Finding balance in the second half of life

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

It’s Father’s Day

In Family on June 21, 2015 at 3:16 pm

The photos of fathers shared on Facebook this morning, Father’s Day, send me to my photo albums. Surely there’s something in there that I could scan and share, to assert that I, too, have a father who was loving and loved. What I find is the result of my father’s role as photographer in our family. I have photos of him in the army, hamming it up in Paris and Morocco. I have a photo of him and my mom during their courtship. For the 10 years we shared a family, I have photos of myself, running down the sidewalk, sitting on a rowboat, smelling tulips and apple blossoms. This morning, I recognize those photos as seeing myself through my father’s eyes.

I was in the bathroom when my father died. I mention this because I’ve come to see it as emblematic of death coming at its own convenience, during the mundane, the remarkable, the everyday, the breathtaking.

My mother knocked on the door. “Lois?”


“Your father is gone.”

It was ridiculous, unbelievable. My father’d been sick for some time. I hadn’t seen him standing up for weeks and weeks; how could he suddenly get up and go somewhere?

I fastened my shorts (grey ones my mother had sewn) and opened the door. My mother’s eyes were red but she wasn’t crying. She hugged me, and I followed her downstairs, to the den where we’d installed a hospital bed. My father lay under a loosely woven gold cotton throw. He looked gray and asleep. My mother stood next to the foot of the bed, looking into his face. She put her hand on his calf in a gesture of love and loss. He didn’t move. Her eyes were red but she wasn’t crying.

One of Dad’s nurses, Mary Lou, sat by the head of the bed. She stayed for a few minutes after we came in and then took muted, white-shoed steps out the side door.

The ambulance, white with orange trim, rolled up silently. I was not there when they put him on the gurney, but I saw it half-wheeled, half-carried out the front door and down the few cement steps of the ranch house. Looking past the sheet-tented gurney and the ambulance and the lawn and the street, I saw the red-brick church, the cement staircase to my father’s office.

His parents, my grandparents, drove in from two towns over. They came in through the garage, into the laundry room. I ran through the kitchen, past the bathroom, and met them. Grandma hugged me; which was not her instinct and happened rarely. My brother and I weren’t sure what to do. We asked Mom if it would be okay if we watched The Beverly Hillbillies. She said not. We sat in the awkward silence as the living room filled up with people; then we went to our rooms to read.

The funeral home was on the east side of town. To get there for the visitation, we walked past the house of the only adult I’d ever met with the same first name I have. She was a member of my father’s church.

My father’s brother, who was also a minister, led the funeral. I sat in the front pew, right side, with my mother and brother and sister. I wore a cream-colored dress, also sewn by my mother, with a rust and gold pattern of birds, branches, and birdcages. There was brown lace on the ruffles on the short sleeves; there were three buttons down the back and smocking across the front, under the bodice.

All of that is quite clear to me, as though I were taking my own photos of myself, seeing myself through my father’s lens. As the decades pass, though, I have many more questions—about who my father was and might have become, what our relationship might have been, what I might have become as a result—than I have clear memories.

It’s only in retrospect that we can recognize the legacies we’ve received. I know I’ve inherited a sad season. It starts with the lilies of Easter, which are inscribed on his gravestone to symbolize the resurrection, and extends through his birthday and Father’s Day in June, ending with the anniversary of his death on July 5. Along with that is a love of words and books, a certain sense of humor, a dash of rebelliousness, a heritage of faith.

And those questions.

In The Jesus Cow, Michael Perry has a character muse, “She supposed it was the work that had kept her head occupied while her heart healed in the wake of Dougie’s death. In fact, it didn’t heal so much as learn to beat with a hole in it.”

I recognize that hole, which, in spite of the passage of time, does gape on Father’s Day. And I know that my heart does keep beating.

–Lois Maassen

Step Away from the Shelves

In Family on August 9, 2014 at 8:43 pm

In the strongest possible language, I must caution you: If you happen to notice that your bookshelves look dusty, avert your eyes and step away. Find something else to do. Alphabetize your spices, or search for substitute mates for odd socks. Clean the globes on your light fixtures.

If you succumb, you’ll find that there’s no substitute for removing all the books from each shelf, using a combination of vacuum and dust cloth to restore your books and the shelves they occupy to respectable condition. If that were all, it would be fine. But it’s not. There are insidious side effects.

You will, for example, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide whether the collected works of Walt Whitman should be considered poetry or prose. You may be tempted to count the relative number of pages devoted to each; you may give in to temptation. You will no doubt find yourself gathering together all of the Whitman in one pile, just to affirm your decision to consider him a poet.

