Unwrapping Family

assorted gift boxes on red surface
Photo by Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com

It’s about 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2019.

I note the date because Christmas Eve has always been one of my favorite times of the entire year since childhood.

Especially early afternoon on Christmas Eve, when my brother Tim and I would see our Grandma and Grandpa Hawks – our biological father’s parents.

I never met nor even saw my biological father until an aunt shared a picture of him and my mom at their wedding at my maternal grandmother’s 80th birthday party.

The only father I ever knew and loved was Tony Hernandez. He gave Tim and me a new last name, family and future through adoption after marrying my mom following her divorce. What could I possibly want from my biological? Nothing.

Yet, every Christmas Eve, we saw his parents. Our grandparents, Al and Betty Hawks.

Their son (Tim’s and my biological father) wasn’t much to speak of, hence the divorce. (Trust me when I assure you that “not much to speak of” would win me the Understatement of the Year award.)

Yet they were as good and kind and decent and loving as any grandparents ever.

They’d stop by, spend a few hours with us, even bring gifts for our baby brother, Paul – my adoptive dad’s son with my mom. They loved my mom, still considered her their daughter-in-law, and adored my adoptive dad (no surprise, everybody did.)

Grandma Hawks died when I was in my early teens. I still saw my Grandpa Hawks a couple times when I was in high school and played in a jazz band at his church.

Those memories sparkle in my mind now, like a crystal ornament catching and bending and recasting the light from a nearby bulb.

Some might find this twisting of branches on the Christmas family tree odd. Strange. Maybe even wrong, somehow.

To which I’d say, “Then you don’t understand what ‘Family’ really is.”

My understanding of, and appreciation for “family” — immediate, extended, genetic, generic, by blood or just background — didn’t end with Grandma and Grandpa Hawks, either.

After they left each Christmas Eve, my brothers and I would take a nap in the early evening (of course, as kids knowing what was coming, we didn’t really sleep so much as just lay still for a few hours.)

Then, around 10 p.m. we’d head to Grandma and Grandpa Hernandez’s house, overflowing with wonderfully exotic smells and sounds and tastes!

And GIFTS!

In this new family that looked nothing like Tim and me, we now had more relatives than I could begin to count. Gifts for everyone there and even not there rose halfway up the Christmas tree that scraped the family room ceiling.

Of course, we couldn’t open anything until Santa came. And he wouldn’t come until after we got back from midnight mass. But that didn’t stop the kids from indiscreetly eyeballing every item, trying to find those with our names.

Around 1:30 a.m., after THE LONGEST CHURCH SERVICE EVER, salivating with  anticipation, one of our aunts would insist that we sing Christmas songs until Santa came. Oh. My. God…didn’t they know that we were on the verge of insanity with all those packages sitting there mocking us?

Finally, a knock at the door brought a roomful of childhood screeching to a whisper.

Santa entered and handed out the first few packages before retreating from what quickly became mass hysteria. Mysteries hidden in colorful boxes and bags were mysteries no more. Ribbons and paper and bows filled the air like so many Christmas kites. The older kids delivered (or just tossed) gifts to the adults lining the room.

We’d go home about 4 a.m. “Sleep” a few more hours. Wake to open gifts at our own house. Then head to my maternal grandparents’ farmhouse in Herscher, Illinois.

There, we’d spend the rest of Christmas Day re-enacting the Battle of the Christmas Eve Bulge with most of my mom’s seven brothers and sisters, their spouses and kids, friends and assorted older relatives we saw only on the holidays.

In college, when my then-girlfriend Kellie and I started dating and later after we married, I would attend celebrations at her house on Christmas Eve.

Their home was like an issue of Martha Stewart magazine magically come alive. The family room lit only by the Christmas tree, golden shimmers filled the air.  Sometimes, snow graced the scene outside the bay window in their family room as if on cue. It was, literally, breathtaking.

Eventually our two girls came along, and every detail of those parties became about them – especially the hours my father-in-law and I spent on the floor assembling a million toys.

We haven’t seen my in-laws on Christmas for a few years because of a mutual estrangement, but those memories are still precious.

Instead, the last few years we’ve enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner and drinks with several of our closest friends. Dear people who have lived our lives, suffering together and shepherding each other through some major challenges. Building the unbreakable bonds of what can only be called “family.”

Now, our girls are adults.

They have adult lives. Other family commitments and work obligations limit our time together. We don’t begrudge them. Rather we make the most of every opportunity.

They still spend part of Christmas Eve with their grandparents.

Then Christmas morning, we enjoy a blowout homemade breakfast with them and their significant others, Kellie’s wonderful aunt – and now our granddaughter, Riley.

This year, Riley is 21 months old. Just big enough to understand that, of the 90 or so brightly colored, ribbon-festooned, shining, sparkling packages under that Christmas tree, 80 of them are for her.

At two years old, that’s all she needs to know.

Later, she will hear these memories and hopefully learn what I learned long ago. What has sustained and strengthened me through the many Christmas Eves since childhood.

All gifts are wrapped in grace, no matter what the packaging looks like.

Some are bigger, or brighter, or more meaningful. Some will fit just right. Some will be too big or small.  Some will be thoughtfully planned and given. Some came from the corner drugstore at the last minute.

Some will make perfect sense. Some will have her wondering what in the world the giver could have been thinking. Some will bring joy and gratitude. Some might cause a twinge of unintended pain.

