Amosandra

My mother grew up in a neighborhood that was well below the poverty line and (in an era in which only poor neighborhoods were so) racially mixed. At the time, the phrase “colored” was in popular use; citizens would not be either “black” or “people of color” or “African American”  for another forty to sixty years.

Because of her family’s financial situation, if she wanted pocket money, Mom had to work. And so it was that, as a very young adolescent, she began babysitting for a “colored” family up the street, watching their infant after school and on Saturdays, so that the lady of the household could go out to work herself, doing washing or ironing for more affluent families.  Years later, Mom would explain to me that it was because of this experience of caring for a black infant that she came to understand that we are all, no matter our color, simply people.  Our “race” is human.

Determined to bequeath that lesson to me, when I was about four years old, my mother sought out and gave me the gift of a black baby doll—an “Amos and Andy Amosandra” doll. The soft rubber doll, perhaps 8 or 10 inches long, was a rich chocolate brown, with painted black hair and eyes.  It was just the right size for cuddling into a little girl’s willing arms.  Amosandra—yes, that’s what my Dad told me to call her after reading it stamped on the back of the doll—was dressed in a little yellow knit cap and jacket, and my Mom made several little cloth diapers for her, triangle-style, gathered with a little gold safety pin.

Amosandra
Amosandra: The Sun Rubber Company Amos and Andy Doll.

Along with Lisa, my much larger white baby doll, Amosandra was laid to rest every evening in the little wooden doll crib that had been passed down to me from Mom’s own childhood.

Years later, when I was in my 50s, my father found Amosandra stored in the attic. Being made of rubber, she had hardened and melted in that unforgiving environment; she was too far gone to be repaired.  But how I wish I had her still, not because of her probable value, but because she was dear to me, and adorable, and because it was through Amosandra that I experienced first-hand the vile cruelty and wrongness of racial prejudice.  It was a lesson that would stay with me my entire life.

Most of the children in the neighborhood where we lived in the little suburb of Beech Grove were older than I by two or three years—not a large gap when one is grown, but an impassable chasm for a little child. Still, occasionally I was invited to play with Connie and Linda, girls who lived in nearby houses.  On that particular day, I recall, they decided we should play on Connie’s front porch, pretending to be moms and neighbors.  Each of us ran home to get a doll or two to be our play children.

I came back with Amosandra and all her accoutrements—diapers, dolly bottles, clothes. We each chose a corner of the porch to be our home, and I busied myself with setting up my area.  But, after a few minutes, I noticed that Linda and Connie were giggling, looking at me over their shoulders and whispering together.  My five-year-old self recognized that something was wrong, but I was totally at a loss to explain it.  Finally one of the girls spoke up, saying, “I guess Becky is a nigger momma!” and they burst out laughing, pointing at Amosandra and sniggering.

I didn’t quite know what “nigger” meant, but I knew from their attitudes that it wasn’t good. I grabbed up my toys and stormed off the porch, hurrying home in tears to tell my mother the whole upsetting story.

She comforted me as I wept and tried to explain. I don’t recall much of that conversation except a sense of bewilderment.  Amosandra was my favorite baby doll, and I loved her.  Why was it wrong that she was brown?  It made no sense.

In giving me Amosandra, my mother taught me a much larger lesson than she had actually planned, for I learned not only what she had intended—that we are all merely human—but the additional cruel lessons that Connie and Linda forced upon me that sad day about the evils of prejudice and bullying.

I never dared bring my beloved Amosandra outside my house again.  Forever after that, she stayed loved and well-cared for but played with only in my bedroom.

But there was one thing that I could do to mend the sad memory of that day, and when I was a young mother, I actually did: When my own daughter was just three,  following the heart of that long-ago lesson, I  gave her a black baby doll.

The Scars We Bear

An acquaintance of mine once confessed that, having begun a relationship after years of being single, she was planning a surgical procedure to remove a noticeable but hidden scar prior to being intimate with her new beau.

