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Fighting Miller Moths: A Symbolic Occupation in the Time of Coronavirus

Just when I’ve gotten used to masking up when I go out – which is not often – and dousing myself with hand sanitizer in an attempt to keep COVID-19 at bay, Nature has thrown my area of the country a strange and wild curve ball: miller moths. Not just a few, fluttering through backyards like butterflies. This is a huge number I’m talking about. Enough to keep you housebound. Or at least shielding your head when you go outside. They’re not dangerous. But daunting. Blinding if you stumble into a cloud of them and have to shake them off. And thoroughly disgusting if you find one under your pillow, as I did last night.

 

They’re so profuse, in fact, that my husband can’t tend his garden. I suggested that he wear the orange emergency poncho that I keep in the car trunk. It has a protective hood, zips to the neck, and practically falls to the floor. The moths would then bounce off him as he waters his green beans and zucchini, instead flying into his hair Continue reading

One Mom’s Tribute to Cokie Roberts

I never knew Cokie Roberts personally. But I felt like I did. As a young mother back when National Public Radio was just a fledgling network, Cokie’s reporting fed my mind, which in those days was usually preoccupied with diapers, keeping track of a preschooler, and getting meals on the table. The pioneer broadcaster died on Sept. 16 at age 75.

With a steady, rational voice – which is more than I often had – she brought me news of events that I had no idea were happening in this country. After becoming a mother, I pledged allegiance to fuzzy blankets, digger trucks, afternoon naps, and Tommee Tippee cups of apple juice.

I first heard Cokie’s voice in the 1970s, while living in an old adobe house in the wilds of New Mexico. I would tune our G.E. table radio to KUNM, our NPR affiliate, and the world came tumbling in. News of Washington – light years from the tiny hamlet where we chose to live, combined with the smell of piñon logs crackling in the wood stove. I was in heaven.

Cokie and her NPR colleagues lit up the connections in my mommy brain. The country was just getting over the war in Vietnam and President Nixon’s resignation. Then came Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. We all needed hope. “All Things Considered” gave us an in-depth look at reality. Not hyperbole. But calmly presented news. More importantly, the reporting made me feel less isolated. It was news as I’d never heard it before. And I was hungry for it.

Across my entire writing career, which was at times sporadic and other times intense, I raised four children, often homeschooling some or all of them, and later on, became a remedial reading teacher. As a features writer, Continue reading

The Importance of Visualization for Young Readers

Does your child “make pictures” in his mind when he reads? This is an important question. Why? Because the ability to make mental images – to visualize – makes a difference in whether or not a child enjoys reading, and whether or not he truly comprehends. Let me describe a phenomenon that happened the other day. The moment the light bulb went on for a child.
 
Most second graders I teach read simple chapter books. But one boy in the class I was subbing for had brought an impressive, thick book from home. A fantasy with a blood red cover. It was silent reading time, and I asked him to read to me, just a bit, to see how he did.  He read very well. Later in the day, he came to my desk wearing a quizzical expression. Something had happened. He said he’d been reading a particular sentence in his book, and all of a sudden his mind saw what the words were saying. All at the same time!
I understood at once what had occurred, and was overjoyed for the boy.   
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I witnessed the same phenomenon years ago, as private reading tutor. A first grader who struggled with reading had begun making progress with phonics. He was pushing through a decodable story I’d written about a little boy and a fireman. After reading the part about the fireman lifting the boy up to the driver’s seat in his fire truck, and letting him steer the wheel, the child, whose name I’ve forgotten, suddenly exclaimed, “I can see it in my mind!”
 
It’s an incredible moment when a child recognizes his ability to visualize what he’s reading. 
 
Parents can check to see if their child is “making pictures” in their mind. Have them read to you, nothing too hard. Something with very few pictures. Ask what the characters in the book look like. What does the house, or the scary woods look like? If they don’t know, take out a pencil and pad, and have them make a quick sketch of what it might look like. Or simply ask what a particular phrase looks like to them. A lady in a hat, for example. Have them tell you about the lady and her hat. Is she old? Young? Have floppy hat, or a ski cap? In time, any child’s ability to make mental images can improve. When it happens, you will know. Your child will fall in love with reading. FFG

The Birthday Cake My Mother Didn’t Make

When I found out that my mother had given birth to a boy – her sixth and last child – I turned my face into the wall and cried. Not tears of joy, but indescribable disappointment. At age nine, I realized the new baby would change the ratio of male to female children in the family – 4:2 – and skew the balance forever. I’d already learned that boys had way more power than girls.

 

My brothers, for example, had the power to mesmerize our parents weekend after weekend, playing baseball and soccer, while I languished in the bleachers wishing I were somewhere else. My brothers could slug me for absolutely no reason and then fake-whine that I had started it. And most irritatingly, they would bow their knees out a mile in the back seat of our station wagon, “man-spreading,” with no regard for their sister’s more modest tendencies.

