This was published on Parent Co. Enjoy.
It took a few years for Uncle Tom to remodel his kitchen. Maybe it was only months (life moved more slowly when I was a kid), but every time we’d visit, there was a tarp hanging somewhere or an open bucket of paint on the floor. Toward the end of the project, the only part that remained in flux was a 3 ft. by 8 ft. space between the top of the Formica cabinets and the ceiling.
My uncle and aunt were unsure what color to paint it, so that space remained naked for months. After a while, in some late night creativity he was known for, Uncle Tom took a thick black marker and wrote on the plaster: “WHY ARE YOU LOOKING UP HERE?”
In my house, that space would have been painted green or yellow an hour after the plaster dried. My parents were more, shall we say, sticklers for the details. I decided I wanted to grow up to be jaunty—like my uncle—to worry less about the way things looked. His house might be a mess (it was always a mess), but who cared when I had so much fun, sitting around the table playing board games with my cousin or helping my aunt make cookies.
By the time I married, had kids, and settled into our first home, I’d succeeded in only half of Uncle Tom’s legacy: I turned out to be a terrible housekeeper. But instead of adopting a C’est la vie attitude like his, I spent precious time wallowing in guilt. The disorganization, the dust balls that emerged from under furniture when the kids ran by, the constant sad state of the bathroom. I could pull plastic containers from the back of the refrigerator and even if there had been a cash prize waiting, could not have identified the contents. Uncle Tom would have giggled at this, maybe made it his opening salvo as company arrived. He might have created a contest for who could name what it used to be. Not me.
Worse than that, I became a first-class phony as soon as I knew company was coming. I’d begin to scrub everything in a days-long attack that bordered on a Silkwood shower for a house. Once this onslaught started, my kids would always chime in: “Who’s coming over?” I’d pretend it was mere coincidence that we were having a dinner party for eight and that I was arranging the cleaning supplies under the sink in alphabetical order.
They didn’t buy it, of course, but I just wasn’t able to let guests see the “real” us. I would think of my uncle often while vacuuming behind furniture or mopping the kitchen floor on my hands and knees hours before that doorbell rang. And as I wiped down every spice in my cabinet or went on a search for the last crumb in the living room, I’d ask myself Why? Would my company think less of me? Refuse to eat? Leave?
My memories of Uncle Tom’s house are the memories I want my guests to come away with. His home had a rosy glow, dust balls and all. No one ever looked for stains on the family room carpet. Or checked the bathroom for grime behind the toilet. I remember games of Spoons and laughing until I couldn’t catch my breath. I remember moments that defined a family. That’s the home I want.
Company is coming tomorrow. There’s something in the refrigerator I can’t identify. I’m not moving it.
My job was to answer call-in questions that homeschooling parents had. Our company wrote the curriculum, so we were supposed to have all the answers. Math questions outnumbered all others, and I did my best with the Pythagorean Theorem, which was a knot in everyone’s stomach. After a few years on the job, there was nothing I hadn’t heard.
Then I got the call.
“Hello,” the homeschooling mother said in a sweet voice. “I have an 8th grade student using your curriculum, and we have a big problem.”
Even though I feared she was going in the direction of linear functions, which made me sweat a little, I assured her I could help.
“Well,” she began, “The Diary of Anne Frank is part of her literature course.”
“Right,” I said, relieved at a literature question, which I knew I could answer easily, even before my second cup of coffee. “How can I help?”
“Well,” she said—now letting some exasperation rise in her voice—I refuse to let my daughter read this book.’ She paused for a few beats, during which I had no idea what her reason was going to be. Then this: “I only let her read stories with happy endings.”
I knew enough about homeschooling to understand that some parents (not all) homeschool their children precisely to keep them inside their own comfort zones. After all, the world can be scary and unpredictable. All parents crave safety for their kids, and keeping highly edited lessons confined to the kitchen table gives some of them control over what their children are exposed to.
It’s one way to go.
It wasn’t the way I chose with my own public-schooled kids, but there were days I wanted to adopt that course of action and just keep my kids from ever finding out how cruel and rotten the world can be. The first time I took my sons and daughter to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I spent the entire afternoon rethinking my decision. Was it too much? Why did I think they needed to see—much less understand—the blackness that can descend on people’s souls?
