End of an era

Version 2

A warm rain started just as I hopped out of my minivan, but nothing could dampen my spirits.

Hauling the box to customer service, the masked Target cashier greeted me with the customary eye-smile of 2020.

“Hi! I have a return,” I began, trying to contain my glee. We processed the run-of-the-mill transaction: scanning barcodes, digging around for my Red card. I stayed quiet, willing myself to not act like a weirdo, but it still burbled out.

“We’re finally done with diapers!” I said. “Five and a half years!”

As the Target associate moved the unopened box of Pull-Ups, she offered me an air high-five. I resisted the urge to turn to all the random people at check-out and sing it from the rooftops: everyone in my house is using the bathroom!

Ah, good times.

Toilet troubles have preoccupied our home life for ages. True to his extra nature, Oliver was nearly four before he was using the facilities full-time. He told me it was “boring” to use the bathroom, and he didn’t want to stop building his tower or smashing his monster trucks long enough to bother. But once Ollie was done with Pull-Ups/diapers, he was done. He’s hardly had an accident since.

Hadley has been much more interested in transitioning out of diapers since her cousin, Leo, arrived this spring. Not wanting to be lumped into the “baby” category definitely helped her take potty-training seriously. My girl also just seems more susceptible to peer pressure in general. All the big kids use the potty, we say — a tactic that had zero impact on her brother, but will prompt an indignant Hadley to shuffle into the restroom every time.

Because the kids arrived less than two years apart, there has never been a time in our parenting that someone didn’t need a diaper change. In fact, for two years, we had two kids to wrestle. It wasn’t pretty … as I’m sure you know yourself, or can imagine.

But we did it!

I know better than to prematurely celebrate anything with kids, but I feel confident shouting this from the rooftops (er — writing about it publicly) because we’ve gone months with very few accidents. We haven’t touched a diaper since June. Returning the box of Pull-Ups felt a bit like tempting fate, but we’re three days removed from my Target run and doing fine.

I’m proud of Hadley for quickly embracing a “new normal.” I’m proud of Oliver for eventually putting an end to our toilet stalemate. I’m proud of Spencer and I for surviving five and a half years of diapering without going into the poorhouse.

Mainly, I’m just happy to be entering a new era of parenting — especially combined with the fact that the kids can now get their own juice boxes, open their own snacks, and play favorite games on their tablets without me hovering nearby to click for them.

That last one is definitely #modernparenting … but hey.

A win is a win.

Hunting-birds in summer showers

Version 2

“Mom, can we look for hunting-birds?”

It was hot. Sticky. Thunder rippled overhead, randomly spooking my five-year-old. Oliver dashed inside. But his three-year-old sister was looking up at me, curls damp and eyes hopeful.

Dropping lunch bags and tote bags, junk mail and travel mugs, the kids and I settled on the porch while the mosquito welcoming committee rushed to greet us. I cringed. My idea of spending time in nature is ordering chips and salsa on an outdoor patio. But we’ve all taken a new interest in fresh air, rain, space. Our world got smaller this year.

My husband hung bird feeders years ago, around the time we first moved in. But working from home since the spring, and with little to distract from the kid mess and “Floogals” on loop, Spence has really committed to refreshing them. Every few days he’s pulling them down and mixing up a sugar solution, carefully rehanging them under the eye of watchful bird-neighbors.

The hummingbirds — Hadley’s <i>hunting-birds</i> — seem to be everywhere. Several duke it out for the prized feeder on the porch; others have laid claim to the back deck, where they alternate sips and squawk at one another. We can see them from our family table or Spencer’s desk in the office. He often took the kids out to watch the birds during COVID, when the days stretched with uncertainty. I was at work, watching drive-through lines for COVID testing stretch around my hospital building.

Oliver and Hadley’s daycare reopened two months ago. We worried about what to do, talking through multiple variations of the same thing … and ultimately decided it was best for everyone to settle them back in such a familiar and comfortable setting. And, you know … suffice it to say that everyone’s sanity felt like it hung in the balance.

So they’ve been happily back amongst some teachers and friends — back and as socially-distant as possible, anyway — since late June. The routines have been wonderful for everyone. Already I feel like those strange, scary first days have receded a bit in the mist. Everyone is happier; everything feels a little lighter. My anxiety dreams spin up less and less often.

COVID isn’t gone, of course. Of course. Face masks are now a staple of daily life, like temperature checks. So much of what would seemed absolutely unthinkable six months ago — canceling weddings, suspending sports, making all-important black-tie fundraisers “virtual” — is now all just so … unsurprising. Disappointing, yes. But just part of life in a pandemic.

