Monday, July 27, 2015

Time toddles forward

From Saturday's Briefing:

Parenthood creates a conflicting mix of wishing everything would stay exactly the same way it is right now and wishing everything would completely evolve into something else.

You adore the way a child says “gla-gasses” and “pa-sketti” (in lieu of “glasses” and “spaghetti”), and you refuse to correct her, holding on to the youthful charm it represents.

Then one day, you can’t even pinpoint when, the correct pronunciation is adopted. Months go by, then you hear a toddler mispronounce a word, and your heart reaches back for your own toddler, long since moved on.

Another child may have been infamous for the meltdowns that occurred at the end of every visit to the neighborhood pool. No matter how many gentle countdowns provided, the young person, upon learning that it was indeed time to leave, would collapse as if the summer heat had instantaneously liquefied his bones.

On the drive home, between deep cleansing breaths, you would discuss the connection between behavior and consequences while silently wondering how many more pool visits you could tolerate.

Then one visit, without fanfare, the same child willingly towels off, slides back into sandals and flip-flops to the parking lot — no tears, no threats, no deep breaths required. Your heart soars, ignoring for a moment yet another sign that childhood refuses to stand still.

There’s nothing more perplexing and gratifying, frustrating and soothing, as raising these sweet souls, these children I’ve been entrusted to shepherd to adulthood.

For years Katie has struggled with medical appointments. At her first ophthalmology appointment, three people were enlisted to administer eye drops. She’s required sedation to have a cavity filled.

After suffering allergies for years, she visited a specialist for skin testing. The ensuing tears and squalls forced us to quit halfway through. There’s a whole list of potential allergens that she might react to, but for now, they remain a mystery.

So, this summer when I learned she would need to visit an orthopedist to investigate recently developed scoliosis, I readied for the worst. I explained everything that I expected would happen at the visit. I asked a couple of friends to join me in praying for a smooth exam. I took a few deep cleansing breaths as we waited in the lobby.

The entire appointment was easy, calm, totally free of drama.

Have we turned a corner? Has Katie, at the age of 10, matured enough to make all future medical appointments tolerable — even, perhaps, enjoyable? Maybe, but there’s no point in hoping for time to freeze. Time never stops — and besides, what might we miss if we don’t accept that the people around us are growing?

Cooper hasn’t been home much this summer. He spent a week in Florida, serving churches and missions. He spent a week in a Louisiana swamp, kayaking and fishing. He spent a week in East Texas, swimming and biking and being a 14-year-old boy.

While in Florida, he and his youth group tidied up a church building. He cleaned out gutters, weeded flowerbeds and spread mulch. He even scraped from the attic floor the remains of an unidentified, decayed animal.

I’ve taught Cooper a long list of household skills, but I’ve never modeled for him gutter-cleaning or mulch-spreading or carcass-scraping. He learned all that with on-the-job training, away from home. (I quickly enlisted him to apply the mulch skills at home upon his return. Our flowerbeds look much snappier now.)

No matter how often we wish a child would stay exactly this way right now — or how often we close our eyes and mutter or pray for changes right away — time takes over. A child who cheerfully helps with yard work today may grumble about it next week. A child who braves the doctor’s office tomorrow may cower in fear next month.

Regardless of how much time passes, of how quickly children change — with or without fanfare — there’s one guarantee: Your parent heart will lurch and ache, soar and sing — sometimes all at once.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Cooper and Katie, July 2005

Cooper and Katie, July 2015

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Grand inheritance: unconditional love

From Saturday's Briefing:

My grandparents created riches for me.

They fostered a love for words, a strong work ethic, a dose of whimsy and an appreciation for beauty.

They created for me a sense of home.

Gramma and Grandpa have been gone for more than a decade now, and their house is at last for sale. In a few weeks, the tangible place that they called home during retirement will belong to another family.

It’s a modest house on a treed lot in a sleepy cul-de-sac. One story. One-car garage.

That home was my comfort zone. It provided welcome shelter during some of my toughest years. It contains memories of card games and brisket suppers, of Wheel of Fortune and Hill Street Blues, of bird feeders and bocce ball.

I didn’t always make the best choices there. One long summer afternoon, when Gramma was napping (after The Young & the Restless and Days of Our Lives), my sister and I had exhausted our usual we-don’t-want-to-nap activities. It was too hot to venture into the Central Texas sun. So we investigated the refrigerator.

In the cold cuts drawer was the most inviting, strictly forbidden snack. An entire package of Lit’l Smokies sausages.

