Latest Chart: Marking the passage of time

January 10, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

In the day-to-day efforts of parenting, we often forget that our kids are growing up too. We spend so much time working on schedules, talking to teachers, and coordinating play dates that it becomes easy to miss the little indicators that our kids aren’t little anymore. Of course, sometimes the indicators come by way of a phone call, of a claim of responsibility.

Because my husband had to work during Christmas, we decided to leave for our family vacation a few days before the new year. The start of the holiday break for us, then, was relaxed. The girls slept in, and I took my time to plan and pack for the trip.

On the first Monday of their vacation Thirteen, Eleven, and I drove to their dentist appointment, I suggested to the kids they take out their clothes the next day for our travels. I gave them an idea of how many outfits they needed as well as other essentials, and then the conversation went to a bevy of other topics. We laughed, we joked with one another, they groaned good-naturedly about having to get their teeth cleaned (over Christmas break, no less!), and we went on with our day.

The next day I left the kids at home so I could run errands by myself. These errands took me from one location in town to another. They involved final elements of a Christmas present, a small amount of grocery, a few regular supplies for the house, and some other minor things I’d added to my running list. It was the kind of day that sent my mind in about six different directions all at the same time. Preparing for a trip often does.

As I made my way to the checkout counter in the grocery store, my cell phone rang. I pulled it out of my purse and saw the word “Home” on the caller ID. As I swiped the screen to answer the call, I stopped pushing the cart and stood still. The girls had never called me before while I was on an errand run.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hi, Mamma,” Thirteen said.

Her voice sounded normal, and I know there’s nothing worse than causing alarm in someone over the phone. Especially when there’s nothing to be alarmed about, for either party. I kept my voice light.

“Hey, kiddo,” I said. “What’s up?”

She and Eleven had decided to pull out their clothes for the trip, she said. They wanted to know what kind of weather they should plan for. Did I have any idea what the temperatures in Myrtle Beach would be like?

“Why don’t you check on it?” I suggested.

“She’s saying to check the weather,” Thirteen said, her voice turning away from the phone. “Just pull it up on your iPad.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Nope, that’s it.”

“Okay,” I said, maintaining that nonchalant tone. “I’m almost done here at the grocery store. I just have one more stop after this, then I’ll be home and we can have lunch, okay?”

“Okay,” she said cheerfully.

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

I swiped the screen to end the call, impressed with my teen’s thoughtfulness and, quite frankly, the fact that she remembered at all. In times past, I’ve had to ask the girls several times to perform these types of tasks for me. I’d remind them, nudge them, and, yes, even yell on occasion. In all these years, I truly ever thought about the day when the kids would come to me on their own and say they were ready to fulfill a request and just needed further information to do so.

We’re at the start of a new year and a new decade. In the next 10 years, provided we’re blessed with a life free from major challenges, I’ll go from being a mom of two middle schoolers to a mom of two teens and then of two college students. The girls will be considering careers and may discover love; they might even have their hearts broken a time or two. It’s a little mind boggling to consider when I think about how I was more than halfway through the last decade before even becoming a mother in the first place.

Parents often say it, but it’s true: where does the time go?

Latest Spurts: Fake food and wookies

December 27, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

Last week, on Monday, we woke up to a couple of inches of snow. After breakfast, as I stood in the mudroom waiting for the girls to pull on jackets and shoes for school, I planted my feet into a pair of ankle-length boots. Eleven looked at the boots, glanced at the bathrobe I still wore, and looked down again.

“Nice shoes, Mamma,” she said.

“I like to be prepared,” I explained, “in case I ever have to get out of the car and trudge through the snow.”

Thirteen took a closer look at my shoes and smirked.

“Are you going to zip them up?”

“No, I figure if I get stuck somewhere, I can take half a second to zip them.”

“What if the police are chasing you?” Eleven asked.

“Then I’ll just bring them back here. You know. Offer them coffee.”

“All she said was, ‘nice shoes’,” Thirteen murmured, “and we get a whole story.”

“All right, let’s move it along.”

*****

Eleven likes a challenge. She also, these days, loves Star Wars and everything to do with the series. Somewhere online she found out about an artist named James Raiz who sketched an enormous mural, in ink, including almost single character important to the franchise.

Then she said she wanted to duplicate it.

