Thursday, April 25, 2013

Epic Car Trips of Forced Family Togetherness

One of my dad's station wagons we inherited when we were first married.

My family is preparing to take a road trip of epic and insane proportions. My mother in Pittsburgh recently downsized from a large condominium to an assisted living country club, and all her excess stuff that somehow I convinced myself we couldn’t possibly just get rid of, was put into a storage unit. Now, we need to go pick it all up, because obviously we can’t survive without all that stuff.

We live in Colorado. This will be no small undertaking.

However, since my son graduates from college next month and my daughter is heading into her senior year of high school, my spousal unit and I decided that this might be the last time we are all together for ten very close proximity...before our lives splinter off in different directions. Given the distance, this is really a very short timeframe and will require long days of driving from point A to point B, which really brings me to all the memories I have of long car trips when I was little. They are not especially good memories.

When I was a young lass, back in the sixties and early seventies, we'd take an annual vacation to some distant land, usually Rhode Island to see my mother’s kin or Ohio to see my father’s family. The actual car trips, our long hours together, squashed in the backseat of various used station wagons my father sensibly purchased, had a consistent theme of boredom, antics and excessive sweating.

My brother, sister and I are all four years apart, with me being the youngest. This birth order was intentional and part of my parent’s “never have more than one child in college” tuition plan. But it meant that back seat trips were a sibling hierarchy of control--who got to sit by the windows. As the youngest, I usually landed in the middle slot. After several long, hot, sticky hours sweating against vinyl seats, it was inevitable—in the days before you could numb your children out with head sets of music or videos—that we would end up in squabbles. Someone was touching/stole a pillow/hit/gave a dirty look to someone else. Slapping and yelling and crying would ensue. And that was usually from my father.

After repeated attempts to settle us down so that my dad could drive and read peacefully (yes, he would attempt reading while driving—it was the seventy’s version of texting and driving for the intellectual), the shenanigans were tolerated no more. My father, his face red, his neck muscles twitching and his foot pressing the gas pedal in time to his outbursts, reached behind with his right hand, keeping his eyes on the road ahead, and began randomly smacking children. I was in the middle, but I was little and managed to duck out of the way at least fifty percent of the time.

Eventually, we'd pull over at a designated rest stop and were forced to use the primitive potties and stretch our legs. My mom always packed sandwiches, chips, cut up celery and carrots and maybe made a batch of cookies. We begged to stop at an orange roofed Howard Johnson’s or maybe one of the golden arched McDonalds, but my dad almost always refused. I wanted to find out if we bought a burger at McDonald’s if they’d run out and change their sign: over five billion and one hamburgers sold.

But no frivolous expenditures, air conditioning or cold sodas with ice cubes for us. No sir. The big green thermos jug filled with refreshing iced tea made from a powder mix was hauled out, and we had a picnic on the pulled down tailgate of the car. If we were lucky, there might be a picnic table with rough wood benches resulting in long splinters to be pulled out of the back of sweaty thighs. Then we'd pile back into the now sweltering station wagon, waiting for a wave of car sickness to hit one of us, forcing the car over again for an impromptu rest stop and maybe to throw away a pillow.

Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I’m approaching our road trip in June with much higher expectations. Our kids are older and our family dynamics are different. Still, I can’t help wondering what we’ll discover about each other corralled in a car for eight or nine hour stretches. Maybe there will be a few rest stops along the way and I can share a family memory or two. After all, they'll be forced to listen. And if they don't? There's always random smacking...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

In The Company of Books

I sank into the big, soft pillow, a pile of books by my side. Flipping through the pages with pudgy fingers, I'd pause as the brightly colored pictures captured my attention. There was an orange tabby cat in overalls holding a hammer and tool box, and another cat in the kitchen dressed in an apron—a teapot on the stove, a clock on the wall. I flipped the page and became lost in the word-picture world of Richard Scarry, one of my favorite books. Somewhere in the other part of the library, my mom was searching for her own books.

