Category Archives: About Mom

It Took 40 Years To Be This Person

One recent Sunday morning I set my juice on the table next to a piece of rolled up paper tied with ribbon. “Is this for me?” My family took me by complete surprise. In 40 days I would be 40. They planned to celebrate me in some way every one of those days.

When you’re a kid, every birthday is special, filled with anticipation. Adults mostly try to push them back like the sand that keeps sliding and filling a carefully dug hole.

Over the past year, I’ve thought a lot about turning 40. Not worry, not dread. Reflection. I’m more excited about this birthday than I’ve been since I turned 21.

To me, 40 is not old. I’m lucky enough to have a father who never looked at age as something to dread. “I’m just glad I made it this long,” he says every year. I feel like this is my chance to take everything I’ve learned and go forth.

But 40 does feel like a crossroads. This big year of tumbling into a new decade. Do I keep trudging through my days the same way as always? Do I shake things up a bit? When is the right time to get out there and do the things I’ve always wanted to do? If ever there was a time to try something, this is it. Though I feel like I finally have wisdom backing me, I no longer have the luxury of an expanse of time.

I’m what you call a late bloomer. It took me a long time to come out of my shell. I remember a time, decades ago, when boys wore their best flannel shirts and stone-washed jeans to the high school dance. I gathered all the courage I had and blew it on walking in the door, forget dancing. I watched as everyone else without a date gathered in groups and bobbed together like boats on the horizon. Their bodies pulsed to the beat, they laughed, they goofed off. It didn’t matter what I faked. Smile or laugh or whatever, the only thing hearing me was the wall and deep down, I fought the tapping in my toes and the bouncing in my knees. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have as good a time as the kids on the dance floor.

In time, I learned. I learned not to care what I looked like. I learned that confidence and beauty really can go hand-in-hand with making a fool of yourself. People see your smile, hear your laughter. They move and smile and laugh with you. No one is moved to hold the wall up with you all night.

And I want to be an example. I don’t want my kids to be that person. I don’t want them to sit on the sidelines and watch. I want them to participate in life and jump in and not be afraid. I don’t want them to hold their happiness in.

When my kids are mortified to see me dance, when they hear me scream on a ride, when they see my step falter on a high climb, when they hear me speak up, when they see me try something new, I want my kids to know that it has taken me nearly 40 years to be this person. That you don’t ever have to stop growing. Every year I learn something new because I learned to let go of the part of me that was holding me back.

This was tough but quick. Almost at the end!

Something new and terrifying.

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The Owl Search That Delivered a Moment

The first time I heard the owl, I thought of Owl Moon. Many years ago I had read Jane Yolen’s picture book that describes a father and child owling on a cold winter night. “Oh, to have that moment,” I thought the first time I read it. I didn’t even have children at the time, but the story moved me.

Wishes of seeing the owl that was hooting somewhere near my house penetrated dreamy half-slumber. But at 3 a.m., I wasn’t about to climb out of my toasty bed and trek into the cold to go owling myself. Maybe it would come at a time that fit my schedule better?

Many times over the course of a year, we heard the owl, then two owls calling back and forth, then possibly three. Sometimes they were far away. Sometimes we’d swear they were in our yard. At 4 a.m., their calls kept us awake. Still, I never left the comfort of my bed to find them. So much for Owl Moon. I looked up owl calls online, trying to figure out what kind they were. Still unsure, I settled on the Great Horned Owl. That’s a pretty big bird, with a body size of 18 to 25 inches.

One dark evening just as autumn was settling in, we heard hooting. My husband and I listened at the back door and watched as a large bird flew into our tree and another flew out of it. It was too dark and there were too many leaves to see anything else. It then became my mission to see these owls. When the leaves fell, surely I would be able to spot a large owl among our trees.

Something else had happened since the first time we had heard owl calls. At a local park, a pair of Barred Owls had been attracting visitors daily. While walking with a friend there a few months ago, I tried to show her where I had seen an owl hanging out back in the thick trees. I told her to look closely, but you can often spot them because of their size. We didn’t see one so we walked on.

