Day 232: L-E-T-S-G-O, Let’s Go! Let’s Go!

Growing up, I was fascinated with stay-at-home moms.  Whenever I went to a friend’s house and I learned that her mother did not work outside the home like my mother did, I was intrigued.  What did she do all day?  Wasn’t she bored and lonely when the children were in school?  Of course, as an inquisitive, curious child I spent much time in observation.  I needed to understand how these women’s lives were different from my mother’s life.  I needed to see if it was better on the other side.

I have to admit, the children of the stay-at-home moms experienced life differently than I did.  Many days after school, they were greeted with freshly baked Toll House Cookies and a big glass of ice-cold milk.  We usually got home and went to the cookie jar and grabbed some Oreos.    My friend’s houses smelled different from ours, too.  Our house did not smell badly, we actually had a cleaning lady who came once a week.  However, it did not have that outdoor fresh scent.  My friend’s mothers opened windows, aired out the house, and hung the laundry on the line.  The biggest difference was their involvement in their children’s lives.  They were the PTA moms, the room moms, the field trip chaperones, the cheer section at the baseball games, and the crossing guards at school.

These moms were the polar opposite of my mom who worked as a teacher during the day and a bookkeeper for my father’s burgeoning business in the evening.  My mother did not have extra time to be present at my games or activities, but because I knew she worked hard, I never felt disappointed.   To be honest, it never even crossed my mind to ask my mom to chaperone something or come to one of my baseball games.  She wasn’t the kind of woman who did those things, and it was completely normal to me that she was either at work or working on something at home.

Even though I do not regret my mother’s absence at my childhood events, as a parent, I have found myself drawn to wanting to take part in their lives.  I enjoy going to their games; I try to chaperone one field trip each year, and I am the recording secretary for my children’s school’s PTA.   I find it fulfilling in a way that I never knew possible.

Hence, it is not uncommon for me to get wrangled into helping out.  Last Spring, our athletic director announced that there would not be a JV cheerleading squad because no one had volunteered to coach.  Maggie was devastated.  She had finally reached fourth grade, and she was finally going to get her turn to shine.  You see, Maggie has been talking about becoming a cheerleader ever since Carson joined the squad in fourth grade. For three years, we have gone to games to watch Carson cheer and have fun with her friends. Envious, Maggie would say to me, “I can’t wait until I’m in fourth grade.”  Three years, she waited patiently for her time, and then they announce it might be canceled!  Thinking that she might not have the opportunity to fulfill her dream made my heart hurt.  As middle child, she already feels that the universe has it in for her.  I could not let something so simple as finding a coach thwart her dreams.  Seeing that I myself was a cheerleader in eighth grade and have some knowledge of the sport, it only seemed right for me to step forward and volunteer my time.

As good as that sounds, the minute I agreed to help, I regretted it, which is common with me.  Whenever I volunteer to take on a new position, I always have volunteer’s remorse.  I look at all I need to do to just prepare myself to execute the job, and I think: I don’t have time for this.  Why didn’t anyone else want to do this?  How am I going to fit yet one more thing into my busy week?  I always want to kick myself for being the huckleberry and getting roped in to helping yet again.

Be that as it may, I agreed to do this, so I attended the meeting; I attended the training.  I collected the physical forms, order forms, and typed and copied the cheers.  I lassoed Carson into being my Varsity helper, and I scheduled practices.  I developed a stretching schedule and a cheer practice regiment.  For four weeks, I have been training these girls and working them hard.  Along with teaching them cheers and technique, I have talked to them about commitment, about representing the uniform, about having pride in themselves.

To encourage each girl to be on her best behavior and try her hardest, I made a game stick.  I went to the craft store and bought a twelve-inch block of wood.  I painted it the school’s colors– black, yellow, and white– and I wrote the word Falcons on it.  I told the girls that it would be awarded at the end of every game to the young lady who represented the squad the best.  It would be given to the girl who worked hard, who did not complain, and who tried her hardest.  I made sure they understood that this stick is something special; we have fourteen girls on the squad and only eight games, not every girl will receive the stick because in my world, not everyone gets or deserves a trophy.

