Making the Grade

Dedicated to Charlene Czerniak, Hugh Fairchild, Friederike Alberding, Becky Clock, and Don Wafer

In college I took a creative writing class in which I wrote a poem called “The Scarlet Letter,” about my high school physics teacher who gave me the only C I received in school. Clearly I had some issues with this man. In hindsight, I don’t feel he was a bad teacher, only that he didn’t explain physics well to those who didn’t get it. The students who understood physics loved him.

But throughout my education, this teacher was one of the few who I felt didn’t care about all his students’ progress.

My teachers in the small, quaint elementary school in Northwest Ohio I attended were excellent. My fifth- and sixth-grade teachers were perhaps the two best teachers I had. My fifth-grade teacher had a unique interest in science, my least favorite subject, and was the only teacher who made it fun and interesting for me. My sixth-grade teacher taught me more about writing than any other teacher until college.

In high school, three teachers in particular stood out. My German teacher spent as much time chaperoning trips to Chicago and eventually to Germany as she did teaching. Her teaching ability and care for her students were exceptional. My journalism teacher supported my friend and me when the principal admonished us for writing a newspaper article about the excessive number of fights in the school. She taught me life and writing lessons I still use. And my tennis coach, who I never had as a science teacher, believed in me when I needed encouragement the most.

Without these mentors I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And thankfully, even though the teaching profession is more difficult than ever, my children have excellent teachers, too. My kids are in school more than six and a half hours per day, a total of 33.75 hours per week.  That is A LOT of time that someone else besides me is influencing them.

What I feel toward these individuals devoting time and patience to my children is incredible gratitude. Julia’s teacher this year is no less than outstanding.  She’s a seasoned teacher, who has been in the classroom for 35 years.  Can you imagine?  I cannot. One might sympathize a bit if she wanted to put in a little less than 100 percent, but this woman puts in 110 percent.

Mitchell, on the other hand, attends an intermediate school (grades 4-6) and has had three teachers in each grade. When leaving his smaller K-3 school to move to a school of 900 students, I worried how he would fare. Would the teachers nurture him enough or would they treat him more like a middle schooler? My concern was unfounded, because his teachers have advocated for him and created a fun learning environment.

If I wanted, I probably could homeschool. I have a graduate-level education and although I might need some assistance with science, I most likely could manage. But I would hate it and so would my kids.  They crave daily interaction with their peers, not to mention the benefit of a professional trained to teach them. Greg and I probably could also scrape by the funds to send them to a private school.

But I remain a firm believer in the value of public education. Both my parents started their careers teaching in public schools. I attended public schools and worked for a public school system for nine years.  My kids are learning to get along with a diverse group of people. They are learning to succeed and fail, which prepares them for life. They are learning that things don’t always go their way. They deal with a ridiculously long bus ride. Occasionally I drive them, but I won’t cater to them forever because life doesn’t work that way.

In this day, there is so much pressure on teachers. They constantly have to adapt to new and different teaching styles and content. The work day doesn’t end when teachers leave school, and they must stay up-to-date. Yes, they get their summers off, but once they complete what is required of them, it doesn’t amount to much time. To deal with all of this plus politics and parental complaints, teachers must truly love their job and their students.

I admire them immensely and am thankful for those who have dedicated their lives to this profession. It’s not an easy job, nor the highest paying job, but it is one of the most important.  I will be forever grateful to my teachers and to those who educate my children.

How did your teachers positively impact your life?

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My German teacher, friends and I in Germany in 1993.

Shorts in the Wintertime

At 6 a.m. on approximately 10 Saturdays a year while many people are still tucked cozily in their beds, I drag my children out of bed and into their swimsuits, sweatshirts, and towel pants and off to an early morning swim meet.

Several years ago, a friend signed her daughter up for the swim team and shared that her Saturdays in June and July were booked due to swim meets lasting from the early morning to early afternoon. I thought she was crazy. Why would she give up her Saturday morning for a swim meet, I wondered?

Fast forward five years and I found myself with a six-year-old who loved the water and seemed to have a natural ability for swimming. Combined with the encouragement of a friend who was a swim coach and other friends whose children were on the swim team, I decided that Julia would try summer swim. And, if we had to be at practice every summer morning, her nine-year-old brother might as well do it, too.

