Coping, Cooking, and Missing My Kid

We’ve started our spring yard clean-up. It’s taking forever.

Jack’s workday begins at 5:00 am, so he’s home by mid-afternoon while I still have a good hour or so work. Every day, he pokes his head into my “office” and says hi, then goes outside to “do yard work,” which is code for “hanging out with the neighbors.” I can see Jack through the front windows. There’s rarely much actual work happening. Instead, I hear the loud conversations he carries on across the yards with the neighbors. They keep an appropriate social-distance and yell back and forth to one another. Jack will be out there for hours, with all of the necessary tools close at hand; the lawnmower, the leaf blower, work gloves, etc. Still, other than my corner memory garden, no yard projects seemingly ever reach completion.

I can’t really complain. We have friendly, good neighbors. And everyone has to find a way to cope with staying at home. Jack has found his. Work a little. Chat a lot. Do it all again the next day. I mean really … what else have we got to do?

Me? I’m walking. Every day around lunchtime, I go outside and head toward the nearby walking path. My neighbor-friend joins me and for thirty minutes we walk, share work stories, talk about the good books we’re reading, or ponder the complexities of life before we go back home to finish the workday. This is what gets me through these days. Sometimes I walk after dinner as well, earbuds in with an audiobook streaming from the Audible app on my phone. It helps me breathe and minimizes the sense that the walls are closing in.

Now I need something to spark my interest in cooking again. Actually, it’s not the actual cooking that bothers me. I just haven’t planned meals very well lately, and without a plan, cooking feels like such a challenge! One of my weekend goals is to spend time sifting through recipes and deciding on the week’s dinners. Also, I had an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my pocket (reward for participating in my company’s wellness program,) so I ordered an InstaPot. I’ve heard great things, so I’m hoping this will bring some life back to our meals. InstaPots not being considered an essential product though, I’ve got a couple of weeks to wait until it shows up on my doorstep.

Another weekend goal is to see my youngest. I’ve been extra-specially missing her this week. Our oldest son, Jaeger has stopped by a few times to pick up his mail that still comes to our address. He just moved in with his girlfriend last weekend (YAY!) so maybe he’ll officially file a change of address soon! Middle son, Ryker is living here, so I’ve been able to stay well connected with my boys. But I haven’t seen Chesney in person in … over a month? Six weeks? Feels like forever. We text a lot, call sometimes, and FaceTime now and then. I still miss her. She sent me a great picture this week though. Her transition to farm girl is coming along well!

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We’re going to try to connect this weekend, halfway between here and there. Farm Boy’s chores and the weather might dictate whether we manage to pull this off. But if all goes well, I found a park that looks good for us to have a nice social-distance picnic or a leisurely stroll.

Weekend to Weekend

2019.10.20_2bLast Saturday and Sunday were brilliant weather days, and left me with such an immense feeling of gratefulness and contentment. Clearly, this is my time of year! With Jack off on a hunting trip last weekend, I got the house cleaned and in order, and then spent Sunday afternoon fulfilling a promise to bake cookies with the little guys from next door. We had agreed on “after lunch,” so when my doorbell rang at 8:50 am Sunday morning,  I was taken by surprise. I pulled the door inward, only to find E standing on the front step beaming hopefully and asking if I was ready. I gently asked him to come back later, after I’d made a trip to the grocery store and when I’d be more prepared.

E and Little J later showed up at the agreed upon time with a friend in tow, the little guy from the other next door. Not long after, Big J and yet another neighbor boy came knocking at the door. Apparently Little J had told them I would only allow three boys to come bake with me, but Big J thought he and his friend would chance it and I welcomed them inside. I hadn’t planned on hosting a party, but they were all (mostly) so polite, and the house was filled with their laughter as they made jokes about pumpkins and underwear. As I watched them sneak candy sprinkles and dabs of frosting into their mouths, mix the frosting colors together, and generally make a big mess, I realized my patience has grown significantly since I was a young mother. We had a great time and everyone took home a plate of Halloween cookies.

After last weekend’s picturesque days, this past Monday arrived bringing with it an all-day rain and chill, along with a heavy dose of the Monday blues. The rain began to subside on Tuesday, but clouds and cold remained. By Wednesday, the sun returned and I took a break from work to go outside on my lunch break. A friend and I took two laps around the pond, kicking through a blanket of dry leaves and inhaling deeply the crisp scent of autumn. It’s the time of year that I always wish desperately would hold on just a bit longer. Driving home from the office on Thursday, I marveled at the explosion of color all around me. It wasn’t just the leaves on the trees. Even the air seemed tinged with a golden hue.

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View from my parking spot at work

It’s such a bittersweet time of year. The landscape will soon be gray and still, the temperatures encouraging a reluctance to leave the house. And like every year at this time, I’m contemplating ways to enjoy the outdoors so that winter doesn’t feel so depressing. I’ve been considering cross-country skiing, though I’ve never done it and have yet to get serious about finding some equipment.

