Bigger than a Breadbox


My mom grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It’s located in the Laurel Highlands of western PA, 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, and was a bustling city in the mid-20th century when the Bethlehem Steel mill provided lots of jobs and kept the local economy humming.

My mom lived in Johnstown her whole life, graduating from Ferndale High School and then Conemaugh Valley Memorial Hospital’s School of Nursing. She worked for a short time in town, and then decided, as young women tend to do, that she needed a new adventure. So she moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

It would be hard to overstate the differences between Continue reading

Unexpected Flight


The drive to my kids’ middle school can be absolutely magical. The road hugs the side of a meandering creek, and depending on the time of year, we see some spectacular wildlife. In spring and summer, we’ve looked down the creek to see five startlingly white Snowy Egrets gathered to fish. We see Great Blue Herons camouflaged in the shallows hunting their breakfast. Perhaps most striking to me are the plain old mallard ducks, still floating in the icy waters all winter long. I see them as I drive by, in my layers of clothes, still shivering though my seat heater is blazing, and I marvel at their ability to float all winter with a soggy bottom.

Right now, late fall, is miraculous for the variety of birds we see as they pass through on their way south. I can’t name any of them, but I enjoy their variety nonetheless. Large geese walking the bank. Tiny black and white bodies bobbing on the water’s surface in impressive numbers.

Last week, I was driving to the school at what was, for me, an unusual time. It was late morning, and I was returning my son, Richie, to classes after Continue reading

Dinner with Beyoncé


Not long ago, Richie and I were in a waiting room together for an hour and a half. He was (semi-)watching the movie Brave on his tablet, and I was reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Or I was trying to. Because when Richie has a long stretch of quiet to think, the thoughts that come into his head are varied and humorous and telling. And luckily for me, he seldom sensors them before sharing. Continue reading

What I Love About You


My Dear Son,
The weeks of summer are flying by, and you continue to change and grow at a staggering pace. In an effort to remember some of your/our finer moments, I started a list…

What I love: That you have finally gathered the bravery to swat flies yourself. I know their buzzing both irritates and terrifies you; you seem to hear it at a volume far beyond what the rest of us do. And yet, you face your fear and attempt to get rid of them under your own power.

What I don’t love: That the glass slider in our kitchen is covered with so many splotches of blood, guts, and broken wings that I’ve begun referring to it as “Death’s Door.” (Note to self: introduce Windex.)

What I love: How much you enjoyed Continue reading

The Detention Anticipation


My son, Richie, starts middle school in the fall. It’s a big transition for any kid, and even bigger for those on the spectrum. An unfamiliar building, an all-new routine, and unknown challenges invoke the anxiety that often goes hand-in-hand with Autism.

To help the kids with their transition, our elementary school takes all the 5th graders on an outing to the middle school. They get to tour the building, check out a locker, and get a little inside scoop from the 8th graders who volunteer to lead the tours. I’m willing to bet that the leader of Richie’s group was a boy because he told them all about detention. Richie has spoken of little else since.

“If I get detention will they yell at me?”

“If I get detention and miss the bus, will you pick me up?”

“If I get detention will that be on my report card?”

This morning at breakfast, he asked if he would get detention for having Autism.

I wanted to say, “Of course not!” but instead I asked, “What do you mean?”

“If I’m not focused and I’m thinking about something else, what if they give me detention?”

“Oh, Honey,” I assured him, “they don’t give detention for not paying attention. Listen, Richie, you are a rule follower. I don’t think you’ll EVER get detention.”


“Really. You get detention for fighting, for being bad, for screaming at someone.”

“Oh, okay. But what about bad table manners in the cafeteria?”

Put Through the Mill


A year ago today, the home of one of my oldest friends, Miller, was filled with mess and confusion. Already sleep-deprived from over a week of waiting for the chaos to begin, Miller watched as her living room was overtaken by a rush of bodily fluids, squirming neediness, and unknown challenges ahead.

Eight weeks later, she sent one of those puppies to live at my house.

It was the culmination of over two years of me trying to add a second dog to my pack horde. I believe in adopting rescue dogs, and the six dogs I’d had in my life up to this point had all been rescues of some kind. During these years, I spent way more time on Petfinder than on Facebook. Seldom did a week go by without me shoving my phone in my husband’s face and shamelessly pleading, “How about THIS one?!?!?”

