My 4-foot, 11 inch Mother is the Biggest Person in Any Room

If my parents had stayed in the Bronx, I might have grown up thinking my family was like all the rest.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. November’s theme is Gratitude. Enter your own here!
Mothers. We come in various ages, shapes, sizes, and temperaments. We bring our love, our quirks, our fears, and sometimes a little bit of our crazy to the job of parenting.
My parents grew up in the Bronx, New York, as next door neighbors. Yes, my mom literally married “the boy next door.” They are 100 percent Italian and grew up in a neighborhood of other Italians.
I’m sure they thought that everybody woke up to the smell of “gravy” cooking on Sunday mornings in preparation for the 3 p.m. dinner with 19 other relatives. I’m sure it was normal for families to scream and yell and gesture wildly during meals and for mothers to chase people around the house with wooden spoons and other impromptu weapons of torture.
If my parents had stayed in the Bronx, I might have grown up thinking my family was like all the rest. But my parents relocated us to Orange County, California, where it quickly became evident that my family was not the norm.
Let me rephrase that. More specifically, “one of these mothers is not like the others.” For anyone who has ever been driven crazy by their mother, I hope you can relate.
Here are a few things other moms definitely didn’t do:
Other moms did not make their child’s friends wash their underarms and feet when they came over to play after school. “You girls stink,” she would say. “You have B.O. and I don’t know if it’s your underarms or your feet, so go wash them both.”
Totally mortified, I would take my friends into the bathroom to wash up, and I would wonder if anyone would ever want to come over to my house again. Somehow, they always came back, probably because we had good snacks.
Other moms did not picket at school and start a petition when their youngest daughter was not named 8th grade valedictorian.
Other moms did not hire a stripper for their son’s family-friendly 18th birthday party in the backyard. Because what boy wouldn’t want his mother there when interacting with a stripper?
On a similar note, other moms did not also hire a stripper for their daughter’s 21st birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Las Vegas, with her boyfriend and all four grandparents present.

Finally, other moms definitely did not hire an older, unattractive man to come dressed as a pink monkey for their three-year-old grandson’s birthday party and then – surprise! – take off his monkey suit to double as a stripper for the 21st birthday of her youngest daughter, terrifying all children (and adults) in attendance.
Other moms did not write a letter to Rosie O’Donnell (who had one of hottest talk shows on TV at the time where their son has just been hired in the mail room) to brag about how talented he is and how he basically should be running her show. Italians calls this the “my son” syndrome.
Other moms did not somehow force the school district to re-route the entire bus schedule so that their children could be dropped off directly in front of their house rather than on the corner bus stop like all the other kids.
Other moms did not go against the wishes of their grown children and secretly baptize their grandchild in the laundry room sink. With “permission” from the local priest, of course.
Other moms did not fill their entire car with lemons and picket in front of the car dealership (standing up through the sunroof with a giant sign that said “Lemon by BMW”) when it had mechanical problems.

Other moms did not bring a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade to their 17-year-old daughter’s high school prom date’s house and give it to his mother to keep in the fridge because “Jami doesn’t like beer.”
Other moms did not tell their daughter’s new boyfriend, after knowing him for five minutes, that she wants another grandchild, then add that, at this point, she doesn’t care if they get married. She will even raise the child as long as they can just make one for her.
Other moms did not block traffic at the roundabout in front of the high school at pick-up time as they stuck themselves out of the sunroof waving a giant bouquet of balloons and honking their horn to wish their daughter a Happy Birthday.

Yes, my mom did a lot of things other moms didn’t do.
On second thought, perhaps other people didn’t have a home that was constantly filled with family, friends, food, and laughter, or a mom who let her kids’ friends live with them when they needed a place to stay.
Maybe other people didn’t have a mother who “adopted” the little old lady who sat alone in the back of the church every week and invite her to family dinner every Sunday.
Maybe other people didn’t have a mother who cooked dinner for her grown children and grandchildren every Tuesday night, year after year, making nine different dishes so everyone could have their favorites.
My mom stands only 4-foot, 11 inches, but I’ve never thought of her as small. To me, she was always the biggest person in the room (and by biggest, I mean loudest).
All kidding aside – from your eldest daughter who pours the milk before the cereal, to your only son who hasn’t touched a public door handle in 20 years, to your youngest daughter who will only eat ice cream with a fork – we may have turned out a little quirky, but all in all, I guess you did okay.
So thank you, my crazy Italian mother, for all those childhood memories, for being our fiercest protector, our strongest advocate, and our worst nightmare.

On Halloween, by a Candy-Loving, Dentist's Daughter

I’ll admit, as a dentist’s daughter and a lover of candy, I’m a little Jekyll and Hyde over the matter.

