Family

The New Colossus

The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This, of course, is the poem inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It is a stirring, moving testament to the ideal of and belief in the United States as a haven for newcomers. The last few lines are quoted frequently; they come up in almost any discussion of immigration.

Yet today, terrorism and wars and natural disasters are creating not only a crisis of refugees, but also a climate of fear. In that climate, some Americans seem to think Lady Liberty ought to lay down her “torch of world-wide welcome” in favor of laying bricks to build a wall. In that climate, I’m not sure that glibly repeating Emma Lazarus’s words is all that helpful.

When she wrote this poem in 1883, Miss Lazarus was helping desperate Jewish refugees who were fleeing Russian pogroms. They had seen family members killed, their homes burned, their way of life destroyed. They truly were tired, poor, and homeless. And in the eyes of the nation driving them out, they truly were “wretched refuse.”

But focusing on these familiar phrases from “The New Colossus” makes it sound as if the only people coming here are those that no one else wants. It encourages us to see, not only refugees, but all immigrants only as people who need our help. Only as victims. Only as desperate. Only as homeless. Only as recipients of our charity. From there it’s just a short step to seeing them as ignorant, incapable, and pitiful. From there it’s just another short step to seeing them as unworthy, other, and unacceptable.

This perspective asks only half of what has to be a two-part question: “What can this country do for these immigrants?” It misses the other essential side: “What can these immigrants do for this country?”

And immigrants who have something to give the United States are not limited to those with professional degrees, high-tech knowledge, or other in-demand-now skills.

They might be like my great-grandfather, Christopf Emme, who came to the United States in 1904. He was a German peasant, a widower with six children. When they landed in Baltimore after 13 days at sea in steerage class, grubby and bewildered, they may well have looked like “wretched refuse.” They certainly were “tired and poor”—Christopf had $17.25 to his name. He couldn’t even afford to pay for his family’s steamship tickets.

Who bought those tickets? Christopf’s older brother William. Another poor German peasant who had come to the United States 20 years earlier. In just one short generation, he had prospered enough to not only support his own six children, but to fund the immigration of his brother’s family.

Like his brother before him, Christopf became a landowner—something he could not have achieved in Germany at that time—by proving up on a homestead. He and his children became self-sufficient American citizens. Their children, many with college degrees, became teachers, farmers, engineers, professionals, and business owners. By now Christopf has several hundred prosperous, thriving—and taxpaying—descendants all over the country.

Immigration, legal and illegal, is not a simple issue with a simple solution. I certainly don’t have one. I do know that I’m baffled by a system under which millions of people can come in and stay illegally for decades. Pew Research estimates the number of illegal immigrants at 11 million. That’s over 3% of our population and 5% of our workforce. Those numbers strongly suggest we have space for these people, jobs for these people, and a need for these people. So why are we not working together to find ways to let them be here legally?

I also know I don’t want to live in a country surrounded by walls to keep the rest of the world out. I don’t want to see us become so inward-looking, suspicious, and hostile to new people and new ideas that nobody even wants to come here. That’s not a country represented by the welcoming ideals enshrined at the Statue of Liberty. We’ve never fully lived up to those ideals, of course, but they still are an important part of our identity. We call ourselves with pride a “nation of immigrants” because immigration has shaped our culture.

The third thing I know is this: We can’t arrive at any reasonable solutions to the problems of immigration by considering only people’s needs or circumstances at the time they want to come here. We have to look at least one generation, or even more, into the future.

To help us do that, it might be good to focus on another of Emma Lazarus’s phrases. One that doesn’t get the same attention as the tired, poor, homeless, wretched masses. That phrase is “tempest-tossed.” When people come here in need and desperation, it’s because their lives have been overtaken by storms. Storms like political upheavals, terrorism, natural disasters, war, and violence. Storms that have brutally disrupted their lives.

Storms that, ultimately, are temporary. Throughout our country’s history, many people have arrived here as desperate refugees. Many others, like my ancestors, were not fleeing from disaster but simply looking for better opportunities. If we could trace their descendants, my belief is that by the second generation, it would be hard to tell which families were which.

