The disasters we never know we missed

Walking through a Wal-Mart parking lot, I was surprised when a toddler shot past me. I looked to see where he came from and spotted his mother, halfway down the aisle of cars, yelling at him to stop.

He was laughing and giggling, barreling full-speed ahead toward the crosswalk. A large truck driving parallel to the store was approaching the crosswalk. There was no way the driver could see what, or who, was about to dart into his path.

I was ahead of the mom, but nowhere close to arm’s reach. The mother was yelling for the boy to stop. I yelled for the truck to stop—as though someone in a truck with windows rolled up could hear.

An older man, only a few feet from the door to the store, turned to look behind him. Providence turned his head to the right. Had he turned to the left, he would have missed everything. But turning to the right, he swept in the panorama: the approaching truck, the breakaway toddler, the distant mother.

Then, as though he had been training for this moment his entire life, the man took three broad strides and stood directly in the path of the oncoming truck, shielding the boy.

It was like having a front-row seat at a divine symphony. An unseen director cued the musicians and they played their parts with precision timing. The toddler crossed, the man stood still and the truck stopped.

When everyone resumed breathing, the momma was holding her boy, the hero disappeared into Wal-Mart and the truck drove away.

I wonder how many disasters are averted and we never know? How many times have we been rescued from a crosswalk and never known, never been able to say thanks?

Mothers have some faint idea of how these things work. The fact that certain models of children reach adulthood in one piece is evidence of the invisible hand of God.

Yet most of the time, we cross streets, change lanes, round corners and pass through the days of the week oblivious to the disasters skirting our path. We are unaware of how that second trip back into the house avoided a car accident. We have no comprehension of how orchestrated the casual conversations are that land us a job lead, the name of a specialist or a new idea for reviving a broken relationship.

The strings and the brass and the woodwinds play together and we are unaware of the harmony.

When our children were young, we taught them to play a little game called “I Spy.” When they saw something happen that might have the fingerprint of God on it, they were to say, “I Spy!” It was an attempt to foster gratitude and cultivate the practice of seeing beyond the tangible.

What I witnessed in the Wal-Mart crosswalk was an “I Spy.” It was good to be reminded of divine symphonies silently at work.

Vast difference between arriving legally and illegally

Our neighborhood is populated with immigrants. We were diverse before diversity was cool.

Ileana is from Russia. She lives in an apartment complex nearby and walks the sidewalks in our subdivision at least once a day, sometimes twice. She casually strolls, frequently pausing to take in flowers and shrubs. She is happy to chat, ask about your grandbabies and tell you about her son the doctor now living in San Francisco.

One block down is a couple from Afghanistan. The woman came ahead of her husband, along with their son. She came with her widowed sister and her sister’s four boys. I was volunteering, helping children find their classrooms on the first day of elementary school, when those little boys arrived on their bus years ago. They had identical buzzed haircuts, big brown eyes, spoke no English and were terrified. Our neighbor’s son is now a podiatrist. She and her sister became hair stylists.

Behind us lives a family who fled Cambodia. The mother loves to tell how she opened a day care in her home as soon as they arrived so that their two boys could learn English from other children. She, a seamstress, will also explain the importance of homework and trips to the library. “Have children read, read, read,” she says. “Then one day—they take off!” Her hand shoots into the air like a plane soaring into the sky. One of their sons is now a doctor, the other an engineer.

A couple from China lives next door. He teaches at the med school; she does medical research. Their son graduated high school with our son and went on to earn a doctorate in computer science.

A man who emigrated from India several years ago reupholstered a chair for us recently. His eyes brim with tears as he tells of his dream of immigrating to America “to be an entrepreneur.” He’s not cheap, but he’s very good.

All of these friends, neighbors and acquaintances immigrated legally. Some traveled great distances to keep appointments, undergo interviews and physical exams, and obtain required forms and valid passports. They waited months, or years, secured sponsors and promises of employment, had petitions filed and acquired visas.

It is bewildering when immigration laws apply to some but not others—or the laws are enforced some of the time, but not all of the time.