When she first mentioned the mural, I did my parental duty: I nodded and smiled like it says to in my contract. One day last week, I asked her to show it to me. In between chopping vegetables and stirring pots on the stove, I took a look at she planned to draw.

My mouth dropped open, but I didn’t want her to mistake my shock for disapproval.

“That’s amazing,” I said. “Look at the level of detail.”

She pulled up a YouTube video of Raiz describing his love for Star Wars, his reasoning for wanting to create the mural, how he planned it, and (in a time lapse) the production and completion of it. I waved my husband over so he could see the final product. He was as impressed as I was, more so by the fact that our child wants to duplicate it.

“That’s really ambitious,” he said.

“Well, I’m a Slytherin,” she said. “I have lots of ambitiousness. Ambitious-ocity! I have ambitious-ocity.”

“That’s not a word,” I told her.

“Yes, it is,” she said, “because I’m a Slytherin and that’s what I have.”

I don’t know what J.K. Rowling and George Lucas would have to say about their universes crossing like that, but all righty then.

*****

I consider myself a pretty good cook, so it came as quite the amusing shock to me that last month the girls declared that all the food I make for them is fake food. The height of irony comes in the fact that they’re complaining about the fact that I don’t serve them processed meals with loads of preservatives, trans fat, or high fructose corn syrup. I take the meals we enjoy in restaurants or on vacations and try to replicate them or at least create something, from scratch, that tastes as good and is nutritious.

If anything, my food is more “real” than some of the stuff available on the market.

I explained this to them; they maintain their opinion.

The discussion of real versus fake food comes up in all sorts of places. Last week, before school got out, the drama teacher invited over the students who have stayed after school and come in on weekends to help out with costumes and sets. She cooked dinner for them, and they played games and got to socialize.

The next morning, I asked the girls what the teacher, Mrs. C., made for dinner.

“Chicken noodle soup,” Thirteen said with a sigh that comes from enjoying comfort food. “And she used real noodles, not the fake ones you do.”

Given that it’s been ages since I’ve made chicken soup, I wanted to protest. Of course, I figured that would just bring forth another complaint about why I hadn’t made the soup in so long. That would be followed by an objection from Eleven that she doesn’t even like soups very much to begin with, and why do we have to eat them during the winter months anyway. (Never mind that there’s nothing quite so warming, and, yes, nutritious, as a large bowl of soup from scratch.)

I’m officially the mother to two middle schoolers; I can’t win either way.

*****

For the past two years, Thirteen has complained good-naturedly about the science teacher, Ms. S. The assignments, Thirteen maintains, are boring, and why did they have to learn about tuberculosis and do experiments and research papers at home anyway? Not to mention that Ms. S. is the type of teacher who’s a stickler for grammar on her papers; misplace commas, and she’ll count it incomplete until all the requisite commas are in their right places.

Shortly after school started, Thirteen and Eleven came home with dread on their faces.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Science.”

“What do you mean?”

Turns out that Ms. S. was scheduled for knee replacement surgery and had assigned subs to carry the load for the two months she would be out. The subs had worked with Ms. S. extensively in the past and had a reputation for being as strict as her. The excitement the kids had at having substitute teachers for an extended period of time was dimmed by who the substitutes were.

At the end of the week last week, I went to say good night to Thirteen, and in the dark she sighed.

“I miss Ms. S.,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say for a minute. “You what?”

“I miss Ms. S.,” she said. “Ms. A.’s so strict.”

I was glad it was dark and she couldn’t see me smile. I offered the standard parental platitudes of how the subs would only be around for a little while longer, but they didn’t seem to comfort her much. Thirteen has said many times in the last two years how she wished Ms. S. would take it easy. I guess it’s true what they say: be careful what you wish for.

*****

One of our agendas for this Christmas break was to watch movies. Lots and lots of them. Eleven wanted to watch the Star Wars movies on the DVR to prep for the newest one in theaters. We started with the original trilogy, despite her mild complaint at watching the movies out of chronological order. I’ve seen the original ones several times before and knew they would be a good gateway into the Star Wars universe, so I overruled her vote to start with Episode 1.

Last night as we watched The Return of the Jedi, we couldn’t help giggling over the wookies. Given that Eleven considers herself a bear, she was tickled pink about the bear-like features of these cuddly creatures. As they waddled around and did their best to fight against the Storm Troopers to help Han Solo and Leia in the movie’s climax (often striking themselves or one another in the process,) we laughed so hard our eyes watered.

