Posts Tagged With: parenting

Just the Haircut Stuff

Riley and I are home alone on a warm Friday afternoon.  We’re not very frisky at the end of the week, both of us happy to curl up with a book or a movie.  But the weather is so lovely, and the espaliered fruit trees I’ve let grow wild are in need of pruning.  We go outside before the day fades and gather our tools.

Clippers in hand, Riley cuts back the dead hydrangea blooms that wintered on the bush.  Up on a ladder, I prune the cherries and then the apple trees, throwing the boughs into a pile in the yard.  Not too far into our work, as the air cools, we decide what we really need is a fire.  Our yard is too small for a proper burn barrel, but we’ve got a portable fire pit, so we haul that out, as well as the pieces of the Christmas tree Owen cut and stacked a few months ago.  Riley goes inside to get the matches, and I realize I’m excited it’s just the two of us, about to share an important rite of passage – a girl learning to build a fire.  We love our boys, but their presence changes the time.

I’ve just finished reading a book with a daunting title by Dr. Leonard Sax:  Girls on the Edge:  The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls–Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins.  I don’t feast on a regular diet of self-helpish books, but this one was recommended by a friend, and it was worth the read.  Sax’s perspective has made me think even more concertedly about what and how we teach girls on purpose and through example.  A girl emerging from girlhood with a sense of who she is and a confidence in that identity makes a perilous journey, and not enough of us are paying attention in the right ways, Sax suggests, especially in a culture that pushes girls to be objectified, consumed, subservient.

How well John and I buffer Riley from being awash in pursuits of pop culture and also guide her toward survival and resistance keeps me up some nights.  Most days I think we’re doing okay, even if she does know every stinking lyric to Taylor Swift’s songs.  I have to admit, they’re catchy, but they reek of teen angst; it’s disconcerting to catch my daughter, gripping her hairbrush like a microphone, sing-shouting “We are never ever ever getting back together” to herself in the bathroom mirror with just the right amount of venom.

While she’s inside the house, it occurs to me Riley’s nine already.  Much older than I was when I learned to make a fire.  What am I so busy doing we can’t make time for this?  And if I’ve shanked teaching her this elemental skill, what else am I shanking?

But she knows a lot, I discover.  She’s been reading The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, and also paying attention.  Close attention.

“I’m a good watcher,” she says.  She builds a teepee of dried leaves and kindling she’s culled from the wood pile.  She chooses a good fire-poking stick from the cherry boughs I’ve hacked.  We talk about safety and how to feed a fire.  She nods and tells me she’s got it; she knows what to do.  I show her how to strike a match, and then hand her the matches and let her begin, enjoying her delight at this responsibility.  She’s brought her clippers and found a small saw, and she uses both to manage the size of her fuel.  Pulling a chair close to the heat, she’s a serious fire tender, watching the flames with intent.  She feeds the fire while I finish pruning, our conversation across the yard meandering and associative.  We walk about the stars and planets, what animals we’ll have on our imaginary ranch, how she reached her record of 213 jumps in a row on a pogo stick.

cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms

Dark falls around us, but we don’t go inside.  She wants to know if the green limbs of the cherries and apples will burn, so she conducts an experiment and learns wet boughs kill the fire and the tinder-dry Christmas tree creates a fire so high it makes its own wind.  She wonders whether the cuttings will grow if we stick them directly into dirt, so we choose a few to experiment with in that way, and a few others to bring inside and force bloom.  “What does that mean?” she asks me.

“It’s a trick,” I say.  “The plant is fooled that it’s spring, so it lets the blossoms come out of the buds early.”  As I form my answer, it occurs to me we could just as easily be talking about the journey of girls today, and the way culture sexualizes them, tricking them into acting like adults before they know what that means emotionally.  The loud metaphor makes me stop for a minute and follow the breadcrumbs.  I watch Riley choose stems and put them into an old metal pitcher we use as a vase.

I’m sick at heart at the thought of her forced to bloom out of her magical world by pressure to become a woman too early.  Growing up will come for her eventually, and she’ll lose interest in climbing trees and playing her imaginary dragon games, in challenging herself for the next pogo stick record and building seven room forts out of blankets and pillows in the family room.  Innocence won’t last, is already leaving, I know, but I send up a please to the trees that Riley’s safe passage into her pre-teens also means she holds onto the person she’s becoming, and not a version of the girl she thinks she ought to be.

