You Have to Make a Mess Sometimes

I scrolled down the recipe, my all-purpose-flour-smudged finger clouding the laptop screen. On wax paper, roll dough into a 1/2-inch thick square. Yes, that was what I had forgotten during our grocery-store run an hour ago: wax paper.

“What do we do next, Mom?” Grace smiled at me expectantly.

“Hmm…we’re going to improvise.” I pulled out aluminum foil.

“Does the recipe say to improvise?”

I looked at my older, by-the-book daughter. She looked back. “Work with me here, honey,” I said.

“Yum, yum, yum.” Anna was sitting cross-legged on the countertop, scooping up rainbow nonpareils—we had accidentally spilled half the jar a few minutes earlier—and stuffing them into her mouth. Our baking adventure could be going a bit smoother.

(P.S. A fun fact: Aluminum foil is not a good substitute for wax paper, at least in terms of a surface on which to roll dough and then freeze it.)

Beeeeep.

“Mom!” both girls yelled simultaneously.

I held up my hands. “The oven is ready,” I explained. “Everything is OK.”

I peered at the screen. Bake until cookies are light brown, 18 to 20 minutes. I got them into the oven and set the timer.

“I can’t wait to eat them,” Grace said.

Anna looked up from her fistful of a sugar rush. “Me too.”

“We’re making these for Pop, for his birthday,” I reminded my daughters. “We have to save some for him too.”

The girls looked at each other, having a silent, sister-to-sister tête-à-tête in front of me. “Pop can have two,” Grace told me.

Anna nodded her agreement. “He’ll be fine.”

Two cookies out of twenty for the birthday boy—sure, that seemed fair.

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Approximately half an hour later, I let the girls sample a cookie—”Just one, ladies!”—as I’d promised. I poured milk into two glasses too, because everyone knows you can’t really enjoy a cookie without a glass of milk (or cup of coffee).

Then I knocked over one of the glasses of milk.

Milk splashed across the countertop, onto my legs, into a white pool on the floor. I closed my eyes, sighed.

“Mom.” Anna poked her head around the corner. “Do you have our milk yet?”

“Just one second, honey…”

Later that evening, I emailed a picture I took of the girls baking (snapped before things got messy) to my parents and Stanton’s. I shared with the grandparents that making the Funfetti shortbread cookies had resulted in a disaster of a kitchen.

Stanton’s mom always replies to my emails with thoughtful ones of her own. This time, she wrote back, “Just think how discouraging it would have been to have a messed-up kitchen and a not-so-yummy sweet!”

This note struck a chord with me. Because it’s true. You have to make a mess sometimes.

And sometimes, if we’re lucky, our mess yields something sweet. Funfetti shortbread cookies, for example. As I was writing this, I remembered a quote I’ve always liked: “One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas Day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.” (Andy Rooney)

Cookies, Christmas morning—worthwhile messes, for sure.

…sometimes, if we’re lucky, our mess yields something sweet.

What about the messes we make that are far from sweet? The ones that are, simply, trouble?

Mistakes. Miscalculations. Faux pas and false steps.

Decisions that turned out to be bad ideas.

Around the time of my baking (mis)adventure with my daughters, I was talking with someone I care about. She expressed some doubts, some pain to me. I responded to her with my usual spiel about finding silver linings, things happening for a reason.

The more I thought about it, though…the more I thought, it’s OK to acknowledge you made a mess, plain and simple. It’s OK to look for silver linings…and not find them here. To say, “Here, we simply have a mess.

“I’m human. I made a mess. Now let’s move forward.”

We can recognize the humanity in others, but at the same time struggle to accept it in ourselves.

It can be difficult to forgive people. It can be even more difficult to forgive ourselves. But we do need to forgive ourselves…to recognize and accept our humanity…to move forward.

It’s OK to look for silver linings…and not find them here. To say, “Here, we simply have a mess.”

Even where we can’t find silver linings, we probably can uncover some learning experiences. Oh, learning experiences. Who doesn’t love those, right? 😉

Years ago, I made a mistake I still remember. I could have helped somebody more than I did. Why didn’t I? Partly, I was young and immature.

I’ve come to forgive myself for that lapse in judgment. Looking back now, I still cringe and think, Ugh, I could have been a better person. There was no silver lining there—none that I know of, at least.

There was a learning experience, though. When I have the opportunity, these days, to help people in a similar way, I do. I try to be a better person.

You have to make a mess sometimes, to become a better person.

