Columns

Sock-wearing, sweater-toting, vitamin-popping can only mean one thing….

Apparently, I’ve reached the stage of adulthood in which I must wear socks around the house. I’ve always been a barefoot kind of gal, so this came as quite a surprise.

I do wear socks with my walking shoes or boots, but when I get home I shuck my footwear and let my tootsies go au naturel.

But this winter I started feeling the cold.

Last week, I donned some fluffy pink socks that Derek had bought me a while ago, and noticed they said “Kissable” on the sole.

If you have to wear socks, I guess it’s not a bad thing to be kissable.

It’s not just my toes that are noticing the chill. Last summer, I started grabbing a sweater before I left the house.

One evening as we headed out to enjoy patio dining at one of our favorite restaurants, I wondered aloud if I should run back inside and get a sweater.

“It’s 80 degrees!” Derek said.

I paused.

“Yes, but a breeze may come up,” I said. “Or what if we have to sit inside and the air-conditioning is set too high?”

He shook his head.

“You’re the one who insists on sleeping with the bedroom window open all winter long,” he pointed out.

This is true, but sleeping next to my husband is like sleeping with a sturdy old-fashioned furnace (and just as noisy).

While a newfound appreciation for socks and sweaters doesn’t necessarily indicate advancing age, my recent multivitamin purchase is certainly a harbinger of decrepitude to come.

I’ve never been a supplement fan. Other than whopping doses of Vitamin C when the crud is going around, it’s been 20 years since I last took a daily vitamin. That was because I was pregnant, and then nursing our youngest son.

Before that, it was Flintstones chewables.

When my kids were little, I dabbed in gummy vitamins for a while, but the habit didn’t stick.

At my last eye appointment, however, the doctor noted the developing stages of age-related macular degeneration.

“It’s common in nearsighted people as we age,” he said, and he recommended a supplement known to support macular health.

Did he really have to say hurtful things like “age-related,” and “as we age”?

“And of course, you’re taking a daily multivitamin,” he added.

Gulp.

Nevertheless, I took his advice to heart and immediately purchased vitamins specific to eye health. At my next trip to Costco, I looked for a multivitamin suitable for women of a certain age.

It turned out to be the exact supplement I purchase for my 89-year-old mother.

This sock-wearing thing is proving to be a slippery slope!

The good news is, I’m not totally ancient, yet.

I know this because in November my mom had a dental emergency. Now, this is not normally good news, but it gave her an excused absence from her quarantined retirement home, and it gave me the first opportunity to spend time with her since late September.

Mom likes to introduce me wherever I take her, even if it’s to people I’ve previously met on numerous occasions, so she introduced me to the receptionist and to her dentist.

“This is my daughter. She may look young and beautiful, but she’s a GRANDMA! Can you believe it?”

Who knew a mask-wearing benefit is camouflaging mom-induced blushes?

But more important, this goes to prove that I may have advanced to the sock-wearing, sweater-toting, vitamin-popping age, but I’m still not too old for my mom to embarrass me.

All Write, Columns

Readers make writer’s job enjoyable

While tidying up end-of-the-year paperwork, I dislodged an overflowing folder from the top of the filing cabinet.

It was my reader feedback folder, filled with printed emails, cards and letters I’ve received from newspaper readers this year.

Sifting through them, I’m amazed anew at how columns pounded out from my windowless, basement home office, find their way to readers across the region and prompt response.

Before COVID-19, I did a fair number of writing workshops and speaking events, and at almost every one I’m asked, “Where do you get the ideas for your column?”

After all these years, I still haven’t found a pithy answer, because writing a personal column is well, pretty personal. That’s why it’s such a joy to find something I’ve written resonates with others.

Thumbing through the notes, I found a response to a column I’d written when I discovered what the phrase “Netflix and Chill” means in contemporary culture.

The note was from Dean, 73, who said, “You rascal, you!”

I’ve never been called a rascal before. It was epic!

An email from Stan, a fellow author, and former teacher, said, “You really know your vowels and consonants.”

I immediately forwarded that one to my editor, whom I’m sure has wondered at times.

A column about anticipation drew this response from Gina, who said, “I do have the feeling of your words in my soul today.”

No writer could wish for more.

Publishing a segment of my quarantine diary prompted a comparison to Erma Bombeck that absolutely thrilled me.

