Tag Archive | Parenting

The Daffodils at Monticello

IMG_0132 (800x533)“Thomas Jefferson believed in equality for all people.”  I actually read those words out loud to my son last fall.  He was only a month or so into first grade.  His class had already finished their first unit in social studies on Benjamin Franklin and moved on to their second unit, which was on Thomas Jefferson.  Those words were printed on the study sheet which his teacher sent home so the students could prepare for their upcoming test to conclude that unit.  The line under the word “equality” meant that this was one of the facts which our son had to know.  The study sheet was clear:  Thomas Jefferson should unequivocally be associated with the virtue of equality.

My wife and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.  I might have let a quiet yet exasperated “ugh” slip from my throat.  We both learned to think critically at our liberal arts colleges.  We both have graduate training and spend our professional lives working with religious things.  We recognize hagiography when we see it, whether it is in the curriculum of the church or the curriculum of civic religion.  People deemed important in American history are treated no differently than saints of the Bible and our faith:  the stories told about them are selective.  Their virtues are lifted up, but too often, their flaws are not mentioned.

We know, too, about the problems with putting people on pedestals and calling them saints.  When folks find out what King David did to Bathsheba, not to mention Uriah the Hittite, or when they find out that Mother Teresa’s faith involved intellectual and spiritual wrestling that was never resolved, they find themselves confused, they seek the comfort of denial, and they feel betrayed by the teachers and institutions which taught them so poorly.  Truth can be traumatic, especially when it contradicts stories you have always been told.  And here we were watching, and even participating, as our child was being set up for the trauma of confusion, denial, betrayal, and distrust.  Ugh, indeed.

Since nothing escapes our child, he asked what was wrong, and we told him. We told him that Thomas Jefferson said and did some great things which promoted equality.  But, we explained, Thomas Jefferson also owned people who served him and his plantation as slaves, and we defined slavery as simply and clearly as we could.  Then, we encouraged him to ask his questions, so he did.  Was Thomas Jefferson really a bad guy?  No, but he lived in a time and place that accepted slavery as part of normal life.  Had his teacher lied to him?  No, we said; she was just following the curriculum and getting him ready for the test he had to take.  Was the curriculum dishonest?  Well, maybe not on purpose; some people think that children his age are not able to understand complicated things like slavery.

There was a lot we didn’t cover, but that was enough for that night; he knew how to answer the questions on the test, he knew that we love him and we would be honest with him, and he was not ready for more new information.  And frankly, we were all tired by that time.  He aced the test, and the class has gone on to deal with such figures as Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln in their social studies classes.

But we all remember that conversation, and it has led us to have more conversations about history, about slavery, about fairness, and about truth.  Some time after that conversation, but with it still in our minds, we decided to take a Spring Break trip to Washington, DC, to learn more about the stories he was hearing in school.  And yesterday, as we were on our way home from our trip, we gave our son some choices, and he said he wanted to go to Monticello to learn more about Thomas Jefferson.

We took two guided tours at Monticello.  One was the house tour.  Early on that tour, almost as if she was anticipating what was really on our family’s minds, the guide did an excellent job of explaining Thomas Jefferson’s complicated feelings about slavery.  On one hand she said, raising her right hand palm upward about as high as her shoulder, mimicking the action of an old-fashioned scale, Jefferson admitted in his writings and other communication that slavery was unjust.  On the other hand, she said, raising her left hand in a similar way, he did not see how it could be abolished without destroying the stability of the young country and the prosperity of its (white) citizens.  The tour guide made it clear that her job was not to pass judgment, but only to present information.  Our son stood right in front of her as she spoke.  The other tour we took was called the Slave Tour.  The guide on that tour showed us where the slaves worked and lived on the plantation’s farms.  Although the cabins are long gone, she described the kind of work they did, the age at which they started working, the conditions of their living, and other details of the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children owned by Thomas Jefferson.  She also went into great detail about the story of Sally Hemmings and her children.  She ended her talk by describing a ledger Jefferson wrote assigning a monetary value to each of the people he owned, noting with a special poignancy that a 67-year-old woman was described as having “no value.”  Again, our son was in the front row as she spoke, absorbing the information.