I cannot say no to a rescue dog. Rich, however, is really, really good at it.

Four times during those years (are you paying attention? Two years! Four lousy times!) Rich agreed that the dog should be ours, and I filled out the adoption paperwork. The first, a floppy little black mutt named Marie, had lots of people clamoring to adopt her, and the rescue organization gave her to someone else. The second, a chocolate lab mix reminiscent of my old dog Ted (the greatest dog ever), turned out to not like little dogs, and since we already had our terrier mix, Scooter, we could not adopt her. I can’t even remember what the third dog was; my poor, tender, doggie-obsessed heart was beginning to harden.

The fourth – the heartbreaker – was a big, black, beautiful mastiff mix who was found roaming the streets of Harrisburg. You know my chocolate lab, Ted, the best dog ever? That’s where he was found: roaming the streets of Harrisburg. That day in 1994, I left work early, took him home, and began looking for his owner. He spent the next 11 years loving my family.

Long story short, we didn’t get the Mastiff mix, either. After a lengthy application process and many, many calls and texts between me and the rescue, I showed up at my appointment time with my husband and children to meet the dog we were all aflutter over…and was informed that they had sent him home with another family a few hours earlier.

I stayed off Petfinder for a while after that.

A few months later, I got a call from my old friend Miller (I say “old friend” both because it’s been almost 25 years and because she has quite a few years on me, and we have the kind of loving, soul-deep, take-no-prisoners relationship that requires me to point that out as often as possible). She was in a whirlwind of excitement (she has a lot of those; it’s one of the reasons I adore her) because she had bred her Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and soon there would be puppies!

Rich didn’t need a lot of convincing. We’d spent time with Miller’s Swissies (as GSMD’s are often called) and loved them. His research into the breed didn’t reveal a single reason to refuse; in fact, it convinced him that a Swissy would be a great family pet who would most likely add joy and love to our family life.

And she has. We named her Millie – after Miller, of course – and she’s now a fixture in our house. A big fixture. When we brought her home as a tiny puppy, the first thing she did was walk right underneath Scooter. Now he fits in her mouth. Last night, she walked underneath the dinner table as we were finishing up and while her head was in my lap, her tail was curled up onto Jillian’s plate at the far corner of the table.

Still growing into her body, she is goofy, awkward, and always in the way. Every morning, the dogs prance and beg for me to put them out, but then as soon as we start walking downstairs to the back yard, Millie stops in the middle of the staircase to stretch. Every. Single. Morning. She sprawls herself diagonally, blocking my way, with her front paws three steps down from her back paws, opening her mouth to yawn loudly, and bringing the whole production to a screeching halt. When she’s done, she prances to the bottom of the staircase, turns, and looks back up at me like, “Woman! What are you waiting for?!?”

She has a hunger for No. 2 pencils that rivals my own for Nutella.

And the socks. Oh, the socks! Worn or clean, big or small, cotton or wool…she cannot resist their siren call. She finds them wherever they are. Sniffs them out from under a child’s bed. Digs for them tangled amongst a throw on the couch. Steals them from a neat stack inside a basket of clean laundry.  They are scrumptious. And once she’s eaten and “processed” them, I get to clean them up from the back yard.

She’s also not-so-quietly trashing our floors. At almost 100 pounds, she and her claws have done quite a job of “antiquing” the hardwoods. The scratches and divots are something of a memory book for our family: “These are the marks from when she saw the rabbit. There are the scratches from when Uncle Buzz came over and she freaked with joy.”

And she leaks. Yes, that kind of leak. Mostly in her sleep, but also when she gets really excited. We’ve had her checked by the vet multiple times, and there’s no infection; it’s just the way she is. (Hormone replacement therapy may be the solution…who’d have thought she’d get there before I do?) I’m often spot-cleaning floors and gnashing my teeth at the destruction she is raining down on our house (yes, literally).


