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.

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.


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.


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.

Jackets Lost And Found

So far we have had two chilly mornings.  So far Sean has worn a jacket to school two times. So far Sean has lost two jackets.

So this morning, as he put on his 3rd and final jacket, I said to him that his first order of business today was to locate the other two jackets.

“Mom,” he said, “If the jackets are not claimed within so many days they give them to someone who does not have a jacket.”

“Sean,” I said, “That someone without a jacket may be you if you don’t come home with your jackets.”

And I was not kidding.  I am a big proponent of Love & Logic parenting. If he comes home with no jackets today, tomorrow he will be mighty chilly as he walks to school.

After seven years of parenting, I have yet to discover how to teach this child to keep track of his stuff.  I have tried to teach him that when you do not return things to their proper place, they become lost.  When you just put things down wherever you are done with them, they are not in their proper place and therefore — become lost.  When you do not put mommy’s scissors back in her desk, the proper place of scissors, they are not there when mommy wants to use them, and they become lost.  And that makes the vein in mommy’s neck bulge just a little.

The constant losing of stuff is a source of aggravation to me for two reasons.  1) It somehow becomes my job to find or replace the lost stuff, usually at the very inconvenient 11th hour and 2) I am not now, nor have I ever been, one to lose stuff.  I obsessively keep track of my stuff.

I grew up with not a lot and if I lost my stuff, I would have been transferred from the “grew up with not a lot” category into the “grew up with nothing” category.  There just wasn’t any getting more stuff.  Period.  Papa Ed and Vivian practiced Love & Logic out of necessity, long before it was a parenting philosophy, long before people said stuff like “parenting philosophy”.

Last fall, Sean lost his jacket the very first day he wore it.  It was a very distinctive beige and black plaid jacket that I loved that someone had handed down to us.  I had an inexplicable sentimental attachment to that jacket — probably because when he wore it with the hood pulled up, all I could see was my own 1st grade face and that melts my heart like butter on a hot waffle.

At any rate, several times a week I would go up to the school and rifle through the lost and found box of MIA lunch boxes, jackets and water bottles looking for that jacket.  And let me tell you, that is not an especially pleasant job.  That lost and found box falls into the category of “smells not that great.”

Finally I gave the jacket up for lost, grieved it and went to the resale store and bought him a bright orange jacket for $5.  I figured that maybe he would be less likely to lose an orange jacket, and if he did, I was only out $5.

But then in the spring time, when it warmed up, Sean came home with the brown and black plaid jacket.  Which was now too small.   I could never get clear how the jacket resurfaced, if Sean checked the box again and there it was or if at the end of the year, some kind soul looked through the box and saw his name in the jacket and returned it to him.   If the jacket could talk, I’d ask where in the heck it had been all year.

And maybe the jacket would say he went home to spend a season with a little boy who was growing up with not a lot.

No One Drops In For Coffee Anymore

As I was driving home from dropping Sean off at school the other day, I noticed the long line of cars wrapped around Starbucks and the crowded parking lot and I got to thinking how no one drops by for coffee anymore.  It seems that everyone goes to Starbucks instead.

Friends dropping in for coffee is all but a remnant of another era and I think that is kind of a shame that we aren’t available for spontaneous interaction anymore, that we don’t open our homes for that sort thing, that we are just too busy or that we don’t think our homes perfect enough or clean enough or whatever enough.

As I have mentioned here before, my parents live in the same house they bought in 1956.  In that time, they have served approximately 23,436 cups of coffee to neighbors, wayfarers, odd-ball relatives and the occasional long-lost friend who just dropped in.  My parent’s coffee pot has been on for 54 years.

My parent’s kitchen defies everything Southern Living tells us we need to create a warm and welcoming space for visitors.  Their home is not big and bright and you certainly will not find anything new or matching or from Pottery Barn there.  Their kitchen would make Martha Stewart cry.

The avocado green paneling is circa 1972. The pattern on the linoleum floor is all but worn off and slick from the constant ironing of the rolling chairs. (Aside:  I’ve always thought that chairs with rollers were an interesting choice for a kitchen so small you can reach anything without having to get out of your chair.  And in a 100-year-old house that has settled substantially, rolling chairs on slick linoleum means you could potentially roll out the back door if you are not paying attention.)

