A Stolen Moment

I found this 1968 snapshot, burnt around the edges and smoke damaged by fire, in a box of my late mother’s photographs and memorabilia. I was there, not in the shot, but there in the kitchen when this photo was taken by my dad. We were young, they were young, even the world was still innocent, well at least for children. Another sister held up a towel as a backdrop behind our precious gift, the golden boy, our little baby brother who was mothered by six adoring sisters. He turned out to be a well-liked man, so as far as we can tell no damage was done. You’d have to ask him, though.

From the shadows, my mother ponders while my younger siblings help give the baby a bath. From a December 1968 snapshot.

But what I found remarkable and intriguing in this picture of my brother, was my mother…there in the background resting her cheek on her hand. I had seen her tired and exhausted many times, but rarely did I see her contemplative. She really had no time for that! It looks to me, that while my younger siblings were playing along with the baby, my mom was lost in thought; deep thoughts.

Now, I grew to know my mother very well and listened to her story often over the span of her 80-some years. In retrospect, I know what my mother’s life was like at that moment in time. Even on the surface, raising eight children ages toddler to teenager, making ends meet on a teacher’s salary in a house bursting with life and laundry, dishes and meals to cook; even the least sympathetic of people would concur that life must have been pretty crazy for my mom. Add any relationship issues, broken promises, lists of dreams and plans shoved back into her housecoat pocket for another day, the loss of loved ones, and her hometown of Detroit on fire with racial tension; one wonders how she didn’t lose her mind.

Well, she did from time to time, though she always managed to find it again with remarkable grace.

I know people, a few too many, who align themselves with the Native American notion that a photograph ‘steals a person’s soul.’ Of course, you can see and understand that thinking in the broken souls and weathered faces of ancient Native Americans. The people I’m talking about are simply uncomfortable in front of the camera, for whatever reason, and most of them aren’t Native Americans.

In THIS photo, and in my mother‘s case, the camera did indeed ‘capture’ my mother’s spirit and personal pondering; her face rather sweet and vulnerable and yet disenchanted or is it dreamy? She had already experience more than her share of joy and grief for a woman in her late 30s. What was taking her away?

Raised in Detroit’s heyday, my mother came from a well-kept stately home and was one of only two children of a Detroit City Police Officer and an orderly, warm mother who happened to be the first female agent in the Royal Neighbors of America Life Insurance Company. Though they lived through the Depression and WWII, they were resourceful hard-workers; my grandparents created a good life for their two children. Mom had lots of pretty clothes, a cute and vivacious personality, tons of friends, and she, too, was very traditional and a devout Catholic.

Her life changed drastically over the course of the first 15 years of her young marriage.

For any of us, husband or wife, that have seen our lives evolve in ways we didn’t expect during marriage, we could deduce that what she might have been thinking could involve regret, sadness, even hopelessness. She had wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to drive her own car. She wanted more, perhaps, of what she wanted before dutifully bearing eight children.

My mother, even to her last days, proclaimed that she found her greatest joy and satisfaction with her babies and raising her children, and there is no doubt in my mind that that is true. It was her main occupation for most of her adult life. BUT, the two thoughts, happiness and joy with a warm baby in one’s arms, and regret and sadness over unrealized dreams and ignored plans can be simultaneous thoughts. Women, at least, can hold complicated conflicting thoughts in their minds at the same time, and THAT might explain that ‘far away’ look.

It’s not an empty look but one that is heavy with private dilemma.

I’m sure my more witty siblings would insert a smart joke here or just laugh-off the tough realities of our mother’s life. It’s over; let her rest in peace.  But I’m one of the ‘sensitives,’ and can’t help but empathize with my mother’s situation, even years later. We all perceive things from our own experiences and perspectives, and maybe I see too much of myself in my mother.

