The Sweet Spot

I can see us clearly. Five across, loosely spaced, we walked down the middle of our street. My son bouncing or side stepping, that fast shuffle move I struggled through during high school basketball practice decades ago, he does effortlessly. His nine-year-old body unable to keep any pace for more than a step or two. My youngest, five, doing double time every few steps to keep up with her siblings. On the way home, she will be riding high on her daddy’s shoulders, but for now, she is determined to keep up. My oldest, holding the dog’s fully-extended leash, walking along-side me content as she chose today’s destination. My husband at the far edge, maybe even a half step back, enjoying being along for the outing after a week of traveling. We are out for a hike, through the woods and along a lake near our home in Kalamazoo, walking along the street, through the old gate, down the path to the lake, and out across the open fields. Taking turns leading, searching for discoveries, gathering a few rocks and sticks along the way. A couple of hours later we walked five across, loosely spaced down the middle of our street, sweaty, a little tired, and content. This was the sweet spot.

The diapers disappeared, along with temper tantrums, the school calendar gave a rhythm to life but before high school academics and activities absorbed the kids’ attention. It was a time of knobby-knees; the baby fat was gone, replaced with lean, active kids. There was enthusiasm and excitement for any family activity, parenting went from watching them on a playground to full engagement-playing soccer, basketball, or any sport with a ball in the yard. There were nights of board games, cards, and family movies. Anything could be an event, do it twice, and it was a tradition. I put streamers and signs up in the dining room one year for my daughter’s birthday and left them up until her brother’s birthday two weeks later, and it became our family’s birthday tradition, something I did for the following twenty years. Whether it was the streamers, Friday night fun, walks in the woods, or kickball in the cul-de-sac, the kids were all in. Dan and me, too.

It was a time of explanations and responsibility. There were endless discussions about social encounters, everything from introducing yourself on the first day of dance class to a respectful response when a friend said something mean. Gaining responsibility went from kindergarten Meg walking to a friend’s house all by herself to the Saturday night when MK babysat her siblings. I realized our last babysitter was only a year or so older than MK and it was embarrassing to have a babysitter. I employed what I hoped to be a fool-proof plan for successful sibling babysitting. I paid everyone. She got paid to be in charge, but not weld power unnecessarily, and her siblings were paid to be good. It was a win, win, win; MK gained responsibility, the kids had a little pocket money, and we had a short evening out at neighbors.

When growing up, a friend told her daughters, “You are writing the story of your life every day.” Each day’s actions-large and small-mattered. I felt that keenly during the kids’ elementary and middle school years, that every day we were writing the story of our family. Their childhood memories were made, be it digging ‘for China’ on the beach in South Haven, Michigan, playing travel soccer, or riding up and down the neighborhood streets no-handed. And although I wondered if the tennis, dance or drum lessons would go from a fleeting interest to a life-long pursuit, I wasn’t bogged down by it. Instead I focused on the daily habits: getting to practices, lessons, and school on time, ensuring that assignments were completed to the best of their ability, reading to and with them every day, helping them complete household chores, teaching them to be caring and honest. It was an age of accountability, for children and parents. They had razor sharp memories. “Remember at the red light on Stadium Drive Tuesday morning when you promised we would stop at DQ after school on Friday”, a voice said. They held me to my word. Mmmmmm, a blizzard from Dairy Queen, that’s a sweet spot, too.

 

 

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Love-February letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

J and M sitting in a tree,

K-I-S-S-I-N-G,

First comes love,

Then comes marriage,

Then comes C and B

In a baby carriage!

The playground song gets it right . . .first comes love!

For you and J, like Dan and I, next was marriage and children, but the song stops there and as we both know, family life is just beginning with the baby carriage. Creating a healthy family and keeping a strong marriage take motivation, determination, and follow-thru. And lots of LOVE.

Valentine’s Day makes Love the focus of February. Marketing and advertisements have super-sized the holiday and although I pooh-pooh their push of materialism, I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiment. A moment, a day or even a month to focus on our loved ones is a good thing, especially in our current society with its polarized politics, 24-hour news cycle, and addictive social media.

