I was so excited to see #HappyBirthdayGrandma was an existing hashtag on both Facebook and Instagram when I had occasion to use it this week.  People are posting about their grandmas’ happy birthdays!  What a great use of social media, right?

My Grandma turned 91 years old this week.  She had three days of celebrations, as the family gathered to have cake on birthday-eve, before I took her for birthday lunch and a special outing at her request on her actual birthday.  Then the day after was our weekly #GrandmaDay, so she came for lunch and we sang happy birthday again and polished off the birthday cake together.

2016-01-11 19.01.59-2

That’s 91 candles, y’all.

My sweet Grandma.  Grandma is a caretaker.  Grandma has spent her life taking care of her husband, her children, her grandchildren, and now even her great-grandchildren.  In her younger years she worked as a lunch lady at the elementary school down the street and served in the Primary at church, caring for the children of her neighborhood and congregation.  She had a way with numbers, and in her time she knew the birthdays of every one of the 50 or so kids she served at church.  When Grandpa’s health started to fail, she cared for him, too.  And now, because she cared for us, we care for her.

As she has gotten older and lost her beloved husband, her heart has turned to things not of this world.  I would even say she is looking forward to returning “home” and reuniting with Grandpa, and with her 10 brothers and sisters, with parents and grandparents, all of whom have passed on.  Her heart has always been turned to those who came before her.  She has told us family history stories since before I knew who or what she was talking about.  The names and stories of her parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were written on my heart during the elementary school summers I spent with her.

And this week, on her birthday, Grandma wanted to go visit the resting places of those people she still holds so dear.  So I dropped off the little ones at school and preschool and we headed for the cemetery.

First we visited her grandparents, Emma Higbee and Henry Clay Rogers.
Emma and Henry married in Provo, Utah, in 1856, two weeks before Emma’s 20th birthday.  They had nine children while living in Utah, and then after 20 years of marriage they were asked by Brigham Young to bring their family south and create a new settlement in Arizona.  They came to Lehi, Arizona (now part of Mesa) in 1878, helped build a new community, and made a home.  Their last two children were born in Arizona.

2016-01-12 09.57.412016-01-12 09.58.04








Henry and Emma’s last child was a little girl, Hester Caroline “Caddie” Rogers.  She grew up in their desert community near the Salt River, east of the little town of Phoenix.  She helped her mother in the house during the week and went to church on Sunday.  She watched her father build their little town with the help of the local Indians, whom he often invited into their home for meals and gospel discussions.  The garden was small but somehow Mother and Caddie were always able to scrape together a good enough supper for whoever gathered around their table.

In her teenage years Caddie met a boy from Mesa, Henry “Cobb” Watkins, whom she later married.  Intent on marrying in a Mormon temple, they traveled with two other couples on their own version of the “Honeymoon Trail” from Mesa to Los Angeles, where they caught a train to Salt Lake City.  They married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1905, when Caddie was 23 years old.  They returned to Mesa and started their own family.  Like her Mother before her, Caddie had 11 children.

2016-01-12 10.39.32  2016-01-12 10.39.48

This is Caddie and Henry’s last baby, Number Eleven, their caboose, on her 91st birthday:

2016-01-12 10.39.23

She was born in Arizona, but the family left seeking work in California when she was only six months old.  They traveled through California following Henry’s employment opportunities, as he fixed the fruit sorting machines behind the seasonal workers.  After two years of this sort of work, Caddie insisted they settle somewhere so her children could get a proper education.  On their way back to Arizona they stopped to visit an ailing family member in Blanding, Utah, and were talked into settling there for a while.

My Grandma spent most of her childhood in Blanding before returning to Mesa and graduating from Mesa High School.  After finishing her education in 1943, she went to work at the Air Force base outside of town, where she met a handsome young cowboy and stole his heart.  He never remembered how many times he asked her to marry him before she finally said yes — but one day she did, and now here we are.

This little one has seen 91 years on this earth, 63 years of marriage, three children, eight grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren (so far).  She has sent seven of us on missions around the world and seen six graduate college (so far).  She has visited all 50 states and most of the Canadian provinces.  She has shown us an enduring example of faith and patience and kindness, and we love her.  We all just love her.

So, #HappyBirthdayGrandma.  Thanks for sharing it with us.