To me, my mother’s face expresses a disconnect from the lovely though exhausting family scene before her on the kitchen table. She is ‘somewhere else.’ Perhaps she was thinking about her future, maybe another effort to get herself into college. Or maybe she was thinking about her children, or just one child, and how she can help them with something. Maybe she was planning a party, God knows we had basement parties every time another of the Currie Clan was baptized or confirmed in Christ, or celebrating another birthday! Maybe she was angry with my dad and just tolerating his enthusiasm for family life, or the opposite, enjoying the break his involvement offered.  Maybe, she just wanted the ‘kid day’ to end so she could enjoy her FIRST hot cup of coffee and read the stack of magazine by her bedside, which was her custom by night fall. Maybe she was missing the crinolines and gardenias of her youth. For all we know, she could have been in prayer.

I have my own thoughts about ‘where my mother was’ in this picture, but since a camera can’t REALLY capture or steal a person’s soul or spirit, we simply don’t know for certain what she was experiencing.

And THAT, perhaps, is the beauty of the stolen moment in photography. The mystery behind the smirk, the intrigue of a glance, the sadness in smiling eyes; it’s the story that lies hidden behind the subject that makes a picture worth a thousand words.

All I know for sure is I didn’t see that expression when I was sitting next to her. I was a young child, naturally consumed with my own immediate needs. I doubt the teenage sibs saw her, for we all know teenagers think nothing of the woes and dramas of others, especially their parents. Maybe my dad saw her lost in thought and was uncertain about crossing the line into conversation; regardless, now that I’ve been ‘far away in thought’ myself, I can ‘see’ my mother and understand the daily grind and personal challenges she faced.

For that, I’m glad the camera was the thief that captured my mother’s spirit during that stolen moment, and the print gave it back to me this many years later. For that is all we need in this harsh and unromantic world, a little understanding, to not be so easily dismissed or judged, and to not feel invisible or so alone when facing the tasks that life has sprawled out in front of us on our kitchen tables.

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One Perfect Day at the State Fair

“I wanted the music to play on forever. Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I wanted the clowns to be constantly clever. Have I stayed too long at the fair?”

The Minnesota State Fair, courtesy of Minnesotafarmguide.jpg

The Minnesota State Fair, courtesy of Minnesotafarmguide.jpg

Every now and then a perfect day comes along in a person’s life. I’ve had a few of those, I’m happy to say, but one seems to stand out more than others. Perhaps it was due to the spirit of hopefulness, the time of the season, the natural and playful elements all aligned and in-harmony, or maybe it was because of our new beginning after but another of life’s struggles. We were at the fair, crafted in a fairy-tale kind of American spirit: lights, balloons, streamers, music, with carnival food wafting through the air, and we were in-love. I’m sure that was an essential part of the moment.

“My state fair is the best state fair…’ was the featured song on my internal soundtrack, as my husband and I strolled through the archway of the Minnesota State Fair one rainy day in 1989. The soft summer showers made for a light crowd, punctuated by black umbrellas and yellow slickers, people rushing to take cover in sudden downpours and relaxed in the intermittent rainbows when the rain would cease. The lack of patrons created an easy walk along the midway and into the barns, with no long lines for funnel cakes or in the way of the beeline to the bathroom. With a baby in the stroller and no particular agenda in mind, the light crowd and gentle rain set the scene for ease and immersion into the carnival scene. We couldn’t have been happier.

Married only two years, our little girl not yet independent and demanding; tension was low, neediness was light, everything seemed magical and care-free. We had just moved out to our small farm west of Minneapolis, so our interests in blue ribbon preserves, small farm animals, sheep and wool products, and farming equipment was genuine and passionate; it drove us with eagerness to each of the barns in wonderment and a sense of ownership. Both from different neighboring state, this was now OUR state, our fair, our farm life and family, and we felt like we belonged.

Not unlike others who have gone off to a state fair, I’m sure, who experienced the same kind of thrill and amusement with the unique aromas and offerings that only a state fair can offer, yet this time is was different. Love was still a fresh new second chance, our baby an unexpected blessing, and my dream of living in rural American on Laura Ingalls’ prairie was literally on our doorstep. We seemed to be in want for nothing and awash with gratitude.