I love her. I adore her. We all do. Her beautiful face, her gorgeous coloring, the way she “talks” to us when she wants something. I delight in listening to her sleep; she breathes so deeply through her long snout and big chest. Her calm, rumbling exhales are the closest I’ll ever get to sleeping beside a lion. Or a T-Rex.

I have a thousand pet names for her, but when she’s in trouble (same as the kids), she is called by her full, given name: Miller. Rich cracks up every time he hears me, having discovered yet another puddle or stolen, chewed-up sock, exclaim, “Dammit, Miller!” To him, it sounds the same as when the original Miller would shoot me with her dish sprayer, soaking me in the middle of her own kitchen, and I’d yell the same thing: “Dammit, Miller!”

(The human Miller has since remarried and changed her last name to something long and Italian-sounding. But to me, she’ll always be Miller. Sorry, new husband.)

Best of all is how Millie loves the kids. The day we first met her, at three weeks old, she stumble-crawled right into Jillian’s lap. She’s owned Jillian’s heart ever since. Even Richie, who was never all that interested in Scooter, is constantly stopping to pet, snuggle, or consult with Millie.

A few weeks ago, Rich bought Richie a coloring book. Because of the fine motor skill challenges that are part of his Autism, Richie has never been big on coloring. But this was a “Day of the Dead” coloring book, filled with dancing, fun-loving skeletons, and Richie thought it was awesome. He took it downstairs to color, and to my absolute surprise and delight, we didn’t see him again for 30 minutes. Richie coloring for that long was absolutely unprecedented, and I couldn’t wait to see the results. When he finally came back upstairs, I asked if he would show me his work. He led me back downstairs, and showed me this:


I couldn’t help it; I burst out laughing. “Richie,” I asked, “this is what you spent half an hour on?”

“I tried to, Mom,” he replied, “but I got distracted into petting Millie. She’s just SO CUTE!”

Happy Birthday, Millie. Here’s to many more years together! And don’t worry; we can replace the floors.


Pinball Wizard


I took my 11-year-old son to the brewery the other night. I know what you’re thinking: Mother of the Year. But I was on carpool duty for his sister’s dance class, and I didn’t want to drive the whole way home just to turn around and return to the studio for pickup. There’s a brewery/pizza place in between, so Richie and I planned to eat dinner there to kill time. Richie was very excited to go.

Why would an 11-year-old child who neither drinks beer nor eats gluten be excited to visit a brewery/pizza place? It’s all about the arcade.

Okay, “arcade” is a stretch…there are actually just a few video machines along the back wall. But my children have fully embraced the low entertainment standards I’ve been modeling for years,  so this “arcade” is good enough for Richie. He loves pinball…even brewery pinball, which isn’t a real machine, just a console that allows the user to choose between several games. It’s digital pinball; there’s a picture of a pinball machine layout, and you push buttons to activate the flippers and keep the ball in play. No flashing lights or clanging bells when the ball hits the bumpers, but again…our standards are not especially high.

My boy has loved video games since he was old enough to hold a joystick. (Not that his generation ever had joysticks.) As a kid with physical problems who really couldn’t play sports in real life, he adored playing baseball or bowling on the Wii, and he was terribly, terribly good at it. And the really cool thing was that once he got really good at playing baseball on the Wii, he improved dramatically at playing baseball in real life. My husband and I theorized that the video game enabled him to practice batting with way fewer variables and a lightweight controller instead of a heavy bat. (Just our theory; we have no actual data to back this up. You want science, go read Bill Nye’s blog. I’m busy raising kids & taking naps over here.)

Richie became really, really good at every video game he played. He mastered Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, became an ace marksman in a target shooting game his Auntie Tanya sent him, and then moved on to master the Xbox. My husband, Rich, and I wondered if there was something about Richie’s Autistic brain that predisposed him to video game greatness. Did the same hyperawareness of his surroundings that distracted him so terribly at school enable him to perceive minute clues as to what was coming up in a game? Was it his steel trap memory? (This kid can tell me what I ordered for breakfast on vacation 3 years ago; it’s not an endearing ability.) Was he simply memorizing the games?

