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”

The Secret’s Out

When I was in sixth grade, my sister Martha-Jean and I agreed that we would reveal what we had gotten each other for Christmas before the big day.  We stole to our bedroom and she showed me a gold bracelet with an iridescent heart charm that dangled from one of the links.  I thought it was beautiful but some of the thrill was gone.  I realized that part of the fun of giving and receiving gifts is the anticipation and surprise and I vowed never to peek again.

baby cubSo when my daughter Abigail and her husband John announced that they were to find out the gender of their unborn child (AKA “the cub”) I had mixed feelings.  To me it seemed that the most exciting part of birth is when all eight months culminate in the gender announcement from the attending doctor or midwife.  The memory of those choruses from the doctors and nurses in the delivery room, followed by the cries of my newborns are among the sweetest songs I know.

Still, this is John’s and Abby’s pregnancy, and I’m glad to stand at the sidelines and let them call the shots.  They wanted to know, and because they wanted to know, I wanted to know.  So Monday morning, they had an ultrasound.  Abby called me on her way to work and told me the news.

“It’s a boy!”

Now, the truth is, I would have been equally thrilled if she had told me the baby is a girl.  I adored having children of both genders and I welcome any grandchild, no matter what sex, color, size or shape.  But hearing the announcement and subsequently seeing the ultrasound pictures, made it real. 

The cub is a boy.

sailor suitI told everyone in sight, and immediately started imagining my little grand-cub dressed in one piece sailor outfits and saddle shoes.  (Yes, I know it’s cliché clothing, but baby boys dressed like that are so darned cute!)

A short time later, Abby emailed me from her office:

“WHAT THE HECK AM I GOING TO DO WITH A BOY?????!!!!!!!!!!”

abby2Abby is my firstborn.  From the moment her little blond head and blue eyes appeared, she liked everything glittery and girly.  She loved sparkly jewelry, My Little Pony and ballet shoes.  She never drooled or made a mess, or got into trouble.  She waved like the queen and grinned at strangers who crossed the grocery store to shake her dimpled hand and tickle her blushing cheeks. 

And then I had Gabe.  From the beginning, he was different.  Abby had squeaked and murmured when she was hungry, and gently sipped at my breast, taking a break to gaze at my eyes and utter a ladylike little burp.  Gabegabe2 was like an industrial strength vacuum cleaner.  He roared with hunger, latched on like his life depended on it, and drained me in minutes, belching his grand finale to the feeding frenzy.  He constantly drooled, soaking his bibs, t-shirts and overalls.  He threw his rattles and screamed if he couldn’t find his pacifier.

So when I read Abby’s email, I chuckled, but I understood.  I remember that feeling of uncertainty, that first step into unfamiliar territory.  I remember bringing home my son from the hospital, how I wondered if he, his father, his sister and I would be able to become a family.  How I feared that I would not be able to relate to him.  And then I remembered the years that followed, and typed my reply:

“You will LOVE having a son.  Sons create balance our lives.  They keep us grounded and from buying too much pink.  He will be his daddy’s mini-me, and he’ll think you are beautiful when you cry because you don’t have the right clothes to wear or your belly sticks out more than you want.  He’ll make you jewelry from macaroni for Mother’s Day and boast that you are the best cook in the world.  He’ll want you to watch him flex his muscles and count while he stays underwater in the tub, and when he hugs your neck and kisses you on the cheeks, you will feel like the world could explode around you and you won’t care.”

Abby needn’t worry.  I know what she doesn’t yet known- that the moment the little cub arrives they will bond with a love stronger than she ever knew possible.  I know that she and Johnny will figure out what soothes him, what excites him, what makes him giggle with glee and what drives him to their arms for protection.  I know that the cub will grow up to be a companion who brings them a world filled with excitement, joy, and pride.  He will pull them to their fullest height and drive them to their knees. 

And as for me?  I will try to restrain myself from buying too many cute little hats, toosaddle shoes 2 many cuddly teddy bears and too many books about pirates and knights in shining armor.  I’ll bake him cookies and read him stories and snuggle him close, whispering secrets in his ear about the antics of his momma, aunt and uncle.

So the secret’s out.  The cub’s a boy, and I couldn’t be happier.

A Grand Dilemma

You know that you have entered a new phase of life when you realize that you want to become a grandmother.

