Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Happy Birthday, Trailblazer

I came across this picture the other day as I was cleaning out a drawer. I remembered the moment it was snapped, on a non-phone camera that was loaded with film, and had thought of it often. In the intervening 14 years, though, I had lost track of the print, and seeing it again brought back a flood of memories.

This was the moment before we drove off and left our first son at college, and I was a hot mess.

It was taken at the end of a long day of orientation, a day at which I had Held It Together with sheer force of will, keeping busy by arranging the first dorm room, fiercely chomping on a piece of gum so that I wouldn't weep during farewell chapel, waving wildly as I watched Boy#1 take his place in the freshman class march around the Quad.

This was the moment when I gave him a last hug before we went our separate ways, and there was no more Holding It Together. Husband snapped this shot and was laughing at my full-out sobs, with me knowing I looked ridiculous but also knowing how much I would miss this smart, funny, tender, nerdy kid.

One was laughing, too, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

He may have been laughing because he realized he had met his future wife just a few hours earlier, even though they wouldn't have their first date for several more years. He may have been laughing because my tear-stained face had just left a big damp print on his shoulder. Or he may have been laughing at sheer relief that this day had come and mostly gone and now he could get on with his life. Whatever the reason, I see that laughter again and it makes me laugh at both of us.

How could I not have known he was more than ready for that day? He had always been the trailblazer, the one who went off to kindergarten first, rode his bike first, jumped off the high board first, got the first driver's license. He was the cow-catcher on the train of boys, opening new paths and adventures for the brothers who followed. He continually reminded us that this (whatever "this" was) was not nearly as big a deal as I thought it would be.

He could handle it, is what I'm saying. Whether it was the first research paper or the semester abroad in Hong Kong, he could take a deep breath and dive in. (Although, frankly, the thought of his hard sleeper train trip through China still makes me shudder with ALL THE WHAT IF'S.)

Today this trailblazer is the first one to turn 32 years old. I remember the moment he was born, a tiny (4 lb. 14 oz.), purple (seriously--purple) morsel who instantly transformed us from a couple to a family.

Maybe that's why he's laughing in this picture: He had survived those inexperienced, often inept parents, and was ready to take on the world.

Today he's a grown-up and a professional, married to his Lovely Girl and possessor of his own retirement plan. He's often the one who picks up the role as the logistical (and emotional) organizer of his siblings. And when his mom is discombobulated and overemotional, he's still often the one who offers a t-shirt-clad shoulder for mopping up tears.

Happy birthday, Boy#1. You could not have been a better trailblazer, and I'm laughing in your honor.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

After Club

Last night was my turn to have club at our house.

That's what my mother always called it, whether it was her women's study club, the educational philanthropic club, or the music club. And when she said she was having club at our house, hooo-boy! My siblings and I needed to be ready to work hard without talking back.

We vacuumed and dusted and washed windows and hid everything that made the house look like actual people lived there, while Mom whipped up cream puffs and petit fours and all manner of delectable desserts. The dessert plates (with the special indentation for a coffee cup with a uselessly tiny handle) were pulled down from storage and washed.

Then we either disappeared upstairs when the ladies arrived, or (when we were old enough) we served desserts and refilled those ridiculous coffee cups.

These days hosting club is much less formal. When groups meet at the House on the Corner, I try to beat back some of the dust but there's no deep cleaning or window washing involved. Most of the time my friends get their dessert on a paper plate, and likely as not the dessert is purchased from the local coffee shop.

Last night, though, I tried a new recipe (justification for buying a springform pan) and served it on antique plates. I started collecting this pattern shortly after we got married, but my habit of buying a piece here and a piece there when I had an extra $15 for a goblet meant I had never accumulated enough to actually use them. Then a couple of weeks ago Husband and I were roaming around an antique store when I stumbled on a cabinet full of plates, tumblers, dozens of pieces I didn't even know existed. I carried a couple to the front counter.

"You know, there's no call at all these days for that pattern," the store owner said genially. "I'll give you as much as you want for a dollar a piece."*

At that price, even knowing that in the not-too-distant future an auctioneer will be yelling "SOLD" to a bid of pennies per piece, we came home with two boxes of the special dishware. It felt like a moment of elegance to serve club dessert to my friends on these plates, even though the coffee was served in regular mugs because we may be elegant but we are not idiots.

This morning I'm feeling a bit like the alstroemeria on the dessert table that suddenly and inexplicably folded halfway through the meeting. Tired, but still blooming in the lingering echo of laughter from a house full of delightful women.

