Category Archives: Parenting

282 Miles – Zero Distance

Rocco worn out from fetch.

I spent the last weekend with my daughter. She called it the Ultimate Mother-Daughter, Foodie, Coffee Shop Writing, Shopping, Rodeo Weekend. (We need to work on a catchier title. That’s never going to fit on a bumper sticker). The Adventure Days and Mother-Daughter Dinner Dates of her childhood have evolved into weekends at her home in her college town. On the way over, I always stop in Ellensburg (mile 120). The Chevron and Starbucks are just off the freeway and only a couple blocks apart, so I can top off the Jeep, and me, in less than 15 minutes. When I drop down to the Columbia (mile 150), I am just over half-way. Though I am still 11 miles out when I hit the first exit into town, in my mind, I am there. All told, it’s 282 miles—the perfect distance.

There ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you.
Marvin Gaye

I know there are moms and dads who are thinking 282 miles?!?! and perhaps that’s 280 miles too far or possibly that’s 2000 miles too close. For us though, it’s exactly right. There is a sweet spot when a young adult goes off to college. On the one hand, the first years of college are stressful. As a student, you should be close enough to be able to get home when you really need to. On the other hand, college is stressful. You should be far enough away that you can’t run home when you only think you need to. Likewise, as a parent, you should be close enough that you can visit them when they need you. You should be far enough away that you can’t just pop over anytime you think they need you. That distance might be 10 miles or it might be 1000 miles. Trust me, you need to know how far.

You never know how strong you are
until being strong is the only choice you have.
Bob Marley

I found an old spur to inspire me at Boulevard Mercantile.

For us, the sweet spot is 282 miles away. It is not that we don’t want to be closer to her. I would love for her to live around the corner from us. If she lived closer, however, she might not have had to struggle through her first year of college in a way that helped her emerge the happy and capable adult she is today. If not for a mountain high and a river wide, in the words of Marvin Gaye, I would have hopped in my Jeep before the first late-night phone call had ended and had her packed up by dawn. Who doesn’t want to save their child from the inevitable pain that accompanies becoming an adult? The truth is, there is no saving. The only path is through. While encouragement and support are helpful, in the end, we all have to get through it on our own. Learning to be with the most uncomfortable feelings – fear, loneliness, uncertainty, and sadness  – and move forward despite them is a critical step toward adulthood.

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over,
it became a butterfly.
Chuang Tzu

The Ultimate Mother-Daughter, Foodie, Coffee Shop Writing, Shopping, Rodeo Weekend was glorious.  It was as if all the memories of all of our Adventure Days were photoshopped together in saturated colors and polarized.  We laughed and talked for hours. She took me to all of her favorite places and some new places she thought I would love. I reveled at her confidence and wisdom in managing a full load of classes, a strength and conditioning coaching job, a home, a relationship, and a rambunctious dog. She’s found her path through and our relationship is not separated by 282 miles.

The only thing better than being with my daughter and a dusty Jeep would be my daughter and a muddy Jeep.

When I hit the interstate, though I was only 11 miles away, I was already gone. When I climbed back up from the Columbia, I was half-way home. I filled up in Ellensburg on regular gas and high-octane coffee. By the time I hit Snoqualmie Pass, though I was 67 miles away, I was home. And so was she.  

Copyright 2021 Catherine Matthews

What every kid needs to learn before you give them tuition or luggage.

My daughter went back to college a couple weeks ago after being home for the winter break.  I thought that she would be about 24 years old before I would have this feeling that is exploding from my heart. I can’t really put my finger on it exactly. Satisfaction? No, not big enough.  Vindication? No, too dramatic.  Elation? Yes, that is it. I am elated.  Not that she left. Rather, I am elated that, after just one quarter of college, we have definitive proof that we accomplished some big things we set out to do as parents. Before I go on, I will admit that I made plenty of mistakes as a parent. It is impossible not to make mistakes. Parenting is the most complex undertaking in life, I believe.  Also, I should share, there are many things about our daughter that we are proud of other than the ones in this post. The things I am going to share are things that I think every young adult should learn before getting luggage or tuition, and being sent out into the world.

Ultimately, our goal was for our daughter to leave our house at 18, able to navigate the adult world secure in the knowledge that she had the skills to be successful and independent.  I believe that people do not learn how to be an adult when they are 18. They begin learning as soon as they try out their first “NO!”  As with any skill, adulthood has to be scaffolded with a gradual exchange of responsibility and a commensurate increase in freedom.   For example, one of our goals was for her to be able to travel alone safely as an adult.  When she was little, she traveled with me by airplane.  I helped her pack, understand boarding passes, handle bags, get through security, and navigate the plane. Then, she traveled by plane with a friend, and parents waiting at each terminal.  She experienced being alone on the plane and having to get her needs met. Next, she traveled with her team by airplane, and I traveled on another plane (because I am smart).  She was able to do most of what she needed to do, but her safety net (coach) was right there. She traveled to the opposite corner of the country with a friend on a plane, navigating major airports. She did everything on her own. Last thanksgiving, she even booked her own flight. Gradual exchange of responsibility from me to her. She had chances to make mistakes, with a safety net. Though that safety net was about the same through all of this, she used it less and less. And when there were problems, we started by asking what she could do to solve the problem.  As a result, she learned that she could trust herself to solve problems and advocate for herself. Children need opportunities to try, and even fail, if they are to learn.

These are not in age or priority order. They are all equally important to us.

Banking and Money:  We opened a bank account for her quite young. She went to the bank with us to deposit her money. While we provided for her needs, we reminded her that she had her own money if she wanted to buy something that we did not want to buy for her. I remember the day we were shopping when she admitted, “I like it enough if you are buying it, but not if I am.” We laughed. No one bought that sweater. Our gauge became: Would you buy this, if you had to pay for it? As soon as she was old enough, she got her a debit card. Keeping track of it and her money became her responsibility. Our accounts were linked, and I got alerts on her spending. I never intervened unless I thought there was a possibility of fraud.   As soon as she was old enough, she got a small credit card to establish credit. She learned what it means to have a bill you must pay.

Work:  There are things you can only learn working for someone other than your parent.  She babysat in middle school, and got her first job in high school.  Her first couple of jobs had big challenges.  She learned that money is earned. She learned how hard and how long you have to work to save up money. She learned about being on time, and having a positive attitude even when you really don’t want to do something. She also learned that if you don’t like your job, you can go get another one, but it is always best to leave on good terms.  From unpaid internships, she learned that sometimes you can earn something other than money that pays off big dividends on your future.

Rights:  She probably would not agree, but one job in particular taught her a painful but necessary lesson.  She has rights. Though an employee, she has the power to advocate for herself and protect herself.  We taught her about Labor and Industries, and employee rights. We showed her how to research the law and file a complaint. This was one I had not really planned for because I never had to assert my employment rights, fortunately. I could see that she felt she could not stand up to her boss for fear she would be fired even though she was in the right.  Though I helped her navigate the process, she filed her complaint on her own. It was a powerful lesson for us all.

Self-Advocacy and Negotiation: These are skills best learned young.  Believe me, the first time she shouted “No” at me, I was not thinking this.  But we quickly realized that, if she learned she must mindlessly submit to anyone in authority or power, we would be diminishing her power as a human and putting her potentially in danger.  We wanted her to trust her gut and set boundaries for the treatment she would accept from others. I heard too many stories from teens who were assaulted because they did not feel they had the power to say “stop” or “no”.  We also wanted her to have the confidence to state her case to get her needs met or to address an injustice.  Let your child talk to their teacher when there is a problem.  Coach them about who to talk to when they need help. Stepping in feels supportive as a parent. To a teen, it can communicate that you do not believe that they can solve their problem on their own.

Self-Management: This is a hard one as a parent because it is so hard to see your child unhappy. But it is important. Children need to have some freedom to make choices that could have positive or negative consequences.  Then they have to experience living with the consequences, good and bad. Take homework for example, she was allowed to manage when and where she did it until she began missing assignments. Then we set a time and place. We also set expectations around how she could get that freedom back.  We never had to talk about homework again. She apparently did not enjoy studying with me at the kitchen table as much as I enjoyed spending the time with her.

Cell Phones: They are a fact of life. The sooner kids learn to use one appropriately, the better. We bought her a cell phone when she entered middle school so that we could be in touch with her in an emergency. We made it very clear that we owned the phone and could revoke it if she violated the rules.  We talked about safety rules. Though we never felt the need to do it, we were clear that we would read her texts if a problem occurred, or we felt she was in danger.  She loved her phone.  We only had to take it away one time.

Social Media:   I was a high school principal so I knew all too well the devastating mistakes developing and impulsive minds could make.  I was initially very much against allowing her to have any social media. But then I realized that she was eventually going to have it. Since to that point I knew nothing about it, she could have set up social media and I might not even have known she did.  We all needed to learn about online safety. She needed to practice using social media with supervision to prevent bigger mistakes later. There were only a few issues but they were great opportunities to talk about how easily things can go wrong on social media.

Grocery Shopping:  This seems a bit silly because kids usually go to the store with a parent at some point. There is a big difference between tagging along, dropping protein bars in the basket when your dad isn’t looking, and actually planning for a week of healthy eating.  We sent her periodically to the store with a budget and a list to do the family shopping.  As a college student, she understands how much cheaper it is to buy food at the store and cook it at home, than to go out for dinner.  She understands how to select fruits and vegetables, check expiration dates, and read labels.  For the record, her dad gets all the credit for this one.

Cooking:  We started this one pretty late because she was an athlete who was often home late.  It did not make sense to have her cook after school and practice. In her senior year, she took an interest in nutrition and learned to cook. You are at the mercy of cafeterias and restaurants in the dorms. But when you move out, you might be eating a lot of soup and frozen dinners, if you don’t know how to cook.  Again, her dad gets all the credit here. I do know how to cook, but he is much better at it!

Laundry:  Need I say more?

Doctor and Dentist Appointments: This grew from necessity, but turned out to be a great skill.  I could not manage her schedule and mine. Eventually in exasperation, I told her to call her doctor and make the appointment. We gave her an insurance card and explained how insurance works.  Ultimately, she was comfortable going to appointments alone and advocating for herself.

I remember when she was in high school and she said to me, “I am adulting all over the place.” I thought it was cute. I mean, it’s not like she had to worry about a mortgage. I realized over this winter break, that she was adulting all over the place. Every day, she is adulting more and more. She is right on schedule. When she moves into her apartment next year, I won’t have to worry about whether or not she will be able to feel herself, pay rent, or keep herself safe. I also know that she understands that she can always ask for help or advice. Even adults need a safety net.

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Adulting All Over The Place

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020.

When Dreams are the Real Deal

Have you ever had one of those dreams that is so real you wake up with a start, gasping for air, heart pounding, momentarily stunned to find yourself in your own bed, safe and sound? It happens to me.  I have always had very real, very complicated dreams. II could remember them allI would probably have enough material to be the next Steph(v)en (as in Spielberg, King or Hawking).  Usually my dreams make no sense to me. I’ve heard that people can decipher dreams.  That may be true, but I don’t think I will spend any time on the one where I am walking backwards in bare feet through muddy jeep tracks in culottes and a Yes concert t-shirt with my Daisy BB gun slung over my shoulder shouting orders at bunny rabbits.  I would never wear culottes, first of all.  I definitely wouldn’t wear them with a concert t-shirt. My fashion choice in that one was not even the most disturbing element, as you can well imagine.  There are other dreams that are more common and obvious, but still truly terrifying. The worst one of all, which has many variants, is the school nightmare.  In that one, it’s my senior year in college. I realize that I never attended a single class and I am late for finals.  That dream featured regularly as a sympathy nightmare during finals week when I was a teacher and a principal.   

Last night, I had one of those dreams. It was so vivid; I woke up nearly in tears.  In the dream, I walk into my kitchen and my dad is standing there.  It isn’t my 2018 dad. It is my 1970s dad. I know that because he is big and booming.  In the 80s, we built a house, he leaned out from all of the labor.  This was definitely 1970s dad.  He is wearing an Aran sweater, thick and soft, the color of milk. I remembered he told me how the Irish clans each had their own cable pattern of Aran sweater so that the fishermen’s bodies could be easily identified no matter how long they were at sea.  He is standing at the kitchen counter and I am stunned to see him. I know he has passed away.  He isn’t sick. He is standing on his own, healthy and strong.  He wraps me in a hug so deep and strong I can feel it in my heart. I can feel his heavy hand patting my shoulder blades the way he did when I was small and sad.  He says a phrase I’ve heard a hundred times, “Hey there, it’s OK pal.”  It is as mushy as he gets.  Someone says to me, “He isn’t gone” but I know that this is not true. I hold onto him anyway because I know I will soon lose the feel of the cable knit on my cheek, the warmth of his hug, the weight of his presence.  When I wake up, I know it is a dream. He has passed. Nothing will change that.  But for a few moments, it felt so real.  

Though I rarely even think about my dreams, let alone attempt to decipher them, I could not ignore this one for the lingering sorrow it evoked.  It made me wonder why we dream at all.  What does it accomplish?  This dream made me miss him so painfully. I certainly wouldn’t choose that feeling, so there has to be something else at play here.  Of course, I turned to research first.  In an article on the Psychology Today website, Michael J. Breus sited these theories on why we dream: 

  • A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage. 
  • An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting the experiences of waking life. 
  • A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance. 
  • The brain responding to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep. 
  • A form of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third. 
  • A protective act by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges. 