When I bemoaned in print that the shutdown order had limited my wardrobe to gray yoga pants or gray sweatpants, Bob wrote, “I look forward to Thursday’s for your articles. Please don’t ever stop. Stay healthy and wear whatever you want at home.”

I’m confident, Bob would approve of today’s usual deadline attire – a fluffy pink bathrobe and matching bunny slippers.

Sometimes reader mail offers important validation on critical issues. When I wrote of my horror at discovering my husband had used MY MONDAY MUG, Marcia wrote, “By the way, the mug thing made sense to me.”

I forwarded that one to Derek.

He didn’t reply, but he hasn’t used my Monday mug since.

Cards and letters sent to me at the newsroom are now forwarded to me at home.

When I wrote about a benefit of pandemic life was discovering the joy of the newspaper crosswords, a thoughtful reader enclosed a pencil with her card.

An elegant typewritten note on gold-trimmed stationery proved delightful, especially since it was written in response to a column about my cats.

Arlene wrote, “When there is so much sadness in these difficult times, you brightened my day on October 22 with your cleverly written article about Thor and Walter Scott.”

I don’t know if the column was clever, but I do know that my cats are.

Jan sent an email that made me smile.

“Thanks for your column – one of the few items I can BELIEVE IN THE SPOKESMAN!! (caps courtesy of the writer). Hang in there.”

I’m hanging in there, and I hope Jan is, too.

Bombeck once wrote, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

It’s a line I’m privileged to walk twice a month.

In fact, the column that generated the most feedback this year blurred those lines a bit.

I wrote about my first masked, socially distant outdoor visit with my 89-year-old mom. She lives in a retirement facility just blocks from my home, but six months had passed since I’d been able to see her in person.

Readers shared their own stories of being separated from family members during the pandemic.

Bill wrote he’d been apart from his bride of 53 years for 22 weeks.

“If some of my friends read your article, they may now have a better understanding of what I’m experiencing,” he said.

Humans weren’t made to live in isolation. This year more than ever, I value the feedback of faithful newspaper readers.

Thank you for reminding me that even in the midst of a global pandemic, our stories can still connect us.

Here’s to a brighter, better, and healthier New Year.

Columns

You smell! Making sense of scents.

My hairdresser greeted me at the door of her shop.

“You smell good!” she said.

“Thanks,” I replied. “I showered.”

If there’s anything this pandemic has taught me, it’s to be thankful for small blessings like showering and leaving your house. And since one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is loss of sense of smell, I’m adding enjoying fragrant aromas to my gratitude list.

“Seriously,” my hairdresser said. “You smell so good. What is it?”

“Tangerine-raspberry body wash, I guess,” I said, shrugging.

When I ran out of that body wash, I continued the fruity theme. Now, I smell like blueberries. I showered with blueberry-scented body wash, then slathered blueberry lotion on my winter-worn skin, and had a bowl of blueberries for breakfast. I’m starting to worry I’ll turn blue like Violet in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Which got me thinking: Who decided that we should smell like something we had for breakfast?

On the weekends my husband makes me bacon and eggs. I’m sure he and the cats would like it if I smelled like bacon all day, but I’ll pass on the pork-scented soap.

Scented soaps, lotions and candles are bestselling gifts this time of year, but the evolution of fragrance puzzles me.

Perhaps our ancient forebears used their sense of smell to identify food that was safe to eat. Ripened apples, plums and berries smell good, week-old rotting saber-tooth, not so much. But if raw meat smells so good, why aren’t we adding that to our lotions?

If indeed fragrance appeal is based on our ancestors that probably explain men’s bath products. The store where I buy my scented soaps features a men’s line with one-word names. Forest and Ocean, I understand. But Steel and Marble? They also sell Bourbon Body Wash, but I’m afraid my husband might not use it as instructed.

Smell, like taste, is highly subjective. While some folks swoon at a bite of caviar or oyster, others gag, and since the freshness of both is supposed smell like an ocean breeze, what does that mean for our beach breeze-scented candles? I’m quite certain no one wants to walk into an oyster-scented living room, but maybe I’m wrong.

I just don’t get how the fragrance business works. For example, the cheery red candle that flickers in my entryway is called “After Sledding.” As someone who has unwrapped and unlayered four sons, post-sledding, I can assure you, that scent is more sweat than cinnamon.

