On Grandpa’s Birthday

“I wish I could call Grandpa-Great,” Sonny said the other day. I wish so, too. Especially today, which would have been his 100th birthday.

I thought of him the other day while reading an article on minimalism. (He probably would have been bemused that this philosophy—which, for most of history, was just the way all people lived—is now considered a) the latest trend and b) something that takes work to achieve.) In any case, minimalists would approve of the handful of belongings he chose to keep toward the end of his life. Of course, when you are a nonagenarian and live in an assisted living facility you don’t need a car or specialty cleaners or an extra pair of boots or plates or half a can of spray paint that, who knows, you might use for something someday. You don’t bother with shelves of books, and any extraneous furniture is just in the way. When you’re 97 you’re satisfied with one TV; it doesn’t occur to you to acquire the army of devices that rule the rest of us.

Still, even for a 97-year-old, he traveled lightly. Almost everything that was packed up after his death harbored significance.

His chair. Grandpa often expressed concern that the kids would be bored while visiting him, as he didn’t have any toys. But no worries; who could be bored in a room that featured not only Grandpa-Great but a remote-control lift recliner, which he freely allowed young boys to operate as they chatted?

“We flew a kite yesterday. It was striped and shaped like a bird. Did you ever fly a kite when you were a boy?” (Up went the chair.)

“Yes.”

“What was it shaped like?”

“Like something that didn’t want to fly. We made our own kites, and they didn’t work very well. But we made them anyway.” (Down went the chair.)

“Did your mom let you watch PBS Kids while she took a shower?”

“No. We didn’t have TVs.”

“What did you do instead?”

“We fixed our kites.”

He would point to his collage of photographs, many of them over half a century old, and tell of the people they featured. “That was your Papa and his horse. He loved that horse . . .” And stories poured forth from the comfort—and entertainment—of the chair.

A framed print of a bird in flight. This piece of mass-produced art seemed inconsequential until my dad and uncle took it down to box up. Discovered taped to the back of the print: a sheet of notebook paper on which Grandpa had hand-copied the poem “To a Waterfowl”  by William Cullen Bryant.

Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
      Thy solitary way? . . .

. . . He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
      Will lead my steps aright.

It can’t be a stretch to presume that that he words he had copied on notebook paper (and likely in his memory also—“We used to memorize things,” he said once, and proved it by reciting a few lines of Shakespeare) gave him assurance. The print must have served as a ready reminder of this comfort.

A desk. Its contents were the usual: Pens. A letter opener, its handle engraved with the name of bank, both the engraving and blade dulled by decades of letter opening. Paper clips, because every desk houses paper clips even though most people seldom use them. (Do they?) But also, tucked farther back:

A small toy horse, one leg broken off. The horse had been a gift from his parents upon their return from Mayo Clinic around 1923, when Grandpa was seven. The memories of receiving the toy horse in a time when gifts were rare (“We used to get one thing for Christmas, and we were happy” he mentioned once) must have been inextricable from those of the devastating diagnosis that his father also brought back from Rochester. How often did Grandpa hold that horse during his father’s last months and in the first months without him? In any case, he kept it for over 90 years, remembering.

A Camels pack, still holding a few cigarettes, circa early 1950s and deliberately crushed. Although Grandpa was frugal and seldom wasted anything, he’d apparently quit mid-pack and saved the evidence for over 60 years. I wonder why he kept them. To recall a battle he’d won? To remind himself to avoid destructive habits?

A treasure trove of treats. Fun-sized candy bars, mints, jelly beans or candy corn or miniature candy canes (depending on which holiday was in the vicinity) squirreled away for his great-grandkids. Although he couldn’t remember our names at the end, he never forgot the candy. “Make sure the boys get some candy before they leave,” he said. “Did they get some candy? They can have more than one.”

And, of course, he left behind memories, too many to mention. But one that stands out is one that he deliberately planted. When we were kids, he and Grandma would ask visiting grandchildren to read aloud from the Bible after supper. The reader was free to choose the passage. (This did involve risks; just ask the hapless grandchild who, as a young teenager, let the Bible fall open randomly and started reading before realizing too late that the passage was one of those embarrassing ones about lust. Oops. If you ever wanted to hear Grandpa laugh, you could just ask him to tell of how his grandkid, blushing and stammering, read aloud about harlots in front of the familly.)