Waiting for the game to start.

Today was our first game.  I have to admit, I was nervous this morning.  The girls had been acting extra squirrely at our last practice, and I was worried that they might act goofy and embarrass themselves and me.  I worried someone would be late; someone would not be dressed in full uniform; someone would forget the ever-so-important halftime cheer.

And you know what? Nothing happened.  Nothing went wrong.  They were perfectly behaved; they worked together; they cheered the team to a 20-0 victory.  I felt proud– proud of fourteen little girls between the ages of 9 and 11 who worked hard and pulled together as a team.  I drove home from the game feeling like they themselves pulled off a victory and that all that volunteer remorse was for not; I was made for this position.

Moms of today, we are a different breed than our mothers.  We have figured a way to balance family and work, and maybe our children won’t ever think what we do is anything special, but we know that we choose to be a part of their lives, really a part of their lives, because no feeling is more satisfying than watching your child feel that she is part of something and that she matters.


Day 231: The Best Way to Learn the World Is to Experience It

I went through a phase in high school when I thought I could save the world.   I thought overnight, everything would be different because I did not like what I was hearing.  I, for the first time in my life, watched the news for more than just the weather.  I was horrified by the stories that were broadcasted.  People were dying in Ethiopia because of drought and lack of food.  War raged in South Africa between people because of the color of skin.  I was appalled and quite frankly, frightened by what was happening in the world.

Until that point, I had been sheltered by my parents.  I lived an easy life in a nice suburban neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side.  I cared about nothing but what was happening in my own little world.  I never worried about if there would be a next meal or how much the things I wanted cost.  Suddenly, everything that was important to me seemed trivial and egocentric.  I was embarrassed at my selfishness.  I decided I wanted to stop my ill feelings by stopping the pain of people all over the world who were not handed things on that proverbial silver platter as I had always been.  I had one problem, though.  I had too much energy without any real way to channel it.  How was I to reach the people in Ethiopia or South Africa?  I could not exactly go there.  As much as I wanted to change the world, I was unwilling to sacrifice the comforts I was accustomed to go be a missionary.

After much time, anxiety, and deliberation, I realized how I could be of service and help.  I had read in the Cleveland paper that a church in Cleveland’s downtown area was in need of volunteer help in their soup kitchen.  The church was St. Malachy’s.  Working in a soup kitchen was not exactly saving the world, but by volunteering, I was not letting the world pass me by, either.  I thought I could save lives right in my own hometown, and then next year, save the rest of the world.

My first day was a lovely Sunday in October.  I awoke with the sun glistening on my face.  The pleasing weather conditions made me feel secure and enhanced my feelings of bringing well-being to all.  I quickly got out of bed and got ready to go.  I had never been in a situation like this before, so I had no idea what I was required to wear.  I figured that I would be cooking or serving food, so I decided to dress casually.  I knew I was going to wear an apron, anyway.  I opened my closet and looked inside.  After some deliberation, I grabbed a comfy pair of Guess jeans and my favorite wool Benetton sweater.  I looked at myself quickly in the full length mirror after dressing.  Not only was I extremely comfortable, but I looked cute, too.  I decided on the way out the door that I should probably wear this outfit out the next Friday night.

I got in my car and drove out of my familiar surroundings.  The trees looked beautiful; the leaves radiated their autumn browns and oranges in the sun.  I noticed as I got off the highway into St. Malachy’s neighborhood that there were very few trees.  I became aware of the differences in the exterior of houses and buildings.  Everything seemed slightly neglected and dilapidated.  I was suddenly aware that I did not know what exactly to expect. For the first time since this notion of saving the world entered my mind, I realized I was chartering virgin waters and what I was about to encounter would be far different from anything I had ever experienced before.

I parked my car and hesitantly got out.  The kitchen was in the basement of the church, and the people milling around outside looked unsavory.  My stomach churned; all sorts of ideas were shooting around in my brain.  I could just get back in the car and drive home.  No one will know.  I probably wouldn’t even be missed.  No!  I knew if I backed down, I would regret it for the rest of my life.  How could I expect to change anything if I could not overcome my own fears?   I always got a little jittery when starting something new, so I knew the trepidation was a normal feeling for me.  I composed myself and went in.

