Yearning for childhood lost

I am a tad bit sentimental and I admit, I probably over-romanticize things at times, too.

Maybe that’s why I often like to remember the antics and tales of my childhood so much.

For the most part, it was a time of awe and wonder nestled between Twinkie clouds and Hostess cupcake dreams.

And there’s parts of our childhood that make us who we are and influence the adults we become, even if we don’t realize it at the time.

Mine was watching Mister Rogers.

Every evening as Granny made dinner, she usually sat me in front of the televisions with a snack of some kind. Sometimes, it was peanut butter and crackers; others, it was a bag of Bugles she had saved me from her lunch break.

She turned on Mister Rogers and hoped I would stay entertained long enough to not bother her while she cooked.

And it was enough to keep me in rapt entertainment, at least for that half hour.

I was pulled into this world where kindness mattered, where respect for everyone was given.

Where people spoke with gentle words and softer tones.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was sinking into the fabric of my soul.

The show was even enough to sooth the edges on my often loud, usually hot-tempered grandfather.

“PawPaw, who’s your favorite character?” I asked one day.

My grandfather looked at the screen thoughtfully. “I reckon I like that little tiger one the best. He seems like a neat little cat.”

My grandfather, this larger than life man, who worked in construction as a roofer and often came home covered in tar and when angered, could probably frighten the underworld, liked the shy, slightly fearful tiger. It was quite a contrast.

“Who’s your favorite?” he asked me.

“I like them all,” I said. “But I hope one day when I grow up, I marry someone like Mister Rogers. He seems to be nice to everyone.”
And to a little girl, that was very important.

See, I was a chubby kid, my mother was divorced – something that was not that common back then, and my father, who I never saw or talked to, was Iranian. There were a lot of little things that made me ‘different’ and not necessarily in a good way.

But I had the sanctity and safety of childhood.

Of being surrounded by people who loved me and having friends that cared about me regardless of the fact I made a horrible choice for dodgeball or any other team sport in the gym.

I grew up and somehow, the lessons I had learned from watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood faded into the background.

It wasn’t until several years, when working in radio, my friend and morning show host mentioned it was the day that Fred Rogers had passed away.

“He died?” I asked.

I somehow had missed it a few years before and was saddened at the news.

“Yeah,” my friend said. “It hit me hard. Fred Rogers was a pretty cool guy.”

A cool guy.

I had never thought of Mister Rogers in that light before; to me, he had been soothing and comfort, a magical escape from a world that sometimes may not be quite as nice.

“You really should check out some of the stories on him,” my friend said. “Cole would really love him. There’s a book too that will really tell you how amazing of a person he was.”

“I will check it out,” I promised.

I didn’t have to. A few days later, in my mailbox was the book, I’m Proud of You, by Tim Madigan, and a few DVDs of Mister Rogers Neighborhood for Cole to watch.

I started the book that evening and was profoundly amazed at how the Fred Rogers on the show was exactly the way Fred Rogers was in real life.

Compassion, kindness, and empathy truly were his superpowers.

No wonder as a child I hid his lessons deep in my heart.

Over the years, especially the last few, I have been even more drawn to his wisdom. One of his quotes has been shared quite frequently: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I find myself looking for the helpers a lot lately. Wondering where they are, the people who somehow find ways to help those around them and give comfort, even when they are experiencing pain and trauma themselves.

But sometimes, that’s what we are supposed to do. Come together and help one another, simply because we are ‘neighbors’ and need each other.

I think of how his simple wisdom is more profound now and how in so many ways, my childhood was idyllic. I lived in a world where I didn’t understand fear, I didn’t have worries or concerns because life and the world I grew up in felt safe and secure.

Now, there’s children who will never know what that feels like.

Re-reading Fred Rogers’ words makes me see how timeless they were. And how we need them, desperately need them now.

Mister Rogers passed away 15 years ago on February 27, but thankfully, his kind, compassionate wisdom has left behind some gentle echoes.

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Not for the faint of heart

I remember the day I turned 29.

It was 16 years ago – yikes, that’s hard to believe.

But the day I turned 29, I took the day off from work.

I worked out twice that day, hoping to fight off the effects of gravity and the aging process.

I didn’t even eat any birthday cake, something I never skipped.

I grieved.

It was my last year in my twenties.

I felt ancient, as if my youth and life were over.

I was about to enter a new decade, my thirties.

Little did I know those years would fly by in the blink of an eye.

I went through a divorce, got remarried, had a baby, moved a couple of times, and went through about 4 different career changes.

No wonder by the time I hit my 40’s I was exhausted.

My spunk and sass seemed to have been replaced with, “Eh, it’s not worth the energy fighting over.”

Blasphemous talk for one who is a quarter Irish.

“Cole, when I was younger, I would have….”
I recount tales of my younger hot-tempered responses and how I stood up fiercely for myself and for others.

Now, I just hope to avoid any disagreements, so I don’t have to worry about it for days on end.

The aging process has not only affected my emotional response but my physical as well.

Remember when Dolly Parton declared, “Time’s marching on, and eventually you realize, it’s marching across your face?”

Yeah, well, Truvy got that one right.

She just left out the battlefield extended in all directions.

