Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Endurance

August 24-25

I wanted to run the 440, but my ninth grade track coach rightly judged that I was too slow for a race that was essentially a one lap sprint.  I didn’t have a fast twitch muscle in my body, and my flat feet produced a lot of drag.  He pegged me for the 880, two laps around the track.  In my early races I gave in to adrenaline bursts during the first three hundred yards, and started out way too fast. By the time I hit the halfway mark in the second lap I usually had nothing left in the tank.  I eventually figured out that placing in a race was a matter of accepting my limitations and level of endurance, of initially holding down my pace so that I could finish with a kick.

Tonight I sat in my driveway, smoked a cigar and drank about an inch of bourbon from a mug.  It’s wise to take an easy pace when smoking a stogie and drinking booze, and I stretched my performance to an hour and fifteen minutes.  While I sat and puffed and sipped, I realized that any success in my professional life came down to endurance.

When I paint a painting I take my time as I know that I’m not a sprinter when it comes to making art.  I have to contemplate, redirect, and rethink my way through the creative process.  When I teach I have to get to know my students and adjust my approach accordingly.  Some students resist instruction and require dogged persistence (I repeat, come at them again from another angle, persuade and encourage until something good starts to happen.).  Some need to left alone until they’re ready to hear what I have to say.  My attitude, which I have to maintain through four months, has to be one of persistently renewed good will.

The rewarding things in my personal life also benefitted from accepting the requirements of endurance.  I am not a naturally kind and patient man, and I married a sweet woman who, for some unknown reason, believed in me.  We’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today because she persisted in her faith in me, and because I’ve attempted to live up to her expectations.  I still fail often, but realize that continual effort to return her kindness is the only true gift I can give her.

Parenting is nothing but an exercise in persistence.  Each child comes with unique personality traits that must be shunted into positive forms.  “Shunting” means patiently redirecting behavior until they become functional human beings.  (The real trick is to do this without squashing a child’s innate qualities.)  It takes endurance to be a shepherd, to be a patient guide for 18 or 20 years.

Now that I’m approaching sixty, I’m starting to see that the end years require even more patience.  As my joints creak and my energy wanes, it takes more effort to get through a week of cares and duties.  I may have another twenty years on this planet, and each one will most likely bring new challenges that I will face with diminishing capabilities.  I hope I have the endurance to run my race to the end with a semblance of dignity and decency.  I don’t want to face my last hours and minutes recounting all the times I could have done things better if I’d only had another ounce of kindness, if I’d only persisted in trying just a bit longer.

Wedding Bells and Christmas

dsc_0094-2Alan and Amy

My son married his high school and college sweetheart three days ago.  They have known each other since they were four or five, and played together when we visited with Amy’s parents.  Amy asked Alan out for a date when they were seniors in high school, and their romance continued long distance while Alan attended Rollins College in Winter Park and Amy went to FSU in Tallahassee.  About a year ago they became engaged, and three days after this Christmas they said their vows in the Rose Garden at Leu Gardens in Orlando.  This was a climax to a week of frenetic activity what with Christmas celebrations, the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, the wedding and reception.  My wife and I had guests and house guests from the 21st through the 30th: my brother and nephew drove down with their wives from Ohio for the wedding;  Judy’s brother Rick flew in from Colorado; and my daughter and her fiance’ and their two dogs drove to town for Christmas and the wedding.

Judy and I lead a very quiet existence, and the sudden bombardment of social activities was quite a break from our usual routine.  Our soon-to-be grand dogs added a lot of welcome noise and commotion to Christmas Eve and Day, and I found it comforting to watch them curl up around folks and fall asleep on a sofa when they finally wore themselves out.

dsc_0066Annie and Shakespeare

Now the newlyweds are off on their honeymoon.  Our daughter and fiance’ have returned to Miami with dogs in tow, and my brother and his wife are on the road back to Ohio.  Rick flew out yesterday, and we spent today cleaning up and reorganizing the house.  The normal business of life presses in and demands our attention once again, and it’s fortunate that we are busy.  If we’re quiet and idle we notice the echoes in the house.  And the sudden absence of loved ones makes our rooms appear too large for our needs.

