Finding mom in a field full of berries

Steamy heat rising from the tall grass. Yellow jackets at my ankles. Thorns ripping the skin on my hands and arms.

These are my childhood memories of berry picking.

I hated it.

Picking berries was a summer chore in our family, during that small window when blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and chokecherries ripened in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. I grew up on homemade jam sealed with wax lids, one of the ways our mother saved money with eight kids to feed.

It was forced on me. It left me hot, sticky and, sometimes, bloody. So why do I find myself wandering the fields on our property every couple of days through late July and early August, reaching into webs of thorns, plucking plump blackberries from bushes?

Am I becoming my mother?

I have spent a lifetime fighting that possibility.

I loved my mother and I admired her on many levels, but we never really got along. I won’t go into the details, but we could not spend more than twenty-four hours together without breaking into a full-blown argument, even though we talked easily and comfortably on the phone at least once a week.

We drove each other crazy.

I grew up on stories of her upbringing in Nazi Germany, where she was taken from her family and made to work in people’s homes, like many German kids during that era. The Nazis claimed they were protecting city children from potential bombings. It just so happened there were Nazis willing to take them in who needed 11-year-old housekeepers and babysitters.

From her tales, I gathered that a love of nature was her coping mechanism. Unfortunately, it often lured her on unauthorized journeys from her assigned homes, which led to reassignment after reassignment after reassignment. She was labeled a troublemaker, a title she accepted with pride. The need for a particular flower or a certain view was that great.

That craving stayed with her into adulthood and got her into plenty of messes, like the time she tried to drive up Owl’s Head Mountain with a bunch of us in the vehicle, and then couldn’t turn the station wagon around when the rough road narrowed and ended in an area too crowded with trees to even open the doors.

That was mom.

I have always loved nature, but in different, safer ways. I grew up hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and swimming, and continued to pursue those activities later in life. But since we moved to the hills of North Central Pennsylvania ten years ago, I have felt a different kind of pull from the fields, the woods and the water.

It’s a psychological craving that demands satisfaction.

My walks along the trails my husband cleared on our property center me, especially now during all the craziness of the pandemic. I walk slowly, observing the little things – the various languages of the birds, the array of insects and the assortment of plant life, all while noting the blooming seasons of each kind of wildflower. I often take photos, which I enjoy sharing with others on social media.

But when I first saw those plump, dark-purple berries clinging to bushes in clusters along the trails, I felt a new surge of excitement. I immediately rushed home to get a plastic bowl. I covered my clothes and skin in Deep Woods Off, pushed through thorns with bare legs and scraped my hands pulling off berries that were deep among the branches.

What was I doing? Was I becoming my mother?

No.

I do not have the time or the patience to pick quart after quart after quart of berries and devote days at a time to making them into jam. I never force my children to pick with me for hours at a time. I barely gather more than a bowlful from each picking.

It excites me because I love that the land gives me something back. I don’t even have to ask. I love the act of foraging. I love the sweetness of the blackberries even though they leave tiny seeds between my teeth. I love the thought that we could live off the land if ever we had to.

Even though I am not my mother, my walks and my blackberry obsession have brought me closer to her. I have developed a better understanding of the woman who was born a rebel and left everything she knew behind for new adventures in America with a U.S. soldier she had met, and then married after only a few months of courtship.

Nature was her solace while she raised eight kids with a man who eventually left her for his high school sweetheart. It was a connection to her childhood and her home country, a way of coping when she felt out of control. It was something familiar in a world full of uncertainty.

With every berry I pick, I am reminded of my mother, who passed away four years ago at 87 years old. But the memories are not of sweat, stings and bloody scratches. Instead, I am reminded of her determination and inner strength, the drive that fueled her through nursing school in her 40s after her marriage failed, that kept her working until age 71, that earned her retirement with a house of her own and a little money stashed away.

I am reminded of the little girl who slipped out through the windows of strangers’ homes to pick flowers—symbols of beauty in a time of darkness—the little girl who was willing to risk anything for freedom and adventure, the life she craved and deserved.

So, no, berry picking does not make me into my mother. It brings the best of her alive again for me.

