Yesterday afternoon, a room full of young Americans in every color young Americans appear, raised their hands and swore alike , “… So help me God”, to uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Raising his right hand and swearing with them was Paul’s grandson, Levi. “… So help me God…” he swore, and passed from teenager to U. S. Army soldier in a heartbeat.
Most of them were so young! Watching my daughter-in-law’s video of the ceremony, I was again amazed and thankful for people willing to devote portions and sometimes their entire lives to the service of our country.
(I might be biased, but Levi was clearly the handsomest male in the room and will no doubt look smashing in his dress uniform.)
They swore their oaths and were duly shipped off. When Levi awoke this morning, he was in a different state and a different life. A month ago he crossed a stage and received his high school diploma: today he is a soldier in the U. S. Army.
I hope, despite the nerves and excitement, the crazy family vibe of parents and friends saying a temporary goodbye, that he was able to be truly present in the moment, that he recorded the sights and sounds of the ceremony that will forever be a point of demarcation in his life, a clear starting point for whatever comes next.
Would that every passage was so clear! Christenings, confirmations, bat mitzvahs, and quinceaneras; weddings, graduations, and funerals. Every culture creates helpful, symbolic markers along our varied paths through life. Growing up in Southern California, I tended to mark personal milestones by the most recent large earthquake or natural disaster, which is why I always know when we buried my grandfather: one week before the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. (Slightly related aside: all my Jewish relatives said the earthquake was a good sign, it meant that Papa was at rest and I’ve never figured out that logic.)
And yet, it’s often only after years and much soul searching has passed that I see other, but no less real, moments when for me everything changed, and I passed from one life to another in a moment almost ridiculously banal.
Keep your high school graduations; I think one’s actual passage from child to adult might be as devoid of fanfare as choosing to stay in and do one’s laundry on a Friday night while tackling the staggaring amount of reading one’s History professor has assigned. Sometimes, a career ends not because one was bad at it, but rather with an awareness of having nothing left to give it; one notices how a client has become a good friend over months of conference calls and working lunches; a new love is born across a fast food restaurant table, when she notices, with a bit of a start, she can no longer imagine a life without him in it.
Many are the blessings of retrospection, however much I bargain with God for prescience instead.
In the coming weeks, information will be blasting those new soldiers like a firehose. Some won’t make it through Basic Training and may struggle to find meaning for this particular passage in their lives. Unbeknownst to them today, their paths lay elsewhere. For some, the next four years will be a junction, or a stepping stone to another path. A small set of truly remarkable recruits will dedicate their careers to serving our country and us, their fellow citizens; yesterday will always be their first autonomous steps on their path through Life. Which of those, or a path I can’t even imagine, is Levi’s?
The beauty is, it’s his life to make and live. I believe he’ll be a good soldier; he’s determined, intelligent, physically fit, and in possession of a first class, loving heart. I’d want him beside me in a foxhole, and I know if he serves in a foreign country he will show the best face of the American Soldier. What will he learn, and lose, and love along his path? Levi, like all of us, has endless choices scattered along every possible path through Life, though I hope he’ll learn also that every choice has consequences, and closes doors behind him even as they open other, previously hidden ones, ahead.
Have you ever found, in retrospect, a moment where everything changed, one that maybe you didn’t see at the time? Do you ever see such passages when they’re occurring? What have you learned about yourself or others from the significant passages of your life?
One of the things I love about photography is it gives me a handy place to hide and watch people.
This is a big difference between me and Paul: though both introverts I find people fascinating, while his personal jury is out (I’m being kind). It’s a difference that binds rather than dividing us, as both find the other’s perspective amusing, in the way one finds a crazy relative endearing. Auntie Martha may be mad as a hatter, but damn is she ever funny.
Kids are awesome to watch and photograph until they become conscious of the camera and start posing for every shot. The instant gratification of smartphone cameras has made this worse, I fear. It’s hard to get a good, candid picture of our seven year old granddaughter, who now vogues for every shot. Capturing her when she’s just being seven and fully engaged in life is the best, because it’s when her sweet, curious, dare-devil heart shines the brightest.
Not long after we met our now daughter-in-law, Sarah, I got this shot of her and Sean, Paul’s youngest son.