A few feet away, my friend threw her arms out like an overprotective mother. Three feet above my head, gazing down at me, was a Barred Owl. Being so close to a wild owl was breathtaking, but neither of us wanted to walk under that tree branch. We felt a little like that huge bird would pluck one of us up and fly away. But it was a sight and I wished my kids could have seen it.

barred owl mominthemuddle.com

photo credit: Janet Wright

That made me want to see the mysterious owls in our yard even more. Please wouldn’t they show themselves after all this time?

One night at home, the owls did come early again. At 8:30 I heard the distinct call. Cold or no, this was my chance to go owling. My daughter and I bundled up and walked around the yard, listening to the owls’ calls. “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.” Leaves crunched under our feet. We looked in all the trees, certain we’d see the silhouette of a large owl on the bare branches. The cold air nipped at our fingers. Our breath puffed like bursts of steam. Beyond the moonlight, stars twinkled. It was just us and the sounds of the owls. Then whispers. A flash of movement to the right. My daughter thought she saw something land and take off far away. We couldn’t be sure.

We stood side by side in the cold, still looking for owls. Silent. Still. Just the stars and us. We waited for the chill to take over our bones, for our feet to grow numb. We searched the stars, the branches, one another’s faces. With each frosty breath, we took it all in. Silence. We never saw an owl, but I wasn’t disappointed. All I could think was, “I hope she never forgets this moment.”

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Only a Mother Could Love This

“Mom, you don’t even want to see what the boys do at my table at lunch. You would be so disgusted,” my son says with pride.

“Mmm. Enlighten me.”

My son often forgets that I was ever a child. I know with my maturity level and love of a good fart joke, that’s easy to forget. He bets I can’t guess what goes on in a group of fifth-grade boys at lunch, what they could possibly do to gross one another out, what they could talk about, what they could do to their food.

He describes a pack of bed-headed boys I know dropping the remains of their lunch onto a lunch tray. Some unwanted green beans, leftover taco meat, some applesauce for effect. The boys probably contribute whatever is in their crumb-coated hands at the time. They mix up the slimy school lunch potion, and if all were right with the world, a pop and poof!—at least one deserving kid would grow rabbit ears for teasing his sister or not changing his underwear.

I imagine the teachers stay far away from his table at lunch. I know the girls do. And I know it will get worse before it gets better.

I know because a million years ago when I was young, I sat at lunch with two boys who did the same things to their food. They took everyone’s extra plastic cups that the vegetables and sides were served in and stacked everything on a tray. When their tower was complete, they’d push from the top and watch overcooked pale cafeteria food ooze from every cup like a fountain. “DOOZIE!” they’d yell. It was disgusting. I’m not sure why I subjected myself to the horror every day. Alphabetically their names came right after mine, so I can only assume we had assigned seats.

My son tells me often lately that I could never guess what boys his age do or say. I laugh. I tremble. I remember. And I know what’s coming.

I hated boys his age when I was his age. They were gross. They picked on me. They made me feel bad. They messed up my hair. If I had a zit, they announced it to the class. If they sat behind me, they snapped my bra strap. They’d say, “Hey, let me tell you a secret,” and then burp in my ear. They’d burp on command. If I whispered to them, they’d fan the air like my breath stunk. They farted in class on the hard wooden seats and pointed at me. They stole my papers and held them up high in the air so I couldn’t reach them.

Oh, son, I can guess. My son gets himself worked up into a fit of giggles while telling us the gross things he and his friends do. We tell him a hundred times he’s crossed the line. Dinner isn’t the time or place, and honestly, no place with any adult is. But I see something now that I never saw a million years ago, that sparkle in the eyes. That sense of belonging to a pack. That brotherhood.

And I hate to admit it now, but all of that many years ago has helped me to embrace this.

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When a Writer Is Born

I see my daughter close her diary, then run down to the kitchen to put the keys back in their hiding place. She can’t have her brother getting a peek again. After school, when homework is done, she wants computer time to type up stories about finding shells on vacations or blurbs about how much she loves her family.

She writes letters to family with run-on sentences about the owl in the backyard or the possum she sees at night. Who cares if she may be taking some creative license? Thank-you notes gush with love for an item, the color, the memory it evokes. Papers at school that require only a paragraph or two end up with pages and pages of her conversational tone, explaining in-depth our trip to Maine this summer or why bananas ripened in our kitchen.

