A walk in the Gardens

Thursday. Our last day of “summer.” Phil’s classes started that night, so we took advantage of the half-price ticket deal we got from Groupon.com and went to Longwood Gardens (www.longwoodgardens.org), which we’ve dubbed the Biltmore of Pennsylvania. The house is no comparison, but the gardens are exquisite. The house dates back to the 1700s and the property was developed in the early 1900s by Pierre duPont (yes, THOSE duPonts!).

Our pediatrician recommended the gardens to us, so when the deal came along, we couldn’t pass it up.

We started our day in the conservatory (pictured above) because there’s a children’s garden within it. The sort of place kids are encouraged to touch things, get wet and run around. Perfect for our little girl, who was confined to the car for an hour and a half.

She could have stayed in the children’s garden all day.

Even her baby brother sort of got into it.

There are lots of water activities here, and Isabelle availed herself of all them: wetting a paintbrush to “paint” a picture on the wall; watching water “jump” across a wall; chasing water as it appeared and disappeared through a series of faucets. She drummed and shook a rattle made with seed pods. And played an insect matching game with one of the friendly docents.

We heard this a lot: “Oh, look at that.”

After she’d had her fill of the children’s garden (or maybe I should say, after we moved her along so we could see some of the other areas of the garden), we took in the rest of the conservatory. We marveled at the outdoor waterlily display and the palm house, with palm trees that seemed as tall as buildings. Then for perspective, we viewed the bonsai exhibit.

Not sure why, but this was one of my favorite parts of the day. These beautifully manicured, old, tiny trees fascinate me. Surely if I had one, I would kill it, though.

The Gardens’ current focus is on fragrance, so we browsed the perfume-making exhibit. We even got to create our own fragrance. Isabelle chose the ingredients: lemon, jasmine and vanilla, I think. The machine said it was similar to a Calvin Klein fragrance on the market. She has good, if expensive, taste, I guess.

Roses, bananas and orchids were just a few of the rest of the plants and flowers we saw in the conservatory.

After a short break for lunch (we packed a picnic that we ate in the car so as not to lose what Phil said was “a really good parking spot”) we headed toward the Peirce-duPont House. It was built by a Quaker pioneer and added on to by duPont. Mostly, it contains pictures and essays about the development of Longwood. A few furnishings, including a miniature dining room display that was one of many miniature displays in the home’s library. Mrs. duPont was a fan, apparently.

Next came treehouses. The gardens boast three. The Birdhouse was the tallest of the three, and Isabelle and her daddy climbed to the top. Lookout Loft was less high but more accessible to the stroller. Plus, there was a honeycomb display with hundreds of bees flying in and out of it. (I might add, at this point, that the camera battery died before lunch, thus the lack of afternoon pictures. Sigh.) We tried to locate the queen, who was marked with a neon dot but we were unsuccessful.

If the bonsais were my favorite part of the conservatory, then the Italian Water Garden was the highlight of the rest of the Gardens. Reminded me of the gardens at Harlaxton. I could have looked on it for the rest of the day and been content. Stunning. I had to buy a postcard to capture the memory.

The final treehouse was called Canopy Cathedral. Corban was napping by this time, so I took Isabelle to the top of this one. I never had a treehouse as a child, but the idea of a personal retreat in the trees captivates me. I felt like a kid as we climbed the stairs and looked out on the Gardens from a cathedral-like window.

As we walked on toward the flower gardens, we thirsted, or as Isabelle said, “I’m really drinky.” Abundant drinking fountains were a gift, though the weather was mild and pleasant, not too hot. We passed the topiary garden and its fun-shaped shrubs and the main fountain garden on our way to the idea garden, with more children-themed activities. Isabelle immediately spotted another fountain at her level and she splashed in the water next to other tots her size. Water periodically shot up from the fountain and Isabelle quickly learned if she put a finger over the spout, she could direct the water to spray her face and the adults standing nearby. She did this many times without tiring.

She and her daddy also explored an outdoor children’s garden shaped like a honeycomb. She ran around in the maze, sat in a queen-bee chair and lounged in a kid-size Adirondack chair.