And if you’re lucky, you make a mess, and you get two cookies on your birthday.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

 

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On Making French Onion Soup

It was a rainy day. A drizzle in the beginning, and then a downpour.

“The earth needs a drink of water,” Anna said. This is how I explained rain to her, once upon a time, and she remembered.

I don’t mind rainy days. Every now and then, especially during summertime, it’s refreshing to take a break from sunscreen, water bottles and hours-long outdoor fun (swimming! sandboxes! biking!) and simply hang out.

Read on the front porch. Watch a movie. Go to the coffee shop (my personal favorite).

Or make French onion soup, as I recently did.

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For Christmas, my brother Jared gave me a copy of The Skinnytaste Cookbook by Gina Homolka. I’ve made several recipes from it since then, and liked them all. My favorite one probably is the recipe for French onion soup.

Do you like French onion soup, friends? It might be an acquired taste; I don’t know.

When I was growing up, there was a local restaurant called Jim Dandy’s. My family and I often dined there. And when we did, I ordered their French onion soup. It was hot and cheesy—what was there not to love? Jim Dandy’s made me fall, hard, for French onion soup.

The foods we prefer now, as adults, usually are the ones we loved as children. It’s why, even at the swankiest restaurants, you often find some version of macaroni and cheese on the menu. Sure, maybe it features bites of lobster. Maybe it boasts Beaufort D’Ete. But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

So I recreated that happy childhood memory—French onion soup—that rainy day.

But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

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The Skinnytaste recipe for French onion soup estimates that it takes about an hour and a half to cook, start to finish.

I read once that you can’t rush soup…and the home cook in me begs to differ. You can rush pretty much anything if you’re hungry enough, friends.

In this recipe, the onions go through three stages of cooking: 1) softening, 2) caramelizing and 3) simmering. Each stage is supposed to consist of 30 minutes each, but I’ve found you can get the job done in about 25 minutes per stage.

It’s pretty cool, I think, to watch onions transform through softening in the beginning…

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and then caramelizing…

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and finally simmering. I took this picture before adding the dry sherry, white wine and beef stock…but hopefully, you get a sense of the distinctions in the three stages here:

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I didn’t really start cooking until after Grace was born. Before parenthood, Stanton and I loved trying out different local restaurants together, and becoming regulars at our favorites. Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner. 😉

Over the years, though, I have found a fulfillment in feeding the people I love. There must be something innate or biological about this, because I really do love eating out. But when Grace or Anna ask for a second helping of the pasta and meatballs I make every week, or the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets we always have on hand in the freezer (that counts as semi-homemade, right?)…I feel good.

Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner.

Grace and Stanton share similar tastes. Basically, they both love red meat. Burgers, steak, tacos. Grace’s favorite fast-food chain is Five Guys. Do they like my French onion soup? The answer is no, although they will politely have a few spoonfuls. Anna, however, will sit down and enjoy a bowl with me.

Because French onion soup isn’t a crowd favorite in my house, I don’t make it all the time. Just on chance rainy days.

“Some people walk in the rain; others just get wet.” (Roger Miller)

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I didn’t think, when I was younger, that I would grow up into the kind of person who makes soup on a rainy day, and enjoys it. Instead of, say, the kind of person who does something just a bit more interesting.

In the moment, as we’re living life, it’s easy to forget the value in our many, seemingly mundane tasks. Preparing food for a family. Answering the phone when a friend calls, even though we don’t have much time to talk. Helping a co-worker save face. Waving another driver into our lane from the parking lot, even though it means we may not make the green light ahead.

It’s also easy to forget, or maybe not even consider, that who we are now…what we’re doing right now…maybe this is what was meant to be all along, even if the route to our current destination was circuitous, confusing or all-out crazy.

I’m not a great cook. I can’t create a recipe like I can create story. What I can do is (mostly) follow a recipe. I can make sure nobody is hungry. I can offer second helpings and listen to what happened during everyone’s day, and share some of my own.

I offered our neighbor, who told me she had a cold, some French onion soup. She said thanks, but no thanks. “I never really got into French onion soup,” she said.

“It’s an acquired taste,” I agreed.

Anna, who was with me, crossed her arms. “My mom?” she said to our neighbor. “Her soup is delicious.”

Our neighbor laughed; I did too. It’s nice to have somebody in your corner. “I’ll have to give it another try,” she said.

“It’s OK if you don’t,” I assured her.

Some things are acquired tastes.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Last Call: Tell Me Everything

Every night, I rock my 3-year-old daughter, Anna, to sleep. Stanton thinks she’s old enough that my rocking her isn’t necessary. Just lay her down, tuck her in, he says.

