Back-to-school brings scissors, pencils, cliques, and other sharp things

It’s mid-August, finally, and many schools in our country are back in session. In my neck of the woods, however, we still have a month to go before that first bell. There are beaches to visit, day trips to take, ice cream to scoop, camp-outs to plan, and all kinds of lazy days spread before us like a month of red-checkered picnic blankets.

Still, it’s mid-August, and while that means the summer’s last hurrah for the next few weeks, for many parents, it also means thinking ahead to the upcoming school year. In my house, we have summer reading (and notes) to finish, as well as math homework (yes, you read that right, we have math worksheets). Amid all the catalogues and online ads and social media posts of faraway friends’ kids having first days of school — first weeks even — there has been this gnawing thought.

What will this year look like for my kids?

Honestly, I’m not concerned about academics. It’s not that my kids are so brilliant. It’s just that I can handle helping them with schoolwork. It’s neat. It’s predictable. Sure, it’s often a challenge at one time or another, but it’s manageable.

What I wonder is what the year will look like for them socially.

talking behind backUndoubtedly it’s my own baggage that makes me feel this way, year after year. I had some struggles in middle school, sixth and seventh grades in particular, when both years found me an outcast for some alleged insult to a friend. (Yes, both times a friend heard a rumor I’d said something that I didn’t say, and suddenly no one in the grade spoke to me for months.) I remember this keenly, and have always been on the lookout for my kids. Are they happy? Making friends? Being a good friend? Enjoying school? Enjoying after school?

It’s usually a case of “so far, so good.” I don’t care about popularity and I don’t care about numbers. I think it’s okay to not be friends with everybody, but I try to teach my kids to be kind to everyone, even if they don’t want to foster a friendship. What I do care about is that each of my children has one or two good connections, true connections, honest and mutual friendships, to count on.

This year, I’m not so sure what to expect. This year, I have my doubts, and also my fears, about what back-to-school will mean for one of my children in particular, because for the first time, in the last few months I have witnessed some genuine Mean Kid behavior. Straight out of a Disney Channel movie.

The first incident happened at the end of the school year. My kids and I were walking to a nearby soccer field for someone’s game. Our route took us through the neighborhood across the street, a neighborhood filled with families and kids, many of whom are friends on some level with my kids. We rounded a bend and I saw them, the three peers of my child, stopped a distance away, chatting. My nerves got edgy; these kids are only peers, not friends, though they friends were at one time. But not any more, as far as I could tell by the sudden lack of phone calls. The were No Longer Friends.

We walked on. The trio walked as well, but stopped every once in a while to chat, or look at a phone or a flower. They saw us; I saw them recognize us. Yet no one spoke, not them, not my kids. Finally we were near enough when I could use my Mom/Teacher voice to say, “Hey there, Name, Name and Name!”

No one answered. By now my blood was a little hot. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined any of these kids (I know their PARENTS!) ignoring an adult. But ignore me they did. We closer still, until we were a few steps behind, and we all finally had to turn onto the single-file path through the woods, a cut-through to the fields. One of my kids was on a bike, and wobbled slowly just behind the ahead-walkers, and still no one spoke. As the path widened, my bike-rider shot past them, as did my kid, the peer and former friend of these three, and still not one spoke. Not to that child or the siblings, and not to me. And I thought, “What the what?” and “So it begins.” whisper1

Fast-forward a few weeks, to summer vacation, the local pool. Neighbors, friends, peers swimming, enjoying the hot July sun. They were there again, peers of my child, though not all three, but some, with another in the mix. At one point I gave the kids money to get some overpriced treats from the snack bar. Kids’ peers were perched at a picnic table, slurping on Italian ice. My kid walks past them. One says hi to my kid, brightly, friendly. My kids says hi back, equal in tone. Once she’d passed entirely, with back to them, that peer turns to the group, says something, they all laugh, harshly, glancing at my kid before laughing some more. Again, I was caught off-guard, again I was shocked, embarrassingly so, because one new group member, I’d thought, was my child’s friend. I wondered when that had changed. And how.

Fast-forward to today. Same pool. This was not witnessed first hand, but told to me by one of my other kids. Above scenario, almost to the detail, except one or two of the Other Kids had been replaced by one or two more. Same hello. Same whisper. Same laugh. (Apparently, my child who shared the story spoke up, called the Other Kids out, and basically got a “whatever.” Same child hugged his sibling, and said the Other Kids were a bunch of jerks. I had to kiss them both.)

