Changing things

Well, it’s been a while …

… since I’ve posted a blog

… since I’ve seen fall leaves

… since a dating site has hacked my blog

… since I’ve used that cliché. 

But here I am. A lot of stuff going on.

We are less than two weeks away, God willing, from moving into a new house – one in the country with five acres. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of that land, but something will come to mind. Always does. Definitely a huge garden. Probably some pretty grass. I would say “trees,” but this property already has pecan, fig and several I couldn’t identify the last time we were there. I don’t want to overdo it on the trees.

For now I look forward to simply mowing it – going up and down and back and forth on a riding lawnmower while no more than 10 cars drive by. I hope it’s not 95 degrees and sunny like it usually is. I’ll have to buy one of those straw hats old men wear.

Six years ago, we moved into the house we’ll be leaving. It is a brick home in a mill village surrounded by other alike-looking brick homes. Lifelong residents would put down neighborhoods like ours because since the five textile mills that once made this town run shut down for good. Mill homes like mine – built for the mill workers decades before – decreased steadily in value.

But I always thought they were cool. Some mornings and some nights, I’d sit on the front porch in the swing I’d painted with Kalista and imagine the neighborhood at its peak. I’d heard stories about the owners of the mill and big shots fining residents for not keeping their yards neat. For not keeping paint on the cement porch steps. For not sweeping their sidewalk.

I bet our neighborhood was something to see.

Some woman from Greenville paid to have new townhomes built just down the street from us. Shiny and new, she tried renting them out for $1,000 a month, but no one’s going to pay that much to live in a run-down mill village in a town where nothing’s going on anyway. Eventually, they became Section VIII housing, meaning the government will pay more than 80 percent of the rent to have a poor family live there – and that’s exactly what happened, in townhome after townhome. The endeavor was so successful, more townhomes were built; more poor persons moved in. The rest is history. We now live in a truly poor neighborhood and get to experience all of the crime statistics the government says come with low-income residents.

When Kalista and I moved in, we were surrounded by old persons. There was a sweet old woman next door whose kids came over on Sundays for dinner. There was an old couple across the street and countless more around them. They served as a barrier to the outside world for my daughter and me. But they have all died, for the most part … buried in the mill village cemetery behind our house.

My parents used to encourage me to move out of the neighborhood, citing Kalista’s inability to make decent friends in a neighborhood like ours. They seemed right most of the time – especially the time one of the little girls came over on a summer day and left a few hours later with arms full of Kalista’s toys she had convinced my daughter to give. Or the time she said some girls laughed at her from their driveway when she fell off her bike. But there was one little girl Kalista befriended who I think she’ll always remember.

“Daddy, remember when we used to … ”

My recent weeks have been full of these beginnings of sentences regarding memories Kalista has at the house. She’s excited to move, but she inherited my ability to be sentimental. My ability to find beauty in something everyone else says is ugly. She remembers things I have forgotten – things I did not even know at the time of their conception would even be a memory. She can disregard 1,000 bad experiences to allow one good one to dominate her collection of recollections.

“What are you going to miss most about this house?” I asked recently.

“My friends.”

I don’t know what I wanted out of that house when we moved in. I could never make it have a bigger yard or more bedrooms. I could never build a study or place to watch football. I could never make room for a swimming pool or basketball goal. I could never take our house in the mill village and bring back the sentiment of the 1950s.

So I shouldn’t be so sad about leaving this house for a place in a smaller town, surrounded by farmland, more room and knotty pine walls inside. I should be glad I’ve got so much grass to mow on a lazy Sunday. I should be glad we have a fireplace and room for a huge table and chairs in the kitchen, around which Kalista’s new siblings and stepmother can sit. I should be glad the kids can ride their bikes everywhere without fear of sex offenders or gangsters spoiling the essence or innocence of perfect days.

I am glad. I am sad. I am sentimental. I am attached.

But this is life and things change. I know that; I try to teach that to Kalista. I try and I fail.

I will miss our house in the mill village.

 

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A back and forth journey

If parents are lucky, they will die with their children adoring them.

A not-uncommon path to this conclusion may include adoration, less adoration, abandonment, slight adoration, less adoration, adoration II, moderate adoration and so forth, in a rich variety of sequences.

My daughter is in the first of these less adoration stages. She is 10 and I find myself looking at photographs of her with me when she was 2, 3, 4 … back when I was not just one pillar beneath the foundation of her very being, I was everything holding it up.

