Monday, October 28, 2019

Folding Memories

This post was originally published on City Dads Group where they inexplicably welcome my meanderings.  If it seems familiar, that's why, that or I already wrote something similar eight years ago... and yes, I could look into that, but, I don't want to.


I’ve heard parenting described as a vocation where the goal is to work yourself out of a job. Seems pretty accurate to me.

As a longtime stay-at-home-parent, I see myself doing it all the time. In fact, as I write, the washing machine is spinning noisily and the dryer is droning away, and I didn’t start either of them. My 14-year-old twin sons are doing their laundry today, a job I did for them for years. I showed them the ropes a few months ago and now, begrudgingly and with a bit of prompting from me, they’ve been doing it on their own.

Late last week, I found one of them riding the lawn mower, finishing the last part of our long backyard. The other will do it this week. There’s a lot to learn about mowing and there is an inherent danger in it, so I had been reluctant to show them how. But this year, I figured they are both tall and strong enough to wrestle the old Cub Cadet around the yard. I’ll show them how to do the trim work with the push mower in the coming weeks.

This morning, I woke up — later than usual — to the smell of sausages and potatoes. I went into the kitchen to start my coffee but I couldn’t tell if someone had made breakfast. The counters were wiped, the dishes in the machine, even the frying pan was hanging clean and dry on the rack. I thought maybe I hadn’t smelled right or something.

I asked the boy on the Nintendo Switch in the living room if he’d had breakfast. He had, and for the first time, had cleaned everything up.

Perhaps some of you are thinking to yourself: Damn straight, ‘bout time they pulled their weight around the old homestead. Yeah, I get that, But, and I might be criticized for this, I didn’t have children to do my work for me. An acquaintance of mine called me late one night decades ago to tell me his toddler had gotten him a beer from the refrigerator. He’d, uh, trained her, I guess, to do it and he thought it was a hoot. I still know the daughter and she stopped getting his fucking beers when she turned 12 — they were never close.

There are, I’m sure, dozens of other examples just like these of me working myself out of jobs. I’m OK with it, of course, but there is another description of parenting that I’d like to share with you: Parenting is just one long damn goodbye.

I always thought of doing my boys’ laundry as something I was supposed to do for them not because of them. Did it overwhelm me at times? Yes, but not often. Mostly, it was just another chore, a part of my job, just labor. I’d set timers for when a load was done, I folded on a custom-built folding table just beside the dryer, left-handed boy’s stuff on the left, the other’s on the right. I’d stand and fold and pair and pile and … think.

I can’t begin to tell you how much you can learn about your children from doing their laundry. You learn what they favor, what pants and shirts, what socks are worn most often – that kind of thing. But, there’s a bit more. All those loads of laundry gave me a sense of how good life has been to them, to us. Jeans with holes and grass-stains, mended and scrubbed, are a reminder that they are healthy, that the yard is green and long enough to shag flies. A fruit-punch stained white shirt is from a birthday party at the laser tag place. A blood stain on the collar of a gray hoodie is from cut on the forehead from a killer tube ride at the lake. I wasn’t folding clothes; I was folding memories.

When they were really little, two years old maybe, I’d take them for rides on the tractor without the mower engaged. We’d laugh and curve around the yard, them marveling at the wildness of it all, me at their delight in it. As they got older, I remember them watching me mow and feeling like a mounted knight, a sweating hero for them in the blistering August sun. In fact, there’s a picture of one of them, watching me go around the yard, standing on the porch with a shoe in his hand, hoping for a ride. A few years later, the fascination with it faded, but I still remember their little faces watching me. It felt good.

Today, as I look upon backyard from the dining room table, thinking about laundry and tractors, they are making lunch for themselves. More a raiding party, really. They are heating leftovers and adding this and that, improvising as one does in the kitchen. I watch and listen and think back to a time when I made every meal for them, never really imagining a day when I didn’t have to.

One long damn goodbye. Goodbye to the closeness I felt to them, handling all those clothes, steeped in dirt and stains and memory.

One long damn goodbye. Goodbye to knowing I’m watched, appreciated, needed. To feeling like a hero, a man, a father on my gas-powered steed.