Five years ago, if you brought up the topic, I would have said that I wasn’t yet ready for grandchildren.  I thought of grandparents as being old, with wrinkled skin and gray hair.  Like my grandmother.  And my mother. 

But then my siblings-even the younger ones- began to have grandchildren.  My friends began to have grandchildren.  None of them look old with wrinkled skin. Okay, some of them have gray hair, but then so do I.  It’s just well-hidden by my hair colorist.  I saw them with their grandchildren and recognized the special bond they shared.

I began to notice that it’s been more than twenty-five years since I’ve had a baby to snuggle.  I began to miss the scent of baby breath and tufts of silky baby hair tickling me under my chin.  I missed the weight of an infant’s head resting on my shoulder and the way a newborn’s droll little face contorts when she pulls up her knees and stretches out her arms upon waking.  In short, I miss having a baby in the house.

I’ve heard some people say that they were happy when their children outgrew the infant stage so they mompainting_G could do things with them.  While I loved having older children, I also cherished the years my kids were babies.  Crazy as it sounds, I especially loved getting up with a hungry baby during the night.  I would quietly pad to the living room so we wouldn’t wake the rest of the household, wrap a blanket around the two of us, and settle in a rocking easy chair to nurse.  It was peaceful and quiet- time for my baby and me to stare into each other’s eyes, stroke each other’s cheeks, and feel the warmth of each other’s bodies sway back and forth with the rocker.  More often than not, the baby would stop feeding long before I could bring myself to put him down and go back to bed. 

Too quickly those days faded into the past and I moved on to basketball games, band concerts, and waving goodbye at airports, and one day my little ones were all grown.   I adjusted to life without children- eating at odd hours, leaving scissors on low tables, sleeping through the night without opening my eyes to find a three-year-old staring me awake.  Indeed, it is easier.  No running out late at night to buy Pedialyte and popsicles for sick tummies.  No wrestling to assemble toys at 2AM on Christmas morning.  No snowsuits and mittens and boots and “now-I-have-to-go-to-the-bathroom!”  I can come and go as I please.  I do not need to plan meals, or trips to the store, or shuttles to practice.

But then there is the empty arms thing and my friends and siblings with their toothless grandchildren bouncing on their knees.  And I know it’s time to once again have a baby in the house.  So when my daughter Abby and her husband Johnny not-so-casually announced that in June the two of them will become three, my heart leapt with joy.  We refer to the unborn child as “the little cub” and I can’t stop hoping he or she has red hair. john and abby pregnant

There is one dilemma, however.  What shall I be called by this precious little bundle?  It is complicated.  Johnny’s father’s name is Gary.  You cannot have a grandmother named Garrie and a grandfather on the other side called Gary.  The poor little cub will be too confused.  “Nana?”  No- it doesn’t suit me.  “Grammie?”  That’s reserved for Johnny’s mother.  “Granny?”  Not while I have breath in my body.  I thought of a long, trilled “Grrrrrrrrrrrandmama” but that’s just plain ridiculous.

And so, I extend an invitation to my readers to weigh in.  What shall the little cub call his or her grandmother-on-her-mother’s-side?  I await your suggestions.

Breaking Bread

Usually I pack my lunch before going to work, but today I bought a cup of soup at the soupcafé on the first floor of the building where I work. I burned my tongue on the thin broth while answering my email and searched the bottom of the styrofoam cup for bits of chicken and summer vegetables.  After the soup I ate a handful of cherries, and an hour later, I was hungry again.

Listening to my stomach growl, I wished I had brought something from home that might fill the empty gap.  From the depths of my past came the memory of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on my mother’s homemade bread.

We rarely bought bread from a store when I was growing up. Instead, my mother made it from scratch, six loaves at a time, every few days.   She mixed it in a large aluminum pail fitted with a hand-held churn.  It took two people to start the mixing process- one to hold the bucket and one to work the churn, but in no time, the flour, milk, butter and yeast came together to form a giant ball, which she would turn out on the counter and knead until it was smooth.  Once in a while, she used the side of her hand to form crease in the middle of the rounded loaf and spanked the “baby’s bottom.”  We children would explode in peals of laughter and beg to give the bottom a spank too.

