Dad’s Gift

This morning I woke up with the bug…the Christmas bug.  Suddenly, I can’t wait to put up a tree and start gift shopping.  It’s time for carols and cookies and secrets in stockings. 

For me, Christmas is all about anticipation.  It is the season of planning and conniving.  It starts off small, like one little golden bell jingling in the distance and as the big day approaches, other bells join in, until it all reaches a crescendo of laughter, food and gift giving.

As a child, I would slowly turn the pages of the Sears catalogue, dreaming about what presents Santa might leave under the tree.  I imagined buying diamond earrings for my mother and a gold watch for my father.  I envisioned my sisters waking up to find their bedrooms had been redecorated in thick comforters with matching floral curtains.  I laboriously read the descriptions of Tonka trucks so I could choose the very best for my brothers, and I debated upon which teddy bear would be the softest for the babies. 

This was “pretend” shopping. The reality is that with a large family and limited income, my parents had to pinch pennies to give presents to their children.  However, that did not keep them from teaching us the joy of gift giving. 

The Christmas before my seventh birthday, I was given a dollar to spend at the five-and-dime.  I slowly walked through the aisles, carefully calculating how much money each gift cost, and subtracting it from my total purse.  A delicate handkerchief for my mother.  Cubes of guest soap for my sisters.  Plastic animals that squeaked when they were squeezed for the babies.  And two little bottles of “Kings Men” after shave for my father.  The bottles were milky glass with lids in the shape of knights’ armor.  I couldn’t loosen the caps to smell what was inside the bottles, but I felt sure that anything named “Kings Men” would be delightful.  Most certainly my father, who meticulously shaved every morning, would love it.

The little gifts were punctiliously selected and taken home to my room, where I spread them out on my bottom bunk.  I selected the wrapping paper to fit each gift’s owner- jolly elves for the boys, Poinsettia for the girls, and after using half a roll of tape and several yards of curling ribbon, took the masterpieces downstairs and laid them at the base of the tree.

On Christmas morning, I rose before dawn, crept down the stairs and gasped at the plethora of gifts that found their way to our living room.  Shiny red tricycles, baby dolls that drank and wet, and sleds had miraculously appeared in our living room.  For the next few hours, ribbons and bows flew as gifts were ripped open and voices exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted!” 

When we got to the last of the pile, I saw my father’s gift.  It seemed small and insignificant next to the wool sweater vest and set of screw drivers he had already opened.  I slowly brought the package to his easy chair and he looked at the tag.  “For me?  Is this from you, Boo?”

I nodded and watched while he struggled with the tape.  He opened the package and uncapped one of the bottles to take a whiff.  As he inhaled, his eyes grew huge and he gave a small cough.  “Did you pick this out all by yourself? “

I nodded again and he gathered me in his arms.  “Thanks Boo.”

He carefully arranged the bottles in their place of honor with his other gifts and winked at my mother.  I felt my heart would burst with pride.  His favorite gift.  From me!

For years the little white bottles of “Kings Men” sat in the medicine cabinet of our bathroom.  I occasionally wondered why Dad never ran out of it, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized what a rancid odor was contained under the caps of armor. 

I suppose you could argue that Dad missed an opportunity to be honest with me.  You could say that children should be given more guidance when shopping for gifts- that they should be taught to “find something nice.”

But here’s the thing- when my friends are grumbling about the chore of Christmas shopping, I can’t wait to pick out a special something for a special someone.  My parents taught me to do the best with what I have and trust that the recipients will accept all presents in the spirit in which they are given.  Consequently, gift giving is easy for me.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  Learning to give without fear was the gift my father gave to me that Christmas. And it remains in my heart to this day.

So now, when I hear the faint tinkle of Jingle Bells playing in my head, I am tempted to ditch work in favor of some Holiday shopping.  There are gifts to be picked out.  Smiles to be won.  Packages to be wrapped and ribbon to be curled.  It’s Christmas.  It’s time for giving. 