I will leave it to our son to reflect on his feelings as he participated in those tours; it is not my place to speak for him.  And I will not pretend that he understood every bit of information he was given on the tours.  However, I am more certain than ever that, when the curriculum said that “Thomas Jefferson believed in equality for all people,” it not only set my son up for confusion, denial, betrayal, and distrust.  It also showed it does not respect a seven-year-old’s ability to understand something as complex as slavery, and it was unfair in its disrespect.  It was not easy for our family to go through those tours, just like it was not easy to go through the exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History the day before.  We had to explain a lot of details.  We had to encourage him to ask questions, and we had to take a break after a while and get some ice cream.

But he got it.  He got that the world cannot be neatly divided into heroes and villains.  He got that people can think something is unfair but have no idea how to stop it.  He got that values and virtues look different now than they did in other times and other places.  He got that it is o.k. that he has complicated feelings and ideas and questions rattling around inside of him.  And I think he even got that, if the curriculum writers are going to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson, they really ought to respect the children and teachers enough to trust them with truth.

The daffodils are blooming right now at Monticello.  I find the shape of daffodils fascinating; instead of blooming upward like daisies, they have those strange cups facing out from their petals, making them look almost like they have faces.  However, their faces rarely look you straight in the eye.  They always seem to have their gazes shifted toward the leaves rustling on the ground around their feet.  When someone doesn’t look you straight in the eye, it is not always because she or he is telling you a lie.  Sometimes, it is because that person knows that the truth is a very complicated thing: that justice is an ideal which is not easily reconciled with reality, that righteousness is like a stream in that it is never static but keeps flowing, and that even heroes can have a hard time reconciling their beliefs with their behaviors.  I took some photos of those daffodils because I thought they would be fitting souvenirs from our day at Monticello, so full of complicated truth.  That, and my son has always liked daffodils.

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Gifts

IMG_4869 (800x533)My son gave me a new bird feeder for Christmas.  It was wrapped in a big box and shoved way back under the tree.  His mom used the paper that he picked out, and she tied a big bow around it.  He was very proud to show the gift to me on the day when I came home from work and it was under the tree.  And then, when I opened it on Christmas morning, he was pleased all over again.

The fact is that my son is really good at giving gifts.  He thinks carefully about the people who will receive the gifts he gives:  what they like and what they don’t like, their unique hobbies or tastes, and what is special about his relationship with them.  When he was about four, I asked him what he wanted to get his mom for her birthday.  We happened to be sitting at the kitchen table at the time.  He looked over my head to the racks on the wall above me which hold some interesting plates we have collected over time.  “I want to get her a plate,” he announced.  “Oh, great,” I thought, “he’s not even taking the question seriously.”  I figured he had just blurted out the first thing that his eyes landed on.  But a couple of days later, I asked again, and he said the same thing.  So off we went in search of a plate for his mom’s birthday present.

I had to think for a while about where to find open stock dinnerware, but we eventually found our way to that wall of shelves along the left-hand side of the store as you enter Pier 1.  You know the ones:  raw wood nailed together and carefully designed to look like crude shipping crates.  There were plenty of options there.  And my concern that he was not taking the project of finding his mom a good birthday present was misguided.  He looked very seriously at all of the options.  He was like Goldilocks in his quest for the perfect plate for his beloved mother, except that he could not put into words the reason for rejecting so many.  They just weren’t right.

Finally, he found one that was right.  It had a nice, green leaf on it, not unlike the one which finally satisfied the cravings of the very hungry caterpillar.  Perched on top of the green leaf was a bright, red ladybug; a perfect touch to tease his mama a bit, since she makes it abundantly clear at every opportunity that she does not like bugs of any sort.  It had a unique size and rectangular shape (I believe it is actually a spoon rest), which made it all the more perfect.  We paid the nice lady in the store, took it home, and wrapped it up to be proudly and excitedly given to mama on her Big Day.

