Tag Archives: Parenting

Mothers as ghost busters

Mother Day Sign

Last year’s Mother Day sign at ye olde Church Sweet Home.

It’s Mother’s Day. Despite how weird it will be in the middle of a pandemic, whether you’re with or away from your children, I’m wishing you as much happiness as you can squeeze out of this lemonade situation.

As I casted about for a good topic for a holiday like today, I thought, of course, about writing about my mother, whom I won’t get to celebrate with but cherish especially now after a little health scare earlier this year and now a novel coronavirus that is especially harsh on people of my mother’s generation. But I’ve written about her many times, including this post on another Mother’s Day.

As I pondered alternative subject matter, I thought of a This American Life episode I listened to a couple of weeks ago. In the “Call Me Maybe” segment of Episode 697: “Alone Together,” contributor Sean Cole talks about the relationship he’s refined, mostly through weekly phone calls, with his stepfather Ed after his mother died.

“I call Ed. We talk,” Cole says. “For this specific need I have [a ritual to remember Mom], it turns out he’s the perfect person to call. Maybe you’ve got somebody like that. A personal ghost buster when there’s something strange in the neighborhood, when things are looking their worst. That person who will know what you’re talking about even if they can’t understand what you’re saying. And all you’ve got to do is call.”

I admire that “personal ghost buster” line because:

  • a) it’s a great veiled reference to Ray Parker Jr.’s lyrics for the movie that only kids of the ’80s would get,
  • b) it’s a good description of everything a good mom should be,
  • c) that’s what my own mother is, especially in these ghostly times,
  • d) and yet Cole is describing his stepfather. As a stepparent myself, I aspire to such lofty heights.

I hope I am someone to call now who will know what you’re talking about even if I can’t understand what you’re saying (though I know very well my talkative and charismatic husband spends the lion’s share of phone time with my stepchildren, and I can hardly get a word in edgewise). And naturally, I wonder what role I’ll play in the future in my stepchildren’s lives if I should outlive their father. Sean Cole’s story of Ed gives me hope that I might be remembered and called on Mother’s Day and other days.

“If you’re seeing things running through your head,
Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!”

~ Ray Parker Jr., the songwriter (and philosopher)


Sign your kid up for swimming lessons now

Throwback Thursday: I shared this post a few years ago, but it’s worth repeating because the pool season is upon us. 

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I saved a kid’s life once.

The Municipality of Sebeka paid me $4.25 a hour to work 40 hours a week at the Sebeka Pool for three months during two summers in the late ’80s, and I remember saving only one kid.

She was about 6, and her siblings were swimming in the part of the pool that was 5-feet deep. She kept skirting her way down the side of the pool with a death grip on the edge, apparently thinking she wanted to be swimming with her sisters even though it was obvious she was in over her head — literally.

More than once, I told her she shouldn’t be going that deep and she should go back to the shallow end of the pool.

But in a crowd of at least a hundred bobbing around in the water in 90-degree heat, she persisted in inching her way back to the deep end.

Maybe I sensed her fear or maybe I was just lucky, but when she slipped and started gulping in water with a look of wide-eyed panic on her face, I zeroed in on her and was there to grab her and pull her to safety. And like a good Scandinavian who can’t let a “I told you so” moment slip by even in the face of tears, I shook a trembling finger at her and scolded her for  going where I told her not to.

To be honest, I hope the community of Sebeka got its money worth because I think I saved a lot more kids from the brink of death by teaching swimming lessons even on cold, cloudy days in early June when being in the pool was a different kind of goose-bumply water torture.

Every kid in America should learn to swim.

In church today during the children’s sermon, the pastor asked the assembled group of people shorter than 4 feet if they were taking swimming lessons this summer. Only half the hands went up.

OK, maybe the other half weren’t listening. Or they didn’t understand the question. Or they had taken swimming lessons during another season.

But while the pastor was teaching a life-or-death lesson for their eternal souls, I was worrying about those kids who didn’t take swimming lessons this summer. Because it’s a life-or-death lesson for their mortal bodies.

