Memoir Project: Sweet Timothy

Sahuarita, AZ; Sandy, UT, 2005-2015

Sweet Timothy

Timothy sat down to play at the grand piano in his pajamas. At age 4, he wasn’t taking lessons yet, but his siblings had taught him to play the tune that Big Ben chimes and the opening notes of “Jingle Bells.” It was the night of the filming of the annual Christmas video and we asked him to play his songs for us. We could tell that he wanted to because he was nervous at the thought of doing it. “I only know how to play the first part,” he said, twirling the hair near the crown of his head with his fingers. With our encouragement, he played for the camera, and when he finished, he quickly slid off the bench, trying to hide his smile of triumph and began twisting his hair again, nervously.

Timothy’s challenge while growing up is to reconcile his natural sweet disposition with his desire to be independent. Of all the children, Timothy gives himself up to joy and humor and love the easiest. But to smile is to be vulnerable, so when he was little, he would jam his tongue into his cheek to suppress it if he thought he was the only one smiling. Sometimes, even now, I will catch him doing it again, hoping to avoid detection. He’ll tell me something funny with tight lips to keep himself from giving up the joke too soon.

He was best friends with the girl across the street in Arizona who had some developmental delays. She was 4 years older, but their matching sweetness, humor, and open hearts made them close friends. He played with Littlest Pet Shop animals with this girl for 6 years, even though he preferred Legos and other games. He never teased her. He never asked her why she didn’t play with the girls in Paige’s room. I saw a degree of strength in Timothy as he dealt with her, but it wasn’t an effort for him. He just loved and played and enjoyed his time with her. One day he realized that she was growing older, but didn’t act like other girls her age and he mentioned it to me. As I explained that she just grew at a different rate, I felt foolish. He wasn’t looking for an explanation. He was just making an observation and it didn’t matter to him that she was different. I suspect that Timothy will have many people in his life that will be drawn to him because he provides a safe place.

When he was in fourth grade, I met Timothy and Mark after school each day to walk with them. Without fail, Timothy gave me the biggest smile and a hug every day when he saw me, right in front of his friends, even if they were talking to him. Without words, he said, “Excuse me, but I see my mom and I always give her a hug. Your story will have to wait until tomorrow.” With these hugs, all of his attention shifted from his friends to me and Mark and we walked down the hill together. This touched my heart each day.

In February of his sixth-grade year, he hinted to me meekly that he was playing his trombone in a band concert during school. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to be there so I asked him on a scale from one to ten, how much he would like me to come, helping him avoid having to say the awkward, “Please don’t come, Mom.” To my surprise, he said, “8 or 9.” So, I went, and I was one of four guests, three of whom were grandparents. In other words, I was one of the privileged few. He even let me take a picture.

He is growing up, but he still lets me be in love with him. I am glad when his sweetness wins out over his independence. It’s a strength that will make a difference for others.

Memoir Project: Little Daniel

Austin, TX 2002-2004

What was Daniel Like as a Child?

Daniel had a sparkly, verbose, and outgoing personality as a young child. He made friends everywhere we went. Newly-met playground friends were mourned by him in the car as we drove away. We would probably never see this-or-this friend again. He spoke to be heard and to share his thoughts and designs, and inward scenarios. He found order in talking. He could enchant adults by his precocial and erudite vocabulary and clear, precise pronunciation. He could talk for a long time about things that interested him.

When he was three, he loved to dress up as a firefighter and the vacuum hose was his favorite accessory. Sounds of toy firetrucks and sirens were common at our house. There were two large firetrucks, and a line of smaller firetrucks, like a family, which he would line up in descending order of size. Common book choices were about fires and firetrucks.

His Spiderman costume was his favorite costume the next year, and he would wear it to climb up door jams. He would walk his way up a door jam, with one foot on either side. At the top, he took away both hands from the sides of the door while his feet supported him. Next, he held the sides with his arms while he clapped his feet. In a dramatic finish, he dropped to the soft carpet below, triumphant, the stuffed muscles of his costume bulging at the arms and chest.

