A Tribute to My Grandmother

Years ago, I spoke at the memorial service for my maternal grandmother, Gene Wenzel. A few days before, I was sitting on a park bench with a yellow legal pad on my lap and a ballpoint pen in my hand trying to write what I would say. At first, I was drawing blanks, stuck in what I felt I was “expected” to say.

Suddenly, letting go of the “shoulds,” I flashed on the word “spirit.” I had recently learned that the Latin root for spirit was spirare which means “to breathe.” I started writing down all the words I could think of that had “spirit” in them. Among these were “inspire” (to draw in air), “respire” (to inhale and exhale), and “expire” (the last breath).

Another of these words was “conspire.”

Up until then, I’d always seen this word as negative, used to describe people plotting to do something bad. But it really just means to breathe together. And there is something magical and mysterious about that.

When we are in the same place we are conspiring, breathing together. But it’s even more than that. We are sharing air, me breathing in some of what you’ve exhaled and you breathing in some of what I’ve exhaled. We are conspiring, literally. What was once inside you goes inside me, and what was once inside me goes inside you. This was a profound realization for me.

Where do I stop and you begin?

This became the basis of my memorial to my grandmother, the conspiracies that took place throughout her life and the one taking place right there in the church among those of us who had come together to celebrate and acknowledge her life.

A conspiracy. And what a lovely one.

It’s a kind of conspiracy that you are reading this story that I wrote. And if you are moved by it in any way, you likely found inspiration in it.

That’s all part of our common humanity.

“This is Not a Date!”

It’s September, 1990 and I’ve just left a job that was eroding my soul. For several months I had shunned social interactions, so drained was I by the challenges of this job.

In the hopes of re-energizing, I called up my friend Bruce to see if he was planning to go to Bumbershoot, the annual music festival at the Seattle Center that takes place every year over Labor Day Weekend. Nick Lowe was scheduled to perform and both Bruce and I are longtime Nick Lowe fans. It would be fun to hang out with a friend.

That, at least, was my cover story.

You see, I had also been invited to attend a wedding later that month and I knew Bruce was sharing a house with Melinda. Maybe she’d like to go to the wedding with me…

“Sorry, Andy,” Bruce told me, “I won’t be in town for Bumbershoot. But let me put Melinda on the phone.”

And within minutes, not only had Melinda agreed to go to the wedding, she was interested in seeing Nick Lowe!

So here we were, the two of us, Melinda and me, walking from the Seattle Center to where I had parked my car, the concert being over. We could have stayed to see some other performers, and did in fact linger for a few minutes to hear part of Leon Redbone’s set.

Still, I was trying to be sensitive to what Melinda might want to do, including parting ways.

As we walked, making small talk, she casually made reference to her fairly new interest in horseback riding.

Turns out Melinda knew I had connections at Longacres, the racetrack just outside of Seattle, that allowed me access to where the horses were stabled. Since she’d taken up riding, she was interested in seeing thoroughbreds in training.

I asked if she’d like to head down there some time, to which her face lit up and she said, “When can we go?”

I said, “How about now?”

I think she suddenly recognized her enthusiasm to see the horses may have gotten the better of her. She’d already agreed to go to the wedding with me, we had just been to a concert together, and now she had accepted my offer to spontaneously head down to the racetrack.

Clearly, she needed to halt any ideas I might be having about this situation involving some kind of romantic activity.

“This is not a date,” she said, the tone of her voice supporting the clarity of her words.

“Um, okay,” or something equally eloquent was my response.

Of course, we were married less than four months later on December 31st, meaning today is our 30th anniversary. In those 30 years, we’ve raised two kids to adulthood, started a school, lived in France for a year, and spent pretty much every day together.

Occasionally, I’ll ask her if we’ve had a date yet.

Yes, Virginia, I Believe in Santa Claus

I believe in Santa Claus. And I believe it is my belief in him that makes him real.

When my daughters, Chloe and Ella, were young, they believed in him as an actual living, breathing entity, as I did when I was a kid. As we grew up, my daughters and I, we came to believe in him as something that is true in our hearts.

In other words, our belief in Santa Claus is not in a logical truth. Logical truths are those things that are strictly true in our heads. They can be proven scientifically. Believing in Santa is a feeling thing, something completely human that taps into the profound. Again, this is something that’s true in our hearts, the same place our intuition resides.

