Roller Coaster Ride

You inhale deeply as you approach the wooden archway. A voice from the speaker above you and to your right is midway through its recording: “…so ride at your own risk. Only you know your limitations.”

 

You pull the corners of your mouth into a forced smile at the child who stands beside you. She has asked you to join her on this journey. It would be pure cowardice to retreat.

 

Together, you weave through the maze of metal fencing to find your place in line. The bars are painted a dark red. Shallow scratches and deep gashes in the paint show the original steely gray underneath. You rest your palms against the horizontal bars at your waist, but pull them back as you consider all of the sticky, sweaty hands that have blazed this trail before you, pioneers in tank tops and athletic shorts.

 

You glance at your child who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with you. You notice that you are eye level now. When did she get so tall or when did you shrink? She leans her back against the bar behind her, looking carefree and relaxed. A clattering sound rumbles over your heads, followed seconds later by deafening screams, and then both sounds are gone in a rush of air.

 

You shuffle forward a few feet. Conversations circle around you. Small children whine about the wait. Mothers remind them to be patient. A girl braids her friend’s hair into a long, tight rope. You turn away when you see a young couple embrace—too much affection in such a confined space.

 

Finally, you see the loading area. You watch people—brave souls just like you—as they board the cars. You fight the urge to salute them and their bravery. The affectionate couple from before is seated and both of them look nervous.

 

“I’m a little scared,” your child says quietly. You fake enthusiasm and confidence. You tell her, “Ah, come on. It’ll be fun. I promise.”

 

The cars return with their windswept occupants, smiling broadly. You wonder if their smiles are from joy or relief or both. Either way, you are encouraged that they returned without injury.

 

Your child slides into the car and you follow her. You attempt to steady trembling hands as you buckle the thick seat belt and pull down the padded bar. The bored, teen-aged park employee walks past each pair and tugs at their restraints. Internally, you question the extent of the training that allows him to operate this giant death trap.

 

It’s too late to turn back now. The cars rumble away slowly, teasing you with their nonchalant speed. You know this is a trick. You know this ride is designed to rattle your fillings and challenge your bladder.

 

The car climbs the steep hill with a repetition of clicks. At the top of the hill, you have only the briefest moment to assess the situation. In that moment, you calculate the risks and search your memory bank for any relevant news stories of crashes and negligent park staff. Then, you fall. The rapid descent lifts you ever so slightly from your seat. Your heart races and your stomach drops.

 

You chance a look at your child next to you—her eyes shut tight and her hands thrown into the air. She smiles. You scream. You find that you are grabbing her arm, involuntarily. The fear you felt before for your safety has been transferred to fear for hers.

 

When the ride is jerked to an abrupt end, you step out of the car and onto the platform with shaky legs. “That was fun!” your child says, as she bounces up and down with the release of pent-up energy. “Wanna do it again?” You manage a weak smile in response.

 

The endless recording continues as you exit the archway: “Only you know your limitations.” You chuckle at the thought of fully knowing something as fluid as your limitations. You follow your child away from the ride, watching her long legs manage a smooth, assertive stride and you wonder where this confidence comes from.

 

Suddenly, you wake up. It was all a dream. You’re not at an amusement park, but safely in your bed. As you examine the feelings of riding those ups and downs with your child, you realize that it’s May and your child is graduating from high school. Eighteen years of being her mom, and then this. Though there are giant question marks looming overhead as big as thunderclouds which seemed to be raining down their periods in the form of hail stones, you know there are sunny days ahead, just as you know that you are the proud parent of a Class of 2020 graduate.

The 2020 Rosser Games

It feels like everything has been turned upside-down: We’re wearing masks and gloves to the grocery store. Adults are worried about their jobs and kids are missing their friends. Our elderly loved ones are more lonely than ever, as they’ve been isolated from family and others who might unintentionally make them very sick. And people are talking about toilet paper way more than they used to.

 

For my family, the loss of sports has been a big blow. It’s been so bad that I recently walked in the living room only to see the menfolk intensely watching a rerun of a competitive cup-stacking competition on TV. They’re especially sad that the Olympics have been postponed, so we decided to use the week of Spring Break to stage our own Olympic-type games—The Rosser Games. (Cue Olympic theme song.)

