Temporary Secrets to a Saner Morning

All siblings have that recurring argument, the one that will sometimes give a false sense of resolution because it may lie dormant for a few days. Then, it’s back again, as fierce as ever:

Act I, Scene 1

It’s Monday morning, 7:00 a.m. David (13) is still in the bathroom getting ready for school. Kevin (8) is slamming both hands on the bathroom door yelling, “Hurry up David! I’ve got to brush my teeth! You’ve been in there foorreevvveerr!”

It dawns on me that Kevin is wearing the same clothes he wore from yesterday, but we simply don’t have time for him to change. Wait, a stench passes through my nostrils.

“Kevin, when was the last time you changed your socks?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Ugh! Change them! Now!”

Sigh. We have got to go. The dog acts crazy, racing around the house, knowing. We are around seven minutes behind schedule and because I teach an 8 a.m. class, those seven minutes are (were) necessary.

I leave the boys in the house and start the car. After about two more minutes, David and Kevin tumble out of the house, slam the front door, race for the front seat . . . and it begins.

“I was here first!”

“No, it’s my turn!”

“You sat up front last time! MOVE!”

“Mommy said it was my turn!”

“I said MOVE!”

I am so done I contemplate leaving them both in the driveway. They can find another way to school.

“Both of you! In the back! NOW! This is ridiculous!”

They make a dramatic entrance, throwing their book bags on each other and falling into the back seat.



“STOP IT!” I yell. “No one talks. No one!”

We are all in a bad mood now and the silence could be sliced like deli meat.

I was talking to my best friend from grade/middle/high school the other day and told her about this constant battle. She reminded me of our “back seat middle” call. You see, “Back seat middle” is what she and I used to “call” on road trips in order to “claim” the back seat middle, to make it appear as if it was, indeed, the treasured seat. Actually, we didn’t really want the back seat middle, especially not while riding in a car in the mountains of West Virginia where we grew up. But after calling “back seat middle,” others would decided that they, too, wanted backseat middle and then we would, of course, fight over the backseat middle, and finally give it up to get the front seat, which was the goal all along. Psychological warfare at its finest. It worked great, until others caught on . . .

“You need to tell one of them to claim the back seat middle, Renee. There’s no other way around this,” she said.

I thought about this for a few days. It couldn’t hurt to try.

Act II, Scene 1

Another Monday morning. 6:50 a.m. rolls around. The hustling begins. David’s in the bathroom, like always way longer than necessary. The dog is darting around. Kevin needs to brush his teeth, but he is wearing clean clothes. We have a few minutes before we need to be in the car.

“Hey Kevin?” I say.


“I have a secret, kind of, to tell you . . . ” He leans in. “This morning I want you to do something a little different . . . ”

His eyes widen as he listens and a grin spreads across his lips.



I handed her two sweet potatoes, two peaches, and finally two pints of salted caramel ice cream.

She had that I’ve-been-crying-but-I’m-really-just-done-with-everyone-and-everything- don’t-look-at-me-or-talk-to-me look going on. Her name tag read Bailey, and I felt the syllables of the endearing name of my 65-lb Rottweiler nearly soar from my lips followed by a four count of “girl.” Baillleeeyyy ggiirrlll! “Bailey is my dog’s name!” almost exited my mouth,  and although I meant it as an endearing statement, I quickly realized that she may not have taken it that way. I guess I could have added, “And I really love her!” No, never mind. Awkward.  So instead I said nothing as she weighed my potatoes and rung up my total and said, “you saved two dollars today.” I smiled and she tried to smile back, but her attempt was so sorry that in that instant I wanted to hug her and tell her it could heal, no matter what it was, who it was, where it was, why it was, how it was. It could heal one day. That it was possible. No words mattered though. Not right that second. So, instead I said nothing.  I took my sweet potatoes, peaches, and ice cream from her hands and walked outside to my car.

Pool Side!

I remember watching my boys swim at a local pool a few summers ago.