Then school came. Stupid school. It’s unfortunate to have been correct when I would have rather been wrong, but I called it: the day I walked her into kindergarten for the first time marked the gradual, steady descent from my spot at the top of her life’s totem pole. I’ve been needed less and less as she’s become more and more independent.

Let me call this one, too: next up is abandonment. She will hate me soon and I’ll wait for her to enter adulthood … when the frontal lobe of her brain will finish developing and she’ll view me as the person who loves her the way I always have.

All of this is exactly why Kalob came into my life at a wonderful time. I get to come home from work every day and receive celebrity treatment. Yes, the older children are happy to see me, but they love other people, too. After they greet me and share brief conversations about their day I had to initiate, I’ll see Kalob in his booster seat – covered with his dinner and a smile.

He squirms. Not to escape the chair, but to see me. I can’t get to him fast enough.

In this life, I am fortunate to have been loved and even adored. Some people do not receive this. But I’m lucky enough to have been loved and adored exclusively by my children at one time or another. I don’t feel unselfish for noticing the feeling that comes from being their only one, or at least pretending like I am. That is truly special … even if it does not last forever.

Tonight while Hollie helped Kalista and Jakob pack to move into our new house, I sat on the couch with Kalob, sharing a bag of chips. It began with me giving him smaller pieces and ended with him digging them out of the bag himself like a miniature version of an old fat man. Then we read. Then I gave him his bedtime milk and he fell asleep in my arms. Then I laid him in his bed.

He rested his head on my shoulder practically the entire time. The hair on the back of his head is starting to curl. He has a dimple on his temple. I love the way he laughs.  

I have four more years of this. Then Kalob goes to school. Then, if all goes according to plan, Kalista will be on the doorstep of “adoration II.” Then I get her back as Kalob goes out.

I hope to die with the adoration of each.

 

 

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Everyone’s place

“This really, really sucks,” I thought to myself.

Sunday was Mother’s Day. In traditional fashion that only happens once per year, my dad and I joined forces to make our favorite mothers “do nothing” on this day.  The children were under strict order to help by not requiring anything from Hollie or their grandmother.

I had no problem cooking. My dad had no problem cleaning. It was the serving of food – something Hollie normally does for these Sunday dinners at my parents’ house – that killed me.

There are so many kids.

They were literally everywhere when it came time to eat. Like roaches scurrying when the light is turned on, they began squirming into the house from the outside through openings I didn’t even know existed.

“I want a pork chop.”

“Can I have chicken?”

“That’s too much corn.”

Shut up. All of you. Stand in a line, take the plate I give you and be happy with it. And go. Outside. Now.

No, I didn’t say this to them. I intentionally appeared happy to be working the line at a soup kitchen by myself so Hollie or my mom wouldn’t jump up and say, “Here – let me do that.” But beneath the surface, all of these ugly emotions and smart aleck responses were festering.

How do they deal with all of these people?

Too often, I take for granted these simple actions by the mothers in my life. When I arrived at my parents’ house earlier in the day, my mom – despite the day being one for her – was on the deck staining by hand the edges of the deckboards my dad and I had missed the day before. Hollie is usually the one who is last to fill her plate and eat on Sundays because she makes sure all of the children – our three and my parents’ three – get their food first. Then she makes sure all of the adults have tea. Then she gets the baby started on his food. Then one of the older children wants more potatoes. Then the baby throws his cup on the floor, so she has to pick it up. Usually, by the time she starts eating, everyone else is done.

Although I tried to make her and my mother first to eat this Sunday, Hollie still came back inside where I struggled to feed the baby and waited until he was done to begin eating her own dinner. Her food had to have been ice cold by that time. I’d grilled steaks and fried chicken wings for her and pork chops for the kids so those vultures would leave her stuff alone. But the vultures were her first priority. I was her first priority. Everyone and everything other than herself was her first priority.

My mother, meanwhile, continued to referee squabbles, answer questions from the children that never should have been asked and respond to general silliness instead of eating her food. It seemed her role as a mother hadn’t ceased for Mother’s Day.

“How can they be enjoying this?” I wondered, frustrated.

A few hours later, after the cake had been eaten, tables cleared and kitchen cleaned, Hollie thanked me for the day. It was not an obligatory statement, either. I could tell she had actually enjoyed everything.

I realized then a mother’s job never stops, despite everyone’s efforts to give them a break or make them take it easy. That does not mean, however, Mother’s Day is lost. It means they have embraced this role as a mother and have no interest in clocking out.

