Monday, July 26, 2010

Stories You Keep from Your Parents

If there's a statute of limitations for our youthful misconduct, it must expire about the time we turn thirty. That appears to be roughly the age most of us finally 'fess up to our parents about the bad behavior we entertained between junior high and college.

By the time we've morphed into full adulthood--perhaps married or college graduates--we figure we've turned out decently enough that our parents might finally laugh at our misdeeds. Or maybe they'll at least determine it's much too late in the game to ground us.

So, late in the evening at a holiday family gathering, we'll pour a third glass of wine, push back from the dining room table, and tell a story or two. We don't spout them all during one setting; we don't wish to be the cause of our mother's cardiac arrest. No, we dole them out gradually, eventually, over a matter of years.

Oh yes, the most interesting stories of our lives are those we choose to keep from our parents for more than a decade.

(The following true stories may or may not be fully autobiographical. One or more stories have been relayed by siblings or friends. No names are given, to protect the guilty.)

We finger the rim of our wine glass, and divulge the school escapades: "So Dad, remember how you caught me skipping school in freshman year and you grounded me, and because I never got caught again, you figured I'd learned my lesson? Well, here's the funny thing. I worked in the school office for the first semester of my sophomore year, stole a few pads of excused absence slips, and used carbon paper to trace the principal's signature for the next three years! Haha! You have to admit, it was somewhat genius!"

We wink at our mother, and share the tales that involved teenage lies. "Oh, that's right, you never knew I saw the Rolling Stones in concert. Yeah, you wouldn't let me go to that concert, so I told you I was sleeping over at a friend's house that night. Instead, we caught a ride to Cleveland with a couple older guys we barely knew. After the concert, their car broke down in this horrific storm, and we hitchhiked to a nearby house of one of their friends, but he wasn't home. So we took shelter under his back porch, until the neighbors thought we were trying to break in and they called the police, who showed up and questioned us and asked us all for identification, but all I had to show--since I wasn't old enough to drive--was my library card and my school bus pass. But boy, it was a great concert."

We pat our mother's hand and ease into the clearly illegal stuff. "Glad you like the silk flower arrangement I bought you. So, remember that beautiful terrarium I brought home to you as a Mother's Day gift when I was thirteen? You oohed and aahed about how beautiful it was and how I shouldn't have spent that kind of money? Well... I didn't spend a cent. But it was the thought that counted, right?"

We cringe a bit and tread ever so carefully into the area of really dangerous items. "OK, so speaking of trains (of course you've waited until a relevant and appropriate discussion for this particular segue so as to soften the jolt), I guess I could tell you now about the time I was at a party on the golf course one night during high school, and we thought it would be fun to walk out on the train trestle to admire the view over the river. But then a train came, ROARING toward us, and we only made it safely back to ground by a matter of seconds, and it was just like that scene in the movie Stand By Me, except we were 15 not 12, and most of us didn't comprehend the true terror of our near-death experience until the next morning when we were sober."

A few of these long ago stories elicit the hoped-for smile, a snort of laughter from our parents. Others are met with a sigh or perhaps a silent Sign of the Cross.

They're comforted, of course, that we lived through it all. And likely relieved that they weren't privy to the details until many years later.

We tell our parents these tales and, as we reminisce, we shake our own heads at our bad youthful decisions and smile at our good fortune at reaching adulthood, alive, nearly responsible and respectable.

And we vow that if we ever hear similar stories from our own adult children, we will somehow find a way to ground them.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When Understanding Eludes Us

When understanding eludes us, we struggle to accept.

When mere acceptance seems unacceptable, we seek change.

When change appears formidable, we strive for strength.

When our strength is insufficient, we turn to others.

When others can't aid or comfort us, we lean on faith.

When we question faith, we're compelled to search for more.

When we truly search, within and without, we discover hope.

Because sometimes hope is all that remains.

And when we find hope, perhaps, we finally possess all we ever needed.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In Which She Redecorates the House

The house was beautiful when it was built back in 1992. But after eighteen years as the backdrop for the escapades of two boys, two dogs, five cats and two free-ranging guinea pigs? It resembled a biker bar after a particularly ugly night of spilled drinks, bar room brawls and piss-poor bathroom aim.

She'd like to fully blame the menagerie of pets and human boy animals for the home's slow demise. Yet she is forced to admit her own bad judgment might, just possibly, have played some small part.

Like that time when she was overserved on a night out with the girls. The next morning, she stayed curled semi-comatose in a fetal position, pillow over her head, even as she heard the then two-year-old leave his bedroom and descend the stairs. When she finally climbed out of bed, she was greeted not only with the hangover from hell but with a trio of other treats: Silk flower arrangements plucked, their petals strewn from the back deck into the breeze. Eggs cracked and dropped into translucent goop on the hardwood kitchen floor. And every one of the carpeted stairs marked painstakingly, with a black Sharpie.

All that red Kool-Aid her children loved, but which never seemed to find a straight path from cup to mouth? Clearly bad judgment. Banishing it from the house was such a wise choice! She learned her lesson indeed after, say, the seventeenth spill on the light gray carpet. The decision to switch to orange Kool-Aid, however, might only qualify her for the short bus.

And maybe it wasn't the best judgment, a couple years back, to leave her college age son home to "house-sit" for a weekend. In retrospect, perhaps she should have realized her mahogany dining room table was the perfect size for 48 straight hours of beer pong.