You’ll start another chain of unintended consequences by deciding that Austen really ought to have a shelf in your office. There’s a shelf that’s almost empty, but it’s not empty empty, which you’ll solve by adding the contents of the shelf to your in box, creating another project for another day. You’ll notice that this change puts Austen right next to the eleven volumes of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and you’ll spend more time than you should wondering if that’s unsettling or exactly right, since Austen’s events are generally so fortunate, at least by the last chapter.

You’ll try to find an excuse for putting Tina Fey in a section other than “post-1900” just because she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in such close proximity to Faulkner, or even to Martha Gellhorn. You’ll ask yourself whether you can’t just send Tina to Goodwill, whether you really need to reread her; you’ll wonder just how many IQ points you’ve lost since college.

bookshelf 2014.08.09You will discover that there’s a shelf that you and your partner assumed had a different designation. What you thought was the introduction to the philosophy section, he has thought was “current reading.” “Current reading?” Who gets a shelf for that? What does that make the top of the dresser, the top of the desk? What’s the pile by the side of the bed? “Really current reading?” The good news is that you can stop trying to suss out exactly how that eclectic collection adds up, what angle on philosophical exploration it represents. You didn’t get it not because you couldn’t think deeply or broadly enough but because there was no it.

You’ll find, though, that you’ve forgotten things you used to know, which will cause you to reevaluate whether to shelve books entirely by author, without regard for time period or genre. This is hard on your self-esteem, and also on your relationship, because your partner would prefer to organize books thematically. If you can’t remember when people lived, you certainly can’t remember where or who knew whom or who studied whom. Putting any book away would require a full term-paper-like research project. Which might, of course, refresh your memory, but what would you not do to make time for all that refreshing?

You’ll wonder if the Russians really need their own section. Can’t they, after all this time, just get along with their contemporaries? And what about Strindberg and Ibsen? Are they more comfortable with Russians or Americans? Couldn’t they have been more prolific, so they could have their own section? Or were they, in fact, more prolific, and it’s just one more thing you’ve forgotten?

At about that time, you’ll discover that someone—certainly not you but far be it from you to assume it’s your partner, although he’s the only other person with ready access—has put a couple of story collections by single authors in the anthology section. Your partner confesses, when asked, but says there was no room where they really belonged. You’ll feel compelled to prove that it can be done, which requires shifting virtually every book on the shelves, because the author of one collection has a name that starts with W.

You’ll feel great satisfaction with having those books in exactly the right place, but it will be short-lived. Misplaced on the very last shelf you empty and clean you’ll find something by Richard Yates. You’ll at this point feel so dirty and dusty and tired of bending that you’ll be strongly tempted to pretend you consider Yates a nineteenth century writer. Or maybe a poet. Possibly even a cookbook author.

Seven hours after you thought you’d quickly dust the bookshelves, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing there’s not a single dust bunny (or stray cat toy) lurking behind the books on your shelves. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you can locate any book within seconds—except for the ones about which you’ve lied to yourself for expediency.

But! Those seven hours were hours for which you had an entirely different agenda. In addition to being reminded of how much you don’t remember, you’ll be wistful, if not despairing, about how many books you’d like to read or reread. You’ll question whether any other agenda really matters, which will cost you when Monday morning rolls around. You’ll have a new list of resolutions, including to have more biography and more poetry in your own “current reading”—as if you needed more resolutions, since if there’s one thing you have more of than agendas it’s resolutions. Worst of all, you’ll be questioning your compatibility with the partner you were quite happy to wake up with only this morning.

Seven hours ago.

Before you noticed the dust.

So look away. Now.

–Lois Maassen

For Madeline, at 17

In Family, Fulfillment on April 20, 2013 at 11:19 am


When I lifted you
at three
onto Keyline’s broad back,
you clasped the pommel
like a scepter
and eyed the reins
in my hand.
Leading him at a walk (nothing more),
me on one side,
the rail on the other,
I didn’t see
the flint strike
your steely core,
the spark of fear,
your own North Star,
that would guide you through
high school’s fun house—
not in a straight line, but still—
draw you toward the jump
into your two-point,
finding your balance,
eyes up, trained
beyond the oxer,
on the vertical,
hands soft on the reins,
already practiced in the art
of release.

*After Linda Pastan

O Tannenbaum

In Family on December 31, 2012 at 8:32 pm

This year I’m in no rush to bundle the Christmas tree out the door. When I had a more structured life, I usually aimed to de-decorate on New Year’s Day so we were all decluttered and ready to re-enter the fray. Sometimes I kept it up through the twelve days of Christmas. This year, though, I’m thinking we can redecorate it for Valentine’s Day or even Easter. Or, you know, both. Sequentially.

