Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanks Giving

I read a comment from a psychologist yesterday that Thanksgiving is losing its gratitude luster and becoming merely an exercise in gluttony. Silly cynicism - I hope not! Besides, when else in all the year do we eat candied yams and canned cranberries with such abandon? Is that not something for which to be thankful?

In the same newspaper section I also read several stories of Black Friday traditions. Formerly I would have scoffed at the notion of any worthwhile tradition centered on consumerism, but what I learned from reading these stories of generations of family members staying up all night, comparing ads, waiting in long lines, and planning coffee and breakfast breaks along their shopping routes is that yes, family time full of laughter and capable of forming wonderful memories can be made on a day full of consumer insanity. And who am I to judge? It may not be my thing at all, but if mothers and daughters or whole clans can bond on such a day in such a way, it's good. Family is golden, and the memories are the real, lasting bargain.

For my own silly non-Black-Friday-honoring self, there are many blessings I try to count all the year: my family, our health, our security, our faith. But there are some things for which I am incredibly grateful that have been on my mind a good deal lately as this wonderful, down-to-earth holiday we call Thanksgiving approaches:

My Dad's Health and His Book and Mama's Recipe

My dad had a very hard year. He suffered serious injuries during a fall in March, was ill on and off for months, and then developed a terrible, scary infection in his head that badly frightened his loved ones.

All of those challenges delayed the fifth book in his Kelven's Riddle fantasy series. Honestly, my dad has had to accommodate several upsets in his creative processes over the years because of the demands of unpredictable, messy life. He wrote about some of those challenges in this inspiring post about perspective and gratitude: Buck Up, Boy; It Isn't Normandy.

But despite a bad year Daniel Hylton, my dad, has put out the fifth and final book of the Kelven's Riddle story in time for Christmas. I have read and relished them all, but don't take my word for it. You can read a review by a fantasy reader here: Farewell Kelven's Riddle.

I had a bad dream once that I had to finish Dad's books for him. I could not imagine telling this story of valor, love, the cost of freedom and unlikely but enduring friendships as well as he. I am glad that dream was not a reality. This year I am very thankful that my dad is healthy and that, at long last, I can have all his books upon my shelf.

(I must say that I am also grateful that for my whole life he has mentored me in my writing endeavors. Thanks, Dad.)

And I am very grateful for heirloom recipes like this magical one I received from my mom when I was newly married and fumbling through the Big Feast prep. I was blessed to eat it all those Thanksgivings growing up. Now I make it myself year after year, and it always gets rave reviews whenever I serve it: Mama Darlin's Sweet Potato Casserole. Thanks, Mom!!

The Mom's Group

For years I have thought and thought again about writing of these lovely people; I have chickened - or turkeyed - out every time. The pressure to attempt to sum up what this surrogate family means to my own little clan...I never felt I could do it justice. But I'll try at long last - only because it's Thanksgiving.

When we moved to Arizona my husband and I had no friends or family here. No friends when our first child, Berto, was born. No friends to help us move into our first house. No friends to call on the phone while putting myself in time-out from my kids. No one.

I soon discovered that a mother needs friends to maintain sanity as my sense of loneliness increased each month after my son's birth. My husband offered to introduce me to his co-workers' wives, but they didn't have children. I needed compatriots that would understand my struggles with nursing, nutrition, potty-training, discipline and sleep lust. When my Ana came I knew I couldn't take the isolation from my own kind anymore. I prayed for friends. Yes, prayed - and then I called up my church and asked if I could start a group of some kind. They quickly put something in the church bulletin. Soon I was calling moms and asking when they would like to meet. Much to my chagrin they all wanted to meet during the day midweek, so I set up a play date at the church nursery twice a month on Wednesdays, but I regretfully told one of the moms that I wouldn't be able to make it; our family had only one vehicle.

That fellow mother, my dear friend Cathleen, said that I had to be there; she drove south past the church to pick me up every other Wednesday, took us all the way back up to the church, then drove my family home after our play date only to drive all the way north past the church again to her own home.

What a blessing that was for me and how Cathleen and I laughed years later remembering stuffing three car seats in the back of her sedan! Because of Cathleen's generosity my children and I got out twice a month to spend time in community.

