A Love Letter From Wyoming

Seventeen years ago, I married my husband, Tom,  in my mom’s Wyoming hayfield.  Today, I am back at my mom’s ranch for what will mostly likely be the last time as she gets ready to move on to the next phase of her life.  Unfortunately, my husband couldn’t come with me.  He loves it here.  We are saying good-bye to a lot of memories.  For me, the one I will always hold most dear is my wedding day.  I wrote this post for Tom several years ago and am sharing it today as a way to remember.

 

 

I am drawn to the spot where it happened. It’s been almost 15 years but I can still see our footprints.  I can still hear the echoes.  I can close my eyes and see us both, fewer wrinkles, definitely more innocent, but still recognizable as the people we are today.

Remember the day I first brought you here?  You looked at the wide open space and the iron red cliffs and declared it the closest place you’d been to home.

Remember when we rescued the Pyrenees pups from that enormous sheep ranch?  They had never been touched by humans. In the back of the car, on the long journey home, you cautiously gave each pup one of your smelly socks and forged a lasting bond.   No wonder they decided to escape the house that night, like naughty children who didn’t want to miss out on our festivities.

Remember dancing in the fields?  Even in the middle of nowhere, it began to feel crowded and the energy of the approaching occasion sometimes felt overwhelming.  When enough was enough, we would sneak away to twirl and dip to the rhythm of the wind on our 70 acre dance floor.

Remember the night before the big day, when all the different pieces of our lives came together at the Golden Steer?  Fanciest place in town. We laughed so hard when they asked me if I wanted my salmon deep fried. It didn’t matter, we barely noticed the food.

Remember how we walked through the mountains picking the flowers that would decorate the day?  Wild daisies, pasque flowers, lupine, all hung to dry in the summer sun.  At the end of our night, one of the cowboys filled the pocket of his best dress shirt with my favorite, a dusty, pale red bloom he called a prairie rose.

Remember that it never rained here in July except for at the exact moment we were to begin?  You came and held my hand as we listened to it beat down on the roof.  You reassured me that no one was going anywhere. And, just like that, the clouds passed.  Later that night, another cowboy told us the rain had come as our blessing.  It felt true.

Remember how we didn’t wait to see each other all fancied up?  We left the house hand in hand and walked through the fields, up towards the people who were gathering around our spot.  Waist high purple hay, sparkling from the rain, more perfect than anything Martha Stewart could have planned.  And the bagpipes, what a surprise to hear them.  A wedding gift.  It’s the only place bagpipe music has made sense to me.

Remember when we realized it was finally time?  We saw our families sitting side by side with the rest of our lives.  Every cowboy on the creek had come. Many we had never met but all came dressed in their finest.  They never questioned why we had chosen this spot.  They understood this land is sacred.

Remember that was the day we said forever?

Our life is so far from here now, from the spot where I sat today and watched a hawk soar over those iron red cliffs. We live in a world so different than what we might have imagined that night as we danced in the field and the rain began to pour down again.  Now, we have to reach over so much to be able to hold hands.  We have to wait with endless patience for each other.  We have created miracles, but the miracle of that day sometimes get buried in the riches of a child-filled world.

Before I leave to come home to you, I am going to walk through the hayfield one more time, brush away the blanket of early snow, and touch the soil where we stood.  Then, when my hand touches yours again, you will remember it all.

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When I Say I’ll Keep You In My Thoughts…

 

 

When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that when I’m driving alone in the car

And a song comes on that makes me pause

That says the things that I could not

I will replay the words over and over in my mind

And wonder if they could possibly bring you any comfort.

 

When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that when I am raking away the winter leaves

That spent months frozen to the ground

And I discover a small green shoot that miraculously survived

I will gently pat its roots more firmly into the soil

And know that beating the odds is real.

 

When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that when I sit down with my family

And they challenge all my strengths

Or I endure another round of the same old battles

With the ones I trust to keep my world safe

I will be a different kind of grateful for my day.

 

When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that as I take my first trip of the spring

To see how the dunes have changed with the winter winds

I begin to understand that life shifts no matter how many fences we build

And the best we can do is stand strong together

Hold hands and face the wind.