At one point, two wookies get knocked to the forest floor by a laser blast. They both lie on the ground for a moment; then one gets up and drags on the arm of his friend, still flat. The friend doesn’t get up, and the first wookie gets to his knees to check on the second one. He bends down and puts his face to his friend’s arm as if in an affectionate kiss.

The girls and I “aww”’ed immediately.

“I hope he’s okay,” I said about the unconscious wookie.

“He’s okay,” Eleven said in a bid of hope. “He’s gotta be okay. Nothing’s wrong with him.”

“I’m going to write a fanfic about those two,” Thirteen said, her eyes filled with compassion. “I’m going to write about how they’re friends.”

“And when you do, they’re both going to be okay,” Eleven said.

 

 

 

Latest Spurts: Aspiring to chicken tortellini alfredo and enjoying bribes

November 1, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last few weeks, readers!

Since the start of the school year, the girls, along with a handful of their schoolmates, have helped their drama teacher prepare for this year’s performances. They’ve built sets for the elementary kids and talked through blocking for middle school shows.

Typically this happens after school on Tuesdays, but with the sheer amount of work the teacher has asked the kids to come in a few Saturdays. On one or two Saturdays, the teacher has waited for us or left the door propped open around the time she knew we’d arrive. Two weeks ago, however, when we arrived at school at the meeting time, we found the school doors locked.

I sat in the car and watched Thirteen and Eleven peer through the glass doors leading to the hallway outside the gym. They both turned to me with a “Now what?” look, so I motioned for them to go down the sidewalk to the main entrance. Those doors were locked too.

Of course, on a morning like this, I forgot my cell phone. I huffed and sighed and drove home to grab my phone so I could text the teacher. Within minutes, she texted back that she would be at the door to open it for the kids. We turned around and went back to school.

“Can you imagine doing this without cell phones?” Eleven asked.

“We did,” I said. “We didn’t have cell phones when I was a kid.”

“So what would you do?” she asked. “I mean, if you went there and found that the doors were locked.”

“You’d just…go home, I guess,” I said. “You’d wait by the landline for the other person to call you back and ask where they were. Then you just set up another time to meet.”

She considered this—a world without cell phones, in which we had to just wait on one another without instant confirmation about who was going where and when—and I thought for a moment about my own childhood. I remember life without the internet and smart devices, of course; anyone my age does. I guess, maybe, that’s why I’m still a little in awe of them.

*****

The girls go to art lessons straight after school on Wednesdays, but weeks after school started they started talking about quitting art. The level of homework Thirteen in particular is getting makes it hard for her to get it done on Wednesdays. After some back and forth, we finally agreed. At the end of this semester, they’ll get their Wednesday afternoons back.

Since my husband and I told the kids they could drop art in December, every Wednesday after school Thirteen has gotten into the car and said, “I just want to go home.”

I tried to make things better by counting down the Wednesdays left every week. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be helping. I just end up with two kids glaring at me.

This week, when I put their snacks together for the car ride to art class, I decided to make hot chocolate and put it in two travel mugs. The temperatures have dropped close to winter levels, and it’s cold outside. So I boiled milk, added cocoa mix, and poured steaming hot chocolate into the mugs. Then I packed up their snacks, the mugs, and their art supplies, and headed to school.

Thirteen got into the front seat and gasped with pleasure.

“It’s hot chocolate, isn’t it?” she asked with a grin of delight.

I smiled back and greeted Eleven as she got in the car too.

“Hot chocolate, [Eleven],” Thirteen said.

“Well, it’s cold out, so I thought you might like something warm to drink,” I said.

“And it’s Wednesday,” Eleven said in a resigned voice.

“Oh, don’t worry, the hot chocolate’s a bribe for going to art class,” Thirteen said.

“It’s not a bribe!” I said in an affronted manner.

(It was totally a bribe.)

“Sure,” Thirteen said with a gleam in her eye.

What can I say? These kids definitely have my number. I guess I’ll have to get better at, um, cold-weather treats. Yeah. ‘Cause that’s what I was doing.

*****

The girls had a half day today, so we made plans to go to Panera for lunch. As we sat and waited for their dad to join us, the girls dug into their meals. Thirteen scooped a spoonful of Panera’s turkey chili and devoured it.

