If you were to ask me what the best sound in the word is, I would answer without hesitation, “My children laughing together.”
Some of the best moments of being a mom were simply this. I’m in bed, reading. and I hear the sound of matched giggles or outright belly laughs from the darkness of one or the other of the girls’ rooms. Instead of telling whichever one snuck out into her sister’s room to go back to bed, I just listen, reveling in the strength of their connection.
Of course, the laughter of children has a power all its own, think of the videos of a baby laughing on social media. That gurgling, unfettered sound of pure delight that produces fine bubbles in your stomach that rise up through your chest, tickling as they swirl, hooking the corners of your lips and lifting your mouth into a smile before they pop with a sparkle that shines in your eyes.
And that’s just some random toddler. I believe the happiness of our children gives us such a deep sense of joy for several reasons.
One, it means we have done our job and the kids are happy, safe, and most likely healthy.
Two, it reminds us of our own more innocent times. I hear that amusement and am catapulted back, maybe I’m lying on a trampoline with my sister staring at an infinity of stars and giggling at nothing and everything until exhaustion sets in. Maybe I’m listening to my dad’s stomach growl while he lies on the floor watching TV while my sibs and I press our ears to his tummy. Funniest thing ever. No worries, no tomorrow, no sorrow. Just that hysterical moment of swooping, free-falling ecstasy.
Three, laughter releases chemicals that make us feel good. Especially our own. I’ve actually been able to combat depression by just plain faking laughter until I actually started laughing at the whole ridiculous process. Try it, it works.
But whatever the reason, much like the Grinch, my heart grows two sizes whenever I even think of those moments, which I do quite often.
Last weeks, the girls came to visit for Thanksgiving. We hiked, and set off fireworks on the beach, and ate truffles with everything from eggs to soufflés. The boyfriends came with, so Joseph and I were more like a backdrop than the main attraction. That’s what happens when they grow up, they branch out from family, on whom their very survival used to depend, to the peers who will keep them surviving and thriving in life beyond their parents. My girls are loving and attentive and grateful, but the parent-child dynamic changes, as it should, when they head off into the great blue horizon that is their life without me.
I suppose I’m a bit different from many moms, certainly different from my sisters, who feel that their kids are an extension of themselves that they can shape into a certain type of person like human Playdough. I don’t mean to be derogatory, they are both amazing mothers, it’s just a different perspective. I knew from the first moment I looked into my older daughter’s eyes when they handed her to me on the delivery table that she was her own person with her own journey ahead. I knew she was already thinking and feeling things vastly different from my own soaring emotions. I’ve always been honored to be a part of it. I’m here to help row, blow wind in their sails, or even bail out the high water when it’s needed, but ultimately the journey and the experiences belong to them.
It makes me happy just to think it. What remarkable humans they are, compassionate, open, intelligent, funny, caring, everything I could have wanted. Sure they make fun of me, you should see them both doing an impression of my face when I got really mad, it’s hysterical. My views on life are questioned and often argued, which is all for the good. I never wanted carbon copies of me, I wanted originals, and that is what they are. That’s what all children are really, it’s just that some parents don’t get that for a long time, sadly some never do. Perhaps it’s painful for a parent to realize that these individuals to whom you gave everything go on without you, but I bet it’s a lot harder to have to hide who you really are from your own parents.
So when my girls sigh when I make a statement they don’t agree with, or demand that I stop talking about something because it makes them uncomfortable, I acknowledge that truth and shift. Joseph and I spend more time watching them interact with the world than we do interacting with them. We wrap an arm around each other and smile at these young adults, so sure of their knowledge and their place, and we feel good. We’ve done well to teach them to be themselves and to be confident in that. We exchange knowing glances when they question themselves and the world around them, nodding encouragement. Never stop questioning, my darlings, always ask for more.
The holiday was wonderful, we shared so much, including time just spent together without any motive or purpose, only comfortable co-habitation.
And when they sat on the deck after sunset overlooking the moon on Puget Sound we stayed inside, listening to the animated conversation, and when the laughter broke out in rolls and waves, we looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.
There’s nothing better than hearing the laughter of your children in the dark.
Often, when I was in second grade arithmetic, I would look up from my endless worksheets designed to discourage and disinterest would-otherwise-have-become astrophysicists, to wonder at my teacher’s hair. These were the sixties, and the ultimate goal of hair styling was ‘big as you could get it.’ My teacher sported a swept up bun which increased her head size to a degree that I would have recognized as volume times mass squared if that simple math formula had been known to me yet. I often watched her droning on and thought how much it appeared that she was wearing the wasps’ nest my Dad had smoked out and then detached from under the eaves of our house.
The nest, a bulbous, silver grey creation that swarmed dangerously with insects, was a deceivingly stable structure, as big as cotton candy at a state fair, formed by the spit and labor of the insects and built to survive the elements for multiple seasons. Considering that the aptly named beehive hairstyles were achieved at beauty salons once in a blue moon and meant to last out the month, the construction goals were remarkably similar. Both were painstakingly built to last. The nest survived because of a network of hexagon paper shells, formed from spit and wood mulch, the hairstyle resisted gravitational pull with the clever use of ruthless teasing and enough aerosol shellac to make a bed sheet stand up in a heavy wind. And while only one was designed to house insects, the likely hood of entomological habitation in the hairstyle was not so farfetched. It might not have been wasps, but odds were good that something was living in there. I would watch Ms. Whatever-her-name-was take a pencil and carefully insert it deep into the foamy depths of her bouffant and then scratch furiously. I never saw anything crawl out of it, but my desk was near the back, so I might have missed it.
But times were changing and hairstyles were being dragged along. Women began to opt for the down-with-a-scooping-flip-at-the-bottom style. This involved setting the hair on huge, hollow rollers, and then sleeping in a sitting position or baking under a dryer until the polymer set. It required hours of self-imposed torture, all endured for the sake of appearing in public perfectly groomed. To allow anyone other than family or beauty shop operatives to see oneself mid-process was unthinkable.
So imagine the shrinking of my soul when my mom appeared in the doorway of my classroom wearing rollers the size of coffee cans held in place by aluminum clips in a neat row over and around her head, leaving her looking like a load of sewer pipes strapped down by what appeared to be a shrimping net.
As I slumped low, desperate to appear as incredulous as any of my classmates that some loser’s mother was shameless enough to show up in public worse than naked, she crossed to the teacher and whispered an apology. A quick exchange ensued and then, to my horror, I was identified as the unfortunate offspring of this brazen crazy lady and told to gather my things.
My face burning with red-hot shame and unable to meet the eyes of my brutally judgemental classmates, I got my books and coat and joined my mom at the door.
As we walked down the hall, I kept my eyes on the floor. We passed other teachers and even the principle on the way out and I knew that I would be forever branded as the girl with the indecent mother.
My mom said very little but she seemed pleased. I, on the other hand, could not have been more distressed if she had been walking me toward a firing squad.
Now that I’m a mom who has had the opportunity to embarrass my girls on numerous occasions, I have a different take. Over the years I have had to find varied and creative ways to strike fear into their innocent hearts in order to back up a, shall we call it a…behavioral adjustment.
And the worst thing I could ever threaten them with was public embarrassment. Not theirs, mine. I could threaten, yell, give time outs, devise punishments, but nothing ever worked as well as warning them I would do one of two things; sing or dance in public.
So the other day, when my oldest daughter and I were out having lunch and she showed me a little video she had taken of her boyfriend that morning, I had to smile. The two of them share a small house by the beach with three other guys, all of them surfers. Every morning the first one up quickly bikes or skateboards to one of the nearby beaches and gets a take on the wave conditions. Most days are what they call ‘yellow’, smooth, easy waves, but some days, some very special days, it’s orange.
Orange means waves, it means excitement, it means unexpected and unusual fun.
So when he came on my daughter’s little screen, the boyfriend was singing and dancing, “It’ an orange day! It’s an orange day!” as he went from room to room in the hall, knocking on doors. “Get up! It’s orrrraaaange!” and he did a little dance step on his way to reverse peel himself into gortex, or whatever it is they make those suits out of now.
And I thought, ‘How wonderful, an orange day.’ We all get them sometimes, though not often enough. An orange day could be one that brings an unexpected turn of events, weather that sings for a special event, or opportunities knocking on your bedroom door that weren’t even in the neighborhood the night before.
