My Mother the Superhero

Did you know that being a parent makes you kind of a superhero?

 It happened years ago. My mom was standing at the kitchen counter chopping vegetables with a large knife when she saw, out the front kitchen window, a sight that sent chills down her spine. Some little children from down the street were playing at the end of our driveway. They had some kind of mental disabilities and often played at our house, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the rocks, gravel and small stones raining down on them from across the street, where a teenage boy was lobbing them from behind a tree.

Instantly, my mom sprang into action. She raced out the front door without pulling off her apron or taking her hair out of its curlers. Across the street, her feet pounded the asphalt fiercely. She ran up the driveway and crunched acorns up to the front porch. The teenage boy had vanished into thin air, leaving his rocks encircling the handicapped kids like a moat.

My mom pushed the doorbell and rapped on the door at the same time. It took about five seconds for the door to open and the teenage boy’s mother to appear. I don’t know what my mother said, but I’m sure it was along the lines of “Your son is throwing rocks at innocent children” and said in the voice that I knew so well, the “You are in the wrong and I’m beyond reasoning with” voice. The whole time she was speaking, one of her arms was tucked behind her back. It wasn’t until she turned to leave that either of the women realized my mother was clutching a large, sharp kitchen knife in her hand. She had completely forgotten to put it down. 

Later, the neighbor told other neighbors that she had been scared. It wasn’t every day that she was threatened with a knife by one of her own neighbors.  I never knew this story until recently when I was home for Christmas, but I loved it when I heard it. My mother, the hero.

If you’re a parent, you know that this happens. You are just doing what you normally do, chopping vegetables, when all of a sudden you see a child in trouble. It might be your child or another child who is vulnerable and alone. And before you know it, your cape is on. You spring into action. You are rescuing a child in need. It might not even be a child. When I became a parent, it opened up a part of my heart that was previously hardened or just oblivious. I immediately began wanting to protect and defend the helpless. I think that being a parent makes you a hero in lots of little, run-across-the-street-with-a-knife ways. You are suddenly tuned in to a different frequency that only babies and dogs and maybe angels can hear.

 Later, when our kids get older, it will get more tricky. Because as parents, we shouldn’t always swoop in and save our children from every playground bully. Sometimes we have to stand back and let them struggle and fight their own fight. I know those days are coming. Right now, though, we can be heroes all we want. We can spend our days fighting bad guys, stuck zippers, parts of toys that won’t work, and tangled hair. We can zoom in and vanquish the monsters in the dark. We can quell injustice with a word or a look.

I love this quote about heroism from one of my favorite books, The Art of Family: Rituals, Imagination, and Everyday Spirituality. It really gets to the heart of why every parent is a hero.

 “…in loving your children, you are practicing the profoundest spirituality. In this you are heroic, and there are days when you know it. You know you’ve been stretched to the limit, faced insanity, wept in the closet, physically found an entirely new level of exhaustion. It’s called sacrifice. No one else, except maybe, maybe your partner, will ever know what you’ve done. No one else will ever guess how hard it has been. No one will thank you for it. Even when your children have their children, they will only vaguely realize what you’ve done—they will be too frantic caring for their own kids. Yet you do it. Now, that’s heroism.”

 

 

 

 

How (Not) to Take a Great Christmas Photo

I wanted to get a family photo—a professional one—taken while I was home for Christmas.

 A cousin photo, actually. I’m usually content to document my days with iPhone snaps, but Christmas is different. I wanted to keep my two children and my nephew forever the ages they are. Jack on the eve of his fourth birthday with long blond curls and energy that crackles out of him like lightning. Reese at 18 months all wiggly and chubby and pointing to demand the things she wants. My nephew, Solomon, shy and adorable with heart-melting dimples. So I found a portrait special at J.C. Penney and then, always one to pinch a penny, I thought, why can’t we do the photo ourselves? Dressing the kids in some cute clothes and doing a little research on Pinterest would be a great way to save money and have more control of the results.

 I told my sister-in-law Nicole about my idea and she agreed that her brother, who lives next door, could take the photos with a nice camera he has. I’m pretty sure she did not run this idea by him. Then she gamely offered to host the photo shoot at her and my brother’s place. Their bedroom is a beautiful, peaceful blue with black and silver trimmings and just the sort of place for a photo shoot. A white sheet made an improvisational backdrop. I looked up poses on the Internet. Done.

