Memoir project: One About Richard

Austin, TX, 2001

A Kiss for Each Page

I had three major abdominal surgeries, one year apart, beginning in 1999. We learned during my first hospital stays that I did so much better when Richard was in the room with me. So, in 2001, he spent extra time with me before and after the surgery, spending long hours through the days in a dimly lit, lavender-papered room. He was needed at work, the kids needed him at home, and I needed him at the hospital. He balanced these demands without complaint.

His calming influence was so helpful. I felt less pain when I was with him. I didn’t feel anxious, which is what happens to me when I take pain medications and I am separated from the kids. My mom stayed with our kids so Richard could be with me during the days.

One day he sat down on the bed and read Tuesdays with Morrie aloud to me. Although this was a book about dying, it was a good choice because it also reminded us to celebrate life. He read for a long time, eventually resting against the pillow with me, bringing his legs up on the bed. At each page turn, he kissed me on the cheek. I felt so much love and fulfillment through his kindness to me that day. I felt loved, absolutely. As a mother, I have struggled to make room in my life to receive. One lesson from my illness was how important it is to allow myself to be loved.

When we were married, there was no thought of potential illnesses and hospital stays. These experiences showed me how much I need Richard on an emotional level. He has always been a good provider, but it’s not just in temporal things. He is also a provider of peace.

Bubbles and Words

Feelings of achievement are like bubbles. They rise above everything else and give an ethereal feeling of ascent. For months, my growing book was my secret delight, something that made me smile as I straightened a room or drove around town. The night in December when I compiled all of the essays and learned that I had more than 64,000 words felt like one of the biggest triumphs of my life. I’m talking about big bubble triumphant feelings. Foolishly, I mentioned my achievement on social media, inviting others to celebrate with me. Friends and acquaintances took my cue and offered unreserved praise, never mind they hadn’t read the words. After a few hours, I felt ashamed for advertising my feat. “Look at me!” was never a common phrase in my vernacular. I deleted the post, and along with it, the kind, encouraging comments. I knew then that I only want to hear from the people who actually read my words. Still, there were now 65,000 words to celebrate, and I celebrated alone as I printed copies for our children for Christmas.

After a few weeks, my bubbly feelings of achievement have melted back into the tepid water of the everyday. I wish the feelings had lasted a little longer. All well. I have learned that is the way it goes with bubbles and feelings. That’s why words matter to me. They are still here, even when the euphoria of achievement and popularity goes away. The words will be here for generations.

I have been reading a conversation about blogging making a comeback as people grow tired of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I would love to read more blogs like mine.  I think Instagram is perfect for visual artists and photographers. What I am missing are the writers. Many of the bloggers I enjoyed reading gave up writing and decided to use Instagram as their platform for expression. The contrast in content made me sad because now they had to limit their experience to a few pictures and characters. Was it a time saver? A move for popularity? I respect their choices, but I miss the writers. I wonder if they miss writing. I would.

Memoir Project: Summer of the Toads

Sahuarita, AZ, 2008

Summer of the Toads

During July and August, Arizona enjoys a monsoon season, with thunderstorms almost every day. With the storms came puddles, thunder so loud it would set off our smoke alarms, and flooding on the road. After a storm, the cactus blossoms would erupt in brilliant colors, and the Colorado River toads would make their annual appearance.

Pea soup green, bloated, ground-hugging, with rufous lumps, these toads would emerge from hibernation in the rains. We found them in the roads at night during the rains and sometimes they were flattened like pancakes in front of our house, run over by a passing car. The largest ones were the size of a large man’s fist, and when flattened, were a spectacular 8-10 inches in diameter. We also found them on our front porch at night, attracted by the porch light, hunkered down in corners, waiting for bugs. They have poison glands, so we kept the dog away and didn’t handle them.

The summer of 2008 was an especially good year for toads. We noticed the same toads came out each evening. The kids learned their sizes and markings and named some of them. Camouflage, Jumping Jack, Mongo, Toady, Spot, Camouflage Jr., and Teeny were some of their names. Sometimes the kids would catch insects and place them right in front of the toads. Zap! The ponderous toads’ tongues were quick to capture them.

There was a perpetual puddle on the west side of our house in July which teemed with baby toads, smaller than the size of dimes. We let the kids scoop them up and put them in Timothy’s screened insect carrier. Climbing and hopping with tiny legs, these toads were a delight to all of the neighbor children. One neighbor, however, was not thrilled to have so many poisonous toads near his house, and watched our kids and his daughter collect baby toads one night and convinced the boys to walk up the street with him to release them at the park.

