Once Bitten

After torrential rains and an all-around meteorological dreary day, to see this dog sashaying down the street was a spot of sun.  He was tan and tiny and fierce and moved, despite his leash, as though he owned the sidewalk.  He was also carrying a tiny stuffed reindeer in his mouth.  Probably Rudolph.  No doubt his favorite toy.

And as this dog and his owner passed, I naturally smiled.  Anyone would have.  The woman walking him smiled back.  She then said, admonishingly, “He’s cute, but he has psychological problems.”  I clearly had the look of one who was unfazed and intended to pet her dog, “psychological problems” notwithstanding; so, to be clear, she added I should probably not pet him lest he bite.

And as they continued walking along, her and her dog’s backs now to me, she added, “I adopted him.  So, you can’t blame me for his problems.”

Heavy sigh.

And where to begin . . .

Well, first off, it probably goes without saying that no bite that tiny dog could have inflicted would have stung more than that seemingly unwitting, seemingly harmless remark.

In our language, we use the word “adopt” to describe “highways,” “spots,” “attitudes,” animals, and, of course, people.  And while I have always leaned toward wishing for more synonyms so the word “adopt” could be reserved for people, I understand its linguistic flexibility.  That being said, it’s the fact that this woman, in a mere moment and eleven words, cut to the core of a problem much more prevalent and insidious than mere semantics.

Before I continue on, I know she didn’t mean it, didn’t mean anything by it.  Most people don’t and never do.  And maybe that is a significant part of the problem.  That people don’t realize it.  But in her remark she effectively linked adoption and “psychological problems,” said that those who are adopted come with said problems, problems for which someone else is to “blame,” and that despite an adoption, the psychological problems linger and that the best one can do is muddle through.

In eleven words.

And therein is the trouble. 

As the mother of a family formed by adoption, it pains me that my children are going to hear the word tossed about in this manner, the word our language has to describe the process by which our family was formed, hurled blithely and without regard, a word that is and will be at times participially attached to them. 

The woman I encountered today didn’t know me, didn’t know my beautiful sons, and didn’t realize the extent of the subtext of her remarks. 

She also didn’t share with me something I didn’t already know.  

She just reminded me that some people bite.

 

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Quirky Is As Quirky Does

IMG_7345“So, you’re Oscar’s mom?”

I nod my assent and settle into my spot as the parent in the parent/teacher conference that is about to unfold.

“So, Oscar?”

I wait patiently for the next sentence, the next word, the insight I long for, the glimpse of who my son is outside the four walls and comfort of our home.

And then it comes.

“Well, Oscar is a little . . . cue the dramatic pause . . .  quirky.”

Quirky?

I took a breath and responded the way I often do when I’m not sure how to respond—with a self-deprecating joke and a quick deflection.

And then we moved on.

But quirky?

The word is loaded with connotation—both positive and less-than-positive.

His teacher could see him as a true original or as simply odd.  Both are replete with judgment—but one has the power to lift him up, the other ostensibly to weigh him down.

For me, as a mother, though, I embrace the quirky, cultivate it even, encourage him in word and, I hope, in deed, to stand out without showing off.

But the net result, perhaps even the cost, of this, I suppose, is that there will be those who reduce him to quirky in the worst sense of the word, who have a sense of what “normal” is and note that he doesn’t fit it.

I will never know how Oscar’s teacher defines the word “quirky” or how she truly sees my son.  I didn’t ask, and I won’t.  I simply said that I saw it as a compliment and proceeded to discuss his classroom performance.

And then I went home to my quirky sons—all of them—and felt like the luckiest mother in the world.

 

 

 

Grandparents’ Day

In honor of Grandparents’ Day, The Huffington Post asked readers to share stories of grandparents.  I am beyond honored to have my piece among thoIMG_0004se you will see here.

Lucy O’Connor made a difference in my life in ways I will never be able to fully capture.

She was ahead of her time—a feminist, an advocate for all, and one of the hardest working people I have ever known.

Her relationships with men caused her great pain; and it pains me to know she will never see the three beautiful boys I have the privilege to raise grow into men she would be able to trust.

There is not a day thoughts of her do not pass through my mind, my love for her forever in my heart.  The debt of gratitude I owe her she would never have admitted to, but I try to repay it nonetheless.

I am better for having known her.

Letting Him Be

“Mom, come here.  I need to ask you something.”

He was just a foot away, but what he wanted to ask required a closer proximity.  He stood clutching two handmade dolls, an investment he chose to make in Pennsylvania Amish Country with a significant portion of his own birthday money—a male doll he named John, then a wife to John, Susie, whom he dressed in a matching outfit, the sweet couple very much at home in his loving arms.

He pulled me aside, then down to him so he could whisper in my ear.

“Mom, do you think people will think I’m weird?”

He is ten, and he worries about these things.  And as much as I wish he didn’t, I know I can’t control what he feels.  All I can do is react—or not react, as the case may be.

I told him no one would think he was “weird,” and he seemed content.  He sighed sweetly, clutched his dolls a little closer, and ran off to play.

But that wasn’t the truth, of course.  Because there will be people who will take one look at a ten-year-old boy with his Amish dolls, mentally run through the contrived checklist of what society has deemed “appropriate” for ten-year-old boys, and then eventually dismiss him as “weird”—but not before they share an unfortunate, possibly damaging, opinion or two that was never sought.  Not everyone in the world will find his love of his dolls as beautiful as his family does.  Not everyone will be as charmed or as gentle.

And the fact that he is asking the question, pulling me aside to do so out of the world’s earshot, means he has fear—fear of not wanting to be perceived as different, of caring too much what other people think—this despite everything we have done Amish Doll Photowithin our four walls over the last decade to make sure he has had ample space to grow into himself.

