Columns

Together again, time with Mom a priceless gift

When my brother told me our mom could have a designated emotional support person, all I could picture was a fluffy service dog wearing a bright orange vest.

At the end of February, the governor allowed for one individual to be able to visit their loved ones in assisted living facilities. While my brother takes care of Mom’s finances and doctor’s appointments, I attend to her personal needs. In other words, I’m her toilet paper, toothpaste, soap and lotion gal.

Since Mom could only have one ESP, it made sense for that person to be me. Plus, I look better in orange.

Actually, I was relieved to learn I wouldn’t have to wear the vest or remain on a leash. All that was required was the completion of a fair amount of paperwork, and an introduction to the automated sign-in process. At every visit I fill out a health questionnaire and take my temperature. Surgical masks are required at all times, even though Mom is fully vaccinated.

Small price to pay to be able to see my mother again.

On Feb. 24, I walked through the doors of my mother’s apartment for the first time in a year.

“Surprise!” I said. “Do you recognize me with this surgical mask?”

She laughed and reached for me.

“Of course, I do!” she said. “You’re my baby girl!”

And then we cried because that’s what we do when we’re happy.

“I’m your ESP,” I explained.

She shook her head.

“Now, honey, you know we don’t believe in things like that.”

I grinned.

“Well, believe it or not I’m going to come see you every week,” I said.

Then I got busy checking her cupboards to see what she needed. Alzheimer’s has decimated Mom’s short term memory. As she likes to put it, “My short term memory is – very short!”

This made it difficult to discern what personal supplies she needed via phone calls. For a while she would try to go through her cupboards while I was on the phone with her, but that worsened her anxiety.

For months I’ve had to guess how much toilet paper she had, or if she was out of deodorant. That caused me anxiety. However, I was relieved to find I’d done a pretty good job guesstimating.

I was wrong about her candy stash, though. Every week she’d tell me she was out, but I assumed she’d forgotten some still in the cupboard. Nope. Mom’s sweet tooth is impressive.

As I sorted, tidied and organized, I paused in front of her wall calendar. It was still on March 2020. The world stopped for a lot of us that month, but not as completely as it did for our elders in assisted-living facilities.

Gratefully, I hung her new calendar.

I wanted to take a picture of us, so I fetched Mom’s hairbrush.

“My goodness!” I said. “Your brush is missing a lot of bristles.”

She nodded.

“Yeah, it’s losing teeth as fast as I am.”

I brushed her hair, and told her I’d bring her a new one. Then I dabbed a touch of lipstick on her and snapped a few photos.

Cindy Hval with her mom. February 2021

“How come you’re taller than me now?” she asked. “I was always taller than you.”

I assured her the only growth spurt I’d had was COVID-19 pounds.

She shrugged.

“Must be gravity.”

The next week I showed up with the biggest size bag of her favorite Wintergreen Life Savers I could find.

“Oh, my goodness! I’m going to have fresh breath until I die!” Mom said.

I pointed out I bought her the party-size bag, and she said, “Honey, if they find out we’re partying they aren’t going to let you come see me anymore!”

But they will, and now that we’re in Phase 3 she can have additional visitors, not just her designated emotional support person.

I unwrapped her new hairbrush and slid it through her silver hair while she reminisced about babysitting my boys when they were little.

She caught my hand and held it to her cheek.

“I’m glad you didn’t forget me,” she said.

It doesn’t take ESP to understand how precious these visits are for both of us.

Columns

Take Your Husband to Work Day

I’m not one to complain, but the pandemic put a real crimp in my dating life – even though I’ve been dating the same guy since 1985.

Get dressed up and attend the symphony? Not this year.

Groove to the Doobie Brothers? Postponed.

Enjoy the smash Broadway hit, “Hamilton”? Not going to happen for a while.

Even dinner in a restaurant followed by a movie at a theater wasn’t possible until recently.

Derek and I had already perfected date night at home long before that was our only option. Mainly because for many years as parents of four, living on one income, it WAS our only option.

We’d put the boys to bed at 8 p.m. He’d grill steaks, while I set the table, lit the candles, and popped a Michael Buble CD in the stereo. Then we’d watch whatever movie we’d picked up at Blockbuster.

Yes. This was back in the olden times before music streamed to your phone and movies to your television. Back in the days when you had to plan ahead if you didn’t want to get stuck renting “The Aristocats” because the latest “Terminator” movie was long gone by 5 on a Friday night.

