ALL the Books!

Hi, I’m Donna, and I’m a bookaholic.

I have a problem – I love to read. I’ve loved to read as long as I’ve been able to read. If my  parents couldn’t find me, they knew I was likely tucked into a corner somewhere, or laying across the recliner, or huddled on the couch, reading. My godmother took  us to the library weekly. The five-book limit drove young me insane. Who could read *just* five books in a week?

I read everything I could get my hands on, but  my favorites were pretty typical – Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Little Women (along with all the sequels), Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie series…..all the childhood favorites. Most I re-read multiple times. I read Gone With the Wind when I was ten, Pride & Prejudice at eleven. It’s no surprise I ended up majoring in English Literature in college – it seemed a natural progression.

I did take a break from reading for a few years after college. Analyzing and diagramming books into 30+ page papers for five years will do that to a person. But I slowly found my way back into reading for pleasure, first with brainless trashy novels and then onto popular novels.

I’d still rather read than watch television, unless sports are on, then it’s a draw. When Kindles first came out, Spouse got me one for Christmas. Oh lordy….access to new books 24/7? YES PLEASE!!! And also, “Danger Will Robinson!!!” Everyone knew to buy Amazon gift cards for me at every occasion. I will admit, I went a little crazy those first few months with my Kindle.

I have a thing about owning books, maybe because we grew up with little money for extras. I rarely had brand new books. I still enjoy the library, but there is just something about owning a book, holding it in your hands, knowing it’s yours, knowing you can go back and read it anytime you want. I go 50/50 between real books and e-books. I think I prefer real books – love the feel of the paper, the weight of a good, long book. You just don’t get that on an e-reader. But it is also easier, when you finish your stack of books, to jump online and have a new book on  your iPad within seconds.

I digress……If there was a catastrophe, or WWIII started while I was in a Barnes & Noble, I probably wouldn’t mind much, especially if it’s a B&N with a Starbucks inside. I mean, seriously….a seemingly-endless supply of reading material, music, coffee, pastries, and cheesecake? Sign me up. (I am being facetious…kind of). Let’s just say, I wouldn’t be opposed to living inside a bookstore for a few months, with  uninterrupted reading time, able to just work my way up one row and down another…..

I found myself inside B&N after yoga this morning. I didn’t  need to be there. I have three unread books on my Kindle, and six real unread books on my bookshelf in my room. I do not NEED any new books. But I wanted books…I wanted ALL the books. It’s like crack to me….I love seeing the covers, the titles… reading new things by favorite authors, love finding new favorite authors, love sharing new faves with friends, love re-reading classics and childhood favorites, love gaining new perspective on novels I read long ago. I limited myself to four novels and a biography. They sit waiting for me on the shelf beside my bed, until after I finish the two books I’m reading right now…..

The Movies

Both my parents worked when I was growing up. I was six weeks old when I started at my godmother’s daycare. For ten years, she played a near-daily role in my life. That amount of time gave her great influence in my life – food, music, faith, reading, and movies.

I loved her room – it seemed one whole wall had bookshelves full of books. I do believe I gained my love of reading through the hours she spent reading to us, all our walking trips to the library, and the immense amount of time she let me lay on her bed reading any of the books from her shelves.

We always took field trips – to the Zoo, to Frontier Village (now gone), to San Francisco on the train, to the pool at the nearby high school where my brother and I joined the competitive swim team, to the convenience store for candy and slurpees, and to Thrifty for ice cream.  She also took all of us in the daycare to Vacation Bible School each summer. Pretty sure my mom still has some of the crafts we made there.

One of the things I remember most is going to the movies with her. She took us to the drive-in, as well as the theater. We watched movies at her house too, on tv. She made each trip an event, piling a bunch of kids in the car, settling us with popcorn and drinks in the back seat of the car or in the row in the darkened theater.

I can’t tell you all the movies we saw with her, but every time I walk into a theater and settle into my seat, I think of her. I think of those trips with her. It makes my heart smile. While I do love watching movies at home, there’s just something about going to the theater – seeing it on the big screen, in a reclining seat,  surrounded by other people. It is a process getting tickets, standing in the concessions line, paying entirely too much for a bag of popcorn, hoping you’re there in time to get a seat in  your prime, preferred location (I like to be midway up, or slightly higher, but on an aisle in case I have to take a bathroom break. My eyes don’t adjust to lighting changes very well, and I get paranoid about re-finding my seat in a dark theater!), but it just isn’t the same to wait for the movie to come out on DVD or On Demand.

