Parents and Children: Inheritance

December 4, 2012 by  
Filed under Family, Tanya Ward Goodman, Urban Dweller

By Tanya Ward Goodman

This morning I forgot how to thread my sewing machine. I pulled the old, pink thread out and popped on a new, navy spool in its place. And then I stopped. Or I was stopped. The machine looked as foreign as if it had just fallen from the sky and landed on my table. There were two metal rods, a round silver button, a little hook. I knew that eventually the thread needed to get from the top of the machine down to the eye of the needle, but the route was impossible to imagine.

I freaked out.

I don’t sew often. I never make my own clothes or even clothes for my kids. I drag the little sewing machine out of the closet to make Halloween costumes and hem my son’s pants. Sometimes my daughter and I will design clothes for her stuffed rabbit. I like having a sewing machine. It makes me feel industrious even when it’s just sitting in my closet.

In fact, this morning, just before I forgot how to use it, I’d said to my husband, “I love this sewing machine. I love it.” And I meant that.

I tried to figure out how to thread the machine for a few minutes during which time my daughter was shouting for my help with her hair and my son was dancing around the house in his underwear. (I was supposed to be hemming his pants.) The more I stared at the little metal button and the two metal rods and the shiny hook, the less familiar they looked.

“How’s it going?” my husband asked. He was feeling the pressures of our morning. He had been disinvited from helping our daughter with her hair, he was annoyed with the pantsless dancing and the pile of papers that should have been in the boy’s backpack instead of cascading off the edge of the table. The clock was nudging everyone out the door.

“I can’t remember how to thread the machine,” I said through tears. And as soon as I said it, I couldn’t really breathe. I know a panic attack when I feel one and so I made a solid effort to settle my brain. My husband looked worried and I could hear the squeaky, weepy sounds I was making and I kind of crumpled down into the chair.

“It’s just…” I started.
“I know,” my husband said.

My son was still dancing around in his underwear. My daughter called to me from her room. Her hair was not cooperating.

Her hair is thick and curly. In the sunlight, red highlights gleam like polished wood. On a damp day like today, wisps curl romantically around her face, at the nape of her neck. It’s the hair of my dreams. But it is not the hair of her dreams. She wants stick straight, smooth hair. She struggles to control her curls. She combs and combs her hair until it’s almost straight and then she pulls it back close to her scalp and subdues it with a series of small clips.

My daughter is frustrated with her appearance. I wonder if she has inherited this from me. When I was her age, I spent hours trying to coax my straight hair into waves. My son, dancing and distracted, has inherited my short attention span, my quick temper and thankfully, my silliness.

Have I inherited my father’s forgetting?

Every day, I see something of my parents in me and I see something of me in my children. I hear my mother’s voice when I talk, see the shape of my father’s hands in my own. My kids say things like “let’s high tail it out of here,” and “for Cripe’s sake,” not just because I say them, but because my parents did, too.

My father was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s when he was 57. He died when he was 62. I think about this every time I misplace my keys or forget the password to my bank account. I thought of it today. I remember the day he told me he knew the word “knife,” but he could no longer pick it out of the silverware drawer.

This is a scary thing, and one I am usually able to skirt around. I exercise a lot. I eat well. I learn new things. I do the crossword puzzle. But I am my father’s daughter.

I don’t sew very often. Threading the machine is complicated for anyone. There was a lot going on this morning that made it hard to concentrate. I am most likely fine. It is what it is. Like curly hair or straight hair or a short attention span or a love of dancing, this forgetting and this fear of forgetting is just another part of me.

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Mini Maestro

October 16, 2012 by  
Filed under Family, Tanya Ward Goodman, Urban Dweller

By Tanya Ward Goodman

 

My daughter has taken up the violin. At her school she was lucky enough to be able to sign up for orchestra and that means that not only does she get out of class on Tuesdays to rehearse, but she also gets to borrow a small violin for the duration of the school year.

She’s had the violin for one week during which she has not had any formal training with the orchestra teacher. She is, however undaunted.