I entered through the back door marked “Volunteers and Help.”  People were fluttering about performing miscellaneous kitchen duties. I stopped for a second to take in my surroundings. There were men cooking over huge kettles and grills, and women slicing vegetables and loaves of bread. They were like a machine in motion.  I took a deep breathe and took in the aroma.  I could not distinguish one certain type of food, but it made my mouth water.    Everyone was carrying out their own job with speed and accuracy without disturbing another’s progress.

I noticed in the corner of the kitchen an office.  I walked over to the open door and knocked.  I peaked in and saw a heavy-set, greying woman sitting behind a desk shuffling paper work.  I cleared my throat, “Excuse me.  I’m volunteering in the….”

I was cut off.  “Yes in the soup kitchen.  You must be Cheryl.  I am Mrs. Simon, the volunteer coordinator.  I spoke with you on the phone.  I will give you a tour, introduce you to the other volunteers, and then show you what you will be doing today.”  Her warm smile and friendly voice calmed me instantly.

As she showed me around and introduced me to the other workers, I realized what seemed like so many people actually was not.  Only twelve people volunteered per shift.  The other volunteers were all adults, but that did not seem intimidating because each person was exceptionally nice.

The last person I met was Bill, the head cook.  “Welcome, welcome,” he said.  “You are going to definitely bring a fresh glow to this tired, old crew.  We’re glad to have you.”

Mrs. Simon took me into the dining area where I would be serving food.  The dining hall was poorly lit and I could tell it needed a coat of paint.  Immediately, I noticed that people were waiting for the kitchen line to open.  Most people were wearing what appeared to be second-hand clothing, out of date and in many cases, unclean.  Many of the men were unshaven.  The children were quiet and respectful.  The women looked me over.   At first, I thought they were probably envious of my expensive name brand clothes.  Of course I was wearing the top designer names because I would not be caught dead in anything without a name.  However, looking around, I suddenly felt embarrassed of my shallowness.  My names brand were irrelevant in the scheme of things, and I couldn’t wait to put on an apron.  These people were surviving, and that was all.  I had so much to learn about life, about what was important, about myself.

Mrs. Simon handed me an apron and a ladle.  I was given a spot in the line.  My job was to dish out mashed potatoes.  I tried not look people in the eyes, I thought it would embarrass them.  I also did not want to engage people in conversation.  I did not know what I had in common with people in a soup kitchen.  It seemed to me that to ignore the people and just ladle the food was best for us all.  I was wrong.  Because of my aloof attitude, certain people quietly heckled me.  Comments were thrown at me by some of the guests in line.  One man with missing teeth said, “You want me to take you on a date tonight?”   Someone else whispered, “Why aren’t ya at the mall, Honey?”  The one that hurt the worst was “Why ya workin’ here?  You’re not gettin’ paid.”

I heard their comments in my core.  The way they looked at me was not what I expected.  I expected people to bow down and thank me, but I realized that was ridiculous.  My sheer presence was condescending, and I knew to gain their respect, I would have to earn it.  “The Little Suburban Girl Changes the World” was not going to be the head line of the evening paper.  I had put myself on a pedestal, and I was quickly brought down off of it.  This was life.  I was seeing it in full color.  I realized it was time for me to treat the guests with the dignity they deserved.  I started to look people in the face and smile.  Instead of expecting gratitude, I thanked them for taking the mashed potatoes from me.

My three-hour shift finally ended.  Mrs. Simon asked me how things went.  I smiled politely and said “fine” because it had.  However, when I pulled out of St. Malachy’s parking lot, I began to cry.   I cried not because of the way I was treated by certain people, but that we lived in such a world that allowed for such disaparity.  I cried because for sixteen years I had been sheltered from poverty and people in need.  I cried because I was so naive; I thought people were going to be so thankful to me when all I was doing is what I should be doing– I was helping my fellow-man.

Even though working at St. Malachy’s made me uncomfortable, I did not quit.  I made a committment, and I was going to see it through.  I was a very small part of St. Malachy’s operation, not really there long enough to make an impression on anyone or anything.  However, that kitchen and those people made a lasting impression on me.

