Posts by elainehaley

“Because I said so” and other child rearing hints

Posted by on Feb 4, 2011 in My Children, Spirit | 1 comment

When I was pregnant with my first child I had no idea what being a parent would be like. I moved through the months of changes in my body with awe and amazement, from the first butterfly flutter of movement in my abdomen to the definite thud of tiny feet and hands. I was so young I didn’t really consider my expectations about motherhood, but I do remember the first time my newborn was brought to me in the hospital, wrapped in a tight little blue blanket, looking and smelling like he had been freshly dry-cleaned. I sat in bed looking into his perfect little baby face feeling like Mary holding the Christ child. When I brought him to my breast and the sweet little rosebud mouth latched on to nurse I was earth goddess, with nourishment flowing from my very soul. After about 5 minutes of this fantasy he let rip the most horrendous gassy noise, filling his diaper and turning that lovely baby powder smell to a sour stench. After I got over the shock of the moment, I started laughing at myself. Seems like my little flight of the imagination had not taken into account the reality of an actual live human being. Even after the 12 hour labor with all it’s accompanying indignities and discomforts, and then the final frantic rush of an emergency C-section, here was the moment I became a flesh and blood mother instead of the soft out of focus dream variety.

The actuality of our children does come as a surprise. We daydream about what they will be like and what our reaction to them will be, so it is a bit of a shock when they turn out to have the same proportion of faults and strengths as we do ourselves. Raising a real human rather than the fantasy one is a humbling experience, making us face things in our own character we would just have soon left undiscovered. When I was carrying my daughter I had a friend who was expecting shortly after me. This was her first and only venture into motherhood, having started a bit late in life with her second husband, a man who was supporting his two from a first marriage. My friend had just as many opinions on rearing children as she did on every other subject. I grew a bit weary listening to the constant stream of subtle and not so subtle criticism directed at how I was rearing my two boys, and how superior she would be when her little carbon copy arrived. The child had her diet, toys, friends, and career picked for her in utero. No candy, cookies, or sweets ever, and if grandmothers did not comply they would not be allowed to see the child. No dolls for her girl, only educational toys of a more masculine nature to prepare her to take her place in the high stakes world of tomorrow. Private school, so she would meet a better class or people, hopefully descendants of Pilgrims and Presidents, then on to an Ivy league university. She would study to be a doctor, and not just any doctor; she had the specialty all picked out, ear, eye, nose and throat. I forget why, money probably. Her husband, as down to earth and practical man as you would ever want to meet, said without expression, “The whole world is waiting for you to have this baby dear.”

I was on the phone with her when her water broke. I knew that because she started screaming and it took me a while to talk her down. My own newborn was in my arms and my 2 year old was playing on the floor, so my physical presence wasn’t going to be particularly helpful. I told her to hang up the phone and call her husband and the doctor, but not to panic (the universal admonishment), because she would have plenty of time before the baby arrived. She called me back 10 minutes later to ask me what she should wear to the hospital. I told her it wasn’t necessary to make a fashion statement, but she might want to grab a towel for the car seat before she left.
She called me the next day from the hospital to tell me her baby girl was the most beautiful one in the nursery, and I told her I was sure she was. That would not be a lie. After spending many hours in labor to push something as large as a cantaloupe through an opening normally the size of a soda straw, the effort causes a photo shop glow to form around the object of that exertion, and temporally blinds the mother to all but her own offspring. When I was introduced, I the first thing I noticed were the Dumbo like ears sticking out from the bare little football shape head that newborns acquire on their tortured route through resisting flesh and bone. Mom was standing there with a beatific medicated smile and Dad had the shell-shocked look of a man just recaptured after a jailbreak. I kept my congratulatory statements vague and diplomatic.

In about six months the baby turned into a fairly decent looking infant, and after many years she became a beautiful young woman. In the intervening time my friend, the micro manager, did everything she could to enforce the rules she had made, but to little avail. The child turned out to have the inflexible temperament of her mother, constantly begged for snacks and sweets, was sent to the office on the very first day of kindergarten, struggled with her school studies, hung out with a bad crowd in high school, and decided she didn’t want to got to college. When the child came to our house she played joyfully with my daughter’s endless supply of pink plastic girl toys, the ones I let my child pick out for herself. Once her Mom suggested we should go back to her house to play, but the wee one protested that there was nothing to do at home. When my girl went to get cookies for a tea party, Mom had a look of panic on her face, but finally relented. We sat down with coffee and my friend related regrets about her own wasted childhood where she ate a lot of sweets and snacks, struggle with her school work, hung out with a bad crowd, and decided against college. I bit my tongue, offered her a fourth cookie, and held my laughter until she went home.

