When my daughter was younger, she and I would make Halloween cards like this one I found the other day. Mother-daughter craft time is almost, but not entirely, a thing of the past.
Now we start projects together, but she rarely has time to finish them.
Arriving in Atlanta in the early afternoon, the airport is packed as usual. Is Hartsfield-Jackson ever not teeming with humanity? I wind my way through the slow-moving multitudes toward the train (formally, the Automated People Mover). I feel officially welcomed to my hometown when I hear the familiar electronic voice warning “Stop! Do not enter!,” followed by “Doors closing!” After exiting the train along with the herd and ascending the super-long escalator, I see my parents in their usual spot just outside baggage claim. That first glimpse is always a surprise—in my mind I guess I see them as thirty years younger. They probably do the same with me.
After hugs and greetings, my father begins his customary discussion of the unfortunate parking situation. The parking garages are, indeed, in a constant state of reconstruction. There is great difficulty securing an empty spot, and even greater difficulty returning to that spot. My parents never fail to disagree about the optimum route. Once the car has been located, the next issue is threading our way out of the garage. My father continues to be a confident and competent driver, but in the airport parking lot he has a tendency to repeat urgently, “Which way? Which way?,” and to be oblivious to all exit signs. Mama’s suggestion that he calm down does nothing to ease the tension. I’m relieved, though, that Daddy is driving; I wouldn’t want to do it.
In line at last to pay our parking fee, the car ahead of us never fails to be immovable. We watch with incredulity as the driver speaks at length to the attendant, as forms, cash and credit cards are exchanged, maps appear to be consulted and further conversation ensues. The number of documents passed back and forth befits a drive-through passport application office or a border crossing into a war zone. At long last, the car in front inches away, snail-like, but not before Daddy has tried (without success, due to the high volume of cars behind us), to move to another lane. Once at the parking booth, the ticket has usually disappeared under a seat.
Finally out on the highway, Daddy’s limited patience has been severely tested, making the ride to my parents’ house all the more harrowing. In an attempt to make up for lost time, he drives at quite a clip, frequently changing lanes, all the while glancing back to ask me questions about the flight. Mama is a reluctant driver and an anxious passenger (she grew up with older brothers who wrecked cars and racked up severe injuries on a regular basis). Whenever possible, she sits in the back seat, with Daddy chauffeur-like in the front. She strongly urges my father to slow down, advice he clearly does not appreciate. Next time, I vow (as always), to take MARTA and spare my parents (and me) this hair-raising drive.
A typical flight for me usually begins promisingly enough. The plane arrives at the gate, late but not exceptionally so. Passengers are boarded. We are set to go; all appears in order. The plane is picking up speed on the runway when it stops and the engines are cut. The pilot reports a situation that puts us in limbo. The wait on the concourse is extended multiple times, before we return to the gate and disembark. No information is provided, but we are advised to remain near the gate. On our last flight, the wait on the runway and back in the airport totaled seven hours. Accordingly, I did not have high hopes for this trip.
My low expectations, however, were far exceeded. Security was a breeze. The flight departed and arrived on time, the weather was beautiful, and my companions were enjoyable. I had the window seat in a row of three. We were all strangers, but we began talking and continued for the duration of the flight. The near certainty that we would never meet again gave us the freedom to dispense with small talk and get straight to life’s big issues. We had strikingly different backgrounds and opinions, but the discussion remained courteous and pleasant. Remarkably, we all recognized that the real value was in sharing our ideas, not in trying to prove a point. To judge by the example of our political leaders and pundits, we would conclude that opposing opinions cannot be aired without stirring up contention, competition and bitterness. It was refreshing to see that this must not always be the case.
After completing my duties as wake-up enforcer, my willingness to make breakfast and lunch is still expected. Reminders to bring permission slips, homework projects, violin, etc., continue to be appreciated. The revised parenting rules for middle school apply as soon as D steps out the back door.
The first rule is very specific: No parents at the bus stop. Unless, of course, it’s raining hard and the shelter of a car is valued. For seven years, I accompanied my elementary-school child to the bus stop. For the last four, Kiko came along; he loved to smell the children and their lunches, maybe meet another dog. The elementary bus stop offered a quick social opportunity for parents too busy to get together any other time. I’m fine with not going to the bus stop, now that no other parents are there. Kiko, however, is not. He wants desperately to be in the center of that cluster of kids, and if he can’t, he wants to watch as the bus leaves. If I try to pull him in the opposite direction, he balks and performs his dead-stop move. When the bus passes us, he’s ready to get going, but I can tell that his feelings are hurt.
