A Flame in a Manger

 

For years my parents had been christening our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season.  When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special.  As I got older I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family had narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky;  we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia.  Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.

manger scene 1

I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.

manger scene 2

Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.

It was my senior year of college that everything changed.  There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days.  Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned,

“Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”

Coming as it did, across the phone line to my door room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous.  True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum.  On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I was making during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with.  This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12:  don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to.  On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine.  She never has been very good at foreshadowing things.  Dropped in your lap like an unexpected, squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next.  Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.

Apparently they’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before.  It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening.  A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway.  They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who had already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September.  (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance).  They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie.  The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau.  The light seemed a bit brighter than usual however.  And and it was throwing off heat.  And crackling.

The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames

The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt.  Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time?  Must have slipped my mind.  The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:

“Sir, are you aware that you Christmas scene is on fire?”

An interesting question.  Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump.  Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?

His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, dad wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.”  He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life.  Oh, it had been called in.  And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening.  Dad told the deputy that he had things under control, no a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.

As the deputy pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to the be the inciting culprit:  a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape.  Using a piece of scrap lumber he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the the now roaring blaze.  Haybales really can go to town, once they get started.  They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed.  In the morning all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue.  Unfortunately it didn’t snow again for several weeks.  County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly.  I think that dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes.  The best was clearly “A Flame In a Manger.”

I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself.  And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either.  But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity.  Thanks mom!

Flame in a Manger

The next Christmas, mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same.  The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow.  One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men.  You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.  Every morning he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene.  At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved.  It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.

 

It Has Happened

I’m pretty sure that I officially crossed over a divide this past weekend.  I think I’m officially on the “older” side of divide.  Now, as has been previously addressed, I’ve always secretly (or not so secretly?) been an old soul.  However.  That didn’t necessarily translate into a complete outward manifestation of this fact.  As difficult as it will someday be for my children to believe, I was young once.

I was chatting over dinner with my sister and her husband (who, interestingly, had just finished inquiring as to whether my sister had always been 90.  Apparently this “old soul” thing is somewhat familial).  He mentioned that the next day he was thinking of going to see Thor Ragnarok.  And I asked whether that was a friend of his.

thor ragnarok

What he really meant when he said “Thor Ragnarok”

thor

What I was thinking when he said “Thor Ragnarok”

As soon as I said it a little voice in the back of my head was screaming “movie!  character!  stop!”;  but it was too late.  We all had a good laugh about the mix-up, but I mentally acknowledged the fact that It Had Happened.  I’d seen the signs for awhile.  Here’s a few that I’ve noticed:

  1.  I’ve started shopping from Land’s End.  A lot.  This catalog has been around forever, but the practical, timeless comfort never appealed before.  Now all of the sudden I’m all about supima blends, practical down vests, and more turtlenecks than I could wear in a week.  I’d like to think that these pieces are still subtly blended into my wardrobe.  When I start layering my turtlenecks underneath appliqued sweatshirts we have a real problem.
  2. I rarely wear heels over 2 inches anymore.  Ever.  I remember waltzing into the NICU during a residency rotation in pointy-toed slingback heels and laughing breezily at the nurses’ astonishment at my wardrobe choice.  I’ll never be that painfully practical, I thought.  Well, let me just say one thing:  orthotics.
  3. I’ve started sighing and saying “well, whatcha gonna do?”  Also “golly.”
  4. I make a lot of noise when I get out of bed in the morning.  Between my intentional and automatic joint cracking, it sounds like I’m attempting to break free of a graphite prison.  Jimmy is much the same, although he’ll deny it.  The bonus is that the first person up always wakes up the other,  and we now spend some pleasant time alone over coffee every morning.
  5. I don’t spend too much time about how I look anymore.   No matter where we’re going, it’s highly unlikely that any strangers will spare more than a passing glance on my appearance.  I’m in the “older lady” category, and am valuable mostly for my droll wit, wicked dance moves, and open bar tab.  I don’t mean this to be a sad meditation on the state of female ageing.  To my mind, it’s totally understandable and definitely a relief.
  6. That being said, I spend a lot of time on how I look.  The number of skin care products on my bathroom counter is amazing.  I have my roots touched up every 6-8 weeks.  I have multiple types of foundation and concealer that are applied with an artist’s precision.  All of this to avoid being asked “what happened?” “are you tired?” or “were you on call last night?”
  7. In those magazine articles where it’s “hairstyles (or whatever) for every age, I have to flip ahead a few pages.  You know the ones.  There will be a section for 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and then 50+.
  8. And speaking of magazines, who on earth is that?  When I’m at the hair stylist every 6-8 weeks, I will indulge in a trashy magazine, and I really don’t know who most of these young starlets are.  And the really funny thing is–I don’t WANT to know.  As long as I’m not the “youth ringer” on the trivia team, it’s not my problem.
  9. I’m hoping that technology just stops.  I actually wish progress would have stopped about 10 years ago because I just can’t learn anymore.  When my grandfather died a couple of years ago, I was amazed to look back and realize that he’d been born in a house without running water or electricity, and when he died he was posting on Facebook and emailing his family.  This will NOT be me.  Luckily I have a technology obsessed husband.  However, if he goes before me, I’m pulling my old Palm Pilot back out and reverting to 2002.

