Relativity

Reminiscent of so many other times, we parked the car down the road and started walking toward my brother-in-law’s house at the end of a cul de sac in a quiet residential neighborhood. Only this time as we walked toward the crowded driveway we heard a loud oomph-a-oomph-a.

“Is that a tuba?” I asked my husband. “Did they get a band, or is somebody just practicing?”

He shrugged and seemed to indicate the latter was of greater possibility.

As we walked in the front door we realized it was a band, a family of four, with the father as lead singer, his daughter somberly plucking a bass, an older son holding rhythm on a sousaphone, and the youngest, a boy of around 12, stretching and compressing an accordion while wailing along with his dad. They were joyful and loud. We later found out that the police had already been called by a number of close-set neighbors, and my brother-in-law had been warned to wrap it up by ten.

We congratulated the pair on their anniversary and made our rounds shaking hands and saying hello before sitting down at one of the many tables set up under undulating blue plastic tarps. I looked around. The San Antonio riverwalk had nothing on this festive backyard arrangement. Fluttering under the tarps were paper picado banners, not the plastic kind, but actual tissue paper, cut and strung crisscross across the yard. They spoke of love and attention to detail. The tables were festooned with colorful plastic tablecloths, and each table held a Corona bottle vase graced with a single bright flower.

We weren’t allowed to sit long before being ushered to the lean-to shed, where a man was expertly assembling street tacos. The smells of carne asada and pork al pastor made me remember why I could never become a vegetarian. I demurely ordered one of each of these, and my husband eagerly grabbed a plateful of strange looking tripe tacos. We piled the tacos with fixings of fragrant cilantro, homemade salsa, onions, lime, and then topped the whole plate off with a pile of cactus salad and went back to our seats. I would later go back with gusto for more. I’m a sucker for street tacos.

I set about taking Snapchat pictures to send to my eldest two who now live far from home as if to say, remember this? Remember your heritage? I snapped a picture of my mother-in-law, now in her mid-eighties. We lost my father-in-law a couple of years ago; we try not to take this time for granted. There was a slew of back and forth salutations with lots of love and hugs and well-wishes, but all over the distance that technology provides, a sanitized version of connection, life through a lens. I sent snaps of food and videos of dancing, a framework that made up much of their extended family experiences.

A few people asked where our other kids were. They got our standard answer, “Oh, they don’t want to hang out with us anymore.” In reality, one was off at a wedding at his girlfriend’s house. He had promised her mom he would help set up. The other had run off with his friends for the day. My husband hadn’t given me much of a heads-up about this party, otherwise I would have made sure they were there. Still, our answer stands. The older teens don’t want to have much to do with us anymore. Maybe it’s normal. Maybe.

My husband went off to talk to someone. I watched him gesticulating animatedly from across the yard. I saw that the man he was talking to was leaning in, so it must not have been about work this time. I sat with my mother-in-law in the silence that loud music brings. Conversation in my native language would have been hard; lip-reading in Spanish was nearly impossible. So I observed.

My youngest brother-in-law was twirling his girlfriend around the patio. They would come back sweaty only to hop up again immediately as the band started up with another favorite dance tune. I had picked the only brother out of nine who didn’t like to dance.

An older brother-in-law was holding his grandchildren as his wife talked animatedly across the table with her son’s young girlfriend. The son was busy. His seven-year-old niece was looking up at him with starry-eyed devotion as he led her around the dance floor.

I sat and watched the new generation repeating what we once did, tios dancing with their nieces, people laughing and holding babies, the older generation dancing, dancing, dancing. I thought back to a Christmas party long ago, of my brother-in-law twirling my daughter, then five, around and around the small kitchen. I felt time telescoping in with a crushing sensation and all of a sudden I was squinting back tears as I felt the all-encompassing lonliness of endings, of time past, of the things I held so dear slipping through my fingers. I bit my cheek. Hard. And again. It wouldn’t do to cry right now.

All of a sudden I felt my husband at my side again. He was cracking a lame joke, looking into my face, drawing me out of the abyss. I smiled and went willingly.

