The Cries Of A Child

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I recently had a very long day. I had arisen early and prepared for a series of appointments which literally spanned the hours from nine in the morning to six in the evening. After completing all of my duties I picked up my husband and the two of us hit the gym around seven. We finished our workouts about an hour and a half later and only then began to think about having dinner. I instinctively understood that it was a bad idea to eat at such a late hour, but it had been one of those days in which I had moved from one thing to another without a moment to even think of nutrition. Since the YMCA that we use is across from a grocery store I suggested that we find one of their prepared meals to heat at home rather than opting for fast food. It would be a quick and preferable alternative to undoing our attempts at a healthy lifestyle and would cost less as well. It seemed to be a grand idea.

The section containing what we wanted was located near the front of the store and we quickly found choices of seafood and chicken coupled with fresh vegetables that ranged from four hundred to five hundred calories. We made our selections and headed for the checkout which wasn’t particularly crowded because by then the clock was ticking toward nine. As we were waiting behind a young couple buying ice cream and a number of items that we have chosen to eliminate from our diet I heard the screams and cries of a small child.

I glanced over to see a father attempting to control a little boy who had obviously reached his limit of navigating happily through his own long day. I felt for the father who was doing his best to console his son, but as a mom I knew that the youngster was simply exhausted and ready for bed. The frazzled dad didn’t appear to be in much better shape. I imagined that both of them had been blowing and going all day long and that the child had been the first to hit the wall. I thought of how tired I was and remembered the times when I would work all day outside of the home and be making last minute runs to the store to purchase items that we had to have for the following day. I just wanted to go hug the little boy and tell the man that things would be better and that he would one day be able to laugh about such incidents. Still, I worried about our often relentlessly fast paced and demanding society and wondered what it is actually doing to all of us.

I’m retired now, so one really rough day of obligations isn’t that tough on me. I am able to sleep in after challenging schedules, but that wasn’t always the case. My work hours were often erratic and almost always long. I recall so many times when I reached home after nine or ten at night hoping that my family’s needs had been sufficiently met. Routines were difficult to create because we each had such divergent schedules. There were times when we literally felt like strangers passing one another in the night. As a teacher I had to attend meetings, conferences, trainings, performances, and field trips. Those demands only increased once I became an administrator. I assumed the role of caring not only for my students, but also for my teachers. All too often my own family had to take a back seat, and to this very day I worry that I may have neglected them a bit more than I should have, even though they appeared to be quite resilient.

My husband too had to work strange hours from time to time. My dear mother and mother-in-law often covered for us when our obligations coincided and our girls were going to be home alone. I know that I missed some important moments with them, and even though they were safe and sound the guilt that I felt was far greater than I might have wanted to admit at the time. I have often wondered if we as a society have created an unhealthy new world order with our two parent careers, or if our children are actually okay with just rolling with the whatever happens. After all, the only reality that they know is the one that we as parents create for them. They do not experience the same type of steadfast routine that I did when I was growing up. The world is different for them and they seem to have adapted, but when I see a youngster like that little boy crying from sheer exhaustion, I wonder how many times I too pushed my children to the brink. I think about how I might have done things differently or at least a bit better.

Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs that there is. In today’s world many adults are raising children all alone. They don’t enjoy the benefits that I had of extended family members filling the gaps. I can only imagine the tough choices that they must continually make as they balance work and home obligations. Most organizations don’t take too kindly to absences even when they are supposedly allowed. Shirking overtime demands is a quick way of losing momentum in climbing the career ladder. Those who defiantly insist on working only the minimally required amount of time are in danger of receiving lukewarm appraisals and of being thought to be lazy. The tension between work and home is real and both men and women feel the push and pull. It’s tough to be all things to all people, and yet we seem oblivious to the toll it is taking on all of us. We just keep moving day after day like drones on a conveyor belt, hoping that one day there will be some rest.