Likewise, the blue candle in our bedroom is supposed to smell like “Cabana Bay Linen.” I can’t argue with that. I’ve never been to a place called Cabana Bay, nor smelled its linen.

Speaking of fabric, why do many detergents advertise that they smell like mountain air? I may not be a climber, but I have ridden lifts to the tip tops of large mountains, and the air didn’t smell that much different than it did at lower elevations. Of course, I was in tram with teenage boys doused in AXE body spray, so my nostrils may have been compromised.

Apparently, laundry detergent smells so good you can make your whole house smell like it with Gain-scented room spray. Imagine the olfactory confusion that would occur if you washed your clothes in Tide, dried them with Downy Amber Blossom dryer sheets, and spritzed Gain spray around the house?

And I’m all for seasonal themes, but I draw the line when my favorite “smell good” store wants me to smell like a pumpkin spice latte. I will gladly drink one, and enjoy a fresh slice of homemade apple pie with it, but I don’t want to bathe in those fragrances.

I guess the purists among us gravitate to all things unscented, but honestly, who wants their clothes to smell like fabric, their bodies to smell like humans, or their homes to smell like the people who live in them?

Not me.

In fact, I’m going to go hang out in my bathroom for a while.

Currently, it smells like Aloha Hawaii air freshener, which is about as close as I’m going to get to the tropics this year.

Columns

Goodnight garden, goodnight gazebo…

Like a child resisting bedtime, I balked when my husband mentioned getting our yard and garden ready for winter.

He brought the furniture covers out of the shed. I ignored them.

He took down the deck umbrellas, and rolled up the sun shade in the Great Gazebo.

I edged my chair out from under the gazebo’s shelter and stretched my legs in the waning autumn sun.

As Derek cut back the zucchini, bean and tomato plants last month, he said, “You might want to finish picking the carrots before we leave for Ohio. You never know, it could snow while we’re gone.”

I scoffed, but I needed carrots for the stew I was making, so I went ahead and harvested the rest, pausing to reach over the fence to give some to our neighbor.

Then I plucked the last few tender leaves of basil and a lone green pepper and added them to the pot.

The following week when Derek cut back the ornamental grasses, I grudgingly hauled my flower pots from the front porch, and brought out our fall welcome mat and Happy Harvest outdoor signs.

But I was not happy, not one bit, as the days grew shorter, the air cooler, the sunshine scarcer.

Fall used to be my favorite season. Never a fan of hot weather, I eagerly welcomed blustery, gray days. The fact that September signaled the start of school for my four boys might have had something to do with my avid enjoyment of autumn’s arrival.

Yet, lately I’ve noticed each year I begrudge the battening down of home and yard a bit more. I delay packing away my gardening basket, gloves and shears. When the rain comes, I scoot the gazebo furniture toward the center of the shelter, and cover my plump pillows with a blanket.

I know fighting fall’s arrival is foolish, so on a crisp, sunny October day I gathered garden and gazebo décor, packing them away for the season.

My favorite sign went into the bin last.

“This is my happy place,” it reads. And this year more than ever our back yard provided a soul-satisfying refuge from a pandemic-plagued world.

October sunlight.

For us there were no concerts, no movies, no nights at the theater, or trips to the beach, but every week we enjoyed evening Happy Hours in the Great Gazebo, and delicious family meals on the Delightful Deck.

With galleries and museums closed, we enjoyed nature’s art via window boxes and pots filled with petunias, daisies and geraniums. Derek scattered wildflower seeds around the back fence and erected trellises, coaxing clematis plants upward.

As we prepared for our trip to Ohio, I begged him to leave the deck window boxes up until our return.

“It will be so nice to come home to a spot of cheery color,” I said.

Of course, it snowed while we were gone and we came home to frozen flowers.

This week, as we entered a new round of stay-home orders, I’m missing my outdoor sanctuary even more. On Sunday as my social media accounts filled with photos of pandemic-panic buying shoppers snaking in long lines outside grocery stores, I struggled to maintain an attitude of gratitude.

After a chilly walk through the neighborhood, I stood on our deck as wind-whipped leaves skittered, scattered and caught in my hair. Gazing at our fence line, I suddenly remembered how Derek had planted dozens and dozens of tulip bulbs along its length before the first hard freeze. I pictured those bulbs patiently resting beneath the frost, the rain, the snow, ready to burst into riotous color in the spring.

All living things need rest; soil, seeds and certainly people.