“Would you like to hear a masterpiece?” she asks. She holds the violin against her shoulder and looks up at me expectantly.

I am hesitant. My brother played the violin and I know first hand that when you first start to play the thing all you get for your trouble are the same kind of sounds you’d get if you squeezed a cat really hard.

“I know how to write music,” my daughter says. “AAAGGEEEDDDGGG. All you need to know are AGBDF. And I know that.”

“Give it a whirl,” I say. And she does. The sound makes my teeth want to crawl all the way up inside my skull.

“A masterpiece,” she states.

Here is my opportunity to talk about the value of practice. I can sidestep the meaningless encouragement the parents of my generation are getting so much flak for dishing out and instead be honest.

“Would you like to take some lessons?” I ask. “I would think it might be hard to learn to play when you only have one class a week and it’s with lots of other people learning different instruments.”

Her eyes narrow.

“I can see you are very excited about learning to play the violin,” I say. “I think with some practice you will be a wonderful musician.”

“I know how to play,” she says. “I am writing my own music.”

There was a time that my daughter swore she spoke Spanish. She walked around the house naming objects in gibberish language. She does not speak Spanish, but she has cojones to spare.

I do not want to dent her confident shell, but I do think that ultimately she will be well served by a dose of reality.

I don’t tell her that she is, indeed, writing a masterpiece, nor do I mention the sounds of a distressed feline.

“I like your enthusiasm,” I say. And I do.

I hope that she will come to realize that the ability to play an instrument or speak a language comes from practice and hard work. It is a rare and lucky soul who has a juicy reservoir of natural talent and even the most gifted need to practice and work to be able to use their talents wisely and well.

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A Lesson in Parenting: On the Way to the Donut Shop

By Tanya Ward Goodman

On the way to the donut shop, we were filled with excitement. Because the kids were so excited to stuff their bellies with sugar, they’d bounced out of bed even though the sky was barely light. Dressed and brushed and washed, they were cheerful and happy. As the sun pinked up with morning, I was an awesome mom.

Despite the fact that there is a donut shop half a block from school, we opted for the drive-thru donut shop in Burbank. The five-mile road trip from our house added excitement to our adventure. On the way there, the traffic was in our favor. We zipped up the road, the radio on, the wind in our hair, time on our side. I was an awesome mom.

Perhaps because I was thinking about what an awesome mom I was, I missed my exit.

Traffic snarled. Orange barrels and closed lanes clogged our way. The radio station suddenly started playing only news. Bad news.

“Do you even know where you are going?” my daughter asked.
“Did you space out?” my son wondered.

Yes.
Yes.

“We’ll get there,” I cheerfully assured.
“We have seventeen minutes,” my son answered.

I tried to keep calm. A few twists and turns later, I found the donut shop.

Donuts are good. Coffee is better. One sip sparked my brain to life. I was on top of this. We were going to make it. The kids, happily tucking into fried sugar bombs, were feeling confident in my skills. I was an awesome mom.

But donuts offer fleeting comfort. The pleasure of donuts is ephemeral. Time waits for no man.

“I can’t be tardy,” my daughter said.
“I need to be there before the bell,” my son echoed.
“I’m glad to see you feel responsible,” I said. “But don’t let it worry you too much. Sometimes things happen.”
“Why did we go so far away?” my daughter wondered.
“Because it was fun,” my son replied. It heartened me to hear that he was still (marginally) on my side.
“Well, it’s not fun if it makes us late,” my daughter said. Her frown, by this time, was permanently set.
And I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my choices.

A mile and a half before our exit, with only seven minutes remaining before the second bell, traffic stopped completely. My daughter’s scowl deepened. My son started to chew his nails. I groped around for a way to simultaneously calm them down and save face.

“So can we do anything about this traffic?” I wondered. “Can we drive the car over all these other cars? Can we fly?”

“I wish,” my son says. He is still smiling.
“Nothing will make this better,” my daughter said. “You shouldn’t have brought us here. Why did you make us late?”

