Hands Upon My Heart

www.melindawentzel.comWhen I was nine or ten, I remember well my enthrallment with my mother’s hands. They were delicate and slender, sweetly scented and rose petal-soft—so completely unlike my own nicked and scraped, callused and chafed boy-like hands that were better suited for wielding a hammer and throwing a fastball than anything else. Mine were distinctively earthy, too, largely because remnants of dirt and grass simply refused to be removed. Or at least that was the sentiment I held for much of the summer. It was a byproduct of being a kid, I suppose, literally immersed in a world of sod and soil from sunup to sundown. Never mind my fondness of forests and rocky places, which typified a deep and abiding bond with nature—one that I’m not quite sure my mother ever completely understood.

At any rate, my hands told of who I was at the time—a tomboy given to tree climbing, stealing second base and collecting large and unwieldy rocks. Everyone’s hands, I’d daresay, depict them to a certain degree, having a story to tell and a role to play at every time and every place on the continuum of life. Traces of our journey remain there in the folds of our skin—from the flat of our palms and knobs of our knuckles to the very tips of our fingers. As it should be, I suppose.

For better or for worse, our hands are the tools with which we shape the world and to some extent they define us—as sons and daughters, providers and professionals, laborers and learners, movers and shakers. That said, I’m intrigued by people’s hands and the volumes they speak—whether they’re mottled with the tapestry of age, vibrant and fleshy or childlike and impossibly tender. Moreover, I find that which they whisper difficult to ignore.

Likewise, I’m fascinated by the notion that ordinary hands routinely perform extraordinary deeds day in and day out, ostensibly touching all that truly matters to me. Like the hands that steer the school bus each morning, the hands that maintain law and order throughout the land, the hands at the helm in the event of fire or anything else that smacks of unspeakable horribleness, the hands that deftly guide my children through the landscape of academia, the hands that bolster them on the soccer field, balance beam, court and poolside, the hands that bless them at the communion rail each week and the hands that brought immeasurable care and comfort to our family pet in his final hours. Strange as it sounds, I think it’s important to stop and think about such things. Things that I might otherwise overlook when the harried pace of the world threatens to consume me.

If nothing else, giving pause makes me mindful of the good that has come to pass and grateful to the countless individuals who continue to make a difference simply by putting their hands to good use. For whatever reason, this serves to ground me and helps me put into perspective how vastly interdependent and connected we are as a whole. Indeed, we all have a hand (as well as a stake) in what will be.

Equally important is the notion of remembering what was. More specifically, the uniqueness of those I’ve loved and lost. A favorite phrase. A special look. The warmth of a smile or the joy of their laughter. Further (and in keeping with the thrust of this piece), there’s nothing quite as memorable as the hands of those I’ve lost—like my grandfather’s. His were more like mitts, actually—large and leathery, weathered and warm. Working hands with an ever-present hint of grease beneath his hardened nails, and the distinctive scent of hay and horses that clung to him long after he left the barn. And although decades have passed, I can still see him pulling on his boots, shuffling a deck of cards and scooping tobacco from his pouch—his thick fingers diligently working a stringy wad into the bowl of his pipe, followed shortly thereafter by a series of gritty strikes of the lighter and wafts of sweet smoke mingling reluctantly with those from the kitchen.

Of course, my grandmothers’ hands were equally memorable. One had short, stubby fingers and a penchant for biting her nails to the nub. Always, it seemed, she was hanging wash out on the line, scrubbing dishes or stirring a pot brimming with macaroni—my favorite form of sustenance on the planet. By contrast, my other grandmother suffered the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis as evidenced by her hands. To this day I can picture a set of finely manicured nails at the tips of her smallish fingers—fingers that were gnarled and bent unmercifully, although they never seemed to be hampered when it came to knitting a wardrobe for my beloved Barbies.

Not surprisingly, I can still summon an image of my brother’s hands, too. Almost instantly. They were handsome, lean and mannish-looking—yet something suggestive of the little boy he had once been lingered there. Needless to say, I am grateful for such delicious memories—the ones indelibly etched upon my heart.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (remembering well the hands that have touched my life).

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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The Grass is Always Greener Somewhere Else

www.melindawentzel.comPractically every kid on the planet has done each of the following at some point during his or her tenure: marred something of immeasurable value with an impossible-to-remove substance, tried flushing something that’s decidedly unflushable and/or threatened to run away from home for one seemingly absurd reason or another. Of course, the world is full of overachievers in this particular realm, as many will attest to having surpassed the gold standard of misguided behavior. I am no exception.

My guess is that much of what kids do stems from an unquenchable thirst for information and a great longing for independence. Further, I’d surmise that much of their internal dialogue begins with phrases like, “I wonder what would happen if…” and includes impassioned statements like, “If I were king, there’d be no more…bedtimes, baths, rules, etc. like at so-and-so’s house.”

