Saturday, March 26, 2011

Clash of the Cultures--Part III

The more I think about it, the more I recognize it.  My mother was who she was.  She has always been brave and strong, but not reckless.  Daddy?  He was brave, strong and reckless.  He never would have made 83 if not for the warden (as he called my mother).  She kept him in line, yet honored him.  She monitored his spending, yet didn't embarrass him.  She got furious at him, but revered him.  She saved his life because she found him worthy.

My dad didn't have a lot to look forward to when he met my mother.  He was a 26-year-old divorced combat veteran and father of two.  His life was complicated and messy.  Even at his tender age, there was no one to fall back on, no support, no place to go with the messages life had sent his way...but the redhead in the bus station offered him a future with her.  She hung onto every word he said, loved his stories, embraced his past, accepted him where he was at and laid her entire existence before him in the form of matrimony.  It didn't hurt that she was beautiful beyond compare and made him the envy of most of the young men in York.  If you read Proverbs 31:10-31, you will see described there the virtuous wife.  My mom didn't know the words of those verses, and had no relationship in her life to use as a point of reference for marriage building.  But she seemed to know intuitively how to love a husband, how to be a virtuous wife.  My mother made everything we had and everything we did seem as if it was the best money could buy.  Entire companies went out of business due to making our cars and campers so well (bet ya didn't know that!). 

Our house was often filled, however, with anger and yelling because neither of my parents had ever been taught conflict resolution strategies.  Still, they held hands, wrote each other love notes, took vacations, didn't drink more than the occasional beer (with spaghetti) or daquiri, quit smoking, told us children they loved us, took us all to church, hugged and kissed us daily, and defended us from every mean teacher or principal we ever had.  We ate a hot meal at the right time every evening and my mom never forgot field trip days or the utter specialness of birthdays.  She and my father carried on some of the more damaging behaviors from their own families of origin, but all four of us have made decisions to break as many of these cycles as possible.  We do not have to be like our parents--any of us!  We can hold hands and refuse to carry on damaging behaviors, but for heaven's sake, let us not be so arrogant that we don't seek out and emulate the good!  We all want better for our children than we had.  My parents broke cycles they came by naturally, and they did it consciously.  Let us then make every effort to do the same! 

Clash of the Cultures--Part II

On top of the obvious cultural differences inherent in my family of origin, was the blending of wild and furious temperaments. 

My mother, a fiery redhead of German descent on both the PA Dutch and the Appalachian sides of her family, was raised by a very strong and determined widow (half Irish/half German) who was not pushed around by anybody.  Suffice it to say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.  My octogenarian mommy is still brave, and strong, and fearless.  She is an only child and would have been a great frontierswoman.  She still likes to camp and swims three times a week at the Wellness Center.  While she accepts her limitations and embraces her age with admirable grace, she is not a person who uses it as a crutch.  Like her own mother, she is ready to go at nearly a moment's notice and is generally out and about with some friend at some function.  She possesses an inner strength that serves her quite well now, but made for an often volatile atmosphere in our home growing up.

As a boy who practically raised himself on the streets of Jersey City and New York City, my dear, old dad bore many of the character traits my mother still carries.  He was, as stated in the previous post, a street punk of the worst kind.  He lied, and cheated, and stole.  He stowed away in a ship's cargo hold at twelve and sailed around the tip of South America; as a teen, he chased Sinatra (yes, Old Blue Eyes) all over Jersey City with murderous intent.  By his mid-teens, he had been beaten mercilessly by every adult in his immigrant (Finnish and Swedish) family, and had been signed into  military school by his own mother to keep him off the streets.  He had witnessed dozens of street killings and knew (personally) at least as many people who ended up fish food in cement shoes at the bottom of the Hudson River.

I know what you're thinking:  How do people like this stay married to each other for 54 years, and how many thousands of dollars have their children spent on therapy?  The answers are this:  God's grace, and not much.  I think it all boils down to a deep and death-defying love that manifested in passionate laughter, creative romance and regular dish throwing and door slamming.  Stay tuned for the next installment...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Clash of the Cultures--Part I

People like me are very used to being looked at funny.  It's not so much comfortable but, by the time I've passed my 48th birthday, it is quite expected.  I come from a patchwork kind of family and not one member of it has ever been considered run-of-the-mill.  Things have been going this way in my gene puddle for generations on both sides.  For instance, the most recent cultural version of oil-and-water would be my parents. 

