The Ministry of Mrs. Clean Jeans

posted in: Parenthood, Uncategorized | 0

I stalk denim and I know why.

In the early 1980s, nothing was more fashionable in my small town than Levis 501s paired with Chippewa boots and a powder jacket. My elementary school was overrun by kids with parents who thought it totally awesome to outfit growing children in expensive leather work boots and expensive jeans topped with expensive ski jackets. My parents didn’t. Perhaps they could have if my dad didn’t drink the clothing money.

Instead of Chippewas, I wore knock-off nods to Adidas shoes from Kmart. They were blue with four yellow stripes. Adidas had three stripes, so the only people fooled by my shoes were younger than five. Instead of a powder jacket, I wore a coat from the nice thrift store, one step up from the Salvation Army.

One day, after school, my mom told me to go look on my bed. I knew she bought something for me because she always put things she bought for us on our beds but couldn’t wait for us to find them on our own. I ran to my room. There, folded, was a pair of Levis with the telltale swooping-arc pocket design. I grabbed them and looked at the brown rectangle tag sewn on the right side of the back waistband to read the most important number I’d ever read: 501.

It wasn’t 501. It was some other 5__ number I can’t remember. I unfurled them. No button fly! It was a zipper and it got worse. Rather than being straight-legged, they were bootcut. My mom stood in the doorway, grinning. “I found them at the army surplus store!” I managed to thank her. For the rest of the night, I tried to convince myself no one at school would notice they weren’t 501s. They would see my back pockets. My shirt would hide the brown tag. Nobody would look at my fly, would they? It would be okay. I had 1/3 of the uniform.

I wore them to school the next day. Everything seemed fine until lunch. We were in line in the cafeteria. One of the girls with 3/3 of the uniform sneered, “Why do your Levis do that?” She pointed at the flared legs above my Adidon’ts. I froze.

This was the early 80s. Anything remotely 1970s was disgusting. Disco? Grody. Flat hair? Grody. Bellbottoms? Grody to the max. I knew my bootcut jeans looked awfully bell-bottomy and I felt deep shame. My 1/3 became 0/3 in an instant.

Every morning, my mom expected me to wear my Levis 5-Oh-Loser jeans and I did because they were pretty much the only pair of pants that fit. I wore them and wore them and wore them and she never, ever washed them. Not only did I wear the wrong jeans, they were filthy and had their own ecosystem. Years later, we were reminiscing about childhood hijinks and she mentioned, “I couldn’t get those jeans off you! They were so dirty but I knew if I washed them, you wouldn’t be able to wear them to school and you wouldn’t have stood for that!”

Oh, mom. I wished you not only washed those jeans, but burned them in our wood burning stove dad installed to save money on heating.

I told her she could have taken them after I put on my pajamas, washed and dried them, and then I could have worn them the next day. To me, this was obvious. Why hadn’t she? I silently wondered.


“Is that pizza sauce?’ I point at my son’s jeans and scowl. He shrugs. ‘Don’t you care? My God, it’s not okay to go out looking like that!” I command him to march back to his dresser and chose clean pants.


Why hadn’t she? 

Perhaps Dynasty was on? What about weekends? I know she did laundry because my sister and I were assigned to hang wet clothes on the laundry line outside. Why didn’t she wash my jeans?

It’s odd and unsettling I still ask myself this question. But I see myself as a child wearing armor-stiff self-ambulatory denim coated in bacteria and I am alarmed. Outwardly, it looked like nobody cared for me but I know the truth.

She loved me and loves me fiercely. Being married to an alcoholic must have been crushingly painful. It was brutally hard for me as a child. To be married to an addict? The loneliest road I can fathom. Many times, I asked why she didn’t care and now I see her deep hurt. She’d say she always prayed about it and trusted God to deliver my dad from alcohol. He did, but not in my timing—or hers.

Of course she wanted to give me the best and she tried. But at the end of the day, when I had stripped off the jeans and the bacteria conspired on my bedroom floor, the last thing on her mind was more work. She already did everything. I was too self-involved for it to occur to me to do it on my own without prompting. They festered. I did, too. My mom waited and in that waiting, she revealed a true servant’s heart. 


I gather laundry daily. I love the smell of detergent. I love pre-treating stains. I love finding dryer sheets with delightful scents. I buy those beads to add to the wash. I love folding everything straight out of a warm dryer to minimize wrinkles. I love sorting everything into piles to put away. I have delayed teaching my kids how to do laundry because I truly like to do it. They can have at the toilets and floors. Give me humming machines that keep everyone looking sharp.