And the greatest gift of all is family.

 

 

The Great Pumpkin Adventure

riley's pumpkin

Dear Riley,

We are now several days past your second Halloween, and you turned 19 months old about three weeks ago. Strangely, these seemingly disconnected factoids mean it’s time to teach you an important truth:

Your Nana Kellie is nuts – but in a good way.

To explain:

Last year you were too little at six months old to really do much on Halloween other than crawl around and be cute – at which you excelled.

This year though, you’re walking, climbing on everything, babbling up a storm and adventurously trying every new thing that comes your way.

Nana – possessing all the powers bestowed on Nana’s – knew all this would happen. So, she planted two pumpkin vines last spring, special just for you.

Those two vines grew and grew and grew. They escaped their bed to entwine and twist and tangle themselves around nearby flowers. They snuck through the fence into the neighbor’s yard. They climbed the chicken wire keeping critters out of the adjoining vegetable bed.

Soon, they produced about a dozen big, beautiful yellow blossoms. Each promised a magnificent pumpkin. About four made that mysterious transformation.

Only one survived. (Pumpkins are very touchy…)

No matter.

Every Saturday when you’d visit, we’d visit the pumpkin (after ringing all the wind chimes and playing with the hose and running through the sprinkler and chasing your ball around the yard and blowing a soap factory’s-worth of bubbles.)

We watched it expand from a pale yellow gourd into a green ball.

Through June, July, August, September we’d check its progress and you would pat-pat-pat it as if to say, “You’re doing good, Mr. Pumpkin.”

Finally, in October, what started as a gentle flower had become a basketball-sized fiery orange pumpkin, perched precariously on the very edge of the vegetable bed’s box frame.

Then, the Saturday before Halloween, just before the rain started falling that would drown the rest of the weekend, I cut the pumpkin off its umbilical cord-like vine and brought it in the house.

That’s when Nana took over.

We agreed that you’re a tad young for us to carve the pumpkin (although, I can’t wait to see what you do with all the seeds and guts next year!)

Pumpkin 2 Instead she brought out her box of paints and several brushes, small, medium and large. She stripped you down to your birthday suit, covered you in a towel, and let you have at it.

Strangely, it took a while for you to understand what to do. So, Nana showed you how to turn that plain orange orb into something fantastic.

She put the brushes in your hands and laid them in the paint and demonstrated how to slather the paint on the pumpkin however your sweet, imaginative 19-month-old heart desired. Once you understood that you had free reign you were off to the races.

And when the brushes somehow limited your toddler genius, Nana showed you how to use your hands to complete your first Halloween masterpiece.

This was the “Nana is nuts” part.

When Nana asked me if I wanted to help you paint or to take pictures, I gladly and quickly grabbed the camera. Papa is adventurous in many ways. I’ll climb anything, run anywhere, do just about any silly thing you can imagine.

But I don’t like messes. They make me very anxious. Just ask your mother or Aunt Livie about them eating S’mores on our camping trips…

And you, my love, were a mess.  pumpkin 3

Your Nana Kellie, on the other hand – or two hands, which looked like five-fingered rainbows – has no problem getting dirty in the name of good, clean fun. You’ll learn this more when you’re old enough to join her in the kitchen. (I am already nervous about cleaning up after you make your first batch of cookies together…)

By the time you two were done that pumpkin would have made Jackson Pollock proud (if he’d taught 19-month-old babies how to paint.)

And none of it would have happened without your Nana.

See, here’s the thing:

Everybody is different. Everybody has special skills and interests, likes and dislikes. Things that make them happy (like messy finger painting) and things that make them not-so-happy (like messy finger painting.)

The greatest gift of Life is the blessing of being with other people. The chance to share your unique ideas and talents and experiences. Learn a little bit about something you never knew. Discuss and debate what’s important to someone else so you can decide what’s important to you.

That only happens when you accept and celebrate the notion that other people are different than you.

See, the world is not now, never has been and never will be simply black or white. It is a paint palette with many colors. You may not like all of them. You may never use some. But you’ll be a better artist for knowing that they exist.

Maybe, when you’re older and starting to make your own choices about relationships and values, you’ll look back at the pictures of this pumpkin.

Maybe you’ll remember you and Nana chattering away as paint splattered on the rug,  the table, your booster seat, you, her, even the poor dog. Oh, and some got on the pumpkin, too.

(Meanwhile, Papa stood as far away as the camera would allow, cracking up when you started chair dancing to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”)

And you’ll know that this magical moment happened because two different people shared their spirits and love with you.

May it always be so.

The Best Advice I Ever Got

30 years

About this time 27 years ago, I was in a bad place.

On a late summer day in 1992, I came home from my job as a reporter for a suburban daily newspaper.

A job that filled my lifelong dream to be a professional writer. That met my insatiable curiosity and (somewhat cocky) need to be an information authority. That could lead to one day working for the Chicago Tribune and, maybe, writing books.

A job that put me above most of my college peers who’d started their careers at smaller dailies or weekly newspapers as is often the case for many new grads of nearly all smaller universities or those without “Columbia School of Journalism” in their titles.

A job I’d done so well that, in only my second year I was assigned to cover the second phase of a massive and infamous child murder trial. My work on that two-year-long story led my boss to call me his “Golden Boy” and to give me the city beat, the most prestigious in the newsroom. At 24 years old.