The second rule is more general, and may be summed up simply in two words: step back. Parents are not to hover, meddle, or fight a child’s battles. Physically, I’m content to step back. I’m relieved not to be volunteering at school in some aspect once a week or more. I’m glad to let D email or speak with her teachers to resolve homework difficulties. I don’t want to be the mother who tries to be one of the kids, who pals around with the gang and discusses tween gossip. And it’s gratifying to see my daughter developing a sense of responsibility and maturity.
What I find difficult, however, is distancing myself emotionally. Watching D undergo disappointment or rejection really is more painful than experiencing it myself. I had often heard parents say this, but until I became a mother I doubted its truth. In some cases, my own past sufferings have led to a sense of perspective, and even, once in a while, to a degree of wisdom that allows me to help my daughter cope. But other times, when her hurt is intense, I get the sensation of a scab being ripped from a wound. Various forgotten disappointments in my life come roaring back. I feel my old pain and her young, new, fresh pain, all at once. And then I get angry. I want to stomp around and yell. I’ve learned not to throw or hit things, because the revenge of inanimate objects is sure and swift. My display of anger, I’ve learned, only makes D feel worse.
This school year, I will try to remember that I can’t protect my daughter from all life’s difficulties. I will remind myself, over and over, that a certain amount of frustration and failure is a requirement for growth. I will recall that we didn’t bundle her in bubble wrap while she was learning to walk (although we wished we could have). I will tell myself repeatedly that she won’t learn to deal with and heal from disappointment if I try to bubble-wrap her emotionally.
It doesn’t seem like seven years ago that my husband and I watched the Kindergarten bus pull away with our daughter on board for the first time. We saw her little blonde head peering out from the window, and both of us were overcome. We hurried toward home, fighting back tears. That was in the days when we couldn’t be too involved or protective. We had asked a reliable neighborhood boy, a safety patrol, to see that D got to her classroom. For an extra measure of reassurance, H followed the bus to school in his car. He watched from a distance while D waited beside the patrol as the other children exited, and he saw the two of them walk into the school. He called me to report that all was well. This is the kind of parenting I really understand. I was starting to get the hang of it just as it fades into obsolescence.
On the first Sunday in October, our church tried something different. We canceled regular worship services so we could go out into the community and be the church. While we church-goers know the point of our faith is to do God’s work, we tend to forget this central truth as we sit complacently in the pew. It’s easy to become a passive consumer or a critic of church theatre. It’s also easy to become disheartened, to despair at the enormity of the world’s problems. Our change in routine was intended as a reminder that we must be active in our faith, and that with God’s help, even the smallest of our good deeds is magnified.
There were several projects to choose from: providing lunch for the homeless at a local shelter, renovating an elderly woman’s home, assembling kits for AIDS caregivers, decorating placemats for use in a prison ministry, and a music and fellowship program for nursing home residents.
My family and I took part in the music program at the nursing home. I knew it would be rewarding because two of our most talented and versatile musicians were the headliners. They are the heart and soul of our monthly Bluegrass Night, an event that draws performers and their vintage instruments from all over Virginia.
When we arrived, about fifteen residents had assembled, and the long, narrow room was already filled to capacity. I had envisioned a more spacious, less awkward setting that allowed for a larger audience and more freedom of movement for the musicians. Obviously, trying to be the church affords no guarantee of a cathedral-like work space. Our church that day recalled Christianity’s earliest era, when members met in cramped hidden rooms.
The bluegrass duo kicked off the music with a couple of rousing old standards. I’d like to say that the audience was spirited and enthusiastic from the first bright banjo note, but this was not the case. A few residents smiled, some kept time with nods and light clapping, but the initial responses ranged from torpid to tepid. We invited requests, but the group remained inert.
We had a wide range of musical talent available, so we pressed on. One of our younger members sang and played her guitar beautifully. Another offered two lovely flute selections. A lively original song by one of the bluegrass pair was well received. With each successive performance, the crowd became more visibly appreciative.
A burst of energy accompanied the unexpected arrival of one of our youth, bearing both guitar and cello. When her mother sang a moving a cappella version of In the Garden, we reached a turning point. A frail, pencil-thin man knew every word. He sang along and moved his hands gracefully as though directing the choir. Everyone joined in on the chorus. The audience had finally warmed up, and the group had achieved a sort of unity. The differences between residents and volunteers, so striking at first, were less apparent. When our bluegrass veteran offered an old Gene Autry favorite, a tiny quiet lady in a wheelchair burst to life. As she sang heartily, eyes closed, head back, we could sense the warm rush of memories that swirled around her.