My child shrugs off these incidents when they are mentioned. My child is kind and forgiving. My child calls them still calls the Other Kids friends. My child is an optimist, always able to see the good side of any situation, of most people.

And even as my child shrugs, I see the ghost of confusion in the corners of the eyes. Even as my child is too proud to acknowledge the insult, I see the flash of hurt, quickly replaced by a smile. Even as my child would never say something bad about a peer, I see the slash, ever so slight, in the layers of the skin.

We talk, and we don’t talk. I speak in circles, mining for the heart of the matter, edging closer. I have to be careful; the ground is very unstable. Too much, and it will all cave in, closed off forever. This is how we progress. Talking, listening, subject changing, whispers in the dark of things that are too raw to say in the light of day.

School starts in a month. These peers, and others, will be omnipresent; it is a small town.

I wonder what September will bring for this child. Re-connecting with true old friends? Finding new friends? Real Friends? I don’t know.

But I will bring all that I have, including the sized-for-the-soul Band-Aids that, for the first time, I fear my child will need.

band aid heart





Summer Solution: The “I’m Bored” Jar and This Mom’s Attempt to Curb Her Kids’ Addiction to Electronics

I’ll admit it. In the past six months or so I became very slackish about monitoring my kids’ use of electronics.

Chalk it up to the soul-crushing winter we had in the Boston area, when around 7 feet of snow was dumped on us in a few weeks’ time, maybe, the never-ending days with no sun, my own struggles with depression, the battles fought with kids pumped full of pubescent hormones.


After the 3rd (but not last) blizzard of 2015

I frankly lost the will to care. Sure, I would’ve preferred that they were reading or crafting or playing board games, but heck, that would’ve required refereeing and/or organizing, which I had no strength for. With electronics — the phones, ipods, xbox, Netflix — they were quiet. The house stayed clean. Day after day, bit by bit, that long winter, my resolve was chipped away. I simply lost the will to fight.

But then spring came, and I never got them back on track. The habit had been established. Too many days of too much slack had given them the idea that it was okay. It’s a lame excuse for me as a mom, but there were plenty of days I didn’t try that hard — days where one of the four never had a playdate so of course she could just play Minecraft, days where I had work to finish and was just happy everyone was quiet, days where the 6th grader came home and had sports and 3 hours of homework ahead of him and I just thought I’d let the poor kid veg out for a while.

School ended last week, and I let them sleep late, every day. (And sleep late, my kids do. Rising before 10 a.m. is a rarity, given the chance — and some will sleep until mid-afternoon if I let them.) I let them eat cold cereal when they wanted and I let them binge on electronics and I let them stay in pajamas and I let them basically run wild.

On Sunday night, that all changed. It was that watershed day when I couldn’t stand it anymore. Too much had gone wrong. I was too frustrated and fed up. I couldn’t stand the mess. I couldn’t stand the way I was being ignored when I said to turn things off. I couldn’t stand another moment of me being THAT mom who let her kids chose Minecraft videos on YouTube over reading a book.

On Sunday night, I decided to take back control.

I found an old mason jar. I cut up squares and strips of paper. I found a Sharpie and armed myself with a glass of wine.

I made the “I’m Bored” jar.I'm Bored Jar

The kids watched me, after a while, intrigued when I wouldn’t tell them what I was doing. My husband fed them pizza while I worked. Finally I was done, and explained to them what this was.

For the rest of the summer, there would be a 2 hour limit on electronics. Period. TV, phones, ipods, xbox, Wii, computer. I changed the passcodes on everything that I could. I took away chargers.

I told them they were free to amuse themselves, but if they couldn’t come up with something to do they could pick something out of the jar. Do that thing. No trade-ins, no swapping, no negotiating.

So what went in the jar?

I recently came across this little booklet that I’d been saving for years. I think it had been in a toy or game we’d gotten at some point, and it wasn’t age-appropriate at the time — by the time it was, I’d forgotten about it, I guess. The booklet had 100+ ways to create…things. Inventions. Ideas. Projects. It’s broken down into groups of 6 or so things to do, all using the same group of items you’d have around the house (macaroni, string, paper towel rolls, etc.). You’d get a prompt like “design a piece of exercise equipment a dinosaur might use” or “produce a lock for something” or “change the design of a book to allow more than one person to read at a time.” Use the list of items to do the thing.

