The Boat (Written in May 2007)
We spent today with my in-laws, receiving the family boat, celebrating my mother-in-law’s birthday and Mother’s Day, all rolled into one road trip. We ate ham and salad, birthday cake and licorice, and the afternoon passed by in a flash of wild cousins and noise, cold wind, whitecap waves, goofed up boat wiring, and sodas. The kids interviewed the dog, complete with microphone. (She snarled when they asked her opinion of the president. That was too darn funny. Who knew a Lhasa would have an opinion on this?) It was a really nice day.
The boat is old, long, narrow, easy. EASY. Back in the day, back in the 80s, my husband Jay and I owned a boat- a beautiful antique cedar-topped wooden boat with cockpit seats and ribbed floor. Our oldest sons used to crawl up in the bow while we water-skied because of the spray and the wind. John remembers being nestled there with Dan in the shadows near my knees as I drove, warm smell of cedar, and pounding water below. But this other boat, Grandpa’s boat, was all air and sun, not overwhelming, just perfect. I could even land it perfectly at the dock, so crisp was the steering.
Dad no longer wants to deal with it. It’s too heavy and too old. The thing plunged down the grassy hillside when he tried to maneuver it on the trailer this spring, smashed up his shoulder and could have killed him. So we towed it home to our house, full of memories.
Jay’s little brother, Mark, kept going outside, fiddling with it, claimed he was just eating peanuts where he could easily discard the shells, but who is that hungry for peanuts? The boat is just changing address, not leaving the family! As faded as the paint is, as rusty the trailer hitch, we are still honored. As my own dad would say: “If that boat could talk!”
My son Tim has learned that there are many ways to say “I love you” in languages besides English. He’s 4 years old. And there is probably nothing more endearing in all the world than a 4-year-old boy. One day last winter when he was mad at me (probably for insisting he come to a meal during Arthur), he called me a “Dirty Skunk Dog.” I love a creative insult, and this gem from a preschooler, I laughed for weeks. I told him HE was the Dirty Skunk Dog. He said I was still the Dirty Skunk Mom. Daughter Kari volunteered to be the Dirty Skunk Cat and nominated youngest daughter Julia as Dirty Skunk Guinea Pig. Older sister Kirsten suggested Dirty Skunk Llhama for herself, and we named grandbaby William as Dirty Skunk Bunny-Rabbit…on it goes. And so Skunky has become much a term of endearment.
When a warm fuzzy boy with crazy hair tufts showed up in my bed on Friday morning and said, “Te Amo Skunky,” kissed my cheek, then said, “Skunky, Zhuh-tem,” I knew life was awful good. Payroll taxes? Material bills? Property Taxes? Car insurance? Medical insurance? We’re out of milk? The bills are always on our heels. But I got a guy makin’ a beeline for me at dawn, tellin’ me “Te Amo Skunky, Je-t’aime?” Life is very good.
As always, sending my very best wishes, Val
The Energy of Spring (April 2008)
We made it through the winter! It was long and dark with deep cold and snow, but finally spring is here. The Mississippi is overflowing its banks in the city right now. Yesterday, stuck on a bridge in traffic, we could see way down the river, our view unobstructed by either snow or forest, since the trees don’t have leaves yet. Gray spooky water swirled swiftly through the park and over the walkways and picnic tables along the riverbanks and the current looked like pleats in the middle where the water flowed fastest. But soon the trees will fill in and the river will retreat and seem lazy and soothing instead of dangerous.
Today it’s bright out with a strong warm wind that reminds me of my grandparents’ farm high on a Wisconsin hilltop. They have lived there since my mother was a baby, and everything about the place, from the aqua melmac cereal bowls and sudsy bathwater to the bad reception on the TV, feels like home to me. While I was picking up dirty socks and newspapers and toys this morning, the sound of the wind gusts kept drawing an image into my mind of the upstairs of their house: white railing over the stairway, soft carpeting, and long windows with sheer, billowing curtains.
It must be the smell of springtime. Wednesday afternoon we went to our son’s “robot show.” He’s studying engineering and all the robots of the 170 students were on display, each with its creator in attendance. These weren’t robots like spacemen, but rather robotic devices. Each student was given a handful of components and then had to write the program, design the electronics and create “something interesting.” Not sure what we’d find, we headed for the ballroom of the Radisson. We rounded the corner, and I was stunned. It was uncomfortably hot and stuffy in the room, yet the sight was just breathtaking. All these young people, and a few old ones, had made the most delightful contraptions! We found our own son, his cheeks red and hair gone all curly from the heat, and checked out his robotic dump truck (we’d been watching that throughout the whole process), and then we took in the spectacular creations of his classmates—a carousel with tiny gears and rods and horses rolling up and down, a monkey that played the piano, cars of every sort, a doll that putted a golf ball, a pop can crusher, things that flew, a bubble blowing machine.
