The Chicory Lady

Last month we went to Comerica Park to watch the Detroit Tigers take on the Minnesota Twins. Traffic slowed to a tangle near the stadium, allowing long looks out the window at dingy scenery. But a clump of chicory grew bravely out of a crack in the pavement against the backdrop of a cement barrier, creating a surprise spot of beauty among tattered paper cups and plastic bags and their trashy cohorts.

Chicory is my favorite wildflower. It grew with grace and vibrancy among the Queen Anne’s Lace in the ditches along the half-mile stretch of gravel road between my childhood home and my grandparents’ red house. Every year I’d try picking some, but even when plunged directly into water the chicory’s petals would close—not so much from weakness, it seemed (it can grow in cracked concrete, after all), but from stubbornness. It didn’t wilt; it folded up, not wanting to play the game of being picked. Chicory: sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. Nobody’s fool.

An hour after the chicory had welcomed us on the highway, we had found our way through the park and into our seats behind the third baseline. The occupants of the row behind us wore matching blue T-shirts bearing the name of an adult day care center— several senior citizens, flanked by caregivers, out to enjoy the game. Most of them wore name tags around their necks.

Before we were completely settled in, one of the women leaned forward and started fiddling with my bag, which was under J’s seat next to mine. Perhaps it was in her way; maybe she wanted to stretch her legs and couldn’t because of the bag. “No,” she said when I inquired, folding the top of the bag over a couple of times and giving it a pat. “I just want to make sure nobody reaches in and grabs something from your bag. Steals something. That happens sometimes, you know. That’d be too bad if it happened to you.” She smiled, reassured that my bag was as it should be.

Next up: the announcer asked us to rise for a soloist’s delivery of the national anthem. We stood and listened, except for the aforementioned woman, who sang. Her friend stage-whispered to her, self-conscious: “I don’t think this is sing-along time. I think this is listen-to-the-singer time.” The woman was unmoved. “But I’m going to sing, though,” she said. And she did.

During the second inning J took Sonny, Ace, and their cousin to get their promised hotdog and soft drink. They returned bearing three hotdogs but only one soft drink; it seemed that the other two had spilled. (Don’t assume that the demise of two soft drinks was not a problem. It was. I assure you.) J got the boys seated and headed back to the concession area to redeem the soft drink situation. The woman, who had overheard the dark reports of being handed soft drinks with no tops in a tray that didn’t hold the cups securely, was concerned—concerned enough to lean over my shoulder.

“Do you need some water up there?” she asked. “It’s so, so hot. That sun is just beating right down.” I thanked her and said that we’d be fine; we had brought plenty of water with us, and besides J would return soon with replacement drinks.

“Are you sure?” she said. “It’s very hot. You could dry right up. You all need to drink something. You’ll dry up otherwise.”

That she didn’t have any water to share didn’t matter. She thought she did, and if she had, she would have shared it.

“Well, all right,” she finally conceded.

Now she pointed to Ace.  “I’m afraid that that hotdog he’s eating is just going to squirt right on out of that bun,” she said. “It’s sitting too loose. Can you poke it back in tighter? It’d be awful if he lost it. He’d hate that.” She watched closely until he stuffed the last bite safely into his mouth. Relief.

Perhaps inspired by Ace’s snack, she tried to order her own hotdog from the vendor touting refreshments in the aisle ten seats away. “Just toss it to me,” she hollered. “I’ll catch it!” The vendor believed her.

“Did you say you want ketchup with it?” he asked, reaching for a hotdog.

“No,” she said. “Said I’d catch it. Just toss it my way.”

One of the caretakers snapped off the transaction with a shake of his head and dismissive wave to the vendor, who caught on and continued up the steps.

“Hey!” the woman objected. “I’ll get you back for that. I get people back for things like that, you know!” The caretaker, not unnerved by her threats, turned his attention to urging her to put her name tag back on.

“Why?” she said. “I don’t need a name tag. I know who I am. So do you.”

“It’s in case something happens. Then someone will be able to know where you’re supposed to be.”

“I always know where I’m at,” she said.

One of our players hit a double. A tap on the shoulder. “He can really hustle his bustle, can’t he?” she said. “Look at him.” She nodded approvingly—whether at his hustle or at his bustle, I wasn’t sure—before leaning back and cheering.

At the seventh inning, when the last call for beer sales was announced, she offered to buy a beer for anyone who thought that sounded good. The caretaker: “No beer.”

“Why not? This is our last chance. I’d even buy you one.”

“You don’t have any money with you, and besides you don’t need a beer.”

