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Sharon is a regular columnist for The Cary News since 1998, writing primarily about marriage, parenthood, and family life. Click here to view Sharon's column at Cary News!

Excerpt: taking the boys to a play instead of a ball game

Later as we drove home, I heard them singing in the back seat, their sweet voices struggling to hit the high notes of “Tomorrow”, Annie’s theme song. A chill rushed down my spine as I realized the play had touched them, despite their checking the hockey scores during intermission. I smiled. My mission had been successful. Someday in the future, their wives are going to thank me.

Excerpt: self-check out at the grocery store

Just as I made it down the last aisle of the store – the dairy aisle - , just as there was light at the end of the tunnel, I turned the corner to discover that the only cashier lane open after eleven was a self-service one.

My cart skidded to a halt, sending cans toppling and vegetables rolling. After spending a half-hour carefully selecting food products and searching in vain for those little packs of crackers with spreadable cheese, I didn’t feel up to playing cashier that night. I watched as several people stood in line to scan their own items by using the ‘user-friendly’ computer. There was a man with beer and cereal; a young woman – probably single - with a Cosmopolitan magazine, a frozen pizza, and shampoo; another man with a carton of milk, some orange juice, and a box of Krispy Kremes. And then there was me.

My cart was so full I could barely see over the top. It would take forever for me to find all the barcodes on each of the items and scan them one-by-one. ‘Self-checkout’ was just the grocery industry’s phrase for ‘torture’. What were those people possibly thinking??? For Pete’s sake, we’re at the grocery store at midnight for some reason; do they think this has been a good day?

Excerpt: School projects

I hadn’t felt this good about finishing something since my fourth-grader completed the salt and flour landform map of North Carolina he had to do for a school project. (Note to parents of children under nine: you might want to seriously consider moving to another state before your child reaches fourth grade and is assigned this traditional project. Maybe head out to Wyoming or Colorado – one of those nice square states. The Outer Banks are beautiful and full of history, but they are a real pain to build out of wet flour on a piece of plywood. Sculpting the jagged coastline would be a challenge for Michelangelo.)

Excerpt: household appliance mutiny

Every family, I’m sure, encounters those times when everything in the house seems to break at one time. It’s as if inanimate things such as appliances suddenly come to life, have some big meeting, and decide this is the week when they’ll make everything fall apart simultaneously.

Excerpt: aerobics class

What in the world is this thing they call ‘the grapevine’ anyway? For those not familiar with this charming little number, the ‘grapevine’ amounts to an aerobic line dance with lots of hopping on specific feet at specific times, making precise turns and twirls in sync with everybody else, all while making your way across the room and back. Something akin to the June Taylor dancers in sweats. I long for the days of running in place and knee bends. I’m sorry, but I’m looking for a little exercise, not the ultimate coordination challenge.

Excerpt: becoming a member of another generation

We were running late to get to our annual Thanksgiving family reunion in Fayetteville. I was still in the midst of icing my traditional carrot cake that I took for the potluck dinner. Icing this three layer cake and putting the chopped pecans on the top and sides was took some time – a very delicate operation.

I knew I had to make a choice: I could either spend the time getting myself ready or perfecting my cake. And this is where I knew I was getting older – I chose the cake. Instead of putting on a dressy outfit and getting jewelry to accessorize – instead of using a curling iron on my hair – I threw on a pair of faded jeans and got my cake ready to go.

A new generation had arrived. The torch had been passed. I was now one of the women at the Thanksgiving reunion who cared more about how their food was accepted than whether or not anyone noticed a new wrinkle or a few extra pounds.

Excerpt: You know you’re a mother when . . .

You know you’re a mom when . . .

  • you think the person who invented the epidural should be honored on a postage stamp.
  • you used to shave your legs everyday but now it takes an act of Congress.
  • you swallow your pride and buy the bathing suit with the skirt.

I find that writing about the serious moments increases the reader’s appreciation of the humorous ones, rather than a constant string of only amusing anecdotes. Here are some of those:

Excerpt: how my family reacted to Sept. 11

I watched the news as it showed President Bush’s deliberate walk into the White House for the first time since it had all happened; I knew he was trying to display confidence and strength as the world waited for his words, his response. “Be with him, God,” I mumbled as I marveled at the weight of the burden he must be carrying.

