Nice To Meet You, Cousin?

Families moving away from each other is nothing new. It is definitely not a particular trend of this generation. However, I had not stop to think of this until our recent trip to Montreal. Before this summer, I had felt as if I was the only one around me living without family close by. No Sunday barbecues at the grandparents’ house, no cousins’ birthday parties to attend; my existence a mere legend for the new kids in the family to learn about “the aunt who lives in the US”.

I have been nothing more than a photo on a telephone screen for my immediate family from the moment I moved to the States. The voice on the other side of the telephone. The daughter, sister, cousin, aunt that goes to Mexico to visit once a year. My children the ghosts of the grandparents’ tales.

While I love having a close-knit immediate family, I do sometimes feel the guilt of not providing my children with the day-to-day interactions that their friends have with their extended families living close by.

I had been so focused in my own experience, that I had failed to notice that my story is a repeated one from the beginning of times. I’m the relative who moved away. Just like my husband did and so many people of his family had done before him. I would like to focus on one of my husband’s relatives in particular, his aunt Marie, who moved from their little village in Lebanon to the big city of Montreal with her family just months before my husband was born.

He grew up hearing about his aunt and his five cousins and bits and pieces of their lives. Their memory a fading one among the remaining family members until a phone call would revive it in their hearts and minds. Only once did my husband got to interact with three of his “cousins in Montreal” when they went to visit the family in “the old country” and then just a couple of times with his aunt before he decided this summer that it was time we went to Canada to meet the rest of his relatives there.

The excitement was palpable even in our children who were looking forward to meeting new family members. It is so rare for them to interact with family in person that they could not wait to get to know their cousins, even though they were all grown ups.

It was Friday evening when the two youngest cousins, the ones that had never been back to Lebanon, where coming to meet us (quite literally) at the hotel. The warmth of their smiles was the immediate welcome into the family that my children so craved. We felt at ease and happy from the beginning. The conversation plentiful and effortless. When the rest joined us at a restaurant for dinner, we turned from a group of strangers into a cheerful family reunion that widened our hearts to fit them all in.

My children were immediately drawn to their cousins, a few of them already had admirers among my little ones. In the upcoming day, the kids enjoyed touring the city but they could not wait for Sunday to see their “big cousins” again.

We drove to the suburbs where one of them was hosting us at his house for the kind of Sunday family barbecue that is the staple of so many childhoods. We parked the car and we were greeted by a committee of cousins who wanted to witness the embrace of an aunt and her nephew. As I saw that from the distance, I understood it all: family bonds are stronger than distance and time; legends told by other family members do bring you closer with those who had left.

As we came in and we made ourselves at home, our cousins took care of us all and made sure to spend individual quality time with the five of us. We felt so loved and the afternoon was so special that it did not matter all the time that we had spent without knowing one another, once we looked into each other eyes, we knew it, we were among family!

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Guest Speaker

The little hands of second graders kept rising as I repeated: any other questions? It was certainly the highlight of my week!

At the beginning of the school year, like any dutiful parent/guardian of grade school children, I filled out the endless repetitive school forms not checking the box to volunteer as the homeroom person nor to come make copies of participate in the classroom on a weekly basis. No, those jobs are not for me. Although I really enjoy meeting my children’s friends, I am just not equipped with the patience and classroom management tools required to keep a smile and my cool while working in a class of more than 20 kids on a weekly basis.

I however, love volunteering for special events, field trips, parties and above all to come as a guest speaker and teach children about the world, languages and Mexico. Thus, like every year, I wrote down on the form what I would be willing to come do for the class. My son’s teacher quickly took note of that and finally last week, we were able to coordinate a time for me to come and talk about Mexico.

It was very special to me as I projected the map of the U.S. and Mexico with a little plane tracing the route between Philadelphia and Guadalajara, the great attention with which the second graders listened to my story. I talked to them about what it means to be an immigrant, how proud I am of my dual nationality and how one can be loyal to two different countries -except, of course, when it comes to soccer, there the kids learned, I will always go for Mexico!

Their eyes opened wide in amazement as I showed them a map of the vast flora and fauna of Mexico and they learned that despite many cartoon characterizations of the country set it in a desert, Mexico has jungles and valleys, oceans and volcanoes and rich colors.

The students loved learning a few words and phrases in Spanish but were even more excited as I told them that the most important thing to remember as they may encounter new classmates who might still be learning English, is that everyone smiles in the same language.

