Thursday, May 31, 2012

Revisiting Cindy

I just spent the past week in sunny Southern California, land of my childhood and still home of my mom!  I was there visiting for a few days that I tacked on to a work trip, as I was working at a homeschool show in Long Beach this past weekend.  It was the perfect opportunity to combine two into one, so Dominick pulled  triple duty as Chief Bottle Washer/Teacher/Bread Winner!  We had a conversation before I left about how surprisingly helpful it has been for our marriage over the years to regularly switch roles.  You all know how often he steps up at home, and fills in when needed.  In many ways we are interchangeable in that regard, except for there is just something a little  softer about Mommy Love :-)  What you may not realize is that in years past I have spent just as much time in his roles too.  I have detailed cars...plenty of them!  I have run our second airport cafe for several winters while he ran his.  This role reversal might just be the single best thing we have ever done to  foster real understanding and compassion about how difficult each of our jobs really is.  When I say I have had a rough day at home, he gets it because he has experienced it and doesn't think for a moment that my job is an easy one.  When he comes in totally beat after a long hot day, I get it because I know just how exhausting it can be.

A big plus is that the kids also know it, for they too have walked a little in Dominick's shoes.  They recently have all done some detailing with Dominick, working long hot days.  They have worked in the restaurant since the day they could, and now are as valuable there as many of our adult employees have been.  What I see developing in them because of these opportunities is a respect for work, and a respect for those who work to provide an education, food and clothes for them.  They have seen first hand how difficult it is to earn the money that puts food on the table and clothes on their back, and they don't take it for granted. Although they can't as easily slip on Mom's role as educator, their own effort at school helps them understand that "brain work" isn't necessarily easy either, even when it seems on the outside to be simple.  Believe it or not, more than once when I have "pulled an all nighter" planning a unit study, or researching curriculum, I have actually been thanked by the kids.

So anyway, there I was, driving up the 101 Freeway (and trying hard not to forget and call it "highway" as we do back in Colorado), in this cute little Nissan Versa and enjoying driving a non-mom car for even a little while, and on the radio is playing songs from my teen years.  A little Aerosmith, some Lover Boy, a Styx song, and it was SO SO SO strange!  I actually drove right past our old high school, whose football field is alongside the 101.  Maybe it was the time of year, so near graduation.  Maybe it was re-entry in a small way into the life I once lived.  Maybe it was being and feeling old these days as my right hip gives me fits from arthritis and my arms are no longer long enough to help me read print clearly.  Whatever the reason, I felt as if I was straddling two worlds, and recalling the dreams of my youth while contrasting them with the reality that has become my life is an interesting place to find myself right now.

Never, in a million years, did I ever imagine my life turning out the way it has.  Never could I have known the plans God had for my life.  I thought I'd always live in Southern California, no matter how ill fitting it actually was.  I thought I'd have the requisite two kids before I was 25, which would have meant that by now my imaginary children would be in college.  I thought I'd have a career of some sort, although what that might be was not at all apparent upon my graduation and I had vague images of photography or teaching hard of hearing children.  Later it was perhaps business management at the drug store I worked at, then it was management at the pest control company I worked at.  None of those dreams were ever all that flashy, they were rather ordinary.

The main thing that I prayed for was a life filled with love and happiness.  Little did I realize at the time what a tall order that really was.  It took living life awhile to recognize how hard that might be to come by, as I watched over and over again as lives around me took painful turns, and were mired in joyless chasing of the Almighty Dollar and the American Dream, which seemed to have grown to include a Mercedes in every garage and a house with 4000 square feet with a swimming pool.  The farming community I had grown up in had become a very prosperous city, and with it came bigger and bigger desires.

Here I sit, 25 years later, evaluating the twists and turns that led my life to where it is today.  What have I done with my life?  What have I really accomplished?  I am a high school graduate, an unemployed homeschooling Mom who spends her days picking up dirty socks, correcting grammar workbooks, and asking for the 22nd time for someone to please shut the door!  I have no fancy diploma on the wall, no claim to fame, no diseases cured, and nothing at all to brag about should anyone care to listen.  Interestingly though, the ways in which I defined success when I was young are still the ways I define success today.  Oh, I am certain that any alumni present at a reunion from my own graduating class might look and scoff.  There would be many of us, I am sure, who would be placed in the "Loser" category for what we don't have to show for 25 years of living post-high school.

The success I have though is exactly what I chose to chase.  It isn't measurable in the same ways.  That life filled with love and happiness is no longer a dream, but has long been a I absolutely do not take for granted.  Those two kids of the dreams of my senior year Family Class somehow morphed into five, and the faces that greet me every morning are far more beautiful than Dominick or I could have ever produced ourselves, even if they look nothing like us at all.  We have a decent home with space around us that helps us feel somehow freer.  We have much laughter!!!  There is always a hand to help, and a hug to share.  There is love spoken here, not just occasionally, but hourly, and sometimes moment by moment.

My success is not at all in what I wear, what I drive, or the furnishings that surround me.  As I took that long look back this past week, as my youth came rushing back to me in the familiar scents of smog and oleander, and the unceasing sounds of traffic off in the not-so-far distance, I smiled. No, I am not even close to living the life I once imagined for myself, and how awesome it is that I was not limited by those undersized dreams!

But it was just yesterday evening when I really understood that I had truly achieved the kind of success that has meaning and value.  The girls and I were out on a little jaunt, alone without the menfolk as we stopped by our church and then the grocery store for a couple of items.  Somehow the conversation turned to relationships, and what makes them work.  I spoke of how very blessed we are to have the kinds of conversations in our family on a daily basis that some families are never able to have.  Angela asked "Why are we like that, Mom, and others aren't?" and I said "Courage, Angela.  It takes a lot of courage to reveal your heart to others, to risk being laughed at for sharing what you really feel.  It isn't easy, and I think in some families the parents themselves don't understand that it is important that they let their children see inside their hearts to teach the kids how to do the same thing.  They want to hide things, they want to always look strong and not look vulnerable or weak."