 

When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that when it is dark and silent

And everyone else is finally asleep

I am once again left alone to wonder what I believe in

And realize that in the end it doesn’t really matter what

It just matters that I believe.

 

 

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Of Report Cards and What a Great Teacher Knew

Last fall, I visited my mom in Wyoming.  She used the opportunity to do some major house cleaning which included the passing on of a lifetime of paper treasures.  Every finger painting, mother’s day card, letter to Santa and term paper I had ever created was ceremoniously dumped in my lap one evening.  I relived a lot of my childhood leafing through those papers.  Some good, some not so much. What I touched that took my breath away, what I couldn’t put down, were the report cards.

In my hands I held the perfect penmanship of my grade school teachers.  As I read their words and looked at their assessments of my abilities, I started to see how I had become and not become what I am today. Holding onto those fragile pieces of paper, I felt my adult-sized body begin to shrink until I was once again the girl wearing my favorite smiley-face jumper, the one my mom had made me at her Sears sewing class.

 I loved school.  I loved how it felt safe and you could always count on it to smell like a bologna sandwich and oranges.  I honestly can’t remember much I didn’t like about school.  Maybe that’s why I was caught by surprise when I read my old report cards and discovered that my teachers did not always see the perfect student that I had intended to be.

1st Grade – Mrs. Muzzey

“Oral: Good but needs to read a little louder…Writing: Melissa can do nice writing when she tries but sometimes she hurries too fast to do her best work.”

 

I can still feel it now.  That painful shyness.  The fear of being wrong.  The courage it took me to read my page of Tip and Mitten or Jack and Janet out loud to the class.  And I remember not wanting to be left behind. I was always running after, always trying to keep up, always trying to grab someone’s hand.  Because I was quiet, maybe I thought I would be forgotten. I’m not sure how to interpret the 1969 grading scale except to say I had a lot of check marks by the word “occasionally”.

3rd Grade – Mrs. Hunter

 “likes to talk to neighbors…can’t always listen…doesn’t always add to discussion even though she has good ideas.”

 

This was the year I discovered that my friends lived in worlds I would like to inhabit.  That they could take me places, even if just through a classroom conversation, that I could not go at home.  It was the year I began to understand what I was hearing and learned to block it out.  It looks like the fear of being wrong, of not putting yourself out there just in case you had made a mistake, was pretty ingrained by this time – even though I knew I had good ideas.  I knew it.

4th Grade – Mrs. Reddel

 “yes, but quiet…yes, volunteers…yes, dependable…yes.”

 

I guess by fourth grade I was learning how to work the system.  My grades were good enough but more importantly, I was pleasing. I was doing what I was told. I was speaking up – though quietly.  I think fourth grade may have been my academic and good behavior peak.

I entered 5th grade in 1972.  Our classroom was in a “pod” with movable walls. We had “learning contracts” which allowed us to complete our own weekly lesson plan and we did a lot of “alternative thinking”.  That was the year I fell madly in love with my teacher, Mrs. Molloy.  Just writing out her name makes me sigh with longing. There was something about her that I wanted to wrap myself up in.  I would have lived the rest of my life in her classroom if given the chance. She was magic.

Luckily, 1973 and 6th grade brought me back to Mrs. Molloy for language arts and social studies, the two classes where I really shined.  I survived the rest of the day just so I could sit in her room and watch her at the chalkboard. And that leads me to my last grade school report card.  The one that brought me to tears.

“Don’t you ever worry – I couldn’t be more proud. Love, Mrs. M.” 

I have absolutely no recollection of ever reading these words before that moment at my mom’s this past fall. What did she know? Even now, my heartbeats faster, I choke back tears, and I long to run to her and ask.  What did you see in my eyes?  What did you read between the lines of all of those stories I wrote for you?  Why did you write that?  Those words, I touch them over and over again. There is something in those words that only a great teacher could convey.  Something that now, 37 years later, makes me feel so understood.

Mrs. Molloy?  Remember when I thought my name was too different?  No one was named Melissa back in the 70’s.  I could never find my name pre-printed on a mug or a key chain.  Under the wise council of my best friend, Liza, I decided I’d like to change my name to Lissa.  Somehow, I even found the confidence to make this desire known to you, though I never told my mom.  I’ll never forget that moment when I raised my hand to answer a spelling question and you said, “Yes, Lissa?”  I shrunk back in my chair as the whole class turned to stare at me, but you stood there straight-faced and patiently waited for my answer.  Plus, you never returned my papers and asked me to use my proper name.