A job which defined what and who I was. Or, at very least, what and who my abundant ego imagined I was. As it does for many (most?) men, in a way that many (most?) women cannot understand.

And about an hour earlier, I’d been fired.

Not without cause, I admit. I screwed up. I made three errors in print, violating my boss’s “Three Mistake” rule.

That the errors involved several local major mucky mucks magnified their weight. Still, to be fair, I’d have been fired even if the offended parties had been much less important. My boss was at least consistent in that way.

In any case, I was spiritually decimated.

In a matter of a few ill-fated weeks, I’d apparently lost all the journalistic skills I’d honed. I’d forfeited any latitude all my achievements had bought.  A mistake was a mistake was a mistake. Errors were black eyes for the newspaper and could not be tolerated.

I’d lost my personal equilibrium. My confidence. My identity.

Worse, I was only three years married. Like many young couples we struggled and scraped, squeezing every penny, doing whatever magic we could to multiply them like Jesus’s fishes and loaves.

How could I face my wife? What would she think of me now that I had failed at the one thing at which I’d supposedly excelled? The foundation of my whole being?

Now, with the benefit of 27 years of hindsight, I know I didn’t need to worry.

My wife Kellie cushioned my crashing ego, consoling me as I sobbed angry, accusatory and fearful tears into her shoulder.

Then she (rhetorically) slapped me, hard.

She held both my hands and said, simply, “Take the weekend, feel sorry for yourself, then on Monday, go get a job.”

It was the best advice of my life.

It set me on a right path, forcing me to learn how to take the bad with the good, even (especially) when the Bad seems absolutely, unquestionably, impossibly insurmountable.

Life is filled with just such mountainous bumps. Yet each can be chopped down to size with candor, courage and a lot of hard work. Just put aside your ego and address the reality of the present rather than the myth of the past or the fantasy of the future.

In other words, get over yourself, get busy and get on with it.

It was a hard life lesson learned the hard way.

The kind of advice that exposed raw anxieties. Necessary, yes, and painful. But less stinging coming from someone who loved me enough to love me honestly.

Now, we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on September 16th.

And I thank Kellie for this and countless other examples of her pragmatic wisdom and guidance. This, perhaps more than anything short of our children has been her greatest gift to me.

Her ability to understand and sympathize, then find a way forward has steadied our rudder amid more Life storms than I can even recount.

I have witnessed these razor-sharp, hammer-blunt skills used coldly and effectively with nearly everyone in her life – our kids, other adults, even her employees.

Ironically, many of her staff, most of whom are barely out of their teens see her as “Momma Kellie” when she listens kindly to their complaints about this problem or that. They sometimes forget that they’re in the adult world now. They never realize that “Momma Bear” isn’t far behind when their young adult angst crosses the line into inappropriate nonsense.

I often say, with tongue firmly in cheek that I am very nearly perfect. So, Kellie’s approach to life is often frustrating in the moment.

Yet, with the grace of time and love, that moment usually passes, and I come to understand and (usually) even admit the rightness of her position.

I am not perfect.

Kellie is not perfect.

Heck, we are not perfect.

But we are perfect for each other.

We balance each other after all these years.

Kellie is that person who waits patiently in line at the Wal-Mart behind the guy with three shopping carts full of stuff in the 20 items or less aisle. I am the one who screams obscenities at the local coffee shop because I had to wait 10 minutes for my drink.

Together, we have suffered professional upheavals, financial hardship, health issues, parenting challenges and personal hurdles that would have killed many a lesser partnership.

In those times we cried together. Held the other close. Offered each other the support that can come only from the other half of one’s true soul.

We struggled through. We survived. We succeeded.

And then, when the clouds broke, we celebrated. Often with family and dear friends. But always, first and foremost, with each other. The kind of celebration that can come only with the other half of one’s true soul.

For any partnership to work right and well, the tears must be taken together with the laughter. That is the secret – if there is such a thing — to staying together 30 days much less 30 years.

Now we look comfortably toward Tomorrow, whatever it may bring.

Retirement? Soon, we hope, but probably not soon enough.

Travel? That’s our dream. Wherever our hearts take us, in a small camper, for weeks at a time.

Grandkids? As many as our kids will give us, whether two-footed or four. Every one of them will get whatever they want from Nana and Papa.

The point is, whatever the future holds for us, we will be holding each other.

Picking each other up.

Sharing a quiet Sunday morning cup of coffee.

Screaming with laughter.

Inspired by — and grateful for — what we know, and what we cannot yet imagine.

Together.

*************************************************************************************

I wrote this poem for our wedding and share it now to mark our 30th anniversary. It is even more true today than it was all those years ago.

BETROTHAL

She is magnificent gift,

Serene, secure, intelligent, beautiful.  Like the beach, always there

to soothe the passion of the waves frenzied by storm after life’s storm.

Caress them, quietly absorb their unguided anger, unknowing fury.

And by taking, she gives.

Little by little, grain by grain.

Together

They pulse with life, discernible in their individuality.

Thankfully,

Always, always perfectly whole, becoming a part of each other, their

best elements combined, but never, never repressed.

Together

They prove the genius of compromise, the brilliance of compassion, the

rightness of forgiving.

Together

They leave no question, for those who still do, that God, and His love are real.

