Anything Helps, Even a Smile

Lauren Johnson

We had just left Dairy Queen. I was feeling incredibly guilty because drive thru meals have increased as we have found ourselves always on the go. Coincidentally enough, my weight has also increased significantly – I am certain that the two are correlated. Regardless, we left the drive thru and pulled up to the lights to head South on the highway, me with a mouthful of BBQ Snack Melt, when I saw a man standing there with a cardboard sign. The sign read, “Anything helps, even a smile.”

It had been one of those incredibly windy days and the man was clearly doing everything he could just to hold on to his sign. I couldn’t help but think about how cold this man had to be, and before I knew it, we had changed course and headed back toward McDonalds to get the man with the sign something warm to eat.

Collins slept through this whole adventure, but Kendall was fully alert, curious as to why were at McDonalds when we had been on our way home just a couple of minutes before. I explained to her that we were taking the “man with a sign” something to eat, further explaining that he quite possibly hadn’t had anything to eat all day. She was very upset at the idea that his “tummy was rumbly,” and thought fondly of our mission to alleviate that issue for him.

I have to figure that if someone is asking for help, then they really need it. I would’ve came home and worried about this man all night had I not done at least something for him. To be honest, I’ve worried about that poor man since the second I saw him and his wellbeing has consumed my thoughts.

We took the “man with a sign” his two cheeseburger meal and some extra cash. As I handed it out the window to him, he nearly cried (and so did I). He said, “oh, bless you, bless you!”, before taking off across the street to his bike. It made me wonder how long that man had stood there hoping for something warm to eat. How many cars drove by him, a block away from a drive thru, ignoring his pleas for help. How many people went home and regretted not helping, and how many never gave it a second thought?

The entire drive home, Kendall was full of questions.
“Who was that man?” “Does he know how to eat?” “Why is he hungry?” “How did you know he was hungry?” “Where does he live?” But after I answered all of her questions, her wheels started turning from why we helped this man, to what else we could do. “We could invite him to our house?” “I could give him my candy!” “Can we buy him a bed?” “We could visit him so he has friends!”

We continued our discussion and I told her that sometimes in life, we experience hardships and although I’m not certain, the “man with a sign” may not have had anything other than the clothes on his back and his bicycle. I asked her how she would feel if all she had was a coat and a bicycle. She replied, “well mommy, that would make me sad!”

I hope Kendall can always look back on this day, and without using any judgement at all, follow her big heart to find a way to help others. I also hope that the “man with a sign” can look back on today and know that even though hundreds of people went on by, there will always be that one person who will help him when he needs it. Maybe someday he will be able to return the favor, I will bet that if he can – he will. Until then, we should all learn a very valuable lesson from this man and remember that anything helps, even a smile!

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
⁃ Ralph Waldo Emerson

© 2019 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

French fries and four leaf clovers

Life is full of surprises. Some are good, some are bad; some are big, some are little. Saturday morning, we stopped by a birthday party for our favorite minion, Arlo, wishing him a happy third birthday before we headed to the baseball diamond to watch Max’s {my stepson} double header.

As we sat between games, we looked up in the sky and there was the most beautiful rainbow. There wasn’t a single drop of rain and it was not the typical arched rainbow you would expect. It was a clear sky, the warm sun shining brightly with only a few fluffy white clouds scattered about.

Andrew and I watched as the rainbow seemingly danced through the sky and throughout the clouds. I looked around at others as they sat in their lawn chairs, oblivious to the sky above them. Just like that, the rainbow disappeared and the second baseball game started.

Driving home after the game, I couldn’t help but get excited. My friend Kate moved to New Orleans about six years ago, visiting only once after Kendall was born. We talk often, but I miss her immensely. Kate texted me Saturday morning, to tell me that she had something for me and someone would be delivering it when I was home. Imagine my surprise when I opened the door to find Kate standing there!

We sat for hours and talked and laughed – dulling the initial shock of Kate’s arrival, graduating quickly back into our old routine. Kendall – hearing frequently of “Aunt Kate”- was anxious to color Aunt Kate pictures, perform spontaneous dance routines in her honor, and also to crawl up on the couch next to her to chit chat about life.

Kate’s return to Central Illinois was cause for celebration so we got ready for a girl’s night out. Once we were out, it didn’t take any time to realize that some things never change. We hit the McDonald’s drive-thru for some iced coffees and french fries, drove around town, and laughed until our faces hurt.

Sunday, we started our morning off by taking the girls to swim at Kate’s hotel. Watching Kate interact with my girls warmed my heart. It was wonderful to see three people that I loved so much, love each other as well.

After swimming, the girls and I left to get ready for our little buddy Koa’s second birthday party at Weldon Springs. Sitting on our picnic blankets, Andrew found a five leaf clover. A walk to the frog pond did not provide us with a closer look at any frogs (although we could hear them all around us), but we did see the Great Blue Heron and found four more four leaf clovers.