Seeing Paige learn to play the piano first, Daniel matched her songs by composing one of his own. His first composition was meant to be scary. He played the same notes in a minor key beginning at the bottom of the keyboard, moving up the octaves all the way to the top. When Paige performed her songs for others, he made sure to play his song, too. Here was our first glimpse of him as a showy piano performer.

We gave him some PVC pipe, cut in short sections, complete with T and L-shaped connectors so he could build “machines” with them when he was three-years-old. Sometimes he would choose our largest room and set up an intricate machine spanning the length of the room. He incorporated not only pipes, but vacuum hoses in his designs. Everything was connected and had a purpose. I remember sitting down with him at his desk and teaching him about basic machines when he was about four-years-old and he memorized everything, with his blue eyes wide open. Levers, wheels and axles, pulleys, inclined planes, and screws were incorporated in his creations from then on. He was a natural engineer. Coming into his room was like walking into a cluttered laboratory, full of his inventions. We bought an 8-foot long banquet table for school work, which we ended up giving to him for his projects. At any time, this table would have dozens of Lego buildings, piles of collections, trains, and puzzles mixed together. He liked to listen to music as he worked on his projects, and his tastes ranged from kid CD’s to Mariachi band music.

Daniel was Daniel from the start: temperament, interests, intellect, and abilities all showed themselves when he was very young. We marveled that he could do so much.

Memoir project: Daughter

I haven’t been able to write here for a while, but here is something I am working on:

August 1996

Daughter

I lay awake in my room at the hospital, and watched our new baby Paige as I wrote in my journal. I watched her facial expressions, and made note that her hair was the same color as mine. For a time, she lay in the crib, calmly looking about with wide eyes, and I wondered what she was experiencing. I saw Richard’s eyes and nose in her features, but claimed her mouth to be like mine. Her round face is imprinted in my memory. Clichés and effusive expressions about Paige and Richard were all that I could write to mark the day. I was twenty-one years old, and had gained a new title of Mother. I have spent the rest of my life since, trying to master the words to describe what this role means.

Paige was the anticipated first grandchild for my parents. My mom, who left me with a kiss on the cheek, and later, my brother Paul came by the hospital during my labor. Paige was born on a Tuesday afternoon, after several nights of little sleep and false alarms. I felt Richard’s concern for me in the days before she was born, and needed his support at her birth.

Richard went with the nurse to give Paige her first bath and was gone for a while. My room was near the nursery, and I peeked in to find him watching her, intently. When he returned to my room to check on me, he smelled of Johnson’s Baby Wash after holding her for so long, a smell that will always evoke images of our babies.

We named our daughter Paige, after one of my Young Women leaders. This leader was educated, beautiful, and a dancer. The name Paige means “young helper,” and I knew she would be a help to our family.

That night I thought about where her spirit had been before she arrived. Richard’s maternal grandmother passed away just before Paige was born. My Great-grandmother Spencer passed away earlier that year. I wonder if there was a crossing of paths, with hugs, a cheer, and encouragements for Paige from these women as she made her journey to us. It takes courage, I think, to choose to be born, to choose to become a parent, and to choose to embrace the role of women. Yes, I am sure we need the strength and goodness of those on the other side of this journey, and they are with us, not just at the crossroads, but steadily through our days.

Lessons

Paige’s oil painting assignment

This exercise for Paige in oil painting was interesting to watch. She painted little squares for days over a long weekend at home. If I understand this correctly, each paper represents the effects of a single color mixed in to the same paints. There are some surprises, and there are some panels that I like more than others. The seventies-looking panel comes from yellow being mixed in everything.

One thing I have learned from having a daughter in art is the power of color to convey a mood. I saw an interesting MFA project on display at BYU earlier this year which used color to track the moods of different people throughout a day. I took pictures of a few of the representations to show the contrasts. Each person tracked his or her mood for 24 hours. Each hour was represented by a color, with each color representing a mood.

Moods that colors convey
The moods of an 18-month old, as documented by her mother. See the patterns and abrupt changes?
Moods of a student with depression and anxiety: see the dullness and little cheer, with black anxiety making appearances?
And here is 24 hours in the life of a yogi. Almost this persuadeth me to be a yogi.