It was snowy, very snowy and icy as we loaded the kids in the car and trekked to Nicole’s house. Yes, they were already crying, but they would cheer up with a little bribery; I had a pocketful of suckers just for that purpose.

We tramped snow all over my sister-in-law’s carpet and then the kids proceeded to pull out every toy that my nephew had neatly stashed in the cubbies on the wall. Soon we could not take a step without fear of tripping. Erik and I sat on the deep beige couches and waited for Nicole’s brother to arrive and take control of the situation.

When he arrived, the brother looked quite unprepared for the sight that greeted him. He started setting up his camera in the bedroom, and we decided to have the three of them lie down on the bed, chins on folded hands, Reese in the middle, boy cousin on either side. Erik and my sister-in-law held up a sheet behind them. 

It may have been a split second that they all lay there in a row, or maybe a millisecond. Then just as the brother moved behind his camera, shrieks burst out of Reese like she had been poked with a pin. As if fired from a pair of cannons, Jack and Solomon’s bodies hurtled into the air and began bouncing off the sweet blue linen bedspread, limbs flailing and mouths wide open in exhilarated screams. Their closeness in age paid giant dividends in their ability to match bounce for bounce, scream for scream, as if they were doing a synchronized routine. I mean, put a kid on a bed and tell him not to jump! Jack did a backwards somersault off the bed and Solomon ricocheted off the headboard. Reese somehow got caught in between them and screamed bloody murder, her crumpled face covered in snot.

So we repositioned them. Lie still. Lie still. Just for a minute. Reese, smile! Jack, look at the camera! Solomon, move closer to Reese! Smile! Hey! Smile!

Jack and Solomon began wrestling like young lions. Even though they are cousins, they are still strangers. And the competition over who would dominate the middle of the bed became fierce. Not to be outdone, Reese slid off the bed and rushed toward the camera, sobbing, “All done!” Her hair, carefully pulled back with a purple rubber band, was sticking to her face in clumps. I pulled out the suckers: bait.

The adults then entered into a jerky sort of slow-motion dance, like life-size marionettes. Repositioning, beseeching, tugging, crawling on the ground. My brother came in and Nicole’s brother’s wife arrived, so there were six adults to three children, all of us equally useless. We waved toys. We sang songs. We clucked and clicked like idiots. A decorative Santa with a fat tush who gyrated along to “Jingle Bell Rock” worked for half a second. But even with all of us on tiptoe, shouting, gesticulating and cursing under our breath, the children still roiled across the bed like an ocean. 

In good faith the brother snapped frame after frame, hoping for just that one, but even after we took a 10-minute break and tried to line up the kids on the couch, propped on charming pillows, he shook his head and confirmed what we all feared, there was not a single good picture. Not one of them all smiling, let alone all looking at the camera. Their faces were contorted in all sorts of maddening expressions but nothing that remotely resembled a smile. Their clothes were wrinkled and their faces were sticky from the suckers.

This was a major waste of everyone’s time. I was not going to be able to Facebook or pin these photos or even frame them. 

“I did not know this was going to be this hard,” I said to Nicole. “I would never have tried if I had known.”

“I know,” she said. “Me either.”

I’m a little ashamed to admit how frustrated I was. If I’ve learned anything as a parent, it’s that kids are not particularly malleable. What you expect them to do, they almost certainly won’t. We once took Jack to this hot air balloon festival. I had imagined how his face would light up as he saw the huge, colorful orbs sweep into the sky, and how fascinated he would be by the whoosh-hush as the balloons breathed their way higher. But Jack did not even notice the balloons. He was much more interested in the twinkling lights on the festival booths nearby.  I felt a little disappointed and maybe even a little angry.

 That’s how I felt at the “photo shoot” that had become “shoot me now.” I know that things don’t ever stay still or quiet. There is always an urgent, violent and unpredictable child flying around on the bed. But truthfully, I like being in control a lot. A whole lot.

And then the brother started laughing. He was clicking back through the photos he had taken over the past chaotic, disastrous hour. “Look at this!” he exclaimed. “This is hilarious.”

 All the adults crowded around the camera. On the screen, our children appeared to be caught in the midst of a hurricane. At least, it looked like some force of nature had descended on them and their eyes were closed, mouths open and bodies entangled. In one, Jack and Solomon looked downright demonic. On her own little island of misery, Reese was awash in tears and sucker goo. The bedspread was mangled and the sheet was falling down.

