Sunday, November 29, 2015

After church this (cold and rainy) morning

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Holiday memories shine brighter than any tree

From today's Briefing:

Red and green boxes tower, cluttering the entryway and dining room. A ladder stands at the ready. The three of us step back and stare at the re-assembled artificial tree.
“It looks great!” Katie gushes.
“It’s ready to go,” Cooper agrees.
I shake my head. At least two sections of attached lights refuse to glow.
I ask Cooper to unplug and replug the lights. We jiggle strands. We examine tiny white bulbs.
No change. Sections of the tree remain dark.
I remember that a few of years ago I bought one of those “As Seen on TV” devices — a plastic tool that promises to fix most Christmas lights. Katie finds it in a kitchen drawer.
The printed instructions are long since gone, but we find a link online and reacquaint ourselves with the questionable process.
Then we discover that the tool runs on teeny-tiny batteries, and the batteries are corroded.
So we abandon the partially lit, undecorated tree. We leave Christmas carols playing in the family room and dash to the grocery store.
Cooper hunts down the specialty batteries. Katie selects her favorite flavor of eggnog. I choose some hot cocoa.
In no time we’re back at home. Seasonal beverages will have to wait. I want those lights to shine.
We replace the batteries. We follow every single step of the magical light fixer-upper.
Nothing but darkness remains in the middle.
My shoulders sag. We can’t move forward with beads and ornaments and ribbon until the lights work. I start running through scenarios in my head.
Cooper gently touches my arm.
“It’s OK, Momma, without those lights,” he says. “That’s not what the season is about.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to discern sincere Cooper from sarcastic Cooper, but today there was no question.
I hand the light fixer back to Katie to return to the drawer. I pour cups of eggnog and cocoa for the kids. I drape strands of pearl and crystal beads on the tree, moving the stepladder around, asking for advice on placement, doing my best to ignore the darkened bulbs.
I open the first box of ornaments, and one at a time we begin to hang them on the tree. We share stories and memories about most of them.
The cowboy and cowgirl from the summer we spent a week at a dude ranch. The tin robot from the year that tiny Cooper wore robot pajamas almost every night. The purple narwhal from an art fair in Boston the year that Katie dressed as a narwhal for Halloween.
The cross from Katie’s baptism. The angel my mom made years before she died. The ceramic plaque that says “Believe.”
One by one we unpack symbols of the reason for the season in our house — hope, love, joy, peace and belief in a child sent from heaven to save humanity.
When I admire our finished tree, I no longer see dim sections. Instead, I’m reminded of my son’s sweet words and the memories stored up in that tree and the hope that my family relies on every day. My eyes and heart are drawn to the light that dispels darkness.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, November 16, 2015

Many reasons to give thanks

From Saturday's Briefing:

We’re nestled in that tiny space in the calendar that allows us time to express gratitude before the rush of Christmas sweeps us into a frenzy.

Sure, we might occasionally purchase a gift or two, RSVP for a couple of parties and start mentally decorating the mantle, but for right now, we’re officially in Thanksgiving mode. It’s the briefest season of the year.

I love ornament exchanges and secret Santas, Nutcracker performances and gaudy light displays. I watch my share of Christmas specials and listen to holiday tunes nonstop in December. Yet I always feel rushed getting there.

This year feels slightly different. At the beginning of 2015, I challenged myself to make every day a sort of thanksgiving. I committed to posting on Instagram one image a day that would illustrate what I’m thankful for. Unlike my past attempts at gratitude journals, which I would earnestly start and then unceremoniously ditch, this project actually stuck.

For 317 days so far, I have posted a photo plus a note of thanks for all the social media world (or at least my small circle of friends) to see.

What am I thankful for? According to my posts:

Good news from the doctor. Plumbing leak repair. An old collection of recipes.

My job. Good books. Sunrises.

Free Slurpees in July. A bouquet of flowers from a student. Our public library.

