Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

Snow Days and Hotel Stays

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Once upon a time I was a traveling salesman (woman).  A sales rep for a medical software company, I peddled my wares across the upper Midwest for two years.  I flew out on Monday mornings, and back on Thursdays, usually with a quick stopover at home on Tuesday nights for MBA classes.  There is a lot about those two years that I don’t miss.  The life of a frequent flyer is filled with headaches.  Time away from home and husband were draining.  Add part time graduate school to a full time job with regular travel and in retrospect I often wonder how I did it.  (I didn’t have kids then, is the answer.)

There was one thing I did love about all that time away, though: forced relaxation.  When you are in a hotel in Bismarck, North Dakota your to-do list is rendered irrelevant.  It doesn’t matter if your floors need sweeping, if you need to go to the grocery store, or if a thousand other things are hanging over your head.  When you are alone in a hotel in Bismarck (or Omaha or Dubuque or Oshkosh) there is not much option but to sit back and relax.

Yesterday was a similar day for us here in the Midwest.  We got ice overnight on Monday and it sleeted throughout the day on Tuesday.  My office was closed.  GAP’s office was closed.  Nanny stayed home.  And while there was regular checking of e-mail and the odd follow-up phone call, the day was, for the most part, quiet.

I do my best not to lead a life that is forever harried by an unending list of commitments and obligations.  But no amount of effort can fully compensate for the fact that the life of a working mother is a busy one.  If I want to pursue my career, be involved in my son’s life, devote time to my husband, and still have time for friends and hobbies the sacrifice that I make is my quiet time.  I don’t regret the way I’ve ranked these priorities, but I still appreciate the moments when unforeseen logistics step in and upend my little equilibrium, giving me fallow periods that I don’t usually get to enjoy.  There is value to quiet time, and it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’ve forgotten what it is that you’re missing.

When Anne and I were kids quiet time was a regular part of our day.  During the summers when we were too old to nap, but too young to go a full day without my mother needing a break we had “quiet time” every afternoon.  Mom went back to her room to read or write or nap.  And Anne and I were also assigned to our respective rooms.  There was no agenda.  We could read.  We could sleep.  We could play with toys.  The only rules were that we couldn’t play together, we couldn’t leave our rooms, and we couldn’t bother Mom for an hour.

As I remember it I wasn’t a huge fan of quiet time.  I was an active and energetic kid and I imagine I found it boring.  But as an adult I see it in a different light.  One obvious benefit was that it gave my mother respite from my sister’s and my antics.  But more importantly it was the beginning of learning how to be alone.  It was when I first learned the value of pace and patience.  It was when I learned to stimulate my own mind without the influence of other people.  In retrospect I realize that it was an incredible gift.

I mentioned the other day that I’m reading The Not So Big Life by Sarah Susanka.  I’m not through it yet, so I can’t say where it will take me.  But I sense that it’s leading me down a path that will empower me to identify these aspects of my life that I value, but yet have somehow sacrificed (like quiet time).  And I hope that it will also help me better understand how to recalibrate my life to make room for these things, and perhaps trim away aspects of my life that have been improperly prioritized.

Perhaps one day I will look at my life and find it perfectly balanced.  In the meantime, though, I will relish in the snow days and hotel stays that force me to downshift a couple of gears.

Go Outside and Don’t Come Back in Until Supper

Monday, December 20th, 2010

If you were to have a conversation with my mother about the way kids are being raised today chances are that before the chat ended she would have told you two illustrative stories. 

Both are anecdotes that were born out of studies about children and play.  In the first story a child was given a piece of paper and some crayons and instructed to create a drawing.  The child sat in her seat motionless.  She was waiting for the instructions to the project.  (Think “Today we’re all going to make purple elephants with pipe-cleaner tusks.”)  She was so accustomed to structured assignments that she had no idea how to let her creative juices flow enough even to draw a picture.  In the second story a child is being observed in order to study his playtime habits.  On a beautiful afternoon he opted to play indoors.  The proctor asked the child if he always played inside.  The child said Yes.  When the proctor asked Why the child responded, “Because that’s where the outlets are.”

