“How are you?” asked the grocery clerk as she took my Dillon’s card, cloth bags, then came around to scan two bags of cat food and a bag of litter.
“I’m fine. How are you?” I answered, trying to dislodge a bottle of generic aspirin from under some organic oranges that were on sale. .
As I continued stacking up the items on the moving belt, wondering why I gave in to my just-home-from-college-for-the-summer-daughter’s demand for flavored water, something a friend recently told me came to mind. Her cousin’s wife was checking out when she realized that the woman behind the counter, asking her how she was, had no idea that her husband had just committed suicide. And then it suddenly struck her that she also had no idea what this other woman might be going through.
Everyone has a story to tell. And those stories often go untold (unlike mine, which I seem compelled to make public). My mother recognized this. I recently submitted an essay for a Mother’s Day contest “What My Mother Taught Me About____________.” (No, it didn’t get accepted but I got a nice personal rejection email instead of a form one and, yes, I now can tell the difference.) Here’s the essay:
What My Mother Taught Me about the Difference One Friend Can Make
My mother was a friend to all our neighbors. Everyone knew Louise and could see her many a morning walking briskly to a garage sale. She liked to sit on the porch in the afternoon and watch the school children at recess across the street from our house. In the evening, she’d be out again, this time welcoming anyone who came along to join her for a chat. She was easy to like and liked everyone in return, even those neighbors who were not so likeable.
One such person was Florence who lived next door. She tended to keep her blinds closed, even during the day, and seldom was seen outside except to get in or out of her car. When the school children hit a ball into her yard, they weren’t sure they wanted to retrieve it from “that cranky old lady’s place”.
But my mother believed there weren’t any people alive who didn’t have some good in them and the trick was to find it. She made a point to say hello whenever Florence ventured out and then began giving her applesauce bread or a piece of homemade pie.
Gradually Florence began to change. I’d hear a hesitant knock on the door and she’d be standing there, a plate of peanut butter cookies in her hand. And she’d surprise me by waving from her backyard, where she was planting vegetables. As her garden grew, she started to walk across the driveway to discuss with my dad the progress of their tomatoes.
Florence gradually confided in my mother about her life. How her father beat her with a horse whip. How her mother told her she had never wanted another child after the favored older sister was born. How she always felt unattractive and unwanted. How she never made close friends, had never married. She had accepted a life with few pleasures, spent alone, from an early age. Knowing this, my mother made a point to tell her she looked nice in the color blue or that she must have a green thumb by the way her okra was already so tall.
Florence didn’t completely get over her difficult ways, but she started to talk with other neighbors and even sat out on her front porch on summer evenings. Sometimes her old habit of being cold and harsh came out and my mother would distance herself for a short time. But in a couple of days, Florence appeared back at our door, with a plate of fudge or a bag of ripe peppers. No apologies or explanations were ever given or needed. “She’s had a hard life,” my mother would say. “I think she’s doing the best she can.” And I came to understand that the best she could do seemed to be a lot better with the help of a neighbor who had the understanding and willingness to see beyond the surface.
When she died, she left my mother $3,000. Although there were plenty of things my mother could have enjoyed doing with that money, she gave it all to my brother and me. “I got my gift,” she told us. “On the will, it said: To my friend Louise.”
We don’t know what’s behind the face of that Dillon’s clerk. Maybe she is waiting for the results of a scan for a just discovered tumor. Or maybe she just found out that her husband wants a divorce. That she may have to take out a third job. As my mother would tell me, you just don’t know. All you do know is that there is someone behind those eyes, behind the mandatory “How are you?” with a story to tell.
It’s a rare time when a mother gets to say “I told you so!” to her daughter within minutes of giving some much needed advice. And perhaps ever rarer for that mother to only say it silently, which I did, and am still rather proud about that.
Helen, Rose and I were coming back from New Mexico after a spring break family trip. We were in one of those so-flat-you-can-see-forever (or at least the driver thought she could see forever) strips in the Oklahoma panhandle. I had just told Helen for the 7th time (I was counting, also silently) to slow down and she had then suggested that I take another nap when…..yes, a highway patrol pulled out of nowhere. He was polite, we were polite, and I have to admit when this kind of thing happens I’m glad I’m older, white, and a woman. But Helen still ended up with a $235 ticket and who knows what kind of increase on her car insurance.
Family Vacations aren’t known for bringing out the best behavior in anyone and this trip was no exception. Rose seemed more than usually skilled at finding ways to irritate Helen. For her part, Helen had a knee jerk reaction to anything her sister said, which was, “Shut up, Rose!” And I….well, let’s just say I didn’t get especially high marks either. At one point Helen purposely tripped Rose who then fell into a trash can, followed by accusations and threats from all sides, followed by the “Can’t you two get along for even a few minutes?” It didn’t help that one night at dinner we were seated next to a table with a mother and her two daughters who were having this lovely and loving conversation throughout their meal without any snide remarks and certainly no shut ups. What was wrong with us?
