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”

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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…

Try a Little Tenderness

It’s not just sentimental

She has her grief and care

But the soft words, they are spoken so gentle

It makes it easier to bear…

~”Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding

bracesWhen I was a little girl, I went to school in an old building with polished hardwood floors and desks that bolted to the floor.  There was a child in the class who had contracted Polio as a baby. One of her legs, weakened and deformed by the disease, was in a heavy metal brace.  One day, as she rushed to get to her seat, she slipped on the waxed floor and fell hard, bumping her head on the metal desk leg.  As she lay crying, the teacher said something I will never forget.

“That’s what you get for running.”

I was six years old and it was the first time I remember hearing an adult say something pointedly unkind.  It puzzled and upset me, and to this day, when I remember the incident, something in my stomach turns and I feel cold and uneasy.  In the shadows of my memory, I still see that little girl crumpled in a heap on the unforgiving floor, tears rolling down her cheeks.  I want to cry with her.

I was reminded of that story when saying my morning prayers this week.  Of all the Christ-like qualities that I wish to grow in my daily walk, kindness is number one.

I’m not sure when we turned the corner, but it seems that our culture has decided that our freedom of speech supersedes kindness.  Facebook is full of insulting and demeaning posts.  Everyone is free game, from political and church leaders, to athletes and pundits.  Cyber bullying has become our youth’s great American pastime.  Parents scream at coaches and teachers.  Members of Westboro Baptist Church hurl horridly hurtful insults during funerals.  Teenagers play “Knockout”- targeting an unsuspecting stranger, sneaking up on them and punching them so hard they crumple into an unconscious heap.  The media displays stories of celebrities’ struggles with abuse and mental illnesses as if they are Academy awards.  And the stars of “reality” television programs resemble coiled cobras, wildly spitting venomous insults at one another in an attempt to rise to the top of the writhing heap.

It seems to me that we are so determined to stake our claim in life that we often neglect to remember that with each step we affect other people.  Every rung in the proverbial ladder of life gives us the opportunity to change the day of another person, simply by the way we treat him.  And it is not always what we say, but how we say it that makes the difference.

Here’s an example.  The week before Christmas, I ran to the local Target store to buyflat-tire wrapping paper and ribbon.  I was still recovering from back surgery, and walking was painful and slow, but I managed to make my purchase and return to my car.  When I started the engine, I realized there was a long queue of cars snaked across the parking lot, slowly making their way along the path to the only exit.  I maneuvered my car into line with the rest and hummed along to Christmas carols on the radio while inching my car forward with the rest of the exiting shoppers.  I was stopped in front of the store when a woman who was crossing in front of me scowled and thrusting a finger toward my front tire, yelled, “You’d better get some air in there!”

The car queue was too long.  I couldn’t stop to investigate so I gingerly drove home, praying that the tire would carry me to my parking lot. But long after I returned to my warm apartment, my stomach was still in a knot. I knew the woman at Target was doing me a favor by letting me know there was a problem with my tire, but I felt accosted by the aggressiveness of her communication.  Her message, though an act of responsibility, was totally devoid of one precious ingredient.  Kindness.

Lest I appear to be above all this, let me be the first to point out that kindness does not always come easily to me.  I can be a master of maliciousness.  A sultan of sarcasm. The baroness of bluntness. The czarina of… you get the point.  But here’s the thing; the more I pray about this, the more aware I become.  And the more I stop before I speak, think about the other person, and amend my delivery.  And funny thing- my relationships are better.  People around me smile more.  I feel much more at peace.  I sleep more soundly.kindness

So the moral of the story is, if we want our world- the world we will give over to our children and our grandchildren- to be a better place, perhaps we need to try a little tenderness.  Can’t hurt.

Five Things I Learned from My Dad

June 19 marked the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s passing.  I was amazed that fifteen years had passed since I stood by his bed and watched the last spark of life drain from his ocean blue eyes.  And strangely, I missed him more this June than I have in several years.

dadMy dad was a flawed man.  He was a late-in-life only child, and never really mastered money management and the responsibilities that came with having a wife and eight children.  He had a temper- we kids drew straws to see who would get stuck waking him from a nap- but his outbursts were only verbal, and by the time I was a teen I realized he was pretty much all bark and no bite.

Some men’s sins are hidden from view, but Dad’s hung on his sleeve for all to see, and often my siblings and I lost patience with the man who was supposed to be our role model.  But as I age I see more clearly that nobody is all good or all bad, and that instead of fixating on the tragic flaws of our heroes, we do better when we focus on their qualities.  Here are a few of the lessons that Dad taught me.  I hope you will learn from them too.