Grumbling. “No beer today, I guess. Maybe next time,” she apologized to her friend. They both stood for the seventh-inning stretch and danced together to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and the little bit of “Brown-Eyed Girl” played before the game resumed.

Then she leaned forward and adjusted my bag again. “Got to be careful, honey. Someone could just reach right in and grab something. That’d be too bad.”

The eighth inning came to a close. The caretakers stood up and announced it was time to go.

Another shoulder tap. “You have such nice boys there,” she said, nodding toward my sons and nephew, who were eating cotton candy sprinkled liberally with Skittles. (Don’t ask.) “I’ve been watching them the whole game. They’re good kids. I’m so glad they’re having fun! Look at them having so much fun!” She smiled proudly.

Wise caretakers, getting while the getting was good, before the throngs clogged an easy exit. But I was sorry the group was leaving. I liked the woman who’d conversed with us, who had wanted to help us, whose vivacity had spilled into our row. She reminded me of chicory. Sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. Nobody’s fool. She reminded me that those who shun kindness as indicative of weakness are not seeing straight.

I want to be like her when I am old. Sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. (Sorry, Sonny and Ace.) Nobody’s fool.

Her kindnesses were small—attentiveness to our bag, concern for our drink and food, offers of humor, encouragement regarding the kids—but flowed from her naturally and relentlessly. She reminded me of a line from a book I read years ago. The book’s title and author and even the topic have long escaped me, but this bit of wisdom sticks:  “You don’t just wake up a sweet old lady.”

Clearly this lady had had practice.

Clearly being like her requires practice also. Guess it’s time to get started.

I’m going for a walk tomorrow. I hope I will see some chicory. It won’t work to pick any, but maybe I’ll take a photo. It would be a good reminder.

 

 

Have You Been Half Asleep, and Have You Heard Voices?

Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name.“The Rainbow Connection”

Why yes, Kermit. I have. (Or, if not half asleep, then fully asleep.) To wit:

“Mom! Mom! I think I’m going to throw up!” (And it was so.)

“Mom! I heard a noise that sounded like a villain. It sounded like ‘Mwa ha hahahaha!’ Can you check the closet?”

“Mom. Mom? Did they really catch all those guys who bombed Paris?”

“Mom! It’ snowing! Look out the window! Is that enough for a snow day?”

“Mom, have you seen my library book? Tomorrow is library day.”

“Mom? This little piece of skin feels loose. It didn’t feel loose before.”

But usually the voice calling my name at all hours of the night is my own.

“Laura. You could read one more chapter of that book, and then you would fall asleep.” (Delusion lives on.)

“Know what, Laura? They may have caught the guys who bombed Paris, but what about the next such guys?”

“Are we becoming one of those over-scheduled families that I vowed we’d never become?”

“Why did you Google that symptom? Why why whywhywhy?”

“Would Sonny and Ace tell J and me if someone were hurting them?”

“I should have done that differently.”

“Your list of resolutions for 2016 is stagnating. Get a move on.”

“Eep. The Tooth Fairy. She’s supposed to come tonight. Please let there be a dollar up here somewhere so I don’t have to go downstairs. Is that a dollar on my dresser? No, that’s a receipt. Sigh.”

“Know what? You aren’t very patient.”

“Know what? You need to be more organized.”

“Know what? Now that there are only seven more minutes until the alarm goes off, you’ll probably finally fall asleep.” (And it was so.)

What voices keep you up at night?

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord,
At the end of the day. – “Lord of All Hopefulness”

 

Overlooking Alligators: On Keeping Your Kidness

“Ah, that thou couldst know thy joy,

Ere it passes, barefoot boy!”

“The Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Last year I chaperoned Sonny’s field trip to a wild animal safari park. We had lunch near the alligator pond, which of course was more attractive than lunch. Young would-be picnickers kept abandoning their lunches to take another quick peek. At one point audible excitement rose up from the pond’s bridge. “Look! Look!” Sonny and a few of his friends were leaning over the bridge rail, gesturing wildly. I joined them, wondering what the alligators were up to.

“Look! Minnows!”

Minnows? Minnows?

Leave it to kids. Overlooking alligators, beguiled by minnows.

I reported back to my fellow chaperones, who, after they stopped laughing and shaking their heads, began batting around similar stories.

Of the child at the zoo who wanted only to feed the ducks in the pond near the parking lot.

Of the child at the world-renowned botanical gardens who declared the dandelions her favorite flower of the whole day.

Of the child who dined with extended family at an upscale restaurant and rejected its gourmet offerings to ask for toast and celery.

