immigration, Love, parenthood, Politics, Racism, Uncategorized

A story of other Donalds: You cannot have this nation

tafoya-potWhen I was younger, my eyes were directed toward the future. With age, I look to the past with more curiosity than I once did.  Now that my parents have died, I want to ask questions I didn’t value in prior years. That is one of the barbs of grief; there are no more questions. What has passed is past.

I grew up without grandparents. My father’s father, who died a dozen years before I was born, was Hugh Donald Stewart. Hugh’s parents were immigrants from Scotland and England. His mother died at 31, leaving five sons, the youngest just eight days old. He was drafted into the US Army during the First World War. His gravestone notes his service: PVT, Company B, 116th Supply Train. He lived and died in Missouri, married a German Catholic, and was the father of six children, the eldest named Donald.

His story is an American story. His nation is one of service and perseverance through tragedy.

My father was named Raymond Gerard. He was 19 years old when his brother Donald died. At his mother’s behest, he followed Don’s footsteps into the Catholic priesthood. In his late 30s he left his vocation to marry and lead a nonprofit treatment center for alcoholic adults. He supported past clients with his ongoing friendship and patronage. Our Volkswagen Beetle was always serviced by Jesus and Tibor, two such men.

His story is an American story. His nation is one of humble faith and friendship.

My son is named Anthony Raymond. He is my father’s only grandson. When he was two weeks old, my father had a heart attack. My father was not well for any year of my son’s life, but Papa recovered and continued on, recovered and continued on. Anthony possesses my father’s gentle heart and ease with affection. Those two were pals. My father declared it so. “We’re good friends,” Papa assured him. “Really really good friends.”

Anthony’s story is an American story. His nation is one of gentleness and nurturing.

These are white men, one still a boy, the descendants of Christian European immigrants. Their nation may not be what you predict. Their nation never stays the same. Their nation grows wiser and wiser. Their nation learns; it is kind.

My parents bought a modest tract home just a few months before I was born. The back yard seemed vast to me as a child, the trees on the lawn forming three bases for baseball: weeping willow to apple to ash. My father was a tinkerer and fond of books, and he kept his religious faith his entire life. He had his own soft-cover copy of the Bible in which he wrote notes. From Psalm 145, he underlined: “May our sons be like plants well-nurtured in their youth, our daughters like wrought columns such as stand at the corner of the temple.”

My parents began to collect handmade art from native peoples when I was a child. First they bought a Navajo rug. This rug, they explained, was in the Two Grey Hills style. Their collection then expanded into pottery, first Hopi and Santa Clara Pueblo. Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, they told me, was one of the greatest potters in all the world. Her creations were a marvel. We took a road trip to native land to purchase pottery from artists. My father asked one such artist, named Madeline Tafoya, if he could take her picture posing with her work. She agreed.

Their intersecting story is an American story. Their nation is one of reverent study and mutual respect.

My father coached youth soccer for many years. My mother was into it too; she rooted unapologetically from the sidelines (“Kick it kick it kick it!!!”) and helped my dad plan player substitutions on soccer fields drawn on yellow legal pads. Years later, when I told my parents that my friend, a star defender on our team, was in a same-sex relationship, neither said a single disparaging word. My father didn’t grow up in a world of rainbow flags; he was a young adult in the 1950s, after all. And yet he continued to welcome and support the woman he had known as a determined little girl.

He and my friend together have an American story. Their nation is one of love.

In my father’s penultimate year of life, he and my mother were tended to by a professional caregiver named Fay, a woman from Iran who often read materials in Farsi during her stays in their home. My father thanked her often. One day while she and I sat in an emergency room corridor, Fay told me a tender tale: she had helped my father with his shoes, and as she knelt before him, he kissed her head in thanks. At the estate sale for my parents’ condo not long after that day, I gave a desk, lamp, several pots and pans, office supplies —  even a Peruvian tapestry — to an Iranian father who came by. He was a new immigrant to the US. “I have nothing,” he said. He paid me a small sum in exchange for the many items. My father would have done the same.

That immigrant’s story is an American story. His nation is one of hope and opportunity.

