The Magic of the Beach

  In four more days my kids will be done with school and we will be heading to the Jersey shore. No, not the raunchy version that we see on tv. We stay on a family friendly island where wild nightlife means riding the roller coasters or double shot. And there are no bars to visit in the evening, instead we hit the ice cream parlor for our favorite sundaes. If you want to gamble, you’d have to go to Atlantic City- or pull out the cards and chips for a family game of poker. The days are spent building sand castles or boogie boarding and the evenings are for lacrosse and sunset walks on the beach. Even though there are wi-fi and cable tv, the kids are more likely to pull out a board game or walk to get ice cream. Something about the salty air and the sound of the waves makes us all relax.

The scramble to get packed in a few short days and the long drive to get there, will be worth it once we cross the bridge with our windows rolled down so we can catch our first breath of the ocean. Something in our senses connects that smell with eating cotton candy or salt water taffy, relaxing on the warm sand or floating in the buoyant water.  The memories have compounded over the many years we have gone to the same beach. We have our traditions built in. We already know what activities we will do and where we will eat and sleep. The order or frequency does not matter, as long as they are all covered.

I have my pile of books at the ready. I plan to bring them down to our spot and relax under the umbrella. If the waves don’t put me to sleep, and I have time to read between swimming and walking on the beach,  I hope to finish at least one book by the time we leave.

My husband is preparing his fishing gear. He loves to get up early and throw his line in, hoping to catch dinner. Success is not his goal, though. It is the seduction of the waves, the unexpected tug on the line, the uncertainty of whether it will be a striper, a sand shark or a shoe. Any catch is a good one.

The kids have their lacrosse sticks and boogie boards for some fun beach activities. At some point they will probably decide they are not too old to build sandcastles and will take on the challenge of defending their fortress against the tide. Long ago I passed on the sand castle building techniques which my father had taught me. They know how to look for the biggest clam shell as a shovel and how to dig a trench so they can dribble muddy droplets through their fingers for a more gothic look on the facade.

We will bring our kayak along so we can paddle down to the pier or if a pod of dolphins happens by we can quickly jump in and follow along. In the past we have had the fortune to see them fishing within a few feet of us, diving underneath our kayak and popping up on the other side. It is a more memorable experience than visiting Sea World.

Shell collecting, especially in the ungroomed areas of the beach, almost always results in unusual finds. Horseshoe crabs, seagull feathers, sea glass, and lost trinkets will wash up along the high tide line. There are long strands of seaweed that have little  pockets of air.  They are every kid’s favorite ocean treasure because they are fun to pop!  On our beach walks, there have been two occasions where we came upon a crowd of people assisting a beached whale. Once, a family member helped carry it to the truck bed on which it could be driven to a rehab facility.

Jelly fish and crabs are the only creatures to avoid in the water; but I humourously remember the days of shark sightings when I was a kid, the year that Jaws was released. Most of the evacuations were caused by paranoid adults who were totally spooked by Steven Spielberg. Anything floating in the water or touching their leg was considered to be a shark. After that summer, I decided to never see the movie, lest it spoil my enjoyment of swimming carefree in the surf.

When my kids were young, I spent a lot of time playing on the beach or in the waves with them. Now they are old enough to wander the beach without me. They can come and go between the house, the beach, the roaming ice cream truck and the hoagie shop. No one has to be on a schedule and everyone can relax or have fun in their own way. The beach casts a different spell over everyone; but it provides a type of magical therapy for all.

Til Death Do Us Part

My previous post was about changes in family due to death or remarriage. Today I am going to discuss divorce.

Nearly half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. This trend was apparent when I was a teenager in the late 70’s. A high percentage of my friends were going through a parental divorce. By the time I graduated from high school, it had happened to so many peers that I was proud my parents were still happily married.

Little did I foresee that within ten years they would get divorced- just three weeks after my own wedding. Thankfully, their principles of marriage seemed unshakeable to me at the time and they did not reveal their intentions, knowing that my faith in the permanence of my wedding vows to my betrothed, would be swept away in confusion.

Couples divorce for many reasons. I know my parents still loved each other, but for some reason they felt a need to go their own ways. I appreciate that they are still friends today and we can have family gatherings together. Unfortunately, the six months after my wedding, when I learned my parents were splitting and my new husband suffered a heart attack (not fatal), were the most devastating moments of my life- shattering my rosy concept of marriage and “for better or for worse, til death do us part”.

The days I spent in the hospital, holding my husband’s hand was relieved by having both of my parents by my side. Because they could be there for me, together, and put aside their differences, I was able to heal the pain in my heart. It also made me stronger and more determined to keep my own marriage on track, through all the trials and challenges of raising a family.

