Missed Opportunity

“My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and there were bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away

And he was talking ‘fore I knew it and as he grew
He’d say, “I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know, I’m gonna be like you”

This past weekend, I accompanied my daughter on a shopping trip.  I usually avoid malls, but Elizabeth wanted to check out a specific store only found in a nearby mall, and happy to spend the day together, I agreed to brave the crowds.

We parked the car and headed through the door, dodging a couple who were texting rather than watching where they were walking.  We passed a cosmetic stand where a sales associate awkwardly tried to sweep the latest blush over the cheek of the client seated before her. The customer was loudly talking on her cell phone, completely unaware of how difficult she was making the task for the associate.  As we crossed the mall floor, I almost rear-ended the young man in front of me who had suddenly slowed his pace so he could redial.

Finally, we reached the store Elizabeth wanted to visit.  I browsed through the dresses with her, and when she went into the dressing room to try a few on, I plopped myself on one of two red wooden chairs to rest my aching back.

eliz tat 5.24.16It was not long before Elizabeth summoned me to her door to give my opinion on the dress she was trying.  As usual, she looked beautiful; tall and willowy, with huge gray eyes fringed with thick lashes.  The dress, silky and black, set off the tattoos I have come to embrace.  She is exquisite.  And unique.

I smiled.  “Lovely.  You look beautiful.  Do you like it?”

She nodded, relieved that I approved.

“Try the others, just for fun,” I urged.  A shopping trip is not worth the time and effort if you leave after only trying one item.

I turned to sit down again, when a family of four entered the dressing area.  Mom and the little girl closed themselves in a dressing room.  The little girl appeared to be about seven years old. She skipped as she hugged a green and white dress and excitedly shut the door behind her.  Dad and his son sat in the two chairs and each pulled a cell phone from his pocket.

“Rats! I should have taken my seat sooner. I missed my opportunity,” I thought.

The son looked to be in middle school.  He was handsome and well-dressed, and sported an ace bandage on his left wrist and arm, like the kind that results from a skateboard injury.  I thought of my own son, Gabriel at that age.  All arms and legs, he had reminded me of a colt waiting to burst into a full gallop.  He was in awe of the world, filled with questions and opinions.  He was always in motion; drumming to a song heard only in his head, tapping a toe, jiggling a heel, reaching to see if he could touch the ceiling.  Every moment with that child was an adventure, and although I adore the man he is now, I miss the boy he was.

The father and son never said a word to each other, each engrossed in his cell phone.  Soon the little girl emerged from her dressing room.  She twirled in the green and white dress as her mother said, “Show Daddy.”

She twirled again, obviously pleased with herself.  Dad glanced up from his cell phone and shrugged his shoulders.

“What do you think?” asked Mom.

Dad looked up and shrugged again.

“Raise your arms,” Mom instructed, and the little girl reached toward the ceiling, presumably to see how short the dress would rise.

Dad shrugged again, and went back to his cell phone.

“Okay,” said Mom, and the two went back into the dressing room.

At that moment, Elizabeth emerged, happy with her selection and we headed for the checkout area.  I was happy that she found a dress but I couldn’t forget with the missed opportunities I had just witnessed and they had nothing to do with a red chair or a sore back.

I’m sure those parents love their children.  Most do.  And the children are probably well cared for.  They looked healthy, well fed and clean.  They obviously have stuff.  New clothes.  Cell phones.

But they could have so much more.  It was the perfect time for Dad and son to bond over the boy’s injury or bemoan the trials of waiting outside the dressing room.  Or talk about how they would spend the rest of the day.  Or discuss a book, or a T.V. program, or how the Red Sox are having an abysmal season.

If only Dad had put down his cell phone, he would have seen that his little girl was searching for his opinion- his validation.  All children look to their parents for approval, and it’s so easy to satisfy this need.  All he had to do was tell her how pretty she looked in that dress, or that it didn’t do justice to her freckles and ponytail, or that the dress looked pretty because she was wearing it.  Just a few words.  A few crucial words.

john and judah 11.15.15I love technology and social media.  I check my Facebook wall several times a day, read my WordPress stats as soon as I post and take my cell phone with me whenever I leave the house.  But sometimes I feel as if our love for technology does more to isolate us than to bring us together.  Time with our loved ones is something we take so much for granted.  Every minute we have with each other is a chance to share a slice in time.  A chance to share opinions.  A chance to listen.  To watch.  To affirm.  To cherish.  Let’s not miss our opportunity.