This is simply a form of control.

I can rinse away almost everything but pen marks and mustard. If my kids load a pen with mustard, I will be thoroughly defeated. But I can’t wash away the worst of my worst. Thank God I am only able to keep the outside clean. My soul groans and worry quakes me awake. My mother taught me to lay it all out before Jesus and wait even though I was furious when she did just that. While my pants were filthy, it was no match for my heart and still isn’t. I need the cleaning only Jesus can provide. I leave my heart on the floor. It’s so rumpled. It’s stained. There is mustard but he doesn’t roll his eyes and mutter. Here he comes to pick it up, shake it out, and wash it clean.

The Porch Rabbit Lives

posted in: Faith, Nature | 0

Every time we’ve stepped out the front door the past few days, a small rabbit was hunkered a few feet down, trapped. Earlier in the week, one of the kids saw the rabbit dart into a small hole under the concrete front porch. It would have made an excellent home, but my husband filled in the hole with dirt and packed it tightly. The rabbit’s only hope rested solely in digging itself out.

I wasn’t happy when I heard. I have a soft spot for rabbits. My first non-fish pet was a rabbit I won at work when I was a senior in high school. I worked at Target and they were giving away a rabbit as a prize in a trivia contest at the store’s Christmas party. As an adult, it occurred to me a co-worker must have wanted to unload the rabbit and believed the Christmas party was just the ticket. There is no way they obtained a rabbit to be a prize when they had an entire store of items to choose from. That’s why God invented Requisition Forms.

My parents were very surprised when I showed up at home with a new friend. Thankfully, they let me keep her. She was a lot of fun to watch loping around our house that winter, living the good life of central heat and champagne grapes. She died the following summer after getting into my mom’s garden strawberries, which were covered in white powdered pesticide. I was angry and haven’t eaten my mother’s strawberries since. She doesn’t know that’s the reason. It’s my only grudge and it’s completely unreasonable.

Bunnies have my heart. I pouted and protested when my husband explained why he covered the hole. “They’re rodents. They cause damage.” When I said it was just one little rabbit, he retorted that there never is just one rabbit. They have a reputation for being very family-oriented. I had arguments of my own, based solely on iffy speculation: What if the rabbit was an adolescent, born during the summer but out on its own without the companionship of others? What if our porch was the only hope of survival?

Wasn’t it an honor for a rabbit to choose our porch above all porches?

I knew my arguments were childish, but I was struck by the sadness of the little bunny’s end. It was cut off from food and water, unless instinct kicked into those sweet paddy paws I pictured. Dig dig dig, I telegraphed through the soles of my shoes as I stepped outside. I wasn’t going to un-do my husband’s digging because he was rational and right. Wild rabbits destroy gardens and chew wiring in cars because of soy-based wire wrapping. They carry diseases like Tularemia. The only difference between rabbits and rats is that rabbits are adorable and rats are loathesome. If a rat ran under our porch, dirt wouldn’t have been enough to cover the hole. I would have poured flaming concrete spiked with landmines and sauerkraut into the hole and put our house on the market.

About the same time my son saw the rabbit, a cold snap hit. It’s been brutally frigid with record-breaking low temperatures. The rabbit might not have survived anyway, even if it wasn’t sealed inside. These are brittle times to be helpless outside. When we said our morning prayers this week before school, we prayed for those who had no homes or had to work outside. May they find shelter and warmth, we asked, knowing how even little birds and big whales are provided for:

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Matthew 6:26 NKJV

This is such a hard verse despite its beautiful imagery. The tenderness of the mother bird feeding her young with bugs, seeds, and fish is played out world-wide in billions of trees and barren arctic tundras and God knows each beak. Yet we hear of homeless people and elderly folk freezing to death, hungry. The two often go together. If you can’t afford food, shelter is often out of reach. If you don’t have shelter, you don’t have a place to eat, prepare, or store food in safety and comfort. Bites are snatched here and there with nothing for long-term sustenance.

Where is God when His people are sealed-in? Where is He when they are sealed-out? He sends helpers and hands to seek the cold and forgotten, but is that everyone? Who is missing from His big, long table, until its too late? I thought of the little rabbit under the old doormat, under our feet. I’d sneak peeks where the hole was, on the east side in the dirt beside the scraggly juniper bush, hoping to see signs the rabbit knew what to do.


It did. Today, I saw a new hole where there wasn’t a hole yesterday. I didn’t see the wiggly nose when it caught the cold air but I hope it caught the scent of something good carried in a gust of wind. There are seeds in the pinecones squirrels knocked down from the pine tree above. The top of a dead flower is pinned down by a snowdrift. Eat.

