Of Walking Bean Fields And Mowing Lawns, and Teaching Kids A Work Ethic


Photo by infomatique, via Flickr

There’s a repertoire of “farm kid” stories that country kids have to have: loading, unloading and stacking straw and hay bales is on the list (check), and some great animal stories that are not universally appropriate to share (check). For a lot of people, detassling corn is one of Those Stories. I never did that, although I heard about it a lot.

We did, however, walk bean fields. You don’t walk just any bean field. We walked bean fields because my parents were growing soybeans for seed, and the seed companies wanted the product much cleaner—i.e.., weed-free—than the average. The row cultivator helps, and so do the herbicides, but sometimes there’s nothing to do but pound the dirt.

My parents hired us—actually, “hired” is probably not entirely accurate, as we were not given a choice in the matter; on the other hand, they did pay us—to go out on hot summer evenings and spread out, each of us covering three to five rows, depending on the density of the weeds, and pull weeds. Our main enemies were cottonweed, cuckleburr, and shattercane.

Oh, that shattercane. Shattercane is like dandelions, only with a slower life cycle and a whole lot bigger. And it looks a lot like corn. Let one plant go and next year you have hundreds. Sometimes we had to abandon our own rows and go help someone else who had a patch. Some days the ground was wet, other days it was really dry. Sometimes things uprooted easily, sometimes they didn’t.

I complained a lot. In my head, I complained almost nonstop.

I remembered this on Friday evening because Alex had to mow a neighbor’s yard. You would think, based on his reaction, that he’d been sentenced to life in prison. We didn’t give him a choice; a job is a job is a job, and we had a break in the rain. And to his credit, once he got that initial “tween” reaction out of the way, he didn’t complain out loud. But I could see the complaints in his head. They were voluminous.

It got me to thinking that when we’re kids we always think we’re being better behaved than we really are. I figured my parents didn’t know how bad my attitude was while walking beans, because I was hiding it out of respect. But on the other side of the parenting coin I am certain that they knew very well how bad my attitude was.

In any case, I’m grateful to my parents for the early lessons in work ethic, because they’ve served me well, however much I loathed them at the time. (Gardening, canning, processing chickens, loading hay, weeding garden, mowing lawn…) Now the trick is, to find the opportunities for my own city-dwelling kids…

In Which Julianna And I Find Something In Common

Photo via Wiki Commons

Photo via Wiki Commons

I was nine years old the year I discovered figure skating. That was the year Katarina Witt won the gold medal at the Sarejevo Olympics, and it was my first fandom. In retrospect, I think what I loved most about her was the fact that she served as a mirror for me, or rather a more beautiful version of me. That was my fourth grade year and my school picture was unequivocally the single worst photo ever taken of me, tiptoeing at the cusp of an incredibly awkward puberty. She was German, like me, her hair looked like mine when my mom did the fanciest braids; she had the same body shape (although mine was just starting to develop, so I didn’t really know that then), even her name was a mirror of mine.

For several years, in defiance of reality (i.e., the nearest rink was an hour and a half away and I never took a single lesson), I dreamed of being a figure skater. I spent my recesses “practicing” my jumps and striking poses, pretending I was in the middle of a routine. I graduated from that when I realized how foolish I looked, but instead I wrote a proto-novel about an Olympic ice skater.

Over the last thirty years my tastes have shifted. The singles no longer hold a lot of appeal for me. I find ice dance and pairs far more beautiful. But I haven’t watched much, because we’re always busy and even when I made note of an event that would be televised on a station we actually got (we were on basic-basic cable for over a decade, and then dropped it altogether for a few months), I usually would forget to turn it on.

Well, with the Olympics coming up it’s time to get back in touch. So Saturday afternoon we watched part of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Alex was grumpy–he wanted to use the Wii–but he could hardly argue that Mommy’s request to watch a single program was unreasonable. Mommy never, ever, ever claims the TV.

I swept the kitchen during the advertisements and sat on the couch while the pairs programs were on. Julianna and Nicholas were mesmerized, watching with me. When it was over I went to the computer to look up a program from the last Olympics that I remember being exceptionally beautiful. And in the middle of the program I looked up from YouTube to see my daughter on the other side of the computer desk, slowly and carefully twisting and turning…pretending to be a figure skater.

