Monday, December 28, 2009

Finding a reason for the season

In the days just before the birthday-Thanksgiving-Christmas chaos we like to call the Celebration Season, I got a most touching letter that helped put the spirit of these holidays into perspective for me. The story of the letter dates six months earlier, when I was trying to decide how to recognize the 10-year anniversary of my mother’s death. For some reason I felt it should be marked by my doing something that kept her memory here on earth. I mentioned this to a friend whose mother had died a few years ago. She said she called the anniversary of her mother’s death Dead Moms Day and did things her mother loved – like eat ice cream and drink her mother’s favorite wine.

I couldn’t think of a favorite food of my mother’s, and wasn’t in the mood to sip Beafeaters. I think it was Rick who suggested making a donation to a nonprofit in her memory. But which one? My mother was a juvenile defender in Memphis. That means, she defended kids whose families could not afford a lawyer. She assisted with custody battles and misdemeanors. She even defended kids against murder. She called the ones she defended, “my kids,” and she truly cared about them. She mentioned several times wanting to invite some over for Thanksgiving dinner, and my sister and I in our ignorance would simply roll our eyes. She never got the opportunity to make that dinner for “her kids.”

I did some research and learned that in Birmingham the Department of Youth Services has a campus dedicated to rehabilitating young men who have gotten into trouble. I called and talked with several people there, explaining that I wanted to make a small donation, and finally reached Kennedy, who was almost speechless at my offer. Vacca Campus isn’t a “charity” in the true sense of the word and its funds are greatly restricted. But donations, while rare, were accepted and appreciated. He said he would find a way to put mine to use. I mailed the check on June 18, 2009, the 10-year anniversary of my mother’s death, and while Kennedy said he would let me know how the money was put to use, I didn’t expect to hear from him. I knew his work and that of the others at Vacca Campus was hard and often under appreciated. He owed me nothing but a promise that he would make my donation mean something special for the boys. That was all I needed I needed to know.

Just days after Thanksgiving, at the height of our Celebration Season, in the midst of Christmas parties at my son’s school and in our home, I received a letter from Kennedy. I expected it to be an acknowledgement of my donation, but it was so much more.

On behalf of the students and staff at Vacca Campus, we would like to express our appreciation for your generous contribution in honor of your mother. We would like to apologize for our delay in sending you a letter of appreciation. Man people outside of this line of work will never know who challenging, dangerous, and frustrating a career with youth can be with oftentimes limited results. With resources stretched thin and prorated budgets, your donation could not have come at a better time.

We immediately began debating the best use of the funds you provided. One thought was an outside volleyball court but we already have a gym where we can play volleyball. There were other discussions as to the best use of the funds. Finally we decided to use the money to help fund our yearly Fall Festival held in our school gym on October 30, 2009. I regret that we were unable to invite you due to legal restraints but I can assure you that all the students enjoyed the festival. Your donation went toward an eventful day including a basketball tournament between dorms, which the winning dorm received a pizza party. Also we were able to buy popcorn for our popcorn maker and provide the students with barbecue chicken and all the fixings. Our students rarely get charcoal grilled chicken. Also, the dormitory with the best decorations won a pizza party.

The festival was a big success and the students were very grateful. On behalf of the Department of Youth Services and especially the 80-plus students on our campus, we want to thank you again for the monetary donation you gave in honor of your mother.

I read the letter out loud to my husband, breaking up a bit because I’m pathetic that way. My mother never got to host a handful of “her boys” at the house for Thanksgiving, but in a way she was able to give those 80-plus boys at Vacca Campus some holiday joy. And that was worth every penny of my small donation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The raw truth about cookie dough

We made the Original Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies last night because that’s what my family did during the holidays when I was a girl. In years past since growing up I’ve tried to replicate the tradition but there was always some wrench that would get thrown into the plan, like my son’s hands. So I’d settle for some of those slice-and-bake Nestle chocolate chip cookies, which looked better and tasted just as good but weren’t based on principal, just because no one in the house had actually labored over each and every ingredient and made a mess of the counter in the process.

