Monday, June 27, 2011

Beginnings and Endings

Today I watched my son graduate from high school. I was in this exact same spot one year ago, when our first born made her way across the stage. And yet, just as they have been so very different in their eighteen years of growing up together, their high school finalities were also very different.

We thought we’d have an advantage this year. Last year we read all the handouts and mapquested all the locations, figuring out the graduation ceremony for the first time. It’s somewhat like throwing a sweet sixteen party, or being in charge of a bridal shower. There is much to know, that the first timers have to learn, either by reading, researching the internet, or being guided by those who have gone before. Then, once you’ve survived all the steps the first time, you feel confident, much less like a rookie. You go into the next experience feeling like you somewhat know the way.

But, just our luck, the system changed this year. It was a new venue, a new set of details to figure out. We felt like the newbies all over again. And even this year’s successful navigation won’t add to our expertise, as we are preparing to move two thousand miles away. Our last two sons will most likely graduate from high schools in Colorado.

Three years from now, we’ll start all over again.

But as much as the set up was different - the parking, the seating, the place we met up after the ceremony, the system for tracking down his actual diploma - the feelings were very much the same. The swell of emotion every time that crowd of gown-draped kids cheered, radiating the excitement of their accomplishment. The struggle to maintain my attention span, as speaker after speaker shared thoughts on the day. The pride I could hardly contain when my boy’s name, the same name his grandfather carried, ricocheted across the auditorium.

It’s all part of the graduation package.

There are times that I wonder if we’ve cheated our children somehow, by moving to different states, several times in their childhood. Many of my son’s friends have known each other from elementary school. Some even shared classrooms and playgrounds in their preschool years. My son will never know that feeling.

But just when I start to beat myself up about my son’s transient life, I hear familiar names. Kids he’s run track with for all of his high school years. Kids he’s hung out with at countless movie nights and sleepovers. Kids who’ve walked through my house, smiled their huge smiles, and answered me so politely when I’ve quizzed them about the details of their evening plans. My son has connections here.

One of the benefits of all the moves he’s made in his lifetime is adaptability. He knows how to walk into a new school, a new classroom, and soon a new college, and hold his head high. He knows that a friend is always somewhere on the other end, and that if you put yourself out there, relationships will follow. He will carry many New York friends with him, in spirit, as he ventures across the country to start his college career in a West coast school. He’s already figured out who else is going West, and planned ways that they can all find each other in the months to come.

Facebook and texting are a gift of the times. He will never have to ‘dig up’ old high school friends on Facebook. They’re already there, and will continue to be a part of his life, even two thousand miles away. As he plows his way through yet another new school, and more new classrooms, he’ll build his friend base. He’ll collect more like minded people into his orbit, and find his way into new adventures with them. They won’t replace his old friends in New York, they’ll only add depth to his already rich life.

We have a lot of transition in our life right now. We’re still knee deep in selling a house we’ve grown to love. We’ve lived in this house longer than any other since we began our cross country moves ten years ago. There are marks on the wall that show the inches (and feet!) our children have grown, since we first set up our beds in this structure. We’re very ready to make our move to a new state, but I never underestimate how hard it will be to walk away from this house.

Today I still have four children living under my roof. In two weeks my oldest will move out, into an apartment with a friend. A month after that, we drop off our newly graduated boy at his college dorm. And suddenly we will be a family of four. The last time we were a family of four was fifteen years ago. It will be a mind boggling adjustment.

But as I saw once again today, life is about beginnings and endings. This boy, who landed in New York five years ago as a tiny, timid eighth grader, marched confidently across a graduation stage today.

Life moves on. We move on. And as Helen Keller once said, “Life is nothing, if not a daring adventure.” The gown has now been tucked in the closet, the tassel packed in a box.

My boy is quickly wrapping up his experiences in New York and mentally moving on. I guess I should follow his lead.