What would the color palette look like for you today? I think we have some power over how we look at our days. I have seen how writing has been a good exercise in framing how I see my life. When I write, I tend to focus on the more rather than the less. It’s helped me frame my experiences with greater perspective. I see how petty I sound when I complain, and I see that I can often find a use for the difficult lessons. When I read my history on this blog, I see a plan emerge for our family, the friends in our path, unexpected opportunities, and experiences that have molded us.

We are almost halfway through October, which is normally a low month for me (think lots of purples), with mostly yellow and orange feelings. I think it’s because I am slowing down and writing. I am not letting myself get over-extended. I am saying no to things. I think it’s healthy to have a mixture of moods in life. I’m also allowing myself to feel what I feel and think what I think. This is a healthy change for me.

 

Next day addition: I don’t know the name of the person whose work I posted. I thought I took a picture of the name, but can’t find it. I wish I knew!

Writing in circles

Organizing chapters

One day, I think what I have written for my book is just right. The next day, I read the same words with a pucker and squinty eyes. What was I thinking?

I am losing objectivity. Maybe I am ready to get some feedback on the mood I am conveying and the format. Does it work to have little anecdotes mixed in with reflective chapters? Should I include the entries about our marriage, or should I just focus on the motherhood stuff? I really want the marriage chapters to work. It’s a story about our family. Sometimes I feel myself repeating ideas, or trying to tie things up neatly, when I don’t want to shy away from being real. But I am not betraying anyone, either. The kids are protected and I don’t choose to write about petty things. Surely fiction would be easier.

If you think you would like to read some pages and give some feedback, let me know. Some of it I published on the blog when I decided to give up the book dream. I really wish I hadn’t done that. You may have read some of this book on the blog, so you have an idea what to expect. Mark picked up the manuscript one night and shocked me by reading most of it and laughing at the right parts. That was encouraging.

Allow him

I think I can say that I am an expert on our son Mark, and this week he was different. He is used to being home alone without friends, so when he started to show frustration that he couldn’t get in touch with one of his friends, I was a little baffled. Over a few days, he kept asking me to contact his friend’s mother after his efforts to make noise and peer through the fence didn’t work to get his friend’s attention.

On Wednesday, the day before his Scout camp, Mark was especially lonely for this friend, but we couldn’t reach him. I took him out into the garden with me and we worked together. I looked at Lego sets with him online. I told him to clean his room (my answer for boredom). Eventually, the back gate opened and they were together at last.

That day they talked a lot about Scout camp and Mark talked his friend into going. “I had him at guns, Mom.” (There are rifles at Scout camp.)

I didn’t want to destroy his hopes, but I knew there were some hurdles to getting this boy to Scout camp the next morning. I tried to explain to Mark that it was up to the boy’s parents to get him ready, and there was a lot to do. I told him there might be trouble getting all the forms filled out, and the camp might not let him go at the last minute. This time, it was Mark’s turn to be baffled at me. He was sure his friend was going to Scout camp.

Mark was right, and the love he showed his friend was the key to getting him there. This sweet friend is a Church member, but doesn’t feel comfortable among the kids at church. Mark misses his friend on Sundays.

I realized that Mark’s discomfort all week was probably the Spirit prompting him to act. My attempts to divert his attention and dampen his enthusiasm didn’t make his job any easier. As I read a text of gratitude from the boy’s mother, what had begun for me as cautious encouragement for Mark turned to open admiration for his courage. Next time, I hope I will do more to allow him to follow the promptings he feels from the Holy Ghost.

It seems strange now, but I had spent some time this week worrying about sending Mark to camp. As he stepped out of the car when I dropped him off, I saw Mark’s confidence and maturity as he went straight to his friend to welcome him. There is strength and perception and power in our eleven-year-old. Trust me, I know because I’m a Mark expert.

Finding Joy in the Desert

My early years in Arizona were intense and isolated. I didn’t have a lot of friends and I was with the kids all day, every day. I was home schooling and Richard had many church obligations on Sunday and some weekday evenings. One evening, Richard took the three boys camping and Paige was at a friend’s house watching movies. I realized I would be alone all evening, and none of my children needed me.