The other day in the bathroom, I saw not one, not two, but four grey hairs sticking up from the midst of a field of black, dark brown, and whatever other colors are mixed in there.

I screamed.

These had popped up overnight.

The greys could and would be covered with some liberal painting of color at my next appointment.

An easy fix, I told myself.

But some of the other things were not so easy.

For one thing, the few pounds I would gain from too much cheesecake no longer come off as quickly as they previously did.

Just five short years ago, I could just skip my afternoon bag of M&M’s and drop whatever weight I had gained.

Now, I am still struggling to lose the weight I gained three years ago.

“Once you are over 40, you will find it’s not so easy to lose that weight,” Mama informed me one day.

I told her I was already learning that.

“So, you may want to lay off the cheesecake. And the candy. I know you think they are their own food group.”

I groaned my disapproval of her advice.

“Your body is going through some changes now that you may not like and may be embarrassing, so you need to pay attention to what you eat and do.”
I was in my mid-40’s and finally, my Mama was giving me the talk about my changing body.

And as much as I hate to admit it, she was right.

“I have cut out everything that tastes good and you want to know how much I have lost?” I asked one day.

“How much?” a friend asked.

“I gained 2 pounds. Two pounds! And I think I pulled something trying to squeeze into my imitation Spanx.”

“Honey, how old are you now…?”

No response was necessary.

To add insult to injury, as if eating kale and gaining weight with multiple greys dotting my hairline were not enough, I had something else happen.

Adult acne.

As a teenager, I somehow dodged a bullet and had clear skin.

Maybe Mother Nature thought I had enough going against me and told pimples to find another canvas to land.

But here I was, trying to figure out which cream, gel or serum to apply first: wrinkle cream, lifting cream, brightening gel, or acne treatment. And vitamin C treatment. Did you know you face needs vitamins, too? It does.

“Maybe you put too much gunk on your face? Could that be it?” Lamar asked, watching me slather various things on my face one morning.

“Given the fact that middle aged women seem to blame everything on our hormones, that’s mighty brave talk for a skinny man to use,” I warned.

He got the hint and went into hiding until later that day.

But the real kicker was even more painful than the esthetic issues I was experiencing.

“It’s going to rain today,” I announced one morning.

“Weatherman on TV said it is going to be clear,” Lamar said over his coffee.

“I don’t care what they said, it’s going to rain; maybe snow.”

“What makes you think that?” Lamar asked.
“The way my neck is hurting, it is going to do something. Trust me. I may not have Doppler, but I have a neck that lets me know.”
“Good lord, you are not old enough to start sounding like Granny.”

Guess what?

Around 3 p.m. that afternoon, it started sleeting.

“Told you,” I said. “My neck knows.”

This getting older thing is not for the faint of heart.

But, it sure beats the alternative.

 

The piano recital

Once upon a time, I dreamed of being a concert pianist.

Only problem is I am quite horrible at piano.

But I had decided when I was a little girl, I wanted to play.

Mama wasn’t so sure about this.

“Is this going to be like your dream of being a ballerina?” she asked.

She may have forgotten but she was the one who nixed that dream in the bud.

She told her chubby child – me – to walk across the floor on tiptoes without tripping.

Given the impossible task, I grabbed a Twinkie and turned on Scooby Doo.

Piano, I promised, would be different.

Granny called Miss Suzanne, not just any piano teacher but the best piano teacher in our town.

Miss Suzanne had seen me around school and probably wasn’t so sure; Granny had to do some high-pressure selling.

“She is very musically inclined,” she said into the phone. “She has always loved music. Although we don’t know what is wrong with her, she don’t like country music. But everything else she does. She’s been humming since she was in Pampers and I think she has got a natural talent for it.”

Somehow, she convinced Miss Suzanne to give me lessons.

I was excited – not only was I on my way to being a concert pianist, but, Miss Suzanne would get me out of class twice a week for my lessons!

I remember walking down that long hallway with the piano room.

Now that I think about it, they probably hid the piano room in the bowels of the school, so no one could hear some of the blood curdling sounds that came out of that room.

My first few weeks, I was actually fairly decent.

I caught on quickly and I loved the idea of learning music, begging for a piano so I could play all day and all night.

One afternoon, I came home to find an upright piano delivered.

“I wanted a baby grand piano,” I said.

“Where are we going to put a baby grand piano?” Mama asked. “This is fine.”

I was so excited. At least until I found out that meant I could now do theory.

Theory, I soon learned, was just a fancy word for music homework.

“I can’t do this!” I wailed. “It’s too much work! I am just a child!”

Mama had no sympathy.

“You are not quitting, so you just need to learn to get beyond that thinking.”

“I am giving up my childhood for this!”

In reality, it had been like three weeks. But in child years, that was an eternity.

Mama didn’t let me quit.

No matter how much I whined or carried on, Mama made me stick with it.

“It’s building character,” she would tell me when I protested.

“You could save this money you are spending on piano lessons for something else,” I said.
“It’s okay,” Mama assured me. “I don’t mind spending money on something that is enriching your life.”

Mama insisted I was going to do what I needed to; if I was supposed to do theory, then I was going to do it. Even if it meant doing it before school.

In fact, Mama was very pro-piano until she went to my first recital.