I grappled with those questions and often felt envious of the homeschool crowd for not having to make the decisions I was making about my kids’ exposure to this imperfect and hopelessly flawed world of ours. In the end, I chose to tell them. Because it’s the truth, and the truth happened. It happened when my parents tried to explain to me why I was watching people in Birmingham getting hosed down and attacked by police dogs during Civil Rights protests. It did at the World Trade Center. It did at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
As parents, it’s our right to shield our children from anything we choose. I didn’t want my kids to be blindsided by the truth—that sometimes there is no happily ever after—that would arrive someday no matter what I tried to shield them from. And I didn’t want that realization to rear its head when I was no longer there to catch them.
For me, my thinking found its permanent home when my daughter, the youngest of my three, was about four and we were watching a TV show fictionalizing colonial America. In one scene, a slave mother was being sold away from her child, a little girl about my daughter’s age. I considered turning it off, as much for me as for her. It was wrenching—the mother pleading, the slave owner ambivalent, the child terrified.
My daughter turned to me and asked, “Did that happen in real life?”
“Yes,” I said.
She thought for a second or two and came up with her own answer, completely logical to her four-year-old sensibilities. “Well, I don’t think it really did.”
I understood her self-made reasoning. She yearned for that same protective shelter that lures lots of us parents, too. That quest for happily ever after. And I didn’t want to tell her the truth that night. But I did.
Here’s the good news: He lived.
Here’s the bad news: You kept going and got away with it.
Here’s what happened after you sped away: A woman on the way to her post office job saw Tom’s bike on the side of the road. Alarmed, she got out of her car and found him. She called 911. He was airlifted to Christiana Medical Center.
Maybe by the next day your hands had stopped shaking. Maybe you confided in someone who has been able to keep your secret.
I’ve always wondered what happened to you after you did this. Did you turn on the news as soon as you got home? Look through the newspaper for days to see if you’d killed the cyclist? Maybe you found the police report and saw that his name was Tom and that he was 38; undoubtedly, you were relieved when it listed the operator and the vehicle as “unknown.”
There are many bad things that have tested Tom and his family since that morning on the side of the road. They are all because of you and what you chose to do. But good has also sprung from what you did, and those things happened in spite of you. You should know all of it.
There were multiple surgeries, and hospital and rehab stays, physical therapy and extensive pain management for Tom well into that fall. There were medical setbacks and more surgeries. He could have died from a resulting staph infection. In the early weeks, I watched the worried faces of his family as they took turns sitting with him and helping him endure months of pain. I listened to his youngest child — who was only three — try to process it all, when she couldn’t begin to understand what had thrown her family into such chaos.
Maybe it’s even more important that you know the good things that have happened. I found that I live in a neighborhood of caring souls who also possess substantial organizational skills. People took turns bringing dinner over and setting up playdates for the two younger kids. The lawn got mowed regularly, and the other life chores that had become burdensome simply got done by others, sometimes anonymously. Along with the struggles, the resilience of a family and the pure goodness of a community got to be in the spotlight. And I will always drive country roads more cautiously, on the lookout for cyclists who may be right around the corner.
Last month, Tom developed an infection at the site of the metal apparatus that was installed to keep his spine straight. He endured more surgery and will need more recuperation time. More worry for his family and a reminder that they may never truly get past that moment your car came up behind him and then drove away.
Maybe by now you’re sure no one will ever find out what you did. Maybe you only think about July 16, 2013, once in a while. When those memories surface, maybe you’re able to wipe them away, only to have them appear in your dreams.
Hit-and-run drivers like you leave so many questions. But there are answers, too. Here they are: After all he’s been through, Tom will heal. And as long as you keep your terrible secret, you never will.
My daughter’s favorite story was one she called “Daniel’s Rock.” A far cry from Frosty the Snowman, I could count on being asked to recite it as Christmas approached. I’d begin when she’d picked up the small rock that sat on the southeast corner of my desk and had nestled herself in my lap.
The opening words never changed. “The last time I ever saw Daniel, he gave me this rock and told me about his boxes. It was a long time ago, before you were born.”
