Wishing well.

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I’m having knee replacement surgery tomorrow. I know I’m lucky that I can afford the health insurance that makes this possible, lucky that I’m in excellent health otherwise, lucky that my recovery will likely be smooth and complete, lucky that Dick will care for me through this. All week, messages have come from friends and family wishing me well. My knitting group, fantastic Duluth women, delivered a week’s worth of homemade food for us. I’m grateful for all of this. And yet, I haven’t shaken the feeling that it isn’t fair to interrupt my life for surgery so that I can simply enjoy walking again. There’s going to be a lot of sitting around before I can move the way I want to.

And then a couple of things happened that knocked me into a better perspective.

My dad, appreciative of the medical care my mom received in her final year, and mindful of the news from Aleppo, decided to donate to Doctors Without Borders instead of buying gifts for children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. He knows it’s a way to step outside the fortune of our family ties to acknowledge that families very much like ours have unbearably sad burdens that they somehow bear, every day. I’m glad he’s doing this, especially as we turn the corner into whatever the new year will look like, here in the U.S. and around the world.

Then, my Book Club in the Twin Cities decided not to continue the traditional book exchange where we all bring a wrapped book, open them one by one, and try to guess who gave which book. This usually becomes the larger part of our reading list for the coming year. But there are other ways to make a reading list. Instead, we are donating items requested by one of our members for her homeless clients. Jane, a former ballet dancer, went back to school a decade ago to get her R.N. degree. Now, she’s a public health nurse in St. Paul, who begins her days at 4:30 a.m. wearing a headlamp to visit homeless people wherever they are camped.

When we asked what we should buy, Jane answered by email:

The people on the streets are there for a variety of reasons; poor mental health is always a factor and most of the people I have met have fallen through the cracks, unable to obtain housing because they are not able to follow through a long list of requirements that would enable them to do so.  And, aside from other street homeless, they have few friends or family.

I do see women, but mostly men and except for 3 rather emaciated men, the majority are large — tall and big.  Big hands and big feet.

Anything you give, I will send you a story in return about who I brought that particular gift to and how they reacted to it.  I would imagine that not many of my people I see will be receiving wrapped gifts.  Whatever it is, please add a tag for me with what the item is and size so I can deliver what is most needed to a particular person.

What we need: I’ll start big to small:  pup tents; sleeping bags, sleeping matts for comfort; backpacks; battery operated radios with batteries; flashlights with batteries; warm clothing: gloves (warm gloves and socks (wool);  long underwear (tall  and large or extra large); warm hats (large sizes) and gift cards to restaurants downtown so they can get out of the cold early in the morning or late at night and go get something to eat and something warm to drink and so they can be inside out of the cold.  Some ideas are Brueggers, Micky’s Diner and Cosetta’s. Not Holiday (which is close to where lots of people camp) because they sell cigarettes. If you have second-hand jackets and second-hand boots  that you are discarding, please think of me.

While I was digesting this message, Jane sent another message:

