If Only

If OnlyIt started with the birthday gift from my Mother and Stepfather.  A Spiderman backpack complete with flashing lights, and a Spiderman lunchbox, with a faux-ribbed “six-pack” etched into the design.  They were, to be fair, pretty cool.  But they were a bit young.  My daughter decided on-the-spot to exchange them for something a little more befitting her 9-year-old self, which was easy enough to do since my Mother had kindly enclosed the receipt as well.  We did so that same weekend, getting a really smart looking gray-patterned back pack with lots of neat pockets and zippers.  Only when I sent the picture to my Mother so she could see what the “new” gift was, the text I received back was, “That is a big girl backpack!”, as if she were surprised by it.  Odd.

I wrote it off as quirky, but forgot about it amongst the myriad of other things I pushed aside, as this week was the start of the school year and crazy busy.  That is, until we received the birthday box from my Father and Stepmother, as well.  My daughter was opening it in the living room as I was in the kitchen with breakfast and other morning busyness.  All of a sudden I hear an annoyed cry of, “Minnie Mouse, seriously??”  I went in to see the offending material, only to find a box filled with curly ribbon, little Minnie Mouse party glasses, tiny Minnie Mouse girl rings, and a variety of other small pink bracelets and candy.  It was a birthday box lovingly prepared for a granddaughter; only, it was not for my girl.  Almost nothing in there was remotely HER in any way, with the exception of the Target gift card (which had been my suggestion and that she did, in fact, love).

As I stood there looking at her scowling at the items in the box (mainly because they were pink – a complete offense nowadays to little miss tomboy – and they were geared towards a child more along the age of, say five), it hit me.  Like a tidal wave of sorrow, it hit. That’s how they see her, isn’t it?  My family still sees her as this small little creature; a grandbaby not quite yet grown.  And how else could they see her?  I am anchored across the country from them, in a world so foreign.  And I have done little to help them know her; I mean really know her.  Connect with her in a way that makes up for all that ugly geographic distance.  The fault, I feel, is entirely mine.

You see, she has long outgrown the Minnie Mouse trappings and blinky-lighted backpacks of her younger years.  Today’s interests are more along the lines of boy-styled roller blades and tween-approved backpacks.  Sure, she is greatly enamored with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spiderman, but not the gimmicky ones of the younger crowd; she wants the older, cool-styled ones of the Marvel-type universe.  The ones that have explosions in their movies, and superpowers that stealth through the back door.  If only you could hear the excitement in her voice as she talks about the latest character she and her friends are arguing about; who could outwit who, which one they would rather be.  You would fall in love with the glimmer in her eye and the loud full laugh from her chest.

This girl has moved far beyond pink and frills and bows.  She is now fully ensconced in all things blue; boy colors and styles are her preference and boys, in general, are her playmates.  She has a couple of go-to best girlfriends; she hasn’t abandoned them completely.  But she prefers the boys, I think, because of a lack of drama; and she coolly tries to pattern herself like them (especially when she needs a self-confidence booster).  If only you could see her run and laugh as she plays dodge-ball with the boys after school; keeping up with the best of them, just one of the pack.  You would be amazed at her tenacity, and proud of her spirit.

Far and away are activities akin to tea parties and dress-up (although a good spa-day at home will sometimes tempt her, though she’s hard-pressed to admit it).  Now long days are filled with roller skating or scooter-ing down the block, dog in tow as her ponytail flies behind her.  That, or climbing trees, or splitting rocks.  Did you know that she loves to hammer on and split rocks open just to see what’s inside?  It’s one of her favorites.  If only you could be here to kneel down next to her and investigate the different colors she finds.  You would be awed by her inquisitiveness, and could marvel at them together.

And she’s grown; oh, how she’s grown.  No longer does she have the slightly stubby fingers or legs of a toddler or child.  She is long, and lean.  She reminds me of a colt; all muscle and leg and speed and sinew.  She comes all the way up to my collarbone now, she’s so tall.  I sometimes steal opportunities just to stare at her when she’s unaware; when she’s all serious and concentrating, or when she’s just calm and serene.  The “little girl-ness” of her is almost completely gone; she’s really starting to take on her newer, more mature frame in face and body.  It’s really a sight to behold; it breaks my heart and fills me with joy all at once; a feeling I know you would recognize.  If only we could gaze at her together, then look at each other; we would not need words to understand that you have for so long felt what I now know.