Day 194: Sometimes, the Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

I have a friend named Piper.  Piper lives in a house on Kelleys Island, a small island in Lake Erie.  When she was younger, her parents owned a home on the island, and Piper begged them to live on Kelleys Island all year-long.  She thought it would be so cool to live in a community that only had a population of 388 people.  She had read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, and she thought that before the island got busy with vacationers, they probably had a stoning ceremony like the one in the story to keep the population under control.  Piper wanted to throw stones.

Because Piper’s father is a lawyer in a very lucrative law office in downtown Cleveland, he would not agree to allow his family to live on Kelley’s Island.  Piper was forced to go to an exclusive all-girls preparatory school on the East side of Cleveland.  Her parents did not believe in public schools, and they knew that if they shelled out $27,000 a year, she would be surrounded by superior students, superior athletes, and incredible teachers.  For $108,000, they were insuring that Piper would get into a top-notch college and major in something cool like organic chemistry or civil engineering.

Piper muddled her way through high school.  Unbeknownst to her parents, many of the other students were bratty potheads who were planning on living off of their trust funds.  The majority of the girls had no ambition to attend any swanky universities, and oddly, most of them ended up at Ohio University; Miami University; or Kent State, the same colleges that the kids from the public school down the block attended.

Piper was afforded opportunities that public school kids are not afforded.  Piper spent the summer before her senior year of high school in Gambia.  She worked for eight weeks on a community construction/development project, and she realized how rewarding it was to give of herself to others.  Hence, when she returned, she scoured colleges for a major that would allow her to develop communities for a living.  She told her parents she planned on attending The Ohio State University to major in Agricultural, Environmental, and Developmental Economics.

Piper’s father was not pleased.  He did not see how being a Peace Corps groupie would help her amass wealth.  She would never be Gandhi or Mother Theresa, so he thought it was futile to try to save the world.  He insisted that Piper apply to Stanford, Brown, and Harvard.  She was accepted at all three.  Her father was happy.

The summer before she was to leave for Stanford, Piper spent the entire summer on Kelley’s Island.  She felt at peace there, and the majority of the time, she was alone.  Her father was too busy with his law practice, and her mother was too busy with her tennis instructor.  She had a friend from school make her a fake id, and she snuck into bars all of the time.  No one knew Piper was only eighteen; she could throw back shots with any seasoned drinker.

One moonlit night, Piper met a boy.  He was an island native, and he was home from college.  He attended The Ohio State University.  His name was Datus Kelley.  His great-great-great grandfather was the Datus Kelley who cultivated the island’s quarry, lodging, and winemaking industries. He knew all of the island’s history and folklore, but what he was really interested in was agriculture.   He was tall and slender, and in the right light, he looked like a young Tom Hanks.  Piper swooned.

They spent three straight days together playing house, and on the third day, she knew she was pregnant.  (Some women just know.)  Datus was a gentlemen.  He was also in love.  He borrowed his father’s plane, and he and Piper left Kelleys Island’s Landing Field for Las Vegas.  Seventeen hours later, they were married.

When Piper’s father found out, he was furious.  He had spent $104,000 on her high school education, and all it got her was knocked up.  When her mother found out, she fainted.  She was way too young to be a grandma, she told Piper, what would the women at the club say.  She begged Piper to get an abortion.

Piper would have nothing of it.  She decided to postpone college indefinitely, move into Datus’s house, and wait for their baby.  Datus finished college and came home to the island.  Together, they cultivated his family’s winery and raised their beautiful son, Irad.

Irad graduated from Kelleys Island High School in 2007.  He was one of six students to graduate that year.  He received a full ride to The Ohio State University; he played soussaphone in the band, and in the very last football game of his senior year, he dotted the “I”.  Irad graduated Summa Cum Laude.  He joined the Peace Corps, and he is stationed in Cameroon working on community health programs.

Piper invited me to Kelleys Island for Islandfest 2012, but she won’t be there.  She is spending the summer with her son digging wells.

Piper is the happiest person I know, and she didn’t even go to college.