Beyond Folklore — When a 13 Year Old Googles Family History

It never occurred to me that any of my kids would reach beyond family folklore to learn about their history, but I guess in this age of technology and immediacy it was inevitable.

This past weekend, Mitzi Googled her great-grandfather, Tony Mottola, and printed out about 2 dozen pages of condolences and comments from a Frank Sinatra forum after news of his death in 2004, written by folks who were huge fans of my grandpa.

I mean, I know how much he meant — to us, to music — but for the first time, I think my daughter understood that Papa Tony was actually and for real a legendary guitarist. Not just the person who made hand-lettered signs on posterboard for her arrival at the house on Lenape Island in New Jersey, and always had a balloon for her, and the living room always had a spinny chair to ride until it made you nauseated, and always, always there was some candy in a thick plastic container on the living room table.

She might have learned that he was not just the person who was married to Grandma Mitzi (yes! who my daughter was named for!) who had far fewer pages of condolences when she died in 2009, but impacted everyone she met. My daughter might have learned that he was not just the great-grandpa who had a set of chimes on the living room table and some thick-fabric mallets to play them with — though maybe now she knows that those oh-so-old chimes (now at her great aunt’s house) played the NBC (oh, let’s call it a ring) tone, and maybe now she knows that the house on Lenape Island had those chimes because her great-grandpa for years played in the Tonight Show Band on NBC with Johnny Carson, and was more than once a featured performer on that show. She might have also learned that weird fun fact that Lenape Island, where my grandparents lived, was shaped like a guitar. (FOR REAL.)

I don’t know what happened to those printouts, but I suspect they are tucked away in that special space in her room that 13 year olds are likely to have, to be looked at from time to time. Next week, next year, years from now? I like to think that some day, her son or daughter will find them and ask, what? And Mitzi will tell a story. Then another. Then they will be stories of his love for grandma, for the first Mitzi, and all she was, without the fame and the albums and the fan sites, the stories of family and home and love, with Tony and Mitzi and their kids, one of whom became my mother, Mitzi’s grandma, and the other three children, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, their children, and all of our stories, and then there will be more learning, more stories, more memories to be tapped, written into heartbeats, hugged into matter. And, yes, there will be that thing about Papa Tony being a famous guitarist and all of that, but by them my Mitzi will have learned what my siblings and cousin knew but didn’t realize until we were grown up — that for all the fame and recognition, what Tony and Mitzi cared about the most was family.

And eventually, what my daughter (what all my kids will tell), what my first-born will tells her children will be all the stories that she can think of, balloons, candy, love, family, and all the small details she is finally starting to hear and remember, the stories that are the foundation of our family, which no one but us cares to document on any site able to be Googled.

Are there more stories? You betcha. On beyond Google, this family’s history awaits my children, and those that follow.

Those tucked-away printouts? Just the beginning.

This was the Summer Dad Died, and it’s over.

Tomorrow school starts and no matter the official calendar, summer is over. It wasn’t the best summer for me, for my siblings, my mom, my family. Not by a long shot. Not in the vicinity of any kind of long shot.

But summer happened, and I have four kids, and despite the awfulness that will forever mark this summer,  I hope I gave the kids loads of happy memories during this summer they’ll always remember as the summer Pop Died. Forever they will remember Pop Died and This is Where I Was and What I Did. And all of that will be part of their process, part of their childhood, part of what defines them, in even a small way. As is should be, I’m told.

They loved their Pop so much. Oh, my god. They did. They haven’t yet begun to realize how much they love him and how much they’ll miss him. And holy cow, how will I be able to help them figure that out?

After it happened, I wanted so much to give them a regular summer, to be a mom who finished her work and did fun things instead of sludging from a puddle of grief to do something other than let the kids watch yet another marathon session of Psych episodes.

I think I did. At the best I got the kids out of the house for a few hours of swimming every day. We played some games. We went places. We hugged a lot. We all did our own thing sometimes. There might have been some random dancing. I only cried from time to time. Alright, a bit more than that.

