She’s still my Mom

It was 10 years ago today, but I remember the moment vividly. It was a crisp summer morning, with blue sky and fluffy clouds drifting over the back yard of our church where we were attending an outdoor service. Rich’s phone vibrated in his pocket. It stopped, then came to life again, so he surreptitiously glanced at the screen. “It’s your mom’s caregiver.” She never called Rich, but my phone was silenced. Our eyes met.

Slipping inside, I dialed her number.  Sue was one of our precious caregivers.  The small dedicated group of women who took Mom into their hearts and adopted her as family.  Who saw that she was dressed exquisitely each morning, and lovingly quaffed her silver-gray hair.  Who enabled Mom to stay in her own home as Alzheimer’s ravaged her memory and 91 years weakened her body.  I’ve forgotten Sue’s words, but the message was clear.  Mom was leaving us. 

We didn’t make it in time.  We hadn’t even reached the edge of the Twin Cities when the next call came from Duluth to tell us she was gone.  As we drove, I made tearful calls to each of the kids to tell them Grandma had died.  Although we had lost her years earlier to dementia, this moment added the burden of finality.

Ten years later I continue to sift through the memories.  Those from my childhood play like an old video in my mind, scenes on a screen that I watch as a smile creeps across my face. High school stirs images of Mom’s unwavering support and high expectations.  College evokes the sense of growing wings, of taking Mom’s life lessons and using them to make my own way in the world.

But it is the adult connections that remain the most vivid.  The years when she was a vibrant senior, independent and actively engaged in life.  When we could plan outings together, share common perspectives, even travel to England together.  If I’m honest, it’s probably when she was in my current stage of life.  She was long past raising her four children, and still had miles to go before it would be our turn to be caretakers for her.  When I think of Mom, I don’t picture her as a lithe young mother, nor as a dependent octogenarian.  I recall her grace, style and spirit as she navigated the world on her own terms in her golden years.

It is a startling realization as I reflect on my own station in life.  Am I making the most of these years?  Is this how my children will remember me, with my own silver-gray hair?  For certain I have inherited that trait from Mom.  I can only hope I carry on more than that.

I still think of Mom each time I pass her house.  I still seek her approval when making decisions.  Still yearn for her presence and knowing smile in the big moments of my life.  I can’t help myself when I wonder what Mom would think, what words of advice she might offer.  Ten years later, she’s still my Mom.

Re-emerging is Hard to Do

My Covid cocoon had become a comfortable, familiar place. While chafing at my restrictions, I also learned to embrace my quieter existence.

I felt safe in my bubble, secure in the control I had acquired over my life. My time was my own to indulge in hours of writing, confident that my plans would not be interrupted. The outside world was held at bay, unable to intrude. While some writers felt crushed by the pandemic, my retirement status allowed me the freedom to forge onward working on my book.

The outdoors was my playground. My running shoes, bike, trail shoes, skis and snowshoes my constant – and virus-free – companions. The opportunities to share those activities with friends, to see others outside, let in a little normalcy that helped balance the isolation.

Family became my only source of close personal contact. The decision to extend our circle to our children and grandchildren was not without its risks, but held overwhelming benefits. Those visits fed my heart and nurtured my need for social interaction.

In the course a year I had adapted to my revised lifestyle. Then suddenly everything changed. Again.

Getting the vaccine was only a baby step. Although I was protected, it was still early in the process, and many people around me – including Rich – were still awaiting vaccination. Those early days didn’t feel much different. Still social distancing, wearing masks and seeing others only outdoors.

Our first fully-vaccinated outing was returning to church. Spread out in every other pew, masked, with small numbers in our little church it felt safe. No coffee fellowship downstairs afterwards, but it was enough to see our friends and fellow church members and worship together in person.

Having friends over for dinner has long been a favorite social activity. We decided we would be comfortable with having one fully vaccinated couple over for dinner at a time. The first evening, sitting down to wine and appetizers at the kitchen island followed by gathering around the dinner table felt like a gift. So did the hugs we felt we could now afford.

The day the governor lifted all the major restrictions came as a shock. I was used to the slow pace of recovery, the gradual loosening of constraints. The idea of flipping a switch and returning full speed felt like too much too soon. In fact, it put a damper on our willingness to venture forth into normalcy. If we were still unwilling to eat in socially distanced restaurant space, we certainly weren’t about to sit in the close proximity of full capacity.