I was in awe that an assignment could go in 170 completely different and perfectly wonderful directions! A guy whose contraption mixed beverages made glasses of lemonade for our little kids, and while we waited, I looked out at all the intelligent, animated faces of the students, and the room felt absolutely shimmering bright, bursting with potential. After dinner that evening, I took Maria to vision therapy. Part of our genetic code around here includes dyslexia, and Maria has been gifted with it. I know it’s supposed to be a disability, but I don’t believe that. I’ve seen too much. Dyslexic people have ways of seeing that are nothing but an asset. And still, vision therapy helps. It helps the kids access the part of their brain that processes print. Maria’s vision is getting better—it’s right on the verge of blossoming.
We drove through the neighborhood near the eye clinic where the branches of the maples on each side of the road touch, making the street feel like a dappled tunnel in summertime, and yesterday I noticed the first shadow of light green up high in the tree tops. It feels all around me this week! Everywhere I look, the whole world feels stretched full with potential. As we blew along in the evening sunshine, under the outstretched branches of the maples, the radio was playing and Maria was singing along with Nelly Furtado: “…I don’t know where my soul is. I don’t know where my home is…” It’s a beautiful song, but we know exactly where both are. Wishing all of you a wonderful summer, Val
Getting a Clue (February 2008)
There is the famous old family story of the day I dumped a bowl of cereal over John’s head. He was 7 then. He’s 26 now, and the kids still bring it up and laugh at me. The last time they did this was on a Saturday night last summer, when were all sitting by the campfire enjoying the summer night.
I looked at their faces illuminated in the firelight, marshmallows and hot dogs extended on skewers. These kids are now in their mid-20s, the age I was when I threw the cereal, and I found myself telling them, “There’s more to that story. John’s teacher had called and given me a big condescending lecture because John was skinny and wanting to eat his lunch at morning recess. She said to make sure I fed him breakfast in the morning, that he was hungry and he needed to eat more. I was absolutely mortified that she thought I wasn’t feeding him, and I was hell-bent on making him eating his breakfast!” Of course the whole thing was a disaster. John wouldn’t eat a bite, slithered around on his chair in the dining room whining and pouting, and it ended up with me chucking the cereal, and as the tale goes, “…and the milk dripped off his long curly eyelashes.” After I dumped the cereal, I phoned my mother to come over and help me because I was sure I was headed directly for the nuthouse.
As the kids listened to the part of this story they hadn’t heard before—the part about the teacher—their expressions changed from snickering to wide-eyed sympathy. “Oh, Mother! Is that what was going on?” I told them there was even more to the story. Around this same time a separate disaster happened with Dan, who is a year younger than John. A neighbor came to the door to tell me Dan had thrown rocks at some girls, and had also used foul language. I said I’d talk to him about it. Well, of course Dan clammed up. I demanded to know. He got a spanking. I behaved like an absolute ass and yelled. Later on, the whole story was told: Some girls they knew had thrown rocks at them, and they lobbed them back. It was all for fun. They weren’t actually throwing them at anyone; nobody was hit, not even close. And the swearing, he probably did do. That sounded like him. Again that Saturday night in the firelight, I apologized once more. He waved me off like it was nothing, a generous gesture. But the whole incident was important because it made me face a part of myself that needed to be dealt with, something to do with insecurity and being a fool.
This was a turning point for me, getting a clue, as they say, at age 24. Here I had been nasty to two little boys I loved, actually hit Dan in a spanking—all spankings are hitting after all—and it’d had nothing to do with me, or them, or eating cereal, or rocks, or bad language. It was all because of judgments I felt put onto us by some third party! I took it all on, and like an idiot felt embarrassed and more concerned about what they thought of me than about what I actually cared about (or didn’t, as the case was.) I didn’t care what the kids ate then, and still don’t, beyond the extent it’s inconvenient for me I say, “Honey, suit yourself.” And as for wise guys tossing rocks—probably not smart, but hardly something to get mad about, and cussing I’ve never cared about. Swearing is a manners issue to me, not a life crisis. And yet here I was, being absolutely asinine to my little boys.
That wasn’t guidance. That was my insecure ego. Additionally ridiculous was that the teacher and the neighbor weren’t even people who had any credibility with me. The teacher was a sour, crabby person, unhelpful and critical all the time. This neighbor—he was no angel. He was one of those unwashed types who left upholstered furniture sit outside in the rain, and more than once I had overheard him swearing all the way over from his yard across the pond to ours. Yet I’d still be ugly to my sons over their judgment. What in the hell was wrong with me anyway?? It was at this point that I decided #1 I would never discipline a kid for someone else, or because of what they thought. I needed to get a hold of some personal integrity on that, and #2 We became a no-hitting house, including spanking. I have never regretted either decision. If I’m going to lose my temper, it at least has to be about something I actually care about. And I will not be spanking anyone, that’s for sure.
