The Gift of Gratitude

A few days before the start of school this past August, I purchased a book bag for my 12-year-old daughter, Jessie. As I checked out, I told the cashier, “Well, I’m done with last year’s Christmas shopping.” He gave me a funny look and agreed I was a bit behind.

I neglected to tell the cashier we didn’t mail Christmas cards last year for the first time in our marriage. Life was hectic prior to December with the family’s move to a different state and my wife working long hours at her new job. Then a lump appeared near my wife’s left ear that required a biopsy and surgery. We never sent Christmas cards or bought Jessie a new book bag, which she had requested for Christmas. She managed fine for the rest of the school year using her tattered old one.

As another holiday season approaches, I wouldn’t be disappointed to have a lot of “routine” days, before, during, and after Thanksgiving and Christmas. One thing my family doesn’t need to stress about during Black Friday or the days leading up to Christmas is my gift. Jessie, unknowingly, gave me the best present this summer.

In July, Jessie and I took a 12-day trip, with stops in the two cities where we previously lived. Jessie had a blast attending her former dance school’s camp during the first week. We also had visits with friends and former neighbors in both cities. On the business side, we had two author events at libraries and a four-hour book signing at the mall. Did we set attendance records at the libraries? No. Did we sell out of books? Plenty left. Did we cherish the moments? Most definitely, even when Jessie accidentally kicked the power cord to the projector out of the electrical socket during the second library talk causing a brief delay.

Since Jessie wrote the book’s foreword, we do the book signings together and she autographs the books, too. Prior to publication, I wanted to find a “heavy hitter,” someone with a big following, to write the foreword. However, Jessie really wanted the job. One day I came home and my persistent girl had written the prettiest 150 words for the foreword. I looked no further.

Book signings with my daughter are special, no matter how many books we sell. We spend time talking with each other. Jessie enjoys collecting the money and giving change. But though we enjoyed the daddy-daughter book tour, that wasn’t the gift.

On the way home, we stopped at my “writer’s paradise” on St. Simons Island. Since 2011, I’ve attended the Southeastern Writers Association’s annual workshop each June. We had to drive out of the way to get there, but I wanted to show Jessie my favorite place. Her excitement showed through all the photos she took and the enthusiasm in her voice as she video-called her mom to share the picturesque sights.

Jessie commented, “I can see why you like this place so much.” However, her enthusiasm for my favorite writing spot wasn’t the gift I cherished most.

A few days after we arrived home, I sat at my computer and Jessie plopped in the nearby La-Z-Boy with a pen and her journal. She had fallen behind with her daily entries in which she captures the highlights of each day.

Without a prompt, Jessie looked at me and said, “Thank you.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For everything!”

I smiled and told her to thank her momma, too.

“I will.”

You’ve had a pretty good summer, haven’t you?” I asked with a smile.

“I’ve had a pretty good life,” she responded.

Those six words were the gift I cherished. Wow! I hope Jessie wrote that sentence in her journal. She had recognized her blessings, many more than a book bag could ever hold. Her grateful heart made the best gift not only for me, but for her as well.

Another holiday season is near. Will it be easy to find gifts for loved ones? Probably not. But I’m going to remember that gratitude is a wonderful gift to give ourselves and others. And it’s a gift we can share daily.

We’ll also be sure to send out Christmas cards, as reconnecting with family and friends we don’t see as often as we’d like and remembering the happy times we shared together, is one of the best parts of the holiday season.

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments.

The Joy of Friendship

A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old daughter, Jessie, met friends from her former school for a night out. Last summer, our family moved over 300 miles away and Jessie couldn’t wait to go back to see her friends. She planned the evening all by herself – the invitation list, the restaurant choice, and the after-dinner activity. If it wouldn’t have been for my driver’s license, van, and credit card, I probably wouldn’t have made the guest list.

The evening began at Jessie’s favorite Mexican restaurant. Dad and daughter arrived early to check on our reserved table for six. The waiter gave us a choice of two tables and Jessie made her selection. I informed the waiter that the parents would need a table, too – on the opposite side of the restaurant. This experienced dad knew an adjacent table would be too close, but that’s a topic for a future column.

With table arrangements in place, Jessie and I waited at the restaurant’s entrance for her guests to arrive. Wow! My heart melted as Jessie ran to greet friends she hadn’t seen for over a year. They had all grown, but no one was taller than Jessie, who carries her 6’5” dad’s height gene.

I sat at the parents’ table with the only mom who stayed. Although I couldn’t see the six young ladies from my seat, the mother had a view. She glanced over and said the girls appeared to be having fun.

After the meal, Jessie said, “All six of us are going to pack into the van.” Bowling was next on the agenda. I never chauffeured six young ladies in my van, so we set a record. Jessie sat in the rear seat with two friends. I pitied Jessie’s friend who had to ride shotgun with me. She must have drawn the short straw. I exchanged small talk with her, but mostly enjoyed listening to the girls’ banter and laughter. Happiness filled the van!