I remember thinking this was a big deal.

Sure, I had sang in group performances for school and church, but this, this was different.

I was going to have my own little solo piece.

Miss Suzanne took us all to the Methodist church downtown to practice and for a trial run.

I can still remember the way the church smelled and the way the wooden pews creaked with all of us sitting on them. Even the way the light through the stained-glass windows danced on the floor.

This felt like it may be my big opportunity to be a concert pianist!

Until a friend I had grown up with arrived.

He had left our school a few years before but was still taking piano with Miss Suzanne.

Miss Suzanne had him practice first.

It was like watching a young Mozart or Beethoven play.

He made it look so effortless, so easy.

I guess she wanted to showcase her best student first – hoping the rest of us would be as good as he was.

I was a couple of kids after, and I was triumphant mess.

I had asked Miss Suzanne if I could leave after my song and she told me no; we had to be there to support our fellow pianists.

I wanted to run and hide. I considered crawling under the pews to escape.

When it was over, and I was the biggest failure of the recital, I ran to Mama and Granny.

Granny told Miss Suzanne maybe she should have saved the boy for last. “Putting him first is setting the bar awfully high,” she said. “Are we entirely sure all of these children needed to be in the recital…like Sudie?”

Miss Suzanne had hoped it gave us something to work towards, to have a goal to practice for and to have the glory of a performance.

“How much did you practice?” Mama asked me when I told her how embarrassed I was.

“I didn’t,” I said. I have never been able to tell a lie, and I wasn’t about to start then.

“I see,” she said. “Perhaps if you had practiced, you would have done better.”

“I doubt it,” I began. “I think I need to just quit.”

Mama looked at me and patted my head gently. “No.”

“What?” I was horrible, I had embarrassed myself in front of a church full of people. And she was going to let me keep playing?

“You are not giving up just because you didn’t do well in your first recital,” she said. “You’re sticking with it, Kitten.”

And I did.

For eight years.

“Did you ever learn how to play piano well?” my own child asked.

Nope, I sure didn’t. But I did learn how to never give up.

 

No one listens to the baby

I am used to being ignored.

You’d think being the only child, only grandchild and only niece would have meant I had a house full of grown-ups, hanging on my every word.

Nope.

At least not when I grew up.

Granted, when I was smaller, I may have said things they found adorable.

I was asked cute questions, like what was my favorite animal, who did I think was the best college football team, and what did I want to be when I grew up.

My answers were anything with fur, four legs and a tail; UGA; and, since I was about 3, I wanted to write ‘stories.’ Not much has changed.

But once I hit a certain age, one where I may have actually gotten a lick of sense in my head – something Granny said I was sorely lacking for most of my life – no one seemed to think I knew anything.

Somehow, I was still the baby of the family, but I was just bigger.

And my family thought I only knew about things that were pretty much along the lines of favorite animals, football teams, and television shows.

To prove this point, my uncle had an outrageous medical bill once he could not get resolved. He didn’t know why it was so high, and Granny, even with all of her tactics, could not get to the bottom of it either.

“Why don’t you let me look at it?” I offered.

You would have thought I had suggested I was going to split an atom on my grandmother’s kitchen table.

My uncle looked at my dumbfounded. “What in the world would you know about a hospital bill, baby?” he asked, shaking his head and walking off.

It was my turn to look dumbfounded. At the time, I was in college and working for two surgeons. And doing of all things – processing insurance.

“Granny, I think I can help with this,” I said.

Granny shook her head. “You’re just the baby. You don’t know nothing about this kind of stuff.”

“Actually, I do. I deal with this all day at work. Please let me look at it.”

She shook her head. “Ain’t no need in you messing with it. You may get it all jumbled up anyway.”

I rolled my eyes. They wouldn’t let me look at something I handled every day, but two days later when my uncle received a mailer from the Publisher’s Clearing House, he gave that to me and told me to figure out what magazines he needed to order to win.

“None of them,” I said. “I hate to tell you this, but it is a scam.”

“Well, I want Sports Illustrated and TV Guide, so see if their prices are good.”

I could price check magazine orders but not even see an insurance claim?

That evening, Granny knocked on my door.

“Don’t you breathe a word of this, but see what you can do.” She handed me the paperwork.

Were they really, finally, going to trust me with grown up stuff?

It took me a couple of days of making phone calls, but I managed to get the bill resolved.

When my uncle received the new revised statement, he was shocked. “The baby did this?” he asked.

“She did,” Granny said.

You would have thought that would have ingrained some level of trust in me, but no, I was still the family baby and any attempt to offer advice or suggestions continued to be ignored.

Mama sometimes ask my opinion, but then disregards it.

I have tried to tell them about things that would make life easier and they completely dismiss it.

But, let two people get the boot on my uncle’s favorite show and he knows who to ask.
“He still thinks all I know about is TV shows and frivolous things, doesn’t he?” I asked Mama.
“He just knows you can find out for him.”

“He knows I Google.”

“If I had a Google, he’d still want me to ask you,” Mama said.

You would think they would have a bit more faith in me, but in their eyes, I am still the baby.

At least to a certain degree.

When Cole was born, he became the baby of the family.