We pulled her away from the fountain once more to check out Chimes Tower, which looks like the tower of a castle and appropriately, contains the chimes that sound the hour and partial hours throughout the garden. Near the tower is a waterfall — amazing — and something named the eye of water, which called to mind magical sorts of things like eye of newt for me. In reality it looks like its name — an eye of water that pumps thousands of gallons of water into the Gardens every day.

Phil and Isabelle wandered through the topiary garden on our way out, and we stopped to buy postcards at the visitor center, but we had to call it a day.

Sore feet and legs, tired babies, and little bit of sun — a wonderful end to our carefree days of summer.


Confessions of a Food Stamp mom

I purposely did not call myself a “welfare” mom because, let’s be honest, if I did you would have made some sort of judgment about me based on that word. It’s OK. I’ve done it, too. Everyone on welfare is a single mom who just keeps having kids to get more welfare benefits, right? That’s what I believed when I was growing up.

Now, I am one. And I need to confess. Because it seems that Food Stamps is becoming one of those issues, or maybe it always has been and I’m just noticing it more, that people are extremely opinionated about.

Recently, after a report that Food Stamp use is on the rise, I heard a few minutes of talk radio about the subject, and the host was appalled that people might use their food stamp benefits to buy crab legs or some such seafood luxury.

Confession No. 1: I have used Food Stamps to purchase swordfish steaks at our discount grocery store.

Confession No. 2: I also sometimes buy cake, ice cream, cookies, soda and other “luxury” treats using Food Stamps.

Also, on Facebook, you can “like” this statement: If you can afford alcohol and cigarettes, then you don’t need Foodstamps. (Their spelling; not mine.)

This bothers me. I neither smoke nor drink alcohol but I have other vices. Like shopping. And eating. And watching movies.

Confession No. 3: My family sometimes eats out. And we buy clothes or shoes when we or the kids need them. And we have a Netflix account.

We have been receiving Food Stamps for about a year and a half. My husband works two part-time jobs and goes to graduate school. I stay home with the kids and do a little bit of freelance writing when I can. We’re halfway through his graduate program. We don’t plan to be on Food Stamps forever. We look forward to the day when we can be off the program.

In the meantime, though, I’ve learned to accept this help at this stage of our lives. Even though we sometimes spend our money on other things, being on Food Stamps means that I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to feed my kids or if I have to choose between food and rent this month. It means that I know we’ll have grocery money, even if I can’t always see where the money to pay the rest of the bills is going to come from. And it means that occasionally we can do other things that families who aren’t poor get to do. Like go to the movies. Or eat at a restaurant. Or spend a day at the zoo. To say that we’re not allowed to do any of those things because we’re on Food Stamps is like saying we should be punished for being poor. To me, that’s the thought pattern behind the alcohol-and-cigarettes statement.

I know that people abuse the system. My mother-in-law worked in that sector her entire adult career and could tell stories. You can write us off as the exception, but I’m sure there are more “exceptions” out there. I’m just asking you not to judge me because I use a Food Stamp card. (Especially not if you notice the highlights in my hair or the new clothes I’m wearing. Confession No. 4: My mom paid for both for my birthday.)

If you pay taxes, then I’m grateful that some of your tax money can help feed my family for a time.

One final confession? Most of the time, I hate being on Food Stamps, but I love not having to worry about how to feed my two kids while I worry about how to pay the other bills. And, sometimes, I’m glad for the experience, if only to have walked a mile in another mom’s shoes.

Take me out to the ballgame

Isabelle finally had a dream come true on Sunday: Baseball! Ever since watching a Barney video for the first time, she has been into baseball. Of course, it doesn’t help that her parents are die-hard Cubs fans, even in the land of Philliedom.

One of our summer fun list activities was minor league baseball, so on Sunday, we traveled to Lancasater for a Barnstormers game. They were playing the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots. Our seats were on the lawn, so we brought a blanket, and sat near the fence, right behind the opposing team’s bullpen. Phil described it as being like a kid in a candy store for him. So close to the action we could talk to the pitchers. And we did.