With one kid left at home, we’d been enjoying stretching our wings, until COVID-19 clipped them, but good.

We’re profoundly grateful that neither of our jobs were impacted by the shutdowns. In fact, we’ve both been busier than ever, which makes having fun together an even bigger priority.

That’s why earlier this month I announced it was “Take Your Husband to Work Day.”

Derek owns his business, so he has some flexibility. When I told him I was driving out to Cheney for an assignment about urban chickens, he sighed.

“I’ve always wanted chickens,” he said.

“There’s some kind of chicken tractor involved, too,” I said. “Why don’t you take the afternoon off and come with me?”

The chicken tractor sealed the deal, and the game was afoot.

“I have an interview across from Northern Quest after the chicken interview,” I told him. “How ‘bout I drop you off at the casino, and then meet you for dinner when I’m done?”

He grinned.

“It’s a date!”

Derek enjoyed talking chicks with the flock owners, and as an avid gardener he loved learning about the permaculture environment the father-daughter duo was creating in their backyard.

I had just enough time to drop him off at Northern Quest before my next interview. Knowing he rarely carries cash, I gave him $40 and told him I’d text him to get us a table at Epic when I was on the way. I figured he’d be fine for the hour my assignment would take.

Which is what I told the photographer, as he worked to shoot the photos of the couple I was interviewing.

“I dunno, Cindy,” he said shaking his head. “I think this assignment is going to cost you more than you’ll make on it.”

Ha ha! Photojournalists are such kidders.

The interview ended up taking a bit longer, so I wasn’t surprised when I texted Derek, and he said he was already seated. When I joined him, he confessed that he’d gone through the $40 in 45 minutes.

“I felt so bad, I got you $20 out of the cash machine,” he said, sliding the bill across the table.

We enjoyed our meal, and then I took his $20 into the casino, where I quickly won my $40 back, plus $8.47.

Stunned, by my speedy recoup, Derek just shook his head. So, I gave him the $8.47. It only took him 5 minutes to lose $8.

Still, a good time was had by all. I came home with the $40 I left with, and Derek has a voucher for 47 cents in his wallet.

I’m also relieved that we’re moving into Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan this week. Creative dating probably isn’t sustainable on a freelance journalist’s income.

One thing is certain: The next time it’s Take Your Husband to Work Day, I think we’ll avoid casinos.

A date at an Eastern Washington University Football game. Hope to be able to do that again, soon!
All Write, Columns

Framing your story

Meme makers had lots of fun with 2020.

To be clear, there is nothing funny about a global pandemic, murder hornets and horrific wildfires, but honestly, it seemed the year was one disaster after another. The great thing about humans is our ability to use humor to diffuse our angst.

Take this meme for example: “2020 is a unique Leap Year. It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March and five years in April.”

Or this one: “If 2020 was a math problem: If you’re going down a river at two m.p.h. and your canoe loses a wheel, how much pancake mix would you need to re-shingle your roof?”

Everyone is hoping 2021 will be better (I refuse to ask how it could be worse), and signs are promising. The vaccine is rolling out. The election is over. And most of us never saw a single murder hornet.

Someday, we’ll be on the other side of COVID-19, and I wonder what stories we will tell our children and grandchildren about our experience.

Maybe something like this:

“Once upon a time, in 2020, a horrible plague swept over the world. Many people died. Many more got sick. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t hug people, and everyone wore masks. Stores ran out of toilet paper and flour. Schools closed, and most of us learned to work from home.”

It’s a grim narrative, fit for a grim disease, but it’s not the whole story. In 2020, babies were born, businesses launched, books written, bread baked and outdoor treks enjoyed.

For me, one of the best things about the year has been writing the Pandemic Project series for this newspaper.

The idea started simply. A reader wrote, sending pictures of a quilt she’d finally had time to refurbish and she asked, “I wonder what projects others are tackling during this time?”

My editor forwarded me the note.

“Do you think this could be a series?” she asked.

So, I wrote a call out for stories, and the responses flooded my inbox. People eagerly shared how they’ve been using their unexpected down time.

From small needlework projects, to elegant patios and decks. From quilts, to chicken coops. From flower gardens, to greenhouses, to cookbooks, people proved that staying home didn’t stifle creativity. In fact, it unleashed it.

I think the reason these stories struck such a chord is that they stand in stark contrast against the daily roster of things we can’t do.

We can’t go to concerts.

We can’t go to movies.

We can’t visit our parents in retirement homes.