But, you see, there weren’t supposed to be all these if only‘s.  Long ago, when I imagined my future and my family and my children, I always pictured you near.  Weaving you in and out of our lives; holding you close for all the milestones and important events and even all the little mundane ones, too.  You were supposed to know all of this, already.  You were supposed to have held her close, at every turn, in every year; feeling the differences in all her growing selves, knowing all the changing versions of her.  But decision and circumstance have kept me so far away for so very long, and like a thief I have stolen all of this from you.  From her.  From me.  And the reality is that you don’t know.  And you have missed so much.  If only I could change that; if only I were home.

But I can’t; and I’m not.  Not yet, anyway.  Though I still hope to be, someday.  But until then, I will try to do better.  For you, and for her, and for me.  I will try to make sure that you know her more; and often.  So that our world is less distanced; so that we have less if only‘s.

Storms, and Bookstores, and Accordions…Oh My

There are days where you start out with a plan.  Maybe you have a goal in mind, errands to do, an outing, etc.  You decide on a course, confident you will follow it and accomplish what you set out to do; and then fate steps in.

My Sunday started out like this; the goal was to acquire activity books for my daughter to be used during our plane flight on our upcoming vacation.  There is a Half Price Books store fairly near our house, and they often have new ones for cheap, so this was the intended location of the morning.  (A little background…  The weather here – Ohio state – has been volatile lately.  Very hot, humid, and stormy.  Two nights ago we had a particularly nasty storm; 80 mph straight-line winds, power outages, downpours, lots of damage.  Many areas of town were still recovering through the weekend.)  My daughter and I had already wandered over to Half Price Books on Saturday, only to discover they were closed as a result of no power.  However, I was again in the area later that day, and the traffic lights and a couple of businesses looked operable.  I assumed the grid was back up, so we decided to try again the next day.

With our mission in mind we again headed out Sunday morning for our destination.  Unfortunately, they were still closed with no power.  A little frustrated but undeterred, we decided to head a bit farther out to another HPB location so we could acquire our intended loot.  After 20 more minutes in the car and some overly dramatic radio sing-a-longs, we arrived.  There were markedly few cars in the area, and upon inspection we learned that this location was also out of power.  Ugh.  The plan for the day was unraveling quickly…

Given that our trip was looming, and I didn’t have the luxury of more HPB locations nor lots of time to wait for power fixes (some areas at this point were estimating 5-7 days before repair), we broke down and decided to head for the full-price shelves of Barnes & Noble which was very nearby.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite fond of B&N and browse there often.  But for activity books that my girl will use and abuse on a plane and then dispose of quickly, I would really much prefer the budget route.  However, with a little selective browsing and a trip through the sales rack, we wound up getting out of B&N without breaking the bank.

After a nice girls lunch full of laughs and funny faces (not to mention odd looks from other patrons), we decided to meander over to Whole Foods before heading home.  Shortly after we walked in, I noticed the familiar strains of accordion music drifting through the air.  Leaning over to my daughter, I whispered in her ear, “Remember the accordion man I showed you the picture of not too long ago?  He’s here.”  “NO WAY!!  WHERE?!?”,  was the loudly excited reply.  It took a few tries, but I finally convinced her that where he was located was outside of the checkout area, and we needed to quickly gather our purchases and pay for them before we could go see him.  The plus side of this was it helped to get her to be uncharacteristically helpful while we shopped for the few things we needed, and kept her from being as handsy as she normally is.

We checked out quickly and made our way over to the same spot I found him in before; a chair in the corner of the eating area.  I wasted no time walking up to him today, and saying a hearty hello.  The big grin I remembered from the first time I saw him (you can read about it here) was just as sparkly, and he was obviously happy to have company.  I reminded him I was the woman who took his picture a few short weeks ago, and apologized for not having caught his name.  “It’s Burt!” he said excitedly.  I introduced myself and my daughter, who was suddenly very shy.  He pulled a chair up for us and encouraged us to sit down and listen, which we did, my daughter on my lap.  It was so sweet the way he showed her his accordion (“64 years old with lots of duct tape, but it still plays just fine!”), and picked out songs he thought she would know (such as ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’).  My daughter relaxed and opened up once the music began into play.  She loved the tunes immensely, and I loved watching her listen and smile.