Indeed, the grass is always greener somewhere else.

Back in 1970, I for one believed it to be so—just two doors down, in fact. A lovely couple, whose children were long since grown, lived there in a quaint little brick house with a sprawling back yard and the most enormous shade trees I had ever known. That’s where my four-year-old brother and I found George and Bernice, in the haze of mid-summer—lolling in cavernous chairs when day was done, enjoying what breeze could be summoned as the sun inched toward the horizon, watching and waiting as the shadows lengthened and the crickets prepared for their nightly symphony.

Invariably, she’d wear a light, cottony dress with a floral pattern and generous pockets for clothespins and whatnot. He wore woolen pants, a plain, white t-shirt and work boots. Suspenders sometimes, too. Cookies were involved, as was lemonade. There were countless treks through their garage, their magnificent garden as well as their home because, of course, it was their pride and joy and they seemed genuinely pleased to show us every inch of the place—from the ceramic sink in the kitchen to its stiflingly hot attic.

All the while we learned where each knick-knack came from, who was pictured in the portraits on the walls, the make and model of their extraordinarily well-cared-for car (an Olds, I think) and how to keep rabbits from nibbling at lettuce. But mostly, we sat under the tall trees and talked. Their aging beagle, that hobbled even more than they did, stayed close. Cool grass and good company were precious commodities. Even my brother and I knew that. Especially on the days we packed our bags and ran away from home—frustrated beyond words with our parents, fed up completely with this or that perceived injustice, eager to find something better under someone else’s roof. George and Bernice’s seemed just fine.

Oddly enough, they tolerated our gripes and grumbles. They listened intently as we told of the insufferable nature of living in a home where an eight-year-old might be expected to take out the trash or set the table from time to time. They nodded understanding and offered quiet solace as we voiced our rage against the powers that be. But they had to have been laughing inside—remembering a time when their own children had run away, hauling lumpy sleeping bags and peanut butter sandwiches across the neighborhood.

Looking back now I see the tours and the talks for what they truly were—cleverly implemented diversionary tactics, designed to defuse our anger and redirect our attention. They were just neighbors being neighborly. Givers of guidance. An instrument of good.

Time and again, my tag-along brother and I wised up and headed home. Darkness was encroaching, mosquitoes had arrived and our dear companions, fear and worry, had come calling (Would those who had helped us pack actually search for us?!). Besides, I missed my dog and it was soon time for my favorite shows.

Indeed, it was time to admit defeat and return to the home we knew best—although it was fun to taste a bit of independence and to partake of the seemingly greener pastures just two doors down.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (bracing for the infamous I’m-gonna-run-away phase). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2009 Melinda L. Wentzel

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From There to Here

www.melindawentzel.comJust a moment ago, my children were kindergarteners—spindly creatures with wee arms, knobby knees and tinny voices. I remember well our maiden voyage to the school’s open house one afternoon late in August—to the shores of Mrs. Morehart’s classroom, a warm and welcoming place at the end of the hall where my husband and I, like everyone else, crammed our oversized frames into impossibly small chairs eager to consume all that a parent of a kindergartener could possibly need to know about the year ahead. There was talk of cubbies and snow boots, art smocks and mittens. Bus schedules. Lunch lines. Recess and snacks.

Together, with our knees awkwardly pressed to our chests and our irrational fears lurking just beneath the surface, we learned about the magical nature of story time, the Puppet Lady who would come to call, the wealth of educational experiences our children were slated to have and, of course, the vastly important assurance of bathroom proximity. God knows how dearly we valued that. In any event, our concerns were adequately addressed as a collective sigh of relief wafted over the cozy grove of Lilliputian-inspired tables that filled the room and the brightly colored whateverness with which said room was adorned.

Indeed, Mrs. Morehart was a woman with whom we became enamored almost instantly. Her classroom promised to be a venue where impressionable minds would be nourished, creativity and curiosity would be duly celebrated and respect for others, as well as oneself, would be cultivated above all else. What’s more, surnames and bus numbers would be indelibly imprinted upon the forehead of each and every five-year-old and the aforementioned godsend-of-an-educator would refrain from passing judgment on those who were wholly incapable of enforcing bedtimes as well as those who might be inclined to serve dinner in the bathtub on a school night (to, of course, remedy the not-getting-the-kids-to-bed-at-a-reasonable-hour problem).

In truth, no one’s forehead was defiled in the plan to distinguish students or to ensure that the right child got on the right bus at dismissal. In any event, the curators of our precious cargo did, indeed, coordinate the logistics of transportation (and practically every other aspect of child management) seamlessly and with great aplomb. That said, the Land of Kindergarten was a place we parents could feel genuinely good about leaving our charges.