It is a shock when our children come to us not a blank slate for us to write on, but wired with abilities and personality often similar to our own, our spouses, or even the in-laws we deal with only grudgingly. I was not immune to this discovery process. Once I was lamenting to my mother about the amazing musical talent my middle child had on the violin and how frustrating it was that he never practiced.

“I had really hoped one of my children would become an accomplished musician,” I said to Mom with a sigh.
“I always wished the same thing myself” she retorted.

Being a good parent is learning how to let go, first of your belief that your child will be perfect, then the hope they will be like you only much better, then the misconception that they are yours to mold at all. Somewhere between diapers and dating I relaxed, gave up my expectations, and really began to enjoy being a Mom. There were dark days when I abandoned all but hope. That is when I realized the essence of the parental role; give them unconditional love, keep advice to a minimum, and if you can stand it, let natural consequences be their teacher. Just when you finally get the knack of the parent thing, they are on their way out the door, suitcase in hand, eager to make the same stupid mistakes you did when you were young. Despite all I’ve learned, and how differently I reared my own brood, it what really kills me knowing now that my mother was right when she said, “You won’t understand until you have children of your own.”

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Flowers on the table

Posted by on Jan 30, 2011 in Death and renewal, Mother in Laws | 5 comments

Such is the marvel of modern marketing and shipping I was able to carry a bundle of beautiful blooms to my mother in law Friday, even though I drove through the snow to visit. She is in her end days now, in hospice care and happy to see even me when I come to visit. After a hug and several minutes of friendly conversation she looks at me and says, “Now you are of the family, right?” She then introduces me to the nurses and aides around her, all of whom know me already. We smile indulgently, like one would do for a child with an altered view of reality. Secretly all of us breath a silent prayer that we will die with our mental functioning intact.

She rolls her wheelchair into her room expecting us to sit and talk, but this is not the plan for the day. She tried to hold on to us, because even through a fog of dementia she still has some comprehension that her world is getting ready to shrink again. Armed with a few extra sets of hands and a 12 foot rental truck we are following the blunt instructions of the extended care facility where she has made her home for the last 20 years. “Mrs. Haley can now be best served by the health care unit. You need to remove the contents of her room and two storage lockers within the next two weeks.” Perhaps those are not the exact words. I’m not sure, because unlike my in laws my relationship to material objects is tentative. I have already discarded the letter.

A few weeks ago we cleaned out the first storage locker and in doing so disposed of what seemed to be a lifetime’s accumulation of magazines, cards, rubber bands, plastic bags, free calenders, used envelopes, and rusted paper clips. Now as I open drawers and boxes I discover that I have underestimated how many useless objects one can actually acquire and save during a lifetime. It is a grim and tiring day, as we first attempt to sort and discard as we work, but as afternoon approaches we begin to spend more time loading and less time discriminating. Our cousin Keith comes back from one trip to the truck with the news that Margaret (the MIL) has escaped the medical unit and is determinedly wheeling her way down the long corridor to what she calls her “home”, the room we are ransacking like viking raiders. He bravely throws his body into the lurch, gently intercepting and diverting her. He returns later with her demand that she knows we are somewhere in the building and we better not leave without seeing her. My husband distracts her by carrying her TV to her, a plausible reason for his absence. We go back to stuffing teddy bears, home recorded music tapes, silver coins, and old shoes into boxes and bags.

This morning I started unloading my car and the truck my husband “white-knuckled” over Afton Mountain long after dark last night. I cannot move the monstrous box that staggered him as he loaded it into the truck. I’m afraid to tell him this last indignity, but it is filled to the brim with color slides. I flash back through all the years we spent trapped in the living room of various parsonages with Pop running the slide projector and my step mother in law narrating. “Wait Carl!” she jumps from her seat and touches a wavering image on the screen. “See that flower box in the window? That was filled with the most beautiful petunias I have ever seen. I tried to find out the variety so I could get some seed and plant them here. It’s a little blurry in this picture Carl. Don’t we have a few more that are better?” …and he did. So it went, ad infinitum. I laugh in spite of myself at the memory and start carrying them into the already cluttered basement.