The group is and has been for some time a family. Some of our friends have scattered across the US and the world, but once a member of this group, always a member. Our kids have grown together since babyhood, started school together, celebrated birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmastime together. After the birth of children, we parents have rotated turns bringing meals to the blessed but tired families. Heck, my friends brought me the fixings for our holiday meal - delicious red mashed potatoes and chorizo-squash stuffing - when my youngest daughter, Ella, was born a week before Thanksgiving! We've rushed to each other's sides during illness, sheltered each other's little ones in emergencies and exchanged babysitting. Our kids cannot remember a time without these fellow young uns from the group, their cousins not by blood but by bonds years in the making. And even the men, years after the moms and kids, finally realized they had friends with whom they could go out on "man dates" to the local brewery.

I, for one, do not know what I would do without our Mom's Group. It's very easy for me to say I love them like family.


Oh, I fought sports! I am a devotee of the home and family time and quiet life. I do not like or believe in endless structured activities. I grew up in the country where our sport was running through the cornfield with our dogs, swimming the creek, and walking in the woods. I didn't think my kids needed sports. My athletic man and I argued about it.

He won.

I have been proven wrong, because now I see their worth. My man, a city boy himself all his life, played sports, and he knew their value in the concrete jungle.

Instead of begging for television on Saturdays, my two eldest are out running their hearts out on a different kind of field, learning how to support and get along/work well with others. They have learned to trust and use the power in their own bodies - an integral thing for all of us. Meanwhile, my youngest two are supporting their siblings in between trips to the adjacent playground on game days, and hey! It counts as good old green time even if it's not in the country. Matthew is the kids' soccer coach, back into his beloved sports while using them to teach respect, teamwork, and more than athletic skills - life skills.

One of the greatest blessings to arise from all the practices and games has been the camaraderie that has developed between Berto and Ana. When little tykes they were close buddies, but as they grew older, he became harder on her; it seemed to grow worse until recently. Now they have great things in common: a competitive spirit and love of the games(s). Now little sis is Berto's teammate and compatriot in the world of athletics. He has her back, and she has his.

As for me? I am on the sidelines each Saturday, pacing, yelling, cheering, gasping. I hate to say it - I really hate to say it - but I am a bonafide soccer mom. And I'm terribly afraid there's no turning back now.


Alright, it's a little thing, but I am grateful for these boots. I bought them here in Arizona at an establishment called Saba's for my sister Annie's wedding in San Saba, Texas. I spent far too much on them - or so I thought at the time. Since then I have grown to like them very much and possibly love them. Yes, they're a bit loud, quite daring for everyday wear, but I have never shied away from making a statement. I have worn them on a plane, to my kids' school, to go shopping and at church to boot. They are incredibly comfortable and fulfilling. Fulfilling? Yes, but I don't know how exactly. And the smell of them? Real leather paradise!

God bless you this Thanksgiving, my readers and friends! And to my family, blood-related or not, scattered across this country and in the United Kingdom and Chile, please know that I love you tremendously. Our little family will think of you as we sit down for our feast and ponder all those people and things in our lives for which we are deeply grateful.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ella Belle, Birthday Girl, and the Grandma Thingy (how her Mama needed it!)

A roller skating rink is where people go to experience all the joys of by-gone, dangerous childhood. You know, the childhood their grandparents told them about right after the old folks got done snickering at their grandkids for wearing knee pads and helmets to ride a trike on the sidewalk. Where else in this modern world can a kid go and speed around on wheels with clearly terrified or insane peers without a parent shoving a helmet on their heads? Where else can big kids and adults go to take out smaller people without so much as a by your leave or a why aren't you wearing pads then? All the roller rink needs to be really nostalgic fun is a few rusted tin cans with sharp lids for a match of kick/roll the can and a selection of spinning hub caps to throw in ultimate, take-out-a-sibling roller blade Frisbee.

Gabriella requested that we go to a rink for her birthday. I was a bit surprised, because she has never truly skated in her life. Santa brought her skates a couple years ago, but it turned out being hard work for the rest of us. We had to pull her around the living room between us as if she were a mobile queen; it was the only way she'd use them.