 

A Great Day for Art, Attitude, and Olivia

birthday  I wrote this for our youngest daughter Olivia on her golden birthday in 2006. She was a remarkable child, and is an equally-remarkable young woman today at 24 years old. 

This is available in my first book, “Chocolate Cows and Purple Cheese and other tales from the homefront.”

Happy birthday, Livie.

September 11 will always and forever be a happy day for me.

That sounds strange to most people, understandably, given the sad events now inextricably associated with the date.

But I don’t say it to shock or awe. Rather the day will be – is — special because it is our youngest daughter’s birthday – and more so this year because it is her golden birthday.

Ever since the attack, Olivia has had to endure the mostly-innocent, yet still-pointed questions and comments about her birthday that only kids can pose — along the lines that the day is somehow cursed, as is she, by extension.

But as we’ve told her, she came along six years before the tragic events that now identify September 11. So it has always been a special day –and for much happier reasons – for us.

Olivia was our planned child.

My wife insists that our eldest daughter, Emma, was an accident, the result of her forgetting to take her birth control during a very busy time in our young marriage. I figured my wife just figured it was time and didn’t bother to tell me. I no longer debate the point. Knowing when to give up an argument is the better part of valor in marriage.

Either way, the clock was now ticking, pun intended.

We believed that siblings born closer together (eventually) develop tighter bonds. So we decided to have our second child as soon as possible.

Circumstances dictated a planned C-section delivery. So we were able to literally schedule Olivia’s birth – in the hospital by 6 a.m., have the baby by 8 a.m., dad back at the office by 1 p.m. at the latest.

Olivia has been a child of just such precision ever since.

She is very literal, making it frustrating sometimes to do anything that requires the suspension of disbelief or the application of metaphor or symbolism.

Watching movies or television programs, listening to certain songs, etc. can become a chore as we have to explain that the actors are not the characters, or that the singer may not have really done all the things that the lyrics suggest.

And she loves math, which can be particularly and especially vexing for a writer-father whose life is dominated by the other side of his brain.

Still, Olivia is one of the most creative people I’ve met.

She has started more unique businesses than any five Donald Trumps – painting and selling rocks, making and selling origami animals, decorating and selling wooden plant stakes, creating and selling homemade salad dressing, cleaning cars for a fee. (The “selling” is key – like all entrepreneurs, this kid likes the smell of money…)

Likewise Olivia loves art. She has taken up painting and drawing of every kind – water colors, tempura, chalk, pencils, ceramic snowmen and fish and holiday ornaments with her great aunt.

Then like a water bug flitting across the pond of art, she jumped to origami. Our home looked like a paper factory hit by a bomb. Then this past spring, after watching the Patrick Swayze vehicle “Ghost,” she fell in love with clay, and took a park district pottery course.

Like most parents my wife and I have often marveled at the differences in our kids’ personalities. And like most parents, we’re often baffled. We raise them the same, we love them the same, we feed them the same, etc.

Yet they turn out so different.

Perhaps the reason (at least partly) lies in their own relationship. Being second-born often creates challenges that first-borns don’t understand.

And it probably didn’t help that our eldest, upon meeting her baby sister for the first time, identified her with the only living thing she’d met that was smaller than her – a dog.

As she saw her mom holding the baby, our first-born said, “Can I pet it?” Not “her,” but “it.”

Like all second children Olivia has worked ever since to carve her niche in our family in her own way. Whereas her sister’s presence is known by default of being first, Olivia has had to stake her claim in life through sheer confidence.

She is, if only in her own mind, right as rain, in every decision she makes, no matter how far off the beaten path. Attitudinally, she can be 10 pounds of attitude in a five pound bag. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Other times, it’s enough to drive a saint to sin.

But that can-do attitude, that confidence, that charisma, that vim and vinegar, has already brought her a long way. And, I suspect, it will carry her through life in ways that those who doubt themselves can only envy.

So on her special day, we wish Olivia a happy birthday. You are very special to us, and for more than just the date of your birth.

Thinking of You

inconsiderate

Dear Riley,

In a few days you’ll be 17 months old.

In such a short time you have taught everyone in your orbit some very important lessons: the relief found in the bottom of a full bottle, the rejuvenating power of a long nap and the soul-lifting joy of a wet, slobbery raspberry kiss on the belly.

Now it’s time for me as your Papa to share two equally vital truisms:

Lesson #1: I am not a grumpy old man, no matter what your Nana, mother, aunt or anyone else claims. I certainly have my moments of impatience, intolerance and general frustration, however, at heart I truly believe in the inherent goodness of most people.

And Lesson #2: many of the people you will meet in life are inconsiderate and thoughtless about the world around them. This disappoints me terribly and sometimes makes me very grumpy indeed.

Thankfully, you’re too young yet to know about this aggravation, much less deal with it. But, sure as the sun rises you will, at some point run face-first into someone else’s lack of concern for your own well-being.

It will sting. How can it not? After all, you are (and I trust you will continue to be) a kind-hearted soul. Thankfully, you have not yet suffered the irritation of those who flit myopically like so many gnats, around and in and out of your eyes and nose and ears.

With little regard for anything else, they selfishly follow only their own path, fulfilling only their own needs, the impact of their actions on you only a fleeting thought in hindsight if at all.

This sounds so bad, I know. It breaks my heart because it’s so disappointing every time it happens. And it happens a lot.

