The first missed anniversary

In late August, the 66th anniversary of my parents wedding occurred. Yet, it was the first one that neither parent was alive. My mom passed away last Christmas morning. Being a religious woman, it is somehow fitting she left us that day.

My dad passed away just over eleven years ago. We still miss his laughter and love, but have gotten used to him being gone. They were married just shy of 55 years before he died having met at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.

Mom’s memory had been on the decline for several years, as she was diagnosed with a progressive memory disorder, most likely Alzheimer’s. On the phone, she knew I was her son, but in person she often mistook me for her husband as I look like my dad did when he was my age. She often thought my sister was her older sister Betty.

They were a loving couple that endured each one’s imperfections. Young folks are looking for the perfect match, but there is no such person. We are all fixer uppers. So, couples teach each other how to coalesce.

Both my parents were smart. My mom became a teacher working primarily with first or second graders. After she retired, she was a devoted bible study fellowship leader. My dad started in the grocery business, but migrated to a new profession called data processing. He used to take me to the elevated computer room which was quite cool. I remember the tape readers were as large as refrigerators.

My brother, sister and I were blessed to have such wonderful parents. They loved and supported us, even when we hated being pushed out of bed to attend Sunday school. Thanks for everything Mom and Dad.

Have I told you about that lizard?


Some of the more creative commercials are the Farmers Insurance ones. They are running one now about a hamster that escapes from its cage in the father’s car as his son gets out for school. Unfortunately for the father, the hamster climbed up his pants leg and he caused a multi-car crash in the exit line from the school.

This reminds me of an incident with a lizard my fourth grade son was taking to school. As we ease up in the drop off line at the school, I hear my son say “uh-oh.” Now you have to remember this followed earlier instruction not to pull the lizard out of the cage in the car. The uh-oh meant just what you think it meant. So, unfortunately my son had to go into class “sans lizard.” He would be over said tragedy pretty quickly.

Yet, as I drove off, I envisioned happening what the Farmers Insurance hamster did. Or, I pictured the lizard climbing on my ear or head as I drove. As I was riding down a four lane road, I looked down and the renegade lizard was between my seat and the driver side car door.

So, I reached down and grabbed the lizard  by my left hand. Picture one hand on the steering wheel and one with a lizard. At the next traffic light, my car was blessedly detained long enough for me to grab the cage and repatriate the lizard to his home.

The moral of the story is to remind your fourth grader multiple times not to pull the lizard or animal from its cage. I was lucky on this occasion, but I could have easily been filing an unusual insurance claim and not with GEICO, who has a gecko lizard for a spokes icon.

God gave us a wonderful brain


Paraphrasing King Solomon’s words from the bible, let me say this with emphasis. God gave us a wonderful brain. We honor him when we use it. Here is a sampling of Solomon’s wisdom:

“For whoso despiseth wisdom and nurture, he is miserable, and their hope is vain, their labors unfruitful, and their works unprofitable.”

“Wisdom is glorious, and never fadeth away; yea, she is easily seen of them that love her, and found of such as seek her.”

“But the multitude of the wise is the welfare of the world: and a wise king is the upholding of the people.”

We often pray for miracle cures, good fortune and remedial help with our difficulties. Yet, we lose sight of this wonderful thing in our heads. God has armed us with a great tool to solve our problems. As Paul McCartney once sang about in the famous anthem Hey Jude, “the movement you need is on your shoulders.” It should be noted, McCartney was going to strike that line from the song as he thought it cheesy, but John Lennon said to leave it in as it was the best line in the song.

I have written before that God does not care who wins football games, so thanking him when you win is misguided. Now, thanking him that no one was hurt is different. Same holds true about war. One of my favorite questions is “which side was God pulling for during the Civil War?” Both sides felt they had righteous cause, yet the prayers should have been for leaders to find wisdom to stop this carnage and let all people be free and not to win a war that claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans.