 

There were eight of us, so we decided to divide into 4 teams with an adult and child/teen on each team. Then we became the following countries: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Isle of Man, Greece and Argentina. Though the teams were picked at random, it was clear from the outset that the Isle of Man team was stacked with the most athletic kid and the most athletic adult. (Note: I wasn’t on that team.)

 

Our first competition was a Backyard Obstacle Course. There was jumping and running and crawling and kicking and throwing. Next came Driveway Bowling. This consisted of 10 various plastic bottles we pulled from the recycling bin and placed at the bottom of our sloped driveway. Then, the bowler stood behind a chalked line further up the driveway and rolled a soccer ball, hoping it would curve and eventually careen into the bottles.

Over the following days, my husband (the Games Commissioner) planned more games. We played Frisbee Horseshoes (where we tried to get the frisbee as close to a stake in the ground as possible with extra points awarded for hitting the stake), Foosball, Stair Golf (a cup was taped to the carpet at the bottom of the stairs and the golfer stood on the landing and attempted to putt a golf ball into the cup), Bocce Ball, and Football Toss (my son wanted to do an egg toss but I wasn’t going to waste any eggs). Our final game was Bounce Off, a game from Mattel that we have had for years but never really played much before. You sit at a table and bounce ping-pong balls into a plastic grid, trying to replicate the pattern on a card. We were surprised by how intense the competition got! If we had had sports commentators, they would’ve waxed eloquently about celebrating the unbreakable human spirit and the tragedy of defeat.

It was no surprise that Isle of Man came out the victor at the end of the week. They were first in all but two events. In lieu of medals, their awards will be coming via Amazon in a few weeks—a 3’x5’ flag of their adopted country.

 

The Rosser Games were the embodiment of one of my oft-repeated mantras during this time of quarantine: “We just have to make the best of it.” This isn’t what we wanted for our Spring Break, but it’s better than competitive moping. Maybe those imaginary sports commentators were right, maybe there is something about the unbreakable human spirit to celebrate.

Potluck

One of life’s greatest joys is a good old fashioned potluck supper. I have vivid memories of these meals in the various churches my family attended throughout my childhood.

 

As a young child, there were some women whose names I might not always remember, but I would know them by their signature homemade dishes. Their names might be Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Jones, but in my head they were “Mrs. Sourdough Bread” or “Mrs. Pistachio Jell-O Salad” or “Mrs. Lemon Squares.” Sometimes there were men with potluck specialties, too, such as “Mr. Bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken” or “Mr. Has His Own Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine.” Their contributions were just as welcome!

 

It’s comforting that in this ever-changing world, some things stay the same: Old men still make jokes, like “Thanks for making my plate!” when you approach holding a Styrofoam plate full of deliciousness you actually prepared for yourself. People still say, “I better get my dessert before everything good is gone,” just after setting their main course on the table, even though there’s plenty of desserts to go around. And sharing meals together—sharing the actual food you bring to the community tables and sharing the experience as you eat side-by-side—is still the best way to be a family.

 

Now that I’m the church lady bringing dishes to gatherings, I can appreciate the work put into these meals, and I often marvel at the variety. Crockpots full of soups and layered salads in glass trifle dishes, rows of pies and pans of brownies. Seasoned potluck organizers don’t worry what people will bring. These veterans of the Fellowship Meal know that it won’t be a table full of only fried chicken or only veggie trays or only chocolate chip cookies. They trust the attendees to bring their specialties, their best dishes, the food their own family prefers. As the people arrive, the food is laid out and…voila!…so much variety! Something for everyone!

 

The word potluck has evolved over time. Originally, it meant that a traveler was lucky to receive whatever was cooking in the pot at the home where he stopped for the night. Nothing special, just regular food. Now it means a communal meal where everyone brings something to contribute to the group. I like the second definition better and not just concerning food. I like the idea that people contribute what they have to share with everyone. Though a pan of brownies is delicious, if that’s all I’m eating it’s not much of a meal. But if you put together my brownies plus your pasta salad and her BBQ sandwiches and his potatoes chips (and the sweet tea…don’t forget the sweet tea), then we will have a great supper. It’s the same when we combine our gifts and talents.

