Grammy Wanda and Not Doing Swimming Lessons

Grammy Wanda and Not Doing Swimming Lessons

“Well, eventually, I’m sure you will.”

Swimming lessons had actually never crossed my mind. My oldest was four years old, and I had two others still in diapers. After telling my friend that we weren’t signed up, her words kept cycling through my mind. ‘Eventually, I’m sure you will…’

What else was I supposed to have my kids involved with that I hadn’t thought of yet? I never had swimming lessons as a child; I just spent hours and hours in lakes and the ocean. I had just assumed that they would learn the way I did. But, as I pondered ‘I’m sure you will…’ I realized that there were all sorts of other assumptions about what it meant to raise competent, happy, socially adjusted children. It starts with swimming lessons, moves along toward t-ball and then by high school it’s a blur of activities and taxi-cabbing. That seems to work well for lots of families. But was that what we wanted for ours?

As I thought, and discussed it with my husband, we both really wanted to be intentional about how our family spent time, and not just get swept up in the wave of what is expected.  What if we threw out the playbook and dreamed bigger? What if our activities weren’t centered on our children, but what if instead we chose activities that helped our children become others’ centered? We started to brainstorm.

And that is how we met Grammy Wanda.

We lived in a town with a lot of young or middle-aged families and went to church with young families and college students. But, we wanted ‘socially adjusted’ to mean more than getting along with our peers or people like us. Our family, and grandparents, lived far away, and I realized that there was a huge gap in my children’s socialization… they weren’t spending time with anyone with gray hair! I remembered my days in college volunteering in a nursing home. I thought of how lonely some of the men and women were and how eager they were to just have someone sit beside their bed and hold their hand, or talk about the photos on their bureau with them. I had a priceless commodity to bring some cheer to a place like that… babies!

It was close to Saint Patrick’s Day the first time we drove across the long covered bridge into Vermont and visited the Davis Home. The owner was excited to have children coming to visit and told us to come after lunch when many of the residents were still in the common room. She brought out leprechaun and four-leaf clover crafts and my oldest two sat with some lovely gray haired ladies and a cheerful staff woman who helped them all stick pieces together the right way. I walked around the room with the baby and said hello to some of the other residents just finishing lunch or sitting quietly. There was one woman in particular who seemed excited to see the children. She quickly became known as ‘Grammy Wanda’.

Grammy Wanda had several children and grandchildren but they all lived a distance away. Her son visited her once a week, took her out to eat and shopping. She showed me pictures of her beautiful teenage granddaughters, saying sadly that she only saw them once a year because they lived so far away. She said she had been a physical education teacher before she retired.

She also told me that she loved us, and that she was adopting us.

We went to the Davis Home almost every Tuesday for the next three years.  I had hoped that visiting a nursing home would teach the children the joy of serving others. I realized pretty quickly that in reality they were just learning the joy of getting spoiled by Grammy Wanda. On her weekly shopping trips with her son she would buy goldfish crackers, stickers, candy and lots and lots of bubbles. Going outside and blowing bubbles together was a favorite activity of Grammy Wanda and all the kids. She would blow bubbles and the kids would chase and try to pop them, and then the kids would blow bubbles and she would chase and try to pop them, and we would all laugh ourselves silly.

There were difficult moments (like when one old lady was in a bad mood and called my kids all kinds of swear words…), but the far majority of the time, bringing the children to a home with lots of older people afforded lots of fun and sweet times. We celebrated a lot of birthdays at the Davis Home, with my two or three year olds being sung ‘Happy Birthday’ by staff and residents and everyone having the fun of watching a little one blow out birthday candles. I found that preschoolers and some of the residents  with dementia enjoyed the same types of puzzles and board games. They liked the same snacks (it was the only time of the week my kids got Kool-aid with graham crackers… they loved that!!). And, just having my children at a table coloring pictures seemed to be entertainment for the residents.  Watching a pudgy little hand placing a fresh crayon drawing in a wrinkled hand, and seeing the smiles on two faces, was precious to me.

