This will be our first double toddler Christmas.

Double toddler means double the cute holiday outfits. Double cute candid photos. Double noisy toy gifts from proud aunts and uncles. Double the cheer.

Double the childproofing decorations. In years past, we set up 8-foot, cardboard fireplace mantle displays around our television. We set up the intricate Playmobil Nativity with the tiny light-up campfire set and 3 Wise men extension.  This year we decided against implementing demonstration of our CPR training and left half of our normal holiday decorations in the attic.

Like any other year, I groan with the thought of dragging our gigantic, heavy, 20-year-old, secondhand, artificial tree out of the crawl space attic where we keep all seasonal decor. (Which is why my inner midwestern, holiday decor loving woman died the year we moved to this house.) One of the branches broke and we’ve been turning that side toward the wall for a few years. This year, the thought of double toddlers climbing up that tree terrified me more than climbing through our closet and into the attic crawlspace modeled after Bertha Rochester’s bedroom. Exhibit A: (Yep, those are 6-inch rusty nails protruding from the wall and ceiling. 1925 was a helluva year for carpentry.)

attic

So for the sake of toddler-proofing as well as space-saving, we decided this was the year to purchase a new artificial tree. We have a small house and trip over each other daily without a 6-foot diameter tree in the middle of the livingroom. Another reason to avoid the attic.

We had a family meeting which the specifics escape me, but probably went something like this:

Me (slightly yelling because I’m in the shower): “You know, our Christmas tree is really old and broken. I think we need a new one.

Joel (mumbling something about time out or diapers on the other side of the door): What? Ok.

Me: “I guess I’ll go ahead and get one sometime.”

Consensus: We will purchase a small, artificial Christmas tree.  Perhaps one that will sit on the front room table.

When I finally had the energy to drag my derriere through the back the our wardrobe into the terrifying world that not even C.S. Lewis would imagine, I headed to our local conglomerate to scan the tree displays. That midwestern woman inside resurrected among the flocking and glitter. A simple table tree isn’t going to do. The 5-foot tree isn’t pre-lit. My inner voice convinced me that pre-lit was going to save me so much time. No stringing lights? Duh. The answer was simple… 6.5ft by 3ft diameter pre-lit “spruce” with balsam tips on sale. Matching the code to the boxed merchandise on the shelves verified my suspicion: Sold Out.

My inner Beverly Goldberg emerged as I grabbed the attention of the closest associate and asked for a check in the back. Just as I suspected, sold out. It was at this point that my grandfather emerged. My grandfather was a locally well-known, junk-dealing, good ol’ boy who could sell a man his own horse. More on him later.

I offered (insisted) to buy the display for a reduced price. Instead, I was offered a 9-foot, pre-lit tree for the same sale price as the 6.5ft tree. “I’ll take it!” Nevermind our 8ft ceilings.

So, a few nips and tucks and we have a 7ft tree.  Not at all toddler-friendly. It’s bigger than our old tree, but skinnier and pre-lit. However, I did add about 4 strands of lights (we now have 2,000 lights on our tree) to it because I’m insane and like to make everything twice as difficult than it needs to be.

The toddlers helped decorate. We broke a few ornaments and we need reminders every 15 minutes to not take ornaments off of the tree. It is twice the work. We are twice the family that we were last year. And it is twice as glorious as we could imagine.

Find the pickle!

xmastree

Question: How can you give them up?

Short answer: Because we are legally required to and anything else would literally be kidnapping.

Long answer: Every child who enters our home as a foster child is never promised to stay. In fact, the entire purpose of the program is to help families heal, rehabilitate, and reunify. I’d be lying if I said we never intended to get into foster care so that someday we might adopt. I’d be lying if I said that when we receive a child in care I don’t fantasize about what life might be like if we were given the chance to adopt this one. I would also be lying if I didn’t admit that at times my fantasization about adopting a child in our care actually ended up in a panicked nightmare.