It isn’t necessary, I agree, night after night. I just love doing it; she loves it too.

This isn’t efficient, he adds, as I sink into the old recliner, and Anna folds herself into me. “Squishes in to get cozy,” she calls it.

I’ll see you in about 30 minutes, I often say to Stanton. And he—he of adept efficiency—says he’ll see me then.

Sometimes we, as moms, can’t help wanting to hold our children just a little bit more. Especially if we have an older child, or older children, whose first instinct these days isn’t to reach for us, but to make requests and issue directives. Can I have a play date with Sophia? I’m tired of eating turkey-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch. Don’t walk me all the way, Mom.

At the end of the day, with my little girl, I’m unapologetically inefficient.

The recliner we have is almost seven years old. Stanton and I bought it a few months before Grace was born. It’s worn; creaky if you lean too much to the right; and the most comfortable seat in our house.

Sometimes we, as moms, can’t help wanting to hold our children just a little bit more.

The other night, I was rocking Anna. She wasn’t tired just yet. She was talking to me about Lizzy, my brother- and sister-in-law’s dog. She was saying she loved walking Lizzy, which she had done this past Thanksgiving when we were visiting them.

“Wow,” I said, surprised at her enduring memory. (I barely remember what happened yesterday.)

“Lottie and D-Daddy were there,” Anna went on. “And we walked and walked Lizzy. It was fun.”

“I’m so glad you have happy memories,” I said.

Anna nodded. “I have happy memories, Mom, but they don’t glow like in Inside Out.”

I smiled at Anna’s point of reference. “That’s OK, honey.”

Anna looked up at me with wide eyes. “There was a scary part, and Grace gave me a pillow and held my hand.”

They hadn’t watched the movie together in a while. Again, I was surprised at everything Anna remembered. “Because Grace loves you so much.”

“Yeah, I know that, Mom.” With the abundant self-confidence of a child. “Bing Bong is my favorite,” Anna added, laughing.

I laughed too. “I love all your memories.”

“But they don’t glow, Mom,” Anna reminded me. She snuggled against my chest. “And that’s what I remember.”

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As we go along in our lives, certain memories stick with us, for whatever reasons. Chance? Or maybe something scientific (a process involving synapses perhaps).

I have a clear memory of Anna, and that old recliner. Mostly clear, anyway. I’m not positive of the date, but I believe it was the day Stanton and I brought Anna home, or the day after. So Anna was three or four days old.

It was nighttime. I was in the nursery, holding Anna in the recliner. I had had a cold when I gave birth to Anna (it was February), and now she had the same cold. She could only breathe well if she was held upright; otherwise, she got congested, and coughed and sniffled. I held her upright all the time, for two weeks until she felt better. At that point, though, we were at Day 3 (or 4).

I was holding Anna against my chest, all seven pounds, eight ounces of her. Three years later, I can still almost feel her soft, newborn cheek against my chin.

Stanton walked into the nursery. He asked how I was.

I remember telling him, “I’m so happy.”

I remember that because it’s not something I say very often (which you may find surprising). I say I’m grateful all the time. Another popular self-description is frazzled. But happy—despite my glass-half-full nature, I reserve happy for moments of joy. Deep, conscious-of-something-beautiful joy.

That child was (is) my something beautiful, just like her big sister.

Stanton stayed near the door, looking at us. I remember thinking he looked oddly serious. “What?” I asked.

“I’ll take care of you and the girls,” he said.

That was encouraging to hear, considering I had just given birth to our child. Nice to know he wasn’t plotting a midnight escape, three (or four) days postpartum. 😉

My memory of that night is being happy (though exhausted), and hearing Stanton recommit that he’d stick around.

So many memories that stick with us center on people who’ve stuck with us too. Just as many are random—a motley crew of people, places, blink-and-you-would-have-missed-it moments. Walking a dog, Bing Bong, the hand of someone who loves you.

Lately, after both girls are asleep, Stanton and I have been watching Cheers reruns on Netflix. (Welcome to our cheesy life. 😉 ) Cheers may come across as unsophisticated for today’s sitcom standards (the laugh track! Rhea Perlman’s over-the-top Carla Tortelli! Coach!), but it’s sweet, classic.

I get this, Stanton said recently. A local place. People who know you, people who care.

Who wouldn’t want that? I agreed.

Although, thinking back now, some of us wouldn’t want that. Some of us may prefer living more anonymously, adventuring far and wide, footprints in the sand and memories as picturesque as postcards. I’ve been reading The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, and I love this line from it: “There was no perfect way to live” (page 302).