I have no idea what he was saying but man is she ever listening to him. The lens captured what Paul and I had happily noted: she really likes him! They were so gooey-newly-in-love, each inquiring if the other was enjoying the meal. It would have been revolting if it hadn’t pleased us so, and we drove away saying to each other, “She gets him! She loves him anyway! And she’s nice, and smart, and pretty!” because really, what else is there for parents to want when meeting an adult child’s intended? Scrape away the need for income and being practical and tidy and not an ax murderer, and I believe we all just want our grown children to love some worthy person who also loves them back. Will have his or her six when needed. Gets them, in the fundamental, important ways the rest of the world may (and often does) miss. We already know all the wonderful quirks about our children that make them lovable but the wider world is a hard, impatient place, and folks are far more likely to see our babies’ flaws than finer qualities. It’s a gift to parents when you see a sensible and pleasant person clearly besotted with your offspring.
Flash forward a couple years and Sean and Sarah have a little one all their own. When lucky (and on high speed continuous shooting), I get a shot where one or the other of them are in their own little world with their little man, and it makes my heart happy and also makes me wish all children had parents who love them as much as these two love him.
Paul’s namesake has a new girlfriend. She’s been a while in coming but clearly worth the wait. She’s smart, sweet, practical and makes him happy. Here he is feeding her a line of BS a mile wide and twice as deep, as a good Irishman does:
See it? She gets him, and loves him anyway. Plus dimples.
It’s frustrating when I don’t get the technical stuff right, or think I and my equipment are faster or better than we are but, hiding behind my camera I sometimes see things others maybe don’t and when the Force is with me, I can capture it.
The year I don’t know, but in the early days of the 20th Century a young man from a small village outside Kiev boarded a ship in Frankfort, Germany, crossed the Atlantic and, passing through Ellis Island, an anonymous agent recorded him under the Anglicized name, Bernard Gross. He married a fellow immigrant, a girl from the old country named Rachel. They became American citizens, owned and operated a laundry, and raised four children: Betty, Mildred, Harry, and finally, surprise! the baby upon whom everyone doted, Jack, “Jacky” to the family.
Jack played High school football and after WWII he followed his older brother west, tending bar and managing restaurants, eventually settling down with a pretty cocktail waitress, a single mother with a little girl. He didn’t live an extraordinary life, but worked hard for his living, bought houses, paid taxes, and raised another man’s child through fevers, stitches, accolades, accidents, and late-night ER visits, adopting her as his own and teaching her what is meant by unconditional love. His own father, Bernard, adopted her, too, with the less formal but equally binding ties of grandfatherly love.
That little girl was me. Only one degree of separation, a straight line linking a little girl growing up with a loving father and America opening it’s arms to a Russian Jew fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe.
There is no way to estimate what my closest associations with immigrants have meant to my life. Surely, I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t sat in a doting Papa’s lap during holidays and family gatherings.
My country was built by immigrants, but as a country we have a habit of being pretty ugly to the most recent wave of them. Recent events conjure shameful memories from High School in Southern California, when Vietnamese refugees were settled in our area. Then, I witnessed a subtler, nonetheless savage, form of welcome by my fellow students in the form of whispers and snickers in the hallways and a pointed distancing. When the locker rooms became infested with scabies, the blame was laid firmly at the feet of the Vietnamese students, and the rampant but previously quiet racism of the school’s corridors turned vocally and disgustingly scurrilous towards them. It all sounds so petty and small, but it was relentless. I was never savage, oh no, I was worse: I saw it all and remained silent. Which is why I can’t this time, I can’t be silent and honor those immigrants who, in six degrees of separation or less, have shaped, loved, guided, educated, delighted, and enriched my life beyond measure.
It bears remembering that most people don’t want to leave their home countries, their relatives, their places of worship, their familiar foods and surroundings. When one’s choice is leave or die, it’s an easy choice to make, and there in New York harbor stands a statue inviting “the poor, the tired, the huddled masses” to our shores. America has long been the beacon of safety, of hope, the promise of God’s grace for whoever named God and even those who don’t. How do I wrap my head around even the consideration of not living into that promise? If we aspire to being the “shining city upon a hill”, deserving that honorific demands no less than offering shelter and succor to all people seeking refuge, the least, the last, and the lost.
