Thursday, August 30, 2018

Celebrating Our Kids' Differences

Any parent who has more than one child knows that it doesn't matter one bit that your offspring all come from the same DNA pool and are raised in the same home by the same mom and dad; in spite of all the factors that point to the conclusion that your children will be more or less alike in personality and temperament, nothing could be further from the truth.
My husband's all-time favorite picture of me with my boys.
God created each human person with his or her own unduplicated set of fingerprints--not to mention his or her own one-of-a-kind immortal soul!  So!  We certainly shouldn't expect that our children will grow up to be carbon copies of one another.  We certainly shouldn't expect that the same methods of discipline will produce the same results with each of them.  It is our job as parents to figure out what makes each of those precious souls entrusted to our care tick, to help them to become the very best that they can be (in the eyes of God, not the world), and then to celebrate the differences between them.  I was always of a mindset that each of my boys was my "favorite" child, simultaneously, because of the special gifts, talents, and virtues that each one of them brought (and continues to bring) to the family dynamic.
My five favorites, circa 1998.
In our case, son number one was a sweet, happy, placid baby--an easy introduction to parenthood for a pair of 25-year-old first-timers.  A reserved, observant type, he was rather cautious, as firstborns often are, so he didn't give us too many worries.  He was an early talker and an eager learner of letters, shapes, and colors.  It's a good thing we didn't waste too much time before producing a sibling for him, or we might have given our parenting skills too much credit and thought that we had more to do with his serene temperament than we did.  We didn't know yet that certain personality traits appear to be formed before those little folks exit the womb, apparently!

When our next son came along 15 months later, we soon found that he was a different animal than his big brother.  He was a happy little guy, too (except for those first six months of his life when he screamed every time we strapped him in his car seat).  Exceptionally affectionate and funny, and very much attuned to the feelings of those around him, he was also way more physically daring than his brother had ever been.  Our firstborn had never had any interest in getting on a swing until he saw his little brother do it at a much younger age.  To see the differences between the two was fascinating, and to watch them forge a bond was one of the sweetest things ever.

Fifteen months after son number two was born, along came son number three, a happy-go-lucky, easy-going little fella with a quick, heart-melting smile.  While son number one was a rule-following peacemaker and son number two tended to wear his deeply-felt emotions right on his sleeve, everything just rolled right off son number three's back.  His brothers (when they got older, and funny in an adult-rather-than-eight-year-old-boy-obsessed-with-potty-humor kind of way) used to joke that that was his superpower: you could not get a rise out of him because nothing bothered him.  (As his fourth grade teacher once said of him, he was "a peach.")
Two-and-a-half, fifteen months, newborn!  
Son number four joined the team about 21 months after son number three, and now we had four boys aged four and under.  As crazy as that sounds, it was actually pretty wonderful.  (#BOYMOM)  But it was loud; so son number four learned pretty early on that if he wanted to be heard, he'd better crank up the volume.  He was a kind-hearted, instinctively empathetic kid, but he did cry a lot, and loudly, over the many injustices that came with being the youngest, weakest, and slowest of the bunch.  He had no idea what an inside voice was supposed to sound like.  (And BTW: it wasn't long before he caught up with his three brothers in size and speed!)
We had a big break between sons number four and five--just about exactly five years. And you would think that with an age gap like that, our fifth-born would be the stereotypical baby of the family: a demanding, perennially immature attention-seeker.  But he was more like a firstborn in temperament: an "old soul" who was serious, eager to please, loath to get in trouble--and above all, in a hurry to grow up as quickly as possible and be just like the big guys, who were his heroes.  You might also think that after five whole years as the baby, son number four would be jealous and resentful of the newcomer, but the opposite was actually true: instead, he took the little guy under his wing and in spite of their age difference, they became the best of playmates.
All my men!

Our boys were--and are--five unique individuals.  Yet growing up, they had many interests and personality traits that bound them together (the term "Band of Brothers" comes to mind).
When they were little, our boys were all dinosaur fanatics; I think they could have given most paleontologists a run for their money when it came to knowing every fact there was to know about those prehistoric monsters.  They always liked the same TV shows and movies, laughed at the same kind of jokes, and played the same sports (football and lacrosse).  All competitive by nature, they excelled both on the field and in the classroom.  All five were self-motivated, hard-working students who never needed us to nag them about studying for tests or doing their homework.