As we’ve tiptoed into a “new normal” (do you hate that overused-but-apt phrase as much as I do?), at least for the moment, there are certainly glimmers through the rain. I now pick up the kids after school, and we talk all the way home. Before, with Spence on pick-up duty, I’d drag myself into a chaotic house with children already glued to tablets. “How was your day?” went largely unignored.

It doesn’t now. And we move slower. Each day begins with a kiss on the forehead — part affection, part diagnostic — and breakfast: string cheese for Hadley, pancakes for Oliver. I hug my husband in the doorway, step out into the heat. Begin the first of my two full-time jobs, starting the second as soon as I see those sweet faces again.

Version 2

On Wednesday, the day after a tropical storm ravaged the next county over, the air was damp and heavy. Hadley asked to see the hunting-birds. I felt the bugs clustering on my exposed ankles, then thought of the constellation of bites that would soon dot my skin.

But already I’m often “Mom,” not Mommy. Little hands don’t seek mine quite as much. I don’t remember the last time a child fell asleep in my arms (not counting my four-month-old nephew). And I think — fingers crossed! — that we’ve officially changed our last diapers … five-and-a-half long years after changing our first. (Not exactly sad about that, though.)

So we sank into our hand-me-down porch furniture — Oliver tall in a chair, Hadley and I snuggled on a bench. I tried to ignore the cobweb threads on my elbows while we watched the feeder intently. At one point we heard a mad buzzing, and my daughter and I jumped. The hummingbird was just a blur.

Spencer soon crept out. As our resident avian expert, he pointed out the tiny bodies bouncing between tree limbs. They were clearly watching us, too.

“Let’s try to be really quiet,” he whispered to our two squirming children — and me. “If we wait patiently, I bet they’ll come over.”

It took a few minutes. Thunder rumbled, but distant now — music from a storm that wouldn’t come. Hadley rested her head on my arm; Ollie settled his hand on the other.

And then, they did come. There and gone in mere seconds, but hovering enough for us all to clearly admire them. The iridescent green hummingbird, an emerald flash, was my favorite. Oliver was so excited that he jumped up, exclaiming that he needed his video camera (an Adam Goldberg in the making, for sure). The moment ended as Oliver lost it after he couldn’t find said camera … but calm moments these days are all precious.

“I love that smell,” said my husband, grinning as a soft rain started. “And I love that sound — just a summer rain falling.”

I didn’t know the last time I heard it. Or smelled it. Or … really noticed it at all.

“Me too,” I said, and mean it.

 

Cousin-induced motion blur


My cousins are always in motion.

Since I don’t have little ones around every day, I really look forward to seeing the kids in my family. On one side is our Virginia crew of rambunctious, adorable boys (and their equally great little sister!); and from Pennsylvania, we have a gaggle of girls to delight and entertain us. All my little cousins — actually second cousins, in most cases — are under the age of six, so it’s never dull at our gatherings.

Whether I’m coloring, running, doing “karate” (Peyton’s favorite, learned from many a screening of “Kung Fu Panda”) or jumping on a trampoline, our kid crew teaches me to live in the moment. I absolutely love spending time with them — mostly because they’re hilarious and random. They let me color in their Barbie coloring books. And yes, they definitely say the craziest things.

It’s both my blessing and curse to be so aware of the passage of time — and I know that the next time I see Trinity and Peyton, my northern cousins, they’ll be older. Different. In school. With new friends and new experiences. And because they don’t see us too often, they probably will have forgotten all our silly jokes and games from this summer and their Thanksgiving visit. I will remember them, but they won’t remember me.

So I tried to document our family time — if only for myself. My photography skills have definitely been put to the test . . . and, um, have been found lacking. And I’m learning there isn’t a shutter fast enough to capture a child’s devilish grin or head thrown back in laughter. I mean, news alert: kids are fast. They move all the time. And if I thought I was one step ahead of Peyton, an adorable blonde firecracker, I was wrong. Nearly every picture I took was blurry — save this one:



The motion speaks to me, though. I bask in the knowledge that I can barely keep up with them — and love the challenge of capturing a fleeting moment. The girls will never be 3 or 4 or 5 again, but there’s a beauty in that. In the growing up. In the knowledge that these moments are temporary — but no less meaningful. Maybe more meaningful . . . because they’re temporary?