When I rant and rave and carry on, we call those “Joan Crawford Moments.” (In case you’re wondering, the kids did not spiral into brathood growing up in our no-hitting house. They’re okay. Well, actually a lot better than okay. They are wonderful.) So I’m at the age now, in my 40s, with 26 years of parenthood experience behind me, where I occasionally feel compelled to give advice. (And we all know how everyone loooves advice.) I say this ruefully laughing because I don’t want to be obnoxious, and I also don’t want anyone to bog down in issues of how a parent should handle clean plates or kids cussing. As you could expect in my giving of advice, I don’t care about the details of family preferences about behavior. What my heartfelt hope is though, is that I might save someone else from making the mistakes I have, that I could steer another mom or dad away from stupidity and asinine behavior, toward a more respectable way to be. The bottom line is that even our “Mommie Dearest” side ought to have a clue, and that’s a good thing to know.
Appraising Life (from December 2002)
Today an appraiser came to our house to do what appraisers do because we are planning to build a family room on to the side of this old place. What he can’t quantify on a clipboard is the way our house is beloved far beyond its status as a mere building. The soul of our family lives inside these walls and we have been so comfortable here.
The place was in terrible condition when we moved in, disgustingly filthy. My sister says the house was glad to see us with our bottles of Mr. Clean and our paintbrushes. It shines now, in spite of the clutter and kiddy artwork taped to the walls and doors. Over half our kids were conceived and born inside this house, and the rooms—the sunny ones and the shady ones—all radiate friendly energy. With white siding and black trim, colonial windows and maple floors, thick shiny plaster walls, funny tile in the bathrooms, big radiators, ancient chrome stove and pink refrigerator, braided rugs and flowered curtains, it’s all exactly how it should be and it’s home, absolutely.
So the appraiser man went around and through the house measuring and taking notes, inspecting old 4820 with a critical eye. And then he came to the basement. The basement is an old cellar basement, painted with bright enamel paint to make it a comfortable office. At the moment though, it does not look like a plumbing office at all; it looks like Santa’s workshop. The mountains of Christmas gifts are piled everywhere, with a path to the desk, to the fax machine, and back to the washer and dryer. He turned to me with a deep, puzzled frown. “Wow, are you ready for Christmas…washer and dryer? Didn’t I see a washer and dryer in the kitchen?” I told him that was right. We have two sets, and he looked even more confused. Finally I felt forced to admit we have nine children.
The usual questions followed about my age, the age of the kids, so forth and so on, and as he was putting his shoes on to leave, the final clincher, “You do know what causes this, don’t you?” I gave him my usual answer, that nobody has nine kids by accident, and he paused, “For religious reasons?” I told him no. It is because we like them. He put on his jacket, muttering, “Well, don’t that beat all?” I smiled good-bye and was perfectly polite. I had to be polite. We want the appraisal to reflect well on our house.
Why does it beat all? What is so hard to understand? The conversation I had with this man is not unique. I’ve had it over and over with so many people over the years! I went to our bedroom and leaned over the edge of the cradle, breathing in Timothy. Our sweet Mr. Fatty himself was asleep in a nest of blue satin and chenille blankets, milky skin and red hair. I spray him with White Shoulders after his bath every morning. Between his own warm smell and my perfume, he’s absolutely intoxicating. We all inhale him all the time, hugging and squeezing his delicious body, kissing his phenomenal cheeks. He knows we’re crazy about him. He laughs back at us now, and the deep chortling of a three-month-old baby is some kind of music. I love him completely, am so happy he’s in this family, came spinning out like a starfish into our bathtub… first child, fifth child, ninth child, what is the difference anyway?
I was as caught by surprise by this as anyone. That babies would suck me in this way, magnet to metal, I didn’t know, but that’s how it is. And being pregnant, oh Lordy, the aches and pains, nausea and lack of sleep, at times it’s a downright pain in the butt. Every time there have been moments where I have thought I couldn’t go on for another ten minutes this way—two people stuffed claustrophobically into one small body! But then… the other side of pregnancy is the miracle that draws me in like the babies themselves do. I don’t know where spirits live, but they are out there. Ones who want to come to earth wait for their chance to come over, and this is the essence of the life force. Every time we make love, we (yes, you too) are tapping into the life force. I think this is the mysterious element that makes sex such a powerful connection between people. And when the biology is right, spirits snap over from wherever, into here.