I’m not a parent (not a biological parent anyway), so I generally try to keep my opinions about parenting to myself, fully aware that every task looks easier from an outsider’s perspective (“Sure, honey, your kids would eat their vegetables and wouldn’t throw tantrums in Target. But you don’t know until your toddler spits beets all over the kitchen and holds up the 10-item-or-less line because you won’t buy her gum.”)

Still, I spent two summers of my life teaching 5-year-olds how to swim so I feel like I can safely tread in this territory.

If you don’t give your kids a chance to learn to swim, you’re a bad parent.

Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States among children younger than 14 and the leading cause of accidental death for children 5 and under, according to the American Institute for Preventive Medicine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 people die every day from drowning. While some parents go into hysterics about “stranger danger,” only about two kids a week are involved in stereotypical non-family abductions, according to CNN.

A child abduction is a terrible thing, but my point is if you’re teaching your child not to talk to strangers but you’re not taking them to swimming lessons, you’re worrying about the wrong thing.

People drown for a lot of reasons besides a lack of ability to swim — like lack of parental supervision, undertow and consuming alcohol — but the CDC states, “Taking part in formal swimming lessons reduces the risk of drowning among children aged 1 to 4 years.”

To be clear, I didn’t teach 5-year-olds how to swim in the two weeks they bobbed and blew bubbles for a half and hour a day in my classes, but it was a start with the goal being how to breathe in water and float, maybe dog paddle. Nowadays, parents can find swimming lessons for kids a lot younger than 5. A kid really ought to go to swimming lessons for a couple of weeks a year for years in order to learn to swim.

In fact, a kid really ought to wear a swimsuit so much every summer, it fades to white and loses all elasticity because they spend four hours a day at the pool (under the supervision of a parent or at least a lifeguard). That’s how I learned to swim (and eventually teach others to swim) while living in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Enroll your kids in swimming lessons and they may learn skills to save their lives. If you’re an adult who doesn’t know how to swim, you can get lessons, too. Splashing around in water is great exercise no matter what your physical condition. The life you save may be your own.

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Though through no influence of mine, I’m proud to report my 15-month-old granddaughter is splashing around right now learning to swim in weekly lessons with her momma. Go, Momma! 


Success in stepmotherhood is like success in ‘Survivor’

I was remembered today on Mother’s Day with a phone call, a card and a Facetime connection that included both stepchildren, my granddaughter and both granddogs. Lucky me.

I survived 40 years without giving Mother’s Day a second thought (other than to thank my own mother), so I’m still a little surprised—and pleased—when I’m thought of on Mother’s Day. Far beyond just being remembered on a Hallmark holiday, I’m fortunate to have two wonderful stepchildren with whom I get along well. Stepping into the role of stepmother hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes, it has been … well … how do I say this … bang-my-head-against-a-wall, heartbreakingly difficult. Days like today make all those other, less satisfying moments worth it.

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’ve updated a post I first wrote six years ago. “Survivor” is still around and so am I, so it’s worth pondering again, updated for this season’s “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.”

How being a stepmother is like “Survivor”

1. Outwit, outplay, outlast. If you can’t outwit and outplay a 13-year-old, you’ll never outlast one.

2. Do not be the leader. Leaders get voted out of “Survivor” (look how it turned out for Reem), and bossy stepmothers are unlikable all the way around. I learned early on that I had no role as disciplinarian, and thank goodness, my Beloved was up to the task.

3. Don’t be a follower either. Children—biological or step—learn how to push their parents’ buttons. If you let them get to you, they win.

4. Be nice but don’t be too young, too pretty or too stupid. Having to compete for your spouse’s attention helps no one. Be yourself. Be sincere. Help with homework. Care.

5. Keep your emotions in check. The frequent tears on this season’s “Survivor” are a little too much; methinks Jeff Probst might be pushing the contestants a little too far in the pursuit of TV drama. Yes, the actions of my stepchildren have made me cry. Crying is good sometimes. But not on camera or under the hot lights.

6. Being a good cook helps. If you can’t be a good cook, tend the fire. My tastes and my stepson’s tastes do not jive. Thankfully, my Beloved is a good cook. And I clean up after him well.