Fifty-two thousand unaccompanied children have illegally flooded our southern borders since October, most transported by human smugglers. Many of these children are under age 10, some barely old enough to walk. Having overwhelmed our resources, they are housed like an explosion of strays in giant stinking kennels while officials plead for donations of underwear. This is no Ellis Island. This is not the American dream; it is a living nightmare.

There are pathways for getting here, but this isn’t one of them.

Every government and cartel behind this massive crush of children must be held accountable. Fifty-two thousand, with more on the way, is no coincidence. Parents are responsible, too.

The situation screams for the Wisdom of Solomon—justice tempered with mercy. Any nation that uses children as political pawns is a nation without spine or substance.

Dumping children is always an egregious wrong.

Where the wild things are

In the O. Henry short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two small-time criminals kidnap a banker’s son and hold him for ransom. The banker does not respond as he is enjoying a break from the child.

rabbit jumpingThe kid proclaims himself Red Chief and exhausts his captors. He even announces that one of his abductors is now his prisoner and threatens to scalp him by daybreak. Eventually the kidnappers pay the father to take the child back.

Two of our grandchildren came to stay with us recently and, while I would never say that the darlings were as rambunctious as Red Chief, I was thankful we did not have a tomahawk on the premises.

They are children who register on the lively end of the activity spectrum. Part of the reason is that they and their baby brother live in a 2-bedroom Chicago apartment, which in their case is tantamount to housing wild mustangs in a small horse trailer. Naturally, when they have access to wide-open spaces, they enjoy running, galloping and pawing at the ground.

Invigorated by the great outdoors, one of the things the active 5-year-old likes to do is wake the household each morning with an owl call. She’s quite good, really. She does a very lifelike screech owl. If you have ever been awakened by the loud and piercing cry of a screech owl inches from your face, you will understand why there is no need for morning caffeine.

You will find that you start—and finish —the day moving quickly, startling easily and acquiring a small tic beneath your right eye.

They spent nearly every daylight hour playing in the backyard. They barreled outside as early as 7:15 or 7:30. I can’t remember exactly, but the neighbors do.

They spent hours with the sandbox, two big old galvanized tubs and the hose, basically realigning natural resources. They excavated sand from the sandbox, flooded the sandbox, then returned sand to the sandbox until they perfected a marvelous, disgusting swamp-like mixture that cemented to their skin and found its way into every nook, cranny, towel and bed in the house.

As each day drew to a close they would appear to wind down a bit, line up two chairs in the middle of the backyard and have a seat.

“Peaceful,” the husband said.

“The calm before the storm,” I said.

They were sitting motionless to stake out a rabbit. Not just any rabbit, but a rabbit that is a routine visitor and so large he could easily be Sunday dinner. I may have told the kids if they could catch the rabbit they could keep it. So they sat and waited armed with nothing but fierce speed and their bare hands.

They came so close to the rabbit so many times that I reached for my grandmother’s Wild Game cookbook. But the rabbit always escaped, each evening bouncing higher and higher in the air until it appeared to be part white-tailed deer.

The children have returned to the city, the sand has been swept away and the rabbit has resumed regular evening visits, although it appears a bit nervous. It has acquired a tic beneath its right eye.

Little space cadet too well grounded

One year when I was in elementary school, I was chosen to go to a summer space camp. It was a special privilege, the sort of special privilege that I found terrifying. Surely there had been an astronomical mistake. I kept waiting for someone to correct it, but nobody ever did. And so the girl who considered gravity her best friend attended space camp.

EarthLooking back, all I can think is that those were desperate times. The Russians had launched Sputnik. John Glenn had orbited the earth three times in Friendship 7 and Americans were trying to win the race for space.

Space camp was for kids who teachers thought might have potential in the sciences. If my country was depending on me to help win the race for space, my country was doomed. It was a heavy burden for an 8-year-old to know she was about to bring down a super power.

