backpack buddies.

It was the last week of the month of November, and I was at the grocery store. I know it was the third week, because I know that the upcoming Sunday was the first Sunday of the month, which is Backpack Buddy Sunday. It's a program where the church collects food to give to kids at the local elementary school to take home over the weekend, because otherwise the kids may not eat. We live in a pretty nice part of town in the richest country there has ever been, and yet children go hungry.

Zuzu is in the cart. We have this cart cover thing that ties onto the cart so that she licks something with the same germs from our house, rather than the germs from whatever other kid was sitting there last. For the record, I did not buy this thing; it was in a big bag of hand-me-downs from a friend of a friend. In fact, when I pulled it out of the bag, I thought it was a papoose, and I tried to put it on. Then I felt like a failure of a mother because I couldn't figure out how it worked. Finally, I looked at the the tag, and it said "cart cover," and then I felt like an idiot, but not a failure. I say that I did not buy it because it's the sort of germaphobic thing I would have scoffed at. But now that we have it, I do like it, and I use it every time.

I've got my household list, and I've got the Backpack Buddies list. But I'm considering just putting away the second one, because I don't have a job. During the first week of the month of November, I was laid off. Josh picked up more shifts at the restaurant, and I stayed home with the baby and applied for jobs.

I'll tell you a secret: I've never not had the money to do what I wanted. My mother raised me to be frugal. If something is too expensive, I've learned to just not want it. And then there is money to splurge on things that are worth it. So we rarely eat out, but we went to France. All our clothes were bought secondhand, but when the HVAC broke, we just bought a new one, no sweat.

So in terms of the breadwinner losing the source of bread, we were fine. I had severance until the end of the year, and our savings account was healthy. But every expense felt crushing. Not because we couldn't afford it, but because I didn't know how long that would be true. Even though we hadn't been living extravagantly, there was room to trim the fat.

Like the Backpack Buddies.

And there was my well-fed baby in the cart, chewing on the cart cover that someone we didn't even know had freely given us. Her fat cheeks and thighs indicated that she had never missed a meal. It would take a long period of unemployment for that to happen, and we had relatives upon relatives who would never let it happen. Just that week, my in-laws had sent a grocery store gift card. We had less than we did the month before, but we still had so much.

I added some canned peas and beans and corn, some tuna and some soup to the cart, backpack food. My mother taught me to be frugal, but my father taught me to be generous. I find the former easier than the latter, but they often go hand in hand.


lessons in messing.

Dorothy: You know, I've always wanted to teach an honors class, but now that I am, well, the kids are making me feel stupid.
Sophia: Dorothy, I'm gonna tell you something I never told you before. When you were about twelve and we lived in Brooklyn, they called me into the school to tell me you had the highest IQ in the borough.
Rose: That's a coincidence. I was told I had the IQ *of* a burro.

Golden Girls, "Even Grandmas Get the Blues"

Our garbage can is this homemade wooden thing that I picked up at an estate sale several years ago. It was painted white, and I had grand plans to strip the paint and refinish it, restoring the luster of the hidden wood underneath. I got about as far into the project as I usually do; I attempted the first step and then gave up because it was harder than I thought. So now I have a half-stripped, half-painted garbage vessel. I'm hoping it just looks worn. In any case, it fits right in.

At the bottom is a drawer, where one could store garbage bags. I always mean to do so, but somehow they end up under the sink and the drawer ends up empty and forgotten. The baby, who is now crawling, likes to open the drawer by pulling on the handle. This is the only compartment in the whole house she has managed to open, so I guess it's for the best that we didn't store a bunch of suffocation hazards inside. The first time she managed it, I'm sure her little baby heart was filled with pride and wonder, until her little baby fingers were filled with pain because she had closed the drawer on them.

She still likes to play with the drawer, but has learned about ceasing to push when her fingers start to hurt. These are the things that a baby must learn for herself, that no one can teach you. We have accordion doors to the laundry room, and I'm always closing them up when she's playing in there, because they are ripe for pinching. But I know that my precaution doesn't teach her not to put little baby fingers into hinged areas, and that one day, my vigilance will lapse and she'll just have to learn that lesson the hard way.

Since you really can't teach babies anything, it's fun to set up a puzzle for them and watch them figure it out. So I put a measuring cup into the garbage can drawer and closed it up, knowing that she would discover it when she next passed through. She's been scoot/crawling for nearly two months now, but she's honestly not that speedy, because she stops to mess with something every couple of feet. I wasn't there when my husband was a baby, but this seems like the kind of baby he would be: a messer.