When I was finally alone with my first son for the first time, I looked at his round sleeping face, hands tucked under his chin, tuft of reddish-gold hair sticking straight up top of his head, and knew then. This guy had used my body as a bridge to get from wherever he’d been to here. Whether that was fair to me or not, I wasn’t sure, but here he was. Later it became clear he undoubtedly came for reasons of his own, reasons beyond his early mission to drive me nuts.
And yet people are so literal, so impossibly literal. “How can you afford them?” This always from people who have more money than we do, the obnoxious idiots. The laughing and stupid comments about sex never end, and this seems weird to me too. What is the point of having a love life if you’re petrified afraid of love? I don’t want to have babies when I’m not up for that bridge adventure either, and so at those times I hold spirits away. I interfere with the biology a little so they can’t use my body right then. But to obsessively control the life out of this feels like holding the gift of fertility in a chokehold. We won’t do it. We don’t want to do it. Other people have said to me, “I’m just too selfish to have that many kids,” like I am selfless. That’s fairly hilarious too. I did not have kids for unselfish reasons, believe me. To have a family like mine is wild extravagance to be sure. But I wonder what people get out of their relationships when they believe they have to be stingy and ration love. In the same way my body was a bridge in pregnancy, my self is a channel for God’s love too.
At first I was so hard on myself because I wasn’t loving enough, consistently enough. I had to work at being way loving more than I expected. But eventually I realized I wasn’t the source of love at all anyway, conjuring it up from my own puny human heart. If I could just get out of the way, God was the source and all I needed to do was let it go through. As a tremendous weight, people feel responsible for how their kids turn out. To some extent, that’s fair, but the fact is the kids are not arriving as neutral, blank beings. They’re made up of personality and temperament, and with a spirit here to do some special work, and it’s safe for us to just trust in the divine plan and keep our own tails out of the way. In that sense, it occurs to me that parents aren’t creators or enforcers, but mentors instead.
Parent is such a loaded word, but mentor gives a clearer vision. A mentor guides and advises, teaches, coaches, but also cheers when the person goes forth. It doesn’t matter if it’s learning to hold a toy or ride a bike, drive a car, graduate college, start a business—we celebrate our children’s accomplishments along with them, knowing that they have the force inside themselves to make their lives happen. The life force that brought them into being is at work, same as ever, trustworthy as always. We can coach and advise, but that’s all we can do, humans that we are. Good mentors don’t hit the people they mentor, angrily trying to control them, and they don’t hold them back with their own fears and jealousy. I wonder if this is why so often people see raising kids as something that cannot effectively be done for more than three? How many children can a person control? The answer really is none. But it’s in having more that this truth is revealed. Even the most frantically controlling parents trying to micromanage a child’s life, desperate that he turn out (however they’ve defined that) is really still providing mentorship and that’s all. With a looser grip, their child still would turn out. The whole nebulous business of turning out is nonsense. It’s more important to about know that you’re loved as yourself, not as an extension of someone else’s ego.
Babies become our families, but babies are often spoken of as though they’re an end in themselves, rather than a beginning. It takes about 20 years to raise up a child, and then what we have is another adult. For most of us, that’s still only the beginning, and we will spend the next many years relating to this child of ours as an adult, just as we have with our own parents and they have with theirs. And at 40, I still need my mom and dad. In the last two weeks I have sought my mom’s opinion on everything from whether the gravy is all right, to James’ eczema, to questions about running our business.
Last week one of my grown sons called my father to get his input on a project he’s working on in school. Just because we’re grown doesn’t mean we don’t still need our mentors. After the appraiser left, I took my oldest daughter to the dentist, and I stayed in the waiting room with the little kids, reading books to Kari, who is 2. Evening comes early on these December days, and the waiting room, with its gloomy mural of Lake Superior overpowering the room, grew steadily grayer and darker while we sat together on the sofa with Tim stretched out, asleep beside us. Kari’s wispy hair was on end with static electricity and her striped socks dangled off her toes. Holding her cuddly little body and listening to her chirpy voice felt like a gift. Just by being herself, she turned a long boring wait into something easy and pleasant instead.
After half an hour of Curious George, a lady sitting across the room from us called over to me, “Are these all your children?” and gestured from Kari and Tim to the other kids on the floor playing GameBoy. I nodded and James, who is 5, said, “Actually we have nine kids. The other ones are at college.” I saw the flicker across her eyebrows and then she said, “Isn’t that niiice? What a nice biiig family.” I smiled politely. I always am smiling politely at everyone from the rude appraiser, to condescending people in waiting rooms, amazed waitresses in restaurants, the bag boy at the grocery store who asked me if I were shopping for a group home… to distant relatives who repeatedly seek me out to tell me sad stories about the one cousin who has more than three kids… everyone feels free to comment and give an opinion on something they know nothing about. I had to endure a running public commentary about homeschooling years ago before it became popular.
