Author: Laura Phelan

leaving the nest

school-kidsLast week I let go. Just a little, mind you. But it was for the first time. Annie P started school. Two days a week, she’ll spend the morning with other young toddlers at a Mother’s Morning Out program. Now, I know this isn’t real school. I didn’t send her off on a bus, and she didn’t have to bring any school supplies with her save a box of tissues and a pack of baby wipes.  However, for us it is the beginning.

Not every family with a stay at home parent sends their child off to school this early. But for Annie P and our goals for her, there is no question. It hasn’t come without sacrifice. My husband and I played around with the budget and let the cleaning lady go so we could comfortably do this. I know mothers say they would do anything for their children. If you knew me, you’d know that cleaning toilets fits the bill. As I said, we have certain goals for our child. I should probably pause to clarify what I mean by goals. We’re not those parents with plans to have her quoting Shakespeare by age four and composing original music in kindergarten. However, we do want to give her the chance to do and be whatever her heart desires. I believe one of the keys to this is making the effort to expose the little people we’ve been charged with to new experiences on a regular basis. This builds a passion for life and the willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone.

One of my true dreams for my daughter is that she will see more of the world than myself. I’ve seen more than many and yet not near enough.  My husband and I both agree that we’d rather sacrifice in our own lives in order to show our daughter as much of the world as we can before sending her off on her own. We hope it’s a passion we’ll start and she’ll continue.

And so she started school. I don’t expect her to learn much academically this year. But she will have a chance to meet other children her age. She’ll begin to learn to socialize. And she will spend some time away from the comforts of home. This will make the transition to preschool, and in turn grammar school, an easier one. Going off to college will be a breeze. And perhaps later on, she’ll grab a suitcase and head around the world on her own travel adventure without fear.

This week, as Annie P learns to feel comfortable away from home, I’ll dream of the places she will one day see. Sure, she’s only a few miles away today. But eventually, half a world may be between us. The thought will make cleaning the toilet that much easier.

through new eyes

IMG_3033This summer, like so many Americans, we made our annual voyage to the beach. For ten days, we planned to soak in the sun, play in the sand, and simply enjoy time away from the daily demands of life at home. Even though I grew up near the beach, I honestly don’t think there was a summer in my childhood that didn’t include a vacation on the water. For people throughout the world, there is something about time at the beach. Life seems simpler, calmer. Stresses melt away with the sound of the surf meeting the shore.  It’s relaxing and exhilarating all at once.
In recent years, our annual trip finds us on the coast of South Carolina, in a small town my brother-in-law and his family call home. My husband Kevin and I chose the beach they live near as our wedding location. Who could ask for a better backdrop for reciting lifelong vows than the edge of life-giving water and the site of the renewing tide? Since that day, Kevin’s family has grown considerably. With a whole new crop of Phelan’s, beach trips have become a mainstay as a way to reunite when school is out and the sun sticks around for a bit longer.  Our special beach is the perfect place.
And so this year we found ourselves headed to the coast with one small difference. We were bringing Annie P – toddler Annie P. Last year, Annie didn’t spend much time in the sand. She was still napping frequently and had just learned to sit. The inside of the beach house and a trip or two to the pool made up her first trip to the beach. Not so this year. As a beach lover, as this trip approached I grew nervous. I am the type of person who can sit from sunrise to sunset, reading a book (or two) and staring out to sea. What if Annie didn’t share my opinion? What if she hated the sand between her toes and found the waves alarming, even downright scary? I prepared as best I could. We came armed with an arsenal of beach toys, sunscreen in many forms, floats, snacks, and even a pair of water shoes in case she simply couldn’t stand the sand. If it took downright bribery, Annie P. was going to hang at the beach.
I’m sure you can guess where this is going. That’s right. All my fears were for naught. From day one, the girl was sold. For ten days we watched her jump in the surf, chase sandpipers, dig in the sand, and run along the shore as fast as her little legs would take her. Unbelievably, we only hit the pool a couple of times the entire trip. I personally found the daily trip to the beach exciting and new, like I was seeing it for the first time.  Through my daughter, I saw the simple beauty and raw excitement the seashore brings. I used all of my senses to take it in, as I knew she was. It had been a long time since I played in the sand. It really is a great time.
Although we were sad when the trip ended, I am pleased with the outcome.  Sure, the toys and snacks helped. But when we returned home, I found the water shoes at the bottom of a bag, seldom used and long forgotten. Beach lovers never mind the sand between their toes.

