Apples, Pumpkins and Autumn Leaves-October letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

Apples, pumpkins and autumn leaves are just a few of my favorite October things. Or maybe, to be precise, it’s apple pie, roasted pumpkin seeds and jumping into piles of leaves that make October my favorite month. And of course, your birthday!

As summer gives way to fall, October produces cool, clear nights great for sleeping, and warm, sunny afternoons great for being outdoors. These are the happy days! When I look back on my favorite times with my children, October comes to mind. I wish the same for you.

In Ohio when the kids were little, a close pal and I piled our children into one mini-van and headed off for an apple picking farm about an hour away. There were seventeen apple varieties, some, which the farmer said, dated back to Johnny Appleseed plantings. John Chapman had gone through Fairfield County, south of Columbus, in the early 1800s. History, apples and friendship came together on those warm afternoons. It was blissful to visit an obscure farm down a windy road with no other visitors. And we ate as we picked, comparing and contrasting the flavors, and brought home bushels of apples. We were a merry band. These were the years I learned to make applesauce, apple brown betty and apple pie. Yum!

When we moved to Michigan, October was the month of leaves. There was no better way to teach Meg her colors then on a walk collecting leaves that had turned red, orange, yellow and brown, and hold them up against October’s brilliant blue sky. After four years, we had learned the names of the trees and could identify them by their leaves. Oh, and when they came down, we raked and raked them into piles which the kids jumped in before we pushed them to the gutter for collection. During our first October, I wondered, as the leaves lay week after week in the street, turning our wide two-lane road into one, where was the weekly pickup by a truck with a vacuum. Then in the last week of October, plows arrived on our street to move the leaves. Into monstrously large piles they went, at each intersection and in the nearby cul-de-sacs, before the leaves were lifted into dump trucks and taken away. The neighborhood kids gathered to watch as the plows created mountains of leaves as tall as the one-story house on our block. Once the plow was out of sight and with a quick glance at me for permission, they sprinted to the piles to climb and dive and jump as they had never before. Happiness is a mountain of leaves that five kids can climb simultaneously.  

Our New Jersey years brought an older kid’s life with homework and school sports, along with an earlier sunset. My concern that our outdoor October days might be over was needless worry. The nature walks and other mom-led adventures morphed into street hockey and an evening ritual of night games. At dusk, the neighborhood kids would divide into teams and then there was a romp through the backyards playing manhunt. With a door and a few windows were open I could hear them well, it was as if I was hiding in the bushes with them. Those moments taught me to let them choose, to let them explore, to let them lead.  

I loved all those outdoor times, but lurking at the end of each October was Halloween. I am not a Halloween person. Of course, I enjoy a Baby Ruth candy bar after trick-or-tricking as much as anyone (when else do you see them), but I’ve no interest in re-decorating my home, no desire to budget annually for hay bales, nor do I wish to own multiple orange bins full of Halloween costumes and paraphilia. I like a few classic decorations that add to a room, not take over it. I cannot sew beyond replacing buttons and I lack all creativity once the words, “Halloween costume” are uttered. I panic. I cringe. I want to hide until November 1st arrives. This was a great disappointment to my children, especially Meg, who wanted to decorate everything, who wanted distinctive, original and eye-catching homemade costumes and who hoped we would host the Halloween party-of-the-century, every year.  

It took time, but over the years, Meg, her siblings and I found ways to compromise. I begged and borrowed costumes from friends and family who sewed; I even put together a few memorable costumes with the help of some old clothes and a good pair of scissors. The kids lowered their expectations and came up with simple costume ideas. I, in turn, came to appreciate the benefits of costumes and wearing them repeatedly. Costumes allow kids to have an alter ego, to try their hand at role-playing, and to expand their imagination. I stopped feeling the pressure of sewing great masterpieces and over time found clothing, hats, and accessories that filled a large box for dress-up. I gladly helped at school parties and cheered at Halloween parades. Each year I agreed to purchase one Halloween decorative item and two weeks before Halloween, I helped Meg decorate as she saw fit, including hanging streamers and every Halloween art project ever made. For freshness, I insisted that our pumpkins were carved the day before Halloween. I did them free hand based on the kids’ drawings. Mostly your Uncle Dan took the kids out trick-or-treating, while I stayed home to hand out candy and bake pumpkin seeds. It was nice to be waiting for them, so that, like the candy in their pillowcases, the stories of the evening could spill out. 

