The judgmental jerk next-door

I scurry quickly to the mailbox. By the time I turn around with several days worth of junk in my hands, he is standing outside waiting for me.

I really thought he’d gone out. Guess that was his wife’s car leaving a few minutes ago. My mistake.

I quicken my pace and keep my eyes cast down, pretending an advertisement for pizza is the most interesting thing I’ve ever read.

“Hey neighbor,” he calls out. “How are you?”

I consider pretending I didn’t hear him. I don’t look up for a few beats and foolishly think maybe he won’t try again.

“The kids sure are getting big,” he says.

He has mastered the art of starting a conversation before the other person can get away, a black belt of verbal assault.

“When do they start back to school?” he continues and takes a step toward me as I try to sneak past his perfectly green lawn.

Despite brown grass in every other lawn, he stubbornly refuses to allow his oasis to be thwarted by the government. He believes the drought is some conspiracy and he refuses to acknowledge it. Somehow Obama is behind it.

“We have about a month left of summer,” I say in a rush. “The kids are waiting on their lunch. I better hurry back. They get all cranky when they are hungry.”

“The girls are good,” he starts and I brace myself.

He stands squarely in the middle of the sidewalk and there is no polite way to leave now. I’m trapped in the social obligation of good neighbor.

I remember when we moved in. His sweet face all smiles and welcoming. Polished, handsome and always working in his perfect lawn and doting on his beautiful French wife. They seemed the ideal representation of the American dream.

Over the last 12 years, I’ve seem him age dramatically. He looks tired and unkempt today in a thin white t-shirt and sweatpants. He stands stooped and looks frail. There is a slight odor of aftershave mixed with something else that I can’t put my finger on.

That phrase “the girls are good” is always what he starts with. Those words have a physical effect on me. My blood pressure goes up and I get agitated because I know what follows: story after story about his three perfect granddaughters. His love for them is both beautiful and incredibly nauseating.

“Did I tell you that Samantha got straight A’s?”

“Hey did you hear that Celeste’s volleyball team made it to nationals?”

“We are sending Teresa to France for her senior trip. She is so excited!”

His love and dedication to them has been the topic of thousands of sidewalk conversations with rarely a chance to get a word in. I always smile and tell him that he must be proud.

“You know I have to take care of them,” he always says. “I have to be everything I know their father would have been.”

I remember the first time I was invited into his immaculate home, everything white and gleaming. In the living room is an enormous photo of his son. He is standing in a park somewhere, a handsome blond with tan skin. He has one daughter in a pack on his back, one attached to his leg looking up at him and the third he is pushing on a swing.

His son died shortly after the picture was taken. Brain tumor. Sudden. Tragic.

sidewalkThere have been many tears over the years on the sidewalk between our houses, as he would recount memories of the boy he lost. He and his wife put flowers on his grave every Sunday after church. Every spring they use a special cleaner to polish the gravestone.

His son’s death broke his heart and set him on this course of obsessively caring for the three young girls that were left behind.

I’ve watched as they’ve grown up with voice lessons, private school, yearly Hawaiian vacations, clothes, cell phones and anything else they could ask for. I’ve watched as he bought them each matching brand-new white Cadillac’s when they turned 16. I’ve listened to the stories of their trips and accomplishments.

I have watched these girls grow up and I’m not going to lie, I’ve been jealous. The ugly kind of jealousy that makes me loathe the sight of their privileged little blond heads in their matching Caddies as they park in front of my house to pick up cash from their loving grandparents.

I never had grandparents who thought everything I did was brilliant, perfect and worth bragging about. Never went on exotic vacations or had someone to ask for help paying for school. My legacy was mental illness and emotional distance. I was given bibles, prayed for and made to feel never enough.

Basically, I began feeling all kinds of sorry for myself. That turned into hatred of the girls for the “perfect life” that I observed from my place next door. I have spent over a decade developing my distaste of anything to do with them.

“The girls are good,” he says again and starts in.

The oldest is studying at an Ivy League college and is traveling through Europe for the summer. She is planning on being a doctor and studying the kind of tumor that killed her father. I have heard him tell me that for years now and have often wondered if it is her dream or her grandfather’s for her.

