"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Baked With Love

Today I’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day with one of my favorite traditions, baking and decorating heart-shaped sugar cookies with my daughter.  Typically I don’t do much, if any, baking for Christmas, instead saving my baking and decorating extravaganza for Valentine’s Day.   We’ll use my favorite recipe, one that was given to me by my Grandma Christiansen and that I’ve used for at least twenty years. 
The first batch of cookies baked and decorated is always reserved for Grandma.  Gillian and I spend at least an hour decorating the cookies that we’ll deliver to her.  Grandpa’s cookies are easier, as he likes his plain, crispy and a little burnt.  I always overcook one batch just for him.  I don’t know if grandma still waits for my Valentine's Day cookie delivery like she used to.  I only know that after forgetting one year (1999 to be exact.  Gillian was only four months old and I was overwhelmed and distracted with the new demands of mothering) I’ll never forget again.  
Baking often reminds me of my grandma.  I have many fond memories of time spent by her side in her kitchen helping her bake cakes and cookies.   Even though I was very young, I vividly remember helping her make my dad’s favorite raisin filled cookies.  Although I couldn’t stand how they tasted, and was always disappointed that we couldn’t make something I liked, even then I understood that for her the act of baking something special for someone she loved was an act of love.  It’s a lesson that’s stuck with me, and is probably the reason I enjoy baking birthday cakes and treats for the ones I love. 

I’ve learned many valuable lessons about love and caring for family from my Grandma Christiansen (Grandma Chris to all of her grandkids), and every one of them was taught by her quiet example.  I’ve never walked into her house without feeling completely enveloped by love as soon as I enter.  She makes every one of her grandchildren feel so special that I’m positive every one of us thinks we’re her favorite! 
My Grandma Chris has been there for me through every stormy, traumatic, scary, happy, sad, and memorable moment of my life.  For me she’s always been a shelter from the storms of life.  No matter what I’m going through, when I’m with her I feel like everything is going to okay.  Because I’ve been on the receiving end of so many of her kindnesses, I’ve learned the value of a perfectly timed note sent in the mail for no reason, a hand-written thank you card, a small gift picked up just because it’s the perfect thing for someone, a beautifully wrapped present and how to make guests always feel welcome. 
Many years ago I gave my grandma a wooden plaque with a picture of a cat on it.  My dad has told me stories of hobos coming to the back door of their house when he was young and my grandma feeding them. Hobos used to leave signals--carvings on fence posts and trees, as messages to other hobos passing by about places to rest and eat.  A picture of a cat near a home indicated that a kind-hearted lady lived there.  I’m certain there was such a signal outside my grandma’s home, because she is the epitome of a kind-hearted lady. 
Making Valentine's cookies is one of my most cherished traditions.  There’s something about using my grandma’s special recipe, passed down from her to me, that I’m now using with my daughter,  that’s such a tangible representation of the connection between generations.  I treasure that connection.  It’s why when I was pregnant with my first and only child I didn’t find out whether I was having a boy or girl.  I already knew I’d be having a girl.  I had to, because I’d always planned on having a daughter that I would name after my grandma.  And so I did.  Gillian Marie was given the middle name of her great grandma, Gloria Marie Christiansen, and her great-grandmother before her, Marie Proctor. 
When I turned 40, I corrected an omission my dad made in naming me, and legally changed my name to include the middle name of Marie.  The gesture might seem small and unimportant to some, but it was very important to me.  It was a way to recognize and honor a woman I love and cherish with all my heart. 