I recall the simple joy of picking out our favorite flavors from the rows of carnival colored, salt-water taffy, watching our daughter play with the fuzzy baby chicks and her talking endlessly in her Minnie Mouse voice, as she was an early talker and was in full sentences before the age of two. We sat at checkered-clothed tables with mouthfuls of amazement at the rich taste of Minnesota sweet corn smothered in butter that dripped down our chins, and joined in our little girl’s thrill at watching the massive hoofs of the work horses clump by, the shining brass of the band, and pom-pom glitz of the cheer leaders marching by in parade. These were simple things, joys we’ve all experienced at times in our lives, but on THIS day the joy seemed complete, unfettered by money questions, a fussy baby, or the tension of a love grown cold.

There is something illuminating about a rainy day, particularly in the north. The greens were rich, the whites glowing, the shadows sentimental in an old-fashion, tin-type way. The freshness of the moist rich soil, even the smell of animals, cowhide, and the leather from saddled horses seemed to penetrate my senses creating romantic illusions of a simpler time. There was even a strolling barbershop quartet singing the old vaudeville songs, which made me a bit teary-eyed thinking of my father hundreds of miles away. “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie; meet me at the fair…” I probably would have called him, if we had cell phones then, but we didn’t nor did we think to take pictures.

Walking up to the carousel, alive with music box melodies and prettily painted horses, I could almost hear Gordon McCrae singing his “Soliloquy’ from the 1956s musical ‘Carousel’ ….”My little girl, pink and white as peaches and cream can be….” And on the ride, the only one we rode, holding on to my agreeable baby as she looked around in wonder, I was deliriously happy, the swirling colors and lights creating a dream-like state of mind that I just didn’t want to wake from. That perfect day seemed to make up for all the hard-hearted parts of life, the disappointments and bad decisions; I felt like I had made it to my perfect world, I guess; all was good and promising.

We stayed the whole day, from the morning’s parade until the closing hours. Not one baby fit, no grouchy husband, no physical discomfort or conflicts; we were in the prime of our lives on the precipice of everything we both seemed to want. The fair seemed to capture and encapsulate our happiness.

As the night waned into closed exhibits and the empty grease vats of vendors closing up shop, big electrical lights and carnival rides began to shut off their high volts of electricity that gave them life, leaving only a sizzling hum lingering in the air. Along the quiet walk from the park even the night birds joyfully peeped and sang in the shadowy branches of the trees that lined the walkway. A clown happened by with a full load of colorful balloons. We wanted to buy one as we were walking out of the fair grounds, and taking our dollar, the painted smile of that gentle stranger handed us the whole bundle, saying they would just be thrown away anyway. Could we have had a more romantic ending to a perfect state fair day? We felt charmed and full of family love, strolling arm-in-arm through the almost empty parking lot through puddles with our giggling child, with at least two dozen balloons attached to her stroller.

I had a dream that night, long after the baby was deep in slumber from her no-nap day, my husband snoring contently as balloons floated around our farm house in the shadows. I dreamt that my daughter was lifted out of the stroller holding on to that bundle of balloons, and like Curious George she left us on the ground scrambling, powerless to help her, and screaming in agony and fear as she floated further and further away over the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. She was laughing with pure joy, her little fingers waving and Minnie Mouse voice calling, ‘Bye bye, mama,’ as I was sobbing in pure grief. I woke up screaming before she ever came back, and I spent the rest of the night looking at her sound asleep in her crib, the moon light shining upon her through the tips of the Norwegian Pines that stood guard around our house like soldiers of love. The emotional dread of that dream stuck with me just as much as the simple beauty of that perfect day, never really scarring it, but perhaps reminding me that, in time, everything changes and floats away even in joyful bliss.

One perfect day doesn’t a marriage make. We’ve had our share of heartbreak and sorrow, disappointments and hateful arguments. We had to sell the farm after a company lay-off and ended up moving to Texas on my daughter’s fourth birthday. It was a struggle and loss that left me a little angry and jaded for many years, as I had to settle for life in an urban suburb with the daily grind of traffic, demanding people, with so little of nature and the beauty of the four seasons to enrich our lives.

Though we enjoyed our share of country fairs in smaller towns over the years with our kids, year after year I saw the advertisement for the Texas State Fair with ‘Big Tex,’ a 55-foot-tall statue and icon of Texas overseeing the fair. And year after year I suggested we go, pack up the kids, get a room, and take the long drive from San Antonio to Dallas to relive, perhaps, the thrill of our once perfect day at the Minnesota State Fair.

