of a nap) they are and what a miserable person you are for creating the situation.

Once again, people turned to stare. People eating at the picnic tables stopped eating to look. The ladies working the service desk kept casting nervous glances our way. Some guy touting services watched as people hurried past -- no one would listen to him because that meant listening to us.

I realized this morning that sometimes the coin is flipped.

Sometimes the girls have that grandma, the one who smiles at their drama and adventures and manages to brush it off when they secretly fill an empty juice jug with water just to carry it through the house and dump it in the playroom floor. The one who makes a games out of cleaning up, and getting dressed, and getting the rats' nest out of the curls in the morning, and does gymnastics with them to make it fun.

Other times Ma teeters on the edge and catches herself looking at three little people with frightened faces and has to reel herself back in and try to laugh at herself and turn what was nearly "BAD MA" into something we can laugh at instead.

It all hinges on the same element, it seems. Being tired, or in my case exhausted. Hungry doesn't help. The times I have to rein myself in from not dealing well with their drama are also the times that I have to wrestle harder to cope with my grief. They're the times I need to avoid, but that circumstance often foists upon me. And while it takes longer for my scale to tip than theirs, recognizing the similarity means I need to work harder at cutting them more slack, not less.

I'm the adult, and more in control of when I eat, sleep, and engage in activities than they are on any given day. I should also be more in control of my emotions and recognize when their out of control behavior is actually a mirror of their other needs and sometimes a small reflection of my own as well.

With that in mind, when they are "THOSE KIDS," I'll do my best to be that grandma. Because more important than the opinion of strangers, or the amount of water spilled in the floor, more important than running in a store, or who's lying, is the absolute need to know they are OK and that, good or bad, I love them just the same.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Even When Focus is Hard, Happy Happens

It was one of those weeks that everyone expected would be tough. The week before Mother's Day and a time filled with cards, flowers, candy and plans for special meals.

Right up until Saturday, when I had to squash a momentary desire to stay home and avoid seeing the other families -- mainly because the girls might need me at church -- I thought it wasn't much to worry about. I had enjoyed a great week, indulging in my desire to bring home another convertible, whether or not anyone else ever rode in it, and enjoying my virtually baby free week.

The thought of those other families, those other moms with their arms around sons, of grown boys hugging mothers who had become the small one in the pair, hurt, I will admit. But the reality of Sunday turned out to be like so many family gatherings have been since Ethan's addiction meant he could not always be with us. There was a piece missing, but it's been missing so long that it wasn't too hard to go on.

And Sunday afternoon, after babies and their parents, and my mom and dad, had all gone home, after I encouraged my husband to go enjoy a few holes of golf because he hasn't had a chance all year, for a moment I felt the blues tugging at my heart, the desire to allow myself to wallow in what I didn't have instead of relish what I do have.

Instead, I grabbed my sunglasses and purse and hopped in my little topless car and spent nearly three hours riding the roads, listening to the radio, and reveling in the feel of the sun and wind on my face. While my little car may not be the convertible of every grandma's dreams, or even entirely random, I've found it is a consistent lift to my spirit to drive -- probably because I don't have to drive it unless I'm in the mood.

On top of the joy of winding through the gears on some of the winding roads, I went to town and hit the greenhouse where last year I loaded up for the garden that went nowhere (it was a horrible season) and finally bought most of the plants i was lacking for this growing season. And enjoyable outing, especially when the total wasn't nearly what it would have been at the large home improvement store where I had stopped to pay on my credit card, and I had the pleasure of watching the woman who owns the greenhouse planting cucumber seeds. Now this is down home growing and the next best thing to doign it myself.

The greenhouse visit also took me back when I stumbled across a small flowering maple on one of the tables, reminding me of one I had many years ago and lost to some plant malady. The small plant with its single flower joined my collection of herbs and garden plants, even after I saw several more showy versions on another table.

But my joy wasn't limited to Sunday afternoon, or a convertible, or greenhouse plants.

The baby was not in the best of moods Sunday, which normally would be a bad thing, but holding her through church service as she fell asleep in my arms helps ease the pain of what I was missing. She helped remind me to hold on to what I have and not miss the moments because of what I do not have.