One long damn goodbye. Farewell to cooking every meal, preparing every snack, packing every lunch, buying every banana, pear and apple, roast and chop.

You may be thinking, shouldn’t I be glad to not have all that work to do.

Maybe I should, but mostly I don't.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Happy Endings; Sad Endings

This post was originally posted as Endings in Parenting Story Often More Bittersweet, Sad Than Happy on City Dads Group where I write a piece now and again.  I post it here because I am trying to get everything in one place, you know?


Do you know Shel Silverstein? It doesn’t matter much, a poet – any artist, really – is only showing you what you already know. Does this line sound familiar? “Once there was a tree … and she loved a boy.” Yes, The Giving Tree.

I have a weird and long history with his work. I first encountered him in my youth in the 1970s in Playboy magazine, which, at the time I was reading for the articles and interviews. Later, in college, in an acting seminar I was taking, I helped develop – and later toured to elementary schools – a short work based on his poems. At that time, I would have never guessed I’d be folded up on a tiny chair, reading some of the same poems to my twin sons’ first-grade class some 25 years later.

Silverstein is sometimes called a children’s writer, but there is a lot of his work that would prove the contrary. Even in the books and poems he wrote for children there are nods and winks to the parents and caregivers. I remember reading The Giving Tree once and choking back a sob at the deep joy and sadness in so few and simple words, perhaps you have as well.

I was reminded recently of his poem “Happy Ending” from his last book Every Thing On It, published posthumously:

There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part.
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.

I never thought about beginnings and endings much as a younger man and hardly at all as a boy. I suppose that may be because they often seemed simultaneous. Eighth grade ends, high school begins; friends go, others move in to fill the spot; this job gone, a new one comes along – nothing was ever final.

I’m older now. I sense finality more. Endings are often poignant and bittersweet. If you’re a parent you’ll recognize them – last ballgames, last sippy cups, the final swim in the baby pool, the last time they need your help on the sledding hill or on their bikes or getting dressed or tying shoes … you know. I think that’s what Shel Silverstein means by no happy endings — a story may end positively enough but that means the story is over and stories, when finished, are sad. They fall into memory and retire — quietly, softly — to our hearts when they’d much rather live on.

As a parent, though, I was always thrilled about those starts. God, memories just swamped me, as happens — the rolling over, the cruising, the toddling; all the new and different foods; beach trips and diapers and more diapers and sand and sunburns; the first teams, the first games, the first wins, the first losses; the first strum on guitar strings, the first carefree dancing … why am I crying?

Our twin sons are nearly 14 and heading for high school next year. End, start. Start, end. It’s tough to watch, this cycle. Although it is heartbreaking at times, it also is where we witness great joy.

We were in the basement playing ping-pong recently and as the boys hit back and forth, I noticed our old Nerf basketball hoop was drooping, the duct tape failing against the wooden shelf. I went to pull it down and hesitated – an ending. For a brief while – brief for me, longer for them — many months, let’s say, the boys played some version of a basketball game. They called it “Get-the-ball-and-shoot.” You gotta like a game that’s rules are in its name. They did it for hours. There was pushing and arguing. The rules were refined, penalties assessed. They were 6, maybe 7 years old then. It was cute to listen to though a little hard to watch because there was an inherent, well, wildness to it.

Anyway, as I stood, hand reaching up only a little, Zack said: “Don’t take it down, Dad … yet.”

“Yeah, just leave it up for a while longer, it brings back good memories. Three serves seven.” Nick said and served.

Even they know endings are hard.

Do you measure your kids each year or half year as we do? So did Shel Silverstein. Do you mind if I share another? This is called “Wall Marks.”

Those scratchy marks there on the wall,
They show how short I used to be.
They rise until they get this tall,
And Mama keeps reminding me
The way my dad would take his pen
And as I stood there, stiff and straight,
He’s put a ruler on my head
And mark the spot and write the date.
She says that it’s my history,
But I don’t understand at all
Just why she cries each time she sees
Those scratchy marks there on the wall.

Boy, he knew, didn’t he?

Excuse me, I’m going to go downstairs and make sure a Nerf basketball hoop and net stay up for, well … forever.

Well, thanks for reading, or re-reading, I appreciate it.