Posted in Columns

How An Empty Box Gets Filled…With Dreams

The box: exciting when it’s full of last week’s eBay find or Christmas presents; dull when empty; and annoying when it’s one of hundreds to be broken down for recycling – a less-than-exciting task for most.

But that’s only if you’re boxed into a certain way of thinking. There is much more to a simple cardboard container.

Ask kids. Every kid in the room will head for the empty box in the corner.
It doesn’t matter whether the box is brand new or if it has seen better days – perhaps months ago. And it doesn’t matter whether the kids are big or little.

That box is a portal to their imaginations.

Sunshine Girl, our delightful almost-2-year-old neighbor, came to visit one day. We don’t have a lot of toys in our house anymore – sadly – because our kids our grown and our grandkids live 5,000 miles away.

I hunted for and found key items – blocks, books and a doll or two, and brought them up from their basement resting place in a cardboard box so “Sunny” would have something to play with while we visited with her parents.

She immediately dumped the toys and plunked her tiny self into the box, rocking back and forth and singing a sweet toddler song that had something to do with riding in her daddy’s boat and going fishing.

The box is also a bed for her “babies,” a house for various stuffed animals unearthed from their lower level lairs and storage for the kid stuff when Sunny goes home.

About 17 years ago, similar magic occurred in my son’s kindergarten class. I walked into the room where the teacher sat at her desk – and wondered where the kids were.

She motioned to her right. They were inside a giant box at the other end of the room. Every kid in the class!

“I get a big box from the furniture store in town every year for my class,” the teacher told me.

That day, the box morphed into a castle. Dragons, knights, princes and princesses created a medieval world under the watchful eye – and bossy voice – of a blond young lady, apparently the queen.

Months later, the box was more round than square, the result of a particularly wild pirate escapade. (Boxes seem to make excellent boats – unless, of course, the box is placed in real water.) One kid – probably my son – drew a primitive skull-and-crossbones in heavy black marker over the rainbows, flowers, windows, doors and other decorations from prior adventures.

I thought of how years before, my sister and I had the best box.


My parents purchased a velvety chair that had an exceptionally tall back – we referred to it for the following decades as the “queen’s chair” (partly because it was my mom’s chair.) Two men delivered and unpacked the chair, then placed it in our living room according to my mother’s wishes.

Meanwhile, my sister and I eyeballed the box that moments before contained the chair. The box was amazing, a sort of box-on-a-box, with one end big enough to fit the seat and legs part of the chair (and two excited little girls.) The other end was narrow, like the back of the chair.

The men prepared to break down the box and take it away. I begged my mother to let us keep it, please! Please, mommy!

She said yes, I suspect for the same reason the kindergarten teacher made sure her class had a box to play with every year. Keeping the box would mean hours of peace for my mother while my sister and I determined how to best use it.

That didn’t matter to us – we had the best box ever and we would make it into something WONDERFUL!

First, it was a house with a secret passage. Mom cut windows in the sides and we hung scraps of fabric fastened with paperclips inside as curtains. We furnished our house with an assortment of dishes, pillows, blankets and whatnot to make it a home. We begged mom to let us sleep in our house. She probably let us.

We played with that box for weeks, maybe months. The house eventually morphed into a puppet theater, with mom’s help cutting bigger holes for the “stage.”

When the box’s useful life was served – or maybe when my parents were tired of moving it every time they cleaned our play area, we dragged it outside. We turned it sideways, climbed inside, took deep breaths for courage and began rolling across our yard and down the small hill, picking up speed, imagining a trip over Niagara Falls – until the box’s sides split and we lay on the grass screaming with laughter.

Boxed in? Not kids. Give them an empty cardboard container and they’ll fill it with dreams.


Posted in Columns

I wanna be 2

I want to be 2 years old.

Spending a week with my granddaughter in too-far-away Georgia last week made me realize that life is pretty much delightful when you’re 2.