“One day, I’m going to come to Panera and order the chicken tortellini alfredo,” she said.

“Well, it’s a huge portion,” I said, “but you can always share it.”

She paused over her bowl. “I can?”

“Sure.”

“But who would split it with me?”

“I’ll split it,” Eleven said.

“You will?”

“Yeah.”

Her entire lunch experience, I could see in her eyes, had just changed.

“The next time I come to Panera, I’m going to order the chicken tortellini alfredo.”

“One day I’ll come to Panera and order a whole bunch of sweets,” Eleven said.

“And get a stomachache,” I said.

“I’ll have a party and invite all my friends,” she said.

“You wouldn’t invite me?” I asked, feigning shock.

“No,” Thirteen said, “you’d probably tell us, ‘That’s way too much sugar.’”

Eleven broke into a laugh, and I couldn’t help laughing at Thirteen’s imitation of me. I probably would tell them it was too much sugar. Then I’d beg for a scone.

 

Brand new Spurts: The boomerang effect and driving fast

October 4, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had to switch cars for the day. I drive a Honda Odyssey, which I absolutely adore. He drives a BMW. Which I love and hate all at the same time.

The BMW needed to go to the dealership for service, and I’ve had bad experiences with the dealership here in town. So any time it needs any oil change or anything else, I take the car to another dealership about 45 minutes away. With the drive there and back and the actual service time, that means the car has to stay with me for the whole day.

On this particular Friday, the kids loaded into the BMW before school and I fumbled for a minute with some of the controls.

“I don’t like driving this car,” I muttered.

“Why?” Thirteen asked.

“It just makes me a little nervous,” I said. “It’s an expensive car, and I’m always a little worried about doing something to it. And…”

“And?” Eleven prompted.

“Well,” I said sheepishly, “it goes from zero to sixty in, like, three seconds. And that’s really fun to do. So…”

We turned onto the main road outside our neighborhood, and I revved the engine just enough to pick up speed.

“You want to drive faster right now, don’t you?” Thirteen asked.

I grinned. “Little bit.”

“Yeah, here’s Mommy getting pulled over for speeding on the way to school,” Eleven joked, which would be quite the accomplishment considering we live a total of 1.1 miles away.

“That’s why I don’t like driving this car,” I said.

The girls continued to rib me all the way to the main entrance of the school. As they got out, Eleven called out a reprimand to drive properly. I pulled the car onto the main road again, revved the engine just a little more, and smiled.

*****

For anyone who hasn’t listened to the radio lately, collaborations seem to be the new thing. Ed Sheeran’s doing it with everyone under the sun. Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber—they’re all singing in all sorts of combinations with different artists.

One day as we were driving home, we were listening to the song called Eastside that features the talents of Benny Blanco, Khalid, and Halsey. (And the fact that I had to Google the song to get all three singers’ names right tells you how up to date I am with the singers of today.) Thirteen and Eleven didn’t seem to mind it all too much, although Thirteen kept talking about how creepy Halsey’s voice sounded.

“Who wants to go to the east side with her anyway?” Eleven said in a huff.

“Yeah, and why the east side?” Thirteen murmured. “What’s wrong with the west side?”

“Well, they’ve got their own story,” I quipped.

Thirteen groaned loud and long.

“That’s a terrible joke,” she said.

“Hey, I think it was pretty clever,” I replied.

She just shook her head at me. I thought she’d appreciate it more, being a theater kid and all. I’m still pretty proud of it myself, actually.

*****

Last week the entire middle school went on an overnight camping trip together. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the grades spent time preparing skits to perform for everyone. Eleven came home more than once expressing her frustration with the lack of seriousness on the part of the other sixth graders. They didn’t seem to spend too much time worrying about their lines, it seemed, and it didn’t help that it felt like they never had enough time to practice.

“If they’re not taking responsibility for it, then do something,” Thirteen suggested one morning before school. “You can rehearse before school, at recess, in advisory. Do something about not getting enough time to practice.”

Eleven rolled her eyes at her sister’s advice. Part of her, I know, appreciated it. Part of her wished that her big sister didn’t seem to have the answer to everything.

The refrain I’ve drummed into the kids’ heads is, “Smart girls find a way to fix the problem.” It’s nice to know that Thirteen has taken that to heart. Now if only Eleven wouldn’t scoff every time her big sister reminded her of it.