I sat on the couch, and the silence hovered all around me. The piano wasn’t being played. The dishes were done. No one was asking me for a cup of milk or a bowl of goldfish crackers. The accumulated fatigue from my lifestyle seemed to settle like a frost, and my body, used to constant motion and focus, took its cue and didn’t feel like doing ANYTHING. I couldn’t settle on what to do with this time alone. I had lost excitement for things other than parenting that I loved to do.

I had hit a wall of exhaustion, and it would take more than one night alone to sort things out. But I did. I wasn’t always exhausted, but there was a pessimism that hounded me. I hope my experience can be helpful to someone else.

Now that the fog of those early parenting years is gone, I see more distinctly how stretched I was. To be clear, I loved playing with, teaching, reading to, and spending time with my children. But it was also very difficult. Writing my worries about the kids and my doubts in my parenting choices in my journal was a healthy outlet. I’d come away from a good journal-writing session feeling like the problems were expressed and solutions were on the way. I rarely took time to write about the good things about parenting in my journal, though, and that was something that needed to change.

Being tired, even exhausted, is a real part of being a parent of young children. Difficulty doesn’t necessarily mean something is bad. Those early years are a temporary marathon. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t feel ashamed of my personal need for solitude. I didn’t want to give the impression to anyone, especially the kids, that I saw parenting as a burden. But parenting IS a burden; it is a worthy, beautiful burden, and like any burden, it needs to be set down sometimes. I was wrong to think that taking some time away from the kids was selfish. It taxed my mental health to deny myself time with Richard and deny myself time alone. It created impossible dilemmas in my marriage. My prayers suffered. I could physically do the things I needed to do, but my spirit was faltering. I had developed a bad attitude about so many things.

I found my way out over the next few years by making some very minor adjustments in my life. There is nothing religious in my formula except a search for joy. I didn’t pray more or make huge efforts in temple work. I just decided to focus on the happy side of my story. I was still a stay at home mom with 4 children to educate. Richard was still busy at church. We were still living in the desert. All that changed was my attitude. The change came gradually because I did the following (these are links to old posts)*:

*If you are a parent of young children, perhaps your needs are different than mine. While I needed solitude, maybe you need more time with friends. I needed independence; a housekeeper or regular babysitter would have been too hard for me to accept. You may be different. Perhaps help around the house would be just the thing. Pride and comparison can get in the way of finding joy, too. It seems to me that the best thing to do is make a list of your interests, gifts, limitations, and dreams and make a plan. Finding joy can be as basic as smiling at a belligerent toddler instead of getting angry, or finding time to do something you love, even for one minute.

Smile First: Teenage edition

Smile First

(An updated version of a post I wrote in 2012)

I watched a young child inch his way from the back of a crowded room to the front to get closer to his mother who was speaking at the head of the congregation at church. He sat down on the front row and gazed up at her, anticipating her return. When she finished speaking and began walking to her seat, the child, anxious to be with his mother, uttered a hopeful little, “Mama,” looking for a hug and a joyful reunion. She was embarrassed that he had been walking around during the meeting and her grim face showed that she was upset with him (and maybe the father who had allowed the boy to wander). As she picked him up in a hurried way, he read all of her signs and began to cry. She wasn’t happy to see him waiting for her on the front row, after all.

She did something that is easy to do when a child does something, innocent or not, that draws attention to us in a crowd: she forgot to smile first.

When I saw this, I recognized myself. All children make noise and act out. They should be taught how to behave in church and at restaurants and stores, but I wonder if my children felt rejection when I “shushed” them all of the time. I wanted to be admired socially as a good parent. My children have never been very noisy, but there are other social missteps that they have shown. How many times had I been embarrassed that my child would not participate in an activity with other children or had been an overly picky eater as a guest in someone’s home, and resorted to strongly whispered bribes, pleas, and orders to try to get them to just be like everybody else?

My children, who have now learned how to sit still during a meeting and eat a variety of foods, don’t pose the same challenges that they did when they were little. Is there a principle of parenting here that can be applied to teens? What is a teenage equivalent to wandering around during a church meeting? Clothing choices, hair styles, being disengaged at family social gatherings and mumbling instead of speaking clearly are ways that teenagers inadvertently cause parents some social angst. I’m trying to omit the thought, “What will other people think if I don’t show public disapproval for immature behavior?”

