This Kid

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This kid.

Being a mom is strange. You decide: the timing is right, finally. You feel a persistent knocking from the other side. Or surprise! And you make a different sort of choice, and with your own body you create a whole new person.

I have long understood that when you get pregnant, you aren’t having a baby. You’re having a person, who happens to start as a baby, but whose life will be more than just that baby time.

But I am also just beginning to understand what that actually means. How the little clump of cells you chose to allow to grow become a body and that body is a person and that person…that person will have you, yes, but not only you, and while they never stop being the most important people in your life, your children become people who have many important people, and one of them is their mom.

It hurts and it is also glorious because it is your goal, as a mother: to help them learn enough to not need you, even though you will never stop needing them.

And this kid—he is right on the cusp of that transition. Sixteen. Sixteen!

Kaleb is the baby I pined for. There is a five year gap between him and his closest sibling, because of various financial difficulties we went through. But through those years I never, ever stopped wanting him and hoping for him and begging heaven to make the time right and then finally the time was, at last, right. For me, I cannot separate those years of wanting from the reality of his existence. In some ways it could’ve been easier to let that hope go, to set it aside, to be OK with the three very-loved children I already have. But it never went away. I suppose if I had chosen that eventually I would’ve processed it but some part of me would’ve always been broken by that longing.

But for him, his life is just his life.

He is funny in an entirely uniquely-Kaleb way. He is quirky. He is determined and stubborn. He is dedicated to his sport (basketball) and loyal to his friends. He is stoic. He doesn’t love reading. He loved fried chicken. He has the sweetest heart—since he understood it, he’s been bothered by homeless people and has wanted to help them. He loves the ocean. He hates having his picture taken. He likes a huge variety of music, including some alternative 80s tunes. He can be loud but he also has a quiet side. He loves a good caramel iced latte. He works SO hard at keeping his body healthy and strong. He makes a mean sandwich and an excellent pile of scrambled eggs.

I love him so much.

I am so grateful I didn’t give up on hoping and praying and wanting and imagining. On wishing him here, on calling him down to this earth,  whoever he was supposed to be.

I love who he is and who he is growing to be.

I am so grateful he is here in the world.

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An Emotion I Don't Know the Word For: on Time and Daughters Growing

When my kids were newborns, I cried a lot. I would look at them, their tiny toes and perfect skin, their unscarred-by-the-world innocent smiles, and cry. I loved the experience of mothering my babies, and I knew it would be fleeting, that the tininess and the gentleness would end. I wanted to hold on to them, to make them stay forever small, but at the same time I wanted to know them, to speak to them, to listen to the story of their day, to bake them their favorite cake.

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I was so happy in those sweet, blissful moments, even with the diapers and the spit up and the exhaustion. The clean-baby smell, the long hours spent just rocking or holding a tiny human, singing Yaz songs to them quietly in my awful voice. I loved them so much and I wanted to protect them and I knew I couldn’t, not fully, not completely, because they were here to grow up and become a part of the world, the world that would need them but also sometimes harm them. I knew they would have their hearts broken and be betrayed, that they would have illnesses and broken bones and all sorts of struggles. I knew that life, no matter how good, also holds difficulties. We can’t be human without them and yet I wanted to keep them away from every type of pain and damage.

My mom told me it was just hormones and I would stop crying eventually.

And sort of, I did. I learned that there is joy in all of the phases of parenting. It’s never the same as that first rush of newborn love, but that is just fine. There are a million different types of love you are blessed to feel as a mom.

But even as I loved each phase, I still, in the moment of it, was deeply aware that it wouldn’t last. This joy—the magic of her reading her first words out loud, his absolute bliss the first time he ran across the beach toward the ocean, the pride infusing his whole body as he managed to ride his bike without wobbling, his concentrated admiration of an orange flower as he struggled to balance in the green grass. At each good moment I still felt the tug, that same sorrow right in the middle of happiness.

I don’t know if there is a word for this feeling: The awareness, while in the middle of happiness, that the happiness itself is ephemeral, so that part of the happiness is always a deep sadness over its ending.

I don’t know if everyone feels that, even.

But it is a feeling I have had ever since they first put my daughter Haley into my arms.

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Yesterday was Haley’s 26th birthday. We got an email from our health insurance company letting us know that a life event had happened to change our policy: she aged out.

And I confess: It made me cry. That same kind of crying that I did when she was a newborn, barely seven pounds, and I was terrified I would do everything wrong but I knew I loved her too much to ever make any mistakes and I would do whatever it took to protect her all her life.

All her life. Pediatrician visits and immunizations. Broken bones. Eye doctor and the dentist. The dermatologist for her plantar warts. Stitches. Physical therapy for her shin splints. All the way up to adult medical needs: I’ve taken care of that, taken care of her in those ways, for every day of her life.

And now she’s on her own.

The feeling is the same, but my understanding of it is different. When they were newborns, the feeling was about them being newborns. Now they are adults, the feeling is about them being newborns and toddlers and schoolkids and teenagers and who they are right now. The feeling is about knowing the feeling will never go away and that I wouldn't want it to.

Right in the midst of birthday happiness, of taking the day to think about all of the things she has accomplished and the good things that are happening in her life, I was reminded there is no holding on to any moment. Time just keeps passing. All we have is now, and now is infinitely precious because in a second it will be replaced by another now.

Thoughts on Missing Nathan

This kid…right now he is my inspiration. I suspect he will be for many years.

I miss him. I miss him so much.

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I miss him teasing me about how much cheese is in the fridge. Yesterday I counted: 10. Swiss, mozerella, asiago, two kinds of parmesan, Romano, sharp cheddar, white cheddar, Muenster, jack. Ten different kinds of cheese and no Nathan to tease me about it.

