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This weekend, we went to Beech Bend, a totally worthwhile and awesome amusement/water park.  It has tons of rides, little or no lines, lots of free things (drinks, sunscreen) and more happy memories for my daughters and I than I can count.  Every time we go, we stay from open to close and laugh, talk and enjoy each other.  This weekend, it made me think.  Maybe I feel at home at Beech Bend because it describes me so well.  The lights of carnival or amusement rides, the never-ending music, the beating pulse of energy  that never slows down, the sense of excitement that never stops, the surplus of different and stimulating activities that all seem to be balanced by the cool, refreshing lazy river.  In a lot of ways, it describes who I am very well.

You see,  I never slow down either.  I start very early in the mornings and don’t stop until very late at night. I push myself until, when I finally lay my head on the pillow, I have no more room for thought.  Some people turn to alcohol for a mental escape but, me, I’ve always turned to work. We limit TV to right before bedtime;  instead, we go places and create memories that I hope they will remember as they grow.  It’s all very exciting, and fun.  I do it because I believe play is the medium through which they will remember I love them.  If I actively play, without distractions, then they learn that they are first on my list of priorities.  I wouldn’t change our lifestyle for anything.  I photograph everything, partly due to the irrational but persistent fear that I will die before they are old enough to remember me, and partly because I simply love pictures.  On Facebook alone, I have amassed a collection of 8171 pictures, with another couple thousand stored elsewhere.  When you flip through them, what you see are primarily daily adventures: tea parties, lemonade stands, parks, museums, science centers, trips.  At church, friends will come up to me and ask if I ever take a break.  Not really, no.  Except …

Every day, my girls and I spend time doing “Chatter Chat.”  I let them show off a toy that they are particularly engaged with that day, we talk about what we’ve done that day.  If something is bothering us, we talk about it.  If something has us excited, we talk about it.  We reflect, in other words.  But we do it together.  Sometimes, one of the girls will say, ” let’s just get on the bed and talk, that’s a good idea, isn’t it?”   This is where I learn the most about my girls, and what they are thinking.  It’s our downtime and it’s where we mostly connect.

Doing fun things together creates fun memories… but it doesn’t strengthen bonds or relationships, not by itself.  Relationships have to be nurtured by honesty and communication—even, and perhaps especially, the relationships we keep with our children.  Toward the end of the day, we went to the pool.  We played water volleyball, slid down the slides and ate cereal snacks.  But tonight, before bedtime, my daughter’s hands were hurting from blisters she’d received while at the pool.  My youngest was tired.  We doctored up my oldest’s hands, and curled up on the bed.  My youngest told me that she was proud of herself because she did the water slide, even though she was scared. My oldest talked about how she’s worried that Math is going to be hard this week.  By the time they started to tire of Chatter Chat, we were closer, and stronger, than we had been all day during the fun activities.  Recently, my oldest daughter wanted some alone time and went into her room, closed the door.  She’d been in there for awhile but, when I knocked on her door, didn’t seem inclined to let me in or to come out.  So I got a piece of paper and wrote,  “Can you write me a story?” and slid it under her door.  A few minutes later, the same piece of paper slid back to me, with a couple lines of a newly formed story on it.  I added to it, silently, and slid it back under the door.  This continued for a few minutes until finally she slipped a piece under to me that said, “The end.”  Then she opened the door and came out smiling.  We hadn’t been doing anything spectacular—and yet, we were.  We were listening, and communicating.

Mother Teresa said once, “What can you do to promote world peace?  Go home and love your family.”

It sounds too simple.  It sounds too easy.  And it is so true.  Good families are the blankets under which we hide when we are hurting, or afraid.  Good families are the ones who treat each other kindly, even when they are hurt or confused or angry or tired.  Good families aren’t perfect—often, they are messy.  But they are held together by a loyalty that is stronger than anything else on earth.  When the fighting is over, when the damage has been done, they come together over a good meal because it’s what they do every Christmas. Or they look at the same photograph and start laughing because they each remember the story behind the picture. Good families shelter without choking you; sometimes make you angry by pointing out things in your life they see as dangerous.  I think of them as a big shady tree, one that has firmly planted roots, made strong by storms.  Traditions and memory make up the branches and individual family members, the leaves.  Storms and age may shake a few fragile leaves off the tree but, given time, the family celebrates the birth of a new leaf.  Families are a circle, bonded together, for better or worse, by history, by memory and by choice.  The family tree can be rich and strong, a shelter in the storm… or it can become the storm. The difference is up to us.  Just as a young sapling must be cared for, families must be nurtured with more than food and water.  Allowing our children to be independent is great.  Allowing them to chase their own dreams is a must.  But if we’re not careful,  we can teach them without saying a word that friends are more important than family.  If we don’t stop planning and “parenting” and simply talk to them or ask them what they are thinking, or show respect instead of laughing at something they say, we end living in a house with relative strangers.  A parent should be a parent first but the best parent becomes a friend.  Most of us love our families but it takes concentrated effort after a long day at work to show that love to them, to make it so much a part of them they can’t fathom to question it.  If we succeed, though, if our children know we love them because we make time to talk to them, to show an interest in what they enjoy, to respect their questions and take them seriously, to give them our time as much as we give them all the educational and enrichment programs we can afford, then they become like the tree–strong and rich.  They also become able to then branch out and offer love and affection and kindness to the people their lives introduce them to.  Love spreads, just as Mother Teresa implied.  It may be hard, in this day and age, to counter the self-esteem depleting effects of commercialism and advertising; maybe it’s harder today to counter the pull of technology than it used to be.  But it’s not impossible.

