A Tribute to my Father-in-law

“Look around and take what you want,” she said. We sat in her living room the afternoonIMG_5102 after the funeral mass and family lunch. It had been a busy few days, and we all appreciated the moments of rest. After a decade-long conquest with Parkinson’s and several months in the hospital, my father-in-law had passed away a few days earlier. The preparations, flights, drives, visits, calls, hours with family and friends at the wake, church, and cemetery were done. Now, we sat in the front room in peaceful silence, and his widow spoke.

 

“Look around and take what you want.” Those were the words to my husband and his sister. Not said in despair or sadness, but rather in a spirit of openness and generosity…Gary doesn’t need anything now. Take what he left. Take what you had given him that will remind you of times together. Take mementos. Take pieces of his life back home with you.

I looked around the neat house from my vantage point, and thought, he didn’t really leave anything. An avid Yankees fan, Syracuse and Cardinal Hayes alum, he had hats and shirts and some wall art…but he didn’t really have “stuff”. He didn’t buy for himself, though he could have. He didn’t fill his life with tchotchkes and dust-collectors. So what was his “stuff”?

His favorite room in the house was his little office. Maybe 5’x7′ with two windows to light IMG_5104up the all important computer desk. Here he kept his spiral notebook of contacts, from his elementary school classmates through his coworkers in education. Beside that, his 75th anniversary edition of the Cardinal Hayes High School alumni directory. He kept phone numbers of his children taped at eye level. On each of the three walls were notes and photos from his grandkids. In the computer were stored countless emails from people he’d known his whole life and research he’d done to help others with their illnesses or debts. To the left of the computer screen sat the Facebook Portal that he received for Christmas so that he could stay in touch with his classmates, colleagues, family, and peers from Hawaii to Germany, and all places in between.

Gary was a relational man. That’s where his “stuff” was. It was in his heart. It was in his conversation. It was in his connectedness to others. Throughout the house, there are pictures of trips that he and his beloved took to Europe and Disneyworld, photos from cruises and dinner parties, and framed reminders of events that they shared together. That’s the “stuff” of his life.

When he would travel by train to see our family eight hours away, he would always IMG_5105strike up a new friendship with a seated neighbor. One time he told me that the best conversation starter was the phrase “So, how’s your life going?” It was an open-ended opportunity for hours of chatter about the present, past, and future. When an issue arose about which he was ignorant, he would spend hours researching it online to learn what he didn’t know. He would call us to share his newfound knowledge because that was his “stuff”, sharing knowledge. Sharing relationships. Sharing life.

We have spent two weeks this summer, traveling around upstate New York and landing back at his home on Long Island. We have thought of him numerous times and wanted to share our new experiences with him…the kids’ first time at his alma mater Syracuse University, their impressions of the breath-taking Letchworth State Park, his grandson’s photos at West Point and big dreams of attending there in a few years, the shark that was caught on a fishing trip in Freeport, his granddaughter’s love of socializing with girl cousins…the list goes on.IMG_5107

This week back in his house has had me considering his legacy. To “look around and take what you want” of Gary means to live the life we are currently living to its fullest and share generously with others. He didn’t want trinkets and “stuff”. He wanted relationships and connectedness. My son is at camp this week with Long Island kids who live eight hours away from our home. Yet, he invited a buddy to come over and hang out after camp…and has been invited to the young man’s bar mitzvah. My daughter has bonded with her girl cousins while her brother has been at camp…and they have had tea and done crafts and played outside and talked non-stop.

Gary, I’m typing this on your computer, probably still feeling some jellybean residue on the keys…but I want you to know that we get it. We’ve looked around and we want to take YOU with us. We want your awareness of people, your desire for relationships, and your genuine love for humanity. We want that…and we miss you dearly.

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Dear Year 20,

Dear Year 20,IMG_4187

You were a tough one. From Day 1, when I saw my own son sitting alone at a cafeteria table in a school that I had been so nice to me, I knew it was going to be a unique year. Did we make the right choice to bring him to this school, out of his district? But worse, how could he be a middle schooler already? Time, you are so cruel.

And then, there were the student challenges. Broken homes, broken hearts, broken languages, broken dreams…so many pieces that I had to be assembled, IMG_4184

 

reassembled, glued tightly and held even tighter to stay together.     Students moving in and moving out, here and then gone. Keeping up with their work as they kept up with their lives…or we both tried to, at least.

Sickness…why was this year different? I thought I’d have an iron immune system by 

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Sinus infections, flu, bronchitis,  mold allergies when they started tearing the ceiling out. Pollen allergies through the open windows.      

