Friday, July 27, 2012

TSP: Jen McConnell's Open, Unguarded Moments

TSP: Jen McConnell's Open, Unguarded Moments: In the 13th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jen McConnell, author of  Welcome, Anybody  (P...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Little Boy Lost

When I started writing I envisioned a page where my more creative work would be displayed. What once was a venue for my essays and stories has now become a spiritual and emotional outlet. As it turned out, I am a “mommy blogger.” I suppose in my most self-serving ideal, it will someday be read and used by my children. It will be a memoir of sorts, used to understand the parts of Mom that remained cryptic to their young minds.

Last night I made Nathan cry. Not because I was angry or mean, but because I wanted to prepare him for a coming loss. Nathan is our sensitive one. He empathic-ally takes on the stresses and emotions of others, whether he knows them or not. We struggle to teach him a balance between guarding his self and holding an open heart. The last thing we want for him is hurt, and the next to last we want is for him to withdraw to the inside.

This is where parenting gets tough. Nichole and I have been debating whether or not to euthanize our dog Jasmine. Jazz is 11 years old, which is close to average for a Dachshund. She was once a vibrant able watchdog who gave us two beautiful litters. She loves unconditionally and is only slightly spiteful (as Dachshunds are prone to be) when left at home.

Lately though Jazz has been more miserable than happy. Her allergy to fleas and summer pollen has her biting, scratching and rubbing until she is nearly bald. Two months ago she was in such condition that someone reported us to the ASPCA for “mistreating” her. Of course this was unfounded as soon as the uniformed officers saw that she is well cared for, just old and crusty. I could go through the whole list, from small tumors to cataracts and deafness, but the point is not to justify our plans.

What has come of this debate is “how do we tell the kids?” They all take loss especially hard. Nathan still cries over the loss of JuJube, the hamster. He is saddened every time he remembers Tonka. Nathan gets sad just missing Dakota, Kaitlin’s dog. But we had Tonka and Jasmine before the boys. They have grown up with her. She is their dog, whether or not they choose to play with her.

Nichole and I talked about when to take Jazz to the vet. I talked with friends about how to handle telling the boys. My fear is that if we tell them we are “taking her to be put to sleep” they will only hear “I’m taking her to be killed.” The consensus is to begin preparing the boys by stressing up her age and infirmities; to talk openly that she might die soon.

The plan is, or was to do this while Nichole and the boys are away on vacation; to just have her “die” while they are gone. But I can already hear the cries “we didn’t even get to say goodbye” as they mourn. It will almost be too much to add that Kaitlin, the baby, and her dog are moving to Wyoming. The boys are already losing them. Wouldn’t it be cruel to take away the family pet?

Last night Nathan asked me “how come” Jasmine gets confused at the door and forgets to go out. I thought to myself that this was the perfect opening. I could talk about what happens when dogs age. I could talk about the fact that she is blind, almost deaf and hurts. I was lame.

I did mention some of those things and then I went on to tell him “I’m afraid she might die soon.” Nathan froze in his tracks, literally stopped all movement and began crying. My almost eight year old was reduced to toddler hood as I picked him up and rocked him for half an hour. He cried and told me “I hope it doesn’t happen while we’re gone.” That was his first hope, then he hoped it wouldn’t happen when they get back either. For that matter, he hoped it wouldn’t happen before they leave.

I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was hold my little boy and listen as he mourned his lost pets: Tonka, JuJube, and Faith. I could only listen as he mourned the pending loss of Jasmine. Nathan feels everything so deeply. How in the world can I balance his heart against Jasmine’s life? There is no way now that I can do this while they are gone. I can only pray for God to take the decision off my shoulders. It’s just not time.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fat Man's Misery; Child's Delight

Fat Man’s Misery; Child’s Delight
                                      Maria T. Groschup-Black

There are many things about the way I was raised that I want to share with my own kids. Unfortunately there are also many differences in the times between then and now. I grew up in a mostly stable household with both parents always present and usually available. We ate dinner at the table every night, said prayers over our food and ate it whether we liked it or not. I learned to swallow many meals without tasting them. Lima beans, string beans and peas all went down without touching the tongue or being chewed. We watched game shows in the evening and played board games or cards. Summer nights were spent playing outside until darkness met up with bedtime.

