Picture this…

I told myself to find something, anything to draw while this virus has me couch surfing for a few more days.

The master’s degree is done, and I’ve set my sights on writing and illustrating books kids in my classes can read. For now, as ideas and word lists germinate, I’m practicing by picturing my life in doodles again, and Thing2 gave me the perfect tale to doodle.

My second pride and joy sat down on the couch to figure out a new song on the guitar for school. The incoming storm made the lights flicker in and out, and I started to draw as I listened to the unelectrified strains of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy.

The drawing was terrible — even for a first after a hiatus -but the picture it saved in my mind is priceless.

Some Things Stay the Same

Not belonging to any religion — organized or not- our nuclear unit reconfigures most holidays to fit our wants and needs. The fourth Thursday in November is no exception, especially this year.

Like many Americans, the Big Guy, Thing 2, and I have been recreating, working, and schooling from home since March. Thing 1, needing a break from being parented, decided to run away from home with one of his cousins and quarantine in an apartment Connecticut where they did their classes online all fall.

Our autumn of isolation followed a summer devoid of our usual family reunions in Michigan or even a day-trip to see siblings in nearby Connecticut. My septuagenarian parents and the Big Guy’s sister have also been staying home to avoid becoming disease vectors, so when Thing1 and his cousin announced they would join us for Thanksgiving, we knew what this holiday would be about this year — and probably for the next twenty years.

Twenty-year-old Thing1 and my twenty-one-year-old niece (the pig-tailed tyke featured in my first and only book, A is for All-Nighter) drove up Wednesday afternoon. Thing1 and his brother had put in their request list of favorite side dishes. We had all agreed to keep everything but the food casual, and I had most of the meal prepped and ready to go into crockpots by the time they arrived.

The crowd at the Thanksgiving-eve dinner table was half the usual size, and the kids took advantage of a dearth of parents and complete absence of grandparents to indulge their inner eighth graders (much easier for Thing2 who actually is an eighth grader). By the time Thing1 went to the kitchen island for thirds, Thing2, who had been saving up his best fart jokes for an appreciative audience for nine months, had our tiny crowd roaring.

I played Exploding Kittens with the kids after dinner for a few hands before turning in. Thing1 and my niece, now used to studying until dawn, played cards with Thing1 until the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. Their shrieks of laughter occasionally penetrated our bedroom door, and as we quietly laughed into the darkness, the Big Guy and I tried to recall experiencing a better holiday.

Some things were the same. My niece and I still managed to burn the bottoms of the crescent rolls (I felt like I was literally passing her a torch of some sort). Thing1 still insisted he wanted me to make a quart of cranberry relish. Thing2 assured us he’d be taller than Thing1 by Christmas. And, even though it was a much smaller gathering, the weekend was still about family.

We Zoomed with parents and siblings who had to stay in their states, missing the warmth of a large family gathering, but the fact that any of us could gather at all made this weekend special. I know American Thanksgiving (along with much of our history) is fraught with controversy, but, for our family, any event marked by four days in a row of gathering and giggling with our kids, especially over burnt crescent roll bottoms, is a holiday worth celebrating and being thankful for.

Partners in Crime

Thing2 has been experimenting with the digital projector I use for presentations at school. He’s been projecting video games and Avengers movies on the ceiling and underneath the TV. here’s an idea man, so it should’ve been too much of a surprise when the two of us looked at each other and said, “let’s have an outdoor movie night.“

The other family members were out of the house when the idea got started, and, by the time everyone else got back we had collected a makeshift screen and two plant hangers from which to hang a curtain rod.

Immediately we agreed that we should all watch the original Star Wars. The kids have never seen it on “the“ big screen, but I think this one will be just as good. We just have to rig up THX in the yard before we screen Empire.

Common Creativity

When Thing1 was still a pea-picker, he hunched over his Matchbox cars for hours, watching their wheels and gears as he drove them around carpets and vitas he created and telling them their stories. I wish I had written them down because sometimes I think he needs proof as to just how creative he is. I think a lot of people do.