So many memories that stick with us center on people who’ve stuck with us too. Just as many are random…

However each of us lives, whatever differences there may be among us, I do hope everyone has a good share of happy memories.

Crazy how our minds can speed along a train of thought, a far-reaching railroad track of time, history and memory. Books, TV shows, favorite places, milestones like the birth of a child…nighttime.

The end of the day, with dark outside and lamplight glow in, often offers us the ideal setting for honest conversation. No rush. Tired so that we don’t finesse language, but speak from the heart.

The end of the day is a last call of sorts, whether we’re toasting at a Cheers-like place, winding down the day (the adventures, or the minutiae), or snuggling a child to sleep. Tell me everything…be here next time.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Ready (or Not) for Some Quality Time?

On Monday afternoon, Anna and I walked to the bus stop to pick up Grace, as we usually do. During our walk back home, Anna told Grace that earlier, I had let her eat the last of the rainbow sherbet in the freezer (half a cup, tops—nothing worth bragging about, nothing to get upset about). But of course…

“What?!”

“Come on, Grace,” I said. “Didn’t I pack you a special treat in your lunch box today?”

Grace remembered, and smirked at her little sister. “Guess what, Anna,” she said. “Mom gave me the last juice box of pink lemonade.”

I groaned. “Was that necessary? Did you have to say that, Grace?”

Meanwhile, Anna had flopped onto the sidewalk, tears sparkling in her eyes. “I love pink lemo-lade!” she cried. “I want pink lemo-lade too, Mom!”

I tried to be reasonable. “Anna, you have nothing to cry about…”

“WAAAHHH!”

Why doesn’t reasonable ever work? “Stop having a fit, or…or you lose TV.”

Anna sniffled one last time. “I love TV.” I helped her back up, and the three of us continued walking home.

Why doesn’t reasonable ever work?

My hope, every weekday afternoon, is that the hours between 4 and 6 p.m. will be good quality time before the end-of-day rush of dinner, baths and bedtime. (Ahh…quality time.) That was my hope that Monday afternoon, after the pink lemo-lade meltdown. We got home, the sun was shining…

“Let’s play outside,” I suggested.

Now it was Grace’s turn to behave disagreeably. “There are bugs outside,” she informed me.

“They won’t bother you,” I said.

“No, they do bother me,” she replied, sighing. “I wish it were winter again. There are no bugs in winter.”

“Please, let’s enjoy this beautiful day,” I said—practically begged. “Let’s have some quality time!”

“Mom.” Anna was tugging at my arm.

I glanced down at her. “Yes, honey?”

“I want to build a snow girl, Mom.”

You’re killing me, Smalls.

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My vision of good, old-fashioned afternoon quality time never materialized. In fact, it would be accurate to say the afternoon spiraled downhill…almost immediately.

When the three of us got inside the house, I saw an email from Grace’s school, requesting that we return a bag of 10 books we had borrowed from the school’s reading program (two months previously) ASAP. I found nine of the books quickly, but the last one—Bernelly and Harriet: The Country Mouse and the City Mouse—remained elusive. I began thumbing through bookshelves, peering under couches and beds, searching through various junk drawers…

Then I received another communication, this time a phone call from my better half. “Something came up with work,” Stanton said. “I’m not sure when I’ll be home.”

“Do you have any idea?” I wondered.

“No, I have no idea,” Stanton confirmed.

“Mom.”

I turned my attention to Grace (multitasking!).

“Did you find Bernelly and Harriet yet?”

“I’m still looking…”

“I have to go, Mel.” Click.

“MOM!” Anna dashed into the guest bedroom (where the 9th out of 10 books wasn’t). “There’s a bug on top of the TV!”

Grace peered over Anna’s head. “There is! You have to kill it, Mom!”

“AAAHH! Kill it, Mom!”

(In case, at this point, you’re wondering…no, I did not make up any of these details. No, I did not embellish anything for dramatic effect. This is, unfortunately…a true story.)

Anna dashed into the guest bedroom (where the 9th out of 10 books wasn’t).

Every good story has the reader, or listener, wondering what happens next. So if you’re wondering, friends…what happened next was, I did indeed kill it (the bug). Then I heated up some meatballs for dinner, and boiled water for pasta. Next, I emailed Grace’s school to apologize for temporarily misplacing or possibly permanently losing Bernelly and Harriet (“Will you have to pay for a new book, like when you lost the book from the library?”), and requested advice on next steps.