The happiness didn’t stop when the bowling balls started rolling down the lane … or should I say gutters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many gutter balls. Jessie had knocked down fewer than ten pins after four frames. Though the electronic scoreboard kept track of the pin count, I don’t think the young bowlers would have cared if it had been turned off. They smiled, giggled, and even high-fived after gutter balls.

As bowling ended, one of the girls suggested they stick their feet together for a bowling-shoe selfie. Bowlers were knocking down pins in the lanes adjacent to these friends, but the photo of six right shoes touching each other was better than any strike.

After bowling, the girls played in the non-bowling section of the fun center, which features Ballocity (an indoor playground with 50,000 soft foam balls), arcade games, and air hockey. To cap off their fun-filled reunion, they needed a special photo to go with their bowling-shoe selfie. Luckily, the arcade included a photo booth. But could this two-person photo booth hold six girls? If they had asked, I would have said, “not a chance,” but they didn’t ask.

Having a sense of “I can accomplish anything” is one of the remarkable things about youth. These six friends weren’t going to let the space limitations of a photo booth keep them from getting that prized photo. I watched intently as the six tween girls, including my 5’7” daughter, squeezed into the small space and strategically maneuvered themselves for a friend keepsake, a 2” by 6” bookmark, containing 4 snapshots. Of course, they had to make one for each of them, so they were in the booth a long time. To be honest, only parts of them were in the booth, as not all six bodies would fit.

Moments later, the play night ended. As I drove Jessie back to our hotel, the atmosphere in the van had a somber feel, much different than when six tweens filled it with laughter. Unfortunately, after joyful hello hugs come the sad goodbye ones.

Jessie’s already planning next year’s trip. In the meantime, she has the photo-booth bookmark of her friends taped to the wall beside her bed. Each of the four images on it is different, but each has six heads, well, parts of heads, showing. The thing that stands out in each snapshot, though, is the same – smiles.

I’m thankful for my driver’s license, van, and credit card. They gave me a front-row seat to witness the joy of friendship. It was way better than a gutter ball, or even a strike.

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments.

Look Under the Bed!

“Look under the bed! Monsters!” Moms and dads dutifully kneel and peek under the bed to make sure the monsters have vacated. After the bed check, we walk to the closet, open the door, and perform another search to make sure the monsters haven’t just relocated.

Jessie, now 12, hasn’t asked me to look for monsters in years. Since I’m 6’5” tall, monsters knew better than to mess with me. However, a recent visit Jessie had with her 7-year-old cousin reminded me of the importance of an under-bed check. Not for monsters. Not for dust bunnies either. For fun!

Last year, we moved from a house to a small apartment near my wife’s new job. To maximize storage, we bought Jessie a bedframe that creates 18 inches below her mattress where she stashes games and puzzles. Even if we had monsters, there wouldn’t be any space for them under her bed – or in her closet.

Jessie and her cousin dug under her bed for toys and had a fun time playing together. After Jessie’s cousin left, she went through the rest of the boxes under her bed, many of which hadn’t been opened since the move. Before I knew it, my soon-to-be teenager had amassed two big boxes of belongings she wanted to donate. This sentimental dad would rather take on a monster, or three, than to part with games, puzzles, and toys – memories of fun times playing with his girl.

I glanced at the pile now cluttering the living room, but decided it was my bedtime. Maybe a monster would jump out from under my bed during the night and I wouldn’t have to deal with it in the morning.

Monster-free throughout the night, I tackled the pile the next day. “No, Jessie, not your plastic tennis racquet,” I argued, but then agreed to part with her toddler racquet, only because I have the smaller one I put in her hand when she was two weeks old.

“Not your floor puzzles, Jessie.” Memories of dad and daughter lying on the floor, tackling the United States of America, 48 pieces, and World Map, 33 pieces, rushed to my mind. She graduated to puzzles with 100 or more pieces years ago, yet I didn’t want to let go of these.

“Jessie, we can’t give away Chutes and Ladders.” The description, “The Classic Up and Down Game for Preschoolers” didn’t help my argument, as we slid past preschool nearly a decade ago. I should have pointed to the suggested age printed on the bottom-right corner of the box – 3+. The plus covers 57-year-old dads. I made my best sales pitch to convince her to keep it, but it was like I hit a chute and lost all the headway I had made. She won. Where’s a ladder when a dad needs one?

Maybe it’s good to hit a chute sometimes, even though we’d all prefer to climb ladders. This chute reminded me of the big, bad monster that even a 6’5” dad can’t beat – time. The time monster turns babies into toddlers then little girls or boys, then tweens … and before you know it, friends and smartphones replace games and puzzles with mom and dad.