My first step was to number my blocks of paper from 1 to 101.3. If a kid picked that number, they’d have to do that activity.

By the time I was done with that, the jar had plenty of room, so I moved on to strips.

“Write a letter to…” and I filled in a family member’s name, one per strip.

“Write and perform an originalI'm Bored slips song.”

“Illustrate a book.”

“Climb 5 trees.”

“Run 20 laps around the house (outside).”

“Organize the bookshelves into alphabetical order.”

There were some chores thrown in, but not more than 10 or 12. “Clean a toilet.” “Wash a window.” “Organize the shoe bins.” “Weed the garden.” “Wash the car.”

On and on until the jar looked reasonably filled. I taped a label to it (please don’t judge my awkward art skills), and set it out.

Today was the first day. My youngest was up first. She was eager to start — she wrote and performed a song for me (“The Parkour Song” because, Minecraft.) She went to the grocery store with me. She scrubbed a toilet. She swept part of the driveway. She drew a comic strip. She was on fire, saving up all of her time until mid-afternoon.

Meanwhile, her next-oldest sister used up her all of her minutes before she was even out of pajamas. The brother used up most, saving 10 minutes in case he needed to text someone later (ah, 12yos). The oldest, the 13yo, who pooh-pooed the whole thing, is already in hot water for going over her time.

But eventually, the three younger siblings were outside, inventing things, making up games, obstacle courses, running around. Just like they used to do.


“Create a parkour”


A blind-man’s maze they invented


Extreme hopscotch (I honestly don’t know what the rules are here)

Some kids eventually negotiated extra time by doing extra chores. (Hey, that works!) Because of this, all went over the 2+ hours, and none have time tomorrow.

So, we’ll see. On day one, the Bored Jar was a success. It’s new. New is fun! It’ll take some time for these four to remember what a creative, thoughtful, experienced life is. And I still sort of feel like a failure, being THAT mom who couldn’t keep her kids off electronics, that mom who gave up, for a little bit, who had to resort to this sort of thing to unplug her children.

But more than that, I’m curious about tomorrow.

I’m sure everyone will be bored. And annoyed. I’m prepared for an uphill battle. They aren’t in any camps, so it’s just us, all day, every day, until school starts again in September. I’m still working from home. Will my will continue to be strong? Will I cave? Will they rebel? (I mean, come on, it’s four-to-one around here.) I’m sort of excited to find out.

Either way, the kids will remember this as the best summer of their lives…

or the worst.

And I’m more than okay with it.

I’m already coming up with new ideas to add to the Jar…

My dad died. And I’m still waiting to cry for real.

I didn’t cry very much at the funeral.

I didn’t cry very much in the days before, either, but that was due to busyness. There were plans to make, flowers to choose, a Mass to plan, a scurry to find an organist to replace the one the church has a contract with but I haven’t ever been able to stand. There was shopping for dresses for myself and my daughters, a new pair of khakis for my son. Details. It was all very busy. There was also the small matter of writing something, since I’d agreed to speak at the funeral. I might claim to be a writer but I am not a public speaker. I have been known to weep while giving poetry awards to middle school students.

Any tears I had inside me must be cemented away, if I was going to get through. Any leaking, the dam would explode.


M&D 50th invite

On May 25th, we had a big party to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My brother Steve and his wife Trish arranged everything at their club in Riverside, Connecticut. It was an achingly perfect near-summer day, weatherwise. It was an achingly perfect near-family celebration, too — my cousin Maria and her family from Massachusetts had a conflict, as did my cousins Marcello and John, but nearly everyone else came, including Dad’s brother from Florida, Uncle Jack, who had been struggling with some health issues so the mere fact of his flight was more than remarkable, plus his daughter, my cousin Sue, and her husband, also from Florida, with their adorable daughters whom some of us had never me yet. Aunts, uncles, cousins, generations laughing together, a big blue sky atop a crystal water, all to celebrate my parents’ love story.


It was kind of idyllic, the oceanfront scenery and the kids frolicking and the grownups talking and everyone laughing and the picture-perfect day that lasted well into the evening. I could almost forget how, despite remembering every tiny detail for my little family’s outing, from bathing suits to changes of clothes and shoes and extra diabetes supplies, I actually forgot the insulin. So Ray had to do a 30-minute-each-way back to my brother’s house after Mitzi announced her pump was empty. Except for that, the day was nearly perfect, full of hugs and laughter and speeches and being-togetherness.
Mom and Dad glowed.