Around 6:30 p.m., the girls and I sat down for dinner.

Now, these meatballs I heated up—we all love them. They’re store-bought, from my local grocery store, but they give any Italian mamma’s homemade, love-is-the-secret-ingredient meatballs a run for their money.

“I want another meatball, Mom,” Grace said.

“Me too,” Anna added.

“And what do you say, girls?”

“You’re welcome,” Anna replied.

Grace and I looked at each other and smiled. “Please, Anna,” Grace said. “And thank you.”

Anna looked at Grace. “You’re welcome,” she repeated.

I don’t remember much more of our conversation that evening. I do remember that at that moment, Grace laughed. Then Anna did, and soon I joined in too.

I also remember that I got each of us a second serving of meatballs. And I remember that I really appreciated sitting there with my daughters, around the table…just being together.

Sometimes quality time happens when we least expect it—when we’re in the moment, in communion with the ones we love.

It’s shortsighted for us to think we can say, “This is when it gets good. The good stuff is going to happen…now. Go, quality time!”

We have no way of knowing what, exactly, will happen next. We’re writing our story moment by moment—sometimes, imperfect moment by imperfect moment. We can try really hard and plan really well, but we don’t know what happens next…not in our real-life story.

We can try really hard and plan really well, but we don’t know what happens next…not in our real-life story.

Sometimes, quality time isn’t a perfectly planned, sunny afternoon, but a thrown-together dinner featuring store-bought meatballs (which you dig into after killing a bug…but before looking, one last time, for Bernelly and Harriet).

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

The Best Part Was the Hot Dogs

I read once, somewhere, to ask your child, “What was the best part of your day?” Not, “Did you have a nice day?” which tends to elicit a one-word response, but “What was the best part?” because that question can open up a bigger, more meaningful conversation.

Sometimes, I do ask my children the question, “What was the best part of your day?” Other times, my 8 p.m. inquiries are more along the lines of, “Why did you just push your sister?” or “Did you remember to brush your teeth?”

But sometimes, sometimes, everyday life lends itself to moments of reflection deeper than sibling shenanigans and personal hygiene.

On Saturday evening, I asked my 6-year-old daughter, “What was the best part of your day?” I was giving her and my little daughter, Anna, a bath.

Grace thought for a minute.

“Was it our bike ride?” I prompted. That morning, the girls rode their bikes along the nature trail near our house. I walked along with them, until Anna asked me to carry her (and her trike) the rest of the way.

(If you and I are Facebook friends, then you already know this, because I posted a picture of this moment after it happened. 😉 )

Grace shook her head—no, not the bike ride. I rinsed shampoo out of her hair.

“Was it your play date?” Two girls from Grace’s class had come over to play that afternoon. All three kids kindly included Anna in their fun: playing with dolls, make-believe games of “Sleepover” and “Firefighters,” simply running around in the backyard.

(Like most younger siblings, Anna believed her big sister’s friends were there to play with her as much as they were there to play with Grace. Ignorance is bliss.)

“I loved the play date, but…no, that wasn’t the best part either.”

I handed Grace a washcloth. “I know,” I said, smiling. “It was when Dad came home.” Stanton had been traveling for work and walked through the front door moments earlier.

Grace smiled back at me. “Actually, Mom,” she said, “the best part was the hot dogs.”

“No way.”

Grace nodded. “Yes.”

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Around the block from us is a fire station. The red-brick building was built nearly 100 years ago, and is staffed by volunteer firefighters. Throughout the year, the firefighters host a number of community events for our neighborhood: a biweekly fish fry during Lent, educational workshops for kids, a bounce house at Halloween.

As it happened that Saturday, the firefighters were holding an open house to recruit new volunteers. Grace, Anna and I saw them outside when we were heading back home after our bike ride (which had turned into my lugging Anna and her trike, remember).

The firefighters waved us over. I could feel sweat pouring down my face. Great—I was looking presentable as usual.

“Hi, guys,” I said, setting Anna down for a minute. “Sorry, but now’s not a great time for me to volunteer.” (I knew they were working on their female enrollment.)

The firefighters smiled. “No problem. Would you all like some hot dogs?”

Grace and Anna exchanged a glance, then a smile.

“We have a lot,” they told us. “And Gatorade too.”

“Grace!” Anna exclaimed. “We love Gatorade!”

“And hot dogs,” Grace added. So the three of us sat down outside the fire station for an impromptu lunch of hot dogs and Gatorade. When we picked up our short walk home a little later, the girls concluded the firefighters were very nice.

