Friday, December 7, 2012

RACK-ing Away We Go.

Friends, I am happy to report that our Random Acts of Christmas Kindness 2012 has been, so far, a success.

I have doubted whether or not we would be able to keep up the momentum or the ideas flowing, and although some days are more hectic than others, the shorties ask me every day, "So. What's our Act of Kindness going to be today?"

Knock me over with a feather.

Now, before you all go thinking that I'm trying to paint this as a Norman Rockwell picture, and that I am trying to make you believe that my kids are perfect, little angels, I will have you know that I am not saying any such thing. However, for about 15 minutes to a half hour every day, I get a "kindness respite" from all the fighting, whining and complaining. A kindness respite from our usual busy day. A kindness respite from the status quo. For this short amount of time every day we are all engaged in nothing else but promoting a little kindness in the world.

And friends? It is a wonderful thing. 

The kids learned the meaning of the word, "covert" as we laid in wait until our local Redbox machines were free from prying eyes as we ran over with bags of microwave popcorn with our RACK note taped to the front and clear shipping tape. It became a series of hilarious drive-bys as the tires of our black Honda Odyssey minivan screeched to a stop at the curb in front of drug store or grocery store, we spotted our Redbox target and I shouted as the side doors slid open, "OUT! OUT! EVERYBODY OUT! NO ONE IS AT THIS ONE! MAKE IT QUICK!"


Then there was the day that I was on Facebook and one of my college friends, Amye, posted a link about how she and her kids were going to write letters to our brave military servicemen and veterans. The program is called, "Holiday Mail for Heroes".

A beautiful idea indeed. Don't mind if we do.

I spoke to the shorties about bravery and sacrifice as my husband and I often do when we speak to them about the United States military, and how we should never, ever take the people that protect our country and our freedoms for granted. I gave them an example about what to write when I told them what I was writing in my letter. Their letters were sweet and innocent, and somewhat hilarious in a way that only kids can write, but I won't share them, as those thoughts are their own, and those thoughts are private. However, I did snap a picture of the outside of the envelope in case you are interested in the address and would like to write a letter of your own.


Another day we decided to pay a visit to our local fire station to thank a few of the firefighters in person for the work they do to keep us safe. The kids decided that we should bring them a dozen of these donuts. 


I threw in four more - one for each of them - because surprisingly, they did not whine and beg me to buy them one too. NOT whining is rewarded with a snowman donut. 

As we pulled up to the fire station, I realized I had a bit of a nervous pit in my stomach as my kids pummeled me with questions like, "Mommmmmm! What do we say? Do we just hand them the donuts and run?" 

"We're just going to thank them for all they do. I'll do the talking, and if you feel like saying something just do it, okay?"

A covert act of kindness is one thing, but this would be the first time we would be walking up to random strangers basically all, "Yo. Thanks for choosing such a dangerous line of work and running into burning buildings and showing up at car accidents to save the lives of total strangers. You're awesome, and you're a hero. Now take these donuts."

Well, maybe that wasn't my exact script, but that's how it was beginning to sound in my head.

We walked through the front doors of the fire station after school that day, and we were immediately greeted by an older woman with a smile and a, "Can I help you with something?"

All four kids stood behind me as I held a box of a dozen Krispy Kremes and I started out by saying, "Um...yes. Our family is practicing Random Acts of Christmas Kindness this holiday season, and we decided to come today and thank the firefighters who keep us safe every day."

Then I stopped and waited for her reaction for what seemed like minutes, but was actually only about 3 seconds. 

Her smile grew larger and she threw her hands up and said, "Really?! Well aren't you all the sweetest things?!? I love that! I just LOVE that!"

I started to hand her the box of donuts, but she said, "Oh NO! You are going to come back to meet the firefighters! I want them to see this!" as she started walking down a hallway and waved for us to follow. We followed and she called their names and couldn't seem to find anyone, and finally took us all back to their living quarters, giving us a tour along the way. She explained that a few medics had just gone out on a call, but we finally found a few of the men back there, and she introduced us. They had just finished their workout, and admittedly I felt a bit foolish standing there handing three sweating men a dozen, fattening donuts. 

But it's the thought that counts, right?

I said to the men as I handed one of them the box of donuts, "Hi! My kids and I are trying to spread some spirit this holiday season, and we wanted to thank you, especially, for keeping our community safe!"

They were grateful, but very humble as they all said something like, "Thank you, but it's nothing. It's just our job."

Humble bravery at its finest, friends.

We chatted with them some more, and they took the kids around the fire station and told them they could climb in the trucks.


And what kid doesn't love to climb in a big, red fire truck? 

I've yet to meet one that doesn't.

As we left, I thanked them again and joked with them that I hoped I would never meet them again - at least in a professional capacity. 

The next day, the shorties were less than thrilled, after their fire station experience, that we would be putting money in Salvation Army red kettles. But I reminded them that if everyone put even just a little bit of pocket change into a bucket, just imagine the result. 

They could not imagine the result. "This is boooooring," they whined.

So I went to the Salvation Army's website after our "boring" money drop, and I signed up for our family to work a shift at a red kettle, ringing a bell and collecting money. The application encourages people to sing, dance, play an instrument or use their talents to collect money.