Some mornings when it’s time for school, she shouts, “One more minute!” from her great-grandmother’s roll-top desk as she finishes up a letter, a story, a thought.

I both love and hate that she does that, has this need for writing. All my life when I’ve had an urge to communicate, it’s spilled out easily into words on a page. Flowed so fast my hand wasn’t able to keep up, the scratchy writing sometimes hard to decipher when I went back to read it again. My brain always moved too fast for my hands but there has always been a connection there, brain to hand.

The connection between my brain and my mouth is a different story. Words don’t flow from my mouth as easily. I am often quiet. Things come out all wrong or not at all. I am stumped for answers, for something touching when I need to be. Or words come out too quickly. I can’t take a moment to pause, speak, and go back and try again. Once I put spoken words out there, inappropriate as they are, they’re out there, unfiltered. But with paper or screen, words flow. Thoughts come. There’s no deleting, looking for the perfect word when you speak.

I remember as a child wishing I wasn’t the way that I was. I knew it had to do with writing. I felt like I sensed things differently, maybe I didn’t. I knew that I didn’t have to be famous or published to be a writer. I just was, in my heart, always. It was the way I had expressed every thing of my life.

I love that my daughter has that in her, that passion, that need. But I also hate it for her, that curse. That feeling that you just have to get it out. That you can’t go to sleep at night or leave the house or finish a conversation until you relieve yourself of the burden. Scrawl on scraps of paper or in a notebook in the car a thought, a story, an observation, a poem, a pain. Those words, those feelings. Those things you can’t say to anyone but your paper.

I was that girl. I still am. Before bed I scrawl a thought on a scrap of paper, sometimes never giving it another thought. Sometimes it’s the perfect ending I’ve been waiting for, for months, and it came to me while washing my face. I’ve poured my heart into journals. I’ve breathed life into dramatic teenage poems that I’d die if anyone saw. And I’ve shouted, “One more minute!” so I could finish a thought that just had to be written on paper instead of whispered in someone’s ear.

I’ve always thought that writing is a lonely life.

I hope she finds the courage to share hers long before I did.

keyboard

These days, most of my writing is done via keyboard.

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A Mother’s Scary Halloween Story

“How about a football player? You could wear your Eagles uniform,” I suggested. Immediate head shake.

“What about a punk rocker? You could wear jeans and a white T-shirt and I could spike your hair.” I may as well have told him to dress like Elmo.

I was out of ideas. Halloween was in a couple of days. If my son planned on participating, he needed something easy to throw together with things we had on hand. But as usual, anything I suggested became automatically cursed.

It wasn’t just him. My daughter had just picked her costume over the weekend, landing on a wacky-tacky idea that needed nothing more than a quick rummage through her dresser drawers. It was like every preschool outfit she ever wore and it came together easily. I could breathe a little easier.

I had a feeling all this last-minute stuff was just payback for last year when my son decided to be Gimli from Lord of the Rings. I thought he’d change his mind. It was a costume that would require some effort. But 15 minutes to cut a beard? I had time. I procrastinated and on Halloween that 15 minutes turned into an hour as I tried to figure out how to get the beard to stay on. And that was my second attempt. I had no fabric left. It had to work.

While cutting the first beard, my son grumbled, “I knew you were going to mess this up.” I should have just told him to grow his own.

Maybe I could have made that costume earlier and not waited until the last possible minute. But my son is notorious for changing his mind every year. He’ll make a decision and then the afternoon of Halloween announce he’s going to be a pirate for the third year in a row. I just can’t invest much in his Halloween costumes. But I knew if I screwed up that costume, he wouldn’t wear it, even after hours of hard work.

Surprisingly, he did wear it. All of it. All night long. It was a Halloween miracle. A few weeks ago, my husband and son were cleaning and decided the beard and fur vest from last year wouldn’t be needed again. I almost spoke up, but the fur did shed a lot.

So the night before this Halloween, my son finally decided on a costume, not something easy—Radagast the Brown, a wizard from The Hobbit movie. And guess what he needed for his costume? Brown clothing. A beard. We searched the house for anything brown.

