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”

What I Learned from Being a VISTA- A.K.A.”Figure It Out!”

My “goodby and good luck” party. I’m at the far right.

When I was twenty-four years old, I joined VISTA.  I was a child of the 60s and enthusiastically gulped JFK’s Ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you-ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country-Kool-Aid.  Initially, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but after talking to the recruiter, settled on Volunteers In Service To America- VISTA.

In 1978, VISTAs worked for $340 a month plus food stamps.  From this budget, volunteers were expected to pay for their own housing, transportation, medication and personal items.  It was not high living, but I had grown up pinching pennies so I was confident that I would be able to manage.

Once I signed up, I eagerly awaited my first “project”- a description of an assignment at a specific location that I could either accept or decline.  I had requested an assignment in the Pacific Northwest and was particularly interested in Alaska, since I had never seen that part of the country.  To my surprise, the first project sent to me was in East Harlem, New York City- not exactly the Pacific Northwest.

I declined that project and the next, but finally was offered a position in Boise, Idaho.  I accepted and several months later, flew across the country for a week of pre-service orientation in Seattle, Washington, followed by a train ride to Boise. 

My fellow VISTAs and me at Pre-service Orientation. Not sure what I was thinking with that hair…

I arrived at midnight and was picked up at the station by a fellow VISTA named Ann, who was supposed to provide housing for me for the next week or two, while I found suitable housing.  She led me to a guest room, where I fell into an uneasy sleep, excited about what the next day would hold.

In the morning, Ann hesitantly told me that her husband had decided he did not want me to stay with them and I needed to leave immediately.  I was crushed.  He hadn’t even met me.  I was three thousand miles from home with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar, and I didn’t know a soul. I had less than a hundred dollars in my wallet.  There were no computers, and no cell phones.  I had no car, and no way to get home.  I was stranded. I felt lost.  And abandoned. And very alone.

I did what any calm, confident young woman would do in the same circumstances.  I locked myself in the guest room and cried.  I wished I had never signed up for VISTA.  I wished I was still living at 30 Green Street.  I wanted to be where I jockeyed with my siblings for time in the bathroom. I wanted to hear my father’s smoker’s cough announce his arrival home at the end of a work day.  I wanted to trip over our dog, Greta, who had a habit of lying in front of the porch entry.  I wanted to smell coffee brewing in the kitchen.  I wanted my own pillow.  But mostly, I wanted my mother.  I wanted to search her soft gray eyes for answers.  I wanted to feel her strong arms around my shoulders, and hear her reassuring laugh.

But my mother was not there with me.  The reality of this brought a fresh stream of tears. They rolled down my cheeks and spattered on my jeans.  They turned my eyes red and my face splotchy, and brought sobs so deep that I had to muffle them in a pillow so Ann would not hear.

Finally, the sobs subsided.  I sat on the bed and wondered what my mother would say and in the emptiness of Ann’s guest room, I could almost hear her voice.

“C’mon Boo, dry your eyes.  Figure it out.”

And that’s what I did.  I dried my eyes.  I picked up my suitcase and guitar, left Ann’s house and wandered through Boise’s residential areas until I came across a big white house with a sign in the window that said “Room for rent.”

I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, and  knocked on the door, and a half hour later was settled in a small room with pink walls and a tiny three-quarter en-suite bath which was to be my home for the next several months.

It is now 2012. In the years since those first days as a VISTA, there have been many storms, and many times I have felt uncertain.  Often I have wished I were back in the old house on 30 Green Street.  I have longed to hear my father’s cough.  I’ve wished to step over Greta lying on the front porch, and I have ached to  look into my mother’s soft gray eyes, or feel her strong arms around my shoulders.  But in those times when my steps are unsure, when I feel abandoned and alone, I remember that I was once that skinny twenty-four-year-old who was three thousand miles from home and heard her mother’s voice say,

“C’mon Boo, dry your eyes.  Figure it out.”

And I do.

Drum beats

Tonight my son is coming home from England, where he’s been earning his graduate degree. I stand alone at Logan airport, anxiously watching the doors to Customs open and close, waiting to see his familiar frame emerge from that secret area that only international travelers visit. Finally, the doors open, and out steps my Gabriel- looking a bit taller and slimmer than when he left in September, but as handsome and cheerful as ever. He enthusiastically hugs me and teases me about the tears that fill my eyes. I watch him confidently stride toward the parking area and like most mothers, wonder where the time has gone. Just yesterday I was watching him line up with the other kindergarteners to enter a new phase of his life.