*****

They say that a person only fully understands the difficulties of parenting when s/he becomes a parent. The longer I’m a parent myself, the more I appreciate my own mom and dad. I often think about the kinds of challenges they navigated with my sister and me. There’s the issue of parenting in general, and then they had the added challenge of steering us in a culture and country that they adopted as home but that wasn’t their birthplace.

My husband and I talk occasionally about how people without kids can’t fully grasp the speed bumps that trip us up. And certainly the kids can’t grasp them either. How can they, when they’re the cause of those speed bumps?

Occasionally, though, the boomerang comes back around sooner than anyone expects.

Eleven is the notorious early riser of the two girls, taking after her father and grandfather. Thirteen doesn’t get out of bed with ease; it generally takes her a little longer in the morning. I can commiserate, because I know exactly how she feels. While adulting requires early mornings sometimes, they’re not my most favorite.

In an interesting twist, though, once Thirteen is awake she moves fast. Eleven will wake up early, shower, get dressed, and come downstairs by 7:30. We aim to leave every morning by 8 a.m. for school. She can still find a way to be late.

Eleven’s freshest first thing in the morning, and she loves to chat. Her train of thought skips along from one subject to the next at lightning speed, and because she has a lot to say she’ll often just stand in the kitchen and talk. And talk. And talk. I have to remind her to keep moving on her way to get her breakfast or to keep eating it.

Yesterday morning, Thirteen came down after Eleven, as she often does, ate her breakfast, went back upstairs to brush her teeth, and came back down to see her sister still eating. At that point, Eleven decided she had to go pee. She left her breakfast and went to the bathroom.

“She gets down here before me,” Thirteen said, “and yet we’re still late for school.”

I suppressed a knowing grin. “This is exactly what it was like when you were in sixth grade. That’s why I yelled so much. And then I stopped yelling.”

“Yeah,” she said in that half-teasing voice of hers, “because now your favorite child’s in sixth grade.”

“No, I stopped yelling when you were halfway through sixth grade, because I realized it didn’t accomplish anything,” I said honestly.

She pondered this for a bit, and I smiled into my mug of tea. I don’t know if she remembers the yelling; she didn’t say one way or the other. But I know she understands now why I did it.

Gotta love that boomerang. Looking for it to swing back around again soon. Maybe this time on just how much we spend on the kids.

Newest Chart: When parenting boomerangs

September 20, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Two weeks ago, on the day after Labor Day, I woke up with a sore throat. No problem, I thought. When the seasons change here in Central Illinois, we expect a day or two of scratchiness.

On Wednesday of that week the scratchiness had disappeared, and congestion had arrived. Again, I didn’t bat an eye. Okay, so I would come down with a cold. Not fun but certainly nothing to worry about.

Then came Thursday. The day I woke up feeling like a truck had run over me. Twice.

Because my husband had to go to the clinic later that morning, he volunteered to take the kids to school. I followed the three of them to the mudroom and watched them put on shoes and pick up backpacks. Then I opened my mouth to bid the girls goodbye.

“Have a good—”

“Go sit down,” Thirteen interrupted with full-on teen stubbornness.

“I will, I just—”

“We love you too; go sit,” she repeated.

“I know, but—”

“We love you, we’ll have a good day, see you after school, there,” Eleven piped up behind her sister. “Go, Mamma. Take it easy.”

I looked at my husband.

“What has the world come to?” I asked, feigning shock. “Do you see the way the kids are ordering me around?”

He pecked a kiss on my forehead and reiterated what the kids told me. In essence, all three of them were banishing me to the sofa for the day. Since they outvoted me, I had no choice but to listen and was grateful to do so.

I spent that day catching up on HGTV and a movie or two. When it came time for dinner, we ordered Chinese. My husband and Eleven picked it up on the way home from soccer practice, and I watched them walk in with the takeout containers from the couch.

In a move rare for me, I didn’t get up to serve anyone. Instead, I let Thirteen come to me. She pulled a little side table to me.

“What do you want to eat?” she asked me and filled a plate per my requests then brought it to me.

“When you get all better, I’m sanitizing everything,” she said, picking up the remote a little gingerly. She set it on the coffee table and went to the island counter to join her sister and father for their own dinner. After a few minutes, when she saw my plate empty, she refilled it for me.

