Grocery Stores and Dirty Floors

Dear Kori Jane,

In the two years between Daddy and I’s wedding day and you crashing our party, I used to love going to the grocery store.  I think it was because I had lived with my own mom right up until that very moment, so the thrill of being in charge of filling a refrigerator and pantry with whatever my heart desired (and our meager budget allowed) had not yet worn off. That and the fact that our two small but steady incomes provided enough to afford not only the basics needed for nightly dinners for two, but also a week’s supply of the Mountain Dew, Nutty Bars, and Blue Bell Vanilla Ice Cream that rounded out your Daddy’s daily calorie intake. While filling a grocery cart made this young newlywed feel accomplished and domestic, I hated coming home from the store because that pantry and refrigerator I enjoyed stocking happened to be inside our third-floor apartment. The trek up and down the stairs with as many grocery bags as I could possibly manage to hold would always leave me covered in sweat and tears. Well that and deep divots up and down both forearms once the dozens of plastic bags I managed to get up two flights of stairs were hastily dropped as I had collapsed onto the kitchen floor.  I eventually learned to only go shopping when your father was around to help unload. I also eventually learned that while he was a huge help when it came to carrying groceries up and down stairs, he was of no help whatsoever when it came to doing shopping of any kind. I am fairly certain that he deliberately brought home the wrong brand of cheese, rotten fruit, or completely forgot the most important thing from every shopping trip I ever sent him on, just so I would quit sending him.  And I eventually gave up dragging him along simply for his company once I realized that there is nothing pleasant about your father’s company at a grocery store. Just in case his incessant complaining about my need to walk up and down every aisle was not bothersome enough, he would be sure to add the most ridiculous items to the basket every time I turned my back, and then proceed to loudly question me about why we needed the pigs feet, adult diapers, or a Barbie doll. I spent way too much time shushing him or having to return random items to their shelves, and still we would always end up with something ridiculous hiding in the bags when we got home.  Once he started cartwheeling down the aisles, tossing packages of toilet paper from the next aisle over, or hiding behind the marketing displays in his never-ending attempts to startle or embarrass me, I quit guilting him into tagging along and learned to enjoy my solitary trips to the friendly neighborhood Kroger in peace.  

That is until you arrived on the scene. Thankfully by then we were no longer living in a third floor apartment as I cannot imagine having to lug your baby carrier up and down several flights of stairs every single day, but I did have to learn to lug it along on many of my grocery trips.  Later when your siblings joined the party, I had to really get creative in order to keep the four of you from filling my basket with random things, cartwheeling down the aisles, or otherwise loudly proclaiming our presence. I must say that one of my most brilliant mothering tactics was the invention of the grocery store game “Compliment Collection”. The goal of course was for you children to collect as many compliments as possible from the strangers we passed, as we walked up and down each aisle. If by the end of our shopping trip we had met our goal, then each of you could choose one thing to add to the basket- usually a sugary cereal I typically avoided, the pink and white circus cookies covered in sprinkles, or one of those silly bottles of juice that had a favorite character head with a drinking spout poking out the top. The only rule was that compliments had to be about your behavior. Anything related to how adorable our family was, or the daily exclamation that your mom’s hands sure were full, did not count. You were not getting credit for being cute or for my full hands. So, when those statements were made you all began to smile widely, echoing a chorus of “thank yous”, in hopes that the stranger might add- “cute AND polite…wow!”   

Not surprising Kori Jane, you were the very best at this game. Any game really. There is nothing like competition to motivate the likes of you.  Even as a toddler you seemed to always understand what it would take to be the best or win the prize in any given situation.

You inherited both your competitive spirit and your dislike of shopping from your Daddy, so it would always make me laugh to watch you lay your cheesiest smile on every stranger we passed, seeming to indicate that this shopping trip was the most fun you’d had in years. And if that didn’t work, you would spontaneously say just loud enough for them to hear, “I love you mom; do you need any help?” During this hour or so a week we would be shopping, siblings would hold hands more often and speak more kind words to one another, and I would get more “yes mams”, “you’re the bests”, and “thank yous” than in all other hours of the week combined.

Of course, these compliments were nothing more than part of a game, and they in no way reflected who we were as a family or who you were as individual people. It was fun and funny, but more than anything it kept us all (mostly me) from melting down in the middle of the store.

I remember one especially long day of errands when you were about 3 or 4 years old.  You and your two younger siblings were not likely old enough to be expert compliment collectors yet, but still I had promised you a small toy for being such a big girl and helping me juggle your little brother and baby sister as we drove and shopped all around town. Like your Daddy, you have never taken longer than necessary to get in and out of any store, and this was no exception. As soon as we arrived at the toy isle of “Big Lots” you spotted a tiny red and black toy broom just your size, and determined that was to be your prize.  I remember trying to convince you to look around a bit, but even as a toddler once your mind was made up not much was going to sway you.   