On Saturday I went to shave down a Great Pyrenees that I've been shaving the past three springs. It's a back breaking, time sucking job, but the dog is a gentle giant and I had the chance to visit with his owner, who I've known since she was in high school and I worked with her mother. When I went in to clean up I saw the most beautiful miniature rose on her breakfast bar and when I came out I told her I adored it. She said it was for me, that she'd been thinking of me a lot and wanted to give me something for Mother's Day.

Earlier in the week the girls and I created my daughter's Mother's Day gift -- a painting made using baby feet prints to create flowers. Have you ever tried to paint a baby's feet? With acrylic paint? We were all laughing from the effort to keep her from touching her little feet as I tried to paint them yellow and transfer the paint to the canvas. The end result was worth the effort, although E1 did complain that E2 beat her to the color purple and she had to use pink.

Finally getting the "new" pool assembled and ready to start cleaning on today so that I can get it filled up ASAP. The temperatures have already climbed and I think we're more than ready to try out a bigger, better pool for at home family fun and beating the heat this summer.

I know that if you're grieving, this has been a tough week. I know when all the world is focused on one thing that we cannot bear to focus on, it makes the days that much tougher. I also know that by turning my attention to what I have, by not being held down by what is missing, the days can still be good and fun and full of joy.

Make happy happen. Look for joy because whatever you've lost, life is worth living happy.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

It's Still Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day.

Don't cringe. Don't tiptoe around it. It's still Mother's Day for me and all the other mothers who have lost our children, whether they were stillborn, died as infants, died as children or young people and whether or not they were our only children.

Happy Mother's Day.

Last year I expressed this sentiment to a friend who had lost her only child and my husband thought it had been a slip of the tongue for me. Perhaps, instead, it was a presentiment for me, knowing what should be said. While we didn't dwell on it at the time, I think she was glad to have her motherhood acknowledged. Last Sunday she brought me a gift of a necklace with the Bible verse that brought her peace on it. She wanted me to know she knew today would be difficult.

Happy Mother's Day.

Those singular days in the year set aside to express things we should express year round have never really impressed me. Perhaps I'm a cynic, but Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day and even Grandparent's Day have never had a lot of meaning. If you can't manage to be a good sweetheart, child or grandchild, expressing love and appreciation at least occasionally, the other 364 days of the year, then there's not much point. That means I sometimes pull off a card or a meal, mainly because it's expected, but it's not a big day personally and I've never had high expectations.

In fact, I've always felt like the hoopla of the days does more to point out the things we lack than the things we have. Valentine's Day always felt like so much more of a big deal when I didn't have a significant other than when I did. Celebrating how wonderful Mom, Dad, or grandparents are highlights their absence or makes people who have a less than wonderful branch in their family tree more aware of what they are missing.

For those who have had wonderful mothers to remember and miss, today may be bittersweet. There will be warm, happy memories tinged by loss and perhaps smiles through tears as they celebrate the day for other mothers in their lives, or perhaps gather with siblings to remember Mom. The day will be different and perhaps even difficult, but it will still be Mother's Day.

There's no question that children who have lost their mother's still celebrate the day, perhaps with a white flower on their Sunday best, but it's a different matter when it comes to mothers who have lost their children. I think the world looks at us as though we'd like to forget the day, and, even if it's painful, I don't think that's the case.

Today will be hard for a lot of grieving mothers I've met over the last five months. As we gather with family, there will be a child missing. As we open cards, there won't be one from a son or daughter. When the phone rings, it won't be that absent child calling to say they are sorry they aren't part of the celebration, or that they mailed their card too late. There will be a hole in the day, just as there has been a hole in our lives for some time now. The family gatherings, cards and calls will make it more apparent, but it is still Mother's Day.

I don't expect to feel those pangs. Last year my family got together for Mother's Day. The three Es were being dedicated at church and my parents went by to pick up Ethan so he could be part of the gathering. He was just beginning his slide back into drug use in the cycle of addiction he never escaped. While he'd been clean and happy a few weeks earlier for his birthday, that wasn't the case by Mother's Day. In typical, narcissistic, addict fashion, he told them when they arrived at his apartment that he wasn't going and had made other plans. He didn't call to wish me a good day. It was not the first or last of our family gatherings that he had simply skipped at the last moment. There's a big part of me already used to his absence, even though I crave his presence.