We chatted with his mom and brothers and ate cake during the band’s break. My mother-in-law tried to separate her youngest from his beloved beer. My teetotaler husband once again proclaimed his status as the perfect child, while his brother looked at me and said, “He has his vices.”

I nodded.

“Work. Work is his vice.”

I know.

The band started up again. It was 9:45.

“Are you ready to go?” my husband asked. “I don’t want to be here if and when the police show up again.”

I laughed. “I’m ready,” I said.

We rode home in silence, my ears ringing with the residual oomph-a of sousaphone and my heart pinging with the loneliness of solitude.

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Who Will Carry the Milk?

I’ll admit it. I was a bit of a lazy child. I was a work-averse, energy-conserving creature when it came to helping out. I would be overcome with a shift of molecular weight changing the gravitational pull of every cell of my body. Suddenly overcoming inertia required extrinsic prodding and much internal groaning.

I remember distinctly hating to carry the milk.

Did I have some strange muscular problem that prohibited me from lifting a cold gallon jug? Not unless all of the hours lounging on my yellow quilt listening to John Denver had turned my biceps to jiggly mush. Oh, how I hated that job!

Mom would pull up in the old Ford station wagon and call us to help. I can feel the urge to roll my eyes at the though of it, at the sheer lead-weight feeling of prying myself from whatever pleasurable experience I was immersed in at the time – drawing, listening to music, reading, dancing. I had to stop and help with the groceries.

As I’ve raised my own brood, I’ve often thought of this. My kids have their moments, but overall they are much more helpful than I was. If I honk when I pull in the driveway, the boys stop what they’re doing and run to help disgorge the Costco bounty from the back of the Subaru. They show their physical prowess by loading up with as many bags and boxes as they can carry. It’s not just the boys. My daughter was the same. I would head back for another load only to find the car empty, and when I headed back to the house, I would find the kids had returned to whatever pleasurable experience I had pulled them away from.

And to my surprise, they’ve never minded carrying the milk.

 

Retrospective

Home life is quiet now. Too quiet.

If you would have asked me five years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would have laughed. Smartypants lived 20 miles away at college and would come home on weekends, bringing with him his boisterous laughter and penchant for conversation. B0203012003aubbly, talkative Sunshine was still at home, and we shopped, cooked, and crafted between school, dance competitions and sleepovers with friends. Goose became a trumpet player and Maverick finessed his soccer moves or basketball shots. We relished each other’s company. They fought and laughed. We nagged and teased. The family pulse was beating strongly. Quiet came when no one was home, when work and school and obligations rendered the house devoid of life

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If you would have asked me ten years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would have rolled my eyes. Sunshine would have just entered her teen years, complete with slamming doors and shouting about parental atrocities and the unfairness of it all. Smartypants would have still been at home, and the revolving door of his life would have brought friends and a girlfriend, student journalism and robotics, and down time always brought the sound of his guitar. Goose and Maverick would have been alternating between the fantasy world of swordplay and wrestling each other to the ground, small warriors taunting each other with fighting words. Warm summer evenings found us around the fire, with lightsaber fights breaking the tranquility of the night. Remnants of Scattergories, Scrabble and Settlers littered the kitchen table, bearing witness to lively family game nights. Mario Kart challenges were heated, with trash talk and shouts of victory. The speed of life in these days was always at a run. Goose especially lived at full volume and never quite knew how to pull punch. Quiet was relative, and came late at night.

 

Dad048If you would have asked me fifteen years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would have looked at you with wide-eyed, shell-shocked wonder. Smartypants would have been a fifth grader with too many activities on his plate, balancing them with Cat in the Hat finesse. Dinners were often on the run. Sunshine’s life revolved around dance classes and play dates, and the Goose and Maverick’s favorite activity was to strip down to their birthday suits and run laughing from one end of the house to the other. Taekwondo high kicks competed with twirling and cartwheels, creating a circus-like atmosphere, the cacophony of children’s voices shouting over
each other and laughter, always lOldShtos275aughter, ringing through the house. There was usually a pretend animal lurking somewhere, and it turns out superheroes are rarely stealthy, at least when they are young. Disney jams were on constant repeat, creating a daily dance party in the living room. Silence was to be found in a locked master bathroom, and then only when Mr. A was home.