Halloween (and in particular the candy procured) is one of my favorite Holidays – which is curious considering my dad, his dad, and my dad’s two brothers were all dentists. Of course, growing up the candy-loving daughter of a dentist had its daily challenges. Simply biting down on a blow-pop induced heart-wrenching guilt. (That sticky sugar just sits between your teeth!) But – oh holy day! – on Halloween, my dad the dentist smiled his pearly white smile, and allowed me to guiltlessly celebrate the holiday in all of its sugar-laden, cavity-inducing glory.
Even as an adult, there are many reasons to love Halloween – the crisp fall air, the childhood excitement, the silly and scary decorations, and obviously the candy – plus, there is no atoning for our sins and no sitting through sermons. It’s a holiday of untainted indulgence, until I learned information that shook my moral compass: A nationwide program called Halloween BuyBack is working with dentist offices nationwide for children to trade in their candy in exchange for money. I’ll admit, as a dentist’s daughter and a lover of candy, I’m a little Jekyll and Hyde over the matter.
To better grasp this internal conflict, it helps to understand that a comically tortured relationship with candy runs in the family: My dad used to keep a personal stash of sugary orange circus peanuts and sticky black licorice in his office cabinets – right next to boxes of “Stillman, DDS” engraved toothbrushes. He is now retired from his practice, but according to the website halloweencandybuyback.com, it doesn’t matter: This year an estimated 22,000 dental offices will be participating. I checked the website, and there a six dentist offices within five miles of my house alone. That certainly makes it convenient for my family, but do I make my kids bring in their loot?
While the child in me sees Halloween BuyBack as a Halloween horror story, the mom in me sees the obvious benefits. Like so many parents these days, my husband and I are stringent when it comes to our kids’ sugar intake. We are aware that too much sugar may lead to childhood obesity and childhood tooth decay, not to mention that my kids are like suped-up wind-up-toys when they get a pinch of the white stuff. We never give them soda. Juice is for special occasions. Dessert is a treat, and often taken away for bad behavior. Yes – when it comes to sugar, we are a million times stricter than my parents ever were, despite my dad’s dental profession.
Yet, like my parents allowed for me, Halloween has always been a free-for-all for my kids. So when I brought up the cash for candy concept with my third grader, he looked at me like I offered him broccoli for dessert. “No way!” He said incredulously.
With logic on my side, I tried to talk sensibly: First of all, he could not possibly eat all the candy he’d collect, even over several months, even with my help! And then there’s the “selfless lesson” because it’s for a good cause – the candy goes into care packages for US Troops. Lastly, it’s bad for you! It will rot your teeth and your body!
But honestly, my heart wasn’t in the argument. Nostalgia (and hypocrisy – I’m eating sour skittles as I write this) get the best of me. I remember the thrill of dumping my precious treasures into my desk drawer after a long night of hitting every house in my neighborhood. When I was little, I would have screamed like I saw Freddy Krueger at the thought of someone ripping my hard earned candy from my sticky fingers, and no amount of cash would have lessened the blow. (Keep in mind, this is coming from someone who asked the Tooth Fairy for gummy bears.)
But I’m an adult now. The teacher of healthful living, and selfless giving. So this year, I’ll try to be a better person. I’ll let my kids run house to house until their little arms ache under the weight of all that delicious, teeth-rotting junk-of-the-Gods. Then, that first night, I’ll let them gorge until they feel physically ill (like roll around on the floor, clutching their belly, ill). The next day – candy hangover in full effect – I’ll have them fill a ziplock bag to take to their local dentist office. I’m not sure who this will be harder on, them or me.
In the weeks following, they’ll each get a piece for dessert or as a treat in their lunch, until they forget it about it altogether. The rest is mine, all mine (duh!). And yes, Dad – I promise I’ll floss.

This Holiday Season, I’m Breaking Tradition

I never want to confine my family to tradition. I want my children to experience it, of course, but I also want to mix it up.

Tradition is and always will be important. But what happens when tradition starts to control your holidays in an unhealthy way?
I will never forget this story, once told to me by a person with much more wisdom than I.
Every Christmas Eve, her mother-in-law would come to the house and enjoy a festive dinner. Once they tucked the kids in tight, they would do something (in my opinion) absolutely insane.
They would put up the Christmas tree, fit with lights and ornaments. While most of us have been enjoying our Christmas tree for a month, they save it all for just one night. The woman was quick to tell me that this was her mother-in-law’s tradition that became engrained into their family.
The children would wake on Christmas morning to find that Santa had been rather busy, and that Mommy and Daddy look rather exhausted. It was the true Christmas miracle of miracles.
“WOW!” the children would shout.
“Where’s the whiskey?” their mom would mumble behind sleepy eyes.
Looking back now, the woman wishes she was brave enough to say, “What a great tradition you had with your family, but no, thank you.” She never did that, so as long as her mother-in-law was alive, they were stuck.
Many of us have experienced, and still do experience, the traditional holiday festivities. On Thanksgiving, we wear pretty fall dresses and eat at 3 p.m. at Grandma’s house. We enjoy turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, casseroles, and top it all off with warm gooey pies. Sounds nice, right?
Now, look in the corner. There you see the kids aimlessly scrolling on their phones, trying to make conversation with Great Grandma, and giving their cousins wet willies.
What if one year – not every year, but every few years – you broke tradition? What if (hear me out) you took a vacation with just your immediate family for Thanksgiving? You and your husband pack up your kids and head to the coast. Instead of turkey, you eat lobster. Instead of watching football, you play frisbee on the beach. Instead of dressing up, you stay in pajamas all day long.
After a vacation like that, you may feel rested and relaxed, which is the point of the holiday season, right?
I never want to confine my family to tradition. I want my children to experience it, of course, but I also want to surprise them with fun outings and activities. Instead of baking sugar cookies on Christmas Eve, go to the movies. Instead of Santa popping down your chimney, he visits you at a ski resort. Instead of ham or roast beef, grill out hamburgers and hot dogs.
You will not only be setting your kids up for fun, but you might also get a break and actually enjoy the holidays for once. My cousin took her kids to Disney World one Christmas. Now that’s cool.
When I was a kid, I was in the car all day on Christmas. We visited all of the grandparents around the state of Georgia. We would open our presents and at 10 a.m. and have to leave. We never had any time to play with our gifts.
What if, one year, we didn’t drive all the way to Grandma’s? Wouldn’t it be amazing if they came to us for once, and we were able to stay in our pajamas?
I am so sad for the woman whose memories of Christmas with her children are laced with a chore she despised. I don’t want to do that to myself. I don’t want to do that to my children.
For Thanksgiving this year, we will travel to see family. Next year, we are going on vacation. One for tradition; one for fun.
 