I was out this morning (with our doctor, Mark) and saw someone I neglected to think about for gifts…  I will call him C. His first language is Spanish. He lives about 2 blocks (for lack of a better easily understandable reference) down a bluff deep into the trees (now bare, of course). One couldn’t see him from the road or even at the top of the bluff, but once I start walking down the bluff, I am able to spot the top of his blue tarp. There is stuff jettisoned everywhere —some of it from previous occupants. I spot a typewriter, old baby carriage, bicycle tires, a bike pump, a urinal (someone visited a hospital), old shoes, old Kowalski bags, a baseball bat, a soccer ball, an old sink, a stuffed pink bear that is missing an ear, a pile of summer clothing, old broken bottles of every manner of drink. The usual junk we see — but here there is something magical: C has pots of fake flowers everywhere. He told me he loves flowers and tried to grow roses last summer. A little shady here for roses. He also has Christmas ornaments strung up, a shrine with Mary and Jesus, and a makeshift door (an old cupboard door strung with rope). He has hanging bells so he can hear visitors.
When we look at these pots of flowers, Mark and I cry. C is very fearful of people. When I inspected the skin condition on his hands the first time I met him, I asked him what happened to his finger.  He said he was attacked at age 7 and the people who accosted him cut off his finger. He used to work as a dishwasher or line cook in a Mexican restaurant on the west side but was told to leave because of his skin condition. This morning at 6 a.m. he was getting ready to go to work. He was so proud of the fact he was just hired to clean a different Mexican restaurant in off-hours. He is happy to have any work. He walks about 2 miles to the restaurant…
Last night he hardly slept for fear of missing his first day of work. So, what does he need?  A watch. A simple inexpensive watch. Probably better than a battery operated clock that could get wet.  Because of his skin condition, he needs a non-metal band on the watch.  The simpler the better.
We serve the undocumented, but C is very fearful.  Like the fox and the little prince, where the fox tells the prince he has to return at the same time and same place every day if he wants to tame him or make friends with him, Mark and I went back every week at the same time and we started by leaving bag lunches and notes. It took almost 4 months for C to talk to us. C also needs boots… his shoes are falling apart. They are too big, plastic and have holes (Crocs).  
So… as I stored the delicious food my friends made for me, I thought of Dad’s decision to donate. I thought of C and the rest of Jane’s clients. I tried to imagine what it feels like to be alone — to feel absolutely alone — in the world.
And I couldn’t imagine it. The truth is, when difficult things have happened in my life, there have been people who wished me well, and who helped my life become well.
There are people who wish me well. Such a simple thing — shouldn’t everyone be able to count on that? And yet… so many people can’t.
I’m going to have a lot of time sitting still in the coming weeks to think about what I can do to change that.

Grace Paley and me at Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat.

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Last Saturday was the Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat at Charlson Meadows in Victoria, MN — a wonderful day funded by Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.  The librarians who organized it were hoping to attract a mix of members from their established writing groups and people new to writing. They succeeded. An interesting and engaged group of people paid attention to each other, and to writing, all day.

I carry Minnesota writers with me wherever I go — in my head, quoted in my notebooks, passages copied into my calendar. Minnesota is awash with talented writers. When I teach, I read passages from their books — Alison McGhee, William Kent Krueger, Louise Erdrich, Tim O’Brien, Joyce Sutphen, Patricia Hampl. Because I was talking with other Minnesotans in Minnesota, I relied even more on local writers for this retreat.

But I was pleased that heads nodded at this passage by Grace Paley, who knew a thing or two about good writing. From her essay, “Some Notes on Teaching, Probably Spoken”:

“It’s possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of blood and money in order to be interesting to adults. That is — everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements, people are rich or poor, make a living or don’t have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. — And blood — the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of a family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two FACTS and is never comic or tragic.”

A good reminder, especially when writing memoir, to LET SOMETHING BE AT STAKE. Because something always is. In any good story, there is always something at stake. Something changes between the beginning and the end of the story. It’s the reason the writer needs to tell the story. It’s what keeps the reader interested. Whatever is at stake is what connects two human beings who might otherwise never encounter each other.

On Saturday, we were talking about memoir, a particularly personal kind of writing. But I maintain that all writing is personal. All good writing either asks a question, or answers a question. As long as we keep that question in mind as we write, we can’t go far wrong.

We ended the day with William Stafford’s poem, “You Reading This, Be Ready,” written just two days before he passed away. I cried when I read it. I always do.

Peeing on our monsters.

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Wonderful piece from 1/1/2014 on NPR’s All Things Considered about editing your life stories — and the health benefits thereof.  You know which stories we’re talking about, the ones that run in our head and tell us who we are and how we should move through the world. Turns out we can edit the stories we tell ourselves — in effect,we can pee on our monsters.  A little crude (sorry, Mom) but what a simple and effective idea.

The radio interview is well worth listening to, and James Pennebaker’s writing prompts are worth trying. I’ve followed Pennebaker’s work at the University of Texas on healing through writing, and incorporate some of his ideas into my workshops and classes.

