Dear 10 and 13

Dear 10 and 13,

The Gulf swallowed up summer. It was just here—I swear—and then it slunk into the horizon, taking 9 and 12 with it.

And here I am, washed up with the tide, a sappy puddle, a brackish mess, flooded with all the feelings.

It wasn’t a fancy summer. We didn’t make it to Europe. You spent most of it in the Florida wild, navigating rivers, tromping through cleansing mud, earning patience with each line you cast, soaking in old school adventures and new books.

Even though summer was gone in an eye blink, it was slow when we were in it. Minutes were fuller. They lasted longer.

 

Right before summer tip-toed away, we spent a minute in its salty glory on the coast. I was peeling my cover up off, inch by inch, exposing as little of me as possible before I sank in to the safety of my beach chair. And, Case, you spoke up. You’re always the one who helps me find beautiful.

Momma, you said. You look strong.

I had been wriggling out of my cover up aware of the regret thickening my thighs, aware of new circumferences. Now I reconsidered.

I feel strong, I told you. And I meant it.

cover up

You smiled, satisfied, and turned back to your shell hunt. And I wondered at you, 10. You always spy the good in others, usually in a corner they haven’t connected to light yet. You’re like a little goodness-reflecting prism, with your confetti freckles and rad blonde bang swoop. You don’t know your own strength.

Then I looked over at you Tucker, shoveling sand. It’s just like you to dig for new depths. You always take things apart to see how they work, finding better meaning layers in. When I was 13, I was smooching a cute boy in the back row of the movie theater (sorry, Mom + Dad). Have you even seriously held hands yet? Don’t answer that. But never stop valuing wit and smarts and cleverness. Never stop seeking. You don’t know your own strength.

This year, 10 and 13, I want you to find your strong.

I’m not talking about your idea of strong—the kind that hits the ball farthest. The kind that breeds rebellion for shock’s sake. The kind that, lately, sparks defiance to bloom on both of your tongues.

I’m wishing you a true-north strong. Quiet strong. Wise strong. It’s a strength that’s aware of its own impact and knows just how precious each breath can be. Maybe this feels way too heavy for 10 and 13. But I want you to find your strength because there’s tough stuff ahead.

It’s why I still leave post-its in your lunch boxes. Because I mess up. Every day. But if I do nothing else, I want these truths to stick to your heart in neon: you are loved. So loved. You are deeply valued. You are wonderfully made. You are woven with purpose.

Your dad and I are here for you. It’s our job to love you and guide you into self-reliant, selfless humans. Y’all call me sheriff, half-kidding, because I demand that manners pull a full-time residence in your mouths, I don’t tolerate ugly words spoken against anyone and I am never okay with you calling something “your junk”. Seriously. Good in, good out, I preach. I talk a lot, I know, but I hope you feel my dearest wishes and prayers for you.

I pray you realize your divine, hand-crafted worth. I hope passion, for whatever it is you find on your own, fizzes within your veins. There may always be someone bigger and stronger and louder than you (sorry, guys—your mom is only 4’11), but your tremendous hearts and brains are capable of audacious things. Don’t let any human dream bigger for you than you.

Someone told me this a few weeks ago: start making the decisions you’d want your kids to make. That shook me a bit. But your dad has always been that deliberate. He chooses well. He’s the most radical man I know, but so few people know it. He quietly gives and serves so completely and freely, expecting nothing in return, hoping for your happiness.

Can I tell you what makes me happiest?

Breakfast with you, Case. I sip on coffee. You unload your brain—I have to beg you to take bites when you find a pause to breathe. You ask me to quiz you so we can get multiplication tables “back in your head” after the long summer. An eternity to you. A moment to me.

Your crazy-hard animal pop quizzes. No—I don’t know about a wombat’s habitat. Or the fastest speed of a peregrine falcon. Or how to spell peregrine falcon without looking it up. But you do.

Nightly tuck-ins. Here and there, you ask me to sing. I still love singing to you.

Tucker— I love when you sing out loud. You have a tender tambor and honey tone. I love our rides to school. We listen to 80s—your obsession with the 80s cracks me up. We talk about books, movies. The phases middle school yahoos slink through. Nothing’s better than a text popping up from you from middle school, in the middle of the day. You share your drawings, good news, the I love you emoji. Yesterday, my miracle, you asked me to come sit on the pool deck with you while you finished your smoothie. And I thought my heart might detonate.

You ask for me less, just when I’m craving it more. So, here I am, furiously scribbling it all down, my mind meandering like this letter.

