Five Kernels

DSC_2066Growing up in New England, Thanksgiving was a holiday of particular pride as many of the area’s ancestors hailed from Pilgrim stock, especially those affiliated with the Congregational churches throughout the Northeast.  My Dad was the Senior Minister of one of the oldest Congregational churches in Connecticut (founded in 1639).  It was the meetinghouse, worship center and municipal office of the city, and for many years, the surrounding counties.  To say First Church has “Pilgrim Pride” is an understatement.  The church has been through hell and back many times in its history with fires, disease epidemics and warring factions within its own walls.  But just as the Pilgrims had done, the people struggled through, survived and came out stronger, more grateful.

Thanksgiving was Dad’s favorite holiday. I never realized why this one day held such significance for him until I reached adulthood.  Our extended family lived in New Hampshire and Alabama, so our table was shared by friends, church members and those seeking shelter from life’s storms.  From the very beginning of the day to its end, Dad lived this holiday; Breathing in the wonderful aromas wafting through the house as the turkey roasted in the oven, cherishing the time spent with our nuclear family, preparing the table for its occupants. He spent hours polishing old family silver, setting out family china and crystal as well as arranging the truly splendid centerpieces that always adorned our tables during the holidays. Every inch of Thanksgiving was poured onto that table just as it had been done in his family for generations.  Nothing was left unpolished, unironed or to chance.  To the outsider, our family must have looked incredibly wealthy with all of our fineries and grand 3-story historic colonial.  But that was an illusion. The tableware, cherished family heirlooms passed down from generation-to-generation. The home, owned by the church, we but its mere keepers.  The real richness of our Thanksgiving involved the people who surrounded our table, each hand-selected.

As we were seated for our meal, the turkey was brought out and set at its place of honor. Dad would say the Blessing, which consisted of poignant words describing how we were all feeling. Nothing was ever lost on my Dad, so before we got down to the business of eating, he would point to the most unassuming part of our place setting, five tiny kernels of dried corn set at the top. To most the corn kernels were simply decorative, a seasonal touch to the grand table.  However, the meaning behind those kernels was anything but simple and embodied what Thanksgiving really meant to those who endured the first harsh winters here in America. To my Dad, it went deeper than legend.

The story goes that the Pilgrims invited the nearby chief and some of his braves to join them in a feast of Thanksgiving for helping the settlement sustain life through hunting and farming techniques unique to the New World.  When the natives arrived, they quickly realized there were many more people to feed than anticipated.  The Pilgrims shared what they had with their new friends and were grateful that their guests had brought meat and taught the women how to prepare maple syrup and cook a native treat, popcorn, made from corn kernels.  Once the natives had left the settlement, reality set in…there would not be enough food to last the winter.  The Pilgrims needed to ration – eventually down to five kernels of corn per person.  Despite the meager meal, they lifted prayers up to God in thanks for the food in front of them.  After 14 days of prayer and rationing, the chief arrived again, however this time he came with many more Braves and much more food. The first course served, five kernels of corn, a reminder of the suffering the Pilgrims had endured, the prayers that were answered, and the reassurance that God will provide. Simply put, Thanksgiving was not about a meal but a diverse community of people paying homage to one another FOR one another.

My Dad believed in the “Pilgrim Promise”.  He believed that those five tiny kernels symbolized the Grace of God, strangers who became trusted friends, community. It served as a reminder to be thankful even for the meager meals.  Those kernels, that story, set the tone at our table every Thanksgiving.  There were many years our family had very little money but my parents managed to find a way to buy the groceries and clothing we needed.  I know it wasn’t easy for them.  What we lacked in money, our family made up in love.  There was plenty of that in our home; enough for our nuclear family and beyond.  It is for this reason, I believe, my parents opened their home every year to friends, church members and even strangers who otherwise had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. And even if they did, maybe it was a way to say thank you for a kindness they had shown my family that year.

After my Dad’s death in 2009, those five kernels of corn are still set atop each place setting, we still invite friends and those seeking shelter from the storms of life to join us. The kernels have become the most beautiful adornment, outshining the lacy china and polished silver. Each person who joins in our Thanksgiving receives this gift – Grace. So remember to give thanks for those people in your life who have shown you Grace (however you define it), for those who love you for you, for your family whether they be related or not. 

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Field of Greens: Farm-to-Table Festival Style

Another Fall weekend is upon us in Atlanta and that means another great festival! So break out those tall boots, throw a pretty scarf around your neck and head out to the farm for Field of Greens this Sunday from 11am-5pm. Don’t forget to bring your grocery totes and cooler because there’s plenty of fresh produce and delicious treats to bring home!

In its seventh year at Whippoorwill Hollow Farm in Walnut Grove, Field of Greens brings together local farmers, chefs and specialty food artisans from around Metro Atlanta in celebration of the farm-to-table movement. There will be chef and craft demonstrations, live music from local artists, a kids’ area with fun things to do like apple pressing and clay projects, a farmer and artisans’ market and of course the legendary Chef’s Tent with over 30 chefs!