And so with a nod to Margaret Wise Brown:

Goodnight Glorious Garden once verdant and green.

Goodnight Great Gazebo and summer’s sweet scene.

Goodnight Delightful Deck and al fresco dining,

Goodnight brilliant blossoms, I’ll try to stop whining.

Because beauty awaits us just out of sight.

And all will awaken beneath spring’s golden light.

Columns

Memories made worth travel trauma

As last suppers go, it was pretty pathetic.

Diet Pepsi, a bag of mixed nuts, one package of Trump-orange crackers and cheese, evenly divided, and a Fig Newton a piece.

It’s amazing what you’ll endure when your only grandchildren live thousands of miles away.

When the gate agent had announced our flight home from Ohio was delayed due to fueling difficulties, I went into survival mode.

We were supposed to depart at 5:30 p.m. It was already 6. The small gift shop at the airport had closed and restaurants in this terminal hadn’t reopened since the COVID-19 shutdown.

“Gimme your cash,” I said to Derek, and headed to the vending machines.

Our lovely lunch at a bistro in downtown Grove City had been hours ago, and the only food you get aboard Alaska Airlines these days is a cookie or a tiny bag of snack mix.

Turns out my vending machine raid likely saved us from starvation. We were due to arrive in Spokane at 10:30 p.m. Oct. 26. Instead, we arrived at 10:30 the next morning.

I think we spent more time in planes on the ground than we did on planes in the air.

But before that series of unfortunate events we’d enjoyed a blissful five days with our 11-month-old twin grandsons, Adam and Nick.

We’d debated flying out for their first birthday on Nov. 23, but Derek wisely reminded me the weather would be better in October. It seemed fitting to celebrate these healthy boys early; after all, they’d showed up seven weeks before their due date.

Derek was right about the weather. On the day Spokane was being buried in snow, we were loading the boys into their double stroller and enjoying a long walk in a picture-perfect 77-degree day in Grove City. Thankfully, I’d optimistically packed my flip-flops.

The twins have changed so much since we last saw them in June. Now, The World’s Most Beautiful Boys are sporting teeth and have mastered locomotion. They are crawling, cruising, perpetual motion machines just like their daddy was at this age.

Nick discovers Adam in lockup!

Nicholas will be taking his first solo steps any day now, and Adam is close on his heels.

Our son dropped them off at our Airbnb each day, and then he and Brooke joined us for dinner in the evenings. Alex is still working from home, which can be difficult with active boys underfoot. Brooke’s daughter Farrah was on a getaway with her other grandparents, and we really missed her, but daily respites allowed Brooke to catch up on the million and one things mothers usually have to try get done while their kids are sleeping.

Our delightful days with the boys were spent reading books, playing ball and patty cake, and taking walks.

Adam adored the outdoors, soaking in the sights and sounds from his perch in the stroller. Nick enjoyed the walks, too, but after a few minutes of sunshine and fresh air, he’d quickly nod off.

Nick and Adam find a Minion while on a walk with Nana and Papa in Grove City, Ohio. October 2020.

That wasn’t a bad thing, because they never really got the hang of napping in their travel cots. As usual, Nick snoozed next to Derek, while Adam preferred the comfort of Nana’s arms. Of course, we were happy to snuggle them as much as possible. Our arms already ache for them, and we won’t see them again until spring. By that time our travel trauma will have faded.

You see, the first leg of our return flight wasn’t the only problem we encountered. That fueling problem prompted a detour to Denver, where we sat on the tarmac and watched the window of time to make our connecting flight in Seattle close.

We arrived at SeaTac at midnight. The folks at Alaska Air had already secured hotel and meal vouchers for us, and booked us on an early morning flight to Spokane.

Unfortunately, that meant we only got a four-hour nap at the Marriott before hustling back to the airport where we were greeted with the news that our 7:30 a.m. had been delayed due to mechanical difficulties.

I mean, what are the odds?

All I know is I now understand why people returning to America from foreign lands kiss the ground when they get off the plane.

During our long delays, we’d scrolled through the copious photos and videos we’d taken during our visit. They filled our hearts if not our bellies.

And honestly, a vending machine food dinner is a small price to pay for the privilege of making memories with The World’s Most Beautiful Boys.