Not wishing to offend her, I merely nodded in response to this confession, although I found it hard not to hoot with laughter. I myself had a handful of intimate relationships in the first decade following the demise of my marriage, and at no point did I ever consider it a problem that I have a broad C-Section scar that stretches from hip-to-hip, nor another scar from a breast biopsy that wraps around a nipple. Any male who found my scars off-putting wasn’t someone with whom I needed to be in a relationship, anyway.  I am proud of my scars, including the five new ones from my cancer surgery, which my daughter calls, “Triumphant Scars”.  My stretch marks mean that I proudly bore a wonderful daughter. My scars tell anyone who looks upon them that I am a survivor.

As I see it, the real problem with my acquaintance’s attitude is the predominant and culturally-encouraged belief that we, both men and women, are somehow not good enough (for a relationship, for friendships, for any social interaction) unless we are physically perfect. Encouraged by ads and articles and commercials, by dolls and cartoons, by the glorified unreality of television and movies, we “know” that we are unsuited for love—emotional or physical—unless we have shiny hair, perfectly straight, white teeth, strong muscles and a flat stomach, glowing, blemish-free skin…the list of features we must perfect is painfully endless.  We are instructed in countless ways to reduce or erase our “flaws” and “imperfections”, from that first sentinel wrinkle to baggy knees.  And heaven forbid we age!

I’ve reached that stage of my existence, though, in which “imperfections”, no matter how bravely fought, are inescapable. Wrinkles, sagging flesh, age spots, whitening hair, are simply facts of life, as are slowly softening muscles and deteriorating sight and hearing and strength. And what I have learned from this is that no part of my physical self makes me in any way unacceptable.

In my years on this planet, I have been appreciated, complimented and loved despite a nose that extends like the prow of a ship, teeth that are neither perfectly straight nor white, skin that has never stopped being prone to break-outs, and a tummy that’s always been too round for current cultural perceptions. I’ve had a number of intimate relationships no matter that I bear scars, and no man has ever commented upon them except once, to ask me considerately  if the scar was sensitive.

Every mark, every healed wound, upon my body is a story in its own right; is indicative of my ability, not just to survive, but to thrive—physically, mentally, emotionally. This body that I live in is, therefore, not perfectible, but already perfect.  And anyone who cannot accept that, accept me, precisely as I am is undeserving of being included in my life

A Candle in the Darkness

A few days before I was to have surgery, a close friend asked me to confirm the time that my operation would be starting. She would, she explained, be lighting a candle for me at that moment, and sending me her prayers and love.

I’ve always found that the most terrible moment of any surgery is that short, frightening journey as one is wheeled down corridors into the operating room.   The unutterable sense of loneliness cannot be described to anyone who has not had this experience.  I liken it to the final journey of death.  Friends and family in the pre-op room have hugged and kissed one goodbye, and then one is completely alone, facing an unknown.  No matter how simple the surgery, everyone experiences that nagging dread that they might not awaken from the anesthetic.  Everyone wonders if hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, toes, will all function afterwards, or be forever paralyzed.  Everyone is aware that sometimes, in surgery, things go wrong.

Only once, as I was being taken to surgery, did the orderly pushing the gurney seek to lighten my sense of trepidation. Had I ever had surgery before, she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she patted my shoulder and said, “But it’s always a little scary, isn’t it?”  There are no words to describe how comforting I found her empathetic remark.

Being wheeled to this most recent surgery, I received no such comforting question or concern. I was taken a short distance to the operating room and helped onto the table.  In a surgery just two months prior, a nurse had introduced me quickly to everyone in the operating room, giving me their first names and their function in the surgery, leaving me to wonder fearfully if there would be a quiz afterwards!  This time, however, there was only the quick press of the oxygen mask over my face and the staccato instructions of the anesthesiologist to, “Breathe!  Breathe deeply!”  (Of course, since I am horribly claustrophobic, just having the darned mask pressed onto my face made me do nothing but instinctively hold my breath in complete terror, followed by the rapid-fire, quick, short breaths of a full-blown panic attack.  Perhaps this is a reaction for which anesthesiologists should be schooled in their method of approach.)

But, despite my claustrophobia, my lonely distress and anxiety, the image of my friend’s candle, burning brightly for me, shone in my consciousness. I found myself focusing on it during that brief journey to the operating room.  The image calmed me, reassuring me that I was not truly alone; that the prayers and concern of others were surrounding me.  A memory swam up into my consciousness, a poem I had written years earlier, and I found myself reciting the lines like a mantra as I was carried into the coma-like sleep of anesthesia:

Just a light left burning for me
in my window of darkest pain;
just safe harbor, refuge, retreat
sheltered sanctuary from rain.

