Monthly Archives: March 2022

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, 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 dolls.

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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Nooks and Crannies

9781532071621_pap_FQA.inddKilling time is a completely foreign concept to my children. Completely. Foreign. It’s absurd actually—to think they’d deliberately destroy or somehow devalue so much as a solitary second of that delicious commodity. Quite frankly, it’s unthinkable. To them, the notion of being granted an extra nugget of time on this wonder-filled planet—whether measured in minutes, hours or days—is like stumbling upon a package that’s been shoved behind a thicket of boughs under a Christmas tree, all but forgotten, waiting to be discovered, brimming with endless possibility. It’s a gem through and through, and wasting its sparkle is simply not an option. Not for them, anyway. Time is far too dear.

Even the sandman encroaches upon their beloved daily allotment. “But Mommy, if I go to sleep, I’ll miss something.” I suppose he encroaches upon everyone’s share of the pie to some degree—as does the host of responsibilities we cram into each slice, almost without thinking. Oddly enough, some of us actually believe that if we scrawl the details of upcoming events into a bunch of little squares and then prominently display them on our refrigerators, we can, in fact, attend said events. All of them. Even the ones that overlap, are insignificant or are logistically impossible.

Without question, harried schedules breed harried lives. No surprise there. Jammed calendars and bulging-at-the-seams planners are nothing new under the sun. People have been trying to stretch days and squeeze every last drop from the Almighty Clock for eons. It’s practically a national pastime. Going here. Going there. Doing this. Doing that. All at a horrendous pace. We joke about being overburdened with obligations as a way of life, casually sharing our collective plight at dinner parties and picnics. Just for fun, we compare notes and then award prizes to those who, ostensibly, are three barbecues, two reunions and one kid-themed birthday party short of complete lunacy. When all is said and done, precious few pockets of time remain—time that isn’t already spoken for.

Interestingly, it’s those unclaimed gaps that my kids truly relish, the time wedged between rigidly structured events and penciled-in plans—the nooks and crannies of life. Like those priceless moments spent at the bus stop each morning, where they pass the time without so much as a hint of boredom or complaint. Sometimes we read. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we chase snowflakes and leaves, other times—woolly caterpillars and hapless ants. Sometimes we huddle together under an umbrella, with soggy shoes and drippy noses or battle the biting winds and subzero temps of January, snuggling ever closer, our breaths mingling in the frigid air. Even still, the time is thought to be rich and delicious.

It’s the same scenario in the waiting rooms of our doctor and dentist, at the supermarket checkout, in line at the bank and while gnarled in traffic. In restaurants, while fiddling with spoons and drawing silly pictures of giraffes and elephants on our napkins and placemats. Before the sun sets, the fireflies fill the night sky with yellowish flickers of light and the fireworks begin at long last. And in the theater, during that eternal block of time before the lights dim and the film finally starts, when we consume a hefty portion of our popcorn and soda—that’s when we share secrets, giggle just because and make memories that last. Whiling away the hours at Grandma’s viewing three weeks ago was no exception.

I have no doubt that she would have been pleased to see them whirling about the church parlor in their fluffy dresses, weaving colorful stories with their dolls, completely absorbed in the world of make-believe as they held their tiny horses and made them gallop gently across the backs of cushiony pews—just being kids. Taking advantage of yet another opportunity to seize the day—words their grandmother lived by, and died fulfilling. Words that perhaps were an inspiration to do more than just kill time—but to savor it—especially those nooks and crannies.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2007 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Juggling Act

I’m not especially sure that I was meant for mothering—with all its rigors and responsibilities, and those insufferable shades of gray. Simply put, I’m just not wired for it. I much preferred being able to place chunks of my life into tidy little squares, where I could tend to them separately and manage my world at will. Becoming a mother changed all that. I learned that children don’t do the tidy little square thing. In fact, they don’t do the tidy little anything, nor are they built for confinement of any sort. I also learned that there is no logical formula in existence for raising teenagers. I only knew that I’d need to tie on my sneakers.

And as I look around at other women who were thrust into the role for one reason or another, I think, “Wow. They’ve really got it all together—ferrying their kids here and there without missing a beat, sprinkling their beloved charges with balanced meals and an abundance of feel-good blurbages, oozing patience and composure at every juncture in life, no matter how harried the schedule or demanding the pace.” Nothing, it seems, rattles them, even when they discover one of many cruel truths of parenthood: that they don’t get to choose their children’s friends—a control freak’s living nightmare.