And yet, we developed chinks in our armor. Trying to work out the logistics of a road trip to Seattle to visit our son Erik and his wife Katie in their new home, the specter of air travel began dancing in my head. Justifying arguments followed. “We’re going to have to start sometime.” I pleaded my case, leaving Rich to ponder the idea. “I’ll only go if I can sit up front, have extra leg room and priority boarding,” Rich said. We bought tickets. And flew.

I feel like everything is a test. In the absence of government mandates, I am left to define my own rules. Is it okay to go into the grocery store without a mask? I haven’t yet. Should I get a massage? I did and it worked wonders on both my mind and body. Might I return to the pool at the Y? Maybe, but I have enough summer alternatives for now.

Behaviors I once took for granted now cause me to hesitate. My favorite table in the coffee shop has returned, and beckons each time I stop in for take-out latte. After months of self-protection, it’s hard to know when to relax and where to hold the line.

I’m inclined to cling to some of the life simplifying aspects of the Covid era. My makeup sits untouched in its pouch in the bathroom drawer. Who needs makeup behind a mask? now becomes Who needs makeup? Why would I run to Target to stock up on household supplies when they will deliver to my door for free? I appreciate the time saving travel-free option of attending meetings on Zoom, and wonder how many of those need to resume in person.

There is no returning to normal. Not the old normal, anyway. The new is bound to be a hybrid, hopefully mixing the best of our Covid innovations with good old in-person, face-to-face life. Re-emerging step by step. As best I can.

Adapting in the Ozarks

Life does not always go as planned.

May 2, we pulled out of the driveway, our car laden with bikes, a kayak, hiking shoes and visions of a secluded outdoor vacation in the Ozark Mountains. One year earlier to the day, we expected to board an airplane to Costa Rica to spend two glorious weeks in the rainforest and next to the beach. That didn’t happen, and the rest of the year didn’t pan out as expected either. But we were finally on our way.

We needed this vacation. Mentally, we were eager to escape the scene of anxiety and uncertainty brought on by Rich’s heart surgeries. Physically, we itched to shed our winter layers and don shorts in the warmth of sunshine. Socially, we expected to continue our Covid distancing, but with new scenery.

We targeted a remote cabin in the mountains, an AirBnB that allowed us to be self-sufficient and required only one motel stay en route. How our selection criteria have changed! But we soon discovered that we had fallen short on our research.

The drive into Jasper, Arkansas and ensuing trip to our cabin took us on twisty, windy, steep roads with no shoulders. As we plunged down and back up the mountainsides, it soon became clear that we would not be using our bicycles – if we wanted to live. Crossing the Buffalo River we could see it was gushing with the spring runoff. Fine for floating in groups, maybe, but not so safe for this novice kayaker. More redundant equipment. Oops.

The cabin proved to be perfect, as picturesque as the advertised photos, with views across the forested slopes. I quickly found my happy spot on the deck, where I could linger with my coffee in the morning, and eyed the fire ring for evening bonfires. Just as Covid has retrained us to live differently, the natural beauty that surrounded us would challenge us to rethink how we spent this vacation.

Cabin in the Ozarks
View from cabin deck over Ozark Mountains

Pouring over the extensive list of outdoor pursuits provided by our host, I targeted hikes that we could do together. Rich’s heart limited him to fairly flat routes – another oversight, having chosen to be in the mountains. But we found trails that wound through inspiring rock formations, took us to waterfalls and caves scoured out by rivers. Progress was unhurried, time to appreciate abundant, wildflowers bloomed and we could wear shorts. Occasionally I scampered up to higher elevations while Rich waited. We were even able to combine a birding and hiking outing.

Running out of trail options, we tried a new tack – a visit to Bull Shoals White River State Park. Every trip through the Ozarks takes far longer than highway speeds, but eventually we crossed the massive dam that holds back the White River to create Bull Shoals Lake. My thin hope of launching my kayak on the lake drained away with the words “boat launch closed” due to the high lake level. But we found plenty of short trails.

Rich spied a red headed woodpecker – a bird not often found Up North – and I sensed the perfect opportunity to divide and conquer. I hiked a longer, higher trail while he hunted his prey. I got my vistas and Rich found not only his bird, but its nest!