I felt stung. I started to say, “We all decided to do this.” But I stopped. It was my fault. I’m the parent. And I made a bad decision. I had to take the donut and one-up it with a road trip. My need to be an awesome mom suddenly seemed a little desperate.

“I got caught up in what I thought would be fun, but I didn’t think it through,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

The traffic inched forward an inch. My son sighed. My daughter rolled her eyes.

“We can’t change this can we?” I asked. “The only thing we can change is how we react to this.”

I explained that sometimes, even when we try to make everything work, things don’t turn out the way we expect. Sometimes the best-laid plans fall apart and when they do, it is more often than not due to something over which we have no control. We only have control over ourselves.

I took a deep breath and willed myself to relax. I willed the little accusatory voice in my head to stop harping about the dangers of sugar and fat and tardiness. I willed my self-doubt away and recognized that I was trying hard and doing my best and that I’d made a mistake, but not one that was going to impact us for the rest of time.

“If I can only teach you one thing,” I said. “I hope I can teach you to relax in situations like this. I hope I can teach you to accept that there are some things we just can’t change. Some days, stuff happens and all we can do is ride it out and let it go.”

My son nodded. He tried to hear what I was saying. My daughter gave me her best stormy eyes. And eventually we arrived at school. Nearly thirty minutes late. I filled out tardy slips and when the principal wondered why we were late, my son very calmly said, “Traffic.”

And then he turned and gave me the most wonderful smile.

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Parents and Their Children: Birds of a Feather

September 18, 2012 by  
Filed under Family, Tanya Ward Goodman, Urban Dweller

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Last year, a wren made her nest in our birdhouse and hatched four baby birds. Whenever the mama bird would leave the nest, the hatchlings would scream their heads off. The mama bird would dart quickly around our yard in search of insects and rush back to the nest where she was greeted by a chorus of shrieked gratitude, which shifted almost immediately into an even louder chorus of renewed hunger at which point, the mama wren would launch herself off out of the birdhouse in search of more food.

I felt a strange kinship with this little wren. As she flew in hectic loops around our yard, it was not so hard to see myself navigating a shopping cart through the crowded aisles of Trader Joe’s. Her kids were loud and needy and so were mine. She was frantic and a little nervous. Her feathers, like my hair, needed grooming.

This year, a mourning dove made her nest in the rose bush just outside my son’s window. She sat so quietly, and blended so perfectly into the shadows, that the only clue to her presence was the gleam of her black eye. She laid two perfect eggs and hatched two tiny babies. These hatchlings, just like their mama, were still and silent. They sat patiently in the nest and waited for her to return with food. The babies seemed content with what she brought and they didn’t clamor for more. The mama dove was serene. The baby doves were calm. It isn’t for nothing that these birds are a symbol of peace.

Before I had kids, the only people I knew with children were my friends T and A. They had a boy who liked to read and draw pictures and later a girl who also liked to read books and draw pictures. Their children were calm and quiet and polite. When I went over to their house, my friends cooked elaborate dinners and talked of books they had read (all while having two children under that age of five). These same children would later develop a taste for imported cheeses and both the knowledge of and desire for a “salad course.” These children inspired me to have my own children.

My son did not always like to sit and read or draw pictures. He mostly liked to run. He liked to knock things over and jump on the furniture. When we went to our friends’ house for dinner, he took apart their son’s train set and pounded on the floor with the wooden tracks. At the park when other kids sat and played in the sand, my son raced away across the grass. I raced after him at first carrying my post pregnancy pounds, then my pregnant belly and later lugging his newborn sister. I forgot to read books or brush my hair.

My kids are my kids. They are a part of me just the way the wren’s kids are hers and the dove’s are hers. When I wonder where they came from, I only have to look in the mirror. I aspire to the calm serenity of the dove and there are days when I actually achieve it. But I am at heart a wren. My kids are wrens. We are excitable and anxious and filled with energies we don’t exactly know how to harness. It took me a long time to know this about myself. I’ve learned that I need to walk a lot to keep level. I need to skip sugar and keep the coffee to a minimum. I need lots of lists to keep me organized and alone time to keep me sane. I am embracing the thing I am and also the things I need to be calm in the world. I am trying to use this knowledge to help my kids find ways to soothe themselves, to be patient in the nest, to stay calm and certain that food and comfort and love will always return.

