My Mother’s Words

“You girls are so smart.”

For my sister Debby and me, this was the soundtrack of our lives.

Our mom never said it in a sticky-sweet whine (she’s from Brooklyn, for cryin’ out loud). It was more matter-of-fact, more like: “Here’s the deal: you’re smart. Do something with it. Capeesh?” If we came home from high school with a 98% on a test, she would invariably ask who got the other 2 points. There was nothing sentimental about her assessment; it was just her reporting reality.

A mother’s words are powerful. Debby and I were told that the simple, cold-hard facts were that we were gifted, and that with great gifting came great responsibility. So we behaved accordingly. We signed up for honors classes and applied to competitive colleges and entered the workforce and our careers in motherhood with the can-do, take-charge attitude most befitting our giftedness.

Then, 18 years ago, in preparation for downsizing and retiring to Florida, my mom mailed each of us kids a box of our childhood memorabilia. Deb and I received our boxes at the same time. Here’s a transcript of our phone conversation that day:

Donna: Deb, did you open your box?

Debby: Uh, yes. Did yours include your grade school report cards?

Donna: Um, yeah. Debby—I was a straight-C student!

Debby: So was I! We were completely average! What was Mom thinking?

What were we thinking? Despite incontrovertible, permanent-record-style evidence, we chose to believe our mom’s version of reality. We must have convinced ourselves that “C” meant “commendable.”

Was our mom lying? Did she just throw out some outrageous story to see if it would stick? Was her mantra, “If you can dream it, you can be it”?

I don’t think so. For one thing, that’s not her style. She loves professional wrestling, Bruce Springsteen and gory police dramas. She can still jump rope double-Dutch and roller skate. (In her prime, she could do them simultaneously.) She’s beaten cancer thrice. Let’s just say she’s not your schmaltzy, everyone-gets-a-trophy, “you’re special because you’re you” grandmother.

Then what was happening? I believe, (and correct me if I’m wrong, Debby) that our mom has the ability to see the spark of the Divine in ordinary people. She can look past the clutter of pretense and insecurity and see soul. She can mine gold deposited deep in the weathered old woman at the bus stop and in the boring great-uncle at the wedding…and in two completely average toddlers.

She finds the “image and likeness” in a person—and she likes it.

I think that’s what she did for Debby and me. She homed in on parts of us that no one else could see, and she directed our focus there. We trusted our mother, so we cultivated that tiny spark, buried deep within us, until it eventually flamed: We did get fine grades, test scores, and jobs. Above average. She pointed us to the glint of good, and wouldn’t permit us to turn our gaze elsewhere.

Personally, I can easily overlook goodness in people. Sometimes it’s so entombed in defeat or encrusted with anger that the goodness is barely discernible. Other times, it’s in letters writ large, but I’m too obsessed with myself to appreciate the spark of the Almighty igniting blazes all around me. My mom walks in light because she sees flickers of God in everyone she meets.

I’d like to acquire my mother’s gift. It makes the world a brighter place.

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Eulogy for my dad, who lives in Florida– First Draft

Sadly, I’ve attended some funerals for friends’ dads recently. At those doleful events, my sweet, grieving friends each captivated me with stories of their fathers. I laughed and cried at their tender memories. Several times, I thought to myself, “Her dad would really have enjoyed that eulogy.”

With this in mind on Father’s Day, I’ve decided to write my dad’s eulogy while he can enjoy it. It’s a work in progress, as I’m sure John will continue to add chapters to his story. And, since our family has the peculiar habit of writing rebuttals to obituaries, preparing this way in advance allows time for the appropriate edits!

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I hope this doesn’t feel creepy. I just want your warm ears to hear these words from my warm heart.

John William

Most people who knew my dad called him Tiny. If you just met Dad within the last two decades, you may have puzzled over that moniker. “Tiny” was an ironic childhood nickname: there are no tiny members of Notre Dame’s defensive line. Despite shedding 100 pounds in the second half of his life, Tiny was still a big man— tall, strong, and solid. What he tightened, no man could unloose.

But the adjective “big” didn’t just apply to his dimensions. Tiny lived life large: When he laughed, the room shook. Back in the day, Dad kept a copy of one of his favorite books, Catch 22, in the second floor bathroom. We always knew he was visiting the facilities when, in the kitchen below, we saw the ceiling joists heaving and bowing from his uncontrollable chuckling. When he laughed, his eyes would well with tears, his face would redden, and he’d howl, doubled over, till he could hardly breathe. “Tiny, the neighbors!” was my Mom’s frequent rebuke, delivered through her own giggling.

Dad’s salutations were also large: He greeted everyone—hardware store clerks, New Jersey Turnpike toll attendants, his walking buddies—with hale and hearty welcomes. I think he considered it a personal challenge to get a turnpike attendant to smile. (He was almost always successful.) For Tiny, there were no strangers; to know him was to like him. He knew names of all the Shop-Rite deli clerks, and what was happening in Larry the Mailman’s life. He had the gift of Irish diplomacy: the ability to tell a person to go to hell in such a manner that he’d look forward to the journey.

Tiny was a big gift giver: birthdays, Christmases, graduations, baptisms, First Communions, confirmations, weddings— all celebrations were enhanced by his largess. And his goofadenzas. Oofapoppa!

And he exulted large: when he cheered for Notre Dame, he shook down the thunder from the skies.

But the thing Tiny did biggest of all was love. He loved his wife, his children, his family, his friends, and all veterans. His love was not sentimental or florid: it was strong and solid—like him. He loved loyally.