We homeschool because some of the kids are dyslexic and a school system is no place for dyslexic children. But there were a million assumptions about homeschool—we were religious, the kids lacked socialization, how could a person who was not a teacher teach anything? I noticed that the most opinionated people of all were the ones who were the least thoughtful generally and also knew nothing about homeschool. Now that homeschool is common, nobody bugs me about it anymore, giving me their stamp of approval or disapproval, as if I care what they think one way or the other! How obnoxious, having to be polite to all these presumptuous people every day! I wish big families would become common so they’d all just get over it. A childless woman who hoped to someday have a big family wrote to me a while ago asking how a person has a big family when her sister was finding just one child to be exhausting. This is my reply and I still mean every word. “…Of course going from childless to caring for a baby is a shock, but they are taking themselves way too seriously. Their baby will be a baby only a single brief wonderful year, and then they will have a toddler. Soon after that they’ll have a little child, and then soon a bigger kid… I understand right now they are reeling under the responsibility and time issues a baby creates, but if they think they are the first people to go through new parenthood—wrong. They are not. It’s just life. My first child overwhelmed me too, and then the second one was still hard work, though not twice as much work as one. By the time we had that third baby though, I could relax and just enjoy her—knowing that everything with a little child is a temporary situation.
Slowly, one by one, we have grown until we have nine. Probably most of us grew up with one or two other siblings close to our age, so we never got to absorb life with little kids through younger siblings or even nieces and nephews. Then people have a couple kids and they’re stunned, shell shocked, whatever you want to call it, but the drama of it all cracks me up. I think if you want them, you should have babies and kiss them all the time. Wrap them in blankies and carry them around. Laugh a lot, sleep together when it suits you, and ignore dust and crumbs as much as possible. Go to Little League games and scream, “Good hit!” and “Run! Run!” Rent them instruments and cover your ears while they practice. Buy them pets, take them swimming, and read magazines at the park while they play so you don’t have to watch them dangling upside down. Soon enough you’ll be clutching the dashboard while they lurch around learning to drive your car, moving their stuff into the dorms at college, and dancing at their weddings, reminiscing about where the time went. I speak from experience here. Fear not any chaos. Love rules.”
November 14, 2007 (essay written in 2001)
Here it is, another January again, into the long dull stretch of winter we go. Every year, once Christmas is over, and we’ve had our annual New Year’s Day dinner with our old neighbors, Dan and Denise, I dust my hands together and say, “Well wasn’t that lovely? Ready for spring now!” I do love Christmas, and the downhill side of winter seems so long. This year, more than any I can think of, I kept hearing conflicting messages about “Buy a lot of stuff to save the economy” and “We really ought to be more reverent about Christmas.” It makes me sigh. I don’t want to overspend to prop up the economy, although I will gladly spend what I can afford, but I really don’t want to be reverent about Christmas either. It’s Jesus’ birthday and I think we should party.
In this house, when babies are born, we celebrate, and we are not reverent or subdued about it. We throw out the normal routines. We skip school and reschedule work and have company in the bedroom. We eat candy for breakfast and stay in pajamas until 2 in the afternoon. We suspend all normal life and only have fun. Someone has been born! Our circle has grown, miraculously, by one, and honestly, we’re giddy! Family and friends bring food and send flowers, and to me, nothing is more extravagant than cut flowers. They cost a lot and live only a single, brief, beautiful week. And yet they seem entirely appropriate to the occasion. It’s not every day someone gets born!
When the birthdays come around, and you can imagine, in a family of eleven, we have a ton of birthdays, we invite all the relatives and the kids can invite whatever friends they like, and the birthday person determines the menu for the feast. I bake a big, fat, chocolate cake, triple layers with cream cheese frosting, and we celebrate and are not reverent about it a bit. Everyone deserves a day in the year that is just about her or him! We have gifts and great hordes of cousins running through the house, too much food and too much noise and I love it.
When the most important family birthday of the year comes around, it deserves no less. I am so glad that Baby Jesus was born, and I don’t care who knows. I have heard about how it’s too commercialized and too….too. Too overboard. In Minneapolis, we have a Holidazzle Parade throughout the Christmas season. It’s a gaudy, silly, overblown parade, and it’s wonderfully kitschy and irreverent. Originally it was an attempt to draw shoppers into Minneapolis department stores to spend their money. Whether it succeeded or not, I don’t know, but I am also impressed by knowing that this birthday we celebrate is actually a part of our economy?? Even people who don’t believe at all still celebrate. Who else gets a birthday like this? (Who else would deserve all this?)
