Archives For August 2016

Butterfly Kisses

August 27, 2016 — 1 Comment

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Me and my mom, October 2013

I was in a group one time when we were all invited to share why we were grateful for our mothers. I could hardly believe how unabashedly sentimental folks got. Why, the things they said about their moms were worthy of a Hallmark Mother’s Day card.

My favorite was the guy who told us about getting “butterfly kisses” when he was little. He described his mom lifting him onto her lap, putting her face very close to his, then blinking so their eyelashes would touch. This from a grown man who had built his own house with his bare hands. Butterfly kisses.

There really is something about moms and how we feel about them. As the most primal relationship we will ever have in life, she is quite literally our life line in the beginning. But then as we leave infancy, we start teasing out our own identities, celebrating our separateness, and triumphing in our new ideas and opinions. But she’s still our life line. No amount of two-year-old swagger can negate this fundamental reality.

I got a little too big for my britches once when I was about three. I kept ignoring my mom’s instructions to stay with her while shopping in a department store, being more interested in playing underneath the dress racks. But my mom got weary of chasing me down and decided to help me learn an important lesson. She “hid” until I noticed she was gone. When I finally realized she hadn’t come looking for me in a while and looked up to spot her, I got a little panicky. (She was watching the whole time, so I was never in danger.) It worked. I determined never to let her get out of my sight again.

Because mom is critical to a child’s well being.

This truth became even more evident one day when I was in about second grade. I came bursting through the front door and made my usual beeline for the kitchen.

“Hi, Mom! I’m home!”

Something about the way she answered led me to suspect something was amiss. When I walked through the kitchen door, I saw she had her lower leg wrapped in an elastic bandage and propped up on a kitchen chair.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was sitting here at the table writing letters and my leg fell asleep. When I stood up and started to walk on it, I twisted my ankle.”

“But it’s going to be okay, right?”

“Well, it hurts a lot right now. I can’t walk on it at all.”

A torrent of questions flooded my mind: If Mom is unable to get around, who is going to take care of us? Who will fix us dinner? And where in the world is DAD?!! Having no context for a badly sprained ankle and how this thing might go, I was plunged into a sea of insecurity and worry. I slowly walked out of the room, feeling disoriented, I wondered what it all meant.

It wasn’t long before she needed to go to the bathroom, which meant a trip upstairs. She had already figured out she could get around by rolling on a task chair she used for sewing. But when she got to the staircase, she had to turn around and go up one stair at a time on her bottom. That was it. My world was officially unraveling. It was clear to see that my mother was functionally disabled and that life as I’d known it was now over.

Fortunately, my high anxiety didn’t last all that long because Dad eventually got home and took the helm. The details of what happened from this point elude me, but apparently we did eat a meal, did some homework, got our baths, and went to bed – all without incident. And apparently the injured ankle healed in the normal time frame. However, I never forgot how devastated I felt as my imagination ran amuck. The thought of her being taken out of commission and not being able to care for us had absolutely rocked my world.

Eventually, I got a little older and began to believe I didn’t need her so much. After all, I was getting to be pretty mature, you know. I mean, not too much longer and I’d be learning to drive. The high water mark of this wave of denial came about the time I packed a steamer trunk and a couple of suitcases and got on a plane to go to college in California.

Curiously, from that very moment on, I’ve been returning to – albeit, at a glacial rate – a level of knowing how truly vital my connectedness to my mom is that rivals my early childhood. Obviously, I no longer depend on her for the practical support I was so concerned about when she got injured. Nowadays it’s just emotional support I yearn for. How aware I’ve become of this phenomenon in the past several years surprises me.

I was with Mom just last weekend. We’d been out and about all afternoon, then returned to her house for a snack before I headed home. As we were in the middle of a good conversation, I noticed this impulse I kept having to tell her stuff, hoping and waiting for her affirming comments. It was sort of like a verbal variation of handing her my pictures to put up on the fridge.

For cryin’ out loud, Linda, grow up. You don’t have to be the center of attention here. Why don’t you just try listening to her stuff and celebrating it. Like an adult.

But as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t stop the impulse.

Because no matter how old we get, we still love butterfly kisses from our moms.

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I think Americans are conflicted. About 18-wheelers, in particular.

Folks get frustrated, annoyed, and downright angry that they have to share the crowded roadways with these behemoths. They wish they could somehow ban them from the roads. And yet…

We want, and even expect, that our every creature comfort be stocked and ready to go, 24/7. We’ve been grown attached to, and even dependent upon, all this stuff that gets transported from its point of origin by truck.

Methinks there’ssome dissonance here.

I know there are rude truck drivers. And some drive dangerously. But I like to remind myself whenever I get frustrated by a trucker (who, let’s say, decides to pass another truck and ties up both lanes of the interstate for several miles) that they’re just making a living while performing a demanding job that ultimately brings my stuff where I want it to be, and he likely just wants to get home in time for his kid’s birthday party.

And yeah, I’m biased.