There was a time when workers generally had a more carefully constructed schedule that allowed them to arrive home each evening at a fairly consistent time. If they worked long enough for the same company they would accrue as many as six weeks of vacation time and their bank of sick days would steadily grow. Jobs were fairly plentiful and raises and bonuses were an expected part of the packages. Many organizations provided generous pensions and health insurance benefits. One by one many of those things have gone the way of the buggy whip. A single worker today often fulfills the duties that might have required multiple individuals in an earlier era. Employment opportunities are more difficult to find and once someone lands a job he/she is expected to demonstrate utmost loyalty and dedication to the cause. It’s a dog eat dog environment that is putting new stresses on individuals and their families.

I have to admit to being overjoyed that I’m now retired, but I can’t just rest on my laurels. I actually worry about today’s workers as I see them struggling to keep pace and still maintain their own health and happiness. I wonder if it will ever be possible to slow things down once again as I think of a time and a promise that our inventiveness would one day create a world in which we would get things done in a shorter work day that would provide us more time to enjoy ourselves. Instead we have just decreased the need for workers and increased the demands on those lucky enough to land the jobs. There seems to be no end to the demands that we place on employees and I fear that many of the ills that we see in our society are incubated in such an environment. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we do things. The cries of our children are telling us that something is wrong. Surely we can do better.

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The Art Of The Deal

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My brothers and I were discussing our family heritage the other day. We are all too aware that the untimely death of our father changed the trajectory of our lives dramatically. We often wonder what things might have been like if…

Our daddy had an unstoppable sense of humor. His book collection included volumes filled with jokes. His favorite television programs featured comedians. He was a great storyteller and peppered his tales with yarns that made his friends laugh. He found something funny in the darnedest places and when they happened to be from real life, that was even better.

The first house that my parents purchased was in southeast Houston on Kingsbury Street in a new housing development like many that were springing up all across America in the years after World War II. My father had finally earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and he landed a job in downtown Houston. The location of the house was perfect for starting a new career and raising a family. Most of our neighbors were young like my parents and the men were college graduates engaged in all sorts of interesting professions. They had children in the same age groups as my brothers and I so there was always lots of fun to be had. 

Most of our moms stayed home back then while our fathers went to work each day. The women had routines that they carefully followed for the care of  their children and homes. I remember that my mother washed clothes on Mondays, which was a bigger deal than it might seem because dryers were still a dream of the future, and so she had to hang her wet items on a clothesline to dry in the sun. 

Tuesdays were for ironing and as I recall my mother had a bottle with a perforated lid that she would fill with water to shake on the clothes that needed a bit of steam from the iron. On Wednesdays our mother dusted and cleaned and mopped the wooden floors and linoleum until they gleamed. Sometimes she even used floor wax to achieve a better shine. Thursdays were reserved for her sewing and mending. She made all of my clothing and most  of hers. Friday brought meal planning, dusting and changing the linens on the bed. Saturdays meant shopping trips and Sundays were for church and visiting grandparents.

While all of this activity was happening I was mostly a free range kid which meant that I roamed the neighborhood with my friends, but never without checking in frequently with my mom. Bear in mind I was only around six years old when I began to assert my independence, but things were quite different back then. All of the ladies kept their doors and windows wide open and provided a kind of community watchfulness over the children. At any given moment an adult was checking on us without drawing attention to that fact.

I generally just went up and down the street playing with whichever kid was available. Most of the time my favorite partner was a girl named Merrily, but sometimes she was busy so I would hang out with a boy who was about my age. His dad was a very successful businessman according to the rumors that floated around the area. His family owned two very luxurious cars and his mom even employed a maid. His house was furnished with exquisite furniture and art work. I enjoyed visiting with him and vicariously living in style.

I had earned a number of holy cards as prizes for good grades and exemplary behavior in my first grade class at St. Peter’s Catholic School. They were beautifully illustrated so I thought that an art connoisseur like my friend might enjoy seeing them. I took them with me on one of my forays to his home, and just as I had thought he marveled at how exquisite they were. He was not a Catholic so he had never before seen such things and he begged me to give him some of them. Instead I struck a financial deal with him, asking for one dollar for each of the lovely images. Without hesitating he broke open his piggy bank and presented a five dollar bill for the lot. I was happy to oblige because I figured that I would earn more of them if I tried really hard at school. It was a win win situation.