We cannot be both Christian and Isolationist. God’s grace flows first not to particular borders but rather, into the human heart open and ready to receive it. Then we hold it but a little while, passing it on to the next in need while being ourselves replenished in the giving. In this way we are constantly renewed while repaying the debt owed to our immigrant ancestors, who paved the way for us.
In this way we live into the promise of being the “shining city upon the hill”.
If we were having coffee, I’d wish you a Happy Mother’s Day if you’re a mother, and maybe whether you are or not we would talk about our own mothers, grandmothers, and the other women who mothered us.
With unadulterated affection I’d tell you about my Auntie Helene, possibly the most motherly woman I ever knew, fat and pink-cheeked and ready with a hug. She taught me a bunch of what I know about unconditional love. She raised me until I was 5 years old and was fond of saying, all my life, “You’ll never be so big I can’t spank you”, even long after I topped her by a head, yet she never lifted a hand to me. She’s with me every time I fry pancakes, pull the gallon of milk from the back of the dairy case, or hear someone order a highball.
Telling you about my own mom would be harder going, because ours was a fraught relationship at best and she died of cancer when I was 21. We had been estranged prior to her illness but I would tell you, over the second cup, that I had the blessing of the last chance many do not get, the one when it’s too late to talk out the issues but both parties find it possible to say, “I love you,” and that simple truth suffices, saving the life of the one left behind.
I wonder if we would agree that for some, Mother’s Day does not come with unmitigated joy. We might speculate that for those who have lost children, or never had babies when it was their chief desire in life to do so, the day might be bittersweet. Ones like me, who had difficult mothers, or those who were orphaned and never found one of those remarkable women who love children not their own. Maybe you would think it odd, but I often think of Paul’s first, late wife, Jackie, on Mother’s Day. She died way too young and left behind four beautiful children. All have children of their own now, two born too late to ever meet their grandmother. I always wonder if, in those last few months of her life, she was royally pissed off that she wouldn’t get to see how her children’s stories turned out; I would be. I worry that her children probably have a sad moment or three on Mother’s Day, and I’m grateful to Jackie for raising four kids so lovingly they were capable of welcoming me into their father’s life.
We could talk about our own children and you, like everyone who meets me would come to know I am a pain in the arse when you get me going on the subject of my daughter, of whom I am terribly proud. She’s brilliant, caring, respectful, insightful, compassionate, beautiful, successful, and I often wonder just what the hell God thought he was doing to entrust such an amazing creature to my care. I failed her many times but I also did some things rather well, and my best, like most mothers everywhere. Having her in my life gave me a much greater understanding of my own mother, in the circular way Life has of teaching the most important lessons; I did things very differently than my mother did, but the understanding has been a unexpected gift.
If we were having coffee, you would probably admire the flowers gracing the table, the mantle, and kitchen counter as between Paul and Charlotte, my flower cup runneth over with roses, lilies, and tulips. Paul also gave me the gift of schlepping my camera equipment while I took pictures of running water for my photography class, treated me to Waffle House after, and we have a fine dinner planned tonight at our favorite Italian restaurant.
If we were having coffee I would press you to have another scone and some of the strawberry jam I made last week, and we’d lift our cups to mothers everywhere, and their children, too, in a toast they all make it through Sunday, whether that means coping with memories still sensitive to the touch, or eating burnt toast and runny eggs prepared by lovingly inept children. May everyone find a moment Sunday and everyday to remember moments of motherly love.
For two days my Facebook feed has been awash with friends posting pictures of their siblings, coupled with loving shout-outs to the brothers and sisters who irritated, annoyed, helped with, and shared their youth and parents. It’s sweet. And normal, because I guess it’s more the norm than being like me, an Only Child. And an Orphan, youngish.
Except, not really. It’s technically not true I have no siblings. And I think it’s not true I have no living parents, but I don’t know for sure. All of which has made the previously unknown (to me) National Sibling Day kind of bittersweet and weird.
I actually have three older half-siblings I didn’t find out about until I was 18.
Somewhere, there is a tall old man from whom I inherited blond hair, blue eyes, and a nose with a propensity to go arrow-like when smiling.
It was a thing for me, once, finding my older siblings. Making stabs at it a long time ago, maybe I thought having some sisters and a brother would make me feel less alone in the world. They were the product of my mother’s first marriage, which she denied existed until denial was no longer an option. Then she simply stonewalled, steadfastly refusing to answer questions until her death three years later.
