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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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Merry and Bright

IMG_0148I love indoor Christmas lights. Tiny white ones, more specifically—the sort that cast a soft glow at dusk, filling a darkened room with ambient warmth, reminding me that it was totally worth risking life and limb to hang them atop windows and French doors as I foolishly balanced on a step stool, the meaty arm of a sofa and once, even upon a tall stack of pillows that were strategically placed upon said sofa. Yep. Totally worth it.

My husband, by contrast, adores such festive trappings, but is less than enamored with the idea of wrestling with them for more than twenty-seven minutes—the average time it takes to retrieve the tangled masses from the attic, arrange them in clumps on the floor and then wrap them around a Christmas tree in a manner that is both geometrically and aesthetically pleasing. What’s more, he can’t stand it when he makes the inevitable discovery in the thick of decorating madness (i.e. lights that won’t light, bulbs that are broken or flicker with the slightest bit of movement and entire strands of lights that are sporadically lit at best, a far cry from merry and bright).

Of course, these are the very same lights that functioned perfectly last year—the ones we tested before boxing them up and shoving them into the deep recesses of the attic. I’m convinced that something criminal happens in there between New Year’s and Thanksgiving. Something that can probably be traced to Elf on a Shelf, or an equally reprehensible little creature inclined to tamper with our trimmings. However, we don’t own any of the aforementioned elves, nor would I feel compelled to put them on a shelf or anywhere else because they creep the cranberries out of me. Nevertheless, it’s clear that something goes on in that attic that would explain our less-than-functional lights.

Yes, it’s possible they’re just chintzy, and that we’re too cheap to care.

At any rate, we are then faced with a dilemma—the one my husband and I experience each and every year. Do we ditch the strands of lights that refuse to cooperate completely, effectively ridding ourselves of the headache that is defined by tightening and checking ALL of the bulbs individually? Or do we stuff the dysfunctional segments of strands into the tree, where we hope no one will notice and subsequently judge our character?

And let us not forget the problem of what to do with the strands that won’t light at all. If you’re anything like my husband, you’ll keep plugging them into the wall socket and jiggling the wires, repeating the idiocy that is wrapped in denial. Admittedly, I am slightly amused by his antics, so I encourage him to continue trying. Again. And again. Eventually, though, he decides to part with the wretched strands, leaving them for dead. Meanwhile, I cram yard upon yard of half-functioning light strings into the tree, doing my level best to disguise the ones we’ve determined to be misfits this Christmas—because a) I’m too lazy to go to the store to buy more and b) I’m too stubborn to unravel what I worked so hard to position on the boughs in the first place.

“It’s fine,” I rationalize. “We’ll manage with the ones that DO work and no one will be the wiser.”

I have to wonder, as I cruise around town at dusk, peering into yellow squares of windows at fir trees and mantles aglow with twinkly, white lights—do rogue trimmings plague their households with the same ferocity as ours? Maybe we’re an anomaly. Or maybe the universe hates us. Or maybe, just maybe, our Christmas spirit is being tested. I suppose it stands to reason that we continue to pass since we rise to the occasion each year, making our home merry and bright in spite of the intolerable struggle that has become familiar if nothing else.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, probably messing with Christmas lights.

Copyright 2015 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Dear Departed Summer

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 the summer and realize that I’ve mismanaged a good deal of it. In spite of 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, of course, 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 twenty-three 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, methinks.

I suppose, however, that it was better than a) dealing with the monstrosity-of-a-teepee that monopolized my lawn last summer b) disappointing my progenies who insisted that I camp out with them and c) 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. As luck would have it, he was uniquely situated and perfectly qualified to shepherd those who felt compelled to visit the loo in the dead of night. Good thing. My only lament: failing 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 building forts, their overwhelming desire to climb to the tops of trees and their inexplicable fascination with road kill. 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. It’s not the double play in the bottom of the ninth they’ll remember, it’s the delicious medley of peanuts and popcorn wafting through the air, the distinctive shade of blue on the tongues of all who drank icy-cold, blue raspberry drinks on that sweltering summer night and the tinny clang that echoed throughout the stadium as cheering fans beat upon the aluminum bleachers like drums. Similarly, it’s not the glorified picnic with throngs of people, platters of deviled eggs and eleventeen varieties of potato salad that necessarily makes a lasting impression. It’s the novelty, and perhaps spontaneity, of having cucumber sandwiches and slices of watermelon on a wobbly card table in the midst of summer fun. “Thanks, Mom, now we don’t have to stop playing!”

Moreover, I’d daresay that fiery sunsets and Big Dipper sightings are more mesmerizing than a summertime box office smash. That a symphony of crickets, the pungent aroma of the earth and the endless chatter of children most memorably fill a tent. That 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).

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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