Thankful for Thanksgiving

This coming Tuesday, Max will bring home our pasture-raised, freshly killed turkey. I will be waiting for him in the kitchen with a bottle of dry Riesling.

No, not to toast the beginning of Thanksgiving, but to mix with kosher salt and several herbs. The turkey will go in a brining bag placed inside our largest cooler. Pour the wine brine on the turkey, seal the bag, surround it with ice, close the cooler and load it into the back of the minivan.

Check, check, check, check. We’re almost ready.

Earlier that day, someone — it’s beginning to look a lot like me — will drive to Rochester to pluck Hugo from college. The house sitter will stop by for an introduction to the four animals we’ve acquired since last Thanksgiving. “Has it been a year again already?” we’ll say to each other.

Food, wine, small gifts will be packed next to the turkey’s cooler that night so in the morning we can toss our clothes and toiletries in the cars and go.

Wednesday, when we’re all antsy to hit the interstate before 9 a.m., someone will suggest coffee and breakfast from Starbucks so we won’t have to clean the kitchen.

And for good reason. It’s a seven- to eight-hour drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Northern Michigan.

When the big boys were little, we went home for Thanksgiving every other year. Since 2012, however, we’ve made the trip each year. One reason is that the grandparents’ next-door neighbor, who ironically spends Thanksgiving in Ohio with her children, graciously encourages us to stay in her empty home. Looking back, I can’t imagine how we used to make the Thursday feast with only one stove and oven.

Grandma is a culinary prodigy. When her own children lived at home, she used a bread mixing bucket our Mormon ancestors hand-carted across the American plains a century earlier to make all our bread, 10 loaves every two weeks. Compared to her granola, the stuff sold in stores seemed like rolled flakes of cardboard. Her renowned burritos included tortillas made from scratch with masa harina.

After Grandma cooks him, Max carves Tom Turkey

Thanksgiving is Grandma’s magnum opus. A few things have changed over the years: We’ve added Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish to the table. Instead of steamed broccoli and cauliflower with cheese sauce, we’ve improved the classic green bean casserole topped with French’s Crispy Fried Onions. If you use fresh beans and homemade white sauce, it’s not a pasty soup-like dish, but refreshingly light with the canned onions adding a savory crunch.

Sacrosanct are Grandma’s core dishes: the turkey, stuffing, gravy, fruit salad, herbed rolls and pies. Years ago, she wrote all her Thanksgiving recipes down for me and taught me how to make pies.

Pies are one of the few baked goods I make and I think mine are now as good as Grandma’s (some might say they’re a wee better because I use lard for my crust instead of Crisco, but don’t tell Grandma).

Yet neither Jules, who had a two-year preoccupation with bread baking, nor I can master Grandma’s herbed rolls.

Watching her, it looks so easy. Mix whole wheat dough with herbs, roll three small balls for each muffin cup, add a dollop of butter and bake. Warm from the oven, their knobby tops are crispy, their insides chewy without being tough. They alone are worth the drive.

“I can’t wait for Thanksgiving,” is the refrain said with increasing frequency by all the big boys starting when school resumes in the fall.

That’s also when Max starts bringing home different bottles of wine, telling me not to open them because, “These are for Thanksgiving!”

Why do we love this holiday so deeply? More than any other?

We’ve talked about it. Gift giving can be stressful and seem contrived. Not a problem at Thanksgiving. And with no specific religious component, Thanksgiving is every American’s holiday. We can all be grateful and give praise to any or no deity.

Close quarters and full bellies–Claude and Hugo

At Thanksgiving our family is both all together and unplugged from the chug-a-chug of our busy lives, with cooking and washing dishes our only chores. Because we are not at home, we are guilt-free for not using the long weekend to take care of projects around the house or at work.

Instead, Max brings his toolbox and revels in helping Grandma fix this and that at both her house and the neighbor’s where we stay.

The big boys and Grandpa, who’s a sexton, drive out to the cemetery. They help clear away the remaining leaves and do whatever needs to be done before the deep cold of winter in Northern Michigan takes hold. It is there that the boys connect with Grandpa, a laconic man who, behind his curmudgeonly aspect, is as soft as a jet-puffed marshmallow.

Otherwise we eat, watch movies, eat, play euchre, eat, listen to Hugo sing and play guitar, eat.

Lyra running to see Santa

To keep our livers from overloading on the rich and plentiful meals, we walk daily along the icy shore of Lake Michigan. The day after Thanksgiving we stroll to town, get our picture taken with Santa and watch as the 20-foot pine tree lights up in the park next to the marina, now void of boats, for the first time that holiday season.

And when there’s snow, we head to Dodger’s Hill, a short cross street with a steep incline that the city doesn’t plow all winter long, leaving it for tobogganers of all ages.

Being busy is like a chronic disease in modern America. Everyone says how busy they are as though not being busy is unacceptable. I try not to overschedule my children with extracurricular activities, instead letting them wander around the house bored. If they complain, I give them a job. They all learned to self-entertain at an early age.

Yet try as I might, I fall into the busy trap. I freelance from home, work part-time in a store (a sanity boost), care for five children all of whom have needs, volunteer both locally and for national Down syndrome groups. You get the drill, and undoubtedly have one of your own. Balancing what is important with what is necessary is easier some weeks than others.

Max and the big boys also step into the busy trap. Especially Hugo and Jules, who are juggling both school and work.

Over the years our solidarity on celebrating Thanksgiving with the grandparents at their house has only grown. For a handful of days, we relax together with few unwanted distractions.

All things truly are transitory.

Eventually this cherished family ritual will end. Knowing this makes each year all the sweeter, my gratitude all the greater, for the time I have with my family on this, our favorite holiday weekend.

