The Cousin Connection

Just got back late last night from our latest family reunion in Iowa.  It reminded me of one of my favorite children’s picture books, “The Relatives Came”, although we didn’t sleep on the floor, overlapping each other– but sometimes the dogs did! There were 14 adults, two kids, two dogs, one active toddler, one baby, and one on the way, at times all crammed into Grandma’s tiny house at once, and there were lots of hugs, and food, and chatter, and music, and games, and bike rides, and golf cart rides…   And then after a few days, we piled back into our minivan (it made it!) with our kids, and our dog, and Emmie’s guitar, and all of our bikes, and drove 13 hours straight home, all day and into the night, only stopping for fast food and bathroom breaks.   

I was the main “planner” for the reunion, so it was a lot of work, but a lot of fun for everyone, and it left me thinking a lot about cousins. 

My friend Jenny, if I remember correctly, has a cousin which she’s as close to as a sister.  Same for my friend Teresa.  I never had cousins exactly my own age, but I had one four years older and her sister was five years older, and some of my cherished childhood memories are those of summer weeks spent at their house in Springfield, IL. What fun we had, exploring their neighborhood, buying candy and “Flying Things” at a nearby store, playing with the Mattel Thingmaker in the basement and watching a TV show called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, starring the late great Bill Bixby. (I can still hear the theme song, sung by Nilsson.)  They taught me how to knit, how to appreciate Archie comic books, and we even saw a real funnel cloud together.  I got great writing practice when my cousins and I exchanged many letters, often decorated with psychedelic ’70’s stickers.  But as my cousins grew older, the age gap seemed to widen and the visits (and letters) stopped.

Many years later in 1998, when I was married and had one child, our “thinking about having a second child” turned into action when my sister-in-law Marti announced she was pregnant.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a child that has a cousin who is the same age and grade?  My plan worked.  Cousin Ted was born in August, and my Emmie was born in November. She and Ted became fast friends, and were blessed to have another cousin their own age when Andy’s stepbrother and his wife had a son later the same year.  When those three cousins get together, it is pure joy to watch.  Whether jumping on the trampoline, playing Guitar Hero or spraying each other with the hose, they have a special connection.

For Allison, my teenager, her nearest first cousins (other than the younger ones mentioned above) are six and seven years older, which has sometimes meant a playmate at family gatherings but hasn’t quite meant weekend sleepovers and endless correspondence, and, just as I experienced, the age gap has widened with age.  At this latest reunion, Allison watched as the college-age cousins left to “hit the local bars” at night.  She stayed back at Grandma’s, reading a book.

I regret she has not experienced the fun of a close cousin.  Oh, it’s hard to time everything right for cousins in family planning, especially with me being so much younger than my siblings, and waiting until my 30’s to start a family.  But I think we should have tried harder in Allison’s younger years to make more connections with the many second and third cousins close to her age found on my husband’s side of the family. 

Maybe it’s not too late.  Now that I’ve planned one family reunion, I should be an expert at planning another– right?  And most of this other bunch lives less than five hours away.  Only it’s not my side of the family, so I’ll definitely need help.  And we’re talking about several teens and ‘tweens being a part, so it will be a challenge getting them to interact.  And, of course, there’s no guarantee that they will!  But at the very least, it will give my husband and his sister the chance to reconnect with their own cousins, with whom they share lots of childhood memories.

Bring on the cousins! Let the family reunion planning begin again!!

(R to L) Allison, 14, shares a smile with her first cousin Erin, 31, at the family reunion.

Emmie, 10, sips “pop” with her first-cousin-once-removed, Jetta, age 2 1/2.

The Roller Coaster of Parenting (Not For The Faint of Heart)

I know now what I’m going to tell people if asked why I don’t like roller coasters. It’s because riding on one would be redundant. I’m already on one that has bigger drops, tighter turns, and makes me scream and cry just as much, if not more, than anything at Six Flags or Disneyland. So who needs another?