On warmer nights Dad would pile us all into the family car, drive to the bluffs at Carlsbad State Beach and walk down to the shoreline. There, we kids ran ahead in the sand to collect aluminum cans left behind by the daytime revelers while Mom and Dad strolled hand in hand. Sometimes Dad would pile us up for a drive to the local Baskin Robbins for an ice cream.  Each summer there was a vacation drive across the country, either north to my aunt’s home in Washington or east to my Nanny and Papa in Texas. It all sounds as sappy as it was. But these are the memories, and as I’ve learned from my own children, we want to remember the good times as if they were grand times.

One of the grand parts of my ideal family was that Dad ran the church youth group. Although we were too young to participate in youth group, whenever the church kids went somewhere cool, we got to tag along. There were annual trips to Disneyland, ice skating, beach parties and the hikes through Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Torrey Pines became a designated state park in the 1959, but its rich history runs as far back as early pre-colonial days when the aboriginal tribes inhabited the lands. In 1899 the city of San Diego designated the area as a city park and later granted the land to the state. The park is a scientist’s playground, no matter the range of study; from geology and paleontology, to marine biology and botany. Eight miles of trails wind through the park from the top of the bluffs down to the shore of Torrey Pines State Beach. From the beach you can see the layers of age in the cliffs, including fossil oyster beds billions of years old. You can view the fault lines so famous in California, and you can find living history in the tide pools hewn by the crashing shore. From the top of the trails you can find rich and diverse habitats that include the great and rare Torrey Pine, exclusive to the California shore.     
All of this science meant nothing to me as a child, and really no matter how much I want to teach my children, it means nothing to them. Rather it is the simple joy of stooping through an elfin forest (quietly so as to not disturb the elves), climbing a red butte, or finding shapes in the wind-blown trees that excites the kids. For me it was the trails themselves. My favorite, “Fat Man’s Misery” wound through a slot canyon. The name came from its tight crevices and narrow paths that eventually let out on the shore.

Fat Man’s Misery has long since been closed for safety. According to the rangers, none of whom ever had the pleasure, the trail became too unstable and costly to maintain. Unfortunate hikers found themselves stuck in the crevices and rescues were dangerous operations that used too many resources. But the trail’s closure does not take the magic away; it only enhances it as new areas are explored and shared with my own children.

I was determined to make the most of our hike and sought the advice of the ranger. “Which trails led to the beach and which one was the easiest path of return?” As it turned out, all of the trails were mild to moderate and each one had something different to offer. We started at the top; a trail-head lead to five different hikes that intersected at various points and inevitably led to the same outlet – the beach trail.
We hiked to the red butte. Although small, it offered fantastic views of the ocean and gave the boys a place to climb and explore without violating park rules. From the butte we followed a trail through an elfin forest to an area more desert in nature than coastal. The scrub was sparse and yucca plants thrived along with other succulents. 
Eventually we merged to the beach trail and headed down past a few wind caves. I was sure to point out where tube worms had drilled through the rock and where the walls held fossil remnants of ancient tree roots or perhaps (at least to my imagination) where fossil bones had once been. On the shore I pointed out the different layers of sand that comprised the ages of time and made sure they understood that the bottom layer filled with shells was a fossil bed.
 Shirts and shoes were shed and they immediately headed for the large flat rock in the surf line. The rock has a huge hole in the middle known as “the bathtub,” though I’d not recommend bathing there. One of the anemones had a six inch diameter! The boys learned hands on how anemones capture their prey, and had much fun looking at the tube worms and crabs in the tub.  Of course they had just as much fun splashing in the water, collecting rocks and searching for leftover grunion. Boys are fairly easy to entertain once you get them away from the television and computers.

The hike back up wasn’t hard at all and we veered off to a few more outcroppings and viewpoints. The last trail followed somewhat parallel to the slot canyon where remnants of Fat Man’s Misery could be seen. I regaled them with stories of Grandpa and how he had to struggle through the tight spots and how much fun I had at their age wandering through the canyon. Most of the trail is overgrown with sage and scrub now. Perhaps that is good. The growth will slow erosion and heal canyon. Perhaps in another few hundred years there will be another parent leading his kids through the slot canyon to the shore. Just maybe if we treasure today this gift God gave us yesterday, tomorrow it will delight and intrigue one more family.