I showed them some of the colorful buildings and landscapes of the country and brought a few things crafted by artisans. They loved touching them and recognizing the vibrancy of the paints and fabrics utilized to make them.

I closed the presentation by talking about the DREAMERS and reading the book by that name by Yuyi Morales. To my surprise, they enjoyed the presentation so much that they showered me with questions about monkeys, jaguars, types of jobs, games and toys, money, language and so many other things I can’t remember.

Children’s minds are so ready to learn about the world. We often forget this and don’t take advantage of this prime time to teach them empathy, social justice, equality, and the role they have in making their world a better place. Children are so ready to be helpful and accepting and to grow. I’m so glad that I had a little part in them learning about the world this school year.

The Mitten in Your Kitchen

You answered the video call as it would have been if I had arrived to your house for coffee after dropping the kids off at school: with that morning rush of wanting to get a million things done while having time to catch up with a friend.

You were just getting back to your house, walking while talking, you showed me your newly renovated kitchen and then “we” headed to the living room to get our chat going. As you walked around your new home in California, I noticed familiar sights. Mementos from our departure from Michigan at different times.

In your kitchen was a cutting board in the shape of this wonderful state accurately nicknamed The Mitten. I was gifted one too. Then you showed me your metallic picture frame in the same shape, just like the one you had given me before I moved. Then a collection of Christmas cards proudly displayed in the kitchen way past Valentine’s Day just like I had kept mine the year before to help me feel the love of our friends in the distance.

The conversation was a repeat of last year’s. Except this time, it was me listening and you sharing how the kids are taking longer than anticipated to adapt to the new school. How sometimes they wake up crying because they miss their friends and their old school; the Lakes and their after school classes.

You were, as always, greeting life with your perennial bright smile but worried that things were not settling down as quickly as you had hoped for. Moving across state lines is harder with older children. Our role as the main caretakers is to comfort and listen and hope that the following week will be the one when the kids are finally excited to go to the new school.

I gotta tell you that though it seems impossible to believe right now, things do get better and slowly everyone finds their place in the new house, school and city. Nevertheless, the transition process is a much longer one than the one we imagined in our heads.

I’m glad we have each other to discuss the happy and not so happy changes that come with the move but I’m infinitely thankful that we both had Michigan.

Capable Kids are Caring Kids

I came home late from school last night directly to kiss my sleeping children goodnight. My oldest daughter was surrounded by eight or so stuffed animals on her bed. My son and youngest daughter were asleep together, on the same bed, as it has been the case since we moved to our new house. My son says that it is so that our preschooler is not afraid at night, but I know he is very glad to have the company himself.

As I came into my little daughter’s room, I saw a small board -one of those that you can write on and then press a button to erase everything- and a few board books on the ABC’s and the numbers. This sight made my heart full. My son, who is in second grade, loves to read and has made it his nightly task to read to his little sister. This week he took his role as the big brother further deciding that he would teach our preschooler the alphabet so that she would no longer hesitate when we help her spell out a word.

This gesture has made me smile the whole week. Sometimes I feel like I ask too much of the older two kids because they are independent and capable of helping around the house and with small tasks related to caring for their little sister. This week in particular helped me realize that I am wrong in second guessing myself.

Kids have the natural desire to be helpful and they are perfectly capable of taking on chores and family duties according to their age and development. As soon as my school-aged children had been able to keep things organized in their backpacks and at school, I started asking them to do the same in their rooms. They make their beds every morning and put away their clean laundry.

Does this happen automatically and with the high organizational standards in which I would like to keep our house? Well no. The point is, that with a bit of coaching and asking a few times, the children can definitely be helpful.

It is thanks to the oldest two that we get out the door on time every morning. Without their help reaching clothes from my preschooler’s closet, putting toothpaste on her toothbrush and sometimes even serving her cereal, I would not be able to make their lunches, clear the kitchen and get the laundry going every day.

The best part is that being helpful makes them feel proud about themselves and gives them confidence to take on new challenges such as my nine-year-old making scrambled eggs and toast for her siblings on the weekends or my eight-year-old playing teacher with our four-year-old.

Kids can do so much if we just let them.

Colombia Had Been Waiting

We are that family who likes to give our children the sort of things that do not come in boxes (most of the time) and adventures are our most preferred option. Like I have talked about in some of my previous posts, travel is the one gift that as you unwrap, as it takes over your surroundings, it makes an imprint on you, changing you forever. That was in my husband’s mind when he decided to buy tickets for the five of us to go to Colombia in lieu of a party for his momentous fortieth birthday.