I’m not a surfer, I’ve done it a few times and liked it very much, but I grew up in Atlanta, far from the surging shore. It was unlikely enough that I became a competitive ice-skater. There was only one undersized rink in town until I was around 12, so everyday, up I would get up at four-thirty and go to the rink for a couple of hours before school to train, and every afternoon I was back, practicing falling, and sometimes learning to defy gravity myself for a few seconds. I loved it.
But since skating was not exactly a regular pastime in the heat and humidity of the deep south, we had only one teacher, and no champions to look up to. No Dorothy Hamils trained at my tiny patch of ice and no Nancy Kerrigans ate Milk Duds with me while the Zamboni smoothed the surface.
My childhood hero was Peggy Fleming, Not only was she the former Olympic champion, but she had these awesome TV specials that I watched with rapture, studying both her style and technique. A Peggy Fleming special was every holiday wrapped up in one for me.
So just imagine my amazement when my mom, saying very little, drove me to the rink in the middle of a school day where some of my fellow skate-o-philes were waiting, and then shocked me to my core when the door opened and in walked Peggy Fleming, in the Fleming flesh.
Turns out, she was in town with Ice Capades. She practiced everyday, never missed one, and since the show was at the stadium and the ice wasn’t in yet, she had gotten in touch with my little Igloo to arrange some private practice time. The owner had told my coach and my coach had chosen a small handful of her students to be there.
When she came in, we all burst into applause. Basically a shy woman, she looked completely taken aback, but she said hello politely and then went to change into her outfit and skates.
Needing to use the restroom, I went to the back and pushed open the door. There, seated on a bench, lacing up her skates, was Peggy Fleming, but not just an Olympic gold medalist I idolized, but an Olympic gold medalist who I idolized in her bra.
Her bra. I saw Peggy Fleming in her underwear.
Why she put on her skates before her top was a mystery to me, but I remember walking toward the mirror and smirking to myself, embarrassed but oddly thrilled to have seen the great woman in her skivvies. Later what I mostly remembered was how tiny she was, I didn’t find out until later that I was far too tall to be a skater, at nine, I wasn’t yet oversized.
But even though I was shorter, that was one of my most orange days. I went back to school and faced the taunts of my classmates about my mother’s steamroller hair curlers with Peggy Fleming’s autograph in my hand. When I displayed my golden prize, they were awed, cowed, and envious. Oh how I loved that feeling. A most orange feeling.
Not everyday will come in a strong hue, some of them will be murky and dull. There will be days of blue or rusty brown. I’ve even had more than my share of black ones, but that day still glows with the brilliance of a sunlit field of California poppies.
My mother embarrassed and thrilled me to such extremes in a single day that I leaned a life lesson.
Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes you have to stop everything and embrace the risk, and sometimes, wonderful things happen when you least expect it, and even when wearing curlers the size of redwood tree trunks in front of a prissy private school classroom, moms can be the coolest ever.
Maybe that’s the reason I still haven’t stopped trying to devise ways to embarrass my girls into living a fuller life.
I probably never will.
I will get up early some days, check the metaphoric surf conditions, find them exceptional, and run dancing from room to room singing, “It’s an orange day!”
I can’t resist engaging with kids. They seem to be the people I most want to meet. My girls call me the baby whisperer, okay, sometimes they use the term ‘baby stalker’ based on some of the looks I get from wary care givers when I address a four year old in the check out line at Dollar Tree. I won’t be deterred though, because if a kid makes eyes contact with me, I want to turn it into a smile. I usually get one too. I’ll play the fool in a long line to pass the time, I’ll put myself out there to entertain, I’ll step in to distract a child on the verge of a tantrum, or make a silly face to get a laugh, or start a conversation with the older child who is standing, bored and neglected, as a younger sib’s whining skims off all the attention fat. Sure I’m risking embarrassment, rejection, and citizen’s arrest, but aren’t I always? At least an honest kid-interaction holds some reward for me that’s worth having, unlike say, acting or writing or fashion choices. Not that I don’t love acting and writing, but they seldom offer the immediate elation of connecting with an unblemished soul free from pre-fab social roles. So I guess you could say that I’m impulse inspired. Or just crazy. Either way.
Increasingly, other parents think I’m nuts. When I was younger and prettier—which sadly makes a difference in our appearances-first world—people didn’t seem to mind so much. In fact, if they recognized me from film or TV, they encouraged it. I once had a family thrust their baby in my lap while I was eating at a restaurant and start filming me. The baby was cute, but I was eating spinach at the time. Spinach. But now that I’m older, out of the public eye, wear no makeup, dress like I’m always on a hike or just back from falling down a muddy hill, and don’t give two flipping fucks what grown ups think of me, I’m viewed with increasing suspicion.
But that won’t stop me from trying to get that smile.
I just have an affinity for kids and the open, unclouded psyche of their as yet unspoiled minds. They just got off the boat onto this strange, magnificent shore of life, especially the little ones. Kids are still closer to the other side, to what’s important, and they showed up in this world ready to run screaming with delight along the shore, leaping with both feet into puddle of sea water just for the delicious squishy sound of the sloshing and the spray of wet mud. They care nothing yet for the sand that gets tracked into the house. Screw it, they’re alive and ready to shout it at the sky.
They remind me of me.
When my older daughter was in college, she had a job working for a family as child care, cook, and general dogsbody, she had three highly intelligent, personable, independent little charges. They were these amazing kids, and I wanted to get to know them. Even though I was just another adult, I was also ‘Creason’s mom’ which lent me some prestige and mystique. Oh, they’d heard stories! When I first met them, on the beach in front of their house, they were polite but somewhat reserved, until I offered to flip them upside down.
My daughter remembers me doing this to her with her father, or one of my sisters, or my best friend, we did it a lot. So she looked down at their questioning faces, which eloquently and intelligently asked, ‘do we trust this crazy lady?’ and nodded with a smile. “You’re gonna’ love it,” she told them.
Here’s what you do. There are three rules for this ‘trick.’ One. It must be performed over sand or grass, something softish. Two. Both adults must be physically able with a good grip. Three. Sobriety is a must. Do not attempt this with a beer in one hand or your system, and definitely no psychedelic drugs that might make you think the kid could actually fly. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but some folks are highly impressionable, lawyers are real, and…well, it’s funny.
To begin, stand facing the other grown up with the kid seated on their bottom in between you. Each of you take the kid’s wrist nearest you, linking tightly to get a solid hold like trapeze artists do. Use the same hand as the kid’s as though you are shaking hands, child’s right hand to adult’s right hand adult, child’s left to adult’s left on that corresponding side. Adults cross their free hand over their already occupied wrist and take a hold of the child’s same side ankle firmly, thumb toward the knee on the inside of the calf with palm facing down. It’s a bit of a twist. If your palm is facing up, you will wrench your shoulder out when the fun begins.
Lift on the count of three and gently rock the kid back and forth, gaining momentum and height, much like the kid is the swing on a swing set or you’re working up to launch them onto the top bunk from across the bedroom. See? We’re already having fun.
But remember that kid-wish to pump the swing so high that it would just wrap right around the supporting pole like Olga Korbut back flipping off the high bar in the ’72 Olympics? Come on, it can’t just be me. Anyway, that’s the goal. When you get to shoulder level, aim the butt end of the kid into the air above you, go ahead and sling them all the way up and over, this will uncross your arms. Keep the wrist hold at all times. At the apex, release the ankle hold, switching that hand to support the kid under the arm on the way down so the kid lands on their feet.
The kids rocks like a pendulum, the sky and clouds above invite them on over as they lurch back and forth, ever upward, and then with one great hurl, centrifugal force meets gravity and they are propelled into the blue, for a split second they float, free and unfettered by physics’ forces, before the thrilling fall.
Wheee! And…she sticks the landing!!
So…after that stunt, I’m in the cool-grownup club. Throwing six and eight years olds butt-over-bangs didn’t exactly cement a lifelong relationship, but it sure did make me a more welcome visitor the next time. And when that next time came, and the one after that, we searched for sea glass, roasted hot dogs over a beach bonfire, played tag until my ageing joints required epsom salts soaks and various CBD salves, and baked bread in the shape of snake until one glorious far away day, (about a week later) they told my daughter they missed me and asked if I could come and play. I went to meet them when she was picking them up after Karate. I arrived to see that my daughter was a couple minutes late, and the kids were the last ones waiting for their ride, watching out the big plate glass window like puppies at the pound. I pulled up and got out of the car and gestured subtly, like a rodeo clown trying to distract a bronco. The second they spotted me, they bolted outside and wrapped their arms around my waist and climbed me like the jungle gym I was born to be.