 We all started to laugh. It really was funny. No, it was kind of hilarious. It wasn’t a still life or a portrait, but it was a wild range of motion and expression and color and angst and glee. It was funny. And psychotic.

I looked over at the kids. Jack and Solomon were slashing at each other with foam swords. Reese had just emptied out Noah’s ark. Clearly, they were just living life, and didn’t care. I’m no match for three kids on a good day, let alone a bad day. So I let go of my Pinterest fantasy and decided that I’d laugh and laugh some more when I got the photos and frame them anyway.

After all, I got what I wanted: these three young rascals in all their glory. I imagine in 10 or 15 years, when I look at these photos, I will giggle to myself. “Oh yes, there’s Jack in mid-air. And Reese dangling off the bed. Solomon sprawled flat on his face. Of course.” Once all the frustration is gone, the scene will just be funny.

And I have to admit, there is something pretty great about that. 

He never wants to say his prayers.

 He never wants to say his prayers.

 The room is “dark,” by his standards, not mine. Through the half-open door, the lamp from the hallway pushes a rectangle of light almost all the way to his bed, which is topped by an orange dump truck nightlight and a flashlight positioned to gleam directly on his face. We begin our nighttime tucking procedure, which is accompanied by squirming and requests for milk and crackers. Finally his small, sinewy body is still, and I tuck his “cozy blanket” all the way down each side, so he is cocooned, with the blanket a little over his face like he likes it. Then I lean over the bed to kiss his forehead, where the skin is the softest of soft, and stroke his hair for just a minute where it grows into a sort of downy widow’s peak. Then I kneel down, inevitably on top of a sharp car or block, and ask him if he wants to pray to Jesus. I already know what his answer will be. “No. You,” he says, popping his fingers into his mouth to suck.

 I believe children need to have a positive concept of the meaning of prayer or it will be hard to unlearn later, but I do not have a very good strategy to accomplish this. I’m still shaky in the role of spiritual guide, making God close, likable. Plus, I’ve never really liked praying out loud or the sound of jargon-y Sunday school words that have embedded themselves in my vocabulary over the years. I clear my throat. I wish my husband were here because he is so much better at this, and I’m so tired. Oh well. I start talking, resting my elbows on top of the construction comforter.

 “Dear Jesus. Thank you for today. Thank you for our friends who came to play today. Thank you for keeping us safe. Thank you that we got to go to the park. Help us to be kind to our friends and Reese and obey our mommy and daddy. Thank you for loving us. Amen.”

 My prayers are always first-person plural even when it doesn’t make sense.

 He doesn’t say anything when I finish. He never does. I kiss him and walk away from his bed into the hallway and the toy-strewn playroom. As I close his door, I look up at the overhead light and its halo seems to comfort me that I haven’t totally screwed up or left too much unsaid. That’s the dilemma. I am astute at asking questions but skittish about answers, hesitant to use a didactic approach. I never want to paint spiritual cooperation as “good” and resistance as “bad.” C. S. Lewis says that in prayer we “lay before [God] what is in us, not what ought to be in us,” and I want my children to be unashamed of what they are.

 Also, there are many spiritual concepts and realities I don’t yet understand, and my understanding is constantly growing and changing…in a truly amazing way. Faith is a mystery, not something that can be hammered down to a few basics, and I am super hesitant to dilute something so beautiful, challenging and complex as the story of God and humanity. After so many years, I am finally comfortable about being on my own spiritual journey, even though it’s long and winding. Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but it doesn’t worry me at all that Jack hasn’t memorized a bunch of aphorisms about God. Truthfully, it’s hard not to fall into the “teacher/student” paradigm because he is so young, but I am also a student of God. We are students together. I never want to become static, trying to pull him up to where I am. Somebody please slap me if I think I have “arrived” at a place where I think I have figured it out and am ready to push a button and program my beliefs into my children. I always want to keep looking, seeking, finding truth, on a journey of discovery that is fresh and uncomfortable and makes me reassess and reorder my beliefs again and again.

 But still … I see all the other parents on Facebook posting cute prayers their kids say. I wonder why I can’t get my son to pray.   

