Birthday Letter to the Grand Finale

Dear Jenna,

Today is your 11th birthday. You are our Grand Finale. Our Swan Song. Our Camel’s Straw. You’ve been told that you were a BIG surprise. From that, you’ve interpreted that you were an accident. It is a joke around the house. And while it’s true you were a huge surprise to me (HUGE), I think it’s far truer that you were 100% planned. By God. You were and are a miracle.

As you complete your 11th year on earth today, here are 11 things you need to know about you:

  1. You were allergy tested before you turned 1. You tested as highly allergic to every food except three: chicken, lamb, and white potatoes. I cried all way home from that appointment because you were going to starve and so was I. On your first birthday, we had a party and you ate a banana in place of the cake you couldn’t eat. You were allergic to the banana too, but less so than cake.
  2. At 20 months, you discovered Sharpies and repainted the house black. It only took you 6 minutes to do it. Walls, tile floors, carpets, kitchen table. You colored everything you could contact in the 6 minutes it took me to put away a small stack of laundry.
  3. At 2, Grandmama and Granddaddy named you The Destroyer. You broke more glass trinkets in a year than I have broken in a lifetime.
  4. You sing like a canary but your expression never matches. When you sing, you look angry and vengeful. People are frightened. Maybe you have more of a radio face.
  5. You were so easy in so many ways. Potty training was not one of those. It was a nightmare fit for a docuseries. Potty training you was an emotionally jarring, deeply scarring process. This can only mean one thing for you: you are in for it when I’m old and in my own set of diapers.
  6. You are funny. Very funny. Funny to adults and kids alike. You can play creative social games with adults and keep up like you own the joint. You will get funnier as you age and I look forward to being in the front row of whatever performance you are commanding.
  7. You are creative. Always thinking of your next poem or story or song.
  8. #7 causes a lot of mess trails in my house. I can always tell what type of project you have going, where the project started, and where it ended right before you got up and thoughtlessly walked away from it. You should never try to commit a felony unless prison time is your goal. You’ll get caught by the trail you leave.
  9. You are my most snuggly child. You put up with whatever I toss at you, almost never rejecting me because you are tired or grumpy. That takes away about 1/3 of the pain of potty training you. Maybe we can negotiate forgiveness of the other 2/3.
  10. You get away with far more than you should. This is my fault, not yours. Still don’t commit a felony. Because of the trail.
  11. You are equal parts anxious and confident. You are absolutely fearless in putting yourself out there or being alone or trying new things. You are absolutely terrified of vomiting, or anything even 6 degrees removed from it. Tonight as you were going to bed you said that you are never going to be fixed. To that I say, you will be helped, but you don’t need fixing. You are amazing as you are.

I wasn’t young and fresh-faced when I had you, a fact you remind me of whenever you start doing graduation math or wedding math or anything of the like. And it wasn’t my idea to have my two youngest children be 18 months apart. But if I’ve learned only one thing in life, it’s this: God’s ideas are perfect. And you were His idea. Clearly. So tonight, I celebrate you in all your peculiar glory. Happy Birthday. I hope you enjoyed your banana.

Love,

Mom

Through the Plate Glass

My life has been riddled with catastrophes. Some of them I walked into unwittingly. Some I caused. Some are exaggerated for the sake of a bonfire tale. Some you can’t exaggerate enough. There was a sizable one when I was 2 and another when I was 10. The first of them was definitely not my fault. The second, well, it was also definitely not my fault, though perhaps slightly harder to prove.
All I will have to do is tell the story. 
None of it was my fault.
You’ll see.

In September 1973, I was 2 years old. I was closer to 3 really, but still very much an unlicensed driver. My online dating profile might have read something like: Great smile, speaks broken English, recently potty trained, enjoys cuddling, good fine motor skills, especially good with busy boxes.

Who even knows what a busy box is anymore? Now our 2-year-olds can swipe at Netflix and bring up the latest episode of Daniel Tiger. Then, we swiped at busy boxes that had plastic levers and rotating knobs and dials. I had the Kohner 1971 Busy Box. I could drive that thing like a herd of cattle. My parents knew this. After all, they provided me with it. I didn’t have a job.

