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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Confessions of a Makeup Addict

My name is Garrie, and I’m an addict.

This morning, as I do every morning, I leaned into the mirror on my bathroom medicine cabinet to put a contact lens into my right eye.  It is a struggle, as I cannot see the lens and have to fish around the little well of soaking solution with fumbling fingers.  However, without this lens, I cannot see to apply my makeup, and without makeup, I cannot go to work.  It’s as simple as that.

I began my love affair with cosmetics as a young girl.  My mother used very little makeup; Mabelline cake mascara that mascara jpgcame with a tiny application brush, a compact of pressed powder, and a tube of red Helena Rubenstein lipstick.  When she was busy in the kitchen, I would lock myself in the bathroom, examine each item, smell its contents, and dream of the day I would be old enough to apply small touches like my mother.  On rare occasions, I would try her lipstick, slowly twisting the base, but not too far, least I break the stick or wear down the point.  I carefully applied the ruby-red to my little girl lips, admiring myself in the bathroom mirror while my little brothers and sisters complained from outside the door that they had to pee.  Knowing my mother would never allow her seven-year-old to emerge from the house like a painted lady, I scrubbed at my lips until they resembled swollen strawberries before stealing out the door and skipping off to see if my sisters would notice how sophisticated I looked.

My sisters were not as captivated by the world of cosmetics as I, although Martha-Jean once reported for breakfast with bright blue eye shadow on her lids.  It was the latest fad- all the girls were wearing it- and my older sister bravely and unapologetically brushed it on and sat down to eat her oatmeal, until my mother caught a glimpse of her.  Mom promptly sent Martha-Jean upstairs to wash her face, sputtering “No child of mine is going to leave the house looking like a lady of the evening!”  I didn’t really know what a “lady of the evening” was, but it sounded intriguing.  I would have asked my mother for an explanation, but her face was a bit purple and distorted, and it didn’t seem like the right time for questions.

As I approached my teens, I heard the call from the drugstore counters and began saving my money for lipstick and mascara.  My first purchase was a tube of clear lip gloss that hung from a cardboard display on the drugstore wall.  It cost one whole dollar and it took me weeks to collect enough abandoned change from the floor of the phone booth by the Monson Inn.  1954-EraceWhen the clerk took the tube off the display and placed it into a neatly folded white bag, I thought my heart would burst.  My hands shook as I removed the top of the tube and breathed in its waxy aroma.  From the first application, I was hooked, and the next years were filled with small purchases; Bonnie Bell Blushing Gel, Max Factor Lash Maker, pale Yardley London Look lipsticks, and a wonderful product called Erase, that made my teenage blemishes less visible.  My mother finally realized that her daughters would not be doomed to a life of walking the streets and allowed us to wear eye shadow, as long as we applied it sparingly and avoided very bright colors.

During college I rarely wore makeup- probably because I was always running late for class.  I’d sleep through two alarms, rising with just enough time to pull on my jeans and sweater, brush my teeth, and run from the dorms to the classroom, arriving just in time to slip into the back row.   It was the early seventies and those of us who chose jeans and t-shirts over disco polyester didn’t bother with much jewelry and makeup.  During the years that followed college I became so busy juggling kids and work, that I only swiped on a small amount of makeup when I dressed for church, or to go out for a rare dinner date with my husband.

One day a coworker remarked on how tired and pale I looked.  I went home that night and took a long look in the mirror.  My coworker was right, but it wasn’t a good night’s sleep I lacked.  I knew what to do, and headed for the closest drug store.  I stocked up on blush, mascara and lipstick, and as I opened the packages the next morning, I caught the familiar scents and gently caressed the smooth surfaces with a virgin applicator. I knew my addiction had returned.  It wasn’t long before I graduated from drug stores to department store and Sephora counters.  I discovered mineral foundation and blush, and began collecting various brushes and fancy sponge applicators.  I traded my zipper makeup pouch for a makeup box that is nearly as big as a suitcase.

While I know that my makeup addiction feeds Wall Street’s Barbie doll version of how a woman is supposed to look, I can’t 1950s-red-lipstick-ad1help but feel that dressing one’s face is also an art form and an opportunity for self-expression.  I like to experiment with different shades and techniques, and although the end product looks pretty much the same day-to-day, it’s fun.   It’s an affinity I share with my daughters and some of my nieces, who carefully line their eyes and apply red lipstick that would make their Grammie proud.  Also-and don’t underestimate the value of this- it makes me feel a bit better about the way I look before I face the world, and people are less inclined to remark on how tired I look.

Besides, I’ll never get over the thrill of opening a new product, gazing at the fresh, untouched surface, and drinking in its delightful aroma.  I’m an addict, and I’m not ashamed.