Even more than good news, food, gifts and special places, though, I am thankful for people.

More than 100 posts of 317 have reflected thankfulness for family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, a barista, even a backpack salesman.

On the last day of spring break, I wrote about Cooper and Katie: “Thankful for these two intrepid travelers. The three of us have forged many adventures together, and with each trip, they show strength, flexibility, resourcefulness and resiliency.”

At the end of the school year, I wrote: “Thankful for the chance to hug Beverly, one of the most important people in my family's life. She has nurtured all three of us, through Steve’s illness and death and through our grief. She believed in my dream to become a teacher and took a chance on hiring me. When I think of her impact on just the three of us and then multiply it by thousands of families, well, I get overwhelmed. She’s nearing retirement, and no educator I know has earned it more.”

This fall: “Thankful for Erin, who has cut my hair for six years, who listens to my stories, who offers a well of empathy, who always makes me laugh and who makes me feel beautiful.”

Not far behind all those people is a pile of thanks for experiences. Movie nights at home, a day on the beach, evening walks on the greenbelt, track meets, band concerts.

From a weekend when Cooper was away camping: “Thankful for small adventures. After church and Sunday school I asked Katie, ‘Should we go home or go on an adventure?’ She leaped at the latter, so we headed to the Dallas Museum of Art for some creating and analyzing. Then I introduced my vegetarian daughter to the Old East Dallas standby Kalachandji's, a veggie buffet in the Hare Krishna temple.”

From a recent day trip to Arlington: “Thankful for short lines, cool breezes, fun friends, mushroom hats and a Pink Thing at Six Flags.”

From our recent Six Flags trip
On even the crummiest of days, I’ve found reasons to give thanks.

A full pantry. A friend who comes to the rescue. A bubble bath.

My list of blessings is longer than I can count. I’ve got everything I need and a whole lot of what I want.

I plan to keep stretching out Thanksgiving, sprinkling it on every day of the year. Perhaps it will prove to be the perfect antidote to the joyful yet manic Christmas season.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Before church this morning

This was taken about 30 minutes before Katie fled the sanctuary and threw up all over the bathroom floor. Twice. Some days don't work out as you'd like or as you'd planned.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Weathered hands hold lifetime of memories

From today's Briefing:

Every now and then, I glance at my hands in alarm. Where did all these veins and ligaments come from? Why didn’t that scar from Christmas 2009 heal? For real, are these actually my hands?
Yes, these are my 43-year-old freckled, slightly lined hands. And oh, the stories they could tell.
Tales of calluses from the monkey bars and from those uneven bars on 1970s playgrounds — the kind from which girls would flip and hang like opossums.
Tales of learning to type on a manual typewriter, the kind that required superhuman strength from the pinky fingers to force the number 1 and the letter P to strike.
Tales of holding my babies for the first time, of swaddling and diapering, bathing and feeding, cradling and snuggling.
Those babies keep getting bigger, and though my hands are still required, the jobs have evolved.
Right now, my hands are a little beaten up from my amateur sewing skills. Katie, who has never fully embraced store-bought costumes, has designed for Halloween this year an out-of-this-world ensemble. She is a cow in space.
This bovine space traveler getup consists of white sweatpants and sweatshirt covered in black spots and a black cap sporting a host of wires that support painted Styrofoam planets and the sun.
Katie did most of the work — planning, painting, cutting, pinning. She’s not yet comfortable with sewing by hand, so that work belongs to me and my now-needle-worn fingers. The final effect — Holstein meets the Milky Way — is totally worth it.
My weathered hands will come in handy again Saturday as I follow my cosmic calf through the neighborhood. Inevitably during trick-or- treating, a handmade accessory pops off, and a quick rescue is required. (Last year’s narwhal tusk necessitated frequent adjustments.)
I’m not complaining one iota about the sewing or the anticipation of on-the-spot fixes. In fact, I’m soaking it up in light of another turn of events: My older child is, for the first time ever, not dressing up at all.
I remember my teenager as a wiggly bear, a toddling crab, a speedy Buzz Lightyear, a magical Harry Potter, a disarming mummy, a bearded wizard, a spindly scarecrow, an alarmingly overgrown monkey.
I recall holding Cooper’s dimpled hand as we walked house to house, reminding him to say “please” and “thank you,” urging him to take only one or two pieces. I remember swiping a fun-size Snickers bar or two from his overflowing pumpkin pail.
This year he’s just one of us, planning to visit with friends, hand out candy to pint-sized ninjas and princesses, maybe swipe a Snickers or two from his sister’s bounty. That’s what happens, I suppose, when you’re 6-2 and closer to college than elementary school. You’re not exactly grown up, and you’re definitely not a little kid.
His hands are still smooth, though.
Those hands have their own tales. Of practicing clarinet, pitching tents and kayaking the Atchafalaya Basin. Of texting, cycling and lighting candles on the church altar.
For a couple of years, predictably and understandably, he wouldn’t let me hold his hand in public. Yet somewhere in the transition from little kid to teen, he started offering his hand again.
His hand wrapped around mine — that’s worth celebrating, no matter how stark the contrast, no matter how foreign my aging hand looks. We’ve both got a whole slew of stories left to discover and tell. I’ll accept every wrinkle and imperfection along the way.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, October 19, 2015

