• One of the most fun (and naïve) things I ever did was to order 10 little ducklings (eight Pekin and two white crested) from an online bird catalogue store.

    The little peepers arrived at the small post office branch five minutes from our home, and five of my little girls and I, already having stocked up on duck care supplies, went to retrieve them. I had studied the topic of raising ducks for months, poured over every article online I could find, and bought several books to get me up to speed. I had purchased all the necessary supplies — heat lamp, sturdy large containers for temporary baby housing, feeders, food, lots of fluffy terry cloth towels for keeping them dry … I even had a nice spot picked out in our attached garage, not the pole barn, for the garage is insulated and I wanted to be near my little adopted babies. We were ready … I thought.

    When I opened the door to the small post office, excited girls trailing behind me, I could hear the tiny, baby ducks. Their cries sounded like they were baby squeeze toys  — chirpy and squeaky. The post office worker opened the box holding them, and there they were, each situated it a little indented area, much like eggs in an egg carton. They were the cutest little things I have ever seen, fuzzy and yellow and their teeny little orange beaks were perfectly shaped. “Awwwwwwww!” the girls all said at once. “Can I hold them?” “No, I want to hold them!” and so on.

    We gleefully climbed back into the car to a chorus of chirping little fluff balls.

    “Mommy, there’s 11 of them!” one daughter squealed, “We got an extra one!” Sure enough, there were 11, the store’s ‘good practice’ in case all the little guys didn’t make it through the mail to their destination.

    The next days were a blur. Everything was about the ducks. Feed the ducks. Clean the cages of the ducks. Let the ducks run around. Make sure the hawks don’t get the ducks. Gather the ducks. Count the ducks. The ducks were sloppy little guys — knocking over their water, defecating everywhere, then splat, splat, stepping over each other and everything. They got filthy. So daily I bathed 11 little ducks, all assembly-line like, and then my daughters towel dried them. Since it was cool outside and we wanted to avoid them getting chilled, we also blow-dried them. I cleaned out their cages and patted them dry. Then I washed all the towels, which soon became rags. We did this every day, for weeks.

    The night of my son’s prom, we had pictures at our house. At one point I saw six or seven dressed up boys out back. They were ready to be photographed but couldn’t find their dates. I found their dates. They were in the garage, surrounding the boxes, cradling baby ducks in their arms.

    My daughters named the ducks that we were going to keep: Lily, Cubby, Phineas, Perry, Bartholomew Cubbins and Rainbow Sparkle Shine.

    Bartholomew Cubbins grew quite hefty. He was Grace’s duck, and she had intentions of showing him at the 4 H fair. There would be a parade at the fair before the showing, she was told by the 4H leader, and the duck had to be on a leash. A leash?  Have you ever heard of a duck on a leash? Neither had we. Nevertheless, I bought a leash for the duck, who as we quickly found out, would have none of it. I can still see Gracie chasing BC around the field with the leash, and him waddling speedily away from her…

    As the ducks got bigger, (actually, huge) they had free reign of the backyard during the day when we were home. When they heard a plane pass overhead, they would stop and tilt their heads, first one side then the other, listening. When they were hungry, they would come up to the windows near our sunroom and quack in chorus until one of the girls went outside to feed them. If someone looked at the ducks and asked, “Do you want to go swimming?” the ducks would bob side-to-side, waddle hastily to the large children’s plastic pool and wait for someone to fill it up. Over time, the ducks learned to come when called. They were actually pretty smart, for poultry.

    Some of the ducks went to live on a farm away from us, others to a golf course. (Don’t ask). Unfortunately, the ducks we had reserved for our personal pets did not make it to a ripe old age. I won’t go into detail but there was a loose gate and some wandering Siberian huskies. Suffice it to say one summer day there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Thomas household over the loss of our beloved pets. The most mourned of course was Bartholomew, whom Grace was sure would have taken home first prize at the fair had he lived.

    So now I get to the last part of my story. I had been naïve in bringing home 11 ducks. I didn’t expect to be washing and blow drying ducks. I didn’t expect to be trying to leash one. I didn’t imagine how hard it would be when the ducks died, or that I’d actually become attached to them, so in a way you could say I was naïve, maybe dumb, in getting them.