(But let’s be serious, folks: Who doesn’t love firefighters?)

I could feel sweat pouring down my face. Great—I was looking presentable as usual.

“That was the best part of your day?” I asked Grace that night. “Why?”

Grace shrugged. “It was nice. I love hot dogs, and you never buy us Gatorade.”

“Mom!” Anna waved at me, reminding me she was there too. “We love Gatorade!”

I’ve written before about “the little things.” About how little things (like an unexpected hot dog and some Gatorade) can make us smile, can stick with us.

I’ve also written about moments in our lives that become stories, when we never might have guessed they’d be story-worthy. But then they were.

So I’m trying not to repeat myself here. Trying to find a new inspiration to pass along.

Here’s what I’ve come up with, friends.

Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. (Stanton was supposed to come home on Friday, not Saturday, but his work plans changed.) And then you try to make the best of things, and Plan B falls apart too. (Carrying Anna and her trike for what felt like miles.) And then—then—out of the blue, someone asks if you’d like a hot dog.

Just…say…yes.

Put the kid down. Let the trike fall to the sidewalk. Let Plan C be that hot dog.

Sometimes, the best part of your day will be a hot dog. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

What Where’s Waldo? Taught Me About Work and Life

My 3-year-old daughter was this close to nodding off for a post-preschool nap. Her head rested against my chest. I kept rocking—slowly, slowly—and reading the story I’d been reading for the past twenty-five minutes, my voice singsong like a lullaby.

I could almost taste the freedom of the upcoming nap. I’d make a fresh, hot cup of coffee (OK, two cups). The house would be quiet.

Best of all, I’d have time to work on a writing project. About two hours before we needed to walk down the block to pick up my older daughter from the bus stop.

I was so close to that happening.

Yes, cliffhanger revealed—it didn’t happen. Like many a maternally disposed freelance writer before me, I took a deep breath and resigned myself to working on my project later, much later, that day, after the kids had fallen asleep…but before one of them woke up in the middle of the night, in need of a sip of water or comfort from a bad dream or myriad other things that moms address with Sandman fresh in their eyes (while dads somehow, mysteriously, manage to sleep through all the 2 a.m.-ish drama).

Instead of napping, Anna wanted to find Waldo. She grabbed the puzzle book from the table and began looking for the bespectacled adventurer. “Where is he?” she wondered.

I peered at the page, a chaotically colorful beach scene. “Hmm.” I readjusted my gaze to the top of the page and started scrutinizing every square inch from left to right, top to bottom, as if I were reading again.

“Where is he?” Anna repeated.

My all-in strategy wasn’t working. Frustrated, I blinked. When I opened my eyes, I saw, instantly, the elusive character.

“There he is!” I pointed; Anna beamed.

I turned the page. Again, I didn’t try so hard to answer the question, “Where’s Waldo?” I simply looked at the page, as a whole, and once again, Waldo seemingly jumped out at me.

There he was, again.

My all-in strategy wasn’t working.

Some days, I struggle to find time to write. I depend on a pieced-together schedule of school, naps, babysitters and Burning the Midnight Oil to do everything I want to do, and need to do. My work/child-care puzzle resembles a page out of a “Where’s Waldo?” book.

But…it works. If I don’t let myself get bogged down by all the stuff—a displaced two hours here, not enough contract work there—then I can see that the puzzle that is my writing life as a mom works. I just need to look at the big picture, as I did with my daughter and her “Where’s Waldo?” book that afternoon.

The big picture shows me that motherhood has made me a better writer. More than anything, motherhood has taught me patience (oh, has it taught me patience). Bring on the impossible-sounding clients, tasks and deadlines—they’re nothing I haven’t already handled with my usually demanding and occasionally irrational children.

Motherhood has given me perspective. My early-20s, first-job-out-of-college self would shake her head or reach for the Tylenol Extra Strength if something didn’t go her way—if an assignment dared to unfold less than perfectly, or a chain of emails unraveled out of control, misunderstanding everywhere. The early years of parenting have clued me in to a liberating pearl of wisdom: To progress, you have to go with the flow.

And sometimes, you have to hit the pause button—not the panic one.

Perfection is an even more elusive needle in the haystack than Waldo.

needle-in-a-haystack-1752846_960_720

As I was proofreading an earlier version of this essay that you’re reading now, Anna climbed onto my lap, reached for the laptop keyboard and said, “I want to push buttons.”

“No, honey.” I moved her hand away.

Anna wrestled her hand back. “Yes, I do!”