So, It Has Happened.  But, whatcha gonna do?  And, while I’m thinking about it, if anyone wants to see Ladybird with me, let me know.  I’ve always been a huge LBJ fan.

Mad Libs: Kid Car Version

mad libs

My kids like to to Mad Libs in the car.  I’m sure you remember Mad Libs–someone asks for random parts of speech, and they’re transcribed blindly into a story, the results of which are invariably hilarious to anyone under the age of 12.  I think my kids are learning something from Mad Libs.  For example, I’m fairly certain that they both know what a noun is by now, and that an adverb usually ends in -ly.  And I’m glad that they’re doing something somewhat creative in the car and not just staring at a screen or bickering with each other.  And it usually keeps me in relative peace and quiet.

Generally they start by trying to involve me in the Mad Libs activity, but after a few words I’m generally deemed unworthy and my turn is routinely skipped.  You see, I always break the rules of Juvenile Car Mad Libs, which are specific, predictable, and unvarying:

  1.  All nouns will be something immediately visible out the window.  So, “tree” “mailbox” and “WalMart” are all fine.  Intangibles such as “happiness” or “sanity” are not and rapidly disqualify one.
  2.  All verbs will be dramatic actions such as “jump,” “run,” and “punch-in-the-face.”  Quieter, intransitive (like that, mom?) verbs such as “become” are frowned upon.
  3.  All adjectives will come from the usual descriptor set for an ogre.  Examples would be “hairy,” “stinky,” or “gross.”
  4.  All adverbs will be similarly disgusting
  5.  If the category “part of the body” comes up, you will dither dramatically for about 15 seconds before answering “butt.”  Alternatives are acceptable only if butt has been used two or more times already, and must be another potentially stinky body part.

Resulting Mad Libs are as follows: (taken from the kids’ book, but typed for legibility purposes.  This one is apparently a short dialogue.)

Actor #1: Why did we have to come to this warty old castle?  This place sends shivers up and down my butt.

Actor #2: We had no choice.  You know all the windows in town were filled because of the tree convention.

Actor #1: I’d have been happy to stay in a smooth motel.  (mom was included at this point but summarily dismissed after this answer.)

Actor #2:  Relax.  Here comes the bellboy for our stopsigns.

Actor #1:  Hilltop!  Look, he’s all bent over and has a big PetCo riding on his butt.  He looks just like Natalie from that horror flick.

Actor #2:  No.  I think he’s my old buttocks teacher.  (“What’s buttocks?”  “It’s what those tea drinking people (the British) call a butt”).

Actor#1:  I’m putting my armpit down!  I”m not staying in this ridiculous place.  I’d rather fart in the car!

Actor #2:  You’re worrying stupidly.

Actor #1:  Really?  Look at the bellboy.  He has my traffic in one hand and your Toyota Camry in the other, and his third hand . . . His third hand . . . Ahhh!

 

This was read with gales of uncontrolled laughter, pure comedy gold, and the whole “farting in the car” thing rapidly crossed the line into nonfiction.  Gotta love a Kid Car Mad Lib.

 

 

Anatomy: Part II

The second in a continuing series of potentially awkward anatomical conversations while driving.

—-

She was about five when my cut-and-dried eldest asked, “Mom, whose body has more parts, boys or girls?”

As usual, I wondered just where this was going.  She could easily be wondering about ponytails and accessory nipples, right?  Or, she could be talking about who wears more jewelry or generally has more piercings?  Fingers crossed…”What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know, you have a nose, two eyes, two ears…parts,” she replied, verbally rolling her eyes.  I took a quick glance in the rear view mirror and confirmed that the eye-roll was more than just verbal.

“Oh, are you wondering about potty parts?” I asked, once again chastising myself for adopting this non-progressive naming convention.  She nodded, giving me a look usually seen when I attempted to explain something painfully obvious to Jimmy.  I needed to adjust that rear view mirror.   “OK, how about I get a book that has drawings of all of the body parts, boys and girls, with labels and diagrams?”  I asked.

Jan 2008 037

She’s shown a preference for dense, medical texts from a surprisingly early age.