I’m not suggesting at all that we throw our doors open wide to anyone and everyone who cares to show up. That makes no sense. But when we discuss who and whether and how to let people in, let’s not only consider their immediate circumstances. Let’s also consider their future children and grandchildren, whose ability to thrive and prosper can help the United States continue to thrive and prosper.

It would weaken and harm this country if we allowed Lady Liberty’s torch to become a warning beacon or a stop light behind a looming wall. Instead, let’s keep it as that lamp beside a welcoming door.

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Yarn Yoda and the Force

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

I don’t know whether my grandson Henry, at age five, can quote Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker from The Empire Strikes Back. Chances are he can.

I assume this because long, long ago, in a theatre far, far away, I remember watching Henry’s father watching the original Star Wars movie when he was about a year younger than Henry is now. He didn’t fidget; he didn’t talk; he didn’t get drowsy even though he had just finished a huge Thanksgiving dinner. He sat enraptured through the whole film, meanwhile munching his way steadily through a big bag of popcorn that he should not possibly have had room for.

Here and now, in this galaxy, Star Wars has come around again. This means a whole new universe of toy light sabers, action figures, and other galactic merchandise.

Including Yarn Yoda. He appeared at our family Christmas gathering this year. One of our traditions is exchanging small anonymous gag gifts, which this year had to begin with “Y”. Henry was the one who got stuck with—er, who was delighted to receive Yarn Yoda. He also pointed out that his gift started with two “Y’s”. Actually, it was more like three “Y’s”, if you cared to count the one in “Do It Yourself.”

Because this Yoda was a kit, complete with green and brown yarn, a little bag of stuffing, black plastic safety eyes, and detailed instructions to create a three-inch version of the venerable Jedi knight in crochet.

Henry might wield a mean light saber, but he doesn’t know how to crochet. Neither, despite a formidable array of other skills, do his parents. Both of them did express their willingness to try, and with the Force and YouTube videos with them I’m sure they could have figured it out. Still, a tiny three-dimensional figure isn’t the best project for someone just learning to crochet. Especially when—cliché or not—there’s a grandma around who already knows how.

Given the rustiness of my skills, I didn’t quite share Henry’s confidence when he assured me that turning a handful of yarn into a Jedi “would only take a couple of seconds. You just have to make a ball.” Or as it might have been phrased in another galaxy: “Do. There is no try.”

He was eventually persuaded that I would crochet Yoda and send him, if not quite at warp speed at least by priority mail. So Yarn Yoda, or at least his potential, went home with me.

Never mind the details. Let’s just stipulate for the record that it takes a little longer than a couple of seconds to crochet a Yoda. However—in a new personal best speed record for the actual completion of a craft project—I finished him, right down to his toenails, on New Year’s Eve. (What that says about my exciting social life is not something we need to go into here.)

Admittedly, critical observers might point out that his ears are askew. Even non-critical observers might notice that his smile is more uneven than enigmatic. But he does stand up. He even bears a gratifying, if surprising, resemblance to the pattern.

Whether the Force can be with a tiny Yoda made crookedly out of yarn might be open to debate. Or maybe not. After all, what Yarn Yoda really is—and what he would also have been if Henry’s parents had made him—is a perfect example of something that we wouldn’t even consider doing for money or for fun, but that we’re glad to do for love. The Force doesn’t get much stronger than that.

Though I do hope Henry has forgotten two little details: That the booklet in Yoda’s kit also included instructions to crochet Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a Stormtrooper. And that my other “Y” gift was a bag of yarn.

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The Perfect Christmas Tree

Because our neck of the woods includes actual woods, it’s a tradition for many people to cut their own Christmas trees. (And where did that expression come from, anyway? Why isn’t it the “head of the woods” or the “heart of the woods” or even the “left elbow of the woods”? According to informed sources, aka Google, this phrase apparently came to be used for a small local area because “neck” was a term for a narrow strip of woods. Which, really, could just as well be called an “elbow.”)