Oh. My. Friends. We got this. We have SO got this.

We might be taking our kitchen dance party to the streets, and adding a bell, and kettle, and Christmas music. Jingle bells and Santa hats WILL be involved. 

I am giddy at the thought.

After I specified the days and times we could work a shift, "Our family would love the opportunity to ring a bell for your Red Kettle campaign. We would sing Christmas carols and spread Christmas cheer."

And we might just bust out some sweet dance moves. 

I will keep you posted.

The next day, I read on Facebook that our local police department was collecting new, unwrapped toys for the United States Marines' annual "Toys for Tots" campaign. I told the shorties that we would be going to Target after school that day, and I gave them each a budget for a toy that they could choose. I reminded them that this toy would be GIVEN AWAY. 

A few years ago, when the shorties were much younger and I was still drilling the idea of CHARITY into their little minds, I plucked four tags of four children off the giving tree at our church and I took my four shorties to the store to pick out a toy for these children. I imagined us happily walking the aisles, picking out toys for these children. My daughter was a baby, and my third son was just a toddler, so I picked out their items, but I let my older two boys pick out the toys for the other two. I was mortified as crying and whining ensued, and shouts of, "NO. FAIR!!!! These kids get all these cool toys and we are getting NOTHING today! NO FAIR!!!!" Temper tantrums followed these rants. 

At that moment, in a random aisle at Target, I felt like a failure as a parent. I felt like I was raising entitled brats who cared about nothing and no one but themselves. 

And I let them hear it, standing there, in a random aisle at Target. I got in their little red, crying punk faces and I wagged my finger and lectured to them about the importance of helping others. I lectured about how these kids might not even have homes to live in. I lectured about how to some children, this might be one of their only presents this year. I lectured about how they have NO idea about how good they have really have it. Oh, friends, I lectured them good. Then I grabbed a few toys, paid for them, and then grabbed my punky, now-quiet shorties and I got the heck out of there. 

But that was years ago. And we have made progress.

So when I announced the other day that we would each be buying a toy for the "Toys for Tots" toy drive, my announcement was met with shouts like, "Fun!" and "Cool!" I quietly said to myself that we've come a long way, baby.

Yesterday, however, was one of my favorite RACKs.

As I have mentioned before, my mother-in-law lived in an assisted living facility for about 6 months before passing away this past July. Up until then, I had not had much of an experience with this kind of place. This particular one was a pleasant, positive upbeat place to be, and I loved walking through the front door, because the elderly residents would be sitting in their wheelchairs or on the couches, or on the rocking chairs on the front porch, and they would want to chat.

And Lord knows, I do love me a good chat. 

Sometimes it would be a quick chat about the weather. Sometimes they would ask who I was visiting, and when I told them, they would ask how my MIL was feeling, and "Could you please tell her that we miss her at mealtime?" Sometimes the ladies would whistle and cat call my husband, which of course, caused him great embarrassment, but he took it in stride.

All they wanted to do was chat, and it made me realize how lonely it must be, growing old alone, away from family and friends. No matter how old we get, we still crave companionship. 

The other day, I bought five poinsettia plants and we drove to an assisted living place near my home, and we decided to hand them out. I wasn't quite sure how the whole operation would go down, because there were five of us, with five plants, and way more than five residents in this facility. 

But we were excited, and decided to give it a go.


We walked through the front doors of the building, and we were greeted by a young woman. I explained that we were there to spread a little Christmas cheer, and could we please hand out a few of these plants to some residents? 

Once again, I was unsure of how our plan would be received. 

Fortunately, they were touched and thrilled, and all for it. 

The director of the building suggested that we walk the hallways and place plants randomly at doors so that no one felt favored or left out. 

The names of the residents were posted on placards outside their doors, so we decided to choose two men, and two women who would be the recipients of our Christmas cheer. We placed the plant outside of the closed door with our RACK card, and then hunted for our next target.


We still had one poinsettia plant, and we were going to randomly drop it in front of an apartment door, but I spotted a elderly woman sitting in the front lobby in a wheelchair, and she had been watching us. 

Target spotted. Time for a chat.

I motioned for the kids to follow me, and we approached her. "Hello! Happy Holidays! How are you doing today?" I asked.

"Your kids are just darling!" she said.

"Thank you!" I said, and continued, "We are here today passing out poinsettias, and trying to spread a little holiday cheer. Would you like a poinsettia plant today?" 

"Oh dear, I would LOVE one."

And then we chatted for a few. 

Because I'm always up for a nice little chat.

And a a little RACK-ing.

Happy RACK-ing to you all, friends. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Killing Them With Kindness

One random day this summer, my kids were in rare form.

The fighting and bickering in this house between my shorties had reached epic levels, and I was handing out punishments and time-outs like they were Tic-Tacs. Mentally exhausted from a day of breaking up fights, and playing the role of referee, I decided that we would all sit down to a family dinner.

Nothing like a little Triple F to try to set things straight again.

Triple F?

Forced Family Fun.

Anyway.

We strive to eat together as a family as much as our busy schedules permit, but in summer I tend to be more lax, because I know that my kids like to eat and run. The faster they can shove the food down their gullets, the faster they can get back outside to play with their friends. 