I've already had Mother's Day without my son. Addiction took him long before it claimed his life.

So I also acknowledge the other mothers I know who will spend today like I spent Mother's Day a year ago, missing one who could have been there, and who may not even bother to call or send a card, because those things don't have anything to do with getting high and enjoying that place in their heads where they live. I know how you'll spend today and even if they go through the motions, you'll spend today missing the child you would have had without addiction and clinging to the moment, to the hope of change just as I once did.

Whatever the pain we may feel, whatever its cause, today is still Mother's Day for us all.

Whether we are mothers, or simply have or had mothers, Mother's Day has meaning.

Whether we are surrounded by the wonderful noise and chaos of little children, the changed dynamics of a grownup family, or an empty house where the memory of our child lives in a bedroom down the hall or a photo on the wall or perhaps just in a flutter we felt in our womb that was never realized as a child in our arms, today is our day.

It may hurt, but I think we still want to hear Happy Mother's Day, because ignoring it is, in a sense, ignoring our pain and our joy and all that we went through. It is ignoring the existence of the child we loved, whether we never really knew them or knew them for years. I don't think any of us want to pretend our child never happened, even if we cry because they aren't with us today.

So don't tiptoe around the grieving mothers in your life. It's Mother's Day and we're still mothers. Help us celebrate our memories instead of our losses.

Happy Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Homemade Ant Killer Does the Job


Along with flies, ticks, mosquitoes and fleas,(and the giant spider that was creeping across the Zumba studio this week), they're the huge downside of warm weather. In fact, they were crawling into my house and along random edges long before I considered it really spring. But if you're trying to go green, what do you do?

I'll admit. I went around the outside of the house with some of that bug barrier spray earlier this year. But guess what? It didn't keep them out. I don't know if they come up through the walls or what, but I still had tiny little ants marching around my house on their eternal search for food and shelter.

In the past, I've purchased a Borax based ant bait called Terro, and it works. It is natural, but not every store carries it and it comes in a really small bottle -- I guess so that if ingested it wouldn't be enough to really poison someone. Still, it does the job.

But what about all those pictures on Facebook and Pinterest citing a homemade ant killer? Does it really work?


Monday night a full fledged invasion had begun in my kitchen and I could not determine where they were coming in. There was a steady stream of ants marching up the cabinet near the pantry and across the front of the counter all the way to the kitchen sink. There wasn't really anything to eat along the way. Maybe they were thirsty.

I dug up the recipe for the ant killer on Pinterest.

All I needed was 2 tablespoons of Borax, 1/2 cup of sugar, a cup of warm water and cotton balls. I've seen some different ratios for the ingredients, but this is the one I went with.

I keep Borax for my laundry (it seemed to help with hard water stains before I started using Eco Nuts) and it's pretty inexpensive as well for a big box that lasts forever and has a lot of uses. It is hazardous to ingest, even though it's natural, but the amount used to poison ants is generally not enough to hurt people or larger animals.

I mixed up the ant killer in an old glass jar (it will need to be refrigerated because of the sugar) and soaked a few cotton balls, which I then placed on the edge of the counter where the ants were hiking. Since we don't drink bottled water or soda, I didn't have any small lids to put the cotton balls in as recommended, so I just put the cotton balls down.

I never did see the huge ant party that the Pinterest pictures showed, which frankly was a relief but made me wonder if it was working. My answer came Tuesday morning when there were no ants marching on the counter. All week long when a trail of ants has popped up, I've soaked a cotton ball and placed it on the trail and by the next day -- no ants!

By the end of the week when I started to put this together, it took accidentally leaving part of my breakfast out to attract them.

Because of any potential poisoning risk, I've tried to place the cotton balls out of reach of dogs and children, but seriously, who's going to chew a cotton ball? I had a friend who called last year upset because his dog had eaten the ant bait boxes! The crunchy plastic was entertaining, but there wasn't enough Borax to hurt her.