Case in point:

Last Thursday night (the coaster goes down) Andy, Allison and I have tickets to the evening production of “A Chorus Line” at Dallas’ Fair Park Music Hall.  When it’s time to leave for the show, Allison’s not ready and makes us wait, as usual. Andy is highly upset that we might be late.  Finally ready, she cops a major attitude with both of us and is full of sass on and off all evening.

Friday afternoon (the coaster goes up): I drive to get Emmie from Scout camp on my own. The minivan does great, and I have a great afternoon listening to the radio and stopping at my favorite antique store (DeRidder’s) in Forney, Texas. Emmie is so happy to see me and is full of wonderful things to say about camp. We stop in a small town to get pizza and afterwards, she falls asleep in the car while we listen to a beautiful folk CD and watch the sun set.

Friday night, late (the coaster takes a surprise plunge down):  After I tuck Emmie (and Andy) into bed, I really want to go to bed, too, after being tired from driving all afternoon, but I am the “designated driver” tonight– that is, the parent who has to stay up to pick up Allison from a scrapbooking/pizza party. Upon returning home, she goes “ballistic” when she sees the wooden butler/waiter statue I bought at the antique store, which is standing in our front hall, resplendent in his carved red jacket and real glass spectacles.  She yells at me at the top of her lungs, on and on, about how she hates it so much, and how embarrassed she is by it, and freaked out by it, and what bad taste I have, and how she’s going to break its arms and put it out with the trash, after I go to bed.  I tell her that if she so much as touches it, I will not be signing her up for fall dance classes. Andy and Emmie sleep through it all. I cry myself to sleep.

Saturday  (the coaster goes up):
The wooden butler remains unscathed.  Allison agrees to go to Dallas’ Farmers Market with me. It is a beautiful day, and we have one of the best times we’ve had in ages, laughing, talking, sampling and buying a bunch of fruit, trying elote’ cups for the first time (fabulous!) and eating sausage on a stick.

Monday (a nasty hairpin turn):
Allison gets her braces tightened, and in the evening, the pain kicks in.  She yells at me on the way to Target for not taking her there at the exact time she wanted to go, and after being derided by her all the way there, I turn around and leave after barely setting foot in the store.  I just couldn’t take it any more.  Back in the car, she curses at me for the first time ever, calling me a bitch and telling me she’s been wanting to do that for a long time.  I tell her she needs to find another person to take her shopping from now on because it won’t be me.  She’s now grounded for over a month and her phone will be taken away as well.

Tuesday (the coaster goes down):
Since Emmie did laundry and made commendable progress towards packing for our upcoming family reunion trip, I agree to drive her to the neighborhood pool to meet a friend for an hour. A few minutes before I was to leave the house to pick her up from the pool, I receive a phone call from the friend’s mother, telling me that Emmie has hit her head on the diving board while doing a back flip, and has a gash that will probably require stitches.  I cancel all my errands and rush to the pool. You know how head wounds always look worse than they are? Luckily, she couldn’t see it and was very calm an collected, dutifully pressing a wad of quilted paper towels on the top of her head, her long hair streaked pink in some places from the blood. The lifeguards let me take a look– my own blood literally ran cold and and I almost started crying (hey, would somebody slow this ride down?) but had to hold back so she wouldn’t do the same. But then she saw the blood-soaked paper towel, and she did start crying.
I made a couple phone calls and luckily found a close-by emergency room that didn’t have a long wait.  She ended up getting two staples in the top of her head, without anesthesia. The thought made my stomach lurch, and seeing the staples? Now I know where the phrase, “getting the heebie-jeebies” comes from.  I get to help maintain the wound and apply Neosporin every night!  

In the movie, “Parenthood”, starring Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, and the great Tom Hulce, I remember Steenburgen’s character saying something at the end about those who choose not to be parents are like those who play it safe and opt for the Merry Go Round instead of the Roller Coaster, and she’s glad she chose the coaster.  I used to think that was a great line, but frankly, I could use some Merry Go Round time right now.  Or a drink.  No, make that two, straight up–  one for me and I’ll drink another one for Emmie, since she now can’t swim for five days. 

