Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sweet Sixteen - Round One

Yesterday was a very sweet day, one I think all of us will remember.  Angela...the first of our Teen Block...turned 16 years old.

We joked that the 16 years passed so quickly!  Sometimes, the only way to deal with very real losses is to decide they will not define you.  We have had Angela and Olesya a mere four years. There were twelve long years we all lost together, and when you hit a defining birthday like 16, you feel that loss a little more dee  Itply than other years.  It can't be 16 already!  We've all been ripped off!  We missed all that came before puberty, the little girl stage, the toddler years.

But we have gained much, and for that we are all very grateful.

Our family all seems to be on the same page about simplifying our life in general lately, and while we had big birthday parties the first year or two each of the kids was home, we have collectively decided to drop it down a notch now that everyone is older.   I think the longer I am on Facebook, the more intentional I want to be about bucking the whole "Mommy Culture" that insists I must be all and do all in order for everyone to be happy and childhood to be magical.  When the Elf on the Shelf (or my preferred Mensch on a Bench) trend started, then the pressure to hide gold coins delivered from the Leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day came along, it all started feeling too over the top for me.  As our family has talked together about the times most enjoyed and best remembered, it became very clear that it was not for a moment the gifts or Big Event that mattered, but instead was time with good friends laughing together, and time just hanging out as a family that was treasured.  Half the time, nothing else was even remembered, so I became a wee bit anti-Pinterest and decided to no longer feel guilt over having a cake with family and a single gift, and gave myself permission to reject the new cultural ways to "bring on the magic".

Turning 16 years old in America is a rite of passage of sorts, as it usually is accompanied by a brand new driver's license, and sometimes the gift of a car.  It can often be a time when dating is being explored with regularity, and is very much a "Coming of Age" point in the life of a young person.  Dominick and I decided long ago that our kids would not be driving at 16, not because of cost, but because I was an insurance agent far too long and saw the difference in maturity, and read the statistics about teen drivers.  On top of that, Angela is in no way interested yet in driving, so it is a moot point other than when others bring it up and assume she now has a permit or is ready for a license.

So what do you do with a young lady who is turning Sweet 16, and yet needs to mark it differently?  Dominick and I talked a lot about it, and came up with a little plan.  Over the course of the next year and four months, as each of the four older kids have their 16th birthday, we would create a little tradition.  Each one, on the day of their birthday, will go to the bank and be allowed to open a checking account, with us as co-signers.  As all the kids have proven themselves very wise with their money, this is a logical next step and one they have earned, and yet it is a "grown up" thing to do.  We then will take the entire family out to dinner at a nice restaurant, which is always a rare treat for us, and then we will present them with a single special gift that is far nicer than an ordinary birthday gift.

Yesterday morning arrived, and Angela bounced out of bed with a huge smile on her face.  This was the day!  We gathered up the kids to drop them off at an Earth Day work day with Miss Mary, and off we went to the bank, where we were warmly greeted by all the tellers there who know all the kids well from all our visits there as they deposit their paychecks, withdraw $5 or $10, or ask to check their balance.  We sat down with the new accounts representative, and right off the bat had an awkward question.

"So, are you in high school or college?", she asks.

"Middle School, I am in 7th grade."  Angela sheepishly replies.

The woman looks at her with quite a confused look on her face, and Angela is obviously feeling uncomfortable.

"She is 16 years old today, and we'd like to open a checking account.", I interject, heading off any further questions that are not her business to ask.

Obviously a little flustered, the gal asks for Angela's ID,which she handed her, and then begins to process the new account.  As she talks about the account or asks questions, she turns to me and doesn't explain anything to Angela at all, acting as if she isn't even there.  I continue to turn to Angela each time, trying to redirect the woman to no avail.  She never did engage Angela directly, much to my dismay, but the look on Angela's face when she was handed her new temporary Debit Card was priceless.  She leaned over and whispered to me, "I need you to explain things to me when I get home, she doesn't seem to want to talk to me."  but then she added, "This feels like I am such a grown up!!  Thanks mom!"  As we walked out the door a few minutes later, Angela hugged me and said, "This is a little scary, isn't it?  I hope I don't mess it up.  But  can't wait to use my card for the first time, that is going to feel so cool!"