How to describe the emotion of that moment? I have all these boys running around. We’re a superhero family. I know far more about Transformers, Avengers and Justice League than I do about Strawberry Shortcake or, what are those creepy dolls called? Monsters High, or something? Christian and I have an inside joke; we call the girls’ toys section the “creepy girl aisle” because it gives us the willies.

I can’t get inside my daughter’s head; I never know for sure what she’s thinking or if I’m getting a genuine answer to any question I ask her. I’ve learned, for instance, that I can’t ask her if she did what I told her to do, because she’ll say “yes” no matter whether she has or hasn’t. Instead I have to tell her to do it again, and if she says, “Wye dee!” (“already did!”) in a tone of great personal affront, then I know she did it.

She’s the hardest child to shop for because nothing really interests her except music and books, and we already have so many of both. It’s hard to know what sorts of activities will excite her. It’s hard to include her in the family activities as her younger brother shoots past her in cognition and verbal ability and physical prowess.

All of this went through my head in a shock wave as I realized something that was infinitely precious to me as a child, and remains the only sport I actually like, is also special to my little girl. There’s a connection between us I didn’t even know was there. And it made my day.

We’ll be watching a lot of figure skating this year, I think.

Sibling Love?


“I’m sure you know this already,” said Julianna’s teacher, sitting in our living room on Saturday morning, “but…Julianna is just so sweet.

Christian and I exchanged a glance and chuckled, because we hear it all the time. In fact, he’d heard it from the counselor at her school just a couple of days before. And we get it all the time when we’re out and about as a family.

Which makes me really curious to know what goes through my other children’s minds when they hear such things.

The world’s perception of Julianna:

Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Blossom Festival

Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Blossom Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My children’s perception of Julianna:


People routinely tell you how great your kids are, and every time they do, you have this surreal moment in which you have to remind yourself that they don’t see all the moments you do. Right?  But you’re an adult and you can remove yourself a bit from your own experience and appreciate what others see.

The kids, though–it’s harder for them. Above kidding aside, I really do wonder what my boys think of their sister. The relationships among the three of them are pretty clear. Nicholas is a button-pusher and he knows Alex’s buttons at least as well as he knows mine, but they declare regular cease-fires to play Ninjago or Avengers or Other-Superhero-of-the-Day together. Nicholas wants to be Alex, and Alex’s most common spiritual goal has to do with being nicer to/more patient with his brother. Alex and Michael adore each other, pure and simple. Nicholas and Michael are hurtling toward a mirror image of Alex and Nicholas’ relationship.

But Julianna stands kind of outside all these relationships. She plays with them occasionally, but she’s not cognitively able to play pretend; she still prefers to sit and look through word cards and listen to music. Her communications are different. You never know if you’re getting a straight answer out of her. She’s just, well, different.

We’ve never tried to hide, downplay or otherwise sugar coat Julianna’s differences. Alex began learning about Down syndrome as soon as we could talk about it without crying. Nicholas, being far less empathetic and much more, er, let’s call it focused-on-himself than his older brother, has only in the last six months begun to process what that extra chromosome means. But both of them know that Julianna’s disability means they have an extra long-term responsibility as brothers.

The circumstances of each person’s life color childhood, but the way they react to those circumstances is unique to each child. When I see Alex playing with his cousin or a friend who is around Julianna’s age, it always causes a pang. We had our first two close together partly so that they could be playmates, but it didn’t work out that way. As much as we value treating Julianna like any other child in our family would be treated, we can’t escape the fact that she is different, and those differences force many, many accommodations to be made. She does get treated differently. And I wonder how my boys will react to their sister in the long run.

Four Kids, One Cousin and Two Farms in Seven Quick Takes


(The world’s all-time record for a long blog post title?)


