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”

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.

Dad’s Gift

This morning I woke up with the bug…the Christmas bug.  Suddenly, I can’t wait to put up a tree and start gift shopping.  It’s time for carols and cookies and secrets in stockings. 

For me, Christmas is all about anticipation.  It is the season of planning and conniving.  It starts off small, like one little golden bell jingling in the distance and as the big day approaches, other bells join in, until it all reaches a crescendo of laughter, food and gift giving.

As a child, I would slowly turn the pages of the Sears catalogue, dreaming about what presents Santa might leave under the tree.  I imagined buying diamond earrings for my mother and a gold watch for my father.  I envisioned my sisters waking up to find their bedrooms had been redecorated in thick comforters with matching floral curtains.  I laboriously read the descriptions of Tonka trucks so I could choose the very best for my brothers, and I debated upon which teddy bear would be the softest for the babies. 

This was “pretend” shopping. The reality is that with a large family and limited income, my parents had to pinch pennies to give presents to their children.  However, that did not keep them from teaching us the joy of gift giving. 

The Christmas before my seventh birthday, I was given a dollar to spend at the five-and-dime.  I slowly walked through the aisles, carefully calculating how much money each gift cost, and subtracting it from my total purse.  A delicate handkerchief for my mother.  Cubes of guest soap for my sisters.  Plastic animals that squeaked when they were squeezed for the babies.  And two little bottles of “Kings Men” after shave for my father.  The bottles were milky glass with lids in the shape of knights’ armor.  I couldn’t loosen the caps to smell what was inside the bottles, but I felt sure that anything named “Kings Men” would be delightful.  Most certainly my father, who meticulously shaved every morning, would love it.

The little gifts were punctiliously selected and taken home to my room, where I spread them out on my bottom bunk.  I selected the wrapping paper to fit each gift’s owner- jolly elves for the boys, Poinsettia for the girls, and after using half a roll of tape and several yards of curling ribbon, took the masterpieces downstairs and laid them at the base of the tree.

On Christmas morning, I rose before dawn, crept down the stairs and gasped at the plethora of gifts that found their way to our living room.  Shiny red tricycles, baby dolls that drank and wet, and sleds had miraculously appeared in our living room.  For the next few hours, ribbons and bows flew as gifts were ripped open and voices exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted!” 

When we got to the last of the pile, I saw my father’s gift.  It seemed small and insignificant next to the wool sweater vest and set of screw drivers he had already opened.  I slowly brought the package to his easy chair and he looked at the tag.  “For me?  Is this from you, Boo?”

I nodded and watched while he struggled with the tape.  He opened the package and uncapped one of the bottles to take a whiff.  As he inhaled, his eyes grew huge and he gave a small cough.  “Did you pick this out all by yourself? “

I nodded again and he gathered me in his arms.  “Thanks Boo.”

He carefully arranged the bottles in their place of honor with his other gifts and winked at my mother.  I felt my heart would burst with pride.  His favorite gift.  From me!

For years the little white bottles of “Kings Men” sat in the medicine cabinet of our bathroom.  I occasionally wondered why Dad never ran out of it, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized what a rancid odor was contained under the caps of armor. 

I suppose you could argue that Dad missed an opportunity to be honest with me.  You could say that children should be given more guidance when shopping for gifts- that they should be taught to “find something nice.”

But here’s the thing- when my friends are grumbling about the chore of Christmas shopping, I can’t wait to pick out a special something for a special someone.  My parents taught me to do the best with what I have and trust that the recipients will accept all presents in the spirit in which they are given.  Consequently, gift giving is easy for me.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  Learning to give without fear was the gift my father gave to me that Christmas. And it remains in my heart to this day.

So now, when I hear the faint tinkle of Jingle Bells playing in my head, I am tempted to ditch work in favor of some Holiday shopping.  There are gifts to be picked out.  Smiles to be won.  Packages to be wrapped and ribbon to be curled.  It’s Christmas.  It’s time for giving. 

Thanks, Dad.

Mother-Loser-of-the-Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“C’mon.  Let’s play ball.”

Careful Mom… your crown is slipping.

Snow Day

Today is a snow day.  The world outside my window is like a snow globe shaken so furiously that the flakes swim chaotically in all directions.  Plows struggle in a futile attempt to keep the roads clear.  Radio and television anchors read long lists of closures and children snuggle under their covers, languishing in the knowledge that school is cancelled.  Snow days.  I used to love them.

When I was a kid, we lived at the top of Dye House Hill, not far from the center of town.  Snow days were announced by five short blasts of the fire horn precisely at 7AM.  It was a joyful sound, signaling freedom from winter classrooms, and announcing to parents that they were in for a day of wet boots and snowsuits.