I don’t want to repeat my family history and have nothing in common with my husband once the kids are gone. It isn’t always easy to find time to be together, to talk, to express our desires, our dreams- but we certainly make an effort. Even though my parents’ divorce was heart-wrenching, I was able to take away some lessons from it:

*Don’t ever take love for granted.

*Always make time to talk to each other. Whatever the troubles are, they are better handled together.

*Look beyond the horizon. The kids will be gone in a few years (in my case, 5). Reinforce our bond at least once a week so that we revel in each other’s company when we are on our own again.

* Remember why we fell in love in the first place and try to recreate that feeling at least once a year.

*Give each other space to do their own thing; but also find activities you enjoy doing together.

By following these steps, hopefully we won’t have to put the whole puzzle of our marriage back together when we become empty-nesters; but only will have to pick up a dropped stitch here and there. I have a picture in my mind of my husband and I, sitting on our front porch with a glass of wine in our hands and our walkers by our sides, enjoying the view of the sunset and reflecting on old times.

The Expanding Family Horizon

  What is a “family horizon”? you may ask. A horizon is a line as far as the eye can see- usually a boundary between the known and the unknown, the real and the imaginary. In relation to a family, a child’s horizon might be very close-at-hand: mom, dad, brother, sister. These are the people we interact with every day and come to rely on for comfort and emotional support.

Today’s families aren’t so black and white, though. Due to high rates of divorce , financial needs and longevity there is a greater likelihood that a family’s horizon will expand. In-laws or step-families, adult children and spouses all add to the expanded version of today’s family- often inhabiting the same household.

Early on, children learn to include their grandparents and aunts/uncles/cousins into the category of extended family. My children had 4 grandparents, 4 sets of aunts /uncles and 2 cousins. One set of grandparents divorced before they were born. My daughter was a year old when my father remarried. His wife graciously accepted an endearing nickname and took on the role of step-grandmother. She brought their horizon up to 5 grandparents.

The other set of grandparents was married for 56 years and were only recently separated due to death. That shrunk my kids’ horizon, but only temporarily. Within a year, their Nana had met a gentleman who liked her very much and they began spending a lot of time together. When my father married a new partner, the kids were too young to know there had been anything different. But at this stage of their lives, the idea that their Nana could take a new partner seemed to rock their concept of family.

My children obviously have strong loyalties and affection for family members. My daughter is a believer in the status quo. Neither has any experience with romantic relationships, other than what they see on tv, so it was difficult for them to accept that their grandmother had already come to terms with their grandfather’s death and was ready to move on with her life.

Q. How do you get a self-centered teenager to switch lenses and zoom out to a farther horizon?

A. Patience and baby steps.

We had heard much about Nana’s beau and my husband and I were very supportive; but it took several months until we finally met him. The kids were nervous- not sure what to expect or how to treat him- he wasn’t their beloved Papa after all. When he and Nana arrived, we spent as much time out of the house as possible (at a tennis match, restaurant and they slept at a nearby hotel). I think it was important that the kids didn’t feel pressured that he needed to be treated like family at this initial meeting.

By getting to talk with him and realize what a kind, thoughtful person he is, they were able to form their own opinion of him and be more forgiving of Nana. My son actually said he was happy if she was happy. A few weeks later, Nana visited alone for several days, reassuring the kids that she was aways there for them. She had an opportunity to answer their questions about her boy-friend and I think they were more open-minded.

By their next visit together, he should be welcomed back as a member of the expanded family- and my children have reset their sights on a higher point of the family horizon.

Life through Rose-colored Glasses

What would your life look like if you described it to someone else? How would their perception be different than your own? Do you see unusual or even exotic events in your past or does everything seem dark and dreary?

Over the last few weeks I have been spending some time visiting with an older woman who is undergoing chemotherapy. For an hour or two a week I stay with her while her caregiver takes a break. My role is not to provide care, but rather to be a companion- someone to keep her company and bring a little cheer into her day. As we have gotten to know each other, we have shared stories about out lives. We had very different childhoods, marriages and life experiences. Out of respect for her privacy I will not reveal more about her. Instead, I want to focus on how she sees my life and how that has filtered my own view of it- giving my a life a more “rose colored” feeling than I realized.

I think we get so caught up in the day to day issues, whether they involve problems at work, home, illness or children, that we don’t see the big picture and what we have experienced or accomplished thus far in our lives. We are so concerned about the future, that we lose sight of the past.

For example, I told her about the recent trips I took with my family- to the beach in Jamaica for snorkelling [] , or in a hot air balloon in Tucson [].