My daughter and I had planned to play a few violin and piano duets. As we arrived, I realized with dismay that I had left my hymnal on the kitchen table. While D has the gift of playing by ear, I do not. My husband made our performance possible; he jumped in the car to locate a United Methodist church and borrow a hymnal. We were in an unfamiliar area, but he was successful, as I knew he would be. By the time he returned, the division between performers and audience had decreased further. Our group had become a pleasant circle of fellowship. The piano was out of tune, but I played softly and minimized the notes so that D could carry the melody. I was especially glad to be her mother that day.
Most people would agree that music is a powerful connector. But given the opportunity, it’s also a vital conduit for the Holy Spirit. That Sunday morning, it was not just the music that drew us together in ways that words alone cannot. God was with us, just as he was in those early house-churches of the first century. With His help, we took some baby steps in our quest to be the church. We didn’t end war, illness and poverty, but we brightened up a little corner of our world. The music carried the breath of God’s presence, immediate, dynamic, and enduring.
My father’s birthday was earlier in the week, and he’s been on my mind recently. At every stage of my life, he has been the father I needed. It seems fitting to spend some time trying to define the qualities that make him so special.
The first thing that must be said about Daddy is that he is very handsome. As a baby, he was adorable. As a little boy, he was impossibly cute, but the mischievous gleam in his eye and determined set of his jaw made it clear he was no pushover. As a young man, he was a heart-throb. When my mother first spotted him on the University of Kentucky campus, she knew he was the best-looking man she had ever seen. He was movie-star handsome, and, as an older man, he still is. He has aged slowly and well, with dignity and a kind of easy elegance.
Daddy wears his good looks lightly. He has none of the arrogant entitlement often associated with handsome men. If Mama and I exclaim over an old photo showing him at his fabulous best, he may laugh or remark at how much his ears stick out. He isn’t inclined to talk about himself or his feelings, but his perfectly calibrated sense of assurance is always evident. Daddy is never smug or boastful, but his self-confidence is a sure thing. He doesn’t rethink past decisions, nor is he plagued by doubt or remorse. If he has ever been anxious or worried, he has kept it hidden. His outlook is sunny. When trouble comes, he deals with it and moves on.
My father has nothing to prove. Unless he is challenged. Then, he has no fear. He doesn’t hesitate to offer an opinion at odds with those of friends or acquaintances. Should the need for a physical confrontation arise, he does not shrink from it. He has the grace and fitness of a natural athlete. For a while, Daddy and his office buddies played basketball during lunchtime. The head of the department, a big bulky guy, was a bully on the court. He made up for lack of skill by pushing, elbowing, and playing dirty. After one annoying shove too many, Daddy punched the boss in the stomach, knocking him flat. My father didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t apologize. When the man got up, he was duly chastened. He never pushed or poked any of his colleagues again. Daddy doesn’t dwell on such events; he isn’t one to bask in moments of glory. He did what needed doing, and that was that.
Daddy is fiercely loyal to those he loves, and his persistence is unmatched when a loved one needs help. Mama wants a heavy piece of furniture moved into a difficult space? He’ll get it there if it means dismantling the entire room. I need a ride to an obscure part of the city? He’ll drive me, and he’ll make sure I get back home. I awake in the dead of night to discover a gargantuan flying cockroach perched on my water glass? (This was a not-infrequent occurrence in Atlanta growing up without air-conditioning). He’ll be there in seconds, a rolled-up newspaper in hand, and that damned bug doesn’t stand a chance.
If his family feels strongly about something, my father embraces it, too. My mother has a talent for interior design. She is a serial decorator who likes to refresh fabrics and color schemes often. Once she decides a room needs new paint, wallpaper, or upholstery, Daddy is on board. He does the heavy lifting, as well as whatever else is asked. If I’ve bought a new dress, he loves it. It’s been years since we shopped together, but I remember his offering to buy me anything that caught my eye. During a trip to Kentucky, my daughter was looking forward to searching for geodes along the river bank, as we used to do when I was her age. But the old path was gone, and the climb down from the bridge was steep and overgrown. Most grandfathers would have said it couldn’t be done. Not Daddy. He found a way to get us all down to the river, and back up again, safely. His priority is the happiness of those he loves, and he will go to great lengths to ensure it.