That night I lay in between my two oldest boys as they went to sleep in the same bed. When he was younger, David, now 7, used to lightly pinch my arm while he drifted off to sleep. He hadn’t done that in quite some time. But that night I felt his small hand touch my upper arm and pinch it repeatedly – more like kneading it really – as he fell asleep.

I closed my eyes and sighed, wondering what dreams would fill my children’s heads during the night. I pulled both boys closer to me, wrapping my other arm around Billy. The three of us lay there in the dark, the night silent around us. Warm, secure, safe. I wished we cold stay like that forever.

Excerpt: Uncle Roy and WWII

But this Memorial Day with all the hoopla about Pearl Harbor, it dawned on me perhaps why gardening became such a big part of Uncle Roy’s life, why he was so dedicated to helping living things thrive. As a top-notch airplane mechanic in WWII, he saw a lot of destruction, not much thriving. He served in North Africa and Italy in the heat of the fighting, repairing B-17 bombers, and seeing the realities of war.

Uncle Roy told my husband once that he tried never to make friends wit the aircrews of those planes because it would hurt too much. He said, “You’d see them at breakfast but they wouldn’t be there at dinner.” He saw many airmen never return from mission, meeting their deaths over European soil far from home.

Uncle Roy died in 1994 at the age of 78, leaving behind the gardens and wars of Earth; but, I’m sure he’s still got a green thumb and that somewhere just over the rainbow there are some irises in bloom.

Except: A beloved teacher’s death and memories of her

As the boy was yelling “Camelot!” and running off stage, I looked over at Mrs. Allison. She was sitting there with tears streaming down her face, the palm of one hand pressed against her forehead. She kept shaking her head in disbelief and fidgeting in her chair. So overcome by the play, she couldn’t sit still.

I felt the same way. That scene inspired me so much that I wanted to jump up and make everyone in the world experience the same emotion I felt. I wanted to tell the world how I felt – then surely there would be no more wars. I knew what Mrs. Allison was feeling. I looked again at the tears on her cheeks and her hand clinching a tissue, wiping her eyes.

That May night on a class field trip at the dinner theatre was the moment I was proudest to call her my teacher. She wasn’t afraid to show her students how moved she was, to show us how touching the arts can be.

From Good Housekeeping magazine, August, 1999

April 5, 1993

It rained the night the UNC Tar Heels won the '93 national basketball championship. I remember that not because I was out on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street celebrating; I remember that because I was sitting in my front yard with the rain pouring down, drenching me. I sat there oblivious to the rest of the world and to basketball games. I was screaming and crying because I had just found out that my 8-year-old nephew, Jacob, had leukemia.

The phone call from my mother came with five minutes to go in the championship game my husband, Kevin, and I were watching on TV. "They say it's definitely leukemia," I heard Mama's voice say.

“Oh God, Mama no,” I moaned. “Oh God, Mama no.” They were the only words that I could manage to say through the pain that engulfed me. Kevin leaned back against the kitchen wall and slid down into a stooping position, as if his legs were suddenly too weak to stand. He looked at me in sick disbelief. I asked about my sister and her husband - Jacob's parents. "They're devastated," my mother said.

Suddenly I couldn’t breathe, felt like I was smothering, suffocating. I handed my husband the phone and ran outside; I had to get some air. As I sat in the rain, I realized I had used the word "devastated" much too casually over the years. I could remember saying things like “I’m devastated I didn't get that job” or “I’m devastated my team didn’t win the big game”. But I suddenly knew that those feelings hadn’t been devastation at all - because out there in the rain, I learned what the word truly means.

Later excerpt:
One month after the transplant, doctors said Jacob could return home since he lived nearby and could easily come back to Duke for follow-ups. His return from the hospital was very dramatic, especially because he came home on Christmas Eve. Friends and family gathered in the December chill in the cul-de-sac outside Jacob’s house and waited for his family’s white van to drive up. TV cameras were also there to document this inspirational homecoming. A “Welcome Home, Jacob” banner was tied between two trees. The scene was enough to create goosebumps up and down my spine, especially when Jacob stepped out of the van wearing his ever-present baseball cap and a wide grin. The crowd applauded and cheered. His 7-year-old brother, Sam, gave Jacob a quick, awkward hug which Jacob returned, a rare show of mutual affection from these all-boy kids. All of us standing on that street knew we had just been given the greatest Christmas gift we would ever receive.