 

 

And home life…will we move? When? Where? Will I stay and he move? The kids have adjusted so well this year. Do we have to move them?  Interviews…disappointments…plans…changes. 

Then staying put and waiting and wondering. 

You brought it all to us, year 20.

But I’m still here. To quote the beloved Langston Hughes,

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

 

My classroom is dark now.classroom

The boxes are packed,

the chairs are stacked.

Everything is labeled

because I’m coming back.

I didn’t get it all done this year. They will be back next year, and so will I. The needs will still be here, and so will I. Time marches on, and so will I.IMG_4188

 

Stormophobia: a dog’s life

We adopted a dog from our local animal shelter last week. I’ve been requesting a second dog for a while, but my husband is a ‘one dog man’. But when my son’s best neighborhood buddy moved away…well, he needed a young whippersnapping companion to take the boy’s place. (wink, wink) Our old family dog is more of a sleeping companion these days.

So, we brought home Dodger, a white boxer with the face of a grumpy grandpa, the snore of a motorcycle, and the flatulence of a Mexican restaurant. He’s a sweet, sweet fella, and he’s fit right into our family. Even our ol’ gal Mia, who has been with us for almost eleven years has accepted him as her brother.

This evening, we had a summer thunderstorm, not uncommon around these parts. Our family usually snuggles up together on the couch and listens to the thunder, the wind, and the rain. We might even open windows to smell the fresh air. Tonight’s storm rolled through just as the kids were dozing off to sleep, and they missed our snuggle time. But Dodger was totally aware of what was coming along.

From the first distant rumble, he was on guard. He began pacing through the house, looking for shelter. Up and down the hall, up and down the stairs, staring at me, locating my husband, and back again. Whimpering occasionally, he was in constant motion…trying to find his haven in his new home. Or maybe, he was just trying to get away from the storm altogether. He hopped on the couch with me (usually forbidden) and sat at attention, eyes darting from window to window, wherever the lightning flashed or rain sounded loudest. Then, he hopped down and returned to his pacing, pausing briefly to have an explosive blowout on my son’s floor (I hope that was just something he ate and not a storm-triggered behavior. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long, disgusting summer…)

As I was thinking about how to comfort Dodge and how to break this cycle of panic, I thought of his past. He came to us from a home where he was always kept outside, due to a family allergy. If the behavior I saw tonight was his response to being inside during a storm, I can only imagine how terrified he was being outside through each storm. I hope that the more storms he ‘weathers’ inside with us, the more settled he will become…and the pattern of panic will be broken.

This behavior caused me to think of people who are trying to live a new lifestyle and how hard it is to break out of the old response patterns. Breaking free is liberating, but first it’s terrifying. How do you know who to believe or trust? It’s like Dodger looking for his own solace…his own place of shelter because we humans couldn’t be trusted to make the storm go away. Starting over often means that you can only depend on you because others have failed so often and so deeply.

It takes courage to want a new response, to be tired enough of the old panic-and-poop to find a new way to respond. It takes strength to pull out of an unhealthy situation and pace around looking for a new, healthier way. Though fear may be a driving force, it still drives us on to seek something better.

I will be researching how to settle Dodger’s storm fears, but I won’t forget his first storm with us…or the impression it made on me. That utter panic of ‘This has got to change!!!! How can I make this stop?!?!!’ made me recall my own past panics and how infinitely thankful I am to have survived and thrived.

God is good. God is always with us in our storms. He sees us wandering and wondering how to make it all go away. And he reaches out to us to show us the way. He wants to wrap his arms around us, stop our shaking, and hold us until the worst is over. We just have to be willing to trust his love more than our own methods of comfort.

Psalm 147: 3

He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.

Psalm 103:1-5

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
    and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
    and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

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VBS: It’s not just for the kids