Thanks, Dad.

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The Gray of November

In New England, November is gray.  The lemon skies of last summer are now streaked with gray clouds that  threaten to wash rain and sleet over the granite curbs, across pavements and into the churning gray waters of the Amoskeag River.  The trees that a few short weeks ago were afire with crimson and gold now stand naked and trembling in the cold November wind.  Pastel blouses are packed away, replaced by wooly sweaters, and windows are latched to keep the frigid nights from creeping into my bedroom to steal the warm air from under my thick comforter.

You might  think that I would dread the eleventh month of the year, but I embrace November.  I love the chilly breezes that promise to coat the wooded area behind my house in sparkling blankets of white snow.  I love the scent of wood smoke that curls from rooftops and wafts across the crisp evening sky.  I love the snaking lines of squirming children, who impatiently wait to sit on Santa’s knee, and the decorated wreathes and trees that overnight appear in store windows.

November brings Thanksgiving- a time for all good families and friends to bond together over food and football.  When I was growing up, Thanksgiving meant waking to the spicy aroma of turkey that was already roasting in the oven.  We would drag out the cut glass and crystal dishes from the back of the china closet, and fill them with stuffed celery and black olives- delicacies that in our home were served only on holidays.  The windows in my mother’s kitchen would cloud with steam as we brought bowl after plate of turkey, stuffing, and vegetables to our crowded table.  And there would be pies- big sloppy pies, smelling of clove and cinnamon, overflowing with apple and pumpkin.  Before dinner, we would crowd together around our mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He had graced our family.

After my children were born, we often joined my mother, my sister Martha-Jean and her husband Robert for Thanksgiving dinner.  Their old farmhouse teemed with kids- cousins who banded together to play board games, trade baseball cards, and commiserate over teenage acne.  Tables would groan from the weight of plates filled with homemade bread, cheese, vegetables and dip.  The turkey sputtered from the bulging oven and pies lined the counter. Finally, at dinner time we would crowd together around mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He had graced our family.

Last Thanksgiving, my mother had just received a diagnosis of leukemia. She was already weakened, preferring the comfort of her bedroom to joining the family for dinner.  I ran back and forth from the kitchen to her room, bringing her snacks, filling her coffee cup, and sitting with her. Robert brought her a big box of chocolates and we indulged together, giggling like two naughty little girls who were sneaking treats.  I treasure that last holiday with her.  The memory is a gift I pull out of a soft velvet case every now and then.  I close my eyes and the world stops.  I hear my mother’s laughter, feel her soft cheek, smell her soft curls.  But mostly I see her kind gray eyes.

This year Thanksgiving is different.  Gabriel will spend it with friends in Florida.  Abby will split the holiday between our family and her future in-laws.  Elizabeth will be preparing for Black Friday sales.  And for the first time, my mother will not be here.

The cold gray November skies will remind me of her warm gray eyes- eyes that lovingly watched her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren gather around a Thanksgiving table.  I will lift a toast to her and then we will once again gather around mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He has graced our family.

One Good Thing

“Nobody gets to go through life unscathed.”

This is a declaration I frequently use, mostly because it is true.  We tend to look at other people and think they live idyllic lives, absent of turmoil and storms, but in truth, we all have times when our skies turn inky and the seas we navigate roil with turmoil.

My daughter Elizabeth has been experiencing one of those seasons, when finances forced her to abandon school and return to New Hampshire.  The move was heartbreaking. She had to leave everything she loved behind- her apartment, her friends, the kitten she rescued from a dumpster.  She sold some of her furniture, and gave away the rest.  Then she packed what was left in the back of her car, and quietly wept as the two of us drove from Florida to New England.

Despair is dark place with deep muddy waters that drag our feet and keep us from moving forward.  Like the hooves of Artax from “The Neverending Story” Elizabeth’s feet shuffled through our apartment as she aimlessly tried to unpack clothes and books.  Mostly, things just moved from one pile to another, and nothing was really put away.  She attempted to smile, but her swimming eyes betrayed her soul. The task of rebuilding her life was overwhelming, an insurmountable precipice looming before her.  “Cheer up!” didn’t seem appropriate, but I wanted to help her to remember that all difficult assignments are accomplished one step at a time.