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If you would have asked me twenty years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would have smiled, as it would not have mattered. Smartypants and Sunshine lit up my world, their days were filled with pretend play and requests, constant requests, for those things young children can’t do for themselves. Mommy, can I have some milk? Can you tie my shoes? Can we go to the park? Can we go for a walk? Will you read me a story? In those days, Barbie shoes and Legos created a barefoot walker’s nightmare, and we skirted them as carefully as we skirt conversation topics now. Silence came at with an early bedtime and a chance for two young parents to finally reconnect.

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If you would have asked me twenty-five years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would not have known how to answer you. We had just entered into this world of parenthood with a colicky, precious little Smartypants. I wore down the sidewalk in front of my house as I tried to soothe him, patting his back so my husband could sleep, grateful for the summer warmth. My days were spent introducing him to his new world, and rediscovering it myself through his sense of wonder. He walked at ten months and ran soon after, and he only slowed down to sleep. The music of my world was infant crying and baby giggles and babbling, then questions and observations from a knee high level. There was no need for silence.

But silence is descending, as sure as the rains come. It will be mere months before Goose and Maverick prime their wings and head off to college. Sunshine still calls frequently, but lives halfway across the country. We are lucky to hear from Smartypants once or twice a month. Very soon we will be true empty-nesters. The prospect of freedom has liberating appeal, quick and light travel, art and writing uninterrupted by small voices, a clean house, making food that is to my liking. (No more spaghetti – ever.)

But those small voices beckon from the past. “Mommy, look at me!” And as I look at them, I am overwhelmed with a sense of pride to see the people they’ve become.

The Power of a Hug

There are defining moments in life, those that stick with you and create enough of an impact as to define and realign your thinking patterns. When my children were small, I had one of those moments.

We were in our family chaos pattern of divergent needs, all clamoring to be met immediately. My mind was going to its frazzled state, a common one at the time. Pressure was on the rise, the needle hovering around red.

All of a sudden I seemed to see my children not as the little wild things they were at the time, but as precious beings under my care. I took them into my arms (and you must understand that they were not being sweet at that moment) and just hugged them and hugged them and hugged them. No scolding. No lessons from mom. Just a fiercely loving hug.

It was as if the pressure release valve opened. All of the clamoring stopped, not just for the moment, but for the rest of the day. In that moment I realized that what my kids wanted more than whatever they were clamoring for was my love and attention. In an instant my little wild things had been tamed with the power of a hug.


In response to The Daily Post’s prompt: Tell us about a time when everything seemed to be going wrong — and then, suddenly, you knew it would be alright. 

Fingerprints


terrypresley / Foter.com / CC BY

When life was young, I scrubbed your fingerprints
From the refrigerator door, my heart
Worn from the frantic pace of days.

Through swiftly passing time, your days
Overflowed with school, and those fingerprints
Graced many a roughly cut and painted heart.

Now you seek to fill your own heart
With a love to share your remaining days,
While I scan the refrigerator for a trace of those small fingerprints.

Yet in its ridges and valleys and whorls, life leaves its own fingerprints etched onto the heart in a collection of moments and days.

       

Let It Go

A ten-year-old Maverick walked down the beach glaring, holding the heavy rock. After we had gone about a mile, he was walking backwards and tripped into a somewhat deep, sandy tidal pool, immersing himself in cold salt water to gales of laughter from us, his family. He hadn’t seen the humor, and now he was toting his irritation also, it weighing him down like the rock he carried.

“Maverick, just put the rock down,” I had said before the incident. “We can pick it up on the way back.” He had declined. I didn’t know why he wanted to take it back to camp, and I had thought wherever he set it we would find it when we returned. Rocks don’t tend to move around on their own.

At one point he had asked me to carry the rock for him, but motherhood has its limitations. Maybe my job was to help him know when the burden wasn’t worth carrying in the first place.

