Workin’ 9 to 5, or more like, 7 to 6.

In the beginning of the summer, Mario was complaining about not being able to get a job at age 11. He saw Maria coming home with wads of cash from babysitting and he wanted some of that action. He’s at that age where parents don’t trust him yet to babysit their younger children and businesses will not hire him. He’s banking on a job with a friend of ours who owns a landscaping company but even with that, he still needs to be 14. I mentioned this dilemma to my dad when we were taking a walk in late spring. He responded with a shrug of the shoulders. “If Mario wants to come out to the farm for a couple of weeks and do some hard labor, I would pay him.”

When he first spoke those words, I didn’t think so much about the money as I thought about having two weeks in the summer that Mario would not have access to Xbox or much tv. I could go to work not having to check up on him every two hours to make sure that he was getting his reading in or playing outside. When I mentioned the idea to Mario, he jumped on it. Or, I should say, he jumped on the money part of it.

“How much do you think Peepaw will pay me?”

I then had to sit down with him to tell him that part of the deal in going out to the farm was just to be with his grandparents and be in the outdoors. He had just slept in a tent with a couple of buddies outside of our house a few weeks back and I reminded him about how much he loved it. I told him that Peepaw would be the number one person to talk to about surviving in the outdoors, pitching a tent, making food, you name it. Mario listened and nodded his head in agreement.

Then he questioned one more time “I just still wonder how much I could make….”

Mario has not frequented the farm like Maria. Ri doesn’t think twice about going out there for multiple days in a row. Mario has never gone out there for multiple nights, let alone by himself.

My dad thought long and hard about the work he would have Mario help him with for the two weeks. At first it was going to be cutting back the grasses through the fields. Then it moved to building a bench alongside the creek. But he finally ended up with a project that he thought Mario would love: a fire pit between the blueberry patch and the house. If they had time, they would also build a yoga platform. Mario had been begging Jon and I to build a firepit outside of our house so I knew he would love the thought of building one at the farm so that he could learn how to do it at our house.

The first week, Jon drove Mario to Zanesville to meet Grandma Meg. Jon reported that the drop off went smoothly. At about 8 pm, we got a call from Mario. He FaceTimed us so we could see the color of the sky and the meadows. This brought me much joy. I thought “he’s soaking up the outdoors and may just be fine out there.”

Then the call came at 9:30 PM.

“Mom, can you come out here and spend the night?”

He is out there with his grandma and grandpa. He is completely safe. He is being fed. He is receiving love. And nonetheless, my heart broke and I wanted to be there with him. I kept reminding him to just enjoy the time with his grandma and grandpa and to work hard because he was earning money for the summer. I hate to say it, but I knew in the short-term, referencing money would be a huge motivator.

It was the nighttime that really got him. He would call us excited during the day and show us the progress he and Peepaw were making on the firepit. He would FaceTime us to show every little detail of what they were doing. The first couple of days he was out there were even more rough because it was a lot of hard labor. They dug holes into the dry land and moved toms of dirt. My dad reported after that the second day was rough for Mario. He took breaks every 30 minutes or so (which, by the way, would probably be what most normal humans do – my dad and I tend to go a mile a minute when we start in on a project), To Mario’s credit, and because I always have to stand up for my man, he did get a major sunburn on his shoulders the day before he went out to the farm. I told him to apply sunscreen but he forgot and spent five hours out in the 90 degree heat at a birthday party. Nonetheless, I’m sure he could have sucked it up a bit more. He knew I was coming out on the third day – Thursday – so on Wednesday I kept reminding him that I would be out in 24 hours. I think this kept him going. When I arrived on Thursday, they had cleared the land and laid the first layer of bricks to the firepit. They needed to lay another four layers of stone. I was eager to help with the work. I love that stuff. If I ever lose my job, I think I will do some type of landscaping or masonry work.

Mario drove the four-wheeler route over to the chicken coop while I loaded the stones on it. Dad put on the caulking and Mario and I took turns laying the stone. We were a good team.

We left that night at 5:30. Mario was excited to get back to his Xbox. Maria was excited to meet up with her friends. About 25 miles away from Columbus, the traffic stopped. I was in the far lane of the highway and we were trying to determine how bad the accident was before the exit. Maria told me I should get off the exit because Google estimated it would be an hour wait. However, I went with my intuition and kept on the highway thinking that it wouldn’t be that long. Big mistake. About two hours later we were getting off at the next exit (only 4 miles away from the one I missed) to take the back roads home. Just shoot me.