Both of these stories sprang to mind as I read this article on The Huffington Post about the lost art of children’s play.  It calls out eight key benefits of unstructured play (among them: creativity, initiative, emotional skills, decision making, independence, and physical activity).  They are traits that I doubt many parents would suggest are unimportant.  Likewise I doubt that many parents would contradict the premise that these traits are fostered by unstructured play.  And yet, unstructured play in this country declined 25-45% (varying by age bracket) between 1981 and 1997. 

It’s been nearly 13 years since we closed the door on 1997.  So how is it, then, that we continue to fight these battles?  Granted I’m still a relative rookie in the child-rearing business, but what I lack in experience I work to make up for with education.  And I’ve yet to read a study or article stating “American kids have too much free time and should be involved in more activities.”  But I’ve read the opposite so many times.    

Every parent wants the best for their child.  It is a commendable (if generic) position to take.  But the fact of the matter is that most of our children will grow up to live average lives.  (And that’s okay!)  Further still, with a cruel twist of irony it’s possible that the people who were given the most “advantages” as children (in the way of pee-wee sports, music lessons, tumbling classes, and the like) will actually find themselves disadvantaged in the adult world due to a lack of imagination, initiative, and coping mechanisms.

Given all of this, I wonder why some parents still enroll their kids in the rat race as infants and toddlers.  I wonder why other parents feel the need to explain (or hide altogether) the fact of their children’s less programmed lives.  There’s an argument to be made that the “under-scheduled” will actually be better positioned to succeed than the “over-scheduled” one.  So when will the stigma die off?

I’m currently reading Barack Obama’s first book (the one that was written before he started running for things; the one that was written with candor and searching and vulnerability).  And while it hasn’t been a complete surprise to me (because it was beaten to death by the media during his presidential campaign) I have nevertheless been struck by the extent to which his youth was unsupervised and unguided.  He was taught to value intelligence and education, but most of the rest of his worldview he pieced together on his own.  And I am prone to wonder to what extent that freedom was a catalyst for his success.  Yes, he is a sample size of one.  (So is George W. Bush, whose nearly opposite upbringing led him to the same professional pinnacle.  These correlations are not incontrovertible.)  But I suspect that spending his adolescence grappling with his own ideas left him with a belief system that was rooted in careful thought and consideration; a cache of beliefs that he could articulate and defend.

Perhaps it is quite a leap to jump from an unstructured childhood to the White House.  I suppose my point is that nothing is guaranteed.  For every Barack Obama there is also a JFK.  And for JFK there is also a JFK Jr. 

We all want the best for our kids.  But I think it’s about time that we gave them their childhoods back.  Some structure and instruction is certainly good, but too much of it robs them of many other good things.  As adults we make up the rules and laws that govern our lives.  It seems to me that a made up and self-refereed game on a playground is as good a practice round for life as anything we adults could structure on their behalf.

The Shape and Size of Loss

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Loss comes in all shapes and sizes.  It is most poignant and painful when it is shaped like a person – a parent, or spouse, or, God forbid, a child.  Sometimes it is shaped like a burning house, as happened recently to a friend of mine.  Sometimes it is shaped like an unemployment line, as has happened to thousands upon thousands of people in this country over the past few years.  And sometimes, as happened to me on Friday, it is shaped like a beautiful and spirited Palomino mare named Sundae Reason. 

The list of things you don’t know about me is long.  Today it gets just a bit shorter. 

Based on the pictures I’ve seen, I think I was about three years old the first time I sat on a horse.  It was five years later that I started taking lessons.  My mother used masking tape to tighten my jeans at the ankle so that they would slide down into my tall riding boots.  I used a borrowed helmet and rode for hours on my instructor’s horse.  At the beginning I rode in circles attached to a longe line with my arms free.  I learned to evenly distribute my weight between my seat and my heels, keeping my arms distracted with circular motions overhead.  Eventually I was given the reins and learned the importance of soft hands, the difference between direct reining and neck reining, and how to use hand and leg cues in concert.