Improving our mental health with our life stories seems like a good thing to consider in this very cold early January. I’m looking forward to exploring this with my writing students this year.

Join us at The Blessing House on Saturday, January 11.

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Stephanie Friant has invited me to teach a writing workshop at the Blessing House in Victoria, Minnesota this coming Saturday, from 9 am to Noon. We’ll be talking about writing your own life story, or family stories, and we’ll do some fast and fun writing exercises together so everyone has a head start. The Blessing House is a peaceful and contemplative place to enjoy a winter day — and Saturday may even be sort of warm.

I met Stephanie last summer, and quickly discovered that we share an interest in spiritual writing, and in spirituality as a journey. She’s a thoughtful and humble writer – visit her blog when you’re looking for food for thought, and she’ll point you in all sorts of interesting directions.

Writing About the Dead

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Mt. Zion Cemetery, Georgetown

Mt. Zion Cemetery, Georgetown

A colleague from the Association of Personal Historians forwarded a link to Ken Budd’s 11/20/13 piece in the NYTimes about the choices he made in writing about his deceased father. Budd quotes C.S. Lewis in “A Grief Observed” that mourning those we’ve lost makes “the dead far more dead.” His essay describes why he disagrees with Lewis, and how he came to terms with writing about his father in a way he knew his father would not have liked.

I’m constantly reminding my memoir students that they can only tell their own stories, can write about others’ lives only from the perspective of their own. I explain that telling their truest story, with integrity and love, is the only armor they’ll need when family members say, “That’s not the way it happened!” I remind them that someone, some time, will inevitably challenge their memories, and their right to record those memories. And I say they should do it anyway.

When we write memoir, we’re writing more about our understanding of the events than about the events themselves. We strive for accuracy and fairness, and we hope for the best. No one writing about their own life ever gets it all down, every little detail exactly right. We edit and filter without knowing it, simply by going about our days in the ways we’re accustomed to. If that’s the case with our own stories, how can we hope to capture the entirety of anyone else’s story? The point, I think, is to record something, some small thing, about any particular life.

But the C.S. Lewis quote reminded me of a workshop exercise at the APH conference last month where a colleague from Argentina, Eduardo, said something I’ve been contemplating ever since. Eduardo said that if we don’t remember and talk about those we’ve known after they are gone, it’s as if they have died twice: once physically, and again in memory when those who knew and remembered them are gone. He worried that his English wasn’t good enough to express this thought, but he conveyed it beautifully.

The troubling thing, of course, and the point of Ken Budd’s article, is that we can only tell another person’s story through the filter of our own story. It’s not entirely fair, or entirely accurate, to tell anyone’s story this way, especially when they are gone and have no way to correct the record, or contribute to the story. Memoirists struggle with this mightily. We should struggle with this, and pay careful attention to it, in the same way we should be paying attention to the people alive all around us.

That’s the deal, you know. Paying attention to how we affect the lives of others, and how their lives affect ours, is the price we pay for the privilege of being alive on Earth with other humans. Telling stories is how we make sense of that privilege.

Memorial Days

I would love a cup of coffee. I’m in Howe, Indiana, population 4,684, but none of them are around right now, or likely to be anytime soon. It’s early Sunday morning, and this is the kind of town where Main Street’s shops close around 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and stay closed until Monday morning. Accordingly, I can see cars in the parking lot of a church a few blocks down. I pull over to park in front of a perky storefront, “JoAnne’s – Hats, Accessories.” How long will a shop like that last in a town like this? Main Street is also State Highway 13, so presumably a fair amount of traffic passes through town. It’s hard to imagine anyone stopping to buy a hat.

Dee’s Diner on the edge of town opens at 11:00, in time for the church crowd, but the tiny café in this block is dark, the window shades pulled. I begin to regret not grabbing a cup of coffee from the vending machine at the golf course. I’m a designated driver for the annual family golf outing. My father-in-law drove half the crowd in his mini-van, which holds six golfers and their bags, and I was appointed to drive the other six in mine, most of whom happen to be my children, so I couldn’t really refuse. I am to return to the cottage to take my mother-in-law to the grocery later this morning. This afternoon, I will drive her back to the golf course, where we will all pose for photos, which never quite turn out. Years from now, no one will be able to tell the uncles apart, the family resemblance blurred further by the golf shirts and khaki shorts.