I love this festival for the sheer and simple fact that no one leaves unhappy. If you’re a foodie, both the Chef’s Tent and Meals from the Market will provide you with finger-lickin’ yumminess with some of their favorite dishes using local meats and produce. If you’re a crafter, you’ll love the artisans’ market where everything from scarves to soaps are for sale (I bought a scarf last year made from local wool). Looking for some fresh fruits and veggies? Then head over to the farmers’ market and stock your cooler with seasonal produce, local meats and cheeses, jams and pickles. Make sure to bring the kids because there’s lots for them to do at the Kids’ Village (not to mention the farm animals). You’ll probably spot my ruby red head in the Chef’s Tent because let’s face it, it’s all about the food! The tent is open from 12:30-3:30 or until the food runs out, so plan to get in line early. But don’t fret, it’s worth the wait because this tent brings festival food to another level with flavors from such restaurants as Rosebud, One Eared Stag, Cardamom Hill, Alma Cocina, The Shed and soon-to-open Bantam & Biddy and Buttermilk Kitchen.

To me, Field of Greens represents everything that’s right and good about Fall festivals. It provides an opportunity for these culinary and craft artists to meet with the public, put a name and face with the food or product and educate us on what we can do to continue the farm-to-table, buy local movement in our own homes. It’s a day of celebration, education and most of all of people who love what they do and want to share their passion with their community. So come out to the farm…eat local, shop local, support local and be in the movement.

Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the gate.  Admission includes unlimited tastings from the Chef’s Tent. Children 12 and under are free.  No pets.  

http://www.fieldofgreensfestival.com/

Festival Schedule:

11:00 – Festival begins

11:00 – 12:30Meals from the Market

12:30 – 3:30 (or until food runs out) – Chef’s Tent

1:30 – Chef Demo with Justin Keith of Food 101: Pickling and Preserving

2:30 – Chef Demo with Kevin Ouzts of The Spotted Trotter: Charcuterie

4:00 – Pig Roast with Chef Todd Mussman of Local Three

5:00 – Festival ends

The Atlanta History Center’s Folklife Festival

Fall festival season is in full swing in Atlanta!  Not interested in the acts or crowds at Music Midtown this weekend? Want something you can do with the kiddies or your sweetie? Then you might want to check out the Atlanta History Center‘s Folklife Festival at the Smith Family Farm on Saturday, September 22 from 10:30-4:30.

Learn all about traditional crafts and sustainability in the South while drinking a local brew, indulging in local foods and listening to some local folk and bluegrass artists. There will be an array of demonstrations from candle making to blacksmithing to pickling by one of my favorite people, Angie Tillman, of Phickles Pickles (shameless plug) as well as storytelling (a most Southern attribute). A seed swap demonstration with Slow Food Atlanta, Slavery and Food with Chef Todd Richards of The Shed at Glenwood and smokehouse techniques with Chef Dan Lantham of Farm Burger Buckhead will also be taking place throughout the day as they discuss the current culinary trends and farm-to-table movement in Atlanta. This is a chance to interact with and get to know the people behind the food, art, music and stories we have come to cherish in the South. Plus, there’s a petting zoo! Who doesn’t love a little goat chewing on their shoelace once in a while. Tickets are on sale now at The Atlanta History Center’s website: $14.50 for adults, $11.00 for seniors and $9.00 for children.
http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/cms/Fall+Folklife+Festival+/528.html

Can’t make it on Saturday? Then join The Atlanta History Center Friday, September 21 for the festival’s kickoff from 7pm-10pm. Dine and discuss the South’s culinary landscape with Chef Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene, Chef Duane Nutter of One Flew South and Steve and Marie Nygren the founders of the beautiful Serenbe. Local wines, cocktails and food will be highlighted as well as the museum’s many exhibits. This is great opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the finest chefs in the area and mingle with fellow Atlanta foodies and history buffs while enjoying a night out in the gateway city to the South. $60/pp with a $20 off coupon using the code: FOOD.

Yours on the Uptrail…

Dad in his office working up a weekly sermon which he practiced aloud for hours. He believed in the emphasis and delivery of the words he spoke.

Some of you know the story behind why I occasionally sign off my letters, emails and various correspondence with “Yours on the Uptrail”. The straightforward answer is my Dad, a wonderful writer and minister (my greatest influence), always ended every letter he wrote as well as his newsletter messages to the congregation with this phrase.  He was following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who also happened to be writers and ministers. But there’s more behind this phrase than simple family tradition.  More, I came to find out, than meets the literary eye.

Dad always answered the phone with a hearty “Soper speaking”. It quickly became the title of all of his newsletter messages as people loved to hear him answer the phone. He had signature style. 

Soper Speaking… By The Reverend Willard MacKenzie Soper

“Why do you sign off your letters and Parish Post articles with ‘Yours on the Uptrail’?”, someone asked a month or so ago. “What is the significance of it, and why do you use it?” All I could really tell the person who asked was that my Grandfather MacKenzie and my Dad had used it, and that I had wanted to carry on the tradition because I liked the sentiment it conveyed. I wasn’t, however, sure of its significance.

While at my Mother’s this past Christmas, I chanced upon a little historical booklet put out by the Richmond Hill Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Queens, New York, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. Within its pages were brief biographies of all its pastors and reminiscences of some of its older members. My grandfather, Dr. Aeneas James MacKenzie, was called to the church in the late 1930s from Detroit, Michigan, and served there until his sudden death during a Sunday morning service in December 1948.

