Thursday, January 5, 2017

Madonna Has Fallen

"I want to see something old," she said. "Really old."

Well, you’re kind of looking at it, I thought, while I dug around in my junk drawer looking for something that qualified, past the stacks of antique Hallmark cards I’ve been saving since 1976, the plastic snake my husband and I take turns randomly hiding in shoes or cupboards as a joke, and an empty box with instructions on how to use a set of earbuds I haven’t seen in two years.

It’s not like I meant to get old. It’s nice of her not to mention it every time she drops by for a visit. That’s probably because it goes with the territory since I’m her grandmother. But I used to be eight years old, just like her. Once—not that long ago, when I was twenty-five—I gave birth to her mom. I had a two and a half-year-old and a newborn back then. And then I got old.

Motherhood can do that to you.

Here’s the other thing that happens when you get old. Er. Old-er. You forget what it’s like to be in the trenches where raising kids happens. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. It’s like my mom always told me. The same way you forget labor pains, child raising pain is something else you forget.


No, both of those things are bald faced lies. I remember excruciatingly what labor pain felt like, and it’s pretty much the same memory whenever I think about the fear and naiveté of raising human beings. That’s ironic. Because once the kiddos grew up and got ready to leave home, the whole “you need your space and I need you to have your space” experience felt exactly the same way it did at the close of a nine month pregnancy. I needed that kid out and living on his own. That might have been the last time the two of us ever agreed on the same thing at the same time again.

Until they grew up. And had kids of their own.

At that point, it’s really hard not to be like some of my friends—who are also old—and point and laugh while our adult children endure their own stand-offs with our practically perfect grandbabies. In a way, it seems like sweet revenge. Once upon a time, our kids tormented us, fertilized our crop of gray hairs, and stole at least eight and a half years of irreplaceable sleep.

But now, it’s their turn to grow old. “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well,” some guy named Sam Levenson said, “is they have a common enemy.” That’s completely true until it’s our turn to have the granddarlings at our house for a sleepover. And then it all comes rushing back in like the tide.

I can have unlimited patience for about, oh, let’s say three hours, laughing at all the carelessness, immature reactions and forgetfulness of toddlers and preschoolers. Every time they visit I’m thrilled to see evidence of life in our boring old grownup house again, with dolls and cars all over the floor, every sippy cup we own filling up the top rack of our dishwasher, and dress-up clothes scattered from one end of the house to the other. That’s what a great YaYa I am—right up until it’s time to gather up the kiddies and their woobies and blankets and dolls and trucks and toothbrushes and shoes and get them to put away the thousands of toys I couldn’t stop myself from buying the very moment our kids announced that we were going to become grandparents.

And then, suddenly, I run out of energy and patience and good humor at exactly the same time I realize we’re thirty minutes late leaving the house to take them home, no one has used the bathroom before we buckled them into their car seats, I can’t remember who got to sit in the zebra booster last time, and I didn’t bring a cup of water for each kid so they’d stay hydrated during our twenty minute drive across the Arabian desert we call Arizona.

And the poor kid in the middle of the backseat doesn’t have a window to call his own.

That’s the moment when I understand what my daughter saw while she stood staring at the nativity scene on our front lawn on Christmas night last week. It’s just a simple, sparkly, colorful arch representing a stable, a backdrop for its equally sparkly Mary, Joseph, and The Babe Lying In A Manger. Only, on this night, a rare winter storm had blown through, playing havoc with our precarious holy family. Joseph managed somehow to remain standing on his feet. The Christ Child was cozy in his metal manger, and the stable protected two of the three lead players in the Christmas story.

But the Madonna Mary, the Virgin Mother herself, lay face down in the mud at the feet of the baby who probably caused it all, her husband’s arm pointing somehow in her direction as if to say, “Hey! Get up! The kid is hungry again.”