The ever-changing rules and information often results in fear, an unexpected side effect of the virus. Fear isn’t a bad thing. It’s hardwired into humans and warns us of impending danger. It can keep us safe, but it can also cripple us.

I’ve seen fear-induced rants turn to rage on social media. For example: anger at those who balk at the mask mandate, and anger at those who comply with it. The flip side of the same coin.

It reminds me of what I told my sons about anger when they were small.

“It’s OK to feel mad. Everyone gets mad sometimes. It’s what you do with your angry feelings that matters.”

The same thing applies to fear.

That’s why I enjoy writing the Pandemic Project series so much. Every week I get to talk with people who’ve channeled their worry, their fear, their sadness, into creating something new, or trying something they didn’t have time to pursue until a pandemic slowed their pace.

Perhaps one day I’ll tell my grandchildren this:

“Once upon a time, in 2020, a horrible plague swept over the world. Many people died. Many more got sick. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t hug people, and everyone wore masks.

But every week we had family dinner, and I fed your uncles the meals they loved when they were little. We watched movies, played cards and made memories.

I couldn’t visit great-grandma Shirley, but we waved at each other from windows while we talked on the phone.

Papa went to work every day, so people could buy the tools they needed to build and fix things, and I wrote stories about the wonderful things people did with their time at home.

It was scary, but in the quiet and slowness of a careful world, we finally had time to appreciate the small things – things that in the busy, noisy times, seemed to slip through our fingers.”

So much of a story is in how it’s framed. Beautiful things shine all the brighter against the darkest backgrounds. Every breath offers an opportunity to add to our story. What will you add to yours?

Columns

Sometimes you just need Christmas to linger awhile longer

Perplexed, he peers into our dining room from his perch on the deck, a red Christmas ornament dangling from his ear.

Rudy the Reindeer rarely sees this far into January.

That’s because I’m a by-the-book kind of holiday decorator.

In my home, Christmas music, movies, and décor are forbidden until the day after Thanksgiving. That’s when the autumn wreaths go down, and the Christmas greens go up. Our everyday boring, white stoneware dishes are packed away, and my fleet of Pfaltzgraff Winterberry is deployed.

All the artwork on my living room walls is replaced by Santas, skis and holiday prints. I pack away the garland of harvest leaves from atop the piano and unearth evergreen garlands dotted with twinkling white lights.

Out come the Nativities, the Norwegian Christmas candelabra, and of course, the leg lamp replica from our favorite holiday film, “A Christmas Story.”

I’ve finally embraced the artificial – our tree goes up when our sons join us for post-Thanksgiving Turkey Noodle Soup. We appreciate having all hands on deck to trim the tree, not to mention hefting heavy holiday bins from the basement.

The hanging of the greens occurs outdoors as well, with lighted garlands and small wreaths draped along our stair railing and around the front door, a small lighted tree replacing my cat figurine on the front steps, and a wreath with a burgundy bow bedecking the door.

After hanging the snowflake garland above the backdoor slider, Derek affixes Rudy the reindeer to his watchful post on the deck.

But what goes up must come down. Preferably on Jan. 2, and certainly no later than the Feast of Epiphany (Jan. 6 this year for those keeping track at home).

Like I said, I’m a stickler for rules and am counted among those who groan when my neighbors leave limp holiday inflatables in their yards well past the New Year.

However, as 2020, blessedly drew to a close, I surveyed the glimmering green and red warmth of our home. Our sons had untrimmed the tree before the New Year chimed, but I was left to dismantle the rest of Christmas alone, and frankly, for the first time I can remember, I wasn’t done with Christmas.

I wasn’t ready to dim the evergreen lights and quench the candelabra. I love our ski-themed wall, with the cross-country Santa figurine, swooshing on the table below.

And to my surprise, the leg lamp has grown on me, and I enjoy switching it on as darkness falls, knowing Derek will see “the soft glow of electric sex” welcoming him home when he pulls into the driveway.

Since our oldest son’s birthday is Jan. 8, I always keep the Winterberry dishes out until after his cake has been cut. That way he can eat birthday cake from a plate that says, “Joy” or “Cheer” or “Wish.”

But this year, Ethan enjoyed his birthday dinner among all the other Christmas decorations I hadn’t begun removing.

After his celebration, I slowly filled the green and red bins. Walter, our junior tabby, inspected each bin from within, as I carefully wrapped candles, glassware and greenery.

