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Posts tagged: parenting

Travel: Escape to the Oregon Coast

 

    During the years when my children were in school, when I was tied to their academic calendar, I wasn’t able to just pick up and go when the mood struck. That kind of freedom didn’t come for another decade. But once a year I would pack up the family, more often than not, just my two youngest daughters—the others had summer jobs and other commitments—and run away to the Oregon Coast. 

 

    With the girls and the dogs in the car, squeezed in beside coolers and lawn chairs, beach towels and a big bag of books, we would drive for hours until we arrived at our favorite spot, a small town with no mall, no fast food, no distractions. And we would stay for as long as I could afford to keep us there.     

     I took extra assignments during the year to pay for a cottage. I would work late into the night so that when summer came I could throw myself at the Pacific the way we fall on our mothers, desperate for the comfort of something bigger than the small petty worries that chased themselves around my mind morning, noon and night.

 

    Those were wonderful days. When the fickle weather allowed, we spent hours playing in the sand, but there was the greater luxury of time for myself. While the girls slept or read or worked a puzzle in whatever cottage I’d rented that year, I would make my way down to the water. I would close my ears to everything but the sound of the waves hitting the shore, close my eyes to everything but the search for shells and agates on the beach. I would walk for miles up and down the beach, my back bent, my mind wandering, letting the cold wind and stinging sand scour away the brittle crust that had formed around me. 

 

    Somehow, answers that eluded me everywhere else always seemed easier to catch and hold while I walked the beach.     Without the stress of keeping house, meeting work deadlines, volunteering at school and all the other matters that constantly distracted me, I could read my own mind and make sense of things. I could see people and issues more clearly. Words filled my head and sentences and paragraphs wrote themselves, and stayed where I could find them when I got back to the cottage and sat down to my computer.  Without the distraction of television or friends calling and coming over, I could reconnect with my children on a more intimate level. Keeping my eyes on the horizon, I made peace with what I could not change and  measured the distance to dreams I was chasing. 

 

    It’s no wonder those days at the beach, in the company of the wild Pacific Ocean and my own sweet daughters, have taken on such a warm glow in my memory. 

 

    Life has a way of chipping away at us at times: Old friends battle cancer. Work disappoints or becomes less fulfilling. Loved ones lose their way and our own ambitions shift and take new direction. To work through such matters requires equal measures of silence and solitude. 

 

    I can’t go back in time; the two young girls are grown now and no longer mine to put in my car and drive away. But I can go back to the place we were so happy. The sea is still there. The waves still crash against the rocks on the shore and the wind still blows. What I need is somewhere on that beach, half buried with the agates and bits of broken shells. All I have to do is put my head down and walk until I find it.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” (available at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane) and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

An Independent Life on Bainbridge Island

When he isn’t traveling for work, my son, the boy who was always busy with some kind of project, lives with a beautiful, intelligent girl in small cottage on a beautiful island just a short ferry ride from Seattle. He is not my boy anymore. He is a man who has made a unique and interesting life for himself.

He’s about to leave for another assignment in India, so we drove over to Seattle and took the ferry to Bainbridge Island to spend a few days with him. The island is especially beautiful this time of year, more like a village in New England than a small town on Puget Sound. I’d never been there before and October is the perfect time to see Bainbridge Island for the first time. The hardwood trees were showing their fall colors and the air was cool and crisp. There were pumpkins everywhere.

As it happens, one of my son’s closest childhood friends is also on the island now, on his own adventure with his own beautiful and intelligent girl, and he joined us for dinner one night at the local pub. We spent the evening together, laughing and recalling things that had happened in the neighborhood when they were growing up.  Listening to them talk about their old friends and where they’ve all ended up. I thought about the group of boys who were in and out of my house and backyard and how fortunate they are that their lives are still threaded together by this shared history and their common interests. I thought about how fortunate we are to be here to see them now.

As a parent, it’s always interesting to get a peek into the lives of our adult children. The children we cared for, worried about and whose futures we daydreamed about and fretted over, usually, one way or another, seem to find their footing on their own.  Just as we did.  I could not have imagined the life my son lives now, his path has been the one he has made for himself. The parents of his friends feel the same way, I know. And somewhere at the beginning of that path are the choices we all made as parents—the wise decisions and clumsy mistakes.  We did the best we could but we were amateurs, just feeling our way.

I left my son and his girl with a hug at the ferry, grateful for the time we’d had with them. And, as always, I filled his pockets with a mother’s silent and invisible blessings. Charms to keep him safe on the road, his road, as he makes his way to the future.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

Travel: Family Travel Gives Children the Gift of Independence

 

 

   As we were driving across mountain passes and through a wide Montana valley to take her to college, my youngest daughter sat in the back seat, surrounded by the boxes she’d packed. The three of us fell into a familiar and comfortable pattern, with her teasing us, making us laugh, as the miles flew by.

 

   For a moment I managed to forget that we were taking her to leave her, to start her new life as a college student. I forgot that with her went our last child, leaving us with an empty house. I forgot that I have no clear idea of what comes next. For a few hours It was just the family off on an adventure. There was an easy affection in the way we spoke to one another and all of the stresses and irritations of the last few months disappeared.

 

   When we got to the campus we checked her into her dorm. We hauled the boxes out of the car and shopped for what else she would need. We went out to dinner and then shopped some more. We unpacked the books and bedding and keepsakes she’d taken with her, plugged in the small refrigerator, put her clothes in the closet and we were done. I realized she was being very patient with us but she was clearly ready to be on her own.

 

  Moving to college is a journey into the unknown, but watching my daughter I realized she was uniquely prepared for this new life. She is no stranger to foreign places. 

 

 I reminded myself that this is the girl who ran ahead, turning around to tease me for being a slowpoke as we climbed the Great Wall in China. This is the girl who stood up to and challenged the arrogant and vaguely threatening transit officer who bullied us in Prague. This is the girl who didn’t let the man on the flight to Budapest get away with taking an aisle seat that wasn’t his; he was in her father’s seat and she made him move. This is the girl who lost her way for a few minutes in Rome and managed to find us on her own before we even realized she was gone. This is the girl who led us through Vienna and this is the girl who ordered our meals on our last trip to Paris—in passable French—and who, judging from the way she walked blocks ahead of me as we moved around the city, would clearly have preferred to been there on her own.

