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Through our stomachs, to our hearts.

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My husband often laughed at my mom, who had a photographic memory for food.  When going out for a meal, she would not only remember what she ate, down from the appetizer to dessert, but whatever anybody else at the table was eating. And my mother could tell the tale of what everyone ate with relish (if you will pardon the pun) to the most minute crumb.  It often meant a long conversation – one I didn’t mind, but not everyone could stomach.

I don’t know why this is, or why she liked to talk about food so much. She hated cooking and certainly did not pass any talent she might have had down to me.  I think it was the eating she enjoyed more.  It could be because when she was young there may have been little enough food to go around.  She came from a background of relative poverty – although she never spoke of food, and particularly good food, being scarce. If anything she spoke of the fantastic meals her own mom made seemingly out of nothing.  Perhaps it could be because food was seen as a treat and a reward.  She often spoke of memories of a single serving of ice cream in her childhood or a special treat from the baker’s truck that she and her father would share.

It could have also have been because later in life she was a diabetic and every spoonful had to be considered, weighed and counted against all others. Fingers were pricked and sugar measured daily, and later hourly.  A fruit needed to be eaten with a protein.  Cake was not to be eaten at all.  Food was to be planned and consumed, not enjoyed.

As she neared the end, there was one evening with the doctor where we discussed what she could and could not eat.  It was high summer.  “What about peaches?” she said.  She had barely choked down her toast that evening but was looking for a miracle.  The doctor, on call, and not the normal one on palliative care duty, said “Well, peaches you know, they are hard to digest. Lots of fibre, high in sugar.” He did not realize this was a woman already less than a week from death’s door, and that she was already beyond any damage a peach could do.  Despite the fact that a more understanding doctor soon after said “Let her eat whatever she wants,” my mother had already taken the peach ban as gospel.

Two years later, I still eat as many peaches as I can, tasting unending summer and think of her.

This evening, my youngest child had trouble sleeping.  He slipped out of bed and came downstairs as I worked. He said the words that always tear into my heart.  It is a conversation we have had over and over again.  “I am sad,” he says.  “Why?” I say, already knowing the answer.  “Because Nana died.”  He was only four when she left, and it has been two years already. How much, really, can he possibly remember?  A feeling, a moment.  “And what do you remember about Nana?”  I ask.  “When we were there visiting, she always let us have ice cream.”  “True,” I say. And it is true.  Nana live vicariously through her grandchildren in so, so many ways. “And she always let us have different kinds of milk.”  Again, another treat I deny my children, chocolate and raspberry syrup added when they came over for dinner – whichever my children’s heart desired.  “Nana, was always good to you.  She is in your heart, and she is in your head.  She loves you very much. And so does Papa,” and then I recite all the people who love my littlest.  He wanders back to bed.

Later, I am upstairs delivering some laundry and I hear his voice. I go in to see what is wrong.  “I told Nana I love her,” he whispers. “I told her with the cookies that have the heart shape in them.”

“I am sure she heard you,” I said.

For what better language to speak, than through what binds us together.  Food for thought.





Written by pennyinacastle

September 19, 2016 at 1:15 am

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Off in left field

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It’s June, which means that teachers are just trying to get across the finish line and are booking a lot of field trips.  This year, I had a chance to accompany each of my children separately on an individual field trip.  This is no small thing as I need to take a day off and by the end of the day I am more exhausted than I would be working a week plus a weekend of overtime.

It’s well worth the opportunity though and I highly recommend it to all parents. It’s a chance to see how your kid interacts in their peer group at school. This is different from a play date where kids usually get along and have something in common. Instead, they are forced to interact with the kids that they normally would not choose to hang out with – but through the fate of registration (and perhaps letter of their last name) throws the kids together in the same class. It’s a good microcosm of the school relationship environment.  As a parent, it’s interesting to watch the kids – who all have to work together as a team towards a single objective – making it to the end of the day with sanity relatively intact.

I have gained valuable experience and perspective from these trips – usually not related to the camp activities, art or culture, but more as a result of taking care of my own child plus four of someone else’s children (who clearly have different personalities and levels of exposure to parental guidance).

