Category Archives: Family

Dog Is Love?

Beckley's Hood

Dog is Love?  No, that isn’t a typo.  I can’t be the only one who’s thought about the fact that DOG is GOD spelled backwards, can I?  Dogs give us unconditional love.  We come home after a bad day and see that tongue hanging out, that tail wagging, and we let the day go.  We take that little doggie-human outside, go for a walk, throw a ball, and the stress of the day dissolves into the air as we throw the ball again and again for a little guy who’s just happy to have his family home for the evening.

My daughter Ashley had begged for a dog for years.  Her stepdad and I were skeptical.  We had married when she was five, and shortly after the three of us moved in together, she cried great big tears and declared, “Everybody in this house has somebody to sleep with but me!  I want a kitty!”  Though we weren’t cat lovers, we let one of my students, who lived on a farm, talk us into a calico kitten, a beautiful ball of fur who came into our home and demanded that we love her on her own terms.  She hadn’t lived in our house more than a week when my daughter tired of her and started asking for a dog instead.  We resisted her pleas until the Friday night pizza delivery girl fell in love with the cat and offered to give her a good home.  Delighted that she loved the cat more than we did, we breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the cat would be happier with her than she had ever been with us.

Unwilling to have another pet disaster, we resisted my daughter’s pleas for several years.  But since she was an only child, we ultimately decided it would be good for her to have the companionship and responsibility of a dog.  We researched various breeds, but we had a friend who had Shelties, so we went to a breeder and fell in love with Murphy, a blue merle who was frightened of his own shadow but who loved us and gave his loyalty to us from the moment we brought him through our front door.

Murphy was the perfect dog.  He barked only when someone knocked on the front door and, oddly, when we cracked a boiled egg for breakfast in the morning.  He lived to please us.  He pranced beside us when we went for a walk, ignoring all the dogs that barked when he trotted by, his head in the air as if he were a prince and barking were beneath him.  He happily went with Ashley when she visited her father, and he pranced around our feet, wagging his tail when he came home.  Shortly after Ashley left for college, he died of cancer, and we all cried for weeks.  Even Ashley’s father cried.  Even our friends cried.  And for months after he died, people said his name,Murphy, in a tone of reverence.

My husband Matt and I didn’t think we would get another dog.  But the house was too quiet, with both Ashley and Murphy gone.  So when Ashley came home for winter break, we went back to the breeder who introduced us to Murphy, and we picked out Beckley, another Sheltie, but who looked more like Lassie than Murphy.  And though we’d been warned that it was a bad idea to get a dog of the same breed, we brought Beckley home with great excitement.  While Murphy had been sweet and docile, Beckley was an alpha dog who barked at other dogs, at geese, at birds perching on the feeder in the back yard, at the telephone, at other dogs on television, and even at our sneezes.  Matt and Ashley fell in love with Becks before I did.  Matt trained him, and Ashley taught him to sing.  But I couldn’t forgive him at first for not being Murphy.

But like Murphy, Beckley was always happy to see us.  He barked fiercely when we left for work in the morning, as though demanding that we stay with him.  And as soon as he heard the garage door in the evening, he began barking again, happily prancing around our feet as we came in the door and put down the baggage of the day.

And when, after I had cancer, the oncologist suggested that I try to walk every day, Beckley fell in love with me and I with him.  Every morning when the alarm goes off, he looks at me expectantly and waits patiently by the front door while I don coat and gloves and grab a flashlight to walk in the pre-dawn hours in the quiet of our neighborhood.  I tell Beckley to look at the stars and the moon, and his ears perk up at the sound of my voice.  “This is the day that God has made, Beckley.  What do you think?”  He wags his tail and looks at me with love, and I think, What a great way to start the day—with the dog that God hath made. Thank you, God, for dogs and for their unconditional love.

What Is Love?

Feet

What is love?  I love sitting beside a clear mountain stream with my feet in the gentle current, watching the water trickle over my toes.  I love seeing the first red tulips come up in my flower bed each spring.  I love reading a great book and getting lost in the lives of the characters.  I love chocolate with almonds, chocolate with peanut butter, chocolate with orange peel.  I love pumpkin spice latte and gingerbread latte and country harvest breakfast coffee.

I love my country.  I love my fellow humans.  I love life and laughter and love.  I love a God who hovers so close sometimes that I can almost touch the air and feel the Spirit.  I love my daughter and my husband, my stepchildren and my parents and my siblings and my friends.  But every once in a while, my husband laughs when I tell him I love him and asks, “But do you love me more than chocolate?”  I smile.  “What kind of chocolate?” I tease him.