Weak wifi and abysmal cell reception in our cabin provided the incentive to pull away from the world. Away from responsibilities. Away from that To Do list that followed me there. I plowed through several books. I did some drawing for my community ed Beginning Drawing class. We grilled most nights and ate outside when the weather was favorable. And I got my flickering bonfire.

Did the week turn out as expected? Nope. But there was no denying we were on vacation. We had warm weather, slept in each morning, appreciated our leisure and spent quality time together. I returned refreshed, glad to be home, eager to hop on my bike. But grateful for the escape. Just as it should be.

Just Say Yes

Emotions don’t have to be logical.

“I miss our kids. And our grandkids.” It had been weighing on me all day. I just had to say it out loud.

“You just saw them. We were in Milwaukee a few weeks ago, then we went to the Cities. You’ve had lots of time with family.” Rich tried to reason with me.

“That’s not the point. I miss them NOW.”

The isolation of COVID, the forced inactivity of post-surgery recovery and life had gotten me down. I went to bed thinking Rich didn’t get it. He didn’t understand my feelings. He was made of different stuff, didn’t need family like I did.

I tossed and turned, and in the early morning hours Rich snuggled up and said, “I think you should get up and go to Karen’s.”

“No. That would never work.” I already had my day mapped out. Writing assignments to finish. Clothes to wash. Church. A bike ride. Karen and family were probably busy.

“Call her,” he insisted. I dragged myself out of bed, brushed my teeth. Texted with no response. Washed my face, looked in my closet for something to wear. Took a deep breath and called.

“That would be great, Mom! We have no big plans for the day. When can you be here?” Karen’s voice was all I needed.

I’m not very good at being spontaneous. At changing course on a dime. But that morning I was out the door in record time, and rolled into Karen’s driveway by 10am.

Michael ran into my arms as soon as I came in the door. Isabel and Mya took me on tours of their Minecraft houses. Ben lurked somewhere, it was enough that he was close by. They had already made my day. That’s just what I came for.

As promised, the day was loose and unstructured. Having left all my to-do’s at home, I was happy to go with the flow. It was a day for just being. Being together. Being with family.

Dabbling in paint, crayons and markers
A family walk
A mother/daughter bike ride
Playtime
Yummy brownies
Reading bedtime stories

I was home by 10am the following morning. Refreshed, fulfilled, happy. My heart overflowing with the hugs and the time spent together. My to-do list still awaited, no worse off for delaying a day. Rich did get it. I’m so glad he pushed me to go. And that I just said yes.

Life in the Slow Lane

Covid has shut down large chunks of my social life. Confined me to writing at a table in our bunk room instead of the cozy environs of Amity Coffee. Diverted me to Zooming with my delivery-mates instead of bringing library books to shut-ins. Shackled me to the stove every afternoon at 5:00 instead of eating out now and then. Limited our table to two instead of the frequent dinner guests we love to invite to our home.

There have been positive sides too. Loads of time for writing, urging my book forward toward becoming a real manuscript. Seeing family more than ever, the only personal contact we’ve allowed ourselves indoors. Getting out to enjoy our State Parks. Pairing up with friends to run and walk and talk, talk, talk in the great outdoors. Pedaling my bike up and down the shore, waving to other cyclists and runners.

And then came “recovery.” I had minor surgery to repair a hernia the same week Rich had his latest heart procedure, sidelining us in tandem. Our Covid-suppressed household narrowed even further, as life quieted down to allow our bodies to heal. I finished several books, started knitting again and poured myself into my writing. In solitude. Indoors.

Although I bounced back quickly, I was still under strict restrictions: do not lift over 15 pounds, avoid straining my core, no cardio exercise for two weeks. Then came the empowering words, “Walk as often as you feel able.”

It started out as shuffling. I barely made it to Superior Street and back. I couldn’t keep up with Rich for a 1-mile walk, despite his impairment. But each day I was determined to try again. Four days in it actually felt like walking. Each day from there got better, my walks longer.

When I’m running or cycling, I’m aware of my surroundings but more focused on the activity. Pushing my pace, pedaling up hills, getting in a good workout. Walking has shifted me into slow motion. I have more time to appreciate nature as I amble along. I open my eyes and ears to the world around me. It’s as much about the escape as it is about moving my body.