It is my belief God wants us to solve our problems. He  gave us this wonderful brain and it is incumbent upon us to use it. When people pray for a miracle to cure cancer in their child, how do we know if the doctor’s experience, skill and intellect are not the miracle for which we are praying. As reported on “60 Minutes” last night, some doctors at Duke University may have discovered a cure for certain kinds of cancers using a variant of polio. I stand in awe of those who are behind this research that has saved three lives and prolonged others, thus far.

So, let’s continue praying, but don’t stop thinking and acting. We may have the ability to solve our own problems and doing so would make God happy, just like it does when a child makes his parent happy.

I am reminded of the key moment in the movie called “Ray” about the life of the blind singer and pianist Ray Charles. The scene is when the mother leaves him alone in the house as a child and watches from the door as he figures out things on his own. It is breathtaking. In my eyes, she was God-like. Let’s use our brain like Ray did.

 

Saturday in the park

If you are my age or a Chicago (the band) fan, you are thinking of the next line, “I think it was the 4th of July.” It is a beautiful Saturday morning and my daughter and her friend are slowly arising. Hearing your child or children laughing is the greatest sound in the world.

We have always had a home where our children feel comfortable having their friends over. It is a treat to meet your kids’ pals and hear them having fun. It also helps as a parent to know the friends of your children in our imperfect world with greater temptations than we had growing up. This is our safe haven.

My daughter is home from her freshman year of college and we are so proud of the woman she has become. She is interested in stopping injustice to people and the environment. She is well read and active at school and has made the Dean’s List twice. She loves her professors and they offer encouragement. I was sharing with Hugh on his blog that one of her professors applauded her for writing a paper that disagreed with the author’s position, which he said he usually only sees from upperclassmen.

My oldest son moved out a month ago and is rooming with a good friend. They have a tribe of friends that hang out and look out for each other. He has taken on more responsibility and is asking more questions about living on a budget, saving, insurance, etc. He is a fine young man and a good friend, but like many his age is still finding his path forward. Working two jobs 50 – 60 hours a week is wearing him out. We do miss having him here, but are happy for his spreading his wings.

My youngest son will be home at the end of next week completing his junior year. He has changed majors and colleges and is enjoying his eclectic college in the mountains. He is relishing being a scientist and exploring wildlife biology and the environment. He will only be home briefly as he will be interning this summer at a place that takes care of different kinds of wildlife. The college is perfect for him as it is work-study program where all students have to work 15 hours a week. Plus, it attracts eclectic people who I find to be a joy. It is ironic in a state that has passed an anti-transgender and LGBT law, his dorm has unisex bathrooms and showers.

I hope everyone enjoys their Saturday and all mothers have a wonderful Mother’s Day.

 

 

 

What is really scary to me?

On this Halloween, I was thinking about what has really scared me in life and in the movies. I should note that nothing in the movies is as scary as what happens in real life. The only time it comes close is to show something that really could happen.

In a horror movie called “The Kiss,” about a parasite that would enter one body from another via a kiss, the scariest part of the movie had little to do with the larger plot. Early on in the movie, the husband’s wife was electrocuted in her kitchen as she fiddled with a shorting toaster at the same time someone spilled milk on the floor underneath her feet. The family had to watch her die, but could not touch her as they would have been electrocuted as well.

But, that is not even close to the seconds that seem like hours when your child gets lost out in a public place. My youngest son wandered away from us at the zoo when we stopped for a coke. He kept walking as we paused. Those twenty seconds to find him seemed like an eternity.

Or, when my oldest went into the restroom at the ballpark as I waited outside. He walked out a different entrance and did not see me. He did remember our assigned place to meet if we got separated and that is where I found him. These scary moments are burned in my memory.

Health scares make movie scares pale in comparison, as well. On my 44th birthday, I thought I was having a heart attack on my way to meet my family. Waiting in an ER room with wires attached is quite humbling and scary. I can assure you that you do not think of your job, but focus on your family and what you may not witness in the future and your not being there for them or watching your kids grow.