    But then again, maybe not. You see, I also didn’t imagine the sweetness in watching my girls care for almost a dozen of God’s creation. I didn’t anticipate the hearty laughter that occurred daily on account of those silly little ducklings just doing duck things. I learned a lot about my daughters and myself through this experience. And during all the commotion of duck tending, I know it might sound silly but I feel like I became closer to God who is Creator of these animals. This hands-on experience with nature refreshed my soul and brought me closer to my girls.

    And so, I recommend enjoying nature and embarking on some sort of little adventure with your children. For us, it was getting ducks. Just a word of fair warning, however — if you decide to get ducks, make sure your washing machine is in working order and that you have plenty of towels and a sense of humor. While the experience is worth it, it never hurts to be prepared.

    Posted on July 7, 2015, to:

  • From the driver seat of my car in the school parking lot today, I watched as a nice looking, sandy haired, high school boy carried my daughter’s books out to the car. My daughter’s backpack was weighed down heavily as was evidenced by its bulkiness, and later I found out she had cleaned out her locker since it was the last day of school and finals were about to begin.

    The heaviness of the bag didn’t seem to bother the boy, who chatted and laughed with her as they walked. When they reached the side of the car, the boy nodded toward me, opened the door and plopped her bag on the seat, and then said goodbye. My daughter was smiling and thanked him warmly before he went back into the school building. “See you tomorrow!” she called after him. Last week, a different but equally thoughtful young man had carried her books out to the car with similar enthusiasm. And my daughter had smiled, talked and thanked him too.

    My daughter isn’t dating around (or whatever the modern term is for that these days). In fact, she’s not dating at all. Per her dad’s and my desire to delay one on one dating until age 18 or beyond, she is simply learning to enjoy friendships. She is enjoying being a girl. The young men who walked with her out to the car in friendship and assistance the last couple weeks seemed to enjoy carrying her books. They looked confident as they did so. They walked with a purpose. It seemed each had a certain kind of pride about offering this basic courtesy and really seemed to enjoy being a helpful guy.

    A giver. A receiver. An offer. An acceptance. Politeness. Kindness. It was nice, kind of like a dance of sorts. What’s more, the action was completely natural, even while some may find it quite surprising that a couple of modern 17 year olds from 2015 were behaving traditionally and graciously, without prompting, as though they had stepped out of the 1950s.

    My daughter’s younger sister, who was in the back seat of the car this afternoon, commented when we had driven off, “Geez! Why do all the guys want to carry your books?”

    “I don’t know,” the other daughter replied, looking out the window thoughtfully, “I guess they know I need help and when they offer and I tell them thank you, they know that I really appreciate it.” They want to be nice. They want to please.

    Indeed.

    I believe that young or old, a man’s natural inclination is to be helpful and protective, chivalrous even, and a culture benefits when that is welcomed warmly. The word “civilization” has the root word “civil” in it. To be civil is to bring up from barbarism; to train to live with others. Politeness and chivalry build strong civilizations … cultures that are orderly and pleasant and help people be the best they can be.

    In modern society, however, chivalrous behavior is not always valued. One of my sons recalls several instances of opening the door for a girl when she followed behind him into a college classroom. He rarely heard “thank you” or received a warm smile, but instead received a snotty “I can do that myself.” Or “I don’t need you to do that for me. I’m capable.” With this reaction it sure would be easy to stop trying to do polite things when one is not only not met with appreciation but is met with snarky-ness instead.

    What a shame.

    Society benefits when women and men embrace their natures, when men chivalrously offer to do helpful things when appropriate, and when the women are sweet and gratefully accept assistance that is offered to them. Politeness helps the relations between any two people, but especially when opposite sexes interact. Men and women each bring different unique gifts and talents to the table, both because of their maleness and femaleness and because every person is made distinct, unique and special. Thank God there are differences. Thank God when there is chivalry and acceptance and civility.

    Alice Von Hildenbrand, philosopher and author of “The Privilege of Being a Woman” said once in an interview, “… Men truly become ‘themselves’ thanks to the love of their wives … wives are transformed by their husband’s strength and courage.” If this is indeed true, then surely this begins when men and women are boys and girls and their natures, which are hardwired by biology, are allowed to develop instinctively.

    When the Book of Genesis speaks of “help,” “it is not referring merely to acting, but also to being. Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization.”