But that’s getting a little ahead of myself. After Isabelle and I scoped out the food, Phil noticed that people were gathering on the field to play catch. So, he took Isabelle out to the outfield to have a catch with her. It was more like target practice for Isabelle. He said she stood a foot away from him and hurled the ball as hard as she could. But she was adorable in her Wrigley Field shirt and too-big Cubs baseball cap.

We wandered around the concourse for food and made our selections before heading back to the blanket. Just after we sat down, one of the pitchers handed a ball under the fence to Phil for Isabelle. Just like that: Isabelle had an official Atlantic League baseball. We didn’t know until later what a valuable gift we’d been given. We had to guard it from ambitious older kids who had their eyes on it.

Here she is showing it off while swinging the bucket her kids meal came in.

Corban wanted to get in on the action, too.

Hey, Dad. Gimme some of those fries. Good fries, by the way. Excellent food all around, but maybe the ballpark atmosphere contributes to that.

So, even before the actual game started, we were sold on the Lancaster Barnstormers ballpark experience and vowed to come back as long as we live in the area.

Between innings, we got to know our pitcher “friend” a little better. As all of us were decked out in Cubs attire, he asked why we weren’t home watching Lou Piniella’s last game. Then, he asked Phil if he was a die-hard fan, to which Phil replied, “If by diehard you mean we like them even when they suck and we hate the White Sox, then yes.” Turns out he was in spring training with the Cubs but was released after an injury. Before we left for the night, I asked his name and we figured out later he was Jeff Kennard.

He was kind to the little ones on the lawn, making good on his promises to give the next foul ball to whoever’s turn it was, handing out bubble gum and teasing the overeager boys who would do anything to get a foul ball.

We also got to watch a former Big Leager pitch in Jason Simontacchi, who used to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. My husband, the baseball almanac, told me this.

One of the great perks of this park is its kid-friendliness. Playground equipment — three big sets of it — free for all to play on; a carousel and bouncy toys for a one-price, play all game fee; and bumper boats. The latter my husband was looking forward to, so he and Isabelle made the trek to the other side of the park, only to find out she was too small to ride them. Phil was disappointed, but he made it up to her.

She’s No. 1! She can’t hurt anyone with it, I don’t think, and she can wave it around like crazy, which she does. Corban’s already taken a small bite out of it, so it’s fun for everyone!

We left before the game was over but spent almost four hours at the ballpark. Is there a better way to squeeze the life out of summer? Phil’s classes start on Thursday, and we have one more day trip planned before we settle in to a school routine.

I think a trip to the ballpark is a must-do every summer. It’s nothing like Wrigley and the Cubs, but it’s a start.

Sticks, logs and flat tires

I spent most of today in the kitchen preparing snacks for church tomorrow. About 3 o’clock, I headed out the door to deliver them to the church fridge and stop at the grocery store so I could make another batch of 7-layer bars. But my mission was thwarted by a thump-thump-thump sound as I pulled away from the curb.

Yup. Flat tire. Our first on the van since we bought it in March. So, my husband spent the next hour or so changing the flat and familiarizing himself with where to find the spare tire and jack and how to retrieve them.

The kids and I joined him outside for some family bonding time. As he pulled out his wrenches and sockets, I thought perhaps something was wrong. My husband informed me that the jack handle was missing. Isn’t that a necessary part of changing a tire? I asked, knowing the answer. It was, but my husband was trying to figure out a way to do it without. I offered to run next door and ask our neighbors for help or call some other friends who have the same kind of van as ours.

No. My husband didn’t want help.

I stewed a little, wondering why he chose to do it the hard way, to struggle through, figuring things out on his own.

Then I remembered that I do that, too. He offers me help, and I’m determined to do it myself. Then I end up frustrated, overwhelmed and defeated. Focusing on the stick in his eye, I missed the log in my own.

Fortunately for him, he had the right tools to make the tire change successful. By the time he had to leave for work, the spare was firmly in place and the tools back where they belong.

By the way, the jack handle was there all along, just out of his sight in the compartment where the jack is stored.