So this year I laid out all the ingredients and I even set out two separate bowls - one for the dry ingredients and one for the wet, though when I was a kid we just started combining the wet and then threw in the dry ingredients without regard to mixing them first. This year, before the wet ingredients were thoroughly combined, Truman asked if he could lick the “spinners” He said, “Ashley and Mollie (my sister’s older girls) let me eat the batter when I made cookies with them last year.” Rick and I answered at the same time. “Yes/No.” It was I who said yes. Rick looked over his shoulder. “You sure?” Well, yeah. I mean, this is the man who eats carpaccio and ceviche and sushi and raw oysters and who orders his meat and fish medium rare and his eggs with runny yokes. (What’s that called? Over easy? Sunnyside up? I never learned that.) He even laps up the Old-Fashioned Walker Family Egg Nog, which is nothing but raw eggs and booze. I said, “Haven’t you ever eaten cookie dough?” He said, “Uh huh. I guess so.” You guess so? Guess so? If you have to guess, you obviously haven’t because any cookie-dough-eater knows that the dough actually tastes better than the actual cookies. (Maybe that’s why they were named “cookies,” so that those who made the confection would carry through to the last step and “cook” them.)

Rick raised his lone Jack Nicholson eyebrow at me and shook his head as Truman lapped up the batter that contained raw egg. That was his warning that if Truman spent the entire night hugging the porcelain god, it was my job to sit by and manage it since it was I who got him into that mess. Fine. I’ve been consuming cookie dough probably yearly since I was old enough to walk. Never once did I get salmonella poisoning. What, exactly, changed in eggs to make them more lethal than when I was a little girl?

A risk? Sure, but to even the playing field I swallowed down a few wads of dough. I figured if Truman spent the next morning throwing chunks, rather than sitting by feeling bad about it, I could join in on the misery.

Fast forward to this morning. I’m not sick and neither is Truman. We’re going to make gingerbread men today. Not sure that batter is any good, but we’ll taste-test it to be sure. Rick? Well, he can just stand by and wiggle that Jack Nicholson brow.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cookbooks make the best gifts!

We picked Truman up early from school Friday and headed to Memphis for the annual Walker-Warren Christmas dinner. We had much cause to celebrate – my sister got engaged. “The missing piece,” my father said. Translation: we don’t have to worry about her anymore. Well, I suppose we’ll always worry about each other, but you know … So we load Truman in the car with his backpack and his rest towel (home for washing) and his Spiderman lunchbox and he is talking nonstop, like he does when he is truly excited. He is thrilled about seeing the family and the presents he will receive later in the evening, but most of all he is excited because he has made us a gift and, he says, “It’s Ok, I decided you can open it now.” Meaning right now, because he cannot even wait for me to get buckled, so I reach around to the backseat and grab the package that’s wrapped in paper he decorated himself. I’ve seen my share of daycare-made gifts before so I was expecting to gush at whatever adorable painting or photo or ornament it was, but by God, his teacher flat-out floored me with this one. It was a cookbook made up or recipes thought up by each child. The kids wrote out their recipes, then typed them into the computer and then drew a picture to accompany it. The teachers did some minor translation. It was just about the cutest and most heart warming thing I believe I’ve ever laid eyes on. Honest.

Some recipes were for Froot Loops (which, thankfully, the teacher had translated to be spelled correctly rather than by the name on the box) or Lucky Charms. Some had hamburgers or spaghetti. My darling son’s recipe was for Marshmallow Mash.

We were told during Kindergarten orientation that they would be teaching the kids to spell phonetically and that we may not understand what our children have written, but this phonetic spelling helps them become better writers and readers. Considering I never learned phonics as a child and I am a severely poor speller, I thought the practice ingenious.

My son was so truly proud of the cookbook that he had me read the entire book – recipes and all – to him right then and there in the car. He also pored through it a few dozen times before we made it to our destination. Then he took it straight to Grandma and showed off his fine work, and later showed the book off to the rest of the family. He had us read it to him as a bedtime story, and the minute we got home he wanted to make a recipe from the book. “It will either be my recipe or someone else’s,” he said. And, big surprise, he landed on Marshmallow Mash. Amazingly, we had all ingredients on hand and I let Truman prepare his super sweet concoction. He devoured proudly.

We’re going to tape him on the Flip the next time he makes it because it’s just about the cutest damn thing you’ll ever see. And yes, I’m being frightfully biased, but it’s a mother’s license to gloat and your right to ignore it.

