I’m one of those people who transforms into what I call a “crazy dog lady” when I pick up my dog Madeline’s leash and we head out for a walk.
You know the type. You’ll probably hear me talking to my dog. I’m more likely to know your dog’s name than yours. I’ve been known to kiss stranger’s dogs, too.
The other day, my son said to me, “Mom, you can never get enough of dogs.”
And he’s right. I really can’t. I point them out constantly to my kids and my husband. I’m grateful they know this part of who I am. I’m also grateful I’ve given them a love for animals, too.
As a child, I longed for a dog of my own, but my parents didn’t really want the responsibility of a pet. So, I had to wait until I was an adult. I think it’s interesting how expectations build up over time. I had this idea of what an ideal pet would be, and let’s just say it didn’t really turn out that way.
Our dog, Madeline, is probably not what you would call Kennel Club-approved black Labrador Retriever. When we first adopted her, she made a very loud, high-pitched noise that caused people to cross the street. She pulled the leash so hard, I cried because my arm was so sore.
I fell down a man hole once because of Madeline.
She also ate a dead squirrel, caught a live rabbit, a duck, many birds and more rodents than I care to remember. Several trainers told me she was the hardest dog they had ever worked with.
On the flip side, she’s also the reason I know many of my neighbors. She’s helped me train for several running races and is the reason I am so disciplined about walking every morning.
I never thought I would be someone who would laugh while getting drenched in the rain or falling in the snow, but I do with Madeline. I also find myself stopping to revel in my surroundings during our walks, looking at the shockingly red and orange leaves on the trees and marveling at snow we typically need to climb over on our sidewalks in the winter.
I laugh out loud as Madeline buries her snout – and sometimes entire head – in the snowbanks, looking for an animal or a piece of sandwich a child left behind.
I’m grateful for many of the pet-specific experiences I’ve had because of Madeline. There’s one that stands out called the doggie dip. Imagine about a hundred dogs and their humans frantically running around a swimming pool, trying not to get trampled on or step in anything gross. I loved watching the dogs swim and play.
Madeline, being a Labrador, was in heaven. She loves to swim. And she doesn’t really understand what it means to take it easy. So, she jumped in hundreds of times until we had to drag her out of there. And she couldn't figure out how to get out of the pool by herself. So I had to pull her out by the scruff of her neck. So there I was, bracing myself at the edge of the pool, pulling her out, laughing so hard I’m crying. All of this, mind you, while I’m getting completely drenched. Then, I watch her dive exuberantly into the pool so many times that her nails bleed.
I’d love to have that kind of passion for something.
When my dad died recently, I found myself grieving the most honestly when I was with Madeline. I’m grateful she doesn’t need me to fill the silence with words. And then, there’s her fur – the tears just seem to melt right in there. Those Labradors are meant to be wet.
The other day my son said, “Madeline is magical. Whenever you feel bad, you just have to hug her and you feel better.”
I’ll take magical over ideal any day.
And for that, I feel so much gratitude.
Editor's note: What makes you thankful this time of year? Visit us on Facebook during November for inspiration and ideas as we celebrate 30 Days of Thanks.
Twelve years ago, I stepped out of my comfort zone and traveled alone to a place with the kind of reputation that would keep many people away. It was a risk that turned out to be life-changing.
I went to help build a home for a family in Juarez, Mexico, after reading an article about an organization called Missions Ministries, and decided to participate.
The entire family of seven had been living in a pallet home, barely the size of my youngest son’s bedroom. There were gaping holes in the roof, and the walls and the floor were made of dirt. The family had five children, the youngest only three weeks old. The mother was using a cardboard box as a crib for the baby, and the rest of the family slept on pieces of Styrofoam laid on the floor. There was no running water or electricity.
Children could only go to school if they could afford the required uniform. People in the community who were fortunate enough to find employment often made less than $1 a day.
The experience opened my eyes to a whole new world and gave me a new appreciation to the many blessings I take for granted every day.
The following year I took my somewhat reluctant husband with me. The year after that, we brought our then 4- and 6 year-old sons. We continued to go each year, bringing more and more family and friends. Our third son joined us when he was only 2 years old.
During the last decade or so, we have been privileged to build many, many homes. In addition, we helped build a library, provided many community outreaches and helped distribute donated food, medicine, school supplies and clothing. We have sponsored a student for the last four years and have had a couple of opportunities to visit her when we were in Juarez.
We’re also involved with a continuing Christmas box outreach. Every year we distribute empty Tupperware boxes with packing lists for different ages of children to family, friends, coworkers and members of our church who support the work we’re doing. We ask them to shop for their “assigned” age/gender child and pack the boxes with items such as soap, toothpaste, underwear, gloves, small toys, etc. Before Christmas, we drive down to Juarez with hundreds of these Christmas boxes for the children in the community. These children would otherwise not receive anything for Christmas.
Our travels to Juarez have given us a meaningful perspective on how fortunate we are to have roofs over our heads and meals on our table every night. It has taught my children the importance of volunteering and giving time to others. Finally, it has been a launching pad to other opportunities to volunteer in our own neighborhood and community.
As I watch our sons head off to school this year, I reflect not only on how many blessings I take for granted but also on how blessed our family is to have discovered the joy that comes with helping others when and where we can.
Turns out, I have a lovely oak kitchen table. It’s not just a dumping ground for unopened mail, old newspapers or random homework assignments. My family and I can actually sit down and eat meals at it – together.
Sound familiar? Every family is different, but what brings them together is the dinner table. It might be breakfast before everyone heads off for the day. Maybe it’s a special weekly dinner (with fancy plates and flatware, too). It could be a long-standing recipe that gets the kids excited – like at my house when I make the famous Buchheim family spaghetti sauce.
I know – crazy talk.
As my family prepares for another school year, I’m amazed at how crucial family mealtime is for everyone at the table – especially my two kids (ages 12 and 10). Research from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University shows eating dinner as a family helps kids get better grades, and avoid unhealthy choices (like smoking, alcohol and marijuana).
Family mealtime slows things down, which is crucial given all the activities about to begin that can dominate schedules. But really, it’s important any time of year.
Food is part of the equation, but so is what happens around it. Meals at home are the single strongest factor in higher achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems in children of all ages. More home-cooked meals also mean less obesity for kids.
We can all talk about the importance of family mealtime, but it’s more fun and engaging to be involved and do something about it.
So, in September, American Family will begin collecting family recipes (and the stories about them) from our Facebook community. We’ll publish a Back to the Family Dinner Table cookbook later in the year, along with tips for busy families and ideas to make mealtime a priority.
But I need your help.
We want everyone to be part of this American Family Cookbook. Use this form to send us a favorite family recipe or two – and encourage your co-workers to do the same. From your submissions, we’ll choose a sampling for the Back to the Family Dinner Table cookbook and special Pinterest recipe board. (And everyone is eligible to win prizes, too.)
This is your chance to show off a favorite recipe (including an optional photo). I look forward to clearing off my kitchen table and trying some of your recipes with my family this fall.
The family dinner table is where I learned to dream.
Often, when friends came over they expressed surprise that we sat down as a family for dinner. It didn’t happen at their houses, and they really liked being part of the ritual at our house. Years later, they bring it up at reunions or around town when they see my parents. My mom even got a note on Mother’s Day from a friend of my sister’s, saying how much she’d appreciated being welcome in our family during those times.
The trait I most admire in my parents is that they encouraged each of their four children to identify our own dreams. And it started at our family dinners. My siblings and I talked about school, sports, theater and our friends. Whatever we said we wanted to do, my parents built us up with positive comments, making us feel like we really could do anything we set out to do.
That encouragement has continued all our lives.
