Blessings Recounted: Contentment

Today is my dad’s birthday.

As I think of him today and the many odd and unexpected blessings that were gathered to me in this last year of his life, the blessings that I am trying to capture here for Sean and for me so that we might recall them on some distant day, what comes to mind is how contented he was in all circumstances and the goodness it added to my life.

My dad was a simple guy.

That’s not to say he wasn’t smart.  He was good with numbers and had an intuitive knowledge of words, thanks to the Latin he learned as an altar boy.  He was loaded with common sense and had a terrific memory – some of the same qualities I see in Sean.

He never went to college, he never had an important job, never ran a company, never managed any one, nor did he want to.  But he was smart enough know this:  It’s not the finer things in life that bring joy but the simple things.

As a foolish teenager, I saw his contentedness with his modest middle-class life as a lack of ambition, and it is with shame that I confess that I had some resentment about that, that he was not terribly concerned about seeing to it that I get the material things I craved.

Eventually, after life knocked me around a bit, I learned that no amount of stuff you can accumulate will add one drop of goodness to life, but rather will usually get in the way of it if for no other reason than the pursuit of such things robs you of your most precious resource – time.

I’ve often wondered what is it that makes some people content and others restless?  For Dad, I think the fact that he always thought of himself as a pretty lucky guy was at the center of his contentment.  He wasn’t one of those annoying perpetually “glass is always half full” sunny side up guys, but he was grateful for the good things that rolled his way and I guess he felt like more good came his way than bad, or at least on the important matters.

In the early 1950s dad went into the army with three buddies.  There is a picture of the four of them standing together on the day they got their orders.  Three were sent to Korea or elsewhere where they were either killed or witnessed unspeakable horror.  But Dad shipped out to Germany, where he said it was like being on vacation.

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He went skiing in the Alps, he went to Oktoberfest, he saw the great cathedrals and historic sites of Europe – but most importantly he came home.  He was lucky.  The only part of being in the Army that he didn’t like was the boat ride over and back.  One time I offered to take him and mom on an Alaskan cruise and he shook his head.  “No thanks,” he said, “I was on a big boat once in the army and I have no desire to do that again.”  I could have argued that a cruise boat was not exactly like the army, but sometimes Dad could be stubborn.

When he got out of the Army, the first thing he did was marry my mother, and if not one other thing went right in his life, marrying her would have made him feel like the luckiest guy who ever lived.  They bought a 50-year-old fixer upper and spent the next 58 years fixing it up and tending to the details of middle-class life:  three kids, boy scouts, bicycles, too much week for too little paycheck,  too cold winters, too short summers, old cars replaced by newer old cars, employment and unemployment, grandkids and then great-grandkids.

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And it seems to me, and to those he left behind, those 58 years passed more quickly than the time it took you to read these ramblings.

When the cancer diagnosis came in April of last year, he didn’t feel so lucky.  He was having a great time in his retirement years with my mother and wasn’t ready for that to come to an end.

In time though, when the shock wore off, he came back around to seeing that even in the midst of awful, he was a lucky guy.  He had a wife and three children who would see to it that he felt well loved and well cared for to the very end.  He had seen his children raised and he knew he knew he could count on us to look after our mother.  He had outlived all but one of his life long friends.  He had enjoyed much sweetness and little bitterness in life.  And somewhere, beyond this life, he knew something wonderful was waiting for him.  What more could one hope for?

So on this day that would have been his 82nd birthday, I think of my dad and what a blessing it was to be raised by a man who thought of himself as a lucky guy and how he lived his life in pursuit and appreciation of simple things that neither rust nor moths will destroy.

It is a rich inheritance.

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Blessings Recounted

It was last year, in this month of April, that I got the phone call.

My mother, trying to sound only mildly concerned, called to tell me that they had taken my dad to the hospital and they were running tests.  The catch in her voice betrayed her calm.