Here are a few things I have observed, learned, thought about:

  • Might as well say it now – You will lose a child. Probably more than once. Probably only for a few brief heart stopping moments, during which every kidnapping plot twist known to man goes through your head.  Usually the child is found just around the corner and it will be another child in the group that finds them.
  • You will find someone else’s lost child – and then wonder whether it is better to wait exactly where you are in that one spot to see if the other group comes back – or wander aimlessly, towing along the other child, until you find the other group. The lost child may also tell you that they have already been lost twice that day (and you may or may not be surprised).
  • You will shout out the name of a child who happens to be standing right beside you (who you think is lost) and then feel like a bit of a tool while the child smirks up (or down) at you.
  • I’m short, so some Grade 5s are taller than me. This makes for an interesting authority dynamic (although most children will respect an adult who is louder than they are. Thank goodness for life guard training).
  • You will mix up the names of the children in your group. How teachers keep track of 30 kids is beyond me.
  • Your child is not going to enjoy the field trip if she is the only girl among a bunch of boys. But she will be able to climb a tree just as fast as the boys do.
  • It is a good idea to bring along a lot of Band Aids. Because the camp counsellor assigned to you will have forgotten or not understood how many booboos a Grade One class group can get while wandering in a field.
  • It is helpful if the Band Aids have Sponge Bob on them. It usually cuts down the screaming of “I’m dying!” a lot faster.
  • The field will be full of poison ivy and Lyme disease carrying ticks. You will only be told this upon arrival – at which point you are trapped. With five six-year-olds. Who are unlikely to stay on the path through the field and forest.
  • If your child gets sick on the bus, really try to ride it out before giving them Gravol. Otherwise your child will arrive at the field trip destination high and throughout the course of the day will drift into hang-over/melt down mode which will bewilder other parents on the trip (whose child is that anyway?).
  • Always bring extra water. Especially if it is going to be eleventy-thousand degrees outside.
  • Always bring an extra snack and/or lunch in case one of the kids forgets to bring theirs.
  • Always bring extra money in case the kid who forgot to bring their lunch also did not bring money to buy themselves lunch. And you are going to have to buy them a hamburger. Or you are both going to starve.
  • There will always be kids that bring way too much money with them and will buy everything they see – causing consternation, frustration and jealousy among the other children. If the child themselves does not bring the money, the chaperoning parent or grandparent may do it instead.
  • The same children with too much money will spend it either on weapon replicas or candy – both of which will make the children zippy to the point that all candy and weapons need to be confiscated.
  • If you have a child with an allergy, ALL the children in the class with life threatening allergies will be put into your group. Because you are the only parent on the trip who knows how to wield an Epi-pen.
  • Do not assume that having a life-threatening allergy will make children in the group feel like they are some sort of brothers-in-arms. Because they won’t, and may not in fact like each very much, are tired of constantly being thrown into the same grouping due to an allergy that is not their fault, and will have trouble getting along during the trip.
  • Make sure all the children have their Epi-pen on them before you start (because most children have them buried deep within the nether of their back pack).
  • Not all of the children in the group will want to do the same thing at the same time. Actually, they will usually want to do completely different things at the same time – which will cause wandering off as per lesson number one above.
  • You will blunder into the Picasso exhibit, having not seen the giant sign saying “Not suitable for children due to explicit nature,” and only realize what you have done after the children have marched up to look at the pictures and the security guard comes racing in to escort you out. Which will also lead to a lot of discussion about the number of “naked people” at the art gallery – bringing you way out of your depth as a chaperone.
  • One child will know all the answers to the questions being asked by the tour guide. And trash talk the rest of the children for the rest of the day for not knowing stuff.
  • In a similar vein, one child will have already visited the field trip destination sufficiently enough times to know everything about it, be bored upon arrival, and won’t want to do what everyone else wants to because they’ve “already done that.” This will lead to a lot of cajoling and eventually ordering about.
  • Similarly, if there was a zip line at the destination the day before, but not the day you are there, that is all you will hear about. “It was WAAAYYY better here yesterday…”
  • Some children are better at walking than others. Which means that you have one child who wants to sit down and hang out under a tree while the rest dart ahead into the distance. Usually getting lost in the process (repeat lesson one).
  • Thankfully children can also be incredibly patient sometimes. They will wait for each other, the bus, the next activity. It’s always a bit of a surprise but it’s nice to know that even challenging children can wait for a little bit. Another surprise is that they often bring books with them to help with the wait.
  • Which is good because often the bus is late to arrive for pick up.
  • The bus driver will be playing some awful top-40 on the radio full blast, which will include songs with lyrics you don’t want children to hear.
  • You cut the bus driver some slack because it’s eleventy-thousand degrees on the bus, they have no air conditioning, and this is the third run of the day for them in a bus filled with screaming kids.
  • Children going to a field trip are always louder on the bus than kids coming home. Which is no small mercy.
  • The child you were told is “almost non-verbal” is in fact a veritable chatterbox with their friends but will only respond in quiet sullen one-word retorts when talked to by an adult.
  • Children will be shockingly mean to each other. This may involve trash talk, excluding other children or hitting each other. And it doesn’t matter if they are boys or girls.
  • Children will also be shockingly kind to each other – helping the kids that need a little extra to get their walker off the bus, or sharing lunches or even lunch money. You will feel hope for humanity.
  • Sometimes it is your child that’s the jerk of the group. And you will feel sorry for the teacher and children that have to deal with your child every single day.  You will resolve to buy the teacher a gift card to the liquor store for the end of the year cadeaux.
  • It will be your child who begins the rousing rendition of “99 bottles of beer on the wall” at the top of their lungs as soon as the bus starts moving. Indeed, by the end of the trip, you will be looking forward to “taking one down and passing it around.” Just make sure you have some at home for when the field trip is done.


