Common Sense and me

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My mother helped me navigate my life with her common sense-ical consistency and dismissed my natural impatience with simple wisdom, Don’t wish your life away.

She often reminded me that life was not meant to be easy, but, Stay the course, and things will work out as they are meant to.

Rather than plainly criticize me when I went about my young life with urgency, she applied idiom meant to remind me to slow down.  

“Well,” she’d say peeking over the reading glasses perched on her nose, one eyebrow slightly raised, “you’re busier than a one-armed paper hanger.”  

To which I might reply, completely missing the point, “Whatever, mom, gotta go.” and off I’d speed to fill my life with the kind busyness that has little to do with productivity.

It would take years to let that particular idiom resonate but, at 56, I whisper it to myself from time to time when busyness morphs into weariness and agitation.

Step away, be unto yourself, but most of all, breathe.

Last Saturday night I dreamt of a baby; a porcelain-skinned, nearly hairless, baby girl.  I didn’t hold the baby in my dream, she was just there next to me, her chubby arms dancing at nothing, serene and happy.  

As I made my coffee the following morning, I couldn’t shake that baby from my consciousness and I did what we do these days, I googled dreams of babies and two possible meanings flashed before me:  a need for affection or an impending life change.  

As I have ample love in my life, the latter made perfect sense.  

Last Sunday, the baby girl who sprung from me nineteen years ago hopped in a car filled with her worldly treasures and began her own journey,  nearly across the country. She intends to start a new life in Colorado. And, as is her wont, not in traditional fashion: work first, school second. After all, “Mom, it’s ridiculous to spend money on that when I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be.  I’ll take classes, but work is the best way for me to figure that out.”

Wait, wut?  That sounds oddly like common sense.

Just a year ago, she boarded a plane for Africa, returned home three months later for a brief respite, then off to Ireland for a two-month junket. In that time I marveled from a distance at her confidence and innate ability to maneuver herself. When she finally returned home?  Well…, I have enjoyed a companionable housemate for the last seven months. Sigh…

A week before she left, her belongings were either packed or vacuum sealed to ensure room in the car she made sure was given a thumbs up from her mechanic for a journey across the country.  She did not race about saying goodbyes, but rather carefully made time for the people whom she will miss the most. There were no anxious demands that this or that be done for her and, there was a small part of me that wished she needed me more.  She was well prepared for a major life change.

The night before she left, we took an early evening walk in my new neighborhood and meandered to the tennis courts, where a competitive match was being played.  We sat among the spectators and the former owner of my home sat next to us. He had not met Grace before and calmly probed her about her plans. The engagement between the two of them was sweet, and I faded into the background.  

At first, she only gave him the skeletal outline, but his interest encouraged a reflective conversation about seeking what you want in life. I listened as he offered her something beyond advice, follow your heart, work hard, just keep going, one day at a time.  I could nearly see his words seep into her.

Grace confessed to me the following evening, the same night I dreamt of that beautiful baby, that before that conversation with a man she met by happenstance, she had been feeling anxious, “I think I was meant to meet him, Mom. He calmed me.”

I understood why.  As I listened to him, I heard common sense.

As I said goodbye the next day, I was anxious and emotional. My baby girl?  Cool as a cucumber.

I write, not to share that I’ll miss my girl; that’s obvious and I am not unique in this change of life.  What most fascinated me is watching her “be”, rather than watching her become. It moves me to observe her welcome life with the kind of enthusiasm that only works when it’s wrapped in common sense.

I write with an awareness that the common sense my mother encouraged in me didn’t really find traction in my life until recently. It is likely that I will forever be a smidgen too impetuous and emotional for my own good.  

Grace was only five when her grandmother died and therefore never had the benefit of my mothers often lyrical counsel. I watch my daughter and wonder if perhaps the lessons of my mother, which too often passed through me, somehow made a home in her.

I suppose I’ll never know, but I suspect that the baby in my dreams was a bellwether of change in Grace’s life, as well as my own.  Of course, she’ll be back to visit from time to time, but Connecticut, I think, will no longer be her home. She has the common sense to know that we make our lives; that if we want one filled with color and texture, we seek it. It won’t knock on our door and beg us to join in, but rather will come to us when we are at peace with ourselves.