I woke at 5 a.m. on Halloween wondering how to make that hat out of a paper bag. And another beard. How did I make it last year? I’d have to measure his face before school. My son had awoken at 3 and decided on a zombie, trying to think of what that costume should be. I made him choose before school. As I crumpled a paper bag into Radagast’s hat, I still wasn’t sure he’d wear it. I bought a cheap brown sweater from Goodwill to make the brown cloak. He’d wear my husband’s old brown pants. I made a long, scraggly beard from hot-glue and an old brown T-shirt.

When dusk came and we put the costume together, it looked pretty good. I worried he’d look like he had a turkey on his head. I still worried he’d change his mind. As I feared, he didn’t want to wear the hat or the beard. Without them, he’d look like a kid in humongous clothes. I begged him to wear them just for pictures, so he did. He wore them all night. Another Halloween miracle.

I know I shouldn’t have saved him. I could have let him suffer for waiting so long. I didn’t have to work so hard. But at 10, how many more times will he go out trick-or-treating? How many will he remember? This could be the one he remembers most. This could be the costume he likes best—or probably least. Regardless, it’s a memory. For me and for him. And I think a little bit of my time was worth it.

radagast o lantern

Little boys who don’t share their candy with Mom turn into pumpkins at midnight, it’s true.

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Can You Still Teach This Old Mom New Math Tricks?

If you read my blog regularly, you may know that math is a bad word to me. Just when I think I’m done with it, it rears its ugly head. So how on earth could I have spawned a child who by some miracle is really starting to get it? A child who not only gets it, but was so excited about something new he learned recently that he wanted to teach it to me?

You may read about that episode, where I may or may not have squirmed a little, here. (It’s a guest post for a great local—to me—moms’ site.) And you may find out whether I am or am not smarter than my fifth grader. In math anyway.

It's deceiving, I say.

It’s deceiving, I say.

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Middle School: A Time of Firsts

This is the follow-up to the post Firsts. Also, a disclaimer: This post is not intended to state that private schools are better. While my experience at my private school was sheltered, many kids there were caught doing “naughty” things. I was just not privy to them at the time.

Sixth grade. Public school. First time riding the bus. First time waiting at the bus stop, walking up those steps and down the aisle searching for a seat, hoping the person who sat with me would be nice. Then hoping anyone sat with me, just not the weird kid.

I’d just finished six years at a religious private school. What I would soon find out was that I was fresh meat. Innocent. Raw. Defenseless. It would take me three years to toughen up, to learn the way of the land, to stop pretending and ease into my own.

One of the first things I learned was that I lived a sheltered life in private school. The kids I played with and learned with didn’t come in a rainbow of colors. On the outside we all looked happy and had decent clothes. I never saw two people punch each other or pull hair and become a blurred mass of fury knocking down books and desks and making teachers and kids scramble.

The worst word I ever heard was sex and it was whispered and giggled about. During middle school I learned to laugh when the other kids did because I didn’t know what an orgasm was or a “BJ,” but they still knew I was clueless. I quickly put things together. I rolled my eyes and said no when boys joked about doing any of those things with me. I wasn’t always sure they were joking.

The first time I put myself out there and admitted to liking a boy, he didn’t like me back. Then I realized the girl I told to ask him, the boy, and probably his friends all knew I had liked him. Crushing.

A mysterious note consoled me. Once opened it read, “I like you. Do you like me? Check one: Yes or No. Sit beside me on the bus and tell me then.” Ugh. I knew who it was. And check, the answer was no. I didn’t sit with him on the bus.

The first time I was offered drugs was on the bus riding through my neighborhood. Some of the long-haired boys who always wore flannel shirts and never carried any schoolbooks asked if I wanted to come smoke a bowl with them. I had an image of a giant cooking bowl filled with something smoldering and the boys sniffing the smoke. It didn’t seem like a good time and I didn’t ever want to be in their company.

One of the first friends I made smoked cigarettes in the bathroom. I didn’t even like to talk during class because I was afraid I’d get in trouble. She talked back to the teacher. When another friend and I spent the night at her house the first time, she stole two warm beers from her parents and offered me some. I declined and watched as the girls all drank and started acting silly.

