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!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Being Passed By

I have blogged seldom lately because life is just challenging right now, and I guess my head has not been where it needs to be to write.  Too much else is distracting me, troubling me, tugging at me.  I realized the camera has not been used for quite awhile, and I need to remedy that.  We are trying to figure out a solution to an immediate need for shop space for Dominick for detailing, while thinking about the need for eventual future career changes in other areas.  We keep asking God to yell at us to give us a little direction here, but all's quiet on the western front right now so we are trying to practice patience and presence...sometimes more successfully than others.  We are not really living in fear...yet...but are definitely mystified and concerned.

This Thursday the girls and I are driving out to California to help my mom get re-settled back at home.  She will be discharged from rehab on Friday, and we hope we can offer some comfort as she deals with fears about moving back in and being alone, yet still strongly has the desire to regain her old life.

Over the course of the past couple of months, Kenny has been on a bit of a downhill slide.  This weekend, it really came to a head, and amid much else that is going on, we are trying to hang on to gains made with him, but feel him slipping backwards ever so gradually.

This morning, we had tears over bagels as he and I chatted over a difficult conversation we had Easter morning.  We are all trying to re-awaken the Kenny who has been drifting away into Zombie Land.  Every so often, this happens, but it is worse right now than it has been in years.  The change in our schedule as everything happened with my mom, and then taking a break from school for a couple of weeks has him regressing in several areas.  This regression manifests itself in disconnected comments thrown in conversations, more immature behavior, a desire to "live" more in a pretend, imaginary world and struggle to pull back into the real world.  His logic is skewed right now, and old patterns return, much to our frustration.

Today, as he sobbed into his hands, Kenny admitted he feels much younger than other 15 year olds and is embarrassed by the fact his siblings are leaving him behind in maturity.  He is scared he won't ever truly grow up, he is afraid his very real deficits will hold him back from ever being independent, and at 15 he knows he ought to be thinking and acting differently but he can't seem to get there.  He looks at his siblings, three of whom are virtually the same age, and knows he is far behind them in just about every way.

What he doesn't see, and what I hope I helped him see, is that he isn't the only one...the girls, too, are far behind their peers in many ways.  We talked honestly about the fact that every single person in our family is "off" in one way or another, and we are all on our own timetable for maturing, even Dominick and I. I emphasized that our family is so unique in its makeup, it is actually unfair to compare.  He seemed to understand that, but it did little to console him, for he sees what we do...and he is scared for his future.

The truth is, we are growing more concerned about Kenny.  He has made some great strides, of that there is no doubt, but he is struggling in new ways right now, and it is hard to watch.  I don't know if it is "Teenage Brain" kicking in, or a typical backslide that we often experience now and again, but we are worrying about this seeming plateau he has hit and wonder what it is going to take to nudge him upward again.  Joshua is clearly now more mature than Kenny is, and if we were to leave them alone together without one of the other kids around, which happens rarely, it would be Josh we would designate as "in charge".

As it stands right this moment, neither Dominick nor I can truthfully see Kenny being able to hold a regular job working for a standard employer.  He can't organize himself well enough, he can't visualize a task from start to completion, and he can't stop his impulses from making him head off in different directions than instructed.  He is a very, very hard and diligent worker, but quite literally he couldn't figure out how to approach the simple task of washing the walls in one room of our rental without explicit instructions...and then he swirled towels around with no pattern so he missed huge sections of wall...then he suddenly changed direction and missed the entire closet, never realizing it. 15 year olds can usually create a game plan in their head for such an easy task, and accomplish it with little or no supervision.

Harder still is that Kenny is feeling the shift, and knows he is being left behind, yet can't figure out what to do about it.  It hurts to watch your son really internalize the fact that he is losing ground as others pass him by.  We keep working on his self-esteem, but it is impossible to combat what is right before his eyes.

He and Josh are in a track meet Thursday, maybe he will find a little success there which can be uplifting for him.