My dad was born in Manhattan in 1920.  He was the son of a drunken tugboat captain and rum-runner (during the late, great days of Prohibition).  He was a street punk of the worst kind, had a big problem with authority, was afraid of nothing, took part in liberating two death camps during WW II, was the bravest and craziest man I have ever met, and told stories about his experiences that made you feel like you were there.  He was also brilliant.  My mother was born and raised in a small and countrified city in Pennsylvania by a widowed mother who was an amazing seamstress, a business owner, a fearless and heroic ball of fire wrapped in a busty little package under five feet tall.  My mother is similar in oh, so many ways, and for all the wild genetic input, has always been favored by most and respected by all. Also, she has always been a lady and one who still doesn't leave the house without lipstick.  My parents met in a bus station in New York City on September 2, 1946 and were married the following July.  I am not always positive they should have been allowed to reproduce--but for obvious reasons, I'm glad they did.

We were a family who stood out in Dallastown, PA; and that is a gross understatement.  Because my mother grew up in a different part of the county we were never treated as locals.  Because my dad was a big-mouthed New Yorker who didn't give a rat's patoot about what anybody thought, we were ostracized.  I think all of that would have been different if he had played the game and joined the rest of the town on Sunday mornings at Christ Lutheran Church on Main Street.  Nope.  Instead, when invited and told by Mr. Hoke that "anybody who's anybody in this town goes on up to the Lutheran church on Sunday mornings," my dad decided it would be more fun to call the poor old farmer on his snobbery.  He told Mr. Hoke flat out he "wouldn't worship with you Christian dogs," and proceeded to get on his knees and feign worship of Allah.  Lie.  We went to the regular old Protestant church my mom grew up in.

I think these crazy differences might have driven many young couples to divorce.  Not my folks.  They were in love until my dad drew his last breath on Earth and went home to Jesus.  It has not been easy to be the product of such dynamic polar opposites, but we children have benefitted in ways no one could have imagined.  Stay tuned for the next installment...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Poor Oldest Kids

One thing I know for certain is that when our two oldest kids were little, we didn't know anything.  Sometimes I think back on the things we did out of ignorance and want to smack both myself and Dear Hubby.  And sometimes, though, I want to say, "Awwww, that's so adorable." 

For instance, we did not know that people who are eighteen months old are not capable of standing in the corner for more than a minute.  (That would be one of the smacking times.)  Sometimes we sided with the babysitter and reprimanded our children for dumb little kid stuff they did at her house--dancing in the toilet, refusing to eat a ham sandwich and then spewing it across the table when forced to eat it, staring at her when she ate doughnuts in front of them.  We kept them too squeaky clean, dressed them too nicely, insisted they empty their plates, and had way too many rules.  (Sorry, my dear oldest loves.)  We used everybody else's outsides as the standard to assess our insides.  We didn't know that it would be okay if they forgot to brush their teeth for a whole minute before school, or that it's just fine to let them pick out their own outfits even if they don't match and they're going to church. They did not arrive with a manual, and as implied in an earlier post, everybody knew best how we should raise our kids.  The problems with that thinking were two-fold:  1.  They weren't their kids; and 2.  The everybodies' advice all conflicted with each other.  We tried to please so many people that we lost sight of the real reason people have children:   to cherish them.  We got better as time wore on, and we all learned together about being a family, but the going was really tough at first.

Then, there were the adorable things we did as parents, and things we were told to do but thought better of, even in the throes of ignorance.  I thought one of the children had windburn for six months; it was ringworm.  Speaking of worms, someone told us the best way to see if your children had worms--because we all know you get them from having dirty fingernails--was to put a piece of masking tape from one hiney cheek to another while they slept in a dark room, wait an hour and then check with a flashlight to see if any worms were stuck to the tape.  The theory is that if it's dark, the worms think it's safe to pop their heads out and peek.  BOOM!  They get stuck on the tape and the next day the doctor administers worm medicine.  People do this--no lie.  Once, at South of the Border, we chuckled smugly at the parents of the little boy who was under the table screaming and kicking them in the shins.  Our children would never do anything like that--and they didn't THAT DAY.

But we live!  We learn!  We love!  We loosen up!  And then we become grandparents!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It's My Potty And I'll Go If I Want To

A friend shared with me a few days ago the tragic circumstances surrounding her grandson's potty training.  It should be mentioned that the grandson in question is a baby; he only just turned two.  I am not sure the words potty training should even be associated with a conversation related to such a little boy.  The baby's mother is young and he is her first child.  There are certain things she doesn't know about potty training, and I'm sure she is bombarded regularly by well-meaning advice and bossing.  (I know I was.)  This mother has tried all the tricks, is beside herself with frustration and is disciplining her little guy for his inability to stop wetting and soiling his drawers.