Written by pennyinacastle

June 21, 2016 at 2:47 am

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Every once in a while, your life hits a major change – and if feels like sailing over a speed bump. Sometimes in a good way. Some times in a not so good way.

Like that time the kid was born. Or came home after spending time in the NICU because no one could figure out was wrong. Or slept through the night. Or ate solid food. Or went to day care. Or started school. Or graduated from kindergarten. Or had a sleep over. Or skyped with a friend that had moved to South America (and downloaded highly questionable stuff her friend had recommended that s-l-o-w-e-d down your computer to the point where you may have needed to have a discussion about computer-ly transmitted diseases).

The only thing that really is normal is change itself (as they say). And here we are, getting ready for our next big move into a bigger, wider world. The world of CAMP.  And while my kids and I have dipped a big toe into the camp environment, this is the first time that we turning our backs on daycare and are depending on camp to save our summer. After this summer, there is no turning back – for the two older children we will be free of daycare.  But first, we have to get through that long eight week break.

While it is only March in our northern country and there is still snow on the ground, the temperatures are still frigid and there are even thousands of people without power because the grid can’t take any more ice, we are not only dreaming but planning for summer. With a military precision that I am not used to or very good at.  I’ve tried to manage a careful balancing act.  Trying to get my kids into camps that they will hopefully love, that are less than a half hour drive away, and that don’t break a budget that is stretched to try to pay for daycare and camp at the same time (It costs a fortune for good care of any kind. It’s like trying to pay our mortgage five times over).  Registration for some camps opened almost immediately after New Year’s Day. Most of the coveted (Minecraft, Lego) camps have already been filled for several weeks.  There have already been some disappointments. And there will likely be more.

Tonight though, the final puzzle piece fell into place as I signed my son up for the last week of camp needed. We had to wait a bit for some money in the budget – so it may not have been his first choice.  But now, all eight weeks are planned (barring unexpected weirdness like illness or sudden cancellations). There is still snow on the ground, and yet we are battle ready summer.

I’m a little bit worried. It’s a baby step into the next big step of many more steps to come.  Camp. No daycare – free fall into walking home and latch key kids. Junior high. High school. University. Moving out. Moving back in again (unless I down size first).  Tonight though I feel like we have a plan for whatever comes next.  Bring it on.