That was likely the one and only broom you have ever clutched with such joy and eager anticipation, and honestly you could probably still use a refresher on the lessons I tried to teach you that day in proper sweeping techniques.

When we finally got home, I set to work unloading the babies and all their gear from the car, while you set to work sweeping as soon as you stepped through our front door into the entryway foyer. While you tired of this game quickly leaving your broom to be tripped on by the next person to walk through the door, you eagerly retrieved it as soon as you saw me in the kitchen with our full-size broom in hand.

I was making a meager attempt at tidying up while Baby Einstein played on the TV and our gourmet dinner of frozen fish sticks, canned peas, and box macaroni and cheese sizzled and simmered. I immediately regretted not trying harder to get you to reconsider your choice of toy as you planted yourself right in the middle of the toddler crumbs and dirt that I had just swept into a nice pile.  You proceeded to wave the broom to and fro in wide strokes redepositing the mess all over the kitchen. I took a deep breath and bit my tongue forcing a smile as you beamed with pride at how helpful you were.  I assigned you to a different part of the kitchen, as I reswept and got as much into the dustpan as quickly as possible. It did not take long before you reinserted yourself in my space determined to help me finish the job. Hand over hand, I helped you maneuver the miniature broom in small steady strokes so that at least some of the mess did indeed land in the safety of the dustpan.  Thankfully your dad arrived home right at that moment so off you darted in delightful squeals because your evening playmate had arrived. I was left alone to clean up all the mess you had missed as well as all the mess you had made in your attempts to use your new gift!  

Once Daddy hugged you and threw you in the air enough times to satisfy your required daily dose of doting, you proudly dragged him by the hand into the kitchen to show off the floors that you had just swept to perfection!

I remember laughing out loud as you beamed with excitement while Daddy praised the clean beautiful kitchen floor tile! While not currently covered in loose dirt, this tile undoubtedly had not been mopped in a few weeks and was anything but clean and beautiful. But there I sat more than happy to let you take full credit for a daily chore that you had managed to complicate to the point that it took me twice as long as usual.

These are just some of the many memories that have been flooding my mind in the last several weeks leading up to your high school graduation.  I have spent these weeks marveling over the passage of time still convinced that it was just yesterday that you were starting kindergarten, loosing your first tooth, collecting compliments from the side of my grocery cart and eager to help me sweep the kitchen or greet your Daddy when he got home from work. But then last week came and you actually walked across the stage at Tully Stadium in your green cap and gown, and you received your high school diploma.  There I sat beaming with pride at the beautiful, strong, determined, passionate, trail blazing girl I have raised.  And then it suddenly occurs to me that raising kids is a whole lot like sweeping floors.  Here I stand ready to claim the work God has done in and through you over the last 18 years as my own, when in reality you are but a reflection of all the ways that God has redeemed my grand attempts at raising you right. In fact, I am certain that He is still cleaning up my parenting messes even as I stand here beaming with pride and delight watching you prepare to spread your wings and fly.

I know He does not need me, and I often leave messes behind for him to clean, but He does delight in me, and He allows me to participate with Him in loving and caring for others. What an unbelievable gift that He chose me to be your mom, and that I’ve gotten to love and care for you up close for the last 18 years.

As you head out into this great big world I’d like to impress on you just a few things that being your mom has taught me.

First, use your gifts! Use them big even if that means you might make some messes. Kori Jane, write from your soul, sing and make music, lead with conviction, serve with compassion, inspire, create, and gather. But never forget that every one of these good and perfect gifts is from above. While He does not need you, still He delights in giving you good gifts, in being near you, in using you, and even in cleaning up after you.

Secondly, people really are born that way. You helped me understand that Daddy not wanting to go grocery shopping with me was never personal- like you, he really was just born hating to shop.  And the fact that your brother has not a single competitive bone in his body was by no choice of his own. Even still he held his own in compliment collecting, not because he is in anyway naturally polite (quite the opposite actually), but because few things can motivate him like the promise of a sugary snack. Just like you never chose to be confident, aloof, and comfortable in your own skin, neither did your sister choose to be a conscientious, thoughtful, people pleaser. Be slow to take offense, assume good will, always seek to understand, and leave the judging to God.

