Monday, February 27, 2012

Lady Bountiful

Many years ago, I prepared holiday gift baskets for a few colleagues at work. I had enjoyed several recipes as the Fall holiday season progressed and kept adding another recipe to the list for the baskets. Of course, the old family recipe for Banana Nut Bread was at the top so each basket held a small loaf. Chocolate cream cheese mini-cupcakes was another item that made its way on to the list, just below oatmeal-raisin bars, chocolate chip cookies, fudge, and peanut brittle. I was single and didn’t have many occasions that required baking or candy-making so I enjoyed every stir and sift as much as wrapping each item, then watching the basket overflow.

One colleague acknowledged the generosity and cried, “Lady Bountiful builds a great gift basket!” Thereafter I have striven to amp up both quantity and theme for gift baskets. One year I built a basket around the theme of almonds after I learned that in legend, the almond represents love and hope. Inside were small bottles of homemade almond liqueur, almond cookies, almond butter, and Jordan almonds. Last year, I remembered the nursery rhyme describing little girls as Sugar and Spice and built a basket combining sweet and spicy with jalapeño carrot cakes, chipotle peach jam, Datil-paper spiced black pepper, and dark chocolate flavored with chiles.

Each year I vow that I will give fewer items and spend less, but like most New Year’s resolutions, I never sustain that vow, especially for my daughter. I have always been Lady Bountiful for her--although my intentions were never to spoil. My intentions were to offer a gift for the whole child: intellect and her heart, the physical and emotional selves.

To that end, I gave toys or games, something to stop and play instead of just ripping and tearing gifts open, one after another. We would finish an entire game of Clue while dinner simmered and presents shone in the lights of the tree.

At least one book was wrapped under the tree, something to match her age or declared interests. Other must-haves on the list were pajamas to open the night before, another ornament to add to a collection that she would carry away with her into her own home, a music box to enchant, paint or canvas to cultivate her artistic talents, another to focus her analytical mind, something to stretch her athletic abilities, and something cute to wear. Most important of all was the gift that a person would never buy for himself, something surprising and amazing.

See the problem? Excess. Excessive. Overly indulgent. Over the top, and very difficult to stop once begun.

Recently, while offering another piece of unsolicited advice, a very bad habit of mine, I recommended that my daughter reign in gift-giving when her own first child arrives in early summer. She had already thought of that herself and will limit gifts to something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read plus an ornament to add to a collection for her own child’s holiday tree.

Very sensible, don’t you think? And a perfect example of advice my mother often spoke: do as I say, not as I do (a wonderful little excuse for hypocrisy, but I’ll save that for another day).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sayulita, Mexico: A Walrus and the Whale Tale

Every generation believes it is the first to enjoy insight and enlightenment. Millenials, now taking their places in the workplace where jobs are scarce, seem to think that older folks should move over and may even need custodial care. My own daughter held that opinion of us, her parents, when we told her about our plans to visit Mexico. She was not alone in discouraging us.

My mother, my husband’s best friend, and many more urged us not to go. Responding to the media, these people believed that venturing into Mexico was dangerous. But my spouse had read about ex-pats living in Sayulita; he wanted to experience their life so I agreed, after I ran out of excuses, to go for two weeks. We leased a house and made reservations for flights in September--during the rainy season.

Before we arrived, Sayulita experienced the heaviest rains since records have been kept. The river swelled, washing away two bridges, one leading out of Puerta Vallarta and the other in Sayulita itself. A restaurant that stood on the Sayulita riverbank twenty-five years was swept away, the family business destroyed forever.

Water dripped and drained from the mountains and jungle, down the steep streets, filling holes large enough to destroy car axles, then ran onward and into the sea. Pipes broke, letting sewage merge with rain, transforming the waters off shore into a toxic brew unless fishermen motored through and beyond the breakwater.

Every night, the rains sheeted straight down from heavy clouds upon our casa. Lightning flashed, and one night, thunder cracked so close and so loudly that I woke to run for my life, sure that an avalanche of mud was bearing down upon us. Yet each morning, the sun broke through and sent steam from the jungle floor; sweat sprouted from every wrinkle and crevice on our bodies and soaked our clothes through and through with damp. I loathed it there, but my husband, the cockeyed optimist, still charmed by the idea of life in a small village, smiled through it all, content to be there no matter what the weather wrought upon us.

He even wanted to march to the sea and let the waves wash over him so off we marched. I had the forethought to put our passports, his wallet, his hearing aids, a cell phone, and a camera inside a brand new Ziplock bag and then inside a zippered healthy back bag. This proved to be the only good decision I made that morning.

When we found our way from the road, down the hill and onto the sand, a feat in itself, we stood upon water-soaked sand, giving us a solid foundation. I was slow to recognize that such sand indicated the long arm of the rising tide, slower to realize that the water would be strong and deep once it reached the point upon which we stood. As all of this came into focus for me, I noticed my dear husband had almost reached the water’s edge. I called to him, telling him to brace for the waves, to beware of this surf and riptides. He half-turned to my voice, and I saw the wave rise behind him, as high as his shoulders.

