Boomer Caboose

Random views from the end of the baby boomer train

It doesn’t take long before a parent figures out that appreciation is not one the attributes children freely extend. For some of us mothers, the realization first occurs in the hospital when cajoling sweet baby to nurse, but he refuses, as if a better choice will come along. Still, my belief that embedded somewhere deep (perhaps core-of-the-earth deep) within is a resilient, non-negotiable sense of thankfulness. I wonder if this belief is where the torment in parenting exists, rarely acknowledged and stepped upon like fragile alpine tundra above treeline on back country mountains.

On a late August morning when the air through our open windows felt more like cool September and beckoned us all to stay in bed a little longer, I decided to make the appeal of getting up for school and work a little less painful. Mixing up blueberry muffins and getting the frying pan out to make scrambled eggs, I thought how pleased my husband and children will be to enjoy a special breakfast.

Son Oldest enters kitchen first, head hanging down and asks for the remains of a sweet bread going stale. I said, “Sure, and I’m making scrambled eggs.” He apparently didn’t hear me. (Why is it my family never hears so many things I say?) When I slipped a dish of eggs next to the plate of bread, he squawked, “You didn’t say you were making eggs!” Didn’t want them. Any other time he’d pant in anticipation at the sight of the frying pan. Not today. Fine. Strike One.

Husband Only arrives. He reaches around me over the countertop mess to grab a bowl and pour into it, dry, flaky woven squares—while I pull my steaming muffins out of the oven and ask, “Are they done?” Really asking, “Don’t they look delicious?” “Yes, they look done,” he says, and continues to prepare his bowl. Hmmm, I thought to myself, “You aren’t even going to reach over and grab a muffin or two to go with that dog bowl?” Strike Two.

As I stirred the batter earlier, I fantasized that the aroma soon to waft from the oven would have the hypnotizing effect of making Son Youngest raise his head from the pillow and take in a pleasureful whiff that would go down to his feet and bring tip-toes and a happy disposition out of bed gracefully to his kitchen chair. Instead: Reality. It takes a succession of an insistent Mom, Dad and Brother Oldest to pry Son Youngest out of bed. He stands naked in his room for as long as he can, protesting his clothes—specifically, and the world—generally. He stomps an acidic scowl to the kitchen table. “Where’s my breakfast!” Still, my fantasies. I expect a plate of warm muffins, blueberry—his favorite—slid under his chin will cut through cranky disposition. Instead: Reality. “I want cinnamon rolls!” Strike Three.

Fine, instead, two stale cinnamon rolls. (We typically don’t have so many aged baked goods in our house.) He struggles to chew through them, banging on his plate one large chunk pierced on his fork, while warm blueberry muffins sit on a plate he has pushed away.

Meanwhile, I finish packing lunches and grab Son Oldest before he runs out the door to catch a look at the long, ragged nail on his forefinger. “Please, let me clip that.” “Not now, Mom. OK, only one clip.” I proceed to clip the rest while he tells me no, he’s got to go. Pinkie done, quick hug, he’s out the door.

Son Youngest and I squabble. I push him to finish breakfast, get his shoes on. “Where’s your backpack?” He doesn’t know. The search. He’ll be late. I drive him the four blocks so he doesn’t get a tardy on his report card. He growls the distance. Van door opens. “Have a good day. I love you.” The back of his head and backpack disappearing into the school are the only response.

I pull the van into the garage, cut the engine, close the garage door and sit there in the Genie’s dim light that fails to warn before darkness smacks. It is six years practically to the day I quit a job—a career—I liked and daresay, at times loved, if you can love a job. Clients often told me “thank you.” They even gave me gifts. Sure, sometimes promotional tchotchkes, but useful things they handed over with such appreciation: pens, t-shirts, a fleece jacket, tickets to concerts and shows. Without that job I would not have experienced chamber music in a historic Kansas City cathedral or a student opera that filled my chest with emotion. One client gave me a turquoise bear charm. I wondered how she knew I loved bears, that stone, Southwest flavor. She had taken the time to ask one of my coworkers. Not even my husband could pick out something so fitting of “me.”

But, I realize I’m crying not because no one in my current occupation thanked me this morning. Instead: I never thanked my dad for all his sacrifices. Why couldn’t I say, “Thank you, Dad”? Why does the self-absorption of childhood and the teen years make it so imposing and still uncomfortable into adult years? Was it his hardness? Mine? It’s too late now. He is gone. Almost four months.