Dad’s cough didn’t seem to trouble him very much that day. IMG_4991

The cough started a few months before, I think. Doctors treated everything from allergies to acid reflux. Often keeping Dad from sleeping, my sister, who had been living with my parents in the past few months, confided that it sounded tubercular, half-joking. I know the cough was exhausting, even preventing him from traveling a few hours north to us in Massachusetts, for my Joanna’s first communion in mid-May. But by the anniversary party, he seemed okay. A rumble here, a rustle there. It didn’t stop him from standing up during the meal and, for the first time in my entire life, overcoming his introversion to talk about his love for my mother, the love they shared, the journey they travelled together.

No, the cough didn’t seem to be a problem whatsoever that day. May 25.

After that weekend, I settled back into the end-of-the-school-year routine at home. Tests, projects, field trips, six sports spread among the four kids. Schedules. A week after we got home, on June 9, Mom called to say Dad was in the hospital with extreme stomach pain. After four days of tests, heart issues, more tests, a couple of biopsies, Dad was released with a diagnosis. Liver cancer. On Monday, June 16th, a meeting with doctors resulted a treatment plan. The news was grim, but we are La Famiglia, and we all rolled up our sleeves. Life had never been easy for Dad or Mom or their road together, and they never did anything but work hard and believe in each other — and the rest of us, well, we were going to give some ass-kicking wherever required on our loved ones’ behalf. Liver cancer was no exception.

During that week, Dad was exhausted, in-and-out-of-awake, sleeping mostly in his office armchair. He had perked up on Father’s Day when some of the local grandchildren came by with cards and hugs, but was too exhausted to talk when we called from Massachusetts. Rest was what he needed, for sure. Phone calls could wait. Father’s Day was just another day, and another day was coming. We believed that.

A PET scan was given on Thursday, June 19, my kids’ last day of school. It was a struggle for Dad to get to the car, let alone into the machine, but surely it was the various medications interacting in bizarre ways. Of course. It couldn’t be more than that. A call was in place to the doctor. Obviously, an adjustment in meds was required, so we wanted to get on that right away.

All along, I talked with Mom every day, as much as I could. She was honest, ever faithful, and always stoic. Always the next step. Always the fight. Never the fear. Always the positive, the what’s next, the pull-up-your-bootstraps-and-get-it-done. Ain’t over till the fat lady sings. Always.

Almost always. I knew things might be serious one day that week when she almost cried. She almost said words of despair. Almost said words that were fatal but she knew if she said them she’d never get to take them back. Almost words. That’s when I started to get scared.

The kids had their last day of school on June 19. On June 20, the phone rang at 7 a.m. Now, in the school year, the phone ringing at 7 a.m. is commonplace. But that day? That day we had no school and the phone rang and the monotone phone voice said “call from CONNECTICUT” and Ray leapt out of bed before I had time to find my glasses on the nightstand and I knew some kind of shit had hit some kind of fan because no one ever calls at 7 a.m. on a non-school day. Ever.

It was my sister. Dad was back in the hospital via ambulance. Unresponsive. No word about anything. No, you don’t need to come yet. I told Ray to get in the shower to go to work. I smoked a cigarette. I made Ray his breakfast and lunch and had some coffee.

Forty-five minutes later, the phone rang again. My sister again. She spoke a bunch of words that made no sense to me, words like system fail. No recovery. Come now. I wasn’t sure if it was her tears that muddled the meaning of her words, or my own mind. I made her put Mom on the phone. Mom didn’t cry or falter. The words were the same as my sister’s had been, but Mom’s words were clear, bold-printed.

Come now. But don’t drive yourself. I don’t want to worry.

Two hours later I was on a train. Three hours after that, I stood in the ICU at the hospital, staring. Dad was hooked up to 19 different tubes. I knew he would be; my brother Harry had told me what was going on when he picked me up at the train. But hearing and seeing were different things. I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to say or do. Then Mom leaned over and kissed Dad and said, “Honey, Jennifer is here, and look at all her curly hair, and do you know she came down all the way from Massachusetts just now just to see you” and Dad rolled his eyes in my direction and sort of sat up and maybe he saw me so I kissed his forehead and I said, “Hi Daddy. It’s okay. It’s. Okay. I’m here, it’s Jenny and it’s okay.”