Aw, who am I kidding?  I’m not much of a drinking person, and besides– that butler keeps forgetting my order…

Postcards from Camp

Well, we’ve heard from Emmie at camp– and the verdict is…..well so far…(drumroll please)…thumbs up!!! Whew. I was just a teensy bit worried.  One reason is because she insisted on signing up for the “tent unit” at the camp (i.e. no electricity– no AC and no fans) and the forecast called for 100-degree-plus days every day this week.  The weather predictors were correct– it’s been fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot! The other reason is that our car (that would be, my glorious minivan) overheated on the way to camp and we were delayed while my husband fixed the problem (Thank you, God, that my husband is a Mr. Fix It and that my teenager was not along for the ride).  We finally arrived at camp almost at dark on Sunday night, and Emmie joined the other girls for the closing campfire circle.  We had to stow Emmie’s gear in a building near the tents, and didn’t even get to help her set up the mosquito netting that’s required around each bed.  I pictured her attempting to do that by the light of her friends’ flashlights…

To add to my fears, I received an email on Monday from Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas, letting everyone know that there’s been an increase in head lice at the camps this year and to please be aware and not send girls if they show signs.  I hoped they were talking about the other three Scout camps in the region– not the one where Emmie was at.

So as you can imagine, I’ve been eagerly checking the mailbox every day, and we finally got two postcards Wednesday.  She’s having a great time and says she loves the fresh air and nature sounds, and is excited to have a counselor with a Scottish accent.  Her friend, on the other hand, wants to come home and wrote to her mom that she accidentally dropped her toothbrush in the toilet on the first night. 

I hope things have gotten better.  We didn’t receive anything in the mail yesterday (no news is good news– right?) and camp ends today. I will post a photo in this space later if I get any good ones!
Emmie at camp departure time, working on a lanyard. She said camp was “the funnest thing I’ve ever done in my life” and that she definitely wants to go back next year.

The Great Food Challenge (or Why I Wish Spongebob Ate Spinach Like Popeye)

Do you think American pioneer teenagers in the 1800’s ever sat down at the dinner table, folded their arms across their chests and announced, “I REF– USE to eat this disgusting salt pork!!”?  Did their younger siblings push the freshly picked-and-prepared peas to the far edges of their plates? I’ve been wondering that lately as I ponder my kids’ food aversions, and remember my own childhood dislikes.  Something tells me kids have always had strong opinions on food.  I’ve looked for clues in the Little House on the Prairie series, which Emmie and I have been reading together this summer, but haven’t found anything.  So far, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of early America is pretty upbeat– heck, for one memorable meal, they happily pour maple syrup over just about everything, including snow, and eat it– no food complainers in that family!  But in doing a bunch of Internet research today on the subject, it looks like my hunch is correct– that being a picky eater is not just a malady of modern, comfortable children, or a byproduct of listening to parents who fret about their own food– it’s the result of genes (ah, don’t things always boil down to that?) and a naturally built-in defense mechanism that goes back to cave days. 

All those foods your kid refuses to try? That could be his inner cave kid kicking in– I read that if kids weren’t picky and had eaten everything they could get their hands on back in the B.C. days, they would have died. Doesn’t quite explain how today’s toddlers desire to put pennies, Legos, and Barbie doll shoes into their mouths, but it was an interesting theory…even more interesting was this:  according to a study done by researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, a gene called TAS2R38 may be responsible for children’s aversion to bitter tastes, which includes vegetables and certain meats.  Each of us carries two of these genes, and there are two versions of it, one being more sensitive to bitter than the other.  If one or both of a person’s TAS2R38’s are the “bitter” kind, he/she may be a picky eater.  (People often “grow out” of their aversion to bitter foods as adults, in part because taste buds die as we age.) And if the study holds true, almost 80% of kids have at least one of the “bitter” genes. But, just when I thought that meant I could now happily give my picky eater nothing but buttered noodles and fruit every day without feeling guilty– I also read that in order to combat so many of the health problems that beseige us later in life, like cancer and heart disease, we’re supposed to help all of our kids eat a lot more fruits and vegetables every day.  Yes, even the “genetically challenged” kids.