We knew that we should resist because, one, the vacuum-sealed plastic wrap was intact and it would be obvious we’d snagged a couple; two, Gramma probably had purchased them for a specific recipe (likely pigs in a blanket); and, three, to replace the package would necessitate a trip into town, and it was inadvisable to manufacture a reason to drive into town.

Yet nothing would stand between us and those tiny treats. We gobbled them all up, straight from the fridge.

Gramma, upon waking from her nap, was not pleased with our piggish behavior, but she recovered quickly. (Quicker than our upset stomachs. I strongly advise against devouring half a package of cold, processed meat.)

When she wasn’t napping, Gramma was creating meals, poems and 78-point words on the Scrabble board. Among her most prized creations were Batista, Antonio and Barty — life-sized dolls sculpted with wire, stuffing and nylon and dressed in adult clothing. They often posed on the living room sofa.
Gramma, never one to conform to the crowd, didn’t like her standard rectangular back patio, so she hired a contractor to pour a larger, curvy one. The contractor didn’t understand her vision, so she unhooked the garden hose and snaked it around the backyard, showing him the boundaries she expected.

Her eccentricity was balanced by Grandpa’s steadfastness.

Grandpa was the son of working-class English immigrants who settled in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was a World War II veteran and hero who dodged all my questions about the war. He managed the auto parts warehouse at a GMC dealership.

When he wasn’t working, he was likely feeding birds and deer in the backyard (and shooing squirrels), or perhaps reading and jotting notes. He spent hours outside, soaking up sun, making up for those early years on frigid Lake Superior.

My sister and I would climb into his truck for nightly trips to the community pool and Saturday morning drives to the mall in town, where he’d treat us to an early lunch at Whataburger, followed by a spin through the bookstore.

Grandpa died three years before Gramma. After her memorial service, the family gathered at their home. We stood on that custom-designed patio and read her poetry.

Then we took turns scattering their ashes. Under the trees they loved. Outside Grandpa’s window. Around the rock where he would place cracked corn for deer.

Their physical bodies, reduced to ash, returned home.

I won’t be returning to the house before it sells, but I don’t need to. I carry with me the most valuable inheritance of all — their unconditional love.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Grandpa and me, 1974ish

Batista (wearing a flesh-colored swimsuit), Antonio, Gramma and Barty 

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Katie's summer reading list so far

Katie's reading list since June, with a blurb from her on each ...

Katie's top 3 books of summer so far:
The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
"Action packed with friends who rely on each other through hard times"

Pi in the Sky by Wendy Mass
"The Realms are hidden from everybody and everything. But when a human spots the Realms, everything goes wrong."

Space Case by Stuart Gibbs
"A mystery on the moon"

The rest, in no particular order:
The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan
"The winding labyrinth is almost impossible to navigate. Will they ever be able to leave and still save the world?"

Justin Case: Rules, Tools and Maybe a Bully by Rachel Vail
"Justin is having problems at school. His friends are leaving him and accusing him of doing wrong."

Graceful by Wendy Mass
"Grace is the protector of Willow Falls. The magic is slipping away, and without it, everything will turn upside down."

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley
"A magical circus with mysteries lurking around every corner"

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
"In this town, everyone has a talent, but not everyone is kind about it."

Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
"When four children meet, they have to protect the world from the harmful Mr. Curtain."

The Vanishing Coin by Kate Egan
"A young boy is learning magic tricks, but his teacher may be able to do real magic."

The Misadventures of Salem Hyde by Frank Cammuso
"A young witch is trying to make her way in the world, but every spell she performs messes up. Will she ever be accepted?"

Quinny and Hopper by Adriana Schanen
"A girl from New York moves to the country. She has no idea what to expect."

Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
"A book about the rights of people and how everyone should be treated the same"

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Back to the Future

It's time that Cooper and Katie experience one of the best of the '80s movies -- Back to the Future!