In the months after the transplant, Jacob was on many medications, including steroids that made him very swollen. He had some graft-versus-host disease about six months later and had to be readmitted to Duke for a week. He had a rash and digestive problems, but he came through it okay. Jacob reached the one-year post-transplant mark - the point at which recipients can usually meet their donor.

To our surprise and tremendous disappointment, we were told that it would not be possible to meet or even find out anything further about Jacob’s donor because the donor was from another country that prohibited the release of such information. We would never be able to personally thank the man who saved Jacob’s life. Realizing that this wonderful person would remain a stranger to us made us feel very empty, very incomplete. It was like reading a beautiful story and having the last page torn out. The ending we wanted so desperately - to thank this man - wouldn't be happening. Jacob was upset that the letters we had sent earlier through the Red Cross had probably never reached the donor because of these strict rules.

We did a little investigative work and from that, we think the donor is from the Netherlands, but we can’t be sure. We hope this man knows how much what he did means to us. He brought us out of the devastation and gave us hope. We gave thanks for him that Thanksgiving Day of the transplant and give thanks for him every day since.

Later excerpt:
At the end of the service, I stood for the benediction, waiting impatiently for the choir to sing the benedictory response - usually the Irish blessing about the wind always being at your back. I waited, and the choir’s song began:

“Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?,” the voices sang. Tears instantly filled my eyes as I heard the words and music to the hymn that had spoken to me so powerfully a year and a half earlier. “I have heard you calling in the night" ,"I will go Lord, if you lead me" , "I will hold God’s people in my heart".

As church members began to file from the sanctuary, I stood motionless, my body still tingling from goose bumps. That song had been for me that morning; it was the reason I was there that day rather than skipping church and staying home like I had almost done. I knew this was God's way of telling me there was still work to be done that was worth doing. And because of this song speaking to me, I was ready to do it.

The Challenge of Taking Family Christmas Card Photos

I’d rather go to the dentist and the gynecologist in one day than to have to take the Christmas card photo of my three children. This should give some indication as to how much I dread this annual ‘chore’ of trying to get all of them to smile and keep their eyes open at the same time, without putting bunny ears or worse behind someone’s head or my 13-year-old rolling his eyes.

“Look happy!” I scream at them, my patience wearing thin as they complain about having to pose. Neighbors peer outside their windows to see what the commotion is about this time. Yes, the season of peace and goodwill has arrived at our house.


Full Columns

The Suit

by Sharon O'Donnell , in 2008

"Mom, I have to wear a suit to school tomorrow," my 13-year-old, David, informed about 11:00 one night last month. He and I had just gone through a few hours of studying for his science test the next day on natural selection, about how species adapt in order to survive.

"What?" I replied groggily, lifting my head from my pillow where I had fallen asleep, exhausted, still in my clothes, stretched across the entire bed since my husband was out of town.

"The basketball team dresses in shirts and ties for home games," he reminded me. It was the first game of the season for his middle school team, and the game day dress code had slipped my mind.

I sighed loudly. "Don't your khaki pants still fit you?" I asked, my tired eyes pleading with him to say ‘yes'.

"They're too short." He stood at the door to my bedroom, looking forlorn. "And I can't tie a tie, remember?"

Perfect. My husband Kevin wasn't home, and nobody else, including me, David, and my 16-year-old son, Billy, could tie a tie correctly. I groaned. "Can't you find one of those clip-on ones?"

David shook his head. "Mom, they look weird." I looked at him, realizing he'd grown quite a bit since 14 months ago when he last had to wear a suit at my niece's wedding. They only make those clip-on ties just so long, and I bet even the longest one we had would indeed look pretty strange on David now. He usually wore a collared Izod or Polo shirt to church, so I hadn't noticed he'd outgrown the ties. And probably the dress shirts, too.

