Friday, November 12, 2010

I Dream of Shawna

It is Thursday evening, just before a long weekend, and instead of relaxing before an extra day of recreation, our family is making frantic preparations:  cleaning dark corners, decorating, buying delicacies.  Anticipation is high as we prepare for the arrival of the love of my 16-year-old son’s computer focused life, his cyber-girlfriend, Shawna.
It is hard for me to believe.  Our Jake, a gawky, scrawny, six-foot tall mass of bone and sinew with few social graces and fewer words has somehow not only electronically entranced a female of the species, but convinced her and her father to drive the 600 miles up the coast to meet us all in person.  Usually cool, Jake is a little nervous even though he claims to know Shawna well from five months of chatting on the Internet.  They have exchanged pictures, via snail-mail, and hers are on display by the computer terminal.  She is an attractive girl with dark hair and a snazzy personality that shows even in the Polaroid.  It is easy to imagine that he would want to impress her.
The evening wears on.  After pacing miles between the kitchen and living room, Jake cleans his room (unasked), burning a scented candle and inviting me in to see if everything smells okay.  Smell must be on his mind.  He showers, washes all his bed linens and clothes, brushes and flosses his teeth twice, and sends me to the store for new, better smelling mouthwash.  “Jacob,” I finally say, “what’s up?”
“Mom,” he replies, “I don’t want to smell like a boy!”
Late that night it feels like Christmas Eve.  I am exhausted from a day full of activity and anticipation.  The house gleams, the laundry folded and put away, floors clean and polished, the smell of freshly baked cookies lingering in the shiny kitchen.  I collapse on the couch as Jake rises.  “I’m going to bed,” he says.
“So early?  It’s only 9:00,” I say.  He gives me one of his sardonic looks and stalks off.  Minutes later I hear the shower.
As I relax into the couch I am aware of a feeling that’s been nagging at the edge of my mind all day.  I am worried.  Worried that this girl, about whom we really know nothing, will break my son’s heart.  That she’ll take one look at him and decide it was all a mistake.  Or worse, she’ll mesmerize him and become the only influence in his young, inexperienced life.  He’ll become her love slave, unwilling and unable to listen himself or anyone else.  For instance, me.  I stop myself in mid-fantasy, knowing that if I continue to spin out this tale it will become increasingly depressing.
As I think about it, I am shocked to realize that what I have labeled worry is walking a fine line between jealousy and lack of faith.  Jealousy of their youth, their passion, and lack of faith in my son’s ability to sustain a relationship.  I don’t know which disturbs me more.  It is a thankless task this being a parent.  It’s so much work, and just when you think you can see an end to it, it turns on you, and the mirror of yourself in your children  becomes too evident to ignore.  I see myself in the fledgling relationship of my son and this girl, this Shawna, as a controlling, meddling, overbearing mother.  “But I just want him to be happy,” I inwardly wail as my mind answers, “Yeah, right.  As long as you can control everything.”
I am too tired to indulge in this kind of revealing self-therapy, and soon I am in bed, realizing that all too soon the new day will arrive and, with it, Shawna and her father.  I sleep fitfully, awakening several times during the night, marveling at my state of anxiety.  If I’m this jittery, how must Jake be feeling?
Toward morning, I fall into a deep sleep and begin to dream.  In my dream Shawna has arrived and is standing by the door.  This Shawna is not like any of her pictures.  She is tall and ungraceful, uneasily clutching at her elbows.  Her dull, brown hair stands up in strange clumps, and she wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses.  Her eyes look suspiciously like they might cross at any moment.  I reach out to give her a hug, and she shrinks from me ungraciously.  I am impatient and sorry for her at the same time.  Then Jake comes into the room with a new girlfriend, a girl who looks suspiciously like a smaller version of himself:  red curly hair, freckles, lively, cute.  In my dream I know her; she is his childhood friend, his sidekick.   I am shocked that they have so suddenly become a couple when the day before they were just friends.  But suddenly, faced with Shawna, he has realized that his real, true love is the red-haired buddy.  And I can’t blame him; she is fun, poised, well-mannered, comfortable.  She laughs and is charming while the dream Shawna stands there like a lump.  The dream ends with the four us in that room:  Shawna, eyes glued to the floor; Jacob and his dream buddy standing close together, smiling, ignoring everyone else; and me in the middle, happy for Jacob, but wondering what we are going to do about Shawna.
I awake, wondering at the intensity of the dream, knowing it’s important.  Later, I am at the kitchen sink, my hands in warm, soapy water, when it hits me.  I think of how the dream Shawna resembles Jake:  his fumbling, adolescent, uncomfortable self.  Before I even finish the thought, I realize that the red-haired dream girlfriend also resembles him.  She is smart, good-natured, humorous, and ready to love and be loved.  For some reason I begin to weep, and I stand at the sink for some minutes, tears running down my face.
The rest of the morning is spent on last minute details:  polishing the already clean kitchen sink and counters, gathering up the few papers left on my desk and stashing them in a drawer, brushing down a stray cobweb from the living room ceiling.  Then suddenly, the wait is over.  There is a knock on the door.  The father, a pleasant bearded man, appears, and behind him is the real Shawna we’ve all been waiting for.  She is pert and friendly, her dark hair shiny, her eyes bright and direct.  I watch Jacob as he says his first hello.  He is in heaven.  And even though I know that he will suffer from this first love, that this is only one of many steps that will take him away from me and my protection, I also know it is the beginning of a journey that will make him a man.  I stand back during the initial flurry of hugs and incoherent greetings, and then it’s my turn.  I step forward, take her hand and smile.  “Shawna,” I say.  “I’m so glad you’re here.”  Strangely enough, I find I am.

