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© Jenny Frech 2010

My husband and I both had a great evening with our friends last night.

We each invited a small circle of our guy and girl friends over for dinner.  He and his friends played board games, and my friends went to see a movie.

It sounds pretty ordinary.  It was.

The biggest difference between our two circles is that my husband’s friends have been buddies since high school and junior high.  They’ve been friends for 25 years.

My high school chums are from my workplace, so we’ve only known one another for about three years.

Jeremy knows his friend’s families, their moms and dads, brothers and sisters.  He’s been around for most of their major life changes: graduation parties, weddings, and births.  They share inside jokes.  There is a level of comfort, that even when time passes, they still really know one another.

For many of my friends, I barely know their significant others, and probably have never met their parents.  I still edit myself before sending emails or facebook statuses, thinking, “Will this offend my friend?”  In the three years that I’ve known my school friends, we’ve only just scratched the surface of life events.

We’re still in the peeling back the onion stage.

My friends are always surprising me.  Last night upon finding out  that one of my friends has been gardening, I immediately set to work digging flower starts for her–in the dark.  I assumed she wouldn’t want any because she’s not so outdoorsy.   But she was giddy over free flowers, and I was in my element trying to remember where the fun flowers were planted.  Another layer of this friend was was exposed.

You can’t have fantastically interesting layers, unless you’re deep.

Making friends for me is a difficult process.

I have three strikes against me in the making friends department.  One, I’m an introvert, and am perfectly happy to stay at home.  Two, I am shy and awkward in new social settings.  Three, I’ve moved around a lot in my childhood and adulthood.  The longest I’ve lived in any one town since I was a little kid, is six years.  Deep friendships are next to impossible to cultivate when you move around a lot.

Calling acquaintances up for coffee feels weird to me, so I don’t do it.  When I talk to people, I want to have meaningful conversations.  It’s difficult to do that with an acquaintance.  But on the flip side, I can’t have meaningful conversations, until I’ve gotten past the stranger stage.  And that takes a lot of energy for introvert.

To find people that are simpatico takes time.

I’m picky.  I want friends that are genuine, deep, and passionate.

So, I’ve griped and complained about making friends a bit, but for the most part, I have been very fortunate.  I have met some truly amazing people on my life journey so far.  I have friends that have a bit of my heart in Michigan, California, Illinois, Indiana, the East Coast, and Tennessee.  People that have truly brought their whole selves to a friendship, and are still out there living passionate lives.  I know they still care about me, and I still care about them too.  They’re just not in my area code anymore.

Fingers crossed, this is my last city change in my adult life.

Maybe now I can put down some roots.  Maybe the friends that I’m forming now will still be my friends 25 years from now when I’m 60.  We will be older, yes, but our lives will be better because of our friends, and we’ll have our own set of inside jokes, because we are simpatico. 😉

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
– Anais Nin

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World's Best Teacher

Today is my mom’s last day of school.

She has been a teacher since I was in high school.  I don’t know how many years for sure, but I’m going to guess 22.

My mom went to college to be a Home Economics teacher.  Her dream job was to be an extension agent.  After graduating, she stayed home with my brother and I until Matt went to kindergarten.  When she was ready to go back to work, there were no teaching or extension jobs.

Her first teaching job didn’t come until I was in high school.

She worked at the alternative high school, with kids that for what ever reason, couldn’t learn or be at the regular high school.  The kids could be demanding, but I think she loved that job.  She taught them food service.  The kids prepared the meals for the little school, and did small catering gigs for the school district.  The school had very small class sizes and was hands on, so she felt like she was making a difference.

Later, she moved to a different school district, and another alternative school.  This one had more traditional classrooms than the last, but the classes were still small, and she was able to individualize the learning for each of her students.

Was it 10 or 15 years ago that she moved to the regular high school?

I don’t recall.  There, her class sizes were bigger, she had many of the same troubled kids, but bigger class sizes, and less time to give the kids the attention she wanted.  She taught classes she enjoyed though, like child development and  personal living.  Both classes that SHOULD be required for every U.S. citizen.