Applying common sense to the adventure? My mother would say, That’s as plain as the nose on your face.

My Ancestry and Me…

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A funny thing happened on the way to Saint Patricks Day 2018…

Or, a funny thing happened to me on May 8, 1962…

I was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and placed in a Catholic Charities orphanage. Within six months, I was adopted by a wonderful Irish Catholic couple who swept me away to the place I will always consider home: Rhode Island.

I was steeped in Irish lore from the start and my adopted lineage had a direct line to the Emerald Isle. I often selected the costumes of my childhood to incorporate the Shillelaghy (walking stick) of my deceased maternal grandfather. I still have, folded and stored, the Irish linens my maternal grandmother brought from the old country. I’ve no real use for them now, but can’t bear to part with their exquisite detail.

They were Barry’s and Murphy’s and I remember two great-uncles; one a policeman, the other who worked at the racetrack. They were immigrant stock, working class, and my grandmother Mary was their center. I loved the duplex she shared with Uncle Bobby and Aunt Rita until her death. I found comfort in the framed photograph of Pope Pius which hung in her living room, with a crucifix to its right. Sometimes, while she baked, she let me hunt through my deceased grandfather’s mahogany desk. In the lower right drawer was a yellowed newspaper, dated November 22, 1963, announcing the death of President Kenndy. The black and white photo of Lyndon Johnson with a solemn Jaqueline beside him as he took the oath of office was haunting. The death of President Kennedy affected everyone. The Irish took it personally.

My paternal grandparents were Toole’s and Coughlin’s and lived in what I thought of as an enormous house in Pawtucket. They were “lace-curtain” Irish; prosperous beyond the newer immigrants. My grandfather Frank was a gentle soul. After his afternoon walk, he enjoyed a cup of tea with saltines and peanut butter. Occasionally, I joined him. The fine Belleek teacup and saucer made those small moments special. My grandmother Clare was hearty and bombastic and when she hugged you, you thought you’d never breathe again. She had, just outside her bedroom, a bookcase filled with fine literature which included Yeats, Keats and the indomitable James Joyce.

I have no memory of not knowing that I was adopted. No grandparent ever treated my adopted brother or me differently, nor loved us less than they did my naturally born cousins. Indeed, my father often announced with pride, “Weren’t we lucky that we got to pick you!”

It was me, of course, who inherited the luck of the Irish.

I wore Irish like I was born to it, helped along by reddish hair and the broad freckled-face associated with Irish lasses. I’ve heard time and again from complete strangers, “Why you’ve got the map of Ireland written on your face.”

I can trip into a decent brogue easily and fancy myself something of a story-teller. Adopted children can’t really escape wondering about their backstory and I was thrilled when I realized, sometime in my teens, that Saint Paul, Minnesota is one of the few Irish enclaves in a state dominated by Scandinavians. I may not have known my birth parents, but there was one thing of which I was certain: I was Irish.

At 52, my heart was shattered. In an attempt to mend it, I went to Ireland for the first time with a dear friend. It is what we do when we are lost; seek something that might feel like home. While the journey to be wholehearted again would take years, that week in Ireland gave me the freedom to grieve. Ireland felt as familiar to me as the powdery scent of my Grandma Barry and as comfortable as the beautifully carved handle of the Shillelaghy owned by a grandfather I never knew.

Then again, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Saint Patrick’s Day 2018.

My daughter selected Galway, Ireland as the second half of her in-progress “Gap” year. I was tickled right down to my Irish toes. Before she left in January she told me that she had done “Ancestry.com.”

My throat caught and I stumbled, “Oh, well… hmm? I have mixed emotions about that.”

She waved me off, “Mom… I have a right to know my ancestry.”

I recovered, “Yeah, I guess. But, I don’t really know my ancestry. I was thinking about doing it, but now you’re gonna know first.”

She thought on that and said, “Well, I don’t have to tell you the results.”

And that was that. Within two weeks she was on a plane to Dublin and concerns about undiscovered heritage floated away.

Until, a few weeks ago, she called from Galway, “Mom, I got my results back.”

I was silent for a moment, but couldn’t contain my curiosity, “Okay, don’t tell me too much, but give me one surprise.”