While many people think that having a houseful of teenage boys sounds like a nightmare, I look back on their high school years with fondness and nostalgia.  They loved sports too much to risk losing playing privileges by engaging in bad behavior (one of the many reasons I am a huge fan of kids playing sports), so they stayed pretty close to home and kept their noses clean.  In the grand scheme of things, they required minimal discipline.  (I mean we were strict, don't get me wrong; and there were some bumps in the road.  But compared to what we saw going on with some of their peers, we felt extremely blessed!) Many of the parents we knew at our boys' high school were more than ready for them to go off to college by the time graduation rolled around, but I can honestly say that each time one of our guys left home to start that next chapter in their lives, it was hard for us to let them go.  Not just a little hard; terribly hard.

So to recap: in many ways, our kids were quite similar; but in other ways, they were so very different.  And we were glad about that.  We appreciated their differences and didn't want them to compare themselves to one another.

Of course, once your kids grow up and get married (to kindred souls who are every bit as one-of-a-kind as they are), and then start raising children of their own, the ways in which they are similar and the ways in which they aren't become even more striking.
I'd like to explain more in depth what I mean, but it would take too long and this post has already turned into a novella of sorts.  So I think this is going to be a two-parter.

But I'm sure you want to read more about my favorite subject, my boys...don't you?  Sure you do!
These guys...sigh.  How lucky was I to be the one chosen to be their mother?

My hubby and I are going out of town this weekend, to a Notre Dame football game, so I may not get to it until early next week.  But I'll be back with more on this subject, I promise you.  Stay tuned!  (And in the meantime--go Irish!)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Home Sweet Home (Complete with a White Picket Fence!)

I absolutely loved this relatively recent Instagram post by Dwija (of House Unseen fame).  My favorite line was this: "home is not a place but a satisfaction of the heart."  

In the past year-and-a-half, I have grown to appreciate just how profoundly true that sentiment is. (I had also relatively recently posted some similar musings of my own on Instagram, saying that "home is not about walls and ceilings; it's about where your people are."  That's not a bad way to put it; but I think Dwija said it better.)

If you are a regular visitor here, you know that in the spring of 2017, my husband and I rather suddenly decided to leave our NH home, where we'd lived for 26 years and raised our five boys, to move down to VA, where three of them (married, with growing families) had settled.  We had to purge like nobody's business (in a mere two months’ time!) to prepare for downsizing to a smaller house, filling two huge dumpsters in the process.  We dropped off countless bags of clothes and miscellaneous household goods at Goodwill.  It was a brutal process, both physically and emotionally (which you might know if you read any of my posts between January and March of 2017).  It was made harder by the fact that I am the queen of nostalgia, and every single item I laid eyes on during the culling process seemed to have sentimental significance for me.
But we did it.  We moved from a roomy Colonial on more than an acre of land (set far back from the street on a quiet cul-de-sac, with lovely deer-filled woods in our own back yard), to a smaller cookie-cutter house in a cookie-cutter neighborhood (where the houses are situated very close together on postage stamp-sized plots of grass, and our driveway is just long enough to park our pair of small Nissan four-doors safely).  It has been a bit of an adjustment, to say the least.  Homebodies such as I, who like to feather their nests and rarely leave them, have a lot of trouble starting over.  I mean, it was easier when we were younger and hadn't had time to set down permanent roots anywhere.  We did a bit of moving in the early years, when my husband was a Naval aviator and then a new hire in the airlines.  But once we bought that "forever home" in NH, it became harder and harder each year to imagine we would ever live anywhere else.

