Samuel Lincoln Thibeault Deffenbaugh

facing, dancing


Born 6795 days ago— but two weeks late. He’s been in a hurry ever since to make up for that lost time. He runs fast, thinks fast, plays his guitar so fast I wonder, “When did that happen?” I also just look at him and wonder, “When did that happen?”


When you bring the baby home, and you can’t stop staring into his face, and smelling his too soft head, and listening for every breath to be strong and clear and regular. When you can’t bear to be parted from him even to claim the sleep you pray for, and so you let him sleep in the safety of your embrace all the while clutching at the luck and grace that brought this bit of forever into your life. When you trace and memorize the nose and ears and, oh my, the ten tiny fingers that define trust with every grasp.

Then, you signal back with your caress, “I will never let you go. I promise.”

But you do. And it’s not a broken promise. You let go to fulfill promise, his promise, to run and think and play, and to find the passion that makes his heart sing songs of joy and sorrow and understanding. You let him go, and you wait. And when he comes back, you know you are not finished waiting.

You will always wait for him.


In music: The relative length or duration of a tone as signified by a note.

 I want Sam’s value, the value and the beauty and the clarity Sam brings to life, to play on forever.

People ask if I can imagine my life without Sam, a life in which he never existed. They ask this laughing, rhetorically, but I answer confidently, “Of course.” I have a great imagination; of course I can imagine a life, a parallel-universe life, without Sam.

It is a life without his music: without The Driving Song, Think, Everybody, Breakthrough, Open Crisis, Coming Down Over, 33. It is a life without wild boxes in the woods or my Box-head boys; without Mrs. Ridley, Mr. Bloch, Yarbs or Schatzy; without Craig; without Paul discovering he really wanted to be a dad. A life without my (“stinky”) little boy taking my face in his small hands, putting his nose to my nose, and looking in my eyes telling me he loves me more than anyone ever; it is a life without the most beautiful green eyes I have ever seen.

 Even without the unimaginable pain of having to say, “Goodbye my Sam, for now,” I don’t want a life without Sam.

Parting pain:

It was Week 36 when I had Paul draw a target on my lower spine and made him promise he would Get. Me. The. Drugs. I never, not once, intended to experience the joy of natural childbirth. “I want my epidural” was my entire birthing plan. And after about 18 hours of mostly epidurally-painless laboring, my body parted with Sam. Now my heart wants an epidural.

In all of the applying and considering, and visiting and rejecting, and waiting and waiting and waiting, the fact that he got to choose, and that he chose this school, this breathtakingly beautiful school, reduces the overwhelming pain of this parting to a scheduled ache.

We have known for 6795 days that This Day would come. The parting is not a surprise. The surprise is how deeply I know it is time.


I love you, Sam

Old School



Urgency Day 1

500 Things Item 499: My Old Cork Bulletin Board

  • History: Purchased for my first dorm room
  • Value: The original changing picture frame, and no batteries req.
  • Parting pain: None
  • Unpossessing: Donated to Sam’s first dorm room

Picture a Venn Diagram: 2 College Packing Lists.

Mine, c. 1980:

  • Iron and ironing board
  • Albums and stereo
  • Black and white TV
  • Coordinating-roommate linens
  • Popcorn popper
  • Quarters for laundry
  • Leotards, tights, ballet slippers

His, August 23, 2011:

  • Laptop computer
  • iPod and cell phone
  • Hard drive from his Xbox
  • Uncoordinated linens
  • Energy bars
  • A loaded V-card for all campus purchases
  • 3 guitars and an amp

And the teeny tiny overlap in the middle?

  • My old cork bulletin board.

Dry erase boards are fine for jotting smudgy notes, and cell phones simplify… well… everything. But you still want a place to hang some tangible mementos— tickets from a concert, a card from home, a scrap of paper on which you and your friends scribbled the most mind-blowing, reality-crushing, paradigm-shifting idea ever. If only you could decipher the handwriting.