David, then 10, is wearing his big honkin’ green goggles that cover his entire face, well, at least his eyes and his nose. His mouth is still exposed. He reminds me of a huge green bug. Kevin, then 5, still won’t put his face all the way under the water. “Blow bubbles!” I say. He won’t. He whimpers a bit, then shoots other people with his water gun. Kids squeal. Adults express mixed reactions. Some smile and splash back. Others look annoyed. Some glare. Kevin does not have his water gun etiquette down yet. I make a note to work on that with him.

The coconuty smell of sunscreen wafts through the humid North Carolina air. Heads bob up and down in the clear water. The sun scorches my shoulders. I mentally calculate the last time I sprayed my boys down with SPF 50. It is time again, probably. Sweat beads on my forehead and drops down on the pages of my David Baldacci novel. I think of how refreshing it will be to jump into the water.

The lifeguards gaze lazily over their sunglasses, every now and then glancing down at the phones in their laps. Texting, playing Candy Crush (yes, I know Candy Crush is sooooo 5 years ago . . .)

A dad with his two girls, probably ages 3 and 4, sit to my left underneath their own umbrella. He coerces them to eat strawberries or how about a banana?

“No, you can’t have a cookie until you eat your fruit. Don’t make me call your mom.”

He takes a swig of his beer, stands up, hands on his waist.

“But daddy! Stwaberries make me feew sick!” One wails. He takes another drink. Sighs.

Stay consistent, I think. You can do it. I send him mental energy. Words are unnecessary. You are the adult. Don’t be manipulated by their adorableness.

I smirk to myself as if I am always consistent with my own kids. As if I didn’t just give in earlier today when they begged me for leftover pizza and Sunkist for breakfast. Then donuts on the way to pool. As if I don’t say things like, “Fine! Eat the cookie! Eat all the cookies! Make yourself sick! I don’t care!”

“Whatever, eat the cookies. Just don’t tell your mom you didn’t eat your fruit.” The dad sighs. The girls jump up and do some kind of happy sister cookie dance. Then the next thing I know their faces are smeared with chocolate. Dad tells them to go jump into the water to clean their faces and he settles down in his pool chair with a magazine.

At this point David is playing sharks and minnows in the deep end — basically a game of tag — and Kevin is still shooting people with his water gun, turning around quickly as if the victim will have absolutely no idea what happened.

I stand up, stretch, and walk on the hot pavement to the deep end to watch the game. Two boys, probably around David’s age, are playing. They may have been brothers or friends, or neither, or both. The boys climb out of the water, dripping, panting, amongst a dozen other kids.

Boy 1: “Oh Man! We’re screwed!”

Boy 2: “Dude, I think you can come up with a more appropriate description of our situation. How about, ‘we’re currently disadvantaged?’”

My English teacher heart grins so big, and I quickly skip back to my pool bag. I pull out my little notebook and jot down the dialogue I just heard that simply locks this pool experience into the books.

“Hey! No running ma’am!” the lifeguard shouts from across the pool, Candy Crush on pause.

I give him the thumbs up sign.


Completely Puzzled

A few weeks ago, my bestie from high school, Caren, flew up from Orlando to spend the week with me. I have only seen her maybe four times since we graduated from high school nearly 16 years ago, so as you can imagine, we wanted to fill our time with plenty of meaningful, friendship building activities. After she arrived at the airport, we grabbed a bite to eat and then headed to the store to pick up groceries for the week. We decided, as we were throwing salad, quinoa, and other organic items, (I mean ice cream and four types of cookies) into the cart, that we needed some type of bonding activity. A puzzle was just the answer. We spent around 45 minutes in the puzzle aisle examining every single one while the ice cream in our cart melted. Right before we walked out of the store puzzleless because I didn’t want to tackle an under the sea scene and she didn’t care to work on a Star Wars one, the answer, once again, became very, very clear: A 750-piece with a pink and purple sky, with mountains, a river, and trees in their autumn peak, all surrounding a white castle flashed right before our eyes.