I know ours is not the only household with annual disagreements about the tree. I’ve heard from friends who’ve given up and gotten artificial trees, or who have a tree delivered, sight unseen so nobody “wins,” or strict divisions of labor to keep the holidays friendly: I do all the shopping, you do all the wrapping; I get the tree, you put up the outdoor lights.

In theory, we have one of those agreements, too: We alternate between cutting one of our own trees and buying a tree from a local farm. But in real life, and since our tree-farm friends got out of the business, my spouse-ish one, who also drives the vehicle most conducive to tree-carrying, would prefer that we never buy a tree.

We took a tour of our ten acres weeks before Christmas, looking for a possible candidate. Our property was a cornfield when we bought it. In the early years, there were plenty of small pines. Over the decades, though, some have grown too big, and the smaller trees are likely to have been crowded out or stunted into peculiar shapes by the overshadowing ones. The pine trees now are giving over altogether to the next generations of species. We saw one possibility, but it was actually over the property line. Probably bad neighbor relations.

I’d assumed this put us on the path to a purchased tree, but I underestimated. My spouse-ish one kept looking, and finally found one he thought would work—and because it was in the right-of-way for the power line, it would have to come down sooner or later anyway.

He claims the tree grew as he dragged it toward the house. All I know is that by the time he’d pulled it up on the deck outside the living room, it was 14 or 15 feet long. It’s not, shall we say, classically shaped. It’s only a Scotch pine, not an elegant fir. Its branches are saggy. It was a pain to get into the house and upright in the stand. Its first morning in the house, it slowly, gracefully tipped over with a rustling of branches and ringing of bells (only one ornament broke). It’s now wired to the wall, which is a good thing, since our largest cat discovered that about half-way up is a circle of branches upon which one can sit. If one is a cat.

big treeAnd yet, I’m quite fond of this tree. Part of it is the ornaments, I know. We’re not of the “decorating” persuasion; our tree is a crazy quilt of ornaments collected over the decades. Because of the scale of this tree, it holds the whole host of angels I embroidered and sewed for my first adult tree. All of the stuffed children from around the world are there, as they were for my oldest son’s first Christmas. There’s a needlepoint ornament from a friend who died of cancer this year. A silver cross from one who now lives much too far away. Several Santas from one now in St. Paul. Real fur mittens from our daughter in Alaska. The kayak and bicycle and high-top tennis shoes and hedgehogs that mark our interests.

But all of those ornaments appear every year—or every year the tree is large enough to hold them. I’m not quite sure what gives this tree its [rather large] place in my heart. The spouse-ish one says it’s that it’s monumental, like the jar in Tennessee. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it’s the amount of laughter it’s brought us, from the moment—moments, because it’s a big tree—it entered the door.

I’m not ready for it to come down. Check with me at Easter.

—Lois Maassen

Too Patient for Words

In Family, Romance on October 22, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Every now and then a text arrives like a feather floating from the sky. This one arrived a few months ago: “Is it possible to be too patient?”

And the question haunts me.

In the abstract, of course, it is never possible to be too patient—if the patience is authentic. “Patience is a virtue,” I told my kids. And I believed it, and still do. Being willing to wait, to suspend judgment, to dispel irritability, to maintain an even temper—these are messages of love. Being patient generally communicates that you’ve settled into an admirable equanimity—that you know you are not the center of that waiter’s universe, that not everyone knows exactly what you know, that everyone doesn’t walk at the same pace or attend to the same details, that reading Goodnight Moon for the 112th time is more important than your to-do list.

When I think about times I’ve been “too patient” myself, honesty tells me it’s not patience at all I was exercising. I let a member of my team struggle for too long without seeing the situation for what it was—a perfectly good person in a job that was a nightmarishly bad fit. I put up with too much in several relationships, most notably a marriage that called for endless stores of “patience” that was really martyrdom and victimhood.

Because it’s awfully easy to confuse being patient with many other things; unfortunately, the confusion often lifts only with time. Sometimes when you tell yourself you’re being patient, you’re really avoiding confrontation, “picking your battles,” rejecting the alternatives, even being cowardly. I suppose the way to tell is whether you could in any sense describe yourself as “seething” as you’re “patient.” If you’re grousing, you’re not patient. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grouse; it likely means it’s time to admit you’re not patient (even if you wish you were) and figure out what else is going on.

A friend and I were talking last week about how nice definitive tests are—like pregnancy tests, which have (almost always) a clear, unambiguous answer. Wouldn’t it be handy to have that for all the varieties of emotional diagnosis? Am I patient, or only too tired to care? Am I depressed, or only a little sad? Am I in love, or only quite fond? Pee on a stick, and see what the color tells you.

I can’t quite come up with a physical test, but I can approximate a Cosmo quiz for determining whether you’re really feeling patient or something else altogether:

Are you gnawing on the inside of your mouth?