However, when your child has a health scare, it is worse as you can only react and make things better. You cannot take on his or her pain and anguish. And, that makes you feel powerless. Each time our children have had lengthy illnesses, issues or allergies, it has been a little scary.

I am writing this today as last night, we attended a funeral service for an 8 year old boy, who died of a rare brain cancer. He was the grandson of our neighbors and their family has been in anguish over his fight to survive. There is nothing worse for a parent than losing your child.

In the throes of his battle, this child taught everyone how to live and love more deeply. The service was a poignant tribute to this effervescent little person with a big heart. He helped others, especially his parents, live through this horrible ordeal.

So, the scary stuff is outside the movie theater. We deal with it the best we can with our faith, love and care. And, we do it one day at a time.

 

A few more movies worth a nostalgic look

My wife and I rented few new releases and enjoyed them, but felt nostalgic about some older movies. “Gone Girl” was good, but the characters were not very redeeming. “Interstellar” was good for the relationship between father and daughter, but was on the bizarre side toward the end. Of the three, we did enjoy “Wild” the most with Reece Witherspoon hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself, but Laura Dern helps the movie greatly in flash backs as her mother.

I was thinking about some older movies that may be under the radar screen on searches for movies, but offer a sense of nostalgia as well as coming of age. So, in no particular order:

Breaking Away – made in 1979 and won an Oscar for best screenplay. Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley and Daniel Stern star in a movie about four kids who have graduated high school and are trying to find themselves in Bloomington, Indiana where Indiana University is located. Christopher is fascinated by all things Italian as he has become a world-class bicyclist and the Italian team is the best and coming to town. Paul Dooley, as the former stone cutter and now used car salesman, steals many a scene.

Summer of 42 – made in 1971 and won an Oscar for best music score. Jennifer O’Neill, who every boy falls in love with in the movie and audience, Gary Grimes, Jerry Houser star in the movie based on a summer on the Nantucket shore. The boys are coming of age during the onset of WWII and O’Neill’s husband has been deployed. The story is told from Grimes’ character’s perspective looking back at that summer as he discovers love and loss.

American Graffiti – made in 1973 by George Lucas and starring a huge cast of soon to be famous young actors – Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard (was only known as Opie at that time), Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford, Charles Martin Smith, Bo Hopkins, Candy Clark and Wolfman Jack. It is nostalgic and mirror into a different time as Dreyfus and Howard’s characters are headed off to college the next day. The movie spawned the TV show “Happy Days” which eventually led to “Laverne and Shirley” as a spin-off.

Each of these movies are nostalgic in nature. Kids are coming of age and wondering what it is all about. “Breaking Away” is set in the 1970s, “Summer of 42” is obviously set during the 1940s and “American Graffiti” is at the brink of the 1960s. Kids have not changed in this outlook to discover what is it all about. Today’s kids are more technologically advanced and are seeing a world change at a fast pace, yet they have many of the same questions.

To me, I go back to “Breaking Away” and the father son chat at the end between Christopher and Dooley’s characters. Christopher and his fellow mates have always felt and been put down as “cutters” short for stone cutters. As they walked through IU’s campus, the father notes “we” carved these beautiful stones that made these buildings on campus, but once they were erected, we felt the buildings were too good for us. The son responds “I don’t mind being a cutter.” The Dad says, “You’re not a cutter. I am cutter.” He is telling his son, do not limit yourself by what I accomplished. Go find yourself.

And, that is the best advice for any of us. Go find yourself. That may be why we liked “Wild” the most of the three new movies, as Witherspoon’s character was looking to find the woman her mother knew was always there.

The end of the beginning

My daughter just completed her senior graduation project in high school last week and the melancholy of her last few months of high school is kicking in. In August, she will be off to college, so we will be officially empty nesters. We are so very excited for her as we were (and are still)  for her brothers, when they headed off. But, this is not the beginning of the end. This is the end of the beginning.

People have said many times that it is interesting to see the change in relationship as their children grow more into adulthood. I totally see this with our oldest son and am seeing this with our youngest son. While it is a journey upward and onward, there are moments when they make child-like errors in judgment. We all do, but they are more in number at this age. Boys take a little longer than girls to make that journey, but we take pride in more adult conversations that we are having with our children.

