Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Group Hug

When it comes to something a group of people can do together that isn't illegal or immoral, nothing much can beat the Group Hug. I am absolutely, terrifyingly serious. I say "terrifying" because sometimes I realize I'm so needy it scares me almost to death.

Monday was such a beautiful day. Absurdly inspired, I once again decided heaven must be like a big front porch where you can sit a while, then run out and play like a child in the front yard, or maybe with a child in the front yard. The sun shining through the leaves felt so fine on my face that I almost threw my big unstylish sunglasses into the street.

I was driving around with my friend and we had some spare time between our scheduled activities. So we made a stop at her daughter's house and that's where my front porch reverie began. I felt awkward at first because I didn't know anyone but my friend. Different people kept coming out and going back into the house, and children who belonged to who-knows-who were running everywhere. Cats, some wearing collars and others obviously wild, were lolling all around, stretching and yawning. The ice cream man jingled by. I remembered I had my camera in the car, so I retrieved it and began taking the children's pictures. They shrieked "Cheese! Cheese!" before I even had it out of the case. The adults I didn't know began to laugh and so did I. I promised to give them copies of the pictures.

Our next stop was at the home of my friend's former son-in-law. He has custody of her grandchildren, a court-ordered fact that she finds it hard to forgive him for. She'd been telling me how he won't let her see the children and, in fact, she hadn't visited them since January. We drove by his house slowly. She saw his truck but didn't see the former son-in-law himself sitting in the front yard smoking. But I did.

"Why don't you try asking him if you can make an appointment to see the kids?"

"No! He might throw something at me."

I'd never seen this man act violently, so I persisted, "Ask very politely." I promised to circle the block but not leave her for long.

She got out of the car and began to walk up his driveway as I pulled away. I drove around the block slowly, waving at strangers who were outside enjoying the lovely weather.

When I pulled up again at the house, the ex-son-in-law waved me into his driveway, and my friend was already hugging a grandchild. Another grandchild was on his way out.

I had missed them, too. Even after the first hugs, the ten year old stood between my friend and me, patting us both. Finally, he put his arms around us and said, "Let's stand real close to each other."

I could restrain myself no longer. "Let's have a group hug!" I cried. The six year old ran over to join us.

We were standing in a driveway. But as I've prayed my thanks today, I've pictured us holding onto each other on a heavenly front porch. Absolutely, terrifyingly beautiful.

Friday, September 8, 2006

The Other Birthday Girl

Growing up, I enjoyed telling people that I was born on my mother's birthday. I didn’t know many others who could say that, and I liked feeling special. But really, that was almost my only childhood acknowledgement of her birthday. The fact that she was part of my birthday story made her birthday slightly interesting. But only slightly!

My paternal grandmother used to tell the story of how I once said to my mother: “Guess what? We have a surprise for you!” To which my mom replied, “What is it?” My enthusiastic answer: “We didn’t get you anything for your birthday!”

That story has not improved with age.

As I grew older, my mother and I cherished the occasional birthday we celebrated together. Usually we lived far apart. We would talk on the telephone, though, and tell each other about our day—what we had done, who we saw, how we celebrated.

And my mother always said, before we ended our conversation, “You were the best birthday present I ever got!” I can still hear her voice.

On her last birthday—when she turned eighty—she was sitting up in her bed in a hospital room as she laughed, talked and opened cards and presents. As a joke, we had signed the name of her quiet, humorless physician on one of the cards. She loved it. Smiling nurses wandered in and out of the room, sometimes leaning against the wall for a few minutes to talk. My mother said, “Everyone wants to be where we are, because we're having so much fun.”

I think all of us knew it was her final birthday, herself included, but I couldn't bear to think of it then. After being her favorite birthday present for so many years, how could I have imagined a birthday without her?

Now she’s gone and, of course, I miss her and what she said to me every September 8th. For the first several birthdays after she died, I didn’t want to celebrate. The other birthday girl wasn’t there.

But time and memory can re-ignite the imagination, often out of necessity. Now I can picture a special birthday card just for me. It’s from my mother. You can guess what it says.

Friday, September 1, 2006

The First September 1st

You’ve heard the expression, “She didn’t know what hit her.” That describes the beginning of my first labor pains—I didn’t know what was hitting me! By the time my husband and I had figured it out, we were glad the hospital wasn’t farther away. Several hours later the most beautiful baby in the world—up until that time at least—made her first cries. Her father and I fell in love with her at that moment, and we’ve never fallen out.

She looked so much like her dad that he and I both began to laugh when we saw her. The same chin exactly, with the dimple.

I was 23 years old, a baby myself, and my husband was only a few weeks older. We had been through childbirth classes, read books and listened to stories, but we knew nothing. I repeat, nothing. The Beautiful Baby began tutoring us, her sometimes reluctant pupils, on that September 1st.

We soon discovered that she enjoyed straightening us out. Her way was the only way! She took her role as Firstborn very seriously and would grow into it even more as her younger siblings arrived. She became counselor, teacher, disciplinarian, leader and—dare I admit it?—her mom and dad’s guinea pig.

Now she lives across the country, working at a job I can’t understand and doing things I can only marvel at. To me she’s still like her dad—beautiful blue eyes and determined jaw. The same unmistakable laugh. When I see her, which will probably never be often enough, I stare at her with the same longing, awe and aching love that I felt on that first September first.

I’ve heard that in some ways a child’s birthday means more to the parent than to the child herself. Who knows? Now that she's no longer a teenager, she might not welcome this date every year. But of course, I do. Happy, happy birthday, sweet baby.