Trolls Like Me

I watched two squirrels at the bird feeder this morning.  I thought I’d outsmarted them last month after  I moved the pole a few feet farther away from they tree they were using as a launching pad.  Nope.  The piles of  bird seed under the pole and the well-fed squirrels around here are proof to the contrary. The happy little chickadees I was feeding early in the winter have been replaced by a posse of furry pigs.

The smaller of the two was sleek and black as ink.  He had a long tail like a cat’s.  He was lean and kind of twitchy… constantly on the move, climbing first one tree and then the next up to the highest branches.  He was definitely the athlete of the pair.   The second, larger one was slow and fluffy and gray.  She spent an hour under the feeders  with her head down,  sullenly munching away at the seed the other squirrel had scattered.

It is the last week of the shortest month of the year.  Can I get an AMEN? This is a good thing for chickadees,  and for some people, too.  I made it through another Minnesota winter without punching anyone for being too cheerful about the snow and the days of sub-zero temps.  Not even the guy in the Sorel boots at the gas station who said, “cold enough for ya?”  the day that it was 29 below zero.  Oh, I wanted to.  I really, really wanted to.  However, the rational side of who I am knows that a lack of sunlight is just not a good enough reason to punch anyone.  EVER.  Because it would never stand up in court and I’d end up in a jail cell with no windows at all.  Even if February does turn me into a sad, somewhat homicidal, Troll. So instead of punching people, I follow the dog around the house searching for afternoon sunbeams and take extra vitamin D  and wait for April.

This morning,  I made my way to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and stood looking out at the woods beyond the kitchen window.  Overnight, freezing fog had transformed every tree into white lace.  This magic act, set against the canvas of a  periwinkle blue sky was breathtaking to behold.

Oh, February…  dreary, loathsome February.  Just when I’m convinced that there is nothing to love about you, you go and do something like this. And then I appreciate, once again, the beauty that is all around me here in this spot in the maple trees.  Even in February, the shortest, longest month of the year for trolls.

Two Trees

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
– e. e. cummings ~

After the storm that hit the area last summer, I drove through town and stopped across the street from the house on the corner with the enormous tree on top of it.   I used to babysit the two dark-haired little girls who lived there.  Whenever I was in that house as a teenager, knowing that it was the one my grandfather had built for my grandmother,  I’d try to imagine what it looked like back when it was theirs.  I know that my grandmother loved the house because she often talked about the years she spent there.  She would describe in detail the living room rug and the furniture in the dining room.  She laughed over the ghost a child (my mother, perhaps?) had drawn on the back of a bedroom door that kept reappearing no matter how many times the door was painted.  As I sat there in the car watching the commotion across the street that day, I was glad that she hadn’t lived long enough to see what I was seeing.

The young, willowy Scandinavian girl and her handsome boy with the twinkling Irish eyes  married during the Depression and raised two daughters, bookends and place holders for the son lost in the space between them.  Another little ghost.  By the time I made my entrance,  they were in their middle years.    He was a Mailman and she was a Homemaker…with a capital H.  Through the years, they traveled, and bickered, and grew old together.  He attended Mass weekly.  She made Sunday dinner.  When she beat him playing Gin Rummy, he’d accuse her of cheating.  When he ate too much maple nut ice cream,  she accused him of not watching his insulin.  He taught me to reach high.  She taught me how to do the really important things, like how to turn a house into a Home.

He would live long enough to hold seven of his grandchildren on his lap, and attend some of our high school graduations.  He would see two off to college and one walk down the aisle on her wedding day.   He loved nothing more than telling us stories. Once, when asked how he came up with the crazy situations his characters found themselves in, he replied, “I  don’t know!  I just start telling a story and the characters take over!” The misfortunes of poor, homely Egghead and his friend, McGillicuddy and the adventures of the quick thinking Indian Princess Pruneface, who regularly caught her evening meal by diving into the Bowstring River to catch snake pickerel with her teeth, are just some of the characters who kept us mesmerized as children.

She would live long enough to attend more high school graduations, a couple of college graduations,  three more weddings, and meet her first five great-grandchildren.   She loved shopping,  berry picking with her sister,  Florida, and all of us.  She worried about who would plant flowers at the cemetery on Decoration Day after she was gone.  She believed in making herself useful and was very rarely idle.  Her blueberry pies are legendary in our family.  And nobody could iron a basket full of clothes faster than she could.

We are who we are, in large part, because of who came before us.