Oops. I grew as a writer, but so did my waistline.

Four months ago, my husband bought me a Fitbit.
We live in a large house with three levels on lots of land in the country.
I was sure I’d be racking up those steps in no time.
Instead, I looked at my wrist after a long day of writing, transporting children to school and to various activities, making dinner and putting kids to bed to find I’d walked only a little more than 3,000 steps.
Experts recommend 10,000 per day.
It was quite a shock for a formerly obsessive runner with six marathons in my past, but it forced me to face reality.
I’ve completed three novels over the past five years and I’ve gained an average of ten pounds per novel. (That’s on top of the pounds I’d kept after giving birth to my twins eight years ago.)
Writing wasn’t the only distraction from my health (We moved, built a new house, and our aging parents grew more dependent on us.), but it has been a big one.
And I know I’m not alone in this.
I’ve watched several writers grow with me during this same time frame. Some of us have ramped up our writing to distract ourselves from the painfully slow submission process. Others are newly published authors under pressure to get the next novels out.
We share an insatiable passion for writing, but we have one other important thing in common.
We are all parents of school-aged children.
It makes sense. When we parent-writers look at our priorities, we often find our own health is the easiest thing to put on the back burner. Our health affects no one but ourselves in the short run and we honestly believe the priority shift is just temporary.
We’ll start eating better in a month or so.
We’ll go back to the gym after the holidays.
We’ll get more sleep once this latest project is completed.
But that time never comes.
The months pass as do the years and, as the pounds accumulate and the muscles whither, it gets harder and harder to muster the enthusiasm required to shed the weight and rebuild strength.
Writing is my passion.
It’s my past and my future.
It’s my greatest priority next to my family.
But those numbers on my wrist made me realize writing would have to share that second-place ranking from now on.
I miss running.
I miss being healthy.
I miss the way my clothes used to fit me.
I want to keep up with my kids.
So I started by focusing on my step goal.
No more nonstop writing.
Nowadays, I take breaks.
I walk our quarter-mile driveway to the mailbox. I walk the trails on the property. I walk the country roads. I walk laps around the playground while my youngest kids play. It’s 2 p.m. now and I’m at nearly 5,000 steps.
My efforts have paid off. I’ve stopped gaining weight.
But that is not enough.
My daughter is running on her school’s cross-country team this fall. She needs to build her endurance and I vowed to help her. To do so, I need to lose weight and get back in shape again. So, a few weeks ago, I started doing five minutes of floor exercises every other day and jogging a bit on my walks.
Last week, I ran a mile with her at the track and even did a little speedwork.
I jumped roped for ten minutes a couple of evenings and I swam half a mile the other day at the YMCA.
It’s too soon to see any results on the scale, but something cool happened last night.
My husband and I were talking as we walked the quarter-mile hill that is our driveway at a fairly brisk pace. I realized as we neared the top that I wasn’t short of breath. Not at all. Not even a teensy bit.
That had never happened before.
The feeling that overwhelmed me was much like completing the first quarter of a new novel. I know I have a long ways to go toward my goal, but I feel motivated. Invigorated. I feel like this is going somewhere and that each step brings me closer, just as each paragraph brings me closer to the end of a novel.
My productivity as a writer has suffered, but not nearly as much as I’d feared.
I’m fine with that because when I do finally get published, I’d like to be healthy enough to enjoy the royalties.