Saying goodbye to Kate later that night was just as hard as would be expected. Hopefully someday we can reciprocate and surprise her with a visit, too. Until then, we will hold on to all of the memories we made this weekend, remaining grateful for all of the special people we have in our lives.

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

Chasing Butterflies

We left the house at 8:15 Monday morning. I had prepared for a week prior, texting my favorite available naturalists for advice, practicing my presentation with my own children so much that all three of us knew it by heart. Driving down the all-too-familiar road, we pulled into Weldon Springs State Park. I was nervous that I wouldn’t do the presentation justice. What if someone asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to? How would I keep 50 children entertained for two hours as I taught them about trees and leaves? Would the children think that was fun?

A friend had texted me that morning. He said, “The kids will see your passion and I’m sure it will ignite their desire to learn about nature. Kids like dirt and bugs…So take a deep breath and just be your fabulous self. It’ll be fine.” It was just the advice I needed to start Camp Osage’s Nature week. My mom always said that she had the best job in the world, she got paid to chase butterflies and play in the creek. For the first time ever, I was getting paid to do the same.

Searching through all of her files and old notes, I can feel the passion my mom had for what she did. Her handwriting, her words – speaking to me and all who will attempt to follow in her footsteps; and what big footsteps we all have to fill. It amazes me, the amount of people it takes to fill one void. She was my mom and that is a loss I will always grieve, but she was an asset to our children, to our community – to so many more than just myself.

A close friend of the family, and previous intern at Weldon Springs told me, “Remember nature has a way of happily, unexpectedly cooperating…don’t miss these moments.” What grand advice, not just in preparation for my presentation, but for life in general. We can prepare for multiple situations, but being unprepared for the moments out of our control can lead to some phenomenal experiences.

I was surprised to find out how many children had never been fishing and how many couldn’t identify a photograph of a cardinal – but their excitement to learn, to experience new things and see nature in a new way, was paramount. Hearing the screams and giggles of a group of girls as my daughter caught a bluegill, kissing it before its release, made me think to myself that we were all making memories together, and wasn’t that the whole point?

Bird watching was a really fun day, I don’t know that there was a single child that wasn’t excited at the chance to use a set of real binoculars and flip through their Peterson Field Guide to identify (and many times, successfully) the birds they were seeing. The Great Blue Heron is my favorite bird – a bird that has become very special to me, my husband, my children and my closest friend – and one that was special to my mom. I took full advantage of the opportunity to express my love for the bird, challenging them all to find one – them, just as excited as myself, when we found one – all five days. As promised, my excitement ecstatically rubbed off.

I know that my talks and activities were flawed, as I am not a professional naturalist, but while I studied and researched – I remembered that my mom was self taught, and I had the confidence that it could be done. We made it through the week (tree identification, prairie walk, fishing, birdwatching, aquatic study and scavenger hunt) with minimal issues and a lot of fun. I can only hope that even one of those children will grow up to value Weldon Springs in a personal way, loving the park for all it has to offer, helping to preserve its significance for future generations.

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

Better Late Than Never

When I went to pick Kendall up from school one day last week, it was spitting rain and sort of dreary – nothing worth complaining about considering it was the second week of January and it was nearly 40 degrees outside. When Collins and I entered the school – we had arrived early – Kendall’s class was singing a song together. Kendall saw us walk in and yelled, “Mommy, watch!”, as if I was not completely enthralled with watching her already. She is not shy, so when the song said, “dance with a friend,” she walked right over to another little girl and danced with her. The little girl was not as outgoing, but Kendall just smiled and danced anyway.

As we were leaving the school that day, I kept trying to get Kendall to hurry to the car, due to the weather. I cannot imagine how many times I probably tell her to hurry in a day. Maybe not in those exact words, but “hurry” being the underlying point. She was walking behind me as I tried to set the pace to the car, when I heard her say, “hold on mommy, I’m getting something for you!” Generally, it is a rock, stick or leaf that will sit in my car until we bring it inside or until it secretly gets tossed back outside. I appreciate that she sees beauty in the everyday and I do try to save as many things as I can, but to save every “gift” she picks up for me would be impossible – without just bringing the whole back yard inside. This day was different though, she had found a dandelion (impressive, again, considering it is January), which I had overlooked in my attempt to scurry to the car. She proudly handed me the dandelion and I proudly accepted. Had she hurried to keep my pace, the opportunity for this exchange would have been lost and I found myself thinking that maybe I encourage her to “hurry” too much.

Just last week, I wrote about time and the importance of utilizing it to our advantage. I cannot help but wish that time would slow down, so why am I trying so hard to “hurry”? How many special moments have I missed due to rushing the girls?

