Goodbye, Lovely Column

My grandmother had a knack for making hot cocoa.  She followed no particular recipe, shook out Hershey’s powder and sugar into a sauce pan, added milk, never resorted to measuring with teaspoons.  Yet, voila, the cocoa was rich and delicious and when she handed us a warm cup with a homemade biscuit, we kids were in heaven.

This morning is dreary and drizzly, and I wish I had a cup of her cocoa, a great big mug I could fuss over and savor.

For a moment, my thoughts drift elsewhere. About two weeks ago, a new editor informed me that the Pioneer Press would no longer feature my column.

Of course, I was disappointed, but then I considered how tough a climate it is for newspapers, how readership keeps dwindling for print venues. I read some insane statistic, that 2/3rds of retail book shelf space has vanished in the past 15 years. There are too many writers and too few readers, and it’s never been more competitive.

Five years ago, the odds were stacked against me ever landing a column. There were thousands of established mommy bloggers, many of whom touted they wore Erma’s crown. I admired Erma so much, but never felt I could fill her terrycloth house slippers. My writing struck a different note. I didn’t write like Erma or Dave, I was limited to a 350-word space and tried to fill it with humor and deeper thoughts. If I verged on pretense, I had my best critic, my mom, to set me straight, or had the eye-roll of my husband to keep everything in check.

So yes, it’s been an absolute privilege to write for the paper chain for the past five years. I received many lovely reader letters, and reported to a splendid editor, Jennifer, and her colleague, Matt S.

The humble column had become an endearing habit. Every week, I would send my sister a new Pioneer link for her to read the latest Van Mom missive. Last week, I couldn’t.

My sister said, “You know, whenever I had a rotten day, I knew I would read your column and feel a little better.”

I replied, “Oh, well, you’re my sister. Of course you’ll say that.”

“No, it’s true,” she said.  “I felt like I’d gotten a little break from the craziness and stress. I felt like I’d had a mug of cocoa.”


Thank you, Jennifer and the Pioneer Press, for this opportunity, and thank you so much, all my readers, for taking the time to read my words.



A “Lampoon” Vacation

In our motel room, we stopped short of body cavity searching the kids for my husband’s missing credit card.

That was only the beginning of our summer vacation.

After several years, we could finally afford it, a dream destination blending history and adventure in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Fate had other plans.

The day after our arrival, my husband’s jaw throbbed. His filling disintegrated.  My youngest had an abscess. “Double in-dentistry.”

By day three, my oldest complained of a headache and had a raging fever.  A physician diagnosed strep throat and scarlet fever.

Post-penicillin, several days later, we staggered from the sick ward (motel room), and drove over to an amusement park, where the temperature spiked at 102 degrees.  Metallurgists, not meteorologists, predicted the heat would dissolve dashboards and smelt iron ore.

Sweating, we trudged through crowds, weakened by the contagion plaguing our family.  While at the carny section, my husband won a huge stuffed penguin for our youngest.  My son was thrilled, but all I could think was, how would we get this thing home?  It would not only scare the stewardesses, it could block a jump shot from Shaquille O’Neal.

Lugging the penguin around, (I even snapped the safety belt around it and asked if it preferred easy-listening music or rock), I drove the rental car to Fed-Ex, UPS and finally, to Pack & Send. 

The clerk weighed the penguin. “That’ll be sixty-four dollars, ma’am.”

“Bubble-wrapping my youngest child would cost less,” I retorted.  “I’ve gained three pounds from salt water taffy and you could ship me for less.”

She shrugged.

Our solution? Add luggage on the flight back.  My husband, the efficiency packer, could cram a week’s worth of clothes, shoes and toiletries into a suitcase the size of Barbie’s Corvette.  The airline said we could add another piece of luggage for free.  Whew.  Finally, a little luck.  At Target, I bought a mega suitcase for the penguin and reassured him that I’d pack him in ice. 