But never mind that. In this part of the world, for a mere ten bucks, you can get a permit from the Forest Service to go out to the Black Hills National Forest and get a tree. This involves finding the perfect tree, cutting it down (unless you’re Paul Bunyan, a tree saw is probably safer than an ax), and hauling it home. (Don’t forget the rope or straps to tie it to the top of the car or secure it in the back of the pickup. Trees have been known to escape.)

These tree-cutting expeditions, of course, are perfect opportunities for spirited family discussions about exactly what constitutes the “perfect” tree. Should it be spruce or pine? Slender or wide? Tall enough to touch the ceiling, or short enough for a kindergartener to put the star on the top?

For some people, little details like symmetry of the branches and uprightness of the trunk seem to matter a great deal. Others (yes, family and friends, you know who I am) just take a quick look and decide, “if it’s good enough for Charlie Brown, it’s good enough for me.”

Not naming any names here, but it’s been my observation over the years that there are two ways to prevail when it comes to picking out the perfect tree. One is to be in possession of the saw, which gives you the opportunity to say, “This one, right?” and start cutting it down before anyone has a chance to disagree. The other is to be the person who cares the most. The rest of the family will eventually realize that letting you choose the tree is the easiest and fastest way to get back to the hot cocoa and cookies waiting in the car.

Then, of course, there is the matter of putting up the tree once you get it home. This is when you discover bare spots, bent branches, delicate skunk-evoking aromas, and other little flaws that weren’t obvious out there in the woods. And nobody has ever satisfactorily explained why a tree looks so much bigger in the living room than it does in the forest.

For some people, apparently, a Christmas tree is an opportunity to create a perfect display of color-coordinated and carefully placed ornaments that complement the rest of the home’s seasonal decor. For decorating-challenged observers like me, the result can inspire awe. What it does not inspire is a wish to go and do likewise. Even if I’m tempted for a moment, I know better than to try the same thing at home.

For others, decorating the tree is about digging out ornaments that are valuable for emotional rather than esthetic reasons. About the years when most of the decorations hang in erratic clusters at a two-year-old’s eye level, or the times when a teenager is suddenly so tall he doesn’t need a stepstool to put the star on top of the tree.

Over the years, in our family, tree-cutting experiences have ranged from multi-vehicle expeditions with friends, to snowy family picnics, to quick grab-the-closest-tree trips in freezing weather. We’ve gotten stuck in the snow, hiked through the woods on mild fall-like days, and chosen trees that ranged from beautiful to downright scrawny.

This year, for example, I voted for a tabletop sized tree. The one we brought home was petite enough that we briefly considered asking for a rebate of half the cost of our Christmas tree permit. It now stands—all 33 inches of it—upright and very nearly straight in a flower pot filled with rocks. It is decorated with nothing but one string of lights.

And it’s perfect. Just like all the other trees we’ve cut over the years. Because, of course, the perfect Christmas tree isn’t really about the tree.

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Leaving the Lights On

Even by the standards of an early-morning person like me, 8:30 p.m. isn’t really late. But in the short days of late November, when you’ve just staggered off of an airplane at the end of a day that started 20 hours earlier on a different continent, 8:30 p.m. can feel like the deep, dark middle of a very long night.

But the plane landed promptly, my friends were at the airport to pick me up, and when we turned from the dark street into the dark driveway of what I expected to be our dark house—there was light. My daughter had stopped by to turn up the thermostat, and she had left the porch light on for me. Plus the light inside the entryway, plus a lamp shining warmly through the front window.

The impact of this simple gesture went far beyond the practical kindness of making it easier to lug my bag up the steps and unlock the door. The light allowed me to walk into a warm, bright haven instead of a cold, dark house. It made me feel safe and welcomed me home.

And I was reminded of one of the stories my father told. The winter that I was a baby and my older sister turned three was harsh. One blizzard after another howled across the South Dakota prairies, sometimes leaving farm families like ours snowed in for days or even weeks at a time. Shortly before Christmas, a neighbor called to say that the gravel road past his farm had been plowed, so he could make a trip to town before the next storm. My father rode horseback through perhaps three miles of drifted snow to get to the neighbor’s house and go along.