What would I thank him for? Above all, no doubt, for working so hard to give us a good home in a good neighborhood. But the details… the gray plastic record player, Carpenters singles, and twirling baton I used as a microphone. His tomatoes, sliced and sugared, from the backyard garden in sight of all the roses he planted along the fence. His awning factory, where he taught me to use an electric screw gun. The french toast with Texas bread I thought everyone called “Daddy’s Special.” His driving us up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and back down again for pizza at Bob and Tony’s in Estes Park. I would thank him for those, the sanitized, funny stories about his World War II crew, and his tuning in to the Carol Burnett Show to laugh at Tim Conway.

I’d say “thanks” for sitting through squeaky junior high band concerts and silly high school plays. I’d so-thank him for my vessel of freedom, the maroon Sears Free Spirit 10-speed, and less so for the restriction of the midnight curfew and “no’s” that made me storm off to my bedroom. I’d thank him for asking the Palm Springs celebrity tour van driver to swing one more time past Barry Manilow’s home because “my daughter is crazy about him.” I would thank him for sitting in the parking lot at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Wednesday evenings, waiting for a carpool of us to emerge from confirmation class. I do remember thanking him and would again for the old volume of Shakespeare’s works he passed on to me in college—even though I wasn’t always able to find the passages that matched those on the pages cited by the professor for the new Oxford editions classmates had before them.

What memories will I make? Scrambled eggs and blueberry muffins uneaten on a golden August morning?

Someday, maybe my kids will thank me for quitting my job, my career. Maybe they won’t. Expectation of thanks is futile pursuit. Maybe the gift was all mine and I still just don’t see it as I sit with a hot laptop trying to reclaim a piece or more of the past. I could not dedicate this blog to my kids, husband, mother … anyone. Not when I should clean up the mess I made in the kitchen, organize school papers, pay bills, fold clothes, clean toilets, send birthday cards, make a grocery list, call for dental appointments and plan weekend activities.

This blog is for me, and the wet, wadded tissues long tossed from my teenage bedroom. It’s an affair with the first love of my life: Words.

Yet, I recall years before that passion, the excitement circa five o’clock when Mom would call out, “Daddy’s home!”

Home Run.

— Laura Patterson

Of a Texas Singer and Midwest Suburban Girl

A late baby boomer, I often felt cheated out of ’60s music—particularly Beatlemania. I became a tardy fan in 1977 at age 12, enough so to feel the profound loss of Dec. 8, 1980. While immersed in John Lennon’s last echo, Double Fantasy, I couldn’t know a future legend of my time was recording his […]

After "The Cowboy Rides Away," one last round of goodbyes to Des Moines, Iowa, April 18, 2014.

There isn’t a more beautiful time in Kansas City than late April. Why? Because of trees. All over the metropolitan area, lining streets and accenting homes are flowering trees—dogwoods, redbuds, magnolias, crabs. Today is Arbor Day. Always the final Friday of April in most America states, the official day falls at the perfect time to celebrate trees in their budding glory, giving promise to the full leaf of summer.

Like May Day, Arbor Day used to receive more attention and fanfare. School children would go in groups to plant saplings in school lawns or other locations. Cities and organizations would plant trees and hold ceremonies. While the holiday may be less apparent today, the actions of the Arbor Day Foundation are widespread and visible from municipalities to national forests to international rainforests. The organization is based in Nebraska City, NE. You can take a look at their activities at arborday.org.

Over the years, events and news have challenged my faith in humanity and respect for many public figures. Most days I’m unsure of the truth in what I’ve come to know. It can be difficult to choose where to place allegiance, time and money. I belong to few organizations. The Arbor Day Foundation is one. My belief in trees has never faltered. From the time I was a child, they have offered a place of refuge, reflection and peace. To go among trees is to feel the earth from the metier of ground critters rustling at roots to the flight of birds landing in branches. God’s creatures work with the wind to make leaves whisper, trees speak, a forest sing.

So many of my life memories are bordered by trees. As a child, I was drawn to a large, old tree in a field beyond the last street of our 1970s suburban housing development. I believe it was a chestnut tree, but do not know for sure. Others were drawn to this tree too, as evidenced by candy wrappers around the large wrinkled trunk and a platform placed high in sprawling branches. When the day was bad, the tree was good. It offered quiet wisdom and understanding of a child’s troubles.

At home were the front yard trees that served in their youth as kickball bases. A blue spruce eventually grew too big for such, consumed the field. In the the backyard my dad planted a green ash, silver maple and a pine of some kind. They grew with us, yet much faster, taller. When they were young I played among them with Barbie dolls in the grass. When older, I would migrate throughout the afternoon into the holes of their shadows to find tanning sunshine.