2016-01-12 12.25.48-2



Something to Read: The Great Cake Mystery

Raise your hand if you participated in the Summer Reading Program at your local library this year!  We did, and at the end of our program each of our Pioneer Children got to choose a free book as a reward for all their reading hours.  We tabbed through the items offered by our reading program and I was so excited to find a children’s book by an author I’ve enjoyed.

Alexander McCall Smith writes The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency series, which (despite the ungrammarly title) I have enjoyed.  We love stories that help us discover new places, so a few months ago we read a couple of the author’s Akimbo stories, which are set in Botswana as well. But, for all our reading, I didn’t know Smith had written these books about a young Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist of the Detective Agency bGreatCakeMysteryooks.

In “The Great Cake Mystery,” Precious is a schoolgirl of about 10 years old.  As she and the other children spend their days doing lessons in their classes, the treats that they bring from home to make the boring school lunches more bearable begin to disappear.  Friends come to Precious with stories of a thief at school, and Precious employs her detective spirit to investigate the situation and solve the mystery, all while making a new friend.  The story opens with a startling lion encounter and ends with a lesson on honesty, loyalty, and friendship.

The end of the book includes a note from the author on what he hopes children will take away from the book, as well as some pronunciation guides, a short glossary of African terms, and some thoughtful reading questions.  Ms. Pickle hosted a summer reading club last summer, and I think this book would have been perfect for that sort of setting.  It makes me want to bring reading club back!

Precious is a beautiful character filled with kindness and generosity.  She is a lovely person to spend the last few minutes before bedtime with, and we enjoy our time with her so much that we have already picked up books two and three in this series.


The Fourth Grade Teacher

My fourth grade teacher’s name was Lavona Areghini. “Lavona from Sedona, Arizona,” she told us one day, making the room full of nine-year-olds giggle. She was an experienced teacher when I came into her grade, and her room was always warm and welcoming.

I’m sure I learned long division in her class, and I know we read some classics together. She introduced me to one of my favorite authors when she read Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming aloud in class after lunch recess every day for a week or so. I never wanted her to stop reading. I represented our class in the school spelling bee that year.  I got straight As. My handwriting looked like my dad’s.


There were probably other important facts and skills that I picked up there as well, but the most important thing I remember about that year was being loved. Mrs. Areghini loved her job, and she loved her students, and we all knew it. And that’s what good teachers are about.

The next year we faced a family tragedy, and though I had just begun fifth grade when it happened, I went back to Mrs. Areghini’s room when I needed to feel safe. In fact I spent a few months at the beginning of the year kind of in a stupor, and one day purely out of habit I returned to that place of comfort. I was so embarrassed when I realized I had stumbled back into her room, now full of a new class of fourth-graders, but she was welcoming and kind and accommodating even after I interrupted her new class — all the things I needed in that moment.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week in the US. I’ve been appreciating teachers in my heart for the last couple of weeks, since a writer friend posted on Facebook about catching up on recording her personal history. She has been posting excerpts to keep herself motivated and working. Susan had gotten as far as fourth grade when we saw this post:

“Someone posted today how grateful they are for a teacher helping their child, and I reflected on the teachers who made a difference in my son’s life and mine. And then I realized that both of our favorite teachers of all time were our fourth grade teachers and both of them are my FB friends. My fourth grade teacher even came to one of my book launch parties! Thank you … for making such a difference in my son’s life. And thank you … for making a difference in mine.”

Our school year is almost over. The last official day for our district is May 21, but we’re leaving early to go on an epic family adventure so my daughter will finish school next week. It is time to show our gratitude and appreciation to our third grade teacher and then get ready to relax and recharge and learn by experience for a few weeks.

And then, after our family experiences of the summer, my Pioneer Girl will begin her own fourth grade adventure. We looked through my school scrapbook this afternoon, and I told her that fourth grade is a great year. I wish her success in her academics and personal growth, but most of all I wish her a teacher who loves, like Mrs. Areghini loved.

No such thing as a “Dad Job”

Today I fixed the chain on my littlest Pioneer Girl’s bike.

2015-04-09 18.03.19

There used to be a time when, in a fit of not-wanting-to-do-that-right-now, I told my little kids that that sort of thing was a “Dad Job,” and they would have to wait until Dad got home and ask Dad to do it.  That went for such things as getting the screwdriver to remove the battery cover to change the batteries in the loudest favorite racecar, or fixing the squeaky drawer, or starting the grill for dinner, or anything that made me go outside and work where it’s hot.  (This is Arizona, people.)

