Remembering Michael

I have never professed an adeptness with words before, but I’ve also never found myself at a loss for them either. Like a spinster with an over abundance of cats, I usually find many more than needed and lacking in any control or order. However, with the passing of my cousin, Michael, I find myself at a complete loss for words to console or find any meaning in his death.

I’ve been thinking of Michael quite a bit lately and every time I pull forth a picture of a little boy with bright eyes, and the curliest of curly hair. Michael spent the last week of his life in Hospice and – from what I’ve been told – was a shell of the person he was before. He passed before I could make it to see him, saving me – I think – of the burden of seeing him like that at the end of his life. Instead, I find myself thinking of a small boy with a quiet exuberance, which as he grew older was replaced with a sharp wit and pleasant countenance. Each time I think of him that boy invariably makes me smile. I can’t help it, there is something about those eyes and hair that just makes me grin.

In thinking of the young Michael I am also reminded of a small house in Momauguin. There are many pleasant memories of that home, and of times spent there with Michael and my other cousins. In all honesty, many of my fondest childhood memories surround that home and the people who filled and passed through it. And so, in leading me to that house, the little boy led me to my grandparents as well, making me smile once more.

It was then that I realized when my Pop died 18 years ago and my Gram seven years after, Michael was just 14 when Pop passed away. Only 14. He never got the full dose of Pop, and only a little bit more of my Gram. My grandfather still makes me laugh to this day, and some of my favorite stories are of him. And…Gram, she was a one of a kind, for sure. And suddenly, in that, the little boy led me to what solace I can find from a hard life ended too soon.

Michael, I truly believe, is at peace now, and in the best of hands. For I am certain, that for the time being, he’s got Gram and Pop all to himself now and can make up for lost time.

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As Only a Teacher Can

Every so often someone you know, someone whom you really know, surprises you. In my case it shouldn’t have, but it did anyway.

I’ve known my wife for half her life now. We’ve been married for most of that time, and we’ve two impulsive and inquisitive daughters to show for it. However, this past week I saw a new aspect of her I’d never known before, one I might have seen had I been a co-worker maybe. Well, maybe it was less about knowing, and more about understanding.

My wife is a teacher. A good one too. She’s one of the ones that not only puts in her 40 hours a week, but once our girls are in bed, takes out her laptop and starts working again. She’s the one that opponents of school budgets don’t tell you about, they know what a deal they’re getting with teachers like her.

I’ve always known how hard she works, and not only how many hours, but how many quality hours. I know how much she inspires her students to succeed and how she cares about them and their families. It’s this last bit, though, that I didn’t quite grasp the extent of.

Let me explain, my wife is an early childhood and special educator. She works with young students, most of whom are the same age or younger than our youngest daughter. One of those students, one whom she’s championed, advocated for, and supported for almost two years, passed away. The news, and the resulting heartache, are things she never could have prepared for, steeled herself to. The loss of this student has hit her profoundly.

I watched her this weekend, expecting to see her hovering more about our own kids than usual, but I also observed the effect this loss has had on her as a teacher. This was her “little guy” whom she would talk about at dinner, not in too much detail, but about challenges – and more often than not – his successes. She cared for this boy, and maybe not as a parent, but I’ve learned as only a teacher can.

Teachers see our children for, in my case at least, more waking hours during the week than I do. When my daughters average 11 to 12 hours or so of sleep a night, and spend about seven hours in school a day, that leaves me about five to six hours. These professionals, who spend so much time and energy on our children, care for them deeply. It’s a part of who they are, not something they can switch off or ignore. It’s why they went into teaching in the first place. They are passionate about education, about children, and brightening their worlds.

So, what I realized is this, when I gripe about her working late, or working after hours when she’s home, it’s not something she can easily let go of. Her students’ successes are hers, their setbacks and challenges as well. She can no easier let them go than I can let my daughters’. It’s what drives her to be a better teacher, so she can do better by her students. Why when she’s not working extra hours, she’s taking courses and workshops to further her professional development.