How is it that this one word can describe all those things?  Other languages have many words for love—words that distinguish between affection and passion, between brotherly love and parental love, between friendship and unconditional love.  Though I’m a writer in love with words, I’m forced to admit that this one word is inadequate to show the depth of abiding love that I feel for my husband and our children.

We don’t question whether we love our children.  For most of us, that love is indelibly imprinted in our DNA, a love so forceful that it’s overwhelming at times.  We endure physical pain and cry for joy as they slip-slide into the world.  And how many parents do you know who love their children unconditionally no matter how many times their children disappoint them or fail them?

But romantic love?  How do we know when we love someone enough to commit for life?  When we meet the one who will love us in return—who won’t eventually toss us aside like the pumpkin spice latte when the more alluring gingerbread latte makes its appearance?  Many of us aren’t even sure that kind of lasting love exists.  And even more of us believe in it but give up waiting and settle for something less.

The first time I believed in love enough to think about marriage, I had doubts—little tickling thoughts that were easy to push aside at first.  But they grew.  And a week before the wedding, as I stood in the dining room looking over the mountain of shower gifts on the table, I thought about calling off the wedding.  I picked up a place setting of flatware and closed it in my hand, as though I could grasp the answer if I just gripped the utensils more tightly.  Walking slowly around the table, I picked up one gift after another, turning each of them over in my hands as if they would reveal the hidden answer to me of whether I was doing the right thing.  Get a grip, I told myself.  This is just pre-wedding jitters.  I couldn’t rid my mind of doubts, but the thought of returning all the gifts overwhelmed me, and I walked away from the table and into a marriage that fell apart a few years later.

In the wake of the divorce, a wise reverend said to me that for love to last, you had to be just a little in awe of that person and that person had to be a little in awe of you.  I thought about that often as I put my life back together and began to believe in the possibility of loving again.  And I’ve thought of it this week again as the news has been full of more leaders who have been caught in affairs with younger women who are completely in awe of them.  Too little awe, and there isn’t much left once the fire of passion dwindles.  Too much awe, and it’s destroyed by the reality of discovering that no one can live up to that sort of adoration.

But if you’re a little in awe of one another, you take joy in each other’s accomplishments and keep each other going when one person’s confidence falters.  When you think about that person, even when you’re a little mad at him, your heart smiles, and you know you’ll move past your momentary exasperation.  When you imagine future sorrows and losses, you know without a doubt that you’ll make it through them with him by your side.  When you think about the dreams you hope to accomplish, you can’t imagine sharing them with anyone else.

What is love?  When you find that kind of love, you won’t have to ask.  Listen to the little voices.  They’re never wrong.

What doesn’t kill us makes us…?

“Lots of stuff that doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” said the character Manny in an early episode of ABC’s sitcom Modern Family.  That was the episode—“Truth Be Told”—that hooked me on what has become my favorite show on television.  Manny’s fictional character spoke the real-life truth about a worn-out platitude.

The “truth” of the episode is much more complicated:  Manny’s stepfather Jay, who is constantly trying to get him to “man-up,” has attempted to hang a poster in Manny’s room that says, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  Manny is quick to give an example that debunks Jay’s simple view of life—that his grandfather had a heart attack and now he has to use a machine to help him breathe.  When the poster frame falls and kills Manny’s pet turtle, Shel Turtlestein, we belly-laugh at the absurdity of Jay’s cover-up story, which is so ridiculous that Gloria, Jay’s wife, tells him, “I’m Columbian. I know a fake crime scene when I see one.”  And as it always does in comedic fiction, the truth comes out.

The show plays on almost every stereotype we hold of what it means to be family, and we can laugh in a way that we cannot when we think of our own painful experiences. So this week when news outlets reported that Ariel Winter, the real-life 14-year-old who plays the nerdy and intelligent Alex, had been removed from her mother’s custody, my heart ached for the girl who plays the character most like the childhood version of me.

Unlike Alex, Ariel and I both live with the real-world complexities of the parent-child relationship.  According to news reports, Ariel’s older sister had been permanently removed from her mother’s custody 20 years prior to this incident.  And while the courts are still sorting out what is the “truth be told” of this situation, it remains to be seen whether what hasn’t killed her will make her stronger.

For me, being abused as a child has done both.  I spent half a lifetime revering my mother and love-hating my father, who drank his way through weekends and beat my siblings and me with a belt that he pulled from his waistline with a snap at the slightest provocation.  But when my first marriage fell apart and I told a therapist that my mom was my hero and my father was “a total shit,” the therapist asked a simple question that changed my life:  “Estelene, has it ever occurred to you that by today’s standards, your mom would be an accessory to child abuse?”