Ray drove down that night with the kids. In the meantime, Mom, my three siblings and I had met with doctors and with the hospice team. Dad’s liver was so far gone and his other organs were slowly shutting down that there was nothing left to do but keep him comfortable until the end. Later that evening he was moved to hospice. Until the end.

IMG_7741Less than three weeks earlier we’d been toasting 50 years of marriage. Less than three weeks since we’d spoke and loved and hugged and been alive together.

The next day, my mom’s sister and brother-in-law came down from Massachusetts. Mom’s little brother came up from New Jersey. My kids came to the hospital too. By then, Dad was comfortable, tubeless. He looked like he was sleeping, even snoring hugely from time to time, which made my kids laugh. They murmured to their Pop in varying awkward kid ways, first unsure what to do, then seeing it was okay to give him a kiss and laugh and tell him a story or two. There were muffins. The kids were okay — hugging and touching and awkwardly stroking Dad’s arm — even if the adults were less so. The nurses said Dad wouldn’t last the weekend. But they were wrong.

He was waiting, it was clear, but what for? My oldest nephew, Dad’s oldest grandchild, aged 15, with whom there was a tremendous bond, finally visited, after an understandable internal struggle. My mom’s littlest sister, who was only 12 when Dad and Mom married, and who barely remembered a life without Dad, was able to talk to Dad on the phone. So did Dad’s brother in Florida. Finally, my niece went to the hospital. The same age as my Mitzi, my niece and Dad had more than a tremendous bond, and I know she also struggled with going or not. How to see him last. How to remember him. My heart broke for her.

M&D175And yet Dad waited. There were a couple of times in the next day that he stirred and I smoothed his forehead and he opened one eye and seemed to see me. “It’s okay, Daddy. It’s okay.” And then he’d settle back into a silent sleep, until the next time he stirred and someone else — Mom, Michelle, Harry, Steve — would comfort him once more. Sleep was easy with morphine and Adavan. Michelle and I played the Eagles on our phones propped on his pillow, and the five of us laughed and told stories to Dad (with Dad?) for hours. It was the longest period of time the six of us had been alone together since the summer days of New Hampshire.

On June 24, we half-heartedly wished my brother Steve a happy birthday. I meant to get him a Hostess cupcake from the convenience store on the way to the hospital that morning, but got distracted. By then, the days were weirdly the same, at least for me. The kids and I were staying with my brother Harry and his wife, Michele, since Ray had returned north for work that couldn’t be put off. Harry, Michele, and I would wake up, get the seven kids ready for the day, and take care of morning business. By noon, Michele would take the kids to the pool and Harry and I’d go to the hospital. Around 7, I’d return to give her a break. Harry would usually stay for a bit longer.

On June 24th, Steve’s birthday, Dad had developed a rattle in his throat, due to the failing of his swallowing reflex. I thought he looked uncomfortable; the nurses acknowledged my concern, though all agreed that the brow furrow was a natural wrinkle in his forehead, nothing new, but if it continued and I was still concerned, they’d give more Adavan. I didn’t argue. Usually, Mom and my sister left around 6 p.m., as they’d been there since around 8 a.m. That night, on June 24th, no one seemed eager to go. Finally Mom and Michelle left, Mom remarking that maybe she’d come back with Michelle that night. (Michelle had taken to returning around 9 p.m. Sometimes Steve was there and Harry. Or Michele. The hospice floor had no visiting hours — you could come and go 24/7, because the death watch had no time frame and even the security guards knew it).


I left around 7, knowing Michele needed a break from parenting my kids. She brought my brother dinner and some ice cream. They sat with Dad and talked softly with him for awhile. When the nurses came to adjust Dad’s body position, Harry and Michele left to give the nurses space. They probably hung out near the elevators, away from the patient rooms, softly chatting about everything and nothing. A few minutes later, an orderly ran up to them. Come. Now. So they did.

And Dad drew his last breath.

My sister Michelle was on her way to the hospital when Harry called with the news a few minutes later. So Michelle turned around on the highway, to go home to get Mom, who only ever wanted during all of this to be with Dad at the very end.

And Harry called me, too, as I was wrangling a houseful of kids to their beds. When my sister-in-law came home I went to the hospital. Mom and Michelle were already there. I held Dad’s hand until the warmth faded and his skin was cold and still I could not let it go, kissing his forearm repeatedly, like I do sometimes with my children when they let me. And then a few minutes more than that. I finally suggested Mom wanted privacy with Dad. So we all left.

