Tag Archives: raising an only child

Blue Cart Below

2 Sep

Sometimes I feel like Will Smith.

Not “Fresh Prince” Will Smith or “Independence Day” Will Smith.”The Pursuit of Happyness” Will Smith—except for the tall, dark and handsome part.

Aidan’s mom and I haven’t stuck to the custody agreement much, but last night Aidan stayed with me as outlined in the agreement. Thursday nights, plus certain weekends, are supposed to be reserved for her and I. On our way to school this morning, I explained those details to her. I didn’t have to do any selling.

It’s heartwarming to know my daughter wants to spend time with me. She even says she wants to spend more time with me. That type of comment makes me smile since I am usually alone in taking her to school, pick her up by myself most days and spend hours with her many days a week. She’s the main reason I’m so tan right now, thanks to frequent trips to the pool.

The strong connection that comes from spending time together gets reinforced by conversations about real issues. This morning, as I carried her to school on my shoulders, we passed over a bridge. She looked down and saw a blue shopping cart. Although a shopping cart left in a seemingly random spot is not rare sight in towns like Lewisville, this particular one inspired a conversation that would last all the way to school.

It wasn’t only the cart that caught her attention, it was the blanket inside. I imagined that blanket providing a bit of comfort to someone last night. It seemed likely that a homeless person used the cart and the blanket and left them in that spot while remaining out of sight nearby or heading somewhere else for the day.

Aidan listened carefully as I suggested someone without a home may have needed the cart and blanket. As a person who who walks a great deal of the time, sometimes 6-8 miles in a day, I have crossed paths with hundreds of people living on the streets of Dallas and Houston. (I remember frequently being approached by homeless people outside the Walgreen’s on Montrose near Westheimer in Houston. Aidan’s mom and I would always give them money, whenever we had cash and change in our pockets.) I told Aidan that lots of people in cities all over America are homeless.

“Why can’t they build a place to live?”

I explained how a homeless person doesn’t have the money to get the tools and materials necessary to build a home. That prompted Aidan to ask how a person on the streets can make money. I explained how I’ve often observed homeless people collecting bottles and cans in order to sell them. Aidan said, “but that’s not enough money!”

She’s right, of course. Even without knowing what a person can make from selling bottles and cans, she instantly knew it wasn’t enough to sustain a life. I did say that places and people offer help to people on the streets, providing money or food, a place to stay, and clothes to wear. But Aidan returned to the topic of homes.

“But they need their own place to live.”

Just before reaching an intersection, the conversation shifted to homeless kids. I explained to Aidan that many kids are also living on the streets. As I looked to my left, a brother and sister walking to another school stood there, mouths opened, observing us. I’m not sure what stunned them more: my candid chat about homeless kids at 7:30 am or Aidan sitting on my shoulders on the way to school.

My daughter has a tremendous amount of empathy and understanding despite her young age. She explained how a child of homeless parents may have to ask for money to help the family. I have to wonder what she’s seen on TV or heard somewhere that made her sound so informed. She even said that if her mother and I were homeless, she would ask for money. She said a kid shouldn’t have to do that but “we do what we need to do.”

She may be an only child and she may be the only grandchild on both sides of the family, but my daughter is not spoiled. At times, she’s a typical six year-old, consumed by her own thoughts and feelings. But when she and I have candid conversations, she always demonstrates an ability to think deeply, show compassion for others, share her thoughts without reservation, and try to create solutions to what really are grown-up problems.

Come to think of it, Aidan reminds me of Jaden Smith—except there are no movie cameras rolling when she’s at her best.

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100 Goodbyes

9 Aug

I never saw reaction to a t-shirt like the one my friend Victor got in Lake Charles, Louisiana wearing a shirt featuring Redd Foxx’s face above his best-known phrase from Sanford and Son:

YOU BIG DUMMY

It caught the attention of strangers who stopped him just to share how much they liked the shirt. At times, I felt like they were just moments away from hugging him. Yes, the joy in their eyes was that apparent.