I found myself feeling more and more down by this when I heard Rose and Helen talking about the tripping and falling into the trash can incident and they were laughing—both of them, getting the biggest kick out of that story. It made me think of a time when my mother said to my older brother and me, “Why can’t you kids stop bickering?” I was so surprised at her lack of understanding. Didn’t she realize that was the way we found to connect with each other—even to somehow enjoy each other? When we watched TV together and a commercial came on, my brother would get up, grab the arm of my chair and shake it as hard as he could. Every commercial, he’d do that. And every time, I yelled, “Stop that!” which just made him laugh harder. And then there was the head thumping whenever he passed me, not to mention bargaining me out of all the good Halloween candy and never letting me win even ONE game of ping pong and…..the list is too long.
But as that little sister, I much preferred the chair arm shaking until my teeth rattled and the oh so irritating head thumping to no attention from him. And I also knew, as sure as I knew anything, that this older brother of mine would protect me in a heartbeat if need be. In today’s language, he had my back.
After the speeding ticket, I decided that a nap might indeed be a good idea and moved to the back seat while Rose joined Helen up front. I drifted in and out to loud music and bits of conversation. One was this:
“Do you like this song, Rose?”
“Yea, how do you get all those on your phone? And, Helen, can you show me how to curl my hair? And how do you get to be cool? I want to be cool like you.”
“Well, first off, you’d have to be Helen to be cool like me……………You know, Rose, if something happened to you, I’d be there in a minute.”
It took a family vacation for Helen to learn that sometimes she should take my advice. And it took five days in close company with her and Rose for me to be reminded of some very important things. That if you step back and let your kids work things out, then generally they will. That any time together, any time, is what makes a family. That sometimes what seems like the worst part of a journey turns out to be the best (not to mention all that material for good stories). That knowing your brother or sister has your back makes up for a lot of crappy behavior. That you should never, ever, compare your family with the one at the next table. And, most of all, that really, I think my kids are doing just fine.
I just googled the history of Daylight Savings Time and see that there’s good reason to be confused, what with all the starts and stops and changes—even Ben Franklin got involved in the idea. Our dear family friend, Avis, back in the 1960’s, said she didn’t like it at all because “that extra hour of sunlight will fade my living room drapes.” So I have my own recent story about it, and though I have been known to exaggerate ever so slightly from time to time, I swear that the following account is true and unadorned and I have Rose Carter as my witness. And she was as confused as I was—bless you, my child!
It was Sunday morning and I was feeling quite virtuous from all I’d done by 9:15—fed the animals, had a cup of tea, checked email, had another cup of tea, made out three new lists: things to do today, things to do this week, things to do the rest of the month (which included making a list of things to do for the rest of the year). It was while reaching for my third cup of tea that I glanced at my cell phone. Huh….10:15. I looked again at my watch. The battery must be dying and it wasn’t that long ago that I replaced it. But, wait, now this was odd. It was exactly one hour behind…..well, odd things do sometimes happen. I added getting a new battery to the things-to-do-this-week-list and reset the time.
My next clue should have been early evening when I noticed the time on the stove clock was also behind and, you guessed it, exactly one hour. I will blame distraction here, as no doubt I heard the beginning of a cat fight or else Rose was wanting me to help her with a new hairstyle and asking why I couldn’t work the curling iron as well as her no-longer-living-at-home sister. And besides, the day was so beautiful and warm and I needed to get out and check to see what plants were breaking through the too dry soil. I had to make big decisions such as whether I should reconnect the hoses. Carrying watering cans was not the best option anymore, as my darn knees seemed to have developed arthritis overnight. Weren’t the knees the first thing to go? I was feeling cheered by the tops of crocuses and hyacinths peeking up when I looked at my watch, looked up at the sky, and said to myself, “Wow, if it’s this light at 7 o’clock now, imagine how light it will be when Daylight Savings starts!” O.K., so perhaps the knees aren’t the first to go after all.
I woke up Monday morning with Rose standing over me in the dark–were her incoming molars bothering her again? No,it turned out her cell phone alarm went off and did I realize it was already 6:29 and why was it so dark? Huh, now my ancient bedside clock was wacko too and I’d been meaning to get another one for months. But I needed to hurry if I was going to get in at least one cup of tea. As I was feeding the outdoor cats (putting eight piles of dry food down in a row while trying not to trip over eight rather greedy cats), I did notice how dark it was. Actually, now that I thought about it, quite a bit darker than this time Friday, the last time I had to rise at such an uncivilized hour of the day. Maybe clouds over the moon? Maybe it was really foggy? Maybe…and then I remembered the Nova show I had recently watched when I’d run out of The Middle reruns. It was about volcanoes and the “catastrophic” results if there was a really big eruption. Things like whole towns wiped out and long term climate change (as if we don’t have enough of that) and the sun blocked out…..uh oh…..somewhere during the night there had been a massive eruption and now the sun was blocked and why hadn’t I heard, but how could I have, although someone could have called me, surely. As I hurried back inside to get to the computer to check out this disaster, an odd feeling came over me. The clocks, the evening lightness, the morning darkness….what if….and then I saw my calendar on the table, open to March. And March was the month of…..but surely not this early in March and if so, someone or something would have reminded me. I looked down at the square that marked off the day before and there it was—Daylight Savings had started.
