Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Season's Beatings

Once, when Jack was much younger, we were grocery shopping, and he asked for a bag of Cheetos.  We agreed to buy it for him (because you know us, the ever-indulgent parents that we are) on the condition that he couldn’t plow into the bag until after he ate his dinner.  Agreement reached, we made the purchase and headed home.  Dinner that evening consisted of lime chicken, and Jack was being a trooper.  Normally a rather adventurous eater (still is), this night’s fare was presenting him with some challenges.  Between bites he would ask for his Cheetos, and we kept reminding him that he had to eat all of his dinner before getting his hands on the orange-food-stuff-cheese-flavored treat.  So, on he went with the task of choking down the lime chicken.  He plopped the last morsel into his mouth and swallowed it; no more than three seconds later, he puked it all back up.  We scrambled for towels to clean up the mess, when Jack looked up at us both from his high chair and asked, “Can I have my Cheetos now?”  Whether you view our yearly Christmas letter as the chicken, the Cheetos, or what came in between, we hope this little missive is just as memorable. 

One step closer to adulthood – the right to vote, registering for the draft, appearing on “Jerry Springer” without parental consent – Sam became a teenager this year.  This also means that we’re less than five years away from selling our house, buying a 1976 Winnebago, and touring North and South America to find the best places to take a nap.  The year started out with Sam making the volleyball team at his junior high school.  On the whole, the average volleyball “parent” is pretty calm and cool.  You get your occasional wingnut screaming instructions from the stands to his son that involve rocketing the ball into the opponent’s chest like a bunker-busting missile, but their ferocity is usually met with looks from the rest of us that could be interpreted either as “relax, dude, Nike’s not going to be here until next week to hand out sponsorship contracts” or “up the voltage on your shock therapy, please.”  In years past, we’ve been involved in other sports that have seen bleacher-clearing brawls between parents over who was responsible for snack and why it wasn’t peanut free.  Sam is also taking Latin this year so he can learn how to ask for directions to the bathroom in a dead language.  That should come in handy when his ever-so-alive bladder is full. 

While many may disagree and view this as one of the signs of the Apocalypse, we view this milestone as one step closer to our liberation from carpooling and errands: Jack turned 16 and obtained his driver’s license.  Gone are the days of our having to ferry the boys to and fro (the “to” wasn’t half as bad as the “fro” – “fro” always seems to take place late at night when we’re in our pajamas and lying in bed reading; and by “late”, I mean after 7:00 p.m.).  Now, Jack gets to do that – and quite often he does it with a spring in his step because it means we put gas in the truck he drives.  One night this past summer, Erin and I were in bed reading (I’m sure I was reading something profound like “Dad is Fat” by Jim Gaffigan or “Not Taco Bell Material” by Adam Carolla) when Erin jumped up, panicking, looked at the clock and said, “Oh my gosh, it’s almost 11:00 o’clock.  We need to pick up Sam from (insert overly creative boy name that either sounds like a medieval land baron or a color from a J. Crew catalog)’s house.”  Without losing my place in the book I was reading, I calmly replied, “No, we don’t.  That’s why we had Jack – he can go pick up Sam.”  Then Erin asked, “Is that the ONLY reason?”  Looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling as if I were weighing the many merits of our eldest son – much the same way an art lover would gaze before a great collection of The Masters – and said, “Yep.  THAT’s the reason we had him.”  As is the case with both of our sons, the fact they’re doing well in school, they’re not on drugs, and they don’t have a criminal record is gravy. 

Over this past year, I’ve repaired more leaks in our sprinkler lines than the busiest urologist in the state of Arizona.  When I’m not doing that, I’m still visiting exotic locales like Lubbock, TX, and Toledo, OH – livin’ the dream!  Erin continues her Masters program in Waste Management – her current course load is pretty rigorous: Toilet Paper Yard Clean-Up 352 – “Use a Shotgun Next Time The Punks Come Around”; Navigating The Boys’ Bedroom 419 – “There Really is Carpet Under There”; and Dish Washing Elementals 298 – “What Does and Does NOT Go in a Garbage Disposal”. Come visit us anytime.  We won’t make you stay in the boys’ room.  Have a great year!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Divine and Sublime: The Love of a Mother

My blog is normally reserved for general snarkiness and flippant disregard for all things serious.  With that said, I'm not exactly sure why I'm posting this here, but I did want to warn anyone reading this beforehand: if you're expecting this to be funny, it won't be.  Ooh, that sounds far more serious than I meant it.  Sorry.  What I meant to say was that this is a talk I was asked to give in church last Sunday for Mother's Day, so it's not directed at your funny bone.  This is your last chance to stop reading before it gets too serious.  I mean it.  

The year is 1989.  The place is East Harlem, otherwise known as The Barrio.  Walking east along 103rd Street between Fifth & Madison Avenues, you spy an 11-year-old boy, Luis.  The school day is over, and he’s heading to his home in the projects just a few blocks away where he lives on the 17th floor with a mish mash of family and relatives squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment.  As he left PS171, he descended a small set of concrete stairs in disrepair and littered with hundreds of discarded crack vials – the school a popular place for the local dealer and his clients to do their business and feed their addiction. 

It’s December, and the first snow has long come and gone, leaving the snow banks along the gutters black and dirty from the exhaust of cars and trucks racing by on their way to someplace else.  There is a chill in the air, and Luis tightens his scarf and ensures his coat is zipped up to his chin.  He shoves his hands as deeply as he can into his pockets almost to the point of ripping the seams, and he soldiers on toward home. 

Luis passes through a short brick tunnel under the railroad tracks that separate the northbound and southbound sides of Park Avenue as a Metro North train rumbles overhead.  He’s reminded of the night he passed by this very spot on an errand to the local bodega when he came upon a man whose throat had been slit, the blood fresh on the sidewalk, just as a police car pulled up with lights flashing – he just kept walking.  This was not the first time he’s had a front-row seat to what plays out on the mean streets of The Barrio. 