Happy cooking.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Victoria's Secret for kids

Rick got a call from a former co-worker. She said one of her new co-workers had seen him in Victoria’s Secret with a little boy. The woman was mortified. As if my husband, who, by the way, is somewhat recognizable in the community, is some pedophile. By taking him into a popular lingerie store would taint him. (Never mind that a former and now re-elected councilman in my town once tried to get VS to take those naughty panties out of its display windows!) Truth be told, Truman wants every Christmas, for whatever reason, to buy me fuzzy, furry pajamas and Rick always takes him through VS. I always end up with sweat/PJs outfits with PINK on the leg or bum. Love them. I don’t see how my son wading through VS is an issue.

Rick asked if I had a problem with it. If it was a bad thing to do with a 6-year-old. He said they stayed in the PJ area and at one point Truman trotted off to another table where he leaned over the rainbow of thongs and pulled the blue ones – because blue is his favorite color – and yelped loudly through the intimate apparel store, “Daddy! Let’s get this for Mommy! This is so awesome!” He had a blue thong stretched out across two thumbs and was eyeing them with incredible wonder, and my husband, that recognizable figure I mentioned earlier, demanded he drop the thongs and march right back to the PJs. No amount of “but Daddy”’s swayed my husband, and ultimately they moved on. Or I think they did. There is a rather large box under the tree from Truman and I suspect my husband is smart enough not to gift a pair of panties to me from our darling son. Only time will tell.

So he is wondering if it was so bad for a 40-something man to take his 6-year-old son into VS for a shopping trip for Mommy. I say no. What say you?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why you should stop bitching and be thankful

I have another reason for feeling good about life in general right now. (See previous post.) I’m healthy. I may not look healthy, as I’ve got plenty of pounds to shed and stuffing my face with holiday confections and gallons of wine isn’t helping matters. But I have no major health concerns. I suppose I was taking it for granted when my friend Robin, on the way back from Target to pick up one of her prescriptions last week, said, “You’re not fat. You’re healthy. And you’re so lucky for that.” God, did I feel like a pig or what? Robin has pancreatic cancer. The “good kind,” if that even makes sense. She’s at the three-years-post-diagnosis mark and while she has remained cancer-free since surgery to remove half her pancreas (and some other assorted, somewhat unnecessary organs), the past three years have been littered with various health complications. When I was driving her around last week she was one-day post some sort of freaky down-the-esophagus procedure to drain fluid buildup in her liver-pancreas area. The fluid was making what was left of her pancreas miserable (she says, “you would be pissed, too, if you had been sitting in a bath for three years,”) and was pushing against her stomach causing a kind of gastric bypass effect. Essentially, she couldn’t keep much food down. While good for the diet, it was not so good for overall health. She’s lost what I’ve gained these past 10 years I’ve known her. Anyway, she couldn’t drive for 24 hours, and I was ahead on my weekly workload, so I chauffeured her around to two different Targets to fill a prescription while she wobbled a bit and carried a plastic shopping bag just in case she needed to puke what little she had eaten that day.

I suppose being around Robin somehow reminded me of Melisa Waller. I had found her blog while Googling recent news on the blood thinner heparin and cancer for the blogs I write for Beasley Allen Law Firm. Her blog is hosted by EmpowHer and the picture of her shows her lying in a hospital bed. I would read one or two of her posts before heading back to my heparin searches. Melissa started writing in February 2009, just weeks after she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She was 31. Since I had moved on to other subjects from researching heparin for the law firm I hadn’t encountered her blog lately. Last weekend, after my Target excursion with Robin, I thought of Melissa and started to worry about her. Freaky to worry about someone you never met. Anyway, she had said in her blog that the average lifespan for someone with her type of cancer at stage 4 is 14 months. So I think my concern was with merit. When I finally located her on EmpowHer, I saw she had a recent post, so that was a relief. Then I started reading her blog, beginning with the first one she wrote in February. I’ve been reading it these past few days on my iPhone at night when I can’t sleep, in carpool line, and when I have fragments of time during my day that I need to occupy. For someone who’s facing a life sentence, Melissa sure doesn’t seem very oppressed by it. I swear I think I’d cry everyday and then try to blame everyone and everything. I’m not sure what fascinates me so much about her blog (and I went so far as to visit her personal Web site,, but this girl is in quite a fight.