I realize now, with sudden clarity, that my father’s greatest gift to me is the absolute, unwavering certainty of his love and support. Never have I doubted for a moment that Daddy loves me with anything less than his whole heart. Perhaps even more amazingly, he has always let me know that he considers me the best, the smartest, the most beautiful daughter possible. It’s not simply a case of his telling me so; I think he truly feels that way. Of course I know I’m not, but his believing it means everything.
*My mother is no less remarkable, but her birthday isn’t until June.
Every weekday morning, as my daughter heads to the bus stop, Kiko and I are off on our morning walk. He is eager to sample the wealth of smells, sights and sounds the new day brings. His peppy, prissy little walk resembles that of a prancing circus pony. We’re usually out for nearly an hour, and we move quickly. We often meet friends, both two and four-legged; Kiko is an enthusiastic greeter of all fellow walkers. His exhilaration is contagious. Even on those days when I’d rather be sleeping, once out with my little dog, there is no place I’d rather be. (Here he is, ready to go.)
Later in the day, Kiko’s joie de vivre is considerably diminished. He has passed a demanding morning sleeping soundly on the playroom sofa. He’s restless, and it’s time for a walk. But he is ambivalent at best. Does he really want to go? Wouldn’t it be better to sleep a little longer? Have a snack? Play with foxy? He is uncertain; he is bored. Perhaps I’m reading my dog too deeply, but sometimes his attitude seems to be one of profound regret.
Only a ride in the car can lift Kiko out of his funk. The slightest jingle of a car key awakens him from dreams of successful squirrel hunting. His favorite sentence is: “Kiko, do you want to take a ride?” These words are the equivalent of the reset button. Upon hearing them, he tilts his head, stretches, shakes vigorously, and he’s recharged. His greatest desire is that the ride will lead to a walk in another neighborhood, one more interesting than our own. When this happens, his exuberance is as boundless as it had been in the morning.
I try to accommodate him. When the weather permits, he goes with me on errands. But even I find it ridiculous to drive the dog around every single day to elevate his mood. There are afternoons when I insist we walk along our own street.
It’s during these walks that Kiko tends to flaunt his array of annoying tactical maneuvers. They include:
• Scrambling like mad as though to avoid an approaching predator, straining sideways at the leash so his body forms a sharp angle to the road. (This requires a great expense of energy for both him and his walker.)
• The sudden dead stop, feet splayed out, head down, collar puffing out the sides of his face dramatically. (He used this move often when H tried to jog with him.)
• The missile launch leading into a fast sprint, best performed after the dead stop.
• The exhausted plop-down, usually attempted in the center of the road.
• The pause to eat grass, which he chews with the thoughtful delicacy of a connoisseur. (More frequent during periods of pouring rain.)
• The double back: once moving, a quick turn-around to head in the opposite direction. (Especially popular when time is limited.)
• The serpentine: darting impulsively from one side of the road to the other, typically attempted when cars are approaching quickly. (Is he suicidal?)
It would seem that simply turning toward home would put an end to some of these behaviors. Unfortunately, Kiko differs from the horse that runs only in the direction of the barn. He remains conflicted no matter which way we’re going. Sometimes it’s necessary to pull him repeatedly by the collar. If worse comes to worst, he can be carried, because he weighs only twenty-five pounds. I’m very glad he’s not bigger.
We may never attempt another family dog walk. Kiko, who looks like a fox and acts like a cat, tends to be ill-behaved on the leash. Four years ago, before we got our new puppy, I read Cesar Milan’s books. I was determined that our dog be thoroughly leash-trained. My faithful little friend would walk beside me in an orderly fashion, never lurching or tugging. But of course Kiko lurched and tugged. As Cesar the Dog Whisperer instructed, with each pull on the leash, I stopped abruptly. I maintained this practice for quite a while. Our “walks” consisted of standing by the road, me angrily fuming, and Kiko coughing, choking and looking bewildered. With each start he shot off again like a rocket. Kiko’s determination outlasted mine. Now I let him go just about anywhere he wants, as long as it won’t get him killed.
H and D, however, are less complacent. They still try to control Kiko, who is dogged and refuses to be controlled. They blame me, rightly enough, for his lack of training. But neither were they willing to do the training.
The night walk is typically H’s responsibility, and he held the leash. Kiko was straining to go just beyond the reach of the cord. Seeing that he was heading toward a fence he finds attractive, I commented, easily enough, I thought, “Why don’t you let him sniff the fence? Sometimes he pees there.”