It’s probably not a surprise to learn that I didn’t go overboard on Valentine’s Day; this was not going to be a mini-Christmas or birthday. Rather, sitting on the breakfast table for each of the kids was a small red and white tissue-paper bundle. Sticking out the top was a ten-dollar bill and inside was a box of sweetheart candies and a few favorite chocolate goodies. And beside it was their Valentine’s Day card. Using a folded 8-by-10 white piece of paper, a couple of colored pencils and his wit, Dan would take a current interest or event in the kids’ life and make a funny Valentine. Those cards were the main event; a simple yet concrete expression of their dad’s love, jocularity and artist efforts.

Those simple cards represent what I hope is the best of our family-unpretentiousness, affection, and humor. Creating a family, a healthy and happy family, was(still is) my vocation. Although the term homemaker is considered old-fashion, I prefer it to Stay-at-Home-Mom (SAMH) because making a home covers more of what I wanted to accomplish. I wanted Dan, the kids and myself to have a place where we felt physically and emotionally safe, protected and loved, where we could be, for better or worse, our true selves, and where, regardless of location, our attachment was to each other. Our moves helped the kids learn to depend on each other; to have each other’s back. When you move, you don’t take your friends with you, just your siblings. And the little brother, who was a silly kindergartener before the move, is now the only familiar face at your new school and the one who points you in the right direction of the bathroom when you see him in the hallway.

And I insisted that Home was our haven. Of course, there were sibling squabbles and complaining, but I stopped meanness and cutting comments in their tracks. I didn’t allow the kids to put each other down. It is hard to feel a deep affection for someone if you fear they will hurt you with nasty comments. That doesn’t mean that complaints, whining, and gripes weren’t allowed. One of our Mannix mottos was that at home, in the confines of the five of us, the kids could speak freely and it stayed in ‘the vault’, not repeated to others. It allowed the kids to come home and say their piece if they had had a bad day. Most often, after they had finished complaining about a friend’s questionable behavior, a school assignment or a crummy practice, they let it go, not making a mountain out of a molehill. Of course, an unchecked flow of negative commentary wasn’t healthy and needed to be re-directed, but it was daily moaning about the kids in seventh grade that alerted me to dig a little deeper and discover that my child was getting bullied at school. Open communication, even the nasty bits, was essential for a healthy family.

And the most important communication in a healthy family is between the spouses.   That’s critical for a strong marriage. Notice I didn’t write happy marriage, because we both know-and anyone who is married knows-that happiness is not a constant state, even in the best of marriages. There are good times and bad, there are moments when someone is frustrated, saddened or bored by the other. There can be rough patches, but a strong bond will keep you moving forward, ever slowly, together.

To strengthen the bond, we are still utilizing the four rules of marriage that were given to us by a thirty-something couple the summer before we married.  They are:

1. Be By

2. Talk to

3. Take with

4. Feed

These simple statements have been central to our marriage. We eat dinner together nightly without distractions, laugh at Modern Family, and read in the same room so that we can be by each other. Making time to talk often wasn’t easy when the kids were home because the daily calendar was packed. For years, we had a daily phone call before they came home from school, sometimes it seemed like the only time we had each other’s attention. The third rule to ‘take with’ was a challenge. Only-child Dan, who travelled a lot, needed to be reminded to occasionally take me along, whether was on Saturday morning errands or now walking Stella. And he isn’t allowed to get ahead of me at airports because he is walks faster and is familiar with the surroundings. Finally, letting anyone get hangry is foolish. Unfortunately, we have both done it.  Each time, I swear it will be the last!

Marriage is a team sport, but it is based on cooperation not competition. If you keep score, you both lose. It requires continual effort, and it is not so much give and take, as give and give and give. And while the legal and financial benefits are well-understood-think tax deductions, life insurance costs, and less estate issues-in recent years, the social sciences have weighed in on the long term emotional health benefits of marriage including longevity, less depression and safer behavior.

The experts agree that a good marriage is good for you. They also say that kids at home add a lot of stress (and a lot of joy) to a marriage. My response is, “Duh . .  . and thank goodness for Dan’s sense of humor.” His dry wit relieved more than a few squabbles when the kids were teenagers.