These are our children’s teachers. Their students aren’t just office co-workers or even colleagues. They are children. Malleable and impressionable little people who look to their teachers to define their little worlds for them. And from the teachers I know, they do not take this responsibility lightly. Teachers have been much maligned of late in the media as greedy and lazy. Wanting higher pay for less hours and no accountability.

Except, here’s the thing, of all the teachers I know, none of them fit that demonized bill. Granted, some teachers are better than others, and while some are exceptional others are much less so. However, there are very few who are not passionate about education and children.

I should have known this, after all I fell in love with an idealistic, education major a long time ago. I should have seen it then, or even picked up on it once she got her own classroom. However, I think – like many of us do – I took its inevitability for granted.

And so, once again, my teacher has taught me that educators are not just assembly line workers cranking out smarter kids by the year, but an amalgam of roles from parents and mentors to friends and confidants. They are that emotional surrogate at school when our children are away from home. And when they lose one of their students much too early, much too young, they feel that loss as only a teacher can.

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Over Pie

I recently attended my first pie breakfast. I had never heard of one before, but I guess it’s a thing. On a cold, winter, weekend morning everyone turns out and eats pie for breakfast. Usually, the event is a fundraiser for a local charity, school, or non-profit.

I have to admit, I kinda liked it.

Besides the obvious, eating pie for breakfast is delicious and makes us all feel a little naughty having our dessert first for our “most important meal of the day”, but it was also a wonderful way to connect with neighbors and friends.

This particular breakfast was held at Hyde Park Elementary School as a fundraiser for the Partners In Education (PIE), a community group that supports the school. Half of the proceeds went to the organization for their other events, activities, and school support while the other half was donated to the Lamoille Valley Cancer Network in honor or Hyde Park alum Mackenzie Prattt who passed away from cancer a little more than 2 years ago.

However, the decedent desserts offered (in all fairness there were many quiches and other healthier pies as well) weren’t what most moved me at this event. As I stood back, eating my third and forth slices of pie that morning, I watched the assembled pie-eaters. I watched as folks sat at the cafeteria tables in the school’s gymnasium, and over a slice of pie, chatted. Caught up on what was new with each other, talked about the weather, local events, or what have you. I watched as folks smiled and laughed, others reached a caring hand and tenderly squeezed a forearm.

I watched my neighbors connect.

It’s something I don’t think we get the chance to do that often anymore. During this age of social media, many of us spend more time updating statuses or tweeting than we do sitting down and having a conversation. Even better, a conversation over a slice of pie. There is something inherently neighborly and folksy about ruminating over pie. Something genuine, something that seems uniquely American.

I also thoroughly enjoyed that this event was held in our school’s gym and cafeteria. As I watched moms and dads, grandparents, and children all eat and mingle I was reminded that our children do this five days a week. They sit and dine in this very room, meeting and eating with their peers. It’s the not the first time, nor do I think it’ll be the last that I think we can learn some enlightening lessons from our children.

However, it also reminded me that our school is the hub of our community. It is the heart that keeps the rest of our town and village alive. This was not just an event open to school families, but to the entire community. To anyone who would enjoy a piece of pie in the morning and enjoy the company and conversation with a community member.

More than anything else, our schools – our children – are the center of our towns, not just Hyde Park’s. They are what gives us strength, what makes us rise in the morning, and what keep us up through the night. I cannot fathom a better example for us to teach them than by showing our children how much we value them and their education than by gathering on a cold, blustery, Saturday morning, to talk, laugh, and reconnect with each other.

And, if we can do it over a slice of pie, that much the better.

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Contributing Regularly

Hey, folks, so in case you missed the announcement, I’m contributing regularly to the family website, Offbeat families, now. It’s a very cool site, with lots of great info and stories about parenting. You should check it out. Here’s the link to my latest post to the site, Superhuman. Thanks!

~Mark

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The Magic of the Snow-Globe

This past holiday season my oldest daughter had one present she truly wished for more than any other. Whenever asked on the lead up to Christmas what her number one request from Santa was, she replied with this same item. Every time, never changing her mind, she stuck to it. There were other items on her list and letter to Santa, but this was the one item she wished for more than another.