On Friday, though I didn’t know it was possible, I felt even worse. I also woke up with a temperature, which the girls monitored with me during the day. That evening when I announced the fever had dropped, they both cheered.

Throughout the weekend and all of last week, the girls went out of their way to take care of me. Eleven asked repeatedly if she could help with household chores not normally her responsibility. Thirteen made sure I stayed comfortable on my sofa spot for the week. Both of them took turns teasing me in the most good-natured fashion, gentle but still funny.

Last Thursday I felt good enough to do some small tasks, which took me to sorting through the mail right around the time the girls would come home from school. As he had done many times, my husband stepped up (despite starting to feel a little icky himself three days earlier) and brought the kids home. I happened to be standing at the small counter close to the mudroom where we drop mail and other items when everyone walked in

“Oh my gosh!” Thirteen exclaimed, taking a dramatic two steps back. “Oh my gosh!”

“What?” I asked, pretending not to know why she was reacting that way.

“What is happening here?” Eleven asked, tacking on to her sister’s performance with her eyes wide. “What’s going on?”

“What?” I asked again.

Thirteen put a hand to her chest in Victorian fashion, and both girls proceeded to go upstairs to their rooms to wash up. I just shook my head at all the silliness and went back to the sofa. By the time they came back down, I felt depleted of the little bit of energy I’d spent during the day. I went back to the sofa.

“What was going on before?” I asked Thirteen.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, our family’s code for taking the Fifth Amendment.

I suppressed a smile, a signal for me that I really was feeling better.

Since Monday we’ve all gone back to our normal routines. My husband recovered from his laryngitis. I’m almost back to a hundred percent after the cough/cold/flu I endured.

This morning, Thirteen came downstairs for breakfast before school.

“My throat feels a little scratchy,” she said.

I held up a finger to her. “No. I forbid it. You can’t.”

She rolled her eyes.

“It’s all you guys’s fault,” she said, glancing at me and her dad.

“What did we do?” my husband asked.

The ribbing continued, and Thirteen took a handful of cough drops to school just in case. I hope it’s just the run-of-the-mill, fall-season throat scratchiness and nothing more serious. From recent experience, I know how miserable the more serious version can make a person. But the girls have shown me that they know exactly what to expect if one of them does get sick, because they took such good care of me.

Sometimes when parents are in the thick of actual act of parenting, we don’t know if what we’re doing is making a difference. If what we’re trying to teach the kids is actually sticking. Weeks like this offer me reassurance that it is.

Latest Spurts: Getting haircuts and achieving world peace with Fruit Loops

August 30, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the past few weeks, readers!

Last week before school started, I took the girls on an errand run. We had several things to do that day, including haircuts before school started and picking up some groceries. Along the way we chatted about the haircuts in particular.

For the last few years, Thirteen has enjoyed having long hair. She’s styled it a variety of ways, and relished its length halfway down her back. Earlier in the summer, though, she floated the idea of cutting it to her shoulders.

I didn’t say anything at the time. Kids have ideas and then change their minds. Also, between getting ready for our Norway trip and working on my novel, I didn’t want to spend time or energy on anything not crucial to either. I knew we’d have about five days before the kids started school to parse out the details on any potential hairstyle changes.

The girls went to Myrtle Beach to visit their grandparents, and when Thirteen came back she still wanted to get her hair cut. She’d already enlisted her grandmother as moral support for the idea. The only hurdle she had to cross was convincing her father.

In all honesty, I didn’t think he’d agree. Imagine my amazement when he did just that. As we drove to Great Clips last week, we discussed the conversation in the car.

“I still can’t believe Daddy agreed to let you cut your hair,” Eleven remarked.

“Yeah, well,” Thirteen said with a sigh, “he said I can only do it this one time. I can’t ever cut it again after this.”

“Why does it even matter to him?” Eleven said with her trademark bluntness. “I don’t get it. I mean, it’s not like it’s his hair.”

“Yeah,” Thirteen echoed.

“Well, in India, long hair is a sign of beauty,” I said. “Daddy grew up there, and culturally that’s what long hair stands for. It’s normal for him.”

“That’s weird,” Eleven declared.

“Maybe for you,” I said, “but there are so many cultures where people do things that we think are weird but they think are beautiful. In Africa people wear those rings around their necks to make their necks longer. In China people used to think small feet on women were beautiful, and they would break the feet of young girls and bind them so that their feet looked little.”