But I'm here to tell you, that quote of Dwija's is right on the money.  Home is not a place--not even as lovely and cozy and comforting a place as that wonderful house was for our family for so many years.  Home is a satisfaction of the heart.  And what satisfies this heart of mine is being close to the people I love most in the world.  I could have dug my heels in and stayed in NH, all for the sake of a house; why, though, when all of our sons had grown up and gone, and it didn't look like anyone would be coming back to settle in the Northeast?  Why, though, when by some miracle three of our boys had made their homes in Northern VA, a stone's throw from one another, and it didn't look like any of them would be moving anytime soon?  The answer to the question "what/where is home?" became more and more obvious as time went by: VA was where we were meant to be.  (And now a fourth son has moved to the area, at least temporarily, by some serendipitous twist of fate! Forget subtle signs; God realizes that some folks need to be hit over the head, I guess!)

So we moved; we sold our home in NH, and we never looked back.  (Well, at the beginning I looked back a little; but not anymore!)

My husband and I have been away from our VA home for most of the summer, with the exception of a few weeks in July:  first when we traveled back to have a family week with our youngest son, who was home from Germany on leave (all five Pearl boys were together again--huzzah!);
and then when we rushed back to help out after the birth of our newest grandchild, our oldest son's first boy after four girls.
Other than those two trips South, we have been hanging out in our old hometown in Upstate NY, staying at my husband's childhood home on the lake while managing our Oyster Haven VRBO property just down the road.  It's been great having the opportunity to spend time with family members--including my mom--who are still in the area.  And not too long ago, we had a wonderful family vacation week at Oyster Haven with two of our sons and their families, which I will blog about soon.  (There might be a photo dump involved, too--just a warning!  And here's a mini-dump to tide you over...)

Oyster Haven was home for that week; it was a place where all of our hearts were extremely satisfied indeed.

But as summer draws to a close, I find I am getting homesick.  In less than a week, we will be heading back to VA, and I have to say, I'm beginning to feel very anxious to get home.  Yes, HOME.  Because that's where home is these days.  That's where my heart is most satisfied.

You might think you know just where you're going to end up; you might believe you have the most perfect plan mapped out for your future.  But be ready to go where life leads you.  Even five years ago, it would have surprised this born-and-bred Northeasterner to know that she could be so happy in a cookie-cutter house in a cookie-cutter Southern neighborhood.  But I am.

There it is, home sweet home.
It's even got a white picket fence out front, and a statue of Our Lady; truly, what more could you want?
There's my front door, welcoming me back from a walk through my sweet little neighborhood.
You know house, you're okay, you really are.  And I miss you!  See you soon.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #34): a Re-run, Mostly, with Some Sheenazing Thoughts Added

Popular blogger and IG personality Bonnie Engstrom is hosting her Sheenazing Awards over at her website, A Knotted Life.  If you'd like to cast your votes for your favorites in the world of Catholic social media (blogging, Instagam, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter), head on over.  (Personally, there are so many of my favorites on the lists that I had trouble voting for just one in each category!)  Named for Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who used any media sources available to him during his era to spread the Word of Christ, Bonnie's Sheenazing awards have been a delight to the Catholic blogging world over the years.

Okay so head on over and vote...and when you get back, I have some thoughts to share about this crazy new (well, not really so new, I guess!) Internet world, where people who feel like they have something to say and share through the written word --even “little” bloggers and ’grammers, such as I, who do not have legions of followers--can find a voice.

These days, I don’t seem to have as much time to write here at String of Pearls as I did back in my early days as a newbie blogger—or at least I don’t feel like I do, because...well, because GRANDBABIES.  But honestly, even as busy as my precious darlings keep me, I have to admit that I could make time, if I tried harder.  When I published my first blog post in 2011, I was absolutely on fire for blogging.  Every morning, my first thought (after the coffee was brewing, of course) was, "I can hardly wait to crack open my laptop and write a post!"  I would like to have that flame burning in me again, I really would.