And what a challenge it is.  The things I’ve done over the years to get my youngest child to eat vegetables… I was hiding pureed carrots and squash (bought from the baby food aisle) in her mac ‘n cheese long before Jessica Seinfeld made money off of that trick (by the way, I just bought her 2007 cookbook, Deceptively Delicious, at Half Price Books). My “secret cheese sauce” actually worked.  Not much else has. Wanna V8? No. Sweet potatoes with brown sugar and marshmallows on top? Gross. Sweet potato fries? No way. Veggie chips? Yuck. Green beans? Canned, yes, steamed fresh, no. How about some Thanksgiving green bean casserole? Not on your life.  How about the latest thing– fried green beans? Get real.  Broccoli? Only the teensiest of “trees”, and then only a couple.  Creamed spinach from Boston Market? No, are you kidding? Carrots? Maybe raw, but only with the right kind of ranch dressing. Peas? Fuh-getta-boud-it.  Beets? Never. Ummmm…pickles? Nope.  Thank goodness she adores spaghetti sauce.  At least I feel good when I serve that, giving her all those tomatoes.  But my teenager insists that tomatoes are fruits, so maybe I don’t score one for veggies with that, either.  Really, the only veggies Emmie currently eats with gusto are corn on the cob and canned baby corn (is that even a real vegetable?).  At least she tries every food once.

Allison, my teenager, actually likes a lot of vegetables, although the giant bottle of tomato juice she bought and put in our fridge recently has been for rinsing her hair, not for consuming.  But lately she has had the annoying habit of announcing she doesn’t like something without even trying it.  Or suddenly not liking something she always used to like.  In addition to the “cave kid defense mechanism” mentioned earlier, my Internet research attributed refusing to try new things or eat usual favorites to:  a.) having parents who refuse to try new things (not me) or b.) a kid’s way to be in control (that’s her!).  “What are you fixing for dinner?” is a question she has usually asked before noon each day this summer (if she’s awake by then).  I used to hold my breath after I’d tell her the menu, waiting for the royal pronouncement…er, I mean, her answer, but I’ve given up–it’s usually always the same these days.  “I DON’T LIKE THAT!” she proclaims, to which I answer, “You used to– what happened?”  And then she says, “Well, I don’t anymore!!” to which I say, “Well, that’s your problem.  Have fun fixing your own dinner.”  And she does… sans veggies.   I guess I’m lucky if she eats the same items as the rest of us on one night each week.  This summer she’s decided she hates all things beef (ever since a May bout with stomach trouble after eating a steak quesadilla at a restaurant); turkey tacos and Mexican chicken casserole, two long-time family favorites (she says that the steak quesadillas have turned her off  ALL Mexican food); spaghetti (she doesn’t like the kind of noodles I buy); Chinese stir fry (doesn’t like the sauce or the brown rice I fix);  tortilla-encrusted tilapia (remember, no more Mexican) and on and on.  I really think it’s as much forging a “unique identity” at this age as much as it is pure control (amazing similarities to the change-filled toddler years, don’t you think?!).  I think she likes being able to say, “I hate beef” or “I hate the ocean” (along with the accompanying stories of why) as much as she likes to say “I love scary movies and giant roller coasters”.  Those hates and loves are based on unique experiences and are different from the rest of the family– well, for sure, different than me, and it’s probably pretty healthy that she’s defining who she is in this way.

Oh, there’s that word again…healthy.  It reminds me that in spite of my kids’ likes and dislikes, the quest for ways to get them to eat more vegetables continues.  Does anyone have any good ideas?  I have a friend whose boys have to eat their veggies first or they can’t have the rest of their dinner… might have been good for us to try a long time ago, but I can’t see that being successful now…I know several people who would say compressed fruit and vegetable supplement tablets are the answer, but I’m too much of a skeptic to go that route.  I think I’m going to try something from my new cookbook.  I see a recipe for brownies that looks pretty good, with hidden spinach and carrot puree, and another for “Pink Pancakes” featuring pureed beets.  Bet those might be good with maple syrup…  or rather,  lots and lots of syrup, just like in the Little House days.

Vote for!