And I know someday I’ll come home to a family of my own — a family with kids I’ll desperately want to document, want to suspend in time. They’ll be fast and wild and silly and smart and bossy. And loved.

Let’s hope there’s a shutter fast enough to capture all that.



Getting wicked: Or why I’ll never, ever want to trade places with Dorothy

Of my many fears born in childhood, there are some that I’ve never quite been able to shake. I’m still afraid of spiders, for one — creepy; crawly; hiding in my shower, waiting to attack me when I’m just trying to get ready for work and OMG please just go down the drain already. Or I’m calling my dad. And don’t think I won’t do it.

Ahem.

We have my fear of heights — or, more accurately, my fear of falling. Fear of public embarrassment. Fear of lima beans (come on — you know they’re disgusting).

And my fear of the Wicked Witch of the West.

When other children were enjoying L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wizard Of Oz — in either book or film format — I was the kid cowering in the corner, weeping quietly to herself and shrieking whenever Dorothy would fall prey to the Wicked Witch’s schemes.

And that’s what I’ve always called her: The Wicked Witch.

I remember watching “The Wizard Of Oz” for the first time when I was around 3 years old. If you believe my mother’s  tale (which, you know, I guess I do), she was desperate for the chance to take a shower. An active child and, at that time, only child, Mom needed to occupy me long enough to get cleaned up. She plunked me down in front of the TV and scrolled through the channels until she stumbled upon the movie that would taint me forever.

“I thought it was a children’s classic!” she howls now, staring at me.

Even 20 years later, I remind her that she ruined my life.

Watching the woman in question morph from her dog-hating “human” self into the Wicked Witch of the West during a Kansas twister, my eyes were probably as large as globes. Some things happened in the movie — Dorothy gets far from home, meets a bunch of unusual characters, finds some ruby slippers, etc. — but I wasn’t concerned with any of that.

All I could see was that face. That big, green face.

The years have not been kind. Every time I think I’m “over” my fear of the Wicked Witch, something happens to send me right back to square one. Though I’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz” in snippets since childhood, I’ve absolutely never sat down to watch it again.

Of course, this is a source of hilarity for friends and family.

I’m going to say it loud and sincerely: I’m Deathly Afraid Of The Witch. So if you think this has kept my sister from torturing me with witch-related items over the years, you’re wrong.

Very wrong.

The first sign of trouble came on Christmas morning in 1988. My mom mistakenly believed that I’d actually loved “The Wizard of Oz” (um, what?) and bought me a set of dolls from the movie: Dorothy, of course, with a tiny plastic Toto; Glinda the Good Witch; and You-Know-Who.

We have home movies of me turning the box over in my hands, an expression of terror slowly creasing my features. I looked from my mom to my dad, wide-eyed, before I said slowly, “It’s the Wicka Witch.” (I hadn’t yet mastered words like “wicked.”)

My mom says she felt terrible, that she hadn’t realized I was afraid, but she’s laughing on the tape. Laughing.

My sister, kind soul that she is, has purchased dolls in various forms for me, plus birthday cards bearing the witch’s trademark cackle, T-shirts, etc. Since the ’80s, the Witch has followed me everywhere. I tried to combat my fears by even dressing as the witch for Halloween — pictured above in 1988 — but nothing worked.

I hate her.

When I cop to my terror about that green-faced nightmare, others smile and shake their heads. My aunt Jacki has reported that it wasn’t the witch that scared her so badly growing up, but the flying monkeys.

I’d totally take a barrel of flying monkeys over any witch. I’d even let them pick me up and fly away — as long as it was away from You-Know-Who.

So tell me. Am I alone in my witch fears? Has a character scarred you for life?

Books my future kids will read (whether they like it or NOT)

So I’m 24 years old. I spend the majority of my time with — ahem — adults, and I love them dearly . . . but let’s be frank: if I tell you I was born on a sultry July day in 1985 and you groan loudly, laughing and rolling your eyes, I’m just reminded — yet again — that I’m not yet admitted to the Married Parent Club but too old to saunter around the mall with tweens in Zac Efron tees and Ed Hardy shirts (um, do kids still wear Ed Hardy? And who is Ed Hardy?).