As a Lutheran, I was brought up in Scandinavian traditions of lutefisk and orderly worship and The Way Things Are Done. When I hear spoofs of our culture, I’m so immersed in it, I have a hard time hearing the jokes even. What’s funny about hot dish? Doesn’t everyone pronounce it “Minnie-sooo-teh?” Our church celebrates Christmas in that tradition and of course, it can only feel like home. Familiar hymns are sung and we hold the usual squirrelly Christmas program full of ruddy children, red cheeks, boiling they are, in their best clothes. We’re celebrating the birthday of Jesus. On the opposite side of the world from where Jesus lived, nearly 2000 years after his birth, life, death, and resurrection, here we are, in velvet and wool sweaters, long dark windows of our church looking out onto snow banks and starry night, singing praise and thanks for the life of Christ. If we eat too many cookies or too much lefse, it only seems like the right thing to do.
A friend loves the story of St. Nicholas. This is the man threw money over a wall for a good cause because it was the right thing to do, and he did so without revealing who he was. Something about this touching story delights our friend. Maybe because it’s a true story it means more, but it gives me a lump in my throat partly because it means so much to him. The Santa game we all play is about delighting little children, and doing it without shining the light on ourselves. The gift is about the recipient. It’s not about us saying, “Aren’t I great, I gave you this gift!” It’s about delighting someone else just because we can, and the message in that is simply, “I love you.” If you throw money at a good cause in the name of Christmas, or you find a way to delight someone, do it in celebration. Don’t be somber or dour in the name of reverence. It’s all right to have fun! As a woman I love mentioned, when she was speaking to a group of children, there are people Christmas brings sadness to. She said, “Ordinary hurts can seem very much worse on Christmas.” She’s so right. People aren’t sad because of gaudy parades or too many gifts or too much partying. They’re sad about separation from family, usually.
When I realize there are people that Christmas annoys and wearies and who even weep over Christmas disappointments, I wish it weren’t so. Every person I’ve ever heard mention sadness at Christmas has not been concerned with too many gifts, or the wrong gifts, or too much krumkake or fairy food, too much Holidazzle… what makes them all sad is this other stuff. My husband worked with a man who told this tale of a Christmas Eve some years ago. He didn’t go home on Christmas Eve, instead got caught up at a bar, goofing around with his buddies.
When he finally made it home, in the condition he did, still in his work clothes, he encountered his wife and children and his wife’s parents returning from the candlelight services at midnight. His wife had a sleeping baby draped over one shoulder and a cranky 3-year-old by the hand. She gave him a disgusted look, shook her head and went into the house. After the door shut, he says his wife’s parents “golf-clapped” at him and said, “Good shew, my man.” Were they angry? Yes. Disappointed? Profoundly. This is the kind of thing that makes people hate Christmas. Being let down, being more than not together, being apart. If there’s anything we can do regarding this, then we ought to, because this in itself would heal Christmas for so many people, and allow us, together, to fully embrace the celebration of our Jesus and his birth. On the most important family birthday of all, our most heartfelt wish is an ordinary one: to be together. It turns out we’re not nearly as materialistic as we thought we were. It’s always the same old thing with me: If you love someone, make sure you tell her. If you enjoy someone’s company, say so, no matter who he is. We whip through the span of our lives on Earth at such a rapid speed, and a central part of our connection to Christ is about living those connections and that love. We’d be fools to waste even a second. Blessings to all in the New Year.
October 31, 2007
So she’s close to 100 years old, she’s cranky, and she’s honest; even in her skewed version of the situation, she pulls no punches, and she was good to me long ago when I needed someone on my side. I feel responsible for her now because as two independent people we do have a connection that’s real. When I visit her and she lies in her bed, complaining, I have to squash an urge to climb into bed behind her and cuddle up to sleep together, her back nestled against my chest for safekeeping. She’s always smelled wonderful, has her cute pageboy haircut and dignified way of living, and I love her very much. But it’s not quiet or cozy.
She’s angry. She wants go home, even though she can’t manage at home. She demands it, tells me to see it done. I know she’ll hate that too, care aides in her days and her nights. She hates everything. She yells at me and I feel obligated to try. She’s trusted me enough to put my name on her accounts and her health care directive in my hands. The nurses are pragmatic and gentle: She can’t. She can’t do even basic cares on her own. She requires an RN available at all times. I know they’re telling the truth, and yet I want to make her happy because: number one, she’s earned it, and number two, she’s counting on me to defend her. So what do I do? I phone my own mother and I cry, like my mom doesn’t have enough to worry about without listening to me. “Aunty called 911 in the middle of the night because the nurses didn’t answer her light fast enough…” I want to do the right thing, but I’m not even sure what that is. They’ve lost all her underpants, the food is an abomination, the damned place is freezing.