 

It reminds me of the early church described in Acts 2: “And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything with each other,selling their possessions and dividing with those in need.They worshiped together regularly at the Temple each day, met in small groups in homes for Communion, and shared their meals with great joy and thankfulness,praising God.” (TLB)

 

This is the ultimate Potluck Supper—food and family, joyfulness and thankfulness.

No more playing

On Saturday, I helped my husband dismantle the wooden play set our kids no longer use. When we first bought it, a dozen years ago, it was our daughters’ favorite spot. It had swings, monkey bars and a trapeze bar with rings where I showed them how to “skin the cat.” (That’s where you hold on to the rings and flip your feet over your head.)

 

Along with the swing set, there was a little house just a ladder-climb up. It had real glass windows that slid open and close just like the ones at home. There were shingles on the pitched roof and a plastic, green slide you could whiz down for a dramatic exit.

 

The play set survived a move from our original home to a second location. Soon after we moved it to our current backyard, I spent one hot afternoon painting the inside of the little house: the walls in chalkboard paint so they could add their own decorations and the ceiling to look like blue skies with white clouds and the floor to look like different types of rooms—tile for a bathroom, checkered linoleum for a kitchen, carpet for a bedroom, an oval, braided throw rug for a living room. I painted the inside of the door to look like it had a stained glass window design of white birch trees standing in front of distant mountains.

 

You could argue that I loved the play set as much as they did. But time marches on, and now I have three kids in high school. My youngest is still in elementary school, but he hasn’t shown much interest in it in a few years. Instead, his focus is on the soccer goals standing near the play set or the bike in the garage. My kids just stopped paying attention to the play set.

 

If this were a children’s book, the ending would be different. If it were like The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, you would see the play set giving of itself until all that was left was a few rungs of the ladder and a broken tire swing. Since that would make my kids like the boy in the story—selfish and negligent of the needs and feelings of others, I’m okay with it not being that particular story.

 

If I could choose, I would rather it be like The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. In that story, the house is built out in the country. It’s lived in and loved on until the bustling city crowds out the area and the little house is hidden by the train lines and the towering skyscrapers. Just when things look bleakest, the descendants of the original owners jack up the house and place it on a trailer. They drive it out to a new place, farther out in the country where it can be lived in and loved on again.

 

Sentimental as I am, I was hoping someone would do the same for our dear play set, but it was too complicated. Taking it apart is hard enough, but reconstructing it would be even harder. A few people looked at the structure, but no one decided it was worth all the hassle. I can’t blame them—it’s been sitting out, exposed to the elements for a while and it shows, but it was sad to pry up pieces and toss them in the bed of the pickup truck before hauling them to the dump.

 

This is one of those necessary phases of parenting. The fact that they don’t play like they used to has been true for a while, but growth is gradual. When you suddenly realize it’s time to box up the Barbies or give away the train table, their evolution out of childhood becomes more tangible. It breaks my heart a little, but I can say for sure that this deep bout of heartache is absolutely worth the years which preceded it. I wouldn’t trade watching these kids play for anything.

Bearing with one another

Last week I was honored to speak at a Mother/Daughter Tea at a church in town. It was a lovely event with tea and coffee and cupcakes and lavender sachets. I came away believing that we really should institute a regular afternoon tea time.

 

I shared a story with these dear women about my dental struggles.Several years ago my dental hygienist pointed out some worn down spots and asked me if I grind my teeth. I’d been having ear aches that weren’t infections, and once I started thinking about it I realized that my jaw was always sore. She asked me if I was under any particular stress. At the time, we were in year three of what would eventually be four years of trying to bring our adopted son home from Africa, so yeah…I was stressed.

 

During that time, I had unknowingly directed my stress and frustration and worry on my poor mouth. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth, causing damage to my gums. I would go on to have gum graph surgery and my dentist recommended I use clear plastic aligners (instead of braces) to correct my misshapen bite.

 

I’ve been through dozens of this plastic teeth movers now and from one aligner to the next, you can hardly tell there’s any change. It’s a tiny tweak, slight modification. But over the many months, the minor modifications add up to a new bite that will cause less stress on my gums and help me keep my teeth.