September 1996

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Suffer the Children

Recently I spent several days in California with my daughter and her family during their move to a new house.  Which is to say, I spent seven straight days watching my grandchildren from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m, or even later, while my daughter and her husband moved, cleaned, shopped and organized.  Since I don’t get to see my grandchildren very often, I was in heaven.  For the most part.

My grandchildren, Lucie aged 8 and Aleksei aged 5, are beautiful, loving, smart and creative.  When Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” I’m sure he was thinking of kids just like them.  In fact, they probably know this because they have a CD called “100 Bible Stories, 100 Bible Songs”, which they played for hours on end during my entire visit.  And when they weren’t playing the CD, they were singing the songs or asking me to read stories in the book that goes with the CD.  I’m sure Jesus loves this about them. 

“There is a name I love to sing, and Jesus is his name-o, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, and Jesus is his name-o.”  This was sung to the tune of B-I-N-G-O, which somehow seemed slightly sacrilegious, but knowing Jesus, he probably wouldn’t agree with me.  There were many tunes, 100 in fact, as you may have guessed from the name of the CD, but only certain favorites that the kids played over and over and over and over again.   “I’m in the Lord’s Army,” “Be Careful Little Eyes What You See,” “Praise Him, Praise Him.”  I think my least favorite was one I remember from my own childhood:  “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”  The more I heard it, the more I wondered what in the world it teaches children.  What does it mean to be a sunbeam anyway? And odd thoughts like that.

At first, I loved the irony of my daughter and her husband, who are perhaps best categorized as agnostics or Buddhists (bad Buddhists, to be sure as they drink beer and wine and are not above killing ants) having children who love Jesus enough to sing about him for hours on end.  As the days went by, it became even more ironic that I would have gladly wrenched open the CD player and whacked the CD to death to avoid hearing it one more time.  

Perhaps the greatest irony in this week of ironies, though, was how much that verse, “Suffer the little children…” kept popping into my mind.  And not in a good way either.  Because, believe it or not, even the most beautiful, loving, smart, and creative grandchildren can, once in a while, get on your nerves.  Even when they sing about Jesus.   Once I sent Aleksei to his room, again, for a time-out, sitting him down on his bed and saying, “Aleksei, you know that song you sing that says, ‘be careful little hands what you do’?  Well, you need to sit here and think about being more careful with your hands.  And not hitting your sister.”    I sound, perhaps, calmer now than I did then.  And did Aleksei say, “Yes, Grammie, you’re right.  I repent of hitting Lucie, and will try hard not to do it again”?  No.  Actually, he ducked under the covers and said, “Please get out!”  I got out and set the timer at 8 minutes instead of 5.

Not that Lucie was little Miss Perfect.  My granddaughter has an advanced awareness of what’s fair and what’s not, especially when it comes to her own well-being.  She also has a developed sense of the dramatic and is not afraid to use her whole voice and body to express herself.    She sort of has tantrums.  Civilized ones, compared to when she was two, but this is an emotional girl.  I became so used to her shrieks of dismay and indignation, that if I didn’t see blood I wasn’t all that concerned.