I started showing at 12 and rode two lovely geldings for a year or so.  Then, when it became evident that my abilities warranted more rigorous training my parents supported my transition to a new trainer located closer to our house so that I could ride daily, rather than weekly.  That transition included the sale of one of the geldings, and the purchase of a mare, boarded by my new trainer, whom I’d been riding on a trial basis for several weeks. 

Sundae Reason was pale golden in color with a white star that narrowed into a very slim blaze.  She was athletic and temperamental, much like I was.  And she didn’t take easily to new riders, making the relationship that we would build together critical to our success in the ring.  Every day after school my mother drove me to the barn and dropped me off.  And every evening after work my dad would pick me up.  In the three hours that passed in between, I rode.  Sundae and I did rail work, pattern work, ground work, and jumped.  We worked to ease her naturally quick-paced gaits.  We worked to figure each other out and learn each other’s cues.

In that time a number of things happened.  I became a much more talented rider and a fiercer competitor, but I also learned how to be alone.  Many days I had lessons with my trainer, but many days Sundae and I were the only ones in the arena.  I was intensely focused on my riding, but also aware of my solitude.  In a strange and almost completely silent way, we kept each other company.

When I was 15 or 16 I made the decision (which, even today, I’m not sure was the right one) to stop riding.  I wanted a “normal” high school experience with “normal” high school memories.  I wanted to go to football games on Friday nights, dance in the chorus line in high school musicals, go on Spring Break trips with friends, and attend Prom and Homecoming dances.  We sold Sundae Reason back to her previous owner and I cried and cried as I handed over her lead rope.

That might have been the end of the story, but nearly 10 years later, when I was 24, I had a dream about Sundae.  It came out of nowhere and I woke up worried about her.  I called my dad and asked him to get in touch with the woman we’d sold her to in order to find out if she still owned Sundae, and if so how she was.  She did.  And Sundae was fine, but was being boarded and was not being ridden.  After tiptoeing through a couple of phone calls with her owner my dad discovered that there was an opportunity to buy Sundae back.  My parents have a country home about an hour outside of town, where Sundae would be given more attention, exercise, and care.  And so we jumped on it. 

For the past nine years my old show horse has lived out her retirement years on my parents’ farm.  I rode her every time I went home.  She didn’t have quite the same fire she had in her younger years, but she was still my girl.  We each fell back into our old rhythms easily, as old friends do.  It makes me sad to think about it, but I don’t remember the last time I rode her.  It was before I got pregnant with IEP, and by the time he was born she was just too old.  But I still called her in from the pasture for a hug and a brushing every time I was there.  

A week or so ago she had a close call with colic.  And on Friday a man who works at the farm found her lying down in a shelter.  He covered her with a blanket and called the vet, who determined that there was nothing to do.  I was hoping she’d make it to Thanksgiving, but it would have been unfair to ask her to go on any longer.  She is buried on a hill, under a tree on the South side of the sheep meadow.  And when I go home in ten days I will say my last goodbye.           

Loss is a strange thing.  It comes in all shapes and sizes.  This time it was shaped like my beautiful girl.

IEP meeting Sundae Reason, October 2009

Finding the Funny

Monday, November 8th, 2010

For the most part I have found that the funniest parenting stories come from the children; anecdotes in the Art Linkletter vein of kids’ quirky-but-accurate observations of the world.  However, from time to time you come across a parent whose approach to the imperfect art of raising children is so brilliantly injected with humor that you can’t help but laugh at their genuine appreciation for the sometimes-absurd nature of this journey.  And so it is that today I bring you the story of our friend J, and the demise of Milo McSpikerton.

I do not know what originally led to the adoption of Milo McSpikerton, but by some series of events (which I have no choice but to assume is similarly amusing) our friend J and his wife agreed to the acquisition of a hedgehog for their two young boys.  But agree they did, and for the next two years Milo lived happily in a cage in their family room.  Fresh cedar shavings, a spouted water bottle, and two boys who had been taught to be gentle with the naturally fearful creature kept young Milo well provided for and content.