The past week seemed sluggish after the previous week’s travels to Madison, and yet also felt a bit whirlwind-ish. While I returned to the routine of going to my own office, the workdays were hectic, in addition to the fact that Chesney’s life is changing course quickly. All I can do is sit back and watch. Her job interview went well. She was offered the position and she accepted. She moves out next weekend already, and starts the new job on the fourth of November. I can almost hear a clock ticking in the background during the hours we spend together. I’m so very happy for her, and yet still want to put the brakes on her time at home. She’s my dinner cooking partner almost every evening, and my go-to person for conversation of all sorts. We share the same weird sense of humor and taste for t.v. shows that offer an escape from the often dismal stream of world and local news. We encourage each other in our efforts to be healthy and share a mutual adoration of the family dog.

As news of her engagement, new job, and pending move spreads, she tells me that many people ask her how her mom is taking it. “Not great,” she tells them, and we laugh each time she conveys another of these exchanges. She’s kidding, sort of, when she’s says I’m not handling it well. I’m not desperate that she’s leaving and there’s never been any question in my mind that my kids would all someday leave the nest. Still, I’ve made no secret that I’m a bit saddened at the idea of not seeing her every single day, and I do love having her at home. But we both know that if she were to remain at home indefinitely, neither one of us would be completely happy about it. Her time has come to spread her wings. And it’s probably time for me to spread mine again as well.

This morning I awoke long before the sunrise. I tried to go back to sleep, but with Jack’s elbow in my back, and the rumble of his snoring filling the room, it was not to be. I start most mornings with a workout I choose from an at-home program I joined last March. It’s my habit to tackle it before I do anything else each day. So still yawning, I changed into my workout clothes, figuring I’d get it done in time to have coffee with Chesney a bit later on. I’m in the midst of an eighty-day program and just finished the first third of it yesterday. Today was supposed to be a rest day, but I felt the need to stretch out, and decided to try a yoga routine from the library of options. While the stillness of the night encompassed the rest of the house, I rolled out my yoga mat and pushed play on a beginner’s course.

Lucy tends to be an early riser too, especially if she hears me moving. I filled her dish with kibble, waited for her to finish, then let her outside and back in again before settling down on my yoga mat. As the recorded program walked me through some initial breathing exercises, Lucy sat square in front of me, trying to lick my face and making me laugh. I knew I wouldn’t master my breathing this way, but I couldn’t help reaching out to stroke her fur and give her a kiss. As long as I was sitting in the cross-legged position, Lucy continued to try to look into my eyes, and kept resting her paw on my knee. She finally gave up when I moved to get on all fours to do the cat and cow positions. She lifted herself up onto the couch then, settling into her morning nap on a blanket that had been left strewn there the night before.

As I finished my “practice,” the household began to come alive. I made some protein pancakes for Chesney and myself, the only ones who regularly eat breakfast. Jack got up and quickly left to go help a family member with a yard project. Chesney left for work, reveling in the fact that it’s the last Saturday she’ll have to spend at work from now on. Ryker, ever the night owl, remained sleeping in his room. (Nope, the nest still won’t be empty as long as he remains a full-time resident, though it will be much quieter. He’s rarely here except to sleep.)

For now, at least until mid-afternoon, the house is mine and the weekend is here. Two whole days to catch up, catch a breath, relax and take whatever these days may bring.

Season of Change

Fall has hit its prime around here. I can’t count the number of times I’ve paused this week to take note of the absolute stunning beauty of this time of year. While driving to and from Madison this week for work, I spent the nearly four-hour drive marveling at the expanse of trees lining the highway, the rural landscapes boasting a chorus of red, orange and gold. As much as I might complain about the Minnesota winters, this time of year makes me so appreciative to live where the world looks so spectacular at times.

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My backyard view

The past week has been hectic with me being away from home half the week. I’ve been in my “new” job just over a year now and have established a pattern of going to Madison about every other month for in-person meetings with my team. I’ve had my ups and downs during that time, thanks in large part to the fact that I completely underestimated the challenges of being the sole remote employee. I’ve realized that learning to understand and work with other personalities can be a hurdle when you’re not in the same physical space every day. And I’ve had to learn to speak up about my workload and ability to handle more. There was a brief period of time in which I was anxious, losing sleep, and questioning whether I belonged, but I’m happy to say that I’m in a pretty good place now.

Upon arriving home from Madison Wednesday evening, tired and ready to unwind, I came through the door to find that once again, my little buddies from next door, E and Little J had just arrived and were looking for me … and hoping for some dinner. Thankfully, Jack had found a rare inclination to do some cooking during the past few days and at that very moment there was homemade vegetable beef soup simmering on the stove. The aroma of it had my mouth watering, but I wasn’t so sure E and Little J would eat it. I told them they were welcome to have supper with us and cautioned them about what was in the soup. “I like vegetables,” E insisted. “Me too,” said Little J. I was wary, but invited them to have a seat.