Dad was born in White Plains, NY, to William Robert and Mary Bernice. He was the older brother of Laura and Dan. When Dad was a kid, the family moved to Wooster Ohio, where his parents operated The City Dairy. This is perhaps where Dad developed his life-long friendship with ice cream. It is also, no doubt, where he acquired his aversion to cleaning whey vats while hung-over. Dad excelled at football, and earned a spot on the freshman squad at Notre Dame. At ND, he studied mining, and joined the Army ROTC.

While Dad was in college, his father was severely injured, causing Gran to give up the dairy, and relocate for work to Rutherford, New Jersey. While Dad was visiting his parents in NJ on a beak from Notre Dame, he was invited to a party where he happened to meet a stunning runway model from Brooklyn. They married, and the Army gave them a 3,000-mile honeymoon trip to Fort Ord in Monterey, California.

In the Army, Dad served as Second Lieutenant, coordinating transportation logistics. Debby and I were born at Fort Ord; Jay arrived soon after his hitch expired. Dad built his career in the transportation industry, focusing on intermodal containers at Sea-Land, YS Lines, and Contrans. We always lived near seaports, on either coast. While living near the port of Philadelphia, Peggy was born. Dad loved the ocean and transportation, and shared his interest by taking us to giant steamships, ancient schooners, and Uncle Ron’s fishing boat.

Dad got his MBA while putting us through college. He spent years gutting and rebuilding our family home, a 150-year old Victorian in Rutherford. Most of us heard our first curse words as Dad used his miter box to replace the home’s baseboard molding. Upon retiring, Dad fulfilled his dream of living on the water, and owning a boat. When he and Mom moved to Florida, they quickly made close friendships, and enjoyed every minute of their life in the Sunshine State. They spent much of their time volunteering to serve the elderly, long after they could have qualified for that category themselves.

Though most people knew John as “Tiny,” Debby, Jay, Peggy and I always called him “Dad.” They say that a child’s image of God our Father in Heaven is shaped by the child’s image of his father on earth. Dad formed in each of us an unshakable picture of God as a loving father who will protect and care for his children. There is name for God in the Psalms: the God who is always there. This is the name of God I learned from knowing my dad.

When I was about 7, one of our favorite things to do was to go to the Buckingham swimming pool in Willingboro, New Jersey with my dad on summer evenings. Dad would sit in the pool’s gutter in the deep end, and coach us on how to dive off the board. (As an aside, I now consider this a bit humorous, because I’m pretty sure that Dad only ever mastered the cannonball.) One time, after attempting a flip, I wound up deep in the diving well. I stroked in earnest several times, expecting to surface. Upon finding no air to breathe, I figured I must have been swimming in the wrong direction, so I reversed course. Still no air. Now, nearly out of oxygen, I panicked. Then suddenly, I felt two strong arms grab me, and pull me to the surface. I was relieved. And grateful. But not surprised. I fully expected my dad to save me when I was in trouble. Because he always did. Because he was the dad who was always there.

Years later, when I was old enough to know better, I found myself stranded in Manhattan with some friends at 2 in the morning. I told my friends that I would call my dad, and he would rescue us. They looked at me incredulously. “My dad would kill me if I called him at this hour,” one friend replied. “Mine won’t,” I said. “He’s my dad. He rescues me when I’m in trouble.” And he did. Without upbraiding me. Without complaining. And I knew he’d come—because he was the dad who was always there.

You might be tempted to think that my dad who was always there is gone. But that’s not right. For one thing, like any good Irishman, he’d never be able to pass up a fine funeral. But secondly, because my dad who was always there is now with the God who is always there—in the place that is the ultimate destiny for each of us. Jesus said, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.”

Many of you know that if you were leaving my parents’ house, after a long Irish goodbye at the door, my dad would wave to you and say, “Safe home” -his abbreviated way of wishing you a safe journey as you returned to your house. And these are very appropriate words to close with: First, because that was what my dad who was always there created for his family. A safe home, where we felt secure—even during the Son of Sam summer. We also felt safe to explore new ideas, and follow different paths. A safe home.

But these are also good words, because this is where Dad is now. Safe at home. Safe with the God he served. Safe in his reunion with Nana and Gran. Safe as he awaits the reconciliation of all things, the time when all of us here will join my dad who was always there in the presence of the God who is always there.

Safe home, Dad.

New Year Strategy: 10 Ways to Avoid Becoming Annoyed with your Kids

Let’s be honest:  if you have kids over the age of two, they have annoyed you.  Those darlings can be obnoxious, forgetful, lazy, mean, or defiant—it’s part of their job description! Some children have an innate ability to home in on our weak spots, and to push buttons hard.  If we’re not careful, our annoyance over our kids’ clumsy, careless, exasperating foibles can turn ugly.

Listed here are some suggestions for parents who wish to preempt aggravating situations at home.  I’ve learned some of these lessons the hard way through a quarter century of parenting my ten kids:

1) Specifically label for your kids what they’re doing wrong.

Sometimes our kids annoy us and we yell, “Stop it!”  Most kids can’t figure out what the “it” is that’s bothering us, so they continue—and we get angry.  Identify for yourself what specifically is irritating you, and spell it out for your kids:  “Sarah, please stop screaming,” or “Ryan, please stop throwing your ball in the house,” or “Andrew, please stop banging your fork on the table,” or “Sophia, please stop repeating a question I have already answered.”   Often, when a kid knows his precise offense, he’ll abstain.

2) Give your kids plenty of chores.

When kids are bored, they become mischievous.  If your kids have plenty of real jobs to do around the home, they have less time and energy to get into trouble or to whine.  Real work also gives kids a deserved sense of self-esteem:  they have contributed to the household, and they feel bonded to their family.  When kids feel good about themselves and their families, they engage in fewer behaviors that irritate their parents.

3) Let kids experience the natural consequences of their behavior.