I, myself, was potty trained at six months old!  My mother proudly proclaims she put ALL of her babies on the potty EVERY THIRTY MINUTES.  I am asking you:  Who was trained--me or my mother?  And because she could not understand why I insisted on diapering people who were past their first birthday, I felt compelled to force the issue with my own little ones.  Like the young mother above, I tried everything.  We sang about potties and watched videos about potties.  We read books about big girls and boys who love to go on the big potty.  We took pictures of each child's first poop on the potty, fed them M&Ms for potty success (one for pee-pee and two for poopie), encouraged the boys to sink Fruit Loops by peeing on them, called every relative in the world when we heard the first tinkle-tinkle-tinkle hitting the water, and bought them trendy potty chairs that looked like zoo animals.  We slapped high-fives and drenched our little ones with hugs and kisses for even the tiniest drip-drop of pee.  But until their little bodies were physically able to control their elimination, it was an endless exercise in futility with occasional success being purely accidental.  They had rings around their bottoms and we had bags under our eyes.  We were all miserable, because also like the young mother above, we scolded and shamed our dearest loves because we thought they were just being obstinate.

If only we could go back and do it without pressure.  The oldest of our six bore the brunt of this stupidity.  As the children and I spent more time with young moms and less time with grandmoms, I loosened up and realigned my thinking.  My epiphany came the moment I realized that adult bowel and bladder control is not an issue for most of the population.  Therefore, that must mean that successful potty training happens for almost everybody sooner or later.  It also meant that making the process peaceful was a choice.  I did not have to betray the most important and trusted relationship in my children's lives; I could love and encourage them as they moved through potty training at their own pace. 

One of the boys was two-years-old and potty training when Jurassic Park came out on video.  Anybody remember the scene in which the man got eaten by a dinosaur while sitting on the toilet?  That scene launched us straight back into diapers for another year!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Talk To Me

Once, when the big teen boy was just wee (maybe around 18 months old), I took him out running errands with me.  We were in the car for several hours--me in my seat, and him behind me, in his. When all the running was through, I pulled into the driveway and announced happily, "We're home!"  I looked into the rearview mirror at my son's expressionless face and realized with horror that I had not spoken to him one time during the entire trip.  He didn't seem to mind, but I was slain by self-loathing.  I felt guilty on a multitude of levels.  Mothers should talk to their children; what if he had stopped breathing: his communication skills will be delayed; we are not really bonded; do I remember EVER talking to him in the car?  On and on and on.  I'm really good at that:  I can beat anybody up--especially me.

I made a conscious effort to talk to him all the time after that.  I especially made sure I talked to him in the car.  See?  That's part of the introvert thing--when I'm alone, I don't talk or listen to music or turn on the television for background noise.  I think things through in silence.  I love music but I never listen to it in the car.  BUT, because I am the Mommy, I adapted my behavior to suit my child's needs.  I had not been alone in the car, and just because my company was a non-verbal baby, it did not mean he should not be engaged.  A little one's receptive vocabulary develops much earlier than his expressive vocabulary.  That's why there is great wisdom in teaching babies to use basic sign language to express themselves before they can speak.  I have spent the last 16+ years talking to the children because it makes them feel like they matter, which they do.  I suppose it helps them develop communication skills, but the biggest reason is that it makes them feel worthy--worthy of their mother's attention.

I have had the occasion of late to observe dismissal--and parent pick-up--in several elementary schools.  I am really burdened by the number of parents who sign their children out and head straight for the door while their little guys are skipping along behind, chattering at their backs.  Do they not realize their children have longed for them all day, have anticipated this moment since lunchtime?  I don't blame the parents, nor do I think they're mean people--I think they are mostly busy people with alot  running through their brains.  Picking up the children becomes an item to check off the to-do list, rather than a long-anticipated moment of joy and reunion.  I try, very hard, to talk to my children about their day and their friends' days.  I take stock of the important stuff, the stuff they repeat and emphasize, and ask more about it later.  For many years, I sat all the kids down on the couch immediately after school and had each one tell me one good thing, one bad thing, and one funny thing about their day.  They all had to share and all had to listen politely to each other without interrupting.  This world tells our dear ones they're unworthy all the time; we have got to show them again and again that they are priceless to us.