    As I watched the exchange between my teenaged girl and her friend this afternoon, those lofty thoughts swirled in my mind. And I came to a simple conclusion. The world needs a little more offers and acceptances, politeness and kindness for seeds of peace, a truly civil society, to grow. The world needs a little more of God’s own plan, and it can start with our youth. Boys, be the carriers of backpacks, and girls, be sweet and appreciative. Together, in this way, little by little, both sexes can reclaim a bit of goodness in the world.

    Posted on June 2, 2015, to:

  • Yesterday, I was sitting on my bed, wrapped in my “cancer quilt” (a quilt made for me by friends when I fought the disease 10 years ago), complaining to my husband after a challenging day. I was frustrated and feeling old. It started with a couple of small things — having to purchase 2.25 magnification reading glasses (up from 1.25 in just a few months), and while listening to songs on the radio on my drive home, it hit me that the pop singers were my children’s ages. My premature, bone-on-bone, knee arthritis (yikes — that’s what grandmothers talk about) was acting up. There was the usual hectic-ness and busyness of raising kids, getting them here and there, answering the phone, arranging to have a repairman to come to the house. At the moment, I had just come inside after pulling my winter coat, yes, winter coat in April, around me outside tightly as the wind blew. And, it was raining.

    Pathetic fallacy is a literary device that attributes human qualities and emotions to inanimate objects in nature. It’s like when Shakespeare’s King Lear wanders, bemoaning, in a storm-blasted terrain, with the tumultuous weather mirroring the pain in his own heart.

    At that moment, I felt I was in a Shakespearean play with pathetic fallacy raging all around. The stormy weather reflected what was going on in my heart. I was feeling rained on, washed out, drained, old. Cold. Frustrated, and, sitting on the bed in that moment, awash in my tears, under my cancer quilt, I was sharing it all with my husband.

    Yes, I am always this melodramatic. Poor David.

    Anyway, the icing on the realizing-time-is-passing-quickly-had-a-bad-day-on-top-of-it cake was that I had just been exchanging texts with one of our young adult children, our fourth child, who graduates from college in just a couple weeks. Both at the moment and anticipatorily I missed him. After graduation he is headed out for a great career opportunity … 2,000 miles away. That makes four chickies out of the nest. Four children grown. And one on deck to boot. My mind flew (like the wind, of course) toward nostalgia.

    I used to spend hours trying to inspire and motivate my children. I used to draw pictures, first on the second-hand chalkboard in our schoolroom, then on the whiteboard in our kitchen, of ripples from thrown pebbles in a roughly sketched pond to illustrate a point.

    “See? This can be you!” I’d tell my children. “These could be the effects of ‘your’ good deeds, ‘your’ influence on the world! You can’t change everything, but you can change something. We each have something special to do. God has a unique mission for you! Find it! Do it!”

    Being the metaphorical geek I am, I’d try to bring home the point in other ways. … Blowing the seeds off of a white, ripe dandelion when the children and I were on a walk, I’d say, “Our family is like this dandelion, but some day you have to go, like these little seeds, and spread out goodness in the world.”

    The kids grew older. I told them that as long as they keep their faith and live with integrity and character, their dad and I will support them wherever they go, in any honorable and upright career aspiration and job situation utilizing their talents and interests — electrician, plumber, street worker, dentist, astronaut, politician, lawyer, writer, missionary, artist, financial planner, actor, president. …

    My husband and I told our children it is between them and God to figure out their vocation — married, in the religious life, or single, and that we would help them live it well, whatever they choose.

    “What is important,” we said, “is that whatever you do, you do with honor and integrity. Be the best you can be and try to set the example.” We told them faith without action is hollow, and that actions speak better than words, that people are always watching so keep good the family name, that our prayers will follow them until our dying breaths, and that not only is it okay that they leave home, they “must.” They must forge out their own adult lives, find their own missions in life, make a difference, and live honorably, for themselves and for God.

    Shoot. They took us up on it, and left.

    I say this only tongue in cheek. We sincerely meant what we said, and there comes a time when stage setting is over and the curtain must come up. But where there is deep love there will be suffering, and the inverse of the beautiful quilt of life and family is the messy stitching and rumpled heavy batting on the other side, the joy and pain of children growing up and moving out.