From this basic white bread recipe, my mother made countless treats.  She filled muffin cups with balls of dough to produce steaming dinner rolls that dripped with melted butter and sopped up gravy from Sunday’s roast.  At Christmas she decorated stollen with a sugary glaze and candied fruit, and gave them as holiday gifts to our neighbors and friends.  During the summer she fried dough and sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar, creating a treat for hungry children who entered the house from the front door and exited from the back.  She toasted bread for breakfast, sharing the crust with Greta, our collie shepherd, who preferred hers with a bit of peanut butter.

On most days, however, Mom formed six even loaves, carefully kneaded and risen, and baked them three to a rack in an old gas oven.  Half way through the baking, she moved the loaves on the top rack to the bottom, and vice versa, to ensure that they were evenly baked. She taught me to remove the golden loaves from the oven, dump them out of their pans and tap on the bottom with a finger.  The ring of a hollow thump meant the loaf was fully baked.  A dull thump indicated that the loaf needed a few more minutes in the oven, least it be gummy in the center.  Placed on racks to cool, each loaf was coated with a thin layer of butter, so a soft crust would form.  An hour later, the cooled loaves were sealed in plastic bags, ready for the next hungry batch of children.

There was nothing like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from my mother’s sunbeamkitchen.  A huge slab of bread was spread with Sultana peanut butter, which was sold in a huge yellow tub that was later used to collect sea shells and starfish at the beach.  A second slab of bread was spread with strawberry preserves that Mom canned on hot June evenings.  The slabs were gently pressed together and cut on the bias.  Paired with a cold glass of milk, it was a filling repast fit for any king, or at least any kid.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my mother made bread instead of buying it at the grocery store.  My friends ate Wonder Bread, or Batter-whipped Sunbeam bread.  Their sandwiches fit neatly into little bags, while mine were bigger, sloppier and had to be wrapped in flat sheets of waxed paper.  It seemed to me that Mom could have been doing things that were much more fun than kneading and baking.

I was right. Mom could have been doing other things.  But to her, feeding her family was an extension of who she was.  Her hands- the same gentle hands that wiped tears from little cheeks and pushed back bangs from sweaty foreheads firmly kneaded the loaves that would nourish her growing children.  Every cup of flour was measured with care.  Every slice of bread was a gift.  A metaphorical kiss.  A work of art laced with love.

Wish as I might, there will be no peanut butter and jelly on my mother’s homemade bread for me, today, or any other day.  But the memory is as sweet as Mom’s strawberry preserves, and the memory alone got me through to the next meal.  And it made me think of the meals I cook for my family.  Do I put as much love into the dishes I serve them?  Hmmm…food for thought.

Spring- Time for a Change!

crocus snowIt is the end of April and although the temperature at sunrise was only a few degrees above freezing, in New Hampshire we have spring on our minds.  I love winter with its frigid winds that blow drifts of alabaster frost against my window panes.  But in April, I am ready for a change.  And spring is a season of change- crocuses that peek out from under the flakes of a rogue snowstorm, the explosion of yellow forsythia, the promise of buds on the barren tree branches.

Where I work there is a ditch that separates the parking lot and a small field.  When the snow melts, the ditch fills with water that ices up at night and melts during the day.  A couple of weeks ago, I got into my car at the end of a long day of work and sat back, relishing the warmth left by the afternoon sun.  In silence, I watched the wind ripple the water in the ditch, and my mind flew back to the days when I was a child. 

Bodies of water hypnotize children, drawing them near, begging them to forage around the frozen earth until they find something that will float.   A dried oak leaf left behind by last October’s winds makes the perfect canoe, and a blade of new grass its navigator, and before long, an adventure ensues.  At the house on 30 Green Street, I had many such adventures.  On Saturday mornings, it was not unusual to hear my mother admonish us with “Shut off that idiot box and go outside and play!”  It didn’t take long to learn that dawdling inside resulted in being assigned a household chore, so as soon as Roy Rogers and Trigger headed for the sunset, I bolted out the door and headed across the street to play down by the river.

In April, down by the river was alive with the promise of spring.  Under the dark umbrella oftarzan fir trees, a small rivulet bubbled between frozen banks, creating the perfect opportunity to race leaf boats or splash chunks of ice under the surface to see how quickly they would melt.   Tiny sprigs of green peeked from under tufts of grass bleached dry by last summer’s heat.  And in the shaded areas never kissed by the pale winter sun, granular snow formed fields of ice crystals.   I had spent the winter watching Tarzan movies on our black and white television, and imagined the ice crystals were real diamonds, waiting to be scooped up and smuggled out of the African wild.  My fat, Persian cat, Perfidia, who loved to hunt down by the river, became a wild lion.  I faced him down like Tarzan did, yelling “Ungawa!” Undaunted, he sleepily blinked at me, and rolled over to let me scratch his belly.  When I had finished, my lion, purring contentedly, trotted off in search of a field mouse or a mole. 