I have no idea what a person says to someone who has been the bulk of her world since age 15 or so. Is there any way to say goodbye to half of yourself?

It was June 24. Less than a month since celebrating 50 years of marriage, plus a few years of love before that. Dad was only 71 years old.M&D200

The next day I told my kids.

Then there was a lot of busy, including the pressure of writing and speaking. As usual, I wrote until the last minute.

I had yet to really cry. Even at the wake, when I watched the grandchildren finally take my advice of writing notes to their Pop — thankfully, Mitzi knows I always keep a notebook in my oversized purse — one by one tucking them into the pocket of his suit coat. At the wake, where so many people came to share their love and shock, some from so very far away it was almost ridiculous and yet so very touching I couldn’t catch my breath.

I had yet to cry.

Even at the funeral. Watching my husband and cousins and friends carry Dad’s coffin to a hearse. Spreading a cloth on the coffin. Listening to the prayers and songs I’d helped to choose, all expressed with supreme love and compassion by people who actually cared about Dad and me and my sister and brothers and mostly my mom. I had yet to cry, even when I had Ellie on my right, silently bawling, and Joanna on my left with her own quiet nonstop tears and next to her was Cooper and then Mitzi and how could my arms ever be that long and strong to comfort them? So I stretched and they cried, and I curled around their tears so tightly that I couldn’t shed my own.

My brothers spoke, at the end of the service, and oh my gosh, so eloquent and they too cried without shame but continued their words even through their tears and those words leveled me. And they broke my heart, with their words and their tears and their nakedness.

I still didn’t cry.


I’m supposed to be a writer. Not a speaker. My dad wasn’t much of a speaker, but he was overflowing with emotions and words that begged to come out. The only time I heard him talk in front of a crowd was the month before, on May 25th, to honor and express love for my mother.

My dad died on June 24th.

I had to speak. I had to be as brave as he had always been.

So this is what I said. I wrote these words and I stood up and read them out loud and I did not cry.



I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to say today, and some wise writer friends, who have come to know Dad a little bit through Facebook and my own stories, suggested that I just write him a letter.

So I did.


As I write this, I am sitting on Harry’s deck just after I woke up. It’s the sort of early morning you’d really enjoy. The landscape is glistening with last night’s rain, and the air has a chill that belies the predicted awful humidity. The sun is starting to peek over the tall trees Harry keeps threatening to cut down, and there’s a faraway sound of a neighbor doing yard work. It’s the sort of morning where you’d be up early, as usual, and if you had no appointments or clients, you too would be outside, blowing the mess off your deck, or maybe just sitting, as I am, watching the sun climb in the sky, thanking God for another day to enjoy and for all the people we’re lucky to love.

I was trying to think of my earliest memory of you, but very old memories are my brothers’ area. Sometimes I think I write in order to find my memories, every word scribbled in hopes of unlocking moments in time from long ago when I was very young. It’s often hard to separate true memories from family legend — all the stories told so many times that they have a life of their own, or from the hundreds of familiar photographs in albums or in slides that are burned in my mind 

I guess it doesn’t matter how the memories were created, just that they exist.

I seem to have more of a sense-memory, feelings, recollections of touch and sound. For instance, I remember you hardly ever got to sleep late, but when you did, there was nothing better than to crawl into bed with you, to be silent and close against your still form. Even in those quiet moments, I knew you would always protect me. 

As a child, I took you for granted, as children do. As an adult, I can look back and truly appreciate all the amazing sacrifices you made, your uncomplaining energy and commitment to whatever you were doing. I took for granted that you left the house every day by 6 a.m. to go to work, and didn’t get home again until around 8 p.m. The five-hour-each-way trips you made to New Hampshire every weekend in the summer, just to be with us. I know that you weren’t always able to be there for every performance or field day or tennis game or band competition, but I never resented that, because I knew that you’d be there in a heartbeat if you could, and you were with me in spirit. Because there were so many times you were there for real. The New Hampshire moments, the times at Indian Lake where you pushed me back and forth in that red plastic boat, the time that you and Uncle Jack built the deck and we had lobsters in the wading pool, weekends of raking leaves when we “helped” and you didn’t care that we made a bigger mess for you to clean up, the way you brought me things like Swarovski crystal figurines whenever you took a faraway trip. 