Even on Mother’s Day.

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Sentimentalism is a badge one earns

I cry during movies.

There. I admitted it.

Not the “tears rolling down my face, choking on every breath” sobbing one may think I mean … well, the “choking on every breath” part is correct when the tone of a movie brings it on.

And it’s only getting worse as I age.

MY FIANCE LOVES to give me a hard time about this. She comes from a “rough and tumble” family in the South. Men are “men” and women cry and do dishes. Both vote for Donald Trump … that sort of mindset. She has always labeled me as “sensitive” and told me I wear my heart on my sleeve because I do. I get very angry while watching football, become all “hyped up” when victims are victimized and cry when something makes me sad or – believe it or not – overly happy.

I can picture her in my mind, right now, laughing at me from her recliner as we watch a movie and interrogating rhetorically, “are you crying?”

Yes, I am crying, I’ll think but not say. I can’t help it.

TO BE HONEST, also, I don’t care what anyone thinks about this. I work every day to support my family so she can stay home and take care of the kids, I change oil myself and would not be caught dead trusting another person to mow our lawn. I also hunt, love power tools and would enjoy having a truck, but it’s just not practical for all of these kids we have to tote around. Clearly, I am not a sissy. However, I do cry and am not afraid to admit it because, frankly, there is no denying it.

So tonight, as I found myself crying, once again, this time as I watched “Cinderella” (not the animated version, but the new one by Disney) with my daughter, I remembered crying is just what I do.

But why? Why tonight, over a movie I knew would end EXACTLY how it did?

Because – and here’s the crux of this post – I’ve had an experience in life that reminds me EXACTLY of this movie. “Cinderella,” according to this latest version from Disney, was raised by her father following the death of her mother. Cinderella carried with her for the rest of her life lessons taught to her, directly and indirectly, by her mother and father and blossomed into someone truly beautiful. That is EXACTLY what I want for my own daughter.

I DID CRY when she finally met the prince and presented her true self to him at the end of the movie, even though I knew that would ultimately happen. It made me think of her parents, who were both likely looking down from Heaven proud of what she’d become – a woman of ideals and perseverance in the face of insurmountable adversity. If I were dead, that’s what I’d want to see of my children.

But had I never had a daughter or spent time with her as a single father or experienced the blessing that is being a parent in general, I never would have watched this movie at all or certainly cried over it. Life gave me the blessing that is the chance to be a father … and for that, I find story lines similar to “Cinderella” something beautiful.

As life goes on and presents me with more unique, challenging and rewarding experiences, I find myself striking a chord with more movies, books and others’ experiences … and if these make me cry, so be it.

I am okay with that.

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Needing me

They will always want more and I am thankful for that.

Tonight I had a bitching session inside my head as my two older children called me from the living room. It was like they were taking turns coming up with mundane requests just to aggravate me as I stood in the kitchen washing dishes after making dessert for tomorrow’s Sunday dinner.

First, they wanted to watch a movie. Fine, I thought. I’ll find something on Netflix and return to my duties, which were, at that time, making a cheesecake for Hollie, those kids, my parents, their kids, probably my uncle … basically everyone except me, because I would likely get stuck at work.

“No, I don’t want to watch that one.”

“But I do.”

“Okay, how about this one?”

“Yeah!”

“Noooo … “

Drag that dialogue out for 120 seconds and repeat it four times and you get an idea of what the movie selection was like. As usual, I made an executive decision and told them both to deal with it or go to bed. Then I started the movie and stormed out of the room.

That’ll show them.

“Daddy,” I heard 48 seconds later. I returned to the living room.

“Can we have popcorn or ice cream?”

That came from the night before, when we rented a movie from Redbox and I offered to run by the grocery store for treats to eat. I was in a better mood then.

“No,” I said, turning back toward the kitchen, my voice fading away from the little freeloaders as I made my escape. “Just sit down and watch the movie.”

Two seconds later, I hear it again … the adolescent voice of someone who just isn’t satisfied with what they’ve got.

“Daddy?”

I’d had it. It was a Saturday night. They were already up later than usual with the promise of being up even later because the movie’d just started. I was tired from their infant brother, who’d kept me from a complete sleep cycle for the last four months, getting up at 5:30 that morning for work, helping move furniture the second I got home, helping clean up from dinner, unloading the dishwasher, loading the dishwasher, breaking up fights, spraying air freshener, dodging the rain that’s been going on for 40 days and 4,000 nights, hanging up photos, mounting a power strip near the outlet in the kitchen where my daughter charges her phone because she unplugged the crockpot this afternoon while tonight’s dinner was cooking so she could plug in her phone, making this damn cheesecake (it wasn’t a “damn” cheesecake until just now – up until this point, it was a perfectly delightful experience) and unloading the dishwasher again.