The next time she scooted by on her way to pull the kitchen towels off the rack, she paused to open the drawer. Seeing the prize within, she reached in and grasped it (grasping being another thing that babies must learn on their own). Unfortunately, the opening of the drawer was not large enough to relinquish the hand clamped around the cup.

I read one time that raccoon traps work this way - you make a hole in a log and put something shiny inside. The hole has to be big enough for a raccoon paw, but not big enough for the paw clasped around the shiny thing. And then you just stroll up whenever you get around to it, because a raccoon is so dang stupid it'll just stay there with a clenched fist trapped in a log.*

She pulled harder. She cried, but not pinched-finger-cry, just that whiny cry of general frustration that she has picked up in the last month or so. Babies must learn to crawl and grasp. Mamas must learn to let the baby learn, even when she cries.

She dropped the cup, scooted around looking at the drawer from different angles, pulling on it. She reached in to get the cup, failed to get it out, cried. Repeat a few times until finally she had her prize. My baby is smarter than a raccoon. I didn't even teach her that.

* I may have read this in Where the Red Fern Grows, so if it's made up and raccoons are way smarter than that, apologies to all my raccoon readers.



Susanna was having a fussy day. She is mostly a very sweet-natured baby, which I attribute to cod liver oil. Several years ago, my sister told me that to get sweet-natured babies, take cod liver oil when pregnant. Her evidence was her second child, who was all sweetness, as compared to her first, who was more difficult. She's since had four more children, so maybe her advice has changed. As far as scientific experimentation goes, her sample size is far too small. But I really wanted a sweet-natured baby, and the doctors recommend fish oil for brain development anyway. So I took cod liver oil.

I have a sweet-natured baby. We are up to a sample size of three. When I say I attribute it to the oil, it's because I don't want to attribute it to luck. Luck can run out; fish pills can be purchased.

But even babies all loaded up with fish oil in the womb have bad days. She'd had a really rotten day, the kind where I come home from work and have the baby shoved into my arms as my husband is on the way out the door to go buy beer. She'd also started chewing on her hands and was requiring outfit changes due to the drooling. My knowledge of babies is limited, but even I recognized these as teething symptoms. I consulted the new parent's best friend, Dr. Google, to tell me what other symptoms I could check for, and just how long my sweet-natured baby would be replaced by this cranky one.

I didn't learn anything particularly definitive, but one of the symptoms of teething was the baby being "fractious." Most parenting information I'd seen had described periods of baby grumpiness as being fussy or cranky. But whoever was writing the baby articles that day must've been feeling that their English degree was underutilized and decided to educate the masses.

As a result, "fractious" became my new favorite word. It's a good word, one I knew from reading but maybe had never heard in use. Something about that hard 'c' sound in the middle really emphasizes the kind of irritability we're talking about here. It's a step up from plain old "fussy," describing an extended period of unpleasableness.

As for that day when she was fractious, it did not appear to be teeth, though I got a lot of mixed information on how long it takes to actually sprout a tooth. Her first little chomper did appear a few weeks ago. She was fractious one day, and woke up in the night twice in a row. Finally, we a tiny white and pointy thing appeared in her lower gums over the weekend. Its neighbor was not far behind.

Immediately, our nursing relationship was changed. She bit me. It was like when you get to the end and you start playing with your food. Like absentmindedly pushing your food around, except instead of pushing, it's biting, and instead of your food, it's my nipple. I yelped and pulled away. If you look up what to do when your baby gets teeth and bites you, this is exactly what you're supposed to do - take away the snuggling so she knows that biting = no snuggling. I'm not sure why anyone needs to be told to pull away from something that bites you, but it's entirely likely that many parents are masochists. I was on edge for the next couple of days, always scared that I was just about to be bitten. But it hasn't happened since, so I guess she figured it out. Must be the cod liver oil.


happy birthday.

Today is my dad's birthday. He would have been 81.

I was thinking about whether it was still his birthday, whether I should say "Today was" or "Today used to be" but none of that made any sense. Besides, we still refer to February 22 as George Washington's birthday. So, today is my dad's birthday.

It's verbs that have been giving me the most trouble. Today is still his birthday, but he no longer is. He was.

I didn't talk to my dad every day, so it's easy to forget that I won't speak to him again, ever. It's like I'm just in between emails, and in a few days he'll forward me some random thing. He would forward all kinds of stuff, things he found funny or interesting. He used to forward me political emails, but he stopped when I emailed back about one that was particularly inflammatory. Sometimes, he would include me in the middle of a conversation he was having with someone else, which was disorienting. There was a year when I got football scores from my old high school every Saturday morning. Once, I got a summary of the minutes of the latest meeting at the Unitarian church in my hometown, a church I've never associated with in any way. There was no real reason for his forwards, other than he thought I might be interested. Sometimes he would include his own message along with the forward; many times part or all of it would be in all caps.