(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleep-newzzz/201502/why-do-we-dream, Accessed October 19, 2019) 

I reject the theory that dreams are merely biochemical changes or electrical impulses.  I don’t have any scientific basis for rejecting that theory, I just think it’s unlikely that it comes down to nothing more than a biological process.  As I thought about the dream, its meaning seemed pretty simple really. I miss him. I especially miss the 1970s him, when we were the closest. I miss that time of life when my dad could make everything better.  The purpose of  the dream was not so obvious, though.   

To every thing there is a season,  

and a time to every purpose under the heaven. 

Ecclesiastes 3:1 

I would guess that this is all coming up on a deeper level because I am missing my own child who is away at college. We visited her last weekend. It was so great to hug her and catch up. I soaked up her laughter and wicked wit. I reveled in her emphatic explanations and dramatic stories.  I was filled with joy to meet her friends.  Though she is safe and happy, and right where she should be, I do miss her and I do worry about her. I am pretty sure my psyche was taking advantage of sleep to help me process these feelingsIf I am honest, it helped me to see that, on some level, I have tried to block out missing her because she is so happy and safe, and right where she should be. I want to protect her from missing us as well. That probably is not logical, but then feelings rarely are.     

 

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there,

wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams

no mortal ever dared to dream before. 

Edgar Alen Poe  The Raven 

 

Whatever the real purpose of dreams, I got the message loud and clear on this one. My dad is right, it is going to be OK. She is going to be OK. It is OK to miss her. It is even OK for her to miss us.   We do not have to be in the same room to feel that deep love of a bear hug. That is stored in our hearts and minds.  We can touch that feeling asleep or awake, together or apart.  That, my friend, is not a dream. That is the real deal. 

 

Dad 1966

Holding onto my dad in 1966.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

The pointless pain of wanting it to be different.

 Suffering usually comes from wanting 

things to be different than the way they are. 

– Pema Chödrön

I have always been a driven person. I don’t spend a lot of time bemoaning a situation.  I am a hunter by nature. I see a problem. I hunt it down to the exclusion of all other things. I solve it and move on to the next problem.  Ambition, drive, persistence, initiative – I feel like those are the hallmark of the American journey. They have been the hallmark of my journey. I was raised under the child rearing philosophy “pull up your bootstraps, dust yourself off, and get back on that horse”.  That came in handy because I have fallen or been thrown off more than my share of horses literally and metaphorically. My ability to move forward despite adversity has served me well. I haven’t been able to overcome everything though.  The truth is that I have “rage(d) against the dying of the light”, as Dylan Thomas put it.  It is not the hard things that I have overcome which wear me out. It is the things beyond my control, the unexpected, the unplanned, which lay me low.

If you are invested in security and certainty, 

you are on the wrong planet. 

-Pema Chödrön 

As with so much in life, I have learned as much being a mother as I ever learned being a daughter.  It is so clear to me that we must teach our children how to deal with the obstacles in life that are beyond our control. To be clear, I don’t mean teach them to just give up at the first sign of adversity.  In fact, I think we should teach them to climb when they reach a mountain.  But when they reach that mountain, and it is snowing, I think we have to teach them to accept that fact. Rather than suffering because they wish it was not snowing, I think we have to teach them to accept that the weather just is.  The weather is not permanent. The weather is not out to get them. The weather is not intentionally ruining their day. No amount of anger or tears will change the weather. I think we have to teach them to be flexible enough to abandon their dream of climbing that day and, perhaps, choose to go skiing instead. Better yet, we should teach them to be comfortable with their disappointment and just sit there enjoying the wonder and magic of a snowfall.

Rather than being disheartened by the uncertainty of life, 

what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? 

What if we said, “Yes, this is the way it is; 

this is what it means to be human,” and 

decided to sit down and enjoy the ride? 

-Pema Chödrön

One of the greatest challenges in life is to learn to be comfortable with discomfort. In fact, I think the pursuit of comfort, the avoidance of disappointment, and the unwillingness to accept our lack of control contribute to destructive forces in our lives and in our children’s lives. I think, as parents, the hardest thing we have to do is to allow our children to experience and learn from difficult feelings like disappointment, failure, loneliness, fear, sadness, and loss. We want to spare them those experiences. I know I do. I would spare my child every single tear if I had that power. But I don’t, and I shouldn’t. We want to solve their problems for them. It is painful to watch them struggle. What we need to do is hold them in compassion. We need to teach our children to hold their difficult or painful feelings in compassion. We need to acknowledge the validity of their feelings.  Most of all, we need to let them struggle with experiencing those feelings without making it better for them. We need to help them understand that discomfort and uncertainty are a part of life that they cannot avoid, and that they are not alone in that.

Nothing ever goes away 

until it teaches us 

what we need to know. 

-Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön says that “nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.”  I believe that is true.  I believe it is especially true when it comes to suffering from those things in life that we wish could be different.  See if it is true.  When you are standing at the base of that mountain and it starts to snow, put on your skis or, better yet, build a fire and brew some cocoa.  Let go of the wish that it was sunny.  Let go of your suffering from wanting things to be different than the way they are. Accept the snow for what it is – impermanent.

 

I picked this picture for this blog because I think it illustrates my point exactly.  We were at Kalaloch for spring break. As is typical on the Washington coast in spring, the weather was stormy and cold. We bundled up and took our cues from our little girl who could not have cared less about the weather. She wanted to play on the beach.  Rather than bemoan the conditions, we dug in and built a mud castle.  It was bliss!

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Living in the Moment

I was awakened at 2:51 AM yesterday morning by the unmistakable rumble of an earthquake. It was a relatively small one, 4.7, but it shook me awake.  My daughter shouted from the other room. I realize I have failed her in the Emergency Preparedness training department because she immediately ran to my room and jumped in bed with me. It only lasted a few moments and, in my 54 years, I have experienced many of these tremors living in the Pacific Northwest.  I probably should have run for a doorway.  But my lack of good sense is not the topic of this story so I will let that go for now.  Buttercup the Boxer Pup apparently knew it was coming because she was already hunkered down by the time the quake jolted us awake (apparently it is every dog for herself in an earthquake). We lathere snuggled togetherButtercup and my daughter were very distressed by the whole thing. Buttercup was panting uncontrollably. My daughter was furiously Googling earthquakes which of course brought images and statistics of the worst-case scenarios.  Not helpful.  Don’t misunderstand me, emergency preparedness is very important.  In the end, that is all that you can do- prepare.  When Mother Nature tries to wipe the planet clean or the earth tries to shake us off, we are powerless to stop it.  We can prepare but we cannot prevent most natural disasters.  I hate that. Literally. I hate it. I hate that something bad could happen that is completely beyond my control.  I hate that I can prepare and practice and do all the right things, and still an earthquake (tornado, illness, freak accident, hurricane….)  could change everything. I am a planner. I am always thinking about the long game. I believe what we do today makes a difference in our tomorrows.  I do believe all of that is true.  It is also true that we live in the present moment. It is also true that we cannot control the millions of things that might happen in the next moment. So, the present moment matters.   

That is what occurred to me as I was snuggled in close to my daughter and our pup.  This present moment matters. It matters to let her talk it out.  It matters to give comfort and reassurance. It matters to listen.  While we were laying there waiting for the aftershocks, I  was reminded of one of my favorite moments from her childhood.  When she was very little, just out of a crib and into a big girl bed, she would listen for her dad to get in the shower in the morning. Quiet as a little mouse, she would pad across the hall and slide into bed next to me. She would snuggle in close and fall asleep with her warm cheek on my shoulder and her tiny hand on my arm.  In the morning, she would have a dreamy look as I would get out of bed to get ready for work.  Invariably the pups would jump in bed with her as soon as I left, soaking up the warmth I left behind.  As I did my hair and makeup, she would chatter away telling me everything that was on her mind. I can feel the smile now, just thinking about it, that I had hearing her describe her adventures and discoveries.  A moment. A string of moments. That is all that life is – a string of moments.  Each one a gift. Not all of them are good. Most we cannot control. We should not miss a single one of them.  I thought that morning:  I should get up and check the house for damage; I should call my husband (I did); I should do something. Then I realized I was doing something. I was having a very special moment with a very special person. A moment I was never getting back.  And so, I laid there awake for a couple of hours – in the moment. 

I selected this picture because it reminded me that when she was little, the best moments were the simplest ones. Just holding her, in my arms, heart and mind, while she slept seemed like the most important thing in the moment. It still is.

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Big Love

Last weekend, our daughter graduated from high school.  I brought three packages of tissues to the ceremony and a camera with a 600 mm lens. I was not going to miss her face as she walked across the stage. I was prepared to weep openly, unapologetically, for two hours. I didn’t open a single package. Actually, that is not true. I got a fingerprint on my glasses and used a tissue to clean them.  I did not, however, shed a single tear.

IMG_2671.JPGDon’t get me wrong. I have cried thinking about graduation for the past year.  I just did not cry that day, as I imagined I would. The truth is that I could not have been anything but joyful on that day.  

As I confessed earlier, I was in a flurry of activity getting ready. My youngest sister and I were planting flowers and decorating the house the day before graduation.

DSC02155.JPGWe strung twine on the walls and hung pictures of my daughter with family and friends throughout her life.  As I looked at all the big moments and the small ones, all my fears and sadness slipped away.  I saw her dressed as a snowflake riding on my dad’s shoulders.  I saw her wide-eyed on her grandmother’s lap reading a book. I saw her giggling in her silly uncle’s arms and snuggling with her cousin.  I saw her bouncing on the bed in a cabin at Kalaloch wearing red suspenders her dad bought for her in an Ace Hardware store in Forks. I saw her growing older in the arms of her aunts. I saw her playing basketball and softball, boxing, skating, rowing, and tumbling. I saw her laughing and hugging her best friends who held her close through heartbreak and loss, and shared mischief, laughter and joy.

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I saw her hand in hand walking down the beach with her dad and riding with me top down in the sun. I saw her with the teachers who shaped her education and her character. I saw her with the community of family we have made with our friends – the aunties, uncles, cousins, and grandparents not of birth but of love still the same.  That string of pictures held the first chapters of a life built on love. Not much to cry about there. Unless you are crying tears of joy. 

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On the day of graduation, my dearest friends pitched in to get ready for the party.  I could not have pulled it off without them. They worked so hard to set everything up while we were at the ceremony so that we could have the party while my family was in town.  I have the kind of friends who grab their keys and are out the door before you even ask for help. They are the kind of friends who pull together for each other no matter what. I realized that she will be just fine. Because I know, in good times and bad, I am surrounded by big love from family and friends. And that is what we have raised her in- big love.

Leading up to this day, as I suspect all graduates do, our daughter has had moments of fear and sadness. She will miss her friends.  Girls cuddlingShe will miss the safety of a community that supports her.  She will be challenged to go farther academically and personally that she has thus far. I have reminded her that she is ready. I know she will make friends. I know that she will achieve her goals.  I have assured her that she has a safety net of people who love her and will be there to support her as she takes these first steps into independence, even when she is away at college. 

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On graduation day, I realized that we too are ready as parents. I realized that we too have a safety net of people who love and support us. They will be there as she takes these steps away from us. They will be there for her and they will be there for us.  And we will be there for them when the time comes with big love. 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Busyness of Avoiding

My father tore the carpet out of our house a few weeks before my sister’s wedding.  The carpet started out the color of sand on a southern beach.  After years of being trampled on by firewood toting teenagers, it had grown dingy and rough.  Once he got a thought in his head, it was like a worm boring in deep and taking up residence. He bought planks of tongue and groove hardwood and piled them high in the living room.  He was invisible save for the tapping of his rubber mallet against the slats.  He moved with the deliberation of a military exercise from the dining room to the living room.  With a hand-held electric sander, he methodically planed each surface on his knees.  In paint-splattered Levi’s, which he was perpetually pulling up, he knelt on the floor and brushed each piece with a thick coat of varnish. It was exasperating to watch. With each painstaking stroke, he seemed more and more oblivious to the tornado of wedding preparations going on around him. He was blind and deaf to the herd of women stomping their feet and tapping their watches.  This was not the first time he engaged in a Herculean task as the timer counted down to a graduation or wedding.  I didn’t understand him at the time. I thought him inconsiderate at best, selfish at worst. But I was wrong, so wrong.

For the last year, I have been planning a party that I have known, for 19 years, was going to happen in the second week of June. I thought I had learned a lesson from my father:  Don’t drive your family insane by doing an enormous job right before a big event. I planned ahead.  A year ago, we tore out our rustic Ode-to-Alaska firepit, and built a circular patio large enough for a crowd and safe enough for old ankles.  We built a 110-foot raised garden to fill with lovely flowers.  We replaced the lawns, which our energetic boxers had decimated, and built a dog run to contain their enthusiasm.  We weeded, planted, and barked.  It is beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be.

I was wrong, though. I did not learn that lesson from my dad.  The truth is that I dragged my heels on the smaller details. Now that we are a few short weeks away, I am in a flurry, ordering photographs, creating announcements, planning a menu, and locating plates, napkins and decorations in green and black.  I have a long list of things to do and an even longer list of things to worry about. Generally, I am driving everyone around me insane.