I looked at the white board hanging on the refrigerator.  We use it to leave messages for each other- “Doctor Appointment- Tues. at 10:30,” or “Remember Library Books,” or “Gabe called- call him back after 9.”  I wiped it clean and wrote at the top, “One Good Thing.”

“Okay, you guys,” I announced to Abby and Elizabeth, “Every day we are going to find one good thing to write on this white board.”

 I detected a slight eye roll from my daughters, but the humored me.  I found a black marker and carefully wrote, “Elizabeth is home.”

Abby followed with “I bought my wedding dress.”

Elizabeth obediently picked up the marker, and after a moment of thought, wrote, “I found my cup.”

I looked on the kitchen shelf where we store our mismatched cups.  We all have our favorites for morning coffee, and among the familiar mugs was a new one- a white ceramic mug monogrammed with a big black E.

“Small steps,” I reminded myself, and grinned at her.  She smiled back, and she looked a little less bewildered.  I looked at the mug, nestled between Abby’s and mine in its new home. 

In the days that followed, we continued to write on the white board.  Elizabeth unpacked and arranged her belongings on her dresser.  She set up her keyboard so she could work on her music, and a few days later, she interviewed and landed a job.

Now, almost two months later, the white board again is used for quick messages.  Elizabeth still misses her friends and her cat, but her list of good things is becoming longer than that of her losses.  She has become proficient at her job, is making new friends, and has taught herself to long board in the driveway outside our apartment.  She has slogged out of the valley of apathy and she is once again starting to resemble the Elizabeth of her childhood on the move, full of courage and determination.  It started with a simple step.  A simple declaration.  It started with one good thing.

Family Jewels

A couple of months ago, my daughter Abby went away on vacation and asked me to do a guest post for her blog, Transition is My Middle Name.  Abby often blogs about food and fashion. She has a masterful way of sniffing out a new trend before it is mass marketed, posts beautiful images, and includes short, cheerful texts.

I was very enthusiastic about helping her out, but a little apprehensive. I have no expertise about food or fashion.  Mostly I write about family. Here is what I could offer:

My daughters have their own unique styles, and are often called upon by friends and family for their expertise on clothes, shoes and makeup.  Shopping with them is like playing an adult game of paper dolls.  I see an interesting outfit on the hanger and tell them to try it on so I can see what it looks like. They are usually more than happy to comply, putting together unusual combinations of textile and color, and modeling the outfits while I sit in a comfortable dressing room chair.

Unlike my daughters, I am no fashionista. I can muddle my way through deciding which sweater goes with what skirt, but I get lost with accessories.

I know that Coco Chanel said,“When accessorizing, always take off the last thing you put on,” but in my case that would mean that most days I would walk out the door in my underwear. However, I do have a few favorite accessories. One of these is a necklace that my son Gabriel made out of sea shells.  He drilled the shells by himself and tied them to a length of bright orange gimp. 

He gave it to me for Mother’s Day when he was seven and begged me to wear it to work the next morning. I did. All day.  And although it raised a few eyebrows, and prompted much behind-my-back snickering, it was worth it to see his little face light up when I told him that everyone noticed and remarked upon his beautiful gift.

What I suspected then and know now is that the worth of most people’s jewelry is measured in carats, but they cannot come close to the sparkle in my children’s eyes.

Eat your heart out Coco.

Saying Yes to the Dress- A Mother’s Perspective on Wedding Gowns

I have an old video of my daughter Abby dancing in our living room.  She was in kindergarten at the time, and her one dream was to be a ballerina.  We were unable to afford dance lessons, but I was able to save enough money to buy her a pair of delicate pink ballet slippers, and one afternoon while Gabriel and Elizabeth napped, she donned a pink circle skirt and her ballet slippers and performed a solo dance performance in front of a borrowed video recorder.