I drive over there, threatening my preschoolers they must behave, and it’s so hot it takes away my breath in her room, and a dozen pair of underpants are in the drawer, plus the four pair I’ve washed and am bringing back, and they tell me her appetite is good. Daughter Julia peeks around the curtain at her roommate and when I ask, “Is she bothering you?” the kind people say no, they like looking at her cute face. A bit later, as son Tim and Julia both intently peer around the curtain again, I ask the kids, “Are you bothering them? Are they changing clothes?” A pause, then Tim’s answer: “They’re naked.” And the huge hoot of laugher, “WE ARE NOT!” It’s a burst of free and truthful laughter in a very hot, unhappy room. Tomorrow is a new day and a new week. We can use a fresh start. To all of you in difficult situations, trying to do the right thing, not even sure what that would actually look like—I send you my love. Val
Where Adoration Begins (Written in 2001)
One evening not long ago my husband Jay and I went out to dinner with friends. One couple has a new grandson, and after dinner I asked if the new grandma had any pictures. In a minute a little photo was passed down the table to me. It was the usual type of photo taken of newborns in the hospital, but when I looked at that little boy’s face, my breath jumped and I felt something grab in my chest. My husband looked at it over my shoulder and I said, “Oh, I can almost smell him,” and pointed to his scrumptious cheeks. My husband laughed, and the man next to me asked what I’d said. I told him, and he squinted at me as he took the picture. “David,” I prodded. “Can’t you almost taste those cheeks? He’s very yummy.” He took a long look at the photo and after a few seconds a smile came over his face and he agreed, yes he could.
As he passed the picture along to his wife, his eyes caught his 10-year-old daughter Katie’s eyes across the table and he grinned. I am pretty sure he was remembering the weight of her diapered bottom in his palm and a round warm cheek against his lips. I know I’m goofy about babies. I have been for a long time. They’re contagious and delicious and this is how they hook me and reel me in, and then they grow up, and of course I am crazy about them by then. There was so much I didn’t know. All these years later, I’m still learning. I’m catching on.
The babies were only the beginning. My mother is a woman who is both intense and gentle, kind and funny, determined and sweet. We drive each other crazy once in a while, but I admire her and love her so much. Her stories of me as a baby are full of the awe a person always hears in the voice of a mother who is young and inexperienced and in love with a baby who is lively and smart. One of the earliest stories of my infancy is a tale of woe. She says that they lived in a rented apartment with rented furniture. The ceilings were nine feet high there, and so was the massive oak headboard. The story goes: She was crying because I was crying and she had no idea what to do for either of us, and so this is what my father found upon returning from work: two girls, in their underwear, crying in the big bed. She says, “You were so beautiful, so incredible and I felt so sad when I couldn’t fix things.” That was a generation ago, but what has changed? Nothing.
Mothers still cry when their babies are inconsolable and they don’t know what to do. We cry when our grown children cry! However, it’s her descriptions of baby me that tell me where the origin of my adoration of babies begins. I hear about the texture of my barely-there hair and how rosy and luscious my cheeks were, how intelligent my eyes were, and how sweet my smile.
When I was a young mother, I watched her pull my own newborn son into her arms and draw him against her knees and talk to him most intently when he was hardly more than a morsel. His upper lip rose to a point as he peered at her, and then in a second his whole face burst into a smile—his first smile. I couldn’t believe my eyes! She turned and pulled me against her neck and said, “Oh my God, he’s wonderful.” Who can resist a baby? Indeed, I cannot. In the years since that first baby, I’ve had over half dozen more. The first was the one that baffled me and worried me and then delighted me, most of all with his sense of humor. (He did choose us for parents. He’d have had to be both brave and a good sport.) I had no idea babies love a joke! As he’s grown, we have argued and scrapped like siblings. He and I and his dad and brother have grown up together.
I don’t know why those two spirits were brave enough to come to a couple of goofs like we were, but I am only glad they did. The first one had a glorious crown of satiny, springy gold curls and a brother that followed on his heels by only a year, and that second one—oh my goodness. He was little and lovely and thoughtful with skinny arms and creamy skin, but best of all he was coated with fur. I didn’t know there was a name for it. I’d never heard of lanugo, but it curled along his cheeks and shoulders and down his back. It was delicious and wonderful. I nibbled it after his baths, and when I rocked him to sleep, I’d slip a hand under his undershirt and stroke his fur. It was fourteen years and four babies later before another furry one turned up, but she did. She’s 6 now, a girl with the most gorgeous blue eyes, and when I catch her and kiss her on the back of the neck she giggles to me, “You like my fur, Mom.” Yes. I am a fool for baby fur, and big blue eyes are not far behind.