We often have other places to be and that is generally why I need us to get going. School that morning, for example. It does not seem to matter how early I wake up the girls or how I rearrange our morning routine so that we can be on time – we always seem to end up running late. At the last minute, we need just the right pair of shoes, or our socks feel funny or we need a different coat, and generally once this happens to one of the girls, both end up with the same problem making the grueling task of leaving the house utterly impossible at times.

I have stressed to Kendall the importance of being on time, telling her that someone is waiting for us and when we are late, we are inconsiderately wasting their time. She understands, but still insists on climbing into her own seat and buckling her own seatbelt, even though I’m certain that adds about three minutes to our routine. When I reconsider this, however, three minutes is irrelevant to the grand scheme of things and it makes her feel good, and even proud of herself, to be independent and do it on her own. In my head, I still hope she will hurry, but I no longer stand there rushing her as she fidgets with the buckle. Instead, I give her a high-five or a “great job, big girl”, and finally jump in to the front seat (of course, I immediately check the time on the dashboard clock).

Some days I look at the girls and wonder how they grew up so fast, where did time go? Other times, I look at them and feel grateful that they are still so young and innocent. Either way, in my attempt to remain positive, I am going to try to stop hurrying so much, and instead, focus on the now. I will never find it acceptable to be late, but I also do not find it acceptable to miss out on any more special moments with my girls. The next time I am three minutes late, just know that it is not because I do not value your time, it is because I have learned to value ours.

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

Feeding the birds

(Written in 2017, but it’s hummingbird season again here in the Midwest!)

Despite growing up in a home that always had several, this was the first year I finally put out a hummingbird feeder. I cannot determine exactly why I have never had one, but the commitment always intimidated me. It truly is a lot of work to keep up with a hummingbird feeder. Instead, we have planted many flowers that attract both hummingbirds and butterflies, in hopes of having their yearly return visit.

I purchased my first feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited at the beginning of the year, with full intentions of its regular upkeep. Unfortunately, I failed, once again, of hanging it until later in the season – although I suppose that is a significant improvement over past years when I did not have one at all.

We had one single hummingbird in front of our house, who continued to visit frequently, despite the lack of feeder. He was what inspired me to finally dig out our feeder and boil my first batch of “nectar.” To make safe hummingbird food, you mix 1 part sugar with 4 parts water. Boiling this solution kills any bacteria or mold that may be present. After boiling, you allow the water to cool before filling the clean feeder. Something important that is often overlooked – and contrary to popular belief – you DO NOT add red food dye.

Research cannot confirm nor deny whether or not all red food dye is harmful to hummingbirds, however adding red dye does not add any nutritional value for hummingbirds and is therefore completely unnecessary. Some red dye is in fact proven to be damaging to hummingbirds (some dyes can even kill the hummingbird), so it is best to just avoid it altogether. Instead, clean your feeder and replenish it with fresh nectar regularly (every few days is best). If you’re still looking to add a little color, most feeders have red caps that help to attract the hummingbird, the nectar will do the rest.

When looking for information regarding hummingbirds, I dug into some past columns of my mom’s. I said earlier that I had one solo hummingbird, but according to the article, “Hummingbird Bander,” by Carol Thompson, “…the rule of thumb is that most hummingbird enthusiasts underestimate the number of birds using their feeder by two thirds. Most feeders host three times the number of birds their monitors think they see.” Immediately, I had to wonder how many others we had hanging around.

Some of this information may be redundant to some, but as I sat around chatting with my girlfriends the other day, we discussed some of these issues and concluded that there are a lot of people – from our generation especially – who do not have the experience or knowledge to maintain hummingbird feeders. Unfortunately, my feeder has harbored no visitors for almost a week now. It is safe to assume that the birds that recently visited our feeder are on “a treacherous round trip journey that will require two five-hundred-mile, non-stop flights across the Gulf of Mexico. If they survive, they may return to the feeder next spring…”

I think I will purchase a second feeder for next year.

“A flash of harmless lightening, a mist of rainbow dyes, the burnished sunbeams brightening, from flower to flower he flies.” – John B. Tabb

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

Best of the year

Written by my mom, Carol McFeeters Thompson

The end of the calendar year invites reflection. As I turn the page on a new year, I look back over the best adventures of the past twelve months.

2010 was a great year for life birds Adding a life bird is not an easy thing for an experienced birder to do – especially not in his own home territory. When a life list reaches about two hundred birds, most of the birds that can be easily seen in central Illinois have already been

listed. After that, life birds usually come only in ones or twos per year, primarily during migration.

The “Birthday Bird” was our first lifer of 2010.

Adding a life bird in midwinter is difficult. Adding a life bird on home territory, on a specific day in midwinter is almost out of reach. But, that was his goal; it was his birthday, after all.