I am so in awe of so many bloggers (Bonnie, to name one, along with many of the gals on her list of Sheenazing Award finalists).  These talented writers have found large audiences and are touching the hearts, minds, and souls of countless grateful followers.  What I need to remember, though, is that if I compare myself to others who are more prolific and more popular, I will never enjoy the process the way I should.  I got into blogging thinking that no one would ever read my posts, and I didn't care a bit. I was blogging to fulfill my need to write, and also to make a kind of scrapbook of memories for my kids and grandkids.  I didn't even know, at first, that you could check to see how many people had seen your posts!  But as time went on, I started to lose confidence and couldn't help but wonder now and again: does the blogosphere really need me in it, when there aren't too many readers who know about or stop by my little blog?  This is a question that I've asked myself several times over the years, and I think this post of Bonnie's about little blogs perfectly explains what has kept me coming back here, even after the occasional lengthy hiatus.  As she says in this post, "If you love your little blog with its little following and your little creative space where you can come and go as needed then keep going.  It will be good."   Thanks for that, Bonnie.  It's good advice--Sheenazing advice, even.  Because I do love this little old blog of mine, and even though I don't come back here as often as I used to, it always makes me happy when I do.  So come back I shall!

Anyway, I really wish I'd blogged yesterday, because it was the 45th anniversary of the day my husband first asked me to be his steady girlfriend--way, way back when we were just a couple of fresh-faced 15-year-old kids.  We're not so fresh-faced anymore, and these days we're the grandparents of 13-going-on-14 small humans.  But we're still pretty crazy about each other.  We decided to celebrate the significance of August 6 by taking a gondola ride up Whiteface Mountain, where we used to ski all the time in high school and where our boys also learned to ski.
In honor of this special anniversary, I was going to write an original post about how our love story began back in 1973.  But then I realized that I talked about this very topic in a former Grace-filled Tuesdays Book Club post, and I thought I'd share it again (I hope you don't mind re-runs!).  I mean, it is Tuesday, after all...

So hey, welcome to the club!
And here's that old post from January of this year--which is not only about the early days of my romance with my husband, but also about blogging (how apropos!).  Enjoy!

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #32): I Think I Was Always a Blogger at Heart

There was no such thing as blogging back when I was in high school (back in the Stone Age, as it were).  There was no such thing as blogging because there was no such thing as a personal computer that you had in your house, or this magical entity called the Internet that has become such an integral part of 21st-century existence.

Back then, if you had a burning desire to write about your life the way bloggers do nowadays, you could either use a typewriter or just good old reliable pen-and-paper and keep your musings in a journal or a diary. (I did keep diaries for a while in my girlhood--until I had to destroy one in junior high, after my best friend found and read it and I realized that no one should be writing down their deepest thoughts unless they wanted the whole world to know them.)

The other thing you could do, aside from the "Dear Diary" routine, was to keep scrapbooks.  And starting at the end of 8th grade, that is what I did: I kept simple scrapbooks that were filled with oversized construction paper pages, wherein I taped all the little bits and pieces of memorabilia that seemed of utmost importance to my teenage self (we're talking things like paper napkins and still-full sugar packets from restaurant meals with my then-boyfriend/now-husband, and popsicle sticks with traces of his DNA still on them, I'll bet!).
My high school scrapbooks were stored away in boxes in my parents' attic when I left for college.  I didn't take them with me when I got married in 1980, and when my parents sold my childhood home several years later, I assumed those boxes had gotten thrown out.  It made me a little sad at first, to think that I'd lost all my precious memories of days gone by; but eventually, I forgot all about the scrapbooks.  I was busy raising my boys, keeping up their baby books, and making photo albums and scrapbooks for them, filled with their boyhood memorabilia.  Then in 2002, my decades-old boxes were unearthed in a storage unit on my youngest sister's property and my long-lost scrapbooks were returned to me.  The scotch tape I'd used had disintegrated and they were a mildewed mess, but with the tape marks to guide me I painstakingly put them back together.

Oh my, the memories that came flooding back to me!  And the things I'd kept!   Things like gum wrappers, movie ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, dried flowers.  But along with my taped-in memorabilia, I also wrote about all my activities and feelings during that time.  (I think I was always a blogger at heart, though I didn't know it yet!)