But on this particular day, after hearing, "You're a buttface/idiot/poopyhead/[insert immature insult HERE] I said, "It's time for dinner, and you're not leaving this table until you have been excused. We are going to sit here and eat as a family."

A chorus of whines ensued.

Fortunately, I am the Teflon of whines. They roll right off of me. 

I began, "So. Let's talk about our days. What was your favorite thing you did today?"

Cue chorus of shortie grunts.

"Anyone? I'm talking here, you guys."

Silence.

Bill spoke positively about his day.

The shorties chewed their food.

I spoke about a happy moment in my day.

The shorties chewed their food.

I switched gears. "Okay. How about we go around the table and each person says one thing they like about each member of our family, okay?"

Cue chorus of shortie whines.

"You guys, we are going to do this, whether you like it or not. I cannot STAND the way you talk to each other! Just say at least ONE thing you like about your brothers or your sister. NOW." 

"Mommmm. This is weird." 

I pointed at a shortie and recruited him to be the first one to speak. He shoveled a forkful of food in his mouth, chewed as his thought, and said, "Okay. H is awesome because he can fart on demand. And G's farts don't smell that awful, so I guess that makes him kinda cool. And I can burp when I want, so that makes me awesome."

Then they all burst into a fit of giggles.

Really?

I give up.

Eventually, after much threatening to put them to bed early cajoling, I was able to get them to say at least one nice thing about each other, and the conversation at the dinner table that night was a mildly good one. All I had wanted them to do was to take a minute away from the bickering, and just be nice.

Even if it hurt. 

Which it seemed like it did. At least for awhile.

It is sometimes difficult living in this house of 6 people with 6 distinct personalities and expect us to get along famously 100% of the time.

Impossible. 

But we are a family, and our common bond is our love for each other, and despite the running commentary on certain days of the week around here, not one of us is a butt face. 

Shocking, I know.

So when I broached the subject of our family participating in a Random Acts of Christmas Kindness project this year, I expected whining from the shorties. I don't know why I expected whining. Perhaps I have just grown accustomed to whining when I want to introduce something new, and I automatically prepare myself. 

I was pleasantly surprised when, after explaining it, they smiled.

Then.

I got a, "That's cool, Mom," from my oldest.

Another shortie chimed in, "This is fun!"

I almost fainted. 

Tween angst has spoken, and it has decided that this project sounds, "cool", and "fun"?

Success.

Then.

The shorties started coming up with ideas on their own, after I gave them a few examples of what would constitute a Random Act of Kindness. They were excited! Giddy! About kindness! And being random about it! 

Dude. 

We decided that our first RACK as a family (Bill was at work, so he missed out) would be to get Holiday Mint McFlurries from the McDonald's drive-thru after school, then pay for the order behind us in line.

Isn't that just so sweet and unselfish of them? 

To sacrifice for the sake of a good RACK? 

By forcing themselves to get Holiday Mint McFlurries?

All for the cause?

Mother Teresa would be proud.

Ahem.

As we pulled into the McDonald's drive-thru line at about 3:00 pm on Tuesday afternoon, they were excited. Giddy almost. I had printed out several of these cards in preparation of the next few weeks:


(I got this idea from a super creative blogger named Tracie, and you can find her ideas and her blog here. I assure you that her cards are WAY cuter than mine.) 

Soon enough, it was our turn in line, and I placed our order at the speaker.

"Can we have 4 Holiday Mint McFlurries, please?"

"Milkshakes?" the voice in the box asked.

"No, can we have four Holiday Mint McFlurries, please?"

"You want an Oreo McFlurry?"

"No, MINT McFlurries, please." 

"You want a Mint McFlurry?"

"Yes, please. Four of them." 

"Okay. Pay at the first window."

"Thank you."

The kids were bouncing in their seats at this point, wanting to see who would be the recipient of our first RACK. We eyeballed a gold SUV pull into the drive-thru lane behind us. A woman was in the driver's seat. I was silently grateful that it wasn't a bus full of hungry football players, as I would be footing the bill for their next meal.

Not that I wouldn't have. It's all about the RACK.

I'm just saying. 

As we waited to pull forward to the window where we paid, the boys were trying to read her lips as she placed her order.

"MOM!!! I think she ordered 12 Big Mac Combo Meals!" a shortie said excitedly.

"I doubt she did, you guys, but even if she did, we've got it covered."

Finally, it was our turn. The recipient of our RACK had her window open too, and I was convinced that she could hear what I was going to say to the cashier. I leaned back in my seat and said, "Can I not only pay for my order, but the order of the lady behind me, please?"

"Really? Sure! I love when people do that!"

The kids clapped.

I continued as I handed him the RACK card, "And can you please hand her this card when you tell her that her order was paid for, please?"

"Okay! Her order was $2.99."

We pulled forward to the next window to get our Holiday Mint McFlurries, and the kids couldn't care less about the prospect of an ice cream treat. Their necks were craned and their eyes were fixed on the car behind us, waiting to see the reaction of the driver. Suddenly, they spotted her frantically waving and giving us the thumbs-up sign.

Success!

They clapped and shouted and bounced in their seats and sang a verse of a nonsense song that a couple of them had made up on a whim one day.

One shortie asked, "But Mom, don't you want her to know who you are so she can thank you?"