Then, a few weeks ago J and his wife noticed that Milo was unusually still.  Really still.  That kind of still.  Poor Milo was gone.  The cause of death is still unknown.  And Milo McSpikerton was summarily laid to rest in a field behind the family home.  J created a tongue-in-cheek memorial PowerPoint presentation that acknowledged the passing of the family hedgehog, which commemorated the life cut tragically short. 

I’d not thought much about Milo since the news of his passing first came to me.  Then on Saturday as we drove home from the gym GAP told me that Milo had sent the boys a letter.

“From beyond the grave?” I asked incredulously.  “Isn’t that a little spooky for kids so young?”  (J’s boys are about three and six.)

“Oh, they don’t know he’s beyond the grave,” GAP responded.

“Then what do they think happened to him?” I asked back.

“J told the boys that Milo’s parents were getting up there in age and had asked their son to come home and help out around the house a little bit.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No.  Originally Milo was just going to be gone a few weeks, but apparently his mom’s hip is giving her a lot of trouble and she needs him to move back in permanently.”

“Hedgehogs have hip problems later in life, do they?”

“Apprently.  So Milo sent the boys a letter explaining that his stay had to be extended indefinitely, but that he had found someone else to keep them company while he’s away.”

“Another hedgehog?”

“No, they got a dog.  It’s a Morkipoo.”  (Which I can only assume is a Maltese/Yorkie/Poodle cross.)  “Not much bigger than a hedgehog, actually.  The boys named him Hiccup.”

Yes.  Hiccup.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.

The End.

And that, my friends, is the story of how Milo McSpikerton went home to help his parents around the house, how his stay was extended due to his mother’s ailing hip, and how Hiccup the Morkipoo was sent as a replacement. 

The whole affair made me laugh hard.  I know that on the parenting path that stretches out in front of me there will be hamsters and lizards and critters of all stripes, fish funerals, and difficult conversations about where we go when we die and where babies come from.  But amidst all of our earnest attempts not to screw up our kids with too much truth, as parents we are blessed with the liberty to insert a few lies here and there.  And I have a real appreciation for J’s ability to find the opportunities to amuse himself (and the rest of us) in the process.  If raising children requires anything it requires a sense of humor.  We must find the funny in ourselves as much as we find it in our kids.  Otherwise a dead hedgehog is just a dead hedgehog, and that’s no fun for anybody.

Family Traditions

Monday, September 20th, 2010

I spent a fair amount of time over the weekend thinking about traditions.  Specifically, I wondered what my own family’s traditions will be.  It was an assortment of hot air balloons that sent me on this mental tangent.

Every year our city hosts a hot air balloon race.  The race is always held on a Saturday.  And on the night before they have what’s called the Balloon Glow.  All of the balloons are inflated, but tethered to the ground.  After the sun sets the inflated balloons synchronize their flames so that they all glow in unison.  It’s really pretty amazing.

Many families take blankets, camp chairs, picnic suppers, and make an evening of it.  Even if we’d had the forethought to plan such an evening, IEP’s bedtime would have cut us short.  But as I watched children running around, parents sitting back watching them, and a backdrop of glowing hot air balloons I thought ahead to next year.  IEP will be nearly three and I wonder if we might be one of those families relaxed on blankets enjoying a perfect autumn evening.  And I wonder if we’ll go every year; if the Balloon Glow will become one of our family’s traditions.

I look back to my own childhood and think fondly of some of our traditions:  Sour cream coffee cake and scrambled eggs on Christmas morning.  Playing miniature golf during vacations to Colorado.  “Going around the table” during dinner after church every Sunday and contributing our own responses to a common question. 

As I think about these things I’m struck by the fact that I have no idea how or why or when each one originated.  I’m quite confident that my parents didn’t set out to make them traditions.  They evolved organically – threads in the fabric of our family that emerged into a pattern over time.

So, back to today, and back to my family.  Here is my question:  Must traditions evolved organically?  Or can we be proactive about creating them?  And if they come about on purpose, are they cheapened by that genesis in any way?