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…

Beware Children Who Behave Perfectly in Church

I don’t follow many blogs, but I began followingThe Adventures of Miss Fanny P, several3 cherubs weeks ago, and it rarely fails to make me chuckle.  The writer is a mother of two little boys whose stories remind me that no matter where on the globe we live, mothers are all pretty much the same.  We love our children beyond words.  We cannot restrain ourselves when announcing their latest accomplishments.  And when necessary, we chastise them so others might see them as perfect little angels.

In one of her posts, Miss Fanny P refers to relatives who have perfect children who sit calmly and quietly at church.  I almost choked on my coffee and laughed out loud, for there was once a time when my three perfect angels sat quietly in church.  Or so I thought.

Our children were raised in a Born-again-Bible-thumping-sing-it-till-you’re-hoarse church.  Their father and I had made young adult commitments to a living God and although we didn’t always agree with every teaching from any one church, we decided it was important to be active members of a local congregation.  He is a talented musician, and although my skills were not as well-honed as his, our voices blended in perfect harmony.  For many years he led our church worship team in weekly services, pounding the melody on the piano, while directing a rock and roll drummer, guitarists and several vocalists.   He had them, as they say, dancing in the aisles.

The children spent a great deal of time in our church building. During Saturday morningabby angelic 2jpg worship team practice, Elizabeth napped by my side, while Abigail and Gabriel played hide-and-seek under the pews, crawling around like little GI Joes, trying to see who could travel from the back of the sanctuary to the front without being tagged.  The kids went to Sunday school before services and Vacation Bible School during the summer.  They accompanied me to mothers’ meetings and missions meetings, teachers’ meetings and meetings to plan other meetings.  They were nearly as comfortable at church as they were in their own living room, and therein is the rub.

gabe angelic0001In those days, we rose early on Sunday morning, ate breakfast, and with three freshly  scrubbed cherubs in tow, made our way to church before the first service began.  We seated our angels on the front pew, where we could see them, and they could see us.  I stood to the right of the altar with the other back-up singers, and their dad sat at the piano, at the opposite side.  Usually, a couple from the congregation would “adopt” the children during the song service, feeding them breath mints and whispering answers to their questions until the songs ended and we joined them on a pew.  But every once in a while, the three children would sit by themselves in the front pew, without an adult nearby. I never worried. They were freshly combed and their clothes were carefully ironed. They were polite and respectful.  They did not talk back. They did not whine.  I worked very hard to present three perfect angels to our congregation every Sunday morning.

On one such Sunday, as we began the first song, I looked down at the children.  The pews were full, and although the ceiling fans and air conditioners were running at full tilt, it promised to be a long, hot service.  Elizabeth, who was not yet in school, playfully lifted her dress over her head, and letting it fill with air, billowed it down to the pew like a parachute.  I silently willed her to look at me so she might see my disapproving expression and stop, but it was to no avail. Over and over, she flapped her dress up and down, exposing her little belly and My Little Pony underwear.

Not to be outdone, Gabe grabbed a Bible and began fanning it in Abby’s face.  It hit her nose and she retaliated by pushing him off the pew.  Gabe fell onto Elizabeth, who tumbled to the floor next to him.  And with one fell swoop, war was declared.

The song was reaching its crescendo.  Men and women clapped their hands and sang, stomping their feet in rhythm.  The drummer, sweat running down his face, kept perfect time, as the guitars followed the piano’s lead.  I tried to hold my vocal harmonies while alternating between scowls and head shakes at my three feuding offspring, but it was no good. They knew better than to look my way.

Suddenly, mid-verse, the piano and my husband’s strong tenor voice stopped.  The guitars trailed off, as did the vocalists, and the drummer, in the middle of a roll, crashed once on the high hat and looked around to see why the music had ceased.  The congregation and I watched as my children’s father silently got up from the piano, strode to the front pew, and whispered to his three wide-eyed and now very quiet children.  Then, as if nothing happened, he returned to the piano, and picked up the song exactly where he had left it.

The kids never acted out at church again.  I thought that whatever was said to them putelizabeth angelic0001 the fear of God Himself into them and they, realizing their sin, put away their wicked ways forever. But last week, I found their children’s Bible and leafing through the pages, found crayoned drawings and notes jotted during church- not at all innocent and exemplary of “good” Christian children.  They were sarcastic, and disrespectful and deliciously sinful.