Angela got really quiet, then as we pulled into the driveway she looked over at me with tears in her eyes and said "I am so glad you and Dad are my parents.  Before I came home, I never showed anyone my feelings, it didn't feel safe.  Now, I always want to, and you always seem to understand.  It's like my heart is really open for the first time, and it feels good, even though it was scary at first.  I have the best family in the whole world, not just because I got adopted, but because I got adopted by THIS family."

That's a kind of success that the 17 year old Cindy couldn't have possibly understood.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Staring Back

I posted a comment on Facebook last night about something that happened, and it generated a lot of conversation.  I thought I'd continue the conversation here where it can be more than a mere paragraph at a time.  For those who aren't my FB friends, let me explain.

Yesterday evening, the kids had their TaeKwonDo tests, they ran quite late, and so we went to the nearby McDonald's for a quick dinner.  Matthew had a meeting he had to attend for Civil Air Patrol there for planning with a few of the young men, so we thought it would kill two birds with one stone.  We get out of the car and start walking toward the restaurant, and before we even enter both Angela and I see this gaggle of high school aged girls with their father staring and pointing at us.  Hmm....OK, so there are 5 kids in TKD uniforms, maybe that looked kind of funny, I get that.

It didn't end there.  As we walk in and stand in line, the staring continues with more pointing and whispering behind hands, accompanied by giggles.  Mind you, these were not young girls, these were older high school aged kids.  I elect to ignore them, but Angela us growing more and more disturbed. Olesya and Kenny notice but are in conversation and don't realize how ongoing it is.

We get back to the table and Angela says to me "Mom, that was way overboard...did you see how they were making fun of us and wouldn't stop staring?  I am used to people staring at us, but that was too much."  Thankfully, she is my girl filled with confidence and instead of making her shy and totally uncomfortable, it actually angered her.  She then said "What is so wrong with us?  We're just a family, it's like people sometimes never have seen adopted families before and that's just silly.  Adopted families are all over the place so it isn't new or anything."

We had a long talk about appropriate behavior in public, about staring at anyone who is different for some reason and how it makes them feel.  We also talked about how lacking in diversity our area of the country is, and that the girls "pass" as bio kids but the boys don't.  Angela said "Yea Mom, but it's not like we live in Kazakhstan or something, where they don't want Kazakhs and Russians together.  Here in America it is just stupid for people to stare at us, we're just a family."

I had just told Dominick a couple weeks ago that I have noticed that the attention we receive has totally ramped up and I am completely stumped as to why.  It isn't a good thing, not at all, for it is often to the point of rudeness we experienced last night.  Now, I know those of you in urban areas are likely not to believe this, and are thinking I am exaggerating, but believe me I am not.  I have spent the past 11 years being stared at more often than not when I am out with my children, but when they were young it was sort of cute curiosity.  People would ask questions, and while sometimes I would get a little tired of feeling on display, it was all fairly benign.

I can not understand what has changed as the kids have gotten older.  I have not said anything to Matthew, but I have discovered the past several months that when I am out alone with him these days I am getting almost nasty looks.  Considering I have been subjected to this for years, I am not sensitive to it, it is that it is newly changed.  He has yet to notice it, but soon enough he will Josh and Kenny.

I joke about being mistaken for being a foreign exchange school group, but in all seriousness it has happened no less than 5 times....and that's when we are not out on a homeschool field trip wearing our shirts and when people even hear the kids call me "mom".  It's like they somehow can't quite imagine a family looking like us, and frankly, as bad as it has been getting the past couple of months I am running out of compassion and patience. As I said in my short FB post, we are NOT a traveling freak show and I don't like being treated like it everywhere we go.

Some of my FB friends suggested that maybe it was people interested in adoption, or that they are fascinated by us.  That might be true part of the time, but not always.  It's almost as if I don't have the right to put my arm around the shoulder of my Asian son in public.  It's almost as if we don't have the right to exist as a family.  I am not the horribly over-sensitive type of female, believe me, but this is really starting to get downright offensive sometimes.  I am not talking about the honest mistakes, where store clerks handing out samples innocently assume we are not together, or where restaurant hosts want to divide us and place us in two separate areas of the restaurant (happens OFTEN) until we explain we are altogether.  I can totally understand why that happens and that doesn't bother me.  But this is different.

When you live in a county with 41,000 people (our city is much smaller, around 17,000 I think) and .6% is Asian, I guess it is to be expected.  Yea, you read that right .6% not 6%.  But you'd think that simple exposure to media today would make us less of a sideshow.   Haha!  I just realized, that as compared to the Occupy movement we are even lower....we aren't the 1%, we are the Less Than One Percent!

So as we move into this new phase as a family, I have some thinking to do about how to handle this, because it is obvious it isn't going to change and might only get worse.  On FB it was suggested that I walk up to people and initiate a conversation and offer an explanation to satisfy curiosity.  That might work, I suppose, but then I would be doing it almost every single time we are out together as a family, no kidding, and I guess I don't want to place myself in the role of "Official Ambassador for International or Transracial Adoption" just because I am going to City Market and want to get a gallon of milk.  I just want to be what I am, Mom.  I want our kids to be just kids, not "those adopted kids", but I have a feeling that as this increases, that is just not going to happen.