As we belted out the lyrics to a great Chris Tomlin song and learned the motions choreographed to go along with it, I heard the message for the first time. The closed-captioned words popped on the screen as the kids watched the singers and followed their motions…and I just stood there reading the song that I’d sung dozens of times before.
‘Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord, as we wait upon the Lord, as we wait upon the Lord…’
Huh…our strength will increase while we’re waiting on God. Lemme ponder that a bit.
I watched Connie, our 78 year old volunteer, dance just as enthusiastically as her second grade counterparts. I admired the excitement that flashed in her eyes. She saw me and said, ‘I love it!’ At her veteran place in life, she was learning new moves and new praises to God.
Other class leaders, moms-returned-to-full-time-work, were using the bond of VBS to spend with their own children because their new schedule limited the customary family time.
One grandad was helping in the snack area because his wife, one of our usual snack helpers, had a stomach virus. He had an opportunity to serve kids, his wife, and his God.
The classrooms were pleasantly stocked with youth helpers, cutting, pasting, tying, wiping, shushing, leading…finding their own niches in service.
‘Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord, as we wait upon the Lord, as we wait upon the Lord…’
Each adult present in VBS has had his/her fair share of waiting times. Waiting for a loved one to come through surgery, waiting for a diagnosis, waiting to find housing, waiting for a job interview, waiting for the check to come in the mail so bills can be paid…the waiting can be so long and weigh so heavily on us. But according to this inspiring praise chorus, which reflects Scripture, our waiting is what develops our spiritual muscles. Just like our physical body improves its tone with strength training, so does our spiritual self.
My dear dancing Connie has waited for health, family, housing, security…and it has brought her to a place of laughter and love to share with VBS kids.
The working moms have worked waited for interviews, financial stability, growth of children…and it has brought them to their knees in service to the kids of VBS.
The grandad has,no doubt, waited on his wife, his children, his grandchildren…and it has brought him back to waiting tables, doling out cheeseballs and lemonade, in the name of Jesus.
The youth have waited to grow up, to find their paths, to be independent…and it has brought them to church, in the summer, to serve little ones half their age.
‘Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord, as we wait upon the Lord, as we wait upon the Lord…’
If we are confident of the one we are waiting on, we can doing the waiting. If we look back at what he has done, in our lives, in the lives of others, in the Bible… we know that the waiting is worth it. He is faithful. He will not faint, he won’t grow weary…so neither should we. I admire my VBS colleagues and each of the stages of life they represent. They have waited…and will continue to wait…but they know that the waiting isn’t really so bad when you consider what strength is being built…
Isaiah 40:31
They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.
The will mount up with wings as eagles.
They will run and not be weary;
they will walk and not faint.

Root beer floats

Women are such saps. Hallmark commercials, Lifetime movies… We quote movie lines like, ‘You had me at hello’ and ‘Some people are worth melting for…’ Thanks, Jerry and Olaf, for adding that extra emotional sigh to our already sappy lives.

We also fall for those witty pick up lines. ‘Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?’ ‘You should come with a warning sign that says ‘Dangerous Curves Ahead!’ ‘You must be tired…you’ve been running through my mind all day.’ Oh, ladies, you know we’re goofs for that stuff. It may not get us now, but it got us back then…when the guy was trying to make us smile in that ‘oh, you’ve got me’ kind of way.

For me, it was a line about root beer floats. We both had the idea about a root beer float, and then he added, ‘With two straws.’ (*Sigh*) Insert eye roll and dreamy smile here and mental wedding checklist here.  Oh, I was a goner…

But that root beer float never happened. The two straws weren’t for us. They were for him and someone else somewhere else. And so I banned root beer floats. I refused to have one until the right guy came along. Only then would I allow that float-loving-two-straw-sharing-maudlin weak spot in my heart to be vulnerable again.

Well, little did I know who I would share my next root beer float with…or how long it would be.

My nearly-seven-year-old son overcame a big hurdle in his little life recently. He has been afraid of a particular thing, and  when he finally conquered that fear,  there was reason to celebrate. We had had ice cream the day before, so I considered something different. The same little ice cream stand also advertised the elusive root beer float. And I realized if he, with his brave little internal strength, could celebrate overcoming a fear as big as he was, then it was time to overcome my distant disappointment and celebrate with him.

I asked him if we could share the treat, and he said, ‘With two straws…or maybe in two cups.’

Oh, that very statement that made my heart melt two decades prior…that statement that I thought meant we were M.F.E.O. (‘Made For Each Other’, Sleepless in Seattle). Oh, those wistful haunting words…with a twist that brought me reeling back to the present. The twist that made it belong to my slightly germophobic boy…this boy, my boy.

I looked down at his precious doe eyes and realized that I was still a sucker for that line. Only, the one I would truly share the float with was the one who deserved it most of all. I would melt for his sappy lines for as long as he would dish them out to me.IMG_2764

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Top Ten: Summer Solstice Activities

Unlike previous top ten lists, this one is not in ranked order. Our family ignores the pagan origins of Summer Solstice, and we celebrate the beginning of summer just as that…the beginning of summer!!!!!!!!!!! We hang out with friends and let our kids stay up until the sun goes down, which is so far past their bedtime, it’s practically the next morning to them!!! Here are some of our ideas… do any or all of them to celebrate the beginning of summer! Share some of your own as well!