Colombia had been waiting for us. It had been on our radar ever since my dear friend moved there following her Colombian husband. They were supposed to be there only for some months but those months have now amounted to four years and it was time that we went to see them.

Our findings suggested that we explored more than one city while we were in the South American country and it made sense that if our first stop was going to be Cartagena, right at the beach, the second one to be Medellin, the city surrounded by mountains and greenery that has been our friends’ home.

Since we were going to be on the move, we decided to pack lightly. The usual one big suitcase that we would check-in, two carry-on roller suitcases, backpacks for us adults, and for the first time in nine years, no stroller. This last piece of information is important because our preschooler, the baby of the family, is not the walking type. She likes to be on a stroller or carried most of the time. She still takes naps when she’s been pushed around so we knew this was going to be the one particular challenge to overcome during the trip.

I packed the Ergo Baby in which she still fits, just in case, and went along with the plan. This frugality in our packing allowed us to go swiftly through the airport and only 30 minutes after landing, we were already at our hotel, ready to explore.

It is magical to witness the look in my children’s eyes as they start to take in the new sounds, the music, the smells. Our first daughter is rather observant but not one to say much in the moment. She keeps it in until she decides to tell you how she noticed even the color of the shoes the hat peddler was wearing. Our middle child, our son, is the one who still acts like a puppy, as I like to describe; he jumps around and climbs everything he can climb -from benches to short walls-, he’s the one who would be describing things as they interest him, the one ever-ready to try new foods. Then lastly, our preschooler who usually tries to follow her older brother. She would do whatever he does if she can, so she’s easy to get to try new foods. She also would tell you how tired she is from walking -even when you have been carrying her for the last 5 blocks.

The walled city with endless souvenirs to buy, the pool at the hotel, our first encounter with our lovely friends, the boat ride to the islands, the day at the beach, our stroller-less strolls, the sounds of Cartagena are all gifts that we were all able to unwrap and savor together during this part of the adventure. Cartagena tattooing itself in our hearts. However magical and romantic of a place, I think the most important part of the trip unraveled in Medellin.

We landed there to be greeted by our friend who had arrived the day before. She was ready to regale us with anecdotes, with touristy bits and pieces of information, with her performing the task of the tour guide in a country that now shows to be the greater piece of herself -Colombia had been waiting in her for us to come, to teach us all her love for her new country. It was a wonderful day for us all as we met our hosts’ extended family and were, at last, able to visit with them and their children in their new home.

Everyone enjoyed having time with our friends in their house in the mountains, but perhaps above all of them myself. This visit represented so much more to me. It was the first time since I reconnected with my girlfriend of almost two decades, that she was hosting us, in her home. Welcoming me into her kitchen where I was able to contribute chopping veggies for dinner; welcoming me into her living room where I was able to win over her three-year-old son who, since last time I saw him, was now able to tell me stories; welcoming me into her day-to-day life as a way to understand the stage of motherhood she currently finds herself in.

I wonder if this happens to my friends when they see me in pure mommy-form, but there was something very special in seeing my friend, comadre, confidant and cheerleader in this role. Her two boys wrapping around her legs and torso, conducting half conversations between them and I and my children who also love her and wanted her attention. She danced the dance of chaos that young children bring beautifully and it was such a joy, the biggest gift to me, to witness her in her home, in her element for once.

Seeing my friend in this early stages of childhood with her boys showed me too that the stages of childhood that we have graduated from with our two oldest children, are still very present in our youngest. It was hard to avoid the comparisons. While my oldest is posing questions about the unfairness of life as she saw humble housing next to rich ones, my middle child wondered why the fruits and plants were different than the ones in Pennsylvania, and the youngest was just happy cuddling with her godparents, eating chorizo y morcilla.

It is important to meet every child where they are at, not rush them to grow and to be like the others in the family clan. If this important in the quotidianity of life, it is even more important when you are teaching young children to adapt their needs in new environments.  I repeated this to myself many times as we walked only for a little bit when my preschooler would already be asking to be held missing her stroller. My husband and I held her willingly and gladly. Childhood is too precious to be rushed around.