Here’s some news that my email subscribers may not know: has been nominated by Nickelodeon for a Parents Picks Award for Best Local Blog in Dallas on their website!  I’m up against four other blogs, and as of today, there are four more days to vote (you can vote once a day until July 15).  Winners will be announced in August. To vote, go to the blog front page at and on the right side, you’ll see an icon for the Parents Picks awards. Click on the words below it that say, For Local Blog in Dallas and it will take you right to the voting page.  I will definitely let everyone know if I win! (And if you haven’t been to my blog front page in awhile, check out the side bar– lots of nifty new stuff there, like a music player that I load with my favorites and you can click to hear snippets of songs; a couple shopping areas with highly discounted stuff from; a comment block highlighting all of your great comments over the last 6 months; and a widget that shows tiny photos of some of my Facebook followers.

I also wanted to mention that Uncool Mom won a prize in the Lakewood Fourth of July parade (a large local parade in Old East Dallas).  The parade theme was “Lakewood’s Got Talent” so we put a sign on the front of the minivan that read “Mom’s Got Talent” and covered the sides and back with big word magnets we created on our home printer of all the jobs a Mom does, like NURSE, CHEF, COUNSELOR, LAUNDRESS, CHEERLEADER, BARBER, etc. Emmie and her cousin sat in the back throwing candy out the sides, and my sister-in-law, Marti, drove the van, dressed up like a stereotypical mom (a la Carol Burnett), in a bathrobe, cat-eyed sunglasses and with curlers in her hair. She was a hoot, admonishing kids along the parade route to “Eat Your Vegetables” and “Wash Behind Your Ears”.  We played Trout Fishing in America kids songs like “Are We There Yet?” and “Mine!” on the car stereo, and I walked along handing out cards (printed from a template provided by Nickelodeon) about the Parents Picks awards– and Andy rollerbladed, in his Nixon mask.  Thanks to my sister-in-law’s great acting, we won first place in the “over age 12” division for Most Creative Costume.  Below are some photos of our fun day. (Good thing my teenager was out of town– she would have died of embarrassment!!)
 If you ever want to see a very cool 4th of July parade, check out Lakewood’s.  It doesn’t get more Americana than this– it winds through neighborhoods so people have parties on their front lawns as they watch, some complete with dining tables and crystal, some with plastic lawn chairs and lots of American flags. It reminds me of the New Orleans lawn parties for the Mardi Gras parades. At the Lakewood parade, there are homemade floats, trucks with Scouts and cheerleaders, classic cars, politicians and beauty queens in convertibles, decorated bikes, decorated dogs, high school bands, Elvis impersonators, John McEnroe impersonators, and on and on.  It lasted 45 minutes this year! It ends in a park, with free water, beer, hot dogs and snow cones, and an appearance by Uncle Sam, who gives out the awards.  All neighborhood parades should copy this one!

“I’m going to be chaperoning your prom!” yells Marti to an unsuspecting kid.

Showing off the first place medal after the parade (by that point, the hundred-degree heat made the word magnets curl and fall off the back of the van!) 

Yes Days

Our pastor, whose children are grown, was telling those of us in his Sunday School class a couple weeks ago that he used to have “Yes” days with his kids– a day once in awhile where Dad would say yes to every request.  “What kinds of things did they ask for?” I asked him. “Oh, it usually involved ice cream,” he said.  “We’d go for ice cream a couple of times in one day.”
How fun, I thought, but if I tried that with my kids, I think I’d be broke pretty quick. No, make that, I know I’d be broke pretty quick, with a teenager who thinks it’s a bargain to pay $15 for a tiny cosmetic sponge.  I think the key to a successful Yes day, for me, would be not letting them know.   Without a lot of fanfare, say yes to a lot more things, within reason.

As I sat there in Pastor Jack’s class,  it occurred to me that my kids have actually been having a Yes summer.  And luckily, I don’t think they fully realize it.  