Jack and Chesney had just started eating before I’d come home. E and Little J scrambled up onto two open stools at our kitchen island while I ladled the soup into bowls for them and myself. I found some crackers in the cupboard for the boys, sure that they’d need something solid once they realized they didn’t really like the soup. But I was impressed when each of them polished off their bowls and asked for more. When they’d had their fill, it was the crackers that hadn’t been finished.

2019.10.16 (2)After dinner, the boys found the markers and paper that I’d added to the stack of games and cards I’ve begun to keep on a shelf in the living room for the times when they stop by. They settled themselves back at the island and went to work on the big sheets of white construction paper, remnants from a long ago school project that Chesney found in the game cupboard. Whenever I ask the boys about school, they’re most enthusiastic about art class, and I’m beginning to see why. They both exhibit a real sense of creativity, and Little J especially has a serious knack for drawing. On Wednesday evening, he composed pictures of Jack, Chesney and me. I tried not to laugh when I saw the likeness of myself. I’d like to think I don’t look nearly as old as he depicted me, but regardless, I was impressed with the detail. While he was working on it, Little J had said he needed to put glasses on me. I mentioned that I only wear them for reading. The finished product showed me holding something in my hand. When I asked about it, he said, “It’s a book!”  The drawings took a place of honor on the refrigerator, and the boys beamed with pride.

The following night, the boys were back again and hungry when I returned home from a hair appointment. I wasn’t nearly as ready for them this time, so I stirred up some pancake batter and we ate them smothered in syrup with a side of apple slices. Little J liked my habit of smearing peanut butter on the pancakes first, and then drizzling them with syrup. He ate at least four pancakes, and after dinner, he wanted to draw again. This time he produced a rather disturbing character that looked like something out of an adult horror movie, complete with an ax in hand, dripping with blood. Still … his talents were evident. For obvious reasons, I chose not to display that one on the refrigerator.

While I realize that by letting the boys spend time with us, we’re filling some gaps in their lives, they probably don’t understand they are filling one in ours. They bring variety, laughter, and innocence to what can sometimes feel like a stale and aging routine. The older I get, the more I realize that one of my needs is to take care of others (even though I might complain about it in some aspects of my life.) That is the gap that the boys fill for me. And especially as I think about how quiet the house will become as Chesney makes plans to move out and begin her own life, I know that I’ll welcome the boys’ presence all the more. 

Speaking of Chesney, things are moving quickly. It’s only been two weeks since she got engaged, and already she’s had a phone interview for a job in Farm Boy’s town. She and I spent Friday evening shopping, in search of something new to wear for her in-person interview tomorrow. If she gets the job, she’ll be leaving home much, much sooner than I’d anticipated. While all of this is somewhat bittersweet for me, I’m so happy that her life is gaining traction and moving in the direction she wants it to go. These past few years have been very happy ones with her at home again. She’s my best friend and such a source of joy and laughter. But now it’s her time to forge a life of her own and this will bring a whole new variety of happiness, I know. It is definitely a season of change around here.

The Neighborhood Dinner

Our neighborhood has always been fairly close knit. It’s one of the many reasons we’ve stayed here since we moved in thirty years ago. It was a brand new development back then during that first year after we were married. After moving into our new and basic little home, we spent the first couple of years curiously watching other new homes go up around us and wondering who would soon move in. On many evenings when the weather was agreeable, we’d put the kids in a stroller or wagon and stroll the streets to gauge the progress of  new construction. Would we like our soon-to-be neighbors? Would they like us? Would they have kids the same ages as ours? As the years went on, we made new friends and our kids made new friends. I eventually recognized the unique bond that forms among those who live in close proximity to one another.  Community.

By now, some of the original residents have since moved away, and a fresh crop of young families have arrived to take their places. But like us, some are here for the long haul. Over the years, as we’ve matured and our financial situation has improved and stabilized, we’ve remodeled and improved that basic little house into something closer to the home we’d always envisioned for ourselves. We’re well on our way to becoming the old-timers of the neighborhood!

Our home sits on the outside edge of this four-block square development. Our yard is on the western end of our block, sandwiched between two other houses. As the back yard is against a busy thoroughfare, it was probably one of the less-desirable properties when this place was just an old farm field with a plan mapping out a number of lots. We were young, newly married, and it was what we could afford at the time. Early on we erected a privacy fence along the back to make it a bit quieter and we’ve done a lot of other work to make the yard cozy and uniquely ours. A swing set and play fort has come and gone. It now resides in one of the yards next to us where it continues to be frequently used. A chain link fence on either side of the backyard kept our kids safe when they were young and it continues to keep Lucy contained, but allows an open view and access to the neighbors on either side. Many days over the years have found us leaning against that fence as we chatted with those on the other side.