Our eyes met and we knew.

This was the one.

That evening, amidst laughter and heartfelt conversations, we started construction on the border. She took the sky, and I took the foreground, which were those blasted, confusing swirls of autumn trees.

Caren’s job allows her to work from her computer, so she stayed home with our puzzle while I went to work the next day. Around 2 pm, a nagging feeling appeared in my mind. I sent her a text:

Me: 2:14 You better not be working on the puzzle

Caren: 2:16 I’m not

Me: 2:17 Yes you are

Caren: 2:18 Only 2 pieces

Me: 2:18 Stop!

Caren: 2:19 OK, no more. I will wait for you

An hour later…

Me: 3:15 Stop working on the puzzle!

Caren: 3:17 Only two more pieces

Me: 3:20 Ugh! I’m leaving work. Be there soon. Leave the puzzle alone.

We worked on our puzzle on and off through afternoons and evenings. Occasionally, my boys would help, but they typically lost interest within a few minutes. As the days crept by, we realized something was off. We had yet to connect the sides with the border, and we just kept thinking we had not found the right piece OR that there were missing pieces. The bottom border was almost a wavy line. I had put the bottom together, and while I just had this nagging feeling about it, I truly felt that maybe Walmart had sold us a defective puzzle.

“I think this piece fits here, but I just need some scissors to trim the edge here, and then it will fit,” I said, halfway kidding. Caren exploded with laughter, and we continued to work on our project.

One night after a very exciting SCC basketball game (Go Flyers!), we plopped down at the kitchen table to work on our puzzle. Caren peered at the bottom border pieces and burst into hysterical laughter, like to the point where I thought something may be wrong with her.

“Are you kidding me? These don’t fit! This one doesn’t fit! This one doesn’t fit! Renee! You have been forcing pieces together that don’t fit!” she exclaimed.  I was a bit embarrassed, but mostly relieved to know the problem, even if it was yours truly.   Laughing, she pulled apart the border. She connected some, reconnected others, the wavy border straightened, and the mystery was solved. Shew. No more blaming Walmart.

Caren left for home before the puzzle was finished. While I was left to complete it, I just wasn’t motivated. A bunch of trees were left, and they literally looked as if autumn had thrown up. The oranges, reds and yellows all swirled together near the bottom of the puzzle. One Friday night, though, I decided I wanted to finish the puzzle, glue it together, and frame it.  I spent an hour or so connecting piece by piece together until it was finished. Every piece fit. I snapped a picture of the masterpiece and texted it to Caren.

The next morning, I woke up, and with coffee in hand, I admired my work. Suddenly, I noticed something very peculiar. There was a piece missing from the sky. Just one. Gone.


I figured one of my boys had snagged it to be funny. I asked each of them, “Have you seen this piece?”

“Nope.” David said, “Maybe you should ask Kevin.”


“Kevin, have you seen this piece?”


“No! I promise! David probably knows!”

With each passing hour, my technique changed:

“I really want to frame this picture and hang it up. Could you please give me back the missing piece?”

“Look, I don’t care who took it or why. Just put it back. Have it back by the morning at 6 am. I don’t even need to know who stole it.”

“No one is leaving the house until the piece is back.”

“We aren’t eating again until the piece is back.”

“Stealing puzzle pieces from your mom’s puzzle and lying are sins.”


No admissions. None.

I even questioned Bailey, my two-year-old Rottweiler, and she claimed that she had no idea where the piece had gone.


Days later, the piece is still gone. No one will admit to it, and if it doesn’t appear by Friday, I’m just going to glue the puzzle and frame it without the 2 X 2 inch chunk of sky. I’m done questioning the suspects. I don’t know what else to do.

As of now, I’m still completely puzzled.





One April afternoon, we sat on a park bench under an oak tree with squirrels dancing through the branches, and she said, “Look at your feet.”