Later that year, all of our close family again received plates for Christmas.  I believe mine is the one with the poppies on it:  breezy, bright, stylized flowers on a cream-colored, square dish, not as big as a dinner plate, but a little too large to serve dessert.  He knows I like flowers, and bright colors, and I think he saw me admire it when we were in the store one day.  It now sits proudly on the shelf beside the others, above my head as we eat our family supper.

This year, we were trying to steer him away from the plates, since the shelves are getting full, and we are trying not to accumulate too much stuff that has little practical use.  But he was ready to move on from his plate-giving stage anyway.  I think his mom coached him a bit by asking what he thinks daddy really likes.  Whatever the preparation, he was very thoughtful about his gift.  He knows daddy likes working outside in the garden, and he knows his daddy likes it when the birds come to our back yard.  Ever since he was old enough to walk, I have invited him to help me fill the bird feeders.  When he was really young, he loved to help.  He would dig the scoop into the big bag of bird seed, bring it out of the bag, and aim for the top of the bird feeder.  Usually, the process got more bird seed on the ground than in the feeder, but we didn’t mind; we just moved the whole operation to the lawn, and the squirrels got some extra nourishment after we had finished.  Lately, he has not been so interested in scooping and dumping; he would rather keep battling whatever dinosaurs or bad guys are occupying his imagination when I invite him to help fill the feeders.  But he is supportive of me as I tell him I am about to undertake the project each weekend, he still likes to look at the birds eating what we put out for them, and he especially likes encouraging his dog to run out the back door full-tilt after the squirrels who take advantage of the free lunch we offer, too.  Over time, the feeder closest to the house started to rust on the top, and a detail like that does not get past my son.  So he made up his mind that the bird feeder would be the perfect gift.  When his mom showed him the selection in the bird feeder aisle at the big box store (please don’t judge us), he picked the one with the big sunshine on it because he thought that one would make me smile. He was right.

It makes me smile that my son is so careful about picking out gifts.  It makes me smile that he is so thoughtful.  It makes me smile that he values the people in his life and the unique relationship he has with each of them.  It makes me smile that he is a sweet and sensitive little boy.  As he gets older, I know he will feel pressure to be less sweet, less sensitive, and more assertive; to play rough and fight back and hide behind a tough exterior and be masculine in all of those other ways the culture will tell him are more appropriate.  So it makes me smile, too, that I have the chance to subvert those messages and encourage him in every way I can to just be himself.

Mostly, it makes me smile that I get to be one of the recipients of his gifts.

The Desert

IMG_4030 (800x533)Last week, our little family went to Winnemucca, Nevada, to visit Grandma and Grandpa Beene.  The climate and landscape of that Northern Nevada town could not be more different than the climate and landscape of Savannah, Georgia, where we live.  My parents’ home is in the high desert, where it is very hot on summer days, very cold on winter nights, and dry and dusty all the time.  They are surrounded by small mountain ranges, and the “river” which meanders its way through their town is mostly dry for several months each year.  Sage brush, tumbleweeds, rabbit brush, and the invasive cheat grass dominate what little flora is found, and as we wandered the range, jack rabbits and quail were about the only wildlife we saw this time of year, since the rattlesnakes are probably deep in their holes.

When my parents moved from our old home in Northern California and bought a newly-built home in an average neighborhood in Winnemucca, they decided they would design their small front yard to reflect the unique Nevada climate.  The slope of the yard is steep enough that no one would want to push a lawn mower up it.  More importantly, they could not keep a patch of grass alive except by irrigation using the scarce town  water.  So, they planted a large tree of some native species, a couple of lilac bushes, a forsythia, a butterfly bush, and some small patches of bedding annuals, bulbs, and ground covers.  They covered the rest of the yard in rocks.

My dad purchased the rocks from a local quarry the summer they moved in.  I had just graduated from high school, and my sister was home on break from college; both of us were working at a gold mine which paid good wages for temporary summer help.  So on the weekend after the rocks were delivered, dumped in a pile in the middle of the front yard, we were both recruited to spread them to every corner.  There were enough to make a layer three or four inches deep all over the yard.