3 Ways to Make Halloween Fun for Your ASD Kid

Crowds of children, the fear of personal contact, and the idea of approaching strangers for candy can be too much for a kid on the spectrum.

When my son, Jackie, was young, I dreamed of the fun we would share over the holiday season. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. On Halloween afternoon, we would load up the wagon with all his stuffed friends and begin the journey down the street. Most years, we only made it a few blocks.

Because Jackie has high functioning autism, the crowds of children, the fear of personal contact, and the idea of approaching strangers for candy was just too much. By the time he was in the third grade, we had to switch gears and rethink how we could make Halloween a fun memory instead of a stress-filled day. We decided on a party instead of the traditional door-to-door trick or treating. Here are a few ideas to make your ASD Halloween party special.

Movie party

Having a Halloween party and featuring a movie is a great way to celebrate while protecting your ASD child’s internal system. It’s low key but fun, and there are so many great Halloween-themed movies out there. We have viewed old-time favorites such as “The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” or “Curious George Boo Fest,” but there are other not-so-scary Halloween choices for older children as well. Check out “Monster House” and “Shrek” movies for an older group.

Serving treats of pizza and orange-and-black cupcakes adds to the fun, and goody bags filled with the candy they may miss out on can be added. You might also slip in some healthier options like fruit snacks or pretzels. The great thing about a movie party is that you can control when the fun ends so that your ASD child doesn’t become over stimulated. It’s also a great time to encourage socialization skills!

Hotel party

One year, I wanted to do something different. The constant ringing doorbell was becoming a real annoyance for my son. I decided to move the Halloween party to a local hotel. Many hotels understand the issues of special needs children and are happy to accommodate them. I rented a room and set up trick-or-treat stations around the hotel with the help of the hotel staff. We invited a small group of friends to rotate around the stations, collecting their candy and visiting with the staff.

My son had an easier time trick or treating in one place with staff that I could introduce him to before the party. The children ended up with a small bag of candy and small toys. After the trick or treating, we headed to the pool for a short swim and then to the room for Halloween cake. When the party was over, we had a fun time sleeping over with no doorbells.

Progressive party

Older ASD children can sometimes feel the loss of doing what they see as normal things. One idea to help them feel as if they are fitting in is to plan a progressive trick-or-treat party. We began at our house with three or four friends. I set up a small scavenger hunt in the house for the children to search for treats. They found a small bag of candy corn hidden on a bookshelf and fruit snacks behind a door.

After all the treats were found, we moved on to one of the friend’s houses where another scavenger hunt, game, or treat was waiting. Each friend had an activity at their house and the children had a fun time figuring out what awaited them at the next house.

They also enjoyed walking from house to house for a short time. Though there were still some crowds to navigate, the end destinations gave a place for decompression before heading out again. If your child’s friends live too far away, consider driving to the destinations. You can park a few blocks away so that the children can still have the experience of being out with other trick-or-treaters. The progressive party is a great way to have the best of both worlds.

Halloween can be a difficult holiday for children on the spectrum. We can make great memories even if the new traditions aren’t the same traditions that we have experienced in the past. Be creative and work with your child to make Halloween a great time filled with fun, friends, and, yes, a little candy.

Finding Moksha in a Charm Bracelet

On an October afternoon uncharacteristically bleak for the Andamans, I got the call that Maa was critically ill. Before I could book my ticket, she was gone.

Everyone in our locality called her Maa (the Hindi word for mother). Of her twelve grandchildren, my 85-year-old grandmother loved me the most, much to the envy of my cousins. Being her favorite grandchild, only I was permitted entry to her private domain. This space primarily included a small store room within her bedroom at our ancestral home in Saharanpur, a sleepy town of Uttar Pradesh state in India. She spent hours in her tiny and dim storeroom, shifting stuff from one rusted box to another or arranging items in small potlis and then adjusting them in her trunk. When her hands weren’t touching and re-touching all of her little things, she sat for hours at sandhya bela (early evening) and meditated.

I loved being around Maa. Her wrinkled face narrated millions of stories, hardships and happiness in equal measure. She’d lost her mother at a tender age, got married at 16, and, after her husband died of a long illness, was married off to his younger brother. She gave birth to nine children, out of which six survived, and her eldest son died at the age of thirty. So, in a way, Maa was familiar with deaths of loved ones.