So, we plod along, doing our best just like Kenny, and yet feel like we continue to lose ground, as well.  As I told him, I am sure there is a clear path in some direction for him and for us, but right now the view is obscured.  However, Spring Is Here, new life comes along with it, and we'll keep listening for God to chirp in our ear.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Week of Rest? Not So Much...

The blog has been quiet because we have been busy, though we were supposed to be taking a break!  This was Dominick's first week after ski season, and we decided we were going to take a late Spring Break and enjoy some time together without the pressures of work and school.  A "Staycation" was in order, however, it just didn't end up happening the way we had envisioned.

There was still volunteering at the Food Bank.
There were still TaeKwonDo classes.
There was still Angela's graphic arts class.
There was still church choir practice.
There was still a church Outreach Meeting.
There was still Sweet Adeline's/DelRose Chorus practice.
There was still Civil Air Patrol.

Worst of all, there was still our little rental house sitting and waiting for us to tackle after our renters vacated it...and it was a bit of a nightmare.  Holes in the wall, a broken window, a punched in door, a huge amount of trash and belongings left behind to haul away, and filth to clean that indicated that perhaps no one had ever mopped the floor or cleaned the kitchen the entire time they lived there.  They had broken our no pet and no smoking rule, as can often happen, and the house reeked of smoke and wet dog, causing us to have to wash every ceiling and wall in an attempt to rid the home of at least some of the stench.  We decided we are not cut out to be landlords, and will be putting the home on the market quickly after getting the mess cleaned up.
Needless to say, it was not much of a Staycation, and we have a lot of cleaning still to do at the rental.

We did take one day "off" and fulfilled our intent to do absolutely nothing for one entire day.  It was heavenly.  We also had a shopping trip to Grand Junction, about an hour away, where we filled in everyone's wardrobe a little with spring offerings of much needed short sleeve shirts and short.  It won't be long before we are entirely out of the kid's departments, as Josh and Kenny are quickly headed towards the men's sections to join Matt.  Kenny is so thin, at probably around 5'4"and 110 lbs, that it is proving harder and harder to find him clothing that comes close to fitting, and once he grows out of size 16's, I fear we are in real trouble and everything will look like a tent on him!  Pants are already almost impossible with only one type of jean that fits him nicely...a slim in a cowboy cut of Wrangler.  He doesn't have any dress pants right now because everything looks so baggy and I have no clue where to get dress slacks for Emaciated Style Frames on boys!  I keep looking, to no avail.

Josh, on the other hand, has gone from what was once a slight frame, to an almost barrel chested one, surprising us all.  He is now in size 14, with long legs and a short torso that has Jack LaLaine potential once he finishes growing.  Of all our children, Josh has always been the one who has gone through the most physical changes.  He looks very little like his early childhood photos as his face changed shape, as well as his body.  Matthew looks exactly like his toddler self, something I predicted even then. Kenny still looks much like his younger self, too, though surgery has ultimately changed him has nutrition, to some degree.  The girls?  Absolutely the same, just taller versions of themselves!  But Josh has transformed in so many ways, and most not at all physical. He has gained confidence and an early maturity that has him taking on a more masculine role as of late.  "No Mom, let me do that." he'll often say as I am carrying something heavier, or he'll just dig in and start cleaning some mess up or taking care of business around the house without prompting.  The other day he took out all the bikes from the shed, lined them up, and cleaned them all as he readied them for spring use.  I seldom think of him as being a little boy these days, and more a teenager though we are still two years away from that.  He will still always remain "Joshie" to us all, I think, but the last of our little ones is definitely well on his way to becoming a wonderful, responsible, amazing man.  All is not lost though, he still carries his blankie around a lot!  He is our original Linus! Haha!