All Write, Columns

From Pop Art to Bomber Boys

With so many favorite venues shuttered during the pandemic, each reopening is worthy of celebration. That’s why my husband Derek and I were thrilled to stroll through the new exhibits at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

The MAC opened its doors again in August at 25% capacity, but Saturday marked our first visit since the shutdown. Enjoying something so normal is a welcome breath of fresh air, even if those breaths are taken behind masks.

The star attraction features the work of pop art icons like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, as well as contemporary artists including Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami.

“Pop Power from Warhol to Koons: Masterworks from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” continues through Jan. 24.

If you’ve ever wanted to see one of Warhol’s famous Campbell Soup works in person, here’s your opportunity. This colorful chronology of pop art traces the movement from its genesis to the present day, and unlike some art collections, this one offers fun for the younger set, too.

“Mickey! It’s Mickey!” yelled a girl when she discovered prints of the famous mouse.

Derek and I aren’t big fans of pop art, and some of the contemporary creations left us puzzled, which is part of gallery fun. However, he did find something he’d like to hang at home – “Fiesta Pig” by Andy Warhol.

The screen-print pig with his nose in a bowl of food looks like he’s enjoying the aftermath of a great disco party. Speaking of swine, Derek was also taken with Jeff Koons’ portrait of himself with a pig. The work of art is on a plate.

Thankfully, our budget doesn’t stretch to famous pieces of pop art.

Our budget does include an occasional Spokane Symphony concert. “Music Finds a Way: The Spokane Symphony” opened this weekend and continues through Jan. 10.

The exhibit traces the evolution of the symphony, which is celebrating its 75th year.

The Conductors Wall of Fame follows the organization’s sometimes tumultuous relationships with its conductors. Since we haven’t been able to see them in person this year, it was wonderful to see photos of the current symphony members.

But the exhibit that caused us to linger longest was “Bomber Boys: Portraits from the Front,” which continues through May 23.

Bomber Boys at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture

The exhibit features photographs of the combat, crew and camp life of the 445th Bomb Squadron of the 12th Army Air Corps, which was based in Washington and stationed on Corsica and in Italy. The images, ephemera and a diary were discovered in the hayloft of a horse barn in 1996, by two daughters of the tail gunner who’d stashed them there.

It’s a fascinating walk through the daily life of a 21-year-old soldier who would eventually fly 59 missions over Europe.

Yet the story we found even more compelling was that of an Idaho boy who was shot down over Yugoslavia and spent nine days behind enemy lines. He documented his harrowing adventure and the story is told in his own words.

The exhibit also features a replica of what a typical airman’s bunk area looked like during the war. Be sure to pick up a photo card of a soldier and see if you can discover his name and rank while you tour the exhibit.

If you haven’t ventured out to the museum yet, you can now do so safely. Masks are required and with the venue still at 25% capacity, social distancing is easy to maintain. In addition, the galleries are cleaned several times a day. Also new: You must purchase tickets online in advance.

In light of the pandemic and election-induced turmoil around us, it’s important to support valuable quiet sanctuaries like the MAC.

Enjoying the vibrancy of pop art, celebrating 75 years of the Spokane Symphony, and honoring those who sacrificed much for our nation during World War II all offer timely much-needed reminders about the creativity and resiliency of the human spirit.

For more information or to purchase tickets visit northwestmuseum.org.

Columns

Bleak bad times can reveal sparkling gems of goodness

I wish whoever keeps asking “what next?” about 2020 would stop it.

Last week the “what next” was thick, choking, hazardous smoke. Each morning, I checked the Spokane air quality before getting out of bed. As the smoke cleared ever so slowly, I’d grimly brush the dusting of ash from my car before heading out.

How bad was it? Well, I actually had to work out at the gym for the first time since it re-opened post-shutdown. Hazardous air is not conducive to long strolls through the neighborhood.

But Saturday morning I woke up to find my husband had opened our living room and kitchen windows. Rain and cooler temperatures cleared the sooty skies. I’ve never before been so giddy about being “moderate,” and cheered as the air quality neared “good.”

Standing on the deck I gulped in the fresh air with my morning coffee and wondered why it so often takes the bad to make us appreciate the good.

This year has certainly given us plenty of opportunities.

During the long weeks of shutdown when just about every place that makes life enjoyable was shuttered, we had to discover new ways to find joy.

Instead of the warm fellowship of Sunday morning church, we cuddled on the couch in our pajamas and streamed the service on Facebook.

