Tell Them a Story. Like Big Bird!

“Sunny day
Sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?”

This morning, my daughter suggested we turn Sesame Street on for her one-year-old. We did, and oh, the feelings that swept through me.

It’s the first week of a new decade. My holiday decorations are stored, the garage is impossible to use while we try to clear the house of clutter, I used New Year’s Eve to paint a bedroom. There’s a new baby, just twenty days old, living in my house and distracting me from my chores (I am joyous to oblige him). Lots of fresh starting going on.

There’s also a lot of nostalgic wishing and sighing. A little angst- I still haven’t had a book published or lost the ten pounds I need to, but those are little angsts. The big angst is over people I miss. When you’re very, very young, like my two grandchildren, time has no meaning. Days? Months? Years? Decades? Pfft. When you’re a teen or perhaps a young adult, every new year may feel like the beginning, like a fresh start full of promise. Onward!

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When you’re in the middle, like I am, you look forward and backward in equal measure. And this morning, with Big Bird on the screen, I didn’t just glance backward. My very soul seemed pulled right out of the now. The episode began with Elmo singing with friends on the stoop of the brownstone, the green doors opening to reveal Gordon, his father, and his son, Miles. They told a surprised Elmo and Miles, who couldn’t imagine that the two old guys might have been musicians, stories of their younger days as a singer and a guitarist. Gordon’s flashback included Luis and Bob, and my five-year-old spirit danced in recognition.

I have always loved Sesame Street. Its literacy lessons gave me reading, but its inclusive kindness gave me hope. I was a pretty lonely kid, and Big Bird’s gentle love for the invisible Snuffy was a source of great joy for me. When my own eldest was a toddler, I shared SS with her on the Lubbock PBS station; Ernie was her favorite. For her second Christmas, we got her an Ernie ornament for our tree. My father was with us that Christmas, and when we hung that Ernie, he told me that he remembered how I had loved the show as a small girl. I had never realized he’d noticed that. But I did, I really did love it. And my dad. He loved me, too.

Caroll Spinney, the operator and voice of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, passed on my granddaughter’s first birthday, and as she stood at the TV screen this morning, I realized anew just how important it is that we pass along, to our children and grandchildren, all the things that Sesame Street holds dear: kindness, literacy, and story.

Story is power, it is magic, it is blessing and curse. Humans love stories. We draw them, film them, record them, write them, and tell them around campfires. My Grandma June used to tell the same family yarns over and over at gatherings, so often repeating herself that her kids and kids-in-law developed a hand signal: when Grandma started a story they’d all heard before, they would start flashing their fingers above their heads to indicate how many times they’d heard the tale. Then they’d all laugh, including Grandma, and she’d tell the story anyhow. Story is how the thread of a family can be woven in and around generations, creating a tapestry that is indestructible. It may become threadbare at times, perhaps worn or frayed, but the through-line will preserve a household. How can we share story?

Story can be long. My Grandmother Juanita was a seamstress; when I’d visit and she needed to sew for a client, she’d set me up near her machine with my own doll, fabric scraps, needle, and thread. I’d cut and stitch as she made beautiful dresses, while stories fell from between her pin-filled lips. Stories of raising children while picking cotton, stories of church. Stories about the women who came to her home for dress fittings. She shared an oral history with me that could not have been heard if we’d been in front of a screen. Those stories took hours of communication: her talking, me listening and asking questions.

But that’s not the only way to share story. There are ways to incorporate it into a daily life lived in such a way that our tales flow out of us, long and short, deeply profound or joyfully silly, memorable or not. Each story shared, no matter length or gravitas, builds a connection with each other: parent to child, roomie to roomie, teacher to student.

Though I usually shy away from creating a list, today I am giving it a try. Here are some ways to share story with your loved ones, whether family of blood or family of choice, friends treasured, or students respected.

