Friday, May 30, 2008

Like a Weed

Dandelions are the oddest of things.

They're kind of magical in and of themselves.

Flowers aren't all that magical, really. I mean, they grow in your garden, and they look nice, and usually smell nice. But then they die, and leave an ugly, twisted thing on top of a green stalk, and that's it.

Dandelions, on the other hand, seem to start off like a flower. They've got a bunch of leaves, and they're a bright, cheery, yellow. And then, poof, one night they close up, and when they open, they're this little puffball of seeds, that you can pluck, and blow, and watch sail off on the lightest of breezes.

They undergo another transformation as well.

When you're little, they're flowers. Your parents tell you as much. After all, they're all yellow and lovely, and if you pick a bunch of them and give them to your mom or dad, they'll tell you thank you and stick them into a glass with some water.

That makes them flowers.

And then one day, they aren't flowers any more. Someone tells you that they are actually weeds, a hideous pest that must be destroyed, and that you have to wipe them out. At all costs.

Once you're in school, of course, you also learn that they have these huge root systems, which is what makes them so hard to get rid of. If you pluck them, or cut them down with a mower, well, they'll just come back three days later.

Those things are deep underground.

So people pull them out, or mow them, or just in general do anything to get rid of them... and yet...

The other day, I took Mihret out on the lawn. My lawn is kind of bad, really. It's patchy, with spots where grass has just decided it doesn't really want to grow.

In other places, I've been overtaken by this short little weed that has pushed the grass away, and generally just taken over the lawn.

And here and there, but especially near the curb, I've got a bunch of dandelions.

At the moment, most of them aren't yellow. They're white and puffy and ready to go out into the world, and burrow into the earth, and make more dandelions.

Mihret was fascinated by them. She'd walk from dandelion to dandelion, holding out her hand, looking at the fuzz on them.

I plucked one, and blew on it, and watched as the seeds floated away. Mihret blinked in surprise, then made little blowing motions at the last few seeds on the stem.

I grabbed another one and tried to get her to blow the seeds off, but she didn't quite seem to get it. She just kept holding out her hand. So, finally, I just handed the dandelion to her.

She grabbed the fuzz and plucked it off the top. Ran the fuzz through her fingers. And then dropped the seeds on the ground.

Now she was on a mission.

She walked from one dandelion to the next, pointing at them, looking at them, having me pluck them from the ground so that she could carry them around while pulling the seeds from them, and throwing them to the ground.

Eventually, she grew bold enough to pluck them from the ground herself, without my help.

It was clear that she wanted to understand them. Being a good dad, I did try to explain that the white fuzz were seeds, and that if they flew through the air, they would go make more dandelions. I even tried to show her that the yellow dandelions and the white puffy things were the same thing, but she didn't really get that.

And no, I didn't really expect her to.

It was only recently that I learned that a "weed" is a generic term used for anything in your garden that you don't want there. And I've grown to think that dandelions shouldn't be classified that way.

Because in a lot of ways, dandelions are kind of like kids. They start of as this amazing thing, small and pretty and with so much under the surface.

And then one day, they're something else, something they became when you weren't looking.

And then one day, they blow away, out into the world, taking their roots with them, and spreading themselves out, and creating the next generation.

It's baby science on a whole new level.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New words open new world for toddler

It's common, in parks and on playgrounds and in any other places families frequent, to hear moms and dads encourage their toddlers, "Use your words."

Our 15-month-old daughter Mihret is in the middle of a language explosion. She's encouraging us every day to help her use her words.

The few baby signs she knows are giving way to sounds, and sometimes she's bypassing the signs altogether. Sometimes she gets so excited that, when she can, she uses both.

She's learning to recognize that objects have names, although she's in that stage where a few favorites cover a lot of territory.

All red fruits are "apples," all people are "babies" (except Mommy, Daddy, and my father, her "papa") and most furry or hairy animals are "puppies," except when they're "monkeys" and "kitties."

On a walk to the library from our home in downtown Appleton on a recent afternoon, Mihret, bouncing on my husband Josh's chest in a Baby Bjorn carrier, surveyed the world from her outward-facing perch. Every few minutes, she'd point at a parked truck or a tall tree and ask, "What's that?"

Every sight was a potential new word for our little vocabulary sponge to soak in. She'd repeat the words gleefully, every time we passed a truck or tree.

When we returned home and set Mihret down to play, she eagerly ran to her high chair and motioned to her mouth, emphatically declaring, "I eat! I eat!"