Just a kind hand, steadying me
when I stumble a rocky path;
just a heart’s strong, balancing beat
when I settle my face at last

to the shoulder, stable and sure
of a long-cherished friend who shares
light embrace, encircling me
in the knowledge that one soul cares.

Weeks afterwards, my friend told me that the candle she lit had burned throughout my three-hour operation (which had, of course, begun later than actually scheduled). Despite guttering a few times, the candle had continued burning until a call from the phone tree assured her that I was out of surgery and doing well.

But, in my mind, that candle is still burning, guiding me through the darkness, lighting my path with the beacon of caring and friendship.

The Name of My Death

On January 17, 2018, I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. What followed was a pilgrimage into the heart of darkness, punctuated by bouts of unremitting fear, yet with, occasionally, a glimpse of the light of hope.  Woven in and about all this troubling passage was the heartening knowledge of a luminescent web of prayer and invocation, much of it bequeathed me by total strangers, buoying me up at my worst moments.

I have nothing but admiration for those who deal with this unbearable disease while working, or while raising a family. I had neither of those considerations to weigh upon me, something for which I am limitlessly grateful, for I know I would not have done well with either responsibility while enduring my dark night of the soul.  And while a young family to be looked after, or a career to tend to,  might have helped to keep me centered, I very much fear I could not have done justice to either while enduring my diagnosis and treatment. I recognize now that those who do so are genuine marvels: they are true superwomen and men.

But as I review the months of my confrontation with this most evil of diseases, what I most recognize now is how unprepared I was for the way in which everything—every tiny and  insignificant detail of daily living—becomes “before cancer” and “after cancer”.  Everything.  The simplest acts, the most common thoughts or behavior, come to be labeled “Prior” and “Following”.

Writing letters one day to two relatives who do not do e-mail, I realized that the stationary I was using, which I’d won in a family bingo game at Christmas, was from Before my diagnosis. I never suspected, I thought as I penned the news to my relatives, that I would be writing such dreadful news on that pretty flowered paper.

Attending the family Chinese New Year/Two Birthdays party in February, it struck me that these party plans had been made Prior. Watching a TV rerun was “first seen pre-cancer”.  Checking my scheduled blog posts became notable as “written before” and “written after”.

Before, prior, was a time of innocence, comparable to early childhood.  After, Following was a visit to the nether regions of hell.

In much the same way now, I date and file in my mind everything as “during cancer” and “cancer-free”. Turning the page on the paper calendar that hangs upon my refrigerator, I was forcibly struck by the fact that, for the first time in 2018, I was starting a month without the knowledge that I had cancer.  I had been through two surgeries, countless tests, and dozens of appointments.  I was cancer-free.  I had a 90% chance of remaining in that desirable state, having only one risk factor for recurrence.  I was, in fact, and perhaps only for the moment, one of the very fortunate few.

In life Before, cancer was a vague and troubling possibility, one which had brought sorrow to me many times, as I watched friends and family succumb to the evil. It was a fate  which I hoped to escape, but to which I gave, if you will, lip service only.

In life After, every simple ache, every pain, is now a terrifying reality. Is my aching knee simply an aging joint—or a metastasis?  Will I have to endure a recall on this year’s mammogram?  Is my breathlessness just my usual asthma, or something more serious?

Years ago, a coworker’s told me of her husband’s diagnosis of a serious but unrepairable heart disorder that could, probably would, eventually kill him. “It’s like living with death on the doorstep,” she told me in terror.

I took her hand and replied, “My dear, we all live with death on our doorstep. For  your husband, the true difference is that he knows Death’s name.”

For a brief moment, I knew the possible name of the Death who lives on my doorstep.   And while I know that each of us is terminal—that nobody is getting out of Dodge alive—I genuinely hope that the name of my Death will never be cancer.

