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“Love your kids.”
“Love your kids.”
“I already do.”
“Love… Your… Kids…”
And so began another little journey into understanding a little more about who God is and what being a parent is supposed to be.
I’m not sure why I was told that – I just know that during one of my chats with God (most people would call this ‘praying’) – He said three words… Very simply, without a clue as to why this time was any more special than any other time.. “Love your kids”
I’ve learned, over time, that if you don’t pay attention to God’s Celestial Feather Duster, you occasionally get acquainted with God’s Celestial 4 x 4. Having had enough experience with the 4 x 4, and the scars to prove it, I knew that paying attention to the Feather Duster would be a good idea.
So I paid attention.
And a few days after that, on a Sunday, just after church, my phone rang, and it was my daughter, in an absolute panic because she’d been working so hard at putting in practice all the hard lessons she’d learned about finances, and one automatic payment hadn’t been cancelled when she’d done a payment early manually. Bottom line, if both payments hit at the same time, there wasn’t going to be enough there to cover it, and there were going to be fees – reminders of those lessons she’d been taught in that hard way that we often learn lessons when we’re young.
She had the money – it was supposed to get there on Friday. Problem is, it was Sunday, so she needed to borrow money for 5 days and was willing to write me a check to deposit on Friday.
The thing is, she hates calling and asking for money. She hates it because it’s clear to her that asking for money means she hasn’t planned properly, and she sees it as a failure on her part, but she gritted her teeth, and picked up the phone, and made a call she didn’t want to make.
That I got just as I was leaving church.
“Love Your Kids…”
So I listened on the phone for a bit, and she explained with that adrenaline fueled desperation sound in her voice that I’ve heard from myself how she was in a place she didn’t want to be and how hard it was for her to be making that call. I realized the rest of this conversation would be better done face to face, so I went over to her house, and we talked.
On the way I found myself thinking about this whole “Love your kids” thing – and finances, and how parents often find themselves helping their kids through things that they themselves have gone through – it’s that “circle of life” thing… and it took me back a few years to when I was in Grad school…
…where the lessons we learned weren’t all in the classroom.
It was grad school for photojournalism – back in the days of film, when a digital camera cost $10,000.00, and our evening routine was being either in the darkroom or the computer lab. In this case, it was the computer lab, where we were working on stories for our projects, or layouts, or whatever. We’d stay there till it closed – usually around 11:00, and for those of us who’d had dinner, 11:00 was pretty late, and we were pretty hungry by then.
Someone actually mentioned this. More specifically, they mentioned that they were hungry for pizza.
We were grad students.
None of us had enough money to buy a pizza.
All of us together, however, did.
Next thing we heard was “Anybody wanna go in on a pizza?”
And it turned out that $2.50 would do a nice job of getting a couple of slices of pizza, which would be enough to make it until the lab closed and we had to leave.
I didn’t have cash, so I wrote a check out for the $2.50, and in 30 minutes or less, God’s own gift to college students, a pepperoni pizza was delivered.
It couldn’t have disappeared faster without a swarm of locusts of Biblical proportions.
And… it was gone.
Or so I thought.
See – it turns out that in a college town, overdrawing your account is considered a slightly worse thing than in a standard, everyday town. And a certain pizza place that used to deliver in 30 minutes or less categorically refused to put up with that, so no matter what happened, if your check bounced, it went to collections faster than a – well, a pizza delivery driver on commission…
Now financial institutions work wonders with money you don’t have. In this case, the bank charged me $15.00 for bouncing a check for $2.50. The collection agency thought they’d jump in, too, and charged me another $15.00.
And they sent me mail to prove it.
I – um – didn’t see that envelope until I got another one in the mail, telling me that they’d be happy to continue charging me another $15.00 a month…
…for the privilege of sending me notes asking for another $15.00 a month…
At this point, that incredible pepperoni pizza – correction, those two slices of pepperoni pizza – had cost me $47.50.