The number of potential species to be seen is greatly reduced when the many birds that depend on insects or flowers migrate south in the fall. He tallied the year-round birds years ago. The best possibilities for a winter life bird would be irruptive birds, birds that summer in the far north and winter in central Illinois, waterfowl that have strayed from the flyways, or some of the rarer owls.

So, he decided to try for one of the rarer owls first.

In order to avoid harassment by crows and jays, owls usually spend the day roosting in the dense foliage of a conifer. He created a mental list of potential sites and began searching the evergreens. He scanned each tree in search of opaque areas, then moved a bough wherever

necessary to see through the foliage. He had only scoured four or five clumps of trees when he saw the diminutive outline of a saw whet, the smallest eastern owl, perched midway out on a branch within a red cedar. This was almost too easy! He had his life bird.

As we pulled up alongside his truck, I noted a very self-satisfied expression and knew he had found something good.

Walking back over to the cedar, he carefully moved a single bough to reveal a little owl no more than eight inches tall. We could clearly see a shallow flat face with disproportionately large, bright yellow eyes and a black beak. The base of the bill was surrounded by bristles with stiff, lacy feathers radiating around each eye. The shape of the head was distorted by ear openings so asymmetrical in size, shape and placement that the skull was misshapen. It wore an appealing, almost sorrowful expression

The northern saw whet owl blended well with the sun-dappled background, sitting nearly motionless on its roost. White eyebrows connected in a “Y” over the beak. Its short body and tail were chestnut brown, its breast and belly streaked with pale buff and white. Tiny feathered legs and feet were punctuated by long, well-curved jet black talons. For several seconds, he watched us watch him.

Only a month or so later, I added a second winter life bird to my list.

Horned larks were the “beside-the-road birds” of my childhood. Flushing frustratingly way out ahead of the car from the exposed gravel of snowy roadside shoulders just before I could get a good definitive look at them. I was an adult before I managed a certain identification – brown back, light beneath, a hint of yellow, black head stripes and chest shield, black tufts behind the ears – and knew them to be horned larks. It was years later that I learned that flocks of horned larks, every bird swooping and veering in unison, might also include longspurs and snow buntings.

I have set a personal goal the past couple of years to find a snow bunting in the midst of a flock of horned larks. I set my sights on the snow bunting first because, being mostly white, I felt that I had a decent chance to pick one out of even a swirling flock of birds. The field guide describes snow buntings as common in the Midwest in winter, so I thought it was a reasonable goal. For the past two winters, I have tried to focus on every flushing flock looking for a bird that didn’t belong with the rest. A couple of weeks after I admitted my goal out loud, I received a call from my friend Andrea in Michigan. Her voice was filled with excitement as she related her own discovery of a flock of snow buntings. I was thrilled for her, of course.

I continued to look.

Finally, it was my turn. With a heavy snow cover, I spotted a large flock of birds before they flushed. As I approached, the flock swept low over the open field, repeatedly climbing into the sky and sinking low over the ground again. As they banked in a steep turn in preparation for settling back down at the initial flushing point, I spotted a group of birds in the middle of the flock flashing white wings tipped with black, bringing to mind snowflakes scattered on a winter wind. Snow buntings! There was no doubt.

Travel is the quickest way for an experienced birder to add to her life list. Spring break brought a trip to south Florida and new opportunities.

When my daughter was little, she used to amuse herself while we were traveling in the car by reaching for the omnipresent Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds (I never know when my next life bird might appear and dare me to identify it.) and choosing a bird painting from among its pages for me to identify from her description.

Every time we played the game, it was inevitable that she would eventually say, “It has a blue head, and a red belly, a yellowish green back, and yucky brown wings and tail.”

“Painted bunting?” I would reply, trying not to sound too confident, but knowing that it was the only possibility and pretending that she hadn’t picked it every other time we’d played. I had

never actually seen a painted bunting but it is a spectacularly gaudy songbird that captured a little girl’s attention each time she saw it..

“Yep.” She’d answer, not at all surprised or impressed that I was correct.

Over time, the painted bunting became “Lauren’s bird” in my mind and I vowed to see it, placing it first on my bucket list. Having heard that a painted bunting had been reliably seen at the Corkscrew Swamp sanctuary, I included it in my travel plans. I arrived, with Lauren, at Corkscrew Swamp before 8:00 in the morning. Upon entering the visitor center, I asked, “I would really like to see a painted bunting. Can you give me any advice?”

The volunteer smiled a big smile, pointed to a pair of comfortable chairs beside a window a few feet away, and answered, “Just have a seat right there.”

It was meant to be. Moments later, the first of five painted buntings arrived at a feeder within inches of both Lauren and I. We saw the bird for the first time outside of a field guide at the same time. He was every bit as magnificent as Mr. Peterson’s painting, but now I can provide my own description: violet blue head, brilliant red belly, and lime green back. Seeing it with Lauren made it perfect.