“No one listens to me,” Cole lamented one day. “I was trying to explain something to Nennie, but she didn’t believe me.”

I completely understood.

It looked like the baby torch was being passed off to very capable hands.

 

The sleepover embargo

I was 11 years old before I ever spent the night away from home.

To call Mama overprotective was an understatement.

She didn’t want me spending the night with people she didn’t know or feel comfortable with. She had her reasons, as crazy and fantastical as they were.

Once, I befriended a new girl in my class and she had a spend the night party.

I could not go.

“I don’t know her,” Mama stated simply.

“You aren’t the one invited; I am.”

This logic went no where with Mama. She didn’t care.

A few months later, the girl had another spend the night party. This time, she made it a point to painfully exclude me, telling me quite haughtily that, “My mother is real funny about who I invite.”
I assured her my mother was even funnier about where I went, so it was not a problem as I would not have been allowed to attend anyway.

There were times I felt like she was the meanest mother in the world. Surely, she was only doing this to make me a friendless, social outcast.

Anytime someone invited me to spend the night, Mama had to know who their parents were, where they lived, and where they worked.

“Do you know the mother’s maiden name?” she would ask.

Whether I had it or not, she turned the information over to Granny.

Long before the days of Google, there was Granny. And Granny was more thorough than the FBI when it came to background checks and the vetting process.

Within fifteen minutes, that woman had found out everything to be known about the person, down to parking violations, any warts removed and what pew they sat on in church.

“You ain’t going to this gal’s house,” Granny declared. “I done found out all kinds of stuff about her distant cousins.”

“Distant cousins! What does that have to do with me spending the night?” I cried.
“You don’t know if that no-good distant cousin is gonna show up the night you’re there. A bunch of hooligans, the lot of them,” Granny said.

And with that said, I knew I was not going anywhere.

Until the Girls in Action group at church had a sleepover.

“Please. Please, please, please let me go,” I begged.

Mama had known the two women who were over the group practically all of her life; heck, she even worked with one of them!

This would be it, the first time I would get to spend the night at someone’s house other than mine.

“I am not sure I want you to go,” she said.

“You can’t use your old excuses, Mama. You know these people. Granny knows these people. We go to church with them! You have no good reason why I can’t go.”
At this, Granny snorted. She knew as well as I did, if Mama wanted an excuse as to why I couldn’t do something, she would find it.

She was the woman who told a science teacher once I couldn’t go on a 4-H trip to Jekyll Island because it may sink. The woman tried to argue with her but decided to save her time and sanity.

By some miracle, I got to go.

My first time sleeping over at someone else’s house with other girls!

Let me tell you, it was nothing like I thought.

They wanted to stay up and talk.

I wanted to sleep. I was kind of tired. Being excited was exhausting.

I was scared of the shadows in the house; it’s one thing when you know the creaks and moans of the floors in your own place but in something new, it was terrifying.

There were other sounds that I didn’t hear at home. The ice maker in the freezer sounded like a monster trying to break through the wall. Seeing the lights of neighbors bouncing on the backyard through the sliding glass doors could have been UFO’s landing for all I knew.

I laid there awake, all night, waiting for dawn to break so I could leave.

When I saw the sun creeping through the trees, I rolled up the sleeping bag and grabbed my stuff, not even bothering to change out of my pj’s and went to tell the grown-ups good bye.

“Honey, are you sure your mother is even here?” one asked.

“Oh, she’s here, don’t worry.”
And she was.
Out in the driveway sat Mama in her little blue Ford Escort, her chimney of cigarette smoke curling out of the driver’s window while she sipped a cup of coffee from a gas station.

I wondered if she had slept out there; odds are, she did.

It was fun, but, I missed home.

Over the years, I spent the night with a few other friends but not many. Mama’s rules were still just as strict, and Granny still ran background checks.

I just realized there was no place quite like home for my introverted self.

When I was much older, I realized why Mama was maybe so protective; perhaps there was a method to her madness after all.

My own child, now 13, has never spent the night away from home.

Thankfully, he hasn’t expressed any interest in it.

Maybe he knows I was trained by two of the best in the Mama-ing business and my snooping skills can rival Granny’s sometimes. She still, to this day, was better than Google, even posthumously.

A few weeks ago, a conversation occurred as to whether or not to call the parents of a teenager holding a New Year’s Eve overnight party.

The other parent mentioned her daughter thought it was embarrassing.

“Embarrassing?” I thought.

Good thing she didn’t have my Mama or Granny.

A phone call to the parents would have been the least of her worries.

 

Promise fulfilled

For the most part, I’d say my Mama is a fairly honest person.

Even when that truth may hurt a little.

Like the time when I was a kid and I asked her if I was fat. She told me I was maybe not my ideal weight; she tempered this statement with the loving reassurance she would help me lose the weight if I wanted to but it was up to me.

Mama was honest about those things to a fault.

But when it came to the truth about a certain toy store, she may not have been quite as forthcoming.

They say a half-truth, or an omission of truth is the same as a lie, even when there was no malintent.

Mama probably doesn’t see it that way; in her mind, the justification was probably more like she hated toy stores and was trying a bit of self-preservation more than anything.

She could barely spend 10 minutes in Kay Bee Toys or ToyLand at Georgia Square Mall without feeling claustrophobic and needing to venture out of the store.

