Meet my Aunt Carol

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I am lucky.

I had an aunt that did the cool stuff — saving stale bread to feed to the ducks at the park, making homemade ice pops in Tupperware molds, backing the cars out of the garage in the middle of winter so my cousin and I could roller skate, teaching me the fine art of Lee Press-On Nails, bandaging my boo-boos, sewing clothes just for me, trusting me to keep her own daughter safe during long walks, picnic lunches and bike rides (she was a trailblazer in the work-from-home department and sometimes needed us out of her hair).

Seriously, guys — she had a swing in her basement. (I’m guessing Uncle Bob was the engineer of said swing, so he deserves the lion’s share of the credit, but he was usually at work when I did most of my swinging, so I associate it with Aunt Carol.) Yes, this was heaven for a little kid. Add to that the old dance costumes and gaudy costume jewelry we dressed up in and the old-fashioned desks we played school in. For real, going to her house was pretty terrific. And I was lucky enough to go there a lot.

She packed us up for adventure — camping, water skiing, the local pool, the beach. And she filled us with good food. (Seriously, she always had Tang and often had Peanut Butter Cap ‘N Crunch — OK, not actually “good” food, but as a kid, I thought it was all unsurpassed in awesomeness. There’s also a story of my brother consuming some gigantic number of grilled cheese sandwiches at her house — 15 or 20. He just kept eating them, so she just kept making them, intrigued to see when his 10-year-old body would declare itself to be full. (And no, he didn’t throw up.))

She sat us in corners when we didn’t cooperate and gave us what for when we misbehaved, but this was rare (we were angels, I’m sure). She tolerated neighborhood kids who hung upside down on her backyard monkey bars while eating potato chips. And she made sure my brother and my cousin sat in the correct order at the dinner table, so the right-hander and the left-hander didn’t knock elbows. She stuffed Pixie Stix, Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, bubble gum and other assorted sugary goodness into bushes, trees and other inconspicuous backyard hiding spots during a spring candy hunt one year.

She sweated the small stuff, and I am thankful she did.

From her generosity of spirit, her creativity and her laughter came a group of kids — her own, my brother and me, neighbor kids, her grandchildren and others — who knew we had a cheerleader, who knew how to have fun while also being respectful and who most importantly felt love.

Aunt Carol was a gift.

She was like a book character, well … actually more like a hodgepodge of the best book characters, like:

– Mary Poppins: No, I wasn’t lucky enough for her to give me sugar with my medicine, but she did teach me how to crochet when a bout with strep throat landed me indoors while the rest of the cousins played in the snow (unfortunately my crocheting skills never advanced beyond that initial lesson).

– American Girl Kit Kittredge: While it was the Depression that forced Kit to turn a wooden crate and a set of wheels into a door-to-door egg delivery business, it was ingenuity that sparked Aunt Carol to turn an old cigar box and plastic pill-counting inserts into a jewelry box that I kept and used from when I was 9 (when I got my ears pierced) until I was 29 and a mother myself.

– Miss Frizzle from the “Magic School Bus” series: No, she didn’t drive a bus or wear clothes with constellations, magnets or lizards on them, but she did drive a station wagon. Almost always she had a station wagon, and often it was headed for adventure. These were the days when we could lie flat in the back of the station wagon and color or draw or sleep. These were the long-as-a-city-block vehicles that could be loaded up with a week’s worth of food and the other necessities to spend a week on a houseboat in Kentucky/Tennessee. This was the station wagon that transitioned from shuttling little kids to lugging her own kids, plus a stray nephew or niece to and from college.

– Aibileen from “The Help” (with a whole lot of Minnie’s pie-making ability (without the secret ingredient, or course!)): Nope, she wasn’t a maid or a nanny, nor was she discriminated against because of her skin color or social position, but she had the inimitable gift of bestowing upon us kids the ability to believe in ourselves. That’s priceless.

– Wanda from “The Hundred Dresses:” Wanda was the girl who was  bullied about always wearing the same dress to school and having a weird last name — Petronski. So, she started telling the mean girls that she had 100 dresses at home, all lined up in her closet. My hope is that Aunt Carol was not bullied as a child, but I know for a fact there were more than 100 dresses in her life — all that she made for herself, her daughter, her daughter’s doll, me — I needn’t go on, right? OK, but I will, because I’m not kidding when I tell you that my cousin Karen’s Kewpie doll Lucy had an amazing wardrobe of tiny dresses and outfits that all matched Karen’s. I was green with envy. (For real, she made a wedding dress for Lucy the doll to match Karen on her wedding day.)

English: Kewpie doll.

– Caroline Ingalls from the “Little House” series: She saved, she reused, she re-purposed, she re-made. Aunt Carol didn’t live on a prairie, but she knew how to turn trash into treasure and to stretch a dollar like nobody’s business. (When she sent you home with leftovers, they were in actual leftover containers from actual restaurants that she had cleaned and saved for just that moment. And I remember receiving birthday gifts wrapped in the funny papers from her when I was a kid.)