Why bad-mouthing Common Cores is a bad idea

The biggest beef I have with  the newly implemented Common Cores math curriculum in New York State is not with the government. Nor is it with the test creators, the teachers or the administration.
It’s with the parents.
I get it.
The language is new, the methods are new, the modules are poorly designed and the test designers desperately need to hire skilled technical writers knowledgeable in math who can develop on-level questions with little or no ambiguity.
Kids are frustrated. Parents are frustrated. Many teachers are going out of their minds.
That’s all bad enough.
But then I hear these words expressed in front of those struggling kids:
“Common Cores sucks.”
“This is bull.”
“If I can’t understand it, she’s not going to.”
“Why bother? They’re going to have to get rid of it anyway.”
We all want to make our kids feel better. We want them to know they’re not alone and that they are not incompetent. But this stuff — the generic condemnations often peppered with vulgarities — accomplishes the opposite.
It sends the message that they might as well give up.
It’s too hard and they are not smart enough.
It erects a wall between students and their teachers, a convenient and comfortable wall that encourages similar behavior when times are tough. Teachers are deprived of the opportunity to reach these kids and the kids are deprived of an education.
This is all new for us. We don’t like that. We can’t help our kids as they struggle unless we understand it and there are few opportunities to become educated in the new methods ourselves. It hurts to see a child frustrated and angry by the work and to be unable to help.
For some parents, it’s personal. Common Cores is an insult to their own educations. They learned math the old way and they did just fine, so why change it? They become defensive in the wake of new methods, so much so that they can’t be objective.
They can’t find the good in it.
But there is good in it and there are better ways.
When kids are stuck on particular concepts or terms, use Google. Learn it with them. Make a real effort. Sure, it takes a little longer, but once they know it, they know it. They can build on it and move on. It’s all there on Internet and the sense of teamwork is good for parent-child relations.
This was all thrown at teachers. They haven’t had time to properly prepare. Modules that should have taken two days require four. They are behind, they are frustrated and they are struggling. Help them and hope that next year will be better.
Put pressure on school districts to provide overview classes for parents and/or free tutoring after school or in the evenings for kids. Make sure your kids know about your efforts so they can see how it’s done. If they don’t understand something, don’t encourage them to give up. Encourage them to pursue it full-force and to discover the learning methods that work best for their needs.
Lobby the right people.
Don’t scream at the teacher.
Don’t blame the principal.
Don’t egg the superintendent’s house.
Lobby the state.
Lobby the federal government.
Ask local districts officials what you can do that will be most effective.
Finally, give it a chance.
This isn’t evil stuff. There are solid theories behind the Common Cores methods and they make a lot of sense, but I think we all know they could have been implemented much better and with greater care. This is a mess, but don’t wash your hands of it and walk away.
It might make parents feel better to engage in screaming matches with the school board, to pull them from final exams, to berate Common Cores, the teachers, the administrators and the curriculum in front of them, but it’s a cop our.
Ultimately, our kids suffer.
So don’t turn your backs.
Dig in and do your part.
Love, learn, lobby and succeed.
Learn about Common Cores and pick and choose your battles.

The panini generation

I’d like to modify the analogy of our age group as the “sandwich” generation.
It just doesn’t work.
Too many good sandwiches come on soft, tasty bread.
The bread is actually quite delicious and satisfying.
The way I’ve been feeling lately is more like panini — my precious bread crushed by two thick slabs of hot metal that are squeezing the melted cheese out of me, searing us all and permanently charring our skin.
I’m not even there.
My parents are a good 1,000 miles away and our youngest brother is taking the full brunt of it.
But the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on the phone or on email dealing with doctors, social workers, case managers, directors, our parents and other family members all while trying to keep the household going and lamely pacifying my kids when they come home and I’m too busy to hear about their days.
And writing?
Forget it.
This is the first chance I’ve had to write anything.
I miss it.
It is getting better.
My mother is improving and my father has been stable for a long time.
But that grill is still there, threatening.
And it can be cruel and deceptive.
There was, for instance, a moment when the pressure eased and I rolled over to survey the damage to the other slice of bread.
Just then the grill gave me one more hard, heated squeeze, nearly suffocating me with the pressure to make up for all I’ve neglected, especially the kids.
Book reports were due. Easter was looming. The twins wanted to roller skate in the house.
Fortunately, I am not alone in this sandwich.
Two other strong hands reached out and pushed back the grill, helping me fluff the bread, tending to it in magical ways, making it soft once again.
I found that the bread is tougher than it had seemed. The heat had not broken it down and the char marks could be scraped away.
My kids still love me.
They didn’t starve.
They made their school deadlines.
The Easter bunny will make an appearance on time.
And the twins have not convinced me to let them roller skate in the house.
Thank goodness for those two other hands.
Here’s the thing though.
Despite it all, I still love panini.
Especially the bread.