Category Archives: “N” is for Nostalgia

The Cardboard Box: A Primal Refuge

www.melindawentzel.comSome days I just want to crawl inside a cardboard box fort and hide from the rest of the world—like I did when I was nine or ten. Prince and David Bowie are dead. Harper Lee and Alan Rickman, too. Also disturbing, at least on some level: Donald Trump is running for president and McDonald’s chocolate chip frappés are officially extinct. These are desperate times and they call for desperate measures—like curling up in the fetal position within the comfort and safety of a cardboard-walled fortress, effectively separated and insulated from the madness outside that might otherwise devour us. At least that’s what I feel compelled to do when times get tough—revisit the glorious cocoon of my youth.

Back then, the only thing that came close to the impressive nature of a fort crafted from a discarded cardboard box was a fort whose roof was built with an embarrassment of blankets—a sprawling haven that encompassed an entire room, incorporating clothespins, stacks of books, heavy ashtrays and every available piece of furniture that would further the effort—that of making it somehow more expansive, inspired largely by a Manifest Destiny of sorts. But I digress.

I remember the birth of many a cardboard refuge as if it were yesterday. Once in a great while, there would be a sizeable purchase in our household, like a new refrigerator, washer or dryer. Naturally, this produced as a side benefit a most enormous box—a gift from the gods to my brother and me. Somehow said box made its way down the narrow staircase and into the middle of our basement rec room. Like maniacal hunters we circled the beast—scrutinizing every inch of its carcass, celebrating our good fortune and anticipating the ritualistic carving that would soon take place.

This, of course, meant that our mother would allow us to use steak knives to transform the aforementioned box into a masterpiece, making us drunk with joy while effectively violating one of the prime tenets of parenthood—the one involving sharp objects and underdeveloped motor skills. Inherently she understood that using a table knife was decidedly futile, and that scissors were pretty much worthless as a tool for such an undertaking. So we’d hack and saw through the cardboard with glee, inch-by-inch, completely unsupervised—the ever-present element of danger adding exponentially to our collective delight.

Not surprisingly, we were fatigued by the enormity of the task yet thrilled to be making progress toward our shared vision. Never mind that blisters formed on our fingers, cardboard dust particles filled the air and jagged scraps littered the floor. It was a small price to pay in the name of creating something larger than ourselves. There in the musty cellar, whiling away the hours, we carved windows of every shape and size, escape hatches and skylights galore, doors that would actually swing open and shut and at least one rectangular slot for assorted mail and other important deliveries—like Mister Salty pretzel sticks and wads of Monopoly money. Also essential, a pathetic-looking doorbell we sketched with a big, fat Magic Marker.

Adding to the nest-like quality of our creation, we sometimes hauled blankets and pillows inside or fashioned curtains out of dishcloths we swiped from the kitchen. Likewise, a slew of books and LOOK Magazines would find their way to the interior, dropping to the floor one by one, having been shoved through the mail slot in rapid succession.

Indeed, our fort was a beautiful thing and there was as much joy in constructing it as there was in playing with it—especially when pets were coaxed within. Much like the mountain of dirt in our backyard—the one that occupied my brother and me for the better part of our summers, inundated with more plastic Army men and Matchbox cars than we could reliably count—our cardboard box forts were semi-permanent fixtures that would live in our memories forever.

Looking back, I can’t imagine surviving childhood without either.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, tempted to resurrect the cardboard box fort of my youth. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2016 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under "N" is for Nostalgia, In the Trenches of Parentville

Say Yes to the Dress. Maybe.

www.melindawentzel.comI have not-so-fond memories of my high school prom, most of which stem from having worn a dress that felt as if it were lined with burlap. It was a white, floor-length eyelet gown, cinched unmercifully at the waist, making the thought of dancing almost unbearable. Never mind walking, talking and breathing. However, not going to the dance was out of the question. I went because all my friends would be there. I went because the hype leading up to the event was intoxicating. I went because prom night was a rite of passage—apparently, so was wearing obscenely uncomfortable shoes and stuffing myself in a dress that was two sizes too small.

Cutoffs and Converse sneakers were more my speed. If only I could have convinced the Prom Committee to allow everyone to dress as if they were going to a backyard barbecue, not a stodgy affair where herds of adolescents would spend much of the evening shuffling around in stiff formalwear, feeling both awkward and insecure. Or maybe that was just me.