"Nope, sweetie. I just want to be an anonymous stranger who did something nice. I don't need a thank you. And maybe she'll go out and do something nice for someone else now, and that person will do something nice for someone else. That's kind of what we hope for. Kindness begets kindness."

I just kind of let the word, "begets" hang in the air for a second, waiting for a, "Huh? What's that?" from a shortie. But it never came.

Without being asked, the 10-year old looked at his younger brother, who looked confused. He said, "It means to produce. Like if we are kind, we will produce more kindness."

Maybe they are getting this thing.

Also? No one punched their sibling in the junk last night, so I think this project is WINNING.

I guess kindness does beget kindness.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Random Act of Christmas Kindness: Day One

Yesterday afternoon, as I ran errands around town, I stopped at a Bed, Bath, and Beyond to pick up a few items. As I waited in line to pay, I noticed a middle-aged woman standing at the nearby Customer Service desk, and she was angry.

Her face was contorted into a sneer, and she was yelling at two of the staff members about the return she was trying to make. As she yelled on and on, people were starting to stop and take notice.

The manager was simply and quietly telling her that he would have to credit her return to her American Express card.

"BUT I WANT STORE CREDIT!!!!" she yelled.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I have to credit your original form of payment, and that is your American Express," he calmly stated.

"BUT I'M GOING TO SPEND MY MONEY HERE ANYWAY!!! WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?! GIVE ME STORE CREDIT!!!"

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but those are the rules."

"GET ME A MANAGER! YOU ARE STUPID AND MEAN, AND I DON'T WANT TO TALK TO YOU!"

"Ma'am? I am the manager."

"WELL...THEN...I WANT SOMEONE HIGHER UP THAN YOU! GET ME SOMEONE HIGHER UP!!!"

Really, lady? You want higher up than the store manager, who is simply following the rules and doing so in a patient and kind manner? Perhaps we should call God. God is higher up than the manager, and, you know, He's probably just sitting in heaven, twiddling His thumbs and waiting for a Bed, Bath, and Beyond emergency. World peace, schmorld peace.

On and on it went. She yelled. He stayed calm. She berated him. He smiled. She swung her arms around and threw her body into the argument. He seemed nonplussed.

My jaw dropped, and I looked around at a few of the other customers who seemed equally surprised at the scene that was unfolding. This woman just called this man, a total stranger, "stupid and mean", for no apparent reason, and he just stood there calmly. He leaned forward, smiled and said, "Please. There is no reason to get so upset. I am more than happy to help you, but if you aren't happy speaking with me, then I will find someone who can help you." Which he did. Just like that.

The manager then walked over to an open register, punched a few keys, and, as I happened to be next in line, motioned for me to come over and cash out. He smiled at me as if the last 10 minutes of his life had not just happened, and said with a grin, "Hey sweetie! Whatcha got there in that shopping cart? Let's get you all cashed out!"

I was amazed.

Here was a person who embodied positivity and resilience, and he was scanning my items and chatting with me happily. I would not have blamed him if he checked me out in grumpy silence, and needed a few moments to compose himself.

I thought of the Random Acts of Christmas Kindness (RACK) blog entry that I had written earlier in the day, and then I thought of all of the people I encounter in my day who are kind and happy while doing their jobs. I thought of the waiters and waitresses who work long exhausting shifts, for little pay, but smile and do their jobs impeccably. I thought of the the friendly cashier at the grocery store that we frequent, and how, when she sees my children, she smiles and offers them stickers. I thought of the teachers of my children, and how they have shown patience in spades.

You know these people too. The positive people. The people who make the world just a bit brighter because they not only do their job, but do it with a joyful heart.

I hadn't decided what my first RACK was going to be, but after the scene at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, I knew what it was going to be.

I decided to write a Thank You note.

But not just any Thank You note.

I had been meaning to send a Thank You note to the staff of the assisted living facility where my dear mother-in-law had lived from December, 2011 up until her passing on July 23, 2012, but of course, I let time slip away from me, and the letter was never written.

To say that this staff was wonderful and kind and caring is an understatement. But of course, I thought, "Oh well, I didn't write the letter, and I'm sure they know they're awesome. Life goes on."

But sometimes it takes a screaming, irate woman at the Bed, Bath and Beyond to make you realize that it is time to properly thank the people who not only do their jobs, but do them awesomely and happily and so very well. Sometimes people just need to hear, "I saw what you did, and it touched my life. Thank You."

I wrote the following letter last night, printed it out, put it in a stamped envelope, and dropped it in my mailbox. RACK #1 completed.

And it felt good.

November 26, 2012

To the Wonderful Staff of [name of assisted living facility]

I apologize that this letter has taken me so long to write, but I truly feel that some things are better late than never, because I knew that at some point this letter had to be written.

My dear mother-in-law, Nancy, moved to your assisted living facility last December, shortly after Christmas, as a result of the progression of terminal cancer, and our family's desire to ensure that she was well taken care of in the final months of her life. After she had surgery last November and lived in a nursing home for a month, her spirits were low, as were her stamina and energy. After all, she was only 68 years old, but this terrible disease aged her, and robbed her of the last vestiges of her youthful spryness. She was now, sadly, finding herself having to rely on a small staff of people to do the most basic tasks in her day - tasks that most of us do without a thought, and tasks that we take for granted. 