My own memories of summer with growing up my family  have inspired me every day this painful season — if nothing else, I have remembered to smile and be grateful. Because that’s what summer means to me. Almost all of the best memories of my life are in the summer, and almost all of those memories involve my family.

The pain of losing Daddy is still raw. He loved every season for what each offered, but wow, how he loved summer (OMG, he was Olaf before Olaf was Olaf! But, not really, I guess.)

And he loved family. And since June 24 I’ve just spent time looking around and saying, dang. Daddy. This has been one fantastic summer. Not hot, not humid, an odd patch of weather for lower New England in the summer. Warm, brilliant sunshine, cool nights, perfect winds.

Then I realized — August has been exactly the kind of weather we enjoyed all of those summers in Mt. Lakes.  Which is a whole different post, I suppose. But, there it is.

Daddy, I’d like to say right now, school starts tomorrow. Mitzi is starting 7th grade and Cooper is entering 6th, both at the brand-new middle school Ray’s worked so hard at making a reality all these years. Ellie is already in love with her 4th grade class, and Joanna can’t wait to show off her ten-inches-shorter-hair PLUS her new cartwheels.

Me? I’m going to spend a couple of very early hours getting five people where they need to be. Then I’m going to take a shower, do some client work, revise some PBs (you’d like this one, I think, with all the puns and wacky sense of humor), and yes, I might take a nap, read a book, go for a run too. Well, maybe not a run, but perhaps a walk or maybe I’ll dust off my yoga mat. Or jut ride my bike around the block.

I’ll call Mom to check in, as it’s been a few days.

Daddy, how I wish you were here. I’d like to think that you’re “here” in the swirling netherworld of passed-on-ed-ness, and that’s good. Beautiful, even. I’m glad you’re at peace — I believe you are, because out of anyone I ever knew, peace is something you have earned, finally, and I have to believe that if peace is to be found, you’re right there.

But I miss you. I am not satisfied with the spiritual. I long for the tangible, not the ethereal. I wish you were here. Every day, for this whole perfectly beautiful summer, I have wished you were here. To see the kids’ backflips, the hands-free biking, to read the stories written, to listen to the newly crafted jokes. To witness the cousin love when we all get together, to watch the bonds forged, to see the miracle of ties knotted. To allow yourself to know, for real, that you had a very, very large part in the miracle unfolding before your eyes, that whatever else you think you didn’t do all that well, THIS happened.  To remind you to relish in the immense family you helped to build.

Aw, Daddy. I’m a writer. All of that is true. But mostly the whole point of all of this is — I wish you were here because I would sure like a hug. Or just to hold your hand for one more nanosecond. I wasn’t ready to let you go. I’m still not.

Daddy, I just miss you so much.

And holy cow, I bet you’d love to see those backflips at the pool.

 

What’s better than an Elf on the Shelf? Traditions from the heart.

Elf on shelf closeupWhen the hugely popular Elf on the Shelf hit the, er, shelves all those years ago, my kids started bugging me to get one for our house. I was — and have remained — firm in my refusal. Hey, I have no problem with YOU having one. Go for it! It’s just…well, the rosy-cheeked critter isn’t for me.

First of all, I was slightly irritated with having this fabricated tradition thrust upon me just because a bunch of people sat around a conference table and decided one mom’s fun idea was the New Christmas must-have. I like my traditions to be, you know, traditions. (I know, I know, all traditions start somewhere, but remember I’m just talking about how I feel. You are free to have different feelings.) I also get really tired of having these fads sweep through my house that my kids demand I spend money on. (And I don’t buy into those, either. Except the Rainbow Loom. I like the Loom. It reminds me of the thousands of hours I spent in my youth weaving friendship bracelets from embroidery floss. Good times.) I am really irritated by the have to. Well, I don’t want to.