I thought about that shirt tonight as I put my daughter to bed. She would say “dummy” is a bad word, and she’s right. But the connection to Redd Foxx came from surveying her room once again. It could be mistaken for a carpeted junkyard. If the reference wasn’t lost on her, I would buy her that t-shirt in her size, or she could wear a larger size as a nightgown.

I kept those thoughts to myself, and I refrained from calling her room a “disaster” like I often do. With school starting less than two weeks away, I did mention the need to get her room cleaned and organized. It wasn’t a general mention; I got specific.

Me: We’re going to donate or throw out 100 items.

Aidan: That’s everything I have.

Me: Oh, that’s not even close. You won’t even notice the 100 items when they’re gone.

Aidan:  How about 21 items?

Me: No, 100.

Aidan: 21.

Me: If we rid this room of 100 items, you’ll have room for new things.

Aidan: How about 200 items?

Me: Okay, let’s not get overly ambitious.

I left the room as she and her puppy cuddled for a night of sleep. Of course, I’m up trying to devise a plan of attack. I could bring in a shovel and a wheelbarrow. But the idea is to remove only the items we want to donate or throw out so I’ll have to be more strategic.

Evaluating her wardrobe might be an easier way to start. Anything that she’s outgrown could get set in a paper grocery bag for easy drop-off to Goodwill. I bet we could easily find 30 items to give away.

Toys she no longer plays with or has outgrown might lead to another 30 items, to donate, as long as they’re in good condition. I suspect she has a lot more toys that will just go straight into the trash. I will face resistance from the girl who believes EVERYTHING can be glued back together.

Books may only provide a handful of additional items to donate, but the real opportunity may come from stuffed animals. Yes, those prized possessions of childhood are vulnerable here. She’s got so many stuffed animals, many of them spend their days jammed together in piles and containers. The view can’t be pretty. Thankfully, they don’t need air to breathe.

If we just focused on stuffed animals, saying 100 Goodbyes could happen in a few minutes. But there is no way she’s going to part with 100 stuffed animals all at once, even if she almost never plays with, looks at, or remembers they exist. I could suggest donating them to children who would be comforted by them. She would like that very much, but I suspect we wouldn’t get more than 10 donated.

Obviously I won’t wait for her to start selecting items. I’ll have to schedule a day for this massive undertaking. We’ll have pizza and ice cream and anything necessary to make the process a bit more tolerable. And I already have one item in mind that can go: the IKEA bed she no longer sleeps in. If I could convince her to donate every toy in the boxes that cover that bed, we would reach our goal 10 times over.

 

 

Five Sundays on the Sidelines

5 Aug

I heard some great news on Thursday from my friend Drea Avent in L.A. She will be working as a sideline reporter during five games for FOX NFL SUNDAY during the upcoming season. The news came via Facebook, and I quickly posted a message of congratulations. This is national TV, the big time for a sports reporter who has been working her way up for years.

I’ve known Drea since she and I worked together at News 24 Houston, a now defunct 24-hour cable news channel owned by Time Warner Cable. She was very green at the time, but clearly demonstrated both an in-depth knowledge of key sports and a passion for learning her craft as a sports reporter. Seven years later, I am so proud to see her move to the next level in her career.

There are football fans who don’t share my appreciation for female sports reporters. Some may keep their opinion to themselves; others boldly tell anyone who will listen. In fact, on Friday morning I heard from a friend online who didn’t hesitate to share this perspective:

“I don’t think women should be police officers, fight in combat or be NFL sideline reporters. Period.”