I closed the laptop. “You…drive…me…”

“Crazy!” Anna laughed. I must have said it a time or two (maybe three) before, if my preschooler could finish the sentence/sentiment.

Sometimes, work and life with kids is crazy. Everyone needs to be out the door by a certain time in the morning, when someone spills their cup of milk. Then someone else accidentally walks through it. Just as another family member gets a text about an on-the-job crisis. And then inevitably, someone will say, “I can’t find the shoes I want to wear today!

“Where are my shoes?”

(Always.with.the.shoes.)

…sometimes, you have to hit the pause button—not the panic one.

I can only speak from my experience, which by nature is limited. But in my experience, what I’ve come to learn—what moments like “Where’s Waldo?” with Anna have taught me—is that motherhood has given my work heart. Maybe it’s given your work heart too.

Being a parent has opened my eyes to emotions like joy, and concerns like environmental justice. I’m not perfect—not even close—but I’m more aware than I was before. I want to make the world as good as it can be, however I can, because my children (and, maybe someday, their children) are here in it.

When I write now, as a mom, it’s with this outlook in mind. How might this story I’m working on uplift someone? What lesson might it teach?

How might this grant proposal I’m editing make a difference in someone’s life, if the nonprofit I’m collaborating with wins program funding?

In my 13 years as a writer (half of those as a mother/writer), I’ve read articles and perspectives seeking to pinpoint why women writers’ journeys can be more challenging than their male counterparts’. The answer is fairly obvious.

The novelist Kim McLarin said, at a PEN/New England discussion on the topic of “Mothers & Writing,” “Stephen King has said that to get his writing done, he has to just close the door. Easy for him to say…If I close the door, someone’s calling child services on me.”

Kids do seem to contribute to the professional differences between (many, if not most) women and (many, if not most) men—not only in writing, but also in other fields, from science to law enforcement to sports. Once a woman becomes a parent, she’s a parent in a way a man simply is not, at least for the time she takes off to recover from childbirth. A mother experiences more of a pause in her life and in her work, even if for only a few days, or weeks, or months.

(Let’s not even consider here who usually hears and responds to the kids’ crying out at 2 a.m., knows the names and contact information for everyone from pediatric dentists to best friends’ parents, and remembers to schedule the munchkins for annual well visits, after-school programs, etcetera…)

Not every family, of course, consists of a mom and a dad. And not every family welcomes their children through childbirth; physical recovery isn’t an issue in these cases.

Generally speaking, however, motherhood can sideline professional goals, for a little while or, perhaps, longer.

Sometimes you hit that pause button, right?

…motherhood has given my work heart. Maybe it’s given your work heart too.

On the other hand, motherhood can inspire even more admirable professional goals. Seven years later, I’m still a little surprised at the wild success of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I get that its early electronic versions made “Fifty Shades of Grey” easy and discreet for people to read. I understand erotica is a popular genre (it’s not my favorite genre, but I have read it). But the writing—the writing, friends.

The writing of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is bad. It is, objectively, bad. And it’s fan fiction, basically. I wrote fan fiction of my favorite TV shows when I was in high school (not something I like to brag about!)…and it was bad too.

According to Forbes, however, E. L. James has a net worth of $95 million. (My net worth? Like yours, nowhere near there.) The bottom line: The general public doesn’t care about the bad writing that is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

I care, though. I care about the work I do. I care about leaving a legacy of writing that—if they read it someday—my daughters can be proud of.

Last week, a magazine let me know they had accepted a short story I had submitted to them. The story is about a woman’s despair, and surprising endurance. I think Grace and Anna will enjoy reading it someday, and I hope it will be an inspiration for other women much sooner.

The magazine will be publishing my story in about four months. I almost couldn’t believe their email of acceptance to me—I’ve had a humbling streak of rejections with my creative writing lately.

My family knows this, and so when I shared the good news with them, they were happy for me—especially the girls.

“Yay, Mom!” Grace cheered.

“MOM!!!” Anna yelled, clapping her hands. And one second later: “I want pizza!”

Work, life and kids can be crazy. Can be a hot mess. Can be a scene straight out of “Where’s Waldo?”

Every now and then, it helps to hit pause. To take a breath. To look at the big picture.

When you look at the big picture—your big picture—what do you see, friends?

Wherever you are right now, if you’re somebody’s mom or dad, then what you’re doing, whatever it is, it’s for that little person (or little people). They love you more than anything, and they count on you for everything. Whatever kind of work you do, whatever puzzle your work/life looks like, so much of it’s for them.

