Rescue, Recovery and Lessons in Resilience

Rescue, Recovery and Lessons in Resilience

By Francie Arenson Dickman


As we raced along the rolling hilled roads of Wisconsin looking at real cows and pigs, it seemed that the only things standing between my little girl and the rest of her life were the stuffed ones. I was no more ready to lose Piggy and Grazer than my daughter was. Rescuing them was my own act of preservation.


“I left Piggy and Grazer on the bus,” my thirteen-year-old daughter announced as I stood amid piles of laundry in the garage. Sobs followed, the kind generally saved for the loss of loved ones—the real kind, not the ones filled with stuffing and beans.

“Are you sure?” I asked, already aware we were headed nowhere good.

Between convulsions, she nodded. She’d left them under the seat in the same over-sized Ziploc bag in which they’d lived all summer. She was sure of it, and I believed her. Piggy and Grazer are almost 14 and 11, adolescent like she is. Though in stuffed animal years, they are ancient. Their parts and worn, some are missing. Hence, my daughter kept them sealed in the bag all summer. An act of preservation. She’d never consider leaving them at home, where they’d be safest, as they are her security, her comfort, the things she turns to in times of need.

Needless to say, we experienced tense times in our house as the objects of security themselves were the subject of an intense search and rescue. My husband and I divided our efforts. He kept in constant contact with Wilma at the bus terminal who was on high alert for the arrival of Lamers Bus 502. I calmed my crying daughter as well as my other daughter who was lying atop the filthy clothes, breathing in the smell of what she called “camp” and also crying. All this, while we did the laundry.

Finally, at 9:30 that night, we got the call that Piggy and Grazer were alive and well. Though half-way back to camp in Wausau, Wisconsin.

“Can we go get them?” my daughter asked.

“Wilma says she will mail them to us on Monday,” my husband announced.

“But it’s only Friday,” I said. “Where will they be all weekend?”

My husband explained that they’d stay with George the driver overnight who would then pass them off to a man named Tom who would then drop them at the terminal office where they would wait until Wilma returned. He added that my daughter would have them by Tuesday and maybe in the meantime, learn that she didn’t need them that much. “At least there will be a silver lining to all of this,” he added.

This was the kind of character building exercise that I’d been totally into only weeks earlier as I’d sat idle on the outdoor couch. Fueled by a piece I read in Slate Magazine, Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out, (which reinforces what most of us already know, that when parents over involve themselves to protect their kids, they deprive kids of the chance to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience) I’d promised myself that I was going to be a different kind of mother when my kids returned from camp. I was going to be non-reactive. I was going to be removed. I was going to stop making their lunches and driving them to school. If they needed more money, they were going to get jobs. If they had an issue with a friend, they could resolve it themselves. In the child-free vacuum of summer, reason was allowed to reign. My girls are teenagers, I thought, it’s time—for them as well as for me—to take a step back.

Not that I’m a helicopter parent as the Slate piece described—motivated by concern for my kids academic performance. I’m more of a hovercraft, concerned with their well-being overall. I come by the tendency genetically. My father, like his mother before him, were hoverers, operating on a past century’s premise that a parent’s job is to protect her kids whenever possible from the harsh realities of life, which will eventually provide lessons in resilience whether asked for or not. My parental circumstance doesn’t help my propensity to rescue. That’s the downside of having twins and only twins. Although I have two kids, I get to go only one time around the carousel of childhood. And the ride goes so fast. I’m wont to prolong it. So, I’ll bring the forgotten lunch to school. I’ll make the unmade bed.

I’ll even—despite the Slate article’s warning that “students with hovering parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression”—agree to take a 7 hour car ride (3 1/2 hours each way) to recover a couple of inanimate objects.

“The odds of Piggy and Grazer ever making it into a mailing envelope seem dicey. Waiting doesn’t seem like the smart thing to do.” I told my husband.

My daughter agreed.

So we drove. Resolutions on resilience went out the window of our SUV at 6:30 the next morning with my husband, both of my daughters and the dog in tow.

No, driving was not the rational thing to do. We came home exhausted only to find that the dirty laundry had not washed itself. But mothering is not a rational business. In a week, my daughter would start 8th grade. In a month, she’d turn fourteen. Next year at this time, she’d not only be in high school but in Driver’s Ed. As we raced along the rolling hilled roads of Wisconsin looking at real cows and pigs, it seemed that the only things standing between my little girl and the rest of her life were the stuffed ones. I was no more ready to lose Piggy and Grazer than my daughter was. Rescuing them was my own act of preservation.