Colombia had been waiting for us with its natural beauty and our lovely friends. It turned out to be the best gift we could have gotten for my husband’s fortieth and a most extraordinary place to celebrate our oldest’s ninth birthday! Now imprinted in us all, we come back with our hearts full and our minds filled with fun memories ever more aware of our children’s individuality and the particular stages they find themselves in.

 

Tough Love

This week, in honor of Love and Valentine’s Day, of course, I want to share how love has touched me in a different way lately. Relocating to a different state shook me to my core and perhaps helped me put my life into perspective, propelling me to find ways to move towards achieving different goals.

Serendipity guided me back to school and my long hours of self assessment, have turned into dynamic ones with great purpose. All these opportunities for self-improvement had started to be filled with positive ways to get closer to my goals. All but in the area of fitness.

Perhaps the fear of adding yet another failure to the list of unaccomplished task, kept me comfortable in my routine of hot yoga and cycling. I had not wanted to go back to lifting weights or boot camp, or anything really that would show me, once again, that my performance was inadequate, that I was just not up to par.

Then just as I was feeling a bit more settled, more capable of accomplishment, a friend’s push to follow her into a healthy lifestyle ended with me winning a makeover at this highly personal strength training gym. Talk about intimidating. I was now there alongside my extremely fit and agile friend who is basically a poster child of determination (literally, there’s a poster at the gym with her photo at a sporting event with the legend “Determination”) and I was supposed to participate in the same class? Where there not different levels like at yoga?

She’s not one for hugs and cuddles. She instead high fives me and looks into my eyes and persuades me that I too can get it done. She makes fun of me for using weightlifting gloves for my newly-acquired calluses, but at the same time sends me encouraging texts to keep me going, to lift more, to keep challenging myself or to check out the latest trainer’s post that applies to me. She doesn’t see my goals as hefty or unattainable, she sees some kind of hidden strength in me and she informs me of its existence. She has me convinced that I can really set this as my personal goal without the fear of failure. She wants me to achieve and to thrive. She truly has my back.

Her drive, her pep talk, her tough love is something that I have come to highly appreciate and her friendship is one I know I want for the long haul.

Love comes at you in different ways, true friendship is the one that lifts you higher.

Tic-Toc, Tic-Toc, Tic-Toc

Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc

the time is almost here

 

Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc

this is the last of it

 

The time has passed like wind,

the fast kind, not a breeze

 

There was a first one, then two,

at last there were the three

Three little babies who then began to read

 

The last one of the three

will be my last to keep so near

 

Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc

like knocking on the door,

to kindergarten soon,

the youngest dear will go

 

Alone the mom will be,

she chose to make this work

 

Career on pause and all

but joy instead had come

 

Without promotions and praises

but with memories in special places

 

Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc

the last preschooler goes

 

Tic-toc, tic-toc, tic-toc

and now where will I go?

The Gift of No Expectations

It was a low key closure of the year in this house. One the one hand, we found ourselves reflecting on our first year in Pennsylvania with the many obstacles conquered and many other voids yet to be filled. On the other hand, my husband had a pretty strenuous last quarter at work with the never-ending list of the responsibilities and projects to complete in his office competing non-stop with his home life.

We needed a breather and with the hubby hitting the pause button to take a much deserved respite, we enjoyed the last 10 days of 2018 as a family -with no outside responsibilities. I knew how stressed my husband had been over work and I did not intend on loading him with honey-do lists at home and a fast-paced week off spent on-the-go. So I did something that normally I wouldn’t and I let go of my planning side a bit for him to take over and decide what activities to do with the kids.

We kicked started the holiday break with a weekend in The Big Apple. Normally I would be the one sitting by the computer, compiling lists and mapping out the days. However, my husband wanted to be more involved from the get go and helped me decide on the activities and then he just took over navigating, making reservations and figuring everything out. I tell you, this was something unseen but it gave us a wonderful opportunity to switch roles. To really go on vacation mode.

We had a low-key Christmas all about the kids and managed to be social and hung out with a few friends. Overall, though, we were more concerned about spending time together, listening to each other, playing with the children, doing things that we normally don’t get the chance to do like cooking a meal together, him and I together while sipping wine. It was wonderful for the whole family dynamic to fit in the every day.

The ease of the days and the relaxing feeling of the closing of one more year was very much dependent on the gift of having zero expectations for each and every day. If we woke up wanting to go ice skating downtown, we would just go do it. If we felt like staying home and playing Legos or reading a book, we made sure that nothing else would creep into the schedule.