During his tenure in Richmond Hill, he started a church newsletter called THE BROADCAST. In speaking of this, one member remembered that: “Dr. MacKenzie wrote a column called ‘The Minister Thinks Aloud’ and he always signed off with ‘Yours on the Uptrail’ which was taken from the title of a beautiful poem he had written.”

“So, that’s where it came from,” I thought to myself. I then read the poem printed on the following page. Upon reading it, “Yours on the Uptrail” suddenly meant more than family tradition. It had a deeper, Christ-centered meaning. I share my Granddad’s poem with you in hopes that it will have significant meaning for each of you as well.

The Uptrail

The Uptrail is the life trail

that everyone must take

If he wants to find fruition

For his dreams, and not forsake

All the plans that God has for him

In the passing of the years,

But attends high voices calling

That deep in his soul he hears.

There’s a cradle on the Uptrail

And the little child therein

Hushed asleep by angel voices

That, through all the noise and din,

Never fail to sing their message

To a heedless fearful world,

That only on the Uptrail

Is the flag of peace unfurled

There’s a cross upon the Uptrail,

And wherever you may be,

You can see it standing cold and stark,

And its name is Calvary.

There’s a man upon the Uptrail

He is trudging far ahead,

And he beckons us to follow

Up a path that’s often red

With the wounded feet of many

Who have climbed the way before,

And who never ceased their climbing

Till the Crown of Life they wore.

See! He points up to the summit

Where a halo glow of light

Bathes the distant top with glory,

Like a sunrise, after night,

Shines out from behind some mountain

And its silhouette enfolds,

Wrapped in sheens of glistening brightness,

Mingled with rare blues and golds.

The Uptrail is a hard trail,

But it leads right up to God.

The soul that struggles bravely

And endures the chastening rod,

Never fails to reach the summit,

Oft discouraged though he be.

At the top he will discover

His own immortality.

by A.J. MacKenzie

I’m Not a Short Order Cook: Raising the Next Generation of Foodies

Let me start off by stating this fact about myself: I am not a short order cook. Never have been, never will be. I make meals I expect everyone to eat. You don’t eat what I serve, you don’t eat. End of story. I find that a lot of today’s parents subscribe to the short order cook piloting the parental helicopter mentality, not allowing their children to explore the world around them without being coddled to death by smothering parents. I’m not exactly sure when this particular parenting style became en vogue, but it needs to stop and it should begin with a war on chicken nuggets morning, noon and night! I’ll admit I’ve given my children the occasional breaded poultry chunks when rushing to get ready for a night out with the hubby, a meeting or when dinner is just not happening because time was not on my side that day but those occasions are few and far between. My meals are planned in advance, ingredients purchased and ready for creating a family feast that all will partake in at our table. This is the way I grew up, it worked and it continues to work some 30 plus years later with my own children. End rant. On to my point

I believe in exposing children to a variety of foods which not only expands their culinary horizons but gives them a global view in their very own kitchen. Variety is the spice of life, right? So when I cook a meal, I choose flavors I know each member of my family will enjoy but maybe I’m cooking middle eastern or south african rather than good old American standard fare. The ingredients might look or sound strange but once they taste it, the scary feeling of the unknown quickly fads to ready acceptance of a new taste, a new culture, a new understanding that not everything has to be breaded, fried and molded into a tiny nugget to taste good. If you allow your children to continually rule meal time, not only do they lose out in developing more well-rounded taste buds and the likelihood of trying new things in life, but you may actually be depriving them of dietary nutrition necessary for development. As parents we all battle the terrible toddlers, occasional food strikes and feeding the dog and plants unwanted cuisine. But giving in to their demands night after night only leads to a larger problem. Roles are reversed, children are in control yet you’re still pulling your hair out trying to cook acceptable meals, fighting a losing battle. Unless they are the ones cooking, your children are not in control! Remember that. So what do you do when you have a food striker, control-freak or dog and plant feeder? Simple. Disguise and deny. Well, deny until after the meal is over.

Introduce variety slowly, using similar tasting foods they are used to eating. Look online for multi-cultural cuisine that uses simple ingredients and spices, making the meal visually pleasing as well as tasty. We know children are visually stimulated by their food. If it looks confusing or too busy, children will not eat it. Indian and Asian foods are good translators. The food is generally warm and sweet. Start with easy dishes like Chicken Curry, saffron or jasmine rice and spiced broccoli. All recognizable foods but with an Indian twist. Make these types of meals at least once a week, rotating the favorites in every two weeks to reintroduce the flavors. As their taste buds adapt to the variety in their new diet, begin to introduce more complicated meals and flavors from other parts of the world, again starting with simple dishes to allow your children the comfort of knowing what they are consuming. One of my children’s favorite meals is a Pakistani casserole known as Keema. It is made with ground sirloin (or ground turkey), tomatoes, onions, peas, potatoes and spiced with curry, cinnamon, turmeric and ginger. The flavors meld well together and are warm and familiar yet not typically used together in American cuisine. Fear of the unknown is easily overcome when it comes to food. You just have to spice it or disguise it right.