She wrote a letter before we went out for her birthday activity. The gist of it was something like this:

Dear Mama and Dada, Thanks for letting me go to Skate---- for my birthday, and thank you for not making me use the grandma thingy. Love, Gabriella

Oh, you're using the grandma thingy, alright, I thought as I smiled at her lovely little face. That was what I thought until we got to the rink and saw how much they charged people to have an illusion of safety. It was $5 a skate buddy to "help you balance" and increase your chances of survival, and that after a whopping $6 a person just to walk in the deathtrap! Add the skate rentals for a family of six, and Matthew and I had decided that no one needed a skate buddy; we'd probably survive with barely a broken tailbone, busted kneecap and couple fractured wrists between the lot of us.

It didn't take long for me to feel disillusioned and bitter, however, as I crawled along the concrete wall with Ella at .01 miles an hour, watching Matthew attempt to pull along four-year-old Daniel who very much resembled a terrified, floppy-limbed rag doll with no control over its fate. Ana and Berto, on roller blades, were the only ones having a decent time.

I got off the rink with Daniel and tried to teach him to skate on the carpeted area where he fell on his bum with less fear, and Berto came over to encourage and help. Ella was soon off the rink, too, complaining that she was already tired, but the pinched, anxious look in her eyes and frowning mouth gave her away. Meanwhile, I was nervously contemplating getting back on the rink with all the crazies, picturing myself falling forward and skidding wildly into some unsuspecting kid as I took at least one of my own poor children down with me. I paled and cowered at the thought. Then I got angry. Who were these people to charge $5 for the right to keep all your limbs intact, to keep your children safe during a daredevil activity for which you had already paid more than you deemed reasonable? It would be like the county fair charging you to lock the metal lap bar on the roller coaster!

So I charged up (well, carefully rolled) to the skate-rental desk and told them flatly that we were there for our sweet girl's 7th birthday and meant to have a good time if it killed us, but we thought it would be the demise of at least three of us if we did not get a Skate Buddy grandma thingy right away! Then I offered to turn in my skates and pay the difference to get the limb-saving contraption constructed of PVC pipes. The nice young girl looked in my eyes and saw the desperation that could quickly boil over into full-blown hysteria, and she offered me a skate buddy, no charge.

Aha! I went over to Ella, triumphant, only to discover that she far preferred the assistance of her 10-year-old sis, Ana, who had already taken her round the rink and shown her how to safely slow down by crouching gently without using your fingers to scrape the wall in terror as Mama had done.

So Matthew took Danny Sam out with the Buddy, and I went out to try my feet at freedom. Instead of going .01 mph, I went a terrifying .015 mph, and the horrible realization struck me that I was a total wimp who began to hyperventilate when she couldn't touch the wall. I tried to slow down and help some poor kids who biffed it, but I could only choke out an, "Are you alright...alright...alright?" as I skidded slowly away backwards, forgetting my skates had brakes.

When Berto, developing blisters from his blades, sat out with Daniel, my man Matthew came to claim me for a slow dance on the skate floor. No doubt he hoped to recreate one of our first dates when he took me skating and held my hand the whole time, pulling me towards him and being rewarded with a big smile. Fat chance! He tried to make it a modestly-paced dance, but he went too fast for me, who had to swallow multiple butterflies that were flittering up from her stomach. Though it pained me to see him skate away - a little too rapidly and gratefully, if you ask me - I released the love of my life in a panic and hurriedly flung myself at the one I was really longing for: the sweet, sweet wall.

No one wanted to skate with Mama anymore. Daniel didn't even want to go out with me and the "buddy", so he took it out with Papa, and then I took turns taking it out alone when he was resting. Apparently, my hunchbacked form was embarrassing, but though my Ella was too mortified to be seen with the grandma thingy, I certainly was not. I saw Berto shake his head at me as I passed him, so I smiled broadly, pointed a finger at my boy as if to say, This lap's for you, son, and waved exuberantly.