They’ll sort things out eventually, we agreed. Meanwhile: unsophisticated kids, indifferent to life’s finer things, oblivious to natural hierarchy inherent in food and other entertainments. Little philistines.

Or are they?

– – –

Last week Ace asked a burning question: “What age do you become a grown-up?”

Age 18, officially, I told him. But it’s not as simple as that, of course. We discussed that people become grown-ups gradually. When you begin watching out for younger kids, when you help others, when you take responsibility, when you do things for yourself when you can—then you are slowly becoming a grown-up, even if you are still quite young.

Ace understood. “I’m working on becoming a grown-up by learning to drive already. I can’t steer yet, but I’m learning traffic rules so when I learn to steer, I’ll know what to do.”

Works for me.

Sonny had a question: “If you become a grown-up a little at a time, do you lose your kidness a little at a time, too?”

Yes. You can lose your kidness. You do this when you accept the arbitrariness of Butter Poached Lobster with Lemon Risotto being inherently superior to toast and celery. You discount the fact that the yellow of dandelions is just as brilliant as that of orchids. You take off your superhero cape before exiting the car instead of wearing it into the store. (Sniff!) You neglect to draw or paint, even though you’ve always loved drawing and painting, and you no longer lie on your back to watch clouds because you are too sophisticated for that, and besides, the neighbors might see you. When you invite people to your home, you worry about agenda and perfection of food and décor instead of enjoying one another’s company.

Maybe marveling at minnows in the alligator pond isn’t so ridiculous after all. Maybe it’s simply a show of childhood joy, and I don’t know about you, but I’d like some of that back.

I asked Sonny and Ace what they thought that people need to do to keep their kidness. Ideas flowed:

  1. Watch Wild Kratts.
  2. Build a snowman.
  3. Dig in the dirt.
  4. Go outside and run.
  5. Collect a pile of stuff and build something with it.
  6. Make a nest of blankets and pillows and read in it.
  7. Laugh at funny things.
  8. Make friends with bugs.
  9. Practice ninja moves.

Maybe digging in the dirt and befriending beetles isn’t at all your idea of any kind of joy, the childhood variety or otherwise. But what gave you joy as a child? Those things would probably give you joy now. Go and do them.

How have you kept your kidness?

Roots and Wings and Things

A few weeks ago our dinner conversation involved different stages of life—being born, starting school, being allowed to live on one’s own, and so on. Sonny and Ace seem to have glommed on to the same part of the discussion and perhaps even had a follow-up chat in their bunk beds later, because they both brought it up shortly afterward.

The next day Sonny plopped down on the couch next to me. In somewhat worried tones he got straight to his point: “Mom, is it true that when kids turn 18 they have to move out of their mom and dad’s house?”

“No,” I said. “They can, but they don’t have to. You won’t have to do that, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

He cheered visibly. “Good. That would be only 11 more years. I will probably live somewhere else when I go to college, but I will come back and visit on Sundays and Thursdays.”

I encouraged this, hoping to seal his promise of regular parental contact. “You’ll always be welcome in this house,” I told him. “Even after you move out.”

“And you’ll always be welcome in my house, too, when I get one,” he said. “You can come every Monday. Mondays will be ‘Chips and Dr Pepper Night.’”

Sounded good to me. “I’ll bring the Dr Pepper, and you can provide the chips,” I suggested.

He agreed, smiling because he won’t have to move out of this house in 11 years and because he can always return for a visit. Or maybe because he was blissfully anticipating a time when chips and Dr Pepper would be a regular part of his diet. But I choose to believe the former.

Roots: He’s growing them.

This child—the one who once was loath to let me out of his sight—is the same child who sprints ahead of me at church on Sunday mornings lest anyone think I’m walking him to Sunday school. And the same child who, when dropped off at Mimi and Papa’s house for a sleepover, allows only about five minutes before politely asking why I haven’t left yet—evidently my presence interferes with the occasion. And the same child who is counting the days until overnight summer camp, which he has been pining to attend since he was four years old.

Wings: He’s growing them, too.

The next day, Ace spoke up from the back seat on the way home from school: “Mom, I have to ask you something.”

“Yes?”

“Do you have to move out of your mom and dad’s house when you turn 18?”

I warmed up for another tender conversation similar to the previous day’s.

“No,” I began. “You’ll always be welcome in our house.”

He paused. His brow furrowed in the rear-view mirror. “But if you want to move out when you’re 18, can you?”

Oh.

Wings: Evidently he is growing some.