Dining out with children can be a real challenge. Always the same thing, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, mac and cheese, typical kids menu. Not that these things are bad or undesirable. We all like comfort food. But instead of having them order from the kids menu, try appetizers or small plates. They are generally priced about the same but allow a greater variety of foods. As you see your children’s culinary taste buds broaden you will begin to see them branch out at restaurants, lacking the fear of trying something new. For instance, our family recently attended the pre opening of STG Trattoria in Atlanta. We knew the menu would be limited and realized the challenge ahead of us was to make sure they ate a good dinner while not complaining about the lack of familiar foods on their plate. Thankfully it was Italian so our chances of finding flavors they would understand were greater. We ordered the margarita pizza, pork cheek bocatini pasta, swiss chard ravioli and bruschetta topped with eggplant, tomatoes and mozzarella. We knew the last one was going to be a stretch. Eggplant. We didn’t tell them, just cut a piece for each, placed it on their plates and told them to dig in. My daughter went back for seconds only later finding out she had been consuming eggplant. She loved it; proud of herself for trying something most kids would have told mom and dad to talk to the hand. My son’s favorite kid oddity to consume, the yucca fries at Bone Garden Cantina’s brunch on Sundays. Coupled with their delicious cheese dip, he was hooked immediately never thinking about the root he was eating. All he knows is that it tastes really good and he likes it! Now I realize that my children are still young and their taste buds will continue to develop and change as they get older, but by allowing them to safely explore their food, I feel confident they will be willing to try anything at least once. I always ask them to try something from my plate when we dine out especially when I know they have never tried it before. My children now know, resistance is futile. Take a bite, you might like it.

So the next time your children begin to fuss and pitch a holy fit about dinner, don’t give in, take back control by cooking a meal with familiar ingredients with a cultural twist. If they don’t eat it, they don’t eat dinner. Believe me, they won’t starve. Eventually the war will be won and they will eat and enjoy it. Hovering over them like hawks never solves anything and makes children more fearful to experience new things. This includes food. Dietary restrictions aside, there really isn’t anything a child shouldn’t eat. Say no to chicken nuggets and yes to a more global food perspective. Your children will thank you for it…later.

“That Mom” Loves “That Kid”

My latest blog for Skirt.com.

Is your child “that kid”? The unsuspecting class clown in constant motion? The incessant talker/noise-maker with a built-in soundtrack? The weird kid? I remember them well. They never seemed to fit in socially yet were some of the most intelligent and creative people in class. They were awkward, strange, sometimes even talked funny and we all made fun of them for being different. Yet we were somewhat oddly attracted to their quirky behavior. Their differentness made us feel uncomfortably curious. But in the end, a bizarre fear seemed to overcome us and “that kid” was met with verbal lashings, kick-me signs and public mockings. We didn’t know the fear of the unusual was leading us down the path to unkindness. We only knew “that kid” was not like me. As a now mom of a “that kid”, I struggle to find acceptance for my son while not allowing him to feel different, weird or strange. He only knows that he’s special because he has ADHD.

I like to think of my son’s ADHD not as a special need but as a special gift. He thinks up the most incredible Lego creations and spends hours meticulously cultivating his projects. He is the boy who writes heart-warming, well thought out stories about a character born from love, Mr. Snail; a snail much like my son. He’s the interesting kid that everyone surrounds on the playground while he digs for rocks and buried treasure. The boy who thankfully has many friends because he is kind-hearted, funny and full of interesting facts. My son is the boy who helps out, who’s never made an enemy, who believes in good, who loves animals, loves his family and only wants to please. A sensitive, intuitive, creative little boy with a heart as big as anyone I know. And I’ve told him as much as his hyperactivity and lack of focus can be an issue, some of the most brilliant minds are wonderfully successful people. Do you ever wonder if “that kid” is the founder of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft or Apple…just think. Maybe it’s not so bad being “that kid”.

Don’t get me wrong, being a parent of an ADHD child is hard work. The constant reminding, re-reminding and well, re-reminding. Schedules. Frustrating conversations. Notes from the teacher. Struggling to keep them on task. And then there is the worrying you do at night about how you are going to help them achieve success living with ADHD. There are days you feel like a complete failure and throw your hands up in exhaustion and self-pity. The days you ask yourself, why my child? It’s not an easy life. And this morning slapped me right back into the reality of that life with “that kid”.

I look forward to Friday mornings. My husband and I have a weekly breakfast date at our favorite spot in West Midtown. We joke that our Friday morning breakfasts are even better than our Saturday night dates because, well, we’re actually awake! We both do our best work in the morning. However this morning was not like every other Friday. My husband had been sick all week and hadn’t run. So he was up at 5am to run 4 miles in the dark. Asking him to please wear his reflective vest, he snapped at me for nagging him. Naturally my feelings were hurt as my only intention was to keep him safe. He apologized but the tone was set. Not 10 minutes after he had left to run, my son was up (30 minutes early). I heard him in the kitchen rustling around in the pantry. I got up, asked him to go back to bed. Yet 5 minutes later, he was back in the kitchen. Again, I asked him to go back to bed. By the third time, I caught him standing on the counter, grabbing for his Valentine’s candy that we had strategically placed on top of the refrigerator. I knew this wasn’t going to be a good morning. Impulsivity at it’s unwanted finest. “Mom! I wasn’t getting candy, I was looking for the pencils!” Lies. I screamed for him to get down and told him that his favorite stuffed animal was gone for the day. This stuffed animal is the Linus’ blanket of stuffed animals. I know how to get his attention. “I hate you, Mom! I hate you! I’m going to kill you!” He hasn’t said those words to me in a long time. It’s progress. He continued his relentless verbal assault on my weary mind. It was too early for this. I had already been snapped at and now here it is only 6am and I’m arguing with my son. Ugh. Why Friday of all days?