 

At this point in my talk, the women I shared this with were probably beginning to regret inviting me to their Tea. But I went on to explain that in relationships with each other, we can create bad habits. Dysfunction doesn’t usually happen overnight. It’s a slow teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching process. And this can be the case with mother/daughter relationships. An irritation or misunderstanding becomes a habit of slamming doors and shouting names. It’s hard when these habits become formed, but they don’t have to remain forever. That kind of stubbornness is a sin and God will always be on the side of breaking those sinful patterns, especially when they disrupt our families.

 

So we must look to Scripture for guidance. In the book of Ephesians, we see what the Apostle Paul thought was most important to say to fellow Christians while he was in prison in Rome. Ephesians 4:2-3 gives us some essential truths.

 

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (NIV)

 

In other words, be humble and gentle as Jesus was when he washed his disciples’ feet, choosing the posture of a servant over the attitude of a bully. Tolerate the differences you see in each other because you choose to love in an unconditional way. Then work diligently, with expectations of restoration, to become one as you join together in harmony to sing a beautiful hymn of goodwill.

 

If we can do these things in our relationships with each other, we can take those small steps toward healing. It will take patience, and sometimes there will be setbacks, but the sweetest fruit often take the longest to ripen.

Biker wave

While vacationing in Florida and visiting a couple of amusement parks during Fall Break, I came to a realization: We parents need our own biker wave. You know what I’m talking about—a motorcyclist passing a fellow motorcyclist takes his left hand off the handlebar and does a peace sign with two fingers pointing to the ground.

 

It’s a show of camaraderie. It’s a way of saying, “Hey there, fellow human with similar life experiences! I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool!” (Or something like that. I’m not a motorcyclist so I couldn’t say for sure what that small hand gesture means, but it seems positive. All I know is it doesn’t work as well with minivans.)

 

I had this epiphany while watching a mom, dad and two young sons at Sea World. The dad had hit his limit. His older son was whining to the point that he had apparently lost his ability to walk normally. The dad was attempting to move him forward through the crowd and the boy was floppily walking like he was the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Ozbeing forcefully removed from a sit-in against Munchkin oppression.

 

Once they made it to a short brick wall that served the dual purpose of creating a flower bed and providing seating to all of the hot and weary park attendees, the dad roughly sat the son down and told him not to get up. The boy began to cry, maybe from physical hurt but mostly from having his father lose his cool and aim it in his direction, while the dad looked at the Sea World map in his hands.

 

I couldn’t stop watching this scene. It just felt so familiar. Your kids, those darlings you would lay down in front of a bus for, can make you straight up crazy. I noticed right away that this particular family was comprised of adopted children with mom and dad of one skin color and sons of another. So from my own experience, I knew there were so many layers to what was playing out in front of me.

 

The crying son stood and tried to grab his dad around the middle, but the dad peeled him off and told him to sit back down. The mom who had been talking to the younger son sitting in the stroller calmly stepped in and said, “Let him hug you.” But the dad wasn’t ready to receive affection. He was mad. The mom hugged the son instead, and in a few moments they were on the move again, in search of rides or treats or shows.

 

Before we left the park, I saw this same family and the dad was holding the older son in his arms while the boy slept, his face cradled in the dad’s neck and his little arm slung across the dad’s strong shoulder. They had made their peace.

 

I wanted to reach out to this family and say something encouraging. I wouldn’t offer advice or try to show them how to parent their boys. I just wanted to flash that biker wave as if to say, “This is really hard, isn’t it? I’m sorry you guys had that moment of tension and separation, but I bet you get more things right than you get wrong, so keep on going. I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool.”

The prodigal

When my youngest son gets angry, he often gets dramatically pouty. It may start with something as simple as my refusing him one more handful of potato chips. It’s like I’m a snack bartender. I’m mopping up the bar and I see someone who’s tipsy on Cool Ranch Doritos, so I throw the towel over my shoulder while explaining that I’m under mom-bligations to let a person know when he’s has had enough and suggest something to balance out the junk food like an apple.