Sometimes we get cross with our kids because they eschew our repeated warnings.  We nag ad nauseam for them to finish their homework so they won’t get an “F.”  We pester them about eating a good breakfast so they won’t feel faint by midmorning.  We badger them if they don’t dress appropriately for the elements because we know they’ll feel miserable at the bus stop.  Then, if our kids don’t heed our wise counsel, we get miffed that they’re ignoring us.  And despite our aggravation, they still don’t learn to study/eat/dress responsibly.  Within reason and good sense, if you let your kids experience the natural consequences of their choices—bad grades, hunger pangs, cold toes, etc.—the school of hard knocks will teach them much more quickly than your nagging ever could.  And you won’t get upset.

4) Simplify your family’s schedule.

Much of the pique and frustration we experience as parents orbits around the stress produced by getting children from Point A to Point B on a deadline.  Somehow we have swallowed the lie that a good parent stuffs his child’s schedule to the brim—as if “down time” were a dreaded evil to be avoided at all costs.  So we cart our kids from Suzuki to ballet to swimming to karate and become irked if they dawdle, or if there’s traffic, or if they’ve misplaced a ballet slipper.  My advice to you:  Relax.  Let your child delight in one or two interests, and find ways to explore those fields with your child from your own home.  Then, instead of stressing out over your kids’ activities, you’ll create cherished time together enjoying those hobbies.

5) Give kids a place to keep their junk.

Sometimes we become peeved when our kids lose track of their belongings.  Though it is a kid’s responsibility to care for his possessions, it’s really mom’s or dad’s duty to create a system that gives kids a home for their property.  Shelving systems, laundry baskets, an old dresser—you can be creative—just give your kids a place to put their things.  You’d be surprised how simple a departure to a baseball game or a cello lesson can be if kids have a defined place to store their gear.

6) Learn to end conversations.

Healthy communication is a trait of a strong family. Kids who know they can ask questions, voice concerns or offer their opinions feel appreciated and valued. But there are times when, as parents, we have considered the data and have made a decision—and the matter is no longer up for discussion. At those times it is important to tell our kids that the conversation has ended. If our kids don’t realize that the subject is closed, they often continue to challenge our decisions. Nothing can irk a parent like a kid’s prolonged defiant whining. If your child knows, however, that you are no longer entertaining debate on the topic, he is likely to drop it.

7) Recognize that young children test the rules for a reason.

Young children crave order, safety and predictability.  They feel loved when their parents create for them a world with rules that keeps danger at bay.  They understand in their hearts that mom’s and dad’s guidelines are there to protect them.  Little children want desperately to know that your rules are steadfast and will withstand assault.  So they test them. When a young child disobeys you, remember, he is desperately trying to determine whether your rules are for real—can he really trust you?  Is he really safe?  When your preschooler tests your rules, don’t be upset: he just wants to be reassured that you love him enough to keep the hedge in place.

8) Teach children to disagree with you respectfully.

As children move toward adolescence, they attempt to establish an identity separate from their parents.  This is very normal, but can be a little disconcerting for mom and dad.  As children stake out this new territory, many of them make the mistake of rejecting their parents’ ideas in rude, disrespectful ways.  We can become indignant when, in a harsh, vulgar tone, our kids disparage our opinions.  Kids should be encouraged to explore new ideas while always remaining respectful to their parents.  (And mom and dad need to be ready to live in peace with a young person who, while living respectfully according to his parents’ rules, might not completely share their views.  Being respectful is a two-way street!)

9) Engage kids’ minds.

A lot of the time, kids engage in annoying behavior because they are bored.  If a child has his mind engaged in something meaningful, he is much less likely to provoke you emotionally.  Fill your family’s conversation and bookshelves with big ideas that stimulate thought and beckon a kid to vigorously investigate.  And don’t be fooled by video games:  they hold a child’s attention, but they don’t stimulate his mind.  The crankiest kids I know are the ones addicted to video games.  Discover your child’s muse, and let his mind run wild.

10) Make peace with the fact that your kids are not perfect.

Sometimes we beat ourselves up because we feel like we’re pouring our all into our kids, only to be repaid with defiance or rebellion.  We feel unappreciated.  We feel like failures.  We think of all we’ve sacrificed—and then we get angry.

Relax.  You can be the perfect parent, doing everything right, and your kids will still defy you.  And hurt you.  And disappoint you.  And make you cry.  They’re kids—that’s what they do.

But you’re the parent, and here’s what you do:  You love them.  And forgive them.  And correct them.  And love them some more.  And try not to get cross, because in their annoying, infuriating, vexing way—they love you desperately.

Photo credit: Salem Baer
Photo credit: Salem Baer
        Donna Baer is the author of
3d cover with reflection

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Can ballroom dance save your marriage?

“Can we meet? I’m struggling in my marriage.”

I’ve been invited out to quite a few lunches or glasses of wine this way.

My friends don’t call me up because they think I have a perfect marriage. [Spoiler alert: There are no perfect marriages.] I think they call me because they know that I am very flawed, and I am married to a man who also has faults, yet somehow, after 33 years together, we manage to really enjoy each other and our ten children—despite our glaring imperfections.

When I listen to my girlfriends who are struggling in their marriages, I find that most of their issues can be reduced to three main complaints:

  1. My husband won’t lead our family.
  2. My husband and I don’t communicate well.
  3. I have no interest in sex.

[These, as I said, are girlfriends’ complaints. If I surveyed men, I know the catalogue would look different. I’m pretty sure #3 would never make their list.]

If a marriage isn’t violated by infidelity or abuse, I often suggest ballroom dance lessons.

So, just how might the waltz, tango and rumba address the ladies’ big three marital complaints?