The belligerence, disrespectfulness and downright stubbornness continued through breakfast and my shower until we left for school. I kept telling myself, Beth, he’s not done this in such a long time. Remember when it was almost daily? Remember how hard it was before you knew? Remember? I’ve worked hard to get him to a good place. I’ve found my son the most wonderful psychiatrist who has prescribed a balanced drug combination which retains his happy disposition and creativity. He has been through therapy, he attends a fantastic school, his teachers and I are in constant communication and the extended family follow the rules and routines we have set for him at home. My son is lucky. But even with a loving family, good school, therapy and medication, ADHD is still unpredictable. Outbursts like today happen for no apparent reason. The triggers vary and aren’t always apparent. You have to roll with it. These kids thrive on routine, structure and consistency. Discipline is key. Children with ADHD are usually highly intelligent, creative and manipulative. You give them an inch, they will take 10 miles or more and keep going long after you’ve lost the race. You have to have as much mental and physical energy as they do. Sometimes I have to give myself permission to fall with him. I am “that mom” today, struggling with “that kid”.

My son has overcome many obstacles in his short life with the suicide of his biological father, the death of my father 6 months later and moving three times in two years. Not to mention my remarriage. That’s enough to put most adults on Prozac! But being diagnosed with ADHD was the best gift he, and frankly I, could have received. We both now understand what he is dealing with, why he acts the way he does and best of all, how to combat the negativity that comes with the diagnosis. I remind him daily of his “special powers”. His creatively, beautiful, out-of-the-box mind and intelligence are all part of his package. My now husband and I both believe that if you choose to see the positives in life you are healthier, stronger and less likely to be cynical and negative. Positive parenting, positive living, breeds positive, happy children. Or at least that’s our theory. We, along with his therapist, teachers and extended family are all teaching him how to cope with his ADHD in a positive way. My son is learning to take his gifts and use them to his advantage while still allowing himself those now occasional irrational moments. I am still learning to allow myself those same irrational moments right along with him. A process we are learning together.

Even though this morning started out rough, I know my son. I know that’s not him. He was struggling. Struggling between his impulses and his rational mind. Like the angel and the devil on each shoulder, whispering in his ear. Who do you listen to? It’s hard. It’s hard even for those of us living with the brain of Toyota rather than a Ferrari. I know this. I try not to feed into it, but I’m only human. We learn from each moment and move forward. My son may have ADHD, and to the outside world beyond our home and family, he may seem strange or a bit off, but not to me. He is beautiful, even when he hates me. I’m “that mom” to “that kid” today, tomorrow, always. No one can take that away from us.

I Got the Moves Like…Mom

 

Am I a bad mother because I am not up in arms about the M.I.A. “Fingergate” incident that happened during the Super Bowl half time show? There were 10 adults in the room along with at least 8 of the 10 children ranging in age from 6-12 years old. Not one of us caught it (unlike Nipplegate, i.e. Janet Jackson). And frankly if we had, I am not sure that we would have been offended or that it would have shocked our children. Let’s be honest, can you say that you haven’t flipped off another driver with your kids in the car or gone on a swearing tirade when you’ve broken something while your kids giggle in the background? If you haven’t at least once in their lives, I commend you because that is incredible self-control that I sorely lack. I’m not saying that giving someone the finger because they cut you off in traffic or swearing because you broke a dish in front of your children is setting the right example, but to ere is human. It happens. Do I think M.I.A. was expressing her displeasure at a performance disrupting field official driving a golf cart? No. I think she got caught up in the biggest moment of her fledgling career and lost sight of what she was there to do, entertain millions of Madonna fans. She’s young. I think she will eventually look back at this very public indiscretion and regret it or at least think, hmmm…, that was kind of stupid.  

 

But despite all of this I began to think about why I didn’t have a strong reaction to the finger being pulled on live, primetime TV. Am I not parenting my children properly? Do I not care what their young impressionable minds are exposed to daily? Why am I not hovering over them like a helicopter ready to descend when the slightest no-no is uttered or arguments break out over toys and staring contests? It all comes down to parenting styles. There is no right or wrong style, it’s just whatever works for you, and most importantly for your children. I don’t always agree with other’s styles, as I’m sure they don’t always agree with mine, but who am I to judge? If your children are happy, healthy and most importantly, loved, who cares if as an adult they never curse a single day in their lives or choose to express themselves with the occasional bad birdie. I discourage my children from using foul language and gestures just like any other parent but I also know that completely sheltering them from the world is impossible. I’ve given them the tools and tutelage with the occasional reinforcement tactic to help them understand why it’s not appropriate in every situation for adults to swear or gesture. I’ve apologized to them for my own swearing, finger pulling and idle gossiping. Just like you have to teach a child to share, you also have to teach them social graces and tact.