In the last few years, the State of Michigan has made all kinds of educational cuts and changes, pretty much eliminating all of the “extra” classes from a student’s schedule.  Demands of extra paperwork and standardized test prep started to suck the fun out teaching for her.

But the kids know what her heart is like.

The neediest of students- the homeless, the parentless, the mentally ill – found a compassionate ear and mentor in my mom.

The last few years have been difficult for her because she knows what the kids need academically, and her hands are tied.

My dad has always been really proud of my mom and me for being teachers.  He continued his mantra of “you are a great teacher, just hang in there it will get better,” for years.  He still says that we are great teachers, but he doesn’t anymore say, “it will get better soon.”

Today my mom retires.

I’m really, really proud of her.  I became a teacher because I saw the relationships she had with her students, and the fun she had designing curriculum for her kids.  I know she touched thousands of lives, and probably saved many of those lives through her kind words and belief that her kids could succeed.

Congratulations on your retirement mom!

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This week while planting tomatoes and digging in the dirt, I’ve also been digging up old feelings, dreams, and disappointments.

Tomatoes are a running theme in my life.

And I don’t even like tomatoes.

I hate the texture. They taste tart and plain. And to swallow one, gross.

But I love to grow them. At least I think I do. I grow them every year, so I must, right?

For the last 6 years I’ve grown colorful heirloom tomatoes from seed.

There are some bittersweet memories that my new friends and family don’t yet know.   Let’s back up this story.

On June 1, 2005, my thirty-first birthday, my ex-husband and I purchased 22 acres of farm land at an auction. The place was further out from our jobs than we had been looking, but the land was absolutely beautiful. It had rolling hills, some trees, lots of room for pastures and gardens, a nice spot for building a house, and a wetland full of frogs across the road.

I dreamed of being a farmer.

In second grade, I surprised myself with a drawing of a farmer, to the age-old question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Since then, it’s been a dream of mine.

Immediately after the auction. I set out to plan how I could make enough money to live off the land and stay home with my daughter full-time.

I planned the crops that I could grow, and where to market my produce.

I had a goal of setting up a CSA (customer supported agriculture) where customers would come out to the farm to pick up produce once a week. I planned for sheep that we would put on the land, and I started making contacts.

The first year, as our new house was being built, I started about 500 tomato plants in the windows of my downtown house. I rotated the plants several times a day so they would all get enough light. About 300 of the plants made it into the field. By the end of July, I was going to the farmer’s markets with 50 varieties of tomatoes.

On a good day at the market, I would make about $100-$150. That seems pretty good, until you figure the actual time that goes into the whole process. Between weeding, tying up plants, tilling, picking, sorting, sitting at the market, and paying for supplies and market fees, I probably made about $3.50-$5.00 per hour.

The next year, I began selling tomato plants.

The tomatoes grew in little pots, which required lots more time, space, and energy. It’s not easy to fill little plastic pots with dirt and shove a plant in each one. (Okay, so it’s kind of easy, it just takes a lot of time).

It extended my season, and I probably increased my income by about $300 for the year.

While I transplanted baby tomatoes, my daughter played Polly Pockets.

When I weeded in the garden, she made dolls from weeds, and played Marco Polo in the corn. She hated waiting for me to finish my work. And I was too tired and busy to play.

Finally one day I woke up and realized that this dream of mine wasn’t working.

If it was just me, it would be okay to keep trying.

But it wasn’t just me. The main goal of trying to get this farm off the ground and running was so I could spend more time with my daughter. Except that I was spending less time.

My dream isn”t just to be a farmer anymore. My new dream is to be the best mom I can be.

So that final summer before my divorce I let the tomatoes rot in the field.

I planted them.

But I didn’t weed them

I didn’t try to sell any.

The plants just withered away.

The tomatoes rotted, but I didn’t care.

I didn’t care, because the relationship with my daughter didn’t rot.

I dug into finding a job that paid well enough to support her, giving up on my dream of being home with her full-time. A few hours a day with her was better than no time with her.   Any of the farm stuff would be hobby only, and I would only do the parts of it that we liked to do together.

The dream of spending more time with her is still alive.