The same trip offered opportunities to see other forms of wildlife high on my list.

Walking on a sugar sand beach, warmed by the sun and cooled by the sea, treasure hunting in the sinuous line of high tide debris can be the very definition of a “leisurely vacation” after a long Midwestern winter. Myriad shells in a spectrum of colors and patterns decorated the shoreline. A pleasant ocean breeze carried the crash of the waves and the laughter of gulls.

We were so focused on shells that we nearly missed seeing the first prominent slate gray dorsal fin slicing through the water just offshore. Soon, the waters off the point were filled with bottlenose dolphins chasing a school of fish. We were witnessing a large pod of the gregarious swimming mammals, estimated by several to contain more than fifty individuals. All along the beach, people stopped what they were doing to absorb the spectacle. We watched, mesmerized, as they repeatedly surfaced and dove. Like all mammals, dolphins breathe air. Their nostril, or blowhole, is located at the top of the head, allowing them to breathe without exposing much of the body. They could have remained mysteries of the depths, but several of the magnificent eight-foot creatures chose to reveal themselves.

Rising to a level just below the surface, their streamlined shapes clearly visible, two dolphins came hurtling toward us at a high rate of speed, propelling themselves with powerful horizontal tail flukes that stroke up and down. (Fish have vertical tails that are moved side to side.) Just shy of the beach, each did an abrupt rolling somersault to change direction, throwing a plume of spray in our direction. The maneuver revealed dark gray backs that shaded to paler gray on the smooth skin of their flanks and became nearly white underneath – the countershading typical of many swimming species.

Were the two coordinating their efforts to catch food by chasing fish toward the shore or simply showing off for us? We couldn’t be sure.

A little further south, a childhood dream came true.

When I was a little girl, I read about key deer in the “Weekly Reader” – a four page weekly newspaper written for grade school students. The article was a piece about endangered species that explained that the key deer was a dog-sized version of a whitetail deer that had migrated to the Florida keys over a land bridge during the Wisconsin glaciation and that it was an endangered species with less than one hundred individuals left in the world. I remember I tried to imagine such a marvel as a two-foot deer and I also remember thinking that I would never see one. I felt ripped off.

The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957, the same year I was born. By that time, the key deer teetered on the brink of extinction with an estimated population of only twenty-seven individuals. Loss of the tropical hardwood hammock habitat was the culprit. Establishment of the refuge, and a habitat restoration and enhancement program using prescribed burns and control of invasive non-native plants protected the key deer and twenty-one other imperiled species. Slowly the deer began to return. Forty-three years later, during the population study completed in 2000, the size of the herd was estimated to be about eight hundred deer.

This spring I saw my first key deer in the Refuge on Big Pine Key. The delicate little creature stepped gingerly out of the shadows of the palms and looked at me with big brown eyes. It differed from the whitetail deer I am accustomed to seeing in central Illinois only by its diminutive size, but seeing it was the fulfillment of a dream.

I realized another childhood dream in the fall when we overheard a conversation about a whooping crane in the company of a flock of sandhills at Haehnle Sanctuary in Michigan.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hope to see a whooping crane some day. I remember learning about “endangered species” when I was a little girl. One of the examples of an endangered species given in our “Weekly Reader” was a whooping crane. The whooping crane was a victim of encroaching civilization, retreating as the settlers drained the prairie sloughs. We read that only forty of the elegant birds remained in the wild – all summering at Wood Buffalo Provincial Park in Canada and wintering at Aransas in Texas. Efforts have been made all of these years to re-establish the stately birds. The bird at Haehnle was whooping crane number 37-07 – a bird that had followed an ultra-light plane on its first migration from Wisconsin to Florida in 2007.

We arrived at the Haehnle Sanctuary in plenty of time the next evening to set up the spotting scope and spread a picnic on a blanket on a hillside overlooking the dun colored marsh. The trees around us were painted with a yellow, gold, orange, and crimson October palette. In the distance we spotted a small flock of bright white great egrets with our eyes, using binoculars to identify them with certainty. Larger than the egrets, a whooping crane would be easy to spot against the pale golden background. Beyond the egrets was a small flock of sandhills standing in the water. They were more difficult to spot without binoculars and required a spotting scope to discern details.

We carefully scanned each small flock of cranes as it approached. At 6:06, an inverse “W”-shaped flock flew directly over our heads. The farthest bird at the back of the flock was a little different than the others – a little longer, paler, and distinctly marked with black wingtips. Whooper!

