Monthly Archives: July 2017

First Words

Katie’s first word was “Mama.”

Bethy’s first statement was “Stop-it.” The girls were born fifteen months apart.

Brendan is twenty-eight months younger than Bethy, and by then, I had given up on my vision of having sugar-free kids. Brendan’s first declaration was “cookie.”

Brigid was born three years after Brendan. I have no idea what she first uttered.

Kevin was born forty-four months after Brigid. At two, Kevin sat in the child’s seat on the back of Tim’s bike, stretched out his arms with palms up toward Tim’s back and beckoned, “More candy, Tim.”

That boy didn’t even call Tim “daddy.” When Kevin would hear Tim’s car pull in the garage, he’d beeline though the kitchen with arms pumping and call out, “Tim’s home!”

It’s no mystery to figure out whose joy Kevin was expressing.


Check-out Line Pitfalls

Our oldest children spent their toddler years in Chicago, a city where lucky parents can walk their kids in strollers to neighborhood stores. No car seats, just leisurely trips for milk and eggs while checking out the latest outfits on the concrete geese on the porches. We also had one of those beaked porch dwellers, and Bethy named her Kirsten. Concrete Kirsten had a variety of seasonal attire including a Chicago Bears jersey complete with quilted helmet. Festive geese clad as skiers, Valentines, leprechauns, Easter bunnies, graduates, gardeners, beach bums, fall harvesters, witches, pilgrims, turkeys, Santas, and elves served as reminders to celebrate the season. The kids and I loved them. Sometimes the sole reason for a stroller outing was to check out the geese.

The key to a successful grocery shop with kids is a nap. Havoc strikes if the kids are overtired. It also got dicey if I was hungry because then I’d want to buy more than we needed and couldn’t fit it in the bin beneath the stroller seats.

My most humbling shopping experience took place when I was pregnant with Brendan, and we took a stroll to County Fair on Western Avenue. Katie was three and Bethy was two, and I was probably starving. All went well until we entered the check out aisle, and my two little Irish lassies went nuts over a Snickers bar. I had somehow thought that my children were going to be health nuts and not eat candy. Insane, I know, but I was young and thought I could control what went in my kids’ mouths. I naively thought that they would cherish the robust flavor of whole grain wheat bread, crunchy granola, and homemade yogurt. I’m convinced it was my mother who exposed them to the magic of Nestle and Hershey.

Katie and Bethy’s pleading for the candy escalated into pall mall tantrums, and no cooing, bargaining, or pleading would reconcile their quest for the candy. I dumped the basket of fresh fruit and veggies, opened each chubby finger to release their grasps, and hightailed it out of there. It was not a pretty sight and certainly not my proudest parenting moment.

When I got home, I realized that once again we were going to have Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for dinner. At the time, I only cared about blood sugar fluctuations, not the dangers of processed, fake, powdered cheese.

A week later, I went to Chesterfield Federal Bank across the street from County Fair. This was back in the days when people went to banks. My dad was friends with the bank president, and as I was leaving the teller station, the executive greeted me and said, “Nancy, I saw you in County Fair with your children last week.”

I still cringe at the thought of it.


What Next?

           Last year, Tim and I bought a cottage a quarter mile from Lake Michigan and packed up twenty-one years years of life in Valparaiso with five children in a six bedroom home. At first, I carefully preserve Christmas ornaments made from macaroni and clothes pins, holiday decorations made in elementary school  – Halloween pumpkins, Thanksgiving turkeys, and Valentines made from faded white doilies and red and pink construction paper. As the keepsakes multiply right before my eyes, I question what to do with the crafts, letters, art awards, ribbons, and 5K trophies. What do we do with the fifteen hooded sweatshirts with “Scannell” printed on the back?  The varsity letters, the Mother’s Day cards, the father-daughter dance photos, Raffi CD’s, Disney DVD’s, school essays and report cards?  Theater playbills of Billy Elliot, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, West Side Story, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and the dozens of local shows where Brendan performed? Bedroom trash bins overflow with oddball items with mysterious origins, nearly used up toiletries, clay pots, seashell necklaces, and old teeth retainer holders. 