  • The most obvious is to share meals around a table. Screens off. Though my hubby and I share our meals in front of a TV now, when we were raising kids, we gathered them around the table, television off, for dinner every night. Those thirty minutes allowed everyone to hear and be heard. It did get harder as they got older and began playing sports and taking dance lessons. But the foundation we laid in their younger years remains firm.
  • Leave the photo albums and scrapbooks out where everyone has quick and easy access. I used to spend hours poring over my parents’ wedding album and the albums of all the photos taken when they were young and my brother and I were small. Sometimes I asked my parents what was happening in a particular picture, but at other times I allowed these photos to be a jumping-off place for histories of my own creation. I personally have around twelve albums now of my own family.  And if some of the cute decorations in the albums that moms of my generation were creating so lovingly during the 90s and 00s get torn, so what?
  • Tiny moments call for short stories. Washing dishes, tucking in, not making the team…all opportunities for stories that are just a couple of sentences. When I was tightening the key on the expander in my kids’ mouths (they all inherited my narrow jaw, unfortunately), I’d tell them tales of my own orthodontic nightmares, including the time when my inner upper lip cut open then sealed shut over the arch of wire running along my upper gums. These old stories gave them hope that they’d survive the ordeal, it let them know that I really did understand their pain, and it helped them to understand that I am a person who lived and loved before they came along.
  • Write things down. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even grammatically flawless. One of my most treasured possessions is the file of letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during their courtship. Sometimes, I sit and read a couple of those letters that are in his scrawled, slanting handwriting, and I feel him and remember him so closely. Keep a book in which you grab a pen and write short notes. Your loved ones will be glad to have it someday. And it’s just not quite the same if it’s all done exclusively digitally.
  • However, sometime technology really can be helpful! Call and leave voice texts-not voice mails, but actual voice texts. They can be longer, can be saved, and can be listened to at convenience and on repeat. Since we’re all carrying smart phones now, you can simply pop in your AirPods and listen to a saved message from the one you miss.
  • When I was a kid, there was a rack of record albums sitting by my parents’ stereo console, I could pull a record out of its sleeve, set it on the turntable, and have a sense of my family through the music they loved. When I was a young adult, we were making mix tapes and CDs, assembling the songs we loved to tell others about us. Now, we can make a playlist and share it. And if we listen to it together, we can share the stories that go along with the songs. At our house, anytime Amy Grant’s “Baby, Baby” comes on, I have to tell the story of my daughter pronouncing it “Maven, Maven” as I drove our used sedan to work, dropping her and her baby brother off at daycare at Ms. Sharina’s first.
  • Traditions and rituals make wonderful opportunities for sharing stories. It might be a cooking tradition, a travel tradition, a holiday tradition. At our house, the kids (now 30, 28, and 25) get a new ornament on the tree every year. They have to hunt for it on Christmas Eve after our traditional dinner of tortilla soup and tamales. Of course there is Ernie, but also a baseball player or two, caps and gowns, and a sparkly frog. And when I hang them, everyone there has to listen if I want to tell the story of any ornament. img_1449.jpgThere is one ornament we don’t hang now, it is the matched set of my daughter and her husband from the year they married, 2016. Custom made by an artist friend, they are perfect little replicas of my daughter and son-in-law on their wedding day. Their marriage crumbled after just one year, the weight of his opioid addiction simply too much to bear.

The stories will not be, should not be, exclusively happy. There are sad stories to tell: pets lost, marriages dissolved, arguments and deaths. But we should share them nonetheless. Our lives are the stories we live and leave behind. We have the power to create and share resonant truths. And from these stories of grief and struggle, we learn that resilience is possible.

More importantly, we have the privilege of authoring our own stories, living them daily in front and alongside the ones we love. May your story be heard and your life seen.

As the wonderful Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and my sweet Sesame Street said, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.”

Interested in learning more about telling story in your family? I love this blog!

 

 

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Conflicted Holiday Recollections

The holiday commercials and Hallmark movies have started. You know the ones: loving couples presenting each other expensive cars in snowy driveways, smiling families in matching jammies caroling around exquisitely trimmed spruce trees, tykes in designer ensembles waxing adorably poetic on Santa’s lap, true love finding its way to the nearest perfect size two blonde with blindingly white teeth. You can practically smell the peppermint infused cocoa wafting out of your flat screen.

You know what, though? For a lot of us, Christmas doesn’t look anything like a made-for-TV movie or an Instagram post. For a lot of us, Christmas is just one more traumatic day of disappointment or painful memories. My holidays now are awesome and full of love. But it was not always so.

From the outside my early childhood must have seemed picture-perfect—cute suburban house, late-model car, accountant dad and homemaker mom. All of us handsome, all of us dressed in pretty clothes, living in the cute, newly furnished abode of the young married.

My early years were punctuated by childish giggles and my father’s big belly laugh. I know this not because I remember it, but because I have seen photos of myself with my parents and the first of my two younger brothers:

sitting atop my young father’s shoulders wearing only a diaper as he reclined on our couch;

diving into my first birthday cake, hands first, head topped with pointy cardboard hat;

playing in the surf on Charleston, South Carolina beaches;

cuddling with my brother, Lance, on the couch;

tossing a ball with my mom;

riding our shared Big Wheel;

playing with a puppy in our little apartment on Christmas morning.

These are the little moments that make up our stories, aren’t they?

Their sounds still live in my memory: splashes and giggles, the crunch of big plastic wheels on grey pavement, puppy yelps…

Chad and puppy 1975I was fortunate that in my earliest, toddler and pre-school days, I lived in a healthy and loving family. My mother and father fell in love while attending college in Lubbock, Texas. Having grown up in families that were well-loved and respected in the windy, dusty, conservative town, they had met at the Church of Christ Bible Chair, an inexplicable name for a building near Texas Tech University, where students met to eat snacks, play games, study the scripture, and find spouses.