And what do these kids do? Want. Want, want, want. Always more. They had a pleasant day – probably one like people have in pleasant places like England or Wales – frolicking about the house, helping their mother with simple tasks (that were likely also pleasant like England or Wales), getting to eat lunch at my workplace with me and now – after all of this bloody pleasantry – were charged with the simple chore of watching a movie. Yet it wasn’t good enough. Not nearly, apparently.

“What?” I said sharply, marching back into the living room like a lunatic. They looked scared. Even the movie seemed to get quiet. “What could you possibly want now?”

That’ll teach ‘em.

“We were just wondering if you were going to watch the movie with us,” one said quietly.

Oh. That’s it?

Of course. Duh, I thought to myself. They just wanted my time.

Once again I was reminded of all of those Facebook posts that make people feel like bad parents because they have to work. I’m working myself to the bone, planning for Christmas, paying bills, buying them what they need and some of what they want, helping around the house when I’m not at work, etc., etc., etc., but now they want my time.

Nope, I thought. Not going to work. Not going to make me feel bad, kids. Because if I don’t finish this cheesecake – the kind your mother really likes and is really expecting because I told her I’d make it and bought the ingredients after taking Jakob to get a haircut earlier – your mother’s going to make me feel like I don’t care about her. Still, it calmed me down.

“I’m sorry. I can’t right now. But let me get this cheesecake in the oven. Just let me do that – give me 15 minutes – and I’ll come in and watch the movie with you.”

And I did.

All of these old people look at us when we’re out eating or bailing one of the kids out of jail and they just smile. Some older folks who work with me will see us all together when they join me for lunch in the cafeteria and later say, “You’re so blessed.”

I am. I know that. I’ve often thought what it would be like without them. What it’d be like to work 60 hours per week without feeling like I’ve let down a 10- or 5- or not-even-1-year-old. How it’d feel to go to bed exhausted and just roll over and fall asleep without telling a woman who loves me so much for all that is wrong and all that is right about me that I’m thankful to have her in my life. What it’d be like to spend the money I made on myself or not have to worry about adequate housing or paying for electricity or car insurance on two vehicles or making a car payment because it’s important we have vehicles that don’t break down and not the piece of $2,000 crap I’d probably drive if it were just me.

I wonder what it’d be like to be able to buy everything but still have nothing.

That’s how it would feel without my family. This struggle? This constant wonder if what I’m doing is enough? This pressure? It’s all worth it. Every bit of it.

Because I am needed – not by a job or a neighbor or a guy trying to buy drugs from me, but by my family. Four people who depend on me to come through. Four people who ask for more but are happy even if they don’t get it because I give enough every day. I am good enough. What I do is good enough.

Old people whose kids are grown and have lost contact must feel some kind of way. I couldn’t imagine not being needed like this. I feel for them.

I guess that’s why they tell me I’m blessed.

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Reminders

Every night, when I am lucky, I get to smell the gentle scent of baby powder inside my left arm.

When I’m fortunate, the embrace of this sensation does not elude me.

Too often, though, it does.

I tell myself, when I think of it, he is my chance to relive his sister’s time as a baby … and live, for the first time, whatever I missed with her. I look back upon these times in her life at videos and pictures and birthday cards and artwork and wish I could have that moment again, whatever it was – that trying, difficult and beautiful time. I cannot.

When I pray, which is not often as I should, I ask God to remind me I will be wanting to live these beautiful times with him again someday, these beautiful times and moments. I hope remembering this will help me forget about the rest: how tired I am at the end of the day, how badly the house needs cleaned, what football game is on TV. I am no good at this.

I do not deserve him. I do not deserve her, or her or him. I’ve become too concerned with what I think I need to consistently appreciate any of them as they deserve. We all need each other – and that’s all. They all need me as much as I need them. And that is 100 percent.

God has blessed us all with the means for his mother to stay home with him each day. Each morning, I wake up alone, have some coffee and prepare myself for work, waking his brother and sister before nudging his mother to life so she can take them to school. I kiss them goodbye and stand over Kalob’s crib, refraining from touching him in fear of waking him before Momma’s out of bed. It will be nearly 12 hours until I see them all again.

