In April, Flat Stanley showed up in my mailbox. My six-year-old niece, who lives in Pennsylvania, had sent him with the request to house him, color him, and take him everywhere with me. After a week, I should send her photos of me and Flat Stanley doing our thing, which she would then show to her first-grade class, so they would all learn about the world around them.
Okay. I was game. I could hang out with a smiling paper boy for a week.
First, I donned Flat Stanley in a Detroit Tigers t-shirt. Then I pushed away thoughts of feeling like a dork and lugged Flat Stanley with me wherever I went. For seven days, Flat Stanley was my bosom buddy.
And Flat Stanley and I had a ball.
He wrote with me, ate with me, jogged with me. Together, we cheered on the Tigers, played with my dog, and complained when we awoke one morning to three inches of snow. He rode in the cart around the grocery store, and when he discovered that Cookies and Cream ice cream was both our favorite flavor—imagine that!—he insisted that we buy several cartons.
On Friday evening, he accompanied me to my son’s birthday dinner at a restaurant, and on Saturday morning I hauled him to Panera Bread for a breakfast sandwich and umpteen cups of coffee. (Coffee for me, that is. Flat Stanley preferred the hot chocolate.)
We had so much fun together that, instead of sending pictures to my niece, I decided to chronicle our adventures by putting together a book titled Flat Stanley Visits Michigan.
On Sunday, our last day together before his trip back to Pennsylvania, I took Flat Stanley to church.
During the message, our pastor asked, “If you recorded everything you said for a day, would people who played back your recording know that you’re a Christian?” But instead of thinking about a voice recording, I thought about Flat Stanley. We’d just spent an entire week joined at the hip. When I mailed my book to my niece, would everyone who read it know that I’m a follower of Jesus?
That afternoon, I finished Flat Stanley Visits Michigan. After I added the last pages, I turned to page one, began flipping through the book, and tried to read it with an objective eye. Sure, I had one page where I explained the purpose of my blog, and a page about attending church—enough for a reader to understand that I was indeed a Christian. But then I realized that I didn’t have a page about Flat Stanley praying and reading the Bible with me every morning before I got out of bed—a routine I began long ago with the goal of starting the day off right with God. I didn’t have a page where he went to my church’s neighborhood group to study God’s word, enjoy fellowship with other people from my church, and plan mission projects. And I didn’t have a page showing Flat Stanley sitting with my husband and me while we prayed together after dinner.
I know that the point of the project was to teach first graders about living in Michigan. But if my life revolved around Jesus, shouldn’t almost every page reflect him too?
Like I said, I enjoyed my time with Flat Stanley. In a weird way, I kind of got attached to the little guy since I’m an empty-nester now. But if he ever visits me again, I think I’ll do a better job of sharing Jesus through him.
And when anyone reads Flat Stanley Visits Michigan, Book II? Yes, they’ll know I’m a Christian by my Flat Stanley.
After reading Part I of #failcarmom, many of my readers were so sweet, commenting on my post or social media and assuring me that I wasn’t alone; they, too, had locked one of their kids in the car.
But I’m thankful that my big God helped me keep my vow to never, ever lock my baby son in the car again.
Too bad I didn’t use the plural when I made that vowel.
Despite evidence to the contrary, I really am a conscientious mom. After I locked my oldest son in the car in 1990, I kept my wits about me for nine whole years before I once again committed “The Deed.” But nine years is a long time, right? I mean, if one thinks in terms of going without food or water, or holding one’s breath…
After navigating through my daughter’s childhood without imprisoning her in my vehicle, I was certain that my #failcarmom days were over. Then, in 1998, we had child number three.
In 1999, hurry was my middle name. Hurry to my oldest son’s soccer practice or game. Hurry to my daughter’s soccer practice or game. Hurry to piano lessons, school functions, baseball practice, shopping, church stuff, doctors, dentist…you get the picture. And, like many youngest children, my little son got lugged everywhere.
Often, while his older siblings were speeding around the soccer field, I’d allow my son to explore the minivan. He loved pushing buttons, opening windows, playing the radio, and roaming free around the interior—this kept him entertained for hours. But, when we carted his brother and sister around, or he and I were running errands while my two older children were in school, he spent a lot of time confined to his car seat. Until he turned eighteen months old, that is.
That’s when he transformed into “The Great-Escape Toddler.”