But one evening during a visit, instead of asking my sisters or me to read, he chose the passage himself and asked us to listen closely. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’ . . .”

He unpacked each metaphor for us—“when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim . . .” But upon concluding (“ . . . and the spirit returns to God who gave it”) he did not expound further. He was confident that we understood his message, which was subtle but clear.

As were the other messages he left us, woven into his few remaining belongings.

So his spirit has returned to God who gave it, and although I can’t help wishing he could have held out to celebrate today, I am glad to have so much time with him, and I am glad that Sonny and Ace knew him and remember him. I am thankful for him—what he gave when he was here and what he’s left behind.

Happy birthday, Grandpa.

 

 

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”

 

The Elephant of Brotherhood

Sonny was seething. “Ace is saying yes like a parrot! And h­­­e keeps saying it! Just to annoy me!”

“Yes. Yesss.­ YES!”

“Ace! Stop!”

“Yeesss,” squawked Ace, encouraged. “Yeess!”

Cognizant of the need for a tactical change, Sonny dipped into his own arsenal.

“Yawn,” he said. “Yawn!”

Ace, who hates the word yawn because it makes him yawn, erupted in fury. Explosive, yawning fury. But he did stop saying yes like a parrot.

Brotherhood: feelings of friendship, support, and understanding between people. (Merriam-Webster)

One wonders how many sets of brothers Noah Webster researched before penning his definition. Or what they were doing at the time. Evidently they weren’t kicking the back of someone’s seat in the carpool, driving hard bargains in a Halloween candy swap, or splitting hairs over whose Lego that is and whose job it therefore is to pick it up. It seems that any number of definitions would fit the bill.

Sonny: You know I don’t like it when you call me “dude”!

Ace: Well. You know I don’t like it when you say you don’t like it when I call you “dude.”

Brotherhood: the rapid exchange of accusations.

Sonny: Can I look at your new book?

Ace: Yes. But just for a minute. And don’t read the words; just look at the pictures. You’re not reading the words, are you? Don’t read them! Just look at the pictures!

Brotherhood: needless tantalization.

Sonny: Ace, when we are grown-ups, you can come to my house every week. We’ll watch the ball game and have chips and cheese.

Ace: I will be there.

Brotherhood: shared dreams.

Ace: Sonny, in real life you will always be my sidekick, but in the movie I’m making you won’t show up until Episode 3.

Brotherhood: simultaneous injections of confidence and humility.

Ace, for 36 of the 40 minutes of the soccer game, very loudly. (Very.): “Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Why isn’t anyone else cheering? Go, Orange Dragons!”

Brotherhood: unbridled fandom.

Sonny: Ace, probably the reason he keeps pushing you is that he is frustrated that he doesn’t speak English yet . . . but he still shouldn’t push.

Brotherhood: wisdom and comfort.

Ace: My friends thought Sonny had been lying when he told us it was raining, but I told them he wasn’t.

Brotherhood: fierce loyalty.

Sonny: I miss Grandpa.

Ace: So do I.

Brotherhood: shared grief.

Ace: My favorite part of staying at the cottage was building stuff on the beach.

Sonny: Mine too! And swimming!

Brotherhood: shared memories.

Sonny: Three cheers for that pumpkin!

Sonny and Ace, in unison and laughter: Hip!

Brotherhood: shared humor.

Ace: Do you like pepperoni or sausage better?

Sonny: Actually, Ace, pepperoni is a type of sausage.

Brotherhood: pedantry.

Sonny: Ace, do you want half of my treat? I think you would like it.

Brotherhood: generosity (albeit sporadic).

Sonny: The Green Bay Packers are the best team ever!
Ace: They are . . . after the Lions.

Brotherhood: smack talk.

Sonny: Let’s leave this where Mom will find it.

Ace: Yes! It will give her the heebie-jeebies!

Brotherhood: the homing in on a common target.

How does one distill brotherhood into one succinct definition? Is there even a workable definition or, like the Indian tale of the six blind men describing an elephant, does it depend on an isolated perception? Like humanity itself, it’s hard to sum up.

Brotherhood: a looming, extraordinary giant fashioned seamlessly from incongruent parts.

Brotherhood—loyalty, parrots, dreams, and all—it’s worth having. Keep it up, my sons.

What Surprises Them?