I miss speaking Spanish with him. His grammar is better than mine and I remember different words than he does, so most of the time we talk in circles, using synonyms and almost-words and a few gestures until we start laughing and explain our thinking in English.

I miss seeing him sitting at the kitchen counter, drawing something. I miss having someone who’s excited when I tell him about buying three new colors of Copics. In fact, the fact that none of my Copics are missing right now, they’re all in their places instead of a few in the kitchen drawer and a few in his bedroom and the aqua one in his backpack: that makes me miss him, too.

I miss gathering up his laundry. (Yes, I know: he’s 19. Why was I still doing his laundry? Not because he asked me to. He could do it on his own. But it felt like one of the last services I could do for him, so I didn’t mind.)

I miss the obscene amounts of groceries I’d have to buy to keep him fed.

I miss him talking to me, and laughing with me, and knowing exactly when I needed a hug. Even if I was acting like I didn’t need a hug.

I miss him.

But he’s sending letters. And ever since I was in fourth grade and had a pen pal from Sweden, I’ve loved getting mail. Every time I check the mailbox I am hopeful there will be another letter in his handwriting, and about every week, or every ten days, there is one. Once three letters came at the same time.

I can tell…he is changing. He is learning and meeting new people and having experiences.

But he’s also still Nafe, still funny and caring.

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In his letters I’ve learned that he is always cold and always freezing. Yes, he’s in the south. But it’s still chilly there, and it’s a humid coldness. He’s not used to that, and plus, he’s like me, he gets cold easily anyway. He misses the smell of the clothes I washed for him, he misses me doing his laundry.

And that is how he is inspiring me. When I’m out hiking or running and I’m cold, I think “but Nathan’s probably colder, and he has to be cold all day, so I will keep going.” I finish my run, I hike longer than I had intended, I take a little bit of his courage and use it in the small ways of my life.

When I’m feeling lazy and thinking “maybe I’ll just get a pizza for dinner,” I think about Nathan being hungry all the time, and missing my cooking, and it inspires me to cook for Kendell, Kaleb, and Jake.

And…this is probably silly. But I have two of his sweatshirts. They’re way too big for me but so comfy. So I don’t have any laundry, really, to do for Nathan. But I still wear his sweatshirts, and wash them, and remember that he is grateful for that little service I did for him. Wearing his big maroon sweatshirt helps me miss him just a little bit less. It makes me feel less discouraged about the kind of mother I was. It inspires me to be better, to watch for other little ways I can help Kaleb and Jake and Haley. It reminds me that family relationships are built with time and effort and that while I have never been a perfect mom, I have tried, and then I start crying a little bit, there in my laundry room, because I love him and I love all of my kids so much and I’m just so grateful I got to be their mom.

I’m in my laundry room crying and he’s out in the world. He’s learning and changing and making other relationships. My influence on his life will continue to be less.

But, this kid. I have a feeling that he will inspire me, not just now, but for the rest of my life.

on Nathan, or Wishing Time Could Stand Still

Right now—right now—this boy is asleep in his bed in his bedroom in our house, the bedroom that is underneath the office where I am writing. Right now I just put a load of his clothes into the washing machine. The last load of his clothes I will wash for a while. Maybe the last load of his clothes I will wash ever. Nathan amy jan 2019

Right now he is here, sleeping like only he can, delved deep, burrowed under. He can sleep like this for hours, into the late afternoon some days. This will be his last morning of sleeping in at our house in his own bed.

Everyone in your life brings you something specific. Nathan brings me goodness. He tries so hard to be thoughtful and considerate of me. He makes me laugh. He reminds me that I am stronger than I think. He is insistent in hugging me, even when someone else’s kindness is almost too painful to bear. He is a light and a brightness in my life; sometimes I start to think that he is my only Person, the one person in my life who tries to see me and love me for who I am and not who they need me to be.

(Then I remind myself that that is too heavy a thing for a son to carry, and not his role or responsibility.)

He isn’t perfect, of course. He swears too much and dirty jokes fly out of his mouth. He gets annoyed at irresponsible or frustrating people. He loses his patience with his brothers and he shouts at his dad.

And thank God he isn’t perfect, because no one is.

I have a clear memory from the day he was born. Fresh to the world, he looked up at me, and I had an overwhelming sense of his nature, of who he would be. It washed over me in an almost-physical way, like a piece of cloth. The feeling was this: this child will be both gentle and fierce. Gentle and fierce. This feeling proved true, for he is both of those things. He is brave and he carries his softness in a brave way, not letting the world take it from him.

I thought on that day he was born that I had so many years, so much time of learning about him and teaching him and watching him become who he was. So much time.

And I did. “Nathan” means “gift from God” and that is exactly what he has been in my life. A brightness, a tenderness, a person I am endlessly grateful God gave to me. My son who loves knives and art, all at the same time, who can draw and paint, box and lift weights.

But it’s still not enough time. Or it just went too fast.

Right now, while I am writing this, he is sleeping. Sleeping under a quilt I made him.

But after I write this, I will have to wake him up.

Today, we will box up the rest of his bedroom. Much of it has already been packed, but today we will finish it. That last load of clean clothes will be dried and most of them will also be put into a box.

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, we will get up, and drive with him to Camp Williams. Then we will hug him goodbye, and he will set off on his new adventure. Basic training and then learning a foreign language in the National Guard.

This is not my first time having a child leave home. Haley went to college for five years, and now she lives in Colorado. Jake moved out with friends after high school. Nathan is not my first child I have had to let go of, to send out into the world with only my hopes and prayers around him, wearing clothes that I washed. I can do this.