In lieu of romantic dinners at upscale bistros, date night morphed into driving to our favorite spot together to pick up food to go.

Weekly meals with our adult sons became regular Sunday Suppers complete with dessert, as we drew our family closer during this worrisome time.

As things slowly opened up, the Sunday Supper tradition became a fixture, and I love having a designated day to spend with my sons.

We haven’t attended in-person church yet, because seating is limited, and we are well aware that for many older folks, Sunday service is as crucial to their emotional and mental health as it is to their spiritual life. We’ll join them when we can all attend.

Date night is on again, though we usually pick a spot that offers outdoor dining. We enjoy eating al fresco in the summer anyway, and it feels amazing to be eating at a venue, instead of taking home Styrofoam boxes.

Yes, sometimes it takes the bad to help us appreciate the good.

That thought sits with me today as we celebrate our youngest son’s 21st birthday. There’s nothing bad about Sam, but his entrance to the world proved incredibly frightening.

On a golden Sept. 24, our grand finale arrived weighing in at a whopping 9 pounds, 9 ounces. He had his father’s broad shoulders, and the trace of a dimple in his chin.

Having given birth to his three older brothers without complication, I assumed we’d be taking our new arrival home the next day. Instead, it was three long weeks.

Within hours of his birth we were told Sam had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia. A hole in his diaphragm hadn’t closed early in gestation. As a result, his internal organs pushed into his chest cavity, squashing his developing lungs. Our newborn was given a 50% chance of survival.

He was airlifted from Holy Family to Sacred Heart and placed in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Twelve hours after his birth, I stood next to his bed. Tubes and wires protruded from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. The ominous whooshing of the ventilator and the beeping and whirring of machines filled the room. He was so fragile that the sound of voice raised above a whisper sent his blood pressure skyrocketing.

When he was 3 days old, he underwent surgery to repair the hole in his diaphragm. And then we watched and we waited, struggling to care for our sons at home, dealing with the unbearable ache of leaving Sam in the hospital night after night.

But at 21 days, he finally came home, healthy and whole in every way, with a pretty impressive scar on his midsection.

Twenty-one years later, he’s our last fledgling in the nest, and having already earned his undergraduate degree, this week he started the quest for his master’s.

He’s filled our home with so much joy; it’s hard to comprehend how close we came to losing him. Those horrible days when his life hung in the balance have made me forever grateful for his presence in our family, and maybe a bit more prone to appreciate the sparkling gems of goodness the bleakness of bad times can reveal.

Sam and Cindy Hval, 2019

Columns

Seeing Mom

If I’d known I wouldn’t see her again for six months, I’d have given her an extra hug.

When I left my mom’s assisted living apartment on Feb. 29, I assumed I’d see her when I returned from visiting my grandsons. COVID-19 proved that assumption wrong.

Phone calls took the place of weekly visits, and instead of loving celebrations on her birthday and Mother’s Day, we stood in the parking lot below her second-floor window and held up signs that her failing eyes could barely see.

Mom has Alzheimer’s, so phone calls are often challenging. She still knows all of us, but her memories of the distant past are much sharper than say, remembering what she had for lunch. Or remembering why no one has come to visit her.

“My mom used to send me to my room when I was bad. Have I been bad?” she asked.

So, I remind her of the pandemic and how her facility is trying to keep everyone healthy, and she says, “Oh, yes. I saw that on the news.”

The next time I called she said, “I tried to go to the dining room for lunch today, but I got caught at the elevator and sent back to my room. I finally made some friends here, and I’m worried they’ve all forgotten me.”

She doesn’t have much of an appetite, and eating all her meals alone in her room, hasn’t improved it. Recently, I was on the phone with her when her dinner was delivered, so I asked her to tell me what room service had provided. She obligingly took the lid off her plate.

“0h, for the love of Pete, not again! It’s macaroni and cheese with what looks like birthday sprinkles on it!”

I tried to convince her it was some kind of vegetable garnish, but she wouldn’t buy it.

“It’s birthday sprinkles,” she insisted.

Some days she’s in better spirits than others. One morning she told me she was up and dressed, had breakfast, made her bed and even curled her hair.

“Of course, I have two curlers in the front which I’ll probably forget to take out like I usually do,” she said. “Also, I’m all out of hard candy. I can’t figure out who keeps eating it all!”

