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Independence Day, Part 2

In my last post, I shared the rules my family put together for our first ever Independence Day – a day when the girls got to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, but had to be totally independent. They had to feed themselves, clean up after themselves, and if they wanted to go somewhere they had to get there under their own power and spend their own money.

So this past Monday we had our Independence Day, and let me tell you, it was a glorious thing.

First off, our top rule: no waking Mommy and Daddy. Unless the house was on fire.

When we finally stumbled downstairs at 9 a.m. (NINE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING!) we found the girls sitting on the couch watching a movie and eating candy. “Have you had breakfast?” I asked.

“No,” Maddie replied, “We wanted bagels and we knew we couldn’t use the sharp knives to cut them so we waited for you.”

Apparently Maddie woke her sister at 7 a.m. – couldn’t wait any longer – and they got down to business right away, snacking and watching Cyberchase for about an hour before picking out a movie.

But did you catch the part where they didn’t wake us up? It was beautiful.

After they ate their bagels –while watching the movie – I checked the weather and told the girls if they wanted to ride their bikes anywhere they’d best do it soon, since rain was imminent. This? Was big news, because they’d been planning Junk Food Run for a looong time.

The girls quickly got dressed – as did Mommy and Daddy, who of course followed them on bikes as they went out. Maddie and Cora argued about the destination: Cora wanted to hit Walgreens for candy because it is next to a local ice cream store and they could buy ice cream for later, but Maddie thought the big grocery store would have a larger candy aisle and a “decent” ice cream selection. In the end, expediency won and with Walgreens being closer, they settled on the drugstore.

If I could, I would buy the surveillance footage from that Walgreens for that morning. It was the cutest darn half-hour I’ve ever spent there. Both girls brought their cash, and sat down on the Walgreens floor crunching numbers and running scenarios. “This candy section is 3/$3, so I could get three big boxes for $3, but I don’t want three of this kind of candy. Those are only 2 for $3, but those are better candies.”

And so on.

They prowled the whole grocery section, making sure they hadn’t missed a lollipop display or end cap of gummy bears. The wandered to the refrigerated section and discovered pints of ice cream, quickly cutting the trip to the ice cream store so they could get home sooner and get started on that sugar coma. They perused the beverages, Cora settling on an organic apple juice and Maddie selecting a half-gallon (!) of organic lemonade. As she pulled out the lemonade, committing to spending $3.99 on it, she said, “Boy, you really need to make a budget when you grocery shop! Especially when it’s your own money!”

The clerk worked hard to bury her disapproval of the mound ‘o sugar piled in front of her, and Brian and I stared blandly at her.

Yes, we’re those parents.

We rode quickly home and the girls crowed over their stashes. Cora ended up with a pint of strawberry ice cream; a bag of Lifesaver gummes; a movie-theatre-size box of Airheads; a jumbo lollipop ring; a pint of apple juice;and a jumbo blow-pop. Maddie went crazy, buying a half-gallon of lemonade; Two movie-theatre boxes of Nerds; one movie-theatre-size box of gobstoppers; one movie-theatre-sized box of lemonheads; one movie-theatre-size box of Whoppers; one movie-theatre-size box of airheads, and a pint of mint-chocolate chip ice cream.

And they started eating, and didn’t stop.

The girls spent pretty much the rest of the day on the couch, watching a movie marathon and eating a candy marathon. And the most amazing thing of all? They did not fight. Once. I’m telling you, I can’t figure it out; they bicker all the time, and I was sure sugar would just make it worse. But they were amiable and happy as clams sprawled on the couch.

They did take a 10-minute play break, and paused briefly to make mac-n-cheese for their dinners. Maddie even asked me to cut up an apple for her. But otherwise it was movies-and-candy. And then do it again.

At bedtime, I lay in bed with Cora, reading a book with her. It's a vintage children's lit book from the 50's - she LOVES them and got several more for her birthday (thank you ebay). At the end of each story there's a short set of ridiculously easy questions. I read the first question to Cora: "Which friend of the duck said he makes his home near the pond?"

Cora sat there for a second and said, "I don't want to do the question things tonight. They're too hard."

My kids' IQs dropped 20 points each that day, I swear.