While working his usual Saturday morning crossword puzzle his brain had gone a little fuzzy.  He couldn’t seem to get the words to travel the familiar path from his brain to his tongue.

Don’t worry, she said, don’t worry,  I’ll call you when I know more.  I heard the phone click as she hung up, and just like the click of a light switch, my world went dark.

In 52 years, I have never known of a world without my father.  And somewhere in the part of my mind that stores all things that are unbearably true, emerged something that I had been denying since I was a little girl – that someday my father was going to die.  And now dawn was breaking on that someday.

Over the course of the next week, we would learn that my dad had cancer.  It had started in his lungs and made it’s way to the brain, which was further complicated by a multitude of other existing issues.

My parents were referred to an oncologist who laid the cards plainly on the table.  Cancer was my dad’s new landlord and this heartless landlord was serving an eviction notice.

Together my parents decided that they would not do chemo, but they would do radiation to buy some time, but whatever time they had left, they wanted it to be free of the misery that medicine often brings.

My mother asked the doctor how long he thought they might have.  Doctors don’t like to answer that question, so she asked him another way:  Could they have the summer? she asked, as if for permission.  The doctor said yes, with radiation they would probably get to enjoy the summer. But after that all bets were off.

And so that’s what they set about to do – to enjoy the last of what would be nearly 60 summers together.

As tragic and sorrowful as this past year has been, it has also blessed me in countless and unexpected ways.

The stories that follow in the coming days and weeks (or however long it takes to get it all out) are those blessings recounted.

What I Learned As A Salad Girl

My dream for Sean has always been that he will be a worker.  I think God made us to work. I think work provides many things that we humanoids need for a meaningful existence – structure, purpose, satisfaction and if you are lucky, a paycheck.

But oddly enough, work is something that has to be learned.  It doesn’t always come naturally.

In the summer of 1974, when I was 14, I got a job at the Bonanza Steak House.  I was as blind as a bat and wore hideous thick glasses and dreamed of getting  some of those new fancy soft contact lenses.  But at my house, there wasn’t money for anything like that, so if I wanted contact lenses, I was going to have to buy them myself.  And if I were going to buy them, I was going to have to get a job.

So that summer, before I started high school, I somehow managed to convince the people at Bonanza to hire me as a salad girl.  My job consisted of cleaning and chopping lettuce, cutting jello into sparkly little cubes and putting out slices of pre-made pie, and although it was not explicitly stated, when those things ran out, I was supposed to replenish them — as opposed to standing around twirling my hair — and that was a thought that would have never occurred to me.

I knew nothing about work. I thought I was there to look pretty and socialize.  After several days of what must have been exasperating training, Alma, the poor lady who not only had to stand on her feet most of the day but had to train me, flat out said, “Honey you are going to have to  learn to work or we’re going to have to let you go.”  Well my ears perked right up because if I were ever going to get those contact lenses, I was going to have get someone to pay me.  I quickly put two and two together.  Work = someone gives me money = I get stuff.  No work = I no get stuff.

After that conversation, I quickly figured out what work meant and went on to become one of the best salad girls in history.  It’s true. You can check the Salad Girls Almanac, my name is right there under Who’s Who Among Salad Girls.

Once I was set straight, it turned out that I liked work.  I liked how it felt, the sense of accomplishment one gets when salad, jello and pie don’t run out and I liked having spending money and not having to rely on anyone to provide for me. I could pay my own way. I could buy my own contact lenses and that gave me a sense of hope, that I had the power to change my circumstances.  The only sad part of the story is that it took me 14 years to figure that out.

Sean has been pretty good about learning to do things and doing them when I ask.  He’s been a teachable sous chef and reliable towel folder.  He puts away the silverware, carries in groceries and makes his bed when I ask. But what I want for him to learn is to take responsibility for what needs to be done — to see it and do it.  Oh, there are dishes in the sink?  I can put them in the dishwasher.  Oh, the trash is full?  I can take it out and put a new liner in the trash can.  Oh, the newspaper is lying in the driveway?  I can run out and pick it up.