Beyond these sad stories, Maa had several interesting tales too, like when she once swallowed a fly and could feel it fluttering in her stomach, so she decided to vomit it up and, as she did, the fly emerged out of her mouth and flew away! Maa had never flown in an airplane so I booked her a ticket from Delhi to Amritsar. She was very excited about it and, when I asked her about her first flying experience, she said, “It felt like I was flying like a bird!”

Her presence made me feel secure, and through her I became quite attached to our time-honored rituals and family customs. Because she was the oldest of our family, she had a dictatorial say in most matters and imposed her rules on practically everyone.

Many of these rules – no slippers in the kitchen, no pooping after bath, and, if you do, you’ll have to bathe again, no eggs (let alone liquor), bath first breakfast later – were a pain for us. Still, we obeyed. No one could say no to Maa.

At the age of 85, she woke every morning at four a.m. and bathed in fresh water. She finished her chores alone and chose to wash her light cotton sarees by hand rather than machine. There were many times when the sound of her chanting shlokas at five a.m. interfered with our sleep, but she was sure of what she was doing.

“It’s important to keep moving, I do not want to die ill,” she would say as she bent to pick fresh flowers for temple each morning.

I was her favorite, which meant she easily forgave my occasional minor transgressions. After I ate chicken for the first time, I worried what Maa might say. The worry soon became too much, and I confessed. While she showed contempt at my deteriorating eating habits, she still let me  sleep beside her in her woven cot. Well, first she made me bathe, do a puja, and promise not to eat chicken again (a promise I’ve since broken), but then she let me rest beside her.

On every trip I made outside India, I made sure to bring her a souvenir. The best of all was a fabric bag I had bought for her from Dubai that she loved because it was full of pockets. Everyone loves pockets, and Maa was no exception. She kept separate spots for her medicine, money, padis (wooden slippers that she wore and that were too sacred to be taken to the bathroom or outside the house), photos of her guruji, and her lucky charm silver bracelet.

The day before my departure to work in far off South India, she prepared her staple aam-chutney – a healthy Indian version of mango jam – just for me. I marked time with her aam-chutney. One jar lasted me months. When the jam ran dry, I knew it was time for me to visit home and get another jar from her seasoned hands.

After marriage, I moved to the remote islands of Andamans (aka Kala Pani) and Maa worried about me incessantly. When Britishers invaded India in the early twentieth century, they built the Cellular Jail in Andamans for prisoners. The jail’s architecture was unique in that it had seven wings stretched out from a central point, and it was also surrounded by the dark blue Arabian sea on three sides. The deep sea waters are the namesake of Kala Pani, which means “black water” in Hindi. Maa thought my bureaucrat husband was being punished for something and that’s why we were posted there.

I only saw her once after my wedding. She looked weak and fragile and constantly talked about her death. She had strong premonitions that she was going to die soon. On the day I left, she hugged me as tightly as her little arms would allow and wept. Her last words to me were, “I don’t know if I will see you again.”

I knew. She knew. We both knew that that was the last thing I’d hear her say.

On an October afternoon uncharacteristically bleak for the Andamans, I got the call from Dad that Maa was critically ill. Before I could book my tickets, she was gone.

For days I was emotionally shattered. Devastated. I couldn’t even hold my one-year-old daughter, and I didn’t speak a word to my husband. I blamed him for bringing me to Andamans. I should have been there with Maa on her last day.

Grief overwhelmed me. I took what little energy I had and spent it on trying to make Maa proud. I stopped eating meat and tried to follow her daily routine. But she was strong, perhaps stronger than me. Her routine was harder than it looked and I could only maintain it for a few days.

For many years I didn’t dare to visit our ancestral home in Saharanpur because I knew I couldn’t bear the thought of not finding Maa in that huge, palatial space. She was as much a part of that home as the walls and roof. For five years I avoided Saharanpur, deliberately skipping several family functions and gatherings. I couldn’t imagine entering her bedroom and store room without her.

My cousin’s wedding was in a month’s time and I was planning to skip that too. As far as I was concerned, Saharanpur ceased to exist after Maa’s death. My grandfather rang and expressed his desire to see me there. My aunt suggested that visiting once would make me feel lighter. Mom reminded me of our family customs, but I wasn’t to be swayed.

A week before the wedding, Maa appeared in my dreams,  sitting on her small woven cot in the same room in the same, familiar way. Shocked to see her alive, I asked her what was she doing here. She replied, “I have come here to attend the wedding. It is the last wedding of our home to take place in my house,” and she disappeared with a smile.

It was a sign. I agreed to visit Saharanpur.

The moment I reached there, all the memories of her were conjured up in my head. I went to her room that still smelled the same. The walls rustled with her voice. The store room was still and silent as if Maa was meditating there.

I knelt down and cried. In the last five years, it was the first time I visited her bed and reminisced of the times we had spent together. As I shed tears in her room, I felt lighter. I felt her around me.

Inside her store room, something caught my eye. It was the same fabric bag that I had bought her in Dubai. I brought the bag home with me as her souvenir to me.