We never saw a summer with toads quite like this one again. We traveled and had other adventures that season, but the simple memories of the little boys with their flashlights playing with their toads are clearer in my mind. It fits the familiar pattern of family memory; the tiny memories rise up over the bigger occasions to mean the most.

Memoir Project: The Weber, Paige, and the Bear

The Weber, 2013

The Weber, Paige, and the Bear

Each summer, my mom’s family has a week at the Spencer family cabin called the “Weber,” about 10 miles east of Oakley, UT. The first Weber cabin was built in the early 1900’s, and was part of a ranch shared by several prominent families in the Salt Lake Valley. Along the length of Pines Ranch runs the Smith-Morehouse River, and the Spencer cabin rests on an especially choice location right above the river. The Spencer bridge is the most permanent and strong bridge over the river at the ranch.

In 2002, the original cabin was knocked down and rebuilt with most of the important details still intact. There is a large, windowed porch room with long tables for big family dinners with a porch bed on the west end which can hold 10 people or more as they read books, gaze down at the river below, or take a nap among ample pillows. The central kitchen remains without a dishwasher so there are long dishwashing sessions to build character and relationships among those who wash and those who dry. Dozens of tiny, ancient hot chocolate mugs and stoneware place settings fill the cabinets. Pitchers and creamers are for wildflowers. There is an attic full of springy mattresses, and four rooms off the living room for senior members of the family, or those with the youngest infants.

Outside, people play volleyball, badminton, and basketball. Little children race around on scooters and toy cars while parents watch from the long porch. Tubing, spending time on the great swing in the pine grove, bike rides, and walks fill the days.

These are just the trappings of the Weber experience. The full picture is incomplete without a strong, dynamic grandmother leading the activities, a steady, fun-loving grandfather, aunts and uncles, and cousins of every age all around. I have lived long enough to see the changing-of-the-guard in these roles. Where my great-grandmother stood, my grandmother took her place, and now my mother lives her own version of matriarch at the Spencer cabin. In my mind, the matriarch is the most important role at the Weber. We don’t realize it, but each woman is in training to lead at the Weber.

As the oldest cousin, Paige had a following of little girls at the Spencer family cabin each summer. One afternoon in 2013, as some children began tubing down the river, sixteen-year-old Paige accompanied a line of younger girls and a dog named Sadie on a walk down the hill, across the bridge, and through the pine grove toward the spring. The flagstones of the path led them through the tall grass, buttercups, and monkshood toward the spring at the base of the mountain. The happy sounds of chattering voices and laughter were suddenly overshadowed by feelings of fear from the sound of movement nearby, and some growling from the dog, Sadie. Paige wrote, “Despite the heat of the day, I felt goosebumps rise on my arms. Something was wrong. I heard a rustling sound not far from where we were standing. I looked ahead to the left side of the path, and suddenly I knew. A dark shape emerged from the trees and stood up on its hind legs. I felt myself go tense as I realized it was a bear watching us from a short twenty feet away… I looked at the sweet, scared faces which had all automatically turned to me for instruction and reassurance. Not knowing what else to do, I desperately gestured to the girls to stand close to me. Ruby, still slightly ahead of the group, slowly crept backwards. Kaitlyn and Anna huddled in fear on either side of me, their small hands gripping mine tightly. Charlotte stood still and silent behind us. As I met their wide eyes, I took a deep breath and knew I had to be brave. I had to do something. I prayed silently: Please help us. As I stood, trying to choose a course of action, Sadie started growling even more intensely and began moving slowly back and forth… Even though my mind was full of questions, fear, and disbelief, I suddenly felt surprisingly calm. Sadie barked, and … time started speeding forward again as we watched the bear start climbing up a nearby tree. As I hesitated, wondering if it was okay to move forward, my mind suddenly became clear, and I knew that we were safe to do so. ‘Let’s go!’ I hissed, and we were off, reaching for each other’s hands, rushing along the path. We didn’t look back.” (Paige’s Narrative, 2016)

This could be a story about many things: the protection of our girls, gratitude for Sadie the dog, or the adventures of childhood in the mountains. To me, the story tells what it takes to be a strong woman. Most of all, a strong woman acts in faith. For Paige that day, it was faith to trust God’s help to escape from a bear. My Grandma Stewart’s acts of faith were to reach out to the grandchildren and children who couldn’t come to the Spencer cabin because of divorce or other challenges. She never gave up traditions she knew would draw the family together someday. For my mom, her acts of faith include her hospitality to everyone. The first Spencer grandmother at the cabin, who was known for her hospitality, placed a plaque on the cabin which reads, “Come in the evening or come in the morning. Come when you’re looked for, or come without warning. A thousand welcomes you’ll find here before you, and the oftener you come here, the more we’ll adore you.”