But even beyond all that, I’d like for him to develop a heart that loves to serve, because I think if you have that, then you are more likely to see work as a joy and a privilege and not just a means of a paycheck.  They say if you have a job you love, you never work a day in your life.  I would add to that if you have a heart to serve, you probably love your job.

So the other day, AD and I had this discussion with Sean. We told him how we wanted him to identify some tasks around the house of which he could take ownership.  He half-heartedly mentioned a few things before he got to the big question, “How much will I get paid?”

“Paid?” said AD.  “How about you get free room and board here at the House of Antique?”

“And dental and medical too,” I chimed in looking at several thousand dollars worth of metal in his mouth,  “And we’ll even throw in paid vacation.”

He looked a little disappointed because his generation is all about the paycheck, the trophy, the snacks — the reward.

And I don’t know how to change that other than to let him grow up to become a salad girl.

School Dazed

The last time I wrote here, Sean and I were coming to the end of his of first grade year of school.  I say “Sean and I”  because, really, it was not just his first grade – it occupied a large share of my time and my thinking and my emotional space too.  It was my first grade experience by proxy; a much needed do-over of sorts for me.

It seemed to me that first grade would be a pivotal point in Sean’s academic career.  In that first school year, he would either decide school was a good thing or not a good thing, and it would have everything to do with his teacher.

I had a sour, joyless and surly nun for first grade named Sister Edwina.  I decided early on in that first grade year that school was an exercise in misery.  That’s a rotten way for a six-year-old to spend seven hours of a day, hating it.  Thereafter, I pretty much hated school and I was a cruddy student with a cruddy attitude and the grades to prove it.  All that changed when I was 30 and became a professional student, but I don’t want that for Sean.

For Sean, I wanted a teacher who would make him toe the line in terms of behavior, as we do at home. I wanted a teacher who would appreciate his creativity.  I wanted a teacher who would not allow him to get away with doing the least, as he is wont to do.  I wanted a teacher who wanted to be a teacher, whose nature it was to be happy.  And, as important as anything else, I wanted a teacher who would not make me feel like “that mom” or a big fat bother any time I had a question or an issue.

We got the teacher for which we prayed. She was Sean’s advocate, and for me, she was an encourager and adviser and even a friend.  It was a terrific first grade year that came and went in a flurry of papers and projects and lunches and parties and jackets lost and found.

And now, here we are at the top of the second grade school year and I’m still having trouble saying second grade instead of first grade and Ms. W. instead of Ms. S.  And by the grace of God and the awesome ladies who run the school, Sean was assigned a second grade teacher who is picking up right where the first grade teacher left off and we are off and running on our way to another exciting write-it-all-down-in-your-diary kind of school year.

One of my favorite quotes is that education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire, and thus far, all of Sean’s teachers have been pyromaniacs.  May it ever be so.  I’m sure it won’t ever be so, but may it ever be so at least until his learning spirit can’t be easily broken.

The other morning, Sean got up and got dressed for school and came to the breakfast bar for the most important meal of the day.  I asked him if he had had any dreams.  He said he knows that he has dreams, but that he never remembers them.

I stood on the other side of the bar wringing a dish towel in my hands for no reason and watched him eat his toast.  I noticed the jelly marking the corners of his mouth and how he is still unable to resist the urge to use his shirt for a napkin.  In the haze of a morning-minded fog, I saw not a long-legged soccer-playing second-grader, but my kindergartner, the one I could still carry on my hip, the one I picked up from school at 1pm and took with me to the grocery store in the afternoon.

“As soon as I open my eyes,” he said, “the dreams rush out of my mind, like the tide, and I can’t catch them.”

I loved how he said that, loved the imagery.

I thought about how that is exactly how it is with each passing school year – dream like and slow motion and mixed up when you’re in the middle of it, and then before you know it,  it rushes away and you can’t hold onto it.   And when you look back, even from a short distance, you don’t really remember it.