We repeated this game for years, until I traded fashion magazines and lipstick for woodland adventures and Perfidia grew so old that one day he went down by the river and never came home.

As I sat in my car watching the ditch, I thought about change.  How curious that although I welcome the change of each New England season, I fight the changes that threaten to upset the delicate state of my life’s sameness.  I follow the same routines during most of my days.  I rise at five, shuffle from the bedroom to the kitchen to pour my coffee, and shuffle back to my bed where I sip and watch the news.  I always make my bed before work.  I always check the mailbox when I get home from work.  I always lock the door and turn down the heat before crawling between the covers at the end of a day. 

cruiseAnd yet, like the way spring sweeps away the cobwebs left behind by winter’s dry breath, the spring of my life is upon me.  I’ve packed away my winter coat and rearranged my closet to make room for summer clothes.  I’ve taken on a new and challenging project at work.  And I, who have not taken a vacation in over thirty years, have bought and paid for a cruise to Alaska’s Inner Passage, to be taken at the end of May.  It’s not exactly down by the river, but there will be water and adventure, and excitement. Besides, it’s spring- time for a change.

Halloween

 
I spot the hills    
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
~Carl SandburgI read a story on the internet about children’s Halloween costumes becoming too sexy.  Indeed, when I looked further, there were pictures of scantily clad little girls in costumes that vaguely resembled outfits worn by exotic dancers.  It made me sad.

When I was a little girl, I loved the excitement of Halloween and the prospects of trick-or-treating.  We fashioned costumes from clothing and accessories we already owned- a scarf and a gold hoop earring for a pirate, burnt cork and a shirt from the rag bag for a hobo.  It was the only time of the year we were allowed to wear makeup and I practically trembled as I drew my mother’s red lipstick across my mouth, blotting it on a tissue, and hoping it would not entirely wash off before school the next day.

The naked trees that lined Green Street were draped with toilet paper that drifted in the breeze like silent ghosts. My siblings and I paraded down Green Street, chorusing “Trick-or-treat!” and holding our pillow cases out to catch candy, cookies and apples. It was thrilling to dress in costumes and masks, and become someone else for an evening.  It was thrilling to be out after dark and to sneak peeks at the moon in case a witch flew by on her broom.  It was more thrilling to know there would be a candy bar in my lunch the next day.  I would sift through my goodies, keeping the “good stuff” (AKA chocolate) and throwing out the broken bits of popcorn ball that lay in the bottom of the bag.

When I had children of my own, we prepared for Halloween much as I had as a child.  We made our own costumes- aliens from outer space, princesses, and of course, hippies.  My daughters found the embroidered jeans jacket I wore in college and beads I had “borrowed” from my older sister during the 60s.  All it took was a little face paint to transform them into miniature versions of their mother and aunt.

Like generations before us, we carved pumpkins to make glowing jack-o-lanterns to welcome costumed children who trooped through our housing development to garner as much booty as their bags would hold.  My children would join them, returning with flushed cheeks and excited plans for stashing candy bars in their lunch boxes for school the next day.  They would empty their bags into a large bowl, and for the next week, everyone was allowed to gorge himself on sweets that ruined suppers and brought a gleam to our dentist’s eye.  I consoled myself with the reminder that it was only once a year, and besides, when the kids went to bed, I would snitch a candy bar from their cache.

I can’t figure out if things have changed that much since my kids were young, or if I just didn’t pay attention to the ads in the newspaper flyers.  It does seem that Halloween has become another opportunity for American commercialism to steal our children’s innocent fun.  But as parents, we get to make the rules.  We can sift through the bag and find the good stuff.  It’s all what we put into it- what we decide will matter.  For me, I’ll always cherish the memories of painting faces, sorting candy and lighting jack-o-lanterns.

And I do swear I saw a witch fly across the sky one enchanted Halloween night.

When You Say No Do You Mean Yes?

