Each time I darken the door of the bowling alley, I wonder why it is that I don't come here more often.  I love this place and I love bowling.  Over the weekend, the JoyFam and I darkened away.

We paid the very reasonable lane rental fee and sat down to replace our street shoes with what we all agreed were the coolest shoes in the Universe.  We also all agreed that we'd secretly like to steal our bowling shoes, only we restrained ourselves.  We thought it might look fishy if six pair went missing all at once.   As the kids and I compared newly hippified feet, JoyBoy furtively went to register our names with the teenaged boy at the front counter.  To our great, noisy mirth, we looked up at the screen to see that the kids were dubbed Manstink, Tugboat, Bologna and Bill for all the bowling world to see.  JoyBoy, interestingly enough, had his regular old name and I was shackled with my childhood moniker of Jench.  As in Jench the Wench for those of you not in the know.  The uncomprehending teenaged boy at first spelt Manstink as Mansink, so JoyBoy had to yell out a correction from across the alley to Anabel's combined horror and delight.

I went first and confidently shot a strike.  Wait a minute.  Does one 'shoot' in bowling?  I think what I meant to say is that I bowled a strike.  Anyway, exultation rocketed straight to my head, rendering me stunningly overconfident and my game devolved from there.  There were no more strikes for me for the rest of the hour. 

The hero of the hour was Bill, or Oliver as you'll know him.  He was, to our surprise and great  hilarity, an excellent bowler.  We laughed and laughed as the seven-year-old trounced us all, over and over again.  Each time he'd throw/shoot/wing another excellent shot, he'd dance around in merry triumph, tiny arms pumping high above his bespectacled head.  His little chicken legs clad in his little skinny jeans gyrating about in lordly joy made our time worth every penny just in and of itself.   O my goodness did we laugh at Bill and his bowling triumphs.

The other kids were pretty good too, which I'm quite sure makes us a family of geeks.   Of course, it helps tremendously that we insist upon having the bumpers down, thus eliminating any gutter balls that would most certainly plague us otherwise.    We also have no real problem with lofting.

The JoyBoy was a highly inelegant Second Placer.  With not an iota of humility, he'd dance around in a superiority-induced frenzy, yelling out things like sucka!  you pack of suckas!  as he swung his hips about in a very in-your-face fashion.  Have I ever mentioned that JoyBoy has taught me a lot about parenting?  Part way through our terrifically loud game, another family rented the lane right next to us.  In their ranks were three little children, all under the age of what looked to be 8.  These little children appeared to never have seen anything like us.  They stared and they stared.  They didn't smile back at us when we attempted same because, I think, they were frightened.  For fear of alarming them further, we tried to tone it down a bit.  I mean, we didn't want to look like freaks or anything.  Goodness knows we wouldn't want to malign our true nature.  Our hour came to a close shortly thereafter.   We're going again next week.

Mesmerized, I watched an unexpected dynamic unfold at the senior's home.   I very nearly couldn't take my eyes off the scene.  A mean girl reigned supreme. 

It reminded me of middle schoolers, vying for social status, self-esteems too trampled to care what means they used to achieve the social significance they slavered after.  Those that hurt the most so clearly hurt the most, you know?  

We'll say that her name was Elma (it wasn't) and in describing her, we'll say that if you ignored the pinched expression on her face, she looked like someone's beloved grandma (perhaps she is).  She had sweetly curled white hair and round spectacles with pretty gold chains securing them to her person for fear, I assume, of misplacing them.  She wore a warm purple cardigan and elasticized slacks, as surely all good grandmas do at times, and she was significantly more mobile than most of the rest of the ladies I met that day.  Perhaps this no-doubt-coveted mobility was a key to her supremacy over some of the more mild-mannered ladies there.  Perhaps mobility is to life in a senior's home what name brand clothing is to life in a middle school.  Most of what you read so far is speculation.  What I can say for sure, though, is that the way she treated some of the other ladies reminded me very much of how my children act immediately prior to a time-out here at home.  Unkind is a word that springs to mind.  Bossy is another.  And tattling.

My first job of the day was to go to the laundry room and wheel a big bin of freshly washed towels and face cloths to the TV room.  When I'd sorted the laundry into manageable piles onto a table I had set up earlier, the ladies began to congregate.  I was interested to learn that they (or most of them, anyway) love to do work like this.  It's a way where they can contribute and feel useful.  As we chatted in loud voices to make ourselves heard by everyone, Elma began to critique.  She didn't like the way certain other ladies were folding.  I ignored her and chatted obliviously.  Elma then ramped her strategy up a notch and her voice raised discontentedly.  She looked at me and said She's doing it all wrong!  We don't do it that way!  It's all wrong!  I was fascinated to note that she looked to me as an authority figure of sorts, even though I was a mere volunteer, and brand new at that.  But even as a green, green rookie, I could see that she was genuinely upset and I felt a pang of remorse that I had discounted her concerns so immediately.  Her voice rose further in a plaintive helplessness and I began to see that maybe the perfect folding of the laundry helped her to carve out some meaning and some order to her existence here.  I began to see that  mean-spiritedness wasn't the only thing at work.  I comforted her in the way that I used to shush a fussy baby pressed close to my chest in a snuggly and said, It's ok, Elma.  It's ok.  Don't worry.  I'll show Margie how to do it your way.  It's ok.  My heart was touched to see that this approach seemed to connect with her and that she calmed.  Her powerlessness was palpable.