We cut red currant and Daphne boughs to bring inside as well, because if a few stems are good, more are better, and we’re talking about how the whole house will be full of spring. Maybe it’s the jasmine-lemon scent of the Daphne that has bloomed already, on its own time, or my penchant for drama fueled by remembering a few of Sax’s less savory anecdotes about girls gone wild, meant to be cautionary tales.  Down the Rabbit Hole I go, imagining a version of Riley that trawls the mall and has Bieber Fever, hinges her fashion choices around her five pairs of Ugs and gives up sports for cheerleading.  Then there’s a boyfriend who’s too old for her with some gold chains and a red Mustang, and she fails out of school and is having sex in the back of a car, and she has a couple of piercings and maybe there’s some pole dancing, and I’m working myself into a vicious panic and feeling like I need a beer or maybe six, and I know my visions suffer under the pathetic weight of being cliché and cast in a low-budget-made-for-television-glow, and I’m supposed to be good at narrative but I can’t even make a scary-daughter-dystopia that’s interesting.

And how did I get here from being excited about teaching her to build a fire? Which I didn’t do anyway because she already knows how.

Riley finishes her arrangements of cherry boughs in the vase and turns to me.  “So.  It’s kind of like cheating and being the boss of nature,” she says.  “You wouldn’t want to cut too much, though.  Just the haircut stuff.”

Clever girl.  I’m swimming back to the surface, where I send my B-Rate-Riley production packing and I nod, thinking about a week from now, when all the stems we bring inside will be in full bloom, a reminder of building a fire, and the way my girl knows herself so well already.  “Yes,” I say.  “Just the haircut stuff is perfect.”

red currant

red currant

Categories: books, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

just feel the road

I was only about twelve when my Dad taught me to drive.  We kept it from my mother for a few years, an easy thing to do since most of those early miles were on dirt roads in Georgia, travelled so Dad and I could troll the woods for firewood in later summer and fall.  Going woodin’, we called it. Of his children, four of them girls, I was the oldest.  For a long time I think he figured there would be no son; I was interested in learning to do what I saw boys doing, and Dad wanted to teach someone.  So I learned to play baseball, chop wood, work on cars, and drive our enormous Chevy truck.

Dad was probably often nervous, though there was never any real evidence of panic.  That first year, I wasn’t tall enough to see over the steering wheel.  I sometimes sat on a phone book if the road was narrow, and I recall always gripping the wheel so hard my hands would remember that clutched position for an hour afterward.  “Just feel the road,” he’d say, and I had no idea what that meant.  “Keep that strip along the center of the hood lined up with the right shoulder.” I’d nod and try and focus on everything at once, which was hard.  Dad sat in the passenger seat, gesturing out the window with the beer he opened as soon as I took the wheel, wondering aloud how much wood we’d need to get through winter.

If the truck got too close to the edge of the road, he’d point me away from that spot with his beer –“You don’t want to pulse the gas pedal.  Steady and mellow.  That’s the way.” –then go on talking.  Writing this makes me smile and shake my head all at once.  Those were some of the best times I had with my father.  Inside the truck’s cab we shared a sense of joint purpose and camaraderie; our mission was to get firewood, but we were working at other things, too, namely how in the hell to speak each other’s language.  I wasn’t a handful of a kid, but I was their first teenager, and that was foreign territory for my parents.  In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for the passenger to drink in the car, nor for kids to drive early.  Looking back, what was uncommon was for this to be a father-daughter ritual.

I didn’t think too much about it when I was a teen, but now that I’m a parent, living in an age full of entitled kids, hyper-vigilant parents, and too many friends who’ve died in car accidents where drinking and driving was the cause, I can’t help but see the past through a new lens.  To be sure, I won’t duplicate this driving school method with my own kids.   Still, as a teenager, I was aware of the gift I’d been given, and how being able to operate a vehicle would unfold more freedoms if I did a good job and proved I could keep calm and carry on.