She was married at barely 18, probably marrying away from her own abusive father as her older sisters had before her, and her younger ones after. She popped out three babies in the late 1950’s, then was divorced and lost custody of the children to her ex-husband in 1960. Nineteen-sixty. Custody awarded to a father – kind of unheard of unless a mother was proven “unfit”. Having experienced my mother’s unstable temperament and later having it confirmed she had some sort of a breakdown around the time of the divorce, I eventually realized how hard all of that must have been for my unknown, elder siblings. Picturing myself showing up on one of their doorsteps saying, “Hey, it’s me, your little sister! You know, the one she kept,” seemed like pouring salt in a wound and I understood at last why “discretion is the better part of valor”. Better they stay as they are. I also knew that sharing DNA was no guarantee of having one damn thing in common and it would be a shame to revisit pain on strangers, then sit in awkward silence, to satisfy my idle curiosity.
But seeing in my friend’s photos the similar smiles, the matching eyebrow patterns or hair colors, it would be a big lie if I didn’t say I’ve always wondered what they look like. Do they share an ability to cock one eyebrow? A love of reading? Biting sarcasm? Do they tear up at Hallmark commercials (especially the old one where the little girl gives her great-great-grandma a birthday card for her 100th birthday)? Would it help them if I explained my mother remained unstable and difficult all her short, unhappy life? Probably not. But it’s my prayer they long ago made peace with her absence. Maybe they had a lovely step-mother, just as I eventually won the step-dad lottery with my mother’s third marriage.
I’ll never know the answer to those or any other questions and I’m at peace with that; it’s part of adulting to let go of that which is not helpful. But seeing all the pictures with their wry, touching, humorous, and teasing comments I can’t help wondering what it might be like to have a person with whom I shared early history, had the wonderful sort of shorthand siblings have, the inside jokes and common gestures. Maybe that is just narcissism, and better put to rest.
I wish you all a happy National Siblings Day, and encourage you to hold them, your last links to your parents and early history, close.
Insomnia. Once upon a time I would have laughed myself silly at the notion I would ever suffer from it. Sleep was blissful respite, a safety zone from the terrors of the day, whatever form they took: bullying classmates; bullying mother; bad boyfriends; academic anxiety; work stress; parenting.
Then came middle age. Perimenopause. Divorce. Survival. I came to know insomnia extremely well, and the meaning of the Hour of the Wolf.
Working in restaurants most of their lives, neither of my parents ever adapted to the nine-to-five of regular jobs. Too many years in the hustle and flow of 6:00 p.m. to closing time, too many cigarettes and coffee, the restaurateur’s close allies but the mortal enemies of sleep.
Between cigarettes, coffee, and the heart-taching medications prescribed to treat her chronic, debilitating asthma, Mom was doomed to an unwelcome familiarity with the wee hours (yes, she smoked, multiple packs per day; you haven’t lived until you’ve seen someone with a cigarette in one hand and an inhaler in the other, struggling for breath). Propped up on a stack of pillows she watched the late news, Johnny Carson, the late old movies, finally falling into a fitful sleep about the time the national anthem came on and the channel went off-air.
Dad read and ate. He read all the time, two newspapers cover to cover every day and he generally had at least two books going simultaneously. Every trip to the supermarket with him included a pass by the paperbacks where he’d pick up whatever New York Times Bestseller he hadn’t yet read, magazines, and a Mad Magazine for me. He read sprawled on the loveseat in the family room smoking one cigarette after another, ashes growing inches long when a chapter had him engrossed, until bed. Once in bed, he’d read for awhile longer, then turn out the light.
Now, despite ceaseless fretting and not a small amount of expense on various pieces of exercise equipment in an effort to keep his waistline from its slow but steady increase, an hour later he’d thump out of bed and tread heavily down the stairs and into the kitchen, raiding the cookie jar or fridge. Maybe a piece of fruit or, to our dog’s delight, a bowl of ice cream (my dad gave the dog his own bowl), a piece of cheese. Then he’d stump back up the stairs, chewing, to look for sleep again. This cycle was repeated an average of three times a night. Between cleanings, the carpet up the stairs grew a trail stained up the middle from his nocturnal noshes.
