We could potentially categorize the entire vacation as a metaphoric trip to the zoo. The baby bouncing on the banquette at breakfast, the too numerous to count feedings that transpired throughout each day – breakfast buffet, pool food, afternoon snacks, dinners at the Harbor Restaurant, Convivo, Los Agaves to name a few. Well-fed denizens of this zoo. Languid lounging poolside in the afternoon. African mud baths in the park.
Watching the toddler groom her mother’s hair with a plastic fork, providing unprecedented calm at the dinner table. It’s really hard to keep a two-year-old entertained any more than she herself can do so by running out the door onto the sidewalk and watching Daddy take chase.
We hatched this plan to vacation in Santa Barbara earlier this spring, after deciding that a trip to Hawaii wasn’t in the cards for Nana and Grandpa. As it is, Grandpa occasionally asks Nana “How far are we from home?” To which Nana responds, “Two hours.” This soothes Grandpa considerably. As does watching TRM Show before they retire at night.
Last night Nana and Grandpa J had a rambunctious visit from the toddler and her parents after dinner. Nana displayed how to do a somersault for Skylar, and her parents laughed and laughed at Nana’s decrepitude. Oh, it was more fun than a barrel of monkeys (apropos given the theme of the week). I ask you, when was the last time you had to do a somersault? Stop reading right now and try one. You’ll laugh too. Don’t blame Nana if you end up in traction. Seriously, don’t.
The only tonic was for 29-year-old-father-of-the-toddler (FOTT) to do one himself. Yes, Nana did capture it on the iPhone, but has decided to hold out for a bigger payout to keep it off this blog.
Nana’s Fitbit has been apoplectic this week, constantly whirring on her wrist: Get Up! Go! The unprecedented spans of sleep are really upsetting the little buzzer.
Yesterday it was placated a bit by their actual trip to the Santa Barbara Zoo, a quaint hillside dotted with small exhibits and a lot of parks and activities for kids. After getting our tickets (parking, entrance, attractions, train, small home equity loan) at the gate, we rushed to the top of the park to the Giraffe enclosure where we waited in line with about 50 fourth-grade summer campers for the moment when we would all get to feed the giraffe. Nana forged ahead to the top of the summit, to see what the excitement was about. One very patient but not-yet-sated giraffe stood at the bottom of a V-shaped ramp – the right side holding campers with handfuls of romaine lettuce, the left side their escape made, usually squealing after feeding the bottomless pit giraffe. Meanwhile, Nana’s alternative but equally desperate need was for a power outlet for Grandpa Jimmie’s scooter, which was threatening to die a horrible death. Grandpa Dan located the perfect power outlet, and while we waited for the feeding moment, we charged the scooter. Small gratitudes.
Tree captured in the upper right corner actually looks like many of the childrens’ faces as they waited
Many other feeding opportunities at the zoo yesterday, first the sheep and goats, then the humans.
Today, Nana finally insisted that they rent one of the surreys-with-no-fringe-on-top to pedal along the beach, her handsome FOTT at the helm, her precious grandchild wearing her bright red helmet in the front basket, facing bravely forward as instructed, but turning impishly to flirt with Nana, and to threaten removing her helmet, the strap clenched in her teeth while giggling in a charming but devilish manner. Her beautiful mother (MOTT) sat behind me, peddling, but also catching clothes the toddler threatened to chuck out of the bags in the basket near her. Hilarity ensued.
It wasn’t until we were well on our way that MOTT and I realized that our steering wheels had no impact on the direction we were going. Leave it to Nana to realize this was the case, and yet, to continue “steering” diligently thereafter.
We rode up the beach past Stearns Wharf, looking for the playground where we were meeting Grandpa Dan and Kathy and Cupid, only to discover that we were going the wrong way. So we turned around, again, much hilarity, as FOTT put his foot down to back us up and get us reoriented in the other direction. And off we rode, going past the hotel again, waving at the bicycle rental man gayly, as we headed off around the bend past the zoo itself.
Then the beautiful MOTT pulled out her phone to check our destination and we realized we had passed the park twice without seeing it, and so headed back past the hotel again, going as quietly past the bicycle rental station as possible so he wouldn’t think us the imbeciles we were without even trying to be.
Nana was happy as a clam, her Fitbit racking up the steps, breaking a sweat for the first time this trip.
Recently, my cousin Connie sent me an envelope stuffed with photographs, the one above included, as she had recently done a “big purge.” I so appreciated reviving the memories, with photos of my nuclear family at points along our development. It seemed appropriate to focus this week on my Dad, who remains the anchor to our diminishing nuclear family.
I never write about my Dad, though Jimmie says I should, because he is such an interesting man. I don’t know anyone like him, with his memory for details about people’s lives and fortunes and misfortunes. At 87 he only occasionally grasps for the tendrils of a story, (far less often than I do thirty years his junior), but tells them with such conviction that I believe them whether they are true or not. I suspect they are largely true. They are always colorful and a bit dangerous, like the one below which he shared with my brothers and me via email. I hope he will forgive my sharing here.