The next day, Jessie’s excitement warmed my heart when she said, “Let’s play.” She raced to her bed and pulled out the first game. Did I have a lengthy To Do list? Always. Could the book project I’m working on take a backseat to quality time spent with my daughter. Most definitely. Did she select Chutes and Ladders? Not a chance.

First, we played Mastermind. Without going into the details of the game, it’s safe to say dad’s mind isn’t as masterful as in years’ past. Then we played chess. As her three queens surrounded my king, the only piece I had left on the board, she couldn’t wait to call her Uncle Gary to say, “I just beat Daddy.” Thanks to Jessie’s honesty and a bad move, I salvaged a stalemate.

My conclusion is simple. Life is filled with ladders to climb and chutes to skip over. But as we’re climbing and sliding, we must not forget about the time monster. One day, you’re checking for monsters, the next day, you’re donating puzzles and games.

Look under the bed!

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments.

The Defeated Tooth Fairy

As a stay-at-home dad to 12-year-old daughter, Jessie, husband to Mattie, and writer, I play many roles. One of my infrequent but treasured roles is about to come to an end – the tooth fairy. I can’t believe my little girl is down to just two baby teeth.

Although the tooth-fairy part has been fun, getting Jessie’s teeth out has involved lots of unwanted drama. I’m surprised the tooth fairy has had any emotional energy left to do his job.

Jessie has always made such a big production when she has loose teeth that I was shocked when she walked into my home office one recent evening with a large molar in her hand and a tissue in her mouth. I had missed not only the preview, but the entire dramatic movie produced by and starring my daughter. I thought, This is too good to be true! Only two to go.

Little did I realize that, though I may have missed the tooth-pulling drama, the entertainment had yet to begin. Since my wife, Mattie, was out of town for a couple of days, tooth-fairy duties fell solely on me, which in teeth past, hadn’t been a problem. However, Jessie, knowing the identity of the tooth fairy and having only a few more opportunities to play along, wanted to keep things challenging. She achieved her goal.

Jessie is a sound sleeper. I think I could crash cymbals above her head and, come morning, she wouldn’t know a musical performance had taken place. On tooth-fairy night, I didn’t have cymbals, only a five-dollar bill. There certainly has been inflation since the tooth fairy brought me 25 cents.

I snuck into Jessie’s room and gently placed my hand under her pillow and around, over, under, and between numerous stuffed animals. First attempt – nada. Second try – nothing but a monkey’s tail. Third attempt – still no plastic bag with a big molar in it.

Jessie had informed me prior to going to bed that she planned to “hide it well.” She did!

My texts to Mattie at 11:04 p.m. summed up my situation. “I searched and searched and searched. Love, the defeated tooth fairy.” “She told me she was going to hide it inside one of her stuffed animals, but then thought that would be too hard for the tooth fairy to find.”

Not one to give up, I made a final attempt before heading to bed. Strike four!

My text to Mattie at 11:23 p.m. read, “The tooth fairy tried one more time. I bumped into the end of her bed. I bumped into her three-way floor lamp. She’s a sound sleeper. I reached under all her pillows and lifted a few stuffed animals. I picked up her pet pillow. Nothing! Then, she groggily opened her eyes and gave me a weak ‘hi’. She held out her hand with the baggie in it. She was holding it! Love, a worn-out tooth fairy.”

Though this tooth fairy doesn’t carry a wand, my baby-tooth collection record was perfect to this point. I made a final attempt at 1:38 a.m. Jessie looked so angelic as her hand rested under her head. I reached under her pillow and performed a thorough search, but for the fifth time came away without the prize.

She won. I went to bed.

When Jessie awoke in the morning, she asked, “Why didn’t the tooth fairy come?” She knew I’d try again. She said that after she caught the tooth fairy in action, she made it easier by leaving a small portion of the baggie stick out from under the pillow. Apparently, she laid on it.

That night, Mattie, who had returned from her trip, took her turn as tooth fairy. Mattie waited on the sofa and thought she had it made when Jessie went to the bathroom. She raced into Jessie’s room and searched under the pillows. However, Jessie, expecting her mom would take the opportunity, had taken the baggie containing the molar into the bathroom with her.

Later that night, having fallen asleep on the sofa, Mattie woke up and fulfilled her tooth-fairy duties. Jessie made five dollars while providing our family with some special memories.

Mattie and I are only two baby teeth and $10 away from retiring our wings, which is bittersweet. We won’t miss the tooth-pulling drama, but all three of us have cherished the tooth-fairy adventures.

Maybe I had the prize, much bigger than a molar, all along.

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments.