I guess it’s time for the next adventure to begin.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Life Rewards

At the end of a busy day, we made our way through the crowded hallways and found seats in the high school auditorium. We’d received a letter in the mail, informing us that our son was to receive an award of some kind and we were invited to attend the senior awards ceremony. We had no idea which award it might be, but as we waited for the festivities to begin we made a game of narrowing down the choices.

To begin with, we crossed out all the drama/theater awards. Our boy was not involved in any variety of the performing arts, beyond attending occasional movies with his friends on a Friday night. Then we moved onto music awards. No to the drum and fife award. No to the jazz band award. No to the orchestra honors. Our boy loved playing the trumpet in fifth grade, but had not pursued it on the high school level.

Now we were down to academics and sports. We both knew which category we should be alert for. Our son studies hard, and he’s very diligent about disappearing up to his room every school night, to plug away at assignments and projects. He has good grades. But we all know that good grades don’t win awards. Wonderful, perfect, top of the line grades do. So we were down to the one category. Sports.

My son has always loved to run. As a six year old, he and his father used to take a one mile run together every morning. He looked forward to it every day. He was born into a track and field heritage. A handful of his uncles set records in high school, and one even attended UVM on a track scholarship. It didn’t surprise me that one of my boys took to running not long after he’d learned to walk.

He was thrilled to have the chance to join the high school track team, the first year we lived in New York. He was just an eighth grader, but the older guys and coaches accepted him with open arms and boosted his confidence with endless encouragement. Five years later, he’s the one who takes the little kids, full of spirit but not so much muscle, under his wing, and encourages them to do their best, in every race. It did not surprise us that the award he received had nothing to do with theater, or music, or proficiency in a specific subject, but rather was a testament to his first love - running.

He walked away from that night with a plaque honoring him for having the most varsity letters. Five seasons of track, three seasons a year, slowly adds up.

But as I sat through the ceremony, clapping for many other deserving award recipients, I had conflicting thoughts and emotions. A lot of the awards were handed out for truly amazing accomplishments. As the lists were read, outlining the reasons a specific student received a specific award, it almost didn’t seem real. Was it even possible that one student could be in so many clubs, volunteer at so many charities, participate in so many school activities, and still get perfect grades? I had to fight the twinge of inadequacy that snuck in. And to be honest, the feeling of a shortfall had nothing to do with my son.

I was taken back to my own high school years. I attended a very large high school in Missouri and served as a student council officer for several years. But I was far from the star students who got the top awards. I plugged away and got good (not great) grades. I spent my after school hours working at a retail store, to save money for college. There was no time for volunteering, or clubs, or theater productions. But I’m okay with that.

I found myself, and my purpose, in those after high school years.

I think a lot of people do. I know many people who did marginally in high school and then found really great lives in their adulthood. I have the greatest respect for those kids who walked across the stage last week to receive their much deserved honors. But I couldn’t help but think there should be other types of awards too.

Awards for kids who helped their families through a life crisis.

Awards for kids who worked several jobs so they could eventually attend some kind of college.

And kids who have been solid, trustworthy members of their families - taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, and doing what’s expected of them (most of the time) without complaining.

Here’s the one my son would have been a shoe in for:

“The All Around Good Kid Award:

This award will be given to a student who has proven himself in character and trustworthiness. He has been an upstanding brother to his younger siblings and an important part of a strong family unit. He has adapted exceedingly well to three cross country moves. He has been compassionate to a brother in need, giving much needed hugs in the form of living room wrestling matches. He’s graciously handed down countless cool clothes and toys, including millions of Lego pieces and remote control vehicles. He can always be counted on to be polite to adult friends and relatives and his smile and companionship keep his mother inspired. His tender heart (which he doesn’t like to talk about) and sturdy nature (including many survivalist skills)will take him far in life.”