When I Wore Wings

I had to give up Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy, but I refuse to give up the Loch Ness Monster. I  absolutely adore tales of Nessie, along with those of all other sea monsters.  I love the grainy, out-of-focus pictures and the videos that somehow never quite display the monster they purport to reveal. I’d prefer to believe in Big Foot, also, both in its North American incarnation, or as the Yeti.  I long to believe garden fairies, and mermaids, and dragons.

The simple truth is, I miss the overwhelming sense of wonder I had in childhood, when life was a series of endless, unimaginable possibilities; when daydreams were an alternate reality. I miss it all dreadfully. And that is why I long to, choose to, believe in the unbelievable: in lovely legends, and in miracles.

Children see the world using brains that are not yet imprisoned in the confines of an oft-unpalatable reality. As adults, we find their thought patterns difficult to follow, and invariably label those patterns as “wrong” or “undeveloped”.  “Magical thinking”, we call their unusual and curious view of cause-and-effect. But their thought patterns are neither wrong nor undeveloped; they are simply different.  (And, let’s be frank: as adults, it would be a touch frightening to admit that those childish thought patterns might, after all, be right.)

I recall an article I read once in which a woman, who as an adult was identified as having a mild form of brain disorder, described her first day of school as a child. Distracted by something, she sat down on the school steps and the principal, happening by, asked her if she did not know where she was supposed to be. She found his question bewildering.  Of course she knew where she was supposed to be: she was supposed to be in her body.  And she was.

Another adult told me of a friend’s small child who’d received a poor mark on an school paper.  The exercise was intended to determine if children could understand the difference between reality and fantasy.   The child had labeled the statement, “The little tan dog barked” as fantasy.  Why on earth, her mother scolded, would she say that was fantasy?  To which the upset child protested, “I didn’t know doggies could get a tan!”

A few years later my own daughter received that same paper, and, while passing the tan doggie question correctly, marked “The whale sounded and moved to the surface”, as fantasy. Just as that other mother had done, I scolded, and received a wailing protest, “But whales are under water! They can’t talk!  The Little Mermaid is PRETEND, Mommy!!”

I want a child’s brain like that. I am tired of seeing the world in black and white and sepia and grey.  I want to see it in brilliant technicolor.  I want a brain which denies that doggies can get a tan, or that doesn’t yet know a thing about whale song, so that it comes as a brilliant surprise.  I want a brain that understands that I’m supposed to be in my body.  I want a mind that sees wonders and marvels and sensations everywhere. I want existence as it once was, as in the poem I wrote decades ago:

When I Wore Wings

When I wore wings and gowns of green and jewel-dusted robes,
I danced on clouds and rainbowed paths, and sported crowns of gold.
I flitted soft from wood to sea, and rested on the stars;
vacationed in the silent spheres—on Venus, and on Mars.

But then, as creatures of my sort, it seems, must always do,
I traded up my crowns and robes for less enticing truths.
I placed my dreams on dusty shelves with labels (“Childhood Days”)
and took as recompense a drear allotment underpaid.

Yet, somehow she lives on in me, that creature lost in time,
for sometimes, when I least expect, her eyes look out through mine,
to glimpse the pixies dancing ‘mid the roots of giant trees,
or light from secret cities at the bottom of the sea.

Age Is the Great Leveler

When I was in my 30s and early 40s, I was still moderately invested in reading those “how to look your best” articles in women’s magazines. One of these I’ve never forgotten, chiefly because I never made it past the first few paragraphs.  The writer described an interview with a young woman who, having been to the gym, hopped out of the pool and was strolling back to the lockers when, as she described it, she noticed a young man “checking her out”.  This circumstance occurred a few more times as she wended her way to the locker room, and she was mightily pleased with herself until the changing room mirrors provided her the truth: she’d forgotten to wear waterproof mascara, and the evidence was streaming in two great, black runnels from her raccoon eyes.

Those young men had been staring all right – but not in approbation.

I was dumbfounded, not at the young woman’s mascara mistake, but at the confidence that led her to believe she was proving interesting to several young men. In her place, at her age, being glanced at repeatedly by anyone, man or woman, would have sent me scurrying as fast as I could to that locker room to find out what was wrong.