          I sort like a lunatic. The New Creation Men’s Shelter picks up the twin beds, and the Caring Place for abused women takes the gently used bedding along with four cartons of tampons. Don’t need those anymore. Fifteen truckloads go to Goodwill and St. Paul’s. Cords, plugs, chargers, keyboards, monitors – recycle old technology. Who needs Walkie Talkies anymore? Triathlon wetsuit is given to a friend. The tri decade belonged to the 40’s. Ironman aspirations have been replaced by yoga.

          Boxes and boxes and boxes of photos, some in albums, some with notes, dozens upon dozens in frames, some in folders, some black and white, some formal, some in clear cellophane class photos envelopes – smiling faces tempt me to sit and reminisce. Track, volleyball, soccer, basketball, student council, cross-country, speech, debate, so many team photos. Kevin smiles from my hip. Cub Scouts and Brownies – until we collectively decided there were just too many rules to be a scout.

          We are fifty-four. Where do we go from here? Build an Irish cottage on the lake property. Complete with black potbelly stove, Belleek china, Gaelic Cead Mile Failte sign (100.000 Welcomes) and green shamrock shutters. Extend the deck at the lake so everyone will fit. Refinish an antique child’s picnic bench for our granddaughter Eileen. Stock the garage with beach chairs, coolers, stroller, bicycles, Burley trailer, and paddle boards. 

          Buy beds, tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, fresh sheets and new comforters. A variety of pillow styles – flat, fluffy, microfiber, and posturepedic.  Clear parking for a fleet of cars. Stock the lending library with fiction, self-help, philosophy, autobiography, biography, Zen, yoga, sports, history, magazines, and children’s books. Group the bicycle repair manuals for Danny, Bethy’s fiance. He’s a big cyclist.

          Grocery shop for the favorites. Bobby, our son-in-law, loves Oreos. Buy the mega box at Costco. Quinoa and brown rice for vegetarians Katie and Kevin. Cantaloupe, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries for antioxidant aware Brendan. Fresh vegetables for Brigid and Lia along with dark chocolate covered almonds. Eggs, English muffins, and a variety of jams and jellies. Ketchup for Bethy. She’s gotta have it.

          Fire pit with Adirondack chairs. Lake Michigan breezes provide the rhythm for the flicker of the flames. Fill a closet with sweatshirts for cooler nights – Illini, Marquette, Indiana Hoosiers, Northwestern, Seattle U, DePaul. Loyola, Valparaiso High School, Valparaiso University, Chicago White Sox, Black Hawks and Bears. All sizes, all thicknesses.

          Blankets for a chill.

          Wineglasses with and without stems, plastic for the beach, water bottles. Corona,  Miller Lite, Cabernet. Coffee pods for the Keurig. 

          Hats for the beach. Caps for the woods. Hawks, White Sox, Coach Scannell. Lost Dunes, Valparaiso University, Remember Your Roots from my sister Eileen. Safari hats and fishing hats. Sun hats and Kentucky Derby bonnets. Irish knit hats and fuzzy Eskimo warmers. Scarfs and neck warmers. Mittens and gloves, thick, thin, running, and gardening. Bug spray and sunscreen carefully placed in organized baskets. Beach towels rolled and ready.  

          Puzzles for Eileen, sand toys, tea sets. The toy kitchen stands ready for her latest concoction. Rocking chair, crib, high chair and children’s beach chairs, different sizes anticipating growth in toddlerhood.

          Clue, Monopoly, Password, Buzz Word, cards, Quelf, Know It or Blow It, Pictionary. Dice. Blocks. A train set. Lego wagon.

          Stack the firewood by the fireplace. Set out earthy, woodsy candles. What are the kids’ favorite scents?