I know that no such award exists. At least in the real world. But I also know that my son will leave high school as a solid citizen of the world. He’ll make a difference to the people around him and find his own path to a good life. That means more to me than any award he could ever receive.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What's in a Name

I’ve always liked my name. The older I got, the more I realized that it really fit me. Until the day I walked down that long aisle, I introduced myself as ‘Judy Johnson’. It was very sing-song and alliterate. It was easy to remember. It was unique, and yet not strange. It was just what I desired to be, as a person. The day we said our vows, I lost my sing song ending, but hung onto it as a middle name, because I never wanted to forget the person I was before two became one.

Having named four babies in my lifetime, I can appreciate how tricky the task can be. We’ve all met people who don’t seem to fit their name. A Bob who looks more like a Steve. And we’ve met people who seem to perfectly fit the name their parents so wisely bestowed upon them. My son Isaac, has a name that means ‘laughter’, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his quick wit makes me laugh every single day.

But in the last few years I’ve started to notice that no one uses my name anymore, when they’re picking out just the right title for their newborn daughter. It never shows up on popular baby name lists. In fact, it hasn’t for decades. I think working at the library increased my curiosity. I started to notice the names of the little patrons who showed up for story time every week. There were many Sarahs, and Owens, and Emmas, but not a single Judy.

The more the idea turned over in my brain, the more I started to do some research. Every famous Judy I could find was over the age of 50. I started to think I might be the youngest Judy on the planet, as I currently hang out in the mid 40s. I found a name database online, designed by a parenting website. It’s a pretty nifty thing to play with. You punch in any name and it will tell you how popular it was, in any given year, from the turn of the century until today.

It was no surprise, I guess, that Judy hit its peak in the fifties. In the mid sixties, when I showed up, it was beginning to tank in popularity. Which explains why every character named Judy in a movie or on a TV show is nearing retirement age. It’s not a name given to the perky, beautiful teen character.

Which is why I got a bit excited when a new kid’s movie hit theaters recently. I’d been aware of the children’s book series named “Judy Moody”, and was very pleased that my name finally claimed a young character. But it was doubly thrilling when Hollywood grabbed onto it and put it on the big screen - ‘Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer’. My name, in the big lights!

Then a popular singer, someone who’s on the radio all the time (and my teens even have on their ipods!) gave birth to a baby girl last week. I almost missed the news of the baby’s name, since celebrity babies are not really on my daily radar. But flipping through a magazine I stumbled upon it. This music artist named her daughter Jude. Now I know…my kids have already told me, it’s not the same. But I’m going to claim this one. You can’t tell me that at no time in this child’s life, will someone slip, and in a moment of sweetness, call her Jude-ey. Which comes out of the mouth in the same way my name does. The name that hasn’t been popular since the fifties.

It’s coming back. I just know it. My sisters and I were all given names (Mary, Nancy, and Judy) that were popular at our births, but never seemed to be popular again. I’ve been pretty happy with mine. I’ve got a broad imagination. I can imagine that ‘Hey Jude’ was about a Judy, not John Lennon’s son, Julian. And I can ignore the fact that the other famous song to include my name, ‘It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want to’, was released the year before I was born. I think it’s still a great name, worthy of a little more use.

So I’m starting to lobby friends and relatives who are of child bearing age. Are you looking for a great name, that’s widely recognized, but not yet trendy? Are you brave enough to start the trend to bring Judy back? There’s been a recent surge of old names that have become new again.

All of those Emmas and Margarets need some playmates with classic names too. It’s time to call their friend Judy for a play date.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hair Cut

Today I cut their hair. It’s one of those family rituals that seems like it will last forever, like trimming fingernails and nagging about teeth brushing. Every month or so I start noticing stray hairs shooting out from behind their ears. The son with the shaggy cut starts looking more shaggy than usual. So I start warning them about what’s to come.