They stay on top of things, too, these supermoms—like homework and school functions, birthday parties and soccer leagues—and of course, all the really important stuff like remembering ballet slippers, shin guards and library books for the right child on the right day of the week. They also recognize the importance of filling minds with wonder and lunchboxes with love. My paltry lunch pail offerings (i.e. “I love you” notes scrawled on scraps of paper and tossed in with a sandwich and crackers) are at best hastily prepared, pitifully cliché and often faded and crumpled from recycling. “Have a great day, Hon!” is pretty much all my frazzled brain is capable of churning out on the fringes of my day. The lunches themselves are dreadfully dull, too, which is perhaps a sad reminder of how horribly inadequate I sometimes feel as a mom—notes or no notes.

Occasionally I fail to summon the humor and flexibility needed to approach such an impossible task, as well as the wisdom to accept that some battles as a parent just aren’t worth fighting—especially those that involve six-year-olds and mashed potatoes or teenagers and five-year plans. “Let it go,” I need to remind myself again and again. Certainly, there are more important issues with which to concern myself—like the beefy toad I found on the coffee table recently, warts and all. And the mouse-tail stew that had apparently been concocted in the garage/laboratory and subsequently smuggled into the kitchen. God only knows how long it had been brewing there and what other bits of foulness had been added to the stagnant pool of repulsiveness. Color me oblivious, yet again.

Kidding aside, I’d like to know how other moms do it. How do they keep all the balls in the air? All those plates spinning—as if flawless extensions of themselves? Maybe it has something to do with my multitasking skills—or lack thereof. Simply put, I stink in that category—which contributes greatly, I think, to the whole woefully-inept-mommy thing. Over the years, I’ve been forced to develop just enough juggling proficiency to get by—enough to get me through a day’s worth of kid-related chaos to include the morning frenzy to catch the bus and the after-school circus, when backpacks are emptied, bellies are filled and the air is inundated with multiple conversations, all of which I am expected to attend to meaningfully. The homework gig is yet another monstrous challenge for my sorry set of skills, mostly because I try to do everything SIMULTANEOUSLY. Because that’s what moms do best—at least the good ones, equipped with a multitasking gene.

I’m sure much of the ugliness would go away if I were capable of turning off or at least filtering the noise in my head so that I could focus on each task individually—instead of trying to absorb and act upon everything that floats across my radar screen. I’m doing one thing perhaps—like driving the kids to ballet, but I’m thinking about the last six things I’ve done, critiquing myself to death in the process, while catapulting forward to the next seventeen things I will do before bed, all the while fielding inane questions like “How can people buy invisible dog fences if nobody can see them, Mom?”

It’s no wonder that I sometimes wind up at the soccer field curious as to why my kids are wearing tutus and not cleats.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2007 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Building a Reader

www.melindawentzel.comThere are letters, phonetic elements and, of course, words to which a vast array of meaning has been assigned over the course of history. Building blocks we parents turn to as we go about the important business of raising a reader. We tap our well of instructional instincts, consider our own path to literacy and look to the experts who willingly share all that we’ll ever need to know about teaching a child to read. Furthermore, we immerse our charges in literature, expose them to robust vocabulary, swear by the tried-and-true merits of repetition and, of course, read to them from the moment they become implanted within the uterine wall. Intuitively, we assume these ingredients help form a solid foundation upon which layers of understanding will take root and a lifelong love of reading will flourish. Theoretically, this is all well and good.

Enter: the unpredictable and highly diverse nature of children.

That said, for the better part of my oldest daughter’s childhood, she had what can only be described as a visceral hatred of books. In sum, she gave new meaning to the term “reluctant reader.” From the early days of Dr. Seuss through her interminable high school career/slightly disturbing Sylvia Plath phase, literature—even good literature, it seemed—was the bane of her existence.

Naturally, I was completely convinced that whatever I had or hadn’t done as a parent somehow led to this sorry state of affairs. Pages, upon which writers had built a rich tapestry of words, did little to woo her within. I had failed at one of the most important assignments of motherhood—to nurture a love of books. I suppose her abhorrence could have stemmed from something far more simplistic—perhaps she found books to be pitifully uninspiring…or had yet to discover an author that spoke to her…or maybe she considered reading itself to be a horrendously taxing affair (with all that page turning and whatnot). And no matter how I tried (to reward her efforts, to involve her in summer literacy camp, to make the words on a given page come to life by reading aloud till I felt compelled to light myself on fire), it was all for naught—until she went away to college, that is. It was there that her passion for books finally blossomed. Better late than never.