Have you ever met someone who cannot take no for an answer?  Recently this happened to me at work.  A gentleman made a request that I was unable to meet.  He had made this request a year ago and was given a polite “no.”  Last week, he called with the same request, and was again told no.  A day later, he called again, spoke to a different staff person, and was given the same answer.  Three days later, he spoke to yet another person, who inquired on his behalf.   My patience was wearing thin.  I wanted to ask him the proverbial, “What part of ‘no’ do you not understand?” 

I remembered an incident when my kids were young.  Their elementary school held an annual book fair, where the children displayed books they had written and illustrated.  For weeks Abby, who was in third grade, toiled over her book.  Her storyline was clear, her characters, all teenagers, drawn in colored pencil with intricate details like earrings and hair bows.

Pages 2 and 3 of Abby’s book. Yes. I still have it.

Gabriel was a first grader.  He had painstakingly scrawled the words and haphazardly colored everything in red, his favorite color.  Gabe hated to color- he thought it a waste of precious time that could be spent reading or doing arithmetic, or running around the playground.   The fact that his book was colored at all represented the importance of his work.

The book fair was to begin at seven o’clock in the evening.  I rushed home from work, changed from scrubs to a pair of jeans, and prepared a quick stir fry for dinner.  Stuffing rice and vegetables into his mouth, Gabe excitedly jabbered about his book and the surprise I would find when I read it.  Abby was equally cheery, finishing the food on her plate at record speed.  But Elizabeth ate little, pushing her food around her plate. 

At four years old, Elizabeth was chronically ill with a yet undiagnosed endocrine disorder.  Her cheeks, which had once been chubby and pink, were pale and drawn, and her clothes flapped around her skinny arms and legs like a little scarecrow.  Every day she was plagued with what she referred to as “a yucky belly,” and today was no exception.

Living with chronic illness takes its toll on all family members.  Parents weary of waiting on edge for another hospital visit, for more tests, for more medicine.  Siblings get tired of cancelling plans for a sister or brother who never seems to be better.   And for the sick child- for Elizabeth- it was the worst.  She tired easily.  She felt sick day after endless day.  She, whose nature cried out to be in constant motion and daredevil acts, was listless and fearful.

But part of living with chronic illness is trying to push forward and live life as usual as much as possible, and so we did.  Deciding that Elizabeth had eaten as much as her yucky belly could hold, I shoved her plate into the dishwasher and herded the kids into the car. 

We arrived at the school a little after seven.  My plan was to quickly visit Gabe’s and Abby’s classrooms, read their books, say hello to their teachers and rush home so I could get Elizabeth into bed.  We began in Gabe’s classroom and I searched for his book among the others.  Gabe and Abby asked if they could wander the halls with their friends.  I looked at Elizabeth, who was sitting on the floor by my feet, and knew we may have to make a quick exit.

“Sorry, you guys.  You need to stay with me tonight.  Lizza’s not feeling well.”

Abby and Gabe looked at their little sister, and solemnly nodded.

“You can walk around the room and look at the other books,” I offered.  “Just stay in here and don’t go into the hall.”

The pair grinned at me and amiably wandered from desk to desk, but the room was quickly filling with parents and children.  I hurriedly fanned through Gabe’s book and took Elizabeth by the hand to search for her siblings.  I found them standing with a girl from Abby’s class.  Her red curls bounced as she said to them,“ C’mon!  Let’s go see the sixth graders!”

Abby and Gabe turned to me, their big eyes silently begging for my consent.

“No- I need you to stay with me now.  The school’s getting crowded and I’m not sure how much longer Lizza’s going to last.  Gabriel, your book is wonderful!”  I added.

The red-headed girl interjected, “Please!  Can’t they come with me?”

“Sorry.”  I shook my head and we made our way to the second floor to find Abby’s classroom.

I quickly found Abby’s desk and thumbed through her book, complimenting her on how exciting her story was, and how wonderfully she illustrated it.

“Ask your mother if you can come now!”  It was the red-headed girl, hissing in Abby’s ear.

“No.”  I said firmly.  “They have to stay with me.”

By now I was practically dragging Elizabeth, who was getting paler by the minute, and was slumped against a nearby desk.  Sweat had gathered on my upper lip and I wondered if the older children would notice if I didn’t stop to chat to their teachers.

“Why not?  Can’t they come, pull-eeze?”  The red-headed girl begged again.  There were children running up and down the stairs, through the halls, and through the classrooms.  Teachers were helplessly watching their classrooms become shambles, and parents chatted among themselves, oblivious to the antics of their wild offspring.

