When I was young, I had a lot of freedom to roam our property. Though I usually explored with a friend, I often kept my Dad company. Together, or as a trio with my Mom, we would trek to the creek, to our cabin nestled in the woods. Dad would always have some reason but truthfully he just wanted us to be outdoors. My parents taught me to notice things. We would be intent on finding morels or Mom would crave a bit of bittersweet for the table.
The creek flowed at the edges of the property, and I learned to respect it’s changes from season to season. In early Springtime, it’s current could be fierce for a little-known brook trout stream in Northern Michigan. Some years water seemed to come from every direction, rushing, roiling, banking first this way and then that, roaring it’s pleasure at being free to tumble into nearby Black Lake. In other years it would just chortle and chuckle it’s way down to the lake. No matter what Springtime is a glorious season for the Stoney Creek.
Later the steamy Summertime would find that same stream yawning to catch it’s breath. So hot were the dog days of Summer that it would be reduced to a trickle. I’d roll up my pant legs and slog through the rocky beds, clearing natural dams. It was gratifying to ease the agony of the dried up creek. What little water flowed was less impeded through my efforts. I spent many nights in our tiny cabin at the edge of the creek. The crickets chattering all at once, spreading the news of my stay.
As Summer eased into Fall, the stream’s current would pick up again. Beech and Black Walnut trees would begin pimping their yellowy wares with a sultry, “Follow me!” Silvery birches follow suit, punctuating the horizon like so many drumsticks. Sumac gives a nod, and flings it’s red wings, a gesture to the first frost. Burnt oranges lean into the harmony, and then, as if in a grand chorus, the Maples bellow out their fiery red feelings; nothing is ever left unsaid by the hardwoods of Northern Michigan in the Fall. Indian Paintbrush join in the chorus, flagrantly picketing in the open fields. Queen Anne’s Lace pull their white, crocheted sweaters
close at night signaling the start of the shush. The shorter days reduce the cacophony of color to a gentle hum, next a lullaby, and then a whisper, as the first snows fall. (See for yourself on Instagram with #PureMichiganScenicRoute!)
Deep Winter would find me flogging the snow banks at its edges of the creek, with my standard-issue Ski-Doo snowmobile boots. I’d watch the snow tumble into the freezing waters that trickled below. Sheer, glassy ice sheets remain as Winter’s secret; Springtime would be along soon! The first mud and ruts would be covered over with that thin ice just begging for a good, crunch! By afternoon all would melt beneath the sun’s gaze. As if starting at the top of the symphony’s score, a trickle of water would flow down in rivulets, halting at first, and then a rush. Water everywhere. It was Springtime again.
My parents were of the 50’s era. My mother bobby-soxed her way through high school and college, and returned to Michigan sporting cat-eyed glasses and a textile design degree from a prestigious art college. She worked for Sak’s Fifth Avenue as a genuine switchboard operator! “Connecting…one moment please!”
My father stayed close to home and became a nerdy pharmacist with beautiful, longish curls and a full beard, revealing his loyalties to the hippie subculture. They met at a party and I think they were engaged in six weeks, married inside of six months.
When I look at the photos from the years in which my siblings were born, Mother is still wearing gloves and a hat at a baby shower for my cousin. Her hair was still smooth and styled like Jackie O’s. It seems that in spite of the wild 60’s there was still a.way.to.do.things, and that involved white gloves for a baby shower. It may or may not have involved vintage MG Magnets, Jaguars, Martinis and Marlboros. We simply declined to confirm what was actually in the martini glass. We are rather confident, however, It ain’t apple juice for the baby, Sweetheart.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination occurred before I was born yet it heavily characterized my childhood, even a bellwether for other world-changing events that would occur in the next two decades: the ongoing, never-ending Vietnam War in which we had invested 8.7m troops; the Watergate scandal and burgeoning anti-war sentiments. There were breakthroughs, of course. I remember being a little tot standing in front of the snowy, black-and-white television and touching the screen while Neil Armstrong took a “giant leap for mankind”. My Dad, with a pipe always between his teeth said, “Sammy, you need to remember this. It’s world history.” Those were the kinds of things my Dad would say to a toddler. Smile.
There were so many socio-political issues during that era, stated as if to say that there weren’t issues before or after. And there were, but it was the sharp decline of social mores, the requisite white gloves and a hat, if you will, that had smartly guided women and family life right up until Kennedy’s assassination; that disappeared in the late 60’s. Up until that time, women wore the same style of clothing. Everyone wore their hair the same way. As women entered professions, and began to earn salaries that would one day approach the equivalent of men’s salaries, a certain level of predictability disappeared. I remember when I pieced together the realization that my own mother worked full-time, and other kids’ mothers stayed home and made chocolate chip cookies. That’s what this is all about, really. It’s about chocolate chip cookies.
It’s about our need to create stability for our children, a climate and culture they can lean on while they look out at the wavy world around them. In spite of the tumultuous 70’s and 80’s, my parents managed to provide pillars of identity and a foundation of memories and repeated activities. From this we kids formed our ideas and opinions of who we were and what we were to become. There are lots of things to be ‘against’ these days, even more than in the 70’s but I don’t want to be known for the things I’m against. I want to be known for the things that I’m for. The legacy I leave behind will be one of providing stability and consistency for my children and the people around me, a safe and positive culture in which to become someone great.