The cotton balls dried out and I soaked them again, just to be sure, but the ants did not return. After two soakings, they have to be tossed because they are hard.

I still have most of a cup of ant killer in the refrigerator and will quickly put an end to any invasion for the rest of the summer and the total cost is probably way less than a buck.

So if you're looking for a solution to those little annoying ants, I'm vouching for the cheap and easy one. You figure out how to explain the cotton balls around the house.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Who Says You Can't Buy A Little Happy?

I'm going topless again.

Two years ago, with the third E on the way, I sold my convertible to make room for another car seat. It was a tough trade, but everywhere I went I had children for companions so there was not really an option. Since I didn't do much driving alone, there weren't a lot of times to suddenly miss it in the last two years either. Even though I had driven a convertible for about 7 or 8 years, I was doing OK without one.

Then the babies' momma took a 12-hour night shift with a rotating schedule so that while I may spend most of one week chauffeuring little people, the next week I hardly see them.

My convertible itch came back on every warm day, but I was convinced it was too late in the season to find a decent price and buy one. Still, I would randomly check CraigsList once a week or so, just to see if anything was both in my lower end price range and remotely what I wanted. Every time I met a convertible on the road with the top down while I was in my four-door SUV I felt the itch grow until it reached a fever.

I talked about it with my husband, who has a Harley and understands a desire for the wind. Even before I traded my ride two years ago, he had reminded me that it didn't have to be forever.

If I were terminally ill, I said, I'd go buy a convertible and run the wheels off of it.

Find one, he said. (Have I mentioned how wonderful he is?)

So, after discovering a car both in my price range and in my style range (we're talking cheap, five-speed and small, I wasn't particular) while perusing CraigsList Tuesday, I went for a test drive and fell in love with convertibles, and five speeds, all over again.

When he got off work I told him I wanted it. I hate that a purchase brings me some sense of joy, but at the same time the money in the bank isn't making me happy and I had the cash to pay for it. Money is meant to buy things we need and things that bring us pleasure, and after the hard work I put into earning the money, a bit of pleasure is surely in order. We went back to town with the money and I drove the little Miata home.

It was as much fun as I anticipated taking the back roads, feeling the wind and sun on my face and enjoying the thrill of winding through the gears on the curvy route. I was a bit surprised to find my husband in my rear view as I turned into the driveway -- although I'd been tempted to ride the roads, having not yet transferred a tag I had come directly albeit on sideroads home and still beat him.

No, I don't have the carport I promised myself I'd have before bringing home a convertible after dealing with leaks in my last one, but I do have another vehicle and this one can sit under a cover all winter if need be.

My psyche needed it now. My spirit craves the wind in my hair beneath a starlit sky, hopping out the shower for a quick blow dry with a trip down the road and back, the sun and the gears and the feeling of being alive.

The last five months have taught me that no one is promised tomorrow. That means cherishing those around me, but I've come to realize that includes me as well. If today is all I have, then I'll have it in a convertible -- low slung with racing suspension, tiny little door handles, and a chrome gear shift, all wrapped up in a matte orange color.

And as long as the sun shines and the temperature is between 70 and 90, I'll have it topless.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Remember Joy is Often Fleeting

Don't take joy for granted.

Even if it seems like life is rolling along with just an occasional bump or dip, joy isn't guaranteed or earned and it's never something we should just expect to happen.

Walking in the dark of grief for a while is a horrible way to learn that lesson. When you spend days, weeks, or even months looking at each day as an accomplishment that you have survived, instead of a day worth living with memories to treasure, you begin to realize the nature of joy.

During those times, joy is like the first hesitant tail wag of an abused dog. If you aren't paying attention, if you're too wrapped up in your hurt and fear of living again, you'll miss it instead of encouraging it. Instead of getting easier to find, I think it would get more difficult to notice, just like that dog might decide not to wag his tail.

We have to look for joy and celebrate it and hold it in our hearts sometimes. Then when those hard times come, when we want to curl into a ball and weep for what we no longer have, we need to take those glistening pearls of joy out of our memories and let them live again to make us smile, even if we do it through our tears.

We have to help the dog learn to wag his tail like he did when he was a puppy, by rewarding it, not ignoring it.