Make no mistake, I’ve got rules and boundaries, safety and learning how to navigate an uncertain world count, but kids see things more simply, their world is still filled with wonder and magic, and I see that too. When I hike, I notice sunlight on drops of dew like fragments of rainbow that broke off and ran away to have adventures, bright yellow banana slugs feasting on red mushrooms refresh my faith in faeries, and the calls of birds and the skittle of unseen, small, warm things all around me reminds me that I am only one in a fantastically diverse family of fabulous creatures who share the big world, or just my own backyard. Same same.
In other words, I often see things just like a kid. I don’t know why, but I always want to take the time to get down on my belly, or crouch on my haunches to stick my fingers in mud so fine and smooth it runs over your nerve endings like a kitten’s fur. This isn’t dirt to a kid, this isn’t mud or yuck, it’s liquid velvet. A crescent moon in the thick blueberry syrup of an afternoon sky, a green-black crow feather, a shiny rock smoothed by it’s time in a stream, these are treasures to be thrilled over, collected, admired and shared.
But it was easier for me when I had my own kids and they had friends. Now, if I share with other people’s kids who don’t know me, say on a hike, or at a national park, I try to do it in a non-chalant, ‘hey, did you kids see the giant frogs in the pond?’ kind of way, aware that their guardians are eyeing me with suspicion and positioning themselves protectively. It’s funny, the kids want to see the frogs, (who wouldn’t? these things were huge and loud, I mean they were awesome!) but their parents are often more focused on filming them for next year’s ‘Christmas from the Crookshanks’ video newsletter that, let’s be honest, nobody outside the immediate family really watches. Unlike their children, these grownups no longer hear the rustle of pixie wings in the flowers under the oaks, or see the glint of ivory scales on the friendly dragon that lives in the trees. Parents are all too often stretched dental-floss thin by the constant barrage of incoming reality and overwhelmed by the pressure of filling needs and expectations to let go of being the parent and join them in that place just on the other side of that sunbeam dancing with dandelion parachutes.
I get it. That was all too often me. I was guilty too. These days, hell probably always, parents are busy, frazzled, on constant lookout for danger. They don’t know this crazy, frizzy-haired lady who obviously lacks conventional social filters. I mean, why is she speaking to their child? Is a toadstool really worth getting excited about? I get it. Often, if the parents are reserved or untrusting, the kids take their cue from them and don’t respond to me. Those times, I smile, wish them all a good day, and go on my way, trying not to feel overly disappointed, but I still point out the path to the pond, just in case.
Yet more often than not kids do seem to instinctively know that I’m not only harmless, I might be fun. They recognize the impulse in me to do a cartwheel or climb a tree, or lay down and look through two blades of grass at a beetle and pretend I’m watching a performance on a stage with green curtains just because it’s awesome to visit another world. I am a kindred spirit to a five year old if you will. Or possibly just easily amused. Same same.
In fact, the older I get, the more I seek out imagination. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone to a grown up party and instead of drinking and chatting about shopping and interest rates, I’ve spent the whole time devising games for the bored kids in the back yard. (and had a blast doing it) I recently went to a birthday for a friend who was turning 70. His grandchild has Asperger’s and was reluctant to relate in any way with any one, but he was fascinated with some leaves that had fallen on the deck and I found that much more worthy a subject than what interested the grown ups. So I sat down near him and started dropping the leaves through the cracks in the deck, then I would put my eye right to the space and try to spot where they landed. After a few, the kid was down on the deck with me. So I found some colored paper, tore it up and dropped that through. Within a few minutes the child was pointing with excitement when he spotted one of the bright scraps nestled into the brown leaf litter far below.
If I think about how that must have looked, like say, if I cared, I would probably cringe and I would definitely not have done it. This 58 year old woman, who no one at the party other than the hosts had ever met, on her knees with her butt up in the air and her face pressed to the redwood decking, proclaiming, “There it is! I see it!” But I didn’t give it a thought, and so by the end of the party, me and this terrific boy were building a ‘bridge’ over a foot wide waterway and playing at sword fighting with sticks, though he never spoke a word. I don’t know about the kid, but I had a wonderful afternoon. Still don’t know who else was at the party. I’m sure they were great, but compared to defending a bridge by fighting off highway bandits, discussing job benefits is a snore.
As I get older, and more prone to muscular injury, I’ll have to adjust my tactics. I’ll rely increasingly on stories and invention. I will always feel awed by nature and feel compelled to encourage kids to love her, as much for the sake of the little humans as for nature herself. After all, if they have fertile imaginations they can create anything they can dream of. If they love nature, they will protect her, and they will find solace in her arms whenever they truly need it.
And we all need solace sometimes.
And a giggle.
We all need to do a cartwheel just for the joy of it.
Even if it’s only imaginary, in which case, add some applause.
But today, I’ll need to flip some kid upside down.
Many years ago my father divorced my mom after thirty years of marriage effectively shattering our family’s holiday traditions. Hey, it happens, and instead of trying to force a pale imitation of Christmas pasts, my mom read somewhere that it would help to make some new traditions.
And we, her innocent offspring, were unwillingly recruited to add enthusiasm. This was wishful thinking elevated to new heights. First of all, we liked the old traditions where we did nothing but got great stuff, and second, we were teenagers who couldn’t be bothered.
Her first idea was to go and cut a tree at a tree farm instead of buying one from a convenient lot where expert helpers would cut the trunk evenly so the tree would stand straight, trim the branches, and lift the inevitably soaking wet tree (Atlanta in winter, trust me, it was raining) on to the roof of your car and tie it on the way privileged people like ourselves were supposed to do. For some reason, forsaking this ease and comfort did not appeal to my siblings and I, and we bitched and moaned the entire drive out of our cozy suburb to the tree farm, located somewhere out in nowhere Georgia, a state which, believe me, has a whole lot of nowhere and we were right in the middle of it.
Eventually, though, we arrive in smack-dab, park, and slog through ankle deep Georgia red clay mud to the shack that serves as office and cashier stand. The farmer, with a cheek full of chaw held loosely in place by his two remaining tobacco stained teeth, gives us a small, rusty hacksaw with a loose blade, and we go trudging off into the uncharted acreage. Conscious of energy conservation, namely his own, every four feet my brother would stop, sigh torturously, and say, ‘That’s a good one, how about that one?” but my mom was on a mission to make this an experience, which meant nothing less than committing a substantial amount of time to it, and for this purpose none of the absolutely perfect trees convenient to the unpaved parking area would do. So on we trudged, getting damper and more cynical with every step. My brother and I, the oldest ones, were especially good at delivering pithy, scathing ridicule to express our displeasure, and we were in rare form that day. After circumnavigating the hundred acre wood, Mom finally picked out a tree that looked almost exactly identical to the other six thousand trees we had rejected, with one outstanding feature—an especially thick and gnarled trunk.
For some reason, my sister Steffi, the third born, has always been the one who was relegated the shitty jobs. Okay, the reason is that she bitched the least, was not as lazy and arrogant, and is frankly physically superior to the rest of us. My brother Dwayne, who is now a top television producer, was, and obviously still is, a genius at designating tough manual labor to other people. He was a real Tom Sawyer-painting-the-fence kind of kid, and he’s grown up into a real Tom Sawyer-producing-hit-TV-shows kind of adult. I’ll never forget when he wanted to dig a pond in our backyard, so he told the other kids that no one could do it but him. By lunchtime he was drinking lemonade and supervising a chain gang of underage workers as they dug for their lives while he enjoyed uninterrupted leisure and an egg salad sandwich. Our youngest sister, and fourth in line to the throne, Shawna, was exactly that—the youngest, meaning she was far too pampered to be expected to exert herself, and anyway her arms were the thickness of twizzle sticks. I was probably wearing something covered in sequins, (it was the seventies) so I wasn’t going to do it. Out of habit, we all looked at Steffi. She cursed once, grabbed the shitty saw, dropped, and belly crawled up under that tree across slugs and wet pine straw to start felling.
Dwayne and I provided a constant barrage of criticism that no one but ourselves found humorous, so we fulfilled every expectation, Shawna complained that she was hungry and this was stupid, which was helpful, and Mom told us all to be quiet and enjoy it, we’d thank her later. After about thirty minutes of Steffi’s concentrated attack with a blunt, bending tool that barely qualified as a cutting utensil, the tree toppled and she rolled onto her back panting before coming to her feet, brushing mud off her jacket, sweaty and victorious. She’d shown that tree, and all of us, who was boss.
Now all she had to do was drag it a mile back to the car.