Of course, I didn’t always make good choices.  Who does?  The blessing and the curse of those years is an inability to see the world very clearly.  Early on in my driving career I scratched the whole left flank of a friend’s parents’ car against their garden hose reel handle.  I wasn’t supposed to be driving that car, which is another story I’m not prepared to tell – I’m not sure I even had a license yet.  My parents made me write a formal apology, deliver it in person, and pay for a new paint job.  Another time I let the car my sisters and I shared run out of oil and it threw a rod, ruining the engine.  My punishment that time was to spend weekends with Dad rebuilding the engine.

Now I’m the parent of a teenager, and the question of driving is beginning to occupy more space in our family conversations.  For many years, I imagined I’d be the parent who taught her kids to drive early, like Dad taught me, minus the beer drinking and the chainsaw.  But I’m thinking I’m not that cool after all.  Like a lot of boys, my son Owen’s a fidgeter, a disrupter, and full of restless energy that gets him into trouble too much of the time.  He’s book smart but not that street smart, despite our (mostly) patient efforts to help him build this toolbox.

Me:                  Why did you shoot your sister in the eye with a rubber band at point-blank range?

Owen:             I don’t know.

Me:                  Please help me understand why you opened the car door while I was driving on the freeway.

Owen:             I’m not sure.  I didn’t fall out, though.

Me:                  Help me see why you were hitting golf balls down the alley toward the neighbors’ houses.

Owen:             I don’t know.  But I didn’t hit any windows.

Me:                  You understand, right, when you respond in a nasty way to a group text that more than one

person can see it?

Owen:             Wait.  That was a group text? 

I don’t want to air all of our dirty family laundry (what would I write about?), but these sorts of episodes make me really wonder about letting Owen get behind the wheel of a car, even if I’m also there, not drinking beer while gently guiding him toward good driving and decision-making skills.

To wit.  This past Thanksgiving, when part of my extended family gathered at my aunt and uncle’s farm.  On this farm they have a golf cart, which they use as a utility vehicle to get my grandmother out of the house so she can see the property and breathe fresh air.  The kids believe this to be a false use for the cart – they spend hours driving it.  Picture a golf cart packed with kids.  Owen at the wheel because he’s usually the oldest cousin there.  There’s much careening down the slope of the west pasture too fast.  Dogs chase behind because kids are fun and will feed them treats they’re not supposed to have.  Kids hang off the sides of the cart singing, screaming and frequently falling off.  Often there’s crying and fighting.  They get back on and don’t tell their parents, because then the golf cart would be put into the barn on time-out.

My dog Zora loves the golf cart almost as much as she loves cats and squirrels.  She especially loves the wheels of the golf cart, which she attacks while making ferocious attack-dog noises.  I’ve trained her not to do this, so when I drive the cart she either gets in with me or runs alongside.  But Owen thinks Zora’s frantic, yipping game is fun, and so he encourages her.

Dogs, in the end, no matter how smart they are, are not that smart when they’re on the chase.  Boys I’ve given birth to, in the end, no matter how smart they are, are not that smart when they’re in a chasing game.  You can see where this is going.

Just before Thanksgiving dinner the kids came running back to the house to report that Owen had run the dog over with the golf cart.  We all went outside, my Dad included, who turned to me to say, “You don’t let him drive the car yet, do you?” Owen was walking up the hill carrying the dog.  He put her down and she stood up, though she kept licking at her backside.

Me:                  Please help me understand why you let her chase the wheel.  We’ve talked about that a lot.

Owen:             Well.  She wanted to.  Do you think she’ll be okay? I think she got stuck under the axle.

The next day, Zora couldn’t walk.  So we spent Black Friday at the vet shopping for x-rays that told us there were no broken bones or internal bleeding.  She’s hopped up on pain meds, and she’s going to be fine, though we’re only just taking short walks.

John and I decided a reasonable consequence for Owen was no more golf cart privileges at the farm.  At least for now.  It’ll sting as an outcome, because the next cousin in line is only ten.  She’ll be delighted to be the new chief driver, though.  Owen’s also had to write me a check out of his savings account to pay the vet bill, which is doubly painful because that money is meant for his future driving self.

Owen:             But how will I have enough money to pay for car insurance when I need it?

Me:                  (Response not fit to print)

As for Owen’s official driver’s training, I’m thinking I’ll import my Dad to do the job.  As long as he saves the beer for after.