“Why do they make the aisles so tiny?” she would complain as I browsed stuff animals and board games. “Why is everything stacked to the ceiling in here? This looks awfully dangerous. It could fall on a small child.”

Even the days I couldn’t find anything – which were rare – I just loved seeing all the toys.

My sheltered little existence led me to believe the only place to shop was at the mall in Athens.

Atlanta, or anywhere in the vicinity, was just too far away and required a day trip.

Granny had even declared, “If we can’t find it in Athens, then we don’t need it.”

But then I started seeing commercials for a toy store I hadn’t been in before: Toys R Us.

Where a kid could be a kid, the ad promised.

“I am not sure what that means,” Mama said. “You can be a kid right here and have been. What’s the big deal?”

“They are bigger, Mama! It wouldn’t make you feel all clausta – what’s the word you said?”
“Claustrophobic,” she said.
“That word. It would be bigger. Better.”
To Mama, it sounded like it would be a bigger version of what she had already experienced.

I begged her to take me. I didn’t want to go to Disney, I wanted to go to a new, bigger toy store.

And Mama looked at me with as much sincerity as she had in her skinny little body and said, “Kitten, I am sorry. They don’t have Toys R Us in Georgia.”

But, but, but….what?
“They had a commercial on the TV though….”
“Oh, yeah, they are letting people know about it in other states. In fact, I have heard from another lady at work, they only have them in Australia.”
“Why would they only have them in Australia?” I asked.

“Isn’t the little animal they use a kangaroo?”

“It’s a giraffe,” I said.
“Then the only stores are wherever giraffes are from. But you keep wishing, Kitten.”

I believed my Mama, too.

Until one day, a school field trip took us somewhere towards Atlanta.

And there it was in plain view from the road, the sacred mecca of toy stores: Toys R Us.

I screamed!

“We finally got a Toys R Us!” I exclaimed.

A friend looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s been there,” the friend said.

“What? Mama said they only had them where giraffes came from.”

The friend shook her head and told me Mama must have been wrong. She may have thought I was a little odd, too but I didn’t care. We had a Toys R Us!

I could not wait to tell Mama!

“Guess what I saw today?” I said when Mama picked me up that afternoon.

“The play at the puppetry place?”

“No. Better!”

“Better?”

“A Toys R Us! In Georgia! I am so excited! Now you can take me!”

All color drained from all of Mama’s freckles.

“What? Where did you see that?”

I told her. “You can take me now. It’s been there a while, too. All my friends have already been.”

“That’s a bit far though,” she said, “I don’t know the way there and I am not good with directions.”

She was realizing sadly, surely, her jig was up. But she didn’t want to admit it and accept defeat. Defeat would mean she would have to take me where I could be a kid.

“Now that they are in Georgia, when we get one closer, I will make sure to take you.”

“But, Mama –” I began.

“You know my work schedule is so crazy. As soon as we get one closer, I will take you. I promise.”

I reminded her of this promise not too long ago.

It’s funny how parents have very selective memories when it comes to those promises they make to avoid a hissie fit.

“I don’t remember that promise,” Mama scoffed. “Besides, I took you to Toys R Us!”

“No, you didn’t!”

“I most certainly did.”

“Mama,” I began, “The first time I set foot in the Athens Toys R Us was seven years ago when we took Cole.”

Not missing a beat, Mama said, “Yeah, and who took you? Promise fulfilled.”

Maybe 35 years later, but technically, she did.

Last-minute Santa

Apparently, there are three different kinds of Christmas shoppers.

There’s a group who have their shopping done somewhere around Memorial Day, if not sooner.

Years ago, I tried this tactic. I ended up buying stuff and putting it in a ‘secret’ place that apparently was so secret I forgot where it was.

There’s the competitive shopper, the ones who live for the crowds and chaos of Black Friday and enjoy being caught up in the frenzy.

And there’s the few like myself.

People, who even though Christmas has been the same day for hundreds of years, are somehow caught off guard by the event and finds themselves frantically shopping on Christmas Eve.

The whole hustle and bustle has somehow made me lose my Christmas spirit the last few years.

You’d think having a child would make me more excited about this holiday, but it hasn’t.

When my son was younger, I tried. I did.

Beginning the week after Thanksgiving, I would start getting a few of the gifts Cole had on his list.

This was when he was much smaller and his list would consist of him handing me the Toys ‘R Us catalog and saying he wanted everything except Barbies or Monster High stuff.

Trying to hide his gifts became an increasing challenge each year.

He had quickly figured out I used my office as a primary hiding place and would snoop through everything, looking in and under everything he could.

He found quite a few, too, dragging them from their hiding spots with squeals of glee.

“We’ve got to get a better hiding spot,” Lamar whispered.

So, we started putting them in the trunk of the car and covering them with something.

That worked for a while but was not foolproof by any means.

Homeschooling presented even more of a challenge with hiding the presents.

It’s one thing when you are trying to hide your Amazon purchases from your husband; have you ever tried hiding boxes from a highly inquisitive child when UPS delivers?

“What’s in the box? What did you order? Open it! I’m opening it now!”