Which, under threat of severe famine from our mother, we begrudgingly helped her do, bitching a moaning all the way. While my mom kept reminding us that we were making memories and forging new traditions, I kept reminding her that pine sap was ruining my satin jacket.
Can’t you just feel the adolescent gratitude?
The tree was beautiful, smelled better than a lot tree, dripped more sap on the floor, and listed dangerously to one side, but it was our tree, there by the fruits of our first hand labor. Well, second hand in my case, but my sister cut it down, so I felt justified in taking full credit, proudly proclaiming, “We cut that tree ourselves,” to visitors. And a tradition was born. Steffi still cuts the tree.
A couple years later, after my own first divorce, (just warming up) my youngest sister and I went with my mom to spend Christmas in Washington D.C. with one of my aunts, her husband, and their daughter Amanda. Amanda is an only child and her parents are two of the brightest people on the planet, so to say she was a precocious five-year old is perhaps a sliver of an understatement. Because she had no siblings, she was excited to the point of hysteria at the idea of a visit with her cousins who she considered her contemporaries, never mind that she was not yet six and Shawna and I were 13 and 22, bit of a gap there socially, but who doesn’t adore being worshipped? And she was a fun, sharp as a whip little kid, so we did have a blast with her. My foremost memory of that trip was playing Trivial Pursuit with Aunt Toni, a PHD in library sciences, and Uncle David the man in charge of the computer archives of the Smithsonian institution. Talk about a rigged contest. My advice if you ever find yourself asked to participate in a game of knowledge with people who essentially have doctorates in information—Don’t do it!! The only category in which they displayed the smallest margin of error was arts and entertainment, and that only because they didn’t waste a lot of precious brain cells on ‘facts’ like ‘What was the Brady Family’s dog’s name?” All other, less important topics, literature, history, geography, you know the boring ones, were locked and loaded for these supreme intellectuals. It was like playing Jeopardy against Wikipedia.
But overall the trip was magical, visiting the museums on the mall, taking my sister to the natural history museum for the first time, cocoa by the fire, discussing books and arts, behind the scenes tours at the Smithsonian, it was all remarkable. And then came Xmas morning. Early Christmas morning.
Now, I know all kids get ramped up by the societal induced hysteria of Santa’s impending arrival, but I don’t think I’d ever seen such enthusiasm as that little blonde fanatic. She’d been promised Barbi’s dream house and she was jonesing for Christmas morning like a junkie waiting for his pusher outside the 7/11 when the methadone clinics are closed.
I remember it snowed on Christmas Eve, we stayed up late sipping wine, laughing, and watching the fat white flakes coat the sidewalks with crystalline beauty. When we finally retired to hunker down under cozy wool blankets, I thought how lovely it would be to sleep in.
But cousin Amanda had other plans.
Shawna and I were sleeping together in a bedroom off the stairwell that wound up the four floors of the brownstone townhouse and the open space channeled voices from the lower floors upwards as efficiently as a P.A system.
It was about four-thirty a.m. when the first transmission came through. “Mommy! Daddy! Get up, it’s Christmas!!””
This was answered with sleepy grumbles, and then, “Amanda, go back to bed or Santa won’t come.”
She must have heeded that dire warning because we were able to drop back off to sleep, but about twenty minutes later we heard, clear as a Christmas bell ringing directly over our heads in a bell tower in which we were sleeping, “Mommy! Daddy! Get up!! It’s Chrissssssmasssss!!!”
Shawna groaned and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her ears.
But there was no stopping the frenzy now. After only a few additional minutes of blissful unconsciousness I was snatched awake once more, this time by the shrill victory cry of, “It’s the BARBI DREAMHOUSE!!” that echoed through the townhouse, which was not made of pink plastic but stone that reverberated every sound from downstairs upwards, effectively funneling the delight directly to our sleepy heads.
Did I mention that sound really carried in this house? Okay, just so you didn’t miss it.
Mind you, it’s pitch black outside and nowhere close to dawn, so Shawna and I wait out the initial sonic blast of joy then cautiously resume our fitful slumber.
Then the cats began to fall.
Forbidden by her thoughtful parents from waking us, our young kin decided she would let her cats do it, so she would take one, and then the other, sneak into the dark bedroom, and toss one on the bed. We’d wake with an ‘oooff’ as one landed on our stomachs then scrabbled for traction on the soft skin of our tummies with their claws, hell bent on streaking to temporary safety until the hopped up six-year old could locate them and resume tossing. Confused and befuddled as the cats, we raised our heads to peer into the gloom after each onslaught, in the doorway we could make out a small silhouette, watching hopefully to see the fruits of her efforts, if we might, possibly, be just about up or if she needed to muster the felines for another push toward the front. The clever little darling. I told you that family was smart.
After the fourth such assault, I was treated to what I will always remember as the defining moment of that Christmas visit.
My little sister, all of thirteen and not prone to composing literature of any kind, especially in her sleep, was suddenly motivated to memorialize the situation in verse.
It was still a couple of hours until dawn, and the streetlights outside sent only the slightest glimmer seeping through the curtain covered windows. Still mostly asleep, I became aware that my sister was climbing out from under the covers, she moved to the foot of the bed, and as I watched this vague gray blur in the dark room, outlined against the pale glow of the window behind her, she assumed a presentational stance and proceeded to recite the following words in a strong monotone:
“A poem, By Shawna Shattuck.
Get up, get up, before it is light.
Open all your presents in the middle of the night.”
Then, without another word or explanation, she climbed back in bed and passed out.
I was laughing too hard to go back to sleep.
It’s my favorite Holiday poem of all time.
And it, and my extended family, made that one of the best Christmases ever.
You never know what will become a new tradition. It might be a recipe, a song, a game, a poem in the darkness, or even an annoying trip with a bunch of ungrateful adolescent cynics to a tree farm in the Georgia countryside, but when you find one, treasure it, repeat it, or hell, let it go and make a new one.
Can’t wait to see what the holiday will bring this year.
Even if, like myself, you don’t celebrate any religion except the magic of mid-winter, you might find yourself enjoying or even laughing at some ridiculous aspect of the shared, vast, human experience, exaggerated by the ridiculously high holiday expectations we unrealistically demand of ourselves. Those laborious feasts and decorations will most likely end in indigestion and a rush to Big Lots for more plastic bins to store this useless crap in. But if we’re lucky, holidays and family time can offer us more than their original intention, they can make us laugh together.
Is there anything more worthy of celebration?
And now that Amanda is grown with kids of her own, I can finally pass along a little secret for getting mom up early on Christmas morning to her kids.
I hadn’t planned to go to Prescott Arizona, but when one of my husband’s few remaining relatives took a fall and relapsed from her brain surgery, I grabbed a carryon, threw in a few sweaters and headed for the airport.
I didn’t want to go to the deep red state, carpeted with sage brush and gun stores in seemingly equal proportion, where the air is so dry and the people are so conservative it makes my nose bleed, but someone needed me—so I zipped up my suitcase and my mouth and went to help. It’s what you do.
I have lots of family, and sadly, as with every family, I have lost quite a few of my very favorite relatives, I’ve sat bed-side at home hospice through the end, cleaned houses turned to hoarders’ caves by senility, and spent endless hours dealing with lawyers, hospitals, insurance companies, and hysterical loved ones who selfishly tried to make it all about them. I’ve shopped for caskets, planned memorials, and visited gravesides and hospitals enough for a lifetime. I have comforted, fought, stepped up, and wept, I have wept as I thought I would never weep again.
Until I did.
Luckily, overall my side of the family is a healthy, long-living bunch. My mom is one of seven sisters and I have a large family on my dad’s side too, so there are plenty of aunts, uncles, first, second and third cousins to keep those photo Christmas cards rolling in. I look forward to seeing how everyone has grown, where they’ve gone on vacation or to school, who’s starting college, graduated, gotten married, pregnant, addicted, arrested, the whole sordid, magnificent, ongoing, family saga.
But my husband is an only child with no offspring of his own. He has only one first cousin who also has no children, so his generation is functionally the last. He wanted children of his own very badly, but instead opted to care for my girls and raise them with me. It wasn’t always a job filled with gratitude or promotion, but ultimately they came to love and treasure him because he adores them, takes care of them, always puts them ahead of himself, but mostly because he treats me like a treasure and they like to see me happy.
But it’s not the same, I know it’s not. I know that he gave up the dream of marrying a younger woman than me (I’m four years older than he and didn’t meet him until I was 40) who could give him children and the subsequent family that flows ever outwards in the form of in-laws, grandchildren, future wives’ second families, ad infinitum.