My eyes welled up with tears. I had dreamed of this view for a lifetime of watching birds. The whooping crane is an elegant and stately bird, the tallest and among the rarest of North American birds. The flock landed among the sandhills at the back of the marsh. We switched to spotting scopes to see the satiny white bird fold its black-tipped wings. It immediately began to preen the long plumes of feathers tufted over its rump, revealing a carmine red patch of skin on the crown of its head. We lingered, quietly watching the preening bird, until dusk swallowed our view through the scopes.

It was number 342 on my life list. Who knows what 2011 will bring?

***

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

Encouraging Emotions

The past couple of weeks have been overly emotional for my beautiful five-year-old. She always goes and goes, no matter how tired she is, and seems to almost get a second wind the sleepier she gets. Nighttime usually paves the way to some of our biggest heart-to-heart talks. Maybe it’s because she’s finally winding down enough to share her day with her mom, or maybe it’s because she’s tired and it is yet another way to fight off bedtime – either way, she shares her biggest dreams and her deepest thoughts with me.

Two weeks ago, bedtime started triggering endless tears, Kendall constantly crying that she misses her Nana. This could be because she has seen me cry, lots of times (and probably what seems like out of nowhere), but I believe whole-heartedly that our home is a safe place to share our emotions with each other, no matter what those emotions may be. Maybe she’s emotional because she is tired, and doesn’t know another way of fully communicating that without associating her feelings with a particular event. Or maybe, somewhere in her big heart, she truly misses her Nana and is finally understanding the permanency of death.

I have told both of my girls that it is ok to cry, it is ok to be upset, it is ok to be mad, it is ok to be sad – as long as we can communicate our emotions in a positive way. Just because we are mad, we cannot hit or throw things, for example. But we are allowed to express our feelings and share those feelings with others. Our children can share how they feel with us at home, without ever fearing judgement or ridicule. I read once that you should never minimize a child’s feelings, because what may seem minor to an adult, is still a big deal to a child. Listening to them now, when they’re young, and allowing them to open up, encourages that cycle to continue as they get older.

What I forget about our home being a safe place, is that the outside world is not so forgiving and/or understanding. I can shield my children from certain things at home that I cannot shield them from elsewhere. Here I think she’s five, her biggest problem in life is how long she has to play before it’s finally bath time or finding her lost toy in the mess we call a play room, right? Wrong.

Growing up in this generation is tough. This generation encourages a plethora of less-than-ideal personality traits in our children. We teach them that they are entitled; we push them to succeed and if they don’t – we push them harder; we teach them that they can do no wrong; we teach them that they are better than others, or more privileged.

We forget to teach them that it’s ok to lose, there is nothing wrong with losing – and there is nothing wrong with congratulating the winner and even being proud of them for winning. We forget to teach them to be humble, maybe they have more than the next child, but that doesn’t mean that they’re better than anyone, that means they should appreciate what they have and help those less fortunate – not make fun of them for something out of their control. We forget to teach them accountability and honesty, we make excuses for their behavior instead of taking the time to make it a learning opportunity. Sometimes, we are just busy, maybe too busy to notice our children are growing up quickly and it is our responsibility to make sure we are nourishing their souls with what will help mold them into outstanding adults some day.

I recently listened to a group of moms, talking about how “bad” their children are, one mom admitting to “popping her [daughter] in the mouth,” any time she back talked about putting her laundry away. The same mom talked about how obese her daughter is, to the point I would consider the mom to actually be making fun of her daughter. Not one of the other moms talking to her even acted surprised or disgusted, but rather they jumped in to discuss the shortcomings of their children – all of them laughing at the others’ stories.

Meanwhile, I stood by, watching through the window (unable to NOT listen to the conversation) as my daughter did somersaults and cartwheels, clapping for her and exchanging a thumbs up as she finished. She knew I was there to watch her and support her – I can’t imagine what her fellow classmates would feel if they knew they were being made fun of by their moms, while they were out there giving dance class their all.

Today, my beautiful girl came running down the hill from preschool in hysterical tears. Two friends had told her that they didn’t want to play with her, her heart was clearly breaking. As we saw one of those two friends running down the hill to her mommy, I encouraged Kendall to go give her a hug. I knew if she did, she would realize that the situation was only temporary and it didn’t mean they weren’t friends – just that sometimes she isn’t going to be included and that’s ok. It didn’t mean her friends didn’t want to play with her ever again, it just meant that they wanted to play together alone this time.

The other girl’s mommy and I are friends and I felt comfortable enough to share the situation with her. Not because I needed her to reprimand her daughter, but because, how can I tell Kendall it’s ok to express her feelings if I am not going to be there to help her process them? I want to commend that mommy as she and I texted later, her telling me that her and her daughter had used it as a learning experience – reversing the situation for her daughter and asking her how she’d feel to be left out. She had taught her daughter accountability, she had encouraged her to process her emotions, she did the right thing.

