Let Me Be Your Lesson

“Everything is either a blessing or a lesson.”

Who was it that said that, anyway? Maybe, some things can be both of those at the same time.

Perched on top of the hill at the edge of my grandparents’ property, my brother, my sister, and I spent strings of days looking out onto the St. Louis traffic, wondering who inhabited the curious round apartment tower building, talking about where we could hide Grandpa Gene’s cigarettes, and dreaming of getting a can of Faygo Redpop from the grocery store across the highway. I think my body still hurts from rolling down that grassy slope so often during my childhood. I wonder how many times I narrowly avoided my demise by slowing just before I rolled a little too far.

Grandpa Gene would offer me a dime to pick apples from the tree that stood perfectly in the middle of his backyard. He would sit on the glider swing, eyeing the birds splashing in their pristine concrete bath as he coached me.

“You missed one,” he would laugh, but he was not joking. The shiny-skinned, gold- green apples were plentiful, with leaves rhythmically fertilized and untainted. Grandpa would send me inside to collect my dime after his carefully-directed harvest was complete. The apples, though, didn’t taste very sweet. At least, I didn’t think so at the time.

Every so often, competing for space with the swirl of “to-do’s” and “how-can-I-possibly’s” in my brain, a thought presents itself. This time, it was “blueberry Toasties.” When we were lucky, our grandparents would take us to the Howard Johnson hotel diner. There, I would have a special breakfast of two little square corn cakes, stuffed with blueberries and slathered in butter. I would cut the bites as tiny as possible, so the Toasties, which somehow were crunchy but melted in my mouth at the same time, would last as long as possible. Toasties may have come in other flavors, but I had never wanted to even explore that possibility. At some point, Grandma Evie found blueberry Toasties in a box at the grocery store, so we didn’t even have to wait to go to the diner. Maybe that was when they stopped tasting so good. Then, I forgot about blueberry Toasties for nearly fifty years.

Our end-of-the line child, our runaway caboose, starts kindergarten this fall. Thirty years of catch-up projects and neglected home keeping chores will have to wait just a little bit longer, as this boy and his brothers will be home at the farm this fall. We never expected this. Nobody did. His voice might plead, “Let me be your lesson, Mama.”

Sometimes, I do hear voices. It is no secret that we are bound here by mental illness along with the foreboding threat of our world, but these voices come from within with an unmistakable fury. Maybe no one else hears them at first, but as with the insistent cry of a child in the dark of night, I must listen.

Some years ago, my brother and I were traveling by airplane. From somewhere in the air above the seats in the cabin, a gravelly voice simply stated, “p”. This was particularly curious, as sometimes I was called “P” by my brother or sister when they may have felt that two syllables were too much. More letters came from the elusive voice. The mystery was solved when we realized that the man in the seat ahead of us was playing “Scrabble” with his seat mate.

Through the years, voices have called us to adopt, to foster, to move to the country, to campaign to legalize medical cannabis for autism, to raise chickens, to start beehives, and, most recently, to make blueberry Toasties. The “goat” voice, I hope, will come soon. Sometimes, the message has been in the form of one of my children, a friend, a flower, a newspaper, a tree, or a bird. And sometimes, for certain, it has been that of God.

Our little orchard at the farm has grown. I believe we have seven apple trees now. Two years ago, we were delighted to spy the first apple on one of those trees, our Colonnade Flamenco. We watched it grow, all alone, and we shared its sweet goodness on harvest day. That was the one and only apple in the orchard, until this year. Dismayed by rust on the apple trees and determined to use natural methods to care for our homestead, I have not held much hope in filling my apple basket anytime soon. There are, though, three perfect baby apples growing on one of the young Golden Delicious trees now. The voice of the young apple, looking very much like those that grew on Grandpa Gene’s tree so many years ago, pleads: “Be patient. Don’t doubt yourself. Keep going. It’s going to be worth it.”

I wondered if somewhere in the world of Pinterest or Google, someone else had remembered Blueberry Toasties. Indeed, with a little pinch of this or that, the memory of my best childhood diner breakfast became a reality.

Here’s how I made them, if anyone wants to experience the nostalgia first hand:

Blueberry Toasties, adapted from “Nancy’s A Recipe A Day” blog

This time, the lesson was easy. Crisped to perfection, dripping with the combined intoxication of blueberries and butter, my breakfast advised, in a voice that was nearly audible, “Don’t forget. Don’t forget the little things that you once loved.”

Would Faygo Redpop be bad for my kids? We could always have it along with the apples once they ripen, to balance things out a bit. That would definitely be a blessing.

The Long Winter

On most nights before the boys go to sleep, we have been reading the Little House books for close to a year now. I love the stories of honesty and simplicity, of struggle and triumph, of bravery and tenacity. Here at the farm, we love tapping our maple trees, picking dandelions and Queen Anne’s lace for making jelly, gathering eggs, and harvesting what we have planted in our garden. We love exploring the forest and sitting by the fire when the moon is up with the stars in the sky, and the boys love when their musical daddy sings to them or plays music on pretty much any instrument that he comes across. We also love coming in to our warm house which is bursting with the conveniences of today, and where we don’t have to worry about a bear sneaking through a makeshift curtain to torment us (or worse) in our sleep while we wait for Dan to build a proper door.

We don’t have to go back to some of the hard things. We have come so very far.

Last year at this time, as the cold set in, we were planning for a wedding. Our visions were often blurred through the snowflakes, which seemed to come with more strength and fortitude than in other winters. As the seasons turned, the weather didn’t, until the rain replaced the snow and ice. We reluctantly imagined wedding guests wearing rubber boots and holding onto their hats and skirts during what we had hoped would be a midsummer night’s dream.