August 31, 1999
A Short History of Brass Knuckles, by Donald A. Collins
This “pair” of brass knuckles (why is this single, ominous looking instrument of cast brass referred to as a “pair”?) belonged to Alexander Tichnor Collins, born Louisville, KY in 1873, son of Jeremiah “Jerry” Collins, a minor politician and local water company employee and Sarah Collins, who died when young Alex was under 10. Alex was a latch key kid at 12 (e.g. pretty much on his own, coming and going with his own key to the home of his father and the father’s new wife, the latter being someone with whom he did not get along). He went to work for the Louisville Street Railway Co at 16 and became their paymaster by 18, known because of his young age, Kid Collins. Jerry’s brother, Hubbie Collins, was then a star infielder for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, soon renamed Brooklyn Dodgers, and Alex, partly emulating his uncle Hubbie, became an outstanding semi pro player in Louisville.
The knuckles were part of his paymaster equipment, as Saturday paydays could be occasions for trouble. The story most told by my father about Alex, my grandfather, whom I called “Buddy” was about a payday when a robber came into the street railway car used as a payroll car, with windows blocked out and the payor, Alex, sitting at one end, with his bodyguard. The man threatened Alex with a weapon, either gun or knife, but when he got to the desk, the guard took out his Bowie knife, stepped close into the robber and slit the intruder from stomach through breast bone. The guard left town quickly and no charges were pursued in the incident. Justice was a bit quicker in those days.
I was given two of Hubbie’s bats and leather bat case inscribed with his name by my grandfather. In the early days of baseball, the bats were shaped like bottles, not the slim handled beauties of today. Reason: The balls then had less bounce and a solid hit was needed to get the ball going. Hubbie was known for his solid line drives and his base stealing. His club record for runs scored in a single season for the Dodgers in 1991 (148) I believe still stands. Unfortunately, his bats and case were lost in a fire that swept my room and almost burned down our house after a lightening strike on June 1, 1950 in Greensburg.
Hubbie’s lifetime batting average was in the 280s. His team won 2 pennants while he lived. He died of scarlet fever at 26 in 1893 after only 8 professional seasons. His stats are in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When Buddy married Irene Shupe of Mt. Pleasant, PA, the daughter of one of the town’s leading citizens, after a whirlwind 10 day courtship, the newly weds went to her home town where Alex became manager of the Oliver P. Shupe Flour Mill, owned by his father in law. Shortly, two sons arrived, my dad, Oliver Shupe Collins (1901), and Alexander T. Collins, Jr. (1909).
Alex, a handsome, personable man with a good sense of humor and an ability to speak in public, was twice elected Burgess (e.g. Mayor) of Mt. Pleasant, then a booming mining town and coking center, where 99 open, polluting coke ovens burned constantly, making huge illuminations against the night sky. Having 100 ovens together incurred a special tax, something their clever owner, the famous H.C. Frick, avoided.
There as in Louisville the Saturday night miners could get a bit drunk and Alex often carried a small “blue” steel pistol for protection as his life was threatened several times by the celebrants who ended in jails overnight. Alex sold the mill in 1942 during WWII, having earlier moved his family to Greensburg, the county seat of Westmoreland County, as he was elected County Treasurer twice, beginning in 1936. He retired just as WWII began, hastened perhaps by the premature death in 1941 of his beloved wife of uterine cancer mis-diagnosed by a local quack.
During WWII, my Buddy and I got very close; he was bored and we would go to the movies often and sit in the front row. Or play gin rummy for hours in my house or that of his other son where he had an apartment. Often in the Summer, he would drive me to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play at Forbes Field, some 30 miles distant. I became an avid baseball fan, despite the fact that the team in those years had weak ownership and players were even worse than most of those sad wartime teams. After WWII, I went off to college and he continued to live with his younger son, AT Collins and his wife Sarah Steel Collins until shortly before his death in 1958. However, the brass knuckles, which I now use as a paper weight on my desk, and those bottle bats, though long gone, remind me of my Buddy often.
The occasion above was my Dad’s 87th birthday and his most recent trip to Los Angeles to visit with us. He’s always been good about journeying to see us, even from the days of Jimmie’s and my early marriage, when we were ensconced in the Magic Castle Hotel during the run of The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Theatre in Hollywood in 1985. Initially quite skeptical of our relationship and the difference in our ages, he has come to appreciate my husband as “the older brother I’ve never had.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more generous man than my father, both financially and with sharing his opinions, which he does on almost a daily basis through essay writing. Generally, he and I don’t see eye to eye on many of the topics about which he writes, but he continues to write and enjoys it.
The photos that Connie sent tell the story of our happy childhood, much of the summer days spent in the pool behind my mom’s parents’ house in northeastern PA.
This photo captures us frozen in time, me age 7, Larry to my right, age 9, and Don to my left, age 11. Dad would have been a young father of three at 34. He and my mom had just finished building their home in southwestern Pennsylvania, at the base of the hill where my dad’s parents lived. The young plants around the door are just a fraction of the massive planting spree we did over the next five years or so, on our 1/2 acre plot.
When we were home, we had his parents hosting Sunday suppers on the screened in porch up on the hill, and probably about every month or so, we’d head to Wilkes-Barre to visit mom’s parents and her sister’s family who lived nearby.
I’ve learned so many things from my father. That hard work and building relationships are critical to one’s success. He taught us about the value of money and the relationship of money to work, paying us a penny per fly for swatting flies in the summer, and a dollar for every A we brought home on our report cards. You might now call that bribery, but it was motivating, at least until they bought a bug zapper for the back porch. He was a fierce disciplinarian. I won’t soon forget the moment when he discovered a pack of cigarettes under my bed when I was about 14. Or when I lied about pulling and breaking the light cord in the basement during a squeal-inducing game of tag with the Latchaw children. I also won’t ever forget how he and my mother shaped my future by giving me the educational opportunities that I had.