My mom would know just what I mean.

*To my delightful women who were here last night: Yes, I know I told you they were a quarter a piece. In my self-congratulatory memory of the purchase they were, but when Husband asked me (in a slightly horrified tone) if I had admitted they were only a dollar a piece, my memory almost audibly corrected itself. And I informed him that women are much more impressed by a bargain than by the actual purchase. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Remembering Them All

My father and I sat together in early church yesterday morning. This is the service that mostly attracts older folks, their quavery voices singing hymns they choose out of the hymnal before the preacher delivers his message from a podium he moves right down in front of these faithful.

Because it was memorial Sunday, candles were ceremonially lit for those from this fellowship who have died during the past year. After each flame flared a skinny teenager swung a heavy handbell, its deep toll marking the passing of souls aged two to nearly a hundred years:

Remember. Remember. Remember.

I hugged the woman sitting next to me, with whom our family camped by the lake six decades ago. Sitting next to her was the son my sister and I babysat when he was a preschooler. Her husband was the one who patiently drove the boat that circled back and picked me up dozens of times in my (futile) efforts to learn to water ski. I can still hear him shouting "Keep low until you get your balance," then gunning the engine.

His candle was lit third.


After this service Husband, Dad, and I drove 20 miles to a small town where all of the community's churches had gathered for a special Memorial Day service.

My father is 91 years old now and in the past decade he has gotten older. In his case this means he's losing his height and his hearing, but he still swims in Senior Olympics and lifeguards at the community pool, and a couple of times a month he preaches at churches too small to have full-time pastors. For this service he was the featured speaker.

Dad had seemed especially quiet as we went through the memorial service in his home congregation. At his age, many of those candles had been in honor of his friends, the saints who were the village that raised me and my siblings. I knew he was remembering Bob, and Fritz, and dear cousin Doralee. He was remembering my mother, who died eight years ago.

As we participated in the first steps of the community service he seemed concerned. He rarely complains about his hearing loss, even though conversations that are not face-to-face are nearly impossible, and on this morning when the entire town was gathered, he didn't want to miss a cue.

"You'll let me know when it's time to go up?" he stage-whispered. "You'll help me turn on the microphone?"

I squeezed his hand and smiled, but I was worried. What if he tripped going up the stairs to the pulpit? What if he lost his place in his notes?

And then it was time, and he was being introduced. I reached around to turn on his microphone and Dad slid out of the pew. I saw him take a deep breath, square his shoulders, and suddenly two decades dropped away. He marched up the stairs, told a joke, and in an instant the crowd was in the palm of his hand.

"He's a total gamer," I whispered to Husband, tears spilling before I could wipe them away.

It would have been easy for Dad's message to be patriotic. No one loves his country more than he does (he was 17 when he joined the Navy in 1944), but he chose Galatians 5:14 as his text: "The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" For 15 minutes he reminded us that our testimony is more than words, and that discipleship is based in action.

When he was done, he sat back next to me, exhaled in relief, and stage-whispered again. "Was it okay?"

It was more than okay, Dad. I will remember it forever.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Of Course I'll Be Watching

I've wondered for some time why I'm fascinated by the current generation of British royals.

Maybe it's because I was a college kid when Prince Charles was being pressured to find a princess and as a person of the female persuasion in the heady early days of women's lib, I was just the right age to secretly find that search romance-y and magical. Or maybe it's because the two boys who were the product of that doomed search apparently have turned out to be excellent human beings (albeit with a few twisty turns along the way that proved even royals have young males whose judgment skills are completely lacking from time to time).

But when I saw the close-up of Boy#2 in his graduation regalia last week I finally knew the reason for this fascination.

"Oh, my gosh!" I shrieked to Two's Lovely Girl, who had snapped the shot. "It's Prince William!"

She was unsurprised.

"Yes," she said, "I've had several friends tell me they thought he looks like William."

I should have seen it before, but this is the first time I've seen the resemblance and now there are signs everywhere. The princes have only brothers, no sisters. The women they have brought into the royal family are smart and beautiful and kind.

They have appropriate senses of decorum but also appropriate senses of irreverence.

Brothers. Sheesh.
And, of course, their mother is the queen.

You can bet your sparkly tiara I'll be watching tomorrow, and I'll be waving a royal wave.

Image result for royal wave gif

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

It Was Important

You all know that last July Boy#2 officially became the kind of doctor who is not all that useful if you're trying to avoid a co-pay. He cannot tell you what that funny pain in your knee is, and whether you should block out a month this summer for a replacement or just slap a bag of frozen peas on it. No, he's the kind of doctor whose dissertation was filled with complicated mathematical formulas and diagrams of electrical...stuff that I don't even know what it was.