          Plan a rock garden. Better yet, a children’s rock garden, so that Eileen can participate. Tim can build a child’s arbor and little bench for Eileen. We look for ideas on Pinterest. I buy a children’s gardening set complete with little toddler gloves and shovel. We’ll teach Eileen about seeds and flowers. Maybe plant a vegetable garden. She already loves the deer. 

            We miss the kids, but they are happy, and we are happy.

           We start our day at the lake. Tim takes the trail up to the Irish cottage in the woods to rake the leaves, so Eileen will be safe from ticks. I wash windows and witness the glowing emerging green penetrate the sunroom. I text Katie to see if Eileen can FaceTime with us from Milwaukee.

          Tim enters through the back door, and we make our usual Sunday early lunch of eggs and vegetables. Elton John sings “Our Song” through the surround sound system. Tim patiently listens to my constant inquiry about life’s meaning and our purpose. Where do we go from here? We anticipate visits, and we visit. We take classes. We explore. I run. We work, we learn, we read, and we write. We listen. We serve. We dream. We thank God. We stick together.

          And we tap dance when the kids arrive in the driveway.  Deep down, we know that all they need is love.




Post Traumatic Permit Disorder. When I see a Student Driver sign on a sedan, I PTPD strikes! The older I get, the more nervous I get as a passenger in a car.  Poor Tim. My incessant flinching drives him crazy.

When Katie learned to drive, we laughed until we cried when she almost sent the van over the curb toward the Chandana neighborhood pond. When Bethy learned to drive, the stop light at Bullseye Lake Road and Calumet Avenue did permanent damage to our vocal chords. When Brendan got behind the wheel, it was smooth sailing because of his middle school golf cart expertise.  Brigid is just calm. Period. No shouting matches, no tension. Instead, she was purely focused, purely present, and purely open to all suggestions. Everyone needs a Brigid.

Then the motherload of permit drivers turned fifteen – Kevin. Our youngest suffered from retinoblastoma – cancer of the eye – at age two. The doctors enucleated (a euphemism for yanked out) his left eye within days of spotting the blobby tumor on his retina. He has had a number of beautiful prosthetic eyes, and he’s made quite a bit of cash by taking them out for curious folks who like to see the bloody back of his eye socket. When he was ten, he wanted to trick or treat as a one-eyed pirate on Halloween – without an eye patch. (Note: I need to add another chapter to this book of parenting tips – Diplomatic Rejection of Halloween Costumes.)

We were told that Kevin would learn to turn his head to compensate for his loss of vision on his left side. Not our Kevin. Heck no. When he crossed the street in front of our quiet neighborhood home, Tim and I would shout, “Turn your head, Kevin!” Instead, he would bolt across the barren street. Need I say more about his driving?

When Kevin selected DePaul University in Chicago as his college of choice, we thought of the benefits of the excellent public transportation. We complained about the CTA as kids, but suddenly the EL and buses were the best. After he moved into his dorm, I drove his royal blue Honda Civic straight to Carmax. When I got out of the car to shut the door, the left side resembled the blue waves of the ocean, and the Blue Book value vanished upon inspection. We survived Kevin’s 50+ driving hours, and now he doesn’t care if he ever drives again. 

Recently Kevin told us he was thinking about joining Chicago’s hundreds of delivery personnel on bicycles. Thank goodness a restaurant job turned up.


May the Dear Lord Bless You

Tim turned 55 yesterday. Like many people, our family tradition at birthdays is to sing “Happy Birthday,” but unlike other families, we have a second verse – “May the Dear Lord bless you, may the dear Lord bless you, may the dear Lord bless Tim, may the dear Lord bless you.”

At Valparaiso University, we sing that second verse in the College of Arts and Sciences Deans’ offices. I’m not sure if Jon, Yvonne, Anna, Luci, Catherine, Rasha, and Shelby sing it when I miss a cake sharing day, but when I’m there, we groan it out.

And for some reason, it chokes me up.

It’s a lot to sing about the beautiful hope that God bestows blessings on someone standing right in front of you. It’s easier to make such requests when the recipient isn’t around and isn’t the center of attention of an entire group. Being the singer and the receiver can be a bit overwhelming. Standing up and telling your age, your age, is much easier as is being the old gray mare who ain’t what he used to be.