Abby sighed and rolled her eyes.  She knew this would not go well.  I was hot.  I was worried about Elizabeth.  I was annoyed and I was..well, ready to blow my top.

I opened my mouth to answer, when Gabriel calmly piped up, “What you don’t know about my mother, is no means no.” 

It was as simple as that.  I smiled at my son, and he grinned back.  Gathering Elizabeth in my arms, I kissed her cheek, winked at Abby and said, “You’re right Gabe.  Thank you. And now, it’s time to go.”

Later that evening.

I have often remembered that night, how when we teach our kids that “no” means “maybe-if-you-tease-and-whine-enough-then-I’ll-change-my-mind” we do them a disservice. They need to understand that the world does not always revolve around them. They need to accept that not everything in life is meant to go their way.  They need to understand, that many times, no means no.

Now, if there was some way to teach this to the man from work, I’d be a happy woman.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I’m feeling a little preachy today, so if you are not in the mood, you might not want to read any further.  I’ll forgive you with a promise of something more light-hearted and less didactic in the near future.  However, if you dare, read on.  Momma G’s on a tirade.

When my kids were little, a local store advertised a sale on comic books.  Thinking of “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” “Superman” and “Archie,” I carted the kids across town with the promise that they could each pick out a comic book or two to read on a hot summer afternoon.  When we arrived at the store, I was disappointed to find that the selection was limited to violent story lines with aggressive main characters who pursued women with huge breasts and tight clothing.  I explained to my children that we would not be buying any comic books and herded them back to the car.  They were angry and disappointed that I had broken my promise, and I knew a valid explanation was in order.  Knowing it was lunch time, I asked if they were hungry.  They stated that they were, so I asked what they would do if for lunch I served rotten hot dogs and slimy garbage.  Horrified, they said that they could not eat garbage, because it would make them throw up.  I agreed, and used analogy to help them understand that if we fed their minds garbage, then garbage would come out in their thoughts and actions.

Earlier this week the internet was afire with a video of teenagers tormenting Karen Klein, a sixty-eight year old bus monitor. Our hearts broke as we watched her wipe tears from her cheeks while four middle school students pummeled her with verbal assaults and threats of physical violence.  And while subsequent reports quoted the offenders’ and their parents’ apologies, we will not easily forget that our American youth can be so despicably unkind. 

But what do we expect?  Our culture has taken our right to free speech and pushed it beyond the boundaries of common decency with an “anything goes” mentality.  Our Facebook pages are peppered with tirades.  Adults and teenagers publicly punctuate their verbal outbursts with swears, cuss words and crude references to body parts whenever they please- no matter who is nearby.  And our television is permeated shows that transform ill behaving adults and children into pop culture idols.  Miniature divas scream, stamp their feet and command their parents to give them whatever they desire, and then are rewarded with crowns, money and fame.  Dance teachers scream at students and their parents, while the students and parents scream right back at them.  “Housewives” overturn tables and hurl insults at each other, and chefs spit profanities and insults at cowering chef wannabes.  This is reality TV at its best… or its worst.

As adults we watch these programs, tsk-tsk at the ill-behaved, and laugh at their antics.  But what we fail to realize is that we are raising an entire generation who will process this behavior as acceptable.  Children do not have the maturity to differentiate between “reality TV” and reality, nor do they automatically know how to censor themselves.  Any parent knows that children are drawn to swear words like moths are to flames.   Babies might jabber unintelligible chatter ninety-nine percent of the time, but you can bet that the one clear word that your cherub can pronounce will be the curse that escaped when you stubbed your toe on the leg to his changing table.  Just think of what your seven-year old can learn by watching an hour of cable TV!

If ill behavior was limited to television, we might have a chance, but we are assaulted at every turn.  I was grocery shopping last week when a man walked toward me in the dry cereal aisle.  As I searched for the Cheerios, he spouted a steady stream of f-bombs for everyone to hear.  I looked around to find who he was yelling at, but I was the only one in the aisle.  I felt a flash of panic, wondering why he could be hollering at me, until he reached my shopping cart and I saw the blue tooth poking from his ear.  I have heard mothers swear in the Pediatrics waiting room, totally oblivious to the fact that their wide-eyed children are watching their every move.  People react to the inconvenience of a delayed flight by dressing down the airline representative at the ticket counter.  On the highway, people behind us flash their lights and tailgate, as if to say “Get moving!  My agenda is much more important than yours.”   People have even posted swears and insulting comments on my WordPress blog, although I cannot imagine why, since reading it is purely voluntary.