“Run!” was all I managed to say, and of course, he couldn’t hear me. The wave hit him and carried him down and out. One of his shoes floated away, toward me.

I laughed. Oh yes, laughed. The expression on his face as he went down was priceless, and I am that woman that no one wants to depend on in a sudden crisis. I will laugh so hard that I'll pee my pants, and I did, then decided to chase his shoe so that he’d have it when we retreated.

After running down the beach, zigging and zagging like a sandpiper dodging the wave’s edge, I reached for the shoe too late and went down with the water myself, but I am more experienced in water and just the tiniest bit more agile so I was up quickly, running diagonally away from the water before the next wave arrived--toward the shoe, now waiting, beached high upon the sand.

When I turned back, my dear partner struggled still, and I understood that he could not get up without help. I ran to him as he crawled up the sand only to be carried him back toward the water with each new wave. His knees were scraped and bleeding from being dragged along shell and sand. His hands were lost deep in the sand, trying to hang on.

I was useless in helping him stand. The sand disappeared below my feet each time I tried to find my stance and reach for him. The poor man had to crawl until he reached Nature’s sea wall: a vertical rise of sand sculpted by the previous high tide. With that, he found enough support to pull himself erect, and we staggered off the beach, back up the hill under the sultry sun.

At the outdoor shower, we marveled at the great heaps and quantities of sand that we washed from secret places: our pockets and body folds. Exhausted, we finally made our way to a hot shower and an afternoon’s rest.

Later, my husband revealed that he thought he might die in that place that he had long dreamed about visiting. No matter though. He would go to Mexico again and dare the waves again.

As for me, I cannot imagine bearing witness one more hour to the desperation of Mexican dogs, a life form that literally starves to death under the watchful eye of Mexican families, many of whom do not have enough to feed their own. I could not listen to the rain for thirty-plus days in spite of the fact that the other months, especially October and November, are perfectly dry and comfortably warm. I could not drive the two-lane roads that lack curbs or shoulders, the jungle encroaching upon them, road crews constantly striving to beat it back.

We were the awkward walrus and the beached whale on the sands. Our days were numbered in Mexico and its weight is heavy in my memory. My daughter predicted that I’d hate it there and that we would put ourselves in danger. I hate to admit it, but she was so right.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Lessons Learned from My Own Daughter

I had lunch Friday with a friend from 28 years ago. We’ve lost and found each other many times in all these years, usually exchanging letters or cards at Christmas. Now she lives just thirty minutes away from me, and we made time for each other.

As always, she had less to say about herself while asking many questions about me, my husband, our travels, and our daughter. After each tale, she said, “You’ve written that down, haven’t you?” And I nodded in the affirmative because I’m pretty sure that I have. But it’s possible that I’ve told and retold the story so often that it exists in print only in my mind; her question reminded me about the hours we spent together, the time that brought us close.

We were colleagues, peers as faculty at a community college in a rural area. Our students were veterans of Vietnam, wives trying to earn a degree while raising children, and recent high school graduates with no place else to go. The area offered little in the way of industry or careers. It was in the heart of an Oil Boom gone Bust and dry plains for dusty cattle.

My friend left all of that behind. She said she might run for public office, but she never did. She led in other ways: as a spiritual seeker and mentor, a stellar mother and grandmother, an artist, and writer. For the latter, she asked me to help her. At first, tentative, she asked if I thought her ideas had any merit, if she should write them down. I encouraged her to do so, to tell the stories of her childhood, of her children’s ancestors. Thereafter, she wrote and I offered advice. From our time, she developed two books that she published herself; each one has a place on my bookshelves, each telling the stories that she wanted to get down on paper before she forgot, before they were lost for all time.

I realized that telling my mother’s stories is not enough. I should also be telling my own for my own daughter. So from this date forward, I will write as much about myself than I do about my own mother. I will tell tales that my daughter and I lived together in the hope that one day, she way recall them and enjoy.

Today, I tell the cautionary tale of polka-dot clothing:

Spring nudged winter out of the way as the day progressed, but my daughter had fallen in love with her winter clothes: red, wool mittens; a pink knit cap; and a heavy red jacket with corduroy pants below. I tried to talk her into something lighter and cooler, but she was having none of it. Already at three, she was headstrong about her appearance and dress.

So dressed for frigid weather, we set out for the pre-errand Saturday morning treat: McDonald’s pancakes and playground. Below her knit cap, sweat beads appeared, and I told her we’d need to go home for lunch where she could change clothes, putting on the new polka-dot Capri-pant set that my mother had given her. She set her jaw, and I knew the planned change-of-clothes would not go well.

My daughter never particularly cared for my mother. Even at three, she was very reserved--even wary--around her grandmother, and that never changed. My own child preferred the company of my husband’s mother, her dear, sweet Nan. Whether my own mother was hurt or jealous or both, I’ll never know; I didn’t ask. Mother has since and often said how much she admires my daughter's grace, drive, and courage. Mom has even congratulated me for my parenting.