We’re covered on the church deal – Catholics have that convenient Saturday afternoon mass around four or five in case you can’t make it Sunday morning, plus, as my mother-in-law points out, they don’t slow down the Saturday mass with all that music. Those family members still hoping for a peaceful and pleasant week or feeling a need to stay in good graces (with my mother-in-law, not necessarily with God) attended mass last night. The rest of us took a cooler of beer out to the end of the dock, and sat with our feet in the water, watching the sun begin to ease itself over the western treeline. That’s about as close as I ever get to God on these visits.

But right now, I’ve got an hour or so of free time, precious and rare during the annual family reunion week, and if I have to spend it in a deserted town, well, okay. There’s a park across the street, the lawn at its center still in dark green shade from the bordering trees, but there are plenty of wooden benches, just exactly the kind I expected, so I head over there. I have an impression of stone buildings behind the trees, more substantial than the one- and two-storey brick buildings on Main Street. The trees are so dense it’s hard to see past them, and it takes me a minute to get my bearings. The park is a perfect small square, surrounded by a square of concrete sidewalk, which is surrounded by three short blocks of street, which in turn encircle (ensquare?) the park with what was once a thriving business district. Even taking into account that it’s Sunday morning, it’s clear I’m a few decades too late to appreciate Howe’s position as a commercial and civic hub. A Wells Fargo branch occupies a massive stone building. First National Bank, it says, in foot high letters above the brass doors. The second floor displays a “Nails by Marie” sign. There are a couple of lawyer’s offices with gold lettering on glass doors and yes – really – shingles hanging over the sidewalk. The storefronts on either side are empty. A copy center (“Now offering do-it-yourself”) occupies what looks to be the old library.

And then I see it – what I came for. I should have been looking for it earlier, should have known it would be at the center of this park. The war memorial. I’ve seen them in small towns all over the U.S. and Europe, almost always in little square parks very much like this one. The calm and orderly geometry of these parks is never enough to counter the turmoil I feel when I get up close, run my fingers over the carefully carved names of the dead. Boys and men, young men, who crossed this park on their way to somewhere else in town. They would have been on their way to the movies, ten cents for the Saturday matinees, or returning a library book from their science project, or going to the dentist or the hardware store or the five-and-dime, maybe shopping for a sibling’s, or a sweetheart’s birthday present. All those things we do, in the places where we live, so ordinary, so automatic they’re hardly worth thinking about.

Howe’s war memorial was dedicated after World War I, back when folks believed – not just hoped, but really believed – that there would never be another war like this one. A few names are remembered for their Civil War service, high up on the monument’s back side. This far north in Indiana, it’s safe to assume they were Union. Howe was solidly in Union territory, as was all of the state of Indiana, in principle. In practice, Indiana residents on the Kentucky border decided their loyalties on a case-by-case basis. Still do.

The World War I names are centered on the front, in neatly even rows, military formation. There are a good number, but the town, like so many others, lost more to the influenza epidemic of 1918 than it did to the war. World War II deaths take up all of the space on the monument’s two sides and part of the back, chiseled in small letters, first initial and last name. By 1945, maybe they thought it best to leave room for the future. These names are spaced close together, the cramped font almost apologetic. I have seen memorials with two different lettering sizes for World War II: large and bold for the early deaths, smaller, humbler when they realized what they were up against.

My father-in-law left his Indiana town, Earl Park, a few weeks after he graduated from high school in 1944. He took a train to California for boot camp, the second time in his life he’d left the county where he was born. The first time was to deliver cattle to the Chicago stockyards; he and his cousin drove through the night, delivered the cattle at dawn, just as the city’s lights were blinking off, and drove back. Then, it seemed like the trip of a lifetime. In the first week of August, 1945, he was on a troop ship off the coast of Japan, one individual component of the invasion force if Japan had not surrendered. Had we invaded, the chance of him returning to populate a golf course with his offspring and grandchildren is too small to calculate. I don’t mean in any way that my family’s story, or any family’s story, justifies what we did to Japan. I only mean that this is the way it happened. That is the way of the world, when we get down to the level of each human being’s time on Earth: this thing happened, and that thing did not.