And that, I realized, is the difference in consciousness between a pretty, confident young woman and one such as myself, who was always plain. Plain women – plain people – do not expect anyone to glance at them with immediate approval.  Ever aware of our physical defects, we know that the first, assessing glance when we encounter someone new will almost always slide over us quickly and then look away, finding us wanting.

Although terribly painful to endure in one’s early youth, this unintentional disregard isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not once one comes to terms with it. Confidence steeps into the soul in a number of other ways; true self-esteem is slowly built not on a sliding scale of personal appearance, but on a sense of individual competence and effort, self-knowledge and personal evolution. The bricks of pride are slowly mortared  into place with a firm certainty that worth is based not on individual appearance, but one’s behavior; that kindness and courtesy and compassion are worth a thousand times more than a pretty face which will, after all, eventually fade.

And in that lies the next basic truth: Age is the great leveler. No matter how many face lifts and tummy tucks one has, no matter the beauty creams and Botox shots – we all age. Those of us who began the race plain have very little to lose, and so slip comfortably into old age. Sometimes middle and old age even provide us with a presence and dignity that we never had in youth.  But I cannot even imagine the angst of a once-beautiful person who sees that beauty slipping away each time they glance into a mirror. Sometimes (although certainly not always) they have spent most of their youth concentrated upon that reflection in the glass, and haven’t even begun to take the time for building personal pride from the genuine components of self-worth.  Doing so can be a difficult task when begun too late in life.

Having little beauty to lose can be a blessing.

Not that any of this means I’ve given up caring for my personal appearance – far from it. Loreal is my friend; monthly, I fight every strand of my whitening hair. I dab lotions on the lines around my eyes to lessen their appearance; I still put on (waterproof) mascara and lipstick and eyeliner and, occasionally, a few other cosmetics when I want to look my best.  But I am always aware that the face and body reflecting back at me as I dress and make up are just a shell.  I am enhancing the “me” that others will see at first glance only in the hope that they might take the time to know the person who lies beneath.  I acknowledge the somewhat sad reality that everyone, myself included, makes an immediate judgment about a person based on that initial glance.  (And if you do not believe this, take note of your own reaction the next time you see a homeless person on the street.)

If being plain has not been a blessing, it has also not been the curse that I thought it in my teenage years.

Yet I will always wonder what it might have felt like to be the woman who believed each young man she passed thought her lovely.

In The Moment

Hoding newborn Amanda

After my daughter’s visit to her obstetrician, I hurried over to see the pictures from the sonogram of my first grandchild. As she and her husband, John, told me about the wonder of hearing the baby’s heartbeat, I exclaimed, “Oh!  You ought to have recorded it.”

“I should have thought of that!” John responded. “But I was totally caught up in the moment.”

And that, as I assured him, was perfectly okay. In fact, it was exactly as it ought to be.

There have been too few times in my life when I was totally “in” the moment, totally present for exactly what was happening, but I treasure those memories. One of those moments was the day that my own daughter was born.  In that less-empathetic era, the nurses attendant at her birth began rushing through their own procedures without first handing my newly-born daughter to me.   I could see my child on a gurney to my side, but could not touch her until her father, saying, “I think Mommy  wants to touch her baby!”  yanked my own gurney over that precious extra inch so that I could reach her. Never, never in my lifetime will I forget that moment–electrifying, incredible, impossible–of touching just the tip of my finger to the tiny body of my newborn daughter.  Never, never more than in that moment have I felt completely cognizant of what was happening, yet, conversely, more totally part of the universe, and of the heart of God.

And that is what “being in the moment” does for us. It reconciles our humanness with our divine being.  For one incredible second, we are at one with all that we truly are.  We are, for that moment, not merely spiritual beings having a human experience: we are expanded, total, whole.

I would like to say that I have had other such moments, too numerous to count, in the passage of 64 years walking this planet. I would like to say that, but I can’t.  Like the fictional inhabitants of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, few of us truly understand the value of life while we are living it. Those rare moments of communion with all that life is are infrequent, at best.  But the fleeting seconds of recognition should be recalled and celebrated.

I’m truly glad that my son-in-law was so caught up in the moment of first hearing his child’s heartbeat that he forgot to record it. No recording could ever take the place of his wonder and awe at that moment.