All she really wanted was a snow-globe, but not just any snow-globe. She wanted a snow-globe that depicted the North Pole with Santa’s house inside. At the time, I thought this one was easy. A no brainer that we could find anywhere at a number of local shops. After striking out locally, I still didn’t panic. How could I? A request this easy? Please. There must be dozens of different North Pole snow-globes out there, right? I thought, being the master of the interwebs that I am, I could track one down easily. And then I struck out again, and again, and again. Beginning to feel desperate, we enlisted the help of the grandparents to track one down on their travels. They found globes, but did they find the North Pole? No.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of snow-globes out there. Lots of Santa and Christmas trees, Santa with presents, Santa in his sleigh, and Santa with his deer, but not a single one of a snowed in homestead. There were even plenty of religious snow-globes out there too. More than I ever would have imagined. Mangers, Baby Jesus, Mary and Josephs, but was there one of a house in a snow-scape? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zippo.

So, like any other father on Christmas Eve, I set out to make one. It was totally the 11th hour, and I felt like a huge failure for not finding a real globe out there, but I wasn’t about to let her down. Did I feel pressure? Yup. Tons. But, how could I let her down? It wasn’t like she was asking for a pony or some enormous and exorbitant item. It was a simple snow-globe.

My wife earlier in the week found some home-made directions for making home-made snow-globes. She, unlike me, could see the writing on the wall, and was much more prepared. She, unlike me, had a Plan B in place, thankfully.

My wife not only had the directions, but she’d found a neat, little, glass jar as well, the key to her make-it-yourself-snow-globe directions. The jar also had a very cool design on each of its four corners that I painted green, and when they were dry, they looked like four balsam fir trees. While at my parents house the day before Christmas eve, I found an ornament that with a little painting I turned into the Claus homestead. Along with some fake snow, water, loads of silver glitter, Teflon tape, and an obscene amount of hot glue the snow globe was done.

Honestly, it was a pain to make. The jar just didn’t want to seal, every time I thought I had it tight, it leaked water every where. It was maddening trying to get it done at that late hour, but I eventually got it water tight.

We wrapped it and placed it under the tree along with the rest of her and her little sister’s presents. I really didn’t expect her to think much of it, especially being the sub-par Emmett-Otter’s-Jug-Band-Christmas-kinda-present that it was.

However, she squealed. She loved it. She really was excited, and each time someone asked – either over Skype or in person – what she got for Christmas, she would run and retrieve and show it proudly. At first, it was pretty embarrassing. I cringed when she showed it to people. When other kids showed off their iPod Fives and iPad minis, my daughter held up her glue-gunned snow-globe. It really isn’t very good, but she truly loves it. She recognized right away that it was homemade, and was so excited to think Santa Claus himself made the globe for her.

It was then, after I watched her explain to her grandparents how Santa made it just for her, that I appreciated the globe a bit more. It was then that I realized that the effort, the ever-loving frustration, and the love itself that went into it was worth more than any of the presents we purchased. I don’t know if she’ll love it a month from now. I don’t know if she’ll remember it next year, or when she’s sixteen, but I do think she’ll remember it when she’s up late on Christmas Eve when she’s a mom. I hope she does, at least.

I hope she’ll think of it, and me, then. Maybe I’ll still be kicking around, or maybe I won’t, but I hope that dumb globe is when she’s laying presents under the tree. Hopefully, she’ll give it a shake, and when the glitter swirls around she’ll feel the magic that globe brought her and especially to me this holiday.

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Escaping the Tragedy and Listening Through the Tears

It’s been snowing and raining since Sunday, and my daughters and I made a snowman after school yesterday. It’s perfect snowman making snow, thick, heavy, and moist. The kind that holds a lot of moisture and sticks together. It reminds me a lot of the snow we had growing up as a kid, we called it “heart attack” snow because shoveling a driveway and sidewalk of the stuff was sure to induce a heart attack. It’s a very southern New England kinda snow. Very Connecticut snow, actually.