God’s people need to be that good gust, carrying the scent of something irresistible. We need to be surrendered to the direction of how He wends us up and around and through scraggles to be His feeding, helping, serving hands. But do I, beyond prayers with my children before they go to school full of buttered waffles toasted in a warm house? Not really. Not in awhile.

What will I do with this challenge?


Punching George Bailey in the Face

posted in: Culture, Faith, Parenthood | 0

The email I composed to my daughter’s teacher was eloquent and angry. It was arch, crisp, devastating. I wrote words I knew would wound a person who dedicated her life to teaching elementary school children. She was a monster, a liar, a manipulator beyond reason. I was fierce and poetic, conjuring a vision of a little girl with a passionate love of school and learning left terrified to enter what was once a beloved place. I seethed and hammered keys. I marveled at how bitterness inspired twisting, clever phrases, even congratulating myself on one particular paragraph. My daggers were lined up and smartly punctuated.

The only thing that slowed me down was how to close. Should I sign Sincerely? You bet. Best? Ha! Warmly? Icily. Regards? Maybe.

George Bailey. 

I stopped typing. In It’s a Wonderful Life, a despairing George Bailey shreds ZuZu’s teacher over the telephone when he learns his ailing daughter was sent home from school with an unbuttoned coat. Mary Bailey is horrified by her husband’s venom. Nobody knew what George was going through that might excuse his unmerciful outburst, but surely they recognized one thing:

Nobody hurts my child.

Later, George sat in Martini’s bar next to a grumpy man. He happened to be married to ZuZu’s teacher. When the man found out George Bailey occupied the barstool to the right, he cocked his punching arm and slammed Mr. Bailey square in the face, knocking him off the barstool to the floor. George is helped to his feet after they toss the teacher’s husband into the snowy night. George slurs, with blood running from his lip, “That’s what I get for praying.”

Remembering this scene stopped me from hitting the send button. I didn’t imagine the teacher’s husband was going to punch me, but it reminded me there are people who love her just as fiercely as I love my little girl. She was human and my words were aiming for her heart and I knew some of them were bound to land in tender places.

I wanted to hurt her feelings and ruin her day and this alarmed me.

What is this fierceness? Love doesn’t abide ferociousness. They can’t exist in the same place at the same time. My daughter’s pain grieved me and I wanted to repay with grief tenfold so the teacher would know how it felt—because, I told myself, I love my daughter and cannot tolerate her suffering. There’s no doubt about my love for my girl, but viciousness has no place in our sphere. Ever.

I stopped writing and read the email. My daughter came up behind me and I wanted to throw my body over the screen to shield her from my ugly words. If I can’t protect her without devolving into an animal, then I can’t protect her at all. The reflex to pounce and shred is honed and perfected with use. It becomes easy to slip into bitterness if I don’t guard my heart and call on Jesus to equip me with peace, to flood me with grace, to teach me to extend his love others without holding back.

“That’s what I get for praying.” George Bailey believed the punch in the face was God’s solution to his despair. When George was a non-entity, observing a George-less world with Clarence as his guide, he no longer bled. When George decided to live and face the consequences, his wound returned. Our bloody bits can come in many forms, springing from a place where a fist hits a trembling lip or when you open an inbox, see a subject line, and read.



She’s a Good Girl, Who Knows Her Physics

posted in: Parenthood | 0

Tom Petty laid out the criteria for a good girl.

She loves her mama, Jesus, and America too.

She’s crazy about Elvis. She loves horses. Last on the list, she loves her boyfriend, too.

I was driving with my teenage daughter. We were taking off on an adventure related to impending post-high school life. I pushed the seek button on the radio repeatedly. “Free Fallin'” was just starting. I assumed she wouldn’t want to listen to a down-tempo song from the 1980s, especially from the likes of Mr. Petty. When I tuned away, she screamed, “Hey! Turn it back!”

“You know that song?” I stammered as I hit the back arrow. I never really liked the song, but I loved the video when it was released. In fact, I copied the eyelashes and pale lipstick look for about six months and thought the platform sandals the girl wore during the second verse were incredible.

“My physics teacher played it for us when we were learning about the rate of acceleration in a free fall.”

Tom wailed, “Now I’m free, free-fallin’…”

My daughter quickly sang, “…at 9.81 meters per second squared!”

Tom wailed, again, “Yeah I’m free, free-fallin'”

She: “…at 9.81 meters per second squared!”

