Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Happy hauntings

Ghosts have always been a part of my family's storytelling repertoire. My father loved them. His father and grandfather loved them. And we kids heard all of these stories whether we wanted to or not. There was no escaping them. I knew about the creature that followed my uncle home one night in upstate New York. I knew about the ghost in the attic of my grandparents' house that scared me away when I wasn't even walking yet. I knew about the man my father heard walking back and forth in the living room of that same house. I'm sure our family obsession with ghosts is due in no small part to all the Scottish blood in us. When my father was dying, he saw many, many more people in the house than the rest of us did.

When I was in middle school, I was home alone one afternoon, doing my homework, when I distinctly heard an old woman calling my name. I got up to go see her, assuming my grandmother was visiting us for the day, but no one was there.

My younger sister has seen them many times: the woman in black at her second-story window, the same woman standing at the foot of her bed when she would wake up during the night. Sarah says she's never felt threatened, so she's never been afraid. Me? Hearing someone that wasn't really there call my name was more than enough. I've since explained many times to the Powers That Be that I have no interest in after-hours--or after-life--visitors.

But that doesn't mean they don't fascinate me.

Owen, my 10-year-old, is fascinated with them as well, although he's also quite frightened of them still. My house is not haunted, but Owen won't go to the basement alone or even upstairs alone once night falls. When he was in preschool, he would spend his outdoor recess time with his girlfriends making up ghost stories. And he would run from the room if I tried singing one of my favorite creepy songs to them: With Her Head Tucked underneath Her Arm:

In the tower of London, large as life, the ghost of Anne Bolyn walks they declare.
Poor Anne Bolyn was once King Henry's wife until he made the headsman bob her hair.
Ah, yes, he did her wrong long years ago and she comes up at night to tell him so,

With her head tucked underneath her arm she walks the bloody tower,
With her head tucked underneath her arm at the midnight hour.

She comes to haunt King Henry. She means giving him what for.
Gadzooks, she's going to tell him off. She's feeling very sore,
And just in case the headsman wants to give her an encore,
She has her head tucked underneath her arm.


The sentries think that it's a football that she carries in
And when they had a few they shout, Is Army going to win?
They think that it's Red Grange instead of poor old Ann Bolyn
With her head tucked underneath her arm.

Sometimes gay King Henry gives a spread for all his pals and gals and ghostly crew.
The headsman craves the joint and cuts the bread then in comes Anne Bolyn to queer the do.
She holds her head up with a wild war whoop and Henry cries, Don't drop it in the soup!


One night she caught King Henry, he was in the canteen bar.
Said he, Are you Jane Seymour, Anne Bolyn, or Katherine Parr?
For how the great Sam Hill do I know who you are
With your head tucked underneath your arm?

I also loved Rickety Tickety Tin, which is a song by Tom Lehrer. (He calls it "The Irish Ballad," but I only just now realized that when googling for the lyrics.) It's creepy with a fair dose of amusing.

I made it all the way through the Anne Bolyn song today without him flinching. So I have high hopes that I'll soon be able to continue the family tradition of scaring at least one of my children into also explaining to the Powers That Be, in the most fervent means possible, From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggety beasties. And things that go bump in the night. Good Lord, deliver us!

Happy Halloween--whether you believe in ghoulies and ghosties or not.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Okay, okay!

My husband is mocking my 'light' post.

So I'll leave you with this:

My 4-year-old is just figuring out quantities. He reminds me very much right now of that scene in "The Trouble with Harry"--the Alfred Hitchcock movie starring a very young and very airy-voiced Shirley MacLaine and a very young and very dark-haired John Forsythe. "Beaver" (from yes, "Leave It to Beaver"), Jerry Mathers, finds Harry's body at the beginning of the movie and then tries later to explain when he found it. But he has no concept of time. Yesterday, today, tomorrow? They're all just too foreign for him to grasp. That's my Ivan right now, and I love it. He entertains me endlessly.

"Can we go get ice cream tomorrow?" he asks. "Someday," I tell him. And he gets so excited because, again, someday, tomorrow, next year... it's all the same to him, and all he knows is that at some point, yes, I will take him for ice cream, and it could be tomorrow. Or tomorrow. Or tomorrow.

He also loves me "a year" at the moment. And that's huge to him. Simon, however, my 12-year-old son, is only loved "a day." Simon has a sense of humor, so his feelings are spared. After all, the rules could change completely tomorrow. Or tomorrow.

Ivan's lucky number is Q-U-X because, he says, it's the biggest number he knows. A friend let me know what that is: "The fourth of the standard metasyntactic variable, after baz and before the quu(u...)x series." I'm sure Ivan already knew this and that somewhere in that definition is the explanation of a large number, perhaps the largest.