Scary Elf on the Shelf

Another reason I’ve refused the Elf entry to my house, let alone any shelf on it, is the thing kind of freaks me out. It’s some kind of weird mashup between Chuckie and that clown from Poltergeist. I see an Elf on someone’s shelf and know that at any moment it’s going to POUNCE! With a meat cleaver! (This is why I never use the bathroom at a house with an Elf.)

Elf on the shelf

That’s right. You just go to bed now…

But more than anything else, I know myself and what I can handle as a parent. I knew that I would just drop the ball when it came to clever elving after the first few days of December. I mean, the Tooth Fairy has been known to not show up until a kid has eaten his breakfast. Or not at all. Not only am I not a Pinterest mom, I can barely get permission slips signed on time, never mind moving some doll hither and yon to entertain my kids and shame them into behaving well during the holiday season. This time of year is so busy and stressful, why create more by throwing the Elf into the mix? Christmas is supposed to be fun, not a pain.

The kids were okay with it after a while. “My Mom doesn’t like the Elf,” they’d say and I’d nod. Nope, not for me.

Then last year, this weird thing happened. I have this goofy Santa decoration that I think I picked up at CVS during a January half-price sale about 12 years ago. (It’s a nice IMG_5486decoration because it’s kid-friendly — meaning, when kid knocks it on the floor, Santa won’t break. I have a lot of that kind of thing.) I put the Santa in the upstairs bathroom because the room is very small and crowded and there’s not much you can do to decorate it for Christmas. And Santa wouldn’t break on the tile floor.

One night, we had another of our Elf discussions, and the little girls were a little bummed I wasn’t giving in. (Had they spent time trying to butter me up before they asked? I think they had.) After I tucked them in, I checked on the older two, reminding them to brush their teeth before getting into bed to read. There was much whispering and giggling between them and some sort of agreement was reached. Then they ran off to the bathroom.

The next day, Ellie came running downstairs, squealing with delight. “SANTA MOVED! HE’S IN OUR ROOM!” We all had to go and see. Sure enough, goofy Santa had relocated to the little girls’ dresser.

“We have a…a…SANTA ON THE SHELF!!!!”

And there was much rejoicing. Especially by the older two, who exchange half-smiles and a subtle fist-bump.

And I spent the rest of December moving that danged thing around the house. Every. Single. Night.

And now he’s back for more. Ellie couldn’t wait to get Santa out of the box. She writes him notes every day and he writes back. (Le sigh.) She loves Santa. Except — the other night she made me take him out of her room because “he’s giving me the creeps, Mommy.” This morning, she wanted to go downstairs to see where he’d moved to, but wouldn’t go by herself. ‘Cause of the creeps. (Can’t say I blame her.)

IMG_4017

So, Santa on the Shelf is here to stay, I guess. He’s kind of a pain, a little demanding, mildly creepy. But he’s a tradition now — our tradition.  Which is what makes it better than any store-bought Elf.

The things we do to keep the magic alive for our kids.

That’s what I remind myself when helping Santa write his daily letter to my daughter, with his special handwriting, using his special pen.

At 5:30 a.m., because Santa forgot the night before.

Again.

Diabetes Jeopardy!

Sometimes I wonder if anyone in my house can remember a time when diabetes wasn’t always on our minds.

I can’t, not really.

It’s become part of our normal, the routine, something like washing your hands before you eat dinner or  the fact that there’s homework on school days. You don’t think too much about it — it’s just there. Most days, anyway.

Some days, it’s all we talk about or think about. Maybe because Mitzi’s very high or very low or is sick or has a lot of sports or she’s rebelling in her preteen way about all the stuff in her life and diabetes management is just another boundary to push.

Yesterday, we all had diabetes on the mind because of MCAS, the state-wide mandated standardized tests given twice a year. Mitzi had her first round yesterday, so, starting the night before, we prepared. Not for the academics, though — we prepared for the blood sugars.