They may not know that yet. Possibly they won’t know it for years, not until they have a family of their own. So let me say then, on their behalf…because it took me a long time to recognize all the love and sacrifice my own parents put into my childhood…let me tell you, on your little people’s behalf, THANK YOU.

THANK YOU for where you are right now. THANK YOU for what you’re doing, and for everything you did, and for everything you will do. THANK YOU for making our world a better place.

(And a million other things too: It’s OK you can’t chaperone the field trip. I’m sorry I was rude. I’ll listen to your advice next time. I’ll stop rolling my eyes all the time. I know you tried. You were right. You were right. You were right. I love you.)

But mostly…THANK YOU.

(P.S. Where are my shoes?)

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Mom, Why Did You Have Two Kids?

Grace, Anna and I were driving home on a weekday afternoon. Grace had had an early dismissal from school. After picking her up at the bus stop, the three of us ate a hasty lunch of leftovers from the night before and then zoomed over to her pediatrician’s office for an overdue annual well visit. Following the well visit, we ran a few more needed errands, the last of which was a stop at the grocery store for, of course, milk, plus a few other things.

Every time, without fail, the first item I write on the grocery list is milk. Maybe you do too.

That afternoon at the grocery store, I was about to pay when Anna clasped her hands together and yelled, “Mom! I need to go potty now!”

“OK,” I said, paying and then asking a kind store employee to keep an eye on our cart of groceries while I hurried Anna to the restroom, with Grace trailing behind.

Eventually, we were back in the car, our groceries stowed in the back. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but something happened that caused Anna to throw a tantrum as I buckled her into her car seat. I shook my head as I climbed into the driver’s seat. There was always something.

I began driving home.

“Mom.” Grace’s thoughtful voice interjected Anna’s continued yelling. “Why did you have two kids?”

I paused, surprised. (The way Grace asked the question, I couldn’t be sure if her implication was that wrapping it up at one kid—herself, Grace—might have been the way to go.)

I wanted to tell Grace the truth, and not simply respond with a trite explanation. I smiled at a memory that was crystal-clear in my head. “What happened, Grace, is that…”

Two Kids

About four years ago, Stanton and I were having dinner out together—a somewhat rare date night. Grace was about 2½. We had gotten through our first couple of years of parenthood, and life felt manageable. Grace was sleeping well at night and enjoying her preschool. Things were good with both Stanton’s work and mine—I was glad to have found a part-time writing job at a marketing company after taking some time away from full-time work. Our life had a good rhythm.

So Stanton and I were sitting together at a table for two. Our food hadn’t come out yet. To my left, I saw a middle-aged couple sitting together in a booth. Across from them sat a teenage girl, whom I guessed was their daughter. The three of them seemed happy and comfortable together.

In that moment, I saw a flash forward of Stanton, Grace and me, ten or twelve years down the road. To this day, I still remember that moment—picturing a future of our own (current) family of three, enjoying dinner together.

I looked across our table, at Stanton, and gestured to the booth to my left. “That could be us someday. You, Grace and me.”

Stanton glanced over and nodded. “Could be,” he agreed.

I looked at the booth again, and then closed my eyes to consider the flash-forwarded picture in my mind. There was something about that picture I just didn’t feel. Something felt off, to me.

Someone was missing.

Someone was missing at our dinner table.

The connection between food and family played a major role in my Italian-American upbringing. It makes sense to me, then, that my thoughts about motherhood, in that moment, were tied to food, and a dinner table, and the people at that table.

“I feel like someone else should be there with us,” I told Stanton. “At our table.”

Stanton paused. He had two brothers and a sister, just as I did. He appreciated the meaning that siblings could bring to a person’s life. He also knew—as I did—that our first years of parenthood had been so hard. Did we really want to do all that again?

We both gave it some more thought, and obviously, the answer was yes.

I’m so happy and grateful we found our way to “yes.”

I told a shorter version of this story to Grace (ultimately, Anna calmed down to listen too). I pulled into the driveway and glanced in the rearview mirror. “What do you think?”

Grace met my gaze in the mirror. “I’m happy we have Anna.”

I smiled. “Me too. And I’m happy we have you.”

Grace smiled back.

We each find our way into the family that makes sense for us. There is no “one size fits all.” What makes sense for one person may not make sense for someone else.

On a related note… The girls recently asked Stanton and me if we would get them a baby brother, a puppy or a fish. This was, perhaps, the easiest multiple-choice question we ever had to answer.

No deep thinking needed, friends: We’re getting a fish. 😉

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.