Many of you may wonder why we try to get out of our area as often as we do, why Team LaJoy always seems to be going someplace or headed out on the road on another adventure.  There are a lot of reasons that have nothing at all to do with being on display all the time, but in part it is because we need our kids to see the larger world where there is diversity.  We absolutely have to go someplace where we can walk down the street and be relatively anonymous with no one giving us a second glance, because that sure doesn't happen often at home.  We need to be someplace where no one questions our validity as a family, where I am not asked if I am babysitting my own children, where sometimes it is actually even assumed we ARE a family.  We need them to see people of all colors (our county's African American population is even smaller at .4%) and to view them as beautiful and lovely, just like our family is.  Angela and I still laugh over her declaring in her very limited English while we were in the Frankfurt Airport bringing theme home "Mama...Look...BLACK!" as she pointed and loudly talked about a person of obvious African descent...because she had never seen one before.

I guess I just don't want my own children being like those we encountered last night, whose lives have been so limited by their environment that they find a need to point, stare, and giggle at that which is different.

For now, I guess we just ignore it, educate when the opportunity arises, and try hard not to get angry at having our family sometimes not even seen as a family.  If someone thinks it is weird for a middle aged white woman to be out with a teenaged Asian boy, then that is their problem, not mine.  Where it becomes a problem is when our kids are affected by it, and then we will need to address this differently.  Last night was perhaps the beginning in a series of long conversations about race in our family.  Sad, that in 2012 there is even a need for that at all.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Chrysalis, Olesya

Those of you who know the LaJoy's in person recognize the truth in the statement that there are no shrinking violets among us.  We are not necessarily a group of "in your face" folks (Well, Dominick, our lone Chicago Italian might beg to differ), but despite the lack of genetic connection somehow we all escaped the "shy" gene.  But one of us is missing a very important component, the confidence factor, and Olesya is the one we all are worried most about.

Olesya is our one child who knows herself the least, who lacks a sense of certainty.  A long conversation with Kenny and Angela a couple days ago was so insightful as they both expressed concern that someday someone would take advantage of Olesya, and that she might never grow to see herself as valuable and strong.  It is so clear to all of us.  People tend to assign themselves roles in a family...the smart one...the cute one...the little one...the troubled one.  In our family that is a little harder to define due to adopting out of birth order and the natural issues each of our children face, and over and over again Dominick and I reinforce that there are no "roles" in our family, only smart and loving kids living together to be a family.  We have no favorites, but highlight that in our own unusual way, by saying on any given day over any silly thing "Oh wow, you are TOTALLY my favorite kid today!", and of course that rotates as we make certain every kid gets a chance often to have the title "Favorite".  Said something nice about someone?  You're the Fav of the Day.  You went to the fridge and grabbed me a Diet Coke?  Ah, then YOU are the Fav of the Day!  We make a joke about it, including every kid at different times for all kinds of little reasons, and it ironically shows that there is no one "favorite" child in our family.  The kids crack up, and sometimes will even look up at me, like Angela did just yesterday and say "Does that make me the favorite today??" and they all know that if they ask, that automatically disqualifies them...and they love it.

The problem is that no matter how hard we try, Olesya has assigned herself the role of "Honorary Dumb Blonde".  She sees herself as incompetent, and follows through by asking ridiculous questions to get attention or  to try and be funny.  We have done everything in our power to encourage her and to discourage the remarks that make you want to roll your eyes.  Even the kids will say to her "Olesya, you are smarter than that, that's not funny.".  The truth is though that we recognize she will likely never change until she has some sense of herself, until she defines for herself who she is.

Further making this a challenge is that the areas in which she has gifts and is instinctively drawn to are areas which our culture no longer values...domesticity and motherhood.  Let's face it, today our expectations of a woman are that she excel in a career, and her running of her home life is often second banana.  But Olesya is not built that way.  She is a nurturer and a caretaker, she is the rest of the mommy in this family...the parts that I am not innately good at!  When we go someplace, her self-assigned job is to make certain all water bottles and snacks are packed.  What do I do? Look at the kids and say "there's the cupboard, get your bottle...if you forget that's your problem!".  She is the personal reminder for us all of everything we need in any situation, and makes sure we have whatever that might be.  It's as natural as breathing for her.  She loves baking and organizing, and although very intelligent, she is simply not all that engaged by academic pursuits.  In a gaggle of kids who all are surprisingly pretty interested in a variety of things academic (For goodness sake, we just started a unit on government because the kids ASKED for it!), her own neutrality on the whole world of academia makes her feel a little "less then", even though no one else has ever intentionally made her feel that way.  So, I guess she takes that and runs with it as a way to claim a role for herself.

However, last night we just may have taken a big step forward.

Yesterday evening, I found myself sitting at a table with Olesya and another student my age taking a class on Beginning Cake Decorating.  I can hear the laughter from here, from those who know my own ineptitude in the kitchen.  Oh yes, I was surrounded by little metal tips, covered in powdered sugar, and learning the trade secrets of how to bake the perfect cake.  I was deep in discussion about the proper methods for cooling cakes down, and the coolest little secret for having flat tops.

Was it because I have some deep rooted need to learn cake decorating.  Uhhh...not so much.  Was it because I am looking for a second career?  Nope, I have enough on my plate already.  Was it because of some inner artist screaming to claw its way out?  That even has ME laughing out, it is definitely not that.

The reason I was sitting in that class last night, and will possibly for the next SIXTEEN weeks as we work our way through all the Wilton courses is...

Because I love my daughter with everything that is in me, even my nonexistent inner artist, and I would do anything, I mean ANYTHING, to help her see herself as talented, precious and treasured by me. So treasured, in fact, that I am willing to risk looking like a complete idiot doing something that is so far off my radar for things I would ever pursue (Web site design is more up my alley), that I would still spend 48 hours over the course of the next SIXTEEN weeks taking classes and driving to the next town over.