 

“Monkey’s First Day, by Lissa”

And, when I quietly started writing my full name on my papers again, I didn’t need to say anything, you knew that it was time to go back to calling me Melissa.

Then there was that time when I wanted to write the very best story you had ever read and I didn’t believe that I could do it without some extra help.  So I re-imagined one of my favorite picture books, Fredrick, about a field mouse who absorbs everything lovely and shares it with his family during the cold grey winter. I changed it just enough to make it sound like just maybe it had been my own idea. I remember you marveled at it, looked at me trying to assess whether or not I had written it.  You said out loud, “Wow, this is a great story.  You wrote this?”  And I couldn’t lie to you.  I was more afraid of losing your respect for lying than of getting into trouble for cheating.  So I told you the truth.  I don’t remember what happened next, but I know I never felt afraid or ashamed. And I always wrote my own stories after that.

You never let me do less than my best. You wouldn’t let me just get by. Maybe you knew that I could do that at home. There was too much other stuff going on behind our big red front door – as long as I wasn’t making waves, passing was good enough.  But not for you.  You made me feel like I could step out of my brother’s shadow and find my own way to shine.  And you always made sure to focus on what I was doing best before you gently implied there were places I could do better.

“Melissa continues to work independently and to achieve at a high level.  Please ask her about arithmetic homework.”

You saw the “needs to talk louder” me.  The” likes to talk to neighbors” me.  The “in a hurry” me.  The “not performing up to potential” me.  But you made it safe for me to show you the rest of me, too.  I don’t know what you knew exactly, but you knew something was getting in my way.  Even before you told me you were proud of me, I felt it.  And while your wish that I should never worry didn’t come true, it comforts me to no end that you dreamed that dream for me.

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Gold: A Gift to My 4-Year-Old Self

Dear Melissa,

It’s your 4th birthday today.  What good luck that Mrs. Pickering chose such a spectacular craft project for her preschool class on this day.

The shiny golden paper that sits before you looks like treasure. It’s all you can do not to reach out and touch it.  But, you don’t.  You’re a rule follower.  Mrs. Pickering said not to  and you want to make her happy.

Finally, you get to trace and cut and use the much coveted paper punch to create the perfect memory of you on that day.

You love your tiny golden hands more than anything.  As you wrap them carefully in green tissue paper, and use your best four-year-old penmanship to write “Merry Christmas Mom and Dad, Love, Melissa” on the tag, you are secretly wishing the gift was for you.

Instead, you present your hands of gold, your rule following hands, your quiet, shy, unsure hands, to your parents.  And you hold your breath. Will they treasure them the way you do?  Will they know how to take care of them?  Will they put them in a special place where they will stay safe from harm?

Here’s what I can tell you now, from the perspective of your 47-year-old self:

You need to believe that they did the best they could.  That’s the hardest thing to accomplish, but you’ll get there.

You were the easy child and so it was also easy for them to believe you were fine, just fine, with less guidance, less attention, less hand holding. Mostly, you weren’t. But don’t forget all of those other souls who reached out to you. Especially, Mrs. Molloy, your favorite teacher. She knew.

You had such huge eyes, they missed nothing.  A lot of that stuff is just better left behind, even though some days it feels impossible to do that.

You wanted to fix it and you couldn’t.  You still can’t, but it will all be okay.  I wish I could have saved you from all that worrying.

Little girl that I was, I have a gift for you this Christmas.

Several years ago, your mom returned the treasured hands of gold to me.  They were still in pretty good shape: the fingertips were curled a little and one thumb was taped back on, but they shined almost as bright as the day you wrapped them.

She had kept them safe, even though you worried about them.

Every year, I hang them on the tree, just like you did when you were a child.  I always pick a special spot, where your hands will be noticed but not harmed.

This year, I’m ready.  It’s time to give you the gift we’ve both been waiting for.

I’m taking your four-year-old hands down from the tree and holding them in my grown-up hands, the hands that echo the cliché “they look like my mother’s”.

It’s time for me to take care of you.

I won’t let go.