We have more inside jokes than I can count, and have gone from being able to give a sideward glance to acknowledge the joke when in a group, to reading each other’s mind and laughing about it later when we are alone. It’s great fun to have him as my buddy, my partner and my co-conspirator. I am in too deep-and happily so. Who else will discusses the minutia of MK , PA and Meg-and do it for hours on end. Dan holds my history. He is my present and I pray, my long future.

Finally, my dear niece, the love you and J have for each other and for your children is obvious-it’s palpable. Revel in it on Valentine’s Day!

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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Shoot with the Truth

When my kids were younger, especially teen-agers, I allowed and even encouraged them to use me as their go-to excuse. Whether it was turning down an invitation, avoiding dangerous activity, or simply taking a break from a friend, I was there to take the blame. “My mom won’t let me, my mom made plans, my mom will kill me if she finds out”. But by early adulthood, “my-mom” excuses don’t fly and it was time to handle those uncomfortable, undesirable, and anxiety-producing situations by themselves. It was then I gave my kids the advice I try to heed myself: Shoot with the truth. Don’t lie.

I’m a ‘knee-jerk yes’ person, quickly agreeing to ideas, outings and activities of all stripes. I’m also a homebody who prefers quiet evenings and comfy pants. In my younger days, this dichotomy along with limited funds, created awkward situations where I had accepted an invitation but when the time arrived, I didn’t want or couldn’t afford to attend. I found myself making excuses, telling white lies, or fabricating the truth. It made me cranky and disappointed in myself. I put an end to it.

Initially, telling the truth felt complicated because of my uncomfortableness in dealing with problematic situations or the potential negative reaction of the other party. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like to let people down. I thought telling a white lie or embellishing the truth would save people’s feelings and ease my conscience. And while I rarely got caught in my fabrications, I felt my credibility slipping away from myself. I had to remember the lies, and that was taxing and might lead to more lies. Too many complications and potential for drama. It was time to break the bad habit.

I worked at being discerning in accepting invitations and I would shoot with the truth if a conflict or needed change arose. I took a deep breath and I kept it simple: I’m strapped for cash and can’t afford an evening out, I’m sorry I agreed earlier to attend but I wouldn’t be good company today, or a similar statement of truth. And I reminded myself I was not on trial or on The Jerry Springer show. I didn’t have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, nor did I have to over-share embarrassing myself or anyone else. The fewer words the better. If an apology needed to be made, I made it, hoped it would be accepted and moved on. Quickly, I found the truth was an easier and happier habit.

And over time I applied this honest directness to other uncomfortable and difficult situations. Whether it was giving feedback, turning down requests, or helping someone grieve, I wanted to be straightforward and plain-spoken. If I didn’t mean it, I didn’t say it – no glossing, no embellishing, no white lies. I learned to accept silence in conversation and not to fill it with meaningless words. This was especially hard for me. I’m chatty. But with practice, I improved. And I reminded myself that being truthful doesn’t equate to being blunt or harsh. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I want my words to be heard, to be remembered, and hopefully to be wise.

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Quiet Time-January letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

Happy New Year! My hopes for you and your beautiful family this year are for many moments of contentment. Winter’s short days, long nights and cold weather slows the hectic pace of life and offers an opportunity for stillness, calm and the ordinary. It offers quiet time. This is where the magic happens. In those ordinary moments, bonds are built, a deeper understanding of each other’s interests, quirks and routines are gained, and occasionally your child shares a glimpse into his or her soul that gives an intimacy for a lifetime.

January’s weather discouraged over-scheduling and on snow days obliterated the schedule entirely. I loved holing up at home doing puzzles, reading aloud and playing in the snow. But it was more than just time together, it was an opportunity for deliberate practice of self-reliance and focusing on your Uncle Dan’s favorite motto-know thyself. Shoveling snow, walking on icy sidewalks and battling the cold taught the kids how to deal with the elements and respect Mother Nature. And learning to slow down and fill their time with a quiet activity rather than external stimuli was an opportunity to examine their personal interests.