And finally, never forget that compliment collecting is nothing more than a game. Some people are just born good at it and others have grown up schooled in all the most effective compliment collecting strategies. Still others have never been taught the rules or just never quite seem to catch on no matter how hard they try. A person’s ability to collect compliments says very little about who they really are, and much more about the way they were born and the unique opportunities, sufferings, relationships and experiences they have had in life. When scripture reminds us that “the Lord sees not as man sees: for man looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”, let us keep in mind that the outward appearance is much more than a pretty face, a skin color, a hairstyle, or the trendiness of our clothes. The outward appearance also includes all the things we do or don’t do that might increase our collection of compliments or even our collection of criticisms. The longer I am alive the more convinced I am that not only does God does not judge us the way other people judge us, but He also does not judge us the way we judge ourselves. Certainly, He does not judge us by the compliments or criticisms we have collected, the gifts He has chosen to give us, or the messes we tend to always make.

By the way, I think I finally figured out what I am going to get you for a graduation gift…a roomba.

Love always,

Mom

Teenagers!?

Dear Lacey,

About six weeks ago you turned nine years old!  Almost double digits!  For months I had been planning to sit down on the 30th of September and write you a lovely birthday letter about how precious and unique God has made you.  I even started it at one point but never got past the second paragraph.   This should not come as a huge surprise to you since all nine years of your life you’ve gotten the leftovers and hand-me-downs, and you learned early on that it is up to you to keep up and make yourself heard!  So is the life of the baby of the family- especially an eccentric, creative, busy family such as ours.  Thankfully you have no problem keeping up or being heard.   

So here I am writing some words to you on Thanksgiving Day which also happens to be the week of your sister Hallie’s birthday- it is not at all the words I have been composing for you in my mind the last several months when lying in bed at night.  It is not the words that I have prayed for you over and over, nor is it the things I’ve treasured about you in my heart that my mind has not yet found words to express. 

Nope- sorry to have to tell you this, but it is a word about your siblings- Kori Jane age 16, Cade age 14, and Hallie who turned 13 this week!  And now that Hallie is a teenager, we are on our own kid.   There are now officially three teenagers sharing a roof with us.    That means we are surrounded!  Surrounded by a swirl of activities and events, football games, school dances, parties, friends, extra loads of laundry, theatre rehearsals, SAT prep, tutoring, and mountains of homework.  We are surrounded by competing sounds from various technological devices- tic tocks, youtube videos and Netflix shows- as well as the sounds of moods swinging, feet stomping, doors slamming and music blaring.   In many ways it is very similar to having a house full of toddlers except the smells and sounds have changed dramatically.  The music is much more tolerable for one, but the parenting hours are actually much expanded.  They do have a bedtime, but it’s more of a goal and not a rule which means that the last words I speak before I climb into my own bed are often- “go to bed.”  And the first words I speak are “get up- you are late!”  There are the sleepless nights too, however it is not due to teething, croup, a wet pullup or a monster under the bed, rather it is due to wishing you could mend a freshly broken heart, wondering if they are safe at that new friend’s house (while tracking them on their phone), knowing they will make mistakes but hoping it’s not a mistake of the lifechanging sort, and praying that they know how much you love them even though that very day you spoke a plethora of words you wish you could take back.

I know that being a kid surrounded by teenagers is not always easy although you must admit it has its perks!  Like the fact that Kori was not allowed to watch SpongeBob until she was 7 years old, but it was your favorite show at the age of 7 months!  And maybe you are exposed to more colorful language than I’d like with so many of your sibling’s friends coming and going, but how many kids get to have a bunch of teenagers dressed up like the Descendants show up to their birthday party.   So, you’ve never been to the weekly library story time (or been to a library at all for that matter) and you were not in dance, gymnastics, soccer and t-ball by the age of 3.  You have however always had someone to teach you how to do a cartwheel, read you a book, kick the soccer ball around the yard, play pretend with you, go on a bike ride or snuggle up with a movie.

One thing that has not been easy for you recently is that there are a growing number of times that you feel alone in our house which is always full of activity and people.   A growing number of times when you realize that being the baby is no longer enough to guarantee the attention and affection of your older siblings.  I distinctly remember a couple years back on your brother’s 13th birthday when you burst into tears at the realization that he was now a teenager.  One teenager was more than enough for you after watching Kori and her entire world grow and change.  Your exact words were, “he’s never going to be home anymore, and he won’t ever want to play with me.”    We tried to explain to you that your oldest sister has always been ready for the next adventure, and even as a child was always on the go.  As she was growing up and becoming more independent, being on the go meant being busy with friends and activities more often because she had more freedom to do so.  We assured you that while Cade was most certainly growing and changing, we doubted very seriously if your introverted brother would suddenly cease to be a homebody.  But still there were and are changes happening in your brother- his body is clearly changing, his voice is changing, his interests and moods are changing and there are certainly an increasing number of times that his bedroom door is closed and he is not ready and willing to drop everything to play with his sisters. 

