Monday, March 26, 2012

It's All Happening at the Zoo

Some families unite around a common heritage. Scots may share a love of bagpipes, and the Irish may take pride in their talent for telling stories. Television programs such as Jersey Shore, Desperate Housewives of Anywhere, USA, and the recent GCB suggest that many regions share a love of tanning and gossip. My family, from Mother through her daughters and grandchildren, share a love of zoos.

Mother is fond of telling stories about the Oklahoma City Zoo in the late 1940s and early 1950s when admission was free. Because it cost nothing to go, Mother and Dad, just starting out in life, often took me to the zoo even after they moved east to Tulsa. Near Memorial Day, they would travel back to Oklahoma City to tend to their stillborn son’s grave. Then the family would visit the Zoo before going back home.

No matter where Mother lived, she visited the closest zoo. She paid for annual family memberships when she and Dad no longer required free entertainment. And for Mother’s Day, she often requested a trip to the zoo.

One of Mother and Dad’s last trips together included a visit to the San Diego Zoo. Dad had quite an attitude about going and announced that he didn’t care about seeing a zoo. I reminded him that Mother cared very much about seeing that zoo so he relented, and they spent a day there.

I inherited a love of zoos. When we vacationed in San Antonio, we took a day for the zoo. In Albuquerque, we toured the zoo. The Oklahoma City Zoo was one of the first family outings for which we took far too many pictures. Most years, we celebrated some one’s birthday or Mother’s Day or Labor Day with a picnic and a stroll through the zoo.

My daughter enjoyed two summer sessions at Sea World’s camp in San Antonio. She fed penguins and swam with sharks. At home, she applied for a spot as a Junior Zoo Curator, a glorified name for youth volunteers who prepare buckets of food for gorillas or birds and who scoop more than their share of dung, cleaning cages large and small.

My husband and I now promise that we’ll visit the zoo soon, but it’s been years since we’ve been, and the last time we went—just the two of us—was not quite as much fun. Zoo-goers need little ones whose eyes widen at the sight of a lion, tiger, bear and gorilla. Their wonder pushes us on down one more trail to another habitat.

Imagine my impatience now that my first grandchild is set to debut. It won’t be long before visiting the zoo will have that same childlike magic that it once did, and another generation will learn to love the animals at the zoo.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rotten to the Core Mothers

Dante imagined the Nine Circles in Hades as a descending spiral at the bottom of which was Lucifer himself. Each circle confined certain sinners. Adulterers were at one level; prideful men and women at another. For me, the worst sinner, the ones who should wallow in the pits of misery next to Satan himself are absent, neglectful parents.

My own mother was the child of such a man, but it didn’t keep her from trying to be the best mother she could be. She planned meals carefully in order to balance food groups and use every morsel wisely. She was a diligent housekeeper and kept our home clean and tidy. For holidays and celebrations, she demonstrated an artistic flair for cake decorating, Martha-Stewart quality Christmas trees, and lovely, delicate pastel Easter eggs. As was the custom then, she also dutifully taught me to be seen and not heard.

But Mom, as this blog has shown, has flaws and deficiencies; foremost among them is something over which she has no control: Alzheimer’s. Others that characterized her youth include a quick temper and a sharp tongue to serve it. She also loved gossip and adores keeping secrets.

Still Mom is my mother, and for most of our years together, she has served me well. Some mothers in this world do not serve their children well at all. They are misguided and abandon their children when a parent’s influence could make a huge difference for them. Indeed, good parenting can shape the future as powerfully as bad parenting can ruin it.

I remember the mother of one of my students long ago, a parent who belongs in the deepest, darkest circle of hell.

Her daughter was a talented girl with a quick mind. As a sophomore, she read Shakespeare with ease, correctly interpreting images and meaning in spite of heightened, poetic language. Other students looked to her for insight and understanding.

Her writing was additional proof of her language gifts. She wrote sentences that flowed one from the other, setting up a rhythm and beauty that accented her meaning. She earned A-grades without effort--at least for more than half a school year. Then, in February, her grade began to slide as she fell behind in reading and writing.

I was quick to intervene and asked her to join me in my classroom for lunch. She brought her cafeteria tray while I dug into the contents of a brown bag.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “You seem tired. You’ve even fallen asleep several times, and you're not turning in assignments.”

