22 July 2011

Birthday

No, it's not my birthday, or that of anyone in my immediate family.  But I did have dinner with an old friend last night, an extremely bright and well-educated man whom I admire greatly and who happens also to be in the throes of raising daughters.  I have been thinking about a story my friend told me last night.

When his sister was in grade school, she wanted a big birthday party.  She invited all the girls in her class but one (we'll call the excluded girl Susie).  When her mother asked why Susie had not been invited, our heroine replied, "I don't like her.  She's gross."

That's fine, the mother said.  If you're not going to invite everyone, we don't have to have a party at all.  The party was cancelled, with the understanding that if the daughter changed her mind and decided to invite Susie, the party would be reinstated.  The daughter held out for a long time - until just a few days before her birthday, in fact. At that point, faced with the real possibility of no party at all, she caved in and had her mother call Susie's mother to extend an invitation.

Susie came to the party.  As it turns out, she had a severe heart defect and was literally blue in the face from lack of oxygen.  She had difficulty eating, so our heroine's mother prepared a special cupcake for her to accommodate her needs.  Susie had a great time at the party, and four weeks later, she died.

Once, I planned a birthday party for my oldest daughter.  I can't remember how old she was, but it was when she was in grade school, and, like my friend's mother, I insisted that every girl in the class be invited.  When the invitations went out, another mom alerted me to the fact that my daughter's party conflicted with the birthday party of another girl in the class.  I had not yet seen an invitation to the other girl's party, so in all naivete - yes, I really was this stupid - I called the other girl's mom and asked whether we shouldn't combine our parties and have a dual celebration.  My house or hers - I didn't care.  I'd be happy to bake or plan a craft or buy paper goods or soda - whatever was needed.

The other mother informed me that she had not been planning on inviting my daughter, as her daughter and mine were not close enough friends.

Both parties proceeded as originally planned, although ours was much smaller, as our invitations had gone out second.

When I was in sixth grade, there was a girl in my class that I liked very much.  She was one of the few who spoke to me.  She lived biking distance from my house, and we spent a lot of afternoons playing marathon games of Monopoly.  This girl - who I'll call Carolyn - happened to have the same birthday as my sister, right smack in the middle of the summer.  I pitied her, having a birthday in August.  How did you celebrate a birthday, my eleven-year-old mind wondered, when all your friends are out of town, and when you couldn't hand out invitations at school?  I knew it was difficult for my sister to have parties, but my mom always made Herculean efforts to make the day special, even if we or most of our friends were on vacation when the occasion rolled around.

Carolyn told me she probably wouldn't have a party because of the inconvenient timing of her birthday.  I felt terribly sorry for her.  I vowed to surprise her when the day came.

On the big day, I rode my bike to the pharmacy and bought a Love's Baby Soft gift set, with cologne, bath bubbles, and dusting powder.  I had the lady wrap the gift in pink paper, and I bought a card to go with it.  "Happy Birthday Carolyn!"  I wrote.  "Your friend forever, Jennie."

Late in the day, my mom drove me to Carolyn's house to drop off the gift.  I rang the bell.  There was a lot of noise coming from inside the house, and I shifted my weight from foot to foot until Carolyn opened the door.  She opened it just a crack.

"Hi Carolyn!"  I yelled.  "Surprise!  Happy birthday!"  I held the package out.

She had to open the door a little wider to accept the gift, and in that instant, I saw behind her that a party was in full swing.  Several girls from our sixth-grade class were in her living room.  There were balloons and crepe paper everywhere.

Carolyn's mom came to the door, carrying a piece of cake on a paper plate.  "Who is it, Carolyn?" she asked.

"It's Jennie," Carolyn replied.

"Oh, goodness.  Hi Jennie!  Carolyn, invite her in!  Jennie, we're just having a little celebration.  Won't you join us?"

"No, no thank you.  No thank you," I stammered, and ran back to my mom's car.  When I got into the car, I started to cry.