When my husband and I moved into our first house 20 years ago, we expressed our pride by building a berm out front and planting in it a focal Bradford pear—a cliched choice. Around it, a yew, barberry and boxwood worshiped its white flowers of spring. A Bradford’s soft branches, however, succumb to the weight of ice and heavy snow, particularly if it reaches an age of large fullness as ours did after about 15 years. A couple of storms split it apart so that we had to take it out, as so many in this area have had to do. A neighbor across the street offered his condolences. Perhaps he saw my sadness or would miss it himself. One often admires neighbors’ trees too, you know. We planted a lovely serviceberry in its place, yet I will always picture the Bradford in the memory our first home.

In our back yard we planted a green ash just as my dad had. It grew over the 19 years we lived in the home to shade much of the yard despite shearing storms. It enticed squirrels, woodpeckers and nesting birds. Other favorite trees included a prairiefire crab because of its fuchsia flowers and an arborvitae I would look at each day from our kitchen table. A winter storm broke the arborvitae in half last year—along with my heart the day it happened. Trees are like people. Some leave us too soon. Others outlive us. They can touch us all the same.

When we moved to our “new” 11-year-old home last year, the interior had been updated—an attractive selling point because I despise house projects. There were only two trees—a locust out front and a cedar out back. The opportunity to landscape and plant trees and shrubs was extremely attractive—to me (husband probably not so thrilled). That’s where I want to spend time, money and decisions to make this house our home.

With the final arrival of spring in Kansas City, I peruse a tree book from the Arbor Day Foundation. Decisions, decisions. What joy to come. What memories to be made.

— Laura Patterson

Yesterday was Earth Day. It brought Kansas City one of its few lovely weather days so far this year. Temps in the 60s and wind slight. I met my husband for lunch at one of his employer’s picnic tables. When it was time to dispose of our food wrappings, we went to a line of three receptacles. Unlike a fast food restaurant, where you typically find one or two “trash” bins to push everything off your tray into, this picnic area challenged its diners to read signs and sort.

One receptacle was for specific recyclable containers. More unusual, another was for food waste to make compost for nearby garden plots. The third receptacle was for non-recyclable trash. The latter wasn’t a surprise. The sign on it was: “Landfill Waste.”

What if all “trash” cans and receptacles said “landfill waste”? Would it snag your hand for a moment, make you think about what you’re putting into the container? Would it flick a picture into your mind of a bulldozer trying to roll a mountain of trash into the earth? It did for me.

Since Earth Day began in 1970, America’s trash disposal habits have changed so that most of us recycle from slight to large degree. However, our society wastes far more than it did when convenience eating wasn’t a part of daily life for most. I have no memories of my mother ripping open a boxed frozen entrée or taking me to a fast food restaurant for lunch during the late ’60s or early ’70s. Our family would go to the walk-up McDonald’s windows to order paper-wrapped burgers on rare special occasions, usually weekends. Now, any fast food restaurant is filled with parents or grandparents and children any day of the week. Many menu items are packaged in cardboard and plastic.

For the past several years, after eating at fast food places, I’ve snagged any plastics with recyclable triangles embossed on the bottom and brought them home to our recycling bin. It seems a tiny gesture toward the earth, but I wonder what a large gesture it could be if everyone would do the same. I’m perplexed that most fast food restaurants do not have recycling bins and receptacles, particularly when they serve food and drinks in recyclable plastics. Why are corporate leaders devoid of environmental conscience in this area? What is stopping them from doing the right thing?

Cost is one sure answer. Separate receptacles are needed and they require space. To empty extra receptacles, sort and wash out recyclables if necessary, and fish out misplaced trash, would add some employee time. In our community, all the recyclables with the exception of glass go into the same container. Most fast food restaurants don’t sell glass bottle beverages. So, it seems the added effort could be minimal.

Since our community’s curbside recycling program started taking cardboard years ago, my family’s household recycling almost always doubles our trash output. How many pint-size plastic milk jugs and salad containers could be pulled from the trash of fast food restaurants? I envision a horrifying amount.

When asked to complete restaurant surveys or give feedback, I always suggest recycling bins and ask why the company doesn’t recycle. Change can happen. Several chain restaurants have responded to the environmental push for cardboard over Styrofoam to-go boxes.

As I rush from schools to after-school activities to evening meetings and make a fast food stop somewhere in-between, guilt sets in (not just for the nutritional transgression). My lifestyle makes me complicit with corporate penny-pinching non-recyclers, particularly if I don’t change it (eat from home or boycott those restaurants) or find a way to send voice louder and more adamant on this issue.

Far short of those, I will continue to keep our family’s plastics out of fast food trash cans — and encourage others to do the same.

— Laura Patterson

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