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…

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How Far Have YOU Gone?

“People will tell you where they’ve gone; they’ll tell you where to go. But till you get there yourself, you never really know.”
~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Amelia’

If you’ve been around, you have stories. That used to be enough, when people had the patience to stop, listen, or read, and the imagination to see themselves in others’ recollections with intrigue or an appreciation of novel experiences. Today, a quote, a video (even a crappy one), or a tweet is about all that will hold the attention of, what I observed to be, a highly competitive and self-absorbed social arena. The old adage, ‘Quality not quantity’ doesn’t seem to hold much value in life experiences or in relationships, for that matter. It’s all about one-ups-men-ship, a bombardment of shocking facts and numbers, with no stamina to listen to or ‘read more…’

Occasionally, the lunchroom one-ups-men-ship topic drifts to a place where I once lived. I mean, really lived. Like my parents, storytelling was in the natural order of things. I learned to sit and listen, to mentally walk in their shoes, thereby experiencing the places and people that I knew I might never experience in my own life. This started at a young age, of course, before people bought into the concept that children have limited attention spans and are aching to go stimulate their brains with something more exciting like a video game which has resulted in, well, a host of new childhood problems that have run amuck.

Back in the teacher’s lounge, someone asked, how far north have you gone…south, east, and west? I’m sure the question wasn’t meant to elicit long answers, as we have all of maybe 20 minutes to inhale our lunches and get in a little adult conversation. But, of course, my early training kicks in, and a little excitement sprinkled with beautiful words in the hope of ‘getting others there’ starts to pulse through my storyteller veins, as if I’m sitting in front of a hearth with children at my feet who, ugh, are interested.

I lived in North Dakota for almost three years in my early 20s, through some of the meanest winters on record. I can still hear the frozen snow crunching beneath my boots and see my breath turn to ice crystals around my face…creating a snow-globe effect that was magical. Okay, on to the next person, who has miraculously driven through every state in the Union. I guess she wins; conversation over! And that appears to be what it’s all about these days; who wins with shortest, most dramatic comment.

People seem intimidated by the stories of others, as opposed to interested or curious, and terminology has changed. Lived-in, driven-through, or visited are not measurements that weigh the experience, anymore. One would argue that the questioner didn’t ask where we had lived. Yet, what is the point of ‘rating’ how far one has been, if they have simply driven through a corner of a state or stepped over a border only to yank their foot back with a proudly earned participation ribbon. That’s sort of like saying; I’ve had many lovers…in my mind (but not in my arms)! “North Dakota? It was dark and cold, I don’t know, I slept most of the way, but I’ve been there!! Ribbon please!”

Throw in the geocentric belief that everything where YOU LIVE is somehow bigger or better (as if one was personally in cahoots with God and had a hand in making it that way) and the attention quickly gets narrowed down to the, well, less experienced.

This is unfortunate.

Anyone who has ever LIVED in North Dakota, for instance, can tell you things that are anywhere from breath-taking, like seeing the northern lights dance across the plains, to horrifically desolate. The visual delight of seeing miles of indigo-colored flax in bloom, shoveling through the snow to get OUT of your house, and the dismals feeling of standing in a small grocery store in the dead of winter observing one’s choice of produce…a cabbage, an onion, and everything else is either rotten or not available; this, my friends, more aptly describe just how far north I have been.

Raised in the 1960s and 70s, many in our generation were all about leaving home as soon as possible. People strapped on their REI backpacks and headed out to hike the mountains, went off to ‘find themselves’ in far off places, thumbed their way down roads less traveled, joined communes, and left ‘the settling’ for later. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had never left. Yet, it was in the leaving that I learned to appreciate coming home. And it’s ‘in the living’ in different places that taught me how to appreciate other cultures and vistas, establish new friends, and navigate the highways of life. In short (if I must), I grew. I also found that I can ‘sit and listen or read’ other peoples’ stories without a need to one-up anyone. I just find it interesting how I am meeting fewer and fewer people that have this same sensibility. People just seem so uninterested in other places and life experiences other than their own.

A fellow Northerner and I were once dreamily recalling the beauty of autumn ‘up North.’ A Texas co-worker shook her head and said, “I could never leave Texas because I need the beach!” My friend, from ‘the land of 10,000 lakes,’ and I, from the ‘Great Lakes’ state, just looked at each other with puzzlement. There is safety in ignorance, I suppose, but it’s rather boring, and in this case embarrassing. When you try to explain the inland seas to people who have never seen them, it’s like trying to explain having a baby to a man. They don’t get it, and they don’t really want to know. End of conversation.