I could go on and on, but I won’t. I need to keep a whole lot of Aunt Carol in my heart and in my memory so I can continue to share her with my children as they grow. Maybe I’ll hide some candy in the back yard one of these weekends or take them to the park she used to take us to and feed the ducks. Maybe I’ll get the face paint out and turn my kids into clowns or Indians like she did. Or maybe I’ll work a little bit harder at letting them know I’m their cheerleader.

RIP Carol Lesh, 1945-2012

P.S. Aunt Carol, if you can see this, Elizabeth wants you to know your swimming pool was one of her favorite places of all time, and John knows my cucumber salad pales in comparison to yours. We miss you already but are thankful you feel no pain.

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Books, books, so many books

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Ok, so I started two mother-daughter book clubs. We’ve had our first meetings. And I’m happy to report that actual people came — nice people with enthusiasm and neat ideas! Yay! (Yes, I seriously worried that I would be sitting alone in a library meeting room with my 8-year-old, two gallons of Kool-Aid, random Little Debbie products and 40 copies of “Ramona Quimby, Age 8.” Epic fail.)

So, now I’ve dispatched a group of 40 moms and daughters with that Beverly Cleary classic and a separate group of 12 moms and daughters with “The Whole Story of Half A Girl,” a new novel by Veera Hiranandani, and now I’m thinking: “What next?”

To keep from hyperventilating, I’ve decided to immerse myself in what is I’ve quickly learned is called “middle grade fiction,” books written primarily for the age 8-12 crowd and dipping a toe into the YA, or young adult, books written for the 12 and older group.

So, I’ve been reviewing lists. Lots and lots of book lists. You know, “the best books ever” for certain ages or for girls or for families or for pre-teens or for babysitters or for chimpanzees (I’m not kidding, there are that many lists out there. Oy.) And, I’ve noticed that a lot of these “best of” lists are full of really questionable books.

I’ve checked many of them out of the library, and they’ve sat in stacks at the end of my living room couch for weeks as I’ve made my way through title after title. Some are OK. Some are awful. Really, truly awful. Others are heavy — dealing with topics I’m not comfortable bringing before 8- and 10-year-olds I just met.

Some I recognize from my own childhood. Yes, Ramona Quimby is as quirky and funny in 2012 as she was to me in 1982 (and I’d dare to say she’s even funnier than Junie B. Jones, but that’s a blog post for another day). But, is “The Outsiders” as truly amazing as I thought it was in an era where pre-teens are staring dreamily at Justin Bieber and not Matt Dillon in magazines? The only way to find out is to read. (Unfortunately, “The Outsiders” is still in my stack, so I’m not sure if it’s awesomeness has stood the test of time.)

Here’s a brief list of some of the books I’ve explored thus far that are worth mentioning but that we won’t be reading in either of the book clubs (plus a one-word review).

For the 8- to 10-year-old girls

  • “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” by Louis Sachar (the author of “Holes”), FUN
  • “Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief” by Wendelin Van Draanen, IFFY
  • “Bridge to Terabithia,” by Katherine Paterson (yup, one “T”), AWESOME
  • “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith, AWESOME

For the 11- to 13-year-old girls

  • “Bunheads,” by Sophie Flack, OK
  • “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes, AWESOME
  • “Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” by Jamie Ford (an adult book, but great for teens), AWESOME
  • “Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom,” by Susin Nielsen-Fernlud, CUTE

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School cuts give me hives … and a few LIGHT BULB ideas

Another confession to make: I am a geek. (And I love it!)

And that means, well … it means a lot of things. It means I know who I am and I like it. (This is good.) It also means when troubles hit schools, it really, really (and I mean really) ticks me off.

So, all the talk in my town and across my state of spending (or lack thereof) on education, attempts to raise school taxes (and their potential demise at the polls) and the inevitable cuts that come as a result of this perfect storm give me hives.

Man, this just stinks for people like me who get psyched about books and art and chemistry and well … OK. You’re right. It stinks more for the kids and for the teachers who have to make lemonade out of this sour sack of lemons. And it stinks for the school boards, administrators and others in power who have to make difficult decisions to pare down educational opportunities rather than build them up.

But, think it through, there are so many things we can do to help, right?

1) Volunteer! I know. You’ve heard it before. But, it’s true. Many teachers love extra hands to make copies, read with kids, quiz students, supply refreshments for an open house or event, spearhead a school supply drive for families in need, organize the library, set up for a book fair.  You get the picture. Many hands make light work, as the famous quote says. Call your local school even if you don’t have kids in it. Ask for the volunteer coordinator for the parent-teacher group to see what needs you might be able to fill. Or, ask if the principal can let the teachers know you’re ready and willing to help with whatever their needs are.