I realize that after eight babies, I ought to be able to help new mothers figure out how to get a baby on track. Sometimes they seek me out looking for some kind of insight into what? How to get babies to sleep all night or eat their spinach? I have no idea. Throw the dang spinach away and take them to bed with you. And please, chuck that child raising manual and look up Polly Berends at the library. When I try to describe to them how to let go and embrace their child’s infancy as the love affair it is, often they smile and their shoulders drop down, relaxing, given permission to be a fool in love and to not follow rules invented by some man who never was a mommy, who never birthed, who never nursed, who probably has never even had snot on his shirt. What could he know about anything anyway?
When that oldest son was an infant, nothing concerned me more than getting that boy on a schedule. I would spend a good hour before I fed him jiggling him and holding off until the clock said it was time, diligently following some lame schedule prescribed by the pleasant nurses who had instructed me. My mother set me straight on that the very first time I complained about it. She told me, “Honey, I don’t go four hours without eating. Why should John? I think he’s hungry and you should feed him when he says so.” His grandma knew what to do. After that our days went a lot more smoothly. But those nights—I really took on that whole sleep situation as a personal cause. It was my responsibility to get that tiny little child to sleep. And not just to sleep: To sleep, all night, in a crib, way across the room. It’s ludicrous to me now! What a futile endeavor! Here was a girl (me), dizzy with exhaustion, walking in a shaft of light from the hallway, back and forth, back and forth, patting the bottom of this darling, intelligent little bit of a guy who really wanted to just be on his mom.
We had a daughter who talked very early and this is how she referred to it, in completely blunt terms: “I wanna be on you.” She spoke for all babies, including her big brother. (That one also told me of her birth: “I swam down the river. Dad was there. So were you.”) Infancy passes so quickly by. Hold those babies tight. Those oldest boys are now over 20 years old. They are so tall I hug them and my face is against their chests. I still sometimes lose sleep over them, but it’s not because they are fretfully crying and demanding my arms. They’re out of my arms, away from me, going to college, trying to make their way in the world, and honestly, sometimes I worry. A year ago, their little sister was born. She is our eighth child. The oldest is named John for his grandpa; we named this littlest sister Lydia after Grandma.
Last spring, when she was newly born and up during the night, I received her with the full heart of a woman who knows how fleeting an infancy is. Little Lydia Karina, our Kari, glowed in pink for months. It felt like she gave off an aura. In those early weeks, I could hardly look at her without becoming tearful; she was so breathtaking. When she was awake at night, I didn’t think about the sleep I was losing, believe me. Long gone was the crib of twenty years ago and the agenda for her to sleep according to my habits. There were a handful of nights when I was awake with her and thought, in no uncertain terms, “I have the rest of my life to sleep. This night is once in a lifetime.” She had fuzzy hair like duck down, big blue eyes, cheeks as bright as hibiscus blooms and she smelled incredible. Because she slept in my arms though, those nights of us awake together were so few. S
he’s a year old now. I actually wish there had been more. More time. More hugs. More milk gulped down the hatch from my breasts into her growing body. There could never be enough in those short precious months. You can imagine, I am sure, the reaction I get to having so many children. It’s sometimes so uplifting—like those times when someone tells me about growing up in a big family and how much life is enhanced by it. Either they loved being in a big family, or as an adult they love having all those relatives now… either way I love to hear good things about family. I, myself, love having this cushion of family all around me. What follows is an excerpt of a letter I wrote to a friend when Lydia Karina was a new baby. Read it if you wish, and hug your babies tight, no matter how big they have grown. God bless.
“Jay’s been sucked way into this scene too, and I feel for him because I know there are no men who get this stuff either. How can anyone be so taken by an eighth child? I heard him nibbling her the night before last while I was in the bathroom, “I’m the luckiest dad.” Then last night, he said, “We have to stop doing this, but I see why we haven’t been able to.” But earlier he’d laughed when he was on the phone with a friend about how he just does what I say, like he haplessly ended up with a herd of kids through no intention of his own, and I was laughing to myself. “I ran into an old neighbor at the store Saturday and instead of congratulating me or saying Kari was cute, or something appropriate, she told me ‘Val, you’re a glutton for punishment!’ I was so offended. I pretended I didn’t understand what she meant and said, ‘It is really hard to shop in there. The layout is so inconvenient!’ And then on the way home I looked at that little rosy sleeping face, and I could see James in the rear view mirror sucking his thumb, big blue eyes grinning back at me. Maria was wearing her little straw hat and chattering away, and I thought, ‘If Kari’s a punishment, I should be bad more often.’ The world is crazy. I’m not.”