I didn’t feel the need to remind her she hasn’t had any visitors since the first of March.

Finally, on Aug. 26, I got to have an outdoor socially distant visit with her. She scooted her walker out the facility’s front door, and even though her face mask was in place, I could tell she was smiling.

“Oh, I can’t tell you how beautiful you look to me,” she said.

So we got the crying out of the way first thing.

Mom, August 2020.

She reached out for a hug, and I had to back away.

“We can’t hug yet,” I told her.

What a thing to tell a mother, especially my mother.

Mom is a hugger and a kisser. She grew up longing for physical affection that she didn’t receive from her mother, so when she had children and grandchildren, she lavished them with all the affection she’d craved.

Still, I’m so thankful to be able to sit across from her and visit. Being out of her room and in the fresh summer air is so good for her, but hugs are healing, too.

Countless studies have shown the importance of physical touch. It reduces stress, boosts the immune system, and calms the heart rate and blood pressure.

For now, I’m focused on making our outdoor visits as enjoyable as possible. Last week, I wore a mask that matched my navy and white polka dot blouse. I knew Mom would get a kick out of it. She was quite the fashion plate in her day.

When I snapped a photo of her, she insisted I take a selfie of my matching ensemble.

“I taught her that,” she told everyone who passed by.

Matchy, matchy made Mom happy!

In-person visits do both our hearts good. The results of social isolation and touch deprivation can be devastating, especially for elderly parents. And honestly? It’s not great for their kids, either.

This pandemic has taught me not to take anything for granted – the professional handshake at the outset of business meetings, the quick hugs from friends, a mother’s warm embrace. That’s why I’m doing everything I can to comply with mandated health protocols.

I really want to hug my mom again.

Columns

Finding truth in movies about boys

A little boy in World War II-ravaged Germany whose invisible friend is Adolph Hitler.

A young man with Down syndrome yearns to become a professional wrestler like his idol, the Salt Water Redneck.

And a boy’s battle with addiction baffles his doting father.

Recently, we watched three movies in one week. An unexpected COVID-19 gift is ample time to catch up on films we’d intended to see in the theater.

I had no idea that “Jojo Rabbit,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Beautiful Boy” would share a common theme. Each film features boys surviving the best way they can in an often cruel and unforgiving world.

When our youngest son raved about “Jojo Rabbit,” I was skeptical.

“It’s really funny,” Sam insisted.

I didn’t think Hitler as an invisible friend would offer much comedic gold. I was wrong.

The movie is equal parts hilarious and heart-rending, because no matter how many laughs you can mine from a wacky Adolph (“I gotta go, we’re having unicorn for dinner at my place tonight!”) the reality is Jojo and his mother are struggling to survive.

The 10-year-old is enamored with Nazi ideals, and pledges his life to the cause. Then he finds out his mother is hiding Elsa, a Jewish girl, in their attic. It’s a terrible secret to keep, but Jojo discovers as Elsa says, “We’re (Jews) like you, but human.”

He’s just a child, so when his mother tells him that love is more powerful than warped ideologies and is the strongest thing in the world, he replies, “I think you’ll find that metal is the strongest thing on Earth, followed by dynamite and then muscles.”

Slowly, Jojo’s belief in Nazism crumbles as the cause disintegrates in the rubble of bombed-out cities.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” refers to the name the main character chooses to call himself as he makes his way to a North Carolina wrestling school run by his favorite professional wrestler, the Salt Water Redneck.

The actor Zack Gottsagen and the character (Zak) he plays have Down syndrome. Zak has been placed in a nursing home after the death of his mother, even though he says, “I am young. And I am not old.”

He makes his escape, determined to meet his wrestling hero, and encounters a grieving crab fisherman along the way, striking up an unlikely friendship.

“Maybe we could be friends and buddies … bro dogs … and chill. Have a good time!” Zak says.

When his caregiver from the retirement home catches up to him, she has some decisions to make about the nature of family, and what really makes life worth living.

Far more sobering (literally) “Beautiful Boy” traces the havoc addiction creates in family. Based on the memoirs “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction,” by David Sheff, and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines,” by Nic Sheff, it’s a brutally honest look at how a kid who seemingly had everything loses it all to addiction.

“I need to find a way to fill this black hole in me,” Nic says.

His divorced parents send him to treatment program after treatment program, but sobriety is fleeting.