We had the inevitable difficulty getting up the next day, with the Mother of All Sugar Hangovers, but both girls were pretty good-natured about it and happily drank a ton of water to help detox. And they’ve both mused this week about how long the junk food affected their digestive system from start to, ahem, finish, and wondered aloud at how they might do things differently next time.

For there WILL be a next time. Seriously? I napped, caught up on HOURS of computer work, read a book – it was AWESOME.

Independence Day rocks.

Independence Day

Several months ago I read about a family that periodically does and Independence Day: one day with no restrictions and no help. Eat what you want when you want, but make your own meal, get out your own bike, solve your own fight with your sister. We were intrigued with this idea and discussed it as a family, and decided to have our own Independence Day. We looked for a date on the calendar with no commitments and settled on Memorial Day.

So for the past few months Maddie and Cora have been planning and plotting their Independence Day with all the care and precision of a military maneuver. They’ve been saving up money so they could bike to the store and buy the BIG boxes of candy Mommy never lets them buy. They’ve negotiated a complex system for determining who gets to pick each movie during the day, and worked out who will spread the peanut butter and who’s in charge of the jelly while making lunches.

They were ready.

As Memorial Day grew near, I realized I may need to spell out a few ground rules when I overheard Cora enthusing about all the friends she was going to have over. Ahem.

So Sunday night I printed out our Independence Day rules and posted them on the wall where we hang all important family communications. Here they are, in all their glory:
Independence Day Rules

1. The house must look the same at bedtime as it does when you wake up in the morning. You will need to clean up all toys, dishes, cooking utensils, etc.

2. You are still responsible for your usual chores, including maintaining the litter box, feeding your pet, and emptying the dishwasher.

3. Common courtesy rules still apply: no taking something of someone else’s without permission, no rudeness, etc.

4. If something is NEVER allowed on a normal day, it’s not allowed today. This includes but is not limited to: using power tools; drinking caffeinated drinks; going outside dressed inappropriately; jumping on furniture; internet surfing; physical violence.

5. If you are having trouble with something you may ask an adult for verbal help. If you still cannot make it work you’ll need to move on to something else. This includes but is not limited to: operating the television; finding something on the computer; cooking a recipe; getting out your bikes.

6. When using the stove or oven there needs to be an adult present. An adult should handle all sharp knife needs. If you leave the house and yard, an adult should accompany you.

7. Fights between sisters will need to be resolved on your own. An adult will not intervene. The exception here is physical violence: being physically violent with each other will promptly bring an end to Independence Day.

8. Bedtime is still 7:30, with lights out at 9. Any problems with bedtime will mean no future Independence Days.

9. HAVE FUN!!!

Wondering how Independence Day went down? Tune in tomorrow –

A Letter To Cora

Dear Cora:
Today is your birthday, sweet girl. Can you believe it? Seven years old! We spent all weekend celebrating your birthday in one seemingly endless fantasia: your oldest friend came in from out of town to surprise you Saturday morning and spend the whole weekend with you; we had a fun party riding horses on Saturday afternoon; and celebrated with family Sunday night. Plus chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, favorite lunches, and more – it’s been a looong weekend honoring you in our lives.

So in some ways the whole Age Seven thing seems old news; but in other ways – in Mommy Time – it’s still startling and a teensy bit unwelcome.

Just keeping it real here.

You are just finishing up first grade, and have been vocal about your impatience to learn more, to be more challenged in school. You’ve spent a large part of the spring semester asking if you could just “go ahead into second grade” because “first grade is just kindergarten over again”. Fortunately for you, your teachers are some of the best in the country and they work every day to challenge you, give you extra projects and teach you new concepts as you race to know MORE. Your homeroom teacher has given you a couple old encyclopedia-type books from the 1980’s: one on Myths and Legends, and another on Holidays and Customs. You spend large parts of your nights reading them like comic books, poring over entries on Sasquatch or Greek spring festivals. You asked for an almanac for your birthday and ask your teacher when she’s going to let you work on more algebra problems. I have to say, this part of you tickles me enormously, though I suspect in a few years I’ll be running hard just to keep you mentally fed.

You run full-tilt at life, and don’t let your fears hold you back. Not to say that you don’t have fears: you definitely do. But you push yourself to go ahead and do something anyway. Some people describe you as fearless, but I know that you are simply Hugely Brave in spite of your fear.