On our first day at Space Camp we made helmets from empty Baskin-Robbins ice cream containers. We cut out holes for our faces and then painted them. I painted mine green, the color of grass, grass that grows on the ground and stays on the ground, the same place we should stay, too.

To this day, I have imagined the inside of every space shuttle, and NASA itself, smelling like mint chocolate chip ice cream and green tempera paint.

Our solar system at space camp was made of graduated balls plastered with strips of newsprint slathered in thick glue. The paper Mache planets simulated rotation courtesy of fishing line and coat hangers. Saturn’s rings were pipe cleaners and we included Pluto without a hint of debate or controversy.

The one not-terrifying thing about Space Camp was learning about the sky and the stars. We learned that the Big Dipper was connected to the Little Dipper, and the Great Bear was connected to the Little Bear, and the hip bone was connected to the neck bone. I may have been confused. In any case, we learned that you could see interesting things in the night sky, including the Moon and sometimes Mars.

Even now, when I try to point out Mars in the evening sky, others will insist that what I think is Mars is actually an incoming plane. They are just jealous that they did not go to space camp. OK, so maybe Mars is moving toward the airport.

The point is, if you aren’t stepping outside and looking up from time to time, you are missing some of the best this world has to offer. If you are in the country on a cloudless night, you can feel yourself dwarfed by countless jewels glittering in the sky.

If you’re on the late end of early morning, you may catch dawn as the horizon streaks with a twist of apricot and neon orange. I learned this much at space camp: You don’t need a Baskin-Robbins helmet to enjoy an amazing view.

The irrefutqable power of dads

A humorous illustration of a woman’s brain depicts it sectioned into compartments. The smaller, equal-size compartments are labeled food, shopping, shoes, talking with girlfriends and relationships with the opposite sex—all of which are dwarfed by one huge over-riding compartment labeled “my mother.”

Relationships with mothers tend to be complex. They are powerful relationships that may inspire undying love and loyalty, or guilt and anger and sometimes a curious mix of the aforementioned.

Relationships with fathers, although equally powerful, tend to be less complex. This is probably because fathers are prone to be less verbal. They not only use fewer words but are less likely to exercise a flair for drama, burst into tears, slam doors or hone a great martyr routine, hence leaving offspring with fewer good stories to retell.

Nevertheless, the relationship between father and child is critical. Social science research constantly underscores the blithely, or even intentionally, overlooked power of the father-child relationship.

A father who has a decent (note the word is decent, not perfect) relationship with his children is highly likely to raise children who have fewer behavior problems, graduate high school, have a high sense of aspiration, delay becoming sexually active, stay on the right side of the law, do not engage in drug and alcohol abuse and are likely to have stable relationships as adults. A father involved in a child’s life isn’t an iron-clad guarantee of stability, but it’s real close.

Every time there is another senseless killing in our city, people appear on television camera, distraught, saying, “I don’t know what the answer is.”

The answer is nearly always fathers. Our out-of-wedlock birth rate is 40 percent and climbing. We’re not supposed to talk about such matters directly; it could be deemed insensitive. You know what’s insensitive? Intentionally leaving kids without a fundamental component of life for which they intrinsically ache. Insensitive is telling fathers that they are dispensable.

With all respect to trees, the air and fossil fuels, it is our dwindling supply of fathers that will one day render us unsustainable. Their increasing absence plays out in out in a million ways.

Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering, has served as chaplain for the Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Chiefs. He says many professional football players—strong, powerful, rich, handsome men—have said that when they run from the tunnel into a football stadium filled with 80,000 people, they would give anything to look up in the stands and for just one moment see their father looking down at them.

If fully grown men still feel the ache deep in their gut, how much greater must that longing be for children?

A father doesn’t have to be perfect. Mothers certainly aren’t. A good and decent father will do just fine. Such a man is far more than a meal ticket: he is a moral compass, a guide, a safe place, an encourager, a comforter, a shield against the storm.

Our sons and daughters don’t need perfect dads, but they do need dads who are present and engaged.