You may notice that I skipped all the scary stuff. I did so because it skipped my kids entirely. The Mannix family was not one for ghost stories, haunted houses, or scary movies. Instead, I will leave you with my favorite Halloween image. It is your Uncle Dan at Meg’s pre-school sitting on a small stool teaching eleven four-year-olds the Halloween song he learned in pre-school:   

                                    Halloween has come at last, 

                                   Witches, goblins, big black cats, 

                                    People yell and people shout,

                                                    BOO!

Much love each and every day,  

Aunt Aggie

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It’s Not Common Sense If You’ve Never Done It Before

Dearest Jane,

My friend, on our last walk, I recognized your exasperation with your son, a twenty-four-old college graduate with a real job, but who forgot to purchase renter’s insurance for his apartment and couldn’t fill out the form without texting you a barrage of questions. Take a deep breath. The transition from the cocoon of college life to the working world of adult life is a process. It doesn’t happen as quickly or smoothly as our young adults’ hope nor as we, their mothers, expect.

It’s not common sense if you have never done it before. I said that repeatedly, during the first years my kids were out of college, when they called or texted with questions about daily life issues that they were facing for the first time. Common sense is practical experience. It is based on understanding how things work, and it is in performing a task that experience and knowledge is gained.

When my kids called with their latest predicament, I willed myself to listen rather than rush in with advice, similar to when I watched and waited to see how they handled a tumble when they were toddlers. I learned to discern whether they were in crisis or merely facing a frustrating chore for the first time. If they were in a crisis-health or safety-I assisted quickly and ably, but otherwise, I asked, “What is your plan?” After hearing their strategy, I responded, “I’m glad you’re thinking of what to do”. Occasionally I gave a time or cost saving tweak, but mostly I listened-to complaints about the late the cable guy, confusion in understanding car insurance coverage, and anguish over paying a replacement fee for a lost key-and I heard them entering adulthood.

Life is work. The administrative tasks can be repetitive and tedious. Patience is needed otherwise tasks become burdensome and frustrating quickly. Early on, finding the time and effort needed for their administrative life was draining. In their first years out of college, when they asked, I willingly answered questions on a range of issues, including lease agreements, parking tickets, and salvaging clothes ruined in the washer, but the follow-up was on them. The costs-time, money and effort-were theirs to bear.

Often, I mused how kids who navigated apps effortlessly, called mom to get daily life questions answered rather than using their phone. I realized it wasn’t just that they didn’t have to sift through screens to find the right answer, but they wanted reassurance as well as advice. All the apps and screens weren’t the same as my voice of experience. Rather than an annoyance, I took their calls as a compliment (and proof that they were dealing with life’s daily tasks).  I knew that this stage, just like the tumbling toddler would pass. And I recognized that unlike in my youth, when I called home on Sunday evenings after the rates went down, my kids had the benefit of technology, that allowed them to call from Trader Joe’s to ask about veggie selection or FaceTime to show me the color and size of the stain on their new shirt.

They made some mistakes; taking risks, delaying tasks or ignoring deadlines. It was hard to watch, but a part of the transition to adulthood. If they were distraught or anxious, I waited for them to act. If they suffered from inertia or an inability to cope, I pushed them for a plan of action, reminding them they were resourceful and capable. I told them to be self-reliant and not to suck other people into their drama. Whether it be a roommate asked to search for lost keys, or a co-worker asked to cover while you deal with your towed car or a friend asked to buy your drink at the cash-only bar because you forgot to go to the ATM, don’t drag others into your self-made struggles. Over time they gained experience. They learned to carry cash in case of emergency, how to navigate the DMV, to set a place for their keys, and to get renter’s insurance before moving into a new apartment. Your son will learn, too. Before long, he will become proficient in dealing with governmental agencies, financial institutions, and paperwork full of legalese.

Finally, my dear friend, I’ve encouraged you to be patient, calm, and understanding. But before I sign off, let me be clear on one point: Do not complete adult life tasks for your son. Coach him, advise him, walk him through it, but don’t do it for him. He can do it and you are just a phone call or text away.