At this, H bristled and replied testily that he needed no dog-walking tips; he knew how to walk the dog.
I should have left well enough alone, but instead I forged ahead, foolishly. “No wonder he doesn’t pee for you. If you’d let him go where he wants, he would.” Now, I’m not making this up–there have been times when H storms in after the evening walk, griping that the dog wouldn’t pee, even though they went down the street and back.
H did not appreciate my valuable offering of constructive criticism. He rather vigorously handed me the leash, saying something to the effect that if I was the expert, I was welcome to walk the dog.
Soon, the whole family had jumped heatedly into the squabble. We spoke at once, our voices raised and tense. We used a variety of forceful gesticulations. I have no idea what was said, but it was impossible to miss the animosity that swirled around us, as sudden and destructive as a flash flood.
I’d had enough. I put the leash down. And we NEVER let go of the leash. Kiko may be badly behaved on the leash, but running free he would soon be dead. D looked at me with horror. It was the same look she gave me when I hit her in the head with the Frisbee at close range. (This was accidental, but she couldn’t believe anyone could be that bad at Frisbee.) It was a look that says she has realized her mother is a monster. But she quickly grabbed the leash, and Kiko lived on. I set off in the opposite direction.
H followed, telling D to get the dog walked. My instinct was to walk somewhere, anywhere, by myself, lengthily, exhaustively. Instead, H and I found ourselves at home together, still too furious for coherent speech. There was much stomping and banging as we ostentatiously performed our respective household chores: H took out the trash and I loaded the dishwasher. Too restless to stay in the house, I went back out to check on D.
I found her trudging morosely toward home, pulling Kiko unwillingly behind her. She played the child card. How did she get stuck with the dog, she asked, when she had been an innocent bystander to her parents’ bad behavior?
The evening was a loss. We all recognized the truth in that age-old pearl of wisdom, “Don’t go to bed angry.” Yet we couldn’t follow it. There would be no healing birthday cake that night.
Because of the early surprise party, we had been polite, considerate and somewhat uncharacteristically jolly for over a week when my real birthday finally arrived. All that good behavior evidently took its toll. We were a tad grumpy that evening. I didn’t feel like cooking—it was my birthday, after all. We were drawing a blank on meal ideas.
After much aimless avoidance and procrastination, we opted for our Sunday-night default setting and ordered Chinese food, which we ate in front of the TV. We had run out of conversation. We couldn’t eat in the kitchen, as we were battling an onslaught of ants, and the table was piled with the usual contents of the counters and cabinets. It was getting chilly on the screened porch. Despite an excess of cable channels, Tivo, Netflix DVDs and the vast possibilities of streaming video, there was nothing we could all agree on. Not even an old Seinfeld or Raising Hope. H commandeered the remote and persisted in not hearing the program requests made by D and me. Segments of House Hunters, 60 Minutes, and AFV interspersed with annoying commercials proved to be an especially unsatisfying combination. We were grumpier after the meal than before. It made me wish we had eaten on the porch in cold and silence.
There remained, though, the chance that birthday cake and ice cream would offer, if not real fun, then at least some solace. D and I had baked and iced a beautiful cake with snowy meringue frosting.
At H’s urging, we decided to walk our dog Kiko before dessert. This would prove to be a most unfortunate choice.
The night before my actual birthday, we had a fun family dinner at a local restaurant specializing in Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. The elemental, primitive experience of steamed crab eating was new to our daughter. She wasn’t expecting the Formica tables spread with brown paper or the absence of plates and utensils except for a sharp knife and wooden mallet. My husband was unprepared for the garage-like atmosphere of the place, its worn linoleum floor and cinder-block walls covered with signs advertising bail bonds and auto-body shops. But I had heard that the focus was on the crabs, not the décor, and I found it rather charming. It reminded me of the blue collar bar in Princeton that H and I used to frequent when we first met. D has always been an adventurous eater, and it didn’t take her long to get into the spirit of the meal. Soon she was delving into the pile of crabs before us on the orange plastic tray, banging cheerfully with her mallet.
Crab picking is slow going, especially for those like us who are out of practice or novices, and it brought home to us how easily consumable the typical meal is. We are accustomed to food that has been removed from its inconvenient exterior casings and arranged in neat, extra-large portions. Completely fork-ready, it can be eaten with haste and ease. No doubt we’d all be healthier if we weren’t such effortless consumers.