 Leading

Despite our living in a post-feminist, post-post-modern world, many women still wish their husbands were strong leaders in their homes—that these men would protect their wives, and provide for their children, and get in the face of anyone who would threaten their families. They wish their husbands would cast a vision for their family, and resolutely lead them toward a destination.

But many husbands don’t take the lead in their families. Some recoil from the responsibility because they’re lazy. Often in those situations, the wife will try to fill the leadership void, abetting her husband in his indolence. Other husbands become passive because their previous attempts at leadership have been rebuffed. When a wife won’t permit her husband to lead, he often just gives up trying.

In ballroom dance, the man must lead. The gentleman faces the direction in which the couple is moving, so he is the one who must think through how to navigate the crowded dance floor in order to keep his partner safe. He has to plan the timing and execution of their turns and steps, taking into account the beat of the music and his partner’s comfort.

And in ballroom dance, a woman must follow. She cannot see where the couple is heading, and so must trust the gentleman to make decisions. If she won’t take the gentleman’s lead, they both could wind up in a collision.

In this leading and following dynamic, however, there is collaboration. Sometimes my husband will say, “I’ve lost the beat—will you help me find it?” There are certain moves that turn us around so that my husband can’t see an obstacle on the dance floor, and I steer us clear. And there are times when I suggest a step that he may have forgotten we knew. But the gentleman must embrace the role of leader, or else the dance is very ugly and disjointed.

 Communication

Many couples struggle because they’ve never learned to communicate in the same language. Often a wife is very verbal, while a husband expresses himself more through actions. Most marriage counselors “treat” this problem by trying to teach men to communicate more like women. “Express yourself.” “Say what you’re thinking.” “Describe your feelings.” Most men become very uncomfortable with the feminization of their communication.

I believe the key to conquering the divide is not for men to communicate like women, but for women to learn to comprehend men’s unspoken, physical language. Women are naturally good at picking up on subtle cues, so the acquisition of this foreign tongue is often not very difficult for them. When a woman masters this masculine sign language, she bridges the communication gap that can plague her marriage.

Some women might complain, “Why should I have to learn his language? Why can’t he can’t he communicate in my language?” Well—he can. But I’ll just throw it out there: women are better at becoming “bi-lingual” than men are. With hard work a man can learn to communicate like a woman. With almost no effort, a woman can learn a man’s kinetic vernacular.

[Note to self: Discuss on next post how some women try to get their husbands to acquire more feminine traits, and then wind up despising their husbands for being weak.]

For a gentleman to lead a lady in ballroom dance, he must communicate his plan to her—he cannot leave her in the dark. The gentleman communicates his vision through subtle movements: some pressure on the back, a raised hand, an outstretched arm. A woman learns to read these signs and to respond. When she understands his physical language, they glide gracefully across the floor in spell-binding unison.

If a lead’s communication is gentle but firm, it is very easy for a lady to follow. When his message is overbearing, it’s painful; when the signal is weak, it’s confusing. By practicing ballroom dance, a man perfects his non-verbal communication so that his partner can understand him clearly.

 Sex

When you ballroom dance, you lock onto your partner’s eyes. You work in “ballroom hold,” which is a tender, intimate embrace. You sway so close that you can whisper furtive phrases no one else in the room will hear. Romantic waltzes murmur and sensuous tangos pulsate through the hall. You glide and sweep and undulate as though you were one person. You converse through bewitching gentle touch, reading each other’s unspoken thoughts, and responding in an alluring symphony of motion.

Let’s just say ballroom dance nicely address complaint #3.

Most of my girlfriends don’t want to “just survive” this engulfing, exhilarating, confusing thing called marriage. They want to laugh hard and cry passionately with the lover of their souls, through the inevitable ecstasy and heartbreak of life’s journey. They long for a leader whom they can trust. They want to know and be known by their husbands. They desire profound intimacy at the deepest level of their being.

May I suggest ballroom dance lessons?

 

 

Cindy Crawford v. ISIS

The news this bleak Monday morning matched Chicago’s dreary, demoralizing weather. Each turn of the page ushered me lower into a funk: Members of the Islamic State beheaded twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians. Vandals desecrated hundreds of Jewish graves in France. A teenage girl in Nigeria detonated her own suicide vest in a crowded bus station. A movie exploring bondage and sadomasochism broke international box office records on the weekend devoted to celebrating love. Everything seemed dark. Forlorn. Despairing.

Then I saw the photo.

I couldn’t look away. Little sparks of joy flickered in my stomach. A smile stretched across my winter-chapped cheeks. Amid all the reports of death and hatred and perversion, there was an emblem of self-sacrifice. Of devotion. Of pure love.

There, for all the world to see, Cindy Crawford displayed the sign, engraved in her own skin, of motherhood.

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If you’ve never carried a child in your womb, or if you don’t share your bed with the mother of your children, you may not understand stretch marks. They are a token, carved into a woman’s flesh, that she has been a vessel of life. Riven in burning discomfort, they seal her immortal bond with the creature who yawed and lolled and stretched them into her. They represent pain. And fatigue. And indescribable ecstasy. Some of us have lost the babies we carried, and our stretch marks are their only gravestone—we bear their names chiseled in cuneiform on our bellies. Some of our children are far away; the lines on our midriff picture for us the unseen tethers of affection that no distance can sever. No matter where our children are, the marks they have left on us are insignias—official emblems of our membership in the sisterhood of motherhood. They are pictures of life.

Cindy Crawford’s photo celebrated life. In a world pocked with terrorism, anti-Semitism and debasement, her epaulets of flesh defied the culture of death. They were beautiful.

Oddly, ever since I saw Cindy’s photo, I’ve been hearing the words to Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech echoing in my head. King Harry, attempting to embolden his troops before a battle for which they are seriously outnumbered, reminds the men that the scars they’ll receive in the fight will be a source of pride for years to come.