1.  Listen to the music

When I was in elementary school, it was not unusual for me to miss the bus.  Unhurried, my dad would take the last sip of his coffee, saunter to the car, and drive me to Hillside Elementary.  We always listened to the radio on the way, and Dad, a fan of pop music and jazz, would slow to a crawl as we approached the building, so we could listen to the last part of the song.

My teachers, hands on hips at my late arrival, never understood the excuse, “Buddy Rich was playing a drum solo,” or “Bobby Darin was singing “Mack the Knife,” and I finally just quit trying to explain.  What they didn’t understand is that music is the soundtrack over which our life is played.  Start the morning with a great song, and I guarantee the rest of the day will be a little better.  Even now, when there is a song playing on the radio that I particularly like, I find it hard to turn off the ignition before it ends- even if I’m late for work.

2. Talk to your kids as if they are adults.

I’ll never know if it was a conscious decision or because my dad craved company, but he treated his children as if their opinions had value that equaled his.  From the time I remembered, he would welcome us at the kitchen table, pour a cup of coffee (half milk for those under seven) and engage in conversation about current events, sports, television or our plans for the future.  Conversations were heavily dosed with stories about his youth- some of them factual, and some embellished- but as much as he talked, he also listened.  There were no lines drawn by age or maturity.  Nobody ever said, “This conversation is for adults only,” and because of this, I grew up believing my ideas had merit, and consequently, I believed I had value.

3. Laugh loudly and heartily.

My father was not a silly man.  He did not like slapstick or stupid situation comedies on TV.  dad 60sHe rarely told jokes, and he very much disliked humor that was humiliating or embarrassing to anyone.  However, whenever something struck his funny bone, he laughed long and hard.  He was a huge fan of Johnny Carson and loved Carson’s one-liners and the camera mugs that made his audience explode in peals of belly shaking laughter.  One of my favorite childhood memories is when I would lie in bed way after dark,  and hear my parents roar with laughter at the late night antics of Johnny and Ed McMahon.

4. Find your voice. 

When I was four years old, I began racing quarter midgets.  I wasn’t very good, but one night I finished second in a race, earning myself a ribbon.  When presentations of trophies were made at the end of the races, my name was not called.  Tears streaming down my cheeks, I went to my father, who picked me up in his arms and carried me to the officials’ table.  Drying my eyes with his handkerchief, he explained that I had to speak up and collect my winnings.  Rather than doing the talking for me, he prompted me to explain to the officials that I had taken second place in my race,  and had been missed in the presentations.  His presence gave me courage, and a moment later I was running to my older sister to show her my purple ribbon.  Although it was a small lesson, I have never forgotten it, for that evening I learned to bravely speak up when I believe myself to be right.

5. Figure it out.

Although I would never call my dad lazy, he was often unmotivated to do chores when his children could do them for him.  It was Dad’s expectation that his kids figure out how to take care of him and their younger siblings with little or no instruction.  Those who could read could certainly follow directions.  He and my mother let us have free reign in the kitchen, the cellar work bench and the back yard.  I changed cloth diapers and fed babies before I entered school, and could cook a meal for ten people before I was in sixth grade.  I weeded the garden, hung wallpaper and taped sheet rock, and my brothers learned to wire for electricity and rebuild motorcycles- with little guidance and absolutely no hovering.  Trial and error may not be the most efficient way to learn, but it leaves lasting impressions.  Just ask my brother Scott, who discovered the strength of electricity by inserting a bobby pin into a wall socket.

I’m not sure if Dad knew the value of self-directed learning, but I do know that his children grew up to be independent, motivated adults who take pride in figuring out how to complete a project by themselves.dad 70s

So today I salute my flawed, imperfect Dad.  Every time I ride a wave, or pour a cup of coffee, or watch television with my feet tucked up under me, I remember that a part of him still lives in me.  I remember his blue eyes, the way he jingled his pocket change and coughed when he came home from work, and how he drove through snowstorms to bring me home from college for a long weekend.  I remember, and with a lump in my throat, I give thanks.

Mother-Loser-of-the-Year

“I had to drop my kids off at the before-school care center this morning.  I always feel so guilty when I do that.”  I smiled at the speaker, a pediatrician with whom I work, and noticed her eyes were a little teary. 

“Mother guilt,” I said.  “We all have it. For me, the first pangs of guilt started when I sipped a cup of coffee during my pregnancy with my firstborn.  I paid the price eleven-fold in heartburn, but every time I watch Abby stumble to the coffee pot and pour a cup at six a.m. I wonder if she shares my caffeine addiction because I couldn’t wait nine months to feed my habit.  Still, these pangs of mother guilt are nothing as compared with the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award. 