I hear the soothing rush of Amity Creek for the whole distance of 7 Bridges Road, and pause on the bridges to watch it gushing with spring run-off.

Amity Creek above Smiley Falls
Amity Creek at The Deeps

My limitations encourage me to sidetrack and look more closely at the evidence of Spring’s struggle to arrive.

Spring buds

I have more time to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise, even if the sun is hiding.

White sunrise Brighton Beach

I catch a glimpse of nature’s artistry created by the prolific rainfall, and pause to admire.

Brighton Beach reflection

I take the time to play with “burst mode” on my phone in order to catch the waves at their highest.

Brighton Beach waves

I stop and sit on the rocks warmed by the sun, listening to the water gently lapping.

Resting at Brighton Beach

I catch the scenery I see almost daily, but in a new light.

Brighton Beach gazebo
Gazebo with shoreline

I’d be lying if I said I was content with my daily walks. I can’t wait for the day I can resume running and cycling. I’m told to “start slow with short timeframes.” So I’ll continue to supplement that with more walks, more observations. Still living life in the slow lane.

Molly at Brighton Beach

The Owl Guy

That hospital is becoming too familiar. Since that fateful day last October when Rich took his ambulance ride from the woods to the emergency room at Essentia, we have gotten to know the landscape very well. The cardiac ward seems to be his second home, between multiple surgeries, procedures, doctor visits and rehab workouts. Throughout it all, I have come to learn what it means to be a model patient.

Molly with Rich in ICU

This is the man who rarely remembered names or faces. But from his bedside I could see the pains he took to check name badges and call each assistant, nurse and doctor by name. They responded in kind, treating him as a person not a patient. He cared about their lives as much as they did about his. I could see how it transformed personalities and care.

“Thank you” was constantly on his lips. Every poke, jab, test or adjustment elicited the same response. He was in good hands, these people were there to help him on the road to recovery and he let them know how much he appreciated it. It seemed to come as a surprise to many of his helpers, unused to being thanked for doing unpleasant things. I enjoyed watching the look of wonder come over their faces.

There were many dark days in that hospital. Days when Rich wondered what his future looked like, if he had one at all. But one thing could light up his face. Owls. His owls. All it took was a casual inquiry – “What do you do?” Where once that would have unlocked his identity as a techie and web guru, now it means photography and birds. Last year he traced down a great horned owl nest nearby, and photographed the owlet triplets from conception to independence. With the pandemic gripping the world, his blog attracted thousands of followers. Everyone, it seemed, was eager to watch the daily development of those furry friends – a joy amid hardship.

Do You Hoot book

The best of those photos found their way into a children’s book, Do You Hoot!, which chronicles the owlets’ young lives. Copies sold like hot cakes, and Rich made it available free online to anyone who wants to download it. His passion lies in sharing his owlets, particularly with children, not making money off them.

So that innocent question spawned stories, as many as time allowed. Sometimes it led to photos on his tablet or a card with the link to his photography blog and book downloads. Rich became known as The Owl Guy. Soon his reputation preceded him. New staff coming on duty would come in and say “I hear you’re the one watching the baby owls.” And that smile would travel across Rich’s face again. It was a ray of light in the midst of uncertainty.

Today we re-entered those walls again. For yet another procedure. Rich had been doing great – even back skiing and starting to ride his bike again. And then he wasn’t. His heart reverted to irregular beats, A-fib as we learned to call it. He was in it 100% of the time, and his heart was having trouble keeping up. It robbed him of energy, put an end to his workouts, and planted grim thoughts where hope had been growing.

But modern medicine is wonderful, and there are still answers. Rich went in for an “Atrial Ablation” this morning so they could zap all the erroneous signals in his heart, to return it to a normal rhythm. As I waited with him, numerous staff members came and went. Inserting IVs. Checking his blood pressure. Asking questions. Requesting signatures. Turning off his implanted defibrillator. And one by one they’d look at him, recognition dawning in their eyes. “Say, aren’t you The Owl Guy?” And it would start all over again – the smile, the stories, and of course the thank yous.