Those rocks have been there for 21 years now.  The stones vary in size; a few are smaller pebbles, some are as big as my fist, but most are about an inch in diameter. While the dull, gray field of stones do not match the lush, green, suburban ideal of a lawn, they are attractive enough in their context.  They have kept the slope in place with little erosion.  I think my parents have to pull a few nascent tumbleweed plants from among them each year, but in general, they have kept the weeds under control.  Some of the rocks are buried each year by the sand which blows from the surrounding desert, but my parents have found ways to scoop out the sand and keep their xeriscape working for them.

We had not been to see my parents for about a year and a half.  In that time, my son has grown into a curious (read:  easily bored), inquisitive (read:  talkative), active (read:  restless), and creative (read:  a little quirky) six-year-old.  At home, the sweltering heat of our drippy summer air has cooled to give us pleasant autumn evenings.  He has come to enjoy playing outside for some time every evening after spending his days in the rigors of the kindergarten classroom.  He has some plastic dinosaur fossil toys left over from a game he and his friends played during his birthday party, and he likes to line them up, with the two-legged species pitted against the four-legged ones in epic battles for control of the patio.  His mother and I were concerned that the trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house would be filled with complaints of boredom, long hours glued to the screens of video games and the DVD player, and subtle reminders that Grandpa is used to reading his newspaper in a house full of peace and quiet each day.  Most parents of young children who visit relatives without young children are familiar with those reminders:  a punctuated snapping of the newspaper, a well-timed clearing of the throat, a forced nonchalance when answering questions like, “Does Grandpa always spend that much time alone in the bathroom?”

We packed up as many toys as we could, but unless we paid $25 more each way to check a third suitcase, the plastic dinosaur fossils just weren’t going to fit.  When we arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, however, our son immediately decided he wanted to play in the front yard.  He didn’t need any toys; those rocks became his toys.  For a while, he asked for some companionship in his games; we played hide-and-seek games IMG_3832 (800x533)with the rocks, we uncovered all of the biggest rocks and compared their weights, and we found a thousand other ways that those rocks were about the most fascinating things on the planet.  After a couple of days, he didn’t need me any more; all he had to do was to put on his bright-yellow crocs and ask an adult, who might check the thermometer and insist he put on his jacket and mittens as well, and he could go out in the front yard by himself.  And he spent hours out there:  first thing in the morning, when it was 39 degrees and he was still wearing his Lightening McQueen jammies; in the late afternoon, after we had eaten our lunch of turkey leftovers and completed whatever outings we had planned for the day; and any time in between that the mood struck him.  He had a blast.

The theologian in me had to ask, “Where is God in all of this?”  It would be easy here to fall into that well-rehearsed trope of saying that God is somehow like my son as he playfully danced over the rocks.  Such images of God idealize children in ways that I fear is unhelpful for our children and for us; while he is a good kid, and I am proud of him, my son is far from divine.  So I began to wonder if my son’s joy, even among those dull, gray rocks, might be best compared not to God’s nature but to human faith.

As we were comparing large and small rocks, I realized that faith is meant to be curious, exploring its world, comparing this to that, discerning which matters are big and weighty and which are not.  As we were playing hide-and-seek, I understood that faith is sometimes hidden, and when it is, it needs to be sought and found.  As we were creating other games to play, I thought that faith has to be creative, taking ordinary things and working to find the extraordinary in them.  And as I heard my son playing by himself outside, I recognized that faith is sometimes best when it is lived in relationships with others, but it is also important to recognize its individuality.  And mostly, I could watch my son and know that faith is meant to be playful and fun.  Even among the dry, dull, dusty rocks, faith can discover fun.  Even in the cold of late November, faith can discover fun.  Even when the adults all make us put on our jackets and mittens, faith can play and run and sing.

Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  I wonder if Jesus could imagine a six-year-old boy wearing yellow crocs, a blue jacket, hand-knitted mittens, and Lightening McQueen jammies, playing with abandon in a small yard full of dull, gray rocks, in Winnemucca, Nevada.