I taped in silent wonder as she twirled and leapt, limited only by her own imagination.  Her waist-length hair lilted behind her like a blond chiffon scarf and she grinned in unbridled delight.  It was a song of life, choreographed for one- a magical moment that I will cherish long after the video crumbles from old age.

I thought of that day last week while she tried on wedding gowns.  The two of us went to a bridal salon with plush carpets and thick drapery, excited for a day of trying frothy white dresses for her upcoming nuptials.  This was new ground for us. When I married thirty-three years ago, I was a VISTA in Idaho.  We phoned my measurements to my mother who was in Massachusetts, and she bought fabric and a pattern, and sewed my gown while I was away.  I returned home four days before my wedding and she did the final fitting and finished the dress the day before the ceremony.  I fashioned my own veil and splurged on a pair of white shoes that still rest with the gown in the bottom of my cedar trunk.

Although I sew, I have neither the talent or inclination to attempt a wedding gown, so on a Saturday morning, we found ourselves in a small private room while a beaming young sales associate brought gown after gown for Abby to try.  I had expected there to be several that we didn’t like, but each garment looked amazing on her.  There was one in particular that stood out from the rest, and the sales woman suggested that she wear it to a larger room in the salon where large mirrors reflect the future bride from every angle.

Abby made her way to the three-way mirror and stepped up on the pedestal.  Her long hair was held back by a jeweled headband and after I straightened the gown’s train, I stepped back to survey my daughter.  There she was, tall and slender, elegant in ivory lace.  She turned to me, clapped her hands, and joyfully exclaimed, “I’m getting married!”

She had the same expression as that little girl who danced for me.  Her huge green eyes were full of excitement and anticipation.  Her smile was brilliant, and her cheeks were flushed the same delicate pink as her ballet slippers.  She was beautiful then.  She is more beautiful now.

And I did what every good mother does.  I cried.  Then I wiped my tears and laughed.

In the end, she didn’t end up buying that particular dress.  She found another that made her feel even more like the exquisite young bride she will be on Christmas Eve.  But she would look stunning in a paper bag, and although I know that television and bridal magazines would tell us that it is all about the dress, I know it is not.  It is about the heart.  It is about two hearts- Abby’s and Johnny’s, who will face life with free, unbridled delight, full of excitement and anticipation.  I will watch in silent wonder as they twirl and leap, limited only by their imaginations, as they interpret a new song.  It is the song of life, choreographed for two.

The Wedding Dance

I realize that just a couple of posts ago, I blogged about my inability to dance.  https://gstoutimore.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/when-momma-g-got-her-groove-on/ But yesterday, my nephew Ben got married, and as everyone knows, if you love someone, you have to dance at his wedding.

When Ben was growing up, he lived in Michigan, so I saw him rarely.  I knew little about him except that he was a cute little boy who once threatened his younger cousin (my son) with his nunchucks in my mother’s backyard.

Several years later, Ben moved to New England, a handsome and soft-spoken young man with sparkling sapphire eyes, a quick smile and not a menacing bone in his body.  He forged a life for himself in New Hampshire, and a few years later, began bringing a beautiful special friend- Heather- to family parties.  And yesterday, despite an oncoming hurricane, Heather and Ben stood at the edge of the sea and exchanged marriage vows.

As soon as the ceremony ended, the rain began and a short while later, we found ourselves sitting at round tables under a large tent.  Despite drips and drops from the sky, the atmosphere was festive.  The tables were covered with bright yellow and blue, the sunflower centerpieces a jubilant fanfare of summer’s end.   Heather and Ben danced as husband and wife, joined by their parents and the wedding party.  More people joined in and I watched from my seat, as I usually do when there is dancing.  Despite my years of swaying and swinging with my babies, I am still awkward and unsure when it comes to moving to music.  Besides, in a world comprised of duos, I am painfully aware that I am no longer part of a pair.