As he trudged, dripping wet, back to camp, his ire surrounded him like a thick ocean fog. We tried to distract him with familial joviality, hoping to rouse the cheery Maverick who was with us moments ago, but this Maverick carried his humiliation and irritation like that rock, refusing to put it down.

I sidled up to him again. “Maverick,” I said gently, “what you did was funny and unexpected. If any of the rest of us had done it, we would have laughed as well. You are wet, but unhurt. Please, just let it go.”

He ignored me, in true ten-year-old boy fashion, toting both burdens all the way back to camp.

DSCN6103Thankfully, he eventually let each one go. The rock has been long-since forgotten, and falling into the puddle remains a funny family story that seven years later even he can now reluctantly appreciate.

It takes a lot of energy to carry a large rock for miles. It wears you out. The same is true with a grudge.

When we choose to carry a grudge, I think we feel like it will somehow affect the people who have wronged us, that they will vicariously feel the impact and be burdened as well. They may not even know you are carrying it at all.

We lighten our load in life when we choose to put aside our grievances, to forgive a wrong done to us, to pick ourselves up after a fall and walk with our head held high, and unburdening ourselves frees us up to walk arm in arm with those we love.

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In response to the Daily Post’s prompt: “Do you hold grudges, or do you believe in forgive and forget?”

 

Feliz Cumpleanos

Feliz Cumpleanos! It’s my husband’s birthday, and this year I’m taking my mother-in-law’s pointed observation under consideration. It seems our American, semi-understated celebration is not enough. Let the festivities begin! A30_Tsitika / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Time to get moving. This family is big, and they love parties! I need to make sure we have plenty of food.

¡Ay caramba! I hate big parties. I don’t really like to attend them, and with my distracted brain, planning them is the closest thing to torture that I can think of.

What shall I make? Carnitas and posole? Chicken mole? Rice and beans to round out the plate.

Oh, I see why Mexicans have these quinceaneras now. It’s all training for the young woman to be able to plan a routine birthday party someday. Well, guess who’s lacking that training. You’ve got it! Me!

I wonder if we can clear some space in the garage. Seventy-five people in an 1800 square foot home is pretty crowded. I think if we set up a space heater and some tables, we should be good.

Oh, why couldn’t I have married into an introverted family, or at least a small family? I am out of my league here.

The garage is all set up, and the smells coming from the kitchen are making me hungry! I still have some chopping to do, so I’d better get busy.

Well, that was a lot of work. Feeling a little bit like the Little Red Hen right now. Funny how the able-bodied helpers scatter when the work begins.

Preparations are in place, the house smells good, and all that’s left is a quick shower before people start to arrive.

Oh, my! I am already exhausted, and people haven’t even started showing up yet. I need to shower, but I just want to crash on my bed and nap.

The guests have started arriving. Mr. A seems happy to see everyone. He’s just talking up a storm.

It really is nice to see everyone, and I’m so grateful for the help. I have smiling women in my kitchen, heating tortillas and helping get plates of food on the table.

Well, look at that man, surrounded by his family. He looks so happy. He looks so loved. I wonder why I don’t do this more often.

Plates and bottles and so much leftover food! The work never ends! I wish I could have spent a little more time with him today. Oh, well. There’s always tomorrow.

Roberto Cacho / Foter.com / CC BY

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “RSVP.” Plan the ultimate celebration for the person you’re closest to, and tell us about it. Where is it? Who’s there? What’s served? What happens?

Thanksgiving Grace

Their hold on me had long since loosened, but every Thanksgiving the same anxieties resurface, and I knew we would slide back into those same uncomfortable family patterns. Strangely, even at thirty-three, it was possible to become thirteen again upon entering my parents’ home.

My husband gripped the steering wheel as he pondered what to say next. I knew this was uncomfortable for him. He is a peacemaker.

“They’re your parents,” he finally said, then added, “I wish I could spend time with my parents.” As if this should make up for the hurts and injustices that were years in the making, but I knew what he was trying to say. He had recently lost his mom, a sweet woman who never stooped to threats or manipulation, and his dad had been gone for years now. I felt guilt ridden. I should just hold my head high and let the small things just roll off me, but are there really any small things in a family?