My dad used to forward me weird emails. This is what people mean when they talk about the finality of death. They mean no more weird email forwards.

It's hard is putting everything in the past tense and realizing that all the things I associate with him are over. I never thought about a person being over before. There were periods in his life that have been over. He taught school for decades and then he was retired for decades. So saying that he was a science teacher is not difficult, because he did not stop being when he stopped teaching. But now everything is stopped. Last month, I might have said "My dad loves seafood." Now: "My dad loved seafood." Not that he stopped loving seafood, he just stopped.

My dad worked and played hard. He was contrary and stubborn, honest and generous. My dad was a scholar. He cooked watery scrambled eggs. He liked to keep animals. My dad never admitted to being wrong. He gave out Klondike bars to visitors. My dad had big ideas. He loved to sing and he did it badly. He drank Miller Lite. He forwarded weird emails. He loved seafood.

I don't like to use euphemisms, like saying that my father "passed." I felt that way before, and I still do, but I understand a bit more why people shrink from the finality of the real word.

My dad died. He did not pass; he is past. Today is his birthday. He would have been 81.


the price of free bbq.

Being the first Friday of the month, today should have been Company Lunch day. We were scheduled to have pizza, and I had my eating pants on. Breastfeeding has turned me into a bottomless pit. They say that you're eating for two when you're pregnant, which is true, but the extra person is like the size of a shrimp. I am still eating for two, but I'm supporting twenty pounds of baby meat now. I am always hungry.

But then Company Lunch was postponed until next week because half of my coworkers were out somewhere or other. However, the office park was sponsoring some kind of tenant appreciation day. They had one of these last year, where they had a few food trucks come in and set up in a parking lot. Last year it had been hot, and I stood in a long line with my coworkers and wished that I had brought my sunglasses. I'd gotten pizza last year, because although there was a BBQ truck, my body and its shrimp passenger were rejecting BBQ at the time.

This year, the setup would be the same - food trucks in a parking lot. They even had the BBQ truck back.

Here's the thing: there's kind of a hurricane going on. Not that it's here. Right now it's off in the Caribbean, whipping palm trees around. It may come whip pine trees around, but they're predicting that it will likely go to the north of us. However, it's been raining for about a week. We've had all the kinds of rain - little bitty stinging rain, big ole fat rain, and rain that seems to come right up from the ground.

One guy went to get himself some BBQ and came back drenched. Now, I love pulled pork BBQ, and the only thing better than pulled pork BBQ is free pulled pork BBQ. But I did not have an umbrella. I used to be the kind of sensible person who kept an umbrella in the car, but it seems like the car umbrella always became sorta mangled and busted after time in the car. I did not have a raincoat or even a hoodie. Do I love free pulled pork BBQ enough to stand in the wind and rain for it?

Somebody said something about ponchos. Inspiration: trash bags.

I went digging in the cabinet under the sink in the break room. Way in the back was a box of 55-gallon industrial strength trash bags. I pulled one out and held it up to my shoulders. Yes, this would do nicely. I cut a hole in the top for my head, and an amused coworker helped cut holes for my arms. The bag was huge; I was protected down to my shins. I grabbed a smaller bag for my hair, and I was ready to go. A couple of people snapped pictures.

So, at this point, I felt very silly. Just in case you know someone who does things like this and you think, Huh, I guess they don't realize that they are ridiculous - this is not the case! But I was committed. I wanted my free pulled pork BBQ, and all I had to do was stand in a hurricane and be ridiculous in front of strangers. It's funny, I had no problem appearing this way in front of my coworkers, who I would actually see in the future. It was the strangers, who I would likely never see again, or if I did, who wouldn't recognize me not wearing garbagewear. And that's dumb, so I was going to do this.

Another coworker looked at me, sighed, and went to get another trash bag. I gleefully helped him with the arm holes. It is always better to be ridiculous with a friend, which is pretty much the basis of my marriage.

We ordered BBQ, then stood in the cold and the rain to wait. The lines were quite short this year. It was not raining too hard, maybe little bitty stinging rain. I remarked that I wished it would rain a little harder to justify my 55-gallon industrial strength wardrobe. The wind picked up and some big ole fat rain came down. That's better. People mostly avoided looking at us, perhaps whispering things like, "trash bag people, 3 'o'clock" to their neighbors. There were some people there who must work at some fancy place, because they were out there in business suits. I guess they don't have Trash Bag Fridays at their office.