On about day three of this intense bonding with my grandchildren I began to seriously wonder about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:14. The NIV translation goes like this:  “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”   The Message says it this way:  “But Jesus intervened.  “Let the children alone, don’t prevent them from coming to me.  God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.’” Now I understand Jesus letting the little children come to him; hopefully he can bless them and teach them some manners at the same time.  But the second part of his statement, the part about the kingdom of heaven belonging to such as these?  That one gave me pause. 

Having been raised in church, I’ve heard many sermons and discussions regarding this verse, most of which were some version of the idea that Jesus wants us to be innocent and loving like little children before sin rears its ugly head.  But watching Aleksei shove Lucie and hearing her blood-curdling scream in response made me wonder.  Jesus wants us to act like this?  Let me just pause here a moment and say that I love these two kids more than I ever thought it possible to love anyone who wasn’t my own child.  They really are delightful, and they love me more than I deserve.  Like most other children, however, they can be impulsive, self-centered, selfish, inconsiderate, bossy tattletales who don’t seem to me to be extremely spiritually advanced.   And so I wondered: this is God’s kingdom?  Is Jesus asking me to aspire to this?

During my drive back home to Oregon, I continued to wrestle with this verse.  I don’t claim to be a Bible scholar or particularly astute about such matters, but I did come up with some ideas that make sense to me.  In a way, this verse doesn’t so much seem to tell us what Jesus wants us to be as much as it tells us what is acceptable to him: rowdy, noisy, immature beings who want to be close to him.  Which is pretty good news to someone like me who appears, most of the time, like a fairly together, quiet, considerate, serious, moral…I could go on, but you get the idea.  I like to see myself as much more deserving, much more dignified, and probably much more of the kind of person Jesus would want to be around than a crusty little kid who maybe hasn’t had her nap yet today.  But when I’m really, really honest, I will admit that I’m not always as wonderful as I like others to think I am.  And sometimes I resemble the wayward child who really doesn’t have a clue how to be spiritual, but who does know full well what it is to be needy.

I think Jesus is telling us two things here that we need to be reminded of now and then:  we might be better off admitting who we really are and quit trying to pretend; and we have no business building fences around Jesus to keep out the riff-raff. 

On one of my last days there, I learned, again, what children can teach us about Jesus.  Aleksei is deathly afraid of bees, and the new house has a big backyard with an abundance of them hovering around the clover.  Since San Leandro was suffering from record temperatures during my visit, we spent at least an hour outside every day playing with the cat and dog and with the kids running through the sprinkler.  I don’t know how many times I reminded Aleksei to wear his shoes outside because of the bees, and even though he was fearful, he would end up without them once again.

We had had words earlier. About what I don’t remember; but we were both sulking a little.   And then he let out a scream that pierced my heart.  I knew almost immediately what had happened – he had been stung.  The beautiful thing was that he did not hesitate for a second, even though a minute later he had not been speaking to me.  He ran to me, flinging himself onto my lap screaming, “Grammie, Grammie, save me!”  And I, all irritation gone, never even considered anything but holding him, comforting him, and taking care of the sting. 

Jesus isn’t our Grandma (or Grandpa) but he loves us even more, if that’s possible, than I love Aleksei.  He doesn’t want us to hesitate to ‘draw near’ to him, whether it’s sauntering, stumbling or running.  And he doesn’t want us to discourage anyone else either.  Because this is the kingdom: composed of those who are wretched and blessed, anxious and calm, boring and dramatic.  We are his, and he will save us.

 September 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Weasel in My Freezer

Several years ago, when our children were very small, my husband and I finally agreed on one aspect of child rearing.  This was worth noting because at the time, we seemed more interested in arguing than in just about anything else.  We were raised in very different families and were both convinced that our own philosophy about any particular thing was the correct one.  We did finally agree, however, on this one thing:  that our children would grow up to appreciate nature and the environment.  My husband was a city boy who took to life in the country like a pig to the watering hole.  In addition, he is truly fascinated by the macabre in nature.  I, on the other hand, had been raised in a rural, sometimes primitive atmosphere, but had grown up somewhat squeamish.  I don’t like this side of myself and wanted to squelch any such leanings in my children early on.

