Essays


My Girl
June 2011 for my daughter's 12th birthday

While I was watching my girl play basketball last week, I kept picturing that Fisher Price basketball goal. You know, that clunky, brightly colored plastic thing that so many of us bought our kids? I got it for her big brother, actually. He played with it some just to please me. But my blonde, blue-eyed girl, she slammed that little basketball into the net every day. I raised the backboard as far as it could go, but it was never high enough for her. That goal did not hold together long enough to make the garage sale.
So, finally I bought the big goal – the one that lets you raise the backboard. We played PIG when she was younger, because the game went faster. I let her win. Of course, she got tired of that and asked to play HORSE and only if I played for “real.” Fine, I said, and began to beat her often and triumphantly – that is, until last spring.
Now, she’s way past Webkins, Barbies, doll houses, training wheels, Disney Channel, Little People, nightlights, toys in the bathtub. She is a communications specialist: Skype, texting, Facebook, Facetime, talking on the phone. She has a laptop, an iPod Touch and a cell phone and needs all of them  – sometimes at the same time. Her thumbs race while mine limp.
She is a writer, a musician, a fashion consultant and an interior designer. She is athletic but loves to paint her nails and wear pretty dresses. She is a rather serious Scrabble player and knows the Life board from memory. She is a loyal friend, a terrific sister and an awesome daughter. By her next birthday, she will be taller than I am.
When I was thinking about that Fisher Price goal, she was lining up for the perfect jump shot – behind the three-point line on the right baseline. Her favorite. I knew it was good when she let it go. I’ve seen her make that shot a million times. In HORSE, it’s her E shot. She uses it to put me away. Square up. Body straight. Eyes on the rim. Arms high. Right hand follows through. Swish!
So, maybe she’s not my little girl anymore. But she is still my girl.


Memories
Original/September 2007


Updated for Informer magazine/October 2011

When my daughter was 8, she enjoyed all the adventures in a book series about Jennifer “Cam” Jamson, a young girl with a photographic memory. She would practice memorizing items in a room by closing her eyes and “clicking” like a camera, the way Cam does in the stories. But something always escaped her (and me) when we played this game.
“Mom, why can’t I remember everything?” she asked one time.
I know the feeling. I have paused – in the middle of a lecture to a class – and realized I had no idea what I had planned to say next. I have walked out of the house without my keys. I have left half-full coffee cups on bookshelves, in the garage, on my son’s dresser and on the bathroom counter. I have left sugar out of cookie dough and eggs out of cake batter. I always have to park near the catalog center at J.C. Penney; otherwise I wander out of the mall in what my daughter calls a “confuzzled” manner. It’s true; I have no idea where I parked.
But then, clearly, I can remember walking with my kindergarten class into the Natural History Museum. I remember playing in the backyard at my fourth birthday party. I remember one day, as a 10-year-old, holding tightly to a large piece of cardboard so that I could slide down a steep, icy road while my older sister urged me on. One of my favorite childhood memories? When an ice storm snapped the power lines and knocked out our electricity for a week. Our five-member family had to live in our closed-off family room in front of the fireplace. (This is NOT one of my mother’s favorite memories.)
If you think about it, you might realize that your own memories are based on small, ordinary things.
We try so hard to control our memories. That’s why we take thousands of pictures and upload them to Facebook or put them in photo albums, scrapbooks or in a file on the computer. That’s why we mark the children’s heights on a wall, put baby teeth in baggies and stash away fingerpaintings.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could remember, with precise detail, all the really incredible moments in our lives whenever we wanted?  Instead, memories come back in paint splotches, uneven and incomplete, at the oddest times.
My memories from a long-ago trip to Europe have little to do with how many days were spent in a particular place or how long the train routes were. But in my mind I carry snatches of the breathtaking views of Vienna, the sounds of classical music in Salzburg, the smells of fresh bread from a bakery on a cobblestone street in Edinburgh, the feel of cold rain in London. 
One time, I asked some of my college students to write a few paragraphs about their memories of family life. Who reared them? Did they spend a lot of time with their parents or with other adults?
The honesty and self-revelation that resulted from this simple exercise astonished me. Students who had never spoken in class wrote openly of their childhoods—some were idealistic, with stories of loving parents and family closeness. Others were tragic and sad: “Mom was frustrated and hated her job;” “My parents didn’t like spending time with me;” “I have only met my dad a few times;” “I was taken away from my parents when I was 6;” “My father abandoned me.”
I once read in a devotional book that the only way to be a part of your children’s memories is to spend time with your children today. Simple, right? In other words, spend more time making memories than preserving them.
What might your children write on a future college assignment? What matters to them? Was it when you laughed at the silly joke, read to them in front of the fireplace, took the basketball team out for ice cream, watched the birds play in your backyard, rode shotgun with your teenage driver, jumped in the puddles?
My children have traveled quite a bit. They’ve visited state capitals, children’s museums, national monuments; they have even made the rounds of the California theme parks.
One time, we were discussing our next trip when my 6-year-old daughter bounded into the living room and loudly proclaimed, “Do you know what my favorite time EVER was?!”
 “No, I don’t,” I said, smiling at her contagious enthusiasm.
 “It’s when we play dolls, and you do the silly voice!”
Of course.


Out of the Military
1990 for my Dad
If you ever catch his smile you'll feel like you've won a gold medal. Thirty years out of the military and he's still got that Marine face – eyes of blue steel, weathered complexion and not even a sliver of facial hair. The crewcut is clean and regulation short, saturated with gray now. He's 5-feet-10 and three-quarters inches tall, and he walks like the general he could have been, his bootsteps, announcing his arrival.
Twenty-eight years out of the military had added weight to the boot-camp body. So, it was a triumph for him – by the thirtieth year – to have eaten enough rabbit food that he could have easily put on that regal white uniform.
He's planning a visit to Quantico, Virginia, the place where it all began. The Marines train quite a few good men there, and now they're training his newest son-in-law. He figures a weekend in Virginia will allow enough time for negotiations with Father Time and a run up the step grassy hill on the base's obstacle course.
He's seen a lot of things since his time in Virginia: He's had three daughters, four sons-in-law, three La-Z-Boys, two satellite dishes and too many holidays away from home, but he's still married to the woman who accompanied him there.
Long after the Marines, he became a famous Sunday chef. Those 6:30 a.m. meals meant thick pancakes, charred bacon, scrambled eggs and a ton of milk. The flour – like snow – landed everywhere, and he never knew what to do with the egg shells. His off-duty uniform of overalls and houseshoes showed off his farmer's tan as he leaned on the railing and barked up the stairs, "EVERYBODY UP!" If the troops didn't hustle, they missed the feast and risked stomach growls in church and the general's glares from the other end of the pew.
His favorite aphorism that can be repeated in mixed company is, "lead, follow or get the hell out of the way," but he's not known for the latter two. The military helped him earn two degrees, and he's founder, president and chief ditchdigger of a business that has annihilated or incorporated all regional competition. But often, he'd work for widows or single mothers, asking no more than a cup of coffee in return. On one trip many years ago, a homemade cookie for his "assistant" – the middle daughter – was enough pay for a couple of hours of late-night work.
He's certainly made more money than he ever could have if he hadn't gotten out of the military. But every time he talks about going back to Virginia, that smile takes command of his whole face.