I practiced flute for half an hour in my bedroom at my parents’ house yesterday. Now, if you’re much of a musician you probably know that not all rooms are equal. Acoustics make playing in some rooms a pleasure and in others a chore. If I’d ever stopped to think about it I’d have known my carpeted basement lies closer to the latter than the former, but it’s the space I have and so I use it. My childhood bedroom, with its hard wood floors and un-fussy decor, felt like a concert hall. I was disappointed at being called away after only half an hour. (Which was in two parts, btw.)


We were at my parents’ because it was their 43rd wedding anniversary. Everybody tell them congratulations!


Mom pulled out her wedding gown. In the box she also unearthed my First Communion outfit. Which reminded me of my greatest childhood drama. (Prepare yourself.) When I was in the second grade, my mother told me First Communion was becoming too much about vanity, so I wasn’t going to wear a fancy white dress. I was extremely bitter, because not only was I the only girl in my entire class who didn’t wear a white dress and veil, I was the only one of my SISTERS who didn’t get to wear a white dress and veil for her First Communion.

I held this against my mother for years, until I’d been through a few First Communions as a liturgy director and decided the vanity factor is wwwwway out of hand, and these dresses are completely ridiculous. Then and only then did I discover that it wasn’t her idea in the first place, it was the teachers’.

Looking at my outfit–store bought, by the way, which says something about how bad my mom must have felt, because she never forked over the money for storebought us clothes when we were little–brought every twisted emotion I have ever felt on the subject roaring to the surface.

Now, how can I be so bitter about not having gotten to wear a fancy white dress and, at the same time, be irritated with the money-vanity factor of First Communion fashion today?

(My mom’s answer: “Then you reacted like a child, now you react like an adult. And it must have been a very deep hurt.”)

Here's the outfit...we put it on Julianna. She fought me all the way getting it on, and then refused to take it off, even though it was way too big.

Here’s the outfit…we put it on Julianna. She fought me all the way getting it on, and then refused to take it off, even though it was way too big.


Once my sister and her son arrived, Mom sent the kids outside to pick blackberries. Alex’s comment was priceless: “These are TOTally SOOOO not storebought.”

Of course, the real attraction of being in my parents’ back yard was the big round hay bales beyond it. All four of my kids had to go out and touch one.

Touching the hay bale

I had a strong memory of Finding Nemo.


Then we went down to watch my dad moving slats out of the hog barn, which is being repurposed for storing miscanthus bales.

Dad on tractor

Alex wanted to take a ride on a slat. Julianna hid behind her aunt as long as the tractor was running.

Tamara with Julianna

Then Dad turned off the tractor to say hi to the kids, and Michael dashed in. It took him all of five seconds to go from standing by me, relatively clean, to getting oil on his hand.


IMG_0804 smallWhich was followed in short order by a trip into the haybarn-turned-machine shed. While my sister and I were waxing reminiscent about jumping off piles of hay bales, Michael got on Julianna’s bad side and got pushed to the ground. So now he had oil on his hand and thick dust on his bottom and his belly.


Alex milking cowWe followed this up with a trip to another farm that raises chickens, goats, and a llama. We got to feed them peanuts. At least, Alex did; Julianna and Nicholas wouldn’t dare, but Michael had to be dragged away screaming. He thought it was hilarious. The owner let Alex and his cousin milk a goat. All I can say is that I have a real sensitivity problem with dairy operations, wholly stemming from the manhandling of the mammary organs. As a nursing mother emeritus, I spend the entire time wincing and feeling violated. I know. It’s psychotic. The farm girl can’t handle hearing about or watching animals being milked. Well, we didn’t have a diary when I was a kid.

Anyway, we got good and dirty, which meant…what, do you think? That it was a great time to go to Great Grandma’s assisted living facility for an ice cream social, of course!

Bonus: For those who don’t read all the time, take a look at this post, if you will, and consider sharing. Ministry is so important, and every parish lacks for volunteers because people think they aren’t good enough or don’t have time. This is my attempt to make a dent in that!

7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 227)

May Fest


Spring Festival Photo BoothWhen I was a kid, my little parochial school–200 students, grades 1-8–had its major fundraiser the first Friday in May. The school cafeteria/gym became the venue for a pork chop meal, which I think everyone in the parish attended, whether they had a kid in the school or not. In the corner was a country store selling baked goods. My mother always sent four loaves of bread. Each classroom was converted into a booth: cake walk, wood burning, engraving, lollipop tree. The end of the building, blocking the main entrance, was a white elephant.