However, upon moving to [name of assisted living facility], my husband and I were amazed to watch her spirits lift, and a bit of her energy return. She made friends, and enjoyed going downstairs for mealtime. Her laughter returned, as did a bit of her lightheartedness.

I do not think that this is a coincidence. In fact, I know that this was a direct result of the caring staff at [name of assisted living facility], and the cheery, upbeat atmosphere that you work so hard to cultivate. Like my mother-in-law, many people enter your facility knowing that they will live the final months or years of their life there, but I want to commend you for creating an environment that makes it feel like a place that is anything BUT that.

One could argue that your staff members are, "just doing their jobs," but I would disagree, because what my husband and I saw was so much more than that. There are people who just do their jobs every day, and then there are people who pour their hearts into their work, and truly care for the people that they tend to on a daily basis, and that accurately describes so many members of your staff. They got to know Nancy as a person, and cared for her well in her final months, and I hope you will believe me when I say that it was a beautiful thing to witness, and it did not go unnoticed by our family.

We all hope that our health never declines so much that we need assistance using the bathroom. Or taking a shower. Or wiping food from our chin after a meal. Or getting around via wheelchair. Or getting up from a couch. Or dressing ourselves. Or combing and styling our hair. 

Unfortunately, cancer and old age aren’t so kind.

Although these two words feel a bit inadequate, from the bottom of our hearts, my family says thank you. Thank you for caring for Nancy. Thank you for getting to know her, and asking questions about her life. Thank you for making her laugh. Thank you for allowing her to maintain her dignity, despite not being able to care for herself. Thank you to Wandza, especially, as her kindness was always able to lift Nancy's spirits and make her smile, even in the middle of the night when it was time for a dose of pain medication. Thank you for working with the Hospice team to carry out her final wishes. Thank you for not helping her to die, but for helping her to live as fully as she could, even at the end. Thank you for your heartfelt condolences and kind words about her when she passed in July. 

Thank you for not just treating her like she was the dying old lady who lived in the upstairs apartment at the end of the hallway, but rather, a living, breathing valuable human being who was loved and cherished by so many people. 

The many jobs and tasks you perform on a daily basis are thankless ones, and may generally go unnoticed by most of the world, yet they are so important. To you we say, "Thank You." 

The world could use more people like you.

Sincerely, 

Clare and Bill [last name]

Monday, November 26, 2012

There's Always Time for Kindness

Yesterday, as I was scrolling through the countless emails in my inbox that screamed various messages such as, "Cyber Monday is here! Take 50% off one item!" or "FREE SHIPPING!" or ""Don't miss out! Cyber Monday Deals!" I suddenly felt very overwhelmed.

After having spent a wonderful, relaxing Thanksgiving weekend visiting family in a different state, I now have to unpack suitcases, do laundry, run errands, as well as the many tasks required of me on any given day of the week, let alone during the Christmas season. I looked at my husband and said, "Ugh. Now I have find an hour or two tomorrow to sit down at the computer and do some shopping for Christmas gifts."

Because the deals.

They are out there.

And I? Cannot miss out.

Of course, Bill just calmly looked at me all, "Well, don't get yourself all stressed out over it. Just do what you can do."

Just do what I can do?

Well, I want to do it ALL, of course.

But.

There's this little thing that I am sorely lacking these days, and it's something that all of us could use more of.

Time.

And suddenly? I felt very, very ridiculous.

As parents, we all know the drill this time of year. The minute that the commercials start in mid-October, the kids start in with their desires of iPods. And computer tablets. And expensive clothing. And video games. And various other requests. Of course, they will not get it all. I remind them that they will get some. Not all.

When the Christmas season is upon us, our family honors the season of Advent, and we talk about the birth of Jesus, and what it this glorious season is all about. We assure them that it has not a thing to do with new 32-gig iPods and Under Armour sweatshirts. And they, like good little children, nod their heads in acknowledgment and say, "Yes, Mom, we know. We know it's about Jesus. We know it's about family. We know these things."

Then they say, "Mom? Now can I have another piece of paper? My Christmas list is so long it won't fit on this one. Also? How do you spell, 'Lego Ninjago'?"

Or maybe that's what I thought I heard.

I've always wanted our family to participate in Random Acts of Christmas Kindness, to try and counteract the severe cases of, "The Gimmes" that attack my dear shorties from October through December.

But that would take thought and action. And thought and action require time. And time? Well, I'm just plain out of that precious commodity.

At least that's what I tell myself.

So last night, as Bill and I fervently willed our exhausted bodies to stay awake so we could wait until all of the kids were asleep before moving Christopher, our blasted Elf on the Shelf that my kids have grown to love, we failed, and succumbed to sweet, sweet slumber. Shortly before midnight, I awoke in a panic. I punched Bill in the arm and whispered loudly, "CRAP! THE ELF! WE DIDN'T MOVE IT!"

I was in a panic.

At midnight.

Over a cheap piece of felt and plastic.

Because THAT'S what Christmas is all about, right?

Riiiiiiiiiight.

We hustled down the stairs, our brains barely coherent, trying to think of an idea for where to put the elf. Our eyes darted around the kitchen and family room, and we threw out a couple of lame ideas that we instantly nixed.