We're always amazed at how kids can live in the moment. We're told to live in the moment ourselves, to stop and smell the roses, to try to emulate kids a little now and then, to recapture the innocence. I think this means letting go of time and quantity. I think children have to live in the moment, because they don't know anything except the moment.

I was on the way back from the library once when Simon was about 2 and a half and Owen was a pretty fresh newborn. We only lived 2 blocks from the library, so I'd walked there with Owen in the stroller and Simon at my side. It started to rain on the way home. And I mean rain. I struggled with trying to open the umbrella over the three of us, only to realize resistance was futile. We were going to get wet. So I slowed down and laughed. Simon looked up at me and started laughing. And the three of us had a fine time getting drenched. It's one of my happiest memories as a mother because I let go of time. It was a perfect moment, with no concern about what would follow.

Maybe I'll have another moment like that tomorrow. And tomorrow.

Lightening up

Man, those last two posts depressed me. I figure it's time to lighten up for a minute here.

My 10-year-old, Owen, is sick today. I think it's probably strep (my Google medical degree at work here), so I'm taking him into the doctor in a couple of hours to see what a 'real' doctor has to say about it. The last time I took a child in with strep, I asked over the phone if I could just get a prescription called into the pharmacy. "I have four kids," I said. "I've seen strep dozens of times. I'm sure that's what it is." "No, we need to see him," the nurse told me. So we went in. The doctor had him open his mouth, and she said, "Yep. Looks like strep. I'll write you a prescription." I said, "No test?" She said, "No. We don't do the quick tests here, and since I think he should start antibiotics now anyway, there's no reason to do the long test." My child promptly threw up on the doctor's shoes. I thought it was a fitting response.

So I was thinking this morning that I often wish I had a medical degree--not so I could take care of other people or actually *be* a doctor, but so I could diagnose my own family and write prescriptions for them. Then I thought, if I had all the time in the world, I *could* go to medical school. Then I thought, okay, how much time would I need to know I have left in my life in order to find a medical degree worth pursuing.

Stay with me for a minute here.

The young adult novel I'm working on getting published right now is about eternal youth. (No, there are no vampires in my book, so don't sigh and roll your eyes at me.)Several of the characters have been alive for anywhere from 500 to 2000 years, and they're not necessarily thrilled about it. That's a long time to live, you know. We often say, "Life is short." But really, how long do we want it to be? I used to scare myself to tears when I was growing up (and I'm talking through high school) at the thought of living forever. I'd start to shake and panic at the idea of year after year after year, unending, eternal. Okay, so it still freaks me out a lot.

But how long here would suffice? And if we knew for sure we had another 100 years left, what would we do differently? Anything? What about 200 years? Or 1000? We think all the time about what we'd do if we knew we only had a day or a week or a year. But what about the other end of the spectrum? Would we stay in our current jobs? Would we become more careful or more reckless? If doctors found a cure for cancer and heart disease and every physical ailment out there, leaving us with only violence as a means of dying (wait... did I say I was trying to lighten up my blog?), what impact would that have on us on an individual level? On a societal level? Would we be happy? Happier? What would happen to our relationships? Would we cling to our loved ones as tightly as we do now?

Okay, so, yeah, that wasn't so light after all, was it? But I think the point I intended to make was this: Life is short. Sometimes much shorter than we'd anticipated and shorter than we want it to be. But all in all, it's a pretty good deal. Part of me is very glad I'm forced to pack in all I can to each moment, each day, each year. It's nice to be able to treasure what we have, because perhaps abundance would lead us to take too much for granted.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

To all my children

On my 35th birthday in 2005, I got a call from my sister telling me that Dad's cancer had reached his bones, and that it was only a matter of time. I needed to come home. Ron, the three kids, and I were there the next day, May 18, and stayed until he died on June 5.

Ron and I stayed with my mother for another week before heading home to Pittsburgh. She had two of my sisters and a brother right there in town with her, as well as my niece, who'd been living with my parents that summer in order to help out with Dad's care. Before we left, I asked Ron to copy all of Dad's computer files so we'd have them if Mom ever needed them. Dad had written and published a number of books by then, and Mom, God bless her technophobic little soul, was far from computer literate. Those files came in handy a few months back when a publisher agreed to take on a book my parents had self-published years earlier.

I was going through the files again yesterday, searching for an autobiography/biography my dad had written a long time ago for my seven siblings and me. Mom had been reading through her copy and found she was missing some pages. I found the document and told her I would print it out and mail it to her this week (she freezes at the word 'download').