When I was young, I spent hours laying on my tummy on our den’s gold shag carpet, poring over each and every page in my parents’ wedding photo album. I especially loved the picture in which my mom looked contemplative as she held her prayer-posed hands under her chin, a slit cut in her white kid gloves, made so that the ring could be put on her finger, clearly visible. My dad looked so handsome in his black tux, and I loved a particular photo of him with all his groomsmen, walking with arms linked and big laughing smiles on their faces. My mom had never stored her dress, so I could go into the closet and pull it from the rod and hold it up to my little body, caressing the appliqued roses and rustle-y organza.

She was beautiful; with big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out who grew even more beautiful in the first years of marriage and motherhood. She had that glow that happy women have.

The only boy among four sisters, my father had served in the United States Navy, which was a matter of immeasurable pride to those very sisters, and rightly so. Dad marched in the band at Texas Tech and graduated with an accounting degree just three months before wedding my mother.

So much joy, so much promise.

Recently, while sorting through boxes of keepsakes in my attic, I found two letters that must have been kept in my grandfather’s belongings, letters that I don’t recall ever having seen. In the first of these letters, written by my mom to her family just two weeks after her nuptials, she tells of all the small joys and travails of a newlywed couple: an apartment without air conditioning, burning her fingers while learning to cook, her fear of ironing my dad’s white work shirts, so sure she would scorch them. In the second letter, the one that cracked through every defensive wall I ever erected, she writes home to tell her family what young motherhood was like. There was such joy in her description of my eating preferences (apparently, I loved green beans) and my irritation with a particular orange bird that swung above my head on my crib mobile. She told of my sleeping habits and my quiet nature. The letter was full of hope, she was brimming with love for her husband, for me, and for the life she was starting.

I know very little about their courtship. By the time I was old enough to hear stories of drive-in movies and malt shop jukeboxes playing Elvis songs, our little family had started to unravel. Laughter was becoming less and less present, replaced by yelling and stony silence. Something changed for my mom. In her mid-twenties, depression and mental illness intervened. Opioid addiction got its hooks into her as she attempted to cope with her demons.

Mom diligently built a network of doctors and dentists from the various suburbs all over DFW. I spent many hours with my little brothers in the back seat of the Pontiac as we visited doctor after doctor, left to mind ourselves in waiting rooms while my mom wove stories of pain both real and imagined so that she could get a hookup with meds. When a doctor cut her off, she found a new one. Back in the 1970s, doctors didn’t seem to be as aware of the substance abuse problem, and it took them a lot longer to realize what was happening, so for years she swallowed these pills, with no one the wiser.

My mom on hydrocodone was not a pleasant woman. She had three basic modes: slurred sloth, benign narcissist, and raging monster. Most of the time she was in that middle place. She could not help us to get ready for school, she could not fix breakfast, she could not do laundry, she could not wash dishes, she could not she could not she could not. I learned to live with this mom, she neglected but she didn’t hurt. I figured out how to make delicacies like Frito pie and tuna casserole, I could open and warm a can of green beans. I made Kool-Aid by the bucket in a blue plastic pitcher, I got my dad to show me how to work the washing machine. I checked in on my brothers at school. I was no mother, but I did my best. And I brought my imperfect best to the raising of my own children and the creation of our own precious and joyous festivities.

Kim and Daddy 2-70

It’s hard, at holiday time, for me to wax nostalgic about my childhood. The earliest Christmases were all they should have been, I know, but they simply deteriorated as Mom did. So I didn’t bring beloved traditions with me as I raised my own family, I don’t have treasured family keepsakes to decorate my mantel or hang on my tree. Just yesterday, while unpacking all my decorations, I broke a bell saved from my eighth-grade year, a little caroler that had come in a box my choir teacher checked out for me to sell as a school fundraiser. I had two bells left that I couldn’t sell. This was one of them, the only remnants of my own childhood Christmas decorations. My husband held me as I processed, unable even to cry as I said goodbye to a tschotke that held such conflicted significance for me.

With a lot of love and grace, I healed. Now, I look forward to the holidays. But I know it’s sad sometimes, for me. And for others. Take a moment to slow down, see those around you. Notice melancholy. Clasp a hand. Say a blessing. Lend an ear. Withhold judgement. Share a meal. That’s how we can make it truly the “most wonderful time of the year.” Love to all.

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Short and Sweet: Generations.

 

This morning, I find myself consumed with thoughts of my family, its history, its future. I think that, because I am watching my daughter’s body change daily as she grows this sweet, first granddaughter, nostalgia hovers close these days.