As with most new activities, my kids weren’t star swimmers, but they loved summer swim team. They already had several friends on the team, but they soon made more friends and enjoyed the fun summer practices and meets. What kid doesn’t like hanging out with his or her friends on a Saturday morning, eating candy, playing video games, and swimming competitively for a total of five minutes?

Although I was not a competitive swimmer, some of my high school friends were on the swim team, and it seemed like their families were a tight bunch. But I never gave it much thought until my children started swimming.

It makes sense. You spend almost every Saturday morning for four months of the year with the same people, and you’re going to form friendships. Not to mention that swimming parents are some of the nicest parents I’ve met. I have witnessed very little competition among parents, perhaps because it is an individual sport, and the swimmers’ times determine what heat they’re in. In what other sport do the slowest athletes get the loudest cheers?

Years later, I can see why my swimmer friends’ parents still hang out together, even though their children have been out of school for almost 25 years.

Sadly, Mitchell informed me that this will be his last year of winter swim. He is more focused on soccer and baseball and with today’s year-round sports mentality, he has become too busy.

Plus, winter swim has been tougher for my kids than summer. For one, it is a long season – lasting from September to February. Second, practices are held at the Elizabethtown College pool, which is kept at a cold temperature. It is not an easy feat to persuade Julia to go to the chilly pool for practice in the middle of winter. Finally, swimming is an intense sport that takes a lot of drive. Mitchell counted the number of laps Julia had to swim in one of her recent practices, and it totaled 33. That same day, Mitchell swam 74 laps in practice.

I am in awe of these kids’ ability and endurance.

Overall I think I do a decent job of not living vicariously through my children, but I will miss the swim team if Julia quits. Chatting with the parents, complaining about the excessive heat of the natatorium (hence the need to wear shorts), volunteering as a timer, and cheering on the swimmers has created a camaraderie that has me selfishly hoping she continues for a few more years. After all, what else would we do at 6 on a Saturday morning?

cGarber J 7 Dive great facePhoto by James McKenzie

A Life Well Lived

When I was pregnant with my firstborn, a friend of my mom’s asked her if she was going to be “one of those crazy grandparents,” who couldn’t stop gushing over her grandchildren.

“No,” my mom said. “I won’t be one of THOSE grandparents.”

Ah, but she was wrong. When Mitchell was born in 2004 my parents lived in Indiana, but my mom came and spent the summer with us.

For the first time in my life, her attention was focused on a child that wasn’t me. Now I know what it feels like to have a sibling, I thought! But this was my child, and my mom was devoted to him.

And thus, the unique grandparent/grandchild relationship between my parents and children began. It only intensified (in a good way) when my parents retired and moved here five years later.

In a sense, it’s completely different from the relationship I had with my grandparents, in that they always lived 100-1000 miles away. But in another sense, it’s not so different, in that my grandparents were devoted to my cousins and me.

My dad’s dad (Grandpa McKenzie) was particularly special to us. To all who knew him, this man was known for his incredible patience and gentleness. He was born in Canada in 1918 and immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler. His father was Scottish and his mother Canadian.  He graduated from Ohio State at a time when it wasn’t so common to attend college. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and fought in Germany during World War II. He worked as an industrial engineer for years and sent three children to college in the 1960s and 70s.

By the time I was born in 1975, my grandpa had already defied death several times. In addition to putting his life on the line in the war, he also had two heart attacks in his late 40s and early 50s.

What I remember him for is the endless time he spent with me.  One of my earliest memories of him includes riding in the backseat of a car driving to Florida while he read old Christmas cards to me and let me comb his greasy gray hair over and over with his small black pocket comb.

He and my grandma retired to Florida when I was seven. My family stayed in the Midwest, but the distance didn’t matter. We traveled to Florida at least once a year, and they visited us. In fourth grade, my parents put me on my first plane ride alone to spend my spring break with them.

As I grew up, my grandparents continued to show up for every milestone in my life no matter how far away they were.  They were there for my high school tennis matches, prom, and high school and college graduations.

In 1996, my grandpa was diagnosed with kidney and colon cancer. He lived through it, long enough to see me and three more of my cousins get married and meet four great-grandchildren.

In 2006, the renal cancer that hit him in the 90s spread to his lungs. Ever the optimist, he entered a clinical trial.  The trial gave him a few more years of life until he started heading downhill again. In early 2008, both he and my grandma were admitted into Hospice.  She passed away in January.