It was dark, of course, by the time they got back from town. My father saddled his horse, tied on two gunny sacks filled with groceries, mail, and Christmas gifts, and headed home. Many years later, telling the story, he remembered coming over the crest of a long hill. Far across the frozen prairie, where home was, he could see a tiny light. “It was a lonely feeling,” he said, “like I was the only person in the world.”

But even though he still had a long way to go in the cold and solitary darkness, he could see where home and wife and children were waiting for him. They were where the light was.

It’s a simple thing, really, to make such a difference. Leaving the lights on for each other.

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Hollyhock Dolls

Hollyhocks are weeds. Or so I’ve been told by several “real” gardeners. The kind of gardeners who know the proper temperature for compost, whose tomatoes flourish, and whose gladiolus (gladioluses? gladioli?) win awards at county fairs. The kind of gardener that I definitely am not.

Maybe feeling intimidated by those experts is the reason I never got around to planting hollyhocks, even though I always wanted some in my yard. Even though I carried a secret stash of hollyhock seeds in a little plastic bag through six moves. Both their identity and their provenance were definite, because in the bag with them was a scrap of cardboard torn from the top of a cereal box. Written on it, in my Uncle Ernie’s careful handwriting, was “Hollyhock seeds from the Smith place, 1983.”

Three years ago, I finally planted those seeds, along with some others scavenged with permission from the garden of an old mansion-turned-museum in Trinidad, Colorado. Amazingly, some of them sprouted. Some of them grew. Some of them even thrived.

This year, despite drought and heat, they and their descendants have taken over half of one bed in our flower garden and are blooming vigorously. I have to admit that they have spread like, well, weeds. And that with their huge leaves and tall stems they do look a bit, well, weedy. I might even acknowledge that I would be wise to cut some of them back this fall before all those seeds mature.

But in the meantime, I can show my grandkids how to make hollyhock dolls the way my sisters and I used to do.

Here’s how: You pick a few blossoms that are fully open, plus a matching number of half-open buds or smaller blossoms. You strip the stem off of the buds, along with the green leaves that support the bottom of the flower. (A real gardener, no doubt, would know what those are called.) This reveals a little eye-shaped opening between each partially furled petal. Carefully slide the stem of one of the open flowers into one of those openings as far as it will go. The larger open blossom, upside down, becomes the long, full skirt of a gown. The white bottom part of the half-open bud becomes the doll’s face, adorned with a frilly hat.

 

Okay, maybe the faces are a little rabbity, the hats a bit crooked, and the gowns a trifle uneven. But they’re fun. And, given the generous abundance of hollyhocks, nobody cares that you pick them.

The other day, as we passed on our daily walks, one of my neighbors said, “I just love your hollyhocks. They remind me of my grandmother.” She asked if she could harvest some seeds, which I’ll be happy to share.

So it isn’t just me who understands what’s going on here. It doesn’t matter that, to some gardeners, hollyhocks look like weeds. To some of us, they look like memories.

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Cool Dudes and Cooler Dads

A quiet summer evening, the Safeway parking lot, a family heading to their car with a few groceries. Mom was walking beside a child who looked about five, holding the hand of another little one who might have been two or three. Dad, behind them, had an even littler kid up on his shoulders.

And Dad was skipping. The toddler, held safely on top of the world in his father’s firm hands, with his own fists full of Dad’s hair by way of insurance, bounced high with every skip and giggled with glee. No one, seeing this, could help but smile.

Well, almost no one. Coming after this happy pair was one more child, a boy of around ten. He was slouching along several steps behind, looking down, with his cap pulled down over his face. Everything about his posture said he was doing his best to pretend the rest of the family had nothing to do with him. You could practically hear him thinking, “I can’t believe this. My dad is skipping. In the parking lot at Safeway, in front of everybody in the whole wide world. Please, please, please, don’t let any of my friends see this.”