As in so much of their married life, my parents’ individual approaches to their insomnia differed greatly; however, they were absolutely united in their shared optimism it could be vanquished by the latest newfangled pillow. They tried them all: donut-shaped to support the neck whilst cradling the head; wedges of foam to support head, neck and shoulders; body-pillows; the infamous water-pillow, a giant bladder one filled with water and which sloshed and blooped and did everything but promote sleep; foam pillows, cotton-stuffed pillows and feather pillows; pillows of every shape and size, in every imaginable combination. Every few weeks a new form of pillow came into the house bringing hope, but leaving only disappointment. Each inevitably joined all its failed predecessors, consigned to the pillow-gulag of the linen closet after a week-long trial period, having brought not blessed slumber but rather bloodshot, sleepless eyes blinking at an unforgiving dawn.
Neither lived long enough to learn the things I have: avoid sugar and caffeine late in the day; regular exercise; the blessings of Valerian root supplements, Benadryl, or Tylenol P.M. And something told me this morning when, pedaling away on my exercise bike I saw an ad for MyPillow.com, they wouldn’t have believed me anyway. Made in the USA, Better Business Bureau certified, the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation, and with a two-for-one special if you call RIGHT NOW, all my advice on diet, exercise, and herbal supplements would have fallen on deaf ears. They would have been on the phone ordering pillows, confident this time they were on their way to a decent night’s sleep.
And something in me recognizes for the first time a crazy sort of optimism in both which I can’t help admiring.
Poor Ivan, Ivan the (recently) Terrible, Ivan the cat nobody wanted.
Found by my step-son, Sean, the night Sean’s mother died, he’d been abandoned to whatever fate befalls tiny kittens taken too soon from their mother. There was no sign of momma-cat or siblings, just tiny Ivan, whom kindhearted Sean scooped up from a dumpster by the local 7-11.
Paul did not want another pet – they already had three dogs. His wife had just died and he had enough on his hands with the dogs, two boys, and a demanding job requiring brutal hours. But he was roundly shouted down by the extended family who insisted Sean keep the kitten found the day his mother died. Maybe they both lost their mothers that day.
Years pass and boys grow up and out of their father’s house. They took their dogs, but no one wants the once-kitten-now-cat who grew into a nasty, evil-tempered baggage, full of claws and teeth.
One day five years later, I moved in. Specifically, I and my dog, Tasha, who wanted to be friends with all God’s creatures.
Ivan wanted no part of Tasha. He was still only Kitteh, having no actual name because no one ever gave him one. He was Kitteh or Cat, glaring malevolently down from his kitchen table perch, spitting and hissing at Tasha’s wagging overtures, lashing out with the aforementioned claws whenever she passed. Within a day Tasha was giving him a wide berth. He was a little bit of an asshole, really.
I was working at a 5-A High school at the time and seeing a lot of Discipline, so much Discipline, and I noticed commonalities between the chronic discipline cases and Ivan the Terrible, as Paul finally christened him when I presented him with the choice of that or Vlad the Impaler. For a variety of reasons a lot of the kids I saw almost daily were being left to raise themselves with no consistent rules or structure in their lives, abandoned to their fates. It occurred to me that, brought into a house of grieving men and dogs, Ivan had had to raise himself, too. And no, kids are not cats, but most mammalian creatures fare poorly when left to raise themselves.
One day I noticed the most effective Assistant Principals and teachers strove to form bonds of trust and kindness with even the most troublesome students. When receptive, it often resulted in students capable of making course corrections before their lives went too far out to sea. It inspired me to try the same tactic with Ivan the Terrible. Though he was now an adult, perhaps he still had a chance of being a decent kitty.
He became my project.
I carried the broom around and when he looked about to swipe at her, I gently scooted him off in another direction, much to his indignation. I took him to the vet, brought his shots up to date, and had him neutered which sometimes settles a mean and/or wandering disposition. I shamelessly bribed him with lunch meat and the occasional meal of tuna fish. I stroked him gently on the head, developing an instinct for pulling back my hand just in time. Three strokes and no more, gently on the head, retract.
There were tears and blood, all mine.
Most of all I tried to be consistent, someone Ivan could count on always being gentle and kind. And, like the kids who maybe never had anyone show interest in them until they found that one special English teacher, or the AP who refused to let them fail, Ivan responded.
