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Countdown to Christmas

It was painful to stand there and simply watch. To idly witness, that is, a little boy, no more than three, seized by a desperate longing to ride on the horse-drawn wagon that had circled the park more times than we could readily count in the hour or so that we waited. Again and again the team of Belgians passed us in the frigid night, pausing ever so briefly along its winding path to load and unload hoards of people who had come to this festive event—to soak in some Christmas cheer, to perhaps get a glimpse of Santa in his red, velvety suit and to feast their eyes upon the spectacle of lights that blanketed the grounds, casting a warm glow upon the darkness that sought to swallow us whole.

The boy’s frustration was decidedly palpable as he wailed in vain to his mother and to the starry sky above, arching his back and clenching his tiny fists in indignation—hot, angry tears streaming down his baby face. Inconsolable, as it were. Aside from diverting his attention from this sorrowful reality (i.e. that he was NOT sitting in the aforementioned wagon, lulled by the gentle rhythm of the horses’ gait and the muted sound of their hooves as they hit the pavement), there wasn’t much anyone could do to comfort him.

So many times I’ve watched my own children suffer through the misery of waiting for that which promises to remedy all ills, to satisfy all desires and to deliver instantaneous joy. The interminable wait for Space Mountain at Disney World. The intolerable chasm between ordering a Happy Meal and wrapping one’s pudgy fingers around the cheap plastic toy contained within said Happy Meal. The insufferable gulf that exists between falling hard on the gritty sidewalk and being swooped up into a parent’s arms, where soothing assurances await.

And though they’ve grown immeasurably since that time, my children loathe the process of waiting even still—especially during this celebrated month of December, on the veritable cusp of Christmas. Over the years it has become tradition, shortly after Thanksgiving and perhaps before any other bit of holiday décor emerges from the depths of the attic, to haul out the handcrafted, Santa-inspired DAYS TILL CHRISTMAS thingy—the one that is cleverly outfitted with removable wooden blocks upon which numbers have been handily painted. We do this, of course, because we cannot find our Advent Calendar—the endearing square of felt-like fabric filled to capacity with a crop of tiny pockets and tethered to a small, cottony fir tree intended to mark the days until the 25th. Needless to say, I had a deep and abiding love for that calendar, but sadly it disappeared—along with my girlish figure, every intact set of tumblers I once owned and the stain-free carpeting I once enjoyed.

At any rate, Thing One and Thing Two are patently delirious over all that the Yuletide embodies, so thickly immersed are they in the important business of crafting gifts for friends and family, taking part in a good number of caroling excursions through school and church and (much to my dismay) quoting the lyrics of The 12 Pains of Christmas far too often. They’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time composing wish lists that appear to change with the wind, instilling me with a fair amount of panic as we inch ever nearer to Christmas Day. Indeed, the ratcheting effect of the official countdown has begun in earnest. “ELEVEN DAYS TILL CHRISTMAS!” the wooden blocks seem to shout—reminding me of both the joy this season brings and of my glaring ineptitude as it relates to the enormity of the task ahead.

Cleansing breaths and great volumes of prayer are in order at such times, which, with any luck, will serve to ground me and to give me pause—especially during this grand and glorious season of hopeful expectation.

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

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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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 six years—the ones that have felt like six 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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April Awakening

I’ve always loved the springtime—especially the warm embrace of April. Of all the seasons, I’m inclined to say that it is my favorite—partly because baseball is back and the school year is drawing its last breath, but mostly because it is an era awash with newness. Almost indescribably so. Wisps of green now dot the underbrush, as if God had been handed a paintbrush and was then asked to create something slightly magnificent. Likewise, daffodils and forsythia, bathed in brilliant yellows, have been summoned from the places where shades of gray have lived for far too long. Lilac and cherry blossoms, too, are poised to burst with a profusion of muted hues and the sweet scents of spring. Armies of tulips will soon follow, standing straight and tall in the midday sun. Never mind the rain that must fall.

Indeed, the creatures of this season move me, too. The melodies of more songbirds than I can readily name fill the air along with the serenade of crickets—legions of them, welcoming each night as the woods grow thick with darkness and alive with a symphony of sound. Before long, the yellow-green flashes of fireflies will entrance my children, prompting them to give chase, mayonnaise jars in hand—but not yet. This is springtime and the earth feels soft and yielding beneath my feet, rekindling memories of running barefoot as a child, the cool blades of grass and spongy patches of moss mingling intimately with my toes. The same toes, mind you, that have begged to be reacquainted with the deliciousness of leather sandals since mid-February. The calendar assures me that the time is nigh and that the months ahead are certain to bring both warmth and goodness to the land. Springtime, it seems, is pregnant with possibility, which is yet another reason I love it so.

Or maybe it’s because all three of my children were born in the thick of April. Aries babies. Tiny souls destined for equal shares of independence and optimism, despite the vast array of frailties that came with being frighteningly preterm. As one might expect, I worried about umbilical cords, fontanels and cries I had yet to decipher. I think it was there in the hospital, amidst the haze of becoming a mother again and again, where I first recognized how unspeakably euphoric this season of new beginnings made me feel. How I could look outside my window at the verdant landscape below, all the splendor of spring unfolding before me, and then marvel, in the very same breath, at the bundles of neediness I had helped create—the ones with fuzzy, sweet-smelling heads and impossibly tiny toes, the babes I would soon rock in the creaky chair that had been my great grandmother’s.