In fact, the only thing that holds you back is yourself. You, my child, have incredibly high standards – for yourself. Kickball this year has been a big challenge for you in school, because you have been nearly paralyzed with fear, worrying you’ll be less than perfect when you line up to kick the ball. I watched you play your grade’s final kickball tournament, and the entire game you were fidgety with nerves, worrying about your time at the home plate. When you stepped up and kicked a run that got you to first, only to go on and eventually score the last – and winning – point for your team, I’ll admit I was crying up in those stands. Every time you face down your own impossibly high standards and let yourself try – and give yourself permission to fail – you grow so much, baby. I love watching it happen .

You are still fiercely loyal to your friends and enjoy as many playdates as I’ll let you have. Interestingly enough, you see all your friends through the rose-colored glasses you refuse to don for self-examination: one friend is “amazingly pretty” while another is “SO good at soccer!” and a third is “always kind to EVERYONE!” You are so effuse with your praise for your friends, and always compare yourself to them and find yourself wanting. I wish you’d measure your own self as generously as you measure your friends.

This year has been the year you’ve fully realized that you will Never. Be as old as your sister. And trying to keep up with her has been frustrating and agonizing and heart-wrenching, but you still don’t quite want to admit it’s not going to happen. Remember, Li’l Bit, that I was the younger sister too, and I know what it’s like to keep chasing the moving finish line. When you finally stop comparing yourself to your sister – or anyone – you’ll be so much happier. I promise.

You started horseback riding this year, and you’ve really enjoyed your time at the stables. You’re such a little thing on that big horse, and you still don’t want him to break into a gallop because trotting’s so hard on you, you can’t imagine what a gallop must feel like. But you sure love hanging around the stables on a Saturday, and I’m eager to see where you go with this.

Dancing is still high on your list of loves as well, and let me tell you, watching you dance is about my favorite thing in the world. When you dance, baby, everyone can see the pure joy in your eyes, and as you move we see what the music sounds like to you. Cora, you have a real gift there, and while I don’t know how you’re going to use it, I have no doubt you will use it your whole life.

You’ve also fallen in love with the stage in general, and our trip to New York last summer certainly didn’t help to slow that down. After seeing Newsies on Broadway and getting a backstage tour, you were the only kid in our neighborhood to trick-or-treat as a Newsie, in your little newsboy cap and bloomers, your messenger bag/candy bag slung over your shoulder as you earnestly shouted, “Buy a paper, mister! Trick or treat!”

I think you’ve got a real gift for taking care of people, for nurturing, for acts of service. You’re happiest when you’re helping out in a soup kitchen line, or helping me organize some items for a large group, or even assisting your teacher with a project. You love feeling useful, I think, and while I want to encourage that servant’s heart, I also don’t want you to get all your sense of self-worth in that way. You are precious, sweet girl, all by yourself, and I would love you to pieces even if all you did was sit and stare out the window all day.

What will happen over this next year? I honestly don’t know. Summer is our time to try out new things in a low-commitment setting, and you’ve asked to try a soccer camp this summer, wanting to give a sport a go for the first time ever. Will you fall in love with team sports? Want to continue with ballet or horseback riding? Decide to become more serious about your painting, and want to go deeper into that? Only time will tell.

I’ve had such a fantastic weekend celebrating your pre-birthday, baby, and am so glad you were born all those years ago! God’s given me such a wonderful gift in making me your mother.

I love you so much!


And Sometimes They Really Listen

The past few weeks I’ve been despairing of Maddie’s selfish attitude; she’s astonishingly mean to her sister, and when she’s given two pieces of candy, the first words out of her mouth are usually, “And I am NOT sharing this with Cora, so don’t ask!”

I pray nightly for her heart to be changed: that she will think first of others, then herself. I’m not trying to raise a martyr, just someone who looks to serve others – and finds that joy in serving. I don’t think Maddie’s particularly bad or horrible; I think this is a phase, and I’m trying hard not to correct the actions, but the heart behind it. Sometimes, though, it’s hard going, and I feel like I’m speaking to deaf ears.

But then sometimes, something happens to show me that my girl is listening.