Later I served tea and coffee and Elma yelled out emphatic orders every step of the way.  The cups aren't in that cupboard.  No!  Those cups are special.  You can't use those.  She's not allowed to have two cookies.  Don't let her!  Honestly, it was all I could do not to laugh right out loud.  As they finished up with their refreshments, she announced aggressively to the other quiet ladies in the room I'm going to the chapel now.  You should too.  Bertha, are you coming?  Marta, come along!  When I told her we weren't slated to do our exercise class in the chapel for another 15 minutes, she responded that she needed to warm her chair.  I thought she was showing a promising flash of humor and immediately leapt at the chance to lighten things up a bit.  I laughed and she very scornfully lashed out I'm not kidding.  Those chairs are cold, you know! 

Ah.  It's going to be fun.  I truly can't wait.
I've mentioned to you that one of my New Year's resolutions is to volunteer in a senior's home this year.  I've now jumped through most of the myriad hoops required in order to do so.  Though the hoops are time, energy and even money consuming, I'm pleased to know that they exist.  The seniors I'll be working with are easily hurt and the  hoops are in place to insure that no one takes advantage of these lovely, lonely people.

Tomorrow, I’m to go to the senior’s home for the first time to volunteer.  I feel many things as I think about it.  First and foremost, I feel excitement as this is something I’ve wanted incorporate into my life for several years now.  Second, I feel some disappointment, as the volunteer coordinator has slotted me in a position I find to be quite ironic.  I’ll be folding laundry alongside seniors.  I practically fold laundry for a living in my current life.  A load spins comfortingly as I type.  Mostly I feel happy, though.  I’m pleased that they’ve placed me with the seniors I feel best equipped to help.  They didn’t place me with the dementia patients and they also didn’t place me with the seniors living in the assisted living apartments, who can mostly fend for themselves and who have the best rate of family involvement in their lives as it is.  I’m with those who are well aware of their faculties and surroundings and so are therefore probably most lonely. 

I felt alternating pangs of sadness and growing joy when I went in for my interview.  The sadness stemmed from seeing the advanced dementia patients sitting motionless in their wheelchairs, mouths gaping as they watched television.  Though the care workers were obviously compassionate people trying their best to enhance the lives of these people, everything felt so gray.  I looked at the half circle of wheelchairs and read their names neatly labeling the back of each chair and I felt acutely aware of the whole, once vibrant lives those inadequate white labels represented.  It felt stunningly wrong to see these mothers and fathers and husbands and wives, artists and entrepreneurs sitting so still before the daytime television that now occupied their existences in a disproportionate way.  They seemed sapped of their very selves and yet I learned that many of them have vibrant, alert minds trapped inside those motionless, dependent bodies.  Of course this saddens one further. 

The growing joy part stems from knowing that I'm taking a step - albeit an infinitesimal one - to do something to build into the lives of some lonely people.  When I reflect back on my own life, one of the more meaningful relationships I've yet been a part of was the one I shared with my Grandma Dixie.  I loved her with every ounce of my neophyte heart.  I knew as soon as I was able to process such things that my Grandma was good.  She taught me things that I've never forgotten.  It seemed to me then that wisdom practically seeped out of her pores.  She knew how to knit and crochet and make pancakes, such pancakes!  I thought back then that maybe she was God's smartest person.  As I think about her, I think about how in her later years, she was confined to a senior's home and about how unhappy that made her feel.  And naturally my thoughts turn to the countless others like her living perhaps against their will in these places.   And I want to be with them and do what I can to make them smile, even if only for a moment.

Oliver's class is in the middle of doing a fun project where each child has to bring in and present one of his or her favorite recipes.  Since our littlest is a passionate pancake sort of guy, he's slated to bring in the following recipe this week.  They are required to go shopping for the ingredients for their recipe and also to make the actual recipe together with a loving adult in their lives.  I think it's such a creative way of introducing the little Grade Ones to things like list-making, public speaking and cooking and the consequent math  involved.  Ollie's recipe is from Barefoot Contessa's Family Style.

Makes 12 pancakes

1 ½ cups unbleached flour

3 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

½ cup sour cream

¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon milk

2 extra-large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Unsalted butter

2 ripe bananas, diced, plus extra for serving

Pure maple syrup

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Whisk together the sour cream, milk, eggs, vanilla and lemon zest.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ones, mixing only until combined.