Whether is was because my daughter didn’t care for Mother or that, at three, she had already decided against polka-dots, I'll never know for sure. Whatever the reason, my child refused to wear those polka-dots. She cried, and I asserted my will: “She would wear them or we would not go to the park!”

I’m ashamed to admit that she wore those polka-dots to a small neighborhood park with a Dig and Delve toy in a large sandbox and a nice slide. No one else was in the park at high noon. I knew that few people used that particular park, but it was also noon on a Saturday. Many people would be at home, eating lunch.

My daughter noticed the absence of others, and asked at the top of the slide, poised for the downhill run, “Where are all the other mommies and kids?”

“I imagine they’re at home for lunch.”

“Hmmm,” she said, then scooted her bottom to the edge and down. At the bottom, once she’d stood and looked round once more, she said, “Maybe their mommies made them wear polka-dots.”

Ouch! Humility stings! My daughter had informed me that she felt conspicuous and alien in polka-dots. She had made my will to wear a gift from my mother small and petty.

I now display a picture of her in those polka-dot capris, seated at the Dig and Delve toy. She isn’t smiling. I wince as I look at it, remembering the little girl who simply wanted to choose her own patterns, perhaps assert her own will over me and my mother. That photo has helped us relive that day more than once, but my daughter still does not choose polka-dots until recently, on Christmas Eve, when my daughter presented my husband and I and her in-laws with a small, sparkly black gift bag, pink and white polka-dotted tissue paper sprouting from within. Inside was a pink ornament with silver handwritten words on each side. One side read Merry Christmas; the other It’s a girl. My little girl is having a little girl in early summer. May she know better than to make her own sweet daughter wear polka-dots if she doesn’t like them.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Motherless Child

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / . . . Motherless children have a hard time / Motherless children have a, such a hard time / Motherless children have such a really hard time / Long way from home (Negro Spiritual)

Children who must grow to maturity without one or both parents walk a long hard road. The spiritual quoted above laments the conditions of slavery, of being snatched from one’s home and parents and of being sold away from one’s family, but for every child who loses the mother, the sorrowful song rings true.

Greg Harvey explains that “Experiencing the death of a parent is traumatic at any age, but it's particularly harrowing for young children. With the death of a parent, young children are deprived not only of the guidance and love that that parent would have provided as the children grew up but also the sense of security that the parent's ongoing presence in the home would have bestowed. More often than not, the child feels terribly vulnerable, especially when the death is accompanied by a relocation of the family” ( -the-death-of-a-parent-as-a-child.html).

I thought of the motherless child recently because a former student came to mind. Ruth (not her real name) joined an on-level English class that I taught and in response to my request that each student write about something he and she wanted me to know, Ruth revealed that she was nineteen, older than her peers, because she had dropped out of school the previous year. Her mother passed away late in the second semester of her junior year, and Ruth found her grief so large that she could not venture from the home. Her father was apparently a much older man than other fathers Ruth knew and poorly equipped to deal with a sad teenager. He left her alone while he worked and let her become the homemaker.

Always heavy, Ruth ate more during her fifteen months at home. She returned to her senior year barely able to squeeze into a school desk. In a private moment, I offered a chair and work table, but she dropped her eyes and shook her head in the negative. I too am heavy, as Ruth put it, so I understood her reluctance to make a show of being different.

Later, Ruth commented that heavy people are the nicest people in the world. She wondered why other people judge them so harshly. I didn’t have a consoling answer.

Ruth’s birthday happened to be the first to be celebrated that school year. I made small business cards featuring a cupcake, one candle in its center, next to blank space that I used to write in the student’s name. On the reverse side, I wrote a personalized birthday greeting for each student, often relying upon the one-page of information provided on the first day. A typical message might read: May your dream to become a doctor come true one day. Most students no longer remembered what they had written on that first day, and many thought I had the gift of prescience after they read the card. I just smiled when they asked, how did you know? and passed a single pack of sugarless gum to the birthday girl or guy.

When Ruth received her card and gum, she threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly, saying, Thank you. I didn’t think anyone would remember. Dad’s busy, and well, Mama used to bake a cake for me. When she stepped back, I saw tears in her eyes, but I assured her that her mother would want her to bake her own cake or buy one if she could--that her mother would not want her sweet daughter to be sad on her birthday. Ruth agreed and said she’d bake a cake for herself after school. She brought a piece to school the next day to share with me.

Ruth made it through that year. I can still remember her big letters suitable for wide-ruled, lined paper--not college-ruled. I recall her shy smile and how alone she was. I checked on her though and discovered that at lunch, she had two heavy friends with whom to share a table. I watched her smile in their company.

I wonder if Ruth could have been more at home if her mother had survived. I wonder if her ceiling would have been higher, her dreams bigger. I wonder the same about my own mother who grew up without her father. He wanted nothing to do with her even when he visited the town in which she and her mother lived. Mother had two step-fathers, each of whom drank too much. I wonder what a difference a complete family might have made.

Most of all, I wonder if my tiny contribution to Ruth’s life made a difference that year. I hope so, and I hope that all of us will reach out to the heavy, lonely kids in need of a parent because Hilary Clinton was absolutely right when she said: it takes a village to raise a child.