Somehow, seeing the buds and the birds and the medley of green filled me with a tangible sense of hope and enthusiasm for whatever the future might bring. The sleepless nights and debilitating bouts of self-doubt I would surely encounter seemed almost manageable in the context of Mother Nature’s grand awakening. Deep within, I believed that no matter how ineptly I nursed the smallish beings in question or how spectacularly wrong I swaddled said infants, all would be well. My parenting days, though stunningly imperfect, would fill my cup, bind me inextricably to my brood and leave me wondering how I could ever function without them. The spring had arrived after all, and the canvas of my world had been painted with broad strokes of vibrant color and punctuated with untold joy.

Of course, it could be the birthdays we celebrate at this time of year that make the season so special. There are four if you count my husband’s—all within a span of three weeks—and I can’t help but indelibly etch in my mind all the cakes and candles, all the meals at fancy restaurants with friends and family and the countless parties with giddified bunches of little girls crowding around to see what bit of wonderfulness so-and-so happened to have unwrapped. And let us not forget the slumber parties. Lord knows I won’t.

Then again, it might simply be Easter, the mother of grand awakenings, that makes this time so very dear. Egg hunts and wicker baskets. Frilly dresses and shiny shoes. Palm fronds and penitence. Spiritually stirring events that cause me to ponder the true meaning of awakening, rendering me awestruck far beyond the month of April.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (savoring every drop of spring). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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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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Words Matter

IMG_1638Today marks the 16th anniversary of my brother’s suicide. Seems like yesterday….

I didn’t even know the woman, but I bristled when she spoke. Of course, her words weren’t even intended for me and I’m sure she had no idea how capably they would seize my joy and take me back in time to a day I’d rather not remember.

I was standing in the card aisle of a local department store of all places, wrestling with indecision famously. As I read and reread each of the selections I was considering (encouragement for a woman battling cancer and a birthday wish for a dear friend who had moved a world away), I weighed the words contained within each heartfelt message carefully, recognizing their power to connect souls in good times and in bad.

“CARDS DON’T MATTER,” I heard her grouse through clenched teeth, chiding her children who were likely picking out a birthday greeting for a friend or a favorite cousin. “We’ve already gotten a gift, now choose a ninety-nine-cent card and let’s get out of here,” she spat, indignation spilling from her lips. “He’ll just throw it out anyway,” she reasoned.

Though a towering wall of greeting cards separated us and I could see exactly none of what had transpired in the adjacent aisle, the exasperation that wafted over the transom was palpable and left little room for misinterpretation. Without question, it had been a long day and patience was nowhere to be found. Clearly the novelty of traipsing around a store with kids in tow had long since worn off.

Granted, I had been there and done that as a parent, patently consumed by a simple yet impossible wish to be somewhere else in this life besides searching for the perfect gift for yet another kid-themed birthday party. That said, I have frequented the brink of insanity while shopping with my brood more often than I’d care to admit, shamelessly enraged by something as ridiculous as a rogue wheel on a cart from hell coupled with my children’s irksome demands: “But we have to smell the smelly markers before we buy them, Mom. We have to make sure they smell juuuust right. And then we have to look for a birthday card with a little dog on it. Wearing a pink tutu. Maddy likes little dogs. And tutus.”

Frustration, I understood.

What rankled me to the core was the premise of this woman’s argument. That “cards don’t matter.” Because sometimes they do.

Like most people who learn of things that are unspeakably difficult to handle, I unearthed this little pearl of wisdom mired in grief and plagued by guilt. As if it were yesterday, I remember rummaging around my brother’s house in the days that followed his suicide, searching for answers or perhaps a tiny glimpse into his troubled world. Granted, I didn’t know him nearly as well as I could have…and probably should have. As I sifted through his CDs and thumbed through his books, eager to gain even a modicum of insight, I stumbled upon a drawer with a handful of cards neatly stacked within. Cards he had saved. Cards that likely meant something to him. Cards filled with words that apparently mattered.

It was at this point, I’m quite certain, that I felt a deep sense of regret and shame, for none of my cards were among those he had harvested. Surely, I had sent him a birthday greeting (or twenty), a congratulatory note regarding his beautiful home or his wonderful job, an irreverent get-well card to brighten an otherwise unenjoyable hospital stay, a wish-you-were-here postcard from Myrtle Beach or the Hoover Dam. Hadn’t I?

Incomprehensibly, I couldn’t remember. All I could wrap my mind around were the missed opportunities and the paltry thank-you note I had written that lay on his kitchen counter. Unopened. The one my four-year-old daughters had drawn pictures on as a way of offering thanks for his incredible generosity at Christmastime. The one that mocked my ineptitude and chided me for failing to mail it sooner…so that he might have read it…and felt in some small way more valued than perhaps he had before. The one that reminded me that words left unspoken are indeed the worst sort of words.

I’d like to think he occasionally sat on his couch and sifted through that cache of cards on a lazy afternoon, warmed by the messages scrawled within—a collection of remembrances worthy of holding close. Likewise, I hope he knows of the countless times since his death that I’ve been overcome with emotion in the card aisle of many a store, pausing in the section marked “brother” to read and reflect on what might have been—an odd yet cathartic sort of behavior.

So as one might expect, the horribleness of that day flooded my mind the very instant I heard CARDS DON’T MATTER. But instead of letting it swallow me whole, I turned my thoughts to why I had come—to find the most ideally suited messages for two special people, knowing they would feel special in turn.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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