Yesterday, while cleaning the house, I pulled out the bag and rummaged through its pockets. I found Maa’s lucky charm silver bracelet. To some, it may just look like an old, nothing-special, plain bracelet, but to me, it was my moksha. My Maa.

When I Got Married, I Realized My Mom Missed Her Calling as a Wedding Planner

So what did all this neurotic attention to detail result in? The most magical wedding I could ever have imagined.

No wedding season would be complete without one or two bridal boutiques going belly up, leaving the unfortunate soon-to-be brides not stranded, but potentially naked at the altar. Don’t think “Say Yes to the Dress,” think, “Where the Hell is my dress??” The news stories focus on the shock and horror of these now-frantic young women, their last minute scramble to buy – heaven forbid! – off-the-rack, and, more often than not, their struggle to recoup their hefty deposits from these now bankrupt establishments. These women are in crisis, and a bride unhinged is not a pretty sight.

All weddings pose challenges, sartorial or otherwise, especially for type A-plus overachievers like me, who like things to go according to plan. My plan.

In the months before my wedding, I was studying for the New York State bar exam. Engulfed in torts, contracts, and criminal procedure, I had absolutely no energy left for picking between roses and orchids, lamb chops and prime rib, so I reluctantly ceded all decision making to the only person on the planet who was more of a control freak than I: my mother. I relied on her excellent taste and good judgment. What I forgot to factor in was her perfectionism.

If I’d been paying more attention, I would’ve realized early on that my mother was approaching the wedding planning from a heightened emotional place. The first time we went to look at a venue, there was a wedding ceremony taking place. My mother, my fiancé, and I stood at the back of the hall, assessing the space, the atmosphere, and the seating capacity. When I turned to look at my mother, there were tears streaming down her cheeks, and she had her fist in her mouth, stifling a sob.

“What’s wrong, Ma?” I asked, genuinely alarmed.

“Nothing. It’s just so beautiful.” She wiped away her tears with a big pink hanky clearly brought for just this purpose, and then blew her nose noisily into it. A few of the bridesmaids turned to stare.

“But we don’t know these people!” I countered. This, apparently, was thoroughly beside the point and did not even merit a response.

My mother’s detailed project management knew no bounds. One evening she summoned my future husband and me to her house to help assemble the wedding invitations for mailing. Before we were even over threshold, she held something out to us that looked suspiciously like plastic surgical gloves.

“What are those?” I naively asked.

“They’re plastic surgical gloves,” she answered. “You’re going to wear them while we put together the invitations.” My mother didn’t register one iota of recognition that there was anything out of the ordinary about this pronouncement.

My fiancé tried logic. “You do realize that the mailman will not be wearing gloves,” he said.

“I can only control what I can control,” my mother responded, almost reasonably. Her statement did have a certain ring of truth to it.

The night was far from over.

Unbeknownst to us, in addition to the printed white cards with driving directions that my mother had been given by the synagogue, she had separately printed directions on off-white colored cards, to match the invitations. She failed to inform us that some invitees – her guests who were sophisticated enough to notice such a thing – were to be given the off-white cards, while the others – like our colorblind friends – should be given the white ones. Not even recognizing the issue, we randomly included white or ivory with each envelope we stuffed. When we were about three quarters of the way through our assignment, my mother blanched white (or off-white), and announced that we had made a fatal mistake, necessitating that we start over.

Only his great desire to marry me (and my hand over his mouth) kept the groom from uttering unspeakable words that could never be retracted. Well, maybe one or two escaped.

As the actual wedding day approached, the frenzy only increased. A few days before the event, the caterer invited us to the synagogue to see a sample table set for the occasion, to make sure we were all happy with how it would look.

“Ma,” I asked, plaintively, “can you go without us? Really, I’m happy with whatever makes you happy.” I was trying to avoid another showdown over whatever problem she might perceive.

“Absolutely not! It’s your wedding!” she declared.

We walked in single file behind my mother, expecting the worst, but the table, even without the floral arrangement, looked lovely. My mother circled the perimeter, checking every aspect, until, with one nod, she gave her approval. We thanked the maitre d’ and raced out to the car, my father leading the way in a hasty retreat.

We climbed in, ready to go out for a celebratory dinner at the local diner. My father started the engine and, just as we were about to pull away, my mother gave the order.

Stop the car.” Without another word, she marched back into the synagogue.

When my mother got to the table, she took one deliberate look, and called the maitre d’ over.

“This will not do,” she said, calmly. “The tablecloth is white, and the china is off-white.” We all stood in flabbergasted silence.

The maitre d’ foolishly tried to reason with her. “There will be so many additional things on the table: the flowers, bottles of wine, carafes of water, no one will ever notice that slight –“

My mother, her lips in a tight grimace and her eyes closed, raised one hand in the universal sign for “stop talking before I bite your head off,” and silenced the well-intentioned maitre d’. She shook her head slowly. Then she turned her back on the table and conceded defeat, walking slowly back to the car. White and off-white would have to coexist.

So what did all this neurotic attention to detail result in? The most magical wedding I could ever have imagined.

