How to Define a Patriot

Last week I drove my teenage son to a United States Marine Corp recruiting office. Enlisting has been his dream since he was a toddler, but encouraging the dreams of a toddler was easy. Seeing your son step up to defend our country in an age of terror and brutality? That’s hard on a momma’s heart.

And then I remembered a story from long ago, one that gave me courage.

Several years ago, my parents sold their sold their ranch in Texas and moved to Georgia to be closer to their grandchildren, including my three kids. My kids were always begging to go over and raid Grammy’s pantry, or build something in Grandpa’s workshop.

One afternoon I picked up James’ little sister, my five-year-old daughter Elise, from their house after another fun day with my parents.

On the way home, I noticed that Elise looking out the minivan window, a sad expression on her face. “What is it, hon?” I asked.

“It’s Grandpa and Grandma. I just feel really sorry for them,” she whispered.

“Why?”

Elise sighed. “I was just wondering, aren’t they ever gonna have kids of their own?”

I laughed all the way home.

Elise understood that her grandparents were also my parents but she was not yet able to really comprehend the meaning of that fact.

Of course, I knew that, in time, Elise would understand. But children can know facts without understanding them. I wonder, then, if I am like Elise in my understanding of the founding of our country. The story seems familiar. The holiday has a set routine. Every year, I grill out. I watch the fireworks. I buy sparklers and of course I wear red, white and blue.

I understand July Fourth so very well…or do I? Or am I like Elise, with an understanding of the facts but no ability yet to grasp the greater implications? What if the gift of freedom is a gift so profound that the world is still discovering what was accomplished so long ago?

I wonder, too, if on that night when the rockets really did glare red, and bombs did burst in air, if those patriots understood the transaction that was made. By their blood, we live in freedom. That’s the oldest story ever told, isn’t it, that by another’s blood we are set free? And yet, although it’s a story I first heard in a nursery, I still do not fully comprehend the gift.

On those many years ago when the skies exploded with smoke and fire, and the ground trembled as mothers clutched their hearts for fear of ill news, the world changed forever. I want to pause this weekend and reflect on the change, because soon my son will take his place to hold secure what was won. Like the others beside him, he won’t be there for fame or wealth.

You see to some people, our heritage is defined by what we’ve achieved. But Americans are patriots, and patriots are defined by our sacrifices. What we sacrifice determines who we become, as individuals and as a country.

So on this July Fourth, I will put my hand over my heart for the mothers whose hearts were broken. I will lift my face to the skies as fire once more lights up the dark night. And I will say to those patriots of long ago and to the patriots of today:

God bless America. Let freedom ring!

On Father’s Day, I Celebrate the Miracle of Survival

My dad’s parenting style can best be described as “No Lifeguard on Duty.”

He was and is an inventor who holds several patents, including a timing mechanism for military-issued explosives and another patent for children’s toys. That pretty much gives you an idea of what I was dealing with growing up.

(And for the record, he is my absolute all-time hero, although I believe one of my therapists once referred to that as Stockholm Syndrome, which was
clearly wrong because I grew up in Texas, not Sweden.)

Now, I had one burning desire as a kid: I wanted a dog, just like my friend Heather’s. She had a Cocker Spaniel named Toby. His fur was the color of butterscotch and his ears were like cool velvet. He had expressive brown eyes and followed us everywhere, always wagging his tail.

I thought all dogs were like Toby. I begged my dad for years to get me a dog like Toby.

Then when I was seven and my brother Steve was nine, my dad gave us our very first ever dog.

The male dog had been found abandoned and starving. His breed was already notorious back then for being used in fighting rings. He wasn’t in the best of humors. Dad left us in the backyard with the dog and returned to his workroom. We were not permitted in the workroom.

I bounced toward my new Best Friend Ever and he bared his teeth, the fur standing up on his back.

My brother Steve was the first to realize I was in trouble. He held the door and yelled at me to slowly back up into the house.

We knocked on the door to my dad’s workroom. “Dad, the dog you gave us just tried to kill us!”

“Go tell your mother.”

The problem was, Mom was not currently in the mood to let us live.

You see, the day before, she had returned home after an afternoon of serious dental work. Her cheeks were swollen, packed with cotton and she was unsteady from the meds. Steve and I quickly discovered she was verbally helpless, so when a plumber arrived a short while later to replace a pipe, we carpe diemed. Hard. Steve got to the door first.

“Hi there, son. I’m looking for your mother, Mrs. Garrett?”

Steve stepped outside while I held the door, nodding with a mournful expression.

“No one told you?” Steve asked. “You cannot call her that. EVER. It sets her off really bad, sir.”

“Really bad,” I echoed.

“Uh…what should I call her?”

“Snuffy,” Steve replied with a somber expression. “She only answers to Snuffy.”

So all afternoon, the plumber yelled things like, “Hey, Snuffy, can you bring me a towel?” Or, “Snuffy, come in here, I think I found your problem!”

My mom would brace herself against a wall, garbling furious but unintelligible rants while Steve and I looked at the plumber in sad desperation. Our eyes downcast, we’d sigh heavily and nod, as if to say, “Yes, this really is our mother.”

So now Mom wasn’t going to save us from our new dog.

However, when the entertainment value of the plumber and my mom wore off, Steve and I snuck outside and found (found being a loose term for seeing nice things left unguarded) a stash of long thin metal tubes.