While I found them to be enjoyable family vacations, in my mind that was the norm. I had grown up in a privileged household that did a lot of travelling. Beaches and adventures were always a part of our lives and when I had my own family I continued the tradition. In contrast,  my companion had never been out of the state. Her family didn’t have the luxury to take such vacations and when she had her own children,  for the most part, she was a single working mom. As you can imagine, when I told her about the exotic locations I had travelled on a Mediterranean cruise last summer, it almost sounded like a fantasy to her.

I told her other stories about growing up in an old victorian house and the adventures I had walking around town. Memories that never seemed important to me took on a new life through her eyes. When her caregiver returned, she would highlight some of the things we had talked about. To hear her describe my life to someone else added an element of excitement. If she could see these parts of my history as special, maybe I needed to look at them in a different light.

I always enjoyed sharing the story of how my husband and I met [] I knew it had elements of humour as well as charm to it; but when she retold it, it sounded like the most romantic fairy tale. Imagine two people, coincidentally connected through a tennis match, become good friends and then, upon discovering that they are soul mates, get married and live happily ever after (well I assume that will be true).

When I tell her some of the activites my children are involved in, she is extremely impressed and always compliments me on how amazing they are. I guess I neglected to tell her about the dirty socks and dishes they leave lying around; but I don’t think that information would change her view. She has told me stories about trying to raise her children as a single mom and I realize my challenges are minimal compared to hers.

Her outlook reminds me to focus on the positive things about my children- like their interests and skills. They’ll outgrow their annoying habits. Instead of making my life be about always cleaning up after them, or yelling at them to do it themselves, I should think how lucky I am to have two wonderful children with such amazing talents.

Rather than seeing myself as a typical mom with two kids, two dogs and a house in the suburbs, I have retinted my sunglasses to see all the opportunities my family has taken advantage of, all the adventures we have gone on together and the wonderful family connections that we have. And I have my friend to thank for it. By hearing her reaction to what I saw as routine (from my narrow point of view), I gained much appreciation for how exciting and fulfilling my life really is.

Now don’t take me as some snob, because I have always really known that. It has just taken an experience like this to bring that feeling back to the surface. The reason I volunteered to do these visits is because I am a kind and caring person and like to help others. Little did I forsee how much I would gain from the time we spend together. I am already looking forward to next week’s visit and starting to think about more stories to dig up from my past. I know she will help me see them in a whole new light. No matter how young I was or how mundane the activity, it will look brilliant through her rose-colored glasses.

I think the same can be true for all of us. If we take a moment to step back and look at ourselves from a different angle, we may be a whole lot more appreciative of what we see.

Summer Vacation Approacheth

Now that June is here, my kids have been ticking off the days left until summer vacation. My daughter’s last full day is next Tuesday. After that she only goes in for exams. School officially ends on June 21st. That is the morning of my son’s moving up ceremony- his final day of middle school. So as the countdown narrows, I am taking a few minutes to reflect on what summer vacation means from different perspectives.

First of all, there is no doubt that kids love summer vacation. I still remember some of the lyrics to the song my friends and I sang on the way home from the last day of school: “No more pencils, no more books…” (I’m sure you can fill in the rest, even if you liked your teachers). I think the carefree attitude of summer is conveyed perfectly in the soothing, lullaby-like melody and lyrics in George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” :

“summertime and the livin’ is easy

fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high”

[found on http://www/]

Doesn’t that create the picture of kids running through the fields, or casting  a line in the water, like Huckleberry Finn?

Or how about kids splashing in the mud?

Now, obviously, not all parents have that same feeling of ease when it comes to the length of the summer break. In the month before school ended many of my friends, both working and stay-at-home parents, scrambled to patch together a series of day camps for their kids to attend- either out of necessity or because they dreaded having to entertain them all day long. I totally understood how they felt, since I taught little kids for ten months of the year. It is challenging to keep them happy and out of trouble at the same time.

However, I actually looked forward to the summer. I saw my kids’ vacation as my chance to spend more playtime with them. We often went to the playground or pool where we would just hang out for the afternoon. Sometimes we would participate in a family nature program at our local park, or they would take swimming or tennis lessons. We would take trips to the museum on hot days and usually a week or more would be spent at the beach- collecting snail families or building sand castles.

Before we knew it, summer was ending and we were doing our back to school shopping.

When they got older, they became interested in going to day camps with their friends. I would let them choose 2-3 week’s worth of activities, but after that we would mostly invite friends over or travel somewhere. A few times they brought a friend camping

or we would take a group to an amusement or water park.