 

Parenting is a never-ending cycle of teachable moments. My children say please, thank you, yes and no ma’am and know how to behave in front of adults, at friends’ houses and in public places. But like most children I know, they will choose to push that envelope to see how far they can go with just about any social faux pax. They are testing your reaction. I choose not to overreact with a lot of the situations my children put me in daily. If your children are like mine, they are going to try and get a rise out of you with the one thing they know sets you off and sends you over the edge. Sometimes it’s done to push the boundaries in an attempt to make sure they are still VERY clear. Other times I personally think they just want to push buttons because they enjoy the attention and the control. It’s all part of growing up and learning what is and isn’t appropriate and why. But I still often wonder if they are really listening and getting the messages I’m sending.

 

My daughter came home from school today annoyed and, frankly, mad as hell at two boys. These boys have been bothering her while she plays with her best friends during recess. The year started out with the entire class playing nicely together but by November the tides had turned. Cliques were formed and loyalties divided. A lesson in what is to come later in life. She was friends with these two boys until they began to pull her hair and say she liked a certain boy. The first incident she had done everything I had taught her to do in a bullying situation which was to ask them to please stop and walk away. They pursued, as 10 year old boys often do, and began to taunt her further. Again, she asked them to stop and walked away. By the third time, my daughter was raging. She was done. As the verbal assault began she raised her voice and told them to stop. With the final tug of the hair and a shove, she unleashed a barrage of curse words that left both boys stunned and my daughter shoving them aside, running to tell the teacher. I chuckled under my breath as she told her story, beaming with quiet pride of the girl power I had instilled in her. I want her to know how to physically defend herself if she is forced to. However, I also needed to address the swearing, which she got into trouble for using on school grounds regardless of the boys’ part in the fight. I had to explain that while swearing does seem to alleviate tension it doesn’t solve anything and makes you look tacky. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, wow Beth, eat crow much. She understood what she had done wrong and could do better next time. There would be a next time, many next times with these boys.

 

Today I got up from my desk to find my daughter quietly playing with her horses next to it. As I often do, I messed up her hair and sang a silly song. Usually that garners a huge reaction like “MOM! STOP! You’re embarrassing me!” Yet, nothing. I continued to tussle her hair and sing. Again, nothing. After a couple of more rounds of “You are My Sunshine”, I finally asked what was up. She turned to me and said, “Mom, I’m practicing ignoring you. The boys are bothering me again and rather than swear this time, I’m going to be classy, ignore them and show them that they can’t bother me no matter how hard they try. Eventually they will give up.” I sat down on the floor next to her, gave her a great big hug and said that I was proud of how she was choosing to handle a very difficult situation. Then she said something that took my breath away, “I know you’re proud of me. I’ve learned all my best moves from you, Mom.” She then turned back to her horses.

 

A teachable moment for both of us. Validation comes in the most unexpected forms, doesn’t it?  


The Metallica Moment

My latest blog for skirt.com about Mom, Metallica, MTV and the moment when she became cool.

My Mom is a classically trained singer and organist.  I grew up listening to her practice for hours the various arias, art songs and master works she was paid to perform around the area.  I tagged along to New York City on occasion when she lessoned with a famed tenor, the cassette tapes to which she still warms up to in the morning.  I was there when she performed at the opera, charity events or concerts. I was also fortunate enough to sing duets with her as well as be in the chorus or small group when she was the soloist. Now with her solo career behind her, she teaches voice at the Lovett School, a private school in Atlanta. She loves to teach. She loves her kids. And after nearly 15 years, many of her “kids” come back to sing with her at a local church in Midtown.  “I sang with Mrs. Soper!”, they say giddily.  I should make up tee shirts or something. They know her as Mrs. Soper, the kind, gentle lady who doesn’t always get the joke the first time you tell it.  A fun-loving, charming yet modest woman, unaware of her enormous talent. What these kids don’t know is what a musical badass my Mom really is and how fortunate they are to have trained under her. And what’s more, she knows it. But like them, I didn’t understand how much my Mom really had to teach me.  I mean, she’s my Mom. Mom’s are annoying and tell you things you don’t want hear like clean your room, don’t date that boy or some day you’re going to have kids just like you! Really Mom? Wait…ok true.

In the 60s, she listened to bands like Jefferson Airplane with its trippy, drug-induced melodies and white rabbit rock and roll. Then there was Joan Baez and Ravi Shankar, two vastly different sounds. There were so many albums in our home, jazz, blues, gospel, classical, rock, and broadway. Any one of these could be playing during the evening. I listened to these records incessantly as a teen trying to figure out my Mom’s musical tastes. I guess I needed to relate to her somehow and music was one thing she and I had in common. She once told me that to truly appreciate music, you have to be willing to get beyond the top layer to really HEAR the complexity or simplicity of the chord progressions and phrasing. The real music is what you don’t hear naturally. The music behind the music.  You have to turn off the filter and hone in on that one note that holds it all together, that repeated phrase that allows you to tie into the next chord, even the dissonance. Just be alone with the music. Well, I thought she was nuts. Who wants to work at listening to music?! And thus, the Metallica moment.  