"What happened?" my mom asked.

"She was having a party," I said.

I don't remember my mom's exact reaction, but I do remember that it was compassionate.  She pulled out of the driveway as fast as she could, leaving Carolyn and her mom standing in the doorway blank-faced.  She probably reminded me that friends are friends and that family is family, and that we were having a family celebration for my sister that night, and that generosity - of spirit and wallet - is not always rewarded immediately, but is always, in the long run, worth it.

I think that was the point of my friend's story at dinner last night.  However repugnant Susie's health problems made her seem to her classmates, the important lesson my friend's mom taught his sister has stayed with him forever.

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Just a note to my loyal readers:  the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine has some really good slow-cooker recipes in it.  I am not being compensated to promote that magazine - I just happen to have a copy of it in my bathroom and thought I'd pass the tip along.

If you like my blog, please mention it to your friends.  I wish fervently for a bigger readership and would very much appreciate your help with that.

Happy weekend!
Jennie

15 July 2011

Freaks

There is a lady in my town that my children refer to as the "Jesus Lady."  She gets her moniker from her habit of standing on the street corner, clutching a Bible, and calling to passersby, "Jesus loves you!"  My children sometimes imitate her in a mocking way.  They tell me that she often hangs out near the middle school at dismissal time, calling out her good news to the children as they pour out of the school building.  My children also tell me that their Jewish friends are offended by this woman's behavior and wish there were a way to get rid of her.  "She's annoying," they tell me.  Is it legal, they ask, for someone to proselytize like that in a public place?

I tell them that as long as she is in fact in a public space, like on the sidewalk or on the street, and as long as she neither approaches, threatens, nor harasses anyone, she is perfectly within her rights.  In fact, her behavior is specifically protected by our laws.

But I am less interested in the Jesus Lady's behavior and its legality than in the reaction it evokes in my children.  We are churchgoers, but we belong to what I would characterize as a liberal and relatively reticent denomination, and my children are not particularly familiar with street preachers.  We do occasionally get Jehovah's Witnesses at our door.  Unless they catch me in the middle of a crazy three-kids-and-two-dogs-and-mother-in-law-on-the-phone moment, I generally accept their literature and listen to their spiel.  When I worked in downtown Brooklyn, I was frequently approached on the street by members of the Lubavitcher sect, a Jewish group that encourages increased observance among members of their faith.  They'd ask me if I was Jewish, and when I told them I was not, they'd smile and wish me a good day.  I have no reason to wish them anything but the same.

In fact, I admire them.  I admire anyone who is so sure of their beliefs, of their place in the universe, that they can confidently spend hot summer days and cold winter evenings sharing them on the streets of a city with eight million strangers in it.  I admire people who have found their calling, in the truest sense of the word.  I admire the absence of doubt.  I don't particularly aspire to it, because I love the mental exercise a good dose of doubt can provide, but I admire it.

I would venture to say that about 50% of my friends and family are atheists.  Many of them are aggressively so, posting anti-religion rants on Facebook, snickering from their seats at weddings and other religiously-tinged rituals, or making fun of people who dress differently or observe customs within their community that strike the outside world as "weird."  I am trying to raise my children to be respectful of other people's beliefs, and it's hard to do so when they are surrounded by people who, frankly, aren't.  Making fun of the Jesus Lady is a form of intolerance that I cannot accept.  She deserves, like anyone else, a polite smile, a held door, a "good morning" or "good evening," and, most importantly, a place to stand on the public sidewalk.  As do the Witnesses and the Lubavitchers and anyone else.

I saw the Jesus Lady in person for the first time this morning, as I was biking to my physical therapy appointment.  She was standing on the sidewalk in the downtown area, near a busy intersection where I had to dismount my bike to cross the street.  I saw her right away, but I did not know who she was.  She was a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman, dressed somewhat conservatively, holding something in her hand.  She smiled, waved, and called something to me, but I could not hear her over the sound of the traffic.  As I got closer, I asked her, "I beg your pardon?"