“Well, I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away
Called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time”

“You see, my new job’s a hassle and the kid’s got the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”

And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me”

~Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle”

Footprints

christmas_tree_decorations_200943It is December and Christmas magic is rolling in like fog across the ocean.  Secrets are whispered behind loved ones’ backs, bells and ribbons are pulled from the attic, and the aroma of pine and cinnamon send shivers down the spine.  The brown soil that November left behind is covered with fresh snow.  It is a time of peace, good tidings and joy.  Everyone is happy.  

Almost.

I came across my nephew’s post on Facebook tonight;

“The world has grown cold now that you’ve gone away, Constance Madison.”

It was followed by comments from my niece, my sister, and my daughter.  They shared the same sentiments.  As I read, the lump that I keep stuffed deep in my throat reminded me that it still lives.  My eyes threatened to spill the hot tears that I blink back whenever my heart longs for my mother, and I thought, “It has been almost four years.”  

It has only been four years.

Almost immediately, I thought of a Christmas carol I learned long ago.

When I was a child, my mother had a beautiful book of Christmas sheet music.  Each carol was meticulously illustrated with angelic children with blushing cheeks and curls gilded with glittering gold.  The pages were as much a delight to peruse as the strains of the noels it contained.

It was from this book that I learned all the traditional carols, from “Silent Night” to “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.”  My mother pounded the keys of our old upright piano, while we children clustered around her, eagerly chorusing for yet another favorite.   Some of the keys stuck. Some didn’t play at all, but to us it was music of the gods.

One of Mom’s favorite carols was “Good King Wenceslas.”  It’s not one of the more commonly sung carols, and I’ve never understood why, but I know why Mom loved it so.  

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither. “
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

I remember my mother wearing the same old coat every winter.  She lived in a house with threadbare rugs and holes in the plaster walls.  But she never hesitated to give a portion of what she had to someone who was in need.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

I remember putting my small feet into my mother’s slippers when I was a child.  They were big and flopped from my feet.

“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

“In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.

The slippers still held the heat from my mother, and warmed my icy toes.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

I think it is time to walk where my mother stepped.  To take up where she left off- to christmasmirror her love, and kindness. To give a little more and hold on to a little less. 

I close my eyes, and remember her smile, and the world is a bit warmer once again.

The Great Mandella

Peter Paul and Mary 01In late August of 1969, I went to see Peter, Paul and Mary at an outdoor concert in Washington D.C.   It was at the height of the Viet Nam War and outside of the concert area, people handed out fliers that protested the imprisonment of Father Daniel Berrigan, and linked him with the song “The Great Mandella.”

It was an amazing concert. Peter, Paul and Mary were masterful in their ability to lift a crowd to a new social consciousness in a way that was positive, uplifting and inspiring. I clapped to “If I Had a Hammer” and sang along to “Day is Done.”   And when they sang “The Great Mandella” I could not hold back tears.

So I told him that he’d better shut his mouth and do his job like a man.

And he answered, “Listen, father, I will never kill another.”

He thinks he’s better than his brother that died. What the hell does he think he’s doing

To his father who brought him up right? 

 

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through this brief moment of time.

Win or lose now, you must choose now.

And if you lose you’re only losing your life.

 

Tell the jailor not to bother with his meal of bread and water today.

He is fasting till the killing’s over.

He’s a martyr.  He thinks he’s a prophet.  But he’s a coward.  He’s just playing a game.

He can’t do it- he can’t change it.  It’s been going on for ten thousand years.

 

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through this brief moment of time.

Win or lose now, you must choose now.

And if you lose you’re only losing your life.

 

Tell the people they are safe now.  Hunger stopped him.  He lies still in his cell.

Death has gagged his accusations.

We are free now.

We can kill now.

We can hate now.

Now we can end the world.

We’re not guilty.

He was crazy.

And it’s been going on for ten thousand years.

 

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through your brief moment of time.

Win or lose now, you must choose now.

And if you lose you’ve only wasted your life.

~Peter Yarrow

 

The lyrics and melody haunted me, disturbing my soul. It was clearly an anti-war anthem that spoke to my heart and helped determine my life path and personal convictions. And that is all I thought the song would teach me. That is, until this morning.

As I often do, today I listened to my Ipod while putting on my makeup.  The playlist included “The Great Mandella,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpIh68Kh_-sand as I listened, I thought of my daughter Elizabeth’s tattoo.

I like tattoos. On other people’s children.

It’s the mother in me who gave birth to beautiful babies with smooth, perfectly unmarred skin who objects to permanent markings. I cried when Abby pierced her ears, and choked when she pierced her belly button. And when Elizabeth show me her first tattoo, I thought she was joking with me and had applied a decal to her wrist.

