Category Archives: Gratitude

The Dog That Came to Stay

It was his eyes that got me. Deep pools of espresso dappled with specks that reminded me of caramel. I hadn’t even reached through the cage to caress his indescribably soft ears yet, a practice I would come to revere more than practically anything since it brought as much calm to me as it did to him. Never mind his sleek, black coat and grizzled eyebrows—the ones he could move independently, effectively conveying his mood, which was almost always agreeable.

The plan was to adopt a rescue dog for my dad, one that would serve as a loving companion for him as he grappled with Alzheimer’s disease. Something that would ground him as his world fell apart. The trouble was that I needed grounding, too.

Needless to say, I didn’t intend to fall in love with such a dog. Nor did I think I would be incapable of delivering on a promise I had made to my dad.

“I’ll find you the perfect dog. Just give me a little more time. I think you’ll love the one we end up with, but we have to be sure it meets all the criteria first.”

Unfortunately, none of the candidates we considered passed muster for a variety of reasons: Too lively, not lively enough, too disinterested in people, too apt to jump on people, too aggressive and so on. It seemed as though we were doomed to fail.

Then Jasper appeared as my husband and I meandered through the SPCA for the umteenth time, peering into cages in search of an answer to our prayers. Our eyes locked with the aforementioned black lab mix and the rest was history. Originally, he was supposed to stay with our family only until we felt he was ready to transition to my dad’s home. “We’ll keep him for a week or so—long enough to adjust to life outside a kennel,” I told my kids. “He’s old and needs some TLC,” I reasoned to myself.

Weeks stretched into a solid month and by then I was hopelessly smitten. Jasper had quietly wheedled his way into our family and had become a part of our lives we didn’t even know was missing. Indeed, there was no mistaking the bond that had formed between us and there simply was no turning back. That said, he stepped with ease into our crazed schedule and house filled with teenage drama, noise and angst, despite his dog years and inability to recognize his own name—the one the Rescue had fittingly assigned him.

Against all odds, he learned to love our yappy, 14-pound Bichon and in the process made the latter less prone to anxiety attacks and barking seizures involving delivery trucks and unsuspecting joggers. At every turn, he modeled good behavior for our not-so-compliant, curly-haired pooch—the one we thought was beyond hope for ever acting like a normal dog. Almost daily they now play together, tossing their sock monkey into the air and racing around the house like a couple of deranged squirrels—something that makes my heart smile. Every. Single. Time.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before I discovered how comforting it was to have a big-ish dog place his head or warm muzzle in my hand as I awaken each morning. Or the soothing effect he has on all of us as he wedges his box-like body next to ours on the couch at the close of a long day, somehow sensing our need to decompress. By contrast, he embraces our clamor and chaos—celebrating both the disorder and the abundance of joy that resides within our home.

Needless to say, there’s something extraordinary about having this dog, in particular, around—and by “around” I mean that he has become my shadow, following me everywhere but into the shower. What’s more, he reluctantly bids me farewell when I have to leave and greets me in the doorway when I return, tail wagging wildly, reminding me that all dogs are inclined to smile. You just have to look for it.

As a result, I never feel unappreciated or truly alone no matter how empty my house happens to be—the kids running in 17 different directions and their dad expertly manning the taxi or holed up at his office. Looking back, I think it’s during those quiet times when I value his presence the most. He’s there for me day in and day out, keeping me from dwelling on the sadness that lies beneath the surface of every joy—the ever-present sorrow related to having lost my dad not in the physical sense, but by every other definition.

Somehow, I know my dog understands. It’s in his eyes.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2015 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Doggie Diamonds, Family Affair, Gratitude, Sandwich Generation

Apron Strings

I am a mediocre cook at best, perhaps an unlikely one as well, since I never was much for the kitchen—even as a kid. I have a handful of recipes in my repertoire that I feel comfortable with, most of which have been handed down through family over a number of years. Mastery came only as a result of determined effort and decades of repetition—certainly not from talent or inclination. That said, I almost never stray from the recipe, sticking to the formula that has worked for me time and again. There’s always the chance I’ll burn or undercook something, so I suppose that’s all the adventure I need.

Occasionally, I’ll branch out and try new things that I’ve seen on the Food Network, but only if I can pronounce the ingredients and find them easily in the grocery store. I’m not one to traipse around looking for something completely obscure that Giada went on and on about. That’s just not me. The degree of difficulty matters, too. Chances are if a third grader couldn’t prepare it, blindfolded with a whisk tied behind his or her back, I’m not likely to tackle it anytime soon.

I realize this isn’t the sort of example I ought to be setting for my daughters—always playing it safe, unwilling to step outside my comfort zone in order to reap the benefits that sometimes come with taking risks. As adults I’m hopeful they’ll be more adventuresome than I, delving into cookbooks, experimenting with new recipes they find online, crafting their own from scratch.

I’m sure if I had sons I’d feel the same way.