The song ended and the dance floor cleared, but the DJ played on.  I chatted with my brother and then hearing applause, turned to see my nephew Joshua alone on the dance floor.

Joshua has Down Syndrome.   He is short and stout with big brown eyes that squint to see through thick glasses.  He is guiless and sweet spirited, and because he likes everyone, thinks everyone will like him.  Unabashed, Joshua launched into a freestyle interpretation of the music, moving to the beat, empowered by the cheers and clapping that ensued from the on looking crowd.

Within a moment, Heather joined Josh, and soon after, Ben.  Before the song was through, the dance floor was packed.  I watched my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews bobbing in cadence and wished I was free like Joshua.

The song ended, and immediately another one began.  My brother Kevin grabbed my hand and pulled me to the dance floor.  Reluctant at first, I hesitated.  And then I realized that I could sit on the sidelines and watch other people revel, or I could take a chance. Take a chance like Heather and Ben who have no guarantees that they will be able to withstand the hurricanes that will surely come into their lives.  Take a chance like Joshua, whose desire to celebrate life outweighs his disabilities.

So I danced. Badly.  But I danced.  And it was fun- more than fun.  It was elating.  Because life is about taking chances.  Taking chances on young love, taking chances on acceptance and taking chances at looking foolish.

So congratulations, Ben and Heather.  Thank you for allowing me to dance at your wedding.  I love you.

When Momma G Got Her Groove On

‘Cause when she sings I hear a symphony
And I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me
I’m renewed, oh how I feel like
Though autumn’s advancing, we’ll stay young, go dancing

~ from the song “Stay Young Go Dancing” by Death Cab for Cutie

Last night I watched “So You Think You Can Dance” on television and marveled at the way the young contestants moved their bodies in graceful expression to the strains of popular music.  I could not help but think about my own career as a dancer.

My mind wandered way back to a Halloween evening when I was around seven years old.  My gypsy costume was ready, complete with dangling gold hoops my mother screwed to my ear lobes.  She tied a silk scarf from her top drawer around my head and lined my eyes with a dark Mabelline eyebrow pencil.  As she and my father gathered our brood together to go trick-or-treating on Green Street, my mother asked me to run upstairs and get something she left in one of the bedrooms.  I bounded up the stairs excited beyond containment.  As I stood on the linoleumed bedroom floor, my enthusiasm reached a crescendo, and I spontaneously broke into what I believed to be a magnificent tap dance. 

“Stop that racket and get down here!” my mother yelled.

And at that one short sentence, my career as a dancer was forever ended.

My father loved to dance.  He would put jazz records on the hi-fi and dance first with my mother and then my older sister, Martha-Jean.  I watched them cover the living room floor with intricate steps and turns, patiently awaiting my turn.  Taking me in his arms, Dad would try a few steps.  But I, so eager to please, would jump ahead, or turn in the opposite direction as he. 

“Relax!” he commanded.  “Feel the music!”

It is hard to relax when you are trying too hard.  I disentwined my arms from his and sat down, cheeks burning, while he gathered up Martha-Jean again, and Two-Stepped in the other direction.

Later, when I was in eighth grade, my parents sent me to dance school where every Saturday evening pimply faced boys and girls dressed up and practiced the Waltz and Fox Trot while secretly wishing they were home watching “Man From U.N.C.L.E” on television.  I tried learning the steps, but hated the humiliation of waiting to be chosen as a partner by some sweaty handed teenage boy I didn’t know.  One Saturday, after stumbling through three minutes of Winchester Cathedral with a skinny boy who had Brylcreem dripping down his forehead, I decided that I was done with ballroom dancing. 

Fortunately for me, ballroom dancing was replaced by rock concerts and choreographed dance steps gave way to free-form bobbing in time to the beat of the drums.  I managed to figure out a way to move my body in a way that allowed me to blend in with the scenery, and when I met and married the man of my dreams, I was not unhappy to find that he was content to play in the band instead of dancing to the music.