Smooth Sailing in Rough Waters

Two days after coming down with vertigo, I walked into Jessie’s bedroom. As my gaze focused on my 12-year-old daughter’s desk, at least I think there was a desk under everything piled on it, my vertigo symptoms returned and I suddenly felt dizzy, weak, and unsteady, but at least I didn’t throw up. Let’s face it, many parents need to remind their children to clean their rooms.

Prior to leaving Jessie’s room, I noticed the painting on Jessie’s wall of a mother and daughter wearing similar dresses standing on a riverbank covered in flowers. Mattie, my wife, and I purchased the painting shortly after we married. We liked it because it shows a peaceful scene, with the young girl’s right hand waving at two sailboats off in the distance.

When we made the purchase, I didn’t realize that sailboats and I wouldn’t get along. To summarize my sailboat-ride history in one word, it would be “Blaaaaaaaaaah.” Fortunately, I learned a valuable lesson on my last excursion sailing rough waters (okay, sailing the calm waters of a river on a beautiful day). Be prepared!

My sailboat experience consists of three rides, one fun, two of them, not so much. During one trip, I hovered over the large garbage can on deck for most of the journey. On my last sailboat voyage, I used the plastic bag I had stuck in my pocket in case of seasickness. One bag wasn’t enough.

Monday, when I came down with vertigo, I was reminded of that seasick feeling. When I awoke, it didn’t take long to realize I needed to visit my doctor. Every time I stood up, I had to lay down. Three times I felt such nausea that I rushed to the bathroom. As Mattie drove me to the doctor’s office, I reclined the seat, clutching my two plastic bags, one inserted inside the other. I used them minutes after Mattie pulled into the doctor’s office parking lot and jokingly blamed it on her driving.

Prior to getting out of the car, I reached under the car seat and grabbed two clean plastic bags to carry in to the doctor’s office. We keep a few stashed there to pick up after our dog when we travel. I held Mattie’s arm as she walked me to the elevator, thinking this was no time for a ride of any sort, then into the exam room, where I immediately laid on the exam table, clutching my plastic bags.

The nurse practitioner came in, but I didn’t get up. I made her diagnosis of vertigo easy when I jumped off the table to use my bags. When I’m throwing up, I prefer to do it in the privacy of my own bathroom, not surrounded by my wife and nurse practitioner, but I counted my blessings that I had brought the two bags, and cracked jokes, as I generally do when I’m uncomfortable.

As the nurse practitioner watched me bent over, continuing to display “symptoms,” she suggested I sit on the floor, as that would be better for us both than me falling on the floor. I knelt on one knee and continued to make entertaining conversation. The nurse practitioner even complimented me, “You’re good at throwing up.”

When I made it back up to the exam table, I requested a clean bag in case I got sick again. Mattie and I chuckled when the nurse practitioner stepped out to the hallway and yelled, “Do we have any barf bags?” A few moments later, she returned with a tall kitchen garbage bag, which I gratefully accepted.

The nurse prescribed three medications, one of them used by pregnant women who have morning sickness. Luckily, Mattie didn’t injure herself from laughing so hard, and was able to drive me home. Two days of rest and medication helped a lot, and I was feeling considerably better until I walked into Jessie’s cluttered room.

As I look at the painting with the two sailboats, I think back over the events of the past year. Our family took a major journey, moving for Mattie’s job, though we drove our two vehicles down the interstate rather than two sailboats down the coast. There have been happy times of smooth sailing and some instances of rough waters when I might have benefitted from having a supply of those anti-nausea pills. But we must continue to sail on and enjoy the journey, even when stressful events rock our boats, confident that smoother sailing days will return.

As I look at Jessie’s desk, yeah, it looks a little rough, but in the big picture, it’s minor. Wait – maybe my morning sickness pills are working too well? “Jessie, clean your room!”

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments.

What Dads Want for Father’s Day

At the church service on Mother’s Day, the pastor turned around from the altar and smiled. He looked out into the congregation and welcomed the parishioners.

“The church on Mother’s Day is always extra crowded, whereas come Father’s Day, the church is half full. This is because mothers say, ‘Oh, I want to go to church with my family.’ However, when Father’s Day rolls around, dads want to go fishing.” Everyone laughed, including me, even though I don’t fish.

My 12-year-old daughter, Jessie, turns 13 in a few months. How is it possible for this to be my last Father’s Day with a tween daughter? How in the world did the baby I rocked in my arms in our blue La-Z-Boy grow taller than her mother?

Physical size is not the only change. A few weeks ago, I dropped Jessie off at school at 8:26 a.m. Other students stood on the sidewalk outside the gated entrance, waiting for the doors to open at 8:30. As a protective father, I’m more comfortable when Jessie is inside the gate. However, after saying, “I love my girl. Give it all you’ve got,” (my standard line), I pulled away from the curb. However, although it was only a few minutes, I chose to park the car at the end of the school lot and wait until the gate opened to leave the school. I could barely see Jessie as I peered out the car window and doubted she could see me, not that I thought it mattered.

