“…Julianus Pomerius (speaks) of hospitality as unbending one’s self…The irony is that the unbending requires inviting my neighbors into the very places where I am most bent.” ~Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath
Nearly everything I know about offering hospitality to my children, I learned from my parents. My mother made dinner and washed the dishes and, after that, while we sat in the living room of the farmhouse watching the old three-channel television, she sewed bindings around the edges of quilts. Her fingers moved precisely. I can still envision her holding the end of the thread in her mouth. I can still see the rhythmic motion of her hands, like a fly-fisherman waving his rod back and forth, back and forth.
She worked on quilts at night so that she would have money for our back-to-school clothes, and at the end of every summer we spilled into the local shopping mall where her hard-earned money magically transformed into parachute pants and Reebok pumps, Trapper Keepers and aluminum lunch boxes.
My father’s form of hospitality was of a different sort. When I was four years old and we lived in a lizard-infested trailer in Laredo, Texas, he got down on his knees and played football with me. We had different plays, all with their corresponding number. One was go long, all the way down the hall; Two was a short pass in the kitchen; Three was break left towards the oven; Four was break right between the dining room table and the wall.
When I was older, and we had moved back up north, we went out into the candy-green grass and threw baseball, the red seams spinning like a planet’s rings. The ball made a loud smack in the leather pocket of my glove. For many years it was how we spoke, my dad and I, not with words but with pitches and catches and the occasional compliment.
It was exactly the kind of conversation I longed for, those dusk sessions of catch and throw, of spinning red seams and the predictable sound of a hard baseball caught just right.
* * * * *
It was a difficult road, finding it in me to provide that same hospitality to my own children. I am bent in many different places, and for some reason the unbending was hard. Don’t get me wrong – I wanted to have children. I loved having them around. But I still wanted to preserve my own life, exactly as it was.
But I’m unbending. Slowly. Surely. I’m learning to tell my children, “I’m sorry.” I’m learning to say, “Yes.” I’m learning to let them fail and succeed for themselves.
* * * * *
I spend time in my daughters’ rooms each evening, as often as I can. Lucy wants to talk about what she’s reading, the music she’s listening to, and I can see the young woman she’s becoming. It’s frightening – terrifying, actually – because the growing up of a daughter is something entirely beyond anyone’s control. It’s like trying to hold dry sand – no matter how I turn my hands, something is always escaping, something is always falling away. But when I catch those glimpses of who she will become, it’s also exhilarating. What better time of life is there than those years of childhood when everything is beginning to gel, when anything is possible?
Abra, still only seven, wants nothing more than for me to sit beside her bed until she falls asleep, wants nothing more than to know I am watching out for her. Through her window I see the northern section of our city, and I wait for her to drift off.
On long afternoons, my boys and I, we go into the back alley behind our house on James Street and throw baseball in the shadow of an old warehouse-turned-apartment building. When cars come through the alley, we step aside and watch them pass. I nod. My sons give small, uncertain waves. When one of us misses the ball, we race towards Prince and wait for the traffic to stop before scurrying between the cars and retrieving it.
The ball thuds into our leather gloves and it sounds exactly like it did thirty years ago, when my dad and I played catch on the candy-green grass. It remains a conversation of sorts, and the red seams still spin like the rings of a planet.
This post is part of our new series, Love Them Well, featuring stories about showing hospitality towards children.