In the end everything worked out. Ella skated sometimes with Papa but more often with Ana. Daniel skated with Berto but more often with Papa. And I was free to be a complete coward. At the end of our little family outing, the only injuries sustained were a couple nasty blisters on Berto's feet.

I don't know what Ella will remember about her 7th birthday excursion, but I'll remember how she skated with her big sister several times and how Ana was so patient with her, going slowly when she wished to go fast, her brown hair whipping out behind her. I'll remember Berto being the great big brother he always is to Ella and Daniel on such occasions even though his feet marred the experience for him. I'll remember how we all skated together for the first time on Ella Boo's birthday and how my kids learned not to trust Mama when death/skating is on the line!

And though it made me lonely for our younger years, I'll think often of how darn sexy my tall, lean man looked zipping around the rink with his million-dollar smile, sometimes pushing Ella or Daniel and sometimes racing Ana or Berto as they tried their best to keep up with him.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Introducing Ana, Writer

This is the time of year when I wish the world would just slow down a little. I love it but I dread it, this holiday season. I so badly want to ring every single ounce of enjoyment out of it in the company of family and friends, but I also feel like a loser in the organization/task-setting/gift-choosing department. And how I wish I could get out old-fashioned Christmas cards to all my childhood friends, abundant relatives, and closest family!

Around November every year some strange things begin to happen. My car radio starts playing nothing but Christmas carols, usually sung by choirs (my appreciation for choirs and chorales can purely be attributed to my lovely sisters and their high school music careers); my fingers itch to play the wine-colored guitar I have not touched in months; and I begin to badly miss my relatives in Idaho. That last is likely due to the fact that I spent Thanksgiving time with them a couple years ago, and that created memories that beckon me to little Idaho towns every fall. I wish it were easier to go home.


I wanted to share a piece of writing from the mind and heart of my 10-year-old daughter. Her teacher sent me an email a little while back extolling the insight Ana has in this short post she wrote for the class blog. My daughter does indeed have a huge heart. In the years since God brought her into our lives (less than an hour after we arrived at hospital!) I have heard many teachers, friends and relatives speak about her compassionate nature and her loving, open heart. I worry for her, because she is so sweet and giving, but I know God will guide her on the path.

Here is the piece her teacher sent to me:

What age would you choose to be if you could stay one age forever? What would you answer if somebody asked you this question? I believe that in most circumstances, I would simply answer " ten." If all the ages in the world were orbiting around me, I would hastily run towards the number ten until I caught it. The simple joy of being any age in life is maybe one that we do not posses however, because at any age there is more to learn in life, more for us to ponder at. The age twenty allows you to drive and the age fifty allows you to know almost all the answers to questions, but what would I give to just settle down with the age I am? To me life is right where it should be. There's nothing so good as now, the present, a gift of life.

I woul d choose ten because everything is still new to me and for other reasons and feelings. Maybe some day I will get tired of being ten forever, but sometimes life goes it's own way. In a few years, everything might change, and by then I might want to be twenty-three! My world might be someday just a little wisp of a dream. I at least want to live life right now to it's fullest so that I will always have memories. So for right now, let's make things happen!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Jesus has your back

This post is not solely about confession, but I must bring it up in light of my unique experience as part of my witness. As to the purpose and necessity of confession, contested among Christians, I can only say that sin does not occur in a vacuum. It very rarely affects only ourselves. When we sin we sin against not just our God but against the whole body of Christ, causing discord and scandal and laying stumbling blocks in the path of those who do not know our hope. It's a good, humble thing to confess our sins to each other as St. James (Letter of St. James 5:13-16) pointed out, and sometimes it is very necessary for healing relationships and for gaining new strength in the fight. If you want to know why Catholics practice confession, especially in light of the Eucharist, go HERE. As for my own personal experiences, sometimes after confession I have felt so joyous that I have wanted to eat a fat slice of chocolate cake; sometimes I have felt immense relief, unburdened; one time I felt deep dissatisfaction - and it was my fault for avoiding confessing the thing that was most necessary; and then there was this time when, despite the pain of the experience, I realized that Jesus had my back. 

This is a vulnerable post; even if you disagree with the need for the Sacrament of Confession as reconciliation after Baptism, please respect that.