Daniel entered my life when I was a teacher. Before entering the room, he leaned against the doorjamb of Room 202, where I taught 5th grade. For a moment, he just eyed all of us. Blond bangs obscured half his face. His sneakers and checkered shirt were too big for him. His jeans had rips in the knees.
He had made his entrance in the school of a quaint lakeside village. Slate walkways, brass mailboxes, Williamsburg-colored shutters.
Daniel told me his last school had been in a neighboring county. “We were doin’ peaches there.” Before that it had been an hour south, he told me matter-of-factly, as if he’d given this little speech plenty of times. “We were doin’ onions then.”
And then, maybe because of all his practice at this, he simply smiled and became — because he had no time to waste — a part of the class. If he saw anyone snicker at his unfortunate wardrobe choices, he did not show it. Until the afternoon kickball game, the boys eyed him suspiciously.
Daniel led off the first inning with a strong kick that earned him an effortless home-run jog around the bases. With that came a modicum of respect.
Next it was Charles’s turn. He listlessly approached the plate. Charles was the least athletic, most overweight child in 5th grade that year. After his second strike and accompanying eye rolls and muffled groans of the class, Daniel edged up and spoke quietly to Charles’s dejected back.
“Forget them, Kid, you can do it.”
Charles warmed, smiled, pulled in his chest and then struck out anyway. But it was that precise moment — oblivious to the social order of this jungle he had just entered — that Daniel gently began to change things. He taught by example only. By November, we would all be gravitating toward him. He taught us how to call a wild turkey. How to tell if fruit was ripe before you bite into it. How to treat each other, even Charles. Especially Charles.
He still didn’t know any of our names. He referred to me as “Miss,” when he needed to. He called every other person in the room “Kid.”
The day before Christmas vacation arrived that year with the class bearing gifts for their teacher. My style never varied much from year to year. I’d open the department store box and spout some effusive appreciation, always worrying that there would be a few kids whose parents couldn’t engage in this ritual.
Daniel stood off to the side, attempting a casual pose. He seemed slightly confused. Neither of us understood why I needed another silk scarf, but I pretended to.
That afternoon, he walked to my desk and bent low, close to my ear so only I would hear him.
“Our boxes came out last night,” he said without emotion. “We’ll be leavin’ soon.”
As I caught on, my eyes filled. He countered the awkward silence by telling me about the collection of boxes his family had accumulated over their years of transience.
“We got them good, sturdy ones,” he told me. “That way you don’t have to go to the liquor store for new ones. That way you’re set.”
A boy of few words, he went on at length until I swallowed hard and regained my composure. Then deliberately, and with great style, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gray rock. He pushed it gently across my desk until it sat directly under my eyes.
Still blinking away tears, I was unsure what exactly I was looking at, although judging from the ceremony involved, I sensed it was something remarkable.
Without moving his eyes from mine, he said, “It’s for you. I found it this morning. I polished it up special.”
And the end of the story was always the same, too. “He’s a grownup now,” I would tell my daughter. Together we wondered aloud where Daniel was, what he looked like, and what kind of a person he became.
It would be years before she realized the story of Daniel’s rock was as much about me as anyone else — the lessons learned by the teacher. From the boy who lived month-to-month out of boxes, who never even knew her name.
“Do the end,” my daughter would say. And she would place the stone in my hand. I touched it gently, just the way it was given to me.
“Hi, Kid.” The same words every year. “This is Miss. Merry Christmas. I hope your boxes are finally gone.”
On a Sunday afternoon last month, when the world had much bigger thoughts on its mind, I did something long overdue. It dawned on me that there were probably about seven people in America who still didn’t own a smart phone. I was one. The others were Mennonite farmers in rural Kansas.
I’ll admit it. Just the thought of the Verizon store was daunting.
My son-in-law, who — because he was born after 1975 and automatically knows this stuff — kindly offered to go with me and run interference. At first I thought this was the only logical way to go, for two reasons. The older I get and the quicker technology advances, the more I want to put a blanket over my head and hum a Beatles tune when the topic turns to WIFI passwords. Second, my whole life has prepared me to know this about myself: I am defenseless against a deft salesperson. There is a reason that no one who loves me has ever allowed me to sit through a time-share sales pitch where they wine and dine you and pay for your hotel room. It’s because I’d return owning half of Aruba, and we all know it.
