This was first published in the Pasadena Star News on December 25, 2004.
Our memories of elementary school have a special flavor. Always sharp in focus - some enchant us, others make us cringe. Most people, no matter their age, can easily name their elementary school teachers from kindergarten through sixth grade without pause.
The good ones inspired us, the bad ones damaged us. Elementary school memories are preserved as clearly as the tiny school photos that remain stored in a shoebox, on the top shelf in the back of the hall closet.
Music class is one of my favorite memories. I had no talent, but I loved to sing. The songs inspired me. I loved the Woody Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land.” I imagined our country spanning from “California to the New York Islands.”
Living in the middle of Ohio, I had no idea what those places were like, but I was sure they were as wonderful as the song described. Smack in the middle of the button-down 1950’s, sitting at my little desk, hands folded, I sang my heart out about holidays and patriotism. I felt safe and secure. My family life was not always so serene, so I looked forward to singing about peace and harmony.
I especially loved the song about grandfather’s clock. The song described the clock and how it was too big for the shelf – so it stood 90 years on the floor. Each time we sang the song, I heard the tick-tock and the hourly chime. I could see the kindly old grandpa. At the end of the song, the clocked stopped, never to chime again, when the old man died. I loved the drama.
My own grandfather owned a clock and I heard it chime on the few occasions we visited. My grandparents lived very far away and we rarely saw them. Their charming country farmhouse fit into the fantasy the song created for me, but the similarity ended there. During those few visits, after my boisterous brothers and sisters and I bounded into the carefully kept, distinctively child unfriendly home, tension mounted and our mother tried to keep us still.
Most of the time they put us in the den, in front of the television, far from the bone china, antiques, and Grandma and Grandpa. Above the din of the television, I heard the soft chime of a clock, calling out the hour from the forbidden living room.
From a carefully hidden position in the hallway, I could see the elegant beamed ceilings and floral carpet, the overstuffed chairs proudly placed in front of a red brick hearth. Perched high on the mantel, the clock sat, quietly chiming every fifteen minutes. I never forgot that distant, soothing sound.
After my dad died, my mother, sister and I divided up a lifetime of household goods and prized possessions. Keep this, toss that, donate this, cherish that. The three of us looked at a clock that came from my grandparents’ house. It was big and boxy and none of us wanted it. The chiming mechanism had been silent since my dad inherited it; he never got it repaired.
We decided it should stay in the family so I took it home with me after the funeral. Curious, I took to a clock repair shop to see if it was worth repairing. The repairman hit the chime and I was taken back 40 years, to a hallway in an imposing house, listening once again to a sound, and a feeling, that I had long forgotten. “Fix it,” I said, “no matter the cost.”
Two months later I cradled the clock in my arms and took it home. I don’t have a red brick hearth so I placed my heirloom on a shelf in our living room. The first time it chimed I was flooded with memories: of my grandfather’s lovely but unfriendly home, the song I loved, and the possibilities the clock held for my own grandchildren.
Some day, when I am gone, I hope a grandchild will hear the sweet chiming of each quarter hour and recall a generous and giving grandma who got down on the floor and played with blocks, baked cookies and played make believe amidst the steady chime of a lovely clock.
This grandmother’s clock is just right for the shelf and just right for a grandchild, and ready to pass down with love and care, every quarter hour.
This first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News on May 24, 1998
My son walked in the door at 10:00 pm, home from his college class. Close to the end of the semester, he spoke confidently of his prospects of receiving a good grade.
I was in the living room at the moment and glanced at his high school senior picture, taken four years ago. I hadn’t realized how much he had grown and matured in the last four years until I looked again at his senior picture, proudly displayed next to his older sister’s.
I remembered the struggle to get him to wear a suit for the picture. Always independent, he couldn’t understand why he had to dress like his fellow graduates. After a very heated discussion, he wore the suit; we compromised on the hair.
May and June are full of ceremonies and graduations, weddings, bar mitzvahs and confirmations. It is a season of transition. From Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, to graduation, the Hallmark people are busy.
Perhaps there is no greater signpost for parents than the bittersweet senior picture. Often taken the summer before the fateful senor year, most young people’s faces reveal the marks of modern adolescence; if not a pimple or two, perhaps a mouthful of braces.