It was a community event, and utterly magical. We looked forward to it every year. My parents have a set of six huge globe goblets that my sisters and I won piecemeal over the course of years by throwing ping pong balls into them. (As a parent, I can now shake my head and imagine their reaction: “Oh, great, just what I wanted. More of those tacky goblets.”)

I thought of this about an hour into Julianna’s school spring festival on Friday night. It was supposed to be outside, but–big surprise, this ridiculous weather year–it was too cold and rainy. In keeping with modern America’s abysmal eating habits, the meal was hot dog, chips and a cookie instead of the pork chop, green beans & homemade desserts of my youth. There wasn’t a country store or a white elephant–but the classrooms were set up for bean bag toss, lollipop tree, and the like. Including a photo booth, where I volunteered for half an hour.

It was a bit chaotic. Michael was getting tired, and our whole family (except Christian) has been fighting the sore throat/cough bug. Michael began hurling himself to the floor and rolling around long before we ran out of tickets. Until he discovered a water fountain with a stool in front of it, that is. After that, he was in heaven.

It was such a fun evening. Crazy, yes, because the halls were crowded and it was tough to keep track of the kids. My memories of Mayfest involve us being cut loose, but of course we were older.

What struck me about the juxtaposition of memory on present is the rarity of events like these nowadays. Even my parochial school has abandoned Mayfest for the more profitable “auction” format. And I don’t like that format. I feel locked out of auction events, because we will never, ever be in the market for large ticket items, especially not at auction prices. And although there is a community aspect to an auction evening, it’s not the same. Auctions are adults only. Now, don’t misunderstand: I can certainly sympathize with the desire to spend time with other adults. But at the same time, it feels wrong to me somehow to remove the kids from the quotient. After all, we’re fundraising for the kids’ school. Why not make them part of it? Let them be invested? Make fundraising an event that not only raises money and builds community, but also gives families the chance to have fun together?

Maybe it’s not an either/or situation. The auctions certainly serve their function; they raise a ton of money. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to have those family events that bind communities together, too?

I guess the obstacle is that a spring festival requires a higher commitment level from the community. The need for volunteers is greater, the need for donations is greater; people need to take time to bake goods and make crafts and prepare homemade desserts and spend shifts in the kitchen and the game booths. You have to go through your closets looking for white elephants to donate. All the way around, a festival is a bigger commitment from the non-committee members, and the larger the school, the more unwieldy the practicalities. And the reality of urban life in the modern world is that it’s hard to get people to volunteer to the needed level. I’m as guilty as anyone else.

So maybe my idealized version of a school fundraiser is doomed to failure. But when I remember the festivals of my childhood, and when I see my kids enjoying the one at Julianna’s school, it makes me sad.

What I Learned About High School After Twenty Years


It was quite a weekend. On Saturday I found out two of my articles had won awards, the scales tipped at pre-pregnancy weight, and we went to my twenty-year high school reunion.

I’ve been anticipating this event ever since Christian’s reunion last fall. And several years before that, actually. But as the time grew close, I got a little nervous. Like many other writers and bloggers, I’m an introvert at heart. For all the good memories of high school, that time in my life is tainted by the persistent sense that I never really fit in.

I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was twenty years ago, and when I know my role in a given situation, I can actually come across as pretty extroverted. But this was not one of those situations. I knew I just had to take a deep breath and dive in.

Twenty years ago, I couldn’t look people in the eye–especially the guys. These days, I can stare down a room full of medical students, I can sing in front of a thousand people with total calm, I can interact confidently with editors and give frank critiques. So it was disconcerting to feel the impulse to run and hide in a corner fighting to resurface–as if the pattern of those four years was too strong to be overthrown by mere adulthood.