Over the next weeks and months I will be sorting through these along with thousands of pictures, letters, ledgers, and household object, the vain attempt we humans make to leave some monument, some legacy. After I am finished I will reconnoiter my own life’s accumulation of object as to not burden my children with this vanity of material goods. As the children of the depression leave this earth, it is my generation, the boom time children, who are sorting and clearing in amazement. We indeed cannot know the fears they lived by as they could not understand our cavalier outlook on the world. Cousin Keith takes this all in stride, but he keeps saying to me, “This was not in the marriage contract, now was it?” He tells me of his wife’s father who never forgave or forgot the $2.00 he lost when his bank shut down during the great depression. He went through the rest of his life hiding money in books and drawers without regaining his trust in financial institutions. The laughter we share is not without a certain forbearance and endearment for one who took life lesson too literally.

Sitting at home tonight nursing sore muscles and a lingering cold I sort through all the tiny boxes tied up with string and the omnipresent rubber bands. There are treasures and trash in abundance. Here is a note from Lord Bottomly, an uncle, with a commemorative coin from King George’s coronation enclosed. This tiny leather box is stuffed with presidential campaign buttons that vary from the plain pewter “Hoover” tie clip to the patriotic colored and hysterically innocent “I like Ike and Dick” buttonhole pin. Here is a cardboard necklace box chocked full of arrowheads, side by side with a collection of keys from long ago forgotten doors. As I handle each object, look at each picture, glance over each birth, death, divorce and adoption decree, some part of who they were seeps into me. While a portion of the knowledge I gain is burdensome, some is liberating. The balance between the two shifts constantly.

Burdened with this new knowledge I find some strange yearning in me to know how the young girl in the pictures became the wrinkled bedridden stranger I see. Not having been blessed with the patience of Job I found it impossible to talk to her when her mind still retained some clarity. The new revelations about her I am unearthing tell a story of a very different person than the one I thought I knew all these years. The fault of her not revealing herself to me rests ultimately on my carelessness. We were natural antagonist from the minute we met. I used to pride myself on being deceptive enough to let her think that was not true. Now I wonder if she believed she was behaving in the same way. This much I know however. She and I were both born innocent. She has come full circle to the point where she will likely die with a mind just as innocence. She gave me her best crinkled smile as I put the blooms on the table beside her. Then she looked at me earnestly and asked, “Who sent those beautiful flowers?” I smile back but don’t try to tell her. It is enough that she delights in them.

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Posted by on Dec 31, 2010 in Death and renewal, Holidays, Mother in Laws | 1 comment

I sit with a blank page on my laptop watching my reflection in the large black monitor on my son in law’s desk. The picture I see looks like a ghost of either Christmas past or Christmas future, perhaps both. It seems a line has been drawn across my life this year with bittersweet endings on one side and uncertain beginnings on the other…

The long and arduous relationship with my mother in law appears to be coming to an end as she lies in a hospital in Roanoke gravely ill. I have never been able to feign any words of endearment toward her, although I recognize that she has accidently taught me many lessons. It still makes my stomach churn to think of her lying there alone, even though it is doubtful that she is aware of much around her. I cannot count the times I have wished her out of my life, but now I find there is no triumph for me in her passing. I believe that in this I have followed my children’s example of forgiveness and acceptance. My husband’s mother passed before he and I married and my mother lived far away and died when they were young. So with all her faults she has been the only grandmother that has had a relationship with them.

My mother would have been proud of my daughter for taking on the duties of Christmas this year. Although my children do not remember much about my my mother, the ceaseless work and attention to detail Eva showed preparing a wonderful meal for friends and family reminded me so much of her. In contrast, I did not so much as put up a tree this year. I admit that the passing of the reins is not without some trepidation. After so many decades of sitting in the driver’s seat it was strange hearing the words I used to tell everyone else directed at me. “Just sit back and relax”. I have no practice at this indolence and I find it bewildering, like being a child told to stay out from underfoot.

I empathize with my newly mobile grandson who clammers at the baby gate, wishing to be in the thick of things. Looking at him I know I should not waste a second bemoaning times past. Both of us just need to acquire the necessary tools and understanding to function in this new order. It’s nice to have so much in common with him actually, although I doubt he would see it that way. I am bursting with optimism about the future and it is obvious he feels the same. He is unaware of how much I am learning from him about persistence and ignoring barriers.

