I returned 15 years ago to my childhood home. The one I thought I was leaving behind forever when I got married at the ripe young age of 18. I took Mary Englebriet's advice and didn't look back. Well, that's not really true. When my naval-officer-husband would go on cruise for months at a time, I'd pack up children, and usually a cat and dog, and head for home. The distraction was good for all of us. But then we got stationed in Southern California, it became more and more difficult to spend time in Florida.
As luck would have it, after I'd been divorced for a few years, my higher power, guardian angel or the fickle finger of fate, lined up my astrological stars and pointed me right back home. At that time in my life, it was an easy decision to make. Although I was in essence "going home" I felt in my heart I was moving forward not taking the proverbial step backwards. I didn't know at the time what was in store for me, but I did know, that whatever happenend, I would be okay.
Due to a variety of illnesses combined with the fact that my parents were getting older, I moved home to help care for my mother. She had some brain damage from a stroke-like disorder so I became her voice of sorts. We were still mother and daughter, but we became companions and, at times, a solid block of female persuasion in a house dominated by my father's left-brain dogmatism.
During those years, I not only cared for things around the house, I worked as a Nanny, participated in several church activities, made quilts and, for the most part, acted like a grown up. That's what responsible women do, right? I was a grown up and enjoyed acting like one - most of the time.
However, my inner child has never been very far from the surface of my psyche. My therapist told me recently, that when I have a "gut reaction" to something, I need to pay attention. This is undoubtedly a sucker punch from the little girl, whom I call Carolyn, who is screaming, "Hey, did you forget about me? Let's have some fun. You wanna blow some bubbles? Dance? Walk in the rain? Splash in some puddles? Wear pajamas all day? Eat ice cream for dinner? Sleep in late, then take a long nap?"
When Carolyn talks, I've learned to listen as well as embrace my childish need for letting go of adult rules and regulation for awhile. I may reside just this side of Senior Citizenry, but I've got some adolescent rebel left in me nonetheless.
After my mother passed away, I moved out - again. Only to move back in - again. This time I share the house with my 90 year old dad, my 62 year old sweetie, a dog that is close to 75 in dog years, and an older cat who suffers from a thyroid problem. Picture a scrawny old lion lying around on the Serengetti for most of the day, except when he wakes up, stretches, yawns big enough to show he's missing a few teeth, and lets out a mighty roar, that isn't quite as mighty as he'd like to believe, but still gruff enough to clear a path to the food bowl. Yeah, that might be the cat, but could just as easily be either one of the men. The dog's given up roaring!
Now I'm no spring chicken. I have my own age-related challenges (handicaps ?). Clearly I suffer from the "I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was" syndrome. Recently, I embarrassed myself, and my son, by losing my car in the airport parking garage. ("Mom, are you ready for the home?" he asked partly in jest, partly with the seriousness of a heart attack. I know because it's a question I've asked myself more than once.) So, I'm including myself when I say OLD is the adjective that best describes not just the occupants of the house but the house itself. Most days this isn't a problem. But on the days when Miss Carolyn wants to play, I contemplate adding some spice to our lives by bringing home something - anything - under the age of 30, but preferably someone/thing who has not yet reached puberty and developed a vocabulary that includes the word "no". Thus the kittens (see part I).
Let's face it, you can't feel old when there is a kid around to play with. Perhaps this is why God created grandparents. In His infinite wisdom, God must have known that old people need young people to help them stay young at heart, if not in body. And young people need someone besides their parents to hang out with, to help shape their lives and to make them feel special as only grandparents can do.
In a recent Good Housekeeping article the author writes, "Obviously, life gets stickier and more complicated as we age. And for many of us, the childhood wellsprings of joy shrink to a trickle." As I read, I found myself nodding my head in agreement, and I pictured a certain inner child with her hands resting firmly on her hips and a stern look on her face,(again, kind of Mary Engelbreit-ish) seemingly asking me, "now are you going to listen to me?"
"Okay, okay," I shushed the little demon and read on.