Photo by Alamy

Photo by Alamy

On another occasion, I was sharing my memories of Tahquamenon Falls, one of 84 magnificent waterfalls in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The falls are more than 200 feet across with a 48 foot drop, colored brown by the tannins leached from the cedar swamps which the river drains. Tahquamenon Falls is noted as being the land of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – “by the rushing Tahquamenaw” where Hiawatha built his canoe. Naturally, someone quickly piped in with, “Oh, WE have tons of waterfalls here! You haven’t seen waterfalls until you’ve seen Gorman Falls!” one of 28 waterfalls in all of Texas, most fed by rainwater run-off. So, when there is no rain, they don’t fall. But, really, why does ‘sharing’ have to be so competitive? “My falls are better than your falls, nana-nana-boo-boo!” Given my before said training, I was curious about Gorman Falls, and quietly listened to the other’s experience. She didn’t seem to want to know anything about the root-beer colored water that rushes through the Hiawatha National Forest. End of conversation.

Likewise, try to explain the smell of Texas….rich with the warm roasted aroma of BBQ in the air, the intoxicating fragrance of Mountain Laurels in bloom, or how quickly a big rain can turn into a flash flood, to a Michigander, and one is met with a raised eye-brow and a quick dismissal. They’d prefer to hold on to their limited belief that all of Texas is covered with rolling tumbleweed. Try sharing the joy of canoeing a river and having beaver and river otters playfully flirt with one’s paddles, and get met with ‘beaver’ jokes. Share one’s experience of the Ozarks and the beauty of Arkansas with anyone from anywhere, and get the ‘dueling banjos’ whistled back at you. Share the bounty of Wisconsin apple orchards and serenity of its pastoral scenery to someone from Illinois and you get the cow-town jokes. Really? Is there no judgment-free wonderment left in people?

In short, people don’t want to know ‘how far you have been,’ in any detail. In fact, it seems to make people feel threatened. Blinders on, ear-plugs in; they proudly talk up their little neck of the woods. They don’t seem to want to know what else might be ‘out there.’ What gets lost in this disregard for other’s experiences are the stories that inspire travel, geography, insight, romance, and …growth.

To me this is leading to a very shallow and uninteresting human condition. Not unlike celebrating a couple who has been married for 50 years, neither of whom even talk to each other anymore, in fact their disdain for each other may be written all over their harden expressions, yet everyone around them is celebrating their longevity; it’s all about the quantity not the quality of the years. Let’s not tell the ‘real’ story of their long marriage. No one wants to ‘read more…’ After all, we may learn something that shakes up our safe status quo.

How far have I gone? I stepped over the Mississippi River once. Do I win?! Of course, it was the mouth of the Mississippi in Bemidji, Minnesota, which at that time was a babbling brook. But, oops, adding more of the truth just took away from how cool (and short) my answer was. No ribbon for me! I lose, but not really.

My mother, who in the last years of her life shared a bounty of wisdom with me because, well, I would listen, told me that after awhile no one wants to hear the stories of older people, so you learn to just smile and nod your head like you’ve never been anywhere or experienced anything. “It’s a peaceful feeling” she said, “like letting go. You can’t tell anybody anything. They have to live it for themselves.”

Texas Hill Country road Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

Texas Hill Country road
Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

I’m so glad I lived it for myself, from the North Dakota desolation, to the playful river otters, the deafening sound of 50,000 gallons of water per second pounding over the Michigan falls, to those loves (yes, sir, heart break and all), and the serenity of a drive along the wildflower-edged roads in the Hill Country of Texas. You can have your life-in-the-moment tweets and your competitive snap to out-do others. I, for one, will gladly listen to your stories, but have learned not to expect the same in return.

I imagine there will be many empty hearths someday. Maybe the tide will change, and a new generation will have a need to sit, listen, or read about other peoples’ lives without the urge to one-up the story-teller, thereby missing the beauty in the ‘sharing.’ With any luck, they may change the bleak course of our social interactions, to include more engagement, and less judgment or need to prove their experiences are ‘better.’ That’s my hope, anyway, as I learn to yield with, ‘a smile and nod of my head.’

 

They Gave Me Gifts: The Hyacinth of Easter 1978

I had a difficult time my first year of marriage.  At only 20, I had married my high school sweetheart and was swiftly moved away from my family home in Michigan, not knowing I would never again be closer than a long trip home. I didn’t know the years I would miss, the family gatherings that would be lost. I didn’t know I wouldn’t be a vital part of the growing up of my younger siblings, would never participate in the lives of my nieces and nephews, and that the golden, but aging years of my parents would always have to be ‘a phone call’ away.  I didn’t have that foresight then.  I was young and romantic; devoted. I had lofty dreams of life in the Rocky Mountains, a white picket-fenced cottage with roses around my door, and promises of children of my own with a boy I only thought I knew. It was a lonely year, the first of many.