I have seen many faces welcomed at the Weber. The bear was the only exception.

Memoir Project: Books!

The words I read to our children are part of our collective memory, and helped forge our identity as a family. Can you name the books that inspired the style of writing in this piece?

Austin, TX; Sahuarita, AZ; Sandy, UT 1997-2017

Books!

Four little children went for a walk in a wide, wide world. Through the house they clambered, down the hall, to the bookshelf, and to the couch. When they got to the couch, they counted themselves: one, two, three, four. There were no poky little children when it was time to read aloud at the Ross house.

In the great tan family room there was a television and a red broom. There were picture books about dog parties, kittens with mittens, a toy house, and Chrysanthemum the mouse. There was a brush (often unused) and bowl full of goldfish.

The kids took their places

With giggles, motions, and kicks,

And with hops and big thumps,

The kids chose their picks.

And I thought,

I love how they come near

To hear these old stories

Whispered softly in their ears.

If my mother could see this,

She would give a great cheer.

“Oh, you are not my mother…You are a Snort!” My thoughts are interrupted by laughter. And later, “Fire, fire!” The big trucks scream from the firehouse. Years go by, as we chant, “Oh, Mother dear, see here, see here, our mittens we have found!” and learn about the “no-no fruit.” What does the owl say? “Whooo. Whooo.”

One year, two years, fun years, short years pass. “Do you like my hat?” is replaced with, “Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” and Hobbit riddles in the dark with Gollum.

Then suddenly it was quiet. Slowly, dust settled on the picture books on the shelves. The smoke and steam cleared away, and there were four children all grown. Four children, neat and tall; four sets of legs, long and strong. And Mom and her books were left in the house. Hooray! Shouted the people! Hooray! Just look at the children grown! The time she spent reading to them felt like a very short day. Perhaps her girl and boys will have another good idea, “Why don’t we read just like this to our children someday?” So, it was decided, and everybody was happy. Now when you go to the Ross house, be sure to go down in the basement. There they’ll be, Mom and the books, she, sitting in her chair, with her books right beside her to welcome you back.

That’s the kind of house we lived in. And I hope you remember when you leave it.

 

 

 

(Creative license and/or quotes taken from The Poky Little Puppy, Goodnight Moon, Dr. Seuss, Are You My Mother?, Fire! Fire!, Three Little Kittens, My Baby and Me Story Bible, My First Book of Sounds, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Go Dog. Go! Treasure Island, The Hobbit, Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel, and There’s a Wocket in my Pocket.)

Memoir Project: Sweet Timothy

Sahuarita, AZ; Sandy, UT, 2005-2015

Sweet Timothy

Timothy sat down to play at the grand piano in his pajamas. At age 4, he wasn’t taking lessons yet, but his siblings had taught him to play the tune that Big Ben chimes and the opening notes of “Jingle Bells.” It was the night of the filming of the annual Christmas video and we asked him to play his songs for us. We could tell that he wanted to because he was nervous at the thought of doing it. “I only know how to play the first part,” he said, twirling the hair near the crown of his head with his fingers. With our encouragement, he played for the camera, and when he finished, he quickly slid off the bench, trying to hide his smile of triumph and began twisting his hair again, nervously.

Timothy’s challenge while growing up is to reconcile his natural sweet disposition with his desire to be independent. Of all the children, Timothy gives himself up to joy and humor and love the easiest. But to smile is to be vulnerable, so when he was little, he would jam his tongue into his cheek to suppress it if he thought he was the only one smiling. Sometimes, even now, I will catch him doing it again, hoping to avoid detection. He’ll tell me something funny with tight lips to keep himself from giving up the joke too soon.