"Happiness and an appreciation for the small stuff are related," according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and head of its Positive Psychology Laboratory. Small stuff, I thought to myself, it really is the small stuff that brings me joy.
So picture the smile on my face when my nephew surprised us by bringing his 6 year old daughter, not his wife, to my Dad's recent birthday party. Not that I wouldn't have totally enjoyed having Brenda, one of my all time favorite women, around for the visit. But with all the stress of preparing for a party, making sure the toilets were clean, the floors mopped, the canapes made, and 90 candles were all lit at the same time, I knew I needed a stress reliever. Like an answer to a prayer, or an inner child's pleadings, in walked Gabrielle.
Gabby, (or Abby, as I continued to call her for no reason other than I couldn't seem to remember the "G" ... Go figure!), was a little shy at first. We'd all met before, but still we were strangers in a strange land. She needed to get her bearings. She needed to make sure her Dad wasn't going to leave her in the company of the "old" people. We needed to lower our line of vision and turn up our hearing aids. For all her quiet, hanging back, this little girl never stopped smiling. She politely answered every question we put to her, even when repeated by each successive relative, and posed patiently for every photograph.
Needless to say my inner child was chomping at the bit to do something out of the ordinary. When the opportunity presented itself Gabrielle, her Dad, the dog and I piled in the car for a trip to the beach. When in Florida ....
While the ocean was not exactly what I'd call warm, its May temperature was vastly different from what Gabby was used to in Michigan from whence she had come. In her mind, as in most snow birds', Florida means sun and sun means swimmable beaches. I have to admit, it was a glorious day - as if just made for us. As we called home to report in to Mom, the first waves nipped at our ankles. Then as we ventured further into the surf, it soon hit our knees, which, on someone who is maybe 4 feet tall, isn't that far to go. The dog chased birds, we looked for shells but the sandbar just beyond the breakers beckoned us.
Finally, I threw all semblance of grown-up caution to the wind and suggested that Gabby and I hold hands and see if we couldn't make it to the shallower water without getting totally soaked. "Good thing my mom packed an extra pair of clothes," Gabby told me. I agreed this was as good as an excuse as we could possibly as for to chance a possible rogue wave knocking us down and breaking the "stay dry" rule -even though I knew those clean dry clothes were back at home in the suitcase not in the car where they would perhaps do us some good. So we walked gingerly through the waves toward what might have been Bali Hai.
"I just love the sea!" Gabrielle, the delightful water nymph exclaimed. At that moment, I think my heart cracked open. The joy I'd been searching for came tumbling out. I could only express what my inner child had been trying to tell me for weeks by saying, "Abby, I love the sea too!" The glorious, glimmering, shimmering, salty sea! Yum!
Then we looked up and saw dolphins. I am not kidding! A pod of 3 or 4 dolphins were frolicking in the waves just beyond us. Oh sure, I had a moment's adult panic when I wondered if the fin coming towards us was that of a shark I'd have to throw myself into to save little Gabrielle's life, but in the second it took to tell myself I'd seen one too many reruns of Jaws, the fear was gone. We stood there watching in wonder.
Even Black Beauty, who usually doesn't like to get her feet wet, seemed to know this was a special event. She paced back and forth on the beach, seriously considering joining us - or so it looked. As quickly as the dolphins appeared, they swam off to other ocean playgrounds and we headed back towards shore. The wind began to make our teeth shiver.
The moment was over, but the memory lasts. "Lyubomirsky recommends consciously savoring the moment - pausing to appreciate the positive components, large and small, of your life." In a mind that has trouble finding my car or remembering my "G's", I have imprinted a picture of what joy looks like. It's no surprise it has the look and feel of a special six year old girl.
P.S. If you look closely at picture #3 you might see the very tip top of a dolphin dorsel fin. Then again, you might not see it because the photographer was pretty far away, but trust me, the fish was there!
"Everything I Know About Happiness I Learned from a Child - A Refresher Course in Joy" by Jessica Baumgardner, Good Housekeping, June 2007, pg, 123