When she screeched for her sippy cup of soy milk, we gently prompted her to ask nicely.
She grinned at us, then energetically rubbed both hands across her chest to sign the word at the same time she said, "Peeez, peeez."

You just say the word, Mihret, and we'll be there for you.

Kara Patterson: Post-Crescent staff writer

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Grandma Patterson

When my Grandma Patterson died, it was both a shock and not a shock at the same time.

My grandmother was ninety years old when she died, and she didn’t die of anything mysterious or surprising. It was just old age. And yet, no one saw it coming, because she was so healthy when it happened.

Most people who make it to ninety do it on a plethora of medications, and with a variety of aches, pains, surgeries, and hospital visits.

My grandmother was on no medications, and her biggest problems medically were the fact that she was slowing down in her old age, and that her eyes just weren’t what they used to be. She had problems seeing when it started to get dark.

And that was it.

She went the way I think we all hope to. Fit and happy and with all her faculties intact. From what we can tell, she sat down in her easy chair and just didn’t get up again.

I’ve lived a charmed life on the grandparents front. I know people my age (31, as I write this) whose grandparents are long deceased, and who have even lost a parent by now. But I’ve lived most of my life with my grandparents watching over me, still sending me cards on my birthday, still giving me and my family gifts at Christmas.

Death always leaves us with some regrets, and I have two, and both of them are downstairs.

On the dining room table there’s a Mother’s Day card we got for her that is, and will stay, unsent. Life got in the way, and I’m sad that she won’t get it.

Also downstairs is a photo of one of her many, many great-grandchildren. When we had photos of my daughter taken not all that long ago, we set aside four, one for each of the great-grandparents.

We meant to get a frame for the photo, and to get it to her. And we didn’t. And now I’m at a loss as to what we should do with it.

Ultimately, I don’t know that those things matter. These are the things that matter:


Last summer, my extended family threw an adoption shower for Kara and myself and Mihret. It was a pretty large gathering, because we’re a big group of people.

Grandma and I sat on a bench while the younger kids ran around, playing whatever games kids play when they’ve got a few rubber balls sitting available, and plenty of energy.

We talked about this and that, and Grandma remarked that it was the first time she’d seen some of her grandkids in a while. A lot of us live in central Wisconsin, but some of us have flown the coop – and finding the time and the money to visit isn’t always easy.

My Grandma looked at me. “It’s the first time I’ve seen some of ‘em since Grandpa died,” she said. And as she looked over at the kids running back and forth, my eyed glassed over a bit.

Somewhere inside me, I really realized that Grandma wasn’t going to be around forever, even if it sometimes felt like she would be.

I wonder now if she knew, even then, that “not going to be around forever” was going to be such a short stretch of time.


At every major gathering, my Grandma used to make oyster crackers. Or rather, she doctored them up with various herbs and spices, and I would inevitably grab a small plate and fill it with garlic-y goodness.

Over the years, Grandma realized how much I loved those crackers. When each family gathering was over, she would find me and give me the rest of the bag she had made.

And when I was away at college, she gave the bag to my parents, so they could send the crackers to me.

As the years wore on, I discovered that one of my cousins also loved the crackers, and so we started taking turns taking them at the end of each family gathering.

When Grandma discovered we were doing this, she started making an extra bag, just to make sure that both of us got some at the end of every family get-together. She did that right up until last Christmas.

She also gave me a copy of the recipe a few years ago – actually handed me the recipe card right out of her old recipe card box. I’ve made them a few times over the years, but they were never quite as good as Grandma’s.


Two Christmases ago, Grandma surprised all the grandkids. We were all pulled into her bedroom at the same time, and she gave a speech that I hope is captured on video somewhere.

Or maybe it’s better if it’s not, because videotape couldn’t ever really capture what we all felt that night.

With all seventeen of us crowded into her room, Grandma announced that she wanted us all to get our inheritance right then and there. She wanted to give it to us while she was still alive, she claimed, so that she didn’t have to hunt down all our Social Security numbers and put down amounts in her will.

We all got a check for the exact same amount that night.

Kara and I used the money to fly to Ethiopia to bring Mihret home.


My Grandma is tied to Mihret in another way, as well – they both have late January birthdays.

I have struggled for years in an attempt to remember my Grandparent’s birthdays, but I’m awful about it. I can remember Kara’s birthday, and mine, and Mihret’s quite easily.

On a good day, I can tell you my brother’s and my parent’s.

Anyone outside that circle, though? I count on the kindness of my mother to remind me when to call or send a card to my grandparents.