When I first moved in with Paul, he had the world’s noisiest house. I lay in bed with a cacophony of sound: first the master bath toilet, then the toilet in the other bath, spontaneously flushing; the alarm system’s periodic chirping; Paul’s alarm clock, with its vibrato-infused ticking which to my sleepless imagination sounded like legions of tiny Roman soldiers marching through the room; Paul’s dog, Lucy, chewing at herself on one side of the bed and Tasha on the other, indulging in the kind of deep ear scratching with attendant pleasurable groaning which always had me wondering if I should leave the room.
One midnight I woke to a new sound, a sound I knew from long ago, a rhythmic, vibrating, my God it was purring. Ivan the Terrible had nestled himself between our pillows and was purring. Amidst all the flushing, chirping, marching, and purring, I smiled triumphantly in the dark.
It came to pass that more often than not, Ivan the Terrible would be sitting at the front window when I came home from work. If he wasn’t there, he would saunter out from the bedroom as I walked in, offering a surprised little trill as though saying, “Fancy meeting you here”. He brushed against my ankles as I worked in the kitchen. He sprawled on the warm concrete of the patio, sneering at the dogs while Paul and I enjoyed pleasant fall evenings watching the sun set. He captured lizards, cicadas, and the occasional bird, proudly parading them before me; once, he even dropped one at my feet.
Tasha died the following January. I was bereft. Some weeks later I caught whatever crud had swept through the school and ended up in bed for three days with a raging upper respiratory infection. Giving every appearance of simply enjoying my feverish body heat, Ivan nestled at my side. In September, a woman blew through a left turn yield on green, totaling my beloved VW Rabbit, breaking three vertebra in my back, and leaving me covered in hematomas from shoulder to pelvis. Once again Ivan stayed curled at my side the four days I nearly couldn’t move. My daughter, Charlotte, suggested that perhaps Ivan was no longer currently terrible, but merely recently terrible, and so we added the parenthetical adjective to his name.
One bad afternoon we had dreaded too long, Paul and I sat on the floor of Dr. Gibbs’ veterinary office with sweet old Lucy, staying until she was safely across Rainbow Bridge. Ivan was the last pet standing from Paul’s old life, and he settled well into his role of Czar. He went from a rather skinny cat with a dull, thin coat to being a robust “stripey meatloaf” as Paul calls him. When it’s cold, he sleeps nestled down between Paul and me, gently wheezing and snoring. If he loves anyone it’s me, and I long ago abandoned all thought of finding him another home.
December 1, 2015, finally in a permanent home and Paul and I missing having a dog, I brought home Blanca, a sweet Lab/Terrier/Whoknows mix from the local rescue shelter. She weighed 10 lbs that day, a few less than Ivan. He took one horrified look at her and bolted for the Fortress of Kitteh Solitude under the bed. He did not cuddle up between us in bed, even on cold nights, for a month. He gave new meaning to side-eye. But one thing he did to an astounding extent is show Blanca tolerance.
Blanca thinks Ivan is her friend and wants him to play with her all the time. She dances, prances, paws, and whines at him. She aggressively sniffs his butt, which he finds deeply offensive; he rejects her gifts of precious tennis balls and appears singularly unimpressed when she shows him how she can fit two balls and a toy into her mouth all at once.
To her pouncing and yipping outside he merely swipes at her and chases her off, which she takes as a friendly game of chase, running in circles around the yard as Ivan watches like the crabby old man he is, occasionally darting out when she slows, giving the illusion of participation. She nuzzles him with her muzzle and is rewarded with a firm bite on the nose, a hiss, and a slap upside the head. She yelps and goes back for more. But unless he is just worn out with her he bats at her with claws retracted, which is more than I can say about how he bats at me. Allowing no snuggling, he does permit her on the couch during afternoon nap time. All together, it’s a side of him neither Paul nor I imagined existed.
Charlotte hypothesizes that animals instinctively know when one is a baby, and are gentler with them than they would be with another adult animal, thus why Ivan tolerates direct annoyances from Blanca (now about three times his size) when he wouldn’t tolerate Tasha walking past him. Maybe she’s on to something; or maybe it’s true that anyone can change, at any time of life, if they’ve a mind to do it.