As much as my son-in-law’s offer was tempting, I decided to go it alone. Maybe it was a healthy resistance to giving up any of my independence. Maybe it was pure hubris. Anyway, I gave myself a little pep talk in the parking lot and hoped my lips weren’t moving.
The windows of the Verizon store were darkened, but the store was definitely open. I imagined the clerks, probably called Associates or Social Media Specialists. Inside, they’re sizing us up as we approach: “Oh, boy, here comes one who remembers Thin Elvis. Jason, this one is yours. You’re good with the old ladies.” Or something like that.
I was immediately at ease when a middle-aged woman greeted me and took my information. She was even a little chubby in her mom jeans, which I appreciated. Then I took a seat and waited until “my associate” came to help me. He arrived soon, calling out my name in a chirpy, “This will be fun!” voice.
He was 13.
I’m clear on my phone needs, and I want Jason to hear me before puberty sets in and distracts him: I only need a phone with a good camera so I can send pictures of my grandchildren to Facebook, Instagram, and friends, who will sigh kindly when they see the message is from me. I do not actually talk on this phone. I don’t need to play music, or watch Game of Thrones, or get the latest updates on Kylie Jenner, or any of the other stuff phones do these days. I’m aware my voice is too loud and a full octave higher than usual, but I forge ahead.
Jason is a nice boy. As he talks and I have little idea what he’s saying, I keep thinking that his parents did a good job raising him. He only pisses me off once, when he casually tells me to get “the young people” in my family to help me figure out my new purchase, which of course is exactly what I’ll do later that afternoon. He also keeps telling me that mine is a basic model with no bells and whistles. I hear a lot about the bells and whistles of other models during our time together, and I know he is hoping he can sell me the iPhone that most kids in 6th grade now have. No dice, Jason.
In the end, I left the store with a phone that didn’t break the bank, one which I’m hoping to fully understand before 2020.
I try not to do this much, but driving home I kept thinking of how exciting phone calls were once. How the phone would ring downstairs and I’d hear my dad answer and say, “Just a minute please,” and he’d come to the bottom of the stairs and in his deep voice, say: “Linda, it’s for you. It’s a boy.”
I feel good about my new phone. When I get a call or a text now, it makes an adorable little *bing*. It will never take the place of that ring you could hear from every room in the house, or my dad’s soothing voice calling to me, or the excitement of racing down the stairs, not knowing who was on the other end but that it was someone who’d gone to all the trouble of looking up my number and dialing.
Moving on. Growing up. As it should be. I keep telling myself that.
It happens every Friday between 9 and 10 AM. And if I sigh a little, I try to remember where I came from. Another time.
In this class at a Children’s Fitness Center, my grandson is one of about 15 kids. They’re three years old, so it’s dicey even on a good day.
My takeaway is simple: How much childhood has changed since 1950 when my mother said to my father, “The rabbit died.” (Anyone who doesn’t get that reference should probably stop reading now.)
When I was a kid, my mother slapped cream cheese and jelly on white bread and called it lunch. The very term “children’s fitness center” would have made no sense. Trophies were reserved for our fathers’ bowling leagues. We sat underneath our desks with legs crossed (yes, we called it “Indian style” to further date myself) bent forward with our hands behind our necks, looking like little pretzels but somehow ready for an atomic bomb attack. Not a whole lot of negotiation with the adult world went on. In fact, none.
So, really, I understand my place in history.
Because these thoughts make me feel 100 years old, I try to concentrate on the class and how much fun my grandson is having. But I’m so often distracted by how much control kids wield these days . . . just by being kids.
Two instructors keep this hour-long session moving with lots of smiles and boundless energy. When they can, they guide the caregivers (moms, dads, nannies, and grandparents, like me) in the direction they want it all to go. When this becomes a fruitless endeavor, they keep smiling, which is a mystery to me.
Most of the class is open ended, with kids free to run and climb on whatever appeals to them. Twice ─ at the opening and closing of class ─ children and adults are asked to sit in a circle and listen and follow in a directed activity. And here’s where it all starts to break down.