It would be another year before I tried alcohol. Tequila from a new friend’s liquor cabinet. It was disgusting. But the crème de menthe wasn’t so bad.

I remember my three years of middle school in great detail, despite trying to push the trauma back all these years. My son starts middle school next year. I know what’s coming. I fear it. Part of me wants to run screaming for the hills. The other part of me says we’ll get through this. He will get through this. I am better for having survived middle school. I faced my problems. I made mostly good decisions. Those may have been the first times I faced those things, but they certainly weren’t the last.

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Firsts

The first day of school is behind us. This year no one in this house had any firsts. It wasn’t the first day of kindergarten that kept me up and tore me up for so many nights. It wasn’t the first day of middle school (that comes next year) that had me worried as an 11-year-old. Would I know where to go? Would I know anyone? After three hours, did I settle on the right outfit to wear the next day?

This year my son and daughter seem pretty settled into routine right away as third and fifth graders, but as a mom I still lie awake at night and think of all the firsts that await them.

In no particular order, the first…

  • Big fight with a friend
  • Bra
  • Crush
  • Bad fashion choice
  • Time getting in trouble at school
  • Bra strap getting snapped by the boy sitting behind you
  • Big decision
  • Bad grade on a report card
  • Broken bone
  • Kiss
  • Time shaving
  • Thoughts of a career path
  • Time trying to find a place to sit in the lunchroom
  • Dance
  • Time you feel very alone
  • Time someone offers you drugs
  • Attempt at asking someone on a date
  • Time you feel ashamed
  • Trip away from home without your parents
  • Boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Breakup
  • Heartbreak
  • Time you defy your parents
  • Book that makes you cry
  • Party
  • Teacher you hate
  • Cigarette
  • Alcohol
  • Boss you hate
  • Job you love
  • Time driving a car
  • Wreck
  • Ticket
  • Time the cops bring you home
  • College acceptance letter
  • Time leaving home
  • Time flunking a class
  • Time making your parents proud
  • Failure
  • Time you tried to overcome a fear
  • Time you were a coward
  • True love
  • Real job
  • Time trying to make conversation and a friend at work
  • Time trying to find someone to sit with at lunch
  • Marriage
  • Big fight
  • Ruined dinner
  • Child…

And I think everything is a first with kids. The cycle begins again.

What others can you think of? (And share your story.) These were all firsts of mine. Let me know which ones you most want to hear the backstory about and I’ll write a future post about the most requested ones.

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Sometimes Books Hold Mom’s Stories Too

My children can’t always be held accountable for hanging onto things. When they finally feel inspired, I look into their bin of discarded ponies, plastic fast food meal toys, and assorted paper bits, and swell with glee to be rid of it all. But then my eyes wander and settle on the pile of books sitting amidst the junk—books my child feels she has outgrown. I see a pile of memories, a past that I can no longer get back and already feels worlds away. My heart sinks and my chest swells with that feeling of pressure you hold back when you’re about to cry.

Some books you never want to see again. Some books you read to your kids a million times and every word pains you. But when I looked at the Mercy Watson series teetering on my daughter’s pile of junk, I immediately remembered when my daughter wanted them. They were her first chapter books and a transition to something so much older. I felt sad and excited at the same time when we started reading them, the same way I felt when my son and I started Nate the Great. It meant something to be graduating from picture books just like it means something that my kids’ shelves are now mostly covered in more difficult books they can read alone. Each new stage takes them further away from me and those nights long ago when I’d point to words and show them in earnest how to understand the world.ohmercy

My daughter would never admit in a million years that she loved pigs at the time we started Mercy Watson, but she did—because they were pink. We’d snuggle in her bed at night and read several chapters. I didn’t do it for every book, but for these books, I had a special voice for every character. Crotchety Eugenia sounded like my childhood friend’s grandmother. We began those books not long after my daughter got her big girl bed. But what I remember more is when my daughter started reading them herself, a sign of the passage of time that I must have missed for she still looked like my baby to me. How could she possibly be reading them to herself?

I’ve read to my kids every night since they could sit up. Since they were old enough to talk, we’ve spent the time after bedtime stories talking about their day, escaping and connecting. So the books we’ve read remind me of those times too—conversations about not feeling wanted that have broken my heart, the revelation of getting in trouble at school after pretending all afternoon that things were fine, and worry upon worry about the world.