2) Ok, so if stepping actual foot into a school building gives you hives (I know, close proximity to actual children isn’t everyone’s cup of tea), well … consider making a donation. Call the principal of your favorite school or the one closest to you and ask what’s on the school’s wish list. A couple bucks (or a couple thousand) or a new something (seriously, sometimes a new pencil sharpener can eliminate a speed bump that clogs up the day for a teacher) would be greatly appreciated. Or, maybe you have a skill the school could use. You never know until you ask, so ASK!

3) If dipping into your wallet is too far a stretch, then at least cut your Box Tops for Education off your cereal and tissue boxes and give them to a kid in your neighborhood to take to school. C’mon. It’s the least you can do. (No excuses — if you don’t have scissors, do it the old-fashioned way and just rip!) A lot of schools collect Campbell’s Soup points also. If you don’t know a kid in your neighborhood, call your local school and ask if you can drop them off in the office.

4) READ! Read with your kids, your grandkids, your neighbor’s kids, your nephews, your nieces or any random kid you see on your street. Have your babysitter read to your kids while you are away. If your kid is a babysitter, make sure he or she brings books along with him or her on babysitting jobs. Challenge your kids to read a certain number of books in a certain amount of time. Make it fun. Make it informative. But above all, don’t let the learning stop when kids leave school.

5) Go to the library (and bring your kids, your grandkids, your neighbor’s kids, your babysitter or any other stray people who look like they need something to do). For real, the library is amazing. Books. CDs. Documentaries. Magazines. Newspapers. Computers. Films. Games. Puzzles. Audio books. E-books. Downloadable music. Topical programs. Access to databases. Friendly librarians. Best sellers. (Seriously, why aren’t you there right now?)

6) Be curious about your school or the entire district. Read about what the issues are. Talk to people. Be informed. Think outside the box about how you, your family, your business, your friend might be able to fill a gap created by a budget cut or augment an existing program or create a fund-raising opportunity.

7) Funnel your frustration creatively. It’s nothing to complain and groan about tax costs or program cuts. It’s something to see how the funding issue affects teachers and students. It’s something to see firsthand how today’s standards for special education, technology, programming, staffing and building use have changed from when you were in school and to acknowledge the differences make, well … a difference in how today’s teachers teach and today’s kids learn. (This doesn’t mean you have to agree with all the programs, classes, technology, etc. — it just means you need to acknowledge that the educational landscape is different terrain in 2012 than it was in 2002 or 1982 or 1952.) It’s something to be part of the solution.

8) Cheerlead for America’s kids. Wish their teachers well. If you’ve got no time to volunteer, no money to donate, no bright ideas to contribute, just have a good thought once a day for the littlest among us and those that guide them. Good thoughts lead to good attitudes. Good attitudes lead to open minds. Over time, open minds lead to partnerships, programs and pencil sharpeners. And that means the geek population shall flourish, which brings me joy-joy-joy.

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Book Club newbie dives in

Mmmm ... Chocolate cake.

I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve never led a book club before.

Eeek!! (Well, not like just-saw-a-mouse-in-my-house eeek! But … you know — a nervous squeal.)

While I’ve been a member of a women’s book club for more than a year, I’ve never led one (and seriously, my adult book club involves a lot of chocolate cake eating, which is a skill I’m not certain transfers appropriately to leading a group of moms and daughters on a journey through fiction).

So, I’m a little nervous. But I’m also big time excited.

The plan-making started this summer — the predictable stuff of naming the groups, figuring out what ages we’ll serve, when we’ll meet, etc. Then came the hard stuff, starting the task of choosing books, planning what we’ll do in the meetings and worrying that no one would even sign up.

But, the sign-ups have begun, and people — apparently folks who didn’t know I was a newbie at this or who were not scared out of their pants at that tidbit — signed up! Yay!

(And yes! There still is room in both groups if you want to join us. Buttercups are ages 8-10, and Stargazers are ages 11-13. (Why I named them after flowers, you ask? (yeah, I can read minds too.) Well … that’s a topic for another blog.)

All girls will attend with one important woman in their life — mom, aunt, grandma, neighbor — you pick her and bring her here. (And if she kicks and screams, tell her about my awesome chocolate cake eating skills. That always impresses people, or … it never does. One or the other. I never remember.) And both the girl and the adult will read our book each month. (Better yet, if you like each other, you might even consider reading it together.)

All meetings are Monday evenings. Go to www.madison-library.info and click “meeting rooms” to see the first meetings in September and to sign up online. Or call the reference desk at 440-428-2189, and we’ll get you signed up. Or, stop on by, we’d love to see your smiling face.

And check back to this blog. I’m going to post about what’s happening in the clubs, plus link to reviews of new and old books for girls and moms. Plus lots of other fun stuff.

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