From something as seemingly innocuous as the person who plays their music at 11:30 at night when people are trying to sleep, to those who litter, dirtying up our common shared spaces, when garbage cans are only a few feet away.

And then there are the more serious infractions: the violations of your trust, loyalty, heart and spirit – but we’ll wait until you’re in your teens to discuss those.

No, Papa is not a grumpy old man. I just want people to be aware of those around them and to understand, respect and appreciate that we all exist together. That we all have value. That all our lives are significant and meaningful.

I make a concerted effort to think about how my actions will affect the people around me. Family, friends, coworkers, even strangers. I remember, and seriously consider that everyone in my life may and can and will be touched somehow by what I think, say and do.

I am not perfect. Not by a long shot. Heck, I couldn’t see perfection from where I stand even with the Hubble telescope.

Still, is it so much to ask people to just be considerate?

Of course, it is impossible to always think about the ripples every little thing you do and say will cause in someone else’s pond.

Sometimes one simply must act in one’s own best interests.

This is especially true for anyone who has been oppressed and repressed in our society which has made (and continues to make) oppression and repression a national sport. That means women, people of color, immigrants, etc.

Everyone deserves the chance for equality, and sometimes equality demands and requires a self-focused (not to mention self-righteous) fight.

Yet even in that regard, fighting for your individual rights can and often does help others slogging through the same mud.

Like so much in life, this can be confusing. We live in a world of grays. Anyone who says everything is either “black or white” just doesn’t want to do the work necessary to consider other perspectives.

Which is really the point.

I wrote another story about the need for “empathy” – the ability to understand other people’s feelings. But before you can understand them you must first acknowledge that they exist and deserve your understanding.

If you do that my sweet girl, if you consider and care about how your life intersects with and impacts others, the world will be a better place for you being in it.

And your Papa will have one less thing to be grumpy about.

 

 

 

 

 

A House Is Not a Home

house  Well, I guess it’s official. She’s never moving back home now…

That’s a little bit of inside humor between my wife Kellie and me. She used to mock me mercilessly when I whined about our daughters moving out. I always joked that we couldn’t take down their beds because, you know, they might still move back at some point.

(Yet Kellie and I will mark 30 years of marriage in September despite my sense of humor…and people say there’s no such thing as miracles…)

See, our youngest daughter, Olivia moved out two years ago into a tiny apartment with her very significant other, Tyler and their puppy Joker, a goofy, exuberant, affectionate pittie mix.

Then, they bought their first house together a couple months ago.

The first move was very hard on my psyche. However, the second move was much easier.

As I’ve written before, I had a bumpy “Dad Transition” as both of our daughters turned the corner toward Young Adulthood.

Strangely, I wasn’t as affected when Emma moved in with Jake, her husband-to-be, — maybe because Olivia still lived at home.

But when they were both gone? That was like a ball-peen hammer to the back of the head.

Now though, not so much, thanks to the comforting balm of Time.

Sure, I still get a bit misty-eyed thinking of our daughters as babies, toddlers, adolescents and (believe it or not) even teens. I truly loved watching them grow and helping to shape their lives in whatever little ways I could.

However, now I see different things through my misty eyes:

  • A still-small house that suddenly has enough room again for Kellie, our two small dogs and me;
  • The office I secretly coveted for 20 years, carved from Olivia’s old bedroom, filled with my collection of hundreds of books;
  • Emma’s old room transformed into the crafting nook Kellie likewise dreamed of, overflowing with examples of her talent and creativity;
  • The freedom (and slightly improved finances) to enjoy dinner out more often, accept more invitations for long weekends away with friends and even take impromptu vacations.

Those things are all good. Yet, they pale – I mean, absolutely disappear into the wispy vapor of nothingness – compared to the things that are truly important:

  • A wonderful husband for Emma (and son-in-law for us), now three years into a strong marriage;
  • A charming, talented life-partner for Olivia (and, we think, a future son-in-law for us);
  • And the most beautiful and very-nearly-perfect granddaughter ever, in Riley Jean.

Sure, I miss my girls. But joyous pride more than compensates for melancholy memories.

That’s where Olivia’s and Tyler’s new house comes in.

Home ownership means many things, not least of which is the financial, legal and contractual responsibility that comes with property ownership. The work (and the money) to buy; the work (and the money) to maintain; the work (and the money) to improve. The work. And the money.

Olivia’s and Tyler’s new digs are quaint and cozy – code for “on the small side.” Trust me, Kellie and I have lived “on the small side” for 23 years, so I know of whence I speak.

It’s about 40 feet from the Fox River in Montgomery. A beautiful park and walking path beckon from across the river. Both are wonderful amenities to current owners and enticing selling points to future buyers.

(They’re also the cause for significant Dad anxiety every time it rains and the river rises, but hey, that’s why God – or Satan — invented insurance…)

It’s a bit of a fixer upper. More so, I think than they realized, but that’s what family and friends are for. (Tyler’s parents, and Kellie and I donated some “Parent Equity,” helping them move, paint, fix some things, etc. )

Yet, they couldn’t be happier, and for good reason.

Buying a house together means so much more than just co-signing a mortgage.

It’s a solid symbol of something as ethereal as “Love.”

What better picture of a hopeful future, what more positive affirmation of long-term commitment is there for a young couple than investing in their first house?