We got our free pulled pork BBQ (and ice cream!) and headed back to the office. I hung up my trash bag poncho to dry. I might need it again sometime.


trash collectors.

A lady at church asked for pill bottles. She said they were for The Malawi Project. In Malawi, medicines are shipped in bulk, leaving the local doctors to distribute pills as necessary. But the clinics and the patients don't have anything to put the pills into, and they're often just wrapped up in a torn-off bit of paper. I have a vague idea of how lucky I am, but I never knew I was lucky to even have a small personal container for my medicine.

Collecting what might otherwise be trash is right up my alley. I often find myself saving things without knowing why. I used to save corks for crafts. Not that I was working on any cork crafts, or had any ideas of possible cork crafts I wanted to do, but I was going to be ready if one ever came up. I somehow got a reputation for collecting corks, and other people began giving them to me. I ended up giving them to my nieces, as they are more active crafters than I am. They hot glue them together to make elaborate villages and dolls. This kept happening, where people would give me corks and I would pass them along to my nieces. I finally told the donors to stop it already and grumpily handed over huge bags of corks to my nieces, saying that this was the last shipment, because I am not some kind of cork conduit. Then I found a whole box of the dang things in a closet, which I also sent along to crafty nieces. No really, this is it.

Yet somehow, when I finish a bottle of wine, I find myself tossing the cork into a bowl on the shelf rather than into the trash. I'm not collecting them, I'm just not throwing them away. The fact that other people collected corks to give to me indicates that I am not alone in this impulse.

It's the same with bottle caps. I have a little dish where the caps go, conveniently located next to the bottle opener. Eventually, the little bowl is full, so I pour the caps into a huge punch bowl on top of the cabinet. Now, the punch bowl is almost full, and I don't know what to do with any of it. My nieces using the corks justified saving them, and I'm just waiting for something to come up where I can shower someone in bottle caps, and say, See I knew they would come in handy someday.

I don't take any prescriptions, but I know people who do. My dad took a lot of them. After hearing about The Malawi Project a couple of weeks before he died, I emailed to ask if I could have his old bottles. When I was visiting last weekend for his funeral, my mom handed over a huge box of little bottles, many many more than would have accumulated in the time since I asked.

"Was he already saving these?"


"For what?"


Guess I come by it honestly. How pleased he must have been when I asked for them one day, out of the blue. He knew they would come in handy someday.


meals on wheels.

Last Wednesday, I was making a casserole, a chicken spaghetti recipe I'd been wanting to try for a while, but never gotten around to. It made a lot, and after combining all the ingredients, I was splitting the results into two smaller baking pans. After covering both pans in foil, I put one in the freezer and the other in the fridge. The next day, Josh would bake the latter to be delivered hot to a lady at church who had just had a knee replacement.

When we had the baby, we got on the meal delivery list. Every other day, a smiling Episcopalian would arrive on our doorstep to deliver our dinner. Some of the cooks really went all out and brought us things like salmon or pork tenderloin. There were casseroles, and pasta, and someone brought the fixins for a taco night. Each offering was a glimpse into the kinds of dinners the preparer made for their own families. Some of these people I met for the very first time. Nice to meet you, welcome to my home, here is my new baby, I usually shower daily, thank you for the home-cooked meal.

I felt a bit guilty about receiving so much. We had a freezer full of soups that my in-laws had made us, and we were not so done-in by new parenthood that we couldn't have scrounged up something. I tried to repay each gift with the only thing I had to offer: a baby. Each visitor admired our new arrival, and those who came when she was awake were able to hold her. I felt indebted, so I signed up to be on the mailing list to be notified when other people needed food. I've taken a lasagna to a couple with a new baby and some stuffed peppers to someone going through an illness. There are deliveries for happy occasions and for sad ones.

Friday morning, I had pie for breakfast at my mother's house. The pie had been baked with farm-fresh apples by my mother-in-law, who sent the pie along with a loaf of bakery bread. As we finished our breakfast, someone delivered eight two-liters, a cooler, and a supply of cups. I did not recognize the man, and my mom wasn't entirely sure who he was either, though she thought it was so-and-so's son. The drinks were for that afternoon, when a swarm of relatives would arrive for my father's funeral. My mom would also bring home bags and bags of food leftover from the reception: little sandwiches and cracker trays and chicken fingers and pound cake. Even after the relatives had gone back home, she wouldn't need to cook for days.

Sometimes you are the giver, and sometimes you are the receiver. May I deliver more meals than I receive, Amen.