An old-school cork bulletin board is a place where those bits of flotsam and jetsam can effortlessly accumulate. By May, it will form a time capsule of a year in a life. It’s the very same surface on which my new life accumulated 30 years ago, but his will certainly hold fewer pictures of Mikhail Baryshnikov and more… who?  More what?

I could guess Muse and Foos and Green Day. I could guess Zelda and Pullman and Vonnegut. Sure, maybe, for awhile. But this is his past. Starting tomorrow, he will be creating a new past.

I know I said I wouldn’t count things Sam takes to college as part of my 500 Things Project. I also said I would never say, “Because I said so,” or “Turn that music down!” or “You’ll thank me later.” Motherhood changes everything. Every. Thing.

There is no other thing of mine that will reside in his new home.

Nothing, and everything.

old school

2 fishing poles and a fishy background

Urgency Day 5

500 Things Items 497-98: Fishing Poles

  • History: Left behind after summer adventures
  • Value: Patience and non-screen time
  • Parting pain: None
  • Unpossessing: Gifts

Something’s fishy.

I listen to NPR. A Lot. I love This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion. I never miss Click and Clack or Wait, Wait! I’m kind of a Science Friday groupie. And I get most of my news from All Things Considered.

Keep your Morning Joe. Robert Siegel is on my “list.”

But something’s definitely fishy.

Radio, real AM/FM radio, is very intimate. It’s just you and a voice. In a shrill world, I desperately appreciate a calm voice. And I really believed the fantastically calm All Things radio voice when it told me NPR wanted to hear about my favorite summer sound.

Of course, I thought. I’ve got a great one!

I had been thinking about this anyway, what with the nostalgia tear I’m on at Sam’s imminent departure. I’m fixated on my rear-view mirror: Sam’s past, my family’s past, my past. Distant summers especially tug at me, like a neglected friend cajoling me to sit and reminisce.

“I’m  busy,” I demur. “There’s so much to do.” I don’t want to lose time to a past that can’t ever be relived. “I’ll catch up with you later, when there’s more time.” Later, I lie to my summer memories, and to myself.

I don’t want later to come. I must be here, be productive, solve problems: figure out how to go on. And that’s what I was doing when I heard the radio voice offer a compromise.

“Send us your short essays about sounds we hear that evoke the summer season.”

The All Things Considered people would consider my memories about the past. If I spent time writing about the past for NPR, that wasn’t self-indulgence; that was self-promotion!

I wrote my essay about my summer sound, just like the radio voice suggested. I had to do a bit of research, asking my sister– who asked our mother who consulted with her cousin– for factual clarification. I wrote and edited and polished. And when I was satisfied, I emailed it to the nice voices at All Things Considered. And then something fishy happened.

I never heard back.

Not even a “thanks for your entry” confirmation. I really don’t know if my sound was ever considered. Maybe it was; maybe they really do consider all things, and this thing was simply rejected. Probably. Or, maybe, the show is really Only Some Things Considered. That would be very disappointing.

Here is the link for the page with my sound essay. It will be less meaningful without the wonderful sound effects I imagined NPR including, and more meaningful for the people with whom I experienced those precious summer days.

 And that is almost certainly why it wasn’t considered.

This is two in a row for fish references. Three, over all. The fishing poles I’m downsizing today were left behind by the same fisher-boys who left the previously downsized tackle. Fishing can be a wonderfully instructive diversion. But my grandfather was a commercial fisherman. He smelled of the raw ocean and of the drink he consumed to forget his hard life. My grandfather’s grizzled smell, and tattooed feel, and his kind and weary voice are tangled in memories as sweet as fresh sea air.

And his name was Sam.

Granddaddy Sam and Suzy, 1964

The Long Con


The Misdirection

Urgency Day 6

500 Things Item 496: The Shark

  • History: More like back story—read on
  • Value: Beyond priceless
  • Parting pain: Glee! Until it returns.  And it always returns.
  • Unpossessing: That’s TOP SECRET!

My 6 favorite heist movies:

  1.        Brothers Bloom
  2.        Ocean’s 11
  3.        Charade
  4.        National Treasure
  5.        Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
  6.        The Sting
  7.        The Wrong Trousers

Yes, I know. Lame. No Reservoir Dogs or Usual Suspects. Anyone who knows me knows my well-established aversion to violence. Mayhem I like, hence The Wrong Trousers. A criminal mastermind wreaking havoc with trapdoor Techno-trousers; an attempted escape on a careening train; a chicken-disguised penguin– all as part of an elaborate caper to steal a magnificent diamond? Pop the corn, baby!

And yes, I can count. This list of my 6 favorites has 7 titles. Some “experts” do not count Charade as a heist movie. Please. There are conspirators, there is a theft, there is frolicking, there is <sigh> Cary Grant. Maybe the “experts” don’t think there was a heist, but my heart was stolen.

I love a good heist. I love a clever plot with lots of twists, betrayals, unexpected reversals or triversals, and a roguish hero or 11.  Oh, and by the way, I’ve been involved in real-life con job for 34 years.

A very long con.

In my story, there isn’t any stealing. This con is about dropping off a very specific Package to the other player in the most diabolically clever way conceivable. What is the package? What have my nemesis and I been delivering to each other via planes, cakes and waiters for over three decades?

This  rubber shark.

The Package and The Cat

Drops over the years include the shark having been:

  • Frosted into the hollow center of a bundt cake;
  • Inflated into the middle of an enormous helium-balloon bouquet;
  • Delivered by tuxedoed waiter on a covered-silver platter with an accompanying sonnet to a fancy country club soiree;
  • Sent from Florida to Scotland where it was picked up by my brother-in-law John and flown to the States where it was delivered after a marathon run through Chicago
  • Mailed in a very unfortunately suspicious box as the Anthrax crisis began;
  • Mailed in a box addressed to 3 year-old Sam and tucked inside a polar bear hand puppet.

The last one actually scared me more than the unintentional “Anthrax” box. Sam, however, loved it.

<shaking fist at the heavens>


Oh, did I not mention? My arch-rival of 34 years, since I was 15 and she was… my mom’s best friend (you do the math)? This dearest, most adorable and proper fiend is the lady every kid calls “Grandma Jenny.”

I just call her Sly.

The shark is being “downsized” in a thoroughly, wonderfully devious way, worthy of over 3 decades of intrigue. After confirmation of the drop, I will reveal the latest plot development. Stay tuned…

The Eagle Scout, The Writer and Sly

help yourself

Urgency Day 7

500 Things Items 489-495: Glass Candlesticks and Plates

  • History: Assorted decorating/entertaining events
  • Value: Learning entertaining doesn’t have to be an Event
  • Parting pain: On the contrary—pleasure!
  • Unpossessing: Gifts

I don’t read self-help books. Unless you count Calvin and Hobbes.

Oh yeah, those two can really show you how to get out of a pickle!

For regular pickles (i.e. problems that are not careening-out-of-control-space-ships or rampaging dino-bullies), I keep to the advice we got from Sam’s pediatrician:

Eat four crackers, drink some cranapple juice,

and go play outside.

In other words, have a snack and breathe. This is pure genius.

With 7 days left, I am constantly reminding myself to breathe. Breathe. And make cupcakes. I’ve cupcaked 3 times in the last few days.

  • For Sam’s sweetheart’s departure;
  • For our neighbor’s seventeenth birthday;
  • For Sam.

When I’m in a pickle, I think cupcakes.

My affection for cupcakes and devotion to downsizing dovetailed this weekend when I saw a great suggestion on Wise Bread, a frugal-living website I follow. Take some glass candlesticks and glue glass plates to the tops: instant cake stands!

In my case: Lots of candlesticks to downsize + lots of plates to downsize = Lots of gifts to give. Just add cupcakes.

Not pickles.

Although my family does love a pickle (the cucumber kind):

  • The first time Paul peeked into my family’s refrigerator, he counted 13 jars of pickles.
  • My father would crack up his 2 year-old granddaughter by singing, “A B C D pickle pickle pickle!”
  • Favorite episode of The Andy Griffith Show? “The Pickle Story,” of course.

Pickles and cupcakes. Apparently my self-help reading also includes cookbooks.

Flipping Leftovers


flip scraps

Urgency Day 12

500 Things Items 480-88:  House-Flip Leftovers

  • History: Left behind by the flippers
  • Value: I’m sure the flippers recouped their expenses in that top of the market sale
  • Parting pain: I’m looking forward to using the space their un-possessing will leave behind
  • Unpossessing: Donations, I hope

We bought at the top.

We also sold in the vicinity of the top, but not quite at. Our 2006 buyers were not the uber-entitled blood-sucking savvy bidders of 2011. In fact, their list of objections would be considered quaint by today’s market standards. Still, at the time, we were annoyed. Our buyers seemed to ask for everything and would not compromise one bit. And Paul and I were selling under The Old Rules where everybody gives a little, so that everybody gets a little.

By 2006: “Compromise” means “Take the deal or I’ll leave.”

But, no matter how the sale goes, I always leave a welcome gift for buyers: Move-in essentials such as toilet paper, paper towels and soap, and most essential, a chilled bottle of champagne in their new fridge.

With that house, I also left a collection of touch-up paints, labeled with the brand, color names, and rooms in which they were used. Probably the new owners would repaint, but until they got around to it, they could live in scuff-free walls. Visiting friends were so tickled by this kit, they took a picture.

photo courtesy Sean Bonney

The guys we bought our current house from were great. They were two brothers who had purchased it in 2004 from the original 1982 owner to flip. For the most part, they did a wonderful job. Neighbors still gleefully recount the horrific state the house was in when the brothers bought it:

  • Raccoons and bats had taken up residence in the attic and sometimes the living room;
  • Damage from The Flood of 1996 had never been properly repaired;
  •  Broken windows hung mournfully from several frames;

And more. Their descriptions remind me of the Granville House, the decrepit old house George and Mary Bailey buy in It’s a Wonderful Life. Kids would throw rocks at the Granville House’s windows, and if they broke one, their wish was supposed to come true. Possibly our house’s windows fulfilled a few wishes before 2004.

I don’t want to break any windows, but I have a wish:     

I wish I could sell my house.

Oh, to downsize! To get out from under the burden of this wonderful, expensive, top of the market house. But did you know it takes money to save money? In this market, with today’s buyers, it would take a lot of money.

Extended unemployment + child in college = Money we don’t have.

 We also don’t have raccoons or bats or flood damage, and the windows are all new. We do have— and what a shock– Signs of Life. Yes, we have a few scuffs. We have actually lived in this house. If you watch HGTV, you get the impression that current buyers want every home to be an unlived-in model home! It would take considerable money to make my lived-in home sell like a model home.

In order to save money, it would cost money.

Downsizing takes money.

Like the lack of compromise, another strange new rule.

The leftover remodeling materials I am downsizing today have been in our basement since we bought the house 5 years ago. Maybe I could sell it all, but Habitat for Humanity said they take this kind of stuff. No money, but out of my house and to a worthy cause?

That’s a great compromise.

Shedding New Light


shedding light unintentionally

Urgency Day 14

500 Things Item 479: Floor Lamp

  • History: Years-ago IKEA purchase endured even after the bulb burned through the plastic shade
  • Value: Lights but the burnt plastic smell has been pretty unappealing
  • Parting Pain: Nope
  • Un-possessing: Donation—maybe someone can replace the shade… or doesn’t mind the smell

Who doesn’t love a fresh perspective?

Especially when you’ve been muddling along for a while, stuck in old patterns, just phoning it in.

I definitely have been muddling for much of the recent present, mostly getting Sam organized for his launch. People are often oblivious to their own muddling. I am no exception.