My daughter, on solo duty while her firefighter husband was working, stood exhausted after loading her three little munchkins and their entire Christmas haul from Grandma and Grandpa’s house into the family car, plus an armload of leftovers from the holiday dinner. With slumping shoulders, she sighed in commiseration at the fate of the virgin matriarch who lay prostrate in our front yard.

“That,” she said, “is the picture of motherhood.” She paused before adding,

“There was no Xanax in Nazareth.”

No matter how old I get or how many times when my kids were growing up I imagined revenge arriving someday in the form of grandkids, I’ll always remember what labor and childrearing pains felt like. I just can’t bring myself to laugh when my adult kids are exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. Once a parent always a parent—it’s a solidarity even grandkids as delightful as ours can’t bust up.

I gave my daughter a big hug and a bag of chocolate. It wasn’t Xanax, but this much I know.

It was more than the Virgin Mary had.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Winner

“What’dya want for your birthday?” he asked me last spring.

“A new dog,” I answered.

“What else would you like?” he said, hedging the inevitable.

We sent our exotic-eyed, playful girl, Sydney, home to Jesus in February. It was time. It was painful—for us. She was the lucky one, though, bounding across heaven and chasing birds with my Best Friend while we missed her like crazy and forgot every night when we went to bed that we didn’t have to let her in and out the back door anymore.

“What’dya want for our anniversary?” he asked in the fall.

“A new dog,” I answered.

“Isn’t that what you wanted for your birthday?” he asked with a smile.

“I’m a woman with limited imagination,” I told him.

But we had a big cruise to Alaska planned to celebrate our 40th anniversary and we didn’t book the doggie suite.

“Whatd’ya want for Christmas?” he never asked this winter. He just quietly went shopping, wrapped some presents too small to be a puppy, and watched while I opened a bright red envelope perched in our decorated tree on Christmas morning.

I began to cry.

It’s time to go find you a new best friend,” the card read, with a photo of somebody else’s Labrador taped inside. I practically kissed Rob’s face off.

Two days later, we wandered the noisy, smelly halls where they keep the fortunate and unfortunate strays and castoffs at the animal shelter, looking for the one gentle hearted animal who would stop us in our tracks. We weren’t sure what he’d look like. Rob thought he’d be dark, with brown fur that would blend in with the floor. He also thought he’d come in a portable, lapdog size.

We zoomed in on a nine month old cream colored yellow lab who was bigger than our four-year-old grandson and only half grown.

“You would fall in love with another big, white dog,” Rob teased.

I wasn’t the only one. Five other families wanted to own this sweet guy, happy to sweep up his white sheddings from their floors every day.

“There’ll be a raffle for him if anyone besides you wants the Lab,” the weary desk attendant told us. “Be here promptly at eleven tomorrow morning if you want a chance at getting him. Don’t leave the lobby, not even to go to the bathroom, or you’ll miss out on winning the raffle.”

We got there at a quarter of eleven and stood our ground in the swelling crowd—all waiting for one particular dog, apparently. 

“Did you see the yellow Lab?” I heard again and again behind me. “I’m trying for the Lab. I think everyone here wants to take him home.”

My heart sank. I’m not lucky. I never win anything. One time my name was printed in the newspaper announcing that I’d won a free pie at Marie Callendar’s. When I called to claim it, they checked my address and I learned that I was one of two Eula Marie McLeods who lived in the Phoenix area. Saddled with what I thought was the most unique name on earth, I discovered—pieless—that I was the wrong Eula McLeod.

“Praying you win,” our daughter texted us as we waited in the shelter’s lobby, shoulder to shoulder with our competition. “Have Dad enter the raffle. He wins everything, right?”
It’s usually true. Rob has a lucky streak the size of the Vegas Strip. I, on the other hand, can’t even win when the odds are one out of two. Rob, representing our family, stepped up to the counter with five other people, dropped his name in a bag with theirs, and waited while a stranger pulled out the winner.