Christian scolded me gently when it was all over, telling me he thought I sold myself short in talking about myself. Maybe I did come across as a boring little housewife with a bunch of kids. (I got an award for having the most kids, tied with another Catholic gradeschool classmate. :) ). I am proud of what I’ve accomplished–what I continue to work toward, in disability advocacy, in NFP promotion, in publication. But I also know my tendency to get so focused on my own affairs that I forget to focus on others’–and tonight, of all nights, I wanted to know what was going on in other people’s lives, not bore everyone to tears by bragging on myself.

As the music level ratcheted upward, slowly driving all but a handful of die-hard dancers outside (are deejays the only people in the universe who don’t understand that they are not the reason for the party?), my nerves settled. I was intensely interested to see what these people were like now, how they’d changed, what forces and events had shaped them in the years since I’d seen them last. Not surprisingly, we all have a lot more in common than we used to. Twenty years later, party animals and uber-serious analytical music nerds alike have kids, jobs, responsibilities…we’ve all experienced independence and realized it’s not everything we once thought it would be. For the most part, the things that separated us in adolescence have become irrelevant.

We gathered around a poster lined with head shots, and people pointed out pictures, sharing what we knew about their lives. They joked about who was named most fill-in-the-blank and teased each other for their teenage quirks. And I mostly listened and wondered, Where in the world was I during high school? I don’t remember any of this!

“Kate was a girl who wanted to have fun, but was scared she’d get in trouble,” said one of my classmates, and I laughed, because that was probably a pretty accurate summation. I wonder what I missed out on by walking around with my head in the clouds (or a book), and what I’ve gained instead, and I wonder if the balance had been otherwise, would I be as satisfied with my life today?

Fascinating questions for an aspiring novelist, but probably enough navel-gazing for one day. Suffice it to say, it was a very enjoyable evening, and I love finding out how much I like the people who formed the tapestry that made me who I am. I’m just a little sad that I waited twenty years to find out.



Photo by zenonline, via Flickr

She was young and pretty and sweet, and from the first day she stood up in front of my sixth grade class, I adored her.

I was at the height of my awkward stage, my self-esteem slipping on the shifting sands of hormones and changing social requirements. I didn’t fit in with my peers, whose movies of choice for sleepovers were Porky’s and Children of the Corn, who listed Duran Duran as their favorite band. I was a space adventure and Somewhere Over the Rainbow kind of girl, and even when no one was tittering behind their hands about it, I was painfully aware that I didn’t fit in. Mrs. L’s perfect acceptance soothed my spirit.

At lunch recess, while my classmates played “liberation” kickball, I attached to Mrs. L.  On gray, dreary winter days we stood with our hands in our pockets and talked. About what, I couldn’t say now; all I know is that when I was with her, I felt loved.

And then one afternoon, she met my eager approach with a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Kate,” she said, “I think you need to go play with your classmates.”

The shock went straight to my core in one horrible burst of shame. I was a smart girl. I instantly recognized everything she didn’t say. I was pestering my teacher at her much-needed break time. We were not friends, we were student and teacher, and I had stepped over the line. For one moment, I felt rejection, and then I recognized that she was right to banish me. By hanging out with her, I was solidifying division lines between myself and my peers, looking like a holier-than-thou teacher’s pet…which I already was; no need to make it worse.

For all the world I wouldn’t let her know how much it hurt. I skipped off, swallowing my tears, and I never again tried to chum with her. I only adored her at a distance. And although the next year of my life was perhaps the worst ever, by the time I graduated eighth grade, I had begun to connect with people my own age.

Everyone thinks they’re awkward in adolescence. I can already see it beginning in Alex, even in the first grade, and I wince. It hurts to see my children suffer; my instinct is to do everything in my power to fix it, to shield them and make sure they never feel shame or hurt or heartbreak.

But suffering is part of life, and a crucial one. Some of the most important lessons of my life were learned, not in joy, but in suffering; not in affirmation, but in shame. Pain is instructive. So I steel myself against the future, and even the present, and I try to temper my heart with my head, and remind myself that my role is not to protect my son from those tough lessons, but to stand by and love him unconditionally while he learns the lessons he needs to grow to strong manhood.

memoir writing, remembeRED, writing prompt

and continuing the practices of motherhood posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3