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How I Became a Mom

September 11, 2012 by  
Filed under Family, Tanya Ward Goodman, Urban Dweller

By Tanya Ward Goodman

My belly is so huge, I can only fasten the top three buttons of my shirt. I fold the fabric up and run my hands over the warmth. Under my palm is the little lump that is an elbow or knee. Right now, the boy we have decided to call Theo is curled up inside me. When I close my eyes, I can see him. I can’t wait to meet him, can’t wait to hold him in my arms and inspect all his little parts. I want to put his toes in my mouth. I look forward to reading him stories and giving him his first spoonful of ice cream. I want to show him how to stand very still and look closely for lizards sleeping in the sunshine. I will make up songs for my boy and help him curl his fingers around a pencil.
The phone rings. It is my stepmother Carla, whose name over the years has shortened to La. Her voice is bright and brittle and I know that something is wrong.

“Your Dad’s had a stroke,” she says. “He’s not in great shape. I don’t want you to worry, but I want you to know.”

A little over four years ago, my dad was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at age fifty-eight. Just as the doctors promised, the disease progressed quickly, running like a forestfire through Dad’s mind, leaving only emptiness it its wake. Dad doesn’t know that Theo is about to arrive. In a process the Alzheimer’s literature calls “shrimping,” his body has curved inward. He no longer speaks or feeds himself. Like my unborn son, he is floating in his own waters. Though we find this brine vast and uncharted, I have to believe that he is taking as much comfort and nourishment from these waters as my son is taking from the fluids of my womb.

Theo is not due for three weeks, but perhaps because he knows something I do not, perhaps because he and my father have traveled in shared waters of consciousness, he decides to arrive early. At ten o’clock in the morning, I stand up from my chair and I feel a small pop. My pants are wet and for a moment, I think, great, not only am I huge, but I’m incontinent, too… but then I realize the water keeps coming. Holy smokes, this is it. I’m oddly calm. I change clothes and call my doctor’s office. Then I call a friend to tell her I won’t be able to make our movie date. Then I call my husband.

“Honey,” I say. “My water broke. I’m fine. We have a doctor’s appointment in an hour.”

“I’m leaving right now,” he says. David doesn’t sound quite as calm as I feel.

I am having small contractions, but they are not painful. My belly feels taut like the string on a bow just before the arrow is let fly.

I call my mom. “I’m in labor,” I say. “The baby is coming.”

“But what should I do?” She says. “What should I do?”

“Get on a plane,” I say. “We’ll see you soon.”

I call La. “The baby is coming,” I say.

“Holy shit,” she says. “It’s good timing. Maybe he’ll get to meet his granddad. Hang in there.”

I call my sister-in-law Megan. “The baby is coming,” I say.

“And you’re talking on the phone?” she says. “Geez, Tanya. Keep breathing, just keep breathing.”

And I do. I keep breathing. We all do. A couple of hours later, with the help of David and our neighbor, I make the journey down the steps from our apartment to the car on the street. I have to stop every couple of breaths to bend and let the pain crash over me. Big changes are afoot. I am an earthquake. My boy is on his way and there is nothing I can do but give myself over to the rumbling.

At the hospital, I walk around and I make jokes and every few minutes, I stop all of that and I curl up into myself and let Theo try to work his way out. We are a team. This is a joint project. It is painful and difficult, but we are in it together and I love him already for his courage and his ferocity. As the contractions come faster and faster, I close my eyes between tremors and I see my son swimming toward me. I rest in these moments. I reach out to my boy and guide him through the water. When I open my eyes, I push with all my might.

My boy is swimming toward me. Like a little fish, his body is flying quick and silvery through one world into the next. The pain of this transition is almost unbearable.