That one question challenged me to reconsider the simple beliefs I had held true for my parents.  I had always thought that my mother, who quit school in ninth grade and married my dad when she was 17 and pregnant with my sister, had stayed with my father because she had no other options.  But while I still love my mother for her unconditional love of her children and her strength in the face of adversity, I no longer idolize her, and I know that we all make choices.  And while I still can’t excuse my father’s abuse, I can now understand that the hard life of a coal miner with a fifth grade education put him at a life-long disadvantage in supporting a family long before he was ready emotionally or financially.

I can also think rationally about the paradoxes that led me to be the person I am.  My father recognized what his own choices had done to his life, and he said to me nearly every day of my childhood that I would get the education he didn’t have so that I could have a better life.  So, in a striking irony, I became the Alex Dunfee of my real-life family and grew up to be a teacher, like my parents’ teacher for whom I am named.  So my father is largely responsible for my education and my vocation.

I know I’m lucky that my father stopped drinking when I was about the age that Ariel Winter is now.  I actually got to know the better side of a sober father who mellowed later in life.  And perhaps that fact and the certainty of our mother’s love are why all five of my parents’ children were able to break the cycle of abuse that sometimes perpetuates itself through generations of families.  Like Ariel, whose sister was removed from her mother’s custody 20 years ago, there was ample evidence in my family of a history of abuse.  My father’s sisters laughingly told the story of how my grandmother threw my father into the yard when he was a toddler “like he was a sack of potatoes.”  And one of my aunts, who saw the welts on my sister’s arms, told my dad she would report him to the police if she ever saw such wounds again.  We had teachers who averted their eyes from the welts and bruises our mom made us cover up when we went to school.  We had neighbors who called in their children and closed their doors when my father beat my brothers in our front yard.

So truth be told?  I’m still figuring that out, as I guess I will until my last breath.  For my siblings and me, the truth is that one of us indeed was killed rather than made stronger—my brother who died of a drug overdose in his 40s, leaving behind two children who adored him in spite of his flaws.  Our truth is that the remaining four of us have struggled mightily with both the strengths and the weaknesses of what hasn’t killed us.

So this week my heart and my prayers go out to Ariel and other victims of their parents’ inner demons.  May it be so that the truth really does make them stronger.  Amen.

How Do I Answer Her Tough Questions?

Ash and Me

When my daughter was three years old, we commuted together on one of the busiest interstates in the country to my job as a teacher and to the daycare center where she spent more waking hours with care providers than she spent with me.  Despite the stress of having my precious cargo in a hellish commute with me, I loved sharing that time with her.  She chattered away and asked a million questions, even though we left home while the sky was still dark.  I knew that I needed to prepare myself for a lifetime of tough questions when she asked me, “Momma, how did God get all those stars up in the sky?”

That night, I read to her from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation”:

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,

And God rolled the light around in His hands

Until He made the sun;

And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.

And the light that was left from making the sun

God gathered it up in a shining ball

And flung it against the darkness,

Spangling the night with the moon and stars.

Then down between

The darkness and the light

He hurled the world;

And God said, “That’s good!”

I remember being happy that she had asked me that question and not the daycare providers.  I remember feeling guilty that I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom.  But now, she can’t remember the names of the people who cared for her, and I’m sure that she thinks more about all the things I’ve taught her than she thinks about anything that any of them said to her.

That doesn’t mean that she always agrees with me.  She views the world through the lens of her own experiences and ideas. And when she does, she isn’t shy about telling me that she doesn’t agree with me or share my view of the world.

And so today, she sometimes openly challenges my thinking in ways that I never challenged my own parents.  My father was a Republican who only once voted anything other than a straight ticket.  He was a child of evangelicals who never in my lifetime stepped foot into a church except for the funeral of a close friend.  My mother registered as a Republican and gave Dad a second vote in every election until he died, when she changed parties and cast the last vote of her life for Barack Obama.  She was a devout Christian who never worshipped in a church and who worried she might be going to hell because she didn’t accept the faith of her parents and in-laws.

I never considered registering as anything other than a Democrat.  I became eligible to vote in March 1974, a few months after Nixon had declared that he was not a crook.  But I never told my dad that I didn’t register for his party.  I never once discussed religion with my father either.  And after being a practicing evangelical for all of my teenage years and young adulthood, I chose a denomination that messily debates every social issue of the day. And I eventually chose a church that shared space with a Jewish congregation and ordained a gay minister.

Like many 20-somethings, my daughter doesn’t go to church as often as I do.  And she is far more accepting than I am of friends who have political views that differ from her own.  On many matters of politics and religion and life, she shares my views.  But she is much more quick to challenge people at the two extremes than I am and much more quick to offer her friendship to people whose views diverge from her own.

And maybe that’s a good thing in a world where we could use more people who can listen and really hear people who disagree.  The danger of teaching our children to think for themselves…is that they will.  But perhaps it’s our hope for the future, too.