Come January, there was time to teach the kids household skills and give them responsibility. I identified areas for growth and had the patience to demonstrate procedures. Whether it was teaching them how to load the dishwasher, set the table, or fold laundry, there were tasks to master. It was during the quiet days of winter that third-grade Patrick began to bake cakes, handling the oven with ease (and giant oven mitts). Meg hit her chocolate chip cookie-baking stride in fourth grade while MK was a competent sous chef by fifth grade begging to wield the chef’s knife to mince garlic. With competency came confidence and the hope for more responsibility, especially the exciting stuff like lighting the charcoal starter or wielding the weed whacker. Participation in household chores helped everyone. Many hands do make the work light.

I seized these cold, short days to direct their time so that the kids might better know themselves. In pre-school after lunch, Meg would have ‘book look’. She was too old for a nap I would say, but never too old for some quiet time with a book. Without a rest, she would not make it to the evening without a meltdown. Those twenty to sixty minutes, depending on if she fell asleep, were her quiet time. Several stuffed animals joined her on her bed along with several of her favorite books. ‘Book look’ allowed her to rest her body, explore her imagination and build the essential skill of learning to be alone. She made up elaborate tales of her bed being a ship or the carpet being hot lava and saving the animals from death and destruction. And she learned the invaluable lesson that a book can be a friend-an old friend that you can count on-that you might reread or in her four-year-old case, look at again and again. Years later on school trips, at camp or while traveling abroad, she always carried a book, one that was an old friend, to transport her away when she was lonely, worried or homesick. Grown-up Meg is indebted to pre-school Meg for learning the value of quiet time.

Winter, with its few scheduled-activities, outdoor recreation and hours for reading aloud had a calming effect on our family life. When we lived in Kalamazoo, we could count on snow. Forts were built and tunnels carved, snowshoes were strapped on for hiking to a nearby lake to test the firmness of the ice, and there was lots of sledding. But it was the hot tub, which had come with the house, that was winter’s game-changer. With the snow eighteen inches or deeper and the thermostat outside the kitchen window reading freezing temperatures, the kids would scamper out the garage door, onto the back patio and into the bubbling water. There they chatted, laughed and dared each other to roll in the snow or do a lap around the house in their bathing suits. It was everyone’s favorite end of the day ritual, a gigantic tub of bubbling warm water, a relaxing place to share their thoughts while letting their worries, like the bubbles, release into the water.

As I reread what I’ve written, I fear I am making winter’s quiet time sound trouble-free, but please know it was not. Like most of parenting, it took resolve and energy to limit the schedule, keep the TV off and initiate reading and games. And I’m still in the doghouse for not letting Patrick and Meg play hockey. My journey to harness winter’s quiet time began with a flurry of illnesses in the winter of 1992. That was the year your grandmother died and for twelve weeks one of the kids or myself was sick. There was strep throat, chicken pox, shingles, pink eye, and a few rounds of the flu. It was an awful time but like many awful times, it was a learning time. I had created a full schedule with play dates, activities, community engagements and lots of volunteering. I soon realized I was doing too much and needed to focus on making a family and home that was healthy and calm. I wanted a no drama or trauma life and I consciously decided to create it. I limited our activities. I embraced the ordinary.

There were still winter illnesses, but I refused to be frustrated by them.  Rather I found the good in caring for my kids when they were under the weather or injured. They felt my love as I cared for them. And sitting with them, developed my patience while giving them a deep understanding of trust; trust that I was there, trust that I would stay and trust that they would recover. It also was a great time for reading aloud. Our first winter in Kalamazoo, Mary Kate was home ill for four days. It was on day two that I sat on the living room floor leaning against the couch where she rested and read Anne of Green Gables aloud. MK and I began a love affair with “Anne with an E” that day and soon learned that we were kindred spirits. Oh, thank goodness for those quiet days, for the patience to sit with her, and for LL Montgomery.

In January, may you have ample time for playing games, taking walks and reading aloud. Enjoy the quiet.