Reliable Plants and the PTA Sale

Gardening catalogs often label plants as “reliable.”  You can trust the “reliable” plants.  They will get their leaves at the right time.  They will bloom in season.  They will make it through the winter.  They will never die, leaving a gaping hole in the overall landscape design.  As a beginning gardener, I needed reliable plants in my yard.  If at least some of the plants I chose were not trustworthy, I would have become so discouraged that I would probably have let my whole yard go to weeds.

I am thinking about the importance of reliability because of a conversation we had with our son this evening.  Our son started kindergarten late last month.  Each day, we pull the car up to the curb in front of his school.  He knows that is his cue to hitch on his backpack filled with his lunch, his notebook, his snack, and other necessities for getting through the day; to listen to our assurances that we love him; to open the door; and to bravely walk himself across the courtyard, through the big doors, down the hallways, around the corners, and to the third doorway on the left, where he can enter his classroom.  He is able to make this big-boy journey because he trusts the teachers, the principal, the other students, and anyone else he might encounter along the way.  They are the “reliable” plants for the kindergartener, and they make the school a trustworthy place.

Last week, our son’s school had an assembly where someone stood up and got him and his classmates very excited about going to a celebration.  At the celebration, he heard them say, they would all be able to play on those inflatable bouncy houses.  He loves those inflatable bouncy houses.  To go to the celebration, all he had to do was sell a certain number of items out of a set of catalogs.  He heard something in the assembly about some money going to his school, too, but for a five-year-old, even that was less important than the bouncy-house-filled celebration.

He dutifully brought home the envelope containing the catalogs.  On the outside of the envelope were pictures of all the prizes he could get if he sold a certain number of items, including a photo of the coveted bouncy houses.  On the inside of the envelope were the catalogs advertising cookie dough, wrapping paper, magazines, and a whole bunch of other items we just don’t need.  My wife and I looked at the whole package.  The prices were predictably high, and the catalog did not mention exactly how much of the profits from each sale would go to the school.  We uttered promises to our son that we would talk about it all later.  Frankly, I was not yet able to put my feelings into words which my five-year-old son could understand.  He just wanted to go to the celebration and play on the bouncy house, but I believed he was being manipulated into serving as an unpaid salesperson for a profit-driven company.

We started to investigate.  I found out from the school office staff that the PTA is sponsoring the sale.  My wife contacted the PTA leadership to see if our son could go to the bouncy house celebration if we simply make a donation for a reasonable amount.  The very respectful reply came promptly:  although a donation would be gratefully received, since the company promoting the products is driving this sale, we need to follow their guidelines.

So tonight, we finally had the conversation with our son.  I brought out ten pennies, and I told him those ten pennies represented ten dollars that we might spend on items in the catalog which we would probably otherwise not buy.  I set three pennies aside, and I said that, although I can’t find out exactly how much of the money from the sale will go to the school, I guess it is about that much.  I set two more of the pennies aside, and I said that they represented my guess about how much of the money will go to the people who made the wrapping paper, cookie dough, or other stuff we might buy.  He saw the other five pennies, and I said that the company who is running the sale will keep that much. Then, I told him that we have another choice.  I put all ten pennies into the pile that previously only had three.  Instead of buying something out of the catalog, we could just give all ten dollars directly to the school.  That way, we would not have stuff that we do not need, and the school would get more money.  However, as logical as that choice might be, there are consequences:  if we do that, he will not be able to go to the bouncy house celebration.

He started to get upset, and we talked some about how we all feel about the whole situation.  Was he sad because he wouldn’t be able to go to the bouncy house celebration?  A little bit, but there was something more, he said, and he didn’t know how to explain it.  Then, he gave it a try:  he was upset because there is something unfair happening.  The company shouldn’t be allowed to make promises and ask them to sell stuff if that is not the best way for the school to raise money.  He wanted to know whose fault it is.  Is it his teacher?  No; she has not talked about the sale since that first assembly.  Is it his principal?  No, we said; he probably just wants to encourage the PTA to help the school.  Is it the PTA?  No; they probably sponsored the sale because PTAs have always sponsored sales like that.  Is it the company?  Well, we said, we don’t like their strategies, but they are just trying to do what all companies do:  make a profit (we went back to the pennies to explain what a profit is).  And, we said, there is nothing wrong with making a profit.  He understood that, although he thought that more of the money should go to the school and the people who make the stuff and less to go to the company’s profit.