I know that’s all you’ve ever wanted.

Merry Christmas, Melissa.

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Be Careful With This

A few years ago, when our youngest daughter was just four, she tip-toed into my bedroom on the morning of Valentine’s Day as I was getting dressed to go to work.  She had caught me in one of those hurried intervals, between packing lunches and signing 4th grade reading logs, when I was trying to make myself semi-presentable. One of my few moments alone amidst the kind of craziness that ensues at 7:30 a.m. in households across the country.  Which is probably why she was tip-toeing. Because on more than one morning when she had needed my attention, I am positive I said something less than kind to her about giving me a few minutes to myself.

So there she was in her mismatched outfit, nest of sleep-hair still tangled in the back of her head, holding something so very carefully in her cupped hands.  It was the same way she held all of her treasures: the pretty rocks from the neighbor’s driveway; the wood chips from the Montessori playground; the seagull feather from the beach; a glittery plastic bead from under the bed.  This time, it was not something that she had found that she held with such care, but something she had made.

My Valentine.

With her still-pudgy hands, she had cut two hearts, almost rounding the edges but missing the curve a little here and there so that there was an endearing imperfection in their outline.  She handed me those scotch-tape-joined-together-hearts so gingerly and with such expectation.  It turns out that the shape was of little importance.  What she had poured herself into was the message.

“Be careful with this. I Love You.”

 

Though I think she only meant to indicate that the paper hearts were fragile, her words could not have been more profound.  A reminder to me of what I signed up for when I became a parent.  Of the expectation our children have that, as their parents, we will always keep them safe.  Not just their physical selves, but their emotional selves and the things they treasure most.  Always.

I knew, as I held those crooked paper hearts, that it was a goal I would continuously aspire to and one I would have to fail.

Allowing my kids to feel the aches and pains of growing-up is one of the toughest life lessons I will ever have to learn.  It’s not the stuff of Hallmark Valentines. When they look at me with the expectation that I will make it all right, I will always struggle with the desire to hold onto them as if they were as fragile as those paper hearts.  Always. No matter how old they get. Even as I let them go.

Be careful with this.  I love you.

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Life Lessons from the Basketball Court

I didn’t want to say it.  I knew it wouldn’t be helpful, but I could hear the words echoing in my head.  Over and over again. Until finally, I could no longer contain them.

You know, this won’t be the only time in your life you take a risk and it doesn’t work out the way you hoped.  I’m proud of you for trying.  A lot of your friends wouldn’t have taken the chance.”

His shoulders slumped over the counter, long shaggy hair covering his eyes. It was obvious he was staring at his hands, the hands that had failed him.  The hands that couldn’t get the ball to its intended target with enough precision, that couldn’t make the jump shots.

He tilted his head up only enough so that I could see his resignation. “It doesn’t matter.”

And with that, he took his twelve-year-old-aeropostle-clad-self off to his bedroom.

If you asked a neighbor, or a teacher, or a friend, they would probably tell you that life comes easy for my son.  He is smart.  He is kind.  He has a million girls who want to be his friend on Facebook.  He is a star on his soccer and cross country teams.

If you asked my son, he’d tell you a different story.  A story about not wanting to fail in front of other people.  Of self-inflicted pressure to succeed.  Of an internal watchdog that struggles to keep him safe.

All of his friends play basketball.  My son only plays pick-up games in driveways or gyms when the stakes are no greater than bragging rights at that night’s sleepover.  He has never played an official game or been coached.  So, it was with great hesitation and a lot of encouragement from his best buddies that he was the last 7th grader to sign his name to the basketball tryout sheet.

7th grade.  The first year there is an official school team.  The first year that they make cuts.  A trusted adult friend who has coached forever told my son he should tryout, that he has natural talent.  All of his gym-rat best friends kept on telling my son he would make the team. He began to believe them. When he asked me what I thought, I replied, “What have you got to lose?  If you try and don’t make it you shouldn’t feel bad, you’ve never even played a real game.”

All this week, I dropped him off at the school at 4:30 sharp for the tryouts. Over three nights, they would narrow the field of 32 hopefuls down to a team of 15. He was the only kid who walked into the gym in running shoes instead of a pair of gigantic basketball shoes.