The middle girl is in Tennessee following her music career goals and he is certain she will be the next Taylor Swift. She has a boyfriend that is famous and has hired her to sing backup on his next album.

“Voice of an angel,” he says and trails off.

He stands there and kind of sways a little. I could see there was something he wasn’t saying. I was worried his cancer was back, or his wife was sick or something had happened to his daughter.

“It’s heroin,” he finally says, spitting out the words with a mixture of anger and pain. “I just don’t think I can save her. How did it happen?”

His youngest granddaughter, the athlete with the promising volleyball career, is a drug addict.

With a shaky voice he tells me how he keeps trying to get her to rehab, but she keeps leaving.

He tells me about picking her up at a filthy motel, the guys she was with wanted money and he had to call the police. He had borrowed a friend’s gun and was prepared to protect her, but realized he was over his head.

“I’m 74-years-old,” he says. “I can’t put myself in that position again. I could have been killed.”

The tears fall down his face and I hug him as hard as I can. We stand there for a few minutes and I cry into his shoulder. His sobs keep coming and I worry he might fall. He finally stops, steps back and looks at me.

“Pray for her,” he asks weakly. “Will you?”

“Of course,” I say.

He turns around and walks up the driveway without looking back. Wiping my face, I head inside to make lunch.

I have no idea why this young girl has turned to drugs. Abuse. Mental illness. Depression. Loneliness. I really have no idea.

All I know is that she is broken, her grandfather is being torn apart and I’m feeling guilt for all the bad things I’ve thought about her and her beautiful sisters.

I am the jerk next door.

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More than just a little story

I felt her hand on my chest. Her fingers found the soft spot she has always loved. The spot she has been caressing since her baby hands could reach it. She once told me she loves it because it’s squishy, warm and love. I love it as much as she does.

I caress her head and she cuddles in closer to me.

“Tell me about when I was born,” she coos. I have told her this story hundreds of times, but it never gets old for her. Or me. We love this story. The story of how she came into the world and I caught her myself. How I loved her little face the second I saw it. The big tub, her brother leaning over, grandma’s tears, how little she was, her ballet feet.

It’s our story.

She knows it so well that it is almost like a memory to her now.

That’s the power of storytelling.

Memory has always fascinated me. Some things I can recall crystal clear, yet others are slippery and elusive. It’s often in the telling and retelling that a story takes it’s permanent place in my memory bank. How close it is to the actual truth, I am uncertain.

I have so many stories I tell my children about themselves. Each one is selected purposefully. Stories that show how much they are loved, how strong they are and how they have overcome obstacles.

The story of how my son got stitches at age two is a favorite one. He was running to help a friend that had fallen. He hit his face on a park bench. All our friends rallied around us. Both kids love the part about how the nurse wrapped him up like a burrito and he asked for sour cream and avocado. Even in pain he made everyone laugh. I remember that he stared right into my eyes as they stitched him up. He didn’t move an inch. He was brave and in good spirits through the entire thing.

Every time they ask for a story about them, I am happy to tell it.

These are the stories they will remember and tell their children someday.

These stories are the foundation of how they think about themselves and how they fit into the world.

They are so much more than just stories.

I was reminded of this in a painful way this week.

I have a childhood friend that I love. Adore, really. Our history is long and we have lots of stories. Silly ones like swimming in the gutters and ruining our swimsuits. Sad ones like when she moved to England and I thought my heart would never recover from the break. Happy ones like when we used to squirt hoses across the street at each other.

For some reason, she keeps sharing a particular story that really doesn’t capture the “us” I remember. In this story, I am a bratty kid with a very bad attitude. Apparently, when I was about my boy’s age, I wrote her a letter in which I tell her that her mother is a bitch. Her mom kept this letter and they have brought it up several times now. They think it is funny. Maybe it is. But it doesn’t feel funny to me.

It actually hurts.

Deeply.

I didn’t say anything about it for awhile, because it is their story. But every time it is told, it makes my heart sink. It is embarrassing and I don’t remember writing it or feeling that emotion. I must have been really angry, upset or confused. It must have been hard for me to write such an emotionally charged word.

Memories are funny like that.

They remember me as this kid that wrote that letter. They also remember me as being mean and making fun of her for not being smart and knowing math.