A decade of Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and knot-tying and yet neither one of them could tie a darn tie???? Sure, maybe they could tie a rope around a tree and throw it out to rescue someone in the water, but they couldn't tie a tie neat enough to wear in public. Neither could I, but that was one thing I thought Kevin could take care of for the guys. I thought briefly of him sleeping soundly in his hotel room.

Surely there were some hand-me-downs from Billy around somewhere in some box in some closet or some garage loft. I dragged myself off the bed and went in Billy's room where I opened the loft door behind his bedroom door. This area was the only storage area in our entire house, and was unlit and cold, floored in with only cheap plywood. Yes, searching for hand-me-downs in the incorrectly marked plastic boxes was actually a death-defying feat at my house. I sighed. "Where is a flashlight that works?" Ten minutes later we finally found one in the garage behind the garbage cans. I got down on all fours and climbed feet-first into the dark, square-shaped hole. "I'm going in," I whispered bravely to Billy and David.

Ten minutes later, I emerged from the loft with nothing to show for my troubles. I could find another size 18 suit, but not the size 20, which David needed. Somehow there was a gap in the hand-me-down supply. I knew the size 20 suit was probably somewhere in our house, but where, I had no idea.

I checked my watch and saw it was 11:20. I knew what I had to do. Kohl's was open until midnight, thanks to the holiday hours, so off I went to buy some pants, a shirt, and a tie. Searching wildly for these items, I raced through the young men's department, finally settling for a pair of black pants, a shirt that was probably too small, and a regular tie because I couldn't find any long clip-on ones.

As the teenaged boy working the cash register rang up the items, there was an announcement that it was closing time. I realized then I was the only customer in the entire store. I'm sure they wanted to hurry and get me out of there so they could close up. As he put the tie in the bag, I asked sheepishly, "Do you know how to tie one of those?"

"Sure," he said, nodding.

"Uhm," I stammered, embarrassed by my question. "Well, could you tie it for me," I asked. Then I explained to him my predicament, and he laughed. He asked me how tall David was and then tied a perfect knot in the tie. I carried it to the car carefully, painstakingly so as not to mess it up, like it was a precious treasure or a bomb I didn't want to explode.

The next morning, David went off to school dressed appropriately, thank God (and the guy at Kohl's). A few weeks later I found a marvelous thing while shopping at Crabtree one day: zippered ties in all lengths. Thinking of my three sons, I looked at the sales clerk and said firmly, "I'll take ten."

The Good Guys & The Bad Guys

The ‘good guys versus bad guys' story line is an age-old theme of many TV shows and movies - one that has been depicted for generations. Unfortunately, violence is usually a part of this story line.

Gun shoot-outs, bombs exploding, & kung fu fighting are all ways the good guys and bad guys battle it out. I cringe when one of my boys aims a water gun or toy laser at someone. I think of the studies that show how watching TV violence can make children more aggressive, and I immediately feel guilty about having allowed my sons to watch "Power Rangers" when they were young and movies like "Die Hard" when they became older.

Honestly, though, I don't see any difference in the "Power Ranger" characters and the old Batman shows of thirty years ago - POW! ZAP! ZOWIE! I remember my brother watching that show every week and nobody worried he'd become an ax murderer (which, incidentally, he is not). The Ranger shows Billy and David used to watch included messages at the beginning about loyalty, being kind to others, and telling the truth. Of course, then they kick the crap out of somebody. Still, there is an effort to balance the imaginative things (zapping a giant pig who hates Mexican food with a laser - now that's just too scary for words) with reality.

I've eavesdropped on my children and their friends playing sometimes and hear nothing more than them pretending to be heroes, to defeat the bad guys and save the world. Just active imaginations at work. The experts say boys will make a gun out of anything, and I believe them. Despite all of this, I've known some moms who thought Power Rangers were absolutely awful and forbade their sons to watch or act out the show - some that now say they realize they overreacted.

Yet the studies do bother me, especially in light of the increase in school violence. But the blame for that has to be placed on much more than kids' television shows. I know these studies have a valid point, but I don't think parents should overreact to them, either. I heard of one lady who refused to open her door to Power Rangers at Halloween. Come on now. The little fellows just want some Skittles and Reese Cups; they're not on her doorstep plotting to take over the world.