Judy and I discussed taking down the Christmas tree this afternoon.  I’m usually impatient to get back to my customary rounds after a prolonged break and to banish Christmas until its due time in the coming year. But I told her that I wouldn’t mind waiting a few more days.  I want to savor this holiday season a little longer.

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A Perfect Day: Vestibule of Heaven

Folks who have returned to this world after a near death experience often report that they were given a taste of heaven.  Some say that it featured beautiful gardens, celestial music, mild weather and a landscape backdrop of Alpine meadows framed by snow covered mountains.  They were given a glimpse of a perfect day.

My perfect day would be a bit different.  I would wake up on a Saturday morning with my wife Judy beside me in bed.  We would both have our twenty something bodies and sharpness of intellect, but would be as emotionally mature as we are now (late fifties, early sixties).  Sunlight streaming through partially open blinds would wake us, but we would linger in comfort and warmth beneath our blanket.  She would stretch and yawn, roll over and give me a hug and a kiss (neither of us suffering from morning breath), and we would chat for a while and plan our day.

Breakfast would be pancakes topped with strawberries and whipped cream.  Judy would sip on a cup of mint tea, and I’d have strong coffee with sugar and cream.  Pages from a newspaper would be passed back and forth, and the stories would be about new discoveries in science and would be reviews of wonderful books and beautiful art exhibitions.  News items about political, religious and economic strife would not exist as folks throughout would have finally come to the realization that no one benefits if someone suffers.

After breakfast we would do a few light chores, then go out to a nearby park to go hiking.  Judy took me to Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania when we were first married, and I’d like to return to its paths and climb upward through forests of pine, maple and oak and past stands of flowering rhododendrons.  Near the top we would walk out onto a broad ledge and look at hawks soaring in slow spirals on thermals above a checkerboard countryside of farms, forests and small towns.

After our hike we would stop off, magically of course in this version of heaven, at Junior’s Diner in Orlando.  I would order a cheeseburger, fries, cole slaw and more coffee, and Judy and I would split a hot piece of apple strudel for dessert.

It would rain on the way back home, and we would get sopping wet.  After hot showers and a change into dry clothes we would nestle together on a comfortable sofa and watch a Cary Grant and Jean Arthur movie.  We might fall asleep and take a nap before getting up to make a salad, grill salmon, and toast garlic bread.

After supper we would take a walk in our neighborhood and visit with our loved ones as we strolled from house to house.  We would sit in my grandparents’ side yard beneath a lilac bush and watch the fireflies come out.  A few rabbits would make a timid entrance near sunset and munch on clover, and Grandpa would tell me stories once again about what it was like to grow up in Dayton in the early 1900s when delivery wagons were still pulled by horses and the Wright Brothers could be seen flying new biplanes over the town.

When we return home our children would be waiting for us on our front porch with their children and spouses in tow, and we would go inside and make popcorn.  The grandkids play on our carpet while we grown ups discuss work and the weather.  When Judy and I get sleepy our guests take their leave after promising to return soon.

As we lie in bed Judy and I talk about how we met and when we knew that we were in love.  We might recall a few hard times, but would look at them from the reassuring perspective that we had weathered many storms together and that things had eventually turned out all right.  The last thing I’d hear before drifting off would be the sound of Judy’s breath slowing down and taking on a steady rhythm as she falls asleep beside me.

*After rereading this a few times I realized that many elements of my perfect day were a close match to what Judy liked to do when we were in our late twenties and early thirties.  As time goes on our tastes and preferences have grown closer.  When I was a younger man I would have changed the hike into a baseball game, the simple meal at the diner into a lobster fest, and the movie into The Godfather.  What can I say?  Judy won me over, and I don’t care. 

 

Little Kid Surprises

In 1998 I stumbled into a part time job teaching art ed at a charter school in Micanopy, Florida.  I taught kindergarten, first and second grade students to use their imaginations while painting, drawing, and making rudimentary prints and collages.  I don’t remember many of the lessons that I taught, but I do recall the many times my kids surprised me.  What I learned was that each one of them was very aware and thoughtful, that they were busy soaking in impressions and information from the environment around  them, and that they understood much more about their lives than I would have expected.