Me, the Happy Reader (and Pretend Napper), circa 2003

Me, the Happy Reader (and Pretend Napper), circa 2003

Yes, I’m in my twenties — and single in my twenties. While friends are getting engaged and starting their families, I’m still up late gabbing with my sister, shopping to my heart’s content and generally causing independent, self-reliant mayhem. I’m happy with my life, don’t get me wrong — and this isn’t a post about how desperately I’m ready to “move on to the next phase.” It’s just that I’ve been giving some thought to, of all things, my future children — and how I don’t want them to live in a world bereft of Disney classics like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty & The Beast” and “Aladdin.” Seriously, kids these days? I mean, what with their cell phones and iPods and laptops and digitized everything? It just makes me wonder about what’s to become of Mini Meg — and what sort of entertainment will exist for her. ‘Cause Lord knows no six-year-old of mine will be texting at the dinner table!

Which brings me to books. (Are you with me? Stop snickering — I needed to give you some background, all right?) When I’m browsing at a bookstore, running my fingers along the spines of children’s and young adult paperbacks, I’m frequently reminded of all the books I loved as a kid — and have started making mental note of all the books I want my children to read someday. When they’ll arrive and become literate is a giant Meg Mystery, but I’m hopeful that when they first open their little adorable eyes, it’ll be to a very well-stocked library!

I haven’t yet purchased any of these, so don’t freak out. I’m just beginning to cull them all in one place so when The Day finally arrives, I’ll know I’m bringing up some cute little book nerds . . . just like yours truly. (Emphasis on the cute, let’s be honest.)

And if they don’t like my selections? I’ll whip out a tactic my mom and dad used when I was, um, reluctant to practice piano as a kid — I’ll set a cooking timer. Thirty minutes of practicing — or reading — before I could get up and go about my general business of pestering my sister, watching TV or obsessing over the Weather Channel (yes, the Weather Channel, friends). “Think you’re getting up without finishing that chapter, little Johnny? What does Mommy’s clock say? Hmm, right — I thought not.”

Clearly, I’m already in the running for Future Parent Of The Year. I’ll let you know where you can cast your vote as soon as I find a contest I can enter!



Some Books Meg’s Kids Will Read

(Or They’ll Be In Time Out For-ev-er)


very_hungry_caterpillar The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

OK, so I don’t really imagine Mini Meg putting up a fight about reading this one . . . because what’s not to like? Carle’s classic tale of “science and gluttony” (nicely said, Amazon) has sold more than 12 million copies since its publication decades ago. I remember loving the colorful illustrations as a kid, and the transformation from caterpillar to beautiful butterfly was a fun, powerful thing to behold as a child.


tiggy_and_the_babysitter Tiggy and the Babysitter by Happy Endings Books

I’m not going to lie — I got a little verklempt when the cover of this one appeared on Amazon! I read (and loved) this story of why babysitters aren’t scary — not that I should have ever been scared of babysitters, anyway (mine were always my lovely grandparents!). A little part of my soul died when I realized Tiggy is out of print, but I’m happy to report I still have my (battered) hardcover, straight out of 1987, tucked away on a dusty bookshelf somewhere. Now nobody touch it!


giving_tree The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

What do you mean, this book was published more than 40 years ago? Silverstein’s tale of the friendship between a boy and a tree is timeless and touching — and one of the first times I got a realistic portrayal of unselfish love as a kid. I remember unwrapping the copy given to me by my grandmother and running my fingers carefully over the green cover, even poking that little red apple! I still have my hardcover, so thankfully Mini Meg will get to peruse my very copy! I’ll add it to the stack with Tiggy.


bunniculaBunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery
by Deborah & James Howe

So when I was growing up, the “vampire” we were all obsessed with reading about didn’t have the initials E.C. — and ours was considerably smaller. And fuzzier! The Bunnicula books were beloved in our school library; we all took turns reading about the misadventures of Harold the dog and Chester the cat, who are forced to welcome a new bunny into their home after the Monroe family discovers him at a showing of “Dracula.” Harold seems to be the only one to realize the rabbit’s evil tendencies, and I remember the books being both hilarious and creepy.


berenstain_bears_trick The Berenstain Bears book series
by Stan & Jan Berenstain

Some of my fondest bookish memories as a kid involve The Berenstain Bears, that loveable family of Mama, Papa, Sister & Brother and their many, many adventures. My parents loved sharing them with Kate and me because every story had a “moral,” teaching us a lesson about sharing, family, love or health. Trick Or Treat is awesome, joining the elite ranks of The Truth and Learn About Strangers as several of my favorites. The Berenstain series is alive and well, so I’m not too worried about stockpiling the paperbacks right now. Still, I don’t want to live in a world where I don’t have Mama and Papa to help me teach my kids about junk food, another of my favorites. So maybe I better grab it when I see it!


super_fudgeSuperfudge by Judy Blume

It’s pretty much impossible to read about Farley Drexel Hatcher — a.k.a. Fudge — without falling at least a little in love with this adorable, meddlesome and Dennis the Menace-esque brother of Peter! Blume’s books were another huge hit at our elementary school, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of them at least twice. It took me a little while to find the orange cover I recognized, pictured at left — but I knew I had a winner when I spotted Fudge covering the baby with stamps! Classic!