When Billy was four, he was selecting which book he wanted me to read to him at bedtime-always a time consuming decision. I was exhausted after finally getting his baby brother to sleep and didn't feel much like reading. Not the newspaper, not Cosmopolitan, and certainly not "Fox on Sox" or "Hop on Pop". Exhausted moms who have to read sixty page rhyming books out loud are just one step from going over the edge. I also didn't want to have to plow through the children's equivalent of "War and Peace" so whenever Billy picked out a really long one, I would veto it by saying "Oh no, not that one."

That night he picked out one of his favorite Power Rangers books. I thought of the article I'd just read in the newspaper about violence and its effect on children. I thought of overhearing some of my friends talking at church about how Power Rangers were so bad for kids and they wouldn't allow their children to watch it.

Hell, Billy had the Blue Ranger costume, matching gloves, and was a charter member of their fan club - a fact we had to hide from the anti-Power Rangers moms. I feared he'd be ostracized at pre-school, never to recover from such an obvious slight, well on his way to becoming a high school recluse who didn't go to the prom.

Guilt engulfed me. "No Power Rangers book tonight, Billy," I told him. "Why don't you pick out another one and we'll read this tomorrow."

"Why can't we read it now, Mom?" he asked. I explained that there was a lot of karate fighting in the book and that I didn't want him to have nightmares. He assured me he wouldn't.

Yet, I remained firm in my decision. "There's just too much fighting in it, Billy."

"But the bad guys always lose," he protested. I shook my head and pointed to the bookshelf. With his best sad face, he put the book up. He contemplated his choice for a minute, then picked his new Bible story book instead. I thought he'd probably choose to read the Christmas story about baby Jesus, since that was his favorite; but, he flipped through the pages, thoughtfully. He stopped on one picture of Abraham and his son, Isaac.

"I wanna read this one," he said. We nestled back on the pillow together, and I started reading robotically, not really paying attention to the words because I was tired: "God wanted to test Abraham's faith so he told him to go to the top of a mountain and offer his young son Isaac as a sacrifice. So Abraham saddled his donkey -"

"Mom," Billy interrupted, "what's sacrifice mean?"

I paused, searching for the words to explain the concept in a simple way. "Well, it's like giving up one thing you really want for something else." He nodded and seemed satisfied with my answer so I continued to read. "They went up the mountain and Abraham built a fire." I read slower as I remembered what came next. I glanced at Billy, uncomfortable. "Then he took Isaac and . . ."

My voice trailed off. I closed the Bible, reached over and tousled Billy's thick hair playfully. "Tell ya what, buddy, let's read that Power Ranger book after all."

Billy bounced off the bed yelling "Yippee!" as he raced to his bookshelf.

The Power Ranger book we read that night was a tame, innocent one about a group of teenagers who morph into super heroes and protect the earth from evil aliens by using karate and robotic fighting machines called zords. And the good guys won.

The Bible story has a happy ending, too, with God stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son. I remember hearing this story when I was a kid and I would act it out in my mind with God's voice booming, "Don't harm the boy." (For some reason, don't ask me why, but the voice was always that of Bob Barker while Andy Griffith played the part of Abraham and Opie was Isaac.)

And just for the record, in my opinion, Leo of Power Rangers Galaxy was the cutest Power Ranger; there are some advantages to watching all those shows with the boys.

The Meaning of the Word "Celebrate"

by Sharon O'Donnell

Four years ago, my two oldest sons -- who at the time were 10 and 13 -- and I were watching one of the Atlanta Braves/Houston Astros play-off games, when something one of the announcers said rubbed me the wrong way. They were discussing the situation of Atlanta's Rafael Furcal, who had been recently been arrested on his second DUI charge. As soon as Atlanta was finished with its run in the play-offs, he was to report to jail.

I stole a glance at my sons who were listening intently; this was certainly not the role model material I wanted projected to them. But it was the next comment that hit me so hard: one of the announcers then said if the Braves won the series against the Astros, Furcal would not be allowed to celebrate.

"He can't celebrate?" my ten-year-old, asked me, perplexed, with eyebrows furrowed. I imagined my son having visions of policemen binding Furcal's arms and legs so he couldn't jump up and down in excitement, pump his fist in triumph, or hug teammates. He didn't realize the announcer was equating the word ‘celebrate' with drinking alcohol.