The same owl parents have found a new nest this year, and Rich was out during the winter hunting it down. Perhaps they knew his energy was waning, because their new home is much closer to our house. Easily accessible to a birder with limited energy. Rich has already begun photographing this brood’s young lives. He’s pretty sure there are three of them again, barely visible underneath Mama Owl. And God willing, he will document their development as well. Because he’s The Owl Guy.

Papa Owl
Mama and owlets

Exiting the Cold Snap

This morning’s temperature was 54 degrees warmer than it was a week ago. Already it feels like a distant memory to get up and check the thermometer, only to see it in the -20s, day after frigid day. To wait until mid-day for the air temp to reach a balmy -4 before setting out for a run. To forego my afternoon friend walks in favor of warmth by the fireplace. While Covid was socially confining, the cold compounded it.

As the mercury rose, so did the options for outdoor activities and Covid-save ways to meet up with family and friends. I readily embraced the opportunities.

First up was the Luminary Walk. This candle-lit stroll on the Lakewalk was part of the city’s Cold Front activities intended to celebrate winter. Ironically, it was postponed by the real cold front. Its new date fell on the first “warm” evening, a sure indication that I should get out and do it, and I convinced Rich to join me. Because we could.

Luminary Walk

To celebrate our son Erik’s birthday, we arranged to meet up with him and his wife, Katie, at Banning State Park. The river trail followed the ice covered stream and led us to rapidly flowing water gurgling in the icy openings. The sun shone down and I could feel its glow on my face, its warmth radiating down to my fingertips. There was no reason to hurry, it was enough just to be outside and moving, in the company of family, conversation flowing up and down the line. With a trunk load of firewood, we soon had a roaring campfire in the picnic grounds and warmed our innards with hot chocolate and s’mores. Lingering until the sun was low in the sky.

Rich Molly Erik Katie at Banning State Park
Erik Katie Rich hiking at Banning
Erik by Kettle River at Banning
Rich Molly Erik campfire at Banning

The icy snow on the ski trails was rejuvenated by a slow gentle snowfall and lured me back out on my skis for the first time in two weeks. It was a sweet reunion, gliding over fresh grooming, moving freely without the encumbrance of extra layers, not worrying about losing any fingers or toes. Remembering winter as it should be.

Lester ski trail
Shadow Molly XC trail

The grand finale of this recent surge in outdoor social life was being invited back to the “snow room.” Thanks to the ingenuity of our friends, we have enjoyed a number of pleasant happy hours and light suppers outdoors in front of a fireplace surrounded by snow walls. Protected from the wind and containing the heat of the fire, spacious enough to position our chairs with six feet between couples, we whiled away the hours enjoying the personal contact we took for granted a year ago.

Luikart's snow room
Molly Rich happy hour Luikart's snow room
Jon Beth Rich supper in Luikart's snow room

What a relief to relish the outdoors once again. To resume this strange new normal. To exit the cold snap.

A River Worthy of Snowshoes

The trick with snowshoes is to find a place to walk where you actually need them. When Erik and I first arrived at the Sucker River, we wondered if we were wearing unnecessary encumbrances.

The new fallen snow lay sparkling on the river’s ice bed, billowing over underlying formations and giving way to openings where the water flowed rapidly downstream. Overhead, tall pines framed the deep blue sky and the wilderness beckoned. But although we had the river to ourselves that day, we were hardly the first ones there. A well-beaten path headed upstream, trampled by snowshoes, boots, fat tire bikes and skis.

Erik and Finley on Sucker River

The good news was that the trail showed us where it was safe to walk. I had no qualms about skirting the watery openings, stopping to peer at the ice bubbles that formed around the edges. Dozens had done this before.

Sucker River open water
Sucker River icy bubbles

Even on the ice, I could hear the water below, burbling. The sounds accompanied our walk and I stopped frequently to admire nature’s artwork.

We clambered up waterfalls, and as they got progressively steeper I was thankful for the ice teeth on my snowshoes. They were just as useful on the way back down.

Before long, we lost our fellow hikers and the trail narrowed to one set of ski tracks and fat tire treads. When those petered out, only animal tracks crisscrossed the river. Dare we follow them? We made our way to the river’s edge to continue, happy to have our snowshoes.