Parent-teacher conferences are no reason to fret

From Saturday's Briefing:
Nestled between the anticipation of the first day of school and the joy of Thanksgiving break is a less celebrated phenomenon: parent- teacher conference season.
I’ve been attending such conferences since Cooper was a baby and his child care center summoned me to review a checklist of age-appropriate behavior. Now, as an elementary school teacher in my third year, I’m also conducting such meetings. It’s not easy for either side.
As a parent, it’s difficult to sit before another adult, the one who sees your child more often than you do most days, and hear strengths and weaknesses boiled down to a few phrases. It’s hard to see the essence of your child, the person you worry about and care about and love most of all, boiled down to a reading level and a math assessment and a couple of quotes.
As a teacher, it’s difficult to truly know a student after only seven weeks of school. At the same time, it’s difficult to fully describe the child in only 15 or 20 minutes.
During Cooper’s first-ever conference, more than 13 years ago, the teacher told me she was concerned that my son had no fear of strangers. “He will smile at everyone,” she intoned. “He will wave at everyone.”
Her stoic pause and intense eye contact told me that I, too, should be worried, but I couldn’t understand why. I was on edge the rest of the meeting, unable to focus on all the boxes with checkmarks, instead internally fretting over my firstborn’s lack of discernment.
It’s been like that ever since — well-meaning teachers, excellent teachers, reporting data that attempt to define my children.
Can they sit on their pockets during calendar time? Can they sit in a chair for a lesson? Can they stand in line without talking?
Can they identify letters and sounds? Write letters? Write a complete sentence? Write a complete paragraph? Can they count? Add one-digit numbers? Subtract? Solve multistep word problems? Solve division problems using area models?
It’s all important, yes, but it doesn’t add up to the total child. All that data doesn’t reflect the heart and spirit of a person. It doesn’t necessarily reveal resiliency or a delightful sense of humor or a healthy dose of whimsy. A 20-minute conference can’t begin to capture the soul.
Knowing all of that makes it even more challenging to be the one responsible for collecting data and anecdotal notes, for reporting the academic, social and emotional essence of a child.
When I see a mom wrestling her fingers or biting the inside of her lip, I want to reach across the desk and hold her hands. I want to say, “Let go of your worries. Nothing I can say about how your child performs at school changes who you are as a mom or how fiercely you love that baby. I’m offering only a tiny window into your whole child’s world.”
I don’t say all that. Instead, I say things like, “I love having your child in my class,” and, “Your child is a valuable member of our classroom family.” And then we look at reading data and writing goals and math assessments — because that’s what school is about.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at