Try as I might to be more chill, I will likely be just as persnickety when it is my daughter’s turn to get married. One thing is for sure, there will be no wedding-eve lawsuits against a defunct David’s bridal. No, my daughter will wear my white wedding dress that my mother freeze-dried, I mean vacuum-packed, after the wedding and which now waits patiently in my attic. Even if she has her heart set on off-white.

Celebrate World Space Week With Space-Themed Music

World Space Week 2017 is an ideal time to introduce your family to space-themed orchestral music and the magic of astronomy. 

I remember being mesmerized by the music in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The soundtrack in the movie is known for its use of many classical and orchestral pieces by composers such as Johann Strauss II, Richard Strauss, and Gyorgy Ligeti. The beauty of the night sky has been a source of fascination and an inspiration for many composers. World Space Week 2017 is an ideal time to introduce your family to space-themed orchestral music and the magic of astronomy. 

Since its United Nations declaration in 1999, World Space Week has become the largest public space event on Earth. This year, World Space Week is held between October fourth and October 10th, and the theme for 2017 is “Exploring New Worlds in Space.” 

There are many events planned for World Space Week such as planetarium shows, astronaut appearances, exhibits of space-related art, films about space, educational outreach, and telescope viewings. Inspire your children to search the night sky for “new worlds in space” while listening to space-themed music.

Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 by Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss composed this tone poem in 1896 and it became the initial “sunrise” fanfare for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It begins with a sustained low note on the double basses, contrabassoon, and organ. This is followed by the 22-bar epic brass fanfare known as the “dawn” motif. Even though his music was composed long before the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, this one still remains a music gem of the 21st century.

Night Ride and Sunrise, Op. 55 by Jean Sibelius

Another piece of music with a “dawn” theme is Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise. Get up early one morning with your kids and enjoy the sunrise while listening to this mystical work. This can lead to discussions about horizon astronomy as well as sunrise and sunset positions. Composed in 1908, the music has a nocturnal ambiance and captures the soft light of a northern sunrise, and the magical and changing colors of the sky.

The Planets: Suite for Large Orchestra, Op. 32 by Gustav Holst

This well-known orchestral piece will make your kids to want to learn more about the planets. Written by the English composer Gustav Holst in 1914, The Planets is a suite with seven movements and each movement is named after a planet of the solar system. The most mystical movement is “No. 7 Neptune,” which features a mystical choir, intertwined with a diaphanous veil of orchestral sound. Observe the night sky while listening to this evocative music. Keep an astro journal or logbook to record observations of the planets and any other night explorations such as meteor showers or shooting stars.

Atmospheres by Gyorgy Ligeti

Puzzle over the diverse shapes of galaxies and deep space while listening to Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres. Composed in 1961 for orchestra without percussion, Atmospheres is an exploration in timbral effects and drifting tone clusters. This innovative piece displays micro-polyphonic textures and evokes a sense of mystery and timelessness. If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard telescope or even a pair of binoculars, Ligeti’s music is ideal for listening to while stargazing.

Vishnu Symphony No.19, Op. 217 by Alan Hovhaness

Composed in 1966, the musical textures and free rhythms in this supercharged symphony suggest swirling galaxies and constellations. Vishnu was used on the soundtrack to astronomer Carl Sagan’s PBS television series “Cosmos.” Encourage your kids to listen to the music and then go outside to sketch their observations in a night sky journal. All they need is a pencil, a notebook or artist’s sketch book, and they’re ready to go. Encourage them to sketch planets, comets, and even the Milky Way. Perhaps introduce color pencils for further enhancement.

By exploring the world of space-themed music, your child will receive an enriching experience that will enhance their appreciation for music as well as stimulating their imagination about science and space. Check out worldspaceweek.org to find hundreds of events in North America and abroad and download some space-themed music to get your family started.

Honoring the Sacredness of Your Daughter's First Period

We don’t have to have a party to honor our daughter’s first period, but treating it as nonchalantly as a nosebleed misses an opportunity.

The spring after my daughter Anna turned 13 and got her period, I invited close adult women friends over for a ziti dinner to celebrate this turning point in her life. My husband took our younger daughter out of the house so it would be a special “older girl” event. We sat in a circle and shared memories of getting our periods and also shared favorite memories about my daughter.

While a little embarrassed, Anna seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps it wasn’t full of instruction or deep meaning like other rituals, but it made a special memory for her. I also hoped that it sent the message that she was welcomed into the world of womanhood and that the changes in her body were to be honored and celebrated, not something to feel ashamed about. After the celebration, my younger daughter Katie stated quite seriously that when it was her turn, she wanted macaroni and cheese, not ziti.

Soon it will soon be Katie’s turn, so I’ve been thinking more about menarche and how other families might be observing this important and often frightening time of life. Even though many of the taboos about talking about our bodies have broken down, menstruation is still generally talked about privately and in hushed tones. We usually use euphemisms and funny phrases like “on the rag,” “that time of the month,” or “a visit from Aunt Flo.”

Most girls nowadays learn about menstruation and puberty through a book, perhaps a talk with Mom, an older sister or friend, and at school assemblies. Yet as much as 10 percent of American girls are clueless about what’s happening to them when they get their first period, according to Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, authors of “Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation.” While the body-shaming of yesterday doesn’t happen as often (we hope) in America today, menstruation is treated as, at best, a problem of hygiene and mood swings.