But this feels harder, somehow. This feels more permanent. This is a beginning for him, but it is an end for me.

I know I will always be his mother. But this feels like the end of mothering him.

He will come home changed. I hope the changes are good ones: fiercer but also more understanding of the strength and importance of his gentleness. I hope that these experiences don’t cause the fierceness to overwhelm the gentleness.

I almost can’t breathe for thinking about all of the ways he could be hurt.

Tomorrow. In 24 hours…in 20 hours, I could sit down again at this same computer, in the office that is over his bedroom. But it won’t be his bedroom anymore. And he won’t be sleeping there.

All of the time, the days and minutes and seconds and weeks…they all dissolved, and what I am left with are memories, and photos, and the way his existence has made mine better. All I am left with his hope, and fear, and worry. But also I have courage, the courage he was born with that he shared with me. And belief that he will take his fierceness and his gentleness to other people as well.

No mother gets to keep her children forever. They all grow up and make their own lives, as they should.

But oh, it is bittersweet.

And I only have a few hours left to savor.

Thoughts on Finding Your Ideal Life

When Haley was little and I was pregnant with Jake, I had a conversation with a dear friend that troubled me for many years. We were talking about motherhood and babies; I was expecting and she had a newborn. I’ve forgotten the crux of the conversation, but I will never forget something she said: “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a mother,” she said, her face happy as she patted her son, who was slung over her shoulder in that milk-drunk contented sprawl that babies have. “I don’t want a career or anything else. I just want to be a mom.”

Her comment troubled me because not only was that not how I felt (or ever had felt), it is what our culture (we are both LDS) tells us we are supposed to feel. An ideal LDS family, it seemed to me then, was one with a husband who had a fantastic job that paid for a big, beautiful house and provided enough money that the wife could be a stay-at-home mom, happily raising her children. (Who would all grow up to also have this ideal life.)

While I did want to be a stay-at-home mom, I also had other aspirations. I wanted to finish my education. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be a mom and other things. And I had always wanted that; when I was a little girl playing with dolls, I never just mothered them. I took them to imaginary places. We went on airplanes together. I got them dressed and took them to the babysitter and then picked them back up. (The “babysitter” was another doll.) Even as that very little version of myself, I wanted to be a mother but I also wanted to be other things.

And the fact that I wanted that AND felt, to my very-young and still-learning-about-being-an-adult self, to be wrong somehow. Like the aspiring part of me was someone I had to tamp down and control.

But life has a way of teaching us what we don't know we need to learn.

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My "mother's day" photo this year, a few days late: me and my kids at twilight on a beach in Hilo, Hawaii. Non-awesome exposure because the sun was almost down, but a photo I love and cherish anyway.

I did get to be a stay-at-home mom, something I wanted desperately to do when my kids were young. I feel blessed that I had that time, even though it was difficult.

When I had to start working away from my kids, because of financial difficulties, I was devastated. Angry and frustrated because I thought I had chosen what I needed to choose in order to continue to be blessed in that way. I always felt lucky to be a sahm, even though I always had those aspirations, because I wanted to have that time with my kids, have those experiences that can only come when you’re at home all day with small children. It was difficult and sometimes I felt lonely and lost, but I never resented it. When I had to give it up, the devastation came because I didn’t get to continue having those moments. I wasn’t ready to stop being a stay-at-home mom, and those years of working full time as a teacher were difficult.

But they were also rewarding. They taught me that I could find happiness and satisfaction in many different roles. They gave my children some positive experiences that shaped them in ways I couldn’t have. They also taught me the value of choice, of considering my options and striving to choose what was right not just for my family but also for myself. They taught me the value of my aspirations.

During my time of being a mother, I have also been a student, a writer, a teacher, and a librarian. I have been a person who makes things and who teaches other people how to make things. A runner, a hiker. Even a traveler (although not nearly enough).

Now I am in what I am starting to think of as the post-minivan time of motherhood. We only need a car with four seatbelts, and car seats are a thing of the past. It’s been years since I had little ones; I’m in the middle of teenagers and new adults. And I still have aspirations. I still have many things I want to do: write successfully to a wide audience; travel to many more places; hike as many peaks as I can. Inspire more people to love books and libraries. Run another marathon or two or five, run even more half marathons. I have even started to imagine myself becoming active in local politics. And: I plan on continuing to take care of my children, even if they are no longer children. I hope their futures intertwine with mine, I hope they find good spouses and I hope their spouses want a relationship with me, too. I hope my kids become parents one day. If they want. More than anything, I want them to find lives that they love, lives that are ideal for them. I want them to choose the things that will bring them the deepest happiness which is, I’m convinced, not based on fulfilling someone’s idea of what is ideal but their individual and unique versions of ideal.

And I hope through all of that to be a mother to them.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a dear friend that’s been troubling me a little bit. It’s such a different format of conversation than the one I had twenty years ago with my old friend (who did, by the way, achieve her desire: she has a large family and has been able to stay at home with them), over Facebook, so I could write the exact crux of it. But what matters is her concern: what will she do with herself when her youngest child heads off to school? Who will she be? How will she bear having those days of actively mothering her little kids come to an end?

What troubles me is that she only feels sadness about this new chapter in her life, not excitement. Don’t get me wrong: I, too, was sad when Kaleb headed off to first grade. But I was also excited for the time I had to pay more attention to myself. I’m troubled for her—that she might mourn too long, or always look backward instead of focusing on what is here before her. Motherhood is a blessing, but it is not the only thing that defines us. It troubles me because our culture sometimes focuses on motherhood without acknowledging that we are all, also, other things, and that the intense work of mothering small children always comes to an end. They grow up. What you will be when that happens is up to you, and that choice is also a blessing.