I also came across a document my father had started, entitled "To All My Children." He wrote it less than a month before he died--right before he slid downhill quickly. I recall reading it that June, but he never gave it to any of us kids. Reading it now--five years later--it affected me more than it did even then. Here it is (all of the misspellings are in the original):

I’ve been putting this letter off for too long thinking I would be closer to normal and could really say the things I want to say. Normal seems further and further away so I’d better start it now. This is not a personal letter to each of you – I plan to do that after I finish this collective missile but I want to put some thoughts into single letter, thoughts that I would be merely repeating to each of you. It has been repeatedly stated by our Church authorities that “the greatest thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” And that’s where I want to start.

I has disturbed me somewhat that all the plaudits in our lives – as small as they may be – have been directed at me for my teaching, my firesides, books, and not toward your mother who is a better person and disserve them more I do. And I guess that is why she is a better person. She has never indicated a desire for them as long as I receive them.

I know this is a really personal thing to share, and I hesitated to put it here for that reason. But my father adored my mother and was never ashamed to say so. Their marriage was never perfect. In fact, they both admitted that there were times when they didn't know if they'd make it. But they did: 52 years. And there's nothing to hide about the love he had for her.

The reason I think this affected me so much more now is because, first of all and most obviously, I miss him. I've been writing for the last several years, which is something he had been encouraging me to do for as far back as I can remember. But I had three kids at the time he died, and very little free time--certainly not enough to write what I wanted to. I've thought many, many times since I finally made the free time (because I've realized you don't 'find' it...ever) of how glad he would be for me. Not only proud, but glad because he wanted me to be able to say I wrote, and not just that he had a daughter who wrote. And I wish I had made the time earlier so he would have known.

It also affected me, however, because more important than me being able to call myself a writer is me being able to call myself a mother. Nothing I ever create, regardless of how proud of it I am, will ever make me prouder than my children. I know this letter was about Dad praising Mom. But I realized a long time ago that an author's intention means very little once the reader gets hold of the writing. For me, this letter is a testament to what matters. It's not the praise and the plaudits that make our lives memorable; it's the love.

When I first read this brief letter, I scanned his other files, looking for the letters he had planned to write to each of us. They weren't there. He ran out of time. And I was disappointed not to find them. I wanted to know what he wanted to say to me--not just what he wanted to say to all of us.

But, in fact, it's irrelevant. He said all that he needed to right here. I already knew he loved me and was proud of me and knew I felt the same way about him. It's fitting that his final words to all of us were these. My father loved my mother, and he thought she was a better person than he was. What child, regardless of their age, isn't a better person for knowing that?

Thanks, Dad.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The last laugh

When Simon, my 12-year-old, was a baby, he would wake up singing every morning--no words, no real tune, just long warbling notes that got louder and louder. I'd lie in bed for a while just listening to him and wondering what innately made him such a happy child. He did the same thing at nap time, and even after I would get him out of his crib, he'd continue singing.

I took him for a visit to my parents every few months when he was little. Ron was getting his PhD, and when he needed to focus on school for a few days, I'd find a cheap airline ticket, and off Simon and I would go.

One day after Simon had just woken up, I took him in to see my dad, who was watching the news in his room. Simon giggled and sang on the bed. Dad glanced over, annoyed, and turned the TV up. So I took Simon back out, hurt but not bold enough to say anything.

Dad died of cancer in 2004. The time from diagnosis to death was only 10 months--10 short, heartbreaking months. In spite of the fact that there were things I couldn't talk with my father about (such as his apparent lack of interest in being a grandfather), he and I were very close.

Just a couple of weeks before Dad was taken to hospice, my kids were outside playing with a bucket of bubbles--laughing and squealing and getting soaked. My mother came out and asked me to quiet things down because my father's bedroom window was open. Instead, I went inside to shut his window. He could barely open his eyes or speak at this point, but when he heard me come into the room, he asked what I was doing. I told him, and he said, "No. Leave it open. I love the sound." I gave him a kiss and went back out to be with the kids.

The second story is the one I choose to recall when I think of how my father handled being a grandfather. It brings back other nice memories. I see him showing up at the hospital after I'd had each of my kids. I see him trying his hat on Simon and laughing with him. I hear him asking how Owen was feeling. I hear him talking about what a beautiful baby Emma was. They're little moments but important ones if I choose to recall his grandparenting efforts fondly.

And that's the thing about memories. We have thousands of them, tens of thousands of them. But we get to pick the ones that matter, the ones that can make our lives better or make them bitter.