Twelve Stones and a Tissue Cozy

When I was growing up, I was blessed to spend a lot of time with my paternal grandmother. Twice she and my grandpa moved to the city my parents moved to, thereby always giving me grandparents nearby. She was the mother of four sons so when she was eventually given four granddaughters she was happy to use her considerable skills to sew frilly dresses and crochet Barbie clothes instead of mostly patching the knees of blue jeans.

She was an amazing seamstress, quilter, and all-around super crafter. Considering that this was before the age of Pinterest boards and the ever-present influence of Martha Stewart, it’s even more extraordinary. When my sisters and I visited her, she found all kinds of projects for us to do. Before I got married, she even taught me how to make her famous chocolate chip cookies—the ones she had always had frozen batches of, ready for any grandkids who might drop by. (To this day, I still prefer my chocolate chip cookies frozen.)

She’s the one who taught me how to make things from plastic canvas. For those of you unfamiliar with this oft-dismissed craft medium, it consists of sheets of plastic grids that can be cut and sewn together with yarn to construct a variety of objects. Full nerd disclosure: I may or may not have subscribed to Plastic Canvas magazine at one time.

I made door hangers and drink coasters and doll beds out of plastic canvas, but the thing I made most was tissue cozies. In case you’re wondering, that’s a decorative box to cover your tissue box. We plastic canvasers believe that a naked Kleenex box is a travesty and the spread of such debauchery is probably responsible for most of what’s wrong in the world, including the recent election. I made Christmas themed ones and ones with stripes and polka dots and argyle designs and even one that looked like a two-story, Cape Cod-style house complete with movable shutters (the tissues came out the chimney).

Along with plastic canvas, my grandmother also taught me how to crochet. She kept a Malibu Barbie at her house to use as a model for all of the outfits she would make from yarn. Watching her hands fly through the complicated finger acrobatics required to make a miniature sweater dress was like watching an Olympic gymnast. She made it look easy and impossible at the same time. I practiced the craft but never really achieved much mastery. I went back to the tissue cozy instead.

When I was married and a mother to young babies, I found myself yearning to crochet again. My grandmother lived 200 miles away so I went to a yarn store and let some ladies try to reteach me the basics. I made a hat for my sister’s new baby, but it didn’t go much farther.

A few years later, after my grandmother passed away, the pull toward crocheting was even stronger. Her passing left a hole in many ways and maybe I wanted to fill it in a tiny bit with links of yarn. Silly but true. I found books and patterns and started to teach myself the craft…again. This time I made scarfs and baby blankets and afghans. I wanted to make something tangible and comforting for the people I loved most.

For me, carrying on the tradition of crocheting is like picking up a stone. When the Israelites passed through the Jordan River, the Lord told Joshua to instruct twelve men to pick up a stone from the middle of the once-flowing but now miraculously stopped river and stack them up where they would camp that night. He wanted the stones to stand as a memorial for all that had happened. He wanted them to see this very tangible representation of their rescue and tell their children about it and their children’s children.

The holidays are the perfect time to find those stones. Families gather and the regular routines are paused just like that rolling Jordan River. It’s a time to look at where you’ve been and be grateful. Some years, this is easier than others. The older I get the more I realize that every family has at least a touch of dysfunction and heartache.

I’m not saying you should disregard or ignore all of the dysfunction—Heaven knows these things can continue on to future generations if they aren’t aired out and dealt with—but do find the parts of your family, the traditions and the stories and the memories of honey-colored afternoons full of pleasantness (even if they are few and far between), and celebrate them. Make connections. Carry on the best parts through blessed rituals and shared interests. Stack up your own pile of gratefulness. Then, sit back and tell the story of how far you’ve come.

Good guy or bad guy?

Watching movies with Ezra, our five-year old son, is not exactly relaxing, that is, unless you like to give a running commentary explaining dialogue, plot twists, character analysis, and generally how the movie will end for 90 minutes nonstop.

His most frequent question is: “Mom, good guy or bad guy?” Pointing to the questionable character on the TV screen—the one who just lost his temper or just laughed in a creepy way or just stole something, Ezra will interrogate me for information so that he can guess what might happen next. He is trying to formulate which characters he should root for and which characters he should hope will fail.