flying solo

Flying doesn’t scare me. For some, the mere mention of an airplane elicits panic. Not this girl. Often, when a plane passes overhead, I’ll glance up and wonder what exciting place it’s bound for. And I’ll sigh with a brief moment of envy before returning to the day’s activities. I’ve flown often and for the vast majority of my life. My first flight was at 4 weeks old and I haven’t slowed down since.
Recently, I flew alone for the first time in quite a while. To celebrate my birthday, I met my husband at the tail end of a business trip for a long weekend in California. It was our first trip alone together since Annie P joined our family. The traveler that I love to be, I picked a place that left a whole country between my daughter and I. Better to just close my eyes and jump rather than dip my toe in the water by way of a close location, I say. I’ve flown halfway around the world, for goodness sakes. I figured I could leave Annie P on the east coast for a couple of days. So off I went.
The first thing I noticed about traveling alone for the first time since becoming a mother was the absolute tranquility of the experience. I don’t think that’s something you often hear people say about a plane trip. But for a mother, it can be downright therapeutic. Let me elaborate with a few examples.
On the way to the airport, I filed my nails – don’t worry, I wasn’t driving. I sat in the car with no sippy cups to dole out, no nursery rhymes to sing and filed my poor neglected nails. I chatted with my friendly limo driver (part of the birthday present). I took part in the excitement of a trip to the airport where I would be leaving for somewhere other than home. This was going to be good.
Once I made it to my gate, I just sat and watched my fellow travelers. People watching is a too often overlooked perk about traveling. When people go somewhere, they are inclined to hurry from one overrun tourist attraction to the next, without truly looking around them. One of the easiest ways to experience a new culture is to grab a seat in the center of the action, be it a market or a town square, and just watch how people live. Throw away the agenda and just be. That isn’t easy to do with a child. All your focus is on them; are they safe, where did they get the mystery object they’re chewing on from, are they bothering the person next to you. You get the picture. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s surely not as easy to come by. So I soaked it in. At one point they came over the intercom to announce that our flight would be slightly delayed. For the first time ever, I truly didn’t care. I didn’t have any real place to be. I’d get there, my dear husband would be waiting, and we’d carry on.
We did eventually make it on the plane. And here’s where my trip truly began.  I ordered a drink. I drank slowly, and without having to share. I read the vast majority of a book. I ordered a movie that I watched in the middle of the day with no interruptions. It was almost like a spa day. All I needed was the robe and slippers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in first class.
I did see a few uneasy travelers around me, sweating out the flight all the while reassuring themselves that eventually their feet would be on solid ground again. But me? I kicked my feet up as far as the space between seats in economy class will allow and enjoyed the blissful sounds of someone else’s kid crying.

just what the doctor ordered

Each spring, the world outside our home is invaded. Not by aliens or evil monsters, but they might as well be. This invasion is a thick dusting of yellow pollen which sends innocent victims clamoring for tissues and the safety of the indoors. The simple phrase “in bloom” sends me into a panic. For any seasonal allergy sufferer, there is only one cure – skipping town.While this is not an option for all, Annie P is my current ticket out.  With mandatory school attendance still years away, I book a flight south, to my hometown, to paradise.

Since the railroad made its way through Florida at the end of the 19th century, the allure of the healing properties of a tropical climate became one of its main selling points. The social elite from the northern states found places like Palm Beach a respite from the cold weather and a balm for winter ailments.  For some, they literally came south on doctor’s orders. Those doctors were no fools. Who doesn’t know the benefits of salt water alone? I consider myself fortunate that, as a child, many a cut and scrape were soothed in the healing waters off Miami’s beaches. Have a cold?  No worries. Just take a dip. Or breathe in that dewy air. You’ll feel better in no time.

Annie P and I left home sniffling, sneezing and coughing. To top it off, Annie P had a nasty case of eczema. So we came, gave it the recommended two days necessary for the winds, the sun, the air itself to work its magic. And wouldn’t you know it – by day three the tissues were put away.

As for Annie P, her grandmother’s backyard is a whole new world from the last time she visited. Feeling herself again, eczema clear, our newly walking toddler couldn’t wait to head outside each morning. The flora and fauna of the tropics fascinate and soothe her, just like her mom. Hibiscus and jasmine tempt her to touch them. Birds sing to her from the rooftops. The palm trees, almost whimsical in appearance, elicit giggles from a child who lives surrounded by oak and pine and cherry. Stumbling through her this tropical jungle, I can only describe her demeanor as one of pure delight. The marketing campaign luring people to the Sunshine State all those years ago was spot on. With all it has to offer, South Florida can still soothe the soul.

homeward bound

In times like these, Americans are examining the value of a dollar. Whether by choice or, in increasing cases, out of necessity we are laying aside our wants to meet our needs. For many, the quick weekend getaway isn’t as easy to come by. Enter the staycation. As our economy fails, the concept has become, dare I say, en vogue. All the cool kids are doing it.

That’s just the line I gave my husband to convince him to give it a shot. It worked. One Friday, he took the day off (rare) and we ventured into the city (rarer still) with Annie P.