“Feel his head,” my husband says and he guides my fingers down between my legs to something damp and wrinkled and fuzzy like a peach.

“You should see your face,” David says. “You look wonderful.”

And then Theo is in the world. He is wailing and I am gasping and all around me the lights are dancing with halos made by my tears. We have a son. We have a family.

When I was nine I realized that one day my father would die. I cried and cried and he held me and dug his big tickling fingers into my armpits and said, “Jesus, Tanya, I’m only 35. I’m not going anywhere.”

Now, I’m nearly 35 and my father is dying and I’m holding my newborn son in my arms and I understand how Dad could be so certain. The kind of love I feel right now for my boy is the kind of love that makes me feel like I could defy death. It’s the kind of love that I will still feel, like the sun on my back, even after my father is gone.

Adapted from Tanya’s memoir, “Leaving Tinkertown” which will be published by the University of New Mexico in Fall 2013.

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Kayaking The LA River

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Today I put my feet in the Los Angeles River. A school of silver fish the size of paper clips glimmered in the shallows. I felt gravel between my toes. In the distance a cement bridge and the roar of the traffic on Burbank Boulevard reminded me that I was still in the city.

I had signed on with LA River Expeditions, a group whose original mission to protect the Los Angeles River via the Clean Water Act was accomplished by proving the river could be navigated in its entirety. Hoping to further their cause, the group has dedicated itself to providing first hand educational encounters with the river. They figure that the more people who travel the river, the more people there will be who understand that there is something to protect and preserve.

I climbed into a small, lime green kayak and joined my fellow travellers as we headed up river. We paused under a cement bridge where the reflections of the water danced across the graffiti of a shark.

The particular stretch we travelled is one of three sandy bottom sections of the river. Because this section is not cemented over like so much of the river, plants and trees grow thick and wild and birds are everywhere. I saw egrets and stilts and an osprey and dozens of smaller birds I could not name. I maneuvered through the shallow water, around the occasional submerged and rusted shopping cart. I saw a huge tire flocked with thick green algae. Shredded plastic bags hung from low branches, waving in the wind like prayer flags. Despite these traces of humanity, it was beautiful. The water was smooth and green and the sun cast long shadows of leaves over the rippled surface. I dipped my paddle in and out of the water and I felt peaceful.

I had an adventure in what could be loosely construed as my own backyard, but I feel as if I’ve taken a longer journey. Today I saw something that few people have seen. I travelled a waterway that few have travelled. And I did it all with time to spare for school pickup and soccer practice. Next time, I will bring the kids.

 

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Out of the Dirt

By Tanya Ward Goodman

 

At the tail end of winter, we began a huge yard renovation. We dug things up and moved things around. It would look much worse before it looked any better. My daughter and I took apart the composter where we had been tossing rinds and seeds and smushy ends of fruit and vegetables for nearly three years. We turned the whole mess over with a pitchfork and then shoveled it onto a piece of screen set over the wheelbarrow. My girl shook the screen while I, with gloved hands, crumbled chalky bits of eggshell and removed hollowed cornhusks and banana peels made leathery in the heat. We found huge white grubs, eyeless worm things as thick as my thumb. We found earwigs and shiny black beetles and millipedes as flexible and bright as copper wire. It was messy business this composting, but our labor was rewarded with a nearly full wheelbarrow of fine soil, dark as coffee grounds.

 

As the work in the yard dragged on, we rolled this precious soil from one place to the next, hoping to add it to new garden beds where we would grow more vegetables and herbs and start the whole composting process again. It took a long time before the beds were ready and with all the rain and sun, small sprouts had begun to grow in the red wheelbarrow. I recognized the jagged leaves of tomato and the lily pad leaves of squash or melon. I thought there might be an eggplant. We transplanted these “volunteers” into the new yard as the gloom of June lifted. As the heat of July descended, we waited for them to reveal their identities.