It began when we found a big book that had full page, graphic color pictures of all kinds of snakes.  The theory was that if we looked at the book with the kids when they were small, they would grow up without the paralyzing fear of snakes and other such creatures that so many of us seem to have.  “Look at the pretty snake,” I would say while gingerly turning the page by its edge, making sure my fingers didn’t touch the pictures.  Those snakes really gave me the creeps.  But I wanted my kids to approach nature without fear, so we sang songs about spiders, allowed crickets to run free in the house in the wintertime, and took hikes in the forest well off the beaten path.

All three kids happily went along with the program, loving all God’s creatures, not just the pretty ones.  One day while weeding along the edge of the house I cam across a few salamanders.  “Oh, look,” I called to the kids, “salamanders!”  They came running, eagerness in their little faces, not knowing repulsion was my immediate reaction.  I let them look at the slimy creatures and poke them with grass.  “But don’t pick them up,” I warned.  I hate it when they pick things up.  “Send them home to their mothers.”

All this oneness with nature backfired when they got a little older.  At age three they were happy to pick up snails (touching only the shells) and throw them in the road for my version of organic pest control.  At age five, this changed.  “No, Mommy, he’s my friend,” was the response of one of my little darlings.  “But snails aren’t our friends,” I gently explained.  “They eat the lettuce and the strawberries in our garden.”  This was a concept he understood.  “Mommy,” came the quick response, “they’re hungry!”

These memories came back some time ago after an expedition to the beach with the three kids and the boyfriend of the oldest girl.  We were on our way home, driving slowly along the narrow country road, looking at the cows.  Suddenly, this little animal darts out of the field straight under the wheels of my car.  I slammed on the brakes, but by the time we stopped I could see a little lump on the road in my rear view mirror. 

Always the good wife, I decided to check to see if the animal’s head was intact and if it were a creature my husband would want for his skull collection.  “Matt,” I said to the boyfriend, “go see if it’s dead.  I’ll wait here.”  Matt dutifully went and reported back that it was indeed, dead.  “Get a bag,” I said to Jacob, my middle child, the snail lover.  Fortunately, we carry a supply of plastic bags in the car for these occasions.

The five of us gathered in the road around what turned out to be a weasel.  I had never seen a live weasel before.  Of course, this one was dead.  But it had been alive only moments before, and the only hint of its demise was a slight trickle of blood coming from its mouth.  It was beautiful in a way, quite small, with a delicate long nose and lovely red and white fur.  “Don’t touch it!” I warned as three pairs of hands reached toward it.  I made them get the trowel, also kept in the car, to scoop the weasel into the bag.

“Daddy will be so pleased,” I commented as we piled back in the car.  The kids were strangely silent.  Finally Caitlin, the oldest, spoke.  “I wonder why it ran out in the road like that,” she said.

“Maybe it was a mommy weasel trying to get home to her babies.”  Carin’s voice trembled slightly.  “They’re probably waiting for her.”

“They’ll starve to death,” Jacob added.

“In the first place, this is the wrong time of year for weasels to be having babies, and in the second place that weasel is male,” I said firmly.  “I checked.”  I hate to lie to my own children, but sometimes they take this nature thing too far.

We made it home without being stopped by a cop.  I mention this because later I found out we could have been fined several hundred dollars because this particular weasel is endangered.  “Of course it’s endangered,” I told my husband.  “It’s prone to suicide.”  He was pleased at our find, but couldn’t decide what to do with it.  “It seems a shame to just keep the skull,” he said.  “It’s really a beautiful animal.”

We ended up wrapping the weasel in plastic, enclosing the whole thing in a brown paper bag, and putting it in the freezer while my husband inquired about taxidermy.  I guess he thought a weasel would look nice next to the stuffed armadillo we got a yard sale.  Since $300 was the minimum amount quoted to stuff the weasel, it remains in the freezer, in limbo until its fate is decided.

In the meantime, when the children are present, all visitors to our house are immediately escorted to the freezer to view our little friend.  The kids unwrap it carefully; its body, unmarred by time’s passing, looks natural, as if it were just sleeping.  “Isn’t it pretty?” the children say.  “And its fur is so soft.”

But I remain vigilant.  “Don’t touch it!  It probably still has germs!”

Sometimes I wonder if those snake books were such a good idea after all.

August 1990