Sometimes, though, it is something far more insignificant and seemingly less earth-shattering that, for one brief second, brings us to recognition of the miracle of life. I recall one such moment as an adolescent,  when, having gone for a walk in the cool weather of late fall, I arrived back home just as the sun began to set.  The sky was a maze of varied electric and shining colors.  I stood transfixed in wonder at the beauty of it, all awareness of my surroundings forgotten, elated and exalted.  For just that one, mere second, I found myself totally at peace; completely at one with the world.

Also while still young, I used to lie on the cool grass, wet with dew, on late summer nights, and stare upward at the stars lighting the sky. That sense of peace, of oneness, totally enveloped me, as I lay there on the ground, running my hands over the dew-wet grass and gazing at the heavens, feeling the inescapable, undeniable knowledge that, “I came from there.”

In fact, I found a faint memory of those nights triggered in me one dark morning in early spring as I waited for my bus. I looked down at the dewy grass next to the sidewalk, seeing the crystalline sparkle of every jewel-like dewdrop sparkling beneath the rising sun.  I reached down to the glimmering beauty, glittering there in the crepuscular light of the barely-begun morning, and knelt to run my fingertips over the blades of grass.  Feeling the cold, wet dew upon my fingers, I completely lost track of time and place until the bus pulled up, startling me out of my concentration.

I gathered up my purse and boarded, slipping my fare into the waiting maw of the cash box, and my regular driver asked me why I had been kneeling. Had I dropped something there on the grass? Did I need to go back and look for it?

“No,” I told him, smiling. “I was just admiring the beauty of the dewdrops there on the grass.”

He shook his head at me and started up the bus.

“You,” he said, rolling his eyes, “really need a vacation.”

Happy Birthday, Amanda Desireé.

 

Anger and Loss

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance passed away. We weren’t particularly close, but she was very dear to another friend of mine, the woman who’d introduced us, and so the feelings I experienced at her loss extended to my grieving friend, as well.

Debbe died, though, unnecessarily, wastefully, of medical error. So when I found myself in a blue funk on the day after her death, it took me nearly another 24 hours to comprehend why I was so upset.  I was sad that she was gone, yes; sadder still for the grandchildren whom she had been raising, and concerned for their futures, too.  I longed to comfort the friend who was most deeply feeling her loss.  But despite all these tumultuous emotions, I hadn’t known Debbe very well. I wasn’t mourning intensely.  Why, then, I wondered, was I so terribly sad?

I discussed the problem with that “other self” in my own mind (I’ve often wondered, when I’m asking myself a question, who precisely it is that I’m talking to?) Was the real cause of my distress the fact that Debbe was a couple of years younger than I?  Had her passing brought home to me the truth of my own mortality?  I didn’t think so.  I’d lost a good many acquaintances of my own age or younger in my lifetime, and had, in fact, recently spent quite a bit of time making my own end-of-life plans.  I didn’t believe that Debbe’s passing was a sudden and jarring reminder of my own mortality.

I was saddened for others, but that didn’t explain the intensity of my feelings.

Finally, after almost a day of puzzling through my feelings, I was able to put a name to them: anger. I was angry – bitterly, desperately, furiously angry, that Debbe had died due to mistakes by the medical professionals involved in her care.  She was dead due to their blithe prescribing of more and more antibiotics for longer and longer terms, until the very medications meant to heal her had turned on her immune system and destroyed it, shutting down her kidneys and killing her.

I was so bitterly, furiously angry at the wrongness of it, of a life wasted and other lives turned topsy-turvy, due to straightforward carelessness. I was outraged at negligence, at sloppiness, at inattention, in a profession in which a failure of precision literally makes the difference between life and death.

I am still angry and sad over her needless death. But my takeaway from this situation is the discovery of just how often I am so disassociated from my own feelings that I can sometimes identify them only with enormous effort.  How is it, I later asked myself, that it took me more than a day to recognize my own fury?

Naming my emotion was difficult; why it took so long is easier for me to answer: early training.  My youth was spent in a household where fury and rage were constant.  Screaming, shouting quarrels were a common occurrence.  Precious things were thrown and broken, doors were slammed until they bounced off  hinges.  Faces were slapped; punches were thrown.  Obscenities were shrieked.