Later that night, we nursed nasty sunburns and bickered over the remote.  My husband watched the Weather Channel, seemingly fascinated by the forecast for Stuttgart, Germany.  The blond German anchor was pretty enough, I guess, flaunting Oktoberfest pigtails and yelling, “Und nien!”  The Stuttgart map was far preferable to the alternative, my friends — a double-action DVD he found on sale: Kelly’s Heroes and The Dirty Dozen. When he slipped Dozen into the DVD player, I almost climbed into the suitcase with the penguin.

Seven days into our vacation, around midnight, my youngest complained of a headache and fever.  Strep, strike two.

You’re thinking.  This crazy woman.  She’s making this up.  I wish I were.

After pasting on a Florence Nightingale smile and enduring Kelly’s Heroes AND a torturous third viewing of Dirty Dozen, I was ready to go home.  The penguin and I would hitch a ride. 

We dragged through the airport, kids and penguin in tow.  I scanned the cities on the ETA board.  Hurray, our flight back to Chicago was on time.

En route to Midway, however, the airline lost one of our bags. 

No.  Not the giant penguin.  He made it home. 

The luggage containing all our toiletries, medicines and a few vital organs – that went to San Diego.

My husband cracked, “Guess I can’t shave or shower for work.”

“Send the penguin instead,” I said.  “He’s tall and he’s wearing a tie.”

“But it’s business casual.”

“So?  He can wear your wrinkled Cuban shirt.  The Steve Wilkos one.”
Monday morning, back to the work grind, my husband was frantic.  Where were his car keys?  We ransacked luggage, plundered my purse, beamed a metal detector over Kirby, our dog.  The penguin insisted he hadn’t taken the car for a thrill ride.

Well, the keys were stuck in the front door, where my husband left them the night before.

You think I’m making this up.

I wish I were.


[This “Van Mom Strikes Again” column originally appeared on July 10, 2008 in the Pioneer Press]

No More Astronauts

When my oldest was a third-grader, the school year culminated in a mock liftoff where he pretended to be an astronaut. A white tee with a hand-painted NASA logo served as his spacesuit.  His rocket and helmet were homemade, too.

Fast-forward to déjà vu. Today my youngest is moon-bound.  His spaceship looks like it came from an aerospace factory specializing in rubber chicken launches. Other kids have U.S. LUNAR scrolled on their rockets. Ours has U.S. LOONEY.

Three o’clock, the bell rings. Grinning, my youngest skips toward the van, navy back pack swinging from his shoulders.  He’s wearing his own shirt with the NASA logo, pretending to fly the duct-taped rocket.

And I realize. 

I have no more astronauts.

This summer, my oldest will surpass me in height. His voice will leaveSweetBoyVillage and settle in the city limits of Vin Diesel. My youngest will not only advance to fourth grade, he’ll probably sign a NBA contract, judging by his shoe size.

With growth comes the crash of illusions. Last year, they caught me sneaking Easter baskets into their room, expressing skepticism about a giant rabbit’s ability to zip around the earth overnight.

“The Easter Bunny outsourced the jelly bean job to me, boys. That’s the truth.”

“Mom.” My oldest scolds. Someday he’ll be exposing pyramid frauds. “We saw the candy in the closet.”

Oh, I like school projects. Nothing eclipses the adrenaline rush of last-minute scrambling, or the spine-tingling stress of finding a store that might sell a protractor at9:34 p.m.

They’re getting older, though. Soon they won’t need cupcakes for classroom events. I won’t tail my son in a Halloween parade wearing a bent witch’s hat. No longer will I sit in the third row fretting over a musical performance, praying my son’s fidgeting won’t cause a cave-in of the chorus bleachers.