I knew there would be muddle in the D.N.A but, with her father able to trace back to Ireland on both sides, I assumed there would be nothing too shocking.

“O.K, 15% Scandinavian!” Clearly, she liked that.

As for me, no surprise – between the history of plunderous Vikings and the Minnesota connection, Scandanavian was no head-scratcher. I could live with a little Scandinavian in the mix.

It was surprisingly easy to swallow and so I encouraged Grace to continue, “So, Ireland’s the largest percentage, right?”

“Nope, only 8%, mom.”

I am no mathematician and frankly, numbers make my hair hurt, but that percentage grabbed me by the throat. If my daughter only held 8% Irish heritage, and we know that her dad holds quite a lot, then my chance of actually being Irish?

I shuddered, then recovered before I egged her on to spill the beans.

After all, I did enjoy the Ancestry commercial with the guy who traded his Liederhosen for a kilt. Scottish – that had to be it! Scotch-Irish is a thing, right? Scotland and Ireland; kissing cousins!

I love the spirit of Scotsmen, all rough and tumble. I could adjust to being Scottish and there’s the great accent, and Highlands, and Sean Connery. I was ready to order a tam and look for bagpipes on eBay!

Across the bandwidth to Galway, I gave Grace permission to give the final reveal, “So, what’s the largest percentage?”

My rascally girl drew it out, “Well, it’s huge…”

“Okay…”

“Mom, it’s 65%.”

“Wow! What is it? I’m ready.” My brain was swirling with the Loch Ness Monster, shortbread, and Mel Gibson’s bloodied torso in Braveheart!

“Well, it’s a little surprising… Great Britain!”

Bollocks!

It was not what I wanted to hear. Not because I don’t enjoy the Royals. I do. I also had a surprising attachment to this year’s Oscar Nominated “the Darkest Hour.” But England, really? Controlled, proper, high tea, Great Britain? One of the great bonds of my former homeland and my current homeland is that both countries broke free of the crown. Ugh.

To all my British friends, I apologize. But gosh, that was disappointing. I suppose it’s complicated enough for adopted children to spend a lifetime guessing what they are made of. When you adopt a homeland, as I did Ireland, you sort of want the fairy tale to live on.

I also imagine that when I do my own Ancestry.com, and I will, that the results will differ from my beautiful daughters. However, it’s quite unlikely that Irish percentage will be north of her paltry 8 %. I will root that my new yearning for Scottish blood just somehow missed her. I’ll be sure to report the results to my readers.

In the meantime, I’ll take a page from my dad’s book. I’ll continue to own Irish like I was born to it. If challenged, I’ll announce with pride, “Wasn’t I lucky, I got to pick Ireland for my ancestry!”

My Daughter and Me…

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It was about a year ago, following a college visit trip to Washington and Oregon, that my daughter said a profound thing, “$54,000 feels like a lot of money for “I think I want to study developing nations.” Grace went on, “How am I supposed to know, Mom?  How can you know, if you’ve never been to one?”

It was three months ago when I said goodbye to that same developing girl on the curbside of Jet Blue departures at JFK. Tears escaped my eyes as she hugged me and then hoisted an enormous backpack on her shoulders and blithely announced, “See ya in 3 months.”  And she was off: San Francisco to Tanzania to Kenya to Uganda to Zanzibar.

When I got home, I went to Grace’s room girded to take on her post packing tornado.  But there were no remnants of a storm.  Rather, the floor which had been covered for years with discarded clothes was bare, and drawers perpetually half-opened, spilling out tee-shirts, were closed. Pillows were neatly set atop a comforter which spent most of its life in a billowy ball. Shoes, sneakers, boots, and moccasins were lined up like soldiers.  Jewelry hung from a metallic tree, and as I opened her closet door, which in the past was an invitation to horror, I marveled that before she left she gave hangers the respect they deserve.

On a chair in the corner were clothes she regularly snuck out of my closet.  They were folded with precision.

My girl was more than ready to hop on that jet to spend three months in East Africa.

I adjusted to her absence and utilized Facebook to try and document her Gap Semester. I think it’s fair to say that Grace has never appeared so frequently on my Facebook feed. I have been careful to avoid editorial comment in my posts.  I posted so that my friends, who have invested so much love in my child, could follow her travels; could taste a little of East Africa from afar.