Later, when I was old enough, I earned the right to have my very own library card. I took great pride in the orange cardboard card with the metal clip on the bottom. I’d watch with fascination as the librarian, with practiced efficiency, pulled the card out of the pocket from the front of the book, ran ink over my library card imprinting my special number and deftly placed a due date card back in the pocket. After, I'd rub my fingers over the bumpy metal and smudge the blue ink on my fingertips. When I grew up, I wanted to be a librarian.

Sometime in my early adolescent years, at an awkward, insecure age, I spent a few weeks volunteering for the local library. My job that summer was to put little stickers on the binding of the books that identified them with their genre. I remember placing little stickers with a magnifying glass on rows of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. I couldn't resist opening them and reading a page or two as I put the sticker on. As a result, I doubt I was a very efficient worker. I know I checked out quite a few of those books that summer, dreaming of being the smart, athletic and popular Nancy and perhaps having a boyfriend like Frank or Joe Hardy.

My sticker job led me out of the young adult books and into the realm of nonfiction, just around the corner. I don't remember the picture on the stickers for this section, but I do remember picking up a book about a young mom working diligently with her son who was autistic, loving him towards an emotional and meaningful connection. I marveled at her love and devotion. Another book I picked up and read that summer was about a teacher in a classroom of children with special education needs. I studied the jacket cover, a black and white photo of a lovely, young teacher surrounded by the grinning faces of her students. I was inspired. I wanted to work with children with special needs when I grew up.

That summer, the imagination and ideas contained in books gripped me in a whole new way. I learned to love the musty, dusty smell of books, unique to libraries, and find solace and comfort in the rows and stacks of books. Growing up, I was seldom without a book, even earning reprimands from my mother for reading when we had company.

My educational experiences in college and grad school were marked by long, quiet hours of studying. I discovered that two hours near my research material, a large wooden library desk to spread books out on and hushed silence to be as productive as twice that time in any other setting. The atmosphere was still comforting, and the books still contained dreams and, now, the resources and information I needed to attain them.

In my mind, libraries are still one of the pillars of our culture. Our library in town is small but offers a plethora of community services and with their shelves stocked full of books, they still offer a quiet respite surrounded by that musty, dusty smell, and our librarians are always helpful and friendly and know me by name. 

Some things have changed. They scan barcodes now and use computers to check books out, and when I am searching a title or author, I no longer have to flip through long drawers of index cards; I can just look up what I need on the computer. But I still watch with admiration as a librarian restocks a shelf, checks in a stack of books or helps a patron with a search.

And just between you and me, I still dream of being a librarian when I grow up.

In honor of National Library Week, April 14-20 and with thanks to all the
 faithful librarians (especially those at the Gunnison County Library) 
who work for the love of the written word. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cussing, Livestock and the Herds We Hang With

There’s lots of advice out there about raising children. I firmly believe the seeds and hard work of parenting—instilling values of self-respect, other-respect, kindness and right and wrong--are planted at a young age. By the time they are teenagers, as a parent, you mostly sit back, offer guidance when you can, and hope they will reap a positive harvest. 

One day, when our son was in middle school, he was walking home from the bus drop-off, as usual, and passed our neighbors and their horses, as usual. About fifteen minutes after arriving home, we got a phone call. Our neighbor, in tears, told me that my son had cussed at her horses.

I wasn't quite sure how to respond. “Our son? The blonde boy?” I asked a little incredulously. I know as parents we never want to believe our precious children could commit such crimes, but, truly, this was so out of his nature, even by teachers’ reports of what a good kid he was, I was having a tough time wrapping my head around my son hurling foul language at animals. Nonetheless, I apologized and promised we'd certainly talk with him.

“Did you cuss at a horse on the way home from the bus stop, today?” I asked, wondering at the string of words I'd just connected.

“No,” he said. He named another kid and swore it was this other neighbor’s trespass. 

Since we could really neither affirm nor deny his assertion, his father and I just reminded him that his actions are always being watched. “From now on, walk on the opposite side of the road so you don’t even risk having the neighbors think you might be cussing at their animals. Also, this is a good reminder of how the company you keep is important to guard.” I wasn't sure how else to respond. I had a feeling, and maybe I was just guilty of a parent’s halo effect, that he really wasn't the perpetrator of dirty equine insults.