This statement wasn’t made by a man. It came from a woman who considers herself a die-hard football fan. It reminded me of a story my ex-wife once told me about her line of work as a radio news anchor. Despite her superb on-air delivery, listeners in some of her markets have called to complain about a radio station having a woman anchor the news. Some listeners even said they couldn’t understand her. Clearly they must be deaf or have ears that were programmed to understand men’s voices only. Otherwise, I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

But back to football, one could argue that networks place women in high profile positions on camera to draw more men to the broadcast. Female sideline reporters may also draw more viewers who are women, perhaps looking to find someone they can relate to during the game. Whatever the argument, or the reasons given, women are here to stay in the field of sports reporting. They’ve earned it. They deserve it. And just like the men in the same field, there are good ones and not-so-good ones in those roles.

I suspect some people mistakenly use the argument that women can’t understand football because they haven’t played it. But one of America’s most celebrated sportscasters, Bob Costas, hadn’t played a single professional sport when he began his play-by-play duties for minor league hockey games while still attending Syracuse University. Later, at NBC Sports, Costas served as a play-by-play for NBA games despite never having dunked a basketball or even attempted as much as a foul shot.

As Derek Jeter approached the 3000-hit milestone this season, he wore a wire so the experience from his perspective could be captured by HBO for a documentary on the Yankee captain. But Jeter didn’t suddenly start doing his own play-by-play. He continued doing what he gets paid to do: play baseball. He left the play-by-play and color commentary to the people whose job it is to provide it.

You see, sports reporting and announcing is a different game altogether. Those talented men and women who bring us stories from the studio, the booth or the field come a variety of backgrounds, but the mission is always the same.  They serve to tell us what we need to know and what we want to know about a sport, a particular game and its players. They’re storytellers. Plain and simple. The good ones provide helpful insight and observations; the best ones break national stories. Ultimately, they all look at what’s going on, interpret what they see, and communicate with us, the fans.

It’s a similar situation in wartime news coverage. We don’t assume radio, TV and print journalists and photojournalists covering the stories actually spent time in basic training or on a battle field fighting the enemy. Their training came in how to effectively tell a story using the medium in which they work. The award-winning journalists—who often risk their lives to get the story—did not become better at their jobs because they had tours of duty in Iraq. They mastered their craft.

As the father of a six year-old girl, I listen to the “women shouldn’t be” objections carefully. I can’t brush them aside because that’s the reality of the world my daughter is growing up in. Once upon a time not everyone accepted women as doctors, but it still happened. Not everyone agreed that women could be astronauts, but it still happened. And not everyone is happy to see women working as sideline reporters, especially my friend who said, ” I’d rather look at a man than a woman.”

As for me, I’ll be watching the upcoming NFL season with a new sense of excitement and purpose. On five Sundays, my dear friend will be on the sidelines doing what she enjoys most in front of a national TV audience. And I’ll have Aidan by my side so she can see, despite the objections of some, it can be done.

Timeshare Farm

3 Aug

As a kid, I remember a cousins’ plan to buy the LaBrake farm. The meetings typically would take place at The Farm on a holiday or a Saturday evening visit. As I recall, the discussions usually involved my brother Will, my cousin Stephen, my cousins Julie and Tammy, and on occasion we would allow younger siblings to attend these impromptu meetings. It seemed like we were discussing how all of us could live at The Farm at once, if I recall correctly. There were a lot of rooms in the 2-story house and lots of land around it so it’s reasonable to think we felt there would be room for everybody. Or maybe we talked about buying The Farm and taking turns living there. Timeshare Farm! I think anyone who took their turn in the summer would automatically be responsible for all the haying demands. Oh, I really wish I could remember the plan, and nobody ever wrote it down.

You can probably guess our Timeshare Farm idea never became a reality. As we grew older, The Farm still held a special place in our hearts, but the idea of buying it was never brought up. I suppose it was replaced by other interests we each had developed in our teenage and early adulthood years. Some of us got married. Some found a steady job in the workforce or the military. Others went through a string of relationships or bounced from job to job. By the time The Farm was being sold, not one of us had the funds or the focus to make that earlier dream come true.