The ideas weren't big enough. They weren't grand enough. Elfin appearances of Christmas past have set us up for grandness.

This elf was already the bane of my existence, and he hadn't even made his first appearance of the year.

I looked over at the kitchen counter and saw two wine glasses that I had hand-washed earlier in the evening, drying on a paper towel, and I did this.



Afterwards, as I lie in bed, wishing for the same sleep that had come to me so easily a few hours earlier, I found myself wide awake. And what happens when one can't sleep? One thinks. And thinks. And thinks.

And all I could think about is how my priorities at the current moment are wackity-wack.

Somehow I had prioritized the elf above Random Acts of Christmas Kindness.

Because of time. And the lack of it.

My brain was saying, "So, basically, Clare, what you are saying is that you don't have time for kindness. Is that what you are saying? Because that's about 15 different kinds of selfish."

This is not the soundtrack you want playing in your head at 12:42 a.m.

It's not that I'm not kind. Without tooting my own horn too much, I like to think I am a very kind and caring person. I do for others, not just at Christmastime, but all year round. I tend to surround myself with other kind people of substance. But I have been looking for a way to cement the real feeling of what the Christmas season is all about to my children all these years, and it has been sitting there, in my brain, the whole time. I have just chosen to ignore it.

Because there's never enough time.

But here's where I have it all wrong. There's ALWAYS time to go out of my way for someone else. ALWAYS time to show my children that kindness is way more gratifying than a new iPod. ALWAYS time for a smile and a simple, "Can I help you?" or "Thank you for what you do." ALWAYS time to tell someone what they mean to me.

Always.

Of course, the elf and all the other Christmas "stuff" fits into the category of fun. It is the stuff of childhood magic that makes Christmas a bit dreamier. I will continue to do it because there is nothing quite like the look in the eyes of a child when you can see that they still believe in magic.

Because, like time, magic and innocence is a rare, precious commodity these days, and we want our children to cling to it for as long as their little bodies and minds can.

But kindness? Well, it's all around us, in spades, and it lives in us and breathes in us. It remains in us long after we stop believing in magic. It's necessary all year long, not just at Christmas.

And so begins our family's journey of Random Acts of Christmas Kindness, which I hope will just become Frequent Random Acts of Kindness when the season is over. During the next month, we will try to do at least one act of kindness every day, and I will try to find the time to write about it on this blog. I do not intend this to be a self-promoting way to brag about my family and how kind and awesome and wonderful and perfect we are, because I assure you, we are not. We are just flawed, but well-intentioned human beings who are trying to put some good out into the world every, single day. Our intention is not to promote ourselves, but rather, kindness.

Because there's always time for a little kindness.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How to Be a Good Mother-In-Law


Back in 1992, I met a boy named Bill at a dance at the local all-boys' Catholic high school, as Peter Gabriel crooned over the speakers on the gym floor, "In your eyes...the light, the heat..."

And soon, our teen-aged hearts were smitten.

After a few weeks of dating, Bill asked me to meet his parents, and my smitten little heart leapt for joy, because meeting your besmitten's parents for the first time? 

Kind of a big deal. 

When the day arrived, Bill picked me up, drove me to his family home, and I nervously stood on the front porch as he opened the door. Instantly, we were greeted by a smiling, friendly, blonde woman who immediately pulled me into a strong, welcoming embrace as she said, "Clare! I'm Bill's mom! I finally get to meet you!" This woman, who was a stranger to me just seconds ago, did not let me out of her embrace until we were properly introduced.

She did not hold me at arm's length and sneer at me and wonder if I was good enough to date her son.

She hugged me without really knowing me, and offered me complete acceptance into her family fold, with no questions asked.

And instantly, a friendship was born.

This woman that I met a little over two decades ago, who eventually became my dear mother-in-law, and thus an integral part of my life and marriage, passed away two weeks ago on July 23 at the way-too-early age of 68. She was hilarious, spunky, social, creative, caring, kind, and a million other things.

But now? She is gone.

Stupid, stupid cancer.

Over the past few weeks, Bill and I have received many, many heartfelt condolences and cards from various family, friends and acquaintances, and we have appreciated every single one of them. When someone dies, people often struggle with what to say, or what to write to try to do the loss justice. Quite often, there is nothing adequate to say, because how do you sum up a person - a whole, essential, wonderful, crucial human being - into just a few words? You can't. It is impossible.

However, on today's trip back up the driveway as I retrieved the mail out of the mailbox, I was struck by a sentence in a card from someone who knew my mother-in-law. After describing a few things that she will miss most about her, she said, "Mourn her well. She deserves it."

Mourn her well? 

What a beautiful thought. Don't mind if I do. She does deserve it.

And because every person in our life exists to either teach us something, or to change us, I have had ample opportunity to reflect on what being a daughter-in-law to this woman for almost 14 years has taught me.

She has taught me how to be a mother-in-law. Not just a mother-in-law, but a damn good mother-in-law. 

Of course, this is a skill that I won't need for probably at least 15 years or so, as my oldest child is only 11 years old; however, when the time comes, I am ready. 