Our conversation, though, also helped me to understand again a knowledge I am continually relearning. When I look back over the shape that my life has taken over the past 25 years, I do feel blessed. Lucky, even. But I don’t have that ideal LDS family. I don’t have the big, beautiful home on the bench (preferably near a temple). I have adult children who aren’t interested in the church. I have my own struggles with my faith. But between the opportunities God blessed me with and the choices I made, I have been able to find my own ideal, too. Or at least, I am in the process of creating it. I won’t be finished making it until I am finished with my life.

This is what I didn’t know when I had that long-ago conversation with my friend: her desire to be a stay-at-home mom wasn’t bad, and my desire to be a mom and something else was also not bad. Like motherhood itself, my aspirations for an and are God-given. They are part of who I am and to deny them is to deny how God made me.

I cherished my days as a stay-at-home mom. And I am cherishing my days right now, in my post-minivan world. I am a mother and I am many other things, and that, for me, is the ideal. And I think it should be everyone’s ideal: find who you are. Choose who you will be. If that choice is staying at home, do that if you can. If that choice is being a mom with a career, do that. The ideal image of the perfect Mormon family is only that: an image. Perfect is what you create for yourself.

Perfect is the act of choosing, with all of the attendant messiness that happens after. Perfect is embracing who you are. Perfect is knowing that is ideal.

Middle-Aged and Older: Why I'll Always Be a Scrapbooker

All day yesterday, I found myself thinking about this post I read on Cathy Zielske’s blog that morning. (I admire Cathy quite a bit, partly because I think if we met in real life she would understand my need to avoid titchy fonts, widows, and bad rags, and I wouldn’t even have to explain what those words meant. So this isn’t me criticizing her ideas; more, it is me exploring my response.) In her post, she writes about how, as the middle-aged mother of two older kids, she is finding that she makes more cards and fewer layouts.

It took me all day to figure out why this made me bristle a little bit.

It’s not that I disagree with anything she said, especially about scrapbooking your adult children. As my kids have gotten older and started leaving home, I do scrap less about their current experiences. This is because I am less involved with their daily lives, which means I have fewer stories to tell and fewer pictures

Scrapbooks on bookshelf
My dad's old brownie camera

of them. And, the fact is, I’ve made very few scrapbook layouts about experiences my kids have had without me. This isn’t because I make their layouts about me (I try not to), but because I only feel…well, I first wanted to write “capable,” but really, the right word is “responsible”: I feel responsible to tell the stories I know. So even when I have photos of trips they’ve gone on without me, it’s rare that I make a layout with them, because what would I write? So as they go out into the world, I make fewer layouts about them, and what I do make is mostly about holidays, because they are (sometimes) here for them.

But more important is this fact: I’m finding this part of parenting to be far more difficult than I ever imagined it would be. Much of what I am now capable of is telling my reactions to their experiences, which I “witness” mostly through social media and texting. These feel more appropriate in a journal than a scrapbook. Their stories are becoming their stories. Their choices are not really influenced much by me anymore, nor their consequences. I feel less of a responsibility to record their stories for them. Plus, it would just feel sort of…weird, somehow. To try to record things I didn’t experience. Like I was invading their space or controlling their experiences.

All of which Cathy says in her blog post.

I think what made me bristle is the suggestion that once our kids are of a certain age, the need to create scrapbook layouts diminishes and can be replaced by other crafts.

Don’t get me wrong; I do make things besides scrapbook layouts. I made quilts! And sometimes I make cards.

But there is a certain type of satisfaction that scrapbooking gives me. It is something I’ve written about before, the way that it gives me a space to pair a photograph with words; it gives me a chance to write. That matters most to me, more than pretty paper or alphabet stamps or even my current obsession, which is puffy stickers. (Even though those matter, too.)

But there is also something else I get from scrapbooking, and it has something to do with that word: responsibility.

And it also has to do with me and my own quirks, even when I am making layouts for and about my kids, so I know this is my response and not necessarily universal.

One of my clearest memories from my childhood is the day I found an old check register. It was one kept by my dad, so it was in his squared-off handwriting. And it happened to be the register from the months before and after my birth. I don’t remember what checks they actually wrote during that time, but I will never forget the feeling I had, sitting in the basement by the record player looking at that check register. It felt both mysterious and enlightening—that so much had happened not just in the world at large but in my family members’ lives that I didn’t know about or remember. Or that I didn’t exist yet to witness. Maybe it was the first time I realized how small my place in the universe is. (Maybe I was just a weird kid.) But it ignited something within me, a need to know about the things that happened to people I knew before I knew them.

Flash forward roughly twenty years later, to a day not long after my grandma Elsie died. She was a reader, and my dad took on the responsibility of going through her massive collection of books, looking for valuable editions or rare titles. As I am also a reader, I helped him with this task. But I didn’t really care about the books themselves (which were mostly paperback mysteries anyway). What I was looking for was a diary, or a journal, or a date book. Or even a check register. Something written in my grandma’s hand about her life. I assumed that since she was a reader, like me, she’d also be a writer (like me). But if she ever wrote any journals, or any stories about her life, we didn't find them that day.