Casting call was a real bear

I received a casting call last week. Hey, I was as surprised as anybody. I was minding my own business at the computer when the request came in asking if I would perform in a starring role.

3 charisI didn’t hesitate. These opportunities don’t come your way every day.

Maybe you’ve heard of the production? The Three Bears.

I was offered the part of Goldilocks. Imagine. Me, a brunette. And at my age. I always pictured Goldilocks younger. And shorter. And thinner. Oh well, the things they can do with make-up and special effects these days.

Anyway, it was an off-Broadway production. Way off. Way, way, way, way, way off. It was so off-Broadway that it was in our front room.

So I walked over to the set and saw that the cast and crew (you do double duty when there are only a few of you) already had all the props in place. The wooden play table had been set with three plastic plates for porridge. Two small chairs and a little red rocker were lined up and two love seats were designated as the beds.

The cast and crew looked young, as in under age four. But, clearly, they knew their stuff.

“Do you know your part, Grandma?”

“I think so,” I said. “This is the one where the girl goes in a stranger’s house uninvited, eats their food, sits in their chairs, falls asleep in a bed, then the bears come home, find her and she runs away screaming.”

“That’s it!” They were equal parts amazed and delighted that I was familiar with the story.

It was a family-friendly production—something hard to find these days. The only strong language was from Papa Bear, who preceded his every line with an emphatic “HMPF!” That’s a standard Papa Bear line in one of their Three Bears books and has become a favorite. There was no nudity either, as long as you didn’t count the brief intermission where we changed their baby sister’s stinky diaper.

I knew I wasn’t the first one asked to play this part, nor would I be the last. I’m not the only grandma in town. But that’s showbiz, isn’t it? You’re only as good as your last performance. HMPF!

Any chance of a callback would depend on a grand finish. When the two bears (they played multiple roles) woke me up, I, Goldilocks sprung from the loveseat, jumped over the back of it (a feat these legs and this back had not done in years) and ran from the room screaming and waving my arms wildly.

The finale was well received. It wasn’t just a standing O, they started running and screaming behind me. It was like Goldilocks being chased by the paparazzi.

When the dust settled, one of them said, “Let’s do it again, Grandma. You know, the part where Goldilocks wakes up and runs wild.”

We may take this show from the front room on the road—now selling tickets for seats in the backyard.

Through hail and high water, trip was fine

Whenever you are traveling and have the good fortune to arrive at your destination in one piece, I think you are obligated to tell people your trip was fine.

I had a fine trip last week.

I headed an hour north to a speaking engagement. Fifteen minutes out of town my vehicle began to shake. To see if the shake was significant or just my imagination, I belted out a note and held it. For the first time in my life, my voice had vibrato.

The vibrato was so full and rich I wondered if I had missed my calling for opera. The engine light began flashing wildly. Fortunately, I had several friends who lived not far from the next exit. I called one and asked if I could borrow her vehicle for the afternoon.

I bee-lined to my friend’s place and ditched my vehicle, now shaking like a mechanical bull, then headed back to the interstate. I was behind schedule, which was why I may have broken the speed limit passing a motorcycle.

For an instant I thought I had passed an unmarked police officer on an unmarked motorcycle. Paranoia runs in the family. It was all good, the bike just had shaky lights flickering in my rear view mirror. I pulled my heart out of my gut in time to see the sign that said “Slow and stopped traffic ahead.”

Once I slowly wound through several miles of construction, traffic began to sail. Until we came to the trucks with flashing lights blocking traffic. Workers were removing a deer that was no longer with us. And a second. And a third.

After another delay, and a brief moment of silence for the deer, traffic resumed speed. Right into towering, dark, ominous clouds.

They were the kind of clouds that spawn tornadoes. I know my clouds. I grew up in Missouri, right across the state line from Dorothy and Toto.

Maybe I’d get there in time for my introduction.

Rain fell in torrents. Traffic slowed to a crawl and then came to a halt.

I was thinking how to word my apology for being late when the hail began. It was so dark I could barely see. Thank goodness for the lightning. It was killer hail, the kind that blows out windshields. I was torn between shielding my eyes and looking to see what was happening around me.