This month marks ten years since I was last at The Farm.  My Grandpa died that month, and all 14 of his children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren came together to mourn the loss of our family patriarch. I didn’t want to leave. I knew that visit would be the last time I went into the house, as it was, and walked through the barn, as it was, passed through the machine shed and the garage. The whole place would be different eventually, and I wanted to absorb as much of it as I could.

The visit was cut short. While many relatives were still gathered inside and outside the house, I was getting back on the road with my wife. We would make the 45 minute drive from Lisbon to Alexandria Bay, leaving the Brown Road and taking Route 68 to Route 37 to Route 12. The emotionally-charged day would continue when we arrived at my in-laws home to discuss the health problems of my mother-in-law.  (It turns out, she would only live a little over two more years after that day.)

In the month following my grandfather’s death, my wife and I moved from Albany, New York to Houston, Texas. The distance away from family felt painfully long in the days following the 9/11 attacks, and made it difficult to visit home in the months ahead when the business of auctioning items from The Farm and selling the property was underway.

Later I would learn that my absence during that process was a blessing. Unlike my brother Will who was in the house after it was emptied, I have no memories at all like that. I can still  see how the furniture was set up in the living room and some of my favorite family photos on display in there. I can still see the large dining room table, with my aunts and uncles surrounding every inch of it on a Saturday night. I can still see the Christmas tree in the front room, beautifully decorated and visible to cars passing by. I can see it all as if it’s still going on right now. I could walk right into that house today and—

Of course, it’s not there to see. Sure, the house is still there but it’s not the same house, really. Someone outside the family owns it these days. I’ve been by it a couple times during trips to see my parents. I think I even took Aidan over there once when was very little so I know she has no memories of it.

Perhaps that’s the most profoundly sad part of the story for me. I can go to The Farm anytime, in my mind, but my daughter will never know the place the way I did. She was born almost four years after my grandfather died. But knowing her, she would have relished a visit to her great-grandfather’s farm. She would have wanted to explore every bit of it, just like her daddy did starting almost 40 years ago. I can see her wanting to help unload hay, just like her great-grandmother did for years. I imagine she would sneak into the machine shed, just her like daddy did, to play hide and seek and climb on equipment that we knew was dangerous to be around, just for the thrill of it.  She might even try to climb a silo, like her daddy and Uncle Will did—until Grandpa caught us and “convinced” us to come down. She would find some of the same books in the living room, from decades ago, and enjoy them like I did. She would mingle with her grandmother and great aunts in the kitchen, wanting to help cook the large meals necessary to feed so many people on a holiday. She would love every kid she met and ask every time if she could have a sleepover. She might accompany her great-grandfather on trips to the diner down the road and offer to help in the garden. She would have wonderful memories and the smell of Cedar trees anywhere else in the country would always make her smile and cry a little bit.

Now at least she’s been there, in my mind.

Please visit the fundraising page of my latest book project, Outside the Touch of Time, and consider making a donation. Your support will help us preserve stories of  the love, lessons and longevity of 14 siblings born between 1933-1955.

Outside the Touch of Time

1 Aug

The summer of 1955 marked the opening of Disneyland, the launch of the Guinness Book of World Records, and the fury of Hurricane Diane, which killed more than 200 people along the East Coast of the United States. The damage in its wake was estimated at three billion dollars, making it the first billion dollar storm. Although it affected parts of New York State, the heavy rain and flooding was not seen in the upper reaches of the state where my mother was living with her parents, sisters and brothers. No doubt, they heard reports of the hurricane, but the LaBrake family farm in Lisbon, New York was unaffected.

I look back to summer of 1955 because that’s when my mother was the same age as her only grandchild is now. Of course, six was very different back then. But available technology aside, the lives of my six year old and her grandmother-at-six are vastly different in other ways.

My mother at six had lived in only one house. My daughter has lived in three houses and two apartments, counting both the residences her mother and I shared and the ones we live in separately.

My mother grew up with 13 brothers and sisters. Because they were born between 1933 and 1955, not all 14 siblings lived at home at any one time. My daughter is an only child. She’s also my parents’ only grandchild.  None of the sisters and brothers with whom I was raised has a child yet.