Usually, I “let down my guard” when we go out of town on vacation, but for some reason, this summer the vacation began with the final school bell.  It’s been ongoing. In the last month, I’ve bought…gulp…real junk food (“Mom!!!” screamed Emmie from the kitchen on a recent morning. “This is the best breakfast ever! You bought Pop Tarts that weren’t Whole Grain!!!”); I’ve taken a certain teenager to the mall more than usual without complaining, and not minded that she stays up ’til 2 a.m. watching TV and sleeps until noon (I remember doing the exact same thing at her age); I’ve allowed sleepovers with more than one friend at a time; gone back-to-school shopping 6 weeks early with Emmie; I even invited Allison to get a pedicure with me one day (I definitely detected a brief look of surprise in her expression when I announced that!). Without homework or lessons or meetings that we usually have 2-3 nights a week during the school year, we’ve been renting movies and playing games, going on bike rides…my husband even took Emmie and a friend ice skating last night after dinner.  Things are definitely a lot more relaxed around here, and I would venture to say there is even less kid sass flying around.  So as of today, I am officially not looking forward to the start of school.  And usually I’m counting down the days.

But, have no fear, all these yes’s have not put me into the “cool” category in the eyes of my children.  In order to go to the mall, have friends over, etc., there are still chores to be done. Lots of chores.  And it seems like I will never cease to be embarrassing.  Last night, after the ice skating outing, as Emmie and her friend sat down to play “Clue” with Andy and me, Emmie was mortified when I came to the table in my super thick terry bathrobe and flip flops. “Mom, pleeeese tell me you’ve got pajamas on under that robe!!!” she begged.  I changed the subject.  After all, I’m having a Yes summer, too. 

Little Ones Need To Travel, Too

My friends who are professional travel advisors have been telling me for months that “it’s too cheap not to travel this summer”.  Some thoughts about vacations, for people who are talking themselves out of traveling because they think their kids are too young– or for people who know families like that:

Six summers ago, we took our kids on a Southern California adventure trip when one was 8 and the other was 4. We’d saved up airline miles so that all four of us flew free, so we splurged and went to the Hotel Del Coronado, Legoland, the San Diego Zoo, and topped it off with a day and a half at Disneyland.  I remember, before we left, hearing from several parents who told me they planned to not spend money on any kind of “big trip” until their kids were at least 10 because at younger ages, they probably wouldn’t remember it. 

But, is that the only reason to take a child on a trip– memories?  While it’s true that my older child has more memories of that California trip than my younger one, I think my youngest benefited from it in many other ways. 

First, there’s something to be said about having fun as a family, about “feeling the love” that I think just gets into a child’s bones and the fabric of who they are, even if he or she can’t remember any details of a trip.  Also, as kids try new skills while traveling, like water skiing or hiking a really long, uphill trail, they gain self esteem and self confidence.  I remember on that California trip how my little one was so proud that she’d gone on “Big Thunder Mountain” and liked it, while a big grownup like Mom was too scared to go (well, not exactly too scared– I just don’t enjoy roller coasters!!!).  

Yet another intangible of travel has got to be helping your kids “grow smarter”– you’re offering them mind-expanding opportunities that are helping to sharpen their brains.  From what I’ve read lately, anytime you get outside your usual routine, your brain is getting needed exercise, even if it’s as simple as driving a different route to the grocery store.  Imagine what can happen when a suburbanite preschooler from Texas sees a bunch of seals piled on a beach in La Jolla, or gets to sit in the cockpit of a jet airplane at the end of a flight, or eats a fish taco for the first time…those brain connections must have been firing like crazy! 

Last but definitely not least, there are some aspects of every travel experience that only a young child can truly appreciate.  Do you really want to wait to travel until they’re “too mature” to get excited about shaking hands with Goofy? Til they’re too big to enjoy the cool playground at Sea World? Til that high-pitched, glee-filled scream-followed-by-giggles that they make while running away from the “chasing surf” is forever silent?

I think I would have my kids experience travel even if I was guaranteed they’d remember nothing.  It’s just that good.   ###

Emmie waits for another wave on Coronado Island, CA, June 2003. 
                              Wish this photo had sound!!

Allison “carries” me in the pool at “The Del”.  Priceless!  (Will she ever do that again?)