And you know what?  I LOVED IT!  Olesya talked more in the car than she ever has, she thanked me profusely over and over again for doing this with her.  She said several times how much fun it was to be alone with me and to do something special together.  We talked about her desire to own a bakery someday, or some other business of her own...and how easy it would be for her to do with her gifts!  We talked about how she could decorate cakes on the side while staying home with her children someday, and how that would help her be the stay at home mom I think she might really want to be.

Better yet, I decided to jump in the deep end, after all if I am going to do this for the next sixteen weeks, I am not going to suffer through it, I am going to make a decision (for we can do that, you know) to enjoy it!  We got all giggly and girlie looking at the various pans and tools, we plotted and schemed about how we were going to present a few little items to Daddy when we came back home and beg his forgiveness for purchasing them (with me knowing all along that he would never mind at all!), and we drooled over the beautiful cakes shown in the various idea magazines that were shared.  Actually, it was hard NOT to get into the whole thing!  The instructor for the class is a fast talking gal with personality plus, and the other student is a total hoot and perhaps just a few years older than I am. We all laughed so much, and I am more than willing to take on the role myself of class clown and dunce so that Olesya can share her skills and be my personal tutor (not that I am faking it too much, mind you).

What really got me was when I had to stop and explain something in easier terms to Olesya, and explained to the other tow ladies quickly that Olesya only had two years of English so I might need to do that from time to time.  The other student looked shocked and said "She isn't yours?" and I said "Well, she is now, but  I didn't give birth to her, we adopted Olesya and her sister two years ago."  The instructor said "I never would have guessed it, she looks like she could be your biological daughter!"...and I looked over at Olesya who had the biggest smile I have ever seen on her face.  The claiming of one another as our own still continues, still blesses, still amazes, even in such little ways.

So, I know have homework to do, and we will do it side by side, mother and daughter, pretending we know what we are doing and making a huge mess along the way.  Maybe, the real Olesya will emerge and reveal herself to be the butterfly we know her to be.  The awkward tween stage, the acne, the "I could care less how I look" because she wants to play and not worry about older girl things...all of that is even harder for her I think.  But her family knows what's hidden from the world, her family sees the bright, caring, amazing woman that will one day find herself standing strong.  And her mother will do her best to see to it that the woman standing before us one day IS that strong, capable, self-assured person...or at least closer to it than the young girl who thinks she is nothing special.

You ARE special, Olesya!

And you know what I love most about my husband?  You know why, in large part, we have been successful with helping ease our kids into their adoptive family?  It's because he didn't blink when I shared with him what the cost of the class was, or last night when we came home with a few other items.  He didn't say "Well the course is too expensive, why don't we just send her and you stay home."  Dominick gets it, in every single possible way.  He knows this isn't really optional, but is as much a necessity as the milk we need in the fridge tomorrow.  He recognizes that every one of our children is reached differently, and how imperative it is that we do so.  What did he do when we got home?  He sat down at the table and "oohed" and "ahhed" over all the little tips and tools we drug home.  He got in the moment with us, he didn't for a second complain about how hard it is to afford this.  For families like ours, such things are not a luxury.  The only way I can ever reach Olesya is to meet her where she "lives", and we have a far more limited amount of years to do that than others do.  Affording something like a cake decorating class might not be labeled as "family therapy" to some, but for us that is the category it falls in.

The payoff?  From the outside it never appears to be worth it.  The way the LaJoy family "invests" always seems foolhardy, but then most wouldn't find the words "Mommy, thank you SO much for doing this with me.  I can't believe I get to spend this much time with you by myself!  I know you are busy, and I am so happy you are doing this with me.  Maybe I'll get good at it!  Maybe someday I can sell cakes!".

You want to know where confidence comes from?  It can be quite costly, both in terms of time and cash investments.  It's worth it, every single penny and every single moment is worth it.  Olesya WILL emerge from her chrysalis one day, and we all will sit back and gasp at the beauty...

Now, on to the world of Wilton! HAHAHA!  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Welcome to MAL Airlines!

Saturday was a very busy day around here, we had a big Birthday Bash for April and June babies.  Well, OK, I realize they are not exactly babies anymore...but they'll always be MY babies!  The kids decided to combine birthdays and have one party to spare our friends from having to come to yet another LaJoy party, and to share in the fun of a theme they both wanted.  Angela was particularly excited, because we didn't do much to celebrate her birthday last year because of the death of our nephew and the timing of everything.  Since this was really only her second ever birthday to be celebrated, it was still quite a big deal for her.  That is not to say that Matt was any less excited.

After much discussion, we hit on the idea of creating a flight themed party.  Angela is still into Amelia Earhart and Matt is (and always will be) still into planes obviously, so we decided to turn the house into a pretend airport and invite our guests to take a flight with us!  After we came up with the theme, it was hilarious ( or Hil-OR-ious, as Angela says) to sit back and watch the kids take off and run with the whole idea.  Down to the tiniest detail, they created the whole thing and it was clear as they were planning that these kids have all had some serious flying experiences...they totally know the ropes!

So, through photos, let me invite you to pack your bags and visit the MAL Airlines terminal (Matthew Angela LaJoy)!

Be sure and grab your ticket at the front desk!  We found a place online to print real replicas of tickets which could be personalized, so we made one for all our guests and printed it on card stock.

Dominick made our Arrival and Departure sign, and I made Employee Badges with a generic logo I found online.  We all had different jobs.  Olesya was Head Stewardess, Matthew was the Pilot, Angela was the Co-Pilot, I was Director of Hospitality, Dominick was Director of Operations, Kenny was Director of Ticketing, and Josh was Director of Security.