As an adult, he has taught me about getting my affairs in order, living with integrity, how to pick up the check at dinner, and how to speak truth to power. I can’t imagine feeling more appreciated as a daughter. Though he lives across the country, we have a standing date every Saturday or Sunday morning to chat via FaceTime. I wish we could see each other more often in person, but this works really well as a substitute.
Recently he underwent a knee replacement which is no small feat at 87. We were all relieved it went so well. I’ve seen way too much of the progress of healing (I tend toward queasiness whenever blood or stitches is involved). But I hope he’ll soon be able to get back to the golf course and do his 9 holes daily. This, too, he’s schooled us on: the value of daily exercise and good eating.
So, on the occasion of Father’s Day, thank you, Dad, for all you’ve done to make our lives so rich. Here’s to many more!
Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.
My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.
What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.
I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs to
the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?
In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.
My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.
We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.
Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.
I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”
I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.
This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.
I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:
Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then. Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.
As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.
When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”
W & M have known each other for ever. From back in DC where they worked as interns for some Capitol Hill pols, carrying their bosses’ lunches back to the office, purses over their arms, chattering like magpies.
WAIT! Did you say magpie? Where?
No, W & M, it’s a figure of speech. Let me tell the good people the story.
Last weekend, I was assigned the job of checking in on W & M while their parents were away. I think it’s a wedding – unclear. But W & M live in two cozy apartments near our downtown cozy apartment, and we know the “checking-in-on-the-kids-while-the-parents- are-away-for-the-week” deal. At one point, our policy was to only leave a live person in situ so that things didn’t get out of hand. So I’m an old pro at this. I went to check out the lay of the land on Sunday.
Food. Check. Really, they only eat kibble?
K-litter. Check. No scoop?
It’s okay – shakeable tray.
Moms and Dads left last night. So I went to check on the girls after work this afternoon. I opened the door, catching W with the game remote in her paws, cigarette hanging lazily out of mouth, Ark: Survivor Evolved blaring away on the TV. She was busy fighting T-Rex when I opened the door. She dropped the remote like a hot potato, cigarette falling perilously to the floor. I ran across the room and stomped it out, tried to look stern, but she was so nonchalant I didn’t know quite how to handle it. I was completely dumbstruck. Then she dropped to the table like she’d been doing her nails.
You know how tough it is to yell at someone else’s kids, so I just went on checking her food and water, then grabbed the fascinator (I know it’s not really called that, but its such a great descriptor and so current) just to let her know that I wasn’t mad. After all, I don’t set the house rules, her parents do.
I bid W farewell and made my way down to M’s apartment. I am pretty sure W had called her about my coming because by the time I got to the door, M was wailing. I mean on the guitar in the living room. She was wailing. Sounds came out of that guitar like you’ve never heard. I mean I knew she was good. W’s parents had told me, but I had no idea.
I put the key in the door and turned the knob only to find M sitting demurely by the door, no guitar in paw, looking up at me with ennui. Which is hard for a cat to master. Usually they have the imperious thing down, but ennui is a real affect that they have to master. Ennui, that is, until she realized I was her meal ticket. Then the caterwauling started for real and she wrapped herself around my legs.
I scooped her food and filled her bowl and backed away.
What can I tell you? I know they were both up to something before I got there and then when I arrived, almost all evidence was gone. I’ll have to wait and see what other shenanigans they pull the rest of the week. I bet it will be good. Kids always misbehave when their parents are away.
For now, you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that W & M are living the high life.
I always find myself a twinge sad on Mother’s Day. In recent years, I’ve always attributed it to missing my mom, who passed away when I was thirty-six and she a mere sixty-five in the volcanic aftermath of her voluptuous love affair with cigarettes.
My mother was a force of nature. This might surprise anyone who knew the ladylike self-effacing woman she presented to the world, but my brothers and I know her fierce tenacity in all things she did throughout her life. For the first 20 years, she was a loving daughter and sister, growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in coal country. The next twenty shaped her as a Mom, as she married my father straight out of Wellesley, foregoing a possible career in something that remains unclear to this day. My dad tells the story about how he hitched a ride back to the naval base in Boston after visiting Mom, a senior at Wellesley. He got into the car with one of her professors who went on and on about Shirley’s aptitudes as a student, and became forlorn to learn she would be marrying and not carrying on in some pursuit of the mind.
But she did. She threw herself into mothering; both she and my Dad engendered in all of us a love of learning, of reading, of love of the arts, exposing us to frequent museum outings and a hard work ethic and love of our family.
The penultimate chapter detailed her return to the life of the mind, after her divorce, returning to the work force, a short lived application of her library science degree in an actual library at Wilkes College, followed by the insane application at nearly fifty to the Columbia School of Journalism. She completed that program, and began her subsequent life as a journalist in Bethlehem and Palmerton, PA.
The final chapter was underscored by her tragic demise from lung cancer. The last year or so was predictably sad, and no matter how many good times we had, the residue of the hospice days remains always for me a sober reminder of our obsolescence as humans.
Cut to my own motherhood. Twenty-five years ago, Jimmie and I adopted a toddler through the LA Department of Children’s’ Services. Born in Los Angeles, the fost-adopt toddler came from a medically challenged scenario; he had been born to a young mother, who had been unable to care for him. In addition, there were maternal grandparents were unable to raise him.