The only thing less enjoyable than the prom itself was the gown-shopping marathon my mom and I endured beforehand, my angst superseded only by my negativity. I remember thinking I would never find the perfect dress, because it didn’t exist. Designers, it seemed, didn’t have flat-chested prom-goers in mind when they created styles for the masses. Instead, the racks were spilling over with plunging necklines and slinky, strapless numbers I couldn’t wear on a bet—not without hours of alterations and/or divine intervention. Lo and behold, we stumbled upon a gown that would work. Besides, I reasoned, I only had to endure it for a few hours. Then I could ditch it for jeans and a t-shirt—my garb of choice. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what I did.

So when my youngest daughter announced that she would need a prom dress this year I was speechless, my mind swimming with enough pessimism for six people. But, I reminded myself, she is a different kind of creature—a fun-loving free spirit, one who thrives on adventure and feels comfortable in her own skin, worlds away from me. That much I know.

That said, virtually everything about our shopping excursion was unlike my own of decades ago. For starters, we found heels long before we looked for a gown and she systematically broke them in over a period of weeks. On the day we finally set out to find a dress, my daughter brought the aforementioned shoes along so she could put them on to see how they looked with each gown she tried. Brilliant.

We then proceeded to haul massive amounts of silky, sequined whateverness into the dressing room, banking on the premise that more was better. Itchy tags and tangled hangers be damned. Despite the fact that we both fell in love with the very first gown (in which she looked stunning), she soldiered on—just in case she would discover something even more irresistible. There were black ones and red ones. Dresses without straps. Dresses without backs. Each one distinctively elegant. Each one with its own special charm, making the decision-making process fairly impossible.

After what seemed like forever, we were able to narrow it down to two favorites. And when I say “we” I mean my daughter and myself, an exceedingly helpful sales woman, a handful of patrons who happened to be in the vicinity and hordes of my daughter’s friends who offered instantaneous feedback via social media. Who knew that shopping for a prom dress would necessitate input from one’s Snapchat tribe, which apparently was present in the dressing room? I kid you not.

Needless to say, it’s a different world than it was some 30 odd years ago. Stranger still, we actually had fun searching for the perfect dress—so much fun, that we bought BOTH of her favorites. And because the gods were smiling, they were remarkably affordable, surprisingly comfortable and oh-so-beautiful.

Already it’s looking as if she won’t need decades of prom-related therapy.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, gearing up for Prom Night. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2016 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under "N" is for Nostalgia, Growing Pains, In the Trenches of Parentville, Spring Fling

All Hallows Eve…The End is Near

DSCN0432I’ve been informed it’s over—my brood’s love affair with trick-or-treating, that is. I knew it would happen eventually. I just wasn’t expecting it to happen now, seemingly minutes before Halloween. It’s possible I’ll need weeks of therapy in order to cope with such tragic news. Please send candy.

I guess I was kidding myself to think my kids’ enthusiasm for harvesting gobs of chocolate and fistfuls of candy corn would last forever. And I probably missed some important signs last October when my progeniesIMG_6676 disguised themselves to the nth degree (one wore a disturbingly realistic horsehead mask while the other donned a ginormous set of bat wings), but then sort of dragged their feet when it came to traipsing all over the neighborhood, treat bags in hand. At the time, I simply pushed it out of my mind. Denial, as it were.

As the stages of grief are classically defined, I suppose I haven’t progressed much since then. I still reject the idea that the fun is over, defending the fact that “…even adults like to dress up in ridiculous outfits and solicit candy. Who wouldn’t?”

Almost immediately, I learned how incredibly stupid that question was. In no uncertain terms, I was enlightened as to how “completely done with that” they were.

“We just want to stay home, answer the door and scare little kids to death.”

Egads. I wasn’t prepared for that sort of response. I guess I just want to hold on to the past, or maybe even live it a little longer if possible. I liked it when my twin daughters were just babies—most of the time anyway. They were pumpkins their first Halloween, kittens their second, and burly lumberjacks their third year I think. I remember dotting their cheeks with dark eyeliner, giving their faces the suggestion of stubble. I also fondly recall piling warm layers of clothing beneath red and black-checkered jackets to complete the look.

For the first several years, my husband and I lugged them around the neighborhood in their red Radio Flyer wagon, using blankets and coats to prop them up and cushion the bumpy ride. Hats and mittens were a must, cleverly incorporated into the ensemble. At each house we visited, friends would crowd around the door to see how adorable our children looked, each year’s costume topping the last.IMG_9862

As they grew older they were able to walk with us, tightly gripping one of our hands while clutching their coveted treat bag with the other. Each year we journeyed further and further away from home, eventually canvassing the entire neighborhood in one night—which was no small feat.