We arrived home with none of us wanting to see each other’s faces for 24 hours. While we were waiting on the highway, we tried to play games to keep the time rolling. This inevitably led to much irritation by each one of us based on the the other two engaging in irritating behavior.

The weekend came and Mario argued that he should not have to do any activities because he worked so hard at the farm. I explained to him that work is something that us adults do every day without a break. He was seriously milking it.

Jon and I were worried that he would not want to go back out to the farm because of how homesick he had gotten and because of the thought of getting up at 6 AM to start the workday. However, when we asked him if he’s ready to go back out, he said he was. He did try to shorten the time by a day so that I would come out earlier and hang with him. But when Sunday night came, he packed up his things and was ready to go. He called us Sunday night to let us know he had made it but didn’t cry to me on the phone about how he wanted me to come get him. The next day he FaceTimed me about five times but he never pled for me to come out there. He just showed me everything that he and Peepaw were accomplishing.

On Tuesday, they pretty much had finished everything. He called me to see if I would come out Tuesday night. I told him I would be out Wednesday morning and he did not complain. I also told him to ask Peepaw and Mama Meg what else he could do to help out since Peepaw has to be the ones to screw in all the boards.

By the time I got out there on Wednesday morning, he and Peepaw had completed the firepit and the yoga platform, and put away all the materials they had been working with over the last two weeks. It looked wonderful. They also had spent two hours picking blueberries off the vines and putting them in individual containers in accordance with the type of blackberry picked. I got treated to a taste test of blueberries upon my arrival. Heaven. We sat on the screened-in porch and chatted. It was nice to chill out for 45 minutes and just sit with family. I am usually on the go when I am there either playing with Elena or taking a hike. I am trying to learn how to sit still more often.

Mario showed me up close all the work that they accomplished. Then he held my hand on the way back to the porch and said softly “can we go now? ” I asked if he would take a quick hike with me. He was adamant that he did not want to take a hike. But then Peepaw nudged him and I promised it would be a short hike. Mario couldn’t resist our pleading. It ended up that all of us headed out – Mama Meg, Peepaw, me, and Mario. It was an enjoyable hike up to the abandoned house and down through the path to the meadow. We chatted about Stranger Things and the 80’s. My soul felt nourished.

We arrived back and stood around the table eating chips. Peepaw came down the stairs with money for Mario. He handed him $400 in 20s and a 50 dollar bill. Mario’s eyes bugged out of his head. My dad explained that although their time was cut a bit short, they did accomplish what he wanted to accomplish and Mario woke up every morning ready to get to work. He didn’t try to sleep in, and he didn’t complain during times of boredom or when he was super hot. He hung in there and for that he was rewarded.

The experience made me feel so joyful. I really wanted my dad and Mario to connect during his time out at the farm. I had romantic visions of grandfather and grandson having deep conversations while sitting in the fishing boat for hours on end. A little on Golden Pond scene if you will. I am not quite sure that my romantic vision lined up with the reality of the two weeks, but that’s fine. The realistic version of the romantic vision did occur. Peepaw and Mario hung out together through the day, talking about random matters, and being in each other’s company. They got some fishing in and ribbed each other on who caught the largest fish. They bonded over blueberries. Mario also got to connect with Mama Meg more than he usually does when we are out there for a short period of time (they bonded over the show Stranger Things).

He doesn’t understand at this age how important this time spent with grandparents will be to him, I think back to times with my grandparents with immense love. I didn’t think about it as a kid – the times spent with them seemed routine like going to school and brushing my teeth. But now I find peace and comfort in looking back at the times I sat next to my Grandma on the couch eating Pringle’s and sipping Coca Cola out of a slender tall glass. She didn’t have to say a word to me for me to know she loved me and thought I was special. I recall rubbing my Grandma’s feet as she sat back in her Lazy Boy recliner. She would give me a quarter for my work. She’d close her eyes while I massaged her tired soles and brought her some comfort after a long day. Her freezer always had a gallon of vanilla ice cream waiting for me and her fridge had the Hershey chocolate syrup. I recall my mom and I going to Kroger’s years after my grandma died. I was in the pickle section trying to find the dills. My mom commented “grandma would always buy dill pickles because she knew you loved them.” I had no clue she knew that about me.

Mario and Maria are blessed with three sets of grandparents. All of them provide different personalities and hobbies and passions for Ri and Mario to experience. All of them also provide similar wisdom and love that only a grandparent can gift to a grandchild.

Blake Shelton!