Top Ten: Summer Solstice Activities

10. Sunny Sun Cookies — Make a batch of these happy sunshines…and share some with neighbors! http://lets-explore.net/blog/2011/06/welcoming-summer/sun_cookies

9. Sharing the Shine — Another gift to share…a whole cookie mix! Spend the extra sunny hours mixing up these tasty concoctions to give away throughout the summer when someone needs a ray of sunshine! http://eatatallies.com/2011/06/cookie-mix-in-jar/

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8. Tie Dying Summer Shirts  — Got friends? Wear shirts? What a fun way to spend this sunny evening together…making bright shirts to wear the rest of the summer! http://spoonful.com/crafts/tie-dyed-t-shirts

rainbow-tees-craft-photo-420-FF0603DYEA11 (Photo from Family Fun magazine via spoonful.com)

7. Bike Ride through the neighborhood— Enjoy the late evening sunshine and you may make some new friends who will share summer fun with you! Make up silly bike races or relays…ride through obstacle courses or yard mazes. Find a new way to enjoy the ol’ familiar bike…you’ll have lots of summer time to enjoy it!

6. A new summer drink— Sangria for you, seltzer and juice for the kids…mix up a little refreshing beverage fun. Set out ice, fruit juices, fresh fruit, seltzer, mint leaves, and some little umbrellas for the kids to create their own summer blend. Give it a special name and it may become a family tradition! Peruse Pinterest for scores of yummy summer treats for mom and dad’s sipping pleasures!

5. Save some sun for a gray day— Take the kids outside and let them splatter paint some blank paper/notecards. Save this ‘stationary’ for notes to someone another day! http://angelaandersonart.blogspot.com/2011/11/fun-splatter-floral-paintings-kids-art.htmlsplatter paint

4. Just add water!!— Most places are in the thick of summer heat by the time summer even begins. Water activities are always a winner for summer fun! Sprinklers, squirters, wading pools…the ol’ standards. But what about water balloon tee ball, water balloon pinatas, sponge balls…and the scores of ideas found on (again!) Pinterest?? So many new ideas, you’ll be set for the whole summer!

3. Scavenger Hunt— choose a theme: summer fun, colors, beat the heat, numbers…and then choose your objects within that theme. Plan it ahead of time…or tell the kids to count to 20 and throw the items randomly around. Then, turn ’em loose to find them. This activity can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be…

2.  Dance in the Street!!–the neighborhood may rejoice at the ice-cream truck’s jingle, but you can keep on dancing with your own playlist. Let the sun shine and the music play on this long sunny day! Here’s a sample playlist, with some kid-friendly songs…http://thoughtcatalog.com/stephanie-georgopulos/2012/06/a-150-song-summer-playlist/

1. Plant Sunflowers— Start the summer by starting a sunflower patch. Pick a place with lots of sun and room for these tall soldiers of the season to stand. Start a tradition of enjoying nature on this night and you’ll see it’s beauty throughout summer! http://www.almanac.com/plant/sunflowers

Sunflower_from_Silesia

 

Of course…there’s always pie!

She spoke with such confidence about the possibility of finding dessert, as she ran to the glass front door. Her brother was running to catch up with her and possibly beat her to the table.

I had convinced them that it was time to go inside after several hours of playing with dirt, friends, dirt, bikes, dirt, sticks, and dirt. It was time to get clean and get ready for bed. Reluctantly, I agreed that they could have dessert when we went inside, as they had both eaten dinner before rushing outside to enjoy some evening playtime.

He had said, “I hope we have pie!”, knowing that earlier in the week, there had been pie.  Raspberry pie, his favorite. She assured him, with the faith of a child, “Of course! There’s always pie!”

I knew the sad truth. There was no pie. There was no “going back to school cake” either. You see, we’d had company. The grands had come to visit, and in the course of the week’s dining, chatting, wining, and whining, a large quantity of dessert had been eaten. One raspberry pie, one apple pie, one “going back to school cake”, and another raspberry pie. And so, of course, there was no pie.

I knew I could find some palatable, sweet-tooth-satisfying treat for them, but it was my daughter’s exuberant faith that got me thinking.

We want things…pie, jobs, friends, acceptance. But do we really believe that they are out there for the taking? And what if they come in different forms? What if the pie really turns out to be ice cream? What if the job begins with a lower salary? What if the friends have dark sides? What will we do to find the acceptance we think we want?

There is always something good…always something to enjoy. It may not be what we thought we wanted, but it is of course, good. Shelter, clothes, warmth…or coolness, any job, dependable friends, food…any food.

We ate marshmallows. Plain, ol’ puffed up sugar. Nothing fancy. But it was dessert. And we nibbled them into ghosts and clouds. We tore them into fourths, which meant we had even more to eat…more dessert! We made the best of the situation…and then made even more of the best!

And of course…it was good.