I watched from the back wall, struggling to hold back tears. There was no way on earth it would be us. Despite all the providential hutzpah my husband is made of, the sad truth is he’s married to a doubter with all the confidence of Murphy’s Law. He doesn’t even bother buying lottery tickets anymore—my dogma runs over his karma every time.

This was hopeless.

A winner was announced, a group of women rushed the counter, and I slipped outside to cry in private. One out of six. That poor puppy. Convinced that he was about to be adopted by some family who already owned eight other dogs and destined to spend the rest of his life fighting for leftover scraps, I blew my nose and accepted our mutual fate. Then I went back inside.

Rob still stood at the counter. What was he doing? Was he the alternate? I mean, who cared who the alternate was. Everyone knew the winner would be taking home the Yellow Lab and the alternate would be asking me for a spare Kleenex. I watched in confusion as Rob stood glued to his spot in the crowd. I waved at him as he turned, searching the room for me.

“Come on,” he mouthed, heading for an inside door. I walked over to meet him, uncertainty painted across my face.

“What’s going on?” I asked him, as he held open the door to the hallway for me.

“We won,” he said simply.

“We won?!! We won the dog? The Yellow Lab?  We won?!!” 
I couldn’t believe it. It was as though I could actually hear Jesus laughing with delight in my ear.

“That’ll teach you to trust in luck,” He whispered to my shocked heart.

Two days later we brought him home. I bought a dog tag with his new name on it—Buddy. Because he’s my buddy. Today I’m buying him another dog tag with his real name on it—Brody. Because we changed his name to Brody. I may have named him too fast. We call our grandson “Buddy” more than we use his real name but we never call him Brody. So the boy remains “Buddy” and the dog is going to be “Brody.” Hopefully. So far I’ve called him Body, Brady, and Buddy. I may have to get a tattoo on my hand so I’ll remember what I named him.

I probably should have stuck with “Yellow Lab.”

Our floors will be shadowed by white fur once more. The carpet has already been baptized by puppy pee. And the new legal pad of paper I paid too much for at the Mailbox store has a corner chewed off now.

And we have a buddy named Brody to keep us company and lick our faces and wait for us at the back door. He’s my favorite Christmas present of all time.

“Leave it to Dad to win the raffle for you when it counts!” our daughter said. 

She was right. That man who wanted a tiny dog and fought for the big one is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

I must be luckier than I thought.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Collision

We have a beautiful Christmas tree next to our new fireplace, both of them all lit up with lights and flames and sparkles. The tree is fake, the lights and fireplace are electric, and the ornaments are made of plastic. It’s all about safety around here.

We don’t want a dried out tree burning down this firefighter’s house. So.Embarrassing. Nobody puts burning candles on household trees anymore, either. Doubly.Dangerous. Nor will the EPA  let us have a wood burning fireplace in our desert home, and since there’s no gas coming into our neighborhood, there will never be gas-fed flames near our hearth. Still, our pseudo fireplace is more fun than the ambiance we got from our old crackling fire DVD. And it’s been a while since I stepped on a glass shard from a shattered ornament.

I love the whole illusion of Christmases Past, but sometimes I wonder what’s real. And what do we miss out on by staying so safe?

Think about the first Christmas for a minute. Remember those three wise men? Those guys were astrologers. Star studiers who, as astronomers, understood the science in the sky. They weren’t into zodiac symbolism, but they paid attention one night to a radical new star, setting out in their camel caravan on a journey that took one or two years until they landed at the front door of a toddler Messiah’s home.

I can’t think of anywhere I’d want to go that would take me two years to get there, can you? Especially, if I had to do it on foot across a desert. It just doesn’t sound safe.

And what about the toddler’s mother, Mary? Terrified by the surprising announcement from a freaky angel two years earlier, she probably could have declined to be involved in God’s whole salvation scheme and saved herself a lot of anguish.

“Hi, there, lucky girl!” God’s messenger, Gabriel, began. “You’ve found favor with God. And listen! You’re going to become pregnant and will give birth to a baby boy, and you’re going to name him Jesus. By the way, He’ll be called the Son of God.”