And then one day, it happens. It isn’t at bedtime and it isn’t during a teachable moment.  It is in our living room on a Monday, thanks to a cellophane-wrapped goody bag from a little girl’s birthday party. It’s the clear, crackly kind with ribbons that dangle in corkscrew curls. My friend is that sweet mom who puts a lot of thought into goody bags. She picks out gender-specific stuff that each child will like and labels the bags with their names. After a long afternoon of swimming and Barbie birthday cake, the goody bags are an ideal diversion for tired children on the drive home.

We are in the car when he opens it, and a cascade of sweet little presents empties into his lap. Then he squeals. He is holding up two small, perfectly crafted airplanes the size of Matchbox cars. One is white, one gray. Someone has painted stripes on their sides with great care. “Airplanes!” he cries. “Look, airplanes! I love them! I love them!”

His reaction takes me back almost 30 years to the last time I felt the visceral pleasure of gold stars on a kindergarten chart, of a white mesh bag of marbles in my hand, of riding on my dad’s shoulders. My experiences then were larger than life. I miss that gladness, that joy that fizzes and froths. 

He plays with them all the way home, sleeps with the airplanes, and the next day he is still playing with them. I am sitting on the couch, trying to escape life by checking my e-mail and Instagram. Then he says very quietly, “I want to pray to Jesus.”

 I sit up like I was pricked with a pin. “What did you say?”

 “I want to pray to Jesus for my airplanes.” 

“Really? What do you want to say?”

“I want to tell him thank you for these awesome airplanes.”

Oh my goodness. I am overcome with delight.

 “God is so happy when you thank him, Jack,” I say. “It makes his heart happy when we say thank you for things that make us happy.”

 Jack shrugs. “Yeah,” he says.

 And that was it. From start to finish, that was it. But it was enough. Enough to make this mama fall asleep happy every night for a month and know that maybe what I say is sinking in just a little

When I was a child, I memorized the prayer illustrated in many children’s prayer books: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” As a result, I became convinced that any night that you closed your eyes your soul could be taken. Every night, I anticipated the possibility and could not force my eyes to shut. My body was rigid with fear as I whispered, Just let me go peacefully as I slumber, Lord.

 I think my parents would have wanted me to pray different prayers, like the kind of childish prayer that burst from Jack’s heart out of sheer spontaneity. I think prayer is so much less about the words we try to make come out and more about what really comes out when we’re just being ourselves. Prayer is something a child can do just as well as an adult. Doesn’t that tell us something? I think words may be overrated—we can also pray with our bodies, our postures, our breathing, our cries. And prayer is also listening. God is already speaking to our children and to listen is often the greatest thing of all.

Amen.

 

 

 

She found her voice.

Her coos were sweeter than bubbling water. Her dainty cries of protest were easily calmed. She was like a little doll that mewed only when you pressed a button, and with her long, dark hair almost down to her shoulders, everyone said she looked like one.

 When she turned 15 months, my gentle lassie found her voice. She decided she had been silent long enough and the world was going to know her presence. She had demands to make—a lot of them. Yes, it was time to unleash the ear-piercing screams and sharp, staccato shrieks on her parents, the neighbors, the nursery staff, whoever was in earshot, every minute on the minute. Gone were the days when she would wait patiently in the park swing while I pushed Jack. Gone were the days when she could be pacified with a few Cheerios while I was making oatmeal in the mornings. I dropped her off at a friend’s house one morning while I ran an errand, and when I returned, my friend asked, “Wow, how do you listen to that all day?” 

How do I? I don’t like noise. My brain registers loud noise as pain. I am always the one to turn down the radio or the TV, decry the barking dog or the hedge-trimmers under my window. Or shush the loud toddler in Barnes and Noble. My older child, Jack, yells a lot. He tantrums and cries a lot. But still, until recently, it was just one person yelling and tantruming. When we were driving him home from the hospital as a newborn, I noticed that my whole body tensed every time he wailed at a stoplight. He wasn’t sure about being transported in a tiny green beater of a Subaru and really got worked up, and by the time we reached our rental house in East Nashville I was practically in tears myself. So much noise in such a little space. Oh God, save me.