No matter how much I wanted to go back to sleep on a snow day, I could never do it. I was always too excited to pull on boots and snow pants, and be the first to make footprints in the deep white drifts outside the front door.  I would scoop a mitten full of fresh snow into my mouth, and pulling a rusty Flying Saucer behind me, head for the sloping driveway at Columbia Hall. 

For a young child, soaring down a hill of fresh snow is akin to flying.  There was magic in speeding downhill, nothing but white rushing toward me, splashes of ice freezing my lips and turning my cheeks crimson.  At the bottom of the hill I would roll onto my back where I would lie breathless, letting the flakes float from the sky to my face until I rose to climb the hill and prepare for another run.  Finally, when fatigue and chill overtook me, I ‘d trudge home again, where I would struggle to pull snow-filled boots from my frozen feet and hang my mittens to drip on the steaming cast iron radiators. My mother would put my cold hands under her arms to warm them, wrapping me in her soft arms and kissing my damp hair.  From the safety of my mother’s kitchen, I would watch as the storm gathered strength and covered the streets and houses until the world outside became strangely unfamiliar.  When the sun sank, the alabaster drifts turned to blue and I would shudder, glad for the glow created by my mother’s homemade bread, simmering soup and musical laughter.   And always, the next day, when at last the storm was over, there would be sun so brilliant it was blinding.

Today is a snow day.  The last several weeks were filled with dark, turbulent skies that threatened to toss my siblings and me over and over, like the wind before a blizzard.  The winds blew, and in facing the skies, our eyes streamed hot tears, our footing slipped and our chests ached from trying to breathe through the sobs.  We clung to each other, desperate to stand against the winds, but the winds came, and with the winds, came the snow.  It covered the pavement, covered the dried remains of grass in the front yard, and covered the familiar paths and roadways that led to our normal lives.  Nothing is the same.  Nothing is as it was. And tonight, as the sun slips below the horizon, the azure shadows threaten to steal what warmth is left in my heart.

But I am my mother’s child.  I push away the melancholy and remind myself that it even though it is covered with snow, I know the path home.  I know to follow the glow left behind by my mother, to simmer homemade soup on my own stove and to fill our home with laughter.  I will wrap my loved ones in my arms, and kiss their heads.  I will make our home safe and warm.  And tomorrow, when at last the storm is over, there will be sun so brilliant it is blinding.

Love Notes

A couple of weeks ago, my son Gabe received notification from the University of Leeds that he had indeed met all the qualifications required for his Master’s degree.    This, of course, made my mother’s heart swell with pride, and I immediately conveyed my congratulations to him and emailed all one hundred of my closest friends to give them the good news.  There is an unspoken pact among mothers that when it comes to boasting about our kids’ educational milestones, all rules of etiquette are suspended for a twenty-four hour period, allowing us to brag ad nauseum without social repercussion or consequence.   I took full advantage of this.

And then,  this morning, while rummaging through some photographs, I fell upon a wrinkled slip of paper that made my heart swell to the extent that it leaked out of my eyes.  I unfolded the paper to find a note that my young scholar wrote when he was seven.  My thoughts flew to Gabriel in second grade.  He was tall and so thin that the other kids made fun of scarecrow physique and his missing teeth.  He loved to read, but he hated any schoolwork that resembled mindless repetition.  One day, while visiting his classroom, I searched the brightly decorated bulletin boards for my son’s work.  At one end of the classroom was a display of poems, obviously meant to be second grade gifts for Mother’s Day.  There were rows of papers, neatly penned, framed with hand drawn pictures of flowers, kittens, and bunny rabbits.

                “Roses are red

                Violets are blue

                Sugar is sweet

                And so are you.”

Where was my son’s work?   I looked back and forth across the rows of red roses and blue violets.  Surely he did one -he hadn’t been absent.  Perhaps he hadn’t finished.  No, the dates on the papers indicated that they had been done several days prior. Surely he had time to finish his work.  Maybe he didn’t want to participate in a Mother’s Day gift. I had yelled at him last week after stepping on his little green army men with my bare foot.  And I nagged him to clean up his room. Again.  And to stop teasing his little sister.  Again.

God.  Maybe my kid hates me.  

At last I found it, the last in the bottom row, scrawled in pencil, barely perceptible amid the riot of cheerfully crayoned pictures labored over by his classmates.   My eyes welled up then, as they did this morning. 

For the next several years, school was a challenge.  Gabe never learned to color, or to do the same work the same way that everybody else did. 

But you know, I’m kinda glad he didn’t.

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