You don’t even need street smarts to know that didn’t sound safe. Mary saw the significance of the situation from God’s point of view and decided not to fight it. But she wasn’t stupid. Being favored by Him meant people would misunderstand her pregnancy. No one, including Joseph for a little while, would believe her insistence that she was still a virgin even though she was definitely pregnant. It was a high risk scenario and she knew it. According to the laws where she lived at the time, she could have been killed for being an unwed mother.

Talk about courage. I don’t think I’ve ever needed to be that brave.

Then there’s her boyfriend, Joseph. He got a personal visit from the Lord Himself in a dream. You’ve probably figured this out by now, but I’ll mention it here anyway—I don’t like freaky dreams any more than Joseph did. I like happy, silly dreams that don’t make me wake up in a sweat, wondering why I ate so many enchiladas for dinner last night.

“Hey, Joe,” the Lord began, “don’t be afraid to marry Mary.” Cute. “She hasn’t done anything wrong. Her pregnancy is miraculous, just like she said. The baby is My Son, and I want you to take care of them both. This kid is important,” the Lord continued. “He’s going to save His people from their sins; that is, He’s going to prevent them from missing the true scope of life, which is Me.”

Wow. That’s a heavy load to put on the shoulders of a young man who’s never even spent an afternoon with a hormonal woman trying to figure out why she’s crying for no apparent reason. It really doesn’t sound safe.

Three ordinary stargazers. One ordinary man and woman in love. A helpless baby. One elaborate plan to change the world. Joseph, Mary, and the wise men were audience members cast into lead roles for an unbelievable drama they never auditioned for. By the time the curtains came down and the final bows were taken, the only safe place left was in the arms of the One who gave up His own safety for them. And us.

Dreams. Angels. Stars. Visitors. Prophecies. People and things were not what they seemed. They were neither ordinary nor insignificant. Lives were interrupted as the unseen world revealed itself to the seen, and suddenly people understood that what they saw was the real illusion and what they could not see was reality.

It was a collision, perfectly timed, between humanity’s self-reliance and the Trinity’s intervention. No matter how hard we tried, we could not save ourselves. We needed Someone to keep us from missing the true reason for life, which is God.

Even if we burn real logs in a real fireplace next to a sappy tree covered in fragile ornaments, the dazzling lights can easily lead me to think that I know what’s real and what isn’t. On other days when the decorations are packed safely away and I’m not thinking about a baby in a manger, it’s easy to imagine that I don’t need a savior. That I am in control.

But that’s not really safety.

This Christmas I wish for you and me and all those we love a collision with the One Who invaded our world to save us from ourselves. Even if believing Someone we can’t see doesn’t seem safe.

“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

We The People

I got depressed today.

Actually, I got depressed two weeks ago when we filled out our early ballots. I just got re-depressed when I realized they’re going to count them today.

I know it’s not polite to discuss religion or politics here, not unless it’s a Sunday, I suppose (which it isn’t) or unless it’s an election day (which it is.) So here’s the honest truth. I am the furthest thing from being a Democrat and will never vote that way on any issue. I probably might possibly be a Libertarian except I don’t know what they stand for, and maybe that’s the point. They’re not as offensive as donkeys and elephants. I think Libertarians might actually be from Canada—they’re just polite and friendly all the time.

But I come from a long line of Republican voters and, since I’m pretty usually very normally conservative in almost all of my opinions, that’s the way I vote. And that’s the way I voted two weeks ago. Because, while I know a Democratic president is only one cog in the wheel of politics, even if she did have integrity I don’t want her selecting our next Supreme Court judges or wreaking havoc on our constitutional rights.

I also don’t want a Republican president who’s so out of the box that he can’t be trusted to speak responsibly and respectfully when a tv camera is aimed in his direction. And I want him to get a haircut.

So I got depressed today. 

