Month: July 2015

Throwing Stones

FullSizeRender (13)August, 1973

I am sitting on the curb outside of our house, gathering up pebbles in my tiny hands. I am two months shy of my fourth birthday, but it’s not my birth I am fixated on–it’s the birth of my new brother and sister: twins!

My mother is coming home from the hospital today–having been absent from my life for over a week. Oh, she’s seen me. Dad took us over to the hospital and sat us on a bench in the lobby. “Wave to the camera”, he says. “You’re sure mom can see us?” I ask. “Yes, mom can see you on the TV in her room.” I take his word for it, but it all seems so alien to me.

I miss my mom. The last few days have been a blur. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, has been running the show. She’s efficient–making sure we are fed and dressed–but she’s not very warm. Not the type of grandmom whose hugs you get lost in or wants to shower you with kisses. Still, I can’t complain. Besides, there’s really no one to complain to.

The morning has been a rush of activity; the five of us–my three brothers, one sister and I– are busy getting the house cleaned for mom’s homecoming–with two more kids. My dad seems excited and extra patient with us. I like it when he’s like this.

Bored of my chores, I wander out the door. I tend to do a lot of wandering. I make my way down the driveway. I keep looking up and down the street, half expecting my mother to magically appear.

Our neighborhood is lined with twin houses: driveway, house/house, driveway, house/house… I like where our house is positioned on the street because we are right across from a stop sign. Every car that drives down Thunderhead Road must slow down in front of our house.

I love to steal a glance inside each car; to see if anything dangles from the rear-view mirror (fuzzy dice, a bandana); to overhear a lyric which blasts from the AM radio (Brandy, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be…); to count how many people are in the car, and of those, how many are smoking (three and two); to spy a bumper sticker and pretend I can read what it’s saying (Wi-Fi 92’s gonna make me rich/ Flick my Bic).

But today I am distracted, nervous. I forget what my mom looks like. Plus, I’m about to be replaced as the youngest child–by twins, no less. How can I compete with that? I stand barefoot in the gutter and begin to gather pebbles. I throw a handful in the air, and listen as they rain back down to the ground. After a few throws like this, I see a car headed for the stop sign. I sit my Billy-the-Kid shorts on the curb, grasp some gravel, and wait for the car to pass my driveway. Then, I launch the stones into the air-aiming for the back of the car. As the tiny rocks spray onto the trunk, the sound–an echoing tinkle–is so much cooler. The driver keeps going.

Emboldened by my act of vandalism, I gather another pile, and repeat the procedure as the next car comes to a stop a few feet from me. The sound is just as thrilling and the driver seems oblivious once again. I am getting away with being bad  cool, and it feels exhilarating. As the next car comes, I grab another handful of pebbles, this one a bit larger. I am invincible.

But as they land on the car, the driver turns and stares at me. Caught! Yet, he keeps going. This guy knew what I did and I still got away with it. God, I love America!

I get up from the curb and attempt to find even bigger pieces. How far can I take this? Well, I’m about to find out.

With some larger stones in hand, maybe even a rock or two, I spot a Cutlass gliding its way to the stop sign. I don’t even bother to sit back down, to remain inconspicuous. I simply cock my arm back and launch the handful at the car. The sound is much louder and not nearly as melodic–more like a thud. As I watch the tail lights glow red at the stop sign, I notice they remain on. A woman in dark sunglasses stares straight at me and puts her car in park. As she opens the car door, I sprint into the house and up the stairs.

Curious, I wait at the top step to see what will happen.

Before there is even a knock, I hear my father speak through the screen.

“Can I help you?’ he asks.

My stomach drops. I cover my ears, but remove my hands every few seconds; Her words are distorted, but I am able to piece together her report: a little boy… threw…landed….car windows open……two small babies in the back….could have been…

My dad apologizes on my behalf. He then informs her of his two babies that he will be bringing home in an hour. “I’ll be sure to talk to him about this, and again, I’m sorry.”

In seconds, he appears at the bottom of the stairs. “What were you thinking?” he asks. “I’m just excited for mom to come home,” I reply. “Well, she has enough to worry about today, so why don’t we just keep this between us,” he offers. “O–okay,” I stammer. What? No yelling? No punishment? Maybe having twins around won’t be so bad after all, I think to myself.

“Thanks,” I say.

I remain upstairs for the rest of the morning. I don’t dare step foot outside, on the driveway, for fear I may be drawn in to more criminal activity, or worse, that I might watch a cop car pull up, with dark-sunglass woman in tow, to press charges on me for maiming her children.

The screen door slams repeatedly, as people move in and out of the house. Finally, it squeaks a bit more slowly, and I hear, “Oh my gosh! They’re home!” I watch from upstairs as my mom enters the living room in her sundress with two afghaned bundles. My dad spies me on the steps. His eyes tell me that he has honored his promise–that today is not the day to burden my mother–or him–with such trouble.