 “Then shall he strip his sleeves and bear his scars and say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day.’”

Most mothers don’t strip and show their scars. But I’m glad Cindy did. She reminded me—she reminds us all—that the scars of love are beautiful. That they are a source of pride. That when we love another person so deeply that we bear their marks in our flesh, we have loved well.

When God wanted to describe to the Children of Israel how deeply He loved them, He said, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands (Isaiah 49:16).” I cannot forget you. You are etched into me. My child, I love you.

There are two photos trending hotly on the Internet today: One features a long line of torturers leading their bound victims across the beach to the site of their bloody execution. The other is a photo of a mom bearing the marks of her love.

Love wins.

 

 

What the Super Bowl’s Anthem was missing

On Monday morning my dad forwarded me an email about the Super Bowl. Though my dad loves football (he played for Notre Dame), and can analyze an offense like Bobby Fischer looking at a chessboard, his message wasn’t about the game.

The forwarded email was attributed to a United States Marine Colonel in Afghanistan lamenting the showmanship often on display when our National Anthem is sung at sporting events. He writes, in part:

Just sing this song the way you were taught to sing it in kindergarten – straight up, no styling. Sing it with the constant awareness that there are soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines watching you from bases and outposts all over the world. Don’t make them cringe with your self-centered ego gratification. Sing it as if you are standing before a row of 86-year-old WWII vets wearing their Purple Hearts, Silver Stars and flag pins on their cardigans and you want them to be proud of you for honoring them and the country they love.

I find myself agreeing with the Colonel. I have nothing against showmanship: I enjoyed Katy Perry’s giant animatronic feline, the dancing shark and her pyrotechnic flight through the University of Phoenix Stadium. But I did wince as Idina Menzel sang the Anthem. Granted, I have heard it sung more hamily and more cheesily in the past. And I must give Idina credit, her voice is lovely and she got all the lyrics right (something that doesn’t always happen at the Super Bowl). But when performers arrange the Anthem to showcase their vocal agility and range, punctuating their performance with melismata, and terminating with an undulating, octave-skipping, bellowing crescendo, it makes me wonder if they’ve ever read the lyrics to the song.

Our National Anthem has four verses.

The first verse merely poses a question.

In 1814, just days after the British had attacked Washington D.C., setting fire to the White House, the Capitol and many other pubic buildings, the British moved on to Baltimore Harbor to take out Fort McHenry, perhaps the last stronghold of defense for our nascent Republic. Francis Scott Key, being held as a prisoner on a sloop behind the British fleet, watched in agony as the British bombarded the fort for twenty-five hours. He asks, in the first verse of the Anthem, if the American flag which had flown over the fort at sunset, and of which he had caught glimpses during the night’s battle, was still flying. Has the white flag of surrender been hoisted? Were we defeated? Had we lost what Lincoln later called “the last best hope of earth?” The question is posed in solemn trepidation, realizing that the response will set the course of history.

In verse two, Key is elated to learn that his country had survived—that the American flag is still waving over the fort.

Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,

In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:

‘Tis the star-spangled banner!

The brave soldiers at Fort McHenry had held back the world’s mightiest naval power, losing only four men. The American Republic had been saved!

Verse three describes in Homeric terms the devastation of the enemy. This is not a celebration of war, but a cold reckoning of the exorbitant price of freedom. Harkening the Iliad, Key contemplates the awfulness of war:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave

Finally, in verse four, the songwriter resolutely declares that as long as there are forces that would vie to take away our freedoms, we must fight—and we must win. Recalling that Heaven has rescued our land, and adjuring his countrymen to praise the Power that established and preserved our nation, he reminds us of our motto: In God is our trust.

I hope one day I will watch a Super Bowl and hear the question posed in the Anthem’s first verse answered. Does that Star-Spangled Banner still wave? Thank God, it does. Pray to God it will.

 

THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

 

Living with an Alzheimer’s patient…and other material for my stand-up routine

The warning signs had been there for a while: confusion, forgetfulness, disorientation. But when my father-in-law, known affectionately to me as Elvis, came for a visit six Christmases ago, it was clear that there was a serious problem. Diagnostic tests confirmed that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

So we shuffled bedrooms (not a simple feat in a household of eleven), and prepared a cozy place in our home for Grandpa Elvis. My husband and I were determined to do what we could to keep Grandpa with us—both in the physical and mental sense—as long as we could. Keeping him around physically didn’t turn out to be a problem: he didn’t have the wandering tendencies of many Alzheimer’s victims. But keeping him with us mentally proved to be a challenge.

My husband, Steve, and I decided from the start that we would always ground Elvis in the truth. After all, that was how we had raised our ten kids: we never told them lies, not even about Santa Claus. If Elvis said the President was Eisenhower, we’d remind his that it was Obama. If he thought the white stuff outside his window was the sand of Tucson, we’d inform him that it was the snow of Chicago. If he complained that the plane to Jerusalem had remained on the tarmac too long, we’d gently explain that he was in his bedroom.

Steve and I believed we were doing Elvis a great service by grounding him in reality this way. We figured the longer he knew the month and city he was in, the longer he’d have access to his mental faculties. The price for this reality therapy was quite high, though.

For one thing, Elvis would get angry when he was corrected. That anger would flit from the topic at hand, (“Where do YOU get off telling ME I don’t have choir practice tonight?), to other grievances (“Why does my dinner arrive so late everyday?”), and never get resolved.

Our corrections served as constant reminders of his mental decline, and that horrifying, bleak thought made him angry.