My husband never wanted to go, and I guess I never had enough desire to push the issue. I knew the weather, for one thing, would not be nearly as pleasant; we’d be sweltering in the heat. The kids, all seven-years apart, would all want to go in their own directions, and we’d spend more time worried about where they were than enjoying the simple things we had years ago. Maybe subconsciously we didn’t want to ruin what already was, a perfect day at a state fair. In 2012, when the 60-year-old ‘Big Tex’ caught on fire and quickly burned to a crisp, I was, strangely saddened. I remember feeling like we missed our chance to enjoy the Texas State Fair when our kids were little. We lost out on seeing that little piece of history, too, and at feeling ‘young’ and hopeful again.

Life is a lot like a fair, don’t you think? In the iconic movie, ‘Parenthood,’ at the end of the film, the grandmother offered some wise advice through metaphor, suggesting that life is like a merry-go-round or a roller coaster, and we have the choice to ride and enjoy either, to make our lives as daring or as predictable as we want. I found that life is a little of both, some years are as constant and monotonous as a circle, spinning around-and-around with the same laughing horses, colors, and songs. There is safety and security in those moments. At other times, we willingly or not ride the roller coaster, feeling the thrill of the drop and climb, the fear of the unknown, and the anxiety of danger on the edge that makes us, in a weird sadistic way, feel more alive.

Traditional fair foods like cheese curds and corndogs, and the homespun goodness of farm-ladies’ quilts on display, the sexiness of white-shirted, rugged cowboys at the rodeo arena, the wholesome sweetness of FFA girls with their little lambs, the masquerade of clowns, the fixed games with the carnies that cheat you out of money, crowded midways, bright lights and long shadows on the dark path to the port-a-potties; all of the carnival scene mimics life. Wild rides or not, it can be a perfect life or one that falls flat with disappointments and a painfully silent drive home.

I read in the news that the newly constructed ‘Big Tex’ will once again grace the 2015 Texas State Fair this

The Texas State Fair

The Texas State Fair

week, which just happens to fall on our wedding anniversary. Maybe we’ll go… just the two of us. We’ll get a bag of salt water taffy, visit the barns and peruse the shelves of preserves and blue ribbon pies, and maybe even take a ride on the old familiar merry-go-round. I think we’ve had enough of the roller-coaster for one life. We’ll wax nostalgic for our lost farm and our babies who have floated away to big cities and other loves, and their own perfect days.

We may even reflect on that soft, rainy day 26 years ago at the Minnesota State Fair as we stroll along the sticky path ways and hide our sensitive, aging eyes from the blinding sun, and how we’ll always remember it. For it was a perfect day in every way; a delightful, sweet memory of our beginning as we celebrate 28 years of marriage, gray at the temples, sagging in all the once pretty parts, and tired from life’s twists and turns, but remarkably, like those carnies’ games of chance, still together along the midway of this carnival called Life.  Maybe we’ll even buy a couple of balloons for old-time sake.

The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
The music has stopped and the children must go now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?”

We Had Nothing and Everything

It seems like we really had nothing, especially by today’s standards. Summers in an old drafty cabin, hand-me-down clothes, simple cereal breakfasts and PB&J lunches, bamboo poles & earth worms for fishing on an old dock, an uncle’s thick 78 LPs for dancing around the cabin kitchen, 49 cent coloring books and crayons and dime store novels for quiet time, yeah we didn’t have much, but we had each other. More importantly, we had parents who spent time with us, sang with us, held conversations with us, told us stories about their lives, taught us how to do things, including listening and watching with patience, and knew when to give us our freedom to roam and discover and ‘just be kids.’ Based on what I’ve seen and heard over the years, we actually had a gold mine!

Summers at the cabin, nothing more than a broken down old log and cinderblock shack on a river, with a natural outdoor classroom where we were free to dig, climb, get scrapped and bitten, lost and found, and have ‘parent free’ hours of discovery, were only a small, but treasured, part of our formative years in the 1960s.