Categories: dogs, writing | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

bird mama

I got chickens last spring, my first foray in many years into pets that live outside.  We’ve had a series of critters my kids have chosen, none of which we have now:  frogs, fish, geckos, hermit crabs, and guinea pigs (whom I sent to “live in the country” when it became my job and not my daughter’s to take care of them). I vaguely remember having hens when I was a kid.  I was in charge of mowing our massive lawn, and one of my younger sisters raised our brood from chicks.  She doesn’t remember it at all fondly.  They’d chase her around the coop and peck her legs when she went in to feed them.  In her haste to escape, she’d often drop the eggs and come back to house with nothing.  One day our dog Freddie killed them when someone left the coop door open.  We found our whole flock later that evening, scattered about in our back field with their necks broken.  That was the end of that.  My sister was delighted and switched to cleaning bathrooms.

The kids thought it was funny I was choosing our next pets.  Hours were spent discussing breeds, considering the coop and where it should live in the yard, and whether our dog Zora would create a terrible massacre before we could train her to co-exist with her new pals.  As is his way, my husband John entertained my scheme, listened to some of the details, and reminded me that he had all the hobbies he’d like to have.

“I’m glad you’re excited,” John said.  “It’s fun to watch.  This sounds like less mountain biking for me, sooooo…better not count me in.” His standard response.

I’m not that great a carpenter (read:  I have no spatial awareness and am dangerous with power tools), so I found a guy in a neighboring town who builds coops.  In a sunny corner in the yard I put together the one I’d chosen.  From the feed store I got three Barred Plymouth Rock chicks and set them up in a bin with a growlight in the garage.  So began my chicken mothering.

We were all smitten (even John; he always comes around).  Several times a day, we checked on them, picked them up, and sang to them while Zora stood quivering and sniffing, drooling through the old screen window we’d put over the top of their box.  The kids were obsessed with reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  We named our girls Marianne, Ginger and Mrs. Howell.

When they were ready, I let them run around the back yard each day.  They learned to come when I whistled, eat out of my daughter’s hand, and dig for worms in the garden.  Early on, they  imprinted me as their mama.  I loved how they followed me, running in that hilarious, wingless way chickens do, all feet and swaying necks.  With a husband who’s grown weary of my endless projects (he says I have project A.D.H.D.), and one teen boy in the house who thinks I’m the village idiot half the time and spends the other half asking me why girls are so lame, it felt good to have creatures so thrilled about my existence.  These chickens wanted to be in my pocket.  It was sweet.  Still, despite my chicken love, I was impatient.  These girls were meant to be working pets.  Free range poopers and layers who would make miracles happen in my garden. I couldn’t wait for them to be old enough to lay eggs.

We have two back entrances to our house, both of which have a sliding glass door.  The birds spent enough time chasing after me to see that I’d disappear past these doors and be gone.  Summer teenagers by this time, my disappearance was distressing to them.  Also they were spoiled, receiving kitchen scraps anytime someone came outside.  They began to lurk  just outside the sliders, running back and forth, shitting up a storm and pecking at the glass.  Calling to me.

At first I was tickled.  Then the kids and their friends would step in chicken poop and track it in.  Or we’d forget to spray off the patio and later find truffles of chicken shit baked onto the stones.  This was putting a serious damper on the free range thing.  John was cheesed; to his credit he didn’t say anything and just went biking.  I did my best to take my medicine, remind myself I’d chosen this hobby, and be good about cleaning up after them.

Then autumn and the rains came.  One of our girls, Mrs. Howell, was decidedly the group’s alpha and much bigger than the other two.  She was the boss, and being the boss meant you squatted on the patio out of the rain, pecking at the glass, laying big chicken shits and terrorizing the kids for kitchen scraps.  It was too rainy to do much mountain biking.  “You have to do something,” John said.   The girls needed to be contained.  They needed more space.  I sweet-talked my family into helping me build (read:  I held the tools) a covered chicken run, very chic and inviting, along the side yard.  We’d allow them out if we were in the yard working so we could monitor them.  No more running the shit gauntlet on the patio.  Problem solved.