A few days ago we were walking to school, chatting about the upcoming day, when Maddie brought up the subject of recess.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to play today at recess; today is a ‘free’ day for me and Elise.”

Curious, I asked, “Isn’t every recess free time? I didn’t think recess was programmed.”

“Well,” Maddie said, “Not every recess is free, since Anna is out of town.”


I asked Maddie to elaborate.

“See, Anna is out of town for three weeks visiting family, and Senti is Anna’s best friend. And Senti is really shy and she really misses Anna a lot. So while Anna is out of town, me and my friends make sure that Senti has someone to play with at recess. We divide it up amongst us, and yesterday was me and Elise’s turn to play with Senti, but today it’s someone else’s so today is a ‘free’ day.”

“Why doesn’t everyone just play together?” I asked, not quite sure I was understanding this correctly.

“Because Senti is really shy, like I said, so she’s only comfortable playing with a couple people at a time. This makes her happier.”

As Maddie stopped to pick up an earthworm, I looked at my beautiful girl, the breath knocked out of me at the sheer matter-of-factness with which she told this generous story.

And I grabbed her and hugged her tight.

This? Is what I pray for every night. For a daughter whose first thought is for others, not herself. For a child that sees another person floundering, and WANTS to step in and help. And then doesn’t need to brag about it. I’ve been praying for a girl whose first thought would be for someone else, who would find joy in serving that someone, who would think that this act of service was just a normal part of the day.

And God parted the curtains that usually veil Maddie’s school day from me, and gave me a glimpse of a girls who listens, and hears, and acts. Not always, but sometimes, which is all I can hope for.
And I am grateful.

To Cora

Li’l Bit, this is a tough time for you right now.

You, my friend, have such a big heart. And as we’ve talked about – a LOT – recently, Big Hearts tend to have Big Feelings. And sometimes those Big Feelings are hard to control.

Which means you’ve spilled more than your fair share of tears these past few weeks.

Here’s what happens: you get cranked up about something – Maddie not wearing the correct headphones, or my not remembering that you’d already cleaned the litter box – and then have a really hard time getting around it. And you feel like no one’s listening to you, and you get angrier and angrier and more and more frustrated, and you lash out. Like, physically, with your feet, or screaming, with your voice.

And then you burst into tears and collapse on your bed, sobbing. For a long. Time.

I’ve learned a few things over these past few weeks. For one, I should not EVER try to hold you while you’re wrestling with your emotions. This does not go over well, and you crawl and scooch and drag yourself across the bed, wedging yourself into a tight, tiny corner as far away from me as possible.

And while this was originally incredibly hurtful to me, this rejection of my motherly offering, I’ve since learned that you crawl away not because you’re trying to hurt me, but because you think you’re not worthy of my forgiveness/grace/love.

Oh, baby.

So I don’t push it any more. I lie on the bed next to you, reading a book to myself, until your sobs slow and your hiccups calm down. And eventually you scooch close to me, or start talking about some unrelated topic, and we gradually reconnect until you’re imprinted against me, forehead to toenails straining towards my heart.

And then we get down to the work: talking about what happened, and where you got off track, and why it’s ok to get off track sometimes, and how we ALL get off track sometimes, and THAT’S OK because God loves us ANYWAY!

I offer up morsels from my own childhood, stories of my falls from grace or my unearned meanness towards a friend or – more likely – a family member. You listen, and your portrait of me in your head gets a little more defined, moves a bit more away from pastels and into oils. These nights can take hours – literally. But I take heart in the fact that they now take, perhaps, one hour, instead of three.

I will be honest, dear girl: there are nights that I don’t think I’m going to make it through to the other side of these storms. I sometimes want so much to simply yell at you and storm out, to put my own hurt ahead of your own and crawl away to lick my wounds in peace.

But I stay, because you? Are worth it. Hands down, no questions asked, without a doubt, worth it. And I NEVER want you to think that your emotions make you unlovable, or that your actions make you unforgivable. We serve and amazing Savior, and there’s grace enough for all of us from him.

And if he can suck it up and stick it out with a sinner/crabby person/selfish mommy like me, then I can stick it out through a few tantrums with you.

I love you so much, C Note. And we will get through this, and come out the other side even stronger. You are an amazing girl, and I love the journey with you.

Even the tough parts.