Then one day I thought about what I was teaching my kids about what girls can do.  And it wasn’t the right thing.  Blergh.

I grew up in a house with no boys.  It was me, my mom, and my little sister, and we did everything.  My mom was especially great about it.  If there was something she needed done and she didn’t know how or didn’t have the right tools, we had an amazing Grampop a few miles away who had the tools and the knowledge to do pretty much anything.  But my mom never asked him to do it for her — she always asked him to show her, so that she could do it next time.  And he was super supportive of her and patient as she learned.

I watched my mom do everything, from running both an office and a household on her own, to cutting pieces of wood with heavy machinery in our backyard to create art,  to things as simple as arranging the logistics of our annual vacations.  Eventually she passed some of those jobs down to me.  I remember all three of us sitting around the cordless phone with a notepad (pre-Internet, people!) as I called and got rates, compared locations and prices, and then finalized the hotel and rental car arrangements for our trip to Seattle the summer that I turned 12.

And now I’m telling my kid that I can’t use a screwdriver to change some batteries?  Dude.

So a couple of months ago I stopped saying “Dad Job” to my children, and I got out the tool box.  My girls see me get my hands dirty and fix their bikes.   My boy knows that I can run the lawnmower or jump-start a car. They’re learning, by watching me and working with me, that there’s no such thing as a “Dad Job.” Girls can do anything.

Meet Mackenzie

Mackenzie Teo became a Pioneer when she was 17 years old.


Mackenzie spent more than half her life in foster care before she was adopted in November 2014, six months before she would have aged out of the system. Because she was an older child when she entered the care of the state, her chances of being adopted were not good. She spent time in 26 different “placements,” including group homes. She considers two of them “good” — stable, loving, kind, supportive — placements.

When Mackenzie first met the family who would eventually adopt her, she had one pair of shoes that were two and a half sizes too small. They had holes everywhere. She wore an ill-fitting dress, the nicest she could find, and these blownout brown sneakers. She wore those shoes everywhere — to church, to school, to meet the people she hoped would become her family — because they were the only shoes she had.

A couple of years later, when Mackenzie came back to this family, this time forever, she had no shoes. She borrowed a pair of sandals that were three sizes too small for the day she saw her foster mom again. She had attended school barefoot for weeks because the group home she lived in didn’t provide her shoes like they should have.

When Mackenzie was finally adopted, she asked her mom for 17,000 pairs of shoes. In Arizona, where Mackenzie lives with her family, the most recent official statistics say that 16,990 children are in the custody of the state, living with foster families, in group homes, or with extended family members. Nearly 17,000 children — Mackenzie wanted to draw attention to that number. Mackenzie wants to help those children.

Mackenzie asked for 17,000 pairs of shoes so that she could help people visualize how many children are in foster care, how many children need help.

Together with her mom, Mackenzie is collecting those 17,000 pairs of new children’s shoes to make a video that will help people understand the needs of children in her state. When the video is completed and published, Mackenzie wants to donate those shoes to the children who need them.

The Foster Children’s Rights Coalition is helping Mackenzie with this project, which she calls Footsteps.  Her story has been told in The New York Times and in The Huffington Post and in The Arizona Republic.

Mackenzie is a brave, strong young woman, but sharing her story is not easy.  She’d prefer that many of these details remain private, that she didn’t have to become known as “a foster child” before being known as a smart girl who likes to cook and spend time with her family.  But Mackenzie is putting the needs of other kids before her own and trying to call attention to a problem and find ways to fix it.  She hopes that sharing her story changes things for others.

Mackenzie has found a smart way to better the lives of children who often can’t speak for themselves, while she’s still a teenager herself.   Mackenzie is a Pioneer.

Something to Read: The New Small Person

Here’s a book about two little black boys that I think all kinds of kids should read:


“The New Small Person” by Lauren Child

I picked up this book because it’s by Lauren Child, and in our house we love Lauren Child.  I also picked it up because it has two little black boys on the front, and there are not enough little black boys, even in books, in our house.

My favorite thing about this book was what happened when I read it to my five-year-old and we got to the third page.

2015-03-30 15.05.21

Even though my boy is pretty white, he looked at this picture and he said,

“That’s me, right, Mom?  Because I like jelly beans, too.”