Me with my grandparents - Summer 2009 

Gillian with her Great Grandpa Christiansen

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Promise Kept

In an earlier post (Modern Family) I wrote about Mike’s foster son Isaac. Yesterday I witnessed a milestone for Isaac that a year ago seemed like a nearly impossible dream. In a small office inside the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services building in Salt Lake City, with just a few official stamps, seals and signatures, Isaac became a permanent legal resident of the United States. After asking Isaac a list of questions and verifying a few things in his record, the immigration officer announced that he now had legal residency. I cried when he said those words, surprising myself with my emotional reaction.   
Isaac just after receiving his permanent residency status
February 1, 2012
When Mike first told me that the original plan for Isaac’s guardianship and care was falling through and that he intended to step in and become Isaac’s foster parent with the long-term goal of helping him obtain citizenship, he might as well have told me he was making plans to fly to the moon. Even though I agreed it was the right thing to do, I seriously questioned how he’d do it. Besides the hurdles involved in becoming a licensed foster parent on very short notice, his financial and work situations didn’t exactly lend themselves to providing for the needs of a teenager. Plus, the political climate in Utah and the country wasn’t one that made it easy for someone here illegally to gain legal resident status.  Isaac’s dad had already served 6 ½ months in jail for an unpaid traffic ticket and was being voluntarily deported to Mexico because of the unfriendly immigration policies in place. Mike met every one of my objections and questions about how exactly he was going to do it with the same answer.  “It’s the right thing to do. Sometimes there are more important things in life than money, material things and stability. I’ll make it happen.” 
By last February, Isaac Sr. already had a deadline for when he had to leave the U.S. His greatest wish was for Isaac Jr. to stay in Utah, pursue his promising boxing career, graduate from high school and hopefully someday gain citizenship. Because of Mike’s work with the Juvenile Justice Services (JJS) division he knows people from the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and the Utah Foster Care Foundation. He quickly pulled together a core group of knowledgeable associates, asking for advice about options that would allow Isaac Jr. to stay. They suggested an action plan that was a long shot, but just might work. With Isaac Sr.’s deadline quickly approaching, Mike talked to him about the options. None of them were certain and they were all less than desirable to a father who deeply loves his only son. 
Isaac Sr. agreed that before leaving the country he would sign custody of Isaac Jr. over to the state of Utah, terminating his parental rights. Isaac Jr. would then be in the care of DCFS who would place him in foster care, hopefully with Mike.  First, though, Mike had to become a licensed foster care provider. Although Isaac Jr. was then living with Mike, once he was in DCFS custody he couldn’t stay there, and would have to move into a state shelter. 
I wasn’t there the day Isaac Sr., Mike, Isaac Jr. and other state officials met at DCFS offices for Isaac Sr. to sign the papers placing Isaac Jr. in the state’s custody, but Mike says it was heart wrenching. I’ve thought a lot about Isaac Sr. and how much courage, blind faith and trust he showed that day, turning over the care of his son to someone he barely knew based on a handshake and a promise. As a parent, I don’t know if I could do the same thing, especially with the knowledge that I may never see my child again. 
Isaac Jr. lived for a month in a JJS shelter until Mike was granted a provisional foster care license and he was able to move back into Mike’s house. Shortly after that, Isaac Jr. had a juvenile court hearing, with his caseworker, guardian ad litem and social worker by his side.  After hearing the facts of his case, the judge determined that sending him back to Mexico wasn’t in his best interest, granting him what is called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.  Remembering that day in the courtroom puts a smile on my face. It was hard not to jump up clapping and cheering in the courtroom! As soon as I heard the judge say those words I knew the first major hurdle had been cleared. The plan that until then had seemed like a long shot might really work. 
Life settled into more of a routine after that, with DCFS officials and Isaac Jr.’s caseworker advancing his legal case behind the scenes. When I say life settled into a routine, it was far from a bed of roses. The challenges were many. Mike worked constantly in order to keep up. It wasn’t unusual for him to work back-to-back shifts some weekends, between his two jobs sometimes going 20-30 hours straight without sleep. Our work schedules are almost always opposite, so we’re often like two ships passing in the night. I tried to pick up the slack when Mike was working. Like a typical mother, I worried about Isaac not eating enough and if he was getting his homework done. The grind of work and childcare took its toll on our relationship. We started morphing into the all too common married dynamic of being exhausted and on edge from the constant work, childcare, household pressures and money worries, and we weren’t even married or living together! I was still reeling from the effects of my sister’s suicide, often depressed, anxious and frequently discouraged. It was hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. As much as I tried to be supportive, sometimes it was all too much and I lashed out in anger, expressing my frustration at everything being so damn hard and complicated. Things that I believed needed to happen in order for us to have a shot at a secure, long-term future were put on the back burner. 
Mike constantly encouraged me not to get hung up on the everyday stresses and to keep my eye on the prize. Luckily, once in a while his words sunk in. That combined with the times the four of us were together, cooking, eating, laughing, talking, or when I was doing dishes while Gillian and Isaac talked and did homework together, enjoying and teasing each other like siblings, or the moments I would secretly watch Isaac with my dogs, telling them how good they were, playing with them like a carefree kid, reminded me that I needed to keep trying. Our day would come. What mattered now was taking care of Isaac, providing him with some semblance of family, security and stability.
I guess that’s why I got so emotional yesterday when the immigration officer said Isaac was now a legal resident and would be eligible to apply for citizenship in five years. Somehow, against seemingly impossible odds, it had worked. Through sheer determination, stubbornness, hard work and much personal sacrifice, Mike had honored his promise to Isaac Sr.  Isaac Sr. had the faith in Mike that I had sometimes lacked. The magnitude of it all hit me. He’d done it!
Mike & Isaac having lunch at one of Mike's favorite spots

Mike says he did what anyone would have done; he was just in the right place at the right time. I’ve told him he’s wrong. There were plenty of others who were there and saw the need. He’s the only one that stepped up and took the risk. The day he looked Isaac Sr. in the eyes, shook his hand and promised to do right by his son, he meant it. No matter what else he does in his life, this is something he can always be proud of. If I could, I’d shout his accomplishment from the rooftops for the whole world to hear. Because of his efforts Isaac has a shot at the American Dream. He’s no longer destined to living a life in the shadows, working at menial jobs for employers that pay under the table, fearful of being pulled over for a minor traffic violation and then deported. He should now be able to compete at the Golden Glove level in boxing. Soon he’ll graduate from high school and go to college.  Most importantly, Mike made sure Isaac Sr.’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain. Someday in the near future, Isaac Jr. will be able to cross the border into Mexico and father and son will be reunited. Is there a better ending than that? 
Master carpenter and his apprentice
Summer 2011

Mike, Isaac & Justin Roberts at Foley's MMA Gym
Isaac getting ready to hit the bag at Foley's.

Isaac shows off his 1st place medal in
Regional Skills USA competition - January 2012