Now flash forward another almost-twenty years, to the morning my dad died. His brother Roe brought some photo albums to us, photo albums my grandma Elsie had put together. And then, on that morning which was already swimming in tears, I wept other, sweeter ones. Because there they were: her words in her handwriting, telling her story. And telling my dad’s story. Not all of it—barely even anything. But she wrote “beautiful Bryce Canyon” next to some photos of Bryce Canyon, and so I learned that my grandma, like me, loved Bryce Canyon. On the back of a photo of my dad standing next to a tree in her yard when he was middle-aged—perhaps even my age right now—she wrote “Don planted this tree when he was a little boy.” And so I learned that my grandma, like me, looked for patterns and relationships between objects and time and people.

Photos from my grandmas album
Photos from my grandma's photo album. Yellowed and scratched but so important to me.

(It’s really a shame she died before she learned about scrapbooking. She would’ve scrapbooked the hell out of stuff, I think.)

That is also why I scrapbook: because it raises a sort of desolation in me that none of the people who came before me left a record of their lives. Maybe this is a thing my children will never care about—maybe that desolation is just my quirk. But by making scrapbook layouts I can lessen the possibility of any of them ever feeling that same desolation. So in that sense it is for them—but it’s also for me. Time is circular, remember, or it is somehow, and it feels like I am assuaging that ache in my own heart by making layouts about other people. Which makes no logical sense—but it still makes sense. Heart sense.

Or maybe it’s just that when we are parents, what we try to give our children isn’t necessarily always what they need, but what we needed that no one gave us.

So yes: I can see as my kids get older, I will make fewer layouts. About them. At least, about their current lives. But I still have so many stories to tell. And not just about them, but about me, too.

Sometimes I worry that, when I’m the one who’s passed away, and someone is cleaning out my house, the scrapbooks will feel like a burden. Like my kids will see them as stuff they have to figure out what to do with. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s a possibility.

There are a lot of layouts.

But the other side of that fear is hope. Hope that they’ll be glad that some part of their story is recorded. Hope that they’ll be glad that a little part of their mother is put down on paper. Hope, even, in a day sometime past my own death, when a grandchild or a great grandchild discovers their parent’s scrapbook, and then they discover something about me, too. Some similarity, some likeness.

And that is one of the reasons that even as a middle-aged mother, and even when I am actually and literally old, I will still be scrapbooking. Yes, it’s about fulfilling that creative need. But it’s also, for me, about feeling responsible, for whatever reason, for the stories, and for making sure that if someone in the future needs their parent’s story, or their grandma Amy’s, they will have it.

Photo of me and elsie on my 12th birthday
Elsie and me on my 12th birthday.

Christmas Layers

(This post inspired by this one by my sister Becky.)

I have written more than once about how, for me, a large part of the pleasure of the holidays is memory. There is the remembering of childhood Christmases and, now that my kids have grown older, the remembering of their childhood Christmases which are, for me, memories of a different kind of mothering than I do now. It is a bittersweet remembering, these Christmas memories; each one reminds me of how much time is already gone and how fast an entire life can pass.

Memory is, in fact, my primary motivator for Christmas experiences. One of my greatest hopes is that my kids will all look back on their Christmas memories—when they are old enough to be nostalgic for them—with happiness. That some flavor or smell or texture will be a trigger and take them back to good memories. Thus wrapping all the gifts in coordinating paper, thus the prettiest bows I could find, thus Santa with his unique handwriting; thus baking and candles and traditions.

I hope their memories sustain them as mine do.

Last week, my sister-in-law came across some old photos, including this one of my little family in 1998:


I love that picture. Jake's wave, which was entirely spontaneous, and the way Haley is holding her hands, and the almost-pleasant expression on Kendell's face. I love that I can remember being that mom, with little kids, and how fun it was to shop for toys for them. I know I was also tired—I had just finished my next-to-last semester at BYU and was facing down 18 more credits the next semester; Jake had two ear infections and pneumonia that December and Haley had the stomach flu. But I was also happy in a different way from how I am happy now. I thought that the upcoming years (and years and years!) of having little kids at Christmas would last forever. 

It didn't, of course. Kids grow up and, one by one, mine have learned that Santa is helped out by their parents. (I haven't ever said "there isn't a Santa Claus" and I never will, because Santa is in our hearts as long as we keep him there.) Christmas started feeling stressful to me as my kids became teenagers, and while I hope I didn't ruin the magic...perhaps I did. I might have put too much pressure on everyone for the holidays to feel perfectly magical & memorable that I ruined the magic.

My relationship with Christmas is changing again. First Haley graduated from high school, so now she just comes home for Christmas, rather than always being here. This year, Jake will also need to "come home," even if he lives in the same town. For at least five years, Kaleb has been my only believer, but this year he, too, knows the truth about Santa. So I feel a little bit adrift: I have two adult kids and two still at home, and Kaleb still to make magic for even if he is 11 and knows everything.

As I looked at that picture from 1998, I had a realization: while we have traditions and while Christmas always feels like Christmas, no Christmas is ever the same. That long-ago Christmas when I bought Barbies for Haley and a Winnie-the-Pooh walker for Jake was never repeated; the next year Nathan had come along and we were on a different adventure. Every year is its own year, which means that never again will I have what I have this Christmas. Who knows? Maybe next year someone will decide to travel, or will be engaged or married. Or things could change in some way I can’t even imagine yet. I still have my mom down the street and my sisters and sisters-in-law down other streets (some longer than others) and nieces and nephews (and grands, too!) to visit with on Christmas day. Only this year will Kendell have survived this year, with his two new scars and an altered perception of mortality. (Please, God, may we get to next December with no more new scars!)

Sure: there are no believers anymore. There are no little ones bursting with irrepressible excitement. But this year will be good, too. This year will be so, so, sweet. Its pleasures and goodness will be unique to this year, it will add a new memory or two to all of the others, and I don’t want to be so caught up in remembering how it used to be that I miss what is right now.