We wanted simply to explain our concerns and help our son understand how we want to use our money. But I soon realized this conversation for him centered around trust and reliability.  My son trusts naturally because trust is how he copes with a world that is much bigger than he is.  He has never had any reason not to trust his teachers, his principals, or any of the other people in that school building.  He is like a beginning gardener.  For now, he needs those reliable plants:  the ones that will always bloom, always leaf out, always winter over, and always fill in the gaps when he needs them to.  If they fail him, he will be discouraged and distrustful, and that journey to his classroom each morning will be filled for him with fear, confusion, self-doubt and all other manner of weeds.

We tried our best to tell him why we don’t like the sale, the company which is driving it, or the way they made promises to him without explaining how the whole thing works.  We tried our best to explain that we hope the school will tell us if they are going to have an assembly like that again so he won’t have to get excited about the bouncy house celebration.  We tried our best to assure him that he can trust his school, and we said we want to help the PTA raise money for the school in better ways.  Then, it was past time for him to start getting ready for bed.  He was tired from a long week of the excitement of kindergarten, we weren’t going to be able to resolve his complicated feelings tonight, and we were trying to teach him things which a five-year-old shouldn’t have to learn.  So, we said, we can decide tomorrow what we will do about the sale, and we started calming everyone down as well as we could.

Seasons

I have learned since moving to coastal Georgia six years ago that the schedule of gardening is different here than the schedule up north.  When I lived in Boston, the annual rhythm was much like it is in other places in the US.  When the ground was reliably thawed in the spring, sometime between the end of March and the middle of April, perennials could go in the ground.  On Mother’s Day, annuals were planted, and with regular water, they would provide bright colors in the landscape all summer.  The summer was spent mowing, weeding, watering, deadheading, trimming, and doing other chores to keep things looking good; I have photos of Alstromeria, Calla Lilies, and Daylilies blooming in early July.  By late August, the fall flowers went in the ground:  chrysanthemum and aster, mostly, which provided the yellow, orange, and rust tones for jacket weather.  By late October, the first frost killed all of the annuals and told the perennials that it was time to go to sleep for the winter.  The mulching mower chopped up its last leaves by early November, and the only tasks left were cleaning up the skeletal remains of the plantings, storing the tender summer bulbs in the basement, and waiting for the snow.  December through March were the months for reading the reflective prose of all those gardening writers, looking through seed catalogs, planning for new beds to be carved out of the dirt deep under the snowdrifts, and for resting, too.  The only reason to spend significant time outside in the winter was to shovel or play in snow.

In the South, there are two seasons which keep the gardener inside.  As in other places, there is the cold of winter.  From mid-December, when the last leaves have fallen and the mowing and edging machines are parked in the garage for the last time, through late February, when the frost usually stops, there really isn’t so much to do in the garden beds.  Those are good weeks to stay in the heated indoors.

But summer is another time to stay inside around here.  It’s hot out there, so I haven’t really been spending any more time working outside than I have to.  When I do venture out there, it is to do only the most essential work, and then, I don’t do it more often than absolutely necessary.  I refuse to mow more than once every two weeks, and lately it has been more like three weeks between cuts of the grass.  The edging, a necessity with the spreading southern lawn grasses, only happens once a month or less.  When there are no thunderstorms to keep things green, I water the flower and vegetable beds twice each week, but I rely on the sprinkler system to get water anywhere else it needs to be.  This is the time of year when I usually give up on weeding; if there are enough weeds in any bed to take over, they just take over, and I put the spreading of mulch in that bed on the “To Do” list for fall or spring.

Otherwise, June, July and August are times to stay inside.  They are good months for more of that reading or planning.  A few weeks ago, on an afternoon when I was home alone, I started digging around the bird bath in the back yard.  For at least the past six years, it has been surrounded by a complicated mess of ivy, ferns, confederate jasmine, dollar weed, and some liriope gone wild.  A stray palmetto or two shot spikes up every few months, some acorns turned to small oak trees here and there, and one pine tree grew to be taller than me before I lopped it down last fall, leaving a stump behind.  To craft a more ordered bed out of the chaos out there will take some work, and my free afternoon seemed like a good time to start that work.