I already know how to be a daughter-in-law, but unfortunately, and sadly, that time is over, as both of Bill's parents are now gone. I was my mother-in-law's first and only daughter-in-law, so it's not like she had years of practice and other test subjects. She had a daughter, my sister-in-law, but the mother-daughter relationship is completely different from the mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship.

Completely.

Ever hear of the movie, "Monster-In-Law"? 

Fortunately, I could not relate to that movie. 

My mother-in-law taught me by example how to play the role successfully, and these are a few things that I have learned, and plan to store away for future use. 

How to Be a Good Mother-In-Law:

1.) In most cases, your daughter-in-law already has a mother. You are not her. You are the mother-IN-LAW. Do not try to compete with, or replace her mother. She does not need your "helpful advice" about how to cut her hair, how to dress, or how to decorate her home. Even if you are prim and proper and never leave the house without perfectly coiffed hair and pearls, and your daughter-in-law never leaves home without a mohawk, black lipstick, and a dog collar attached to her neck, remind yourself that this woman loves the same thing you do: your son. Find a way to compliment her and befriend her. Even if it hurts at first. After awhile, it won't. 

2.) Get to know your daughter-in-law as an individual, and do not treat her as just as the woman who stole your son from you and now lives in his house. Find out her interests, even if they are completely opposite of your own. Ask questions about her friends, and listen to her responses. If you get the opportunity to ever meet her friends, be kind and conversational. Offer to take her to lunch or shopping without your son having to be present. Try to find common denominators among the two of you besides just sharing the same last name.

3.) Befriend your daughter-in-law's parents. Perhaps your daughter-in-law is the child of two liberal strategists for the Democratic party, and you are the head of your local chapter of Tea Party Republicans. So what. Perhaps your daughter-in-law comes from a non-traditional family situation, and has two biological parents and 8 different stepparents. So what. Just be nice. Even if it hurts. When you put aside your own hang-ups, and you are kind and respectful to the people that raised your daughter-in-law to be the woman that your son is madly in love with, then you are telling your daughter-in-law that you respect her. And believe me, she will notice, and she will appreciate it. 

4.) Do not tell her how to raise your grandchildren. Perhaps you had 10 children of your own, and you birthed every single one of them, sans epidural, at home. Then, you proceeded to make every meal they ever ate from scratch, using only organic food, most of which you grew yourself in your own garden, as you home-schooled each of your 10 children through high school, all the while keeping a perfectly clean home, while also writing an advice column for the local newspaper about how to be a good parent. Good for you. Those were your choices, and if your daughter-in-law makes the same choices, then good for her. The two of you will have even more things to talk about. But most likely, she will not. She is her own person, and she is parenting and running a home together with your son, and this is not a threesome. Recognize that you made parenting mistakes along the way, just as your son and daughter-in-law will make mistakes. Let them decide how to educate your grandchildren, discipline them, dress them, and feed them. Keep your mouth closed on these matters, and trust that you raised your son to be a good parent, and trust that you raised your son to choose the right spouse with whom to parent. I can almost guarantee that if your daughter-in-law does not feel judged by you as a parent, she will come to you for parenting advice, and that is when you can give it. When asked for it. Other than that? Nope. Shut it. Even if it hurts. Your job is to be a grandmother who spoils her grandchildren with endless amounts of love, adventures and experiences, the occasional junk-food binge, toys, and obscenely large stuffed animals. 

5.) Remember that your grandchildren are watching. As they say, "Little pitchers have big ears." And those little pitchers love their mommies. And they love their grandmas. So when you are unkind or judgmental towards Mommy, the little pitcher...er...child is confused. And hurt. Do not create a situation where they feel like they have to choose between you or their mom. Because you will lose. 

6.) Buy your daughter-in-law nice presents for birthdays and holidays. This might sound superficial, but it IS the thought that counts. Whether you have the budget of a pauper or the budget of a Trump, put some thought into it. Perhaps you are into homemade gifts, and your family is the recipient of your hand-crafted delights year after year. Then make your daughter-in-law something too. Perhaps you hit the Black Friday sales with a gusto every year and your family is the recipient of your bargain-hunting treasures. Then make sure your daughter-in-law receives a treasure too. Perhaps you search all year long for that one perfect gift for your son. Then add your daughter-in-law to the list as well, and search for that one perfect gift for her. When she truly feels like another important, highly-valued member of your family, and not just the recipient of a rejected, clearance toaster from the Walmart bargain bin, then your relationship will thrive. Unless that's your thing. You know, buying your family presents from the Walmart clearance bin. Then g'head and get your daughter-in-law one too. As long as you make her feel like one of the family.

7.) Do not treat your relationship as a competition. Sure, you may know exactly how your son likes his eggs cooked, the names of all his friends, and precisely how many moles he has on his body. So what. So does your daughter-in-law. You love him. She loves him too. This isn't a tug-of-war about who loves him more, or who knows him better. You both do. Isn't he a lucky guy? 

Of course, all of this is a two-way street. If you are going to be an oversensitive, grudge-holding hag of a daughter-in-law, and not open to any kind of happy, functional relationship with the woman who raised the boy into the man that you fell madly in love with, well, then, I've got nothing for you. You're on your own. But remember that you, too, are leading by example for your children, and when they see you honor and care for their grandmother, then hopefully they grow up and marry nice people that honor and care for you too.