Further, to fight back, Elvis would become obstinate. In trying to cling to his mind and will, he would tenaciously hold to his decisions, no matter how absurd they were. This was never more evident than in his resolute determination not to change his clothes. This is a real (and typical) conversation:

 Me: Elvis, I think you’ve forgotten to change your clothes today.

Elvis: I don’t need to.

Me: Elvis, you really do need to. You’ll develop a rash.

Elvis: Where I come from, the babies change themselves.

Me: Elvis, babies don’t change themselves. And you’re not a baby.

Elvis: That’s right, I’m 42 years old.

Me: No Elvis, your son is 42 years old. You’re 82.

Elvis: No. I was born in in 1932. That was ten years ago. That makes me 42.

Then he shuffled out of the room angrily, with no intentions of changing.

As each scene like this played out, Elvis seemed even more removed from reality. And he became angrier. And more stubborn.

Then one day I listened on NPR to a story of a married couple who were both stand-up comedians. The wife’s mother had developed Alzheimer’s and moved in with them. As they described their journey, it sounded very familiar. They were experiencing the same resentment and intransigence with their mom as they tried to correct her back into reality.

Utterly frustrated, they decided to make a change. They resolved to do what improv comedians do: they stepped into her reality. If mom saw a bunch of monkeys swinging in the trees, they saw them too, and asked where the bananas were. They said that in the improvisational comedy sphere, this was called “Yes, and…” Whatever one comedians says, you say, “Yes, and…” and build from their world. When they switched from “No, you’re wrong,” to “Yes, and…” their mom’s life changed.

No longer was she angry and frustrated. She wasn’t embarrassed and feeling stupid. She would have delightfully funny conversations with her daughter and son-in-law, and, by the end of them, admit that they were fanciful. She was actually closer to reality from having wandered into fantasy.

This sounded so appealing to me; I wanted to try it with Elvis. But I had this little problem: the truth. I really don’t like telling lies. I didn’t think I could condone it.

But then I go to thinking, when my sons were little and tied sheets around their necks to create superhero capes, I didn’t reprimand them. I’d drop down dead on the kitchen floor when they shot me with their paper towel tubes. When my little daughter donned my heels and jewelry and introduced herself as Mrs. Delicious, I didn’t remind her of the name on her birth certificate. I invited Mrs. Delicious for a cup of tea.

Elvis didn’t need to be forced back into reality. Like a preschooler using make-believe in an attempt to make sense of a confusing world, he needed someone to join him in his fantasy.

I realized this wasn’t lying; it was imaginary play. I decided to try it out. Here’s a real live conversation, using my “Fantasy Therapy.”

Elvis: Well, I’ve thought long and hard and I’ve finally made up my mind.

Me: What have you decided to do, Elvis?

Elvis: I’m going to run for governor.

Me: Wow! Are you going to run as a Democrat or a Republican?

Elvis: I haven’t quite made up my mind.

Me: Well, you know, Elvis, voters really like to know which party you’re running in.

Elvis: You’re right. I’ll have to decide.

Me: You know what else voters like? They like when candidates change their clothes.

Elvis: Good idea! (with a mischievous sparkle in his eye) One question: do candidates get a free dessert with lunch?

Me: Only the ones who have changed their clothes.

Grinning, Elvis shuffled away to change.

I think Grandpa knew in his heart of hearts that he wasn’t really running for governor. But he invited me into his fantasy, I joined him there for a while, and he was happy. He didn’t feel the need to obdurately cling to an assertion or doggedly argue a point. He didn’t even complain about changing his clothes.

My husband and I have shifted our paradigm regarding caring for an Alzheimer’s patient. Our job is no longer to laboriously force Grandpa’s mind into the here and now—a state rife with reminders of his decaying body and deceased loved ones. We see our task now as giving Elvis a good send-off as we join him where his mind takes him.

Some days we are in sunny Tucson volunteering at the hospital. “Yes, and look at that saguaro over there.” Other days we’re in southern Indiana at confirmation class. “Yes, and have you remembered your Catechism book?” Occasionally, we get to fly over to Europe. “Yes, and what will we see at the Louvre?”

Our “Yes, and…” improv tactic has changed Elvis from an angry old man into a playful explorer. He’s no longer humiliated by his mistakes, but enjoys our companionship on his flights of fantasy, and becomes compliant while we’re there. If Elvis is happier, we are all happier.

Yes and… when do we go to the Riviera? It’s cold here in Chicago!

Stack DVD3d cover with reflection

 

You can find more of my books and DVDs at my website, stronghappyfamily.org.

SHOULD YOU BUY YOUR SON A GUN?

I have friends who have insisted that their little boys grow up without play weapons in their toy boxes. With no light saber, sheriff’s pistol or Nerf gun at their disposal, those little boys became proficient at creating play weapons. They fashioned archer’s bows from clothes hangers, ray guns from hair dryers and glocks from cheese sandwiches. To their moms’ utter flummoxation, they insisted on their right to bear arms.

The underlying premise which motivated my friends to suspend the Second Amendment in their households was, of course, that guns create violent, aggressive behavior. But is this really the case? If you listen closely to little boys as they play, you might come to a different conclusion.

THE WAY BOYS PLAY

In raising my eight sons (and frequently hosting their pals), I’ve been audience to hundreds of hours of boisterous, imaginative “guy play.” Whenever these knights, or Jedis or cowboys resort to using their weapons, it is always for one of two reasons: either there is a wrong that must be righted, or there is someone innocent who must be protected. The heroes the little boys portray in their fanciful narratives do not use their sidearms to despoil and pillage; rather, they use them to establish justice. Good guys get rewarded; bad guys get punished; no one gets mutilated. Like Don Quijote, they seek to “redress grievances, right wrongs, correct injustices, rectify abuses and fulfill obligations.”