Likewise, it is a small but meaningful proof of our own achievement as parents.

Their house says that we, Olivia’s and Tyler’s parents (and Emma’s and Jake’s, too) raised kids with good heads on their shoulders and big hearts in their chests. Young people willing to work today, and dream of a tomorrow, together.

Yet, simply buying a house is not the end-all, be-all.

As a young newspaper reporter, I learned that words that seem synonymous often aren’t.

For example, a “house” is not a “home.”

A “house” is a collection of building materials assembled to create a shelter.

A “home” is what one makes of a house.

Turning a house into a home is a lifetime project.

Kellie and I bought a tiny house after seven years in apartments, a young couple with a toddler, an infant and a small dog.

We scraped and scrapped. Borrowed and begged. Worked even harder when needed and reluctantly accepted help when our bills outpaced our pride.

In the process we made it a home.

We filled it with love and laughter. Made it a place of comfort and security. Created a sanctuary for their injured/confused/angry spirits.

None of it was easy. All of it was worth the struggle.

We created a place defined not so much by four walls as by two hearts.

A place where our children now feel welcome to return as adults and know that they will be supported and cherished when they do.

Now our nest is completely empty save the two dogs. We look forward to new adventures with our family in our home.

And we hope and pray that our daughters and their families find the same joy in theirs.

 

 

Close Enough

49758-Jesus-crucifixion-1200x627-thinkstock.1200w.tnSo, what’s so “good” about Good Friday?

It’s one of the most common, confusing, frustrating and foundational questions in Christianity.

After all, this is the day when the man called Jesus died as an enemy of the Roman state. A common criminal. A political agitator and potential adversary. 

Though not unexpected — Jesus himself predicted his coming death — his crucifixion was nonetheless terrifying and heartbreaking to his followers.

More than that, it was embarrassing.

After all, some of them had invested years of their lives in this man. They knew him as a powerful leader. A brilliant, if somewhat radical teacher. Possibly, a king and savior, even. They’d seen him leading a world-changing political, religious and social movement (perhaps with one or two of them maybe sitting at his side and wielding some of his authority.)

Yet, now, they could only see his brutalized body hanging from a bloody cross. 

What had happened? What had gone wrong?

History tells one story.

Faith tells another. 

Faith shows us that the movement did indeed happen. And the world did change.

For out of Jesus’ horrible death came eternal life.

A mere moment in time redefined Time itself.

And the angry screams of hatred became the soothing whispers of love.

We just have to be brave enough to listen, closely, with both ears and hearts. 

And hear.

Happy Easter.

CLOSE ENOUGH

Yes, Lord, I hear you

calling me to the foot of your cross

I love you, I want to carry your burden

but I see your pain–

The salty tears in your eyes

The rancid smell of your dying

The sticky blood knotting thorns and hair

The slivers buried deep in your palms

The shame of your broken nakedness

–And I am a sparrow in a storm

Yes, my child, I know your fear

It bows my back and stills my spirit

Yet, where else but at the foot of my cross

Can you be close enough–

To feel the soulless metal that stole my life

To see the gnarled wood through my wounds

 to kneel in the dirt,

moist with my sweat and tears and blood

–To know, truly, finally what I did for you?

Where else, but here, at the heel of my suffering

Are you close enough for me to touch and hold you,

And whisper, so softly that only your heart will hear,

“I love you.”

The Gift of Social Justice

social justice

Dearest Riley,

Hello My Sweet Girl. I hope you’re having a good day.  I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that you are. Based on your constant smiles and giggles, you’re one of the happiest babies ever. Which is only fair, because you’ve brought so much joy to everyone around you in your 11 months.

Truly, you have been a gift to all of us, maybe especially to me.

Speaking of gifts, I believe whenever you get a gift, you should give one back. As I said in my first letter to you, my words are my gift.  So, here are two words:

Social Justice.

A very dear friend of mine says that most of my writing centers on “social justice”. She’s right I suppose, inasmuch as I write a lot about caring about, and for, people who look and talk and act and think and believe differently than me. Who have lived (or are living) a life not my own. Who have not enjoyed the same blessings and benefits.

Clearly these are very big ideas for an 11-month-old to chew on (although you’re chewing on everything these days, so maybe not…)

Yet that’s exactly my point.

Broadly defined, “social justice” addresses fair relations between individuals and society through the lenses of wealth, educational opportunity and social privilege.

Heard that way, it’s easy to understand why so many people hear and see and think about Social Justice — capital “S”, capital “J” – as something too big for them to do anything about.

Yet, as is always the case, the solution to a “big” problem is to chop it down to size. We can – we must – cut all mountains down to manageable molehills.

The challenge of social justice, like nearly every other human-created challenge, is best addressed human to human.

One of these days, you will hear about a man named Jesus.  Your parents will decide what you learn about him. As your Papa, I will only say this much:

For two millennia humanity has dissected and debated every microscopic aspect of what Jesus said, what his words meant, and what they could still mean.  This immensely complex question has fueled more war, bloodshed and heartache than every other conflict in human history.

Which is ironic and frustrating, because, for me, Jesus’ message boiled down to one amazingly, bluntly, almost ridiculously simple point:

Love God and love one another.

How (or even whether) you define “God” isn’t nearly as important as that you understand that there’s a bit of something special in all of us.