The song ended and so did the mini refresher course in the laws of gravity. We continued our trip, which involved crossing several mountain passes. Due to a horrible accident that closed the interstate, we were directed onto a two-lane state highway. It used to be the one and only route over that mountain range. A new route was built because it’s dangerously curvy with sheer drop-offs to oblivion. There are no guardrails. Much of the detour was above timberline. I had her take photos because the views were spectacular, especially as the setting sun cast a pink glow over jagged peaks.

“I can see the interstate. It’s down there.” She pointed out her window with her finger nearly vertical. I concentrated on the road and the cars in front of me and behind me. We were beads on a wire of road, being pushed along over and up, looped to the left, looped to the right. Hairpin curve means nothing to a generation that doesn’t wear hairpins, I found out.

The detour tacked on an extra 45 minutes to our trip. Eventually, we rejoined the interstate at a point about 20 miles to the west from the point it closed. Soon, it was dark. I told her to watch for glowing eyes along the side of the road.


I had never driven a child to a place so outwardly devoted to her looming future, away from us. Somehow, it felt sanely responsible and utterly ludicrous at the same time. All weekend, I spoke to her without speaking:

I am facilitating your exit.

I am driving you to a possible future.

I am steering us up and over jagged ledges, supported by road carved into cliffsides, just so you can look around at a place and decide if you can picture yourself there. Not us. You.

I have been driving her toward this future since before she was born, tuning songs to help us peel off miles but it had never been so smackingly serious. Real. This is happening and my heart feels like it’s traveling at 9.81 meters per second squared.

The Watermelons of October

posted in: Faith, Parenthood | 0

In early September, one of my sons returned home from school one day with multiple plastic grocery stacks stuffed with dirt-covered vegetables, gourds, potatoes, and onions. His science class spent a day at a working farm where they were shuttled from field to field and told to gather what they could. He went overboard on the onions and could have harvested a few more of the fragrant, gorgeous peppers. We were proud of his haul and he was, too. It was a contribution to the wellness of our family as a whole. We’ve enjoyed the bounty.

But one of the gourds he brought home perplexed everyone. It was perfectly round and the size of a cantaloupe, but was streaked with shades of green. He was sure it was a watermelon because of the coloring. I disagreed. It had to be a fall gourd. We held it to our ears and knocked on it like people who regularly knocked on bulbous produce. We shrugged and determined that a watermelon didn’t click with the rest of the harvest spread on the kitchen table. We separated carrots from peppers and onions from potatoes, washing and storing them away.

I put his small pumpkin, handsome butternut squash, and the green gourd in a fall centerpiece until we were ready to eat them. Gourds last a long time when conditions are right. His field trip was my easy fall decorating bonanza. We’d eat the butternut squash eventually. He’d carve his pumpkin closer to Halloween. The green gourd could be carved, too. Green would make a fun monster.

Daily, he asked to crack open the watermelon. I said no, because there was a 99% chance it was a gourd. We’d have an open mystery gourd to toss out—not all gourds are edible and I didn’t want our family to discover little green gourds make little green faces. For several weeks, it stayed on the table watching fall flower bouquets come and go. Every few days, my son would sigh and ask why he couldn’t open his watermelon. Eventually, he stopped asking to open it. Until a few days ago.

I had been sick with a nasty virus that was so nasty, my husband sent me to bed for a few days. I was lounging and watching a game show around dusk when our farmhand showed up in my doorway with his hands behind his back. “Guess what, mom?”

He brought his hands around, each holding half of the green gourd. “Dad said I could open my watermelon, finally.”

Even though the room was nearly dark, except for the glow of the TV, I could see pale pink flesh and rows of black seeds.

“It’s really dry. Guess I’ll have to throw it away now.”

I told him he was right, I was wrong, and I was sorry.

Had I let him cut it weeks ago, he could have still eaten it.  But I knew better. I had seen green gourds in magazines, at the grocery store, in pin-ably beautiful photo spread tributes to fall at lifestyle blogs. They were at farmer’s markets and in giant cardboard bins parked in front of the grocery store’s front door.

The smooth green skin said one thing to him, another thing to me. The longer it remained intact, the more I harbored a burning commitment to be right about it. Moms can be such children sometimes, and not nice children. My son cracked the watermelon and me. Both revealed flesh that lost its sweetness, with black running through in seams. I’m a woman in need of a savior, redemption, a clue.

I owe my son a watermelon in late October. This should be as easy to find as a fiery orange, gloriously rotund pumpkin in June.