And our road trip was actually a fabulous reunion. We talked about camp. We looked at pictures. We laughed. We ate McDonald’s. The dog went to the bathroom on the side of the road. So did my daughter. And, I’m happy to say we recovered the animals. Did I miss an opportunity to help my daughter build her coping skills? Maybe. But we certainly made a memory.

Let that be the silver lining of the story, instead.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.




Summers Up To Nature

Summers Up To Nature

By Melanie Rock


What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread.


“You’ll love sleep-away camp. I promise,” my mother said. “There’s not enough to do around here once school’s over. I’ll be teaching the first month of summer session. You’ll have a much better time in the country. Trust me. It’ll be fine.”

I don’t recall the anxiety I must have had, knowing I would be separated from my mother for four weeks. I don’t remember feeling unloved or rejected. But at five years old, I’m sure I had some serious reservations about going to sleep-away camp.

My mother grew up in the country, on an anarchist commune outside of Peekskill, New York. Raised among radical intellectuals, artists, and activists in a rustic atmosphere, the natural world was the backdrop of her rich childhood memories. It was important to her that she get her urban child “up to nature” whenever possible. So it was decided: the summer I was to turn six, I would be spared a month of babysitter days stuck in our Bronx apartment.

My mother chose a Jewish Y camp in the Adirondaks for my first sleep-away adventure, which didn’t strike me as strange, because I knew that we were technically Jewish. My mother was brought up by a Jewish family, after her own Jewish mother died very young. According to Jewish law, the maternal bloodline makes us Jewish. But I didn’t think of us as really Jewish. We were atheists. At home and at school, I was taught to respect all religious traditions with equal weight, without subscribing to any one in particular. It didn’t occur to me that camp would be any different. I trusted my mother’s plan. But she had read the brochure. The one that described the weekly Shabbat services.

As instructed, we packed “four nice white shirts” along with the shorts, halter tops, bathing suits and towels, underpants, and ankle socks with my name tags sewn in, and shipped them ahead in an old trunk. At camp, everything got shoved into cubbies except the white shirts, which were hung on hangers in the bunk closet. And everyone noticed that my shirts were too fancy. My mother and I had failed to grasp the conservative formality of “nice white shirts.” Unlike the plain shirts the other girls brought, mine had lace bits and pearly buttons, which stood out along with the rest of me.

I was one of the youngest kids at camp. And one of the very few black ones. A couple of dark-skinned girls stayed in much older bunks, way out of my reach. Surrounded by friends their own age, they seemed unaffected by the fact that their beaded braids and dark complexions made them different. On that first Friday night, those older black girls knew what to do for Shabbat. They seemed right at home. I watched and wondered, while I fumbled through the pre-dinner service in my nice white shirt. Four weeks of Fridays, with the unfamiliar rituals of challah bread and candles, and prayers to God in a foreign tongue. I mumbled along, hoping no one would single me out to light the candles or break the bread. I was sure they all noticed: I was that new little black girl who obviously isn’t Jewish.

I don’t recall any specific unkindness or mistreatment. And I don’t remember having made any friends there, either. What I remember is my lost, brown self, in a sea of white shirts, in the soft glow of candlelight, praying over shiny, puffy, braided loaves of bread. And that lonely feeling of wanting to fit in and not knowing how to shed the Outsider skin.

I was afraid to tell my mother. She had her own outsider stories. I was haunted by the thought of her growing up without her mother. And the hardships of her Depression-era childhood, living with a foster family while her father labored in the city. She was ostracized in high school, labeled “dirty Jew” and “Communist”—names that meant she didn’t belong. She got teary when she shared those memories with me. So I pretended the Shabbat services at camp were no big deal.

But she must have recognized my ambivalence about the place. She readily accepted my suggestion that we try something different the following year, and we rented a bungalow in the Catskills and spent our days together. The next summer, we discovered (and I went to) Blueberry Cove Camp, a small, artsy, back-to-nature summer camp in Maine. It was the ideal respite from the noise of the city and the structured school year. Blueberry Cove became my summertime home away from home, filled with friends from all over, who came back year after year, like I did. We ran around barefoot, embraced our mandatory farm chores, and swam in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. We connected with the earth, and the animals, and developed a common empathy for the natural world and each other. Our differences didn’t matter there.

My mother, confident that I was happy and secure, was able to spend her summers traveling, or teaching part-time if she so chose. Summertime offered her a break from the stress of single-parenthood.

And I got Maine. Shoeless, godless, and free.