Ronny was undersized for a kindergartner.   The staff wondered whether his mother had lied about his age when she enrolled him in school.  He had the cherubic face of an innocent young child but showed a precocious curiosity about the opposite sex.  When a girl got permission to go to the bathroom I had to keep an eye on him.  If I didn’t he would follow them into the restroom in hopes, perhaps, of seeing something unusual.  He also liked to defy me in little ways to test my reaction.  If I told everyone to get up off the carpet and find a seat at a table he would put his hands on his hips and give me a challenging look.  If he refused to comply I simply picked him up, tucked him under one arm, and hauled him to a chair.  He didn’t mind.  I got the impression that he liked the attention.

James did damage.  He would watch me carefully, and the moment I was distracted he would drift off to the side and break a piece of equipment or hurt another boy.  When I located him again he would be slowly walking away from a collapsed painting rack or a boy who was doubled over in pain.  One day we had a fire drill, and he intentionally lagged behind everyone.  I put a two fingers on his shoulder and gave him a gentle push forward.  He flopped on the ground, pointed at me and cried out in fake pain.  None of the other teachers bought his act, and no one accused me of hitting him.  One of the aides had noted his penchant for trickery and sadism and predicted a future in crime for the him.  One day his father came in for a visit, and all the teachers cringed.  We were used to having parents blame us for the bad behavior of their children.  (One mother had even defended her little boy after he attempted to bite a teacher.)  James’ Dad told us that his son was reacting badly to his parents’ recent divorce, and that he was aware that his son was acting up at school.  He apologized for James and promised to take him in hand.  He was as good as his word, and James calmed down considerably and began to make good progress.  He gradually became a much more motivated kid who no longer attempted to make the rest of the world as miserable as he was.

Shandra transferred to Micanopy about half way through the year.  We heard that the school she had formerly attended had been rough, and that her parents wanted to give her a better chance of getting a good education by moving her to Micanopy.  The first day I had her in class she stirred up a minor ruckus.  Jim came up to me and showed me a cut on his palm.  He said that Shandra had stabbed him with a pair of blunt scissors.  I asked her if she had done that, and she said, “He ain’t hurt.  He ain’t bleeding.”  I told her that she couldn’t stab other students or hurt them in any way.  She stuck out her lip and glared at me.  I told her that everyone in class had a pair of scissors, and that she didn’t have fight to get her share of supplies.  Her shoulders dropped and her expression changed.  She learned eventually that the art room was a safe place and began to enjoy the class.  She became very frank and open with me as the year went on, and once explained to me why she had an urgent need to use the bathroom.  She said, “My butt itches and I have to scratch it.”  I stood aside and waved my arm toward the bathroom door in silent acknowledgment that having an itchy butt was a very good restroom excuse.  I reminded her to wash her hands before she came back.

Mary’s social life was a concern of mine.  She walked up to me one morning and demanded that I take action as her advocate.  Rachel had promised to sit next to her while they painted, and now she was sitting by Charlotte instead.  Mary insisted that it was my job to make Rachel sit beside her and didn’t accept my explanation that mandated seating arrangements weren’t in my lesson plan.  According to her the world had to be fair and true, and everyone had to honor prior agreements.  And she was determined and sure that it was my solemn duty to make it so.

Abdul would look up at me with adoration at random moments, would throw his arms around my hips and give me a big hug.  I couldn’t figure out what came over him as I had not done anything extraordinary to earn that much affection.  But I would give him a pat on the head and wait for him to release me.  He seemed to become overwhelmed at times by a wave of love that needed immediate expression.