I was lucky this weekend. We wrapped filming of my latest film, The Green Knight. The lead up to a shoot is always busy and hectic, even. Not a lot of time to do much else but prepare and take care of my girls, usually. I’m often very preoccupied. However, on Friday, when I heard the news of the tragedy in Connecticut, I was stunned into inactivity like the rest of the country, I think. I grew up in Connecticut. I have six nieces and nephews who attend school in Connecticut. One brother is a superintendent of schools, the other is a police officer. Before my wife and I moved to Vermont, my wife taught elementary school in Connecticut. I have a friend who lives with her husband and three sons and teaches in Newtown.

To say the news caused me great consternation is an understatement. However, I don’t think I was alone. I think the rest of the country felt very much the very same way.

I wanted to immediately go to my daughters’ school and pull them out for the day and hug them. Cuddle them, not let them go. I almost left, but caught myself. It wasn’t the right thing to do, it wouldn’t have been the right example, or the message I would later want to send to them.

Like I said, I was lucky. I closed the news windows in my browser, shut down Facebook, and poured myself into my work. When it was time to pick up my daughters, I hugged them tighter and longer than usual. Luckily though, I do that often, so my kids didn’t pick up on it. They didn’t notice the extra moisture to my eyes when I let go of them either. We went to the barn where my daughters take riding lessons and did our Friday chores. We went home. I made dinner, and they played. I listened to their giggling and cherished it more than usual.

And for the next three days my family was able to forget and delve into our movie. Our film productions are always family affairs. Wives, brothers, children, and friends who are more family than friends now, all participate. It sounds cowardly, but I was able to escape into my movie and my youth. I was able to play a knight who defies death, forgetting – momentarily – about real heroes, princes, and princesses who were unable to.

While so many families mourned, while one brother spoke at an all faith gathering, I played fantasy. Forgetting about the reality of true villainy and monsters while I masqueraded as a honorable knight. It was… cowardly.

On Monday morning because of the snow, my wife had a snow day. My girls did not, however, but we kept them home from school anyway. Not because of what happened on Friday in Connecticut, but because of the long busy weekend. They were tired and there was fresh snow on the ground. It was a good day to be a kid, but we still needed to talk with them about what had happened Friday. I needed to speak with them before I left for set and our final day of shooting.

I told them we needed to talk and they turned their attention to us. I told them a very bad person, did a very bad thing, in a school in Connecticut on Friday. They asked what, and I told them he brought a gun to school. They asked did people get hurt, and I said yes, and some even died. My youngest daughter asked, “kids?”, and I said yes, and teachers too. They thought about this for a moment. My youngest asked who did it. I gave her his name, but then I said something that I pray they hold on to. I told them that person’s name doesn’t matter, what matters is that they understand that on that day there was only one bad person in that school. Just one, but a whole school full of good ones. Hundreds of good and brave students and teachers, and there were thousands of good people in the surrounding town, but only one bad one.

I went on to tell them that just because bad people do bad things, we will not stop being good. We will continue to be brave, continue to treat people rightly, and not stop loving our family, friends, and neighbors. No matter how many bad people there are, we won’t stop doing good and loving. We won’t. Not. Ever.

I hugged my wife and daughters a little bit tighter and a little bit longer before I left for set. I got to ride an enormous gentle horse and pretend I was a hero for one more night before our production wrapped. I came home, and kissed my girls goodnight as they slept in their beds. I tucked hair behind ears, smiled at sleeping faces, and breathed them in.

I then sat on the couch and began to read. I read about the tragedy. I read about the victims. About the children. I reread the profiles of all the victims. I needed to put them to memory, remembering the smiles, their stories. Everyone of them were my daughters, whether they were a boy or a girl, they were my children. So similar and so innocent. I went to bed when I couldn’t read anymore. When I couldn’t bear to think about and emphasize with the parents in Newtown anymore. I tried to be brave for them, I tried to live this tragedy with them as much as could, but I couldn’t bear it any longer.

The next day, after we finished our morning routine, and my wife left with my daughters for work and to drop them at school, I sat down and began reading again. I read about the heroes. Every one.

It was hard to wait to pick my girls up, hard not to race the short drive to their school and take them home, but I couldn’t. I needed to let them be at school, be assured they were safe, that their school is full of good people. It is, I know it is. Brave teachers and good students. I have trusted them with my girls for the last three years, and I won’t let one bad person stop me from continuing.