“Someday soon I’m cutting everyone’s hair,” I’ll warn at dinner one night. There will be groans all around. No one enjoys it, including me, but it’s a necessary evil if I want to continue seeing their eyes. Everyone gets to pick how long or short they want their particular style. Runner boy complains that his is too long when it’s long enough to pinch between his fingers. Guitar loving son wants it long, but not anything close to a mullet. Little guy goes back and forth between super short and long, curly and unruly.

Finally the afternoon arrives when it’s time. No more putting it off. No more ‘I’m too tired tonight’ or ‘but my friend is on his way over…’. We pull out the token stool and dig out the yard and a half of silk that we fasten with a safety pin around the first subject’s neck. We get set up in front of the TV, because it keeps my victim distracted and buys me some extra time.

Every once in a while there will be fussing, and squirming and enough complaining that I have to pull out my standard line, “Okay, if you don’t want to cooperate, I’ll have to take you to the lady…”

This line has worked since they were small. They have no idea who the lady is. I don’t either, for that matter. But when they were young we’d see hairdressers on television and I’d say, “See, that’s where some kids go to get their hair cut.” It all looked very fru fru and feminine to my rough and tumble boys. They really didn’t have any desire to go to that place where women sat with foil sticking out of their heads. So ‘the lady’ line continues to work.

As I was cutting my oldest son’s hair yesterday, just hours before he’d leave for his senior prom, it occurred to me that I might only have a few more opportunities to perform this service for him. He goes off to college in just a couple of months, and there are no guarantees that he’ll be home on a regular basis.

We are moving to Colorado, but he’ll be going to college in Utah. So close, but also a mountain range away. There could easily be times that he needs a haircut and has no imminent plans to travel home. Someday soon, my boy may indeed have his hair cut by ‘the lady’ (and discover she’s not so scary after all).

This shouldn’t surprise me. It’s exactly how I came to cut his hair in the first place. I started by learning to cut hair on his daddy, when we were both in college. We lived in the same dorm and shared a circle of friends. He was two thousand miles away from home and had never had anyone but his mother cut his hair (sounds familiar). So one day I offered. I had no idea what I was doing. This was back in the stone age, before the option of googling or youtubing existed.

I had to actually walk all the way over to the college library, pull out long drawers from a tall wooden cabinet, and flip through a series of yellowing 3x5 cards, to find a single book on the art of cutting a man’s hair. But, as it turns out, one book was enough.

There were bumps along the way. One memorable afternoon I was cutting his hair while three friends of ours sat on a bunk bed across from us. In the midst of the joking and laughing my scissors slipped. In an instant a huge chunk of hair was missing from the side of his head. He couldn’t see the shock on my face, since I was standing behind him. But all three friends saw. With our eyes we agreed to not say a word. One of them continued with the conversation and we moved forward.

Ten minutes later he was standing at the small mirror that hung above my roommates dresser. He took a quick look at the final product, then paused, and went back to inspect one side again. He moved closer to the mirror. The rest of us held our breath. “Hmmmm….what’s going on here?” he asked, innocently. The four of us burst into fits of laughter. We couldn’t help it. He was just so cute, trying to be polite about the fact that I’d carved a bald spot on the side of his head.

Maybe that’s one of the millions of small moments that I knew he’d be a keeper for life.

I continued to cut his hair, through college, in the week before our wedding, and then year after year as we moved through life together. It only seemed natural that I’d tackle our daughter’s hair, since all she wanted was long and straight. I could do straight lines. Then three little brothers followed, and having inherited their daddy’s hair, it seemed only logical that I’d cut their hair too. When the toddler wisp turned into shaggy preschooler locks, they joined in the line up on hair cutting night.

And now we’re at the other end of that line. I may be losing one of my best clients soon. Someday soon, in a sweet smelling salon in Utah, my oldest son may put on another woman’s silk cape and hand over his loyalties.

Or maybe it will be a pretty classmate who lives in the next dorm who offers to do the job.

Either way, it’s almost time to hand over my scissors. And I’m not so sure I’m ready.