Blume spoke at this year’s National Book Festival and, when asked by a member of the audience, explained that Fudge was based, in part, on her own son’s childhood. I thought that was adorable! And when someone asked her what Fudge would be like as an adult, the author recoiled; Fudge is, to her, perpetually small! It would be impossible to imagine him as a teen, or with a family of his own. I agree! Long live Fudge! I just hope Mini Meg doesn’t adopt any of his antics . . .


julie_wolves Julie Of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

George’s novel of Miyax/Julie, a 13-year-old Eskimo orphan, made a huge impression on me when I first read it in fifth grade. Julie Of The Wolves was one of the books I read over vacation, sprawled out on the couch under a fan, and it took no time for me to leap from the heat of another blazing Maryland summer to the cold, desolate Alaskan wilderness. A coming-of-age story of friendship, acceptance and survival, Mini Meg will probably have to hit middle school before I’ll share this one with her — because I remember the whole lonely, no-parents thing being a bit disturbing?


sarah_plain_tallSarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Unlike my sister, I was never into the Little House books; MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall was my first (and only) introduction to pioneer life as a kid, if you don’t count playing “Oregon Trail” on my dad’s old computer for hours!

The story of Sarah, who arrives from Maine to become the wife of widowed farmer Jacob, is sparse but moving and served, for me, as another great introduction to unconditional love. Caleb and Anna, Jacob’s children, could have served as stand-ins for any one of the other youngsters who read the book in my fourth grade class. I remember our unanimous stamp of approval!

One of the Cheerleader Girls

Apparently, not me. Photo by Richelle Antipolo

Apparently, not me. Photo by Richelle Antipolo

Trust kids to tell you the truth about something — and everything. Whether you’re prepared for it or not.

At a family birthday party this weekend, I chatted with Isabelle, my cousin’s four-year-old niece. Quite possibly the world’s cutest and most vivacious child, Isabelle loved putting pink lipstick all over the faces of her captivated audience and wowing us with her zippy one-liners, including “Did you know Michael Jackson has a sister?” and “God doesn’t like liars.” (I swear we didn’t provoke her!)

One of the most telling, though, had to come as we all gathered around in the backyard. Isabelle was swinging with my sister and me while her aunt — my cousin Ciara — sat nearby. After putting a full face of makeup on Katie and I and declaring us her “Fashion Girls,” Isabelle surveyed her work carefully. After a few moments she made a face, jumped up and flew over to sit in Ciara’s lap.

“Where are you going?” I asked her, laughing at her suddenly-smug expression from across the yard. “Aren’t you a Fashion Girl?”

Isabelle wrinkled her little nose at me, her whole face collapsing in disdain. Ciara looked over at us, bemused, as Isabelle tossed her long ponytail over her shoulder. “Um, we’re the Cheerleader Girls,” Isabelle then announced. “And you’re not.”

Kate’s eyebrows shot straight up as she laughed, her face just as shocked as mine. “What do you mean, not a Cheerleader Girl?” she asked Isabelle, who just grinned devilishly (and adorably, I have to say).

I could feel my whole stomach trembling with laughter, remembering my high school days that were filled with just about anything but cheerleading. I was a straight theatre geek, actress in all the school plays and editor of the school newspaper. I spent my time in the dark recesses of the school auditorium, learning lines and rehearsing and playing around with friends. My long hair has been, since the dawn of time, a bit unkempt . . . mostly because no contraption or amount of hair product can make it look the way I want. When you get to know me, I’m a little loud and bossy — definitely not one to float along with the crowd. In the literary world of Megan McCafferty, I fancy myself much more a Jessica Darling than, say, a Sara D’Abruzzi or Manda Powers. And I was always good with that.

But how is that even a four-year-old knows I’m not “one of them” — not a Cheerleader Girl?

Despite the fact that Isabelle and I continued to play and she did eventually come to the Fashion Girls, there was a sudden and crisp division between us that even my “Fashionable” status couldn’t save. Just like the summer I turned fourteen and stepped into the halls as a newly-minted high school freshman, I was standing in one clique looking out once again.

I guess high school really doesn’t end — even before you get there.