My father circled this in his Bible, from Proverbs: “Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses.” His father before him, and he, and my son, and the potter, the soccer player, and the immigrant now cooking with my parents’ pots — all have American stories. They are the Donalds and the Raymonds, the Madeline Tafoyas and the Fays. This is their country. No one can take away their nation.

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parenthood, Uncategorized

They’ve got your back: Why my real-life crime story became a sign of hope

img_3475The first time I was catcalled was the summer I turned 12. “Loooooove you! In the purple!” the boys called. My reaction was a mix of awkward flattery and disbelief. Were they mocking me? They kept at it, giggling.

 

The first time I was propositioned was four years later, the summer I turned 16. A classmate at writing camp asked me in a student lounge, without particular warning, whether, hey, I wanted to “go do it now.” I said, “Go do it?” and turned away from him. We weren’t even friends. Lack of teenage nuance aside, the message was disheartening: there were those who cared not at all about what I had to say, my interests or biography or my voice. To some, I was only a body, and a body was something to be used.

 

I chose to teach my eldest daughter, now 15, that term “catcall” not long ago, when a truckload of men passed us while we walked the dog. I didn’t tell her much more — I didn’t warn her that as a comely young woman, she could expect years of this, or that she should always be mindful of her personal well being. We’ve talked about safety before, but on that street with the truck newly passed and her awareness of the men’s behavior still tending toward innocence, it felt like too much a visit from the adulthood she has not yet fully entered. I numbly kept it as a vocabulary lesson and couldn’t bear much more.

 

My youngest daughter made it to only first grade before she was viewed in sexual terms by a man, albeit one with criminal psychopathy. She and a friend had stopped at a park drinking fountain, taking a break from their rides on their scooters, when a man dropped his pants in the alcove of the adjacent bathroom. She and her friend were both only six years old.

 

One might look at me and my daughters, and at the countless similar stories of so many of us women viewed first as objects of sexual interest, and feel sullen or even enraged. We might gauge the low bar we have set for those in the recent public sphere and grow further troubled. Surely, we have work to do.

 

Amid this clamor, I offer a single hopeful sign that we humans are worthy creatures. There is more to the story of the day my youngest daughter became the victim of a sex crime.

 

Two young men witnessed the man’s criminal behavior in that alcove. They immediately accosted the offender and ensured he couldn’t flee. They moved him to the nearby lawn, where scores of their friends and family — at the park that day for a large gathering — encircled him.

 

I was aware of none of this. My daughter had subsequently fallen and skinned her knee. Totally ignorant of what had happened by the drinking fountain, I went to my vehicle to find a bandage and left my daughter with her friend’s mom. When I returned, I observed the group maintaining their angry circle around a lone man, seated helplessly on the grass. Their outrage was obvious. I gradually pieced together what had happened. Without those everyday heroes, the crime would’ve gone unpunished. I would have no idea what had happened to my young child.

 

 

Of course I was sickened to realize my little girl was a victim of a crime and that our lives were about to be impacted by a criminal case. Juxtaposed against those strong emotions, however, I couldn’t help but be reassured by the actions of those two young men and their benevolent posse. It was not their children who were victimized. Yet their outrage was certain and their course influential. By intervening, they likely protected future victims. The perpetrator turned out to be a registered sex offender with a lengthy record.

 

So it was their children who were victimized that afternoon next to that drinking fountain. And their children are mine. With their swift action, those two 22-year-olds – not much past their teen years themselves — introduced me to the justice of community, to a selfless vigilantism that comforts me to this day.

 

The legal proceedings dragged on for three years as the defendant sought repeated delays. Finally he pleaded guilty. A repeat offender, he will be sentenced in December and could receive up to 14 years in prison.

 

So it can be an ugly world. It can be an ugly and contentious world, a place dominated by self-interest and greed and the undervaluing of others. I’ve fretted over my child’s innocence lost, mulled restlessly over the unsettling “What if…?” question, and regretted the sad optics of taking my baby to a courtroom to practice serving as a witness in advance of a trial. The world can bring us pain. But two young men rushed to protect two little girls that day, and their tribe became my tribe, and our lives were linked. Our culture might stumble and err, and our media-saturated narrative might seem beyond repair, but there is good out there. There are many who respect the bodies and minds of women and girls. There is connection. We belong to each other. We have to let ourselves believe that, and then live that credo as brave witnesses.