But not by me. Not by my siblings.

No matter what was happening in our household, we children dared not express our anger at the situation–neither verbally or physically. Even as teenagers, with the usual adolescent tendency to smart-aleck remarks and snappishness, we were carefully restrained in our behavior.  And when I vented my fury on paper, my diary was sought out and read, and then used against me.

I learned to be very cautious of anger: to tuck it away, hidden within burning resentment; to avoid confrontation. I learned to bark in irritation over things that didn’t really matter rather than to say what had truly upset me; to fume silently.  Even through the crumbling of my 19-year marriage, I can recall only two occasions where I  was driven to shouting at my husband.

None of this is healthy or conducive to good relationships, but unlearning such early training is difficult. Just how difficult was driven home to me when I found myself unable to identify my anger over a friend’s needless death.

Anger will always frighten me, will always be a specter to be carefully controlled. Yet perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing.  The world might well be a safer place if more children were, from an early age, taught techniques to identify and properly deal with anger–to control its expression; to find healthy ways to express rage.

But not to learn, as I learned, to entirely deny it. Not to spend a lifetime hiding from their own rage and negating it.

I am angry over Debbe’s wasteful, needless death. And I am proud of that just and righteous anger.

Tough Love for the Prodigal Son

I hate the parable of The Prodigal Son.

I realize that this is a very unpopular position to hold, absolutely detesting one of the best-loved of all the parables in the New Testament. But there you have it: I dislike it. I always have, and I always will.

You recall the story, I’m sure, of course: A certain man had two sons… Son Number One takes his inheritance, traipses off, and blows it to hellangonagin.  Then, having (as they say in AA) finally hit rock bottom, he makes his way back to good old Dad and confesses the error of his ways.  Dad not only forgives him, but throws a mammoth party to welcome the wastrel back. (A party, I might add, to which Dad somehow forgets to invite Son Number Two. Very telling, that point.)

In the meantime, Son Number Two, who has spent the intervening years (while his brother was off carousing) laboring for Dad on the old home farm, arrives one evening from a hard day and stumbles into the big welcome home feast. Stung, Son Number Two complains bitterly to his father that, despite all his years of loyalty and service, Daddy Dearest never threw a bash for him, nor even gave him the wherewithal to throw a party of his own for himself and his friends.

To which complaint Dad basically responds by saying, “Hey, yeah, you’ve always been here, hanging around, but I really missed your brother.”  Proving once again that many an otherwise-discerning parent will tumble to the appeal of the runt of the litter.

Or so I interpret the story.

And it’s wrong. Absolutely, treacherously, cruelly wrong.

I have seen this story play out in real life, time and time again; I suspect many of us have done so. The wastrel, the drug addict, the alcoholic, the ne’er-do-well, rambles off to roust and revel, showing up now and again on Mom and Dad’s doorstep when the cash reserves run low, occasionally confessing the error of his or her ways and perhaps even briefly establishing a sensible existence.  Then, having been replenished, Wastrel heads right back out into that singular lifestyle once again–or simply hangs around for free room and board, sponging off the Parents indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Plain Jane and TomDickHarry get an education and begin working boring 9-to-5 jobs. They show up for family gatherings, bring birthday and holiday gifts to family gatherings, acquire spouses, and produce grandchildren. Eventually they begin caring for aging, ailing parents, shuttling them to doctor visits and hospital stays, mowing their lawns and straightening out their checking accounts.  They, Plain Jane and TomDickHarry, are just there—always there, doing the job of being good offspring and doing it well, but rarely lauded for a job well done.

And then the Parents pass on, and the sad truth comes out: they have left everything—every last cent, every fatted calf–to the ne’er-do-well. To the child they rarely saw and to whom they were no more than a revolving wallet.  To the runt of the litter.

Because, as they will sometimes have the grace to explain, “He just can’t take care of himself.” Because, “You’ll be okay, but she’ll need the money.”

And I say again, it is wrong. The parable is wrong; the real-life scenarios are wrong.