    It’s not easy raising a family — and even when things turn out right, there are challenges and sacrifices and little sad moments, even amidst deep satisfaction. God entwines and juxtaposes them all together in this fabric of life: Happy/sad. Hard/easy. These are stitched together, complementary colors, side by side, each highlighting the other. They make a beautiful pattern, if we step back to really look, and which I believe we shall see clearly and fully in all its glory one day, when life on this earth is finished.

    Yesterday I thought the weather couldn’t get worse and life couldn’t get more complicated. It is snowing today. My “to do” list is twice as long, my eyes are no sharper and my kid is still moving out. But something is different.

    I know it’s going to be okay.

    I’m completely healthy 10 years after I was diagnosed with cancer. I have a quilt that tells me by its existence that friends care. The quilt is old and torn and faded in places, but it’s a reminder of caring and it keeps me warm. I have a husband who loves me and helps me weather external (and internal) storms. He makes me coffee in the morning before I get out of bed and sometimes brings me chocolate. Even when he can’t fix the weather (inside or out — it’s an act of nature, you know), he sits there patiently when I feel like a demoralized character in a Shakespearean play, hugs me and says, “I get it.” And he does.

    In the soft quiet of the evening tonight I heard God say to my heart, “Yes, your children will leave, one by one, into the life I am giving them. They will know joy, like you do, and yes there will be pain, but I will be with them. I promise. I give you the sun and yes, I also give you the rain. It makes the seeds grow. And I give you this life, and this quilt and these friends and this man, who not only lays down his life for you but also just gave you chocolate and a hug…

    …You have everything, my daughter. What more do you want?”

     

     

    Posted on April 28, 2015, to:

  • As the mother of nine children, I rarely traveled and never took a plane when my children were young. I doubt most mothers of big families do. First there is the cost factor. Barring great wealth or a large loan, it is nearly financially impossible to take a brood of children far away. The tickets, gas, the double hotel room necessity, food that must be purchased on the road — all these things make traveling just too expensive. Second, there is the logistics consideration. Let’s face it — it’s a bit tricky to plan, pack, load and then implement a trek with, say, five or more little ones, especially since a steady, quick, cadenced pace must be kept over a duration of time. (Think: marathon). And then, to avert car or plane sickness, a steady supply of snacks are needed … and frequent bathroom breaks. … Third, I was afraid of flying. I hated the feeling of not being in control. I hated the dips in the air, every little bump of turbulence. I hated being above the clouds.

    While I did not travel when my children were all small, as they grew older this began to change, and I began to travel, even alone — mostly because when my young adult children graduated from college, they took jobs out of town, two of them 2,000 plus miles away. As every devoted mother knows, nothing comes between her and her offspring, not the least of which a stretch of highway (or air space), many miles and time zones away. Not even a fear of flying can stand in the way. “If you can’t keep them home, go to them,” mothers do and say. And so I did.

    And so I, who not only did not travel in my mother-youth, and has not one wanderlust gene in her body, became a person who semi-regularly now tackles four-hour flights and five days away with just her two carry-on pieces of luggage and an actual, legitimately relaxed spirit. I’ve come a long way, baby.

    Last week I flew to San Francisco. My second oldest son was a top fundraiser for a charity that is close to my heart and I wanted to surprise him by attending. Then, I headed down to Los Angeles, where my oldest son just made a big career change.

    As I stared out the window on the way home from both visits, it occurred to me that traveling has over time improved my spiritual and religious life. That might initially sound weird, but please hear me out. Here’s how traveling helped me be a better Catholic:

    I become grateful during my time away. Just observing other people and how they live, I appreciate my husband, my home, my house, and even little things like my cool soft comfy pillow. I also become grateful for the sweet niceties I have a chance to enjoy when I travel. Checking into the hotel last weekend, I was met with dimmed lights in a sweet smelling room and classical music playing softly from a device near the side of the bed. I am grateful for the quiet time away to think and reflect upon my life and the state of my soul, and I pray spontaneously, naturally with thankfulness to God for all I have been given. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. …” — Col. 3:16.

    Traveling gives me time and distance for perspective. All those hours stretching before me in a plane (or car) offers me a chance to do an examination of conscience. How did I fail today? What attitudes will help me remedy that? How did I succeed? How do I make the most of the time in front of me the rest of the day? I think of the Ten Commandments and how I ought be applying them in my life. Am I being an instrument of truth, beauty and goodness in this world? In the quiet of the moments before me when I travel, it becomes sparkling clear how I can be a better wife, mother, friend and person.