  • It’s bleeding (5 points)
  • Gnawing is a strong word (3 points)
  • I’m serene (0 points)

Have you looked at your watch or calendar more than twice in the last five minutes?

  • More like 10 times (5 points)
  • Now that you mention it, I have (3 points)
  • I’m not wearing a watch (0 points)

Are you casting your mind back to any of the dozen times this has happened before?

  • Dozen times? More like 73 times that I can specifically remember. (5 points)
  • I haven’t counted the times it’s happened before. Yet. (3 points)
  • I can’t remember this happening before. (0 points)

Have any curse words formed themselves in your mind, whether or not they’ve come out of your mouth?

  • I’ve gone through my entire vocabulary (5 points)
  • Do “frickin’” and “jiminy cricket” count? (3 points)
  • I can’t think of a curse word right now (0 points)

Are you fantasizing about getting into your car and driving for eight hours in any direction?

  • Eight hours is not nearly long enough (5 points)
  • Only to the nearest bar (3 points)
  • I’m happy sitting here (0 points)

If your score totals more than 12, you might spend some time thinking about whether you’re experiencing something other than patience.

Because that feather of a question arrived out of context, with no particular bird to attach it to, it could have had nothing to do with relationships. But in my own life, it was a relationship that befuddled my judgment for the longest stretch of time. I claim no expertise in relationships. It seems to me that miracles, good friends, synchronicity, and happenstance are what took me from a relationship that required the daily exercise of “patience” to one that requires much less actual patience, even as it makes it easier to achieve. And I do realize, of course, that I’m not actually involved in my kids’ romantic lives. They’re adults, usually.

And yet, in spite of having no role and no expertise, I can’t get over being a mother, thinking that I should be able to offer some kind of helpful counsel and support, just as I offer homemade bread, neatly folded clean clothes, and free haircuts. I wasn’t sure I knew what to do when they told me at the hospital that it was time to take that first seven-pound bundle home, either. “Really?” I thought. “Me? Just take him home?” I made things up for at least those first 20 years, and we seem to have made out okay.

So just in case it’s helpful, I offer this second Cosmo quiz for prospective partners—before a relationship gets to the point at which you’re wondering whether it’s a lack of patience or a loss of faith that you’re feeling:

In a restaurant, do you have to discuss how to share food?

  • I never share food
  • I’ll finish whatever s/he doesn’t eat
  • My plate is his/her plate and vice versa

If your life is a construction project, what phase are you in?

  • The blueprints are final, the materials are purchased, and the contractors are hired
  • A napkin sketch that’s awaiting the ideal collaborator
  • I don’t understand about phases

How would you describe your role in past relationships?

  • Caretaker
  • The Decider
  • The Romantic

How far are you willing to go to make my son/daughter happy?

  • At least across the street if the traffic’s not heavy
  • Fifty miles or less off the interstate
  • To Mars if s/he asks me

Scoring is difficult on this one. While “never shares food” might be a red flag, “my plate is his/her plate,” while it sounds very generous, could be creepy in practice. Partnerships work best when they’re collaborative, but two people can generally negotiate a compromise more easily than they can manufacture an entire vision. A caretaker is handy, until it’s clear that there’s baggage that comes with that. And going to Mars seems romantic, until you consider that it requires an absence of at least nine months and there’s no guarantee of return.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees anywhere in love, even based on the best research results. That’s the toughest part, I guess, of parenthood at this point in the game: Heartbreak is out there in many forms, and it’s impossible to predict and prevent. What I’m left with is my wish for my kids—and for everyone else, of course, though somewhat less fervently—is that they find someone with whom they can be who they want to be and do what they want to do, someone who understands what miraculous people they are, someone they can find miraculous. I hope they have partners with whom they can share laughter, tenderness, and creativity, partners who understand the value of the private joke and a spontaneous touch.

And when their hearts are broken, as they may well be, I hope they don’t give up on love. I hope they’ll find patience when it’s deserved, be impatient when they need to be, and be true enough to themselves to tell—always—one from the other.

–Lois Maassen

What We Know

In Family on November 5, 2011 at 6:06 pm
Dmitri May 1983

A few months before the cream cheese incident.

Last weekend I had one of those alarming conversations with my daughter, who is much too far away. I was alarmed by clues that I had, perhaps, failed her as a mother.

The scene that came to mind right after I hung up the phone was set in the kitchen of the apartment where her older brother and I lived when he was two, before she was born. It was after church; I was making lunch. While I cooked, he sat very quietly at the table behind me, completely absorbed with the half a bagel I’d given him to tide him over.