My favorite inspirational phrase this year is on a card at my work desk, “Life rewards those who let their actions rise above their excuses”. This quote is reportedly by Lee Colan, an organizational guru, and it was passed to me in an email from my director. The same email also quoted Jedi Master Yoda “Do or do not, there is no try”. I am ashamed to admit that although I have read an reread them, I have not taken the words to heart like I should. Instead of doing I have been trying. As I have watched my grandson Logan progress from being stuck where ever he was placed by an adult to a fearless independent locomotion I recognize his total grasp and application of the attitude I am striving to learn. The fact that he would walk straight off the edge of a cliff with his newfound skills is not lost on me and neither is the inordinately strong and ultimately ineffectual will to live exhibited by my step mother in law. I however have no excuses not to succeed at anything I want. I have the common sense not to walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon and jump, but the health and fortitude to strap on a parachute and leap out of an airplane. I’m not saying skydiving is in my immediate future but perhaps something equivalent, only slightly less terrifying. I’ve never quite overcome my fear of heights you see, but like the young Jedi I am not trying. Let me just say welcome to the fresh new year and give you one more homily, this one from

“Death is more universal than life. Everyone dies but not everyone lives.” ~Alan Sachs

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Welcome Christmas

Posted by on Dec 12, 2010 in Holidays | 3 comments

I waited in line at the Beaver Dam Deposit Bank for what seemed like hours to get my few minutes sitting on the lap of a suspicious looking man in a red suit and fake whiskers. He gave me a candy cane and asked me if I had been a good little girl all year. I had been full of conversation at the beginning of the line, but I became more and more anxious and hushed as my turn approached. I mentally scanned back through the past year, like the dead approaching the seat of judgment. It would do no good to lie, since he “knew when I was sleeping, and he knew when I was awake”. Faltering for an eternity in his flannel lap, I could not utter one word in my defense. I tentatively nodded my head in the affirmative at his question, hoping he had been looking at some other child when I stole the spoonful of icing from the bowl in the refrigerator, or stuffed toys under my bed instead of putting them away where they belonged. Clutching my peppermint tightly, I headed back to our Pontiac with a guilty conscious, wondering if some other family member, perhaps my older sister, who was behind me in line, had spilled the beans. She acted nonchalant, but I wasn’t sure, so I resolved to be as good as gold for the 10 remaining days before December 25, just in case she had said something, and he was checking for himself. Little did I know she had her own guilty secrets, one of which included finding the hiding place for Santa’s private stash, high up in the living room closet.

That Saturday afternoon we decorated the house with golden electric lights in the windows, and a pungent sweet cedar tree that arrived like magic from somewhere, perhaps my Grandfather’s farm in Echols. My Dad and brother were in charge of making it stand straight and sturdy in the window, right beside our front door. I don’t remember which year Kurt had tried to even up the branches, cutting first from the front, then the back, till they had to wire limbs back on the tree to make it presentable. Mom told the story so often it has passed into the lore of Christmas. My brother was responsible for the electrical aspects of the tree in those pre female liberation days, when work was divided by gender. He went carefully through the bubble lights to make sure each bulb in the series was working, removing them one at a time and working down the string till it came to life. Mother was the decorator, positioning the lights evenly around the tree, and nestling the glass ornaments carefully on the strongest branches. My sister an I were allowed to add the icicles, one at a time, till the plain green shrub was transformed into a fairyland tree. It was my job to hang the efficiently abbreviated “Merry Xmas” wreath from the front door, till several years later when Mother read an article stating that the shortened greeting “took the Christ out of Christmas”. Since none of us were schooled in ancient Greek, it languished in the attic ever after, less anyone mistake us for a nest of unbelievers.