 

I didn’t think of it at the time, when I was planning vacations and saving for tickets to faraway places, but our travels did more than open her eyes to other people and other lands. She came back from each trip with confidence in herself. She may not know it’s there, but I know she’ll find it when she needs it.

 

She may be anxious and a little unsure now, college is a big leap, after all. But I have confidence in her. This is the girl who can find her way.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

  

The Sweetest Season: Summer in the Northwest

    I haven’t set the kitchen table in weeks.

    Each morning I wake up, pour a cup of coffee, open the back door and step out onto my patio. Usually it is cool enough to wear a robe or the heavy man’s denim work shirt I sometimes slip over my gown when I'm too impatient.

     Lunch might be a salad while I work at the big table on the patio or idle in the shaded corner of my backyard. Dinner is eaten late, on the patio again, just as the sun slips behind the trees on the horizon. After the meal I leash the dog and walk to Manito Park to take a stroll around the gardens, where it is always at least five degrees cooler and the air is thick with the heady perfume of flowers. Then, at night, after the dishes are done and the dog and the cats have been fed, I slip out the back door again for a few more minutes. I sit on the glider, pushing myself back and forth with my toes against concrete that still holds the warmth of the sun, and I mark the end of another day.

    This time of year, my living area is always turned inside out. I eat, read, relax, work and daydream outdoors. When my children were all still at home, before we moved out of the big house in the country and into the cottage in town, I set up a daybed on the patio. During the day they would sprawl over it, reading for hours, surrounded by newspaper comics, crossword puzzles, Barbie dolls, Breyer horses and empty Popsicle wrappers. At night, after dinner, after the last bit of daylight had faded, my youngest and I would lie down together on the summer bed. Often her sisters and her brother would join us and we would lie there like puppies in a basket, gazing up, watching the stars come out and the Milky Way spread like spilled paint across the black night sky. We pointed out the Big Dipper and called out when shooting stars streaked across overhead. We counted satellites. Sometimes we spotted the flash of the Space Station’s solar panels as it orbited, and once an owl startled us as it flew low and silently over the backyard.

    Eventually the others would wander off and the youngest would drift off to sleep in my arms. But I would always lie there a bit longer, breathing the shampoo-and-green-grass fragrance of her hair, reluctant to let her go.

    Finally, around midnight, I would rouse her and help her stumble up to her bed and then climb into my own.

    Anyone who has ever lived where the humidity chases the temperature up the thermometer and the mid-summer air—day or night—is as uncomfortable and heavy as a damp blanket, will understand the way I delight in the season here. I grew up in the South. Summer could be long and cruel. But here in the Northwest, where the season is short and sweet, mornings are deliciously cool, afternoons are hot and bright and the twilight is long and slow and luxurious.

    I can’t bear to waste a minute so I take my cup of coffee out to meet the sun and I’m there to watch the moon rise. And one by one these beautiful days go by while I sit and watch, and think of children whose hair smelled of green grass and lavender shampoo.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Life: Taking Baby Steps

   My granddaughter is suddenly a toddler. Over the last few months we’ve watched her crawl then, almost overnight, put one foot in front of another learning first to walk and then run. Her mother, my daughter, is trained to work with patients with mobility issues and she told me that learning to walk is really just overcoming a constant feeling that you’re about to fall. I watched my own four children learn to walk and I’d never really thought about it that way, but when you do, learning to walk becomes a very brave thing to do. The easiest and safest thing would be to simply sit down and stay where we are, but nature takes care of that and we come into the world with the drive to get up and move forward.


    My granddaughter is in constant motion these days, moving from one corner of the house to another, no longer unsteady and unsure. But those first stumbling steps have stayed on my mind. I noticed that while she was learning to walk, she never once looked down at her feet. She pushed herself up, put her eyes on the place or person she wanted to get to, and launched herself in that direction. She wasn’t thinking about what might get in her way—that was our job—she just had to move.


    Of course, as adults, we’ve learned to watch where we put our feet. We know that one wrong step could send us tumbling. When we set a target and move toward it, we do so consciously and carefully. You get smarter as you get older, right?


    The sad thing is that by growing up and growing older, most of us inevitably lose our inner toddler, the inquisitive, driven, risk taker we were born to be. We watch our steps so carefully, so determined not to fall or to fail, we risk never letting go and getting anywhere. We plant ourselves so firmly and deeply we take root. And one day some of us discover we’re stuck.


    I’ve heard the phrase “baby steps” countless times, but until I watched this baby learn to walk, I’m not sure I ever really understood its meaning. Baby steps aren’t small steps, they’re big leaps of faith and curiosity. They are the means to getting where you want to be, in spite of the risks. This is another of the benefits of being the grandmother, I think. Now, I have time to watch the process with just enough distance and none of the fatigue, exhaustion and worry of being the parent.


    Years ago, I threw myself headlong into into mothering. It was the most frighteningly wonderful thing I have ever done or will ever do. And the reward? Four unique adults who made their way confidently out of my nest just as this little one stepped in.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Technology and Family Ties

    If I’d known then what I know now, it would have been no surprise that three of my four children came into the world after waking me up from a sound sleep. (The fourth missed out only because we beat her to the punch and induced labor.) All these years later, they’re all still robbing me of my sleep.
    I can be exhausted when I crawl under the comforter, but one nagging worry, one random thought of how long it’s been since they called or how they’re faring at school or work, and my eyes fly open and refuse to close.
    Just as they were when they were babies, these grown children of mine are always on my mind, just under the surface, only barely covered by the details of my own day.
    Last night, well after midnight, I was still staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep because my mind was on my son who, the last time I’d spoken to him almost two weeks before, was heading out of India and into Nepal. I had no idea where he was or what he was doing. One part of me knew he was OK. But the other, involuntary, side of my brain kept playing out a string of possibilities and ‘what-ifs.’
    I tossed and turned, irritating the cat enough stretch and give me a nasty look before hopping off the bed in search of a more peaceful spot, until I finally surrendered, turned on the light beside the bed and picked up my phone.
    In a chatty “Not that I’m worried or anything…” tone of text, I sent a short email asking how and where he was and mentioning it had been a little while since we’d heard from him. I put down the phone, pulled the covers over my head and went to sleep.
    The next morning, when I sat up, put on my glasses and checked the morning’s email, I saw what I’d been hoping for: a reply. He was safe. He was happy. He would write more later.
    That was all I needed to know.
    For the rest of the day I thought about the solace of communication at the right time and just how easy it is these days for us to stay in touch.
    Like everyone else, I gripe about the flood of emails in my inbox, the frenzy of a 24/7 news cycle and the constant distraction of social media. But as a traveler and the mother of kids who seem bound to wander, I'm immensely grateful for technology. Imagine the wives and mothers of sailors and soldiers in the not-too-distant past who would have given anything for the comfort of one or two lines or a quick Skype call.
    Of course, if I’m honest, there is a more selfish reason I depend on this modern ability to reach out and connect. It allows me to wander now, too.  A freedom that was also denied to wives and mothers in the past.
    Tethered by technology, I can fly away for a day or a week and still be within the sound of a voice should my family need me. I can send a text to say good morning or a virtual kiss at bedtime. I can send or receive photos from around the world. I can be the woman whose heart remains at home but whose feet still itch to travel new roads.
    Technology is sometimes a nuisance, but it is always an amazing gift. Using Google Earth, we follow our son’s path through the Himalayas and with the aid of a maritime program we track our geologist daughter’s ship through the Pacific. Off on my own at even the most remote spots, when wireless is nowhere to be found, I can almost always sit down to a hotel’s computer and connect with the ones I love.
    That’s why, on the table beside my bed, I keep the things that matter most to me so they are always close at hand: A family portrait, a pen and notebook, and the device—my smartphone—that binds us together wherever we may roam.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com You can read previous ‘Home Planet’ columns at www.spokesman.com/blogs/homeplanet
  