Sometimes life is like this. We’re stuck, broken down, delayed from our mission. And we work hard to figure out what’s wrong and how we can fix it. Maybe we figure it out for a while. Or maybe we get so exhausted putting that much effort into the fix that we can’t continue the journey right away. Or we end up frustrated, angry or disappointed.

And all the while, the help we need is right under our nose, within reach.

My mom, the cheerleader

Today is my mom’s birthday. To celebrate, my husband, children and I are going to Shady Maple, the smorgasbord to end all smorgasbords, because today also happens to be his birthday. Although my mom’s birthday came first, in recent years, that she shares the day with my husband has been to her disadvantage. Understandably, my efforts at birthday celebration have been more toward my husband than my mother. I don’t think she minds. At least, she’d never say she did. But I know she deserves better. I didn’t even send her a card this year. Perhaps this will make up for that.

That’s my mom. The one in front with the glasses doing the splits. Cute, huh? She was in eighth grade at the time. She went on to be a cheerleader in high school. (Thanks, by the way, go out to my Grandma and Grandpa for helping secure this photo and to Julie at the Lee County Council on Aging for scanning and e-mailing it to me. Couldn’t have done it without any of you!)

We used to tease my mom about her cheerleader ways. She’s kinda bubbly, outgoing and enthusiastic about things. She smiles a lot. She never really stopped being a cheerleader.

My mom has always been my biggest encourager. She wanted me to “go for it” whenever possible. When I didn’t make the singing group in middle school, she suggested I try out for the pom squad. When I got cut from the volleyball squad in high school, she went and talked to the coach. She couldn’t change the outcome, but she wanted to try. She cheered me on in softball every summer. Even now, she’ll tell the world when I do something that makes her proud.

And those are just the things I can remember.

What amazes me about my mom, now that I’m a mom, is how she did it. Maybe it’s the way she’s wired. But when she had two kids, she was in her early 20s. Young. Without much money. Working to make ends meet. To her credit, she did have my dad. Some in her situation didn’t have someone to share the struggle with.

Me? I’m in a similar boat, but I’m 10 years older than my mom was. For some reason I think that should make me wiser or more capable of handling the burden that motherhood sometimes is. I don’t think age, in that case, matters.

My friends when I was in school always thought my mom was cool, I think because she was a bit younger than a lot of their parents. When I was in college, she got a tattoo, and I think that upped her cool factor with my college friends.

I didn’t see it so much. It’s hard to think of your mom as cool, sometimes.

I know I’ve underappreciated her through the years. And while I sometimes wish certain things had been different, I can’t change who I had for a mom, nor would I want to.

While wiping down our kitchen table, I think of my mom. Weird, I know. But it’s the sort of thing she did after dinner or before, depending on the condition of the table. Our kitchen table reminds me of the one we had growing up, the one my parents still have. So, when I’m cleaning up the crusted food the 2-year-old has left at her spot, or the crumbs from a snack, I think of my mom.

I think of how we would talk about our day in the kitchen while she made dinner. I would sit on a stool by the counter. She was always interested in my life. And I couldn’t hide anything from her, not even the boys I was interested in. She could see right through me. Maybe because it wasn’t so long ago that she had been there.

I don’t know when it happened, but there came a time when she started sharing about her day. And we could help each other through the rough times. Growing up, she was my best friend.

Now that she’s a Nana to my children, and we live farther away from each other, the relationship has changed. It’s not better or worse, just different. And good, I think.

Since my brother and I left the house, she and my dad have been able to do what they missed while raising us: have a life outside of parenting. Vacations, motorcycle rides, leisure pursuits.

When I became an adult (after college? when I moved out of the house? when I got married?), I didn’t need my mom as much. I had best friends I could call or write or e-mail and tell about my day. They helped me through the burdens and still do. I had a job, a life outside my family. Even now, I don’t talk to my mom more than once a week, usually.

But I miss her, sometimes. And I enjoy the times we get to visit.