And He shall be the stability of your times, a wealth of salvation wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is his treasure. Isa. 33:6
I recently heard someone say that parents form their children’s identity by reminding them of who they are, moment by moment, day after day. This is such a mystery to me. At what point does a young girl or fellow grasp what’s been instilled? And how does this feedback manage to so vividly shape the who of our identity? I remember well the verbal instructions, “Ladies don’t slouch. Stand up straight.” Surely my brother and sisters remember the imaginary plumb line Mother would draw from the tops of our heads. At what point does a parent stop saying the words and begin twinking their brow, a telegraphed message across the room, to pull yourself together? Yet my parent’s instructions were mild compared to my grandmother’s.
An expert seamstress and cook, Grams taught all her children and grandchildren a myriad of skills. My earliest memories were of watching my Mom and Grams cook and quilt together. They would nod sagely, wordlessly consulting one another, dismantle, re-assemble until a beautiful masterpiece was born. Their tireless work always seemed so effortless. Year after year, I would prepare my 4-H sewing projects beneath their watchful eyes. My wobbly seams were doomed. “Rip it out, child. It must be straight.” Heartbroken and frustrated, I would tug out the stitches and then battle with my temper and the sewing machine until a worthy outcome was produced. I basked in their hard-won pleasure with my work.
Grams always kept a charming home. It was where she wore her heart on her sleeve, with momentos and photographs of treasured places in Germany. The nostalgia and tchotchke always left you feeling like you had visited a place in her heart. That time had stopped for a moment and you had really lived. I did not realize that Grams’ standards for me would endear her to me. Her lectures I endured wordlessly as I learned she just needed a snuggle from me to stem the tide of words.
Though I’ve lived in many places through the years, it occurs to me that the walls of my kitchen have always resounded with the rumble of Grams’ deep German voice. Growing up, I perceived her to be stubborn, opinionated and, above all, outspoken. Yet she loved me. Deeply. I memorized the look in her eyes, her beautiful skin, and the wrinkles on her hands. I would hold hands with her just because I could and, over a cup of heavily sugared tea we would discuss all the world’s problems. Though she enjoyed people very much, it was in the quiet moments together that she showed me who she was. She would talk about her family in Germany, and history, and about her sons, and her daughter, my Mother. She would talk about the neighbor boys who had tragically died in the war, and how she taught herself to drive. While I wish that I could remember the stories, for I did not write them down, it occurs to me that it is not so much the historical accuracy that matters. What matters is that she told me, and I listened. And I carry within myself a part of who she was.
It’s been a while since I’ve taken on a sewing project. Yet, it’s pretty safe to say that the work that I produce today as a software developer bears a strong resemblence to those straight seams that Gram required. I think what surprises me even more is the motherly manner in which I exact straight seams from those I mentor in the office. Stubborn? Outspoken? Surely you jest! Let’s have a cup of tea.
Maybe it’s the nature of who I am. Or maybe its this lifetime of never having been married. I’m 44, for heaven’s sake. Did you know that AARP had the audacity to send me an early enrollment form? I nearly spat on it. I don’t know what compels me toward child-likeness, but I’ll suggest that it’s a dominant gene in my DNA.
And yes, Virginia, your DNA is twisted all to heck.
And did I tell you I might be slightly ADD? I’m only just now getting the picture. It’s that whole distraction thing. Like a freight train. Bird! Plane! Boing! Zoom! But ADD folk make great writers and programmers as long as you give them headphones with classical music. It soothes their fuffled reathers.
Childlike. To be like a child.
So many things in life demand every inch of our attention span, our energy, our focus. We need to drive the ROI. Think outside the box. Strategize. Give! Be present in the moment! Expand. Reduce. Minimize. Be faster, more efficient. It’s exhausting to just write the phrases let alone give them any meaningful consideration.
I possess memories of a nearly idyllic childhood. As kids in the Penhale family, together with our friends, we ran wild across acreages with creeks and barns and trees and open fields. We lived in the land of make believe. We would tumble indoors after playing in the creek all day, soaked to the bone, muddy, covered with horse hair or just outdoor-ness. We thought we were so burdened, so encumbered with cares. In reality we lived like bandits. Our needs were few. We trusted more. We didn’t need elaborate explanations about why.
A little boy asked me once, “Why is red?”
I looked him square in the eye and said, “Because.” He nodded solemnly, and ran off to play.
It’s enough to be like a child.
My only brother, Ben, and I exchange phone calls from time to time as our schedules permit. He usually catches me while he’s sitting in traffic, and I’m usually enroute to Whole Foods, for some reason. I’ll sit in the parking lot, and we’ll jaw until I’m approaching mal-nourishment, and then we’ll go our separate ways. He’s 970 miles away, but the routine remains the same.
My conversations with my family are near and dear to my heart.