Chris was prenatally exposed to drugs. He had an older sibling, born to the same mother. His father was no longer alive, according to what we were told; the exact details were unclear.
The adoption worker explained the upcoming process to us:
1) We would undergo the home study and they would check our home to make sure we would be safe fost-adopt parents.
2) We were not allowed to meet Chris unless we agreed up front to accept him. They described this as protecting the child, which was, understandably, their first priority. We agreed.
3) Through the next year or so, the process to “free” Chris of parental rights would happen and then the adoption could go ahead. I remember being worried all through that first year that his birth mother would be in the courtroom on the day when we were going to complete the adoption – all of which could happen, according to the DoCS.
4) I did a lot of research at the library about pre-natal drug exposure and the sorts of things we could expect in terms of learning delays, behavioral issues, etc. The court offered Chris nine months of rehabilitation through the CHIME program at UC Northridge, where he attended classes once a week and spent time with other children who were receiving state-funded learning remediation. Chris’ vocabulary was extremely limited when he came to us. He had only eleven words. Jeep was his name for anything with four wheels; doggie, ball. He added cat shortly after coming to live with us. He had been in a foster-adopt home in Santa Clarita with an older child who was mute and communicated with sign language. Chris would bang the tips of his fingers together to signify his wish for a bottle. Within about a month in our highly verbal home, his vocabulary had expanded to 50 words. Chris was such a social child that he also thrived at the CHIME program.
Our adoption worker kept in touch with us with home visits to see how Chris was adjusting to our lives together. She continued to warn us that if his birth mother got back in touch and challenged her parental rights, we could lose Chris.
I am sorry to say that her absence was a gift to us. My husband and I were so enthralled with our “son,” though the adoption was not finalized for more than a year.
The day we went to the Children’s Court to finalize the adoption, I looked around the courtroom to see if his birth mother was there. The judge asked if anyone had any reason for this adoption to not move forward; I held my breath, but no one spoke up, and Chris became our son.
We took a picture of the judge with Chris sitting on his lap in the courtroom. The picture has faded to a funky green and orange tint with the passage of time, and Chris has a frown on his face in sharp contrast to the broad smiles on Jimmie’s and mine.
Fast forward to 2015, a Friday afternoon late in March, when, as is the case for many major disclosures from Chris, I received a text message that said simply:
C: I think I just found my birth mother and we just talked.
Whoa. It was a staggering revelation, and the details are his to tell. We shared back and forth extensively the details of his discovery. We were alternately thrilled and terrified. In the days immediately following their online reunion, I thought about all the information she shared immediately with him, and was shocked at how frank she had been. Chris remarked more than once since then how candid she has been with him and how much “like him” that is. And he’s right – he is very candid and so, obviously, is she. Thank goodness. There are so many ways that an adopted child’s finding his or her birth mother can go. She was not only ready to hear from him, but also let him know that she had tried to find him.
The whole thing happened so fast that I felt more than a little overwhelmed by the process. This digitally accessible world made the following inevitable: within a few hours, his mother had posted on FB that she had found her son, followed by her other child, Chris’ half sister, posting that she had found her brother who had been “lost to the system.” As the “system” to which Chris was “lost,” I initially took gross offense to that statement, as I’m sure she may take offense from my description of the details at the time of Chris’s placement with us.
It is offensive because it is, of course, only half of the story. There is so much we don’t know about each other, and of course, we have all made assumptions. The story is important and I hope that we can tell it together with candor and compassion.
A few nights after they reconnected, I received several pictures from Chris’ birth mother via FB Messenger, pictures of her grown child and her grandchild, and a few pictures of herself as a baby. In addition, she asked to be friends on FB. I was nervous that she wanted to be a part of our lives, too, but I understand the inevitable hunger from 25 years of separation. While she didn’t say it, I think she wanted me to reciprocate with pictures of Chris as a little boy growing up.
In 1991, as Jimmie and I got ready to welcome a foster child into our home, they asked us to prepare a picture book of pictures of our family that could be shared with Chris so he could “meet his future family”. We included pictures of the two of us, lounging on the grass at our first home in North Hollywood, and pictures of our many pets then – we had three cats and two dogs. We included some pictures of my parents and Jimmie’s parents. They were, of course, at that time, photos that we pulled from photo albums, some of them taken around that time. Excitedly, we drove to the drug store to drop off for processing, then back to pick them up, slipping them between the plastic sleeves of the small 4 x 6 photo book I had purchased for this precious gift for our new child. Not many of us use photo albums any more. We trust our computers and the mysterious “cloud” to store our precious family heirlooms – I worry sometimes that a simple loss of electricity or connectivity could obliterate lifetimes of images for future generations.
That first Sunday night, when I received those few digital photos shared by Chris’ birth mother, it felt almost like the same exercise Jimmie and I had gone through so many years ago– she was preparing us for receiving the new members of our family. And I was, on Sunday, not ready to receive them, or her into our lives.
The social welfare system is complicated. I don’t remember now when all the details about Chris’ birth parents were shared with us, but I think it was sometime after we had fallen in love with our little boy. Which happened immediately. From the minute when the door opened at the foster home in Santa Clarita, and we saw his two foot high body with a mop of black curls and a little pony tail, that 300 watt smile, and his enthusiastic embrace of life, it was over for us. We were completely smitten. There is probably very little information they could have shared with us at that point that would have dissuaded us from loving him. The little information we did receive came months later during the process of “freeing” him from his birth parents.