When I finally turned around, I found that he was quiet for good reason. He was scraping the cream cheese off his bagel with one index finger and applying it to his toes, which were bare.

“Don’t put cream cheese on your foot!” I exclaimed, a phrase that became emblematic for me of the rules we would tell our children if we ever imagined the need. (That particular rule also represents a peculiar subcategory of rules, really: rules we’re not sure we dare tell our children because we’re afraid we’ll inspire things they’d never think of on their own. Rules of this type, for sons, often open with “Never try to burn…”)

Anyway, that set me thinking for a few days, wondering what I should have told my daughter but hadn’t. Which led me to think about when, exactly, it’s too late. Or what topics a responsible parent should have been expected to cover, and in what depth or specificity.

About that time, our middle son very generously made a cheesecake for a friend’s birthday, using a springform pan that I generously loaned him. Several weeks later, I texted him that I needed the pan back, because a baby shower required me to make another cheesecake.

“Um. Bad news about that. Paul threw it away…? He didn’t realize it wasn’t disposable…”

Who doesn’t know that a springform pan’s not disposable? Well, Paul, for one. He blames the “void of homemade cheesecakes in my life,” which, I suppose, would do it.

And that reminded me of a guy my sister dated back in college, who didn’t realize that you could re-roll the scraps when you’re making biscuits.

So here I was, musing about the holes that can gap in one’s knowledge, when I ran across this spousal exchange in A Lighthearted Story of Two Innocents at Sea, by James A. McCracken:

You know what that means.” My rose petal looked at me accusingly.

“‘Junk of Pork’? Sure. It means a piece of rotten, poisonous pork. It’s junk. To be thrown away.”

“It’s perfectly good Maine usage. It means a piece of pork. A ‘junk of wood’ is a piece of stovewood. A piece or a chunk or a hunk is a ‘junk.'”

“Thanks.” I looked at her. Here we’ve been married all these years, sitting around in this boat for all these days, and she’d never told me that. What else did she know?

Well, that turned my musing on its head. It was a gentle reminder that whatever I know that someone else doesn’t, there’s likely just as much or more that someone else knows that I don’t.

I know my daughter, for example, who might be a little sketchy about laundry technique, knows quite a lot about biology. She knows the names of all the bones in the body, and is intimate with the lives of sand crabs, which I hope never to observe directly.

Dmitri March 2008

Finding happiness in a way completely foreign to me.

When I get over the self-absorption that parental insecurity can induce, I can recognize that of course none of us will know only the same things. That the job of a parent is not to transfer an encyclopedic knowledge. It is to point your kids in generally a right direction, roughly toward love and happiness, and to teach them how to learn things for themselves. On our best days, we realize how much we can learn from them.

And the way they find love and happiness may be completely different from your own. Good thing they can learn things we don’t already know. At this moment, I’m thinking cream cheese might feel really good on my feet.

–Lois Maassen

Greater Depth of Field

In Family, Fulfillment on July 13, 2011 at 7:34 pm

A few weeks ago we celebrated Father’s Day early at my sister’s house.  “Here,” she said, handing me our dad’s camera after lunch. “Would you take some pictures for Dad?” My dad is 80 and the tremors that come with his Parkinson’s disease make it difficult for him to hold the camera steady.

I was glad to do it, taking pictures of the family members gathered around the table and of Dad opening his presents. I documented the facts of the event. I assumed that’s what he wanted.

My father is a practical man, hard-working and smart as a whip, to use one of his expressions. On the farm when the hay baler broke down, he could fix it with a few tools, some spare parts he had on hand, and ingenuity.  His solution wasn’t always typical, but it always got the job done.

I didn’t think of him as particularly creative; back then my definition of that word was narrower than it is now. My mother was the one with artistic sensibilities. She loved her flower garden and regularly pointed out nature’s beauty—the red wing blackbird’s song, the sunlight filtering through the morning mist, the smattering of Dutchman’s britches in the woods. She noticed beauty everywhere and frequently pointed it out to us.

My father noticed work everywhere and frequently pointed it out to us. He then issued a directive to us to do that work. Working three jobs himself, he hardly had time to sleep, let alone ponder life’s beauty and mystery.  He was all about getting things done. The garden got planted. The beans got picked. The hay got baled. The cow got milked. Dinner got made. And, in good time, because all those things and many more got done day after day, year after year, his children got fed, clothed, and educated. My dad showed his love by providing for us and teaching us to provide for ourselves. Love was spelled W-O-R-K because it led to a better life for us. Other things—things like beauty, longing, the landscapes of his children’s inner lives—were superfluous and not worthy of his time and attention.

Or so I thought.