When the teacher says, “Okay, everyone move to the circle for Circle Time,” one parent hears this instead: “Not your child, of course. She should keep jumping on the trampoline and filling the room with her lusty version of the theme from Dora.”
Two other children simply refuse to stop what they’re doing, citing ─ in their sweet childhood equivalent ─ that it’s just not convenient right now. I resist my urge to act like an old sheep dog and nudge them (and their parents) back to the circle where I think they belong.
Really, I’m on your side, parents, and I spend most of this class rooting for you. I was in the trenches once, too. My firstborn at this age was a force to be reckoned with. At my first preschool parent conference, his teacher used the word intense so often to describe my son that I’m sure that record still stands.
I get it. Your child is feisty. Bold. Advanced. Challenging. But someday she will walk out your front door to coexist in the world that doesn’t love her. Someday she’ll have to face the truth that she is not the center of the universe. Maybe you could start that lesson here so she won’t be so shocked when the real world comes calling.
Here’s where I’m always tempted to say, “I can help you. I have some ideas about parenting that might save you some trouble down the line.” I don’t do that, of course, but it doesn’t stop me from practicing, just in case.
So, to the mom who watches her child cut the line at the balance beam and then turns to me and says with a collegial wink, “Ugh! It’s just so hard for kids to understand how to take turns!” I say: Precisely. Which is why they usually travel with an adult.
To the dad in the red sweater: I know you think it’s okay that your son keeps climbing back up the slide while other kids wait at the top for their turns. It’s not. And you may think he’s showing leadership skills (yes, you have told me he is a leader). He’s not. There is no way Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Bono got started like this. I can personally guarantee this.
Class is almost over, and it’s circle time again. I’m next to Mother of the Girl in Frilly Tights. Her daughter is standing in front of all the other toddlers who are trying to watch the puppet show. The children seated behind her are squirming and craning to see what’s going on.
I know the teacher will give it a few beats, hoping the mother will step in. I can almost feel the instructor silently counting to 10, still smiling, hoping. Then the teacher gently assists the little girl’s butt onto the carpet.
Maybe next Friday.
First, an admission: I’ve been spending hours studying videos of Donald Trump rallies and interviews, but it has little to do with politics. I’ve become obsessed with trying to figure out the man behind the mask, by watching his body language and listening to his phrasing. I’ve read anything I can get my hands on about his early family life, keeping my eye out for the clues that could lead someone to end up so totally bombastic. I may have found one.
I read recently that Donald’s father had a salient theme when it came to rearing his kids. Apparently, he pounded it into his children that the worst thing in the world that could happen to them was to end up “a nobody.”
I don’t want to be too hard on Old Fred Trump, who’s been dead for almost twenty years. After all, he wasn’t alone in forming his son. Donald had a mother and extended family and a neighborhood that all had a hand in mixing up the nurture/nature equation that begat The Donald.
But if “Don’t end up a nobody” was the single loudest refrain of Donald’s childhood, that’s a fascinating thing to teach a child. If you follow that directive, it means you have to do everything you can to stand out. To win. Never to stop swinging for the fences. Never to say “I’m sorry,” or “I made a mistake.” Never to stop selling yourself. If nothing else, it sounds exhausting.
But, of course, there is something else. Donald and I are roughly the same age, that age when simple math lets you know you have a lot more years behind you than you do ahead of you. I don’t know about him, but I find myself taking stock more often, sifting through what’s really important and what I no longer have time to worry about. And often I think about a clarifying life-moment I had in a Buffalo high school auditorium thirty years ago with my friend JoAnne.
We had tickets to a lecture by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the famous psychiatrist who studied death and dying as her life’s work. I’m not sure why we felt compelled to hear her talk about a topic that was — back then — so removed from us. Our children were quite young; all four of our parents were vital and healthy. Death wasn’t exactly on our agenda.
Kübler-Ross was in her late fifties then and the leading expert in the field. She talked for a bit about the phenomena most common to dying people. I thought it was all interesting. Not life changing.
But then she said this: By now, I have sat and talked with tens of thousands of people who knew they were dying. Never, in those many, many conversations, have I ever heard someone say, “I wish I’d had more money. Or a bigger house. Or better jewelry.” She paused. Never once. But too many times I hear them wonder why their children don’t visit, why they have been left alone.