Curious, I peered down at my chipped, purple toenails peeking out from black strappy sandals.

“Where are they?” she asked. I stared at them, wondering where she was going with this. “Because you are not where they are.” My initial reaction was to recoil, but I was already there, had already done that.

Yesterdays and tomorrows swirled around like clothes flopping around in the dryer. I closed my eyes, tried to restart. Opened them.

Two young boys, probably seven or so, are throwing a Frisbee across the grass, a golden retriever running back and forth between them.

Moms, laughing, sharing inside jokes, are pushing their toddlers in the swings.

The squirrels are now playing hide and seek in another tree, darting through the branches.

The fresh smell of pine and hydrangea. The freshness of right this moment.

While it was fleeting, it restored me just for a few moments, until the dryer of memories started back again. Swirling, Tossing, Throwing, and the squirrels and moms and Frisbee throwing boys, even the Golden Retriever started to fade.

Years have passed since that day, and I still think about my feet and practice. Like today, I pause, look down at my toes (now red).

Oh hey. Where you are, feet? Am I where you are?


She crept out during the hymn,

not the first one, or even the last one, but the middle one. Her keys jingled a bit in her hand, purse slung over her shoulder, her eyes on the floor. A few looked up—peered over their hymnals—curious. The couple that rubbed all over each other during the sermon glanced her way and kind of grinned. A man in a suit and tie guarding the exit tried to make eye contact, touched her shoulder, as if he thought they were equal or friends, but she knew he didn’t think that. Not at all. She pushed past him, dodged a few more glances, dropped her bulletin in the parking lot before sliding into her car.

And that was that. There wasn’t anything left after that. Not at all.

Lately I have been trying to keep my boys talking,

you know, to keep the conversations going. With Kevin, who is eight, it’s absolutely no problem, but the older one, the 13-year-old, well, his word count has decreased in the past year. Sometimes he will excitedly chat about wrestling or football, or a teacher who he thinks is funny, but all too often his answers are just a few words.

“My day was fine.”

“I learned about prepositions.”

“Yes, I ate the lunch you sent. Yes, the carrots too.”

Fair enough, but sometimes I just really want a conversation, so I ask the question, “Do either of you have anything you want to talk about?” Most of the time a topic is not given, but comments are.

“We need to get Chinese food.”

“Can we get Little Caesars tonight?”

“Did you get a video of me pinning that guy at my wrestling match?”

Sometimes conversations begin about 5-7 minutes after the boys are supposed to be in bed for the night. Ironically, this is the time frame when suddenly more meaningful topics emerge.

“Mom, do you know what I’ve been thinking about? God. Is he real or not?”

“Mom, you know. I have been wondering. How did I get here? Like, really?”

“Mom, there is a kid at school who is mean to me.”

Yes, of course there will also be the occasional urgent, “Mom, I forgot to tell you that you need to sign this permission slip before tomorrow. Yes, I know I have had it in my book bag for two weeks, but I just remembered. At least I remembered before tomorrow!”

“Mom, I forgot to tell you about the solar system project due tomorrow. I have everything I need except I need help painting Neptune. We didn’t have the shade of green I need for the rings. Can we run to Wal-mart real quick?

Sometimes though, mornings are when I like to talk. After all, we have a 15-minute drive to school and yesterday morning I asked a question, and here is what unfolded.

“Does anyone want to talk about anything while are driving to school?”

David: “NO.”

Kevin: “Oh! I do!”

David: “No, Kevin, I can’t handle it.”

Kevin: “But I need to tell you something!”

Me: “Go ahead, Kevin.”

David: “UGH!”

Kevin: “David, stop with your attitude!”

David: “Be quiet.”

Me: “What do you need to tell us, Kevin?”

David: (makes disapproving grunts, sighs, and other 13-year-old noises)

Kevin: “I really want to talk about why quesadillas are better than tacos.”


I mean, as you can see, what else is there to say? Best topic ever.