You just know it was.

 


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Little Kids and Big Kids and Lessons In Community

When kids are of a certain age, generally speaking, they don’t want to play with the little kids.  It’s fun to run away and hide from them and that sort of thing. I know this from observing Sean and I know this from personal experience. I was the youngest, and even worse, a girl.  I spent the better part of my early childhood chasing after my older brothers, hoping to be allowed to play.  Either of them would have rather eaten a pencil than let me to hang out with them.  In their defense, I may have been somewhat annoying.  Somewhat.

And of course all the little kids want to play with the big kids because it makes them feel big and important and one of the gang. Deep down inside, I think I still want that. Just a little.

Anyway, in the last year or so when Sean is with either of his two good neighbor buddies, both of whom have younger sibs, they think its quite fun to exclude the younger ones.  Collectively, we moms do not permit this.  When this happens, I threaten suggest to him that if everyone can’t play together then we will have to go home.  I am hoping that at some point he will absorb this exhortation and do it out of a heart response and not under duress.

So then awhile back, Sean had a day off of school, and since it was was a nice day we went to the park to throw around our Nerf football.  I’m quite good with a football. I can throw it with laser precision and get that pretty little spiral on it.  It’s pretty impressive and you wouldn’t know that I could do that by looking at me.  I bring that up now because there has never been another opportunity.

So we were throwing the football back and forth and a young boy, maybe a 3rd or 4th grader, wanders through the park.  He stands off to the side watching, probably admiring my football spiraling skills or perhaps my tremendous beauty, I’m not sure which.  I ask him if he’d like to play. He does, so I toss him the football and step aside.  Sean and the boy throw the ball for awhile and all is calm, all is bright.

Shortly thereafter, two other boys pass through the park with a basketball.  They are 5th or 6th graders, I can’t tell. I can only tell if someone is a 1st grader.  They invite us to play a little b-ball (that’s basketball for you who are not as hip as I) and we set up teams; Sean and I and the 1st boy against the two 5th graders.

Aside: I can’t dribble a basketball to save my life. I do not have the basketball mojo. Never had it, never saw it, never been anywhere near it.  If I happen to make a basket it is a fluke of the laws of physics.  Tip:  If ever you are choosing up teams to play basketball, do not choose me.  I will understand.

There was something about the bigger of the two 5th graders. I could just tell that he was an oldest child and that maybe his mom had issued threats and made him to play with the younger kids and that at some point he had taken it into his heart.  He made several well-veiled “flubs” and allowed Sean to get the ball and take it down court.  I really appreciated that.

It wasn’t too long after that these boys grew weary of having to play basketball with me and decided to play Monkey In The Middle with the football.  Back in the day, we called it Keep Away.  I begged off and sat off to the side to watch.

The two fifth graders put Sean and the 3rd grader in the middle.  Sean had a great time running back and forth and trying to get the ball.  But the 3rd grader didn’t like it. It seemed to bruise his pride.  He threw a bit of a hissy fit which all the other boys ignored.

Eventually the 3rd grader had enough and stomped off, which left just Sean as the monkey.  The older boy would again discreetly flub from time to time and allow Sean to capture the ball and get to be a ball thrower instead of the monkey.  But it wasn’t long though before the big boys were ready to move along.

“We gotta get going,” the big boy said to Sean.

He gave him a knuckle bump and thanked him for playing.

Sean beamed with importance.

I winked at the older boy which I hope he correctly interpreted as a nod of thanks and not some creepy-old-lady come on.

As we walked home, I noticed a little extra spring in his step.

“That boy that stomped off, what did you think about that?” I asked.

“Not good.  That’s being a bad sport,” he said.  “Dad doesn’t like that.”

“Yup,” I said, “Neither do I.”

I was pleased that he recognized that.

“That felt pretty good, didn’t it? That those boys wanted to play with you.”

He nodded.