Mission Accomplished, I thought to myself.  There are a lot of other ways to mark a coming of age, and this one was perfectly suited.

Dropping Angela off at her graphic arts class, I took the other kids shopping so they could get a little something for Angie.  Everyone kept talking about how this was a special birthday, and they needed to think of something a little different for a gift.  They struck on a great idea, and off we went to the Dollar Store first.  This is what Olesya, Kenny, and Joshua pitched in to buy her:

Angela has talked a lot about wanting to grow flowers this spring, so they bought her some supplies and a $25 gift card to purchase her own flowers with.  The Dollar Store comes in quite handy for gloves and such.

We went to dinner in a neighboring town at an Italian place.  I cracked up when we told the kids they could order anything they wanted odd the menu, and Matt looked up and said, "This feels weird, we aren't used to being able to get ANYTHING!"  

There was much laughter and giggling, as we waited to be served.

We quickly changed to have all of us around the round table, this set up was too uncomfortable.

The Littlest LaJoy who just isn't so little anymore...but not to big to snuggle with Dad!

The LaJoy Teens...all will be sixteen within the next year and a half!  
Growing older, working hard, amazing hearts, one and all.

After dinner it was gift time, and it was special as a mom and dad to sit back and see how thoughtful the kids had all been.

Kenny gave Angela a gag gift of a toy car, which got a big laugh out of all of us!

Then came the real gift...mascara that he picked out himself!

Matthew had been thinking about contributing to the flower garden gift, but decided he wanted to get Angela something a little different.  He went to Office Depot and selected a beautiful pen and pencil set to go along with her new checkbook.  It was a perfect gift!

A look of genuine surprise at the gift mom and dad gave...

Every girl needs her first "real" jewelry.

An amethyst and teeny tiny diamond chip necklace with matching teeny tiny earrings!
She loved it so much, and thanked us over and over again, saying she never would have dreamed of getting something like this.  

All in all, it was a very lovely 16th for Angie, but it was also precious for Dominick and I.  Watching the kids together last night, listening to them gently tease one another and goof around, so delighted to simply be eating a meal out in a "real" restaurant, we know how blessed we are.  

Angela said it all when we were driving home from her class yesterday.  She was introspective as she told me, "Mom, sometimes what has happened to me is like a dream.  I never knew that families could be so loving, and have so much fun together.  I didn't even know what I needed or what I was missing, because I didn't know it could be like this. I have the best brothers and sister in the world, perfect parents (yes, we have her totally fooled), and a nice home.  I know you sometimes worry about what we don't have, but I think all of us have all that we need."  

Then she said softly, "Being sixteen feels so different, so adult.  Part of me really likes it, and part of me is very scared. I am not ready to be a grown up yet, not really.  There is so much responsibility, and you have to know yourself really well.  I'm glad I don't have to become a grown up without you, Dad and everyone else.  If I were in Kazakhstan still, I would be so scared to be 16, because I would be close to being out of the orphanage. I wouldn't know what to do, or where to go, and I know I would give in and do bad things because I just wouldn't have any choices.  It's like now I have all this love and a lot of choices, and that's good, but it is also hard to know what choices to make for being an adult."

That conversation followed another I had early in the morning with Kenny, who broke down in tears as we talked about our hard Easter morning and why Dominick and I are concerned about his future.  When I thought to ask him if he preferred playing with the younger boys and imaginary play because he was scared to grow up, I hit a raw never, and tears instantly welled up as he hung his head and started to sob.

"Why mom? Why am I like this?  I don't know how I am going to ever grow up.  I want to be the same as Angela, Matt and Olesya, but I am scared and I sometimes really can't be like them...its like something is wrong with me and I am still a little kid.  It really bothers me that I am so much like Josh because I know I ought to be different.  I also know you and Dad are right, I can't be a little kid forever, but how am I going to be a good grown up when I can't even remember the months of the year...or anything at all??  Why do I have to have this stupid brain that doesn't work right?  You are right, I really am afraid of growing up because I don't think I can make it as an adult if I can't do simple things."