Matthew created a Pilot Training Center, complete with an authentic Colorado Aeronautical Map which I have no idea why we found we had one of those laying around!  He set up the computer with his Microsoft Flight Simulator game.

Our "Baggage Claim" area was where the gifts were placed.  There is a big version of the logo I used on everything for the party.

Angela created a poster with pictures and quotes from Amelia Earhart.

All the kids were so excited, but it was Kenny who got into his role the most.  Here is Olesya helping him look sharp before our "passengers" arrive.

So DON'T LAUGH...but I made a runway cake for the occasion.  I know it is not the most professional looking, but we had fun thinking about what sort of cake to create, and I lucked out that they didn't force the issue of wanting a cake in the shape of an airplane!  And, since I am going to begin cake decorating classes with Olesya starting tomorrow evening (Again, DON'T LAUGH...especially YOU,  Jill!) so future cakes might look a little better.  Well, not if I do them but if Olesya decorates them...hahaha!

Throughout the day, I couldn't help but think about Kenny's buddy in Kyrgyzstan, Amir, (whose new name will be Isaac if he so chooses).  His parents were on a plane to meet him, and our hearts were with them.

Our Director of Security takes his job very, very seriously.

Our passengers were greeted by our Director of Ticketing, who was quite prepared and professional.  He checked tickets with a flashlight to determine if they were forged or not, the stamped them, and he cleared them to head into Security, where...

They were scanned and approved for boarding.

Ahhh...we have created a moster!  Joshie figured out that the man who has the wand has the power!

Some of our passengers came toting their luggage!  I think ultimately they might have been disappointed to discover this was a trial run, and they were not exactly headed to Astana, Kazakhstan.

One of our passengers came suited up and ready to fly in case of an emergency!  Here they stand at attention....

And here they show their true colors! No one can stay too serious for very long at the LaJoy House of Fun!

Angela had fun practicing at the Pilot Training Center

Instead of a standard table cloth, we created our own using various maps...see...those 50 years of National Geographic magazines paid off in multiple ways!

Then it was outside for games.  We played very simple things that didn't cost hardly anything, and the kids all had fun.  We bought a handful of styrofoam and balsa wood airplanes and let the kids fly them.

Then it was on to our Stewardess Water Glass Run...

Finally, we had a relay with loading and unloading suitcases...

Clothes were flying everywhere!  Kids were running everywhere!  Suitcases were carried everywhere!

Then it was inside to Baggage Claim to open gifts, and our children were once again blessed so much by the generosity of our dear friends.

So many people put so much into our family, we have the very best "village" anyone could ever ask for supporting, nurturing and caring about our family.

My two twins, depending upon the month, or one part of my triplets, depending upon the month, or ...oh...just forget it ;-)  We can't keep track either!

Miss Lael, honoring Angela's Elvis obsession!  

And Miss Jill honoring the Amelia Earhart obsession!

The biggest surprise of the day was one we totally didn't expect but were thrilled about!  Angela's gift from us was a BB Pistol, something she had been wishing for since Josh got his rifle.  With our kids, it is kind of hard to pull out of them what they want for Christmas or birthdays, they don't keep a running list in their head and are always so happy with anything they get that they don't really care to ask for anything specific.  But as you all know, Matthew has been working to save money for a compound bow, which for those who have no clue about such things is not an inexpensive item.  He can not use a junior bow as he has grown too much this year, so he needed a standard adult size...average price...$380-$450 brand new.  Even on Ebay used ones are not cheap, so he was continuing to save, in fact having worked for Dominick 3 days last week  putting in long hard days detailing cars.  Since taking his class on archery he was even more motivated to earn one.  

Not having $375 to drop on a compound bow, we decided that for his birthday we would get him a package of arrows.  I know, not exactly a thrill, but he had been talking about even when he earned the bow he would still have to buy arrows and a couple of other things to get started, and the arrows alone were $30 for 3.  So we wrapped them up in a camouflage shirt, got him a little something extra, and that was his gift.  Or so we thought.

The morning of the party I left to go get a couple of items at the store, and stopped by a new little gun and archery store here in town, thinking maybe I could find him the wrist-thingy he needed (I, obviously, did NOT take the archery class and do not know the correct terminology.)  While there I talked to the store owner about bows and asked what the cheapest one was that they had, hoping to pass the information on to Matt for future reference.  No surprises there, they were all close to $400 or more.  I visited a bit more with the salesman, sharing how Matthew was trying so hard to earn enough money for one, and that he didn't even care if it was new or not but couldn't even find a used one that he could afford more easily...and I asked what would be the best place to find a decent used bow.

He cocked his head, and thought for a moment, then a smile spread over his face.  "Come back here for a minute, let me show you something." and I followed him into the back of the shop.  There he placed a large case up on the workbench and popped it open.  Inside was a beautiful camouflage bow, just the right size, with 8 arrows and some other tool thingy (again, I have no clue what it is called), a soft carrying case was tucked inside this larger hard sided case.  He said to me "This is an 18 year old bow, and it appears to almost never have been used.  There is probably about $600 worth here between the bow, the case, and the arrows.  It is a perfect starter bow for a young man wanting to try out the sport, and it is also good enough that he would not have to replace it for an upgrade later on."

Well, with it being $600 worth of archery gear I already knew it was way out of range to even consider.  I hardly dared ask him what the cost was for it.