Crossing Lexington Avenue and nearing the projects that he’s known as home since he came to the United States, Luis spies a solitary figure walking toward him struggling under the weight of a bag full of clothing in one hand and groceries in the other – he quickens his pace.  The very sight of this figure puts the visions of crack vials and violence completely out of his mind, and the chill disappears.  Who has this seemingly magical power to transform and transport him from The Barrio to a place where, for even a mere moment, there’s no worry about drive-by shootings or being pressured by the local dealer to be one of his corner boys on the lookout for approaching police?  Who else but his mother, Maria! 

She works at a dry-cleaning plant in Brooklyn six days a week and has to take two trains and a bus each way just to get to and from work.  On her way to and from the local subway station each day, she drops off and then collects clothing that needs to be tailored, mended, and hemmed for extra money.  She is a dutiful visiting teacher with sisters living at the extremes of Manhattan island – this involves even more trains and buses.  And she holds two callings: Sunday School teacher and Second Counselor in the Relief Society.  The demands on her time are endless.  And yet, she has never let a moment of doubt slip into Luis’s mind about whether he is her priority.  When I served in the New York City Spanish Speaking mission back in the late ‘80s, I met a mountain of mothers like Maria and witnessed time and time again the transformative power of their love in the lives of their children.  Knowing women like this – knowing women like my beautiful wife and my own wonderful mother – it seems almost a disservice to dedicate only one day to the celebration of mothers.  In fact, I would urge you today to make it a point in your own way to celebrate the mothers in your life as often as possible – let’s face it, we wouldn’t be here without them. 
Just out of curiosity, I Googled “great women” and was greeted by numerous entries from magazines and profiles.  I clicked through a whole host of these entries and learned some very fascinating things about these wonderfully brave women – the common themes running through these sites were “political successes”, “net worth”, and “overcoming insurmountable odds”.  All great feats, of course, and ones that are laud worthy!  One woman especially intrigued me, and as I read through a short biography, the writer extolled her many virtues and accomplishments that detailed both her revolutionary and iconoclastic nature.  Kudos to her!  However, in this and other profiles, it is never once mentioned whether she’s married or has children.  I had to go to the source of all truth, Wikipedia, to learn that she is, in fact, married and has children and grandchildren.  Why do I mention this?  The reason is simple: the world – especially popular culture – does not rank “motherhood” as something that qualifies for greatness.  That’s sad!
The French poet, Charles Baudelaire, once wrote, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  I’ll add to Chuck’s insightful observation: the second greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that motherhood is not one of the absolute pinnacles of accomplishment.  For too long, women have been relegated to roles of subservience.  In many cultures, women are still considered second-class citizens.  This is the doing of a world who has been tricked. 
In order to understand the true value and equality of women in the eyes of Our Father, you need only turn to the Scriptures for myriad examples.  Motherhood is so central to a plan conceived and implemented by a loving Heavenly Father that the Christ child was introduced to this world by being born to a woman – to a mother!  Mary was not just a willing soul who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  In Luke, Chapter 1, verse 28, we read of Gabriel’s pronouncement to Mary of her value – that Our Heavenly Father knew her by name and chose her specifically: “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”  After Christ was crucified, laid to rest in a borrowed tomb, and three days passed, to whom did the resurrected Savior very first appear?  A woman – Mary Magdalene.  This was not a chance meeting.  Christ’s esteem for Mary was incredible!  He surely sought her out.  In fact, He made a point to visit her even before He had ascended to Heaven to complete his resurrected transformation.  We mustn’t forget the undaunted courage and unwavering devotion of the two thousand young men who followed Helaman into battle and specifically and unreservedly credited their mothers for their strength and success.  You would be hard pressed to convince those two thousand boys to believe that motherhood was NOT at the pinnacle of accomplishment – in fact, if you tried, you might find yourself on the business end of a very sound beating. 
I believe it’s fair to say that motherhood is among the most far-reaching and important callings in life.  It has possibly the greatest effect on lives that stretches from the cradle to the grave and into the eternities.  We would underestimate the value and power of motherhood at our peril! 

There’s a song by the band Madness called “Our House”.  Throughout the song, the lyrics describe the comings and goings of the different family members and the fact their house is the central gathering place for the entire neighborhood.  After describing the madness within the walls of their home, there’s a line: “Something tells you that you've got to get away from it.”  But the very next part of the song is very telling – you hear this, referring to their mother: “She sees them off with a small kiss.  She's the one they're going to miss in lots of ways.”  And that may perhaps be one of the toughest but most noble aspects of motherhood: letting them go with the hope that they’ve prepared their children to take on the world.  Fortunately, though, we have an eternal promise found in Proverbs 22:6:  “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  This sentiment is echoed in Doctrine & Covenants.
As I prepared this little homage to mothers, I searched the scriptures and found many wonderful examples to cite, but I had a great deal of trouble putting my own thoughts into words.  So, in light of this loss for words, I decided it would be better to quote directly an Apostle of God, Jeffrey R. Holland, who said it perfectly in a Mormon Message found on the Church’s website: “May I say to mothers collectively, in the name of the Lord, you are magnificent. You are doing terrifically well. The very fact that you have been given such a responsibility is everlasting evidence of the trust your Father in Heaven has in you. He is blessing you and He will bless you, even—no, especially—when your days and your nights may be the most challenging. Rely on Him. Rely on Him heavily. Rely on Him forever. And ‘press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope.’”
To that, I can only add the following: Motherhood is a divine calling – it is at least equal to if not greater than the calling of prophet.  Without mothers, we would not have prophets and a Savior!