And, you guys, when a little white boy immediately identifies with a little black boy, whether in a book or on a playground or at school or whatever, that’s the beginning of the fix of a lot of our problems.

*     *     *     *     *

This article published in Slate last year has some great ideas about thinking about race and then talking about it with kids.  Black kids get race talks from their parents all the time.  I think white kids should, too.

*     *     *     *     *


Lola and Lotta

Lauren Child is one of our favorite children’s book authors.  She writes the
Charlie and Lola series, which we all adore.  The kids love that Charlie and Lola are funny; I love that Charlie and Lola are funny while being kind to each other.  The big brother doesn’t pick on the little sister or call her names.  They are nice.  Charlie and Lola are white, and Lola’s best friend, Lotta, is black — and a great recurring character.

(Bonus: My kids start speaking in tiny British accents after watching episodes of the TV series based on the books.  “It’s an absolute disaster, Charlie!  What are we going to do???”)

A Grateful Heart

So last week I introduced you to my kids.  That was really just a preface to this post, because I’ve noticed this character trait in one of those kids, and I love it, and I wanted to write about it, but I thought you should probably know that I have kids before I started expounding their virtues.  (Also, you should know that they’re real kids and they wake me up too early in the morning and they throw toys over the back fence into the neighbor’s yard almost every time they go outside, and one of them won’t fully potty train [not a sore spot, obvs] and sometimes they sneak ice cream sandwiches in the morning before breakfast, and too often they sass me.   But I love them and they’re great, and here’s a story to prove that.)

Last week Miss Pickle had a field trip to our city’s Science Center.  Our family bought a year-long membership through one of those discount sites, so instead of applying to chaperone (they have so many parents that want to go that there’s a lottery, people), we just decided that I would just go and take the little siblings and we’d all have fun at the Science Center for a day.  We tagged along with Pickle’s friends and talked about desert roadtrips with another mom and the kids played with physics and it was fun.

2015-03-04 12.30.29-2

RoRo and her magnetic dancing “ghosts.”

Then it was over and it was time to go.  The schoolbuses left and took the big sister, and I told the preschoolers they had time for one more activity before we had to go to.  Of course they chose WaterBalls, so they would be soaked when it was time to leave, but they met their deadline with happy hearts, so, fine.

We walked out the door and into the sunshine.  Juice chased some pigeons.  RoRo held my hand.  We got to the parking garage and Juice took my other hand and stole my heart.  “Thanks for bringing us to this museum, Mama.  This was a really fun day.”

Oh, spontaneous gratitude from a preschooler!  This is not an unusual thing for him to do, but it just never gets old to me.  Nearly every time we get done with something fun, there he is, grabbing my hand or hugging my leg, his naughty (naughty is also one of his character traits) little face beaming, grateful for the little joy he just experienced.

This boy of mine simply came with a grateful heart.  It is just one of his gifts.  It comes easily and naturally to him, and I think it will make his life better.   My girls have their own gifts (more on that later), but this one is particularly his.

What is also beautiful about this to me is that he is giving this gift to his little sister.  RoRo emulates his example.  It is less spontaneous for her, but when she sees him thank me, or anyone, for something, she repeats it, and it’s real for her.  She is developing this trait that she sees in him.

As I compliment the other two on their good manners and point out to them how good it feels to express gratitude, the big one is catching on, too.  Miss Pickle is finding ways and moments to offer thanks.  She is very proud of herself when she does it, and I am deliberate in pointing out to her how good it feels because I want it to become one of her character traits.  I think that Pioneer Girls have these good traits, and they can learn to develop those that they value.

As I’m encourging the development of this particular trait in my big girl, I’ve found that the gratitude journal really works.  (Thanks, Oprah.)  Our girls’ group at church has repeatedly helped the girls create different kinds of gratitude journals to promote both personal journaling and an “attitude of gratitude.”

A couple of years ago a friend of mine mentioned that she had a journal that she shared with her son, who is a few years older than our Pickle.  The two of them passed this journal back and forth, asking each other questions, answering, doodling, just communicating.  I loved the idea and as soon as the Pickle had some writing skills, we started the same exercise.  It has been a lot of fun and helped our relationship grow.

Last week I ordered this gratitude journal to continue the tradition in a more focused way.  We’ve only started to share it, but I already see the development of this attribute in my beautiful girl.  The journal has prompts, which she does really well with, and it’s fun for us to both take a little bit of the page and share our happiness with each other.