The problem is, other moms are not always going to be so understanding and I’m not always going to be able to reach out to other parents. I won’t ever be able to protect my daughter from the actions of others, but hopefully I will have prepared her enough to be able to deal with them – positively – on her own. I hope I can help her understand her self-worth and not let anyone steal her confidence or break her spirit. I hope that I will always be her safe place and that she will not replace that with what her peers say or do, I want her to always stay true to herself – even when it’s hard to do so. I will always encourage her to be her best version of herself, without pushing her to be someone or something that she’s not. I will always love and support her, I’ll always be her biggest fan.

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” – Daniel Goleman

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

Finding Time For Us

As a new mommy of one, and a stay-at-home mommy at that, I used to take Kendall to museums, parks, zoos, play groups, playgrounds – a never ending list. For most of the activities, she was probably too young at the time, but we always had fun, made memories and took pictures.

When Collins was born, I continued to take them to various activities, Kendall finally old enough to do things on her own, Collins just happy to tag along. Then, my mom’s cancer progressed and complications arose, and of course, ultimately she passed. Most of our days were no longer consumed with playgrounds and art class. Instead, they were replaced with long days in nursing homes and hospitals. Don’t get me wrong, we still did fun things, just not nearly as often.

After my mom passed, I spent countless hours trying to preserve her legacy. I took on an overwhelming number of responsibilities so that neither my mom’s life work, nor her legacy, could ever be forgotten. Juggling that with finishing my Master’s, and completing my own responsibilities, left much less time for the fun stuff.

I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice how rarely we get out and do something “just because” until last week. I graduated, the girls were off from dance and school, I had no deadlines, nothing pressing, we just had each other. So we went to The Shack, drank Green Rivers and ate cheesy French fries. Afterwards, we went and saw the movie “Sing.” The girls were so excited about our plans, that they wore dresses and fancy shoes. I watched them through the movie as they danced, and sang and clapped. They had so much fun, WE had so much fun.

I woke up the next morning, in euphoria. We had so much fun together the night before, all I could think of was what we could do next! So after completing a few last minute things, we went to the Children’s Museum. We played and played and played. I realized then that Collins had never had the chance to do that before. She had never been old enough at our past visits to really explore and play. We had been to museums together in the past, but she is finally at the age where she can actually try everything.

Kendall is more of an extrovert and Collins tends to be more introverted. The third floor of the Children’s Museum caters more to artistic activities like music, painting, drawing and theater. Amazingly, as Kendall found a spot on the stage and established a performing role amongst other kiddos, Collins headed for the play box office and proceeded to “sell tickets”. I had never seen her warm up to other children so quickly.

I learned a lot last weekend about the importance of slowing down and taking time for US. We are together all day, every day, but that does not necessarily mean that we are taking the time for each other. Spending time together, and spending QUALITY time together are much different. Listening to them laugh always makes me happy, but really hearing those giggles warms my heart.

“The potential possibilities of any child are the most intriguing and stimulating in all creation.”
— Ray L. Wilbur, third president of Stanford University

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

If you can’t say something nice…

Throughout the week, I look for inspiration on what to write about for my column. Sometimes I know ahead of time that something is approaching and I count on writing about that, sometimes I write the day it is due.

Recently, I talked to a couple of readers who commented to me about my column and of course, their feedback was happily accepted. One gentleman told me that he always reads what I write, but it doesn’t much apply to his way of life. Another gentleman mentioned that without children, I wouldn’t have much to write about. Both of these gentlemen were right, I often have a narrow subject base because I am a stay-at-home mommy. But, as a mother of two and a pseudo step-mom of two, I have to imagine that most of my days, and the life lessons I have learned from these busy days, do in fact resemble those of others.

Today, I dropped Kendall off at school and had a list of errands to run before picking her up. Collins and I got in and out of the car more than a half a dozen times. Each time, getting her back in her seat was more difficult.

She wanted to climb through the van and check stuff out, with each stop taking a little longer than the last. Finally, after picking Kendall up, Collins broke down. She didn’t want to get in and out of her seat anymore. I don’t blame her, it was a long morning. However, we still needed to make a trip to Walmart before heading home. I should have known before we went that it would be a disaster.

Our shopping trip started off ok, the girls were giggling and playing peekaboo in the aisles. But when I wouldn’t let Collins take her shoes off to try on a pair of glittery flip flops, the screaming started and it didn’t stop.

I have read where mommies will abandon their carts, or their lunches, so that they can take their children to the car. I could have done that, I suppose. The way I see it is that I would still need to go back to Walmart and I still needed to get the stuff in the cart, so it seemed silly to abandon it, right?

Today, I was THAT mom. The one with the screaming child. I watched as other children plugged their ears. I looked at other customers and Walmart employees as they stared at me; some smiling as if they understood, some with looks of disbelief – like Collins must have been the first child ever to throw a fit at the store.

