Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

He’s a Keeper

I married a man who does not throw away anything. I suspect that may be part of the reason we recently celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. He can’t bear to get rid of anything so I feel pretty secure that he’s going to keep me around—along with his spiral-bound notes from high school, the hockey trophy he got when he was 6, and the mounted-on-shellacked-wood-in-the-shape-of-Missouri awards from Boys State in the late 1980s.

If we had fewer kids, and therefore more spare room, we could dedicate our whole basement as a museum of his childhood. There is a poster-sized, framed print of his wrestling match at the 1986 state championship. He has his letter jacket, horse show costumes, old hockey skates and sticks, report cards, and embroidered jackets. That’s just high school.

From college he has fraternity jerseys, innumerable party pics, more spiral-bound notes, a wool blanket he picked up in Mexico, and the softball from an intramural championship. It was at about this point in his lifetime of collecting stuff that I met him. Fell in love with him. Married him. Moved across the country with him. Looked around and said, “My gosh, you have a lot of stuff!”

It’s been a battle all of these years, I have to tell you. Not necessarily because I begrudge him his memories. But because few things in life make me happier than tossing out stuff. My stuff. His stuff. Your stuff. It doesn’t really matter. If it will fit in a Hefty bag and clears a spot on my counter/floor/shelf/drawer, I get a rush. I positively love trash day. My husband grumbles if we put out more than one can of weekly garbage. We are a family of eight people and four pets, I remind him. He looks at me as if I’ve suggested stuffing one of the kids or our spare parakeet into the trash. I just shake my head at him and go inside, where I may or may not fill another bag and stash it on the curb in between the time he leaves for work and the garbage truck arrives.

If there’s one thing a long marriage teaches you it’s that what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

Because we moved 10 times in 21 years we remained intimately aware of all the stuff we owned. If you have to touch it on one end of a move and unpack it on the other end, it’s hard to deny that so much of it exists. Over the years the man mellowed a little bit and let me whittle away at his memorabilia and weird attachments. He has inched his way ever-so-slightly to my dark side. Yet we still found it necessary to rent a storage unit when we moved back from overseas in 2006. Here it is, seven years later, and those folks love us since we pay faithfully every month to store our stuff. In their space. At our expense. I absolutely do not understand why we do this, but, because I love my husband, I put up with it and write the check.

And, because he loves me, he finally got around to building a storage shed in our own backyard. It was intended to be a pretty little shed to store the, you know, stuff. It has become a custom-built kind of carriage house with window boxes, an old door, and a pitched roof. It’s not even quite finished but it makes me happy every single time I look out my back window. Before long the final trim will be nailed and we will begin moving our stuff from its sad and lonely storage unit to the beautiful place this keeper of mine has created for it.

After all these years it seems to be a win-win. He keeps his stuff, I have a beautiful view. However, if you should spy me sneaking out an extra bag early on a Monday morning, just keep it to yourself. Like I said, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

Labor of love.
Whether it's love of his wife or his stuff doesn't really matter in the end, right?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

But Do You Remember September 12?

Naturally I remember where I was when my bathrobed neighbor stepped out and exclaimed, "A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!"  I was busy buckling my toddler into his car seat, having just seen my two daughters off to elementary school, and I thought -- like so many others -- it was just a terrible accident. And, like so many others, as the reality continued to reveal itself, my day unfolded in stress and panic and fear. It was horrific in every way to watch the footage. It was scary to be living on a military installation that immediately locked its gates tight. The fear that the sky was truly falling felt almost tangible.

Late that night... After I had gathered our children and tucked them safely into bed. After my Soldier dragged home long after dark with heavy eyes and a heavy heart. After we had sought news of those we knew working at the Pentagon and in New York. After we had watched over and over the collapse of the towers where we'd stood atop the observation deck less than a year prior. After we finally turned off the light and tried to sleep. After it all, I wondered what tomorrow would bring.

I would not have guessed that it would bring humor. And life. And joy.

It began with a 5:00 a.m. phone call from the new sergeant with the pregnant wife. We'd met them just weeks earlier and, as military people do, we offered to watch their five older children when the time came for the baby to be born. That sweet infant, oblivious to the tragedy, decided to make his debut in the early hours of September 12.

"Of course," I said. "I'll be right over to get the kids. Do not worry."

School was cancelled on military installations. If memory serves me correctly, most offices and services were also closed as the Army fought to react quickly to an emergency with unknown parameters. "Thank goodness I stocked up on groceries two days ago," I thought as I loaded five extra kids into my van in the early morning light.


Only 12 years ago. Our JAG family at Fort Leonard Wood.
All Soldiers were on high alert so my husband was gone at dawn to his office. As I was settling the extra kids into our little set of quarters and wondering what to do all day, the doorbell rang. Our neighbor stood in his uniform with his two small sons.