I had another baby during those three years and he was admired by all, but especially by Grammy Wanda. She wanted to hold him right away; I wasn’t sure how strong Wanda was so I shot a glance at a staff lady as if to say, “Do you think this is safe??” She nodded back reassuringly and I handed my tiny bundle to Grammy Wanda. She held him close and breathed in that sweet baby smell. She closed her eyes and soaked him in. Then she carried him around showing off ‘her new grandbaby’ to all the residents in the room that were too frail to walk over or hold him. I held my breath the whole time and was thankful to get him back safe and sound. The rest of the day, and many Tuesdays after, he smelled like Grammy Wanda’s perfume. She was his biggest cheerleader when he was learning how to walk. Maybe it was the PE teacher side of her coming out, but she told him all sorts of motivating things and clapped with joy and to his delight at his efforts.

For those three years Grammy Wanda was part of our family (and we were part of hers). I’ll always regret that those three years didn’t stretch into ten or fifteen. It was just before I had my fifth baby that we stopped making that daily Tuesday visit. I had a seven year old girl and boys aged five, three, and one and a half. I was round and full of my soon to arrive baby girl and having trouble keeping up with my active boys, especially as the winter kept us inside. And, Grammy Wanda was going through some difficult times with her health. It was harder for her to get out of her room and I could tell she felt badly that she wasn’t up for chasing bubbles or playing games. I confessed to the owner that I was having trouble making it over with my active bunch and tired pregnant body every week. She understood. She said maybe this was the natural time to take a break, and that we could come back anytime. Grammy Wanda understood as well. She said, “Just know that I love you.” I brought the baby to meet her when she was a couple of months old. I could tell Grammy Wanda was tired. My oldest daughter came along as well and they visited but I was glad that I’d left the younger (wilder) boys at home. Life got so busy after that. I sent a couple of cards to Grammy Wanda, and children’s drawings, but even that eventually got forgotten in the rush of changing diapers, making meals, running the farm and homeschooling.

A year or so later I ran into one of the ladies that had worked at the Davis Home. I quickly asked her how Wanda was, but she didn’t know. Grammy Wanda had been moved to another facility; she wasn’t sure where.

I likely won’t see her again until Heaven. There’s something both grievous about that and something okay about that. I thought that visiting a nursing home would be a good activity for my children to do; I could teach my children to serve and to be others-centered.  In reality, we didn’t find a meaningful activity or a place to give sacrificially. What we found was a person to love and to be loved by. Something like that never goes away. A skill might be learned for a season, and fade, but loving someone will always change us forever.

Sometimes Grammy Wanda would go on little field trips with us. Ironically, one summer she came along to swimming lessons. I had finally taken the plunge and signed the kids up for swimming lessons with the recreation department. A few high school and college students were giving lessons to children from preschool to diving board ages. Grammy Wanda had given a lot of swimming lessons in her days as a physical education teacher. I could see her itching to jump in the water and use her decades of experience. We sat together at the pond’s edge and she watched the little ones splashing around and retrieving rings. She glanced over at me. “You know,” she said in a hushed tone. “I don’t think they’re learning much. They really aren’t teaching them a thing.”

I smiled. I know, Grammy Wanda. I know. You have so much more to teach us.

A Letter to Me

Dear Me-One-Year-Ago,

I’m sitting down to write this letter just before I start mixing and baking and frosting birthday cake. I remember so well that a year ago you had the thought, “Next year at this time I’ll be baking a cake.”  And here I am. You are just about to start the swiftest year of your life. Really. You’ll take a breath and blink your eyes and you’ll be standing in the kitchen baking birthday cake.