So yes: memories. When I look at my tree, I remember the Christmases of my young motherhood; when I gaze at my white nativity I remember how it felt to be a child on Christmas eve again. When I look at my bowl of blue ornaments I remember Christmas Eves in my grandparents’ tiny, hot apartment and I miss them with an ache that has grown over the years rather than diminishing.

But joy in this year is the ultimate goal of right now. Savoring what is​, which is good, too.

And also, there is this. Over the past few years, whenever I decorate the banister in my kitchen, something new happens in my heart. I don’t remember, perhaps because I usually hang the snowmen and the snowflakes on my own;
A sorensen banister

I look forward. I can nearly feel a little spirit waiting to become my grandchild. I hesitate to even write that, as if putting the words into form will jinx it. And I am in no rush for my kids to become parents. But I do anticipate it. There will be children again, that little voice whispers. One day I’ll be there too. This has happened for the past three or four years and while, sure, you could argue it’s all in my head, I’m just imagining it, I don’t care. It has added another layer to Christmas: looking forward.

I love the remembering. I love the right now. I love the anticipation of how things might change. And even though I’m right now at the height of Christmas stress, I am also feeling joy and peace.

In Which A Grown Woman Weeps Over Pumpkins

I’m thinking about Kaleb this morning. Kaleb and Halloween and also another October morning, eleven years ago, when Kaleb was just a baby and I decided to put out the Halloween decorations.

Halloween baby 4x6

Obviously he didn’t really do much that year, but every year after that, he’s been my Halloween compatriot. He went through a phase when the scary decorations for sale at stores would terrify him, but he still wanted me to push the cart through them anyway. He loved looking at costumes, talking about what he’d be for the year and remembering what he was in previous years.

He always helped me put out the Halloween decorations.

This year, though, he’s pretty much over Halloween. He doesn’t want to wear a costume that is hot, has a mask or any props to carry, or is uncomfortable in any way. He hasn’t looked at costumes in stores. And when I asked him if he wanted to help me put out the Halloween decorations on Sunday, he shrugged and said “no…it’s too early anyway.”

And my Halloween-loving heart broke a little bit.

The next day, I had a conversation with my oldest niece, who recently turned thirty and decided that her recent baby—her seventh!—would be her last. She talked about how she’d watched me struggle with being “done,” but how she could see that I eventually made peace with it, and that helped her decide her family was complete. I smiled and nodded and hugged her, but really: what happened isn’t what she thinks happened.

People talk about that—about realizing that they felt “done” with the size of their family, knowing that they were finished with babies when their last baby was born.

Maybe from the outside it looked like I had that experience, too. But really, I didn’t. I never felt done. I have always felt like I was missing a child, in between Nathan and Kaleb. What I had to make peace with was the fact that I will always live with that feeling, that I missed someone along the way.

And yes: I do feel done with babies. I have for a long time. But I think that other feeling, the one of missing a person, of my family feeling incomplete (a gap that is impossible to fill) makes it harder for me at every phase of Kaleb’s life. Harder to let go and move on, because each time he moves on I remember that it really is over. My days of anticipating another new life coming to me. That missing child is entwined with Kaleb in ways that are hard for me to explain but still undeniable. Maybe because he was just one baby but had to take the place of two.

This morning I decided that I’d put out the Halloween decorations. It’s the first time in my life, since I became an adult with actual Halloween decorations to put out, that I did it myself. Each little object is wrapped with memories, visible only to me, of each of my kids, but they are strongest with Kaleb because he is the last, and he was the one who cared about it the longest. I set out the pumpkins, the ghosts, my Catrina witch from Mexico, the Halloween quilts, the Halloween cats. I washed the Halloween dishes and spread out the Halloween tablecloth. I remembered all of the little things I own an love that are imbued with Halloween memories. And I thought, and I remembered, and I tried to put into words what I was feeling.

Yes: I’m done with babies. And I am happy with the place I am at in my life. But sometimes that old sorrow grabs me, like it did this morning. How does a grown woman find herself weeping over a Halloween cat and a fleur-de-lis pumpkin? It’s to do with regret, with looking back and wishing I could have held on longer, somehow, to those fleeting days of having littles. They were hard days, but good ones, too, just like right now is also hard and also good. But what I wouldn’t give, even though I am done with babies, even though I have made peace with carrying the missing—even though, what I wouldn’t give to be able to scoop up that baby right out of the photo and hold him in my arms and smell his neck and hear his little sounds.

What my niece doesn’t know, what time will teach her, is that while you can come to a place where you are done with babies, there will always be things that remind you how much you loved babies. And then you will remember that there will never be any more for you, and even with the peace, even with the goodness, there is still, also, sadness. You might be done with babies…but you are never done with your babies.

The Motherhood Place I Am In Right Now

If you are a mom, I’m certain you remember this moment:

Jake newborn b&w

The very instant your baby is placed in your arms—after a C-section, or delivery, or from a birth mother’s arms. However you got that baby—that moment.

When you first see that baby’s face, and you look at it—you look at it for the very first time, and you realize this is a new person. An entirely new person, just beginning his life.

And you want to do everything right. You know you will do everything right. You promise you will.

You’ll never get mad. You’ll never mess up. You’ll teach him everything he needs to know. You’ll help him avoid heartache. No heartache will happen on your watch.

And there are so few. So few moments, or days, or maybe even a week, until you mess up. You love him more than anything, but still you mess up.

Heartache comes no matter what you do.

I’ve been thinking about that promise I made, four times, to each of my babies. How it was an impossible promise, even though I made it with all of my heart. Especially, this week, that moment I had with Jake.