“Maybe you could remember that next time Kendall and AJ want to play.”

He nodded and skipped ahead of me.

Two lessons in one day.

Probably more effective than 100 days of motherly exhortations.

So to all the moms of big boys out there who have gone to the trouble to teach them to look out for and include the little boys – thank you.  Thank you very much.

That’s called community.

Walking To School

Hands down, my favorite thing about first grade is walking to school.

Although I love our car time, it’s really nice to not have to get in the car of a morning as we have for the past several years.  Seeing the world through the car window is one thing, but being able to stop and examine a spider web or a willy worm or the perfect yellow leaf is a deeper richer experience that engages all of the senses and not just the eyes.  And what I especially admire about Sean is that he always seems to be tapped into the sensory data.  He has an acute awareness of that which is invisible to most.  The other day as we walked under the trees that line the sidewalk, he turned to me and said, “Mom, I just love the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, don’t you?”  Indeed, I do now.

Most days, AD will join Sean and me on our half-mile walk to school.  There are a few other families in the neighborhood who walk to school occasionally, but for the most part we have the sidewalk to ourselves.

When I was growing up, I never had the sidewalk to myself.  Everyone walked to school and there were plenty of us.  No one’s mom drove them to school.  No one’s mom or (gasp!) dad walked them to school.  Mom kicked us out the door, sometimes before the sun was even up, rain or shine, sleet or snow, and we joined up with the passing human train of children heading south towards school.  The older boys, who were too cool to walk, rode their bikes.  They would blaze up behind us hollering something like, “Watch out! No breaks!”  All the girls would scream and scramble off the sidewalk just before they slammed on their brakes leaving behind a screeching black skid mark three-feet long.  Then they would ride off laughing and popping wheelies with smug satisfaction.

After the long, long, very long walk to the end of the street, about 200 yards, we would have to cross a busy two-lane road. Sometimes there was a crossing guard, but usually not.  We were street-savvy Catholic school kids though, so if there wasn’t a car within 20-feet either direction, or if we didn’t think they were coming too fast, we’d bolt across.

Beyond the busy road lies a set of train tracks.  About 85% of the time, a train would be sitting on the tracks.  Just sitting.  So then a decision had to be made: Would it be better to risk death by crawling under the train or risk the wrath of Sister Mary Somebody for being late.  Always, we crawled under the train.  If you got your shoe caught on the track and got your leg cut off, as legend had it had happened to some girl whose name no one ever knew, then at least you’d have a good excuse and you could be certain that even Sister probably wouldn’t whack the hands of an amputee.

Once you made it past the train tracks, then came real danger.  Then you had to walk past a rat hole of a doughnut shop.  And my oh my, the smell of fresh baked doughnuts on a cold Midwest morning could lead a girl into temptation.  I never had the 20 cents it took to buy a doughnut and therefore never had any hope of getting a doughnut, but my saliva glands never gave up hope.  To make matters more unjust, my brother Jim who always seemed to have money, would get one.  I’d see his bike leaned up against the building and when I looked in the windows, sure enough there he’d be sitting at the counter eating a doughnut.

On the walk home from school, we’d go the reverse route; past the doughnut shop, across the busy road and under the train, but on the way back we’d traverse a fairly steep ditch just on the other side of the tracks.  The ditch was home to unsavory creatures like chiggers and cockle burs that would stick to your socks and shoe laces.  On the other side of the ditch was an old-timey garage that had a Dr. Pepper machine inside and one of those 10-2-4 signs.  Sometimes four or five of us would manage to scrape up 15 cents among us and we’d go in and buy an Orange Nehi or a Dr. Pepper out of the soda machine.  And when the cap was popped, oh the sound!  ChhSsshAAAaaah! — the sound of impending pleasure.  The bottle would come out of the machine so cold that it had frost on the outside and the soda was actually icy.  We’d each take a swig and I have to tell you, to this day, it remains the coldest most refreshing thing I could ever hope to put to my lips.