Some of the kids felt that my marriage vows were not that important.  One boy in first grade gave me his mother’s phone number when he came by my table at a school festival.  He  said, “You really should call this number,” as Mom stood a few feet behind him and blushed.  She seemed oddly willing to entertain the possibility of a relationship of some sort, and I hemmed and hawed until I managed to thank him for the number and to say that I would take his advice into account.  The children called me Mr. Dennis or Mr. D., and another teacher named Derry was called Mrs. D.  She was divorced, and we were on friendly but professional terms.  One day a group of children began to point at Mr. and Mrs. D as we did our playground duty, and they suggested that the two of us make the obvious move of getting married.  Then we would become a unit:  Mr. and Mrs. D.  I was embarrassed once again, but Derry gave me a strange look that definitely was not an outright dismissal of the idea.  Who knew that tentative opportunities for infidelity could be brokered by little kids?

A first grade girl named Sharon sat down at my table at the same festival where I had been given a mother’s phone number.  We weren’t in class and felt relaxed with each others’ company, and she began to tell me about her life.  Her mother was a single mom who worked at a local motel out by Interstate 95.  She worked double shifts some days as a maid and was often away from home.  Sharon told me that she couldn’t stay long at the festival because of her Mom’s schedule, and that she was lonely.  She looked down at the ground.  Her speech was simple and direct, and it eloquently told me that she was a very sad little girl who was looking for more love and attention.  She had appeared to me before that to be a dull, callous child.  But I learned during our five minute conversation that she was a sensitive person who saw her world without any illusions:  life was hard and showed no signs of getting better.  She accepted this with philosophical detachment, but seemed relieved that she could tell someone how she felt.

I decided after my year at Micanopy to give up my ambition of becoming an elementary school teacher.  I realized that I was much better suited for dealing with adults, and that the strain of learning how to react calmly to the irrational and unpredictable behavior of little kids was a bit too much for me.  But I knew that my year’s glimpse of teaching them had been a gift, and that each child I met was precious and had the potential to do wonderful things with his or her life.

 

 

 

 

House Husbands Anonymous

Alan lay in his crib napping, and Annie played with her dolls in her nest of toys, stuffed animals and books beside the sofa.  I sat down for a minute to relax before starting supper.

“Hello.  My name is Dennis.”

“Hello, Dennis.”

“I’m a househusband.  It’s been two weeks since an old lady walked up to me while I tended my children.  Alan was in the stroller and Annie held my hand.  We stood outside on the sidewalk in front of the administration building and…and…”

“Take a deep breath and relax, Dennis.  Tell us what happened.”

“Okay, okay.  This old lady came up to me with this nasty grin on her face.  Alan was crying–he was hot and tired–and Annie was tugging on my hand, whining.  My wife, Judy, had a meeting with the dean of faculty.  She told me that it would only take a few minutes, and Annie kept asking me where Mom was when we had been standing there fifteen minutes.”

“And the old lady said something to you, Dennis?”

“Yes. Yes.  She asked me if I was babysitting my kids that day.”

“No!  She said that?!  What did you say?”

“I told her that I was their father, not their babysitter.”

“Did she give you that blank look?”

“Yeah–the one where they can’t figure out how a father could be a caregiver.  But the worst thing was her attitude of contempt.  She looked at me as if she enjoyed the trouble I was having with my children.  She relished seeing a man in a difficult situation with kids.  It was as if she were taking vengeance for all the women who had ever suffered as mothers.”

“You’re a bright guy, Dennis.  Did you really expect some kind of praise from her?”

“No.  I’ve had other experiences like this before and I could tell by her attitude as she approached us that she had nothing good to say.  But it made me so mad, so mad that–“

“Walk it off, walk it off, Dennis…Okay.  Why were you so mad?”

“When am I going to get some credit?  My wife is the only woman who appreciates what I’m doing.  She gets to have a career while I change diapers, wipe noses, mop floors and read ‘The Cat in the Hat’ for the umpteenth time.  All these women, strangers who know nothing about me, stare at me in the park and at the grocery store as if I’m some kind of freak!”

“You’re not a freak.  What about the men, Dennis?  How do they react?”

“They act like I have a disease they’d rather not catch.  Their wives nudge them and whisper, ‘He helps out with the kids–why can’t you?’  That’s when they start to hate me.”

“The men?”