I suppose, more than anything, I hope that my family has traditions.  I hope that we will have quirks and idiosyncrasies that are enduring and beloved.  I hope that our traditions are remembered affectionately by my children when they are grown.  I imagine that every family has traditions of some kind, and that ours will be no exception.  But we are still a young family and most (if not all) of our family traditions are still to be born.  So I am left to wonder what they will be and where they will come from.  My mind could go in a thousand directions with a topic like this.  But I suspect I will be best serve by letting our traditions develop on their own.

A Heritage, Abridged

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

I am from three shelves of family photo albums whose pages have grown brittle and yellow with time, a set of brass and wrought iron fireplace tools that were handed down and are worn from use, and a red and green leather bound set of the complete works of Charles Dickens.

I am from a single story ranch style home with two fireplaces, a broad deck, and an extra bedroom with blue carpet where my mother watched us in the back yard as she ironed, learning to parallel park between coffee cans on the riding lawnmower, and the sounds of the high school marching band floating through my open windows in early September.

I am from zinnias and marigolds and phlox, giant elm trees that split down the middle during the biggest ice storm of my childhood, and azaleas that flush hot pink for a fraction of a moment each spring.

I am from family vacations filled with silly putty, mint flavored Chapstick, endless games of travel bingo, and stops at every historical marker, Sunday dinners of roast chicken and mashed potatoes and “at least one green vegetable”, and unflappable precision in the matters of grammar and usage.

I am from a cultural polyglot, from operas and rodeos, minor league baseball and Broadway musicals, roadside motels and historic B&B’s.

I am from casseroles and whole wheat bread and after school snacks, bedtimes and phone curfews, and weekly chores for your weekly allowance. 

I am from the belief that life is a banquet table from which I may choose, that you address your friends’ parents as Mr. and Mrs. unless they tell you otherwise, that you don’t have to like it but you have to try it, and that maintaining relationships with family over distance is always hard and always worth it. 

I am from a childhood on horseback, fitted breeches and tall dress boots and banded collars, fringed leather chaps and size 6 7/8 hats, the number 477 pinned to my back and ribbons pinned to my bedroom wall, strong legs and a graceful torso, and greater confidence astride a mare than on solid ground.

I am from Sunday school and the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, a large steel cross that loomed over my head in the sanctuary and whose replica sits on my nightstand, red choir robes with white stoles, and silver trays that were passed down the pews on Communion Sunday.

I am from weekend outings to tiny rural towns, chicken fried steak and cherry cobbler from rusty diners with linoleum tile floors, and the news from Lake Wobegon.

I am from a Catholic prep school with magnificently pitched roofs and a three-story tower with a spiral staircase, pep rallies for Friday night football games, unparalleled teachers, and unreasonable levels of peer competition.

I am from a small private college where everyone knows your hometown and your major, chatty sorority chapter meetings and raucous fraternity parties, and professors who were known to call your dorm room if you overslept for a final.

I am from Bob and Rosemary and Jack and Frances and Jeff and Jan, from hand-stitched quilts and homemade pie pastry, from handwritten letters, hugs and I love yous. 

I am from a family that is not perfect but whom I love, the need to carry them in my heart, and the willingness to try things my own way.

With my entire family arriving shortly for the holiday weekend, I have thoughts of heritage on the brain.  In that vein this post was inspired, with permission, by Lindsey’s poem at A Design So Vast.  As a related aside, I will be taking Friday and Monday off from blogging to spend time with my family, and I will see you back here next Wednesday.  I hope you all have a lovely holiday.

Alpha Parenting – Preschool Edition

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

About a month ago I did something that scared the bejeezus out of me: I started researching preschools.  Yes, I know, IEP is not even two yet.  Mostly I just had no idea at what age kids start going to preschool and didn’t want to miss the boat because I was lost in a state of denial thinking, “But my baby is only nine years old.  Surely he isn’t old enough to start school yet, right?”