With all that in mind, even as my pearls of joy begin to feel more like a necklace than the add-a-pearl chain I had in high school that never grew, Tuesdays are my day to think back and take note of the joy.

So what brought me joy this week?

1. Rescuing Hissy from the four-lane. This was one of those those "darnit I told you" moments that I had a chance to weigh in the balance and did the grandma thing instead of the mom thing.

E1 has a toy stuffed snake with elastic in it to curl around her arm. That same elastic meant it was kind of fun for her to sling it at the car window and let it snap back into her lap on the way home last week. I had warned her that the window was down a little and she needed to quit, but those warnings don't phase a 4-year-old. I remember when we were told as kids not to stick our hands out of the window to "fly" because we might hit a mailbox and lose a hand, but that didn't stop us either. Of course, while we're breezing down the four-lane, she begins to scream from the back seat like she's lost a limb or at the very least been bee stung. By the time I calmed her down enough to determine that the snake had gone out the window, even at 55 mph for a construction zone, we were way on down the road and turning at our exit.

The mother in me said it was a lesson learned and after all she had been warned. She could just cry and get over it. Ma, however, had a different point of view. The lesson was learned of what could really happen and it wasn't really that far back, if we could find the small toy. Rolling back up the four-lane I spotted it when another vehicle ran over it, sending it in a ball rolling on the road. We made another turn around and were soon pulling off the shoulder. Not a single vehicle passed until I had retrieved the toy and was back in the car.

2. The rescue of Hissy, as the snake is named, was a joy because of the smile it put back on a brokenhearted little girl's face. It was also a joy because after I left the girl's inside the house and began backing my SUV down the driveway I hear a small voice. I stop and look around. There was E1 at the front window waving. "Bye, Ma," she called. That was enough joy to get me through a bunch of days.

3. New cushions for the patio furniture. When my grandparents died, I was the lucky grandchild who brought home my grandmother's wrought iron outdoor furniture. One of my doggy parents had just refinished his aunt's set and offered to sand down and paint mine the next summer and I swapped dog boarding for the work. The two chairs, loveseat and chaise lounge make my covered front porch a comfortable living space much of the time. After several years of use, the cushions I purchased for them had become packed down and dirty looking and I'd been shopping around for new ones for weeks. I was convinced that I needed the 5-inch cushions like they originally had, but they are super expensive ($40 for each part and over $100 for the lounge, so about $400 for new cushions). Instead I found some well stuffed, thinner cushions, and on the grounds that they won't last more than three or four years anyway, bought them and we're able to use the furniture in comfort again.

4. Replacement hens. Okay, pullets. For whatever reason my hens haven't been laying as they should, even though they aren't really old enough to stop as the oldest are only 3. Still, I decided I needed to be bringing some younger birds along although I didn't want to raise chicks. Turns out a Facebook friend not far away had raised some pullets and sold them to me at a reasonable price so there are six new birds (one of indeterminate gender) in flock.

5. A memorial decal for my car. Before Ethan discovered drugs, he was a skateboarding maniac. He and his best friend had been run off from all the best spots in town and he lost a cell phone making an escape one time. I had seen other people's memorial decals and wanted something for my car and thought of the skateboarding. I finally found an image I liked and swapped a doggy haircut to a friend for four decals -- enough for me to ruin one and still have one for my car, my daughter's and my mom's.

6. Being able to reach out to another grieving mother. It's a different kind of joy, maybe more a sense of peace, but being able to use what I've gone through to try to help someone else does make it more meaningful. Having a purpose, a meaning, makes my loss a little more bearable.

7. Having friends who understand because they are also mothers who have lost children. There are unexpected cards, calls, messages, and this week a gift from a mother who was thinking of Mother's Day this coming weekend and wanted me to know she understands how hard it can be. Their thoughtfulness and love brings me joy, even if it makes me cry at the time. I know that helping me also helps them, just as helping someone else helps me. It's an expression of the love we feel toward one another and that helps us all.

So what brings you joy? Exercise your ability to be happy.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Making Body Butter Good Enough To Eat

When I was little, I remember my mom had a stick of cocoa butter for something, maybe to use on sunburns.