During the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, Metallica was up for an award with their new single Enter Sandman. They had crossed over into the mainstream with their latest album.  I wasn’t a fan, I was watching for other acts and of course, the fashions. But it was this moment that made me realize how badass my Mom, the musician, the master craftsman, really was not to mention the fact that she was watching MTV with her teenage daughter and enjoying it! As the repetitive opening chords of Enter Sandman began, my Mom stopped talking, turned her head toward the TV and listened.  Something caught her attention. Something in the music.  I’ve seen her do this before. Then without hesitation she said, “I do believe that is a classical guitar rift in there and someone is trained, listen, do you hear that progression? The chords? It’s beautiful. I like this song. They’re really good.”  I was like, WAH? All I heard was noise and the guttural vocals of James Hetfield. But no, my Mom heard music, she heard the classical renderings of a trained musician. It turns out she was right. Cliff Burton, an original member of the band in the 80s, was a classically trained guitarist who eventually turned to jazz and then rock. His classical guitar stylings heavily influenced the band’s sound. How could she pick out that one small layer of music amongst all of drum pounding, bass strumming and heavy baritone vocals? I mean, it’s heavy metal not Mozart! She turned and smiled at me as if to say, see, I’m not nuts. I told you so. Dammit, Mom! I hated when she was right.

I remember telling my friends about the conversation with my Mom the next day. “Your Mom likes Metallica!? That’s totally cool!” was the response I got. I knew they had missed the point of what my Mom was actually trying to tell me.  In one brief moment, my Mom had not only related to me on my level but I in turn began to relate to her on a much deeper level than ever before. A new-found respect for one another was forged that day.  I mean, I always knew she was cool. Wasn’t the Jefferson Airplane album proof of that? 

Life Designed Not Defined

 

My latest blog can be found on skirt.com

http://skirt.com/node/124489 — Life Designed Not Defined

So I’ve seen the whole RHOBH season that dealt with Taylor Armstrong’s struggles with her now deceased husband.  Yes, I watch that crappy show. Why? Because as an intelligent human being with very little time for herself, constantly working, raising two ADHD children, my running, etc, etc, I need to turn my brain off at the end of the day and watch mindless TV. Come on, admit it, you do too. Anyway, back to the crappy show. This season actually struck a chord with me. I could relate to one of the characters.  I wasn’t sure if I should be ashamed or afraid. Taylor was me minus the big lips, Botox and crazy skinny body, oh and the extremely lavish lifestyle with the Bravo paycheck. You see her husband committed suicide and so did mine. He left her with a very small child to raise.  Mine left me with two small children. Taylor’s husband left her with a mound of debt, legal fees and secrets revealed.  My husband left me with the same thing. She is struggling to take back her life and find herself again.  I’ve been there, done that. Let me give you a little background.

My late husband was many things, charming, funny, intelligent, a good dad, a give-you-the-shirt-off-my-back kind of guy. However, he was also very sick: bipolar. I never knew what I was going to wake up to each day.  Would he be lucent? Would he be on a high and accomplish the laundry list of things that needed to be done around the house, at work, with the kids, etc? Would he start yet another project that would be left unfinished in the basement; another brilliant idea half realized? You see, I lived in constant chaos. I was his lover and his caretaker.  I was his verbal punching bag and his therapist. I was trapped. Thankfully my late husband never physically abused me.  He was too kind-hearted.  But when you become trapped or your reality is altered, you can’t see clearly.  You know that you’re living a lie but you try to wrap it up in pretty bows and sugared frosting so people don’t realize what is really going on inside your home.  And then you begin to believe the lie and deny reality because it’s just easier.

I was trying to give my children a “normal” life with a nice home, the mini van and the suburban dream. In reality, our family was falling apart.  My husband had lost his job three times in three years and had been out of work for nearly 10 months. I was working part-time to support the family but also be at home with the children because frankly I couldn’t afford daycare and didn’t trust my husband around the children. He was popping sleeping pills like candy and drinking a 24-pack of beer every two days.  We were bleeding money.  We were losing our home.  Our cars were eventually both repoed.  How did this happen to me?! I came from a wonderful, loving family.  I was a college graduate.  I was organized, efficient and good with money. What the hell was going on here? I was living a BIG lie. I was not a suburban housewife by nature, I hated mini-vans, I didn’t want to live in a big house. This was not the man I married, this was not the life I signed up for! However, I convinced myself I was providing my children with a good home. They had all of the creature comforts that their friends had. They didn’t stick out like sore thumbs in the homogenized world in which we lived. I was breaking my back to make sure our “perfect” life was intact. By the time our marriage had reached its 10thyear, I had completely devolved from what I was, a lover of life, fashion, the city, writing and history to a frumpy, sad, angry, lobotomized version of myself. I was in survival mode, hunkering down, my children under each arm.