Molly on Sucker River
Erik and Finley upstream on Sucker River

Sunlight warming our backs, pristine snow and deep silence rewarded us for venturing far upstream. When the river flattened out, the snow depth thinned. We hoped to reach 3 miles inland, but stopped a little short when the ice visibly changed and appeared to be slushy up ahead.

The return trip delivered new views on the banks, different snow and ice sculptures on the river, and deep breaths of crisp clean air. An escape through a corridor accessible by foot only in the winter. And worthy of snowshoes.

Snow art on Sucker River
Erik and Molly snowshoeing Sucker River

Youthful Inspiration

The words that flow across the screen reveal an endless source of imagination. Mya’s fingers fly around the keyboard as she composes, intent on her work. She stops only to ask questions: “How do you spell shriek?” “What should I call the planet? How about Nimo? Wait, I think Nimeo is better.” Her eight-year-old brain is on overdrive. Her enthusiasm infectious.

Mya contemplating her story

Soon her ten-year-old brother follows suit. Opening his own Google Doc, Ben begins typing.

Ancient

Long ago there was a myth that there was a temple that was told to behold many treasures. And only one person can wield its power.

Ben writing his story

I am there to help them with their distance learning, and in their spare time I expect them to run off and play, or look for a snack. Instead, they are fixated on writing stories. Grandchildren after my own heart. I find Mya nestled on the couch before breakfast, cradling her chromebook, her face intent with concentration.

As their tales grow they are eager to share them with me. “Grammy, listen to this.” Ben reads his story out loud, always starting from the beginning, title and all. “Grammy, I’m on chapter two,” Mya chimes in. “Here’s what’s happening now.”

I am all ears. That’s what Grammys do. But it is more than that. I’ve been on this writing journey for almost nine years now. I’ve taken classes. Attended conferences. Read books. Done workshops. And worked with a writing coach. I’m still honing my craft, continually learning. And I just found a new source of tutelage.

As Mya reads aloud, and reaches the end of chapter one, she leaves me hanging. It ends with a twist. I am eager to know more, to turn the page. It is a technique that took me a long time to master.

“Oh, I learned that from reading Harry Potter,” Mya explains.

Isn’t that what we are told to do? If you want to be a good writer, then you must read, read, read. Find good authors, grow your vocabulary, notice and absorb their techniques.

Ben likes to fill his story with dialog. His characters trade quips back and forth. On the page I find rapid fire quotes with narry a “he said” then “she said” between them. Even so, I know just who said what.

Not only did I shy away from dialog in my early work, but once I began to dabble in it, I insisted on attributing each line to its owner. An editor broke me of that habit, but I’m still working on it. Somehow, Ben got it from the get-go.

Mya’s story abounds in mystical creatures with fantastic names. She talks out loud as she types, speaking her creativity, trying out the sounds on her tongue.

… a girl named Rayla Minnesota lives on the edge of the city. She has a pet called Moono. Moono is a Bisha. A Bisha looks like a lion, except Bishas are blue with white diamonds. Moono was so big that Rayla is able to ride him! Monshias are wolves but they have wings and come in many different colors. People say they roam the sky at night. Monshias are rare.

I am in awe. My genre is memoir and creative non-fiction. I have yet to dabble in fiction. I shy away from the imagination it requires. But Mya dives in with abandon in “The Wings of Galaxy.”

Once upon a time, there was a world named Nimeo. Nimeo is a bit bigger than a faraway planet called Earth. Nimeo has two blue suns and two moons. Even though Nimeo has two suns, it usually is dark. The planet’s oceans are purple, and like Earth, the land is green. The suns are far from Nimeo, but since the blue suns give off so much heat, Nimeo has enough warmth that the people can live.

She decides that in the world she is creating that characters take state names for their surnames, and cities are named for our planets. Where does she come up with this stuff? I have a hard enough time finding substitute names for my real-life characters whose identity I want to protect.

Ben’s story features James and Louis, two miscreant school boys. How do I know that?

When James and Louis got back into the classroom they picked their chairs in the back as they always do.

After school, they boys meet at an abandoned outpost. James proposes returning home to get something, leaving Louis there on his own. Louis delivers his response: “Leaving me at a spooky outpost for an hour, uh he he sure.” Louis said, quivering. Ben doesn’t say Louis is scared. He doesn’t call the boys mischievous. He shows me. Did someone teach him that? I certainly had to be taught.