When he was little, Gabe tried very hard to fit in with the bigger, louder boys at his school. He hated the fact that he was tall and slender, because for growing boys, one’s body mass matters more than anything. Gabe wore sneakers that were sizes larger than his feet. He disguised his skinny arms under bulky sweatshirts, and tried to hide the fact that the thumping of his heart could be seen when he went without a shirt. However, there were not just physical differences between Gabe and his peers. It seemed that he marched a bit to his own drum. He loved sports, Legos, and little green army men, but he also made up his own music and liked to sketch- always from a unique perspective. I watched him draw a basketball player once and was astounded to see that he began at the feet and worked up to the head, unlike the opposite tact that most of us take. As he got older, he began writing sermons. I would find drafts scrawled on crumpled scraps of paper, thrown under his bed, tossed on the floor to his closet, or on notebooks that were supposed to be reserved for homework.

His individuality did not always set well with his teachers or me. I remember standing in line at his school’s parent night the year he was in seventh grade. His science class was decorated with home-made models of the solar system. They hung from the ceiling, proudly displaying the names of the students who made them. Some were sprinkled with glitter. Some were made from Styrofoam. Many were painted with Day-Glo. I searched for my son’s model, and finally found it in the far corner of the room. It was gray and white, cut from lined composition paper and shaded with pencil. The planets, attached with masking tape, hung limply from a hanger, curling at the edges. It was accurate, but not beautiful. My cheeks burned with dismay and I silently scolded myself for being at my job in the afternoons instead of at home, helping him with projects such as these.

I waited my turn to speak to the teacher, eavesdropping on other parents as they talked about the project. “I was up till midnight finishing this for my daughter,” one parent said.

“We were too! My wife had to go to the craft store at 10 o’clock. We thought we’d never finish!” said another.

“Me too. I should be the one getting the A’s,” giggled a third.

I looked again at my son’s solar system. Saturn’s ring was drooping on one side, the masking tape barely holding it in place. “He did it all by himself,” I realized. “No help. No cheating. No apologies.” It was one of my proudest moments.

Now I watch my son as he easily lifts his bags into the trunk of my car. The little boy who wished to be like his peers has become a man that others wish to be like. He has grown wiser, trading the desire to fit in for the desire to lead. He knows he has to listen for his own heartbeat and follow the rhythm as it carries him to his destiny.

“C’mon.  Let’s go!” he urges.

I guess I’d better hurry, or I’ll be left behind.

Just One Thing

One of my children’s favorite books was “Miss Rumphius,” by Barbara Cooney. For those who may not know the book, it is the charming tale about a little girl who tells her grandfather that she will grow up to travel the world and then live in a house by the sea.  Her grandfather agrees with her aspirations, but charges her to leave the world more beautiful than the way she found it.  The story documents her adventures and how she fulfills her grandfather’s edict.

 

I love the underlying themes to this story:  Live life to its fullest.  Seek adventure.  Grab hold of your vision and make it happen.  Make the world a better place.  Dreams are to be large and full, and in brilliant color- not to be inhibited by fear or self-doubt. 

 

My friend, Mary, is a Miss Rumphius.  She charges through the world, unafraid, full of expectation.  She samples food. She bathes in hot springs.  She visits worlds I know only by pictures.  With her quick grin and dancing Irish eyes, she always, always, always leaves the world a better place. 

 

My children are like Miss Rumphius.  They travel.  They have adventures in exotic, far away places.  And because while other children grew up listening to Madonna sing “Material Girl” my kids listened to Peter, Paul and Mary sing “No Easy Walk to Freedom,” they will leave the world a better place.

 

I, too, wanted to travel the world.  I wanted to live in a house by the sea.  Mostly, I wanted to change the world.  But sometimes life changes our plans, if not our priorities. More a George Bailey than a Miss Rumphius, I travel from my office to my apartment, and occasionally down the aisles of the grocery store.  I visit the sea on warm summer days, but leave when the sun sinks below the horizon.  My life is not adventurous, or exciting, or extraordinary.

 

Don’t get me wrong- I freely made the choices that have defined my life.  I do not regret trading travel tickets for diapers, music lessons and basketball games.  The world I have carved satisfied my heart’s true passions.  And truth be told, I no longer hunger for travel.  At the end of a long day, I crave the familiarity of my creaky recliner and the scent of my own pillow.  I have seen the rewards of investing time and energy into raising my children.  As I watch them evolve, I realize it truly is a wonderful life.

 

However, least I become too settled, I need to remind myself that regardless of our lot in life, we all share the responsibility to leave the world more beautiful.  This is not a responsibility relegated only to the young.  Miss Rumphius didn’t start scattering lupine seeds until she was old and gray.  It is up to all of us- no matter what age, what station of life we inhabit. We need not all sow lupine seeds, like Miss Rumphius.  We might sow seeds of hope, like George Bailey. 

 

As my sister Martha-Jean recently reminded me, the trick is to find out what one thing we can do.  A smile to a stranger, a cup of coffee for a coworker, feeding the hungry, saving the lost. It all starts out with one thing.  And the world becomes more beautiful.