So what do we do?  Are we hopelessly doomed?  Will the Gen Xers give way to the Gen X-rated?  I am skeptical, but I do believe we can reverse the poison that has seeped into our culture.  It takes work- work to find the words to express our frustration while still maintaining our integrity.  Work to change the TV channel to a program that enlightens, encourages, entertains and educates our children with acceptable standards of behavior.  Work to show our children that they are precious gems that don’t deserve to be fed garbage.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a re-run of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on television.  Maybe if I watch it again, I’ll be a little more like Atticus Finch.

School Pictures

I read on the internet about a Florida elementary school where a second grader’s class photo was altered.  The child, whose visage was replaced by a smiley face, had arrived at school without a signed permission slip, so the photographer covered his image with a cartoon smiley.

While I agree that this might have been a tasteless solution, it did remind me that all kids look a little goofy in their school pictures- especially second graders.  No matter how carefully they are dressed, how meticulously they are groomed, their pictures are bound to look as if they just rolled out of bed.

In my second year of school, Michelle Peck snuck scissors to the girls’ bathroom and chopped her bangs off, right before it was time for Miss Makepeace’s class to go to the auditorium for pictures.  I’m sure her parents were thrilled to see their little daughter with quarter-inch bangs sticking out straight from her forehead.

I was equally thrilled to see my children’s school pictures.  When Abby, my firstborn, started school, I had visions of her kindergarten photo to be a perfect study in pink and white.  The morning that the pictures were to be taken, I carefully braided her hair, making sure her part was straight and her ribbons matched her outfit.  She would be adorable! When the pictures arrived some weeks later, I hardly recognized my little cupcake.  Her braids were messy and her ribbons were missing.  Still, she did have that “I’m-so-excited-to-be-living” look in her eyes, and so I bought the pictures.

When Gabe was in second grade, half of his teeth were missing.  This is not unusual; the tooth fairy spends the majority of her life visiting seven-year-olds.  Either the photographer hated kids, or he hated teeth, because he certainly did nothing to minimize the jack-o-lantern effect.  But when I looked at the photograph, I heard the peal of my son’s laughter, and so I bought the pictures. 

By the time Elizabeth entered elementary school, I was on to this school photography thing.  I was also wise to my “messy girl.”  No matter what I did, Elizabeth was always…well… messy.  Five minutes after I finished getting her ready for school, I would find her soaring down the hill on her bike, tresses flying from her braids, shoes untied, purple popsicle dripping down one arm.   I knew it was hopeless to dress her up for school pictures, so I sent her to school in her usual garb- jeans and tee-shirt.  She was chronically ill- her little face pinched and pale- and I briefly considered brushing a little makeup on her cheeks to give her some color.  I decided that a second grader didn’t need makeup and sent her to school just as she was.  Several weeks later I found her pictures stuffed in the bottom of her back pack. There was my little wild child- toothless, ashen, and disheveled, and looking…well…exactly like my Elizabeth.  Needless to say, I bought the pictures.

At one point I thought I might replace the school photographs with ones I took by myself.   One Easter Sunday the children were neatly dressed and combed for church. I ordered them sit on the couch while I shot photo after photo, trying to capture all three looking vaguely serene and well-behaved at the same time.  Each time I snapped, someone would act up.  Gabe would push Elizabeth.  Abby would shove Gabe.  Elizabeth would mug to the camera, and Gabe and Abby would fall off the couch, chortling with glee.  I begged.  I pleaded.  I threatened.  Finally, I gave up, resigned to the fact that every photograph in the house would look like my children were raised by wolves.  Guess the school photographer wasn’t so bad after all.

But here’s the funny thing.  Now that my children are grown, my favorite photographs are not of serene, well-behaved cherubs.  They aren’t the ones from a photography studio, with perfect lighting and perfect clothing. They aren’t the ones where the children sit demurely with Mona Lisa smiles.  My favorite pictures are my kids as they really were- wide-mouthed grins, rumpled clothes, messy hair.  Those photographs burst with an exuberance for life that only a child knows.  They are unabashed, uncensored, unbridled.  They are a silver moment in time, when the children I cherished were exactly who they were- no apology needed.