Howe’s memorial has a plaque for the Korean War, with a few names, and another plaque for Vietnam. They seem to have given up keeping track after that, and, in any case, they are out of room. I have time, so I read all of the names. They are Indiana names, as Midwestern as they come, the sort of families who ate Sunday dinner at noon, a roast of some sort, with potatoes and home-canned pickles, and homemade rolls. There would be pie or cake for dessert, maybe both if the cousins were coming. People sat around the table after dinner, or drifted to the porch or the front room for the kind of lazy conversation that makes us forget it’s hard to be tied to a family, any family. But boy, that dinner tasted good, and this was a good place to be.

Thinking of food reminds me that I should get back for the grocery trip. There isn’t much I can do on these family visits to ease the strain, for me or for them. Food I can do. I can help put a decent meal on the table every night and I can keep quiet long enough to let the conversation of the cousins and uncles and aunts shimmer in the air above the table, and spill onto the porch, scrolling over every blank space we leave.

I stand before the monument, as solid and unyielding, as final, as the deaths it represents, and so far from the fluid uncertainties of living human beings. But eons ago, this stone, this Indiana limestone, was once supple and malleable, as forgiving as the Earth’s surface in this little park. I touch the cool stone one last time, and head to the car. Highway 13 is deserted, so I make a U turn to drive back the way I came, with time to stop at Byler’s farm stand for a peach pie, which I know will taste of the sun, the soil, the air of this very week.

2007, rev. 2012

 

 

 

Snow Job

 

He’s seventeen. Six foot one and 175 pounds, all lean muscle, unflappable, analytical and far more empathetic than I was at his age. Sometimes I see the same slight curve to his nose that he had as a small child. Back then, he craned his neck and tilted his chin up to see the world, to see onto tabletops and the kitchen counter. I thought it was funny that he never thought to stand on tiptoe, but he’s always been a kid who knows how to keep his balance. Now, of course, there’s no need for tiptoes. There’s very little he can’t see by looking straight ahead with his steady gaze.

It’s late January, 2006.  His first semester grades have just been posted, and I’m convinced he’s broken a promise. The deal was straight B’s, across the board, nothing lower. His first semester grades are a mix of one A, one B and the rest B minuses.

“A B minus is not a B,” say I.

“Mom, it evens out. I’ll have at least a B in everything by the end of the year.”

“But the deal was B’s, Paul,” I say. “It’s junior year. This counts. If you get at least a B on all of your assignments then you don’t have to worry about things evening out. What you’re doing now is letting things slide, then playing catch up to get back to a B. Don’t let anything fall below a B and you’ll never be behind. Isn’t that better?”

The conversation gets a little heated. He tells me I expect too much, he can’t do it. I tell him he’s smart, he’s capable of A’s in most classes and all I expect are B’s. He points out that we’ve had this same conversation for three years now and he’s always brought up his grades by the end of the year. I have to admit this is true. He reasons that the final grade is what appears on his transcript – that’s what matters.

“I’m a good guy, Mom. I don’t drink or smoke or cheat. I take care of the things I’m supposed to take care of.”

He looks exasperated, and torn between anger and hurt as he looks down at me. Then suddenly I’m looking down at him: he’s three years old, his floppy cornsilk hair flecked with pale blue toothpaste, his pudgy hands covered with toothpaste, too. He and a playmate have finger-painted the bathroom walls with Crest.

“Paulie – how could you? What were you thinking? Look at this mess!”

It’s the first time I’ve ever really scolded him. His lower lip trembles. Large tears spill from his wide blue eyes. He stamps a foot; toothpaste splatters across the floor.

“Pauwie nice boy!” he shouts at me.