Travel: Kicking the Bucket List


    So often when the subject of travel comes up, someone will invariably mention their 'bucket list.' They will talk about a city or continent, a monument or some kind of natural wonder or even an event they want to see before they die. Before, as the cliché goes, they kick the bucket.

    I heard the phrase whispered several times last year as I stood on the deck of a small ship in Alaska, watching humpback whales swim so close I could hear them breathing. I heard it just a few weeks ago watching the Northern Lights undulate across the spring sky over Manitoba, standing in a night so dark and cold it was as if I’d floated out into space.

    I never actually put my list down on paper, I’m not that organized, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Instead, I have carried a kind of mental itinerary in my head, images of places I want to see and things I want to experience. But that mental list, like the Northern Lights, is not constant. It shifts and changes, shining on one landscape and then another as I add and subtract. Every time I see a great photograph or read an exceptional travel story, I pencil in new locations. Sometimes the world changes and war, weather or political upheaval get in the way and a destination drops off.

    Of course, the truth is there will never be enough time to see it all, and not just because I got a late start at the second half of my traveling life, staying home to raise a family and then working around that family to build a career. Even if I’d started on a round-the-world trip the day I was born, there still wouldn’t be time enough to experience it all because the more I learn about the world around me, the more I want to see and do. But life is short so I try to treat every trip—large or small— like it will be my last. I remind myself stop and savor the moments instead of pushing to do more and see more. I have learned it’s important to appreciate where you are and where you’ve been, before hurrying on to the next adventure.

     Several years ago, as my daughter and I walked along the Great Wall in China, navigating the ancient, uneven steps, I suddenly remembered a photo of the wall in one of my school Geography books. At that time, China was still a closed and shuttered place. I’d studied the photo with interest but it never once occurred to me that I might one day stand at the place pictured in it, especially with a child of my own. But I did. And in that moment, watching my daughter focus her camera on one of the marvels of the world, I felt a swell of gratitude for the rambling path my life had taken to put us both there.

    So, no real list for me. When my time is up I want more than a column of checkmarks to define my wanderlust. Instead, I want to be the woman who didn’t always know where she was going but always took the time to appreciate where she was.
  

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel journalist  whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Home Cooking

   The routine is always the same.

   I walk into our kitchen, a place that is deeply familiar and filled with all the pleasant associations of my family, and I pull out everything I will need. Methodically, listening to the radio or letting my mind wander, I chop onion, celery and carrots into the mirepoix that will form the base of a pot of homemade soup. Sauteing the vegetables, I separate two, three, sometimes four garlic cloves and chop them, tossing the aromatic pieces into the olive oil and butter with the other ingredients. Then I fill the big pot with stock, chicken or vegetable, add seasoning and put it on the stove to simmer. Sometimes I add leftover chicken but usually it is meat-free. In an hour or so our meal is done. I slice the bread, set the table and call out that dinner is ready. We pick up our spoons, take the first sip, and I know I am home.

   Food, as we all learn quickly enough, as newborn babies crying out in hunger and frustration, does more than just feed us. Food comforts. Food connects and unites us. It brings us closer and broadens our tastes. Food carries us forward and, as we get older and years escape us,  reminds us of the past.

   In some elemental way, soup captures all of that for me. It is simple, inexpensive and quickly prepared but it carries so much more than just flavor.

   For years now, after returning home from a trip, especially when no one could get away to come along with me, I’ve made soup when I got back and I’ve come to realized it is more than an act of putting food on the table. Sometimes, when I grabbed a cheap fare and took an impulsive journey, giving in to the temptation to travel, the meal is part apology. Other times, when my work took me away and I was busy and frustrated, it is part recompense, a way to make up for my short absence.

   But always, whether anyone sitting around the table knows or even cares, the act of making and sharing a pot of homemade soup, of gathering over the savory fragrance of simple ingredients, is an act of love. It is a way to say leaving this place and these people always hurts a little. And that coming home to chop and and stir and season a meal to feed them, somehow feeds me more.


For more about travel and homecoming, read Traveling Mothers

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: An American Grandmother in Paris

    Walking down a street in Paris, I had to step aside to let the woman pushing an infant in a pram pass on the narrow sidewalk.
    My first glance was for the baby, small, bundled in blankets against the cold, damp, winter weather. Then I looked up at the woman. She was about my age, dressed for a stroll, yet still effortlessly elegant in that Parisian way. As we waited at the corner for the light to change, our eyes met and we returned one another’s smile. Our eyes met again.
    I smiled down at the baby, tapped my chest and said “Grand-maman.”
    “Oui,” she replied, nodding back at me and smiling. “Grand-maman.”
    I don’t speak French and I have no idea if she speaks English. But some things are universal.

    In the year since my first grandchild was born, as I’ve traveled I’ve become aware of a new kind of landscape. Grandmothers. I see them in parks, on busy sidewalks, on busses and trains. Sometimes they are with sons or daughters, an extra pair of hands or simply along for the ride. Often, like the woman in Paris, they are alone. Taking care of children while mother and father work. Exactly what I do when I am not away from home.