But before you do, get ready. I know the bags have been packed and your kids have been asking every morning for a few weeks if this is ‘the day’. Tonight you feel the disbelief of a woman ten days overdue and it’s hard to imagine that tomorrow really and truly is the day you will meet this baby you’ve been waiting for. But it is. And you are going to feel the most pain you have ever felt. You are going to look at your husband and say, “This doesn’t feel right. It’s taking too long.” You are going to look at your sweet midwife and, with panicky eyes, for the first time in seven labors, you are going to tell her you want drugs. Like now. And she’s going to say you are almost there. And you are going to push and feel like you are breaking and dying and weak even though you’re stronger than you’ve ever been and then he’ll be on the outside. He’ll be the only baby you can only hold for a just moment because you are trembling and weak and your husband will be handed his son. Hands will help you from the birthing stool to your bed and you will sink in and they will give him back to you and place him on your chest, skin to new skin. You’ll do what so few women these days are blessed to experience.  You’ll look in the eyes of your seventh child and you will feel more love than you thought possible and you’ll know that your heart has grown with your family. And your baby will be perfect. Like unbelievably perfect. Perfect little toes and a head full of hair and eyes that study your face like yours do his. They will weigh him and you’ll all be amazed, and suddenly, knowing he’s over ten pounds makes your tough labor make sense. You’ll feel like super woman for a minute and also decide you can never do that again. Ever.

I know you don’t have a name picked out. It would be nice if you did because you are going to spend his first twenty four hours trying to decide. You will want something unique and meaningful but not so strange that it will be burdensome for the little guy. You will decide on his first name after that first night of holding him and getting to know him but the middle name takes longer. Finally, around the time he’s a day old you’ll choose ‘Trust’ for a middle name. You and your husband will remember the third Psalm. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your path straight.” You’ll remember the prayers you prayed and how you wondered if you should have another baby. You’ll remember thinking about how you already felt stretched and limited and how crazy people would think you were. But the trusting path led to this little life asleep in your arms and you will feel thankful and call him, ‘Trust’.

When his brothers and sisters come to the hospital they will be quiet at first with wonder. They will look at him shyly and then as they snuggle him and touch his feet and nose he’ll be one of them. He’ll seem to like their noises and be calm and peaceful hearing up close all those voices that were muffled for months. Your mother will hold him and talk about how handsome he is and take pictures of your new, finally-all-together family and those moments captured will be treasures to you even just a year later.

You’ll stay an extra night in the hospital because they are so nice about leaving you alone and say that since he’s your seventh child they trust you know what you’re doing. And you do. You’ll sleep and nurse and nurse and sleep.

When you get home you will be greeted by cards strung across the house and excited little kids showing you the cake they made. You won’t believe how loud your house is. You’ll wonder ‘Is it always this way?’ Your husband will recognize you’re overwhelmed and he’ll take the children for a long walk in the woods and you’ll sit in your chair with your baby and look at him and whisper, “Welcome home.” And you’ll be thankful for a few minutes of quiet and you’ll take a deep breath and when they come back you’ll be ready with a smile and hugs before you go take a nap in your own bed and it will have never felt so good.

He’s going to grow so fast. The first couple of months are going to be a fog of sleeping and lots of not sleeping and somehow what was new is going to be normal and every day and just the way it is supposed to be.

You will be so glad that he got to meet Ginger the dog, even though he won’t remember her, because it just wouldn’t feel right to have someone in the family not have known her. She will follow you everywhere and finally she will just be too uncomfortable and you’ll know its time.  But, you’ll ask your husband to make the phone call because you can’t bring yourself to do it. When it’s time to take her, he’ll offer to go but at the last minute you’ll think about how she follows you everywhere and you’ll remember bringing her home a decade ago and you’ll realize you owe her. So, you’ll leave your baby for the first time ever and you’ll know it’s his fussy time of the day but you’ll pray and somehow he’ll sleep the whole time you’re gone even though he never sleeps during that time of the day. When you get home with red eyes and an empty collar in your hand, you’ll find him just starting to stir and you’ll pick him up and hold him and feel life in your arms when your heart is aching over death.

He’ll start smiling early. As he grows you’ll realize more and more that he’s less a part of you. It will be a sweet delight to your soul to watch his relationships grow with his daddy and his three brothers and three sisters. None of those relationships will be the same. They will each be sweetly unique and special and have their own jokes and favorite games. You will be so proud of how loving your older children are and amused at how they can make this new little person giggle harder than even you can.