He was best friends with the girl across the street in Arizona who had some developmental delays. She was 4 years older, but their matching sweetness, humor, and open hearts made them close friends. He played with Littlest Pet Shop animals with this girl for 6 years, even though he preferred Legos and other games. He never teased her. He never asked her why she didn’t play with the girls in Paige’s room. I saw a degree of strength in Timothy as he dealt with her, but it wasn’t an effort for him. He just loved and played and enjoyed his time with her. One day he realized that she was growing older, but didn’t act like other girls her age and he mentioned it to me. As I explained that she just grew at a different rate, I felt foolish. He wasn’t looking for an explanation. He was just making an observation and it didn’t matter to him that she was different. I suspect that Timothy will have many people in his life that will be drawn to him because he provides a safe place.

When he was in fourth grade, I met Timothy and Mark after school each day to walk with them. Without fail, Timothy gave me the biggest smile and a hug every day when he saw me, right in front of his friends, even if they were talking to him. Without words, he said, “Excuse me, but I see my mom and I always give her a hug. Your story will have to wait until tomorrow.” With these hugs, all of his attention shifted from his friends to me and Mark and we walked down the hill together. This touched my heart each day.

In February of his sixth-grade year, he hinted to me meekly that he was playing his trombone in a band concert during school. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to be there so I asked him on a scale from one to ten, how much he would like me to come, helping him avoid having to say the awkward, “Please don’t come, Mom.” To my surprise, he said, “8 or 9.” So, I went, and I was one of four guests, three of whom were grandparents. In other words, I was one of the privileged few. He even let me take a picture.

He is growing up, but he still lets me be in love with him. I am glad when his sweetness wins out over his independence. It’s a strength that will make a difference for others.

Memoir Project: Little Daniel

Austin, TX 2002-2004

What was Daniel Like as a Child?

Daniel had a sparkly, verbose, and outgoing personality as a young child. He made friends everywhere we went. Newly-met playground friends were mourned by him in the car as we drove away. We would probably never see this-or-this friend again. He spoke to be heard and to share his thoughts and designs, and inward scenarios. He found order in talking. He could enchant adults by his precocial and erudite vocabulary and clear, precise pronunciation. He could talk for a long time about things that interested him.

When he was three, he loved to dress up as a firefighter and the vacuum hose was his favorite accessory. Sounds of toy firetrucks and sirens were common at our house. There were two large firetrucks, and a line of smaller firetrucks, like a family, which he would line up in descending order of size. Common book choices were about fires and firetrucks.

His Spiderman costume was his favorite costume the next year, and he would wear it to climb up door jams. He would walk his way up a door jam, with one foot on either side. At the top, he took away both hands from the sides of the door while his feet supported him. Next, he held the sides with his arms while he clapped his feet. In a dramatic finish, he dropped to the soft carpet below, triumphant, the stuffed muscles of his costume bulging at the arms and chest.

Seeing Paige learn to play the piano first, Daniel matched her songs by composing one of his own. His first composition was meant to be scary. He played the same notes in a minor key beginning at the bottom of the keyboard, moving up the octaves all the way to the top. When Paige performed her songs for others, he made sure to play his song, too. Here was our first glimpse of him as a showy piano performer.

We gave him some PVC pipe, cut in short sections, complete with T and L-shaped connectors so he could build “machines” with them when he was three-years-old. Sometimes he would choose our largest room and set up an intricate machine spanning the length of the room. He incorporated not only pipes, but vacuum hoses in his designs. Everything was connected and had a purpose. I remember sitting down with him at his desk and teaching him about basic machines when he was about four-years-old and he memorized everything, with his blue eyes wide open. Levers, wheels and axles, pulleys, inclined planes, and screws were incorporated in his creations from then on. He was a natural engineer. Coming into his room was like walking into a cluttered laboratory, full of his inventions. We bought an 8-foot long banquet table for school work, which we ended up giving to him for his projects. At any time, this table would have dozens of Lego buildings, piles of collections, trains, and puzzles mixed together. He liked to listen to music as he worked on his projects, and his tastes ranged from kid CD’s to Mariachi band music.

Daniel was Daniel from the start: temperament, interests, intellect, and abilities all showed themselves when he was very young. We marveled that he could do so much.

Memoir project: Daughter

I haven’t been able to write here for a while, but here is something I am working on:

August 1996

Daughter

I lay awake in my room at the hospital, and watched our new baby Paige as I wrote in my journal. I watched her facial expressions, and made note that her hair was the same color as mine. For a time, she lay in the crib, calmly looking about with wide eyes, and I wondered what she was experiencing. I saw Richard’s eyes and nose in her features, but claimed her mouth to be like mine. Her round face is imprinted in my memory. Clichés and effusive expressions about Paige and Richard were all that I could write to mark the day. I was twenty-one years old, and had gained a new title of Mother. I have spent the rest of my life since, trying to master the words to describe what this role means.