When I picked Jessie up from school that afternoon, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Jessie had spotted her dad in the parking lot. It turns out that it mattered after all that she saw me. Lots of discussion ensued during the drive home. It’s not like I was standing on my car roof with binoculars around my neck or standing in line outside the school gate holding her hand. How am I hindering Jessie’s growth?

As I ponder the changes past and the changes yet to come, I gave thought to what dads want. Father’s Day is right around the corner. Is it time for me to take up fishing?

I’m not just any dad. I had a successful 20-year career in banking, accounting, and auditing. I remember the breadwinner stresses – going to work before sunrise, drinking too much coffee and soda, sleeping way too few hours. Heck, one time I dressed in the dark, trying not to wake up my wife, and ended up at a one-day conference wearing a black shoe and a brown one.

Then, after almost 20 years of marriage, at the youthful age of 44, I became a father. Goodbye suits, ties, and brief case. Hello, apron, vacuum cleaner, and dust cloth. Instead of conversing with colleagues at the water cooler, my communication took place with a baby and my friend, Shout, in the laundry room. So, who better to pull together a list of what dads want for Father’s Day than someone who has been on both sides of the fence, the hard-working breadwinner and the 24-7 stay-at-home parent who’s gone through the baby, toddler, little girl, and tween years? Mothers will also appreciate my list of wants. In pulling together my list, I cast a broad net, focusing on what all dads would probably enjoy. This is not going to be the normal list of gifts, like a snazzy tie or cotton socks.

But before I list the five items that made the final cut, here were a few contenders, especially pertinent to the older tween, and my guess, teenagers.

• To see Jessie’s furniture in her bedroom. At least, I think there’s still furniture underneath the clutter in Jessie’s room.

• To regain control of the car radio station for the day. Somehow, Jessie has appointed herself “Dictator of the Radio.” This is not a good thing and the situation is magnified by Jessie’s choice of music. I miss Barry Manilow and Air Supply.

• To get a good deal on a cellendectomy. I pray never to lose my daughter, but if she would get lost in a crowd, or the clutter in her room, I only need to call her cell phone.

Okay, all joking aside, here’s my Top 5 list of gifts that dads would enjoy on Father’s Day.

A 55” flat screen television! Nah, I don’t want to start my list with a big, tangible, impersonal item. Let’s start over.

• The gift of food.

For my birthday and special occasions, Jessie and my wife make me a Jell-O cake with the most delicious of frostings, a mixture of powdered sugar and Cool Whip. Of course, Jessie likes to top the cake with candles to make it special. I’m sure dads would enjoy being treated to their favorite-tasting treat. Please note, though, that Dad shouldn’t have to help clean the kitchen if a flour, sugar, and egg slime tornado hits.

Okay, maybe some dads would prefer the 55” flat screen TV over something tasty, but let’s move on.

• The gift of peace.

Let’s face it, whether dad works from home or his job takes him outside the house, fathers deserve (and need) a little peace and quiet. Some fathers might find it out on a lake holding a fishing rod, while others rejuvenate in a church pew during a Sunday morning service. And then there are some fathers who simply enjoy kicking back on the sofa in front of their new 55” flat screen TV. A quiet block of time for a nap fits nicely here, too.

• The gift of time.

We are all faced with limited time, our most precious resource. I think everyone struggles with how they balance their time between family, work, and other commitments. I miss the days when Jessie and I colored together, did puzzles, and had picnics any place a blanket could be tossed. I’d turn off a 55” TV to have her squeeze into the La-Z-Boy with me to read her books like I used to. Fellow men, don’t think less of me, but I miss reading Fancy Nancy.

Any of your favorite family activities, a bike ride, a walk, or even watching a “Dad’s choice” movie, popcorn optional, 55” television screen preferable, would make a great gift and be time well spent.

• The gift of love.

We all need love. Dads enjoy when their efforts and the sacrifices they make for their family are appreciated. “Thank you” means a lot. Communicating respect and words that reflect love and admiration go a long way. Ok, a 55” flat screen shows love, too.

When Jessie was little, she always made coupon books as gifts. She’d write her little message on colored index cards and staple them together. When she fulfilled the obligation noted on the card (sometimes she added gifts from her dog, too – “Yay, I get to sleep with the dog three nights”), she used a hole punch on it or had me sign my name on the card. I still have several unused coupons, such as: 12 hugs, 10 kisses in a row (shucks, that one’s been punched), and “I’ll be a Daddy’s girl for 2 ½ weeks.” Hey, I even have two “Help Tickets” that read, “This ticket is good for love!” I wonder if I could cash one of those in for a 55” TV? Would I do that? A 55” flat screen would be helpful and show love.

• The gift already delivered.