Long story short, once I figured out my finances, I realized I was in what some have described as “deep kimchee”, and I needed help. My student loan had not come in as expected, so I was living right on the financial edge, and those two slices of pizza had thrown me over it. I knew I needed help, but to ask for it required an admission that I hadn’t taken care of things like I should. In the end, I had to make a telephone call to my grandmother, who had lived through the depression, correction – lived through THE Depression, the one in 1929 – not this recession we’ve just gone through, and in her mind, the way you lived was simple:
Use it up.
Wear it out.
Make it do…
…or do without.
You did not waste money.
So calling her and asking her to help bail me out of this was one of the hardest calls I ever had to make. She didn’t seem to think that spending money like that was particularly wise (I agreed) – but she sent me some money that helped me get through until that delayed student loan of mine finally came through.
And I thought about all this as I was heading over to visit my daughter, who had actually done something far less silly, but had the same feelings about calling me and asking for money as I did in calling my grandma.
I wanted to make sure that my daughter understood that this kind of stuff happens, people aren’t perfect, and I didn’t want to do anything silly to try to pretend I’m perfect, because I know I’m not. When I was telling her this story of my past, along the lines of “When I was your age…” she asked, being between jobs, “Does it ever get better?”
I tried to tell her that it does, but at that moment, had to focus my thoughts on the ATM machine – which, for some reason, wasn’t giving me any money out of my checking account…
I tried savings.
This is weird – I know there’s enough money there…
Eventually I found that the card was linked to the wrong account and transferred some to the right place, but what got me about the whole thing was that there really was less money there in the account than I thought.
And it wasn’t there because an automatic payment of mine had gone out that I’d forgotten about.
Which was why we were here in the first place, one generation later.
When I told her that – she just laughed and laughed.
Things do get better – if you’re saving money – you have some stashed away that you can help your kids with.
And somewhere in all of this, I knew that this was one of my chances to “Love My Kids”
And I’m glad I was able to be there for her.
My son has informed me that “to be old and wise, you first have to be young and stupid” – and with that in mind, we’ll start with a story – it’s from my childhood, when I, like most of us, was young and stupid.
Speaking of my son, as he was growing up, I told him “Stupid Things that Papa did when he was Little” stories, in hopes that he wouldn’t do those things. Now it’s said that tragedy plus time equals comedy, and when hearing these stories of my stupidity in my childhood, he would usually laugh at the tragedy I’d survived, mostly of my own doing. And somewhere in the story there’d be a lesson, and he’d remember it. Now since I was telling him the stories, it must have meant I’d survived, but still, stupid is stupid.
So, in this case, I was about 16 or so, and I was building a diorama – a model of a burned out, destroyed building that a model tank would be positioned as crashing through. It involved a bit of plaster, a few small pieces of plywood, and a whole bunch of little wood scraps and such – oh, and the model. I was trying to make it look like the building had burned, and needed that black smoky look to come out of the windows.
Black… Smoky… the kind of smoke that comes from… oh, what is that yellow/orange stuff?…
Fire, yeah… that’s where smoke comes from…
(insert ominous music here)
Now, was I doing this on a desk?
(that would have been smart, and I wouldn’t have this story to be telling you)
…a modeling table?
(that would have been smarter, as I’d have a place to put all the bits and pieces and let glue dry)
…someplace where I could safely light a match or candle and let the smoke do its thing?
(that would have been smartest, as – well – lighting matches… teenagers… in the house… need I say more?)
I was doing it on the carpet in my room.
Oh wait. It gets better.
See, I was trying to get a smokey effect…
A match would have been good.
A candle would have been great.
But for some reason, which I must attribute to my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ®, I decided that they weren’t quite good enough and decided to use a highway flare instead of a match.
Oh, just go back and read that again, you know you need to…
Yes, a highway flare...
In the house.
Over the carpet.
Well – it’s not so much that I really wanted to use the highway flare, but I had it in my hand, and had the cap off, and was idly wondering how much force it would take to get a spark – oh heck – like that would go over as an excuse…
…did you know that once lit, highway flares are, um, extremely hard to put out?
…and they drip red hot stuff when they’re burning?
…that melts carpets?