Your pal,

Aggie

 

 

 

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Revisiting the First Day of School-September letter to my niece

My Dearest Margaret,

Ah, the first day of school. It holds the anticipation of Christmas morning coupled with the trepidation of a visit to the dentist. This week, Meg had her last “first day of school”. And Tuesday, Colin has his first “first day of school”. These are big days for them and memorable days for us. While you wait for the starter gun and I race for finish line, permit me to share a few tips, some garnered from teachers, friends, and fellow parents and others learned by mistake.

Use the clean slate offered by a new school year. Even with a kindergartener you can impart the importance of education, a good work ethic, and respect for classmates and teachers. Ask specific questions about what happened at school. Provide a desk to do schoolwork. Read together daily. Discuss what your family considers proper behavior in the classroom, on the playground, and in the cafeteria.

Create a morning routine. Make its tone cheerful, awake and calm. My own school years taught me what not to do. I lived across the street from school and the church bells rang at 7:55am, not only to alert parishioners of 8:00am mass but to wake me for the start of school, which coincidentally also began at 8:00am. I was always harried, ran late daily, and rarely ate breakfast. For my children, I refused to have mornings of chaos where shoes and needed items couldn’t be located, homework was still being finished, and yelling was the mode of communication. I was determined to create an atmosphere of competent calmness for the three of them.

Hard work and daily dedication to the task was required for a good routine to be established. I rose, showered and was ready for the day before the kids were awake. Breakfast was simple but nutritious. I made lunches while they dressed and ate breakfast. The curtains were open and the lights were on throughout the house, but never the TV. The house was alive with well-ordered activity. Often when the kids were in middle school and high school, I played music in the kitchen, spinning the latest favorite to get everyone moving and keep the mood upbeat.

We embraced Benjamin Franklin’s adage, a place for everything and everything in its place. This helped all of us. Our mornings were smooth because everyone knew where the shoes, backpacks, and other necessary items were located. Looking back, school day mornings were enjoyable and gratifying. I kept order in contradiction of how I grew up and what I thought was my nature, and quickly I saw the benefit-calm, happy and school-ready kids.

Get to school on time. If Colin takes the bus, be ready and out the door waiting for it. When we lived in New Jersey, I so enjoyed opening the front door, ushering them out and calling out the line from Princess Bride, “Have fun storming the castle” as they walked to the bus stop, which was conveniently located at the end of the driveway.  In Ohio and Michigan, I drove them to school, and we left the house with time to spare so that they would arrive at least 10 minutes before the morning bell. In grade school, they liked time on the playground before school began. In middle and high school, they liked time to get to their locker before the bell rang. Having time before the start of the day allowed them to prepare for the tasks ahead and gave them an appreciation, as well as a reputation, for punctuality.

Volunteer at school. I was a room mother, a chaperone on school trips and a PTA member, but the activity that taught me the most was volunteering in the library. I helped weekly for an afternoon when several classes came and went. I remember as a kindergarten parent observing ‘the big kids’. The fourth and fifth graders were seasoned veterans next to my polite, eager Mary Kate. I watched with the interest of Margaret Mead at the way the older kids behaved, spoke, and listened to each other, to their teachers and to other adults. I was glimpsing my future and learning the character of the school all while shelving books.

There will be bad days, difficult weeks and maybe even rough seasons. I recall a couple of tough springs when there were academic, athletic or social issues with each of the kids. After assessing the situation with the tenet, “each year, each child, each school”, we chose our course of action. There was a different kindergarten for Meg, a request to get Mary Kate into a higher-level French class, and IB classes for Patrick’s high school curriculum. But there were times doing nothing but listening and learning was best, like when MK was in second grade and I thought there was a lack of progress. I learned some years are stuffed full of newness, like learning to read, while other years are reinforcement years, where the mastery of concepts and skills previously taught is the focus. Mastery, and the confidence gained by achieving it, can’t be underestimated. Be both vigilant and patient.

The first weeks of school are a transition for everyone, especially for Colin. I vividly recall our Mary Kate’s first grade teacher saying that going to school all day was the biggest transition a child makes in life. The new building, the rules of the classroom, eating lunch in a big cafeteria with limited time, the commotion of dozens of kids on the playground and of course, the academics. There is much to watch, to learn and to remember. A friend with older kids taught me not to schedule any activity on Fridays in the fall. At the end of the week, allow Colin to decompress in the comfort of his home and don’t be surprised if, like our kids often did, he falls asleep before dinner.