Written by pennyinacastle

March 26, 2016 at 2:36 am

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These grey days of winter

Of stunted dull cold

And endless clouds

Like the dusty feathered back

Of a city pigeon

Flatten me out

Like a bit of newsprint

Caught and frozen in dirty layers

Of grit and snow.


Give me Nature’s overwhelming whiteness

Of a snow storm’s drift

Or the cutting crystalline edge

Of a cold sun dog day

Over the dregs and depths

Of a mid-February evening

Any time.

Written by pennyinacastle

February 7, 2016 at 10:29 pm

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This year, my youngest entered the wonderful world of homework.

And so, our entire family began an epic journey together. Where it will end, I do not know. But if all of us survive, it will be by some miracle.

My daughter, began her passage some six years ago.  The teacher provided ten minutes of homework, as per the curriculum set about by the province. What the government did not account for was the near 60 minutes of tears, crying, cajoling, and bribery that might be involved before sitting down to do said 10 minutes of homework.  Now that my daughter is in grade five, mysteriously she has no homework and an impeccable report card.  Yet still she delights in interrupting helping her brothers’ with theirs.

My middle son began his homework career five years ago. While he seemed eager to do his homework he finished it in a suspicious amount of time.  Upon checking of said “homework” (phrase used lightly so as to imply that homework resembled something tossed off on a napkin at dinner time) usually involved judicious use of erasers and “do-overs.”

My youngest son has just entered the fabulous land of homework.  He follows more within the footsteps of his intrepid sister – and so each evening is destined to be punctuated of an extended length of time of “I can’t do this,” “Woe is me,” And “I think Mrs. ___ gave me too much.” (Which is ridiculous)

And so, as I race between “You can do it – it will take 10 minutes! Just get started! Wait, what? What do you mean you have no instructions?  I can’t read that! Do it again! Yes you have to write out the whole word November” I think of the teacher with 30 of these little darlings in their class.  I have trouble getting through 30 minutes with three of them.
So, if ever one of my children shows up for school without their homework done, dear teacher, you will know it wasn’t without an epic battle from their parents helping them to succeed.

Written by pennyinacastle

November 6, 2015 at 2:37 am

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My mother was born nearly blind.  One of her first words was “eyes” – by which she meant her glasses.  She would call for her “eyes” first thing in the morning and even as an adult, they were the last things she took off at night. When we sent mom off into the next world, she had her “eyes” with her.

She was very lucky though because from a young age, she saw one of the best ophthalmologists in the country. Also one of the most generous and kind – he agreed to do “back stair way” surgery on my mother when it was revealed that my grandparents could no longer afford to pay to have her eyes worked on. This may seem somewhat barbaric, but was actually risky on the doctor’s part – the hospital would have forced both he and my grandparents to pay for the surgery.  Even years later, optometrists and ophthalmologists complemented my mom on the beautiful work he had done on her eyes.

As a result, my mom was very careful about her own children’s eyes. I have vivid memories of riding the subway downtown to go and see my mother’s eye doctor (who was still practicing) and his protégé.  I still remember trying to eat jello in the hospital cafeteria as my eyes blurred from drops, and trying to keep my eyes open as they shone a yellow lantern in.

Because of their vigilance, the doctors caught a problem with my eyes that is normally only seen after someone is 12 or 13 – by which time it is too late and the damage is permanent.  I had a lazy, too short eye and needed glasses to help with my reading.  And so, by four years of age, I was one of the few children already wearing glasses to school.

My mother’s carefulness has continued into the third generation.  I’ve always been careful of my own and my children’s eyesight. I was able to catch on to my son’s colour blindness, after watching my grandfather, brother and cousin live with it. After a bit of a glaucoma scare two years ago, I continue to ensure I take care of my own eyes. I can’t imagine trying to make my way through life or do my job without my eye sight.

And so, I found myself once again at the optometrist having my eyes checked out.  I wasn’t thrilled because I had a new doctor (my old one having moved on to the business of laser surgery).  The new doctor indicated that I had continued to recover well from having my eyes fixed by laser beams. However, my sight had deteriorated. In the end though, she gave me the choice.