Although I certainly felt a big relief regarding the volcano eruption or lack thereof, I naturally also felt a concern about my mind or lack thereof. Still, there must be many others out there with similar experiences–well, maybe not about the sun being blocked out, unless they’d also watched Nova. And if I may bring it up here, what about all the cows? How do they know they get milked at a different time? And if they’re out in the pasture, how do they know when to come home? I at least can set my watch forward, along with the answering machine on my home phone and the alarm clock and the stove clock, but not my computer or the car or my cell phone…is it any wonder???
I need to get my calendar and make a big red circle for the time change this fall—it’s mid October or maybe late October—but no, it was changed to early November a couple of years ago, I think. It’s “spring forward, fall back” so I will set the clocks back which means that in the morning, when it’s 5:45 a.m. and my alarm clock goes off (I hope I have a new one by then), it’s actually 4:45. Though not really, as 5:45 is back to the real time again, better known as standard time and that sounds more real…..sort of. Anyway, at least if Daylight Savings Time is over, I don’t have to worry about those drapes fading.
Several days ago Rose asked how soon before Valentine’s Day. “I guess we’ll spend it alone,” she sighed, looking at me with the same half serious/half joking way she uses when she says she likes to touch my wrinkles. I sat there thinking that she still had a few days to find someone in those hormone-filled halls of seventh grade, but I doubted that the free website Plenty of Fish was going to offer up much for me. My romantic experiences for this day in mid-February peaked at 16 and have been downhill since then.
I had two boyfriends at the same time that year, not that I admitted it, even to myself, and definitely not to them. My justification was that one was a boyfriend and the other just a friend and if the boy who was a friend didn’t realize that, then who was I to have to say it in so many words? It was all going well, the boyfriend taking me to football games and school dances, while the friend was driving me (dare I say here that he was older and had his own car?) to Sunday evening youth group while taking lots and lots of photos of me, telling me how beautiful and great I was….. I can see that you’re starting to think less of me now, but I was sixteen—sixteen!
And then Valentine’s Day came along. My boyfriend, a box of chocolates in hand, got a friend to drive us to my house. My mother opened the door and smiled like a prince had arrived (I seldom had a boyfriend that she didn’t like more than I did) but seemed oddly flustered. Come to find out, she had rushed to hide the dozen red and pink rose buds that my just-a-friend had sent. I spent the evening finding excuses to walk back and forth in front of the table where these two offerings were proudly displayed. Although the chocolates were from my “real” boyfriend, what I remember most clearly is how beautiful those rosebuds were, how lovely that combination of pink and red and green. And, no, in terms of romance for February 14th, it never again got as good as that.
Recently I was sorting through the boxes brought back from my mother’s house after her passing, now just over two years. Some were filled with things I had kept. I found a grade school valentine “mailbag”, the construction paper yellow and faded, my name written in cursive on part of a paper doily. Among the cards inside was one that had this:
DEAR ANN Yor are my girlfriend. I think you look good in those red pants that you war on Monday but I am not sure. Art liks you too. Love DOUGLAS
I guess maybe there was an earlier time that I managed to have two guys at once, but I have no memory of Douglas or Art, just a memory of carefully cutting out those red hearts to glue onto that extra-large paper envelope, a memory of that wonderfully innocent anticipation of what I would later find inside.
My mother had kept almost every card she ever received, as I discovered while digging through more boxes. There were Valentines from sisters, nieces and nephews, my brother and me, my father who loved to pick the ones that might be called sappy, yet I know he meant every word. In those many cards one caught my eye. It was an especially beautiful one, full of pink roses, some in full bloom, some still small buds. Then I remembered how my mother gave it to Rose, telling her to send it to someone special, but I had forgotten who she finally mailed it to. Inside, under a big lopsided heart, was written:
Dear grandma thank you
for the card did you
have a grat New Year?
I have made a display of some of these cards, and as I did all those years ago, I take great pleasure in looking at the offering in pinks and reds and greens. And I will not be alone on Valentines’ Day. I will send out my own cards, designed from an encaustic painting I did, a bird sitting on a branch among bright berries. I expect to receive some as well—from three friends who never fail to remember how much I like this day, my daughters (I’d better start dropping those necessary not-so-subtle hints), a cousin who always calls me Annie, perhaps even an e-card from an old boyfriend.