So yes, at the root of my love of walking to school is my own nostalgia.  I walked to school for eight years and have mostly fond memories.  And I want that for Sean. Of course his memories will be quite different, safer and more sanitary hopefully, but they will be his own.

My hope is that the memory of the three of us walking to school will burrow somewhere deep into his brain and return to warm his heart long after my bones have returned to the earth.  And maybe when he thinks back on these days of walking to school he will be reminded not just of the how the leaves crunched underfoot or of some silly or dangerous thing he did, but how much his mommy and daddy delighted in him.

* * * * *

Another walking home story, this one involving a pumpkin.

The Whistle And The Dinosaur

As I was opening a package of hotdogs to fix for Sean for dinner last night, I reflexively started singing the Oscar Mayer song. You know the one:  “Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener. That is what I truly want to be-EE-ee…”

Singing that song always makes me think of the Oscar Mayer wiener whistle and I can’t ever think of the wiener whistle without thinking about Debbie.

When I was about six or seven, my neighbor Debbie had one of those little red wiener whistles that came in a package of Oscar Mayer hotdogs.  Maybe they didn’t come in the package of hotdogs but you had to mail off for it, I don’t know. All I know is that Debbie had one and I did not.  They were about an inch and half long and they were a perfect little red hotdog in miniature and everybody wanted one.

As I stood over the stove slicing a hot dog into a pan of pork and beans, humming the Oscar Mayer wiener song, I recalled with sparkling clarity standing in Debbie’s backyard one summer day under the dappled shade of an old elm tree, watching her blow that little red whistle like Miles Davis.

When she was done playing the hotdog song on her hotdog whistle, she shoved it deep down into her pocket, out of reach of covetous hands.  She smiled smugly and shook her head ever so slightly,  refusing me a turn without a single word.  On many occasions I tried to negotiate a trade, something of mine, anything, for that wiener whistle, but to no avail. And who could blame her.  I had nothing equal to a wiener whistle.   How I wished that little red whistle were mine, but it was not to be.

And when I think of Debbie and her whistle, I also think of her big green Sinclair dinosaur.  Back in the 60s, if you bought gas at the Sinclair station, you could somehow get an inflatable dinosaur. Now I do not know exactly how you got the dinosaur because we did not get one.  All we ever got for free were flimsy towels that came in boxes of laundry detergent — never anything good and useful, like a dinosaur or a wiener whistle.

The Sinclair dinosaur was about three feet tall and when it was fully inflated, you could sit on its back and bounce and for some reason, at that time, that was a thrill.  Although Debbie did occasionally let me ride the dinosaur, I dreamed of having one of my very own and not letting anyone ride on it, most especially my brothers.

As I dished up the beans and hotdog I was about to serve my child, I thought of Debbie’s closet full of dresses, some of which would eventually get handed down to me, and I thought of Debbie’s plastic wigs, Debbie’s toy kitchen, Debbie’s nurse outfit with the cape and hat and medical bag.  I thought of her semi-creepy yet wildly alluring big doll head with hair you could really style.

Debbie had everything.

Except for a mom and dad.  Debbie lived with with her grandmother, obese and gray.  I don’t mean that her hair was gray, although it was, but everything about her was gray.  Her personality was joyless and gray.  She always wore an ugly house dress and made Debbie fetch stuff for her.  The grandmother seldom came out of the house and when she did, all the kids would flee for their lives.

Come to think of it, the only friends Debbie had were the neighborhood kids who occasionally wanted to play with some of her toys.  Truth be told, we weren’t really her friends.  If we weren’t being outright mean to Debbie, we were being dismissive.

For reasons I will never know or understand, we just couldn’t let her be one of us. And as I stood there stirring beans, I was filled with regret that I contributed one drop of sorrow to her life.  And I would give a million whistles to undo it.

I learned from my mom a few years back that Debbie’s life was short and cruelly tragic.

Debbie didn’t have everything after all.