Okay, maybe only one wife, but you get my drift. Some families seem to keep expanding like yeast when you soak it in water, and some families sort of slowly empty like a cookie jar that no one refills. Once, shiny and new, it was stuffed with multiple generations, group gatherings, weddings, and birth announcements, but now it sits, chipped and gathering dust on the countertop, and all that is left inside are the funerals and a fading family album.
But that doesn’t mean the cookies weren’t delicious.
It’s odd to say, but I think being part of a large, extended family is both an advantage and a drawback when it comes to hardships and death. I suppose the fact that I have been through much loss makes me better prepared to handle the tragedies when they come, on the other hand—they come more often.
I’ve learned things. I know who to speak to if you want to get the right care, I know not to harass nurses for doctors’ information, or challenge the insurance company without a lawyer, I know what details should not be allowed to fall through the cracks, I know people will lose it sometimes, that they will laugh inappropriately to keep from going insane, I know how much work it is to clean up after a life and dismantle a home, I know that relatives will fight over things they never cared for in life, I know that this too shall pass, and I understand that I will now have a new indelible date on my calendar—a death date.
Stepping back into caregiver role is familiar for me as it is for many people my age, especially women. It so often falls to us to care for the infirm or hold a hand as a spirit slips quietly over. I know what it is to have someone in room with you one second, and then they just aren’t there anymore. I truly believe that in general women have more strength for suffering of all kinds. Throughout our lives we have dealt with blood and pain on a monthly basis, seemingly irrational emotional upheaval has been a frequent visitor, and cleaning unthinkable messes is all too familiar to us. I don’t mean to discount the strength that men have, it can be profound, but it is seldom sublime.
The times in my life when I have forced myself to function while tears streamed uncontrollably from my eyes and my voice broke from the strain of debilitating emotion are too many to count. Inevitably when this happens to me whoever I am dealing with, confronting, or comforting, will tell me to calm down or try to sooth me. Mostly because an honest display of feeling makes them uncomfortable. To this I always say, “I am fine. My emotion is not a weakness, it is a strength. I can, and will, go on. I can feel all of this and remain standing”
So when people start to lose it around me, I double up on grit. I get so full of grit I might as well be made of sand, and sand, as we all know, melts into glass. I have never been through the fragility of a severe illness or a death and not come out of it feeling more beautiful and enriched than I was before. The hue of sand may be bland, but after it passes through the fire, it turns into colors that deepen and strike back at the sunlight that strives to pass through them.
But not everyone has that sense of recovery or the experience to know that they will. Some people have bad things happen and say, ‘why me?’ rather than, ‘my turn.’ So when I was talking with my Aunt-in-law, who has no children and made most of her life choices around herself all her life, my perspective was somewhat different than hers.
In the last ten years this aunt has lost her parents, in their eighties, her brother, in his sixties, and her much older husband. This is nature, this is the circle. Family members grow old and they die, and if there are no children, the family line eventually ends. This is a fact, not a punishment. So when she looked at me with tears in her eyes and bleated, “What is happening to this family?” I was able to look back at her with a smile as sure as dawn and say, “Every family goes through these things.” Then I told her that because of my charity I have often dealt with families losing a young child and pointed out the difference between losing a three year old and a husband in his eighties. I know it’s not any easier to lose a husband than a child, but I never met a parent who wouldn’t change places with their child, if only they had been given the choice. I told her that my great-grandmother buried all five of her children before her own death at 104. That shocked her into a different, much needed, perspective.
Then I sat down and took her hand. I told her the Buddhist story of a woman who lost her child and was so distraught that she went to the monk in her village and asked him what to do, she wanted nothing but to die.
He gave her an empty jar and told her, “Take this jar around the countryside, and every time you find someone who has not lost a loved one, ask them to put one pebble in the jar. When the jar is full, return to me and I will tell you what to do.” So the woman took the jar and went from village to village, from house to house, but she never did get even one pebble, for every family had lost someone beloved. What she did find were others who had suffered as she was suffering and and they comforted her, they understood and shared her loss. What she found was that she was not alone, that death and loss were an integral part of being human. At long last, she returned to the monk, gave him the empty jar, and thanked him before going on with her life, always taking time to help others through their losses and their own unique, but familiar, unfathomable pain.
The time came for me to return home for other family responsibilities and my husband stayed on, he’s still with his aunt. At the departure gate, I received a phone call that another family member (mine this time) has just been diagnosed with cancer, and so that journey begins. Already filled with leaden sadness, my trip home was one misadventure after another, nasty airline personnel, bad directions, a bumpy flight through storm clouds, lost parking ticket, and on and on until it cumulated in me leaning against a trash can in front of terminal two at San Jose International and crying from my gut just long enough to bleed that poison out before bucking up and getting on with it. If anyone bothered to notice, they may have thought I was weak or broken, but it was exactly the opposite.
Somebody needs me, and I need to be there.
We all get a turn. We all hold a hand, feel the desperation of not being able to make it better, we all wake up at night and dread the coming dawn, we all think we will not be able to take one more step. But we are not alone. Each of us knows devastation to our souls at some point. Though we may feel that no one suffers as we do, if we search for them, the jar stays empty, at least until we fill it with compassion and memories.
I was a tomboy, still am, kind of. Climbing trees, building forts, turning boxes into foil wrapped spaceships, pine cone fights with the neighborhood kids, (yes, it always ended in tears) these were all the activities of an average Saturday. But the best days were the treasure hunts. Oh how I dreamed of unearthing that iron bound wooden chest and prying open the lid to dig my hands into gold coins and brilliantly colored gems the size of my fist.
Perhaps that why, out of all the wonderful Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, my favorite one goes like this.
Hobbs finds Calvin digging in the yard and asks, “What are you doing?”
Calvin answers, “Digging for treasure!”
“Did you find anything?”
“A few grubs, some dirty rocks, and a weird root.”
Impressed, Hobbs asks, “On your first try?”
Looking up at Hobbs, his face alight with excitement, Calvin exclaims, “There’s treasure everywhere!!”
I love this philosophy and I lived it as a kid. Because when you are young you know it’s out there. All of the cynicism of grownups cannot and will not stop you from your belief in the existence of magic, of mystery, and hidden treasure. Those muddy rocks by the stream can be stacked to form the foundation of a castle, the fall leaves placed just so make a flying carpet, the rope swing off the hillside is a launch into the sky if only you tilt your head back and punp high enough to feel that thrilling momentary loss of gravity between rising and falling, that magnificent second of weightlessness in a perfect blue sky.
As I grew older, my idea of treasure changed, shaped and/or warped by the expectations and values of parents and peers. I went from craving a pirate ship’s booty to coveting adulation. Winning was my pot of gold, being the ‘best’, earning the envy of others, succeeding, being known, recognized, and lauded were the treasured prizes.
And we all know how well that works out. We all have some experience with banking on the fleeting nature of approval and popularity. There’s never someone right behind you who is faster, prettier, younger, smarter, or better connected, of course not. Not that being the silver medalist in the local skating competition or Atlanta’s top model aren’t amazing lifetime achievements, laurels you can rest your sorry ass on, confident that humanity is eternally improved by your accomplishments, or maybe, just possibly, a tiny sliver of doubt creeps in, a thought that asks, ‘Is this treasure tarnished? Am I mistaking tin for silver? Can I trust it? Does it feed my imagination or my soul? Does it make me a better person or help anyone else?’
So you turn your goals to developing talent and being active in community, true treasures both, and both full time occupations. That shift from result to process is a gift that colors every day of your life, shifting the filter from that wash of envious green to a rosy glow of inclusiveness.
I like that kind of treasure.
But I’m still a kid at heart. I still believe in magic, I still want the heavy, battered chest, the magic, the shiny prize. Even if only for the fun of it.
And that’s why I love thrifting. I know, I’m using a noun as a verb and that’s annoying, but ever since my girls were little and we moved to a neighborhood with the most amazing second-hand store I’d ever seen, we’ve been hooked.
This place rocks. Clothes, knick-knacks, dishware, furniture, art, jewelry, sports gear, it has it all, clean, organized and cheap! None of that Goodwill pricing crap where every T-shirt is priced at a uniform 5.95 whether it’s worth it or not. If it was a worn tank top, it was 99 cents. If it was a button down Dolce Gabbana with the tags still on it, it might be 13.99. (yes, I did find that!) And there were different color tags, every week two of those colors would be half off and a third would be 75% off.