But then there were children, and I quickly learned that if there is a baby, there is movement.  Babies loved to be rocked and jiggled, and shortly after giving birth to my first sweet child, I realized that dance had to be a part of my life.  So in the living room of our house, with nobody but a pink little newborn, I learned to dance.

Here’s the thing about babies. They think everything you do is great.  All three of my babies loved nothing more than to be scooped in my arms and waltzed around the living room. They chuckled to a Cha-cha-cha.  They were tickled with a Tango. They marveled at a Merengue.  For the next several years, whenever there was music on the stereo, they begged me to boogie.

The kids are all grown now, and the only dancing in my living room takes place on the television screen.  But early in the morning, I listen to my IPod while I put on my makeup, and every once in a while I catch myself swaying across my bedroom floor in silent familiar steps.  Watch out Fred and Ginger- Momma G’s got her groove on.

Beach Rules

It is the end of July and I’ve already spent several weekends languishing in a beach chair on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  For my family, going to the beach is a summer staple, like slamming the screen door and sipping icy lemonade from a sweating glass. 

My earliest memories are of staying at grandparents’ little red cottage on Cable Road in Rye, New Hampshire.  I can still close my eyes and smell the scent of Sea and Ski and salt water that lingered inside its walls.  I remember how the sun reflected off the cut glass in the bay window and how my mother would douse us with Off! before allowing us to venture out to pick blueberries in the nearby woods.  Subsequent summers were spent in a little shanty behind Carberry’s house and then a larger house to accommodate our growing family of growing teenagers.  Each cottage holds its own memories of late night card games, smoothing Noxema on sunburns, and surviving the birth and death of summer romances.  I hold those memories close to my heart, occasionally taking them out for a brief dusting.  I smile at them and put them back where they dwell, not lingering too long, lest I stay locked in the past and forgetting the present. 

I loved the cottages, but it is the beach itself that beckons me.  Although the landscape and the people have changed, the sea still sparkles in the sun as it curls and froths against the glittering gray sands.  Every time I first glimpse the water, my heart leaps as if I have never before seen its splendor.  Every time I find an empty patch of sand and settle in my canvas chair, I feel muscles relax that I hadn’t realized were tense.  Every time I charge into a crashing wave that is so cold that it sucks away my breath, I emerge euphoric, revitalized, and feeling ten years younger.

No doubt, the beach is my happy place.  All are welcome to join me.  But there are rules, so just in case you decide to pack your cooler and join me for a lazy afternoon, I thought we should review.

 Rules for the Beach

  1. Everyone on the beach becomes seventeen again.
  2. Even though everyone is seventeen, participants’ bodies may not look like they did when they actually were seventeen.  Therefore, no participant may look at, mention or think about body size, body shape, or body type.  There is no noticing of varicose veins, cellulose, bulging, graying or hanging.
  3. Preferred activities  are (in no particular order) body surfing, eating, laughing, playing bocce and wistful day dreaming,
  4. Participants who do not wish to participate in swimming activities will not be teased, cajoled or embarrassed. *Please note, this rule does not apply to members of the original eight (circa 1951-1963) Madison beach clan.
  5. All participants must bring “Second Breakfast” and a thermos of coffee to share.
  6. There are no calories on the beach.
  7. All meals served on the beach must contain at least one of the following: something savory, something sweet, something crunchy and something refreshing.
  8. Blankets and swim suits will get sandy.  It is a fact of life. Get over it.
  9. All participants will leave happier and more relaxed than when they arrived.
  10. Only cares, worries and concerns may be left on the beach. The tide washes them away, so there is no use returning  for them.

Baby You Can Drive My Car

I have a thing about safety.  I made my kids wear bike helmets. I never start the car without making sure everyone is belted.  I check the smoke detectors twice a year.  I even lightly run my hand along the banister when I descend the stairs.  But I was not always this way.