A friend of mine, who happens also to work at Walmart, came to help me as I desperately tried to get Collins’s shoes back on her without her dropping buckets of paint on herself; meanwhile, prying her fingers off of the handful of hair she had grabbed onto in her fight to express herself. At that point, I decided to pick out paint later.

Any mommy or daddy can probably agree, a screaming child is one thing, but YOUR screaming child sends something through you, almost electric, and you are unable to focus on anything else until it stops.

So we made our way to the checkout. One man tried to calm Collins down by offering her his pack of gum – pointing out to her that it smelled like mint. She screamed louder, he bid farewell with a “good luck.”

The next lady through the line, a much older woman, looked at me and said, “I had two terrible boys, but they were never THAT bad.” To which I replied, “Well that’s good for you.” She didn’t stop there, she continued by telling Collins – my obviously tired and emotional child – “Nice young ladies do not act that way”, followed by a “Wow! She really has a temper.”

What that lady – that stranger – didn’t know about my beautiful Collins is that this is the first time she had ever acted that way at the store. She didn’t know that it was completely uncharacteristic or that she had a long morning. She didn’t know anything about us at all, but that did not stop her from quickly judging us and the situation.

A fellow mom. That woman also has no idea that when I sat in my car – Collins still screaming – and started crying, it wasn’t because of Collins. It was because of her that I cried. I wish I would have told her that her words hurt, or that she was wrong about her judgement. I wish I would have stood up for myself and for Collins, and for other mommies. I just didn’t have the energy to argue her malevolent behavior.

I sit here at home writing this as Collins sleeps (because she is tired), relishing in the peace and quiet. Reflecting back on the day, I am no longer angry with the woman from the store. Instead, I will choose to be more compassionate and empathic the next time I hear a screaming child.

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” –Thumper from the movie Bambi

 

© 2018 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

Nature’s Gifts

Andrew, the girls, and I, walked around the lake at Weldon Springs recently, scouting out a trail for our upcoming National Brain Tumor Society Nature Walk. We started at the Chautauqua picnic area where the event is set to take place.

 

It was a warm, sunny day. A family was throwing a birthday party at the pavilion. Children were laughing as they ran around the playground – their parents working laboriously to make sure the food was prepared, and the party was decorated just right.

 

We set out down the hill towards the lake. Kendall bent down to pick up a tree branch about her height, the perfect walking stick. Collins instantly picked up her own stick, not really sure why, but knowing sister must be on to something.

 

The bottom of the hill opened up to the lake. Immediately, Kendall recognized that area as where we fished in the Carol Thompson Memorial Fishing Derby just one month before. As we rounded the corner, we noticed some delicate, white, lacy flowers (of course flowers always catch a girl’s attention) that I identified as a Queen Anne’s Lace before second-guessing myself – maybe they were Poison Hemlock and we better steer clear.

 

As we trekked on, we looked around the lake for the Great Blue Heron that we often catch resting silently on an old tree trunk in the water. No great blue heron, but in his absence there were plenty of Canadian Geese feeding and honking, keeping us entertained.

 

Across from us, on the lake, was an older gentleman using mild obscenities while he tried to get his boat to start. As his voice traveled across the water, so did ours – making our presence known. When he got his boat started, he gave us a little wave as he moved on towards the optimal fishing spot.

 

We stood at the end of the sidewalk before making our way up the steps, back towards the Chautauqua Picnic Area. There, we found a great number of red clover flowers. I picked one and handed it to Kendall, showing her that they are edible. Hesitant at first (“you can eat flowers?”), she picked a petal and popped it into her mouth. Before long she had finished that flower and was giggling while picking another (“you can eat flowers!”).

 

We were surrounded by dragonflies and damselflies flittering above our heads. A bright blue body on one dragonfly really stood out in comparison to the others. I watched him circle around and then land, before redundantly repeating the process again, and again.

 

As we started up the steps, there it was behind us. A loud (horrendous, really) squawking moving across the water towards us. Andrew immediately recognized the sound as well, and we watched as the Great Blue Heron disappeared into the tree line, completing our short visit to the lake.

 

We stopped at the observation deck at the top of the stairs. I ran my fingers along the display that I’m certain my mom created, knowing that she had sat there many times before us. Looking over the water, again, there was no absence of feeding geese. It was then that Andrew pointed out our Great Blue Heron friend, sitting on an old, dead tree watching us as we watched him.

 

As we headed back to the car, careful not to disrupt the party, I couldn’t help but reflect on the countless gifts that Weldon Springs has to offer. Of course, I also considered all of the gifts my mom bestowed upon me, allowing me to truly appreciate the beauty of nature and the ability to pass that gift on to my children.

 

“A dragonfly to remind me even though we are apart, your spirit is always with me, forever in my heart.” -unknown

 

© 2016 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com