I could either get another pair of reading glasses and allow the distance grow increasingly more blurry until my next appointment. Or I could move onto a pair of progressives – a pretty word for bifocals. After some consultations with experts (okay, my progressive friends on Facebook) I decided it might be better to go for the transition now – rather than wait until later when the change might be more extreme (“Whoa, why is everything so close up! Whoa, why is everything so far away?”)

So this evening, I spent an hour and a half, and over $900 picking out new glasses (this is why I have coverage).  Having had glasses for most of my life, I know the value of a good frame.  Too big or thick  or too colourful and it looks like you are wearing a mask. Too narrow and the frame comes into your field of vision – guaranteed to drive you crazy within the first few hours.  Too flimsy and you will be constantly popping the lens back in (the ones with the wire thread holding the lens are the worst).  Plastic is hard to mould if changes are needed.  I also knew (based on mom’s thick lenses) not all frames will hold all lenses.  After trying on pretty much every frame in the store, I picked the very last ones on the shelf.  By then two other customers had come and gone – one who had an “emergency” and another who had monopolized the optometrist’s time talking about colour, shape and the size of her face, only to buy nothing in the end.

After finally choosing a frame, the optometrist spent a great deal of time explaining how progressive’s worked, and taking measurements. I was impressed. With a normal prescription, usually it’s just a matter of picking out frames and giving your prescription. In this case, the optometrist spent time telling me about the different kinds of progressives, making marks on the frames, pulling out various arcane looking instruments and flashlights.

In the end, I think I got my $900 worth.  Besides, if there is one thing I’ve learned from my mother and through my life, investing in my eyesight is priceless.

Written by pennyinacastle

November 5, 2015 at 3:12 am

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False spring

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Today, when I left for my walk, the half moon waned over the beginning of the sun rise.  Even though I know it is the darkest days of the year, today felt like spring.  The air was warm, and the skies were clear.  A few birds were awakening – although a murder of crows flew over head hinting at the real season.  Most of the leaves are gone, but today one could almost believe that new buds were just around the corner. I thought about how easy it would be to get up early every day, knowing that a beautiful world waited outside for you.  It will take so much more effort to escape the gravity of a warm bed and hot cup of coffee when the wind is howling and the temperature dips below 30 degrees.  These last few months though of getting up to greet the sun have made a difference and helped me get through the day.

As the sun rose, the sky was a flawless blue.  It was warm and the wind was gentle as I went for a second walk at lunch time. I didn’t really need a coat. At the end of the day though, the darkness spread its shadow early.  The sun was down and the stars were already waking up in the sky as I walked home.  It was still a beautiful evening – and the children skipped and chatted as we made our way up the street towards home.

The dark evenings tell me what I already know – it will be a short false spring. Knowing that these kind weather days will be gone in the blink of a week and that work will swing into action soon, I want to make sure I squeeze out all the sunshine I can.

Written by pennyinacastle

November 4, 2015 at 1:53 am

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Calling all Saints

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When I was a little girl, my grandfather wore a Saint Christopher’s medal.  He is the patron saint of travel.  My grandfather did not seem to travel far (other than for vacation), but he did go to war.  Perhaps he wore the medal to protect him while he was over in Europe, hoping it would help return him safely to his wife and unborn child.

My mother frequently called upon St. Anthony and Little Jesus Lost and Found.  Prayers were fervently made while frantically searching for keys, wallets or purses just as we were heading out the door. (If the keys were not found in sufficient amount of time, prayers usually turned to curses of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”). We had a statue of Jesus on the dashboard, and a key ring rosary just to be extra sure. Decades of Hail Mary’s were said as we drove off on long journeys.

It always seemed a little strange to me that Catholics had these spiritual rituals that seemed closer to calling on fairies and pixies.

This All Saints Day, I wonder what saints  modern day sinners might pray to in order to help them march through the day.  Saint Steve who might help guard the battery on the iPhone long enough to make that last call or email go through and save their career.  Saint Henry, to keep the traffic at bay while on the high way and the car from breaking down.  Saint William who might help the children to sleep, or eat their dinner or at least help keep a parent from going crazy.  Saint Martha who will help mom finish the cupcakes for the umpteenth school bakesale.  Saint Oprah, the patron saint of keeping it all together and then telling you where you put it (or lost it as the case may be).