The front of our house looks into the rest of the neighborhood. Our east-west street eases into a north-south avenue, not a true intersection but merely a curving of one road into another. And it’s this specific location where a little community within a community has evolved. We’ve developed a tighter bond with the neighbors directly to our west, the two just across the street, and one right around the curve. We’re an eclectic bunch of personalities who likely would not have become friends were it not for the fact that our homes sit so near each other. But that’s the true beauty of friendship, I think; how we can appreciate others for our differences, how we can learn from one another and grow as a result.

During the summer months on an almost daily basis, as I’m pulling into the garage after work I can already see in one of the driveways a gathering of lawn chairs occupied by the residents of our corner of the neighborhood. One of the families is younger than most, and their seven year-old son might be tossing a football with friends in the front yard, or circling on their bikes out in the street. The adults sit and discuss what’s going on in life, neighborhood happenings, sports, and sometimes politics. There might be some gossip, and there is often a lot of joking (both of the appropriate type and the not-so-much.)  There is always much laughter, and there has been the occasional spat between certain members, but everyone always comes together again eventually.

Known simply as “happy hour,” this little party is almost always in progress before I get home and for some time afterwards. It’s a true happy hour in the sense that some members always have an adult beverage in hand. But others may not. It’s definitely not a requirement. Among the participants, one works part-time, two are done working by mid-afternoon, one works retail with days off during the week, two are out of work, and one is retired. I’m the only one who doesn’t get home until later in the afternoon … after 5:30. I stop by the gathering once in a while, but usually just wave and head straight into the house to make dinner. 

On one particular occasion, happy hour was happening in our driveway and so of course, I was in attendance. As it often occurs, someone asked, “Tee, why don’t you come to happy hour more often?”

I gave my usual explanation about wanting to make and eat dinner at a reasonable time. Since Jack is a regular attendee, and if I were to join him, it would be seven o’clock or later before we ever eat dinner. And that just doesn’t fit my life and other responsibilities very well.

LykkeIt was at that moment I had an idea. I had been reading a book at the time called The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest PeopleThe book described what makes the Danish some of the happiest people in the world, and one of the reasons is their habit of creating a strong sense of community, not just at work, church, or school, but in a much larger sense. In some Danish neighborhoods residents not only share a cup of sugar or the occasional power tool with one another, but they go far beyond. They offer regular help to each others’ children with homework, provide childcare so young parents can have a night out, and most surprisingly, eat dinner together on a regular basis. The cooking and cleanup duties are scheduled so that once every so many weeks each resident takes a turn as part of a crew that does all of the meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and clean-up. Everyone else gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy a meal among friends. As I sat at happy hour that evening, I proposed my idea.

I said that I didn’t see myself ever becoming a daily attendee at happy hour, but would continue to show up as often as time allowed. However, I reminded the others how summer has a habit of fading away and everyone inevitably retreats into their own homes for the winter. I suggested that it would be nice if we continued to connect all year long, and that we consider incorporating a once-monthly neighborhood dinner. (I admit, this was a bit selfish on my part. Since dinner is important to me, I wanted to incorporate the neighborhood gathering into my own schedule.) I briefly described what I’d been reading in the book, and the others were quickly enthusiastic about what I’d proposed. There was much discussion about whether each dinner should have a theme. Should it be pot-luck? What night of the month should it be held? Should we dress up? Come as you are? Paper plates or real dinnerware?

We ultimately decided that there didn’t have to be a definition to these dinners. We would simply take turns hosting. The host family gets to decide what and how it will be served. If they want to invite others to contribute, that’s fine. The most important thing is to make time for each other on a regular basis.

As I had proposed this idea, Jack and I were nominated to host the first neighborhood dinner. Scheduling the exact date proved challenging as we tried to work around work schedules, other social commitments, kids’ sports schedules and what-not. September was supposed to have the first gathering, but it got away from us. Still, we finally found a night that works for everyone and this Tuesday evening I’ll be welcoming the neighbors into our house for a lasagna dinner. I’m trying not to worry about the fact that our most recent home projects aren’t quite finished and the house isn’t perfect. But will it ever be? Probably not. Besides, I still have so much vacation time in my account at work that I decided to take some time off to prepare for our guests. The house will be clean and I’ll have plenty of time to cook. No sense stressing out any more than I have to over this thing, right? So what the heck. I made it a four-day weekend. Besides, when my life comes to a close am I going to wish that I’d spent more time working on the house than spending quality time with others? I certainly hope not.

“I’m here to be babysat.”

These are the words that have greeted me several times lately upon answering the front door. One of the neighbor kids, Little J has clearly decided he likes spending time at our house.