It was in a metal tube with a cap on it that pushed up from the bottom, and I don't think she ever got to use it for whatever purpose she had purchased it. She probably gave it to me and I kept it hidden in my doll box where I could take it out and smell it. I was in love with the scent of cocoa butter.

When I began seeing lotions with cocoa butter in them, I thought I would be able to recapture that scent and, through the years, tried a shopping cart full -- all in vain.

Then I went crunchy with my hair, and among the recommended treatments was a deep conditioner made with cocoa butter. Just reading the "recipe" triggered memories of that long ago cylinder of cocoa butter. In this modern age of internet shopping, a pound of cocoa butter was just a few clicks of my mouse away and chunks of the fragrance I remembered were soon in my grasp.

While I love the scent of the conditioner and the fact that even afterwards I have a vaguely beachy (think suntan lotion I guess) smell, more recently I've been in love with the idea of making lotion with cocoa butter that isn't completely swamped by artificial fragrances or so much processing that its natural fragrance was lost.

My first experiment with a body lotion involved a recipe from my favorite crunchy blog which called for 1/2 cup almond or olive oil , 1/4 cup coconut oil, 1/4 cup beeswax, and options, which I added all of were 1 teaspoon Vitamin E oil, 2 tablespoons Shea Butter or Cocoa Butter (I used one of each) and essential oil.

The instructions said to combine all the ingredients in a glass jar in about an inch of water and heat the water until everything melted and stir it together.

With the cocoa butter and a little vanilla essence oil, the concoction wound up smelling good enough to eat. Just like vanilla flavoring enhances chocolate pie, the fragrance did the same for the small amount of cocoa butter.

Unfortunately, the recipe didn't tell me to whip the ingredients before they completely cooled and I wound up with a lotion block. Even after reheating them, the amount of wax in the recipe was too high for the temperatures in my house and I wound up with lotion a bit harder than shortening. I also discovered that when using beeswax, you should melt it completely before adding anything else because I still had little pellets of wax in my "lotion," even after the mixture had been remelted and mixed. Also I hadn't noticed that Shea butter comes in yellow or white, and if you use yellow, everything is really buttery in color, which I've decided isn't my favorite lotion color.

Not, I should say, my finest crunchy moment, but I do still use it -- especially on warmer days when it tends to liquify a bit more. My daughter has made a batch that is more of a cream texture, but I moved on.

Inspired by a commercial Shea butter that I had purchased earlier in the winter, I decided to make my own body butter. I even cleaned out the old container to store it in.

For body butter, the recipe is simpler: 1/2 cup each of Shea butter, cocoa butter, coconut oil and a light oil like almond or olive oil. Melt all together. Add essential oil for fragrance. I also included some vitamin E oil, since I had it any way. Allow to cool, perhaps in refrigerator, for about an hour until it begins to harden, then whip with mixer for 10 minutes.

My first batch I made with a relaxing essential oil blend that includes lavender, marjoram, patchouli, mandarin, geranium and chamomile. I like the scent, but determined I did not use enough. When I made my sunscreen bars last weekend, I whipped up another batch with the vanilla oil, recreating the fragrance of my lotion and blending with the cocoa so well as to rekindle those old memories again.

(The jury is still out on how well the sunscreen works. Both mom and I are using it on the three Es and no one is burned, but the weather hasn't been ideal. E3, I noticed today, is getting a little tan on her lower arms.)

The homemade body butter is not creamy like the store bought solution, but it softens quickly in my hand. It also leaves more oil on my skin initially. All the same, I like the fact that I could pretty much eat it with no ill effects and that I'm not rubbing a potential carcinogen on my skin just to avoid dryness.

I especially enjoy having control of the fragrance and look forward to the next batch, and the next, and further experiments with essential oils to create not just something that smells yummy, but body butter that meets specific needs. One of the bottles I've purchased already came with a guide to choosing the oil to meet the need, and I'm looking forward to trying some of the proposed solutions.

Even if they don't work as claimed, at worst I wind up with a new scent of lotion and healthier, softer skin.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Accidental Overdose Was a Seven Year Suicide

Last week, my mom called the medical examiner to see if she could get any results from Ethan's autopsy.