Over the past few years I have remembered this phrase, “Smile first and correct them later.” I’ve made it a point to show my children and the world that I love these kids more than I disapprove of them. It takes courage to stop worrying what other people might think of my parenting if I choose to smile first and to correct them away from the crowd.

The haircut

1995 Los Alamos-001
Post-haircut on the good side

Riding out of town with my groom after our wedding reception in a snowstorm felt adventurous. Unconcerned about realities, we snacked on wedding sandwiches and cake as we drove to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where we would spend the summer for Richard’s internship. We drove into a blizzard in Colorado and nearly ran out of gas at a mountain summit, but all this became part of the happy legend of our beginnings.

Were we ready for this life of independence, fending for ourselves far from home? I relied pretty heavily on Richard’s life experience; his mission years and his 4 years seniority meant that his points of reference no longer included high school experiences, as mine embarrassingly still did. Most of our belongings we left in a storage shed behind the house we would rent from my parents in Provo when the summer was over. We had only packed the essentials for three months away: some clothes, a cooler, sleeping bags, a grill, a tent, and my violin. Everything was new, from our camping gear and Richard’s job, to our life together.

Los Alamos (White Rock) is where I made my first attempts at homemaking in a fully-furnished house. While Richard worked, I had many hours to learn how to iron his shirts, dampening them and re-ironing when the seams weren’t right. I learned to skin and de-bone chicken; I may have watched soap operas. These were long days. After I got a job, the days weren’t so slow; we cooked together in the evenings and I didn’t spend all day reading cookbooks and walking mile after mile through deserted neighborhoods.

After about six weeks, Richard’s hair was getting long and we decided to buy an electric clipper so I could give him a trim. I had watched my mom cut hair for years. Confidently, I turned on the clipper and applied it to the side of Richard’s head. One simple sweep upward from the ear exposed a neat, nearly bald track through his hair. I had forgotten to put a comb on the clipper! I was mortified; I didn’t dare try to fix the problem, so we abandoned the haircut and he wore a baseball cap for a few days.

My parents came to town around this time and my mom was able to even up his haircut. What I remember most from the experience is how selfless Richard was. He didn’t act self-conscious about his ruined hair. He wasn’t angry with me. In fact, he reassured me that it didn’t matter. He had very short hair for a while, but he was so noble about it that he lifted me out of my insecurities.

As a seal of his fidelity and kindness, a couple months later, he asked me to give him another haircut.

The Vibrant Lady on the Running Board

The first memory I have of Grandma Stewart is waiting for her to arrive at her home from Girls Camp. My family had arrived in Sparks, Nevada, from Utah and we were so anxious to see her. My brothers and I explored her manicured back yard, the barrels full of flowers, a neatly painted storage shed, and patio chairs with squishy floral cushions to pass the time. We moved to the front yard, and eventually, we saw the truck drive up with Grandma. It was an enormous white truck, and when it pulled up, she jumped out onto the running board on the passenger side, and waved at us with a big smile. She was in a sweatshirt and had a bandanna tied around her hair, but she made quite an entrance into my memory.

1-Gr Stewart, Carol, Angela1-1975 A at Stewarts1-Angie baby 4 generations

Of course she was there long before I had memories. I see pictures of her holding me as an infant, and me rifling through her kitchen drawer full of plastic bags before I was a year old. One picture shows 4 generations of women, my Great-grandmother Spencer, Grandma Stewart, my mom, and me as a newborn. Now that my grandmothers are gone, I continue to feel the physical, spiritual, and emotional strength they carried with them. I was born into a family of strong, powerful, vibrant women. Their influence held me before I had memories, through the growing up years, and into adulthood. At first I only noticed superficial things about my grandmother, such as painted nails, lots of laughter, traditions, and best behavior, but these were just the trappings of my grandmother’s strength; and she instilled this strength in me each time we met.