 

Once confronted and told “no,” he tends to go straight for the Oscar nomination for Best Whiny Pleading. If he’s feeling especially irritable, he’ll play the Runaway Card. There are some for whom running away is a serious proposition and definitely not a joke, so I would not make light of those circumstances. But for my son, it’s a calculated move. He has no intention of actually leaving our property, sometimes he only gets as far as the garage, but he’s wanting to tell me something and test my response.

 

When one of our daughter’s was younger, she would try the same thing. She would announce her intention: “I’m leaving!” and I would set up a camping chair by the house. I would say, “I always want you to be safe, so I’m going to sit here and watch you. Make sure you can see me. If you can’t see me, you’ve gone too far.” I would watch her walk down our very long driveway maybe with a backpack or a baby doll, and when she got to the mailbox, she would turn around and come back. This is what worked for her, my strong-willed girl who had always known me and counted on me to be her mom.

 

For our 7-year old son who’s only been a part of our family for 2 years, I have had to change tack and choose a different approach. When he marches off angrily, I know he wants to punish me. I also know that I am angry, too. I want to go inside and watch TV and let him sort it out alone. But even though my parenting correction was justified, I know that he desperately wants to be pursued.

 

This happened last Saturday. His pouting was like a carrot on a stick leading him to the overgrown field behind our house where the weeds were as tall as he is. I sat at the patio table and watched him as he glanced back at me over his shoulder a few times. The stubborn part of my brain wanted to show him tough love and let him get eaten up by chiggers, but an image came to my mind of a different parent, a fictional father from a story Jesus told in Luke 15.

 

We often call this parable The Prodigal Son. The main idea is that we are like this son, messing up everything and wasting what is good, then finally coming to our senses and turning back homeward. The father is our God, waiting there for us with open arms, forgiving all our stupidity. But I tend to think there are several layers to these stories, and I wonder if we are sometimes called to be the father, too.

 

Did this father stand outside looking toward the road from town for days and weeks and months, praying that his son would come home? Did he keep his love ready for his son’s return by reminding himself that it wasn’t about him but instead about his wayward son?

 

This is my inspiration. When I was given this job as a mom, it was an invitation to grown up, or as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

 

I followed my son to the field and stayed in his general proximity until his anger had subsided. (I may or may not have fibbed and said I saw a snake in the tall weeds to get him motivated.) At bedtime, my husband and I discussed with him about how to calmly tell us how he feels and how his actions will never make us stop loving him. Hours after the initial disagreement, he was finally repentant. And while this is what we parents are ultimately looking for, it became clear to me that my job is not only to work towards favorable behavioral results in my kids but to be there for every step of the process.

Birthday Wishes

Per our family’s tradition, I asked our soon-to-be 7-year old son where/what he wanted to eat for his birthday. With our other kids, they’ve picked special home cooked meals with elaborate desserts or Chinese buffets followed up with frozen yogurt sundaes. It’s their once-a-year chance to make the family’s dinner plans without any input from siblings. (Disclaimer: Our daughters have actually made their choice together. It’s one of the unfortunate side effects of being twins.)

 

So I asked our youngest what he would pick. He thought for a moment and said, “Where is the place we eat in the morning when we drive to Mimi’s house (Knoxville)?”

 

“McDonald’s?”

 

“Yes. That is what I want for breakfast.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“And where is the place where you can walk up to get a hamburger? It is close to church.”

 

“Burger King?”

 

“Yes. You never take me there. I want to eat there for lunch.”

 

“Okay. I bet you have a plan for supper. What do you think?”

 

“I want to eat at the taco place.”

 

Now we’re talking, I think. Please pick Chuy’s. Please pick Chuy’s. Please pick Chuy’s.

 

But he further explained, “The taco place with the bell on the sign. You never take me there either.”

 

“Taco Bell?”

 

“Yes!” He answered excitedly, “That is where I want to eat supper!”

 

It promises to be a day full of indigestion! I thought.

 

His choices reveal a limited understanding. Picking three fast food meals when we’ve offered him all that’s available seems foolish. I know part of the appeal of his choices is that they appear somehow forbidden. These are the places mom refuses to bring him so they must be something extra special. I’m assuming that one day he’ll understand there’s food more remarkable than Egg McMuffins, Whoppers, and Taco Bell Grandes.