Nevertheless, I don’t pretend to know what my children will glean from me as it relates to culinary skills. Lord knows I’ve tried to lure them into the kitchen, because, of course, I’d feel like a complete failure if I didn’t at least teach them something. I’ll admit it was easier when they were small. We’d pull the heavy mixing bowls out of the cupboard, shove wooden chairs up against the counter and sort through the drawer for favorite aprons—the ones that practically swallowed them so many years ago, two tiny sets of feet peeking out at the bottom. Together we’d bake cookies, scooping mounds of flour, cracking eggs in a less-than-efficient manner and eating chocolate chips straight from the bag. Not surprisingly, my kids were greatly invested in anything that involved making a terrible mess and/or eating sweet stuff.

Over time, I coaxed them into learning how to make some of their favorite dishes, banking on the idea that they’d be inspired by the outcome. For the most part, this has worked, evidenced by the fact that they feel comfortable enough to make their own dinner once in a while and no one has burned down the house as of yet. No small feat.

I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether they fall in love with the kitchen and all that it entails. I won’t be disappointed if they fail to fully embrace it, nor will I be displeased if they do. I just want them to continue to enjoy spending time with me there—even if I have to bribe them with Ghirardelli chocolate chips or having free rein to make an enormous mess of my kitchen, something that’s still very popular.

What’s more, years from now I hope I’ll see that I’ve managed to impart at least two things to my daughters, neither of which has anything to do with properly sautéing vegetables or peeling a hard-boiled egg without destroying it. I want them to recognize the importance of making a meal for someone who really needs to feel pampered or just plain loved—to know that comfort food is a godsend when someone is grieving or recovering or stressing about life in general.

I also want them to remember how special it made them feel to have someone bake them a birthday cake, slathered with their favorite icing and/or sprinkles. If they can in turn bake someone happy on their special day, that would indeed make me smile.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2016 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Gratitude, Growing Pains, In the Trenches of Parentville, Meat & Potatoes

Have You Hugged a Book Today?

We 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. As it should be—during this National Reading Month of March, and always.

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 40 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, Thing One is completely smitten with mysteries, all-things-Harry-Potter and that which is disturbingly terrifying while Thing 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, practically anything ever written by Roald Dahl, Barbara Park or Kate DiCamillo, and sadly, the idiocy that is Captain Underpants.

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). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Bookish Stuff, Gratitude

Eggs, Toast and a Side of Cynicism

For whatever reason, the gods of morning madness have been smiling upon me these past few weeks. And like any good cynic, I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out. With every ounce of my being, I fully expect my petulant children to return, brimming with an abundance of snarky commentary regarding breakfast cereal choices (or the lack thereof), eager to display the alarm clock-inspired rage to which I’ve grown so accustomed and to bring to the fore their lovely penchant for bickering with one another at dark-thirty. Joy. Likewise, I presume the frenzied packing-of-lunches-and-backpacks thing coupled with shrieks involving the very real possibility of missing the bus will resume shortly as well.

If nothing else, it would feel familiar. Quite frankly, I am suspect of the degree of calm that has befallen my home of late. Mornings are no longer intolerably hectic, which I find fairly disturbing since it’s all I’ve known since the days of kindergarten. There are no shouting matches to speak of, no monumental crises related to bedhead or perceived fashion offenses and, incredibly, no one has become enraged over wrinkles in socks or the gunkiness of toothpaste for days on end. Gasp!

It’s all so alarmingly alien—this death of disorder and dissent. So naturally, I greet it with cool skepticism, assuming that a conspirator has somehow snatched my ill-tempered brood and left me with a delightful pair of third graders who get up on time, dress for school without complaint and exhibit an obscene amount of good cheer all morning long. Imposters, I am sure, are among us.

Or perhaps my fortuitous situation has arisen as a direct result of the plan my husband so shrewdly devised and skillfully implemented. Translation: The man is a genius. That said, he pulled our charges aside one day and explained how our shameless bribe new morning routine would work. The seed was planted thusly.

“If you get up and get dressed as soon as your alarm goes off,” he purred with Grinch-like finesse, “and haul your sorry selves to the kitchen by 6:30, I’ll make you WHATEVER HOT BREAKFAST YOUR LITTLE HEARTS DESIRE. And,” he sweetened the pot, “I’ll even let you crack eggs and stir stuff.” To date, the immaculately prepared entrées have included pancakes (with faces!), French toast and waffles (to die for!), eggs (infinitely varied!), bacon (impossibly crisp!) and a vat of drool-worthy, bathed-in-olive-oil fried potatoes I felt compelled to appraise. Again. And again.

In sum, he made a deal with the unwitting pair. A wickedly clever, painfully simple, non-negotiable agreement—one that is likely responsible for the glowing success we’ve experienced thus far on our journey to the Land of Hassle-free School Mornings. Note to self: Cold cereal nourishes the body, but hot cakes (and other breakfasty-type foods with irresistibly enticing aromas) inspire action of the bounding-out-of-bed variety.