"I'll take it." I said without a moment's hesitation.  "Right now?" he asked.  "Yes, right now." I replied.  There was no way I could possibly pass it up, and if it had hit the sales floor, it would be gone in a heartbeat.  I could scarcely believe our good fortune!  $125 was more than we have to spend on a birthday gift for any of the kids, so even though it might seem tacky to some folks, we told Matthew that our gift to him was finding the great deal and paying half of the cost of the bow, and he would have to come up with the other half.  Considering the incredible amount it saved him, he was ecstatic and eagerly paid half the cost.  Now he has the real deal, and it did far less than break the bank to get it.

So, the big day was over, birthday celebration had come and gone, and the flight landed safely :-)

All of our children are people we truly enjoy being with, and the older they become the more interesting they are!  Angela and Matthew are amazing in many ways, but the one way which has spoken oodles about their character is how they each accepted one another as siblings, without a single incident.  Angela immediately deferred to Matthew as the honorary eldest, despite the fact that he is over a year younger than she is and actually the 3rd oldest in the family.  She likely would not have done that so easily if it were not for Matthew never trying to assert his place or trying to bully his way into maintaining a role.  They each have mutual respect and admiration for one another, and considering the circumstances both showed an incredible level of maturity and offered a great deal of grace to one another as we settled in to being a family of 5 children, 4 of whom are a year and four months apart.  The experts would be shaking their head in dismay at what we did, we shake our heads in awe at how it worked.

But then, we didn't "pick" our family, God did, and that's really why it worked.

Happy almost 13th birthday, Matthew!  Happy just passed 14th birthday, Angela!  

I don't normally comment on our kids' looks, but as I look at this photo above I just have to say:

Beautiful...handsome...inside and out!

Friday, May 11, 2012

12 Years Ago...

12 years ago...

You were so tiny, so frail, so ill...and so beautiful.

12 years ago...

I was so curious, so spellbound, so immediately overwhelmed.

12 years ago...

I gave my heart to you, and I'd never be the same.

12 years ago...

You put your hand in mine and never looked back.

All I ever imagined motherhood would be, all I never dared dream it would be
It was that and much, much more.

You have changed so much, and yet you are still the same
The same quiet strength,
The same thoughtful introspection,
The same interests and passions
All being practiced  in a much larger body.

But still, even today, as you no longer look up at me but across at me
You sat on the couch, head on my shoulder, long legs stretched out over mine.
I quietly said "Today's your adoption anniversary."
You looked up at me and grinned.

Nothing more needed to be said.

The years are passing so quickly,
You are already more man than child.
In action and in heart, you are but a few years away
From becoming the man I saw inside the 11 month old.

I have a sneaking suspicion though
That nothing will take away
The love and commitment we both silently agreed to
That long ago Mother's Day.

I love you forever, I like you for always, as long as I'm living, my Baby you'll be.
Those days have passed, of lullabies and butterfly kisses.
But what remains and what lies ahead is exciting, too.
A little sorrow for what has passed and a lot of joy for what's next.

We'll always be connected, you and I
Not by blood, not by looks, not by genes
But by something better, that lasts forever
We're linked by love that can't be measured.

And as we walk side by side
Your pinky reaching to link with mine
Others may never understand
A love that was not from biology, but offered from the Divine.

I love you, Matthew LaJoy, and my life changed course the moment I first held you and you nuzzled my neck, never turning back or responding ever again to your birth name.  You waited for me, and I waited for you, and we had an incredible journey to take together.  We are not done, not by a longshot!

Not only that, Matt, but I LIKE you...your humor, your insight, your creativity, your laughter, your companionship, your navigational abilities, your silence, your self-knowledge...I like it all.  And you know what else?  As much as I wish I could turn back the hands of time at moments, as much as I wish I could be rocking you to sleep with you wearing feetie pajamas and me softly singing "You are my little boy from Kazakhstan...", I wouldn't trade this time together with you as a "tween" for anything.  You are "tween" childhood and manhood, and it is a delight to witness.

You are not my first born, for that role has been taken from you twice over...but you are my first held, and you helped me become the mom who could mother others.  No doubt there is much, much more yet to learn from you, my beloved son.

Happy Family Day, Matthew.

Love Always and Forever,

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Middle Class Conundrum

I read this essay today on Huffington Post, and rarely do I find something worth linking here, but this touched me deeply, and if you read it carefully, you'll see Jesus somewhere right smack in the middle of it:

It's about anger at the inequality in our world, but it is also about meeting people where they are with the innocence of childhood.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Growing...Learning...Growing Some More!

The past couple of days have been so wonderful, in a rather ordinary way! Hahaha!  Seems "ordinary" might just be the key phrase of the month.  However, when you have had times in your life that have been like riding an emotional roller coaster, "ordinary" can be a blessing in itself.

Yesterday we spent time in the morning at our church, doing yard work outside, sinking knee deep in mud, laughing and joking all the way.  We were minus one LaJoy as Matthew was at his Civil Air Patrol open house, but by the time all 7 of us made it home in the early afternoon we looked at one another and decided we wanted to veg out the remainder of the day.  Sure, we had a lot we could have done, but we were simply not in the mood, so it was early in the PJ's and we laid around watching movies, which was so unlike us during daylight hours that we all felt a little as if we were committing some sort of sinful pleasure. Angela was super cuddly and wanted to snuggle all evening, and soon Josh and Olesya joined us while the other menfolk were off in the TV room watching something else as we sprawled out on our bed giggling, talking about the moral of the story we saw which was multi-layered and just enjoying all being together.