She bounced her plastic spoon in the gravy well of her whipped potatoes as if counting down to her answer. At last, she said, “My mom’s through with me.” She didn’t look up.

“’Through with you?’ I don’t understand.”

She dropped the spoon and tucked her chin lower, hiding her face as well as she could.

“On my sixteenth birthday last month, Mom told me she was through raising me. She told me to go, to find some other place to live. One of Dad's cousins took me in, but he’s old, living on a fixed income 25 miles from here. I can’t really work enough hours to buy gas and make payments on an old car and save for a place to live that’s close to school and study for English or anything else.”

I’d never heard of a mother being “through,” of throwing up her hands and saying, “I’m done. I’ve put in 16 years and that’s all you get.” I just didn’t know what to say so I said,

“I’m sorry. You must be so tired.”

She lifted her face. On it, I saw raw pain or fear--I’m not sure which, and I saw tears for a grief that would never end, a grief that each of us feels when love abandons us.

Of course, I did what I could. I solicited help from a counselor and a nearby school district that had programs for teens who must live on their own. My student transferred and over time, she stopped looking back at the place of her sorrow, the place where she had believed she would graduate until her mother said, “I quit.”

Did that smart, bright girl with a great future stretching before her graduate at all? Is she working to put a roof over her head and gas in a car she never quite pays off before it wears out? Is she reluctant to have child of her own because she doesn’t want to fail her? Or is she one of the rarest of the rare people who succeed without the support of a long continuous line of family, teachers, and friends? And if she did not overcome and succeed, is she really the one who deserves blame?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Unsolicited Advice and Judgments Unfair

I salute all mothers who never offer advice unless asked. I wish I could emulate your fine example. My child complains that I am not one of those mothers. Alas, she’s right.

But isn’t that the job of being a parent? After all, our children might put their little, tender hands into fire or pump those little, pudgy legs right into the street if it were not for our advice and warnings, our ability to see harms before they occur. And once having perfected the art of guiding our children through the maze of a material world, I find it very hard to break the habit.

My own mother clamped her jaws shut many times, and I’m confident that she is mighty proud of her achievements. But (and this “but” should be read loudly, forcefully) she couldn’t resist offering her opinion later. Like water that simmers, bubbles, boils, and escapes as steam, her advice could not pass as calm waters do. She had to let it go and always at a most hurtful opportunity.

For example, my parents disapproved of my sister’s refusal to stake a claim over any money given to her and her second husband. He used the money for himself, and they didn’t like it. Still they remained mute about why their gift-giving habits changed and as far as I know, never spoke to my sister about it at all. The quantity of cash gifts was simply scaled back for her, her husband, for me and my husband. Each person thereafter received an envelope with a $50 bill inside a card.

I was surprised, but dismissed the change as a result of fixed incomes and was grateful. No bad feelings required--until my mother snapped when I mentioned that my husband and I planned to pool our money in order to enjoy a concert featuring a performer my husband much admired. Then the vinegar poured, and I marveled.

Isn’t a gift just that? A gift! Aren’t the recipients entitled to use the gift as they see fit? Is it beyond imagining that I might enjoy the performer as much as my husband? And even if I didn’t, I would enjoy holding his hand and being together. I wanted to pour a bit of vinegar myself, but I refrained.

Still, on balance, I think my parents, Mother in particular, mellowed over time and began to offer fewer and fewer tidbits of advice. I am on my way there, and now I understand why.

Young people are born with a microchip that requires them to believe that they are the first people to feel as they feel, do what they do, see what they see, hear what they hear, and to think and reason clearly. They simply aren’t interested in what my experience has been and therefore, they wish to ignore, or better yet, never hear, what I have to say. They will be ready to listen--one day, but while they are young and before they have children of their own, they are biologically driven to go their own way without the benefit of my warnings, guiding hand, or raised brows.

Now if only I can perfect the art of keeping my mouth shut.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Confessions of a Soccer Mom

Never having played competitive sports, I was naïve about the intentions of coaches, parents, sponsoring organizations, and team management. I learned from my mistakes, but I must confess, some of them were real doozies. One of the worst still makes me cringe, and I need to vent.