“I have discovered that I am both culmination and continuation. I am the culmination of all those who came before: the immigrants who left Europe to forge a new life in America; the man who grew up in dusty Oklahoma and serenaded the most beautiful red-head in town; the couple who lived in a tent by a lake and did kitchen fox-trots; the parents who started off with such hope and faltered so devastatingly. I am also continuation: the children that my husband and I made, the family that we raised so erringly but with such love, has gone out to keep the family tree growing tall, reaching simultaneously toward sky and earth. Culmination and continuation. Wish granted.”

From Dandelion Wishes, a memoir in progress.

Let’s Go Fly A Kite!

Daddy and me, 1970I believe kites are dreams. I mean, really, when you’re flying one, don’t you feel as though you’re floating alongside it, aloft like a dandelion seed, rising and falling on unseen wafts of air? I have not flown a kite in years, but I used to love to send a kite up into the air, running with the string, giving it slack or yanking it taut to keep it soaring.

My daddy loved to fly kites. When I was a kid, he would sometimes bring an armful of newspaper to the kitchen table and call me and my brothers into the room. We gathered scissors and tape; I would usually decorate the kite, and Daddy always stressed the importance of the tail. On other occasions, Daddy would see a kite at the store and on impulse, he would snap it up and take it excitedly to the cash register. This was a real splurge for us, money was always scarce. I think maybe Daddy bought kites when he was feeling discouraged and needed a lift.

Perhaps kites are prayers, too. Though always a man of faith, church was not something my daddy attended regularly. I am not sure what his personal faith journey was, I know there were some devastating hurts inflicted by well-meaning but misinformed church leaders. I know that in my own arrogant twenty-something faith years, I probably landed a few good blows, too.

Perhaps my daddy sent kites up when he wanted to connect with the Almighty;  by shifting his focus away from the heavy gravity-soaked earth under his feet and onto the vast expanse of blue sky, he could send a little whisper to God on the breeze. I like to believe that God whispered back.

The year my daddy turned fifty, I learned something new about him. While visiting us for Christmas, he and I stayed up late to chat in the living room speckled with tree-light glow, whispering so we didn’t wake my sleeping toddler. He told me, for the first time, that he had always wanted to be an Air Force pilot, it had been his aspiration throughout childhood. When he applied for the Air Force, his eyesight prevented him from being accepted into flight school, so he went to the Navy instead.

Maybe for him, kites were also Air Force jets.

Anyway, once our kite was ready, Daddy would load us three kids in the car and we’d head to a field, usually at the nearby elementary school, and we would fly our kite until it broke or darkness fell. Those are some of my favorite memories with my dad and my two brothers.

11427195_10152818410851097_4664171811351207828_nRecently, my eldest daughter, Hilary, posted a photo on Facebook of she and a friend flying kites on the beach in California. She’s another dreamer, off in L.A. pursuing a career in film, putting away doubts and only listening to voices that encourage. I love that image- sun, sand, kites aloft, and my daughter’s smile.

My daddy was not the only one who loved kites. The Chinese are credited with inventing them thousands of years ago. The Afghan people fly kites competitively. Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner is an exquisite chronicle of a father and son who run after fallen kites.

When I taught junior high theatre, there was always a day after standardized testing when the kids took the kites they had been building in math class out to fly. The halls were filled with such laughter and excitement– flying a kite is way better than sitting at a desk doing endless formulae, and I know that flying their very own colorful creations is probably one of their favorite school memories.

Charlie Brown

Poor Charlie Brown never could get his kite up past the kite-eating tree. Dreams denied, indeed. The classic loser can’t fly a kite.

And then there’s the classic Disney film Mary Poppins.

I always cry at the end of the movie. Somehow, the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the song for Walt Disney’s film, perfectly captured the joy that comes when you fly a kite. With its lilting melody and hopeful lyrics, a kite lover can close her eyes and remember exactly how it feels to send a kite soaring, all at once “lighter than air.” In that film, the kite is a symbol of a healing family: “Up, through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear, come, let’s go…fly a kite!” A family needs a moment when the air is clear. So does a dreamer, or a God seeker, or a middle-aged former teacher who wonders at every turn what in the world she’s supposed to be doing.

Mary Poppins kite

Life is kind of like kite-flying, I guess. Wind dictates direction, sometimes we go in ways we never envisioned. The glass-covered strings of our enemies can cut our own fragile strings and send us plummeting to earth, shattered and broken. Hopefully, a kite runner, maybe a loving family member or an attentive friend, occasionally even a random stranger, picks up our damaged kite and, with glue and tape and love, puts us back together so we can give it another go.

All this talk of wind and adventure and dreams has made me want to go kite-flying. I’d better go find tuppence for paper and string. Time to build my own set of wings.

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