Last Christmas at the big gathering o’ Patterson family, my mom pulled me aside and told me the semi-secret plan.

We were going to hold a double-birthday gathering. The family had picked a Sunday, and we were all going to show up at The Old Country Buffet and celebrate the birth of my Grandma, who would be 90, and the birth of my daughter, who would be one.

There would be food, and balloons, and some gifts.

And so it happened.

That same night, I took the picture you see at the top of this entry – the four generations picture.


The four generations picture is special in a number of ways.

It’s the only picture I have of my Grandma holding Mihret.

Outside of my wedding photos, I’m pretty sure it’s the only time my mother, my wife, and my grandmother have appeared in a photo together.

And there’s something else – it is, almost certainly, the only photo of four Patterson women who became part of the family not because they were born into it, but because someone loved them enough that they wanted them to be part of it.

There’s Mihret, with her arms in the air. She became part of the family because Kara and I wanted a child so badly that we were willing to work through multiple adoption agencies, to fill out mountains of paperwork, and to put piles of money together and send them to wherever they need to go just to find her and bring her home.

There’s Kara, who I met in college and fell in love with and who, on the day I graduated, I asked to marry me.

There’s my mother, Diane, who met my dad when she was in high school, who she married before she finished college, and through whom she finally got her first batch of brothers and sisters after years of being an only child.

And there’s Grandma, who married my Grandpa. They’re both not here anymore.

They’re together again.


There are other stories I could tell. About how she made an afghan for every grandchild, and how we each got one when we graduated high school.

About how, every year, every grandchild got an ornament for Christmas. There must be a half-dozen grand pianos on my tree, each one given to me by her.

About how it was so important for her to have a clean lawn that she would pick up errant birdseed from the bird feeder.

About the time her kids decided to rib her about her always-clean home, by collecting pine needles from their various real trees and sneaking into her house and putting them under her fake Christmas tree.

About how I got an Easter card from her every year, with a few dollars in it, when I was in college.

About how she never missed a birthday card, ever, except for the one time she accidentally put my card in my (female) cousin’s envelope, and my (female) cousin’s card in my envelope. (I still have that card, somewhere.)

About how, when we decided to prank my uncle, and hold his 40th birthday party on his 39th birthday, she went along with it. When my uncle insisted he was 39, my Grandma looked him square in the eye, and said, “No, you’re 40.”

About how, that same day, my uncle mooned (or perhaps just made as if to moon) my aunt, and Grandma, who we feared would be offended, nice Catholic lady that she was, said, “Eh, I’ve seen it before.”

My Grandma lived long, and saw much, and loved many.

And she was loved by many.

And we’ll miss her.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ode to a Mom

Mother's Day at our house had one of those neat bonuses that life hands you sometimes.

It was Kara's first "real" Mother's Day, with a kid in the house who gave a card to her (with a lot of help from a certain Dad who shall remain nameless). (It was me. That's not a name. Hush, you.)

But more than that, it was May 11th, a day that will forever be known as "Referral Day" in the Patterson household.

Which is to say, yeah, a year ago on Sunday, we first heard the name Mihret. We got our first picture of the girl who was going to be ours.

It was a strange and wonderful and amazing day.

It was a Friday. Kara and I were both at work. I spent the day calling doctors and having them check her medical information, all the while looking at Mihret and thinking, "This might be my daughter. This is my daughter. This is what all that paperwork was for."

She's three months old in the picture. Her finger is wet, covered in drool, the way it still is now when she's looking for comfort.

She's tiny and perfect in the picture.

I got no work done that day. Kara did better than myself, because she had deadlines to think about, and deal with, and things had to get done.

But me? I got nothing done.

And when all the decisions were made, and we called our social worker back, to say, "Yes, this is our daughter," it was amazing. I emailed Mihret's picture out. I sent her dossier to my parents and Kara's parents.

The moms cried. Maybe the dads did, too, though no one ever told me one way or another.

We printed up pictures of our daughter and gave them away to loved ones. And on Mother's Day last year, we surprised my Grandma by presenting her with a picture of her very first great-grandchild, already in a little frame.

She cried. So did I.

And last Sunday, it was a year later.

Mihret has been home for months, now. She's a real person, not just a picture in a frame. She's gone from tiny (ten pounds, in the picture) to more than double that size. She's a skinny, tall little girl, and not a baby anymore.

She says a ton of words, words that we helped to teach her.