(As usual, I'm a little taken aback by some of the language. We were tough kids back then.)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blowing off the birthday blowout

From Saturday's Briefing:

Katie, June 20, 2015
My all-time favorite birthday party was a decidedly 1970s affair.
The whole kindergarten class was invited to help me celebrate. We all piled in the back of my dad’s blue Ford pickup and traveled about a mile to a nearby park.
I wore a red-white-and-blue-striped halter top. We played tag and red rover.
We ate birthday cake served by my mom and aunt, both dressed as friendly, bell-bottomed clowns.
Simple. Cheerful. Festive.
How on earth, then, did I become the kind of mom who frets about pulling together a magazine-worthy birthday party year after year?
Tastefully coordinated invitations and paper goods. Precisely planned activities. Thoughtfully gathered party favors.
Lovely, yes, but kind of at risk of missing the point.
Children — my children, at least — mostly want to run around and have fun with their friends. They don’t require stenciled burlap banners or cupcakes on beribboned pedestals or Mason jars with chalkboard tags and chevron paper straws.
The past couple of years I’ve given Katie free rein on planning her own parties. Last week, we celebrated her 10th birthday exactly the way she wanted.
She invited her whole fourth-grade class plus lifelong and neighborhood friends to gather at the park down the street. She asked for donations to a local nonprofit that feeds children in need instead of gifts.
Decorations were spare: one of my kitchen tablecloths on a picnic table and a lollipop tree created by Katie (Styrofoam cone, spray-painted silver, punctuated with more than a hundred Dum-Dums, topped by swirly, sparkly ribbon).
Refreshments were minimal: bottles of water and a cooler full of Popsicles. And as many Dum-Dums as you wanted to pluck from the tree.
Activities were inexpensive or free: Katie and her friends played freeze tag and four square. They blew bubbles. They tramped all over the playground. They played bean-bag toss and basketball. (Red rover, sadly yet prudently, is no longer in fashion.)
For two full hours, there were kids everywhere. No one told them to line up or sit down or stand still. They just played, devoured Dum-Dums and ate Popsicles. A whole bunch of drippy Popsicles.
As kids left, they took home small bags packed by Katie — bouncy balls, colorful pencils and Ring Pops. After the last guest was picked up, we checked the park for litter, packed up the minivan and drove home.
I didn’t spend hours crafting invitations or decorating cupcakes. I didn’t write a giant check to a gymnastics center or art studio. I didn’t have to clean the house before and again after.
Did the lack of fuss and fanfare affect Katie? Not in the least.
Did she feel celebrated? Absolutely.
“It was one of my favorite parties ever,” she gushed later that day. “There were so many friends there, and we all got to spend time together, and we got to play whatever we wanted.”
Do I regret all those years of planning and executing over-the-top parties? No.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with intense planning and coordinating and celebrating. Those parties make up a fraction of the catalog of fond memories of being mom to Cooper and Katie.
But I’m happy to add to that catalog the memory of Katie planning her own party, of watching her friends pile on the curvy slide, of serving orange sherbet Push Pops.
Simple. Cheerful. Festive. The kind of party that sticks with you for a lifetime.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


It's hit me over the past few days that Cooper has only four years left before college.

Four years.

That's not a lot of time to fit in everything we still want/need to do.

Instead of moping about it, tonight I decided to do something. I taught Cooper how to make soup without a recipe.

With Cooper at my side, I gathered ingredients from the pantry and refrigerator. I chopped. I talked him through the sautéing, stirring, boiling, etc., and let him do that work.

The "recipe" as it was created:

Tortellini Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
12 baby carrots, sliced
Garlic powder
Freshly ground black pepper
8 cups vegetable broth
1 large tomato, chopped
8 leaves fresh basil, chopped
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 large package refrigerated cheese tortellini
4 oz. fresh spinach
Crushed red pepper

1. Heat olive oil.
2. Sauté onions for about five minutes.
3. Add carrots. Continue to sauté for another five minutes.
4. Add garlic powder and salt. (Lots of garlic, just a little salt)
5. Stir for 30 seconds.
6. Add broth, tomato and basil.
7. Bring to boil.
8. Add kidney beans.
9. Lower to simmer for 5 minutes.
10. Return to boil.
11. Add tortellini.
12. Cook for about 6 minutes.
13. Add spinach.
14. Cook for about 1 minute.
15. Add a little crushed red pepper


As he cooked, we brainstormed other options. We would have used fresh garlic, but I'm out. Green bell pepper would have been a good option. I wanted to serve with Parmesan, but we're out of that, too.

We talked about layering ingredients, about using what we have, about ways to make the whole soup more Tex-Mex, less Italian by changing a couple of veggies and spices. We talked about cooking with veggie broth instead of chicken because Katie is a vegetarian.

The results were delicious.

Learning how to create a meal from ingredients you have on hand is a skill that's taken me years to acquire. I don't expect my almost-14-year-old son will perfect it right away. But I don't want to waste the days of these next four years.