Open, eyes! No, close! Open! Close! Open! Close!

The hail ended, the windshield remained and the traffic resumed. The cloud doubled back and dumped all five Great Lakes on us. Stopped again.

Maybe they’d have refreshments beforehand. Maybe whoever was introducing me could do a song and dance.

Waiting for the second torrential rain to pass, I programmed my destination into Google maps. As they closed the flooded highway behind us, I took my exit and headed to my destination, which I had inadvertently entered as S. Salisbury instead of N. Salisbury.

Recalculating. Recalculating.

I arrived at my destination late, harried, wide-eyed and disheveled, but in one piece.

“How was your trip?”

“Fine, thank you. Just fine.”

Can’t leaf the trees alone

On the eves of our daughters’ weddings, I gave both of them what I considered to be excellent marital advice: Never leave your husband unsupervised with pruning shears.

LeafIf only I had heeded my own caution. I recently let my guard down. Thirty-some years of marriage can do that to a woman. Now, as a result, the only thing that has been harder on our trees and shrubs than this past brutal winter has been the husband.

Give a man pruning shears, a telescopic extension and electric trimmers and he will give new meaning to the term armed and dangerous.

Champing at the bit, the husband pronounced the crab apple tree dead earlier this year.

“Why do you think it is dead?” I asked.

“Look at it; there’s not a leaf on it.”

“There’s not a leaf on anything. It’s March,” I said.

“It looked sick last fall and with this bitter winter we had, I’m convinced it’s dead.”

The truth is he’s never liked the crab apple. Sure, it has beautiful blooms in the spring, but then it gets a fungus, the leaves curl, it drops those little apples that ferment on the driveway and make the bees drunk. Once your bees are buzzed it pretty well puts an end to outdoor activities.

Each passing week he pronounced the tree dead. Eventually I began to believe him. Though he agreed it would be a regrettable loss, there was a twinkle in his eye. He armed himself a couple of weeks ago and began trimming. A branch here, a branch there, a small limb, then a larger limb. I watched and then decided to check the wood on some of the branches closer to the trunk. I broke one off and saw green.

The crab apple was not dead, it just hadn’t had time to leaf out. The tree was now lopsided, but it was not dead. I would have told him so, but he had moved on to a maple. Once the man starts, he can’t stop. One trim leads to another. He was giving the maple what could only be described as a haircut that was high and tight.

“Please, stop!” I called. “It’s a maple, not a Marine!”

He smiled and nodded, but he couldn’t hear because he had revved up the hedge trimmers and was preparing to “touch up” a line of shrubs.

Zip, zip, zip. Zip, zip, zip.

“What do you think?” he shouts.

“It’s supposed to be a privacy hedge; now all that will be private are our ankles.”

He revved the trimmers again. “Stop!” I called. “Come back!”

“Why?” he shouts.

“You’re in the neighbor’s yard.”

Be glad you weren’t invited to speak at graduation

The quandary of this current graduation season is whom to feel sorrier for— graduates facing the real world or speakers invited to speak at commencement ceremonies and then uninvited to speak.

MortarTo be cajoled, wooed and invited to be a commencement speaker and then abruptly uninvited, is reminiscent of that horrid fellow who dumped you in the tenth grade. Let’s just hope today’s incidents do not result in graffiti in the restroom stalls or shaving cream on someone’s car windows.

The first this season to be invited and then uninvited was the First Lady. Originally invited to speak at a high school commencement in Topeka, Ks., it was determined that her security detail and accompanying entourage, roughly numbering the population of Texas, would be so large that family members would not be able to see their loved ones graduate. So the First Lady’s invitation was suspended. Shortly thereafter she was invited to speak at a different event prior to commencement. This invitation, uninvitation and reinvitation was actually more like a 24-hour breakup followed by “we’re back together,” explained by “we just needed time apart.”