Derek was even slower to remove the outdoor décor, not that there was much to take down. Our youngest son, his usual holiday helper, was busy with work and school this year, so no lighted candy canes, reindeer or trees dotted our front yard. Even so, he was reluctant to remove the garlands and wreaths.

We didn’t talk about it much.

He didn’t complain about the bins stacked in the dining room, even though he knows I’m a creature of order, not clutter.

I didn’t mention the outdoor lighting that lingered until this past week.

Honestly? I think this year with the world so filled with discord, disharmony and despair, had left us drained. But the beauty that is Christmas, reflected in simple lights and cheery decorations, offered a much-needed lift to sagging spirits.

As I write, the holiday bins are neatly stacked in the basement, the greenery gone from the front door. But Rudy still peeks at us from the deck each evening as we sit down to dinner, and I smile when I close the blinds.

To heck with rules.

Rudy can stay as long as he wants.

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

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.

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.

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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.

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Twin grandsons make heart grow two sizes

2,142 miles. That’s the driving distance between Spokane and Columbus, Ohio. Even if you fly, that’s a heck of a long way, especially now.

But our recent pre-pandemic-planned trip was worth every mile and occasional discomfort, to celebrate our youngest son’s graduation, and to see our twin grandsons.

Sam recently earned his BA in English with a focus on Literary Studies from Eastern Washington University. He’s 20, graduated cum laude, debt-free, and is already enrolled in the Masters program at the university.

We wanted to celebrate his amazing accomplishment in a meaningful way – and for him nothing could be more meaningful than seeing his brother, Alex, and meeting his identical twin nephews.

Sam hasn’t seen Alex in five years, and Derek’s 76-year-old mom has been longing to meet her first great-grandchildren. So even when the airline changed our flights to include a five-hour layover at SeaTac on the way over and a four-hour layover on the way back, we were just relieved our flights weren’t canceled.

Apparently, air travel is picking up. SeaTac seemed busier than ever and everyone – and I do mean everyone – wore masks and endeavored to maintain social distancing. Even better, Alaska Airlines is continuing to limit seating. Every middle seat was empty on our flights to and from Columbus.

We arrived in Ohio, with just enough light to find our Airbnb house a few blocks away from our son’s place. However, it was dark by the time Derek and I finished our grocery store run, and we got hopelessly lost on our way back. Our GPS was no help. Thankfully, Alex and Brooke are night owls and were able to talk us in by phone.

And then? Four blissful, baby-filled days with The World’s Most Beautiful Boys. At just shy of seven-months, Adam and Nick had already changed so much since our last visit.

Of course, great-grandma Nita and Uncle Sam promptly fell in love with the perpetually grinning, good-natured boys.

“You know, I wasn’t sure if I wanted kids,” Sam said. “But I love those babies. I want some of my own.”

Sam and twins

Sam meets Nick and Adam

That right there was worth the price of the trip, though I did ask him to wait a few years, and maybe not move any place as far away as Ohio.

He and Alex spent hours together, making up for lost time, making new memories, making every minute together count.

They went to the Book Loft in the German Village in Columbus, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores. It’s so big; they lost Grandma Nita in the two- story maze of book-filled nooks and crannies.

And then while the guys lunched at the Thurman Cafe, featured on the television shows “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and “Man vs. Food,” we girls bonded over babies.

And oh, those babies! I was filming great-grandma tickling Adam’s bare feet, when he turned and saw me. Recognition, excitement and love beamed from his face as he reached for me.

I thought when I became a mother I couldn’t love anything more fiercely than my sons. And then my grandsons arrived, and my heart grew at least two sizes that day.

Sam, Adam, Nana, Nick

Spending Father’s Day watching my son dote on his sons, filled me with indescribable joy. I never doubted Alex would be a wonderful dad; after all, he had the best role model.

Speaking of Derek, true to tradition, every time a twin nodded off in his arms, Papa fell asleep, too.

“I can’t help it,” he said. “Babies make me sleepy.”

But when Adam or Nick fell asleep in my arms, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

In fact, if I could freeze one moment in time it would be this: the feel of my grandson’s head heavy on my shoulder, the rise and fall of his chest against mine.

If I could bottle one scent it would be this: the sweet smell of his head tucked beneath my chin.

If I could capture one sound to listen to repeatedly it would be this: his sleepy sighs, soft against my ear.

After 2,142 miles, and more time at SeaTac than anyone would ever want to spend, we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Twins

Adam and Nick