"No one can get through the gate so I've been called in to work the pharmacy," he explained. He was supposed to be on leave as his wife was in the hospital with a kidney infection.

"Of course I'll watch the boys," I said. "Neither of you need to worry. Go do what you need to do."

So while the world was glued to the news stations trying to work out what had happened and what it meant, I pulled out VHS tapes of Nick Jr. and found juice cups for ten children. I have strong feelings about exposing children to adult horrors so there was no way we were going to watch any of the coverage. We were, instead, going to get on with the business of being kids.

We used an entire loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter to make a picnic lunch. We walked in a single-file line like ducklings to the neighborhood park and played. Hard. The higher the swings went, the harder they laughed. The sillier I made the Follow-the-Leader game, the more hilarious they thought it was. We guessed when the baby might be born and thought of funny names for him. When we were exhausted, we strolled home, spread out bean bags and blankets, and passed the popcorn while we watched "Mary Poppins".

Though the sun shone bright and the children were good company, I fought tears all day long. None of us adults knew then what September 11 was going to mean, but those of us in the Army knew it would mean a swift and harsh change for us. My phone rang. We traded information about Soldiers we knew who worked at the Pentagon. We worried together about going to war. We knew it was coming. We were overcome with the emotion of patriotism just like everyone else as we watched the flags unfurl all over this country. We all felt the intense togetherness. And we all felt the fear.

I look back with affectionate appreciation on those ten kids who kept me company on September 12, 2001. They forced me away from the television and into the sunshine, ensured that I would laugh when I wanted to cry, and showed me that love and life and joy could not be hidden, even by the cloud of ashes that was blowing.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen

As a blogger, I find it fascinating to see what goes viral and how people react. I read the FYI (if you're a teenage girl) blog that exploded all over Facebook this week and had two immediate thoughts:

1. Right on! (I even shared it.)
2. What about the boys? (Which prompted this post.)

When I scrolled down to read the comments on the original blog post, I found that I was far from alone.

One of the comments questioned why we are preaching to our girls to cover up when we should be preaching to our boys, "Son, don't be a creeper." Bingo. On both messages.

Other comments questioned the wisdom (hypocrisy?) of illustrating the blog with photos of the author's shirtless-with-muscles-glistening teenage sons. I get it. Boys are free to go topless. Girls are not. Boys are known to be more visually stimulated than girls. (But have you talked to a group of teenage girls lately?) Nevertheless, bathing suit pictures are not exactly the most modest way to illustrate a point about modesty.

I suspect the author was trying to say more about honor and virtue than about defining modesty.

I feel a little bit sorry for our children who are growing up in a time when their entire lives are liable to be broadcast and archived for the entire world to see. Would you want to meet your teenage self again today via the internet? I enjoy Throw Back Thursday as much as anyone, but I'm awfully glad most of my teenage self is packed away with the yearbooks and letter jackets in my garage.

A college date. Years later this boy (whom I married)
told me he was shocked I was wearing a strapless dress
since "nice girls in the Midwest never went strapless."
True story!

When we were kids, we said and did some stupid things (can I get an "Amen", Class of '86?). But our biggest worry was only that someone might see the handwritten note, find the burn book, overhear the comment, or tattle if we were caught somewhere we weren't supposed to be. Even if horrifically not-thought-through, in the end what was done was done and we could apologize if necessary and move on.

Our children's really bad judgment calls could possibly be on display forever. And ever. Gulp.

It's hard to parent that. Things change so quickly that we are trying to lead a child down a path while essentially feeling our way along in the dark. How the heck are we supposed to know how high our social media standard should be? And don't we all realize that our parenting is judged by what pops up on the screens of our children at any given moment?

You don't get off free if you ban your kid from Facebook et al. I can think of several instances in the last year when kids I know without accounts were tagged in photos. Photos of places and things they might not want the world to see. Another kid I know (and liked a lot) tumbled from my high estimation when I came across his Twitter feed and was dumbfounded by what he thought was funny enough to RT. It made me...sad.

As with every other aspect of parenting, I wish I could protect my kids from all harm. But as I am stumbling blindly just like so many others, here's all I've got for both my daughters and my sons:

1. Never ever post a photo that you would be ashamed to show your grandmother.
2. Don't be a creeper.
3. When in doubt, delete.
4. No one is joking when they tell you that potential colleges, employers and mothers-in-law will search for you online to determine what kind of person you really are. Make sure what they find is the truth.
5. Whether you are online or in real life, our standard is simple: behave like ladies and gentlemen.

Do you need a good definition of a gentleman/lady? The best I've ever heard is that which my husband has memorized and loves to quote from John Walter Wayland in 1899. It ends with this:

"...a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe."

Is it too much to ask?