For a toddler, I was skilled. Sometimes people underestimated my skills. One Wednesday night in particular, I was severely underestimated. And for a 4 minute period, I was also severely undersupervised.

We were trying to leave for church. As usual, I was the only one ready, waiting around for the others to get their junk together. The car had been having some engine troubles, so my dad had started it, popped and propped the hood, and left it idling so it would be good to go. My mom was trying to help my brother get his shoes on and my dad ran back in the house for the BIbles. I was standing on the front lawn waiting. Waiting.

Then I saw the car there. It was idling–waiting just like I was. My legs were kinda tired. I was carrying a little extra weight in the thighs at the time. That vinyl seat looked cozy. But that’s not what really attracted me. The real attraction was the steering wheel. I loved me a good steering wheel. I didn’t know what was taking them so long, but I climbed into the front seat to wait them out in comfort. I was shorter than the average adult, so I had to get on my knees to see over the steering wheel. Even on my knees there was nothing to see, as the raised hood was blocking my view of the house. Still no family. I put my hands at 10 and 2 and pretended to head into town, taking the corners nice and slow. But nothing was really happening and after a couple of minutes, my busy box instincts kicked in. I reached for the gears.

These days, a 2 year old reaching for gears isn’t going to get them far. Your foot has to press the brake to set a lever in motion. In 1973, all you had to have was one free hand and some gumption. I had both. I put my left hand at 12 o’clock and wrapped my right hand around the cool plastic of the knob that was sitting in Park. If they weren’t going to come to me, I could go to them. With a downward yank on the lever, I put my simple plan into motion. It had been idling high for 10 minutes, so the sage green Buick lurched forward with awkward power, racing through the boxwood bushes that were trying to line the sidewalk and hopping the 6 inch lip of the porch with ease. From there, it was a short journey through the plate glass window. I don’t remember the impact, but I’m told it sounded like a train wreck. My mother dropped my brother’s shoe and came running. My father dropped the stack of Bibles and came running. My brother stayed right where he was and screamed loud enough to be heard over the shattering glass. I climbed out of the car, with the door still open, and was walking circles on the lawn crying.

They thought I was dead.

Of course I wasn’t.

Only the plate glass window was dead. And the hood of the Buick. And maybe the boxwoods.

When they found me most definitely alive, they scooped me up and celebrated. And when the celebration settled down from the panic, my dad gave up all hope of making it to church and rifled around for the Insurance Company’s contact info. I’ll bet that was a fun call to make.

Insurance Guy: Wait, WHO was driving the car?
Dad: Our daughter was.
Insurance Guy: Sir, your daughter isn’t listed on your policy as a driver.
Dad: I know that. She’s 2. It was an accident. She doesn’t drive.
Guy: Toddler, driving. (he was muttering while writing in his file)

I never saw my 1971 Kohner Busy Box again. Maybe it was because my Dad threw it out, deeming it too dangerous to my development. Maybe it was because I outgrew it, having tasted the raw power of a real gear in a revved Buick. Either way, Insurance Guy replaced the windows, but not the bushes, and raised their premium, citing Gross Neglect and Child Endangerment with a Motorized Vehicle.

I made that last part up, but I know for a fact that I was cleared of all wrong doing. It’s all the in the file.

It was definitely not my fault.

Some things change, some things remain the same

September 2011 — Wednesday was a really bad day. It was a frustrating, exhausting day full of Whinese and overreactions.  By 7 p.m., I was pretty much done with the kids. Done with listening to them whine. Done with answering questions that had no answers (why do I have to read?). Done with requests that were stated as demands. Done.

I was.

They weren’t.

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Open Letter to Shop-Vac

Dear Shop-Vac,

Wednesday night we had a cataclysmic toilet flooding event in our home.
You were there for us.
Well, almost.
Sort of.
I truly believe you wanted to be.

I’m going to tell you the story and give you a chance to improve your products for the next toilet-flooded family. Please do so quickly, as the next family might not be so lucky.