Every human being living every kind of life is a person and has earned your respect (at very least), kindness, sympathy and empathy by the simple fact of their existence.

Every human being experiences the same longing for comfort, craves the same need for love, searches for the same validation by association.

We all share the same spark of life. Call it God, call it whatever. The point is, we are all the same, same, same. Regardless of skin color or language or wealth or birthplace. God, in His/Her/Its perfection does not create walls. Only jealous, greedy, arrogant Man does that.

In that light, social justice is easy.

Yes! Help fight to ensure Guatemalan coffee farmers fairly profit from their work.

But also support your local employee association because (surprise, surprise) the billions in profits being made by many American companies never seem to “trickle down” to the little guys doing the work.

Yes! Donate whatever you can to feed those starving in foreign countries.

But also give a few boxes of food to your local food pantry to help your neighbors who just lost their jobs or, more likely, are working three jobs to get by.

Yes! Protest for First Amendment protections for everyone.

But also subscribe to your local newspaper to make sure even the smallest voices always have a platform.

Yes! Visit prisons and read to inmates.

But also support your local library so that maybe, just maybe there might be a few less prisoners needing you to read to them.

Yes! Fight for free health insurance for all.

But also donate a few toys to the children’s ward at your local hospital or volunteer a couple of hours and give the overworked nurses a much-needed break.

Yes! Help build schools for girls in Third World countries.

But also buy every candy bar or bag of popcorn or tub of cookie dough or magazine subscription you can to support the overworked, underpaid and unappreciated teachers helping our own children to learn and grow.

Yes! Donate to international charities helping the poor, emotionally sad and mentally ill.

But also give to the local homeless shelter, where all three sleep every night, if there are enough beds.

Yes! Pray for God to protect and drape His/Her/Its goodness over everyone around the world.

But also love and help those who need your kind heart here and now. Always remember that we improve Tomorrow by making today’s big problems a little smaller.

My dear Riley, social justice is not a burden too big. It is not an option. It is an obligation and opportunity to show and create grace for a world desperately needing it.

That’s our gift to give. Yours, mine, everyone’s. One helping hand, one open heart, one loving smile at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ties That Bind

ties

Sartorially speaking, I am not a flashy guy.

In my work life, I tend toward basic base colors, with a bit of colorful flair thrown in – usually in the form of a jazzy tie, or sometimes a pastel shirt just for flavor.

Sweaters are a special favorite, especially Mr. Rogers-like cardigans. I like classic suits. Nothing too form fitting (even though my recently-slimmer frame could probably carry those tighter suits well these days).

On cooler spring and fall days, I prefer jeans and sweatshirts that let me take long walks in comfort.

In the summer heat you’ll find me sporting dirt-stained, sweat-dripping shorts and t-shirts – filthy and stinky sure, but proud badges of a day spent digging in the garden and beautifying our little corner of the world. I feel no compunction to impress the worms, birds and bunnies much less the neighbors.

And I’ve been wearing ties since 8th grade. Even on “casual” dress days. Not because I had to, but rather because I decided long ago that they told people (most especially the adults in my life) who I was and intended to be.

So, when my dad passed away 22 years ago next month, I asked my mom for three things of his:

  1. the new snowblower he’d just bought a month before passing (I was the only one of his three sons who had his own house at the time and need for a snowblower);
  2. one of his watches; and
  3. his collection of Christmas ties, which I have proudly modeled every day of the last two weeks before Christmas since 1998.

A veteran “old school” police officer, my dad could terrify the most hardened criminal – not to mention his three sons – into sincere confessions for crimes they didn’t even commit just by cocking his right eyebrow.

But that was just Will County Deputy (and later, Detective and Sergeant, and finally U.S. Marshall) Hernandez. When he wasn’t dealing with criminals or his kids, relatives, and the occasional neighborhood ruffian, my dad was just Tony. Or, to his family, Paulie.

He was a natural-born entertainer — clever, quick-witted, hysterically funny, a practical joke master and clown. He loved making people smile and laugh.

Hence, me claiming his Christmas ties.

Perhaps it’s silly. It’s certainly sentimental — something I keep saying that I am not, but apparently must be. Yet they continue to remind me of him in unique ways.

Some are fairly-staid – basic red and green and blue, maybe a few silver snowflakes.  Others are more adventurous, rocking candy canes, snowmen, etc. Some (still, after all these years!) chirp tinny Christmas songs. One has the entire twelve days of Christmas displayed top to bottom.

However, my favorite — the one I always save until the last day of work before winter break – is actually cut into the shape of a Christmas tree. Talk about a conversation starter! People love that tie.treetie

Which is part of the reason I continue to hold on to them more than 20 years after his death.

Those ties literally, spiritually and symbolically bind me to my dad. What’s more, they give me a convenient (if slightly sneaky) excuse to talk about him. Every time someone comments on one of them, I tell their story and by extension, our story — his and mine.

Through the magic trick of using words to illustrate what’s in my head and on my heart, he lives again, for as long as the tale and ensuing laughter lasts.

This cloth connection is important because I really have nothing else that would identify me as the son of the man who raised me.

He adopted me and my middle brother when he married my newly-divorced mom when I was about two years old.

I don’t share his blood.  I don’t bear a resemblance (except for the occasional deep summer tan that mimics his brown complexion.)

I don’t speak Spanish to the confusion of many who see my last name and just assume.