“Yeah, Mamma, I get it.”

“So, just like that, in India, long hair is a sign of beauty, and we don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but we do have to respect Daddy’s opinions and ideas, even if we don’t like them.”

“Maybe he’s just jealous because he can’t go for a haircut,” Thirteen mused about her father’s minimal hair.

We shared a laugh on that one, but I hope the main message got across.

*****

After the haircuts, we made our way to Sam’s to pick up a few items in bulk for the new school year like Capri Sun and favorite cereals that were running out. Our Sam’s club changed its layout in the last few weeks, so I had to make my way down most of the main aisles to get my bearings. The girls followed along and commented on all the foods we don’t eat.

“It’s so unfair,” Eleven said after the third or fourth item we crossed that we wouldn’t buy, “I don’t understand why we can’t try some of these things just once. Just once, and we’d never ask for them again.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” I said. “Once you’ll have them, you’ll want them again.”

“Yeah, but you’ve had most of them.”

Okay, so maybe not most, but it’s true that when it came to food choices my parents weren’t as stringent on what we did or didn’t eat as my husband. Of course, when I was a kid, food nutrition labels didn’t exist as we know them today. The FDA began mandatory labeling of food packages in 1990; before that time, some foods came labeled but not all did. And because I grew up as the child of immigrants, the kinds of foods we were eating were automatically different than most households.

All that to say that the conversations we have in this country today about protein, fat, and salt didn’t exist when I was growing up. People didn’t have all this information, so we ate with more pleasure and less guilt. Of course, I couldn’t express this last part to the kids, but I did remind them about the food labeling.

“We know, Mamma,” Eleven said in a sullen tone.

For the rest of the shopping trip through Sam’s, she hung back and didn’t say much. When it came time to pay, I directed the cart to the self check-out stand. Thirteen scurried forward to help load groceries into the cart after I scanned them.

“And what is [Eleven] doing?” she asked.

“She’s back here sulking because she can’t have Fruit Loops and Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies,” I said.

I turned to my younger daughter, and she cracked a smile. She couldn’t help it, even though she really wanted to hold onto that grumpiness. After a minute or two, she started helping with the groceries too.

Maybe this is the key to world peace. Forget diplomacy. Just offer everyone Fruit Loops.

*****

The first day of school was a half day, so the kids came home and ate their lunch. On the second day of school, I went to wish Eleven a good morning and found her grinning. I gave her a hug and asked what was making her so happy.

“We get to sit at the middle school tables,” she said, referring to herself and the other sixth graders, “and not because the middle schoolers are gone on the camp-out or a field trip or something. It’s because we are middle schoolers now.”

I couldn’t help grinning back at her myself. I remember what it felt like to cross the threshold from one major part of the school to another. The excitement that we were growing up and like the “big kids” now, although I know Eleven would never quite put it that way. I hope her excitement for middle school stays through these first few weeks.

*****

On Monday as I pulled into the school’s drop-off line in the morning, we spotted one of the new sixth graders.

“There’s A.,” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” Thirteen commented. “You know, her mom walked her into advisory on the first day.”

“Yeah,” Eleven added, “and she looked a little embarrassed.”

“Yeah,” Thirteen said, “she did.”

Before I could even open my mouth to tease the girls about walking them in, Thirteen turned to open the car door.

“It’s okay, Mamma, you don’t have to walk us inside,” she said with one foot out of the car.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, really,” she said and got out; Eleven was two steps behind her.

I had just enough time to get in a “Bye, love you!” before she shut the door. Not that I would have walked her in. But since she’s a teenager, I should at least get the pleasure of torturing her with the possibility, right?

Latest Chart: Annoying your kids and finding Dinah

August 16, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

I stared from the dock at the lake. The placid green-blue water reminded me of the Caribbean, but no Caribbean country featured a collection of tall peaks circling the water. The sweeping mountain range gazed down, offering a vista of a glacier the color of a summer morning peering over the top of the range as if it wanted to play hide-and-seek.

With a little help, some gentle coaxing, and minimal instructions from the friendly (and I’d definitely say optimistic) gentleman running the dock, I climbed into a canoe with a paddle. He seemed to have no trouble whatsoever believing that I could not only paddle the small boat but also make it to a destination and back to the dock. On purpose.