    My phone is loaded with images of beautiful destinations. On it is a visual record of the places I’ve been for work and for the pure pleasure of traveling. I also have photos of my children and the whole family together. But the images I go to so often, when I’m on a plane or in a quiet hotel room in some beautiful city thousands of miles from home, are those of a little girl smiling up at the camera or sleeping in my arms. My grandchild.
    My favorite is a copy of the first photo made of us together. She is only hours old and I have just walked into the hospital room my son-in-law has just gently given her to me. I am wrapped around her, cradling her, focused only on the tiny person in my arms.
    Now, each time I look at that photograph, I see myself, in the instant the photo was taken, falling hopelessly in love.

    The light changed and the woman, leaving me with one more smile, crossed the street and walked briskly away, turning down another street.

    There was a time, when my children were still small, in my arms, on my hip or walking beside me, that I exchanged glances and smiles and unspoken empathy with other mothers. Women who, like me, were navigating sleepless nights, nursing, tantrums and all the countless little milestones of mothering. Now, I am in a new club. I look into the eyes of women all over the world and acknowledge the deep happiness of being the Grand-maman.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington whose essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Travel: Chasing Paris

   It was not the first time I’ve taken a daughter to Paris. Two years ago my middle daughter and I spent a January week in the City of Light, but that’s where the similarity ends. There is a world of difference in 17 and 21.

   At 21, my middle daughter was living away at college and was getting close to graduation. She’d missed me and was ready for time together. Not so with my 17-year-old. She sees a lot of me. Maybe, if I’m reading the subtly of closed doors and rolling eyes correctly, a little too much of me.

   This is her senior year. College comes in the fall. She is so close to independence, to getting out from under my wing and stepping out into her own life, that it’s all she thinks about. She’s been left here at home with us, without her brother and sisters who have grown up and have lives of their own. She wants what they have. She wants out.

   Still, a trip to Paris is a trip to Paris. When I suggested we go just after Christmas, she signed on. For a while it looked like her sister, the one who’d gone with me before, might join us. But the real world—in the form of a real job—stepped in and it was back to one (disappointed) girl and her mother.

   We landed in Paris, checked into the hotel, napped for a couple of hours and that was it. She never looked back. The minute we walked out the door of our hotel each morning, the race was on. We picked a direction, a museum or monument or quartier to visit, and she would set out, quickly leaving me to lope behind her like the family dog.  Occasionally, she would realize she’d left me too far behind and would wait, her impatience only barely masked, until I could catch up. Then, after a block or two, she was off again.

    She’s tall and her long legs speed her along. I am short and was carrying the bag full of cameras, umbrellas, maps and everything else that marked us as tourists. She looked like a local. I looked like a porter at the train station.

   I quickly quit trying to keep up and began to enjoy the sight of her moving across the cobblestones, toward the Eiffel Tower, down narrow lanes and along the Quai Saint-Bernard skirting the Seine. I have a series of photos snapped on my phone as I trotted along behind her, sometimes quite a distance behind her. My beautiful daughter melted into Paris and I was able to watch.

   Chasing her, I remember wanting desperately to be on my own at that age, without the weight of parents and siblings to slow me down. I wanted to travel alone, unencumbered. If, at 17 I’d found myself in Paris with only my mother for company, I would have done my best to shake her like so much dust out of the rug.

   She led me on a merry chase from one end of Paris to the other but I’ll win in the end. She’ll go to Paris again, on her own or in the company of friends. But it will be too late. I will have marked the place. She’ll remember the little hotel I like so much, the one on a quiet street with a school and a market and rows of beautiful apartments.

   She’ll order in French and think about the way I simply couldn’t pronounce Croque Monsieur without traces of my Southern accent coming through. She’ll get tired and remember the way I insisted on stopping each afternoon for a cup of chocolat, demanding a moment to savor the strong flavor and rest my sore feet.

   She’ll return to Paris on her own terms but memories of our trip together will be folded into every crepe, waiting around every corner and strung like lights across the Pont Marie.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of 'Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons' and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com



  

Travel: And All the Boys at Sea

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)


    Crossing the deck of the busy cruise ship, on my way to get something for lunch, I noticed a little boy crouched quietly, oblivious to the crowd around him as he bent over his shoe. He’d dropped to fasten the buckle and his mother stood patiently by, parting the sea of passengers that streamed around them. That, as every mother eventually learns, is what you do when you have a preschooler. You stand and wait while they master each new, seemingly monumental task. To do anything else is to invite tears and tantrums.

    I watched the boy’s fingers, small and deliberate, as they worked at his task and I remembered my son doing the same thing at that age. I remembered the way my breath caught at the tender vulnerability of his neck, his thin back curved over knobby knees, his concentration evident by his frown and the tip of his tongue peeking out of the corner of his mouth.

    I was on board the big ship to cover the launch of the brand new Carnival Breeze but the ceremonies were over and we were underway, already out to sea. I had nothing but time so I stayed where I was, watching the boy while fragments of other conversations drifted around me.

    “We’re on our honeymoon,” I heard a man’s voice say, and I turned to see two couples, one young, the other old, on lounge chairs by the pool.
 
    The old man replied that he and the old woman beside him had been married more than 50 years.

    “Wow, that’s impressive,” the young man replied, his voice lacquered with a gloss of interest and respect. “So, what kind of advice would you give us?”

    I knew, and the old man knew, it was a superficial question.  Still, the old man seemed to take it seriously and was silent for a long moment and I waited to hear what he would say. The little boy worked on his shoe. The young woman smoothed sunscreen over her flat belly and along her arms. The old woman, her skin browned and leathery from years in the sun, rummaged through the basket on the deck beside her chair until she found her sunglasses. The young man sipped his beer.

    Finally, the old man, his voice rough and graveled by years, spoke.
    “You got it pretty good right now, son,” he said, nodding his head toward the young woman. “But one day, when the sun ain’t shining on you, and you’re mad at your pretty little bride over there and you hate your boss and the kid needs braces, you might think about doing something stupid. You might think about walking away.”

    The young man looked a little shocked at the old man’s plain words.

    “My advice is to remember how you feel right now because one day you might need it.”

    “Yes, sir,”  the young man said. “I sure will.”

    The old man, having said his piece, closed his eyes and the young man went back to his beer.

    I looked back at the little boy just as he finally slipped the strap through the metal buckle. Dusting his hands on the back of his swimsuit, he stood up and said “Okay,” in a satisfied tone. With his mother beside him, he walked on and disappeared in the crowd.