When my parents moved to a retirement village, my brother-in-law put hundreds of the pictures Dad had taken over the years onto a CD. Knowing an overwhelming job when he sees one, my brother-in-law didn’t try to organize the slides, so a picture of my sister’s second birthday in 1961 is followed by a picture of the trailer my mom lived in in 1954 while Dad was in the Air Force, which is followed by a picture of a hometown parade from 1968.

I was clicking through that CD, looking for a photo of my father as a young man to post in honor of Father’s Day. And in that visual mash-up of my dad’s days I saw that my dad—a retired farmer, roofer, and proud U.S. Postal worker—is also a photographer, taking the time to frame the shot so it tells a story. He intuitively grasps depth of field, light, and the elements of composition and, before Parkinson’s, he used them to great effect. In moments stolen from getting things done, he didn’t just tend to life’s logistics and practicalities. He attended to life’s moments of beauty and grace.

Most astounding of all to me, he attended to us and captured something of who we were at that moment. My parents had six children in nine years and we lived on a working farm. I knew I was loved. But life was busy. I felt not so much invisible as not seen. But it was my father who wasn’t seen, at least not in his entirety. I didn’t have much depth of field when I looked at him.

I wish I had figured all this out before Father’s Day, before I took his camera in hand and trained the lens on him. I wish I had been more mindful so, although I don’t have his skill or his eye, I could have at least tried for the kind of photo he would have taken—the kind that’s a distillation of life and not merely a record of the event. It would have been a much better way to honor the whole man than posting an old photo of him to Facebook.

I got it all wrong. But my dad got some things all right. –Christine MacLean

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Another Thing a Dad Can Do

In Family on June 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm

In honor of Father’s Day, Moms Rising has created a special site where people can “share a favorite moment” involving dads. Since I’d been trying to come up with a meaningful way to say Happy Father’s Day to a dad who is no longer around to open cards or presents or check out his Facebook wall, I decided to give this a try. I found myself writing about how my dad used to play “Barbie Queen of the Prom” with my sisters and me on the evenings when my mom was at bridge club.

He did. Without complaint, without rolling his eyes, without making us feel that things girls liked to do were innately dumb, he bought the dress, got elected to a club, and found a steady date in order to vie for the honor of being crowned Queen of the Prom.

One of the best things about playing with him (and, now that I think of it, one of the reasons he regularly won) was that he never disdained the nerdy Poindexter as escort. In fact, he professed to prefer Poindexter. I think he may have felt sorry for him, seeing how often his daughters rejected the poor freckled, big-eared guy in favor of rounding the board another time in hopes of landing on the all-American Ken or the more sultry Bob (always my first choice).

He wasn’t shy about consulting with us on choosing his prom gown, either, questioning whether pink was really his best color.

My dad was manly man, don’t get me wrong. He played as many sports as Ken did, built things with his hands, knew his way around a table saw. I often thought it was a shame he didn’t have sons to toss a football with or coach in Little League (this was pre-Title 9). But now it occurs to me that he — a boy who lost his mother at a tender age — enjoyed the immersion in female life that came with having three daughters.

He was never afraid to tell us how pretty we looked, that he liked what we’d done with our hair. He came to our tea parties and ate our attempts at cooking with genuine relish. He never made us feel that there was anything wrong with being a girl.

Many stories about fathers are written by sons who remember the ways their dads showed them what it meant to be a man. I am glad to add this story about a dad who taught his daughters something essential about being a woman.

–Debra Wierenga

Battle Hymn of the Golden Retriever Mother

In Family, Fulfillment on March 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

So I’ve been trying not to write about Amy Chua’s book, which I haven’t read and don’t intend to read. Which I no longer need to read because I have read 1400 reviews and essays and analyses and blog posts and angry letters to the editor that quote copiously from her book to: (1.) show what a heartless, humorless slave-driver of a mother she is, or (2.) hold her up as a smart, self-deprecating but determined role model for parents who want to raise their children to be all that they can be.

If you are a semi-conscious Western parent of the female persuasion (there’s a reason this book wasn’t written by a man or pilloried or defended by American fathers, but that’s the subject of a different debate) the Tiger Mother’s roar is impossible to ignore. She’s everywhere. Her book has even inspired an internet meme.

What could I possibly add?

But it’s been a fraught week, with parent/teacher conferences, band concerts, financial aid forms, and college acceptance and not-quite acceptance letters from the places my youngest son Eliot applied to last fall. And reading Caitlin Flanagan’s piece “The Ivy Delusion: The Real Reason the Good Mothers Are So Rattled by Amy Chua” in this month’s issue of The Atlantic has finally pushed me into the fray.