His first solid food will be a goldfish cracker fed to him by a little girl that thinks he looks hungry. It won’t be the last time a sibling thinks he’s ready for something you aren’t sure about and sometimes they will be right. He’ll take his first steps into the arms of his proud ten year old brother; the same brother that tells him stories of what they’ll do when he gets bigger and how he can’t wait to take him hunting. The nine year old will tell him to hurry and grow up so he can take him out to the workshop and build things. The seven year old boy will pretend to wrestle with him and will look proud when you show him how the baby tries to be just like him. The two littlest girls will both want to take care of him and somehow he’ll make it through his first year without injury from being ‘mothered’. They’ll want to carry him and feed him and even though you’ll keep reminding them to give him a little space, as soon as he can walk he’ll be chasing them around and joining in of his own freewill.  And, he’ll hold a special place in the heart of his oldest sister; he’ll be the snuggles and the smiles that melt her heart on days when being twelve isn’t easy.

During his first year, you will say goodbye to both your husband’s grandmother and your own. He’ll only be three weeks old when you drive sixteen hours round-trip to go to the first funeral which was your husband’s grandmother. You’ll be thankful for the family he has and the heritage he’s been blessed with as you hear stories of his great-grandmother’s kindness and courage. You will always regret that during that whirlwind of a trip you didn’t take an hour detour to go visit your own grandmother. You’ll think that you’ll be coming back soon but life will get busy and time will fly by and she will go downhill so quickly. You won’t get to her bedside until her eyes are closed and she is slipping away. You’ll feel so sad that she never really got to see your baby. But, you will be thankful for his weight in your arms as you kiss her cheek goodbye.

She would have loved to see how he runs around with the new puppy, both of them chasing after the same mischief. You’ll find them in all sorts of trouble together. He’ll be unrolling the toilet paper in the bathroom and the puppy will be jumping in it and spreading it around the house. He’ll try to steal dog food from her dish and she’ll try to steal Cheerios from his high chair. And sometimes, you’ll find them both snuggled on her dog bed, his little head on her belly.

You’ll be so thankful.

It’s hard to imagine that as I write this to Me-One-Year-Ago that you don’t yet know the little man that has filled your house with so much personality and joy. You have so much to look forward to as you’ll soon have a heart filled and overflowing from a million toothless and then ever-increasing-teeth smiles.

You won’t be able to believe that you ever, for one moment, let what other people might think cause you to doubt if you should have another baby. You’ll come to see that while you worried about having enough to give to him, he has given to you and the rest of the family more than you could have ever imagined. You’ll look at him, be in wonder of all that you know about him and you’ll realize that you didn’t make him. He isn’t even yours. You were gifted with being the vessel that was his first home on this earth and with letting him grow in and out of your arms. And, he’s growing out of them so fast.

Tonight, on the eve of his first birthday, he’s still nestled in his little bed next to yours. I know that will probably shock you as you have plans to move him into his crib in the other room much sooner than that. But, you’ll use the excuse of our house being small and not wanting to bother the older kids in the night. Really, you just won’t be in a hurry to move him out because you will treasure every moment of his babyhood. You’ll listen to him breathe at night and it will still fill you with wonder.

So, sleep well tonight if you can. Tomorrow is a day you will always remember. And when you hold that precious, newborn son in your arms, breathe deeply and hold him close.

In just a moment, I’ll be saying ‘Happy First Birthday’ to your little, big guy.


The me he calls ‘Mama’

The Farmer Poet

The Farmer Poet

Most of the farmers I know are poets. There is poetry in dirt and seasons and calves being born and butchering day and manure and seeds and cold mornings with cows bellowing and the itch of hay chaff in the linings of a pair of well-worn gloves. You need to have some lines scratched on your soul to keep going with the sun rising and rain clouds on the horizon and where the seasons are always changing and before they do you need to have hay in or fields turned or fences up. You have the makings of a poet when something in your drudgery is beautiful to your soul and when your helplessness doesn’t keep you from doing the next thing.