I proudly display the senior pictures of my two grown children. My daughter, now 25 and living the life of an artist in New York, innocently beams her fresh good looks from her senior picture. One month later she was sporting a nose ring, a ghastly adornment that horrified her father and me.
We were OK with the red hair, after all, she was an artist. But, the irrevocable puncture to her beautiful nose was more than we could stand. She was, however, 18-years-old.
In that hot summer before my daughter’s senior year, we disagreed over her final pose. I was paying for the pictures, but she was a young woman now and capable of making her own decisions. I wanted the pose where her diamond necklace was in perfect position and her wonderful smile was simple and free.
Ultimately, she chose a more cynical pose with the precious diamond slightly askew. Her eyes are not clear and free, but hold a tiny crinkle and sport a bit of skepticism. After all these years, I am glad she insisted on the pose that expressed her first step to becoming a woman.
I work in a small office, and it so happens that three of the fourteen people I work with are pregnant. Being a mostly female staff, we fuss over the pregnant ones, while thanking God that we do not walk with swollen ankles in their shoes.
Those of us with grown children wish the new mothers well. We quietly reminisce about that magical time in our lives when we held our precious children within us.
We parents who have crossed the straits of our children’s adolescence, silently give thanks that we are now past that painful time. We look at our children’s senior pictures and gaze with a mixture of love and regret. We have forgotten the fights, the screams, the misunderstandings, and most of the pain.
To all the proud parents who are preparing for a child’s graduation, I have some words of advice. Put your graduate’s picture in a place of honor and thank God for the precious few years you held their hands. Forget the painful words you spoke in anger and grow comfortable with the adult who will, hopefully, become your friend.
That was the advice my dad gave me when I called my parents, announcing that my divorce was final. In discussions about matters of the heart my father was always AWOL; and when pressed he was awkward, abrupt and tactless. He didn’t deal with sensitivity well. I never had a “heart to heart” with dear old dad, a theme popular with sitcom writers.
What happened in the real world was that he’d come home after a few days on the road of “peddling” as he phrased it, yell at us kids to make up for his time away from parenting, and embark on some project around the house. I got called into service during those times and I learned a lot about doing it myself.
My father was a man of his word. At the outset, an unknown man was only as good as his word. He worked in sales, repeat customers are earned by the promises you keep. The guiding principle he taught me was “don’t make promises you can’t keep.” If you say you’re going to do it, you have to. I always strived to live by that and it was something I tried to impart to my two sons.
My wife and I had been married for thirteen years. We had two boys, two years apart. We had just moved from a small town on Lake Michigan to a suburb of Chicago when the kids were 6- and 8. At first the kids were apprehensive about moving but when they saw the brand new house with their very own rooms and all the kids in the neighborhood they warmed up to the idea. We had lived there for about a year and a half when the ground underneath our marriage became unstable and began to shake.
Things started to change because I was overwhelmed with the challenges in my new job and many times it felt like I was treading water. At the end of the day I was tired from thinking all day and I just wanted to read the paper and dumb down with some broadcast television.
My wife didn’t have to work outside the home and was pretty happy with that status in the beginning. But she quickly grew bored and restless. She had always worked before and began to miss being with people; the interactions that come from leaving the house five days a week for work. She also took my detachment at home every night as increasing distance from her. Absorbed in my own troubles at work, I didn’t sense this at first.
It was 1993 and the World Wide Web was just becoming popular. We got a subscription to America Online. They had hundreds of chat rooms. My wife was the duck and the chat rooms were the ponds and before long she had many virtual friends. It cured her sense of isolation and alleviated the boredom. She spent most of the day in chat; it was magnetic. There were so many interesting people in there.
I tried it once; I logged on and entered a chat room. It kind of reminded me of ham radio. I never had a rig but my friend from years ago did. We used to sit in his basement, tune in and make fun of the guys that had nothing to talk about. Guys mostly, it was always a sausage fest. Both of these experiences shared that empty “nothing to talk about but I’m talking because I can” quality that never did a thing for me. I left the chat to her.