Because I have some things in common with those “good mothers” Flanagan makes not-so-gentle fun of —

“The good mothers believe that something is really wrong with the hypercompetitive world of professional-class child rearing, whose practices they have at once co-created and haplessly inherited. The good mothers e-blast each other New York Times articles about overscheduled kids and the importance of restructuring the AP curriculum so that it encourages more creative thinking. They think that the college-admissions process is “soul crushing.” One thing the good mothers love to do—something they undertake with the same “fierce urgency of now” with which my mom used to protest the Vietnam War—is organize viewings of a documentary called Race to Nowhere.”


And, yes, Amy Chua rattles me. Because I am a mother who has allowed her sons to quit pianos lessons, tennis lessons, trombone lessons, swimming lessons, T-Ball, Youth Orchestra, AP Chemistry — even intramural soccer. I have not required them to do their homework, go to bed, join National Honor Society, practice their instruments, or write five-paragraph essays. I have encouraged them to find their respective passions and follow their proverbial bliss (good mothers read too much Joseph Campbell in college, says Flanagan) to film school, art school, and (for Eliot) music school. I am also a mother who, unlike Amy Chua, has never been entirely sure she was doing the right thing.

I am not a Tiger Mother. I am not really even one of the good mothers Flanagan chastises for thinking that their kids should be able to “have it both ways” — “a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education.” After my boys’ first years in elementary school, I stopped harboring any illusions of Harvard scholarships.

I am more of a Golden Retriever Mother.

If you’ve ever owned a golden, you know from unconditional love. A retriever finds her person perfect, fascinating, the source of all possible happiness in this world. She will chase and return a soggy tennis ball for as long as you care to throw it. She will listen with rapt attention to anything you want to discourse on, from Petrarchan sonnets to nationalized health care. She wants to go where you go, do what you do, eat what you eat, and sleep where you sleep. She’s ready to follow you following your bliss wherever it takes you. She doesn’t care if you don’t have a 4.0. In fact, she thinks that your 3.25 — because it is your 3.25 — is better than anyone else’s 4.0.

So, yeah, Eliot’s been wait-listed by his first-choice school, while Amy Chua’s daughter has already played Carnegie Hall and, according to Flanagan, has likely applied to many of the country’s top colleges: “Almost certainly, she will be admitted to all of them.”

Eliot’s passion is music, but he didn’t discover that until high school. And by the time he figured out which program of study excited him, and understood the school’s acceptance rates and requirements, he’d had only two years of private piano and trombone lessons and his GPA was beyond repair. What if I hadn’t let him quit piano at 7? What if I’d made him practice his trombone two hours a day when he was in middle school? What if I’d told him, like Tiger Mother told her cubs, that he was “never allowed to get any grade less than an A”?

I like to think that my approach had its own benefits. Eliot found out for himself what he loves and learned how to find the teachers and resources that could help him achieve his goals. His latest progress report shows a D in AP English Language, but here’s what his teacher wrote next to the grade:

Eliot, I really enjoy working with you in AP Language. I appreciate your witty insights in class discussion, and wish that you would share even more. You possess an inherent gift for stringing words together creatively, and your sense of voice in your writing is strong and developed. The complexity of your sentence structures and your sense of humor is indicative of a writer far beyond your years!

Eliot’s D is better than most of my community college students’ As!

He didn’t get accepted into the University of Michigan’s highly competitive Performing Arts Technology program, and we feel sad about that. But Berklee College of Music wants him enough to offer him sizable merit scholarship. He hasn’t done Carnegie Hall (yet), but last month I watched him solo with his high school jazz band in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall.

That’s my boy! Son of a Golden Retriever Mother, perfect in every way.

–Debra Wierenga

Ghosts in the Machine

In Community, Family on February 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Tidying up my iTunes library, I find a string of untitled tracks that turn out to be voice mail messages from 2007. I go down the list, listening and deleting, until I hear:

Hi, Deb! It’s Dad.

Why would a dead man sound so alive? Has there been some mistake? Could the cardiovascular system that produced the breath that set those sound waves vibrating in my direction just now still exist somewhere, heart pumping, lungs pushing air through the windpipe and over the vocal chords that generate the precise combination of pitch, timbre, tone, and resonance that is my father’s voice?

I contemplate the physical mechanics of crawling into my hard drive.

Anyone who has experienced the unexpected death of someone she loves will recognize this kind of “magical thinking” in which the grieving mind simultaneously knows with absolute certainty that the beloved is dead and knows with absolute certainty that he is not. Joan Didion describes the phenomenon vividly in her memoir documenting the year after her husband died of a sudden heart attack: the need to stay in the city where her husband would know to find her; the inability to give away a certain pair of shoes that he would want when he returns; the undeleted email message that surely signified his continued existence.

I think that the sensual immediacy of digital media and the relentless present tense of the internet have prolonged my own year of magical thinking (currently 23 months and counting).