The first time he wiggled out of his car seat, I figured that I hadn’t tightened the straps properly. Kids couldn’t get out of these things. But when it happened again, I realized that I had a Houdini on my hands. I may have taken some maternal pride in his ingenuity, determination, and physical ability to twist himself into a pretzel, but I was far more worried about his safety.
Since my youngest is the family’s strong-willed child, I resorted to a technique I called “Intimidate and Immobilize.”
First, the intimidation. Anytime my son attempted to get out of his car seat, I pulled over, walked into the back, and put on my don’t mess-with-me mom look. Then we’d have an eyeball-to-eyeball conversation, with me doing all the speaking, since he was too young to talk yet. “Don’t you dare, young man. You STAY IN THAT SEAT AND I DON’T MEAN MAYBE, or you’re in big trouble, hear me?”
When my voice began taking on a more frantic, desperate tone—born from my intense fear that he’d squirm out of his seat when I couldn’t pull over and then get hurt if I had to stop quickly—he began getting the message that his antics made me less than pleased. However, it took one further step to halt his shenanigans for good—immobilization.
The immobilization was a little tricky. The goal was to strap him in so snuggly that he couldn’t inch his way out of his seat but, at the same time, leave him breathing room.
“Don’t you think you have him in there a little tight?” my husband asked as he looked at our son in his car seat before a trip to the mall.
“Do you really want him bouncing around the van while we’re flying down the highway at seventy miles an hour? He could get killed, for heaven’s sake. He’s fine, trust me,” I said with a reassuring smile.
He frowned at our son. “But his lips are turning blue.”
I rolled my eyes. “They’re not turning blue, he had a blueberry fruit bar before we left.”
“Oh.” My husband glanced at me again. “If you’re sure…”
“I’m sure. He’s perfectly comfortable. And, you know, we’re making progress. He finally realizes that we will never, ever be happy when he escapes from his car seat. I think I’ve nipped that tendency in the bud for good.”
Then I committed “The Deed.”
Again, I was in a hurry. In the garage, I put the dog in the house and then secured my son in his car seat, all while trying to keep the day’s schedule straight in my mind. First, I’d drive to my kids’ school, pick them up, swing through McDonald’s, and get my daughter to her soccer practice…wait. In which field was her practice?
I loaded the back seat with toys, books, diaper bag, and stinky soccer shoes. Shoot, I’d better check her practice schedule before I ended up in the wrong place. Then my oldest son would be late for his practice…or did he have a game? I handed my toddler a container of Cheerios, wondering where I’d stashed their soccer schedules. Then I opened the front passenger-side door, threw in my purse, hit the lock on the door without thinking, and slammed it shut.
It’s true what they say—during a period of disbelief, time really does revert to slow motion.
Through the tingling haze, as I watched the door close inch by inch, I glimpsed my purse, replete with keys, on the seat. Behind it, my son ate Cheerios with happy little gurgles. A prolonged “Nooooooo!” echoed around the garage, and I saw myself reach out, fingers extended toward the door. But I was too late.
I ran to the door leading from the garage into the house, but I’d locked that, too. I ran around the house and tried each door, but I’d done a dandy job insuring that no invader could ever get inside. Finally, I sprinted back to the garage, where I peered through the back window at my son.
Now what? Most of my immediate neighbors were at work. I could scurry around the neighborhood, pounding on doors and explaining my plight. I’d beg to use their phone and then call my husband to come home and the school to find my children.
As I stared at my son, he turned to me with an impish grin. And that’s when I remembered—he was an experienced car-exploring contortionist. Not only could he get out of that seat, he could unlock the door. Then we wouldn’t be late picking up my two kids, my husband wouldn’t have to traipse home from work, and I wouldn’t become the laughingstock of the neighborhood.
“Honey,” I called to him with a big smile. “Can you come to Mommy?”
My son looked at me with wide eyes.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Get out of your seat. Mommy needs you to open the door. Come on, you can do it!”
Yes, a one year old can look at you like you’ve lost your mind.
After a few minutes of indecision, my son gave his arm a tentative twist and began pushing it under the harness. “Good, good!” I shouted from outside the car. “Keep going, get out of your seat, there’s a good boy.”
Talk about confusing your kids. I’d spent months trying to curtail his car-seat antics with frowns and stern warnings. And now, here I was, standing outside the van, cheering him on with shouts of encouragement and praise.
When his tucked arm emerged close to his body, free from the restraint, I jumped up and down with a joyous whoop. Shed now of all inhibition, my son grunted and squirmed, wriggled and squiggled, until he liberated his upper body. Then, motivated by my elation, he pulled his legs up and under the straps with a triumphant giggle and stood on his seat.