This morning, I held the hem of my shirt up to make a pocket and loaded dozens of bright red tomatoes the size of quail eggs. In my garden there are also Japanese eggplant and the prickly green mystery pods have turned into melons, which ripen in the sun. Miniature pumpkins rise from the husk of last Halloween. It is magical and wonderful, but also very logical and real. These things went into the compost and so it makes sense that they would come out.

That logic doesn’t detract at all from the magic.

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Mother and Daughter Search For Their Lost Dog

By: Tanya Ward Goodman

“Why did you cry when we found our dog, but not when we lost her?”

This is a question my daughter asked me today. Our dog had run out of the house and down the street with our dear houseguests chasing valiantly and desperately after. Despite their heroic efforts, she vanished.

My daughter and I had been dropping my son at camp. We returned to sorrowful faces and we began the hunt. We climbed up the trail in the park (the largest city park in the country) and the trees that are usually so delightfully shady seemed ominous and dark. The park, so familiar to us from so many, many rambles, seemed strange and dangerous.

My daughter’s lip trembled.
I shouted our dog’s name.
“Grace.” I shouted for Grace.
Tears the size of green grapes rolled down my daughter’s cheeks.
“Will she be home for dinner?” she asked. “She has to be home for dinner.”
She cried and I shouted. I called for Grace until my throat was dry and my voice was a whisper.

We returned home for better shoes, water, hats, and sunscreen. We returned home hoping to find our small, strawberry blonde dog sitting on our doorstep.

No luck.

My daughter cried some more.
We drove around the neighborhood. We asked everyone we saw to keep a lookout for our dog and they all promised that they would. The hikers and the bikers and the midday dog walkers joined in our search. I posted our missing dog’s photo online and friends in town and from far away chimed in to help. Dear Grace’s floppy ears and little black nose popped up on iPhones and computer screens across the country.

And still my daughter cried.

We were taking another run up the hill in the park when I got the call. A nice man, a self-described “dog person” had found Grace. I had to ask him repeat his address because I couldn’t hear it over the sound of my own sobs.

The answer to my daughter’s question is this: I cannot cry while you are crying because I have to find a way to fix the problem and if I’m crying it will be harder. Later, when I know it is all going to be okay, I cry to let out all the tears I was too busy and worried to cry. And then some.

Grace is a blessing, a temporary reprieve. Grace is a dog. Grace is what I hope for as a parent. And what, for a time I was able to achieve today. Grace is home safe where she belongs.

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Cook by the Book

By: Tanya Ward Goodman

I am a good cook, but I am not a good measurer. I am not very detail oriented. I sometimes read a recipe like a novel, and realize halfway through that (spoiler alert) the roast needs to marinate for two days or the pie should be refrigerated overnight instead of served to guests who will arrive in half an hour.

On the bright side, because I am not really married to the recipe, I find it possible to veer off the page with ease. I am handy with substitutions, sometimes starting a recipe with only one or two things in the ingredients list. I see recipes as loose guidelines. It could be a thing to do with fish, but it will probably work with chicken or rice or tofu. It could be a salad. I like to think about flavor more than form. It usually works out and I am almost always able to find something in my house to make for dinner.

Recently, I started to bake bread. A friend gave me a gob of starter and told me how to feed it flour and use bits of it to bake new loaves. He gave me a recipe and a series of YouTube links that illustrated how to fold the bread and proof the bread. He wondered if I had something called a “bench knife.”

“Sure,” I said, because I thought I probably had something that would work as a bench knife.

Once I got home, I hauled out the kitchen scale and began to carefully weigh my flour and water while my husband looked on with what can only be called a suspicious eye.

“Doesn’t it seem like maybe I should be the one to bake bread?” he asked.

He is, of course, more by the numbers than I am. He measures twice and cuts once. He always reads the entire instruction manual.

“I’m growing,” I said. “Don’t stand in the way of my personal growth.”

So I measured and stirred and folded my dough. I let it rise and, finally, baked it up into a nice round loaf. And it was good. Not great, but good enough.