“Just don’t make your mom mad,” he continued.

As if I have any control over that. I might as well influence the rising of the sun or the barometric pressure.

“You don’t understand,” I said quietly, though he must. We’d been doing this for ten years now. He just sits and listens. What else can he do? My mom and I know that the buttons are there and it’s inevitable that they will start getting pushed. Some days it’s a minefield.

For all I knew my parents may have been having the same conversation. Let it go. Make the relationship more important. Don’t get your feelings hurt. All good advice until you are around the people who rub salt in those old wounds with harsh words and looks fraught with meaning.

“Mommy, are we almost there?” piped a small voice from the backseat. I looked back at the kids and wondered if this scene had played out for my own parents. I couldn’t remember. My daughter was still sleeping. My son was gazing out his window at the snow, beautiful but cold. My husband looked at me and shrugged.

“Yes, honey,” I replied, “We’re almost there.”

I began my mental preparations for the weekend with my family. It always starts on a positive note. My parents would greet us at the door with open arms and hugs all around. We would put our bags in the spare room and gravitate to the living room, where it always seemed that everyone was talking over one another, a chaotic moment of familial bliss. As time went on, however, the comments would come, little resentments starting to poke and prod. My mom’s polite facade was no retaining wall.

“It’s the expectations,” I said. He gave me a quizzical glance. “My mom has these expectations that we are going to be like an ideal TV family, everyone following some crazy happiness script.”

“I can see that,” he said.

“If anyone disagrees, that messes up the script and she starts to feel unbalanced, like her perfect holiday is unraveling,” I continued.

“Keep the conversation neutral,” he added.

“That’s fine, until they start going on about politics,” I said.

“Just don’t say anything this time.”

“That’s easy for you to say. It’s not you they’re attacking.”

He got quiet. I knew we were both thinking about last year, when my family had used the Thanksgiving table to talk on and on about their political views to their captive audience. I had kept silent, through most of it, but when I had questioned them, they had then turned the force of their political passion on me. How could I not see their viewpoint? I had been brainwashed by the media. My mom didn’t speak through the rest of dinner, which was hastily finished. For the next two days of our visit, we had all stepped carefully around the landmines, measuring our words, flinching at the slightest inclination toward argument. The car ride home had become an intense therapy session, my therapist an unlicensed but very good listener.

“You always have me,” he said as we turned into the driveway. I smiled at him. That was what made this all possible.

My parents were standing in their doorway, smiling and waving. I felt a catch in my heart as I watched my children run to them. I loved these flawed people.

We could make this holiday different. All we needed was a little Thanksgiving grace.

Letter From A Former Follower

Dear Facebook Friend,

I have recently had to unfollow you. Please don’t take offense; it’s not that I dislike you. I would still stop and talk to you at the store or the park or at a ball game. I would ask about your kids because I truly care how they are doing. It appears from your posts that they are doing very well.

I see that your oldest daughter was crowned Homecoming Queen. How exciting! You must be very proud. I would urge you to have her try for the festival princess position in the spring. I feel like she might be selected as queen. Do you remember when our kids were friends back in middle school? My son told me the other day he only has a couple of friends now. I don’t know if he was joking, but I worry about him fitting in. I’m glad you don’t have those worries.

I also see that your daughter’s good grades and sports successes have certainly paid off in the form of, correct me if I’m wrong (you may have updated this information when I wasn’t looking), 4 college offers? And you say they’ve been coming in all year? I can certainly feel your excitement. And you posted a picture of them, although I would have taken your word for it. You must be very proud. My son is struggling in school, and his dedication to his soccer team has not resulted in any scholarships or recruiting offers, though there is still time, right?

May I also congratulate you on the success of your younger daughter. My, it seems like intelligence runs in your family. Straight As in middle school are something to be proud of. It was nice to see the picture as proof. It made me think of my conferences, where the teacher, my son and I brainstormed how he could pull his math grade up… again. It would be nice if he would bring home a straight A report card. I would be proud of that accomplishment, almost as much as I am proud of his character traits of kindness and empathy and thoughtfulness. We would have a small celebration where I would serve up his favorite dinner on the special plate, You would probably never know about it.