All seemed well until the phone rang as I was eating dinner with my family that evening. My mom was a bit irritated by the interruption but answered the phone nonetheless. When she returned she gave me a foreboding look and told my dad that I had sold holy cards to the kid down the street. She explained that his mother was quite upset because they did not believe in such things. Besides, the woman had argued, the price I had charged was prohibitive. She wanted me to return the five dollars immediately and reclaim my holy cards.

I could tell that my mother was not pleased with me but before I even had a chance to explain myself my father burst into uncontrollable laughter, leaving me and my mother quite confused. He smiled and winked at me as he stood to remove his wallet from his back pocket and then he removed a five dollar bill and handed it to my mother. “Use this to pay for the holy cards,” he told her. “Let Sharron keep her profit. It’s worth it to know that my little girl outsmarted the financial wizard’s son. I love it,” he bragged with a huge grin on his face. With that pronouncement I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled with pride at my wonderful daddy who had who seemed to understand the importance of my first foray into the art of the deal. My mom on the other hand simply shook her head while attempting to hide her own amusement with the situation.

I always loved the way my father appreciated the ingeniousness of me and my brothers. He often laughed at antics that might have driven other parents wild. When my little brother took things apart Daddy almost always defended him by asserting that he was only attempting to understand how things work. My dad encouraged us to have an adventurous spirit that would guide us as we explored the world. He believed that life was meant to be lived without fear and I suppose that he went out in a blaze of glory following his own credo.

After my father died I became more cautious. It would be years before I was willing to leave my comfort zone and try things, but I always remembered those moments when he encouraged me to use my imagination and intellect. Mostly though I loved that he knew how to laugh whenever we were just being kids. In some ways he was the man who never quite grew up, a kind of Peter Pan who left this earth for Never Never Land far too soon. Somehow in the brief time that he was around he taught me the importance of viewing the world through humorous eyes. Knowing when to laugh rather than cry has made things so much better than they might otherwise have been. 

A Real Prince Charming

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He was a man who never met a stranger, someone with a smile so big that he instantly lit up a room. He liked to laugh and being around him always felt so comfortable. He was a very handsome man who stayed perennially fit with his devotion to exercise and athletics. He was a brilliant man with a degree in Chemistry who headed a laboratory for decades. He loved his beautiful wife and his two daughters. He was a Godly man who gave enthusiastically of his time and talents to his church. He was a friend who died quietly and peacefully last week. Those of us who knew Ed Millin have beautiful memories of him that we will treasure for the remainder of our days.

Ed Millin was from New York and he bore the characteristic accent of people from there even after living and working for decades in Texas. He came south for work and found love with a very sweet and pretty girl named Judy. Together they built a home and a family and along the way my husband Mike and I met the two of them. We enjoyed many wonderful times together at parties, gatherings and dinners. Ed was easy to get to know, because he was always open and inviting. He loved to tell stories and to listen with an intentness that meant that he really cared about what people were saying. He had a knack for making everyone feel good about themselves, and an evening spent with him was always relaxing and fun.

Ed was a runner who might be found racing around a track or through the streets all of the time. He was a high energy individual who worked all day long at his lab, and then played a rousing round of tennis or pickle ball. He was always in great shape and seemed more like a someone half his age. In fact he never seemed to grow older the way the rest of us did. His secret to what seemed like never ending youthfulness was certainly because of all of his physical activity, but it was also his big grin and the fact that he never took life too seriously that appeared to contribute to his good health.

Years ago I taught one of Ed’s daughters in a religious education class at our church. I had a the ridiculous idea of inviting the parents to attend one of the sessions so they might witness what their children were doing. The problem was that I was working with seventh graders, and anyone with even an ounce of experience with that age group understands that they are easily embarrassed, particularly when it comes to their parents. None of the other moms and dads came, most likely because their children had asked them not to do so, but Ed arrived with his always friendly demeanor and eagerness. When his daughter saw him she turned fifty shades of red and bolted from the room. Ed was dumbfounded, but rather quickly flashed a knowing grin as he realized that showing up had been a breach of teenage etiquette. Without missing a beat he made a quick exit and never mentioned the affair again. I can only imagine what the conversation at home with his child must have been, but I always believed that Ed handled it with finesse. He was a great student of human nature.