The comforting answer to the question spurring my research was that we have two full years before we start taking first-day-of-school photos on the front porch.  The not-so-comforting follow-up information came when I started clicking into tuition pages and discovered that many of the preschools we’re considering cost more than my high school did.  This is one of the few moments when I’m glad I don’t live in Manhattan and haven’t felt pressured to start the application process every day since my second trimester.  But I digress…

As an interesting parallel to our own preschool-filled horizon I happened across this NYT article about “The Littlest Redshirts.”  Apparently it is now de rigueur to hold your child back a year in some sort of Darwinian power play to make sure that he is among the smartest, tallest, and strongest in his class.**  Not surprisingly, I am ambivalent about this.

As a September baby I always enjoyed being among the oldest in my class.  I was one of the first to drive and vote and drink (legally, at least).  Whether or not I actually did, I perceived myself as having a bit of a leg up.  And all of these things factored somewhat into our decision to shoot for an autumn baby before I got pregnant with IEP.  But in spite of our own “strategery” I have an adverse response to the idea of holding a child back to stack the deck in this way. 

Perhaps I have visions of aggressive stage parents jockeying their children for position at the top of the toddler heap.  (I certainly have visions of the scene in Baby Boom where Diane Keaton sits dejected at the playground as other alpha mommies decry her parenting techniques and shun her for not having little Elizabeth on the Dalton waiting list.)  Such visions are off-putting enough.  But I think my real objection here is the effect that this “my child is the exception” mentality has on the kids who follow the rules.

For example, say IEP was born in April.  If I enroll him in preschool the year after he turns three (as is customary, I have learned) he will be among the younger members of his class.  Kids will be up to eight months older or four months younger than my son.  Now, say I don’t like the idea of IEP being on the young end.  Say I am heavily invested in my son’s success and I want him to have every advantage.  So I hold him back a year.  Now he starts preschool as a four-year-old.  He is older, smarter, and stronger than he was a year ago and than most other kids in his class.  IEP wins!

But who loses in this scenario?  What about the child who was born in mid-August and just barely made the September 1st cutoff?  Now that child (and lots of other summer babies) are not just being stacked up against to kids who are 10 and 11 months older, but to kids who are up to a year and a half older.  By comparison they will be significantly less developed on many levels.  And I’m certainly no expert in early childhood development, but I can’t imagine that this does wonderful things for self-esteem (not to mention standardized test results which are scored in percentiles…). 

As a parent I totally understand the desire for your child to have every advantage you can hand him in this big bad world of ours.  But what does it say to your child about your confidence in him if you choose to cheat the system to give him a leg up?  And what does it teach him about how to succeed in the world if you’re willing to leave others to flounder for your own benefit?  I think the answer is: nothing good.

**Note – I’m not talking about kids who are held back for legitimate developmental reasons.  Many kids are held back because they simply aren’t ready and that is a bird of a different feather.

Too Little Too Late

Monday, June 7th, 2010

On Friday morning I got a call from my mother.  I was on my way out the door and, after confirming that my Aunt B (who’s been feeling poorly) was okay, I hurriedly asked if I could call her back once I got in the car.  She assured me that Aunt B was fine and that I could call her back.  Then, more like ten minutes later when I was finally out the door, I pressed “M” on my BlackBerry and rang her cell. 

The reason for her call was not urgent, but was tragic.  A series of events had led her to phone a friend of hers that morning who informed her that she (the friend) would, later that day, be attending the funeral of a childhood classmate of mine.  It was shocking news, given that he had no known health problems and the cause of death, while known to be natural, is otherwise a mystery.  I was saddened to learn of his passing, as well as a bit shaken at being abruptly reminded of my own mortality. 

I wouldn’t say that I felt grief.  I hadn’t seen him since I transferred to private school after seventh grade.  But I felt sadness.  Sadness at a bright young life being snuffed out unexpectedly.  Sadness for his mother, of whom I have fond memories as a warm and vibrant presence in my childhood.  And sadness for his friends and colleagues who had much affection for him.

My memory of him is colored by the injustices of childhood and adolescence.  Our names were alphabetically adjacent, and so we were frequently seated next to each other in classes, line-ups, and other organized activities.  But beyond that, our paths didn’t intersect very often.  He was very cute, very athletic, and very popular, and I was (though I’m sure I didn’t understand it this way at the time) intimidated

And what do we do to people who intimidate us?  Sometimes, when we are young and insecure, we minimize them in the privacy of our minds in order to feel better about our own inadequacies.  To the extent that these things mattered to me at the time, I allowed myself to assume that he was uninteresting, not very nice, and not very smart, none of which, it turns out, was true.  And it is this fallacious perception that has been nagging at me since Friday. 