You were also there for the middle and high school years, when drama overflowed in my world. You didn’t always understand what was going on, but you always gave me a hug and assured me that, whatever it was, it was going to be okay. Especially if I went in another room and talked with Mom. Despite the drama, I think it always made you happy to have so many of our friends in and out of the door – especially if it meant that you could advise them on their future, or tease them mercilessly – especially to tease them.

What a teaser you always have been! That sense of humor! It’s hard to picture you without a smile on your face. From corny jokes, to quoting goofy movies with us ad nauseum – there was always a laugh to be had with you. And you took it as well as you gave it, whether it was when we were little and discovered that it REALLY bugged you to have your socks pushed down, so we sat on the floor in front of you and pushed them down. You pulled them up. We pushed them down. This could go on for hours, it seemed. And you never complained! At least to our faces. Or when we were older, and we would brush out teeth in any other room but the bathroom, because it drove you absolutely bananas – it was especially effective if you had your back to us so we could gesture at each other while you pretended not to notice.

No joke ever got too old with us.

And so it went, through my college years (yes, I know, who can keep track of my colleges, ha ha ha) and through first jobs and various moves (let’s not ever speak of Miami), until I wound up in Boston and started a new chapter. For every step you were there, not judging, offering advice when asked (and sometimes when not). You never forgot to remember – every time the mailman brought a white envelope with your caps-only handwriting, I couldn’t wait to see what article you’d clipped from the New York Times just for me. There would also be a short note of love and a sage bit of wisdom – plus a $20 bill, because you not only believed in supporting my spirit, you also believed in supporting my “miscellaneous fund” account.

By the way, I don’t think that any of what I just said is proof that I am your favorite. I know that, like all parents, you never actually had a favorite – you were most happy with whoever was bugging you less at the moment. So, I won’t even mention the idea that you had a favorite, because I know you have always loved us all equally. There are no favorites. [points to self] 

So, okay, I really did enjoy the occasional $20 bill, but especially over the last fifteen years, I mostly enjoyed your words of inspiration. It’s kind of funny how your journey of recovery almost exactly aligns with my journey as a parent and as a serious writer. No one has been a bigger cheerleader for me – not only for my writing, but more for “me.” You learned some tough lessons about taking care of yourself, and you always shared them – you were the first to tell me to leave the dishes or laundry, and go for a walk. Forget the vacuum – work on my books. You always knew I’d be responsible, but you never wanted me to forget myself in the process. You became a person who tried to live entirely in the moment, and how I loved that about you! Especially when it meant a daily Buddha quote in the family email. (Though I really loved it when you started sharing bad jokes, especially the lawyer ones, but don’t tell Ray that.) 

I hope that right now you are enjoying an endless Christmas Eve dinner with all the grandparents, and the Christmas Day dinner too, with Mom’s cioppino and manicotti and bracciole, with Grandpa’s unlimited spoonfuls of pasta, and walnut-stuffed figs and filled cookies and a little anisette in your coffee, and there is card-playing and tons of laughter — and if possible, that this all happens on a forever lake where the sun shimmers off the water and the breeze tickles your face and the air is soft all around you. And even though we never won a single Christmas game as partners all those years, if they have those too where you are, I hope you continue our tradition of always being one of the pair with the best sense of humor. Also that pugnacious thing for which Uncle Frank always threw an award our way. Wise-cracking and never-giving-up, that is us. I couldn’t have asked for a better kindred games spirit. 

Oh, Daddy, how lucky I was to win you and Mommy in the cosmic parent lottery! How lucky my kids are to have you as their Muggy and Pop – and not just for the goodbye Oreos or for the unlimited computer time or the nonstop pool time or Chinese food for twenty. I know you didn’t always think the sun rose and set on the 10 of them, at least not every day, but danged if you and Mom didn’t always made each kid believe it was so.

There is so much to say, Daddy, a million moments to remember…but I think you already know. I think you always did.

And you know what? It turns out, I remember them too.

Every one.

Huh. Imagine that. I remember.

Daddy, I love you.

Take it easy.


My dad died on June 24, 2014. He was 71 years old.

The tears have come a bit, here and there. But I’m afraid to let them flow, unchecked. Because if they come, I don’t think they’ll ever stop.

Maybe I just miss him too much to cry.

Or maybe right now, tears are not enough. Not nearly enough.




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.)


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.



It’s just Tuesday.