“Be My Valentine” may be a trite expression for an over commercialized day with a card designed for everyone. But there’s something of real value underneath those words, and the idea that it can be said to anyone holds a great truth. Love is not limited to some romantic idea. In fact, it’s not meant to be limited at all.
This is a photo of:
- A Christmas treat Helen made for college friends gone terribly wrong (the treat, not the friends).
- An attempt by Ann at a new mixed media art form.
- A model of an animal cell for Rose’s Life Science class.
I have a friend who used to make her Christmas letters like this—multiple choice questions that highlighted the year. A typical one went something like this:
Bill and Cindy and I took a trip to Detroit in May because
- Cindy wanted to spend time with her cousins and she thinks their neighbor boy is cute.
- Bill had a conference on mosquito reproduction and led a panel discussion on mating practices.
- We got really cheap airline tickets.
She only did this for two years and I miss them. They were funny and it was a nice variation to the usual Christmas form letter. These letters, typed on decorated paper with photos and summaries of the past year’s events, have gotten a bad rap, but they make a lot of sense. Who can write about what’s been happening more than ten times without a dulling of the brain and a cramping of the hand? So I mostly enjoy the letters I get. But there are a few that, well, when they arrive in the mail I put them aside until I feel more stable (this could be hours or days). They are the letters that make me wonder where I went wrong in my own life. One such letter used to come from a high school classmate. There was the successful doting husband, a beautiful house with just refinished kitchen, a son and daughter who seemed to excel in everything from academics to sports to social life, and to top it off, family trips with sailing and skiing and….you get the idea. It’s not that I wanted her life (well, just a little), but it sounded like things were so great, so easy for her. Then came a year when the letter didn’t arrive and months later I found out why. One Saturday morning her teenage son went out to their garage and shot himself in the head.
The answer to the multiple choice about the photo above is “c”. It’s what Rose will take to school on Monday and I just hope the hardboiled egg won’t be smelly by then. But it only shows part of the story. It doesn’t show the “I give up!” (Rose this time, not me) or the fighting over the computer to try and find one picture that lists the same cell-parts as on the worksheet. And it doesn’t show the fun bits either, where we were waiting for the orange Jello to get just right to stick in the green beans and red sprinkles and crunched up tissue paper. Or the way Rose wanted me to know where the endoplasmic reticulum went in relation to the nucleus.
We have a choice about what we include in our holiday letters, and we also have a choice whether to remind ourselves that there is more in the letters we receive than what the words and pictures show. It’s important to understand that the parts often not revealed are what we all have in common—the moments of joy from simple things and the times of great sorrow. The humanity and vulnerability we all share. When we ask what’s the real point of all we do during the holidays, the get-togethers and presents and cards and letters, I believe this should be part of the answer—simply to try and understand each other better. And you can make that into a multiple choice question on next year’s letter if you like.
I don’t have a microwave, or more correctly, the huge one someone gave me six years ago no longer works. When it first stopped I didn’t believe it and kept pushing the start button. But then I remembered that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. So there it sits, taking up space under the picture Helen and Rose made me last Valentine’s Day. It’s a stretched canvas with their hand prints in bright colors and a list of 10 things they love about me. I must say I like number seven the best: “We love that you adoted us”. The misspelling somehow turns the Pinterest crafty idea into something real from my daughters. And speaking of real gets me back to the microwave. Call me old (I don’t really mean that) but microwaves just don’t seem right to me. There’s something alien about them and they don’t keep things hot as long, and if you haven’t noticed this, then you’re in some kind of major modern denial.
It’s almost Thanksgiving and along with “my children and animals are alive” I’ve decided to be thankful that my microwave isn’t working. My mother never owned one. It was the same with a clothes dryer. Even when they became affordable she hung things outside or when bitterly cold down in the basement, claiming that going up and down the stairs kept her young. Hanging out the clothes was often my job when I was young and it was a chore I ranked way above the Saturday morning dusting. I liked putting things in groups—underwear, linen, shorts, blouses, and so on (my idea, not her rule). I liked planning ahead so I would run out of line and pins exactly when I had everything hung. And I liked to count how many tea towels and pillow cases I could overlap…..huh…I don’t remember if obsessive compulsive was a term back then. Of course, there were no microwaves or computers or cell phones—but we did have cars and I wish Rose would stop asking me that. Later, when it seemed that almost every American household did have a microwave, my mother still didn’t want one. There was a day when I understood where she was coming from:
Sometimes I forget
to put the butter out.
Too hard to spread
on toast for breakfast,
it can go for a quick melt
in my microwave.
My mother doesn’t have
“Never had one,
never want one.”
And sometimes she forgets
to put the butter out.