I’ve watched 7-year-old “soldiers” liberate hostages with cap guns. I’ve seen 5-year-old “cops” apprehend bad guys with water pistols. And more than a few “princes” under my care have rescued damsels in distress using nothing more than their sense of moral outrage and Popsicle stick.

(I do concede, though I have never witnessed it, that there may be children, raised in abusive or perverted homes, whose ideas of power and justice have been warped, and whose weapon play may be maniacal. I am not speaking of boys raised in such homes here.)

THE EFFECTS OF DISARMAMENT

The important question for parents to ask is, “What happens to little boys who are forbidden to act out their justice fantasies?” As Dr. Sears, Maria Montessori, and countless other early childhood experts claim, a child’s work is play. It is through play that a child tests his theories about how the world functions, emulates his role models, and creates a moral framework for life. Imaginative role-playing allows a boy to dig and pour a foundation upon which he will build his ethics. When a little boy is thwarted in his attempts to create a fantasy world where wrongs are righted and the weak are protected, he is deprived of a bedrock of virtue. This may have serious consequences later in life.

You see, little boys—like little girls and big adults—all yearn to make sense of the world and to understand their place in it. When a boy picks up his cap gun to role-play, he is testing this theory:

I am a strong hero.

I can fight for justice.

I can free the oppressed.

I can protect the helpless.

Disarming that boy tells him his theory was wrong.

In America, 40% of children grow up in homes where they are not protected by their fathers. Where did this callous disregard for the welfare of the helpless come from? How have we arrived at a place where the very weakest members of society are abandoned by the men who should be their valiant protectors?

Though the causes for this moral dereliction of duty may be legion, we cannot ignore our collective obsession with sissifying boys. If a little boy grows up in an imaginary-weapons-free zone, what roles have you reserved for his imaginative play? If he cannot be a soldier or a cowboy or a knight, does he pretend to be a cook or a designer or a clown instead? No, in my experience, it seems that if a boy cannot act out the roles that interest him, he eschews role-playing altogether, forfeiting the moral groundbreaking work that such play provides. He might move on to playing sports or tinkering with machines, but he’ll do so without the formative benefits that role-playing provides.

And so a boy “protected” from weapon play often arrives at adulthood without a fierce sense of protectiveness for those humans entrusted to him. Many young men feel the obligation to provide for their children ends with the $200 they offer to abort them. Or the amusement park tickets they purchase on their custodial weekends. Or the child support payments that are begrudgingly deducted from their paychecks.

The modern family doesn’t need financier fathers—it need knights-errant to stand between danger and their families and defiantly proclaim, “You shall not pass.” It needs soldiers who will lay down their lives for their children. It needs cowboys who are not afraid to face down, alone at high noon, anyone threatening their wives. It needs courageous men.

So when your precious 4-year-old son picks up a stick to protect his sister from a “bad guy,” think twice before you tell him to put it down. Admiring his stick wielding might benefit your grandchildren more than you could possibly imagine.

 [This blog post is an abstract from a chapter of the book STRONG HAPPY SONS, due out later this year. The complete chapter is now appended to the Kindle version of Strong Happy Family, on sale the last week of July.]
 

 

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BEAUTY TIPS FOR BUSY MOMS FROM A CELEBRATED HAIR AND MAKE-UP STYLIST

I wish every mom had a friend like Cathleen.  She is a hair and make-up stylist whose client list reads like an Oscar nominee roll call.  (If you beg her, she’ll tell you funny stories about people like Stephen Colbert, Cybill Shepherd or Cindy Crawford—but you have to beg her; she’s not a name-dropper.)  More to her credit, Cathleen is a mom who, in a single morning, can run a car pool, clean a bathroom, groom a dog and go to a teacher’s conference— looking fabulous. While she knows how to create smoky-eyed vixens for the cover of Vogue, she has also mastered the art of making diaper-changing, sleep-deprived, over-worked moms look (and by extension, feel) amazing.

Here’s why I wish you had a friend like Cathleen:  Though she is paid by the rich and famous for working her wizardry, if any of her girlfriends asks for her help, she’s there in a flash.  Your daughter’s soccer game ends two hours before prom begins?  Cathleen to the rescue.  Couldn’t take off that last 10 pounds of baby weight before the scheduled family photo?  Cathleen creates an optical illusion to trick the camera.  Your kids tell you the Seinfeld Show called and they want their hair back?  Just call Cathleen.

Cathleen with my daughter before prom
Cathleen with my daughter before prom

The best part about Cathleen’s advice is that while she’s telling you how to resuscitate the eyeballs that have been resorbed into their sockets, or how to simultaneously cover wrinkles and pimples, she makes you feel beautiful.  Instead of, “Wow, your lips are sure thin,” she says, “Donna, you have such a great smile; let’s work on accentuating your wonderful asset.”  I think I just felt good about my skinny lips.

You might argue that caring about one’s appearance is vain, or that it betrays a seduction to the world’s standards.  Perhaps.  But maybe we all value our outward presentation because it just plain makes us feel better about ourselves.  When I am put together, I feel more confident, more organized—even more joyful.  Those positive dispositions are transmitted to the people around me, especially to my children.  In short, a few minutes in front of the mirror each morning helps me to be a better mom.

Sometimes, on a miserable Chicago winter evening, I invite over a bunch of girlfriends, we light a fire, open a bottle of wine, and drink in Cathleen’s advice.  The reason we value her recommendations so highly is because she gets what it means to be on the job as a mom:  She knows that we have exactly 7.5 minutes to do our hair and make up for the day, that we don’t have a supermodel’s budget for cosmetics, and that, even if we could, we don’t want to look like a glamazon from a Milan runway.  We want to look fresh, natural, accessible and pleasant.  We want our kids to look us in the eye, and smile.