We need to give our love, our recognition, our gratitude and our appreciation to the sons and daughters who, like Son Number Two, “lo, these many years” serve and attend and care and demonstrate their affection–daily, weekly, continually. The ones who run their own lives well; who stick around and do the job of being good offspring.  The ones who are there every day; or who, if they live miles or states or countries away, are still constantly in touch.

The ones who are hardly noticed, because they don’t create chaos; don’t demand attention and bail money. The good sons and daughters, who deserve a fatted calf and a huge blowout party and acknowledgement–who should be cherished, just for being themselves.

I wish that, when the Prodigal Son returned, his father had handed him a hoe and a shepherd’s crook and ordered, “Get out there and show me exactly how sorry you are that you threw away everything I ever gave you. And you can have a room in the servant’s quarters and daily rations, but don’t ask for anything more until you’ve given me at least as much help as your brother has.  And I don’t want to see your face again until that happens.”

And then I wish he’d called Son Number Two to his presence and said, “Kid, put on your party duds. I am going to throw you the most amazing bash that’s ever been seen outside of the Pharaohs’ palace!”

That’s how the parable should have ended.

Judge Not…Sort of

At a summer gathering I attended some years ago, I overheard a young guest berating another for having worn pantyhose with her open-toed shoes.  Totally without shame, I sidled over and eavesdropped while the condescending young person explained that this was a complete fashion faux pas; no one wore pantyhose anymore, and certainly not with open-toed shoes.

It horrifies me to see anyone publicly belittled this way, so, despite the fact that I’m rarely assertive, I decided discourtesy was justified. I rudely interrupted the Fashion Policewoman to compliment her victim’s shoes, which were not the ubiquitous flip-flops but retro heeled sandals.  The girl under fire looked grateful for the change of subject and commented that both the shoes and her cute sundress had come from a vintage shop, and were classic 70s style.  She did not even attempt to explain the pantyhose, but she didn’t need to do so; it took very little effort to see a fresh surgical scar down one calf, partially-disguised by the sheer material.  At that point I glared at the self-righteous critic and said bluntly, “I think the pantyhose were a great idea.  I’m giving away my age by saying this, but that’s exactly how we wore open-toed shoes in the 70s.  Pantyhose without a reinforced toe were a new fashion then, designed just to be worn with shoes like yours.” I smiled at both young women and melted back into the crowd.  But what I really longed to do was grab the sanctimonious little faultfinder by her over-styled hair and yank her right along with me, possibly bitch-slapping her a few times as I did so.

I experience pretty much the same reaction when reading stories about the various shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church members. Administering a few head slaps and hair yanks to those people, perhaps accompanied by a kick or two, would be eminently satisfying, as would being able to reach into the computer to dispense a few good wallops to some of those posting cruel comments at the end of news stories.

I admit it: I am completely judgmental about judgmental people. I am unforgiving about condemnatory, negative, disapproving, disparaging and pejorative commentary, especially that made by individuals who don’t have all the facts at their disposal.  It infuriates me.

No matter how well-intentioned, publically criticizing another person in a social situation is an unnecessary cruelty—and, yes, that includes all the pejorative commentary heaped upon celebrities. It is hard enough, I imagine, to live one’s life under a microscope, without having the very hand adjusting the lens also writing vicious rhetoric for public consumption (fully half of it untrue or inaccurate). Let their agents tell them that there is no such thing as bad publicity; I’m not swallowing it.  Having hurtful and scathing things said about one in public forums is rude and miserable.

But (and here is my shameful admission) the simple truth is that I am so intolerant of judgmental behavior, not just because I’ve been the victim of it numerous times in my life, but because I have also practiced it.  It’s true: The bad behavior of others that we hate most is conduct we dislike in our own selves.  I am absolutely as guilty as anyone of sitting in public making casually cruel comments about various public figures, based solely on my own supposition of their probable characters.  Doing this—and I’ve done it a lot–is essentially slander.  And the fact that my victims are not, will never be, present to hear my comments is not the point.  It’s just bad behavior.  And to justify that bad behavior would be to be wrong twice.

There is a place, a proper place and time, for constructive criticism, which should be given gently and with consideration. A garden party, surrounded by other guests, is not such a place.  I’ve often wondered if the Fashion Policewoman took heed of my interruption and learned something from it.  Sadly, I doubt so.