Doing the “Olympic torch” run through the house to get it outside just wasn’t going to happen. I mean, there’s that red hot stuff dripping, In this case, it was a carpet, but if I were running (and who can’t imagine running through the house with a flare like an Olympic torch, the crowds cheering, the – no wait – that was just SO not happening…) And that red hot stuff would have been dripping on my shoulder, and that would have been, oh, bad… yeah, we’ll just call it bad… (keeping in mind of course that dripping red hot burning stuff onto a carpet really isn’t on the “good” side of the spectrum).
The more I think about it, the more I realize we’re so far past the border between dumb and stupid that you can’t even see it in the rear view mirror. I’d had some plaster powder there for the diorama I was making – and out of pure instinct I shoved the flare into that – which, to my delight and surprise, put it out. But the thing that got me, I still can’t believe it to this day, was that mom smelled the smoke, came in, and wondered what was going on. And my guilty conscience went ballistic trying to defend myself. Understand, this is a teenage mind going off here – but here was my Infinite Teenage Wisdom ® reasoning:
“Just because you smell smoke, and
just because you walk into the room that you can barely see through because of that smoke, and
just because I’m the only one in it,and
you came in through the only door, and
just because I’m sitting there on the floor, with a hot flare sitting beside me and a smoldering hole in the carpet, you think I DID IT?”
We pause, reverently, hands over hearts for a moment, as the parents out there realize they’ve heard some variation of this before, both from their own mouths and from their children’s…
“Uh… Yeah… As a matter of fact, I do think you did do it.”
My mom, bless her, realized that she was not arguing with logic in the slightest, she was arguing with a guilty conscience and emotion, and no amount of logic was going to make it through that.
I have no idea why I was defending myself so much at that time – but I was. I’m sure I would have said that someone else was using my fingers and put my fingerprints on it had it gotten to that… Dumb, dumb, dumb…
Speaking of fingerprints…
…fast forward about 25 years – I was in my darkroom developing film for a client, and had some hanging up to dry. My daughter came down, eating some chicken. I put two and two together and said, “Don’t touch the film.” I then turned back to the enlarger. Something made me turn around.
One of the strips of film was moving.
The one with some greasy fingerprints that hadn’t been there a moment before.
There was also a very guilty looking 8 year old.
“Didn’t I tell you to not touch it?”
“I can see your fingerprints right there!”
“It wasn’t me”
“We’re the only two in the darkroom!”
It dawned on me…
I started thinking about fingerprints and realized that I wasn’t the only one who had a stranglehold on denial, and that my son was right…
To be old and wise, you have to be young and stupid first…
I just didn’t know it would be hereditary…
He was dignified – almost regal, this gentleman pushing his wife in a wheelchair. Over six feet tall, he was thin, dressed in the clothes of his culture, starting from the perfectly formed turban on the top of his head to what had been a mirror polish on the black shoes on his feet.
He had a long, nicely trimmed beard, evenly split between salt and pepper. His wife was dressed in all the finery of her culture as well. There was a comfort between the two of them. They were partners, life partners, and though they may not have said the vows we’re familiar with in the US – they had clearly said, and honored, whatever vows they had shared.
I met them waiting at the doctor’s office, a place where you have to bare your body, so you tend to build walls up around your soul. We were all hunkered down inside our own guarded little walls, alone with our thoughts and problems, each with our personal list of miracles we wanted from the men and women wearing the white coats. And we were waiting for the elevator to take us there, but it didn’t come. As the minutes went by, and as we all grew a little fidgety, we started peeking up over our walls a little, and making small talk.
After a few more minutes – I went over to talk to someone about the elevator, as there was a bit of a crowd now waiting, and of course, as soon as I talked to the fellow about the elevator, we all heard this “ding” as it showed up.
I returned to the crowd a hero. (They thought I’d fixed it – little did they know…)
The doors slid open, and the whole group of us oozed in, filling all the empty and personal space as we tried to get in and turn around to face the door again, all of us, including the gentleman who was trying to get his wife in with her wheelchair.