I was aware of a low-level hum of dissatisfaction in the white noise of my routine, but when I’m in The Routine, accomplishing The List occupies most of my attention. I am deaf to how much grumbling and venting peppers my conversation.

Is there a difference between venting and complaining?

Venting seems to be the socially acceptable form of complaining.

  • “I need to vent.”
  • “Just let me vent for a minute, then I’ll be alright.”
  • “Let’s vent over Venti lattes.”

Who hasn’t uttered at least one of those statements and gotten some sympathy? Especially if it includes the offer of coffee. But try this: try substituting the word vent with complain. Suddenly these seemingly innocent declarations are a bit less palatable, even with a coffee chaser.

Occasionally, the Eagle Scout and I have to curtail each other’s complaining. We just have to. It’s not that we don’t support each other unconditionally and want to communicate internal preoccupations. But sometimes it comes down to peace in the household.

We don’t like it when the household inter-com gets stuck on “complain.”

So I’m implementing two new energy-changing ideas. Well, new for me:

  1.  Challenging cycling habits
  2.  Shopping at Costco

Cycling: I love riding my bike. I adore our relatively flat bike trails. I do not love hills. And there are some hills and climbs on our routes I complain about tediously. On last weekend’s ride, however, something clicked. I just decided to Kill a Hill.

It’s an ascent we have to tackle near the end of many of our routes. Usually I fall well off the pace of the Fierce Riders I am with. But I want to be fierce! So I attacked the hill. And you know what? I killed it.

It felt awesome.

Costco. For years, I have complained that buying in bulk simply makes people cavalier in their consumption. It’s the “We have so much; I don’t need to conserve” attitude. I have also contended that our family of 3 has no business shopping at Costco. And now, as our household is about to downsize, I am joining Costco?

Credit my friend Vicky for shedding new light on this debate. As part of the cooking class I help teach for Families Helping Families clients, I have made several recent excursions to Costco with Vicky. She points out the great buys she has found for her own small family and is the perfect role model for conscientious bulk purchasing.

She even says that she and her husband sometimes have date-nights at the Costco Café! No matter the venue, she and I never complain about date night!

The lamp I am downsizing today sheds light in an unintended way. I am very intentionally shedding new light on old complaints. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I will never be a perfectly contented person. But with two weeks left until Sam leaves,

I have no complaints about a fresh perspective.

Simple Gifts


today, he would make a natural blogger

Urgency Day 20

500 Things Item 478: Walden by H.D. Thoreau

  • History: I attended Thoreau Middle School, read Walden in high school, but it wasn’t until I took a graduate seminar on HDT that I learned to pronounce his name correctly (THAW-roe).
  • Value: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!”
  • Parting pain: I’m thrilled to share.
  • Un-possessing: Gift—read on.

There are two kinds of families: Ones who send their kids to summer camp and the other kind.

My family was the other kind.

Because I never went to summer camp, I am left with the conviction that I missed out on the greatest, most formative experiences of life.

No wonder I’m such a mess: I never went to summer camp!

  • I never camped under the perfect summer sky.
  • I never learned to run like Rudy the Rabbit.
  • I never met my long-lost twin!

Okay, maybe some of my yearnings are more informed by Disney than by the park district. But how would I really know? Still, I’ve heard from Actual Campers that camp truly was all that. And more.

I have a young friend who’s off on his first two-week sleep-away camp experience. He has the advantage of having an older brother who has been to the same camp and who has shared his rough and tumble camp wisdom. Well, some of his r & t camp wisdom. I understand it’s part of the Brother Code to share wisdom only on a need-to-know basis.

In many families, there is a kids-to-camp drill. In this one, as each boy departs for the first time, their parents send out an email entreaty, giving the newest camper’s address and encouraging family and friends to send along a note, a postcard, or, if they are so inclined, a care package. Remember how fantastic it was getting mail when you were at camp?

Well, no I don’t. But I do remember getting mail at college.

I remember the elation of looking through the tiny little window of my College Station mailbox and seeing the diagonal edge of a letter or, oh happy day!, the end of a small package. When you didn’t see that tell-tale edge, you could still humor yourself into dialing in your combination on the off-chance that you had received a very small card or, oh glorious day!, a Large-Package Notice which was lying obscured on the bottom of your mailbox.

“Oh well,” was usually the response to this most hopeful act.

I’m remembering that hopefulness and hoping to delight my young friend during at least one mail call. I’m sending him a letter and a book. Here’s the thing: I didn’t go to camp, I wasn’t a boy, and so I’m not sure if what I am sending will actually please him beyond just getting mail. That’s probably enough.

I’m sending along an old copy I have of Walden. It’s sweet, it’s quaint, and for all my hopes of giving cheer to my young friend, it may be hopelessly naïve.

I’m not sure, but what more could you wish for the last precious days of summer camp?

Wisdom Gap


In this case, time really is money.

Urgency Day 23

500 Things Items 469-77: Gold Jewelry

  • History: Sundry items of assorted provenance
  • Value: INTRINSIC!
  • Parting pain: Gold is at a historic high, so parting is the opposite of painful!
  • Un-possessing: Our local reputable dealer

Sam was taught the Golden Rule early.

But with only 22 days to go before Launch Day, I’m starting to realize there are a few lessons of intrinsic and extrinsic value I will not have time to teach Sam before he leaves for college.

Sure, I think we’ve done an admirable job in several crucial areas:

  • Because he knows to take the popcorn out of the plastic wrapper before nuking, he won’t burn down the dorm.
  • Because he knows how to separate lights from darks, he won’t turn all his clothes pink.
  • Because he can work and play well with others, he won’t become the dorm hermit.
  • Because he knows about predatory lending practices, he won’t graduate with future-crushing debt.

Not a bad list for anyone.

Plus, he can do a lot of things I can’t: Tune a guitar, for example, and at this point, ANY algebra. So maybe the few things I’m ruing say more about my regrets rather than reveal a wisdom gap in Sam. Probably.

And probably the things he will wish he knew are things that aren’t even on my radar.

The third week Sam was in Kindergarten, Paul and I went to our very first Back to School night. We were eager young parents delighted to sit in our tiny assigned chairs, marvel at the vivid surroundings, and beam at every class chart that held a laminated index card with Sam D. printed on it. We were thrilled to anticipate all the knowledge our five-year old would gain that wondrous first year of his formal education.

We did not anticipate being sharply reprimanded by his teacher, Mrs. K., who said she was

shocked  that not one of these children can cut along the lines!”

Paul and I leaned into each other and whispered, “Isn’t that what they’re supposed to learn in Kindergarten?”

I will keep that Kindergarten Back to School Night in mind as Sam departs for college. Lessons will fall on both sides of the ledger: learned and not yet learned; expected and lacking. Some skills he will proudly display and share; some he will acquire for the first time. And he will be just fine.

Really my regrets aren’t about running out of time to teach Sam skills or share lessons.

My regret is simply running out of time.

Follow up to the last post Fraud Alert (but not to the Correction to Fraud Alert):

In an effort to minimize as much as possible the hypocrisy gap between my downsizing efforts and our college shopping frenzy, I will try to downsize a similar item for each of the ones we need to purchase. So for example, if we need to purchase extra-long bed sheets, I will downsize a regular set of sheets; if we need to purchase shower flip-flops, I will downsize a pair of sandals. This will be in addition to the existing project, but at this point, I don’t intend to document it. Just know it is going on. Thanks for your understanding.




This correction is mostly directed at the blog’s email subscribers as the error was corrected for later visitors.

There was an error in the first paragraph of yesterday’s post, FRAUD ALERT, which significantly changes the meaning of the post. The line should read, “I promise: It was NOT my intention.” The word NOT was left out. This tiny omission makes all the difference. I promise this error was NOT my intention! And I invite you to re-read the post with this crucial little word in place.


Thank you for your time and understanding.

And thank you so much for your subscription!

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