Brothers

When our Congolese son Ezra came to live with us—me, my husband, our twin daughters, and our older son Knox—he entered a family who welcomed him with open arms but were firmly established as a distinct entity. My husband and I had already been parents for almost 14 years at the time. We had traditions and memories. We had a secret language, a shorthand, created over years of spending time together as a family of 5.

 

Then, along came a sweet, precocious, complicated 5-year old boy. He came to America on a cool April Saturday, and by Sunday he was walking arm in arm with his new big brother, a boy six years his senior.

Now that we are more than a year into this adventure, Knox and Ezra are solidly devoted to their brotherhood. Always one to enjoy spending time with younger children, Knox took to his role quickly and easily. But this wasn’t an hour working in the church nursery or an evening helping his sister babysit. This was a 24/7/365 job and he approached it much the same way he approaches everything he cares about, with determination.

 

Their initial connection came through a shared love of sport. Though this love began on different continents, they both held an almost obsession with the game of soccer. In that first week Ezra lived in America, I made several videos of the two brothers in the backyard, kicking the soccer ball and diving to block goals. The videos were blurry. I took them through windows, standing at a distance not to disturb the beautiful scene unfolding before me.

 

Knox would be the first to tell you that being a big brother has not always been easy. Especially at the beginning, watching as Ezra copes with his fevered emotions, tangled and tripped up by his lack of language skills, has been painful for all of us. I’ve tried to give Knox breaks and strategies for slipping away. We’ve told him that he can tag out when he hits his “playing-with-a-little-kid” limit and we’ll tag in. But for the most part and in spite of those frustrating afternoons, Knox has been the best big brother Ezra could’ve asked for.

 

When I watch this almost 12-year old son of mine as he loves on and cares for his little brother, I think about what we expect of boys. I’m not talking about grades or sports or “manly” accomplishments. I’m thinking of the lesser discussed but far more important Fruits of the Spirit quotient. How high is the bar set when it comes to their evidence of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control? Let’s stop excusing bad behavior from them because they’re “just being boys” and imagine a world where these boys are raised to honor and protect. A world where we expect them to be responsible and compassionate.

 

If we tell boys that we expect them to strive for these characteristics above their efforts to make straight A’s or make the All-Star Team, then those other things will fall in place or fall away but either way, we will be raising better fathers, husbands, friends, teammates, employees, bosses. Better brothers.

One Year

It was April 2, 2016 when Ezra, our Congolese-born son, first stepped foot on American soil. Ezra, my husband Brent, and I were beyond tired but when that final plane landed on that final runway after so many hours (or was it days?) in the air, I had enough energy to push the plane to the terminal, if necessary.

 

Although we had waited so long for him to join our family, Ezra had lived in our hearts for years and in my imagination even before he was born. One year just doesn’t seem long enough. In spite of this supposed emotional discrepancy, we will mark the anniversary because it’s been quite a year!

 

It’s been a year of togetherness. Vacations together and watching TV together and going on walks together and riding in the car together and sitting on a church pew together and just generally being together.

 

It’s been a year of sharing. One year of sharing big steps and little victories. Sharing meals and sharing stories and sharing bathrooms with sisters who often remind a little brother about toilet etiquette. One year of taking turns and learning what it means to have five other people whose opinions also figure into the equation.

 

It’s been a year of choices. Choosing books to read, choosing DVDs to watch, choosing clothes to wear, choosing which breakfast cereal to eat. Who knew there could be so many choices?

 

It’s been a year of searching. Searching for the right words to say to make them understand. Searching for the meaning behind his behavior. Searching for a little more patience, a little more forgiveness, a little more grace.

 

It’s been a year of promises. One year for him to go from saying “Promise?” in a threatening way with a slashing mark across his throat to saying “Promise?” in a gentle, questioning voice while pointing to his heart.

 

It’s been a year of tears.

One hundred tears shed in frustration. Why is this so hard?

One hundred tears shed in laughter. How are you this funny?

One hundred tears shed in anger. If only you had come home sooner.

One hundred tears shed in gratitude. But you are home.

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.

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.

Summer Road Trip

In an effort to get away from our daily routine and to make some priceless family memories, we loaded up the minivan a few weeks ago and headed to the beach. As much as I enjoy these annual trips, the worst part is always the drive.

We try to make the long car ride bearable. We bring pillows and blankets, pack snacks we don’t normally have at home—like Oreos and Pringles and Fruit Roll-Ups and juiceboxes promoted by Disney characters—and choose a bunch of DVDs (Thank you, Lord, for the car DVD player!) to bring with us on the 8 to 10-hour ride. But at some point, we all get a little punchy.

It doesn’t help that six people are hurtling down the interstate in what amount to a 6x7x17 foot box and there’s no escape. If someone pulls out nail polish and starts painting her nails, we all suffer. If someone brings a package of very pungent beef jerky in the car and begins to eat it with loud, smelly snapping sounds, one person’s snack becomes a shared (and unwelcome) experience. And if someone just can’t take another minute in the car so he begins to repeat the same phrase over and over again (“Why, Mama? Why, Mama? Why, Mama?”), then we all have to dig in and fight this steep descent into vehicular insanity.

I’ve learned a few things when it comes to making these epic voyages:

  1. There are two types of people in this world—people who never want to stop for non-bathroom/gas station-related reasons and people who do. If you and your spouse are in two different categories, this may require some compromise. Like you may never get to buy any peaches from roadside vendors or shop at quaint, little antique stores or stop to see the place where a monk made 125 miniature replicas of the world’s most famous buildings. But we do always stop at a rest stop to eat the turkey sandwiches we packed for lunch and sit outside for a bit. If we can find a shady patch of grass, we might even kick a ball for a few minutes.
  2. When we’re not playing movies on the DVD player, we enjoy listening to audiobooks, podcasts, and the Pandora music channel called “Family Road Trip.” There’s a lot of variety on this channel and most everything is fun to sing along with. Personally, a silent car would make the trip last twice as long.
  3. We used a GPS app this year called “Waze.” It helped us get through the more traffic-prone areas of major cities or stretches of the interstate that always seem to be under construction every year. This app is user-informed. It takes the information from the many people using the app and devises a plan to get you around the worst traffic. It even tells you if there’s roadkill or stalled cars coming up. There are times when “Waze” sent us through small towns we would’ve never known existed otherwise. For instance, south of Birmingham we jumped off I-65 and went through Columbiana, Alabama where they had sectioned off their downtown for a BBQ cook-off. (Before you ask…no, we didn’t stop.) I enjoy imagining the lives of the people in these small towns, both in the past (some houses looked as old as the hills) and the present.

In the end, the best advice I can give you for any long car ride is actually something I learned from the song “Take it Easy” by The Eagles. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy,” because—believe me—they just might.

Ezra hat

This is what happens when a five-year old has been in the car too long.