After our lives diverged for good at the age of 13 he was a part of my past in the most neutral sense.  I bore him no ill will, but didn’t miss him either, and in fact rarely thought of him at all.  Until I talked with my mother on Friday I hadn’t heard his name spoken in at least ten or 15 years.  But in the time since that phone call I’ve thought a lot about him.  I was particularly struck by these few sentences from his obituary which forced me to confront the long-forgotten assumptions I’d made about him as a child.

[He] loved his family first. Second was his fiery passion for sports, music and history that paired with a great smile and a better laugh made him an easy person to befriend and an easier person to love. He was not a musician but he had more knowledge, appreciation, and love for the art than many who perform. He was no longer a competitive athlete, but recognized, praised and admired those that were. He never fought in the Civil War but he knew the roads the soldiers took to battle and understood both sides’ reasons for combat.

After reading that description I couldn’t help but think, “This sounds like I guy I’d really have enjoyed!”  He clearly had a curious mind and an affecting spirit.  Then I got on Facebook (we have a number of FB friends in common) and found my homepage littered with condolences, memories, and tributes to a man whom I could tell was beloved.  And it was then that I realized how wrong I’d been, probably from the very beginning.  But my epiphany accomplishes nothing now; it is too little too late. 

I believe the assumptions we make about people are always colored by ourselves; by our biases, insecurities, defenses, and pride.  So often we see what we want to see.  When looking at people whom we love and admire we see strength of character, keenness of mind, and generosity of spirit.  When looking at people who threaten or intimidate us we see any number of qualities that vindicate us or make us feel superior.  But if we were to harness true objectivity, even for a moment, we would see that each portrait contains nuances we’d previously overlooked.  We would see that there is more to the story than we may care to admit

I was far from the most popular girl in school.  As a kid I lamented (usually privately) the fact that my insecurities and neediness masked the super-coolness I was sure lived just beneath my surface.  The cool kids just didn’t see me for what I truly was.  But I see now that – at least in this case (and probably many others) – I was guilty of the same offense.

The Very Beginning

Friday, May 14th, 2010

I was almost two-and-a-half years old.  Daddy came home and picked me up to take me to the hospital.  As we walked down the hallway we had to stop and wash my hands.  We washed them in a water fountain.  Why in a water fountain, I’m not sure.

The soap was pink and antibacterial.  The water was cool and dripped down my wrists.  After we washed my hands I had to put on a tiny gown over my clothes.  I noticed that the pattern on the gown was the same as the pattern on my blanky at home.  That made the gown not so scary.

As we walked down the hallway I noticed a yellow chair rail and a banister.  I reached up over my head and dragged my fingers along the banister, which probably made the thorough hand washing pointless.  It didn’t matter at the time. 

Eventually we turned left and walked into a room.  I saw a little crib, but it was empty.  Then I heard my mother’s voice from the other direction.  She was sitting in a rocking chair and holding a baby. 

It was my sister, Anne

There are other stories from that day.  Candidly, my parents’ memories make better stories.  I’ve been told countless times about how I looked at my sister and said in a squeaky voice, “little bitty fingers.”  I think I remember it, but I don’t.  It is a memory I have created from having heard the story so many times.

But the hallway, the fountain, the soap, and the gown – those memories are real.

About twelve years later I told this story to my dad.  He confirmed the particulars of my story, but confessed that he hadn’t thought about those things since the day they happened.  These things register differently in the mind of a toddler. 

It is my earliest memory.  I remember nothing else from my life until the age of five.  Apparently I understood, even then, that it was something worth remembering.

Perhaps it is contrived significance.  But I’ve always enjoyed knowing that my life – at least as I can remember it – began on the day I met my sister.

