Less Attitude. More Beatitude.

Dear Will:

I was in elementary school—couldn’t possibly tell you what grade. But let’s say I was eight or nine—just old enough to know better, but probably too young to realize it. You know that age when boys are just starting to notice girls but they have no idea—NONE—how to interact with them? That hair-pulling, pencil-swiping, name-calling phase when their basic instincts are not just wrong but WAY wrong? That age.

It was a school night, and my mother was not happy. Not angry, really, but sooo disappointed. (That part you don’t forget.) She had just gotten off the phone with the mother of one of my classmates, a quiet, blond girl whose name I can’t recall. Earlier that day, on the walk home from school, in a simian display of prepubescent manliness no doubt meant to impress some other kid, I had done something vile, said something cruel, acted belligerently toward the little blond girl. Later, through many tears, she had reported the incident to her mom.

Confronted by my own shocked, disenchanted mother, of course I got defensive. “It was a JOKE,” I bellowed. “She’s just being a baby.” This lame attempt to deflect responsibility for my own crude behavior only added to my mother’s deepening sense of disappointment. She shook her head in disbelief. “Peter,” she said, “you were raised better than this. We don’t treat people like that. Not ever. You know better.” Her words pierced me, and the shame was overwhelming. But shame was not my mother’s ultimate purpose. She had a boy to raise and a lesson to teach, with high expectations she surely had learned from her own mother years before. And so in spite of my strident objections, we then drove to the blond girl’s house, and my mother stood, arms folded, as I scuffled my way through a mumbled, mortifying, lesson-teaching apology.

I hope that girl has long forgotten that after-school encounter, but it has now been more than 50 years and I cannot forget. Thank God for a mother who refused to let her son become a bully, a rude, confrontational, self-absorbed reprobate more inclined to cruelty than compassion. But more than that: Thank God for a mother who taught me to try to be more like Jesus—more inclined to kindness, unselfishness, good cheer, and virtue. Less attitude and more beatitude. The gospel she taught in our home is about radiating pure love and goodness, and while we lived it imperfectly, she always wanted it to be clear what we were striving for. In simple terms: She envisioned a son with whom any girl could feel safe while walking home.

Perhaps you, yourself, have been there: You’ve felt the shame or delivered the disappointed correction. Or both. Perhaps you remember what it was like to be that other kid, afraid of what might await you on the journey home from school, the kid sitting at the tiny desk in the tiny chair just wanting to be liked or simply left alone. And perhaps years later you’ve sat at that same desk in the same awkward chair, hoping (praying) that in the parent-teacher conference the teacher says, “He is so nice to the other children” or “She is such a delight to have in class.”

Most of us, I think, want those selfsame things for our children. Kindness, generosity, honesty, fair play—these are simple virtues we expect of our kids from the earliest age. And yet if you pay attention to grown-ups these days, it’s hard to miss the belligerence and aggression that dominates social media and the public square, with name-calling and bullying modeled by some of our most prominent citizens. How did this become OK? I can’t possibly be the only one called out by a mom for such conduct. Doesn’t it seem wrong that we now tolerate in adults behavior we would never put up with in a nine-year-old?

Well, we shouldn’t. We mustn’t. For our kids’ sake. As my mom would say: We were raised better than that. Weren’t we?

PW

Scarred for Life

Dear Will:

On the outside of my right arm, maybe five or six inches up from the wrist, I have a scar about the size and shape of a kidney bean. When I point it out to people, I always tell them that I got it when my mother attacked me with an iron.

Of course, that is a less-than-accurate retelling of a story I can no longer quite remember. There was an iron, for sure. And a curious, dimwitted, clumsy boy who I’m pretty sure was me. Afterwards there was a scab—I do remember that part (because when you’re a dimwitted boy, scabs are super cool). But the rest of the memory is pretty sketchy.