Last night during our birthday Facetime with our two-year-old granddaughter Eileen, Eileen was too busy doing her own version of a gymnastics show to sing to Baka – her name for Grandpa. Don’t ask. We don’t know why she calls him that.  I tried to coach Eileen to tuck her chin out of fear that she’d break her neck doing those somersaults. Believe me, I’ve been close. Eileen then decided she was going to make Baka a birthday meal. She went to her toy kitchen, pretended to prepare strawberry pancakes, walked her empty hands laden with invisible treats to Katie’s iPhone, and served them up on the couch. Multiple courses were served along with milk and oranges. It was all we could do not to pretend to eat the food with our hands two states away.

Later, Katie sent a video of Eileen singing both verses of “Happy Birthday” to Baka. Shyly, she sang, often with her hand in her mouth, and when she got to the second verse, the crystal clear prayer came through. Tim watched the video over and over through misty eyes – such sweetness to savor. She really is so darn cute.

I heard my phone ding and walked over to read this text from Tim to the kids and me:

So grateful for every day I get to be with all of you. You are all what I live for.


Shopping Houdini

When a child throws a tantrum in Marshall’s, I feel for the mom. Marshall’s is meant to be a meandering, emotional massage of wondering through racks with no real goal – a  treasure hunt with no skin in the game.  Unlike grocery stores with great opportunities for language acquisition – oranges, apples, bananas, Cheerios, eggs, ice cream – shopping for clothes doesn’t offer the same stimuli.  Somehow Lucky Brand, Calvin Klein, Under Armour, and Nike don’t cut it.

Let me tell you, shopping for clothes with kids poses the risk of temporary child disappearance. I took Katie and Bethy as toddlers to Carson’s in Evergreen Plaza, and I’m still not over it. I was pregnant with Brendan and foolishly let the girls out of the double stroller.  As I was checking out, I lost sight of Bethy. Completely panicked, I picked up Katie and alerted every salesclerk that Bethy was missing. I shouted Bethy’s name over and over, but got no answer. Few shoppers were out on this drizzly early morning, so all hands were on deck as we searched the racks for my missing child. Heart racing and imagination firing to a kidnapping scenario, I clutched Katie as I pulled aside racks of sweaters and shirts. I prayed that Bethy was playing Hide and Seek. Within a few minutes that seemed like hours, I found Bethy twirling in a dressing room surrounded by three mirrors providing multiple angles of her blond hair and blue dress. Intrigued with her own image, she smiled angelically up at me through the triple reflection as I hid tears of relief. It still gives me chills to think to think about that pre-nap morning as I sought adventure outside of our Sesame Street routine.  

Big Bird, blocks and books provided all the remaining excitement I needed until Brendan was born.

Book Pitch

I’ve mentioned before that I’d like to write a book called Let Me Tell You: Parenting Tales of What Not to Do.  The book would include specific episodes of parental goof-ups, phrases worth swallowing, and knee-jerk reactions to avoid. Somedays, I think the stories are funny, and other days, I’m riddled with remorse. When regret wins the battle with humor in my brain, I stop writing and start cleaning.

I’ve decided to trust humor even when she loses and put my butt in front of the computer. My book is based on a long list of “whoopsies,” “oh shoots,” and “oh boy, shouldn’t have said that.” The good news is that forgiveness always prevails – of self and of others. As Tim O’Brien says in The Things They Carried, “Stories can save us.” I believe they really do.   

So for the next few days, I’m going to share some of chapters with you – Attempts at Dinner, Variances in Academic Perspectives, Wardrobe Consultation, Vehicle Collision Negotiation, Hair, PTPD – Post-Traumatic Permit Disorder, Alcohol Trojan Horses, Birth Order Pitfalls, First Words, Hot Baths Aren’t Magic, Teenage Conspiracy Theory, Mysterious Laundry, and Generational Differences in Infant Care.