I waited for them to lay eggs, listening every day for tell-tale signs inside the coop.  In the beginning, the sound of a young hen laying eggs is pretty dramatic.  She wants everyone to know about it.  Our girls were making all the noises, but with no product.  Mrs. Howell was particularly vocal, her pre-pubescent call something between that egg-laying noise, a leaf blower and a honking goose.  I couldn’t understand what the hold up was.

Our neighbors down the street have chickens.  All summer and most of the fall I’d heard their rooster each morning, which I personally found charming, though I wondered how many other neighbors had complained.  Because we live within town limits, we’re only allowed to have hens.  One day it was quiet.  I caught Maggie in her front yard digging up her grass to put in blueberry bushes.

“What happened to your rooster?”

“Um.  That wasn’t a rooster.”

I was confused.  I couldn’t figure out why she was lying.  It really had been a rooster.  Every day.  At dawn.  And sometimes in the night.

“Wait.  What?”

“She was an old hen who didn’t lay anymore and thought she was a rooster.  She’s in the freezer.”

Clearly, Mrs. Howell was on the same trajectory, only she’d never gone through years of egg-laying.  I’d gotten a dud, a hen who thought she was a rooster.  Except she was starting to look like a rooster, too.  She was beautiful and she knew it.  My friends with chickens told me I was just being dramatic.

“You hardly ever get a rooster from the feed store,” they said.  “They’re so good at sexing chicks now.  Don’t be so impatient.”

I waited.  I’m very bad at waiting.

By late fall, Mrs. Howell was spending all her time calling out to the world.  Bullying Marianne and Ginger.  Cock-a-doodle-dooing at all hours.  Not just at dawn, though there was plenty of that.  One night just before Halloween, she was up all night crying out to the moon on the half hour about her gorgeous self.

John rolled over, wide awake, and said to me.  “THAT is a man.  You have to get rid of it.

“What if we keep her and use her to have chicks?”

“Jesus.  No more pets.  You started this, now you have to deal with it before the neighbors get pissed.”

“But Maggie had a rooster all summer and no one complained.”

Radio silence.

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Make some soup.”

He was right.  I had to do something, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.  Him.  She was too impressive a specimen.  Plus, I’d raised her up from that fragile youth, and she’d survived Zora, who by this time had gotten into trouble enough times over the chickens that she was over it.  They could be out in the yard with her and she’d just lie down and watch them scratch for bugs.

My friend Jan had fifty chickens in the country, so I arranged with her to exchange Mrs. Howell for one of her laying hens.  John and I loaded Mrs. Howell up in the old guinea pig cage (the last time I’d used it had been to send those rodents off into the wilderness).  It wasn’t quite tall enough and she had to squat, feathers sticking up through the bars.  She was very indignant and managed to shit several times in the half hour drive and smear it around the cage.

At Jan’s, we released her into one of the runs alone.  It was muddy.  It was raining. It was roofless.  Mrs. Howell stood there, shifting her bird feet to keep them out of the mud, blinking at us indignantly.  “He’s such a city slicker,” Jan said.  “Doesn’t want to get dirty.  You didn’t  keep that thing inside, did you?”

“Well.  Not really.”  I thought about the gravel and sand we’d put in our run to make it easier to clean, to keep the mud down, to exfoliate their feet.  I kept all that to myself.

We brought our new hen, Rainier, home and she fit right in.  She’d just molted.  Her bottom was bald and red, her feathers matted and muddy.  She’d never been outside a fenced run before, so we had a good time watching her taste freedom in the grass.  She’s not quite as smart as the others, but she’s sweeter in temperament.  Marianne and Ginger have taught her how to break into the veggie garden and get the good stuff.  She taught them how to lay eggs, which they all did within four days of Rainier’s arrival and have continued to do like champs ever since, though somehow, Rainier’s eggs are twice the size even though she’s no bigger than the girls.

Blessedly, Rainier doesn’t much care about being on the patio.  There aren’t any good worms there.  But while Marianne and Ginger have decided I’m only good for snacks, Rainier follows me wherever I go in the yard, sometimes running to keep up.  She’ll stand close enough so that her feathers rub along my leg, which I accept to be the chicken version of a cuddle.  Her tiny head canted to one side, she blinks up at me and emits a throaty chicken purr.  I know it’s crazy, but that bird wants to tell me something.  Something heartfelt and deep.

The kind of thing a kid can only tell its mother.

Categories: chickens | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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