“Yeah, the men.  I try to talk to them about sports and fishing, but they just turn away.”

“Do you want their approval?”

“No.  I just want to talk to an adult.  Judy’s too tired when she gets home from work, and the kids cling to her as soon as she walks in the door.  I guess I just feel lonely.”

“Are there other parents at home during the day in your neighborhood?  Could you arrange a play date and sit and have a cup of coffee with them?”

“There’s a mother down the block from us.  She’s friendly when I see her in her yard but would never have me and the kids over.”

“Why not?”

“The neighbors:  she’s afraid that people will talk.”

“Even if you visit with your kids in tow?”

“Even if…If I didn’t have you guys to talk to I would be totally screwed.”

“We’re here for you, buddy.  We’ve all been there.”

Annie tugged my sleeve and said, “Daddy?  Are you asleep?”

I shook my head to wake up as she climbed up into my lap.  She held up her Barbie and handed me a pair of tiny black tights.  Barbie wanted to change her outfit.  I struggled to open a tiny snap on the doll’s cargo shorts (Safari Barbie!), and couldn’t seem to get the tights up over her plastic hips.  Had Barbie been indulging in late night snacks?  Just as I thought that the seams would rip the cloth slid the final quarter inch–mission accomplished.

Annie wiggled down and scooted off to the kids’ bedroom.  She came running back and said, “Alan’s awake.”  She held her nose and said, ” I think he needs a diaper change!”

He did.  The load had a sticky, grainy texture, and I knew that no amount of baby wipes would completely clean it off.  I did the best I could with five wipes, and then hauled him off to the bathroom.  Fast running water and lots of soap did the trick.

I diapered him back in his crib.  He toddled after me to the carpeted playroom and began to stack and knock down towers of plastic blocks.  I got down on the rug beside him and handed back blocks that he had batted out of his reach.  Annie came into the room carrying a book about a lazy puppy.  I read it to her and Alan crawled into my lap and tried to turn the pages.

I had to get up and start supper and left them in the playroom.  I came back every five minutes or so to check on them and listened while chopping vegetables for the sounds of distress.

They were playing quietly together when I came back after getting supper prepped.  Alan was trying to pry a little teddy bear out of Annie’s hands, but Annie pulled away and set the bear on the futon by the window.

She asked, “Do you want the bear, Alan?”

He laughed and shuffled toward it, but Annie darted in at the last second and grabbed it up again.  “No, Alan,” she said.

Alan frowned at his sister.  That was a bad sign.  But Annie suddenly relented and said, “Here, Alan.  You can have it.”  She handed it over and Alan giggled with delight.  He stuck the head of the bear in his mouth, and drool ran down his chin and landed on his shirt stretched tight over his round belly.

The phone rang and Judy told me that she was coming home an hour late.  I sighed dramatically in hopes of making her feel guilty. 

The kids looked restless when I came back into the playroom once again.  I curled my fingers into claws and wiggled my digits at them.  I said, “My name is Chloe.  You wanna wrassle?”  Annie ran over and pulled on my belt.  I let her take me down to my knees.  Alan ran into me with a full head of steam and hit me in the back.  I fell on my side and Annie jumped on my ribs.  I pushed her off and rolled on my back just in time for Alan to fall on my stomach.  I said, “Ooof!”

We wrestled long enough for them to wear out.  I turned on Reading Rainbow and retreated to the kitchen to finish supper.  Judy came home and the kids swarmed her, and I sneaked away to the bedroom to be alone for a few minutes.

I must have drifted off as I lay on top of the bedspread.  I dreamed that I was back at the Househusbands Anonymous meeting.  We recited our creed:

  1. I cannot make my children stop crying when a toy breaks.
  2. I cannot make other people respect my choice to stay home with my children.
  3. I cannot always control my children’s poop.
  4. I cannot earn enough money to feel financial power.
  5. But I can love my children.
  6. I can love my wife.
  7. I can give my children all the patience and kindness at my command.
  8. When I lose my temper and am harsh and unjust I can apologize and make amends.
  9. The greatest gift I can give to my children is my time and attention.