The refrigerator is covered in pictures of grandchildren and great grandchildren and postcards and magnets with wise sayings.  The table is always so cluttered that you have to scooch books and puzzles and prescription bottles aside just so you might carve out four square inches of real estate to set your cup down.  The trick is scooching it all en masse, like a tectonic plate, to just the correct degree, so that whatever is on the other end of the table doesn’t fall off like California into the Pacific.

The 45-year-old Melmac coffee cups don’t match, nor do any of the not-silverware.

My mother does not serve fancy or flavored coffee — it’s Folgers or whatever is on sale and if you want cream, it’s store brand Coffeemate.

Their kitchen is teeny tiny and cramped and cluttered and woefully out of date.  It’s not fancy or comfortable and would not pass the white glove test.

Nonetheless, people want to go there and hang out for a time and chat,  and they have for more than half a century.  Something there draws ’em in and it ain’t the kitchen or the coffee.

Must be the conversation and the company.

The Paisley Dress

I love paisley and I always have. I think paisley adds a touch of class to nearly anything.

Once, when I was a young girl, I was looking through our family photographs when my eye was drawn to one of the few color photographs in the box. I pulled the picture from the box and studied it closely for a long time.

It is a picture of my mother. She is a young woman. She is wearing a paisley dress, cyan blue, the color of a shallow tropical sea. She is seated deep in a chair with her long athletic legs crossed. She is wearing high heels. Her thick wavy auburn hair contrasts with the vibrant blue green dress in the most resplendent way, in a way that makes you want to look from the dress to her hair and back to the dress again. She is looking confidently into the camera with a sultry “I dare you” expression.

The sexy young woman in the picture is clearly my mother. But not. It seemed implausible to me that this paisley wearing woman was the same woman who nightly rescued me from the dark, pulling me into the safety of her bed, curling me into the soft warm curve of her tummy. My mother never wore high heels or fancy clothes, let alone paisley, and she certainly never sat around looking sultry!

At that moment, I realized that my mother had a life before me and beyond me.It was an odd and uncomfortable thought, almost inconceivable, but at the same time… thrilling.And I think it was then, in that moment, that I fell in love with paisley.

My mother is a smart lady. She could have been anything she wanted to be, she could have worn paisley every day. But she chose to have children instead and through us correct the hurts and injustices of her own childhood.

I don’t actually remember seeing my mother wear that paisley dress, but I remember seeing it hang in the back of her closet year after year.

If she had any regrets about the choices she made for her life, she kept them stashed away in the back of her closet along with the paisley dress. And we never knew it.


Otherwise Occupied

In case you were wondering who my company was yesterday, it’s my mommy.  She’s still here.  Sometimes I like to be coy. 

The upside to that is that she is occupying my child which means I can do other things, like go get my teeth cleaned – just a little hobby of mine, something I like to do in my spare time.

The downside to that is she can’t vote for me which means I’ll probably win this prize. So, maybe you could get your mother to vote for me? (That’s once every 24-hours through November 8th! Operators are standing by! Call now and get a set of Ginzu knives with every vote!)

I leave you with this “that’s my boy” moment.   The other day Sean came home from school and told me that the teacher asked the class to name a fruit for the each letter of the alphabet.  As expected, he said “A” was for apple, “B” was for banana and I think he said “C” was for canna-wope.  I asked what fruit started with “D” and he said doughnut. 

Yep. That’s my boy!

The 2007 Weblog Awards

Oops! How’d that get there??

The Pinwheel

Last week, we drove to Illinois to visit my parents and let Sean OD on popsicles and Wivian.

Knowing that in the coming week, that Wivian would be indulging Sean’s every whim and thereby be promoted to most favored grandmother status, Cleo, my mother-in-law, made a pre-emptive strike in the Grandma Wars and loaded Sean up with seven or eight presents to open along the way.

When we were about a mile away from MeMaw’s house, Sean demanded to open his first present and being the spineless jelly fish of a parent bent on instant gratification that I am, I let him.

From a beautiful gift bag laden with festive ribbon and colorful tissue paper he pulled a twenty-five cent pinwheel.

“Oh my!” he exlaimed. “I can’t believe my eyes! I’ve never seen such a thing!”

And then he spent the next 50 miles holding the pinwheel up to the air conditioning vent and cackling with joy.

If only his thrills would always be so cheap.