The two young people who said “I do” and then did  long ago created something extraordinary. A Family. Their two daughters raised seven children. Those seven grandchildren grew up and have parented twelve great-grandchildren. One of them is a newlywed with a daughter of her own. This summer, there will one wedding, two college graduations, and a high school graduation for the Eagle Scout in the family.   They are all pretty great as far as their grandparents and parents are concerned.  Their great-grandparents are just characters in stories we tell around the kitchen table on warm, summer evenings up at the lake.  People they never knew.

Some of them are tall and long-legged, like her.  Several of them have the same instinctive sense of fashion she had.    A lot of them have the same, wild, throw your head back and laugh until tears squirt out of your eyes sense of humor that he did.  Even the five of them who bear no genetic link to their great-grandparents take after them in many ways. This is, in my opinion,  living proof that nurture will trump nature every time.    They all value many of the things the people in the faded photographs did.  Learning, hard work, time together.  Family, most of all.

Two people built a house on a corner lot a long time ago. And now, the house is gone.

Two people built a Family.

There’s no wind in the universe, no tree big enough on the planet, to shake that foundation.

Lady G-Ma

The evening began with a very pleasant conversation about proper concert attire with a friendly young man in a sparkly purple leotard, fish net stockings,  spike heels, and a neon green feather boa.   To say that I felt slightly out-of-place in my black sweater, Mom jeans, and bifocals is an understatement.  What does one wear to a Lady GaGa concert when one is in her 50’s, finds sequins itchy, does not own stilettos, and wouldn’t wear them even if she did because she fears falling down and breaking a bone?

Why would a moderately sane, middle-aged woman subject herself to crowds of sweaty, howling teenagers to attend a concert by a performer known for wearing dresses made of round steak?   Why would she sit through 54 minutes of a Pre-Concert laser light show and ear-splitting, bass thumping “Techno” music?   Why, oh why wouldn’t this  fifty-something woman with hands clamped tightly over her ears for 54 minutes beat it out of there at the first opportunity?

It’s really very simple.  My Girl wanted to go and she asked me to go with her.   She’s in college, I miss her,  and I’d probably agree to just about anything to spend an evening with her.  What’s more, I like Lady GaGa’s style. I like her voice, her lyrics, and most of all, her unyielding support and genuine affection for the fans she calls her “Little Monsters”.  I like that she donates money in every city where she performs to help homeless teens in the LGBT community.   I like that she talks about bullying in schools and writes music that resonates with young people who’ve been victimized and feel that they don’t belong.

One advantage to having taught at the college level for many years is that not much shocks me.  In 29 years, I’ve pretty much heard or seen it all.   I also learned long ago not to judge students based upon outward appearances.  Some of the most talented writers and scholars I’ve had the pleasure of teaching were students who didn’t “belong” in high school because of their race, or sexual orientation, or social factors too vague to name.  If they survive high school, college is often a fresh start where they can be who they are without fear of the repercussions. During her concert, Lady GaGa spoke to the audience between music sets. She talked about needing to be strong and emphasized how important it is not to care so much what others think of us.  To be true to ourselves and live the life we were intended to live.  To remember that we are part of a bigger plan and that it’s okay to be unique.  It’s better than okay, actually.  Great messages for young people.  Great messages for us all.

As a parent, there are few worries greater than sending a child you love off to school knowing that you’re essentially sending him or her into a daily battle against an invisible, insidious menace called The Schoolyard Bully.  I say “invisible” because I believe that what happens in our schools often happens under the radar and out of range of educators who want each child or adolescent to be safe.  Kids are smarter than we give them credit for and most kids know not to do this within earshot of a teacher or an administrator. But it happens to far too many kids  in districts large and small.  It happens online, too.  I know, because I’ve heard the stories and seen the battle scars too many times.

As song after song was performed, I observed the audience.  Oh sure, there were plenty of young people in outlandish costumes.  But I looked more closely and realized that there were also suburban  moms or dads with adolescent children, young, conservatively dressed couples,  and even senior citizens.  I noticed one older woman in particular who appeared to be in her late 70’s or early 80’s.  She was dressed in a gray polyester pantsuit that matched her hair and sensible black shoes.  After the concert, as we were leaving I struck up a conversation with her.  I wondered if the more bizarre, more vulgar aspects of the concert had shocked  her and mentioned that I thought her “brave” to attend a Lady GaGa concert.   Her response?  “Why? Why brave?  I just love her music! I don’t care what anyone thinks!  I wish I was that strong and that I could do what she does up on that stage.” 