The thrill of the search and the results kept us going back several times a week to that run down shopping center in our neighborhood’s back yard, not the usual place one would search for fabulous objects.
That shop, Sun Thrift in Sunland, is one of the things I miss the most about Los Angeles. That and the amazing mix of ethnicities, food, and art that a multicultural city affords. Now I have San Francisco nearby, which rivals the cultural aspect, but alas, no Sun Thrift.
Here in Santa Cruz there is a distinct absence of diversity, and that pains me daily, not just because of the lack of good Asian food or polish delis either, but because I prefer a community where the people are as colorful as the scenery. People of diverse backgrounds, belief systems, physical appearances and languages are one of the greatest treats—dare I say treasures?—in life. My life is infinitely richer from the opportunity to have befriended so many different humans from so many cultures, they have expanded my mind and my existence. A golden heart is a precious pearl in any shape, color, or size, no matter where you find it.
Maybe that’s why I still love digging for treasure.
When I found this store I had just divorced husband number two, it was a dark time for me. My family pretty much chose him over me. My mother, who I had brought out from Atlanta to live with us, decided to shun me and live with him and my siblings decided that his big fancy house would be the best place to spend holidays with their kids, especially since our mother lived there, friends I had cared for and hosted for years disappeared like a drop of ink in the ocean, a lawyer on a motorcycle hit my car and decided to sue me for two million dollars, (if I’d known he was that kind of a lawyer at the time I would have backed up and run over him for the good of society). Suffice to say it was a furiously tense time. I could easily have shattered. Instead I took that Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, blew those three panels up to poster size, framed them, and hung them over the dining room table in my rental house. In spite of it all, it was how I chose to feel about life. Even in that horrible time, there was treasure, there was goodness, there was beauty. It might be the two friends who stood by me out of dozens, it might be the shadows the oak tree made on my newly bought curtains, (he got the house and pretty much everything in it we’d built together, but that’s another blog), it might be the greeting I received from my theater friends when I showed up for rehearsal, it might be having a place I could call my own that wasn’t entirely controlled by someone else who should have been my partner, it might have been my girls laughing in the pool out back, something they’d always wanted but been denied by their father’s miserly outlook toward anyone but himself. Whatever it was, no matter how small or huge, there was treasure. Not the least of which was my independence. After sixteen years of giving eighty percent of my love, time and energy to someone else, I was finally going to claim it back for myself. When I wasn’t weeping, exhausted from the ugliness of it all, I was dancing with joy and possibility. Yes, even wallowing in all that mud, slogging through the dirty custody fights, the disgusting lies told about me to my own children, the loneliness and betrayal of losing all but the most loyal of friends, yes even among all the grubs and the mud there was joy and possibility.
I made it through. Now I have all the treasure. My girls are happy and thriving, I write for a living, I travel when I like, I hike in redwoods or by the ocean everyday, and I have a husband who considers me the treasure, and tells me so everyday, a husband who works hard, cares about community and puts me and girls first every time.
I do still like to go treasure hunting, also known as thrifting. So yesterday after a doctor’s appointment, I went to the Goodwill near her office. The seasons are changing, which I adore and most of my real clothes are still in storage back in LA so I just buy stuff as I go, mostly from thrift stores. Currently I’m on a quest for comfortable corduroys, I love men’s pants because they are better made and have an excess of pockets. So I picked out a few things to try on. In the dressing room, I slipped my hand in a pocket and came out with a wrapped piece of paper, at first I thought, “Yuck, someone left their gum in here,” but there was something about the way it was folded, so I opened it and found a huge nugget of sticky weed. Bonus score! (Since I was buying the pants, I figured the weed was a perk, like a key chain with a purse.) Then I went back out into the store.
I had noticed one of the employees was one of those effervescent people who smiles and is helpful to everyone he meets, I always watch people like that because it gives my day a lift. This guy saw me looking through the appliance section and asked if he could help me. I told him I was keeping an eye out for a juicer for my daughter. He went out of his way to help me search, even going into the back where he produced a brand new one, (probably an unwanted wedding gift) that he had the pricer mark at seven dollars for me. That job done, he proceeded to procure a lamp finial I’ve been looking for for over a month. Actually he took it off an ugly lamp, got it priced separately, (89 cents) and handed it over with a wink. His cheerfulness was contagious so we shared a few laughs and then I thanked him and went to check out.
They were Saturday-slammed and had chosen this unfortunate time to train new people at the register, so this guy, being on the ball, hustles up and takes over a register, connecting with each person he helped and just generally brightening the entire ambiance of this second hand, second chance storefront in Capitola, California.
At the last second in line before my turn I spotted some new extension cords and remembered that I needed one. But when I checked the price they were no less expensive than the hardware store so I said I’d pass. There was one, however that was out of the packaging and just bound with clear tape. This guy grabbed it and said he’d ask how much it would be. I told him not to bother as I didn’t want it if it wasn’t around five bucks and the others, exactly the same but still in the packaging, were almost twenty.
He bolted for the back and returned with a sticker, $4.98. Score!
As I paid up, he asked if I wanted to round my change up forty cents to benefit their job-training program, from which he had graduated. I said, as I always do, that of course I did and we both commented on the brilliance and simplicity of helping people to live better lives by empowering them with knowledge and skills. We smiled at each other as he handed me my receipt and thanked me for coming in.
As I gathered my trophies, I extended a hand and said, “I’m Shari by the way.” He beamed, shook my hand firmly and warmly and said, “I’m Tosh.”
And out I went, blessed by another brush with good luck, pleased with my purchases, and reflecting that you never know what you’ll find if you only look with new eyes.
Because really, I was just digging in my backyard, among stuff someone else thought was junk, stuff they’d in effect thrown away, and I found so many gems.
A pair of perfect fit corduroys complete with bonus prize, a fall colored pashmina scarf, a brand new juicer and an eagle finial, all for under twenty bucks.
But most rewarding of all was an exchange with a man who exuded kindness and lifted my heart.
Who works a minimum wage job in a second hand store selling stuff somebody didn’t want any more.
A previously discarded human with a purpose, a job, and a helpful spirit.
A guy named Tosh who restored my faith in the worth of good people.
So I’m having a bad day, like you do. It’s not so much that bad things are happening to me as it is that anything that does happen is being processed through my filters as emotional torture. You know the kind of thing, someone is rude at the grocery store and you can’t let it go, someone else has four dogs off the leash on a walk in a state park where it is clearly marked ‘no dogs’ and when you mention this, you get a condescending, “Thank you,” before the bitch returns to her loud cell phone call while her dogs harass the wildlife and poop on the trail and as much as I’d like to I can’t bring myself to drop kick one of the canines into the stream, (the rules don’t apply to them after all) my daughters are criticizing me for ______ (fill in whatever works for you cause I am not alone in this), there’s a dead fawn on the road where everyone speeds like idiots because it’s their god given entitlement to kill everything in their path because they want to go fast. Pretty soon I’m stuck on the ‘people suck’ loop and I’m crying for no apparent reason and contemplating returning to drug addiction or wondering if anyone will notice if I just move to a remote village in the Abruzzi.
But no, people need me here. That’s what we tell ourselves anyway. I get overwhelmed by the sheer annoyance of not being able to end it all because eventually someone will need help moving, a recipe, a ride to the hospital, or a babysitter. And I, sigh, will raise my hand and volunteer.
Being needed is a blessing…and a curse. I suppose that’s because the required minimum—making small talk with people who watch reality TV, showing up at family events to be mocked by your siblings, listening to your father make racist jokes that he thinks are funny and innocent without taking his head off, and not letting the general public’s general bad behavior ruin every outing—take so much energy.
Okay, it saps my life strength. Over the years I’ve come to dislike people, not all of them of course, but the more I paid attention and shifted what is important in my life from surface success to actual kindness and decency on every level, the more disappointed I became.
So recently my 82-year old father and his wife were moving out of their home of 30-something years in Atlanta and the entire nasty pack up and move fell onto my only sibling left on the east coast, I decided I’d better go help. My oldest daughter, knowing that if I had to sit a house with Fox news blaring all day without emotional back up I might actually commit patricide, courageously offered to come and help.
Now there’s nobody who collects shit and hangs onto it more efficiently and pointlessly than wealthy white folks. I kid you not there were a dozen full sets of china, countless boxes of unused and unopened stemware, expensive suits and dresses with the tags still on them that were out of style in the late nineties, and three punch bowl sets, one of them with 52 cups. When my step mom said she wanted to keep it, I asked her how often she was going to have a garden party with 52 guests. She shrugged and said, “Who knows?”