It's a win-win situation. 

Good-bye, my dear friend and mother-in-law Nancy. Thank you for loving me, being my friend, not judging me, and treating me like a valued member of your family. If I can be half the mother-in-law that you were to my children's spouses someday, then I will be a success.

Until then, I will mourn you well. 

You deserve it. 





Friday, January 13, 2012

Are you there, blog? It's me, Clare.

Welcome to 2012.

Even though that's kind of old news.

Like two weeks old.

But here I am, sitting in front of my blog and I can't think of what to say.

My blog is an old friend. A dear friend. A friend in whom I like to confide. A friend with whom I will always feel comfortable.

Yet?

Silence.

It's like the pre-Facebook/texting/email days when two besties who used to braid each other's hair, tell each other their deepest, darkest secrets, slip notes into each other's lockers and make cootie catchers together that said, "You will marry Scott Baio, have 11 kids and live in a mansion together", until one of them moves to the next town, and then, one day, whilst shopping for rubber bracelets and jelly shoes at the mall, they awkwardly run into each other at Sbarro, and then...silence.

Crickets.

It's kind of like that.

If you get my gist.

It's not that I don't have things to say. I do.

You're not going to get rid of me that easily.

It's just that December 2011 arrived at my home, along with a raging case of writer's block, which was induced by general holiday fun, chaos, and busyness.

You know, move the elf! Put up the tree! Move the elf! Put up another tree! And another one! Buy presents! Wrap presents! Move the elf! Plan a party! Plan another party! Move the elf! Bake cookies! Bake more cookies! Eat, drink, and be merry! Move the elf! More merry-making!

Oh. And did I mention?

Move the elf.

Thank goodness our elf, Christopher, is snug as bug in his plastic box in the basement, not to be seen until at least December 1, 2012. Because being innovative and original every night with that red piece of felt and plastic just about sucked every creative thought right out of my brain.

So to speak.

But now, I am back, and my blog, which has read the date, "November 29, 2011" since...well...November 29, 2011, beckons me. It is calling me, like an old friend. It is saying, "Hey. Did you forget about me? Because we kinda had a good thing going there for awhile. You used to vent to me. You used to tell me all about your memories, your laughs, your hopes, and your feelings of failure. But now? Nothing."

I miss my old friend.

Like I said, it's not that I don't have things to say. But when you abandon a blog for a month and a half, don't you think you should come back with a bang? Don't you think you should have something more than just an entry about how you cannot get your kids to keep their bedrooms clean and you are contemplating picking up EVERY. LAST. THING. that clutters their bedroom floors, throwing it all into big, black, garbage bags and piling it on the curb?

Don't you think that your first entry of the new year should be a little more profound than, "Hey guys! I am on cloud nine! And it's all because I organized my Rubbermaid/Tupperware/plasticware cupboard! And now? Everything in it has a matching lid!"

Which it does. True story. And Mama is very happy about it. Because sometimes? It is the little things in life.

But that's not a first-blog-entry-of-2012-deep-and-profound-kind-of-entry.

My first entry of the new year should be better than that, shouldn't it?

I don't know about, "profound", but here goes.

I have high hopes for 2012. It's going to be a great year, full of many new experiences, a fun family, great friends, and good times. I'm sure it will have its challenges, struggles, and sad moments, like all years do. I just hope those moments are few and far between.

I am a positive person who likes to see the sunny side of life. The glass half-full. The rainbow after the rain. I tend to surround myself with other positive people.

Debbie Downer would not be a friend of mine.

But when it comes to resolutions for 2012, I come up blank. I love being a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a friend. I think I'm pretty good at these roles. Not perfect, mind you, but pretty darn good. Rather than wanting to change anything about myself or my life, I just want to keep on being open to the newness of a new year, and wherever it takes me and my family.

This year, I will get to meet a new nephew and a new niece.

I will attend the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop in April.

I will help to plan the auction at my children's Catholic school, and hopefully raise a big pile of money for a great cause.

I will attend baby showers and celebrate the joy of others that I love becoming a mother for the first time.

I will go on vacation with my husband and children.

I will cheer for my children as they play sports.

I will wipe tears away, and offer comforting hugs.

I will love my family fully and fiercely.

I will waste time doing absolutely nothing productive, and try not to feel guilty that I am not organizing a junk drawer or a closet.

I will scold and punish, guide and teach.

I will cry tears of frustration, and think, even momentarily, that I suck at being a mother.

I will pat myself on the back and tell myself that I don't suck at being a mother.

I will enjoy child-free moments with just my husband, who is my best friend.

I will laugh with my girlfriends and make time for myself.

I will do all these things in 2012. This is what I know for sure.

I will try not to focus on what I'm not doing. What I'm not cooking from scratch. What I'm not getting around to writing with the hopes of being published one day. What homemade craft I'm not doing with my kids. What trip I'm not taking. What Pinterest project I haven't made yet. Which room of my house I'm not cleaning at this very moment.

That's all just negative thinking, and I'll leave that for the Negative Nellies of the world.

Because the rest is out there, in the vast awesomeness also known as 2012. It's just waiting to happen.

And I'm open to it all.

I hope you are too.

Happy New Year, friends.