A little background… A few years ago, Little J’s family moved in next door. Theirs was a yours, mine and ours kind of family. But in the short time since they settled in the house, life changed and their family situation became challenging. To make a long story short, Dad has primary custody of eight year-old Little J and his two older brothers, E and Big J. The boys are often home alone. Dad works the afternoon shift and often doesn’t get home until late. The boys often have to take their meds on their own and tuck themselves into bed for the night.

In recent years, this neighborhood has seen a boom in young families again. Much like when my kids were growing up, the yards are often filled with bunches of kids playing whiffle ball or tag. Gangs of children are often racing their bikes around the neighborhood streets. Little J is usually in the mix. And he’s often in the middle of a stir. Either the other kids (or parents) eventually ask him to leave, or he removes himself from the situation. All too often we’ve seen him trudge home slowly across our front yard, his head hanging dejectedly.

Jack, who is usually out in the garage or yard working on one project or another during the warmer months, is often witness to the fracas. On such occasions, he started calling Little J over to ask him what went wrong. Inevitably, there’d be some talk about how Little J might handle himself differently in the future in order to get along with the other kids. But nothing much changes. Little J has more than your typical share of emotional and behavioral issues to work through. With the boys’ dad being gone at work so often during these times, Little J began relying on Jack to be his friend when the other kids no longer wanted him around.

One evening not long ago when I wasn’t home, Little J and E were on their own while Dad worked. They had been outside playing with the neighborhood kids when it began to rain. All of the other kids ran to their own homes, but as there was thunder and lightning in the dark sky, the two boys were afraid to go home to an empty house. Jack invited them in, and unbeknownst to me, later spoke to the boys’ dad to let him know we’d be happy to help out with the kids whenever help was needed. Dad seemed embarrassed and said the kids didn’t need a babysitter, but he was grateful to know they had someone with whom they could check in during times of need.

Little J had other ideas. The following day, I had no sooner arrived home from an exhausting day at work when my doorbell rang. I pulled the front door open and there stood Little J.

“Is Jack home?” he asked.

“Nope,” I replied. “He’s supposed to be, but I’m not sure where he is. Sometimes he works later than usual. He’ll probably be home soon.”

“Well,” Little J responded looking away, “I’m supposed to be babysat.”

I was tired and had planned on plopping down on the couch to read for a while before making dinner. I made a mental note to remind Jack that if he was going to offer to babysit the neighborhood kids, then it was his responsibility to be at home to do the job. But Little J is so stinkin’ cute, and in my heart I knew that the kid just needed some positive attention, so I said, “Come on in.”

He barreled through the front door, and kicked his shoes off while Lucy barked and circled him excitedly. He squeezed her face and rubbed the fur on her sides making her all the happier to see this new face in our house.

Little J followed me to the kitchen and he climbed up on a stool at the island, looking to me expectantly.

“Do you have some homework to do?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“You sure?”

“Yep.”

“Okay,” I said. “What should we do? Do you want to play a game?”

“Yeah, let’s play tag!” he shouted.

Feeling kind of old and wondering how that worked with just two people, I suggested, “I think we might need more people for that.”

“Okay, how about hide and seek? We can play it in your house!”

Considering that I might not want this kid roaming through our rooms, squeezing under beds or in closets, I laughed and suggested we go out to the back yard. I was sure we must have something in the shed that might be interesting to an eight year-old. We eventually settled on bean bags and spent some time tossing them back and forth, each trying our best to land the bags on the boards or better yet, drop them in the hole. Little J experimented with underarm tosses and pitcher-style throws. When it was my turn, he’d quietly chant, “Miss! Miss! Miss!” When I’d hit the board, he’d groan at his disadvantage, but when he gained ground, he’d brag and shout obnoxiously. I let him. I knew he needed to enjoy having the upper hand sometimes. When it grew too hot to keep playing, he asked if we could go inside and play video games.

“I don’t have any.” (It was a white lie. We do have a Wii and several games to use with it, but it’s not hooked up.) “But we can go see what other kinds of games I have.”

Back inside, I managed to locate the old dominoes game and we spread them all out on the kitchen island as I explained to Little J how to play. Surprisingly, this rough-and-tumble, unfocused little guy was extremely intrigued. I showed him how to count the dots on each domino in order to match it up to one that had already been laid. As we laid out chains of dominoes, he incorporated the idea that he was building a path towards me in order to blow up my “fort.” I figured I’d allow it since he was managing to keep his focus on the actual game at the same time. Not long afterwards, he looked out the front window, saw his brother, and decided it was time to leave.

A few days later upon arriving home from work, the doorbell rang again. There was Little J announcing once again that he was “here to be babysat.” When I again welcomed him inside, he asked me to hold on. He sprinted back to the end of the front walk and called out to his brother.

“E! Come on! We’re gonna get babysat!”