I’ve taken the kids to the movies a lot recently.  We’ll probably go to the theater at least a few times this summer. And I’ll think of my godmother each and every time – of all the experiences she gave us, all the memories she helped create, and the role she played in shaping the person I am today.


Where did you grow up?

This question always stumps me for some reason. That’s random, I know, but it does. It shouldn’t be cause for a lengthy explanation, but it often is.

My childhood was essentially split in half, with the first half – until I was 10 years old – spent in a large city, and the second half – 10 to 20 – spent in a tiny, rural town. Sometimes I explain that when people ask where I grew up, and sometimes I just give the short answer of the second half of my childhood. I don’t know why I do that. Both places, both halves of my childhood define me, made me who I am.

The first half of my childhood…..big city, next to a bunch of other big cities. All my earliest memories are there. Our family traditions began there. I had my first best friend, first sleepovers and slumber parties, first bike crash, first days of school. My godmother and babysitter lived fairly close. Her family became our family. Smells, sights, sounds….songs sung from the backseat of my godmother’s car, Sunday School and VBS with all her “kids”, getting our pool put in, the fish pond and fountain in our backyard, the dog dragging my brother down the street when he got out, Friday nights at the  pizza place, my brother playing the Star Wars theme with his Junior High School band, Cosentino’s grocery store with their amazing fresh bread and the gingerbread man cookies we used to get in the bakery, the special shoes I had to wear to keep me from turning my foot in, the bee hive that set up house in the wall of my bedroom, the time we all had the flu and stayed home from school, the bunk beds my sister and I had, the pink and blue carpet in our shared bedroom, Christmas Eves and Christmas mornings, my oldest brother living with  us in the added-on room, the day we got our van, my brother’s Little League games, Campfire Girls meetings after school, playing at the park just outside of our neighborhood….

I remember when our parents told us we were moving. I was SO sad. I didn’t want to leave our house, didn’t want to leave my school. My friends started pulling away before we even packed up the house. The move was a defining break in my childhood – split it right in half. We spent that summer traveling around my mom’s home state. Then we were in a rental house for a couple of months until our new house was ready.

Our new town was teeny-tiny, 15,000 people. There was one high school. My brother didn’t take the move well. He ran away, back to the Big City, and my godmother’s house. My parents let him spend the weekend there to calm down, then we went and picked him up. I remember picking out my new bedding with matching curtains. I remember my mom putting my new canopy bed together – I was so proud of that thing. I remember my dad and brother building the fences with our new neighbors. There was a corn field just beyond the houses at the end of our street, which meant there were always spiders and mice in the garage, house, backyard. When I think about the question, “Where did you grow up?” this town, this house, is what comes to mind, for it is there that I did my growing up, even though the first half of my childhood did help shape me. The second half…that’s middle school and my second (and best) best friend.  It’s high school, learning to drive, church camp, first crushes, first dates, first kisses, first boyfriends, first drama, first bullies. It’s football games and dances on Friday nights. It’s learning who I was, who I wanted to be. It’s singing along with Chicago in my bestie’s bedroom while doing  math homework. It’s bike rides to the library. It’s ice fights with my brother and sister while Mom was at work. It’s orchestra, swimming, acrobats, gymnastics, chamber ensemble, and cheerleading. It’s 3-mile walks home on sunny afternoons. It’s 4th of July fireworks at the high school football field. It’s my first car. It’s my first heartbreak. It’s cruising the four main streets of town, looking for friends to hang out with. It’s green and gold, being a Bulldog, graduation, leaving for college.

Where am I from? I’m from a big city, and I’m from a small town. I’m from urban and rural. Both made me who I am. Both are part of me. Both hold my childhood memories.

How do you answer that question?

Let them eat dirt!

Being a parent these days is difficult. There are so many bad things and bad people out there. I will admit, I have a serious paranoia about something or someone taking my kids from me. Bad things happen, in an instant. And our kids are growing up in a world that’s so much faster,  so much scarier, than when we were kids. There’s a fine line between protecting, and over-protecting, our kids. I worry frequently I’m hovering too much, or not enough. Where do you find the balance?