Before settling in for the afternoon, however, we had a little something to look forward to.  It requires a little explanation.  Before we left on our field trip, I realized I had to do some last minute curriculum purchasing in order to submit receipts for our last funding of the year through our homeschool program.  That meant that on top of planning for our trip and trying to get everything done around here, I had to quickly get serious about our  study plan for next year...and I had about 4 days to do that for all the kids to maximize the use of the funds we had left. Hmmm...Mama got crackin'!  Our homeschool style is "eclectic", and official term in homeschooling circles, which for the uninitiated means that I cobble together my own materials from a variety of sources rather than purchasing a "year in a box" which covers every subject.  It also means we use a variety of methods including work books, study units, reading "whole books" rather than just anthologies, incorporating hands on learning where possible, etc.  None of that is new to you, as you have already seen a lot of what we do but the term "eclectic" as it relates to homeschooling is probably new for most of you.

Anyway, there is this great company named "Sonlight" which puts together a year for you using mainly real books and they have a parent guide, etc. to help the parent work through it.  I love their catalog and wish we could use them, but it wouldn't work as well for us with our situation.  However, "Sonlighters" have a cute tradition of taking pictures and sharing them of "Box Day", which is the day they open up their curriculum box for the year for the first time.  Since I had a large portion of our curriculum being ordered for the year all at once, I thought it would be fun to have our own "Box Day", and it WAS fun for the kids!

This is actually not everything we will be using, as not pictured is the math textbooks for everyone else (Matt's Algebra 1 is there), nor is the grammar, spelling or writing workbooks pictured here.  All the kids were really excited to peruse the books we will be using, discover what they will be reading for assigned books/book studies, and see the cool stuff to supplement our history and social studies this year.  We have a super heavy year ahead, beginning next week when we will consider ourselves sort of starting the 2012-2013 year, even though we can't begin officially counting hours until July 1st.  We are taking this next week off as part of our break, then back at it...even the kids all said they'll be ready by then.

We are going to be studying Westward Expansion including the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the Oregon Trail.  That will be our "biggie" for the year as far as Unit Studies go, and that's a whopper.  I found some terrific tools to use including The Oregon Trail video game, a boxed strategy game titled "Oregon", a CD to listen to telling personal stories of the Lewis and Clark expedition, biographies at several reading levels, and we'll be hunting down the documentaries we can find on Netflix for it. They'll put together notebooks holding all their information, book reports, worksheets, etc.  I gotta admit, this one was FUN to find things for!

We'll also be studying a brief overview of the great composers, writers and artists throughout history, and I discovered this great series of books that has brief 3-4 page bios of many of them along with super interesting facts about each.  We will listen to music, look at works of art, and read samples of writings.  Because of the kids' art classes and our museum trips, they can already identify a Picasso,  Monet, and a couple of others, so we will learn a little more about them now.

We are also going to do a short study on the upcoming election, and delve into what the various parties believe.  We have been asked many questions about that and I found a good resource to use that straddles all our levels here, so that will help a lot.  For reading the kids will all continue with their anthologies, and study in depth several novels with book study units, including Amos Fortune Free Man, Hatchet, Caddie Woodlawn, and Sign of the Beaver for the four lower grades, and Matthew will be tackling Last of the Mohicans, and Call of the Wild in addition to his upper level biographies for our history studies and his anthology.  LOTS of reading this year to come, and I am hoping we can keep Kenny moving along with us as much as possible.  We also will be spending an extra hour or so every day before the other kids wake up or in the evening working specifically on his new reading remediation program.

What was so funny to me was that the kids had to be convinced to step away from all the materials, they were already quickly getting into them and didn't want to put them down.  That was when I realized, in all seriousness, that we had "won"....we have them each hooked on learning!  While of course like any kid they enjoy their time off, they do not dread schoolwork at all and they love learning new things all the time. With kids from our kids' background and with their language learning and challenges, that alone means we have been successful.

But learning doesn't take place only with books, and today was another hands on learning day when we all left church saying "What are we going to do this afternoon?" and I threw out that I really wished we had some flowers to plant.  That was all it took and we were off to the nursery!  We have a fabulous local nursery in town that has the widest selection of really healthy plants and ridiculously low prices...lower even than Walmart.  What I hadn't realized was that this was all new to the girls, we hadn't done flower planting since we adopted them.  Wow, were they overwhelmed with the choices and they LOVED the flowers!  Everyone grabbed trays, and it was time to get my early Mother's Day gift :-)  We looked closely at prices, explaining that the smallest little "pony packs" would ultimately result in many more flowers at a far cheaper price.  We all looked at the cost of pre-planted pots versus getting our own, and they quickly realized you pay a LOT more for someone else to dig in the dirt for you.  The girls were so cute as they said "Mom, this is so much fun...there are too many to pick from and they are all so pretty!".  We let them select colors and varieties, and Josh quietly asked if he could have a strawberry plant so that he could take care of it all by himself.  When we got home, he spent 20 minutes at the white board calculating the intervals between waterings and somehow came to the conclusion that every 56 hours he had to water them.  At one point he spoke about setting his alarm for 2:00 AM so he could go outside and water his strawberries.  He is the only kid I know who could take something like planting a single plant and turn it into an mathematical equation.

The boys ended up handling the veggies, and the girls handled the flowers, and that continued on when we arrived home and began planting.  I showed the girls how to remove the tiny plants from their plastic trays, and we talked about the difference between compost and top soil which was what we just studied in science.  Everyone worked very hard, and the girls asked if they could do our small back planter all alone, so off I went to get dinner started while Joshua eagerly pitched in to help them.  Of course, I only got a little done at a time because I was called over and over to come see what they had done as they worked their way around the bed.  By the time they were done, they had such a sense of accomplishment that was totally unexpected by us.  Matthew and Kenny learned about drip systems and how to replace parts.  By the end of the afternoon, everyone was feeling as if they had really gotten a lot done, and in reality they certainly did!