When Two successfully defended that dissertation in the final step of his doctoral studies Husband and I could not have been prouder. Two had come up against roadblock after roadblock and had persevered, and frankly, by the time he was finished he was not filled with patriotic pride toward the school where he'd spent six years. (Duke. It was Duke.)

So when he asked if it mattered to us if he went through the official pomp and circumstance that accompanies earning a Ph.D., we told him it was up to him. If he decided he wanted the official moment when the doctoral hood settled on his shoulders he could be sure we'd be there to witness it and shriek with joy, but since he'd already settled into his new job in Boston, and with the Wedding of the Century Part Deux* coming up in October, it made a lot of sense to save the money and vacation days for that event. We assumed he'd tell us he was giving the ceremony a hard pass.

But then, his Lovely Girl (who actually is the kind of doctor who can tell you what that knee pain is and had received her own hood a year earlier) reminded Two that he has one shot at this. If he decided to forego the ceremony, there would be no do-over.

So on Saturday, our second-born went through the university's graduation ceremonies, while his Lovely Girl, Boy#1, Husband, and I applauded until our hands hurt.

When it was over he was not one bit more qualified or educated or smart than he had been 10 minutes earlier, in the moments before his adviser climbed onto the step-stool to put the ceremonial sash over our 6'4" son's head. Something, though, had changed with the visual, audible, tactile marking of this moment.

Maybe these ceremonies are important to me because I'm from a generation during which ceremonies were, well, important. We did not graduate from kindergarten in tiny mortarboards and gowns, we rode the bus home on the last day and began our summers. There were no organized children's athletic teams before junior high, so no soccer participation trophies for everyone. An invitation to prom was a hallway "Want to go to prom with me?" instead of an elaborately choreographed production. Today, though, with all of these (plus gender reveals), ceremonies have become devalued.

By contrast, this ceremony that recognized persistence and pushing through as much as it recognized brilliance, was important and exclusive and I thought about that as I was trying to perfect my surreptitious tear-blotting moves. We had waited for for this imprimatur for decades, and it did not disappoint.

Later I asked Lovely Girl if Two was glad he had gone through the ceremony. She only hesitated for a moment to formulate her answer.

"He's glad because he thinks you're happy," she told me.

He was absolutely right.

*No, not the one that's Saturday. The real one, that's not until October. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Proud to be One

I have been an citizen of the United States from the moment of my birth, a proud voter since my eighteenth birthday, and a defender of freedom and choker-up-at-the-Star-Spangled-Banner for many, many decades.

What I have not been is a juror.

Oh, I haven't tried to duck this civic duty. In fact, as an avid watcher of television, I had secretly yearned to be the real-life female equivalent of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men--truth, justice, the American way. And in spite of this willingness, nay, EAGERNESS to do my civic duty, the only time I had so much as received a letter indicating I was eligible for jury duty was the day after Boy#1 was born.

I called the clerk of the court to explain that I was so, so sorry, because I really, really WANTED to be a juror but my baby...and my inability to sit comfortably...and breastfeeding...and...could they call me back later?  Whether it was the logic of not impaneling a woman in the throes of postpartum hormones ("That murderer was once someone's newborn baby!") or the accompanying copious tears, I wasn't called for jury duty again until I had passed out of my childbearing years.

A couple of months ago, though, I opened the mailbox to find an official-looking letter. I knew it had to be from the government, because really, who sends things through the mail these days? Not only had I been called for jury duty, I had been called for federal grand jury duty. Last week was the first meeting of this group.

Now I can't tell you what all being a grand juror entails because if there was one thing that was emphasized two or three or a hundred times during the first two days, it was that grand jury proceedings are secret. Secret, secret, secret. We watched a little television program about service on the grand jury and the juror's husband and family and friends all but tickled her on the bottoms of her feet to get her to talk about what had gone on in the jury room but she did not spill the beans and I won't either.

But I can tell you (because Google already knows all this) that a grand jury doesn't decide guilt or innocence, it only decides if the government has enough evidence a crime has been committed to charge a person with said crime. Also, that the grand jury serves for 18 months but only a couple of days each month. Also that all of the cases presented are federal crimes, not local or state.

I can also tell you that there are 23 persons on this jury, and because we cannot bring liquids into the courthouse the Diet Pepsi drinkers in our midst were just a tad cranky that the court provided coffee but not other forms of liquid caffeine.