You might think I am disappointed, but you are wrong.  I am delighted, because my three very normal children have grown up to be three exceptional adults.  They love God, but they do not always follow the church’s rules. They often challenge the way things have always been done.  They question.  They disrupt.  They turn my world upside down, just as they did when they were three little misbehaving monkeys in the front pew.  And I, who wanted my children to appear to be little angels, learned that no child is perfect, as no adult is perfect.  Which is why Jesus was born in the first place.  Which is why I chose my faith as a young adult.  I only wish I understood it so well twenty years ago.

So, Miss Fanny P, beware perfect children who behave at church.  Things are not always as they appear.  Thank God!

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.

Tinkerbell, NSYNC and other Magical Moments

A friend of mine returned to the office today after spending a week at Disney with her family.  Jodi has two beautiful daughters who are the perfect ages for a wonderland full of magical creatures.  She told me how they waited in line for an hour to see Tinkerbell and Periwinkle, the two fairies that appear in Disney’s latest movie.  I imagined standing in line with two antsy, excited little girls, surrounded by other antsy, excited children.  Somehow, the mental picture was rather unappealing. Indeed, just yesterday I was at the mall, doing some preliminary scouting for Christmas gifts.   There was a long line of families waiting to see Santa and I heard child after cranky child whining and crying because they were too tired, too impatient, too hungry or too indulged.  Standing in line for an hour for kid’s stuff does not in any way appeal to me.

Jodi broke my train of thought.  “The girls were really well behaved, and besides, seeing the looks on their faces when they finally caught a glimpse of Tinkerbell and Periwinkle made it all worth it,” she explained.

And then I remembered.

It was the late 90’s, and Abby was fifteen. She and her friends were huge fans of the boy band, NSYNC.  She  listened to NSYNC mix tapes.  She watched NSYNC videos.  She was glued to the TV set for NSYNC interviews and had NSYNC posters. There were times when I thought if I had to listen to “Tearin’ Up My Heart” one more time I would tear out my own heart.  But as every teen’s parent knows, if you share your kids’ music, they let you into their lives, so I listened to Justin, Chris, Lance, Joey and JC croon in perfectly choreographed harmony until they sang “Bye, Bye, Bye” and Abby moved on to more mature music.

In the midst of this musical obsession, Abby and her friend Elizabeth saved enough money to go to an NSYNC concert.  Abby asked her father to buy them tickets and after spending an hour on the phone and finding nothing available in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, he purchased two seats in Albany, New York- a three hour drive from our home.

The morning of the concert, snow fell so hard that school was canceled.  I considered canceling the trip to New York, but after taking one look at Abby’s crushed face, her dad insisted that we go.  We navigated the icy highway and arrived in Albany a couple of hours before the concert and found a parking spot directly across the street from the arena, in front of an Italian restaurant.  We ate a quick dinner and after instructions to stay together, with breathless goodbyes the girls sprinted across the street, while we sat in the car.

Our finances were limited and the night was cold, so we ran the car for short periods of time- just long enough to warm our fingers and toes.  Every hour we fed the parking meter a few quarters and once we took a short trip to the Italian restaurant for coffee and a bathroom break. We were cold.  We were tired.  We were bored.

But at eleven o’clock, the arena doors opened and the streets filled with teenage girls searching for their rides.  Amid the crowd were Abby and Elizabeth-faces flushed, feet barely skipping on the pavement, bubbling with excitement.  I had never seen my daughter so happy, and the look on her face warmed my soul and radiated to my frozen toes.

The three hour drive home passed quickly as Abby and Elizabeth chattered about the concert, and when we finally got home, I tucked my sleepy teenager into bed, knowing that sweet choruses of “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You” would drift through her head and fill her dreams. I climbed into bed, cuddling my icy feet against my already sleeping husband, a feeling of utter satisfaction lulling me to sleep.

That was more than ten years ago, but as I listened to Jodi speak about her little girls and the thrill of meeting Tinkerbell and Periwinkle, it became yesterday.  This is the stuff of perfect memories- the frustrations of standing in line, waiting on hold, or sitting in a frigid car melt with the sparkle of your child’s eye.  They are worth the effort.  Because acts of love are truly magic. 

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.

Ten Things I Learned from My Mother

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day.  My mother was never a huge fan of the holiday. She said that she had children because she wanted them and didn’t need a holiday to honor her for that decision.  Still, whenever Mother’s Day comes along, I think of her soft gray eyes and hearty laugh and wish for a way to celebrate her impact on my life.  She taught me many things; here are a few.

Ten Things my Mother Taught Me

1.  Don’t do anything half-assed. This colorful phrase was one of the few instances when Mom used cuss words.  I’m not sure where the phrase originated, but I knew it meant slopping something together without taking the proper steps to do it right. Mom detested doing a half-assed job of anything and did not tolerate it from her children.  We were taught to make beds with square corners.  We were taught to press the seams open when sewing.  We were taught to prime before painting.