Yes, our son feels safe with us to purchase, play with, and love dolls.  And, yes, he feels safe asking us what other people will think.  But I am left with the feeling that I have done him a disservice by not telling him the whole truth of how other people may perceive him, that I haven’t armed him with the painful knowledge that is going to help to keep him safe long after I am able to.

But I’m just not ready yet to harden his edges.

And why anyone would I’m not sure I’ll ever understand.

Three Little Words

“Mom?”

The syllable was drawn out, long and low with a hint of whine, a precursor to a request that would invariably involve my stopping what I was doing within the next fourteen seconds.

“Yes, August?”

“I love you.”

IMG_4509This started a while ago and has continued multiple times a day ever since. At first I thought it was simply my affectionate six-year-old’s attempt to test out the phrase, one he’s heard so many times, his way of attaching meaning to this sequence of words.

Then I thought it was his way of checking in. I was doing my thing; he was doing his thing. And though I was no more than ten feet away, he wanted to make sure I was still there.

And soon I noticed it would come along, in customary sibling fashion, when one of his brothers was in trouble, an effort to highlight the fact that at this exact moment it wasn’t him.

It took me a long time to come around to this particular sentence. Though I had heard the words regularly from my mother as a child, they never seemed to align with what I thought love was supposed to be—at least according to what I observed in others, read in books, and gleaned from the all-instructive late-‘70’s NBC television lineup and 92 PRO FM playlist.

So, for a long time this sentence gave me difficulty; and I concluded, perhaps with a sigh, that it simply was not for me. I filed it away, heard other people say it, show it and wondered about it; and though I know I felt it, I never really knew how to say it.

That changed, of course, once deeds matched words, and “I love you” soon became something I not only needed to hear but needed to say. Many people, of course, feel they don’t need to say “I love you” if they are showing it. But for me, given my checkered, truncated history with this sentence, I want to leave no room for doubt.

And though August’s history is not the same as mine, he, too, is figuring out this all-important sentence. He asked this week, “Mom, why do I say ‘I love you’ so much?”

I asked him why he thought he did; and he said, “Because it’s in my heart.”

Speaking your heart. A lesson from an exceedingly loving, uninhibited six-year-old.

What Are We Waiting For?

IMG_2546

2002

She had a smile that entered the room long before she did and a heart that knew no limits. My husband’s aunt, who, by the time I became a member of the family, lived hundreds of miles away, was always someone I knew of. Declining health prevented her from meeting our youngest son, her one visit with our older two a mere few hours.

I had only spent a short time in her physical company, but the idea of Irene has always been profound; and her passing last week has left a palpable void and reminded me of something I thought I already knew.

If I had to guess, I don’t think Irene understood the impact she had on me. And that wouldn’t be her fault. It would be mine. Because I never told her. I never picked up the phone and called her, never wrote her a letter. I sent photos of the children, always made sure I sent a Christmas card; but beyond that I was remiss.

IMG_2545

2007

I never told her how beautiful I thought she was, how incredibly brave, how the story of her life is the stuff of fiction. She lived many lifetimes in the one she was given, weathered losses that would have easily felled others. I never made an effort to be sure she knew her great-nephews despite geographical hurdles.

And just as resplendent flowers tend to arrive more prolifically after a person has died, the ardent words that would better have been spoken and written in life, suddenly appear with a vengeance: Obituaries overflow with positivity, letters of condolence seep with evocative praise. And the person who has left departed none the wiser.

So I’m left today wondering why: Why I did not stop the wheels of progress regularly to tell Irene what I thought–that she was kind and beautiful and brave? Why I let days turn to weeks and months, years and decades without a word, now having to join the legions who are compelled to relegate praise to sentences written in the past tense?

Why did I wait until today to tell the world about Irene? Why did I not do better when I clearly knew better?

Why do any of us?

 

 

 

Preparing for Battle

Mexican PhotoWell, August, it’s Thursday, 5 February 2015, and yesterday this little nugget of highbrow humor was meandering about the internet—on social media and the like. It might be an old picture. I can’t be sure. But yesterday was the first day I saw it.

You’re all of five years old. You don’t yet know how to read, and certainly you have no reason to see this photo. You’re too busy mastering your sight words, building with LEGO, and trying to negotiate a later bedtime. This is honestly the last thing you need.

But you are curious, incredibly astute, and all too soon you will see these sorts of things. And as a person of Mexican ancestry, how you will respond will be a decision you will need to make.

I am not of Mexican ancestry, but I can tell you that as your mother I am tired. I’m tired of seeing this sort of thing. I’m tired of the fact that people still produce this, that people still share it and laugh at it. I’m tired of being told it’s just a joke, that I need to learn how to take a joke. I’m tired of being told that humor and offense are inextricably linked. IMG_2330

And I’m angry, too. About all of the above, yes, but also because of the compulsion I feel to call this sort of thing out every single time I see it. I’m angry that I feel defensive and continually bound to state the obvious—that disparaging another human being’s ethnicity is ignorant, laughing at it is short-sighted if not cruel. At the very least it’s completely unnecessary.

But despite my exhaustion, my discontent, and my anger, I won’t stop. It’s not in me, and the motivation I have is the most powerful of all—the love I feel for you, the respect I have for you, what I hope to impart to you.

My words, my vitriol, my discontent—none of these have changed the world or stopped the flow of the tasteless, insensitive, or unkind. My efforts have not been successful in shielding you.

It is my hope, though, that they will fortify you so that when it’s your turn to fight, you will be ready.