Yesterday morning I headed to my girls’ school for a parent-teacher conference. As I turned out of my alley, I noticed an unmarked police car going past me. When I got to the school I found a squad car in front of the door, and when I buzzed the front desk from the remote-feed camera at the door entrance, the receptionist politely told me she could not let me in at the time, and I should come back later. I figured it was a lockdown drill and left; the school practices going into lockdown mode a few times a year.

Once at home I easily did the conference by phone and hung up twenty minutes later. A couple minutes after that, a friend called and said, “The school is still on lockdown, which is weird, and there’s a helicopter circling overhead. Have you seen that?”

I ran to the window, and sure enough, there was the copter circling right over the school. As I watched out the window I saw two more squad cars go past, and I realized: this was not a drill. And I felt myself start to lose it.

Thirteen years ago I spent the worst morning of my life watching the twin towers fall on television while I wondered if my husband, who worked right next to the World Trade Center, was going to be coming home. Ever. I heard the Tomcat fighter jets flying overhead, the constant wail of sirens, smelled the acrid smoke in the air even as the debris cloud formed, and could do nothing except watch and wait. There was no real information, no way to speak to anyone down there, and absolutely nothing I could do.

Which is where I found myself yesterday morning.

Let me tell you something you probably already know: I would do anything for my girls. ANYthing. And if I thought it would help I would’ve stormed the building, smashed in the glass doors, done anything to get to them. But I knew that there were lots of qualified professionals on the scene who were way better at this stuff than I; and I knew they’d done countless lockdown drills just so everyone would be ready if they had to do a real one. When I held still and really thought about it, I knew there was nothing I could do and I could – at least partly – be content with that.

The harder thing for me, truthfully, was the complete lack of information. Without any real knowledge, any solid facts to help me know precisely what to worry about, I was free to worry about EVERYTHING. A crazy gunman. A suicidal student. An anthrax threat. I just wanted SOMEONE to call me and tell me what was going on, and I felt as helpless as I had that September Tuesday morning.

Fortunately, the threat turned out to be directed elsewhere: a bank robbery in the neighborhood had gone wrong and the two suspects had fled to my area and were being pursued hard, and the police had locked down the school as an eminently sensible precaution the minute the robbery happened. The two men were armed and running through the streets somewhere.

I was ridiculously happy.

As soon as I learned that MY life was at risk more than my kids’, I was good. I mean, not GOOD, but I could handle it. I put my cell phone in my pocket and set my house alarm and went about my business. I’ve got a couple good friends who work in the school, and they called to tell me they’d laid eyes and my girls who were both wide-eyed but ok. My poor mom had been out when it happened, and wasn’t even allowed into the neighborhood for almost an hour; at least I could worry in the comfort of my home!

I still think about 9/11 on a regular basis, of course, and know it’s just one of those events that has shaped who I am, for better or for worse. I assume bad stuff will happen, because it has before, for no good reason. I’ve accepted this, and that 9/11 will forever color how I respond to emergencies or bad news. Over the years I’ve learned to deal with it, and now can see a plane in the sky and not assume it’s about to hit a building. It’s just the not knowing that I’m still not real good at.

As soon as the lockdown was lifted, all I wanted to do was run to the school and grab my babies, who had probably had not nearly the stress and worry over this that I had. But I restrained myself, because I couldn’t make it into a bigger deal than it already was. The girls are going to go through scary stuff in their lives, and I won’t always be there to hold them afterwards. We decompressed after school, and they talked through everything that had happened and how they felt about it all.

I hugged my girls, grateful that nothing bad had happened to them, and knowing I’d gotten through the afternoon ok. And I’m to the point where I can say that I’m grateful that I had the chance to remember once again that I’m not at all in charge of my life and need to constantly surrender that control.

If I could just get a little clue now and then during the bad stuff . . .

Stupid Talent Show

Every year I kvetch about the school talent show, and every year I cry during it.

So just deal with it.

This year has been particularly stressful to me: the music teacher told students they were allowed to be in three different acts at the most, which Cora took to mean “You should really do three acts.” I would not care so much, except for the fact that Cora doesn’t really like to, how should I put this, rehearse.

Which gives me a great deal of agita and just might put me in an early grave.