I remember an old, blue Leyland tractor, the doors to the cab wired shut for double protection against being bumped open. Four of us could fit when it was time to ted the hay; little boys with baseball caps and t-shirt tans standing on either side of me. I focused on gears and getting the speed of spinning forks just right to spread the rows of hay into fluffy piles to dry without beating them into dust.  The clacks and rumble would put the baby strapped to my chest to sleep and I would feel her breathe and the sweat would stick us into one, round, flesh again. Once in a while a boy would point and shout about a bird or that he wanted to get out the next time we came nearest the house so he could run to the cool basement and retrieve a popsicle from the big freezer.  Mostly though, thoughts just jostled around in our minds and often even there a quiet settled. A quiet that is hard to achieve when you wake up early to pray and you remember about the phone call you need to make before noon and that you are low on milk and maybe the kids will be okay with toast instead of cereal and what will you need to print out for the history lesson today? While the tractor made circles, my spinning thoughts, like the drying timothy and clover, fell into rows of order and rest.

We planted a huge garden in long rows on the farm. At the end of June I stood in the middle of a mass of overgrown weeds and searched for rows and vegetables and paths.  Life was everywhere but it was choking out what was planned and worked for and supposed to be in jars in the pantry come fall. I cried overwhelmed, frustrated, disappointed tears and knew I couldn’t catch up. On the first of July we had strawberry shortcake for my birthday and then headed out to the garden where my husband pulled weeds and chubby hands pulled weeds and I pulled weeds with a baby in one arm. And there was a path and sun on tomatoes and a heap of weeds to compost.

This spring I planted a little raised-bed garden here in the woods. There were ample sticks to mark my rows of onions and hills of squash and even though the soil is rocky, I have hopes for jars in the pantry this fall. This little garden patch feels manageable. But, as I planted seeds in rows I remembered something a friend said recently. ‘Gardening is just another form of dependency.’ We plant seeds but we are at the mercy of the Life-giver to make them grow. I think of how the same brown dirt grows a deep, purple-red beet, a firm white potato, and leafy, green lettuce. This is a deeper magic than can be conjured with a watering can and a hoe.

A little boy asked if he could help and I gave him a row of beans to plant. He took a fistful of seeds and worked his way down the row. There were more rows to plant but he’d had his fill and happily bounded off to ride his bike. I was left alone with the packet of seeds and thought about how this is a hobby. If the beans don’t grow there is the grocery store and they’re cheap to buy and nine year old boys used to plant beans or else they went without. For a minute I wondered if I should call him back.

When I became a mother I didn’t have time to read for pleasure. There were parenting books to read and how-to-have-happy-perfectly-lovely-successful-children manuals. And the sun shone and the rains came and I was crying overwhelmed tears on my bed and I knew that children don’t grow in neat rows and around us and in us there’s a wildness that makes me afraid the harvest won’t be what I had once dreamed. I don’t have the deep magic to make people grow and the manuals don’t hold the right spells either.

Seven times I’ve been handed a baby, like a seed, fresh and new and unknown. And, each time, my heart wanted to break through me and cover them with fierce love like a thick, rich soil blanketing them from the elements. But soil is just a place to grow roots. It is stretched and moved and changed in its nourishing of the new life.  In the love and the breaking and the helplessness, my children have grown me into a mother-poet, leaning hard into the only Life Grower.

There are days when I feel overwhelmed. Like the weeds are going to take over. There are nine of us growing together and there are messes and hurt feelings and school work that sits unfinished along with the dishes. Daily I’m aware of my powerlessness to change hearts or to force kindness or to speed up maturity or to make our lives neat and orderly and safe.

But, a mother-poet leans into the deep magic of the Life Grower.

The lines scratched on my soul are changing from ‘keep them safe’ or ‘’raise good kids” into ‘tend them faithfully’ and ‘love them well’. It’s the knowledge that the only thing I have to offer is the gospel that I still need myself.

The gospel that makes me a mother living moment by moment by moment leaning into grace, offering grace, pleading for grace. It takes me out of the ‘what will be’ and into the ‘what is now’. It is the prayer and the grace to understand the seasons. To know the time to shelter, to plant, to weed and to water; to keep them close and speak truth and discipline and to shower with loving-kindnesses. And to know the seasons to let the plants break through the soil; to bear the pain of release over and over and over again. It’s learning to trust, to do the next thing, to lean hard into the Life Grower.  That Great Poet writing His story, bearing His fruit, reaping His harvest, in each of our farmer-mother-child souls.