When I was sixteen, I got my driver’s license.  This is a rite of passage that most of us make, and I anticipated it with great excitement.  Most teenagers learn to drive on the family car, and my mother’s car was a Saab with five speeds on the steering column.  My dad, a traveling salesman, had driven it for thousands of miles.  When he replaced the motor, he gave it to my mother. The little red Saab was old and creaky, but ran well enough to transport her to nearby Palmer, where she taught school.  As soon as I earned my learner’s permit, my mother gave me permission to practice pulling the car forward and back in the drive way.  She showed me how to put the car in gear, ease off the clutch and ease on the gas until the car inched forward, braking when I got to the end of the drive.  She showed me how to find reverse and do the same thing until I reached the intersection of the drive way and Green Street.  After watching me a few times, she assumed I had mastered the process, and went to her room to take a nap.

I drove back and forth several times, feeling cockier with every pass.  I turned on the radio, so I could drive to music.  I rolled down the windows so the neighbors would be sure to see that I was driving.  I pulled up and backed out several times, not realizing that with each pass, I inched closer to the stockade fence that separated our driveway from our next-door neighbor’s.  Sure enough, on a backward run, I heard a loud splintering crunch.  I slammed on the brake and got out to survey the damage, where I found the front bumper to be firmly snarled around the fence.  I ran to my mother’s room, waking her with my sobs, and explained what I had done. She, relieved that I had not run over one of my younger siblings, laughed and after a few attempts, disengaged the car from the fence.

Despite my encounter with the fence, I was undeterred, and a few days later, I suggested to my mother that we try driving through the neighborhood.  I was ecstatic, but quickly found that driving a stick while navigating the hilly roads of Monson was much more difficult.  I stalled and stuttered around the corner from Green Street to Bridge Street.  Mom made it a short trip and soon after, enrolled me in Belmont Driving School where I learned to drive on the flat, quiet side streets of Palmer, in a car with an automatic transmission.

I passed my driver’s test on the first attempt and joyfully returned home to announce my victory.  My parents, who surely graduated from the “Figure-it-Out-For-Yourself Academy of Parenting,” handed me the keys to the Saab and told me to teach myself how to drive it.

To understand exactly what this learning curve was like, you must first realize that in a family of eight children, very little was done alone.  All six of my younger siblings piled into the car and together we set off to master the belching red beast.  The beginning of the trip was fairly easy.  After the first few shudder and stalls, I figured out that revving the engine to the auricular equivalent of a jet engine allowed me to get the car in gear and begin moving without stalling.  The peanut gallery of the back seat jeered when I stalled and cheered when we moved, finally settling in for a ride about town by the time I hit third gear.

Together we sailed over the country roads of Monson- over Bridge Street, past the funeral home to Lower Hampden Road, past Highland Ave, and over the “thank-you-ma’ams.”  Finally, I decided we should return home.  Ricky was hungry.  Missy had to go to the bathroom.  I turned into Ely Road to turn around, which at the time, seemed like a good idea.  However, once I turned the car around, I realized that I needed to stop at the end of a rise to turn back onto Lower Hampden Road.  This meant I had to stop on a hill- a skill I had not yet mastered.  I climbed the hill, stopped the car and looked for oncoming traffic.  Seeing that it was safe, I slipped my foot from the brake to the gas, and at the same time let out the clutch.  The car stalled. The peanut gallery jeered.  I let the car roll back to the bottom of the hill so I could restart and cautiously crept to the crest of the rise.  Again when I reached the intersection I stalled the car.  I rolled back to the base of the hill and tried again, with the same result.

“I have to pee!”  Missy whined.

Ricky leaned into the front seat, “Come on!  Let’s go…I’m hungry!”

I could feel a trickle of sweat running down my back. I wished I could leave the car and walk home.  I wish I had never gone for this stupid drive.  I wished I were an only child.