Greg and I flew to Indiana for the funeral, knowing that it would probably be the last time we would see him. The funeral and family gathering were bittersweet as we remembered my grandma and said our goodbyes. Within the next three weeks, three of my cousins and I decided to travel one more time to see our grandpa before he passed. Of the four of us, my visit was last.

A few days before we were scheduled to arrive, my aunt told my grandpa, who was drifting in and out of consciousness, that Mitchell and I were coming that weekend.

“Well, I need to make it until then,” he said.

And he did. He was almost unconscious when we arrived, but when I held his hand and told him we were there, his eyes opened and he looked my way. A few hours later, surrounded by his family, he died.

Almost eight years have passed since then, but his legacy is still with us. I see his endless patience and dedication in my dad, who spends hours with my kids and makes it a priority to attend their sporting events. I see it in my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Unlike him, I do not have endless patience, and I’m not always so laid back. But I think the attribute I admired the most about him was that he appreciated every day and moment with those he loved. Even during the years when he was sick, he never stopped loving life. I am only hopeful I can do the same.

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My grandpa, cousin, and I in 1983.


A few years ago I attended a memorial service for a friend’s mom.  One of her friends who gave a eulogy talked about what a wonderful, fun, and loyal friend this woman was. She talked about their long-term friendship and how they traveled together, supported each other through difficult times, and laughed together.

I left that service thinking, “That is what I want someone to say about me at my memorial service.”

Because, friends have always been extremely important to me. Maybe it had to do with growing up as an only child, where there were no siblings to play with.  I had cousins, but none lived close by. My neighbors and school friends were my support system. And I saw it modeled in my parents’ lives as well. Never living near family, they relied on their friends – neighbors, colleagues, and church members – for their network of support.

That is why the years of 1998 through 2004 were some of the most difficult for me so far. Some say one’s twenties should be the best years of his or her life. But for me, who met my soul mate at age 19, they were lonely years of adjusting to a new community and a new environment.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved being married to Greg, but I had a tough adjustment to Lancaster County and farm living.

Adding to my loneliness was the fact that my first job in Pennsylvania was in downtown Harrisburg in an office where I was the only employee. I enjoyed my job, but I was simply isolated a lot of the time. Greg was a farmer, which meant that he worked long hours seven days a week.

My life improved when I found a new job in Lancaster. There I found friends and a community, albeit not the community where I lived. I still lacked a meaningful connection to the small town of Elizabethtown (pop. 11,545).

In 2009 circumstances in our lives changed, and I made the decision to quit my job to become a stay-at-home mom, something I never thought I would do. It was then that developing strong friendships in Elizabethtown finally took precedence.

I joined a mom’s group, where I met friends who, like me, had moved into the area. I became more active in my church and deepened friendships there. Once my children started school and got involved in activities, I met friends that way. I prioritized inviting friends to my home for meals and coffee.

After 17 years, now I have lived in Elizabethtown longer than I have lived anywhere else. The reasons I liked the area to begin with (proximity to Baltimore, Philly, DC, NY, and ocean; natural beauty; lack of traffic; prevalence of locally-grown food) still apply, but now I am tethered to the people, too.  And incredibly thankful that life has brought me to this place.


Some of my wonderful friends

Herding Cats

Any animal lover married to a non-animal lover has learned that some people just lack natural affection towards pets.

My husband Greg is one of those people. Unfortunately for me, neither of my parents were particularly fond of animals either, so my only pet growing up was Swimmy the goldfish. Despite this, I always considered myself a dog person. As a newlywed, Greg agreed to get a dog, a black lab named Flanders, who lived to the age of 13. As a 30-something part-time student/farmer and father of two young children, there was no way he would agree to another. Which, at the time, was okay with me.

As far as cats went, he disliked the look of diseased, in-bred cats roaming on farms, so he instructed me not to feed stray cats. I liked cats, but was allergic to them so this wasn’t a problem.

But that was before we had kids. As soon as my daughter Julia could talk, she made it clear that she loved cats. Even at age eight, she still has 33 stuffed cats, prefers wearing shirts with cats on them to anything else and often meows rather than speaks when she is nervous or excited.

So when a gray cat appeared at our house three years ago, I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for Julia to have a cat without having a cat, i.e barn cats rather than house cats. We started feeding this cat, and soon other cats showed up, including a pregnant orange tiger cat we named Meringue.