Gale (six months pregnant with IEP) and Anne, before her wedding

This theme of this post is “Memory”, as part of Momalom’s “Five for Ten”.

Practicing What We Preach

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Every Friday Nanny takes IEP to a local bookstore for story hour.  They get ready to leave, IEP drags the diaper bag to the front door, waves “bye bye” to the house, and they load up in the car for their morning adventures.  At the bookstore all the kids are treated to animal cookies and a bit of a sing-along before the story-telling begins. 

On one such outing the story had just begun, and IEP perched in Nanny’s lap on the floor.  Per her retelling, just a few pages into the book IEP started signing “more” and “please” tirelessly in rotation.  After several pages of his silent antics the reader paused the story, looked at Nanny, and asked, “Does he know sign language?”

“Yes.  He wants another cookie,” Nanny responded.  The story teller didn’t know quite what to make of such a blatant request, and went on with her reading. 

Similarly, about 400 times each day IEP says, “Mama? Mama?”  I typically respond by saying “Yes?” or “What?”  But lately I’ve added a new reply to the rotation.  I ask, “What do you need?”  Bothering over semantics with an 18-month-old may seem silly.  And I concede that it’s a subtle distinction, but it’s one that I believe matters.  My rationale is that as of recently, it’s a question he can answer. 

You see, IEP has added a new sign to his repertoire.  Words are coming slowly, but he picks up new signs quite readily.  His latest addition is “help.”  His little fists move up and down in his own modified version of the gesture, usually preceded by vigorous pointing at something.  He uses it when he wants a cup of milk or juice, but can’t open the ice box.  When he wants to ride his little toy car, but can’t pull it out from behind another toy.  When he wants to stand in our bay window and watch the street below, but can’t get up to it on his own.  His context is actually surprisingly good.

I tell you these stories not to brag about how brilliant my son is.  (He is brilliant, though.  Just like your kids…)  I tell you these stories because they illustrate something that we value in children, but yet eschew from our own lives as adults:  he makes his needs known. 

We spend so much time and energy trying to coax this kind of communication out of little kids.  We gesture.  We repeat.  We sign.  We point.  We offer this or that.  We implore them with every ounce of our patience to communicate their wants and needs with something more sophisticated than a tantrum.   At this tender age of toddler-hood we want nothing more than to hear the words, “Mommy, I want more pasta,” or “Mommy, I want to go up the stairs by myself.”  We don’t even care about please and thank you at this point (although we make IEP sign both).  Just to hear the words spoken in plain English would be music. 

Yet as adults we become reluctant to make our needs known.  Not the banal, logistical, everyday needs.  Not the “I need to get up early tomorrow” or “I need to run to the store” or “I need a drink” needs.  I’m talking about the things we need that make us feel vulnerable.  I’m talking about the things we need that we don’t like to admit.  I’m talking about the things we should not be ashamed to need, but sometimes are. 

I need a hug.  I need to talk this out.  I need some alone time.  I need to feel more appreciated. I need to laugh.  I need be able to say that I’m proud of myself.

These things – these needs – are so real to each of us.  They make the difference between connection and distance.  Speaking them aloud draws the line between confidence and fear.  Knowing that they are universal, no matter how little they are confessed, buoys us against tides that feel overwhelming much of the time. 

So why is it, then, that the behavior we encourage in our children we so often fail to exemplify ourselves?  We say we are fine when we are not.  We say we are fine when we are hurt, or bone tired, or lonely, or regretful, or ashamed.  We say we are fine because we don’t want to admit that we aren’t. 

We have needs.  So why on earth don’t we say so? 

Perhaps for many of us, it is the judgment of others that worries us.  But I suspect that it’s our own self-judgment that we fear even more.  There is something about our culture that values self-sufficiency to a fault.  We feel obligated to handle everything on our own.  We are reluctant to admit that we need help in any way.  And I can’t help but think that if we just fessed up, leaned on someone, and then returned the favor that we’d all be happier, less stressed, and more resilient in the face of our own needs, knowing that we are flanked by helpers.

The thing is, I imagine many of us are already flanked by helpers.  We just don’t realize it because we’ve never asked.