I wanted to cry, but a long time ago I had learned that one has to take destiny into one’s own hands.  Ordering the peanut gallery to watch from each window for oncoming traffic, I revved the engine once more.
“Yell if you see a car coming!” I warned, and gunned the engine. I popped the clutch and roared to the top of the hill, where I made a right hand turn onto Lower Hampden Road without even slowing down.  The kids cheered and clapped.  I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed to a more cautious pace.

“Don’t tell Mom, or I’m never taking you anywhere ever again.”

They didn’t tell, and I spent the next several years playing indebted chauffeur.

It was, to be sure, a dangerous move.   My license should have been taken away.  But it was a time when cars didn’t have seatbelts, cyclists didn’t wear helmets, and parents didn’t ask where we were going.  They just told us to be back by supper.  Besides, I came from the school of “Figure-It-Out-For-Yourself” and I did.

From there, my driving did nothing but improve, and with the exception of small incident involving a State owned care while working as a VISTA in Idaho, I have a totally uneventful driving record.  But that’s another story for another post.

I Pick Erik

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”

 ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew Erik graduated from high school.  In itself, this is not particularly remarkable, since we have a very large family and every year or two there is somebody graduating from someplace.  Indeed, I have two beautiful nieces, Emily and Ashley, who graduated this spring as well.  But Erik’s graduation is special, because Erik has Asperger’s Syndrome.

When Erik was first diagnosed, I had never heard of Asperger’s.  I was to find out it is a mild form of autism, characterized by complex challenges in learning and an inability to pick up on social cues .  I knew that Erik did not act exactly like most other kids his age. His learning seemed splintered- he excelled at some things, but others were very difficult for him to learn.  His speech and language were delayed.  School was a struggle because he was unable to memorize.  It took him years to learn to pedal a tricycle and he didn’t read until he was in third grade.

To me, he seemed like a serious little boy whose slightly robotic way of speaking gave the sense that he was totally unconnected to what was going on around him.

I was wrong.  Erik was connected. He just connected differently from most of his peers.  Year after year, he fought to keep up.  He was socially awkward, especially during middle school where the kids called him names like “spec” and “retard.”  He would get so upset he was physically ill.  Unlike children who may not realize they are different, Erik knew.  He knew he was not as fast, or as agile, or as sociable as his siblings.

Born into a family of athletes, Erik found team sports difficult, because the action transitioned more quickly than he was able to process.  Basketball and soccer were too fast.   He tried karate, but memorizing the sequences of the katas was difficult.   Again and again he tried, and while he struggled, his siblings excelled.  It was frustrating.  It was disappointing.   But like all of us, Erik had a choice.  He knew he could dwell in the trenches of self-pity, or he could recognize things for what they were and make the best of them.  Erik chose the latter.  When his siblings excelled, he reveled in their success. Over and over, I saw Erik stand in the shadows of his siblings’ victories, and over and over heard the pride in his voice as he told me how fast his brother ran, or how many points his sister scored.

Last summer, we sat together at the beach, and I asked him what he wanted to do after high school. He looked down and kicked at the sand.  “I want to go into the Service,” he said slowly, “but I can’t because of the Asperger’s.”   His voice betrayed his disappointment, and it broke my heart.  I worried about his future.  But I should have known better.  Erik does not give up.  He found that he could excel as a swimmer.  He plowed through his high school courses and finally, he donned a red cap and gown and graduated with his class.

At the beach last Sunday, I looked at my nephew sitting across the blanket from me.  He is tall and slim and handsome, with muscular shoulders like his dad.  He grinned when I offered my congratulations, but did not stop to bask in the accolades.  In true Erik style, he quickly took off to test the water with his younger brother and sister.

As I watched his silhouette against the horizon, it occurred to me that sometimes life is a team sport. We choose sides carefully, selecting those individuals who are the strongest and fastest and smartest to join our team.  And often, we pass over people like Erik -those who take the spotlight off themselves and shine it on somebody else.  Those who celebrate the victories of the team instead of the victory of the star. Those who walk instead of run, but keep walking.

I pick Erik.

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