7. Lighten up. On “Survivor,” lunatics get voted out (hello, Wendy) but people like to keep funnymen around. In the end, the comedians are often the “fan favorites.” In my step-dynamic, Caswell tells the jokes and I laugh at them. In the words of Martha Stewart, this is a very good thing.

8. Avoid lying. Blindsides make for good tribal councils, but blindsided contestants tend to hold grudges when it comes time for the final vote. That goes double for stepchildren.

9. Win immunity challenges at any cost! There have been a lot of challenges in this season’s survivor requiring contestants to stand, balance, figure out puzzles or hold on the longest (even if it means passing out). Similarly, sometimes the best tactic for a stepmother is hold on longer than she ever thought she could.

10. Don’t monopolize the challenges either. If you’re seen as huge threat, you’ll be voted off (can you hear me, Joe?). Stepchildren don’t like threats to their security either.

Enjoy the “Survivor” finale this week! And happy (step)Mother’s Day!

The evolution of a stepmother

Da Man has entered the house.

Da Man, otherwise known as the Adored Stepson, turned 20 yesterday. He’s no longer a teenager. He knows it. And he wants everyone else to know it, too. He probably would like to be referred to as “Da Man” ever after on this blog, but he’s forever the Adored Stepson.

When we celebrated his 13th birthday with a new bike and a spaghetti meal at Bucca di Beppos, he was a foreign creature to me, but a friendly one. I suspected he was on the verge of big changes, and I considered myself fortunate he was a boy instead of a girl (I was a pubescent girl once and I never had the, um, honor of living with my stepdaughter during that transition). In fact, it was a gift to witness Adored Stepson’s evolution from boy to man.

The growth chart inside Stepson's closet marks the obvious. The unlabeled mark on the right? I think that's my height. Stepson aspired to be taller than me until suddenly, he was.

The growth chart inside Stepson’s closet marks the obvious. The unlabeled mark on the right? I think that’s my height. Stepson aspired to be taller than me until suddenly, he was.

We could talk about all the ways he’s changed since that momentous birthday seven years ago — the hair, the girls, the muscles, the sense of self — but that is a story told best by the one who experienced them. How, instead, has the stepmother come of age in the dawn to dusk of a teenager?

My Adored Stepson, he is a unique individual, an unexpected component of the Togetherness I endeavored to achieve with my Beloved. I enjoy Stepson’s sense of humor a lot more than I expected to. I liked teaching him about spelling, history and faith. The season he played Little League baseball was pure joy for me.

And I learned I’m a lot better at talking about sex than my parents were.

When he left us at age 15 to live with his mother, I was devastated. Gobsmacked, as a Brit might say. Unexpected grief washed over me in a way that taught me how special he was (is). I might have thought I was immune from such rejection, but, alas, no. We had bonded.

Fortunately, things get better. This is how teenagers are. They change.

What didn’t change was my desire to have a child of my own. Having a stepchild proved my theory that children require a lot of time, effort and emotional investment. And the responsibility! Uff-da! I am, for example, the sole reason Stepson will never enjoy gazpacho (lesson learned: Never force a 13-year-old to eat cold tomato soup).

Now that he is 20, I look back on his teenage years like a mountain climber: “I did it! I survived!”

But of course, like a biological parent, a stepparent’s job is never really finished. It just evolves.