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

 

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Making a Home

Brisk air greeted Stella and me when we stepped out at 6:00am for her morning walk, reminding me that winter and Christmas are near at hand. After she finished her business, we retreated into the lobby of our building and the feeling of home washed over me. This is the first time we’ve lived in a large apartment building and I am repeatedly surprised how much I like it. The apartment and amenities are lovely, but it was the positive vibe that made me believe this could be home. Making a home is creating comfort in the physical space, being involved in the wider community and having a sense of belonging.

Dwellings need to be lived in, and once the boxes were unpacked, it was time to remove the stale emptiness of an idle apartment. Soon books were on end tables, iPhone cords spewed out of their nesting basket, and my desk had a to-do pile of papers neatly stacked in a corner. The routine of life returned, especially the smells of life being lived-the trace of Dove soap lingering from the shower, the scent of our detergent wafting from the laundry room, the aroma of simmering garlic from last night’s dinner. And when the kids were still at home, even the stink from soccer cleats dumped by the garage door was a welcome odor. It made the new dwelling our home.

Each new community had its uniqueness but I found there were more similarities than differences even when we lived abroad-people are people-they care about their families, their communities and their livelihood. Getting involved was my priority, whether at school, church, or community events. Generally, the first year I was a watchful observer, the second year a willing volunteer, and the following years had leadership roles. Involvement was key to meeting people and embracing the community as home. It helped determine if I fit; most of time I found my niche but I had a couple of places that I never quite settled, never felt the comfort and belonging of home.

We always encountered people who had lived all their life in the community and couldn’t imagine anywhere better. At their best these folks built tradition and history for communities. The flip side was when the fear of change manifested in unfriendliness and suspicion of new people. Often these locals know there was only one way to do something, whether it was high school sports, acceptable playground behavior, or the best time for community celebrations. They couldn’t imagine another way. Eventually I heard the line, “It’s the way we have always done it”. Although at times frustrating, I tried to see that reaction as a gauge for what was dear to the community, to hear, “this is what we value, this is what makes us feel at home”. I wasn’t always successful at this, especially when it limited the kids’ play, something I valued dearly. They went to a school that feared harsh weather. When it snowed or rained, the students weren’t allowed to play on the grass or playground equipment, if they were allowed outside at all. But I learned new ways, too, including Memorial Day rather than the Fourth of July for community parades, high schools without football teams, hunting and ice fishing for outdoor fun. Most importantly, I learned different isn’t wrong, it’s just different.

I’ve heard people talk about the difficulties of moving kids, I disagree. My experience was that moving-leaving behind the friends and the familiar-bonded our family tightly. And the kids, with school and activities, assisted in re-building the social circle. Although it took time to feel familiar, to gain shared experiences with new friends, and then adjust the social circle to identify friends from acquaintances, it was easier done when there were kids under the roof. With a full calendar of school, sports, and volunteer activities, the feeling of belonging came quickly.

The move to DC, like the last two moves, was without children. But I felt boundless opportunity as I have with every move. A new area to explore, new people to meet, and new choices to make; a clean slate. Over the years, I discovered I didn’t re-invent myself as much as refine myself; a truer version. During this past year, I chose new twists on my preferred endeavors-writing, reading, being outdoors-I am blogging, tutoring, and hiking Rock Creek Park regularly. All help strengthen my sense of belonging, of being home.

I’m often asked, ‘where is home?’ I think . . . loved, respected, secure. I consider . . . my stuff, my comfort, my belonging, my people. I believe . . . home is where we are together. I know the asker is expecting a location and although I give one, the real answer is complex. This Christmas home will be Buffalo. Wherever you are during the holidays, I hope you are home.

 

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Christmas Season-December letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

You can hardly turn the dial on the radio after Halloween without coming across a 24/7 Christmas music station. I thoroughly enjoy Christmas music, but I haven’t adjusted to hearing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in November. Rather, the tune that plays in my head is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. That song reminds me that December is Advent season: a time of preparation, anticipation, and hope.