My mother had a simple and unfailing faith that sustained her, and all of her family during her lifetime. A child of the depression who lived through the Great War, she totally embraced both the spiritual and material side of the Christmas season, with a combination of faith and patriotism. In my mind Santa and Jesus often converged into one concept, an all seeing, all knowing, and loving father figure, who rewarded good and punished evil. On one Christmas morning, long before dawn, my brother, sister, and I tiptoed through the house, knowing it was too soon to disturb Mom and Dad. Standing in the still dark kitchen, my brother noticed the beautiful night sky outside the window and pointed out a brilliant star that was high in the sky. Awestruck, we all agreed that it had to be the same Star of Bethlehem that foretold the birth of Jesus. I found no inconsistency in believing it was now shining to guide Santa on his way. My faith in Santa transitioned seamlessly into a belief in God, just as my parents planned. I remember the Christmas when I asked my Mom if there really was a Santa. I was about 6 and she was hanging ornaments on the tree. She had her answer ready, but was unprepared to give up the Santa fantasy for her last child. “There is a spirit of Christmas”, she replied, unable to meet my eyes. I took it quite manner of fact, pleased that I had been let into the adult’s inner circle. I still pretended belief for a while, just like my youngest child did years later, sitting out the milk and cookies, with a carrot for the reindeer, hedging our bets on the chance that he was real.

Even though I was youngest, and the last to let go of the fabric of fantasy, we were still always awake at dawn, probably only hours after our parents had finished putting the last tab A into opening C1, C2 and C3. We were allowed to tiptoe through the dark living room and see dimly what Santa had left, but only to pick up our stockings from the mantle and scurry back to our beds. Stockings were candy, nuts and citrus fruit, and an occasional tiny toy, just enough to entice us for the frenzy of unwrapping, and the amazing Christmas breakfast that followed. My parents always strained their budgets in those early years to make sure we had an abundance of everything. We were oblivious to their struggle, because money was not an open topic of discussion in our home. Our gifts were not expensive, but they were chosen with love and care. In that pre-electronic age, it was easy to believe that they came straight from Santa’s workshop. My little set of metal dishes looked like they could have been made by elves, and my doll house with the printed wallpaper and doors, and hard melamine furniture, obviously came straight from the north pole. My gifts were stylized, tiny ironing boards, stoves, dust mops and nurse’s kits, while my brother got chemistry sets, wood burning tools, and cars. One memorable year my parents caved in to my constant begging and gave me a train set with an engine that puffed real smoke. My Dad and I played with it for hours, but oddly enough I have no memory of what my brother or sister did during that time.

Back years and miles away from those childhood memories, I plan for my adult children’s holiday homecoming. Many of the same traditions I have established with them came from the treasured early days of my life. None of them have had the experience of becoming Santa, but someday I hope for them that they take that most humbling, exhausting, and rewarding journey. I know they will take the best of their childhood, like I did, and make their own traditions. My newest daughter told me that she got a little tree for their Seattle apartment and waited for my son to find time to trim it with her. After days passed with no help forthcoming, he finally told her he was waiting for the cookies and eggnog that you have to have to put the ornaments on the tree. She succumbed and searched the internet for recipes for elf drops and peppermint sandwiches, thus sealing her fate as a future keeper of the Christmas torch. I hope he will be just as accommodating when she honors her own family’s traditions. We all have our nostalgia about childhood memories and some are certainly worth keeping like the Christmas tree trimming party, but I am happy with the modern holiday that is less guilt ridden than the 1950’s. I would not wish for any child to lie awake wondering if their stocking will be filled with lumps of coal, because of some normal childish mischief. If you go seeking the true meaning of Christmas, I wish you luck. I for one will content myself with the spirit of Christmas I have come to believe. A jolly elf all clothed in red is a delightful part of childhood fantasy, and if Christians wish to intersperse the birth of Christ with the winter solstice, I will hold my tongue and ignore the guilt trip they try to impose. As anyone who has read Dr Susse knows, the true joy of the season is in family, sharing, and spending time together. All the Whos in Whoville were right; no Grinch can steal the Christmas you keep in your heart.

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Posted by on Dec 6, 2010 in Poetry | 2 comments

I ran again in dreams last night,

My bare feet skimming the ground

Across the clover field that lay

Between the house where my grandmother lived and my own.

I was the light princess,

The one in my storybook,

Equally free from care and gravity,

A time traveler headed for the marvels of tomorrow.

Waking alone to a nightmare

In a world most dreadful dark

I scream

But the howling wind smothers the sound

As I cling to a string, so thin and worn

That any minute it may break

Severing all ties with earth

And I will be sport for the tempest.

Again today I take precautions

So the wind will not take me

I’ve gathered many sweet and madding weights

and glued them fast onto my frame

Even while my voice protests confinement

I’ve sealed all possible escapes.

Trapped by my own hand’s protection

I cannot float away

Or even move.

Fall 1990

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