He’d never had such an exuberant audience.
I re-positioned myself outside the front-passenger window and pointed to the lock. “Now open the door, sweetie, so Mommy can get in.”
With an ear-to-ear grin, he waddled up to the front and crawled into the seat. And after one final glance at his ecstatic mom, he slid open the lock.
Today, I’m proud to announce that I’ve made significant progress in the #failcarmom department. Since 1999, I have not locked any more of my babies or toddlers in the car.
Of course, I didn’t have more children after child number three…
Which made success much easier.
If #failcarmom had meant something twenty-seven years ago, that hashtag would have applied to me.
#WhatHappensWhenMomsAreCarryingFiftyThingsAtOnce would work too.
But I’m guessing that lots of moms can identify with those hashtags. I’ll give you a hypothetical example.
Let’s say there’s this young, first-time mom.
She’s just finished grocery shopping with her four-month-old son, who has been bawling since aisle two. Now this exhausted, harried mom, who feels like bawling too,
leaves the grocery store and rolls her cart to the car. In the cart basket, she has a baby carrier, complete with baby who finally stopped crying at the cash register; bags and bags of groceries; the pacifier her baby spit out; and half the contents of the diaper bag, which she flung into the cart during her frantic searched for the pacifier.
Which, of course, she found at the bottom of the bag.
On the cart seat rests the half-empty diaper bag, and on her shoulder, a bulging purse.
Then this sweet-albeit-frazzled mom pulls her keys from her purse, inserts them into the passenger side of her two-door car (no key fobs yet), and proceeds to lift her son from the baby carrier (no nifty snap-in carrier/car seat yet, either). With her foot pressed against the cart wheel, so the cart doesn’t roll away, frazzled-cum-contortionist mom lifts her bundle of joy from the carrier and straps him into the car seat, all the while praying that he doesn’t start fussing again or, even worse, fall asleep on the ride home. If he falls asleep, he won’t nap that afternoon, and Mom is in desperate need of down-time.
Pulling contents from the cart as fast as she can, she flings the baby carrier, grocery bags, diaper bag contents, the pacifier, and the deflated diaper bag into the car back seat.
Then she grabs her purse, pushes down the lock on the door like a good mother, and gives the passenger-side door a shove.
That’s when I see….
Okay, I’ll fess up. Hypothetical, sweet-albeit-frazzled-cum-contortionist mom?
As the door closed, I glimpsed the car keys through the window, resting on the seat beside my son.
“No, no, no,” I muttered. I yanked the door handle, hoping that the locked the door would magically pop open—PRESTO!
Then I ran to the other side and jerked the door handle up and down. But the driver’s side door stayed locked as well.
I stared through the window at my son, who looked back at me, expecting me to climb into the car.
I ran into the grocery store (no cell phones yet), by the bank of gawking cashiers, and to the pay phone, where I dialed 9-1-1.
“Help,” I said when the female operator answered. “I’m at Paul’s Grocery Store, and I locked my baby in the car.”
To which the woman replied, “Ma’am, this line is for emergencies only.”
I glanced at the nice store manager, who now stood by the phone. “This is an emergency! My BABY is LOCKED in my car!”
After the woman lectured me on proper 9-1-1- protocol, finally took pity on me, and said that she would notify the local police, the manager hustled away.
I hung up the phone, sprinted back out to the car, and peered at my son. He had grown tired of waiting for me and was now crying again.
I tapped the window. “It’s okay, Mommy’s right here.”
That’s when I heard footsteps. I turned around and saw the nice manager jogged toward me.
He held up a coat hanger. “Ma’am, let’s see if I can get that car open,” he said.
I stood aside, and the nice manager stuffed the coat hanger inside the window.
When my son saw this unknown man, his crying changed to frantic screaming, which cause the nice manager to transform into a nice flustered store manager. As the wailing inside the car continued unabated, he looked at me with haunted eyes and paused to wipe perspiration from his forehead. “I’ll try the other side.”
Through the window, I tried consoling my son again. What kind of a mom was I, anyway? I’d never heard of anybody locking their baby in the car. I glanced at the nice flustered-perspiring manager, who was becoming frustrated by his lack of success. He must think I’m the dizziest of dizzy blondes. How would I ever face him again without feeling like an idiot?
As I contemplated the necessity of switching grocery stores, a police car pulled into the parking lot. Within minutes, the officer opened the door.
The nice, flustered-now-relieved manager took a deep breath and gave me a big smile as I held my howling son.