MCAS is a unique annoyance for Mitzi (even more than it usually is for every other child or adult who has to suffer the ridiculous things). If her blood sugar is too high, she can’t start the test when the other kids do — and can’t even start until it’s normal. And if it doesn’t normalize in enough time that she can take the test on that particular day, she has to make it up, missing class. If it happens on test day number two — well, more makeups, more missed class. Avoiding that scenario was in all of our best interests.

Blood sugar was on my mind when I woke up. What would it be? How early should I wake her up to test and find out? A low-carb breakfast was on the menu (scrambled eggs, while the other kids got pancakes). Would it be okay?

Luckily, it was. Normal at breakfast, even lower throughout the day. We discussed it at dinner, praising Mitzi for managing herself so well all day, and slipped into a general discussion about diabetes. Mitzi tossed questions at her siblings: If I pass out, what do you do? (Call 911, tell them you’re diabetic! Cooper even chimed in, “Get that diabetic epi-pen thingie with the glucawhatever!”) Is 150 a good blood sugar? (Yes!)

Joanna knows her diabetes stuff!

Joanna knows her diabetes stuff!

This led to the idea of Diabetes Jeopardy! After we finished eating, the younger three headed for their showers and Mitzi grabbed a bunch of index cards. She made categories and questions and assigned monetary values. When everyone was ready, they played. I watched from the dining room, struggling with something on the computer I was doing for Ray.

It was adorable. And impressive. A $400 question: What do I need if my number is high? All the kids were quick, but Joanna’s “BUZZ!!!!” was the fastest. “MORE INSULIN!!!!!” she shouted, jumping up and down.

Three years ago it made me sad that my small children had to know all of this. That a three and four year old had to recognize their big sister’s physical symptoms of highs and lows and know how to tell Mommy and Daddy about it.

Now it just makes me proud.

Mitzi finds it terribly annoying, the way one of her siblings will ask her if she’s bolused for the apple she’s eating, or the way that they might find me to see if it’s okay that she’s having a snack. The way everyone at various times asks her where her kit is, if she tested yet, and what the number was. Mitzi is eleven, and everything about her parents and siblings is annoying. But especially when they butt into her diabetes business.

But last night. Ah, last night, it was okay, and for the first time ever, diabetes was kind of fun.

On experiencing moments instead of just recording them…

Yesterday’s birthday celebration went swimmingly — Mitzi enjoyed the presents we gave her, was thrilled to get so many cards and phone calls from loved ones, and seemed to really love the cake I made for her. I took this picture just after I finished, in case someone spilled it on the floor or something:

Purse Cake

I carried it into the kitchen as we sang the birthday song, and as soon as I put it in front of her I reached for my camera. FAIL. The battery was dead. So I snapped a few ones with my phone, but none came out well, because I’m rather a doofus when it comes to taking pictures with my phone. I lamented on Facebook (where else?) and a friend reminded me that we survived our childhoods without every moment being captured in pictures. And, of course, she is absolutely right.

Not long ago there was a piece on the Huffington Post by a mom about how she started getting herself into the pictures with her children. The blog post garnered a lot of readers, unsurprisingly, since, I think, most moms find themselves mostly taking pictures of their kids and are usually not in any pictures themselves.

This is also true of me — while searching for a baby picture of Mitzi to share yesterday, I started slogging through a lot of old photos. Many are filed in a huge document, where they’d been transferred to from a now-defunct web site where I’d shared them with family. I do not have any other copies — I’ve been through two hard drive crashes and had not backed up either time. (I finally got an external hard drive, yes, slow learner that I am.) Because the individual photos are not labeled, it took me forever to find the one I wanted, so last night I sat down to start transferring everything into iPhoto so I wouldn’t have to repeat my suffering in a few weeks when Cooper has his birthday.

And I realized that I am in virtually none of the pictures. So maybe that’s something I’ll start trying in the future, so my kids don’t look back on their childhood and say, “Um, Mom? Where were you all this time?”