I think I have procrastinated, something I am loathed to do, because having a million things to do leaves no time to think about what is really happening.  Our only child is graduating from high school. The glassware in the hutch needs to be washed.  She will be going off to college soon. I must dust the slats of the blinds. When I slow down for even a moment, my chest is heavy and my breath catches in my throat. The entryway has spiderwebs. Even though this is the right thing and she is ready, I am grieving the loss. Did we pressure wash the patio? Soon I will not see her every day. I will not have those right-before-bedtime mother-daughter talks about the little and the big things in life. I need to borrow a cooler for the pop.  I won’t chuckle at her admonishment of my loud music and excessive Tweeting.  We will need lots of ice.  She won’t be exploding through the door ready to tell us the amazing thing she did that day.  The windows need washing.  We won’t hear about the drama of everyday life. I need to order the food soon. I won’t be close enough to hug her when she needs comfort – or when I do.  I need to move tables out for the food.  Mother – daughter dinner dates will be bi-annual events.  The flowerpots in the front need planting.  Adventure Days will be rare. I need to get a journal so guests can write their advice to her. I will miss her laughter and tears. Should I have bought more decorations? I will miss her wicked wit. I will miss her soft heart and hard head. I need to order more pictures. And so, I make lists. Before I cross that last item off, I add one to the bottom. I should refinish the hardwood floors.

I am my father’s daughter. But I am also my daughter’s mother, and, though I may not have learned the lesson from him, I have learned this lesson from her. I must not fill every second with the busyness of avoiding feeling these feelings. More importantly, I must not fill up every second with busyness and miss out on spending time with her.

 

I took this picture on the highway near Verlot.  It was such a beautiful day and we were shooting her senior pictures. I snapped it as she was walking down the road.  It seemed fitting for this post.

Walking Away

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The monsters under the bed are in your head.

I remember when my daughter finally got too big for the sink.  She was lean and long, and came into this world with her tiny muscles flexed.  Her mighty legs foreshadowed her inner strength.  We knew it was time when she pressed her toes against the far edge of the tub, flexed her miniature quads and glutes, and shot forward to grab the bananas off the counter.  After months of straining to reach the bright yellow torpedoes, she found success.  The mischievous grin that spread across her face warned us of things to come.

It was time to transition her to the ‘big girl’ tub.   As most babies do, she preferred the security of tight spaces.  Her father was a pro at swaddling from the start, wrapping her up tightly in a plush blanket.  He would joke, as he hugged her tiny body against his chest, that he made a baby burrito.  The vast white tub was scary for her.  Her arms and legs pinwheeled wildly the first time we set her in the warm water, much of which was on the floor before we were done.

Trying desperately to avoid lasting trauma, we filled the tub with toys.   I kept my eyes peeled for distractions whenever I went to the store.  I remember finding a Dora the Explorer bathtub doll that would swim when it got wet.  My daughter was a devotee of Dora’s adventures and could be heard each morning shouting “Backpack! Backpack!” I thought the purchase was evidence of brilliant parenting.  Dora’s first voyage in the tub was an unprecedented success. All other toys were immediately relegated to the foot, as my daughter splashed about with her new friend.

My victory over her tub aversion was short-lived, though. We were awakened in the middle of the night by our daughter’s terrified screams. I rushed across the hall and lifted her out of her crib, checking for broken bones and cuts as I held her close and rocked. Through her sobs, I made out the word monster. I told her there were no monsters. Turning on the lights, I opened the closet doors but she would not be consoled.  ‘Monster! Monster!’, she cried pointing toward the hallway.  I rocked her as I walked toward the hall. She clung to me like a spider monkey facing a puma.  She wore herself out crying and fell asleep on my shoulder, her wet cheek blanketing my neck.

I was standing in the hall trying to figure out what had scared her so, when I heard it.  It whirred at first, then a cold, sharp tapping. Whirr, tap, tap, tap.  I followed the noise to the bathroom where I found Dora on her side, legs and arms outstretched. The censors had somehow been tripped and the doll had started swimming in the empty tub. I tried to explain there were no monsters. She certainly was too young to understand what was making the noise.  She was convinced it was a monster. Of course, I knew the circuit was just wet. Once she had the monster story in her head, she just wouldn’t believe anything else. And so, we vanquished every monster until she was old enough to understand. In this case, not wanting to ruin her beloved Dora, I set my daughter back in bed and quietly took the toy to the garage.

While you are probably too old to think that there are monsters under your bed, the truth is we all have monsters. Mostly, they are in your head.  They are the worries about what could happen, the what-ifs and why-nots. They are the painful rehashing of past events.  They are the fears you can’t seem to let go of no matter how much evidence to the contrary you have. They are the false, self-limiting beliefs you hold.  They are old voices telling old lies.  Just as we have courage and compassion when helping children to see that the monsters are in their heads, we can have that same courage and compassion in confronting our own monsters. We can decide to live in the present and not waste it worrying about a fictional future.  We can let go of a past that we cannot change.  We can look at the evidence that our fears are unfounded.  We can recognize that a negative voice in our head is never our own voice and it is never truthful.  Isn’t it time to turn on the lights, look under the bed, and put the monsters in the garage?

I selected his picture of my daughter’s second birthday. She is clinging to her aunt after meeting the large (and I thought loveable) rodent who tried to wish her a Happy Birthday. It took about 2 hours to convince her that he wasn’t a monster.  Eventually she even shook his hand.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

You know, when you know.

It has been my experience that kids hit certain milestones at different times. It’s tempting to think life is like school with its chronological march from Kindergarten to the senior year, as if time were the only determinant.  The fact is that most of what happens in a child’s life is based on a whole host of unpredictable factors, and time is rarely at the top of that list. That is unless we, as parents, try to force children to adhere to a schedule of accomplishments.  While there are some timelines that might, if missed, be a cause for concern, most are not. My daughter took forever to learn to crawl, for example. At first, I was concerned and, much to my embarrassment now, I could be found often demonstrating it on the floor. It didn’t work. Once she finally learned to crawl, she didn’t have much interest in it.  It seemed like she went from sitting up to walking to running, overnight. She’s pretty coordinated now so I don’t think she missed anything by shortening the crawling phase.   

I found I was ready for many things long before she was.  Then there were other things she jumped into right away without so much as dipping one toe in the water.  Riding a bike? She spent most of the time on the ground.  Ice skating?  She was a speed demon from the moment I first laced those blades on.  I remember at the end of second grade thinking that it was time for her to go to an overnight camp. Her cousins all had by her age.  I myself had many fond memories of riding horses and swimming at Camp Don Bosco. As I do, I set about researching the possibilities and came up with a list of camps in our general area with activities she might be interested in.  After dinner one night, I pulled out the glossy, brightly colored camp brochures to show them to her. After extolling the virtues of each camp, I wished that I could go to camp. In my naiveté, I thought we were really just going to pick out the camp and get her signed up. I was a little worried actually that she would want to go to several camps which could get very expensive. She looked interested as she waited patiently for me to finish my sales pitch. As soon as I put the last brochure down, excited to find out which she had picked, she looked up at me with the kindest eyes. She put her tiny hand over mine, patted it gently, and said, “Oh, mama, I don’t think we are really ready for that. Do you?”  Now, my first thought, which I wisely kept to myself, was “Oh. Heck yes, we are ready for you to go to camp for a week!”   I was momentarily speechless. I wasn’t really sure what the appropriate response was. Of course, my mama mind was cycling with ‘is this normal?’, ‘is this a good thing or a bad thing?’, and my favorite ‘did I do something to cause her not to want to go to camp?’.  So, I did what I always did when I did not understand her. I asked, “Why don’t you want to go to camp?”  She did what she always does. She told me the truth.  She wanted to go to camp. She just didn’t want to spend the night.  And so, she did. She went to loads of summer camps. She never went to an overnight camp.  Of course, I worried that it would be an issue as she got older. But soon enough and without us, she went on sleepovers, and then sports trips, and even vacations with friends. She knew when she was ready.  I have learned to trust her to let me know.  

A couple of months ago, she called a Family Meeting. She’s famous for that. Over the years, she has called them on a number of critical topics.  She called one when she discovered that, as far as she could tell, other mothers did not have to go to meetings.  She called one when she decided that her father and I did not kiss in public enough. She regretted calling that one. She called one to make an argument for a cell phone on the basis of personal safety.  I knew we were in for a doozy when she opened this particular Family Meeting with “OK, don’t say anything until you hear all the details. Promise you will keep an open mind.” I could feel the steel doors shutting on the panic room in my mama mind.  She wanted to take a trip with one of her best friends to a city 2700 miles away. While she would be staying with family, they would have a lot of free time to explore the city and sit on the beach on their own.  Slam. Deadbolt. Bar lock.  And then I remembered and said, “Oh, sweetie, I don’t think we are really ready for that. Do you?” I thought I had her. Unlike me ten years ago, though, she replied, “Oh. Heck yes, we are ready for that!”  After lengthy deliberations, her father and I decided that, though this was a big and scary step for us, she was ready. She’s a smart kid with good judgment and so are her friends.  This was a chance to explore independence with a safety net. She would be staying with family friends. This step was not on my timeline.  I was counting on 6 more months before she was in a different city on her own. It was definitely on her timeline, though. She was ready.  I knew I could trust that. This trip was as much about knowing she was ready, as it was about knowing that we are ready. Ready to let go. Ready to trust that she can take care of herself. Ready to trust her to ask for help when she needs it.  Ready to trust her to work things out on her own in her own way.  I do think we are ready for that.  

I selected this picture because it was her first time rowing at the Brentwood Regatta.  She was staying with the team and I loved that she was rowing. That was until I looked out at the ocean bay she was racing on.  But once again, she knew she was ready and she was right. I had to trust her and I am glad I did.

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Pull
(1/800 sec., f/6.3, 600 mm, 800 ISO)

 

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Worth the Fight 

Our daughter was a fighter from the first breath, maybe even before the first one.  I swear she tried to kick her way into this world.  She was willful and wily, and it was wonderful.    There was a time, even before she could walk, when I could see her flex her tiny muscles as if to hunker down on an idea she could not yet express. I didn’t think that a sprinkling of stubbornness and determination was at all a bad thing.  Since she certainly inherited two dominant genes for stubborn determination, there wasn’t much point in trying to fight nature.  I decided to focus on nurture instead.  I wanted to nurture courage, conviction and compassion in equal measure.   Like much of parenting, I felt a lot like I did in freshman chemistry when I was mixing compounds drop by drop hoping to change the solution to a lovely, bright purple color, and get an A, without catching the lab on fire.  It was a fine line between strength and sass.

Our first indication that she was not going to need assertiveness training came on the day of a family outing to the local fishing and hunting emporium. We walked three astride into the store, her tiny hands grasping ours as she skipped, pony-tail bobbing, across the threshold. We were not 20 feet into the store when she put the brakes on. Mouth agape, she eyed the trophies that lined the walls.

“Look at all the pretty animals…. Hey! Hold on. They’re dead! Who killed those animals!”

She started out with her ‘indoor’ voice but it escalated quickly to ‘drill sergeant’ before ending at ‘riot control’.  She caught the attention of a large herd of hairy, flannelled men no doubt on their way to pick up ammo.  That was about the time my husband dropped her hand, smiled at me and said, “Good luck. I’ll be in fishing.”

Fortunately, her melt down occurred near the camping section, so we sat around the cardboard campfire to have a little chat. Despite the cozy glow of the 100-watt lightbulb shining through the crinkled orange and yellow tissue paper, she could not be swayed. I explained. She listened. She explained. I listened.  In the end, she conceded that it was OK to hunt but only if you lived in Alaska, didn’t have a grocery store, and promised not to put the head on a wall.  She had a very narrow set of rules for hunting.  You can probably guess where I went wrong here.  I was debating the merits of hunting with a four-year-old.  She was a thinker.

It was only a couple of years later when I found her in the basement painting a blue and green earth on a large sheet of cardboard her unsuspecting (and apparently uninquisitive) father gave her.  Polar bears and their dwindling habitat had been the topic of reading group that day.  She was inspired to do her part to save the planet. She had a three-part plan: 1. Paint an enormous sign emblazoned with “Save the Earth”; 2. March up and down our street shouting “Save the Earth”; 3. Ask people for money to save the earth when they stopped to talk to her.  My husband was worried that this was a sure sign she was destined to leave us to join the Sea Shepherd Society as soon as she had the bus fare.  I was worried she was going to be kidnapped.

Fortunately, she was painting in the basement by the fire place, so we sat down and had a little chat.  I explained. She listened. She explained, emphatically.  I listened.  In the end, she conceded that asking strangers on the street for money was unsafe.  I conceded that she could march back and forth on the front lawn, under my watchful eye, shouting “Save the Earth” until a neighbor complained, and then she would have to come in and have dinner.  Since we lived on a cul-de-sac and there was little traffic, she got bored quickly. No one called to complain. Dinner was on time.

My hope for her is to grow up strong enough to stand up for what she believes in; courageous enough to use her voice not just for herself but for the greater good; and compassionate enough to understand that not everyone feels they have a voice or that they can use their voice.  Though she did not save the polar bears, she continues to stand up and speak up for what she believes in.  That is harder than you would think. Oh sure, there were tears of sadness shed over the polar bears and tears of anger shed over the hunting trophies. Those tears were nothing compared to the pain a young adult feels when faced with something that seems so wrong or unjust that it’s unfathomable anyone else could see it any other way.  She had her first taste of that after Parkland. As she marched with thousands of other people against gun violence, it might have been easy to forget that, if everyone agreed on the subject, marching would be unnecessary. That fact wasn’t lost on her. I felt for her. I remember being a high school student in the late 1970s when the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated. I couldn’t believe a debate was even needed.  I couldn’t believe we needed a constitutional amendment at all.  We were living in Georgia, so my outrage was the minority (and very unpopular) voice. So last night, I sat across from her at dinner, and she shared her outrage and frustration on behalf of a group of students she cares deeply about.  My heart hurt for her, but I knew this was not the time for me to fix things or take over. This was her fight. If she was ever going to have the courage to fight again, she had to get through the frustration and anger on her own. One of the most painful lessons in life is finding out that you can be right and still not be able to change what is happening.  The challenge is to know what is worth fighting for and then get right back up and keep on fighting. After all, glaciers carve out mountains.