Because I thought that Ed was ageless it was particularly shocking when I sadly learned that he was afflicted with an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He slowly drifted into a state of confusion and became more and more of a recluse under the loving care of his wife Judy and his daughters. I missed seeing him and enjoying his warm personality. Eventually many members of the group with whom we had enjoyed such wonderful times together began to grow ill and die. Judy and I began to see each other far too often at funerals, but Ed hung in there even though his mind became more and more clouded with the passage of time.

Nobody should ever have to endure the slow deterioration that Ed endured, but it was especially poignant given his former vibrancy. I suppose that there is some consolation in knowing that he had lived life with a vengeance, and put every bit of his being into all of the minutes before illness ultimately took its toll. I suspect that we will all remember him running like the wind, chasing after a tennis ball, and always always grinning with a kind of joy that was infectious.

Ed was blessed to have the most remarkable partner. Judy was devoted to him and rarely complained about her role as his caretaker for so many difficult years. She demonstrated the kind of love that is the stuff of romantic novels even as her handsome man became less and less focused. The two of them were known in their circles of church and work and neighborhood as a generous and compassionate team, always together and doing so much good.

Ed’s daughters are as beautiful and good natured as he was. They returned the love that he had given them a thousandfold. I’m sure that they will hold fast to the wonderful memories that they shared with their remarkable father. He blessed them in ways that few ever enjoy.

Some people have a charisma that is difficult to explain. That was Ed Millin. All I have to do is think of his name and I can see him once again looking so dashing, laughing so heartily and enjoying every person and every situation with a kind of rare innocence. He was a very good man who led a very good life. I suppose that he’s running in heaven and maybe even challenging St. Peter to a quick game of tennis. No doubt he has enchanted them already because Ed Millin was a real life Prince Charming.

The Builder

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There was a hardware store near our home that my father visited each Saturday with an almost religious fervor. It was a sacred place in which I ultimately felt the full extent of my father’s happiness. Happily he regularly took me on his weekly excursions and I always felt special as we wandered together through the aisles of tools and gadgets and fasteners while my dad explained the purposes of the different items. He was in his element inside that store and his face willingly gave away the happiness that being there provided him. Whenever I think of him I recall the bins of nails of every size and remember his lessons on why there were so many different kinds. I can still see him carefully weighing the proper variety for his latest project on the metal scales that hung from chains connected to the ceiling. I can smell the aromas of oil, wood, and metal that permiatted the concrete floors and the wooden studs of the walls. This was a cathedral dedicated to the carpenters, plumbers and electricians of this world. In Daddy’s case it was a shrine for all who love to build the edifices and implements that we use to bring us comfort.

My father never treated me as though I was too young to understand what he was doing. It didn’t seem to occur to him that as a girl I might not have been interested in the things that he so loved. He spoke to me about his passion for construction and explained the hows and whys of his work. Thus it was that he allowed me to sit at his side as he created a miniature replica of our first home. He carefully drafted a blueprint and showed me how to shrink the proportions of the rooms into a drawing that fit on a single sheet of paper. I could not have been more than four years old when he demonstrated the techniques of scale to me, for I had not yet started school when he first told me of his idea. Somehow Daddy assumed that I possessed enough intellect to understand his calculations in spite of my youthfulness, and he was so right. I was mesmerized by the process and willing to sit quietly on a stool while he demonstrated his skill at his drafting table.