What was it I said about not judging appearances?

Thanks, Lady GaGa.   And you, too, Lady Grandma.

As far as I’m concerned, you both Rock.

Wild Thing

An ounce of mother is worth a ton of priest.

-Spanish Proverb

Until I had a son, I had no idea that skulls looked like big ping pong balls.  He was 16 months old and he’d tripped and fallen head first,  ramming his little noggin into the edge of a window sill.  Two decades later, the toddler is gone but the scar lingers. It is a reminder of the first really scary event in my life as a mother to a boy.  There would be more to come.  When he’s outside a lot,  the rest of his handsome face tans but the scar never does. Recently, in one of those increasingly rare moments between us, he let down his guard and I traced the pale line with my finger and told him the story of how he got it.

I remember the ER nurse strapping him onto a board so the doctor could suture the wound closed.  I stood next to my scared, wailing, very bloody boy attempting to offer some comfort.  He thrashed and struggled against the restraints while blood, a LOT of blood, flowed.    I was pretty brave until I saw the needle and thread.  And then the room began to spin.  The nurse told me to sit down and put my head between my legs.   Like I had a choice.

Fast forward three years….

It was time for a vaccine.   Promises of Power Rangers  for Good Boys were made. There were certain non-negotiable terms to which he agreed.   We went to the clinic and sat in the waiting room near the large aquarium.   While we admired the fish, we discussed which of the Power Rangers (Red? Blue?) he would choose.  I calmly reiterated what my expectations were.  We talked about shots and how the “poke” would hurt a little more than a mosquito bite but only last for a couple of seconds.  He refused to make eye contact.

We were escorted into the examining room and the child who just moments before had been sweet and agreeable became a tiny, crazed Ninja who proceeded to first kick, and then spit at the nurse.  The doctor entered the room to the scene of a lunatic child running in circles around the examining table while simultaneously tearing strips of white paper off the roll attached to it.

The young doctor, undaunted, appeared to enjoy a challenge.  A chase ensued.  However, after his third attempt to catch the boy destroying his examining room, he  stopped and looked at me.    I explained that it was that first experience with doctors and stitches that had turned my child into the Wild Thing.  “Good to know” he replied,  “because I was going to ask you if you wanted me to administer a sedative.”

My son,  a wad of white paper balled into each fist, made one final circle and ran into the dinosaur decal pasted on the wall.  I turned to the doctor and replied, “I guess that depends.  Upon whom do you plan to administer it?”   Because I was really, really hoping he meant me.

Boys get hurt. They get scrapes and cuts and broken bones. They bleed. They fall off of their bikes and get smacked in the head with baseball bats and get into accidents. This is a fact.   Even the moms who behave like the fainting goats at the fair  get used to the blood and gore that living with sons brings. I thought I’d worked the last shift with my son until last summer.  Oh, wisdom teeth.  How could I have overlooked you?

I was called back into active duty the day he went in for oral surgery.  He was disoriented when they led me to him in the recovery room. Groggy and in pain,  he would try to sit up, groan, lay back down and fall immediately asleep. For about four seconds. Then, he’d wake up and start all over again. I was instructed by the nurse to keep him still, and that the gauze pack was to stay in his mouth. This makes talking difficult, but not impossible.  He talked through the sedatives and around the gauze when he wasn’t trying to spit it out.  My job was to keep him still, and calm, and quiet and well, there until the effects of the general anesthetic had worn off completely.

Imagine a large Panda.  Now imagine a large,  intoxicated Panda.

At one point, when the nurse got after him for moving around and not being quiet, he tried to stand up to leave. He was going to challenge the nurse…walk right through her, if necessary.    Luckily, even in his drugged panda stupor, the only tool a mother truly needs in many situations worked.

One look.  THE look. And two words spoken loudly, with authority.


And he did, this wild Panda Boy of mine.

The Good Lord bestowed fertility to women for only a few years of their lives.  If fifty year old women could have babies, that would mean that they’d all be in their seventies  by the time they were called into the ring to wrestle those  giant, drunk, wisdom tooth-less pandas.  This would be bad.  Very, very bad.

The Lord also knew that when it comes down to it, it isn’t physical strength that matters as much in the raising of sons as it is the ability to give that stony, “I mean business and you will be very, very sorry if you don’t do exactly what it is I am asking of you at this very moment” look.

Which is proof, once again,  that God is probably a Mother.