More recently, they’ve met up with their friends on All Hallows Eve, eager to wander the streets of our close-knit community, a smallish herd of mask-toting teens and tweens in the dark of night, some carrying flashlights, some entirely too cool to carry a flashlight, their raucous laughter filling the autumn air. By evening’s end, they would return home, sweaty and utterly spent, usually hauling all or part of their costumes—either because they were too hot or they broke somewhere along the way. Treat bags bursting with candy. Smiles all around.

But this year will be different. No more ambling from house to house. No more bags of loot to dump on the kitchen floor to better sort and ogle. No more little red wagon or mittens. At least my kids have assured me there will still be the wearing of costumes, however. So there’s that. I guess I’ll just have to accept reality and embrace a new and different Halloween tradition—as scary as that might be.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live lamenting the end of All Hallows Eve (sort of). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2015 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under "N" is for Nostalgia, Growing Pains, The Natives are Decidedly Restless

Dear Departed Summer

www.melindawentzel.comSeems like just yesterday…

I am a poster child for parenting ineptitude. And at no time does it become more painfully apparent than during the first few weeks of school—when I look back over the vast expanse of summer and realize that I’ve mismanaged a good deal of it. Despite having the best of intentions in mid-June—with a host of events cleverly sandwiched between swim lessons, haircuts and camps galore—by the tail end of July I found myself desperately trying to cram every ounce of family fun and spontaneity into what was left of summer. The fun I promised we’d have before sliding headlong into September.

Inexcusably, it is the epitome of who I am and what I do when it comes down to the wire—when a finite number of squares remain on the calendar during which anything and everything deemed truly memorable and drool-worthy to a nine-year-old can, ostensibly, be orchestrated. In a perfect world, that is. So like a madwoman I schedule sleepovers and movie nights, plan picnics and pencil in parades, visit ball parks and theme parks and stumble over myself to accept gracious invitations to friends’ homes and pools and lakeside cottages oozing with wonderfulness.

Conversely, I’ve tolerated a tent in my back yard for 23 days running—one that promises to leave a hideous, yellow square where a lovely patch of green grass used to grow. A smallish tent in which I spent an interminable night embracing all that roughing it entails, from mosquito bites and cramped quarters to a lumpy earthen mattress and a less-than-endearing quality of dankness I feared would cling to me forevermore. Eau de Musty Tent.

But it was better than disappointing my progenies. And not even related to the insufferable conditions that my husband (aka: Father of the Year) endured while attempting to sleep on an impossibly narrow and horribly unyielding lounge chair parked squarely in front of the zippered door. Sadly, I failed to photograph him in all his glory—mouth agape, flashlight in hand, his body entombed within a sleeping bag, his head, poking out the top, completely enshrouded within a camouflage mask I had never before seen, arms entirely enveloped by a giant mesh sack he apparently dragged from the bowels of the garage in a moment of great inspiration (aka: makeshift mosquito netting).

That said, I think it’s safe to say that as parents we at least showed up for our kids this summer. Some of the time anyway. We took them places and did things together. We tolerated their abiding love of toads, their penchant for trading Pokémon cards and their inexplicable fascination with roadkill. Furthermore, we tried not to trouble our silly heads over the health and well-being of our lawn as well as the health and well-being of those who spent much of August snowboarding down our grassy front terrace. Nor did we dwell on the wanton fearlessness with which they careened hither and yon on their scooters. Barefooted, no less. So we can feel slightly good, I guess—having directly or indirectly contributed to the wellspring of memories gathered over the fleeting, albeit delicious, chunk of summer.

Looking back I now see why it was likely a success—not because of the fancy-schmanciness of this or that celebrated event, but because the extraordinary lives deep within the ordinary. That said, fiery sunsets and Big Dipper sightings are more mesmerizing than a summertime box office smash. A symphony of crickets, the pungent aroma of the earth and the endless chatter of children most memorably fill a tent. A hammock is very nearly medicinal, as is the buttery succulence of sweet corn, the shade of an oak tree and the canopy of fog at sunrise as it hangs in the valley—silent and still.