Each Christmas Eve when the girls were kids, we’d track Santa on the NORAD Tracks Santa website. As an adult, the fact that NORAD, the organization that monitors the airspace above the United States and Canada for safety purposes, associates itself with Santa Claus touched me. Still does, actually.

To really understand a logical or “head” truth, just consider the purpose of NORAD for a minute and all the scientific reality that goes with it. I long imagined the person (or people) who conceptualized the NORAD tracks Santa concept. Was it a bored engineer who recognized his (or her) connection to childhood, their “heart” truth, was slipping away?

It turns out there is quite a story to how the whole thing got started, some of it legend (true to the heart) and some of it fact (true to the head).

That my kids would get so excited to watch Santa moving around the world tapped into something deep within me that believes in the wonder of childhood and wanting to keep it sacred.

A piece of advice I’ve long given parents is to help their children hold onto to their childhoods as long as they can. In other words, parents, I encourage you to resist any urges, from your children and those you sometimes feel, to have your kids grow up too fast.

Now picture my two young daughters and me on Christmas Eve. Each hour, amidst the dinner preparations and excitement of arriving family, we’d reload the NORAD site to see where Santa has visited. And picture their excitement in going to bed, knowing that Santa is approaching our home, knowing that in the morning they will discover the presents he has left them.

NORAD and Santa together is the perfect blend of a head truth uniting with a heart truth. I’m interested in recognizing other such combinations. I’ve read that the way you can tell if you’re well-matched with a life partner is by confirming your love is both logical and emotional, that you’ll get into trouble down the line when it’s just one or the other, or a huge imbalance.

Can you think of some other combinations of head and heart truths? If so, share them in the comments section below, please.

I think it might be most engaging to start with the emotional truth of something, like a child’s wonder for Santa Claus, and then seeing if you can connect it to some kind of logical truth, like NORAD.

So after reading this, where do you stand on the question? Do you believe in Santa Claus?

December 18, 2020 – A Little Girl’s Christmas Credo

Pardon the misspellings.

Actually, don’t pardon the misspellings. They are part of the charm of this essay that Ella, my daughter, whose 24th birthday it is TODAY, wrote when she was in 3rd grade. The essay is called “What I blevin!”

If you haven’t figured it out, that’s “What I Believe In!” To also help you get started, Sannat Clus is Santa Claus. So, yes, this essay is about believing in Santa Claus (I’ve translated the essay below for those who have difficulty with “invented spelling”).

Take a look:

What I Believe In! – 11–27–06

It’s sad that people don’t believe in Santa Claus. Once you’re at a certain age you stop believing. But I know that people do believe in but they don’t say because they’re trying to be cool. When they’re not. If you believe in Santa you are a lot happier because the joy of him is so big that you just have to believe in him because you feel so good. My questions are how old is he? How did he become Santa? Why does he give presents?

For Andy!
by Ella Smallman Shaw

Where I’m From

My personal take on the brilliant poem by George Ella Lyon.

I’m from Sour Cherry Jells, a candy my dad sold that made my tongue, my lips, and my teeth turn red, from Dixie Cups to drink cool water from the bathroom sink at night because it tasted better in tiny paper cups than what came out of the kitchen faucet into a glass.

I’m from Kool Aid ice cubes.

I’m from parents who this November will have been married for 62 years and are together still, who as far as I know have always been together, parents who raised three boys in a meat and potatoes home, who created a midwestern life in the 1960’s that allowed my den-mother-president-of-the-PTA mom to be home at the end of every school day to offer my brothers and me a snack and a reminder to change out of our “school clothes” before heading back outside to play.

I’m from Velveeta Cheese and Spam and Miracle Whip.

I’m from the smell of rosin bags, sweat, and baseball glove leather on the dry, cracked baseball diamond in the humidity of July, from scraped knees on the vacant lot we called “The Dirt Hill”, and the scary time I got the wind knocked out of me while playing football on the Elders’ front lawn.

I’m from KOIL radio and Casey Kasem and Stella’s hamburgers and “Trip someone, get a statistic!” the year I played ice hockey.

I’m from my dad driving home from Rexall on Saturday morning, the Racing Form open across the steering wheel.

I’m from the 1970 Topps hockey card set that started it all, that 23 years later was the down payment on a house, go figure. Melinda and I had a baby now.

I’m from night terrors so bad I’d scream until everyone in the house was awake, that forced my brother to convince my parents to disassemble our bunk bed and let him sleep in peace in the basement, to the absolute knowledge of what peace feels like when your mom lays in your bed next to you at 2am and strokes your head.