As I get older and life’s challenges increase from year to year, I think I’m beginning to understand my grandfather and my mother’s need for saints.  I know I can use all the modern spiritual voodoo I can get.

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November 2, 2015 at 2:41 am

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The Gate

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Today, while I was walking to work, I took the path that runs down by the river and through the green belt. I haven’t taken this path for the last few weeks – I’ve been too disorganized to get out the door quickly enough.

This morning I noted that most of the leaves on the trees were gone. The dregs of a hurricane that blew through a few days ago had seen to that.  I find everything looks a little more desolate, a little greyer, a little smudgy when November comes.

Today though, I saw something that the leaves had kept hidden for who knows how long.  Beside the path there is a little forest of sumac and buckthorn.  Off the paved path, I saw a worn mud track through the bushes and trees. At the head of the trail was what looked like a skull, mounted on top of a tree trunk. Someone had stuck feathers and leaves in it – giving it a ghoulish look.  I stepped a little off the path to have a closer look and realized that what I thought was bone was actually oddly shaped bit of drift wood shaped a bit like a face.

There were several other similar sinister woody faces peering at me, as well as other bits and bobs of metal and odd things wedged to the surrounding trees.

Further in the distance I could see the dark shadow of a lean-to shelter someone had built. I didn’t move any closer to investigate and instead turned quickly and walked away.

But it does make me wonder who has built this odd little witch’s home in the woods so near my house.  Teenagers with nothing better to do? Someone living near the gate between this world and the next?

I’m not sure, but I think I will tread carefully when I walk through the green alone during this dark month of November.wooden skull

Written by pennyinacastle

November 1, 2015 at 3:08 am

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Great pumpkin

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When I was just a wee baby, I was frequently sick with high fevers.  This must have been really difficult for my mom, who went back to work when I was just six weeks old. One memorable time she frequently told us about was when I was six months old.  It was around Halloween and It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown was on television.  She said that she sat and rocked me as my fever burned on. While the show was on, I stopped crying and eventually fell asleep in her arms.

From then on, any kind of “holiday special” was a tradition in our family.  We would be allowed a “treat” of chips or popcorn and pop.  We would all watch together, bunched up, snuggled under blankets. First in front of a tiny black and white bought at Mel Lastman’s store that only picked up UHF stations. Later we watched on cable on a bigger colour TV.  Mom was the biggest cheerleader for these events – she’d scan the newspaper for the listing of specials, carefully cut them out and post them on the fridge.  She would sit and watch them with us, laughing. She would always get excited by new ones. I remember when Nelvana put out its first Christmas special about aliens visiting during Christmas time – it was a bit weird but she loved it.  Her favourites were always the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and any Peanuts special.  I carry all of those memories with me.

In today’s day and age, with DVDs, Netflix and Youtube, you can watch a holiday program any time you want. It takes the “special” out of the special a bit when you don’t need to plan for it or turn it into an event.

But today, we had an unexpected turn of events. My son was sick and wanted to “watch a video.”  I suggested The Great Pumpkin. He wasn’t thrilled at first (Dinotrux is his thing these days) but I plugged in our little portable DVD player and we sat on the couch to watch it together.

It’s such an odd little slice in time, this “special.”  The Peanuts were allowed to talk like children but with an adult vocabulary and sensibilities (“Funny thing about this signed document. It’s not notarized,” says Lucy after pulling away the footfall for the thousandth time). Many of the jokes are a wink to older I audiences. I cringe a bit as the words “stupid” and “block head” are used over and over – but then thought, this is likely what most kids still hear every day in the school yard – and an opportunity to have that conversation about how kids treat each other. In the end, it’s also a story about faith and conviction – how do you stand by your beliefs when all around you mock you? Can you continue to carry that belief even if your expectation is not fulfilled?

Today though, it was more about having a minute to slow down time, to spend it with my kid. And remember my mom who took care of me so many years ago – and took the extra effort to put the “special” into holiday specials.

Written by pennyinacastle

October 23, 2015 at 2:07 am

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