What I do recall with clarity from those long-ago days is growing up in a house filled with lots of other children and the corresponding chaos that ensues when you have seven kids crammed together into a single, middle-class home. And I remember a brief window of time each day when everyone else was at school or napping or whatever and I had my mother pretty much to myself. It’s so long ago that I have little more than a few mental snapshots left of that era, but one of those snapshots would show me lounging on the floor at the foot of the ironing board. My mom was ironing this, that, and the other thing while telling me stories. Or maybe we watched Art Linkletter together—just the two of us. I’m pretty sure it was Art, anyway. Either that or The Match Game. Either way, it didn’t really matter.

What’s left of that memory is telling. The stories and the television programming barely register. The pain and tears and trauma of the injury? Gone completely. But the feeling of one-on-one time with the greatest woman on the planet? Treasured still, even fifty-some years after the fact.

Brings a whole new meaning to the term “scarred for life,” now doesn’t it?

I think of her, and the words of Jesus reverberate in my head: “Go, and do thou likewise,” He said (Luke 10:37). I look down again at my arm and it occurs to me: I need to spend a little more time with my son. But just in case, I think I’ll leave the ironing board in the closet.

PW

Tending Our Nest

Dear Will:

Every March or April for the past I-don’t-know-how-many, birds have taken up residence in the eaves above our front door. They have treated the nest there like a vacation home, abandoning it as summer approaches and then returning the following year in early spring. Their return always involves some basic home improvement and busy-ness, signaled by random twigs discarded on the welcome mat outside our front door. A couple of years ago we even saw a second nest appear maybe three feet from the original, transforming our porch into a bustling housing tract. We were delighted.

Then last summer we felt compelled to repaint the exterior of our home. In preparing for their work, the painters cleaned the eaves around the full perimeter of the house, discarding (I’m sad to say) the abandoned nests in the process. We wondered if we would ever see our birds again.

So you can imagine our delight a few weeks ago when twigs began appearing outside our front door once again. In no time the vacation home had been reconstructed, and before long we began hearing the familiar sound of hungry baby birds.

To satisfy our curiosity without agitating the mother and her babies, we sometimes stand inside our home and sneak a peek through the window at the young family that lives in “our nest.” Although we do not have the well-placed camera you get on a National Geographic Special, if you’re patient you can stand just a few feet away and see the tiny heads poking out and calling for supper. You’ll also see the mother, coming and going, coming and going, tending to the needs of the tiny birds in her care.

All too soon the little brood will be gone.  Somewhere nearby, our baby birds may stand chirping in a tree or may bounce along the grass foraging for food. Perhaps they will join many others at the birdfeeder in our backyard, or perhaps they will depart, never to return. I suppose it’s even possible that one of them will find a mate and return to the nest beneath the eaves. I don’t really know how it is with birds. But this I do know: For now those fragile lives are almost entirely dependent on the vigilant care of their mother. She will nurse them and feed them, guard them and teach them, prepare them as best she can and then step aside and watch—I imagine with some anxiousness— as they head off to find their way in the world beyond the protection of our eaves.

Inside our home, it has ever been thus. My wife has nursed and fed and guarded and taught, worrying and praying and willing our children from infancy to adulthood. Now she stands aside, watching from afar, as two of our three have left the nest and are trying mightily to take flight in the perilous world beyond our doors. There is little more that she can do at this point, but it does not keep her from worrying night and day about their welfare. It would not surprise me if, even as I write these lines, she is kneeling again at her bedside, beseeching her Heavenly Father to watch over her precious little ones.

I know this also: The love poured out by that kneeling woman is unwavering, heartfelt, as powerful as any emotional force in the universe.  As Dana watches her children take those first tentative steps of adulthood, she feels every misstep, shares every heartache, celebrates every success, and thrills at every opportunity to watch her children rise and answer the challenges of real life. This does not make her unique; it makes her a mother.

Thank God for her, and for those like her, and for the children they continue to bless with their unrelenting love.

PW