What is so funny to me is to see pages like this one, from July 1973, when my high school boyfriend and I were just beginning to realize that we like-liked each other, and we rode on some rides together at the County Fair:
Or this one, from the first time he and I ever went to a movie together (not alone, but at least we sat next to each other):
I love how I wrote, "I really like him but I doubt he'll like me for long."  Ever the confident one, I didn't believe it would last.  Then about a week later, he asked me to "go with" him (that was the early-70's term for going steady, at least in our neck of the woods).
Aug. 6, 1973, a date I'll never forget!  It was the beginning of a long life together, but at 15 we really couldn't know that yet.  (Although I tell you, by 16, I was as sure as I've ever been of anything that he was the only one for me.)  Well, my dear readers, here's how it turned out: seven-and-a-half years later, we would get married. And now we have celebrated our 37th wedding I would say that my fears that he wouldn't like me for long were all for naught.  :)

It goes on some more...If you'd like to read (or re-read) the full post, you'll find it here.  Either way, I'll be back again--sooner rather than later, I hope.  :)

Friday, August 3, 2018

An Open Book: One Beautiful Dream

It's been a long time since I've joined Carolyn Astfalk's  link-up over at A Scribbler's Heart and Catholic Mom--because with 13 grandchildren living close by now, this here hands-on Grammy doesn't seem to have the leisure time for reading that she used to!  But as Thomas Jefferson said, "I cannot live without books." Books have always been special friends, and I've resolved to work on fostering those friendships once again.

As a matter of fact, I just finished Jennifer Fulwiler's acclaimed new book, One Beautiful Dream.
It was a quick read for me, but that doesn't mean it was short on depth and insight and literary gravitas--trust me, that's not it at all.  It's actually quite profound.  It's just that Fulwiler's writing style is so fluid and entertaining--as if she's just a good friend who's telling you a story over a cup of coffee at the local Dunkin' Donuts (I'm sorry--I was going to say Starbucks, because that sounds a lot hipper; but after living most of my adult life in New England, I will always and forever be a Dunkin' gal) and making you guffaw and have coffee come out of your nose one minute and then saying something so poignant that you have to reach for a napkin to dab your teary eyes the next.  If I had the confidence to think that Fulwiler would even want to be my friend IRL (as we introverted writers who have more Internet friends than flesh-and-blood ones like to say), I would sure love to meet up with her for that cup of coffee.  But although that's one beautiful dream, I doubt it will ever happen!

I am currently in the middle of a beautifully written novel that I'm enjoying immensely, a soon-to be-released sequel that I've promised to read--and provide feedback--for an author friend of mine.  Her name is Annette Young (one of those Internet friends I was talking about, a mom of all boys like me who lives in the far-off Land Down Under, but whom I've come to know through our mutually shared Catholic Faith and love of writing fiction).  Annette's first novel, A Distant Prospect, is one of my all-time favorites, and I highly recommend it if you haven't read it yet.
I had no intention of starting anything new until I'd finished beta-reading my friend's book.  But recently, when I saw that the Kindle version of One Beautiful Dream was selling for $1.99 on Amazon, I thought I'd order a copy to read later when I had more time.  After I downloaded it, I opened up the Kindle app on my iPhone, just to sample a few pages and see what all the hoopla was about...and before I knew it, I had devoured the whole book (reading it on my phone!) in just a few sittings. Let's just say that I would have put it down and gotten back to reading Young's novel, but it really spoke to me.  In a loud voice.  I think it was something that I was supposed to read--and I was supposed to read it right now, not later.

I'm here to tell you that all the glowing accolades, the five-star reviews, and the enthusiastic recommendations are well-deserved.  This is one beautiful book, a must-read for any woman who is trying to figure out how to employ her unique God-given gifts, talents, and passions--the so-called "blue flame" that burns within her--while simultaneously being a loving wife and mother who is fully present for and devoted to the care and needs of her family.  Fulwiler shows that you really can have it all, if you let go of the need for control and truly put your trust in God's will; "it" just might look different than you thought it would.  She illustrates so beautifully how some of the biggest disappointments and setbacks in life actually lead to better outcomes, how God's plan for our lives is infinitely better than anything we could ever imagine on our own.

As I read Fulwiler's book, I felt a true kinship. When she described how writing makes her feel, I wanted to yell, "Yes!"  (Maybe I even did.)  In her words, "When I did this kind of work, it was as if some dormant part of me came alive.  It was more than just a hobby; it felt like a way of connecting to the world--the way I was meant to connect with the world."   Like the author, I, too, had dreamed of writing a book (and actually having it published!) since I was a young girl in love with the written word.  I, too, had spent much of my time either reading or scribbling stories in school notebooks.