As the biracial mother of two brown girls, Melanie Rock writes about identity, race, and multiculturalism from a parenting perspective as well as her own childhood memories. Raised in New York City, she now lives and works in the Lower Hudson Valley.


MAMA: Mother Against More Activities

MAMA: Mother Against More Activities

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 9.34.23 AM

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were.


I’m trying to convince my husband and twin daughters to move to Fresvik, Norway. It’s a farming village tucked between snowcapped mountains and a fjord (Norwegian for ridiculously blue body of water). It’s a place with porches, and people who actually sit on them. A place where cows run wild and so do the kids, whose biggest decision of the day is whether to swim or bike.

No child in Fresvik, I’m sure, is sitting on the kitchen floor like my 13-year-old daughter, with her foot jammed in a contraption that promises to build one’s foot arch, agonizing over whether she should go to camp as planned or attend the Joffrey Summer Intensive as her ballet instructors have advised.

“I don’t know what’s involved in a summer intensive, but I assume it’s intense,” I tell my husband. “And I assume they don’t have them in Fresvik.”

“I’m sure they don’t have Starbucks there, either,” he says. “The grass is always greener.”

“No,” I say, pointing to the picture I’d pulled up on my computer in effort to hard-sell our Nordic relocation. “Their grass really is.”

He then points out that their grass is frozen three-quarters of the year. “It only looks like that for a couple of good months in the summer,” he counters.

That may well be, but that’s all my daughter has, too—a couple of good months in the summer, which she was going to spend at camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. The antithesis in atmosphere and activity, I surmise from name alone, of the Joffrey Summer Intensive. A place more like Fresvik, which I stumbled upon while watching a PBS documentary called Twin Sisters, an incredible story about identical twin girls adopted from China as babies by different families, one from Sacramento, the other from—you guessed it—Fresvik, Norway.

The film cuts back and forth between the life of the Sacramento twin—a life filled with soccer games, minivans, and goody bag trinkets—to the world of her sister. Although the film’s focus was the kismet that led the parents to discover the girls were twins, and the girls’ bond despite growing up on different sides of the globe, my big take-away was how the Fresvik twin got the better end of the deal.

While the Sacramento girl was shuttled and instructed, the Fresvik girl roamed and rescued mice. She walked to school, she ran to the mailbox; she got bored. The disparity in lifestyle and attitude was egregious, enough to steal the show. It was commented on by the Sacramento father as well as by many of the folks who visited the film’s website. Clearly, Fresvik is the place to be. Or at least the place to rather be. It seems I have company in my desire to go anywhere, even to a place without a Starbucks, as long as we don’t have to keep on going and going.

My girlfriend recently gave me her daughter’s college resume to review. It was four pages long. Her every minute of high school was meticulously accounted for and for what? She is going to the same college that I attended. Will she fare that much better there than I did? Will she fare that much better in life? And what about my girls? Will they have to run track, preside over student council, paint for the art show, spearhead the Homecoming Committee and save the whales to get into college, too?

I hate to see my kids spend their high school years overdosing on extracurricular activities, so I’m determined to teach them to just say no. “Summer and intensive don’t even belong in the same sentence. It’s an oxymoron,” I tell my daughter, whose face is now ashen, and not just because the foot wrench is cutting off blood flow. She is in a panic about her entire situation.

“If I don’t go, I won’t keep up,” she tells me. Most everyone else she dances with is, apparently, attending an intensive.

“Jason Brown went to camp,” I offer in effort to keep her off the bandwagon. Jason, the 2015 U.S. Men’s Figure Skating champion and Olympic medalist, grew up in our town. He went to the same schools as my daughters. I have it on good word that he also went to camp.

She doesn’t buy it. “I’m not Jason Brown,” she points out.

And she’s not. Which is exactly why she shouldn’t spend her summer doing ballet. As much as my daughter knows who she isn’t, she has no idea what she wants to become. Although one day she may be a dancer, for now she’s just a kid who loves to dance. But she loves to do other things, too. There may be things she loves to do that she doesn’t even know she loves to do and won’t discover if she spends all of her time dancing and no time doing nothing.

I’m not sure when doing nothing after school fell out of favor. As a kid, I was a pro at nothing. We all were. I spent the bulk of my childhood either running around the neighborhood or watching Adam-12 with my brother.

Not that ours was the way to play it, either. Neither of us grew up with a clue as to what we wanted to do with our lives. But when What Color is Your Parachute suggested we figure it out by focusing on the things we liked to do in our free time as kids, at least we had free time to draw on.