My best gift was already delivered … and not from Amazon. No gift, not even a 55” flat screen, will provide this dad with greater joy than the one I unwrapped to change a dirty diaper almost 13 years ago. That gift makes me want to work harder and to be not just a good role model for her, but also a better man and husband.

My family doesn’t watch a lot of television, but we catch a few select shows and I like my college football. Jessie, the dancer in the family, jumps off the sofa and performs impromptu dances during Dancing with the Stars. Her dances fill my heart with joy and my eyes with moisture. Jessie is happy and healthy. She sings and dances. Her self-esteem is high. Isn’t that what all dads want for their children? Even more than going fishing or a new television.

Note: With Father’s Day only eight days away, maybe you’d like to surprise Dad with a new fishing rod or television set, but it’s not in the budget. No worries! MoMENts: A Dad Holds On, is available for purchase on Amazon in paperback ($14.99) or Kindle ($2.99). It’s a gift idea worth sharing.

The Life and Times of Stuffed Animals

My 12-year-old daughter, Jessie, has accumulated a family of stuffed animals. If I counted them, I’d miss my writing deadline, so let’s just go with “over a hundred.” They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are great for cuddling, others are puppets, and one can even be ridden. Simply put, Jessie’s room represents the animal kingdom quite well. Stuffed animals, almost all of them with names, sleep with Jessie in her bed or watch over her from their home on her bedroom dresser. The largest ones, an elephant, a dog, and a penguin, take up floor space.

My wife, Mattie, and I have found Jessie’s tween years to be interesting. At times, we watch a grown-up Jessie with “teenage” mannerisms. Occasionally though, we get to see the little girl who still finds joy and comfort with her stuffed-animal friends. If the animals could talk, I wonder what they would say. They’ve seen and heard a lot during Jessie’s first 12 years.

For sure, they’d share happy stories. Often, they starred in Jessie’s plays, puppet shows, and dance performances. Many of the lucky ones were “animal of the day,” which entitled the honoree to a spot at the kitchen table for breakfast and a front row seat on the sofa while Jessie read books to it. Of course, the animals got to watch lots of daddy-daughter fun times on her bedroom floor, as we played cards and board games, had picnics, and dressed Barbie dolls. I’m not sure if the animals would consider Jessie dressing up our real dog in all kinds of outfits as a happy time (it was for Jessie) or an unhappy time (probably the dog’s perspective).

Speaking of unhappy times, the animals would have witnessed a few of those, too, as life has its challenges. I’m not referring to falling out of the crowded bed due to Jessie’s tossing and turning, or cleaning day when they spun in the wash machine. Unfortunately, they witnessed sad moments and felt the moisture of Jessie’s tears during her difficult days, like the death of her first dog and leaving her friends to move to another state. More recently, the animals probably wish they could all squeeze under the pillows while she practices the clarinet, at least for the squeaky parts.

There have also been learning times – for everyone. The animals witnessed a dad crouched behind Elle, the floor elephant, as Jessie learned to sit up on her own. Abby, the stuffed dog with floppy ears, went to Pre-K to learn about veterinarians and won an award. Many animals attended class in the bedroom as Jessie and I held syllabus day at home while Mattie, a professor, held class at the college. I never thought I’d be a nervous speaker in front of stuffed animals, but again, these were learning times. The animals did give me a good evaluation at the end of the session.

Sometimes the animals even took part in exciting trips, like family vacations, wagon rides around the neighborhood, and picnics in the back of the pickup truck. Some of them came with Jessie to our bed when she had bad dreams or the electricity went out. And even though a few animals fell onto the ground, they always made it safely back home to Jessie’s room.

Then, there were the extra special family times, like when the entire family snuggled in Jessie’s bed to observe the newly hung glow-in-the-dark stars and planets on Jessie’s ceiling and walls. Sometimes it was a bit too cozy, like when we squeezed Dad, Mom, Jessie, our dog, and 14 stuffed animals into her child’s play tent. Eeyore hasn’t forgiven me yet for sitting on him, and he’s a lot flatter than he used to be. Mattie and the dog squish the stuffed animals, too, when they lie on opposite sides of Jessie for bedtime prayers, while Dad kneels at the foot of the bed.

“Okay, Dad, I’m ready to go.”

I look up from the morning newspaper. No stuffed animals are in sight. Neither is my little girl. Instead, I spot a young lady in a pretty red dress, pulling her book bag toward the front door.

“Mattie, I’m taking Jessie to school now. I’m going to stay with her all day as she’s way too pretty.”

Okay, I realize a 6’5” father won’t blend in with the sixth graders. Maybe it’s good I have an army of stuffed animals at my disposal. A protective dad can’t have too many lions, tigers, and bears. Her skunk might come in handy, too.

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments. Happy Father’s Day!

Father’s Day is June 18. MoMENts: A Dad Holds On, available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle, would make a great Father’s Day present. Please spread the word.