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My dad drove a truck from 1970 until he retired, all across the interstates of America from the East Coast to the Rockies, and from the northernmost states down to the Gulf. He logged some serious miles, wore out a bunch of Rand McNally road atlases (pre-GPS), and slammed down enough coffee to fill a lake, I’m sure.

His excellent safety record would occasionally be marred by making split-second decisions like jack-knifing a rig rather than plow into a VW Beetle that pulled in front of him and then stopped on a dime. Another time, he had a right front tire blow out when he was carrying air compressors. He was unable to maintain control of the vehicle, and it veered off the roadway and into a field. He later said, “When it rolled, compressors came shooting out of the top of that trailer like bowling balls out of a paper bag!” The cab came to rest upside down, with him dangling from his seatbelt. He made another unpleasant decision – to unlatch the buckle, meaning he would land on his head. He considered himself blessed to have walked away from that incident without harm to himself or any other motorists. Nevertheless, his safety record got dinged again.

I got to ride with him once. I was home from college during summer break and he was making a run somewhere out east. I had been hankering to see my cousins and since his route would take him right through Indianapolis, he suggested he drop me off after the first leg of the trip, then about a day and a half later, he’d pick me up. Sounded like a winner to me.

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[Me and Dad in Indianapolis, about to head back home (with  my brother); cousins on the right.]

Well let me tell you right here and now, the right seat in the cab – at least back in the day – will jiggle your liver loose. Meanwhile, the driver’s hydraulic seat floats blissfully down the highway. And the noise. So much noise. I discovered a new kind of violence that could be perpetrated on the hair cells of one’s inner ears. However, despite these discomforts, there was a major compensation.

Truck stops.

I can’t remember ever having a more delicious breakfast than the one I ate with Dad at about 1:30 a.m. (somewhere in Illinois – I was pretty groggy when we stopped). I think we ordered eggs, hash browns, pancakes, and the best chipped beef gravy on toast ever – and washed it all down with the quintessential brew, no cream. As I gushed about how wonderful it all tasted, he informed me it was actually pretty typical, because truck stops that don’t dish up good food, don’t stay in business. Made sense.

But as good as the meal was, the conversation at that truck stop was much, much better. The satiating of our taste buds, the unusual hour for communing, just the two of us travelling together… it all converged to create a powerful bonding moment between us. That trip was both memorable and sweet. (My jostled innards settled down eventually, too.)

Quite a few years later, after Dad had retired, I was visiting at my parents’ with my two little ones in tow. As I gathered our stuff and headed for our van, Dad asked me if I wouldn’t rather just spend the night, since it had gotten so late.

“Dad, it’s only 10:30 – I’ll be home well before 1:00 in the morning. You know what a night owl I am. I rarely get sleepy driving at night.”

“Are you sure? What if you have car trouble and some sicko comes along? A lot of bad stuff goes on out there, you know. Why don’t you just sleep here.”

Dad. What makes you think the first person I’d encounter would be a slasher and not some family man driving a truck?”

Heh heh, I had gotten him where he lived, as they say.

“Besides, whoever comes at me has to get past my Protector first! And if He lets them through, then the next thing I’ll know I’ll be on the Other Side. And I’m okay with that!”

“Doesn’t sound like I can talk you into staying.” Parents are often unsatisfied with their adult children’s decisions.

“I’ll be okay. Really.”

“All right. But call me when you get home, okay?” (Pre-Nokia.)

As expected, the van didn’t even hiccup, so I would neither be able to confirm nor deny the presence of slashers trolling I-70 that night. The promised phone call was brief.

About six months later, my parents came over for a jazz concert in which my two older kids were playing. As we piled into two vehicles to come back to the house, the guys were in the car ahead, and Mom and I took the van, with the two little ones in the back seat.

I meant to stop at the gas station earlier that afternoon. Really, I did. But they were temporarily closed to install new underground tanks. (Note to self: stop for gas at another station further down the road, after your next errand.) As fate, and my attention deficit, would have it, I never actually made it to the gas station that day. It became an issue on the way home from the concert that night, about a mile and a half from our house.

When the van sputtered I knew immediately I was toast. It came to rest within a couple hundred yards of the exit ramp we would have taken. I was glad I had on flats, since I’d be walking to the convenience store, less than a mile away. I put on my flashers and opened the side door of the van so I could let the kids out of their car seats. Grandma would watch them.

It was dusk, but the lights that pulled up behind us nearly blinded me.

“Need some help?” he asked as he approached.

[Now, lest you think I’m making this up, I promise that what I am about to share is indeed truth.]

This Good Samaritan got out of a truck.

That’s right. He pulled his semi onto the shoulder to see if a woman in a minivan needed help.

I said I’d be fine, since there was a phone just a little ways down the road, on that exit ahead. He offered to make the call for me.

“But you’d have to get off the highway to get to a phone (and get behind schedule). You don’t need to do that. Really, I’ll be fine. My mom’s right here with the kids.”

“No, let me do it,” he insisted.

So I handed him a slip of paper with our phone number, thanked him profusely, and he drove off. About ten minutes later, my husband showed up with some gas. Crisis completely averted.