When I picked him up after the first night, he hopped into the front seat, kind of snickered and said, “Well, I don’t think I played well enough tonight to make the team, but I’ve still got two more nights.” And he then went on to tell me how he only made one of his four free throw shots and that he really sucked at left-handed layups. Feedback from his friends indicated that he had a 50/50 chance.

The second night things improved greatly.  He came bouncing into the car, sweaty and starving, and declared, “I think I did a lot better tonight.  I think I’m about in the middle.  Conner thinks I have a 75% chance.  Everyone else thinks I’ll make it.  Mr. Brewster, the math teacher, says he’s rooting for me.”

He spent all of his free time shooting baskets in the driveway.  At dinner he is talking full court press and three point shots.  Language that is foreign in our soccer obsessed family. By the time I pick him up on the last night of tryouts, he really wants to make the team.  No more “just trying it out to see what happens.”  He wants it.  Bad.  Even though he won’t admit the depth of his desire out loud, he fails at hiding it.  He’s talking new shoes.

Thursday arrives. The day the team will be announced.  The boys will meet after school and play ball while the coach calls them in one by one to tell them their fate.  I think of all those episodes of American Idol where they make the long trip up and down the elevator.  My heart is pounding fast just visualizing what must be going on.   Because my son was the last to sign-up, his name is last on the list.  He will be the last one called and will most likely know if he made it before the coach utters a word. My daughters, usually unimpressed with their older brother who shines at everything, are keeping their fingers crossed.  I am caught up in the optimism of my son and his friends.  I pull my car up to the front of the school, waiting to see my jubilant son emerge.

Obviously, you already know the outcome.  He opens the car door with an “Oh well,” and that’s about all I will hear about what happened.  Except that he had seen the coach’s clipboard before he even started meeting with the players.  He saw the list of names and the “Y’s” and “N’s” next to each name.  He had known for an hour and a half before he got the official word.  An hour and a half where he had to play ball with his buddies, laughing and cheering them on as they got the good news.  He said he didn’t even remember what the coach had told him during his turn.

My heart felt overwhelmingly sad.  The car was silent.  My youngest daughter, strapped into her booster seat, put away the cowbell she was going to ring in celebration.  I reached out and put my hand on his leg and said, “I’m sorry, Bud.  I know you did your best.  I’m proud of you.”  No answer.

It was hours later, almost bedtime, when I blurted out my so-called words of wisdom.  About life lessons being hard but good for us.  Really?  I should have said, “Honey, I know from experience that life lessons usually suck – at least while they’re happening.”

It was all over Facebook.  “Awwweesssommmeee, I made the b-ball team!!!!!!!”, “Me too.  We will rock!!!!!!!”, “I made the team.  Bball is life!!!!” My son wisely stayed away.

I wanted to catch him.  I wanted to hold him in my arms and cry for his pain, for my pain, and for all those sucky life lessons that still lay ahead.  I wanted to make it better for him.  But he wasn’t having it.  Every time I moved forward I was greeted with “It’s OK.”

I went to bed feeling unsettled.  It’s only basketball. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the cause, all you know is your child is in pain and you want to fix it.

This morning, as we were moving coma-like through our early morning routines, I started flashing to what today would be like at the middle school.  Friends celebrating and envisioning their upcoming season.  My son longing to be one of them.  That’s when it hit me.  My own life lesson.  This wasn’t my thing to make better.  He needed his friends this time – not his mom.  He needed them to tell him it was awesome that he tried out.  That they had all been playing forever and he hadn’t.  Even stretching the truth a little to soothe his bruised ego by telling him he should have gotten a spot.  I had to trust these young men to be there for my son.

It’s hard enough to give up the care and comforting of our children to other adults – to babysitters, teachers and camp counselors.  It’s a million times harder to trust a pack of competitive twelve-year-old boys with the task.  But, I realized this morning that it’s the next step in growing-up.  For me and for my son.  The next time all those boys drag their dirty, stinky feet into my house and empty my refrigerator of all that is still edible, I know I will have to stop myself from pulling each of them aside and whispering, “Please take good care of him.”


photo courtesy of photo bucket.

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An Imperfect Heart: The Beginning

I was born with an imperfect heart.