I’m happiest when we’re a whole 4—in the car, around the dinner table, anywhere at Disney, on the beach. Okay, fine. A whole 5. We’re all a little happier when Ozzie’s snuggled up in the mix. I love when all 5 of us are piled on the couch—watching a Marvel movie for Tucker, NatGeo or HGTV for Case, GameDay for Dad, slumming it with a Fast & Furious movie or (y’all giving in to) So You Think You Can Dance for me. That kind of cozy is rare and fleeting and I’m holding tight to each one.

family car

Indulge me this year when I ask for an extra hug, when I holler “I love you” from across the house, when we’re at a stoplight and I pat your knee like an old lady would. When did you grow big enough to ride shot gun? Don’t protest when I want the TV off when the four of us sit down to dinner. And just once, when I ask you to turn your video games off, maybe you say okay instead of asking for five more minutes?

Because, this year, I want us to be the kind of strong that changes how we tell time.

Can we measure this year like a song? In tuck-ins and dance shows and road trips and Ozzie’s zoomies? In night swims and cook outs and Sundays at church? In Dad jokes and kick offs, in Disney, in Florida sunsets?

In strength and love. We’ll measure in love.

sunset silho

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Centered

Her bun was blonde and tight. Everything about her was slight and light except for the full coil that sat smug on the nape of her neck.

Her elevator eyes surveyed me, hanging on my legs—my short, thick legs—and assessed my height. I haven’t finished growing yet, my eyes pleaded with her.

We had just moved to Georgia and my angel mother, who still believes I can do anything, had driven me downtown to audition for the ballet company in our new city. I’d been dancing since I was two. Today, I was eleven, standing in the biggest studio I’d ever seen with dozens of girls my age. The wall of mirrors correctly reflected that in this sea of long, lithe branches, I was a squat tree trunk. These other willowy creatures were already in the ballet company. I had a chance today to show them what I could do.

The bun was about to start class when an older woman in an oversized tunic and fierce black hair drifted in. Her good energy splashed over everyone in proximity. When the bun noticed her notice me, she explained why I was there. And this woman, with her wild hair and even more wild eyes, stayed to watch me dance.

It was a silent eternity before the music started and I gripped the barre for dear life. But, when the first notes filled the room, my muscles melted into memory. The bun was methodical, sharp-clapping in rhythm, demanding slow, deliberate movement that stretched to the end of every note. And I kind of loved her for that, her care with the craft.

In ballet, you keep proving each move, from the tip of your tallest finger to the point of your longest toe. Symbiotic, you and the music complete each piece and you never stop stretching, pointing, looking, until it’s time to glide, jump or turn into the next move.

Ballet forced me to feel tall. Ballet had my whole heart.

After a grueling barre and some work in the center floor, the bun asked us to line up in the back corner. Physical giddiness fizzed beneath my skin. We were going to leap! We started with jetés, than grand jetés. Mid-air, I heard the bun bark out: good. Good!

See, back then, shortie had much ups. And, if nothing else came out of that day, the bun had seen exactly what my legs could do.

After the reverence, the class filed out and I hung back to hear my fate. The bun betrayed no expression, but the wild pixie leaned down to place both of her hands on my shoulders, untamed eyes close, smile open. “You dance from your center,” she said. “We’d love to have you join us.”

I’ll never know if she meant my literal middle, my core, my heart. I just know her words landed deep and I’ve called them up more than once in my life. Then I was met by my Momma’s proud-as-punch squeal in the lobby. And all was right with the world. At 11, I was smack in the middle of my center.

Your center is the midpoint, the nucleus, the most important place. You can center around something, too, move to the middle or focus in.

Lately, I’ve been a teense off kilter. Off tempo, off key, just-off center.

Leaning in to work, l’ve been leaving a gaping hole at home. Leaning in at home, I feel like I’m losing my place at work. Leaning, leaning. Worrying up for parents, sideways for a sister, sinking in worry. I live a charmed life, no doubt, but in response to the emotional maelstrom that’s swept my loved ones up this last year, I’ve lost site of my center. I’ve been teetering and grasping for the nearest solid option—my husband, a friend, a glass of wine.

And in the middle of a swirling universe, a trap door popped open to swallow me in grief.

I lost my grandma today, my Tootsie. It was an accident, a jolt, a shake-you-wide-awake.

She was the heartbeat of the Marriott clan. A woman clothed in strength, dignity, laughing with no fear of the future. Equal parts sassy, classy, accessory. With unruly beautiful balance.tootsie selfie

She had an actual twinkle in her eyes. A mischievous, wicked flicker.

She could arch an eyebrow high as the Brooklyn Bridge.

She could hold her whiskey and (sometimes) her tongue.

When he was a baby, Tucker could not get enough of her. He’d bury his infant face into her sweet wrinkled cheek and cover her in kisses. We all felt that way.