Atlanta, often coined the capital of the New South, has much to offer the casual tourist. One of its newest attractions is the Georgia Aquarium. Touted the world’s largest, we couldn’t think of a better place to take a kid who just learned to point at everything she sees than to a record sized fish bowl. Ordinarily, my husband and I prefer a more ‘off the beaten path’ itinerary for our adventures. But kids love animals, and who would deny Annie P the pleasure of seeing the biggest fish in the world, a whale shark, because the place might be overrun with tourists? After all, we ourselves would be tourists if even for a day.

The place was packed. No matter. Annie P is small. I just made my way to the front of the displays and we had a blast watching her animated face. She had fun, thus we had fun. After our fill, we headed across the street to Atlanta’s location of a famous Boston-based restaurant my husband and I enjoy. Annie P was a charmer to the wait staff and a pleasant little diner. We had lobster rolls and reminisced about our idyllic trip to Nantucket the September before our daughter joined this great big world. As we talked, I realized I truly felt as if we were on vacation, even if it was simply for the morning. The ingredients that brought our staycation together were simple. We had a destination and we took the time to enjoy it. The best part was, we still made it home for naptime.

family heirlooms

As winter took one last punch at the eastern half of the US last week, we found ourselves traveling under unusual circumstances. My husband’s grandmother passed away a week short of her 101st birthday. With the funeral in Ohio and a reception in South Florida, packing proved challenging. We would be leaving our home in the Deep South for two distinct climates. I had some decisions to make regarding wardrobe; for starters, what should a baby wear to a funeral? I also struggled with how I would keep a baby with a southern winter wardrobe warm. I didn’t have to think long to come up with an answer.

Grandma was an amazing woman. Raised as an Orthodox Jew in rural Ohio, she saw her share of prejudice and hardship. She lived through the Great Depression and World War II. She saw her youngest daughter head south with her new husband, a Catholic no less, to tackle the Civil Rights Movement. That girl went on to have three sons, the last one my husband.

Through her 100 years, there was one thing her family and friends could count on. Grandma would crochet them an afghan. A woman with a sense of joy and much love, the blankets she created felt alive with her memories. She made them in all shapes and sizes, in all colors. We personally have six in our household and we love each of them. I feel overwhelmingly blessed that Annie P was able to meet Grandma and receive an afghan of her own. When we stepped out on a bleak winter day to say goodbye, Annie P wasn’t cold as she snuggled under her great grandmother’s gift.

We were fortunate to make it to Florida before the snow and got a couple of extra days down there as a result. But as the mourners returned to their homes in places up and down the east coast and the weather took a turn, they reached for their afghans. My husband’s mother and her sister received call after call from people to tell them they were finding comfort under their blankets, in more ways than one. Grandma left a legacy in her afghans, one we will hold onto for years to come.

This made me think about the things we hold dear. Some of the most prized memories of a family are woven, crocheted or sewn. The 103 year old dress Annie P wore for her baptism was first worn by my mother’s grandmother. The care we took in dressing, and undressing, her is a testament to the place the gown has in our family. After my wedding, I painstakingly preserved my dress with the notion that perhaps one day my daughter would take it out and want to wear it. Or just look at it.

Gloves, hats, quilts, tablecloths, pillow cases. Each woven heirlooms of what we’re made of, or where we come from. Sometimes when I’m dressing Annie P, I wonder which pieces of her clothing I’ll hold onto and why. Aside from aesthetics, maybe I’ll save the outfit she’s wearing when she finally walks, or her dress from the first day of kindergarten. Maybe a blouse I adore will be ruined beyond repair. So I’ll snip a small piece of it and save it in a drawer. Over time, it will become a part of a collection. Maybe I’ll turn that collection into an heirloom for Annie P And along with her afghan, I’ll keep them safe until she needs them.

cuban eats

You’d never know it to look at me but I am a Miami girl, born and raised. Often called the gateway to Latin America, Miami has much to offer. But one of my favorites is the food. I have fond memories of standing in a traditional Cuban cafeteria translating for my mother as we ordered South Florida’s version of Sunday dinner. With the fairest of skin, blonde hair and light eyes, I’d struggle through the order with my high school Spanish, only slightly better than my southern mother could have done. But we’d leave there with the delicious smells of pork, frijoles negros, and maduros filling the car. We could hardly wait to make it home to share the feast with the rest of the family.

Since moving away from South Florida, my husband and I don’t run into as many true Cuban restaurants. But we get by. I often cook my own version of arroz con pollo or slow roasted pork with black beans and rice. And every once in a while our Cuban friends here will take pity on me and bring over a flan or have us over for proper ropa vieja. So you can imagine my delight the first time we offered Cuban food to our year old daughter. She dug right in, and my heart swelled with pride at the sight of our little girl experiencing new tastes from a different culture. Since Annie began eating solids, I make a true effort to allow her to experience a wide variety of foods cooked in many different ways.

Although my world travels have taken pause since her birth, one of my greatest joys in leaving home is introducing my taste buds to a new place. My hope is that Annie sees even more of the world than I do, and that her love of black beans is just the beginning.