 

I wonder if this is sometimes how it looks to God when we pray. We have no idea the glorious riches He wants to offer us. When Jesus instructed his disciples how to pray, He reminded them that “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!”

 

As a part of my New Year’s resolution to pray more, I’m going to try to remember to leave room for God’s plan in my petitions. I’m going to ask Him to meet my needs and consider my wants, but I’m going to add a default clause that goes something like this: “But You, Lord, are wiser and know better than me, so feel free to alter anything I just said.” Amen.

The Meanest Man in Town

Mr. Hopper was universally regarded as the meanest man in town. He just didn’t like kids—not in his grass or near his car or close to his mailbox or even in his peripheral vision. At 3:00 pm every day, he made sure to position himself in his front yard with his garden hose in hand. It only took a few showers for the kids to re-route their walk home from school. A shortcut wasn’t worth an afternoon of soggy socks and sodden tennis shoes.

As people moved away and new families moved in, the reputation of Mean Mr. Hopper grew to legendary proportions. Some said his wife had left him, and he hadn’t been the same since. Others said he had fought in Vietnam leaving him bitter and angry. One unsubstantiated rumor claimed he had been an informant for the Feds, now forced into hiding from the Mob.

The neighborhood’s assumptions about him were challenged every year on December 1st. Rain or shine, Mr. Hopper spent the day dragging inflatables and wooden cut-outs from his garage. He untangled miles of orange extension cords and blinking Christmas lights, pausing from time to time to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the bright red handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. He carefully placed the reindeer figures in the seats of the five-foot tall Ferris Wheel before plugging it in and checking that all the lights along the edge worked properly and it rotated smoothly. He set the giant, inflatable M&M near the oak tree then started up the fan that breathed life into the flat green bundle of shiny fabric. Scaling the old splatter-painted fiberglass ladder, he hung the icicle lights on his gutters along the front of the house. By the end of the day, hardly an inch of empty space remained, including the front porch where super-sized versions of The Grinch, Pillsbury Dough Boy, and Mickey Mouse stood guard.

The final piece to Mr. Hopper’s tribute to twenty years of Day-After-Christmas sales was the life-size Mrs. Claus cut from plywood and painted with poster paints. She stood front and center with one hand waving to any passers-by and the other hand holding a plate of tree-shaped cookies. Mr. Hopper would remove his handkerchief to tenderly wipe away any grime she had collected from the dusty garage, then he would stand back to survey his hard work. Without a smile of satisfaction, he would give the yard a nod and walk inside the house to await the increasing darkness that would add magic to his display.

As the days leading up to Christmas tumbled by, more cars would slowly roll past the bright house. On many occasions, Mr. Hopper could be seen peeking out his living room curtains. When drivers caught sight of him, they would speed up to continue down the street rather than risk being on the receiving end of a a fist-shaking from this grouchy neighbor.

“I can’t imagine why a man that ornery would want to do his house up for Christmas,” Mrs. West said to Mr. West as the Hopper house twinkled in the rearview mirror. “They say he’s as tight as a miser with his money. Makes you wonder what he thinks about his electric bills when they come in the mail ‘round this time of year.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

One year Mrs. Haven returned to town on Christmas Eve. She was an elderly woman who had been Mr. Hopper’s neighbor nearly thirty years before but had moved to San Francisco to be nearer her only daughter. Having been the town’s first librarian, she had been invited to the opening of the new public library. At a reception following the ceremony, one of the patrons asked Mrs. Haven if she had kept up with any of her former neighbors.

“No,” she said as she carefully held a plastic cup of punch, “I’ve lost touch with everyone, I’m afraid. It’s too bad because we lived here for ten years.”

“Where was your house?”

“We had a lovely split-level on the corner of Maple and Birch.”

“Oh my! Isn’t that next to Mr. Hopper?”

“Charles Hopper? Yes, that’s right.”

“Muriel Haven, how did you ever stand living next to that man?”