She takes a
blue and white saucer
and puts three thin pats on it,
cut from the hard stick,
then gently places
the saucer on top
of her just-poured cup of tea.
The steam slowly
softens the butter,
though not as slowly
as one might think.
And then my mother sits down,
carefully butters her bread,
adds her favorite jam
(homemade black raspberry),
and with tea
sweetened to perfection
( a tablespoon of honey),
quietly eats it.
She proudly showed me her technique
for butter softening one morning,
and together we had toast and tea.
Since then my microwave
My microwave hasn’t been so idle lately, prior to the breakdown (it, not me). There was always frozen meat that I forgot to put out the night before and horrible, horrible stuff that Helen insisted on eating for breakfast and then my tea to warm up.
Thanksgiving is in six days and when Helen gets home for her break she will no doubt complain about the non-working microwave and quote the price she paid for the one now in her dorm room. I, however, am doing just fine. If I forget to thaw out the meat then we go vegetarian. Rose, my good eater, can handle that I don’t buy the junkie stuff, and I reheat my tea by using a little metal saucepan on the stove. I did have to learn to put on the timer so I won’t need to turn around 10 miles from home to make sure the house isn’t on fire. And as for the butter on the Thanksgiving dinner rolls, I will likely take it out for softening around the time I run to change the hand towel in the downstairs bathroom. But if not, I’ll get a bowl of hot water and put some pats on top. It will seem quite quaint to my children (not the term they typically use to describe my behavior) but I can imagine a time when they might talk about it with fondness, just as not having a microwave reminds me of a morning of toast and tea with my mother. And I just decided to add that memory to what I’m thankful for.
Rose is learning how to sew on buttons in school. If you’re even close to my age, you’re wondering why this skill isn’t known by the age of 12. I had sewn on hundreds of buttons by then, including those teeny, tiny ones that for Barbie doll clothes. My mother got me started by giving me projects like burst buttons on my father’s shirts, first showing me the steps from how to thread a needle to…..huh…let’s just get past the part about why my daughter can’t do it yet. But at least I could give her a reason to practice at home last night. We had been looking at Halloween costumes in Marshalls and I might have been a little too eager to be done because I ripped off a button trying to get a glittery gold cape from the hanger. When Rose stated it was “the best costume ever” and she could wear Helen’s winter formal dress under it (I suggested she not mention this to her sister), I pocketed the button and checked out. It got reattached after three attempts and much frustration on Rose’s part and finally me saying, “Well, let me just do it if you’re going to get so upset about it.”
Later Rose pulled out a stack of school papers, including a yellow sheet labeled “Sewing on a Button Rubric”. I saw that she’d gotten 9 ½ out of ten, giving me hope that the cape experience was only due to adolescence grumpiness or knowing I’d do it for her in the end. I had almost deposited it with the rest of her school papers (to be sorted “later” which meant some time next summer) when a shock went through me. A rubric for sewing on buttons? Was this some kind of joke? Could it be one of those tricks to see if the parents really looked at their kids’ papers?
I wish I could say yes to that last question and then be so pleased that I had passed the good parenting test. But it was real—a rubric for sewing on buttons. To clarify, I’m not criticizing the teacher, who is no doubt following what’s expected of her and may be young enough to think this is perfectly normal. You get points from four to zero on things like “All stitches are neat and free of any loops. The needle consistently went in and out of the same holes”. My teacher in 7th grade home economics would have just looked over my shoulder and said, “You missed the hole. Try again!”
It seems that nothing can be taught now without it being assessed (and reassessed), often in the form of these crazy little boxes filled with text. I used to be the teacher trainer in an ESL program. One of my jobs was to observe new teachers and give them feedback. I would watch the class and take notes on what I thought worked and what didn’t work so well. Later we met to discuss it. We used our own words and I didn’t need to give numbers that placed her above or below her fellow workmates. The goal was to help make more effective teachers. But these days, following the national trend, observers in this program arrive with, you guessed it, a rubric. You can get a four, for example, if the lesson plan is “clear” and a three if the lesson plan is “obvious”. No, I’m not making this up.
When Rose was in the 4th grade, I wrote about something that happened in her classroom:
My younger daughter likes school but has problems with math, especially memorizing her times tables, and this fall that often seemed to her focus. A typical after-school-car-conversation went something like this:
A: How was school today?
A: What all did you do?
R: We had tacos for lunch.
A: Sounds good. How was math?
R: I’m terrible. I couldn’t do my 8’s.
Not the most inspiring conversation. But, recently the class has started on a board game version of the computer game The Oregon Trail. The class divides into families complete with b/w photos where they’re all looking quite sober and dressed in suitable 1800s attire. They draw cards to tell them the weather conditions and problems/successes they are having as they make their way westward. At the end of each daily session, the teacher switches off the lights, lowers the blinds, and turns on battery operated candles. All the “pioneers” then write in their journals.