Here are a few of Cathleen’s simple, time-saving, beautifying tips that have boosted my spirits as I’ve raised my ten children.  For her professional clients, Cathleen uses top-shelf products; listed below are the inexpensive knock-offs you can find at discount retailers:

 1.  Dry Shampoo!   If you’re over 40, you’re hearing the jingle from Pssssssst right now.  Dry Shampoo is now a “styling aid.”  It gives lift to your hair around the roots, and enhances your mane’s body.  And, in case you don’t have time to wash and blow dry your locks, it really does clean your hair and buys you a free day.  Suave makes a very inexpensive one that smells great.

2.  Use an eyelash curler.  If you have no time whatsoever for makeup application, simply curling your eyelashes creates a frame for your eyes and brightens your face.

3.  Apply two-step mascara.  Two-step mascara, like L’Oreal’s Double Extend, comes in an applicator with a wand at either end.  You first apply a white base, which coats your lashes in tubes (Cathleen calls them little raincoats). Then,  you use the opposite wand to apply the mascara onto those little raincoats.  After a few seconds, that mascara will not budge.  You can leave it on for days and it will not smear, and it won’t clump like waterproof mascara.  (That means you can wake up with pretty eyes!)  When you take a shower, the little raincoats just slip off your lashes.

4.  Use bronzer.  (Not Jersey Shore bronzer.  I grew up in New Jersey, where we had a name for girls who applied make-up like that.  I no longer use that kind of language.)  Using a tone of bronzer just a shade or two warmer than your natural tone softly covers a lot of imperfections, and gives you a healthy glow.

5.  Burt’s Bees Lip Balm.  These balms feel so good on your lips, and they come tinted in subtle, natural colors.  You can buy a 4-pack for $10, so it’s easy to stash them in your purse/jacket/jeans/diaper bag.

During our evenings huddled around the fire, Cathleen is quick to remind us that real beauty comes from within.  Among the ugliest people she’s ever met are a couple of coarse, uncivil supermodels.  No cache of cosmetics can beautify a heart of stone.  A gracious smile, a kind look, an unfurrowed brow, meaningful eye contact, a sweet tone— these are beauty tips for any budget.

Cathleen's handiwork on my daughter's wedding day!
Cathleen’s handiwork on my daughter’s wedding day!

When not adorning supermodels, Cathleen can be hired for weddings and other special events.  To reach her, contact me at stronghappyfamily.org.

For more on inner beauty, read3d cover with reflection

 

IRISH SODA BREAD…BROOKLYN STYLE!

Some years ago, the city of Chicago adopted me.

I grew up in a place where I could see the World Trade Centers from my attic, where Puerto Rican cabbies spoke Yiddish, and where everyone thought Philadelphia was in the Midwest.

But when I moved to Chicago the day after my honeymoon, Sandburg’s “stormy, husky, brawling” city welcomed me with broad shoulders and open arms, and I fell in love with my adoptive city.  Put celery salt on my Vienna Beef, make my pizza like a cheese casserole, and omit the objects of my prepositions:  I’m a Chicagoan now!

Chicago has breathtaking architecture, a fabulous lakefront, ward politics that are more engaging than crime novels, and boisterous ethnic neighborhoods.  Some of the Gaelic enclaves on the Southside of Chicago remind me of my mother’s Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn.  They feature pubs haunted by the ghost of James Joyce, cut-throat Irish dance schools, perfect strangers who would give you the shirt off their backs, terrifyingly fierce rugby teams, charming old ladies with lilting brogues who make a mean pot of tea, and a blow-out St. Patrick’s Day parade.  But what they don’t have—what the entire city of Chicago is sorely missing— is GOOD IRISH SODA BREAD.

Around St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Chicagoans dutifully eat the dry crumbs of sawdust they call soda bread, as if doing penance for their excesses on the holiday that ironically falls right in the middle of Lent.  If you ask them, they’ll tell you they don’t really like the taste of the bread; they just feel compelled out of ethnic pride to swallow a slice of the particleboard.  “It’s tradition,” they’ll mumble, and then say something about it being better than a potato blight.

Out of fondness for my adoptive city, I must share with it the lovely secret of my birth city:  Irish soda bread is delicious.  It’s not penance for cheating on Lent; it is cheating on Lent!

I will now divulge the secret recipe, perfected by that wild Irish rose, my mother from Brooklyn.  My sister Debby will be upset that I’ve shared this secret.  But Debby, is it right that an entire city should suffer?  (Next time we’re together, Deb, I’ll buy a couple of Guinnesses to go with our soda bread, and we’ll forget our differences—Dublin style.)

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 MANNY’S IRISH SODA BREAD

             For 1 loaf:                                               For 3 loaves:
(You’ll want three loaves.)

3 cups flour                                                        9 cups flour
½ cup sugar                                                     1 ½ cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt                                             ½ tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons caraway seeds                     2 tablespoons caraway seeds
½ cup raisins                                                    1 ½ cups raisins
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda                     1 ½ tablespoons baking soda
1 ½ cups buttermilk                                     1 quart buttermilk

Mix all the dry ingredients.  Shake up, then add the buttermilk.  Shape the dough into round loaves; they should be pretty sticky.  Bake at 350°on a cookie sheet coated with cooking spray for about 45 minutes (until a knife inserted into the center comes out dry).  Drizzle the top with honey if you like.  Prep time: 10 minutes.  Eating time: about the same!

Now,  Chicago, on March 17, go for a walk along our gorgeous emerald green river with a hunk of this soda bread in your pocket— and a smile on your face!

Find this and a few other holiday recipes in my new book:

3d cover with reflection

For a discount coupon, contact me below!