What I didn’t expect was to be caught off guard when he started playing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’.  I found myself tearing up as I was suddenly my daughter’s age, sitting in my childhood living room, watching my father play the accordion as I marveled how he could work such an amazing contraption.  Somewhat of a surreal experience as I held my own daughter on my lap.  As Burt shifted to ‘Tura Lura Lura’ the memory continued, and was compounded by thoughts of my large Irish family and my grandfather’s funeral.  I had no sooner started to dab at my eyes when my daughter turned and asked, “Momma, are you crying?  You’re not supposed to cry, dry it up lady!!” She said it in the funniest way I just had to laugh, then we both laughed, and then Burt laughed because he probably had no idea what happened but thought laughing was a great idea and joined in for the heck of it.

We listened a little while longer and then said our goodbyes.  Burt asked us to please come listen again, and we promised we would.  As we exited the store I mentioned to my daughter that it was probably a good thing the power was out in the Half Price Books that day, or we never would have run in to Burt and his accordion at all, for we would have been nowhere near the Whole Foods store.  Our original plan would have had us in, out, and home in a flash.  As it turns out, the revised events for the day held much more adventure and richness than my original plan could possibly have garnered.  I supposed plans aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, now are they?  Often times it’s the unplanned that yields the biggest rewards.

Fruit From The Tree

Branches, twigs, leaves and limbs…

Family trees are interesting. They stretch and grow with their multiple limbs; branches bud from blood relations, from marriage, even from choice. Some are small, only stretching out over a limited time; others are large, spanning multiple generations.  Frequently these limbs are produced from a completely new breed of tree; as if you took two (or more) different types, spliced them together, and created an entirely new species that never before existed.  More often than not, they are complicated structures; the branches twisting in awkward directions, with twigs sprouting off this way and that.

What’s even more intriguing about familial trees is often the fruit that falls from them. By ‘fruit’ I’m referring to the traits we inherit from being a part of these intricate creations. What grains of wood flow through our veins as we sprout into our own little seedlings? What colors of leaves do we produce? For me, it was interesting enough to learn about myself as I developed along my own path in life; but I find it even more interesting to compare myself as I look back and learn about the other branches of my tree, and the other offspring that came from it.

Certainly, there is always a visual comparison. For example on one side of my family, there is a striking physical resemblance running through many of our generations (my father’s side, specifically). I would hazard a guess that if you put a large number of us in a room with several hundred other strangers, an unconnected observer could pick out the family pairings pretty darn quickly without much effort – we really do look that much alike, even several generations removed.

Then there’s the ‘behavior’ comparison; I sometimes wonder if this is genetic, as well. For example, I have my father’s temper; that quick-lit Irish ire that is easy to rile, and hard to quell. But my grandfather had it, too, and from what I hear (though I haven’t witnessed it first-hand, so I border on conjecture here) my uncles also exhibit it. Not only do we have it, we struggle with it in a way that makes it a little unique in our family. It makes me wonder – hearing that it trickles through the generations – is it learned, inherited, or both? Did the apple fall into the next tree, or did we pick it up and carry it because we saw it lying there? Maybe a little of both is true. I think sometimes these things are inherent in our DNA and sometimes they are learned (such as the wicked knack for guilt conjuring that my maternal grandmother always had, my mother carries with her, and I have conveniently picked up as well – that, most certainly, seems to be an observed skill much more than innate).

I find the DNA comparison often carries with it questions of a more clinical nature, such as the uncertainty of potential disease issues in a family. In my father’s lineage, there seem to be frequent incidents of cancer, though they present themselves inconsistently – breast, prostate, ovarian, skin – none seem to repeat themselves, but many branches seem to be afflicted. It makes me wonder if it just hides amongst all of us like a sleeping beast and morphs to suit itself when it feels like showing its fangs. It’s even found me already, in what was fortunately an early identified and quickly removed form of melanoma; I often hope that I’ve already faced down my own monster and I won’t encounter another in my lifetime, but who can ever be sure? I surmise that is why my family has always been so vigilant by proactively checking for things that we are wary of – you just don’t know what fruit you will get, or if it will perchance be rotten.

But sometimes the fruit you get is just the opposite; it is exquisite in its ripeness and richness.  It’s often not even genetic in nature; in fact, it is frequently more nurture-based.   It’s the kind of fruit that bears the seeds of character, helping to shape us into the beings we become as we grow, reaching towards the sky and sun.

Branches, twigs, leaves and limbs; each one unique, each one important.  They all create the distinctive flora from which our family trees grow, from which we grow.  Exceptional in their challenges and their gifts, we would not be who we are without them.