Portraits in Neglect

Hello friends.

Did you have a rough week? A rough morning? Are you questioning your basic competence? Feeling bad about your children’s future therapy bills?

I’m here for you.


These just went up on the mantel this afternoon. Nice, right?

It’s a lovely shot, really. There’s a funny painted rock, but you could make a case for that being what pulls it together. It’s not perfect but clearly one of the kids painted it, so it just shows our commitment to the family. Or something.

Setting aside the fact that the camera doesn’t reveal the thick layer of dust, let’s talk about those picture frames. They’ve been sitting with the store photos proclaiming the frame size in them for at least two months. I’d finally gotten around to replacing the ones that had been broken on two different occasions involving balls being thrown in the house. The later of those incidents happened when a high school babysitter was here. She’s in her second (third? I lose track …) year of college now.

I wasn’t too upset, though. The glass stayed in the frames both times so it wasn’t dangerous. The pictures were ruined but we have digital copies and also they were two years out of date at the time.

Given my track record, those pictures above could be on the mantel until both kids are in high school.

See? You’re doing fine. If nothing else, you’re way ahead of me on the picture thing.

That Time I Ran Track

7th-grade-track

Well, there are just so many places to go with this, aren’t there?

  • Yes, I was once upon a time on a track team. One season, in the seventh grade. I was trying to find the thing I was good at. (Spoiler: It wasn’t track.)
  • Is it possible I used to be an even pastier hue that I currently am? Maybe it’s just the lighting.
  • Speaking of lighting … squint much?
  • And while we’re in that general area, the glasses. Saints preserve us. I remember those glasses. They had a horrifying curlicue on the temples. There’s no accounting for taste, especially when you’re twelve. I’m pretty sure they appear to great effect in another photograph, but I am absolutely sure I’m not emotionally ready for anyone to see that particular picture at this time.
  • Could I look less comfortable?
  • I think it’s possible that there’s a banana clip on the back of my head. The eighties. It was a difficult decade for hair.

I don’t remember a lot about that season except being terminally discouraged at every practice. Meets were worse. The coaches did not know what to do with me, and I did not know what to do with myself. I was awkward and miserable and as out of place as a polar bear in Ethiopia. I still don’t know why I stuck it out for the entire season, except possibly that I had to prove something to my mother, who didn’t really want me to be in any sport ever. (Seeing the schedule some people maintain to get their offspring to all their practices and games and meetings has given me more sympathy for her position in recent years.) Unfortunately, I think the only thing I proved to either one of us was that I was stubborn as sin, which was not exactly news.

The one bright spot that still shines in my memory is Bobby, a guy who went to the same church I did. He was an upperclassman at the high school, a standout athlete, and movie-poster handsome. The middle school and high school teams practiced at the same time on our town’s lone cinder track, and he knew my name and used it, nevermind I was a weird, dorky kid. He was nice to me every single day, while also not pretending I was going to be track star, which was frankly a relief. I could see the toll it took on people to be falsely encouraging. (“We’re going to find your event, Carol!” the one coach kept saying. “What do you think about trying hurdles?” I thought she was crazy was what I thought, but I gave it the old college try anyway and picked cinders out of my knees and palms for a few weeks.)

I hear a lot about sports teaching life lessons and I don’t disagree, although I don’t think what I learned in seventh grade track is what people are usually thinking of. I believe the lesson, as I sit here in my forties and remember someone who just said hello to me every day when I was twelve and hated the way I looked and the way I felt and the way I was in the world, is a very simple one.

A little kindness goes a long, long way.

Sidewalk Art

As I herded the children outside to catch the bus this morning I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a chalk drawing on the cement. 

“Oh, wonderful!” I thought to myself as I went back to look at it. That hits all the right notes. They were outside! They weren’t in front of a screen! They were being creative! Using their writing! I may achieve Pinterest mom-hood yet. 

Or, you know, NOT. 

Holding the Baby

Our friends Matt and Katie have a new baby. I was sitting here looking at his picture and blissing out on his cheeks – Is there anything better than fresh baby cheeks? – and I got to thinking about the last time they had a new baby. It was in the spring of 2014 and I remember this because right then, things was rough.

I was stressed out on all fronts and I was really, really looking forward to my trip to the East Coast in a few weeks, when I was going to be in a friend’s wedding and hang out and see some other friends for awhile. I remember saying at one point that for a week, the only bottom I’d have to wipe would be my own. (Potty training is a difficult time and may result in inappropriate poop comments from all parties involved.)