Even now, three years after Chris found his other mother, the psychological tsunami is strong. I appreciate every day that a hole within Chris’ heart that has been filled by finding his birth mother. The fact that he hasn’t known about where he came from was always clearly a painful gap in his life which he has always shared frankly with us, not to be hurtful at all, but to let us know it has been missing. Shel Silverstein, “The Missing Piece,” was one of Chris’ favorite books when he was young.
And Chris has found not only his birth mother, but his birth sister, and her children as well. They met shortly after his discovery, and then he met his birth mom. Life is rich and full of surprises and I am thrilled that we know more about his roots. Especially now that he’s a father.
So here are a few photos from the journey together up until today. Because we are all only the mothers that our children allow us to be.
It’s traumatic to lose your gym after four years of an established routine of working out. Instructors I loved, a block from home, face it, I was spoiled. I could pour out of bed at 5:30 and saddle up by 6:15 with a cup of milky tea in the left bottle holder, and a water bottle in the right.
I had a community of friends who I worked out with. I didn’t know them well, but I knew them by name, I knew their individual gym strengths and habits. We all had our specific bikes that we headed for, mine in the way back left side of the studio, no matter if it was a small class, I still liked the bike closest to the window, behind the open doors, for air and people watching. Sophie and Christina rode the bikes in the front row, one or two to the right of the instructor. Lynn, who came on Saturday mornings and did the spin portion of the class, spun her heart out on the bike in front of me, sporting Canadian t-shirts and a sporty cap with the bill pointed up like she was riding in the Grand Prix. André, who always put his cycling shoes on in the lobby, chatting amiably with the instructors, and Xin, who always took the bike to his left, and who’s delicate tattoo I admired as much as her pace on the sprints. Gordana who had her coffee cup, which she stowed in the cubbies during yoga and returned to after putting us all to shame with her yogic prowess.
Sophie, Brian and I formed a team for the marathon ride last June, were we rode pretty much non-stop for three hours to raise money for a Cancer association. Sophie occasionally brought her adorable daughter, Charlotte, to Saturday morning classes, where she would sit and quietly play with her ipad, then move to her yoga mat with enviable flexibility, giggling throughout the class. It was charming.
On Saturdays, I ceded my left window seat to wise, intrepid Ellen, with whom I could discuss our latest theatre samplings, and who finally convinced me to go to the Pageant of the Masters for the first time since we moved to LA in 1986. I miss her wry sense of humor as we groaned together on adjacent mats in the Yoga room, the two elder stateswomen of the classes. The last Saturday, as a moving truck jockied around on the street outside for fifteen minutes before pulling away, I joked.
Maybe it’s the repo man coming for the bikes.
Since the abrupt closure of our gym, I’ve been reminded of how much my exercise dollars are in demand, and through the ClassPass App, I’m discovering various workouts in the DTLA area. Last Saturday, I took a demo class at Club Pilates DTLA followed up with two more classes this week that left every muscle in my body aching, but with a renewed sense of excitement about the forced change-up this closure has necessitated. And face it, I’ve reached the Pilates phase of my life, right? I’ve always associated it with women in their 50s though again, I was the oldest one there. Anything that involves equipment with the quaint moniker of “The Reformer” is surely something a grandmother needs.
This morning, I worked out at SpeedPlay DTLA, an interval training gym where, for 60 minutes, we did a series of nine-minute workouts on a rowing machine, floor work, and treadmill. The instructor, Jenny, asked the three of us if there were any injuries she needed to be aware of before we started.
Yeah, I’m old. My body doesn’t work as well as it used to.
And walking back home with Sophie and Christina, it was all I could do to stay vertical. But really, all this chatter about exercise is just the entree to the real Reformer of my holiday season. She stands about 2.5′ tall, and has a will of steel. To draw a parallel with the Pilates Reformer, she’s two reds and a green. Don’t get me wrong. I love the stretch and endless entertainment she provides. Spending time with our granddaughter reminds us of the rigors of parenting. I am so impressed with her parents’ unflappability and good humor. Toddlers are mercurial creatures. There’s really no way of knowing where they’re going from moment to moment. Everything is a process of discovery and learning. My Reformer is learning the ABC song, for example, which she sings with intent focus and a little lack of clarity in the EFG section. Her intervals are fast, as I learned after chasing her in her socks across the gritty soil near the Natural History Museum outdoor café, with dozens of parents and grandparents watching as I grabbed the back of her shirt and she went down face first in the gravel, bursting into angry tears. Good one, Nana.
On the flip side, she has an unwavering sense of wonder that only seeing things for the very first time in your life can induce, and the ripple effect of that wonder is a delight to all around her.
Having a spirited toddler in the house is a reminder that life is unpredictable and we must stay flexible in our approach to new challenges. Like the moment when her parents slipped out to get some sushi while we were eating the delicious-if-I-do-say-so mac and cheese I’d made. Like heat lightning followed by a midwestern summer storm, her face collapsed, melting from noodle concentration to an instantaneous and very audible obsession with the loss of parental security. She wedged her tiny body in the corner by the door and wailed for the next 6 hours. Okay. I’m exaggerating. At least if felt like that. I finally resorted to 52-card pick up to distract her, after trying numerous other approaches. Nothing but seeing Nana lose control of those cards over and over and over and over and over again would console her. Later, when we were getting ready for bed, putting her PJs on, her parents slipped back in. I wish I had a picture of her face at the moment when she realized they were home again – the relief, joy, love that swept over her features and made her body wriggle was intense and palpable. There’s nothing like the immediacy of emotions in a toddler to remind us of the journey through life.