I’m about halfway through her blog and when I catch up to current time, I’m going to send her a message. Not sure what I’ll say. What do you say to someone you’ve been stalking simply because you find her personal story so compelling? Hope she doesn’t think I’m a freak, but since I have stalked her, I feel like I need to, you know, fess up. But also let her know I’m thinking about her, pulling for her. And, frankly, hope never to experience what she is going through. Since February, she has been in the hospital more than a month, maybe more. Had several visits to the emergency room. Been doubled-over in pain, daily. Had two blood clots. Three surgeries to “cement” her spine back together. Fluid drained from her lung. And numerous setbacks in her chemotherapy sessions, treatments that could extend her life but yet are postponed because her life keeps getting kicked in the ass by cancer.

Last night I read several of Melissa’s postings on my iPhone as Rick slept quietly next to me. In the May 26th post, titled “Staying Strong,” Melissa finally expressed what I was feeling for her. “I was talking with Wes today and I was just telling him how I miss my old life. I miss the fast-paced lifestyle that I used to live. I miss planning for the future. I miss being intimate. I REALLY MISS driving! I miss eating a meal without having to give myself a shot in my stomach or taking a cupful of pills. I miss working out and doing pilates and yoga at the Village. I miss being able to go to Postino's and having a couple of glasses of wine without worrying if I am going to wake up the next day. There are many, many things that I miss about my life prior to lung cancer.”

And then she said, “That’s why I hope you as you read this don’t take for granted all the wonderful, daily things that seem simple.”

There. It hit me right at that moment. Reading those words and feeling guilty for bitching about being fat and having to do laundry again and that we have too many Christmas parties to attend this year and not enough time to just sit in a lump of leaves in our backyard. God, I’m so selfish.

I read a few more posts last night before turning off the iPhone. But first, I checked the date, just in case my iPhone cache blanks out and I need to locate my place on her blog. The last post I read was published on June 18, 2009, the 10-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I’m not sure that’s significant. Maybe just coincidental. But whatever. It meant something to me.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Celebration Season

It’s been a while since I posted – my first since leaving BlissTree. It’s been crazy around here. We launched the holiday season as we have for the past six years – with Truman’s birthday party (or birthday, whichever comes first). This celebration of sorts continues for a month … longer, really. Until New Year’s Day. And I am so eager at that point to tear down this messy garland and pick the ornaments off the floor. (I can thank my cats for that this year. Previous years it was partially Truman’s fault.) But we’re halfway through the celebration season and other than suffering a financial blow due to an unexpected four-figure car repair, I’m in great spirits.

I kicked off the celebration season by wallowing in a little pathetic self-pity. My Memphis family was enjoying Thanksgiving together, no doubt spending the evening eating a lavish meal, drinking bottomless glasses of wine, talking loudly about current events and how there is some hope for the miserable economy. Instead, I spent the holiday hosting my husband’s family. They are dear, refined people, and while I love them deeply, we’re just a small group and our midday meal isn’t littered with off-color jokes and talks about how the Republicans are ruining our great country.

And my mother is gone. Dead 10 years now, and I like to throw in some jabs to my already bruised ego by kicking around thoughts of what the holidays would be like if she were still around. I can’t call Anni, my father’s wife, a stepmother. She entered my life when I was too old to need a surrogate one. But she has been a lifesaver to my father, my family. And loves my son as if he were her own. That’s priceless.

So, it was Thanksgiving day and I was wallowing around in that self-pity crap and I had this epiphany. I realized one day Truman would be in college or beyond, and he will call (or text?) and say he will be spending the holidays with his girlfriend or whatever. I’m telling this to my mother-in-law as the turkey I undercooked was back in the oven. I said, “And you know what? It’ll be OK.” She said, “No, it won’t.” I said, “Yes, it will. Because, you know what Rick and I will do? We’ll go to New Orleans. We’ll spend the holiday there. And we’ll look back on days like this when Truman was a kid and we were all together and we’ll remember how special this time is.” And I meant it with such a fever that I swear I almost ran to Google “Thanksgiving in New Orleans” to find the best places to dine and stay. But that can wait. Thing is, I don’t want to spend my entire holidays wishing for what is gone and will no longer be. I want to appreciate the here and now.

And so, this Thanksgiving day the six of us – my family and my husband’s – lined up at the table, and I wasn’t sad for what I was missing out on up in Memphis. (OK, maybe a little jealous.) And I sent a little message to my Mom, sort of a “Thanks for teaching me to love the holidays,” because I must have gotten it from someone. And when everyone went to bed, I grabbed my laptop and Googled “New Orleans.”