Every baby arrives with his or her own personality. You can sense it when you’re pregnant but once the baby arrives, it seems to beam out of their skin. It’s unique to each baby and is, I think, their most essential, truest self.

Jake had this specific…sweetness. Or joy. Or kindness. A goodness. I never did find the exact word for it, but oh my, it was…delicious. As he grew he showed me more and more of it, the kindness, the sweetness.

The goodness.

And I worried. I knew—that life would not let him keep it.

Even though I promised to never mess up. To do everything right and to be the perfect mom and to spare him every heartache. To make it so he could keep a hold of that quality he had.

But slowly, slowly, it slipped away, his essential Jakey-ness.

Actually, I don’t think it slipped away. I think it just got buried. Partly it had to be buried, because life and the world does not value kindness or sweetness or joy. Especially not in boys. The world wants toughness. It wants hardness, it wants fists and muscles and strong jaws.

He still has it, but he keeps it hidden.

Even with me.

Except, every once in a while. Every so often, it slips. The manly façade, and I see his true self, still there. He’s still sweet, and kind, and gentle.

I saw it last week, when he and I were packing up his bedroom as he prepared to move out.  It slipped out when he realized that, despite the excitement of an apartment and roommates and all that freedom, this is hard. Changing your life, taking a step into your future. It means what has been normal is now the past, and that is a hard transition even if it’s to a good place.

And then, a few hours later when we stood by the truck, which was filled with his stuff, my own mask slipped. Because I remembered—that moment. That first moment I saw his face. That moment when I was so sure. That I would be a great mom,  that I would give him everything he needed, that I would never mess up. When I was awash in the goodness of his personality, that indefinable Jacob sweetness.

Jake saw that I was struggling. So he came over and hugged me. He said, “Oh, Murm,” and he patted my shoulder and I put my face against his chest (because that is as high as I can reach) and I sobbed. Not just sobbed, but keened, a raw sound I hope no neighbors heard. Because for that moment there it was, the goodness, the kindness.

And for a second, even though him moving out felt like having my liver being pulled out of my ear canal, felt like losing him, like I lost, when he hugged me it felt like I didn’t fail. Like maybe I was a good mom. Like maybe I did give him at least some of the things he needed.

You start out from that first moment, loving your child with a feeling that the word “love” doesn’t manage to convey, starting to know them, and then learning them throughout their lives. Until something happens, adolescence, a mistake, something, and they start keeping secrets, they turn away, they keep themselves away from you.  You know them at their essential self but you slowly stop knowing them.

It is how it has to be, I suppose. So that growth can happen, so that we can separate like we must.

But oh, it is painful.

I can’t reconcile those two experiences, the first time I saw Jake, and then the last year, wanting to still know him, but not knowing him.

So I put my head on his chest and I wept and he, with his goodness, patted my back and gave me, as he left, a bit of himself again.

When you have a baby, you never can really imagine yourself into this place, when your child is no longer a baby, is the opposite of a baby, and is determined to go out into the world. When you have to let go. But motherhood is like that, isn’t it? We are always letting go. They grow and change so fast, there is barely time to love who they are now before they change again into a new thing. But this—this leaving. Even though he’s only across town. This is as hard to label as anything else—I don’t have a word for it. It’s an ending that requires grieving, but that’s silly because it’s not like anyone died. He’s doing exactly what 18-year-olds should do: moving upward into his own life.

It’s what we are working for as mothers. Making ourselves obsolete.

My voice has quieted, but somewhere inside me I am still making that raw sound.

So here I am, a week later. Eight days after Jake moved out. I’ve talked to him a few times, he’s come home for dinner, but it’s not the same. He is not the same. The wall covering up his truest self is firmly in place and his responses let me know that I’m mostly bugging him. He wants to move around in his parent-free world. And I am terrified of the possibility of the choices he could make. I still want to spare him every single heartache. But this is the motherhood place I am in right now: all I can do now, mostly, is watch. Is hope I taught him enough, or that he was listening even when it seemed he wasn’t listening. Hope that he will fulfill his enormous potential, that he won’t make irreversible mistakes. That he will find people who will see in him what I know is there—and I don’t mean his ridiculous math and science aptitude. I mean that indefinable thing, the goodness, the sweetness, the kindness. I hope he will find a space where he can be that person.

IMG_8572 jake at graduation with amy 4x6

(I didn't take any pictures of Jake moving out. It was too hard. But this is us at his graduation this spring.)

(This post inspired by Stephanie Howell's "Blog Your Heart" series.)

Provo City Center Temple Open House

I am a Mormon.

I have a complicated relationship with my religion: I grew up in a Mormon family who almost never went to church, even though we were all baptized when we were eight. I grew up in a neighborhood where I was excluded from friendships because we didn't go to church. I turned into a teenager who rebelled against almost everything the church taught for many reasons, partly because of that wound of being excluded, partly because I did not understand what the church teaches because I hadn't hardly ever gone.

I am sort of like a convert, constantly learning what being a Mormon means.

I am sort of like those Mormons who come from long lines of pioneer stock, since I do, in fact, come from a long line of pioneer stock—doubters and Jack Mormons nearly every one—which means I feel I own my religion enough to question it.

I may not rebel like I used to, but I do always question everything the church teaches. I hear something and I have to learn it for myself, have to understand how it fits within my own ways of thinking and being. And—maybe because I have always been on the fringes—some of what seems like doctrine to a traditional Mormon seems like utter rubbish to me.

I am comfortable on the fringe. I am doing the best I can with the situations I have and I am at peace with knowing my relationship will always be troubled.