It wasn’t until I was 22, and I mentioned the heaviness I felt across my chest, that a doctor discovered it.  An imperfection so small it had gone unnoticed though I had carried it with me my whole life.  I immediately blamed my mother.  It was one more bullet point on the list I was compiling.

Funny thing is, the heaviness had nothing to do with the structure of my heart.  But everything to do with imperfection.

If we are lucky, the perspective we gain in adulthood helps us to forgive many of the missteps our parents took when we were children.  If we are lucky.  And are willing to put in the time.  Do the work.  That’s where I’ve been the past few years.  Trying to get rid of the laundry list. The bullet points of blame that I would hold up in my mother’s face during our worst moments together.  I’ve been chipping away at it, a little at a time.  The progress is often slower than I would like.  When I am tired, or overwhelmed, I can feel how easy it would be to slide back down to where I began.  Like a never ending game of Chutes and Ladders.

Somewhere, in all that bullet-pointing, I think I lost a lot of memories.  I was so busy keeping track of the pain that I forgot to register the joy.  I can feel the worst moments like I am living them all over again.  But, when I try to conjure up the good, the visions are so foggy that I doubt they were real.  I know we must have shared moments so pure that they were filled with nothing but love.

I know we did…

Because she is a child of the water, my mom baptized us in her lake almost immediately upon birth.  I know this because I‘ve seen it in black and white.  When I look at those images and close my eyes, I can feel the touch of her hands as she gently floats me on the waves.  I can see her clapping with real pride, a few years later, as I completed my first successful solo swim to the deep end.  I basked in her joy.

I was as tiny as a mouse when I was strapped into my first pair of skis.  Majestic Hills. The mountains of Wisconsin.  My mom held me tight between her legs, one arm around my oversized winter jacket and one grasping the rope-tow.  She transferred her entire history on the snow into my small self as we climbed slowly up the hill.  I never felt afraid. I felt magic. I felt freedom.  I loved the cold, and the wind, and the warm apple cider donuts in the lodge. I loved my mom.

She always made sure we had paints, and Playdough, and wax to make candles. We had boxes of pinecones, and beads, and glitter, and glue. And bags of shiny metallic shapes in colors that shouted “groovy”. Sometimes, our crafty enthusiasm spilled onto the white shag carpet that covered our floors.  There was yelling, and we would hide under our bed for awhile.  But the paint was never taken away.  Creativity was always given higher value than cleanliness.

When I was about six or seven, my mom took us to the hardware store.  She bought us each a chisel and a small hammer and told us we were going to the gravel pit.  We spent hours in the pit, way out in the back acres of my grandma’s farm, trying to break rocks in half.  Treasure hunting.  A week later, we dumped our boxes full of rock bits on the desk of the director of our local history museum.  I remember my mom standing back against a dusty shelf in the old museum, smiling as she watched the director pick through our discoveries. She bought us Fossil Finders from the gift shop on the way out.

I ran away to the woods a million times. Often I would return before anyone would know I was gone.  Sometimes, I would boldly stomp out the door proclaiming that I would survive off of the carrot and lettuce seeds that I would plant once I had made my shelter.  My mom never laughed, or scolded, or tried to keep me from leaving. She wished me well and sent me on my way.  When my growling tummy and fear of the dark forced me to creep back inside, she gave me a sandwich and tucked me into bed.

These are the moments I have been trying to string together.  I’ve been trying to make them weigh more than the bullet points.  They speak in a quiet voice and it’s often hard for them to fight their way to the top in the noisy world of my memory.  There are things I am not sure I will ever remember.  I couldn’t hear “I love you,” or “You are good enough.”  I don’t think that arms embraced me when I was scared at night or when my heart felt broken.  Maybe, I’m not sure. But I am done using that as ammunition. All I can do is start where I am standing and write it down so the voice of the good grows louder.

It’s so hard to be a parent, even when you’re a good one.  It’s a gamble.  And a lot of breath holding. I’m learning as I go and that, unfortunately, means my kids are the guinea pigs. I wonder what memories they’re retaining. I say silent prayers every day that my moments of parenting genius outweigh my moments of out-right failure.  When I make a mistake, I try to admit it.  And each time, the weight of those bullet points, and my imperfect heart, grows a little lighter.  Because I know that you can make a million mistakes and it has nothing to do with how much you love.

 

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