The scant research on the topic shows that girls’ attitudes about menarche and menstruation seem to be overall negative. Kim McClive-Reed, LMSW, PhD, a social psychologist, notes that one problem in these studies is in the kinds of questions, since they’re focused on symptoms and worries. One study that asked more positive questions garnered an attitude that viewed menstruation as more of a normal, healthy part of being a woman.

Also, she notes, the age of menarche has gone down, which means girls are going through this transition at younger ages than ever. The studies show a correlation between negative attitudes and this downward trend in age. Perhaps this indicates a need for earlier preparation and education, and a re-affirming of the positive sides of this transitional time.

Why do we find it so hard to talk about menstruation? While some of the negative attitudes and taboos around menstruation are most certainly because of a long, entrenched history of body shaming and fear of women’s power and fertility, some of it certainly also comes from a feminist desire to downplay what might be seen as an essentialist, traditional understanding of a girl’s development.

In other words, we tend to want to show appreciation and positivity for something a girl has done (like obtaining her driver’s license or graduating from high school) rather than something that simply “happens” to her because she’s female. But even this well-meaning approach can have unwanted consequences: Marianne Williamson has reflected that growing up, she realized that she felt loved for what she did, not for simply being who she was.

While some of the approaches to menarche in different cultures are frankly frightening – like cutting open the abdomen to encourage fertility – many other cultures offer an array of more positive, life-affirming ways to mark a girl’s menarche. Best-selling wellness author Dr. Christiane Northrup supports the idea of a positive, personalized coming-of-age tradition for our daughters. She points to examples of positive rituals in indigenous cultures and shares examples of ways other women and girls have observed this turning point. A rite of passage acknowledges that this is a time when “explosive energies of individuation that are released at puberty require some kind of container in which they can be channeled constructively.” 

Northrup also believes this is a lack that teens feel acutely in our current culture. “In the absence of culturally-approved vision quests, meaningful coming-of-age ceremonies, or genuine tests of physical and psychological strength, too many young teens fill the void with drugs, alcohol, dangerous relationships, or compulsive consumerism.”

Some of the ways that other cultures, like in rural India, Bali, and Ghana, have celebrated menarche include ritual bathing, dressing the girl up in jewels and fine garments, having a feast or party, and showering the girl with gifts. In other cultures, girls might spend time with an older female relative. Still other traditions include physical feats, like the Nootka Indians, who, according to Stein and Kim, row the girl out to sea and require her to swim back to shore, where her family and friends cheer her return.

Perhaps we don’t have to have a big party to honor this time of our daughters’ lives, but simply shrugging our shoulders and treating it as nonchalantly as a nosebleed ignores the very real way that the experience of menarche lays the foundation for how a girl feels about herself for the rest of her life.

A mother’s attitude “sets the tone for how we embrace, or subtly (and not-so-subtly) reject, our awesome but culturally taboo creative powers as women,” notes Dr. Marcy Axness, author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers.” A positive, affirming ritual, whether it’s formal or informal, can help convey the message that getting your period is a time to honor yourself and your own cycles, rather than something to be ashamed of or simply “deal with.”

I can’t say my daughter has come to be fascinated with her period and loudly proclaims when it’s her time, or that she’s become a blogger for The Red Web. But hopefully at least, she can look back at least one bright spot when she felt welcomed, loved, and honored, and can re-visit some of those rituals, either for herself, or perhaps, for her own daughter. I look forward to getting her input as we prepare to acknowledge her younger sister’s coming of age. And of course, we’ll have macaroni and cheese.

Your Family's Guide to Observing the Solar Eclipse Like Pros

Here’s what you need to know about experiencing the incredible phenomenon of a total eclipse with your kids.

This summer, the moon will pass between the sun and the Earth so that its shadow completely blocks the sun’s rays, creating a total solar eclipse.
My family has been planning to observe the eclipse for almost a year now. We have combined excitement, adventure, science, and storytelling to help our children understand the event. NASA has been our primary resource for all things eclipse related.
Here’s what you need to know about experiencing this incredible phenomenon with children.

When will the solar eclipse occur?

Monday, August 21, 2017. The next total solar eclipse in the United States will be in April of 2024. This will be the only time to experience an event like this with your children while they are still children. The next time the moon’s shadow completely blocks out the sun, your kids will be adults.

Where will it happen?

This interactive map can help you locate the path of the eclipse. The path of totality spans across the continental U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina, but all of North America will experience at least some of this incredible sight. This video shows what the eclipse will look like across various points on the continental U.S. and other locations in North America.
In celebration of the eclipse, there are countless events popping up across the country, including ones sponsored by NASA, public libraries, National Parks, and zoos.
If you are outside of the path of totality, you don’t have to miss out! You can still tune in to experience this incredible event. NASA will be streaming live video of eclipse coverage on their website and social media feeds.

What do you need?

The entire eclipse process is a lengthy one, lasting approximately two-and-a-half hours from when the moon begins to partially cover the sun, through totality, ending when the moon passes completely on the other side.
If you are observing as a family and not at a special event location, be prepared to occupy the time. Bring water, snacks, and fun activities. Fun activities can be anything from favorite books, games, or toys to eclipse related science or art projects. Also, be sure to bring equipment to view the eclipse safely!