Of course, if such a thing can happen to the First Lady it can also happen to someone like Condoleezza Rice. She was invited to be commencement speaker at Rutgers University, whereupon a few students and faculty objected because “Rice played a prominent role in the Bush administration.” Yes, she did. The secretary of state often does.

Rice was uninvited. Rutgers then invited Eric LeGrand, paralyzed former Rutgers University football player, to speak at commencement. And then they uninvited him. And then they reinvited him.

Consulting with Anna Post, the great-great granddaughter of etiquette maven Emily Post, on the proper technique of inviting and then uninviting a guest, as near I can gather, it falls under the heading of “Things Not Done.”

Thank goodness for WikiHow (second cousin, once removed, to Wikipedia) that offers four steps (with illustrations!) on uninviting someone. First: Rest chin in hands and make sure you don’t want this person at your event. Next: Close eyes, rub temples, ask yourself if you’ve had an argument with this person. Step Three: Wearing a cardigan, confront the person calmly and suggest you stay out of one another’s way. Final Step: With a big red embarrassed face, only uninvite someone in a serious circumstance.

Brandeis University invited Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the most courageous women walking the planet, to be commencement speaker. A few days later they skipped to Step Three telling Hirsi Ali to stay out of the way. Among other things, Hirsi Ali is critical of forced female genital mutilation, a view deemed intolerant by the tolerant Brandies, which resulted in Hirsi Ali not being tolerated and thus being uninvited.

You’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out. I’ve seen dice games with greater predictability.

If you’re out there buying graduation gifts this year, be grateful it’s only costing you money and not personal humiliation.

The mom in the mirror

I officially morphed into my mother last week. I flipped down the visor in the car, opened the mirror, looked at my reflection and said out loud, “Why didn’t someone tell me I look like death warmed over?”

Word MOM in a mirrorI’ve never said that line out loud before because it was always my mother’s line. She often used it when we were going somewhere in the car. It was a show-stopper, a line that could hold a crowd. My dad would glance over from the driver’s seat, my brother and I would momentarily stop fighting in the backseat, and we’d all direct our full attention to the front-passenger seat to see what would happen next.

What happened next was what always happened next. She’d open her purse, whip out a tube of red lipstick, stretch her mouth thin, carefully apply the lipstick, smack her lips and snap the visor back in place. Another near-death encounter successfully averted. I grew up thinking red lipstick was the CPR of motherhood.

Why is it we think we won’t become like our mothers, when we share the same gene pool, voices, laughs, gestures and mannerisms?

I had just gone a verbal round with our youngest when she was in high school as we were on our way to the grocery one day. We were both miffed, both certain the other one was pigheaded and stubborn, both wondering how we were even related.

As we walked side-by-side into the grocery, a man walking out of the grocery said to us, “Don’t tell me you’re not a mother-daughter combo! You not only look alike, you even walk alike.” Of course we walked alike; we were mad walking. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Thinking we were radically different, we were unmistakably alike.

My mother and I did our share of mad walking as well. Like all mothers and daughters we were alike but different, different but alike. Not long after she died, I picked up a picture of her and wrote on the back of it as fast as I could all the marvelous things about her that I was terrified I would one day forget, praying I would always remember.

“Thank you, Lord, for the things you taught me through my dear mother. Kindness, goodness, forgiveness, fortitude, patience, forbearance, organization, zeal for life, love, “lighten up,” thoughtfulness, anticipating needs of others, honesty, stewardship, planning, how to have fun. I miss her, Lord. Her voice, her laugh, her racing mind, her sparkling eyes. You have given me a good gift.”

I know now that I could never forget my mom. By nature, mothers are unforgettable. I often picture Mom in my kitchen, sitting at the table, drinking coffee, cup after cup after cup, speed talking, offering wit, insight and commentary on people, places and things. Tell me that apple didn’t fall from the tree.

To those of you still insisting you’ll never resemble your mother in any way, shape or form, thanks for the laugh.

If you’ll excuse me now, I need to apply some lipstick. Why didn’t somebody tell me I look like death warmed over?