But reading about Fulwiler's journey to make her dream a reality initially filled me with my usual self-doubt: why had I put my dream of writing a book on the back burner for all those years that I was raising my five sons?  Why had I waited until I was almost 50, and my youngest son was starting high school, to sit down at my laptop and finally start work on my first novel (Finding Grace)?  How come Jennifer Fulwiler was able to write when she was going through a high-risk pregnancy with her 6th baby in eight years, while I had to wait until my boys were mostly grown to get motivated?  Where in the world was my blue flame all those years--shouldn't I have spent whatever free time I had writing?

Just when I was letting comparison (which as we know is the thief of joy) get me down, Fulwiler came to a realization in her book that resonated with me.  She, too, had been guilty of comparing herself to others whose blue flames burned for different passions than hers did: first to the apparently saintly mom who chose to use her precious babysitting hours to take one of her daughters on a special a one-on-one outing to the bookstore, when Fulwiler had gone there to escape her own noisy house and write a blog post in peace; then to the serene woman from church whose home and children were immaculate and perfectly appointed at all times, when she herself was a messy housekeeper who felt like she was barely keeping it together, with a home that might be described as "warlike, loud, and sticky." But she had an epiphany when this "perfect" woman, around whom she'd always felt so inadequate in comparison, explained that she'd been an interior designer before she'd become a mother: "Style, beauty, all that stuff--it's my blue flame.  I'm using my gifts just like you are,"  she said.


When I was a young mother, my blue flame didn't really burn for writing, not yet anyway; instead, it burned for homemaking.  Keeping a house with five growing boys living in it as clean and tidy as humanly possible was a full-time job (and never fear, I did lower my standards so as not to go crazy).  But I didn't really mind the cleaning or the cooking or the laundry.  And I loved the decorating; I loved working to make my house as beautiful and comfortable as I could on the limited funds left over after the Catholic school tuition bills had been paid.  Looking for secondhand store furniture bargains and painting and refinishing them was one of my favorite hobbies.  I dabbled in sewing, woodworking, porcelain dollmaking, and doing trompe l'oeil paintings on the walls of my house--mostly of whimsical woodland creatures.  When our boys' Catholic grade school opened up a preschool, the principal asked me to paint nursery rhyme characters on the walls of the halls and classrooms, and that whole process was a complete joy to me.  I still dreamed of being a writer one day; but I wasn't passionate about it at that point in my life.  There were other ways that I used some of the gifts God gave me during those busy childrearing years, and I felt happy and fulfilled.

But eventually, when my boys were almost ready to fly the nest and I didn't have nearly as much to do around the house anymore, I felt like it was finally time for me to realize my lifelong dream of being a writer.  I was ready.  I was passionate.  I prayed to God, right before the beginning of a weekday morning Mass, that if I was meant to write the novel I had always dreamed of writing, He would give me the inspiration to figure out where to start...and I had such a sudden flood of inspiration, it was as if I'd been struck by lightning.  The whole first chapter started taking shape right there at Mass (making it difficult for me to concentrate!).  I went home and furiously typed up 20 pages of notes on my computer, and I spent the next four-and-a-half years working on Finding Grace.  Like Fulwiler, I had to put my writing on hold from time to time to attend to the needs of my family; but in God's own time, I was able to finish it and--talk about a beautiful dream!--see it published.

My path to becoming an author was completely different than the one Fulwiler took--but that's why this book of hers is so wonderful: it will encourage you to be the person God is calling you to be; it will inspire you to do what you are meant to do, when you are meant to do it; and it will remind you that you should never compare yourself to anyone else, because you have something special inside that you, and you alone, can share with the world.

Get your hands on this book if you haven't yet! Jennifer Fulwiler's engaging prose will have you laughing out loud one minute, crying the next...and vowing to conquer the fears and insecurities that threaten to extinguish the flame that burns within you. Ultimately, One Beautiful Dream will inspire you to live your best life, as only YOU can, using your abilities in a way that serves God and others and fills your soul with peace and joy.

Now check out the other books you should be reading, over at A Scribbler's Heart and