The reality is that there are physical changes, chemical changes and emotional changes going on inside of all three of these complicated beings called teenagers that live in your house.  And believe it or not these changes are even harder on them than they are on you!     So, I have a few words to share with you sweet Lacey as our home is now being overtaken by teenagers.  Afterall, I have a feeling that we are both going to need each other to survive!

Have grace on them!  There are a ton of changes happening that we can see, hear and smell- we can easily observe them growing taller, stinkier and hairier all the time!  But these are nothing compared to the changes we can’t see.   Think about the happy caterpillar who is content to explore the safety of his little butterfly weed, happily eating aphids and leaves day after day while never once thinking about the world beyond.  That’s what its like being a kid content to explore the tiny world that has been set before you, and never bothering to question what lies beyond the safety and security of the home where you were born.  Then suddenly everything changes- the caterpillar finds itself in the most awkward and uncomfortable of circumstances- suddenly trapped in a cocoon and completely out of control, going through miraculous changes both internally and externally, having no clue what lies ahead or what they will be, and finally realizing that the world is much bigger than they had ever fathomed.  As much as you want to spend all your days on milkweed journeys with your siblings, they are no longer caterpillars.  It is not that they do not love us or the homes where they were born.  It is just that they are in that awkward and uncomfortable stage of life- a stage where they are rapidly changing, constantly feeling out of control, starting to realize how big the world is and wondering what they will be when they finally spread their wings.  True they are no longer caterpillars, but they are not quite butterfly’s yet either.  And just as we see Kori Jane fighting to emerge from her cocoon and open her beautiful wings – we see Hallie at the beginning of her transition.     I know it is hard to not take it personally when they appear to be ignoring us all locked away in their cocoons, or when they suddenly seem more interested in the world and the people beyond our cozy little milkweed plant.  It’s hard not to get angry and annoyed when they respond to us in unexpected, unusual or unkind ways.  And it’s hard not to be confused when they suddenly begin to question and contradict all the things that you continue to cling to with childlike faith.   But they will not always make you so sad, angry, annoyed and confused, and I promise you that they still need us more than they realize and love us more than they show. So have grace on them Lacey-lots and lots of grace!    

They’ll be gone before we are ready! Your nine-year-old brain can’t yet fathom how quickly years fly by.  Your nine-year-old brain is not thinking about the world outside our milkweed home, or where butterfly’s go when their wings are fully formed and strong enough to fly.   My 40 something brain is actually still struggling to fathom that in less than two years’ time the first of my babies will be taking flight.    I still remember with clarity the day each of you were born.  Kori Jane’s appearance into this world is one of only a few times I’ve seen tears in your Daddy’s eyes.  When Cade was born, I immediately fell in love with that cone-head even as Daddy whispered in my ear “you just gave birth to an alien.”   Hallie made her arrival 13 Thanksgivings ago and took us all by surprise when she came out a girl.   And Lacey, the looks on your siblings faces the first time they laid eyes on you will be forever etched in my memory.  It seems like only yesterday that you stole their hearts in a moment but in reality, that was nine years ago.  Yet in nine more years you will be the one spreading your wings and taking flight.  So let’s make the most of the years to come as together we treasure each moment- even the stinky, confusing, and frustrating ones- knowing that all of the moments are fleeting.

You’ll be a teenager before I am ready!  And as much as I’d like to believe that my sweet little Lacey Bug will never need deodorant, wear a bra, take drivers ed or the SAT, be embarrassed by her mom or roll her eyes in disgust at Daddy’s rules, the reality is that you will be one of those alien teenagers long before I am ready.   Before we know it, you will begin growing wings of your own.  You will feel awkward and out of control and you will need grace- lots and lots of grace. Ideally, we will have made most of our parenting mistakes on your siblings, but realistically we will just be too tired to reinforce all the same rules.  I just hope when that time comes that you will remember that you need me more than you know, and that I love you more than you can possibly imagine.

Don’t forget to have grace on me!  If you think that having teenage siblings is hard, just wait until you have teenage children.  You feel things you have never felt before- you hurt in ways you have never hurt and experience a deep joy you never knew possible.  Some days you want to kill them and the very next day you are begging God to keep them alive.   You helplessly watch them learn things the hard way and fight the urge to help them struggle out of the cocoon.  You find yourself saying and doing all the things you swore you’d never say or do when you became a mom.   And then you wish you could take half those things you have said or done back.  It’s hard and the very hardest part is yet to come.  So have grace on me Lacey as I watch your siblings learn to fly.  Have grace on me when they start flying away and have grace on me when I’m not quite ready to let you spread your own wings and fly away one day. 

I love you Lacey!

Mommy