Never mind the wave of apprehension that literally consumed me the following week, when that big, yellow beast-of-a-school-bus groaned to a halt in my street and a certain couple of somebodies were expected to board and then traverse the uncertain path that would come to define their lives as kindergarteners—without me. Needless to say, a great deal of time has passed since then—despite the fact that it feels like mere seconds ago that I sat in one of those tiny plastic chairs, a red one I think, fretting over the exceedingly remote possibility that my children would be trampled by a herd of backpack-toting third graders or, tragically, mauled by a rogue pencil sharpener.

My charges are worldly fifth graders now—not-so-spindly creatures who positively thrive on the thrum of activity present in their school day. No longer are they overwhelmed by long lines in the cafeteria, the deafening roar of eco-friendly electric hand dryers in the restrooms or an oncoming herd of third graders for that matter. They know practically every nook and cranny of their beloved school—where favorite library books can be found, which teachers have a debilitating affinity for chocolate chip cookies and, not surprisingly, how to efficiently navigate to the nurse’s office from virtually anywhere in the building. What’s more, they’ve learned how to deal with unwieldy band instruments, lost book fair money and, occasionally, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

In that respect—yet ever so reluctantly—I acknowledge the vast chasm that exists between then and now, there and here, even though it has felt so completely fleeting.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Dances with Carts

www.melindawentzel.comShopping carts are the bane of my existence. It seems I have an uncanny knack for choosing ones that are both germ-ridden and hideously deficient in some unforeseen manner (i.e. equipped with a smarmy handle or a pathetic set of wheels that lurch and rattle—seemingly driven to move me in any direction but straight).

For whatever reason, I initially dismiss the many and varied imperfections, foolishly thinking that they won’t be terribly bothersome in the end. Moreover, the truly vexing nature of most of the rogues I choose doesn’t become readily apparent until I’ve already journeyed halfway through the produce aisle, mindlessly fingering the fruit and considering whether we need more carrots or romaine. By then I’m committed to the match made in hell, at least until I manage to shove the aforementioned misfit-of-a-cart through the checkout line or muscle it to my car where I can finally ditch it for a better life.

To add insult to injury, I often have to endure such hardships with my brood in tow—the heathens who strive to make each and every shopping excursion more memorable. And they do—whining incessantly about this or that item (the one that the mean and horrible tyrant won’t let them have), wrestling over the matter of who gets to man the cart first, showering me with pleas for sugary cereals and those gooey snack-a-ma-call-its that ought to be removed from the planet altogether.

Apparently it is not enough to be blessed with a wayward cart.

And once I make that regrettable and irrevocable decision to allow one of my miscreants to navigate the treacherous trail ahead, my fate is sealed. Someone’s ankles will indeed pay the price. Likely, mine. Despite the innumerable lectures I’ve delivered, the live demonstrations I’ve provided and the vat of instructional guidance I’ve offered on the subject, my two charges, though well intended, are physically incapable of maneuvering from Point A to Point B without smashing into someone or something. Granted, the gunked-up wheels do little to further their cause.

Not surprisingly, at some point during each supermarket tour of duty my patience wanes with the pushing-of-the-cart ludicrousness, climaxing shamefully somewhere between the toothpaste aisle and frozen foods. As I return to the helm, attempting to pilot that which refuses to be piloted, I am met with yet another challenge: that of effectively communicating the notion of walking single file. My futile commands typically go something like this: “Okay, someone is coming toward us now. Let’s walk single file.”

“Hellooooooo… the aisle isn’t WIDE enough for the three of us AND another cart to pass. Is any of that registering with you two?!”

Of course, neither child of mine responds, so engrossed are they with hanging on the sides of my cart and eyeing the shelves for more of that which is forbidden. I must then stop the cart and clumsily move them—as if they were a couple of small boulders, smiling apologetically to the patron now upon us. Aisle after aisle, I repeat this cart dance—this utter lunacy—both stunned and amazed that creatures capable of telling me anything and everything I might want to know about a Euoplocephalus dinosaur cannot grasp the concept of getting somewhere single file.

And let us not forget the times in the past when one or both daughters insisted upon RIDING INSIDE the cart. Naturally, there were people who found this slightly disturbing—especially when they detected a hint of movement somewhere beneath the rubble.

“Do you know there are children inside your cart?” they asked, alarmed by the possibility that I could have, in fact, been so clueless as to not notice a couple of stowaways.

“Yes. They’re with me, otherwise known as Dances with Carts.”

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (forever dodging those ankle-biting menaces in the grocery store).