For one thing, Ella introduced me to the wonderful musical world of “The Wonder Pets,” one of the rare TV shows she watches.




The moment she opens her bright blue eyes and shuffles sleepily out of her room, she plunks into her beanbag chair, sippy-cup in hand, and issues the order: “Ming Ming!”

For the uninitiated, Ming Ming is the fluffy yellow duckling that dons a superhero cape so she can rescue an animal that’s in trouble somewhere in the world – like the French poodle that was trapped at the top of the Eiffel Tower in France.

Ming Ming and her “Wonder Pet” compatriots – a turtle and guinea pig – leave the safety of their cages to build boats or planes or whatever they need to tend to their rescuing duties.

And they do everything while they are singing.

One warning: their songs worm their way between the folds of your brain and become a permanent part of its cellular structure. That means you’ll be singing the same song.




When you’re 2 years old, eating is an event. Shouting “My nums!” (Ella’s shortened version of “Yummy yum”) is all it takes to have a bowl of oatmeal or crackers and cheese plopped in front of you.

It’s a darn good life.

Then, after breakfast, there are so many things to discover – like judging the viscosity of equal portions of dirt mixed with water, or facing the physical challenge of climbing from floor to bench to tabletop in less than 10 seconds.

I want to be 2 years old because I want to spend the day coloring pictures, playing in the park, cuddling my doll, learning to use the potty (no more diapers!), singing the ABCs, mimicking every silly sound my “Pop Pop” (grandpa) makes, tasting everything and not worrying about being rude if I think it’s yucky, throwing rocks, chas-ing the dog and being loved by my mommy and daddy and Grammy and pretty much everyone I meet.

Sure, there is the occasional drama that requires a timeout and then a hug and kiss, but for the most part, life is exciting and wonderful and new every minute of the day when you’re 2.

I’ve always thought we should age backwards. I didn’t really appreciate being 2 when I was 2. But more than four decades later, I see that 2-year-olds have a wonderful outlook on life.

I suppose whenever I need a 2-year-old fix, I’ll just have to jet on down to Georgia to see Ella. Besides, we have more crayon pictures to draw, more flowers to smell, more cookies and ice cream to eat, and more cuddling to do.

It kind of makes me hope she’ll never grow up. That way I won’t have to grow up, either.

Posted in Columns

Hello Mudder, hello Fadder: Remembering summer camp

Summer camp. My mind filled with memories of my own experiences as I sorted photos of a local Boy Scout troop’s most recent outdoor adventures.

I remember packing my stuff – the most important items included pens, paper, sketchbook and a contraband AM transistor radio (it was long before the Walkman or iPod appeared on the cultural radar)—for a week before my sister and I actually left for camp.

Fortunately, my mom had a bona fide checklist of the stuff we really needed. She inspected our suitcases and added superfluous items, like socks, underwear and a few extra T-shirts.

“You know, you’re not supposed to bring radios,” she said, rolling the socks together and lining them up along the inside edge of the suitcase.

“Um, yeah,” I said, setting the forbidden object on my bed and making a mental note to pack it when she wasn’t looking. Mom was more into rules than I was back then. You just couldn’t mess with my precious pop music.

Early Saturday morning, my parents woke us up, loaded our bags into the car and headed to the circus that was part of the leaving-for-camp ritual.

The parking lot swarmed with frantic parents trying to cover all the details and excited girls who just wanted to get to camp. A few official looking people carried clipboards, answered questions and pointed people in different directions.

My sister and I got on the enormous bus, complete with microscopic bathroom in the back. The motor rumbled and occasionally sighed, its diesel-scented breath filling the air.

Finally, it was time to leave. The doors snapped shut, the bus jerked forward, and we waved at the parents lined up like soldiers along the curb. I now suspect that as soon as the buses were out of sight, the parents high-fived each other and went out for a celebratory champagne breakfast.