On my next loaf, I couldn’t help myself. I fiddled with the flour ratio. I added a little more wheat and a little less white. I may or may not have folded as often as I should have. I might not have formed the boule as carefully. But, once baked and slathered with butter, it was good enough.

So I kept it up and every time, I went a little further off the recipe, was a little looser with my measurements. And although the bread kept getting eaten, it wasn’t getting any better. If anything, it was getting a little worse.

Sometimes I write the way I cook. I let scenes stand even when they aren’t saying what I really want them to say. I give space to experimental riffs and tangents. Sometimes I toss out plot and give into character. I forgive a loose structure or a fragmented narrative. I figure that a handful of good sentences are enough to make it sort of work. Slap a little butter on it and it’s okay to eat.

But I don’t think that it’s the way to do it. I’m realizing that I can do many things reasonably well, but to really, really excel at something, I’m going to have to pay more attention. I need to be more mindful. I might need to follow a recipe carefully from beginning to end.

This morning, I started another loaf. My daughter helped me scoop the flour onto the scale and carefully pour out the water. She’s a lot like me. She builds from scratch and makes up new rules to any game she doesn’t understand. I want her to continue to do this, but I want her to know the rules. I told her why we measure the flour. I related the little I have learned about why the dough rises and what it needs to become bread. I told her we have to take care if we want a good loaf.

The dough is rising overnight and tomorrow we’ll see how this one turns out.

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Family Road Trip

By: Tanya Ward Goodman

 

Road trips were a major part of my childhood. My dad’s work as a carnival showpainter took him all around the country and often he’d pull me out of school to accompany him. We drove from Albuquerque to Dallas, Texas and Tulsa, Oklahoma and Little Rock, Arkansas and once all the way to Florida. On that trip, we made it a point to stop at every McDonalds we came across, certain that we’d collect enough of their “Monopoly” playing pieces to win a million dollars.

We didn’t win the cash, but we had a few amazing adventures and I saw a lot of the country glide past my window. These trips were fun and exciting and often dull as dirt. I was bored in the desert and in the prairie and through the piney woods. I didn’t have an iPad or a DS or even a decent Walkman. I had the music from my dad’s tape deck (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Gene Autry) and the thoughts in my own head. Dad and I would talk and sometimes I’d read stories aloud, but on a trip of any length eventually everyone lapses into silence. It was in this silence that I explored the inside of my head. I daydreamed and made up conversations. I conjured stories for the people I’d seen at a rest area, created histories for the dilapidated houses and barns we passed and reimagined my own life a thousand times. I think it was some of the most valuable time I have ever spent and I still look forward to a long drive and this kind of uninterrupted thinking time.

I wanted my children to have this same experience and so last week, I piled them into the car and headed east toward New Mexico. I packed books and colored pencils and drawing paper. I downloaded Willie Nelson onto my iPod, but also Katy Perry for my daughter and Tom Petty for my son (he’s on a classic rock kick). I did not pack any sort of “screens.”

When I mentioned my plan to fellow parents, they were slightly horrified. They wondered if I was worried or scared or just plain nuts. I will admit, I packed the DVD player and a cache of kids’ movies in a secret bag in case they were right, but I thought I could prove them wrong.

And I did. We did. My kids looked out the window and read books and asked questions. My daughter found shapes of people and animals in the hills of the Mojave, my son was thrilled to see the Petrified Forest. We ate road food – Sarsparilla in Oatman, Arizona where wild burros roam the streets, Fig Newtons bought at a gas station outside Holbrook and gigantic ice cream sundaes at the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff. My kids were adventurous and eager and bored and cranky. They told stories, blew bubble gum bubbles, and sang songs. Of course they fought a little bit, but they were game for most everything. Our trip took two days on the way and two days on the way back. I never pulled out the DVD player.

My father gave me many gifts, but I think the one that has stayed with me the longest is the idea that a road trip is a little bit about seeing what’s outside the car and a little bit about seeing what’s inside your head. This is a gift I plan to share with my kids again and again.

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