I don’t remember if I did the right thing back then with two toothpaste-covered three-year-olds. I probably didn’t.  I remember being angry, and resentful that I had to clean up yet another mess in yet another room when other messes, other rooms waited.

But I know what to do in front of my tall son. I smile. I feel the tension leave my shoulders. I reach up – way up – to squeeze his shoulder.

“You are a good guy, Paulie. I’m lucky to be your mom. And you go on being a good guy in your own way, B minuses and C’s included. I wouldn’t trade you for anyone else. You remind me of that every once in a while if I forget, okay?”

“Okay, Mom.” He smiles down at me.

My children rarely learned what I thought I was teaching them. Instead, they came away from my careful attention knowing only, and surely, that the way they see the world is right. Thank god for that. It took me far longer than it should have to figure out that there are really only two things worth hoping my kids learn from living with me. First, how to take care of themselves – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, ethically, financially, intellectually. And secondly, how to treat other people.  If they can get those two things right, then everything else will follow.

They are grown now, the youngest in college this year, and the rest, self-supporting young adults. They know how to take care of themselves, and how to treat others. I wish I had realized sooner that staying out of their way and allowing them to become the people they were going to become anyway would have been simpler, happier, for all of us. My children did not need nearly as much from me as I so willingly and earnestly gave them.  They needed only my unconditional love, and the freedom to step confidently away from that.

I’m not the first to learn more about how to be a better human being from my children than I did from my parents. And I’ve learned the most from Paul, the child least like me. Things have a way of working out for Paul. Or maybe it’s just that he’s willing to be reasonably happy with the way things go.

 

A few weeks after the semester grade discussion, we had a snow day, a rarity in Minnesota, where a foot of snow is taken in stride. I let the kids sleep in as long as they wanted to. Paul had been up very late the night before to begin and end a paper on Jane Eyre. He’d done well on an earlier Jane Eyre essay but bombed the multiple-choice test. His extraordinary English teacher offered to give him credit for an extra essay. Her philosophy: he knows the material, and there are no Scantron tests in real life.

So there was Paul, sleeping off a research and writing hangover while his younger sister and brother were out shoveling the front walk and romping with the dog. I made a big pan of cocoa. By the time Paul finally got up, the cocoa was cold, our drive had been plowed and so had the street and we didn’t seem quite so cut off from the rest of the world. A mixed blessing with a house full of teens. Paul wanted to call all his friends over so they could do their NCAA team picks.

“Well, how about that English paper, Paul? Now that you have all day, could it benefit from a little of your attention?”

“No, Mom. I made sure before I went to bed that it’s as good as it’s going to get.”

I realized I had to believe him. I said his friends could come over at 3:00. In the meantime, I said, you and John and Suzy enjoy the day with your wits and with the people you find yourselves with. No electronics, no TV.  He headed to the kitchen to reheat the cocoa and get some breakfast. Half an hour later I found him in the basement, TV clicker in hand. I turned off the TV.

“Buster, you’ve lost your twenty dollar allowance this month. If you plug yourself into electronics again today, your friends can’t come over. Go outside. Bake some cookies. Play a game with your brother.”

He slowly pulled his long body off the couch. “Well, I guess I could shovel for Ms. Myers,” he mumbled.

Paul earned ten dollars each time he shoveled the long flight of steps at our neighbor’s house, a task he usually had to perform very early in the morning before school. It was the only time all winter that he wore a coat and boots. So he trudged across the street with our shovel.

 

He was back thirty minutes later, a little sweaty. Johnny followed him inside, pulling on his sleeve.

“She gave you twenty this time? Sweet!” said John.

“Yeah,” said Paul, putting the twenty-dollar bill in his wallet and grinning at me.

 

Of course, Paul didn’t look at this the way I did. I wanted to tell him that if he’d followed the rules, he’d have forty dollars. And he wouldn’t have had to work very hard for half of it. But he was happier with the twenty he worked hard to earn. The other twenty? He spent it doing what he wanted to do. Plus there was always the chance I wouldn’t catch him in front of the TV. Paul’s grin told me he regarded Ms. Myers’ bonus as divine providence. He left the house minus twenty dollars and returned with that twenty dollars restored through his own hard work. Who needs to get ahead when staying even feels just as good?