I tried to keep the fun, unstructured feeling in summer; but coordinating with other families required making a schedule, which eliminated the laid-back spontaneity I wanted. My friends who worked through the summer, however, appreciated my willingness to have their kids over and drive them to activities. I always felt it was the best of both worlds.

All the grandparents also looked forward to summer vacation. To them, summer meant more time with the kids. Whether the whole family was visiting, we were taking a vacation together, or the kids were staying with them alone summer was an opportunity for extended bonding, when no one was rushed or preoccupied with schoolwork.

There have been many ping pong matches, late night movies, shell collecting, baseball throwing and family story-telling. These are the experiences that make memories and reasons why summer can be delightful!

This summer, my kids have a 2-week period when they will be away from home. They have separate plans during the same time. This means that my husband and Iwill have 2 weeks to ourselves for the first time. Maybe that is my summer vacation from being a mom 24/7 and I should see it as a much deserved break. Or maybe it is a hint of what the empty nest will feel like in not so many more years.

That last thought makes me feel more strongly about the importance of family time during the summer months and the determination to keep it fun and filled with good memories, moments we can all look back on and smile, releasing the happy feelings from our hearts, “those were the days”. We can never get too old to enjoy our summer vacations.

That’s me, the second from the right, with my sisters and cousins at a family reunion. It is always fun to get together!

Guinea Pig Years

My son’s guinea pig passed away over the weekend. My husband discovered her laying on her side in the soft bedding. He thoughtfully placed her in a shoe box and brought her to my son’s room. I could see him choke back a little tear and swallow hard; but he collected himself quickly and we all went outside to find a spot to bury her.

As my husband dug a hole, we thought of all the other guinea pigs we have laid to rest over the years. It started in 2002. Fuzzball was the first. We had gotten Fuzzball and Sweetie as pets for both children when they were 5 and 3. They had been begging us for a dog. We were not ready to get one, so we tried to get away with lower maintenance guinea pigs.

Little did we know this was the start of an era- a decade’s worth of guinea pigs. It started within a few months, when we discovered the pet store had mistakenly given us a male and female instead of two females. Sweetie’s first litter produced 3 babies. We managed to pass them off to friends, although one eventually returned to us because the girl’s mom decided she wasn’t taking care of it properly.

We scheduled a neutering for Fuzzball, but two days before the procedure my then 3-year-old son decided to try his hand at breeding and snuck them into the same cage overnight. He obviously understood something about the “birds and the bees” even at that young age. I still remember him telling me:”If you hear the guinea pigs making noise at night, don’t worry, Mom. They’ll be fine.” Little did I know what he was planning, instead assuming he was telling me they were nocturnal creatures and likely to be awake at night. Sadly, Fuzzball did not recover  from his operation and was the first death my kids experienced. The consolation was that his final litter included 5 babies, one of whom looked like him.

Once the babies were weaned, we passed them off to the pet store, as we had now had 11 guinea pigs in 6 months. Sweetie needed company though, so we adopted  a female and named her Dozen. They both enjoyed a happy life for many years. My son often built mazes or castles out of his blocks and placed carrots and other treats in hiding places for them to find. He and my daughter would hold “Guinea Pig Games” to see whose pet was faster, better at finding food, or more adept at maneuvering through the mazes.


Eventually Sweetie died of old age. I never thought guinea pigs were supposed to live more than 4-5 years, but she must have been 7 or 8. After much begging my kids convinced me that Dozen was lonely so we compromised by adopting a rescued guinea pig- one who was already at least 3 years old. She was more shy at navigating the mazes, thus the name “Cautious” was bestowed on her. In 2010, when Dozen passed away, we repeated the adoption process to take in Fry.

Fry had very long fur and my son spent a lot of time grooming her. She was not interested in running the mazes though and he was spending less time playing with her. He still cleaned her cages and fed her regularly, but the amount of time he spent with her had decreased dramatically. We talked with him about the idea of finding another home for her, where she could get more attention and interaction possibly with another guinea pig. He was starting to accept the idea as what would be best for Fry.

So perhaps it was a blessing that she passed away before we had to take that step. She had had a good life and he had always looked after her. As my husband disassembled the cages and I cleaned up the stray bedding littering the floor , we remarked that this was the end of an era. Who could have ever predicted that we would have had guinea pigs for ten years? That is three-quarters the length of the lives of my children at this point.

They know we are not getting any more pets. We already have two dogs and a rabbit  (that is another story). I am sure they will always look back fondly on the guinea pig games and all the other fun times they had with their first pets. And I can reflect on those memories, while being thankful this chapter is finally closed.