You undoubtedly know where this is headed. But before we arrive at that obvious destination I have to paint a picture of my wife at this point. She was a narcissist. The focus always had to be on her. She was different than her siblings because they didn’t act that way. She had a serious illness as a child in the mid-sixties; it was almost fatal. The fumes from a toy that made plastic bugs caused an allergic reaction and she was rushed to the hospital. There was probably guilt in her parent’s minds associated with providing the thing that poisoned her. That might have formed her into what she had become. Her needs always had to be first. She might die.
Back then I was wired to find that kind of thing familiar and strangely attractive. I have grown since then to recognize that as an unhealthy relationship, but it didn’t help me then.
In the midst of her virtual blossoming of friendship she found a part time job at a department store and then a full time job in addition that got her out of the house and back among people. She didn’t have much time to visit the virtual world but it never stopped.
At this point she had many virtual friends. Some of them became not-so-virtual. Her increasing distance and her obsession with AOL became a problem. I was pretty sure she was having an online affair. I began looking for clues. It didn’t take much detective work to discover the identity of her new friend, who lived in Wisconsin. I found him through an email written by her to another friend that had bounced. In it she waxed poetic about this new guy and how they had made plans to be together after dumping this wreck of a marriage she was in.
I couldn’t save what I had after knowing this. If she wanted to end this marriage, I could make that happen. I don’t make promises I can’t keep. I talked to a lawyer in town and managed to scrape together the funds required to retain his services.
The divorce papers were served to her at work, on her birthday. With limited conversation and cooperation we arranged the split. She moved into a rented two-bedroom condo. I kept the house with plans to sell it so we could split the proceeds. It took a long time to sell. The kids were 8 and 10. They were able to continue in the same school district at her new address, so in all the upheaval that was the one constant.
She continued to see the guy in Wisconsin. The kids were the ones most affected by this: on her weekends they drove up to Wisconsin to be at his place. They were mired in boredom there, in his apartment. They resented their loss of freedom on these weekends because they would have rather been at home with their friends. But the needs of the narcissistic always come first. That romance lasted about a year and a half.
Predictably, the relationship ended. Within a year though, she found another one; he was kind of an upgrade. This guy was more likeable and he treated my kids with respect. She spent all her time with this guy - he was local. What I didn’t realize was just how much time she spent with him.
She left the kids alone a lot. At first I didn’t realize just how much they were left alone. There were many times I would drop them off after our weekends together on Sunday evenings to an empty house. Their response was always “oh, she’ll be home soon.” That was cover for her, I later found out.
When the divorce was final, the only house I could find and afford was one that was not in their school district. The schools were not as highly rated as the one they were in. But they had their own rooms in a comfortable house. I was concerned about the increasing amount of time they spent without adult supervision, but moving them into my school district seemed to be a worse choice.
The kids didn’t mind this increased freedom - they reveled in it. By now they were 12 and 14, barreling into being teenagers. Her place turned into Grand Central Station for latchkey kids. There was a lot of trouble brewing in that condo, things my ex was totally unaware of as she explored her new life with her wealthy boyfriend. Meanwhile the kids were having their own kind of fun. They were savvy enough to control it to the point where the cops or other parents were never made aware.
My ex was always a slob. I always felt like I was picking up after three kids, not just two. Her new place was small and crammed with furniture but clean . . . at first. Once she met the new guy and embarked on her new life, the house took a turn for the worse. There was crap piled everywhere, the kitchen was a disaster. The floor in the kid’s room was so littered with dirty clothes that the carpet was completely hidden. Hey, if mom doesn’t care, why should we?
The kids liked life this way. They had their friends over all the time, there was booze to drink, pot to smoke and the general revelry that comes with a house with no boundaries. They covered for their mom’s increased distance because in their minds, they had a really good thing going. Had I truly known the extent to which things had gone off the rails in that house I would have sued for custody and brought them to my house, regardless of school district. They knew this.
I should have been more vigilant. I could have easily won a custody fight, the evidence would have been clear . . . underneath all the dirty clothes and debris. And to what end? They would get more upheaval and a new school and new friends. Of course, that had been done before and they survived. I think my kids would have thrived under adult supervision.
They survived animal house and turned into respectful, well-mannered and funny adults. But not without the burden of feeling like their mom didn’t want to be around them. That is a lingering problem that they experience now, and will have to fix on their own.
Kathleen Vallee Stein