I have something to say about pride and parenting and millennials.

Our children are the most celebrated generation in history.  Social media has made it so.  Or maybe it started with the bumper stickers in middle school, “My son/daughter is an honors student at…” Pretty quickly, though, Facebook turned up the volume.  I chuckle every late August when the march of pictures of so many children appear, from pre-school to college, with the narrative.  “So proud of …, first day of school.”

Wait, wut?  We are proud that our kids hop on the bus, or drive a car, or get dropped off at the only job they actually have; being a student?

I know, I know… Our parents took our pictures, too, which found their way to photo albums or in frames set in built-in bookcases.  They did not, however, make placards and march around the neighborhood announcing our every minor accomplishment.  And I suppose, those posts we see today are as much for those grandparents, aunts, and uncles who live in other states.

I know that there is a reasonable, other side in all of this. But part of me just wants to scream, “Stop!  What happens to them when the celebrations end; when they get a “c”, or don’t make the varsity, or curl into a ball with a broken heart, or meander down a dark path that breaks our hearts?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love to see those faces of innocence and wish I could suspend them in time.  But, the world waits for them and if they disappoint, that same world will pounce and tsk and whisper not so sweet nothings in criticism. I know because I’ve lived it.

The students with whom I work through the college selection and application process are most often high achievers by any standard.  The pendulum swings wide; they either believe they are indeed exceptional or, often, they think they are not quite good enough.  After all, there is usually someone better. Anxiety rules the day in my business and it is most likely why I am still in business.  I try to tamp down expectations in a viciously competitive college admission world for the over-confident and put a little wind in the sails of those who don’t quite believe.  Anecdotally, the pendulum swing has widened in the last ten years.  Bumper stickers and Facebook and parent’s watching not only every game but every practice?

I remember an old friend of mine shared this the first time we spoke about his daughter, “She lives in the rarified air of the top achievers.  She amazes me.”  She was a sophomore in high school.  When she fell, the thud was deafening.

Pride in our children is essential, applying exceptionalism to them seems unfair.

Grace returns from East Africa tonight.  From afar, it appears that the semester was everything she dreamed it would be

In my documentation of her experience, kind-hearted people have written, “You must be so proud of her.”  It’s not really the right emotion for how I have felt these last three months.  It hints that maybe I think she is exceptional.

She’s not. Grace has magnificent strengths and glaring weaknesses.  She’s just a girl on the edge of becoming a woman. She’s a kid who thinks that maybe, just maybe, a three-month service program in Africa might help her figure out what her next step is.  College this year felt like something through which she might meander. Last spring, as parents announced their children’s college decisions on Facebook, I asked Grace if I could post her decision for a Gap Year. She groaned and with a classic eye-roll said, “Fine, but I hate when people talk to me about it.  They either think it’s heroic or I must not have gotten into college!”

And there it is in a nutshell: over the top praise or ‘gotcha’ cynicism.

Grace went to Africa because she has the privilege of financial comfort. She understands that the gains are more self-serving than world-changing.  She knows that the benefits of privilege are often choice and options.  Did my daughter change the world?  Of course not, but if the world reached her and she gained perspectives which inform her toward genuine compassion and humility then the choice was right.

She wrote this in a piece about her experience:

“Regardless of what we think of as constraints in our life, hijab’s, poverty, misogyny, or even American excess, through education and the prompting to think deeply, we can navigate the world and find happiness in it. I have loved this opportunity to learn a global perspective on life.  This year has taught me something that was elusive for me in high school; knowledge really is power, and whether in a classroom or through simple human interaction, being open to it is crucial to leading a fulfilled life.”

She comes home tonight. She will be exhausted, while I will be hungry for every detail.  I suspect that, within hours, clothing will be strewn across her bedroom floor and her dirty dishes will once again sit in my sink.

Three months in Africa is a step toward exceptionalism and, yes, I am proud that Grace navigated the three months with apparent joy.  True exceptionalism, however, takes a lifetime to achieve.  My beautiful daughter is all wrapped up in human skin and her exceptionalism requires many more years to marinate.