But the other thing I’d like to do is remember that not every moment needs a picture. I mean, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Don’t just step in front of the camera, put it down entirely. Participate in the moment, which will never happen again. If you look at your life, at your beloved, at your children, at the world around you entirely through the lens or via the flat screen of your smart phone, you lose the chance to actually experience what’s happening. You might get a picture of the unexpected hug between two formerly bickering siblings, and it will be cute and everyone in your social media world will say so, but from behind a camera you are not engaged in that moment, not truly.

So put the camera down. Watch the small miracles unfurl in front of you, let them fill you up so much that it spills over to those around you. Live the experience instead of cataloguing it.

And the memory that remains will be more permanent than a digital rendering. I guarantee.

Happy Birthday to my oldest baby!

It’s about 10 degrees outside, the perfect day to hunker down under a blanket with a cup of tea and a good book. But I am not doing that. Because it’s a big day around here. (drum roll, please…)

birthday banner

Happy 11th Birthday, Mitzi!!!!

So, today, in between the work I’m doing, I’ve been baking a cake, wrapping presents, and crafting a special card for the birthday girl to let her know what her biggest gift of all will be (a bedroom makeover!).

It’s been a fast 11 years, and so much has happened. She’s survived hospital stays and chest surgery and a diabetes diagnosis. She’s grown enormously — both in size (she’s almost 5′ 3″) and in creativity and intelligence. And even though she’s entering that gnarly pre-teen years and can be downright moody and edgy sometimes, mostly she’s just my baby. Even her little-girl curls are coming back, though now her hair is more brown than blonde.

candles

So, back to it. Lots to do to prep for the afternoon celebration. I have a purse cake to make, gourmet chicken fingers to wrangle, and nineteen other things to do. All the while I’ll probably be reflecting on her baby time, the little girl time, maybe even squeeze in a few minutes to peruse a few old photos. It’s entirely possible that I’ll find time to shower.

It’s a cold day outside, but inside — well, the party is just getting started!

Cheers!

 

VAMPIRINA BALLERINA by Anne Marie Pace

Hey, just because you’re a vampire it doesn’t mean you can’t dream about dancing! We were so excited to get our copy of Anne Marie Pace‘s newest book — at one time or another, each of my girls have had the ballerina bug, and anything pretty, sparkly and twirly is right up our alley. At the same time, the girls are also not strangers to using the occasional spooky costumes to enhance their tiaras.

Little Vampirina is adorable — so what if she doesn’t look like the other dancers? So what if her family’s a little…unusual? I love the way Vampirina keeps trying her hardest, no matter what happens (like when her pets scare the class or when she trips over her cape). At first, her classmates regard her with fear and frank judgement, but as Vampirina presses on, they come to accept and even applaud her. The text itself is series of wonderful advice for all aspiring ballerinas (drink plenty of water and always get a good day’s sleep), and the accompanying pictures deftly apply those rules to little Vampirina.

The illustrations by the super-talented LeUyen Pham are fabulous and truly take advantage of extending the story, which is what picture books ought to do. The color scheme — with Vampirina dressed in black and gray, of course, and the ballet scenes depicted in soft pinks and whites — plays up the idea that Vampirina is out of place, at least, until the final image where Vampirina is surrounded by her smiling classmates and they all blend together (except for Vampirina’s fangs, of course.) My girls really loved picking out the small details throughout, and one of the favorites is the way that Vampirina turns into a bat whenever she’s embarrassed or upset (I mean, isn’t that how we all feel?). I loved the vintage feel to the book, which is probably appropriate for an immortal character.

In the end, the story is about never giving up on your dreams, and, after all her hard work, this plucky, adorable vampire ultimately earns the coveted status of Ballerina.

With Halloween just days away, you’ll want to add this book to your holiday library — but pick up a pair of plastic fangs for your little one. You might be facing a last-minute change from Cinderella to Vampirina.