Ahhh...Kenny...we sat and talked for a very long time as I pointed out all the progress he has made, all the things he can do so well...even better than others. I explained he didn't need to compare himself to anyone, and no one else was doing that to him.  He said he just could see himself how everyone else acted their age, and he didn't and didn't know how to.  I quickly pointed out that the girls are NOT acting quite their age, that each of them is at least a year or two behind their peers, too, and that it wasn't a bad thing at all.  He asked me to explain how they were behind, and I used Angela as an example with her lack of desire to date at all, or to drive, and how many times she likes to do younger things even if only for awhile.  Olesya was a little easier to see that she is closer to a 12 year old, developmentally, than a 14 year old. 

And none of that matters, but at times, the fear runs rampant through each of them, and it is hard to overcome.

Today was when the fear ran through me, as we had a long awaited spelling and definition bee of the high level vocabulary words we have worked on all year.

And it stunk.  Awful.  No one remembered anything, even after supposedly studying.  There were "Brain Blocks" out of every single kid, and dear Miss Mary and I sat there quite disheartened as every word was misspelled, and definitions were mostly forgotten.  It was one of those moments when I felt literally crushed, after months of intentional work.  Kenny is very clearly backsliding with reading and spelling, falling into old habits and unable to hear individual sounds.  Angela was drawing complete blanks, as was Matthew with definitions, which was quite a surprise because his vocabulary is usually quite advanced.  Josh was doing well, and is quite a naturally good speller.

We took a break and Mary tried to encourage me, reminding me, "Cindy, you have all special needs learners...two ELL's, and two in particular with Matt and Kenny who will probably never spell very well.  Don't be discouraged!!  These days happen, and you are doing a super job!"

Ugh.  Then why doesn't it feel like it?

We went back to work, and I decided flippantly to sort of give up, and just throw out words quickly and randomly, without pacing and without spelling.

And then it happened...

One after another, they got excited and started blurting out definitions right and left, 100% correct, even words we had figured they would have likely forgotten.  20, 30 words with correct definitions, and Mary and I just looked at one another incredulously.

"Maybe we were going to slow and their brains got hooked up on the spelling and couldn't move to definitions.", she said.  It was the strangest thing, like a light switch turned on.  Neither one of us could figure out what the difference was, but both of us felt a huge sense of relief that all was not lost.

There are days it is just darned hard.  Olesya, the night before, was asked by Dominick to calculate out roughly how many times 11 went into 37.  She had no idea, and never could figure out how to even approach the problem.  That is disheartening, to say the least.  Kenny insisting over and over again that a short "a" sound is really a short "i", or being unable to retrieve in his brain what letters make an "s" sound is really difficult to keep spirits up.

But then I recall the joy of Angela's birthday last night.  It's not about "performance", it is about character, happiness, and kindness...something all five kids get an "A+" in.  Sometimes I just need to remind myself what the most important thing really is, because I get bogged down in the Performance Paradigm, doing just as Kenny did and comparing with others. It is a hard thing not to do.

Angela and Kenny voiced the same fears Dominick and I sometimes have for all of them.  Yet sitting around the table last night, arms wrapped warmly around each other, smiles broad and laughter loud, how can I not think something is working right?  Doubt creeps in and it can be hard to boot it out the door sometimes, but boot it I must.  We're all doing the very best we can, and we don't fit anywhere...anywhere, that is, but right where we are in the middle of a big ol' Team LaJoy hug.

Tomorrow is a road trip for the girls and I, as we head out to California to get Grandma Alice settled back home safely.  All we can each do is try our best, never give up, and hold each other up.  Angela reminded me of that in our conversation in the car today, when speaking about Kenny's fears she said, "No one in our family will ever be alone, Mom.  Kenny will always have us, even when we are all grown up.  So will you and Dad, so will Grandma.  Everyone gets scared, but it is scarier when you don't have anyone who cares about you.  Thanks to you and Dad, none of us never will feel that way ever again.  Kenny'll be all right, we all will, because love is always there."

Sweet 16 couldn't be sweeter, with the exception, perhaps, of Rounds Two, Three and Four...and Five trailing along behind!


Anonymous said...

Angela's smile is so special! Miss Janet

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Angela!!! I can't believe how time flies so quickly - and how far you have come since we first met. All our love from the other side of the mountains! Kelly

Anonymous said...

What a lovely birthday. How safe she is with you and her family. Happy 16th Birthday to Angela.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday and many happy years, Angela!
Teresa F