Our boy has brought a good gift into our home.  I’m grateful for him.

Family Future and Family History

This weekend I did something that I thought was going to be a charitable act but turned out to be amazing and wonderful and a little overwhelming.  It connected me to some people that have been lost to me for a while, and I am very glad to have them back.

One of the aspirations of the Pioneer Girls project is to connect children, especially girls, with their ancestors and heritage in a deep and meaningful way.  My Pioneer Pickle had a great experience learning about our own family history on a daytrip to the mountains.

In a beautiful little town a couple hours north of my home, my favorite Grampop’s brother lives in an assisted living facility.  Uncle Jack will turn 95 years old this summer, and he doesn’t get around so great anymore.  My Grampop, his younger brother and only sibling, passed away a few years ago.  Jack’s wife died a couple of years before that.  His daughter and main caregiver died rather unexpectedly a few months ago, leaving my mom and her brothers his closest living relatives.  His loving son-in-law is still managing his care from his own home out of state, but we are now geographically Jack’s closest family.

My mom had been feeling a pull to get up there to visit him for a few months, so when we found ourselves each with a free Saturday (when does that happen?), we decided to make the drive up and visit him.  We loaded up my kids in the minivan, turned on Lightning McQueen and headed up the road.

A few hours later we found ourselves walking into this facility, tracking down a man I hadn’t seen since my very early childhood.  Grampop and his brother had been estranged for nearly all of my life because of some misunderstandings and the famous Gephart Hard-Headedness.  They had reconciled about a year before my Grampop’s passing, and it was sweet.

We found Uncle Jack in his room, asleep in front of Lonesome Dove on his small personal TV.  My mom woke him up with a one-armed hug and “Uncle Jack! Do you know who I am?”  Luckily he is a light sleeper and a sharp man — he recognized her right away and welcomed her with a hug.  She turned his wheelchair around so he could see me, a great-niece he hadn’t seen since I was maybe eight, and meet my kids.  His face lit up at the sight of this small group of children.  You know those old people miss the excitement and happiness that follows preschoolers around.

My mom gave him some treats and my kids taped the pictures they had colored for him — bright, colorful rainbows for springtime — to his walls.  They sang “America the Beautiful” and “I Am a Child of God.”  As they sang other residents came out of their rooms and maneuvered their chairs down the hall so they could see the faces and hear the voices of the “little angels” (their words, not mine :)).  My mom snapped a picture with my phone because she loved the look on his face as my kids sang to him.

Uncle Jack is an old cowboy.  He was never a particularly tender man.  His language is rough, like the desert country he grew up in.  But his humor is still quick, and sharp, and he was so happy to see us.  I saw my Grampop in him, in his eyes and in his mannerisms.  It was good to see him again.

We took Uncle Jack outside for some fresh air.  He watched my kids turn cartwheels and flip somersaults in the grass.  Juice was excited to learn about the model train room Jack had in his cabin years ago, and that my mom has video of the setup he’ll be able to watch.  We took pictures.  The kids took turns giving him hugs and telling him things they want my Grampop, their “Cowboy Grandpa” to know.  They know this is Uncle Jack and not Cowboy Grandpa, but they also know that the two are brothers, so Jack will get the message to his brother, right?


We took him back inside and set him up with his lunch and said our goodbyes, promising to mail copies of the photos we took and to come back soon.

It’s hard to see people living in those sorts of facilities.  It’s hard for me to leave them there.  But I was so glad we went.  I felt like it was meaningful to him to connect with his family again, and it certainly was wonderful for me to get a glimpse of my Grampop through him.

I didn’t look at the photos my mom took until we got home that night.  I got the kids to the table with some dinner and then pulled my phone out to email the pictures to her.  As I did some quick edits on them, cropping and lightening, I swiped to this photo and had to stop.


It’s nothing fancy.  The lighting’s not great, and I’ve certainly looked better.  But as I looked at that picture I had the distinct feeling that my Grampop was happy, that we had done something good for his brother and he was happy about it.

I’m so glad we went.  I hope we brightened his day a little.  I hope my kids will remember the feeling of helping a good man feel loved and appreciated. I hope they will remember this trip and meeting their Uncle Jack, and that they’ll connect that memory to all the stories I tell them about their family and who and where I came from, and they’ll take that history with them as they create the future of our family.