Big mistake.  I used my shovel to turn over the dirt and bury the weeds in about half of the space, a total of no more than twenty square feet, before I felt myself starting to feel woozy.  I don’t like feeling woozy, and I know that, given how much sweat was soaking my clothes, hair, face, and numerous other places, woozy was not a good sign.  I put the shovel back in its shed, headed into the air conditioning, got a drink of water and a shower, and pulled one of those books of reflective gardening prose off of the bookshelf.  And I haven’t been back out there since, even as the weeds are trying to heal the scar I left on their territory.

It has taken me several years to get used to this new schedule of gardening seasons.  But in this season of my life, I have found this new schedule to work well.  Because my son was born soon after we moved here.  Those first couple of years after he was born, any work that happened in my garden would be described as sporadic at best.  But then, he started going to various forms of preschool.  At first, he went two mornings each week, but then, about the time he turned four, he started going five mornings each week.  Since Friday is one of my days off of work, I suddenly found myself with time to work on projects in the yard.  Hallelujah, and pass the trowel!  I carved a new flower bed out of my lawn that year to celebrate.  Last year, he was in an all-day Pre-K program in the public schools, and things are looking better and better all the time out there.

During the summer, though, there is no school.  That reality makes this a convenient time for us to take a long vacation.  It also means that our church sponsors Vacation Bible School, and all three of us throw ourselves into the art projects, the songs, and the storytelling of our faith community for a full week.  We have found interesting camps and programs for our boy to attend the rest of the summer, just to keep everyone from getting bored, but those are half-day activities at most, and there just isn’t much time to putter in the garden.

But in this season, gardening is just not the thing to do.  Did I mention it’s hot out there?  The thing to do right now is to make sure I have some free time to go play in the pool with my son, or take a picnic supper and a toy bucket and shovel to the beach, or invite some friends over to put our Hot Wheels cars and moveable dinosaurs, not to mention our air conditioner, to good use.

The other day, as I was on my way from the air-conditioned house to turn on the air conditioning in the car, I stopped for a minute in the steamy air to look at a hibiscus blooming next to the driveway.  The hibiscus is one of the few flowers which blooms during the summer here, in spite of the heat and my negligence.  The flower was gorgeous.  The petals were a light orange color, not smooth in texture, but crepe-like and crinkled.  The center was a vivid red, like it was actually living blood, and it was surrounded by a narrow border of pink, almost white, separating it from the orange.  The stamen stuck up in that immodest way, with bright colors at the tip advertising its availability to passing bees and butterflies.

After a moment, as I started to feel the sweat forming on my face and under my t-shirt, I went on to the car.  There wasn’t much else to look at; the Alstromeria, Calla Lilies, and Daylilies lost their blooms weeks ago, and their leaves are looking a little withered by now.  But as much as I appreciated the beauty of that flower, I realized that the schedule of gardening in the South works well for me in this season of my life, when my boy is young and I get to be his daddy.

As the Teacher said, “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Father’s Day

(c) 2012, Eric Beene

My son loves white flowers.  I am not particularly fond of white flowers.  There are so many fascinating, rich, deep, bright, cheerful, and all manner of other adjective-laden colors for flowers.  Why should I bother with boring, colorless white?  Besides, our house is painted white, so the white flowers really do not do anything interesting in our yard.

Last year in the week before Mother’s Day, we were feeling the effects on our wallets of an early-May trip to Disney World, so my wife and I agreed we would not exchange gifts for the springtime Hallmark parenting holidays.  However, my son, who was four at the time, wanted to get something for his mom, and who was I to squelch such an impulse to generosity and gratitude?  Since the plants on our front porch needed some seasonal refreshing, I told him that he could pick out a plant from the local big-box home store (please don’t judge) to give to his mother for her day.