Along the school sidewalks, I see younger moms with toddlers. Once, mine were that little. And I remember “Turn Around,” a 1960’s song Harry Belafonte helped write:

Where have they gone
My little ones, little ones
Where have they gone
My babies, my own

Turn around and they’re young
Turn around and they’re old
Turn around and they’re gone
And we’ve no one to hold

Tested on a group of unsuspecting mothers, “Turn Around” earned a 10 rating on the Sobbing Heap Index. After hearing the song, mothers had to be airlifted to a Kleenex plant until they could regain their composure. 

Yes.  I know. Life moves on. My sons are becoming young men. They still don’t use coasters. I’m just sad because I’ll not have another imaginary blast-off to look forward to, and continue this parenting journey that won’t stop for a mother’s wistful tears. 


[original column appeared in the Pioneer Press, June 2008]

By the way, I guest-blogged at Gem State Writers, courtesy of a friend’s invitation.  Stop by — the range of posts for writers is quite exceptional.

“I loathe the 80’s” — humor column on how younger people sneer at we geezers. 


There’s No Spare Hourglass

Years ago, I attended a writer’s party at a Barrington estate.  We nibbled on Paula Deen-ish hors d’oeuvres.  It was “BYOR: Bring Your Own Reflux.”

We settled into couches, and gazed out at a rambling front yard forested by oaks and maples.

A woman approached our wordsmith cluster and introduced herself as Barb, a high-school English teacher.  She joked she was married to “the most hostile person in the room.”  I burst out laughing, because my husband usually grimaces at the idea of a “party” and waits in the car for me to say goodbye – about fifteen minutes after we arrive.

In between wine coolers and wisecracks, we shared our dreams.  Barb was also an Erma fan, and wrote fiction and humor.

The inevitable drifting happened.  Schedules got busier.  She had her baby, then I had my two.  Once, I faced a family-related crisis and she wrote a heartfelt letter.  She sent photos of her son’s school pictures at Christmas.

I sent Barb a silly essay, about my husband and I scrambling to finish a Wright Brothers plane made of popsicle sticks.  Barb chastised me, saying that parents shouldn’t really do their student’s work, but then confessed she had once built a rainforest inside a Florsheim shoe box.

According to Barb, teaching creative writing was rewarding yet intense.  “In addition to the assignment, sometimes my kids will write in the margins, ‘my mom is dying from cancer,’ or ‘my dad is drinking again.’”  Their writing was a window to their souls, and Barb listened.

For awhile, I noticed there weren’t any cards or e-mails.  So, I Googled Barb’s name.  To my shock, I found out she died in July 2009.  She was only 50.

We were not everyday friends.  Our children didn’t play together.  I never met her husband.  But she was the person I wanted to have coffee with.  I wanted to be like her.

Henry Thoreau said, “You cannot dream yourself into a character, you must hammer and forge yourself into one.”

Barb’s death feels like a hammer to my cozy world.  I say, “Things will work out,” and reassure myself there is still time to do it all.

And there isn’t.


[This newspaper column appeared in the Pioneer Press in January 2011.]

Nora, we’ll miss you.
Writer and director Nora Ephron died, and columnist Liz Smith wrote a touching tribute that I can’t locate now, but I do have this link.  Love this line, that she brought “elegance and wit” into the world, and this quote from the USA Today article: “And, in a decade when R-rated crudeness has replaced old-fashioned chemistry when it comes to relationship comedies, the three-time Oscar nominee’s work is more cherished than ever.”  Yes!  We need some more Spencer & Tracy banter, some Audrey Hepburn sophistication… and Nora Ephron’s insightful wit.

Nora and her husband.

This photo of Nora and her husband, writer Nicholas Pileggi, brings a smile.  They’re holding hands, they look happy.  (She deserved a major dosage of some sunny-side-up after what she chronicled in “Heartburn.”)

Even better — they’re not posed.  They look natural.

Rest in peace, Nora, and thank you.

[Photograph from Dreamstime, a stock photography site, not for commercial use]

This week’s column: how we’re coping with my high schooler’s cursing.

Thanks for visiting this blog and website, hope to see you again soon.