Our girl has equipped herself with a keen sense of humor and an ability to get along with many. While we could have done many things better, our children share their friends, so our youngest is more mature due to such interaction. She also carries a passion for doing the right thing and standing up for others and the environment. She does not appreciate showing teachers disrespect for the sake of juvenile enjoyment.

She is a neat young woman and we are quite proud of her. We are looking forward to her taking flight and will be there when the need arises. Yet, this is her story to write. It is only the end of the beginning. There is much more story left.

It will also give my wife and me the chance to do things for us. As parents, we are forever planning around events, classes, schedules, etc. It will be quite lovely to do a sudden day trip or take a long weekend. Or, go on a longer vacation. We will be able to date more, which oftentimes is killed because of being tired or busy. So, it is our new beginning, as well.

A pocketful of acorns

My wife and I were walking in the woods this morning and she came across a beautiful specimen of an acorn, brushed it off and pocketed it to take home. We both laughed as our children used to do this when they were little. Each time we went for a family hike or one where I took the kids out to give my wife some “me time,” I would return with a pocketful of acorns. Usually, fifteen to twenty acorns would make it home, sometimes filling both pockets in my pants, as I was the designated carrier.

To my kids, the acorns were treasures, something far more valuable than what they were. So, we would collect them until we had too many and they would forget about them. And, then when we went out again, we came back with more. I think it is the quest for acorns that made them special. Or, they just wanted a memento or souvenir of our morning walk. This morning, my wife’s acorn brought these memories back to top of mind.

When all is said and done, it is these memories that are mileposts in our lives. These memories are our “pocketful of acorns.” I cherish our family and it makes me smile when something happens which brings up one of these mileposts. Witnessing the actions of the children of our niece and her husband is one set of reminders taking us back to how our children acted. This is one reason I surround myself with pictures of our kids, especially when they were little.

My daughter, like many daughters, loved to wear hats and sunglasses. So, we have numerous pictures of her with a joyous smile in such attire. My sons loved their army men, Legos and hats as well, so we have pictures of them clad in hats or playing with their army men outside. I have one “acorn” of my youngest son, swinging on our swing in the back singing his own version of ACDC’s “TNT.” I have another “acorn” of my oldest son in his first Halloween costume as a clown and, just in case you did not know what he was, he would announce “I am a clown.”

I have another acorn of my youngest son asleep on his crib mattress at the bottom of the stairs after we put up a big boy bed and brought the old one down. My daughter left with us several acorns of her trying to wake me when I fell asleep reading her a story again and again. My guys left me with an acorn of laughing at me when I jumped on the bed to tell them a story and bounced off and down between the wall and bed.

Let’s do our best to remember our own pockeftul of acorns. They will bring a smile to your face, like it does to mine.

 

Houseful of kids – we love the chaos

We always wanted to have a house where our kids felt comfortable in having their friends come over. Well, we have that house, and at times we laugh at the chaos, but would not have it any other way. My wife says we provide a soft place to land, but in essence we provide a haven where we do not judge; we just ask questions and listen. So the kids and now young adults keep coming by and it makes our lives and that of our kids much better. But, we have to be pretty flexible to make it happen, as gatherings often happen without much planning.

Our kids have benefitted, as they tend to be more introverted than extroverted, except with their friends. So, by having friends in our house for a weekly night of role-playing games or just impromptu electronic gaming or movie watching, makes them feel even more comfortable and inclined to ask others to do things. Plus, twelve years ago, we built a pool adding to a hot tub we already had. The final straw in the decision to build the pool was a friend said if you build a pool you will get to know your children’s friends. What is interesting, the hot tub is the final destination as kids will sit on the side, with some in the hot tub, and end the party with conversation and joking.