But one thing I love about Mormonism, one thing that is the opposite of rubbish for me, is the temple. I love the temple, even though that complicated relationship means I don't go as often as I might.

When a new temple is built, anyone who wants to can tour it during the open house. After the open house, the only people who can go inside the temple are those with recommends, but during it, everyone can come on in, so our children and teenagers can see the temple then. We've had several new temples here in Utah since I was an adult who might choose to go to a temple open house, but I've only gone to three: the Timpanogos temple, the Oquirrh Mountain temple, and, last week, the Provo City Center temple. (Which means I missed Payson, Draper, Monticello, and Brigham City.)

Provo town center temple

I felt strongly that I needed to go to this temple open house. Provo is the next town south of where I live, so it's not a long drive, but it was something more than the proximity. Partly it is the history of the building—the new temple is an old building, which was almost destroyed by fire about five years ago. Before that, it was a tabernacle, and one of my great-great something grandfathers, Thomas Allman, made much of the woodwork inside it, including the pulpit. I always meant to take a tour of the tabernacle to see my ancestor's handiwork, but I never did. Part of my feeling about going to the open house was just to be inside a building that was important in my family history, even if the original work is gone.

But as an endowed person, I can go inside the temple after the open house, so it was something more than that.

It was built on a memory that surfaced very sharply for me this Christmas, when I was working on my Christmas writing prompts. The memory wasn't gone, but it wasn't something I'd thought about for a long time. One Christmas, when I was about nine or ten—about Kaleb's age—my parents took me and my sisters to Temple Square in Salt Lake City. In December, Temple Square is covered in lights, and for whatever reason, that year we went to see them. My memory is this: I'm standing in the dark in a garden square which is full of smaller, naked trees, each one bedazzled with white twinkle lights, looking up at the temple itself, the air made sharp by darkness and cold, and a thought comes. A feeling, but almost words: One day, you will be married here. I stayed there, in the dark, in the cold, in the light from the trees, a little bit astounded, my pagan heart a little bit quivery. It wasn't subtle, this feeling. It left a mark on me and I never, ever forgot how that felt.

Not like coercion.

Just like fact.

Even through my many years of rebellion and anger, I never forgot that moment. And, after many years and much changing and a conversion in my heart I was, in fact, married in the Salt Lake City temple.

And now, even more years later, here I am. The mom of two kids whose own relationship with the church is complicated. The mom of two more who I hope I can help form a less-perplexing relationship with the church. I think about my rebellious and disdainful self, and my friends who felt the same, and which of them came back to the church and which of them didn’t. I wonder—what changes a person’s heart? I can’t choose for my kids. I can’t make them have spiritual experiences or the desire to grown in faith. I can be an example, but in the end, they have to choose, like I chose.

But not a small factor in my choice was that experience at the temple so long ago.

So I took my husband and my two youngest kids to the temple open house. I had in my mind a photograph I wanted to have taken, after the tour, when we were outside the building. A picture I’ve seen on so many of my friends’ Facebook and Instagram pages, and on their blogs. A picture of the Perfect Mormon Family™. All of us together, all of us wanting to be there.

I don’t have that.

What I do have is this family. This family who I love. Some kids not, currently, interested in the gospel. (Or currently highly perturbed by it.) A husband who is sorta-kinda involved with church. My two youngest who came along because I wanted them to come. And me, with my imperfect, doubting faith.

Kendell was afraid that if I handed my phone over to a stranger, he or she would drop it, so I said, “Fine, then, you just take it of the three of us.” This was his first attempt:

Provo town center temple thumb

Then we tried again and got this:

Provo town center temple try again

Which is better but shows almost none of the temple spires, and we're surrounded by random people.

Then a kind old lady walked up to Kendell and said “here, give me your phone, you should be in the picture with your handsome tall sons and your beautiful wife” and I glared at him to yes, hand over the phone and quit acting so weird about it, so he did. And here are the pictures she took:


(That is a burst shot of Kendell's elbow as he walked over to us. Yep.)

I wanted to cry. Because isn’t that it? Isn’t this what life is always teaching me. I can want something. I can want something good. I can do what I can to make it happen. But there’s wanting, and then there’s reality, and there’s the interpretation of “good” in the first place. Maybe some people get the ideal. All of those families on social media, with their seemingly-willing hearts and their faithful smiles and their togetherness. Their kids on missions, their temple weddings. That is the Mormon version of “good.” The ideal everyone shoots for.

But if I am honest with myself, I know this: I’ve never been the ideal. I’ve never been the standard. I’ve always been on the fringe, so how could I expect to make the ideal, the standard, the perfect? There is this truth: I love my kids. Not despite but because. And also there is this knowledge: I might not have perfect kids (in the church’s eyes), but I do have some damn fine kids. They are smart and ambitious and want to make something of themselves. They are kind and they are good workers and one day they'll all be productive members of society. Their relationship with God, with faith, with religion—that is not only on my shoulders. Life will bring them their own spiritual moments and they will choose what to do.

And then, there was this moment:

After we had walked up the beautiful spiral staircase, Kaleb tugged on my sweater. I bent down so I could hear him, and he said “Mom! This place has a really good feeling. I didn’t think I wanted to come but this feels really, really nice. Maybe I will get married here one day.”

I remembered. Myself at his age, feeling that feeling. That feeling that stuck with me through everything. Everything.

Hopefully that feeling will stick with Kaleb.

Hopefully all of my children have been given something, something that will stick with them so that when the time is right, when things are better or hearts are mended or even when things are at their very, very worst, they will feel it again and they will know what to choose.