I can’t answer any of those questions with certainty, but I can tell you that Richie was naturally gifted with a lot of…screen time. That is, he has parents who know they should limit how much time he spends playing video games, but who are lousy at enforcing the idea. It started innocently enough: imagine you have a child who could not sit up independently until he was almost two, who didn’t take his first steps until almost three. A child for whom everything was more difficult than it should have been. Whether it was walking or learning to write, Richie always had to work harder and try harder, usually with less success. But watching him play video games was an absolute joy. Even before he got really good at them, he just enjoyed himself so much that it was a pleasure to watch him. And then to see him master something…that was a treat for us, even if the mastered subject was Donkey Kong.

The nail in the coffin was the release of Wii Fit, a video game that involved physical movement and encouraged Richie to move his whole body, get his heart rate up, and practice yoga and balance. It truly helped him improve his body awareness. For hours and hours at a time.

The year Richie was in Kindergarten, I invited one of his classmates over for a playdate. We sent the boys outside while the other mom and I had coffee at my kitchen table. Before long, they came in and asked if they could go downstairs and play Xbox. I said, “of course” simultaneously with the other mom, but then she continued and reminded her son that this would count as his 30 minutes of screen time for the day. 30 minutes? It was all I could do not to stand up on my chair, throw some gang signs, and ask Richie, “Am I the coolest mom in the world or WHAT?!?!?”

My son eats 30 minutes of screen time for breakfast.

The boys disappeared into the basement, and the other mom and I had half an hour of blissful, uninterrupted, adult conversation. Right at the 31-minute mark, her son came tearing up the steps, ran breathlessly up to the kitchen table, and said enthusiastically, “Mom! Richie is SO GOOD at Lego Star Wars!”

Practice makes perfect, my friend. Lots and Lots of practice.

Five years later, Richie is still SO GOOD at Lego Star Wars, and Minecraft, and even Asteroids, which his dad introduced him to recently. But I tend to forget just how good.

So the other night at the brewery, when it was almost time to head back to the dance studio and pick up the girls,  I walked up behind him at the “pinball machine” and gave him the five minute warning.

I sat back down to let him finish playing, started looking at email on my phone, and before I knew it, the five minutes were up. Richie was still bent over the machine. I walked back over and said, “Richie, we have to go.”

“I know, Mom,” he replied, “but I have to use up all my credits.”

I looked at the time; we didn’t really have to leave quite yet (I’m way early for everything). So I told him it was ok to keep playing. I sat back down to wait and went back to reading email. Another 5-10 minutes went by, and I went back over to tell him to wrap it up.

“I know, Mom,” he replied patiently, “but I have to use up all my credits.”

I checked the time again and sat back down. Five minutes later, I walked back to Richie and said, “Hey, Dude, we really have to go.”

“Ok, Mom,” he replied, “I just have to finish putting in my initials.”

“Your what?” I thought I had misheard him, so I walked closer to see what he was doing. I looked over his shoulder to see him entering his initials as THE TOP SCORER OF ALL TIME!

He also has the #3 slot locked up. And that might be him at #2 as well. Probably not all from this one night.



Cooking the Books


Picture this: it’s Saturday morning, and our family of four (six if you include the dogs waiting for something to fall) is gathered around the breakfast table. I’m making “breakfast skillets” for everyone, which means that I’m putting breakfast on the table one person at a time. First is Richie: fried potatoes, pancetta bits, baby spinach, and mushrooms, all scrambled together with two eggs. It makes a huge plate of food. Even though he’s only 11 and small for his size, he’ll eat the whole thing. Like Scooter, Richie is big on the inside.

Jillian is next. Spinach and mushrooms are her favorites, so I sauté them with some potatoes and then scramble in an egg and some Monterey jack cheese.

While waiting for his breakfast, my husband has fired up his laptop and is doing the family books. He’s downloaded a week of transactions from our bank’s website, and is categorizing them one by one: groceries, car expense, pet expense, etc. He likes to do it when I’m around because if there’s something he doesn’t recognize, he can just say, “Hey Amy, what’s” and I can tell him that’s where I order the gluten-free flatbreads for Richie’s school lunches. Easy.

As I’m leaning over to put his plate on the table, Rich asks me, “What did you buy at Nordstrom this month?”

“Pajamas for the kids,” I answer.

Richie startles and raises his head from his breakfast. “What kids?!?”