When children are placed into foster care, initially the goal is reunification with the biological parent(s). However, when a child has been in foster care for a given amount of time and the biological parents are not following the plan or not capable of following the plan, agencies have to begin planning for a possible second outcome which is sometimes adoption and building stronger bonds with a possible pre-adoptive family at the very same time they are attempting anything and everything to rehabilitate and prepare the biological family for reunification.

This sucks for the children. There is no good for them in this process. These innocent casualties whose emotions are the most pure and authentic of anyones are viewed through two different lenses at the same time. Every move, every cry, every word, every emotion is interpretted and used as evidence to eviscerate someone or validate someone. Eventually the children begin dividing loyalties and that pure, unadulterated emotion is made corrupt. As if that isn’t enough, the children then are supposed to be prepared for two different outcomes. They are encouraged to bond with their foster or pre-adoptive family, but they are also forced to continue to maintain a hope of reestablishing their biological family connections. They are broken and their pieces are passed out like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs through the dark woods.

As foster parents, we have to plan for two different outcomes.We divide ourselves in half.

We have to allow ourselves to bond, unconditionally with a child who may not ever love us back. We have to open our homes to a stranger who may steal from us, lie to us or about us, or physically harm or threaten us. We protect the children at all costs.

We turn our backs to hell and let it beat us black and blue.

Then, we turn around and paint a target across our chests and wait for the arrow.

How can you give them up?

We divide our minds planning two emotions for two outcomes. Looking through a reunification lens we see happiness for an effective system, a healing family, and grief for the bonds we lose. The adoption lens shows us a failed system, a broken family, but a renewed hope for second chance. Redemption.

How can you give them up?

Foster parents choose to expose hearts, let them split open, then sweeping up the fragments we find that we’ve added pieces along the way. Some are shards and some are gigantic, essential pieces that we will never understand how we could have worked without them. When we lay out the pieces, we begin to appreciate the beauty in the mosaic all those shattered hearts have created together.

 

virginepiskepsis

13th century gold mosaic icon “Virgin Episkepsis”

 

 

 

Ascending the Mountain Mountains began to peak through the skyline as Grandpa drove into the misty elevation. His harmonica hummed as we sang, “How many crawdads can you eat, honey? How many crawdads can you eat, babe? How many crawdads can you eat? 40 daddies and a ham o’ meat, honey, baby, mine.” We sang hymns… I Know Who Holds Tomorrow. Feeling Grandpa’s prayers pouring over me as he drove in silence, I traced pictures of dogs in my “How to Draw Dogs” library book. Passing into Ohio, Kentucky, then into West Virginia, the elevation increased with our anticipation of what we would see next. Riding along, I gazed in awe of the brume upon majestic peaks in the skyline, then when in the thick solace of the hills, the evening sun bounced off the glorious reds, golds, and browns of the sandy stone carving our way through the mountain. I had never seen mountains like these glimmering formations with their markings like the rings of a tree towering high above the narrow ledges circling and winding through the beautiful grandeur of this country. Pressing my cheek to the glass inside the car and looking up as far as the confines of this car would allow, I could only see part way up the mountain. The vertical slope seemed to be unending. The place where the top met the sky was unfathomable. Faith told me there was a top and I imagined standing toes in that mystical earth and hands in the air, reaching toward heaven. I was used to the soft, green hills of Kentucky where we had vacationed previous summers. The great depth of this dry, rocky rainbow fell into a deep, green hollow. As I peered out the passenger window, there appeared to be no space between Grandpa’s car and the edge of those melted colors. At any minute we could fall Yet, I trusted that peacefully my fearless leader would lead us to our destination: a small community of houses nestled safely between mountains on all sides except for a narrow path leading to a busier road. By the last night in West Virginia, I had become a professional mountain climber and I had easily convinced Grandpa to relive the mountain climbing of his youth. We started up the side of the grassy hill moderately paced. Until that day, the highest I had climbed was halfway up to what I had believed to be the top. We reached that familiar height and stopped a moment to rest. Above us was the steepest part of the mountain which required hanging onto scrappy trees and limbs to pull one’s body higher and higher. Believing Grandpa would want to turn around and head back, I motioned that perhaps he would want to head back down to the house. I briefly pictured my Grandpa a 9-year-old boy in the hills of his home in Kentucky climbing, but faced the reality that this wise, white-haired man would not want to travel much longer. We half-joked about mountain lions as the sun began to set. After a brief standing rest, he said, “Let’s go higher.” So we pulled ourselves reaching and grabbing from branch to branch like children in fruit trees, reaching for the satisfaction of that sweet fruit. We drew up and up until we ascended the vertical height of the earth, which was beneath us, became beside us. Taking his hand to steady my balance, his arms bridged the gap of earth providing a sustaining presence among the patch of overgrown incline that I could not cross alone. This man who led me up this arrow, sat on a fallen tree, satisfied, looking upon the conquered perils down below. As he looked down the mountain toward the tiny houses beneath us, I watched him, the sun was dawning and the last light was peeking through the trees highlighting Grandpa’s silvery white hair. And like Moses on the mountain, communed with a heavenly presence, imparting that wisdom to us below. Yet, above him remained a way to go.  Even as far as we could climb, we had not yet elevated to the top of that cloudy obstacle. My leader, my guide, my dear, sweet Grandpa led me to this place that is forever stuck in my memory. We stopped, not defeated, but breathing in the fresh, crisp, spring, mountain air, we were filled without needing to see the top of the mountain. Looking beyond, to those steps which we have not yet crossed, the sacred ground kept rising, beyond us, beyond our comprehension, up to the sky. Pointing our way to God.