Instead of clanging about with discontent, there’s something to be said for wanting to maintain what you have in a relationship with someone. We can all look at different people in our lives and wish they were more … I don’t know: outgoing, thoughtful, thankful, affirming. Fill in the blank. We focus on that and lose sight of what we have. Part of the mystery of my friendship with my amazing brother is that we keep trying. We keep trying to stay in touch. We keep trying to be a vital part of one another’s lives. I like that. I’m so incredibly thankful for his interest in my life, it’s crazy machinations and all I’m pursuing these days.
I guess what I’m driving at is that aspect of unconditional love that causes us to stay in relationship because we have something worth maintaining. You know, they say that in the latter days of society, peoples’ love for one another will grow cold. They mean us…that we’ll stop needing one another. I just want to go on record saying that I will never stop needing *you* … My brother. My sister. My friend.
This year, I am going to celebrate you, just as you are and I’m not letting go.
Do you ever stop to think about your adult siblings, and compare them with the awkward, pimply teenagers you grew up with? (Note to self: do not alert family members to this post.) It’s really hard to believe that those adults-in-the-making became the professionals that I interact with today. Seriously? You’d hire my brother as your engineer, or let my sister near your baby with a needle? Why, exactly? And when did they become experts in their field, and where was I? Believe me, they’re saying the same thing about me. “That’s my little sister! You’re not going to let her consult on anything, are you?!” What was really happening while we were so busy coping with one another?
My intent in focusing on family is not to define what a family is. As a single, I’ve been adopted into a family or two, and I’ve been incredibly grateful to have the lines re-drawn to include me at the table and, in some years, under the Christmas tree. I know the quiet desperation, at times, of wanting to have my own family, so I do not take any relationship lightly. But families are different from friendships, even the best of friendships. As adults we are in a family paradigm as a result of choices we’ve made. We choose to stay relevent to one another, or we allow our loved ones to be cast aside like a paper boat, listing and taking on water.
I have had the amazing and wonderful blessing, in these last few years, to connect with my sister’s family now that I live here in the Midwest. As the interactions take place, I see family from a different perspective. There is simply nothing to prepare you for what comes next: a crisis with tears; a question; a deeply profound insight from an unlikely source; two more questions; an argument over an undetermined, yet coveted item interrupted by the bleating of an abandoned toy and the repetition of the first question, only louder. There’s nothing extraordinary about repeated questions, howls of distress or the “Shh, I’m on the phone.” What’s extraordinary is that before we have the chance to ponder it twice, these family members will be conducting teleconferences in the middle of La Guardia and flying stand-by in order to get home for Thanksgiving. They’ll be doing our dishes and reminding us of doctor’s appointments because we’re not as razor sharp as we once were. Oh, believe me. I’m thankful for the moments.
My growing up years were more about relationship than I realized. I learned how to live with my siblings, in spite of their inane, absurd, highly annoying, arrogant or antagonizing ways. And they with me. It’s true that my parents taught a great many life skills, e.g., cooking, and gardening, etc. but maybe those were the superficial lessons after all. Is it possible that conflict resolution, forgiveness, patience, listening-while-frustrated, and peacemaking were the lessons they were modeling but not really discussing? I wonder if there was anything else they were saying?
When I was growing up, one of my favorite books on my parents’ shelves was The Family of Man, a compilation of photographs created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art. In my family, reading is a rite of passage. We’re the type that would ditch the heirloom china but nearly come to blows over the tattered copy of Harper Lee’s legendary book, To Kill a Mockingbird or a first edition copy of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. So it was a bit surprising to learn that this tattered book of photographs had not yet been spoken for, by one of my siblings.
This past week I leafed through the scotch-taped pages of photos. Would that I had Carl Sandburg’s skill of describing the intensity and the atrocities, the deep love and profound beauty expressed here! There is one photo in particular that has lingered in my mind’s eye throughout my life. It’s a picture of a naked baby sleeping on a bed while her mother hovers nearby, gazing at her. The adoration in the mother’s eyes is unforgettable. She closely resembles my own mother, when I was small. In the center of the page is the timeless passage,
Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh . . . Genesis 2:23
Imagine the wonder of a young child as she looks through a book and sees this mother saturating this wee one with love. Amid all the hustle and bustle of life, a little girl forms her own beliefs about love and belonging. She becomes convinced that she is pictured there, along with her very own mother. That is how this book came to speak to me so much. If this publication really depicted Family, and captured foundational truths like Love and Beauty through the simple and wordless medium of black-and-white photography, and I was pictured in the book (…smile) then naturally I was part of the Family, and I was loved. And beautiful. Isn’t it amazing how we form our belief systems?
It makes me wonder how we communicate these foundational truths to those around us?
In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard writes,
“I meant to do a bit of good today. Instead I keep thinking: Will the next generations remember to drain the pipes in the Fall? I will leave them a note.”
Ms. Dillard has aptly captured the essence of the things that so often fill my thoughts, the need to drain the pipes. In an effort to break away from the mundane, part of me wants to shout, “I’ve seen I AM! Now I know that I am Loved!” And then, too, I want to create quiet moments. I want to hover over the babies in our lives, gaze into their eyes and saturate them with love.