Do I realize this enough? Does it, often as it should, make me cherish the few hours I get with them each day while we’re all awake? Does it make me want to call in sick to work when I am healthy?

No. Rarely. Never. In that order.

Tonight, I will try following my own instructions for the older children in their bedtime prayers and thank God for something instead of making a request. I will thank Him for the baby powder smell in the crook of my arm, where he laid his soft, bald head two hours after his bath and minutes after his nighttime bottle. I will thank God for his tiny laugh. I will thank God for my babies and a woman who loves me …

… in spite of myself.IMG_4511 (2)

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A Father’s Lessons

There are numerous cliché happenings in a boy’s life known to mark his entrance into “manhood.”

Eighteenth birthday. First beer with a parent. First utility bill in his name.

I’m an old man now. I can’t run at the top of my game with five hours of sleep anymore. My back hurts from time to time. I’m aware of the term “invincible” and know I’m not it. Still, I remember experiencing these clichés and thinking, “Wow – I’m a grownup.”

Then I’d do something childish, reminding me I wasn’t quite there yet.

NO, I WAS not a “man” more than a decade ago just because I was older than 18 and moved to another part of the country by myself for college. I wasn’t a man when I graduated or landed my first “real” job or moved into my first apartment without a roommate.

I realized I had become a man the first time Father’s Day rolled around and I was receiving gifts. That is when it hit me.

See, when you don’t have children, Father’s Day is exclusively about recognizing the men in your life who are father figures to you. You still have to do that after you have children, but it becomes a little different once you find yourself also on the receiving end of the deal. That’s when you know you’ve become a man.

Facebook is rampant with posts concerning racism, the Confederate Flag and references to shootings at a black church by a white man who hated them because they were black. One such post caught my eye today, Father’s Day. It had a photo of a baby with words to the effect of “babies are born without hate and bigotry; it’s our job to make sure they stay that way.”

One difference between a boy and a man is responsibility. Men have the responsibility of raising boys and girls in a manner that teaches them love and hate – a deed accomplished solely through actions, not words. The boys and girls, on Father’s Day, are expected to acknowledge their fathers’ efforts. That is why Father’s Day reminds me every year of my responsibility as a dad: I have tiny, developing brains attached to eyes that are watching me constantly, learning from how I lead far more than they’ll every learn from my verbal instructions.

Anyone can pay a bill. Anyone can have a good job, fancy house, flashy car or be known in the community as “respectable.” But not everyone can be a father. That’s the most difficult job of all, for it requires you to be “on the clock” 100 percent of the time. The pay, however, makes it worth the challenge.

I MIGHT BE GETTING too old for my own good, but today was the best Father’s Day I’ve ever had. My Kalista is definitely growing up and I look back on days when it was only the two of us in a small cottage between cotton fields in North Carolina with happiness, but I do not wish to return. Now I have my parents and sister’s three children in the same town. Now I have my Kalob, who makes me return to my home each night with the scent of baby lotion on my hands. Now I have a woman who makes me believe everything will be all right, no matter how it ends up.

Every one of them makes me delighted to be a dad.

When I was in college, my father got hung up on this idea for a mountain bike trip to Yellowstone, for which we’d live like savages and ditch anything electronic. I remember him setting a year. I remember him going over finances, stating it would be a few years after I graduated and started working, so I would be able to swing something like that. He presented it to me like it was a dying wish.

“You still want to do that?” I asked him a few years ago.

He just laughed. When the plan was discussed, I had no children. He wasn’t raising my sister’s three children. Financially, we could afford it today, but neither of us has the time to skip town for a month just to live out a Henry David Thoreau essay.

And he was okay with that.

I’ll admit, I was kind of shocked. It’s always seemed like my dad’s never getting the things he wants because he’s always making sacrifices for his family: jobs, cars, vacation destinations. Why wouldn’t he jump at the chance to finally do something outlandish he wanted to do? This bothered me for months.

In the time since, I’ve come to discover my answer. His family is his destination. He knows the reward is not in what we do, but with whom we do it. Happiness is only real when shared.

While I could be a little offended he turned down quality one-on-one time with his son, what might also be happening here is the teaching that never stops when you’re a parent: as a father, my children expect me to be there for them 100 percent of the time. Voluntarily dropping off the grid for a month would be terribly disappointing to those who count on me, well, 100 percent of the time. I should know better – and that’s probably why he laughed when I asked if he still wanted to go.

I am so thankful for the man whose actions I mimic 99 percent of the time.

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