We had only been home from church for a few minutes when I started trying to route the girls to bed. Lucy, who is still only 12, seems to think she’s earned a free-for-all bedtime. I feel lucky when she’s down by 9:30. Jenna goes to sleep at 8:30 but when you don’t get home until 8:20, you can be sure 8:30 won’t happen. People were meandering toward the upstairs. I remembered that I had washed Jenna’s sweatshirt and it was in the attic where we have a makeshift laundry room. I went toward the attic and as I was walking down the hall, I heard water running in the hall bath. It seemed like an unusual instance of water running. It wasn’t a bath or shower. It sounded like Brady washing his hands. Brady is the cleanest person in the house. But his door was cracked and he was sitting on the side of his bed looking at his phone. No one was in the bathroom running water. And yet, water was running.

“What’s the sound?” I asked Brady, feeling a little panicked all of a sudden. “What’s the water source?” Brady got up to check his bathroom, while I walked around the corner of my room into my adjoining bathroom. I didn’t have to form the words twice, because I stepped into ankle deep water in my bathroom. The toilet had overflowed and a kiddie pool was forming in my room. Holy cow. I screamed for Brady to go get his dad.

“He’s in the shower,” he answered.

“Get him out. Tell him the bathroom is flooding.” I turned off the water behind the toilet, which at least stopped the water level from rising further. Then I went running. Like a gazelle, I ran. Like a gazelle in the Olympics. It was truly spectacular how fast I moved. I ran downstairs, into the garage, grabbed two shop vacs and was back in my bathroom in just seconds. Meanwhile, as I ran through the dining room, double fisting my shop vacs, I heard more water. My dining room had become the Rainforest Café.

“Jenna, find water. Get pots. Mop dining room!’ Jenna is 10. But she was a rock star during our fiasco. I kept moving.  Every time I passed a kid in the hall, I yelled out, “Who used my toilet?!” Upstairs, a massive operation was underway to suck up the water that was flowing onto the dining room table below. I was sucking up water with the shop vacs, towels, paper towels. The dog. Loofahs. Anything I could find. When the towels became too wet, I tossed them into the bathtub and started fresh.

Jenna was downstairs doing her magic. I never saw any of that, because I was on upstairs duty. Todd was working on the toilet clog that had caused Bacteria Splash 2019. We aren’t going to talk about that. Ever. No one has confessed. Some truths are better left buried. Deeply.

But, Shop-Vac, here’s where I want to get serious. Personal. Eye-to-eye. Here’s where you let me down.

Your CORD.

Your CORD. Please. What in the world? Your cord is less than 5 feet long. And unless you have an outlet on the floor, which 99% of the shop-vaccing word does not, you use 3 of the feet getting from the bathroom counter to the floor. That left me with about 20 inches of cord. At one point, I actually got trapped between your machine and my wall, by a cord that was literally shorter than some of my boot strings.

Is it 5 feet to keep from choking the babies? Babies don’t hang out where shop-vacs are stored and–news flash–5 feet of cord can still choke a baby. Maybe not a very, very obese baby, but come on, man. There’s no logic behind your short cord. And man, when my bathroom is raining sewage onto my dining room table, I need a longer cord.

After a very intense 90 minutes, I was leaning up against the kitchen counter to decompress when my 17-year-old son walked in to get a bowl of cereal. He pulled the milk out of the fridge and casually said,

“What was going on in here tonight?”

“Are you kidding? Just a massive flood from the upstairs bathroom down to the dining room. A fat lot of help you were!” I answered. I wasn’t really serious.

“Well, I’m sorry,” he said in a tone of indignant defense. “Nobody said a word to me.”

“Did you not hear Brady running through the house screaming for Daddy?” I asked.

“Someone goes running through the house—esPECially Brady–yelling a name that isn’t mine, followed by a whole bunch of commotion. How is that different from every other day? That happens daily around here,” Andrew argued. I paused and thought through his statement.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I conceded. And he was.

It stinks to be us sometimes.

In summation, Shop-vac, thanks for sucking (water) and longer cord, please. Maybe go crazy and do a retractable. Soon.