We went on our guys-only shopping trip, and he instantly picked out a green plant with tiny star-shaped flowers which were, of all colors, white.  Why wouldn’t he?  He has made it clear for at least half his life that he loves white flowers.  I showed him that he could get the same plant with flowers that were brilliant pinks or rich, warm shades of orange.  I reminded him that he and I share a favorite color, yellow, and pointed out that there were healthy specimens of the same variety in that bright, cheerful color.  We paused in that conversation, looked for other departments at the store, picked out a few items I needed, and then returned to the subject of flowers for mom.  After more discussion, we headed to the checkout counter, me with my few necessities, and him proudly carrying his gift, with its plain, white flowers.

I really am, at heart, pleased with the whole incident.  My son has strong opinions about what is beautiful.  He appreciates the effects of color, or the lack of color, on the look of things.  He sees in his own way what is worthy to serve as a gift for his beloved mother.  And he knows how to express all of those opinions, all of that appreciation, and all of that vision through the natural materials of the garden.

I am reminded of this scene at the local big-box home store because of an article I read in the days leading up to Father’s Day last week.  The writer was reminiscing about her father and how he taught her about gardening.  Her father knew that his gardening was secondary in importance to his role as a father, so he made decisions about what to do in his yard not solely based on the light, soil, water, and other conditions.  He also took into consideration the opinions, appreciations, visions, and even the playful whims of the little girls in his home.

That is the kind of gardener, and more importantly, the kind of father I hope I am to my son.  A father like that can teach a whole host of things to his child:  about nature, about beauty, about hobbies, about what it means to live in a family and a neighborhood and other relationships, about play and fun.  I recognize that my son may or may not experience as he grows up the same satisfaction I get from the hard and dirty work of keeping the yard.  I know that he may find other ways to help to create, or at least to arrange, beauty and sustenance in this world.  But I believe that part of what I can give him is some understanding of the world that he can never gain in a classroom, and sharing in my own love of gardening is one way I can give him that gift.

There are plenty of times my son is less than interested in the garden.  Usually when I ask him if he wants to help me water or do other quick chores on a Saturday afternoon, he says he would rather stay inside and play computer games with his mom.  Sometimes he takes me up on the offer, but I know that his attention to what I am doing will be short-lived, and he will soon be waving the sticks that have fallen from the trees in the front yard like they are magic wands or weapons in some epic battle of good and evil.  On our frequent trips into the back yard to turn it into a zoo which must be developed, or a series of islands which must be explored, or a dinosaur battlefield which must be defended, I sometimes get a bit distracted and start pulling weeds in the flower beds.  He gets annoyed at my efforts to restore order amid the pine straw and commands me to return my attention to the game.  He doesn’t always love gardening, and he possibly never will.

But one morning last week, on the first bright day after a week or so of thunderstorms and rain, he looked out the door and saw the most ginormous mushroom ever, and it was growing in the middle of our back yard.  He was already late to leave for his summer camp, but I promised I would take a couple of close-up photos and show them to him after I got home from work.  He made me keep my promise, and I happily obliged, showing him digital images of the really big mushroom as well as a number of other mushrooms which had popped up in our lawns and flower beds.  Some had straight stems and some were slanted; some were brown, some were white, and some were some set of colors in between; some had perfectly rounded tops and others had all manner of curves and curls about them.  He looked at the photos, and then he hurried outside, first to the back yard and then to the front, looking for all of these specimens of wonder.  He found them all, coming back in to excitedly report to me which ones were still there and which ones had already fallen over from their own weight or been stepped on by the dog.

We got to talk over the next few days about how fungi are similar to and different from plants and about shapes and sizes and colors of different mushrooms.  We found some gnarly, asymmetrical mushrooms growing right up against the lavender which emitted a puff of powder when we kicked them, and we talked about spores and baby mushrooms.  We talked about poison as well as about the technique of sauteing in butter.  His mother got to tell him about her experiences picking wild mushrooms when she lived in Hungary, and about never daring to eat any of them until the local grocer confirmed which were good and which could kill you with the smallest morsel.  We might have exaggerated a bit on that last part for effect.   Mostly, we got to witness the wonder together as a family about the beautiful, unique, and even strange things that can come from the dirt of our little bit of nature.

And I feel like I might be doing something right as a father.