Back when Dad was 19 or 20, he might have felt the same way. He probably couldn’t imagine his future self doing something so undignified and so uncool.

Several children later, he knows better. It will be a while yet before the embarrassed older brother appreciates the value of the lesson his dad was demonstrating there in the parking lot. That good fathers care more about getting shrieks of delight from their children than about whether they look cool to strangers.

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Just Don’t Call Me Late for Dinner

“You were born just in time for supper, and you haven’t missed a meal since.”

My mother told me that once, when we were talking about the births of our children and I asked her what time I had arrived.

I assumed the “haven’t missed a meal” part referred to my appetite. I am neither a glutton nor a gourmand, but I do like to know where my next meal is coming from. I much prefer my meals to show up reliably and regularly, even when I provide them myself. The people around me prefer this, too, since I tend to get just a teeny, tiny bit irritable if it’s 15 minutes or so past mealtime and I haven’t been fed yet. By 30 minutes or so past mealtime, I develop a headache and get shaky, and the people around me tend to get nervous. I would blame this on hypoglycemia if I were more sure of how to spell it.

It makes no sense to me that some people routinely skip breakfast or get so busy that they forget to eat. I never miss a meal myself except in extreme circumstances, such as serious illness or the unreasonable demands of medical professionals.

I was not happy this morning, for instance, that my blood work—my fasting blood work—for a routine checkup was scheduled at the outrageous hour of 8:30 a.m. When you regularly wake up at 5:00 or 5:30, that’s practically the middle of the morning. By the time I got out of the clinic at 8:52, I had a serious headache. My hand was shaking so much that I had trouble peeling the banana I had stashed in my purse. On the bright side, at least I had neither passed out nor been actively rude to anybody.

Back in my own kitchen a few minutes later, savoring the aroma of brewing coffee and waiting for the toast to pop up, I summoned up enough grace for gratitude. Gratitude that, in my world, hunger is an occasional inconvenience and not a chronic condition. Gratitude that I consistently know where my next meal is coming from. Gratitude that I have the means not only to feed myself but to give to those who can’t.

And gratitude for my mother, whose teasing about my “never missing a meal” I suddenly understood in a different way. Members of my family didn’t miss meals. We didn’t have to, because of her. She put nutritious, tasty food on the table three times a day, every day. Even though she didn’t especially enjoy cooking. Even when there wasn’t much to cook with. Even though cooking “from scratch” often included canning or freezing the vegetables, gathering the eggs (after raising the hens who laid them), and butchering the chickens. She did this, day in and day out, for decades.

No wonder I developed the habit of relying on regular meals. It’s the way I was raised.

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The Unlocked Room Mystery

All I meant to do was change my clothes. Really. I didn’t mean it to turn into a big drama.

First, a little background. The family was gathered at my youngest sister’s house the day before our father’s funeral. Now, any time you have a houseful of a couple of dozen people who are sad, stressed, and exhausted, there’s potential for plenty of drama. Especially when it’s right before lunch.

I took the slacks I had just pressed into the guest room, closed the door, changed my clothes, and started to leave the room. The door wouldn’t open.

At first I assumed I had simply locked it by mistake. But no matter which position the lock was in, or which way I turned the knob, or how much I jiggled and pushed and pulled on it, the door stayed shut. The knob turned in my hand, but the latch didn’t move. Apparently, something was wrong with the mechanism.

I was acutely embarrassed. Here we were, in the middle of a sorrowful family occasion, with everyone grieving, and I had to divert people’s attention from taking care of difficult and important things because I couldn’t, for God’s sake, get myself out of a room that I didn’t mean to lock myself into?

But finally I had to admit it was time to summon help. The next time I heard someone out in the hallway, I knocked on the door, got the attention of a passing niece, and explained my predicament.

And the family, in our own particular way, sprang into action. Warning: here comes the drama.

My niece went and told my sister the homeowner, “Your sister is locked in the guest room.” Her response was “Which sister?” I guess I should consider myself lucky that, when she found out which sister it was, she didn’t opt to just leave me in there.