In fact, I can see myself on the other side of busyness, being able work for myself inside the home, and maybe part-time for others.

The problem is that to get to that point, I have to spend extra energy and time away from her after work to make it happen. It’s really a catch 22.

There are business ideas rattling around in my head and dreamer’s heart.

But I still have a really hard time trusting my judgment. I feel like I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way.  Some of them have felt like bad decisions. But without those mistakes, I suppose I wouldn’t be who I am today.

Being distrustful of my judgement,  doesn’t make the decision process any easier.

I grew tomatoes again this year. I lazily planted them in trays, and kind of neglected them.   I never transplanted them (transplanted plants become sturdier from the stress- another metaphor I suppose.) Some of this year’s tomato plants are wimpy. Some of the didn’t get hardened off enough. I didn’t plant all of my favorite varieties.   To grow tomatoes properly would have required missing out on The Muppet Show with Ellie, or playing that game of Othello, drawing fairies together, or helping her clean her room.

If any of those wimpy tomatoes grow, we’ll take a Saturday to make Salsa as a family.

This summer is shaping up to be a crazy one. If the going gets too tough, I am not opposed to letting the tomatoes rot.

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Memories from my mini years

When I was little, my very first memory was of Mom and Dad and I hanging out in our den listening to John Denver.   My favorites were “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, “Grandma’s Feather Bed”, and “Sunshine on my Shoulders.”  There is no recollection of my brother in this memory, so I was either very little, or I was trying to erase him from my happy memories.

On the first sunny day after a long stretch of gloomy weather,  I am compelled to play “Sunshine on my Shoulders” and sing along. I have to admit, it is one of my top three songs to sing in the shower.

Sunny days should be celebrated and savored like fine wine and dark chocolate.

I love living in Indiana.

I love the people, and the countryside.  I love the wildlife, and the lack of a rat race.  Indiana is a fantastic place to raise a family.  Springtime and summer in Indiana are glorious.  Our falls are drop dead gorgeous.

But, I am so over these cold and grey spring days of May.  It feels like March out there and I don’t know how much more of this I can take before I go bonkers.

I need sunshine, and I need it now.

Juggling challenging people and situations at work, maintaining a balance of mom and not-so-evil step mom, and trying to get some momentum with my photography and writing is enough to cause anyone stress and anxiety.  If only there was a way to reduce the stress.  For me it isn’t shopping, hitting the bars, or running on a treadmill.  Good old fashioned outside chores chase my blues away.

Sunshine and dirt under my fingernails would do a lot to re-energize me.

The Friday before Mother’s Day, when Ellie was with her dad, I went to my favorite greenhouses (one of which is called Das Plantzen Platz or The Plant Place).

I went a little overboard.

This year is the year of the orange flower in my garden.  Three years ago it was purple; last year was bright pink.  This year is bright hot, sunshiny orange.  I have cute orange and purple violas, as well as some plain orange ones.  Snapdragons, one of my many favorites come in orange as well.  We picked out orange poppies, and orange SuperBells.  And soon, my yellow and orange calendula and cosmos will be up.

If I can’t have sunshine on my shoulders, then sunshine in my flowerbeds is the next best thing.

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Peace, altered photo, Jenny Frech 2011

Yesterday I began writing about being a stepmom because it can be a lonely new world to navigate. I’m not looking for sympathy or revenge. I just want to share my story because it might help someone else.

In my town, I am friends with exactly zero stepmoms. In my whole life I’ve known four.  I have no role models, and obviously regular old mom advice doesn’t apply here, because I’m a regular old mom too.

Much of the advice online is from women negative and angry about their divorces.  They use the platform to spew venom. Ick. Other advice is for women without kids of their own; women that can get out of the house in the evening for kickboxing and manicures.  Not helpful.

Negativity rarely fixes a situation. I am looking for hope.

I am the grown up in these awkward step relationships.  I am the one that can change; so that’s where I start.

Yesterday, I shared my story of the moment I was knocked down and faced with expectations I didn’t even realize I had.  I had too many expectations, but not of the kids.   I don’t expect them to love or even like me. I do expect that they help out a little around the house, and they exceed those expectations beautifully.  They vacuum the yellow room, help with dishes, and do their laundry.  But I draw the line at going all evil Cinderella stepmother on them.  There is no chimney sweeping around here.