I’m from Dr. Oberst telling my parents that behavior modification would cure me, that responding to my screams was reinforcing them.

I’m from the chart on the refrigerator that awarded me points that translated into hockey cards if I could just keep quiet at night.

I’m from being hospitalized in 4th grade because I just couldn’t keep quiet, from tiny orange sleeping pills I proudly swallowed without water to electrodes being attached to my head to figure out why I was, why I was so, so…

angry
mad
frightened
scared
sad
unhappy
don’t you say crazy

the shame, the shame
the SHAME.

I’m from blocking it out, blocking it out, this “scared of the dark” thing, it’s my biggest secret, my hidden shame.

I’m from a temper so bad I would slam doors and scream, one time breaking a clock radio that belonged to my grandparents and that would play “The Last Song” by Edward Bear and “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” by Lobo — did you know Boo meant grass which meant pot which meant marijuana, what’s that, the song got banned? Why?

I’m from my 3rd grade teacher pulling me by the earlobe in front of a gymnasium full of people present to see my parents honored as lifetime members of the PTA.

I’m from believing that’s what started all the shame, and then from realizing that my shame gave birth to my greatest strength, empathy.

I’m from Saturday morning speech therapy with Mrs Veizer, saltines and water, tongue thrusts and Th’s.

I’m from eighteen months with a headgear, 8pm to 8am, then another 18 months with braces, hey gang, that’s 3 years visiting Dr. Cameron not counting the retainers.

I’m from glasses at age 12. Glasses and braces, why not a red clown’s nose? Oh, I got that, too.

It’s called pimples, pimples and more pimples that I’m from.

I’m from the days I wore my mom’s cover-up to high school.

I’m from Salmonella Group D my senior year, the rectal biopsy, and praying, praying, praying to die — the stomach cramps were that bad.

I’m from Strat-O-Matic with Scott and the 1969 Minnesota Twins, César Tovar is a double A, 1–17.

I’m from bowling with Steve and yes I actually did bowl a 234 with 5 strikes in a row.

I’m from getting kicked off the bowling team my senior year after wearing a pink vest, tight black pants, mascara, and rouge to a party at the coach’s house.

I’m from door-to-door Mason Shoes and a work ethic that means you don’t stop until the job is done and you do your best, from a grandmother who gathered blackberries no matter how many times she was stung so we could have that cobbler and a grandfather who ate just one piece of candy after dinner because he cherished it more.

I’m from the still-dark silence of walking the neighborhood on weekend mornings to deliver The Seattle Times, my alarm going off at 4:52 to wake me, and the hustle of weekday afternoons to get the paper delivered by 5 while avoiding being bitten by that mean dog. 30 homes, $30/month.

I’m from Hunter’s Books and a 40 hour workweek at 17, closing the till and making a night deposit and my high school counselor saying no you can’t get Occupational Education credit for that.

I’m from second semester senior year sitting in accounting class, so bored, looking out the window, writing short stories, waiting to ace the tests so I could get the credit so I could graduate and get the heck out of there and why would I want to waste my time going to college?

I’m from Gray Whisper losing by a nose at 9–1 (I still have my two $10 win tickets) and Bokeet being sold to someone else but now Tom and I won’t be moving to Portland.

I’m from, “It’s time now for the marine weather, brought to you today and every day by Bob’s Market,” from Hank having brought me to Seward to “play radio” for a year.

I’m from Matt, and Si, and Kristopher, and Eric, and discovering I had something to offer children, that working with children was a calling.

I’m from all of this and more.

I’m from I wouldn’t change any of it, even if I could. I think that’s called privilege.

Yeah, I’m from that, too.

Do We Tell Time or Does Time Tell Us?

Years ago, when Chloe, then an only child, was three-years-old, I was home alone with her on a Saturday night. Melinda was out with a friend and I was reveling in the “alone-time” that Chloe and I were having. We made and had dinner together, and might have even watched a little TV while eating.

Decadent, I know.

After dinner, as her bedtime approached, Chloe was sitting at a little desk we had given her with a number of art supplies. Some crayons, tape, construction paper, and a pair of those little plastic scissors that only sorta-kinda work but are unlikely to cut a finger.

She was fully involved in her project, maybe at some deep level recognizing that if she engaged with me I would put a stop to it and insist she go to bed. I was definitely thinking that way but was simultaneously entertaining a conflicting thought to just let her be, mesmerized as I was by her depth of concentration and engagement. I swear the experience altered my brain chemistry and put me in a sort of meditative state.