“There are moments that I look at him, this kid that I raised, who I thought I knew inside and out, and I wonder who he is,” says the grieving father, played by Steve Carell.

He holds on to the memory of the beautiful boy his broken son used to be.

“If you could take all the words in the language, it still wouldn’t describe how much I love you. And if you could gather all those words together, it still wouldn’t describe what I feel for you. What I feel for you is everything. I love you more than everything,” he tells Nic.

As the mother of four sons, movies about boyhood tug at my tender heart.

This world is often hard on little boys and raising them into men isn’t a task for the weak-willed. So many bumps along the way, so many times my husband and I looked at each other and wondered what the heck are we doing?

Let’s just say there are myriad parenting issues that aren’t covered in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

A boy survives the cruelty and carnage of the Nazi regime and discovers a well of compassion and empathy for the “other” among us.

A young man meets his wrestling idol and creates a new family along the way.

And a broken boy survives years of addiction, while he and his father learn to make peace with their journeys.

Only one of these stories is true.

But the themes of resilience, compassion and courage mirror my own experience in raising sons.

Beautiful boys, every single one.

                                                                  Hval Boys circa 2008
Columns

Back-to-school one way or another

Stacks of notebook paper, piles of pencils, boxes of crayons jumbled with packages of highlighters and erasers spilling out across our bed; it used to feel like Christmas in September.

With four kids, shopping for school supplies was no small undertaking. We lived on one income until our youngest entered kindergarten, and our budget was chronically tight. But I loved school, and I wanted our boys to love it, too, so when it came to back-to-school shopping I splurged.

Then the day before school started, I’d invite the boys, one at a time, to come into my bedroom and fill their new backpacks. We’d go over the grade-level list of supplies provided by the school, and carefully organize each backpack. That was usually the last time my kids’ school stuff was well-organized, so I liked to make the most of it.

We’d chat about classes, teachers and friends. I got to hear what they were nervous about and what they were most excited about.

Of course, by the time they reached middle school, I’d just toss pencils and notebooks in their bedrooms and prayed they’d remember to take them. Power Ranger and Super Mario backpacks had given way to serviceable black or gray items from Costco, and no one needed a Spider-Man lunchbox.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our back-to-school traditions, because for many families it’s still unclear what school will look like this year. In my neighborhood one thing is certain; the big yellow school bus won’t be rumbling down our street and squealing to a stop to pick up waiting students.

The schoolyard I pass on my daily walk will most likely retain its summertime vacancy. No shouting kids playing tag, no friendly faces rushing up to the fence to wave, and empty listless swings.

I’m worried.

I’m a mother – it’s what I do. If I’m not concerned about my kids, then I’m worried about someone else’s.

When schools shut down this spring, our street filled with kids, riding bikes, skateboarding and bouncing basketballs.

“Aren’t they supposed to be doing distance learning, or something?” I asked my husband.

He shrugged.

As someone who once regularly battled her kids about too much screen time, it seems so surreal that screen time is now school time.

I’m sure many families will handle virtual learning well, but I’m worried about the ones who won’t.

Honestly? I’m not sure I would have been able to swing it with my pack of wild boys.

When our youngest son had a rough day at school, he’d say, “Why can’t I be home-schooled?”

“Because you weren’t blessed with a saint for a mother,” I’d reply.

This year, he finally got his wish. Sam will have all online classes. Of course, he’s a 20-year-old graduate student at EWU, but hey, he’s finally home-schooled.

In Ohio where my son and his family live, the district decided to do 100% remote learning. His 7-year-old stepdaughter is devastated. She’s a sociable kid, and was so excited to go back and see her friends, but her mom is glad she won’t have to wear a mask all day or bring home germs to her twin brothers.

Many of my teacher friends are eager to get back into their classrooms, while others are fearful of worsening the pandemic by opening schools too early.

There are no easy answers, just adults working together, trying to make the wisest decisions for our children.

This I know: Kids are resilient. Learning doesn’t happen on exact calendar days. Most younger students absorb new routines quickly and soak up knowledge in myriad ways.

I wonder what stories they’ll recount to their children and grandchildren about The Year We All Stayed Home.

Only time will tell what was lost and what was gained.

For now, when I pass that empty schoolyard I pray for the children who used to swarm the playground. I pray they are safe, healthy and learning, and that someday soon the echoes of their happy shouts will be replaced by the real thing.