My practical, level-headed eldest replied, “Oh, yes, that would be very helpful.  Thank you,” and returned to her drawing.  Lucky for me, such a nicely line-drawn book of Just The Facts does in fact exist and was quickly reserved at the library.  A couple of days later, attempting to sensitively and privately go through said book, she caught sight of her 3 year old sister down the hall.  Despite my admonitions to keep this “just between us,” the book was clearly too good not to share.  “Hey, get in here!  You love this kind of stuff!” she hollered.

So, yeah, we own our own copy now.

 

Put a fork in her, she’s done: “Kid Summer” fades to black

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s almost time for the little people to head back to school. As if the numerous back to school sales and advertisements weren’t enough, the naturally occurring signs of the season’s demise are all around us.  And for those previously mentioned little people, the Kid Version of Summer has definitely begun to show its age.  It’s gotten a little bit frayed, worn out, and ready to go in the hand-me-down pile.  I’ve taken a brief inventory of some of the indicators that Kid Summer is ready for retirement.

Top ten indicators that Kid Summer is finished:  

  1. There are no more complete sets of intact flip flops anywhere in the house.  They’ve either all broken, been chewed up by the dog, or disappeared in kicked-off glee.  Because I refuse to buy new ones, my people will shuffle through these last few days with mismatched flip flops held together with duct tape.  Classy.20170823_072823
  2. The list of “summer expectations” is no where to be found.  It was a noble effort, and for a month or so we were pretty good.  No electronics before X,Y,Z, keep up with personal hygiene, rudimentary chores.  About July the list was popsicle stained and rumpled on the front of the fridge.  When I checked today, it was simply gone, a mysterious smeared handprint in its wake.
  3. The sunscreens are all 5/7 empty and choked with sand.  They’re gross, I don’t want them in my bag, but there they are.
  4. The girls’ hair has achieved that “end-of-summer” crispness that only a ruthless trim will take care of.  They swam every day.  The personal hygiene got a little lax.  Instead of the special Swimmer’s Wellness shampoo, I’m pretty sure they were using Old Spice Body Wash on their hair the majority of the time.
  5. There are no areas of their arms and legs that haven’t sustained a mosquito bite or injury.  It’s hard to tell what their actual skin tone is.  Bronze tan, white healing scab, red bite, black dirt.  Did I mention the personal hygiene challenges?
  6. There are 12 incomplete projects ranging from half-done jigsaws to slime to living room forts slowly decaying in various corners of the house.  Any horizontal surface is occupied by a project that GOD FORBID I dismantle, despite all indications that they will never be finished.  And, because the little people are around all the time, I can’t launch my usual stealth dismantling attack.
  7. All of the sidewalk chalks are itty bitty nubs.  FYI, I hate chalk.  I hate how it feels, I refuse to pick it up, and I hate watching the kids draw with it.   But the danger of accidental fingernail scrapeage that these nubbins impart?  Shudder.  Time to close the driveway gallery for the season.20170823_072914
  8. We’ve gone through all of the “Outdoor Shenanigans.”  Every summer, Jimmy stocks up on stuff that makes him quite popular with the under 10 set.  We’ve reached that sad point when all of the glow bracelets, rubber band missiles, stomp rockets, and sparklers are gone.  All that’s left at the bottom of the Shenanigans bin are some of those lame snappers.
  9. Morning preparations seems to drag well into the afternoon.  To the little people, “get dressed and get ready for the day” has come to mean something very far from what I intend.  Lack of practice has lulled them into thinking that I mean “sit on the couch in your pajamas until noon, and by the way I was just kidding about getting yourself breakfast and I’m here to prepare lunch for you on an emergency basis whenever it suits you.”  Dear Lord, please return my routine to me.  I am incapable of holding it together during Kid Summer.
  10. They have, on occasion, looked just a liiiiiiiiiitle bit B-O-R-E-D.resized952017081995083544001002-1.jpg

 

Do you think that a review of these clues will be enough to truly convince them that it’s time to head back to school?

Disney Detox

I haven’t written for a bit.  That’s because a little over a week ago, we returned from a family trip to Disney World.  We were there for the World Dance Competition, which was simply amazing, but more on that later.  I want to discuss a radical proposal.  Now, I love me a Disney trip.  I am seduced by the attention to detail, the amazing customer service, and the familial joy.  Note, however, that I did not refer to said excursion as a “vacation.”

Family Vacation

“Family Vacation,” Normal Rockwell.  Yup, this is about right.