So instead of putting her to bed, I reached for a pen and paper and found the words for a poem:

The Antique Pony, Chocolate Soup, and Staying Up Late

Saturday night sunset.
The moon comes up, big, orange, and bright,
casting shadows not from itself but as a reflection.
You sit undisturbed,
absorbed in the undiluted concentration of being 3.
Colored paper meeting scissors, manipulated by tiny hands.
Bedtime comes and goes and I ponder…
Do we tell time or does time tell us?

(Click to Enlarge)

The antique pony reference is for a rocking horse we had in the house, and chocolate soup is the pudding Chloe and I had for dessert before it had fully thickened.

Chloe graduated from college in 2015 and as a graduation gift, I presented to her the poem in a frame, enhanced with drawings created for the occasion by my artist friend, Fish Astronaut (and who, as you likely know, illustrates my kindness writings).

That’s a copy of it to the left, obviously.

So much of parenting is an exercise in patience and attention. There is probably another version of me that stopped Chloe that night from her art project, anxious to get to watch a hockey game on TV in Melinda’s absence.

I think children have a lot of wisdom to share if we adults take the time to notice.

Give Away Something that You Value

“True generosity is guided by awareness.” — Piero Ferrucci

I come from a family of “collectors.” For me, my main collection was hockey cards. You know, those rectangular pieces of cardboard that used to get packaged with a piece of gum and sold at the counters of grocery stores and drugstores? Baseball cards are much better known but, me, I collected hockey. Over many years I collected so many cards that I had amassed an impressive collection. About the time my oldest daughter was born, I sold them and made enough money for the down payment on a house.

Crazy, I know.

I also collected record albums, specializing in music from the ’70s in England, specifically what was known as “pub rock.” Elvis Costello emerged from this scene, undoubtedly the best-known musician from the time. But I also appreciated those lesser-known, which included Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker, and Ian Dury. I’d buy records that any of these musicians contributed to, which during my senior year in high school included an American three-piece rockabilly band that was gaining some notoriety in England, a band called the Stray Cats (yes, the same band that became famous around 1983 in the US — remember “Rock This Town?” – see the video below). Dave Edmunds produced their first record and it was fantastic, I thought. I found the import-only release at my favorite record store in 1981 and played it regularly.

Once I had kids, my vinyl LPs started fading into the background. They often skipped with the bouncing around of small children and my taste in music didn’t match that of preschoolers. Besides, CDs were all the rage and you could put 5 discs in a player, put it on random, and have a decent mix that would last 4 or 5 hours. No having to flip over an LP every 20–30 minutes. Bye-bye vinyl.

Years ago, I started looking through my records again and found that first Stray Cats record. I actually went hunting for it after hearing a student of mine, a high schooler, reference the band at the school I directed. Knowing that he was getting into vinyl, I thought it would make a fun gift for him. I found it and gave it to him, having that great experience of giving something to somebody that meant so much to the recipient.

In this experience, I gave up something that I valued. Just looking at the album, even the label, evoked memories I hadn’t considered in years. I got nostalgic and started thinking how much the album might be worth on eBay. But I realized that any monetary value it had could not compare with the experience I’d get in giving it to my student.

I think this gets at the best birthday and holiday gifts, at least those that touch me the most. Several years ago I taught a class on the book “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book moves me to tears every time I read it. This time, my daughter, Ella, was in the class and I read it aloud to her at home. When we got to the end, when it becomes clear that Boo Radley had saved Scout and Jem, I could hardly read for how choked up I was. When Scout realizes what has happened and sees Boo in the corner of her house, saying, “Hey, Boo,” I’m all done. Tears, the whole bit. It’s a brilliant moment in the book, the coming of age moment of a young girl.

For my holiday gift from her that year, Ella had a T-shirt printed for me with nothing but the words, “Hey Boo.” It was such a thoughtful gift, so much recognizing of who I am and what is meaningful to me, that I lost it again. Tears, indeed. That it came from my daughter after having read her the book made it all the more significant.

In the book “The Power of Kindness”, Piero Ferrucci writes, “True generosity is guided by awareness.” I like to think I had an awareness of something that would be meaningful to the student all those years ago when I gave him that record album. Clearly, Ella had that awareness regarding me when she gave me that T-shirt. As Ferrucci says, generosity of this sort transforms us.

We have made the world a little kinder.