 

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parenthood

A mother’s look back

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This is a reprise of an essay I wrote back in April 2009, on the one-year anniversary of my daughter’s diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes

One year ago this afternoon, my baby girl was sick. On and off, she had been fussy for days. Late in the afternoon on the 20th of April, she had vomited. I hoped for the random fleeting-sickness of early childhood. Twelve hours later, in the early morning, we awoke abruptly as she vomited again. And then, she slipped into something unfamiliar: sleepiness? That wasn’t it. It was lethargy. Eventually, non-responsiveness. Her breathing quickened. I remember the sight of her eyelids as I held her in my arms, still hoping for an explanation that would be treatable, something that would disrupt our lives for this day, this week, and then cure itself just like so many viruses, so many quirky kid bugs.

                There is a number when you are diagnosed with diabetes. That is all you need. A measure of blood glucose. It is a simple finger prick, a wait of some seconds, and then a number. 408. And then a rush, shock. For me, of course, who cries monthly, if not weekly, a steady stream of tears began that would not end for hours, as new sights and words urged them on.

                We rushed her ourselves to the children’s hospital. People stare at you, inevitably, when you walk speedily into an ER with that stubborn stream of tears and the baby who does not wake up. And then you yearn for an escape from the foreground, to be seated and anonymous, to believe that no one particularly cares what you’re doing and doesn’t attend to the message of your face. You wish for this: I want to just be, as everyone else.

                She returned to wakefulness the next morning. The nurse had promised it would be a long night. We will get through it. And then, after dawn, there was Gloria, awake, who pointed with a dimpled baby arm and declared, “Rice.” It was her word of the month back then, her catch-all proclamation, and of course I cried.

                And so, here we are, one year later, and I can’t help but reflect on that day. I have an imprintable heart, and I am not one to let dates pass without stirring their meaning in my mind. There is much to dislike about this day for me. My memories still feel young, and they have not taken pity on me yet, nor softened with any note of kindness. It saddens me to think that this is just year one of many, that there is nothing that recedes, there is no “getting better”, no past tense. I do not hope for a cure – there is nothing proximate about such an ending, so talk of a cure feels like folly to me. Neither am I on a journey, for that too suggests an end. Gloria is living her life. I am accompanying her. It is a maddening task, much of her phenomenology opaque to me. It is humbling, frustrating, unceasing. I repeat phrases: we have our good days and our bad days. More accurately, there are things that are good and things that are bad about virtually every day. I try. I have many five-second spans of concern when I wait for the results of a finger prick. Her blood sugar is too high. Her blood sugar is too low. Act. You miscalculated, overshot, undershot, almost got it, didn’t. I use faint praise too much: “decent”.

                I have to find something promising in this day. She is one year older. In that year, she has learned to talk. She has taken on the righteous outrage of the typical two-year-old. She plays. She feeds her baby dolls, puts on her own shoes, hones her toddler humor. She bops, grins, is still a fan of a good round of peek-a-boo. She has been to Disneyland twice, ridden a city bus to the county fair, gone on four camping trips, taken an airplane ride, discussed “Barracko Bama”. The reflection of her cuteness is no less blinding than it would otherwise be – I am overwhelmed by it, as I was and continue to be with my other two children. There are an abundance of moments for which I, like any parent, am grateful: when she rouses from sleep as I sit near her, and she murmurs, “My baby?” and her hand finds her nearby baby doll. She imitates my made-up songs, puts her head on my shoulder, pats my back. “Hold you!” she admonishes me, and I hoist her up another time, and she is back on my hip. I was never going to limit her, never going to sit down, never planning to stop encouraging her to enjoy the diversity of pleasures available for the grasping. Still, I resent everything about her disease, I resent our culture of sugar and of eating, and I resent the questions I have to ask myself every week: is she screaming or is that the diabetes screaming?

                So, we have made it to another April 21st, and it is a blessedly ordinary day. Memories will age, others will form. Eventually she will no longer fit on my hip, but her burden will remain. I am left with a lament known to many others: there is much, much – too much – that a parent cannot do

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