After we got married, I looked forward to celebrating Christmas with your Uncle Dan in our own home, creating our own traditions. There were decisions to make regarding substance and timing-real or fake tree, white or multi-colored light. When to put up the tree, to open gifts, to invite family? Maybe the most important was when to begin the whole process. Because once we got on the Christmas Express, it was like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill; it grew exponentially in size and speed. It took me a few years to learn that the Christmas machine can swallow you whole in December and laser-sharp clarity is crucial when deciding activities, commitments, and gift buying.

When the kids were little I wanted them to have a perfect Christmas, every year. I felt as the youngest of seven I had missed a lot. By the time, I was a 1st grader our stockings weren’t filled because there were too many of us, we started going to midnight mass when I was seven because it satisfied the older kids desires and I didn’t attend the Nutcracker or any kind of Christmas performance until I left home. When I became a mother, I wanted to do as many things as possible with my gang, all while they looked cherub-like in their Christmas outfits. There were outings to visit Santa, Christmas breakfasts, drives to look at Christmas lights, cookie-baking, and Christmas performances in the weeks leading up to the big day.  And then once the holiday arrived, there was Christmas Eve dinner for all the family, followed by loads of presents on Christmas morning. The year MK was four-the year of the pink bicycle-she didn’t have the energy to open all her presents.  She gave out before the gifts did. I was embarrassed by the excess and expense. It was too much. I would not let it happen again.

After the over-indulgence of 1990, I controlled the purchasing and honed our style of giving. I found that waiting until December to purchase Christmas gifts helped me buy less. And I thought before I bought, no impulse purchases. Santa gave two or three small wrapped gifts and then left ‘A Big Wow’ under the tree unwrapped for each of the kids. This was the most desired gift, one that would hopefully elicit a big gasp and shout of “Wow” from the recipient. I have great memories of the Big Wows: Meg hugging her American Girl Doll Felicity, Patrick clutching his Lego Western Fort box, and Mary Kate clasping her ipod. These Christmas morning Wows proved my “LESS IS MORE” mantra was working.

Having two November babies forced me to slow down and let go of a lot of the expectations I had about Christmas. We became what I called ‘an Advent family’. The year that Patrick was born we didn’t get a tree up until the weekend before Christmas. It happened again the year that Meg was born and it became our tradition to wait until the third weekend of Advent-the pink candle on the Advent wreath-to bring the tree into the house. At times, it was hard on the kids that we didn’t dive into Christmas on the Friday after Thanksgiving like many of their friends’ families. Instead, we had three advent calendars: religious, chocolate, and Santa themed. Every morning in December, the kids would open the day’s calendars, rotating between adding a piece to the nativity set, eating a piece of chocolate or opening a paper window. At dinner we lit the advent candles and said a prayer.

This change in focus to Advent helped me slow down the buying frenzy, the over-the-top preparations and the secularism that surrounded Christmas. My focus returned to family, with the image of the Blessed Family never far from my mind. I recall the 5:00pm Children’s Christmas Eve Mass with six-week-old Meg held closely in my arms, as Silent Night was being sung. “. . ., Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy Infant so tender and mild” In that moment, holding my much loved and wanted youngest child, I felt a deep bond with Mary and Joseph. Each year at Christmas mass, I search out the infants held tenderly by their mothers and fathers, feel that bond of parenthood with Jesus’s parents and pray that these new parents do as well.

Less you think, I’m all religion and no chaos at Christmas; please note we had our fair share of traditions. Until Meg went to college, she and I would sneak off for photos with Santa and shopping for the big kids, and do it on a school day, no less. Every year on the day Christmas break begins, I had a new Christmas movie wrapped and ready for viewing that night. We attended live performances annually and saw the Nutcracker, the Christmas Schooner, Handel’s Messiah, White Christmas-the musical, and the Rockettes in the Christmas Spectacular. We attended 20 years of school Christmas concerts. Santa stuffs a mean stocking at the Mannix house and Dan read a new Christmas book each Christmas Eve before bedtime. And finally, I make gingerbread houses, lots of them. I curse that dough. Never enough give in it, always falling apart and I vow each year will be the last. But the laughter, the creativity and the joy of watching the kids and their friends decorate gets me, and just like the Grinch, my heart grows three sizes that day. And I know that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

I’ll close with the comment that I loved Christmas when they were little but I loved it even more as they grew in the understanding of its true meaning.  And one of our all-time best Christmases . . .well, that’s easy . . .the one we spent with you, J and Thomas in Belgium!  Joyeux Noel!