She can walk, and runs most of the time. She can climb, and goes up the stairs with ease (and down the stairs kind of ungracefully, though she'll get good at it one day).

And that's just her. In the same few months, Kara moved into a new position at work. I got a new job entirely.

My grandparents, who have had health problems for years, have continued to get older and more frail. They moved out of their house. My parents moved into their house.

My brother moved into my parents' old house.

He also got a new job.

The world - our world - is different now, a year later. But the first picture we ever got of her, looking tiny and beautiful, is still sitting on my desk at work.

She'll get bigger, and get older, and one day, I might even put a new picture in that frame. But I'll always keep a copy of that picture nearby, as a reminder of the day I gave my heart away to a little girl I had never seen before, on May 11th, 2007.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Full of It

Being a parent means that you pretty quickly become comfortable with talking about things that you didn't bring up in public before.

One of these things is poop.

You talk about the color.

You talk about how often the baby does it.

You talk about how well the baby handles having its diaper changed.

And, of course, somewhere after the first year you start bringing up one of those most magical moments in a parent's life - potty training.

(The baby's potty training, I mean. Not yours. Unless you remember being potty trained with some degree of pride. Maybe you do. That's between you and your parents.)

When Kara and I stopped reading the baby manuals, and started reading the toddler manuals, that was one of the things brought up more frequently than any other - when to start the potty training process.

Some parents are just plain too eager - there are people who start before the kid can even move, holding their kid over an old, unused (I hope, anyway) salad bowl every time they make the faintest of grunts.

But even the most lackadaisical of folks suddenly get a lot more interested in potty training once the kid can walk. It is just a matter of time, they think, until I'm not throwing money at diapers, and wipes, and creams for when the baby gets a rash in a place that should not be named.

One of the steps in the process of potty training is, of course, getting the kid to recognize that going potty requires some kind of reaction. Most babies will, so their parents claim, make some sort of face, or otherwise indicate that something is happening in the diaper area.

When Mihret first came home, Kara and I didn't recognize these signs. Kara's parents claimed they could always tell when things were on the move, and their accuracy was probably about 75%.

Recently, however, Mihret has done us a favor and made it a lot more obvious.

Mihret is more snuggly lately than she was in the previous months. Before, she had just started walking, and wanted to spend all her time on the floor scampering to and fro, fro and to.

But now one of her favorite things to do is sit in an available lap and page through a book. Note that I didn't say read, because, for the most part, she likes turning the pages a lot more than she likes hearing the story on those pages.

She will often engage in lap time for five, or ten, or fifteen minutes, which is pretty good for a kid her age. And even when she wants to get down, she can often be persuaded to stay if you grab a different book from nearby and crack it open.



What can I say? In our household, daddy has a pretty standard rule - potty time is alone time. Please, if at all possible, do not attempt to engage me while I'm having a moment alone. If you catch my meaning.

It appears that Mihret would also prefer to adhere to this rule. Because if she has to go, she will hop off your lap like her tiny baby booty is on fire. And then comes "the crouch." "The crouch" is usually short-lived - it takes a few seconds or so - and then she stands up straight again and it's time to pick up the baby and smell her, even though you are already 99% sure you know what just happened.

Recently at the house of Patterson, we experienced something new.

The family was all in Mihret's room, which can be a lot of fun. Mihret has all her various objects of fun in there, and she can pick and choose what she wants to do while Kara and/or myself play along or look on.

So there we were, sitting, watching, and playing, when Mihret did "the crouch." She chose to do it near her changing table, which we took as a coincidence until she pulled a diaper out of the slot in the table, and brought it to us.

Kara and I looked at each other. The baby was picked up, and checked, and sure enough, she needed the diaper in question.

My rule with Mihret has always been that she can't actually "do" something until she can repeat it on a regular basis. Kids "say" stuff all that time that's actually just babble, and frankly, I'm 99% sure that my daughter didn't say, "I'll be Dave Coulier," to me the other morning.

(Yes, I really did hear her say it.)

So, imagine my surprise when, the very next day, sitting in her room, she started bringing me diaper after diaper. And, thinking she was just playing, I said, "Thank you," and didn't think to check her, until ten minutes later.

Sure enough, the girl gets it.

"I do this. Then I smell bad and feel icky. So I must bring the big person a means of cleaning me up, so that I can be all dry and snuggly again."

Ultimately, I don't yet think Mihret is ready for potty training. She's still pretty young, and there are other bits o' knowledge the kiddo needs before she's ready to commit to taking off the diaper and not putting it back on.

But it's a step in the right direction.