Philosophical grab bag

Friday potpourri …

  • “I can’t wait until my moustache touches my beard,” said my Adored stepson who, at nearly 20, is still obsessed with his body hair.
  • Speaking of being overvalued: OpenTable, the online restaurant booking business, is worth $2.6 billion? With a B? Does that strike anyone else as excessive? Apparently Priceline is making a lot of money helping travelers save theirs because it’s paying $2.6 billion in cash for OpenTable. Every time I hear about another tech company valuation, I scoff. I mean really, are those stupid Facebook ads actually selling anything other than page likes?
  • Talk about expensive. Did you know Tostitos Hint of Lime tortilla chips have 150 calories per serving? And that a serving is six — yes, only six! — chips? We’re a nutrition-label obsessed household right now; Adored stepson is counting protein grams in order to support his weight-lifting regimen. Of course, my guacamole grew irresistibly tastier when I realized how few corn chips I could allow myself.
  • Here’s the real scandal: Women in India are risking their lives when they have a bowel movement because some maniac is raping and murdering them by attacking them when they are pooping in an open field, according to a story I heard on National Public Radio this week. Why are they defecating in a field? They don’t have a toilet at home. In fact, one of every 2 people in India defecates out in the open, the highest rate in the world. Makes you appreciate the four bathrooms in your home on your list to clean, huh?
  • As long as we’re counting our blessings … I wore a necklace I haven’t worn in a long time today. I have enough necklaces that I could wear a different one every day of the month, but I got to this one in my rotation today. It is adorned with tiny cubic zirconias, set in such as way as to see both the pointy bottom and the flat top of the stone. Curious question: Why is the flat top of a diamond the top? Why isn’t the pointy bottom featured (as it is in this necklace)?” Is this true of our good blessings in life, too? Are there “unattractive bottoms” that would be just as appreciated if only they were on display?


Apparently, tonight’s dinner was pretty good.

I made a simple meal of spaghetti and meat sauce (Italian sausage + brand-name bottled sauce). As we discussed college roommates, shared refrigerator space and my Adored Stepson’s plans to rent a house with some of his buddies, he remarked on his dietary plans:

“Next year, I’m going to eat spaghetti like it’s a job.”


One of 8.3 million incoming college freshmen this year

Our little birdie flew the coop today.

We moved my Adored Stepson into his college dormitory, hoping he’ll actually go to classes when they start on Tuesday.

It’s the way colleges do it nowadays, I guess. At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where Caswell is going to school, they offer four — yes, FOUR — days of minglers, entertainment and acclimation activities in advance of classes in session.

I believe a lot of purple body paint may be involved. Purple is UW-W’s school color, and there’s a football game scheduled in Saturday’s 90-degree weather.


But I’m not involved in any of that. My role today was pack mule.

We got up before the crack of dawn because my Beloved is an early riser, and so everyone else in the house has to be, too. And he wanted to beat the lines and the heat.

When we arrived at 9:15 a.m., here’s how the line looked:

Every SUV and minivan in the southern half of the state beat us to Move-in Day.

Every SUV and minivan in the southern half of the state beat us to Move-in Day.

Things moved quickly, and soon we dumped all of Caswell’s worldly possessions on the lawn in front of his dorm, where controlled chaos was in full operation.

No unattended vehicles! No move along!

No unattended vehicles! Nothing to see here. Now move along!

With the help of a couple of sweaty volunteers, I had to lug hampers and linens up five flights of stairs only twice.

It was 76 degrees at 10 a.m., but I could have sworn it was 90.

His dorm room is … “smaller than I expected.” That’s a direct quote from both Caswell when he saw his room for the first time and his roommate an hour later.

Welcome to the real world, boys.

But the view is nice:

It's really quite lovely. No sarcasm.

It’s really quite lovely. No sarcasm.

Also, across the hall is Meghan and Amy’s room. Which may provide some nice views, too, I don’t know. Yes, Stepson is now living on a mixed-gender floor.

We helped him unpack a little, including making his bed, finding an outlet for the fan (ahh!) and plugging in the refrigerator.

And then we left.

Caswell didn’t want us to leave. I swear. It wasn’t me. He walked us out to the car, gave us big (sweaty) hugs and squared his shoulders to return to the chaos (and hormones).

As we were leaving town, hopeful but a little wistful, too, we drove by what were clearly the party houses. Tables were set up in the front yards with rows of red plastic cups decorating them like it was a holiday:

"Red Solo cup, I fill you up."

“Red Solo cup, I fill you up.”

In the words of Toby Keith, “proceed to party.”

Good luck, little birdie. I know you can fly.

Party in a bag: Some assembly required

In college art class, it wasn’t the charcoal drawing or the acrylic painting that I loved, it was the found object sculpture.

Found object sculpture describes art created from undisguised, but often modified, objects that are not normally considered art, like toilets or empty pop bottles. The memorials around the country made from World Trade Center girders would be a form of found object sculpture. I used a broken television in my college found art project, and as I recall, it spoke “good concept, poor execution” to my professor.