I smiled back. Maybe I could swallow my pride and continue shopping at his store. After all, he’d tried his best to rescue my son. I owed him my patronage, even if he thought I was a total ding-dong.
On second thought, maybe my husband could grocery shop from now on.
I gave my profuse thanks to the police and especially the nice store manager. Then I drove home, thankful that the ordeal hadn’t been worse. And I vowed that I would never, ever again be so careless as to lock my baby in the car again, no matter how harried or frantic I became.
Too bad I forgot…
See you next time for Part II of #failcarmom.
Have a blessed Easter!
I wore a dress to church last Sunday.
In these casual days, I rarely wear a dress to church. But, since the day had dawned fair for a change, with a brisk, warm wind pushing winter away and carrying with it the promise of spring, I felt like dressing up.
After the 10 a.m. service concluded, I hurried to the back exit with my husband, hoping to squeeze in lunch at a restaurant before the arrival of furniture-delivery men that afternoon. I began making my way down the stairs while the greeter below held the back door wide open to admit the steam of folks coming in for the 11:30 a.m. service.
That’s when a strong gust of wind blew through those open doors with a whoosh, traveled up the stairs, and lifted the bottom of my dress and slip straight up in the air.
“Oh my gosh!” I slapped my dress down and scanned the staircase. Had anyone seen that? (Answer: of course they did; the stairway was full.) And how much did they see? (Answer: since most of them were not only walking up but looking up, probably quite a bit.)
My husband looked at me with compressed lips. “You hussy.”
I grabbed his arm, sped down the remainder of the stairs, and out the door, thinking…
It happened again.
I don’t mean to be an immodest church lady. In my defense, none of my episodes of blatant brazenness were my fault.
Like the time when we lived in the suburbs of Chicago…
I’d worn my favorite royal-blue dress to church, the one with the five big buttons up the front. Fifteen minutes into church, my two-year old son—kid number one—began fussing. When I picked him up to console him, he cried and thrashed, pushed and grabbed in an attempt to get back down onto the floor.
That’s when button number two flew off and landed on the wooden pew with a ping.
I hugged my son to my chest, which caused him to struggle even more. But between button number one at my neck and button number three at my waist, the top threatened to gape wide open if I let him go.
My husband squinted at me. “What are you doing? Just let him down.”
I gave my husband a wide-eyed stare. “My button flew off, and our son is the only thing keeping my dress together. What…what…do I do?”
“I don’t know,” was his helpful answer.
I ignored the family behind me, who were giving me disapproving looks, and stepped closer to my husband. “I can’t stay like this for the whole service,” I hissed. “I feel like an idiot. Do something!”
The something ended up being a march down the aisle with the button clutched in my hand and my squirming son clutched tight against me. In the lady’s room, I found a safety pin in my purse, reattached the button, and slunk back to my seat with a few apologetic smiles to the people around me. For the rest of the service, I was afraid to move lest that safety pin pop. And when the service ended, I was outa there.
After we moved to Michigan, it was my daughter, kid number two, who ensured that I continued in my trend as an immodest church lady. If I’d only stuck to wearing a dress, I would have been okay. But—go figure—I was leery of mixing dresses, young children, and church.
Instead, I wore skirts to church.
Thanks to the effects of chasing, lugging, and pushing two children around all day, I’d slimmed down to my pre-kid weight, and one of my favorite skirts was a little loose. But no one would notice, right?
Enter, once again, the fussy church child.
I hadn’t sat through a church service from start to finish in years, and I was determined to make it through the worship songs at least. I stopped singing and stooped down. “Here, honey,” I whispered to my daughter as she held her hands up to me and whimpered. “Look at the nice picture book, and please, please let me worship for once in peace.”
I straightened and continued singing while she stood at my feet and whined with upraised arms. I would ignore her for one song, just one, and concentrate on the Lord.
That’s when my daughter, tired of not being the center of my attention, clasped the material of my skirt with her chubby hands and gave it a determined yank. And since it wasn’t tight around my waist, guess what?
All I can say is, I’m glad I wore a one-piece slip.
I grasped my skirt and pulled it back up into place. And, no, I didn’t look around to see if anyone noticed. By now, I was an “If-you-don’t-look-around-to-see-who’s-looking-then-you-can-convince-yourself-that-no-one-saw” kind of gal.
I glanced at my husband, who rolled his eyes at my chagrin. I knew what he was thinking—his sweet wife is a nice Christian lady who can’t seem to keep her clothes on in church.