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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Moving-the practical bits

We moved into our apartment in Washington, DC one year ago today. It was a good year-a honeymoon year-like most of our first years in a new place. The enjoyment and exploration was outweighed by the hassles of moving and any pangs of adjustment.

I’ve moved roughly twelve times in my adult life, living in nine states, the District of Columbia and abroad. In our family, there is dispute on proper accounting methods: moves versus homes, whether and how to count moves within a city or temporary apartments or the summer secondment in London. But no matter how they are counted, I like both moving and making a home. These are two separate tasks. They impact each other, but require separate skills to accomplish.

Moving is the practical bits, the hands-on work with boxes, tape and lists upon lists. It’s messy at times, but it is the quicker and simpler task. I’ve learned a few lessons on how best to move and get settled in a timely fashion. For eight of the moves, we had packers and movers, two or three guys who do the packing and heavy lifting. It helped eliminate hours of packing, but there was significant prep work. I created a staging area-a counter or corner of the house where I put our important papers, jewelry, and other belongings that will go with me when I drove or flew to our new home. And I clear out anything going to the trash or goodwill before the movers arrived. I had a set standard to determine if a possession was going to get junked. When I moved to DC, it was if we hadn’t used something since we moved back to the US (six years and three moves) then it went. Invariably there were a few items that were overlooked, over-emphasized, or didn’t fit in the new space that I toss out after the move during the unpacking.

I appreciated my movers dearly, offering to buy lunch and a supply of drinks. (Mountain Dew was the drink of choice decades ago, then Gatorade and now water) These men touched all our possessions, including the china my beloved immigrant granny brought back to the US on her first trip home to Scotland after being gone for decades. And rather than request extra care, I show it to them and tell them its story. In all our moves, not a piece was broken.

When I’ve done the packing myself, I spend the money on proper supplies-boxes, packing paper and moving tape. Used boxes don’t always hold up and newspaper ink can wreak havoc on dishware, creating more work. I label several sides of every box, especially if it is a box for the top of a load. And just like when I have movers, upon arriving at our new home, I scout out a staging area/room, a space to put the boxes in each room, not where furniture would go, and do the unpacking myself. I learned in my first corporate move that movers simply unwrap items and place them on any available flat surface. In a matter of minutes every counter in the kitchen was covered and I was overwhelmed. Thank goodness I stopped them when only three of ten boxes were unpacked.

When the kids were at home, the first order of business was to set up their rooms. Before the move, I would determine what was going into their room and where. Once the truck was unloaded, I would insist their beds were the first assembled and immediately made them. Knowing you can go to bed, whether for the night, a nap, or with a book to escape the mayhem, gives a sense of order and reassurance especially necessary for little kids. The kids enjoyed setting up their rooms again, getting to touch everything had a little bit of a Christmas morning feeling to it. They noticed and appreciated things again. I never minded if they got lost in play, it was the start of making the house our home. Generally, I had the toys and books, back on their shelves and the room set up minus the pictures on the wall by the end of the first day. I didn’t worry about our room so much, except for getting our bed made; we, too, need a place to escape in comfort at the end of the long day of moving.

Within two weeks, I had all the boxes unpacked, everything put in its place and Dan hung the pictures. I’m not trying to make moving sound easy, it was work, but it is specific, doable work. At some point, I would have a ‘raging at the wind’ moment, swearing like a sailor for a minute or so, but then it was over and I was back to the task at hand. There were a few broken items, furniture that didn’t fit as well as hoped, and the frustration of redundant work. Occasionally I wanted to pull my hair out because I had yet another cable technician in yet another home working on TV and internet setup. And there was the year I had to teach a first grader three different addresses because we moved during the school year and spent Christmas in temporary housing. After a few weeks or a few months, in a temporary apartment, we always were ready for move-in day. And once the move was over, the real work began-making a home.

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