Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Different Kind Of Freedom (Part 1 of 2)

Happy Birthday, Old Glory!
There’s just something special about The 4th. Something carefree, yet sacred; frivolous, yet poignant. For me, it’s a day of great joy that leaves me totally verklempt if I spend more than 30 seconds really thinking about what it means.

July 4th is the day our nation looks back upon as the beginning of our freedom; the day that the great American experiment ripped off its lab coat and flashed its red, white, and blue underwear for all the world to see. It’s what we’re most admired for, and that for which we’re most hated as well.

But just as our nation celebrates its collective coming-out party today, there’s an even more personal meaning that the firecracker holiday has for me, and now, it would appear, for my kids as well.

Freedom From Oppression
Not long ago, I revisited the memory of my late Stepmother, Maxine, who passed ten years ago on Memorial Day weekend. There was a time in my life when I would have rather celebrated rather than mourned her death; a time when she was my most hated enemy. However the internal accord I finally reached with her wasn’t accomplished via a handshake or a begrudging nod, but with a prayer.

It happened on July 4, 1973, a Wednesday night. A night that my parents’ commitment to their duties as Deacon and Deaconess of the First Baptist Church of Long Beach, California preempted my desire to celebrate the 4th of July like every other normal, reasonable, red-blooded teenage boy in my estimation, by going out and shooting off fireworks!

But no, we had to go to church instead, and I did so under protest.

It was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and just a few weeks away from my 17th birthday; an age well within the range of the rebellious years of most teens. I was small, but in the midst of my largest growth spurt. I was maturing, physically, in large part due to my involvement in gymnastics, where I was just coming into my own as a top performer.

Yet I was still under the tyrannous thumb of Maxine. She still beat me, though with less and less frequency, and though I was at a place where I could most certainly retaliate, I did not; not out of fear, but out of respect for whom she was, and what I believed to be right.

She was still making me crazy, but no less crazy than the harebrained notion of going to church on the freaking Fourth of July!

So needless to say, I wasn’t in too good a mood when we got there. I went up to the High School/College-age meeting room where they had a brief Bible Study each week. I sat down with my arms folded, probably looking like I wanted to kill somebody.

But something else had to die that night: my anger.

I’ve often said that I don’t discuss politics or religion on this blog, and I don’t intend to violate my own rule here now. But suffice it to say, I came away from that experience a different person than I was before. I looked at the world differently. I looked at my relationship with Maxine much differently, and in my mind, things were never again the same.

Oh, she still hauled off and smacked me whenever she felt the need, but apparently, that need began to occur less and less from then on, and my reaction was different when it did.

Paying it Forward
Although I swore I would never treat my kids the way I was treated growing up, Michelle and I DID use corporal punishment. The difference was that we tried very hard never to do so in anger. We always explained to Shawn (now age 28) and Amy (now age 25) why they had to be punished, and we hugged and loved on them for several minutes afterward.

Like clockwork, they both went through their rebellious years, but there has never been any serious chasm between our kids and us. Oh there’s been plenty they never wanted to tell us about, but that’s just the reality of the parent-child relationship. They’re not angels. They both do things that we don’t and would not ever do; but they’re great individuals, solid citizens, and OMG, I could only wish I was so popular, socially.

The bottom line is, I couldn’t be happier both with the way my kids turned out and my relationship with them. I consider them to be my friends, and that circumstance is a dream come true for any parent.

I’ve written about my children’s coming of age throughout the history of this blog, particularly about my daughter and the special relationship I have with her, no doubt in part due to one particularly fateful incident that happened when she was only four years old.

And while I have always asserted that there is no difference in the depth of my love between me and my two kids, I do have to admit that my relationship with Shawn has been a little more daunting.

Maybe it’s just a Father/Son kind of conflict thing. Perhaps it’s due to the disparity in our respective personalities, but Shawn and I have pretty much been oil and water most of his life.

He’s the kind of guy who has everything figured out; never needs help, and if he did, he’d go to his friends long before he’d turn to his Dad.

Although he’s never been a burden on us financially, aside from putting him through college, Shawn’s never seriously asked me for a dime. He’s always been self-sufficient, and as a result, always just a bit more distant than I would have ever hoped or wanted him to be.

But that’s changing, as per a great case-in-point this past Friday night.

Empty-Nesters No More.
BTW, I haven’t yet mentioned it here, but Shawn moved back home recently. It’s the first time since college that he’s lived under our roof.

Unlike his sister, who chose to stay and work in Chatty between semesters, Shawn made it a habit to come home for the summer while attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, because he always had a job waiting here in Nashville, which is the reason he’s always been so financially independent. He’s a professional arborist for one of Nashville’s leading Arbor/Landscaping companies.

He’s been plying his craft since he was a Junior in high school, and makes very good money for being the guy up there in the toppy-top o’ the trees; doing the power-line tango, and literally risking life for (tree) limb.

His desire is to one day own his own company, and I have no doubt that he’ll reach that goal.

After graduation with a Bachelors degree in Forestry, from UTK in 2007, Shawn considered heading out west, but decided instead to come back to Nashville. However he didn’t attempt to sponge off of Mom & Dad. He knew, as did our daughter, Amy, that once the nest was empty, we kinda wanted it to stay that way.

Nonetheless, the kids always knew that if something happened, they always had a place to come home to.

Amy, who also graduated in 2007, from UTC Chattanooga with a degree in Theater, remained there, working in the local scene and saving up for a year before seeking broader horizons in Atlanta, where she has lived since 2008, with her acting career just now beginning to take off.

However Shawn’s domestic circumstances took an unfortunate turn recently, when in May he learned that he would not be allowed to renew the lease on the small house he was renting in Nashville. The landlord was going to sell the house to a family member, and gave Shawn and his roommate one month to get out.

So he asked if he could come home for a few months, and we gladly agreed.

To his tremendous credit, we discovered how much neater and more responsible our son had become over the previous three years. I, quite frankly, was shocked at how much my boy had ‘grown up’ since college.

We’ve had a lot of good talks since then, and I’m amazed at the level of comfort between us. You can just see how much more he ‘gets it’; how much more he understands what life is all about, and most gratifyingly, how much more he appreciates the way in which he was raised.

Not that it’s ever been a requirement in determining myself to be a success as a parent, but several times in conversation recently, Shawn has gone out of his way to recall things from years ago that I’d told him would happen in his life, just to let me know that, “Dad, you were right…”

It’s a beautiful thing to know that you’re no longer simply a gasbag who means well.

But seriously, it wasn’t merely the confirmation that he actually listened to my lectures; we’ve actually had a great time together; playing pool, listening to and talking about music; just doing stuff that I’d hoped we’d do together someday.

Somewhat selfishly, I always longed for the time when I could relate to my kids as adults; to have conversations instead of frustrations. And while I wish to heck I could go and take back all of the stupid things I’ve said in the past, it’s comforting to know that for the most part it doesn’t appear now that many of those things will come back to haunt me.

It’s just nice to know that my son is comfortable hangin’ out with his old man.

But as we discovered Friday night, the acid test in determining JUST how comfy you are with Mom & Dad, is when you’re willing to let them see you intoxicated.

Oh yeah...

Next: The family that hangs-over together, hangs-in together
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