Later that night, after she declared “I’m hungy” and I went to get the noodles back out, she sat in her booster chair, and we chatted. The conversation went something like this:
Nana: Hey, Skylar, you were really crying earlier.
Skylar: I was cying.
Nana: I have an idea! Next time we get to spend some time together, let’s skip that part, okay?
Skylar: seriously nodding
I know we won’t be able to skip that part for some time. But it’s nice to know that My Reformer stretches me in ways that I haven’t been stretched for some time.
Earlier this week, Jimmie and I attended Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It’s the first time we’ve been to the theatre together since we went to see Punk Rock at SDA almost a month ago. In all truth, we hadn’t been planning on attending the theatre again together not because we loathe the theatre or spending time together, but because the Circumstantial ROI of our theatre outings has become negligible for Jimmie. You can read here about our last Broadway Adventure.
The schlepp to the theatre is fine. We enjoy each other’s company and it’s nice to get out and see our adopted city’s sights traffic periodically. Assembling and disassembling Jimmie’s magical scooter is fairly automatic – no waving of the wand (that would be welcome technology, please), but it’s manageable. The logistics are surmountable. But when you can’t hear the play, what’s the point of surmounting the logistics?
Once we get to the theatre, sure, I have a moment of terror when Jimmie heads into the men’s room and I lurk by the door, craning to hear a thump and to ensure that no one takes his scooter for a joy ride. Other onlookers frequently are kind and offer an arm to walk him in and out of the men’s room. But I still look like some kind of perv, which is awkward.
Last night as I lurked before heading into see the show, I got a text from one of my friends from the spin gym where I have been a member for about four years. I had missed the email from the founder of the gym, which was entitled “Heartbreaking News…” In the brief email, she spelled out her reasons for the upcoming abrupt closure of the gym – on November 22nd. My phone lit up with other messages from friends I’ve met and gotten to know at the gym. I was completely distracted throughout the time leading up to the show, and immediately afterwards, restored my phone to see more communal wailing about the closure.
The power of words.
Since I wrote the last two posts, I’ve discovered people’s hunger to discuss and share the issue of giving care to our loved ones. A half dozen people have approached me to share their own stories, proving that we humans have a lot going on in our lives that isn’t necessarily visible in our daily comings and goings. Many people are shouldering their responsibilities at work while also carrying untold pounds of personal grief or struggle at home. And we don’t talk about it in any kind of direct way. We hide it as though it’s something to be ashamed of when it’s not. It’s just completely a part of our lives. We carry it because we want to, or in some cases, we need to or have to.
Tuesday, Jimmie and I visited the doctor after he experienced drainage difficulties in the morning, which I was able to help him solve with some of the medical equipment I had left over from over a year before. Note to self. However much you relish the idea of a personal bonfire to eliminate the traces of your medical mishigas, you should resist. By saving two boxes of single use catheters, I saved us a trip to the ER and missing a lecture. And yes, I know you were all asking yourselves,
What was she a girl scout or something?
Just as you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself in medical equipment armament, don’t Konmari yourselves into an ER visit as your situation changes.
Our visit to the doctor was late in the day. When we came in, he was in a hurry, and unfortunately hurry isn’t in our repertoire anymore. Jimmie inadvertently scooted into the wrong room requiring me to use my air traffic controller batons to steer him into the correct one, where the doctor did a quick ultrasound. As Jimmie stood to get dressed again, his back was facing the doctor when I asked him about the biopsy results.
The doctor, lowering his voice, quietly said,
Oh, They didn’t tell you? There’s aggressive cancer in the prostate.
I looked at him, incredulous. Did who tell us? This was his surgeon speaking. Also, I couldn’t believe that he was trying to tell me this without including Jimmie, who is extremely hard of hearing and facing the window while he pulled up his pants. My bossy sister emerged.
Oh, no. You need to tell him this directly.
And in my loud, most comely voice, said to Jimmie.
Jimmie, you need to turn around. The doctor has something important to tell you.
Jimmie turned and the doctor delivered the news. Again, he was still in a hurry, not that he was being unkind or elusive, but this was his last appointment before heading over to the adjacent hospital, and the details were brief.
Aggressive prostate cancer. Hormone therapy.
The power of words. When Jimmie stood up from the table, he caught his leg on something sharp, and as I hurried to help him with his pants, the doctor and I both watched as two small blooms of blood developed on the back of his khakis. He quickly applied gauze and tape, and then Jimmie and I executed the extraction of the scooter from the office. Everything else about the exit from the office is fuzzy. I can’t speak for Jimmie, but I was in an emotional blackout.
The next twenty-four hours moved in a blur. We decided to go to Spamilton to take our minds off the unknown.
The follow up appointment with his GP two days later calmed us down. He confirmed that the entire tumor board of the hospital had reviewed Jimmie’s case and were unanimous in the treatment plan. Somehow hearing that was a comfort. Prostate cancer is slow moving.
Heartbreaking news…Aggressive Prostate Cancer. These word combinations are tough to read but it is our reactions that are our own to manage.