And so ten year-old E joined us. Big J was at his mom’s house for a few days and so at least I only had charge of the two boys. E, who hasn’t spent as much time around us as his younger brother was a bit reserved initially, but he soon grew comfortable. This time I told them that I had to make dinner and couldn’t play right away, so they’d have to entertain themselves for a while. But I was ready for them this time. I had picked up some crafts and coloring supplies at the dollar store. They were excited to color Halloween decorations while I cooked and they chatted with me about school, their favorite subjects, and a million other things. E told me he loves to cook and bake and he offered to help me. I told him we’d plan a day to bake cookies soon.

Daughter Chesney arrived home from work and began to help me in the kitchen. I invited the boys to stay for dinner. I was sure that they wouldn’t like the food I had made as it was geared more towards an adult palate. I suggested they run home and grab whatever dinner Dad had left in the refrigerator, but they insisted they wanted to eat what I was making, salmon and some wild rice soup. And they did. And they asked for seconds. I made sure they ate some fruit along with their meal and gave them each a glass of milk. I wondered how often they ate balanced meals at home if no one was there to supervise them. And so the small sense of resentment I may have felt about my unexpected babysitting duties was alleviated when I thought how much these little guys probably just needed someone to help steer them in the right direction.

After dinner, the boys ran home to feed their dog and grab a couple of board games. When they returned, we sat down on the living room floor to play Fortnite Monopoly (which, for the record is not like real Monopoly in the least!) The boys wanted Jack to play, but Jack, while happy to have the boys hang around and help him with his stuff, is not much for board games or playing in general. He suggested to E that they play vegetate instead. E looked at me and said, “I know how to play Monopoly but I don’t know how to play vegetate.”

I rolled my eyes at Jack and explained to E, “He’s teasing. Vegetate means to sit on the couch like a vegetable and do nothing. It means to be lazy.

My criticism didn’t deter Jack so Chesney, the boys and I played the game while Jack watched t.v. I told Jack he had to watch something that wasn’t inappropriate for young minds. So no Live P.D. or anything too dark or violent. The game was fun, even if Little J’s focus kept drifting to the television and I had to keep tapping him on the knee to remind him of his turn. The boys were enthusiastic, shouting “Oh yeah” each time a move worked out in their own favor. They seemed to like having Chesney around and grew comfortable teasing her and generally treating her like a big sister. Before long, it was getting close to their bedtime and Jack broke the news that it was time to go back home.

“Who’s going to walk us home?” Little J asked, not really looking worried, but merely expectant that one of us would chauffeur them back to their house. Jack said he would accompany them and make sure they got settled okay. They went out the front door into the darkness while shouting out their thanks to Chesney and me. As they made the short trek across our driveway and over to their yard, my heart broke a little bit thinking of all the nights they have to settle in all alone. I decided there would be no more resentment, not even a little. These boys need someone. When Jack came back, he described how they got their pajamas on in quick order, put in a movie, and settled into their beds without much direction from him. Clearly they’ve got this down.

There have been a few more visits from the two younger boys since that night. Dominoes has become the favorite game, and we’ve been known to play two or three games in a row without a trace of boredom in the little guys. We recently added Uno to the options and I’ve realized that the boys are surprisingly good at board and card games, especially considering the digital age we now live in, and how often Little J continues to ask if we can’t play video games. I told them I thought our house should just be the video-free zone, and they didn’t actually seem too upset by that. I’ve noticed that although Little J often has trouble getting along with other kids, he’s charming, polite, and perfectly well behaved when he’s with us. (Which is exactly what my mom used to tell me about my Ryker when he was young. Sometimes he just needed time alone with Nanna to prove what a great kid he was.)

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I find myself thinking about the little guys when they’re not here. When I’m planning my grocery list, I’m thinking about what I might pick up for the nights they might be with us. I’m enjoying the chance to sit in the evenings and play simple, old-fashioned games again. I love to listen to them talk and laugh. E was so excited to show me his folder from school this week. It contained a page showing all of the points he’d earned for good behavior in school that day. He was especially proud to point out all of the zeros in the points-lost column. I told him I was very impressed. He suggested we start tracking points for the times when they’re with us. Maybe we will.

The boys’ dad is a good man, and he’s doing everything he can to take care of his family. But he’s stretched thin on many counts. I like the idea that we can help out in some small way, and that we’re able to fulfill some of the boys’ needs when Dad can’t be around. And whether they know it or not, they’re filling in a hole in my life that I didn’t even know was there.

The Make-Believe World of the Boys Next Door

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies. – Edna St. Vincent Millay

A new family moved in next door over the winter. We didn’t have much opportunity to meet them for the first few months, it being winter and cold and all. We exchanged a wave here and there, but had little interaction until the weather started warming in recent weeks.