I don't know what it was about this afternoon that I loved so much, but watching the girls and their delight at making something beautiful, seeing everyone working together to accomplish a goal, seeing how capable they all are, and watching Dominick be the absolutely terrific father that he is just had me feeling verklempt!  To top it off, Kenny, Angela and I had the best conversation as we took a break later in the afternoon.  Those are my two who find it far easier to talk about emotions than the others, and we ended up sharing about both sides of what it is like to adopt older children.  Angela was so deeply honest about how hard it is for older kids to trust adults to take care of them, about how you guard your heart for so long that it is not easy to let go of it to someone who wants to love you.  We spoke of older children she knew who had been adopted when she was much younger and how she wondered if they ever were able to really love their new families or if they "played tough" and missed out on so much.  She looked at me and said "If you had been much longer before coming, I am not sure I could have trusted and loved ever.  I would have wanted to, but it would have been too hard."

Kenny who is so insightful said "When you think about it Mom, our family is a real miracle!  What if Josh had never been able to let go and love?  What if any of us had a wall that was too high and thick?  I am sure there are lots of families who have a lot harder time that we do, and are not as happy as we are, because their kids just can't trust their new parents.  When you think there are five adopted kids in our family, and we all really, really love each other and don't have the problems lots of other adoptive families do, we are so lucky!"  Then, he thoughtfully added "You know what though? I think it is hardest on you, and sometimes Dad.  You are the mom, and you have all the hard work of getting kids to open up, to share their hearts, and   even though it is hard for the kids, I think the mom has the worst job ever!"

I laughed over that and said "Not the worst job ever!  The best job ever!  You have no idea how cool it is to see you all change and grow, to watch those walls come down, and to see you succeed.  I don't know if I think it is harder on the mom versus the kids.  At least the mom and dad know more about life, they have had a lot of positive experiences, and they know how special love is.  A child who has never really known love has to imagine what it is first, then decide if they are willing to risk giving their heart to a stranger.  That is scary stuff!"  Angela piped in right then "Yea, it is REALLY scary!  I remember wondering if we would be safe with you.  I wanted to think we would be, but no one had ever been a real mom to me before and I was so confused and didn't know what to think.  Mom, you were crazy to bring us home the way I acted!" and thankfully she laughed over that very difficult trial by fire we all had.  Then Kenny said "And we are changing all the time!  One day we are one way, and the next we are totally different.  I remember back when the girls first came home, and how it seemed they were different all the time.  I know I have changed so much too, and I don't know how you can figure it all out, Mom, especially when there are five of us!  I sure couldn't!" then he giggled and added "But then, I sorta need you to help me figure out things all the time anyway..."

We also laughed as we talked about the rumors that are always present about how we are adopting children only for their body parts, so we could sell kidneys and livers.  Kenny cracked himself up as he asked how much all of them might be worth if we "parted them out".  He said "Mom, you and Dad could be millionaires!", which took something actually quite tragic and lightened it a little.  The idea that adults would try and convince vulnerable children not to go with prospective adoptive parents to a better life because they would be in danger of becoming organ donors is something most can't fathom, but it is one of the things that almost lost us our daughters.  How strange it was to be sitting on our couch two years later having the kids see the absurdity of it.  At the time though, Angela was terribly confused and had to find the courage and use her own wisdom to make a decision counter to those whom she had trusted for years.  I don't know if I could have done the same in her position.

The most helpful part of the conversation was when Angela asked why some parents want to hide facts about their child's adoption or not tell the whole story even to the kids.  We had watched a movie where it was all secretive.  With such wisdom she said "Mom, all that does is make it look like something is to be ashamed of.  It's not the kid's fault, and there is nothing wrong with adoption that people should hide.  I am glad you and Dad are not like that, and that we all understand everyone's story in our family.  It helps us all to not hide things, and there's no reason for it anyway.  It just tells the kid there is something wrong with them.  Like I am glad you tell us about Kenny, so we can help and understand instead of make it a big secret.  I am glad you aren't afraid of us talking about things, and you are not embarrassed of us or our birth parents.  I am really glad you don't say our birth parents are awful, because sometimes I don't know what to think just say the truth and don't pretend they were perfect or that they were terrible."  Then with more openness than she has ever had about her mom she said "Sometimes I hate my mom, and then I don't know why I want to protect her from other people feeling that way about her.  You've really helped me to see she was just messed up and that it's OK to feel lots of different things about her and my first dad."

I then told her "Angela, you'll find as you grow older that many relationships fail because people are unwilling to be completely honest.  They want things to look perfect to people, and they don't realize just how much it hurts them to try and pretend like that.  It damages families to hide things, to pretend, or to leave someone out because you want to keep a secret from them.  It also damages families when the parents think everything has to be perfect.  It never works to keep people closer together.  There is no reason why any of your stories should be some big secret, because it just is what it is.  We're all human, we all do the best we can, and we all fail sometimes.  There is no reason for you or I to be ashamed, embarrassed or hide a single thing."

Kenny then chimed in "I am glad you share on the blog about me, because otherwise people don't know what happens to kids like us.  You telling about how hard it is for me and what works for you may help someone else with their kid and make it a little easier for them.  Kids like me are really hard to figure out!   Like you said, Mom, it isn't my fault my brain doesn't work normally, but we are doing the best we can with it.  At least I am still a loving kid who works hard and maybe that will make people less scared to adopt older kids."

Our kids teach Dominick and I so much.  The growing and learning continues daily, and it certainly is not just those under 18 years old. How I have changed!  How Dominick has changed!  How glad I am that we have had these experiences to mature and season us.

Growing and learning, continuing for each of us daily.  Glad we are doing it together!