Now our conversations go more like this:
A: So what happened today?
R: I had scarlet fever and three of our oxen died from drinking bad creek water.
A: Oh, no! How are you going to pull the wagon without the oxen??? (notice I wasn’t concerned about the illness—the teacher told me they keep everyone alive as long as possible).
R: Well….we still have one more ox and we bought another from the Smith family—because they were out of money. But we have 67 dollars left. Oh, and another family got bit by rattlesnakes and the next fort is soon but we’re hoping we don’t run out of flour before then.
There were never any rubrics for this but I suppose there could have been. For example, taking a spare axle along seemed to be essential. (Note: I couldn’t seem to get actual boxes into this post–maybe a sign?)
Spare axle work:
4 points–clearly showed the need to take along a spare axle
3 points–obviously showed the need to take along a spare axle
2 points–didn’t show any interest in a spare axle until stranded somewhere in western Nebraska
1 points–gave extra axle to that darn Smith family who never got anything right
n0 points–misspelled “axle” in journal
There were many other things she learned from this activity that never got boxed or numbered—-whether you can give or sell some of your flour to a family that used theirs up, while knowing you might be without before you get to the next fort, or taking on a stranger who’s lost his way, or figuring out what’s most important for the family to buy with limited funds—a dog or some extra rations (you know what I’d say—I remember Jack in Little House on the Prairie). And now that I look back at that axle rubric, I wonder if she might have learned more by getting stranded—the 2 point score. And isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about? Learning?
Rose is learning how to sew on buttons and I sincerely appreciate her teacher for that–it’s really a pretty basic skill and I have to say one we all should have. But I don’t need a rubric about it. I’ll test her out on the next button I pull off. And she doesn’t need a rubric either. She really, really doesn’t need any formal assessment on how well she can sew on a button. She just needs a teacher (may she be blessed with more patience than me on this matter) to show her how to do it and then help her practice until she gets better. Like sewing on a button, it’s a pretty basic concept and one we desperately need to remember.
Text message: I’m so glad I realized I was in the wrong room. I love my teacher. He speaks English and is white. Not being racist. I’m so happy.
I’m not going to say who sent me this except that she’s a freshman at K-State, used to live with me until very recently, and is NOT white. And let’s just call her Helen. She got in the wrong section of business calculus because she went with a friend the first day and stayed there two weeks before figuring out it wasn’t her class. That first teacher was a new graduate student from India. From the imitation Helen did of the young woman asking questions that no one answered (well, to give her some credit, it was 7:30 in the morning), I could tell that she was trying hard to be a good teacher but was up against a triple whammy—a strong accent, lack of teaching experience, and little knowledge of the way American college undergraduates think. And they certainly aren’t very patient with any teacher, let alone one with the accent thing going on.
I asked Helen if she was really glad that her teacher was white and she said it was a joke. I want to believe it was. She seems to take a lighthearted approach to her Chinese American status in a mainly white family (Rose helps move the percentage a little). She loves to tell me that “white chicks don’t tan” and I only wish that my reflective skin was the only thing I didn’t like about my legs. When she got comments from classmates at her rural high school, such as “How do you see when you smile?” she accepted that it wasn’t said in a mean spirited way. I, on the other hand, felt more offended and suggested she use her hands to open up her eyes super wide while saying, “So how do YOU see when you smile?” Quite a clever comeback, right? And so mature.
I grew up in Topeka, home of the historic “Brown vs. the Board of Education” with parents of differing views on non-whites.When a friend of my mother’s called to tell her I had been seen dancing with a black guy at the 9th grade party, she simply replied, “Really? That’s nice.” But when a boy of Asian descent came to the door to collect me on a date one year later, it was my father who rushed to ask my mother if she knew about this. He came by his prejudice rather honestly. His mother, a quarter Cherokee herself, told my brother that he “should stone any nigger that came into his classroom”. My father was horrified at that advice, though not likely as much as my mother. I can clearly remember one morning as I was heading out the door to school. My parents were discussing Rosa Parks. In one of the few times I ever heard her raise her voice, my mother, waving a newspaper in the air, asked, “Why should she have to sit in the back of the bus?” My father didn’t answer but he was surprised to see how much passion she had over this matter.
Always a southern gentleman, my father never acted anything but polite to that boyfriend he had rushed to inform my mother about, and never suggested that I shouldn’t go out with him. But I know he was relieved when the next guy at the door had paler skin. So when I announced that I was going to China to adopt a daughter, he looked stunned but said nothing. In fact, he continued to say nothing, refusing to mention it for the nine months that I waited to get her, something that hurt and angered me. My mother tried to excuse him—he was worried about me having enough money to take on a child and also, remember that he was in WWII when Japan was the enemy—and China, well, it’s also Asian. So I didn’t quite know what to expect when I arrived home with Helen, a child I thought was the most wonderful 20 month old in the whole world, an opinion my mother and brother seemed to immediately agree with.