Politically, he was as conservative as I am liberal. I know — because I saw it and he bragged unashamedly about doing it — that he violated many a suspect’s civil rights in his work to protect the community. In that day, that’s just how police work was done.

And he despised, loathed and detested the media 35 years before the current Oval Office occupant started screaming “fake news” every time the media do not crown him king.

Of course, because God has a wicked sense of humor, I have made my living as a communications professional – first a newspaper reporter, then a columnist, now in school public relations. So, you know, there was the occasional friction…

Despite all this, I miss my dad. I think of him every day. I wonder sometimes how things might have been different in our lives had he lived past his 51st birthday.

I chuckle a tad ruefully, knowing how much he adored the four grandchildren he had when he passed, and would have loved the 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren he’d have now.

Sometimes I am tempted to be regretful, forlorn, even angry about his dying so young. Thinking about what he missed in the last 21 years. And more importantly (and, I admit, selfishly), what we have missed not having him here.

I am tempted, truly and sorely.

Then I remind myself that while my grief is real, it will not put him back at our Christmas dinner table.

This may seem like a small thing (and, I admit, easier said than done).

However, as I inch closer to being measured for a pine box I realize more and more that the “small things” really are the “big things.”

My dad was a flawed human being, but ultimately proved to be a good and decent person. So, instead of grieving his loss, I choose to remember the countless good things about my father.

His love for family.  His integrity. His commitment to what he believed to be right (even when it wasn’t.) His gift for finding – or making — humor in just about everything.

I do my best to model myself after the father (and now grandfather) he was, and the man I think he intended to be.

I keep him alive through stories to my own daughters who were still babies when he passed, and now my own granddaughter, who will only know him through us and our extended Hernandez family.

And then, right around the middle of December each year, I put on one of his Christmas ties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Feel You

empathy

You know that meme that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar?”

I’m that guy.

I’m not just talking about spelling or punctuation or usage. (Although I grit my teeth whenever I see someone misuse “Too, To and Two.” How in God’s green earth can someone not know the difference between those words and still be allowed to operate a motor vehicle?)

Rather, I am talking about choosing the right words and, most of all, accepting responsibility for what is said.

The power and weight and consequence of words is immense, especially in today’s world of social media when so many say so much that, ultimately means so little.

Words seem to have lost their inherent value, spewed aimlessly, reduced to so much acidic vomit, their truth twisted cynically into sour, burned pretzels of misinformation and deception.

These thoughts came to mind at a conference I recently attended about understanding poverty.

In that context I realized that we often confuse and therefore misuse “Sympathy” and “Empathy.”

First, to be clear, though their meanings overlap, they are not directly synonymous.

Empathy means acknowledging the validity of another’s experience. Without judgement. Without criticism.

Sympathy, on the other hand is the act of feeling badly for someone because of some unfortunate life circumstance. It sometimes smacks of (or at least can open the door to) judgement, criticism and pity.

For example, I feel badly that one of my brothers is suffering the residual effects of a vicious divorce. My heart hurts for him (though I have to say there’s a lot of karma behind what he’s going through.)

That may seem a subtle line in the linguistic sand. It’s not – neither in theory nor application.

It is literally the difference between saying “I feel for you,” and “I feel you.”

Sadly, like so many other aspects of our capitalistic, “I-Me-Mine” American society in which we think first (and sometimes only) of how something will impact us personally, we tend to favor sympathy over empathy.

Sympathy (without empathy) requires less of us — physically, emotionally or even financially.

Sympathy (without empathy) lets us stand off to the side and do nothing more than cluck our tongues, pitying someone for their hard knocks.

It allows us to feel superior.

However, Empathy demands more emotional maturity, philosophical flexibility and intellectual impartiality.

It is harder, and perhaps more dangerous to say, “I may not agree with your lifestyle/position/choice/perspective. I cannot understand it because it’s not my reality. But it is authentic for you. So, I respect it.”

Empathy forces us to recognize, acknowledge and understand that my life is not everyone’s life. And that others – just like me – didn’t and don’t always get to choose the circumstances of their life.

Most especially, empathy insists that we say (and this is the hardest part): “I want to help however I can, human being to human being.”  No judgement, no criticism.

So, for example, I am not poor (or African American, or female, or homosexual, or grieving the loss of a family member, etc.) Therefore, I cannot possibly understand what it means, or has meant, or will mean to be any of those things.

But I am willing and able – indeed, I am charged as a fellow life traveler – to trust that someone else’s experience, circumstances, challenges and obstacles are very much real.

They define us.

They define how the world sees and interacts with us – and potentially how we see and interact with the world around us in response.

I may not get “It” – whatever “It” is for someone else. But I don’t have to, in order to do the right thing.

A very good friend of mine notes that I write a lot about social justice issues.

She’s right.

Yet this isn’t about social justice per se. In a perverse way, making this concern that “big” makes it too big. Doing that somehow elevates empathy to a gilded place, making it harder to get at and therefore easier to ignore.

Rather, this is about something much simpler: basic human decency (speaking of important and misunderstood words…)

When it comes to understanding others different than us – no matter the difference — basic human decency dictates we should step down from our pedestal and help someone else step up.

Try to simply understand.

Open our minds and hearts.

Stretch out a helping hand as far as possible.

And remember that how we are different isn’t nearly as important as how we are the same.