Facebook friend, just know that I am not choosing this path because I don’t care. It’s just that my life is not as beautiful or on track as yours seems to be, and the constant comparison is gnawing at me and affecting my relationships. So I will leave you in peace with your 500 other friends. In the sea of “likes,” you won’t even notice mine missing.

If we ever run into each other around town, I look forward to the chance to catch up.

Sincerely,

A former follower

Wanderlust


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I blame my wanderlust on my parents.

I grew up in the late 60s, early 70s. People were hitting the road. Gas was cheap, and cars must have been affordable, judging from the way my dad cycled through them. We were always on the go, taking memorable trips to Crater Lake, Vancouver B.C.and Disneyland. When I got older, my dad got a job that involved travel, and he arranged a partially sponsored three week road trip that took us through Yellowstone, down through Denver, San Antonio, Santa Fe, then L.A., before heading back home to Oregon. Looking back, that seems painfully ambitious. I was sixteen at the time, and probably not entirely pleasant to be around for short periods, let alone trapped for hours in a car with, yet I look back on that family vacation as one of the best. I can only hope my parents feel the same. I experienced so much of the country – geysers and bison in Yellowstone, great southwestern food and culture in San Antonio and Santa Fe, and always the mountains,  plains, and deserts rolling by.

My husband and I made a point to take our kids on road trips as well. In our mind, it’s important for them to see the country, to know the expanse of the land in which we live, to develop a sense of place and geography, and to see what makes us different and, more importantly, similar. We have driven to Mexico City, through the Chihuahuan desert, a great expanse of nothingness where we came upon a group of people selling rattlesnake by the roadside. On our way back, we were able to make side trips to the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns. On a different trip to Disneyland, we swung by to check out Yosemite National Park and ended up staying and hiking up Vernal Falls. So many trips. So many memories.

Five years ago, I coaxed Maverick and Goose into going with me to take Sunshine to college in Texas. Mr. A was deep into his busy season and would fly down and meet us in Texas. It was just the kids and me, every nook and cranny of the little Kia Soul packed with Sunshine’s belongings and our bare-bones luggage.

Let me tell you, it’s a long road trip from Oregon to Texas. We had planned a stop in Arizona, where we took a couple of days to hike in the Grand Canyon and explore around Flagstaff, where we looked at the stars from Lowell Observatory and hiked through Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona. Blog RS0784
We revisited Carlsbad Caverns on the way through New Mexico so my cave-dwelling sons could be impressed by the size and grandeur of the open areas we walk above. We finally reached San Antonio at the peak of summer in a drought year and made the best of the 108 degree heat with swims in the rooftop pool at our hotel. You’d never have known it at the time, but Maverick recently shocked me with his admission that this was his favorite road trip.

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Inside Carlsbad Caverns
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Finding our way around the Riverwalk

When the kids were young, we heard the same ‘are we there yet’ every other parent hears. We played all of the car games my parents played with us to keep us stimulated. The alphabet game had us searching for words that began with the last letter of the previous word. Someone was always excited to be the one to stump the group with a word ending with x, y, or z. We played a version of car bingo. We sang songs and listened to books on tape. During those times, we were a unit, a family, relishing our togetherness and sense of adventure. We got in each other’s space and lived through it. We had to learn to work together within the confines of the car and of the experience. We didn’t watch movies. We weren’t checking out on personal devices. We shared. We did this together.

You can keep your planes, trains and buses. Give me a car and the open road any day. Road trips offer a sense of adventure and exploration. On the open road I’m free to stop and wander, to veer from the path. I can travel on a budget or in high style, camping in the back of the car or having the valet park it for me at some ritzy hotel. I’m the captain of my ship (alright, it’s a shared job), and as long as we can avoid mutiny (says the parent of teens), there are wondrous adventures in store.

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In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles.”You’re going on a cross-country trip. Airplane, train, bus, or car? (Or something else entirely — bike? Hot air balloon?)