Because, for all her fun and games packed into a petite 5 feet, Tootsie was also the queen of center. Mother to 5 sons. Matriarch to dozens of grands and great grands. Each one of us got cards on every single holiday, birthday. And I hadn’t even returned her last phone call. Recitals, graduations, weddings, showers, baptisms. She was always there, for everyone. She made you feel like a gem. She knew what was most important.

tea for three
Disney Digression. Lindsey and I loved our magical Tea for Three adventures.

One of my favorite memories with her was a hot air balloon ride—one of her bucket list checks. We were floating high over north Tampa, pressed against each other, peering over the edge of the basket into the glory of the morning. As we drifted through this perfect, quiet peace, I realized this flight was like her walk with God. I prayed in that moment to keep this calm and this wonder.

Tonight, Tootsie’s dancing in the heavens with Doug, her love, jitterbugging across a cloud, perfectly centered.

And that’s my word for this year. Centered.

Center is not in yesterday’s regrets or tomorrow’s troubles. Center is today. And I will be glad in it.

Because when my true center dwells in my heart through faith, He can do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine, no matter what’s whirling by.

This month, as life would have it, I pulled on ballet slippers for the first time in 25 years. I tiptoed into the studio and gripped the barre, old pal, for dear life. Then music notes filled the room and my muscles melted into memory. My legs, ever thick, do not snap into fifth position anymore. But my arms, suddenly French, found the rhythm.

ballet slipper
I’m still tying these. YouTube can teach me how to sew, right?

The teacher smiled at me. “Nice arms, Mindy. But, look. See? You have to tondu from your center.”

 

A birthday letter to Tucker

Dear Tucker,

Twelve years ago, right now, I was trying to find our fit—two new puzzle pieces turning until we finally slid into place. Your head cozied into the crook of my right elbow and my left hand steadied a flailing foot. I was paddling through a soup of emotions, all rational thinking had drained from me. But I remember wondering at your perfect teeny foot, comparing it to the size of my thumb, not sure how or why God was trusting me with this precious life, divinely woven, warm in my arms.

They could smell my inadequate instinct, I was sure. They’d never let me leave with you. But. They did. And 12 whole years have slipped by since.

Tuck Trek

And, still, I’m wondering over you. I wonder at your feet, your now man-sized, perfect feet, which were longer than mine a long time ago. I wonder at your wicked-smart brain, the one that denominates the common core math that I can’t riddle through, the one that re-imagines entire worlds brick by Lego brick, the one that considers the frailest eyelash or armor plate shape in a pencil sketch.

I wonder at your old soul. The way you hold eye contact, both direct and comfortably, with everyone you meet. The way you always invite someone to open up with thoughtful questions. Your emotional barometer in any room or field. And you may not always be the best of the best on the baseball team, but you never forget to thank your coaches or the umps at the end of every game. We know. We notice.

You’re careful with your words. But you welcome any thrill with reckless expectancy.

Tuck_slide
Disney Digression

Music moves you, an electric conduit, and you’re never still. You’re always singing, dancing, building or moving. Unless you’re reading. I love your love for books—paper books, not digital ones, and the way you devour them in one sitting. You want me to read them, too, so we can talk characters, story arcs, the best parts. Like me, you re-read your favorites because they become old friends.

Your memory is country-miles long, just a little longer than your self-doubt. Everything is personal. Your faith runs deep, like your dad’s, always-on, a constant current coursing through you. You don’t question it. It’s a steady pulse as sure as your heartbeat. And your prayers have a way of startling me into the present.

Tucker baptized

One minute, you’re answering me with first-class sass, challenging me with your intense eye contact and your own ideas about what’s right. In the next minute, you’re being the best big brother I’ve ever known, always including your little sibling, your shadow, bringing him along on your adventures.

beach patrol
Another Disney Digression

You always ask me about my day. You ask things point blank. You ask mature questions about full-grown subject matter with alarming easiness. And, good grief, you’re twelve. Just steps away from a teenager.

Though everyone tells you that the days are long, but the years are short, everyone tells you not to blink, everyone tells you that each passing year flies faster than the last, you don’t get it until you live it. You don’t get it until your baby is eye-to-eye with you, and you wonder at his strength and heart, as he’s teaching you something you never knew. You don’t get it until life shakes you awake to remind you how fleeting and fragile and temporary it all is.

So, 12, let’s do this next year. Let’s ride all the thrill rides we can with our hands up and our screams free. I hope we talk books and movies and lyrics. I hope you keep the questions coming. I hope the puzzle pieces slip into place.

Sometimes, I can hardly believe you’re ours–at least for a little while. I can’t wait to see where your faith leads your amazing brain. And those perfect feet.

Tucker 12