And it was, because despite the fierce winter, and the spring that really never came, the sun came out to shine brightly on that beautiful June day.

When I first visited the dispensary, preliminary medical cannabis card in shaking hand, I hadn’t considered that there would be so many options. This is so typical for me: I can’t see the forest for the trees. For so many years now, my focus has been on the addition of autism to the list of conditions treatable with medical cannabis, and the attainment of what we felt would be the key for our son, without understanding that there would be more decisions and adjustments to follow. There always are.

The snow was melting, but the ground was yet frozen.

During the past year, our son’s behaviors have become more manageable. We have still struggled, but there has been significantly less physical aggression and combative behavior, perhaps due to maturity, therapy, karma, or some combination therein. The little boys often tried to provoke him, to try to recreate the chaos that they knew so well. It was what they were used to. This, to me, was surprising and unsettling. He would react in harsh anger, fueling the reaction that the brothers sought.

I worried about letting them out of earshot for too long on the farm property, doing what most little boys want and need to do: run free and explore. What if I was unable to intervene in time, if they fought too hard and I couldn’t get to them?

He doesn’t like the taste of the edibles that I chose from the dispensary; I hadn’t expected that he would. He is, though, cooperating. That, in a sense, is our first victory. The strain that we got in pill form had a hyper-focusing effect, which led to arguing and, ultimately, aggression. Though this felt like something of a defeat, the nighttime strain had promoted peaceful, easy sleep. After a bit of experimenting with a hybrid strain, we have a self-declared calm boy who has had the best consecutive three days that I can remember.

I wasn’t expecting the snow in mid October, especially since I was still thawing from last winter. In some ways, it just seems like one arduous, multi season continuation of challenges. It’s beautiful, some days. And there are breaks from the cold, breaks to fuel the next part of the journey.

I wonder if Laura and Mary expected to move around so much during their times on the prairie. If they had known what was ahead, would they have put themselves into each moment, would they have noticed the layers of sunset and the secret bird nests? Perhaps that was what kept them going.

The littlest boy, in particular, has been relentless the past few days, trying hard to make his brother angry by throwing toys, turning off his video game, or sneaking his food. This hasn’t worked as well with the new sense of calm. For this, we are so grateful.

Already, the pumpkins and chrysanthemums are frozen hard into the window boxes, and I haven’t had the chance to cut back my hydrangeas. I may not get to them, but they are magical in their own way, standing resilient with wind-dried, straw-colored blooms.

The winter will turn in rhythm. Tomorrow’s hard things will be different from those of today. We can’t go back. We may not want to, but remembering will make us know just how far we have come.

I will be returning to the dispensary this week for more counsel (and hopefully a hybrid in pill form for our boy) but, clearly, we are closer.

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“These faces of dust and stone are, the dirt and bone of loss.”

–Ben Howard, “London”

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I share these things not to highlight my family’s personal struggle, but in hope that others can relate to parts of the journey, and that we can reach out in kindness and peace to one another. Please share with others, if you are so inclined.

XO

Ode to My Child’s Teacher

You have been my child’s teacher, and I am grateful.

For a span of nearly twenty-five years, children of mine have had the privilege of being taught, nurtured, cared for, and loved by so many extraordinary teachers, men and women who have helped to form these young beings into who they are.

My nearly grown son stopped by the farm earlier this week. He was about to leave on a business trip, but he made time to deliver a bag of apple cider donuts from the nearby orchard. I had been harvesting watermelons when his car pulled in; I have a bit of time now to work on the chores that have piled up for too long, as the littlest boy is now at school for a few hours each morning.

My son drove off just before the bus returned my preschooler to me. Time has a way of turning our boys to men even as we spin around to tend to the things that fill our days.

In the early years of motherhood, we hold our little ones close. To them, we are the whole world. The doors open, though, and there are influences that reach past our own fingertips, influences that help to form these tiny souls into who they will become.

And that’s where the teachers come in.

I am busy with the things of adulthood; I have waved to my child as she looked back at me through the school bus window, and I hope I held a thought of gratitude for the teacher who was moments from receiving my teenage bundle of attitude, unrest, and great promise (who just happened to be wearing pajamas).

Because you have always worked to forge a partnership with us, and to find something good in difficult circumstances, even when actions and behaviors were beyond understanding; for your tenacity, I am grateful.

Perhaps the nature of my family makes for a good longitudinal study of some sort. At the very least, it has allowed me to see over and again how the great love of a teacher can make a vast difference in the life of a child.

You made me feel like I am a good enough parent, through my tears and frustration, when life’s forces were bigger than me; for your support, and for your kindness, I am grateful.

For seeing past my child’s dirty fingernails, for praising him for his careful coloring, and for asking him to tell you more about his special train engine; you have done these things, and you have made a difference.

For helping my little boy to see that he is magic and brilliant even as he struggles with below-grade-level work; for your compassion, I am grateful.

For giving my daughter the time and space that she so desperately needed to be ready for learning, and for lifting her up so the burdens she carried were just a bit lighter; for your understanding, I am grateful.

I sometimes wondered how we would ever make it through the day. Then I turned around, and a whole year had passed. The year turned to decades, and I see grown children whose lives reflect the gifts they have been given by their teachers through the years.

I love those cider donuts, especially at this time of year. I ate three in a row that morning, right from the bag.

Perhaps it’s the time of year: transition, gratitude, thanksgiving as all around me are fields in the throes of harvest. I am grateful for the little things, which really might be big things. I am grateful for my children, for what is before me, and for you, the teachers that have given so much of yourselves for so very long.

I am grateful beyond any words I could write, and I hope you know that as you offer your hand, once again, to my child.

Thank you.