It’s an election year and the campaigning is more vitriolic than ever, each candidate spending more time and money on condemnation and negativity than reasonable discourse. I can’t help wondering if they could spend a day in my house, watching a still-not-entirely-reformed, oft-times nasty-tempered cat putting up with an over-eager, bouncing, pouncing, tirelessly annoying puppy up in his business all day long, might they learn something? Something about how even two distinct species, with vastly different temperaments and upbringings can yet find a way to share space? Something about not letting every disagreement turn nasty, about maybe even yielding a little of one’s own turf for the common good? Maybe; maybe.
Our house is a five-minute drive from the largest man-made lake in South Carolina, Lake Murray, a reservoir fed by the Saluda River and across which is the Saluda Dam/Dreher Shoals Dam. A dream since the turn of the last century, the lake is named for the engineer, William S. Murray, who made it come true.
It’s a beautiful lake, surrounded by the ubiquitous pines of the region and it provides ample recreation for the locals and summer visitors.
For two people who grew up by the coast and are thus intimately acquainted with big water, it is somehow comforting to have the lake so near.
The dam has a footpath across the mile and a half expanse and it is busy on all but the worst weather days with folks seeking some exercise, a nice breeze, a look at the sailboats tacking across: flirty young couples and hipsters with babies strapped to their chests, strolling; mums with strollers power-walking off baby-weight; athletes with earbuds calling out, “Excuse me!” and sprinting past old farts like me and Paul, testing out my new camera lens.
The dam has also become a Love Lock place, if not on the grand scale of the one in Paris, it is perhaps aspirational. I have hopes for it, anyway.
For Paul and me, this is our first home together. There was my tiny, lonely apartment, witness to many tears and finally, healing; Paul’s house, with the sadness of his first wife’s illness and death and the detritus of a child’s addictive issues lurking behind every battered cupboard door; the two generic, temporary apartments we had together on our way here, though exactly where here was, was a mystery at the time.
But now, finally, we are here: signed on the dotted line, sans storage units, all our stuff in one place. Locked in, pray God, for a long time to come.
Our daughter-in-law, Sarah, is in labor even as I type this. She’s about to bring a baby boy into the world. A baby boy to carry on the name, which shouldn’t matter really, as we have a granddaughter who certainly seems to be carrying on the Irish stubbornness just fine. But all new babies are assurance that life continues, that we won’t be forgotten soon, anyway, that our name will be remembered.
We can’t be there because work is here, the trip expensive, and another trip back to Texas later this year already planned. It hurts, not being there for Sean and Sarah. Prayer will have to suffice.
I know Paul is thinking of his own dad, Paul Sr., gone several years now. I never knew him, but I love the sparkle in Paul’s eyes when he talks about his dad. A big man, first generation Irish-American, a tough Southie boyo who grew into a devoted husband and father, and made a success of his life. He taught his sons sarcasm, faith, fidelity, work ethic, and to maintain a sense of humor.
Hopefully up in heaven, Paul and Mary are looking down, two tough-but-loving angels watching over the new boyo and his mum.
Together Paul and his late first wife, Jackie, raised her two children and added two boys. Paul is as good a father, as devoted a husband as one can find in the world; it’s his youngest, Sean, who waits to meet his son today.
It’s in Sean I see the child who inherited the most from Paul. His is the quieter nature, the deeper thinker, the gentler heart beneath an outer shell. It’s interesting (to me) that both Sean and Paul are Friday’s Child, loving and giving, which is a form of grace, too.
Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace; Wednesday’s child is full of woe, Thursday’s child has far to go; Friday’s child is loving and giving, Saturday’s child works hard for its living; But the child that is born on the Sabbath day Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.
Welcome, Tuesday’s Child. My wish for you is the inheritance of Tuesday grace, the grace of your father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and that you will come to know the grace of the Father of all. I can’t wait to meet you!
There we were: my partner-in-Sunday School-teaching-crime, Arthur, our solitary student, and me. As we peppered him with questions about the text of the day, this not shy middle school boy said the only logical thing there was to say, “Argh…..! Don’t quiz me!” And we weren’t really quizzing, but I’m sure it feels like a quiz when you’re the sole focus of two enthusiastic Sunday School teachers.
It saddens me that we had only the one student because there are several Middle and High school aged children in our congregation, but they’re not coming to Sunday School. Ever paranoid, I wonder, is it me? But numbers are low even when it’s not me teaching, so that’s not it. It’s just parents are not carving out the extra hour on Sunday mornings to bring them. It’s not a priority.