This new family has five little ones. All boys, I think. This is a good thing for Little Guy  who lives in the house on the other side of ours. In a neighborhood full of old farts, he’s finally got friends to play with. And I probably won’t seem so cool to him anymore, but I’ll happily relinquish my status as one of Little Guy’s few neighborhood friends (all of us being significantly older than he) in the interest of him hanging out with people his own age. Besides, unlike me, those five little boys probably have plenty of energy to keep up with Little Guy’s never-ending stream of jumping, running, dancing and somersaulting.

The neighborhood gossip-slash-retired guy across the street tells us the new family is a yours-mine-and-ours situation. Some of the kids are hers, some are his and one is theirs. The youngest one is a baby, but the other four are old enough to have been out playing in the back yard several times when I’ve come home from work lately. They appear to be very close in age, the oldest I would guess to be no more than seven or eight years old.

The previous owners left a play structure behind when they moved, but this was apparently not enough to keep all those little boys occupied. A couple of weeks ago, an additional, new structure went up, very close to our fence.

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I went out in the yard yesterday after work to play with Lucy and do a little necessary clean-up. While doing so, I noticed a plastic stick-looking thing by the fence that borders the new neighbors’ yard. Four little boys were climbing and sliding on the new play structure, shouting and screeching as little boys tend to do. All were armed with plastic Nerf guns and they all stopped to watch as I wandered over to pick up the black plastic stick.

He threw that over there,” one tattled to me, pointing at one of his brothers. He, the tattler appeared to be four or five years old.

“That’s okay,” I said. “Is it a part to one of your guns?”

He nodded and told me I could “just throw it back over.” The others stopped and quieted, watching us talk, probably curious to see if I was going to turn out to be the nice neighbor lady, or the scary, crabby neighbor lady. I think I established myself as a friendly old lady. Anyway, I’m planning ahead on being the one that gives each of them an extra handful of candy when Halloween rolls around again, so that should work in my favor.

“But you might not want to throw your things over here,” I warned them. “Lucy loves to chew on sticks, and I can’t promise she won’t chew on your toys, especially ones like this that look like sticks.”

They all agreed, and one noticed the shovel I held in my hand. He crinkled his nose and said, “You’re picking up poop with that shovel? That’s gross!

“I know,” I agreed. “I’d hate to step in it. That’s why I’m cleaning it up!”

“You should get a pooper-scooper,” one of them offered. I smiled and agreed I might.

Curiosity satisfied, the boys returned to their games of make believe. In spite of the guns in each of their grasps, I heard someone say, “Let’s play house.”

That made me smile. Those tough little gun-slingers had a soft side after all!

At the invitation to play house, one of the boys responded with fake-crying. “I want my mommy!” He wailed.