The school in Florida is arranging to have another photo shoot.  That’s a good thing, since that little boy will only be seven for one short year.  I hope his parents sign the permission slip this time, so he can be included.  But more than that, I hope his parents cherish his image with all the others of his class, no matter how toothless and messy they are.  There will never be another moment exactly like this one. There will never be another child like theirs.

Spring Is Sprung

“Spring is sprung, the grass is riz…”

New Hampshire has had a string of unseasonably warm days that reminds us that spring is only a few days away.  I love winter and am always happy to see the skies fill with grey cotton clouds that dust the bare pavement with downy flakes of white, but by the middle of March I look forward to the days when the ice melts and the earth turns warm and fragrant.  In this part of the country, spring is heralded by the lemon splash of forsythia against muted winter lawns and leafless trees, fat robins searching for worms, and warm breezes that tease my attention from my office and lure me to languish in the sun’s strengthening rays.

Spring- it is the season of promise; a season of buds and baby animals and tiny sprigs of new grass that pop up amid the winter hay.  Everything is fresh and new, and yet, there is a continuity from year to year- like the same song sung with a different beat.

When I was a girl one of the most exciting sign of spring was when I was allowed to play outside wearing shoes instead of boots.  My feet felt light without the bulk of heavy buckled boots and I relished the sound of gravel crackling beneath the leather soles of my saddle shoes. During the early spring when I was very young, I was made to wear rubbers- brown or red overshoes.  They were shorter and lighter than boots, but still added weight and bulk.  To be finally free of boots and rubbers meant I was free indeed.

With the advent of spring came the changes in wardrobe- sweaters instead of heavy coats, cotton dresses instead of wool skirts, anklets instead of knee socks.  With the lengthening days came lighter colors and jubilant patterns.  My sister Robin and I would sit together on the couch with the spring issue of the Sears catalogue and dream about the Easter dresses and white shoes that filled the pages.  The mothers and daughters in the catalogue all wore pastel dresses and light weight coats that coordinated with their hats.  I ached to wear those clothes- to look like the models in all their finery.  However, new Easter outfits were not usually on the agenda in my house.

“You go to church to honor God,” my practical Yankee mother would remind me.  “Not to show off new clothes.”

It was logic that was difficult to argue.

The signs of spring bring memories of playing with spring toys outside the house at 30 Green Street.  Sometime around the middle of March, my mother would visit Thorin’s Hardware Store and bring home a bag filled with paddle balls, jump ropes, and balsa wood gliders.  These were inexpensive toys that lasted only as long as the spring vacation, but they lured us away from the television and books that kept us sedentary during the weeks that were too dark and cold to play outside.  My brothers and sisters and I would hold competitions on the driveway- drawing hopscotch with chalk, or seeing who could skip “peppers” without tangling the jump rope between their feet.  We counted aloud as we bounced the pink rubber ball against a wooden paddle.  We ran to St. Patrick’s church and back, trailing kites behind us, trying in vain to get them to fly.  And at the end of the day when the shadows of the setting sun stole the golden warmth and left shuddering cold in its place, we snuck a daring barefooted run across the icy back yard before our mother caught us.
“Child!” she would yell from the kitchen, “You’ll catch your death of cold!”

But her lips would curl into a small smile, as if she remembered.

When my children were young, they celebrated spring’s arrival much the way my siblings and I did.  I packed away their winter clothing and searched the stores for new spring outfits, while I reminded them that we go to church to honor God, not to show off new clothes.  I bought them sidewalk chalk and kites, and taught them the same jump rope chants I learned as a child.  And although balsa wood gave way to Styrofoam, we still found gliders to swoop across the sky on a gentle March breeze.  They delighted in the lightness of their feet without boots, and every once in awhile, when they thought I wasn’t looking, they removed their shoes and stole a barefoot run across the cold sidewalk outside our front door.

Now that my children are grown, there is no one to celebrate the warming breezes and lengthening days.  I walk across the driveway to work and notice the gravel crunching under my heels, and when I close my eyes, I can imagine a glider doing loop-de-loops across the azure sky.  

I dream of the day when, I have grandchildren.  Although their parents will insist that they go to church to honor God and not show off new clothes, I will sew them new Easter clothing.  I will buy them kites and jump ropes and teach them to play hopscotch.    And when they think I’m not looking, I’ll watch them steal a barefoot run across the cold yard.

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