Still, I told him this story:

Once, several years before, his father had been driving home in our old blue Jimmy from the 80s era. The steering column was loose and wobbly, and, to make matters worse, my husband has a tendency to stare at something and then drive in that general direction, correct the car, and get back on course. One day, shortly after he arrived home from work, a friend, who was also a local deputy, showed up at our house. “We got a call about you for possible drunk driving,” the deputy told my husband.

My husband was stunned. “Me?” he asked.

“Yeah, when they said your license and name over the radio, I knew it probably wasn’t the case, so I offered to come up, but by law, we have to check it out.”

My husband looked thoughtful. “There was a lady who followed me all the way home. I wondered. The steering column is loose in the car,” he offered in the way of an explanation.

I, of course, was laughing. My husband had been a pastor in town for ten years. Not that this precludes someone from bad judgment, but I knew he wasn’t a drinker and his occupation made this scenario all the funnier. The deputy, not smelling alcohol or seeing any signs of intoxication, just gave my husband a kind reminder to be more careful about his steering and left.

Not long after his patrol car pulled out of our driveway, the phone rang. A parishioner was on the phone giggling. “I had my police scanner on and heard your name. Everything OK?”  Sigh. Life in the small town. He would endure a few more good-natured jabs like that before the evening was through.

The moral of course, the one we wanted our son to hear, was that people are watching our behavior, who we hang with, what we do. If our reputation is clean and people know our character, there is a positive payoff when it’s mistakenly called into question. He was delighted by the story of his father’s close call with the law, and I think we made our point.

Our son is getting ready to graduate from college in a month. As far as we know, he never had another incident involving foul language and horses. He’s an outstanding man I'm so very proud of. I bet someday he'll remember that story about his father and pass it along to his children, to remind them that our reputation is one of our most valuable resources…and that swearing at livestock is never a good idea. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

And Finally The Thaw

It's been a long winter in the mountains. Spring is slow to come, if at all. Sometimes we skip right over the season and head into Summer. But drip-by-drip the thaw has happened. Last week, I put out the bird feeders out again. One morning I woke up and realized I was hearing a familiar sound, dormant for the last few months-- the unique chirping song of a robin. I stayed in bed for a bit, my eyes closed, just listening. It's a sound that always takes me back to my childhood, listening to the morning song of a robin as it digs for breakfast, waking up early, taunting me to get up too.

The other sure sign of spring is when the deck, attached to the back, south-facing side of our house, is finally free from the layers of snow. That's when I start closely monitoring the thermometer, watching the red line of mercury for any movement of hope. When it finally reaches fifty degrees, I turn to my dog and let him know, "It's time, Blue."  I grab a blanket out from the chifferobe and place it on the warm boards of the deck. I pull on shorts and a tank top, ease myself onto the blanket and sigh with pure contentment. The air may still have a slight chill, but the heat-absorbing wood beckons me with a promise of warmth and sun.

I know what the doctors say about too much sun. I take precautions, but heaven help me, I can't resist. With all my blonde hair, and fair-skinned cautions thrown to the wind or the sun as the case may be, I lay out and absorb the sweet comfort and restoration of the rays.
I'm not alone in this quest for solar comfort after a long, cold winter. Blue pit-pats after me, flopping gratefully on the hot wood with a grunt and groan of satisfaction. After a bit of sunning, he gets up and heads out to the grass for a long, satisfying back scritch in the dry winter grass. It's like spa day for him. He rolls on his back, legs kicking gleefully and twists and turns for all he's worth. I watch him and envy his freedom. I long to join him, rolling in the grass, my legs and arms flailing about, but I'm not sure which of my neighbors might be home, watching, becoming alarmed at the sight.

When he is done rolling, he heaves himself up on all fours and shakes wildly, loose bits of dry grass and leaves flying off of him. I brush the rest off. "Silly, Dog-Dog," I tell him gently. His fur is warm beneath my fingers. And his eyelids droop as he wanders towards the deck for more of his nap. My lids are a bit heavy too. Just a few more minutes of sun, not too much, I promise. After all, we've waited a very long time for the thaw.