However, I waited and it was hard, but I picked them up at dismal. After my girls and I finished our snowman, and I began to bring in firewood while they continued to smooth and sculpt him, my thoughts drifted back to Newtown. I stacked wood into my bucket and then under my arm as I began to hear it from around our house.

Singing.

My daughters began to sing Christmas carols as they played in the snow and perfected their snowman. And I began to cry. I cried for the children and their teachers. For their parents, siblings, and families. I cried for neighbors and the millions of parents and people watching from afar.

But, mostly, I cried because had it not been for the horrific tragedy in Newtown, I might have never noticed that moment. I might have worked through it. Busied my self with chores or work, and missed that beautiful moment.

Through my tears I did something I haven’t done in a very long time, I said a prayer. I prayed that if but for a moment, the world would only listen to the beauty of a child singing.

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I Get It…Now.

I get it now.  Finally.

When I was a kid, growing up with bright red hair wasn’t easy. It’s tough to remember just how red it was as it fades with age.  I mean, it was a really deep dark oxidation red.  A burnt umber that would have made Bob Ross sigh in delight and approval.   Besides the typical teasing of being the odd looking kid in the neighborhood, there was an inordinate amount of hair touching that occurred back then too.

Now, before you start getting any weird ideas, we lived next door to a series of homes with older residents.  When I think back on it, my neighbors seemed really old to me.  Like Gandolf and Dumbledore old.  When I really think about though, they probably weren’t that old, actually.  They might have only been my parents’ age, and my parents then my age now.  Funny to think on it, really, because my parents seemed so much older to me then.  They were so…grown up.  So mature for how I feel now.  They seemed, for the most part, to be really with it.  Solid. Somehow I just don’t see my daughters looking at me that way. Now, or ever, really.  I certainly don’t look at me that way.

Did my parents think this same thought back then?  Did they feel grown up?  I certainly don’t feel as old or grown up as they seemed back then.  And, now, they certainly don’t seem as old as my neighbors seemed to that little ginger-haired boy back then (Hi-5, Mom!).

However, those wizened older folks really, I mean really, liked my hair.  It was so weird and uncomfortable for me back then.  I really didn’t like it when they touched my hair and squeezed my cheeks. I hated my hair as a kid. I felt it was the bane of my existence, the sole source of my teasing.

However, like my hair, I grew to appreciate my neighbors – liking them even.  I once scared the Ba-Geezus out of my Mom when I disappeared for probably only short amount of time that – I’m sure –  seemed like forever to her.  When she finally found me, I was in my neighbors’ home, sharing some cookies and milk.  As a parent now, I realize what a horrible experience that must have been for my Mom, but at the time I just couldn’t see what the fuss was over some cookies and milk.

“It was just cookies, Mom!”

So, I get that too, I guess.  I understand that crazed anxiety over a misplaced child, something no one should ever experience, and no one else will ever understand unless they’re a parent who has felt that – hopefully only – momentary panic of a lost child.  But what I’ve been feeling of late is what I think my neighbors saw in me, and especially my hair back then as a child.

I get it now as a look at my girls.  As I said before, I don’t feel old, but when I look at them they energize me.  I understand now what they meant by, “drinking in my youth.”  As a kid, I worried it was some scary vampire thing – and not the silly sparklepire kind.  That they really were soaking up my youth somehow.  Funny, but scary to a little kid then.

I get it now, though.

It’s that feeling of energy, of being alive, when I watch my girls.  Play with them.  Cuddle them.  And, now as they’re getting older and so much smarter than their old man, talking to them.  I love talking with my girls.  Listening to their thoughts, imaginings, and hearing their explanations for our world.  They amaze me.  They make me feel young.

They give me purpose.

So, I think I get it now.  Maybe my old neighbors didn’t think or feel these things all those years ago.  Maybe they just really liked red hair, I don’t know for sure, I was never smart enough to ask them what they meant.

However, when I’m with my girls, they make me feel like that ginger-haired boy all over again.  I need to pause and let their youth wash over me, soak it in, and remember to see just how wonderful a thing it is.

 

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