I snatched those Mercy Watson books from the pile yesterday. And there will be more. Some books have too many memories attached of nights with my kids, eras that have ended. For now Fancy Nancy still sits on my daughter’s shelf. I remember that phase when my daughter wore skirts over pants, strands of long beads, glasses with large frames, and purple plastic heels. It’s an image burned into my memory because it was a phase that passed too quickly. The books reminded me of the preschool her and they always will. I’ll always have images of her running through the yard singing in a tutu and pink cowboy boots or playing soccer in all her finery with her brother on the driveway, but I’ll never live that again. I imagine soon those books will end up on my shelves too. Some things I’m just not ready to let go.

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What Laura Ingalls Wilder Taught a Modern Mom

If you haven’t read the Little House books and plan to, know that this post includes some spoilers.

“You know how Mary is always so good and just sits there?”

“Yeah because she’s blonde.”

“You remember that time they went to church and Laura wore Mary’s ribbons and Mary wore Laura’s?”

“Yeah because they were running late.”

Two little girls had just had a conversation about a Little House book in my kitchen. Not American Girl dolls they want or a TV show or a video game. A book.

I didn’t talk about books when I was a kid. When I was about nine, I attempted Little House and failed. I just couldn’t get into it. Over the past year and a half, my seven-year-old daughter and I read the series together. When we started Little House in the Big Woods, I honestly didn’t think we’d get through it. I thought my daughter would find it boring. But in the quiet of the evening, my daughter faced me and soaked it in, asking questions.

When we started Little House on the Prairie and the building of their new house is described in so much detail, I thought we wouldn’t go on, but at the end of each book my daughter couldn’t wait for the next. Neither could I. All I could think was that I was so happy I didn’t read these books when I was a girl. Reading them for the first time with my daughter has been a gift revealed page by page. We couldn’t wait to see what each night would bring. Would the wolves get into the house? Would Pa make it home? “Oh, Mom! You always stop at the good parts!”littlehouse

What’s the appeal of stories about a girl’s pioneer life from more than a century ago? Laura’s many chores, danger, and solitude on the quiet prairie with few toys and comforts is more like our childhoods than we think. After all, even then it was hard for a girl to listen and sit still.

And reading the books for the first time as an adult, the books shed some perspective on my modern life.

• The Ingalls family doesn’t have much. They can take everything they own and move from place to place in a covered wagon. My family has tons of stuff. Some of it fills me with joy but I dare guess how many covered wagons it would take to move all of our things. Wagon train, anyone?

• The Ingalls family fixes what is broken. Pa wears his patched boots to walk a hundred miles for work, saving the money for something else. I wouldn’t want Pa to see my closet full of shoes. For shame, Karen.

• Oh, that mean old Nellie Oleson! If there is one thing I learned while reading On the Banks of Plum Creek, it’s that there is always a mean girl.

• We don’t control blizzards, grasshopper weather, the outcome of our crops, or the effects of illness. The Ingalls family pushes through the cold winter, Pa finds work to make money since the grasshoppers ate their crops, and Mary accepts her blindness with dignity. No one falls to the floor in a fit, whines for pity, or sheds a tear when things go wrong. Let me be clear—there is no dignity in this house in the face of misfortune.

I know the books are historical fiction, but I also know Wilder included many facts in her books. I can’t help but think the emotion is part of that.

After reading about Laura’s life, her closeness with her family, it was hard to read about her last night at home before getting married. I remember my own last night at home when the realization sunk in that things would be different and I would take on new roles. It was hard to see Laura move on. I could barely read the words to my daughter. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” Every few words I paused so I wouldn’t burst into sobs. And then my daughter knew, it clicked, and she looked at me. Tears streamed down her cheeks and we wiped our tears and laughed. “I don’t ever want to leave you!” she cried. But I know she will one day. And that’s OK.

I’ll always have memories of this time together while my kids are young, reading to them, spending time with them. In Laura’s family, Pa plays the fiddle each night while everyone gathers round. In ours, we play games together or hang out. I guess family time is something that has stood the test of time.

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