There’s been times I have messed up and waited too late to order, too, and the things he wanted got sold out.

And I don’t know if y’all knew this or not but printing off a picture of the item and putting it in a box with a handwritten note from Santa, stating the elves got behind but as soon as it was back in stock, one would be on its way does not cut it with any child, regardless of age.

After that happening two years in a row, I learned my lesson.

Kind of.

“Mama, have you ordered my gifts yet?”

“Not yet.”

Silence as he gives a level stare. “Don’t you think you should maybe look into it? Remember Christmas 2011? And 2012?”

I remember, I tell him.

And then there was the Christmas of 2014. That was the morning I woke in the ungodly early hours to venture to the store, with a list of items I was hoping they would still have in stock.

Of course, most of the items were gone but somehow, I managed to get a few of the main things on the list.
“Why do I do this to myself every year?” I thought to myself as I was shoved through the crowd towards the line.

“It’s a magical time of the year, isn’t it?” a voice said behind me.

I wanted to bah humbug. Looking at the crowd, it didn’t feel magical. It felt like we were all a bunch of ill-prepared people rushing around when should be home having coffee in our flannel pj’s.

“You must have a son,” the voice commented behind me. “He likes Legos and building things, eh? Very good with his hands. I bet he’s smart, too. I bet he’s been a good boy this year, hasn’t he?”

“He has,” I agreed.

“He’s a good boy every year. He will be excited about that Lego set.”

I turned around to see who this presumptuous man was.

Not much taller than myself, maybe around 5’4, and wearing a soft, red sweater, with a little red beret set jauntily on his head, the man looked like an old-fashioned Santa Claus from a Normal Rockwell painting. His smile reached his eyes as he looked amused at my expression of shock and bewilderment.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Santa?” I asked.

He winked. “I get it all the time.”
“That’s got to be a hoot coming in here on Christmas Day. I bet you are freaking some of the kids out,” I nodded towards some kids a few registers over, oblivious to the man who looked like the jolly old elf.

The man chuckled. “Those kids don’t even notice me. They are past the age of Santa. Besides,” he smiled, “they know sometimes I get behind and have to do some last-minute shopping myself.”

What? Did he?….Was he for real?

“Take my card if you ever need help making someone believe again,” he said as he pressed his business card into my hand. “Your son. Or yourself, perhaps.”

“Merry Christmas,” he called after me as I grabbed my bags and headed towards the doors.

An hour later, Cole woke to presents scattered around the tree.
“Santa?”

“Santa,” I said.
He eyed the packages. “This looks like your wrapping though,” he said.

“Yeah, well, I had to meet him at the store to get them. How else do you think I got this Lego set? It was sold out everywhere else.”

Cole nodded. “Santa was at the store?”

“Yes. See?” I pulled his card out from my pocket.

“Whoa,” Cole said. “So cool! You met Santa!”

Off he ran to play with his toys. I picked up the card and turned it over.

Just one word was on the shiny card: Believe.

And for that moment suspended in time, I did.

The Undergrad Continuum (8/17/2016)

The last few days, I have watched friends I graduated high school with ready their children for college.

I am not sure how this is possible since 1991 was really only 5 years ago so this seems to defy the laws of time.

But there they are, dropping off kids at their dorms hours away and into impending adulthood.

And it dawned on me: they are still babies.

Sure, when I graduated high school, I was ready to take on the world.

I think it mainly stemmed from being young and foolish enough to think I was invincible and that I was going to solve the world’s problems.

I knew everything, too.

Lord, have mercy at the depths and expanse of my omnipotent knowledge or lack thereof.

“I’m not quite sure why you going to school; you know everything,” Granny snorted one day.

I really thought I did.

So much so that I dropped out after my first quarter of paralegal studies because the classes started too early.

“Who can think that cussed early in the morning?” I asked.

Granny was furious; Mama, said nothing at first, until she got the phone bill. It was $8,926,274.12.

Or at least you would have thought it was given the hissy fit the crazy redhead pitched.

“Since you are taking some time to find yourself, you can find a job in the meantime,” she announced with aplomb one afternoon.

“I am your child; I should be able to reflect and be introspective on what I want to be when I grow up,” was my response.

“I can’t think of any better way to find out what you want to be than to learn what you sure don’t want.” She tossed the paper on my bed. “There’s the want ads; find yourself a job by the end of this week or the phone will be thrown out.”

She always struck a low blow, threatening my phone, my life line to the outer world beyond the graffiti walls of my bedroom.

I sighed. I had to get a job.

How was I going to find myself if I had to get a job?

But find one I did, waitressing during the lunch rush at a local restaurant.

When I complained about being tired and how customers were rude and demanding, Mama just asked me if I was ready to go back to school.

“I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be. It’s not fair to make an 18-year-old figure out what they want to be the rest of their life,” I told her, stomping into my room.

The next phone bill was $9,308, 237.11. (This was when it was long distance to call everywhere except your city and my future ex-husband was at school, 2 hours away.)

“You need to get another job,” Mama said, tossing the paper on my bed again.
“What!? Why?” I whined. “I can’t work another job!”

“Then get one full time job,” she said. “You only work part-time and aren’t in school; you can get another one. Or I will yank the phone out of the wall.”