 After a few long months of panic attacks at stoplights, I realized that freaking out didn’t help him stop freaking out, so I did my best to keep calm. But crying babies really, really bother me. I have many friends who can’t stand listening to their children cry and it’s more than just the sheer aural assault; it’s like standing by complicit while your child suffers. Well, usually they aren’t suffering but it’s nearly unbearable to listen to those agonized howls. I can’t stand listening to strangers’ children cry in Target. I assure myself that they are just being children and their mom said they couldn’t take home the whole rack of squirt guns, but part of me wants to call CPS just to make sure.

 All that to say, I really wasn’t ready for Reese to start hollering. I guess I didn’t prepare myself to live with not one, but two little people who scream at me—and who do not like to ride quietly in the car. Sometimes on longer trips, the graham crackers run out, and their conjoined wails make my ears liquefy and my blood pressure skyrocket. I keep myself sane by making droll observations in my head: “They think it’s going to break me, but I’m not impressed. It’s not really loud enough yet. Wait until they reach a crescendo. Wait for it. Wait for it. Ah, there it is. Now let’s see who can scream the loudest and longest!”

Of course, there are also the sweetest sounds. Like Jack saying my name. And Reese’s laugh. The best is when they laugh together. Or Reese says “Ten too” (thank you) when I give her a snack. Those are the sounds that I want to remember when they are tucked in bed at night and I finally have my most coveted silence. I want to remember their voices just as they are, and the meandering cadence of Jack’s speech, with an exclamation point after every sentence.

Still, I am not ready to be punched awake at 1 a.m. when Reese’s squawks pierce the monitor. Please go back to sleep and leave me alone, baby. I need rest so very badly, and you should have started sleeping through the night a trillion months ago. Just go back to sleep. No? No chance of that happening? OK. Mom’s coming. Don’t cry.

 

 

And then they were friends.

It happened one night in the backyard. They began playing together in the grass like brightly colored buttons sewn on a piece of cloth. It’s funny and lovely to watch a group of young children begin to make friends. They start by cautiously circling one another, tattling because she took his toy or he pushed her on the slide. But before long their similarity in size and passion for climbing and screaming unites them, and they are suddenly a moving, breathing blob of kidness, all grass-stains, tangles and cracker crumbs, telling each other secrets and making up stories and sparring with makeshift swords. Meanwhile, their parents are drinking wine and talking about politics and money on the porch. It happens all by itself, like magic.

 I enjoy watching it unfold, as if I’m looking through a portal in time. Last summer, these same children were unconsciously playing in the same general vicinity, with only tears or shrieks when someone else came too near. This summer, they are preschoolers. They have discovered that they are not alone and run about together putting leaves into cups. They set up house under a tree and scratch around the roots with sticks. It is a fragile fraternity, however. They can instantaneously go from holding hands to scratching and flailing on the ground, if we aren’t watching.

 My 3-year-old is usually the antagonist, but that night he was wearing only a shirt, his curls still wet from the pool, and he found a playmate with long brown hair and one earring like a pirate, and they played so close to one another in the dirt that their arms were touching, even though he was a boy and she was a girl. Ella. Earlier that same day Jack raced her older sister to the pool, pressing their bodies like cookie cutters against the sky and feeling weightless for a split second before crashing into the water. Lily. Woodland sprites with long beautiful hair, noses covered in freckles painted with the teeniest, tiniest brush. Watching the other kids jump, dipping toes cautiously into the shallow end is Joe, a boy with the bluest eyes, who already takes care of all the others, standing vigilant against danger.

 With these friends, I am beginning to see the makings of a childhood that Jack will remember all of his life. I imagine it will look like this night: Playing outside until it gets dark, creating whole kingdoms out of dirt. Coming inside for a bath with so many mosquito bites you can’t see where one ends and another begins. A tiny bit of sunburn on shoulders where the hours of pool-time took their toll. Heavy eyes while being tucked into bed and taking a last sip of milk, sucking on fingers and distractedly murmuring about “space planets” streaking across the dark sky. I’m pretty sure he will dream about running far and fast because when you’re little, your feet have wings.

 Childhood is over too soon, but sometimes, the friends last. I hope these friends will make life sweet for one another. I hope they make mischief of one kind or another and take fantastic voyages that end up right back in their cozy bedroom. I hope they never have bigger problems than who is first in line at the slide. Like the quote by Anais Nin, I hope they learn that each friend “represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive.” I do know one thing for certain, as much as my weary body creaks in protest. I know they’ll all wake up tomorrow morning at dawn, ready to do it all again.