By Trump standards, my own father was a nobody. Beyond our family, our neighborhood, and the people he worked with at Grumman for 40 years, no one ever heard of him. He read books but never wrote one. He earned a salary that afforded us a summer vacation every year, and that was a big deal. He was a company man, a good provider, a faithful husband.
Contrary to the axiom, he did suffer fools gladly and still walked away from those conversations with a smile, never needing to prove himself or tout his accomplishments. The most critical he ever got was his absolute insistence that even an expensive toupee never tricked anyone, a comment launched as a quiet aside in the direction of a man who was sure he was deceiving the universe.
I suspect poor old Fred Trump might have been sorely disappointed in the man my father became.
My dad died at a ripe old age, peacefully, in his sleep. My memories of his wake a few days later are a jumble of greeting old friends and relatives and all of us laughing through tears at our stories about him.
One of the last moments of the evening came when I watched our Hamilton Avenue neighbors — three men who had seen my brothers and me grow up, three men who never knocked but just walked in and out of our house for decades the way characters in 1950s sitcoms reruns do. At the coffin, they put their arms around each other and looked down at my dad and said their goodbyes. One of them was retired NYPD. One was retired FDNY. My whole life, they were tough guys who everyone counted on, who never cried.
They cried that evening. A lovely, silent ovation to a man who was a nobody. An act, I’m guessing, that would have had Fred Trump scratching his head. An act, I’m thinking, that would have evoked nothing more than a disinterested glance from his sad, sad son, who could not begin to get what all the fuss was about.
On April 16, 2007, my son called me at work to tell me there had been a shooting on the Virginia Tech campus where he was a graduate student. He was at his apartment — safe — and he wanted me to know that before the news came across the Internet. I asked about his girlfriend. “She’s fine, too,” he told me. They were the only two people in the world I knew in Blacksburg.
I am not proud of what I did next. I took a breath. And I was thankful.
For a long time, I let myself off the hook about that. It was human nature. It was what we do in the face of imminent danger to those we love.
But this crazy summer, I no longer give myself a pass. I think my reaction is the worst thing about us.
This summer we’re spending a lot of time talk about our “tribes.” We’re fond of that term. It makes us sound loving, collegial, connected. But increasingly it’s nothing more than code — for the people who look like us and agree with us. The ones on our side.
We’re getting too good at boxing ourselves into social media corners, where we scream about who is right or wrong. Or which lives matter. Or where all the fault lies. We search out the perfect meme that makes our point in the snarkiest or cruelest way, and hit keys that launch it out there to do our speaking for us. We can’t wait to tell people in other “tribes” all the reasons they are wrong.
Because this summer is crazy, I’m resisting that though I’m not always successful. One refuge is that I’m having long email chats with a friend from high school. We mention kids and grandchildren, but it’s mostly politics with us, as it has been since we were in high school. He is a judge and a staunch conservative. I am not.
He promises he won’t quote Milton Friedman, but I can tell he wants to, and he makes me smile as I read. We have been diametrically opposed in every political point that has ever crossed our paths since we met in 1966. And though we went years with no contact while our lives got busy, for fifty years I’ve loved this man, and I know he has loved me. And we’ve done it from across the aisle.
What his friendship brings me is the comforting truth that people who disagree with us are not automatically haters. Good citizens and decent human beings can be on the other side of most arguments though that’s hard to see this summer. And those memes — easy to reach for — only contain a lick of truth half the time anyway.
So I’m searching for moments of clarity these days wherever I can find them. In the library last week, as I walked through the automatic doors and into the lobby, one was waiting. I noticed an old woman leaning against the wall, probably waiting for her ride to pull up. She could have been 85. She could have been 105. She was clearly working hard, using her cane just to stay propped up.
Just at that moment, a librarian left her post behind the counter and was dragging a chair over so the woman could sit. I watched as she gently got her comfortable for her wait.
There was nothing about these two women that signaled they might be part of the same “tribe.” Not their age. Not their race. Not any physical or socioeconomic attribute I could see. For all I know, they’ll get to the voting booth on November 8th and go in opposing directions. It was simply one pure act of kindness, unheralded and often missing in this crazy summer of ours.
And I’m holding it close. Because that’s the best thing about us.