My mother’s parents had been married for 23 years by the summer of 1955. My daughter has been experiencing the divorce of her parents for two and a half years now.

My mother had not flown by age six, whereas my daughter has flown numerous times between Texas and New York,  most recently flying from Dallas to Buffalo with her mother in July. Her first trip by plane occurred in October 2005 when we flew to New York to spend a week there.

At age six, I’m sure my mother wasn’t allowed to use the telephone. My daughter has been using a cell phone since she was a baby when she would occasionally call her grandmother by chance with the press of the right sequence of buttons.

While these differences are noteworthy, what’s more important is the shared family heritage. My daughter is a LaBrake, not by name but by blood. She has a right to hear the family stories and get acquainted with the family members. That’s been challenging to do while living in Texas. Most of the family lives in New York State and we rarely get visitors here. But there is a solution in the works.

No, I won’t be moving home anytime soon. I haven’t decided to buy back the family farm either. I’m also not petitioning the state of Texas to switch places with New England. However, I am developing a book project that will allow for a lot of family time for both me and my daughter.

The book, called Outside the Touch of Time, will share stories of the 14 LaBrake siblings, starting with their childhood and spanning decades until the present day. I plan to interview each person in his or her home in the coming months and finish the book in time for a launch in 2012, the year marking 80 years since my grandparents got married at the tender age of 18.

All 14 LaBrake siblings gather along the St. Lawrence River in Lisbon, New York during the family reunion of 2008.

Rather than conduct phone interviews, I plan to see my mother and my aunts and uncles in person. Trips to New Mexico, New York and New Jersey will be necessary as each of the 14 siblings lives in one of those states. Isn’t it odd that nobody lives in a non-New state?

Family photos will be an essential part of the book, and I’m sure I can find a relative to help coordinate that part of the work. I also plan to bring a professional camera to take new photos for the book and its marketing materials.

I’ll be bringing something else, too: a digital audio recorder. This will be the only time someone is capturing these stories in any kind of digital format and they must be saved for future use related to the book and future enjoyment by the family.

Oh, I plan to bring one more thing: my daughter. I can’t imagine making these trips without Aidan. After all, she is the next generation. I know her presence will help liven up each visit, and her own storytelling skills will be enhanced by participating in this experience. I might even assign her a few duties before, during and after each interview.

While family stories and fun facts are central elements for the book, the narrative will place their lives in the larger context of life in America. We’ll look at the rates for sibling survival in the U.S., and hear from a sociology expert about the unusual occurrence of more than a dozen siblings living past the age of 55. The research data will accompany professional observations about the factors that may have contributed to this kind of longevity in one family.

Even with a plan to self-publish, writing Outside the Touch of Time will require donations in order to get started. I have set up a fundraising page on IndieGoGo so anyone interested in supporting the project can give whatever amount is suitable for them. You’re also welcome to donate a camera or recording equipment. The deadline for reaching our goal is November 1, and interviews will commence once the goal has been reached. 

Your support is necessary in bringing this book to life, and I appreciate generosity of any kind. I know my daughter will be pleased, too. She may even want to send you a handwritten thank you note.

Not the Same School

30 Jul

As the school year came to a close in June, Aidan said goodbye to her elementary school. The plan was to move from Lewisville to Richardson a month before she begins first grade.  I felt sentimental during the last time I walked her home after school. We made that same walk so many times, often snacking or sharing a cool drink on the way. Aidan said we could come back from Richardson sometime and do that walk again. I smiled, quietly knowing that her idea would never actually happen.

A few variables prevented that move to Richardson from happening, but we got some surprise news this week that still means Aidan will not be going back to the same school. Oh, she’s going back to the same school building. It retains the same name. Yet something else has changed.

The latest public school accountability ratings in Texas means my daughter’s school has been downgraded from Exemplary to Recognized. It’s a change shared by many schools around the DFW area and around the state. The story was covered by numerous media outlets, including my ex-wife’s radio station, KRLD, a CBS property.