It’s true.  I won the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award two years in a row, and was runner-up more times than I can count.  As hard as we try to be perfect parents, we mess up.  The bigger the mess-up, the closer we come to wearing the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” crown.

My first attempt at this award came when Abby was an infant.  She was a beautiful baby, dressed in cotton dresses I had carefully washed in Ivory Snow and soft booties I had hand-knit during my final months of pregnancy.  I had nursed her and burped her and rocked her and gently carried her to her perfectly decorated bedroom to lay her down in a perfectly padded crib.  Momentarily distracted when the phone rang, I misjudged my distance from the door frame, smacking her sweet little bald head against the woodwork.  Because the boo-boo left no mark, I didn’t qualify for an award, but I clearly felt the pangs of mother guilt and wondered if I should be allowed to even touch my firstborn child ever again.

To my amazement, no troopers stormed my door to remove my baby from our home, and despite my ineptitude, the fates saw fit to send us two more children within the next three years.  You would think that as I became more experienced, I would have drifted further and further from the “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award, but that is not the case. 

When Gabriel was five, he fell off the playground equipment down the hill from our townhouse.  Gabe was prone to dramatic performances, so when I heard him wailing at the foot of the hill, I stood at our door to assess the damage. There was no blood, but he was dragging his right leg behind him, and wore an expression that would put Sarah Bernhardt to shame.  Rather than running to his aid, I called out, “Come on, Gabe- you’re fine.  Don’t be so dramatic- you can walk home.” 

By the time he reached the house, my son’s face was streaked with muddy tears and his howls had not subsided.   All my efforts to soothe him failed, so I finally took him to the pediatrician’s office, only to find he had fractured his coccyx.  That year’s “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” award was mine.

Perhaps my finest moment at “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” was the spring when Elizabeth was three.  She and I were wrestling on the carpeted living room floor.  Tickling her tummy, I began to roll over when I heard a sudden snap.  Her giggles stopped and her eyes widened in shock, and then filled with tears.  I was on the phone to the pediatrician’s office within seconds, and a few hours later, she was wearing a cast from her thigh to her toes.  Yes folks, Momma-G broke her baby’s leg. 

For six weeks, she wore that cast, and every time I looked at her, I felt horrific pangs of mother guilt.  To add insult to injury, while we were in public places she would loudly plead, “Mommy, why did you have to break my leg?”  I could actually feel the stares burning into my flesh.  I felt that I had reached the apex of my “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” career, but as all mothers know, it can get worse, and it did.  While still wearing the cast, she got chicken pox. 

Actually, Gabe came down with them first.  He suffered from allergies, so I didn’t really pay attention to his scratchy throat and sniffles, and sent him to school on a warm spring day.  He came home from kindergarten sweaty and uncomfortable, so I helped him take off his shirt. His belly and back were covered with pox, and two weeks later, two thirds of the Weston School kindergarten were absent with chicken pox.  Thank you very kindly, Momma-G.  Please straighten your “Mother-Loser-of-the-Year” crown.

Now that my children are grown, these stories are fodder for hearty laughter at family reunions.  I have come to realize that children are really quite resilient and forgiving.  I have found that the things that caused the most guilt in me were the things that mattered not at all to them.  They do not care that I sent them to school in mismatched socks, or spilled coffee on their homework.  They do not mind that I made them wear hand-me-downs, watered down their orange juice to make it stretch further, and fashioned Halloween costumes from old sheets instead of buying them from the party store.  They don’t care that we celebrated birthdays on the weekends, ate the generic store brand cereals and carried brown bag lunches.

What they did care about is this.  They wanted to be hugged often, no matter how sweaty, dirty and sticky they were.  They wanted to be listened to, even when their stories were long and convoluted and peppered with “and then, you know what happened?”  They wanted see smiles more often than frowns.  They wanted to hear encouragement instead of criticism, and coos instead of growls.  Mostly, they just wanted to be loved.

When Abby was eight, we moved to a brand new town house with beige carpets and pristine walls.  I wanted so badly for my children to live in a home they were proud of that I spent part of every day scrubbing fingerprints from the white walls.  One day Abby asked me to play ball with her and her siblings. I was washing walls and told her I was too busy.  She burst into tears and cried, “I hate this house!  Ever since we moved here, all you do is clean!” 

I looked at the the sponge dripping soapy water onto the beige carpet.  I looked into daughter’s watery green eyes and realized that in ten short years she would be out of high school and never want me to play ball again.  Tossing the sponge into the sink, I kissed her soft pink cheek and grabbed her hand.

“C’mon.  Let’s play ball.”

Careful Mom… your crown is slipping.

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