After Meringue’s kittens were born, my anxiety built regarding my lack of control over the cats. I worried about rabies and precisely the in-bred, diseased cat herd that Greg had long ago warned me about. A farm wife friend directed me to the Humane League of Lancaster County’s spay and neuter/shots program for stray cats. Shortly thereafter, I borrowed a friend’s cat carrier and purchased a Havahart trap to catch the cats. My plan was to have Meringue and her kittens — Dessy and Creamsicle — spayed and neutered and vaccinated against rabies. Unfortunately, I didn’t act quickly enough. As soon as I set up the appointments, I discovered Meringue was pregnant again.

She gave birth to four more kittens, and our cat situation spiraled out of control.

Anytime Julia was outside, she spent hours searching for the cats and playing with them. After much thought, I decided the only way to prevent her from touching the kittens was to allow her to bring one inside. I could deal with my allergies by taking medication, but I knew it would be hard to convince Greg.

Rather than saying no, he came up with a counter plan. For years he had been trying to persuade me to pay for NFL Sunday Ticket on DIRECTV. Now he had a new bargaining tool. He agreed to bring the outside cat inside in exchange for Sunday Ticket.

Two and a half years later, Oreo is still in our house. Meringue and Creamsicle continue to live outside, but are spayed and neutered and vaccinated against rabies. We found homes for the other kittens. Greg tolerates Oreo and is enjoying Sunday Ticket.

I, on the other hand, have become Crazy Cat Lady. Oreo keeps me company on days when I’m home alone. She is smart and loyal and sweet. For now Greg and I have reached a truce. Until I can convince him of my next crazy plan – buying a goat.

From left: Dessy, Creamsicle, Meringue and her kittens, including Oreo

Chocolate at the Finish Line

Running has not always been my favorite pastime. The hate started in the summer of 1988. My dad decided I was too much of a bookworm and that I should spend my summer getting exercise by running to the tennis courts, practicing my tennis and running home. While I have good memories of the time he spent with me, I dreaded the runs. That same year, I came in dead last in the eighth-grade mile run in gym class.

In high school I tried running at various times, mostly because I hoped it would improve my tennis game, but it never stuck. While studying in Germany in 1996, I furthered my half-hearted attempt by running regularly to shed weight from all the pastries and beer I consumed.

Then, I quit running until 2010. Around that time, I attended a friend’s wedding where I visited with an acquaintance who hadn’t been a runner in college. In recent years, she had participated in several races, including a marathon. Also a professor, she told me she was persistent, which is why she was able to accomplish goals like getting her Ph.D. and running a marathon.  When some friends suggested running a 5k that year, I agreed to join them.

Since that time, I have run 16 5ks, two 10ks and three half marathons. I am still not fast, nor will I ever be. But I have gained much from running. Not only is it low-cost exercise, but it is also convenient since I don’t live near a gym or well, let’s face it, near anything. For me, running is natural anti-anxiety medication. I can feel completely down when I wake up in the morning, go for a run, and feel so much better. I mostly run alone, but have strengthened many friendships by traveling to races and in some cases running with others. I have explored beautiful country roads on foot that I never would have driven down (always with my pepper spray :)). My 11-year-old son, who is faster than me, has run five 5ks with me and that has been fulfilling, too.

Tomorrow I will run in the Hershey Half Marathon for the second time and am feeling about as lukewarm as I’ve felt about a race yet. My ankle hurts, and I have a cold. But for some crazy reason, I am still looking forward to it. Driving to the race with my friend, who is running her first half, meeting up with some other good friends before the race and accomplishing a goal that I never would have believed I would achieve will make the struggle worth it. And of course, the chocolate at the finish line. 🙂

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Photos from my runs

Why Blog? Why Now?

I spent many hours thinking about this question, mostly while running the country roads near my house. It comes down to this:  I enjoy writing and have written little in the last seven years.

Also, life can get busy with two active elementary-aged children. Last winter, while driving to an early morning swim meet, I turned on NPR and heard an interview with the poet Mary Oliver on Krista Tippett’s show On Being. At 7 a.m. on this particular Sunday in February, I was riveted.  The following week I bought Oliver’s book New and Selected Poems, Volume I. Oliver has spent her life observing and appreciating.  Despite the hardship she’s faced, she finds the beauty in our world. My goal with this blog is to slow down in this crazy world and appreciate more, whether it be in nature, my relationships or experiences.

With that said, here’s what my readers (hoping there are some) will NOT find on this blog:
Cleaning tips

What You May Find Here:
Stories about my interests and family
Photos (hopefully)