Then we birthed kid number three.
We had moved again and were now attending a new church. My youngest son, alias kid number three, is a quirky, creative kid. Embarrassing Mom by declothing her in church was old hat by then. Instead, he’d bide his time and wait for the perfect moment to spring a more sophisticated plan.
And that moment came during the Christmas Eve service.
In the third row from the front, my family sat with our close friend, Peg. Peg is ten years older that I am and has no children, so she was a willing helper with my three kids. That evening, my husband sat at the end of the row, holding our one-year-old son in his lap. Peg sat next to him, then my other son and daughter, and finally, myself
During the most solemn moment of our pastor’s message, my youngest son implemented his plan. In the hush of the sanctuary, he released a loud, long stinker.
I slumped lower in my seat, wondering if I’d ever be able to go to a church without being humiliated by my children. As I felt my face burning, out of the corner of my eye I saw Peg lean forward and begin to shake.
I couldn’t blame her. Let’s face it—it doesn’t matter how old you are—when someone makes a stinker in public, unless, of course, it’s your own kid, our first tendency is to snicker. Therefore, despite my mortification, I felt the chuckle rise in my throat and fought to contain it. That’s when I made the mistake of glancing at Peg and saw her staring back at me with her mouth open in silent hysterics.
I tried to resist. I really did. But, as everyone knows, watching someone in the throes of uncontrollable laughter is inevitably contagious. Compounded by the fact that I was in a situation where I shouldn’t laugh out loud, it becomes even harder to control myself.
Within a minute, I too was bent forward and trying my best to hide behind the chairs in front of me as tears streamed down my face. Even the curious peeks from my oldest two children and the stern expression on my husband’s face did nothing to stem the giggle tide. I have no doubt that the people around us radiated displeasure while we crack up through a solemn message about the immeasurable love of our God, who became human to save us from our sin.
I’m also certain that our pastor noted the untimely emission from my son as well as my unbridled hysterics. To his credit, he never mentioned either episode, and I can only hope that he blamed me only for the second incident and not for both. To be honest, I never found the courage to ask.
I could also tell you about the time my son sprinted up the aisle to the altar with me in hot pursuit. But I think I’ll save that story for later.
That’s my confession. I am an immodest church lady. However, I’m forever grateful to my big God, who extends his grace and mercy to me and overlooks the fact that, thanks to my children and now the wind, I haven’t been the perfect example of a prim-and-proper Proverbs thirty-one woman every time I’ve entered his house.
But, I believe with all my heart that God is looking down on me with understanding and love.
And I think I see him laughing.
“I like the way Grandpap’s house smells,” my eleven-year-old niece told me last week when I was visiting my sister. (And, yes, I survived the trip to and from town. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read my blog, That Middle Section.)
Back to my niece…
In my mind, I walked into my father’s home and took a big sniff.
I couldn’t associate a particular smell with his house, except for a few childhood memories of the times I told my two younger sisters and brothers that they stank. But, of course, that was the result of sibling rivalry and the serious need—at their end—of a bath.
They all smell just fine now.
I looked at my niece, curious about her comment. “So, what exactly does Grandpap’s house smell like? I asked.
She smiled up at me as she bounced around the family room. “It smells like love.”
I thought again of my dad’s house. Since my mom passed away almost thirty-three years ago, he has lived alone and doesn’t do much cooking, so she wasn’t savoring the smell of cookies or a pot roast in the oven. My dad also doesn’t wear aftershave, burn candles, or use plug-in scents. I closed my eyes and again imagined myself standing in his house. I breathed in, searching for the fragrance that my niece detected. And besides the slight early-morning aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, I once again came up blank.
What in the world could she be smelling?
Then I thought about my father. A quiet man of integrity. A man who lost two babies and his wife of twenty years, yet raised five children with a steadfast, strong, and loving presence. A brave, brave man who radiates peace and a deep, serene love for his God. A man who is kind, passionate about baseball and hockey, a generous giver, and will do anything for his family.
A man after God’s own heart.
I understood more after I read 2 Corinthians 14-16.
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. (NLT)
Finally, I realized why my niece, who also loves the Lord, said that her grandpap’s house smelled like love.
Not because of a physical scent, but because of the fragrance of Jesus, which permeates every room.
Someday, I’m going to live in my Father’s house with my big God. I’ll see Jesus, feel his arms around me, taste his goodness, and hear the voice of a great multitude praising him. And when I breathe in?
His house will smell like love.