Safety first

Eye safety is critical when experiencing the eclipse. There is a brief window when can you view the total eclipse – the moon surrounded by the sun’s corona – with the naked eye. At all other times, it is unsafe to look directly at the sun.
Eclipse glasses are the only safe way to directly view the eclipse. When purchasing eclipse glasses, be sure to check that they meet the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for direct solar viewing. Some events may provide eclipse glasses for safe viewing.
Eclipse glasses need to be worn any time the eyes are exposed to the sun’s rays or anytime outside of that moment of totality. There are a few tell-tale signs to let you know when it is safe to take off your glasses, and when you should immediately put them back on again. Knowing what to expect can help keep you safe.
There are many indirect methods to view the eclipse, including ones you can make yourself. Solar viewing projectors are easy to make and have fantastic history. This pinhole projector can be printed either in 2D (on paper) or in 3D!

Helping kids understand the solar eclipse

Sometimes astrological concepts are a little difficult for kids – and adults – to wrap their minds around. Visual models and playful activities are always great tools to illustrate abstract concepts.
This activity uses a ping pong ball to represent the moon and a basketball to represent the sun. When there is a large distance between the ping pong ball and the basketball, the person holding the ping pong ball can “block out” the basketball, the same way that the moon can block out the sun during a total solar eclipse.

Have fun!

This is definitely a once-in-a-childhood experience, if not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Make it memorable! NASA has many suggestions on their site, including time capsules and dancing along the path.
Take time to learn about the human history of eclipses. Make some predictions on the shape of the corona and record what you see after viewing the eclipse. You could even create your own solar eclipse playlist!
Most importantly, let your children weigh in on how they want to celebrate or commemorate this event. Now is the perfect time to create a special family tradition.

How to Respond to an Adults-Only Wedding Invitation

When faced with the stark reality that your friend/family/acquaintance has publicly decried a youth presence at her wedding, you can react one of four ways.

Should children be invited to a wedding? As innocuous as this question sounds, it has become quite a hot button issue, sparking heated debates among couples and creating rifts between family members. It seems everybody has an opinion – and a strong one at that – when it comes to who should be on the guest list. Ultimately, it is up to the bride and groom to decide whether children are included, as it is their special day, but that doesn’t stop everyone else from expressing their views – especially when they disagree.
Traditionally, children have always participated in weddings. Not only were they in attendance along with the entire town, they played an important symbolic role in the ceremony. The appearance of flower girls and ring bearers dates all the way back to Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt, respectively, with little variation in the centuries following. It was only recently, with couples marrying later in life or having second and even third weddings and the events themselves becoming so extravagant, that the presence of kids came into question at all.
From the bride and groom’s perspective, children are an added expense and a behavior variable they might not be thrilled about or willing to embrace. Sure, kids are cute when they amble down the aisle or dance together in a clumsy embrace, but they can also be unpredictable and unruly. When you spend a year and a small fortune planning for this occasion, the last thing you want is a pint-sized wild-card upstaging you. It is neither the honored couple’s responsibility nor obligation to plan for these what-ifs the way a parent does. While not every bride and groom feels this way, an increasing number do and make it known in tactful but sometimes awkward “affirmatives” on their invitations.
 
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From the parent-guests’ perspective, children are part of the family and if they’re not invited, arrangements need to be made for their care. An out-of-town wedding presents a bigger problem than a local one, but either way, the parents need to find a babysitter. Parents usually cite this as the major complaint regarding an adult-only wedding, but if they’re being honest, what offends them is their kids aren’t wanted. It’s hard to summon warm feelings about impending nuptials when you’ve been told, affirmatively, your offspring are a nuisance.
So now what?
When faced with the stark reality that your friend/family/acquaintance has publicly decried a youth presence at her wedding, you can react one of four ways:
1| You could decline the invitation in exasperation, outraged at the selfishness of her stipulation, because doesn’t she, herself, have nieces and nephews, or, heck, even a daughter? You could complain to her directly (which you would never) or behind her back to other family members, or, better yet, on social media, wrecking any future chances of celebrating the holidays together. But, hey, you have plenty of other people in your life, right?
2 | You could politely decline, biting your tongue when tempted to criticize her decision, and instead try to understand and appreciate the effort she made to stage the perfect day – even though you know full-well it is the years to follow that make a good marriage.
3 | You could begrudgingly accept the invitation, grumbling to whomever will listen about how inconvenient it is to be away from the kids, making yourself miserable in the meantime, thus guaranteeing your night out, sans les petites, will be an epic-fail.
4 | You could accept the adult-only invite graciously and have a smashing time with your husband, knowing in your heart that once your friend has children of her own, she may look back on her exclusivity and cringe just a bit – or maybe she won’t. Either way, it’s her day.
Children are an extension of us, so when they’re excluded it’s hard not to take it personally. The fact is, this wedding is not about us or our kids, and we have no business making it otherwise. In all likelihood, the bride and groom did not arrive at their no-kids policy lightly, and they already know it’s not popular with the parent set. In the spirit of forming a lasting union, why not be accommodating and abide by their wishes? It could be your gift – along with the set of sheets they asked for.