Louis sat looking at the beautiful sleek white furred creature. It had a long glimmering tail, and two turquoise eyes. “Wait a minute, I know what kind you are, you’re an ancient wolf!” “Oh, I forgot, you glow in the dark, just realized that because you’re glowing right now.”

I recently attended a webinar about developing characters. I was told that because I know my mother so well, I unwittingly assume my readers can picture her, understand her background and recognize her habits. It made me realize I need to bring her – and all my characters – to life for them. Ben didn’t need any encouragement to breathe life into his ancient wolf. I can see it vividly!

I can’t begin to approach the depth of their imagination, their thirst for fantasy. I have to admire their desire to invoke it in their writing. I’m thrilled to see their passion funneled into words and stories at such a young age. And with apparent effortlessness.

As the week progresses, the kids make rapid progress on their stories. My own writing languishes as I lavish attention on them instead. As a Grammy should. But my enthusiasm for the craft is renewed and I return home eager to follow Ben and Mya’s examples. I attack my book once more, intent on my story, working with youthful inspiration.

Molly writing

Lessons of a School Marm

It didn’t take any coaxing. I responded to the job opening in a flash.

Needed: One School Marm, to oversee two grade schoolers in distance learning

I was hired on the spot.

The need was in my daughter Karen’s home, when a medical emergency interrupted their carefully planned arrangements. Their oldest two children in grades 3 and 4 were well accustomed to the drill of their remote school room, yet still needed supervision while she and her husband were at work. It wasn’t hard to commit to spending the week with my grandkids.

To date, I had only heard about distance learning from teachers, media and hearsay. This was the first time I engaged with it first-hand. To students Ben and Mya it was all old hat by now, their routine well-honed. They knew their schedules well, they were the ones leading me through their myriad Google-meets, videos, live instruction and breakout sessions. I watched as they unmuted and muted their computers to speak in class, raised their white boards to the screen to show answers to math problems and juggled with classmates on a screen full of faces.

I marveled at how easily they embraced the technology, whipping between tabs, logins, and online resources. Like the kids that they are, they sucked it up easily and took it in stride. On the other side of the screen, I had to marvel at the teachers. How they tailored their lessons to the electronic age, leveraged resources on the web and still managed to engage their students one-on-one by name in the grid of faces in their virtual classroom. My admiration grew for this resourceful set of adults, faced with the unthinkable and rising to occasion, teaching under conditions they never dreamed possible.

When gym time came I followed Ben to the basement, chromebook under his arm, where he set himself up with a jump rope, balls and shopping bags. Shopping bags? Not all students have access to gym equipment or space at home, but one ingenious instructor created workout videos based on doing moves while throwing plastic bags into the air. It required as much dexterity and coordination as any fancy athletic routine, but with less chance of knocking over any lamps.

All kids procrastinate, doodle and play around during the school day. They wouldn’t be kids if they didn’t. Under this new regime, I watched Mya carefully select the colors and font for her text as she composed answers to her reading assignment. I rolled my eyes as she insisted on drawing the question numbers instead of typing them, erasing and redrawing until she got them just right. All that took far longer than actually coming up with her answers. But I had to admire her computer skills.

While the technology is new, the subjects haven’t changed much. I sat with Ben as he worked through the steps of long division, over and over again until he had it down pat. I read poems with Mya and listened to her answers when she was asked to analyze the poems, look for metaphors and similes, and compare their messages. I learned about open vowels, reviewed the use of commas and how to construct a timeline. We read stories together and answered comprehension questions.

Since I was a live-in aid, we found time for extracurricular activities as well. Before school became cooking time, resulting in mounds of mini banana chocolate chip muffins that fueled us through the next two school days. After school, Karen, Ben and I took to the ski trails. Donning headlamps, we skied under the lights and then ventured beyond to ski the quieter, dark unlit trails. It was a welcome release after being in the house all day.

Despite being highly self-sufficient, the kids seemed to thrive on having someone close by as we traveled through each day together. Someone to answer their questions, to help with explanations and just reassure them that they were doing it right. I felt needed and relished the closeness of our days together, our joint mission. Since I live several hours away, it was a rare opportunity to get to know them better.

I never aspired to be a teacher – I knew I didn’t have the right genes for that. But I can be a good old-fashioned School Marm.