The girls and I went off on our own a bit shopping, while they helped me find a few things for myself.  I was surprised they wanted to go with me, as the other option was to go with the menfolk to Best Buy to look at electronics and give mom a little time along to shop, but they both hopped out of the car saying they'd rather help me...haha!  Much to my surprise, they DID help me, and quickly found items for me to try on which were very much my style...or in truth "non-style", as I have none.  They were so cute, running back and forth, insisting that I come out and show them each item as I tried it on.  Angela is more like me, a Power Shopper who hates the dawdling and just wants to get it done, while Olesya could shop for hours as she looks at every item on the rack, holds it up, declares it cute or plain ol' ugly.  They are such opposites and it is funny to watch them together.  They kept urging me to buy "just a couple more" tops because "you never get yourself anything and are always getting the cheapest stuff for yourself", which was totally sweet.  I don't know if any mother was attended to with such kindness and care, and it was an unexpected joy to clothes shop with them, something I normally despise doing.

Another little joy came when, at the last minute, Matthew agreed to some bright colored polo hues of pink, purple and yellow...something we women had been trying to get on him and his beautiful darker skin for a long time.  For almost two years he has often worn black TShirts, not because they were his favorite, but because it is what we had leftover that had been required uniforms from his fire shortened Civil Air Patrol camp, and it seemed frivolous to purchase a lot of new shirts when he had perfectly good, if boring looking, Tshirts.  Hurray!  It was time to replace them, and we scored some nice ones very inexpensively AND he quickly agreed, much to our astonishment, to some real color!

KMart is our friend these days, as it is about the least expensive place to shop for decent clothing at a far lower price.  I'll admit, sometimes I wish we could just go to the major department stores and purchase more stylish, better made clothing.  The prices don't justify it, though, and the girls in particular do NOT like the teen styles of today, so Junior Departments are not our friend.  Neither are the "Old Lady" styles, and neither likes to layer things much, just like their mom, so it is difficult to find things for them.  I won't say I am at all upset that we don't have Clothing Wars as many parents do with their daughters, but it makes it difficult to find nice things on a budget if you don't want Daisy Duke shorts on your daughter or crop tops.  Neither one will even look at those kinds of items, finding them "disgusting" which is actually pretty surprising considering where they are from and the kind of provocative styles that are often worn there.  So, we spend a lot of time searching and searching for clothing that is in between, and were extremely grateful to have clothes donated to them this past couple of weeks by two of our hipper looking 60 year old friends.  Yes, believe it or not, our 60 somethings offered bags of used clothing that the girls LOVED! Hahaha!  Miss Francie and Miss Mary really helped us out with their gifts of gently used, quality clothes...and they both hesitated wondering if there was anything at all the girls would wear.  I laughed and told them each that they might be surprised at how much would be worn.  The very next day Angela and Olesya both were wearing slacks from their special friend's gift bags! Haha!  I must have the only teen girls around who consider 60 year old's clothing to be "so cool"!

And once again, Angela is right, our entire family is "uniquely developed".

This week will be back to the usual, or at least in part.  We still have some work to complete over at the house, and all will be glad when that is done.  School is winding down, though we will still be working a lot over the summer, but our curriculum and "final exams" are being completed for the year.  Now that we are fully independent we are not tied to a traditional year and are just moving ahead.  Angela, Josh and Olesya are already on our next year's math, and I guess I can now move away from even looking at it that way, which is nice. Science is completed with just one more dissection required (Oh, thank you Lord!), and history is drawing close to the Civil War, which I want to cover before we declare the academic year finished.  We are going to ditch the textbook, other than a cursory glance to make sure we cover all the high points, and use Ken Burn's excellent series on the Civil War to cover it, along with his materials for teachers.  All the kids learn so much more from his video series' than any textbook, that I decided to go alternative with that era and create projects around it.  Literature is done for the year, though we are moving on to book studies for fun and Matt and I are doing a unit based upon Great Speeches with a book I found at Barnes and Noble, and a Rhetoric Web Site where we can hear audio versions. We have accomplished a lot this year, and summer will be some fun projects and less academic subjects ahead.

Time to get ready for church, and the last day of our Staycation.  Laundry overfloweth, so I know it is time to get back to our routine.  I think I need a Vacation from our Staycation!