Quite new to the year-round club soccer circuit, my husband and I assumed that the coach and parents in charge knew what they were doing and would have the girls’ best interests in mind at all times. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Some coaches have more art in bullying than in what is best for the girl or team; others are shriveled little men who curry favor of community leaders or brash, boastful parents. A few actually played the game themselves and motivate kids to love it as much as they did.

For a weekend tournament in Emporia, Kansas, a cattle crossroads in America and home to a teacher’s college, our coach and parent leader sent us north on I-35. We were the first to arrive at what had been described as a hunting lodge some thirty to forty minutes away from the playing fields in Emporia; this distance added another burden to families because we were in the middle of nothing but the Flint Hills with no town, convenience store, or laundromat close by.

As we turned into the drive, Hitchcock’s score from Psycho played in my mind. This was a Bates motel if ever I had seen one except that Norman kept his place cleaner even with the occasional blood splatter.

The thin outdoor carpet below seemed alive with vermin. The shower stall was a play of shadow and light except the shadow was mold. The room stank of something sweet, so much so that my nostrils burned. The linens on the bed were thinner than any I had seen even in my college days when everyone used hand-me-downs. And the lone heater set into the wall hissed like a furious cat.

I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to stay there. I didn’t want to place my belongings there. I wanted to cry.

Someone among the club’s officers had decreed that the team needed to be away from others so that its members could bond. That person had fallen for the motel owner’s hype, describing the place as a hunting lodge with several cabins. I’m sure the old crone closed down after receiving the cash from our team’s parents, afraid that her ruse would never work again. She needed to quit before word spread.

Worse, the crone gave us the best cabin simply because we were the first to arrive. We didn’t ask for it. We had no way of knowing that the sorry quarters were the best, but we engendered plenty of spite because we had the finest quarters. Others were in cabins so small, so oddly configured that they had to lift their legs on to the bed in order for someone to pass on his or her way to the bathroom.

For that weekend, the entire state of Kansas was sodden and icy. Rain and drizzle fell without respite. Parents huddled under umbrellas, inside blankets to stay warm while the girls shivered, splashed, and slogged up and down the field, trying to kick a water-logged ball, all while smelling the savory aroma of cattle dung because corrals surrounded the muddy, composted field and cattle hung their heads awaiting slaughter. I hated to think of the diseases that the girls might carry home after wallowing in that soil, and I couldn’t imagine ever restoring those white uniforms to their original color.

Before that weekend, I was only vaguely acquainted with the word homered, a word that had to do with home-field advantage. Until that weekend, I did not realize that homered also described egregious oversights by hometown referees. The final game between Emporia’s own and our out-of-state team for the Emporia Challenge trophy enlightened me.

One of our best kickers managed to get under the ball and send it aloft in spite of its heavy water weight. She executed the kick perfectly in spite of one defender trying to interfere. That defender stretched so much that she lost her balance and entirely on her own, without touch or push, plopped down on her behind into a muddy puddle. The referee blew the whistle and called a foul on our girl.

Now I know that refs cannot possibly see everything and that what they see depends upon their position on the field at the moment and that they are as flawed as any human on the planet, including me, but believe me, this guy had blinders on. He did not see the game except through the lens of home-town favoritism. He simply imagined that there had been some contact between the two girls, and his own town girl, like every Italian soccer player I’ve ever seen, dramatized her fall and her non-injury to further persuade him.

Still none of that is any excuse for what I did. I shouted from the sidelines, and as it happens sometimes, the heavens ceased to pour rain for the second it took me to speak. No one spoke, as a matter of fact. It was as if the earth held its breath so that all could hear my words and thereby exacerbate my shame after I hollered, “You’re a horrible ref!”

The words hung in the moist air, seeming to reverberate. I wished with all my being to call them back or explain that those words were the accumulated misery of filthy rooms, cold rain, the smell of dung, and the realization that we would not arrive home until after midnight with school and work looming only a few short hours away. Instead, I said nothing, and I vowed never to call from the sidelines again.

The girls went on to win the trophy that awful night. We made it home safely and snatched a few hours of sleep before beginning our work week. The mud came out of the uniforms after soaks and scrubs and multiple washes. No bugs found their way into our luggage and thus into our home. And I--well, I was a quiet observer on the sidelines for--I’m sure it was at least one entire game. I’m pretty sure I kept my vow that long, but I never again assailed a ref. Of that you can be sure.