The next phase of his work was to build a tiny house that would resemble our home in every imaginable detail. I was fascinated as he measured and cut pieces of balsa wood to create a frame for the structure. Even before he had inserted the walls and other features I was able to see the rooms unfolding just as I knew them to be. It took many weeks and many visits to the hardware store to finish the lovely reproduction. Sometimes weeks would pass before he had time to return to the task of making the tiny house that almost appeared to be the work of fairies rather than a man. I was astounded when it was finally complete because the details were so exact. He had somehow managed to create an illusion of cedar shakes and bricks and shingles that was a perfect copy of the house where we lived. He had designed the roof so that it could be lifted to reveal the interior rooms with their gleaming wooden floors and brightly painted walls. It was a masterpiece in my eyes and I felt a quiet joy in having observed the entire process. Sadly I have no idea what eventually happened to that wonderful creation. I would give anything just to see it once again and to explain to my children and grandchildren how wonderful it was to have been a witness to my father’s painstaking work.

My daddy was just as likely to educate me regarding other things that he built as well. When I was about seven we had moved to a new home and he was annoyed that we had to walk on the grass to get to the front door from the driveway. He muttered that the builder should have thought to create a sidewalk leading to the entrance. Before long he had decided to rectify the omission himself and once again he used the project as an opportunity to teach me about the proper methods for installing a concrete pathway.

He began by carefully digging out the grass in a pattern that resembled the desired design of what would be the final product. After seeming to take forever to level the ground and straighten the lines he next built a form with wood and and string, taking care to survey his measurements accurately. He allowed the structure to cure for a time to be certain that the ground was not going to shift. He also watched the drainage pattern and made adjustments to insure that there were not low points that would hold water. Then he began filling the bottom of the wooden platform with metal rebar and even bits of nails and other metal shavings left from other things that he had built. He told me that the metal was the secret ingredient for insuring that the sidewalk would last for years without cracks or erosion. Finally came the day when he mixed and poured the concrete spreading it until it was smooth and as perfect as he insisted that it should be.

Nobody was allowed to walk on his creation for days until he was certain that it was set exactly as he had hoped. He was quite proud of the outcome and so was I. Our neighbors commented on how nice it was and joked that they were going to hire him to build one for their houses as well. Daddy boasted that it was a fine structure that would last for a very long time. In fact it has endured even longer than he did. I recently drove past our old home and saw that the sidewalk was as strong as ever. It was not leaning nor did it have any cracks. It had withstood decades of use, sixty two years to be exact. As I saw how well it had performed I swelled with pride in knowing that my father had built it with his ingenuity and engineering skills. More importantly he had believed enough in me to share his knowledge with me, something that made me feel capable and appreciated.

To this very day I find great pleasure in sauntering through hardware stores. I especially enjoy the ones that are more in line with those of old. I prefer the bins of nails and bolts over the plastic packages that are the modern day norm. I consider an outing to Harbor Freight or Ace Hardware with my husband to be a delightful activity. Repairing things or building something is as much fun for me as taking a vacation trip.

I suppose that a psychologist would attribute my love of constructing to the tragic loss of my father when I was only eight years old. My childhood memories of him revolve around books and building and Texas A&M University football. I only truly know him through the brief amount of time that we shared, and yet it was so revealing of who he was that recalling the feelings that I felt provides me with comfort. He demonstrated his love for me by teaching me about the things that mattered so much to him. He was a great father if only for a very short time. 

While I will never truly understand some of the mysteries surrounding Daddy’s death nor the void that he left when he was gone, I treasure the recollections that he left me. The emotions that I associate with the simple act of wandering through a hardware store are visceral and as real as if he were standing next to me with his boyish grin of anticipation about the next thing that he was going to build. When I remember I am filled with pleasure and a sense of security because I know for certain how much he loved me, and for that I will always be grateful. He was a builder not just of things, but of beautiful relationships and dreams. 

How To Be A Father

10433198_10204665991323147_2774262802798031590_nAs I was talking about this and that with a woman who was framing a piece of Mayan art that I had purchased at Chichen Itza, she casually mentioned buying herself a certain kind of tool for Father’s Day. She looked up from her work and let the comment hang in the air as though she expected me to have some kind of reaction. Of course I simply carried on with my babbling as though nothing unusual had been said. I didn’t even bother to mention that my brothers and I had always honored our mother with gifts on Father’s Day because she had been both our mother and our father all rolled up in one amazing person after my dad died.