And recently I’ve been thinking about how much of who I am is because of who she is and what she did. My parents pushed my brother and I to get an education, to go to college, something else they missed out on because they were raising us. My parents are intelligent, driven, passionate people. They worked hard to make sure that the jobs they had to make ends meet weren’t the end of the road. My mom worked her way up in the school system to a good position in the district office. My dad built himself a successful business. They took out loans so my brother and I could go to college. He’s a teacher. I was a journalist. Other kids in the same family situation might not have been so blessed.

OK, so that’s a really long-winded way to say “Happy birthday, Mom.” I love you. And I’m glad you’re my mom.

I hope you don’t read this at work, or before work, or any other time when you might not want to cry. Hope the picture doesn’t embarrass you. And thanks for being my No. 1 cheerleader.

The ingredient exchange

It was a layering kind of food day yesterday. Isabelle and I started the afternoon by making 7-layer bars for part of Phil’s birthday celebration, which starts tonight for dinner. She, of course, wanted a graham cracker, then some chocolate chips, then some butterscotch chips, then, well, I think you get the idea.

Later, we made Mediterranean lasagna. She ate a few red peppers and wanted eggplant as I diced the vegetables. When I mixed the ricotta and the eggs, she demanded some of each of those. While I was shredding the Gruyere cheese, she was almost inconsolable when I told her she couldn’t have any.

Her insistence on eating the ingredients separately rather than waiting for the finished product reminded me of what we miss sometimes in life.

When we want sex without intimacy.

Relationship without commitment.

Love without sacrifice.

Obedience without respect.

Like chocolate chips or ricotta cheese, these things can be good or OK on their own but are even better when served together with the ingredients that make them complete.

Paul writes in Romans about how the whole world knows about God because His presence is evident in what is created, but how we choose not to see Him.

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. … They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1:21-23, 25)

I pray for the strength to wait for completion rather than settle for a taste of something that is far less satisfying.

Two years isn’t much in the land of the Dutch

I drove past Salvation Army today, another Wednesday Family Day where clothes are half off, meaning the parking lot is over full. And I remember my excitement, two years ago, when we drove past the SA for the first time on the way into town. It was late, much too late to be hauling most of our earthly belongings the second half of a 700-mile journey. But I was relieved to see the SA. And the Wal-Mart. Two familiar signs in a land of foreignness.

Two years ago, you see, we moved from Charleston, Illinois, where we had lived for a year, to Myerstown, Pennsylvania, where we have now lived for two years, so that my husband could begin attending seminary. Not only was this an entirely different state, it was a culture much unknown to us.

Moving to Charleston after we got married was not as much of a stretch. My husband had lived there during a previous stint at Eastern Illinois University and we were still in our home state. We knew who the governor was, even if we thought he was nuts, and how to pronounce his name, even if we couldn’t spell it (Blago-j? y? a? vich?). We knew its history, thanks to fifth grade, and who its famous people were. We didn’t have to ask, “Where is that, again?” every time people told us where they lived. The grocery and retail stores had the same names as the ones at which we shopped at home.

All of that changed when we moved to Pennsylvania.

But in the past two years, we’ve adapted, like most people who move from one state to another do. I’m not saying we’ve done anything incredible in the eyes of the world, but as I look back, I realize how much fear and wonder has been replaced by comfort and familiarity.

I no longer rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of an Amish buggy as it clip-clops down the street. I happily shop at grocery stores called Dutchway, Hornings and Giant. We don’t get lost as much when we go out for a drive, an errand or something fun. And I’m learning, little by little, what it means to be Pennsylvania Dutch.

We’re well settled in, but to most of our community, we’re still the newbies. Most of the people we know have lived here all their lives and if they leave, it’s for vacation. (We sometimes joke that central Pennsylvanians think the world ends at the Mississippi River.) Their families live here, something we often envy. And they know that “Kumm Esse,” the name of a popular diner in town, is an invitation to eat, not a random placing of letters on a sign.

At his current pace, my husband is halfway done with seminary. And Myerstown has become home. Not a replacement for the home from which we came, but an addition to our lives.

We may not be called to be here longer than it takes my husband to complete his education, but if we are, I won’t be sad. I’m just not sure I’ll ever really be Dutch. I think you have to be born into it. They say around here, jokingly I hope, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” I wonder if they adopt.