"Jesus loves you!" she repeated with a cheerful smile.

I instantly knew who she was, of course.  The thing in her hand, I could now see, was a heavy book.  She was not at all the freak I had imagined from my children's descriptions.  "Thank you," I said, getting ready to get back onto my bike.

"Do you happen to know what time it is?" she asked.

I looked at my watch.  "About ten after eight," I told her.

She smiled again.  "Thank you very much," she said.  "Have a good day."

I think I will.

05 July 2011

Biking

As a kid, I did a lot of biking.  I grew up in the suburbs, and my bicycle was my primary form of transportation.  I first learned to ride my bike when I was in the second grade.  There was a teenage boy next door named Steve, and he made it his mission to see me operating that bicycle without training wheels.  Steve convinced my dad to remove my training wheels one afternoon, and then he spent some time guiding me in my driveway, as I pedaled up and down and back and forth.  When I was ready, he let go of the back of my bike - and off I went.  I remember Steve and the other older kids cheering as I took off on my bike.  I felt very proud of my seven-year-old self.

By the time I was a teenager, I was adept at getting around town and beyond on my bicycle.  My friends and I would sometimes pack lunch on a Saturday and bike up to Tallman State Park, just over the New York state border.  When we got there, we'd eat, sit around for a while chatting, and then bike back.  There wasn't anything particularly interesting to do at Tallman - as with so many things back then and since, the joy was in the journey.

My first published piece of writing, in fact, was about bicycling.  I was a guest columnist on the teen page of the Bergen Record, our local newspaper.  I wrote an essay about bicycling around my town.  I was absolutely thrilled to have been published writing about something I loved to do.

When I was a child, I didn't know any adults who rode bicycles.  Bikes were for kids - for people not old enough to drive.  But lately, biking has come back into vogue in my age group, because it's healthy and environmentally friendly.  If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I broke my shoulder in February.  As a result, I have been unable to exercise much, and I've put on a few pounds that I'd be happy to shed.  I could not have been happier when I recently got the go-ahead from my doctor and my physical therapist to dust off my bike.

I did so last week.  It actually had spiderwebs all over it, and I quickly learned, to my dismay, that the front tire was flat and in need of a new tube.  A friend loaded my bike into the back of her minivan and took me to the local bike shop, where a teenager in a cutoff t-shirt quickly solved my problem for me.  And I was off on my new adventure.

I biked to the post office, to the supermarket, to the little local takeout place for lunch, and then back home again.  I made some mental notes for next time:  bring water, remember sunscreen, and trade the over-the-shoulder purse for a backpack.  I also need a bigger basket on my bike if I am going to go to the supermarket for more than just a box of tissues.  My town is fairly flat, at least in the part of it where I was biking, so I didn't find my little foray back into the biking world to be too difficult. I'll make it more challenging as I gradually get into better shape.

I did, however, learn something important:  there are a million potential ways for a bicyclist to die in suburbia.

Number one:  Getting hit by a car that makes a right-hand turn directly in front of me, so that I have to jam my brakes to avoid getting run over.  Did he not see me?  Number two:  enormous potholes.  You don't notice them when you're driving a car, but when you're on a bike, they are hazardous.  Number three:  motorists opening their doors or pulling out of parking spaces without checking for bicyclists.  From now on, I will be much more careful when driving my car.

All in all, though, I am very happy to be back on my bike.  There are things you notice on the bike that you miss when you're in a car.  The smell of the grass by the country club when it's been freshly cut.  The sounds of children's voices as they play on a summer day.  The placement of crosswalks, bike racks, and mailboxes. The amount of time and energy it takes to get from one place to another.  The little alleyways that cars cannot pass, but bicyclists and pedestrians can.  Biking is a way of getting around town mindfully.  It's not that much slower than driving, but it's much, much better, for many reasons.

Have a wonderful week.  Be mindful of your comings and goings, and of those of others.
Jennie