Maybe it was the scenery around me that defined “picture-postcard perfect.” Since arriving in Norway, I’d had trouble holding on to the stresses of my life back home. How could I, when the mountains invited me to take a seat by their side and just let myself be? Everywhere we looked, everywhere we walked, the scenery and the people greeted us with a benevolence that seemed to come from a storybook. How would it feel to uncurl my fist and let all my worries slip through my fingers?

“We’re not making any progress.”

I suppressed a sigh. Maybe it wasn’t so hard to find an ounce of that stress. Especially with a tween and a teen in the same boat as me.

After the nice man at the dock pushed us off, we all started to paddle. The first few attempts took us in literal circles. We’d done some mild white water rafting earlier in the week during the first part of our tour, so I tried to remember what the rafting guide told us to do and paddle according to those instructions.

It didn’t work very well. The girls continued to let loose their complaints into the air above us, and it baffled me for a minute whether the valley was the right place for them to do so. The serenity of the Norwegian landscape had muted my daily frustrations. Hadn’t they felt its magic too?

“This is hard.”

“Here, why don’t we paddle on opposite sides?” I suggested from the back of the canoe. “[Eleven], you and I will paddle on the same side, and, [Thirteen], you paddle on the opposite side from [Eleven]. And it’s your job to make sure you paddle in the same rhythm as her.”

The girls fell into a better cadence of paddling. After 10 or 12 strokes, though, they lost it again. Eleven couldn’t see this at all, of course, since she sat at the front. Thirteen either hadn’t seen it or was concentrating too hard on paddling to care.

Without warning, without saying another word, I started to sing.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day! I’ve been working on the railroad, just to pass the time away!”

“What is that?” Eleven asked as if she’d smelled something rotten.

“Where did you learn that song?” Thirteen asked, her tone expressing her eyeroll.

I stopped singing. “In school. It’s a really old song people used to sing for jobs like…well, working on the railroad. You know, when you needed to follow a certain rhythm to do your work. Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, to rise up so early in the morning? Can’t you hear the captain shouting…”

A rut opened in my memory for a moment. I knew the next few words involved a woman’s name, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. So I fumbled through that part and kept going.

The girls groaned, audibly, but I noticed that their paddling got a little better.

We made it to the miniscule beach about a half mile away from the dock and the boathouse—just far enough to admire our progress but not so far as to exhaust us. We explored the shore for a bit, ducking past a low-hanging tree, following the curve of the short shoreline around to where another member of our tour group had graciously pulled in our boat when we’d arrived. The beach was more like a mini island, explored in a couple of minutes, a small resting spot for anyone who had an inclination to paddle deeper into the valley later.

About 10 minutes after we arrived, one of the tour guides zipped close to us in a motorized boat to let us know that lunch would be served soon and we needed to head back. Once again the girls and I relied on our fellow travelers to push us into the water; they were from Florida and spent as much free time as they could engaging in aquatic outings, so the dad of the family there had no trouble giving the canoe a nudge after we’d all settled with our paddles.

We started paddling, and I started singing.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day! I’ve been working on the railroad…”

“Oh no,” Eleven said with a loud groan.

“Not this again,” her big sister echoed with chagrin. “You know people can hear you, right?”

I broke off my own singing. “So what? I don’t have a bad voice. I can sing in tune.”

My memory clicked into place just then, and the name came back to me.

“Dinah, blow your horn! Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow your ho-o-orn!”

“There’s more?” Eleven asked, incredulous at the tempo change.

“This is distracting!” Thirteen said in a loud voice over mine.

“Maybe that’s the point,” I replied in a speaking voice.

Neither of them had a response for that comment.

I started singing again. I kept singing, noticing that the paddling had fallen into sync much faster on our trip back. In fact, we had little trouble keeping ourselves in a fairly straight line as we worked to get back to shore.

I sang through “I’ll Be Working on the Railroad” another time or two just to annoy the kids—yes, I admit it, that was the bigger draw—before dropping my voice to a volume meant more for myself to sing through the title track of “The Sound of Music.” I couldn’t help it: in a moment like this, I understand what would inspire Maria Von Trapp to let loose on those hills. They did feel alive to me.

The glacier, the valley, that lake, and the Caribbean blue-green water made me grateful for music. For the opportunity to travel. And, yes, even for kids who get annoyed with their parents.