When I was eight years old, it was often my job to dry the dishes after dinner.  One evening after dinner, there seemed to be an unusually high number of dishes draining in our big two-sided sink.  My brothers and sisters were playing, my parents watching the evening news, and I was left alone to dry and stack.  I finished the glasses and plates, but the pile of cutlery seemed enormous.  Instead of meticulously drying each utensil, I decided it would dry on its own and proceeded to dump the whole lot into the deep drawer were the silverware was kept.  I smugly closed the drawer and ran to the back yard to play kickball with my siblings.  Ten minutes later, my mother called me to the kitchen.

“What is this?” she asked, pointing to the dripping drawer.

“Um…er…” clearly I had no answer.

She pulled the huge drawer from the wall and dumped all of its contents into the sink. Filling the sink with hot, soapy water, she instructed me to wash all the silverware, dry it and put it away properly.  Every time I am tempted to take a short cut I remember how it took me three times as long to finish my chores than it would if I had done them right the first time.  Half-assed I will never be.

2.  Kids do stupid things and they do not know why.  The spring of my sixth year, I was to have my First Holy Communion.  My mother was an ambitious seamstress and she bought snowy white fabric and yards of tulle to make my dress and veil.  I do not remember the act, but apparently I thought I could help, and while the unsewn pieces of fabric were lying on the dining room table, I took my mother’s fabric shears and sliced the skirt down the middle.  I do not remember being punished for this, nor do I remember hearing my mother chastising me, and at my First Communion, the dress was flawless.

I should have never been entrusted with scissors again, but in second grade I decided that the best way to deal with the tuft of hair that kept  falling from my hairband was to cut it.  I took the tuft in hand and with a pair of fingernail scissors from the bathroom, lopped it off at the scalp.  To my horror, the hair that was left stuck out straight, like the top of a crew cut.  My mother dried my tears, and taking a razor, gave me a pixie cut that hid the shorn spot on my forehead until it grew out.

3.  Forgive one another.  God did it, so should we.  Enough said.

4. How to squirt water with your hands.  One of my favorite memories is watching my mother teach my children how to cup their hands together and squirt water through the little opening where their thumbs met.  They took such glee in squirting the brine of the Atlantic into her face and she took such glee in watching them do so.

5Off color songs.  Actually, it is one song.  My mother’s family was not prim and proper, but they were classy, and rarely spoke in ways that were not appropriate for all audiences.   But for some reason, my grandfather taught her this song when she was a child; “I love to go swimming with long legged women and swim between their legs.”  She loved my shocked expression when she sang it to me, and I daresay I have repeated it to my children, relishing their wide eyes and gaping mouthed reactions.

6.  Stand straight, shoulders back.  Mom was a large woman- tall and big boned.  She embraced her height and admonished us to do the same.  When the circumstances of her life threatened to bow her head in humiliation and send her scurrying for secluded refuge, she pulled herself up to her full height and greeted the world full-face and smiling.

7.  Just because something isn’t easy, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.  When she was in college, my mother was terrible at mathematics.  She nearly failed a required class and out of kindness and her promise to never teach math, her professor passed her.  Several years later, she taught seventh and eighth grade math and she was a favorite teacher of many kids who struggled with the subject, probably because she taught in a way they could understand, and with the kindness and empathy only learned by one who had been there.

8.  Put it to music.  Whenever there was a chore to be done or a lesson to be learned, it was much more pleasant when set to music.  At Mom’s instruction, we memorized times table, the books of the Bible, and spelling lessons by putting them to rhythm and music.  Dishes were washed while singing Girl Scout camp songs.  We dusted and polished furniture while listening to La bohème and Aida.  Music made every task more fun, every challenge more easily met.

9.  People aren’t here to live up to our expectations.  Mom taught me a lot about acceptance.  This did not always come easily to her- she worked at accepting people, and as she aged, she became more tolerant and less judgmental.  She looked past dirty faces, foul language and bad attitudes and recognized the beauty inside.  Social stature, wealth, notoriety and education did not change people’s worth.  People did not need to change for her to love them.  But often, because she loved them, they changed.

10.  Love is always the answer.  I learned from my mother that love is a verb that functions much like a muscle; put it to work and it becomes bigger and stronger.  Fail to exercise it, and it becomes weak and ineffective.  The harder it is to love, the better at loving we become.

In the last few hours of my mother’s life, I sat with her in a small room in the Hospice House.  All the things of this life had faded away.  Nothing mattered- not her education, not her possessions, not the pets she raised, or even the children she reared.  In those final moments, when she hovered in that place between life and death, I watched her struggle to raise her arms up to God.  Her last act was an attempt to embrace Him.  To love Him.