I do. I know. Never. I used to entertain like that, but no more. Fact is, it got to the point that I realized I was throwing parties, spending thousands of dollars and weeks of effort, to entertain people who didn’t appreciate it at all. I think I swore it off after the time I used the Limoge china at a garden party only to find two broken plates shoved under chairs the next morning and cigarette butts ground out on my patio. Enough. And after years of taking in every orphan who had no where to go on holidays, including them in my family celebrations, putting them up, buying them gifts, and cooking for twelve, pretty much every one of those people completely blew me off when I divorced the last husband. My response to that when I climbed, still bleeding, out of the back of the closet where I’d been licking my wounds was ultimately, “Good riddance,” but it took a while to heal from that poison arrow puncture.
It’s come to the point that I’m in danger of becoming a recluse, which is fine, because my husband is the same way, but eventually and inevitably….somebody is going to need a hand cleaning their apartment so that they get their deposit back and I have all the pine-sol.
So after I get back from doing my good daughter deeds in conservative hell and I’m having this bad day, I’m driving around looking for a place I can pull over and just curl up in the leaf litter alone for a good hour or so of self-pity, otherwise I’ll go swimming with rocks in my pockets, when I get a text from older daughter. ‘Have you talked to my sister? She’s at the clinic at school.’
Time to be mom and shut down all concern for self. I turn the car around and drive to campus, find the clinic, and then find X-ray where she’s having her head examined, literally. Parking is a bit a challenge, but once I work that out I start trying to find a way to get into a building that was clearly designed to confuse and confound the non-student-or-faculty-visitor. Still fragile and feeling like my nerves are stretched thinner than five hundred feet of frayed, tangled dental floss, I see two young women sitting on a bench outside the building. They are hugging, one’s head tight into the other’s shoulder. I do not know if they are friends, lovers, or strangers thrown together in some difficult moment, but it does not matter. What I see is love, compassion, real connection. Tears start streaming down my face and as they both look up at me, I say in a choked voice, “That makes me happy. I’m having a really bad day and that really makes me happy.” I am aware that I look and sound like an emotionally unstable wreck and while I learned long ago that experiencing my emotions honestly is a strength not a weakness and that I cannot control what others think, I am just hoping that I don’t freak them out.
And then the miracle happens. They both make eye contact and smile with authentic warmth, the one with her head down says, “Oh, I’m so glad!” with such enthusiasm that the fog in my head and heart dissipate in an instant, clearing so that the light on the dogwoods around us and the shadows of the ferns on wall shine with fresh beauty. They were just as beautiful a moment before of course but as I said, my filters, like sunglasses smeared with pond scum, would not allow me to experience it.
I continue past them, tears coming harder, but joyous now. Yes, my pain and my fullness are my strength, I know this, and sometimes, just every once in a while, some one else sees that too.
My daughter turned out to have a sinus infection instead of leaking brain fluid, so…that’s good, and most important. But almost equally elating was the look on her face when I came into the exam room. The shy, almost child-like smile that let me know she was glad I could be there even as she told me I didn’t need to come. She doesn’t need me, this one, she was born independent, but she was still glad for my presence.
And that’s why I will continue to volunteer to be dragged over the searing coals of the emotional exposure BBQ. Few people in our lives will appreciate the percentage of effort or the sacrifice of our personal happiness that giving up our own peace of mind just to care—for them and their world—costs us. That’s okay.
I’m glad I went to help my Dad, even if my blood boiled at his willful ignorance and apathy. (We don’t recycle, it’s too much trouble. Global warming is bullshit.) I’m really glad I took a small portion of the responsibility off of my sister, the one of the four of us who always does what’s right. I’m glad I get angry when people treat others or their environment with disdain and arrogance. I will endure the exhaustion that comes from fighting for others who can’t fight for themselves and for a future I will not live to see. I’m glad that I can speak through tears when I needed to stand up to someone for treating me or others badly. So many people see those things as weakness, as unnecessary, as overwrought, or they just plain resent you because caring or calling them out makes them uncomfortable.
We were in Hawaii when my sister’s first husband proposed to her. She didn’t know it was coming, but I did, so I took my four year daughter and followed them out to the beach where we could watch from a discrete distance. Creason was so amped up with keeping a secret that once he dropped to one knee she took off running toward them before I could stop her. After a quick glance at her aunt’s hand she turned and came running back. As soon as she was within shouting distance, she yelled, “He gave her a ring with three sparkles!!”
Sparkles. Call it like it is kid, three sparkles.
My first two husbands didn’t bother to get me a ring. The first marriage was over in a year or so, and I was glad to be clear of it. An expensive ring wasn’t that important to me as a ‘thing’ to own, but as time went on with husband number two and I gave up career opportunities to grow, deliver, and raise two beautiful girls, I realized that it would have been nice for their father to have taken the trouble to maybe make me feel like he noticed the imbalance of that equation with an effort at making me feel appreciated. It didn’t have to be anything expensive, even though he could easily have afforded it, just having him put the thought into trying to make me happy would have been nice.
So for twenty something years I bought my own diamonds while I was working and attending events where I could justify wearing such a thing, even if that justification is as weak, lopsided and pathetic as a two-legged table. Come on, nobody needs a diamond, the money would be far better spent feeding hungry children or a college education. (He didn’t pay for the college either it turned out, if only there had been some clue!)
Yet most women—well, privileged American women—expect a diamond as an engagement present. Out of three marriages, only my third, current, and final husband bothered to observe the tradition, and he, in classic Joseph style, did it right. Popped that little black velvet box open in front of my eyes while we were making love, thank you very much. My ring is a very special piece, and it only matters that I know that. I do not wear it to impress anyone else. He could not have found anything to make me feel more like his treasure.
See, there are big-but-flawed diamonds, there are the ‘we got money very recently so I have this impressive looking but lower quality yellow’ diamonds, mostly favored by women who bling their cell phones and carry tiny trembling canines, and then there are the only thing I wanted. A pre-blood-diamond, brilliant color, flawless quality, uniquely framed by a magnificent filigree nineteen-twenties Cartier setting. It brings me joy every time I look down at my hand, because of what it represents, love, romance, commitment, and most importantly, that I am a precious to a gem among men.
So, when I recently left a rope of diamonds necklace in a hotel in San Francisco and realized it wasn’t coming back, it was a twinge, but not worth hysterics. It’s just a sparkly thing after all. Okay, about fifty sparkly things, but nobody’s ill or dying, I won’t go homeless or not eat, and the looser my neck skin becomes the more I wonder about the wisdom of accenting it anyway.
Then, in the same week, I went to pick up a prescription and was told that my health insurance had been cancelled. Surprise! The promise of medical care is a much scarier thing to lose than diamonds, trust me, just ask the millions of Americans who will be joining that group soon. Phone calls to find out what had gone wrong and why I hadn’t been notified were fruitless, or went unanswered after holds exceeding an hour, so I set out to find the physical office and people whom I hoped could explain.
Three locations, two building complexes and several waiting rooms later, I was told that my insurance should actually be valid, the only problem was that no one had finished the paperwork transferring it from southern California to Central California, though it had been ordered over a month before and was ‘on someone’s desk.’ So, I was currently uninsured due to a clerical error. If I had come down with a staff infection, been shot by some NRA sponsored mental patient, or been hit by a drunk driver, I would have been shit out of luck and financially ruined. Ah, America is number one, I do NOT think. ‘Oh well,’ seemed to be the general attitude of those allowed to screw us for profit. I was informed that I could call tomorrow and try to get someone to fix the situation, (remember I was already on hold for over an hour more than once with that very same number before finally giving up) or I could wait among the several dozen people in the waiting room for someone who could finalize it today.
Feeling strangely untrusting, call me crazy, I opted to wait so I could vent at someone’s face. The building also housed a clinic and the large waiting room in which everyone had been given a number that came up on a screen when the powers that be deigned to see you—much like the DMV, was filled with melting down children, parents clinging to their last nerve, hacking coughs, angry and frightened citizens with issues like mine, and a sprinkling of the homeless who were there for some agency of some sort.
It was this last category that fascinated me. I watched as one man, probably in his early seventies, carrying a huge, dirty backpack, greeted several other of this forgotten tribe. Without exception hugs were given, concern was expressed, help was offered if possible, but more often it was condolence or sympathy. Things are tough out there on the street and, no matter how much people like us pretend not to see the suffering, it doesn’t make it any less brutal for them.