The Taste of Love

“I love ice cream.” Big scoops, little scoops – many scoops. In a bowl, in a cone, or, if the half-gallon container is almost empty, straight out of the carton (Sorry, Mom, I know you raised me better). I don’t discriminate against any flavors; I like them all. Ice cream by itself or smothered with toppings – either is great. Heck, one can even mix in a banana or throw me an ice cream sandwich. I love ice cream!

Okay, I actually like ice cream – a lot – but I don’t love it. My wife, Mattie, and I have taught our 12-year-old daughter, Jessie, “We love people, not things.” One of the most-loved people for many of us is Mom. Between the comfort of ice cream and a mother’s love, the choice is obvious. Ice cream melts deliciously, yet quickly, on one’s taste buds and then is gone (except when it lingers, unwelcome, on the waistline). In contrast, a mother’s love lasts forever, and, like ice cream, is something we crave when we don’t feel well.

When Jessie was two years old, the two of us traveled to visit my parents. Apparently, a spider bit me during my sleep. As I looked at my swollen lip in the bathroom mirror, I had a minor anxiety attack. At 2 a.m., I opted to wake my mother, even though my dad drove the ambulance for the volunteer fire company and had more medical knowledge. I’ll never forget the laughter Mom and I shared over the next hour.

I’ll always remember, too, the day 7-year-old Jessie crashed her bike in our driveway, knocking out a loose baby tooth. I immediately assessed the situation, told her she was okay, and handed her my clean handkerchief to wipe her lip. Yet, when I got my crying daughter into the house, she immediately removed my bloody hanky from her mouth and exclaimed, “I want my momma!” To my amazement, a few seconds after she spoke with Momma at work, Jessie’s smile returned as if nothing had happened.

Recently, Jessie’s momma needed her own mom. Doctors found a tumor near my wife’s left ear. Luckily, the tumor was benign. However, due to its location near facial nerves, the surgery would become even more complex if it continued to grow, so it needed to come out. Mattie found a doctor who specializes in the procedure about 1,000 miles away. Her mother not only volunteered to go with her, but campaigned to make the trip and stay with her throughout the surgery and recovery. I stayed behind to take care of Jessie.

Was I disappointed Mattie chose her mom over me? No; I knew her mom would do everything in her power to care for Mattie. She’d interrogate the doctor before the surgery, estimated to take three hours. She’d provide periodic updates to me. Heck, she’d even run into the operating room and dive on the scalpel if that’s what it took to protect her baby.

Mattie’s mom called at 8:15 a.m. to report the surgery had begun. About two hours into the operation, she sent a text, “They said everything is going fine but the operation is still continuing.” At 11:46 a.m., 3 ½ hours into the operation, I texted, “No word yet? It’s time for it to be over!”

Mattie’s mom texted right back, “I’m thinking it has been too long.”

I responded, “Yes, it has been too long. Let’s try to keep calm. So far, I’ve had a Ho Ho [a chocolate cake with cream filling], a strawberry cream cheese cookie, and a Mr. Goodbar. Ice cream is next!”

Why was the surgery taking so long? All kinds of worries raced through my brain. At 12:13 p.m., Mattie’s mom called to say the doctor met with her and the surgery went well. She slept at the hospital with Mattie that night and cared for her at a nearby hotel the entire week until her follow-up doctor appointment.

Most of us could think of countless other “Mom to the rescue” stories. It’s probably a good idea to thank them now and then.

Ice cream might make the world a sweeter place, at least for a few minutes, but the mother-child bond is forever. Mothers come in a variety of brands, such as Grandmother, Mother-in-Law, and Like-A-Mother. All of them serve love in lots of flavors – “hugs and kisses,” “listening and advice,” and “home cooking” are three of my favorites.

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments. Happy Mother’s Day!

A Moment of Thanks … and a Little More

I’ll soon be posting my MoMENts column for May titled, “The Taste of Love.” Though the upcoming column touches on my passion for ice cream, it focuses on something even more important … you’ll find out what in a few more days.

Now that I have your attention, I wanted to take a moment to give thanks. It’s hard to believe I’m coming up on the six-year anniversary of my monthly “MoMENts” column. Recently, MoMENts surpassed 500 times published. Even in my “dream big” thinking, I would have never imagined my column would hit regional parenting magazines and newspapers 500 times, spanning 22 states and two Canadian provinces.

Did I do it on my own? Of course not. I could spend hours if I thanked everyone involved in my writing journey. Instead, I’ll continue to thank them in person and in the privacy of my prayers. Today, though, I want to thank my readers for their notes, encouragement, and continued support. The writing profession is not an easy one, and I can’t tell you how much your kind and supporting words have meant to me.