His “good guy or bad guy” questions aren’t just limited to when we’re watching movies. When he saw the characters from the movie Frozen on our paper towels (don’t judge…they were on sale), he pointed to Elsa, the ice queen who selfishly turns her kingdom to ice and consequently endangers her little sister just because she feels like “letting go.”

“Good guy or bad guy?” he asked as I slid a piece of toast on top of Elsa’s picture. He’s seen the movie several times so he knows that Elsa’s actions are bad, but in the end (spoiler alert) she makes things right with her sister. Good or bad? That’s a tricky philosophical dilemma to wrestle with at 6:30 a.m.

Before bed, I read Ezra a book about the story of Zacchaeus, the man who was too short to see Jesus as he was teaching to a crowd of people. As the song says, “He climbed up in a Sycamore tree. The Savior he wanted to see.” I read the story which touched on Zacchaeus’ reputation as a dishonest tax collector. Then Ezra pointed to the picture of Zacchaeus and asked: “Good guy or bad guy?”

I explained, “Zacchaeus was a bad guy then he decided to be a good guy. Sometimes people change, especially after they meet Jesus.”

I thought a lot about our conversation. I thought about Ezra’s need to categorize people into good and bad and I thought about the monumental task of changing your status and reputation from one side to the other.

When word got out that Jesus had eaten at Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus was confronted by the people of the town. They couldn’t believe that he had dined with a “notorious sinner.” Zacchaeus could’ve decided that he had too much bad press to hurtle in order to change his life around but instead he promised to give back all that he owed and then some. This had to be difficult and fraught with a variety of consequences.

I went back to read the story again and I was surprised to see that it took place in Jericho, best known for its wall that came tumbling down after the Israelites marched around it for a week. It may be a coincidence that this interaction between Jesus (Prince of Peace and Light of the World) and Zacchaeus (town creep) happened in a place known for tearing down walls that prevent people from realizing their Promised Land. Or maybe that’s what Jesus is all about. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

The barber shop

Today, my son had his second haircut since coming to America. In case you’re keeping score, that’s 7 months living with us and 2 trips to the barber.

As a white mom of a black son, I am definitely learning a lot about caring for our little fella’s skin and hair. I’ve asked friends and scoured the internet for advice. I’ve mostly tried to keep him moisturized and comfortable. I’ve done pretty well with the skin part but the hair is tricky. I’m not even familiar with all that goes along with Caucasian curly hair, so I’ve had a steep learning curve. I’ll just say that remembering to keep his hair picked out and adequately oiled hasn’t been my strength.

Luckily, I have a friend who suggested I take my son to her brother’s barber shop. Even with this trusted friend’s recommendation, I felt a bit nervous. Anytime I have to go somewhere outside of my comfort zone, I feel a certain amount of apprehension. In this case, I didn’t fear for my safety. My main worry was that I would be told I wasn’t doing a good job taking care of my boy. I was afraid I would be standing in a room full of unsympathetic men who would judge my parenting skills and see that I was lacking. I was afraid they would question my ability to care for a little boy who looks different than me. I was afraid that they might tell me that if I can’t get this right then I will most definitely fail when it comes to guiding him through the big things like what he should do during random traffic stops.

During the 15-minute drive to the barber shop, I thought about a white friend’s experience at Walmart just after she had adopted her African American daughters. An older black woman was looking at my friend and eventually approached her. My friend told the story this way: “The woman said, ‘You know, you need grace.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. That’s right. We all need grace.’ The woman shook her head, exasperated and said, ‘No. Grease. Grease. Those girls need grease in their hair.’” That was the kind of helpfulness I was anticipating.

When I entered the barber shop, I was greeted by the same man who had cut my son’s hair back in May. He and the barber in the chair next to him both remembered us and greeted us warmly. The news was playing on the television as my son climbed into the barber chair. As it was Election Day, the two major party candidates were filmed voting for themselves at their respective polling stations. We all watched and shook our heads simultaneously.

As the barber spread an apron across my son and gently snapped it at the back, I showed him a picture on my phone illustrating what we had in mind for my son’s haircut. The barber started to pick out my son’s hair and I watched my son wince each time he slid the teeth into those tight curls. I knew I had failed him. I knew I hadn’t prepared him for this haircut. Tears started to roll down my son’s cheeks.