This is the same child who often, halfway through disembarking in the school drop-off line, often climbs back into the vehicle to give me a hug and say “I love you.” (Sorry for the hold-up, people behind us in the drop-off line.) And the same child who cannot be away for more than a day—even with J, Sonny, and me, and even when he is enjoying himself—without asking to return home. And the same child who loves old, and not yet old, family stories.

Roots: He has some already.

Sonny and Ace do almost everything differently, so it is no surprise that their roots and wings are taking different forms also. I’m just glad they are developing both, and I hope they never lose them.

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.” — “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran

Should Auld Reflections Be Forgot?

I’m a wee bit addicted to the online Scrabble-type games Wordscraper and Words with Friends. The other day I arranged the letters of bursae, hit “Play,” and was awarded with 33 points, which initially seemed respectable. But then! A new feature called Hindsight popped up unsolicited to unhelpfully point out that I had missed the opportunity to play a more lucrative word—bruxes—for 65 points. Given that the my B and E were occupied in bursae and therefore no longer available to participate in bruxes on my next turn, I wondered why Hindsight felt the need to speak up.

Hindsight continues to haunt my games. Jades was worth 34 points, but jambes would have scored 48. Eve earned me 7 points, but guess what? Ajee would have brought 13. Wanly was worth 40 points, but knawel? Fifty-nine. (What’s a knawel?)

Sometimes hindsight can be a bit of a know-it-all. A useless know-it-all.

Of course, Words with Friends aside, hindsight and I are old acquaintances. It drops in regularly to explain what might have been handled differently.  For example, recently I made the two-ingredient pancakes that are lauded on Pinterest. In hindsight, I should have foreseen obvious: that egg and banana “pancakes” would bear no resemblance to pancakes at all but might more accurately be considered banana omelets. Disgusting banana omelets, because is there any other kind?

In hindsight, I should have known not to answer the question “Mom, what’s under there?” with “Under where?” And I don’t do that anymore unless I want to send Sonny and Ace into homonym-induced hilarity that will render them unable to stand.

Hindsight offers up the perfect combination of words after the opportunity to utter them has passed. O hindsight’s wisdom, where wert though as I stood there stammering?

Hindsight has pointed out that not every unreasonable demand needs to be met with resistance—sometimes it’s harmless to concede. And because hindsight is a mysterious animal, it has also pointed out that speaking up is sometimes preferable to being still. (If foresight could show up more regularly to help me discriminate between the two situations before I react, that would be great, because I too often confuse them.)

Hindsight whispers that some moments were more important than they seemed at the time and ought to have been treated accordingly.

So hindsight’s lessons are useful, and I hope to lure them with me into next year. No banana omelets at my house in 2015, and by extrapolation, no black-bean sugar-free cookies. (Avoided that one in time. Whew.)  In general, I hope to give foresight a chance to speak more often so that hindsight won’t need to hover around sighing and shaking its head at me.

Other times, though, hindsight is as useless as the belated revelation that knawel would have been the optimal word to play. It drums up regrets after one has done one’s best; and perhaps the choice that was made wasn’t the worst choice at all. Maybe not as good as knawel, but still good enough.

So don’t let any worthless regrets crash your New Year’s Eve party. Tomorrow is a new year.

Enjoy it.

One Good Deed

Once upon a time, after a bombing that killed many civilians in Beirut, some reporters crowded around Mother Teresa as she helped load two wounded little girls into an ambulance. One reporter asked her if she considered her relief efforts successful—after all, another 100 children waited in another bombed-out hospital, and she wasn’t helping them.

Mother Teresa only replied, “Don’t you think it is a good thing to help these little ones?”

In defiance of the maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question, the reporter repeated himself: “The other hospital has many wounded children, too. Can you call your efforts successful if you leave them unattended?”

Employing the patience of a saint, Mother Teresa simply stated, “I think it is a good thing to help these children.”

—————————–

Last week a Michigan police officer pulled over a driver for a traffic citation and noticed that the woman’s child was not restrained in a booster seat as the law required. The mother explained that her daughter’s booster seat had been repossessed along with her car in August. (If there is a good reason for car seats to be repossessed—perhaps a better word would be stolen—along with cars, I’d love to hear it. Anyone? Anyone?) She couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

Officer Ben Hall could have issued a ticket for this violation. Instead, he invited her to the nearby WalMart and bought her a car seat with his own money.

The story of his generosity has gone viral. I’ve read articles from many news sources, large and small. While doing so, I have, against my better judgment, occasionally descended below the article into the Reader Comments sections. (This is always a bad idea.)

Many of the comments have been positive and encouraging. But naturally, this being the Reader Comments section, many aren’t. The usual band of naysayers are naying fervently, lest . . . I don’t know; lest the Internet implode without their input?—shoring up the dictum that no good deed goes unpunished.

