My plan for life always included travel

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do 

With your one wild and precious life?” 

~From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver 

As a parent, I’ve decided many matters with an eye toward how my children will judge me not in the moment, but years later. These include: 

Do your chores again because you didn’t do them correctly the first time.  

No, you can’t stay at the party past 11.  

Yes, you must meet weekly with a college-entrance exam tutor your sophomore year.  

Do NOT take a gap year in the middle of college. 

I also took the long-game approach as a child myself when I made many promises to my imagined adult self. The list, much of which I long ago forgot, included buying excellent trick-or-treat candy and high-quality toilet paper (growing up in a house stocked with POM bath tissue caused me to covet the neighbors’ Charmin). 

Along with those purchasing promises, I swore I’d take any child of mine who developed acne to the dermatologist.  Two of my sons took prescription isotretinoin in high school, which cleared their skin like a magic potion. As a result, their teen years were less insufferable than my own. 

Recently I’ve recognized how several, though certainly not all, choices my younger self made have paid off in unanticipated ways. Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy provided immediate benefits when first undertaken in my 20s, to be sure. After 30 years, however, the cumulative impact of both has been remarkable. 

But it was by purposeful intent that I organized my adult life to accommodate travel. 

A retired history teacher from Garfield High School regularly attended the wine tasting events I used to host at World Market. He once told me told me, “Boy, I’ve learned from your column that you sure like to travel.” 

It’s true. My ex-husband used to tell me that without looking at the calendar he knew when it had been about 12 weeks since I’d last left town because I’d get itching to toss the kids in the car and go. (Perhaps this served as training because my three adult sons remain eager travelers.) 

Knowing this about myself, while also understanding that the work I enjoy would never make me rich, I decided to live a low-cost life. I drive my cars until they die and little of what I purchase is new. And the few things that are, are usually deeply discounted. 

Most importantly, I do not spend a lot of money on housing. My monthly payment, including the escrow for insurance and taxes is just under $600 a month. Furthermore, I own and rent the house next to the one I live in. That income mostly covers the mortgages of both homes. 

Gosh, she must live in a tiny house, you may be thinking. No, my house is a three-story comfortable home with roughly 2,000 square feet of living space, a fabulous front porch and cozy backyard.  

Akronites know our city offers an abundance of affordable housing stock — timelessly beautiful homes built with a level of quality few are constructed with today. Still, the cost of my home would double if it was just half a mile to the west or north of where it is. 

My three eldest boys and I moved to the Hall Park Allotment Historic District on the west side, between Highland Square and downtown, in 2003. The neighborhood has a rich diversity of housing and residents. White-collar, blue-collar and cash-economy workers populate the houses of brick and clapboard along with a scattering of apartment buildings. 

That’s how I like it. My inner-city community has few, if any, people who are more concerned about lawns than lives lived. Neighbors on my street call out to one another from open porches that are furnished like outdoor living rooms. 

After two decades in this neighborhood, I’ve never had reason to worry about crime. One year, big multihued pumpkins voluntarily sprouted from my flower bed and filled the front yard. Nobody bothered them and that fall my boys harvested their own jack-o’-lanterns. 

I understand that the money and time necessary to travel as regularly and widely as I do is a privilege few can afford. But just as the decisions that didn’t please my children in the moment paid dividends in the long run, so too has choosing to live modestly helped fulfill several dreams of mine. 

My plan for this one wild and precious life always included travel. It still does.  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 31, 2021.


The horns give it away: My son is a Viking

My 11-year-old son, Leif, is in the midst of an extended, if not permanent, Viking phase. While I encourage his deep dive into our ancestral people, I am eager to see one thing literally fall apart: the horned helmet he’s worn night and day since January 2020.  

More than any of my other children, this son with the Viking name has delved into several long-lasting phases. 

Not even at day camp on the beach separated Leif and his Viking helmet.
Even on the beach with his day camp all summer, Leif remained helmeted

First it was the residents of the Island of Sodor — wooden trains pushed around wooden tracks, over wooden bridges and through wooden tunnels. By the time he was 2, Leif held his Thomas the Tank Engine like a 13-year-old does a first smartphone — all the time. 

Weeks before I gave birth to my fifth child, we went to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. While looking down from a bridge at a duck pond, Leif accidentally dropped his 3-inch train into the murky water below. While the aviary staff scrambled to rescue Thomas, 2-year-old Leif cried at decibel levels commensurate with the horror and grief he felt over his dear train’s fate. 

A few months after he turned 4, Leif tossed Thomas to the curb like yesterday’s losing lottery numbers after watching “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” a documentary about a prehistoric 42-foot snake. Its mind-boggling enormity inspired Leif to learn more about megafauna and soon thereafter he launched into a very long dinosaur phase. 

A year later, three of the four walls of Leif’s bedroom were decorated with dinosaur stickers. He informed me that, starting from wall with his doorway, the beasts were organized in geological order — Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Yep, my kindergartner knew more about paleontology than his college-graduate mum. Pretty cool. 

Less fun was a wee kid regularly correcting my pronunciation of various dinosaur species or taking the Brontosaurus’s very existence from me, “There’s no such thing as a Brontosaurus, just Apatosauruses!” he’d assert whenever I’d call one of his long-necked figures the B-word.  

“Then just where do you think the Flintstones got their Brontosaurus burgers from, huh?” I’d triumphantly counter with adult imperiousness. Leif would roll his eyes and shake his head at my ignorance, and then giggle. 

A parallel, yet complementary, focus, Legos have been like a brick foundation supporting each of Leif’s phases from paleontology onward. The clever Danish company has kits for most things boys find interesting (girls, not so much), and Leif is no exception. His lifetime allowance earnings have largely been spent on interlocking bits of plastic. 