The Beach

I love winter.  I love the starkness of barren trees against alabaster fields.  I love the way snow sparkles like diamonds when it blows against the street lights.  I love the way ice crystals trace fairy paths across my car’s windshield.  Frigid temperatures, moaning winds and climbing piles of snow thrill me.  Every snowfall of the season delights me. 

 

But this year was different.  Winter was hard.  Coworkers were strained and impatient.  Family members became ill.  I was called to serve on a jury for a murder trial.  The never ending snow, usually a white comforter to soften the world, became an ashen reminder of how cold and harsh life can be.

 

This morning as we drove to work, my son remarked, “I can’t wait for the beach!” 

Ah… the beach.  Just the sound of it warms my bones and relaxes my shoulders.  As much as I love winter, I love summer even more, because of the beach. 

 

For me, the beach is a mile-long expanse of grey sand on the rocky coast of New Hampshire.  It is totally unadulterated.  No boardwalk.  No ice cream stands.  No souvenir shops or Tiki huts. Just sand and water.

 

The beach has always been a gathering place for my family.  When I was a kid, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and all flocked to the beach when the summer sun was high.  The “old people” (parents and grandparents) sat in the fine, cool sand closest to the water, umbrellas raised and small children nearby.  Teenagers opted for the hot, coarse sand closest to the rocks.  We slathered ourselves with baby oil, turned up the transistor radio and played endless games of poker.  

 

It was at the beach that I rode waves with my father the day after a hurricane.  Giant swells tossed me upside down, skinning my face and knees on the sand.  Foolishly determined to keep up with him, I swam beside him, diving when he did, swimming when he did.  It was exhilarating and terrifying.  I was, quite literally, in over my head.  I thought I might die.  I loved it.

 

It was at the beach that I fell in love for the first time.  Like summer, the romance faded much too quickly.  Like summer, it carved a spot in my heart that even still remains warm and golden.

 

It was at the beach that my siblings and I gathered days after my father died.  Memories of him riding the surf were soothing balm to our broken hearts.

 

When I had children, I took them to the beach when their first summer arrived.  They too grew up in the cool sand by the water, and graduated to their own spots in the hot sand by the rocks.  They learned to ride the waves like my father, although he was not there to teach them.  They came to know their cousins, aunts and uncles at the beach.

 

At the beach, all barriers are down, and everyone is seventeen again.  Walls between youth and adult are razed by the waves.  We become the same, forged by the excitement of riding the surf until the bubbles carry us to where our tummies graze the sand.  We think more clearly. We talk more openly.  We listen with open ears and open hearts.  The rolling repetition of the surf calms our souls.

 

So, now that the last of the snow has melted, and the warm breezes and afternoon sun promises that summer is nearby, it is time for the beach once again.  It is time for my mind to calm, my heart to heal, and to play in the sun and the surf again.  All are welcome to join me.  I’ll be in the blue beach chair in the cool sand.

Letting Go

Two days ago, I kissed my oldest daughter goodbye, and sent her on a plane to India.  I have watched this young woman work for over a year to raise the funds for this trip.  I have supported her, planned with her, and even helped her pack.  But as I stood at the airport’s security entrance and held her close, I could barely let her go.

 

Abigail.  It means “a father’s joy.”  She was conceived in desperation after our first pregnancy ended in miscarriage.  I was devastated after losing the first baby.  He had a face, and tiny hands.  He had a name.  I expected that everything would go as planned.  But it didn’t.  So as generations of other women before me have done, I silently picked up the shards of my heart and tried again, waiting…hoping…wanting.

 

 Three months later, I was pregnant again.  This time, all went well and in nine months and two days, we had a beautiful girl. Abigail.

 

She was a typical first child.  Cautious. Orderly. A natural leader.  She also had a flair for the dramatic and a very prominent stubborn streak. One day, my mother was visiting and I complained that Abby was not easily bending to my will.  My mother never offered unsolicited advice.  Except for this time.

 

“Stop trying to make Abby into who you want her to be, and help her to be who she is.”

 

My mind backtracked to a conversation I once had with a woodworker in Idaho.  He had carved an intricate baby’s rattle from a solid piece of wood.  Examining the free moving ball inside the bars that contained it, I asked him how he came up with the plans for his creations.  He told me that he always studied the wood until the object showed itself to him.  His carving only brought out what was already there from the beginning.

 

This began a new phase of parenting. Bring out the person who is already there.

 

And now the person who is inside of Abigail, my firstborn, my beautiful daughter, was leaving me to go to a part of the world I have only seen in books and television screens.  I wanted to hold her tightly.  To scream, “No! You cannot go!  Stay here, close by me, where it is safe.”  I wanted to again cuddle my soft pink baby in my arms, trace the curl of her cowlick with my finger and murmur sweet songs into her ear.

 

Instead, I breathed in deeply.  I kissed both her cheeks and her head, the way I have a hundred times over the past twenty-five years.  I looked deeply into her smoky eyes, said “I love you.” and let her go.  My part is finished.  She has become who she was meant to be. 

    

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