In the years since, our family has fallen apart and been put back together again, in a different format.  My children kept their equilibrium only because I gave them, and myself, enough room to wobble. I’ve learned that allowances aren’t necessary once they can earn their own money, and that grades earned in high school are not a reliable predictor of success in adulthood, and are no help at all in discerning character.  I’ve learned that video games and television don’t kill as many brain cells as I’d feared. I’ve learned that it’s essential to make time for NCAA picks, and probably not essential to look again at a completed task when I already know I’ve done the best I’m able, or willing, to do.  I hope I will laugh with toothpaste-covered grandchildren, and I hope I will never ask them about their grades.  I’ve learned that keeping my balance doesn’t always look graceful; that it can, in fact, be completely graceless.

If I am honest, I will admit that my children succeed as much in spite of me as because of me. They are beloved exactly as they are. In the balancing act that parenthood has always been, I wish I had seen sooner that that’s enough.

2007, rev. 1/11, 1/12

New England One

I work part-time at IKEA for health insurance for myself and my three college kids. Gotta love Swedish socialism — co-workers who work at least 12 hours per week qualify for reduced premiums on a really good plan. This tends to attract a fair number of artists, writers, and other freelancers, so the people who work there are interesting, and fun to be around. So are the customers. Usually. The store is across from Mall of America, so we get a fair number of people who wander around the showroom because it’s another form of entertainment after they’ve done the rounds of the shops, restaurants and bars at the Mall.

Sunday afternoon, late, I was cleaning up some paperwork at a service desk when I smelled cigarette-smoke-soaked winter clothing. A woman’s voice said to my back, “Look up a bed called New England One, will ya?”

Now, if you know anything at all about IKEA, you know that EVERY product has a Swedish, or Swedish-sounding, name. Dinera: stoneware plates and bowls. Effektiv: home office. Godmorgon: bathroom sinks, accessories. Etc. I was pretty sure IKEA doesn’t carry a bed called “New England One.”

I turned to the customer, said, “How sure are you about the name?”

I saw a woman about my age wearing a Baltimore Ravens jacket. She was swaying, her eyes were glassy, and underlying the cigarette aroma was the sweetish odor of someone who’s been consuming adult beverages for a good part of the day.

“My daughter wantsh a bed called New England One.”

I know enough about alcohol-impaired people to realize I wasn’t going to get anywhere with her if I tried a rational explanation of IKEA product names. I looked for the aforementioned daughter, or some accompanying responsible adult who might come collect her. A young woman broke off from a small crowd gathered in front of the big-screen TV in one of the sample living rooms. As on most weekends, some enterprising customer had turned off the loop of IKEA ads and tuned in a football game.

The young woman approached us, tugged at the older woman’s sleeve. “Mom, that’s not the name of the bed. I was trying to tell you that the Patriots won the game.”

“Oh.” The Ravens fan tried to focus on her daughter, then on me. She moved to lay a hand on my shoulder, and missed, started to fall. Her daughter caught her, set her upright.

“You’ll have to excooshe me. I’m really drunk.”

The daughter steered her away, kept apologizing to me, spoke kindly to her mother. “Come on, Mom, I know where the bedroom department is.”

And just like that, in an encounter that took about 45 seconds, I was back at a place in my family’s life that I’ve worked hard to leave behind. None of my kids felt they had to be responsible for their dad’s drinking. But I did, for a time. I minimized it, and covered it up, accounted for it in any number of ways without calling it what it was: a disease, and a person so incapacitated by it that he kept choosing to consume the very thing that was making him, and our family, sicker. My children and I learned ways of coping with an adult who was far less responsible than he could have been.

For two days now, I’ve been thinking of that woman, and of what she said to me as her daughter led her away. “You’ll have to excooshe me. I’m really drunk.”

You’ll have to excuse me…

No. I don’t have to.