In the case of the closure of my gym, the truly heartbreaking news was that I had already paid for my 2018 membership and have yet to hear back from the management about a refund. If I am honest with myself, I had been thinking that I needed to change up my workout plan. Spinning, as good as it is for cardio, is boring. I’d been thinking I’d like to try pilates, or something else. So barring legal issues getting my membership fee back, while the news is heartbreaking for all the spin instructors at the gym and for the convenience of having my gym within 400 paces of my front door, these words can be managed.
In the case of Jimmie’s cancer, we will move forward with treatment, and take it a day at a time. Lord knows we are practiced in that. And we even have more theatre outings in our future. Last night we attended, heard and enjoyed Circle Mirror Transformation to see the MFA Y2 Actors in the Scene Dock Theatre. Tonight Eurydice is on the ticket.
This morning I got a text with some photos from Chris.
A bear broke into my truck last night
Now that’s heartbreaking. Especially given how much the truck has meant to Chris. But that’s why we have insurance.
I’m grateful to be blessed with all the things we have. Good enough health to be able to attend a gym on a regular basis. Good enough medical care to help us through this crisis that Jimmie is experiencing. Lots of loving support from family and friends as we go through this ordeal. Good enough auto insurance to repair Chris’ truck. All of it is surmountable. As Chris texted me this morning, “This too shall pass.”
Heartbreaking News…Aggressive Prostate Cancer…Bear in the Truck. The power of words do not render us powerless.
And in the meantime, it seems fitting that Thanksgiving is right around the corner.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, I’m frustrated by the tributes and accolades, not because she doesn’t deserve them, but because her passing eclipsed the death of my own mother one day earlier on August 30, 1997. Continue reading “Our Mother’s Legacy”
Jimmie has spent his fair share of time in parks. Years ago, when our son was between the ages of about two to ten, Jimmie took him to various parks around the San Fernando Valley. When we lived in North Hollywood, they headed east to parks in Burbank, and occasionally to the North Hollywood Park. When he was seven, our move to Van Nuys moved us closer to a park in Studio City, where parents who didn’t work 9 to 5 gathered with their kids. They were friendly adults with diverse interests with whom we wiled away the hours on the bench: musicians, stay-at-home Moms and Dads, unemployed actors and stage managers with call times after dinner. Okay, so I was the only stage manager. Our camaraderie was mandated by our kids’ fickle friendships. The summer days drifted by, punctuated by frequent trips to the ice cream truck and the parks’ recreation office. We came and went according to the napping or eating needs of our children.
I remember more than once miss-timing those needs and carrying our squirming squalling four-year-old son under my arm back to the car, while waving jovially over my shoulder to the other parents. The benches were hard concrete, but it didn’t deter us; Jimmie took two daily two-hour sessions at the park. Sometimes when Chris was older, they’d ride to the park on their bicycles – Jimmie, seventy, Chris, seven.
Jimmie used his time in the park productively, working on writing his memoir, or tossing around a baseball with Chris, sometimes visiting with our friend Jason, who’d walk over from his house on nearby Teesdale Avenue. Park denizens in the 1990s had few distractions. No one took endless Instagram pictures of their children, or checked email, texted, or tweeted. Cell phones weren’t really a thing yet. We spent a lot of time reading books and magazines on the bench, doing the crossword puzzle while glancing up periodically to make sure no one had died.
And then, almost as abruptly as our park adventures had begun, Chris outgrew the park, and we no longer went.
Fast forward twenty-four years. Chris now goes on outdoor adventures with his wife and baby, camping and hiking in Northern California. And we are city dwellers, amidst an ever-increasing forest of high rises in downtown Los Angeles.
But there’s still a park next door, with a playground lousy with climbing apparatuses and slides, nestled on a cushiony surface that allows young children to fall and jump without damaging their ankles, or skinning their knees.
More relevant to us now, though, are the many benches scattered around the park. Jimmie has his favorite he likes to head to when he goes to the park. His visits are, as in the old days, daily, but only once a day, in the afternoon. He rides his scooter over to his bench, near the south end of the park, positioned at a busy corner good for both people-watching and viewing the changing northern facing skyline. On the rare and very happy occasion where I can join him for a park visit, he narrates about the regulars habitués of the park. To our left, the seventy-year-old Korean couple who come to the park every afternoon; he precedes her, always carrying his newspaper. They enter the park from the south west. He’s better dressed than she, who wears the same park outfit most days. For the longest time she wore black slacks and an oversized orange checked flannel top. Recently she has changed into a beige top. He sports a natty powder-blue track suit, the jacket zipped up. He likes the shade and she prefers the sun, so they sit on separate benches. They don’t talk to each other much while they’re in the park. He’s a voracious reader; when finished with the paper, he frequently pulls out a Kindle and reads that. She goes through a series of exercises, meanwhile adjusting her slacks at the waist, rolling her shoulders forward and back. Usually after about a half hour, she’ll stand up and leave the park, leaving her husband on his bench without a backward glance. Jimmie and the man have never spoken to each other beyond the one time when Jimmie said “hello” on his way to his bench. Their benches sit opposite faces of a small lawn measuring about 20′ square, Jimmie’s on the south side, and his on the west.
I always marvel when I visit Jimmie there at how sacred the regulars’ spots are. No one ever sits on Jimmie’s bench, and rarely have I seen anyone other than the Korean couple on theirs.
When I got home for dinner today, Jimmie said eagerly,
Something interesting happened at the park today.