Waiting for cubed butter to cool in the icebox, I pour myself a cup of tea from a ceramic teapot into a tall Christmas mug. The hot, spiced liquid burns my tongue ever so slightly, but I sip through the quivering twinge as the craving for a warm movement through my shoulders is greater than any pang. A good tea is felt in the shoulders. It sits upon them to cushion for a moment any burden I carry. The warming lifts the burdens and as they rise and hover above, a flash of relief sighs for just a moment. I sit. I write. I lose myself.

As the weight floats above me, I look up and see pain and sorrow and jealousy…all the sins like sharks swimming and stomping on the aquarium above me. Reminders of the offenses from the past year will soon find its way down to my back where they poke with their shards numbing my skin until the clock turns a corner and the calendar falls.

These last moments before a simple number changes give the false hope that past becomes our past, that despite the iniquities my body, my mind has committed, they disappear with the page of the calendar into the recycling. A hope that something less horrible will happen this year consumes my desires: That my family will survive through the winter. That together we will live through this barren wilderness to find newness in new life. A wooden box on my porch brown and dead I pray will bloom with the innocent white Dahlias I planted last April. They flowered and died all too soon.

My only hope this year is for new life to conquer death. Until then, my patience wears on my heart only to be relieved through this simple cup of tea. In the advent of spring, I find a simple hope in this tea and the love from all the things I love today: my husband, my family, and my animals.

The butter and the flour call to my impatience. Removing the butter too early could mean a chewy pie crust; it is not worth being hasty. Soon I will knead the cold, pliable dough under my fingers encasing the fruit and birthing a sweet fruit pie. But for now, I wait for the smooth butter to cool.

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A coal miner’s great-granddaughter stepped onto the front porch, as she did every morning, to stick her nose in the air and breathe in the combination of harvest hay and pickle juice. Daddy had just arrived with a bundle under his arm: a jar of maraschino cherries and this week’s paycheck. He set a crisp dollar atop her outstretched hand smudged with dirt and strawberry jam. She raised the bill up to her nose clasping it with her two thumbs and index fingers on the top corners of either side and gave it a long sniff drawing every particle inward, deep into her lungs. Pickles. It always smelled of pickles.Image

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