This photograph was taken on a trip to Padilla Bay.  From her expression, I can say with some authority that she was saying “No!” at the time.  I picked it because it reminds me of her willfulness and strength.

Worthy Fight

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Snow Days: Sometimes the warmest memories are made on the coldest days!

If you are reading this, there is a good possibility you are an adult.  I know you have responsibilities and obligations.  Maybe, when you hear that forecast for snow on the evening news, you get a sinking feeling.  You imagine slogging to work at 25 miles an hour praying you won’t slide into the ditch while keeping one vigilant eye on the three-bedroom SUV riding your bumper. You imagine braving the local grocery store only to find the last carton of eggs being scooped up in a mob-induced frenzy rivaled only by doomsday preppers on the eve of the Zombie Apocalypse.   You worry about finding someone who can watch the kids if you have to go to work. Knowing this, I am aware that what I am about to say is controversial, but I am going to say it anyway.  I love snow.  I do. There, I said it. I am owning it.  Now admittedly, I don’t love to drive in it much anymore, especially after losing my beloved Angus last winter.  And I have the luxury of having some vacation time saved up for just this kind of a situation, so I can stay home. But even when I had to get up an hour early, don my Sorrels and a parka, and trek 50 miles past 4 school districts that wisely closed due to snow just to get to my job in the foothills on time, I still loved the snow.  I love the fat flakes drifting slowly to the earth.  I love the heavy drifts building on evergreen limbs. I love the quiet calm that a blanket of snow brings to an early morning.

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Most of all I love those two joyous words: Snow Day!  I probably shouldn’t broadcast this (although literally hundreds of current adults, once-students, know already) but when I was a teacher and I knew snow was coming I would convince my students to do the Alaskan Snow Dance at the end of class.  I told them it was something I learned while living in Fairbanks. What can I say?  Freshmen are gullible – and fun!  It was silly. I only did it when there was a better than 50% chance of snow because, after all, reputation matters. I knew I had to deliver if I was ever going to get them to do the dance and chant “Snow, Snow, Snow” again.

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Just like everything else, snow days bring back great memories.  When I was little, my dad had this enormous toboggan.  It would practically hold the whole family – no small feat if you are an Irish Catholic family.  We would bundle up in layers beneath our winter coats.  Donning our boots, hats and mittens, we would make the frosty trek two blocks to the nearest side street hill.  It was a long walk when your joints barely flexed beneath the layers of wool.  Three little Stay Puft Marshmallow girls trailing behind our brawny dad as he dragged a path through the snow for us. I remember I always tried to walk in his footsteps.  I would swing the whole side of my body forward trying to land my foot exactly where he stepped. Invariably I would fall behind as my sisters tired of my Frankenstein pace.  When we arrived at the hill, he would place the toboggan in the center of the road and take his place in the very front where the wood curved up and back like a sleigh.  Grabbing the rope that allegedly steered the sled, he would shout, “Jump on and hold on tight.”  With a couple bumps of his seat, he would launch us down the hill. We would hold each other by the waist, shrieking as we flew through the snow.  At the bottom, we would fall off the sled into the snow drifts giggling.  Then we were back up the hill as fast as our little legs could carry us, slip-sliding all the way.  We would go up and down that hill all morning until we were soaked and frozen.  I would be so sad when the sun would come out and the snow would begin to melt.

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It was even more fun to have a snow day when my daughter was little.  The first time she encountered snow, she was only a year old.  I bundled her up like the Michelin Man and took her out to play.  My father gave her a sled that Christmas and she giggled her way around the neighborhood shouting. “Again, again, again!” In the way only small children, who are just discovering their world can, she plopped in the snow and rolled around, lifting it in armfuls aloft and letting the snow fall all around her. She searched the sky with her tongue out, trying to catch the flakes.  She tossed it to her dogs as they bounced through the drifts.  That was just the beginning. As she grew, she would search the refrigerator for just the right vegetables to top off her snowmen. She would slide down the lawn with her best friend on flimsy sheets of plastic, collapsing together in raucous laughter as little girls do. Afterwards, wet clothes discarded for PJs, we would snuggle by the fire with cocoa and a movie.  Bliss.

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At our house now, we have our own pre-Snow Day ritual.  My daughter insists, even if there is a 100% chance of a 10-inch snowfall, that we get ready for bed as we always do. We make our lunches.  We go to bed at the normal time. We set our clothes out.  We wake up at the normal time. She is convinced, and I agree, that we must not anger the snow gods, or we won’t even get a late start let alone that mystical unicorn- the Snow Day.  Last week, we had two snow days.  It was a mess, I know, for many people.  The roads were terrible, and I did not want to drive unless I really had to. I realized that our snow days together are numbered.  I am glad I have had all of those snow days with her.  I know, after this, her snow days will be hundreds of miles away from mine. The snow won’t bring a spontaneous pajama day with popovers, cocoa and silly movies.   So, I took two vacation days and spent them with my husband and daughter. We didn’t go sledding but we enjoyed the snow, nonetheless.  We watched movies and talked. We played games. There was none of the usual hurrying to get everywhere and do everything on time.  There were no distractions – just making a few more warm memories on a cold day.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Endings and Beginnings

I do not like endings.  I do not like finales.  It is probably why I don’t watch the Oscars or stay awake until the last votes are counted on election night.  I much prefer those hours and days before the endings, days that are thick with anticipation and ripening possibilities. Even as a kid, I savored the days leading up to Christmas or my birthday, waiting and wondering like Schrödinger with his cat. I didn’t peak or shake any boxes.  I knew that when the actual day came, and the gifts were opened, it would all be over. It isn’t even about gifts really.  I never liked the last day of school or the finish line in a race or the last page of a good book.  All of those signal the end and knowing how it is going to turn out. Sure, the end was always followed by something new, but I grieved those fleeting moments slipping into my history.  After a year of planning for a wedding, in one day it was all over.  Though that ending was the beginning of decades of adventures in marriage, I am never going to have those precious moments again.  In our checklist world, our accomplishment accumulation culture, it is tempting to be so focused on the end that we forget to enjoy the journey. We forget to savor each of the singular, irreplaceable moments that happen on the way to the end.

New Year’s Eve always hits me as one of the biggest of endings – the end of an entire year. On December 31st, I know how it turned out.  Though it is followed by New Year’s Day and the chance to get on the roller coaster again, I am sad to see the year end.  Frankly, none more than this year.  As the countdown begins and the ball starts to drop in Times Square, it will herald in a year that will surely have more endings and beginnings than most.  In the coming year, our only daughter will graduate. In the fall, we will help her pack and drive her across the mountains where she will go to college. As with any child, she has been the center of our world for 18 years. In that time, I am not proud to say, there were a few moments I wished away.  Carrying a diaper bag comes to mind.  I know I wished life would fast forward through potty training. At the time, I happily would have skipped teaching her second-grade math the year she went into the Highly Capable program.  I remember praying for an end to the “no” years.  Now, as she talks about decorating her dorm room and finding a compatible roommate, I am remembering each of those moments as the gift that they were – the giggles and the worries, the hugs and the tears, the medals and the bruises. At the risk of sounding maudlin, the truth is that things will change around here in her absence.  Her dog will no doubt expect the same welcome at the foot of our bed that she has become accustom to.  We will hear about her adventures long distance which will undoubtedly mute her emphatic descriptions and quick wit.  We will have more time alone together.  We will pick up old hobbies or start new ones.  That is exactly what is supposed to happen. Children grow up, become independent and go out into the world.  It is the perfect ending and beginning all at once.

So, am I going to get rid of all my checklists? Abandon goal setting? Not likely.  However, I am going to commit to the journey as deeply as I commit to the accomplishment in this coming year of endings and beginnings.

  • I will be present every day. I am not getting any of these moments back.
  • I will see things not as ending but as stops along the way in a greater journey. Changing my perspective changes everything.
  • I will say what needs to be said.
  • I will let go and accept the changes that will inevitably come. I know that I suffer more by wishing things could be different than from the change itself.

 

I selected this photograph, which I took outside of Concrete, WA in late winter, because it reminds me of that tipping point between the end of winter and the beginning of spring when the forest is still quite dormant but the sun is beginning to climb in the sky.

Dawn pacific northwest forest in winter

Dawn in Concrete
(1/500 sec., f/11, 20 mm, 360 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

 

Father (-in-Law) Christmas

I get a little nostalgic at Christmastime.  I suppose I am not alone in that. Christmas is such a magical season. It brings back bright and twinkling memories of people and places long gone.  I miss my father-in-law most at Christmastime.  My father-in-law loved having Christmas morning with his granddaughter.  We would travel to his house on Christmas Eve and spend the night just so that he could see her face on Christmas morning.  He made a huge production of putting out cookies and milk for Santa Claus.  He had a special plate just for that night that he put on a table next to his chair in case Santa needed a rest. He would let her pick out the cookies. For her troubles, she would eat a couple and insist that he join her.  My father-in-law waited so long for her. I would like to say patiently but it would be a lie.  He wanted a grandbaby from the time I first met him, I think.  When she finally came along, he was the best kind of grandpa. You know the ones.  They get down on the floor ignoring the roar of their creaky knees.  They hide drawers of candy because they love to hear the squeals of delight and feel those reckless hugs.  They can be talked into any mischief by doe-eyes and butterfly kisses.  They will walk hunched over for miles just to be able to hold those tiny fingers as they explore their old world through their grandbaby’s new eyes.  They know that in the potentially 42,048,000 minutes in a lifetime, this one minute right now is the only one that truly matters.   That was my father-in-law. I was so happy that my baby was his special kid.  I had that with my grandpa. I knew he would not be around forever, but I also knew the memories of being loved so deeply and unconditionally would last her a lifetime.

They got into quite a lot of mischief over the years.  One time she even talked him into a water fight in grandma’s kitchen having discovered that the faucet was actually a hose. For a time after that he was barred from unsupervised babysitting for fear she would talk him into buying a motorcycle and heading down the coast. Believe me, when she aimed those baby blues at him, he lost all reason. He would do anything just so see her smile.

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Caught in the Act – The Fateful Faucet Incident of 2003

One year, I went alone to mass on Christmas Eve leaving her, secure in the fact that she would be safe with her father, grandma and grandpa.  I naively thought that at least one of those adults would be impervious to her wily ways.  When I returned, there was a somber mood in the house.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Somebody spilled glue on grandma’s dining room table,” my husband replied.

Somebody?” I asked incredulously.  I wasn’t even there when it had happened, and I knew “somebody” didn’t do it.  I was sure I knew the ‘body’ that did.  I briefly wondered how she even ended up with glue in the first place but, even at the ripe old age of 4, she could have charmed them all out of their car keys.

Sheepishly he replied, “She says the cat did it.”

“Seriously?!” I wasn’t sure if I was more annoyed at her lying or their inability to get her to admit she was lying.

I called her to my side. “Who spilled glue on the table?”

“Grandpa did,” she stated firmly.

I looked up and was met by two pairs of wide eyes signaling their amazement that she had taken it up a notch.  I turned to my father-in-law, who was putting a superhuman effort into not breaking out in laughter. “Did you spill glue on the table?”

It took a moment for him to compose himself and I was grateful that he understood the gravity of the situation.  Laughing at this moment would have launched many more exasperating moments.

“Um, no. I did not spill glue on the table,” he replied in his most serious voice.

I looked her in the eye and said, “Grandpa says he did not spill the glue. I don’t think Grandpa would lie to us. Do you?”

She didn’t bother responding to that.  Instead, dismissing the other adults as possible suspects, she turned on the only other living being.

“The cat did it.”

I had to dismiss the adults as they were now all holding back their laughter.

“Sweetie, the cat does not have opposable thumbs, so I think we can safely rule out the cat,” I stated, hoping she would come clean faced with this undisputable evidence clearing the poor cat.

“Well,” she started (and I groaned), “I don’t know about disposable thumbs, but the cat did it.”

It was time to bring out the big guns.  “Sweetie, do you know what mama does for a living? I am a high school principal. Believe me, I get kids to tell me the truth who’ve done far worse things than spilling glue on a table. You are not even a challenge.  I want you to sit here and when you are ready to tell me the truth about what happened, you let me know.” I walked away. While outwardly I was resolute and confident, inwardly I was a tornado of emotion.  She was lying! She would not admit it. Parenting is so hard.

In the end, I was right. It took her all of three minutes to come clean.  With tears in her eyes, I hugged her and reminded her that it is not OK to lie.  That lying about it is far worse than spilling glue on a table. I also told her that she needed to make things right, especially with her Grandpa after throwing him under the proverbial bus.  She clung to my legs, sniffling. I could tell she was afraid to take that first step.

“Go on. Tell him you are sorry for saying he did it. He loves you. He will forgive you.”

With a teddy bear in one hand and a thumb in her mouth, she walked tentatively to her grandpa. Eyes fixed on her patent leather shoes, she squeaked, “I’m sorry.” He scooped her up in a big hug and told her it was OK.  He told her he loved her as she clung to his neck crying.  She stayed particularly close to him that Christmas.  She probably does not remember this incident except that she has been told the story a million times. I know she will never forget his hugs, his candy drawer, or singing “Splish, Splash”. She will never forget those special Christmas mornings.  She will never forget she was his favorite and he was hers.

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Her First Motorcycle- His Idea!

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Heading for the Door

She was three and a half when I spied her heading for the front door out of the corner of my eye.  She shuffled down the hall in a pair of my black heels intently watching her feet.  On one side, her tiny fingers were outstretched to the wall for balance. On the other, she had slung her diaper bag over her shoulder. It skipped and bounced across the carpet with each awkward step.  I was curious, so I let her go.  When she reached the stairs, she carefully grabbed the railing and slowly eased her foot down the way a little kid does when each step is nearly the height of one leg.  I headed to the top of the stairs and sat down, my eyes now level with hers. “Hey, whatcha doing with your diaper bag? You can’t be running away from home already.” I chuckled at the thought. She looked at me quizzically and proclaimed, “It’s my beefcase. I got a meeting.”  After a short moment of cringing (I had 4 “beefcases” and many more meetings), I laughed and scooped her up.  She was squirming because, after all, she had places to be and I was holding her back. Like every other three-year-old though, she was easy to distract and redirect. I was the master of that.  I asked about her meeting and she went into great and emphatic detail about the many important things that had to be done. I made a note to remember that she was a sponge- soaking everything up that she saw or heard.

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It took me back to my own childhood. I loved to play in my dad’s office.  He had fascinating pieces of paper and so many books. Even before I could read, I would pretend to fill out the forms and make notes. I would pretend to read the textbooks.  The pictures filled my imagination – exotic animals, colorful maps, geometric shapes, and paintings.  I particularly liked the Spanish books. I wanted so badly to be able to read so I could read in Spanish. Back then, I had no idea what he actually did, but it seemed so important and I wanted to be just like him.

That is the natural course of things. You look up at the significant adults in your life. You mimic what you see and hear. You play house and school and super heroes.  Then you grow up and, as you do, you test the waters of individuality and independence.  You discover your own passion and that puts you on the path that will be your life. As a parent, even though I want to scoop her up in a big hug and distract her, I know that it is nearly time. It is nearly time to let her go out that door.  When that time comes, we will both be ready. After all, she has places to be and I’m not holding her back.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Adventure Days!

For the last couple of weekends, I have been shooting my daughter’s senior portraits.  It was so special to me that I was able to do this for her- that she wanted me to do this for her. Though I have shot a number of senior portraits and I always feel honored to do it, this one had a weight to it. I was at once thrilled and saddened at the mere thought of it.  All summer, it was on my mind. I searched through hundred of images for interesting poses. I looked at images of every park in the greater Puget Sound and into the Cascades. My husband and I even braved 14 miles of washboard and loose gravel on the Mountain Loop Highway from Granite Falls to Darrington looking for the perfect spot.   Washington was very dry last summer though.  Dismal browns covered the normally lush, emerald greens.  So, we waited until fall when the leaves began to turn to scarlet, orange and gold. Unfortunately, September was quite rainy, and we had trouble finding a dry weekend.

When the sun broke through one Saturday morning, we quickly loaded the Jeep with four changes of clothing and my camera gear and headed into the mountains. As we drove along, my daughter commandeered the stereo and the conversation. It was bliss to listen to them both.  As the miles rolled by and the cell towers disappeared, we really had the chance to talk.  I love long road trips with her. I am tickled by her quick wit, strength  and passion.  Without the distraction of social media, we have space for all the things there is never enough space for.  Finding space, I thought, was so much easier before cell phones, AP classes, Friday night football, work, sports, friends and cars. It made me think of that long stretch between diaper bags and dating boys when we just hung out together any chance we got.

When she was very young, I pronounced that, whenever she had a day off from school, we would have an Adventure Day.  I would take a vacation day and off we would go.  Sometimes we would throw around ideas for weeks ahead of time. Other times, we threw caution to the wind and waited until Adventure Day arrived.  Either way, no decisions were made until we were seated at O’Donnell’s awaiting their amazing French Toast.  Then the true negotiations began. We would throw out ideas.  Should we paint ceramics?  Drive to a city we had never visited?  Swim in the salt water at Colman Pool?  Ride a ferry? Sit on the beach?  Explore the Market? Ride bikes? The possibilities were endless. She would always say, “Let’s compromise and go with my plan.”  I would remind her what compromise means and then we would go with her plan.  After all, the truth is I just wanted a carefree day of singing to the stereo, talking about every little thing going on in her life, and listening to her laughter.  My personal favorite was Adventure Day in Bellingham.  We spent the night in town and the day exploring Fairhaven. It was a weekend that alternated between giggling girl and growing up.  On a side street, we found an antique shop that had a display of old hat with veils and feathers my grandmother might have worn as fashion. We cracked up as we tried them on, posing in the most ridiculous way and exclaiming “Daaahling, you look fa-bu-lous!”  A block away we found our kryptonite: a bookstore.  She begged me to buy a history of Africa that weighed more than her head and was sure to fill it.  She was enamored with Africa having listened to the childhood stories of my best friend’s father.  And then I was dragged into a fireplace shop whose resident dog was a Golden Retriever- apparently with a gift for getting people to stop and scratch his ears. She is powerless to pass any pup by.  And on it went, and, as usual, I was filled with wonder and awe at this growing sprite.

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Adventure Day 2014

As we drove up the Mountain Loop Highway, and the sunny skies turned to mist, then drizzle, then rain, I was not disappointed even though I knew we were not going to get the shot that day.  For I had hours that day in the car with her, scouting spots and marking them for the next sunny day.  And we talked about every little thing. And we sang to her playlist.  And we laughed.  Though not an official Adventure Day, it felt like one. (Thanks to the rain, I knew I was going to get another one.) Though unplanned and meandering, that day was precious because I knew these opportunities were dwindling fast.  Sure, we will carve out time even when she was in college, but it is time for her life to grow outward. It is time for her to have some Adventure Days without me.

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Adventure Day 2018
(1/125 sec., f/4, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Girl’s Best Friend

I remember when we picked him up. After months of looking, we found him at a breeder in Omak.  My husband has a knack for tracking down the best pups.  Dog-less for a year or more, we finally decided it was time for our daughter to have her own dog.  After much negotiations on breed, color and sex, we settled on a brindle Boxer of either gender. We weren’t planning to breed so it was a moot point anyway, although personally I leaned toward female dogs as I found them much more protective and loyal than males.  As the days slowly passed, I started to think that this new puppy was going to be very lonely. I mean there he would be, all day in his kennel, no one to play with.  If he was cold or scared, he would be alone.  One dog? Two dogs? How much work was it really?  Besides, they would play with each other.  If they were playing with each other, they wouldn’t be bored and eat things.  So really, two dogs are less work, if you think about it.  I can make a compelling argument for just about anything.  So, I made one -or three. I can’t remember. Fortunately, there was one pup left in the litter.  So, I was getting a puppy for her birthday too, which was totally fair after 19 hours of labor.

I am not sure how we hid this secret from our daughter, but we did. We wanted it to be a surprise and, until we had a healthy dog in hand, we did not want to get her hopes up.  On Friday, we dropped her off to spend the night with her godfather and his family.  I felt so mischievous keeping this secret that I just wanted to blurt out.  But I held it in. After all, I’m the mama and a grown woman…on the outside.  On the inside, I was a little girl, hiding at the top of the stairs waiting for Santa, holding in my giggles with both hands.

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After procuring the basic puppy necessities (and several that were definitely not), we headed east of the mountains.  We fell in love the minute we saw their googly eyes and fat bellies.  One brindle for our daughter and one fawn for me.  I had named the fawn Sir Finnegan McMuggles, but we called him Finn.  On the long ride home, the brothers (who we affectionately referred to later as the Bruise Brothers) snuggled in the back, alternately lying on top of each other. They were still asleep when we led our daughter to the truck and told her that her birthday present was on the back seat.  Of course, that didn’t last because no one can sleep through the gleeful shrieks of a little girl discovering a puppy.

“Are they mine?!” she asked.

“The brindle one is your’s. Finn is your mom’s,” my husband replied.

“Does he have a name?” she asked earnestly.

“No,” I said, “You get to name it.”

“I will have to think about that, “she said. “I will just call him Buddy for now.”

My husband and I looked at each other and said, at the exact same time, “The dog’s name is Buddy.”

And it was. And he was.  He was her Buddy every day.

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The Bruise Brothers were playful and loving.  I found them often sleeping on her. Later, she would sleep on them.  I was right that they would keep each other company. I was wrong that they would be less destructive together.  They were about three months old when they ate my kitchen one day. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way or a metaphoric way. I mean that literally. They ate my kitchen.  We had to remodel it.  We built them a kennel in the garage.  Boxers can jump five feet in the air easily.  Though we built the walls high, they were hard to contain.  One day, they managed to pull a Skill Saw off of a high shelf. To this day I do not know how they did it but one standing on the other’s shoulder is not beyond the realm of possibility.  By the time we got home, the only thing left was a cord, a couple bolts and the blade.  It was hard to be mad at them though. They would look at you like they knew they did something wrong, and they were really (really, really) sorry but couldn’t make any promises about better behavior in the future.  They were soft and sweet.  We always forgave them.   They always forgave us.

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Being litter mates, they were inseparable.  We kenneled them once apart and they nearly broke the wall down trying to get back together.  I made sure to tell the kennel they had to sleep together after that. Boxers have the unusual habit of sitting on each other.  These two were no exception.  At first, I could not figure out what was going on. Buddy would be laying there, and Finn would walk backward until his was on top of Buddy. Then he would just plop right down.   They both had this expression on their jowly mugs like “What? There’s nothing weird going on here.”  It was both bizarre and endearing.

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Finn passed away suddenly after having a seizure while on a walk with my husband and me.  It was such a jarring tragedy for all of us, but none more so than Buddy and our daughter. They spent days snuggled together. As she cried, Buddy burrowed in and loved her the only way he knew how- with all his heart. And he had a very big heart.  They were inseparable.  At night, I could hear her talking to him as they fell asleep.  It reminded me of all the pups I had as a kid. I was so grateful she had this loving animal to keep all her secrets.  I always knew when she had a bad day because she would lie down with him on his bed in the living room and pet his ears.  He would put his big jowly head on her belly like he was anchoring her to the earth.  He would rush to the door when her heard her car pull in and greet her with such joy.

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Two years ago, we decided he needed a friend.  It was a tough decision as he was already an older dog and we didn’t know if he would accept a puppy.  Again, my husband went on the hunt and found a breeder in Yakima.  We picked a fawn female.  Our daughter was older and much harder to hide a secret from, but we pulled it off. We needed a night without her to make sure that Buddy was fine with this new addition.  I remember I was sitting on the floor of the kitchen with her when my husband let Buddy in.  Buddy rushed to us and I was momentarily afraid that I might have misjudged the situation.  As soon as Buddy saw little Buttercup, he stopped in his tracks.  He leaned down and gave her a sniff.  He looked up to my husband.   He looked down to me. And then he started bouncing on his front paws – a sure sign of joy in a Boxer. He loved that little girl and she gave him a whole new lease on life.  He had been slowing down.  As soon as she came into our lives, he started acting like a young pup himself.  Oh sure, he schooled her more than once when she got out of hand.  Mostly though, he let her goad him into playing with him. They were inseparable. (You can follow Buttercup’s antics on Instagram: @buttercupboxerpup .)

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Last week, we said goodbye to Buddy.  We are all mourning his loss deeply.    It is worse, I think, because it is so painful to watch your child grieve the loss of her best friend.  Buddy had an accident and broke his leg. He couldn’t recover from it. We had time together to care for him. We had time to talk as a family.  Still the pain of loss is sharp.  It seems this year, we have experienced a lot of loss- too much really.  We have to remember that this is the price of big love from a big heart. What is the alternative?  To insulate yourself form the pain of loss by refusing to give or accept love.  For me, I would cry a thousand tears now than to have missed even one minute of knowing true love.  Knowing the love of a big-hearted dog – true, unconditional, freely-given, forgiving, endless, unselfish, loyal, trusting – I would not trade one tear.

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Buddy and His Girl

 

 

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Buddy in His Prime

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Just the Facts, Mom.

One of the challenges of parenting is knowing how much information to give your child. I remember my daughter once asked me where rain comes from.  In retrospect, the correct answer at the time was “It falls from clouds in the sky.”  But I was a science teacher, so I was a full paragraph into the technical aspects of the water cycle before my husband intervened wisely with “It comes from clouds in the sky.”  Her eyes had glazed over and it took a moment before it registered that he had answered the question. As she skipped off happy with this explanation, I knew my instincts in this area were not to be trusted.  In fact I had an assistant principal once (ironically who had no children) who repeatedly reminded me to answer the question that was asked and only the question that was asked.  I was not a quick study in this area.  Sometimes my ill-advised explanations were met just with an eye roll. Sometimes I made a mess that I had to clean up.  Such was the case when the first dog my daughter knew passed away.

I had gone three long years without a dog of my own when we found her.  My husband had cats. They hated me. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic sense. They actually hated me. In fact, I am pretty sure they were actively trying to kill me or at least run me out of town.  In the middle of the night I would be awaken by Fallon who would try to push me out of bed by burrowing under the covers and putting her claws to my back. She and her partner in crime shredded all of the long skirts in my closet. They took turns slinking silently atop the shower door where they would wait patiently like feline ninjas until my head was soapy.  Once my eyes were closed, they would strike.  I nearly broken my neck every time I felt a paw hit me in the head.  Suffice it to say, they gave my husband fluffy and cuddly.  They gave me claws and teeth.  I was so excited when we finally moved to a house where we could have a dog.  It was late fall (which is actually mid-winter in Fairbanks) and I heard about a litter of Spring Spaniel / Border Collie pups.  It is not ideal to have pups at this time in Fairbanks as the frigid temperatures and snow pack made housebreaking nearly impossible. Despite the challenges, I fell in love with the pups right away.  They were in a crib wrestling around like puppies do.  One was clearly bigger than the rest and moved about like a bulldozer.  He was plump and fluffy and bold.  I picked him immediately.  When we came back a couple of weeks later to pick him up, the runt of the litter attached herself to his ear and held on for dear life. I couldn’t bear to separate them, so we took them both.  We named them Levi and Strauss.  Strauss was a sweet girl. She went just about everywhere with me. As soon as I picked up my keys, she would jump into the bed of my pickup. In the winter, she would sit beside me on the bench seat, leaning gently against my shoulder as she stared through the windshield. True to her Border Collie nature, every living thing that entered our house became her herd.  When we played in the yard, she would stick close to my toddler contently enduring the petting, which was much more like awkward slapping.  She started to slow down at about 14 years old and I knew her time was short. She was 16 when the time came to let her go.

I pulled into the driveway one afternoon to find my husband waiting in front of the garage bay where I normally parked.  He put his hands up to stop me.  I remember he said, “I’m glad you’re home.  Strauss can’t get up. I am going to run to the store and get some toenail clippers.” With that, he jumped in his truck and left.  My husband is a strong man with a big heart.  Though his comment really made no sense, I knew he was trying to make things better. He knew how much I loved that dog.   I could tell just looking through the windshield that toenail clippers were not going to solve this problem.  Strauss lay on the cement panting though it wasn’t hot.  She wouldn’t move and barely acknowledged me when I called her name.  I called our vet and, with tears in my eyes, told her it was time.  She was a big dog so it took all the strength I could muster to lift her into my car.  She whimpered, and it broke my heart that she was in such pain.  Our vet was a kind woman who allowed me to sit on the floor with Strauss as she examined her. When the time came, I held her in my arms as she passed.  I could feel my heart break.

As I drove home, I sobbed. I called my dad crying so hard that I could not talk.  At first, he thought something had happened to my husband or daughter but I finally choked down the sobs long enough to tell him that I had put Strauss down. He was a dog lover and I knew he understood how sad I was. He tried to comfort me by saying that, “You loved that dog more than most people love their kids.”  I asked him how I could tell my daughter. She was going to be heartbroken too.  He said, “You are going to do what every parent does. You are going to tell her that Strauss went to heaven to live with God. That is all you are going to tell her. Keep it simple.”   I pulled into the garage dreading what I was about to do. I blew my nose and wiped my tears. I found my daughter on my bed watching cartoons.  I took her in my arms and asked her to turn off the TV for a minute.  Then I said, “Strauss isn’t coming home.”  She asked, “She’s not?  Where is she going?”  I took a breath in hopes that I would not break out crying again and said, “She’s in heaven with God.” She searched my eyes, “She is in heaven? With God?” “Yes”, I said.  She pursed her lips and said, “OK, can I watch Sponge Bob now?” I could not believe that worked!  My dad was a genius! I was home free.

But grief, even realized much later than the passing, still must be experienced. Sometimes the distance from the event does not really lessen the pain. Several months after Strauss died, I was driving my daughter to daycare on the way to work.  We passed a cemetery that saw every morning. On this particular morning, she noticed it.  She asked what it was and I told her the name. She asked what happened there.  I explained that when people died, they were buried in a cemetery.  She asked if I knew anyone who died. I explained that my mom had died.  Her eyebrows stitched together.  “Your mom died?”  I said, “Yes. She is heaven with God.”  Her eyes grew wide. “She is heaven?!  With God?!” “Yes”,  I said.  She looked at me stunned and screamed, “Strauss is dead?!”

It was in this moment that I learned three important things about parenting.  The first was to answer just the question asked.  Kids will let you know when they are ready for more information.  The second is that you might think a child understands what you are saying when they really don’t.  Finally, never talk about difficult or complicated things on the way to day care… or work… or school… You are going to be later for work and your shirt will be covered in tears and snot. Worse than that, you will relive the situation all day long.

 

I chose these photographs of my daughter and her puppy posse: Strauss (black and white) and Sadie (fawn).  I remember this day vividly. I was weeding the front garden and I put her on her blanket in the spring sun.  The dogs immediately took their places next to her and sat patiently as she crawled on them and patted them. At one point a young dog got loose from down the street and Strauss jumped in front of her while Sadie ran down to chase him off.  Once the threat was gone, they resumed napping in the sun together.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

I Got This, Mama!

In a couple of weeks, my daughter will begin her senior year. Stamped in my mind and on my heart is a picture of her decked out in pink from head to toe; smiling from ear to ear; proudly carrying her backpack filled to the brim with fresh school supplies on her first day of kindergarten.  She was raised in school. She was only a few weeks old when she attended her first wrestling match. She toddled on the track in the spring and by fall she was learning to walk at the football games. She gazed pie-eyed at the glittery cheerleaders and clapped gleefully at band concerts. Sometimes on the weekend, she would ride her trike up and down the hall outside my office.

So, when it came time for kindergarten, she was filled with excitement for this new adventure.  Kindergarten made her one of the big kids. I remember her earnestly checking her understanding with me one morning, “OK. So, it’s kindergarten, then high school, then college. Right mom?” To which I responded, “Uh not quite…. but close enough for now.”

I loved school.  By the time my daughter was in kindergarten, I had had 35 first days of school either as a student, teacher or principal.  But I was not prepared for this first day of school at all. I remember that I took the morning off, so I could drive her to school.  As we drove, she chattered enthusiastically from the back seat – all her questions and thoughts tumbling out in random order.  Do my friends go to this school?  Where do I eat lunch? I know my numbers, so the teacher doesn’t have to teach me that. Do I have to share my crayons? I have a backpack! What is recess? I can’t wait to have a desk.

Random stuff, earthshakingly critical to a five-year-old. She had (has) such a curious mind.  I knew she was ready for kindergarten. She could read. She had strong social skills – emphasis on social.  I knew she was ready, though I was constantly wondering if I had done enough to prepare her or made the right parenting decisions. My heart ached because this day signaled the beginning of so many changes. People would be coming in and out of her life. There would be influences beyond my control. Not just classroom learning but life learning was about to start. While I was excited to watch her grow into an adult and experience all the wonderful parts of life, I had worries too.  I had seen firsthand how challenging growing up could be even if you had the best possible parent.  What if kids were mean to her? What if she was sad or scared or needed me? What if she didn’t like math?!? What if she lost a shoe? Or went to the wrong bus line? Or daydreamed through science? Or talked too much? She is a talker and we love that about her but what if her teacher didn’t love that about her? Random, earthshakingly critical worries of a kindergarten mom.

I put a smile on my face because I thought weeping openly might put a damper on her excitement. If your mom, who is a principal, is crying on the way to kindergarten, that has to be a bad sign right? So, I smiled on the outside. I parked near the classroom. Before I could get around the car, she bounced out of the back seat dragging the backpack behind her. She shrugged it on and grabbed my hand. We walked (well, I walked, and she skipped) to the classroom where pairs of students and their parents were standing.  The parents looked around nervously, afraid to make eye contact.  I think the general feeling was that seeing someone else who wanted to cry somehow would open the flood gates. The kids took those tentative first steps toward friendship with the awkward ‘hi’ or ‘what’s your name?’ spoken in tiny voices.   Finally, the door opened and a petite, curly-haired woman exclaimed “Good morning, boys and girls! Come in.”  Some children grabbed their parents’ legs.  Others stood stock still.  Others took a step then waited unsure.  Mine turned to me and smiled.  Then turned back to the teacher and took two bouncy steps in her direction.  I called her name.  She stopped and twirled around. I took a step toward her, but she put up her hand in a wave and said, “I got this, mama.” She smiled and disappeared.

I stood there amongst the leg holders, criers and huggers, and I felt a bit embarrassed.  I mean, I just got unceremoniously dismissed by a five-year-old.  I wondered if this was a serious problem. Should I have read more books on parenting. Was this evidence of a lack of bonding somehow?   Why was my child not clinging to my leg begging me to stay?  But then I got a grip on reality and I knew that all this uncertainty was about me. It wasn’t about her. I just wanted to be the best mom I could be.  The truth is that she was (and still is) a capable, confident, bold girl.  We prepared her for that moment by giving her the tools to be successful. We read to her. We talked about feelings. We helped her learn to solve problems.  We played.  When she needed us, we were there for her. So that moment was more about my grieving the loss of being needed just a little bit less, than it was about her. She was right when she said, “I got this.” She did.  She got it alright.

So here we are twelve years later.  On the first day of school, she won’t be covered head to toe in pink. I doubt she will be smiling ear to ear at 0630. She’ll drive herself to school.   There won’t be any hand holding. Even though I will worry that there is something I should have done or should have done differently or better, in my heart of hearts I know she’s got this.  In case there’s any doubt, I’m going to tell her just that, “You got this!” I might even throw in “Piece of cake!” In the end, she knows we will be right here if she needs us.

Kindergarten girl

I Got This
(1/50 sec., f/3,2, 9.2mm, 400 ISO Cybershot)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Magic of Motherhood – Part One

Being a mom is a humbling experience.  I have learned more from my daughter in the last 18 years than I learned in any classroom. And I have spent 28 years of my life in a classroom learning, just saying.  But I don’t think I ever felt more ignorant, incompetent or unprepared as I did that first night home from the hospital with my baby in my arms.  Clearly the library of books on childrearing and child development I read in preparation for that day were completely ineffective and possibly inaccurate. I would have composed a stern letter of my grievances to each and every author with a request for a refund, but I was too exhausted to compose a coherent thought let alone a series of sentences.  Sometime during that night, I remembered the moment I found out she existed. I was not prepared for just how much I could love someone I had never seen before.  But love her, I did, and deeply from the moment she was little more than a cluster of cells and a thought.  I loved her in a way that made me think those stories of mothers lifting a car or stepping in front a charging animal to save their children were definitely not old wives tales. I could feel a mother bear growing heavy and fierce beneath my skin from that very moment. I knew with absolute and primal certainty that I would protect her at all cost.  I also wasn’t prepared for the sheer magic of it all, which was surprising since I am a biology major who was constantly in awe of the diversity of life on this planet and in wonder of the miraculous cycles of life.  But that moment when I was so maniacally hungry for cashews and red meat that no one was safe around me, I was struck speechless by the thought that I was probably making an arm that day.  I made an arm! Actually two, and two legs and two feet and a head (and well, every other body part).  I did the most incredible thing with literally no skills, knowledge or preparation, nothing but His blessing. That was so humbling.

As she grew, she simultaneously slowed me down and sped up time.  I spent hours just reveling in her discoveries of all those common things we take for granted in the fast-paced adult world.  Every new taste, sight, sound and smell stole her attention.  Before she had words, she told whole stories with her sea-blue eyes. She would scrunch her brows together and purse her lips and I could tell she was digging her heels in.  I secretly rejoiced in her willfulness as I knew with certainty she would be her own woman someday.  Her father called it her “principal face” and he would tickle her cheeks until she gave up the ghost.  She marveled at flower buds and puddles and mirrors and rocks alike. Where ever we went, she would come home with all of her pockets full of rocks. When I would show any frustration at my constant rock disposal duties, she would remind me of the most important thing: “Pretty!”.  And she was right. They were, but I no longer even noticed them.  When she found her words, she ran around asking “What’s that smell like?”  -not always at the most appropriate moments. But that was the beauty of it too.  It was all new to her and she made it all new to me. She was a tumbleweed of wild, unapologetic abandon.   I hadn’t contemplated a flower probably ever but there I sat in the garden as she smelled every blossom and kissed every statue. I looked forward to seeing her eyes grow wide and her laughter ring out as I knew it signaled that she just found something that set the gears in her head to clicking as they made connections and revealed the world to her.    She taught me that you are never to old for moments of wonder and amazement.  She taught me that it doesn’t take much to find that wonder and amazement.

Some of her words made me cringe and rethink my life.  One morning she donned a pair of my black heels (which so did not go with her pink pants and pastel sweater) and headed for the front door with her diaper bag fully packed.  I asked, “Are you running away from home already? You haven’t even been grounded yet.”  She replied, “It’s my beefcase. I got a meeting.”  Yikes.  She taught me to be careful how I spent my time because time was passing all too quickly.

Or when she started opening her arguments with the word “technically” and I knew she wasn’t going to fall for “because I’m the Mama.”  Technically is not a word you want to hear from a 4-year-old, especially if it is being used correctly.  It’s only going to get harder from there.  She taught me that someone is always listening. She taught me that your children can inherit more than your hair color and nose.

As the child of a principal, she spent a lot of time with me in the gym or on a football field.  I didn’t realize just how much until after our first trip to the zoo.  As we wheeled through the park, she shrieked with glee at each new animal.  She would repeat their names with great intensity: monkey, lemur, rhinocerous, giraffe, gazelle.  Try as she might, she couldn’t pronounce elephant. It came out eff-a- lant.  It was too cute so I stopped correcting her (until she got to kindergarten).  I won’t tell you how she said frog! Suffice it to say we had to quickly teach her the word “toad”.   She was so excited when we got to the cougar enclosure. She shouted “cooo-guh” over and over.  When we got home, I pulled out the video camera and asked her about our trip.  She talked about every animal except the cougar. I couldn’t understand why.  I had to pry her away from the cougar.  Finally, I said, “You forgot one. What about the cougar.”  She said, “Mama, cooguhs are not at the zoo. Cooguhs are in the gym.”  The mascot for my high school was the Cougars.  I realized just how literal little kids are. The world was so big.  There was a lot to make sense of. She reminded me that there are a lot of different ways to see the world. Two people can see the same thing, and both be right.

Being a mom is like riding one of those roller coaster that climbs for what seems like miles.  You feel the excitement building in your stomach, squeezing by your heart and getting stuck in your throat just before you reach the top. Then you realize you are going to be dropping fast and its completely beyond your control.  Just when you hit the bottom a curve comes out of nowhere and suddenly you are upside down.  It’s scary and thrilling. Your heart soars and plunges. You swear you are never doing that again. Until she smiles at you, and puts her tiny hand in yours, and says, “Let’s go, mama.”

These are some of my favorite baby pictures.
Pictures (clockwise from top left):

Her first night in the hospital sleeping on my heart.
Her first basketball game. She dressed up!
Cuddling at home.
Marveling that her arms were as big as my thumbs.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

If you believe you are a Labrador Retriever….

I was having coffee with some friends recently when, inevitably, the subject of our dogs came up.  Three of us have medium to large dogs and one has a smaller, hypoallergenic one (which is brilliant since I think EVERYONE needs a dog).  I mentioned that I grew up with Basset Hounds, but that these have been ruled out since my husband has a strict rule about only having dogs who can jump into the truck on their own accord. The Mastiff owner shared that he knew a guy once who had a Basset Hound – Black Lab mix (visions of the Island of Dr. Moreau popped into my head).  The dog apparently had the body style of a Basset and the head and coloring of a Lab.   Despite his ground-skimming physique, he could jump into a truck.  To which I remarked, “Well, I guess he didn’t know he was a Basset Hound.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that a dog’s self-perception is not really limited by the stories in his (or her) head in the way that people’s self-perceptions are.  Puppies don’t have self-limiting beliefs.  A puppy doesn’t react in the present to some story his mom told him about how he’s never really been good at playing fetch and probably he should learn how to howl.   Dogs are all basically instinct and direct experience.  Take Stumpy, for example (I just named him that because BH-BL seemed too impersonal for such a courageous heart).  Maybe Stumpy watched his mom, a leggy Lab with a shiny Black coat, leap gracefully into her owner’s truck every morning.  Not realizing he inherited his dad’s stocky build, he just followed her one day. (And yes, I do understand the biological unlikelihood of this scenario but stay with me, I have a point.)  Maybe he didn’t reach the cab the first day. But he kept trying because, after all, he’s a Lab. Labs ride around in trucks and go duck hunting.  Imagine what would have happened to poor Stumpy if someone told him that his dad was a low riding Basset Hound better suited to rooting out bears in the bramble than gracefully retrieving the carcass of a Mallard.  Dogs operate on instinct. They don’t stop trying because things are hard. They do what comes naturally. When unsuccessful, they work around it.  Take Sadie and Strauss, for example. Sadie was a lithe Grey Hound – Lab mix. She was lightning fast and loved the water.  Strauss was a Border Collie – Springer Spaniel mix. She loved to round things up.  When we would play catch by the river, Sadie would always beat Strauss to the stick. Strauss really had no chance of catching her. But she wanted that stick. Eventually she realized that if she met Sadie at the edge of the water as she was bringing back the stick, she could herd her until Sadie was so confused and tired that Strauss could steal the stick right out of her mouth and bring it to us.  Strauss didn’t give up playing catch.  It was fun! (Who doesn’t want to hear “Good girl! Bring it here!”  a hundred times or more?) Strauss didn’t try to out run Sadie. She figured out her gift and applied it until she got the job done.  Trust me, Sadie would run herself ragged, but she couldn’t escape Strauss’ herding skills.

I recognize we are not dogs. Humans have more complicated lives and we do more complex things than other animals do. But there is something to be said for taking a cue from our four-legged friends.  What if we all believed that we could get better at something, master it even, just by learning from our mistakes and trying again?  What if we didn’t have a story about the past that limited our experience in the present?  What if we saw our failures as learning and not as personal deficits?  What if we believed we could change the outcome merely through increasing our effort and applying our talents?  What if we acknowledged and acted upon the possibility that we might have talents we have not yet discovered?

I remember when my daughter was learning to walk.  It went really fast and I am not sure what her ultimate goal was, but she always had the most determined look on her face.  Just like all other children, she started by standing on her wobbly legs leaning against the couch. She fell. A lot. In fact, she fell so often that we finally just started calling it FDGB (Fall Down Go Boom) to save time. But she did not stop trying. Once she mastered standing and leaning, she tried standing alone. When she mastered that, she took her first step. Every new thing she tried, she fell down.  After every success she had, she tried something harder and failed immediately.  But she didn’t stop.  She cried, dusted herself off, got a hug and off she went.  I didn’t say to her after the second fall or even the tenth one, “It’s OK.  I don’t think walking is for you.  You’re probably just not good at walking. Let’s go back to crawling.”  It sounds absurd doesn’t it?  I said, “You’re fine. You’ll get.  Try again. I am right here.”  I reassured her that she might not be able to walk yet. Sometimes we forget that last part – yet.  Take math for example, has anyone ever said to you, “It’s OK. You’re probably just not good at math.” Or did they tell you, “You’ll get it. It’s hard now but keep trying. You just haven’t learned this yet.”

 

We are all different. We all have different gifts.  I am not suggesting everything is within our grasp. For example, I am 5’ 4” and stocky. Genetically, I lean toward people who hauled in fish nets or thatched roofs.  No amount of effort or will would turn me into a figure skater or a gymnast (trust me, I know physics).  But that did not keep me from enjoying a lifetime of sports more aligned to my physique. What I am suggesting is that we examine the stories we tell ourselves, and more importantly, the stories we tell our children through our actions and words, to make sure that we are sending the right messages:

I believe that I can get better at something, master it even, just by learning from my mistakes and trying again.

I will not listen to the stories about the past that limit my experience in the present.

I see my failures as learning and not as a personal deficit.

I believe I can change the outcome merely through increasing my effort and applying my talents.

I know I have talents I have not yet discovered.

Do you? Will you?

 

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DocFile (1)

Learning to Walk

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth About Lying

My dad had a second story apartment in the Casa Del Rey overlooking Broadway.  I would visit him on the weekends and we would walk up the street to the corner QFC to buy food for dinner.  He was on the road every week it seemed, so he didn’t keep much on hand.  It was so different from our suburban neighborhood in north Seattle.  People filled the streets on Saturday night, spilling off the sidewalk and crossing in between the slow-moving cars.  No one seemed to mind the chaos.  The colors and sounds and smells billowed thick from the bars and restaurants.  Men with gravity-defying hair wore headbands of soft leather ornately beaded.  Bright silks and faded denim flashed through the crowd. Bell-bottomed women glided footless across the cement.  No linen shifts, pumps or bouffant hair constrained their movements.  Loud conversations and acoustic guitars grabbed my attention.  My head swung right and left though I held tight to his hand and march quickly forward two steps to every one of his.  When we got back to the apartment, I would lie in the bay window, chin in my palms watching the strange world go by.  He would cook dinner and ask about my school.  His favorite was a broiled steak with fresh steamed spinach leaves.  He dripped lemon juice on the spinach and topped it off with butter.  He would always have warm, sourdough rolls.  After dinner, we would talk.  He had a weakness for ice cream, so we would often venture out for a scoop in a waffle cone.

Being at my dad’s house was so different than my mom’s.  My mom’s house was a house of women and girls.  There was really no trace of masculinity left in the place.  Even when my grandfather visited, he seemed a bit out of place, an interloper among the panty hose and Dippity Doo.  I was particularly interested in my dad’s bathroom which was where he dropped his shaving kit when he got home from a trip. I don’t remember him ever really unpacking the contents. It just sat there perched on the side of the sink- dark scuffed leather, unzipped and gaping open.  I could see his toothbrush and toothpaste, his dental floss and razor, and, best of all, his shaving cream.  Girls did not have shaving cream back then.  It was a mystery.  I had seen my dad shave before, his face covered in the thick, white waves.  He would crane his neck as he drug the razor upward toward his chin.   I wondered if it was like whipped cream or meringue somehow, as those were the only things I had to compare it to.  The can was tipped on its side and the cap long lost.  A tiny bit of gel seeped from the nozzle.  I could see it was green.  I shut the bathroom door knowing he would never walk in on me and I took out the can. It was metal with words in shiny black and green.  I touched the top of the nozzle and jumped as it erupted into my little hand. It was so pretty- white with ribbons of green and blue.  It expanded there in my hands.  I was worried at first that it might not stop but it did.  I could not resist doing it again.  I wanted to put some on my cheek to see what it would feel like, but I thought that might only be for boys.    I certainly did not want to become one of those.  But it was strangely satisfying to push the top and spray it on the edges of the sink. I ran my fingers through it making curvy lines and coaxed it into waves.  I pushed again, and nothing happened. I knew right then that I was in big trouble.  I started to run water in the sink, but the foam got bigger.  I put some in my hands and dropped it in the trash.  It took some doing and not a small amount of prayers before I got the mess cleaned up (I figured God would not want me to get in trouble when He created everything which included this very tempting shaving cream).

My dad, I should mention, was not gullible. He used to tell me he had been around the block.  I didn’t know what that meant exactly but I thought it must be like school because he knew a lot.  After my protracted trip to the bathroom, I put on my most innocent look and held my breath.  He coincidentally needed to use the bathroom right after me at which time he discovered that all of his shaving cream had disappeared.  I knew I was caught.  He sat me on the couch and asked me what happened to his shaving cream.  I quickly told him that I did not know.  He looked me in the eye and in a quiet voice said, “Cathy, there is going to come a day, not too many years from now, when you are going to want me to trust you. You are going to want me to trust you to drive a car or go on a date or go off with your friends alone to the movies.  I have to be able to trust you. That trust is built in times like this.”  My lip was quivering by then. Tears stung my eyes.  I knew I had disappointed him.  I knew I had lied.  And I sure didn’t want to go on a date, but I had been in a car and knew I wanted one of those.  My dad sounded so serious.  “You and I are the only ones in this apartment. Tell me the truth,” he said.  And I confessed, sobbing.  He held me tight and told me everything was going to be all right.  He told me that lying to people and to yourself could get to be a habit. It is hard for people who lie to keep all those lies straight.  He wanted me to become someone with integrity (which he made me look up in the biggest dictionary I had ever seen.)  The last thing he said was to always remember, “The truth will set you free.”  He was right.  It was a small sin using up all of his shaving cream and lying about it.  It probably wouldn’t have propelled me into a life of crime.  But it was the most stressful 15 minutes of my short life to that point.  It was a painful lesson at the time but no doubt he saved from far more painful ones.  It wasn’t the last mistake I made by a long shot. But he was right then. And he would be right now.  The truth really will set you free.

I picked this photograph for this post because it really feels like freedom to me.

Skagit River with boulders and trees
The Skagit Wild
(1/160 sec., f/5.6, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Never Pass Up A Birthday Party

I was invited to a birthday party yesterday.  I never pass up a birthday party.  I would not have missed this one for the world.  The grandmother of the little Sweet Pea, who was turning one, is an old friend of mine. Although I have to say that she and I might have different time scales for old friends. Her roots are deep, and she was surrounded by people she has known most of her life.  I have been more of a nomad throughout my life.  She is a vivacious, generous woman who made a life and filled it with the love and laughter of four generations.  It is clear she is passing that tradition down.

I arrived uncharacteristically late and the party was in full swing when my daughter and I pulled up.  The house was packed and yet I knew by her welcome that there would always be room for one more.  She walked us through the house introducing us to a sea of sisters, aunts, uncle, grandparents, friends and classmates. The backyard was filled with young parents deftly wrangling toddlers with one hand while catching up with old friends.  Babies crawled or teetered on new legs.  A small pup followed one curly-haired child around looking ready to lick his face clean or snatch a falling chip.  Dads were patiently tossing balls to children who clasped their hands together catching nothing but air yet shrieking with glee nonetheless. Many of the young adults had been students of mine.  It was so amazing to see them all.  I used to think the best part of being a high school teacher or principal was getting to watch kids grow into adults. They entered high school as gangly, tentative freshmen unsure of their gifts and strengths.  They left adults.  They might not have had it all figured out by graduation, but they were on their way.  I could see what was possible.  Decades of experience told me everyone grows up.  I was wrong- not that everyone grows up.  I was right about that. I was wrong about the best thing – it’s not watching them grow up and graduate.  The best part is seeing them with a family of their own.   A young dad rocking his baby with that look of awe and pride.  A young mom staying close but letting her child take those first tentative steps away from her- ready to sweep that child up in a hug, dust her off and set her on her way to try again knowing she will be always be there.  A young couple exhausted from late night feedings but so in love with each other and the family they are building.  Hearing about their jobs, their old dreams and all of the new ones. Those are all the best things.  That and seeing them here in this house with friends they have had for a lifetime.  Grandparents close- the ones they were born to and the ones who took them in.  Aunties they have picked up along the way. Doting uncles vying to give the favorite toy.

Don’t get me wrong, education is absolutely important.  Everyone needs a good education.  Having a job or career that fits your life is important. But a life is so much more than that. And what is important in life is so much more than that.  Knowing you are part of a family – biological or created – who know you well and open their hearts to you.  Raising children in a community that will love and support them. Giving your children the roots and the wings that they will need to grow into strong adults.  Creating a place where they can try and fail knowing you will be there cheering them on as they try again.  Celebrating every single birthday together- especially the first one.

DSC_8306.jpg
Sweet Pea
(1/60 sec., f/4.5, 100 ISO, 100 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Manny Scott, one of the original Freedom Writers, speak.  If you ever have the chance, don’t miss it. He is an extraordinary individual who really embodies the power and resilience of the human spirit. At the end of his speech, he said something that was both so profound and so obvious that I couldn’t decide if I should shout “Amen” or slap myself on my forehead.  I know that I will not say this as eloquently as he did, so I am paraphrasing here. He said that, in reaction to his story, people would often say, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink’. Then one day, someone pointed out, ‘That maybe true, but you can make him thirsty. All you have to do is give him a little salt.’  Manny Scott was honoring the teacher who changed his life by making him thirst for learning. What a powerful thing it is to ignite a passion in someone that makes them thirst to learn.  The best teachers and coaches know just how to do this.  For that matter, the best parents and bosses do as well.  I think it takes just one person in your life to change your whole trajectory. One person who sees all that you can be. One person who sees your gifts not your challenges.  One person who knows you have it in you to do the hard work – someone who can see a future you cannot yet even imagine. I have had more than my fair share of these people pass through my life. But it all started 45 years ago when I entered second grade and found out I was smart.

I attended a small Catholic school north of Seattle.  Though you might imagine nuns with severe hairstyles, stern looks and inflexible rules, I was taught by nuns who hugged and played guitar. (One even wore Go-Go boots occasionally.)  I liked school. It was predictable.  Not much of the rest of my life at the time was. My parents had divorced loudly.  My mom was struggling to manage entering the workforce and raise four little girls. In the wisdom of Family Court circa 1970, I only saw my dad every other weekend.   But I trusted my teachers, so I did not question them when I was moved to a special classroom.  They explained, in gentle tones, that I was having trouble reading and needed extra help. Apparently, that was early code for Special Education.  I took their tests, packed up my school supplies and moved across the hall. I’m not really sure how my dad found out about this unfortunate turn of events. But he did. When he called to tell me that he was taking me out for lunch alone, I knew something serious was about to happen. He always took me out to lunch when he had something serious to say.  I remember sitting across from him in the booth, my legs sticking to the Naugahyde, hoping that the waitress would take her time getting to us.  Nothing serious could be said before we ordered.  Once the drinks were served, my dad launched in.  He was a big man with a big personality who seemed to take over the room.  He was very animated and, at first, I thought he was mad at me. Then I realized he was mad at the nuns which was utterly shocking. Surely, it was some kind of a sin to be angry at a nun.  Surely, they could not have done something wrong.  Then I realized what was going on. He was angry that they had put me in a special classroom. He told me that he had insisted that they do an IQ test (whatever that was) which apparently showed that I was smart.  I almost couldn’t understand what he was saying. After all, I wasn’t a very good reader.  But here he was telling me that I was smart. That I could read. That I would read well and someday I would go to college.  He told me that the nuns had made a mistake which was going to be rectified.  I couldn’t wait to find out what rectified meant.  I just hoped it didn’t mean that the nuns would be mad at me. He was so sure. And he made me believe in that instance that I was just as smart as everyone else, maybe even smarter.  He told me I had to work hard just like everyone else and, if I did, then I could do anything.  The next day, I packed my school supplies and walked across the hall. I never looked back. I could not wait to read something, anything, everything.

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if he had not been in my corner. I did need extra help in school.  But I needed a lot less once I believed that I could learn. I was willing to work a lot harder once I knew that there was no ceiling to my potential.  It changed everything for me. I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and went on to earn a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate.  He led me to the water and made me thirsty to learn.  We all have the ability to do this. There are people in our lives who need a leg up. They need to see their possibilities through our eyes.  Give them a little salt. Trust me. They’ll drink.

I chose this photograph because, as I was photographing an elk herd, this young elk split off from the herd to chase down a couple of elk who were heading toward the highway. Literally, he led them back to the water.

Hey Come Back!

Hey, Come Back!
(1/50 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Grandpa’s House

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things was spending the night at my grandparents’ house. They lived in a small house on Queen Anne Hill. Though back then, from my tiny eyes, it was an enormous mansion.  It was so different from our cookie-cutter suburban rambler in north Seattle.  When we visited, we would have to drive around until we found a place to park on the street.  If we got a spot right in front, my mom would say, “God wanted us to visit.”  I wasn’t convinced God was directly in charge of parking, but I kept that to myself because I was pretty sure He always wanted us to visit them.  They had a tiny, steeply sloped front yard that my Grandpa mowed with a rotary cutter.  I loved the sound of the blades slicing past each other as they neatly trimmed the yard. Even on the hottest day, he would be out there in a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt rolled up to reveal forearms made thick and sinewy from decades of throwing fish.  Wide concrete steps led to a porch with a thick rail that I loved to perch on while watching the city street.  The house was a rich brown and covered in shingle siding.  It was old, and I was fascinated by the door knobs, light switches and outlets.   Right inside the front door there was a shiny cabinet that housed his record player.  On Sunday nights after dinner, he would listen to the news. Back then, it was filled with grainy, black and white images of the Vietnam war.  I did not understand what was happening at the time, but I knew I wasn’t to talk until the stern voice of Walter Cronkite faded away. As soon as it was over, Grandpa would lift the lid on the cabinet and turn on the record player.  We had to wait for him to gently drop the needle on the well-worn groves of Never on a Sunday.  To the scratchy tune and my laughter, he would dance me around the room, arms raised high overhead, knees bouncing upward, feet crossing over and back. I wanted to hold onto those moments so much as a child.  He had a big heart.  I felt so connected to him. He was the rare adult that got me. He could tell when I was sad or scared and seemed to always know just the right thing to do. That was especially true when my parents divorced with spectacular animosity.  I remember feeling like he held me closer through those years.  I didn’t act out.  I wanted everything and everyone to be OK.  I grasped with tiny fingers any chance to make things peaceful.  I think he knew that. He was especially gentle with me. I remember one night after we were all in bed, I heard a moaning sound through the heat vent.  I lay completely still in the dark before moving silently to the center of the bed because, of course, monsters couldn’t reach the center of the bed.  When the moaning came again, I leapt out of bed and woke him up.  I remember he reached for his glasses and I was momentarily shocked that he didn’t sleep with them on.  He patiently sat up and listened. He gave me a big hug and put me back in bed.  He told me not to worry. And I didn’t, because I knew I could count on him.  He left the house from the back door and I could hear him in the basement.  I had been in the basement to help grandma with the wash before. It was dark, cold and scary. I knew for sure he was a hero if he could go down there in the dark in the middle of the night.  A little while passed before he came back in.  He told me everything was fine. He took me by the hand and led me to the basement.  On the floor was an apple box full of kittens.  The mama was watching us from the windowsill. He told me that the babies had just been born and the sound I heard was the mama.  I probably would have believed him if he had just told me that everything was fine and sent me back to bed. I was glad he took the time to show me.

My grandpa lived a simple life. He loved big and loud and true.  He hugged with gusto and danced with abandon. He was the solid part of my quicksand life. I learned so much from him: Sometimes a hug is all you need. Dance when you can and do it like no one is watching.  Ouzo cures many ills.  Listening is more important than speaking.  Action speaks louder than words. Be patient and kind to children because they might not know much but they feel everything.

29a Jimmy Paris 1957

My Grandpa Jimmy Paris (Dimitri Heramanos Paraskevoulakos)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

My Heart

My daughter is a junior this year. She is our only child. The good Lord blessed us with only one child but, in so doing, He blessed us every single day after.  In just over a year, she will leave us to go off to college and start this new adventure. The part of her life where she becomes an adult independent of us.  Every day I fight the primal urge to cover her in bubble wrap leaving holes only so that she can breathe.  I want to protect her from the world. I want her to have a life without ever feeling pain or loss.  But of course, this is not possible.  She has, in fact, experienced pain and loss already.   And the truth is that you cannot know great love and not know great loss.  You cannot have great happiness and not have great grief.  You cannot appreciate your successes without experiencing some failures. Some days, I feel like Nemo’s dad: protective, fearful and powerless.  I also know Dory was right when she told him, “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.” (https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2015/04/23/9-dory-quotes-deeper-than-the-drop-off/)  And yes, I am aware that I just used a Disney animated film as a literary reference.  What can I say? There was at least a decade when animated films were my only cultural outlet.  At any rate, Dory is right.  As a parent, I have done my absolute best, first to keep this tiny human alive and then help her grow into a capable adult. I believe to my core that it is my responsibility to help her to become a strong, independent adult.  I know that this means walking that fine line of letting her make her own mistakes and dust herself off and wrapping her in a bear hug while wiping her tears.  I am aware, as every parent is I’m sure, that I have fallen short at times. Despite this, she has become a strong, smart, compassionate, talented young woman.  I also know these are tumultuous times to be a teenager.  Whatever your politics, I think we can agree there is much strife in the world.  It can be a scary, unpredictable place. I want her to find her voice, her place in the world.  I want her to live her convictions.  Meanwhile, every day she is bombarded with media, popular and social.  The world is literally at her fingertips.  She has never known a time when the knowledge that is power was not hers for the searching.  It is so much for a young heart and mind to navigate.  When I look at her and her friends, I am so hopeful about the future.  It is in the hands of courageous, creative, compassionate people. But I will hold my breath and pray, because one of those is my baby. A single voice in a powerful chorus.  A fragile human testing the frontline of change.

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My Heart
(1/30 sec., f/4.2, 560 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

There’s Something About Sticking with It

I am going to preface this post with “No children were harmed in the making of the story” (well not permanently anyway).  If you were a child of the 1970s or before, you will appreciate this story. If you are a Gen Xer or a Millennial, there is a chance you might be horrified- at least mildly.  This story starts in the time before. The time before bicycle helmets and elbow pads. The time before car seats with 5-point harnesses held children securely until they age of 11.  The time before seatbelts, safety glasses, and earplugs.  This is a story that starts in the time when children went out to play unhampered by schedules and unmonitored by parents.  It was a time when you never admitted that you were having an argument over kickball because your parents would say “Work it out or you can all just come in the house, take a bath, and get ready for bed”.  Now let me be clear, it wasn’t Nirvana by any stretch of the imagination. It was just a different time.  And I was nine.

I wanted so badly to learn to ski.  My dad, being very supportive of anything outdoorsy and adventurous, signed me up. He took me to the Jaycee Ski School orientation.  He bought me a starter set of used ski boots, poles, and skis.  He outfitted me in warm, waterproof clothes.  And then he dropped me off at crack of dawn at Aurora Village where the ski bus picked up all of the Olympic hopefuls who were raring to tackle the bunny slope.

I was so excited! I literally vibrated with anticipation as I sweltered in the seat of the Greyhound Bus.  I was sweltering, by the way, because I loved my parka and ski pants so much I refused to take them off. We approached Snoqualmie Pass and I was on high alert. Unfortunately, I had never been there before, so my high alert was completely ineffective.

I got off at the wrong stop. I went to the wrong ski school.  By the time I found the right ski school, I had missed my lesson.  I was completely deflated and near tears.  I drug my skis to the lodge- quite dramatically I am sure because I swear there was a dirge playing in the background.  I found a pay phone (Gen Xers and Millennials- I didn’t have a cell phone! They were invented yet.) and I called my dad collect (ask your grandma or grandpa what calling collect was).  I tearfully told my dad what happened.  I just knew he would jump in his car and come get me.  I was never, ever going to brave the cold, wet snow of the ski slopes again. I contemplated less risky activities like piano lessons or Blue Birds. My dad’s response came as quite a shock.

“Do you still have your skis?”

I sniffed a weak “yes”.

He then asked, “Do you still have your ski pass?”

By now, I knew.  I knew he was not rushing through the house putting on his coat, searching for his keys.

He said, “You should go skiing.”

I could not believe it! I must admit at that moment I said words in my head that I was not allowed to say out loud. Colorful words. Expressive words. I was so mad. At that moment, I just said “Fine”, which was short for ‘Fine, you jerk, I can’t believe you are not going to come save me, so I will go skiing, so there, I’ll show you!’

And I went skiing. It was awesome. I loved every second and I was back the next week.  I never missed another lesson.

At the time, I was so angry at him.  But I am a parent now, so I know it would have been a lot easier for him to just save me. I know now just how hard it is to watch your child struggle.  But in so doing, he was telling me that he knew I could do it. He gave me a great gift.  He gave me the chance to show myself that I would not fold at the first obstacle.  He gave me the gift of persistence.  I had not had a ski lesson. I had no idea what I was doing. But I watched everyone else and I hoofed it over to the tow rope on the bunny slope and I tried until I got it right. I fell and got up- over and over.  It was skill that has made it possible for me to do the really hard things in my life without giving up. It was a skill that has allowed me to face difficult times without folding.

It is a different time now. But persistence is still a skill every person needs to learn.  Children need to learn that they might have to try something more than once to get it.  They might have to ask for help or find a book or take a class.  They need to learn that failure is not terminal and the reward for persistence is great.  It is not just achieving whatever you set out to achieve but it is also learning to trust and believe in yourself. It is learning that with a little effort, you can improve or learn or conquer.  Success always feels so much better after you have had to get back up, dust yourself off and try again.  Honestly, I am not that proud of anything that came easily to me.  But I remember when I struggled and how sweet it was to finally get it.

If you have been reading my blog, you know I have been on a quest to photograph the elk herd outside of Concrete and to catch the eagles over the Skagit.  Four trips.  Four 4 am alarms. Four long drives. Four standing out in the cold watching the sunrise.  Four just missing them. I am making it sound horrible, but I loved every single one of these trips because I learned something every time. I learned about shooting at dawn. I learned about the importance of monitoring the dew point.  I learned about vantage points and lighting and perspective.  In the end, I was successful.  The struggle was sweet.  They are my pictures of persistence.

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Taking Off
(1/500 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 500 mm)

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Indecision
(1/60 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.