What really surprised me, though, was how seriously the judge and prosecutors and clerks who are part of the process took this whole thing.

We weren't just 23 average schmoes from off the street, they told us, we were part of a constitutional safeguard that goes back to the founding of the nation. We were keeping the government from accusing citizens of crimes with no evidence, they said, and whatever we needed to do our job would be provided. We could subpoena documents. We could call witnesses. We were an important step in  the justice  process. Not many people get the chance to do this, the judge told us, but you do.

It was a good reminder that we live in a country that is different from any other. I have been saddened to the point of despair by the direction our country is headed, a direction that seems so counter to the promotion of general welfare that our founders envisioned. But serving on this jury is pulling a couple of my other favorite phrases out of the Preamble to the Constitution and giving me a chance to live in them--to establish justice, and ensure the blessings of liberty.

I'll never be Henry Fonda, but I'll do what  I can.


Monday, April 23, 2018

An Open Letter to Mothers of Young-ish Children

Photo credit goes to my friend the English Professor. Thank you, MB!
Dear Mothers of Young-ish Children,

This letter is for you, mother of the newborn who is not sleeping. You are so tired your teeth hurt, and oh, I am so sorry. I remember those days, when you deliberately do not make your bed after you crawl out of it in the morning. You are hoping against hope there will be a moment later in the day when you can crawl back in because your beloved baby cried with uncanny accuracy at the start of every one of your REM cycles during the night that just ended.

This letter is for you, mother of toddlers who are just so THERE all the time. Are you trying to go to the bathroom in peace? That child is there, staring at you, or is right outside the door saying "Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama?" Are you trying to make a phone call? Your child is there, pulling out cabinet drawers and clambering to the countertop to access the knife block. Are you trying to put on your makeup? That child is clinging to your leg like an adorable Ecuadorean sloth. There comes a moment when you want to swing your arms wildly just to clear a space around your body.

This letter is for you, mothers of teenagers. These kids can take their own baths (wahoo!) and hit the barf bucket when they have the flu (rejoice!) but all that independence is a mixed blessing. When you have tossed them the keys and they are out with their buds enjoying a summer evening...well, I don't want to fuel your lively imagination about what might be going on. I'll just say that you will find out things later in  their lives that will make you glad you didn't know about those things in real time.

I say this as a mother who loved all of those stages. Those adorable newborns with their soft heads and kootchy-koo cheeks! Those lisping toddlers who think you hung the moon! Those teenagers who are so funny and get your puns and carry in groceries! Seriously, I loved them all.

But Mothers of Young-ish Children, grown-up children are the best.

Last Saturday was the grand finale of my women's group's major fundraiser of the year. We sell bedding plants to support scholarships, grants, and loans for education of women of all ages, and it's a big deal for us. We want every single woman to have access to a better life, and these plants make a difference. We take orders for the plants during March, then they're delivered at a pre-set date in April.

Unfortunately, on Saturday the "rain or shine" clause of the delivery agreement kicked in. The rain was not only coming down in buckets/cats-and-dogs/Noah-build-Me-an-ark fashion, it was also cold. Very cold. Our group's members dressed in layers covered by more layers but we were soaked and freezing from the time the carts of flowers arrived at 7 a.m. until they were all gone at noon.

I now direct you to the photo illustration of today's story. Do you see the three guys on the right side? I claim them. That is Husband (with the beard), Boy#3 in front, and Boy#4 pulling a flat down from the top of the cart. All of these men are educated professionals, and a CPA, a music teacher, and a civil engineer are way overqualified for the grunt-level labor that this unloading and sorting required, but they were there. They were unloading and sorting and taking orders from their wife/mother (who, in the photo, is standing there with a pen and paper and not moving) and they were doing this with good humor and not one word of complaint.

Me? I was complaining. I was miserably cold and wet and while I was grateful for the first rain we've had in months, I did make mention to the Creator of Rain that perhaps this liquid gift could have been rescheduled in light of our good intentions.

But my sons, each of whom had driven in the night before because they knew our group of middle-and-older-aged females needed some brawn on the team, complained only quietly and to each other.

They will not know how proud of them I was until one day far in the future when they have raised their own children. Then, on some occasion that resembles last Saturday's, my future grandchildren will wordlessly demonstrate to their dads that they have grown up to be kind and hard-working and empathetic adults.

Mothers of Young-ish Children, when you reach this stage, you'll look back on all those other stages that you loved but that often were so hard, and you'll smile because of this pay-off stage.

It is the very best of all the stages, and Saturday, I smiled.