“She’s dead,” came the reply.

~~~~~~~~~~

I’m not sure where the game continued after that. I was pretty taken aback by the abrupt, unemotional announcement that make-believe Mommy was dead. Seems the world of pretend is a lot less innocent than it used to be.

I’m looking forward to summer and getting to know the new neighbors better, along with their little boys. I’m imagining sweetness and laughter, slip-and-slides and whiffle ball games. And hopefully, no shooting Nerf guns at my dog, and no more make-believe death in the make-believe family. The real world’s got enough of that already.

Still Cool to Some

There’s been much anticipation the past few days of unseasonably warm temperatures here in Minnesota. Around the office, it was a frequent topic of conversation. “Got any plans for Saturday? Are you going to get outside and enjoy the warm weather?”

The news first reported predictions of fifty, and then they hinted at fifty-three. In February! In Minnesota! I heard that if we saw fifty-five degrees, we’d be breaking some weather record set years ago. When all was said and done, the day saw nearly sixty degrees!

I was puttering around the house on Saturday morning. Jack, having worked the night shift, was sleeping in our bedroom in the lower level. I was trying to keep things relatively quiet for him as I cleaned the kitchen and listened to some music playing on low volume.  It didn’t matter how hard I tried to keep things quiet inside, because Lucy was spending a lot of time barking; this whether she was inside the house or out in the yard. On such a warm day, people were out enjoying it. And that meant the walking path that runs behind our yard was busy with walkers and their dogs. Lucy just had to greet them all. She was in her glory, chasing up and down the yard along the fence, calling out her greetings to all who passed by.

Periodically, I’d poke my head out the door and shush her, and she’d look at me with momentary remorse before resuming her bark-fest once again. I thought it might help if I went outside with her. Besides, there was some clean-up I could do in the back yard. Being a dog owner, a winter’s worth of melting snow tends to reveal certain gifts.

Last weekend was warm too, although not nearly as beautiful as it was this weekend. I’d done a good deal of clean-up in the yard then. But there was still quite a bit of snow which was now quickly disappearing. I slipped on a jacket and the mud boots I bought at Fleet Farm a few years ago for just this purpose. Besides not wanting to step in anything unpleasant with good shoes, the grade of our yard means that when the snow melts, portions of it become very swampy. I wanted to keep my feet dry too.

Once outside, I quickly realized that the jacket was too much, and I hung it on the railing at the bottom of the deck stairs. Runners passed by in shorts and t-shirts. It was beautiful outside and the sun felt amazing! I proceeded to make my way around the yard with a shovel, a bucket, and a supply of plastic bags. It wasn’t long before Little Guy from next door appeared at the gate, holding his mom’s hand and pressing his forehead shyly into her leg. I greeted them and as I expected, learned that Little Guy wanted to come spend time at our place. I told him I had to finish the job I was doingbut if he wanted to hang around while I did that, he was welcome. His shy demeanor disappeared and he ran back to his driveway to get his battery-powered John Deere tractor.

Little Guy drove circles around the big White Pine. I told him to stick close to the tree where it was clear of any dog poop. He did a pretty good job of staying where he was supposed to. It didn’t take me long to finish the clean-up, (and I thought how lucky we are to have this warm-up in February. After really snowy winters, when it might be closer to April before tackling it, this can be quite a disgusting job!)

When I was done, Little Guy wanted to come inside and play Wii bowling, so we shed our boots at the back door. Lucy followed us inside. She seems to think Little Guy is some kind of giant plaything for her entertainment, and loves to chase him around as he runs circles through the kitchen.

Little Guy hung out at our house for quite a while. Jack woke up. The barking and sound of running feet in the upstairs was probably to blame, but he gets a kick out of Little Guy, so he didn’t seem to mind too much. Jack and Little Guy played Wii baseball for a while. Then Little Guy and I played Wii tennis. Soon he was asking me to play something else, but I was having trouble deciphering his four year-old words.

The light bulb finally went on. He was asking for Jenga blocks! When we’d babysat him in December, I went on a search for something we might play with him, but soon remembered that any preschool toys that might still be around are probably up in the rafters of the garage. Searching through the game cupboard back then, I’d caught sight of the Jenga game. I figured they might work as a substitute. Clearly, Little Guy remembered and wanted to play again. We built houses and towers for a while, all of which ended up in  a pile because apparently the fun of building with blocks is to knock them down.

Next we watched a cartoon called Masha and the Bear on Netflix. I’d never heard of it. My kids being in their twenties, I’m out of the loop of popular preschool television entertainment. Again, it took me some time to figure out what Little Guy was asking for before we were able to locate the show. (He finally took the Wii remote from me and scrolled through the kids’ menu until he found it himself.) Each episode of this cartoon is a series of three shorts, and they all begin with a lively song during which the characters dance on screen. Each and every time the intro song came on, Little Guy stood up from our game of blocks and danced along. His arms waved and flapped, his head flopped side to side while his feet jumped and his entire body bounced around the living room. Each time, he ended by throwing himself to the floor and giggling uncontrollably.

As we passed the time with blocks and Masha, Little Guy was constantly on the move. Whenever he’s here, he always wants to jump on the furniture, and as much as I want his time here to be fun, that’s where I draw the line. “Don’t do that,” I gently scolded as he stood up and began to jump on the loveseat.

“Why?” He asked, stopping reluctantly, although I’m sure he knows full well why.

“It’s a rule at our house,” I said. “Jumping on the cushions makes the furniture break. I’ll bet that’s a rule at your house too.”

A sly smile crept across his face and he slithered his way off the loveseat.

Periodically, Little Guy would come plop himself down in my lap and sit for a minute. Once when he put too much “oomph” behind an attempted somersault, he landed on his forehead. He fell into my lap looking for sympathy and I rubbed his head along his hairline where I imagined it hurt. I asked if he was okay.

“YEAH!” he shouted and he was off and running again. Sometimes, without warning, he’d throw himself into my arms, nearly knocking me over. Geeze, that kid has a lot of energy! “You’ve gotta warn me before you do that,” I laughed. He just giggled.

Eventually, I warned Little Guy that I would have to send him back home soon.

“Why?” he asked.

“I’m going to church with my mom,” I said.

“I don’t want you to,” he whined.

“I have to, Buddy. I promised. But you can come over again another day.”

“When you get back?” He asked.

“No, not today,” I said. “I won’t be back for a long while.”

“Ten minutes?” he asked.

“No, Buddy. Longer than that,” I laughed.

“Eleven?”

“No, I’ll be gone a few hours,” I said. “I’m going to have dinner with my mom after church.”

His four year-old attention span put an end to that conversation as he lifted his body to attention and asked, “Where’s Jack?” He was clearly done being sad about my impending departure, and Jack was his new hero.

Jack had wandered out the front door a while earlier, and I explained that he was out front, talking to Little Guy’s daddy. That’s all it took to end his sadness over the end of our play-date, and soon he was slipping his boots and hooded sweatshirt on, and then running across the front yards to join the guys.

My housework wasn’t done, but that’s okay. Little Guy isn’t always going to think I’m so cool and I want to enjoy being looked up to while I still can!