On that first Easter following my marriage of 1977, my parents and younger siblings came to visit me and my new husband at Western Illinois University where he was doing his graduate work and I, well, was busy being a supportive wife.  I will never forget the excitement I felt at their arrival. Every little detail in place, my new china and silverware was stacked and ready with cloth napkins in blue calico fabric that I had sewn myself. I had made my mom’s potato salad for the first time, and everything was airy and clean to make that good “welcome to my home” first impression. My heart was bursting with joy and anticipation! To be physically embraced by my father and mother again, to giggle and share my pretty ‘grown-up’ things with my siblings, to show off my ‘first’ little apartment and make dinner for all of them, was the height of my new married life.

My mother brought me an Easter plant, a single purple hyacinth.  I was so charmed. An unexpected gift, beautiful in its simplicity and so like my mother; I just loved it.  I can still see that moment of them walking up the stairs of married-student housing where I lived a rather solitary life of ‘wifedom,’ my husband often gone at classes or studying late into the night with ‘friends.’ I spent most of my home hours alone. So, I became very self-sufficient.  I worked in town at a local dress store, had a favorite spot at the drugstore lunch counter, a fragrant hippie shop and organic food co-op that I frequented, but I really didn’t have any friends. After living a life of constant company in a big family where ‘togetherness’ was the norm, it was both a great learning experience and a sad existence for a young bride. I took from it what I could. But to have my family there after that long cold winter, the earth rich with the fragrance of awakening, the remnants of old snow still lacing the edges of the roads, and the voices and faces that mirrored mine; I was in a sort of surreal bliss.Easter past 1978 in Illinois with Bill

We drove around the community and shopped in the quaint town square with the old stately courthouse at its center. My parents reminiscing about the Midwestern farming towns they had lived in gave a sense of continuity to my daily life. We strolled through some of my favorite shops where my mom bought some stained glass sun catchers to put in her kitchen window. She had them for years, saying that whenever she saw the light coming through the cherry red glass, she thought of me. I found them last October in the boxes of ‘junk’ that were to be given away after my mother’s death, and brought them home to continue to catch the light of our love. We went to Mass, and together with the family talk and shared stories the meal was made perfect even in the cramped space of our small apartment.  The weekend was too brief.

Life would be too brief. It would take years and years of driving home through miles of cornfields, across wide prairies, through northern forests and hours of shorelines, through the cycles of many seasons, for me to learn, really learn what my parents meant to me. I have nothing but a heart full of gratefulness for what my parents were able to give us in those post-WWII years of large families and stay-at-home moms in which I was raised. We were, by today’s standards, the middle-class poor.  We had our share of charity boxes of clothes brought to our house, hand-me-down toys, and meals of mostly mashed potatoes and gravy. But for everything they could not afford to give us, and for all the innocent mistakes that young parents stumble through rather hit-or-miss, I was saturated in love in their house. We were never in ‘want’ or deprived of education and opportunities to develop our imaginations, and music was threaded and laced through every step of our lives like the laces on our shoes.

Through their love and high value of education and music, I developed an appreciation and understanding of the human experience. Both have been my refuge and stronghold through all kinds of challenging situations. But, above all, the unconditional love of my parents, has kept me alive in times of despair, motivated me to continue to reach for my dreams, and given me the ability to fully love others. They exhibited what I have learned to be a true love… attentive, unwavering, and never ending.

The beauty of these immeasurable gifts is that long after I left home, married and married again, went through college, bought and sold homes, earned a living, raised children, and watched those two beloved people lowered into the cold ground, their gifts have been alive and fruitful in my life.

At Easter, Christians humbly observe the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and celebrate His return to walk with us throughout our lives, loving us, forgiving us, and embracing us with unconditional love. His love seems to reflect, in my eyes, the intentions of my earthly parents, their sacrifices and continual love.  Especially at Easter, with the green glow of budding trees creating a fresh lense on old hopes and dreams, I feel their reassuring embrace. I may be little goofy singing ‘Easter bonnet songs’ and over-stuffing woven baskets with familiar treats, but these are only extension of the rich life that I have led, due for the most part to my parents walking up the paths of my life with their gifts.

My little purple hyacinth eventually died despite my care, as did my marriage, and, in time, my parents. But, to this day I cannot look upon a hyacinth without seeing my mother’s soft round face, laughing and eager to see mine, coming up the walkway with that flower in her hands, with my dad’s big grin above her shoulders close behind.  The safety of their love was so strong and deeply rooted, that nothing could destroy it….not distance, not husbands, not mistakes, not the act of walking a down a broken road, not failure or any choice that I made.  It was there. They were there.  Even on this Easter weekend of baskets full of colorful foiled candy for my children and grandchildren and the aroma of those favorite family foods once again in the air…they are here in my heart as is my heavenly Father whose invisible hand is always holding mine, reminding me that I am never completely alone.

I never did make it to Colorado and have yet to get my cottage with a picket fence and flower garden around my door, but I will. I am still the romantic, but with a long journey of lessons on my side.  And, there will be a special place for hyacinth bulbs to bloom, glass sun-catchers in the window, a song to float easily from my lips, and a calm knowing that I am and always have been loved.