The barber stopped and offered him a sucker. He gave him a toy from his counter to hold and he told him to squeeze the toy when it hurt. He kindly explained what he was doing and why. Then he sprayed oil in my son’s hair and got back to work. He picked and shaved and brushed him off. This sweet man worked until our son had a haircut he was proud of. The barber in the chair next to him gave me a half-gone bottle of hair product to use when I pick it out so that it will be easier and less painful for everyone. The owner of the shop—my friend’s brother—approached us as we left to make sure I had a pick. They made it so easy to ask questions. All of the men were beyond helpful and spoke to me without any trace of judgment.

On the ride home from the barber shop, I thought of a time after my twin daughters were born. I was frantic. One of my girls didn’t nurse well and she wasn’t putting on weight. I didn’t know what to do. My husband had to talk me down from taking her to Kroger to weigh her on a produce scale.

Those feelings of inadequacy came rolling back. Feelings that you’re not doing right by your kids, like you’re responsible for these little human beings but you actually have no idea what you’re doing. Then I remembered my friend’s story and I thought of the misunderstanding with the woman at Walmart. Unbeknownst to her, the woman essentially summed up parenting in a sentence: You know, you need grace.

Amen. Give it and receive it.


Getting to know you

It’s been enlightening to experience so many Western Culture firsts with a brand new American. We are celebrating the 7-month anniversary of our African-born son’s arrival to the US. His language skills are improving everyday…just in time for the holidays.

For instance, explaining trick-or-treating to a five-year old the morning of his initiation into the holiday (the kids at his preschool were about to go to the church staff offices in costume to beg for candy) went a little something like this:

Me: I’m packing your Captain America costume so you can put it on at school today.

Ezra: Why I bring this to class?

Me: You and your friends are going to walk around church to see the people who work there and ask for candy.

Ezra: Why they give me candy?

Me: Because you will have on a costume and say, “trick-or-treat”.

Ezra: Why I say this?

Me: Because it’s almost Halloween and that’s what people say when it’s Halloween.

Ezra: Why…

Me: (interrupting) Hey, you wear a costume and you get candy. Just go with it.

Now that every store has their Christmas decorations up, I have started explaining Christmas traditions. When I say them out loud, these traditions sound a little absurd. “So when it’s Christmas, we’ll put a tree in the living room. We’ll add lights and a bunch of other things hanging off the branches. You see that box with those four long socks I got in the mail the other day? Well, those are called stockings and I’m going to hang those, too, but not on the tree, over the fireplace. No. They’re not for your feet. They’re to hold toys and candy.” I’m not even going to attempt Santa Claus, and you can forget about any Elf on a Shelf.

Beyond explaining the holidays and other pertinent facts about us, we’ve had to learn new things about our little fella, too. Like, his sneeze. It’s an explosion of sound and fury, and it comes ashore with no warning. The first time my husband and daughters heard him sneeze we were at a funeral visitation for a family member. People gathered in hushed circles all over the church. Upon returning from the restroom with Ezra, I walked towards them where they were sitting in a pew. Right at the front of the church, he paused and let out a thunderous sneeze. The looks on his family’s faces were priceless. There were learning a new aspect of our boy, another piece of what makes him Ezra.

During the past 7 months, we’ve had several “mis-ezra-standings” that needed clearing up. When he saw a picture of me very pregnant with our now 11-year old son Knox, Ezra pointed to my belly with a questioning expression. “That’s Knox,” I said. “Mama, you mean,” he scolded. “Why am I mean?” I asked. “You (gulp sound) Knox-y. You mean. You no eat him!” Oh terrific, I thought, now I will explain The Birds and The Bees using the 50 simplest words I can think of. It’s like Dr. Seuss wrote a book about “Your Ever Changing Body”.

Every day brings more discoveries. There are times when I don’t feel up to the challenge of explaining why ice cream is cold or why leaves change color. And If I don’t express my answers carefully, I’ll invariably get the question: “Mama, why you mad?” I’ll tell him I’m not mad, just ready for a break from talking for a few minutes. This little boy has learned to read expressions and tones so quickly. He works hard to gather information from conversations (both verbal and non-verbal) so he can make inferences to better understand his family and their crazy American ways. We are getting to know the essence of him a little better with each passing moment.

Even though I’m looking forward to things being easier, smoother, not so fraught with confusion, I will miss the intentionality of learning each other. Like the excitement of a first date, there is something special about falling in love with someone whose path you know you were meant to cross. Something special about learning their likes and dislikes and what makes them smile and that funny way they sneeze.