Nope, it was the expectations of myself. I had envisioned myself being able to cook all of the meals, keep everyone organized, assign chores, and run kids around town and have nice bonding conversations. I thought that I would always be fair and diplomatic, and that I would relate to my stepkids pretty well. I expected myself to help my husband with much of the childcare. I thought I would be able to jump in and discipline like I do at school. It was frustrating because the harder I tried, the more control I lost.

I was trying to control too much of the situation, which is kind of like trying to hold on to Jello.

I’m starting back at ground level, this time wiping the slate clean of expectations of being the superwoman figure in my house. I do have to be a mother.  My  biological daughter lives with me. I cannot step back completely because I do have a legitimate “mom” role to fulfill.

By clearing away expectations there is more room for everyone to be themselves.

Hopefully I’m leaving enough space for everyone to mourn their losses, but I’ll stay in view in case I’m needed or wanted. I am here, but I’ll let them come to me on their own terms.

I’m not angry. Confused, yes. Confuddled, yes. Frustrated, yep. Uncomfortable, sure thing.

But I can also say yes to strong, hopeful, consistent, loving, proud, and sometimes even a blubbering fool.

I am thankful for the opportunity for personal growth. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a more graceful person. The kind of person that is always welcoming even if they’re busy; has a smile, even if you’re rude; and is truly grateful to see you, even if you’re ambivalent.

I’ve been told never to pray for patience because you’ll have it tested.

Here’s a tip, don’t pray for grace either.

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Altered photo by Jenny Frech 2011

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

That’s how I feel about my remarriage lately.  Being a step mom is hard.  It is THE most difficult challenge that I have ever faced.  And that includes my year of transition to teaching at a school full of negativity in which teachers were quitting mid-day.  At times it’s even more difficult than my divorce.

Before anyone goes running to Jeremy to tell him that these are sometimes the worst of times, don’t bother, he knows.  He feels the same way.

Trying to blend together two families of preteens and a teenager can be tricky.  All of the kids are in different places of healing after the divorce.  All of the kids have different personalities and coping mechanisms.  They all have conflicting loyalties,  and ways of looking at and moving in the world.  All of us have different expectations of what our lives should look like, and what our time  together in the household will be.

I came into this family with no expectations of forming mother-child bonds.  They have a mother, they don’t need me to fill that role.  I have a daughter, I don’t need them to fill that role.  As a teacher, I work with kids about their age every day.  I love my students without being their mom, and the students love me too, in a respected adult kind of way.

That’s how I envisioned my relationship with my step kids.

It has been so much more difficult.

Over spring break, the first real day in fact, two of the kids told their dad that they hated me.

I fell apart, utterly and completely, wailing-on-the-bathroom-floor-apart.

But deep down I knew it already.

The honeymoon of our new family was over, and the shiny newness of dad’s wife had worn off.  The complaints about my choice of foods had been increasing, as had the ignoring and avoidance of me.

I know I shouldn’t take it personally.

I know it’s not about me.  It’s not about my cooking.  It’s not about the color I painted their rooms.  It’s not that my daughter is here too and gets special treatment.

It’s about what I represent to them.

I could be Mary Poppins, or Nanny McPhee, or the pretty girl their dad marries at the end of the movie.  It doesn’t matter.

It’s about the empty place in their home that I fill with a puzzle piece from an entirely different puzzle.

It’s that mom and dad will never be back together.  It’s that they don’t like that I do things differently from their mom, but if I did them the same, then I would be trying to take her place.

It’s a no win scenario.  I’m the easiest target of their hurt, grief, and confusion. They cannot be mad at mom or dad.

It has nothing to do with me.

They can’t love me right now.  They would be disloyal to mom if they loved me.

It has nothing to do with me.

I’ve stepped back.  Instead I’ve let dad take over the running of the chores.

Jeremy does all of the cooking, most of the running around, and all of the tucking in at night.