But eighteen years after moving in, she deduced it was finally time to repair and redecorate. The kids were grown and gone, and the newest dog house-trained. And her own judgment at this mature age?

Sadly, still questionable.

Why else would she believe the painter who told her the entire job (painting every interior wall and piece of trim) would take only two weeks? Why would she plan a week-long vacation--eight hours and two states away--for the very next week?

Why would she assume the aforementioned painter would be sure to close all the windows before he left each day? Why would she not surmise a curious, badly behaved cat (yes, badly behaved cat=oxymoron) would end up on the roof?

Why would she trust this same painter to move the two fishbowls, from a to-be-painted high shelf, into another safe location? Why was she shocked when one of her college age sons, stopping home during the day for a free lunch, called her as she vacationed, screaming, "The cats knocked over the fishbowls! They're spilled all over the carpet! The fish are dead!" *

Why was she dumbfounded to come home, expecting to admire a brick red foyer, only to shield her eyes from the glare of bright fuschia walls?

And why would she choose now to adopt a stray cat who's never used a litterbox in his life and expect him to comprehend that her new $7,500-khaki colored carpet is not one great, glorious toilet?

Perhaps--just a guess here--it was due to bad judgment.

Her new counter tops went in this week. They tell her quartz is quite durable, although not exactly stain-proof.

Ha! This one, she has covered. Not a single ounce of red or orange-colored drink remains in the house. Oh no.

After everything she's experienced, she's existing solely on margaritas.

* Happy aside here: Her next-door neighbor Annette proved to be the Fish Whisperer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ghosts of Vacations Past and Future

We leave for our extended family vacation in a few weeks. It's become an every-three-years tradition for my two sisters and me, our families and our mother. Every three years works well for the Stanfa clan. It's frequent enough to maintain those warm and fuzzy family ties, yet far enough distanced to forget how close we came the last time to committing family genocide.

In families like ours, the key to vacationing together is learning survival tactics. I don't mean knowing how to make a shelter, how to signal for help or how to ration a water supply. In our extended family, roughing-it survival means knowing ahead to rent three separate cottages with multiple bedrooms, ensuring we find week-long entertainment suitable for replacing Facebook and reliable cellphone coverage, and having access to plenty of liquor.

We were not, clearly, destined to stay with John Boy and Grandma on Walton's Mountain.

Stanfa Family Vacations weren't always this way. For the first 14 years of my life, our yearly family vacation consisted of spending not one but two weeks every summer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. No bathtub or shower. No hot water. No TV. No playground or organized activities for the kids.

We bathed in the frigid lake. Our primary entertainment was playing pinochle or fishing from a rented rowboat. We slept--all six in our extended family--in a tiny two-bedroom cabin.

Yet somehow, for all of us, this cramped, self-entertaining trip was the highlight of the summer.

So what's changed? Why do we require so much more from a family getaway now than we did then?

Could it be that we're all more tightly wound than we were a few decades ago? That we've all become accustomed to living in 2,500-foot homes and staying in four-star hotels? That the entertainment value of card games and casting for perch have made way for wireless internet and weekend parties with everyone but our own families?

Maybe those of us old enough to remember the Ghosts of Vacations Past have simply forgotten their magic. And those too young to have experienced them simply need an introduction.

I started packing this week. I gathered together a deck of cards and a couple board games. A bag of marshmallows and some Jiffy-Pop to burn over the bonfire. A couple of dusty fishing poles.

I decided, with a lingering and forlorn glance, to leave my laptop behind.

But I am sure as hell not giving up having a bed to myself. Or a bathtub, with running hot water. And while I will gladly partake of a fresh lake perch dinner, there will be no cleaning of fish guts in my future.

Nostalgic memories aside, some ghosts just make you shiver.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

First Yet Not Last

Son #2 turned 19 today; Son #1 hit 21 last week. Hard to believe, since I'm barely 20 myself.

This particular year, my two sons' birthdays bring them each a milestone, a First and a Last. The older one can drink his first (legal) beer. The younger one has entered his last teenage year.

We tend to track our lives through a list of Firsts and Lasts. Once we become parents, however, we often stop marking our own and begin noting our children's.

The baby years bring a flurry of Firsts: first tooth, first word, first steps, first wailing trip to the ER.

These make way for the noteworthy moments of young childhood: first spin on a two-wheeler, first day of kindergarten, first dance recital or soccer game.

At some point, the momentum slows. As our children grow, the Firsts become not only more infrequent but also infused with some parental apprehension: the first evening alone without a sitter, the first date (which he will never acknowledge as such), the first moment behind the steering wheel, the first unchaperoned party.

And by the time our kids reach the end of high school, we realize we've stopped tracking the Firsts altogether and have started noting the Lasts.

As both of the young men I've raised head into their twenties, I look back on their years of milestones with a combination of joy, pride, disappointment and simple relief.

Yet I realize the cycle of moments-to-remember hasn't ended at all. It's simply started all over again.

I know I won't be there for every monumental moment of my sons' adult lives, but I look forward to taking pleasure in many: their first "real" job after college, their first dance with their new wife at their wedding reception, their first child. They'll learn then a bit more, themselves, about the significance of Firsts and Lasts.

And I hope they learn, early on, that "Lasts" are not to be lamented, but to be acknowledged for what they truly are: the transitions to new and rewarding "Firsts."