A self-appointed committee of problem-solvers gathered outside the door. Now, you’d expect these first-line rescuers to work together in a helpful, courteous, and cheerful manner—after all, one was an Eagle Scout and three were civil engineers.

But other family members chimed in, as well, helpfully and just a trifle too cheerfully. Here is a sample of their advice and support:

• “Should we make some pancakes to slide under the door?”
• “It’s a good thing somebody brought that thin-sliced ham; it would fit under the door.”
• “Don’t panic in there: heavy breathing will just use up the oxygen.”
• “We could get one of those chocolate brownies under the door if somebody stepped on it first to mash it flat.”

While the problem-solvers pondered outside the door, I explored inside the room. Where I discovered:

• If this turned into a long siege, quilting magazines were the only available reading material. However, there were board games in the closet.
• The piece of plastic that someone slipped under the door didn’t work to budge the latch. Too bad it wasn’t a credit card; while I was waiting for rescue, I could have done some online shopping. Oh, but I didn’t have my phone. Never mind.
• Despite all the mysteries and thrillers I’ve read, I don’t know how to pick a lock with a nail file, a bobby pin, or a knitting needle.

After due pondering, the rescue committee came up with a solution. My brother-in-law slid a screwdriver under the door and told me to take off the doorknob.

It takes a long time to remove a couple of two-inch screws which are threaded along their entire length, too stiff to turn with one’s fingers, and close enough to the doorknob that you have to reposition the screwdriver every half-turn. Especially when there’s way too much laughing going on outside the door, interspersed with moments of silence when you begin to wonder if everyone has forgotten about you and gone off to have lunch.

Which, of course, they didn’t. Once I got the screws out and took the doorknob off on my side, they were right there to remove the lockset on the outside.

The door still wouldn’t open. One of the engineers figured out the problem: a broken or jammed thingamabob inside the mechanism that kept the latch from moving. He popped loose the offending part, the latch shifted, the door opened, and I was free. Just in time for lunch.

Of course, the meal was garnished with more good-natured smart remarks. But as one of my sisters said, “We needed that laughter.” It certainly was better than yelling, blaming, and hysterics. Some families may do drama with more, well, drama—but this method works for us.

I do think, though, that somebody could have slipped me a squashed chocolate brownie.

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A Life Well Lived “In the Middle of Nowhere”

I recently met a woman who lived not far from where I grew up in south-central South Dakota, and she asked me where my family’s farm was. When I told her, “Fifteen miles north and west of Gregory,” she said, “But that’s in the middle of nowhere!”

Well, we didn’t think so. We were only six miles from the highway, after all. To qualify as “the middle of nowhere,” surely you’d have to be at least 20 or 25 miles from the nearest pavement.

I will admit, though, that when it rained those six miles turned into a formidable obstacle of slippery, sticky gumbo. Even in later years, after the roads were graded and graveled, driving on them after a rain required a judicious amount of care and respect.

I remember one visit to my parents back when I was a single mom with two young children. It rained heavily the night before I needed to head home, and I was a little nervous about those six miles of gravel-over-gumbo between the highway and me. I loaded the kids and our stuff into my little Datsun station wagon, braced myself, and took off. We slipped and slid a few times, but made it with no real problems. After those first six miles, the rest of the 250-mile trip was a breeze.

After I got home, I made the usual “We’re home safe” phone call to my parents. My dad happened to answer the phone. I said I hadn’t had any trouble getting through the mud. He chuckled and said, “You didn’t know you had a guardian angel following you, did you?”

After I left, he had gotten into the pickup and driven a half mile behind me all the way to the highway, just in case I slid off the road and needed some help. I never even knew he was there.

My father almost never said, “I love you.” What he did instead was do “I love you.” That day, his actions said “I love you,” as clearly as if he had shouted it.

More clearly, in fact. He could have told us goodbye with big hugs and said, “I love you so much”—and then stayed comfortably in the warm house and had another cup of coffee. Instead, he put on his coveralls, went out to the pickup, and drove six miles through the mud to the highway and six miles back. He was there behind me just in case I needed him.