Mostly, it was getting harder and harder to watch the slow decline of my mom’s mind. I was just so sad all the time, and angry almost as often. Except I had this little reprieve once a week when we would go into our Sunday School classroom and either Matt or Katie would hand me the baby, and I would sit there and smile at him, or stand and sway if he wanted the motion, and pat his perfect, padded little behind.

baby

Not actual baby. Free stock photo, because I don’t have permission to plaster their kid on the internet and I’m not texting to ask because they just had a baby and I am socially awkward but I do understand some things.

You guys, he was the bestest baby. They’re all the best baby, I know, but truly he was. Just this tiny unblemished warm bundle of humanity, content to snuffle against my chest for an hour. Paul, who is the most unrepentant baby hog I have ever met, never took that kid from me one time. I asked him why once and he said, “I just can’t. You look so happy.”

So I went on the trip and tooled around Cape Cod in the summer time in my rented convertible and I had a pretty good time until my sister called and said they had found my mom lying on the sidewalk between our houses. I went home. Instead of being in a wedding, I helped plan a funeral.

When we went back to church after, I was feeling pretty raw and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to Sunday School where there were fewer people and they might expect things from me like actual responses to polite conversation. But Paul convinced me, or something, and I went in and sat down, and somebody handed me the baby.

I am certain I did not hear one word that was said in class that day. I sat there and held the baby and bawled. Paul put his arm around me, and Matt and Katie sat beside me quietly and somebody handed me a Kleenex and everybody shut up and let me be.

Sometimes I hear people say that they are afraid to go to a funeral because they don’t know what to say to the grieving, and I kind of understand this, but mostly I think it’s balderdash. It matters very little what you say (unless it is something like, “Well, of course he got cancer after he smoked all that time,” or “Buck up, camper!” in which case the bereaved would be entirely justified in punching you in the face). Just show up.

Show up, sit down, hand over a hanky. It isn’t complicated (although that doesn’t make it easy). Grieving people don’t need you to say something profound. They need you to be there, and to love them while they suffer. The loving them bit almost always looks less like a perfectly crafted statement of sympathy and more like action. Maybe bring a casserole. Maybe bring them a hug. Maybe hand them the baby. You’re smart; you’ll figure it out. And even if you don’t, it will matter most that in your glorious, awkward, fragile humanness, you just showed up.

Fish Stories

Levi’s homework involved reading a story about Rosie and her dad going fishing and then answering a series of questions. The last question was open-ended. 


A worthy lesson, I think, if not exactly what the author intended. 

The Swarm

My mom spent her growing-up years on a farm north of Orrville, Ohio. It doesn’t seem very far out of town now, with reliable cars that zip up to 60 miles an hour in no time at all, but it probably seemed more remote in the 40s. When she married Dad, she moved to Rittman. While not a metropolis by any stretch, there were always neighbors close enough to holler to, and later on, there were even sidewalks in front of the house.

When she built onto our house and moved out here to stay with us, she talked a lot about living in the country again. She mostly liked it, and she loved the sunsets. She hadn’t lived in a west-facing house for decades, and now she could sit on her front porch for the show. More than occasionally, I’d see the beginnings of a magnificent sunset, run out toward her apartment to tell her, and find her on the sidewalk, scurrying to the house to tell us.

She did not, however, like the birds. We get great flocks of them out here, more often at the change of the seasons, and they swarm and swirl around the house in dark flurries. She didn’t ever explain, but I think it felt sinister to her somehow.

The birds were back this morning, picking over a fresh-mown hayfield as I walked back the lane from meeting the school bus. They always remind me of Mom now, but … I like them.

birds

I like their instant flight from stillness, and the harried thrumming as they gather speed. I like seeing them picking away at the leavings insignificant to the farmer, and knowing it will sustain them. I like the way they are individuals, and the way that they are not; the way the swarm lifts and turns in graceful arcs, one entity, controlled by things I don’t understand.

I even like knowing that Mom didn’t like them, because those are the things that make up a life. The tiny, the mundane, the petty – they’re how we know each other. They’re the separate bits that make up the gorgeous, intimidating swarm. And I do love the swarm.

Eight

Levi …

img_7006

is eight today.

is crazy.

got a sleeping bag from his Auntie and couldn’t have been happier if she’d given him the Chicago Cubs.

can’t wait for school tomorrow.

traded his red jumbo Angry Bird for the bomb bird because it made his little brother happy.

is maybe a teensy bit obsessed with Minecraft.

likes math best, after lunch. And recess.

likes to go with Papa. Anywhere.

kisses his mama on the forehead every night. Not because he likes it so much, but because she does.