I’ve raised a child, and I worked at two different, very large High school campuses and saw up close things that pull at kids, big things, unimaginably scary things, adult things, cultural things that can wreak havoc in their lives, maybe forever. I also saw that kids involved in their churches were generally successful students with healthy peer groups holding them accountable. They had better senses of self-worth and stronger moral compasses. It’s not a vaccination against poor decisions, but it certainly contributes to a solid personal foundation. Hang onto that word, “foundation”.
My parish priest, Fr. Mark, didn’t much care for this next analogy but it’s my blog, so I get to say what I want and scarily enough, you’re getting the edited version, but the old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child” is true, (here comes the part he doesn’t like) because (it’s my belief) if we raised our children all by ourselves we’d eventually kill and eat them. Anyone who has been cooped up with his or her children over multiple ice days knows this to be true. This is why we feel such relief when school reopens and the buses start running again, just as we’re starting to wonder: white meat, or dark? Because the Village is there for us, we don’t kill and eat our children. If you’re showing up to Church more Sundays than not, you already know it is the most important part of the Village. Hang onto the concept of the “village”.
Let’s consider the concept of “foundation”: In formerly Soviet Armenia, 1988, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter Scale caused massive damage and resulted in at least 25,000 deaths. By contrast, the Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California the following year measuring 6.9 resulted in 63 deaths. Shoddy construction standards were blamed for the high mortality of the Armenian quake, while the solid building techniques and materials used in earthquake-prone California saved lives. Anything built is only as stout as its foundation and the materials used to construct it, and this is as true of human beings as it is of structures.
Now let’s look at the Village: from the time we were cave dwellers until the Industrial Revolution, we raised our children in community. We tended to live in the same village as our parents and aunties and grannies and cousins. The men might go off to hunt bison while the women worked together gathering grain, fruits, and vegetables, and helped each other look after the children. As time passed and life became more “civilized,” children might go off to a school in the village or an apprenticeship, but likely they were cared for and learning from a variety of adults.
The modern age we live in has a different concept of Village, and we often live far from our extended families, our personal Villages. Now, we have our sweet healthy babies, the hospital staff waves us off with a heart-felt “Congratulations!” but offers no instruction manual. We take our babies to our hermetically-sealed, suburban homes and hope for the best, often performing the singularly important task of raising a healthy, functioning human far away from our personal Village, with absolutely no idea what we’re doing. The only instruction manual we’re likely to have is the one we got by default, by whoever raised us and because we are raised by humans, even in the best of circumstances it is likely to be a flawed book, with pages missing, numerous typos, and at least some seriously wrong information.
If we were lucky, we had other people in our lives filling in the gaps, offering alternative views to the missing or errant things we got from our families of origin. It’s especially important if we’re removed from our Village of origin to form a new one, built from strong materials, for our children. Teachers, coaches, friends, pastors and priests, and even Sunday school teachers can become parts of the Village. Sunday school lessons delivered in age-appropriate ways help children to unpack the kernels of Truth, the cosmic two-by-fours if you will, with which they will build their spiritual houses. It’s additional trusted adults who share your beliefs handing your child solid foundation stones.
And yes, I get that there are a lot of things pulling you and your kids in many directions. Soccer practices and band competitions and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. To which I say, it’s about priorities. Those things will always be there; you get one shot at raising your child.
I’ve quoted it before but here is is again, from my Developmental Psychology instructor, Dr. Scott Delys: “Your job as parents is to prepare your children for life…. Without YOU in it.” Sunday school, lighting the path to God through Jesus Christ, is part of that. It’s a safe place where children can ask any philosophical question and not be laughed at, poked fun at, ridiculed. It’s where they will build the faith and form the community – the Village, that will sustain them long after their parents are gone.
The Rector at my first Episcopal church, Fr. David Holland, occasionally went all Jewish Mother on the congregation regarding Sunday school, and I sat out in the pews rolling my eyes but now…. those eight years spent with teenagers, so many living on the edge with shoddy foundations under desolate villages, has shown me the wisdom of his words. Seeing again in them the times when I felt unloved and unlovable, when I allowed momentary temptation to override common sense and moral code, when knowing there was a Father who loved me, a la Bridget Jones, just as I am, might have made a difference, yes, it’s shown me the wisdom of his words. Bring your kids to Sunday School.