Ten years ago, my parents drove out to Rapid City because my father had an appointment with the cardiologist. They stayed at my house for a couple of days. Since my dad, at age 82, wasn’t comfortable driving in city traffic, I served as the driver while they were here. But the morning they were to leave, I drove my car to the clinic and they followed me. When my dad had seen the doctor, they started for home.

As I watched them pull out of the clinic parking lot onto Fifth Street and head north, I knew they shouldn’t have any trouble. All they needed to do was stay on that street all the way through town to I-90.

Still, after waiting a minute, I pulled out onto Fifth Street and headed north myself. Staying back far enough so they wouldn’t notice me, I followed them through town until I saw them turn onto the Interstate. It really wasn’t necessary, but I was there behind them just in case they needed me. It was my turn to be the guardian angel—to do “I love you.” Just the way I learned it from my father.

In the years since, as our parents have aged and needed more help, saying “I love you” has become much more common. But my sisters and I have also had plenty of opportunities to do “I love you,” especially in the past few months. Our father spent most of the month of July in the hospital. On July 23 he had a heart attack, and on July 27 he died.

In the days after his death, as we wrote his obituary and made arrangements and supported our mother, I found a great deal of comfort in two things. One was the stories and memories we shared, with plenty of laughter as well as tears. Another was realizing the great respect and love that so many friends and members of the extended family had for our father. I always knew that he was a man of integrity who could be relied on. I always knew I was proud to be his daughter. I hadn’t fully understood how much, in his own quiet way, he touched and influenced so many people. Even in a place some people might see as “the middle of nowhere,” his life made a difference.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 8 Comments

What Mother’s Day Cards Don’t Say

(I wrote this several years ago. It’s still true.)

I hate picking out Mother’s Day cards. Oh, not because I don’t love my mother. I do. I also like my mother, respect her, admire her, and enjoy her company (except maybe for all those times when she beat me by more than 50 points at Scrabble). I’m deeply grateful that she’s a part of my life. But it’s still hard to find a card that suits her.

Mother’s Day cards are generally divided into two styles. First there are the neutral ones, those with the carefully worded, noncommittal greetings. They’re generic enough for almost anyone. You might send them to your mother-in-law, or your neighbor, or your aunt—or your mother, if the two of you didn’t get along very well. Those don’t exactly convey the loving message I’d like to send.

Then there are the other cards—the soppy, sentimental ones. These must be produced by writers who are trained by attending a boot camp for greeting card writers. They spend six weeks locked in windowless rooms, where they are required for 15 hours a day to read and reread Little Women and the more sentimental novels of Charles Dickens. Only then are they considered qualified to write Mother’s Day verses.

The problem with these cards is that they aren’t written to or about real people. They try to invoke an idealized version of “Mother” who is endlessly patient, kind, understanding, loving, dedicated, noble, and self-sacrificing. This mythical creature is a mishmash of June Cleaver, Ma Ingalls, and the Virgin Mary, with touches of Florence Nightingale and Lassie thrown in for good measure.

Real mothers aren’t like that. Nor, in my opinion, should they be. Still, I love my mother, and I’d like to send her a suitable card. If I could find one, these are some of the things it might say:

For my mother—
• Whose walls are decorated, not only with her own beautiful quilted creations, but also with antlers of her own deer.
• Who patiently spent long-ago summer evenings helping small daughters fish when she surely would rather have been left in peace to tend her own line.
• Who taught me that preparing a meal for 25 or 30 people doesn’t have to be a big deal.
• Who took loving care of her own elderly mother and mother-in-law.
• Who taught me that, in times of crisis, sentiment might be noble but practical action is a lot more help.
• Who taught me that half the fun of playing Scrabble comes from knowing the meaning of the words you use—but there’s still nothing quite like using the “Q” on a triple word score.

And who taught me that being an adult—whether you’re a parent or not—means showing up, day in and day out, and doing what needs to be done. And if, in return, someone gives you a little chocolate once in a while, that’s not a bad deal.

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