At the Easter dinner table, when I was 28, I announced I was quitting a really good job to return to graduate school full-time, and my parents’ support and encouragement gave me confidence that I was on a good path.
The conversations and inspiration that take place around the table have measurable value to children. Children who regularly eat dinner with their families do better in school and are less likely to use tobacco or alcohol.
That hit home for me recently. I unexpectedly worked much later than usual one night, arriving home around 7 p.m. My husband was gone for the evening, and I thought our teenagers would have had dinner already. They hadn’t. They’d waited for me so we could eat dinner together – that’s how much they value our time together at the dinner table.
I was completely in awe of how important this nightly ritual is to them.
At American Family, we’re focused on building a community of dreamers. Building the next generation of dreamers starts at the family dinner table. That’s the reason behind Back to the Family Dinner Table, which kicks off this week.
Through Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, we’ll be sharing family favorite recipes – and the stories behind them. We’ll also give your family tips for getting organized and suggestions for involving everyone in meal planning and cooking.
We’re partnering with cooking blogger Isabel Laessig, whose mission on her website, familyfoodie.com, is to bring back Sunday supper around the family table in every home. Isabel and her network of bloggers will partner with American Family and share ideas for easy and fun, family-friendly meals – including hosting a Google Plus Hangout and Twitter chats this fall.
American Family wants your recipes, too. Go to our entry form and enter your favorite family recipe – and you’ll be eligible to win prizes to help bring your recipes to life. We’re also gathering everything (recipes, tips and more) into an electronic cookbook, which we’ll share with our customers and everyone who shares a recipe.
Of course, when we talk about “family” dinners, we know a person’s family is really their network of support, no matter what form that takes. We’ll celebrate that with additional blog posts here on Dream Protectors, recognizing “family” goes well beyond the traditional idea of parents and kids.
I hope you’ll join us by trying new recipes, sharing your stories, and focusing on bringing your family back to the dinner table.
Editor’s note: Share your favorite family recipes on our entry form, which you can find on the American Family Insurance Facebook page. We’ll include some select recipes and stories in our upcoming Back to the Table e-book.
My experience as a child growing up in the Chicago suburbs on Lake Michigan provided casual family bike rides on paved trails, go-at-your-own-pace and feel the wind in your hair – before helmets were necessary.
However, my husband likes riding across the state of Iowa in RAGBRAI or the length of Wisconsin in the GRABAAWR (each about 500 miles in 5-6 days). So, you might guess our family bike rides are more than around the block.
Our daughter has been zipping along more than 15 miles on average per trip, at speeds of 12+ mph over the rolling hills of Wisconsin before she even graduated from training wheels. We’ve ridden the Sugar River Trail in New Glarus, Wis., the Ice Age Trail loop at Devils Lake State Park, and Glacial Drumlin from Cottage Grove, Wis., to Deerfield, Wis. (for the ice cream…) and back.
She enjoyed it more when she could be dad’s riding buddy traveling in a trailer bike attached to his road bike.
Through the years, one landmark trip was the 24-mile round-trip adventure to Crystal Lake in northern Wisconsin. We were dripping with sweat and tired when we arrived – so the crisp, cold water of this crystal-clear lake near Minocqua brought a welcome refresh.
Weaving through country roads from our cabin in Boulder Junction, we biked with anticipation with our snorkeling gear in tow. We explored the lake and swam across. While not the same as our Caribbean adventures, this trip “up North” provided our only clearly visible lake bottom view.
We set a new milestone in family biking adventures with our now 18-year-old daughter on a recent vacation to California. The 12+ miles up and down hills in San Francisco to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, Calif., blew us up against the rails of the bridge with blustering winds around the towers, and provided grand views worthy of post-card status.
The spiral downhill ride into Sausalito led to a final ferry ride back to the city. The sore muscles and numb fingers gave way to new bragging rights for literally crossing a new bridge in our family’s bike riding resume.
Where’s your favorite biking destination?