Dear Departed Summer, it’s likely I’ll miss your fireflies most—and the barefoot children who give chase, drinking in the moment, alive with pleasure, racing across your cool, slick grasses without end.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (lamenting the finite quality of summer and desperately searching for the rewind button). 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 "G" is for Guilt, "N" is for Nostalgia, Endless Summer

A Kinder, Gentler Sort of Summer

www.melindawentzel.comI don’t remember my summers as a kid being the least bit hectic, never mind structured. As I recall, summer was an exercise in deliverance and spontaneity—an intoxicating river of endless days and weeks, blurred at the edges, verdant at its core, punctuated by dozens upon dozens of delicious remembrances that pool in the corners of my mind even still.

There was no glorified schedule or master plan that bound me to times or places, unless you consider the regularity with which my dad and I watched late-night Yankees games together in our living room, the ceaseless drone of the big box fan humming in the background like a raspy biplane. There were no obligatory to-do-list items I felt necessarily compelled to realize before heading back to school either, except, of course, the ones that involved harvesting baseball cards, tooling around on my banana seat bike and acquiring a new pair of Converse All-Stars. Low-tops. Black.

Summer was a time to relax, recondition and, on occasion, run away from home—an impulsive act of stupidity, inspired largely by gypsies and like-minded 11-year-olds who felt stifled by boundaries of the parental variety. But I digress. Of all the seasons of my childhood, summer was far and away the most delectable.

That said, my younger brother and I practically lived in our backyard swimming pool, until the laze and haze of August segued into the rush of September, its bright yellow school buses and freshly waxed floors jolting us back to a different sort of reality. When we weren’t paddling around in big, rubber inner tubes or diving to the bottom in search of stones or coins, we could be found at the water’s edge immersed in a game of checkers on a giant beach towel, an island of sundrenched bliss. Other days we’d disappear deep into the woods, climbing trees and cobbling together all manner of poorly constructed forts with a motley crew of neighborhood kids, hammers and nails we www.melindawentzel.compilfered from our fathers and wood scraps we managed to haul there, one armload after another. Brambles and poison ivy be damned.

We logged countless hours of Wiffle ball and badminton, too, threw Frisbees at dusk till no one could reliably see and lay in the cool grass, pausing just long enough to watch the vermillion skies fade to purple, then to wooly gray and eventually, to an inky black canvas dotted with a smattering of stars—some bright, some barely discernible as the shroud of night consumed every tree, thicket and barefoot child in its path. Multitudes of fireflies took center stage then, materializing out of nothingness it seemed, ushering in the goodness of many a summer’s night.

Shortly thereafter, we assembled the masses for hide-and-seek, a spirited game hopelessly devoted to perpetuity and the governance of an ungodly amount of acreage, encompassing the far reaches of one’s neighborhood long after the woods grew thick with mosquitos and alive with a chorus of crickets. Sweat-soaked and breathless from giving chase, we eventually headed home, having heard the familiar thwack of a certain screen door coupled with our parents’ demands to come inside, signaling an end to this and so many good nights of summer. But our bedrooms would soon be dappled with the morning sunlight, and the promise of yet another endless day of summer beckoned unremittingly.

By today’s standards, I fear what I’ve described above would qualify as dreadfully dull. There were no cell phones to speak of, no iPads in existence and not a single app involving demonic monkeys or angry birds had been so much as imagined. By and large, moms didn’t run taxi services for their children in the summertime. Nor did they farm them out to an embarrassment of camps or overload their schedules with a glut of culture and tutelage and the insanity that fuels organized sports.

Times were simpler then. Less harried, and more memorable, methinks. Perhaps because the tapestry of summer was woven at a kinder, gentler pace, helping us all to find joy in the ordinary.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (remembering when summer was really summer). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under "N" is for Nostalgia, Endless Summer

Hands Upon My Heart

www.melindawentzel.comWhen I was nine or ten, I remember being enthralled 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, literally immersed in a world of sod and soil from sunup to sundown. Never mind my fondness of forests and rocky places, typifying 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 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 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.

Hands are the tools with which we shape the world. They define us to an extent—as sons and daughters, providers and professionals, laborers and learners. 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, court and poolside, the hands that bless them each day 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. Indeed, we all have a hand (as well as a stake) in what will be.

Equally important is the notion of remembering what was. There’s nothing quite as memorable as the hands of those I’ve lost—like my grandfather’s. His were more like mitts—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.

Not surprisingly, I can still summon an image of my brother’s hands, too. 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 the hands that have touched my life). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2013 Melinda L. Wentzel

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

The Road Less Traveled

www.melindawentzel.comI 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 nine years—the ones that have felt like nine 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.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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