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat until it bubbles.  Ladle the pancake batter into the pan.  Distribute a rounded tablespoon of bananas on each pancake.  Cook for 2-3 minutes, until bubbles appear on top and the underside is nicely browned.  Flip the pancakes and then cook for another minute, until browned.  Wipe out the pan with a paper towel, add more butter to the pan, and continue cooking pancakes until all the batter is used.  Serve with sliced bananas, butter and maple syrup.  Another fun option is to serve with maple whipped cream and blueberries.

I looked at her enthralled profile, hardly recognizing her.  She was emerging from her chrysalis, right before my fascinated, devastated, admiring eyes.  We were at her first rock concert together and I keep telling myself I'm lucky because she's still happy to be in places like this with me.  The music is so loud, I can feel it pound through my body almost as much as I can hear it through my old-school - even flourescent orange  - ear plugs.

I suspect that this gauntlet is all the more difficult to cross because she's my precious first-born.  I feel so conflicted inside, wanting to stifle the all-too-fast beginnings of this burgeoning new person and at the same time admiring and respecting her so much.  She is everything I hoped she would be and then more.  I didn't know that thirteen-year olds could be so confident and insightful.  I didn't know that they could show glimmers of being so much more than their parents.  And yet, I feel only a tremendous gratefulness that she is mine, even if only for this very short time.

The music is just what she loves and her appreciation is tangible, though not in quite the same way as the three shrieking, shimmying, terribly off-key  adolescent girls directly behind us.  There has always been a dignity about my Anabel.  She's not flamboyant and she isn't all that drawn to physical touch.  Even as a infant, not yet even able to control her own neck muscles, she'd arch her little back away from our snuggles, trying to procure for herself some much valued personal space.  I'm reminded of that little newborn tonight as I watch her.  Her eyes are bright and if you look closely, you can see the joy lining her face, but she's still and quiet.  Though I don't much like the music (I've become that old woman, much to my secret mirth!), my own feet are proving to be far more active than my girls'.  She is careful to avoid touching the person next to her, for that would equal social unpleasantness to her.   I know that she'd undoubtedly be a great deal noisier and overtly 'teenager-ish' if she were here with a pack of girlfriends, but in the meantime, I just try to record all the little observations I make tonight so that I can remember her, here, right now, forever.  She represents eternity in no small way and I'm so happy to be along for the ride.
We have a little dynamic at work in our family of late.  Little Lucy has just now entered the world of online shopping and is currently experiencing the less exhilarating side of it.  She waits for her treasure to arrive.  She waits and she waits and then she waits.  And then, in a burst of flamboyant frustration, she waits some more.

Every day after school, she asks me if I've checked the mail.  Every day I tell her no.   We then proceed to our next stop and pick up our Bigs and our carpool friend.  Every day Lucy then asks me if we can check the mail.  Every day I say yes and smile and hand her the key as I pull over to the  mailboxes, her daily tormentors.  These mailboxes - they mock her.  They sadden and they grieve her.  She hates these mailboxes and then she tries a different tack.  She's cheerfully manipulative and sunnily, as she makes her way toward these witholding  metal boxes, out surely to thwart the fulfillment of her joy,  she calls over her shoulder, wish me luck!  And then she's angry again as she sorts through that day's contents only to find that all the Universe conspires against her to squash her sunshiney joy.

She's ordered an American Girl bathtub, complete with dazzling artificial pink bubbles.  Daily, she pages through the American Girl catalogue, which is dog-eared and tattered from all the loving perusal it's undergone.  She saves her allowance each week and painstakingly works her financial way toward more American Girl paraphernalia.  She hates that in its company name though, it excludes her Canadian devotedness and says so regularly.  When she's grouchy, American Girl's lack of Canadian-ness is oft lamented. 

So she's just now in that heady, unusual position of actually having ordered something from this precious catalogue of hers.  And now she waits and she decries the state of the nearby Canadian border crossing, which has almost certainly mistaken her beloved bath tub for a kilo or two of cocaine.  She's indignant to be mistaken for a drug dealer.  She wonders aloud if maybe one of these selfish border guards has taken her bath tub home for his own, undeserving little girl to play with.  She vows that she'll check it out very carefully for signs of clandestine play when it finally arrives.  I listen to her and if I'm feeling gracious, I laugh at her nine-year-old obsessiveness.  If I'm tired of hearing all these same conjectures time and time again, I don't laugh and instead, I tell her abruptly one more time about the concept of a postal tracking number.  And then I tell her not to talk about it anymore for today and a fairy-tale mother's smile does not light up my saintly face.

But really, she's so cute.  And she's learning so much.  I love her more - much more - than I love myself and I'm so pleased that it's me God has chosen to show her how to grow to be a patient shopper and so much more.  What a beautiful duty.  What a blessed woman.