We got VIP tickets to the Blake Shelton concert for Maria for Christmas. It is all she wanted – she made it very clear that she could care less if she got any other present from any other family member other than these tickets. She wanted everyone to chip in so that we could buy the “VIP experience” with the singer she has adored for over a year. Jon and I are still at a loss as to how she enjoys country music so much. Neither one of us listen to it. It must be our two former babysitters from years ago. They both listened to country music as they drove Maria around town and that genre must have seeped deep down in her blood.

Maria counted down the days remaining before she got to see Blake in Pittsburgh. I could hav really cared less about seeing Blake but was excited to spend some quality mother/daughter time. We had to drive three hours to Pittsburgh, and another three hours back home to Columbus (I knew we wouldn’t get much alone time while in Pittsburgh because we were watching my sweet niece when we weren’t at the concert).

I kept reminding myself not to place any expectations on the mother/daughter time with Ri. I repeated the mantra “just enjoy her presence.”. I knew better than to expect her to give me insight into her friendships or boys or thoughts about her changing body. Any conversation like that would have made her recoil and clam up. So, we talked about random, and fairly insubstantial things such as what we would do with Elena, what Mario and dad were probably doing on a Saturday afternoon, when our cousin would have her baby….. We also found a good car trivia site and answered questions about countries, polar animals and presidents (she knows I love to get some education in on car trips).

Sarah and Elena dropped us off at PPG Arena at 4 PM. The line was already 30 people deep when we got there. We stood out in the chilly weather for about 25 minutes before they let us enter. We had a slight scare with me not being able to find our tickets on my phone right away but I came through. We retrieved our VIP lanyards and travel mug, andstood in line waiting to be escorted back to the lounge.

Maria stood twirling her lanyard anxious to head back. After what seemed like forever, they began to escort us through the hallways to the lounge. When we arrived at the lounge, there were escalators to the left. The guides were escorting fans down the escalator to get merchandise. However, when we got to the bottom, people were going back up to the lounge. I knew we had to be one of the first to enter the lounge or we would not get close to the stage. So, Ri and I left the merchandise counter (the next day I realized we got one free item with the VIP package that we lost out on) and squeezed in the line to enter the lounge. We saw the Voice chair as we walked in, and a small stage over to the right with a wood fence in front of it. There was already a group of older women and men who had placed seats against the fence to create a front row. Maria and I darted directly in back of the seats. People were starting to move over towards the area and we knew that if we left our position somebody would grab it. Maria and I quickly realized that we would be standing in the same spot for the next 2 1/2 hours.

I allowed her to go back to the Voice chair to get her picture taken. I also had her scour for any food. She returned with a huge chocolate chip cookie. There was nothing more. The time moved slow as we glanced around at the crowd and watched for any movement behind the curtain on the stage.

Maria’s phone was almost ready to die and mine was only at 60% so we did not want to play Crossy Road in order to pass the time away (we played this game while waiting for flights to Oaxaca and during down time with Elena – it’s our go-to). We played a couple of rounds of 20 questions and then the ABC game but we were both struggling to concentrate – Ri because she was so excited to see Blake and me because I was so excited for Maria to see Blake. She had been waiting for months for this moment. My favorite part of the wait was when Ri’s legs got tired and she leaned into me to hold her. The side of her face laid on my shoulder and I rubbed her back as I listened to the rhythm of her breath. I held the same person who, 13 years ago, used to ride in a snuggli on my chest up and down the streets of Grandview. The same girl who had me carry her in the backpack until the age of five, and would rest that same face on my shoulder when she tired of walking the hills.

7 PM arrived and fans were antsy. People started chanting Blake’s name. Maria continuously darted her eyes back-and-forth to each side of the stage to determine whether Blake was behind the curtain or not. Each time a song would end, the crowd silenced with the hope that his stage manager would be introducing him. But then a new song would start up. Finally, at 7:15, the stage manager bounced onto the stage and without much fanfare, introduced Blake Shelton. Maria immediately bawled when she saw him first come out.

He greeted the crowd and immediately went into his first song. Maria stood there with her phone in video mode and tears slowly trickling from her eyes. She was standing right in front of him! I was so happy for her. He finished his song and informed the crowd that he was going to read a couple of questions. He scrolled through the iPad in front of him and picked a question. It was from a random woman in the back of the lounge. He asked her to wave and thanked for her question. This made me want him to pick Maria’s question even more because he would then make eye contact with her to thank for the question. He moved onto another question – it was not Maria.