But perhaps the motivation runs deeper than that. Part of me suspects that under the surface lies a host of benefits aside from the obvious. Like the delicious sliver of time in which we snuggle together before anyone heads to the kitchen. All four of us, looking as much like sardines as anything, burrow beneath a sea of blankets in our big, oak bed—the place where toes are warmed and whispers are shared in the waning moments of still and darkness.

“Here I am, your little alarm clock,” they each announce as they crawl in with us, a different stuffed animal tucked under their arms each morning. To my utter amazement, both kids have already dressed, fulfilling their end of the bargain. I shake my head in disbelief.

The plan is working.

A few minutes later, they clamber downstairs to the kitchen and confirm with the cook their menu choices for the day. Chairs are then shoved against counters, eggs are cracked and batter is stirred—fulfilling the other end of the bargain.

As the sun crests over the hillside and begins pouring into the house, a steaming, hot breakfast is served—as promised. Syrup and cinnamon, juice and jam look on as chatter fills the room. There is talk of disjointed dreams, of library books and of plans for playing with a favorite friend at the bus stop. Everything that follows is sunny-side up.

Once again, I shake my head in disbelief. The plan is still working—despite my side of cynicism.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (wondering when the novelty will wear off and hoping like crazy that’s never). A variation of this article appeared previously in the Khaleej Times, UAE, Dubai.

Copyright 2009 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Daily Chaos, Gratitude, Meat & Potatoes, School Schmool

The Road Less Traveled

I remember it as if I were standing before it this very moment—the dirt road behind my childhood home that snaked through the mossy woods, carving a narrow, road-not-taken-inspired path along the base of a deep ravine, sheltered from the sun and from civilization it seemed. The place where a large and delicious chunk of my youth was spent surrounded by the pungent aroma of pine mixed with the earthy scent of decaying leaves and the ever-present drone of the creek that flowed nearby.

It was my Secret Garden. My sanctuary of sycamores, silver and red maples. My quiet corner of the world where I could commune with nature and collect my thoughts—one blissfully restorative trek at a time. Of course, I whiled away the hours there, exploring every inch of the road’s gritty surface, the rock-strewn banks of the creek and the heavily wooded hillside that was enshrouded with a verdant canopy of foliage in the thick of summer and dappled with patches of sunlight when the wispy green of spring first emerged. Season after season, I was drawn there, swallowed whole by its quiet grandeur, inextricably immersed in the sweet salvation of solitude and unstructured play. Alone but never quite lonely. The Last Child in the Woods, perhaps.

Eventually, though, my brother tagged along, curious to discover what was so special about this half-mile stretch of road and haven of towering trees that lapped at its fringes. He, too, became enthralled with all that it had to offer—untold numbers of fossils to inspect and collect, intriguing salamanders and caterpillars at every turn, ideally secluded spots for building clubhouses and spying on the occasional passerby, and perhaps most notably, an unforgiving and impossibly narrow footpath perched high atop a ridge where the region’s entirety could be viewed with ease. Naturally, there was an abundance of tree hollows, too, perfectly suited for stowing the trappings of childhood (i.e. spare jackknives, cap guns and spears we had fashioned from fallen branches).

On the cusp of spring, when the sun had finally begun to thaw the road and its deep, frozen furrows of mud, we’d barrel down the gully—half running, half sliding through the slushy snow that stubbornly clung to the ground and to the craggy tree trunks—eager to return to our long and winding road of dirt and stone. The summers we spent there—foraging through the woods, hiding out in our ramshackle forts and letting our dog run free—were ravenously consumed, chapters of our lives that I won’t soon forget. Never mind that my brother is no longer here to share such memories.

But if I could somehow turn back the time almost 14 years—the ones that have felt like 14 minutes—I’d remind him of a day in late autumn, when he couldn’t have been more than nine. It was an afternoon much like those we’ve experienced of late—a sun-drenched, breezy, balmy Indian summer gift—only the leaves back then had long since burst with color, painting the blue skies with fiery shades of orange and red. Not surprisingly, we were on the dirt road together. Back and forth we raced and chased along our favorite stretch, the tall trees roaring and swaying in the wind, tousling our hair and casting great swirls of leaves into the air for what seemed an eternity. Leaves we desperately tried to catch before they hit the ground. Because, of course, that was the whole point.

Of all the memories I’ve harvested involving my brother and our beloved dirt road, it is among my most cherished.

So as I witness my own children this autumn, completely engrossed in the rapture of chasing, leaping and wildly grabbing fistfuls of sky in an attempt to cleanly snatch the leaves before they fall to the street, drunk with joy and seizing the moment, instantly I return to the place I loved as a child and to the delicious day I spent with my brother.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (remembering well the road less traveled, and recognizing that it has made all the difference). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom. The content of this article, as it appears here, was previously published in the Khaleej Times.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under "N" is for Nostalgia, A Tree is Nice, Gratitude, Love and Loss