“He was a wonderful neighbor.” Mrs. Haven furrowed her brow with a confused expression. “He kept his lawn neat and his wife baked the best cherry pie.”

“His wife?” The circle of people took a step in toward the center, closing in on Mrs. Haven like a pack of hungry wolves.

“Yes. Charles and Penny were a dear couple. I suppose Penny has passed on now. She would never leave her bed after little Charlie’s accident…” Mrs. Haven paused to sip her punch and glanced at the faces surrounding her. “Of course you all know about the accident.” No one spoke or even breathed. “He was only four when he was hit by a car in the street in front of their house. Poor Penny was such a sweet, meek, little thing. She just crumbled into pieces. My husband and I moved a year or so after the accident and when my letters were unanswered…well, we just never heard what came of them.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

The late local news had ended. Mr. Hopper had just turned off the television set but he had a difficult time pulling himself up from his recliner. He knew he had to turn off the outdoor lights before preparing for bed, but he dreaded the moment when the brilliant brightness would be extinguished. The sudden darkness always made him feel blind and unsure of what lurked just beyond his yard. He reached up to switch off the floor lamp so that he could fully appreciate the cheerful flashing and whirring outside.

Thoughts of a little boy with blond ringlets tearing open the wrappings on a new train set Christmas morning made a hollow ache spread from his stomach to his throat and into the deep sockets behind his eyes. He had spent the past thirty years trying to forget the son who had been a joyous surprise to an aging, childless couple. He had worked hard to prevent any children coming within twenty feet of his door but memories are no respecter of boundaries and garden hoses. He always told himself that he did it for her. He kept them away for the same reason that he put out the lights and decorations every year—to bring her back to him—to make everything the same as it had been before Charlie. In moments of honest introspection, he admitted that he also did it for himself to prove that he was still alive. Sometimes he needed more proof than just the air entering and exiting his old chest.

“Charles?” a weak voice called from the back bedroom.

“Coming, Penny.” Mr. Hopper folded the leg rest on his recliner and stood, then he went to kiss his wife goodnight.

Yeah. I’ve done a little modeling…

When Ezra, our African-born son, was struggling with his new language last year, we signed him up for speech lessons. At first it was difficult to determine if his issues were basic language acquisition (getting his words) or physically articulating them (saying his words) or both or something else entirely. We needed help!

 

His speech lessons were a worthwhile way to spend all those mornings last spring. Not only did he get hours of focused attention for his speech issues, but I also got a sounding board for many of my questions. For instance, I solicited their professional opinions as to how often I should correct Ezra’s verbal mistakes.

 

By the time we started the lessons Ezra had been in America for about a year, so it wasn’t that he was having a hard time speaking English. He was naturally replacing Lingala words (his native language) with English words. The last holdouts were words like lipa (bread), bongo (others), minga (thinking? We were never 100% sure about that one but he said it often).

 

His most consistent errors were things like leaving out words or ungrammatical subject/verb agreement or incorrectly using pronouns. In other words, he sounded like a caveman. So I asked the director of the speech clinic if I should correct him when he used “me” instead of “I” as the subject (Me sad. Me sleepy. Me lovee bacon.) because he did it constantly and I didn’t have the heart (or the stamina) to tell him he was wrong all day long. She said that I should model the appropriate pronoun and he would catch on eventually.

 

That day when we got home from speech, as if on cue, Ezra said, “Mom, me hungry.” Remembering what the director told me, I said, “Ezra, I am hungry.” He paused for half a second and said, “Well, eat something.”

 

Modeling the behavior we would like to see in our kids is often easier said than done. It takes consistency and thoughtful introspection and time. I feel confident that Ezra will eventually use the correct pronoun when he’s referring to himself, though it hasn’t happened yet.

 

But it isn’t just parents who are role models and it isn’t just kids who need them. Moms of Newborns need the advice of Empty Nesters. Pre-teens need Responsible High School Seniors to look up to. Newly Hired Employees need Seasoned Veterans to guide them through the first months of a new job.

 

To put it plainly, most everyone can be a role model to someone else. Look around and see if anyone is looking up to you. You might be surprised (or even a little scared) to know that others are watching and taking mental notes. Be the leader they deserve.