    I moved on too, got my food and walked back to where my husband was reading. He looked up from his book. “What took you so long?” he asked, and I realized I’d lost track of time. Again.

    “Oh, you know me,” I teased, sitting down beside him. “I was just watching all the boys.”

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of  'Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons' and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Travel: Paris in Winter

   Most people dream of Paris in the springtime, when the city blooms and leaves unfurl like tiny pennants on tree-lined boulevards. Or, they look forward to a summer vacation in the high season, when the grass in the parks is lush and green, the warm breeze ruffles your hair as you cruise down the Seine and the sidewalk cafes are crowded with people-watchers and those who love to be watched.


    But I long for Paris in January, when the weather is unpredictable and, on occasion,  unfriendly.
    In winter, Paris is imbued with a faded, elegant, melancholy romance. The sky is low and the air is heavy and darkness falls early. The river looks dense and cold and the top of the Eiffel Tower is occasionally shrouded in fog. Walking down narrow streets the aromas of the bakeries and tobacco shops and coffee houses linger and capture you as you walk past, drawing you in.


    In January, Paris is a study in shades of gray and black and walking down the rain-slick cobblestones, it’s easy to imagine you’ve stepped back in time, back into an iconic Henry Cartier-Bresson photograph. I marvel at the architecture, the beautiful Hausmann buildings, Art Nuveau Metro stations and arching bridges, all somehow more prominent without the foliage and crowds that will come in warmer weather.


    I took my middle daughter to Paris just after the first of the year in 2011. We arrived early, just as the weak morning light was stealing across the city.  I watched her face as she looked out the taxi window and caught her first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.


    We stayed at a small pre-war hotel in the 6th Arrondissement, a short walk from the Jardin du Luxembourg, and each day after breakfast we walked the streets of Paris. From the Latin Quarter to the Champs Elysse  to the banks of the Seine we explored grand avenues and winding side streets. We stood in the hushed Cathedral of Notre Dame. We gazed at the paintings and sculpture at the Musee D’Orsay, buying postcards to bring home as souvenirs. We stopped at the sidewalk creperies and sipped espresso in tiny cafes watching the city go on about its business. And all the while a soft rain fell, washing the city in soft hues. We spent a companionable week that I will always remember.


    This is not to say Paris in winter is without its flaws. The noise and congestion and the ubiquitous dog waste on the sidewalk are still there, just as they are any time of year. But for an incurable romantic, the dark and mysterious days of January are the perfect time to experience the city of light.


    I loved it so much I returned this year with my youngest daughter. She’s been to Paris before on a school trip, but it was hurried and only superficial. This time we explored the city on our own, the way I did with her sister, visiting the places she chose. And once again I got the chance to see one of the world's most beautiful cities through a daughter’s eyes.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. (Portions of this essay were first published in Spokane Cd’A Woman Magazine.)
  

Travel: Ballooning Means Rising Above One’s Fear

   There are people who seem to be born with a thirst for a thrill. They take every chance to leap off bridges, tethered only by elastic Bungee cords. They jump out of planes, trusting one yank of the cord will release the parachute that will lower them gently to the ground. They paddle kayaks over waterfalls and drop out of helicopters wearing skis.


    I am not one of these people.


    I don’t have that kind of confident trust. Cords snap, parachutes fail, waterfalls tumble and break the things that ride them. Why would I tempt fate?


    But edging out of middle age, I seem to be shedding some of the extreme caution that has kept my feet on the ground most of my life. I’m still not a thrill-seeker, but I just don’t seem to be bound by so many “What Ifs.”
    A recent trip to Elko, Nevada coincided with the annual Balloon Fest and I was offered a chance to take a hot air balloon ride. I didn’t stop to think once, much less twice. I hopped up into the basket and listened to the instructions about where I could and should not put my hands. (“Never touch the rope. If you touch the rope we will fall and die.” Check.)


    It was only as the blasts of flaming gas right over my head lifted the balloon away from the ground that I began to ask myself what on earth I’d been thinking. The list of hazards—power lines, rogue winds, murderous sharp-shooters (Hey, what if?) and even fabric fatigue (I imagined seams fraying and opening and, well…)—played through my head like a bad movie.


    But I was in. And we rose swiftly and silently, immediately catching the current of air and moving toward the horizon.


    We moved steadily across the city. Dogs, startled by the sights and sounds of the balloons, there were 30 more behind us, barked and danced as we flew over. School children waved from the yellow bus that looked like a child’s toy. Birds flew beneath us, darting in and out of the trees lining neighborhood streets.


    I’d wrapped my fingers tightly around one of the bars at the side of the wicker balloon the moment we’d lifted off and I didn’t seem to be able to let go. But, a few minutes in, still holding on, I felt myself relax enough to really think about what I was seeing and experiencing.


    I looked out toward the Ruby Mountains, somewhat obscured by smoke from wildfires further north, across the high Nevada desert and the rough, dry landscape so many crossed on foot and by wagon train 150 years ago as they made their way over the California Trail to conquer the wide-open West and start new lives in California.


    It really is a beautiful way to travel. In a balloon you do not fight the wind, you ride it. You surrender to the currents and ribbons of air that stream over the planet and let them take you where they are going. There are tools: hot air, vents, ballast, and so on, but ultimately, you are a guest of the wind.


    At the end of the ride we began our descent. The landing was not smooth. A breeze came from out of nowhere and fought us, but we stuck it. Then, when the pilot realized we'd come down on railroad property—not cool—we lifted up just high enough to find a more accessible spot. The chase crew found us and we were done.


    When I finally climbed out of the basket, back on the ground at last, a surge of adrenaline made me tremble.
 “Anxious Annie” as a friend once dubbed me, had taken a chance. And I had one more thing I could check off my list.


    We helped roll and fold the balloon, storing it and the basket in the trailer behind the chase van, and I was baptized with cheap champagne to mark my first flight. Later, I messaged a photo taken mid-flight to my children and their confused responses made me laugh. This was not what they expected to see.


    That’s the beauty of aging. Not only do we surprise others when we take a chance, occasionally we even surprise ourselves.
    
    


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

The urge to fly and the need to nest

    (Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   The wind had picked a bit up the night before, sweeping through the tall pine trees, taking with it loose branches and needles, dropping them to the grass below.


    I noticed something else in the litter on the lawn and as I got closer I could see it was a small bird’s nest, still intact after its long fall. I picked it up and studied the way it was made. I have never seen a nest that isn’t, in some way, beautiful.  A marvel, really. But this one was exceptionally so.


    Made almost entirely of long strands of dried grass woven around what appeared to be wool or even dryer lint, the inside was lined with a soft, golden, feathery material. At first I thought it might be the bird’s own feathers but then I realized it was a layer of shredded cattail blooms, the tall plant that grows in ponds and marshes and bends and dances in the breeze. The compact bloom had been pulled apart and separated into downy fibers.


    I held the nest for a long time, thinking about what an engineering and artistic accomplishment it was. And to what lengths the birds had gone to to create it.


    Grass and lint are all around us. That could have come from any house nearby. But the cattail had to have come from the park down the hill, several blocks away. It would have been no small feat to bring home, bit by bit, enough of the fibers to fill even such a petite shelter. What compelled her to use that particular plant? Surely there must have been some easier way.


    I carried the nest home and set it on the mantel in my living room. For days, every time I walked by, I would stop for a closer look. One afternoon I sat down on the sofa—a piece with a new slipcover, sewn by a friend who does beautiful work. I searched and searched for just the right fabric before settling on the natural cotton and now every time I look at the sofa, it pleases me.


     Still cradling the fragile thing in my hand, still puzzling over the curiosity of it, I reached behind me to adjust the cushion at my back and felt the fine weave of the soft linen pillow cover under my fingertips. Immediately, I remembered the day I’d purchased it in a small shop in Estonia. I’d spent an hour pulling out cover after cover until I found a pair that were exactly right. 


     I glanced at the curtains hanging at the window and recalled discovering them in a second-hand store in Reyjkavik. I hadn’t given a thought to how I would get the four panels home, I just had to have them. The eight yards of material had stretched my already-full luggage to its limits and when I got to the airport I was told it was overweight.  The gate agent listened as I told him how I’d found the curtains. How they were old and soft and the color was perfect and that I would never again find such beautiful fabric. Still looking at me, without saying a word, he tagged my heavy bag and sent it away without charging me the extra fee.
   

 I turned to look at the small Native American rug behind the glass doors of the secretary standing in the corner. I’d spotted it in a weaver’s studio outside of Chimayo, New Mexico, picking it up and putting it down twice before committing. I tried to be practical, but I simply had to have it.


    My own nest is filled with soft things from unlikely places. Things which, although I stumbled onto them at the time I was, in some sense, seeking. Who am I to question a bird’s choice? After all, exposed to the elements, at the mercy of wind and rain and sly predators, she had fragile eggs to protect and tender fledgelings to care for. I have four sturdy walls and a roof over my head.


    The delicate nest is still on the mantel. I think I will keep it there as a reminder that the real difference in a shelter and a home is what surrounds us when we are there.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Traveling Mothers

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

  My son has been on a boat out on the Pacific for weeks now and every so often a few lines arrive by email.     
    “This has been a great trip,” he writes “The hurricane turned so the seas are not so rough now,” he writes. “Work is going well,” he writes. “Saw some whales today,” he writes.
    

   I see one word: Hurricane!
    

   I’d just settled into my usual routine of vague worry and superstitious bargaining with fate when, and, as usual, it was the last thing I expected, my daughter—the brand new geologist—was assigned to a job on a boat off the coast of Greenland. (Wait, isn’t Greenland melting?)
    

   Already living 200 miles away from me, with less than a day to prepare, she packed and flew away without my being able to see her face or hold her close. Now I’m left to wonder how two little land-locked children could grow up to sail so far away. At the same time.
    

   My friends point out I shouldn’t be surprised. Don’t I fly over oceans every chance I get?  Why would I expect any less of my children, especially these two adventurers? Stop worrying so much, they tell me.
    

   Of course, I have an answer ready. I’m not green. I’m not confident like my son. If anything, I’m overly cautious and too careful. I’m not young and beautiful and vulnerable like my daughter. I’m just another middle-aged woman on a train or in an airport, hugging her purse and keeping one eye on her luggage.
    

   But, truth be told, I finally had to admit to myself that what’s bothering me as much as worry, is guilt. I’m consumed with guilt. I can’t shake the feeling I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. I’d already booked a work-related trip to Alaska before I knew my children were going to be traveling; not that it even occurred to me to ask. And now, thanks to me, we’ll all be scattered across the globe. How will they reach me if they need me?
    

   Children are meant to fly, some tiny voice inside me whispers, mothers are not. It’s our job to be home base, the place our children come back to. If I am not here, what will become of us? What kind of home base goes to Alaska where cell phones and computers don’t work? The swallows only return to Capistrano because it’s there waiting for them.
    

   Before my children came along, even after I was married, I came and went as I pleased.  I bought plane tickets and train tickets at the drop of a hat. But after the babies, when the occasional chance to travel solo came along, I usually let the opportunity pass.
    

   Occasionally, when I would mention some place I’d been or adventure I’d had before they were born, they would look at me, confused, trying to imagine me anywhere else.
    “Well, Mommy wasn’t always Mommy,” I would tell them, laughing at their confusion. “I used to be another girl.”
    

   But if I'm honest, what held me back was that I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving them. Overwhelmed with love and responsibility, I wasn’t just afraid of something happening to my children. I was terrified something would happen to me. How would they survive without me? Who else knew them so completely?  If something happened to me and they asked their father or grandparents ( or their new mother!) for a Sadie Sally story, no one would know the world I’d created for them in my head. No one would know that Johnny was the little boy who kept a dragon named Jimbo or that Sadie was the sister who always discovered magic dust in her pocket just when it was most needed or that a road divided the enchanted forest and one side was a wonderful, magical, place but the other was dark and frightening and no matter how hard they tried something always lured Sadie, Sally and Johnny into that dark place where they had to rely on their wits and the dragon and a little magic to escape. Who else could tell Sadie Sally stories? Nobody but me.
    

   Only I knew who preferred her milk warmed. Who was afraid of the dark. Who liked to talk about dreams first thing in the morning. Who needed an extra kiss and glass of water before bed. I knew them on a cellular level. After all, each had peeled away from me, physically dividing us at birth. We were, at least in the beginning, two parts of one.
    

   Imagining the possibility of not being there for my children unhinged me. Just thinking about it, I whimpered and paced like an animal separated from her young. I didn’t put my traveling shoes back on until the three oldest were out of the house and on their own and the youngest showed an independent streak I wanted to encourage.
    

   I thought I’d left all that worry and guilt behind me, but again they’ve exposed me for who I really am.
    

   Mommy is always Mommy.
    

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Still and present in the moment

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap) 

The one thing I didn’t have was time. I had more to do than there would be productive hours in the day to allow. I had a thousand words to put onto paper, a house that needed tending to, emails to answer, errands to run and, on this particular week, an infant to care for. The baby is my grandchild. My first. And she has been spending several hours with me each day.


    It’s been a while since I was the sole entertainment of a four-month-old baby. I did it for years but my four babies are all grown now. I’d forgotten what tyrants the little creatures are, how they demand your full attention with no concern for your to-do lists and deadlines. But then I’d forgotten how beguiling the little creatures are, how they make you babble and kiss and coo, delighting you with a smile, bewitching you with the feel of velvety skin and hair, hypnotizing you with the way their fingers curl and wave, like ribbons in water, before wrapping around your hand as you hold them close and offer a bottle of mother’s milk.


    This day, this busy day, I woke up overwhelmed. I opened my eyes thinking about deadlines and emails and story ideas. But, of course, baby had other ideas. She would be held. She would be fed. She would be entertained. She would be comforted, cradled and soothed.


    By mid-day, the sun came out and called us outdoors. Why not? I wasn’t getting anything else done anyay.
We sat quietly on my patio, I still fidgeted a little, worrying over words and sentences, but perched on my knee, my hands wrapped around her the solid warmth of her, she sat as alert and watchful as a doe. Nothing escaped her. She lifted her head to track the progress of a plane across the sky, then turned to follow a swallow’s sweeping dive over the Lilacs. When the wind ruffled the roses climbing along the fence she kicked her legs and batted her hands. When the dogs chased one another across the lawn she laughed a short and unexpected chuckle. She startled and blinked when a Dragonfly landed on the Wisteria vine beside us.


    Watching her take in the world, instinctively still and present in the moment, I rubbed my cheek against her ear and, finally, finally, recognized the gift I’d been given.
       
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

The Things That Hold Us

   In 2004, after writing a series of narrative feature obituaries for The Spokesman-Review, I began to notice how often women in their 70s and 80s—usually the surviving spouse—mentioned their service or work in a “Rosie the Riveter” type of job during World War II.


    Intrigued, I decided to do a larger feature on local women who’d been “Rosies.” My editor put a notice in the paper for a few weeks and I was inundated by calls. Hundreds of women contacted me asking to tell their story and I interviewed many of them.


    Time and time again the women talked about traveling to take a job at a shipyard or wartime factory. But I was left with the impression that their war work had been more than employment. It had been, for some, the biggest adventure of their lives.


     After the war most returned home or moved to another state with new husbands. Most left the workforce and stayed home with children. The dizzying whirl of sudden independence, graveyard shifts, USO dances was replaced with marriage, caring for young children and keeping house.


    Most didn’t seem to regret the choice, but I was struck by the fact that so many had never talked about the years before they settled down. Our interview was the first time they’d spoken of that time in front of family. Their children had no idea that the women they knew only as a mother, PTA president or Sunday School teacher had had any other kind of life.


    One woman said something that has stayed with me. I think of her words often.


    We’d finished the interview. I was packing up the portable scanner, the digital recorder, my laptop and my camera—the tools I carried to each meeting— and preparing to leave.  Almost as an afterthought, I turned to the woman who was still sitting at her daughter’s kitchen table.


    She’d traveled west to work at a California shipyard where she met and married a serviceman and at the war’s end moved to North Idaho with him to live on his family’s dairy farm. It was a life that was sometimes harsh with frigid winters, long hot summer days and the endless work of farm life. Like so many of the women I interviewed, she’d raised four or five children and then outlived her husband.


    “I’m curious,” I asked her. “How did the time you spent in California, not just the work but the things you saw and experienced, impact your life later?”


    The woman didn’t answer immediately. She looked down at her hands clasped as they rested on the table, smiled a small Mona LIsa smile, and said only, “There were times it sustained me.”


       Her daughter, a woman a few years older than me, reacted immediately.


      “Mother!” she said. “You know you were happy being home with us! You always said you loved living on the farm.” The woman continued to smile down at her hands.
   

    “It sustained me,” she said again.
   

    I said my goodbyes and left. But in the eight years since that morning, I’ve thought of her words at least once a week.
    

    So often I’ve imagined her, standing at the stove stirring oatmeal for the baby in his high chair, hanging laundry on the line, mending her husband’s work shirts, feeding the animals or working in the garden. I’ve imagined her taking care of everyone around her, but occasionally stopping for a moment to remember. To remember being a girl with a flower in her hair, dancing with a handsome sailor. To remember the camaraderie of lunches eaten out of a metal lunchbox in the company of other young women working to win the war. Remembering how it felt to be young and free and on her own.
   

   It doesn’t have to mean we’re unhappy with the choices we’ve made when deep inside there is a place or an event or even a scrap of memory we cling to.
    

   Those are the moments, after all, that bear the weight of the lives we’ve built.


    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and  CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

We are so much more than ordinary

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 


   Holding my newborn granddaughter, gazing down at her as she sleeps, I study her closely, mapping her with my hands and my eyes just as I did with her mother, my firstborn child. Just as I did with each of my children.

   Cradling her in my left arm, instinctively holding her close, pressed against my heart, I trace the curves and folds of her ear with my fingertip. It is as tiny and perfect as a seashell. With my hand I follow the already discernible swirl of her down-like hair as it wreaths her head. I take her  hand in mine, marveling at the strength of her grip, aware that each tiny finger is already marked with her unique signature. I rest one soft, wrinkled foot in my palm, imagining the steps it will take as she walks into the future. I fold into her, putting my face against her skin and breathing in the heady perfume of a sleeping newborn. I am lost in this child. Just as I was with her mother. Just as I was with each of my children.

   Most of us would, if asked, describe ourselves as ordinary. But the truth is, if we stop to think about it, there is no such thing as an ordinary human being. Even beyond temperament and personality, each of us comes into this world extraordinary in countless physical characteristics; in the flecks of color in our eyes and the way our brow furrows or our smile curves, in the imprint of each foot as we stride. Sculpted around a ladder of bones, draped in soft skin, we are unique and individual. Unlike any other living creature.  We arrive complete, an exquisite product of the complex and mysterious cellular shuffle that takes place at conception.

   But somewhere along the road, most of us forget this. We lose sight of the fact as we swirl in the crowd of humanity—a snowflake in the blizzard—that each of us is one-of-a-kind and like no other. Oh, we all secretly know it about the children we’ve created. We marvel at them even as they grow up. But we forget we are also wonderful.

   Perhaps this is why new babies capture and claim us. It goes beyond love. Beyond pride and a sense of fulfillment. When we reach out and take a newborn, when we bring a child close and look down on the miracle, we are reminded that each of us comes into this world, and leaves it, as a rare and beautiful thing.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and  CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

His Future is in His Hands

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)  

   

    My eyes flew open and I was instantly awake.


    It wasn’t that long ago that when I woke suddenly in the middle of the night, I would lie still for a moment, listening for what had pulled me out of a sound sleep, straining to hear the plaintive wail of an infant’s crying or the footsteps of a preschooler who was out of bed and into mischief. Later, it was the sound of a teenager coming home, chased by curfew  But this night there was only silence.

    I sat up, rubbed my eyes and then walked out of the bedroom. The rest of the house was dark but a single light burned in the living room and I saw my jetlagged son, home from Japan, sitting on the sofa. He was concentrating on the yarn and needles in his hands and didn’t look up until I was beside him.

    He had learned to knit while he was away and in the dim light of the lamp on the table, in the darkest part of the night, he worked on the pair of mittens he was making for his father.


    I sat down beside him and watched his hands as he worked. He is young, only 24, but his hands already show the wear and tear of all his projects. He is always busy making something, a piece or a part for one of the massive, expensive, machines he designs and builds or one of the tiny works of art he creates when he is bored or thinking hard about something. When he needs to keep his hands busy so he can still his mind.


    Looking at the scarred knuckles, the callouses, as he looped the rag wool yarn around the needle, making one stitch at a time and linking it with the chain, I thought about the things he’s made and brought me over the years.


    When he was five he took a piece of paper and marked it with North, South, East and West. He folded the edges up into a cup and inserted a brad into the center, covering the top with cling wrap. He’d made me a compass, he told me as he presented it. You could, if you wiggled it, make the brad rotate and point in a new direction.


    Later, in school, I was called to a conference with his teacher. “He’s not paying attention,” she told me. “He’s always working on something else.” And then she handed me a little paper tube. It was folded flat but if you allowed to rectangular tube to  open, a miniature classroom popped up. Rows of paper-doll heads looking toward the miniature blackboard and teacher. I studied it as the teacher, a woman my family knew and adored, talked to me about his lack of attention in class. She, like me, was torn. What he could do with his hands was astounding, but you have to pay attention if you want to move on to third grade.


    I have a treasure box filled with his handiwork. Clay pots, tiny shadowboxes, elaborate sketches and diagrams. This Christmas, his gift to me was a miniature loom. Perfect in every detail, he’d created it while on a ship in Japan, killing time while he waited to test the complex underwater drill he’d built, piece by piece. Bored, a lot on his mind that needed to be worked through, he grabbed a handful of coffee stir-sticks from the galley, some pieces of wire and the thread he usually carries with him as he travels. He built the working loom, complete with a tiny bit of cloth woven on it, and then, for a moment, considered throwing it away.


    But, because he is my son and I have hoarded his creations all his life, he put it into a box and mailed it to me. And Christmas morning I opened it, speechless at the cleverness of it. The beauty of it.


    When I found him knitting in the living room, he was doing what he does best, setting his hands free so his mind can follow. And, in the shadowy and quiet cocoon of the room, I listened as he talked about his work, his dreams, his concerns and his worries.


    I slipped my bare toes under his knee and tucked myself into the opposite corner of the sofa as one stitch linked to another and the mittens took shape.


    I thanked him again for the gift of the loom, working to keep the tears out of my voice and, taking advantage of the moment, I told him, just as I did when he was a boy, a sweet, busy, square peg trying to fit in a tight round world, that I am proud of him and always will be.

    Wherever life takes him, it won’t be on the same path others follow. He’ll always come into each new adventure through a side door. Through an opening no one else noticed. He’ll find his own way and he’ll be OK. Because his future, just like his heart, is in his hands.
  

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and  CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

The Weight of Affection

   I knew even before I opened my eyes, something wasn’t right.
Lying on my back in the dark room, I could feel a heaviness on the center of my chest, a pressure that made taking each breath an effort. My mind raced, inventorying the signs of a heart attack. Shortness of breath? Yes. Pressure? Yes. Pain? Oddly, no.

   Fully awake by this time I realized the “elephant” occupying my chest was nothing more than a snoring two-year-old in footie pajamas, her precious blankie tucked under her arm, one thumb in her mouth, the thumb and forefinger of the other hand twisted—as was her habit—around one of her curls. She’d come into our room at some point and since her older brother and sister had—one by one—already made the trip and had staked out their places in the crowded bed, simply climbed up on top of me, popped her thumb in her mouth and drifted off again.

   I shifted, rolling her gently onto the bed beside me.

   Most mornings when the children were small, I woke up to find everyone who mattered most to me curled, warm and safe, around me. Our bed was an island—not always a comfortable island, with two adults, three children and the occasional cat—but in those moments, it was a sanctuary. 

   Now, the toddler who climbed me and stretched out like I was the top bunk at summer camp, is 22. Today is her birthday and there is a box of cupcakes waiting to welcome her home. 

   Now, she’s about to graduate from college and fling herself into the real world with all the enthusiasm, humor and jolly determination that have marked everything she’s done since the day she was born. She talked early. She walked early. She read early, asking me at five years old, her head cocked as she scanned a book on the shelves in the living room, “What is El-e-men-tal Ge-ol-o-gy?” Her only mispronunciation was a hard “ghee instead of “G”. It was at that moment I realized she hadn’t memorized all the children’s books in her room, as we’d thought. She’d been reading them since she was four.

   This middle daughter is an adult now, soon to have a degree in, of all things, geology. These days, nobody but the cat pads into our room in the wee hours.  But that doesn’t mean she isn’t still on my mind.

   Even now there are nights when I wake and lie quietly in the dark, thinking about her, about the baby she was and the woman she’s grown to be. About the balance of time and how easily it shifts from now to then. And in those moments I feel, again, the warm, familiar weight of love pressing down on my heart.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Home Planet , Treasure Hunting and  CAMera: Travel and Photo blogs, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

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About this blog

Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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