Thing1 is about to turn twenty. He knows how to fix cars and program computers. Anyone who watched him studying the movements of cars as a toddler would say it pretty accurately predicted his mechanical aptitude. 

His love of discovering how things work, however, often translates him putting high value on common sense and things that can be proven. When I tell him of the spaceships he conceived and drew, of the stories he told, he answers, “I’m just not all that creative anymore, Mom.”

Yesterday proved him wrong, and this time I got the photos to prove it. 

When Thing1’s college closed, his first action, over our strong objections, was to go job hunting. He received two offers as soon as the state closed down both businesses, but his employment history from the previous year earned him the ability to collect benefits during the pandemic (he wasn’t eligible for the stimulus because he’s too much of an adult and too much of a dependent to fall into any category the government considers visible).  He’s saving some of that money but, still a teenager for another two months, money can burn a hole in his pocket. 

Thursday he announced he was buying a hammock to use at school when it reopens. Then he announced he’d like to test drive at home. He asked the Big Guy and then me if we could think of any appropriately socially distant pairs of trees from which to hang it and, despite being surrounded by trees, we just scratched our heads.

Friday, Thing1 and Thing2 traced our normal route around the house, making incursions in to the forest when this or that pair of trees sparked their interest.  They showed us a few ideas, but the Big Guy and I just couldn’t see the right trees for the forest.

Saturday, Thing1 disappeared again and then took his machete and power saw to the woods behind the house. We heard some hacking and then a familiar buzz. Thing1 came back to assure us that the tree he’d taken down had been punky and about to fall anyway and then to invite us to the clearing he’d made. The Big Guy and I started our usual afternoon route and went to where the boys were waiting, Thing2 dancing from foot to foot to show us Thing1’s work.  

The boys had found a perfect opening into the forest and created a more defined path to a pair of trees that, somehow, the Big Guy and I had missed the day before. Thing1 had felled one tree and cleared some rosy bush between the two that would support his hammock. Then he indicated the tree-filled slope leading down to the river that will be the view for anyone sitting in the hammock.  

Thing1 had pulled a paradise from the mass of trees and rosy bush. When the hammock arrives, he’ll assemble it and give credit for the completed project to his common sense. I’d like to think that it was actually good old fashioned common creativity that helped him identify the perfect spot to meditate on the question.

Walking to Paradise

I Wonder What Would Happen

The great thing about having raised teenagers is that, when your perpetually adolescent cat puts his front paws up on your plant shelf and starts sniffing the various items that are ‘in his spot’, you know exactly what he’s thinking.

There’s a plum tree right outside my window, and the late spring has produced an explosion of blossoms (and hopefully plums) along with a squad of visiting chickadees. A chickadee chirp woke Jim up. He drew himself up into pounce position, turning his head this way and that as the chickadee hopped from branch to branch. Every few minutes he tried the cat equivalent of bunting — pretending to jump at his prey but not really doing anything.

Then the chickadee made a truly bold move, moving to a lower branch with a particularly lovely lunch of blossoms, and Jim had to make a move. I though he might forget that a window lay between them as he launched his front paws on to the plant shelf.

Instead he paused.

I let him sniff for a few minutes and could almost see the thought bubble above his head asking the classic question,

“I wonder what would happen if….”

In this case, ‘if’ was a temporarily forgotten chickadee as Jim tried simultaneously to move a hind leg onto the shelf so he could what would happen if he pushed the squash plant in front off the shelf. But, having watched Thing1 and Thing2 ask (and test) this question at various times about anything that could be climbed, blended, eaten, or flushed, I know when to let the experiment play out and when science is about to run amok.

I clapped my hands once . Jim’s hind foot returned to the poof and his gaze to the chickadee. The bird heard my clap, fluttered across the yard, and, for the greater good, scientific investigation was stymied.