Find your favorite spot to take the first day of school photo, for this year and all the years to follow. Let them choose what they want to wear. You will thank yourself years from now when you look back and recall their fashion sense, especially if it rivals the choice of a sweatshirt covered in colorful dinosaurs and low hung pigtails for the start of eighth grade.

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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16,367.2 Miles

The fog was thick as I drove under the Tobin Bridge so I was unable to see anything of the city, but I was happy when I saw the Welcome to South Boston sign and the familiar clapboard three-story homes that line L Street. I pulled into my parking spot to the happy faces and cheers of my husband and youngest. After the hugs and a greeting from our pooch, we celebrated my 16,367.2 miles with a bottle of champagne. Later in the week, I’ll write some wrap up posts to share my favorite sights, states and surprises of the trip, but for tonight, the driving was done and it was good to be home.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to thank a few people who supported and encouraged my adventure. “The Cousins”, as my kids call my oldest sister’s four grown children, were incredibly supportive of my endeavor from the first time I mentioned it. They housed me and feed me from New Jersey to DC, and their enthusiasm for my adventure gave me needed confidence during the planning stage. I occasionally stayed with family and friends; these homes were a welcome oasis from the road and are some of my happiest memories of the trip. Thanks to the Richards, Allen, Schmidt, Richards-Becker, Cooper, Robb, Devlin and Stevens families. In addition, I met up with many old friends along the way and enjoyed sharing my adventure with them. Thanks to MJane, ‘the usual suspects’, the Krimm and Hagerty families, Maggie and JJ. My gratitude to AK for joining me in the four corners area of the trip is great; her patience and tolerance for my persnickety ways was appreciated and her friendship ever valued. A big thanks to the support and encouraging comments from one of my oldest friends, TBK, an Andover Road playmate whose friendship has been my blessing for 45 years. I’ve enjoyed writing this blog and appreciate all of you who have followed me on my adventure, your kind words encouraged me to continue on many an early morning in Hampton Inns around the country. I often wrote my posts with two special people in mind, my aunts, those good Sisters of the Holy Cross. As with all endeavors in my life, they were positive and encouraging.

And saving the best for last, I’m ever thankful for my husband and kids. My daughters and son were my cheerleaders. After years of supporting their endeavors they were excited to turn the tables and support my adventure. Also, I think on several days they were pleased to read about the trip rather than to participate as they did in their younger years. My husband was and continues to be the good sport, even-kneeled guy I met 33 years ago. During the planning stage he was interested without being intrusive, allowing me the time to create the trip of my dreams. While on the trip, he gave me the space to wander and wonder, yet was a good listener when I was ready to share. I am so damn lucky to have him.

And as for what’s next . . . ONLY FORWARD!

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The Glad Game

Eleanor H. Porter, the author of “Pollyanna” hailed from Littleton, New Hampshire. This book and the 1960 movie version were a favorite of my children during our first moves in the summer and then again in the fall of 1996. By nature we are optimistic folks but our move to North Carolina and then to Michigan had been quite a test. Pollyanna taught the kids “The Glad Game” just as Pollyanna had played it; to look for something positive in every situation. It often made for amusing moments as they looked for something positive in getting lost, in starting a new school, or in our lack of understanding of the ways of our new community. Rather than sadness or frustration, life became about discovery, potential and independence. With an optimistic attitude, I headed to the Littleton Library where they have a statute of Pollyanna, arms open wide and smile on her face, welcoming all. The Library was a lovely old three story building stuff to the gills with books and people using its resources. The Main Street was bustling and reassuring to witness after seeing so many dying small towns in the Midwest. I enjoyed a walk past the stores, hotel and restaurants before into the White Mountains.

My initial intent was to drive up Mount Washington and maybe even adorn my car with a “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper sticker. I thought after 16,000 miles the car had earned it, but unfortunately there was fog and rain. It seemed pointless to tackle the drive when there would not be any views to enjoy at the top. I decided to climb Mount Washington another day, which I believed wouldn’t be too difficult now that I was a New Englander.