And the twin from Fresvik will, too.

Unfortunately, my own twins and my husband made clear that Fresvik is not an option. So I’m going to shoot for camp. I never thought that I’d have to work so hard and pay so much to give my kids a chance to do nothing. Not nothing, per se, but activities that don’t transfer well to a resume, like swimming in a lake, running to get mail, talking without the aid of technology—the types of activities we used to just call life—the type of activities they still call life in the tiny village of Fresvik. An honest, old-fashioned childhood crammed into a few weeks a year. That, to me, is a summer intensive.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

Sew The Labels

Sew The Labels


Art Sew the Labels“It’s spring,” I said to my children, as I noticed the newly sprouted crocuses around our white mailbox post.

For me, the deep purple and yellow specks peppering the blades of grass meant something entirely different than Little League games and warmer weather. Rather, Mother Nature was reminding me to start my annual spring undertaking – sewing the nametag labels into the clothing Emily and Daniel would be bringing to camp. With two children, this meant that I would spend about 15 hours sewing at least 350 labels. So, why like many of my friends had I not chosen an alternative to this time-consuming method of labeling my children’s personal belongings?

My 10 and 13-year-old children had been going to sleep away camp for the past four and seven summers, respectively. A few months before that first summer, my mother presented me with a baggie filled with three things:  a needle, a spool of white thread and a small square of paper. I was confused. It had been almost 25 years since home economics class when I had sewn a lopsided octopus I affectionately named Gus. “What’s all this for?”  I asked my mother. “The camp labels,” she replied.

Growing up, my mother put a lot of time and effort into the sewing she did for us.  Her mustard colored sewing kit looked more like a cross between a picnic basket and a toolbox. An assortment of rainbow colored spools of thread in different thicknesses and sizes dotted the main compartment of the basket, along with a variety of scissors and mini plastic bags filled with an array of buttons. The entire interior flap was lined in a floral fabric filled with stuffing, creating an oversized cushion to store different sized needles and pins. In addition to shortening pants, hemming skirts and sewing buttons, my mother also created my costumes for school events, like the American Indian dress she made for my 2nd grade bicentennial celebration. The hand-made linen colored tunic-like dress was adorned with fringes and beadwork. On the back, she had sketched a colorful scene with an Indian woman sitting cross-legged next to a fire.

Unlike my mother, I was never much of a sewer or a seamstress. Instead, over the years, I had opted to pay my local tailor or occasionally ask my mother to sew a button that had fallen off a pair of shorts or the sleeve of a jacket. But when she handed me my very own needle and spool of thread the summer Emily was heading to sleep away camp, something had stirred inside of me and I was determined to figure out what it was. So, with a big pile of my daughter’s tee shirts beside me, I began to sew. I threaded the needle, pinched each label in half, and knotted the thread by rubbing my thumb and index finger together.  My stitches were far from perfect and the knots often looked messy. The label was usually not folded exactly in half, the “y” in Emily’s name often cut off and instead, included with our last name on the back. I would prick my finger nine out of ten times and with each “ouch” I would look at the remaining piles and resume my labeling.  So, why had I chosen to spend so many hours sewing in nametapes with a far from perfect result?

Many of my friends had paid someone to sew their labels. Others had tried laundry markers, which, in my opinion, could either bleed onto the clothing or fade with each wash. A few had opted for iron ons or peel n’stick clothing labels, “easier alternatives” but perhaps not sturdy enough for the camp laundry.

It was during that first year that I figured out why my mother had given me, a novice sewer, my own needle and thread. Between the 18 pairs of underwear, 10 pairs of shorts and the long list of other clothing and accessories, the camp packing list had recommended ordering between 100-200 nametapes, each I would have to sew. It was when I noticed the suggested 24 pairs of socks that I felt like I wanted to quit. Instead, I rolled down the top of each sock and then folded and sewed on the nametapes. Although tedious, with each finished pair, I had a renewed sense of accomplishment and pride.  But, more importantly, I realized that the labeling represented much more than just branding my daughter’s name onto every article of clothing so she wouldn’t lose things that summer. It was about sending a piece of me with her, with my maternal imprint on each item she would have with her throughout her seven week journey at sleep away camp.

Now, years later, that same baggie sits in my bedside drawer. The spool of thread is much thinner and the needle is fastened to a now tattered square of paper. My labels are still crooked, my stitches are still sewn in no particular pattern and my knots are still messy. But, at least I know that both of my children have a constant reminder of me throughout the summer. Whether that is more of a comfort for them or for me I am still not sure.