Organically Grown

Somedays the wind is howling around the mountains. Other days, the sun is pointing out every new bud in the forest. Even when it’s grey and the back section of our trail is more pond than path, though, at four o’ clock, at least one kid and one adult will ask if we’re all ready to walk. Our walks have attained the ritual sacredness of communion, and, even though they are peppered with swear words when the boys argue about whose turn it is to chase the frisbee into the increasingly green rosy-bush, there is serious communing going on.

The walk around the house is about a tenth of a mile. Thing1 has a goal of getting his parents to do 30 laps walking and then running. I’m treating it as physical therapy for my ankle and, on days when my lungs allow it, have managed 10 laps with a few passes through the garden to talk to the peas and carrots. The Big Guy, waiting for a knee replacement, is less focused on the number of laps than on just walking with the boys. 

The kids will do two laps for each of ours, deliberately tossing the frisbee into the woods or at each other’s heads. Thing1 and the Big Guy will talk car repairs. Thing2 will talk music and life.

We don’t see each other for most of the rest of the day. Thing1 is finishing up classes from college online until late at night. Thing2 has class in the morning and then has creative projects. I write and study, and the Big Guy reads. There’s an implicit understanding that, while we are locking down, we need to have our physical and mental separate corners.

Vermont’s governor is slowly relaxing restrictions that have helped keep our infection rate down, but, with high-risk people in the home, our family won’t relax the current routine until we see evidence of a prolonged absence of a second or third wave of infections. As the rest of the state returns to normal, I’m grateful for these organically grown rituals that keep us close but not constricted, knowing they’re about to become even more important.

Pole Beans

The boys have been playing catch and frisbee on our walks around the house in the afternoons. Lately when Thing2 reaches for a deliberately off-trajectory frisbee, it seems as if his feet barely have to leave the ground for him to grab it out of the sky. The boys adjusted to living apart when Thing1 left for school and then adjusted again when he came back for the quarantine, but, as Thing2 grows faster and taller than a Kentucky Wonder pole bean vine, there seems to be an another adjustment taking place.

Thing1 specifically asked for Thing2 to be born, badgering us for a baby brother for almost two years. When we granted the wish (don’t ask me what we would’ve done if it had been a sister), Thing1 enthusiastically stepped into the role of guardian/teacher/benevolent dictator. He helped coach Thing2’s Little League team. He alternately shushed and comforted him through colicky rides in the back seat.

Thing2 accepted the paradigm and fell into his role of hero worshiper without question or deviation—even when it bugged the crap out of his brother. It’s a tossup as to whether a baby brother or an actor dog is more dogged in their loyalty. He followed his brother from room to room, and even from hobby to hobby. If Thing1 was good at a sport, Thing2 had to give it a go. When his older brother built a computer, he had to build one too.

And then Thing1 left. Thing2 had to find a new hero.

Our youngest has used the vacuum to bond with the Big Guy over a shared love of music and cooking. He has learned how to tech-support himself on computer issues. He has nurtured talents he discovered on his own and become his own hero, and when Thing1 returned home from school early, Thing2 very much wanted to spend time with him. There were no repeats, however, of a little kid banging on his older brother’s door, demanding to be included.

In the mornings, they each go to their corners to work on their academics. We eat dinner in the den together, but after about 20 minutes, the boys go to their separate activities. Thing1 tries to stay in touch with his new college friends as much as possible, and Thing2 will geek out on the computer or come hang out with me.

The one time of day come they really come together if over the daily games of catch. Thing1 is still slightly bigger and much stronger, but Thing2 is now a teammate, not an acolyte. There’s less coaching and more rough-housing, but, despite the extra bumps and bruises, the gaps between my two pole beans are getting narrower.

Covid 13

When he was little, Thing2 was Prozac in Pampers, a tight bundle of goodwill who could tease a smile out of Ebenezer Scrooge. As he got older, he was a flight of fantasies, a constant comic, David winning over Goliaths with a well-timed burp or fake fart instead of taking them down. Optimism as hard as a colored-candy shell was Thing2 (a.k.a Superdude’s superpower), impregnable even in the face of impending teen angst. 