Carry on,

missy

The Tube Socks

I wish I had a dime for every time I was told “don’t judge a book by its cover.” I’d have at least $10 now. If you break the statement down, we all know what it means. You can’t judge a book by its cover, because sometimes the cover is ugly. Just because a cover is ugly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the words.

I think the whole concept is a little too participation trophy for me, because sometimes an ugly cover is trying to tell you something: Don’t waste your time. Then again, sometimes the cover is FANTASTIC and masks hundreds of pages of misery. I picked up Beartown by Fredrik Backman (sorry, sir) because the cover was beautiful. And there was some quote of praise on the front by someone more important than me. What I got was hundreds of pages about hockey, hockey sticks, hockey players, hockey towns, drab weather fit only for hockey, hockey-obsessed men, followed by some punk teens doing things not worthy of hockey’s honor. I quit before the punk teen stuff (I had flipped ahead looking for a glimmer of hope) and threw that sucker away. I didn’t even donate it. I care that much about other people who shop at Goodwill.

I judged that book by its cover and got burned. So I guess you shouldn’t.

With books.

But what about people?

I grew up with a beautiful mother. I heard that I lot. “Your mom is so pretty.” When I was little, people still dressed up to do everything. If I had an ear infection, my mom would put on a dress, hose, and heels. She was never caught outside the house without the makeup that would take her 30 minutes to apply. I was mesmerized by her makeup process, because I loved the smell of the creams she applied. And I loved that her foundation started as 400 tiny brown dots on her face. She started out like a plague and ended up like a princess.

Then there was me.

I struggled to transition out of the plague thing. I didn’t want to. I didn’t see the point. My mother regularly offered to take me shopping.

“No, thank you, I’m good,” I would say.

“But, Missy, other girls your age…” she would follow up.

My answer usually ended in a shrug. I didn’t want to go shopping. I had white t-shirts, shorty shorts from the 1970s, slouchy tube socks with double navy striping, and dirty canvas sneakers. What else did I need? When I got into middle school, I didn’t ask her if I could shave my legs. She asked me if I please would.  I mean, I guess so. Sheesh. That whole thing started and ended on the picnic table in the back yard with a single bladed razor and a garden hose. It took like a week.

But I’m jumping ahead. I didn’t even consider changing my appearance until 1982. I didn’t make an actual change until 1983. Today’s Snappshot is from May 29, 1979. I was 8 years old. The school year was less than 2 weeks from being over, which meant a couple of things: (1) It was hotter than McDonalds coffee, and (2) they were cramming in the last of the field trips, projects, and performances.

May 29 was the last day of the gifted program called College for Kids. Back then, they actually rewarded a person for being gifted. Now it just means extra worksheets and higher-level testing. We spent one day a week on the campus of Florida A & M (FAMU). We took a bus there, spent the day with our best friends, and got to learn about things like exotic animals and cinematography. I loved it.

I don’t remember much about May 29, 1979. If my mother hadn’t snapped this photo, there would be no record of the day at all. But this picture tells quite a story.

My mom labeled the photo with the date and the description that it was the “College for Kids Pet Show.” And she brought my mutt, Benji, to be shown off. It’s hard to know what to focus on. The dog is clearly on a string that we found on the floor of our garage, not a real leash. He is embarrassingly furry.  He never once got a haircut from anyone but us. As for me, I’ve seen better shoes on people who live in cardboard enclosures.  The tube socks, though, are the real shining stars here. Two fat navy stripes that just scream, HEY I’M WEARING TUBE SOCKS. Those socks announced my arrival a good 6 minutes before people noticed the shorts or the hair. Once my fellow students got past the cover, I’m sure our book was equally disappointing.

“Hey everyone, I wanted to introduce you to my dog, Benji. He’s 2 ½ years old. He’s a mutt. We have no idea what mix he is, but we think there’s poodle in there somewhere. He lives in a cardboard box in the utility room of our garage, right next to the hot water heater. We got him when he was a puppy and named him after the popular film star dog, Benji. Are there any questions?”

“Does your dog have any special skills or tricks?” one kid asked.