By the end of a Disney jaunt, I feel like a wrung out dishrag, and the faces of the parents at the Orlando departure gate would indicate that I’m not alone.  We all sat with a slightly glazed look while our children, high on sugary, sunburned energy buzzed around our aching feet.  Likewise, a number of the dance moms who’d gone on the trip posted celebratory couples only shots at Summerfest over the subsequent week, reveling in their alone time.  Please don’t get me wrong:  I realize how lucky my kids are to have gone to Disney more than once in their young lives.  Heck, my first trip there was in the fourth grade, via full-size van and involved running out of cash on the return trip and a drive straight-through back home.  I get that it’s a special treat.  But for the parental set, I’d like to suggest some modifications that will allow for the noun “Vacation” to apply.

A Radical Proposal:  Disney Re-Entry Experience, a.k.a. Disney Detox

This 1-2 day experience will be located well away from any tempting Disney-related attractions, lest you feel compelled to check off one more “most-do” item from the list.  I’m thinking a parking lot near the airport or a nondescript office park on the outskirts of Orlando.  It doesn’t have to be a glamorous location;  nobody will be going outside for any length of time during re-entry.  It just needs to be outside the sphere of Disney (and other theme park) influence.

I’ve drawn up some sample language for promotional literature.  Let me know what you think:

During the re-entry process, parents will be gently separated from their children.  We acknowledge that you love them, but during this re-entry period it is important for you to attend only to your own toileting / hunger / thirst / entertainment / impending meltdowns. Children will undergo their own re-entry experience in the care of qualified, boringly-dressed professionals who do not give out autographs or call anyone “princess.” Daily programming will include clearing one’s place at the table, unembellished sandwiches / cereal / casseroles for meals, being responsible for one’s own belongings, and long periods of boredom. Don’t worry, they’ll be fine without you for two days.  Besides, let’s be honest–they need a little time away from you as well, Ms. Sweaty Boob Crabby Pants.

book nook

The adults-only facility features muted color, dim lighting, soft music and staff without name tags.  The option for separate bedrooms is entirely up to you and your partner.  Trust me, we get it.  Daily programming consists of napping, reading, board games, spa time, TV watching, and yoga or light stretching.  You can go for a leisurely walk if you must.  There is no schedule, opening / closing times, or lockout period for any of these.  YOU CAN DO THINGS WHEN YOU WANT, THERE IS NO NEED FOR A FAST PASS.

In addition to our serene detox environment, we are proud to highlight the following:

 

  • An excess of bathrooms.  You will never have to hunt for them or pre-emptively empty your bladder in anticipation of a long line.
  • Set menus requiring no decisions and no discussion of allergens.
  • Common areas arranged kind of like study carrels in a library–cozy chairs arranged such that you can avoid eye contact and, as a result, forced chitchat with any other re-entry guests.  For those inexhaustible extroverts among us, there will be a dedicated chatting lounge.  It is in pristine shape as it has never been used.
  • A return to a cash economy.  You must be shaken awake from the ridiculous ease with you have moved to paying for things with your wrist.
  • Foot massages.
  • Evening sunset-viewing from our shaded deck with 2+ dedicated chairs for each guest to choose from.  There will be NO fireworks.
  • Did we mention the foot massages?
  • No ponchos.  Anywhere.

feet in bed

 

So who’s with me?  I figure all we need to do is line up a few investors, arrange for a drop off point for the Magical Express, garner the support of the legions of Disney Mom Bloggers, and we should be set!

Status

Anatomy: Part I

Lately when the moms get together, the conversation often veers to puberty and all of the super-fun conversations it entails.  My generation of moms came of age in an era when Our Bodies, Ourselves was easily available. Our girls have been armed with an array of pleasantly illustrated, affirmational books published by the behemoth that is American Girl. The conversations are still awkward and hilarious.

Fortunately, I’d laid the groundwork for the pre-teen drama with numerous well-timed, carefully paced conversations throughout childhood.  There was the summer when Natalie was six.  This was the year she’d learned to ride her bike.  She stopped dramatically one summer evening, made a big show of wiping her brow, and announced that she’d been riding all day, and “boy were her balls tired.”  

“Well, I imagine you’re sore, but girls’ potty parts aren’t called ‘balls,” mentally chastising myself for ever adopting the “potty parts” convention to begin with. “That’s the slang term for boys’ potty parts.  I guess that boys always like to talk about their balls, don’t they.  Did you hear it one the playground?

“Yeah, but I didn’t know…”

“Well, no big deal, but that’s why it’s always a good idea to test out new words that we learn on the playground with an adult first, OK?”

“OK,” zipping away for another lap around the cul de sac.

I felt pretty good about things, boy I’d handled that minefield with cool nonchalance, imparting valued wisdom to my daughter.  That mental gold star fell off a few hours later when she came home announcing that Gabe had to pee while they were playing in the woods, and he just went on a tree, and she’d seen his “ball.”  So close, my dear, so close.