 

As if it were not terrible enough to have another boy in the family, I learned that my brother’s Valentine’s Day birth had been a Cesarean delivery. To me, the word meant only that my mother would not be home from the hospital in time for my birthday, only four short February days away.

 

A feeling of grief settled in my stomach. Even the teachers at my school reminded me of the latest enemy-addition to our family: “I hear you have a new baby brother!” they said with sickeningly sweet smiles. Up to that time, school had been my solace, my escape, where I could imagine being an only child – a kid whose parents reminded her to drink her milk, instead of yelling, “Shut the refrigerator door!”

 

My anxiety worsened by the day. No mom equaled no birthday cake. My dad – a well-meaning man who hammered nails for a living and created large, lasting structures – was by no means capable of measuring and sifting flour into a bowl for the purpose of making something that would be consumed in a day. Not without having a nervous breakdown.

 

And then, just before supper on my birthday. everything changed. Continue reading

Disconnected: When Elderly Parents No Longer Engage

The rainbow appeared in the midst of a sun shower and stretched across the sky. I stood for a moment at the grocery store entrance, then made a run for my car. After unloading a few bags, now dripping wet, I drove the half-mile to my mother-in-law’s assisted living facility. I had to drop off her things. Most of all, I wanted her to see the rainbow.

I parked under the covered entrance, gathered up her sacks of paper towels, tissues, Fixodent and yogurts, and hustled inside.

I found my mother-in-law walking down the hall. She seemed flustered, perhaps because of my sudden appearance outside the elevator; normally, I knock on her door. 

Come and see the rainbow! I said, excited that she should get a glimpse.

She was on her way to the game room to watch a movie with her next door neighbors, a couple of gentlemen friends, one in a wheel chair, and the other in his 90s, just padding along.

But she’d forgotten where she was going. We’re going to be late for dinner! she declared with a hint of desperation.

I’ve discovered that the slightest bit of anxiety can hinder her cognition. So I reminded her: You’ve already had your dinner. And it was true. It was already past 6:30.

Inside the game room, I raised the mesh window shade. The rainbow was still there, floating above the Safeway parking lot and all the eastern plains.  In fact, it was brilliant. Look outside, I said. Take a look at the rainbow!

My mother-in-law slid into a chair. Instead of engaging, she looked away from where I was standing. Her flat expression told me she was not at all interested.

The older gentleman disregarded my invitation as well. Movie in hand and stone-faced, he shuffled over to the DVD player. The younger man squinted up at the window. Without commenting, he wheeled himself away.

It took too much energy, it seemed, for any of them to witness this miracle. Here I was, the interloper, trying to show them a damn rainbow. So I lowered the window shade and went to put my mother-in-law’s things in her apartment.

When I returned to the game room, the previews were playing. All eyes were fixed on the big screen TV.  It was time for me to go.

My mother-in-law stays indoors all day. There’s no place where she can connect with Nature. Except for the two or three live plants that she either over-waters or lets die of dehydration, there are no growing things in her small apartment. She no longer cares about going out, and complains that walking tires her legs. She definitely doesn’t want to see or hear anything new. It’s too much to deal with. Too exhausting.

The nightly movies might play before her eyes but she remembers nothing about them. She goes for the companionship, because she wants to be with the two gentlemen who live next door, and not alone.

The lack of connection with Nature, which provides invaluable stimuli through the senses, has taken its toll. The parts of the brain activated by the senses – sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing – are being engaged less and less as she physically declines. Her world is shrinking.

Memories are made when we engage our senses. The less we engage the senses, the fewer new memories we will make. That’s why it’s so important for children to play outdoors, splash in mud puddles and build tree houses. To have pets. And for parents to brush their hair and scratch their backs.

In addition to making memories, these things bring joy. They keep us alert and engaged with the world around us.

But there may come a time when the senses are dulled by either age or failing minds. By a lack of stimulation. It becomes a burden for some elderly people to witness the unfamiliar. To muster a show of interest or emotion.  Instead, they sit in their rooms, no longer excited about anything. I see this frequently where my mother-in-law lives. Folks will say, I’ve already been there, done that.

A few weeks ago, I tried to interest my mother-in-law in a new reclining chair. I went shopping, showed her pictures. She was OK with the idea – at first. Until she came to the realization that the chair would actually be delivered to her living room.

Do I have to have a new chair? she asked.

The thought of a new chair in the room had upset her, although she really needs one. Only the old is comfortable now.

And I realized that for her, the past has become the present. And nothing new, nothing happening for the first time, matters anymore.

Not even a rainbow.

Her brain can only make peace with the old, the familiar. But I will continue to show her new things. Pretty things. Because it’s important to me. No matter the state of my mother-in-law’s brain or physical body, I will try to help her drink up the joy.  Even if she only takes the tiniest sip. FFG

 

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