Then, a few years later Elizabeth came home and showed me a new tattoo on her hand. I gasped. On anyone else it would be beautiful- a mandella- as beautifully intricate as black lace. mandella image

But it wasn’t on anyone else. It was on my daughter. My beautiful daughter who has huge eyes like bottomless pools of water.  My beautiful daughter who fills the room with her laughter when her brother teases her.  My beautiful daughter who used to clasp her little hand over mine on the gear shift while I drove her to kindergarten.  A hand that was smooth and clear and milky in color. I could barely answer her when she asked how I liked it.

“It’s…um…quite the work of art.”

Her face fell, and I knew I had answered poorly.  “No-really.  It is beautiful.  It’s just… so… permanent.

She shook her head and walked away, and my heart sank a little.

Over time, I stopped catching my breath every time I see her hand, and have even enjoyed watching her converse with a stranger who admires it.  But this morning I had a completely different thought.

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through your brief moment of time.

Like the young man in the song, Elizabeth is declaring who she is. And although her tattoo is not protesting a war, it is a statement- her way of marking her life in the continuum of time.  She is not a pink baby with skin as soft as down. She is not my little girl with skinny legs and braids that fly out from under her bike helmet.  She is an adult.  A grown woman.  An individual soul who must be who God made her to be.

It is not up to me to decide.  Or judge.  Or opine.  She is who she is supposed to be.

elizI suppose Peter Yarrow might have been only protesting the Viet Nam War when he wrote “The Great Mandella.”  Or maybe, he knew something that has taken me forty-five years to understand.  Generations will have their differences.   We sing different songs, speak different languages, dance to different drumbeats.  But our children are not our children, and we must… we have to… allow them act according to their souls’ direction.

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through your brief moment of time…

Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Puccini Early in the Morning

mimiWhen I was growing up, my mother often listened to opera music on the record player.  She had loved the opera since she was a girl, and often took the train into Boston to see a matinée performance. My siblings and I heard stories of how she always missed the final act of La boheme, never seeing Mimi fall into her final repose, because she had to catch the final train back to Andover.  She explained the story lines, encouraging us to read the librettos that were neatly folded in the record jackets.  I would scan the page, listen for a few polite minutes, and run off to play hop scotch or kick ball.

My father disliked opera music, and openly complained if my mother played it, but when he was not home, my mother had free reign over the hi fi.  On days when she planned to sew, she carefully removed a vinyl disc from its cover, blew off any dust, and gingerly placed the needle at the beginning.  Soon, echoes of Carmen, Rigoletto and La Traviata would fill the house.   We children often made fun of it, mimicking the mezzo-soprano arias, but my mother blissfully hummed along, pins in her mouth, sewing machine at full tilt.

As I matured, so did my taste for music.  One Sunday evening, Aida was on PBS and having never seen an entire opera, I sat down to watch – just for a few moments.  By the end, two hours later, I was sobbing.  However, my family did not enjoy opera so for the next ten or fifteen years, I never listened to it, save part of an aria bastardized for a television commercial.

Over the years, Mom replaced her scratchy records with DVDs and even put some of her favorite performances on her Ipod.  When she died, I inherited much of her collection, and about a year ago, I began listening to the opera music she loved so much.  I find it enchanting.  Enrapturing.  I forget what I’m doing and find myself in the midst of the scene, surrounded by the players

This morning as I readied for work, I listened to Maria Callas sing “Un bel di” from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.  The aria is sung by Butterfly – a young Japanese woman who had married an American at fifteen years old.  She married out of love and reverence. He, out of convenience.  As she awaits his return after a three-year absence, she sings, not knowing that he brings his American wife with him, intending to divorce the naïve Japanese teenager.

…He will call, he will callbutterfly
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.
All this will happen,
I promise you this
Hold back your fears –
I with secure faith wait for him.

It is a heartbreaking piece of music- filled with emotion that wrenches the hardest heart, pulling tears from the driest eyes.

And therein lies the rub.  For a few short rapt moments, I was sitting by Butterfly and she poured out her heart, forgetting that I had just finished applying my morning makeup.  I remembered my first love, the excitement and intensity of it all, and the crushing blow at the realization that it was not to be. My heart swelled with the music, and spilled over, leaving streams of black mascara in its wake.  I had to wipe it off and start all over. Mom would have been proud.

Okay, I admit I am a bit overly emotional.  But here’s the thing.  Opera speaks to the soul as much as it does the eyes and ears.  If you’ve not ever sampled it, try a small sip- just a small bit.  It may be like a fine wine, where you have to acquire a taste for it, rather than say, a margarita that you have to keep yourself from chugging.  But it is truly worth sampling, again and again.

So try it. Just not in the morning when you are putting on your makeup.

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