No one ever cares about Tuesday, really. As far as the week goes, Tuesday is pretty much a wash, a blip, a get-through day. It doesn’t have the pain of Monday, the snark of Wednesday, the fake college-student-created-night-off of Thursday, the long-awaited smooth of Friday or the relaxing dream that is the weekend. Tuesdays are often…meh. But here are some things about my Tuesday, the one I had today, a boring, insignificant, utterly regular and quietly perfect kind of day:

  1. For the first time in three years, I seem to be ahead in PiBoIdMo by about 10 ideas. I don’t expect this wave of creativity to continue in the weeks to follow during the rest of the month. But today, I’ll take it.
  2. A good soup can actually bring warm fuzzies even for the most cantankerous people.
  3. kids dance10-year-old boys don’t get enough opportunities to dress up — not nearly as many as their female peers do. Which is too bad. Because 10-year-old sons look really cool when they wear Fancy Things, and when they do dress up, moms can see the young men they’ll become some day in the heart-wrenching, ever-closer future. Even if it means that right now the boys have to be forced to dance with girls. 10-year-old boys might say that dancing with girls is slightly icky. But, also, maybe a little….interesting. And almost worth wearing a tie.
  4. Turns out, I know some really fantastic photographers. And you should get to know them, too.
  5. Four-foot hawks do not want to hang around on your porch rail while you run inside for your camera.
  6. Next football season, I will sort and organize the over 6,000 pictures as soon as I take them, not 17 days before the end-of-the-year video is due.
  7.  When you think someone is chronically grumpy and ill-tempered, try a new approach. You might be surprised by the result. And by the common ground. Remember — no effort is wasted.
  8. Did I mention the value of a meal cooked from the heart? I don’t even like cooking. But I do it. Multiple times a day. Sometimes I do it very well. And sometimes people like it. Especially grumpy, sad people. Folks — I know John Lennon made a strong case for love being the answer, but maybe soup is what his first draft said before his critique partners voted otherwise?
  9. My friends make me laugh. Every day. Even when they don’t know it. Everyone should have friends like that. Or sisters like that. Or moms like that. People who make you laugh. I hope you have the same kind of silly-making people in your life that I’m lucky to have. If you don’t, I might be able to loan mine out.
  10. My new bathroom is finally done, after a couple of months of dedicated work; the rest of the house is hanging on in the utter craptastic state that is the waiting for its turn to be fixed, painted, repaired, just as it has been waiting since we bought it nearly 9 years ago. I don’t care. I could live in my bathroom, for all its pretty and how much I love it.  I feel bad for the rest of the house, its dilapidated state. I want so much to fix it all up! But then I remember some wise words, and remember one step at a time, and gaze at the house — the place the six of us for real became a family — and think….it’s not the trappings that’s important. The outside isn’t what’s important, not at all. (But I do love my FIRST EVER AT AGE 44 NEW BATHROOM.)

Bonus Random Tuesday Thought: When your 7yo struggling reader BREAKS THE WALL and reads aloud an entire book without a single pause for words that a month ago would’ve sent her crying under the pillow.

And then an older sibling mentions that it’s his favorite book ever. And they both snuggle under their blankets with satisfied smiles.


Perhaps the most under-appreciated of all the days.

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.

Feeding a family of six — thank God for coupons!

When I started having kids, I was always struck by how expensive they were — nonstop diapers (there were periods when I had as many as three in diapers at a time), wipes, food, clothes, books, crayons, toys, on and on, never-ending. We got some help with the last two, thanks to very generous family members and the fact that my parents live a town with a Carter’s outlet store. I had a lot of kids, and they needed stuff. Cha-ching!

But I had absolutely no idea how expensive they’d get as they got older — particularly when it came to food. In the last year, it seems they can’t get enough to eat. (Hello, growth spurts!) I find myself at the grocery store two or three times a week to replenish our supplies, lest one of my children clutches his tummy and falls to the floor in a dead faint.

Here’s what our family of six will eat in less than a week (or sooner, depending on how many friends come over):

Stop & Shop: My home away from home

Stop & Shop: My home away from home

I know, right?

And they’re not even teenagers yet.

Clipping coupons is a satisfying hobby — although, have you also noticed that no one gives coupons for healthy food? I can easily spend $100 before I even get out of the produce aisle, and they’ll eat it all in two days. Meanwhile, I have about 87 coupons for Kraft macaroni & cheese. (Which, thankfully, none of the kids actually likes.)

File under: the real reason I need to go back to work.