In today’s society my family situation would not be considered unusual at all because there are huge numbers of children who are growing up with only one parent. My brothers and I are proof that it is possible to raise healthy and happy children in nontraditional ways. Still, I think that part of the secret to our mother’s success in rearing us was that she provided us with examples of exceptional male role models. Starting with stories of our father, she noted his best traits and explained how and why they had been so important. She encouraged us to watch and learn about goodness from men like Mr. Barry and our Uncle William. She took us to visit our grandfather regularly and noted the wisdom of his words that she prompted us to heed. She pointed out the loyalty of neighbor men like Frenchy Janot and took my brothers to watch Uncle Harold and Uncle Louie build and repair things. She created a picture of the exemplary father in our minds that helped me to find a man who would be kind and loving to our children and my brothers to successfully play a role that they had mostly seen from afar.

I suppose that because of my experience I have long observed fathers and mentally rated their abilities as parents. I am proud and happy to say that my son-in-law Scott is an exceptional dad who continually takes the time to interact with his four sons in loving and instructional ways. It has occurred to me as I watch him in action that he must have learned how to be such a great parent from his own father Gary, better known as Boppa to his grandchildren. Indeed as I have viewed Gary’s behavior around his family I believe that I have seen the actions of someone who literally revels in his role and exceeds the expectations that society has for fathers.

Gary grew up in Houston, Texas just as I did, but while I was living in the southeast part of town he was living in the southwest near the Medical Center. Still we experienced the world of childhood in very similar ways with adventures along the city’s bayous and games that filled our days with sheer delight. He still uses some of the same jokes and stories that I also heard and enjoyed when I was a kid.

Gary went to the University of Texas in Austin and became a die hard Longhorn and Chemical Engineer and met Barbara, the love of his life. They married and he began his life as a family man who worked hard to provide for Barbara and the two children that they would have together. It seems to me that the key to Gary’s personality was his insistence on making life fun. He saw the routine of our days as one grand adventure after another, filled with great wonders. Thus he made travel and learning and laughter the centerpieces of his family’s time together. Over the years they have gone all over the world experiencing the culture and flavor of different places right down to the smallest detail. At every juncture Gary was there patiently explaining the historical, literary and scientific significance of the things that they saw. Mostly though he made even the mundane seem exceptional and he had a knack for making the people around him feel very good about themselves.

Today I know Gary as a grandfather and he has continued his masterful abilities with his six grandchildren, taking each of them on grand tours and planning annual get togethers and traditions. He spares no expense because he sees such experiences as the stuff that sparks the imagination, so if the best way to view something is by helicopter then by golly everyone will have that adventure. He has ridden on the London Eye and trekked across Germany with the latest generation of young people who absolutely adore him. Even the children of my other daughter love being in his presence and laugh with delight as he plies his magic with them.

The true key to Gary’s success as a parent and grandparent lies in the unconditional love that he showers on the members of his family day in and day out. They are the center of his universe and they know it. He makes no bones about treasuring them just as they are with no demands that they conform to some preconceived notion of who he thinks they should be. He delights in their uniqueness and provides them with the confidence that comes from having such a nonjudgemental fan. He always seems willing to help them through rough patches in their lives with total support and he eagerly shares the wisdom that he has garnered from his own experiences. He continually shows them and all of us who know him what it means to be the very best kind of father.

Gary is fighting his own battles these days with an illness that has sapped his energies and sidelined him from the things that he most loves to do. Nonetheless he courageously steps up again and again to demonstrate to his family what it means to live life as fully as possible. He ignores his pain and pushes through at plays, sporting events, graduations and parties. He speaks little of his own struggles instead inquiring about the people around him and doing his best to make them feel happy. He is a very good man in every sense of the word and by example he has taught his son and his grandchildren and even those of us who are his friends how to be the kind of people who truly make a difference, the kind of people who love and are truly loved. He has shown us how to be a father.