So I got another job. And another.

I think at one time, I had about 37 part-time jobs.

I was exhausted.

“I’m going back to school,” I whined one day. “This working thing is killing me.”

“Have you figured out what you want to be when you grow up?” she asked.

Oh, heavens no. But I had a clear idea of what I didn’t.

The thought of sharing a communal shower and a room smaller than the one I grew up in did not appeal to me, so I commuted four days a week for four years.

When I graduated that sweltering hot day in June, I just knew I was officially grown and ready to take the world by storm. Before, I thought I was ready; now I was.

I walked out of the Macon auditorium and it hit me: I was really still just a baby.

I didn’t even know how to turn on utilities, how was I going to take on the world?

I was scared and didn’t know what I was doing but again, armed with foolish bravado I thought I could do anything. I’d figure it out, right?
Thankfully, I had the fallacy of my youth on my side to help cushion my errors.

But, it was that year off that helped me grow the most.
Mama taught me the most important lessons of all; she knew working some hard jobs would be good for me, would teach me how to deal with the public, and help me figure out what I wanted to be. She didn’t let me just wallow in my own ruminations either; she is not one to entertain apathy.

She let me think I knew everything while she quietly showed me I didn’t.

She also knew it would keep me off the phone so the bill didn’t go up into the billions.

As I think of all the college freshmen starting school this month, I think they have the whole world ahead of them and I envy that time in their lives.

It’s a scary, exciting, exhilarating time, and I am sure a few probably feel like that they know everything, like I did.

And at least, briefly, for a while, they will.

 

The Original Stay-cationers (7/6/16)

While everyone else is uploading pictures of their toes in the sand, or a view of the ocean set against the backdrop of their tanned legs, the Crouches are staying home.
Again.
For the 13th year in a row.
No loading up the van and heading south to Florida and its heat. There’s no sandy beaches in my future nor in my recent past.
And in a way, I am kind of OK with that.
I am not a huge vacationer to begin with. Even when I was a child, we didn’t go anywhere.
Mama asked me once if I wanted to go to Disneyland; whether or not she would have taken me, I don’t know. But I remember asking her how much walking was involved and after considering having to use public restrooms along with countless others, I told her I’d rather go to the library instead.
Maybe it’s because the one time we tried to venture anywhere for any length of time, it seemed like something always happened.
I was maybe 5-years old the first time my family decided to go anywhere.
This was a big deal – huge, actually, because my grandfather agreed to go and it was on a Sunday.
So there must not have been any kind of sporting event on TV that day that he had to watch.
It was spontaneous; I had got up to get ready for church and Granny had announced we were not going.
“Did church go out of business?” I asked over my Fruity Pebbles.
“No, but we are going to do something today we ain’t never done; we going on a day trip.”
Granny called to inform the preacher he was on his own this Sunday, she was not there to keep the congregation in line and God help him, keep them awake, either.
Mama worked all the time, Pop & Bobby worked all the time and were self-employed, and Granny worked and thought she kept a tri-county portion of the state in line. There was no time for vacations or up until now, a day trip.
But here we were, loading into Granny’s Oldsmobile, all of us, and heading – of all things – out of state to North Carolina.
We went to Cherokee, in all its gaudy glory.
I was amazed at how everything looked, and all the Native American regalia that was displayed in shops. I wanted one of everything; I think Mama decided on a pair of moccasins and a headdress with a toy bow and arrow. Why she refused to get me a real one, I have no idea. I was protesting this fact when a man dressed in Native American buckskin told me I needed to respect my mother.
All I knew was based on the size of his headdress, he must have been the head guy, so I shut up. Until he decided to flirt with my Mama. The crazy redhead seemed to like it too.
“He was handsome,” she giggled when I grabbed her hand to pull her away.
I was tired. I was hungry. My feet hurt. I was ready to go.
We had been there about one hour and 15 minutes.
I stated my complaints. “We drove all the way here – out of the dadblamed state. You gonna have fun it if I have to make you!” was Granny’s response.
I didn’t, but I knew better than to say anything else.
Maybe it was the boiled peanuts, or maybe I was carsick because I ventured out of state, but by the time I got home, I was feeling quite queasy.
Granny called the preacher to make sure the church had not imploded or Jesus hadn’t come back in her absence. He assured her the church was still standing and that Jesus wouldn’t make any decisions without consulting her first.
The next week, Granny found chewing gum – chewing gum, which she never allowed in her nursery – stuck in the carpet.
You would have thought all 10 commandments had been broken as the old gal was in the floor muttering under her breathe as she scrubbed.
“See! See there! That’s why we don’t go nowhere!” she screamed at me.
It wasn’t my idea to go anywhere but she wanted me to understand her logic train.
I just felt sorry for whoever was going to receive her wrath.
You’d think Granny would learn, but the next year on another Sunday, she decided we were going to Stone Mountain.
She called and told the preacher, reminding him about the gum from the year before. He assured her no gum would be chewed while she was gone.
We walked around, found a funnel cake for me, followed by ice cream, then watermelon. We walked some more. My uncle asked me if I wanted to walk up to the top.
“Why would anyone want to do that?” I cried.
He asked if I wanted to ride the cable car to the top instead. “Good lord, no!”
He went alone instead.
Mama complained about the heat. “You know I get sun poisoning real easy. It’s too hot!”
Someone got the grand idea for us to take a riverboat ride. The thing wasn’t going that fast, really, but watching the water rolling and swaying was enough to make me really, really sick.
“Maybe it was the funnel cake,” my uncle suggested.
“Or maybe it was the watermelon,” my grandfather said.
“Yeah, or the ice cream,” my uncle added.
I was sick. So sick. And ready to go home.
I think we were maybe there 2 hours.
As we headed back home, we realized we didn’t need to go anywhere. Not for a few days, and sure not for a week or longer. Heck, we were doing good to get to the grocery store once a week without some major catastrophe.
Granny set it in stone when she declared, “That’s it. We’ve tried day trips and this mess ain’t working! We ain’t going nowhere ever again!”
And I pretty much haven’t gone anywhere since then. Why tempt fate when it seems to be something my family just isn’t good at doing?
At least I don’t have to worry about the vacation laundry.