I don’t remember when things changed. It’s been a long time since I showed up at their door with Helen dressed in a red and black checked dress that I still keep in the closet. And it’s been a long time since my father died, two years later. I just remember certain things. Like the way he called her “my sweet little girl”, the same thing he called me at that age. Like the way they would sit together on the front porch, not doing much, just hanging out together. Like my mother’s favorite story about the two of them. It was in the last months of his life, when his feet were so swollen they couldn’t fit in his shoes. We were at their house for Sunday dinner and when he and Helen didn’t show up at the table, my mother went searching, fearing he had fallen. She found him sitting in his chair, smiling down at a little girl who was so gently putting his feet into slippers.
I have to say I feel relieved that Helen can now understand her teacher in a class that will be difficult in the best of circumstances. And I see how it’s what she wants (at some point she also said that he’s rather cute). It certainly is easier to stay with what we’ve known, and what she’s known is mainly white teachers born in this country. But how sad for her if she does what some students do, avoiding classes with teachers whose names don’t sound “American”. I think about what my father would have lost if he hadn’t had Helen as part of his family. At some point in the civil rights movement, he came to agree with my mother about Rosa Parks, but he never spoke out with any of her passion. Later, he was forced to view it much more closely. It was then that this passion showed as he looked down on his “sweet little girl” from China.
It’s not every 22 year old woman who’s told that she looks like John Denver. This happened in the summer of 1974, the year Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and Nixon resigned. I had managed to get a job as a camp counselor in Colorado by rather overstating my experience with all sorts of things, including horse riding and navigation. Although this got me into some trouble, like being thrown off a headstrong horse after saddling up the calm ones for the campers, and temporarily losing 8 ten-year-olds in the forest at dusk, I didn’t cause any serious injury to me or others. I even managed to scare away a bear cub by throwing my tennis shoes at it, much to the awe of the on looking adolescent girls. But back to the resemblance to John Denver. I had light brown straight hair that was chin length with long bangs that flopped over round wire rimmed glasses and apparently a friendly easy going smile. I felt rather complimented by the remarks of the resemblance as I loved John Denver then and will still catch myself trying to sing his songs forty years later.
But still it was rather a shock to me when several days ago Rose saw a picture of John Denver and shouted, “Mom, he looks like you!” Oddly enough, I again felt complimented but this time it had to do with the age thing—could there be anything alike in the faces of a thirty-something male folksinger and a sixty-something (early sixties, by the way) woman? It made my heart warm to my child in a way that happens less often as the teenage years approach. And so we sat on the porch and I drank beer while she played John Denver songs on her ipad (actually Wayne’s ipad that he gave her as he never got the gist of how to use it). I asked Rose to play “Annie’s Song” and with the opening chords I was transported back to that summer of 1974. I had been given the not-so-desirable job of alpine camping with the youngest girls and we slept out in the open (this must have been before lawsuits as I also led a white water raft trip down a river with let’s just say no experience). Those were also the days before we worried about drinking the seemingly clean spring water, which in this case was a huge mistake. In the early hours of the third morning there, I woke up to a light tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see a little girl shivering in the chilly air. “I threw up in my sleeping bag. Can I get in yours?” There was no possible answer except yes and so she got in beside me and immediately fell asleep. I, however, could only think about how I’d used all the money I’d saved to buy that expensive North Face bag and what if she threw up again. But in one of those rare moments of knowing what to do, I got up just before dawn and set out walking up a trail, eventually coming across deer. The light was shining down behind them and it was a moment of pure joy—-I was young and strong (and looked like John Denver don’t forget) and the world was good with so many things yet to experience. And I remember too that while I stood alone on that path, I was hearing “Annie’s Song” in my head.
Sitting on the porch last night, thinking about that, a great sadness came over me, accepting my aging and how far I am from that person who was 22, walking on that mountain trail at dawn, with her whole life ahead of her.
I hope Helen feels the way I did that early morning in Colorado. She is now 18 and 16 years ago I brought her home from China, a scared little girl, in her own way tapping me on the shoulder and asking to crawl into my sleeping bag, a bag that I knew would never stay as clean again. This June I went with her to freshman orientation at K-State. After signing in (and noticing that the other parents looked way too young to have college aged kids) the students went off in one direction and family members were led to an auditorium where we got coffee and rolls and talks about children growing up and learning to make it on their own. Helen had been quite nervous about not knowing any other students and began texting me.
Helen: I’m in the college of business. See you at 11:15.
Ann: OK I ALREADY SPILLED MY COFFEE AND FAILED THE TEXTING SURVEY (note: also have trouble getting the all caps turned off)
Helen: Lolol I threw my coffee away
Ann: WAS IT THAT BAD?