I slowly walk down the stairs, planting both feet on each step. Once on the landing, I run over to my mom and bury my face in her side. I am lost in the dangling blankets. I catch glimpses of my new brother and sister: a tiny hand, a fuzzy ear. I peer up at my mom’s face, reassured. She looks just as I remembered her.

***********************************

This is my second memory. My first involves me in a high chair talking to the refrigerator and dumping chocolate pudding on my head. But this is the one I recall often.

In childhood, I would usually conjure it if I needed to make myself feel guilty. As a good Catholic, I wasn’t comfortable unless I felt uneasy about something, so this became one of my go-to guilt triggers: “Like that time you almost blinded those children in the back seat of the car…” Such phrases would rattle in my head til I was reassured I was headed to Hell. As a teen, this event took on an Oedipal air: “How ironic would it have been if I blinded two small children on the same day that two small children were finding their way to my house?” Later in life, and most significantly, this event would serve as a reminder that there were times when my dad handled situations with a tenderness and grace that made me feel everything would be okay.

Now, as a father, I find that the most powerful response I can give my sons is one of understanding. When they come to me having done something wrong, consumed by guilt, expecting me to explode, and I simply say, “It’s okay. Everything will be okay,” it’s as if I have just waved a magic wand and made it so.

Such is the power of parenting, of perspective, of the words we choose–or do not choose.

Something to think about the next time you’re about to throw stones.

 

On Killing the Mockingbird

Atticus Finch is my hero. To Kill A Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. Like many before and after me, it was one of the rites of passage of high school English. And like some, it was because of that book that I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. The casting of the Academy-award winning film is probably the best book-to-screen adaptation that I have ever seen. Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch. He (Finch/Peck) is the consummate father, citizen, and lawyer the literary and film world has ever known…

…I can never be Atticus Finch–I don’t think anyone can. But maybe I can channel his presence through my persona, my alter ego: Dadicus Grinch. I want to be the kind of man he was, yet I find I am a bundle of contradictions: a friendly curmudgeon, an open-minded critic, a pessimistic optimist, an angry peacemaker… I have the best intentions, but I will always have my demons. Here’s a chance to put some of them to rest.  –excerpted from my first blog post,                         August 18, 2012

So, here we are, on the literary cusp of a sad day for Finch fans. I’ve spent the last week reading reviews, interviews, and the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/postquel to TKAM. And like the rest of the world, I was saddened and dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch advocated segregation. The headlines screamed: Atticus Finch was a bigot. “No!” I cried. “Not Atticus!”

Yet, after having some time to reflect, I must admit, I am a bit relieved. Atticus Finch is a literary hero, but he has turned into a paragon, a demigod. Decade after decade, he remained the ultimate father and citizen. And therein lies the problem. He was PERFECT. He lacked any flaws. Sure, one could admire him, and aspire to be like him, but, in the end, his persona was unattainable–even for Atticus himself. This does not sit well with the world: We like our heroes without flaw, beyond reproach. We seem to forget that heroes are human, and, therefore, fallible.

I am disheartened to learn that Atticus was not whole in his support for African Americans, but I am even more dismayed by society’s need to bring this book to the fore. The elusive and reclusive Harper Lee spent the better part of her life shielding it from public view. For more than half a century, Ms. Lee was content to let To Kill A Mockingbird remain her solitary novel. Speculation has even arisen as to Lee’s current mental and physical state. Thus, for me, the question remains: Was this really her intent? Why would a very private, humble woman finally agree to publish a work that will reshape her entire legacy?

Lee’s perplexing decision reminds me of the mockingbird referenced in her classic.

As Scout recalls:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'”(90).

I can’t help but think of Harper Lee’s voice as the mockingbird in question. For most of her adult life, her solitary novel served to6320407696_c23c605e65_n create music for generations of readers to enjoy. By breathing life into a young Scout and her father, Miss Lee sang her heart out for us.

Yet, we live in a world of insatiable appetites, one where greed trumps integrity, and our desire to know everything denies one’s request for privacy. In so doing, we have killed the mockingbird Lee tried to protect for over 50 years.

Sure, there is a chance that Lee knows exactly what she is doing. That by bringing Watchman to light, she is finally giving a complete, well-rounded perspective of the character. As many of you know, he was modeled after her father. Perhaps Lee wanted to pin down the wings that we have given St. Atticus, and make him more believable, fully developed–a truer reflection of a noble, but flawed, Southern white man of his time.

Now, you may be wondering if I plan on reading the book. I do. Yet, I will do so with a heavier heart. I am already mourning the loss of the man I have thought of often as I parent; the man I aspired to be. Truth is, like many, my sense of indulgence will get the better of me. Unfortunately, I am a product of my environment. I am human.

It turns out Atticus was, too.

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