The elderly homeless man started a conversation with a nice family sitting near him. They looked a little uncomfortable but were very polite to this cheerful, well-spoken elder who primarily addressed the son, a young man of maybe 14. I truly wished I could remember all that was said. He talked about how lucky the boy was to have a family who loved him. I started to listen when I heard him ask the kid if he knew he was loved. When the boy said yes, the older gentleman said, “That makes me so happy. That makes me all waggily in the tail.”
The phrase caught my attention and I started to pay closer attention. Here was this man with nothing, literally, but the clothes and the pack on his back but I’ve seldom seen a more positive person. I wish I had written down all he said, but it went something like this.
“I know I’ll find love today and everyday, and when you know that, it gets easier and easier. When I get something to eat, you know what I do? I go out and find someone to share it with. It might be cold by the time I find someone but that’s what makes my day, I know I will find love.”
After a few minutes he was called in and stood up, bracing himself to shoulder that heavy pack. I stood up as well.
“Sir?” I called. He stopped and turned. I opened my wallet, pulled out a twenty and said, “Please get yourself something to eat and find someone to share it with.”
I was so moved by his grace and plight, that I had to turn away quickly to hide my tears. But he followed me and when I sat down, he bowed graciously. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, with a huge grin. He turned to the family and bowed slightly to them as well. “Wonderful to speak with you,” he told them, “You are a beautiful family.” Then he turned back to me. “Bless you,” he said, but before he could say anything else, my number was called and I escaped before openly weeping with shame that in this country of obscene wealth, so many people sleep on the concrete in the rain.
The administrator who helped me was wonderful, kind, patient and we shared some amazing stories while she completed the paperwork, I thanked her for the help and the conversation and went on my way.
As I climbed into my car I thought again about the diamonds that I lost, and felt nothing. Yes, they cost money, yes they are gone, but I would not waste life looking for them or regretting their loss.
So this week I lost some diamonds permanently, my health insurance temporarily, and I found someone who lives with the conviction that he will find love if he looks for it. I found someone who believes that love is ever-present, even in the darkest of situations.
A man who will never have diamonds or gold.
Or even a warm, safe place to call his own.
His smile and his clear-eyed kindness woke something in me.
It gave me a gift, a treasure, a memory.
Of this amazing human who spends everyday looking for love.
For many years I have been one of the directors of a charity that assists pediatric cancer patients and their families. In that time I have learned so much about myself, suffering, kindness, courage, life, and most importantly death. I cannot now look at a child and not imagine the possibility that they might not make it to adulthood, or even their teens. It infuses every experience with the radiant reminder of true importance, a glowing reminder of the moment most precious, this moment.
There are so many memories that stand out. The director of the charity had already lost her own child, and yet she had the courage to face this unthinkable journey with others, again and again. But then came the call, she needed to talk, to weep, another of our kids was dying, and she just couldn’t fathom it. She wept, and then went on to hold other mothers’ hands and help them through the journey. Again and again. I stand in awe.
I remember walking down the halls of City of Hope and hearing screaming, I remember one of the nurses, while we were there decorating the ward for the holidays, exclaim, “I hate Christmas! So many kids die.” Because, she went on to explain, the terminally ill have a tendency to hold out for a special date, maybe a birthday, maybe Christmas, but then they let go. The nurses can do nothing but try to comfort, ease pain, hug family that are enduring the unthinkable in a constant state of shock. And when it’s over, they get back to work, clearing away the evidence of a loved patient who they may have known for years, and the room their lives once occupied returns to empty, until the next child comes to fill it. They return to work and start all over again. I stand in awe.
The Pajama Party, which we hold every year, patients, current and alumni, are invited. Each patient and their siblings receive pajamas, slippers, and many other fun gifts. Hundreds of people attend. We have a dinner, a raffle, games for the kids, and then Santa! My favorite doctor greets and embraces family after family with a huge smile and genuine joy, often remembering a child who is no longer with us by sharing a moment with the parents who lost them. I stand in awe.
When it became clear that a 12 year old who loved photography that we worked with was not going to make it, the doctors and nurses organized an art show for him. His lovely photos were displayed and sold to help his family with the horrific bills that would be all they were left with after they buried their child. My favorite photo was a shot down a city street with the sunset in the distance, he called it, “A Door to Heaven.” I remember standing next to the doctor as he talked to the young artist, who had received a huge platelet donation that day so that he could get out of bed and attend this event. They joked about him enjoying his cocktails. I stand in awe.
I remember one funeral, for a boy of eighteen, who we had been assisting since he was nine. He had lost an arm in the long hard process but he was the best hugger I ever met. He also had an amazing voice and he sang Wind Beneath my Wings at one of our fundraisers when he was only 11, not a dry eye. I remember his friends carrying his casket, the stunned loss on their still too young faces. When they sealed the casket at the gravesite, his mother, whose entire life for nine years had been caring for her gravely ill son, kept on straightening the drape on the casket as gently as if it had been a blanket she was tucking around him to keep him warm. The gesture was so intimate and it was so strange to me that such a large crowd of mourners were watching, that I turned away and looked to the sky to give her a sliver of privacy, though I doubt she even knew or cared for anything in that moment. That last, horrible, powerless moment when she could do no more. I will never forget the sound that she made, it wasn’t a cry, or a sob, it was from her very soul. It was a long, drawn out sound that rose and fell and vibrated the air around her. Keening. That sound is part of who I am now, I hear it when I think of these families and what they have endured. I stand it awe.
And then there are the children themselves, to a one they were the bravest, most accepting souls I have ever met. It’s as though they were finished with being mortal, they didn’t ‘need’ to be here any more, it was time for them to move on to the next stage. To a one they taught everyone around them what was true and important. To a one they offered a sense of perspective. I stand in awe.
Which brings me to the reason we began the charity. Desi. This girl, who at nine was diagnosed with a cancer so severe that the doctors gave her a five percent chance of surviving a couple of months, lived two years. In those two years, she got well enough to do many things, including going horse back riding with me, something I had promised her when she was very ill. This child, this exceptional human being, never lost her faith or her courage. Multiple times when we thought it was the end, she fought her way back, and she never missed a chance for a laugh. When a child is at the end, they are attached to machinery that counts their breaths per minute, and when it goes to zero and stays there, that’s pretty much it. So there she was, with her loved ones around her, watching the monitor, praying, comforting each other, when the monitor went from 5 to 2 to 0. They all leaned in, watching to see if this was it, after so much suffering if it was time for her to go home. No one breathed, everyone was drawn toward the bed, curling physically downward to be close to her, waiting, when suddenly, Desi’s eyes flickered, and she very weakly, but distinctly, formed an o with her mouth, and said, “Boo!” Everyone straightened up, laughing and relieved, she actually pulled through that time. I stand in awe.
But it was a short reprieve, and she was back in the hospital a few weeks later. When she finally, quietly, slipped away, only her mother was in the room with her. She told me that she knew that her daughter had died, but she didn’t call the nurses, she didn’t leave or reach out, she just sat quietly beside her daughter’s body and waited, thankful for the time she had with her, she told me that the thing she felt the most, was honor. She said she was honored to have been Desi’s mother. I stand in awe.
I still am a part of this charity, though now that I am not living in Los Angeles, I cannot take part in the active service as often as I would like, though every time I return to LA, I make it a point to go to City of Hope and donate blood and platelets, and visit with some of my friends there. I hope to find another place to fill where there is need when I settle wherever I may land, but my life is irrevocably changed already, my sense of perspective has forever changed. Things I once thought important are now laughable to me. My own children, who often accompanied me to events and the hospital to visit with the kids or help decorate for holidays, are markedly better people because of their experiences there. We are endlessly grateful to those children and those families, they have given us the gift of perspective that softens life somehow, makes the little things easier to bear, to release, to set free. I am not afraid to die, what better gift could I ever receive?
And sometimes I weep, just to think of them. Sometimes I smile when I recall their courage, and always I respect and admire the people who lost and lived to love and give back, almost every one of them turn to helping others in some form. I think of the remarkable human beings who care for these children every day, again and again, and never lose their ability to grieve each devastating death. Doctors and nurses who weep for the loss of every child they have cared about, and for, sometimes for years. I stand in awe.
Mostly, I remember the things I’ve learned so completely, that they are a part of who I am now.
That beauty can be found in a ravaged face. That love never dies. That your heart can be torn from your body and you can be glad to have had the capacity to feel that much, because the choice to not would have meant that you would never have have had that someone in your life at all.