The Survivalists: “My generation never sat in car seats when we were kids! We wandered around the station wagon and even rode in the back of pick-up trucks. Somehow we managed to live.” (Except the ones who didn’t.)

The Eeyores: “That was nice of him. If the mother was telling the truth, that is. She probably wasn’t.” (No, she probably was. People often do.)

The Leapers of Logic: “That cop gets paid with my tax dollars, so my money bought that seat!” (Huh?)

The Projectors of Their Own Sexism: “He only did this because the driver was a woman. A father wouldn’t have gotten off so easily.” (Had a father gotten off this easily, someone would have claimed that it was because he was a man. Just a guess, here . . .)

The Tossers of Bones: “I’m not sure I’d believe every sob story from every person who is about to get a ticket, but at least his heart was in the right place, so good for him.” (Yes. Good for him.)

The Jaundiced Eyes: “I wish someone would buy me stuff.” (That would be nice, wouldn’t it?)

The Yawners: “Slow news day? How about some real news? This article is a waste of space.” (More so than your comment?)

Cynics: “He did this for the publicity.” (How could he have predicted that this story would make news?)

The Tangential Ranters: “One good deed doesn’t offset other cops’ actions of rape, assault, murder, corruption, murdering their spouse and family members, filing false reports, lying, etc.” (Okaaaay. See also: Leapers of Logic.)

And on, and on.

But while the naysayers, in their many subspecies, continue to nay, a child is now safer than before.

Do you think it is a good thing that Officer Ben Hall helped this child?

I think it is a good thing.

Weird Things I Once Believed

When I was very young I thought that the tails side of a penny featured the trolley from the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

tailpenny     rogerstrolley_437x220

When I was very young I thought that monkeys imprisoned in off-site towers operated the traffic lights. Someone had to control them, after all, and flipping switches at set intervals all day, every day would be too boring of a job for people, so: monkeys. Obviously.

When I was very young I thought that a bear lived in the cedar closet at the bottom of our staircase. My dad asked me once why I always ran up the stairs instead of walked. “I don’t know,” I answered, but I was thinking, “Well, because of the bear. Obviously.”

When I was very young I thought that old folks were wrinkled because everyone grows an additional layer of skin every year. Can eighty layers of skin lie smooth? Of course not. They naturally bunch up, creating wrinkles.

When I was young I thought that quicksand was an omnipresent danger. Every sand pile and patch of dirt was suspect. Keep to the sidewalk everybody, lest you sink helplessly into the ground!

When I was young I thought that nothing of inferior literary quality could be published. When I’d try to read a stilted or plotless book, I’d slow down or re-read parts, searching for hidden meaning or cleverly understated character development. Surely I must be missing something, because nobody would publish a poorly-written book. (Right?)

When I was young I thought that adults could be trusted to have kids’ best interests at heart. And that adults were never petty. And that adults always knew exactly what to do.

When I was young I thought that the sovereignty inherent in adulthood (the freedom to choose what to eat, for example, or to rent unlimited VHS tapes from Blockbuster, or to skip one’s chores if one felt like it) would eclipse any day-to-day adult hardships—assuming such hardships even existed.

I once thought that any baby could be easily trained to sleep through the night. (Certain books really ought to come with disclaimers; that’s all I have to say about that.)

I once thought that any child whose whining was not accommodated would quickly cease to whine. (I know, I know. Go ahead—point and laugh!)

I once thought that only someone who had been sappy since birth would tear up at her child singing “Away in a Manger” at the Christmas program, or bounding into school on his first day, or offering her a dandelion or tulip head picked “just for you, Mommy!”

And I once thought that I would be upset if my child beheaded the only surviving tulip in the yard.

As it turns out, I’ve often been wrong. And I still am. I still find myself on the trolley headed toward the Neighborhood of Make Believe once in a while. (The trolley that, in case you are wondering, I realize is not the subject of a penny’s tail.) To wit:

Expecting that late-onset elegance will wash over me any day now.

Believing that it’s okay to pass judgment on others.

Supposing that one of these days, my house will become perfectly (or even mostly) organized.

Thinking that extra patience will descend on me so that, with no effort on my own part, I will always speak calmly to Sonny and Ace.

Presuming that lecturing and nagging my kids will in any way be fruitful. (Doesn’t everyone just love to be lectured?)

Assuming that there will always be some other day for me to let people dear to me know how much I care about them.

I’ve come a long way since fearing a bear in the cedar closet, but I guess I still believe some pretty weird things.

What weird things have you believed?