Snips, Snails, and Puppy Dog Tails (6/1/2016)

A dear, dear friend once gave me a check list of things to follow as the mother of a boy.

One, was to expect to never at any given time have enough food in the house. Even if I had just been to the grocery store, there would never be enough food to fill the vacuous black hole of a boy’s stomach.

She was right about that, as I feel like most days, all I do is feed him.

She also warned my house would never be clean again.

Heck, it hadn’t been clean before, so that didn’t really bother me.

Her next heeding was to always check his pockets because sometimes, living things may find shelter there. Especially if he is wearing pants with a lot of pockets.
“And you don’t want to find out the hard way that amphibians cannot survive a washing machine cycle,” she cautioned.

By the time Cole reached double digits on his age, I felt like I could breathe a sigh of relief.

He hadn’t stuffed a frog or anything else living in the pockets of his pants, leaving the critters to their natural habitats where he would study them each night, armed with a flashlight and a journal.

He wasn’t particularly fascinated with violent video games or movies as some of his peers had been. Sure, he liked his Nintendo DS but it was not an everyday toy.

He loves old cars, and has a definite opinion on what kind of car he was going to get when he could drive at age 30.

All in all, he has been a rarity of sorts, being well behaved, thinking on his own, and having his own opinions on things that sometimes rivaled my own.

So, when he my precious little lump of boyish charm decided he loathed baths, I was shocked.

This is the child that once used my whole brand new bottle of fragrant body wash in his bath – so he could “smell good for the ladies,” he declared. He was in pre-k at the time.

Just a year ago, I was buying him banana scented Minion body wash and now, I am arguing with him as to why he needs a shower every day.

“I don’t smell yet,” he will say.

“Cole, you don’t wait until you smell – you take a bath every day!”

“Well, I don’t do anything to get dirty,” he said.

“You shed dead skin daily, it’s mixed with oil, and dirt, and other stuff your body produces.”
This was science and instead of my child finding it gross, he exclaimed, “Cool!” and wonder if he could watch it happen.

“No,” I sighed, not really sure.

I could not relate to this new-found aversion to cleanliness. As a child, any time a bath was drawn, I would get in the tub, even when it wasn’t for me. I would beg to take a third, sometimes fourth bath as a child because I loved being clean.

But I was a little girl. A little girl who propped up on her stuffed animals and read them books all day while eating Little Debbies.

A little girl who never broke a sweat, and seldom went outdoors.

This is a little boy – a very busy, active, always outside little boy who sweats.

“But I don’t stink – yet,” he will say.

And that’s another thing: little boys seem to like noxious odors that can gag a 100-lb German shepherd.

Cole took his shoes off one night and wiggled his socked toes, pointing a foot at Ava.

The big dog promptly fell over and shuddered.

He giggled with glee.

“Cole, get in the shower before you get in bed,” I said.
“Never!” he cried.

He tells me he has a protective layer going on and when he takes a shower, it removes the barrier between him and the outer world, allowing germs and the like to go through his pores.

“Do you have any idea how long it takes to build up a good solid barrier?” he asked in all seriousness.

Bathing the 100-lb German shepherd is actually easier than finagling him to get a shower; and she will nearly kill you.

For Mother’s Day, my child gifted me with Mom coupons, telling me I could redeem them for showers. “Cole, you are supposed to take a shower every day,” I replied.

“Well, you only got two coupons for that, so not sure how that will work out.” The coupons were specifically for a “Scrub –a-Dub Hug,” which meant he’d get a shower and even hug me later instead of complain about the cruelty of water and soap.

I fuss, I beg, I plead, I bargain – boy, do I bargain – all to no avail.

“He’s a little boy,” his father says. “Little boys all go through that stage where they hate baths and they want to see how gross they can get.”

When would this stage end? How long would it last? He was enjoying being as icky and gross as he could get away with.

“Don’t worry,” Lamar said. “Once he gets interested in a girl – and I mean a real girl his own age – he will start caring if he has a bath or not.”

This did not comfort me at all.

The only way to get my little boy, all snips, snails, and puppy dog tails, to care about whether or not he was clean was if he was interested in a girl?

If only that checklist came with instructions on how to handle the heartache of little boys growing up, I would be better prepared.