I used to think I was one of the righteous ones, and it made me a little pouty.

(Whoa! How's that for a beginning? Be patient, and I will abase myself presently.)

Jesus said this in the parable about the lost sheep:

What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me, because I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. Luke 15:4-7 (NAB)

I used to think, What about me, Lord? I'm trying. I love you. I'm on the right path! Don't I bring you joy?


Friday, November 7, 2014

Sunlight on the Forest Floor: Marriage

I found it a little ridiculous that the media made such a huge deal about the couples Pope Francis married more than a month ago. They pointed out that some of the couples had been cohabitating; one already had a child. They declared that Pope Francis is so much more open, and this is an additional sign of change (for the better, they would argue). They hinted that similar couples might have been booted out before, shunned, and denied the power and fulfillment of marriage.

Marriage to them is merely a choice, I suspect, to enter into a visible contract. What they don't understand about marriage made all the difference in their interpretation.

....Read More

Friday, October 31, 2014


Autumn is the favorite season of most. And, ironically, it's not because some of us find it perfectly acceptable to plaster bloody handprints, the shadow of knife-wielding maniacs and emblazon a dripping plea of Help me! in red paint on our windows as Halloween "décor". It's certainly not because our neighbors can trick-or-treat us for a whole month with the most grotesque, gaudy decorations on their lawns, trees and walkways.

It's most people's favorite time of year for far subtler reasons: the cool, crisp weather, the changing leaves, the many harvest festivals and the joy of consuming heartier meals. Halloween is a small part of it, a really fun part as long as it entails black cats, wide-eyed owls, jack-o-lanterns, family costume parties, some self-regulated ghouls and a sprinkling of grinning skeletons. In the Southwest we also get the much more culturally interesting and wonderfully artistic Dia De Los Muertos.

Here in Phoenix we have reason to celebrate when we get that first whiff of fall weather. It usually comes in early October on some delightful breezes, though the native tapestry does not change in any perceptible way. But we hear the whispers of exotic, colorful, cooler climes on that welcome wind. Those breezes quickly shimmy somewhere else, spooked by goblin summer as it comes back to tease us in the middle of the month, stamping our dreams into dust and sending a few of us to therapy...or the northern mountains. But - at last! - by late Halloween we actually stand the chance of being chilly in our sandals and Bermuda shorts.

Except for this Halloween. It's in the 90s right now.

Despite some anger issues tied completely to summer's leftover temps, I love fall in Phoenix. I love it because of our dear friends. These selfless people spread Autumn joy around by hosting parties and entertaining our children, so that Matthew and I can actually talk to adults without that truly terrifying manifestation of the spinning head that parents in large families so often acquire when taking their brood out to crowded places.

Every year my friend Kim hosts a Halloween party, and whole families dress up. Her house is decorated to the ghoulish nines, and we walk in and gasp anew at her knack for weaving the perfect ambience. I could not attempt to describe her decorations, many of which she designed herself. She even has a marvelous painting of a haunted house lit by an eerie moon in her kitchen. Everywhere you turn you find yourself in a Halloween wonderland. It's her favorite holiday, and it shows in the eyes of all the cats, owls, scarecrows and skeletons peering at you from shelves, walls, hutches and tables.

Our children will someday reminisce about attending Mrs. Kim's parties - how she had the best piñatas that wouldn't break until the big kids had their turn; how there was wicked food including deviled eggs with olive spiders, donuts with vampire teeth, and jack o' lanterns throwing up guacamole; how every year as a party game they got to toilet paper their friends instead of neighbors' houses; and what they and their friends wore to the Halloween party. It's all dark, good magic, and someday they'll realize how lucky they were to experience it. Heck, I'm lucky to be included! I get excited every year and cannot wait to find my costume. It's the only time I get to play pretend.

A week later our family's trick-or-treat fortune increases, for tonight another good friend, Dana, will have the gang over to her house for trick-or-treating, and we'll all party and feast again. Her neighborhood is one of those rare conclaves where everyone decorates their house. They don't just decorate, in fact; they make the whole block scream Halloween with elaborate facades! Our massive group will head out to be spooked and wowed again as we wind our way through the candy-seeking crowd along ghoul-infested streets. I'll snag every chocolate treat I spy in my kids' bag, and they will ask to eat a piece every couple houses. The adults will have beer, talk and laugh again, and the young ones will have far too much sugar and terrorize each other, and it will be a very merry Halloween.