Copyright 2009 Melinda L. Wentzel

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The Graduates

As a parent, I love this particular wedge of time—the infinitely delicious weeks of May during which I savor the end of the school year because I’ve finally gotten the hang of the wretched routine and have come to grips with the academic expectations—even those involving the dreaded partial-products algorithm that made me feel woefully inadequate. For me (this year especially), it’s been a perfectly scrumptious segment of the calendar, nestled comfortably between the Land of Third Grade, during which fond memories have been gathered like seashells since the early part of September, and the celebrated Death of Structure (i.e. the warmth and wonderfulness that is summer). We’re on the cusp of something grand and glorious after all, and in the name of preparing for the season of suntans and sweet corn, things have loosened up considerably—or maybe it’s just me.

Come Memorial Day, I feel like less of a tyrant and more like someone who takes the inordinately-asinine-compulsion-to-stress-over-homework mantra and sets it on a shelf for a time, allowing her brood to linger outside long after the sun has set and the crickets have begun their nightly serenade. Bedtimes have been stretched to a shameful degree for weeks on end and an embarrassment of S’mores have already been consumed while crouched on the deck around a crackling fire. The only thing missing is the intermittent flashes of fireflies along the thickets and darkish places in the lawn.

Indeed, June is calling—and the long-awaited season of graduation is nigh. Time for looking forward to what the next chapter might bring. Time to reflect upon the wealth of knowledge and skill acquired while leading up to said monumental event. Time to swell with pride over the many and varied accomplishments that have been realized throughout the journey to fruition.

By the same token, our resident “graduates” have embraced the very same notion, boldly stepping into the realm of that which is decidedly new and different—although it has nothing whatsoever to do with progressing to the fourth grade. Oddly enough, it involves bathing—or, more correctly, showering. Because that’s what they do now. They shower, “…like big kids, Mom,” having renounced completely the less-than-appealing, wholly contemptible idea of washing up in anything suggestive of a tub. “Baths are for babies, Mom. Don’t you know anything?!”

Ironically, their collective sentiment has failed to fill me with a sense of gratification, joy or the heady rush of deliverance I fully expected. I thought I’d be beside myself with glee, having no more deluges with which to deal (read: a profusion of ungainly elbows paired with WAY too many water-filled cups and saucers and bottle-like vessels poised to fall upon ill fated floors—despite the delivery of impassioned lectures on such topics). I assumed I’d be thrilled, having been relieved of the loathsome duty of fishing the remnants of broken balloons and gobs of Barbie hair from the drain. What’s more, I was fairly certain there would no longer be a need to curb tub-related hostilities among the aforementioned warring factions—which would have made me slightly euphoric on any other day.

Although on this day I find myself lamenting the change. Wishing things were as they used to be. Mourning the passage of time and the birth of independence as it relates to that inexorable desire to be grown. Stupidly, I miss the rubber duckies. And the obscene quantities of suds. And the mermaids with their lithesome tails. And the gnarly dinosaurs, frozen hideously in mid-pose, their mouths agape, now languishing next to a half-empty bottle of lavender-scented whateverness. I long for a chance to eavesdrop as they sail ships hither and yon and sip tea with lizards and lions, completely engrossed in another world. Part of me regrets that I ever grew tired of washing their tangled manes and scrubbing their soiled bodies. That said, I wish I could lather their bushy heads once more—shaping and molding foamy peaks and Washingtonian-inspired dos. “Soon, they’ll want to return to the bath,” I reasoned. “The boats and bubbles and fish that squirt will call to them unremittingly.”

But that day never came. Smitten are they with the almighty shower—the shower that from the very start promised to be a dreadful mistake (said the optimist).

I worried first about the water—as any good fusspot would. Were my children capable of remembering (and applying!) the 643 crucial bits of information I had given them about the big, scary on/off knob, adjusting the temperature (Gasp!) and shutting the damn door so as not to flood the place? Had they fully comprehended the horribleness of getting water up one’s nose or soap in one’s eyes? WOULD THEY EVEN KNOW HOW TO BREATHE BENEATH SAID TORRENTS?! And what of the hazards of slipping and choking on water droplets and being swallowed up by the soul-sucking monstrosity-of-a-drain?! Had any of my sage advice (and crazed thoughts) resonated?!

In hindsight, there were other things with which I should have concerned myself. Namely: Showers that would never end, showers that involved sinful quantities of soap (upon floors and walls and every inch of the fools in question), showers during which people would forget to wash, showers that included doodles and notes and high-fives upon glass doors, showers that became tandem in the name of saving the planet, showers that incorporated spirited games of soap hockey (don’t ask), showers that featured tiny wads of toilet tissue that became fused to the ceiling forevermore.

Indeed, they’ve graduated. Ugh.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (lamenting the passage of time).

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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