I’ve decided this…my kids need space to make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes. If I’m always carrying them, literally and figuratively, they will never be independent, that entitlement factor will be fed, the expectation that someone will always be there to fix it and tell them how amazing they are will be propagated, and they will be further convinced they are the center of my world. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my children. We are at a stage my days revolve around their activities. I also let them know I am more than “mom” or “wife,” I am a person in my own right. They have jobs to do around the house because I need them to learn responsibility, how to take care of themselves, and because they need to know they are part of this household and therefore must contribute to its care. Yes, they are paid an allowance. If there’s a game, toy, song, or any other “extra”, they must use their own money to buy it. It’s called being responsible, accountable. We are firm believers in natural consequences.

There are a lot of parents of my generation putting their kids on pedestals. Every part of their day revolves around their kids. They eat gourmet, organic food – heaven forbid a Pop Tart or frozen waffle enter their diets.  Every second of their lives are documented in perfect order. They are never allowed to fail, never allowed to walk on their own two feet, never allowed to fall.  What is that doing to our kids? I say, let them eat dirt. Kids need to fail. Kids need to fall. Kids need to know their parents have lives of their own. Kids need to understand they are not the center of the universe. Kids need to understand there are winners, there are losers, and losing isn’t the end of the world. They need to know not everyone gets an award, not everyone gets a trophy.

I’m not perfect, trust me. There are days I hover, I protect, I defend when I should take a step back and let my kids work it out themselves. They will be better adults for enduring the process.  Let’s stop pushing our ten-year-olds around in strollers (different needs kids excepted of course) and let them walk, let them fall, let them learn to pick themselves back up. muddy girl

That one photo

When Big Man finally came home from the NICU – on Christmas Day – my FIL had a special gift for him. It was an adult-sized t-shirt which read, “Big Man (it has his real name) Grows Up” on the front.  The idea is, Big Man puts that t-shirt on every year on Christmas Day, and we take his photo in it while he stands next to the tree.  Over the years we are able to see just how much he’s grown. He very nearly fits into that t-shirt these days. The first time we put him in it, he was engulfed. But try as I may, I can’t find that very first photo. I have pictures of every other year – minus the years we were moving and traveling when I just forgot – except that first year.

It haunts me, that missing photo. I’ll wake sometimes in the night thinking about where it might be. When he was born, digital cameras were just coming out. The quality of digital photos wasn’t awesome, so I tended to still use regular film. Now I wish we had used the digital. I could have tracked it down on one computer or another. It would be in a file somewhere.  I have a stack of negatives in a bag somewhere. I need to go through it and see if I can’t find at least the negative. We have every other photo from the day he came home, except that one. I want to make a collage of all the photos at some point, but I can’t do that successfully without that first photo.

Why is it so important? Maybe because my need to mark his incredible progress. When he was born, we didn’t know if he would get the chance to grow up. The fact he did get to come home, and is growing up, is represented by the photos of him in that shirt. But I still really, really want that first photo. I want to see it all…..all his growing up. I want to remember that little him, the one I was so proud and excited to finally be able to truly mother, after waiting 93 days. It would be normal to have a first Christmas photo next to the tree, right?

I’m determined to find that picture. I can’t recreate it. It has to be somewhere around here. I simply can’t have every other photo from that day but that one particular photo. I’m on a mission. It may take me a few more years, but I will track it down. And I’ll post it when I do.

In Her Eyes

The Princess is thirteen…..she’s on the verge of all that fun stuff…..and I can see it coming. I look in her eyes, and all those hopes and dreams just come shining out. Do you remember what it was like?

She still covers her eyes when she sees people kissing in movies and on television, but she’s also becoming fascinated with romance. I see in her eyes those hopes for the future – dating, boyfriends, relationships, marriage. She and some of her friends have begun to imagine their weddings already – where they want them to be, what their dresses will look like. I remember doing the same about that age. Life seems it should be the lyrics of the songs you hear.

She’s talking about college. We are reaching the age where the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question becomes a little more serious. She’s making plans, thinking about things, where she wants to go, what she wants to do. It is so very strange to have these conversations with her when it seems she was just starting kindergarten.

I look at her and I see all the hope I used to have before life happened. That’s not to say I’m completely cynical and without hope for life at this point. But I’m halfway through this thing (or thereabouts). She’s still in that cocoon of childhood. She’s beginning to look towards her future. It’s amazing to see from the outside. I want to grab  onto some of that. I want to tell her things. I want to direct her, but I can only guide gently. I’m a spectator in her life.