It turned out the regal gentleman and his wife needed to go to the same place I did, and as we sat there, waiting, she was wheeled off for some tests, and he sat, like so many husbands over history, waiting, with his wife’s old brown purse in his lap.
The incongruity of it was impossible to ignore.
I looked over, and simply couldn’t keep myself from saying it.
“I have to tell you, that purse looks very nice with your outfit…”
It took him a moment to realize that I’d completely knocked my own wall down and was knocking on his.
He smiled, recognized the joke, and laughed – a wonderful, hearty laugh that came out both surprised and delighted, and something made me feel that he hadn’t laughed in some time. There was a joy to it of finally letting go and being able to laugh at the silliness of his proper, very fine clothing contrasting with that old brown purse.
We stepped through the rubble of the walls between us, and while his wife was getting her tests done, we chatted. I was getting an x-ray to see if some screws that were holding a few things together were settling in well – and the next thing I knew, he was telling me this story about two screws he’d had – holding the same part of him together. Turns out that when he was younger – he’d been riding a moped and had what was obviously a bad accident. He told me that the two screws they used to do things like hold his leg together were three inches long – ironically about the same length as the deck screws that had just been used to rebuild my porch.
That got me thinking – I thought I might want to chat with the fellow rebuilding the porch to make sure he wasn’t missing a couple of three inch ones…
At any rate – we got to talking about screws and how you can acquire them by simply riding around on mopeds (or in my case, hanging around under linear accelerators), and as he told me this story of his youth, I saw, inside that dignified older gentleman, a bright smile, some fun memories, and a sparkle in the eyes of the young man who was still very much alive in there.
We chatted some more – and then they called my name, I got my x-ray so I could see my deck screws, and was going to continue the conversation when I got back, but when I got back, he was gone.
And I didn’t even get his name…
…and now that I think of it, that purse really didn’t go with his outfit, but I couldn’t tell him that…
I opened a jar of jelly this morning.
It wasn’t store bought, it was home made.
It was made of something known as quince – a fruit that looks a lot like a drunken pear, and is really not all that good to eat directly, but is wonderful in jellies, it has almost a smokey apple flavor.
Mom’s had a fruit tree – a quince tree for years, and every year she’s canned jelly.
She’d put them in little one pint Ball canning jars, put the year and the type of fruit on them, and then put them on the counter to cool. As they cooled, you could hear them seal – there’d be this audible ‘doink’ as the lid of each one actually sealed shut.
When dad was still alive, I knew she’d be in the kitchen, cutting up fruit, and dad would be sitting in his chair, reading jokes or stories out of the Reader’s Digest to her just to keep her company. He was her cheerleader. There were things she did well, and things he did well – over the years they’d complemented each other. It was a scene that would play out every year, at the end of every summer, when it was time for the harvest of all the trees they had growing.
And every year, when the canning was done, there’d be this armada of jars on the counter, each with its own destination, each with the name of the fruit and the year written in sharpie on the lid.
The thing about this was that often she’d end up making far more jelly or jam than they could consume, and so whenever we visited, we couldn’t leave without a couple of jars of jelly. Sometimes it was quince, sometimes it was black currant mixed with raspberry, sometimes it was blackberry.
And sometimes, these jars of jelly would end up in the back of the cupboard in our kitchen, like this morning.
I opened a jar – this one clearly an old one, one that had been made while dad was still alive.
I rolled it around in my hand, hearing the stories it was telling me – of the fruit that mom and dad had picked off the tree in the side yard, of the way they had carried it over under to the picnic table or into the house, of the stories dad read to mom as she peeled and prepared the fruit. I heard it tell the story of how it was kept cool, preserved for just the right time until she pulled it out of the pantry to give to us.
I looked at it – listening, feeling, remembering.
I unscrewed the canning jar ring, then wedged my fingernails under the lid and heard the hiss as the air from today mixed with the air from many years ago – and the thoughts of today mixed with the memories of years gone by.
I realized, with a start, that not only was I holding a jar of jelly, I was holding a time capsule in my hand.
A time capsule of love.
I dipped a knife into it, and spread it on my toast, and with a cup of coffee and a smile, planned my day.
© Tom Roush