“Come on” I kept thinking to myself. How could he resist a 13-year-old’s question? Maria was one of two teens in the entire crowd. He finished answering the second question and pronounced he would read one more. He scrolled through and then stated:

“This next question is from Maria in Grandview Heights, Ohio, age 13″…. My stomach dropped. I looked over at Maria. She was sobbing as Blake Shelton stared at her. I guess without knowing it I had begun pointing at her when Blake Shelton started reading her question so he fixed his eyes on her. He noticed her sobbing and asked her why she was crying. She could not respond because her mouth would not open. She was paralyzed with awe. He proceeded to read her question, and expressed to the crowd how confused he was by it. It was hilarious. As she tried to talk through her sobs to explain it, he noticed that there was more to her question so he continued reading it. By the time he got done answering it, she was smiling and he was relieved. It was the sweetest interaction. He then grabbed his guitar and told the crowd that he was going to play another song. What came next was magical for her. He dedicated the next song to Maria. He made a joke about the song being a drinking song and that it was a little odd to dedicate it to a 13-year-old but he was doing it anyway. She stood there trying to videotape him while her shoulders and body shook with pure joy.

He wrapped up his time with a few more questions from the audience and then thanked everybody for coming to see him. As he stood up, he looked right at Maria, smiled, and threw his guitar pic to her. I just could not believe it. She was in complete shock. The crowd beside us all congratulated her when he left the stage. Her eyes were as big as a doe’s eyes in the headlights. She was trembling.

We walked to the back of the room to breathe. Two of his stage hands, two women, approached us with the blue plastic cup we had seen him drinking from earlier. They offered it to Maria. They told her that it was endearing to see her so excited to see Blake Shelton, and they thanked her for being a great fan (I am convinced those two women were the ones that picked Maria’s question for Blake Shelton to read).

Maria remained in a state of shock as we rode the elevators down to the show. She bought a Blake Shelton longsleeve shirt in order to wear it to school on Monday. She snap-chatted with all of her friends to tell them the news. I don’t think she came to her right mind until long after the concert started.

How many times had I dreamt of Andy Gibb or Prince or Michael Jackson looking straight at me from the stage and saying hello?! Her first concert as a teenager and she gets that treatment. It’s all downhill from here, baby doll….:)

There is no doubt that the memory of Blake Shelton looking at her and speaking to her will be seared in her mind. It is definitely seared in my mind. But also seared in my mind is the absolute joy on her face when she saw him walk on stage. I am so grateful for having been in her presence to witness.

Connection

I have been feeling under the weather for the last two weeks. Poor Mario begs to wrestle with me every night and I have to decline or engage in some lame, half-baked wrestling moves, which only frustrates him. I have learned it is better to just say no to his pleading. A year ago, he would have gotten mad and stormed up to his room.

But lately, he has processed the decline much more maturely. He doesn’t stomp as much. He’s willing to engage with me and consider other things to do. And if he only wants to do the activity I refuse, he lets it go more quickly and doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He has also taken on more care and concern for Jon and me. He worries that Jon is not getting enough exercise for his heart and continually lectures him about taking walks. With me, he is weirded out to see me sick and not able to jump around with him like I always do. He has taken on this matronly approach asking if I’m ok all the time. I was in a meeting the other day and he called after school. I answered the phone and spoke quietly to him to avoid interrupting the meeting. I got off the phone with him and he called back 20 seconds later. I answered again with a hushed voice as I stood to leave the room worried something was wrong. He sounded concerned as he spoke.

“Mom, I’m just calling you back because you do not sound good. I want to make sure you are ok.”

Seriously? A 10-year-old boy being so thoughtful. Maybe my expectations are way low for him but I was completely blown away by his attention. I think there were little Mario-hearts swimming around my head during the rest of my meeting.

Maria has pushed me away over the last month. She talks to Jon about updates at school or sports but rarely me. I heard from many a parent, and know from personal experience, that Ri would start to move away from me as she headed into teenage hood. It still doesn’t make it easier. I miss her asking me to watch a show or play cards. I miss her enthusiasm in trying to get Mario to play with us. Now, it’s Mario asking where Ri is and when she will be home.

On the other hand, Mario wants to do more things with me, which soothes the Maria sting a bit. He was all into Jon for a while but he has turned to me lately. I guess that’s the universe’s way of patting my head and telling me to hang in – one child drifts away but another drifts in. Ebb and flow. Mario and I have found a rhythm – we converse about basketball, school, rap music, you tube videos, and we crack each other up. I have some vivid memories over the past few weeks of us laughing until we nearly cried. He’s got my sense of humor.

I feel grateful to have that connection with Mario as my connection with Ri loosens a bit to give her the space to explore.