I think what made our lives ‘rich and golden,’ compared to so many of today’s families who have much more material wealth but more lost and troublesome kids, is that we had an element of freedom that kids don’t have today, wrapped safely in family devotion, routines and responsibilities, high behavioral expectations, and in ‘time together,’ not staring into our phones or video games, or focused on ‘things.’

My parents were not perfect. They smoked, enjoyed a beer or two, argued and swore sometimes in front of us, yet they also included us in conversations about philosophy, religion, history, film and politics. There was a clear ‘this is adult and this is for children’ line, though, and society as a whole supported that standard. There was little room for vanity or personal pageantry, in our family, no money for private lessons; what one had the other’s had, for the most part. They taught us how to hook our own worms, thread our own needles, wash, iron, and fold clothes, write letters, read maps, make cakes, cookies, casseroles and soups. They gardened, planted trees, and watched birds; so did we. They gave us boxes of their ‘old’ clothes to play with, started challenging group puzzles on the card table, taught us how to play card games and count money, and encouraged us to ‘mindfully’ sing, in harmony of course, and dance so we understood what we were doing.

We had ‘SHARED’ everything: marbles, blocks, dolls, bikes, big farms sets (one Christmas gift for all of us) on the ping-pong table that everyone played with, shared clothes, books, paint sets, and even shared rooms, dressers and beds; later we had shared cars. We had a garage full of old field hockey equipment, balls and rackets of every kind, and dad taught us how to throw them, bounce them, shoot them, hit them, and how to form teams and understand the game, and then he left us alone to play.

And all of this was done in our own house and backyard. No organized sports, no private clubs, no special camps; just stuff we did without much of a plan.

Family dinner 1962

Family dinner 1962

There were routines, of course. There had to be, or a house of 10 would be pure chaos. We helped each other; the older ones helped the younger ones. Some helped mom take care of the babies, others helped dad with the lawn. We were taught self discipline through example, but without a harsh militant edge and certainly with an element of humor. We did major cleaning on Saturday mornings, and sometimes all week if a holiday or Holy day was coming up. When my mom would go grocery shopping, we all helped carry the groceries in and put them away. The babies were just passed around to free arms. We got up and dressed (on our own) in our best for church every Sunday, learned not to eat before Mass, and learned when we ate that we would only get so much so there was enough for everyone. What was on the table is what we ate. There was no question as to whether we would do our homework; it was a given. No one preached it, but we understood that education was everything. Authority was to be respected, mostly because if it wasn’t it would be an embarrassment to our family. Television, listening to records, and playing or pleasure reading was reserved for certain times when everything else was done. This was true even of the little ones.

We didn’t have any special anything and few material advantages, yet all eight of us kids worked our way through college earning at least one degree, in some cases more, and became accomplished professionals in a variety of fields. Would we have liked a childhood that was easier, richer in things, with prettier clothes (certainly better haircuts) and more exciting opportunities? Sure. But, looking back at how much we accomplished with so little, I’m starting to think there was more wisdom and learning in an environment with very few ‘things’ and a whole lot of family togetherness.

I know there were flaws in our world, in our family dynamics, some even quite painful leaving scars, but somehow we retained a sense of family loyalty and honor, regardless of our personal struggles. And when those struggles surfaced, there was always someone, a sister or brother, mom or dad, or all of us to support each other. There were boundaries and moral guidelines, and our parents were the role models through all of this even during radically changing times in our society. When THEY were lost and uncertain, our parents trusted their growing children, whom they had carefully raised, to lead the way in new ways of thinking or operating in the world.

I know that times are different today. The pressure to perform, to dazzle, and to compete is higher and more demanding than in the 1960s and 70s. But, frankly, I think parents can do more for their children with fewer things and ‘out there, expensive’ experiences. We rarely went to amusement parks. We learned to amuse ourselves. It’s a life skill that seems to be going ‘a drift’ these days. We had a broken down old upright piano, yet we all learned how to sing (well) and play instruments. All we had in the way of a library were my dad’s old Shakespeare volumes and encyclopedias, yet we all learned to love reading. We had one television with six channels, and one radio that sat on the top of the refrigerator where our parent’s stations ruled the day. We learned to listen to and appreciate a variety of music and opinions. In the car, we looked out the windows, talked and sang. At worst, we fought over the Rand McNally Road Atlas. I still love reading maps to this day. We were always interacting and learning from each other, something, again, that’s been lost to distractive technology which numbs children from responding to the world around them.