Helen: I finished almost all of it. I have to carry a bunch of stuff. The big nose guy is talking. Did you have to watch the students do a skit?
Ann: No skits only lectures (note: managed to turn off all caps)
Helen: Sucks ____ (note: not very nice word here)
Helen: I think I should return my books.
Helen: They said I could go on amazon and get it super cheap
Ann: OK you scared me I thought you were going to say you already wanted to drop out
Helen: No its actually going pretty well
Ann: GOOD (note: all caps on purpose this time)
John Denver died in a private plane crash at the age of 53. I’ve already lived nine years longer than that and have had a pretty incredible life, with few regrets. But that doesn’t keep me from grieving what is lost. What I didn’t tell Helen in our texting was that when I sat in that auditorium by myself on orientation day, my eyes got all teary, and I don’t think it was because of the spilled coffee. I sometimes want that little toddler from China back, just like I sometimes want to be 22 again and walking in the forest at dawn, the world so open to me. But for now, I need to cherish Rose’s desire to sit with me on the porch, Helen’s wish that I help her on moving day. These are things still not to be taken lightly.
To read more about the adoption and raising of Rose and Helen, see my book “Spiders from Heaven” at the link above.
Two weeks ago, on Friday the Thirteenth, I woke up and thought I had a brain tumor. Not everyone would come to this conclusion because her left eye wouldn’t blink, but I did. What else but some ugly mass pressing against my eye socket could cause this? Which only gave me a few months to live, leaving my children motherless. But then again, maybe a little internet research was in order before I checked out completely. I found five possible conditions, including a benign tumor and another I knew a little about—Bell’s Palsy, “a paralysis or weakness of the muscles on one side of your face”. Other symptoms…..numbness……..didn’t have that…….wait……it suddenly felt like I’d just had a filling on the left side of my mouth. What the heck—aside from a brain tumor (albeit benign) I now had a clear case of hypochondria.
A quick look in the mirror, however, left me no longer worried about my mind but if I could live with facial disfigurement. One side of my mouth did nothing when I smiled—it just sat there, along with an eyebrow that wouldn’t lift, half a forehead that didn’t wrinkle (always a silver lining to any cloud, they say) and that darn non-blinking eye. Indeed, I had Bell’s Palsy.
Fortunately it’s a mild case with complete recovery expected. And I’m getting quite a bit of sympathy (terribly under-rated), even from Helen. She has been driving me on errands and when I ran my cart over a clerk’s foot at Home Depot, she called me her “blind and gimpy mom”, but in a nice way. And here is a good place to put into writing that she even promised to support me in my old age for “18 years like you supported me”. Though I am embarrassed to admit that I got a little greedy and suggested that 22 was a more correct figure as there were four years of college ahead.
And I wasn’t the only one she took care of this month. We have a slightly feral tomcat, Timmy, who had an injured foot. He is also known as “Roof Kitty” as he usually is too timid to come down for dinner and we have to throw his food up on the roof. Helen managed to catch him and get him to the vet to be fixed (in more ways than one). And in the hope that we could tame him, she made the downstairs bathroom his recovery care center. And though he did get to the point where he liked to be petted, he never felt safe enough to leave the window sill, except to use his private litter box and eat his rather generous meals. When she finally let him loose he took off running and didn’t return. It all was very sad—did he trust us so little now that he would never come back?
But then, several days later, we had a Timmy sighting in the hay bales and the next day he was on the roof, waiting for food. That was 8 days ago, when my mouth started to feel less numb. That was the day when I noticed that there were poppies and bachelor buttons ready to bloom in my new flower bed under the decorated tree stump. That was a good day.
Life truly turns on a dime. One night you go to bed and your face is normal (well, sort of) and the next morning you wake up with an eye that won’t blink and a smile that is way too crooked to be charming. And depending on the direction of the spin, all this turning can be magical or horrifying. Your cat is injured, you get him well, he runs away. You have cancer, now it’s in remission, now it’s back. Your child is on drugs, no she’s not, yes she is. Your husband loves you, he loves you not, he……now it’s my head that’s spinning. And there’s not much to do about it, except try and learn from each turn. I can only hope to have more empathy for anyone facing permanent disfigurement. To be thankful that I didn’t wake up to discover a real brain tumor or a lump in my breast. To remind myself that my almost 18 year old is (usually) a great kid.
Mary Oliver ends her poem “The Summer Day” with these lines:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
The dime will continue to turn and drop, turn and drop. But today I will sit by my tree stump and admire the opening blooms of flowers that have had this month’s both brutal winds and plentiful rains. I will look in the mirror and appreciate the way my mouth is starting to go up on both sides. And when I throw Timmy his food up on the roof, I will tell him how very glad I am to see him.