New Year’s Eve 2008  My husband promised me 2009 was going to be different.  It was going to be a year of new beginnings.  The end of all of this nonsense. We went to dinner with the kids that evening.  It was full of fun but I noticed my husband was giddier than usual.  He was almost in an euphoric state.  It was troubling and annoying.  I couldn’t get him to focus on anything, like helping me get my 5 year old ADHD son in the car who was running around the parking lot. Once we got home, the kids were bathed and readied for bed.  My husband read them stories, kissed them goodnight and told them he loved them as he always did.  There is no doubt in my mind how much he loved his children. Afterwards we sat on the couch watching Dick Clark.  We rarely talked to one another anymore.  There was nothing to say.  Frankly, by the end of the day, I was too tired to think anymore. The energy it took to keep up with him, the kids and everything he did or didn’t do consumed me.  He retreated to his cave in the basement.  This was his realm. A dark, eery place that gave me the creeps. I didn’t go down there. 

At midnight, I shouted down the basement stairs that I was going to bed and would really like him to join me this time. We didn’t sleep together often. He was a night owl and was up until 3am most evenings. He would make it to bed if he didn’t fall asleep on the couch in the basement.  He promised me he would come to bed soon.  That was the last time I heard his voice. The next morning I woke up alone, furious.  He was always breaking his promises! The night before he had promised the children he would make them pancakes.  Oh no, mister, I thought! You aren’t letting them down again! Storming downstairs I was set to give him hell. It was too late.  He had already taken his life in the night. I found him in the basement. The place I hated; his retreat. No note was left, no apology uttered, no explanation given, just dark silence. 

Over the course of several months, I questioned what I could have done to save him.  I went through all the emotions, anger, grief, denial, but anger was the one that seemed to stick around the longest.  Acceptance was not going to be easy. I blamed him for leaving me with two children to raise, not a dime to my name, a foreclosed house. I blamed him for slowly chipping away at my true self until only the shell of me remained. However, in the midst of all of my anger, I was finding myself again. I was becoming stronger. I lost the 20lbs I had gained in the three tumultuous years leading up to his death. I began to run again. My clothing was revealing the tale I had to tell. My love for all things shoes finally expressing itself again. My way of making lemonade out of the sourest of lemons returning. Laughing all the time. Enjoying life to the fullest. Loving my children the way they were meant to be loved. It was the road to acceptance. The road to letting go. The road that lead me to realize he was not to blame, but was very sick. The road that would eventually lead to me.

I have learned many things over the last three years, this truth being the most important, I can’t live my life for other people, not even my own children. The old adage, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” is so true. I was not going to let his death destroy us. I was determined to be the Rocky of our family and make a triumphant run up those stairs of life, carrying my children on my back all the way up to the top. Counseling, a supportive family, fantastic friends, church, and a positive attitude have allowed me to regain who I was and bring my children into the light with me. And although 2009 was one of the hardest years of my life, it was also the year that brought me back to center. Don’t get me wrong, I am not making light of my late husband’s death. But I can’t change that reality. I chose to respond to his death by finding myself again. Teaching my children life is for the living and to never apologize for who you are. My children are my proudest accomplishment, my greatest creation.

New Year’s Eve 2009 I sat in the mountain cabin my Mom and I had rented watching Dick Clark while the kids slept in the next room. My Dad, who had been my rock throughout the first 6 months following my late husband’s death, passed away suddenly of complications from a stroke in June. Here we were, two widows, mother and daughter. Drinking our wine, we talked of how our lives had changed over the course of the year, she still grieving her partner of 39 years. I told my Mom I was ready to forgive. I was ready to move on to the next chapter in my life. She smiled and nodded, affirming my decision with motherly acceptance. And with that, it was midnight, 2010, another year, the year that set in motion the rest of my life, the year I met my soulmate. In May of 2010 I met the man I would eventually marry 7 months later. I told myself, when we began dating that I was going to let our relationship evolve organically. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be sucked back in to societal rules on how a widow should or shouldn’t behave. I wanted to experience every moment of this new life I was leading. I make no apologies for how fast or slow our relationship developed. It is what it is, pure and simple; love.

New Year’s Eve 2010 I danced with my new husband, Paul, at a local bar. Happy, healthy, healed. A year that saw the completion of my evolution back to self. A year of discoveries and truths revealed. My marriage only three weeks old, I reveled in the friendship I respected, a love I cherished. 

New Year’s Eve 2011 I happily sipped champagne with Paul by my side watching the ball drop with now Ryan Seacrest. He’s no Dick Clark, but life moves on. You can’t help but evolve. Paul always says, the minute you stop evolving, you die. That was true for me for a long time. I stopped evolving, forgot who I was and slowly died inside. But my tragedy doesn’t define me, it designed me. I was given a second chance in life and in love and chose to transform rather than disappear. Now I am living in the city in a small home with my 4-door sedan and loving every moment of my active, vibrant life. I am in the Spring of my life. I am writing again, living simply, a fashionista to the core and enjoying the excitement of making a go of my writing career. My children are happier than they have ever been and have grown to love and accept Paul as their Dad.

So to of all the Taylor Armstrongs out there, grasping for any semblance of themselves, have faith, I was once where you are. An end is just a beginning. Don’t let tragedy, life’s hard knocks, whatever is holding you back from being yourself define you, let it design you. Let it evolve you. Let it bring you into yourself.