I have no memory of either of those truths. I know those things happened…I just don’t remember it. Not even a tiny bit.

My image of myself at that age is a positive one. I loved school and was very good at it. The teachers loved me and I made friends easy. I have such vivid memories of being joyful, playing in the yard and riding bikes.

Maybe that is because those are the stories my mom told me about myself.

Maybe we just choose to remember the good about ourselves; because that is the truth we want to remember.

I have no idea.

What I do know is that storytelling is powerful stuff.

As a parent I need to keep that in mind. Always.

My son loves to hear and tell stories about the massive fits he used to throw. I would sit in his room with my back against the door while he raged and raged. He remembers feeling out of control. Kicking. Hitting. Sometimes even trying to bite me.

He is embarrassed now thinking about it, but I remind him that he was little and was having strong emotions he didn’t know how to express. I tell him that I loved him even in those moments, especially in those moments. That’s what parental love is.

These stories I tell and retell are helping my kids to write their own life story. It is shaping who they are and will become.

It’s an awesome responsibility and one that I don’t take lightly.

It is an honor.

Just a glimpse out the car window

He was sitting on the top step of the porch. He had no shirt on and his tan skin stood out in contrast to the stark white house. His jeans were dirty and he held a cigarette in one hand. His arms were crossed and he was leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. His blonde hair was sticking up in spots. His bare feet were on the step below him.

The light turned green and I stepped on the gas pedal. I took one last look at him and he lifted his face. Our eyes locked. It was just a second. Just one breath. I could feel tears in my eyes and I suddenly found it hard to breathe. The intensity and sadness of those blue eyes. The pain. The distress. I fought the urge to turn around and go to him.

“Mommy,” my girl said from the backseat.

“What?” I said swallowing hard and trying to concentrate on driving. Just a few more blocks and we would be to school.

“Did you see that man?” she said.

It was then that I looked back at her in the rearview mirror. She was clutching Panda, her protector bear, very tight. Her knees were drawn up and her eyes were wide.

“I did,” I replied trying to sound calm.

“That was so sad,” she said. I could hear the tears threatening to come.

“What man?” my son chimed up cheerfully. He had a bag of his sisters hair bands on his lap and was busy making bracelets for his friends.

“The sad man with no shirt,” my girl answered. “I hope he will be OK.”

“He will,” I told her.

“Good,” she said loosening her grip on Panda. Her head slumped to the side of her car seat.

“I’m tired now,” she said and yawned.

“Me too,” I said and reached for my coffee cup.

“What man?” my son said again and strained his neck to try to look behind us. Of course we were several blocks away now and almost to school.

“He’s gone,” my daughter replied. “But he will be OK.”

The rest of the ride to school was silent. We parked on the street and walked brother to class. After saying our good-byes and giving kisses we walked back to the car. Her kindergarten is at another school a few minutes drive away.

“Why do you think that man was sad?” my daughter asked as I started to drive.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“I think someone died,” she said. “But it will be OK. That person is in heaven and he will see them again.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I said.

“I love you mommy,” she said.

“I love you.”

We parked at her school and held hands as we walked to the play structure. She ran around happily showing Panda all the things she can do now.

Her teacher played the flute and she ran off. Panda and I both waved good-bye.

She is going to be OK.

I’m going to be OK.

Taking the plunge

Once upon a time there was a mother who wanted to do something other than dishes and laundry. Oh how she longed for adventure. She would sometimes throw a hot pink sock in with the whites… but she needed more.

This mother loved her sweet children to the point of obsession. She made sure they were bathed at least once a week. She made homemade bread, tucked them in at night and told them how beautiful they were. She drove miles and miles every day so the prince and princess would be taught by the finest teachers in the land. But she still craved something.

Then one day she was told about something called “blogs.” Such a strange word, she thought, as she neatly folded her husbands underwear and tucked it into his drawer.

The next morning she started reading these “blogs” and was amazed. These women were just like her! They also toiled in the daily grind of motherhood, wifehood, sisterhood. They too craved something more. Could this be her something?

And so, she took the plunge. She put it out there. Would people read? Would they care? Would they even notice?

It involved a bravery that she didn’t know if she had. She took a deep breath and just went for it.