For about nine months, dinosaurs had to share space in Leif’s brain with all things Harry Potter. He read the books, wore ill-fitting graduation gowns and fake glasses and learned to play the John Williams’ theme song from the movies on our piano. (This was a definite improvement after months of him banging away at “The LEGO Movie” theme song, “Everything Is Awesome.”) 

Then, poof, Potter and his Hogwarts companions were gone as suddenly as if someone had cast an avada kedavra spell on them. 

Vikings invaded and conquered Leif’s absolute attention in the middle of his fourth-grade year. 

This is no coincidence. In Waldorf schools, such as the one Leif attends, Vikings are the culture fourth graders study. In a roundabout way, this pedagogical choice is also how Leif came to be called Leif. 

My second son, Hugo, also became obsessed with the Vikings in the fourth grade. Upon learning he would soon have a third brother, 12-year-old Hugo confidently stated, “My other two brothers are alike. This one will be like me and I will raise him in my own image and name him Leif.” 

And so it was. 

Hugo and Leif are bold extroverts with similar personalities. It was Hugo’s old fabric Viking helmet-hat, with a ring of faux-fur trim and soft horns on the sides, that Leif pulled out of the dress-up box just weeks before the COVID pandemic changed everything.  

“I really like your hat,” strangers regularly tell Leif. 

“Don’t encourage him,” I say. “He’s been wearing it for over a year!” 

“Yeah, I’m gonna keep wearing it just to bug her,” chimes Leif, pointing a thumb in my direction.  

Pick your battles.  

The hat has grown dingy (he never washes it) and a little tight on Leif’s head. After two summers hidden from the sun’s kisses, his hair is now resolutely dark.  

I let it go. I can think of far worse obsessions a nearly 12-year-old boy might have than a ratty old hat. It also doesn’t escape me that the Vikings, and by extension the hat, have perhaps helped Leif through the pandemic and the end of his parents’ relationship. 

I figure before he goes to college Leif will crush on someone who will tell him, “I’ll go out with you, sure, but only if you lose that moldering rag on your noggin’.” And just like that it’ll go the way of Thomas the Tank Engine. 

And for all my lighthearted complaints, I know that years after it does, my heart will swell when I see photos of my Viking boy in his helmet. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 17, 2021.


Maturity brings changes in parenting habits

My eldest son, who was born six weeks after my 28th birthday, is now as old as I was when pregnant with him. The inner workings of my body had hijacked my brain that year, compelled me to reproduce and then, once I’d given birth, evaporated. I suddenly could not recall why I’d felt such urgency to start a family before I was 30. 

Partly a reflection of generational changes, along with individual choices, my parents were much younger — 19 and 20 — when they had me, their first child. In comparison, my three eldest sons, all in their 20s, are nowhere close to becoming parents, reflecting yet more generational shifts and personal decisions. 

It’s also possible I messed up my chances of ever becoming a grandparent when I gave birth to my fourth and fifth children at ages 44 and 46. My boys were 16, 13 and 9 when their next sibling, another brother, was born. All were old enough to help out and thus learned just how much work babies require. 

The first several years after the births of my last two children, the house was full of teens, tweens and tots. The big boys became naturals with their younger siblings, tending to them often without direction or even much thought. In fact, I sometimes had to tell my third son to back down and let me do the parenting. 

Those early years I also tried to replicate aspects of the older boys’ childhoods, including summer vacations, schooling and holiday traditions, with my littlest two. I wanted them all to share some collective memories so that the fourth and fifth children would be co-equal siblings with the first three. 

After a few years, I realized these efforts were unnecessary.  

No, the younger children do not have the same relationship with their older brothers as those three do with one another. But all five have a sibling relationship of their own that is equally embraced and secure.  

And when the big boys began heading off to college, one or two always remained in Akron. My eldest graduated from the University of Michigan and moved back home three years before my third son matriculated at Ohio State University. 

The differences between being a mom in my 30s versus my 50s weren’t obvious when my household included young adults. My youngest two children are lucky to have had five people raising them. It was a noisy, full home and mostly a lot of fun. 

But suddenly, just after we’d all hunkered together during the COVID shut down, everything changed. I raise my children to be independent, work hard and chase after their dreams. And by golly, if nothing else, that portion of my parenting has been an overwhelming success. 

The summer of 2020, I separated from my youngest children’s father just as the last of my first three moved far from Akron. My two littles now live with just one adult at a time as their dad and I alternate custodial weeks. 

My energy, or lack thereof, is the primary difference I have observed as an older mom now alone with young children. This is not necessarily bad — Elsa from “Frozen” could come to me for a few lessons on how to let it go. It also means I’m less gung-ho about monitoring the completion of homework and chores.  

I never overbooked my first three kids. Children need downtime and I have always needed to pursue goals beyond parenting. That said, I plan even fewer lessons, sports or activities with my youngest two children, and they generally entertain themselves. At 55 I’m not quite a free-range parent, but I’m also not far from it. 

Other things, however, remain constant: my home is video-game free and we don’t watch TV on school nights. And when my youngest son complains of boredom or won’t leave me alone when I’m working, I give him additional chores — a deterrent as powerful as it ever was. 

I’ve mulled over whether I’m as good a parent to the younger two as I was with the eldest three. I’ve decided it’s a false comparison. I’m a different mother today because I’m a different person than I was 20 years ago.  

While my 30-something self was a more hands-on parent, one approach isn’t necessarily better than the other. I also remind myself that most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were youngest children, which is to say they did well enough. 

Meanwhile, my attentions, however scant, to my bumper-crop kids take some of the pressure off of my eldest three to hurry up and give me grandchildren. For now. 

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 3, 2021.