Planning and scheduling enrichment programs for our children won’t help unless we also schedule in downtime, time where we ignore phones, television and video games and focus instead on finding out what’s going on inside their minds.  Paying for the best education won’t help our children succeed if we don’t take the time to cuddle or to welcome the midnight, sleepy-eyed child into the comfort of our room.  Did you know that a baby can recognize his mother’s voice from inside the womb?  This speaks to me of a nearly innate desire to be connected to those we should be closet to.  I can look the world over for a father, I can have male role models, but the void still remains because I know that, however precious my relationship may be with those male mentors, they are not my father.  In contrast, I can have wonderful female friends and mentors but, no matter how impressive they may be or how much I care for them, they can never replace the very close relationship I have with my mom.

Sometimes, after all the fun and exciting things we do, the favorite part of my day is when I’m cooking and look around the corner to see them snuggled together in the recliner, reading a book and giggling.  Sometimes the best part is watching them sleep.  Sometimes the best part is when we wake up and lounge around in the bed for a few minutes longer than we need to, talking about what we dreamed about and what we’ve got planned for the day. Sometimes the best part is when we color together.  Sometimes it’s when we’ve all got our DS’s and end up laughing about how Quarter, the day in one of our Nintendo Dogs game, wins another Championship level.  Sometimes it’s laying on the floor and flying them in the air, or playing blocks.  A lot of times, it’s Chatter Chat.  When they help me cook in the kitchen and my perfect meal ends up charcoal or a little pink, or my kitchen floor looks like I swept it with flour, bonds are being strengthened.

Quiet time at home, even if it involves a little boredom, is sometimes exactly what a family needs because it forces them to talk to each other. Alight, my youngest daughter, loves being tickled.  She will regularly come and ask me for a “ticklefest” — loooooong moments spent tickling that girl until she cannot breathe. Breathe isn’t so much into tickling sessions, but she will often come dressed in her “Little House” dress and basket of eggs, wanting me to play “Old Time” with her.  She says she’s really from the 1700s.  She’ll turn off all the lights because they didn’t have electricity back then.  In a lot of ways, she’s much older than she really is and yet she knows very little about pop culture so, in some ways, she’s not.  Between the two of them lay my world.

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I was asked recently if I think I’m “losing” myself in them because, frankly, they’re all I really think about.  Teaching, scheduling and playing make up most of my days.  I have no idea what I would do with myself if they weren’t here.  And honestly, I don’t really care if I am “losing” myself because I want so much for them to grow into women who hold a map of memories that will always lead them back to the shade tree.  I want them to know without a doubt that I love them more than I love organization or rules or writing or my phone or anything else.  I want them to know that their happiness and well-being are important.  And I don’t want it just for today.  I want it because I know that what we do today helps determine how strong we will be tomorrow.  If their childhood holds support and plenty of affection and time spent improving communication then, when they are older and I am less involved in their lives, they will still know how to come to me when they need to.  They will still want to.

I’m all about having fun.  It lets me make the most of every day.  And it hopefully is producing a full and happy childhood for my girls.  But what most completes our lives are the snuggles, the feel of tiny and soft hands inside mine, the smell of baby everywhere and hearing their voices—whether they be talking, laughing, crying or yelling.  What’s more important than doing all the things we do is feeling loved and secured—-and that happens only through trust, which only forms through communication.  At the end of the day, I don’t remember who went down what slide, or how high they swing.  What I remember is tying their untied laces and what my daughter said about make-up or Halloween.  What I remember the most are the questions they ask and the innocence of the thoughts they share.  I don’t remember which puppet was used to do what, but I remember that my daughter said, “Sunscreen and pictures–that’s your deal.”  I don’t remember how many questions she did on her school work but I remember the look on her face when the lightbulb went off, or she could read the road signs by herself.  I get tired, too, and sometimes when the girls ask for the umpteenth time the same question, the first response to my lips isn’t patient.  But then I stop and remember that what I say matters….I have no idea which careless word they will remember fifteen years from now.  What I do know is that I want our family to be the tree that can bend without breaking, the one to which we all run, now and always.

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