Unfortunately, I was well aware of the announcer's meaning because it's so prevalent and accepted in our society. The word ‘celebrate' by definition in this context (reacting to something good that's been achieved) is given in the dictionary as ‘to observe a notable occasion with festivities'. Society, however, has somehow reached the conclusion that drinking alcohol is the main and essential part of such festivities.

My thirteen-year-old turned to his brother and explained, "That means Furcal can't drink if they win." The explanation was natural to him - obvious even - which sent a chill down my spine.

It is painfully clear that something is wrong when the words ‘partying' and ‘having a good time' have become synonymous with drinking. Taking a drink or two is nothing to get upset about, but it's not responsible drinking that I'm talking about. The media and society perpetuate the idea that drinking to excess is the way to celebrate.

In my college days in the ‘80s, all I had to do see the evidence of this was to look around at the keg parties, the empty beer cans in dorm rooms, the bars packed with students who'd been binge drinking and could hardly stand up or focus their eyes. I will never forget the sight of students vomiting after drinking too much - all in the name of having a ‘good time'. Students going out for a night of binge drinking would say, "Let's get wasted." Wasted. What an appropriate word that is for getting drunk.

I felt this same frustration and sense of loss when I read about the tragedy in Boston after the Red Sox' history-making championship win over the Yankees in 2004. Celebrating fans had flocked to the area near Fenway Park, and some people drank too much, resulting in rowdy behavior and the death of a young woman when police fired a projectile into the crowd. She was innocent, a bystander, and the whole situation was heart-wrenching. I am a huge Red Sox fan, as the woman was, and I could identify with her desire to go out in the crowd of other fans and enjoy such a huge victory. If I'd been in Boston, I would have been there, my children would have been there. Can't long-suffering Sox fans express themselves and show their excitement and pride for their team without feeling they are putting themselves in danger because others aren't mature enough to drink responsibly? How dare people put others in that situation. How dare that we as a society allow them to do so.

Again, it's all about the misconception that one must get drunk to celebrate. Of course, that night in Boston was not the first time violence or death has occurred in our nation at gatherings of fans following big wins. Actually, this way to celebrate makes no sense; if a person gets drunk, he or she won't even remember clearly the euphoria of the win or the experience of a lifetime. I've told my sons this, but they get other messages to the contrary from society and the media. It's also a very ‘sobering' thought to think that many teens turn to alcohol and drug abuse because they are simply bored; in the ghettos of our cities, where a sense of hopelessness prevails, this is sadly more and more common. But those teens who do have hope, who do have a promising future waiting for them, are evidently just as susceptible to the allure of alcohol and drugs. These teens have to find their passions in life, a reason for living, other than for drinking and partying. We have to help them find this.

There are groups that are making significant progress in dealing with issues such as drunk driving and underage drinking, and that is, of course, encouraging. But there is an underlying cause of the drinking there that we need to examine; it's a mentality that alcohol has to be at the center of celebrations and parties and that drunkenness is something to be laughed at and joked about in the movies and in reality.

Underage drinking is a problem, but it's a symptom of a bigger problem: society's ‘matter-of-fact' inclusion of alcohol in just about everything we do. I've often looked at this situation and thought to myself ‘What's wrong with this picture?" Children and teens learn from adults; perhaps it's time we seriously think about what it is we're teaching them.

Celebrating is about expressing joy, and true celebration comes from the soul, not a bottle of beer or liquor. It's about sharing emotions and bonding with other fans who feel the same way, reveling in the experience with cheering, hugging, dancing, & laughing. It can even be about good food and drink; but, getting drunk should not be the goal of celebrating, as it is with so many - particularly young people.

Baseball is a fantastic game and should indeed be one of America's favorite pastimes. Baseball & apple pie - those are the things we think of as quintessential American. Unfortunately, this seems to be changing all too rapidly to "baseball, apple pie, and alcohol".

Awards

  • First place for humor columns in the North Carolina Press Association contest, 2002
  • First place for humor, second place for general columns in the North Carolina Press Club competition, 2004