He’d entered the park as usual, from the north west, gliding on his scooter under the mosaic clock tower and scooting south parallel to FIDM. Halfway to his bench, he stopped short, chagrined to see a stranger had commandeered his bench. Quickly, he reconnoitered, pointing his scooter due east toward one of the benches under the shade of a bougainvillea-cloaked pergola. He parked, got off the scooter, and sat on the bench looking back across at his own regular bench, keeping his eyes on the man on his bench and willing him to get tired and leave. But the man, in his forties, casually dressed, looked settled in and content there, sitting and taking in the park. Across the grass, sat the Korean man; his wife had apparently already left.
Suddenly, Jimmie noticed the Korean gentleman purposefully walking over toward Jimmie’s usual bench. He began to talk animatedly to the man sitting there, occasionally looking over his left shoulder at Jimmie indicating to the man that he was talking about Jimmie.
Jimmie could tell from the distance that he was asking the man to move to the adjacent bench. The man didn’t argue at all, but looked a little surprised to have been asked. The Korean man then turned to Jimmie and raising his arm triumphantly, he vigorously beckoned Jimmie back over to his bench. Jimmie stood, getting on his scooter again. Seeing that Jimmie was coming, the Korean man turned and walked back to his own bench. Jimmie smiled as he drove to his bench,
Thanks! You got my bench back!
As Jimmie told me the story at dinner tonight, he giggled, delighted by the unexpected kindness of the man. We laughed about the narration that he and his wife must have about us, and what he must have said to make the man change places to the other bench. And what might have happened had the interloper not been as charitable himself. I was happy that Jimmie’s made a new friend at the park. I told him he needs to take the man a present tomorrow. Perhaps he could share his New York Times with him.
Last week, we took our granddaughter to the park when they were visiting, and while there, observed the comings and goings of other young children and their parents.
But some my favorite interactions are happening in the sixty-and-over-set on the south side of South Park.
Saturday morning, Chris’s friend and boss, Michael and his wife Stephanie asked us to breakfast with Chris at their house. We gratefully accepted, appreciating all that Michael has done to support Chris’ growth as a hockey coach. We were also grateful to have some alone time with Chris – the week had gotten increasingly busier, as more and more friends and family came into town, and our face time with Chris and Whitney was diminishing daily.
After breakfast, Chris went and picked up Skylar and brought her to us to watch while they dressed and went to take some wedding photos. We managed to amuse each other for a few hours when Nana got goofy with the dog guitar. Then Skylar napped for a few minutes. Those were my main instructions from Chris.
It was during this shared siesta that I slipped out from under S’s head, and into my dress and then woke Jimmie and told him he had to get dressed, too. Then we packed up the Ford Expedition AKA “The Tank” for the wedding trip up the mountain.
Jimmie’s Scooter and Oxygen with its charger
12 Flower arrangements (in two very soggy cardboard boxes)
Skylar’s car seat
With Skylar on my hip, and Jimmie holding onto my arm, we made our way out of the condo and into the Tank. Air conditioning blasting, we climbed the hill to the tram. Once there, we found many helpful hands to carry the flowers to the tram. Up the mountain we went, full of anticipation and excitement. Chris’ hockey videographers and the two wedding photographers, Amy and Heidi, rode up in the tram with us.
The ceremony was beautiful. Jimmie watched from the balcony above. We processed, Chris and I, dropping me off in the front row, as he continued to the front. Next came Justin and Sammy, taking their places to the right and left of the officiate, David Coburn. Next came the adorable flower girls. In an emotional coda, one of the flower girls was the daughter of Jimmie’s niece, Jen, who had at age ten, been the flower girl at our wedding. The two girls got to the end of the aisle and then remembered their task, flinging the petals with abandon. It was charming. Next came Kai, bearer of the two rings, which he gave to Sammy and Justin after a discreet cue from Sammy.
Places, please! (I actually said that)
Whitney and her Dad.
Jimmie from his aerie
And finally, Whitney and her dad descended the stairs, both smiling and looking so relaxed and happy.
The ceremony was beautiful – very emotional. David guided Chris and Whitney through the vows and aside from a premature kiss (again, charming), all went perfectly. They were hitched! Then the party began. It was joyous and all the various branches of the family and friends intermingled and got to know each other better. The food was yummy and toasts were given by the parents of the bride and groom, and Justin and Sammy. They were all so different and so moving in their own ways. I couldn’t stop grinning all night. It was that kind of evening.
Mitchell, Bob and Jimmie
Renie and Paul
So glad to sit down!
So that’s what we’ve been doing for the week.
Sunday we basked in the afterglow of the wedding with two breakfasts: the 8:00AM Collins family breakfast,
and then a second seating at 11:15 with Chris and Whitney and Skylar, and additional family and friends. That evening, after most people had left to go home, many of Jimmie’s relatives remained to bring us dinner at our condo, after which, we sat on the beach and watched the spectacular sunset. It was a lovely conclusion to the week’s events.
We’re back in LA now, after only an 8 1/2 hour drive on Monday. As we were cresting the hill into Santa Clarita via the 14 Freeway, Siri asked me if we wanted to save a few minutes, then took us twenty-five very twisty miles across the spine of the Angeles Crest Highway to Glendale before wending our way down to downtown. I think she thought we wouldn’t want to leave the wilderness yet. She was right. I’m sorry to leave the Wedding Trail.