Grandmother JoAnn Stewart was sparkly but modest, outgoing but private; babies often cried when she held them, but she was the first one to help out and welcome them to the world. She walked so quickly we couldn’t keep up, but was continually present in my life.

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“Angie needs to learn to do the dishes without complaining,” I overheard my mom say to Grandma Stewart on the phone.

The next week when Grandma arrived, she did the dishes with me for days, both of us in yellow gloves. She showed me that I could scrub the silverware with the ridges of my glove. She made it fun.

She celebrated people. More than once she paraded me down the carpeted MGM Grand Hotel staircase, singing, “Here she is, Miss America,” reminding me to look at myself in the mirrors that surrounded us. When my little sister was born, I was sure I didn’t want a sister, but my grandma taught my siblings and me a song to sing on the front porch steps to welcome her. I hope my grandmother saw me tuck a small cross-stitched piece of fabric in my new baby sister’s room, welcoming her to our family. My grandmother helped me feel excited to have a sister.

1-1984-12 Christmas

I saw her care for her mother, my Great-grandma Spencer, during an extended illness. She gently helped her mother turn over, alleviating pressure on her painful bedsores. I was a little girl, and watching someone care for someone so ill made a huge impression on me. She came to town each time my mom had a baby and took care of us. Years later, I happened upon her after she brought my Grandpa Stewart home from dialysis, taking a quick nap on her couch. It was the only time I saw her take a rest. She must have been exhausted so many times as she cared for Grandpa and visited with the line of patients on dialysis, but she lived up to the phrase she kept framed in her kitchen: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

She kept a small Christmas tree in one of the bedrooms in the house with Marine and patriotic decorations on it. She told me that she was so proud of each child’s service and sacrifices. She said that she felt David’s service to his country, and Carol and Doug’s service in the Church were equally important. I have shared her lesson with others. “There are many ways to do good in the world,” I say, and think of her.

I saved all of her cards and letters. Her letters were short, rarely about her, and almost always mentioned Grandpa or the cousins. There are no dates, either. I don’t think that she kept a journal. As I read through her mail to me, however, I see that she did take time to write about important things.

“We’re thinking of you today. Congratulations on your baptism!” (1982)

“Just hang tight until this school bit is over and it will pay off.”

“Hope life is wonderful today–after all–we only take one day at a time and do the best we can–”

“There is nothing as good as a good marriage. Make yours good!” (1995)

“I encourage you two to find and cultivate good friends who add so much to your lives.” (1996)

“Grandpa is so good to me.”

 

She loved and welcomed Richard. She loved and welcomed our children. When we visited her home with our little children, she handed Paige a big flag and they paraded around her backyard with patriotic gifts on their heads and in their hands.

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She was always cleaning out her house, sending things she didn’t need to us. Her rooms were uncluttered and tastefully decorated. She kept heirlooms close to her, I think because she loved beauty and they reminded her of her family. She loved deeply and privately.

The last day I saw her, I played the violin at Grandpa Stewart’s funeral. I was playing Auld Lang Syne, a song she loved, which celebrates days gone by, old times, and even “Once upon a time.”

Once upon a time, I had a grandmother who showed me how to be beautiful, and shared her traditions and laughter. When I need to be strong, my Grandma Stewart is one of the women I think of. The thought of her makes me want to square my shoulders and face things. She didn’t want all of the fuss or attention that comes with death. She would be uncomfortable hearing how her life was like a light to us; how we thrived in the family traditions of parades, waving dishtowels, tubing down the river, playing the candy game, setting out fancy napkins, and laughing. But as I write this, I feel her strength and I know she understands all the good that she has done for us, and that influence remains long after a person dies.

Her influence will be felt when I take time to care for someone who is sick, elderly, or lonely. It will be felt when I decorate for a dinner party and make celebrations for simple, joyful things. It will be felt as I face difficult days, remaining calm, and as I show respect for others. I can’t remember the things she said to me as much as I can hear her laughter in my memory. Perhaps that’s the tribute that would mean the most to her.1-2013-03-24 Stewart Grandparents 02 3-2013-03-24 Stewart Grandparents 07 4-2013-03-24 Stewart Grandparents 08