A Pause for Celebration

“Sorrow comes in great waves…but rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us, it leaves us. And we know that if it is strong, we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain.” – Henry James

 

After the events of the past weeks: the COVID pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, rioting and looting in many of our major cities, it is difficult to think of celebration.  There is so much I worry about, so much anger that needs to be healed, so many problems that need to be rectified.  It seems insurmountable.  This country I love is deeply troubled. But today, I find myself having to pause for celebration.

Today, June 4th, is Henry’s birthday.  It is Henry’s 40th birthday.   Recently, Henry and I reconnected after 36 years.  In 1984, Henry was three-years-old and one of my nursery school students.  His mother, Catherine and I became friends that year, and I also took care of Henry three days a week while Catherine worked on her dissertation on Henry James.

Then something unbelievably senseless happened.  One February night, Catherine was killed by a drunk driver.  I did not know how to process this loss.  The only thing I did know to do was to take care of Henry, and that’s what I did.  I became Henry’s full-time caretaker for the next two years.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life and the most rewarding.

Henry and I had many adventures together.  We shed many tears, and we also experienced everyday joys.  Then Henry, as boys have a habit of doing, grew up.  Gradually, we lost touch with each other.  However, I never forgot about him and every June 4th I would say, “Happy Birthday, Henry – wherever you are!”  I hoped that he knew that I was thinking of him and wishing him well.

Henry graduated high school, went to college, created several restaurants, and became a creative adult. I continued teaching and writing.  I hoped that one day, Henry and I would be able to reunite so that I could tell him about those years.  And then it happened, out of the blue. He reached out to me and said that he wanted to know more about his mother.  I was so overjoyed.  We talked over the phone, and the 36 years melted away.  Even though we were actually strangers now, we talked together as if it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

I realized that I had been waiting for 36 years to tell his story.  I sat down for 5 days in a row and wrote and wrote and wrote.  I created a 33-page book of memories for Henry. It was such an interesting process because the more I wrote, the more I remembered.  I felt a calm and ease come over me. When I sent the book to Henry, he said that many people had promised to write down memories for him, but no one ever did until now.  That made me sad for him, but also happy.  I am so amazingly happy that I could finally give him this gift, which he will read today on his 40th birthday, June 4th.

This is a poem I wrote a number of years ago about the day Henry and I came home from school to his house the week after Catherine died.  I hope my memories of that time will bring him closer to his mother.

Remember Me

Three days after Catherine died,

I took her young son home from school.

I put her key into her door

As her son pushed ahead,

Running through the house, calling,

“Mommy, Mommy, where are you?

I made a picture for you!”

He was three and didn’t understand

The permanence of death.

I ran after him,

Took him by the hand,

“You remember, Henry, don’t you?

Mommy’s not here.”

He leaned into me,

His face hidden between

The folds of my skirt,

“I remember,” he whispered.

 

We went into Catherine’s kitchen,

Made cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches,

Sat on the floor of her sunny living room,

Built castles out of wooden blocks,

“When’s my mommy coming?”

Henry asked again.

I looked into his eyes,

“Henry, I’m sorry –

Mommy’s not coming home.”

“But I didn’t say good-bye to her,

She’ll be lonely without me.”

I turned my tears away,

Looked out the back door

Trying to find the words

To make him understand.

 

I caught a glimpse –

Something bright from Catherine’s closet,

One of her dresses, the Marimekko

With the bright flowers,

The one she wore the first time I met her.

I took Henry’s hand,

Opened her closet, gathered all her dresses

And laid them on her bed.

I picked up each dress, one by one,

Held them in front of Henry.

He looked up at me and knew what to do:

He hugged each dress,

Nestled his face into the familiar fabric,

“Good-bye Mommy,

Have fun in heaven,

Remember me,” he whispered.

 

 

 

Seeing Possibility

When I was starting my journey as an elementary classroom teacher, my eyes and ears were trained to search out problems.  Who was having trouble decoding words?  who couldn’t continue to build onto a pattern of shares or numbers?  Which ones had trouble settling down?  How could I help this one distinguish right from left?  How could I help that one learn to tie her shoe?  Of course,  I was a teacher and this was my job – to help – assist –  encourage – nurture.  I focused all my attention on the problems.  What wasn’t yet achieved?

As I gained experience, I relaxed into the role of a careful observer.  I still nurtured students’ nascent talents, but my gaze increasingly became one of possibility.  I was focused not so much on students’ weaknesses – the things they could not yet do.  But rather set my mind and intention to what they could do, what made them motivated, what ignited their passions for learning.  I had several mentors along the way who shared the same belief system.  Carl Anderson approaches writing workshop conferences as opportunities for students to see themselves as writers.  He recommends that during each conferring session, the teacher give the student a glow and grow This consists of giving the student feedback on something in their writing that works wonderfully, and also give a suggestion about their writing that will help them grow.  Katherine Bomer also takes on this stance in her book,  Hidden Gems, she encourages teachers to look for the surprising and fresh writing moves children make instead of focusing on the writers mechanical mistakes.  This growth mindset rings true to me because in my experience more growth and opportunities arise from seeing possibility than from focusing on deficits.

I have been fortunate enough to be teaching for forty years.  And with that amount of experience, I’ve seen young children who couldn’t stand still, had trouble learning to read, had undecipherable handwriting – grow into young adults who were accepted into colleges, including many Ivy League institutions. And later, those young adults became heads of real estate or financial companies, major athletes and artists, and promising entrepreneurs.  They learned to seek paths that played to their strengths and challenged themselves to see beyond their weakness and stay intent on building their strengths.

The very first mentor I encountered in my life was my mother, Vivian.  She was a talented artist, fashion designer, seamstress, and eventually an elementary teacher.  Her creativity and determination became my source of strength in so many areas of my life.  This month marks the fifth anniversary of her death.  I miss her every day.  I recently began reading Barbara Kingslover’s novel, Unsheltered One sentence stood out to me as the main character,  Will Knox, talks about the loss of her mother:  “Really it was her mother she’d wanted to call right after the bad news, or in the middle of it… it had been her mother who put Willa back together.  When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death.  You lost her as you kept living.”  When I read those words, I felt an instant connection to the author.  “Yes,” I thought – “Yes,” that is what it’s like to lose a loving mother.  Time has given me an opportunity to reflect not only on what I have lost, but also on what my mother gave me – all her gifts.  And for that I am so very grateful.

First Teacher

I remember your ruby-red lipstick and dark eyes,                                                                    You were the one who taught me laughter.

I remember the sound of your heartbeat as we cuddled                                                          Cozy together in the wooden rocker,                                                                                               It was you who taught me the power of stories.

I remember your hands pushing and kneading dough                                                              Into a perfect pie crust,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me patience.

I remember your cool cheek on my hot forehead                                                                          It was you who taught me love.

I remember your fingers flashing over fabric:                                                                Folding… pinning… cutting…                                                                                                             It was you who taught me perseverance.

I remember you standing tall,                                                                                                  Bending down close, guiding and reassuring,                                                                              You were the one who taught me kindness.

I remember you dipping into paint,                                                                                      Creating a world of color,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me possibility.

I remember your quiet calm in the face of pain,                                                                          You taught me courage.

I remember your lasting embrace                                                                                                    It was you who taught me acceptance.