But the era of Covid 19, with its empty hours is threatening to become his Kryptonite. 

Thing2 started the lockdown indulging his love of computer games in between online classes, but, as Spring Break rolled in, even the little remaining social outlet provided by classes laboriously organized by dedicated teachers dried up.

Superdude quickly exhausted his favorite reruns on Netflix, tired of zapping the last space invader, and started surrendering to the chosen time-killing strategy of depressed teens everywhere — sleep. He still joins in the family walks, playing catch with Goliath (Thing1) as we take our laps around the house and sometimes deeper into the woods, but in the absence of social stimulation, the boy who scripted fan-fiction videos, casting his friends and adding digital special effects is still.

We’re reinstating nightly card games (a fertile venue for burp and fart jokes). We work to entice him away from the land of Nod, but the part of me that abhors hovering also believes he needs to navigate some of this brave new world on his own and learn how to make new adventures. 

He’s doing some of this already — watching online cooking classes and connecting with the Big Guy over a shared interest – but the marathon has just begun. 

Self Schooling

My favorite picture of the Big Guy and Thing1 doesn’t show their faces. To the casual observer, it’s a picture of them replacing the radiator on our 20 year old Volvo wagon. for me, it’s the moment when our oldest kid learned that sometimes you get the best education when you roll your sleeves up and learn how to figure things out. Yesterday Thing2 got started on that same path.

Time and weekends are almost meaningless, these days. Thing2 has a few assignments every day, but, without the interactive component (and friends) offered by the classroom, our social butterfly has greeted homeschooling with as much enthusiasm as cleaning his room. Yeah, that room.

Friday, however, his iPad which is still my iPad, served up an ad for MasterClass, an online series of courses hosted by famous writers, lifestyle gurus, and artists. T2 watched a video with Carlos Santana and then a couple with a super chefs before rushing to my office. he regained his composure a few steps inside the door and casually begin the process of trying to talk me into buying the discounted two for one subscription.

I’ve seen their ads before and always been curious about the classes but leery of the price. Seeing it half price, however, and seeing T2 getting excited about directing his own homeschooling a bit, I cracked open my wallet.

Last night before bed I walked in on my multitasker reading his English assignment and keeping an eye on the video game, all while watching Gordon Ramsay teach him how to make the perfect soufflé . I put the kibosh on any more video games for the night and figured he’d go right to bed.

we slept in a bit because it was Saturday, but the sun was out and the boys have chores to do outside. I went to rouse my would be guitar playing chef, curled up under his blankets, buried in the kind of oblivion one only experiencesafter staying up way too late. I knocked on the door jam asked, “Do you still want to make eggs for Daddy?” I wasn’t sure if he would even remember the aspiration had mentioned the night before.

“Mmmph,” was the only sound he could muster from under the covers.

“You two have got a lot of work to do in the garden today,“ I said as I walked into the kitchen. I went to the fridge but as soon as I closed the door and turned around to go be the snooze button, there was Thing2, Wondering if dad would actually like him to make scrambled eggs.

Five minutes later he had his answer as the two of them were hovering over the stove, discussing the finer points of making eggs and soufflés and homemade bagels. Thing2 did most of the cooking with just a few pointers. The Big Guy made the toast and coffee. I did a little heavy lifting and got a picture of Thing2 discovering that there are a lot of ways to get your education. That picture is going to go perfectly right next to the original.

Faking It

I am able to walk an extra lap around the house or drag a few branches out of the garden these days, but my real skill these days is corralling the boys into believing that all of the work they’re doing to get our house ready for summer is fun.

This morning I got Thing2 to believe planting 125 seeds was fun. Later, after catching up on some homework, I got him to believe that seeing the weed pile slowly vanish was a good reason for a high five. And when Thing1 came out to try out the new blade on the trimmer and clear away some stubborn raspberry canes, the Big Guy and I swore we heard him say, “This is a good way to spend the day.”

Score one for the parents.