    Traveling forces me to rely on myself, and in turn, God. While traveling I have to look at the map and make decisions. I have to pay attention. I have to overcome my fears and realize ultimately I am dependent on God. I find myself quietly saying things like, “OK, Lord, help me figure this out.” Or “Now what?” Getting out of the familiar I am challenged to use my intelligence and to trust both my prayerfully guided judgment and God.

    Traveling helps me learn compassion. Many of the people I meet in my travels live lives very different from mine. They have varied backgrounds. Their viewpoints are often vastly different. It is interesting to discover why they think the way they do, and that some of their choices are based on a worldview presented to them when they were young. God made them. God loves them. I feel called to emulate Mother Teresa who said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” I choose to love them and trust that God, who truly knows their hearts, will judge them best.

    Posted on March 31, 2015, to:

  • “She tried hard and loved much.” 

    Not to be morbid, but I hope that can be truthfully put on my tombstone. I’m not planning on dying any time soon, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Over the years I have come to realize that a great way to live is to really consider my own death. What is important in life? How could someone sum up what I’ve done in my short time (hopefully 99, give or take, “short” years of course) on this earth? In a busy world of seemingly endless demands and constant choices which must be made almost instantly, what should I strive for most? What, in short, really matters?

    I self identify strongly to labels such as homemaker, wife, educator of my children, writer. These are my life’s work. But in the end, I realize none of these simple facts will mean I have done them well, even if they are memorialized in a permanent, pretty font on a piece of formal grey granite protruding from the earth where my body will some day lie.

    She kept a clean house. 

    I suppose that could be said. But so what? Did my children laugh in my home? Were they loved there? Cared for there? Were they encouraged and challenged and valued? Did I spend time with them? Did I put other less important work before them? Did my husband enjoy coming through the door at the end of a hard day? Was he welcomed warmly and loved passionately and much? Was I a true helpmate to my husband in the journey back to heaven and through life’s struggles or was I distracted with an agenda of my own and overly attentive to personal interests and pleasures and accomplishing something “in the world”?

    She was an author. She wrote a column. 

    Both could be written about me. But truthfully, who cares? Anyone can put down his own opinions on paper. In fact, today with blogging, almost everyone does. And studying English grammar and literature can help many people develop a way with words. The important question will be: Did I seek to share truth in my words? Did I have something substantial to say? Did I think before I said it? Did I help? Did I use my personal gifts and talents wisely? (Mt. 25:14-30) Did my words uplift and encourage? Were they sincere? Kind? Did I seek benefit or to benefit? Did I try?

    She educated
    her children. 

    Yep, I did. I spent a lot of time doing this. But, you know, so do a lot of people. The important question is this: In what did I, with my spouse, educate our offspring? Did I educate them in truth, in morals and virtues and values, in the things that last for eternity? Or was I caught up solely in an academic or fine arts education devoid of meaningful context? Do my children know God better and love more because of the knowledge and experience or worse and less? Are they better people because of what they have learned and the opportunities they have had? That is what counts. That is the stick by which I will be, and should be, measured.

    My children’s catechism book asks: Why did God make us? And the answer is: God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven. The next question asks: What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven? And the answer is simple: We must know, love and serve God in this world.

    That sounds an awful lot like putting family first and prioritizing in love.

    Mother Teresa once said, “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” Wow. She really made an insightful point.

    If we take Mother Teresa’s words to heart does this mean ambassadors should not work to find solutions to world problems or to bring agreements to foreign governments or that social efforts and projects of inclusion and understanding should cease? Of course not. But peace (and love, and understanding, and agreement, and inclusion and offering truth in love) does begin in the home, and those who receive it there can more easily give it in the world.

    Pope Francis recently said that it is within the family that we first learn how to open ourselves to others and become good brothers and sisters. What we learn from them goes on to benefit society as a whole.

    So it really does go back to trying hard and loving much.

    And so, I revisit what I stated at the beginning of this column. My goal is that the phrase “She tried hard and loved much” can someday be put on my grave, and that it will be the truth.

     

    Posted on February 24, 2015, to: