Published Essays



Children or Tomatoes?

Marketing campaigns for gardening try to convince people that gardens and children go together, but we, more experienced parents, know better. At least at my house, it was either raising children or raising a garden. We tried combining the two several times but by the end of the summer, CPS was monitoring our free-range children in their dirt-covered clothes, and our only garden crop was kosha weeks.

Now that I am an empty nester, I’m joining an expanding number of people who grow the kind of garden (one with straight weeded rows) that they couldn’t grow when they were raising children.

According to the National Gardening Association, almost half of the people in our country did some gardening in 2013 and there has even been a surge of young gardeners intent upon raising organic, pesticide free produce.

The stereotypical home gardener is a middle-aged woman with grown children. Perhaps growing a garden appeals to her maternal instincts. Where else can she start in the spring with something small and fragile that needs constant care and watch it become a healthy producing entity by the end of the summer?

I enjoy growing my own vegetables and it helps our budget. The NGA claims that $70 worth of seeds and plants will yield, on average, $530 of produce, and the homeowner can be sure the produce is fresh and pesticide-free. As the mother of ten, I can testify that growing children, on the other hand, has the opposite effect on a budget. Still, my children were always fresh and organic, too.

When it comes to growing children though, it’s not a summer project. There is at least a twenty-year commitment, and even then, you’re never sure of the final product. In a garden, when you plant peas, you get peas; when you plant zinnias, you get zinnias.

Tomatoes don’t decide they would rather grow on the other side of the yard, petunias don’t decide they would rather be roses, and squash don’t tell you they didn’t ask to be born. The daisies won’t ask for the car keys, and the beans don’t forget they needed a carrot costume for a school play tomorrow.

With gardening, you can gather your harvest in the fall and forget about doing anything until the next spring. And in the spring, you can start over with a completely new crop. There are agencies in the U.S. that frown on that philosophy when it comes to children.

Maybe gardening is reminiscent of parenting for the older generation who lack the energy for the real thing, but trust me, gardening is easier.



How Hard Could It Be?

“You don’t have a baby quilt?” my mother-in-law asked me.

“Well no,” I said.  “We didn’t really need one in Albuquerque.”  I knew however, that many things would be different now that we had moved back to Delta, Utah, my husband’s hometown.  Things were already different.  We had a baby in our home and I was going to be living in Utah, which would be different from living in western Oregon, where I had grown up.

“The winters get kind of cold here,” she replied.  It would be handy to have one to throw around the baby.  I helped Dorothy on hers, but that was before I went back to work at the store.  Shirley made her own.  Do you know how to quilt?”

Did I know how to quilt?  Well, not really, but I had watched my mother stitch on a couple of quilts at homemaking meetings.  How hard could it be for a college-educated woman?  “If we need a baby quilt, I’ll make it,” I said, with more confidence than I felt.

As a newlywed, I knew how to feed my family and clean the house, but I was awed by the homemaking skills of the young mothers in Delta.  It seemed like every one of them knew how to cook, bottle fruit, make homemade bread, garden, sew clothing for their family and of course, quilt.

My mother had made homemade bread and bottled fruit and my father had gardened, but in my family it was just something you did to survive.  If you couldn’t afford to buy food readymade from the store, you made do with what you had.  I was in college before I learned that such skills were called homemaking skills, and by then, I had done nothing to hone mine.

But limited homemaking skills notwithstanding, I was sure I could make a quilted baby blanket.  How hard could it be to push a needle through the fabric and batting, taking little stitches?  I could buy fabric, borrow frames and find a pattern to trace — and presto – a lovely baby quilt would appear.  I wasn’t going to make a pieced one, for heaven’s sake.

I asked my mother-in-law about quilting frames and she told me I could borrow hers.  She even offered to help.  I thanked her, but to save my dignity, I knew this had to be a private project.

When I mentioned to my husband that I was going to make a baby quilt, he also offered to help.  He had put a few stitches into the quilt his grandmother had given us for a wedding present.

“No, I’ll do it,” I said.  “But you could set up the quilting frames for me.”  Unbeknownst to him, I had already tried and couldn’t figure out how to make them stay together.

“I’ll set them up in the living room,” he volunteered.

My stomach clenched.  “No.  I’m going to take my time and do this at a leisurely pace.  Put them upstairs and then they’ll be out of the way.”

Once the frames were set up in our large attic room, I had to decide what size to make the quilt.  It needed to be smaller than a regular blanket, but big enough to wrap around my little son.  After wrapping cloth around a sack of sugar, I decided on a quilt that was about four feet square.

I bought the fabric, sewed the flat pieces together and put the appliqué on the top.  Then I thumb tacked the bottom piece on the frames, and unrolled the batting.  I had told the salesclerk at the variety store that I was making a blanket.  She had nodded and reached for the huge roll of batting that hung on chains from the ceiling beams.  As I unrolled the batting at home, I realized that I had enough for a full size quilt.  If I just used four square feet of it, I would be wasting a lot of batting.  I fingered the polyester in the batting, noting that it didn’t seem very thick. I wondered if it would be warm enough.  Then I thought of a win-win solution.   I would use all of the batting.  Nothing would be wasted and my quilt would be extra soft and fluffy.

So I arranged the batting, and covered it with the quilt top, but when I tried to pin both pieces of fabric together, I couldn’t get through the batting.  But I was resourceful.  I pushed the batting towards the center just a bit, and pinned the two pieces together.

When the baby went down for his nap the next day, I started the quilting process.  Within the first few minutes I lost the needle somewhere inside of the quilt and had to pull it out by the knot I had tied in the other end.  Soon my fingers were sore from pulling and pushing the needle.  As I sucked my index finger, I thought back to my mother at homemaking meetings and remembered seeing a silver thimble on her finger.

The next day I bought a thimble and tried again.  I got through the fabric but small regular stitches were out of the question.  It was all I could do to get the needle through the batting and both pieces of fabric.  How did women do this?  It had looked so easy. I worked for a half an hour, poking the needle through and pulling it out until I could get the stitches a little less than half an inch apart.  But as I pulled my stitches tight, the thread broke.  I repeated the process and it broke again.  Frustrated, I threw the needle on the top of the quilt and left the room.

For the next few days, I tried to put the thing in my attic out of my mind, but it hung like a coat on my guilt hook.  Finally, on Sunday I mentioned (casually I thought) to another young mother that I was making a baby quilt.

“Cool,” she said.  “I’ve made quilts for both of my girls.”

I nodded and smiled.  “I don’t know what’s wrong though, my thread keeps breaking.”

“Really?” she said.  “You might take it back to the store.  Maybe the thread is old or something, because quilting thread should hold it.”

Quilting thread?  There was such a thing as quilting thread?  The next day I went back to the store and bought quilting thread.  That evening, when I pulled my stitches tight; they held.

Weeks went by but I dreaded my quilting time.  Even with the thimble, my fingers were regularly pricked and it sometimes took all my strength to pull the thread through to the other side.  But I was committed.  When I looked at the stitches, they didn’t look like the small uniform ones I had seen other women produce.  Still I was making progress and maybe my mother-in-law wouldn’t look that close.

Each night I struggled, determined not to let anyone see my creation and just as determined not to tell anyone how hard quilting was.  The quilt was bulky and hard to roll.  Somehow it didn’t look quite right.

After two months it was done but when I took it off the frame, my suspicions were confirmed.  I had created a Frankenstein monster in my attic.  The quilt did not drape over my arm, it stuck straight out from my body.  The extra batting had not created a softer quilt – just a stiffer one.   There was no way the quilt was going to wrap snugly around my baby.  But I had spent time and money on the monstrosity.  I had to use it.

So, the next Sunday, I bent the quilt around my sweet baby and feeling like I was carrying small mattress, went to church.  The quilt stuck out below my arms, as stiff as if it had been sprayed with hairspray.  My husband smiled, nodded his head and said it ought to keep the baby warm.  I didn’t know if he was being kind or if, in spite of his two stitches, he didn’t know that much about quilting.  His mother however, did.

When we arrived at church, she hurried over to talk to us.  “Oh, I see you’ve finished your quilt,” she said and then I saw her eyes go wide.  I braced for her comments, but sudden understanding suffused her face.  “It’s pretty, but I’ll bet it was really hard to quilt,” she said kindly, “a bit too much batting.”  Just a bit.  I silently blessed her.

During the last thirty years, I have helped stitch quilts at Relief Society meetings, and helped friend’s quilt in their homes, but I’ve never made another one for myself.  Tied quilts keep me just as warm as quilted ones, and they drape beautifully over the sides of beds.

(This was published in Exponent II, in July of 2006)



Managing Our Wish List

Our large family often suffered from the “we need” syndrome: we need new carpeting, a new lawn mower, a horse, bicycles. My husband and I talked to our children about the differences between needs and wants and pointed out that our family had few unmet needs. We discussed budgeting, our limited income, and the heavy demands on our resources. But these explanations did little to stop the children from longing for new things.

As parents, we made most of the financial decisions based on family needs as we understood them. There were times, however, when we wanted some input from the children, but since they didn’t prioritize their requests, we didn’t know what was most important to them. And there were simply too many wants to address them all.

To deal with this problem, we decided to have a special family council on prioritizing and budgeting for our “want list.” The children were asked beforehand to think of all the things they would like us to purchase. Their eyes lit up. What a great assignment! Soon they were busy with long lists of things they wanted. There were a few puzzled questions such as, “We’ll never be able to afford a horse. Should I list it anyway if I really want one?”

“Yes,” we told them. “We’ll entertain any and all ideas.”

It was with much excitement that our family met together. We again explained our budgetary limitations. We also explained that the purpose of the family council was to define the spending priorities of the family as a whole. Children and parents had equal voting power, and no one could pressure another to vote for his or her cause. We also told them that there was no commitment from the parents that the top item would be purchased. There were some items we just could not afford, even if everyone agreed upon them. However, the list would serve as a guideline, and we would consult it in our budgetary planning.

We then made a wish list of everything we wanted, from a new car to curtains for the kitchen. After all the suggestions were recorded, we reviewed them and then told our children to vote for their top ten choices. After all the votes were counted, the cutting began. We looked at the pared-down list and voted again. We repeated the process, and as the list became smaller, we allowed fewer votes per person. The children struggled with their choices as they became more limited.

Finally we narrowed the list down to a few top-priority items. Both the new car and the horse had disappeared from the list, but what remained was a list of items that we as a family most wanted, ranked in order of importance. This family council has been so successful that we repeat it at the beginning of each new year. And while we have never been able to purchase all the items on the list, sometimes we have been able to buy the top one or two. When that happens, everyone in the family feels like their wishes have been met.

Good things have resulted from including our children in our financial planning. The children have recovered from the “we need” syndrome. When we hear those words now, my husband or I simply reply, “But that isn’t our first choice, is it?” And as parents, we can make better financial decisions, knowing that the children are supporting us as we work together on our number-one priority.

(This essay was published in The Ensign in 1996 and in Focus on the Family in 2004.)


The Love Is Not Different

I will never forget the thrill of holding my firstborn son and thinking, finally after fifteen years of married life and eight adopted children, I have a baby that is biologically mine. But the thought did not mean what many of my friends thought it meant. It meant that finally I could tell them, “The love is not different.”

My husband and I had talked about children and families long before he proposed. We both loved children and wanted a large family. That was understood from the beginning. Months stretched into years and when I didn’t get pregnant, I finally consulted a doctor. He told me that I had endometriosis and would probably have a difficult time conceiving and possibly never have biological children. What a blow that was to two people who loved children and wanted a large family.

We prayed, but I had a difficult time dealing with the new reality, and it was my husband who first suggested the possibility of adopting a baby. Adopting was not new to either of our families. I had an adopted Korean uncle, whom I adored, and my husband had several adopted relatives.

We applied at a local adoption agency, and about six months later we were blessed with our first son. He was indeed beautiful and the fact that I hadn’t given him birth didn’t bother me at all. I was immensely grateful to that mother who had ‘given him up’ as the adoption worker said. A year later we adopted another beautiful baby boy. Then we adopted a third little boy through an attorney, who did adoption work. The three little boys all had dark hair and although they didn’t look too much alike, they could have been mistaken for blood brothers. We lived in a small town and most of the people there knew that the boys were adopted but if we traveled away from our hometown, people assumed that they were our birth children.

All that changed when we adopted our fourth child. I loved my three little boys but longed for a little girl. Because I so adored my adopted Korean uncle, Asian babies looked especially beautiful to me, so we applied for an Asian daughter.

No one could mistake our new Korean baby for our biological child. What a delight she was and we couldn’t wait to adopt another little girl a year later. At that time, adoptive parents could apply for only two visas, and we had used our two. That meant that we wouldn’t be considered for any more international adoptions. We waited until our youngest daughter got a bit older and then called the agency to see if they would consider us for replacement adoptions (adoptions that hadn’t worked out in the original adoptive homes). They put us on their list, and in the next four years we adopted two Korean boys (ages 4 and 7) and a Vietnamese girl (age 11).

We enjoyed our children and loved each one of them dearly. The fact that they differed from us biologically wasn’t an issue. We were all one family with one name and one heart. They were our children.

Still, friends and well-meaning people would sometimes comment, in front of our adopted children, that it was too bad that we couldn’t have any of our own. I would always say, “But they are my own. I couldn’t love them any more if they were my biological children.”

Many people would accept that but there were others who would smile their placating smiles, pat me on the arm and say, “Well, you just don’t know. I’m sure you love them, but it’s not the same.”

Those comments made me furious because I never knew how to respond and I couldn’t believe they were so insensitive in front of my children. Perhaps, as they had said in their condescending manner, “I didn’t know,” but then, they didn’t know what I felt either. I knew that I couldn’t love my biological children anymore than I loved my adoptive ones but I couldn’t say that with authority, until I actually had biological children.

By the time we had adopted eight children and were raising two Native American foster daughters, I felt I had about all I could handle, even as a stay-at-home mom. And it was then, at the age of 35, that I found out I was pregnant.

My children were helpful and attentive but I’m sure they had questions about this new little one who would share their father’s and mother’s genes. I’m sure they wondered if we would feel differently toward them once we had “a child of our own.”

And then the long anticipated event arrived, when I held my biological son in my arms and I looked at his sweet face and I knew – it wasn’t different. He had a beautiful little body and spirit but no more beautiful than all the other little bodies and spirits who made up my family. I was thankful for the privilege of giving birth to a biological child but I was also thankful to be able to say with certainty, “The love is not different.”

(This piece was published in “Woman’s Touch” in 2006)


Retiring To and Not From

The older man walking into the library had a receding hairline. He wore glasses and he was thick through the middle, but it was the lost look in his eyes that I noticed. I had worked in the library long enough to know the regulars, and he wasn’t one of them.

“Can I help you find something?” I asked.

He turned to me and shoved his hands into his denim pockets. “Yeah, I guess to. Where’s your hobby section?”

“What type of hobby books are you looking for?” I asked.

The man shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. I’ve retired, and my wife said I need to find a hobby.”

“Is there anything you particularly enjoy doing?”

He shook his head. “I just liked working. I’ll browse through the section and see if I can find anything.”

I don’t remember what he checked out, or if he checked out anything at all. I never saw him again, but I’ve thought about him a lot. Conclusive research shows that we age better, and live longer, if we keep busy. Most of my retired friends fill their lives with productive projects, and maybe the man in the library managed to find something to keep him busy. The more important question might be—is keeping busy enough or does it make a difference what we are busy doing?

In the United States, elderly people comprise the largest segment of those who voluntarily give their time and energy in unpaid service to others. Recent studies have confirmed that one vital factor in on-going volunteer work is whether the person sees the importance of the contribution he or she is making. And, especially important is the feeling of ownership or passion about the project.

At 65, my friend Nathan, a professor at a prominent university, decided to retire. A year later I asked him how he liked retirement. He told me that it was a difficult transition, and then he offered some sage advice.

“If you’re thinking about retiring,” he said, “make sure you retire to something and not from something.” Obviously, the man in the library did not retire to anything. He probably ended up “keeping busy.” But was it doing something in which he had a real interest?

When Ya Lan, a friend from Hong Kong, hears someone is retiring, she always asks, “What are you going to do for your second career?”

The first time she asked this question, I laughed. But I soon learned she was quite serious. She explained that many people in Hong Kong, including her elderly parents, embark on a second career when they retire. Sometimes this is volunteering or entering a career field where the pay would not have been sufficient when they were supporting children. Sometimes it means retraining for a completely different focus. She obviously felt that it was important to retire to something.

There are many articles in today’s magazines about preparing financially for retirement. There are articles on 401Ks, savings plans, investing in the stock market, retirement programs etc., but I don’t see many articles telling us how to prepare for the emotional and social changes. Perhaps we all assume that if we were freed from the burden of work, we could figure out the rest. Some people do seem to make a smooth transition into retirement, but many flounder. Perhaps we need to identify our interests and passions early, and spend whatever spare moments we have, fostering those interests and skills, so they can blossom at a later time.

And if we don’t plan something to fill our time, someone else certainly will. Whether it’s volunteering at a friend’s church, babysitting our grandchildren or stuffing envelopes for a political campaign. Not that there is anything wrong with any of these activities, if that’s what we enjoy doing, and if that’s what we planned on doing. However, if that’s not what we planned on doing, or if it’s not what we want to do, then maybe we’d better take another look at being in control of our time and our lives.

So, why not start planning early for your second career? What could you be doing now to hone the skill, gather the information, or develop the hobby that will spark your enthusiasm when you retire? What are you going to retire to?

(This article was published in “Plus Magazine” in 2006.)


Is Your Life Full of Vines?
Reevaluating Your Time Commitments

It is only when Greg is caught in traffic, on the way from one meeting to another, that he thinks about the activities that fill his busy life. It is at these times that he thinks wistfully about those things he would do if he only had “time.” Greg is one of the busiest men in his neighborhood. He coaches Little League, has been the head of a local service club for ten years, and tutors in the literacy program at his church. He also manages a business, which requires many hours a week, and tries to spend time with his wife of 30 years. He especially enjoys his three grown children and their families.

“Look at Greg,” says his neighbors. “What a full life he lives.”

But on those traffic-snarled occasions when Greg slows down long enough to evaluate his life, he wishes he had time to do carpentry work, travel, and play with his grandchildren.

It was 25 years ago that Greg chose to be involved in Little League. His son was eight years old, and his time commitment was in line with his value of spending time with his son. But after his son was too old to play, he continued to coach, because he was needed. Since that time, each summer he dutifully reports to the organizing committee, but his enthusiasm is waning. He now goes every year because they are counting on him.

Greg also recognizes that he no longer enjoys being president of the service club, but he wonders who would take charge if he were to resign. Greg’s interests and values have changed over the years. So while Greg’s life is filled with worthwhile projects and activities, they are not those he presently values or enjoys. Still, he continues doing those things he has always done—those things others expect of him and he expects of himself.

For several years, my family and I lived in the Houston, Texas, area. We loved the lush greenery and the water. We moved into an older home, and our backyard was crowded with large, heavily leafed trees. We had lived in our home only a short time when one of our sons announced, “Those trees out there aren’t really as big and full as they look.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“They’re full of vines,” he said. “There’s three or four different kinds.”

Upon closer examination I realized the beautiful trees I had  so admired were interwoven with huge vines. If we wanted healthy trees, we had to get rid of the vines. When we began to pull them out of the trees, we found it was no easy task. Many of the vines were as big in diameter as the tree branches. How had they become so huge? It had been a slow seemingly innocuous process. The vines and the tree limbs had become so enmeshed that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. It also became evident that, bereft of their vines, some of the trees were sparse and lopsided.

Sometimes our lives fill up with vines—or activities we don’t value or no longer value, that usurp our precious time. Although we may be busy and our lives may seem full, it is as the foliage of the insidious vines we are seeing and not the full, leafed-out healthy tree.

How do we pull the vines out of our lives and use our time and energy on what we value most? First, we have to decide what is most important to us. Although we have to consider the needs of our loved ones, we must be honest in deciding what is most important to us at the present time.

There are many worthwhile activities available to us, but we cannot do them all. Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her book Gift From the Sea, stated, “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.” We must make choices. We must set priorities and decide which activities are most important to us. Because of the diversity in our values, personalities, and backgrounds, the decisions will be different for each of us.

As our life situations change, our interests and priorities may also. Our lives are altered when we marry, have children, accept new jobs, move to new locations, retire, or experience any other major life event. It is at these critical times that the need to reevaluate our priorities becomes even stronger.

Second, we need to keep track of where we are presently spending our time and energy. It may be necessary to take the time to record what we do for a few days if we are unaware of where the minutes go.

The third step is measuring how our present allotment of time and energy matches with our values and interests. Are we taking time for those things that are most important to us?

The fourth step is deciding to make changes and having the courage to do so. Once patterns are established, they are difficult to break even when a conscious decision has been made. Others around us adjust to our routines and schedules, and change disrupts their lives as well as ours. If Greg decides to resign from the service club, some people will be unhappy with him and may exert pressure on him to stay. “We are depending on you. What if it all falls apart?” Greg will have to be ready to face this scenario.

Just as pulling the tenacious vines out of our trees broke branches and was initially stressful for the trees, changing our lives to more closely match our values will be initially painful. Eventually, however, we will fill in the blank spaces to balance our lives again.

Finally, the use of our time and energy must be constantly evaluated and realigned. It is not simply a matter of gaining control over our time, it is keeping it. Hard work? Yes, but knowing that our time will be spent on those things we value most is worth it!

This article was published in “Christian Living in the Mature Years” in 2005.

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