The Absence of Sleep

Two years ago we were celebrating April Fool’s Day digging out from under a thick blanket of snow. We were closing out in March but had seen four major snowstorms–one each week. Our family was closing out a winter of worry marked by Weekly hospital visits and a nearly fatal flu for Thing1. Now, as I stare at the ceiling, trying not to be wide awake, that winters like that never really melt from your soul.

for the past three weeks, pneumonia rather than the mandated school shut downs have kept me from teaching. Our school, as treatment facility, is still open, and I have been ashamed to admit that I have been grateful for the pain in my rib cage don’t keep me from having to show any courage.

When I made the jump to teaching, I knew that it could be dangerous. It is possible to be assaulted by students, particularly working with children who Have severe emotional and behavioral disorders. The news, of course, as shown as how it’s all too possible for teachers to be shot. this latest danger, however, adds a new dimension to the job description.

Both the Big Guy and Thing1 are in high-risk categories. As my doctor reminded me, my history of chronic pneumonia puts me in a high-risk category. but “my kids“ are also in the high-risk category. They count on their teachers to be there.

Tonight as I’m counting the number of hours of productive sleep still available, I am also wondering if I will be able to be there for them. I know my first, unquestionable priority is to be there for Thing1 and Thing2– to not needlessly expose them to any dangers. As the number of cases in our county increase, surpassing statistics in much larger Vermont towns, the question is becoming what is the best way to navigate the months ahead?

Before my husband fell asleep, we both remarked on what a strange time it was to be alive — even with all of the uncertainty in our lives. We are aware of how lucky we are to live in a remote area with neighbors who are working together to slow the spread and limit the impact. We are aware that millions of people experienced a far worse pandemic 100 years ago because little was known about preventing the spread.

But I’m also aware of what it feels like to see a child gasping for breath and not knowing if it might be his last.

I don’t know if if that memory, in the coming months, will make me brave or smart. A few weeks ago I thought, I hoped, it was possible to be both. Right now, I’m not so sure.

Sanity Security

As a recovering nomad, I can’t claim to be a “real Vermonter“ or a real native of any place, but Vermont has been my home for longer than any other place. For the most part, it’s been a pleasant adaptation, especially when it comes to putting up.

Our first summer in our first Vermont house – a 200-year-old tinderbox of a farmhouse — I laid out a 25’ x 25‘ garden. I had a vague idea of what I was going to grow. By August most of the overgrown beds had produced enough freezable casseroles and jars of beans and pickles to get me permanently hooked on gardening. At the time it made a nice dent in our grocery bill. It was also a point of pride to be able to serve homegrown veggies at thanksgivings and Christmases.

Over the years, the content in the garden bed has evolved as has the need for the garden. Paychecks have grown a little and stabilized, and we are not as dependent on our plot.But that patch of dirt gives something every bit as valuable as food.

Every spring I trot out to the garden, still doughy and out of breath from over-indulging in comfort food, too much time by the fire, and not enough at the gym or in the woods. The first hours of digging and moving winter debris produce more sweat than six weeks at the health club. Clearing the plot down to rich, black, promising dirt, however also offers more satisfaction than stepping on a scale and seeing the needle go down.

Mother Nature may upend some harvest plans, but even the worst summer weather has allowed my labors to yield enough fruit and veggies for a few decent meals. In the spring, that knowledge and those imperfectly laid beds, waiting for seeds and veggies starts, offer the peace of mind that comes from knowing I got this.

The last few years, life, in the form of injuries and illnesses and a child moving on, have taken attention away from the 40‘ x 40‘ plot on the east side of our house. Being housebound with 6’3” Thing1 and his monstrous appetite for the last few weeks, however, has highlighted the wisdom of digging back in as soon as the snow melts (Vermont, snow into April). But, as I get ready to go back to work next week (our school is a health care facility and operates in spite of the shut downs), I realize that getting my kitchen garden ready will also be my daily act of hope at home.

It will be the reminder that I — that we — got this.

What are you planning for your garden this spring ?