That didn’t matter—we were finally headed to a parent-free zone with friends, campfires, swimming, canoeing, hiking and tons of other stuff to fill the long summer days for the next two weeks.

Hours later—OK, for a kid who tended to get carsick 99.99 percent of the time, it seemed like days later—we arrived at Camp Windego, somewhere in the forest that was Wild Rose, Wisconsin. Relief! Campers were quickly sorted as they leapt from the bus. This was usually the last time I saw my sister—other than meal-times–until the ride home, because we were always assigned to different units. We grabbed our bags, gathered into our groups and hiked into the woods in search of the tiny tent villages that would be our homes.

Granted, my camp experience wasn’t entirely primitive. Our tents sat on wood platforms off the ground. We had the choice of an outhouse or, if we wanted to walk a long, long way, there were actual flushing toilets out there in the woods.

It was primitive enough for me, a girl from the ‘burbs of Chicago. The outhouse was a no-go unless desperate measures were in order, like in the middle of the night. The same woods we skipped through during the day took on a Blair Witch Project look at night as our imaginations ran far ahead of the dim beam from our flashlights.

We hiked everywhere, singing silly camp songs along the way. I often wonder what my parents thought of the musical selections my sister and I would belt out in the back seat of the car when the mood struck. Sure, there were the traditional “If I had a hammer” and “Kumbaya,” but we liked the more interesting songs, like one about a billboard:

As I was walking down the street one dark and dreary day,
I came upon a billboard, and much to my dismay,
The sign was torn and tattered from a storm the night before.
The wind and rain had done its work and this is what I saw:
Smoke Coca Cola cigarettes;
Chew Wrigley’s Spearmint beer;
Ken-L-Ration dogfood keeps your complexion clear;
Simonize your baby with a Hershey’s candy bar;
And Texaco’s the beauty cream that’s used by all the stars.

That’s only the beginning. But after almost 30 years I remember every word!

Camp wasn’t always perfect. I usually attended with one friend or another from home—and inevitably, we’d end up in a big fight over who-knows-what, and not speak to each other until we were home for a good week. Then we’d cry, apologize, and forget what the fight was about in the first place. Stupid girl stuff.

I was introduced to horses at camp. My friend, Nancy, was a horse freak. I was not. Nancy convinced me we needed to be in the horse unit one year. I figured it would be an adventure, and maybe I would love horses as much as she did.

I was wrong.

The horse unit had to get up early to muck out the stalls (for you uninitiated, that means we had to shovel the horses’ poop) and feed and brush the horse that was ours for the two weeks.

Strike one: getting up at 5 a.m. was not my idea of fun at the time, especially because I tended to stay up until nearly midnight yacking with friends or reading a book by flashlight.

The bonus was supposed to be that we got to ride our horses before breakfast as well. However, we quickly learned that we were the lepers of Camp Windego, since the horsy smells tended to follow us wherever we went. We had our own table at the mess hall, and generally ignored the other girls’ wrinkled noses.

Strike two: the horses.My horse was named Nikki. I think horse people would describe her as an old nag. She uncooperatively poofed out her belly when I pulled the saddle straps around. If I didn’t pay attention, as soon as I put my foot in the stirrup and swung the other leg over, the saddle would slide sideways.

I swear she snickered when that happened.

Once I learned to check the straps more than once, I figured I had her conquered. Ha. She was always at the back of the line on trail rides, munching grass and leaves and taking her sweet time.

“No, Nikki!” I yelled, pulling the reins up and hoping her head would follow.

“Don’t let her eat. She’ll have a bad attitude,” our unit leader said.

It was too late for that. Nikki’s attitude was years in the making, probably from dealing with kids like me who had no clue about horses.

One day we were riding in the ring. Nikki must have had an itch to scratch, because she got down on her knees.

“What is she doing?” I asked, yanking the reins upward.

Nikki looked over her left shoulder, her eye gleaming. Then she started rolling over.