In a lot of medical terminology, it boiled down to accidental overdose.

It was no surprise, and yet the knowledge that he took a fatal dose of over-the-counter cough medication, something he probably always thought of as safe and something he could quit at any time, something most hardcore drug users probably laugh at, just really hit me.

Some part of me, perhaps, had been hoping there was some internal breakdown caused by long term use that could not have been easily averted. He had put his body through so much in 23 years, not just with the drugs themselves but with the seizures, falls and car accidents brought on by the drug use, that there was a chance that it was something else going on for which he needed medical care. He had complained about being in so much pain and hardly able to move, but had not wanted to see a physician. I don't know why that would have made it better in any way, or any more acceptable to think that it was less at his own hands, but at some level, apparently, it did.

Now it's been officially stated, cloaked in terms of toxicity and chemical names and tagged with the word accidental.

Without meaning to do so, without ever putting a gun to his head or blatantly saying "I don't want one more minute of living," Ethan killed himself.

It was a slow, seven-year march to death that began with taking more cough suppressant that the recommended dose. It progressed from making the local pool feel like jello, to psychosis and hallucinations of an alternate reality that were so real he sent texts to "friends" about what he was doing. It went from recreation to addiction and took over his life, crippling him mentally and physically in so many ways. It went from a for some reason desirable NDE (near death experience) to the real thing.

And I was powerless to save him. It was like watching someone drown in slow motion when you had thrown them a lifeline until your arms were tired, and it was still floating right beside them but they wouldn't grab on. It was like pulling them out and drying them off and breathing a sigh of relief, only to turn around and see them back in the water again, just out of reach and going under, but seemingly unconcerned that they weren't going to be able to breathe.

In some ways, it was like he drowned in six inches of water. If he'd only got up, he'd have been fine.

Accidental overdose. I don't know but what that's almost worse than if he'd done it on purpose. If he'd left us one last "damn you all and what you did to me" message in which he railed against life and everything in it, in which he'd tried once more to make us complicit in his choices, at least I'd have known it was a choice. Some people might find that worse, but to me this accidental label is so damn pathetic. He didn't mean to do it, like he never meant to do anything. Really. Every bad thing that happened in his life was an accident or someone else's fault. He could never own up to anything and this is one more thing he isn't responsible for.

After working four months to find some degree of peace with it, and despite the fact the pronouncement was what we all expected, it's made me hurt and most of all angry all over again.

Yes, I'm glad that he didn't commit suicide. Don't get me wrong. I'm sorry that his life was so painful for him and that he wanted to escape so badly that he just kept taking pills; pills that gave him a life inside his head where he was happier, and he needed just a few more to get wherever it was he thought he was going and that turned out to be "tripping" in the bathroom floor on some endless adventure in his mind that took him out of this world forever.

Perhaps knowing that he apparently died high and what he thought of as happy should be a comfort, but it's not.

The fact is, he was probably on that final high when he called me the last time. His speech, which was typically hard to understand when he was high, was so garbled I could only make out a word here and there. Even at that, I disappointed him yet again because I couldn't do what he wanted. I've wished a thousand times I'd said yes. But that wouldn't have made any difference because he was probably dying even then. His body was probably already in the process of shutting down as he made those final calls to me and my mom talking about a Christmas he wouldn't live to see. Or did my no mean he decided to take a few more pills, get a little further away? Would a yes have meant this pain was avoidable, or just a little further down the road?

Is the guilt that I find so easy to pick up the reason that I have wanted a different outcome on his autopsy? Probably.

But the simple fact is that Ethan's reality was painful and a promised Christmas gift would not have changed that, only postponed it with some new distraction. The reality is that Ethan did not see what was wrong with his choices. He did not see that the visions he was chasing were part of a journey that could only end the way it did. He did not want to change and although he could have been around for years more, without wanting to change, he would never have gotten up and saved himself from drowning. The reality is I'm not sure he would have ever wanted to change.

At the same time, as painful as it was living with his addiction, as selfish as it is to wish he had endured it longer, I wish I were still watching him drown and hoping he'd finally decide to get up and save himself.