This past summer I was swimming with Sonny, Ace, and my niece and nephews at my sister’s neighborhood pool. After about an hour, Sonny issued a challenge: that I jump off the diving board, an idea well received by his cohorts. I had not jumped off a diving board in years (okay, decades) but why not?

Overestimating my level of trepidation, the five of them chanted “Do it! Do it! Do it!” in unison and shouted other encouragements as I approached the diving board. After walking the plank and stepping off, I surfaced to many congratulations.

“Good job, Aunt Laura!”

“Yay, Mom!”

“Wow!”

Huh. They seemed impressed. And astonished.

So against my better judgment, I asked the obvious: “Did you think I would be too scared to do that?”

Smiles and sidelong glances.

“Did you? You can tell me.”

“Well,” one of the kids said gently. “It wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?”

I was much amused by their assumption. And touched by their encouragement and support when they thought I was trying something new and scary. Oh, and mildly chagrined that I’d evidently been presenting myself as wholly unadventurous.

Since then, Sonny and Ace have been surprised over many things I’ve done. Among them:

  • Singing along to “Take a Chance on Me,” a song they didn’t know.
  • Fixing the toilet.
  • Reciting the Preamble to the Constitution.
  • Answering “Buenos tardes, Mom!” with “And good afternoon to you!”
  • Successfully and without hesitation operating a VCR (a.k.a. “old fashioned DVD player”). Bonus points for knowing at a glance that the tape had to be rewound. (And yes, I had to explain what “rewind” meant.)
  • Hitting a baseball.
  • Firing up a gas grill.
  • Identifying Bugs Meany as the antagonist in the Encyclopedia Brown.

And so on. Each time I was somewhat surprised at their surprise, although how could they know that any of these were in my wheelhouse if I’d never shown them?

Recently, after I was short-tempered all day for reasons that were not good enough, Sonny asked me for a small kindness. When I complied, surprise flashed briefly in his eyes. Given the day we’d had, his surprise was justified, but still . . . realizing that your kid is surprised by your kindness feels much worse than knowing he is surprised that you were not too chicken to jump off a diving board. Kindness, willingness to give a little time or to listen, patience—these should not be dumped in the vicinity of Abba lyrics, Encyclopedia Brown characters, toilet repair, and diving board mettle to be trotted out seldom enough to surprise others. Even on a bad day.

Know what’s disconcerting? To ask yourself whether your kids (or others) would be more surprised if you showed kindness or harshness, kindness or impatience, kindness or sarcasm, kindness or selfishness. Even on a bad day.

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” – Mother Teresa

Ten Things I Learned from My Mom

It’s Mother’s Day, that day when we officially focus on doing what we should do every day of the year—express gratitude for our mothers. And while I don’t say so nearly often enough, I am grateful for my mom. She’s taught me many things, some of which are spelled out below.

Of course this list could go on well beyond ten points; sorting out which messages to include proved more difficult than I expected. But then I decided to stop overthinking things (something my mom taught me) and just get on with it (something else she taught me), because this list doesn’t have to be perfect (see item # 9 below).

So here are, in no particular order, ten things I learned from my mom over the years.

1. It could be worse. Occasionally, or more often, my sisters and I would offer up to her various laments. She would sympathize as the situation warranted but then, when the time was right, point out that it would be worse. A scrape? At least we didn’t need stitches. A disappointing test score? At least we cared enough about our grades to be upset. An infected mosquito bite? At least it wasn’t a bee sting. The power went out? At least we usually had power at our house, unlike most of the world for most of time.

“It could be worse” is a lesson in perspective and in gratitude. Go ahead and nurse that wound for a little while, but know that it’s not as bad as it could be.

2. “Serviceable” is good enough. Occasionally our family would rent a camper for a summer trip—usually new large pop-ups, and once even a motor home, so when I learned my parents had actually purchased a camper for our upcoming vacation, I envisioned something similar to these. “Don’t get too excited,” my mom warned. “You haven’t seen it yet.” Well, I did get excited, because, really, how bad could it be?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This camper was little more than a faded canvas tent over a flimsy metal base. This camper was ancient. This camper was rickety. This camper was homemade.

It was the most embarrassing camper in all the land.

But camp in it we did. While for a week my sisters and I slunk around the campgrounds, valiantly avoiding association with it, my mom was unfazed. “It’s just fine,” she maintained, confident in its utility. “It’s serviceable.”