I jumped off.

“Don’t let her roll over,” the leader said.

Sure. No problem. By then I realized Nikki could do whatever she darn well pleased. She was much bigger than me and, I suspected, much smarter as well.

It was with relief that I would head back to the stalls, put Nikki inside and toss her a bunch of hay. That was the only time she was truly happy.

Nancy, of course, had a great time. She loved her horse, which was the biggest one. He was in the stall next to Nikki’s. One day when I was brushing Nikki, he leaned over the wall and bit me in the back. Maybe that’s what started our fight. Nancy thought it was kind of funny, and I’d had enough of horses. Never mind that at this point I realize she was right—it was funny.

Even the year of my horse adventures, when I looked forward to going home, the final night of camp was filled with tears around the campfire (more stupid girl stuff, I guess.) We’d sing our repertoire of pretty and obnoxious camp songs, talk about all the stuff we did, made amends with the people we didn’t get along with and exchanged addresses with the promise of writing at least once a week.

I remember the scent of smoke mixed with burning sugar—an invisible testament to the marshmallows that had dropped off our carefully carved sticks into the fire below, and canopy of stars far above our heads. I remember feeling like I was really part of the natural world.

Sometimes I wish I could go back, so I could appreciate every moment as it happened. My two weeks at summer camp gave me a chance to operate as an individual, without being defined by my parents or siblings. I saw and ex-perienced things I never would have otherwise. I probably have a better time visiting camp in my memories—and when I do camp that way, I don’t have to deal with mosquito bites.


Posted in Columns

Tonka trucks and tears

Cleaning out the garage can be an emotional experience. I spent Sunday afternoon helping my husband sort through the remaining boxes, crates, bags and other stuff that has been piled in the garage since we moved. He thought it would be nice if we could fit a car or two in the garage, since that would be its original purpose.

While he was involved in sort-ing and alphabetizing his tools and electronic equipment, I started pulling things out of my old toybox. Parked at the bottom were four mud-caked Tonka trucks. I set them outside, hooked up the hose and started spraying them with water to loosen the dirt.

Then I started to cry. Really. My brain took that motherly path from gee-I-remember-when-our-boys-were-little to oh-my-gosh-they’re-graduating-from-high-school-this-year. I could see my sons at three or four sitting on the dump truck, hurtling themselves down the driveway. Now they’re both over six feet tall – I doubt they’ll be riding the dump truck any time soon.

Then there was the time we had a septic system dug at our previous home. The guy was in the yard with his backhoe, working steadily to install the maze of pipes. At the same time, my two boys were playing in the front yard with their trucks, carefully digging their own trenches with a miniature backhoe that loaded sand steadily into the dump truck most of the afternoon.

It’s one of those things about parenting. When the kids are little, you can’t wait till they get big. When they’re big, you wonder how that happened so fast. I almost want to turn the clock back, or at least put it on hold so I can savor each moment – although given human nature, I doubt the savoring would last very long. It would be like final act in Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” in which Emily revisits her 12th birthday after she dies. She watches everyone, especially her mother, hurry through life, not thinking, not really taking it in. Finally it is too much, and she returns to her seat in the graveyard, frustrated and disappointed.

I try hard not to hold on to things, so we won’t be buried in endless clutter. But there are some objects that bring up so many memories, I just can’t part with them. I’m not sure whether my boys care if we saved their Tonka trucks or not; however, they will be parked in their plastic bin garage in the basement until someone wants to play with them. My old toybox with its scratched paint and faded circus images will sit and wait. My dad made the box for my sister and I, and every time I look at it I can see the two of us pulling out every toy we owned so we could climb in and sail off on some sort of imaginary adventure. It’s a simple box, but even as it stands empty, I see it as full because of the memories it holds.

Who knew cleaning the garage could become such an emotional experience. All we really wanted was a place to park the cars. Instead, I took a trip through time.