Our eyes met and we both knew…

We ran around back and slipped the tubes over our arms, then slowly approached the dog. His eyes glowed with hellfire as he bared his teeth. We approached cautiously. When his body went completely still, every muscle frozen, we braced for impact.

Sure enough, the dog lunged for us, attacking me first, those jaws of death clamping down like vices on my arm as he shook me side to side like a ragdoll. He crushed the tube from every angle but he just couldn’t get to the juicy filling inside.

I was screaming.

In delight.

“That was so awesome!” I yelled to Steve. “You try!”

So he did. And it became a thing. If we wanted to play with our dog, first we’d cobble together makeshift body armor. That dog mauled us for countless summer hours. Talk about family fun!

Soon I wondered what I had ever seen in Toby; what good is a family pet without that rush of adrenaline, or the delayed-onset muscle soreness from fighting a mighty battle the day before?

We loved that dog. He was and is, to this day, one of the best memories from childhood that I still carry.

However… I would NEVER let my kids get anywhere near an animal like that. I’m pretty sure in this modern age my dad would have been arrested. But things in the day were different. There was no lifeguard on duty. Anywhere.

In fact, I don’t think lifeguards had been invented yet. But danger? Well, that’s the universal language of childhood and we were fluent.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. It’s a miracle we all survived.

What Third-World Children Taught Me About Body Positivity

My 11-year old daughter flopped down on the couch, frowning, eyes downcast. I was reading (see also: how to avoid household chores) so I nudged her with my elbow.

“What’s up, shorty?”

She was wearing running shorts, having just completed a 3-mile run with her older brother. My girl was a born athlete, lean and lithe. Still, she jabbed her lean little thigh and groaned.

“I’m fat. Look at my fat move!” She jabbed her thigh again.

“Of course it moves,” I said. “It’s flesh, not bark.”

She was visibly distraught, however, and young girls—or perhaps all girls—are incapable of distinguishing the nuances of the word “fat.” Fat is what our brains are made of. Fat keeps us alive and gives us that bewitching wiggle when we walk. Fat even makes salads worth eating. But I understand that fat can leave some of us distraught. The good news is that as we get older, it shifts in the dead of night to places we can’t see, like the back of our arms.

However, I needed to put an immediate stop to this ridiculous cycle of declaring your body to be your mortal enemy. It was time for a truth bomb. Or a story.

Frankly, I’m better at stories.

“Have I ever told the story of the time my butt joined the pantheon of minor gods in a faraway country?”

She wiped her nose, dabbed her eyes and sat up a little straighter. “What?”

Nestling my book against my built-in bookshelf, also known as a tummy roll, because who needs Ikea once Mother Nature realizes you’re over forty?, I began the absolutely true tale.

“Long, long ago, your mother traveled to a distant land to teach English in a small village. 26 hours by plane, two hours by jeep, and a long walk through rice fields and roadside temples. The people there had rarely seen a white woman, let alone one with flaming red hair and a Dallas Cowboys jersey. Their religion was unknown to me and we barely shared two words in a common language.

Nonetheless, I was led to a tiny hut where a class of kindergarten-aged children sat cross-legged, anxiously awaiting their new teacher’s arrival. The windows of the class were holes cut into the walls, and the teacher’s lounge consisted of a closet with a sink, a toilet and a giant lizard who made his home in the bowl.

I began the lesson plan, working on counting and a few simple words. If these kids learned English as a second language, they’d have a chance to escape poverty by finding work at one of the many resort hotels along the beaches of the area. English lessons were a big deal.

And, apparently, so was my rump.

When it was time to line up and walk to another hut for lunch, the children whispered to each other behind cupped hands, their little eyes casting furtive glances between their friends and me. Something was amiss.

Suddenly one boy was pushed to the head of the line. I’m not sure if he won or lost the argument.

I turned to lead them and felt a finger push in at the center of my rump-cheek. Whipping around, I caught this boy, index finger extended, obviously having just poked me in the rear.

His eyes were wide as he looked at his finger in disbelief.

The entire class was silent, spellbound by the experiment.

Surely it was a prank. I scowled at the boy and turned back around…and then he used his finger to push in at dead center of that cheek, again.

I turned back around, angry now to be the object of the joke, and then I realized: They weren’t making fun of my rump.

They were in awe of it.

They’d never seen a rump so…plentiful, we’ll say, a cornucopia of Western abundance, as if the gods were sending a message to the people of the humble village: Nothing was impossible for the dreamers among them.

In fact, I believe my rear end came close to being deified while there. The children would dance in their seats as they drew pictures of it. Their little faces lit up whenever one of them had a chance to stand next to me, or it, I should say.

In that culture, they knew the truth: fat is not a four-letter word. Sometimes it is an impressive achievement. And truly, to them, my rump was an omen of good fortune, like the birth of a white bull.

After I left, I wondered what the teachers in the future would think, seeing drawings of enormous fluffy rumps and rays of light streaming from all sides. Future generations would hear the legend of the American Rump of Splendor, the White Moon of the West that eclipsed the sun.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, I told my daughter. Maybe the one thing we’d change about ourselves becomes the set piece in a really good story, the one thing that makes us beloved to someone else.

Or a whole village.

So, don’t write the narrative for your body, not just yet. Someone else will enter the story who has a completely different version.

“And you know what?” I asked my daughter. “I like their story so much better.”