Her heart will be broken, maybe more than once. At least one dream will be crushed. Goals and plans will change. Life never really does go the way you expect. Surprises and pitfalls lay along the way. I would shelter her from all the hurt if I could. But hurt also helps you grow and mature. So I will be there to lift her back up, offer a shoulder to cry on, be her cheerleader.

It is a  privilege to watch this journey of hers. It gives me hope and courage, knowing I must set an example, must prepare her as best I can for life beyond home and school. I look with complete joy, and a little bit of heartache, as she begins to navigate these waters of growing up.

How Did We Know?

In recently speaking with other parents who are now on the front-end of the evaluation process, I’ve been asked, “How did you know?” The truth is, I didn’t really know. I knew my child was challenging and difficult. But I didn’t know he was autistic. My husband and I both agreed he was likely ADHD, but we didn’t expect anything other than that. It took the bravery of my youngest sister, and one of my best friends saying, “You know, it sounds like he may be on the spectrum and you  might think about having him evaluated.” I was angry and hurt when I first heard those words. That couldn’t be *my* child, could it? Just because he was difficult and challenging and we spent most days living on “planet Ethan” didn’t mean he had an autism spectrum disorder.

As an infant and young toddler, Ethan was a joy. He was always smiling, always happy, very curious, outgoing, and social. He was never one of those babies who had to be held by just me. He was incredibly smart, and had a crazy vocabulary. Everything seemed to change almost overnight when he turned 3. I was expecting a rough year at 3, after having been through it twice already, but I was unprepared for what we began to deal with. He became defiant, obstinate, and extremely stubborn. His social circle shrank. Lashing out became the norm. His smile began to disappear. I literally counted the days down until his fourth birthday when I expected the same turnaround I’d seen with the other two children. He turned four, and yet if anything, his behavior got worse.

I dreaded kindergarten. Blessedly, a good friend who had known him for a couple of years already was his teacher.  She knew how to work with him. And there were days he just would not cooperate. He refused to sing and dance with his class.  He often pushed back on class work. Homework time was a nightmare.  He was perfectly capable of doing the work, he just didn’t want to. He didn’t want to do anything he felt was a waste of his time, and he seemed to believe a lot of the work was a waste of his time. You couldn’t force him to do anything. He would put the brakes on and the battle would begin. There were frequent tantrums. We chalked most of it up to him being the youngest child, too smart for his own good, and immaturity. His academic grades were high. His behavioral and social grades needed improvement. “That’s just Ethan.” We kept thinking he would grow out of it. First grade was more of the same. His teacher was again amazing. She helped him learn to pull himself out of situations when they were getting overwhelming or when he felt himself getting to red. He had a “12-year-old brain in a six year old body.”  We struggled to  keep him mentally challenged at the same time accommodating his lagging social and emotional skills. The first two weeks of school each year were torture.

The summer before second grade was just hell. I spent all of my time micro-managing, trying to avoid anything that might cause a tantrum, or responding to his tantrums. We were both exhausted by the end of each day. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. The night before school started, he cried for nearly two hours. He didn’t have any friends in his new class. He was going into a new classroom. He was going to be in a combo class. He was stressed out.  As we had come to expect, the first two weeks of school were brutal. After parent/teacher conferences, we made the decision to talk with his pediatrician about his behaviors. ADHD was immediately recognized. And we were referred to a psychiatrist. Towards the end of October, he was officially diagnosed with PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified). And here we are.

While I was relieved to finally have something to “blame” his behavior on, I was terrified and heartbroken. We now had an explanation, but that explanation brought darkness with it. There’s no growing out of autism. With therapy and help and lots of work, he will improve – and has improved immensely in less than two years – but he will always be autistic.

How did we know? Honestly, we really didn’t know. We saw the behaviors and dealt with them as best we could, but we were likely living in the land of denial. Do I wish we’d had our eyes opened sooner? Certainly. So many studies show that early intervention makes a huge difference. But I don’t think Ethan’s form of autism presents itself in an obvious manner. It takes seeing other kids maturing, and your child staying where they are socially and emotionally, for it to become obvious. At least that has been our experience. We are where we are. He  is diagnosed. He does have help. He does have an IEP at school. We are vigilant. We have the power of awareness now. And we will do everything we possibly can to help our son be successful – his version of success, no matter what that might be – in his life.