Happily, I had enough columns for a book. MoMENts: A Dad Holds On is a great book for mothers, fathers, and grandparents. Would I make this post in early May to catch readers who are searching for the perfect Mother’s Day gift? Ok, you caught me. The book is available in print and Kindle on Amazon and my website, http://www.patrickhempfing.com, includes a “Buy It Now at Amazon.com” button. Autographed copies can be purchased at the following locations:

Pennsylvania

    The Reader’s Café
    Hanover, PA

Virginia

    Chapters Bookshop
    Galax, VA

South Carolina

    Seneca Family Restaurant
    Seneca, SC

Georgia

    The Rosengart Gallery
    Statesboro, GA
    East Georgia Regional Medical Center
    The Gift Shop
    Statesboro, GA

Florida

    Orange Door Gift Boutique
    Oviedo, FL
    Writer’s Block Bookstore
    Winter Park, FL

I would appreciate it if you would share this post with friends and family members who might also be looking for that perfect gift. Did I mention that Father’s Day is June 18?

Thank you for being part of my “Cherish the MoMENts” community and for staying in touch when you like something I wrote. Remember to cherish the moments!

The Hold-on Zone

“Dad, one of my friends from first period said you were cool.” Jessie, my 12-year-old daughter shared this comment with me, right before I gave a presentation to her sixth-grade creative writing class.

I’ve given presentations in board rooms, churches, even to first-grade and second-grade classes, but never to sixth graders. Jessie couldn’t wait for this day. She even began working on a Prezi for me. Prezi is “presentation software that uses motion, zoom, and spatial relationships to bring your ideas to life.” During my accounting career, I brought my ideas to life in audit reports.

Sometimes I voluntarily go outside my comfort zone, other times I’m pushed or pulled. Often, it’s Jessie doing the pushing and pulling. I can’t say three, 47-minute classes with approximately 30 students each fell within my comfort zone, especially going into unchartered waters with Prezi.

Looking back through my fatherhood days, I’ve concluded the comfort zone has a neighboring area, called the “hold-on zone,” where parents spend a lot of their time.

I held on to my stomach contents when Jessie’s doctor delivered her via C-section. Seated by my wife’s head, I never considered peeking over the blue-paper divider where the doctor was performing the operation. I’m confident my comfort zone would have changed to a prone position on the floor had I taken a glance.

I visited the hold-on zone again the next day, ironically, because of what Jessie failed to hold onto, which was now filling her diaper. I’d never seen anything like it. I learned later that what I saw was meconium, a mixture of bile, mucus, and amniotic fluid, but at the time I had a different word for it – “Nurse!” It’s okay to ask for help when one hits the outer bounds of his hold-on zone.

I’m never in my comfort zone when Jessie is ill. Mattie and I almost took Jessie to the emergency room when she suffered her first ear infection at 14-months old. At age 11, Jessie came down with pneumonia and we did take her to the emergency room. My comfort zone and hospital zones don’t have much overlap.

Then there was the time Jessie, age 3, pulled my tennis shorts down in the church elevator. Jessie lost her balance and grabbed the pockets on each side of my shorts. I wasn’t the only one out of my comfort zone, standing there in my jock strap. I’m sure the mother in the elevator was outside of hers, too. Hold-on zone? Hold on to my shorts!

My guess is that the boundaries of my comfort zone will continue to be tested when Jessie’s teenage years arrive. I won’t be in my comfort zone in the passenger seat with Jessie behind the wheel of the car. “Hold on, Dad!”

How will I feel when the doorbell rings and a young man with flowers is ready to take Jessie on a date? Will I be in my comfort zone as I sit in the back of her date’s car or in the rear of the movie theater? Probably not, but maybe closer to it than if I let her go alone.

Back to my presentation day with Jessie’s middle school creative writing classes. Overall, I thought all three presentations went well and Jessie’s teacher invited me back next semester. As the kids left the classroom, I had a basket of candy (an idea one of Jessie’s classmates suggested) and each 6th grader took a piece.

When I drove Jessie home from school later that afternoon, I asked, “How did I do?” Jessie, always honest, responded, “You did half-decent, Dad.” She suggested I eliminate a few “umms” and make a few tweaks to the Prezi. I thanked Jessie for her constructive feedback and said, “Well, at least I was cool with the first-period class.” Jessie responded, “Oh, my friend said you were cool because you gave out candy.” Wow, I went from cool to half-decent to cool only because of candy.

Whether it’s a comfort zone or the hold-on zone, this I know. We grow with new experiences. Sometimes we’ll win and be cool. Other times, we’ll be half-decent or worse. Sometimes we might need to ask for help or even fail.

I’m confident Jessie will continue to fill my fatherhood days, and a few Prezi presentations, with zooms and motion. Hold-on zone, here I come. But I’ll be okay. I’m keeping a basket of candy nearby.

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments.