Watson Mill Bridge State Park

Note: This column was printed in the April 25, 2012 edition of The Barrow Journal.

Last week we decided to get out into nature again with the boys, and this time we went to one of my favorite places, Watson Mill Bridge.  It’s located three miles south of Comer, Georgia, and I think it’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever visited in Georgia.

Watson Mill Bridge is the longest covered bridge in Georgia.  It crosses the South Fork River, and it’s 229 feet long.  You can drive or walk through the bridge.  We walked over it and discovered it has that wonderful, musty smell of old, historic wood.

Unfortunately, last year the park lost its state park status due to budget challenges, but the Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials just announced that it will return to state park status on May 1.  They have partnered with Madison and Oglethorpe counties as well as the Friends of Watson Mill Bridge to make this happen.  I’m very happy to learn this.

According to the Georgia State Parks website the bridge was built in 1885 by Washington (W.W.) King, the son of freed slave and famous covered-bridge builder Horace King.  It is supported by a “town lattice truss system held firmly together with wooden pins.”  The site also says that Georgia used to have more than 200 covered bridges.  Now it has less than 20.

The park is a haven to photographers, including me.  My boys wanted to spend most of the time on the shoals below the bridge.  Yep – more rock throwing!  While they played, I had time to photograph the bridge, and I even caught a few worthy images of the boys.  In the shallow part of the water, my five-year-old was thrilled to find dozens of black tadpoles.  We also spied a skink near the river.

tadpoles & I think some eggs too


My husband and I were happy to sit in the shade and let the boys throw as many rocks as they wanted.  I haven’t been to many parks where I could find a place that was very flat and I didn’t feel like I needed to hold onto my two-year-old’s shirt for fear of him falling in the water.

completely in his element

Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to head back to town for lunch, my five-year-old said, “But what about hiking?”  Indeed, we did say that we were “going hiking,” so we obliged him by walking a short distance up one of trails.  There are two of them on each side of the river.  I’m looking forward to when the boys are older and we can go for longer jaunts.

Though I wouldn’t trade these outings with my boys for anything, I fondly remember the days when I could amble down a path and take in the sights and smells of nature.  With two little boys, my mind is constantly alert as to where they are and what they might be touching.  It’s mentally draining.

Yet this is just a season of my life, and there’s also the thrill of watching my boys discover something for the first time.  For example, on the way back to the car, my two-year-old and I were some distance behind my husband and five-year-old. At one point, a female cardinal landed on a branch just above our heads, and my two-year-old noticed her.  We stopped and watched her for a long moment and listened to her song.  I told him she was the “mama cardinal,” and he nodded.  I could see in his expression that he was fascinated, and I’m quite sure I’ll never forget that.

The park is 1,118 acres.  There are tent, trailer, RV campsites and 3 log cabin bunkhouses available. Hiking, biking and horse trails are available as well as horse stalls.  There’s also a fun playground and three picnic shelters.  You can find out more about this beautiful park and how to make reservations at http://www.gastateparks.org/WatsonMillBridge

part of the playground at Watson Mill Bridge State Park

You can find more of my resources for parents in Georgia by clicking here.  I’ll be writing about all the places we visit in the future, so I hope you’ll visit me again!  Thank you!

The Merry Toymaker: A Retired Toymaker’s Story and His Beautiful, Handmade Wooden Toys for Children

Note: This column was printed in the April 18, 2012 edition of the The Barrow Journal.

Sometimes it pays to have connections.  At least, that’s what my boys thought when a friend of mine invited us over to meet her husband, a retired toymaker, and play with his handmade, wooden toys.

Jack Dohany worked in the electronics industry as a field engineer from 1962 to 1970, but after seeing the Vietnam War up close, he became a pacifist and eventually left his job. He met a craftswoman who took him to his first crafts fair, and he noticed that there weren’t many good toys there.

“I was looking for a way to support myself that was fun and peaceful, and it seemed like toymaking might be that way. It was.”

He ran his business from 1970 to 2009, and he called it The Merry Toymaker.  It was located in his home or wherever he happened to be living, and he sold his toys chiefly at craft fairs.  He did no advertising.

In California, there are huge craft fairs such as the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in the spring, a fair in Northern California in the fall, and the Dickens Christmas Fair and the KPFA Crafts Fair in Berkeley in December.

After Jack and his wife, Winston Stephens, moved to Georgia in 2001, his business shrank because there are few good craft fairs here.  So at that time he sold to stores, and The Idea Factory in New Orleans was his best outlet.

The first toy Mr. Dohany made was of a train engine, and he still owns it.  (See photo below.) All of his toys were circus-oriented.  He says his favorite is the two-hand top, but the circus train and squeeze acrobat come in close seconds.  He has wonderful memories of entertaining children at the craft fairs.

“I’d spin a top on a plate, flip the top high in the air and then catch it still spinning on the plate.  Then I’d put the plate on top of my head and do my silly toymaker dance while the top was still spinning.  Kids (and their parents) loved it.  One of my fondest memories is of a kid here in Georgia who managed to do this trick perfectly on his first try!”

My boys loved playing with the wooden toys.  For me, these handmade toys are much more special than the plastic toys the boys receive for their birthdays with all the bells and whistles.  I asked Mr. Dohany what he thought about that.

“Handmade wooden toys have some human warmth built into them which is lacking in factory-made toys,” he told me. “They also encourage the development of manual dexterity, and in my humble opinion, they are just more fun to play with than plastic toys are.”

If you want to buy one of Mr. Dohany’s toys, you’re out of luck because he retired in 2009.  He gave his entire workshop to John Thomas who was one of his helpers in California and good friend.  John stays home with his young children, and he’s planning to sell his toys over the Internet. When it’s complete, the website will be at http://www.merrytoymakers.com/.

Until then, Mr. Dohany likes to tell everyone, “I’m not the only toymaker in the world. If you Google handmade, wooden toys, you’ll find lots and lots.”  He also added, “Next to meeting and marrying up with Winston Stephens, toymaking is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

To see more photos of Mr. Dohany and his toys, you can go to my photography blog by clicking here.

I Ain’t Perfect: Confessions of a Homeschooling Mom

I’ve been blogging for several years now.  I started when my eldest son was one-year-old, and the first “Mama of Letters” blog had nothing to do with homeschooling.  Back then I had more time for reading other blogs too.  I think “mommy blogging” is one of the reasons daytime soap operas have plummeted, don’t you?

While I don’t want to be placed in the same boat as a stay-at-home mom who watches soap operas all day, I don’t mind being considered a “mommy blogger.”  Whatever negative connotations it may carry, I think stay-at-home-moms are finding ways to be creative, make a little money and rear their children in a loving, stimulating environment.  I think moms have always done this, but the Internet has given us an outlet to share it.

Unfortunately, sharing on the Internet comes with limits.  Just like when we meet new people for the first time, we put our best face forward.  On the Internet, we do that all the time, and in fact, we need to in order to protect our privacy.

I find that when I read blogs too much, I start to second-guess myself.  Other moms seem to have it all together.  Their houses are beautiful, and they’re cooking healthy meals every night.  If they homeschool, they’re doing so many cool things that I can’t imagine keeping up!

However, having kept a blog for so long, I’ve realized that 1) in the right light, even messy houses can look pretty, and 2) when you write down what you’re doing, it sounds like a lot more than what it might feel like in reality! (This is why I advocate keeping a homeschool portfolio.)

For these reasons, I wanted to write a post and let everyone know I ain’t perfect.  Don’t ever read my blog and think, “How does she do all that?”  “Maybe I should do that too.”  Or any other second-guessing.  Every parent needs to find what works for her family and child. 

You also should remember that family dynamics play a big part in what will work for you.  Personalities and priorities are different.  We can’t always choose to do exactly what we want.  We have our spouse’s desires to consider, and our children have unique needs and desires too.  To be part of a family is to compromise.

So I’m writing this post in hopes that it might help someone.  Perhaps you’re more organized or your priorities differ from mine.  That’s okay.  We’re all different, but we have one thing in common: none of us can do it all.

So here’s just a few things that I do and don’t do.  As you read my blog, you can keep these things in mind:

  1. I love to organize and mostly on paper.  As a writer, my best creative mind works with words and on paper.  Organizing my thoughts on homeschool is easy and fun, but organizing my kitchen isn’t.
  2. I’m still on a 10-year mission to declutter my house.  My house is cluttered.  If I had plenty of time, I would be able to sort through and organize it because I’m a fairly organized person, but it’s not a huge priority of mine.  So things like this take 10+ years to achieve.  I whack away at it a little at a time.
  3. My house isn’t super clean, but it’s livable.  I have two boys, a husband, two dogs, a (white) cat, and a fish tank.  (My husband cleans the fish tank every week, thankfully.)  We also have a big yard with lots of dirt.  Put these things together, and you might figure out that within one day of mopping my floors, I am once again walking on gritty floors.  That’s just life here.
  4. We don’t have a lot of closet space.  See #2.
  5. I don’t cook.  Okay, seriously, I do cook a little.  I cook a decent, homemade meal about once every week or two, and I try to eat leftovers for a while.  Other times I prepare a lot of salads, and we eat a lot of fruit, and I make ample use of frozen food, especially the healthier brands.  We also use pre-made meals from the grocery store or my favorite place, Trader Joe’s.  My husband fends for himself often.  He has allergies, I’m a vegetarian, and my kids are ultra picky, so we usually eat different meals.  Therefore, you will never see any cooking recipes on my blog or get advice on how to feed children from me.  I partly blame my kid’s picky eating on my lame cooking.  I’m trying to get better at this, and my five-year-old loves to cook with me, so that’s very motivating for me.
  6. My husband and I are both introverts, and we’re both writers.  I get my energy from sitting quietly at my computer, writing, reading, taking walks in nature and creating images.  I would rather do this than keep my calendar full of social calls or whipping up masterpieces in the kitchen.  Some people can’t stand this.  That’s okay.
  7. Sometimes I yell.  Thankfully I don’t do this often, but there have been plenty of times when I’ve gotten exhausted and broke down at the slightest mishap.  Or maybe I don’t yell, but I’m just grumpy all day.  Most of the time I love being with my kids, but I wouldn’t be human if it was easy all the time.  I’m not supermom, but frankly I don’t think that kids need perfect parents.
  8. Once in a while, I want to quit.  I want to quit writing my column, my blog and all my other personal projects.  I wonder if I’m getting ahead of myself in regards to homeschooling. Luckily these feelings don’t happen often, but if I get too busy, unorganized, or don’t take time for myself, it happens.
  9. While I don’t want to quit being a mom, sometimes I wish I could take a two-week vacation from it.
  10. I let my kids watch a good amount of T.V.  And soon I’ll follow-up with a post about that, but suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be as good of a mother as I am without the T.V.
  11. Finally, there are things I won’t write in my column or on my blog because I’m respecting the privacy of my children and my family.  I also made the decision to keep it fairly upbeat because I don’t think it’s wise to complain or be too negative online.  (Within limits, it’s okay, of course.  Otherwise, we might not seem authentic.)

So there are my confessions.  It makes me a little nervous sharing them with you, but I think it’s important for everyone to take what they read on the Internet with a grain of salt.  And since children don’t come with an instruction manual, it’s important that we use our hearts first when making a decision that impacts their lives.  Don’t let someone else’s rosy picture cloud yours.

Hmmm….Are there any confessions you wish to make?  😉

What’s A Mama To Do Without Nap Time?

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal April 11, 2012.  For more information about how I’m dealing with the loss of nap time in our homeschooling routine, scroll to the bottom of this post.

For most mothers, nap time is our saving grace.  For those mothers with babies who don’t nap, I don’t know how they do it.  My five-year-old was a wonderful sleeper as a baby and toddler.  He gave me about 10 hours at night and a 2-3 hour nap time every afternoon. I’m sure I didn’t know how luxurious that was.

When my five-year-old was three, he began to resist nap time.  It became clear that he was transitioning out of them.  I still needed my nap, however, so I took my mother’s advice and created “quiet time.”  I told my son he would need to play quietly upstairs for a while by himself.

This worked well, and I think it helped him learn how to entertain himself.  Sometimes I would find him upstairs asleep on the floor beside his toys, but at least I didn’t have to fight him to go to sleep.  Other days he didn’t need a nap, so he played for an hour and then came downstairs.

I was preparing myself to have an opposite experience with my second child, but I was blessed with another good sleeper.  (Thank you!)  The only difference is that his naps have been shorter, and he’s transitioned out of them much earlier than his brother.

I knew a few months ago that he probably didn’t need his naps because he would lay awake in his crib until late in the night “singing.”  Sometimes he’d call us in there a few times too.  I resisted not giving him a nap though.  Not only did I use that time to do one-on-one work with my five-year-old, I also used part of it as break time for myself.

As other mothers have also told me, it’s kind of a frightful moment to realize that daily nap times are almost over.  We wonder how will we ever live without it?

Even as I dreaded losing nap time, I knew that it was a silly thing to worry about.  Look at all the mothers with older children who don’t nap anymore…they have survived!

As it turned out, transitioning out of nap time was much harder for me than it was for my two-year-old.  Unlike his older brother, he never resisted going down for a nap, but once I let him not nap, he won’t go back.  We had a few days when he got pretty cranky in the afternoon without his nap, but sometimes he was like that anyway, so who knows?

So no more naps, and no more singing at night… He’s out like a light!  But how is mama holding up?  Actually, not bad.  It’s been very freeing to give up nap time.  Suddenly I have a huge space in the day when I can take the boys to the store or do an extra project with them.  There’s no rushing home for nap time or worrying how to get something done around it.

As far as my one-on-one time with my five-year-old, that has changed a bit. (See below for more information about that.) For now we’re sticking to things that his younger brother can join in too, but over the next few months I hope to figure out a new homeschool schedule.

Sometimes the five-year-old will grumble about his little brother interrupting his projects, but for the most part, we’ve been able to let him work alongside us.  When my son wants to make something with paper and scissors, the two-year-old gets busy cutting up bits of paper too.  (Can bits of paper scattered on the floor be considered a new fashion décor?)

Sometimes I’m the one who’s too hesitant to try something new with the two-year-old.  The other day my eldest son insisted that we try dissecting his human body model with his brother – something we always did while he was napping because I was afraid body parts would be flying all over the room.

To my surprise, the two-year-old was very careful with the pieces and curious about the whole process.  Only once I had to threaten a time out when he refused to give back the liver and stomach.  If you think about it, losing nap time isn’t half as bad as the day they’re gonna tell me they want to dissect a real frog or something like that!

Note: That was my column.  Below is some more information about how I’m dealing with the loss of nap time in our homeschooling routine.

Here’s a debrief of my thoughts about losing nap time:

  • Whaa!!
  • Okay, it’s nothing to cry about.  It actually gives us more freedom because I don’t have to work around the two-year-old’s naps.
  • At first, I didn’t worry about doing any formal lessons with my five-year-old.  I was already pretty laid back about this, and I wrote about how I conducted our homeschool in this post.
  • It’s springtime, and I feel pretty certain that every year during spring, we’re going to change our routine. It’s a priority of mine to let my boys spend a lot of time outside.  We still have book time, we create, we tell stories, and they play, play, play.  That’s all we need to do right now.
  • But recently I have been considering how to work in a small amount of time dedicated to the basics: reading and math.  Then I noticed that my two-year-old liked to sit quietly and watch his older brother play on the computer.  So I signed up for the paid portion of Starfall.com.  This is a wonderful site, and we’ve used it a lot in the past.  (There’s a lot on there that’s free, but they’ve added much more, including math, and they are only charging $35 a year for access to it.  Not a bad deal, if your child likes it.)  Twice I’ve sat down with my five-year-old, and we’ve read through two or three, short Starfall “books.”  My two-year-old has been in the room with us, and he likes to watch while at the same time playing with puzzles or other things in our activity room.  Don’t get me wrong – he is distracting.  But my five-year-old gets distracted no matter what when he has to sound out a word he doesn’t know.  This is why I don’t push more than two or three books at a time.
  • The site also has a lot of entertaining but educational math songs, nursery rhymes, etc.  So my thought is that we’ll spend a little time at the computer when we can, and I’ll make sure the five-year-old gets some practice reading.  Then we’ll have fun exploring the site.  It will be “school” for both of them.
  • My plan is to work this into our morning schedule between book time and our puppet shows.
  • Of course, this is all a work in progress.  I’ve just started doing this, and I don’t know what it will look like next month or next year.  I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
But Wait!?  You might be wondering: what about Mama’s Nap Time?  What about her Free time?  This is a subject for an upcoming blog post, but the short answer is that I let my boys watch T.V. in the afternoons (and evenings).  I hope you’ll stick with me because I’ll confess it all and explain why I don’t think T.V. hurts them…

How have you changed your routine as your children transition out of nap time?

The Lake Loop Trail at Unicoi State Park

Note: This column appeared in the April 4, 2012 edition of the Barrow Journal.

Hasn’t this weather been exceptional lately?  We have been trying to take advantage of it all that we can, and a week ago we took the boys to one of our favorite places: Unicoi State Park.  Many of you may be familiar with Unicoi State Park.  It’s right outside of Helen, Georgia, and it’s near Anna Ruby Falls.

But we also love the easy Lake Loop Trail, and it’s perfect for small children.  It’s about 2.5 miles around Smith Lake, which is also known as Unicoi Lake.  It’s a flat trail, and I think we even took our jogging stroller on it once when our eldest was very little.

There are beautiful views all around the lake, and there are ample places for our boys to stop and throw rocks into the water.  Throwing rocks is still their favorite thing to do.  While my husband and I like to take in the scenery, our boys are busy trying to find a rock or twig that’s just the right size.

The two-year-old cannot walk without stopping to fill his arms with rocks.  The five-year-old is now smart enough to realize that mama has pockets!  So if you passed us on the Lake Loop Trail, you’d see a mama with bulging pockets trying to coax a two-year-old to move.

I still had a great time.  The weather was perfect, though a dark cloud came upon us about half way around the lake.  Luckily it didn’t rain on us, and the cloudy weather kept us from squinting or sweating too much.

There’s a small, sandy beach on the lake with an area blocked off for swimming.  Though we found it while we were walking on the Loop Trail, I noticed that there’s a parking lot just above it, so you could go straight there for the day.  My boys had fun digging in the sand while we sat in the shade and watched a few families swim in the water.

There’s also a large “beach house.”  I didn’t go inside, but according to this website says that you can rent this facility for a private function.  It also says that during the summer, you can rent a canoe or pedal boat.  That sounds like fun!

We passed many fishermen while we were walking on the path, though it didn’t look like anyone was catching many fish that day.  There are a lot of bridges (perfect places to throw rocks) and docks along the way.  Most of these have benches so that you can relax and take in the blue water and green trees surrounding the lake.

In another cove, we found all the fish hovering around some fallen trees in the water, but we didn’t have the energy to go back and alert the fishermen.  Besides that, the cloud was looking ominous, so we didn’t want to linger too long.

For the same reason, we hurried our boys passed another area with a playground.  Luckily, they were looking at the water and too busy with their rocks and twigs to notice the playground, but next time we go, we’ll be sure to let them play awhile.

The only tricky part about the trail is that you have to cross the dam via Highway 356 to get back to your vehicle.  (This isn’t a big deal if you don’t have children.)  Once we reached this point my husband went to get the car and came to pick us up.  There is parking on either side of the dam, but we always park on the west side and use the picnic pavilion to eat lunch at before we start the trail.  There is a $5.00 parking fee unless you buy the annual state park pass.

To learn more about this trail you can go to the Digital Trail Guide or look up Unicoi State Park on the Georgia State Parks website: http://www.gastateparks.org/.

For more ideas about what to do in Georgia with children, be sure to see my page Resources for Georgia Homeschoolers.  And I hope you’ll sign up for my RSS Feed, like my Facebook page, or subscribe by e-mail in the right margin…>

Please share your favorite nature hot spots for children in the comments.