And it's all because of friendship. Our dear friends open their houses to us for celebration. I couldn't thank them enough for all the memories they've given my children. That's what now makes this season so wonderful to me.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Short and Sweet: The Big Bro

My son Berto made me proud on Saturday. I saw the love of God shining through him several times in his interactions with his younger siblings.

I will tell you that, as oldest siblings are quite likely to do, he often is hard on his younger sisters and brother, telling Ana to speak up, for heavens sake, and then telling all the younger kids to shush up in turns. He tries to parent them, scolding and sometimes boldly remarking that I don't discipline them enough. He rolls his eyes and crosses his arms when Ella's teacher praises her for being so caring and responsible, murmuring that she should see how Ella Boo behaves at home. He barks at all of them to stop singing, dancing or watching him play video games. He tells Daniel to stop acting like a baby.

But then there are the moments when I catch him being the ultimate big brother. I pass by the recliner where he is letting Boo snuggle up to him to watch weekend TV. I see him playing football with four-year-old Danny and letting him win. I hear him advise Ana kindly and wisely about school issues.

And on Saturday tears came to my eyes watching my oldest boy's big heart manifest itself in little ways.

Ana and Berto play for their Papa's soccer team. During this past game a boy from the opposing team and Ana collided with each other. Ana bounced to her feet right away, so that she could help the other player up. He ignored her proffered hand, but Berto walked behind his sister and laid his hand on her shoulder. It was a momentary thing, but it expressed a good deal: Hey, teammate, glad you're okay; Don't worry about it; Come on, let's kick this game into gear!

We went to our good friend Kim's Halloween party that evening. Danny Sam is shy sometimes. He doesn't even want to stay for bubbles after library story time every week, because he would have to mingle too much, I think. At Kim's party he was too nervous to jump into the games. Berto, instead of running off with his friends to get started, encouraged his little brother to join the mummy wrap.

"C'mon, Daniel," he said, kneeling down and speaking cheerfully but gently. "You can wrap me up! You want to?"
No matter how many times he tried to persuade Danny, he couldn't get him to go. Daniel hugged the porch railing. I told Berto not to worry about it, and Danny called after him uncertainly, "Maybe later, okay Berto?"

When it got dark the huge piñata was hung for the children to admire, covet, and beat the carp out of it. Kim's husband Deane is an expert piñata manipulator. The children were blindfolded and got three swings a piece, but though a couple dozen superheroes, princesses and monsters took a crack at it, it didn't break. There were many swings that didn't connect to the bouncing, colorful ball. However, every time it hemorrhaged some candy, kids rushed in at their own peril while their compatriots were still batting. It was heck for us parents to keep swatting them back to a safe distance. We knew that once it shattered, those little pirates would pile on that grass, shoving each other out of the way, with wild abandon.

So it was no surprise that Danny was too afraid to get in on the candy-snatching mayhem when it showered out, despite the fact that parents were throwing extra treats into the mix from outside the commotion. He came up to Matthew and me, crying and holding out his treat bag.

"Danny, what's wrong?"

"I didn't get any candy," my little red-eyed fellar said, slumping into me.

"That's okay," I assured him as I held him close. "You brother and sisters will share with you!"

His little face was still droopy and dejected. Ella came up and gave him a piece. Two more older friends dropped treats into his hand. Then big bro showed up, the pop star kneeling once more by his little firefighter dude. I watched them as Daniel told Berto that he didn't get any of the candy. Berto listened carefully, said some soothing words, and then surreptitiously threw some candy behind Daniel's back.

"Look, Daniel!" he exclaimed. "There's some!" As Danny scooped it up eagerly, Berto cheered, "And you grabbed it all by yourself!"

That's when my eyes welled up. I looked up at Matthew. His eyes looked moist, too.

"He's such a good big brother," I said, leaning against my man.

We both gazed on our oldest with pride.