And so Connie Madison, I honor you by carrying on your lessons to yet another generation.  You taught me well.  I hope I can carry on your legacy.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Metamorphosis

…I know the day will come
when you will do these things alone.
Will you recall the shoulder rides
and all the balls we’ve thrown?
I want you to grow stronger
than your Dad could ever be.
And when you find success
there will be no soul more proud than me.
So will you let me carry you?
One day you’ll walk alone.
I cannot bear to miss one day
from now until you’ve grown.

 ~ “Can I Carry You?” by Brad Anderson

One night when I was five years old, my mother came to my room and roused me from my sleep. She asked if I wanted to see Toni Tucker, my teenage babysitter, dressed for Prom.  I did not know what Prom was, but when I padded downstairs and saw Toni standing at our front door, I understood why my mother woke me.  Toni wore an emerald silk gown with dyed-to-match shoes.  Her pony tail was replaced by a bouffant, earrings sparkled from her ears and she wore ruby red lipstick.  I thought she was lovelier than anyone I had ever seen.  She looked sophisticated…grown up…and quite beautiful.

When I was a high school freshman, I was asked to the prom by a boy I barely knew.  I accepted and then was faced with the formidable task of finding a prom gown.  I will never forget the search.  My mother and father accompanied me to Forbes and Wallace, where we found the perfect pink and white confection of organza and crepe.  When I saw the price tag, I gasped in shock. The gown cost thirty dollars- far too much money for a dress I would only wear once.  However, to my great surprise, my parents gladly agreed to the purchase.  I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I looked in the mirror the night of the prom.  I had never worn a long gown before.  I felt… sophisticated…grown up…and quite beautiful.

Proms are a rite of passage for most American teenagers, and for most of them, finding the perfect attire is almost as important as graduation.  I thought of this a couple of weeks ago as I made a few easy alterations to a gown for my niece, Mikaela.  She is a tall and blond, and her choice of a bejeweled turquoise halter neck was perfect.  Mikaela is an athlete, and usually is more comfortable in shorts and sneakers, but when she slipped into her dress, she was transformed into an exotic goddess in a tropical sea- sophisticated…grown up…and quite beautiful.

To me, a large part of the fun of finding the perfect prom clothing is watching this metamorphosis take place.  When Abby was a senior, she and I went shopping for her gown.  She tried on several, and we both fell in love with a pale blue strapless dress whose frothy skirt was delicately embossed with silver filigree.  It was costly, but once I saw my daughter in it, I was helpless.  Her green eyes were shining, and her cheeks blushed; her seventeen year old naivety bowing to the emergence of a young woman.  Just as my parents had said yes to me, I had to say yes to her.  She was sophisticated…grown up…and quite beautiful.

Gabe’s prom was next, and although I had seen him in black tie before, I caught my breath when he emerged from his room.  His tall, lean frame was accentuated by the cut of his rented tux, and he strode with the grace of the gentleman he was quickly becoming.  It was amazing to me that a boy who had just yesterday slam-dunked dirty socks into the washer could overnight be transformed to this dashing young man.  Somehow, he had become sophisticated…grown up…and quite beautiful.

When Elizabeth reached her senior year, we shopped on a snowy Saturday morning for her gown. The driving was treacherous and the stores were practically empty.  Elizabeth is tall and willowy, and looks like a runway model, so it was not long before several saleswomen were crowded into the dressing room to watch.   My youngest child…my messy girl…disappeared into a dressing room, several gowns in tow, and emerged breathtaking and statuesque.   The saleswomen oohed and ahhed, and we decided upon the ivory silk sheath with embellished straps.   My messy girl was sophisticated…grown up…and quite beautiful.

Prom is an event that marks the passage from adolescence to adulthood.  It gives teenagers the opportunity to shed their childhood and slip into the vestments of respectable grownups- even if only for a few hours.  It gives parents a glimpse into the future, to a day when their daughters will no longer be shy little girls and their sons will square their shoulders and look them straight in the eye.

It is the middle of April, and prom season will soon begin.  The halls of high schools are filled with whispers of who is taking whom.  Young men are suddenly aware of how much money they need for tickets, and mothers and daughters fill the malls to shop for the perfect dress.  Denim will be traded for tulle and heels will replace flip flops.  Cameras will flash.  Parents’ hearts will swell with pride.  It is the season of metamorphosis, a time when skinny, uncertain, quavering-voiced adolescents become sophisticated…grown up…and quite beautiful.

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.

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