A year ago, the designation of Exemplary or Recognized didn’t matter to me. I wanted her in a good school but I wasn’t aware of the differences. After investing months in her education—and countless hours helping her develop reading and math skills—the change is significant. Even before this news, I was already responding to the normal summertime loss of skills developed in the classroom.

Now that I have this news, helping Aidan do homework in the coming year becomes even more important to me. She’s a bright girl and I want to inspire her to challenge herself more inside and outside the classroom. I also want to facilitate her exploration of new subjects and activities. This may be the year she begins to learn to play the piano. We may also consider signing up for a sport, such as soccer.

I have a feeling we’ll be watching less TV in the coming year and spending more time engaged in educational activities and outdoor recreation. I’m even thinking of setting up an agreement where she has to earn her hours of TV. I think the new brand of structure will be a valuable part of her experience as a first grader.

She doesn’t know anything about the ratings changes. She doesn’t even have an understanding of how different first grade will be yet. She does know that new experiences are coming her way. As August begins, new clothes and new school supplies will accompany the start of a new school year. While she’s enjoying the excitement of all that newness, I will be reminding myself that her school’s new ratings will challenge me to step up my commitment to her education.

Sure, I’ll pause to take plenty of pics of her first day of First Grade, then it’s all business from that point on. That reminds me, I also will need something new before the school year begins: a new wallet filled with cash. I wonder if I can find one at Marshall’s.

The Redefined Addict

25 Jul

The day after Amy Winehouse’s death became international news, a client of mine emailed me. He works at a long-term rehabilitation facility for addicts and alcoholics in Texas called Burning Tree. He wanted a 300-500 word article about the Grammy award-winning singer’s drug addiction and chronic relapse. I wrote it immediately.

While I enjoyed some of her songs, it wasn’t my appreciation of her talents that motivated me to start writing so quickly. Her death reminded me of an addict who spent years in my life, providing some of the worst experiences I remember in two cities: Albany, New York and Houston, Texas. One of the Albany incidents involved discovering him unconscious in his bedroom and struggling to open the door because his body was blocking it. I remember rushing to the phone to call 9-1-1. A 5 am phone call alerted me to an incident a couple years later in Houston. During an apparent drug deal, he had been beaten badly and was in the hospital.

At times, I felt like I hated him. He once “borrowed” some of my clothes and left them at a girlfriend’s apartment. She broke up with him and threw out “his stuff” one day, including a pair of slacks and leather shoes that he took from me.

At times, he inspired me. He often made gourmet meals for my wife and I, entrees I felt compelled to take photos of because they looked so lovely. And he would make these delicious dishes using whatever we already had in the refrigerator and cupboards.

Like Amy Winehouse, his life was like a rollercoaster ride through those years. In addition to taking him to detox, rehab, AA meetings, I accompanied him to court and visited him in jail. He eventually got out, left town, came back, left again, came back, and finally left for good.

If he had been a friend, the relationship with a chronic relapser would have ended a long time ago. But he was my brother-in-law. His sister spent years trying to save him, and finally accepted that he wasn’t willing to save himself. He’s still alive, and although I don’t keep tabs on his arrests and jail time anymore, there is a part of me that is still very concerned. That part of me is my daughter. As her uncle, he will always be part of her family story.

He’s still an addict. He will always be an addict. Yet knowing that my daughter would benefit from seeing her uncle clean and sober helps me redefine him and the experiences I had that were created by his substance abuse and dependence. Even the most difficult moments become stories I can share with Aidan in the coming years, and provide lessons from which to learn.

Meantime, his own life continues somewhere several hundred miles away. I hope he’s okay. I hope he figures it all out. 28 days were not enough. Jail time only helped while he was behind bars. Perhaps finding the means (and funds) to commit to a long-term rehab would have provided a solution years ago. It may still be his only hope.