What is a mother?

A mother is sugar and spice and everything nice spread out over a 5-foot-3 frame. A mother is June Cleever, serving up a nutritious cooked breakfast at 7 am with a cheerful smile on her face and wearing a string of pearls over a nice shirtwaist dress. But most of all, a mother is an artist, cutting the crust off sandwiches and adorning them with smiley faces complete with carrot-curl hair (in a family of carrot tops).

Yes, the best mother is an artist, and I, alas, though I had three children, was not endowed with natural talent in the visual arts nor the capacity to invent and lead such projects on the fly.

The standard for mothering back when my children were young in the early 90s was set by such magazines as Family Circle and Women’s Day. (These were available at the grocery checkout line, right under the candies placed at kid-in-grocery-cart eye level.) A good mommy knows how to prevent squabbling kids from fighting by introducing a fun project, say the mags. She has a magic closet from which emerge brilliant ideas for entertaining art projects.

And she has a special talent—she can draw photograph-like drawings of anything her children can think of upon command. “Mommy, draw a battle between Superman and Spiderman. Now put them at the Statue of Liberty and add snow. And a fairy princess. And a dog. And a dinosaur.”

“Your wish is my command, kids.”

If a mom is smart, she’ll avoid the two biggest dangers in artistic mothering: finger paints and loose glitter in tubes.

Especially loose glitter, the greatest threat to Mom’s ever cheerfulness. It gets caught in the crevices of the flooring, glinting at you from the cracks ever after.

So the challenge was on when we—that’s me and my three children—moved to Milwaukee August 1. The start of school was weeks off so we had no friends for play dates. Now was the time to discover any latent mothering art talents I might unearth.

A Mary Tyler Moore moment

We resolved to take a nothing day and make it all seem worthwhile.

I drove the kids over to Lake Michigan to explore. This was exciting for us because we were from central Ohio and large bodies of water were a big deal for us. We walked around a bit. We put our tootsies in the water but it was a cold gloomy day.

We walked around. (Wait, I think I already said that.)

The shore was under populated as we set out with our pails.

Now what could we do? Great idea! We could collect rocks. Yea. That’s fun. Not huge rocks. Small rocks we could carry. We set out with the small pails I had packed in the car.

Turns out that rocks are heavy. Who knew? Even if your pails are small, they soon weigh a ton. We lug them to the car and home.

What do you do with rocks?

First, you lovingly wash them in the sink, trying not to gum up the drain with sand.

But now, what to do with clean rocks?

Remember, these aren’t rare rocks. Or beautiful rocks. So the kids have an idea: “Let’s paint them.”

I may not be a born artist, but I know one thing: Children’s water colors, eight patches to the tin, do not work on rocks. The paint isn’t thick enough to cling to the rocks. Uh-oh.

We found an art store. Turns out the solution is more expensive paints.

Money was kind of tight so the art store wasn’t my plan for the day, but there we were. “Each of you pick out one color and we’ll share,” I said.

That idea didn’t go over well. We walked out of there with six bottles of paint.

Of course you need brushes.

And glitter. The kids needed glitter to pour on top of the wet paint.

And certainly we need iridescent glitter, loose in tubes.

We took it all home and spread it out on newspapers. (You remember those?) We painted all our rocks.

A few hours later our work is done.

What do you do with painted rocks?

Well, I use them as paper weights to this day. But we sure had a lot more paper weights than we have valuable papers to be weighted.

But the kids have another creative idea. Let’s mail them to friends and family we left behind in Columbus. Like souvenirs from the Milwaukee seashore.

We made a list of friends we had recently left in Ohio and set about wrapping the rocks in cut-up brown-paper grocery bags and affixing address and return labels.

How to mail them? This was long before 9/11 and mailing was much more loosy goosey before security restrictions. So I simply put a bunch of stamps on each wrapped rock and threw them down the chute at the post office.

Off they flew to Ohio.

Months later we visited Columbus for the December holidays. One of these gifted relatives explained his experience on the other end of the gift.

The postman requested payment of several dollars in overdue postage, which he paid, anticipating quite a gift. He opens it up to find a rock. A rock!

So in a sense I struck out once again as a creative mother. But at least I gave myself an A for effort. And I’m the proud owner of a heck of a collection of rocks.

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