“No,” I shook my head. “No, he does not.”

“Does he shake?”

Nope. Doesn’t shake.

Roll over?

Nuh-uh.

Come when he’s called?

Sometimes. If I’m holding pork tenderloin.

Does your dog do anything?

He can play dead.

He can?

No.

Benji and I deserved each other and I know he was just a little bit jealous of my socks. But one day in 1983, I looked down at those socks and saw for the first time what my mother had seen from the regrettable moment she bought them and handed them to me. I saw them. And when she offered again to take me shopping, as she had 35 times before, this time I said yes.

I remember my mother’s joy at my response and how quickly she put together a shopping trip to save my life. She was radiating the glee she felt. She was thinking about the Christmas cards she could send out next year. She was getting ahead of herself.

We bought 3 outfits that day that she and I were mutually pleased with. We bought two pairs of shoes to replace the canvas ones I had worn every day of my life since my third birthday. I put one of the new outfits on for the first day of 7th grade spring semester. And I put one of the new pairs of shoes at the bottom of my picnic-table-freshly-shorn legs. I looked down at myself and said, YES. This is good.

But my old shoes were sitting in the corner next to my bed. Man, those things were comfy. I didn’t have a lot of time to make decisions before heading to the bus stop, so I scooped up my old shoes and shoved them into my back pack and skipped downstairs to eat breakfast.

“Oh, Missy,” my mom said, clapping her hands together under her chin. “You look darling.”

Bless her. I did not look darling. But I had stuck my toe into the land of mary janes and pastel-colored flats, and that was enough to give a mother like mine hope.

That morning, I navigated some unwanted attention from people who had seen the generic t-shirts, gym shorts, and tube socks for the last 8 years. I shrugged them off and continued on my way. Before the first bell rang, I took the most direct path possible to my locker and stuck my old faithful sneakers on the top shelf. Then I headed to 1st period. All I could think about in 1st period was my shoes. The ones in my locker singing a melody of loneliness and betrayal in a tone only I could hear. They were missing me as much as I missed them. I looked down at the pink plastic flats under my desk as the teacher rambled on and on about some place in Europe. Those shoes were the worst. It was like binding my feet up with thumb tacks and duck tape.

All I could think about in 2nd period was my shoes. The new ones. From the devil. The old ones. Waiting for me in my locker. Sheesh.

All I could think about in 3rd period was my shoes. And by then I’d had enough. So when the bell rang at the end of class, I slung my pack over my shoulder and took off running toward my locker.  I ran like I was recovering from a hip replacement, because one flat kept slipping off at the heel and the other was vengefully pinching the top of my foot. But I managed. And I kept running. I dodged a maze of students and staff and yanked open my locker to see those canvas lovelies sitting there at eye level. FINALLY. I pulled off the pink flats and threw them into the bottom of the locker. I pulled the canvas sneakers off the top shelf and—

Wait a minute.

I forgot my tube socks.

Ah, well. No matter. I wore them sockless.

Thirty-seven years have passed since that initial foray into the tiniest of transformations. And my mother continued to nudge me along as she sent out substandard holiday photos of her family’s fashion eccentricities. And 37 years later, I guess I do believe that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Whether or not you can judge a person by their tube socks is going to be entirely up to you.

But I think maybe you can…

The Boat Bailer

St. Teresa was my childhood Utopia; a little slice of the Florida panhandle that hugged the Gulf of Mexico just south of Tallahassee. In the summer of 1985, we planned to spend a couple of weeks at our cottage with a few weekends thrown in on the side. I was 14 that summer. We usually split the week-long stays with time at home. Anything longer than a week forced us to the washeteria in Carrabelle. My mother was fundamentally against going to Carrabelle for anything other than ice cream. I tended to agree.

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Observations from a Substitute Teacher

In spring of 2012, while living on a farm in Plant City, I took up subbing at the charter school my children were attending in Temple Terrace. I figured if I was going to be at the school all day, every day, I might as well get paid 62 cents an hour to be there. When the P.E. Coach got married and took a short honeymoon, I agreed to fill in for him and wrote down a few of my observations in a journal.

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