Paige was the anticipated first grandchild for my parents. My mom, who left me with a kiss on the cheek, and later, my brother Paul came by the hospital during my labor. Paige was born on a Tuesday afternoon, after several nights of little sleep and false alarms. I felt Richard’s concern for me in the days before she was born, and needed his support at her birth.

Richard went with the nurse to give Paige her first bath and was gone for a while. My room was near the nursery, and I peeked in to find him watching her, intently. When he returned to my room to check on me, he smelled of Johnson’s Baby Wash after holding her for so long, a smell that will always evoke images of our babies.

We named our daughter Paige, after one of my Young Women leaders. This leader was educated, beautiful, and a dancer. The name Paige means “young helper,” and I knew she would be a help to our family.

That night I thought about where her spirit had been before she arrived. Richard’s maternal grandmother passed away just before Paige was born. My Great-grandmother Spencer passed away earlier that year. I wonder if there was a crossing of paths, with hugs, a cheer, and encouragements for Paige from these women as she made her journey to us. It takes courage, I think, to choose to be born, to choose to become a parent, and to choose to embrace the role of women. Yes, I am sure we need the strength and goodness of those on the other side of this journey, and they are with us, not just at the crossroads, but steadily through our days.

Writing in circles

Organizing chapters

One day, I think what I have written for my book is just right. The next day, I read the same words with a pucker and squinty eyes. What was I thinking?

I am losing objectivity. Maybe I am ready to get some feedback on the mood I am conveying and the format. Does it work to have little anecdotes mixed in with reflective chapters? Should I include the entries about our marriage, or should I just focus on the motherhood stuff? I really want the marriage chapters to work. It’s a story about our family. Sometimes I feel myself repeating ideas, or trying to tie things up neatly, when I don’t want to shy away from being real. But I am not betraying anyone, either. The kids are protected and I don’t choose to write about petty things. Surely fiction would be easier.

If you think you would like to read some pages and give some feedback, let me know. Some of it I published on the blog when I decided to give up the book dream. I really wish I hadn’t done that. You may have read some of this book on the blog, so you have an idea what to expect. Mark picked up the manuscript one night and shocked me by reading most of it and laughing at the right parts. That was encouraging.

Allow him

I think I can say that I am an expert on our son Mark, and this week he was different. He is used to being home alone without friends, so when he started to show frustration that he couldn’t get in touch with one of his friends, I was a little baffled. Over a few days, he kept asking me to contact his friend’s mother after his efforts to make noise and peer through the fence didn’t work to get his friend’s attention.

On Wednesday, the day before his Scout camp, Mark was especially lonely for this friend, but we couldn’t reach him. I took him out into the garden with me and we worked together. I looked at Lego sets with him online. I told him to clean his room (my answer for boredom). Eventually, the back gate opened and they were together at last.

That day they talked a lot about Scout camp and Mark talked his friend into going. “I had him at guns, Mom.” (There are rifles at Scout camp.)

I didn’t want to destroy his hopes, but I knew there were some hurdles to getting this boy to Scout camp the next morning. I tried to explain to Mark that it was up to the boy’s parents to get him ready, and there was a lot to do. I told him there might be trouble getting all the forms filled out, and the camp might not let him go at the last minute. This time, it was Mark’s turn to be baffled at me. He was sure his friend was going to Scout camp.

Mark was right, and the love he showed his friend was the key to getting him there. This sweet friend is a Church member, but doesn’t feel comfortable among the kids at church. Mark misses his friend on Sundays.

I realized that Mark’s discomfort all week was probably the Spirit prompting him to act. My attempts to divert his attention and dampen his enthusiasm didn’t make his job any easier. As I read a text of gratitude from the boy’s mother, what had begun for me as cautious encouragement for Mark turned to open admiration for his courage. Next time, I hope I will do more to allow him to follow the promptings he feels from the Holy Ghost.

It seems strange now, but I had spent some time this week worrying about sending Mark to camp. As he stepped out of the car when I dropped him off, I saw Mark’s confidence and maturity as he went straight to his friend to welcome him. There is strength and perception and power in our eleven-year-old. Trust me, I know because I’m a Mark expert.