I’m not a sculptor, but I still appreciate the challenge of assembling aesthetic beauty from odds-and-ends around the house. I use these skills in creating an epic frittata from leftovers, for example, and I used them today in creation of a mini party for my Dear stepdaughter.

It’s her birthday later this week, and we met her for dinner. Her gift arrived over the weekend, so I cloaked it in wrapping and a recycled bow in the perfect color. Birthday card? Check! I had one in my stationery drawer. Delivery mechanism for the cash portion of the gift? I got all origami on the bill, and inserted the president’s smiling face into a tiny oval photo frame for which I hadn’t yet found a use.

Hmm, what to use for a stand-in to birthday cake? How about this fabulous package of white chocolate-macadamia nut cookie mix that’s been lurking in the cupboard? Whew, I’ve got butter and egg in the fridge. Handily, my mother-in-law had some time on her hands during her visit today, so whipped it up and put the cookies to bake in the oven. Disposable container in the perfect size for a dozen cookies? Found this in the package saved from a selection of deli meats. Birthday candles? Ta da! In the junk drawer. Lighter? Yes, there’s one floating around in the bottom of my purse.

cookieTo haul the whole kit and caboodle to the restaurant where we met Dear stepdaughter? How about an adorable reversible shopping bag I’ve been keeping in my gift closet for just such an occasion?

Our dinner was perfect, including the off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” over the lighted cookie.

Like a work of art.

Nothing so rare as a day in June

Today was one of those rare, wonderful days when everything falls into place.

Except I stained my white jeans with a single drop of coffee on the way to my destination — too late to change, nothing else appropriate to wear anyway. But that was the only disappointment.

Well, it rained this morning, too. I hate it when it rains, and they don’t need more rain around here. But that and the coffee — those were the only nuisances today.

Well, the muffler on the Jeep fell apart again on our way to dinner. One minute, it’s putt-putt-putt and in an unexpected spurt of a second, it’s BLARING EXHAUST RIGHT UNDERNEATH THE PASSENGER SEATS! WHAT?! I SAID THE MUFFLER BROKE!! So the coffee and the rain and the really loud muffler were the only things that could have ruined the day.

But they didn’t. They didn’t matter at all. I washed out (most of) the coffee stain in the ladies room, and the sun came out when it eventually stopped raining and my Adored stepson kind of enjoyed crawling under the Jeep after dinner to (successfully) MacGyver the muffler into relative silence.

What went 100% according to plan today was stepson’s freshman orientation at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The information was what we needed when we needed it. The speakers were fun and fast-paced. Everyone was so nice and friendly. The food was … well, the food wasn’t bad. We were impressed.

I am so, so grateful. Because this is the one university we didn’t formally tour, and our drive-by viewing in cold, gray March left much to be desired. And I was so worried my stepson wouldn’t like it, and here we would be, stuck with it.

But it wasn’t that way at all. Our orientation experience, for both parents and student, surpassed our expectations. Best of all: All the credits he earned taking college courses in high school transferred to UW-W, and he landed all the classes he wanted in the time frames he desired this fall.

Like it was meant to be.

Probably because it was.

“Eventually, all the pieces will fall into place. Until then … laugh at the confusion, live for the moment and know that everything happens for a reason.”

Curves of kale and cars

kale and rhubarb

The kale in my garden is ready to be devoured. Look at those lush leaves of brassica oleracea, ready to be sautéed in bacon grease and served over a bed of polenta. Mm.

That big green leaf? A bit of rhubarb, also ripe for picking, destined to made into a crisp. I think the prayers last spring worked.

I’ve looked all week for a suitable submission to the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge on “curves,” and I found not one but two curvaceous options. The curly kale is lovely, of course, but so is the sight of my Adored stepson waxing the car.

car wax

See how the wax looks like a work of art before it’s wiped away? And how about those hairy arms? Stepson probably doesn’t remember yearning for body hair four years ago, but he got his wish.

I didn’t discover curves; I only uncovered them.

~ Mae West