Then I decided I’m not going to watch any election returns today or tonight. But I forgot that Facebook is ever the people’s voice of politics, and I opened up my palm sized computer and accidently read everyone else’s opinion.

Here's what I read. And here's what I learned.

I learned that if I don’t believe in either of the top two candidates, that it isn’t a waste of my vote to write in Mickey Mouse instead. Because if enough of us gather behind Mickey Mouse—on election day, all of a sudden—we can change the face of politics. Don’t you think, though, that America’s politics are already kind of Mickey Mouse?

I learned that I should vote my conscience and throw my single serving support behind my candidate, even if my candidate (who withdrew from the race six months ago) told me not to waste my vote on him. I learned that the most important thing is to exercise my privilege of voting even though we all know that it’s the Electoral College that puts a president in office and that person will be announced as the winner before the polls in Alaska and Hawaii even close.

How does that make everybody feel in our 49th and 50th states? Like they’re always last?

I learned that people are toasting the end of this year’s election and calling today “the eve of the end of political ads.” And that when all the finger pointing, mudslinging and lying are finished, we should let bygones be bygones and stop digging up the past. Finally, I read that none of us should let presidential elections get us down because in the end God is our King (which He is) and none of this matters at all. Which only sounded to me like the Republicans are pretty sure they’ve lost so we’d better throw a religious cast on our sorrows.

I actually started to cry just thinking how confused I was by all the advice on Facebook.

So I did the logical thing. I went to Walmart. Land of the ordinary and home of middle America. I knew I’d be welcome there, tear stained face and all.

Rob and I pulled up in our Tahoe to get the oil changed, and a friendly older man (even older than us, if that’s possible) greeted us like we were old chums.

“Hey, you picked the right place for an oil change,” he said with a smile. “Did you get out and vote today?”

No, I thought. We voted two weeks ago and thanks for rubbing salt in that wound. That, of course, is not what Roby Poppins said. (My husband is “practically perfect in every way;” thus, my favorite nickname for him.)

“Yes, we did vote,” he replied.

“Well, good for you!” said the man wearing an “I Voted Today” pin on his Walmart shirt. “Have a nice day!”

Inside I was surrounded by a bubble of soothing friendliness. Another shopper stood aside, smiling, to let me pass when he actually had the right-of-way.

“Thanks so much!” I told him, surprised by his kindness.

“How are you today?” an employee asked, while I leaned against a shelf full of printer paper, trying to locate my lost husband, our shopping buggy and especially the peppermint mocha riding in the front seat of the Walmart cart. The guy wasn’t even trying to sell me anything.

I found Rob, we paid for our oil change and a few Christmas purchases because Christmas shopping always cheer me up and Walmart prices make me happy, too. But another shopper had also picked up her vehicle from the lube bays, and as she unloaded her weeks’ worth of groceries into the back seat of her vehicle, her door blocked mine.

“I am so sorry,” she said sincerely, as Rob and I discussed Plan B and our exit route. She quickly closed the doors and moved to the other side of her vehicle.

I thanked her genuinely, we quickly backed out so she could finish with her groceries, and we merged into the mass of traffic which certainly was full of plenty of people like me who wished voting for a president wasn’t so traumatic.

And that’s when I really learned something. 

All the hype is politics. All the accusations and condemnation are the stuff of which ratings are made. All the people, “we the people”, are kind, generous, decent Americans doing our best to be good citizens. We treat each other kindly in grocery stores, we care about one another in lube bays, we share the space in grocery store aisles. And we’ll still be friends, still be on the same side of survival when this election is over, and tomorrow we’ll still be the great country we were when the Greatest Generation turned the reins over to us.

I might still need another Starbucks in the morning when I finally have the courage to find out who won today. But I won’t blame the barista for the results, no matter how he or she voted.

I’ll just whisper a quiet thanks to all the nice, Libertarian Canadians on Facebook who commented over and over again,

“We’re praying for America here in Canada.”

I want to be like them when I grow up.