In a similar vein, my youngest child was and continues to be a challenge in the truest sense of the word. For the longest time, she refused to tackle anything unless its plot involved a horse that could talk, a dog overcome by some ridiculous misfortune or a hackneyed mystery soused with exceedingly dull dialogue. And I don’t know why, exactly, that sort of thing bothered me—except that I was largely responsible for reading the cussed things aloud after dinner, that is until my head lolled around as if it were tethered not to a neck, but to a spindly rubber hose. Needless to say, I remained dead asleep until my brood poked my eyelids with indiscriminate fingers, demanding to know what the stupid horse or godforsaken dog or pint-sized super sleuth had said. Thankfully, the aforementioned reader-of-that-which-is-dreadfully-banal has progressed to more thought provoking content in the titles she chooses nowadays.

In stark contrast, my middle child has a deep and abiding love of books that I did almost nothing to cultivate. In a word, she disappears into the page and is swallowed whole by the story unfolding before her. Always has. At times, I lament the fact that her sisters didn’t come to reading in the same manner and with the same ferocity. Ultimately, though, I suppose what matters is that each of my children has a special relationship with books—a relationship that is as unique and individual as they are, one that will serve them well as they wend their way forward, a bond, I hope, that will enrich their lives and forever challenge their thinking. In the end, maybe that’s all we can effectively do, in addition to our level best as curators of impressionable minds.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Have You Hugged a Book Today?

www.melindawentzel.comWe have a library in our house, which sounds slightly more impressive than it actually is. The area in question is far from a sprawling expanse littered with overstuffed chairs and an abundance of narrative gems. More correctly, our so-called library occupies a modest corner of our home—a place where a blue-checkered playpen once stood seemingly forever. Nevertheless, it is a space devoted to all-things-bookish. A small yet infinitely important enclave that exists for the sole purpose of fueling my children’s passion for reading.

Almost a decade has passed since we began gathering a hodgepodge of titles and piling them into some semblance of order there upon the floor of our living room. Tallest to smallest. Favorites within easy reach. A perfect mélange of new and not-so-new tales—thanks to having traversed this parenting path once before.

Naturally, said books would spill out into the room after a certain couple of somebodies (read: Toddler One and Toddler Two) raided the cache, leaving a trail of literary goodness in their collective wake. Never mind that only yesterday pillows and great herds of stuffed animals were dragged there and commissioned for the purpose of building reading nests and whatnot. Only recently have we been able to place the prized entities elsewhere (i.e. upon the honey-colored bookshelf that now inhabits the aforementioned corner—the one that boasts a cavernous window through which the morning sun pours almost without fail).

It is perhaps a bit more special given that the shelf itself was one that my husband had designed and built back in 1969. It was the high school shop project that seemed destined never to be finished. Lo and behold, the four-tiered wonder was completed and for some forty years it lived in his childhood home. That’s where I first ogled its glossy, maple finish—along with a handful of teakwood carvings that sat upon its top shelf. A one-humped camel and an Asian elephant with a missing tusk. Keepsakes that hailed from afar. Treasures with which my children were enamored each and every time we visited Grandma.

I guess I never really thought about the notion of my mother-in-law not being there to witness their growing curiosity. Nor did I entertain the possibility of adopting her wooden bookshelf when she died—complete with the coveted carvings. Of course, they still sit atop the shelf, nodding approval with each book selection my charges make. Grandma would be pleased, I’m sure.

Likewise, I think she’d be pleased to learn of the strides her granddaughters have made since kindergarten, and how their love of books has flourished during that same wedge of time. No longer do they reach for bedtime favorites like Goodnight Moon, the brilliantly penned Where the Wild Things Are, the infinitely tender Guess How Much I Love You and the exceedingly palpable Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge. Even Dr. Seuss has fallen out of favor with my brood.

Indeed, the pure and simple joy of picture books has been replaced by the all-consuming nature of chapter books—ones that invite my progenies to dwell for a time, deliciously entangled within the words on a given page. Needless to say, their tastes have grown more sophisticated, as has their command of vocabulary. That said, Child One is completely smitten with mysteries, all-things-Harry-Potter and that which is disturbingly terrifying while Child Two is fond of cookbooks and craft books, although she went through an interminable phase during which she would read nothing unless its plot somehow involved a godforsaken dog, a horse blessed with the ability to speak or a wretched hamster. Of course, they both feast voraciously upon the celebrated Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and practically anything ever written by Roald Dahl, Barbara Park or Kate DiCamillo.

All things considered, I deem my children’s journey as emerging readers to have been nothing short of remarkable, and I can’t help but feel indebted to those who’ve helped cultivate their enduring love of books—during this National Reading Month of March, and always.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (with an abundance of books worthy of hugging…and barely able to breathe ever since a request was made for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea).

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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