It was, in fact. A family can still sleep and consume S’mores and play cards and sightsee while burdened with a decrepit RV. This vacation proved to be just as enjoyable as previous vacations. To this day we reminisce fondly about our trip in The Serviceable Camper ™, and to this day we all appreciate that something that can only be deemed “serviceable” is usually good enough.

3. Beautify your surroundings. Despite her contentment with serviceable accommodations, my mom cherishes beauty. So she plants flower gardens. She repaints the bathroom if she doesn’t like the way it looks. She garnishes food with a strawberry or a mint leaf or a swirl of frosting. (If you ever find an ice-cube-encased pansy in your lemonade at my parents’ house, fear not; pansies are edible.) She regularly turns on classical and sacred music. She sets the table with attractive napkins. As seamstress to all of our childhood clothes, she would adorn them with the prettiest possible buttons—sunflowers, strawberries, ladybugs.

She knows it’s within everyone to make the world a more beautiful place, so she does it.

4. Keep commitments. When I was about 10, a blizzard struck on a Saturday night and drifted our road shut. Did my mom plead “snowbound” and shrug off her obligation to play the organ at church the next morning? No. Instead, she contrived a solution that involved riding shotgun on my grandpa’s tractor.

If you think this is a woman who would allow her daughters shirk a commitment for any old reason, you would be wrong. There may have been a time when my sisters and I asked why we had to go to piano lessons while in the (non-contagious) recovery stages of virus, what would be the big deal about skipping catechism class once in a while, or why we couldn’t cancel our babysitting plans if a more appealing opportunity came along. If so, we quit asking, because we knew the answer: “You signed up for this,” she’d say. “It’s your job to be there. It’s not okay to let people down.”

5. One good reason trumps several flimsy reasons. “If you don’t want to do something,” she would advise, “offer a solid reason. The more reasons you give, the more it sounds like you’re making excuses.” So true, as was the unspoken but obvious message—if you have to offer several flimsy reasons, you probably don’t have even one good excuse, so examine your motives and act accordingly. (So why, exactly, can’t you paint the porch today?)

6. Know how to refresh yourself. One of my earliest memories involves my music-loving mom leaving the house for a dulcimer-making class. She loves hymns, so she attends hymn festivals. She enjoys sewing, so she sews doll clothes to give away. She travels to other states for Sacred Harp singings. She gardens. She laughs with her friends. She plans trips with my dad. She plays with her grandkids. And her mind and spirit are refreshed, and it shows.
7. Pick your battles. “Nobody will pay any attention to you if you try to get your way every time,” she’s point out; demonstrations abounded. She didn’t hound us over every little thing. She probably overlooked many matters that mattered more to her than she let on, but the standards that she did choose to enforce—among others: using proper grammar, avoiding profanity, participating in the church, and, of course, keeping commitments—highlighted her most cherished values.

8. Family stories matter. What is as captivating as a family story? I love the connection to my ancestors, both recent and distant. My mom is skilled at weaving her own memories and other bits of family history into conversation, sometimes to entertain, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to empathize, sometimes just because.
These stories have always fascinated me: her childhood fall from a moving vehicle; the car-radiator fire that my grandpa doused with their picnic lemonade; the relative who sent his regrets to her wedding because he wasn’t planning to make the five-mile trip into town that day; the notoriously bad cook whom other family members discouraged from contributing to potlucks; my great-grandma’s love of laughter. “You’re related to these people, you know,” she often adds. (Is there anything as humbling as the reminder that one shares DNA with a cantankerous great-great uncle who refused to observe Daylight Saving Time?)

9. Don’t pretend to be perfect. A non-spotless house would never prevent my mom from welcoming someone into it. Pride would never keep her from telling a self-deprecating but entertaining story—for example, that of when looked down while in a meeting only to discover that her shoes did not match. She has always matter-of-factly admitted mistakes, signaling that they are part of life and no cause for shame. “If pretended to be perfect all the time, you wouldn’t fool anyone anyway,” she once said.

10. Loved ones are a privilege, not a burden. I don’t have enough space to record all of the appropriate examples, ranging from dedication to elderly relatives to doting on grandkids, but this one speaks for itself. “Keep it simple,” as my mom would say, so on this final last point I will do just that.

I want to be like you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!