I have nothing to do with his kid management, just the management of my own child (which is a biomom stepmom balancing act in itself.)

I’ve stepped back.

But, I am here for the kids.

They can absolutely count on me.

When I realized what they were struggling with, my heart began to break for them.  But I’ve stepped back.  I won’t push.  I won’t tell them what to eat.  I won’t tell them to clean the bathroom.  But I’m here.

I’m not going anywhere.

I’m here because I’m growing, learning, and falling deeper in love with my husband, my best friend, every day.

Our relationship grows through the messiness of our blended family.  Sometimes we are stretched so thin, it feels like we might break.

He listens,  we talk, and we both get grayer and grayer as we face these new challenges.

I’m here because I’ve committed myself to be my husband’s helpmate.  He loves his children deeply, so I am here.

It may be the worst of times.

But I’m not going anywhere because it’s also the best of times.

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Our kids love a good joke.  In fact, they will take a mildly funny situation, and remember it like it was funniest event ever.

Like the time when I was visiting Jeremy’s house for dinner while we were just dating.  An onion fell into my Diet Coke while passing the plate of condiments.  Hilarious, I know.  Right?  Nah, but the kids love that story.  It cracks them up every time they remember it.

This morning, before leaving for school, I steeled myself for April Fools jokes from my students.  I promised that I would not believe any stories that my students told me.  Not a one.

During a fire drill today (no foolin’, the chem teacher had a minor mishap) my friend told me that she went to the doctor and she didn’t have the stomach flu after all.  I totally bought it.  All of the possible scenarios shot through my head.  Why is she telling me so early?  Will she be back to school next year?  How will they get through next year as her hubby finishes school.

“Are you nervous?” I asked.

“Gotcha!” she said.

I shook her and laughed hysterically.  I didn’t think that I would have to watch out for my friends.

Yesterday, my carpool buddy, Marissa, and I decided to try to pull one over on our other carpool buddy, Brad.  Brad was playing hooky the day before spring break to go to opening day at Wrigley Field.  We tried to tell him that there was a mandatory staff meeting on Friday and they were holding our checks until we went to the important meeting.  I cracked and laughed.  Brad didn’t buy it, “Yeah, so there won’t be any direct deposit, and I won’t be able to afford to go to Chicago.  Ha ha.”

I have one class of Freshman Biology.

The kids are goofy, funny, good natured, but uptight about their grades.  Yesterday they had a midterm.  This afternoon I gave them a fake lab with familiar, but very difficult material, that was to replace their midterm grade.  The directions directed them to read ALL directions before beginning.  They also stated that if they made one mistake they would fail.

There were gasps, dropped jaws, and lots of questions and pleading.

The last question on the lab stated, “Please explain the biological reasoning behind why Edward from Twilight glitters in the sun.  Then write today’s date on the front of the paper and realize that you’ve been fooled.  Please do not laugh or let other suspect.”

The students were stoic.  I thought they were mad.  Finally, one student, who is very good natured, was in a panic about her work.

“Aren’t you going to show us how to do this?  This is hard!”

The rest of the class busted a gut.

They are better than me at keeping a secret (and reading directions).

When I got home today, Jeremy and I pulled a joke on the kids. We needed something that would affect all of them, without being too mean.

I made a fake letter from the camp they attend each summer, describing that the camp had been seized by the government for back taxes, but stating that the camp would go on, just in a different location – an awful one.  Their favorite camp has two beaches, canoeing, miles of trails, nice cabins, and lots of nature.  (See the letter below)

Two of the girls couldn’t believe it.  They had to read the letter themselves.

Ellie looking on the bright side said, “well, the boy in the blow up pool does look like he’s having fun.”

After examining the evidence, the first two girls decided to skip camp this year.

The third girl thought that it would be fun to camp in tents on an old Walmart parking lot.  She still wanted to go.

Finally, Jeremy said, “We have to decide whether or not you want to sign up.  Registration ends April 1st. You would be a fool to want to go to camp this year.”

They caught on, and after the shock was over, they were in on the fun.  Now, how to fool big brother?

The name of the camp has been changed to protect the innocent. This is totally fake.

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