Now, the humor in this scenario wasn’t lost on me or Dad.

We would smile about that one for years to come.

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[Dad, beside second cab.]

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My dad lost his job when I was 9 ½ years old. It was a while before he found his niche as an over-the-road truck driver and managed to get his footing. In the meantime he worked a series of odd jobs.

They’re called odd” jobs, but these were fairly run of the mill: general laborer in a sheet metal plant, shipping clerk, mechanic in a transmission shop, custodian, etc. He didn’t really stay at any one of them very long – weeks? months? maybe a year? – but none of them actually suited him like trucking eventually would.

One of these odd jobs was noteworthy, though, simply because of an incident that occurred while he was working that job. Dad was hired as an attendant at a full-service gas station – you know, the kind where they rolled carts of tires out of the bay and closer to the sidewalk each morning, where you got your windshield washed and your oil checked with every fill up, and where if you need the ladies’ restroom you had to go to the office and get a key (that would invariably be hanging on a nail and also chained to a random block of wood!) to unlock the door which would be on the outside of the building, toward the back. That kind of gas station. Self service and convenience stores weren’t a figment of anyone’s imagination  just yet.

The owner would open the station early in the morning and work till about 3:00, then Dad took over in the mid afternoon and worked until close, at 11:00. It was very near the end of Dad’s shift and he was nearly finished with the close-up-shop routine. Then all of a sudden, before he even knew what happened, two men rushed into the office and held him up at gun-point.

But what was happening registered, Dad was scared. Fortunately, he had a capacity to stay calm and level-headed in emergencies, so his demeanor under duress probably influenced the outcome of the ordeal.

The robbers demanded he give them all the money on the premises. Who knows whether they imagined the amount of cash to be large enough to make it worth the risk, or whether they were just desperate. But it became obvious they had been casing the station and knew exactly when Dad would likely be alone as he shut things down. Once they had the loot they forced him into a storeroom where they bound and gagged him. Despite being a man of faith, Dad was acutely aware that these could be his last moments on earth.

“Shoot him!” one of the men shouted to the other. But then nothing.

“What’s wrong with you?!! He can identify us! SHOOT HIM!!”

I imagine that during those surreal few seconds, amid the shouting and his own racing thoughts, he would have been struggling to come to grips with his role in this grim drama, and his wife and five children, asleep at home, might have flashed through his mind.

But I also imagine this to be the very moment when the guardians of his fate intercepted and totally overcame the minions of darkness that threatened his demise.

“I said SHOOT HIM!!

The silent partner suddenly blurted, “I can’t!”

And in a flash they were gone, leaving the eye witness behind, unharmed.

Dad spent the rest of the night on the floor, unable to free himself and with no way to summon help. When his boss arrived in the morning to find the station wide open and unlocked, he immediately realized something was amiss and quickly found Dad. He freed him and drove him home. Later that morning while Dad slept, Mom filled us in on the terrible events of the night before. I was relieved and oh-so-grateful that my dad’s life had been spared.

Dad would go on to eventually find a job he really liked, fix up a house, watch his five children grow up and give him grandchildren and great grandchildren, involve himself in his neighborhood, serve in his church, cultivate iris, collect and enjoy books and recordings, eventually retire, celebrate a 60th wedding anniversary with his wife, and all sorts of other life-embracing activities. His was a full life.

Perhaps his most precious endeavor was comprised in a collection of cards he kept in his den, right beside his blue easy chair. He once showed me the thick stack of sturdy 4×5 note cards, each bearing a name inscribed in his distinctive calligraphy. Each card was covered in a hand-drawn grid, like graph paper, and each had a varying number of small boxes filled in. He explained that each time he prayed for that person he filled a little square.

He pulled out the card bearing my name. I was slightly crestfallen when I saw that mine didn’t have as many filled-in boxes as some of the others. Then he showed me another card that also had my name at the top – but this one had been completely filled in – front and back! He had prayed for me so often that he had to make a new card to catch the overflow.

I was staggered by the sheer number of tiny boxes, hundreds per card, each representing a separate petition. I was stunned by the relentlessness with which he lovingly covered everyone within his embrace. My siblings all had cards. Their spouses had cards. The grandchildren. Their children. His in-laws. Their families. His buddies. His neighbors. His friends at church. You name ‘em, they had a card.

I suppose when the possibility of a person’s very existence can be traced back to a single moment in time that perhaps pivoted on a prayer, one could become pretty convinced of the value of praying. In gratitude for having dodged a bullet, you might say Dad “prayed” it forward. Like nobody else I ever knew.

There’s this verse in the fifth chapter of the very last book of the Bible that refers to golden bowls in heaven filled with incense. It says the incense is the prayers of the people of God. There are moments in my life – to this day – when I feel like I’m still a beneficiary of his many prayers for me. It’s as if one of those other-worldly bowls gets tipped and then a prayer offered years ago sloshes over the rim and spills into my life. And I reap continuing goodness sown into my life during my dad’s years on this earth.

And I am grateful.