Facebook still periodically flashes his profile picture in the upper right-hand corner of my screen, asking me to “help Don find new friends.” The last message I posted on his wall before he died — Hey, Dad, you ever coming back to Michigan? — is still there, dripping unintended irony. And since his death I have suggested friends, asked him to join charitable causes, sent him digital hearts and glasses of Chardonnay. I kept posting on his wall, too — pictures of my son wearing his grandpa’s sport coat, birthday wishes, Thanksgiving greetings — until it dawned on me that my other Facebook friends were notified every time I did this and might start worrying about me. Or worse.

But while my dad had just barely tested the waters of online social networking, he was an early adopter in other areas of digital communication. He designed and maintained a blog that reported on his travels and a website that includes this message to the cosmos:

The internet has made it possible for a tiny speck in this universe – — me — to tell you a bit of my story. It’s been molded by many people, most significantly my family and relatives, whom I suspect may be here by intent. If, however, you happened to stumble upon this page and if I have aroused a particle of interest, I would love to hear from you.

If you click on the link, you can still send him a message. I have.

Beyond this web-based legacy, my dad left behind a laptop computer that archives thousands of photos, detailed genealogy charts, slide shows complete with background music and “Ken Burns Effect” transitions, video clips that analyze my sons’ golf swings. All this and more on an iBook he’d owned only two months. I have yet to venture into the hard drive that contains the data from his desktop computer, a tangerine iMac G3.

In a recent feature in The New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker takes a hard look at the implications of (digital) life after (physical) death. He tells the story of Mac Tonnies, a writer and active user on online media who died unexpectedly at the age of 34. Many of the many expressions of grief logged onto the comments section of Tonnies’s last blog post are addressed directly to the author of the (eerily titled) Posthuman Blues, telling him how he is missed, wishing him a “happy Afterlife,” wishing that he would “keep posting from the other side.” A poignant example:

Mac, perhaps somehow, somewhere, you are reading your comments here.

Know that your friends love you and miss you terribly, though we will meet again some “day”.

Wishing you joy on your new journey,

One mourner, who had never met Tonnies in person, posted a sonnet that includes an homage to his Twitter feed: “. . . Your ev’ry tweet/Brought strange new wonders. . .”

Toonies’s virtual community stepped in to preserve his digital oeuvre, backing up his blog (“about 10 gigabytes of material”) and setting up new blogs that feature his writing and links to interviews he gave. Walker writes:

. . . the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one. In both instances, the value doesn’t come from the material itself but rather from those who extract meaning from, and give meaning to, all we leave behind: our survivors.

One big difference, of course, between “physical ephemera,” like photo albums and ribbon-bound packets of letters, and their digital equivalents (Flikr and email accounts) is that the former are more likely to be curated with “our survivors” in mind. What meaning should I extract or give to the sequence of photos documenting a spring break wet-T-shirt contest that is preserved in my my dad’s online photo albums? (Sorry, no link.) None that I care to think too much about, or that he would want me to, I’m quite certain.

Not surprisingly, services designed to help one leave a tidy posthumous digital legacy are springing up all over the internet. Legacy Locker offers “a safe, secure repository for your vital digital property” that lets you decide whom you want to have access to what after your “passing.” The more forthright Deathswitch (“Bridging Mortality”) emails you regularly to make sure you’re still alive and, if you don’t respond for a given period of time, “deduces you are dead” and sends out emails you have written to specified recipients. If you really want to script your digital legacy in fine detail, Virtual Eternity (“Forever Made Possible”) lets you create and train an avatar or “intellitar” of yourself that will be able to converse with generations to come. (This will cost you, though.)  1000 Memories, a free online service designed to help people create virtual memorials of photos and video clips and written remembrances, will also allow you to craft your own memorial, prehumously, if you wish.

At, my sister created a site for my dad that people could add their comments and memories to. The funeral home that coordinated his memorial service in Michigan provided a similar service. These sites and the stories people contributed to them were a great comfort to me for a while, but no one has added to them since May 2009. These days, I prefer to hang out on his Facebook profile, where he is still surrounded by living, if virtual, friends and family.

Elaine Kasket, a British psychologist who conducted a study of “posthumous communication on a social networking site,” found that most such messages to deceased Facebook friends are written in the second person, as if they are still present and “logging on from some internet cafe in heaven.” She calls the practice a compelling example of “continuing bonds after death.”

And if the existence of an online presence after death prolongs the grieving process along with the unsettling comfort of “magical thinking,” it may be all to the good. Psychotherapist Mark Dunn believes that most of us in Western society don’t permit ourselves to mourn for as long as is good for us and that the internet “may allow us to learn the mechanics of grieving again.”

–Debra Wierenga