It was with great happiness that I crossed the Maine border; the 48th and final state of my adventure. I drove foggy and wet, but lovely backroads across Maine through Lewiston to Brunswick. My destination was the Bowdoin College Museum of Art which has a large collection of Barbara Cooney’s original illustrations, donated by the Maine author/illustrated to the College. Cooney wrote or illustrated many of our family favorites including “Miss Rumphius”. The Museum had a glass cube entry, a twist on the Louvre’s entry, and I descended into the Lobby. After exploring for awhile, I asked a Gallery Assistant about the Cooney collection and was informed that the collection was in storage. It had been on display last year and was very, very popular. I was crestfallen and couldn’t resist making the comment, “well if it was very, very popular, it’s a good thing they put it away rather than making all or some of it part of the permanent collection”. I wasn’t playing The Glad Game well. So, understanding the limitations and use of space of the museum, I walked through an exhibit of a contemporary Danish artist, Per Kirkeby. I tried my best to enjoy the modern pieces which I didn’t have the slightest chance of understanding when I noticed that the Gallery Assistant seemed to be trailing me. I waved to him each time he appeared and found his spying on me more entertaining than the exhibit. As it was cold and raining, I walked only a little around the leafy Bowdoin campus before making the decision it was time to point the car south and head home to Boston.

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Vermont

I was headed to Vermont, a state I’ve been infatuated with since I was a kid. I’ve visited many times and never seem to get enough of The Green Mountain State. I love the towns with their white steeples, the farms with their maple syrup stands, the rivers with their covered bridges, and the Green Mountains with their hiking trails. Route 100 might be the best road in the US to drive, at least it was on the afternoon I drove it. The lilacs were in full bloom and their fragrance filled my car from the moment I crossed the border. I wandered the road for a couple of hours but did diverge to stop in Arlington to pass by the Robert Frost home and the home of children’s author Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

I drove through Middlebury and Rutland, the birthplace of John Deere as I made my way to Jericho and the Old Mill where the Jericho Historical Society had an exhibit on Wilson A. Bentley. “Snowflake” Bentley, a farmer, spent his entire life in Jericho, devoted to the study of snow, frost and rain. Using a camera-microscope apparatus that he built, he took more than 5,000 photomicrographs of snowflakes. This self-educated man argued that no two snowflakes were alike and had works published in National Geographic, Nature, and Scientific American. I first learned about Bentley in 1999 when the Caldecott Medal was awarded to the illustrator Mary Azarian for the book “Snowflake Bentley”. That particular year my good friend, JJ and I were reading Caldecott award books to our third-graders’ class during library time. The book fascinated us both; this Vermont farmer capturing and photographing individual snowflakes throughout the cold winter the whole of his life. When I learned that Jericho had an exhibit to their native son, I was anxious to see it. There were two rooms dedicated to Bentley that included his unique camera, several letters, and many photomicrographs. There was a short film of him taking pictures that had been done in 1925. Jericho was off the beaten path, but well-worth my effort and Vermont as in my previous visits, exceeded expectations.

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Quabbin

Determined not to stop at our apartment in Boston until the trip was complete, my husband and I rendezvoused in Auburn, MA off I-90 so that he could take our daughter and pooch back to Boston and I could continue on with the New England portion of my trip. It was a quick hello and good-bye and then I was headed west along State Route 9 to the Quabbin Reservoir. Years ago one of our favorite children’s author, Jane Yolen, and our favorite illustrator, Barbara Cooney, teamed up in the book “Letting Swift River Go” about the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir. In order to let the Swift River create the reservoir for the people of Boston, four towns were destroyed. The pictures and words have stuck with me all these years; the mighty thirst of the people of Boston, the dismantling of homes, bodies removed from the cemeteries and little Sally Jane and her grandfather in a rowboat on the reservoir looking down trying to identify the old town roads through the water. The Quabbin was on my list and it was a lovely spring day as I drove into Quabbin Park and went to Enfield Lookout. I spent quite awhile looking out at the reservoir comparing the old photographs provided there with my view. My thoughts went back to the words from a book review I had read, “When progress is made, a price has been paid.” I left Quabbin Park going past Quabbin Cemetery, before heading towards Amherst and on to Vermont. Amherst was bustling with graduation preparations and loads of traffic as it was almost 5:00pm. The traffic allowed me to crawl along the main streets enjoying the quaint college town without having anyone behind me frustrated at my slow pace.

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