Another benefit for our kids is it gives them safe place to be themselves. We fortunately have a game area upstairs where they can gather. The greatest joy we have as parents is hearing our kids laughing with their friends through closed doors. Plus, they share their friends, so sibling rivalry is minimized. My middle child has benefitted greatly as he leads a role-playing game and has done so for over four years. Half the time, the kids are just hanging out, but he has kept it interesting enough that they continue to look forward to it. This has helped him be better organized and pursue his creativity. The sad part is with him at college, we don’t get to have the many friends over to play and make our house louder and more fun. So, as the summer ends and everyone heads back to college, it will get quieter.

Parents that have this kind of house probably have a smile on their face as they read this. If you are reluctant to have one of these houses, don’t be. The joy and camaraderie will far outweigh the negatives of less order. Plus, you and your kids will benefit. We know our kids’ friends and they know us. It is delightful. Trust me on this.

 

My mother the teacher

When one of the boys I was coaching in baseball found out my mother had been his teacher, he said immediately about the sweetest woman I know, “Your mother is mean.” I asked him why he would say that and he said my mother put his desk up front by her desk. Now, if you remember anything about teachers, you know when a teacher does this she is beyond her last straw. I also knew the boy was more animated than others in practice and would not listen very well. When I mentioned this later to my mother, she said, “He was a real pill.”

Teaching is a hard job. It can be very rewarding, but it also can be very thankless. My mother has always been a teacher, whether as a second grade teacher, as a substitute or as a bible study teacher. She would spend (and still does at age 83) hours preparing her lessons and, in the case of elementary school, grading papers. In her paying job, she probably worked ten to twelve hours days. Some might say, teachers get summer off, but they work a week after school is out and a few weeks before every one comes back. But, when you add up the hours, they can rival most year-round employment jobs.

However, because they are relatively low paid, especially in my state of North Carolina where we are 46th in teacher pay, many work summer jobs as well. Our state is trying to remedy the problem it created with frozen budgets and cutbacks on additional pay for masters degrees. Teachers have been voting with their feet leaving the state and the Moral Monday protests added a large voice to that of teachers to shame the legislators into doing something. They are still arguing over this as of this writing.

Yet, through this process, teachers have not been shown the respect they have earned. Of course, there are some poor teachers. But for the large part, my experience has been with very dedicated professionals. And, they also take the blame for things outside of their control. My mother would tell you that it does take a village to raise and educate a child. A good teacher cannot do the parent’s job. It needs to be a team effort between the teacher, parents, counselors and teacher assistants. Also, volunteers help, in a large way, especially if there is not enough teacher assistants to cover the classes.

But, you may have noticed I used the plural of parents. The dilemma these days is if you looked at the demographics of classrooms, the number of kids with divorced parents would not be insignificant. Further, the number of those kids with only one parent in their relationship would not be inconsequential, especially in high poverty schools. In the volunteer work I do for homeless families, there is a significant percentage of single parent families. Divorced or single parent families make it tougher on the kids.

A couple of years ago, I tutored two fifth graders in math. They were interesting and attentive little girls who asked for help in writing. This blew me away. Yet, one had ten people and three generations in her house and the other had seven people. Each had a heavy list of chores beyond the normal 5th grader, so school work was difficult to fit in. The nice part is a school counselor was working with the teachers and parents to help these girls keep up. Since English was their second language, word math problems gave them trouble, as did geometry, but that can give anyone nightmares. We worked through their issues and they passed.

Seeing my mother with my kids and my nieces and nephews, she has the patience of Job. She embodies what teachers are all about. They want to help people and take great pride when the children learn and can apply their learnings to something else. In Finland, teaching is one of their most honored professions. Their brightest aspire to these roles and are given the freedom to teach. They are paid well and Finland routinely ranks high in education achievement.

We should value people like my mother. They make such a huge difference in our kids’ lives. They did in my life, as well. So, big shout outs to Mr. Batten, Ms. Bowden, Ms. Regan, Ms. Shrout, Mr. Brickell and countless others. Thanks for teaching me. And, the biggest thanks go to Mom. You are my first and best teacher. I love you, Mom.