In the fast-paced life that we chose to live, is important to give ourselves the gift of nothingness and empty days on the calendar. I had forgotten what that felt like. Now on to 2019 and the many goals each of us has for ourselves and back to madness of the school-year routine but we are already making sure to make room for adventures and nothingness too.

Happy New Year!

 

Reclaiming Traditions

Last year, my family was living in the state of limbo that a move across state lines represents. The heart that had been contracting and expanding to deal with the many emotions of leaving the familiar to venture into what I had primarily explored in photos taken on my husband’s phone, was pumping away the last bits of farewells that it could handle.

Knowing that the move would take place the week prior to Christmas, we did not cut a tree to trim; we could not decorate the house as it had to be kept “show-ready” for any potential buyers to come by; we did not host any parties of partake in the majority of OUR traditions. Those traditions that we had been so fortunate to forge by ourselves, as one of the great benefits of being a couple of foreigners who made a home in a new land.

Aside from the sadness that not being able to really take a part in the festivities at home leading to last year’s Christmas like closing on two houses -one sold and the other purchased (without me even seeing it), controlling my emotions so that the children could find solace in me, and the many emotional and deeply touching good-byes, made for a whole lot to handle in such a compressed amount of time.

We did get a tree that ended up traveling with us from Michigan to Pennsylvania, making all the pit stops. And the very evening we moved, my husband got us a real tree from a parking lot we drove by. However, the emptiness of the house with the solemnity of its cream color walls and its lack of personality, made for a sad Christmas. At least for me, tired of caring for everyone’s emotions by hiding my sadness. Christmas Eve everything just hit me at once and I think that was the very day that my mourning for Michigan started.

That feeling would not leave me for a while as the anticipated transition surprised me by lasting so much more than I would have preferred. I did learn, however, that like a tea that needs to steep to soften and release it flavors, I too needed to give time to my emotions to soften before I could grow from the experience.

Now exactly a year later, I can look back and look at the obstacles that we overcame as a family and as individuals. I can see the friendly smiles that have help us find a place along with many new experiences that we have had the opportunity to live. We have settled enough to feel like we have made a home.

This home needed to be decorated for Christmas so this year, our friends took us to a place to cut our tree, we baked our traditional spritz cookies to give away, we got out the window clings and the wreath, we sent and are receiving holiday cards, we even took out that darn Elf on the shelf early… Many things have found a place in our new lives, many others are yet to do so and we also have made room for new traditions such as singing along to the organ at the botanical gardens with friends.

As I look back, we came here for adventure and change and I think we have gotten quite a bit of both.

Happy holidays!

Rebuilding My Internal Puzzle

I have a love-and-hate relationship with puzzles. I really enjoy putting them together and more than anything, finishing them. However, it is very hard for me to leave things unfinished, laying there on a table waiting for me to take action. Which is why when we opened a thousand piece puzzle after dinner on Thanksgiving, I knew I would lose sleep, I would be behind with the laundry and my work and everything else, until the last piece was placed on the board.

As I’m closing in on my first year since my move to Pennsylvania, I have been reflecting on the enriching new experiences and the tough times that have come my way during this transition that continues to engulf my new life.

Like the pieces in an endless puzzle, I’ve been trying to frantically put my new life together -sometimes forcing bits and pieces where they don’t belong- just so that I can finish going through this transition and look back and admire the end results.

Real life does not seem to have an exact number of puzzle pieces to match together, however. As new parts have come to me, I have tried to find them a spot in my previous life, in my old routine, in the things that I used to do. But alas, not all new pieces fit where I would like them to and in my rush to get “back to normal”, I have forced them into a spot where they rest uncomfortably.

It has been particularly challenging to create a social circle. In my quest to find friendship, I have often forced a relationship that perhaps was better off left as casual acquaintances. At the same time, I have noticed that when I let things be, true friendships have been formed piece-by-piece.

In retrospect, I have been molding my new life in a way that does not leave much room for superficiality and rather than being a social butterfly, I have focused my energies in building strong bonds with people who have come to represent what Pennsylvania has become for me: a welcoming place filled with great adventures.

As I try to rebuild my internal puzzle, I’m reminded, once again, to be patient and to trust the process rather than rushing to a self-imposed finish line marking the first year since we moved. Nevertheless, since patience is not my strongest suit, I think I still have a lot of pieces to replace within me.

There is much work to be done still but I think this internal puzzle will definitely be one of my most precious ones when I finish it.