Happy, happy Thanksgiving!

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 20, 2017

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Predators

One of my favorite books by Richard Scarry is The Bunny Book. In it, family members of a baby bunny wonder what he will be when he grows up. Cowboy? Firefighter? Doctor? Farmer?

No, none of these. What baby bunny wants to be when he grows up is a daddy bunny who cares for his children. Rather avant-garde kid lit when first published in 1955, The Bunny Book is as relevant today as ever.

When my eldest son, Claude, was in kindergarten, I read The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein. A therapist, teacher and mother, Silverstein argued against the belief that mothers need to let go of their sons and that boys must avoid emotions associated with women.

We all know the clichés: Stop coddling that boy. Big boys don’t cry. Mama’s boy. Feminization of men is destroying the nation.

However, after working as a family therapist for more than three decades, the most common marital problem Silverstein saw was men who were emotionally disconnected. She determined that not nurturing the emotions of sons results in “lost boys, lonely men, lousy marriages, midlife crises.”

And, I would add, an increase in the dehumanization of women. If a man is emotionally disconnected, he cannot empathize with the feelings of others. Couple this with the vigorous patriarchy of our society and too often women become little more than objects, conquests to be taken either by charm or force, then discarded like a used napkin.

Anyone who’s been conscious this past month has heard about movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexually assaulting women. Also hard to miss has been the #MeToo campaign in which women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted are posting these two words on their social media accounts.

Men in powerful positions preying on women and getting away with it for years is a scandal that repeats all too regularly. And the sad truth is for every Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby or Bill O’Reilly, there are thousands of other predators who are never stopped.

Protecting daughters

My only daughter has Down syndrome. The rates of sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities, both men and women, are higher than for the general population. My plans to protect Lyra are the same as they would be for a daughter who did not have Down syndrome: talk openly with her about sexuality, what is appropriate, what is not and how to protect herself from sexual harassment and assault.

Yet until there is a wholesale change in how our culture views women and the men who violate them, I will worry for my daughter’s safety. As most any parent of any daughter does. It’s a second #MeToo that walks hand-in-hand with the first.

I have four sons who believe women are fully human, which makes them feminists. I recently asked the three big boys why they treat women as their equals, and why they disparage men who do not. What was it in their upbringing to make them different from the predators we hear about in the news and, horrifyingly, some of my sons’ peers?

Their answer? Nothing and everything.

Nothing in that there is no single thing I did or said that made my sons respect women as their equals. Sure, I’ve given them all the “No means no, even if first she said yes” talk. But that alone did not form their feminist beliefs.

“Because you’re our mom,” said 20-year-old Hugo, “that’s everything.”

Lyra and Leif play with the fairy outfits they both received in their Easter baskets this past spring.

My children were never forced into rigid gender roles. They had some superhero pajamas but others patterned with fish, stars or gnomes. When Claude was 3, he wanted to dress up as a witch for Halloween. Rather than tell him only girls can be witches, I bought him a pointy hat, a small broom and a wand.

My boys played with Brio trains and Matchbox cars, but they also had stuffed animals and, yes, dolls. For boys, just like girls, may one day grow up to be parents.

As for girls, Hugo also pointed out that all three of my big boys have maintained friendships with girls starting in toddlerhood. While many boys and girls start to self-segregate by gender around the fourth grade, my boys did not.

Claude’s best friend for years was a girl he met in the first grade. At Miller South School for the Arts, Hugo studied art and musical performance, concentrations with more girls than boys. As for Jules, who looked like a girl until he cut his long blonde hair at age 12, he is drawn to people who are thoughtful, curious and nonaggressive. Some are men, more are women.

Guiding sons

Letting boys be fully emotional when they are little should be easy. Don’t shame them for crying when hurt or for telling you when they are scared. I hug my boys and tell them I love them every time we part. As adults, they do the same not only with Max and me but also with each other.

Many adults find emotional teens difficult. They are physically big and verbally articulate. It’s hard to always remember with a teenager that there are no wrong emotions; emotions just are, and need acknowledgment. Even if the teen is telling you what an awful parent and person you are. My advice? Buck up and lean in.

One day when Claude was 15, we were driving with his brothers and Max to a swimming spot in the Chagrin River. Claude didn’t want to go and refused to speak.

“Claude won’t talk because he’s mad I made him come with us,” I said after a question from Max had been met with stony silence.

Still looking out the car window, Claude said, “Shut up,” then paused before saying, “you bitch.”

I told Max to pull the car over. He parked and I told Claude to give me his cellphone and get out of the car. Two hours later when we returned to Max’s locked-up house, we found Claude, drained of both anger and energy, drinking from the hose in the backyard.

At the time, I was two years into my 39-month divorce. Divorce is hard for kids. Claude, who was angry with his father in general, felt guilty when he was angry with me over everyday stuff and held it in.

“Look,” I told him, “you are allowed to be angry with me; I can take it. Don’t bottle it up until it explodes and then you say things to me that you will never, ever say to me again, understand?” We talked for over an hour in Max’s basement that afternoon.

Two days later, as I drove us home from a school event, Claude spoke of his deeper fears and emotions. It was dark when I parked in our driveway where he and I stayed and continued talking for two more hours.

The manliness of my sons is in no way diminished for their emotional connectedness. It is enhanced, as they are able to be fully present for women, men and themselves.

If, as a society, we are ever going to make significant progress toward ending the pervasiveness of men harassing and assaulting women, it will be when more families have the courage to raise men with the full range of emotions, not just anger and a sense of entitlement.

This essay was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 5, 2017.