One family luxury was the pool. My parents always provided us with an above ground pool to play and

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

swim in. If we were going to dally our summer days away, it would be there….together.

Though much has been gained with technology, so much has been lost, mostly in the development of children’s ability to think and create. I know. I have watched the decline of comprehension and problem solving skills, vocabulary development, and creativity more and more every year in the elementary school classroom as more and smarter technology has come into our children’s hands. It is well-researched and documented that children learn through play, conversation, and natural exploration, not video games and another app. Yet, even the poor have their technology.

I think it’s time for parents to put away the gadgets and ‘get back to the garden,’ to use an old lyric. It’s not what they have or what flashy, extravagant places parents take their kids that teach them to connect and grow in this world. It’s the ‘meaningful’ experiences, conversations, and moments of personal discovery that mold the child into a viable, interesting adult, able to ‘work well with others.’ Most importantly, it’s ‘time,’ in a safe environment with parents who actively ‘engage’ with their children, which makes the difference.

cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Even with very few ‘things’ and space, very little individual attention and special treatment, when we went to bed each night, usually two to a bed, we felt safe, exhausted from a day well-lived, and we felt loved by both parents. We knew we would have to walk to school in rain or shine the next day, and that we’d have a bologna sandwich on white bread, with carrot sticks, and a dime wrapped in wax-paper for our milk at lunch. We knew we’d have tea and crackers as an after school treat, and maybe get to watch a TV show when we finished our homework and were done practicing our ‘rented’ instruments. We knew dad would come home, that we would eat around the table together, and we knew we’d watch ‘family appropriate’ TV shows until bedtime, washed, brushed, ready for prayers, and together. We never went to bed or left the house without kisses and hugs. Even as adult children, that was the norm. Our family time was protected, celebrated, and cherished. ‘Relating,’ eye-to-eye, word-to-word, expression-to-expression was intentional. I whole-heartedly believe that is sorely missing in today’s families. Parents need to take steps necessary to keep sacred and intentional their ‘interactions’ with their children and the family as a whole.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It's even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It’s even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

I don’t think this is a mystery or novel idea. History teaches us everything, and parents just need to settle down, take stock, re-evaluate their priorities, UNPLUG and pay attention to those short, but make-or-break childrearing years. It’s trite but true; less is more, particularly when it comes to raising children. Just make sure the ‘less’ is meaningful.

I’m not all about gloom and doom, preaching moral values, or ‘the good old days’ ideals. I appreciate technological advances, use technology as much as the next person, even teach it. In fact, I’ve seen some very healthy, conscientious parents out there trying to refocus more on family life and less on impressing others with big, expensive birthday parties and more video games.  Like them, I think it’s the little things that can turn the tide of thinking away from excessive social media sharing and one-upping, or distracting their kids (and themselves) with electronic entertainment, to nurturing the private, engaging family life experience.

Take them fishing….on a dock with bamboo poles….without your Iphone, or sit and color with your kids,

My little brother Tim, drawing with no distractions.

My little brother Tim in 1977, drawing with no distractions.

without Instagraming the final product. Just be together, and whether you have money or not, lots of electronic gadgets or just the air you breathe, the moments of ‘relating’ will make your child’s early years as ‘golden’ as their grandparent’s were….when everyone wasn’t so distracted by entertainment devices and people weren’t as ‘rich’ with things, but definitely life was more engaging and enriching.

We really didn’t have much, and we knew it. But we didn’t blame society, our parents, or each other, we just learned to make our lives better, and the fertile garden of a simpler life seemed to help us grow into well-rounded students and adults, to adapt and innovate in a changing world, to effectively communicate and engage in life, in order to prosper. Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child? The childrearing years fly-by; the window for opportunity brief. Engage them, talk to them, and don’t worry so much about updating your status and texting your friends. Your kids are only little for so long, then they leave. Make sure they are ready for the world.

Something to think about…