Since performing is what I did for a living, it’s hard for me to throw my kids up on any stage and just let them mess around. Not only would I be thinking about how they aren’t really putting any effort out, but I’d also cringe as I worried about the other parents and kids who have to sit through a narcissistic, watch-me-for-no-good-reason three minutes. And I’m not knocking people who aren’t the best singers in the world, but get up and sing anyway; or who can’t really dance but give it a good go. I’m talking about kids who decide to do something but don’t practice it or memorize it or really put any effort into it, then want us to watch them for three minutes. You know you’ve seen these kids.
I’ve spent the past few months gently (I promise!) encouraging my kids to start practicing for their respective pieces: Maddie sang a solo and a duet, and Cora sang a solo, a duet, and danced a solo dance as well. Some time in January (JANUARY!) Maddie said, “I don’t need to practice my solo. I already know it.”

Me: “Well, you may want to go through it every once in a while, make sure you’ve got it still.”

Maddie: “Why? Where would it go?”

Maddie also wanted to do movements with her solo which, since she didn’t start rehearsing that until a few DAYS ago, did not happen. That was the same point, coincidentally, where Maddie realized that singing the song to a karaoke track without background vocals is VERY different than singing along to the soundtrack.

She spent probably three hours this past weekend, going over and over it, cramming all her rehearsing into two days.

The duet was a different story: Maddie knew she needed to learn the song, and she and her friend practiced weekly for the past six or so weeks. I had no fears on this piece. And I’m happy to say that both songs went very well; even the costume changes (which we’d practiced at Sunday night’s dress rehearsal – don’t judge) went smoothly.

Then there’s Cora.

I have to tell you: when Cora’s on stage she just lights up. And for her singing solo, she picked the exact same solo as her big sister, a very difficult song from a current Broadway show. Cora “sorta” knew it, but didn’t practice it much with the background track, and I was hyperventilating on her behalf as I thought of my sweet six-year-old up in front of hundreds of people with this monster song. She ran it a couple times last night and felt confident, and that was that.

I was grateful that Cora’s singing solo was her first thing, so she could get that out of the way. As I handed my iPod to the sound guy, I turned to Cora with the lyric sheets and was looking for a music stand when she said, “I don’t want the lyrics.”

I panicked. “Are you sure? It’s pretty long and hard.”

“Yep!” she said, and walked confidently to the microphone.

My kid? Nailed it. And at the end of the song, several other kids around me said, “Wow, that was hard! That was a lot of memorizing! That was really good, Cora!”

Cora flashed a smile at the shouting boys and ran off to change for her dance piece.

For Cora’s dance solo, she chose to “improvise” a dance, just as she did last year. This, as you can imagine, gives me nightmares: what if she gets nervous and just stands there? What if she just spins around for three solid minutes? But I knew from last year that any “Hey, wanna just sketch out the general layout of the dance?” comments would be pointless.

Cora ran to the center of the stage, the music started, and she held it. And held it. Then the gentle intro music exploded.

And so did Cora.

My girl had clearly been thinking about her talent show stuff and working on it in her room at night; she had a structure to the dance and looked so freakin’ joyful it about killed me. Just like her song solo, she rocked the dancing.

When will I stop underestimating my kid?

Cora’s last piece, the singing duet, went quite well also, and even had a backdrop Cora had drawn and colored in over the weekend. For the entire show, Cora was confident, happy, and lit up onstage. I’m telling you, it’s something to see.

I don’t sweat the entire talent show because I’m worried the girls will embarrass me or make me look bad; I’m hyperventilating at the thought of one of them fumbling or faltering, and someone in the crowd yelling something mean, and my girl will be devastated. I think I’d strip nekked and streak through the gym just so everyone would be talking about ME and not my daughter. I? Would do anything to help my child avoid emotional pain like that, and what gets harder for me every year is the realization that the older they get, the less I’m SUPPOSED to help them avoid that emotional pain: the mistakes are theirs to make, the consequences theirs to survive.

Both girls looked so happy afterwards, holding the roses we always bring them for the talent show, and I smiled and once again said, “Yep, totally worth it.” Not because they’re such amazing, precious, talented children – just because they enjoy what they do, and they learn how to handle all that pressure pretty gracefully.

Clearly much more gracefully than I handle it.